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April 21, 2011

New York. Again. The plane circles around, ready to land, and Erik leans forward to look out the window. These unwanted anniversary meetings with Sebastian have taken place in New York more than once over the years; it was New York just last year, for all Erik tried to keep that meeting from happening. The year before, as well. But he's had more than just that inexorable, inescapable connection to Sebastian drawing him to New York, over time. The few times he's been here to visit, it's felt right. Three years ago, Erik almost moved here.

Maybe today it should feel like he's coming home, or coming full circle. Maybe there's something about New York he should have been paying attention to all these years. It would be just like Sebastian to bring Erik back here, to New York, knowing full well that Erik's soulmate has been here the whole time.

What happened? I know he's alive. What happened to him?

His soulmate's somewhere. Alive, for all that everyone tried to tell Erik that wasn't possible. Erik doesn't know where, hasn't been able to feel his real soulmate in years... but last year, for the first time in a decade, he finally got evidence that his soulmate survived the rogue medical procedure that separated them. His true soulbond isn't dead; there's something, someone, on the other end of it.

And Sebastian confirmed it, the last time they met.

He came to see me. Had this sweet, sad little story about what happened to him in April of 2000. He just fell into a coma one day, didn't feel the bond break, didn't feel anything. I did everything I could for him. He ended up with the best care anyone could ask for...

Erik's been traveling since last April, trying to put all the pieces together. Sebastian didn't give him much to go on, not that Erik expected him to.

Tell me where. I need to see him. I need him. Please.

I'll kill him before I let you find him. And then you'll have nobody left to kneel for but me.

But Erik didn't have a choice. If there was even a scrap of truth in the things Sebastian said about Erik's soulmate, he had to know.

If Erik had ever met his soulmate in person, if he'd ever known his name... maybe he'd have found something, by now. Every time he's walked into a long-term care facility, whether it was the one in Nebraska he started at-- the one his foster parents are still at, and doing no better than they were seven years ago-- or the ones in Geneva, in Argentina, Florida... each time, he's taken in a breath, the whisper of something from his bond making him wonder if this is the place.

At this point he's started to wonder if that feeling is psychosomatic, if he simply wants to find his real soulmate so urgently that he's imagining a flicker of his presence. He always starts feeling it after he arrives somewhere, sometimes a few hours later, sometimes a day or two. It's worse here in New York than it's ever been before, though: not even landed yet, and he can almost feel the bond tugging him in two different directions. One of them is Sebastian, here in the city, probably giving his sales pitch to desperate mutants and humans. The other...

Maybe it's a lie, some kind of trick Sebastian created with his end of the bond. Manipulating soulbonds is his life's work, and Sebastian has never given Erik any reason to have faith in his word. Erik's best friend thinks Sebastian was just inventing that story about meeting Erik's soulmate. Jason pointed out that Sebastian's story has been doing a good job of keeping Erik busy this year: it's kept him from finding ways to get the bond Sebastian forced on him blocked or severed once and for all. But if it's true... if Erik's soulmate is sick, damaged... Erik can't leave him in Sebastian's hands. He can't.

All that travel, though, has been for nothing. Erik's hunted down every lead he could find, searched and gathered up every scrap of information he could lay hands on for the past year, but there's still no sign of his soulmate. And here it is, April again, the anniversary dragging Erik back to Sebastian's side, however unwillingly. Fine, then. Fine. If Erik has to see Sebastian again, then by God, this time he's getting answers. One way or another. Whatever it takes.

Another few minutes and they'll be on the ground. He can text Jason, let him know he arrived safely... and fend off the usual questions about where he is, what Jason can do to help. Jason's in Los Angeles, auditioning, and Erik knows that on April 22nd, more than any other day of the year, Jason will be waiting by the phone, holding his breath. As much as Erik doesn't want Jason sick with worry, he doesn't want Jason in the same room with Sebastian ever again. He knows how that would end; he knows what Jason would do. Sebastian's taken enough away from Erik. Erik's not going to let him destroy Jason's future, too.

He reaches up and rubs his thumb across Sebastian's collar, and the woman next to him smiles. "Just getting back home?"

"Just in town for a visit."

"Oh, that's nice. Have you been to New York before?"

"A few times."

She nods. "I live here. With my dominant, of course." She smiles. "I was just on a quick business trip. I actually can't be away from my dominant for more than three days. We've tried. It just gets ugly."

This isn't a conversation Erik wants to have, let alone with a stranger. He gives a noncommittal grunt, and when she keeps looking at him, he offers, "It must make travel difficult."

"Usually we go places together. But I figured I could get away with a work trip if it was short." She leans in a little closer. "I can't wait to get my collar back, though. We take mine off when I'm traveling. I guess you don't, though?"

"No," he says, quiet and even. "Mine doesn't come off."

She stares at him for a moment; he turns back to the window, his hand going up to his collar, toying with the links again. He can't feel anything; he can't move it. There have been times during this hunt when his power's been more present, when he could almost bend those links, but not now. He gives it a light tug, just checking for any sort of weakness or gap in the metal. Nothing.

The sub sitting next to him reaches out; her fingertips brush his knee. "You should tell em." He looks back at her, and she shrinks back for a second, but then straightens. "You should tell em you don't like it. Just because ey's your dominant doesn't mean you should have to wear a collar that you don't like."

"He's not my dominant," Erik says. "He's just my bondmate. I'm not oriented."

"But you're wearing his collar...?"

"It was an anniversary present. It would have been more trouble than it was worth to turn it down."

Her frown goes even deeper, and she reaches under the seat in front of her for her purse. After digging through it for a moment, she comes up with a scrap of paper and a pen, and she scrawls a phone number down for him. "Okay. Listen. This might be none of my business, but there are people who can help you."

I doubt that, Erik thinks, but he doesn't say it. He lets her press the phone number into his hand.

"Just because you're bonded to someone doesn't mean they have the right to make you uncomfortable. You should always get to feel safe, even with your bondmate. Especially with your bondmate." She nods at the business card he's holding. "My bondmate volunteers with that hotline. If you just need someone to talk to, it's 24-hour."

He looks down at the number. Submissives Hopeline, 888-555-0120.

"Her sister needed help a long time ago," she says softly. "But it all turned out okay." She hesitates. "I know you said you were unoriented, but it's okay, it's not just for submissives--"

"I'm fine," Erik says. He pockets the paper anyway; easier than arguing that he doesn't need it. "It's only once a year."

"Oh." She nods as if she understands, and for a while, she's quiet. But then she frowns again, her eyes tracking to his collar. She looks at him helplessly and adds, "Be safe this year, then."

"I will." It's what he'll tell Jason when they land, when he texts Jason, when Jason gives him the same advice. But when he says it to Jason, he'll add, You should worry more about what I'm going to do to him, if he doesn't tell me where my soulmate is.

On the ground, the pull toward Sebastian is more intense than ever. Erik clenches his fists and grits his teeth and does his best to ignore it, settling into a hotel in Chelsea, as far away from Sebastian as he can comfortably get. He'd go further north if he could. When they ask him if he wants a view of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, Erik answers "North" without hesitation; he'll trade that view of the statue for facing away from Sebastian any day.

Up in the hotel room, he looks out over the city, all the twinkling lights, all the people living their lives here. Even now, as close as Sebastian feels, he thinks there's something else. A presence, faint, disappearing when he focuses on it too closely.

He leans against the window, closing his eyes for a moment. He's never found anything, not in any of the places he's searched. Nebraska. Vienna. Toronto. Geneva. Argentina. Florida. Nothing. The longer this goes on, the more likely it seems that Sebastian was lying about finding Erik's soulmate. That untethered sense of something... a trick, another lie.

This has to end. He might not have found his own soulmate in those awful places, but he saw people who've been destroyed by Sebastian's "treatment". The Stones, in Nebraska. Rosella Conti, in Vienna. Loraine Bastin, in Geneva. Eduardo and Matthew Herrada, in Argentina. God knows how many other people Sebastian managed to hide. How many empty shells has Sebastian's treatment produced?

Sebastian and his acolytes covered their tracks well. It took work and research to find the lost souls Sebastian left behind. When the trail went entirely cold, Erik went to Florida, where Sebastian was giving a series of talks and a seminar as a 'bond counselor'. Sebastian has long since lost his medical license, but he stages these events in wealthy communities and touts his 'Bound By Choice' bond creation technique, claiming he only lost his license because his procedures work-- and their success offends dogmatic traditions that say the soulbond is sacred and unalterable. Attendees fool enough to believe him and moneyed enough for medical tourism fly overseas to unaccredited clinics, where Sebastian can butcher their souls with impunity.

In Florida, Erik took a room just a few blocks from the resort where Sebastian was staying and speaking. He's always felt his ability returning to him when he's closer to Sebastian, particularly as the anniversary approaches. This year, he made use of that fact. It hasn't been enough to break the adamantium collar Sebastian left on him, but it was enough to practice. To learn what he could make, what he could move. Small things. Sharp things.

Sebastian's mutation manifested when he usurped Erik's bond. His body absorbs any impact, any energy that's thrown at him. But last year, Jason cut off Sebastian's air, and the panic on Sebastian's face was real. Sebastian was suffocating til Jason was forced to release him. Impact and energy can't hurt him, but small things, sharp things, something that could get inside him and block off his throat... Sebastian can be hurt. He can suffer. Erik intends to prove it.

One way or another, I'll stop you. But first you're going to look me in the eye and tell me where he is. You're going to tell me that.

He slips his fingertips under his collar again and closes his eyes. His ability's feeling stronger and stronger. If he can break this alloy, he can do anything. Let Sebastian try to stop him, then.

Back in New York after nearly a year of seeking. Charles shuffles over to baggage claim and picks up his one rather bedraggled suitcase; it's seen more use this year than in all the time he'd had it before.

For all the good it did. He went from city to city, drawn by bond intuition, staying long enough to feel something... and every time, he felt it slip away, almost as quickly. The first unexpected flight took him to Omaha, Nebraska, and he rented a car when he arrived, driving southwest. After a day of searching through a handful of small towns, the trail felt as cold as if he'd imagined the whole thing, so he wound up back at the airport... to find the display shining Vienna at him as though there were no other cities on Earth.

Of course there was nothing in Vienna, either. Nothing in Geneva, or Paris, or Toronto-- although Toronto wasn't intentional, he was stuck there for three days when a snowstorm hit and his plane diverted there in late December.

His passport's seen so much use that he's starting to feel like an international spy or a touring musician. Or the nominal hero of a Hitchcock film, caught up in some sort of bizarre machinations, with no idea where he's going or what he's meant to do. All he has to go on are a few small clues: Late twenties, in all likelihood. Male. Possibly submissive... or possibly not. Potentially X-gene-positive. Lived somewhere west of New York as of March 1999... God, the only one of those things that's even remotely solid information is that Charles's bondmate is male. And after a whole year of wild goose chases, Charles is starting to wonder if maybe that's wrong, as well.

When intuition finally led him to pack his bag in Florida, he was as grateful as he's ever been. Florida was miserable. Already the April temperatures were warm enough to have his shirts sticking to him, and the insects, while technically fascinating on an entomological level, made him long for boxing gloves. Or cavalry. Making matters worse, every bar in Florida seemed to play nothing but Jimmy Buffett for the whole depressing length of his stay. Charles does not, in fact, like piña coladas, nor getting caught in the rain.

The gratitude of finally getting to leave those muggy wetlands lasted until the city name that lit up on the departures board was New York. All this time and he was meant to go back? All the places he'd been and it was all for nothing?

Three airline bottles of vodka into the flight, Charles began to wonder if it had all been a test. Perhaps his bondmate did get close enough to sense him somewhere along the way, and decided against meeting in person. Maybe the board lighting up New York was his bondmate's way of saying Give up. Go home.

Now that he's here, he doesn't know what to think. The pull of intuition is gone as if it had never existed. He studies the departures board again, unfolds the world map he's taken to carrying these past months. No other city name stands out on the board. On the map, the only thing that looks right is Manhattan, and that doesn't feel like the pull of intuition, but the familiarity of home.

Charles gets in a cab bound for the townhouse and texts Raven from the back seat. [Back in New York. Should be home in an hour.]

The text message she sends in return makes him wince. [Any sign of him?]

She couldn't have asked Irene, of course. Or perhaps she did, and Irene wouldn't tell her. He sighs and begins texting back, but another message comes over his screen first. [Irene says to hang in there. Your room's ready.]

[Thank you,] he sends. He has to squelch a burst of resentment. Hang in there, from the mutant with the strongest precognitive ability Charles has ever witnessed or even read about. On his way to Vienna, he flew into Stuttgart Airport, stopping over for a few hours to see Raven and Irene at a long-term residence hotel near Klinikum Stuttgart. The joy of meeting his sister's bondmate was shadowed by the urge to ask Irene straight away what lay in store for him, just a few hours east.

Of course, he didn't have to ask; she knew what he wanted to say. I can't see everything, Irene said. But sometimes I can see that talking about the future will change things for the worse.

And that was all. At the time, when he'd only been searching a matter of days, Charles accepted that. It's a much more bitter pill to swallow eleven months later. Whatever Irene's reason for keeping mum, Charles can't find it in himself to be understanding tonight.

He leans his head back against the backseat of the cab and presses his fingers to his temple. «Here I am,» he sends out. «Back in New York. Like you wanted. Are you trying to get rid of me? Was that what last year was about-- when you put me in the hospital, were you trying to block me for good? Did you drain me deliberately to send a message? Are you telling me to give up on you? Tell me in person, if that's what you want. Give me that much.»

As always, there's nothing. Charles sits up when the cab comes to a stop at the townhouse, but as he's climbing out, Raven and Irene step out the front door. Raven hands the fare over to the driver... and of course thanks to Irene, she has the right amount in hand, including the sizable tip Charles had planned to add for one of the least harrowing drives he's had in a Manhattan cab. For that, Irene was willing to look ahead.

Charles hefts his suitcase and takes a breath, collecting himself. People ask him sometimes to read minds for them, to tell them how another person really feels about them, or where something's hidden, or whether they'll get a job they're up for. He's always resisted that-- he knows that to non-psionics, his ethics can seem arbitrary and inconsistent, but Charles can sense what people's minds are guarding and what they're giving out. He doesn't see any harm in picking up the latter, but it's hard to explain the fine distinctions to people who can't know what he knows.

It's easy enough to imagine that precognitives might develop similar principles based on their extranormal perceptions. He puts his resentment away; he'll indulge in disappointment later. Right now, he just wants to let it go and enjoy this, Raven hugging him after all these months apart and saying "Welcome home!"

"It's good to be back," Charles says, kissing her cheek. It's true; it's good to be back, even though it hurts to return alone. Raven looks thrilled, her golden eyes bright. He can honestly add, "It's very good to see you looking so happy."

"I can't help it, I am," she says. "I know this isn't how you wanted to come home, but I'm so glad you're going to be here for the acknowledgement party. I know you were always going to try, and Irene promised it was like 95% odds, but I was worried you wouldn't make it back in time. I'm glad you're here."

"So am I," Charles smiles. Irene offers her hand rather than a hug; it seems his animosity didn't escape her notice even though he didn't voice it. "Sorry," he murmurs to her, and she squeezes his hand before releasing it.

Charles lets the two of them lead him into the townhouse. The pavement is lined with footlights now, and what used to be a jumble of coats and shoes in the front closet is neatly organized. Raven kept him updated via email and video chats: the surgery Irene underwent to regain her vision brought back some sight, but it was an incomplete restoration. She supplements her eyesight with precognition, but even so, she also uses aids like her folding cane and a screen reader, and Raven has made changes to the townhouse to accommodate Irene's low vision.

Raven takes his jacket and adds it at the end; each hanger has a white cardboard collar now. Despite everything, it's nice to see CHARLES boldly labeling the hanger designated for him.

They file into the lounge, and "Surprise!"

He feels the smile stretching his face-- he hasn't grinned like that in a year, he hasn't had cause, but stepping into the circle of Armando and Alex's arms has him beaming.

"It's so good to see you," Charles says, going to his toes to kiss Armando's cheek, and Alex's. "It was such short notice, I thought we might not catch up til the party."

"You've got to be kidding me! You're crazy," Alex grumbles, squeezing Charles with an arm around his waist.

"Welcome home," Armando adds, and bittersweet as that may be, Charles does feel welcome, and he is home. He rests his head on Armando's shoulder and lets Alex rub away the tension between his shoulderblades. "We really missed you."

Charles's own feelings were often complicated-- missing Alex and Armando but feeling guilty all the while, hoping that the bond would open up again and knowing what that would mean for all those possibilities he and Alex and Armando hadn't quite managed to discuss-- but now that he's here again, he simply says, "I missed you, too." Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Irene leading Raven out of the room, Irene's hand tucked into the crook of Raven's arm.

Once they're alone, "Home for good?" Alex asks. "Or is this another stop on the trip?"

"The departures board didn't have me haring off to somewhere else as soon as I landed, so I'm here for a while, at least."

"Well, if you need somebody to lick your wounds... or whatever..."

Armando sighs and takes one hand off Charles long enough to sweep it over Alex's head. "Two minutes. You couldn't wait two minutes."

"I could have, but I didn't want to." Alex's eyes sparkle as he steps back and looks at Charles, but even so, there's a slightly more heavy feel about him than Charles is accustomed to.

"What is it?" he murmurs. Alex gets a mulish look; Charles sighs. "I thought you were glad to see me."

"I am!" Alex says at once. "I really am. It's just..." he fidgets, frowning at Charles. "I feel really guilty, you know? I feel like I jinxed you."

"Why, what did you do?" Charles asks. "Light a black candle? Ring a bell?"

"You know, when you left," Alex crunches his mouth in a scowl. "When I said, what if he's not there."

"You didn't jinx me," Charles rubs his shoulder. "You were just-- right."

"Well, whatever happens after this weekend, we've got you right now," Alex says. He forces a more cheerful look onto his face, and his emotions settle into resolution and more than a touch of yearning. "What do you want to do tomorrow?"

Charles shoots him a look-- April 22nd, he wouldn't expect Alex and Armando of all people to forget what that means to him-- but Armando's standing beside Alex, looking steadily at him as well. "Anything you want," Armando promises. "Anything we can do."

In the face of all that warmth and acceptance, it's hard to say this, but Charles has to be honest with them. "I think I'm going to need to spend the day on my own."

Alex protests, "You just spent a whole year on your own!"

"Alex," Armando groans.

"What? I-- shit," Alex moans, leaning into Armando's shoulder. Armando wraps an arm around his waist and kisses his forehead. "Shit, Charles, I'm so sorry."

He's been keeping an even face all this time, but the reminder of all he's been through this year still stings. Armando reaches out and squeezes Charles's shoulder.

"We'll go when you need us to," he promises. "You can have all the space you need."

"Stupid space," Alex mutters. But he nods when Armando squeezes him. "He's right," he says, turning back to look Charles in the eyes. "Whatever you say."

It's almost enough to make Charles smile again. "That sounds promising. We'll all be at the party Saturday, and after that, we'll see. Sunday's Easter... maybe it'll be a good day to start over."

The way they both smile at him... it isn't the homecoming he wished for when he set out, not to come back alone and defeated, but he's grateful for it anyway.

«I've kept up practicing,» Armando sends to him, words carefully passed from his mind to Charles; Charles feels his throat thicken, moved.

«That means more to me than I can say,» Charles answers, swallowing hard. All this time seeking, he's had no one he could talk to this way, always a rare luxury to begin with. There really aren't words; he can't resist sharing his emotional reaction with Armando directly, eager to let him know how deeply it affects Charles to receive that kindness.

It's too much. Armando's adaptive mutation, always ready to protect Armando from potential threats, blocks Charles from his mind with such sudden force that both of them flinch, and Charles rubs his temple, head smarting a bit.

That desolate thought from the plane returns. He's always had to wonder if his bondmate felt something from Charles that he simply couldn't tolerate, and blocked their bond. And Charles has never known Armando's mutation to be hyperreactive. So what does it say about Charles, that Armando's mind reacts to his telepathy-- especially to sharing his emotions-- as a threat?

"I felt a little of that. Thank you," Armando says, pressing a kiss to Charles's temple. "I guess there's practice, and then there's practice. We'll keep working on it."

Charles nods, and tips his head up to kiss Armando's mouth. If he can't share his feelings his way, he can at least try to show them, putting all his appreciation into that touch.

"Hey! I want one too," says Alex as they both hem Charles in close. Quickly Alex adds, "Please. Please?"

"You two really are out to make me very glad I'm back, aren't you?" Charles smiles, and he gives Alex the requested kiss, enjoying the way Alex surrenders to it. When the kiss ends, he only has to turn his head to nuzzle Armando; he murmurs, "It's working."

"Can we be glad upstairs now?" Alex pushes, predictably.

"Soon," says Charles. In truth, he's nearly as impatient as Alex is. When bond intuition began to steer him, Charles was too busy following at first to think about scening. As the year wore on with no sign of his bondmate, he nevertheless stayed away from the clubs, determined to ensure that if their bond began to transmit emotions between them again, everything his bondmate received, all Charles's affection and desire, would be directed at him and only him. Now, back in the arms of the lovers who've made more of an effort to welcome him than any others, Charles won't deny himself any longer; he wants to reach out, he wants to be touched. "Soon as we can. But I need to drink at least a gallon of water, and I'm famished after that last flight."

Armando strokes long fingers through his hair. "You want to go see what we can dig up in the kitchen? Maybe order something in?"

"All right," Charles nods, and they're off, the three of them. Charles can actually smell something on the stove already; Irene again, no doubt.

Cab fare, late-night dinner, but no word about his lost bondmate. It would be so good to know if this were truly all for nothing, if there's any point in hoping for another destination, another journey... but he doesn't say so, only thanking her and Raven for the food and sitting down at the kitchen table with his friends. He'll have tomorrow to be bitter; he'll enjoy what he can of tonight.

Chapter Text

April 22, 2011

There's someone curved behind Erik, a warmth that feels comforting and right. Heat gusts out softly against the back of his neck, and higher; someone's lips tracing a path up to his joining spot.

It doesn't hurt, for some reason. Erik hums softly to himself, pressing back against that warmth, that touch. He hasn't felt whole like this in eleven years.

I'm here...

Erik tries to roll over, but he can't. He's stuck in the sheets, or caught here in his soulmate's arms, or maybe he just doesn't want to move for fear of breaking this moment into pieces.

I missed you, Erik thinks, reaching down to catch the arm that's drawn around his waist, pulling his soulmate's hand up to his lips. He can't open his eyes, can't even see him, but nothing has ever felt this good, or this certain. There's a gleam of metal around his throat; he can feel it. The links are strong, each of them solid and heavy... it's an exotic alloy, and yet it's metal he knows so well it's as though he fit it onto his throat himself. It's you. I love you, I missed you, you're here...

I'm here. Where are you? I'm here...

Something about that makes Erik struggle to get his eyes open. Erik's in his arms, he knows where Erik is, he must know. Please... I'm right here, please...

He doesn't know his soulmate's name. That seems wrong, too, now... if they found each other, how could he not know his soulmate's name?

I followed you halfway across the world and back, I came all this way for you, where are you, what do you want-- if you want me to go, if you want to be done with me, then tell me, but let me hear it from you...

Erik's heart stutters, and he struggles with the sheets, trying to turn over. I'm here. I'm right here, I won't leave, don't go, please, don't go, stay with me, please, I'm trying, I'll find you, I don't care how long it takes me, I'll find you...

Where are you? Where?

Finally, Erik rolls himself out from the covers that are trapping him, opening his eyes. He turns over, the arm over his waist shifting to let him, and he presses his mouth and his body to the man behind him, desperate, let me prove it, I love you, I'm here, I'll never let anything take you away from me again--

The collar around his neck tightens to the point of choking him. Erik reaches up for it, trying to get his fingers underneath it. He can't move it. Can't touch it. It isn't his. It's hurting him... no, why is it hurting him, his soulmate would never do that, never hurt him like that, he couldn't...

A hand comes up to Erik's joining spot, and he flinches back, gasping, tearing his mouth away from the man he's kissing. That touch hurts, pain rocking through him, and he struggles back to look at who's there, who's holding him, even though he knows--

"I'm right here, baby. Come on. Come find me."

Erik wrenches back, soul's-home screaming, and wakes up drenched in sweat and tangled in the hotel bedsheets. One of his hands is up at Sebastian's collar, tugging it away from the front of his throat. The room's dim with outside light, and in that light, Erik can see that it's empty. Sebastian isn't here. Thank God.

Soul's-home is still a dull, aching weight at the base of Erik's skull, hurting a little more now than it usually does. After that sort of dream, Erik can't be very surprised. He sits up and takes a long, deep breath, trying to stop himself from shaking.

As soon as he's steady again, he heads to the bathroom, turning on a light and looking at the collar. His throat is still red with marks from it-- was he tugging on it in his sleep, or was he tightening the metal and choking himself with it? He focuses as much as he can and pulls-- and it's not enough, the metal doesn't budge. None of the links so much as fucking twist. Erik turns away from the mirror in frustration.

He makes his way back out to the suite and stands by the window, pressing his hand against the glass.

Are you out there?

His eyes track over the city; the sun probably rose three or four hours ago. It's April 22nd, and Erik knows he's on borrowed time.

Can you hear me?

He could hear his soulmate in his dream. He remembers that. But the words and the voice have faded already, back down to the soft indistinct sounds that make up all his memories of his soulmate.

I'm coming. I'll find you. I won't let him touch you again. I swear... I'm coming.

He can feel the anniversary pull getting stronger and stronger. Any ghosts of presence he felt from the other end of his true bond are being swamped in that, taken away completely. Erik grits his teeth.

Let's get this over with, you son of a bitch.

Charles drops his hand away from his temple, knocking tears away from his lashes with the back of his wrist. This is an earlier start than he usually makes on the anniversary; not even out of bed yet, and already he's sending out thoughts.

Charles has developed a routine for dealing with every wretched April 22nd the years fling at him. It generally starts with a Bloody Mary and gets progressively higher octane from there. He tries to save this sort of thing til he's drunk enough to have an excuse to be maudlin, but after the past fruitless year, he can't help reaching out.

«I'm here. Where are you? I'm here... I followed you halfway across the world and back, I came all this way for you, where are you, what do you want-- if you want me to go, if you want to be done with me, then tell me, but let me hear it from you...»

None of it makes any difference at all. Wherever his soulmate is, he's as indifferent to Charles as he's always been, these past eleven years.

Charles bites his lower lip and sends one more thought out; just one, and he'll get up and shower and make the usual halfhearted attempt at making himself presentable for the usual horrible day.

«Where are you? Where?»

Of course there's no response. Being honest with himself, he has to admit he wasn't expecting one. He shoves the covers back and heads for the bath, blearily scrubbing a hand through his hair as he goes.

Midway through brushing his teeth, his mobile rings. He could have sworn he'd turned it off completely, but there it is, already interrupting his day with a... jazz-salsa ringtone? No, that can't be right, that definitely isn't his phone. But if not his, then whose?

Charles quickly rinses his mouth and heads back out to the bedroom, but by the time he gets there, his phone's somehow answered itself, and switched itself to speakerphone to boot. When he hears the voice on the other end of the line, all the mysteries are solved: "Charles, hey, it's Tony! Just wanted to wish you many unhappy returns of the day, and let you know that if you need bad company, I'm available."

Charles's eyes aren't certain whether to roll or tear up. He picks up the phone and thumbs off the speaker button, holding the phone to his ear. "How on Earth did you know I was back in New York?"

"Please. By the way, you really need to update the firmware on your cell phone. Not that it would help versus me, of course, but seriously, you wouldn't believe the kind of stuff people do with iPhones these days."

"I'll take that under advisement," Charles says dryly. "Tony, you know I adore you..."

"Uh-oh. Nothing good ever comes after that phrase, have you noticed that? It's never, 'Tony, you know I adore you, so how about we get together and scene?' Or even 'Tony, you know I adore you, and here are some nice things about you and that magnificent brain of yours.'"

"Tony, you know I adore you, and any other day I'd be happy to tell you some nice things about you and that magnificent brain of yours. But right now I'm ringing off, and I'll see you at Raven and Irene's acknowledgment party tomorrow."

"You sure?"

Charles hesitates, but only for an instant. "Today I'm sure," he says quietly.

"Okay." Tony pauses. "About Raven's party. I'm coming, but I don't know how long I'm going to stick around. Rhodey's bringing his new emfriend as his plus-one."

"Oh, Tony. I'm sorry," Charles winces.

"Well, think of it this way. You probably shouldn't try too hard to sober up between today and tomorrow, it'll just be lulling your liver into a false sense of security. Anyway, it's fine. New guy's fine. Okay, maybe he got a little bit in my face and called me a classic narcissist, but it's not like I'd deny it, that would be ridiculous."

"I can't imagine what makes you say that," Charles says dryly. "We'll catch up tomorrow, I promise. For now, though--"

"For now, I know, I know. Time to go be miserable. Have fun with that." But for all the brusque words, Tony's oddly gentle as he finishes, "See you soon."

Charles hangs up and shuts his phone off again. Only Tony. He shakes his head, moving back toward the bathroom. Tony means well-- he truly does-- but he's not the man Charles wanted to spend this day of all days with. He'd thought, he'd been so sure, that this would finally be the anniversary he'd spend with his soulmate... the fantasies he harbored border on humiliating, in retrospect. Breakfast in bed and a light massage, maybe a bit of handfeeding and kneeling while his soulmate said all the right things and apologized in all the right ways for these past eleven years of loneliness, this last wandering year lost to heartache.

Instead, he glances out the window and grimaces. He'll need a trenchcoat when he leaves the townhouse; it's drizzling down rain.

Leave the townhouse... why...? He pulls himself away from the window and heads for the shower, making it as hot as he can stand. It seems the bond isn't finished leading him by the nose. He's tempted to say no, enough of this, if you really want to see me you can come to me this time, but he already knows he's going to leave the house as soon as he's finished showering, shaving, and dressing. Apparently he's going to make a fool of himself at least one more time.

Erik lasts long enough to shower and pull on his clothes. He leaves nearly everything else behind-- wallet, phone, even his room key. He's been strong enough to work a latch for nearly the whole year he's been searching; he should be able to get back in without it, ignoring the electronics in the door lock in favor of simply turning the handle from the opposite side. He doesn't want to be carrying anything that would give Sebastian clues about where he's been, where he's staying. This might have been the year he finally shook Sebastian loose, and if it is, he wants to keep it that way.

The one thing he keeps is his windcatcher. He hates bringing it anywhere near Sebastian, but he can't let it go, not now. Not when he's so close. Some days this year, it's been the only thing keeping him going: the windcatcher, its rings, feeling as if his heart is right there in his sleeve or in the palm of his hand. He'll hide it under the sleeve of his turtleneck, slip it off if he has to undress. But it needs to be there. He needs it nearby.

Two years ago he walked through New York and met Sebastian at the Kimberly Hotel. Last year, John called Sebastian and brought him to Dr. Cabrera's office on the Upper East Side. Today Erik feels the pull leading him south. He could follow it blindfolded, and he doesn't rush, walking step-by-step through the rain, down city block after city block. If he's moving toward Sebastian, the pull eases a bit. He can't afford to slow to a crawl, though, and he's down at the marina before he knows it.

He doesn't recall Sebastian owning a yacht, but there he is, waiting on the stern of the Caspartina. He's leaning against the rail, smiling down at Erik as Erik walks up to the dock.

"Missed you," he says.

"I didn't."

Sebastian's grin doesn't even falter. "Get up here."

"Tell me where he is." Erik usually feels his ability so clearly when he's around Sebastian; it's thrilling through him now, the power he always should have had. He wonders if he could rip the rail free, tighten it around Sebastian slowly enough that Sebastian couldn't absorb any energy from it. "That's the one thing I want from you. Tell me where you left my soulmate."

This time, Sebastian's features crease into a frown. "I'm standing right here," he says. "No more games, Erik. Get on board."

"Tell me what hospital he's in, and I won't argue with anything else you want to do today."

Sebastian stands there looking at him for a while, and then jerks a thumb toward the ramp leading onto the yacht. "When we're out in the bay. The sooner you get on this boat, the sooner you get what you want." The curve of Sebastian's lips makes Erik grit his teeth, tempted to step back. "All of what you want."

There's no point in asking Sebastian to promise he's telling the truth; Erik can't trust him. He can't even trust that Sebastian was being truthful about meeting Erik's soulmate-- but he's lived through a year of dead ends and cold trails. He has nowhere else to turn. Not today.

He swallows and pushes his thoughts toward that other whisper of presence, the shadow he's been feeling all this time. I'm here. I'm coming. I'll find you.

The good news is Sebastian doesn't respond to that thought at all, or the surge of emotion that goes along with it. If this were really something Sebastian had done to manipulate the bond, surely he would have flinched... or, more likely, smirked. Erik's known him a long time. Sebastian would have loved feeling that desperation from Erik; he would have taken it as a victory.

The bad news is that Erik can't feel anyone else responding to him, either.

"Erik. Get on board. I'm not telling you again."

"You don't have to," Erik says, and he walks up the ramp.

Charles folds his arms on the railing and hangs his head over his hands. The bond led him out to the docks, but from there he could only stare out at the water, lost. Eventually he got on the ferry-- the ferry, of all things-- with some vague idea that maybe he'd feel a bit better if he were actually out on the water, moving instead of standing still.

Instead he seems to be feeling worse yet. Maybe he's seasick, now, on top of everything else.

His usual April 22nd routine has failed him altogether this year. Pouring out the Bloody Mary back at home, after his shower, simply left his stomach turning. He's hardly been able to touch a drop, the taste washing over his tongue like acid, the burn twisting down his throat-- when he finally muscled down two drinks at lunch, they came right back up again. He has a flask with him but every time he brings it to his lips, nausea compels him to put it away again. He's hideously sober.

He must be coming down with something. After all the travel, it's no wonder. His head is throbbing, and the minds of the other people on the ferry are growing increasingly hard to shut out. With the way this year's gone so far, it's probably some strain of avian flu. The chilly, damp night air probably isn't helping. Being sober and morose on the anniversary of his renunciation certainly isn't. He can't blame his immune system; if he were his white blood cells he wouldn't bother fighting anything off either.

It's probably for the best that he couldn't get drunk this year. After a year of unexpected hope that eventually faltered into nothing, he might have done himself more damage than usual. He's tried to practice acceptance, telling himself he's doing fine throughout the rest of the year, but even with the occasional distraction from Tony, he always seems to end the anniversary with a hand to his temple, sending «Please, please just tell me, where are you, what happened... I miss you, I still miss you.»

Feeling bond intuition for the first time ever gave him so much hope this year, but it's all come to nothing. He's exhausted, and even if the bond sends him somewhere else... how long is he meant to keep chasing that feeling? Sending out love and hope and welcome, receiving nothing in return? As if, eleven years later, his other half might suddenly change his mind and welcome their bond back into his life. This year, more than ever, Charles feels so foolish for believing that things might change. He'd wanted so badly to believe that bond intuition was his bondmate's way of reaching out for him, inviting a reconciliation. It seems much more likely now that it was some sort of accident or mistake.

There's a bitter urge in him to toast his bondmate by sending out the traditional With respect and appreciation for all you've given me, I release you. All he's been given... five years of connection and love he can never forget. Ten years of silence. Two hospital stays. This past restless year. Anticipation and disappointment, over and over again. All the nights in hotel rooms, staring at maps til his eyes watered, for one reason or another.

He'll always love his bondmate. Whether it's from the memories of the emotion they shared for those five brief years, or out of pure biology and neurochemistry, he'll always have feelings for the boy... the man, now, on the other end of the bond.

But he can't. He can't do this anymore. And if he really is letting go, if he can somehow bring himself to accept that it's over, that's not how he wants to say goodbye.

«To you,» he thinks to his bondmate, and he turns the flask, letting a shot of whiskey spill out over the side and fall, disappearing somewhere down there in the water of the bay. «I hope you're out there somewhere, well and happy.» He tucks the flask back into his coat pocket and inhales, slowly releasing a measured breath.

It seems impossible that there are people around him at a moment like this, his own private farewell to his bondmate, but the noises from the crowd are getting harder to ignore. More than that, the mood of the crowd is shifting-- at first, there was a certain amount of sentimentality, but now everyone's drawn up with tension, and more people are attuning to that feeling by the moment.

Charles looks out across the water. The ferry takes a fixed route, but there's a yacht that seems to be coming awfully close, and it looks to be drifting, possibly. It's close enough to see two figures near the stern, and the way they're angled toward each other telegraphs tension, argument, fight.

And then the tension breaks, in the wrong direction: the two figures grapple, and one twists as if dodging something, then pushes the other back hard against the rail. The rail seems to flex a bit, the man being pushed earning a bit of breathing room, but it doesn't matter. Just as quickly, the other comes for him, reaching for his throat.

Should we do something? people on the ferry are saying, thinking. Call someone? Who can we call? They were kissing before... Maybe if we yell... let them know we can see... would that break it up or make it worse...

Charles puts his fingers to his temple, trying to get a read on the situation. They're both mutants, he gleans that at once, and feels fleeting irritation. A mutant-on-mutant fight that results in an arrest will probably make the news and give people one more reason to pretend there's justification for their anti-mutant biases. Charles shoves that aside; these people shouldn't have to carry the standard for all mutantkind, none of them should. What matters is cooling down this fight for the sake of the two men involved.

One mind, cold and purposeful, something wrong, as if part of him is burnt out: Sebastian Shaw. Charles isn't sure communicating with that one will do any good at all. The other-- Charles flinches, drops his hand, his head ringing. Maybe the other's mutation allows him to repel telepaths; that hurt.

The fight turns uglier, Shaw striking at the other mutant and hitting the rail instead-- and with a pale red glow, the metal peels outward under the strength of his mutation. The other mutant throws himself at the deck, desperate to stay on the boat, but it only brings him into Shaw's range again-- and Shaw kicks him, and kicks him, knocking him onto his back. He's nearly struggled to his feet when Shaw grabs him by the back of the neck, right at soul's-home, and drags him back to his knees. Everyone on the ferry seems to suck in an appalled breath as one, to see someone gripped so intimately in the middle of this violence.

Shaw drags him forward now, and the other man fights him, scrambling for a hold on Shaw, on the deck, on the rail, but it's no use. The crowd is shouting now, people dialing for help on their mobile phones. As Shaw flings the other man over the side of the yacht, several people turn away, but it isn't over-- the man catches hold of the rail, and Shaw isn't letting him go yet.

Charles feels cold, shocked, his whole body alive with nerves and the need to do something. He shoves his fingertips against his temple, fighting as hard as he can to take Shaw over and bring the other man back on board. For the first time in years, he's wishing for that ability back: the power to freeze people, alter them, change minds. Each time he thinks he's made a difference, he can actually feel his hold sliding away, his power dissolving into nothing.

It's just like a year ago, a hollow place in his head, a sensation of being drained-- none of it makes any difference. He can't hang onto Shaw, he can't change anything, he's powerless to stop this. He's sick with that knowledge, the terror that the other man might die, here, now, in front of Charles's eyes while Charles stands on this deck, helpless.

Shaw stands, and he places his foot on the other man's hand. The other looks up at him, and finally Shaw offers a hand up-- but the man doesn't reach for it. Charles can almost feel his grip weakening, his fingers crushed beneath Shaw's boot.

Charles needs to be over there, he can't stand here and do nothing. Everyone stops, a collective breath held on the ferry, as the man hangs suspended, the water black and ominous below.

Chapter Text

April 22, 2011, evening

Some of these anniversary meetings are longer than others. This one doesn't feel like that endless April 22nd a few years ago, but when Sebastian finally brings Erik up on deck, Erik's surprised to see that the sun's already gone down. He's got no concept of what time it is; all he knows is that he aches, all over, and he's got a fresh cut on his back. It's taped up, but it was meant to scar. He got away unmarked last year, but not this time.

He's not moving easily, but he is moving, and he can feel his ability, closer at hand than ever. His pockets are full of coins, ammunition he may be able to use when the time comes. He holds his ground as Sebastian walks over to him, one of those awful lovesick smiles pasted all over his face.

"I missed you. I've been missing you," Sebastian says, reaching out and slipping his hands onto Erik's shoulders. Erik flinches when Sebastian slides his hands over, his thumbs grazing Erik's throat and that damned collar still around Erik's neck, but somehow Erik stays steady.

Answers. He needs answers. That's all that matters.

"Sebastian," Erik murmurs. He doesn't move away when Sebastian leans in, kissing him. He puts up with it when Sebastian flicks his tongue over the scratches on Erik's mouth-- the ones from the roses he had Erik holding onto, earlier, their thorns sharp and biting. He's not sure if Sebastian was being mocking or sentimental. Not that it matters. "Tell me where he is."


Erik gets his hands onto Sebastian's hips and eases him back. "You know who I mean. My soulmate, Sebastian. Where is he?"

Sebastian's expression is full of pity when he looks at Erik, nearly kind. That's a lie, too; Erik knows damn well Sebastian doesn't know the first thing about kindness.

"You know where," Sebastian says. He takes one of Erik's hands in his, and holding it a little too tightly, kisses the backs of Erik's knuckles. "You've always known." His hand draws Erik's up, to the back of his neck, pressing Erik's hand lightly against his joining spot. Sebastian groans a little, leaning into that touch, as if he hasn't noticed that Erik isn't participating in it-- that Erik's only allowing Sebastian to use his palm the way he allowed Sebastian to use the rest of him. But he's never expected Sebastian to know the difference.

"I know he's alive," Erik whispers. "Please. Tell me where..."

Sebastian finally releases Erik's hand and tips his head forward again. His eyes are beginning to harden, and Erik hasn't lost sight of the fact that one of Sebastian's hands is still cupping his neck. "I let you have it your way for a year," Sebastian says. "I let you play out your little fantasy. Sure, baby, the mentally ill kid who used to have a bond with you, he's still out there. You could find him. No idea what you thought you were going to do with him if you did find him. If he'd been out there to find. You know he's not."

Erik drops his right hand to his side, calls the windcatcher up against his palm, closes his fist around it. This is his lifeline, this. He doubts Sebastian's even noticed it.

"Dr. Cabrera saw the original bond," Erik tries. "And you said you'd found him. You told me--"

"I lied." Sebastian shrugs. "I was angry. There I was, trying to mend fences, put us back together again... our tenth anniversary, it was time for you to be back at my feet where you belong. And there you were mooning after some boy who was hurting you. I thought maybe if you chased your tail for a bit, you'd get it out of your system. And maybe I wanted you to hurt a little like you were hurting me. You think I don't know what it's like to have your soulmate run away when all you're trying to do is be good to him?"

It can't be true. It can't. Erik swallows, feeling sick. If Sebastian was lying from the beginning, then Erik's soulmate could be anywhere. Erik's going to have to start all over.

Sebastian makes a soft noise when he feels Erik swallow, though, and his fingers tighten against Erik's throat. "Erik. Baby. Can we stop it with these games now? Are you done?"

"I felt him," Erik says. "I can feel him." It's almost true, but Sebastian's presence casts a dark shadow over everything else... Are you out there? Can you hear me? I'm coming, I'm here, believe me...

"Let me tell you what I'm done with," Sebastian says, and Erik jerks back, but not fast enough. Sebastian's hand wraps around his throat, too tight for comfort, and he squeezes until Erik chokes against the mutation-enhanced strength in his fingers. "I'm done watching my soulmate walk away from me. What makes you think any other dom would want you? You've got my collar on you, my marks. You're mine."

Rings. A watch. Anything. God, why hasn't Sebastian ever worn a single scrap of metal? It would be like him to taunt Erik with it, the metal he can barely move anymore, just one more thing he's lost, but Sebastian's been careful about that. Erik twists, tries to angle himself back. Sebastian follows him, his grip sliding up to Erik's joining spot as he tries to kiss Erik again.

Erik can't bite, he knows better, so he jams his hand into his pocket, reaching for his coins. Sebastian slaps at his hand, the impact jarring Erik's hand open, but he still manages to use his power to grip a few of the coins-- not as many as he expected, not as many as he should. His power feels elusive, as if it's draining as fast as it builds.

He sharpens their edges anyway, sends them flying at Sebastian-- his hand, where he's gripping Erik's joining spot, and his face. Sebastian turns his head, one coin glancing across his forehead. It draws blood, but nothing more; all the coins rattle against him and drop to the ground, their energy absorbed. All his practice, all his plans-- to try to force Sebastian to instinctively defend himself against objects flying toward his eyes by striking at them, until he spent enough of that kinetic energy to be hurt-- it's all coming to nothing.

His power's slipping away from him little-by-little. It feels like throwing all that force down a bottomless pit, having it drain away from him with everything he tries to do. Erik sees the uncontrolled anger in Sebastian's face and realizes, gut twisting, just where that power's going.

He braces himself as best he can, but Sebastian's hold is unbreakable, and he shoves Erik across the deck, slamming him into the safety rails. Erik grabs for his ability one last time, and the rails bend, giving just enough to cushion the impact-- he'll have bruises, but nothing's broken.

But there's nowhere else to go, either. Sebastian advances on him, reaching for Erik's throat again. He's not trying to choke Erik this time, though; he's got his fingertip curled into Erik's collar.

"Using your ability against me. I thought you knew better." Sebastian tugs at Erik's collar, and now, of all times-- now, when it could mean being free of that metal forever, Erik pushes as much of his power through the links as he can, praying for that chain to shatter.

"You're not cutting into me," Sebastian murmurs. "Not like last time. Come on. You want to be rid of me so damn badly? Open one link. Do it. Do it, and I'll believe you want to be free."

Erik can feel the metal, threatening to bend under Sebastian's fingertip, but there's nothing. "I don't care what you think this collar says," Erik grits out, "I'm through here, let me go."

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth," Sebastian says, so even as to be conversational. Erik's stomach lurches. "I love you, baby, but God, you don't know the first thing about gratitude." He lets go of Erik's collar; Erik's neck snaps back in response. "Did you ever thank me for cutting that sick little boy out of you?"

"He wasn't sick," Erik whispers. Sebastian closes in on him, trapping him against the rail. Erik reaches for the metal again, but this time it's solid; this time it doesn't move. "He was mine. Psionic. Empathic. A telepath. He was mine."

"You don't even know. All these years later, and you can't let yourself see. But I saw it. Dr. Steed saw it. When a bond is healthy, it looks like a rope of light, bright and even. Yours was mottled, dark all through. You could see where it was rotting. He was sick, Erik. Deep inside, you sensed that. All that acting out you did-- it was a cry for help. And I helped you. I saved your life. I had to cut him out of you like a tumor, or his sickness would've taken you over. I'm sorry that it killed him. I truly am. But I did what I had to do to save you. Are you ready to face the truth now?"

Erik stares at Sebastian and finally shakes his head. "I know what sickness in the bond feels like," he says. "I've had eleven years to feel it with you. Whatever my soulmate did, whatever he was-- I loved him. I still love him. You and me... that's the delusion. You don't belong with me. You never did."

Sebastian's face settles into something more terrifying than anything Erik's ever seen on him: complete blankness. Erik can't even feel his emotions through the bond, despite the date and their proximity; where Sebastian's been all this time, a hollow echo of satisfaction and indulgence invading Erik's joining spot, now there's nothing but quiet, threatening oblivion. It feels as if Sebastian could do anything and not feel a thing, no remorse, no regret--

Erik dodges to his right, only because he of all fucking people knows Sebastian always strikes out first with his right hand. Even so, he barely evades it when Sebastian's fist slams down through the safety rails, the steel peeling outward with a red glow. Erik throws himself onto the deck, rolling, but Sebastian's on him, landing an awkward kick that glances off Erik's ribs.

"Ungrateful," Sebastian bites out, and this time the kick that lands is harder, more sure; Erik grunts and tries to get to his feet, but Sebastian kicks him again, knocking him onto his back. "Whore. You think I don't know?" Erik's nearly on his feet, but Sebastian comes for him, grabbing him hard at soul's-home. It takes Erik right back down to his knees, pain flaring at the base of his skull and shooting all the way down his spine. "You think I don't know how many people touched you, how many people got a taste of what's mine?"

He drags Erik forward, and now that Erik sees where they're going, he's half-tempted to stop fighting-- stop fighting and let Sebastian throw him through that empty spot in the rail, let Sebastian push him overboard. If his choices are staying on this boat and taking whatever Sebastian gives him, or diving and swimming for shore, odds are this evening isn't going to end well for him. Erik's a strong swimmer. He can see the shore from here. But he's hurt, and he's exhausted from everything he endured to get to this point, and the pain blasting through him at his joining spot is making every breath agony. If he were well and healthy, maybe... but he isn't.

"I wasted eleven years thinking I could change you," Sebastian's saying, pulling Erik forward one inexorable step at a time. "Eleven years with you and your twisted bond in my head. You think I liked that? But I did it for you."

Erik tries to twist, tries to look around. His vision's too blurred from pain to see anything anymore, and he's grasping for a hold on anything-- the deck, the rails, Sebastian himself. Once upon a time he'd have thought Sebastian wasn't insane enough to throw Erik overboard, but now-- this feels serious, as if Sebastian's finally lost what little grip on reality he ever had.

Erik's never known if killing Sebastian would mean the bond would kill them both, or if losing Sebastian's part of the bond would mean losing his real soulmate, too, but he's never imagined being on this end of it. He reaches out desperately for the rail as Sebastian heaves him over the side of the deck, one hand keeping hold of Erik's arm with mutation-enhanced strength.

"Tell me it's worth it," Sebastian says. "Tell me it's worth hauling your pathetic ass back on this boat."

Erik's fingers wrap around the rail, and he digs in with all the strength he can muster. The bar bends under his hand, curves perfectly against his palm, but if Sebastian lets go, Erik will only be able to hold onto it for so long.

"I want my boy back," Sebastian says. He sounds calm, and it sends shivers up Erik's spine. "I want my other half. I saved you before, Erik. I can save you again now."

"You didn't save me," Erik gets out. He tries to bend the rail again, but it's no use-- his power's dissipating, he can feel it flowing and then sputtering out as he tries to shape the metal. The only thing he can still touch is the windcatcher; it spins against the outside of his wrist as he struggles to hold on. "You're the sickness. Not him. Not me."

Even after all of this, it's a shock when Sebastian stands, when he lets Erik's arm go. He leaves Erik dangling by one hand, Erik's weight suddenly tugging hard against the rail. If it weren't for the way his hand shaped it into the best possible hold, he might have slipped just now, and his legs kick out uselessly in the air, his adrenaline spiking even higher. There's nothing to grip, nothing to get a hold on. There's just his right hand, curved around the rail, and as Sebastian straightens, he puts his foot on Erik's hand, resting feather-light against it.

"It's not too late," Sebastian says. "I can save you. It doesn't have to be like this." But he's leaning a little weight on his foot now, a little bit of pressure against Erik's hand. Erik grimaces, trying to keep himself sealed on the railing with his magnetism-- but no, there's not enough of his ability left to work with. He's heaving in breaths as though he's been running, he's winded-- and Sebastian reaches down, offering up his hand. "Come home, baby. Come back to me."

Erik looks behind him, down at the water. Blackness, and it could be as much as a mile back to shore. Sebastian might pull him up. Sebastian might drop him. Either way, he'd be under Sebastian's power again.

He looks up, at his hand under Sebastian's boot, at the glint of steel trapped on the rail beside Erik's fingers. It's the windcatcher that gives him the strength to look up at Sebastian and say, "I'd rather drown."

"Have it your way," Sebastian says, and Erik doesn't know if it's the weight on his hand or if his fingers are too tired to hold on, but there's a bright snap of metal against his wrist-- oh God, no, not that, you can't have that-- and then he's falling, coming down with just enough time to straighten himself out and cross his arms over his chest and take in a breath, one that's going to have to last until he finds the surface again.

Again and again, Charles tries to reach into the mind of the attacker on the yacht. Trying to get at Shaw is like thrusting his arm into a dumpster, and worse, each time his thoughts glance off uselessly. When Shaw stands, his foot on the other man's hand, Charles pushes both hands against his temples and shoves every ounce of power he can into Shaw's mind. «Pull him up, damn you! PULL HIM UP!»

And just like every other time, nothing-- he's throwing his thoughts into the void, helpless to stop any of this. He's frozen with shock and horror when the inevitable happens and the man's grip on the rail loosens. It all seems to occur in slow motion: the man slips off the railing, his legs straighten, his arms cross over his chest, his head tips down. He lands perfectly, cutting into the water with barely a splash, but if he doesn't come up-- if he's hurt, if he took in water--

Instinctively, Charles sweeps through the minds of the others on the ferry for someone who's a strong swimmer, someone who can dive in and help the man who's gone overboard. And just as instinctively, he's tearing off his coat and kicking out of his shoes, because even if someone else is a better swimmer or stronger, Charles can't ask anyone else to risk eir safety going after the man. And the time it would take to ask-- no. He's waited too long already, he has to help, now.

"Get a life preserver, throw it down when you see us come up," he tells the closest person. And then he's climbing up the rail, and he takes a deep breath, and he jumps.

Hitting the water drives cold straight through his body all at once, like diving into knives. Charles is physically disoriented, but mentally he can sense exactly where the castaway is. He surfaces, gets a few deep draughts of air, strokes through the water and goes under.

He finds the man, wraps his arms around him-- and nearly takes in a lungful of water, because even from opposite boats, this man repelled his telepathy, and whatever caused that, the same thing is hurting Charles now. He shields mentally for all he's worth, but it's not his mind stinging this time, it's his arms, his chest: his skin seethes with pain everywhere he's touching the man.

And the man's not just flailing, he's actively fighting against Charles, his arms sweeping through the water-- Charles tries to read him-- he may as well try to read a wall of broken glass, but he makes out pain and panic, a sense of loss, something the man's desperate to find before it sinks.

«Stop. You'll drown. You have to let go,» Charles projects to him; just thinking at this man hurts his head. «Please! We're going to die. Calm your mind. Please,» he risks opening to that furiously crackling pain again, enough to get a name. «Erik. Let go.»

The pain doesn't abate, and it's maddening, a scalding itch under the skin, worsening every second. But there's less resistance against him, and Charles kicks as hard as he can; he drags the man up, dead weight in his burning arms.

And then suddenly he feels muscles tense and shift against him, and he's borne up fast, not under his own power any longer.

They break into the air. As soon as Charles hears the other man wheezing for breath, he lets go, and the pain eases, replaced by the more expected ache of cold, cold water all around them. Charles's nose is already numb. He treads the choppy water as best he can, swallowing it as often as he's getting air, watching Erik to make certain his head stays above water.

"You were in my head," says Erik, his voice bewildered, cut up with labored breath.

"I've stopped, I promise," Charles says. "Just calm your mind. Please."

The life preserver from the ferry smacks down nearby, and Charles swims to it and brings it to Erik, who doesn't appear to need it. Despite being attacked aboard the boat and stunned by the fall, now he's keeping his head above water with more success than Charles, treading strongly.

Still, "Grab hold," Charles encourages. "No telling how long it'll be til they fish us out. Save your strength."

Erik puts a hand on the life preserver, a token concession. Charles doesn't push, just keeps kicking and hangs on, glancing up to see the people on the ferry bustle about, a spotlight swerving over the water and centering on them. A flash of light glints off Erik's wrist, the spotlight reflected from a small disk of some kind, possibly a coin, secured to Erik's hand by a mangled length of chain.

Someone shouts down, "Are you all right?"

"Are we all right," Charles repeats in disbelief, glancing at Erik, who doesn't seem to register either remark, looking stunned and lost. Charles shouts up to his interlocutor, "We're both safe! Come on in, the water's fine."

There's relieved laughter above, echoing over the waves. Someone up there tugs at the rope attached to the life preserver. "Should we reel you in? Can you both keep hold? They're getting a rescue boat."

"What do you think?" Charles asks Erik. "If they tow us close to the ferry, they could pull us up, or maybe even get us a ladder, if you think you could climb."

It takes a beat for Erik to answer, "Can you?"

"Certainly. Why not go for the triathlon," says Charles. "Dive, swim, scale a ferry... I think it could really catch on."

And then he shuts his mouth because he's not thinking. Erik didn't dive into the water. He was thrown.

"I'm sorry," Charles says, just in time to get slapped in the face with a wave; he spits to the side and coughs. "Oof. There's poetic justice for you. Sorry, that was asinine." He's starting to shiver in earnest, too much to really talk, which is just as well. If he's lucky, Erik hasn't heard a word he's said over the loud clap and swish of the waves.

"Reel us in," Erik calls to the people on the ferry, and they slowly begin hauling the life preserver closer, letting down an emergency ladder.

"Go ahead up first," Charles urges. That seems obvious to him, Erik's the one who was just in a fight, and injured. Charles should wait in case Erik has trouble. But Erik looks apt to protest. Charles adds, "You're taller--" he doesn't know that for certain, but it's usually a safe bet-- "so chances are, if it can hold you it can hold me."

There isn't really any particular logic to that, but it makes it sound as though going first would be the gallant thing to do, and it works. Erik climbs up. With each step, more water drips from his drenched clothes, raining down on Charles with a strange, disconnected intimacy; Charles is bizarrely aware that all the water plashing down around him just rolled off Erik's body.

He waits til Erik is on the ship before he starts up the ladder himself, no point testing the weight-bearing capacity of this thing. Cold as the water was, the air is worse, and the moment the other ferry passengers help haul him over the top back onto the deck, Charles strips off his wet shirt and accepts a towel from one of the dommes who rang 911 earlier.

"Did you get through to the police?" he asks her through chattering teeth, wringing the worst of it from his hair and quickly drying off. He peels out of his soaked trousers and boxers, wrapping the towel around his waist.

"I got through," she says, "and so did a bunch of other people. They're coming."


"The police?" Erik repeats.

The domme blinks at him. "To arrest him."

"It won't work," Erik begins, but he's interrupted when someone brings blankets, offering him one large enough that he can cover himself before stripping down. Erik takes the scrap of privacy, the blanket growing damp as he holds over his shoulders, but he's able to shove his shoes and socks off, adding his drenched pair of wool trousers and letting everything squelch into a wet pile. With considerably more effort, he gets his turtleneck off, and when it lands in the pile with the rest, Charles spies the metal disk he noticed earlier, caught on the turtleneck's sleeve.

"Lots of us were taping that," the domme tells Erik reassuringly. Erik flinches, though, and the domme goes a little pink in the cheeks as she says, "For evidence. We'll get the videos to the police, we'll make sure they know what happened. There was nothing you could have done, it wasn't your fault."

Her sub's at her side, and he adds, "Nobody should ever have to put up with that from eir dominant. Being a sub doesn't mean--"

"I'm not. He's not," Erik says, clutching the blanket closer to himself. "I'm not a sub. He's not my dom."

Relief streaks through Charles, and he looks back at Erik-- but just as quickly, he's puzzled. Erik's wearing a silver chain around his neck, one with no clasp. It looks so much like a collar that Charles is struck with the urge to pull it off him, yank at it until it breaks. Shaw doesn't deserve that honor.

He's grateful when another dom interrupts with, "You should come in to where it's covered. We've got an EMT aboard, you should both get checked out."

"Him first," Charles insists, nodding at Erik. Erik looks at Charles, his brows drawing together in-- Charles can't tell; he opens to Erik's moods well enough to read him, and immediately winces. Even that much hurts. But he caught desperation, a desire not to be separated... and to his surprise, he feels it as well, every bit as much.

It's probably not that strange to feel responsible for someone after helping em. Though responsibility isn't exactly what he's feeling.

"I'll go with you," he says quietly.

"All right." Erik looks back at the yacht, where the other man, Shaw, is standing at the rail, staring across the water. He's shouting something, but the distance makes it impossible to hear. People are still recording him with their mobile phones, the man mostly obscured by darkness, but the lights out on the back deck illuminate him just enough to make all those recordings worth something, Charles hopes.

Inside, a portion of the upper floor has been cleared, onlookers being pressed back by security. The EMT looks Erik over, checking him for any severe injuries and early signs of hypothermia. He isn't bleeding, his speech is calm and coherent, everything seems to check out. He even manages to joke with the EMT, when she looks over his feet and ankles and says, "Nice dive," a little dryly.

"I'm still waiting for my invitation to the Olympic trials."

It's even more of a relief than Charles anticipated. He didn't realize how anxious he was getting til his shoulders finally relax a bit as the EMT makes favorable noises.

"Your vitals are good," she says, finishing up with the blood pressure cuff and shining a light into Erik's eyes before nodding. "They'll need to check you out at the hospital, and they'll treat you there for everything else." There's a pile of rapidly-donated clothes on the seat next to Erik, spare overshirts, tourist souvenirs, things that look to be from people's gym bags; that's kind of them. The EMT nods at them. "See if you can find anything in there to wear. There are some sweatpants, I think, some t-shirts."

Erik hesitates, glancing from the EMT to Charles. "I'll just--" Charles begins, starting to turn, but Erik seems to make a decision, and he stands, dropping the blanket altogether before digging through the pile and finding a pair of sweatpants that seem to be his size.

Charles's mouth goes a little dry. Erik is bruised all over-- handprints on his hips, mouth marks on his neck and shoulders, fingerprint bruises up and down his arms. There's a neat set of deliberate scars at his lower back, and a bit of sodden bandaging up at the top, as if there's one more scar waiting to heal. Under other circumstances it could all be beautiful. Erik is a striking man, sleekly muscular and strong even though he's almost worryingly thin. But there's a growing redness around Erik's ribs where Shaw kicked him and at his back where he hit the railing, some bruising starting to come up on his legs where he hit the water-- a clean dive being a relative thing, at that height. The whole image paints a picture of unwanted touches, bruises and marks that aren't there by choice.

And worst of all, there's that silver collar around Erik's neck, solid links all the way around. Erik's remark about Shaw not being his dominant to the contrary, it's still a symbol, one that should speak of affection and protection. It sends unaccustomed rage screaming up from Charles's hindbrain, a sense of fury that anyone could have had a bondmate and done that to him, inflicted in malice what should have been given with joyful consent. Prison is too good for Shaw, but if there's any justice in the world, he'll go there and never be allowed to harm anyone else again.

That's not the only reason Charles is so outraged, though, and if it were any other day of the year-- if it were any day but April 22nd, any day but an April 22nd after a year of dead ends and failed searching-- he'd try harder to slough off this bitterness. But Shaw had Erik, and mistreated him, while Charles has been desperate to find the man who once belonged to him, wanting nothing more than to meet him, reconcile with him, promise him care and love and comfort. And instead, nothing, over and over again.

The EMT's waiting. In the distance, Charles can hear sirens, the roar of police boat engines, the thudding rhythm of helicopter blades. "You next."

As soon as his vitals are swiftly checked, Charles is directed to the pile of castoff and souvenir clothing as well, and he finds a plaid buttoned shirt-- of course, too long, but otherwise it fits-- and a pair of tracksuit bottoms with a drawstring that he cinches on tight.

"Hang in there, both of you," the EMT says. "I'm going to get you some coffee."

"Tea, please, if you can find it," Charles says automatically.

"Tea, yeah, okay."

As the EMT leaves to find something hot for both of them to drink, Charles turns back to Erik. He can barely take his eyes off him. It would feel deeply inappropriate if Erik weren't looking at him with just as much intensity.

Charles has been drawn to male subs with similar looks before, tall and narrow and strong, even down to the arresting blue-green eyes and ginger-brown hair. And he's never once had a successful encounter with one of them. It's been nothing but frustration every time.

But none of them have ever looked quite like this to him. Some part of him wants to insist Erik is flawless, when he can see it's technically untrue; there's a little scar between his nose and mouth, nearly running into a smile line-- exactly where it should be, he thinks nonsensically-- and Charles's personal definition of flawless has never included ginger stubble before, but it's beautiful, he's beautiful. The planes of Erik's face seem mathematically perfect, sharp cheekbones and a strong nose, a generous mouth, his eyes pale, his gaze watchful.

And none of those remembered subs ever looked at Charles this way before, as though there's no one else in the world. It makes Charles long to be closer, even while he's kicking himself for the instinct. He saw Erik's bruises. This man's been through too much tonight already, the last thing he needs is unwanted attention.

He's still searching for something to say-- anything at all-- when their gaze is interrupted as a security guard comes in with a sopping pile of clothing. "We gathered these things up from the deck," he says. "There was a domme looking after them. The police might want to take some of these as evidence," he adds, nodding at Erik, "so you should hang onto them."

Charles is relieved to see his coat's there, and he shrugs into it, the lined wool warm and comforting. All his things are still there-- his phone, his wallet, keys, mobile phone.

Erik's sorting through his own clothing, growing more and more agitated as he wrings out the sleeves of his turtleneck. Charles scans the ground, and just beneath the seat those clothes are piled on, he spots it-- the metal disk Erik was wearing in the water. Its chain is rather mangled; it must have slipped off his wrist when he undressed.

He leans down, scoops it up by the chain, and holds it up where Erik can see it. "This?"

Turning slowly, Erik stares at the disk dangling from Charles's hand. He lets out a breath, his shoulders slumping in what must be relief, and Charles remembers, suddenly, the struggle to pull Erik back to the surface. The feeling that there was something Erik was desperate to find, so desperate he was willing to risk drowning them both in search of it.

It must have been this. Even to Charles, the look on Erik's face is unmistakable. If it weren't on a chain itself, if it weren't for the way Erik so adamantly denied that Shaw was his dominant, Charles would be staring at that disk, believing that Erik was willing to jeopardize them both to keep the tag to Shaw's collar.

As it is, Erik reaches for the ornament, and as he does, the disk unfolds somehow. Charles can see now: it isn't a solid circle, it's a series of beautiful, concentric rings, all fitted together like a mobile miniature sculpture. His hand clutches on the chain reflexively; he doesn't even know why, he's not inclined to wear jewelry. And it's absurd. It isn't his. It might belong to whoever Erik's real dominant is... except no, Erik said he wasn't a submissive... that doesn't necessarily mean, though, that he doesn't have...

"Thank you," Erik whispers roughly, and he reaches out for the spinner, his fingertips grazing across the back of Charles's hand when he does.

Pain startles through Charles, making him drop the spinner altogether. Erik catches it, or-- no, it flies toward his hand. Charles sensed that he was a mutant; perhaps he's telekinetic. Which explains how he drew the spinner back to him, under the water.

Still, the pain from touching-- that's unexpected. They both snap back a bit, Charles shaking out his hand, Erik frowning and looking at his fingertips, rubbing his thumb across them.

"Static," Erik says uncertainly, eyebrows drawn together.

"I suppose. Shaw's ability..."

"Energy transfer," Erik says.

"Ah." Charles shrugs uneasily. "Maybe you're still a bit charged."


Charles opens his mind to Erik tentatively, just looking for a hint of surface impressions and feelings. He catches Erik's sarcasm and a harsh blast of hatred for Shaw, one that feels old and familiar. He feels a pull, one Charles is meeting with equal fervor, and it makes him long to reach out, see if that static's gone now. But even perceiving that much makes his head start to ache right away, and he shields against it quickly. He's been reflexively blocking almost everything from Erik to keep that pain at bay, and it's still there.

Normally when people are resistant to psionics, Charles finds them eerie, discomfiting to be near, as if they're walking around with only two dimensions. But even with the block, Erik seems completely present and vivid and alive to Charles, more than the rest of the people on the ferry.

Erik's looking at him oddly now, and Charles understands why when Erik says, "I never said his name."

"No," Charles begins, "I--"

"That was you," Erik interrupts. "In the water. That was you...?"

"Yes." Despite his good intentions, Charles comes a little nearer, and Erik moves toward him in return. Getting this close to him sends a jolt through Charles's body, a tingling as though he's too close to a live wire. The hairs on his arms aren't quite standing on end, but he has the oddest feeling of having his hackles raised, the nape of his neck itching all the way up through the dull hollow of his long-dead joining spot, the emptiness at his soul's-home. "I couldn't let you drown."

"Thank you," Erik says, automatic, fast. "But I meant--"

Charles knows, of course, what Erik meant. He's cowardly enough to be relieved Erik doesn't have the chance to ask about the telepathy, the mind-to-mind communication under the water; whatever Erik wanted to say is masked by the sound of massive blades beating the air as the helicopter draws near at last, the noise huge and overbearing even from inside the ferry. Erik's attention is immediately drawn to the yacht, and he goes to the window to see what's happening. Charles takes the next window, peering out as well.

"It's going to be all right now," Charles says softly once the helicopter passes over and the noise recedes a bit. Erik turns to look at him again. "You're not alone."

Erik regards him again for a long moment, til a searchlight sweeping over the yacht draws his attention back to Shaw. "It's hard to believe. I don't see how anyone can stop him."

"They'll find a way. Somehow. From everything I-- saw--" and he'll explain later, he will, if Erik asks-- "I'm just glad you're not on that boat anymore. Even though that was a terrible way to disembark."

He winces at himself all over again for that-- his phrasing is impossibly light for what Erik's just been through-- but one corner of Erik's mouth turns up, and he nods.

"See if I take another cruise anytime soon," he says, mordant and deadpan. He turns back to look out the window and sucks in a shocked breath, stepping away from the glass and shaking his head. Two police boats have closed in on the yacht, and one helicopter; Shaw disappears into the cabin. Erik turns to the returning EMT and the nearest security guard. "They can't."

The EMT frowns right back at him. "Can't what?"

"They can't confront him directly, they can't arrest him. He'll kill them."

"Sir, I think they can handle one guy--"

Erik makes an impatient noise in his throat. "No. He's a mutant-- look at the railing, where it's twisted. He absorbs kinetic energy and redirects it." He turns his attention to the guard. "Can you radio the captain, can you get him to tell them that--"

"Let me," Charles says, reaching to his temple again. Maybe it's the excitement, the activity, the rush of adrenaline, but he feels stronger than he did before, and it's easy to sweep his awareness out to the minds on the police boat and the helicopter.

And to his relief, there's a familiar mind on the helicopter. «Jean! Thank God, I didn't know if anyone called for the extranormal division--»

«Charles?» Jean's voice is surprised but pleased, and in a matter of moments, Charles has managed to share the fight with her, Erik's rescue, what Erik's said about Shaw. With someone else, that sort of communication wouldn't be possible-- non-telepaths might not trust him, might not be able to absorb that much information so quickly-- but Jean takes it all in and sends back, «Understood. I can hold onto him with my teke, there won't be any energy for him to absorb, and I'll radio everyone to let them know not to fire on him under any circumstances--» He can sense her doing just that. «But if you can help me out at all-- can you tell who's on the yacht, I don't have time to focus on all the different minds with all these emotions running high--»

«Anything you need,» Charles promises. He sends his awareness through the yacht, feeling it as Shaw storms inside and heads for the cockpit. Inside there are only two other people, a valet and a pilot-- the valet's locked himself in a stateroom and is on the phone with police already, but the pilot's still at his post.

And then Shaw's on him, reaching, grabbing for him. Charles fists both hands at his temples and makes his own desperate scrambling grab, trying to hold onto Shaw, grip that sickening mind and stop him.

He strained just this hard to get Shaw to pull Erik back aboard the yacht, but that failed. Now, here, feeling stronger in his power than he has in so long, he forces Shaw to stop-- but only for an instant; Shaw knows how to block psionics, and he shields against Charles's influence.

The pilot scrambles back, and Shaw fights Charles's mental grip on him, awkwardly shoving out for the pilot, his hands making the lightest contact against the pilot's chest.

It shouldn't be enough to move him. Charles thought he had Sebastian far enough away to be safe. But he underestimated Shaw's ability, damn it; the pilot goes flying across the room, knocking into the wall and slumping heavily on the floor. When Shaw starts to advance on him again, Charles grits his teeth and shoves his mind against Shaw's, unwilling to be shunted aside this time. Shaw's concentration begins to fracture, his block breaking down as Charles bombards him.

His head still aches from touching Erik's mind earlier, his body wants rest after that swim in cold waters. But some crucial tether has snapped in Shaw's mind, and Charles is certain the man will kill the pilot, take the wheel, and cause who knows how much more damage in an escape attempt. Charles senses nothing in Shaw that would hold him back, not conscience or empathy or even fear of reprisal. Even more unsettling than his mind is the strange familiarity of it, as if Charles has sensed him before.

But he's certainly never encountered this level of resistance before. No one's ever given him this much of a fight but other telepaths. There's no latent telepathy in Shaw, though, Charles would feel that-- just training and force of will. A will that Charles slowly brings to heel, caging the man's mind, barring him from the ability to move or cause harm.

He feels a tickling wetness on his upper lip but forcibly ignores the distraction; he has Shaw, he has the bastard.

Dimly, he hears Erik sucking in a breath. "You're bleeding," he says. "Your nose is bleeding." That explains the feeling, but he can't answer Erik or wipe the trickle away, he has to concentrate on holding on to Shaw.

He can afford to send a thought to Jean, though-- she's receptive to his thoughts, easy to reach, meeting him halfway. «I've got him,» Charles tells Jean. He sends her the mental map of the yacht, shows her where the valet is, how to get to the cockpit. She and her team are landing on the upper deck now, even as Charles struggles to turn Shaw away from the pilot, get his attention off the man, off.

The pilot isn't getting to his feet. Charles focuses, the barest fraction of an instant, to sweep his thoughts over the pilot's mind and see what's there. Alive, he's alive, thank God, but with that momentary distraction in Charles's mind, Shaw's able to break free.

He doesn't advance on the pilot; he uses his opportunity to act and goes to the wheel, turning the yacht toward the nearest shore. Charles sends another quick thought to Jean: «The pilot's not moving. But he's at the far side of the room, out of Shaw's reach. Hurry.»

«Fast is good,» Jean answers immediately, one of her SWAT team's mottos. He can feel her leading her team in, stepping quietly and cautiously through the hallways, just as he showed her.

"What's happening?" Erik asks, looking from Charles to the yacht.

"One moment," Charles struggles to get out. He's grappling for control over Shaw again, trying with everything he has to get into that sick mind. "I can only hold this man for so long--"

"Hold him?"

"Shaw," Charles gasps. "So he can't hurt anyone else."

Erik sucks in a breath and nods, and his eyes on Charles are distracting-- but only at first. If anything, it's almost as if he's bolstered by that attention. Charles is quickly absorbed once more by the mess of Sebastian Shaw's mind, the complicated feel of it and the way it seems to want to slip out from under his grasp again and again. It's a wrestle, and Charles was never a wrestler-- he was a boxer, and he's tempted to lash out now, target Shaw's darkest memory core and see whether he can lay him out flat.

He can't possibly, though. He hasn't had that much control over his ability in years; he hasn't had this much ability in years, he's not sure where these reserves are coming from, but regardless, he's out of practice. Touching that dark tangle in Sebastian's mind might leave Shaw brain-damaged, disable him for life. He can't do that, not even to a man as repulsive and horrifying as Shaw. He doesn't have the right.

He feels as if he should, though. He should have every right to rip that core away from him, pull at the knot of twisted, artificial psionic energy and get it out of Shaw's head--

He knows he can tend to be self-righteous at times, but not to the point of wishing he could unilaterally alter another person's self. He's felt sick, dangerous minds before; arguably he grew up with one... what makes this different...?

He looks at Erik and then grits his teeth and renews his focus. Jean's closing in on Shaw; she needs his help. As she comes into the cockpit, Shaw wrenches out of Charles's mental hold and rips a chair free from its place on the floor to fling it at her, so hard even Jean's telekinesis almost can't deflect it.

«STOP,» Charles sends, gripping the man and holding him. For an instant, Shaw goes still, one hand reaching out--

--Charles's control slips once more, but it's enough. Jean has Shaw now, her telekinesis wrapped around him like a reinforced leather sleepsack. Shaw struggles, curses, glows pink as he strains against the psionic bonds, but the kinetic energy stored by his mutation dissipates little-by-little, and he sags in her restraint.

«Got him,» Jean sends. Charles sits down heavily, pulling out of Shaw's mind as quickly and thoroughly as he can. He feels like he needs a shower-- a dozen showers-- to come clean, after that. The blood on his face is the least of it. He fishes in his coat pocket for a handkerchief, dabbing red from his nose and lip.

He watches through Jean's eyes as her team slips a nullifying collar and gauntlets onto Shaw, and as soon as it engages, Jean sends her assurance and conviction that she'll personally see Shaw locked into his cell at the Raft. Sending back gratitude, Charles withdraws entirely, dropping his hands to his sides.

"Tell me," Erik urges. "What's happening?"

"They have him." Charles takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He turns to Erik again. "I did what I could. They have him in custody. They're taking him to the Raft."

"You did..." Erik gestures to his own temple. When he asks, his voice is halting, nearly agonized... no, that's not it, it's not agony. But Charles can see how badly he needs an answer to his question. "Are you a telepath?"

"Yes," Charles croaks. Erik's face, already pale from the fall and the swim, seems to drain of color even further. It hurts to see that. Fear is more common and easier to take than anger, or the occasional overt show of hostility. But sometimes it still gets to him; it bothers him now. He doesn't know why he expected anything different.

Strangely, though, Erik's reaching out for him. Not aggressively, not in a threatening way-- his palm's turned up, and he's swallowing, his eyes wide, drinking in the sight of Charles as if he's starved for-- something. "My name is Erik," he says, and then shakes his head. "But you knew that. Who are you?"

Charles shivers all over, but not from cold. Erik isn't just asking for his name. "Charles Xavier," he says anyway, rote. "I don't understand..."

"You live here. In New York? You've always lived here?" he asks, with an urgency out of proportion to the questions.

The EMT's back with large cups of coffee and hot tea, but Charles is starting to feel warmer by the instant without the help. "We'll be docking any second," she says, "and they're holding everyone else until you two are off and into the ambulances."

"Thank you," Charles tells her, and waits as she gives them space, never breaking eye contact with Erik. It hits him again: no one's ever looked at him this way before. As if nothing else matters. "I've been here-- or near here-- most of my life. You?"

"The Pacific Northwest when I was young," Erik says. "And then Nebraska." Charles stares. "Philadelphia. Pittsburgh. Boston. Pittsburgh again, then Maine, and--"

"Nebraska," Charles repeats. That itch at soul's-home is getting stronger and stronger. When he was young, the few times he felt a direction from the bond, it was due west. Nebraska is right along that line, and it was the first place bond intuition sent him. He was drawn here tonight... it might have been intuition that led him aboard the ferry as well. "This may sound a bit mad, but have you been to Vienna recently?"

"Yes. And Geneva," Erik answers immediately.


"And... Toronto...?"

"Argentina. Florida." Charles can't look away, he can scarcely blink. "And then here again."

What is he thinking? It's impossible. Charles was in Shaw's mind, he sensed Shaw's fixation, his dead certainty that Erik is his bondmate, entirely his.

He also sensed Shaw's conviction that he had every right to throw Erik from the yacht, to assault the pilot and take the wheel. The man is sick. He could be wrong about this, as well.

"We're docked," the EMT interrupts again, looking from one to the other, probably baffled by what must look like some sort of intense confrontation. "There are ambulances waiting."

"Plural?" Charles frowns, realizing a moment later that there must be one for the pilot of the yacht as well.

"One for each of you," she says. "It's a liability thing."

He wants to protest, but doms from ferry security join them, harrying them along, and they look askance at Charles as he pushes past trying to get near Erik, as Erik does the same, as they reach for each others' hands. They both jump simultaneously as that burning sting flares up again the moment they touch.

Charles nearly trips over his feet, attention riveted on Erik. He ought to be sure. If Erik-- somehow, impossibly-- is the man he's been looking for all this time, Charles should know. They shouldn't have to ask, they should have known each other on sight. He should be able to feel Erik, twined into his soul, his other half. It could be a coincidence, somehow, a series of so many coincidences, all leading to this one night.

It could be a trick, the way it was with that fraud Remy a few years ago. It wouldn't have been hard to track Charles's movements over the past few years. It wouldn't have been hard to spot Charles's type, and bring in a man who qualified.

He feels guilty even as he thinks it. Erik was thrown off a boat, and he's bruised all over.

Erik is a mutant, and Charles doesn't know the full extent of his mutation. Maybe in addition to telekinesis, he morphs gills in the water, like Armando does... someone who repels telepathy would be an ideal accomplice for a con along these lines...

The EMT and security officers are hustling the two of them off the ferry now, through a crowd of people with mobile phones and onto a dock lined with news cameras, reporters yelling too many questions to be heard. Two separate ambulances wait for them, and as Erik's pulled toward one and Charles to another, Erik shouts something out to him. Something Charles can't quite make out, nearly lost in the bedlam.

"--eleven years," Erik calls. "Eleven years tonight, was that when--"

Charles halts, staring.

"Two in the afternoon," Erik shouts. "Park View, Nebraska. April 22nd, 2000. Erik Shaw."

April 22nd. It was on the internet once, when Charles tried one of those find-your-lost-bondmate websites. He hasn't made a secret of it. People might know. They might know that.

But two in the afternoon. That's a detail Charles hasn't shared with anyone. Ever since that imposter tried to pose as his bondmate, he's tried to keep at least that detail to himself. Two in the afternoon in Nebraska... one hour's difference between time zones. Three in the afternoon in Cambridge.

"Wait," Charles shouts, but it's too late; they've got Erik in the ambulance, they're pulling away.

"You okay?" asks the paramedic next to Charles. Charles stares at him blankly for a moment before nodding and letting himself be helped into an ambulance as well.

"Tell the other ambulance-- we both need to go to Kirby Memorial in Greenwich Village, please," Charles says, once the doors are closed.

"Okay." The paramedic passes the message along, and Charles puts his fingers to his temple, reaching out for Erik's mind. It stings him again and again, no way to tell if he's getting through.

He tries to send reassurance; he tries to send his own determination. Erik Shaw. He falters, thinking about that. Shaw...

His head's pounding incessantly now, but he keeps trying. «Erik. I'm here. I'm here.»

Chapter Text

When one of the paramedics says something to Erik, it startles him out of sending his thoughts to Charles. He's been trying over and over again, even with no way of knowing whether or not Charles can hear him. He never has before, it seems. But Erik heard Charles tonight; Erik heard words, buzzing with pain and fear, but words all the same.

Calm your mind... Erik...

"I'm sorry... what...?"

Looking Erik over again, the scratches around his mouth in particular, the paramedic says, "I'd like to strongly recommend you get an SOEC exam when we get to the hospital."

Erik looks blankly up at him, and the paramedic clarifies, "A rape kit."

There's no way he can keep from flinching. All these years and he's never let himself call it that. It never would have occurred to him that he'd qualify for that...

"He's just going to say I asked for it," he says.

"You don't have to press charges to have the exam done. But if you decide, down the line, that you want to bring this to court... it can help a lot to have the evidence in hand, ready to go."

"I fell into the water," Erik says. "Is there anything left to find?"

"You'd be amazed how much can still be left. They can do these exams up to 72 hours later-- we've had people come in two weeks later and still have evidence left. It's better if you haven't showered, or--" The awkward look on the paramedic's face stops him for a moment, but he goes on, "--or anything like that, but they cover a lot of things. Things you may not have thought about. There's always a chance they can collect hard evidence."

"Does it matter that--" Erik takes a breath. "Does it matter that we're recognized?"

"It doesn't matter who he is," the paramedic says, and somehow hearing it put like that-- it doesn't matter who he is-- draws up all of Erik's strength, frustration, outrage.

"I'd like the examination," he says firmly. "Could you let them know?"

"Yes, sir."

Erik closes his eyes. Charles is in another ambulance, another one just like this... he seemed all right, not injured, he's fine, he's alive, he's fine...

He's alive, and he's out there, and soon Erik's going to get to be with him. Maybe the hospital trip and the exam are all just as well. He knows he isn't dreaming. If he were dreaming of their reunion, he wouldn't have dreamt of this.

Charles asked for Kirby Memorial in Greenwich Village for one primary reason: it's the most mutant-friendly hospital in Manhattan. It makes for a longer ambulance ride than he would have wanted, especially now that he knows who Erik is.

Two in the afternoon. Park View, Nebraska. April 22nd, 2000. Erik Shaw!

Erik Shaw. Erik Shaw... he won't let himself believe that all those years ago, Erik left him for that man, Sebastian Shaw, that would-be murderer, sociopath, that-- monster. Even now, remembering the way Shaw's mind felt, Charles's stomach threatens to turn over. It was worse than dealing with someone violent or crazed; he's not new to his abilities, he's had more than two decades to feel the darkness in people's minds. Something about Shaw's mind in particular was hideous, sinister...

He pulls himself forcibly away from that line of thought and presses his fingers to his temple again, for all the good it's done so far. «Erik. I'm here. Can you feel me? Can you hear me?»

The buzz he feels from attempting to reach Erik's mind is like an old-fashioned amplifier, turned up to ten and left to sit with nothing plugged into it. As they round the corner, that buzz flares into a shriek like audio feedback, reminding him of too many banquets where they haven't tested the sound equipment before someone stands up to give a speech. Charles never had to wince away from those to this degree, though.

The one mind he wants to touch more than any other, and all he can hear is a buzz, a high-pitched sound... feeling... that sets his teeth on edge. He drops his hand from his temple and sighs.

"Is it much longer?" he asks.

"You know traffic," the paramedic tells him. "Hang in there. You're both stable, it's going to be fine." He nods at Charles. "Heard you did some late-night swimming. Brave thing to do."

"I don't think so," Charles says. He can look back on it more objectively now-- or almost, anyway. The way he couldn't wait on anything or anyone. The sensation that he had to help now, himself, no matter the cost.

He'd like to think that he would've done the same for anyone in danger, but he can't swear to it. And he's sure most people would write off his reckless dive to intuition, the irresistible call of the bond. Still, after the frustration and exhaustion and the mental and emotional upheaval of the night, he can't help but wonder: Will that do? Have I proven I deserve to be let back into your life now?

It's awful, he can't let himself think that way. He saw what happened to Erik on that boat, with Shaw; Charles looked inside Shaw's mind. He hopes Shaw had nothing to do with whatever caused Erik to block him eleven years ago, that Shaw was delusional in thinking Erik was his bondmate. He was certainly delusional about Erik's feelings for him; even Charles, who can't instinctively read body language, could see the disgust and hate Erik bore that man in his face, his posture and his voice. He hopes that for all Erik's seeming familiarity with Shaw, this was the first time, the only time, they've ever been together.

He knows that's not true, though. He knows those hopes are almost certainly misplaced, but he doesn't know what is true. He's going to have to wait until they get to the hospital before he has answers, maybe even until after they've both seen doctors and been through their exams.

Two in the afternoon. Park View, Nebraska. April 22nd, 2000. Erik Shaw!

Erik told Charles his name. At the end he was yelling things as quickly as he could, getting it across before the ambulance doors closed on him, separated them. Charles knows Erik's name now. He won't lose him.

Not again.

Erik doesn't know why the ambulance took so long getting here, but the minutes seem to be dragging on and on. He's taken to a private exam room, and when the doctor comes in and introduces himself, Erik nods quietly, wanting this to be over.

"I'm Elias Wirtham. I'm a sexual assault nurse examiner. I'm sorry for what happened to you," he says. "I'd like to start by explaining what this is going to entail, if that's all right."

When Erik agrees, Wirtham explains everything he needs to do, lays it out carefully and calmly. Erik nods at him, though the information is almost too much to take in. The overview of the examination, the fact that Erik doesn't need to decide immediately whether to press charges, the reasons why they'll have to ask him questions, touch him, comb through his body hair, take a number of samples, photograph his bruises, his injuries, everything...

Wirtham's honest about how long this is going to take, too: three or four hours. But those three or four hours can make a huge difference in a criminal trial. And having someone looking at him, believing him after all these years, standing on the side of justice no matter how flawed the system might be...

More cynically, he considers that he's already lost one battle. He's sure that somewhere during the course of Sebastian's arrest, Erik's violated the gag order that Sebastian instituted as a condition of covering medical care for Erik's foster parents. The Stones are in a nursing home; they call it "assisted living," but he's seen them there, there's nothing merely assisted about it. They need constant care.

Erik tapped into the trust fund Sebastian kept for him to search for his soulmate, but there's enough left that if he scrapes together his own savings... he still won't be able to cover more than a year or two of the Stones' bills. He has a small income from the jewelry store he owns in Mill Point, but after paying toward the loan, the overhead, the employees, and the manager he hired to run it for him, it's not enough for him to live on even at his most frugal. He has no idea what he's going to do about any of that... he can't think about it now. He'll find a way to keep the Stones in treatment, no matter what it takes. This is the best chance he's ever had to make Sebastian pay for what he's done.

It's the circle-M pin on Wirtham's lapel that finally tips Erik over. That pin... Charles... you're not alone. Someone's finally on his side. Maybe this won't end up going to trial, maybe he won't be able to prove in court all the wrongs that have been done to him. But he needs that chance, the possibility that this will finally add up to stopping Sebastian from hurting him-- from hurting anyone, ever again. He can take a stand for himself, now. He can do this.

"Do you have a friend we can call for you?"

Erik leaps on it. "There was another man brought in with me. Charles Xavier. If you could find out if he's still here, if you could just ask him to wait--" Even as he says it, he feels a pang of fear running through him. Three or four hours. They barely know each other, Charles doesn't owe him anything. Charles could leave.

Wirtham sees that hesitation and tries to offer a little bit of comfort. "I'm sure he'll wait."

"We just found each other," Erik says. "Just tonight. He might not have understood..."

"Oh, that's rough. Let me send someone out-- Donna?" He slips out from behind the curtained-off portion of the exam room, getting someone's attention. "Could you go out to the waiting room, find a Charles Xavier if you can-- what's he wearing?" he asks Erik.

"A mostly blue plaid shirt and track pants..." Erik's stomach knots. "But he had to borrow clothes, he might have changed. He has brown hair and blue eyes and a pale complexion with freckles..."

"Got that?" asks Wirtham. "Okay. Tell him Erik's here, and he's okay, but this is going to take a while." Wirtham turns to Erik. "Unless you'd like him to be in here with you?"

Erik shakes his head. It takes him a few tries to explain, "I'm-- I can't-- I barely know him," and damn Sebastian, it's his fault. "I'm not ready for that."

"Okay. Understood. If you change your mind, let me know, and if you'd like a crisis advocate, we can put this on hold and arrange to have one come here for you."

"Thank you," Erik says, but he shakes his head. "I... no... but thank you."

When Donna comes back and passes word along-- "Mr. Xavier's still there, he says he'll wait"-- Erik breathes a little easier. "Thanks."

"It's going to be fine. You'll see." Wirtham sobers quickly, though. "Are you ready for this?"

"I'm not going to get more ready by waiting," Erik admits. "Let's get started."

Charles gets a cursory exam at the hospital, and a message from Erik that he's okay but undergoing a lengthy exam-- Charles feels a wash of guilt for it, but he has to read the messenger, Donna-- he has to see her memory of Erik, looking much the same as he did on the ferry, before he can relax even slightly. The doctor gives him a couple of Psilavon and warns him against the sort of psychic exertion that caused the nosebleed. Charles nods at all the right places and takes the pills, and he's handed off to a police officer to give a statement about what he witnessed.

"There's no chance Shaw would be released on bail, is there?" Charles asks.

"From the Raft?" the officer shakes his head. "I doubt it." He eyes the circle-M pin Charles wears and adds more formally, "It would be very unusual, considering he's in for resisting arrest, and he's a flight risk."

When they've exhausted the details of Charles's account of the evening, Officer Lang twirls his pencil and asks, "So what is it you do?"

"I teach at Elion College."

"Yeah?" Lang asks idly, "What do you teach?"


"Sex ed? They teach that at college?"

Charles puts on an agreeable smile. "Concordance Theory and Methodology."

"So like… technique," Lang mulls. "Canes and singletail, that kind of thing?"

It always amazes Charles that so many people think technique is just about learning how to swing a cane or flick a whip, but he's a little too anxious and weary right now to go into it, opting instead for, "That's part of the methodology bit, yes."

"Huh! Nice work if you can get it. How do you get into that line?"

"There's a ten-week course to get certified to teach," Charles answers.

"That's it? Heyyyyy," says Lang.

"And I have a Master's in Concordance," adds Charles, managing a quick grin. "Sorry."

"Figures," Lang says, and, "Hey. Wrapped up?" as his partner arrives.

"Short interview, yeah." This one has a nametag reading 'Brayton'. "He'll come to the station in a couple days to give a full interview. Looks like all that sensitivity training," he delivers that in a mincing tone, "came in handy." There's more in his mind, but he spots the mutant symbol on Charles's lapel and leaves it at that.

Charles narrows his eyes. "Is there anything else I can help you with, gentlemen?"

Brayton glances at him and then away in annoyance; Lang steps in with, "No, you can go. You'll get a call if you need to testify."


"It might not go to trial. He'll probably plead it down."

"But Erik can still bring a civil suit after that, yes?"

Lang nods. His partner frowns at Charles. "You two never met before tonight?"


"Pretty quick to get on a first name basis."

"It seems needlessly confusing to call him Mr. Shaw," Charles says, not even trying to keep the ice out of his tone.

"Huh." Brayton shrugs, and nudges Lang. "Let's move out."

Charles checks his mobile for the time. The exam and the statement ate up nearly an hour and a half, but Donna told him it would likely be at least three hours before Erik's exam ended. He has a message from Jean, as well: [Suspect in custody. Thanks again for your help.]

"Excuse me," Charles asks an administrator when the reception desk isn't busy. "I'm waiting for someone. Can I leave a message for him? Erik Shaw."

"If he comes to the desk we can give it to him, but we can't have someone running after him to deliver it," she says briskly. "It's Friday night, it's hopping."

"That's fine, thank you," he says, accepting a small square of notepaper and a pen. "Could you also tell me how to find the nearest hotel? They told me he'd be occupied for a while yet and I'd like to clean up a bit."

"Are you family?"

Charles doesn't know how to answer that. It must show on his face. The administrator offers a harried smile. "We have guest facilities here for family members, with showers you can use."

"He's my bondmate," Charles says, his throat tight. He almost expects suspicion, a demand for proof that he wouldn't be able to provide, but she just gives him directions: to the gift shop and adjoining pharmacy and convenience store, as well as to the nearest 'family resource center', a little area where he finds the promised shower stalls as well as lockers for belongings. There are metal baskets with individually wrapped single-use soaps and tiny bottles of shampoo-conditioner. He should go to the shop first, pick up something better-- the last year of traveling and shopping on the run has taught him that those combination products do a number on his hair--

He sinks down into the nearby chair, torn between hysterical laughter and equally unhinged tears. What on earth difference is the state of his hair going to make? Erik is him. That's him. The person who knew everything Charles felt, day in and day out, for five years. The person who's been leading him around the world for the past ten months... unwittingly, from the look on his face when they put it together.

He's imagined this so many ways, over the past eleven years, but he never imagined this: knowing who his bondmate is, at last, and still having to wait. It's enough time to collect his thoughts and assemble something to say from the thousands of times Charles has rehearsed this meeting.

More than enough time to realize how empty it all is, every word he ever imagined saying. I missed you every day. I still miss you. Please let me try to fix this. Come back to me. How paltry is that, I missed you every day, it doesn't convey anything of what the last eleven years have been like, it doesn't touch the magnitude of the loss or the nearly-unbelievable joy of seeing Erik, knowing at last for certain that he's alive.

There simply aren't words. When Charles thinks of saying any of it now, the words don't just seem inadequate, they seem meaningless, strings of jumbled syllables. He needs to be able to share how he feels with Erik, but the bond isn't connecting them properly and it hurts to touch minds and he's seen before how bad an idea it is to reach out that way, anyway.

He pulls a deep breath, wipes his face and goes to the gift shop to buy better shampoo, a comb, a white t-shirt that ought to fit him a bit better than the borrowed plaid button-up that's hanging off him. If nothing else it's something to help pass the time.

Back in the guest facilities, Charles scrubs the bay off his skin and dresses again, stands before the mirror and combs his hair. He's not sure what to do with the plaid shirt now; he wishes he'd thought to ask who donated the clothes, he'd like to return them or replace them, thank the people kind enough to give their spare clothes to total strangers.

There's nothing he can do about the lines under his eyes, or the t-shirt being a bit too long, or the track pants slightly too large in every dimension. His tailored coat covers a multitude of sins, he can just keep that on...

Charles rests his brow against the glass. He's always wanted to ask his bondmate why he blocked their connection. Perhaps it's because Charles is the sort of person who fusses over his looks while his bondmate is undergoing an examination after a physical assault. What the bloody hell does he think he's doing, he should be coming up with some way to help Erik-- he could ask Scott for legal advice. He fetches out his mobile and fires off a text.

The last thing Erik needs to deal with right now is problems and expectations. It's too easy to believe that all these years of waiting entitle him to answers, but if this isn't the time...

Erik might come out and say: Obviously after this terrible day I can't deal with you now, give me your address and I'll send you a letter about what happened. It was good to meet you. Goodbye.

No, Erik was calling to him as they went to the ambulances. He wants Charles to know who he is, he wants Charles to find him. Whatever happened between them before, things have changed.

Nothing about the exam is easy. Erik used to imagine retribution against Sebastian, the pipe dream that he could see Sebastian arrested and press charges against him, but the actual procedure of collecting evidence is slow and nervewracking.

Wirtham is careful, gentle, completely professional; he makes everything a request and not an order, and that helps. But with every piece of evidence, every sample, every swab, it brings Sebastian's words back to Erik-- how could it not? What makes you think any other dom would want you? You've got my collar on you, my marks. You're mine.

"We can take a minute," Wirtham says quietly.

"No, I--" Erik takes a breath. "I just want this over with and--"

«Are you out there,» he tries to send, «please be out there, I'm so sorry, I'm sorry--»

He doesn't feel anything in return-- not the painful buzz he felt under the water, when Charles's thoughts touched his, nothing.

"Do you think he's still waiting?"


Erik needs another breath; he doesn't want to break down in here, he doesn't want to spend time on tears, pain, vulnerability. He doesn't want to, but he doesn't know if he can avoid it. It's so fucking unfair that he should feel this way. Sebastian's had far too much of that from him over the years, and he had no right.

"Let's keep going," he says, and Wirtham nods, helping him through the next step, and the next.

When Erik finally walks into the waiting room, Charles can't look anywhere else. The hours spent waiting fall away immediately; it's as if they were just getting into those ambulances, just parted a few minutes ago instead of four hours ago.

Four hours and eleven years. And Erik still seems so familiar to him. He's clean and dry, in a spare set of hospital scrubs. The collar still gleams on his neck-- Charles tries to avoid looking at that.

Erik appears even more pale than he did before, unsteady on his feet, his bruises and scrapes clear and obvious-- anyone looking at him can see them now, under the unforgiving glare of the fluorescent lights.

It makes Charles long for a blanket, something to wrap Erik in, something to keep all those other eyes off him. But the instant Erik sees Charles, he's heading over, all that hesitance pushed aside in the urge to get to him.

Charles feels the pull every bit as strongly, rushing to meet Erik halfway. His hands fly up to his face, his hair, he combs his fingers through the strands as if it could possibly make a difference now, but then Erik's standing in front of him, reaching out a hand to him, and Charles clasps it instantly.

And just as instantly, draws back, the way Erik does, both of them wincing and looking down at their hands. "Static again?" Erik asks. He sounds tired. He sounds so tired.

"I don't know why..." But Charles looks up at Erik, everything else falling by the wayside. "Eleven years ago," he bursts out, unable to help himself.

"Eleven years. It was you." Erik reaches out again, but he stops before he can make contact with Charles's upper arm. Instead he lets his hand drop to his side, and he swallows, his eyes roaming all over Charles. "God. You're alive." His voice shakes. "You really are alive..."

It doesn't fit into any of the ideas Charles had about why his bondmate blocked him, why Erik might have renounced him. Somehow, seeing Erik face-to-face-- seeing the wild-eyed expression on Erik's face, the way he keeps reaching out to Charles as if he's yearning for more-- hurts even more than he thought it would. It's not abstract any longer, there's no hiding from it. This man renounced him. Erik renounced him.

But Erik's here, and he sounds so grateful that Charles is... alive? "Did you think I was ill? Is that why?"

"Why I didn't come after you before? I looked. I swear, I looked for you, everywhere he left people--" Erik leans back, staring again. His voice is very soft when he asks, "Are you all right?"

Under the circumstances, Charles nearly feels embarrassed to be asked. "I'm fine. You're the one-- I saw the fight, I was afraid for you. Are you hurt?"

"I'm..." Erik glances back over his shoulder, to the door he just came out of. "They say I'll be fine. A few days of rest while the bruises heal. Nothing lasting." His face twists. "Nothing beyond what he already did to us."

That just leaves Charles with more questions-- but now, remembering what Erik said moments ago, one question stands out above the rest. "You... looked for me?"

"When we were separated," Erik says, voice rough, "and again this past year, as soon as I found out you might be alive."

He almost can't believe it, but why would Erik renounce him and then lie about it later? It's true-- Erik looked for him. Erik's been looking for him this whole year...

"Have you been to Vienna recently?" "Yes. And Geneva." "Paris..." "And... Toronto...?" "Argentina. Florida."

They've been passing like-- oh, God, he thinks of the trite phrase before he can stop himself, like ships in the night, only now they've finally found each other. Finally. Charles blinks back tears, looking away from Erik for just a moment, long enough to take in the emergency room waiting area, with all these people... "Would you tell me what happened? Could we go somewhere to talk?"

"I need to go back to my hotel-- and shower-- and dress in something that belongs to me," Erik says. He looks at Charles with haunted eyes, with eyebrows drawn together in what might be worry, or... Charles can't say what else that might be. "Will you come with me?"

As if there could be anywhere else Charles might possibly want to go. He nods, and he doesn't waste any more of the hospital staff's time; he touches his fingers to his temple, reaching out for... "The cab stand's this way," he nods toward the east doors.

Erik's eyes light up, all the worry leaving his face, and he begins to reach out for Charles once again before hesitating and stepping back. "Come on," he says instead, and the two of them head for the door. Together, after all these years. Together.

Getting a cab passes in a blur, Erik telling the cab driver his hotel, the slow ride through city streets. Charles doesn't even realize he left his arm along the back of the seat, behind Erik, until a turn dislodges it and he brushes Erik's neck. The sensation is just like what he felt when he grabbed Erik underwater, a surface sting that quickly becomes a furious itching burn, sinking in and lingering as Charles quickly moves away.

Erik trades glances with him and rubs his neck where they touched, sidling closer to the window. But a few blocks later he's sliding back toward the middle of the back seat, and Charles finds he's done the same, angling his legs in Erik's direction, orienting toward him.

He resorts to crossing his arms to keep his hands to himself-- and then Erik brushes his knee and they both jump a little as that sting hits again.

"I don't know why..." Erik looks up at him, and Charles feels his breath catching in his throat. "I can't believe it's you."

"I don't know what to say now," Charles admits, voice pitched low. He tries to keep to his side of the cab, but he keeps moving toward Erik without even meaning to.

"Anything. Say anything. Just..." Erik shakes his head, caught up staring for several seconds. "You're alive."

"I never imagined you'd..." I never imagined you'd be worried about me, Charles thinks, but thankfully he has the presence of mind not to say it. "I thought you knew what happened."

There's a hint of bitterness in Erik's voice when he says, "I did. I did know."

"Were you ill, were you hurt...?" Charles catches himself, looking at the cab driver. "I'm sorry, we don't have to do this now, here, we--"

"When we get to the hotel," Erik says quietly. "I wasn't hurt. There was nothing wrong with me." His voice tightens. "There was nothing wrong with us."

A few more blocks pass, and Charles manages to keep quiet, but with Erik sitting there, looking shaken, looking angry, he can't keep to his resolution to wait. "Did I do something...?"

Erik's eyes go wide as he looks at Charles again. "No. God, no. You were everything, I--"

His voice breaks, and he stops, taking deep slow breaths. Charles has to reach for him-- but once again, that maddening sting stops him. "I'm sorry," he gets out, looking from his hands to Erik's-- Erik's hands-- it seems impossible that he should be so drawn to every part of Erik like this, down to his long hands and his slender elegant fingers, but he wants nothing more than to feel those hands cupped around his face, to kiss the pads of Erik's fingers.

One possible answer occurs to him, so he asks, "Does your mutation repel telepathy?"

"It never used to," Erik says, looking down at his hand, turning it so that he has his palm upward, the back of his hand resting on his thigh. Charles catches his breath, seeing that-- the possessive urge that wells up in him, the desire to see Erik like that but on his knees... he can't be proud of those feelings, not now, not after everything he's seen tonight, not after the way Erik said I'm not a sub. Erik doesn't belong to him now, if he ever did. That silver collar around his neck... every time Charles looks at it, he wants it gone so badly.

It never used to...

It's on the tip of Charles's tongue to ask what Erik means by that, but Erik goes on, "I don't know what's happening. I don't know why it hurts when..." He shakes his hand out, flexing his fingers. "I don't know. Maybe it's something else he did to me. Maybe that's why I can't..." He finally looks up at Charles again. "I can't feel you."

Charles's chest feels tight, but it's better, somehow, to know that it isn't only him. "I'm afraid I can't either," he tells Erik. "But there must be something. I've been traveling the past year, I had intuition for the first time since I was a teenager."

Erik startles into a laugh, nearly. "God. All this time I thought I was tracking you, and you were right there, behind me..."

"How were you tracking me?" He tries not to let those words sound confrontational, he isn't asking for proof-- but Erik was tracking him?

"I went everywhere he left people," Erik says. "I looked through records, I visited facilities... I thought I'd found everyone, but I couldn't find you."

"Left people...?" It's so hard to understand all this, there aren't enough pieces for him to put them together in a cohesive whole. They need to be alone, they need time to tell each other everything... it's taking longer than it has to, getting to the hotel. Charles touches his temple, sensing the rush of minds filling the streets, and leans forward to the driver. "Could you take a right up here, onto 23rd? There's less traffic." Turning back to Erik, he says, "I wouldn't usually be quite this cavalier with it, but..." There's really no excuse; he opens his hands helplessly.

"You don't have to apologize for that," Erik says. Charles's heart leaps into his throat. "You don't ever have to apologize for that," and God, Erik's voice is breaking, and the sound pulls at Charles, tugs at him nearly as deeply as the words. "Telepathy. I knew it. I knew it. I was right."

"You knew?" And there, too, is another piece of the puzzle, misshapen, out of place... all these years Charles wondered if his telepathy pushed his bondmate, pushed Erik away. But Erik knew...? "Could you hear me? I used to send thoughts to you all the time."

Voice roughened, Erik says, "I could never make out the words. I knew you were talking to me... I could hear your voice. But it was-- I always used to say, it was like being underwater..." He covers his mouth, rubs at his face, at the scratches to either side of his lips.

Every small motion Erik makes is fascinating to him; every time his expression changes or his hands move, Charles is drawn, riveted, unable to look anywhere else. It never occurred to him before that he could be so caught up in the tiniest of details: Erik's fingernails, kept neat, trimmed very short; his brow, lined already even though he otherwise looks to be close to Charles's age, even though Charles vividly remembers the feeling that they were growing up together.

Even after the wreck of this night, he's almost unfathomably good-looking, a chiseled face, planed cheekbones, his angled jaw dark with stubble. His eyes are a changeable shade of blue-green that's always made Charles look twice. Auburn hair, the same. His thin frame, filled out with muscle, and the way he holds himself, shoulders just a little tense and guarded... it makes Charles want to reach out to him, soothe that stress away.

Charles shakes himself. Erik is a striking man, there's nothing strange about feeling drawn to him, though it's terribly insensitive to look at him this way after the night Erik has had. The fact that he's Charles's bondmate shouldn't have any bearing on it; Charles should be able to stay objective at least long enough to talk to the man, for pity's sake. He still doesn't know what parted them, what caused Erik to break with him.

But all those things people say about bondmates... the urge to hold, love, claim... the sense that this person is so far and above anyone else Charles has ever seen... it's almost galling that all those things are true. They've been estranged for more than twice as long as they were together. It should be impossible to pick up where they left off eleven years ago, but Charles's heart aches with the desire to do just that.

As soon as he has answers. Erik's ironic comment about Charles's telepathy feeling as though it came from under water... "Are you precognitive at all?"

That might account for the length of their separation... Irene held Raven at arm's length for years and years, knowing when the time was truly going to be right. But if Charles and Erik had been together all this time, Erik would never have been on that boat with Shaw in the first place...

Mentioning precognition makes Erik's face go dark, and he turns away, looking out the car's window for several seconds before answering, "No. No, I'm not. It's just metal."

He reaches up to that collar again, slips his fingers underneath it and pulls. Charles feels lit all over with urgency, break, snap, now, please-- but when the collar fails to budge, Erik grimaces, shaking his head. "It isn't what it used to be." He meets Charles's eyes, and Charles holds his breath. "What it was before."

"What was it before? What is it now?" The words rush out of him; he remembers the windcatcher, the way it flew to Erik's hand. "Metallokinesis?" And remembering the way Erik seemed to be looking for it under the water, "An extranormal sense for it?"

The questions seem to settle Erik a bit. He runs his fingertip over the chain of his windcatcher, and it straightens, the tangles smoothing out. Erik breathes a little more easily. "Both," he answers softly. "More the sense than the shaping, nowadays. I can feel composition, weight, shape, size... even at a distance, usually, but more if I'm touching it. On a good day, I can move it. Shape it. It's been stronger this year..." Erik stops, suddenly, staring at Charles. "More reliable, since I've been traveling. Until tonight, when I was with Sebastian..."

Charles reaches out-- again and again, they've tried, and this is no different from the last time, and the time before that. It hurts, a searing itch that starts under the skin, leaving them unable to stay in contact for more than a brief instant. "I'm so sorry."

"Don't," Erik snaps. Charles draws back immediately, folding his hands into his lap. "If one more person says ey's sorry for what happened to me tonight I--" He cuts himself off, teeth clicking together with an audible snap, and Charles can see his jaw tightening, his nostrils flaring slightly with the force of his emotions. "I don't want pity," he says quietly. "Not from you."

"I don't--" Charles struggles for words, in the face of that. "That isn't why I'm here."

When Erik looks at him again, Charles doesn't back down from his gaze. He can imagine that other people might-- the intensity of that gaze is formidable, and Erik looks tense all through, as if ready to snap. But Charles holds his ground.

"I'm not here out of pity, Erik."

It looks as though Erik has something to say in response, but before he can do it, the cab comes to a stop, pulling up at Erik's hotel. Charles exhales softly, digging into his coat pocket for his wallet; Erik glances over and sighs. "Thank you," he murmurs, climbing out of the cab as Charles pays the driver. He holds onto the door as Charles climbs out, too, and with a wave of his hand-- no contact, just the motion-- the door swings shut.

The reflexive grin Charles levels at Erik after that stuns them both a bit; Erik responds with a grin of his own, broad and bright and spilling over with emotion. Charles opens just enough to feel that mood, to be certain-- and it hurts, getting Erik's mood, but it's worth it. Charles feels a hint of attraction and desire, and heartwrenching fondness, before he has to shield again. Erik steps a little closer; Charles tilts his face up. It could be so easy, so natural-- a kiss between bondmates, here, now, eleven years late but so urgently wanted...

Erik straightens, shaking his head as if to clear it. Charles swallows down his disappointment, but his face feels hot, his stomach feels knotted. "I'm sorry," he says, and has to stifle the urge to apologize for apologizing. For all he knows, that sounds like pity, too.

"I need that shower first," Erik says, brows drawn together, drawn up, an expression that usually signifies... Charles has to think about it. Apology? Pleading? "Come upstairs with me?"

He holds out his hand, and Charles almost takes it-- the feedback between them warns him off at the last moment, just before they actually make contact. He leaves his hand there, hovering above Erik's, for as long as they can bear it, before even that becomes too much.

"Of course."

Chapter Text

Returning to the Standard is surreal; Erik is hyperaware that he left here just this morning. Not even twenty-four hours ago, and since then, so much has changed. The folded steel tables just outside the hotel stand out for him more than ever, beckoning his attention. If he were alone, he'd be drawn that direction.

But he's not. He's not alone.

He nearly manages to trip on nothing, he's so fixed on Charles, so completely absorbed in watching him as they push through the revolving yellow door and go inside. Charles stayed focused on him in the cab, just as rapt, and he's glancing toward Erik every few seconds now, his gaze quickly sweeping over the lobby and landing on Erik again and again.

And every time Charles looks at him, Erik feels it all over again, the same complicated mix of emotions washing over him. Relief, anticipation, wonder, need... it's too much, his hands are shaking with it.

Erik spent the past year bracing himself to find his soulmate in an institution somewhere. He was prepared to take on the responsibility of caring for him. He steeled himself for the worst, dreading he might find his soulmate staring into space and mouthing every word in unison with Erik, if he was capable of speaking at all.

"You must've lost your keycard in all that," Charles murmurs to him, concern putting a little crinkle in his brow. His soulmate. Not wasting away in "assisted living" somewhere, not damaged the way Sebastian claimed, that bastard. Not dead, the way Sebastian told him when he lied about it the first time.

He's alive, he's fine... he's beautiful. Erik's been attracted to men who resemble Charles for years, and yet he's never seen anyone like him.

He's shorter than Erik, exactly the right height to tuck under Erik's arm, if only they could get that close, the perfect height to let Erik bury his nose in his thick, wavy brown hair. He looks young; Erik was startled at first when the police officer who interviewed him referred to Dr. Xavier.

Closer, now, he can see that Charles could be near his own age. Charles has the sort of boyish face that wears the years well, with a rounded brow and a forthright nose dotted with freckles, and a mouth so red and perfect that it almost looks painted on. His fair complexion has a healthy flush, his blue eyes bright and alert, lingering on Erik, glancing around them. As they pass near the lattice wall, Charles reaches out and touches it absently, and when they walk by an unoccupied chair he lets his hand drift over the leather upholstery. Erik wants those hands on him so fiercely that he nearly forgets why Charles is looking at him with raised eyebrows.

"I didn't take a keycard with me," Erik answers belatedly. "I didn't want him to know where I was staying. I can work a lock with my ability."

"Even an electronic one?" Charles asks, eyebrows raised. "The circuitry doesn't make that more difficult?"

"It would, if that were all I had to work with." He can't help thinking of his mother's ability; she would have loved the move from traditional pin-and-tumbler locks, which she worked so effortlessly, to something like a modern hotel lock with all its complicated gadgetry. "But I don't use the circuitry. The handle on the inside is metal; I just pull on that."

Charles nods a little and licks his lips. He kept doing that in the cab, too, as if Erik weren't maddened enough just by being near him.

"It's this way," Erik says unnecessarily, as they head for the elevator. Being so close to Charles in the backseat of the cab was hard; standing next to him in a metal box has him sweating. It doesn't help that Charles crowds so close to him, cleaving toward him til their hands brush painfully and they startle back from each other again.

"Sorry," Charles says, looking at his hands, at Erik's. "What could be causing that?"

"I don't know," says Erik. "Something about Sebastian's ability...? Or--" But he doesn't want to delve into the bond and what Sebastian did to them, not here in this trendy hotel elevator with its inlaid LCDs, an obnoxious abstract video flashing in the corner of his eye.

Once they reach his floor, he guides Charles to their-- his-- room-- and, miracle of miracles, the lock pops obediently open for him right away.

The moment the door shuts behind them, Charles meets Erik's eyes and lifts his hand, making certain Erik sees what he's doing, moving slowly enough that Erik could object, as if he would. He lays his hand on Erik's shoulder, on his shirt. It might hurt a little less, but it's not much of an improvement, if any, and Charles flinches back from the burning sensation after a moment.

"I thought maybe," he grimaces, shaking out his hand.

"Don't stop trying. Please-- if we just--" He'd wanted to wait until he'd scraped Sebastian off his skin. He'd thought he could wait. He was wrong. With Charles here, knowing it's only the two of them in this room, feeling so drawn to Charles-- eleven years of waiting, that's long enough, too long already. Erik leans in, leans down, he needs this so much, God, just being this close: it's him, it's him.

Charles comes up to meet him, the speed of his motion speaking of shared urgency-- he must be feeling it too, this pull between them, the need to finally be one. His hand slips up to Erik's joining spot, where Erik's felt nothing but pain for the past eleven years, but somehow it seems completely natural, perfect and right that Charles should be able to hold him there--

But he can't. They barely get a moment of contact before the sting between them makes it too painful to go on, and the throb of pain at soul's-home leaves a bitter taste in the back of Erik's mouth. He catches Charles's hand and draws it away, as gently as he can, but the pain stings there, too, it hurts everywhere they're touching. "I'm sorry," Erik pants. "I'm so sorry, soul's-home hurts..."

Charles lets Erik hold onto his hand for a few seconds, but the burn gets to be too much for them both, and Charles pulls away with a wince. He shakes his hand out, reaches up to touch his mouth-- God, his mouth, Erik was kissing him, for the briefest moment Erik got to kiss him-- "Maybe if we leave hands out of it," Charles tries. He sounds every bit as desperate as Erik feels.

If there's even the slightest chance-- Erik leaves his hands at his sides and just leans forward again, his lips parted, ready for another try. This time, he sends out thoughts, too-- the way he used to, the way he did for years when they could still feel each other. «I missed you so much, can you hear me, can you hear me at all--»

Leaving hands out of it doesn't help shield them against the pain, and Charles doesn't send any response to those thoughts, if he even hears them. The kiss goes deep almost instantly, Charles moaning into Erik's mouth, a warm longing sound passing between them-- from Charles, Erik thinks, but it could be either of them, he's never felt need or desire like this before, never--

He can't hold on. His lips are going numb, the pain sinking in, somehow, a clawing, itching quality to it that makes it unlike any pain he's ever been able to enjoy. He draws back, breathing hard. "Fuck." His hands knot into fists at his sides, his jaw clenches.

"We'll sort this," Charles says, reaching forward and then pulling just as quickly away, a sort of warning buzz building between them before he can even make contact this time. "We'll figure it out."

The rhythm of those words is familiar. The tone, as well. It feels like it did when Erik was sixteen... he remembers the way his soulmate used to send calm to him, comfort and reassurance, steadying against a world full of frustration and injustice.

All these years later, and he's still trying to calm Erik down. Erik sags back against the nearest wall, trying to catch his breath. "I can't touch you," he whispers. "It's been so long, you found me, and I can't touch you."

"But you're here." Charles waits him out, lets Erik meet his eyes. When Erik does, Charles offers the smallest of smiles, and even that sets Erik's heart to racing. It's him. It really is. He's right there. "Maybe when you've told me what happened, once we compare notes, we can suss it out."

"Compare notes," Erik repeats. He's imagined meeting his soulmate so many times in the last year, but he never rehearsed this. How do I tell you what I let him do to us? How do I ask you to forgive me?

Charles's voice is still calm, still soothing. Erik wonders if it might be soothing no matter what he was saying, if he could listen to Charles telling him anything at all and just sink into it. "If we just sit down," Charles says. "You can think it through, we--" His voice breaks, and Erik watches as Charles stares at him, trembling-- equally affected by meeting Erik as Erik is by meeting him. Erik never imagined that, either, or the reassurance and relief in Charles's voice when he says, "We have time."

Eleven years gone, but now they have time. There are a thousand things Erik wants to say, but in the end he can't think of anything but this. "I've loved you for eleven years. I loved you for five years before that."

It makes Charles's jaw drop. For several seconds he can't speak, and Erik freezes, hoping he hasn't made a mistake. When Charles scrapes up words, he gets out a strangled, "Yes, I-- Erik." After another breath, "I've missed you--" his eyes close, and Erik wants, more than anything, to go to him, hold him, and he can't. "I've missed you so much, every day, for so long... I--" He looks up at Erik again, their eyes meeting. "Please tell me."

The adamantium-silver alloy around his neck feels like it's choking him again. Erik reaches up to it, pulls at it with his ability. Please. He's here. Let go of me. Let me go...

"Could I--" Erik takes a breath. He doesn't have to start this by pleading. "I need to take a shower. It's been hours since I've felt--" he grimaces-- "clean."

Charles takes a step back, drawing in a breath. "Of course," he says quietly. "I'm sorry, you said that before-- a shower, clothes--" He looks around the room, and when he spies the window seat in the corner, he nods toward it. "I'll just... be here, then. Yes?"

"Yes." Erik heads for his suitcase, dragging out jeans, a turtleneck-- there, at least he'll have something to cover the collar, if he can't get it off. Gathering them up in his hands, he looks over to the window seat. Charles walks over to it, sits there, offering another little hint of a smile. It seems so far away-- it isn't more than ten feet from Erik, and it still seems impossibly distant.

He's here, though. After a year of searching and all Erik's hopes fading to nothing again and again, his soulmate is here, in his hotel room, waiting for him to come back.

"I'll be fast," Erik says, his voice rough. "I promise-- I won't be gone long."

Charles nods, and Erik walks into the bathroom. After a moment's hesitation, he pulls the door nearly closed, but not enough to latch, let alone to lock. If Charles needs to remind himself that Erik's here, that he's real, Erik doesn't want to rob him of the chance. He's not too sure he won't be doing that himself.

Erik steps out of the shower and dries off, scrubbing with the towel as hard as he did with the bath brush and washcloth. It's like this every year. Half a bottle of body wash-- soap is too slow-- and scouring his skin under the hottest water he can stand, twice over. The steamed-over mirror shows a blurry broiled pink shape in his place.

The next part of his ritual has always been a silent apology to his soulmate. For what happened to them; for going back to the man who tore them apart, no matter how much Erik hated him, no matter how hard he tried to stay away.

He could give that apology to the man himself now. He should. He owes Charles so much more than that. But it's hard to grieve for his lost soulmate when that soulmate is right there, waiting in Erik's hotel suite, if not closer by now.

The collar's still on Erik's neck, for all that he's been pulling and tugging at it, with his ability, with his hands. Being near Charles has sharpened his sense for metal, but that's a double-edged sword, to put it mildly. Erik can feel the collar around his neck, down to the smallest imperfections in each link... and he's more aware of it than ever, the weight of it nearly choking him.

Fuck it. He's spent long enough in here; he wants to be dressed, to be done with this-- he needs to lay eyes on Charles again.

He dresses as quickly as he can, pulling the turtleneck up over the collar, and steps out of the bathroom.

The instant the door opens, Charles gets to his feet again, turning to face Erik. Erik's halfway across the room before he can even register that he's moving. Is that bond intuition? Is that what sent Charles into the water after him? He has so many questions, he knows Charles still has all those questions from before, but here and now, all Erik wants to do is look at him.

Charles's eyebrows go up, and Erik takes a deep breath, sweeping his gaze over Charles from head to foot. He really can't help it. Even in a t-shirt and those borrowed sweatpants, Charles is incredible; his shoulders, his collarbone, his pale speckled forearms. Erik's been struck by his appearance over and over tonight, but now he just blurts out the first thing he's noticing: "You have freckles."

For an instant, Charles breaks into a beautiful smile. Just as quickly he's shaking his head, answering ruefully, "Millions." But it gives him an excuse to step the slightest bit closer and add, "You have some as well. Much more faint."

He looks a little self-conscious as he reaches up to the bridge of his nose, where those two prominent freckles are, but Erik is a little faster, his fingertip glancing over them before the tinge of pain has him drawing his hand back. "I never pictured that detail," Erik admits. "But now that I'm looking at you, of course they're there. Of course you look like this, you're exactly what..."

He trails off, hoping Charles won't ask what he meant to finish with. All he can think of are the clichés: You're exactly what I wanted. You're who I've been looking for all this time. You're the other half of me. You're the part of me that was missing.

"You are..." Charles swallows as he looks Erik up and down-- and Erik's been feeling that gaze all night, but with no one else in the room and nothing to distract them from one another, it's so much more intense. Charles seems to blink himself back to awareness. "I'm sorry, it's just, people always say your own bondmate looks more beautiful to you than anyone... I didn't expect to experience it like this."

"I was so afraid I'd never find you," Erik says. Charles stares at him, and when he reaches out, Erik tries to meet him halfway. The snap of pain when they touch leaves both of them shaking out their hands. Erik looks down at his fingertips, exhaling roughly.

"You were looking for me," Charles says. He flexes and extends his fingers, rubbing his palm against his thigh. He sounds surprised, somehow. "You said you were looking for me."

"I tried. I couldn't feel you." He reaches up to soul's-home. He knows it's Charles, he knows it must be Charles that the damaged end of his bond is reaching out for, but soul's-home still aches, and pressing against it only sends blinding pain through him, enough to have him hissing and dropping his hand to his side. "I still can't. Not the way we used to..."

Looking at Charles makes him stop in his tracks. Charles's lips are parted slightly, his eyes focused on him-- no, his neck-- no, God, Erik just felt up his joining spot right in front of his soulmate, what was he thinking? If things were different, Charles could be grabbing him and ordering him onto his knees for a move like that, and Erik would... Erik would want him to...

"I'm sorry--"

"No, please don't be sorry," Charles tells him, voice hoarse. "I can't... I can't feel you, either." He straightens, his shoulders squaring-- Erik can read the confidence in his posture, and it does nothing to quell Erik's urge to take the floor. He doesn't do that anymore, he can't do that, but if he could... "I started to feel bond intuition nearly a year ago," Charles goes on. "Our bond must be coming back."

"A year ago. Was it just after--" Last year. The helmet. The energy drain. Sebastian, whole and healthy. "The last anniversary?"

Charles nods. "A few weeks after. It seemed as if last year was different." Not quite a question, though his eyebrows lift, troubled.

Erik can't look away from Charles, and even if Charles isn't asking again, Erik knows he can't put this off any longer. He looks around the suite, trying to figure out where-- the bed, the seating area-- he finally settles on the bed, taking a seat at the edge of it. "I think it's time to have that talk."

Sitting next to him, Charles folds one leg under him to face Erik more fully. "You thought I'd died...?"

"I held out hope for a long time. But I was told by everyone I talked to about it that there was no way you could have survived. It wasn't until last year that I finally had any evidence you'd made it through the--" Erik inhales deeply. The moment's come, he can't delay any longer, but he still has no idea how to talk about this. "The separation."

"Last year," Charles begins, but he shakes his head, peering at Erik with such intense concentration it's almost unnerving. "No, I should let you start where you need to begin."

All the metal in the room seems to stand out in sharp relief for him; Erik hasn't felt anything like it in years, not since he was a teenager. The bedsprings, the rails in the drawers, the wiring, the plumbing in the next room... he feels it all, and if he were even slightly stronger, it would probably all be shivering with him, shuddering in time with his trembling hands. He clenches both fists and closes his eyes, forcing himself to look at Charles again. "I don't know. You tell me. Tell me where you need me to start."

Charles opens his hands. "April 22nd, 2000."

"When I was seventeen," Erik begins at last, "my foster parents took me to a 'bond specialist'. I was... scaring them." He shakes his head quickly, his mouth twisting. Frustration, maybe, or impatience. Charles has seen that look on any number of mutants when they've spoken about their experiences dealing with humans in authority. For an instant it reminds him of Alex, of Angel, of Raven, but just as quickly the connection dissipates. This is Erik, his bondmate, sitting in front of him. He's not like anyone else. "They didn't know how to deal with raising a mutant. They thought I was having trouble with my bond."

"Why the bond...?" Charles asks. It's sadly common for human parents to struggle with raising a mutant child, but if their worries concerned Erik's mutation, bond therapy seems a strange approach.

Erik plants his hand on the bed, leaning against it heavily. "Their own bond was defective. It was all they could see when they looked at me. I tried to tell them-- I tried so hard-- but after my mother died, no one listened. No one who could help me."

Swallowing, Charles asks quietly, "Was it soliximide?" Years ago the drugs that suppressed the bond had side effects that could damage the bond past all hope of repair. They might have been prescribed as recently as eleven years ago, when more modern drugs like Xinitac were still awaiting FDA approval.

But instead of confirming that, Erik bursts into a shallow laugh, quickly closing his mouth, his eyes filling.

Charles reaches for him, that awful buzz of pain flaring between them again. "I'm sorry. Erik..." He turns to the bedside table and comes back with tissues, pressing them into Erik's hand, unable to resist that moment of connection despite the mutual flinch.

"Sebastian was my bond therapist, starting a few months before he separated us. For whatever reason, the Stones trusted him." Erik shakes his head grimly. "I know they regret that now."

In the hours they were apart at the hospital, Charles racked his mind for connections; he's certain he's encountered Shaw's mind before, but Shaw was in such a singular state tonight, so unhinged, that Charles can't match the memory. If he'd thought to look through the eyes of the pilot to see Shaw's face, it might've helped him place the man. He can't read Erik for it without hurting them both. But now he realizes he was going at it all wrong, the connection clicking. "Sebastian Shaw. He's written books...?"

"You've seen them?" Erik asks. He seems startled. Though as always, it's a trial for Charles to try to discern emotion solely from the vagaries of face and voice.

Quickly Charles explains, "I wrote my thesis on the bond, I've tried to at least glance over everything related to bond damage and manipulation. I saw his books, but when I learned Shaw had lost his medical license and none of his material was peer reviewed, I didn't look further."

Erik wads up the tissues in his fist, his face darkening with something Charles can only read as fury. "It doesn't work. The procedure that he's known for. That he describes in his books. It doesn't work the way he says it does."

"You've experienced it," Charles blurts, going cold.

"It was performed on me. Without my consent." He looks at Charles again, finally, meeting his eyes. "On April 22nd, 2000."

Charles can only stare for long moments. It's so much worse than nearly anything he's imagined. Of course in those years apart, he dreaded that his bondmate might have died, might have been grievously injured or ill. But his bondmate felt-- Erik felt-- so strong to Charles, right up to the end, that Charles held onto the hope that his bondmate hadn't come to harm.

Without my consent. And Erik was with Shaw again tonight, hurt by him again tonight. He's come to so much more than merely harm.

"God... Erik... I'm sorry," Charles says. Erik winces, but when Charles reaches toward him, Erik leans forward, trying to get as close as he can to Charles's touch. Charles hates being forced to draw back, hates that he can't offer more than those pathetic, useless words... how is hearing I'm sorry going to help at all? Especially when Erik looks at him searchingly, perhaps distressed again at the prospect of pity.

He rests his hand next to Erik's knee, as close as he can get. Erik puts his hand down beside Charles's; there's a low thrum of warning discomfort until Erik moves his hand another fraction of an inch away.

"You're alive," Erik says softly. "I was so afraid... it was the first thing he told me, when I woke up. That you must have died."

Charles feels chilled and numb as he thinks back to those first few days after the loss. "I thought so too at first." And again, just last year... though that was different, everything blurred over, not the terrible absence of the weeks after the bond went. He shakes himself quickly, though; he doesn't want to dwell on those days, and he certainly doesn't want Erik shouldering any guilt any of it.

Years-- years, Charles has thought his bondmate abandoned him, renounced him. He's blamed himself, yes, but he's blamed his bondmate too. He knew for so long that his bondmate was increasingly unhappy, more and more afraid, and he did nothing. Assuming he was renounced, painful as that was, still gave him undeserved absolution for that failure. The guilt is shattering; he clenches his hands to quell the tremors. "I don't understand why he'd do something so drastic, why anyone would allow that. Why didn't they have you renounce, teach you to block?"

It's the first time he's ever wished his soulmate had renounced him. But maybe that could have saved all this suffering. Maybe if Erik had renounced as a teenager, they could have found each other when they reached seeking age-- or, at the very least, maybe now they could touch.

But Erik's sagging, curling away as his eyes shut tight. When he finally gets them open again, he still doesn't quite face Charles; he's in profile, his face lined with exhaustion. "I wouldn't," he whispers. He closes his eyes again, his head falling back for a moment, exposing the line of his throat-- a line that's marred by a ridge beneath the fabric of his turtleneck, the outline of that hated chain. Charles can do nothing but stare, all but torn apart by how badly he wants to stake his own claim to Erik, how badly he wants Shaw's claim off him.

Erik straightens and turns back to Charles. Once again Charles is struck by this man's beauty. All his elegance, all his grace... in motion or at rest, angry or grieving, Charles is drawn to him.

"They tried," Erik says quietly. "They spent years trying to convince me to block you. I refused."

Refused, Charles hears, the words burning into his mind. I refused. The answer to the question why?, the question Charles has hoped to find an answer for all these years. Why did you renounce me?

And there he is, sitting beside him, regret and longing coloring his face and his voice while he tells Charles I refused.

"Erik..." There's no fighting it now; Charles bends his head, eyes welling over with tears.

He tries to wipe them away discreetly, but he has to turn back to Erik. Angry as Charles is with himself, Erik deserves to know the truth. "I knew something was wrong." He's failed Erik in every possible way; it's unfathomable. "Everyone kept trying to tell me it was just teenage angst. I knew better. I never should have listened. I should've come seeking."

Erik's voice is thick when he says, "I should've run. I could have run. Even at the last minute, before the-- the operation--" Charles's gut twists; even he can hear the pain and horror in Erik's voice, he doesn't need to read Erik's mood for that. "I could have gotten away. I should have run. I could have found you."

"I wanted to come," Charles tells him. "I took enough money. I was out of the house. They said if I just finished out my freshman year, I could have permission to go that summer. But the night before it ended, you were so conflicted and panicked, I'd made up my mind to leave that week. I was trying to tell you to hold on a little longer when it was already too late." He can't stop the tears rolling down his face; he's believed for so long that it was his fault, that he drove his bondmate away somehow. But it's worse than that. He failed Erik by a matter of days, all because he believed they had time.

It hadn't always felt so urgent. There were moments of happiness scattered throughout those last few years. The week before the end, there'd been a long Saturday night when Charles felt happiness, excitement, pleasure, when his bondmate reached out and Charles could nearly hear all the promises he was trying to make. Every glint of hope like that, every respite, had Charles believing he could wait a bit longer, wait for permission to seek. But he was wrong.

He knocks tears off his cheeks, impatient, but he's jolted by the pain when Erik tries to put a hand on his shoulder. Erik, trying to comfort him, even when it hurts him to do it. Charles doesn't deserve that.

"You need to know," Erik says, his voice shaking. "I have to tell you. Why then, why it happened then--" Charles looks back up at him, instantly, breath strangling in his throat. For a moment, Erik stares, but he goes on, "I hurt someone. I hurt more than one person. I got into a fight with humans. They were attacking a mutant girl. I couldn't let it happen."

The days before the renunciation-- the separation-- come back to Charles in a rush. "The twentieth. You were so angry."

"There were four of them. Four." The bed shakes underneath Charles, bedsprings squeaking. "She was only fourteen, she was tiny. Her power was a form of invulnerability, they couldn't touch her, but she was so scared. I couldn't--" He turns away, but not before Charles sees his eyes filling with tears again. His voice breaks as he says, "I couldn't let them--"

Charles touches his arm and flinches back again at the pain. It seems as if there's no end to the ways he's hurting Erik. He takes Erik's sleeve between his fingers instead; anything to connect with him. "It was years ago. It's not a choice you ever should've had to make."

"They told me I had to go in for tests. To see if my bond was influencing me into violence. I tried to tell them, you were there for me, you were helping me, you tried to keep me calm... it was no use. I was Phi-level. I used my ability all the time. I could lift cars. I scared everyone back then." He looks at Charles, brows slanting up. "Everyone but you."

"I loved you," Charles says helplessly. Of course he was never afraid, never could be.

Erik's expression creases for a moment, but he swallows and nods. "I knew."

It's such a relief to hear it-- Charles wants to reach over, squeeze Erik's knee, reassure him with touch. But he can't. They can't. "I wanted you to know. I tried so many ways to tell you. To ask you where you were. If I should come."

Shaking his head, Erik admits, "I would have told you to wait. That it wouldn't be long. I was less than a year from turning eighteen, I could have come after I graduated from high school..."

He was seventeen when this happened to them. Charles has felt so many things over the years for his bondmate, but suddenly he's a teenager again, and a protective sense of outrage flows up in him. Seventeen. Erik was still a boy then, just as Charles was. "I was sixteen. My family had been putting me off nearly three years by then. I only felt a direction a few times, nothing clear, but--" He flicks a hand toward his temple. "I had more range then, I was sure I could've found you. But that's not the custom."

Erik looks at Charles for a long moment, finally nodding. "We lost so much."

"And now this." Charles holds out his hand palm down over Erik's, bringing it closer and closer til the buzz starts up again. An inch or so from Erik, and it's there, but they can stand it. It's more an itch at that range than any real pain. "I've read everything I can lay hands on about damaged bonds; I've never read any documentation of anything like this."

Erik shrugs, his hand twitching lightly beneath Charles's. "Maybe it's because of Sebastian's mutation. Maybe I absorbed something... maybe it'll wear off."

"Did it feel like this when anyone else touched you, the EMTs, the nurses...?"

Another shake of Erik's head. "No. But you touched me before any of them did... maybe..." He turns fully, looking at Charles with purpose now, clarity, intent. His lips are parted, his pupils dilating as he looks at Charles's eyes... his mouth. Charles can feel an answering excitement building again in every inch of his body, every nerve. This is his bondmate. His. "I want to keep trying," Erik says hoarsely. "Please."

Somehow Charles hangs onto the shreds of his self-control and manages to nod, his voice nearly normal when he says, "All right." He turns to face Erik more fully on the bed: legs folded, hands out, both palms down now.

But Erik ignores his hands, leaning in for another kiss, and Charles meets him, so far beyond eager there can't possibly be words for this feeling. The pain is a miserable, distracting sting against his lips, ruining the taste of Erik's mouth-- Charles barely gets a hint of Erik's toothpaste before all he can taste is electricity and metal, something he wants to wash out of his mouth as much as he wants to hold on to Erik and push past all this painful interference.

Erik groans, whether in pain or excitement, it's hard to tell; he rests his hands on Charles's shoulders. That additional hurt takes Charles to the edge of his ability to tolerate pain, and when he can't help stiffening in distress, Erik backs off, rubbing at his mouth.

"I'm afraid I've never been much of a masochist," Charles tells him. His skin still prickles unpleasantly everywhere Erik touched him.

"It doesn't help," Erik winces.

"Oh? Ah."

"I don't know if you remember... feeling that from me... when we were together, back then," Erik says haltingly.

Looking at him again, Charles feels a wave of nostalgia, trying to imagine what Erik was like eleven years ago, sixteen years ago... "I had that impression at the time. I've questioned everything, in the years since then."

"I'm not oriented anymore." Erik looks at him, his brows inclined at an angle even Charles can read as regretful. "I just couldn't-- after... everything..."

"I think I understand." Carefully, Charles adds, "I still am."

Erik takes a deep breath. "I wish I could go there with you."

Charles studies him, feeling so much for him... affection, desire and tenderness, a depth of feeling he thought he'd left behind when he was sixteen. "We can work something out," he promises. "--Though I'm assuming a lot, with that. Given this..." He touches Erik's hand, triggering that ferociously irritating sting.

Nodding, Erik swallows, and begins, "If you don't want to..." He shakes his head, unable to finish.

"I want to," Charles answers instantly. "Whatever's in question, the answer is yes, I want to. I know we're strangers to one another. And perhaps we ought to take some time..."

"Eleven years isn't long enough?" Erik jokes bleakly.

"A long time to miss out on." But even if they can't touch, they're here, and Charles wants to be here, he wants whatever they can have. For all he knows, Erik's background might forbid them to touch yet regardless. "Do you observe any traditions around--?" he gestures between them, encompassing all of it, seeking, receiving, acknowledging, all the little customs and ceremonies, big and small.

"Acknowledgement?" Erik asks.

Charles nods, suddenly seized with nerves at hearing the word aloud. "I'm not very traditional myself. My family's not, either. My sister's acknowledgement party is tomorrow night... she and her bondmate have already acknowledged and recognized, this was just the best date for the celebration." Oh, God, he's babbling; he stops himself before he launches into his Concordance 102 lecture on comparative traditions, already springing to his lips.

"I-- I need us to be clear..." Erik looks at him, brows tilted up and drawn together, eyes dark. "Are we talking about acknowledging? Us." Despite everything, he brushes Charles's hand. "You and me. Acknowledging."

"If you--" Charles shakes himself. Even if his inept grasp of body language makes Charles uncertain, Erik's words make it clear he wants assurance. "It doesn't have to be right away, or even soon, we can decide that together... but yes, Erik. I want to acknowledge you."

Erik reaches for him, stopped only by that nettling pain when they touch, a frustrated noise grinding in his throat. "For fuck's sake..."

"This can't last much longer, surely," Charles says. "If nothing else, there must be someone who can tell us what's causing it and what we can do to stop it. I have an acquaintance whose sister is a psi physiologist, she might be able to help us."

"I know a doctor," says Erik. "She's an expert on the bond... she's not like most of them. And she works with mutants. She's here in the city, I've seen her before."

"Two possibilities already," Charles conjures a smile. "We'll sort this in no time."

"I want it gone now, it's been so long already..." Erik's fists clench, his shoulders tight. "It's not fair. It's been eleven years, I still can't feel you through the bond, isn't that enough? I can't touch you either?"

"I know," Charles murmurs to him, "but raging against it won't help. Calm your mind, try to relax..."

"Relax," Erik says furiously. "After eleven years of this? Eleven years of these fucking anniversaries?" He comes to his feet, one hand reaching to the front of his neck. Charles's stomach turns at the reminder; that-- piece of jewelry, it's still on Erik, and Charles folds his hands over each other to disguise the tremors.

"Erik, I understand," Charles tries next, with Erik pacing back and forth, prowling, coiled like a spring. "I've been alone all these years as well--"

"Alone. God, if only." Erik slips two fingers underneath his turtleneck, tugging, and Charles's hands tighten so hard on each other his knuckles go white.

Break, please, break-- "What did you say?"

Erik rounds on him, eyes flashing. "Eleven years. I can be grateful at least that it wasn't any longer, but every single year, going back to him--"

"What--" Charles can barely get out enough breath to say it. "What do you mean...?"

For another moment, Erik's still glaring at him, eyes narrowed, face harsh and lined with anger-- but then it all disappears at once, Erik's hand coming away from the front of his throat, the tension leaving his frame. "You didn't know," Erik says slowly. "Of course you didn't. How could you have known...?"

His hand slips back-- at first Charles thinks he might be pulling something out of his right back pocket, but instead he rucks up his turtleneck, and he turns, putting his back to Charles, unbuckling his belt and pushing the waistband of his trousers down as well. Charles saw it all before, the thin pale scars on Erik's lower back, the bandage up top where there might be a new one, but now Erik runs his fingertips down the set of them. "These were-- it was one for every year until last year. Last year he didn't have a knife." He rests his fingertips against the bandage at the top. "And tonight."

"Erik-- my God, are you--" He bites the question off; of course Erik's not all right, what an absurd question to even think. He let himself believe that tonight, the boat, Shaw experiencing what might have been a psychotic break-- that it was all just one incident.

Now he knows it wasn't. Going back to him, Charles thinks. His eyes are hot again, prickling with the threat of tears while Erik covers the scars again, buckling his belt. All these years... if he'd known, if he had the full measure of his abilities or even without them, if he'd known... he had that man's mind in his grip tonight and he let go. He knew Erik was in trouble years ago, and he didn't act. "Erik. Erik, I am so, so sorry--"

"I don't want you to be sorry," Erik snarls, turning on Charles, furious. But just as quickly the ferocity leaves him, and he shakes his head. "This is so familiar," he whispers. "All of this. You. Everything. How many times were we like this, before? How many times was I angry? How many times were you there to soothe me?"

So many feelings rock through Charles that he doesn't know where to start. He remembers all that anger, and he'd been so sure he was managing to send calm through the bond-- send calm to Erik through the bond. All that emotion... this man, the one standing in front of him, all coiled anger and desperation, he's the one who was on the other end of it. And he remembers.

"I always wanted to--" Charles nearly laughs at his own naivete. "I always wanted to help you. And--"

"And you did," Erik interrupts. "I don't know how I would have survived those last few years without you. After my mother died..." His voice trails off, and he shakes his head again. "But this is one of the times I don't want to be calmed down. Do you remember that? Did I manage to get that through to you, back then?"

Charles takes in a deep breath. "Of course I remember," he whispers. "But I thought--" It seems so selfish now, all the things he thought.

"You thought...?" Erik moves closer, one hand outstretched, palm up as if in... solidarity, as if to give comfort. Charles stares down at it for a few seconds and then reaches forward, hovering his own hand a few inches above Erik's, just where the feedback starts to set in. "Tell me."

"Sometimes I thought it was me you were angry with."

Erik's hand curls into a fist below Charles's, drops to his side. "No. Not you. Never you. My foster parents. Sebastian. The whole damned world, sometimes. But not you." He lets out a short laugh. "Just looking at you... there's an urge to--" Charles holds his breath while Erik collects his thoughts. "It's so tempting to just... let your presence help me the way it did then, let it calm me. Just being around you makes everything else seem--" He shakes his head. "But it's... there's too much. I don't think you can scratch the surface this time."

It aches, though Charles agrees, "I don't know how much help I can be, right now."

Something in Erik's expression softens, and he takes a seat next to Charles, reaching out to touch Charles's shoulder. He has to stop before he gets there, and the flinch from nearly touching turns into a scowl, the line of Erik's jaw tensing. "Apparently I'm not allowed to try to comfort you, either."

"You shouldn't have to," Charles begins, but that doesn't seem like a useful place to steer the conversation; he stops, putting his hand on the bed between them, as near to Erik's knee as he can get it. "But you were right," he whispers.

Erik moves his hand-- carefully, so carefully, slipping his hand behind Charles's and resting it to the other side of Charles's hand, close to Charles's knee. It's almost like having their hands folded together, that interleaving of hands beside knees; it's almost like touching, if the threat of pain weren't there, ready to sting them if either one of them so much as breathes wrong.

"I was right?"

"That this all feels familiar."

Erik looks down at their hands. "I spent the last year imagining what might happen if I found you. Sebastian's operation... it left people damaged, all over the world. I expected you to be one of them. I didn't know if we'd even be able to be in the same room, let alone in any condition to acknowledge--"

His eyes fly up to Charles's, and Charles braces himself for it: And now I don't want to. Or, Now we never can. Erik asked, earlier, about acknowledgment, but he didn't say that he wanted it. Maybe he doesn't.

But the rejection doesn't come. Erik keeps looking at him, his eyebrows drawn together, his face lined and tense, his hand trembling beside Charles's. Charles can't read that expression, but if Erik were going to reject the proposition of acknowledgement outright... surely he would have done it already. What if he's waiting for something else?

Charles takes a breath, gathers up what courage and dignity he's got left-- Erik deserves that from him, and so much more. If there's a way out of this, if they can find it together... Charles reaches for the smallest loose bit of material at Erik's sleeve, catching it lightly between his fingertips. There isn't much to hold onto, but he's got all he can.

"We could," he answers. "We could acknowledge tonight. We could acknowledge tomorrow, if you want to be received first; my sister would do that."

With no hesitation at all, Erik says, "I want to." Charles can feel the warmth of that response light up his whole body. After all these years, not just answers, but acknowledgement. His bondmate wants him. Erik wants him. "I could-- I don't have family anymore-- I have a friend, a close friend, and his family. They're in Boston... they might be able to get here by tomorrow."

"We don't have to rush," Charles tries to reassure him. "Either way, if you're there tomorrow, I could introduce you, my sister could receive you. It would even be traditional; technically I still live with her, so apart from me, she's the dominant of the household..." He's babbling a bit again. "Everyone I know is going to be at her acknowledgement party tomorrow." He smiles, just a little-- in this case, that's no exaggeration. "And several dozen others besides."

Erik's looking at Charles's hand on his sleeve, with what Charles hopes is the faint beginning of a smile. "Big event?"

"Rather." The hope of that smile has him joking nervously, "It turns out that when you invite half the mutant activists in New York State to an event, it starts to look a bit churlish not to invite the other half."

"I thought I knew a lot of people in Pittsburgh's mutant community," Erik says. "I can't imagine how many people show up to this kind of event in New York."

"Last I heard just over four hundred. But--" he can laugh about it now, albeit with a touch of mania-- "I'm not up on everything. I may have mentioned, I've been traveling."

Shaking his head, Erik's hopefully-a-smile widens. "You did find me."

"I did. I have. God, Erik..." It's overwhelming all over again, just sharing the same space with him, seeing him, feeling him near. "I can't believe you're here." He remembers being sixteen, the frightening day he went for ability testing. He spent hours seeking his bondmate's company for comfort, and the loyal attention he received kept Charles steady no matter how nerve-wracking it got. He's always remembered that as the day he fell in love with the person who held the other side of his bond, not simply because they were bonded, but for who he was.

Who he is. Here they are again, and Erik could turn away from Charles for failing to reach him in time; he could blame Charles for what happened, and Charles would have no answer. But instead, like all those years ago, he responds with loyalty and affection. They can't feel their bond, they can't even touch, but Charles couldn't be more certain: "I'm glad it's you."

Erik huffs, more a breath than a laugh. "You're probably the only dominant in the world who'd think that."

He can't keep from clocking Erik with a heated look and an odd flare of jealousy, thinking of it. "I very much doubt that."

And there they are, setting each other off again; Erik's gaze grows just as heated as he looks into Charles's eyes. "You're the only one I--" he stumbles, trying again, "the only one I want. I'm glad it's you, too."

Charles uses his free hand to smudge tears out of his eyes, again. It's different this time, though, nervousness and welling excitement replacing all that sorrow and grief. He can't imagine a time when he won't regret all the things he did wrong, as a teenager, but for now... they're talking about acknowledgement, and it could happen as soon as right now.

"Erik--" He stops short; Erik Shaw, will you-- No. "I don't know your name."

Erik turns his head, frowning with confusion. "I told you, earlier-- Erik Shaw."

"No," Charles says. Erik looks at him sharply, but Charles can't make himself take it back somehow. To hell with whatever the law says; Erik doesn't belong to that man, and he never has. "Your name."

It rocks Erik for a moment, his eyes widening, but he straightens, shoulders going back, head high now. "Erik Lehnsherr." He takes a breath. "My name is Erik Lehnsherr."

"Erik Lehnsherr," Charles repeats softly. "Erik Lehnsherr, will you do me the honor of acknowledging me as your soulmate?"

"Oh, God," Erik breathes. "Yes, I--" But he stops, his eyes moving from Charles's face to... to the floor, at Charles's feet. Excitement runs through Charles like lightning; eleven years of separation fall away, for just an instant, and he imagines it the way he did when he was fourteen, fifteen, when he was sixteen and that seeker trip was just weeks away. His bondmate, on his knees, promising...

The vision fades as Erik stays quiet, finally saying, "I always thought I'd do it from there."

Charles reaches out and touches a spare fold of denim at Erik's knee-- anywhere at all he can make contact, anywhere it doesn't hurt as much to briefly touch him. "You wouldn't need to on my account," he tries. "It's so much to me that you're here at all."

But Erik's jaw tenses, and he shakes his head-- for a moment, Charles's heart leaps into his throat. Too much time lost. Are they too different now? A million things could happen here, and acknowledgment might not be what Erik wants after all, now that they've come to it.

"No," Erik says firmly. "I wanted that for so long-- I'm not giving that up just because-- because."

And Charles watches as his bondmate-- his-- slides off the bed and kneels down at his feet, his hands turned up on his thighs, palms up, head tilted back so he can see Charles, too.

It's not the fantasy he had as a teenager; it's not even the vision he had a few moments ago. The faint scratches at the sides of Erik's mouth, the rasp of stubble over his jaw, the redness around his eyes, all of that adds up to a picture Charles could never have imagined on his own.

But the way he's looking at Charles, determined and hopeful... Charles remembers the strength he felt from his bondmate, all those years ago. The way he felt stubborn, all but intractable now and then. And the way he always fit, with Charles, in a way that no one else ever has or ever could.

Charles wants Erik for the man he is, now, but he wants the rest of it back, too. And this is where it starts. He glances around for something to cover his hand with, block that damnable feedback to the best of his ability, and all right, there's nothing nearby-- he'll outlast it, then, or maybe it'll just fade, now that Erik's real bondmate has come to claim him. He extends his hand to Erik, watches Erik's lips part as he sees the motion.

"Erik Lehnsherr, will you do me the honor of acknowledging me as your soulmate?"

"Yes," Erik whispers. His eyes are shining, his lashes wet. Charles wonders if Erik's heart is pounding as hard as his own. "Yes, Charles, I accept the gift of our bond and acknowledge you as my soulmate."