Drizzling rain shimmered across the empty street, caught reflections of streetlights and traffic signals, multiplied them, flashes of color dancing over cracked pavement. Water washed over the crumbling sidewalk. It filled Erik’s shoes where he crouched at the curb, cursing, replacing a tire on a stolen Jeep. His heart pounded in his chest, but he worked steadily, senses alert for pursuit.
The spare tire was nearly bald. He’d already barked his knuckles ratcheting the jack, manually removing the flat. Erik could only vaguely sense the iron of the spider wrench. He’d nearly snarled upon first seeing it—the x-shape filling him with inexplicable rage, a split-second of fear. The tool felt heavy and awkward in hands more used to controlling metal from a distance. With his powers muted—stolen—he could do no more than any ordinary human.
He forced the first lug nut tight, not pausing as tires splashed on the next street over, an unmuffled motor roaring. Shaky fingers dropped the second nut. Erik bit back a curse, flexed his hands. They were sore and stiff, but he couldn’t remember why. Fear sharpened his senses, rage pumped adrenalin into his aching limbs. He pressed his palms against his knees. Breathed in. Out. Pushed the emotions aside. Time enough later to figure out what had happened. Instead, Erik concentrated all his will on trying to revive any fraction of his gift—focused and reached—and hazily located the nut in a puddle under the recalcitrant jack.
The oily, iridescent water was warm when he fished it out. Only a little warmer than the rain, though. The downpour had soaked into the thin fabric of his shirt, trickled down his back in rivulets only a little cooler than his skin. Water dripped beneath his waistband, made his loose trousers cling and fight his every motion.
He finally screwed the last nut into place. Erik’s knuckles ached, his knees cracked when he straightened. Grunting with the effort, he hefted the flat tire and jack into the back of the open-topped Jeep. It would be beyond foolish to leave clues behind for any pursuers. Erik clambered in. For a moment, he only sat, flexing his hands again, catching his breath, watching and listening as best he could while rain beat down to obscure his surroundings. He saw no one, heard nothing. His heart rate gradually slowed. Erik finally dropped the wrench into the wet seat next to him. Water splashed in the floorboards. He twisted the key and gunned the engine.
His mouth felt dry with tension. Erik was fleeing, that much was clear, but from what unremembered horror? No matter how he wracked his brain, nothing beyond his name, Erik Lehnsherr, and his identity—a mutant with the ability to control metal and magnetic fields—existed in the void of his past. He’d seen his face in the Jeep’s mirror: eyes changeable blue-green, a scar by his mouth, auburn hair cut short and neat. By the quality of the fabric, the tailored fit, his clothes were expensive, even bespoke. Clues, but to what mystery? What had led to his flight, and from where and from whom was he running?
Erik drove without destination through strengthening rain, an urgent pulse of escape his only guide.
The first sideroad off the main petered from paved to gravel to clay. High banks rose to either side, dashing by in the headlights. The road curved, curved again, forcing Erik to slow to a crawl, steering wheel resistant under his hands, the Jeep bouncing violently over worn ruts. The wrench clattered to the floorboard.
He heard the siren before he saw flashing lights in the rearview mirror.
The police cruiser easily overtook the old Jeep, driver gesturing, a woman’s voice over the loudspeaker distorted and unclear. She edged ahead, angling to block his way. Erik jerked to a stop. Without his powers, he could neither bypass nor shove aside the vehicle, or avoid injury if he rammed straight through. He strained with all his might, staring through the rain-glazed windshield at the emerging figure—nothing. Not even a sense of the officer’s weapons at this distance. Perhaps finding the lug nut earlier had been a fluke. He gripped the steering wheel tight, skin stretching over muscle and bone.
An instant later, the driver stepped from the car. A flashlight flared blinding-bright, but distance and the growing downpour blocked any view into the Jeep. Erik ducked down to grab the spider wrench. The iron felt incomplete, blank beyond physical perception. He propped it up next to his seat, in easy reach. He wouldn’t be taken alive. Not again.
“Sir.” Rain and evening gloom obscured a dark face, dimly lit by the flashlight’s glow. One hand rested on her hip, near her holster. “Sir, you’re driving a little fast for the weather and road conditions. In a hurry?” The flashlight bobbed up and down, beam shining into Erik’s face, the passenger side, the empty back seat and cargo area. “License and registration, please.”
Of course, Erik had neither—he’d run with only the clothes on his back. His mouth tightened. If the cop would just look aside for an instant…
No, Erik, came through the rain and wind and Erik’s own skull. “There’s no need to fight,” said the policewoman, straightening, shoulders widening. Except now her Southern drawl was crisp and male, upper-crust British. “I’ll escort you home, shall I?”
Erik was already moving, leaping from the Jeep, raising the x-shaped wrench, lips baring a raging snarl: “I won’t go back—”
NO! "No!” rang that posh accent, from within and without. Erik’s limbs froze in place. He toppled to the muddy earth.
In the darkness behind closed eyelids, Erik saw the most astonishing tropical-blue eyes, kindly and confident, accompanied by sturdy, square hands reaching toward him. He blinked. Heavy rain slashed through trees, splashed on the clay road. It splattered against the Jeep’s front tire inches from his face.
A bizarre vision rose in his mind’s eye: himself in a policeman’s uniform, stopping a speeding late-model sedan. He meets the driver’s eyes—the most astonishing tropical-blue—and somehow fails to issue a speeding ticket. A posh British accent accompanies an offer of sexual bribery, emphasized by cherry-red lips, a pink tongue flicking out.
Erik shook his head. Water flattened his hair to his skull and dripped in his eyes. Thick mud dragged at his legs and arms. His every attempt to move proved futile, leaving him twitching impotently where he lay.
Slowly, warmth climbed his spine, tingled through his fingers and toes, flushed his face and neck as if an internal heater had been switched on. It coiled in his groin, the water-heavy fabric of his trousers constricting even more. Erik ground his teeth. Rage clogged his throat. Clawed fingers scrabbled through bits of debris and clay. His body curled around invasive pleasure, moved freely—but it still wasn’t Erik’s will.
Erik, soothed that too-familiar devil’s voice. Invisible hands caressed his cheek, cupped his jaw. A sweet weight of lips brushed his.
His sight failed again, a mental picture arising of those square hands wrapping around his thighs. Of a hot mouth enveloping, devouring his length. Of a man, shorter than he, hair chestnut brown and loose in waves around his face, lovely as a woman’s if not for the strong nose laying claim to masculinity.
“Destiny, my friend,” says his lover. One leg hooks over Erik’s, one arm clings to his midriff, fingers tucking below Erik’s ribs. He (Charles, his name is Charles) nudges Erik’s cheek with his nose. His teeth nibble, his mesmerizing eyes flick down and back. He teases until Erik turns toward him, lips to lips, and shares a kiss better than any before. Charles sighs, resting his head on Erik’s shoulder. Erik tastes his own flavor in Charles’ mouth. That red, red mouth so swollen, plush and perfect. “Such a beautiful creature you are,” Charles says, smile wide and white, a vivid curve in the morning’s pale light. “As if you were made for me.”
Erik draws him closer. Presses a kiss to a warm temple under tousled hair. Charles’ blue eyes gleam.
“Up you go,” said the policewoman. Erik’s limbs worked smoothly to climb to his feet, leaving the wrench in the mud. Erik’s legs walked him back to the Jeep. Its motor still ran, its headlights shining across the clay-spattered side of the police cruiser. Erik’s body sat in the driver’s seat. His arms reached, his fingers took hold of the steering wheel.
“I’ll escort you, sir,” said the woman whose mind had been stolen, much as Erik’s memories had been. “You'll be safe and sound at home in no time.”
Erik’s knuckles, where they weren’t torn, shone white under the flashlight’s strong beam. He watched from behind his eyes as his body backed the Jeep and turned to face the way he’d come. In the water-streaked rearview mirror, the policewoman stood motionless, hands dropped to her sides, flashlight shining down on mud splashed from her shoes to her knees. A puppet with its strings cut, abandoned.
Erik’s body drove.
“Surely you don’t have to go,” Charles murmurs, eyes large and pleading, irresistible—if Erik didn’t have a life to live, that includes paying rent, bills, a job he enjoys… and Sunday visits to his mother, much as Charles tries to distract him. “I suppose I can’t persuade you to be at least a little late?”
Erik laughs, bends down to kiss Charles, bacon-breath ignored. “I’ll see you tonight,” he promises. He holds Charles there for a moment, besotted with blue eyes, red lips, two adorable freckles. Charles isn’t delicate, but his face fits perfectly into Erik’s framing hands, his skin flushed and sleep-warm under Erik’s palms, caressing fingertips. Charles closes his eyes and leans into Erik’s touch. Stay, he sends, sweet and sensual, until Erik kisses him again, a firm buss to tide him over.
“Tonight,” he promises, and tears himself away to shower, dress, depart.
His foot light on the gas pedal, his hands steering on their own through the town he’d just passed through, Erik gave up trying to wrest control of his body back. He focused on the faint sensation of near-tactile restraint around his mind. He visualized silk ropes, a delicate cobweb shaped like a dome, himself within. Threads of power that he could see, feel. Manipulate.
In the prison of his skull, he dared not wrench at the bindings, fearing to attract his captor’s—Charles’—attention. Sweat broke out across his forehead. Warm drops trickled down his back to mingle with the soaked fabric of his shirt, tacky with mud and growing cooler. He stretched mental fingers out. Took a steadying breath. Pressed lightly at one of the innermost strands—
”—catch your death of cold,” his mother says, tsking as she carries his rain-soaked jacket to the laundry room. “Go on, grab some of your old things and get changed.”
Erik blinked. Erik remembered: drying his hair while Edie brought out matcha tea to try with her new kichel recipe, the gossip from Temple, a pair of theatre tickets he might enjoy with his new friend, what was his name, nearly a month and he hadn’t even told her his new boyfriend’s name!
That had been in January, with snow thick on the ground.
Erik shook his head violently. Water flew everywhere. The Jeep—swerved. He sucked in a breath, reached with his power—
Now, now, my dear. Charles chuckled in his head, distant fingers carding through Erik’s short, soaked hair. Relax, Erik. You’ll be home soon.
More memories bloomed with every minute tug at the silken web. Erik tried to ignore them, but his mind’s eye filled with sunlit patio breakfasts, twilight strolls through woods and grounds bounded by a vast wrought-iron fence, snapshot after snapshot of love. He saw the bedroom again and again, cool expensive sheets and heated flesh, freckled shoulders and back, runner’s thighs locked round Erik’s waist or calves, imprisoning him in the arms of his love—Charles. Blue-eyed Charles, bruises sucked into English rose skin, red-lipped promises and laughter… Always Charles, in nearly every memory, smiling at Erik, touching him, holding him close.
A thin strand snapped. Erik froze. Not-thinking, waiting breathless to see if it had been noticed—even while his body kept steadily driving through the storm. A second passed. Two. Five. Erik counted a full minute before resuming. One string in the web hung loose. It wasn’t nearly enough. He still couldn’t touch his power, or control his own body. As carefully as he had once repaired his mother’s old watch, Erik gently wore at the next strand, and as it thinned, grabbed the end before it whipped loose, and knotted it to the next. A gap appeared. Erik felt…
A nail in one of Erik’s shoes was loose. He sucked in a breath, spat out rain, strained further: the fingers of his right hand twitched. Encouraged, he glanced in the rearview mirror for the following police car, and saw himself, lips parted in a savage grin. He blinked at the mirror; something was a little off. Something about his eyes, or maybe his rain-flattened hair. But there was no time to ponder trivial details. Within the trap of his mind, Erik started working again. Faster.
“I thought we might go away together next week.” Charles holds out his hands, a pair of airplane tickets in one, a tumbler of Scotch in the other. “Greece, Italy, France, Spain. A Mediterranean getaway.” He glows, happiness radiating from eyes bluer than the Ionian Sea.
Erik takes the Scotch. Leaning in to kiss soft lips, he breathes in the warm smell of fresh bread—challah, even—and honey and apples. He closes his eyes, hating to disappoint Charles. “It sounds wonderful. But I have to appear in court.” He draws back enough to see Charles’ face, wraps the hand not holding the Scotch around Charles’ waist. “Is there a way to push the reservations back a week?”
Charles’ happiness dims. Erik feels like a heel. “Yes,” Charles says, slowly. “We can wait.”
More strands, more gaps. Erik flexed one foot, then the other. Twisted his shoulders. Felt the metal of the steering wheel ease into his perception.
Lightning slashed the sky in violet streaks, thunder rolling after, trees visible in the flash swaying, rain falling in heavy waves. The lights of the town had faded miles ago.
The police car followed still.
”I’m too deep into the case to leave now.”
“But you knew I was planning this trip to Mexico for my sabbatical!”
“I’m sorry, Charles. I’m a new detective, I can’t miss weeks of work. Can you re-schedule?”
Not taking his eyes from the wet-slick road, Erik lifted a finger, imagined it directing his power like a conductor’s baton. The latch of the glove compartment clicked open. Inside, he sensed a random assortment of metals: a nail, a small tool kit, two pennies. A tire pressure gauge.
Erik still couldn’t wrench free of Charles’ power. But he could grasp the nail. Could send it up and over and back, back to where the police car tailed him. Orient it toward the mass of hurtling metal. Hold it still. Let the car’s own momentum stab it through the grille and into the radiator. All that metal, all too much for him yet—but a nail. He could do that much.
The headlights behind Erik’s Jeep jerked and swerved and faded from view. Lightning cascaded actinic white, left purple afterimages dancing across his vision. Wind howled. Erik flexed his hands, grimaced at the ache in his palms from gripping too hard while focusing on his task. He blinked rain away and went back to work.
“—is Logan, a friend I met in Mexico.” Charles beams at Erik from the kitchen table, littered with remnants of sandwiches and Coronas and wine. “I’m so glad you’re home!”
Charles wobbles to his feet and heads toward Erik, who drops his briefcase and coat on the door-side table just in time to catch him and his questing kiss. Charles smells of sunshine and wine—and tobacco, drawing Erik’s eyes to the gnawed cigar in a saucer on the table. And when Erik lifts his head, day-old bruises slide out from under the loose collar of Charles’ shirt.
At the table, Logan winks a peat-brown eye.
More memories rose with every severed thread, a kaleidoscope of images and sounds, scents and sensations vying for his attention: the fight over Logan, Charles’ cold silence the night Erik missed their anniversary dinner at Calypso’s where Charles had waited for two hours; Sebastian Shaw’s smirk until the suppression handcuffs snapped into place during the nightclub raid. Brisket roasting in the kitchen of Edie Lehnsherr’s apartment, sympathy in her eyes and comfort in her hands while the news channels blared Shaw’s escape. A half-empty bottle of Scotch among old and new case files scattered across Erik’s apartment floor.
Charles’ square hand holding out a platinum ring.
”It’s the rehearsal dinner, Erik, it’s rather vital that you be here!” On the phone, Charles hisses the words, low and sharp-edged.
Erik keeps his eyes on the warehouse. “Something came up at work. You can fill me in on the details.”
Silence. “Something to do with Shaw, I expect?” From miles away, a chill presence seeps into Erik’s mind, matching the March chill in the air. It’s so unlike Charles’ usual sunny warmth that Erik shivers. “I made a mistake with Logan, but you’re the one putting another man between us now.”
Erik bristles. Get out of my head, Charles! The mental shielding he’d learned from Captain Frost clangs into place. “You know what catching Shaw means to me. Logan was just a quick fuck for you, but this man caused my father’s death. He’s a war criminal, and if you can’t understand why I’m prioritizing his capture over a rehearsal dinner, then we need to have a very serious discussion.”
The presence in his head is gone. Charles hangs up. Erik bunches his fists, curses, tosses back a cup of cooling coffee and then crumples the empty cup. Outside, snow begins to patter down, but he refuses to turn on the motor for the heater. Exhaust would reveal his presence, and he’s wearing warm clothing. He holds his position, waiting for Shaw.
Among the whirl of memories, time fragmented into a hundred hands on a hundred clocks, ticking out of rhythm. Erik pressed a palm to his temple where a dull ache had grown stronger and stronger. But he was ready. He’d plucked loose every thread save for the bare tracery of a sagging dome. His power surged at his fingertips. He’d have one shot to free himself, so long as he could slam his mental shields into place before Charles noticed.
It looked like he’d driven through the storm, reached roads damp and not wet, lined with trees still and silent in the night. No traffic, no street lights—he was far from the town and on some yet unknown highway. Still, he’d see a road sign soon enough. He could decide where to go from there. Turn around, get to a place far enough away that Charles couldn’t reach him.
Erik combed his fingers through his hair, wiped his face clear of rain. He swiped the rearview mirror, glanced at his reflection. Stopped. Stared. And shivered, despite the warmth of the air.
Grey hairs threaded his temples. His face—he reached up, felt lines on his skin, crinkles around his eyes—as if years had passed! He stared at his hands, deeply creased around skinned knuckles. At the platinum band adorning his ring finger, the groove worn deep into the flesh.
“Mein Gott,” he whispered, “How many years has it been?”
The Jeep slowed to a halt on the empty road. Erik turned his hands over and over.
Oh, my dear, Charles said. You needn’t worry—we’ve been so happy for so long. His presence bloomed in Erik’s mind, a soft wave of love and compassion and implacable, gentle control. And we will be again.
Erik found his hand reaching for the gearshift. He breathed in, out, shoulders tight and spine rigid with tension.
You’ll be back within the hour, Charles assured him. Logan will meet you at the gate. The feeling of him, sunlight soft and all-encompassing, seeped into Erik’s mind. He was familiar, he was comfort. He was home.
No. Erik forced his hands into fists.
NO. Erik reached for the nearly-dismantled web.
Charles’ attention sharpened, honed in on Erik’s intent: Erik, no—
NO! Erik snapped the last strands and flung up his shields. He slammed the Jeep into gear, spun it around in the sudden absence of Charles’ control, Charles’ presence.
Erik fled back the way he’d come, drove without destination through strengthening rain, the urgent pulse of escape his only guide.
Minutes later, he came across a police cruiser on the side of the road, the officer—a woman, it looked like—slogging with a flashlight toward a tow-truck just pulling into view. Erik’s forehead wrinkled; he had a brief, vivid feeling of déjà vu. A sensation of mud on his hands. Of silk brushing his cheek, his lips. Cocoon-like warmth, comfort. And…
Erik waved a hand in front of his face. His imagination was running away with him. Still, a smile slipped free. He didn’t know where the fantasy of himself as a policeman trying to issue a ticket to a stunningly beautiful speeder came from; it was so specific, clear as a memory instead of a fantasy—but it was a distraction he didn’t need.
Erik had to keep moving, find safety from—
A storm filled the sky ahead of him, and his power felt erratic, worn, although he couldn’t remember doing anything strenuous enough to drain him. As it was, it would be unwise to drive through a lightning storm in such a state; he’d be more likely to attract it to himself than any tall trees or power poles nearby.
He took the next side road, followed it until it hit the highway. A road sign for Westchester flashed by. Westchester... Yes, that’s where he needed to go. Home, to—
The Jeep rumbled through the open gates. Logan met it and helped Erik out, wincing at blank eyes as he guided the old man up to the house. Wanda sent a shimmer of pink energy to close the gate, then followed them in.
“Oh, Dad, you’re soaked.” And shivering badly, despite the August night. She grabbed one of the pre-warmed towels, wrapped it around her father and started rubbing warmth back into stiff limbs. “Can we not do this anymore, please?” Wanda put her arms around his waist, thinned with age. He didn’t move. She rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes, listening to his heart’s steady beat. After a long moment, he returned the embrace, his motions hesitant, unsure. Wanda looked up. “Dad?” He blinked at her without recognition. Wanda tightened her lips, held her father a little more tightly. At least Charles had been able to guide him safely home.
Logan cleared his throat, draped a towel over Erik’s wet hair. “Let’s get you back up to Chuck.”
Erik pulled on his silk pajamas—a cheeky gift from Charles, patterned with giant magnets—and prepared for bed. He didn’t know why he felt so worn out. Surely a day pottering in the workshop shouldn’t take this much out of him. He was on vacation to relax, after all, so ordered by Captain Frost, aided and abetted by his mother and his husband.
Still, he was tired. A bit cold. He climbed into bed, slid under the warm covers. Charles looked delectable, reading yet another article about human-mutant integration. Erik sidled closer across the big bed, reached out, took his husband’s hand.
Charles turned and smiled, lips red and full as rose petals, eyes blue as a tropical sea, as mesmerizing, as captivating as the day they’d met. “My friend,” he said, My love, and bent to kiss Erik’s hand, chestnut hair soft and shining in the lamp’s glow. “How do you feel?”
Erik brushed loose hair from Charles’ face. He burrowed nearer, until they breathed each other’s air, until their eyelashes nearly brushed, until they were as close as two people could possibly be. He kissed Charles, sent a tendril of power to the platinum adorning Charles’ finger. “I’ve never felt better.”
Erik lifts his head at his husband’s call. He looks around at the half-empty station. He rubs his eyes, checks his watch. It’s half-past eight at night.
He should keep going over the case file. It’s been two months since Shaw’s last sighting, potentially heading toward South America. Erik should call the Miami PD, see if there’s any word—
Erik wakes up in bed with his husband. Charles smiles bleary-eyed at him from his own pillow, sporting a bedhead and a little morning drool and creases in his face from sleeping on one side. He’s the most beautiful thing Erik has ever seen. Erik sidles closer, reaches for Charles’ hand.
And freezes. He doesn’t remember coming home.
“Erik?” Charles squeezes his hand, brows drawing together. He blinks, and bluer-than-blue eyes grow clear. “Never mind, darling. Let’s go down for breakfast.” He leans over, kisses Erik, and it’s like champagne and roses, as magical as their first. "You have to use your vacation time soon, don't you?" Charles keeps hold of Erik's hand, smiles up at him as they wander toward the bedroom door. "I've got some wonderful destinations in mind."