Thursday morning is the most hectic Charles has seen in weeks. He spends most of it in procedures: three intubations in rapid succession, then a central line placement, and then an a-line placement. Just as he’s stripped off his sterile gloves from the a-line, the PA system crackles and spits out, “Code blue, Room 310. Code blue, Room 310,” and he takes off, trying to ignore the steadily growing headache pounding against his temples.
By the time he’s dealt with the code, it’s nearly 11:30 and he’s absolutely starving and exhausted. The coffee machine in the doctor’s lounge had inexplicably died sometime late last night, leaving Charles running on a caffeine deficit and desperately in need of something better than ice water and shitty tea to pick him up. But lunch is still an hour away, and the Mountain Dew he’d snagged from the breakroom is doing nothing but giving him heart palpitations. So he curls miserably in the small office at the end of the unit and tries to focus on his notes instead of on the pit of hunger in his gut.
Suffice it to say, he’s definitely not in the mood to deal with his mother, and yet, that’s exactly who calls, half an hour to lunch. He stares at her name on his phone for a long, despairing moment before picking up with a pained, “Hello?”
“Charles,” she says, her tone brisk and businesslike, as always. She never has time for pleasantries, at least not with him. “Will you be bringing a guest to Christmas dinner? You didn’t mark an answer on your RSVP.”
“I’m not coming to Christmas dinner,” Charles replies, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I already told you, I’m working.”
There’s a long pause. He pictures his mother leaning back in her seat with her eyes closed, gripping her wineglass and breathing deeply to keep her temper in check. It’s a familiar memory from his childhood.
“You can’t miss Christmas dinner,” she says evenly. “Everyone will be there.”
“I can’t get off work,” Charles lies. Actually he’d specifically requested to work on the 25th, but his mother hardly needs to know that. “There’s no one to cover for me,” he barrels on before she can protest. “I might make New Year’s though.”
“My schedule’s not set at the moment.”
“Charles.” Her voice tightens with annoyance. “I expect you to be home for Christmas. This is not a negotiation. Senator Bracken will be there, and I’ve already told him you’ll be in attendance. He has a daughter around your age, and I want you to meet her.”
Again with the matchmaking attempts. Charles resists the urge to just hang up.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have time to rub elbows with your rich friends, Mother,” he growls, making no effort to hide his own irritation. “I’m quite busy. I’ll send you a card.”
“You will not—”
The office door cracks open, and Angel, the charge nurse, sticks her head through. “Dr. Xavier?”
Swiveling in his chair, Charles pulls the phone from his ear. “Yeah?”
“New patient just came up from the ER.” Angel jerks her finger over her shoulder. “Room 462.”
“Okay, I’ll be there in a second.” To his mother, he says loudly, “I have to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
Without giving her a chance to reply, he hangs up, slips his phone in the pocket of his white coat, and consults his patient list. At the bottom of the page, he’s jotted notes for the day’s incoming patients. There’s only one intake so far today and her case doesn’t seem too complicated: Edie Lehnsherr, age 57, subdural hematoma from a motor vehicle accident. From what he’d heard from the trauma doc earlier, the bleed isn’t severe, though he hasn’t personally reviewed the scans yet. He’d been waiting for her to be transferred to the unit before delving into her file.
“462, you said?”
Angel nods and pushes the door open wider as Charles gets up. “They brought her up five minutes ago. Blood pressure’s a little high, systolic in the 180s. They gave her some Mannitol in the ER.”
“All right.” They’ll have to get that blood pressure down, preferably below 160. Tucking his patient list into his coat pocket, Charles collects his stethoscope and heads out of the office. “How is she?”
Angel falls into step beside him. “Okay, I think. She’s awake, oriented to person and place. She’s having a bit of difficulty talking, but EMS says she was speaking at the scene.”
“Right. And family?”
“Her son’s on his way. He said he’ll be here in within the hour.”
Charles checks his watch. It’s 12:23. Normally he’d be going for lunch soon, but he supposes he can stick it out until Mrs. Lehnsherr’s son shows up. He likes to greet the families as soon as they arrive, to apprise them of the situation and to put them at ease if he can.
Room 462 is right around the corner. By the time he arrives, the nurses have already gotten everything settled. Edie Lehnsherr is lying down, the top half of the bed slightly inclined to keep her head and torso up, sheets tucked around her waist. Her eyes are open, and she watches him come in. That’s a good sign.
“Hello there,” he says warmly, fetching a pair of gloves from the dispenser by the door. “Edie, is it? I’m Dr. Xavier, I’m the ICU doctor today. How are you feeling?”
There’s a long pause as she struggles to find words. Charles waits patiently, pulling on the gloves and rubbing gently at the diaphragm of his stethoscope to warm it. Finally, she whispers, “Okay.”
“Good,” he says, smiling. He glances over at the nurse who’s standing by the door. “Bobby, you have this room?”
Bobby nods. “This one and the one next door.”
“How responsive was she when she came in?” Charles asks, giving Edie a quick once-over. Her car accident must not have been too severe—she doesn’t seem to have any broken bones or lacerations, only a few visible bruises on her arms. The darkest purpling cuts over her collarbone, where her seatbelt must have dug in deep. She does have a bandage on the right side of her head though where she struck it in the accident. The head bleed appears to be the most serious of her injuries.
“About this responsive,” Bobby replies, coming over to stand next to Charles. “She can tell you her name and where she is. I haven’t asked her about the date yet, but she does follow commands.”
“Can you tell me your name?” Charles asks, leaning down over Edie.
She blinks owlishly up at him, obviously slightly confused. When he repeats the question though, she rasps out, “Edie. Edie Lehnsherr.”
“Very good,” Charles tells her. “Edie, can you tell me where you are?”
“Excellent.” Charles tucks the earpieces of his stethoscope into his ears and rubs the diaphragm again. “I’m going to have a quick listen to you, okay? Here we go…”
Her heart sounds fine, if a bit fast. That’s only to be expected though, with the stress of injury and an unfamiliar environment. She’s not strictly tachycardic, which is good; they don’t want to stress her heart out, after all. Her blood pressure, Charles notes as he looks at the monitor, is still a bit high though.
“Let’s run a cardene drip,” he tells Bobby. “I’d like to keep her systolic below 160.”
“You got it, doc.”
He takes a listen to her lungs, too, and finds them clear. Unhooking the stethoscope from his ears, he drapes it around his neck and leans over the bed again. “Edie, can you raise your right hand for me?”
She does so without much apparent difficulty. He takes her hand and says, “Good. Now squeeze my hand...Good, very good.” When he asks her to lift her right leg, she obeys again, grimacing a bit.
Her left side is a different story. Her left hand is noticeably weaker than her right, and when he asks her to squeeze, her fingers press feebly around his own. She manages to lift her left leg only an inch or so off the bed before it drops again.
“That’s all right,” he soothes when her brows furrow in frustration. He bolsters his words with a gentle projection of calm. “You’re doing well. Do you know why you’re here, Edie?”
Slowly, eyes fixed on him, she shakes her head.
“You were in a car accident,” Charles informs her. “You’ve got a head bleed, and we have you here in the Neuro ICU to monitor you, all right? Your son’s on the way, and he’ll be here soon. What’s your son’s name?”
Edie frowns for a moment, then pronounces slowly, “Erik.”
“Erik.” Charles smiles. “Lovely. Well, Edie—” he pats her hand “—we’re going to take good care of you, all right? Your job is to get some rest, understand? I’ll be back soon. Meanwhile, Bobby here is going to take good care of you.”
She nods tiredly, eyes flicking from his face to Bobby’s, then back. Patting her hand again, he steps away from her bedside over to the door.
“Cardene then,” Bobby says lowly. “Anything else?”
“Let’s get her on Mannitol as well,” Charles says. “Can she swallow?”
“I don’t know. Speech therapy hasn’t been in yet.”
“I’ll put in an order for that.” If she can swallow, she can take pills, which will be a good marker of progress. Charles makes a mental note to put in that order later. “Give me a call when her son gets here, will you?”
Clapping Bobby on the shoulder, Charles ducks out of the room and goes to commandeer one of the unattended computers at the nursing station down the hall. He checks Edie’s ER report first, scanning through the history they’d taken when EMS had brought her in. According to witnesses, she had been driving through an intersection when a truck had run a stop sign and swiped the back of her car, sending her careening into a wooden fence. She’d been conscious at the scene but banged up, and as the paramedics had assessed her, she’d slowly become more confused and aphasic. They’d transported her quickly to the hospital after that, where a CT scan had revealed a small but potentially dangerous bleed.
Charles clicks open the CT scan and studies the images. At a glance, it’s honestly not a bad bleed, just a relatively small area on the right side of her brain. Charles has seen much, much worse before. The midline shift is just barely 2mm, according to the radiologist, so emergent surgery probably isn’t necessary. Still, Charles puts in a consultation to Neurosurgery. They can come up and do a more thorough evaluation.
He’s just finished reviewing her labs when his on-call phone begins to ring. Fishing it out of his breast pocket, he says, “Hello?”
“Hey,” comes Bobby’s voice. “462’s son is here. Erik Lehnsherr. He wants to speak to you.”
“Great,” Charles replies, pushing away from the desk. “I’ll be there in a second.”
Logging off the computer, he tucks his phone back into his pocket and makes his way back to 462. As he nears the room, his gut gives a peculiar twist, like someone’s dug their hand into his stomach and rummaged around in it. Pausing, he puts a hand to his belly, frowning. What had that been? A hunger pang? It has been several hours since he’d last eaten, after all, and he’s only had caffeine since then…
Before he can puzzle out what’s going on, Bobby pulls aside the curtain covering the open doorway and waves him in. “This is Dr. Xavier,” he says to someone inside the room, presumably Erik Lehnsherr. “He’ll be able to answer any other questions you have.”
Charles steps into the room, and immediately, his gut wrenches again. It’s not painful, just uncomfortable, and he hides his consternation by forcing a smile.
“Hello,” he says, sweeping his gaze over the room’s occupants. Edie has two visitors: a dark-skinned woman with thick, brown, curly hair, and a tall, lean man in a rumpled suit and tie, sporting a five o’clock shadow and looking as if he sprinted the four flights of stairs up to this floor and has yet to catch his breath. Charles meets the man’s gaze and steps forward, extending his hand. “You must be Erik. I’m Dr. Xa—”
Erik’s fingers close around his. The whole world tilts sideways.
Charles has read the literature on compatibility onset. He studied it in medical school, had even toyed briefly with the idea of going into a related subspecialty. Perfect biological compatibility—the instinctive, seamless match that indicates an unparalleled predisposition for mutualistic coexistence, as his old physiology textbook had put it. Soulmates, is the layman’s word for it. Charles has always found the popular term overly romantic, far too simplistic to mean anything.
And yet—there’s something simple about this moment. Their hands touch and there’s no second guessing. There’s no doubt. There’s just a feeling of rightness, of coming home.
An electric current runs from Erik’s fingers up Charles’s arm. It doesn’t hurt, precisely, but it’s a shock that jolts every single bone in Charles’s body. “Oh,” Charles says, and then their knees give way at almost the same instant.
“Erik!” The woman beside Erik grabs his arm to steady him. It breaks their handshake, and Charles stumbles back, flailing. He manages to catch himself on the sink against the wall and braces himself there for a long moment, dizzy.
“What the hell just happened?” the woman demands.
Charles stares at Erik, who stares back at him. Neither of them can speak.
Bobby, who’d leaped forward from the doorway, now hovers at Charles’s side, his hand lingering uncertainly just above Charles’s shoulder. “Doc?”
“I think,” Charles says shakily, then stops. He can’t find anything to say that could properly convey the enormity of what just happened. Had the entire world felt the tremors of that handshake or had it just been him?
No, not just him—Erik looks exactly as thunderstruck as Charles feels, his face pale, his eyes wide, his chest shuddering with shallow breaths.
“Was that…” Erik’s friend says slowly.
Charles shakes his head, fighting to clear it. With an effort, he finds his voice. “I believe Erik and I just imprinted.”
The room is completely silent for an interminable moment. Then Bobby sucks in a full breath and says, “Okay. Shit. We should—I don’t know—I’ll—I can get you a chair?”
Charles inhales deeply. Exhales. Makes himself do that twice more, then says to Erik, “We should talk.”
Erik nods, his expression still dazed. He takes a step towards Charles, then stops, darting a quick glance at the bed. “My mother…”
Right. They can’t just leave and sort things out. Erik’s here for a reason, and Charles is, first and foremost, Edie’s doctor.
“Uh, yes. Right. I’m—” Charles swallows hard and focuses on Erik’s companion, just to keep from looking at Erik. “I’m Dr. Xavier,” he says to her. He can’t bring himself to hold out his hand to her, not so soon after what just happened. “You’re family?”
“I’m Magda,” she says, staring at him with open astonishment. “I’m a family friend.”
“Pleasure,” Charles says out of habit. Pivoting on his heel, he faces Edie in her bed. Her eyes are currently closed. He’ll have to rouse her in a moment, to assess her mental status.
The thought feels terribly far away. Erik pulls at his attention like a lodestone, irresistible, impossible to ignore. Soulmate. What are the odds? Here? What are the odds?
“I can brief them if you need to step out for a minute,” Bobby offers quietly.
With an effort, Charles pulls his scattered thoughts back together, fights to put them in some kind of order. “No. I—” He shakes his head and forces himself to look directly at Erik. “I’m sorry. This is—this isn’t what you should be worrying about right now. You’re here for your mother, of course.”
Erik’s mind is a whirlwind of clashing emotion: concern and fear for his mother colliding violently with shock and confusion and disbelief over Charles’s existence, over his soulmate’s existence. It’s enough to make Charles’s head spin.
Then, with truly impressive mental control, Erik pushes away all thoughts of soulmates and imprinting and boxes up all related emotions. As a telepath, Charles knows how difficult it is for most people to compartmentalize feelings and impressions. Incredibly, Erik seems to do it with practiced ease.
“How is she?” he asks, walking over to Edie’s side.
Shoving back his own tangled storm of emotion, Charles moves to the other side of the bed. “How much have you heard?”
“Just that she was in an accident.” Erik’s hand, gripping the handrail of the bed, flexes, knuckles whitening. “A hit-and-run.”
“As you can see, she’s got some cuts and abrasions,” Charles tells him. “No broken bones though, which is fortunate. They patched her up in the ER and sent her up here because she has a subdural hematoma, a head bleed. That’s what’s causing the weakness to her left side and her difficulties with speaking. Now, it’s not too large, but it’s still serious. We’re going to monitor her closely to make sure the bleeding doesn’t worsen, and to try to reverse the swelling around the area.”
He ignores the powerful urge to drag Erik out of the room and back to his office. He wants to know everything about Erik all at once, this man whose life, in a split second of introduction, has become irreversibly entwined with Charles’s own. They need time to talk. They need time to come to terms with what’s just happened, what this means for them.
But Charles is a doctor. He’s on the job. He can’t think about the fact that his world has abruptly widened to include a soulmate. Christ.
Erik swallows. “Is she going to be okay?”
Charles clears his throat. “It’s too soon to tell. These next 48 hours are critical. As I said, we’ll do our best to minimize the swelling in her brain and keep her stable. Here, let me show you the scans.”
Stepping over to the computer in the corner of the room, he swipes his ID over the badge scanner to log in and opens up the patient portal. Pulling up the CT scans from this morning, he steps back slightly so Erik and Magda can see the images. “This is a CT scan they did after she came in earlier. See this white spot?” He circles it with a finger. “That’s the bleed. It’s on the right side of her brain, which is why she’s weak on the left side of her body—the signals cross over. The lighter gray around the white—that’s swelling as a result of the injury. It’s compressing the brain, which is causing the symptoms she’s experiencing.”
Erik comes over to stand beside Charles, arms crossed as he peers at the scans. “How bad is it?” Fear radiates off him, though he tries obviously to curb it. “I mean, it doesn’t look that big.”
“It’s relatively small,” Charles agrees, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t worsen. As it is right now, I don’t think it’s serious enough to require emergent surgery, though I’ll have the neurosurgeon take a look at it and talk to you later.”
“So what’s the plan of action?” Magda asks.
She comes over to stand next to Erik, standing close enough that their shoulders brush. Charles can’t help but eye the point where their arms touch, wondering if they’re involved. But she had said she was a family friend, hadn’t she?
He gives himself a violent mental shake. It doesn’t matter. “The plan,” he says with some effort, “is to monitor her closely for now. We’ll control her blood pressure and do what we can to bring down the swelling. She may require a less invasive surgery later on, but again, I’ll let the neurosurgeon take the lead on that. For now, we’re playing a waiting game.”
Erik exhales slowly. “All right. Can we stay here? Talk to her?”
Charles nods. “Of course. Bobby—” he gestures “—is your nurse today, and he’ll take great care of her. He can answer most of your questions, and he’s got me on speed dial if you need anything else.”
Bobby gives them a small salute. “I’m here to serve.”
Magda drifts back to Edie’s bedside. “It’s okay if she sleeps? We don’t have to keep her awake or anything?”
“It’s all right if she rests,” Charles replies. He’s distinctly aware of Erik’s gaze on the back of his neck as he walks toward the bed. “Just as long as we can rouse her easily. We’ll do periodic mental status checks to make sure she’s improving neurologically, not declining.” He leans down over Edie and puts his hand on her shoulder gently. It doesn’t take much pressure before she wakes, her eyes fluttering open groggily. “Hi,” he says, smiling. “I’m Dr. Xavier, if you don’t remember. How are you feeling?”
Edie blinks owlishly, then says, “Fine. Head hurts though.”
Charles shoots Bobby a glance over his shoulder. “Let’s get her some fentanyl for the pain.”
“You got it.”
Turning back to Edie, he squeezes her shoulder gently and says, “Your son and your friend Magda are here. I’ll let them talk to you, all right? But I’ll be around if you need anything. Try to get some rest, yeah?”
When she nods, he steps back. Magda takes Edie’s hand, smiles gently, and says, “Hi there.”
Charles turns and hesitates. Erik’s looking at him, obviously torn. The space between them is heavy with the weight of unspoken questions, but this isn’t the time to ask them. Erik has to see to his mother. That’s much more pressing at the moment.
Crossing over to him, Charles slips one of his cards out of his pocket and hands it to Erik. When their fingers brush, a tingle shoots down Charles’s arm. “I know you’ll want to stay with your mother, but when you’re ready to talk, give me a call and I’ll come back up here. My shift ends at seven, so I’ll be here until then.”
Nodding, Erik reads over the card for a long moment before tucking it into the pocket of his coat. His eyes, pale and curious, trace over Charles’s face. Under his scrutiny, Charles straightens slightly, pushing his shoulders back. To avoid feeling self-conscious under Erik’s gaze, he studies Erik in return, noting Erik’s strong jaw, the clean, straight line of his nose, the pleasing curve of his mouth, framed by light, ginger scruff. He looks about Charles’s age, or perhaps a year or two older. He has four or five inches on Charles, and he’s leanly, sturdily built. He’s a handsome man, there’s no question about that. There’s a cool, keen look in his eyes, confident and strong.
Charles wonders what Erik is seeing in him.
“I’ll call you,” Erik says finally, nodding. “I want to talk to my mother first, but we should talk, too. Obviously.”
They both hesitate, trying to figure out how to step away. Finally, Charles just awkwardly skirts around Erik and slips out the door, his heart thudding hard in his chest.
As soon as he’s out of sight, he leans against the wall, his hands trembling slightly when he braces them against his knees. The reality of the last fifteen minutes hits him like a punch to the gut.
Did that just happen? Did he just imprint on his patient’s son? Did he really just meet his soulmate?
Bobby appears at his elbow, his eyes wide. “Oh my god. I can’t believe that just happened. Are you okay?”
Charles waves him off. “I’m fine.” His voice sounds strange, a bit tight. “I was only dizzy for a moment. Don’t worry about me.”
“Are you sure? I mean, that was—” Bobby flails a hand. “You just met your soulmate. Like, holy shit!”
Charles lets out a strangled laugh. “I know.” Running his hands through his hair, he leans more of his weight against the wall and laughs again, shakily. “God, I know. That wasn’t just me, right? That happened?”
“Um, yeah.” Bobby shakes his head in amazement. “I’ve seen it a few times, you know. Two of my best friends imprinted right in front of me. But that was like—I mean, that was unexpected. Not that you can ever expect it, I guess, but this is like, some soap opera shit. I mean, you’re his mom’s doctor.”
“I’m well aware of how improbable this situation is,” Charles says wryly. He rubs his hands over his eyes, trying to ground himself. “God. This is not what I was expecting when I woke up this morning.”
He’d woken up single and unattached, and now, seven hours later, he has a fucking soulmate. A compatible partner. An imprint.
For some reason, the only thought that’s fully taking shape in his head is: Raven is not going to believe this.
“Do you…” Bobby pauses and scrubs a hand through his hair. “I’ll let the other nurses know not to bother you for a while…?”
Charles shakes his head. “No, don’t tell them. I’m not—” He huffs. “I’d rather keep this quiet for now, all right?”
Gossip spreads in the hospital like wildfire. He has no doubt that by tomorrow morning, the entire staff will know about that one ICU doctor who imprinted on a patient’s son in the middle of his shift, but that’s a problem for tomorrow morning. He hasn’t gotten a chance to sort through his thoughts yet; the last thing he wants is to be interrogated about what happened, or congratulated. He’s not even sure if there’s cause for celebration.
Bobby nods. “Sure thing. Of course.”
Charles presses the heels of his palms to his eyes for a moment, then heaves a sigh. “I’m going to lunch, okay? If…if Mr. Lehnsherr asks for me, give me a call.”
Charles claps him on the shoulder and squeezes gently. “Thank you,” he says quietly, gratefully. He knows Bobby can keep a secret. At least he’ll keep it until Charles has gathered himself.
He has to pass room 462 on the way to the stairs, but the glass doors are closed and the curtain drawn. Charles hesitates for a moment by the doors, tempted to reach out with his telepathy to see if Erik’s in there, to see if Erik is ready to talk. But no, Erik will come to him when he’s ready. Pushing him would be inconsiderate, selfish.
Hands tucked into the pockets of his white coat, Charles turns and heads downstairs to the cafeteria.
His mother slips in and out of a light doze all day long. Erik paces around the small room for the better part of the afternoon, trying to burn off some of his anxious, restless energy. Normally he goes for a run when he feels like this, like he’s coming out of his skin, but he’s loath to leave the hospital. He can’t leave his mother’s bedside while she’s in such a delicate state. What if something happens while he’s gone? He’d never forgive himself.
“I’ll be fine,” she tells him several times. “Don’t worry so much.”
“I’m not worried,” he replies, mostly to keep her from worrying. But they both see through each other.
Magda hovers attentively at his mother’s bedside, keeping up a steady stream of gentle conversation, trying to keep her engaged, to keep her spirits up. Thank god for Magda, Erik thinks, watching her tell a long, convoluted joke that has Edie smiling at the end of it. Erik has a truly shitty bedside manner.
And besides, he’s distracted. The memory of this morning keeps playing over and over again in his head, like a CD stuck on one track: the moment his hand had touched Dr. Xavier’s, the lightning that had shot up his arm and through his whole body, the disorienting feeling of the entire world rearranging itself around him.
Hours later, he still can’t believe that happened. He, Erik Lehnsherr, had imprinted. He has a reputation for being callous, cold, standoffish, antisocial—all traits that lessen his chances of ever imprinting. Conventional wisdom holds that the more easygoing, tolerant, and friendly someone is, the easier it is for them to find a compatible partner. Conventional wisdom holds that someone as sharp and guarded and prickly as Erik would have much slimmer chance of finding someone who would fit him and all his cracks and flaws perfectly.
He’s on his millionth lap around the room—from the door to the computer, along the wall to the window, then along the window to the counter, then to the bed and around it again to the door—when his mother says suddenly, “Erik.”
Instantly, he darts to her side. When she reaches for him, he grasps her hand tightly. “Yes, Mama?”
She fixes him with a familiar, stern look—it’s the same look she’s always given him when she thinks he’s being too stubborn for his own good. “Stop pacing around,” she rasps. “You’re making me dizzy.”
Erik sighs, chagrined. “Sorry.”
“And don’t hover,” she adds. “Go on.”
“Go where?” Erik strokes his thumb over her knuckles. “I told Moira I had an emergency. She’s given me the day off.”
His mother huffs weakly, her brow creasing in exasperation. “You know that’s not what I meant.” When Erik opens his mouth to retort, she cuts over him. “Go and call that nice doctor. I know you must be dying to speak to him.”
“I’m not,” Erik lies. “I should be here, with you.”
“Erik.” She squeezes his hand, her lips twitching in half a smile. “I remember what it was like when your father and I imprinted. I know what you must be feeling now. Go. I’ll be fine. I have Magda with me, and my very helpful nurse.”
Still Erik holds onto her, frowning. “Mama, I…really, I should stay just in case you need anything or—” Or in case something happens. But he hardly wants to think that, let alone say it out loud.
His mother heaves a sigh. She and Magda share a commiserating look, and then Magda says, “Erik, go. There’s nothing you can do here anyway. Honestly, you’re stressing us out. And…” Her expression softens. “You just imprinted, Erik. No one’s going to blame you for taking an hour or two to…figure it all out.”
As much as he hates the idea of leaving his mother’s side right now, he can’t deny that he’s itching to pull out Dr. Xavier’s card and call him. There’s so much they have to discuss, so much he needs to know. But still, he pauses for a moment and searches Magda’s face. Whatever they’d had had ended long ago, but Erik had always thought that if either of them were to imprint, things would still be…uncomfortable, at the very least. Certainly he’d spent more than a few nights after their breakup lying awake thinking uneasily about the kind of person Magda might imprint with. But to his relief, there’s no awkwardness in her expression, no hint of jealousy or even discomfort.
She’s always been a better person than he is, Erik thinks ruefully. He really shouldn’t have doubted that.
“Okay,” he says, giving his mother’s hand one more squeeze. “I’ll be back right after. You’ll call me if anything changes, right?”
Magda nods. “Of course.”
Reluctantly, Erik steps out of the room and pulls the sliding door shut behind him. Once he’s in the hallway outside, he tugs out his phone and Dr. Xavier’s card. Punching in the number takes only a couple of seconds, but Erik stands there for another long minute, his thumb hovering over the green call icon. His heart pounds rapidly against his ribs.
What are you waiting for? he growls at himself. A fucking invitation?
He presses call.
The line rings for barely a second before it picks up. “Hello?” Dr. Xavier says, slightly too fast, like he’s been waiting for Erik’s call all day long.
He probably has been, Erik thinks.
“Hey,” he says gruffly. Then, wondering if that had been too curt, he clears his throat and tries again. “Hello. It’s Erik Lehnsherr.”
“Yes, of course. I…”
There’s a pause. He sounds nervous, Erik thinks with some relief. Well, that makes two of them at least.
“How’s your mother?” Dr. Xavier asks finally.
“Good, I think. She’s not worse.”
“That’s good news. I’ll be coming by later this afternoon to see her again. Has the neurosurgeon been by?”
“I’ll give her another call.”
There’s another long, painful pause. Erik grasps for something to say, but his mind keeps whirling in nonsensical circles. Suddenly he wishes he’d taken half a second to flip through one of those Imprinting for Dummies books that are always on sale at the bookstore down the street from his apartment. Or maybe he should’ve paid more attention to the dialogue in the rom-coms he and Magda like to make fun of—rom-coms always have storylines about soulmates. Even as stupid as those movies are, they probably would’ve given him some idea of what to say now, to the man who’s supposed to be his soulmate.
Dr. Xavier clears his throat. “Well. Do you…perhaps you’d like to get some coffee?”
“Yeah. That’s fine.”
“Great. The coffee in the doctor’s lounge is worlds better than the stuff in the cafeteria. I’ll come up and escort you down, if that’s all right?”
“Perfect. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
Once the call ends, Erik slips his phone back into his pocket and takes a few deep breaths. There’s nothing to be afraid of, or intimidated by, he tells himself. He’s a goddamn detective—he’s seen and faced much worse things than this. He’ll talk with Dr. Xavier. He’ll see what the man’s expectations are. They’ll work out some sort of mutual arrangement, and that will be that. Simple.
There’s a common adage that crops up often in popular literature: Nothing about soulmates is ever simple. Erik determinedly pushes that out of his mind.
Dr. Xavier arrives within a couple of minutes, as promised. He emerges from a staff-only stairwell, glances around for a moment, then straightens when he spots Erik in the hall. As he approaches, Erik stands his ground, frowning to hide his nervousness.
Dr. Xavier comes to a stop an arm’s length from him. He’s smiling, relaxed. Erik wonders if his composure is genuine, or if it’s merely a facade.
“Shall we?” Dr. Xavier asks.
Erik nods. Together, they walk back to the stairwell, where Dr. Xavier swipes his keycard, holds the door open, and gestures Erik in.
“So,” Dr. Xavier says as they head down the stairs together, “Mr. Lehnsherr...May I call you Erik?”
“Yeah.” Erik figures sticking to formalities will only make this even more awkward. “Erik’s fine.”
“Erik it is then.” Dr. Xavier guides him in through the door on the first landing, then down a narrow hallway. “Please, call me Charles.”
The walk to the doctor’s lounge takes only a minute, if that. Thankfully, it’s empty when they arrive—the last thing Erik wants is an audience. Charles winds through the maze of tables to the back corner, where a Keurig sits. “How do you like your coffee?” he asks, slipping a paper cup from the dispenser. “Sugar? Cream?”
Charles’s eyebrow arches. “You’re a stronger man than I.”
Erik shrugs. “It’s what I got used to in college.”
“Oh? Where did you go?”
“Ah, right down the street. I went to Columbia myself.” Charles sets the paper cup under the spout as the Keurig begins to spit coffee. “Are you from New York?”
“I grew up in Queens.”
“Excellent. And your accent—German?”
Erik blinks. “Most people can’t place it.”
“I might have cheated.” When Erik gives him a quizzical look, Charles explains, “Your last name. It wasn’t much of a mental leap from there.”
“Oh.” When Charles holds out the cup, Erik accepts it, watching steam curl up from the small opening in the lid. “You’re from the UK?”
“I do sound like it, don’t I?” Charles busies himself with making a second cup of coffee. “My mother was from London. I was born there. We moved to New York when I was twelve, but the accent stuck. It did fade a bit, but then I spent a few years at Oxford and now it’s annoyingly posh, to quote my sister.”
It is annoyingly posh, the sort of accent Erik associates with arrogant schoolboys born into ridiculously wealthy families who vacation in private villas in Italy and likely have the Queen on speed-dial. And Charles looks like a schoolboy, almost—shave his beard and dye away that slim gray streak in his hair and he’d look twenty.
Jesus, Erik thinks. He’s imprinted on a kid.
Charles snorts. “Hardly.”
Then he stills.
“What?” Erik asks, eyeing the sudden stiffness to Charles’s shoulders warily.
His own coffee in hand, Charles gestures to the nearest table. “Sit, please. There’s something we should get out of the way before we talk about anything else.”
As they settle on opposite sides of the small table, Erik studies Charles’s expression closely, noting the pinch to Charles’s mouth, the slight tension in the corners of his eyes. Erik’s sat across from countless persons of interest in dozens of interrogation rooms—he knows the look of a man with something to hide.
“I’m a mutant,” Charles says carefully. “A telepath, to be precise. Omega-level.”
Erik’s eyes widen, and Charles continues hurriedly, “Some people are uncomfortable with that. If you’re one of them—”
“I’m not.” Erik almost laughs. The very idea of him being as intolerant as a common baseline is absurd. “I was just impressed. Omega-level? That’s…” He trails off, shaking his head with honest admiration. Underneath the awe, there’s a swell of relief as well—he’s imprinted on a fellow mutant. He doesn’t know how he would’ve handled imprinting on a baseline. It’s not a concern he’s thought hard about before, but now that that possibility no longer exists, he finds himself undeniably glad that he doesn’t have to deal with it.
Charles smiles tentatively. “Thank you. That’s usually not most people’s first reaction when they hear about my mutation.”
“Most people are idiots,” Erik says.
Charles laughs, his eyes bright with amusement. Erik’s surprised by how pleasant and charming the sound is. He’s not usually the kind of man who finds things pleasant and charming.
Of course, only a few hours ago, he had thought he wasn’t the kind of man to find a soulmate either. But here they are.
“Many of them are,” Charles agrees with a spark of humor. “I’m glad you aren’t one of them.”
Erik grins sharply at him. “I’m a mutant, too.”
“I know.” At Erik’s quizzical look, Charles explains, “I can usually tell when someone’s a mutant. Their minds feel slightly different, a little...brighter, I suppose. That’s as much as I can see at a glance though. I can’t guess at what your mutation is unless I go deeper.”
“Metallokinesis.” Then, after a moment, Erik amends, “That’s what I usually tell people. It’s easier for them to grasp. More accurately, I can manipulate magnetic fields.”
Raising a hand, he tugs the pen out of Charles’s breast pocket by its metal clip. As the pen comes to hover between them, he watches Charles’s expression closely, searching for signs of discomfort, nervousness. But there’s nothing in Charles’s face but delight and wonder, his eyes wide and riveted on the floating pen. Emboldened, Erik pulls a bit of spare change out of the side pocket of Charles’s white coat, then his phone, then unclips his hospital badge from his lapel.
“That’s amazing,” Charles exclaims, watching the whole display orbit their table. “Your fine motor control is excellent. Many telekinetics can only move two or three objects simultaneously, you know.”
“I know,” Erik says, a bit smugly. After a moment, he brings all of the items back and places them in Charles’s open hand, one by one.
“Marvelous,” Charles says, clipping his badge back onto his lapel. As he sorts through the spare change, he adds, “I bet you’re quite the attraction at parties.”
Erik snorts. “Parties aren’t really my thing.”
“Oh? And how do you spend your Friday nights then?”
“Working,” Erik replies. Most Fridays—most days—he’s holed up at his desk long after almost everyone else has gone home. He likes the bullpen in the later afternoon and evening. It’s quiet, no one to annoy him with inane questions and distractions.
Charles takes a sip of his coffee and studies Erik over the rim of the cup. “What do you do?”
“I’m a detective in the NYPD. Mutant Crimes Division.”
Charles’s eyebrows shoot up with interest. “Oh, that’s new. You know, in my job, I meet quite a few people from quite a few professions, but I’ve never met a detective before. And in the Mutant Crimes Division, no less!”
“It’s a relatively new department, only been around the last thirty years or so.”
“Have you always wanted to be a detective?”
Erik nods and raises his coffee to his lips, hoping to encourage Charles to move along to the next subject. But there’s a long pause, and after a moment, Erik realizes that Charles is looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to elaborate. Cheeks heating slightly, he glares down at his coffee and mutters, “I’m not really...good at talking about myself. I’m used to living a very private life.”
“Of course.” Charles’s voice is gentle and understanding, smoothing out the sudden tension with practiced ease. Erik imagines that’s the voice Charles uses on agitated patients.
“I didn’t always want to be a doctor,” Charles continues, brushing his thumb over a stray drop of coffee on the lid of his cup. “I wanted to be a professor once, actually. Genetics, or biochemistry, one of the sciences. Or even mutant studies or something related—I loved studying mutant history and politics when I was younger. But then my father got sick when I was thirteen—pneumonia, nothing chronic, but it warranted a long stay in the hospital anyway. After visiting him all month long, I realized that medicine was something I was really interested in and wanted to study. And,” he quirks a smile, “I can still be a professor someday, perhaps when I retire. So I’ll get the best of both worlds, really.”
“And you’ve always wanted to be here?” Erik asks, gesturing vaguely at the floors above them. “ICU?”
“No, not always. I worked in the ER for a while on a Trauma team, actually. But I ended up here eventually and,” Charles shrugs, “I do love it.”
“Speaking of…” Charles hesitates for a moment, pressing his lips together. Then, visibly fortifying himself, he pushes on. “Speaking of love, I suppose we should talk about what we each expect from our...from our bond.”
The imprint isn’t a guarantee of anything. It doesn’t guarantee a friendship, a relationship, a marriage, or even a happy union. It just indicates a high potential for all that. The rest depends on the soulmates themselves.
Erik doesn’t know what he expects. This has all happened so quickly that he has no idea what he wants. But they need to figure it out at some point, and Erik’s never been one to do things later if they can be done sooner.
“I don’t expect anything,” Erik says finally. “I’m not a traditionalist. I don’t expect this to mean a commitment.”
“Me neither.” Charles gives Erik a searching look for a moment, then sighs. “Can I ask about you and Magda? Are you…”
“Dating?” Erik shakes his head. “We dated once, but that was years ago. There’s nothing romantic between us now.” He glances down at Charles’s bare ring finger. “You?”
“Never married, and my last serious relationship ended over a year ago.”
Charles’s obvious relief mirrors Erik’s own. It’s always an ordeal when one half of the imprint is already involved with someone else, or worse—when both halves are otherwise entangled. Erik wouldn’t have had the inclination or the energy to deal with that.
“Are you interested in men?” Charles asks. “I’m bisexual myself.”
Another relief. Erik nods. “Me too.” He’s always leaned more towards women, but he’s had a good number of male lovers, especially in his college years. And there’s no doubt that Charles is Erik’s type—dark-haired, bright-eyed, shorter, with an easy smile and quick, competent hands. If they had met in a bar, Charles would have caught Erik’s eye, even as a stranger.
Erik wonders if he’s Charles’s type as well.
“Well…” Charles taps his index finger against his lower lip. “How do you feel about relationships? I mean, do you want one?”
Does he? After his breakup with Magda, Erik hadn’t really tried seriously dating again. Part of it had been because he was, admittedly, still hung up on Magda. Part of it had been because work has kept him progressively busier and busier. And he really hasn’t felt that his life has lacked in any way in the last four years. If he wants sex, it’s not too hard to find someone at some bar willing to oblige him. If he wants companionship—which is rare and selective—he’ll call Magda, or consent to a night out with his fellow detectives, of whom he’s grown grudgingly fond. He likes living alone, relying only on himself, worrying only about himself from day to day. The thought of bringing someone else into his life and his home rankles a bit.
And yet...he can’t deny that he’s curious. He’s not willing to throw away the possibilities of this just yet.
“I don’t know,” he says honestly.
Charles huffs a laugh. “I don’t know either. I’ve really never expected to imprint on anyone, you know. I might have hoped for it, but now that it’s happened…”
“And,” Charles says quickly, “I don’t want to force you into anything. I’d...I’d like to give this—us—a try, if you are, but if you’d rather not, I won’t stop you from walking away.”
People do walk away, however rare and improbable that might seem. Erik’s seen the more negative consequences of it in his line of work. But imprints aren’t legally binding; both party—or any of the parties involved, in the infrequent cases of multiple imprints—are free to ignore the imprint and move on. Some do it to preserve existing relationships. Some do it because they have no interest in relationships at all. Some do it for other, more personal reasons. In any case, there’s precedent.
But Erik doesn’t want to walk away. Not yet at least. An imprint doesn’t come around every day, after all. Most people are lucky to find even one in their lifetimes.
“I want to try,” he says.
Charles immediately rewards him with a brilliant smile. “I’m glad. Really glad. I—”
“Before we get any further,” Erik interrupts, “you should know what you’re getting into.” He puts his coffee down and leans forward, elbows on the table. “I work almost every day, and I put in long hours. I leave at six in the morning and don’t get home until seven or eight. I don’t like taking vacation days. I don’t particularly enjoy going out too often. I don’t like social events.”
Nonplussed, Charles says, “I’m sure we can find something to do, just the two of us.”
“I’m not easy to get along with either,” Erik continues, frowning. “I’m hardheaded and stubborn. I’m impatient. I hate small talk. I hate incompetence. I hate dishonesty. I hate intolerance. When I hate something, I’m not shy about letting people know it. I’m not a nice person.”
“Why, Erik,” Charles says, smiling, “are you trying to talk me out of a relationship with you?”
Erik flushes. “I just want you to be aware of what you’re getting into.”
Charles grins and leans forward. “Well then, in the interest of full disclosure, let me tell you about myself. I also work long hours, usually twelve-hour shifts. I don’t like taking vacation days either, though that’s mostly because I seldom have anyplace to go or anyone to go with. I like social events, but you wouldn’t be obligated to come. I’m just as content at home curled up with a good book. If that’s what you like, then I’d be happy to join you.
“As for my personal flaws,” he begins a list on his fingers, “I can be overbearing. I’m nosy. I try to always give people the benefit of the doubt, though that’s come back to bite me in the ass several times. I’m arrogant. I think I know best. I’m controlling.” He smiles. “That’s what my sister says anyway, and she’s usually right. So.” He cocks his head at Erik. “We’ve both put our cards on the table. What do you think?”
Erik finds his honesty startlingly attractive, but he thinks it might be too early to admit to that. Instead, he just nods.“I think we can find some middle ground.”
Charles smiles warmly. “I think so, too.”
Dating your soulmate, Charles soon finds, is distinctly different from dating anyone else. There’s some kind of unspoken connection underlying every interaction, every moment. Charles hasn’t figured out whether it’s truly a biological link or if it’s some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, if their expectation of compatibility has forged a deeper connection than would have been possible if they hadn’t imprinted. Either way, he’s enjoying their slow, casual exploration of each other and their relationship. Even better, Erik seems to be enjoying himself, too.
They find snatches of time here and there to meet up for coffee, for lunch. And, of course, they meet at the hospital whenever Erik swings by to visit his mother.
There aren’t any regulations technically requiring Charles to pass Edie Lehnsherr’s case off to another doctor, but Charles does anyway, just to avoid any potential ethics violations. Even if he and Erik aren’t married, their imprint still complicates matters, and the last thing Charles wants is to complicate Edie’s care. So he hands her off to his colleague Theresa Pryde, who, he tells Erik, is really excellent.
“You’ll still look in on her though?” Erik asks, frowning.
“Not officially,” Charles replies. They’re having coffee together in a secluded hallway in Erik’s precinct. Charles had swung by to tell him about the transfer of care, and he’d brought the coffee he knows Erik likes. “I’ll visit her from time to time, but I won’t play any role in her treatment. But she’s doing well, you know.”
“There’s no hope of her getting discharged by the 24th?”
“It’s possible,” Charles hedges, “but not guaranteed. She’s certainly improving—she’s no longer quite as lethargic, and she’s drinking and eating well. Plus, when I last saw her, her blood pressure was well under control, and the bleed is stable, as far as I know. But I can’t say anything certain about when she’ll get out of the hospital.”
Erik’s frown deepens. For a moment, he just runs his thumb over the edge of the lid of his coffee, over and over again. Then he sighs, drops his chin, and says, “We’ve never missed a Hanukkah at her house. Every year since I was a boy, we’ve celebrated at her place in Queens.”
Charles reaches out and squeezes Erik’s arm, just above his wrist. As always, the physical contact sends a small, pleasurable tingle up Charles’s fingers. It’s a permanent feature of their imprint, and already it’s become more familiar and less startling each time they touch. He hopes it’s comforting for Erik.
“The good news is,” Charles says softly, “she’s getting better. She might not be home on the 24th, but maybe by New Year’s. She may need some rehab but not for too long, I imagine.”
Erik sighs again. “Yeah.” Running his free hand through his hair, he leans more of his weight onto the window behind them and says, “If she’s not out by the 24th, we’ll bring Hanukkah to her. That’ll be all right, won’t it?”
“You’ll have to ask the nurses. They knows visitation rules better than I do. They won’t allow anything with open flames though, for obvious reasons.”
“Obviously,” Erik agrees. “I’m sure Magda and I will come up with something.”
Charles smiles. “I’m sure it’ll be wonderful.”
They're silent for a moment. Then Erik asks, “What plans do you have for the holidays?”
Working, sleeping, and a lot of drinking, Charles thinks. “No plans. My mother is throwing a huge party, as usual, but we don’t get along very well, so I don’t plan to go.”
“Then you’ll come celebrate with us?” Erik says, looking over at him. It’s more of a command than a question. In fact, a lot of Erik’s questions tend to sound more like demands than anything else, perhaps a product of his detective training.
Charles hesitates. “I’d hate to intrude.”
That earns him a snort. “Don’t be stupid. My mom likes you, and so does Magda. They’d probably scold me for not bringing you.”
“And you?” Charles rubs his thumb over the knob of Erik’s wrist, sending pleasant shivers up both of their arms. “You wouldn’t mind?”
Erik is silent for a long moment, considering. That’s something Charles likes about Erik: how he takes the time to give an honest answer whenever something’s asked of him, how he feels no need to spare anyone’s feelings. After having grown up in a family obsessed with appearances to the detriment of all else, Charles appreciates candor, even if it might be less than tactful.
Besides, over the past week or so of their courtship, Erik has proven himself to be an intensely private person who has trouble allowing others into his space. Inviting Charles, whom he’s known for just over a week, to join in on a religious celebration of great importance to him and his family probably runs contrary to most of his habits. It’s no wonder he hesitates.
Finally Erik says, “No. I want you to come.”
Charles beams. “Then of course I’ll come. Though you’ll have to teach me what to wear and what to do and say. I don’t know much about Hanukkah.”
“You’re…” Erik squints at him. “...Christian, of some sort? Your family is?”
“No, I’m not,” Charles replies, amused at the very idea of it. “I’m an atheist. My mother pretends to be Anglican. My sister doesn’t pretend to be anything she’s not. My stepfather doesn’t give a shit about religion, and I’ve always suspected that my stepbrother is the devil incarnate. So no, no Christians in my family, not really.”
Erik laughs—a real, full, startled laugh. The sound of it makes Charles grin, pleased to have amused him.
“An atheist goy,” Erik mutters. “Mama will be thrilled.”
His dry smile takes most of the sting out of his words, but Charles can’t help but frown. “You think your mother…” He pauses, not really sure what he’s asking.
Erik shakes his head. “I’m joking. I already said Mama likes you, and she does, really. But I know she’s always pictured me ending up with some nice Jewish girl or boy, and you’re…”
“Decidedly not,” Charles finishes wryly. Then he pauses, concerned. He’s never been particularly religious, even when his mother used to drag him to Sunday services because that’s just what was done. His lack of faith has never really bothered him, but what if it bothers Erik?
“I hope you don’t mind that I’m an atheist,” he says, brows furrowed. “If it’s really important to you—”
“Being Jewish is important to me,” Erik interrupts, “but I don’t expect you to convert or anything like that, not unless you want to. It doesn’t matter to me either way, as long as you respect my traditions.”
Erik nods. “Then we won’t have a problem.”
They’re silent for a moment, nursing their half-cold coffees. The sudden blare of trumpets makes both of them jolt. With his free hand, Erik reaches into his pocket and tugs out his phone. Scanning the screen briefly, he grimaces and says, “I have to get back to work. Thanks for the coffee though.”
Charles takes his hand off Erik’s wrist. Both of them sigh softly, involuntarily.
“I’ll see you later?” Charles asks.
Erik nods. “Whenever I’m free.”
Erik normally works Christmas Eve and Christmas, but this year Hanukkah begins on December 24, so he takes off on Friday with most of the rest of the precinct for the holidays. Late Saturday morning, he wakes up, takes a longer run than usual, comes back home to shower and get dressed, and then heads out to the store.
The streets are horribly busy, the shops even more so. Still, Erik manages to get in and out with his purchases in less than an hour, mostly through glaring and shoving through the crowds and being even more of a general asshole than he usually is. By the time he reaches the hospital, it’s only about two in the afternoon, still well before sunset.
His mother isn’t in her room when he arrives. Brows furrowed, he looks around for a nurse and finds Charles instead, leaning against the nurse’s station and frowning down at a stack of papers in his hand. As Erik watches, Charles bites his lip, eyes scanning over the top page, then takes a pen from the breast pocket of his scrubs (a pen Erik knows well by now, having run his powers over it several times since their first meeting) and jots down a few notes. Erik can’t help but notice how strong and capable Charles’s hands look, and how gorgeously freckled his forearms are. He’s not wearing his white coat right now, and in his short-sleeved scrub top, his arms are perfectly on display.
Erik doesn’t know whether the imprint caused his attraction to Charles or whether he would’ve found Charles attractive regardless, but it doesn’t matter, really—either way, he feels a warm simmering under his skin whenever Charles touches him, and he’s spent much of the last few days imagining...well, things he usually doesn’t fantasize about. Not just sex but also what it might be like to spend lazy Friday evenings together, what it might be like to wake up next to each other every morning, what it might be like to live together.
Part of him recoils at those thoughts. He’s known Charles for just over two weeks and he’s thinking about living together? It had taken nearly three months before he’d even spent the night at Magda’s. What the hell’s the matter with him?
Rhetorical question, really—he knows what’s the matter with him. This is what happens when you imprint—you start imagining what you’d be like together because being together is a foregone conclusion, you start trying to fit this complete stranger into your life for the long-term because that’s what soulmate means: long-term partner, forever-partner.
At least, that’s what it used to mean. Modern day interpretations of the imprint are a lot more relaxed. People have choices, these days.
Still, it’s almost ingrained instinct to try to picture Charles being a part of the rest of Erik’s life. Soulmate is still an enormous, compelling concept, after all. And if he and Charles truly are uniquely compatible, then there’s reason to believe their relationship will be successful.
Erik finds the idea of sharing his life with Charles not entirely unpleasant. It’s more than he can say for anyone else.
Erik turns to find Bobby standing behind him. “Looking for your mom?” the nurse asks. When Erik nods, Bobby says, “Physical therapy’s walking her around the unit. She should probably be back soon.”
“She’s doing great.” Bobby flashes him a thumbs-up. “Dr. Pryde says she’ll probably be getting out of the ICU today or tomorrow, depending on if there’s a free bed up on the seventh floor. And from there, it’ll probably be only a few more days before she’s discharged from the hospital.”
“Great.” Maybe they’ll be able to spend the last couple of days of Hanukkah at home then. He knows his mother will be glad for that.
“Meanwhile…” Bobby shoots him a sly smile. “You here to see Dr. Xavier?”
Erik rolls his eyes. Why is everyone in this hospital so fucking curious about every facet of his relationship with Charles? “None of your business,” he grumbles.
“Hey, Dr. Xavier!” Bobby calls, waving.
Across the way, Charles looks up, then smiles warmly when he spots Erik there. Erik can’t even bring himself to be annoyed with Bobby—he has no attention to spare the kid when Charles is striding over to him, grinning.
“Hello there,” Charles says, giving Erik a quick once-over. “You look nice and cozy.”
“It’s freezing out.” Erik eyes the goosebumps on Charles’s forearms. “It’s freezing in here, too.”
“I took off my coat for a procedure this morning, and I forgot where I left it,” Charles says, a bit sheepishly. “It’s okay, one of the nurses will probably page me any minute now. Are you looking for your mother?”
“Bobby just told me she’s with PT.”
“Yeah, she’s walking around somewhere. I saw her earlier.” Charles cocks his head at the grocery bags in Erik’s hands. “That smells heavenly, what is it?”
Erik lifts the bag in his left hand. “Sufganiyot. My mother always makes them but this year we’ll have to deal with store-bought ones, at least for now.”
“And the other bag?” Charles asks.
“The hanukiah. It’s electric, which—” Erik grimaces “It’s really not ideal, but since we can’t have candles in the hospital, that limits our options.”
“I see.” Charles smiles. “My shift doesn’t end until seven, but I’ll come here right after, if that’s all right.”
Erik nods. “We’ll light the hanukiah and say prayers after Shabbat ends at around five-thirty, but afterwards, we’ll have food and celebration. You’ll be in time for that.”
Charles inhales again, closing his eyes briefly. “Smells delicious. I can’t wait.”
A nurse appears at the end of the hall. “Dr. Xavier? We’re ready for you.”
“Be there in a second!” To Erik, Charles says, “I have to go put in an a-line. I’ll see you later?”
Charles claps him on the shoulder. Even through the layers of clothes, his touch sends a pleasant tingle down Erik’s arm. “Don’t have too much fun without me!”
Erik can’t help but smile. “We won’t.”
The rest of the day drags by. Charles finishes his notes early, rounds on his patients again, and then busies himself with some credentialing paperwork as the clock sluggishly ticks toward seven o’clock. And even then he can’t take off immediately—he has to hang around to hand off to night shift, and by the time he’s briefed Dr. Cheng about the day’s events and given her the on-call phone, it’s nearing seven-forty.
He takes the time to change out of his scrubs and into a pair of nice slacks and a button-up shirt. He’s glad he’d packed a change of clothes this morning; Erik had been dressed nicely earlier and Charles would have hated to be underdressed. Combing his hair as best as he can with his fingers, he grabs the packages he’d stowed away in his work locker and heads up to the fourth floor.
The doors are closed when he arrives, but when he knocks, they slide open instantly. Feeling slightly self-conscious, Charles steps inside.
Edie is sitting up in bed, a small prayer book open in her lap. Magda and Erik have drawn chairs up to her bedside and are chatting with her when Charles comes in. The hanukiah Erik had mentioned earlier is sitting on a small table to the left of the doorway.
“Hey,” Charles says hesitantly. “I hope I’m not too late…?”
“No, no, come in,” Edie says immediately, waving him in. She’s bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, looking worlds better than she had when she’d first come in.
“We saved you some sufganiyot,” Magda says, grinning mischievously. “If you’d been any later, there’d be none left.”
Erik gets up and waves him over. “Come on, I had one of the nurses bring in an extra chair.”
He takes Charles’s elbow, pulling him over to them. His touch is warm and thrilling, as always. Charles has to fight back the sudden, absurd urge to glance away and blush like some kind of smitten schoolboy.
“I brought—” Charles lifts up the bag of packages in his hand. “I read up on Hanukkah online and some sites said to give money gifts, others said it was probably all right to give other gifts as well. I wasn’t sure…”
“Whatever you got is perfect,” Erik says.
Magda grins. “I’m just impressed you actually tried to read up on our traditions.” She waggles her brows at Erik. “He’s a keeper, Erik.”
Charmingly, Erik flushes. “Come on,” he mutters. “Come sit, I’ll get you some food.”
At his urging, Charles settles next to Magda, who turns to face him and asks, “How was work?”
“Long,” he admits. “Tiring. No one’s in the mood to work today.” Though the ICU maintains a relatively full staff through the holidays, much of the rest of the hospital is quiet. Christmas Eve makes everyone a bit slower, a bit sleepier.
“You’re working tomorrow, too?” Erik asks, coming back over to offer him a plate laden with powdered pastries.
“Thank you,” Charles says, taking it from him. “And yes, I am.”
“You drew the short straw?” Edie asks.
“No, I volunteered to work. I didn’t have any other plans.”
“Well now you do,” Magda says, smiling. “You’ll come by again tomorrow evening, won’t you? It’ll be night two.”
Charles blinks, a bit surprised. He hadn’t thought about that. “Yeah, I suppose. I…”
He’s struck, suddenly, by how fundamentally his life has changed. Just a few weeks ago, his only plans for Christmas had been to work through the day and then come home to have a few drinks and watch some sappy Christmas movies before passing out. Raven’s off in L.A. with Irene, Charles’s friends have their own families, and he’s already opted out of his mother’s Christmas festivities. It would have been a bit lonely, yeah, but it’s no different from how he spent last Christmas, and the ones before that. He’s used to it.
Now here he is on Christmas Eve, on the first night of Hanukkah, sitting in a room with his newfound friends, and with Erik, his soulmate. And maybe soulmate is a trite, overly romantic word, but Charles has learned to like the sound of it.
“Charles?” Erik reaches down and squeezes his shoulder.
Charles blinks and looks up at him. “Sorry. I was just...thinking about how glad I am that I met you, that’s all.” He looks at Magda and Edie, smiling. “I’m glad I met you, too, though I wish it could have been under better circumstances, obviously.”
Edie gives him such a warm smile that it makes his chest feel a little tight. “You’re so sweet, dear.”
“Speaking of sweet!” Magda gestures to Charles’s plate. “Try it.”
“It’s not as good as Mama’s,” Erik says, “but it’s decent enough.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Edie says, shaking her head.
Smiling, Charles lifts one of the pastries and takes a bite. As flavor bursts instantly out onto his tongue, his eyes widen, and all three of them laugh.
“Here,” Erik says when Charles has swallowed. “You have some…” He brushes his thumb against the corner of Charles’s mouth. Their eyes meet, and his hand slows deliberately, lingering. “...some sugar.”
It’s such a cliche gesture that Charles should laugh, but he doesn’t. Instead, he feels his mouth go a bit dry, his heart speeding up. He and Erik just look at each other for a charged moment, both of them hesitant to press, both of them knowing where this is going anyway.
“Erik,” Magda says.
They avert their gazes quickly. Embarrassed, Charles stares down at the plate in his lap, pulse racing. Flirting with Erik like that—if that could be called flirting—right in front of his mother, and in front of his ex-girlfriend—Charles feels utterly tactless, even if Erik started it.
“What?” Erik asks, sounding faintly irritated.
“Can you get us some water?” Magda asks. “From the vending machine?”
“Yes. And take Charles with you.”
She and Erik exchange a weighty glance. Then he mutters, “Be right back,” and gestures for Charles to follow him. Handing the plate to Magda, Charles does.
“We can get water from the breakroom,” Charles tells him as they slide the door to Edie’s room closed behind them. “It’s free.”
“Is there anyone in there?”
“Well—probably not right now.”
Bemused, Charles leads the way down the hall and punches in the code to the door. Just as he’d thought, there’s no one in there now, though there is a sizeable spread of food on the tables, things people have brought in to make working on Christmas Eve a bit more bearable.
“There’s some water in the fridge—”
“Charles, what do you think of us?” Erik asks.
Charles pauses, thrown. “What?”
“I mean, is this working, do you think?”
“I think…” Charles swallows, wondering where this is going. “It’s probably too early to tell. We’ve been together less than a month, after all.”
“But are you...liking it?” Erik hesitates, uncharacteristically shy. Then he pushes on. “Do you like me?”
Charles almost laughs. Hasn’t it been obvious? “Yes, I like you. I like you a lot.”
Erik nods and takes a deep breath. “I know this might be—sudden—but…”
Charles’s heart is suddenly slamming against his chest. For a long moment, neither of them says anything.
“...can I kiss you?” Erik asks finally.
Charles lets out a breathy, relieved laugh. “I wasn’t really sure where you were going with that.”
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to ask,” Erik admits, sounding a bit breathless himself. And they haven’t even kissed yet.
“Yes,” Charles says, coming back around the table to meet him by the door. Pushing onto his toes slightly, he wraps his arms around Erik’s neck, gratified when Erik only pulls him closer, hands warm on the Charles’s back.
Charles stares at Erik’s mouth, then up at his eyes. “What made you want to ask?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Erik says. “And,” he adds, leaning in, his breath tickling along Charles’s cheek, “you still have some sugar on your mouth.”
It’s not the worst line Charles has ever heard. In fact, somehow, it utterly charms him. He can’t help but grin into the kiss, which is as sweet and hot and lovely as any he’s ever had.
The second one is even better.