"Mr. Muñoz. Welcome to Hill Juvenile Detention Center." The supervisor, a dom named Frank West, offers Armando a handshake. He's a solid-looking white guy, some padding over a foundation of obvious muscle. "I'm sorry your seeker trip landed you here."
Armando keeps his expression neutral. It's probably the same boilerplate speech they always give when somebody ends up at a prison at the end of a seeker trip, let alone a juvenile center. But hearing I'm sorry after all the time Armando's spent on the road...
"They said on the phone that seeker tours start at eleven," Armando says. "I know I'm early--"
"Yes, and I'm afraid we can't start early." West gives Armando an apologetic smile. "Routine is very important here. Our young doms and subs are accustomed to a once-a-week group visit--"
"No, not to worry, I'm not here to try to sneak in early," Armando reassures him. "I wanted to let you know before we get started that I'm a mutant, in case that might be a problem for any of your..." He doesn't want to say inmates. "For any of the people here. If there are mutants with mutations that make it difficult to be around others...?"
"We've got one of those, but not in a--" West waves his hands. "Not in a psychic way, or anything. He's just a little bit of a live wire. He's actually in solitary-- prefers to be there, he's not under any kind of extra punishment."
There's a whole lecture Armando gives about young mutants in the justice system, but he bites his tongue on it and rubs his palms against his trousers. "Okay."
"His mutation disperses a lot of energy. It can be destructive, and it isn't always under his control. That's part of why he's with us."
Shit. Armando really needs to stay calm-- as he's thinking that, he feels some of his tension ease, his anxiety fading off. Thank you, mutation, he thinks, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "You know what, before the seeker tour, if there's any way you think he'd let me talk to him... even just for a few minutes. I do work with mutant youth back in New York, I'd be happy to try to make a connection here--"
"We'd be delighted to have you as a volunteer with our Support and Outreach Network, but we require a three-month commitment from volunteers..."
If Armando's soulmate really is here, it might take three months to arrange release terms, or longer. If not... no, he's feeling the pull too strongly to think he won't find his soulmate here. This has to be it. "Does he have a mentor of any kind?"
"He's been unwilling to talk to any of the mentors we've tried to send him. I'm afraid Alex has had a rough time. He and his brothers were orphaned at a young age, and they all ended up in different foster homes. We've tried to help him find them, but no luck so far."
"I'd like to see him. I'm willing to make the three-month commitment."
"There's paperwork to fill out, and a background check. But we'd be happy to have you. Thank you for volunteering."
Armando just nods. It makes sense. "That's fine. I can get started on the paperwork now..."
He's got the first page filled out when the others start showing up. A young domme... maybe 19 or 20. A sub who looks like he might be on break from college. A sub who's clutching her handbag so tightly her hands are white-knuckled. A dom who looks like he hasn't slept in a month. Armando nods at all of them; introductions are quick. Where they're from. How long they've been seeking.
"Good luck," he tells each of them, and every one of them says, "You, too." Nobody says I'm sorry the way the supervisor did, thank God.
"If everyone's ready, we can get started," West says. There's no argument, but there are no jokes, either. Armando's not surprised everybody's run dry. They head into the detention area, down a hallway where the doors are still closed and some kids are looking out the windows, staring out at the visitors.
"Hey, bitch," someone yells. The sub clutching her handbag, Miranda, stares straight ahead. "Bitch, I'll be your soulmate, c'mere and kneel--"
They're past that cell in just a few more steps. The hallway branches off at the end, left and right, but West has a set pattern for this tour, and he leads them off to the left. The young domme frowns, looking back over her shoulder. Armando's felt further from his soulmate down this hall since they got started; left or right doesn't make much difference to him.
Near the end of the left hallway, the dom with the dark circles under his eyes starts, and he bolts for the last door on the right-hand side of the hallway. Inside the room, the sub comes up to the door, a little wary, his expression guarded, but as he looks at the dom, he sags a little. West comes forward with a pair of guards and unlocks the door, and the dom barely holds himself back from stepping into the room. He doesn't have to wait long to get his hands on his sub, though, because the minute he's allowed out of his room, the sub practically tackles him, his arms going around the dom's-- his dom's-- waist.
Armando tries to keep his expression clear. "Good for you," he murmurs.
Miranda looks down at the floor. "I saw this so many times on the road," she whispers. "Everybody else. There was one trip where I was the last person on the bus. Three days. Just me and the driver."
Armando offers her his hand, palm-up. "At least you're here. We'll find ours, too."
After a moment, she takes his hand and squeezes it. "Thanks," she says. "Are you feeling yours?"
"I was when we got started." He glances off behind his shoulder. "But I don't think he's this way."
"I don't think mine is, either." Miranda sighs. "I hope we can keep going soon."
They get started again after an assistant supervisor arrives to get the dom and sub started on whatever the release-for-acknowledgment procedure is. It was in one of the forms Armando had to fill out in order to go on the tour, but he didn't look too closely. He would have signed anything, he knows. Charles probably would have told him to read the whole form, but it's easy to say that when you're not feeling the pull of your soulmate so close... Armando just needed the paperwork out of the way.
They go up and down two more hallways and into the female doms' section before the next hit. The college-age sub speeds up, pulling even with West, only falling back a step or two after a stern look.
Once they reach the right cell, though, no glare from West can stop the sub from rushing over and going to his knees. His domme is a tough-looking girl with buzzed hair and a fresh prison tattoo welting on her shoulder, but her eyes are full of tears when she reaches through the bars to ruffle his hair.
Miranda sniffles a bit at the scene while they wait again for someone to come and start processing these two. She turns her head, distracted.
"You okay?" Armando asks.
"I feel like it's coming from a different direction now," she says. "What if I'm wrong, what if I'm just chasing ghosts... he can't be moving, if he's here."
"Sure he can," Armando soothes her. "Some people have yard privileges. Or they could be doing work programs. Maybe he's getting to go to the library."
"You think?" She sighs. "I hope so."
"If you're handing out optimism cookies, I'll take one," says the young domme, catching up to the two of them. "I don't really feel mine here-- I mean-- I think here at the prison... the center," she corrects herself, "but not this wing."
"We'll get there. All of us," Armando says. And once they've moved wings-- higher security, with more guards posted-- the domme does find her soulmate. Not a submissive, though; she stands face-to-face with an angry-looking dom who looks like he might be about fifteen, and Armando flinches when he hears the dom say, "Oh, come on."
The domme recovers fast, though, narrowing her eyes. "So you're going to be paying that off for the rest of our lives. Thanksgiving with the family, I get to tell the story of how you said 'oh, come on' when we first met. My name's Louise, and we're going to work this out."
The dom's bravado cracks. "You're..." He takes a deep breath, and though the frown hasn't come off his face, his hands aren't gripping the bars so tightly now. "I'm Nick."
Miranda steps even closer to Armando, reaching for his hand again. Armando folds his fingers into hers. "Just means it's our turn next," he murmurs, as they get the two young dominants into processing.
But Miranda's the lucky one. Not only does she find her soulmate next, it turns out Armando was right about the library. Her soulmate is the librarian, not an inmate at all, and Miranda breaks down in relief as he folds her up in his arms. She turns back to Armando just long enough to mouth good luck at him, and his chest goes all tight when she does. Most people don't remember to do that. Then again, most people don't remember to do much of anything for the first three days after they find their soulmates.
"Looks like it's just you," West tells Armando. He gives Armando an apologetic little smile. "Sorry."
"Someone's got to be last, right?" Armando keeps following West, further and further, hallway after hallway. They pass right by a hall that leads off somewhere else, and Armando stops in his tracks, looking down that hall. There are signs marked: infirmary, solitary. The pull's stronger right here than it's been yet.
They do the last wing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. "Hey, freak," a guy yells from one of the cells, and Armando does a quick check of himself, frowning-- he hasn't evolved anything visible. Then he realizes the light's glinting off his mutant power pin, the fist making the ASL "M" sign.
"Good eye, dude," he says to the shouter. "So good, it might even be a mutation. You ever been tested for the X-gene?"
Armando doesn't waste another second of his time on the guy. "It's not this way," he tells West. "I felt the pull close to the infirmary."
"Let me make sure nobody's contagious," West says, unholstering a walkie-talkie. "We can probably go in there today."
He gets permission, and takes Armando past the few occupied beds. There's an angry-looking kid with stitches all down the side of his face, a straight line that has to be a slash from a knife or a shiv. And Armando's soulmate is in here somewhere...
Somewhere, but not here. "He must be further down the hall," Armando says.
"Sorry to say, your best bet is probably waiting til next week's tour," says West. "You can apply for special dispensation to visit solitary, but for liability reasons that's got to go to the county. It'll probably take legal a week to sign off on it. Solitary's a five-day maximum around here, so everybody who's in there is going to be back in general population by next week. Except Alex, and if you're applying to Support and Outreach, you're going to meet him anyway. We have a little bit faster turnaround with them, you might be able to start that by the end of the week."
West's admin gives him a bundle of orientation papers, and that's that, they send him on his way. Armando goes back to his hotel and just breathes for a while.
There's still a possibility his soulmate was a guard down in that hall. Or that the intuition's going a little wonky on him now that he's close. But Armando doesn't think so.
It's hard to reconcile the emotions he gets through the bond with the idea of a juvenile delinquent, let alone someone in solitary confinement. Armando's always felt a lot of frustration from his soulmate, jolts of fear, simmering unhappiness. But he's also felt care and determination, and whenever he sends love through the bond, he gets it back, just as much longing, every bit as intense.
His soulmate's aching right now just like Armando is, with even more of a despairing edge. He must have felt Armando close by, and felt him grow distant again-- it's almost more than Armando can stand. He sends reassurance, confidence. It's hard to convey with just emotions, but he tries to get it across: he's not going anywhere without his soulmate.
His soulmate's misery eases, but it's still a dull ache in Armando's chest.
He feel a hint of guilt from his soulmate-- okay, they're starting to get into a negative feedback loop now, they're feeling bad about making each other feel bad. That can get them both really down if he lets it keep going. He focuses on his certainty, his love, til his soulmate calms down a little.
Armando breathes slowly in and out, lets himself adapt to the stress and regain his equilibrium. When he feels like they're both stable, he reaches for something to cheer him up-- he picks up the phone.
"Armando! What news?" a cheerful voice answers.
"Hey, Charles," Armando flops backward on the bed. "Nothing yet."
"I'm sorry to hear it. Anything I can do?"
Charles has a great voice, a plush English accent. Armando considers hitting him up for phone sex; he's reasonably sure Charles would be game. They've scened together a few times, and it's always been great, even though they're both dominant. Armando can switch down, he can adapt to anything, but he didn't, with Charles. They got along and had fantastic scenes without power exchange.
They've had basic sex, experimented with Armando's flexibility, and during one scene, Charles worked with him on controlling his mutation to allow painplay. They spent hours on it, and at the end of it, Armando discovered he's got something close to zero kink for masochism, which was kind of embarrassing. Charles just laughed, "You never know til you try," and they had a good sensation play scene instead.
Armando has too much on his mind to indulge himself in phone sex, though, and there's something completely different he wants from Charles right now. "Could you email me a copy of your dissertation?"
That gets him several seconds' pause. "Certainly," Charles says. "Should I ask why?"
"It's about incidences of the bond connecting people to produce more X-gene mutations, right?"
"In part, yes. It's a bit more complex than that, but-- well, you'll understand when you've read it," says Charles. Not of lot of people really grok how the mental aspect of Armando's mutation works, but the psionics he's met have all understood. Armando adapts to anything, and that includes anything he reads. All he has to do is pick up a text, any discipline, hell, any language, practically, and he can work it all out from context once he puts his mind to it. He doesn't need Charles to walk him through anything, he'll pick it up.
"I guess I'm wondering... what are the odds that my soulmate's a mutant too?"
"Slightly more than they would be if you were baseline," Charles responds right away. "It's a difference of about three percent on the mean."
"So I'm one-thirty-third more likely to have a mutant soulmate than if I were baseline? Doesn't sound like great odds," Armando says. Only one mutant in the juvenile detention center, and he's in solitary... Armando's soulmate's in solitary... he'd like to think they're one and the same, but it doesn't sound likely.
"The numbers can be a bit misleading because the mutant sample size is such a comparatively small population," Charles explains, and then he's off, detailing the statistics. Armando just lets it roll past him for now. He'll be able to remember it all and figure it out later, but at the moment, he puts his attention on the bond again, sending the renewed hope and affection that a few minutes of respite have given him.
The emotions he gets in return are a little glum, but after a few moments, the melancholy eases up and Armando's getting love back: wistful, but solid and strong.
Charles finally wraps up his mini-lecture. "...Which leads me to ask, why do you want to know?"
"My soulmate's close. Maybe in solitary," Armando says. "And get this, they've got a mutant kid locked up there too. Not for doing anything wrong. He just can't control his mutation. Sounds like maybe he does something with energy blasts."
"So they put him in solitary? That's appalling."
"I guess he asked for that, to protect the other kids, but yeah, it's messed up. So… I want to stay and volunteer to work with him."
"I'm not surprised," Charles answers, warmth in his voice.
"Catch is, it's a three-month commitment. But I'm going to be here til I find my soulmate anyway, and at this rate I'm not sure how much longer it's going to be, so… I've already got the ball rolling on that. That's going to put me over my seeker leave time. You think you could talk to the board?"
"I'm sure they'll understand. But yes, of course, I'll speak to them."
That's a load off Armando's mind. He feels a tiny bit bad about appealing to Charles... of course the board's going to listen to him, the Xavier Foundation is a major source of funding.
But it's not like Armando's asking for special favors. He just wants to make sure nobody uses this as an excuse to bounce him. He works hard and he's damn good at his job, but he's also involved in a few departmental disputes. There are a couple of people who probably wouldn't mind to see the back of him.
"Thanks," he says. "One less thing to worry about."
"Good," Charles answers. "And good luck."
The next several days drag on. Armando drives around, but he's dead certain the bond is leading him to the detention center. The emotions from his soulmate veer toward despondent, even when Armando focuses and sends him love and confidence.
"Don't you dare give up on me," he finds himself murmuring more than once. "I'm coming to find you. I swear I'm coming back."
Thursday he gets a call from West, telling him the Support and Outreach Network approved him to mentor Alex Summers, the mutant in solitary. He has to come in to finish the paperwork, and sign a waiver absolving everyone and eir brother of liability if Alex's ability zaps him and hurts him. Not a problem. He prints the date and scrawls his name, and they tell him he can meet Alex the next day.
Armando calls back to mind all Charles's chatter about statistics and works on it, puzzling it out, adapting to the context til he understands everything Charles said. It's possible Armando's soulmate is a mutant, there's a slightly elevated likelihood. But it's vastly more likely that he's a baseline human with a recessive X-gene.
He tells himself not to get his hopes up, and by Friday morning, he's got his head in the game. No expectations. He dresses casually, he doesn't want to come across like a suit; he wears jeans that are just tight enough that they've always gotten him a second look, and a polo shirt that makes the most of his shoulders, molds to his chest and narrows with his waist.
No expectations, right.
Armando's telling himself not to expect anything all the way up to the door of the meeting room, even though the bond is singing with nearness, with anticipation and hope.
The door opens and he means to say Hey, Alex, my name is Armando, I'm going to be your mentor. It's good to meet you.
He gets out "Hey."
Alex is white with dirty blond hair. He has a cleft chin, and his eyes are hooded til he spots Armando and stares, his straight eyebrows bouncing up. The shape of his face is angular, but his nose is more rounded and his mouth is soft, his lower lip promising and full.
All that, and he looks young, shiny as a new penny. Armando knew from how late he sparked that his soulmate was probably a few years younger than him, and it's a juvenile detention center, for crying out loud; he knew if his soulmate was serving time here, he must be under eighteen. But it's one thing to know it, and another to see him in person, fresh-faced and seventeen-- Armando would bet anything he's seventeen-- oh, he is going to be in for it when he goes back to New York with Alex on his arm, everyone's going to tease him about cradle-robbing til he's fifty and Alex is forty.
That sounds just fine to him.
"It's you," Armando says.
Alex rockets out of his chair at that, running toward him, and the guard-- shit, there are other people in the room, the guard who followed Armando in and one standing near Alex, Armando didn't even register that.
"It's okay, it's okay, he's mine, it's okay," Armando pleads, reaching out.
"You got a handle on yourself, Alex?" the guard asks.
"I promise," Alex says, looking past him to Armando with all the longing in the world. "I swear."
The guard follows his gaze to Armando. "You know what he can do?"
"I know, and I know what I can do, and I can handle him. He's mine," Armando says. And thank you, again, mutation; even though everything in him twists with excitement, he can keep himself in check, he stays steady as a rock, despite everything. "Would you let him go, please."
The guard gets another nod from Alex, and releases him.
Alex bolts past him right away to get to Armando as he opens his arms-- but Alex stops just short, his hand hovering, worry written all over his face.
Armando swoops him up and holds him, and the moment Alex returns the embrace, it's perfect. It's perfect, like the clack of a pinball machine when you win a free game, the swish of the net when the basketball drops precisely through the hoop, the thunk of an arrow driving straight into the target. Everything's exactly right. This is his boy. Right here.
Alex clutches him. "It's you. They said your name, they told me-- Armando." He pulls himself up straighter in Armando's arms and adds quickly, "Or sir or whatever!"
All Armando can do is laugh, tearing up and petting Alex's hair. "Anything, all that. Whatever you want. I'm yours, you're mine. That's all that matters."
Hiding his face against Armando's shoulder, Alex muffles, "I've been feeling you close and I didn't know if you were coming or if you'd give up... God, you're here."
"I will never, ever give up on you," Armando says softly into his ear, still combing back his hair. And God, he's tempted, but he's careful not to touch his joining spot in front of these other people. It's more than enough just to hold him now, to be able to say, "I will never give up if you need me. And I want to take you home. I'm going to take you home just as soon as I can, honey. As soon as I can."
"I'm sorry," Alex's voice thickens. "I'm sorry I made you come here. I got another five months before I'm even up for parole."
"No no no, you don't have to be sorry. I found you. That's all that matters. I'll get my stuff sent out here, I'll be here as long as it takes. I'll come see you as much as I can. And if I can get you out any sooner, I will."
Nodding, Alex finally lifts his head to meet his eyes, urgent. "I didn't do anything to get put in solitary, okay? I didn't hurt anybody. I never hurt anybody, outside or in here." He winces. "I busted up a lot of stuff. Like. A car."
"Okay," Armando nods. "Thank you for telling me." He strokes Alex's face, lays his hand along the planes of his jaw and cheek; perfect fit. "It's going to be okay."
Alex leans into the touch. "They said… when they said you were going to get to come in here, they said your mutation gives you armor or something."
"My mutation is adaptation," Armando tells him. "I can be whatever I need to be. I can absorb energy. I got struck by lightning once. I was fine. My hair didn't even smoke."
"Whoa," Alex says, big-eyed; he pats down Armando's shoulders and arms automatically, as if it just happened. Soon, though, those touches are just caresses, and Alex is leaning closer. Quietly he asks, "Can I kiss you?"
"I was going to ask if that was okay by you. Since it is..." Armando kisses him. He has every intention of taking it slow, but as soon as he touches Alex's mouth, he's surging into the kiss, holding him, his hand sliding toward soul's-home. This is it, this is him, finally, after all the waiting, all the looking... Armando's holding the one person who's really his, and always will be.
Alex holds on tight, and the emotions coming from him through the bond are amazing: so excited, so overwhelmed and elated. "You're mine," he pants when Armando remembers to break off to let him breathe. "I can't believe it, you're a mutant, and you're gorgeous, and you might even be safe with me..."
"I am. Everything's going to be all right now," Armando promises. "I love you."
Swallowing, Alex says in a low voice, "I know most people say that when they meet their soulmates, but I didn't expect..." He shakes himself. "I love you too," and he starts to smile, it's breathtaking. "I love you. Should I kneel for you? I want to."
Armando glances at the guard. He's turned his back to give them as much privacy as the room allows. Focusing on Alex again, Armando gives him a huge smile and steps back, his hand trailing down Alex's arm as he makes a little space. "I'd be honored."
"I never do this, I don't have good form," Alex apologizes nervously, but his eyes fly open and he stares at Armando, their connection through the bond feeling stronger and brighter than ever. "It's okay?" Alex realizes, feeling it from Armando. "Okay." He keeps his eyes on Armando's, and carefully kneels, trying a couple of different positions with his hands til he settles on resting them palms down on his thighs.
There's no way to explain what it does to Armando to see that, there aren't any words, nothing he could say could possibly match this moment. Honored is the faintest word for what he's feeling.
Alex grins up at him, dazzled and happy, a tiny bit of pride coming across the bond along with all the love. "Thank you for the gift of your care and dominance."
"Oh, hell, I should've gone first!" Armando laughs. "Thank you for the honor of your submission, Alex." He cups Alex's face, already his favorite sight on earth. "I'm gonna make you the happiest boy in the goddamn world."
Pressing into his hands, Alex relaxes, joy flowing between them. "I already am."