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June 27, 2008

Erik wakes up and grabs for his phone, still groggy. He has voice mail. That's fairly unusual; the only people who have this number are Jason, Jason's mother Pat, and Helix.

The first message turns out to be from Helix. "Erik, this is Brian at Helix. Everything okay? You didn't show up for the Thursday afternoon tutoring session, we just wanted to check in with you."

That's... strange. Today is Thursday. Erik frowns and thumbs at his phone, moving on to the next message.

The second message is from Jason. "Erik! Listen, my flight's getting in at seven tomorrow. Fucking redeyes. Can't wait to see you." Right, Erik knew that. Jason was getting in... wait, tomorrow? Jason wasn't supposed to be getting in until Friday.

Next message. "Erik, hey, this is Brian again. Nobody's been able to get in touch with you, everything all right? Give me a call back when you get this."

And the fourth is Jason again. "Way to sleep through my arrival, bro. I'm getting a cab. See you soon."

Erik clears all the voice mail and looks down at his phone display. June 27th. Okay. June 27th, it's Thursday...

No. No, wait, Thursday was June twenty-sixth. June 27th, that's Friday...

Just as he's thinking it, the door rattles, and a bunch of blaring trumpets announce Jason's arrival. Erik groans and falls back into bed, covering his head with a pillow. A few seconds later, Jason thumps onto the bed, reaching out and shaking Erik's knee. "Good, you're not dead," he says-- Erik pries the pillow off his face to see if Jason's kidding. It looks like he's mostly joking. "What happened to you?"

"I slept," Erik says, and then he blinks up at Jason, one hand scrambling back to reach for his joining spot. "Oh, God. Oh, my God, Jason. I slept."

His joining spot doesn't hurt anymore, and he holds onto Jason, shaking as Jason makes the phone call to Sebastian's B2C business line. He looks at Erik with grim satisfaction.

"Congratulations," Jason says, hugging Erik close. "You're a widower."


June 28, 2008

Charles takes a double dose of Psilavon, rubbing at his temples once he's drained his water glass. His headaches have been terrible these past few days; it's as though everyone in the world is louder somehow. They've been nicer, too, which helps, especially in the wake of his ugly breakup with Amelia-- well, the breakup itself, not so ugly, but the days before, God. Charles was willing to take any little piece of good news he could get, but at the moment the headache from all those mental voices is so relentless, he thinks he might be sick.

At least it's Saturday. He doesn't have anywhere to go today, so he shuffles back to bed, climbing in and burying his face in a nice cool spot on his pillow. This has not been his best summer ever. Not his worst, either, but he's very much looking forward to fall. A few months, and maybe people's minds will be down to their usual quiet roar; a few months and he'll be over the loss of his relationship with Amelia. Maybe he'll even be able to look at the way it ended and chalk it up to her missing her bondmate, and not what it really was: another bloody rejection of everything he is, everything his ability means.

He drags another pillow over his head, groaning. It's all right. He's ill, he can feel sorry for himself if he wants to.

He doesn't exactly feel sorry for himself, though. A part of him feels relieved. Grateful. Grim, but satisfied. A part of him... it's such a strange sensation, there's no reason for him to feel relieved or grateful, he shouldn't... this isn't...

It isn't him.

He sits bolt upright, pillows thrown aside, gasping for air as his heart pounds wildly in his chest. He focuses everything he has on that happy feeling, the sensations of gratitude and relief, because they're not his, they don't belong to anyone out in the city, they're coming from somewhere else, someone else, someone far away, oh God.

He knows this mind. He knows these emotions. Weak and distant as they are, he could never have forgotten this feeling, never.

The Psilavon's dampening his ability a bit, but he puts both hands to his temples anyway, trying desperately to send out thoughts. «Hello? It's me... it's me, I can feel you! I can feel you again, where are you? Please! Please tell me, I'm listening, please... I'm here... I can feel you... please, please...»

The emotions from his bondmate fade, eventually, but it's not like before. He isn't being blocked. There's still the thinnest tendril of a connection there, he can feel it, the potential, the far-off sense of presence.

Somewhere out there, his bondmate is his again, not blocking, not gone. He's alive-- for the first time in eight years, Charles can be certain he's still alive-- and if he's alive, if he isn't blocking Charles anymore, then maybe... maybe...

By the time he stops sending to his bondmate, Charles's headache is ten times worse than it started, so bad it's blinding. He doesn't care. He'll suffer through a thousand headaches like this if he has to, if it just means finding his bondmate again. Finding, if nothing else, answers. Eight years too late, but answers all the same.


July 15, 2008

"There you are! God, come here." Erik pulls Jason into his arms, right there at baggage claim, and swings him around. "I'm so sorry I had to cancel the move, you know how much paperwork I've had to deal with--"

"I know, I know, trust me. If you were going to bail on New York, it couldn't have been for a better reason." Jason hugs Erik back. "How's everything going with all that? Everything just about settled?"

"Everything is never going to be 'just about settled,'" Erik says, grimacing as they head over to the baggage carousel. "I'm going to be dealing with lawyers for the rest of my life. But the good news is that I've got the whole fucking business dismantled, and I've been selling off the assets. You have no idea how much money that son of a bitch had lying around in accounts."

"And it's all yours."

"And it's all mine," Erik agrees grimly. "I think I see your bag, it's on the far side, there, is that it...?"

"That's it," Jason agrees.

Erik slants a grin over at him and says, "Watch this."

The suitcase lifts up, and several people who were waiting for their bags step back, watching as it flies right over to Erik. He plucks it out of the air, sets it down, and draws out the handle, bowing at the waist toward Jason. "All yours."

Jason laughs, clapping Erik on the shoulder. If they're getting dirty looks from some of the humans at baggage claim-- well, fuck them. Erik stands up again and hauls Jason into another hug.

"I'm getting more of it back every day. I think I might go in for a MAT at the end of the month."

"If I'm around, I'll go in with you." Jason takes his bag in hand and wheels it around. "I'm ready to head home whenever you are."

"I'm parked out this way. Come on."

---

Charles straightens, going still for a few seconds; Raven steps over to him and puts a hand on his arm. "Everything all right?"

"Yes," Charles says, and at first he can't help it. He smiles. Something's happening for his bondmate, he can feel it... whatever it is, it leaves his bondmate happy, delighted, just for a few brief moments.

And then it's gone again. «I don't know what that was, but thank you...» Charles tries sending. Nothing comes back to him. «Thank you for sharing that,» he tries, pushing as much gratitude and warmth through the bond as he can.

Still nothing in response. Charles sighs. Raven's been very patient with him in all this, considering. She picked up the slack when he bailed out of two major social engagements and a board meeting for the Foundation, covering for him while he hired a car and driver to take him out along the east coast seeker grid while Charles devoted all his energy and concentration to reaching out, trying to sense the bond.

After days of driving without feeling even a hint of a direction, he bought a plane ticket to St. Louis, hoping that being nearer to the center of the country might give him more of a chance of feeling a pull, and from there he flew to Chicago, then Denver, then Portland. Nothing, nothing, nothing. He came back to Manhattan, jet-lagged and discouraged, but soon Raven urged him to try again.

This time she's driving him herself. The one time he felt a direction as a teenager, he thought it was leading north and west, so they've tried that, heading to Buffalo. He's not feeling anything here, either, but he's better for the company. Even if they are stopping rather more often for coffee breaks than he'd been doing on his own.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Raven strokes his arm. "You want me to get your tea for you?"

"I can order it," Charles says, stepping forward in line. "I still can't believe it sometimes. Almost three weeks now. I feel him a little more clearly every day."

"I know, and that's great," Raven says, eyebrows creasing a little as she looks at him. "It's still great, right...?"

"Of course," Charles says automatically. He must not be very convincing, not to Raven; she frowns. "I just... I still don't know anything. I don't understand why he's stopped blocking me."

"How does he feel?"

"Just then? Happy." Charles shrugs, advances a bit in line again. "But that's what it's like now. The occasional burst of feeling, and then hardly anything at all. Or anger. Sometimes I'll feel him getting angry." And satisfaction, wrapped up tightly with that anger; Charles doesn't know what to call that, and he doesn't want to share it with anyone, either. He doesn't understand it himself; he certainly doesn't want other people trying to help him analyze it. "That part's familiar."

"Do you think he feels you?"

"I don't know. I don't think so." Even if his bondmate still wants nothing to do with him, surely he'd have some sort of reaction to the emotions Charles sends him, at least a bit of annoyance or indifference.

"Well... maybe someday," Raven says. "Maybe soon."

"Maybe," Charles says. "There we are, you're next..."

"Hi," Raven tells the barrista, "grande Americano, splash of soy milk, shot of caramel."

"And your name?"

"Raven."

"Got it. Thanks."

When it's Charles's turn, he manages a smile and says, "Hot tea, Earl Grey, please."

"Name?"

"Charles." He takes a breath, all his focus going back to the bond. «My name is Charles. Can you hear me? What's your name? I want to find you... where are you? How do I find you? I'm here, I'm listening... please. Please.»


July 18, 2008

Erik looks over at Jason and takes a deep breath. "While you're here-- I have a favor to ask you."

"Name it."

"I want to try going out and scening."

Jason raises an eyebrow. "As opposed to staying in and scening...?"

"It might go badly," Erik points out. "It's going to be the first time since Sebastian died. It might be easier for you to scrape me off the floor if you're not involved in the scene directly..."

"I can handle it either way," Jason promises, "but if you want to go out, I'll go with you."

"Thank you." Erik stands up, grabs for his jacket.

"Whoa, really-- now?"

Erik shrugs. "No time like the present, right?"

"Right," Jason drawls, unfolding himself from the sofa-- and for a split-second, Erik hesitates, wondering if staying in and scening was the right idea after all.

Probably not. He and Jason have been so close over the years, and the way Erik's been feeling these last few weeks... a scene with him isn't just going to be platonic painplay. Not a chance. Things are complicated enough in Erik's head as it is; better not to drag Jason into his confusion.

"Okay," Jason says. "Well, let's see what we come up with."

Erik grins and reaches out toward the hook by the door, tugging his keys off it and pulling them across the room. The satisfaction hums through him; maybe now, maybe this time, he'll actually have a good night.

---

Raven snuggles in against Charles, popcorn bowl in her lap. There's no earthly reason for Charles to be watching Raven's latest recording of some reality TV dance contest show, but he doesn't have anywhere to go, either, and the feelings he's been getting from his bondmate have been quiet for the last few days. He called off their seeker trip when his sense of the bond narrowed to a thin wire of presence again, nothing he could even fool himself into believing he could follow. Even so, he'd probably just end up staying in his room projecting if he didn't have Raven here to distract him.

A few dance numbers in, though, Charles flushes, quickly squirming out from under Raven.

"Hey, my pillow," Raven says, sitting up. "You-- whoaaaa, okay, ew." She scoots a little further down the couch. "Are you, uh--"

"No," Charles says, putting a pillow on his lap, "but he is."

"Yeesh. You can't, like... do something about the response? I mean, I know you're out of practice, but still."

"I'd have to block him, and I can't just..." Oh, it isn't getting any better; if anything, it's growing more intense. "Excuse me."

He ends up fleeing upstairs awkwardly, taking the pillow with him. Once he's in his bedroom, he strips down and climbs into bed, sending out emotions of his own: welcome, more than anything. «It's all right, I'm here, I remember you... I remember this so well, please, let me do this with you, let me be with you... please, I'm here, I'm listening...»

His bondmate's arousal draws up, and up, higher and higher, warm and vibrant. Maybe he's hearing Charles now; maybe it's like when they were young, when they'd do this together.

It's worth a try. Charles grabs the lube out of his bedside table and slicks his cock, stroking himself easily at first, taking his time.

His bondmate's in a hurry, though. It's almost as though he's counting down to something, as though he's on a fuse. Charles won't have any trouble keeping up, though, not when it's been so long since he's had the chance to feel this from his bondmate--

--which, that's odd, he's been feeling his bondmate for more than three weeks now, nearly four, almost a month and he's never felt this from his bondmate at all? It actually gives Charles a bit of hope; surely his bondmate can't be going three weeks between even so much as having a quiet wank in bed, maybe the bond isn't entirely back just yet. And maybe when it comes back, he'll be able to feel a direction--

His bondmate's mood shifts, growing more and more desperate. This isn't arousal, though; this is something else. Charles takes his hand off his cock, fetches a tissue to wipe away the slick mess of lube. Something's wrong. His bondmate was happy before, aroused, pleased, excited, but now he's just grieving. Grieving, and... reaching out...

«I'm here! I'm here, let me help, please, tell me where you are, I'll come get you, let me come to you... please...»

There's nothing but a dull ache now, and after a while, Charles grimaces and climbs out of bed, heading for the shower so he can clean up.


July 21, 2008

Sebastian's money is still paying for medical bills for nearly a dozen different people, all over the world. Erik feels sick every time he sees their names. Gerald Stone. Aileen Stone. Rosella Conti. Loraine Bastin. Eduardo Herrada. Matthew Herrada. Jamie Alsop...

But there's one name that isn't on those documents, one name that Erik only just learned. And today he's at the Raft, standing next to his lawyer-- his lawyer, not Sebastian's-- waiting to see her.

When they're escorted into the small observation room, Erik feels out around the edges of the room for all the metal here. He can sense the framework, the reinforcement, the expensive, industrial-grade adamantium that lines this entire building. He could probably get a good sense of the wiring and the alarm systems if he were to put his hands on the walls and feel around for them, but he isn't going to do that. He needs to look calm, while he's here; he needs to look as though this is just another conference.

The door opens, and a pair of armored, uniformed guards bring in a short Asian woman with her hair tied back in a ponytail. She has on thick gauntlets that go up to her elbows, and they're wired to a collar so huge and high that she has no choice but to keep her chin tilted up. Another prisoner might look helpless. Min Li Ng looks proud.

She deserves to be. Erik stands to greet her, and her eyes narrow, but she doesn't speak until the guards have filed back out of the room, leaving Erik and his lawyer alone with her.

"They said you're his widower," she says. If it weren't for the collar and the gauntlets, her eyes would probably be spitting fire-- literally, given what he knows about her ability. Erik doesn't back down from that gaze.

"Yes."

"I hope you don't expect me to be sorry."

"I'm here to offer you legal and financial support."

The shock on her face lasts only an instant, and then she sags, sinking into her chair, understanding and sympathy coming over her features. She nods.

"My name is Erik Lehnsherr."

"Min Li Ng, but you knew that." She rests her gauntlets on the table. "Did you go through a B2C operation, too?"

Erik glances at his lawyer. The non-disclosure agreement is, technically, still on the table, pending the final dissolution of Sebastian's estate. It seems a ridiculous notion, having to hold back the truth for fear of his own estate suing him, but until everything's settled, these are hoops Erik is willing to jump through. Sebastian's estate is worth a lot of money. There are a lot of people who need it, a lot of people who are still surviving despite all the harm Sebastian caused.

"I can't talk about it," Erik says, finally. "But I want you to know that I understand the loss you're suffering, and I'm sorry. Whatever I can do for you, I will." One more glance to his lawyer, and to Min Li, and Erik says, "Off the record-- thank you." He reaches out and strokes the gauntlet she's wearing, feels her press her palm against the inside of it as though she's reaching for him in return. "Thank you."

---

After days of distance, the emotions are back in the bond. He's so close today. Charles stops cold in the middle of the pavement, tucks his satchel under one arm, and lifts both hands to his temples. «I feel you. I can sense you so clearly... where are you? Please, I just want to talk to you, just once, please, just meet me once, and you'll never have to see me again. Just give me one chance to find you and I'll take it. Please...»

Grief comes over him in a wave, and just as quickly it's followed by revulsion, hatred, relief, all of it pushed through the bond as though directed right at him.

Charles holds very still, waiting for it to pass. Waiting to collect himself enough to move. He spends the rest of the day flinching from everything he gets through the bond, even though by the end of the day, his bondmate feels like he's getting further and further away.


August 2008

Charles tries everything. Happiness, every time he feels it. Regret, as often as he can bear to wallow in it. When he sees something that tickles his sense of humor, he sends his amusement to his bondmate; when he's going to bed at night, he sends his sense of hope. If they can feel each other, they can find each other. Somehow. The bond wouldn't have come back only to leave them stranded, surely.

It's hard to keep his spirits up when he's getting nothing positive in return. Every time there's happiness, Charles tries to respond with pleasure and curiosity, but it's always followed by some sort of crash: anger, grief, regret. Every time he feels as though his bondmate might be reaching out for him, it's tangled up in frustration, and after a few moments, a sense of a door closing, of his bondmate turning away.

It's all starting to feel like some sort of cruel prank-- the bond returns, only for his bondmate to reject him over and over again, telling him time and time again that Charles can never be good enough, that his bondmate may have stopped blocking but he certainly doesn't want Charles back in his life.

And then one day the bond goes completely dark again, even the narrowest sense of presence vanishing entirely. Charles is at home at the time, which is fortunate, because he has to sit down, shaking as he reaches out with as much of his ability as he can muster.

«Don't go. Not again. Please, not again... I need you. Please don't leave me, I just want to meet you once, just once... an hour, one minute, don't go without telling me why, please-- please don't go--»

The bond fades back in, slow and unsteady, heavy with fear. The fear ebbs a few minutes later, but even then, all Charles gets from it is weary, anxious resignation. Charles might have talked him into staying, but he's not happy about it.

It might only be a matter of time before his bondmate blocks him again, this time for good. If Charles is ever going to find out why, he can't just wait for the bond to get stronger. He needs to find his bondmate now.

«And then you can block me all you please. But I want to know why, first. I deserve to know why.»

---

Dr. Cabrera slides the helmet off him, and Erik takes a few deep breaths, trying to stay calm.

He'd never imagined being in a bond specialist's office again, certainly never imagined that he'd allow one to examine him-- much less put a helmet or a cage over his head. But it's been almost two months since Sebastian's death, and he still can't feel anything from his real soulmate. If he's out there, Erik needs to know.

Finding a bond specialist who was more ethical than Sebastian was easy. Finding one who had a good reputation, even among mutant clients, was more difficult. Finding someone who was familiar with the B2C procedure was also a challenge. Dr. Rosario Cabrera fits all three criteria, and the initial consultation with her didn't make Erik's skin crawl.

He only started getting nervous during the examination. When she placed the isolation helmet on him to gauge the leftover energy from both his natural bond and the bond Sebastian forced on him, Erik felt so empty it was almost impossible to stay calm. Having the helmet off was a relief, even without test results in hand.

"I wish I could give you more definitive answers," she tells him, afterwards, when he's calmed down and gotten dressed. They're both seated in her office, and Erik has a cup of coffee cradled between his hands. "It looks as though the spliced bond is gone entirely, which, frankly, is unusual for a widower. If I had to make a guess, I'd say that whatever was holding it on to you died when your spliced bondmate did, and it hasn't left much behind."

Erik nods. Spliced bondmate, that's a much more civilized term than the ones he's used over the years. "But the original bond..."

"It's weak, and it's taken years of damage from the other bond's presence. But when we removed the isolation helmet, it didn't simply lie still, the way a normal widowed bond would. It still points in a direction."

He knows better than to get his hopes up by now, and he's still shaken enough from the examination that he couldn't get excited even if he wanted to. "I don't feel anything from the original bond."

"And you may never feel anything. I'm sorry, Erik, but it's entirely possible that any movement or orientation in the original bond is being triggered by your own psionic impulses. You did say your ability's been recovering..."

"Finally," Erik says, nodding. "Yes."

"It might be nothing more than a response to your magnetism. I'd be more than happy to consult with you again in three months, say, when you've had more time to heal, but unless you begin feeling anything different, I doubt I'll have good news for you."

"All right." He pauses, looking at her for a moment. "I'm not the only person whose bond was damaged by a procedure like this one. I know that much."

"I'm sorry to say that's true. Under the best of circumstances, things can still go wrong. Under profoundly unethical circumstances..."

"...yes," Erik agrees quietly. "And there are people worse off than I am. I think..." He remembers the Stones; he's unlikely ever to forget what they looked like in their hospice, back in Nebraska. "I think they'd do better under your care. If you ever decide to specialize in bond repair, I could certainly find you clients."

"I'd be more than willing to put some time in at a clinic, if we could find funding for one. I'm not the only doctor doing this kind of research; I know quite a few people who've written papers, done clinical trials."

"But funding is your sticking point?" Erik folds his hands together in his lap; they're shaking a bit, his whole body's trembling.

"At the moment. Setting something like that up isn't easy; generally speaking, the doctors who specialize in this sort of niche research are located all over the country, if not over the world..."

"But a research grant, say. It could make a difference."

"Absolutely."

All that money Sebastian left him, and finally there might be something he can do with it that feels like justice. Erik takes a breath and nods. "I'll be in touch," he promises her, and he heads out of the office. He's got some phone calls to make.

---

"Thank you for agreeing to see me," Charles says, pouring out two cups of tea and taking the tray over to Jean. She adds milk and a little sugar to hers, and sits back in the armchair, smiling.

"It was the least I could do. I'm flattered that you thought of me." She stirs her tea gently with her little silver spoon and sets the spoon on the saucer before taking a sip. "You were so patient with me when my telepathy started developing-- I don't know what I would have done without you."

"I'm certain you would have managed," Charles says, "though the first few months wouldn't have been easy."

"Even with your help, they weren't easy." Jean takes another sip of tea and sets her teacup aside. "So what is it I can do for you? Your message said you needed help with your telepathy..."

"Yes." Charles straightens, setting his tea aside as well. "I don't know if this is something you gleaned when we were working together--" he gestures up at his temple-- "but I was renounced when I was a teenager. Recently I've been feeling my bondmate again, but I can't get a fix on his direction."

"No?" Jean frowns. "Any idea why?"

"Even when I was younger, I could never discern a direction. I sensed so much psionic energy coming from all the minds around me, it felt almost as if that were drowning it out. That may still be the difficulty, although there are other possibilities as well." Charles glances away for a moment. "I don't know precisely what he did to block me in the first place. It was quite sudden, and rather dramatic."

"Some sort of medication? Maybe he's stopped taking it."

"Or if it was some kind of ritual or meditation, it might be that he's just stopped practicing it. I'm not sure he can feel me." He's tried to believe that he can't; Charles doesn't want to think that all his bondmate's anger and frustration and outright rejection are meant for him, but it's hard to believe otherwise, sometimes. "I can feel him, and I've tried to send him my emotions... if he's getting them at all, though, he's ignoring them."

"You said it was dramatic." Jean props her chin on her hand. "People lose their bonds due to illness sometimes. If he was sick, maybe he's starting to get better."

"Perhaps. I was hoping you could help me sort through the background noise, as it were. Help me get a good fix on the bond itself, and where it's meant to be leading me."

"I can try."

They end up sitting on the floor, facing each other, Jean's hands on Charles's shoulders, Charles's fingertips on her temples. «I'm going to dampen the minds around you,» Jean sends to him. «Don't be alarmed.»

«I won't be,» Charles promises. «It's all right. Go on.»

Having Jean block-- or partially block-- the minds nearest to him is still disconcerting, even prepared for it and knowing it was coming. The world doesn't go completely silent, though, which helps. Instead, the rest of the world fades into a dull roar, all the noises from all those minds blending into a single low-frequency murmur.

Above them, though, weak but bright, Charles can feel his bond. He concentrates on it, the thin shimmering strand of it, the way it always connected him to his bondmate before... west, he remembers that afternoon when he could actually feel his bondmate west of him, back before the renunciation. «Are you still there? Still out west?»

He does feel a tug to the west, but it's not as profound as it was the one time he felt a direction, when he was younger. When Jean senses him focusing on that tug, though, she slips her hand up, asking permission mentally before touching his joining spot. Charles gives her his mental assent, and she covers it with her palm, rubbing firmly at it.

Which quickly leads to an entirely different form of distraction, one that makes Charles startle upright. «Carefully, carefully, please--!»

«I'm sorry!» She moves her hand away, and Charles bites down hard on his lower lip, aching now, wanting her hand back for more reasons than one.

He breathes in deeply, trying to calm down. «I apologize, I'm not even very sensitive there... it must be because we're connected...»

«I thought I could draw more sensation out of the bond if I touched it. I'm so sorry, Charles,» Jean sends.

«You certainly did that,» Charles tells her, and his dry embarrassment is met with equal chagrin from her. «I'm braced now, though. If you think it would help...»

«I really do,» she sends. «I'll be more gentle this time.»

«Thank you.»

The second time she strokes his joining spot. he can feel what she was trying to do in the first place: coax more energy into it. He feels a surge of power, and realizes that she's lending him some of her energy, giving it to him until he can steer the bond on his own. As they work together on it, it orients sharply on his bondmate, and this time Charles is sure it's no error, no wishful thinking. His bondmate is west of here... and he's not very far away, either. He doesn't feel half so far as he did when they were younger.

When he slips out of Jean's mind, she draws back, pulling her hand off his joining spot and wiping her palms on her skirt. "Did that help at all?" she asks. Her voice is a bit hoarse, a little throaty. Charles clears his own throat before even trying to speak.

"I believe it did, thank you," he says. "It's going to take some more practice and meditation, but I think I have a start on it. He isn't far, not so far as I can tell."

"Maybe you should look at some maps," Jean suggests, climbing back into her armchair. "See if bond intuition can get you a location."

"I'll do that. Thank you very much, you've been extremely helpful."

"Like I said." She runs both hands through her hair and picks up her tea again-- it's probably gone a bit cold, but she doesn't seem to mind, draining it all the same. "Anything I can do for you, any time."

---

For the next week, Charles takes Jean's advice and looks at a few maps, New York and neighboring states. He checks in on his bond, carefully dampening the minds around him, following the trail of his bond out west.

It takes him a while, but when he sees it, he wonders how he could have missed it before.

I was just there. I was there last year. The first place that pops into your head...

Classes have already started, but he can take time off for a seeker trip. He doesn't have to tell anyone at Elion the whole story: when he says it's urgent, no one argues. Finally, all these years later, he's old enough for people to take his word for it. The irony doesn't escape him: now, when he doesn't feel that awful mix of fear and pain and grief from his bond the way he did when they were younger, now people will accept that it can't wait.

Arranging time off, packing, making travel plans: it all takes much longer than he would have liked. But every time he reaches for his bond, he's sure.

Pittsburgh.

He's going. He's going to meet his bondmate there. After all these years, he'll finally know what happened, and why.