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It feels as if he's been awake a long time, drifting here in the dark, conscious, but disinclined to do anything about it. He doesn't want to move or feel or see. Everything is fine just like this. He doesn't remember how this started or why he's here or... really, much of anything. But it's fine.

He should probably know his name. It's not quite coming to him just now. It seems as if that ought to be alarming. For that matter, he's not sure he could open his eyes even if he wanted to, and that seems like it should frighten him as well. He's alone, utterly alone in his mind, no one else's thoughts or feelings anywhere. Conceptually that strikes him as terrifying. He knows he was devastated when that happened to him before. But he's not bothered now. He feels insulated. Peaceful.

There is something niggling at him. At the back of his head, at soul's-home. Normally he doesn't feel much of anything there. In scenes and during sex, sometimes people touch him there, expecting it to turn him on or bring him off. Even people who've never had soulbonds often have a psychosomatic sensitivity there. It's not like that for him, and being touched there just reminds him there's something missing.

What felt like null before has now gone down to negative numbers. It's as if someone took a scoop to the back of his head and gouged his joining spot out. It doesn't hurt, but it feels less than merely empty, less than blank. It feels lacking.

Where it used to be, there's a nothing, a vacuum. A drain. If he's lying on his back-- he's not sure-- then he's probably losing a lot of blood and brain matter through the gap in his head, without the missing occipital bone to stop it up. He can't feel it, though.

It's not a physical lack, he finally realizes. It couldn't be. He'd be long since dead. It's been ages. He's been awake such a long time.

He's feeling something now, though. A tickle at the roof of his mouth, that's a strange place to have a sensation. Movement. He doesn't really want to move, does he? But it's happening, he's moving his-- tongue, and it's cold, and his lips are cold, because they're parted and he's breathing, more and more shallowly, coming faster because he's waking up. Whether he wants to or not, he's waking up.

Charles opens his eyes. He sees the flecked white ceiling overhead, feels sheets and blankets, a cannula curving under his nose. Soreness in his arm, soreness everywhere, a hollow feeling at the back of his head...

Maybe he's still sixteen. Maybe he's had one of those long, involved, extraordinary dreams that's made him feel as if he traveled and sought and studied and worked and lived, and now he's coming back to reality.

This is a poor sort of reality, though. The thoughts and emotions of the rest of the world feel so far away he's not sure he's really sensing them at all. Perhaps he's only remembering how they used to feel, like a song stuck in his head.

He was leaving the dorm, walking across the grassy quad. He had a cardigan, he remembers someone covering him with it once he fell. And now he'll turn his head, and Raven will say, Charles, you're awake.

Instead, a man says, "More flowers. I guess somebody didn't get the email."

Another male voice answers, "Once he's up maybe they'll let us bring them in. Make this room look less fucking bleak. What is it with hospitals? Even in a ritzy private clinic like this. I thought at an expensive place they'd put something on the walls. At least slap up a poster. 'Hang in there, kitten.' Or those motivational posters with the landscapes and shit."

"That's one way to push people to get better. To get away from Successories."

"Is that seriously what they're called? Uugh. That's just--"

"Hey, whoa, shush. Charles?" A hand touches his.

He licks his lips; it takes more effort than he expects. "Where..." he has to swallow, his voice is dry and broken, the word lost. And it doesn't really matter right now where exactly he is, they already said it's a clinic. He whispers, "What happened?"

"You've been out for a while," fingers lace through his and squeeze, slim, strong, warm...

Armando. Of course, and the other voice is Alex. Armando's saying, "Text Raven."

"Text her?"

"It's three in the morning there."

"Okay, okay."

"You want some ice?"

It takes Charles a long confused moment to realize Armando's talking to him. He does want ice, water, something, but he needs an answer first, struggling to focus his eyes and see Armando, his kind eyes and tensed mouth.

"I didn't sleep...?" Charles asks, a fist around his heart.

Armando shakes his head. "No. It wasn't mourning sleep." He lets Charles take that in, before quietly adding, "At first they thought it might be. You had a pretty serious psionic energy drop. But you've got none of the chemical markers of mourning sleep. It wasn't that."

"Thank you." Charles mouths it more than he says it, already fading again.

The next time Charles wakes up there's a nurse in the room. Alex is asking her, "Can we bring his flowers in now?" He was saying something about that before, Charles thinks, so maybe it hasn't been long.

The nurse sees he's conscious and comes over to shine a light in his eyes and ask him questions, and after a few nods and headshakes, she gives him a remote control to raise and lower the head of the bed, and a paper cup of ice chips. For a disorienting moment, Charles doesn't want to take them, because wasn't he worried he might be drugged...?

But that was years ago. The intervening time wasn't a dream, he understands that now. He's feeling better, more solid in his skin. The din of the world is still remote, but it's definitely there.

He lets ice chips melt in his mouth and takes inventory: hospital gown, IV in his left arm, ankle socks on his feet. The room is spare, but it has a plush sofa and chairs for guests.

Alex drags his chair over and fidgets with something-- a mobile phone. "It's in airplane mode," he says when he sees Charles looking at it. "They won't let us use it as a phone in here because blah blah electromagnetic something or other. That's where Armando is, he went back to the lobby to call your mom."

Charles thought he had a handle on reality, but that throws him. "Armando's talking to my mother?"

"He had to get her to sign you out of the hospital so they'd release you to here," Alex explains, not terribly helpful; Charles is still boggling at the idea of Armando speaking to his mother at all. He hasn't introduced any friends to his family in years. "He's been keeping her looped in. She's at a hotel down the block but your stepfather keeps trying to come in here with her, and she said she knew you wouldn't like to wake up and find him in here, so Armando just keeps calling her."

"Why did I need to be signed out...?"

"They sucked," Alex says flatly. "They were all like, psionic mutant? Passed out for no reason? Must be his mutation, dose him with Psychitrex. They were giving you like, an IV of that stuff and pretty much nothing else. So Armando got you transferred to Weeks Memorial."

"Oh," Charles says faintly. The pieces are starting to come together more and more now, but they still don't add up to a whole. "What happened to me?"

"Something with your bond." As soon as Alex says it, Charles lifts his hand to the back of his head, remembering that sensation of loss and emptiness, the feeling of being drained. He's intact there... at least so far as he's been since he was sixteen.

It still doesn't feel like much of anything when he touches it. It's a bit of a rude gesture to make in front of someone else, but Alex isn't fazed, going on, "You're stable now, everything seems to be getting better. For a while, though, you had psionic energy just rushing out there. Like a faucet."

"Rushing out," Charles repeats. Instantly he's recalling everything he's ever known about the bond, all the research he's done. Stress or injury to one bondmate can cause a loss of psionic energy within the bond itself, but to have it actively diverting energy from eir partner... that's rare. It's psionic shock that causes mourning sleep, not a loss of energy per se.

Then again, research regarding the bond and psionic mutants is rare as well. The only supposedly in-depth material Charles even remembers glancing at belonged to some sort of radical bond-creation group, one whose reputation for unethical methods of research was so bad that its founder lost his medical license. Needless to say, none of that material was peer-reviewed, and much of it read more like Scientology than science.

Sometimes, in Charles's more bitter days, he used to entertain ideas of writing a paper on the effect of renunciation on psionic mutants, but of course with no idea what sort of renunciation his bondmate used, he could never get started.

This doesn't feel precisely like it did when he was sixteen, but there are too many common elements for him to ignore it, and whatever answers there are to be had, he needs them. "Rushing out to what?"

Alex makes a face. "They don't know. Armando asked all the questions, you can ask him when he gets back in, but when I got him to do the explain-like-I'm-five translation, he pretty much said that the energy must have been going somewhere outside the bond. Because if you were passing that much energy to your soulmate, you really should have slept."

But he didn't; he didn't sleep for his bondmate ten years ago. He didn't sleep this time. Thank God for that. In fact, this new incident with his bond surely proves, if nothing else, that his bondmate is alive. He must be alive and well...

His throat feels too dry to swallow; awkwardly, he reaches over to the rolling table beside his bed, but Alex gets there first and hands over the ice chips again. While they're melting, the door opens, and Armando walks in. He smiles as he comes over to the bed, leaning down to offer Charles a hug. "It's so good to see you up and talking," he says. "How are you feeling?"

"I don't know," Charles admits. "The same... I think."

Armando nods, expression growing serious. "You're going to need to take it easy for a while. Nobody thinks the psionic energy drop is going to be permanent, but you'll probably be a little off-balance for a while as things come back."

"Understood." Charles slips his fingers into Armando's offered hand, and Alex hops up on the foot of his bed, squeezing Charles's ankle. "Alex said you were speaking with my mother...?"

"Yeah. She's been worried. But your stepfather's been trying to butt in on every damn phone call, so it's all been kind of bits and pieces. I'm starting to understand why we've never met the rest of the clan before." Armando squeezes his hand. "Don't worry, we won't let his sorry ass in here. You've got enough to deal with."

"Rest and plenty of fluids," Alex says. Both Charles and Armando look at him; Alex scrunches his nose up and shrugs. "I don't know, it's what everyone's supposed to do when they're sick."

To Charles's surprise, that actually makes him smile, if only faintly. "Thank you," he says. "For being here." He remembers, from before, vaguely... "You let Raven know?"

"Yes. Not that we really had to," Armando says. "She found her soulmate. Her name's Irene Adler-- she's a precog. Really strong, from the sound of it. Right before we called Raven to tell her you were in the hospital, Irene told her the call was coming, and not to worry, that you were going to be all right."

"That's good." That Raven didn't worry, that Raven found her bondmate... last time Charles spoke to her, she wasn't sure she was close. He frowns. "What day is it...?"

"The 25th," Alex says.

"Your trip." Charles's heart sinks a little. "You were meant to be..."

"Mill Point's still going to be there next month," Armando says, looking down at Charles seriously. "You know how we said we wanted to be there through the rough times, too? Not just talk."

"So now you have to come with us," Alex says, jiggling Charles's foot a little. "Because it's not the 22nd anymore, and you're definitely going to need a vacation after all this."

"Alex!" Armando passes his hand over Alex's head. "Boy, let the man get to a point where he can sit up on his own before you start demanding vacation time out of him, all right?"

Alex rolls his eyes. "Like he didn't know I was going to ask," he mutters.

Charles didn't, actually. And the longer he stays semi-upright, the more tired he is. He should tell them to go while he rests, he knows, but this is the second time in his life he's been hospitalized because of his bond; maybe it's all right to be selfish this time, and let them stay.

The next time Charles wakes up, it's dark, only a few low lights illuminating the room. Armando's sitting on the sofa, the glow of his mobile phone shining on his face. Alex is curled up on the cushions, his head against Armando's thigh, Armando's hand gentle on his hair.

"Hey," Armando says quietly, putting the phone away. "You need anything?"

"No. Thank you," Charles murmurs. His voice is better, and more of the world clamors just outside his mind, again. Nearly midnight on a sleepy Sunday. He's grateful for that; he probably doesn't quite have the strength to fully shield right now. He's glad it'll be days yet before he has to deal with the frenzy of a Manhattan Friday night.

Of course, he's assuming his telepathy will return to the same level he's had since he first lost the bond at sixteen. There's no guarantee of that. This may be all he gets back. Perhaps every ten years he'll be felled like this, and lose a little more, and a little more...

Armando slips off the sofa and comes over to perch on the hospital bed. "I can see you worrying," he says, reaching out and stroking Charles's hair. "Don't. It's only been a few days. You're still recovering."

"You're not picking up empathy, are you?" Charles asks, half-joking.

Armando shakes his head with a smile. "Just reading your microexpressions." His thumb traces down Charles's forehead, resting lightly between his eyebrows. He strokes that spot between Charles's eyebrows, and much to Charles's surprise, it eases a little tension. Just the smallest bit, but even that feels good right now.

"Raven's been going crazy that she can't be here," Armando says. "But her bondmate, Irene..." he briefly studies Charles's face again and nods to himself. "Raven found her in a hospital in Germany, Klinikum Stuttgart. Irene's had vision problems all her life and she lost her sight completely as a teenager. She's had some procedures and therapy to restore some of her vision... she wanted to wait to meet Raven because she decided it'd be harder on them both if they were together. That she might not have been able to go through with everything she wanted to try, if Raven were there worrying about her. Raven was kind of pissed, but it's hard to argue with a precog."

"Though if anyone could..."

Armando smiles a bit. "Yeah. Well, Irene wanted to meet her now because she's having the last surgery, and even she doesn't know how it's going to turn out." He glances at the clock. "It's today. They're probably going into the operating room in about three hours. So you can imagine, with you laid out here and her bondmate going under the knife, Raven's been morphing herself extra hair to tear out." His smile widens and warms. "But I guess Irene told her you're in good hands."

The head of the bed is still inclined up somewhat, enough that when Charles pushes up on his elbow, he can tip his head and meet Armando's mouth. He only means to give him a quick kiss, an affectionate gesture, but when he sinks back against the mattress, Armando follows, and Charles winds his arms around Armando's shoulders, not kissing now so much as staying close, sharing breath. It's a bit more awkward for Armando to get his arms around Charles, but when he does, the comfort of it rushes right to Charles's head, and he holds on, not sure how to explain why he's affected so deeply by something so simple.

"You're okay. You're going to be okay," Armando soothes, and it's only then that Charles realizes he's shaking.

Gradually they drift out of the embrace, holding onto each other's hands. "We're going to have to get Irene a hell of a reception gift," Armando says. "It helped a lot to hear it from her that you pull through this fine in every future she sees. I always say I can roll with anything, but it turns out I can't really evolve to deal with seeing someone I care about hurting while doctors try to come up with professional-sounding ways to say 'Fuck if we know.'"

Charles rubs his thumb across Armando's knuckles. All that power to adapt, and his body always goes back to baseline... albeit an utterly flawless baseline. His hands aren't tough as iron or scaled over with stone unless they need to be. The most powerfully adaptable person in the world, and this is his body unstressed, this human form is his foundation; his resting state is as miraculous as his ability.

"One of these days," Armando goes on, quiet, serious, "we are going to have to ask. When it was your past, it was different, we weren't going to pry-- well, Alex was going to pry, I had to tell him to back off. If it was something you didn't want to talk about, something you kept close, I wanted to respect that. But this isn't just in your past anymore."

"I know. You deserve an explanation." Charles swallows. "You know my bond went when I was sixteen. It took some of my ability with it."

"That's already news to me," Armando says. "What was it like before?"

"I used to be able to sense people nearly a hundred miles away if I tried."

Armando whistles. "Okay, then."

"I didn't sleep," Charles says, "no indication my bondmate was hurt or ill-- of course you can't always tell, but inasmuch as you can. He'd been stressed for a long time. Angry. For years. Maybe he found out we were incompatible somehow, maybe he knew what he was going to have to do."

"You think he renounced?" Armando frowns, but for a mercy, he doesn't go on to say something along the lines of No way, nobody would renounce a nice guy like you. That doesn't make Charles believe it any less; it only makes him feel as if whatever's wrong with him must be sunk down deep, if he seems on the surface to be such a nice unrenounceable guy.

"I've tried to keep an open mind," Charles temporizes. He didn't succeed very well, but he did try. "But now? If it had been illness or injury that damaged the bond, it hardly seems likely that the same thing would happen again exactly ten years later."

"I've never heard of any kind of renunciation technique that gets turbo-charged every ten years," Armando says, just a bit dry.

"Nor I. But loads of them are strengthened yearly, to fight any sort of anniversary pull. I don't recall any that call for more at the decade mark." That doesn't mean they're not out there. When he studied the subject, Charles was less interested in the cultural trappings and more concerned with the psionic and physiological mechanics of renunciation.

It's always hurt to think that his bondmate is blocking him, but even so, more proof is as much a relief as it is an abiding ache. Even at his most bitter, Charles would rather believe that his bondmate turned away from him than imagine that he's out there somewhere beyond Charles's reach, hurt or ill, or even simply as lost as Charles is. Better if he chose this. Charles has spent most of his life sensing that people want him out of their heads and away from them, when they know what he can do. He's learned to live with that; he can live with it from his bondmate.

Though he could've done Charles the courtesy of meeting him first. Charles sighs, rubbing his mouth. He tries, but he's still not as philosophical about it as he'd like to be.

"So I'm not trying to suggest, I'm just saying. You could block on your side," Armando tells him.

"I can't," says Charles. "If there's any chance..."

"Yeah," Armando says softly. "Yeah, I know how that goes."

"It wasn't always anger and ill will. It wasn't even mostly that," Charles tells him. "He was passionate in good ways as well. Everything he sent me was strong. Pride. Happiness." Not often enough, but strong when it came. "Loyalty. When I needed him, he gave me all the devotion anyone could ask for. We'd never met, but he was there for me. I'll always be grateful for that." He sighs. "It's foolish, I know, but I've always hoped there's an explanation. A tradition he was bound to observe. A demand from his family. He might change his mind. I can't close off that possibility."

Even with the risk that this might happen again. Even if he loses another fraction of his ability to it. He can't hope to articulate what it meant to him to feel the unreserved love he used to receive from his bondmate, what he'd give to have even a portion of that back. But looking at Armando, seeing the way he glances over at Alex... he knows he doesn't have to explain.

He tries not to be jealous of the bonds that other people share, certainly not the bonds between his friends. But of course it's a lost cause right now. When Armando turns back to him, Charles tightens his mouth in chagrin, knowing the envy must be written all over his face, to Armando's discerning eyes.

"Hey," Armando reaches for him again, his hand warmly spanning Charles's jaw, thumb dotting the corner of his mouth. "Give yourself a break. Enough memory lane for a while, huh? Just relax, let it go for now. There's got to be something we can do to get your mind off it."

Charles tries a smile. "I'm afraid I'm out of commission for most of the traditional ways of getting one's mind off someone," he says. Armando smiles back at him and leans down for one more kiss before he slides back onto the couch. Still fully asleep, Alex makes a pleased noise and squirms close again.

"Are you sure you don't want to take him home?" Charles asks. "I hate to put you out. That can't be restful."

"Sure it can. Look at him, he's doing fine," Armando chuckles, indicating Alex, who snoozes on. "And you know I can adapt to this as much as anything. Don't worry about it."

"How much sleep do you need?" In a way it's amazing he's never asked before, but Armando already gives up some time to letting his mutation be studied under lab conditions. Charles never wanted to irritate him by inquiring about all the details of his ability to adapt. He knows he has a tendency to lose sight of everything else when he indulges his fascination with mutation.

"I played around with that in college," Armando says. "I can go about five days without sleeping, and then I need to get at least twelve hours, or I start getting a little strung out. I run best on about four hours a night, but I can knock that down to two or three in a pinch."

"Imagine how much more you could get done with an extra four hours a day," Charles says.

Armando laughs. "You'd think. Mostly I end up losing hours on Wikipedia or something."

"At least you're well-read," Charles jokes. For all that he thinks it falls a bit flat, Armando smiles warmly at him.

"Now there's a good idea for a distraction. Ask me something else."

"Ask you...?"

"About my mutation." Armando props his head on his hand, smiling over at him. "Sky's the limit. Don't tell me you haven't been sitting on some questions for years, because I know you have."

"Do you realize what you're getting yourself into?" Charles asks. "I could talk about anyone's mutation for hours, and yours! Yours potentially encompasses every other X-gene mutation. If anything could get me to deal with all the rubbish involved in getting back into the lab, it would be studying your genome--" his voice starts to give out. The ice chip bucket has been replaced with a pitcher, and he pours himself a glass of water carefully. He feels better, but even trying to maneuver something as simple as a cup and pitcher, his motor control is a bit chancy; his hands tremble.

He manages, though, and he's glad Armando doesn't jump up to try to help. It gives him at least a bit of a sense of normalcy to get it himself and bring the cup to his lips, drinking deeply.

"Maybe we should try--" Armando touches his temple in the gesture Charles uses when he's actively employing telepathy. "Spare what's left of your voice."

"I don't mind trying," says Charles. He still does sound a bit creaky. "But it doesn't seem likely to work now, when it never has before. Or are you thinking that since I'm weaker now, your mind won't perceive mine as a threat, and won't adapt to keep me out?"

"I wasn't thinking of it that way, but it's possible," Armando answers frankly. "That's not what I had in mind, though. I've been doing some reading. Ideas for being more open to telepathy. Some techniques that might keep me from evolving in response to every little thing."

Charles stares at him. Privately he's always thought Armando makes a good match for him in part because Armando's adaptive ability takes telepathy off the table entirely. Certainly with Armando and Alex, he received the kindest refusal he's ever experienced; Armando let Charles try to read him, and when it failed, Alex explained that he didn't feel he could share more with Charles than he could with Armando, not if Charles and Armando couldn't share that much as well. Put that way, it was actually rather sweet. The moods Charles can sense from Armando are muted, sometimes obscured, but they're enough to be going on with. And Alex gave Charles permission to read his emotions. He even learned to project thoughts. It's been less an issue with them than it ever has been with anyone else.

Armando studies him. "You didn't think we were serious."

"I didn't know that being serious would include that," Charles admits.

"It does," Armando says simply. "Do you want to try?"

"Now?" Even to Charles's own ears, that sounds like stalling. It's a huge gift Armando's offering, and one not likely to come around again if Charles missteps. But just communicating words, that won't be a misstep, that's just conversation. And if Armando's mutation keeps it from happening despite his new techniques, then at least they'll know.

"Go on," Armando murmurs. "I'm here, I'm listening." He closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep, slow breath through his nose. It almost looks as though he's starting a meditation session.

Carefully, Charles lifts his fingers to his temple. «Hello, Armando.»

Armando frowns; Charles immediately drops his hand, wringing his fingers together in his lap. "I didn't quite get that," Armando says. "Try again?"

"We don't have to--"

"I want to." Armando sits up a little straighter, angles his head more precisely toward Charles. "I'm right here. Try again."

"Just once and then we'll stop."

"Okay. One more time, then."

Charles's hand goes back to his temple, and he bites his lower lip. He can't just push harder, not with Armando; that won't work. It has to be easy, gentle... Armando's mutation has to see telepathy as another way to talk, an advantage, not a threat.

He floats the words to Armando as cautiously as he can. «It's me, Armando... I'm thinking of the color blue. Do you see it?»

Armando smiles, then, big and wide. "Blue," he says out loud, and then, nose wrinkling, "Shoot, I said that out loud. Okay, let me give that another shot."

His thoughts come across in a way that's almost completely unfamiliar to Charles, walled off in a bubble of sorts. Charles can read that thought, but nothing surrounding it; it's as though only the thoughts Armando's sending him are real, and the rest are shrouded in darkness.

«Blue,» Armando sends. «We'll bring you a sweater when we go...»

The rest of the phrase fades too far for Charles to hear, but Armando looks hopefully at him. "Did you get all that?"

"Most of it, I think," Charles says. "Something about bringing me a sweater?"

"Yeah. We were going to go to your place for some of your stuff tomorrow. Did I close you out at the end?"

"I'm afraid so." But Charles is smiling anyway. "I'd still call it a success."

"First of many," Armando says with a grin of his own. "If we're lucky."

Charles wouldn't have thought of any of this as lucky before... he's in a hospital, he's only just now recovering from a psionic energy drain, and his rejected bond is putting him through an ordeal yet again.

But he has friends. Good friends. Friends who are waiting with him in recovery, friends who aren't frightened off by his ability... it's not what he hoped for, when he was young, but it is something worth hoping for.

"So Mill Point, right?" Alex says when Charles walks in.

"Charles, hey-- Mill Point? You've still got weeks before you need to get back to teaching..." Alex adds as they sit down to dinner.

"I don't even know yet if they're going to need me next term. One of the full professors is looking to take on more classes. They may not hire me back for a while yet, unless one of the other instructors lightens eir courseload unexpectedly," Charles confesses.

"So you're totally free? Perfect," Alex says.

"I didn't say that. It's up in the air."

"Well, you could probably use a vacation to take your mind off it," Alex says, with consummately unconvincing innocence.

Alex shows the immense restraint of waiting all the way through dessert before bursting out with, "You know what's a great place for a vacation? Mill--"

"Babe," Armando says, finally, passing a hand over Alex's head, "chill." Alex turns to Charles with a sheepish look on his face, and Charles shakes his head, almost laughing. "Forget he spent all of dinner asking about Mill Point and just tell us how you're doing."

"Better," Charles says. It's been a few days since he was able to be released from Weeks Memorial, and the doctors were right: his ability's come back, at least back to the level he had before the recent stay in hospital. Although he's been taking it easy, when Armando suggested a nice dinner in at their place, Charles was more than happy to oblige. "I really am feeling more-or-less normal again."

"Normal," Alex says. "Bor-ing. You're a little bit of a weirdo, but that's okay, we like that."

"Alex!" Armando buries his face in one hand while passing the other over Alex's head. Alex makes a face at him. "Don't think I don't see that."

"Did you develop some sort of extrasensory perception just now?" Charles asked, instantly curious, but Armando laughs, shaking his head.

"I meant figuratively," he says. "Okay, Alex, how about you put some of that energy to good use? You could--"

Alex hops up from his seat, walks around the table, and drops to his knees between Armando and Charles. "Great! I was wondering when we were going to stop all this talking and get to it."

Over his head, Armando exchanges a look with Charles. Charles's grin goes impish as he says, "May I?"

"Oh, absolutely."

This time it's Charles who passes a hand over Alex's head, ruffling his hair a bit as he does. Alex turns around to look at him and smirks. "Now we're talking," he says. "Do I get a spanking for this?"

"No, but you can clear the dishes," Charles improvises, looking up at Armando for an all-clear. Armando nods quickly, and Charles bends down and kisses the top of Alex's head. "Go on."

"Crap," Alex moans. "I was really hoping for the spanking..."

"You get that for being good," Armando says. "And you know it."

Alex takes to his feet, gathering up the dishes. "I thought I got it for having a great ass." He bends over the table a little in demonstration, but quick enough he's carrying the dishes off to the kitchen. "Don't get started without me! I'll be right back!"

Armando shakes his head, but he's smiling as he watches Alex disappear through the dining room door. "He's a handful," he says. "Glad you're here to help out."

"You wouldn't really need my help," Charles says, glancing away for a moment before looking back at Armando. "You've been happy together for years, after all."

"Still." Armando reaches out and slides a hand onto Charles's knee. "You've been there for us almost from the start. It feels right to have you here. There's some things that work a whole lot better when you're around. It's one of the reasons we like having you close to home, when we can get you."

This time Charles manages a smile. "Thank you," he says. "Do you mind if I ask-- why exactly is Alex so determined about Mill Point? Is it just because he didn't get to go in April, or..." It doesn't really explain why he'd be determined to have Charles go to Mill Point; that's the part which leaves Charles confused.

"He loves it there. I know how he feels; I love it there. And I think he wants to make sure you love it, too." Armando shrugs. "We talk about getting a vacation home up there sometimes."

"Oh." Charles blinks several times. "Am I meant to... is there part of that you're leaving out, because I'm afraid I'm not very good at reading between the lines, and--"

«We want you there with us,» Armando projects, thoughts forming as if in bubbles and floating over. It takes Charles completely by surprise; after that night in the clinic, he wasn't sure if Armando would want to try again.

Apparently he does. And getting projected thoughts now, while Armando's doing his best to send reassurance... it's remarkably effective. Charles swallows, throat feeling suddenly tight. «How do you mean that?» he sends, as gently and easily as he can. «I mean...» He touches his temple, raising an eyebrow at Armando. «It feels as if you mean this, too... not just the trip.»

«Yes.» Armando nods, in case his meaning wasn't clear enough. «Come with us. We really want you to be a part of it... us... this...» Armando's words are getting fuzzier, his adaptive ability occluding his thoughts. He reaches over and takes Charles's hand, squeezing it lightly. "We want you," he says aloud. "Spend two weeks with us in Mill Point. Find out if we drive you nuts, or if it's something you want to take a chance on. We'd both love that."

"That's why Alex is so intent on it," Charles blurts out. "It's a trial run."

"It doesn't have to be," Armando says immediately. "It can just be a vacation. It can be whatever you need it to be."

Charles winces a little. It's probably a good idea to offer each other an out like that, ensure that everyone knows things can always go back to friendship-- or simply stay friendship-- if they change their minds and decide they don't want him after all. It still hurts a bit to have that laid out so plainly.

But... it was only three weeks ago that Charles felt so close to losing everything all over again. And perhaps he isn't meant to have the kind of relationship that Alex and Armando have-- that everyone seems to have, that even his bloody stepbrother Cain has.

But if he's careful, if he doesn't make the same mistake he made with Amelia, if he accepts the friendship and closeness he's offered instead of always wanting more...

"I think," Charles says carefully, "I'd like to see Mill Point with the two of you."

"Whoooooooooo!" Alex pokes his head back in from the kitchen. "Fucking awesome! Armando, go book our cabin right now before he changes his mind!"

"Or," Armando counters, "I could wait until we pick out a time to go, and book a cabin then."

Alex lets out an impatient little huff of breath, and passes his hand over his own head. "Okay, okay, fine," he says. "But if you guys want to take care of all that now, I'll do all the dishes and clean the kitchen. By myself."

"I'm not sure what it says about me as a dom that he bribes me with housework instead of sex," Armando says, rising up from the table. "You want to go compare our calendars, see what we've got available?"

"Just a moment." Charles walks over to Alex and slips his hands onto Alex's shoulders, smiling at him. "Thank you for the enthusiasm," he says. "I appreciate it."

Alex bounces on the balls of his feet, nodding. "You're welcome," he says. He tries to press forward for a kiss, but Charles dodges. "Oh, come on! You were just praising the enthusiasm two seconds ago!"

"I was," Charles agrees, "but now I'd like you to ask nicely."

"Will-you-please-kiss-me-please," Alex belts out, all in one breath.

"Yes," Charles says, cupping Alex's face and leaning in for that kiss.

When he draws back for breath, Armando's right there beside him, smiling down at the two of them. Charles turns and strokes his thumb over Armando's cheek, and when Armando tips his head down, Charles doesn't make him wait before giving him a kiss, too.

"I cannot believe the amount of stuff you packed," Armando teases, arms laden down with duffel bags and suitcases. Charles tried to hold onto at least one of them, but Armando claimed that he could adapt to the weight, and so far he isn't groaning or complaining, just laughing. "And here I thought Alex was bad."

"He needs a cardigan for every day of the week," Alex says, grinning at Charles.

"Maybe I just needed armbinders to color-coordinate with all my various outfits."

"Does that mean you have tweed armbinders?" Alex shoots back.

"I also have plaid."

"No way!"

"To match the kilt I bought you."

"You-- uh, really?" Alex pauses. "That could be kind of fun..."

"If he's not just fooling with you, I'll take pictures." Armando nods toward the self-check kiosks. "Let's get checked in, come on."

As soon as they've got their boarding passes printed, Armando muscles the vast pile of luggage over toward the baggage check desk. Alex is nearly bouncing with excitement; he brandishes his boarding pass and says, "Portland! We're almost there already!"

Portland. Charles's breath catches, hard, and he looks down at his boarding pass. Portland, Maine. PWM. He knew that. JFK to PWM, it's a little over an hour-long flight, and then there's an hour's drive between Portland International Jetport and Mill Point.

The letters swim in front of Charles's face. Portland. PWM. It's wrong.


He doesn't know how, but it's wrong. It's the wrong Portland, somehow; he closes his eyes, thinking about Portland, Oregon, and a rush of satisfaction comes over him... accomplishment. Happiness. Something familiar, but nothing he can remember personally; he only went to Oregon once, on a West Coast seeker trip that took him up and down Interstate 5, and he certainly didn't end that trip with a feeling of accomplishment and happiness.

He looks back at his boarding pass. It still looks wrong.

"Charles, hey," Armando drops his bags and reaches for Charles's arm, "what's up?"

"Nothing," Charles says faintly. His voice feels as if it's coming from far away. He looks up at the Departures board, scanning the city names, and one of them stands out. It's almost as though it's in a brighter font than the rest, highlighted, bold. He couldn't miss it if he tried.

It isn't Portland, neither Maine nor Oregon. It's another place he's never been, and he can't imagine why it's calling to him. He takes a deep breath and blinks several times, fully expecting it to fade. Maybe it's something to do with his vision. For that matter, maybe it isn't just him. He points up at the screen. "Do you see that?"

"Uh, yeah," Alex says, though his usual attitude is a bit subdued with concern now. "It says Portland, Maine, 10:07 A.M., which means we should check our bags and go."

"What do you see?" Armando asks, stroking Charles's arm. He pulls Charles slightly to the side so that the people in line behind them can go ahead; Alex glares daggers at them, but doesn't argue. When Alex looks back at Charles, his brows are drawn together, and his emotional sphere is full of worry.

"I see..." Charles blinks several times, and tries looking at another screen. It's the same way on that one, too. "Omaha," he murmurs, confused. "I see Omaha. It's brighter, somehow."

"Omaha?" Alex repeats doubtfully.

"What about it?" Armando squeezes Charles's arm gently. "Does it look different from the other cities?" Charles nods. "Like you can't take your eyes off it?" Another nod. "Is it the same no matter what board you're looking at?"

"Yes," Charles whispers. "It's the same on all of them."

"Charles," Alex says, reaching out for his other hand. "Are you okay?"

"Do you feel anything at soul's-home?" Armando asks carefully. "Any kind of pull or tug?"

"No. Nothing," Charles says. "You know that. I never have." He glances around; there are far too many people here for him to actually reach up and try touching it. He looks at the screen again. Omaha. 9:20 A.M. He can't stop looking at it.

"How about," Alex says, "how about if we go, if we just go, and if you still feel like you want a trip to fucking Omaha after our vacation, we'll go with you?"

It's completely reasonable. It's the sort of compromise Charles might have offered himself, if someone had told him he might be in this position someday. Wait those feelings out; see if they're real. Maybe it's a mistake. An illusion, or a coincidence.

He might have thought that, before, but not now. Not with the departures screen all lit up around the word Omaha. Not the way he feels, thinking about Nebraska and remembering that one day, when he was younger, when he felt the bond leading him west. Illinois, Missouri, Iowa... He stared at maps for weeks after that, trying to imagine where the trail was leading before he lost it.

Nebraska could have been on that path. He went to Denver on his seeker trip; it seemed like the right direction. He tried Los Angeles, he covered most of the seeker grid, he hopped all over the globe with Amelia, but he never went to Nebraska.

Armando puts his hand on Charles's shoulder. "We can go with you now," he says softly. "All three of us."

"That's a great idea," Alex bursts out. "After this guy put you in the hospital I want to know where he gets off dragging you to meet him now--"

"Alex," Armando snaps. Alex goes quiet, but his lips tighten, and his eyes are bright, his emotions brittle. Armando turns back to Charles. "Just say the word," Armando says. "Tell us we can come, and we'll be there every step of the way."

Charles closes his eyes, touching his temple. He reaches out as far as he can, tries with everything in his mind and bond to feel something, anything, at soul's-home. He remembers that mind; he remembers the emotions, the connection, everything about it.

«Please. I'm here... Where are you? Is it Omaha? Give me something, anything, a lead, a chance, I'll take it... I'll come to you. Please.»

He holds his breath, waiting, and finally opens his eyes. When he looks at the screen, Omaha flashes, and the display changes from 9:20 A.M., On Time to Departed. Charles grabs hold of Armando's arm, staring up, and it's absurd, ridiculous, if Omaha's the right place then there are plenty of flights, there have to be, he can't have missed this-- God, all these years waiting for bond intuition to give him any slightest sign of his bondmate, and he can't have missed his chance because he was too late to get on the flight--

The display flashes again. Omaha, 10:03, On Time.

"I have to go," Charles says, his grip on Armando's arm too tight. "I have to go."

"Okay." Armando reaches up with his free arm and brushes back Charles's hair. "Then you go."

"Wait, no--" Alex takes hold of Charles's arm. "Charles, no, what if he's not even there, what if--" Alex struggles with words for a second, shaking his head. "What if he sucks," he says, finally. "Can't we go with you, please, what if you need us?"

Armando looks right into Charles's eyes, his hand gentle, his voice calm and certain. "We're going to be right here for you," he says. "You've got our cell phone numbers. Call us when you land, and call us when you have any news, good or bad. If you need anything-- anything-- you say the word, and we'll be there."

"I'm--" Charles swallows past a lump in his throat, nearly too choked up to speak. "I'm so sorry," he gets out, finally. "But I have to do this."

Armando slips gently out of the grip Charles has on his arm, and he wraps both arms around Charles's shoulders. Those thought bubbles come through to Charles one more time, and Charles grabs hold of Armando's shirt, hanging on.

«Don't be sorry. We understand. Go find your boy, Charles. Find him and bring him home.»

«It won't be that easy. It can't be, not after all this time...»

«You don't know that.» Armando's thoughts are slipping away, already, too soon. Aloud, he says, "Maybe it can be."

Alex leaps on both of them, wrapping his arms around them, hugging them both. "You can't live in Omaha," he whispers fiercely. "You have to come back home. Tell him he has to come home with you."

"Nobody wants to live in Omaha," Armando jokes. His voice is getting a little hoarse. "New York is a way better place to live."

Charles almost laughs, almost. "I'll do my best," he promises. It might not be good enough. It never has been before.

But up at the counter, Charles asks to have his ticket exchanged for one going to Omaha, Nebraska, and with a few keystrokes and a flight itinerary change fee, he's got his bags checked in to the Omaha flight, and he's holding a ticket with the right airport code on it. OMA. It's absurd, it makes no sense, but it's the right place. He can feel it.

"He doesn't get my kilt," Alex says thickly, at Charles's gate. "Or my armbinders. Those are mine."

"Of course they are," Charles promises, ruffling Alex's hair. "I wouldn't dream of sharing."

Alex clings to him. "Me neither," he whispers. "But I have to, don't I?"

"Maybe not." Charles holds onto Alex just as tightly, and Armando puts his arms around the both of them. "He left me ten years ago. Why would he--"

"Shhh." Armando risks a kiss to the back of Charles's neck, too low to be truly lewd, but high enough up that Charles knows what he meant by it. "He'll love you. Anybody would."

Charles doesn't have nearly that much faith, but he has to take this chance. He swallows, trying to catch his breath, as the gate agent calls for his flight to begin boarding. "That's me," he whispers. "That's me, I need to go, I need to go--"

"Okay," Alex whispers. "Okay okay okay. Go. But come back. You have to come back, come back--"

"Godspeed," Armando tells him, rubbing his back firmly. "Go on, now. Go."

Charles hefts his messenger bag over his shoulder and nods, and he's one of the first in line as the passengers begin boarding. He turns to look over his shoulder as he heads onto the jetway; Alex and Armando are waving, Alex's teeth sunk deeply into his lower lip. He lifts his hand in a last farewell.

He takes his seat and looks out the window; he's on the other side of the plane from the terminal, though, so he can't see Alex and Armando from here. His phone chirps as he's reaching to turn it off, and he smiles at the message there.

It's from Armando: [Don't forget to call when you land. We're going to miss you.]

Charles texts back quickly, [Of course I will. I'll miss you too.] He puts his phone away, closing his eyes again. Of all places, Omaha, Nebraska. Maybe nothing's going to come of this. But he's on his way.