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April 21, 2011

New York. Again. The plane circles around, ready to land, and Erik leans forward to look out the window. These unwanted anniversary meetings with Sebastian have taken place in New York more than once over the years; it was New York just last year, for all Erik tried to keep that meeting from happening. The year before, as well. But he's had more than just that inexorable, inescapable connection to Sebastian drawing him to New York, over time. The few times he's been here to visit, it's felt right. Three years ago, Erik almost moved here.

Maybe today it should feel like he's coming home, or coming full circle. Maybe there's something about New York he should have been paying attention to all these years. It would be just like Sebastian to bring Erik back here, to New York, knowing full well that Erik's soulmate has been here the whole time.

What happened? I know he's alive. What happened to him?

His soulmate's somewhere. Alive, for all that everyone tried to tell Erik that wasn't possible. Erik doesn't know where, hasn't been able to feel his real soulmate in years... but last year, for the first time in a decade, he finally got evidence that his soulmate survived the rogue medical procedure that separated them. His true soulbond isn't dead; there's something, someone, on the other end of it.

And Sebastian confirmed it, the last time they met.

He came to see me. Had this sweet, sad little story about what happened to him in April of 2000. He just fell into a coma one day, didn't feel the bond break, didn't feel anything. I did everything I could for him. He ended up with the best care anyone could ask for...

Erik's been traveling since last April, trying to put all the pieces together. Sebastian didn't give him much to go on, not that Erik expected him to.

Tell me where. I need to see him. I need him. Please.

I'll kill him before I let you find him. And then you'll have nobody left to kneel for but me.

But Erik didn't have a choice. If there was even a scrap of truth in the things Sebastian said about Erik's soulmate, he had to know.

If Erik had ever met his soulmate in person, if he'd ever known his name... maybe he'd have found something, by now. Every time he's walked into a long-term care facility, whether it was the one in Nebraska he started at-- the one his foster parents are still at, and doing no better than they were seven years ago-- or the ones in Geneva, in Argentina, Florida... each time, he's taken in a breath, the whisper of something from his bond making him wonder if this is the place.

At this point he's started to wonder if that feeling is psychosomatic, if he simply wants to find his real soulmate so urgently that he's imagining a flicker of his presence. He always starts feeling it after he arrives somewhere, sometimes a few hours later, sometimes a day or two. It's worse here in New York than it's ever been before, though: not even landed yet, and he can almost feel the bond tugging him in two different directions. One of them is Sebastian, here in the city, probably giving his sales pitch to desperate mutants and humans. The other...

Maybe it's a lie, some kind of trick Sebastian created with his end of the bond. Manipulating soulbonds is his life's work, and Sebastian has never given Erik any reason to have faith in his word. Erik's best friend thinks Sebastian was just inventing that story about meeting Erik's soulmate. Jason pointed out that Sebastian's story has been doing a good job of keeping Erik busy this year: it's kept him from finding ways to get the bond Sebastian forced on him blocked or severed once and for all. But if it's true... if Erik's soulmate is sick, damaged... Erik can't leave him in Sebastian's hands. He can't.

All that travel, though, has been for nothing. Erik's hunted down every lead he could find, searched and gathered up every scrap of information he could lay hands on for the past year, but there's still no sign of his soulmate. And here it is, April again, the anniversary dragging Erik back to Sebastian's side, however unwillingly. Fine, then. Fine. If Erik has to see Sebastian again, then by God, this time he's getting answers. One way or another. Whatever it takes.

Another few minutes and they'll be on the ground. He can text Jason, let him know he arrived safely... and fend off the usual questions about where he is, what Jason can do to help. Jason's in Los Angeles, auditioning, and Erik knows that on April 22nd, more than any other day of the year, Jason will be waiting by the phone, holding his breath. As much as Erik doesn't want Jason sick with worry, he doesn't want Jason in the same room with Sebastian ever again. He knows how that would end; he knows what Jason would do. Sebastian's taken enough away from Erik. Erik's not going to let him destroy Jason's future, too.

He reaches up and rubs his thumb across Sebastian's collar, and the woman next to him smiles. "Just getting back home?"

"Just in town for a visit."

"Oh, that's nice. Have you been to New York before?"

"A few times."

She nods. "I live here. With my dominant, of course." She smiles. "I was just on a quick business trip. I actually can't be away from my dominant for more than three days. We've tried. It just gets ugly."

This isn't a conversation Erik wants to have, let alone with a stranger. He gives a noncommittal grunt, and when she keeps looking at him, he offers, "It must make travel difficult."

"Usually we go places together. But I figured I could get away with a work trip if it was short." She leans in a little closer. "I can't wait to get my collar back, though. We take mine off when I'm traveling. I guess you don't, though?"

"No," he says, quiet and even. "Mine doesn't come off."

She stares at him for a moment; he turns back to the window, his hand going up to his collar, toying with the links again. He can't feel anything; he can't move it. There have been times during this hunt when his power's been more present, when he could almost bend those links, but not now. He gives it a light tug, just checking for any sort of weakness or gap in the metal. Nothing.

The sub sitting next to him reaches out; her fingertips brush his knee. "You should tell em." He looks back at her, and she shrinks back for a second, but then straightens. "You should tell em you don't like it. Just because ey's your dominant doesn't mean you should have to wear a collar that you don't like."

"He's not my dominant," Erik says. "He's just my bondmate. I'm not oriented."

"But you're wearing his collar...?"

"It was an anniversary present. It would have been more trouble than it was worth to turn it down."

Her frown goes even deeper, and she reaches under the seat in front of her for her purse. After digging through it for a moment, she comes up with a scrap of paper and a pen, and she scrawls a phone number down for him. "Okay. Listen. This might be none of my business, but there are people who can help you."

I doubt that, Erik thinks, but he doesn't say it. He lets her press the phone number into his hand.

"Just because you're bonded to someone doesn't mean they have the right to make you uncomfortable. You should always get to feel safe, even with your bondmate. Especially with your bondmate." She nods at the business card he's holding. "My bondmate volunteers with that hotline. If you just need someone to talk to, it's 24-hour."

He looks down at the number. Submissives Hopeline, 888-555-0120.

"Her sister needed help a long time ago," she says softly. "But it all turned out okay." She hesitates. "I know you said you were unoriented, but it's okay, it's not just for submissives--"

"I'm fine," Erik says. He pockets the paper anyway; easier than arguing that he doesn't need it. "It's only once a year."

"Oh." She nods as if she understands, and for a while, she's quiet. But then she frowns again, her eyes tracking to his collar. She looks at him helplessly and adds, "Be safe this year, then."

"I will." It's what he'll tell Jason when they land, when he texts Jason, when Jason gives him the same advice. But when he says it to Jason, he'll add, You should worry more about what I'm going to do to him, if he doesn't tell me where my soulmate is.

On the ground, the pull toward Sebastian is more intense than ever. Erik clenches his fists and grits his teeth and does his best to ignore it, settling into a hotel in Chelsea, as far away from Sebastian as he can comfortably get. He'd go further north if he could. When they ask him if he wants a view of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, Erik answers "North" without hesitation; he'll trade that view of the statue for facing away from Sebastian any day.

Up in the hotel room, he looks out over the city, all the twinkling lights, all the people living their lives here. Even now, as close as Sebastian feels, he thinks there's something else. A presence, faint, disappearing when he focuses on it too closely.

He leans against the window, closing his eyes for a moment. He's never found anything, not in any of the places he's searched. Nebraska. Vienna. Toronto. Geneva. Argentina. Florida. Nothing. The longer this goes on, the more likely it seems that Sebastian was lying about finding Erik's soulmate. That untethered sense of something... a trick, another lie.

This has to end. He might not have found his own soulmate in those awful places, but he saw people who've been destroyed by Sebastian's "treatment". The Stones, in Nebraska. Rosella Conti, in Vienna. Loraine Bastin, in Geneva. Eduardo and Matthew Herrada, in Argentina. God knows how many other people Sebastian managed to hide. How many empty shells has Sebastian's treatment produced?

Sebastian and his acolytes covered their tracks well. It took work and research to find the lost souls Sebastian left behind. When the trail went entirely cold, Erik went to Florida, where Sebastian was giving a series of talks and a seminar as a 'bond counselor'. Sebastian has long since lost his medical license, but he stages these events in wealthy communities and touts his 'Bound By Choice' bond creation technique, claiming he only lost his license because his procedures work-- and their success offends dogmatic traditions that say the soulbond is sacred and unalterable. Attendees fool enough to believe him and moneyed enough for medical tourism fly overseas to unaccredited clinics, where Sebastian can butcher their souls with impunity.

In Florida, Erik took a room just a few blocks from the resort where Sebastian was staying and speaking. He's always felt his ability returning to him when he's closer to Sebastian, particularly as the anniversary approaches. This year, he made use of that fact. It hasn't been enough to break the adamantium collar Sebastian left on him, but it was enough to practice. To learn what he could make, what he could move. Small things. Sharp things.

Sebastian's mutation manifested when he usurped Erik's bond. His body absorbs any impact, any energy that's thrown at him. But last year, Jason cut off Sebastian's air, and the panic on Sebastian's face was real. Sebastian was suffocating til Jason was forced to release him. Impact and energy can't hurt him, but small things, sharp things, something that could get inside him and block off his throat... Sebastian can be hurt. He can suffer. Erik intends to prove it.

One way or another, I'll stop you. But first you're going to look me in the eye and tell me where he is. You're going to tell me that.

He slips his fingertips under his collar again and closes his eyes. His ability's feeling stronger and stronger. If he can break this alloy, he can do anything. Let Sebastian try to stop him, then.

Back in New York after nearly a year of seeking. Charles shuffles over to baggage claim and picks up his one rather bedraggled suitcase; it's seen more use this year than in all the time he'd had it before.

For all the good it did. He went from city to city, drawn by bond intuition, staying long enough to feel something... and every time, he felt it slip away, almost as quickly. The first unexpected flight took him to Omaha, Nebraska, and he rented a car when he arrived, driving southwest. After a day of searching through a handful of small towns, the trail felt as cold as if he'd imagined the whole thing, so he wound up back at the airport... to find the display shining Vienna at him as though there were no other cities on Earth.

Of course there was nothing in Vienna, either. Nothing in Geneva, or Paris, or Toronto-- although Toronto wasn't intentional, he was stuck there for three days when a snowstorm hit and his plane diverted there in late December.

His passport's seen so much use that he's starting to feel like an international spy or a touring musician. Or the nominal hero of a Hitchcock film, caught up in some sort of bizarre machinations, with no idea where he's going or what he's meant to do. All he has to go on are a few small clues: Late twenties, in all likelihood. Male. Possibly submissive... or possibly not. Potentially X-gene-positive. Lived somewhere west of New York as of March 1999... God, the only one of those things that's even remotely solid information is that Charles's bondmate is male. And after a whole year of wild goose chases, Charles is starting to wonder if maybe that's wrong, as well.

When intuition finally led him to pack his bag in Florida, he was as grateful as he's ever been. Florida was miserable. Already the April temperatures were warm enough to have his shirts sticking to him, and the insects, while technically fascinating on an entomological level, made him long for boxing gloves. Or cavalry. Making matters worse, every bar in Florida seemed to play nothing but Jimmy Buffett for the whole depressing length of his stay. Charles does not, in fact, like piña coladas, nor getting caught in the rain.

The gratitude of finally getting to leave those muggy wetlands lasted until the city name that lit up on the departures board was New York. All this time and he was meant to go back? All the places he'd been and it was all for nothing?

Three airline bottles of vodka into the flight, Charles began to wonder if it had all been a test. Perhaps his bondmate did get close enough to sense him somewhere along the way, and decided against meeting in person. Maybe the board lighting up New York was his bondmate's way of saying Give up. Go home.

Now that he's here, he doesn't know what to think. The pull of intuition is gone as if it had never existed. He studies the departures board again, unfolds the world map he's taken to carrying these past months. No other city name stands out on the board. On the map, the only thing that looks right is Manhattan, and that doesn't feel like the pull of intuition, but the familiarity of home.

Charles gets in a cab bound for the townhouse and texts Raven from the back seat. [Back in New York. Should be home in an hour.]

The text message she sends in return makes him wince. [Any sign of him?]

She couldn't have asked Irene, of course. Or perhaps she did, and Irene wouldn't tell her. He sighs and begins texting back, but another message comes over his screen first. [Irene says to hang in there. Your room's ready.]

[Thank you,] he sends. He has to squelch a burst of resentment. Hang in there, from the mutant with the strongest precognitive ability Charles has ever witnessed or even read about. On his way to Vienna, he flew into Stuttgart Airport, stopping over for a few hours to see Raven and Irene at a long-term residence hotel near Klinikum Stuttgart. The joy of meeting his sister's bondmate was shadowed by the urge to ask Irene straight away what lay in store for him, just a few hours east.

Of course, he didn't have to ask; she knew what he wanted to say. I can't see everything, Irene said. But sometimes I can see that talking about the future will change things for the worse.

And that was all. At the time, when he'd only been searching a matter of days, Charles accepted that. It's a much more bitter pill to swallow eleven months later. Whatever Irene's reason for keeping mum, Charles can't find it in himself to be understanding tonight.

He leans his head back against the backseat of the cab and presses his fingers to his temple. «Here I am,» he sends out. «Back in New York. Like you wanted. Are you trying to get rid of me? Was that what last year was about-- when you put me in the hospital, were you trying to block me for good? Did you drain me deliberately to send a message? Are you telling me to give up on you? Tell me in person, if that's what you want. Give me that much.»

As always, there's nothing. Charles sits up when the cab comes to a stop at the townhouse, but as he's climbing out, Raven and Irene step out the front door. Raven hands the fare over to the driver... and of course thanks to Irene, she has the right amount in hand, including the sizable tip Charles had planned to add for one of the least harrowing drives he's had in a Manhattan cab. For that, Irene was willing to look ahead.

Charles hefts his suitcase and takes a breath, collecting himself. People ask him sometimes to read minds for them, to tell them how another person really feels about them, or where something's hidden, or whether they'll get a job they're up for. He's always resisted that-- he knows that to non-psionics, his ethics can seem arbitrary and inconsistent, but Charles can sense what people's minds are guarding and what they're giving out. He doesn't see any harm in picking up the latter, but it's hard to explain the fine distinctions to people who can't know what he knows.

It's easy enough to imagine that precognitives might develop similar principles based on their extranormal perceptions. He puts his resentment away; he'll indulge in disappointment later. Right now, he just wants to let it go and enjoy this, Raven hugging him after all these months apart and saying "Welcome home!"

"It's good to be back," Charles says, kissing her cheek. It's true; it's good to be back, even though it hurts to return alone. Raven looks thrilled, her golden eyes bright. He can honestly add, "It's very good to see you looking so happy."

"I can't help it, I am," she says. "I know this isn't how you wanted to come home, but I'm so glad you're going to be here for the acknowledgement party. I know you were always going to try, and Irene promised it was like 95% odds, but I was worried you wouldn't make it back in time. I'm glad you're here."

"So am I," Charles smiles. Irene offers her hand rather than a hug; it seems his animosity didn't escape her notice even though he didn't voice it. "Sorry," he murmurs to her, and she squeezes his hand before releasing it.

Charles lets the two of them lead him into the townhouse. The pavement is lined with footlights now, and what used to be a jumble of coats and shoes in the front closet is neatly organized. Raven kept him updated via email and video chats: the surgery Irene underwent to regain her vision brought back some sight, but it was an incomplete restoration. She supplements her eyesight with precognition, but even so, she also uses aids like her folding cane and a screen reader, and Raven has made changes to the townhouse to accommodate Irene's low vision.

Raven takes his jacket and adds it at the end; each hanger has a white cardboard collar now. Despite everything, it's nice to see CHARLES boldly labeling the hanger designated for him.

They file into the lounge, and "Surprise!"

He feels the smile stretching his face-- he hasn't grinned like that in a year, he hasn't had cause, but stepping into the circle of Armando and Alex's arms has him beaming.

"It's so good to see you," Charles says, going to his toes to kiss Armando's cheek, and Alex's. "It was such short notice, I thought we might not catch up til the party."

"You've got to be kidding me! You're crazy," Alex grumbles, squeezing Charles with an arm around his waist.

"Welcome home," Armando adds, and bittersweet as that may be, Charles does feel welcome, and he is home. He rests his head on Armando's shoulder and lets Alex rub away the tension between his shoulderblades. "We really missed you."

Charles's own feelings were often complicated-- missing Alex and Armando but feeling guilty all the while, hoping that the bond would open up again and knowing what that would mean for all those possibilities he and Alex and Armando hadn't quite managed to discuss-- but now that he's here again, he simply says, "I missed you, too." Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Irene leading Raven out of the room, Irene's hand tucked into the crook of Raven's arm.

Once they're alone, "Home for good?" Alex asks. "Or is this another stop on the trip?"

"The departures board didn't have me haring off to somewhere else as soon as I landed, so I'm here for a while, at least."

"Well, if you need somebody to lick your wounds... or whatever..."

Armando sighs and takes one hand off Charles long enough to sweep it over Alex's head. "Two minutes. You couldn't wait two minutes."

"I could have, but I didn't want to." Alex's eyes sparkle as he steps back and looks at Charles, but even so, there's a slightly more heavy feel about him than Charles is accustomed to.

"What is it?" he murmurs. Alex gets a mulish look; Charles sighs. "I thought you were glad to see me."

"I am!" Alex says at once. "I really am. It's just..." he fidgets, frowning at Charles. "I feel really guilty, you know? I feel like I jinxed you."

"Why, what did you do?" Charles asks. "Light a black candle? Ring a bell?"

"You know, when you left," Alex crunches his mouth in a scowl. "When I said, what if he's not there."

"You didn't jinx me," Charles rubs his shoulder. "You were just-- right."

"Well, whatever happens after this weekend, we've got you right now," Alex says. He forces a more cheerful look onto his face, and his emotions settle into resolution and more than a touch of yearning. "What do you want to do tomorrow?"

Charles shoots him a look-- April 22nd, he wouldn't expect Alex and Armando of all people to forget what that means to him-- but Armando's standing beside Alex, looking steadily at him as well. "Anything you want," Armando promises. "Anything we can do."

In the face of all that warmth and acceptance, it's hard to say this, but Charles has to be honest with them. "I think I'm going to need to spend the day on my own."

Alex protests, "You just spent a whole year on your own!"

"Alex," Armando groans.

"What? I-- shit," Alex moans, leaning into Armando's shoulder. Armando wraps an arm around his waist and kisses his forehead. "Shit, Charles, I'm so sorry."

He's been keeping an even face all this time, but the reminder of all he's been through this year still stings. Armando reaches out and squeezes Charles's shoulder.

"We'll go when you need us to," he promises. "You can have all the space you need."

"Stupid space," Alex mutters. But he nods when Armando squeezes him. "He's right," he says, turning back to look Charles in the eyes. "Whatever you say."

It's almost enough to make Charles smile again. "That sounds promising. We'll all be at the party Saturday, and after that, we'll see. Sunday's Easter... maybe it'll be a good day to start over."

The way they both smile at him... it isn't the homecoming he wished for when he set out, not to come back alone and defeated, but he's grateful for it anyway.

«I've kept up practicing,» Armando sends to him, words carefully passed from his mind to Charles; Charles feels his throat thicken, moved.

«That means more to me than I can say,» Charles answers, swallowing hard. All this time seeking, he's had no one he could talk to this way, always a rare luxury to begin with. There really aren't words; he can't resist sharing his emotional reaction with Armando directly, eager to let him know how deeply it affects Charles to receive that kindness.

It's too much. Armando's adaptive mutation, always ready to protect Armando from potential threats, blocks Charles from his mind with such sudden force that both of them flinch, and Charles rubs his temple, head smarting a bit.

That desolate thought from the plane returns. He's always had to wonder if his bondmate felt something from Charles that he simply couldn't tolerate, and blocked their bond. And Charles has never known Armando's mutation to be hyperreactive. So what does it say about Charles, that Armando's mind reacts to his telepathy-- especially to sharing his emotions-- as a threat?

"I felt a little of that. Thank you," Armando says, pressing a kiss to Charles's temple. "I guess there's practice, and then there's practice. We'll keep working on it."

Charles nods, and tips his head up to kiss Armando's mouth. If he can't share his feelings his way, he can at least try to show them, putting all his appreciation into that touch.

"Hey! I want one too," says Alex as they both hem Charles in close. Quickly Alex adds, "Please. Please?"

"You two really are out to make me very glad I'm back, aren't you?" Charles smiles, and he gives Alex the requested kiss, enjoying the way Alex surrenders to it. When the kiss ends, he only has to turn his head to nuzzle Armando; he murmurs, "It's working."

"Can we be glad upstairs now?" Alex pushes, predictably.

"Soon," says Charles. In truth, he's nearly as impatient as Alex is. When bond intuition began to steer him, Charles was too busy following at first to think about scening. As the year wore on with no sign of his bondmate, he nevertheless stayed away from the clubs, determined to ensure that if their bond began to transmit emotions between them again, everything his bondmate received, all Charles's affection and desire, would be directed at him and only him. Now, back in the arms of the lovers who've made more of an effort to welcome him than any others, Charles won't deny himself any longer; he wants to reach out, he wants to be touched. "Soon as we can. But I need to drink at least a gallon of water, and I'm famished after that last flight."

Armando strokes long fingers through his hair. "You want to go see what we can dig up in the kitchen? Maybe order something in?"

"All right," Charles nods, and they're off, the three of them. Charles can actually smell something on the stove already; Irene again, no doubt.

Cab fare, late-night dinner, but no word about his lost bondmate. It would be so good to know if this were truly all for nothing, if there's any point in hoping for another destination, another journey... but he doesn't say so, only thanking her and Raven for the food and sitting down at the kitchen table with his friends. He'll have tomorrow to be bitter; he'll enjoy what he can of tonight.