Charles doesn’t like playing tag very much.
He joins in every time they play, of course; it’s still much better than playing by himself, after all (and he had to play by himself for so long before he started going to school). And Erik loves it, Erik who’s one of the fastest runners in their class, who’s good at all the playground games, but won’t play anything unless Charles plays too.
Unlike Erik, Charles isn’t very good at running. He likes it – likes the feeling of wind through his hair and getting places quickly and sometimes just moving – but he’s not very fast. If Charles had to be honest (and he always tries to be, at least), he’d have to say that he’s probably the slowest runner in their class.
And that’s okay too. Mrs Alvarez explained it to him once (after spotting him sitting at the bottom of the East Wing staircase and asking why young Master Charles was looking so sad and did he want to see if a hug would make it better – Charles really likes Mrs Alvarez): running fast is something you get better at the more you practise it, like neat handwriting. But the sorts of things Charles did before starting school; like reading to himself in the library, and watching Mother get ready for parties, and watching Father work in the labs and watching Mrs Alvarez make dinner – those things aren’t very good running practice. Charles will get faster, it’ll just take some time.
And besides, Master Charles, going by what I hear from Mrs Novak at the greengrocers, that Summers boy got his running practice running away from his older brother after accidentally breaking his toys, and running away from poor old Mr Shaw after filling his driveway with mudpies and (accidentally, she admits grudgingly) scaring him into believing that he was sent by the federal police to mine his front garden , and running away from the Salvadore boys after pulling their little sister’s wings and making her cry. It’s better to run a little slower and not be a little hooligan like that, Master Charles, believe me.
The problem is, Charles thinks glumly as he reaches out to try and tag Emma (and misses again as she twists out of reach), that when you’re the slowest runner in a game of tag, you’re the one who’s always tagged “It”.
Across the playground, keeping easily ahead of the other kids, Erik exchanges grins with Alex and they both stop running so they can see who everyone else is running away from next. Erik sees Charles, in the middle of the squealing group of children, just manage to brush Emma’s arm with his fingers and give a triumphant smile and a breathless shout of “You’re It!” As she takes off after an alarmed-looking Sean, Charles stops to catch his breath, and, catching sight of Erik, waves weakly.
Having been caught, Sean wheels around into the thick of it and children scatter in all directions. Charles, not quite having caught his breath, only manages to get a few steps into a weak trot before Sean meets him with a cheerful scream of “You’re It!”
Charles’ smile falters for a moment.
Erik’s eyes narrow.
It’s not that he minds always being “It” and always having to do the chasing instead of the running away, Charles thinks as Sean darts away. (Even if, Charles thinks wistfully, running away does seem like more fun, judging from the delighted shrieking of the other children). And it’s not that he minds that it means he’s not very good at tag, either – he knows that no one’s good at everything, and it wouldn’t be very much fun if he only played games he was good at (Charles is, actually, very good at hide and seek, but, as Geoffrey, their butler, would say, that is neither here nor there).
It’s just, Charles thinks, as his legs grow heavier and his steps start to slow again (too soon) – it’s just that he’s so tired.
But no one likes a miseryguts, so Charles forces himself to smile and starts running again.
Erik is angry.
It’s not fair that because Charles is a slow runner, he always has to be “It”, it’s not fair that he always gets tagged because the other kids don’t like being “It” for very long and Charles is easy to catch and it’s not fair that Charles looks so tired, but forces himself to run anyway because he doesn’t like to spoil games for anyone else.
It’s not fair.
He sees Charles determinedly smiling and Erik feels so angry he doesn’t know what to do.
He wants to hit someone, to hurt them for hurting Charles, but Mama wouldn’t like that. (Oh, Schatz, Edie says, when she finds him curled up in an angry ball in the corner of his room. You always feel things so deeply, don’t you? And she settles down beside him, strokes his hair back from his forehead and gently uncurls his fists with her hands. My darling boy has a big heart. But hitting things and hurting people is not a good solution when it overflows, hm?)
Mama would tell him to find a way to help Charles instead.
Erik starts to run.
He doesn’t blame Hank for tagging him. Whenever Hank is “It”, Alex always taunts him by running back and forth in front of him, dancing just out of reach and trying to get Hank to lunge fruitlessly at him as many times as possible. Charles would want to stop that as soon as possible too, and Hank doesn’t run very fast either – Charles is probably the only one Hank can catch anywhere near easily.
And Hank is sorry, Charles can hear it.
It doesn’t really help him run, though.
When his legs stutter to a stop, he bends over, bracing his hands on his knees and desperately trying to suck air into his burning lungs.
Suddenly, a hand appears in front of his face.
Charles looks up to see Erik, hand thrust out towards him.
“Tag me,” Erik says.
“Erik?” Although sometimes he starts off as “It”, apart from that, Erik rarely allows himself to be caught. Charles is fairly sure this means that Erik doesn’t much like doing the chasing either.
“Tag me,” Erik insists. “I want you to.”
“Okay,” Charles says uncertainly, tapping Erik’s hand gently.
Erik nods at him, flashes a quick smile (Charles has the strangest feeling that Erik means it to be reassuring) and takes off towards a now-squealing group of children.
It doesn’t take long for his plan to become clear.
Erik becomes like a small, particularly determined missile, darting around Charles to come between him and anyone who might want to tag him.
Charles is, firstly, grateful for the chance to rest and catch his breath, but more than that, he’s – he feels –
Erik, you’re the best best friend, Charles sends emphatically, with a burst of the warm muddle of feelings in his chest he doesn’t have the words to describe.
Erik grins at him from his position across the playground.
Mind on their little exchange, Charles is too distracted to notice Janos tagging Angel, who, ignoring the children suddenly scattering around her, chooses instead to make a beeline for Charles.
In fact, it’s Erik who notices first, and Charles, still not quite disentangled from his mind, picks up an angry mix of fast runner and could have caught anyone else and couldn’t be bothered chasing properly and Charles an easy target and notfairnotfairNOTFAIR–
“Erik, no!” Charles shouts, not quite in time to stop Erik from tearing furiously across the playground and pushing Angel over.
Erik sits silently on his chair outside the principal’s office and stares stonily at his feet, ignoring the conversation Miss Moira is having with his mama inside it and the disappointed looks they’re both shooting at him through the window. (Miss Moira didn’t seem convinced, but Erik knows Angel deserved it and so he’s not sorry. So Miss Moira said she’d have to Speak with Mama about it. He’s still not sorry.)
The door opens, their conversation finished, and Mama comes towards him with an unhappy look on her face. Erik hates it when Mama’s unhappy, but it still doesn’t change the fact that he wasn’t wrong.
Mama’s footsteps stop suddenly, and Erik chances a glance out of the corner of his eye. There’s Charles, tugging at Mama’s skirt and whispering urgently in her ear. After a moment, Mama’s face softens. Charles looks at her with wide eyes, nodding earnestly before being called away by his own mama.
“Oh, Schatzi,” Mama sighs as she reaches Erik. “What am I going to do with you?”
But she’s stroking his hair back off his forehead as she says it, so Erik knows she’s not really angry.
Charles comes out from the change rooms after track practice to find Erik sitting at the gate of their high school, waiting for him. As Charles approaches, Erik stands, shouldering his bag, and falls into step beside him, nudging him companionably in the shoulder. Charles nudges back.
“How was practice?” Erik asks.
“Good, actually,” Charles says, smiling. “Coach is lobbying for Hank to be allowed to race barefoot at regionals. I have, accordingly, had to amend my own goal to a respectable second place, because against a barefoot Hank for first, I won’t even have a prayer.
“I am, obviously, completely distraught,” Charles says, keeping a straight face, although he suspects his eyes might be giving him away. “The only thing that will comfort me is a banana split, on you.”
His eyes and, well, everything else.
Although Charles notes that that wasn’t a “No” from Erik, either.
As they turn to cross the street, Charles’ hand brushes gently against Erik’s. He notes with great interest Erik’s sharp intake of breath. He knows that Erik has been gearing up to asking him out for weeks (through no misuse of his telepathy, either, Charles adds primly. It’s just that Erik’s subtle glances and questions and “asking around” for advice are a lot less subtle than Erik probably thinks they are. A LOT A LOT, Charles thinks fondly, the poor misguided soul.). And he’s tried to be patient (and, admittedly “soulful yearning” is a good look on Erik) but really, there is a limit. Charles thinks it’s about time he put Erik out of his misery; he’s more than happy to take one for the team in this case.
And so as soon as they reach the other side of the road, Charles stops, grabs Erik’s face, ignores the, “Charles, what-“, plants a kiss straight onto Erik’s mouth and runs for it.
When he gets to the end of the block, Charles turns to find Erik frozen in place, hand pressed to his mouth, apparently catatonic from shock.
“Just remember to breathe, Erik!” Charles calls out helpfully.
“Cha-? Wha-?” Erik splutters, coming out of his stupor, but brain obviously still not quite online.
“I’m free Saturday afternoon,” Charles tells him cheerfully. “I’ll let you take me out on a date then – if you can catch me, that is,” he calls, laughing and taking off again, this time with Erik in hot pursuit.
Erik has never caught Charles so quickly.
(But then again, Charles supposes, as Erik grabs him around the waist and spins him around for a proper kiss, it’s not as if Charles was trying very hard to get away.)