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Senior Year

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Raven has decided to allow Charles into her sanctuary, a rare honor these days and therefore correspondingly valued by Charles. There's something about Raven's room that's more comfortable than most of the rest of the house, Charles feels. Maybe it's just a matter of personality; Raven insisted on redecorating it when she was in junior high, just a few years ago, and the pink-and-cream fluffiness of it all is a marked contrast to the dark wood and old-fashioned heaviness that dominates the other rooms, Charles' own bedroom (which he has never bothered to think about changing, since he graduated from the nursery) included.

He's sprawled across Raven's bed, head hanging over the edge of the mattress to watch her upside down as she fusses at her vanity, playing with her make-up and hair. Charles finds it a little funny, really; what's the point of spending hours like that, when she could look like whatever she wants in an instant? The hair and face she's playing with aren't even what she really looks like, which makes it even stranger.

Still, he knows better than to say anything about it. Raven is prickly, lately. It's been weeks since they bickered, and Charles prefers to keep it that way.

Tonight her explorations are more dramatic than usual, though, practicing for the costume party she's going to tomorrow night.

"Who's going to the party, then?" Charles says.

"Everybody!" Raven replies cheerfully. "Except you, of course."

"And Erik."

"And Erik," Raven says, rolling her eyes. They're thickly lined with black make-up, making the blue of her irises pop. Charles could swear she rejected the Cleopatra costume a half hour ago, but apparently she's trying it again. "I swear, I should charge you a nickel every time you say his name. You can't go ten minutes."

"I don't talk about him that much," Charles says, rather suspecting it's a lie as the words leave his mouth, even before Raven's loud "Ha!" in response. He shifts his position, sitting up on the bed, a little dizzy as the blood rushes down from his head. "Well!" he says defensively. "He's on my mind a lot. That's only natural."

"You don't hear me going on about Buddy the way you go on about Erik," Raven says.

"That's different," Charles says before he can stop himself. She raises one eyebrow at him and, mercifully, he manages to keep from saying more. He and Erik--it's different than Raven and Buddy, then most of the kids at school, really. The way he feels about Erik--the way he's always felt about Erik--isn't some school boy fancy. He loves Erik, from somewhere deep inside of him. He'll never feel this way about anyone else, he already knows.

He doesn't say any of that, though, least of all because he feels childish and ridiculous saying it out loud and because Raven will be both offended and skeptical the moment the words leave his mouth. Instead, he manages to twist it into something more relevant, saying, "I just mean I've known Erik forever. He's my best friend so of course I talk about him all the time. I always have."

"Not like this," Raven says. "You used to be able to hold an actual conversation that didn't wander off into the color of Erik's eyes or how smart he is." Charles can feel his cheeks heating up, but he knows anything he says in response will probably just further Raven's point. "Anyway, shouldn't you be cramming for your college essays and interviews?"

"That's not for ages yet," Charles insists, back on firmer ground. "The interviews won't be until I get my applications in and the applications aren't due for a few months. I still haven't decided everywhere I want to apply. I mean, Harvard, naturally, and I think I've decided against Oxford and Cambridge, at least until I'm doing graduate work. But maybe Columbia or Princeton."

"This is the first time I've ever heard you talk about anything other than Harvard," Raven says. "I wonder what's suddenly keeping you closer to home."

"Oh, shove it," Charles says.

Raven chuckles and spins around on her stool to face him. "What do you think?" she says, gesturing toward her face. "Imagine it with the short black wig and lots of gold."

"Pretty," Charles says loyally.

"Pretty, but...?" Raven prompts.

"I liked the Marie Antoinette better."

Raven turns again to the mirror, leaning in. "Hmm."

"How many costumes did you get, anyway?" Charles asks, curious. He's already seen three make-up possibilities and at least one of the actual outfits sticking out of her closet. "And are they all queens?"

"Well, one was a cat," Raven says, "but I like the symbolism better for the others, don't you?"

Charles allows that the bossiness, at least, is appropriate, and Raven sticks her tongue out to his reflection.

"So what are you and darling Erik going to do this weekend, since you're skipping actually being social with the rest of us?" Raven says.

The question is enough to drop Charles' mood; he frowns and slumps back against Raven's mountain of pillows. "Nothing."

"No?" She's picked up one of the many jars littering the vanity and is beginning to spread cold cream across her face.

"He's in New Jersey with his mother all weekend visiting his aunt." Tante Hanna isn't really his aunt - Erik doesn't have any other relatives - but she's a friend of Mrs Lehnsherr's going back a million years, to when she'd immigrated to the US, younger than Raven, even.

It's actually the first Halloween Charles is spending without Erik since he was five. They'd gone trick-or-treating together all through elementary school, and then when they were too old for that, Charles had always gone down to the Lehnsherrs' to help pass out candy, since the Xavier house was too far out for them to ever get trick-or-treaters.

Of course, even if Erik were here, it's not like they would have any opportunity to be alone together.

"Oh gosh, a weekend apart, how terrible," Raven says. "However will you survive three whole days without necking?"

"We don't, though," Charles says, burying his face in Raven's pillow with more despair than is probably warranted. He knows he's falling right back into talking about Erik again, but Raven asked, so he figures it's allowed.

"Yeah, right," Raven says from behind him.

"No, I mean--" Charles sighs and pushes himself up again, twisting to look at Raven in the mirror. "I mean--we hardly ever have time alone, really. We see each other every day, but either we're at school or we have homework or Mrs. Lehnsherr is home. There's never any time for just us."

It's been a struggle. Erik is more cautious than Charles, which adds to the frustration--despite the fact that they spent more than one afternoon nearly naked together before they officially became a couple, Erik is hesitant to go that far again when his mother could walk in the door at any time. They've kissed, of course, and even managed to get their hands into each other's pants, but their exploration of each other has ground to a halt. There are so many things that Charles wants to do, to try, and he knows Erik does too. It's driving him mad that he doesn't have the time and space to do any of them. He almost wishes they hadn't had their sleepover date night--he has no idea when they'll have an opportunity for something like that again and he's starting to think he'd be better off if he didn't know how wonderful it could be to have whole days to spend together.

"I suppose you can't just head out to the overview and park, huh?" Raven says. She frowns into the mirror as she wipes the Cleopatra make-up off of her face with a cloth.

"Not really, not with so many other couples there," Charles says. "And Erik's afraid his mother will think something's up if he starts coming over here too much more often, even though there's more space."

"And it's not like Sharon's ever around," Raven says darkly, her eyes flashing yellow.

"Small mercies," Charles murmurs. Between the size of the house and their mother's erratic hours and habits--not to mention Charles' ability to sense her mind--the two of them can go weeks at a time without seeing her. Of course, it just makes it all the more infuriating when she does show up and demands their attention or obedience again.

Charles can remember the time before their father died, before Mother married Kurt. She was different then, Charles is almost sure. He can remember holding Raven when she was a newborn, sitting in his mother's lap while she smiled and laughed. But Raven can't remember her ever being anything but like she is now. Charles can't blame Raven for despising her the way she does.

Raven's still gazing at herself in the mirror. The outer surface of her thoughts has gone solemn and a little sad, and though he's not willing to look any deeper, Charles says with some concern, "Raven?"

Almost immediately, she shoots him a bright smile. "Right! You and Erik." She rises from and crosses the room, sitting down at the foot of the bed and curling her legs underneath her.

"I know it sounds stupid," Charles says. "It's just... hard." He shrugs helplessly.

Raven reaches out and pats him gently on the ankle. "It's okay. I'm used to you being whiny."

"I wish--" Charles cuts himself off.

"What?"

"His birthday's coming up, you know?" Raven nods. "I wish I could make a big deal out of it. Do something romantic. Take him out to a fancy dinner in the city and buy him something from the jeweler's."

"Yes, I'm sure Erik would look absolutely fetching in a tiara or a gold necklace," Raven says. Charles shoves at her feebly, but she ducks out of the way and continues, "No, I get it. But you can take him out at least, can't you? I mean, if it's for his birthday, I'm sure Edie won't notice anything's wrong. You guys went into the city last year for your birthday, didn't you?"

"We did," Charles allows, "but it wouldn't be the same. We went to some museums and came home. We wouldn't be able to go on a date, not really. Not the way I'd like to, at least." He steels himself for more teasing, but Raven just looks thoughtful.

"You could come here again," she suggests after a moment. "I'm sure I can find somewhere else to be and you can be as mushy as you want. Make him dinner and give him a present and you'll have all night together." She waggles her eyebrows on that last part, but doesn't push any further, and Charles tentatively allows himself to think about it. It could be a surprise. He could prepare everything in advance, maybe even ask the housekeeper for some tips and cook dinner himself. They can dance again, or play chess, or maybe watch a movie on television.

And they'd have all night together. All night to do all the things Charles has been thinking about constantly for months. One thing in particular, maybe, that he didn't feel ready to do before, that first time, but maybe....

He bounces forward on the bed to hug Raven tightly, hopefully hiding his blush.

"That's a brilliant idea!" he says. "We could have the whole--"

And then his mind cycles back around to their previous conversation and he pauses.

"Mother," he says. "I would need to--I couldn't do all that if Mother was still in the house."

"So get rid of her," Raven says.

"I can't just...get rid of her," he says. "I can't just...tell her to go do something else."

"Of course you can," Raven says. "I've seen you do it before."

Charles shakes his head. He's still holding her hands in his, where he grasped them during their embrace, and he tightens his grip as he speaks. "That was different." Using his power to tell Cain to leave him and Raven alone had been necessary, that last year before he enlisted. But just interfering with people's minds for his own convenience... that's something else entirely. "It wouldn't be right."

Raven looks disappointed, though it’s nothing to what Charles is feeling. "It's such a perfect idea otherwise, though. Maybe you could just make her--I don't know, not notice? Keep her on the other side of the house?"

"No," Charles says, "that won't work." Even if Charles could stand it, Erik would never agree. He makes a decision. "I'll just have to talk to her, I guess."

The face that Raven makes in response is not very unlike the face she made the time Charles made her brownies and forgot to add the sugar. "Well, good luck with that," she says, not bothering to keep the skepticism out of her voice.

"I'll think of something," Charles says, and he means it utterly. He thinks about Erik down in New Jersey, and how excited he'll be when he comes home and finds out what Charles has planned for them. His eyes will go bright, and his mouth will quirk in that smile that's not really a smile, and if they're alone Charles will get a kiss, but even if they’re not, he'll at least feel that wave of affection and lust from Erik's mind that means he's thinking about it, and wants Charles to know it.

"Ugh," Raven says, tearing her hands away at last, "I'm not the telepath, but I can still tell you're being gross."

Charles covers his face with his hands and flops back down on the bed.

"Sorry, sorry!" Charles says. "Talk to me about Buddy, then. I suppose, given the number of costumes you've bought, you're not going in matching outfits, then?"

"Oh, ew," Raven says, though he can tell she's pleased that the conversation has come back around to her. "We've only been going together for a few weeks. It's not like I'm going to marry him or anything. Plus, he has a terrible sense of style. He said he's just going to go as Roy Rogers because that's what he does every year. Can you believe it? The whole point of Halloween is to dress up and experiment and have fun, not do the same boring old thing."

"Well," Charles says, "knowing you and your charming wiles, I'm sure you can talk him into something else if you really put your mind to it."

Raven sticks her tongue out at him and jumps off the bed, skipping back to the closet.

"Anyway, tell me what you think of these dresses, would you?"

"Of course," Charles says, shifting into a more comfortable position on the bed and turning his attention to Raven's wardrobe.

Well, most of his attention. He can't stop a tiny part of his brain from mulling over ways to get his mother out of the house for Erik's birthday.

He can't stop another part of his brain from shivering with anticipation at the thought of another evening alone with Erik, with plenty of time to explore all of the fantasies that have been flooding his mind for the past few weeks.

***

Charles spends Saturday morning and afternoon helping Raven make a final costume decision and then watching her get ready for the party. She leaves as the sun is setting, heading off to Carol's to do some last minute prepping with the other girls before they meet their dates for the party. Charles waves her off and then settles into the study where a fire is already warming the room and a book is waiting for him.

Predictably, these days, the book can't hold his attention for long.

He gives up after a chapter or two, setting it aside on the end table, stretching out his legs and staring into the fireplace. He doesn't want to read; he doesn't want to work on his homework, or his application essay; he doesn't want to watch Westerns on TV. Charles has never been the sort of person who gets bored, or has trouble occupying his time. He's not used to this.

Maybe he should have gone to the party, after all. It would have been a distraction, at least. He likes bobbing for apples and ghost stories and silly party games. And being in a crowd can be welcome, sometimes, all those other minds to distract him when his own thoughts keep running over and over the same tracks.

It's funny, in a way. Raven might make fun of him for how much he talks about Erik, but it's a good thing she doesn't know just how much of the time Charles is holding back, or he'd never hear the end of it.

Charles intends to stay up until Raven gets home safe, but he drifts off on the couch at some point, and it's Raven who shakes him awake with a hand on his shoulder.

"Go to bed, loser," she says softly, voice full of affection. The room is dim, cool now that the fire's gone out.

He rubs his face with the back of his hand and yawns. "It's comfy here."

"Liar." Raven offers him a hand and he takes it, pulling himself up off the couch. Raven smells like sugar and her hair is a mess. Charles thinks she must have had a good time.

He follows her down the hall to their bedrooms, but by the time he's changed into his pajamas and turned down his bed, he finds he's not a bit sleepy anymore.

Charles wonders, reaching out his mind--and yes. Mother is awake, too, and upright, smoking in the music room.

He hasn't had time to talk to Erik about his plan yet. He doesn't really have a plan besides the thought that another weekend alone together would be wonderful and a vague fantasy about dinner and dancing and bed. He has no idea what he's actually going to say to his mother once he talks to her. It's technically her house and he has no right to kick her out. He can't be upfront about it and he doesn't know that he can make up a convincing lie. He should really go back to bed and talk to her when he's more prepared.

He lets the excuses pile up, but he knows the truth: the times when his mother is awake and sober are scarcer and scarcer these days and if he puts it off, he'll keep doing it until it's too late.

Charles puts on his robe and slippers and returns to the hallway. The light is still on under Raven's door, so at least if it all goes to hell he'll have someone to talk to. He still doesn't have a plan--no matter what Raven says, he can't simply change her mind--but he clings to his resolution and tries to keep his shoulders back and his posture perfect as he heads downstairs.

The music room is in the other wing of the house, the wing that his mother haunts these days. For all that they're in the same house, it's more like they're simply tenants in the same building. She doesn't venture downstairs and she certainly doesn't venture to this side of the house, where Raven and Charles' rooms are situated along with the library and his father's study and the den they've turned into their favorite gathering place.

He pauses outside of the study before proceeding through to the foyer and then up towards the music room. They have a bookkeeper and a lawyer who handle most of their mail and expenses and other administrivia, but Charles collects the mail that comes to the house, including flyers and calendars for all of the social and charitable groups that his mother belongs to. There are always parties and fundraisers and galas and events. His mother picks and chooses the few things she deems worthy of her presence, mostly via phone calls from the few social acquaintances she still has left. Still, Charles keeps everything, just in case, even though it makes Raven angry every time she sees his carefully labeled and organized files.

"It's not like she's going to come downstairs and see what a good job you've done and pat you on the back!" she screamed at him after one particularly gruesome fight not long after their mother failed to appear at the school for Raven's junior high graduation. "She doesn't care and one day you'll realize that and stop trying to be good enough for her to love you!"

It had hurt. It still hurts, if only because a part of Charles can see the truth in it. Today, though, he's grateful for his compulsion to keep all of his mother's mail, because he can slip into the study and open up the latest folder, his eyes skimming over the calendars for events planned the weekend of Erik's birthday.

His mother wasn't always like this. She used to care about things, and Charles still knows what those things were. He still knows what buttons to press to get her attention. He still knows how to twist things to his advantage. He hasn't had to use those skills in years, not since Kurt was around and his mother's drinking problem was more a crutch than a sedative, but they're still there.

Armed with the beginning of a plan, he steels himself again and journeys up to the music room.

His mother is still awake when he reaches the door, still more or less sober, and still sitting alone and smoking. He knocks gently on the door before entering, unsure of the welcome he should expect.

"Yes?" he hears her call from inside, and takes that as permission to enter. "Oh," she says once she sees him, turning away from the window she was gazing out of. "It's you. I imagined you'd be the help."

"No, Mother," Charles says. "It's Saturday. Also, it's late."

"I suppose you're right," his mother says, and goes back to staring out the window.

It's nearly midnight, and a new moon besides. Even during the day, the view would be nothing but the endless lawn. There's nothing here to justify his mother's focus.

She hasn't turned the lights on overhead, but there are half a dozen lamps on throughout the large room, giving everything a warm, soft glow, making it all look much more attractive than Charles remembers it being. He closes the door behind him and makes his way across the hardwood floors. He passes the piano on his way to her, and he can't help but notice that the lid to the keys is open, and that there's sheet music arranged. Charles wonders if she was playing earlier. He can't quite imagine it.

Charles stops a few feet away from where she's standing at the window. He's close enough to faintly smell her perfume; the scent of lilacs is ingrained in his memory with her. It has been from the time he was very small, and somehow he doubts he will ever be able to smell the flower without thinking of her, even when he's an old man.

She turns toward him as he stops. He can feel the burst of surprise from her that he's still there, that he hadn't left as soon she spoke. None of it shows on her face, which is as perfectly composed as ever.

She was gorgeous when she was younger; everyone has always said so. When she was Charles' age, people would stop her in the street to tell her she should be in pictures. She's still a striking woman now.

It hurts a little to look at her, an ache somewhere deep in Charles' chest.

She's gazing at him now, blue eyes cool and distant and polite while she waits for Charles to speak.

Charles clears his throat, burying the awkwardness and longing deep down where it won't get in the way of what he wants to do. "I didn't know if you'd seen this," he says, holding out the invitation to her. It's a lie, since he knows very well she doesn't look at any of the mail at all, but as lies go it's white and harmless.

She has to set down her cigarette in the ashtray on the windowsill--her other hand is occupied by a glass of red wine, still almost full--to take it from him in two delicate fingertips and begin to skim the calligraphy.

"Friends of Civic Opera autumn charity dinner," she reads aloud.

"It came in the mail," Charles says, unnecessarily. "And I know you're a member of the women's auxiliary board and how important the opera has been to you." Music is one of the few things that still gets his mother out of the house. It's been a staple of her social calendar since Charles was a boy, bundled into stiff formal clothes and forced to sit through Puccini and Verdi and Rossini when he was far too young to understand what he was seeing. It was opera that Kurt used to lure her out of her mourning after Charles' father's death and it's one of the few things that captures her attention now.

She frowns, the expression still beautiful and soft. He skims her mind, anxious for a reaction, anxious for this to work. She's thinking about how it's a minor event, how the performance is a lesser work and the performers are third tier at best. She's thinking about how much work it is to get out of the house and how something so inconsequential is rarely worth it when she can listen to more talented performers sing better compositions on the record player in this very room.

He might not have it in him to change her mind, to bend her actions to his will, but he's not above lying.

"And I just remembered getting it in the mail since Mrs. DuPont called earlier and asked if you'd be attending," he adds, keeping his face neutral. Mrs. DuPont is is president of the women's auxiliary board and his mother's relationship with her is strange and tumultuous. He knows she doesn't like Mrs. DuPont much, but she goes out of her way to spend time with her and be kind to her.

His mother's frown deepens as she considers the invitation.

"Well, why didn't you inform me that she called, then?" she asks.

"It was only this evening," Charles says. "You were asleep. I wrote down the message." Raven's told him time and again that the trick to a good lie is keeping it simple and not embellishing it. Charles isn't very good at lying, but it's not as if his mother will even remember the details of this conversation in the morning, not if she's drinking again this late.

"Hm," she says. She looks up at him, her eyes assessing, and then down at the invitation again. "This always runs so late."

"If you wanted to stay in the flat in Manhattan, I'm sure Raven and I could fend for ourselves." She looks up at him again, and he wonders if he's said too much. He doesn't know that his mother has ever worried about them before when spending the night elsewhere. She's certainly never expressed that worry to them, informing them of her plans, sometimes minutes before she's set to leave, without bothering to ask if they'll be able to get by on their own.

He holds his breath, but she looks away again.

"If Helen expects me to be there, I suppose it's best to attend," she finally says. She puts the invitation down on the end table and returns her attention to the window.

"I'll leave a note for Mrs. Evans to send out your RSVP on Monday morning," Charles says.

She nods, without looking toward him. "Tell her to contact Mr. Wolf as well. If I'm going all the way into the city again, I might as well take the furs out of storage while I'm there. It's practically winter already." She takes a long sip of her wine, her throat moving as she swallows.

There's nothing else for Charles to say--better to quit while he's ahead, before she has a chance to change her mind--and so he turns to leave, biting his lip to keep in the grin that threatens to expand across his face.

He's at the door when she calls out to him, in her soft even voice.

"Charles."

Charles spins around on his heels, surprised and flustered. "Mother?"

She's lit her cigarette again, and she takes a puff before she speaks again. "Your birthday's in winter," she says, which is true; he was born in early February. "We'll need to talk to the lawyers at some point before then. Make sure everything is how it should be for your trust."

He nods. "I'll make a note of that as well, shall I?"

"Do," she says. She turns toward him again, and for a moment her gaze is fixed, alert and intelligent, and he thinks it's the first time in a very long time she's actually seeing him when she looks at him--but then it's gone as quickly as it came, and back her eyes go to the damned rotten window. "Eighteen is too young," she says in a vague tone, as if she were discussing the weather. "Too young for anything. I told Brian he should make it twenty-one, but he never listened to me."

Charles waits a moment, in case there's more, but when he checks her mind she's already dismissed him, finished with him as if he were never there. He flees the music room, and down the hallways, until he's back in his and Raven's wing of the house.

Raven's light is still on, but he doesn't really feel like talking anymore. He pads silently past her door and into his own room.

When he crawls into bed, he presses his face against the pillow. Just a few weeks ago, he shared it with Erik; and now, in not too long, they'll share it again. He pushes away all thoughts of his mother, and concentrates on that instead, on the victory he's won, and falls asleep trying to remember the exact nuances of Erik's resting body against his own.

***

Mother doesn't make an appearance on Sunday, which is for the best. He and Raven make popcorn and watch television and Raven gives him a detailed description of the party--what everyone was wearing, who they were with, the games, the food, and the decorations. She shows him the little metal airplane she pulled out of the fortune telling cake, pleased to have avoided all of the charms that forecast a quick marriage and large family in favor of something that tells her to follow her dreams.

It's funny--it's not something that they've ever talked about, getting married and having families. Charles has avoided the topic since he discovered the nature of his feelings for Erik, but even Raven, as eager as she is to meet and flirt with boys, has never spoke of marriage or children, just of her dreams of seeing the world. He wonders if he should ask her, or if she has her own reasons for keeping her future plans to herself.

After Raven is done detailing the intricacies of the party, Charles allows himself to break the news of Mother's opera trip on Erik's birthday. She gasps and cheers and hugs him, promising again to spend the night with Carol or Susie or one of the other girls from school.

"And now you have a week or two to plan the perfect romantic night!" she exclaims and Charles smiles and nods and allows her to change the subject, half listening as she talks about the possibility of a double date with Carol and her boyfriend.

Charles is already making plans, but they're not plans he's about to share with his baby sister. They're hardly plans he feels comfortable thinking about while she's in the room, but he can't stop his mind from wandering in that direction.

He knows there are dozens of ways for men to have sex, lots that they haven't tried yet. There are many new things they can do, but there's one he can't stop thinking about. It felt so good to have Erik's fingers inside of him, and the thought of Erik's prick....

It's as frightening as it is exciting. Erik is so big and that's intimidating, despite all of Charles' thrilling fantasies about it. He wants it, more than he wants anything else right now, and he thinks Erik does too. There are other things he wants to try--the reverse, for one thing--but this is what he thinks about the most.

It would be a good birthday present, wouldn't it? With so much time to get used to the idea and get supplies, he'd be more prepared than he was the last time, he'd be ready.

He tries to force his mind back to Raven's conversation and manages to focus on her for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, until he's able to escape to the privacy of his room to do some reading and some daydreaming and, finally, touch himself before drifting off to sleep.

***

Monday morning, his spirits are high and he's eager to get to school, to see Erik after a weekend apart with this new surprise to spring on him. He rides his bike slightly ahead of Raven, slowing every time he gets too far ahead and she begins to grumble good-naturedly, but once they're in sight of the school, he can't help but race forward, outpacing her and slowing to a stop in front of the bike rack, his eyes already on Erik, slouching against the far wall as he does every day.

He fumbles with the bike lock for a moment. By the time he finally manages to secure it, Erik is slipping his novel back into his bookbag and looking faintly amused at Charles' expense.

Charles feels a slight contraction of the metal of his belt and the zipper of his jacket, a wordless hello there you are I missed you from Erik's powers as he comes closer. He can't help but smile, broad and pleased, as he settles himself beside Erik, close enough to let their shoulders touch.

"Good morning," Charles says. "How was your weekend?"

"Fine," Erik says. "Boring." He flashes Charles a brief wry smile, all teeth, for barely a second before he continues, "A lot of listening to old ladies gossip about people I never met, in a language I understand but don't speak. But my mother had a wonderful time, which is what is important."

"Good. That's good."

"How was yours?" Erik says. The way Charles is holding his bag hides his forearm from view, and Erik takes advantage of it, brushing his fingertips lightly across Charles' sleeve where no one can see. It's almost a tease, but it's also just a pleasure in and of itself, the simple touch that Charles leans into.

"It was good," Charles says, and then, realizing he's abusing the word, adds, "Great, really. I have such exciting news."

"What kind of news?"

It's easier to say it mentally. I've figured out how to get the house to myself again. We can have the whole night alone together again! And it's your birthday, so even your mother won't think it's strange...

Erik cycles through emotions, though his face hardly changes. Shock, then excitement, then a firm wariness.

How did you manage that? Erik asks him.

It was Raven's idea, Charles concedes. She's going to spend the night of your birthday with one of her girlfriends and there's an event in the city that I nudged my mother into attending overnight.

'Nudged?' Erik asks.

There's more approval in that response than Charles is comfortable with, so he quickly adds, No, not--no, I just reminded her of the event and told a fib that one of the other women on the board had called to ask if she was attending. But, anyway, that gives us the whole weekend alone.

Erik is quiet for a moment, both verbally and mentally, his mind churning away just beneath the surface thoughts that Charles is comfortable with inhabiting. The only sign of his intense concentration is the way he briefly sucks his lower lip.

My mother might ask questions, he finally says.

Last year for my birthday we went into the city alone for the whole weekend, Charles reminds him. She was okay with that. We can tell her the same thing, or that we're going camping or having a party or...something. Last year for your birthday we did that midnight movie double feature and we were out until the middle of the night and she was fine with it.

He hopes he doesn't sound too desperate, but he can't modulate the tenor of his thoughts the way he can with his voice. This was such a brilliant plan--they have to go through with it and he knows Mrs. Lehnsherr won't think anything about it is peculiar.

Erik is silent again, his thoughts his own. Charles has to remind himself to push back the instinct of irritation and impatience that he can't help but feel at Erik's stubbornness and paranoia. Erik wants this just as much as Charles does; Charles is as certain of that as he is of anything in his life. Shouldn't that make this easier?

But Erik has never responded well to pushing, so Charles holds himself back, again, and waits.

The ring of the first bell interrupts their conference, shrill and loud and as unwelcome as it's ever been. Erik looks and feels intensely annoyed, as if he takes the rudeness of the inanimate object personally.

Charles sighs, throwing his bag back over his shoulder. "Think about it, Erik, and we can talk at lunch. It's just... it seems so perfect, you know?"

Erik nods. "I will." He reaches out and squeezes Charles' bicep once, firmly, projecting the brief thought of a kiss, before they turn and head towards their different homerooms.

The morning goes by quicker than Charles would have expected, though by the time lunch comes he still feels made of nerves. By unspoken agreement, he and Erik take their lunches out to the tables outside behind the cafeteria. It's crowded out here when it's warm, but fall is so advanced now that it's cool enough for most of the kids to stay inside, except maybe to hang out in the smoking area. The smokers are on the far side of the patio from the table that he and Erik settle into.

"Let's do it," Erik blurts out as soon as they've sat down, before Charles has even had a chance to finish unpacking his lunch.

He almost drops his sandwich.

"Really?" he asks before he can help himself, but Erik just nods quickly.

"I--" Erik stops, then glances over Charles' shoulder at three of their classmates pulling out their cigarettes. I'm sure my mother won't have a problem with it, he continues privately. You're right about last year, and about your birthday too. Plus, she said she owed me a weekend off from chores for driving down to Jersey with her.

Fantastic! Charles says. He knows he's smiling dopily at Erik across the table, lunch nearly forgotten until Erik nudges his foot under the table and nods at the sandwich hanging from his hands, glancing again at the kids smoking across the way.

Erik always seems hyperaware of the people around them and what they might be thinking, not just at school, but everywhere they are. It's strange, but Charles figures he should be grateful, even if they're not really doing anything wrong or obvious.

So, do you have anything planned? Erik asks as he methodically begins to eat his own lunch, cutting his apple into bits hands free with a pocket knife as he eats his sandwich.

Charles feels his ears go red and he almost chokes, but manages to swallow just in time.

I've had some thoughts, he admits. It might be best to discuss them after school. Thinking about those things now, when they have half the day to get through still, is just asking for trouble.

"Oh," Erik says out loud. The pocket knife pauses, trembling for a moment in mid-air before Erik continues his chopping. Erik never quite flushes the way Charles always seems to. A little color high up on his cheeks, maybe, but mostly he just looks even more serious and thoughtful as he chews.

Charles pulls back his telepathy a little from the level he usually leaves it at around Erik. Sensing Erik's thoughts about the subject right now is just as bad as actually discussing it would be. Worse, in some ways, because thoughts are always more real to Charles than words, more personal and more honest and more unavoidable.

"So that was the most exciting part of my weekend, arranging that," Charles says, between bites of his sandwich. "Otherwise it was rather mundane. Raven went to Joanie's Halloween bash--along half the school, so far as I can tell--so I spent Friday night and most of Saturday helping her pick out a costume."

"You'd think she's get tired of it," Erik says, unexpectedly, and when Charles looks at him questioningly he shrugs. "She's pretty much in costume every day, isn't she?"

Charles frowns. "I don't think she thinks of it like that."

"Obviously," Erik says. He picks up his milk carton, gulping down the entire portion in a single swallow. Charles looks down at his own food, rather than watch his throat, or the way he wipes the drop of milk away from his mouth with the back of his hand afterward. "It sounds like you still have me beat for excitement, anyway. I spent most of the weekend hiding in the backyard reading or playing with Hanna's dog."

Charles doesn't think his face changes at that, but Erik sees something that makes him chuckle. "She was a sweetheart, Charles. Not even you could dislike her."

"I'm just not a dog person," Charles says haughtily. "There's nothing wrong with that." Dogs smell. They're noisy and loud and have no concept of personal space. And their minds are just ... blank. Charles doesn't understand the appeal at all.

Erik shakes his head. "You're so weird," he says, but the corner of his mouth is quirked up, just a little.

They finish their lunch, turning the topic further away from Erik's birthday--talking about classes and homework and their schoolmates. When the bell rings, they gather up their bags and head in for their afternoon classes.

They walk home from school together as usual, still idly discussing their last classes and their homework. Charles tries to keep his mind on the conversation, but as soon as they're in Erik's house with the door closed behind them, he steps quickly forward to kiss Erik, nearly before he's turned all the way around.

Erik kisses him back, holding him by the shoulders. When they break apart, he's slightly perplexed, but smiling.

"What was that?" he asks.

"A kiss, obviously," Charles says, but before Erik can roll his eyes, Charles adds, "I haven't seen you all weekend, which is unacceptable."

"Well," Erik says. "Let's at least get back into my room."

They shed their bags and coats on Erik's floor and Charles pushes Erik onto the bed and climbs on after him before he can object. They have a lot of homework tonight, and while none of it is difficult, exactly, he knows they probably shouldn't do this for long. But after a weekend apart, a weekend spent thinking up plans for Erik's birthday, he can't help himself. He'll take what he can manage to get before Erik's more refined work ethic takes over and forces them back to their books.

Erik chokes out a laugh as Charles guides his shoulders down to the mattress, but his hands are just as eager and greedy, slipping under Charles' sweater to palm his back and waist. "I missed you too," Erik says between kisses, soft as a breath between them, like a secret or a confession, something that can't be said too loud without ruining it. He nudges Charles back and they roll over together, a little awkwardly on the small bed, until Charles is the one on his back, and Erik is fitted between his legs, heavy and solid and firm above him.

Sometimes Charles feels like he has to be in control of himself all the time; that he's always holding back, one way or another. He's always, always aware of his telepathy. He can't let it show in school how smart he is without looking like a show-off. He can't let anybody know about him and Erik, except Raven, but even with her, he can't talk about it too much.

He wants so much it feels like his skin is going to burst, sometimes.

So it feels amazing to let go, now, to just sink into this and for a few glorious minutes, not worry about anything. Erik gets Charles' button undone and his zipper down using just his powers, but he has to stop touching Charles' face to get a hand between them to touch his prick. The noise Charles makes sounds loud and strange to his own ears.

"Shhh," Erik says between kisses, "shh," but he doesn't sound scared or freaked out, more like he's trying to soothe, and even when Charles pulls his hair too hard he doesn't stop, and everything Charles feels of his mind seems just as turned-on as Charles is.

Charles manages to turn his head to the side and muffle his moan into the pillow when he comes. When he opens his eyes again and looks up, Erik is staring down at him with wide, dilated eyes, holding himself perfectly still, braced above him.

"Do you want to know what I planned for the weekend?" Charles says. "Or do you want your birthday present to be a surprise?"

Erik doesn't respond. Or, rather, he responds by leaning down and kissing Charles, holding Charles' face between his hands. Charles laughs against Erik's mouth, breathless, and fumbles to open Erik's pants.

They shift again on the small bed so they're lying side by side, facing each other. Charles finally manages to slide his hand into Erik's boxers and get a hand around his prick. He can't help shivering and sighing when Erik pulls away to gasp.

"You're so big," he says, unable to keep the quiver of admiration out of his voice.

"Don't stop," Erik murmurs, and Charles focuses, stroking Erik quickly, his grip firm and tight, just the way he knows Erik likes it, confident now after doing this together over the past few weeks. Erik's breath starts to come short, the pressure of his grip on Charles tighter, and Charles can track his reactions right up until Erik's coming too, his muscles going taut and tight and then releasing all together once he's come.

They breathe hard in each other's shared space on the pillow, Erik still shaking. It takes them a few minutes to calm, smiling at each other in silence. They really should get back to their homework, but it feels like it's been ages since they last saw each other, and right now, Charles isn't in a rush to be anywhere else.

"So," he finally asks. "Do you want to know, or do you want it to be a surprise?"

Erik is rarely patient, so Charles isn't surprised when he says, "Tell me."

Charles can feel his stomach fluttering in anticipation.

"Well," he says, "I haven't worked out all the details yet, but I thought--well, I thought that we could...you know." He resists the urge to giggle nervously. "I thought maybe you could...um." He swallows. "I want you to fuck me. I want--I thought you could...penetrate me."

Charles can hear the way Erik's breath catches suddenly in his throat, and Erik's eyes shut tight for a moment--Charles barely has the sensation of a flash of bright, obscene images before Erik manages to pack them away below the surface again. Even more than the hints of the content he gets, it's the texture of the thoughts that sends a thrill down Charles' spine; well-worn, creased like a piece of paper that's been folded and unfolded again and again. Erik has been thinking about these things, too. Thinking about them a lot. Touching himself to them, Charles expects, and hopes.

Charles reaches out to lace their fingers together, sticky and messy as they still are. Erik squeezes back tightly as he opens his eyes, meeting Charles' own with a fixed, searching gaze.

"Yeah?" Erik whispers.

"Yes," Charles says, and once again he can't control his face, the way he wants to beam and laugh and who knows what else, but that's all right, too, because Erik just kisses him again.

They do manage to get out of bed, not too much later, put themselves back together to respectability and get to work on the homework that is their entire supposed purpose for being here. They're still working through it when Mrs. Lehnsherr gets home, barely finishing up by the time she comes to the room to tell Erik it's time to set the table.

Charles carefully puts his books away. When he rises to his feet and throws his bag over his shoulder, Mrs. Lehnsherr is still standing in the doorway, giving him a thoughtful look.

"Will you stay for dinner with us tonight, Charles?" she asks, in her soft voice, still accented after all these years.

He shakes his head. "I can't. Raven's waiting for me at home, you know."

Mrs. Lehnsherr nods. "You are a good brother. A good boy." It sounds like a pronouncement, somehow. "You know, Charles, I am very proud of you. I'm glad Erik has such a friend."

Charles can tell he must be red all over. He doesn't know where to look or what to say, but finally he manages a stiff, "I--thank you."

Mrs. Lehnsherr nods, and then she finally moves out of the doorway, and Charles can make his escape. He doesn't even pause to stop by the kitchen and say goodbye to Erik--he'll have to make it up to him tomorrow. But Erik would see how agitated he is, and he'd need to know the reason, and Charles doesn't even know how to explain it to himself, even though he spends the entire bike ride home thinking it over.

***

The rest of the week drags by, moreso now that Charles has something to look forward to. School seems to take forever, and he has to work harder than ever to force himself to look studious and attentive as the teachers talk about concepts and skills he's long since mastered. With Raven beginning to stay out more in the evenings, spending time with friends and her own boyfriend, even the hours between dinner and bed are crawling forward. The only time that moves quickly at all is the time he spends with Erik, which is always over too quickly.

He puts much of his mental energy into planning Erik's birthday weekend--food, activities, what supplies they'll need. The lotion worked well enough for fingers, but Charles can't help but think that for something so much bigger they'll need more. He's been eyeing the petroleum jelly that Raven keeps in her make-up case. He wonders if she'd notice if he took it? She probably would, and she'd probably be able to figure out why, if he needed it so badly, he couldn't ask her. He could always buy his own--it's not illicit, there are perfectly acceptable reasons for buying it. When he was younger, his nanny used to slather it all over his face in the winter when the sharp, cold winds chapped his skin.

The other issue lingering in his mind is the subject of an actual present for Erik. While the weekend will be a present in and of itself, while that would have been enough in years past, now that Erik is more than his best friend, he can't help but think he should give him more of a present.

The problem is, Erik absolutely won't accept anything.

Oh, sure, he'll take little things--a book, a record, a cake. Raven has knit him scarfs and hats, but that's the extent of it. For Erik, there's a very particular line between acceptable and extravagant, and he won't accept the latter, even though of course Charles can afford it. He wants to think that things are different now, that being boyfriends will make Erik more willing to accept tokens of Charles' affection, but he has a bad feeling that it's more likely the opposite will be true--Erik will become even more strict about what is and isn't an acceptable present.

He has to do something, though. He wants to. He'd feel like a heel if he didn't give Erik a present on his birthday.

He's still thinking about it Friday afternoon when he gets home from Erik's, having turned down another dinner invitation even though he knows Raven is going out with Carol tonight. He just can't stomach sitting through dinner being assaulted by Mrs. Lehnsherr's achingly kind and sympathetic thoughts. He's surprised, then, to find Raven sitting at the counter in the kitchen when he gets home.

"Carol's little sister is sick, so she has to stay home," she says by way of explanation. "I thought--maybe you and I could go into town and get dinner there? We haven't gone out in a while."

It's true. Between Charles' need to be around Erik constantly and Raven's packed new social life, they've hardly seen each other outside of the house and school. They used to walk into town together every weekend, even if it was just to stop by the sweet shop and get away from Kurt and Cain and Mother for a few hours.

"Okay," he says. "You can help me think up a gift for Erik."

"Gifts and Erik don't always go so well together," Raven reminds him lightly. "But okay--challenge accepted!"

Charles drives them into town and they eat first, taking a corner table in the bustling diner. Raven spends dinner giving Charles updates on her friends and Charles consciously keeps track of how much he talks about Erik, turning the conversation around to college applications when it becomes clear he's been talking for too long.

"Daddy went to Harvard," Raven says after Charles sketches out the pros and cons of the schools he's applying to.

"He did," Charles allows. "And I've wanted to go there since I was a boy. They're still wary of admitting mutants, but I'm all but guaranteed a slot between being legacy, my grades, and my extracurriculars."

"Then that's where you should go," Raven says. "Otherwise, you'll second guess yourself forever." Charles opens his mouth to respond, but Raven rolls right over him, holding up a hand to silence him. "I mean it. I know all that's holding you back is Erik, and, in the scheme of things, Boston is hardly far from here at all. Even if you go to Columbia or Princeton or Yale, you'll still be living on campus and going to classes, so it's not like you'd get any more time with him than you would at Harvard. Plus, Erik might have his own plans. Who knows where he'll end up?"

His first instinct is to argue with her, but... it's not as though anything she's saying is untrue. And Charles knows it, even though it makes his food sit heavy and leaden in his stomach to think about it, the life Erik might make for himself that doesn't include Charles at all.

He can't talk about that, though, not even to Raven. Instead he says, "Well, what about you?"

Raven raises her eyebrow. "What, me a co-ed? Following in Sharon's footsteps and putting in a year at Vassar towards my MRS degree? Ugh, no, thank you." She makes a face, punctuating her sentence with a slurp of her shake.

"I didn't mean that, exactly," Charles says. He knows Raven's never really been very interested in school, even though she's quite intelligent, and he thinks she could easily be at the top of her class if she put her mind to it. It's never been her priority. "I was just thinking about you all alone in the house." Except for Mother, of course, but she doesn't really make Raven any less alone. "You could always come to Boston or wherever with me, you know."

Raven sets down her burger on her plate and gives him a long look he can't quite read. "Oh, Charles. No. I want to stay here. My life is here, and all my friends."

It's nothing more or less than what Charles expected her to say, and he smiles at her. "I know," he says. "Just keep in mind, it's a standing offer."

After they finish their dinner, they head out to the row of shops along the main road. Charles still isn't sure exactly what he's looking for--as Raven pointed out last week, it's not as if he could just pick out a nice piece of jewelry for Erik, even if Erik would accept something more expensive. Still, he has to believe he'll know the right thing when he sees it.

And as it happens, he does.

They're browsing through the third store when Charles spots it, under the glass counter near the front. It's a pocket knife, but it has nothing in common with the cheap, ugly blades some of their classmates carry. It's silver, just a tiny bit of design around the edges: spare metal, all elegance and clean, sharp lines. Utility, too; something with a purpose.

Erik would love it.

He waves to get the salesman's attention, and then, when the man comes over, taps softly on the glass. "Could I get this engraved?"

On the way home, Raven says, "I suppose he might accept it. Don't let him know how much it costs, of course."

"If he won't take it," Charles says, "I'll keep it for myself."

"And that won't seem strange at all, you carrying around a pocket knife with Erik's initials engraved on it," Raven says, but there's a certain amount of kindness in her voice that takes the sting out of it, a sort of kindness he wouldn't accept from anyone else. Almost like pity--or, no, more like empathy.

"It will be there if he needs it," Charles says, staring out into the road as he navigates the car through the darkness. Because I'll be there if he needs anything, remains unspoken. Charles is afraid that if he speaks it out loud, he'll have to confront its fragility. College is looming, and with it change on a level he hasn't experienced since his father died and Kurt and Cain moved into the house. His whole life is going to be different, and just when he feels like it's finally on track to being everything he's ever wanted.

He's quiet the rest of the way back, his pensive mood weighing heavily on the car, unbreakable even once Raven turns on the radio and begins to sing quietly along with the pop songs that start playing from the speakers. When they get back to the house, Raven stops him before he can disappear to his room to put away Erik's present and change for bed.

"Cheer up, would you?" she says. She kisses him on the cheek. "You're about to leave high school forever, you have a handsome boyfriend, and enough money to tell Harvard to stuff it and whisk Erik away to Europe to live off of your trust fund on some private island."

Charles allows himself the fantasy for a moment and smiles. He and Erik, alone somewhere together, somewhere with beautiful weather and no one else around for miles, somewhere they could be themselves without worrying about the rest of the world. Erik lying with him on a beach in just his swimming trunks. All the time in the world to do whatever they want without having to sneak around and make deals with Mother and Raven.

For all that he knows it's a fantasy, it's still good enough to keep a smile on his face as he hugs Raven goodnight and heads up to bed.

***

The next week is a little better than the one before, even if time still seems to be moving much too slowly. He spends most of Saturday at Erik's house, in the workshop in the garage Erik that uses to practice his powers. With Mrs. Lehnsherr home, just a few rooms away, everything they do stays innocent, of course. But there's something calming and centering about it, watching Erik as he works, sometimes chiming in to give advice and sometimes just sitting back and watching the planes of his face as he concentrates and listening to the patter of the rain on the roof above.

It's cozy. After all, Charles loved Erik long before he ever thought about kissing him.

Sunday he goes shopping on his own, without Raven. If he blushes when he buys the petroleum jelly, he confirms that the shopgirl is too bored to even notice him. Besides, it's mixed in with his other purchases--mostly food for the meal that, after careful interrogation of the housekeeper and Raven (with her required junior high home economics course under her belt), Charles has determined he should be able to manage to prepare on his own. Chops to go under the broiler, potatoes to cook in their jackets in the oven, peas from a tin, cake from a mix.

It's the thought that counts, Charles figures. And he has a lot of thoughts.

There's no school on Wednesday for Veterans Day. Charles spends the day playing checkers and Monopoly with Raven in the den. Erik is busy--it's one of the two days every year, along with her wedding anniversary in the spring, that Mrs. Lehnsherr takes Erik out to visit his father's grave. Erik's dad died in the war, when Erik was still a tiny baby. Charles doubts that Erik has any memories of him, but then, his father is one of the topics he's never heard Erik mention at all.

And then, finally, it's Friday.

"I'm going straight to Carol's after school, so if you mess up dinner, you can call me there," Raven reminds him. She's reminded him a dozen times already, and while he appreciates her willingness to help, he's starting to bristle at her apparent appraisal of his cooking skills.

"I know, I know," Charles says. "I'm sure everything will be fine."

It's not the food, after all, that he's necessarily worried about. Mrs. Evans has already said she'd leave some food in the refrigerator "just in case," and he doesn't believe Erik would throw him over just because he ruined dinner. He's more concerned about what he imagines is going to come after it.

Because he's spent a lot of time imagining that. He's tried not to, tried to remind himself over and over that it'll be fine, it'll be good, and there's nothing to be nervous about. Their first time was perfect and this will be perfect too. It's not like he's a virgin any longer--that should have been what he was afraid of, not this.

And he's not afraid, not exactly. He's definitely excited. He's definitely been dreaming about this for longer than he dare admit to anyone except Erik. But he wants it to be special, to be as good as his fantasies, and what if it's not? Sure, Erik's fingers felt good in there and the fantasies he's seen, the books he's read, they make it seem like it will feel just as good with his prick, even better. Sure, he's been practicing with his own hands, twisting the get the angle right and desperate for more, but how much more? Erik is really big and--

He still wants it, though, and that's what he doesn't understand, how something he wants this badly, something that makes him this excited and aroused, could make him so nervous and frightened at the same time.

It will be fine, though. He knows it. He'll be with Erik, and that's what counts.

***

After school, he meets Erik at his locker, as usual, even though they're not walking home together, not tonight.

"I'll be over as soon as I get my bag and take the garbage out," Erik tells him.

"Take your time," Charles says, pretending to be casual. He's not very good at it. "There's no hurry."

Erik snorts and shakes his head, slamming his locker shut with his powers as they turn to walk out of the school. They part ways at the front doors, Erik turning left towards his house and Charles going right towards the bicycle rack and then back up to the mansion.

He heads directly up to his bedroom when he gets home, changing out of his corduroys and sweater into a t-shirt and sweats, loose and comfortable--and, well, easier to remove later, too. He gives his room a once-over, but it's still just as neat as it was last night and this morning, everything perfectly tidy, and clean sheets on the bed.

The box of cake mix is sitting out on the counter in the kitchen. He reads over the instructions three times, committing them to memory, before he turns on the oven and gets out the eggs.

Charles is sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the oven, peering doubtfully through the tiny window in front, when he feels the familiar sense of Erik's mind, quickly approaching the back door. He scrambles to his feet just as Erik knocks. "Come in," he calls out, and Erik slips inside, setting his bag down at the table.

"Hi," Erik says.

He's changed clothes, too, Charles notices immediately. But where Charles has dressed down, Erik looks nicer than he did before, wearing his good khakis and a plaid button-down shirt that turns his eyes very blue.

"You look nice," Charles says.

Erik smiles at him crookedly, and Charles thinks for a moment he's going to come out with something complimentary in return, but instead what Erik says is, "You have a huge stripe of cake batter right here." He gestures to his own face, dragging a finger from his cheek almost all the way back to his ear to demonstrate.

"Do I? Whoops." Charles raises his hand up to wipe it off, but Erik shakes his head.

"Let me get it," he says, and so Charles lowers his hand and waits as Erik crosses the room to stand a few inches in front of him. He tilts his head up automatically, and he can feel his lips part without his meaning them to. His body knows this position now, knows that it's what comes right before kissing.

Erik doesn't kiss him, though. Instead, to Charles' great surprise, he leans in and swipes his tongue across Charles' face, a wet and sloppy lick everywhere the batter is.

Charles bursts out laughing. "Erik!" he says, shoving playfully at Erik's shoulders. "That's disgusting!"

"That's disgusting?" Erik says, raising his eyebrows. "After all the other places our mouths have been, that's disgusting?"

"Very," Charles says primly, and rocks up on his toes to press a kiss to Erik's mouth before wiggling away to peer again at the oven. Erik comes to stand behind him, resting a hand on his back.

"You didn't have to make me a cake, you know," he says.

"I wanted to," Charles says, and hopes he doesn't sound too earnest. "It still has about half an hour to go. In the mean time, I've got dinner all set out in the other room. Let me go wash up and we can eat."

Dinner didn't come out as perfect as he'd wanted, but he hopes it will be enough. He thinks the chops are probably a little tough and he's still not convinced the potatoes are cooked all the way through, but he supposes they'll soon find out. In the mean time, he slips away to scrub up in the bathroom. He examines himself closely in the mirror to make sure there's no more cake batter lurking anywhere, then pulls back to stare at his reflection.

This is it. He and Erik have all night together and tomorrow too, alone in the house.

He thinks his eyes might be glittering, from the nerves and excitement, unless he's just imagining it. There's definitely more color on his cheeks than there would normally be. He looks a little like he's just downed a flute of champagne--feels like it, too, really, bubbles tickling and turning through his stomach.

Be calm, Charles tells himself sternly. Still, when he goes to leave the washroom, he's frozen for a second, his hand on the doorknob, and he doesn't know why. Erik is right on the other side of the door, just a room away, and everything Charles wants is right here, everything he's been planning and waiting for and looking forward to, a chance to be together like this before spring comes and school ends and the future gets less certain--and yet he can't move at all. He has to rest his forehead against the wood for a moment, and take a deep breath, before he opens the door and heads out.

Raven and Charles usually just eat in the kitchen, but tonight Charles has set the table in the small dining room. (The large dining room, which can seat a few dozen, is another one of the rooms that hasn't been used since Kurt died, and he and Sharon stopped having dinner parties to entertain his business acquaintances and her society friends.) Erik is already seated, sipping his water, and Charles slips into the seat next to him and unfolds his napkin in his lap.

"Did you really cook all this yourself?" Erik says.

Charles nods. "It's probably not very good," he says apologetically, "but I'm sure we'll manage." He picks up the bowl of peas and passes it to Erik, who takes it and begins to serve himself almost absently.

"You've put a lot of work into this."

He's gazing at Charles as he speaks, mouth serious, and Charles looks away, shrugging as he addresses himself to the chops. "Well, we had to eat something."

"Still," Erik says, and when Charles won't look up, he nudges him psychically for his attention. "Thank you," he says once Charles is looking at him, and Charles has to look away quickly.

He was right in predicting the food quality. The chops are a little dry and the potatoes seem a little unevenly cooked, for all he put them in and just let them sit there, but the peas are good and nothing is inedible. When the kitchen timer rings, Charles jumps up to take the cake out of the oven, leaving it to cool on the counter. It's a little lumpy, but looks fine. He has strict instructions not to try and dollop on the thick chocolate frosting until it's fully cool, so he returns to the dining room where Erik is cleaning up their plates.

He's nervous. He shouldn't be nervous. It's just Erik.

"Hey," he says, strangely shy, and Erik puts down the pile of plates and silverware and walks over towards him.

"Hey," he replies. "Thank you again."

"It's your birthday," Charles says by way of explanation.

"Not until tomorrow," Erik reminds him, and Charles is going to tell him not to split hairs, but he takes those last few steps to Charles and swiftly kisses him, cutting off any protest. Charles kisses back easily, despite the prickly tension in his spine. This, at least, is comfortable and familiar and before long he's leaning back against the wall of the dining room with Erik curled down to meet him, his broad hands against the span of Charles' back. He can feel himself relaxing in Erik's arms, like he always does, as long as he focuses on the kissing, on Erik's mouth on his, on the way he tastes and feels and sounds.

"What else did you have planned for tonight, then?" Erik asks when he pulls away, and Charles feels the nervousness return.

He doesn't know why he's so nervous. He's waited for this. He's dreamed about it. It's not like Erik is going to hurt him.

Still, he hesitates. Maybe they should draw it out and play a game or have a drink or put on some records. Maybe there's a movie on television they should watch first. Or maybe he should just go ahead and get it over with.

'Get it over with.' That makes it sound like it's something Charles is dreading. And he's not, he's really not, but maybe if they just do it, he won't spoil the rest of the weekend by being so tense and awkward and anticipatory.

"Why don't you come upstairs with me and find out?" Charles says, as coyly as he can manage with his heart thumping in his rib cage hard enough that he can feel it in his bones.

"Okay," Erik says. There's a hint of a crack in his voice, which Charles hasn't heard from him in years.

Charles takes his hand and leads him down the halls and up the stairs. Neither of them speaks as they walk, and the entire house is silent and still around them.

He releases Erik once they reach the bedroom, turning away from him to start undressing quickly. He's already gotten his t-shirt over his head and tossed to the floor, and he has his hands on the waistband to his sweats when the warm pressure of Erik's hand lands on his arm. Charles jumps, startled by the sudden contact, turning his head to stare at Erik.

"Come here for a second," Erik murmurs. He looks embarrassed, though Charles doesn't know why.

Most people wouldn't be able to tell what emotion Erik was feeling. But Charles can. He knows that face, every flicker and subtle change in it. He knows Erik.

He takes a step toward Erik, and lets Erik pull him into a hug. The hug turns into another kiss, and then Charles mouths his way down Erik's jaw, to his throat. He has to undo the top few buttons of the shift to be able to expose Erik's skin enough to press a firm kiss to his pulse point. He rests his lips there for a few seconds, feeling the way Erik's heartbeat seems to be fluttering just as wildly as Charles' is.

I love you, Charles thinks. It's not as if it's a new or surprising thought, but it feels wild and newly frightening all of a sudden, here like this. He loves Erik so much he thinks he could choke on it.

He and Erik unbutton the rest of his shirt together, trading more kisses as they do it. They separate again just long enough to slip off their trousers, and then Erik is pulling Charles down onto the bed with him, holding Charles close and caged with his big hands on Charles' back and his foot tucked close behind Charles' calf.

"How do we do this?" Erik says, his voice still soft.

"Same as last time," Charles says softly. He can't quite look at Erik. "We'll just...kiss and then...well, start with your fingers and kind of...stretch it out. And then we go from there."

Strange to think how nervous he is even talking about it. They've done that much already and he enjoyed it. That's putting it lightly, even--he remembers the thrill of having even that much of Erik inside of him. He remembers the desire to push back against the pressure to get it deeper. He remembers how good it felt, like he was going crazy.

He tries to hold onto those memories as Erik kisses him again, kisses his mouth and then behind his ear and his throat, noses his collarbone, licks at one of his nipples. He holds onto Erik's shoulders and tries not to dig his fingers in as Erik presses kisses all over his skin and then urges him to roll onto his stomach.

"Are you--um," Erik starts to ask. He can't seem to find the end of the sentence, though, instead merely rubbing his hand up and down Charles' spine. Charles doesn't jump at the touch, but it's a near thing. He forces himself to relax. He needs to calm himself; if his shoulders and back are this tense, he can't imagine what...other parts of him must be like.

"Keep going," Charles murmurs. "Go on."

Erik hesitates, but after a few quiet seconds, Erik's lips press to Charles' shoulder in a soft kiss, then continue downward.

Charles rests his head on his folded arms and closes his eyes. He tries to concentrate solely on the sensations--Erik's warm breath and wet mouth, between his shoulder blades and the small of his back, and then, too, Erik's strong and gentle hand coming down to palm the flesh of Charles' behind.

It feels good. It does feel good. Charles just needs to figure out how to stop thinking, because he knows it's his brain that's the problem. It's always his brain that's the problem, working twice as hard as anyone else's. If he could just shut it down, just let his body take over, he would be fine, he knows it.

Except he doesn't want fine, does he? It should be--it has be perfect. He's wanted this for so long. He's put so effort and thought into arranging all of this, and who knows when they'll get another opportunity? It has to be now. It's their only chance.

Erik is squeezing him very lightly--like you'd squeeze a peach to check for ripeness, Charles thinks. For some reason that strikes him as particularly ridiculous, and he has to bite his lip to keep in check the semi-hysterical laughter that threatens to bubble up.

But then Erik's thumb is stroking down Charles' crease, and Charles doesn't feel like laughing anymore.

He takes a deep breath and forces himself up on his knees, widening his stance to allow Erik an easier way. Erik's sharp intake of breath is comforting, a reminder that Erik is affected, too. It shouldn't be this easy to forget that Erik is in this with him, when all of this is about Erik, when Erik is the one who is doing everything to him.

Erik's voice is very low when he speaks, like it's coming from somewhere deeper in his chest. It's a little difficult to make out the words, even in the quiet room. "Last time, we needed... Do you still have lotion?"

"In the drawer of the nightstand," Charles says. "There's a tub of Vaseline."

Erik's hand are gone from his body as Erik moves away. Charles bites his lip hard and keeps his eyes screwed shut, listening to the squeak of the drawer and faint clatter as Erik examines its contents. After a moment, the mattress dips and he can feel once again the heat of Erik's body besides him.

"Chapped lips?" Erik says.

Right: the tub's been opened, evidence of Charles' activities this week. "No, I just," Charles tries. He has to stop and swallow and start again. "I've been... you know. Practicing."

He hears the way Erik swallows, feels his hand tighten on Charles' hip, and steals into his mind just enough to get the impression of Erik's mental image of that--the Charles in Erik's mind is much less clumsy, much more practiced and attractive. Charles tries hard to see himself like that, to imagine he's calm and cool and ready for this, tries to imagine he's good at this.

He can be. He knows he can be. He's practiced. Erik has done at least this much before, gently pulling apart his cheeks. Erik's hand more than one finger inside of him. They haven't even reached that part yet, so he should be able to relax.

Relax relax relax. He keeps repeating it to himself as he feels Erik's first finger brush against his hole.

He jumps anyway, his whole body going tense.

"Um," Erik says. Charles can tell he's nervous too, that he's confused. His own face is burning and he's glad Erik can't see it. "You need to relax a little, I think."

"I am," Charles insists, his voice wavering more than he'd like. "I am, I swear. I will. Keep going."

He can't ruin this. It was hard enough to get the house to himself for a weekend and to get Erik to agree to come--he doesn't know that he'll have this chance again. He needs to calm his body down if he wants them to ever be able to go this far. And he does--he wants this, he knows he wants it, and he doesn't understand why his body won't cooperate.

He feels Erik's fingers again, attempting to enter him. It's just one and he can feel the resistance of his body, feel how tight it is. It goes in, eventually, and it doesn't hurt, not really, and Charles takes deep breaths, squeezing his eyes shut. This is easy. They've done this before. He's done this on his own. He needs to calm down.

"It's...tight," Erik says breathlessly.

"Isn't is supposed to be?" Charles manages to say.

"Not--Charles, are you--" The finger pulls out, and Charles feels a momentary pang at the loss, but if anything, he's even more tense now.

"Don't stop," Charles says. "Just--just keep going. It's fine. Just go ahead and do it."

Erik doesn't, though, doesn't do anything, and he doesn't say anything either. After a moment, Charles raises his head, twisting his neck around so he can see. Erik's still kneeling on the bed, sitting back on his heels. Normally Charles would appreciate the view, Erik's chest and his abdominal muscles, his strong thighs and his prick, but right now he can't look away from Erik's face, because it's still and shuttered in the way that only happens when Erik is absolutely furious.

"Erik?" Charles reaches out with his mind, a little timidly, but Erik's put up the barriers that say he doesn't want Charles to go any farther, that he doesn't want Charles there with him. It hits Charles like a blow to the solar plexus. He can't stand to be in this position for another moment longer, exposed and vulnerable like that without Erik's touch or Erik's thoughts to ground him, so he rolls onto his side, curling up a little.

"You're not even--" Erik starts to say, but even though he cuts himself off, Charles knows what he meant and couldn't say, which is that Charles' erection is almost gone. Erik shakes his head, and says, "I didn't think--Charles. When you said this was my birthday present."

"Yeah?"

"I thought. If I'd known you meant it like this, I wouldn't have... I didn't realize you meant you would do it for me." Erik's nails are pressing into his thigh. Charles imagines it must hurt. He wishes, vaguely through his misery, that he could push Erik's hand away and kiss it better. "I thought this was something you wanted, too," Erik finishes, in a rough low voice.

"I do," Charles says quickly. "Erik, I do want it. I swear."

"You're--nothing about this--you're completely--" Charles thinks Erik's stutter might have more to do with his anger than any hesitance at describing their physical actions. He's very nearly shaking with it. "You don't look like you want it!" he finally manages to say. "The whole time--your whole body is..."

Charles pushes himself up and pulls his knees close to his chest. He doesn't know how to explain what's going through his head, what's been going through his head all night, all week, and what does it matter anyway? Erik's prick is getting soft and he's so angry he can barely look at Charles. They won't be doing this tonight. Charles ruined it. They've lost their chance.

He doesn't want to cry, not about this, not here with Erik, so instead he turns his back and slowly climbs off the bed.

"It doesn't matter anymore, does it?" he says. "It's obviously not going to happen, now. I should go frost the cake, it should be cool enough."

He pulls his underwear and sweats back on, still not looking at Erik.

"Charles," Erik says, sounding angry and desperate and hurt and, most of all, like there's something more he wants to say, but he doesn't know how to put it into words.

Rather than look, Charles walks quickly from the room, still fumbling to get his shirt right side out as he stumbles towards the stairs.

He's still blushing, livid and mortified and depressed as he touches the top of the cake to check the temperature and then takes out the bowl of frosting. He ruined it. He ruined their chances to do this, ruined their night, and probably ruined Erik's birthday. It was one thing, one stupid thing that he wanted so badly, that he's literally been dreaming about it for weeks. He doesn't know why his body wouldn't cooperate--all he knows is that he's almost relieved they didn't go through with it.

He's exhausted, suddenly. He just wants to go to sleep, but instead he morosely attends to frosting the cake until he feels Erik approaching.

He can feel Erik's mind again, he realizes. Those signals--he always pictures them as thorns, like Sleeping Beauty's castle, or orange glaring NO TRESPASSING signs in the woods--are gone again, like he hadn't locked Charles away in the first place, trapped alone in his own head. It's a small enough relief in the pit of misery Charles is in, but it's something. Erik feels less angry now (though there is still some anger there) and more just... unhappy.

He's standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. Charles can't quite look at him yet, so he stares down at the cake, waiting for him to speak. After a minute, though, he realizes Erik isn't going to say anything at all. It's up to Charles to speak first.

"Could you get the plates down from the cabinet please?" he says quietly.

Charles picks up the cake and sets it on the kitchen table, before sitting down in one of the chairs. Erik fetches the plates, and forks as well, before taking the place opposite him.

Charles cuts them each a slice--smaller for him, fatter for Erik. Fudge frosting on devil's food cake: Erik's always had a sweet tooth, and chocolate is his favorite. When they would go down to the sweet shop together as boys, when Erik had saved up his allowance for a treat, Erik would always spend all his money on chocolates, while Charles got gobstoppers and lemon drops, always carefully keeping track to make sure he didn't spend more than Erik.

Right now, though, Erik is frowning down at the cake, pushing crumbs around with his fork.

Charles takes a bite of his own slice. It's not bad, sweet and rich, but it sticks in his throat when he swallows. He stands up to get himself a glass of milk.

As soon as he's opened the refrigerator, Erik speaks.

"Maybe I should just go home. I could tell my mother you thought you were coming down with something."

Charles almost drops the milk bottle. He slams the refrigerator door shut and spins to look at Erik, who is finally meeting his eyes.

"Please don't," Charles says fervently. "We still--I didn't mean to ruin everything."

"You didn't ruin anything," Erik says. "You didn't--I just--I don't understand. I thought--" He's holding the fork in his hand, rubbing at it absently with his thumb. Charles can see it warping in Erik's grip. He wonders if Erik even notices. Erik closes his eyes and squeezes his hands into fists. He breathes in and out deeply and just when Charles thinks he's not going to elaborate, he opens his eyes again.

"I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do," he continues in a rush. "Nothing--I don't want to make you do anything. You shouldn't have to do something just because I want it, not if...if you don't."

"But I did!" Charles blurts out.

"It didn't--" Erik looks away. "You didn't seem like it."

Charles can see how much it embarrasses him, the light flush on his cheeks, more subtle than the way Charles' whole face turns red. Still, for all that Charles can tell how much Erik would like to be anywhere else instead of having this conversation, he's having it anyway. It makes Charles' heart feel hollow and too big for his chest.

"I...I don't know," Charles admits. "I don't know why--I did want it. And...I've been practicing, like I said. Ever since that first night that we--I've been thinking about it a lot. But--I don't know."

Charles slowly walks back towards the table and takes his seat.

"It's all going so fast," he says once he sits down again. "We have this weekend but who knows how many more? Who knows how much time we have? I'm applying to college and then--and there's never any place for us to be alone and you're so afraid about asking your mom to come over here and we can't do it at your house and--you're eighteen now. And I'll be eighteen soon and my mother--my trust fund--" He rests his elbows on the table and covers his eyes with his hands. "It's going by so quickly. If it doesn't happen now, when will we get another chance? There's so much I want to do--I want to spend all my time with you and I can't and before long, everything is going to change."

Erik's sigh is audible. "I think about it, too," he admits. "Not all of that, I mean, but--I think about those things, too, Charles. And I don't know how to--" He stops again, and the breath he lets out this time is even louder with frustration. Charles lifts his head enough to rest his chin on his hands, making himself meet Erik's gaze.

"Do you remember when we were nine," Erik says abruptly. The fork in his hand is completely unrecognizable by now, little more than a stream of metal flowing in between his knuckles. "My mom let us put up that tent in the backyard and we stayed there all spring."

"Our fortress," Charles says, remembering. No one else had been allowed in; even Mrs. Lehnsherr had left her occasional delivery of milk and cookies or sandwiches on a tray outside. It was safe, far away from the unpleasantness of home with Cain and Kurt, and it was private, and it was special, just for them.

"I wish," Erik says, and he doesn't have to finish the sentence for Charles to know what he means.

"Me, too."

"I hate seeing you unhappy," Erik says, looking back down at the cake again. The words are coming out quickly, tumbling messily out of Erik's mouth. He sounds angry again, but Charles can tell, now, it's an undirected anger: anger at the universe, into the void, to himself, more than at Charles. "I hate it. It's worse than--when it's me, I can handle it, I can deal with it, but when it's you, I just-- And there's nothing I can do, nobody I can protect you from, and I don't know what to do or how to make it better."

Charles is glad that Erik isn't looking at him. He has to press his fingers hard against his eyes for a second and take a deep breath; when he's sure he's not going to cry, he says, "You do make it better. Me having you--that makes it better." His voice still sounds shaky, but he can't do anything about that.

"But I couldn't..." Erik starts to say. He glances up from the cake to Charles quickly, and then back down again. "I just want you to be okay."

"I am," Charles insists. His voice very nearly breaks. "Erik, it's not you, you haven't done anything wrong. You're--you're perfect." He looks miserable now, though, like he's going to be sick. Charles can't shake the feeling that he's ruined everything--Erik's birthday, their fleeting time alone. "I'm the one--I--I don't know. I don't know why I couldn't. I don't know what's wrong with me. I swear, Erik, being with you--in that way, in all kinds of ways--it's all I think about. But I know I've--I don't know. All I can think is...is that this was our chance. And if we missed it--I don't want to go away from you without--I want to do everything we can while we can."

His heart is racing. He doesn't want to think about leaving. He doesn't want to think about going anywhere without Erik.

"It's not our only chance," Erik says. Charles is startled by the conviction in his voice. He looks up from his cake, determined as he's ever been. "We'll have--we have more time. Months. And then...you'll have school vacations and things, won't you? And that's--with you leaving, it would make sense for me to be here more. To see you more. To want to spend time with you before you go. Right?" His determination wavers for the first time, pleading a bit on the last word. "My mom--she would understand that?" Charles swallows and nods, holding Erik's gaze. "It's not our only chance," Erik repeats.

"It's not," Charles says. He means it as a question, but he becomes more confident as he speaks the words. Things are changing, but maybe not too quickly. Maybe it's not as dire as he thought it was.

"I promise," Erik says. He sets down the metal of the former fork down on the table--Charles will have to get him to fix it before he leaves tomorrow--before pushing his chair back and standing up, coming around the table to Charles. He crouches down awkwardly besides him, balancing himself with one hand on Charles' thigh. "You and me versus the world, right? Just like always?"

Charles nods. He reaches down to pick up Erik's hand, turning it over so he can lace their fingers together. "I'm just--I'm really so glad you're here, Erik."

It earns him a brief smile, tiny but perfect. "Me, too."

Charles hasn't ruined everything. Hasn't ruined anything. The hope and relief surging through him are just as uncontrollable as his misery was just a few minutes ago. He feels almost dizzy with it, so many strong emotions in such close proximity. He thinks he's going to cry again, the relief is so strong, but he pushes it back. He craves suddenly, more than anything, the tight hold of Erik's arms around him, like physical evidence of all the things they're saying, and looking in Erik's eyes, he suspects Erik needs it, too.

"Maybe we could--just wind the clock back an hour or two. Start the evening over," Charles suggests.

"I don't think I could eat another dinner," Erik says, deadpan but for the glint of amusement in his eyes, and the faint nerves Charles can still feel from him.

"After the dinner, then." Charles squeezes his hand.

Erik hesitates. "This time you won't--You'll tell me if you--" His eyes are searching something out in Charles'. Charles remembers suddenly the fight they had, after they started fooling around but before they confessed their feelings to each other, when Erik had seen that girl Helen flirting with Charles after school. Erik had thought then that Charles was only doing things with him out of... condescension, or pity, throwing him scraps. And tonight he was afraid of that again, that Charles was just going through with it to make him happy.

Pride's what keeps Erik going, gives him strength from day to day, and it drives Charles crazy sometimes but it's part of what makes Erik Erik.

He won't give Erik the knife tonight, Charles decides. He'll save it in his dresser for a better time, a time when Erik would be able to accept it. Christmas is coming up soon, and they usually exchange gifts then, even though Erik doesn't celebrate. Or--an anniversary, maybe. Three months or six months or even more. There's lot of occasions to come.

"Let's start with the kissing," Charles says. "That was good, wasn't it?"

"Charles," Erik says more firmly. "You have to--we're only going to do it if you really want it. If you start to--tell me to stop. Promise." Then, reaching out to take Charles' other hand as well, "We have lots of time. It doesn't have to be tonight."

Erik squeezes his fingers and Charles nods.

"Okay," he says. "I promise." He squeezes Erik's fingers back, then uses his grip to pull Erik up to his feet. "Kissing," he says again, firmly, standing up to face Erik.

"Don't be pushy," Erik murmurs, but Charles can tell he doesn't mind. He likes it, even, as he leans down to meet Charles for a kiss.

They kiss for a long time, slowly and with none of the haste of their time in the bedroom earlier. The cake sits, untouched, as they slowly move from the kitchen and back towards the stairs, then up to Charles' bedroom. In the hall, they shed their shirts again and before long they're back in Charles' bedroom, shirtless and warm and flushed and stumbling towards the bed. Charles is already panting, his heart pleasantly racing the way it always does when Erik's hands are on his body.

"Remember, you promised," Erik says as he gently pushes Charles down onto the mattress.

"I remember," Charles says, but as he pulls Erik down on top of him, smiling and happy and warm, he has a feeling it's not going to be a problem this time.

***

Afterwards, Erik says quietly, "It was good, then?"

Charles' head is still tucked into the crook of Erik's neck; Erik's fingers are drawing distracting, abstract designs through the cooling sweat of Charles' back. They had tried it this way, with Charles in Erik's lap instead of lying on his belly, because Erik wanted to be able to see Charles' face, look into his eyes and keep track of his reactions while they did it. This way, too, they could kiss through the difficult parts.

It feels like too much effort to raise his head now, though, with every part of his body feeling so warm and relaxed and pleasantly fuzzy. He kisses Erik's shoulder, just because it's there. "Couldn't you tell?" he says.

He knows Erik is smiling, even though he can't see him. It's not the sort of knowledge that he gets from his telepathy, but the sort he gets from knowing Erik.

Erik nuzzles his hair. "And now? Are you going to fall asleep like this?"

"Noooo," Charles says slowly. It's a tempting thought. He is worn out, and not just from the orgasms, he suspects, but from the emotional turmoil and revelations of tonight as well. The release of tension is always a relief, whether it's the climax of his body or something entirely mental, but either way it's exhausting. But... "I do want to clean up first. A bath, I think." He does raise his head then, giving Erik a small smile of his own. "Join me?"

The tub in the bathroom nearest Charles' room is too small to be perfectly comfortable for two people (or so Charles suspects; he's never actually put it to the test). On the third floor, in one of the suites that never gets used these days but still gets cleaned and polished to a shine every week, there's a bigger tub, one that could probably fit a half dozen without too much crowding. It probably has, if half of what Charles has heard about the particular Xavier ancestor who had it put in is true. He's the same one responsible for some of the more interesting pornographic literature Charles found in the attic when he was younger, as well.

"It's shaped like a seashell," Erik says doubtfully.

"I think it's a reference to the birth of Venus," Charles says. The entire room is decorated in a classical theme, busy with pictures and carvings that seem to straddle a line between high art and something rather more obscene. There are a few places where things are obviously missing, and Charles guesses those are where the things that tumbled over that line had been removed by succeeding generations.

"It's ridiculous," Erik says, but he doesn't seem particularly annoyed by it, and he climbs into the bath with Charles eagerly.

The water is nice and hot and there's plenty of room to stretch out in the giant tub. Charles leans back against Erik's chest and sighs contentedly as Erik begins to pet his hair. He feels calm for the first time in days. There's still a lingering disappointment--tonight was far from the perfect romantic weekend he envisioned and it's likely things will just get more difficult as they get closer to graduation--but it wasn't a disaster, either, not really. The food had turned out fine, he and Erik had eventually managed to have sex, and now they're relaxing together.

At least, Charles is relaxing. Erik's thoughts are heavier than Charles had expected once they slid into the steamy water of the tub.

"Erik?" he asks quietly, tilting his head to look up. Erik glances down at Charles, his expression troubled for a moment before it flickers into a smile. "What are you thinking about?"

"Nothing," Erik says.

"Impossible," Charles says, smiling just a little. It's a shadow of an old joke about the vast and chaotic capacity of the brain. He's not thinking about nothing, Charles used to grouse to Raven and Erik whenever anyone said so. It's impossible to think about nothing, your brain is always thinking even if you don't realize it.

"Nothing important," Erik clarifies, and Charles pokes his collarbone, then kisses it better when Erik jumps. "Just...lying to my mother. It feels--I know it doesn't matter. And I know that I'm lying to her just by being with you and doing these things, and I don't want to stop but...I feel like I'm taking advantage. Of her. Of your leaving. I don't know."

Charles pushes himself out of the water just enough to press a kiss to Erik's mouth, then slides back down, still looking up at him. He looks miserable. Another strike against their perfect romantic getaway, but maybe one he can still salvage.

"It's not really lying," Charles says. "It's hardly lying at all. It's true, isn't it? It's true that I'm going to college. It's true that wherever it is, it won't be here. It's true that you'll miss me and you want to spend time with me before I go." At least, it's true as far as Erik knows at this point. Charles can't give up his favorite fantasy, the one he falls asleep to every night, the one where he somehow convinces Erik to come with him to college, to live with him in a place of their own where they can be together every day without having to worry about making excuses to parents or prying eyes of dorm mates.

"It is," Erik allows.

"So you're not lying, not about that," Charles says. "The other stuff, maybe--what we're doing obviously isn't what she thinks we're doing. But if you had--" And, oh, it hurts to even say it, even hypothetically. "--if you had a girlfriend, you wouldn't be telling your mother everything about her, would you? When you kissed and what you did on dates?"

"No!" Erik says quickly.

"So really," Charles concludes, "the only thing that's any different is that you do have a sweetie and you haven't told her. That's the only lie, and it's not even a real lie, just an omission."

He's proud of his logical skills, the product of being the star of his debate class last year. Something about the fear inherent in the knowledge that he can change anyone's mind whenever he wants made him strive to do well in the class and he'd even won an award. The award pales in comparison to this, though, the way that Erik's hesitation slowly starts to evaporate.

"I guess you're right," he says.

"I'm always right," Charles says proudly, and Erik splashes him for his troubles. "Hey!" he yelps, and then splashes back.

They stay in the bath until the water's gone lukewarm and the skin of their fingertips has begun to wrinkle, and then they make their way together back down to Charles' room. Buried under a mountain of blankets, sharing a pillow, Erik's hand still resting possessively on the small of Charles' back, they fall asleep. Charles' last conscious thought is that this is exactly what he wanted, one perfect moment, stolen away from all the cruelties of time and change and other people. All of the planning and stress is worth it, for this.

He's selfish, though, especially when it comes to Erik. They're going to keep stealing as many of these moments as they possibly can.

***

The next day passes quickly, calm and low-key and pleasant. He and Erik play chess, work on their homework, even dance a little more to one of Charles' favorite records. They're curled up together on the sofa in the den, both reading silently, when Charles recognizes the familiar call of Raven's mind.

Charles? Where are you?

In here, Charles tells her, straightening up from his position, half lying across Erik's lap. He's been too wrapped up in reading and having Erik close by to notice her approaching the house; she's already home, in the kitchen.

Erik looks up from his own book and gives him a curious look.

"Raven's home," Charles tells him, and he can feel the instant tensing of every muscle of Erik's body, even though his face stays neutral.

"Oh," Erik says.

Charles is uncertain about whether it would make Erik more comfortable if he moved, if they separated to opposite ends of the couch. But that's silly, isn't it? Raven already knows. She's the person they don't have to hide in front of. Even Erik can't have a problem with that.

It's a moot point soon, anyway, as Raven makes her way to the room before Charles can make a decision or talk to Erik about it.

"Chaaaaaaaaaaarles," she's saying, elongating his name into a cheerful sisterly whine as she enters--though she stops, startled, just inside the doorway. "Oh, hello, Erik! I didn't know you'd still be here. Sorry, Charles, I guess I should have stayed at Carol's later."

"It's fine," Erik says. "I should be getting home soon, anyway. I suppose we lost track of time."

Raven smiles at him. The two of them haven't really spoken since all of this happened between Charles and Erik, Charles reflects. He's a little afraid (and a lot curious) to think what must be going through her mind; she's used to treating Erik as practically another brother, with all the teasing that implies.

Raven flops into a chair across from the couch, an elegant and familiar sprawl.

"Happy Birthday!" Raven says.

"Thank you," Erik says, almost stiffly.

"You can stay a little while," Raven continues. It's definitely a statement and not a question. "I feel like I haven't seen you in ages."

Erik is still tense, but he doesn't move to get up, leaning back against the couch again, and that's a start, at least.

"Well," Charles says, "you've been busy with your girlfriends and Buddy."

Raven rolls her eyes at him, but she's smiling.

"Yes, and I'm sure it has more to do with that than with you squirreling Erik away whenever you have a chance," Raven says. "You're still taking French, right? What is going on with Madame Kelly's hair this year?"

"It has been strange," Erik admits slowly.

"Carol and I think she has a secret lover," Raven says. "There's no other excuse for it."

"She's a widow, I think," Erik says. "It wouldn't have to be a secret."

"Maybe he needs it to be secret," Raven says. "Maybe he's married to someone else."

"I think you and Carol are watching too much Perry Mason," Erik says, but he's slowly starting to become more at ease, and for once Charles doesn't mind that they're talking about something he doesn't understand. If, at the end, Erik trusts Raven just a little bit more...well, maybe it will make him feel better about lying to everyone else all the time.

They do eventually move on to other television programs--Raven fills them in on the Twilight Zone episode that aired the night before and that leads to a discussion of what they would do with a robot assistant until it really is time for Erik to head home.

"I'm going to go upstairs and put my bag away," Raven says, getting to her feet. "I'll see you at school on Monday, Erik! Give my love to your mother."

"I will. It was nice to see you," Erik says, and Charles can tell he means it. He sends Raven his gratitude as she picks up her overnight bag and retreats, not before giving him an entirely inappropriate wink that he appreciates slightly less.

Erik collects his own bag and the two of them make their way towards the door.

"I'll see you on Monday morning," Erik says. He gives Charles a peck of a kiss. "Thank you for doing all this."

"As long as you had a good birthday," Charles says.

"The best," Erik promises.

"Even better than your twelfth?" That was the year Mrs. Lehnsherr had somehow saved up and surprised him with a brand new bike, cherry red and straight out of all of Erik's dreams. It still sticks in Charles' memory as the most thrilled and excited he's ever seen Erik get, speechless with amazement.

Erik shakes his head. "No comparison at all," he says. He's holding Charles' hand, has been since they left the den, and now he rubs his thumb softly across Charles' knuckles. It makes Charles want to shiver all over, again.

"Okay," Charles says, biting his lip. "Go home, then. I'll see you Monday."

"Okay," Erik says, but it takes another few seconds before he actually lets go of Charles' hand and moves away. "Goodbye."

"Goodbye," Charles says. He watches from the backdoor as Erik disappears from view, and even then he keeps track of Erik's mind until he's off the property, before finally letting go.

He heads up to his room. His applications are still on his desk, where he's been avoiding them for the past few weeks. Now is as good as any to start looking at them, he supposes.

Charles sits down and gets to work.

***

Charles doesn't see Raven again until supper. He's heating up a tin of soup at the stove when she waltzes airily into the kitchen, stepping around him to liberate the leftover cake from the fridge, and then carefully slicing herself a portion as large as her head.

"You're going to ruin your appetite," Charles says disapprovingly. He knows it makes him stodgy and fussy and no fun as an older brother at all, but sometimes he can't help it.

"Not if I just have this for my supper," Raven says, leaning back against the counter as she attacks the cake with her fork. She rolls her eyes at his expression. "Oh, fine, I'll have some vegetables for dessert if it means so much to you."

"Thank you."

"So was your secret romantic weekend everything you imagined?" Raven asks, licking frosting off of her fork.

Charles considers as he stirs his soup.

"Yes and no," he finally says. "It didn't manage to go as I planned, not really, but...." He doesn't want to give her the details--it's embarrassing and she's his little sister besides. What happened was private. "We talked. About a lot of things, really. But it was lovely. It wasn't like I imagined, but I'm glad it happened this way. I think we...it was good. I think it was a good birthday." He thinks about Erik's smile as he was leaving, the way he held Charles' hand. "I know it was a good birthday."

"Awwww," Raven says, and elbows him good-naturedly. "And to think it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't suggested it!"

"Well, I wouldn't go quite that far," Charles says.

"I would," Raven says. "I would go so far as to say that I'm a romantic genius and that you owe me big time."

"Nonsense," Charles says.

"Nope," Raven says. "You definitely do. In fact, you're definitely going to take me into town tomorrow and buy me a milkshake as a thank you."

Charles was going to dive back into those college applications tomorrow, but they can wait. He wasn't wrong, yesterday. He'll be gone soon, off to college, leaving behind not only Erik, but Raven too. He might as well make the most of the time he has left.

"Fine," Charles says, laughing. "But not because I owe you anything, just because you're my sister and I love you."

"I'll take it," Raven says.

There are worse ways to end one of the best weekends of his life. There's still a lot on his mind and a lot to sort through--he doesn't have any illusions that the next few months will be easy. But there will be time enough to worry in the coming months. For the moment, he's going to hold onto this feeling of contentment for as long as he can.