By the time Monday rolled around, Charles was starting to wonder if he’d seriously fucked up.
Erik hadn’t contacted him all weekend. Not that Charles had expected him to, not after the agonizing train wreck of Thursday night, but…well, he’d been hoping Erik might send a text at least. Something like, I understand and no hard feelings, or, I had a good time while it lasted, thank you for being honest with me.
But of course Erik hadn’t sent anything like that. He’d been so hurt and furious that night, the force of his rage so intense Charles had been left with a throbbing headache that had lasted until the next morning. After Erik had thrown him out, he’d gone home knowing that they were over, without a doubt.
Erik wouldn’t call or text him again. He wasn’t the type to forgive and forget, even over small things — and this wasn’t exactly a small thing.
Not, Charles thought, that there was really anything to forgive. It had been a terrible misunderstanding, that was all. It hadn’t been anyone’s fault. It was just…an unfortunate situation.
Still, he couldn’t deny that he felt a little…guilty. He’d been mulling the matter over all weekend, wondering if he had led Erik on somehow. Maybe the dinners had been a little much. Normally people didn’t schedule regular, biweekly dinners with their fuck buddies, did they? And the chess…normally fuck buddies didn’t play hours upon hours of chess either, Charles supposed.
And he’d left his toothbrush at Erik’s place more times than he could count. And he’d accepted when Erik had offered him a drawer in his dresser. And they might have had a few movie marathons while cuddling on the couch. And Charles had helped Erik adopt that cat, which, in retrospect, had been a terribly couple-y thing to do.
Oh god, it was all his bloody fault, wasn’t it?
Looking back, it was so obvious. The way Erik had looked at him. The way Erik had touched him, not during sex and not with the intention of starting sex, just…as a sign of casual affection: an arm around Charles’s shoulders, an idle caress on his cheek. Plus he’d made that gorgeous cake for Charles’s birthday, chock-full of all of Charles’s favorite flavors, and he’d given Charles that lovely watch…
God, I’m so stupid, Charles thought, his whole face going hot at the memory. I’m such a fucking idiot.
He shambled through his classes through the day in a haze, obsessing over his last conversation with Erik. Now that he’d had some time and space to process what had happened, he could think of a hundred things he should have said differently, a hundred things he should have done differently. Why had he laughed? Jesus Christ, why had he fucking laughed?
He was lying on his couch that night, head spinning from a couple of shots of whiskey, when his phone began to ring. Even though he knew it wasn’t Erik, couldn’t be Erik, he still fumbled for the phone with shaking hands, nearly dropping it twice. Disappointment flooded through him when he saw Raven’s name on the screen.
“Hey,” Raven said briskly, “you home?”
“I’m coming over.”
“Hang on, hang on.” Charles struggled to sit up. “This isn’t exactly a good time.”
“I think Hank and I broke up,” Raven blurted out. “So if you’re just watching Netflix or something, can I come over and cry on your shoulder?”
“Oh. Well. In that case, I’ll see you soon.”
“Thanks,” she breathed.
After hanging up, he tottered around trying to tidy up a bit, but it was an impossible task. Eventually he just went and fetched another bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet (the one he’d been working on was almost empty) and collapsed back down onto the couch. A few minutes later, a knock came at the door.
“It’s open!” he hollered.
The words had hardly left his mouth before Raven came barreling in, looking…well, not the most upset he’d ever seen her, but close. Tossing her coat over the back of the armchair, she hurled herself down onto the couch beside him and tugged the whiskey from his hand.
“Do you want a cup — ” he started, but she’d already untwisted the cap and set her lips to the bottle. “That bad, huh?” he asked, watching as her throat bobbed.
After a moment, she lowered the bottle, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Only then did she look at the label, eyes narrowing in disgust. “Gross, Charles. Why do you always buy the cheapest shit? You’re a fucking bajillionaire.”
“First of all, it’s not technically my money,” Charles said, reclaiming the bottle. He took a swig, grimaced as the whiskey burned a line down his throat, and took a brief second to acknowledge that they were both going to get shitfaced tonight. Well, it wasn’t like he was in any mood to do homework. “It’s the family money. Besides, you can’t beat the cheap shit for nights like this.”
“Yeah, true.” Raven held her hand out for the bottle and laid her head on his shoulder as she took a swallow. “God, Charles, I really fucked up. I think we’re over for good this time. Like, for real.”
The sheer misery pouring off of her made him wince in sympathy. Trying to radiate as much mental reassurance and support as he could muster, he started to stroke her hair. “What happened?”
“We were arguing. I barely even remember what it was about, something really stupid about our weekend plans, and then we were both shouting at each other and then I said — ” With a groan, Raven buried her face against Charles’s shoulder so her next few words came out muffled by his shirt. “I said he should go date someone else if he wanted someone to be really fucking boring with, and oh god, the look on his face. He just looked so fucking hurt. He didn’t even say anything, he just walked out, and it felt so…final. Like it was all over.”
And then she was crying. Not much — Raven wasn’t the kind of person to sob messily, not like Charles — but Charles knew she’d never so much as allow herself to tear up if she weren’t really torn up. So he set the whiskey bottle aside and hugged her tightly until she eventually got her breathing back under control. Even after the tears had dried up, they stayed like that for a few minutes longer, Charles stroking her hair and blanketing her with as much love and comfort and support as he could offer.
Finally, Raven sat up slightly, sniffling. “Sorry. When I said I was going to come cry on your shoulder, I didn’t meant literally.”
“It’s okay. What are brothers for?” He rubbed her shoulder and, after a moment, asked gently, “Have you talked to him since?”
Raven shook her head. “It just went down like, three hours ago. He hasn’t texted me or called since, and I…I don’t know if I want to go back to our place yet.”
“You can sleep here,” Charles said. “Call him in the morning. You’ll both have calmed down by then. I’m sure he’ll want to talk.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“You know how much he loves you. I know how much he loves you.” Charles waggled his fingers by his temple. “Telepath, remember? So I know these things.”
That earned him a small, watery smile. Raven wiped her eyes. “It just…it felt different this time. We argue a lot, but he’s never walked out before.”
“Maybe he just needed some space. Both of you were angry. He’s probably gone somewhere to cool down, just like you.”
“I guess. But…what if he doesn’t come back?”
“Look, Hank’s a lot of things, but he’s not irrational. He’s hardly going to ghost you. You two live together, for god’s sake. He’s going to have to talk to you again. Probably soon. And besides,” Charles added, “do you really think he’d abandon all his research notes? I doubt he took everything with him when he left earlier.”
“Yeah…” Raven managed another wavering smile. “He didn’t take his laptop. He’s fucking married to that thing. He’ll be back for it.”
“Exactly. So…just give him some time, yeah?”
Sighing, Raven leaned forward to snag the whiskey off the coffee table and snuggled against Charles’s side more securely. Taking a sip, she said, “Seriously, how the fuck are you still single? You’re like, the greatest catch.”
Charles tried to laugh. The sound stuck in his throat and came out sounding more pained than anything. “Actually…”
Raven looked up at him. Whatever she saw in his face made her sit up straight, eyes wide. “Wait, are you single? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Not really. I mean, yes, I’m single now.” He winced. “I mean, I was always single, it’s just…it’s complicated.”
Her gaze went to the mostly empty whiskey bottle on the table and the shot glass beside it. He could feel the gears of her mind turning as she connected the dots. “Wait a second…you were already drinking before I came over. On a Monday night. Alone.” When he didn’t say anything, she said, “Okay, spill.”
“Honestly, it’s not really — ”
Groaning, he sank further down on the couch and gestured for her to hand the whiskey over. “Okay. Fine. You think you fucked up? Your love life’s just hit a bump in the road. I’ve bloody well nuked mine.”
Raven swiveled to face him, drawing her legs up and crossing them. Her eyes gleamed with barely-restrained curiosity. What did it say about them, Charles wondered, that they had always used each other’s fuckups to distract them from their own issues? Probably nothing good.
“Now you have to tell me everything,” Raven ordered.
Charles took a fortifying shot of whiskey, waited until it had settled warmly in his belly, and then heaved a sigh. “So. I’ve been seeing this guy — ”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“It wasn’t serious! It was casual. Really casual. We just saw each other when we wanted to blow off some steam. You know, in the bedroom.”
“You can say fuck buddies,” Raven said dryly. “You were fuck buddies.”
Sometimes he forgot that Raven was no longer a delicate preteen who needed to be protected from the realities of the world. She was still his baby sister but…well, her list of one-night stands probably eclipsed his own.
“Right,” he said. “Yeah, we were fuck buddies. But we hung out even when we weren’t sleeping together. We’d have dinner together sometimes — ” a lot of times “ — and I helped him move into his new place — ” where Charles had been spending the majority of his nights for the last few months “ — and…a lot of other things. He wasn’t just a…a booty call, you know.”
“So you were friends. Friends with benefits.”
Charles huffed a laugh. “Yeah. That’s exactly what we were. But I went over to his place on Thursday night and we had dinner, which was really nice, and then…well, he told me he wanted me to meet his mother.”
Raven cocked her head. “Okay…that’s…kind of weird for fuck buddies, but I guess you were friends, too. That’s not too weird?”
“That’s just the thing,” Charles said, struggling to contain the despair that was starting to rise up in his chest. Recounting the story was like reliving it all over again — he was back there in Erik’s apartment, facing Erik’s flummoxed expression when Charles had said, Why? Do you introduce all your fuck buddies to your parents? “He didn’t think we were friends.”
“Oh. So…he thought…”
“He thought we were dating!” Charles moaned, wishing all over again that he could just melt into the floor and cease to exist. “He thought we’d been dating the whole time!”
“Oh.” Raven stared at him. “Oh my god. Charles. Oh my god.”
“I know! I know.” He just barely managed to set the bottle back onto the coffee table before collapsing down onto his back on the couch and burying his face in both hands. “It was awful. I thought he was joking. I laughed in his face. Laughed!”
“I know! And he was understandably pissed off by that point, and when I explained that I thought we’d been just friends with benefits, no strings attached the whole time, he just lost it.”
“I don’t blame him.”
“I don’t either!” Charles exclaimed. He could feel a hot blush running down his head from his ears to his collarbones. “I think I broke his heart. I feel like the world’s biggest asshole.”
“What happened? What did he say?”
“Well, it’s over now obviously. He told me to get out of his apartment. He said he never wanted to see me again.” Charles bit his lip. “Well, he didn’t say it but…” He tapped his temple.
Raven didn’t seem to know what to say for a moment. That was absolutely fine because Charles didn’t know what to say either. There wasn’t exactly a standardized condolence card for, I’m sorry your fuck buddy thought you were his boyfriend the whole time and then you had to break it to him gently that no, you can’t meet his mother because you’re not actually together-together, you’re just friends who have sex occasionally, and by occasionally, you mean a lot.
Finally, she just laid herself down on top of him and hugged him tight. “You’re right.”
“You really did nuke your love life.”
They both laughed, Raven sympathetically, Charles miserably. He held her close and thought, If nothing else, at least I’ve got Raven. When she whispered, “Sap,” against his chest, he realized he’d accidentally projected that thought.
“So what are you going to do?” Raven asked after a while. “Are you really never going to see him again?”
“I don’t see what choice I have. He was quite clear on the point.” Charles sighed. “Do you want to know the worst part?”
“There’s something worse?”
“You know that bakery near campus?”
“Yeah, the one you rant and rave about all the time. I’ve been a couple of times; their cupcakes are pretty good.”
“Well he works there. Actually, he’s the owner. So I’m never, ever getting a fresh, beautiful slice of lemon sponge cake ever again.” Charles closed his eyes in anguish. “It was the best sponge cake in the world, Raven!”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait just a second.” Raven pushed herself up off him, elbowing all the air out of him in the process. “You were fucking the baker? Like, the super hot baker who always looks like he just walked off a red carpet somewhere? The one with the hot accent? That guy?”
Charles wheezed for breath. “Yes?”
“You broke the baker’s heart?”
“How did you even…he barely talks to anyone, he’s always too busy working. I’ve only been there two times, and even I know that. So how did you manage to seduce him?”
Honestly, sometimes Charles was surprised at that himself. Of course he’d noticed that Erik was criminally attractive — anyone with a lick of interest in men couldn’t miss it. But Charles had been content to observe and admire him from afar, knowing Erik never paid much attention to the customers. That was what Kitty and Sean were for: it was their job to man the register, top off the coffees, and charm the patrons into buying an extra macaroon or two.
Charles hadn’t been the only one who was interested. A good number of the regulars there popped in every afternoon to eye both the pastries and their maker, and some of them weren’t at all subtle about it. During his daily visits to the bakery, Charles had accidentally glimpsed at least a dozen fantasies featuring Erik, some of which had left him actually blushing. Given the fact that he’d spent a good chunk of his teenage years perfecting his “oh god, this is far more information about your sexual preferences than I ever wanted” poker face, that was an accomplishment.
There hadn’t been any harm in idly fantasizing about the unbelievably hot baker, Charles had thought. After all, pretty much everyone was doing it, and it wasn’t as if anything would ever come of it.
Then one afternoon when Charles stopped by, Erik had emerged from the kitchen and gruffly bumped Kitty off the register. He’d taken Charles’s order personally, they’d gotten to talking, and Erik had comped his order. Charles had bought a coffee he didn’t want just to have an excuse to keep chatting, and at the end of the conversation, Erik had written his number down on the back of a business card and slid it across the counter.
That had been the start of four glorious months of the best sex of Charles’s life. Erik was everything Charles could have asked for in a lover: generous, attentive, athletic, strong enough to pin him down easily, not afraid of switching things up every once in a while, and…well, frankly, his cock had been absolutely bloody gorgeous. Goddammit, Charles was going to miss that cock.
“Hellooo? Earth to Charles.”
He blinked. “Yes?”
“You went into one of your weird memory trances,” Raven said, sitting up more fully. Sliding off his legs, she reached for the whiskey and put the bottle to her lips but didn’t drink. Her golden eyes regarded him curiously. “You were thinking about him, weren’t you?”
“What gave me away?” Charles asked dryly. “The fact that we were just talking about him?”
She rolled her eyes. When she spoke again though, her voice was thoughtful. “You had a funny look on your face.”
“When you were thinking about him, I mean. You looked…I dunno. I can’t explain it.”
Charles wiggled his fingers by his head. “Want me to look?”
“Nah.” Sighing, Raven shoved his legs to the side to make room and took another swig of whiskey. It went down with a cough, and she thrust the bottle into his hands. “Seriously, Charles, that stuff is disgusting.”
“Hey, I’m not forcing you to drink it.” Sitting up, he tilted the bottle back, gulping. The room was starting to spin around him, which was…good. At least when the room was tilting nauseatingly, he wasn’t thinking about Erik.
“So…what?” Raven said after a minute. “You really aren’t going to try to…I don’t know, win him back or anything?”
Well, there went his blissful, Erik-free existence, shattered after all of sixty seconds.
“Why?” Charles muttered. “We clearly wanted different things. He wanted a boyfriend, and you know I don’t date.”
“For stupid reasons.”
“For valid reasons.”
He just couldn’t handle everyone’s hang ups over his powers. He’d tried dating in high school and college, but all of those relationships had broken down eventually, and he could always trace the turning point back to his telepathy. It always started with, Are you reading my mind right now? and ended with some variation of, Stay the fuck out of my head. So honestly, why bother? That was why his commitment these days began at around eleven p.m. at a bar and ended at eight or nine the next morning, whenever he happened to wake up.
At least, that had been the case before Erik. A lot of things had changed since Erik.
“What about the sexy baker?” Raven asked. “What did he think about your telepathy?” She paused. “And what’s his name anyway? I can keep calling him sexy baker but I feel like I should put a name to a face.”
“Erik. Erik Lehnsherr.”
“Ooooh, very German. Did he do dirty talk? I bet dirty talk sounds so much nastier in German.”
“What, just asking! You can ask me about my sex life if you want.”
Charles shuddered. “No, thank you.”
Raven snickered. “Prude. Anyway, answer the question. How’d he feel about your telepathy?”
“He liked it.”
“Oooh, that’s promising.”
“Not in a fetishy way either. I mean, kind of in a fetishy way — he liked when I used my powers in bed — ” Charles tried not to dwell on those memories for even a second. “ — but he also didn’t mind when I used my powers any other time. Before we even slept together for the first time, he let me read his mind. Actually he invited me in, I didn’t even need to ask. It was…amazing, honestly. And I — ”
“Hang on,” Raven said, throwing up a hand. She squinted at him as if he were a particularly enigmatic captcha she was trying to decipher. “So he let you read his mind.”
“And I assume you’ve been reading his mind ever since.”
“I mean…just general surface thoughts mostly. You know how it works.”
“Yeah, I know. So let me get this straight: you’ve been reading his mind the whole time, and you never got the hint that he was into you? Like, really into you?”
Charles had been asking himself the same question over and over again all weekend long. Shouldn’t he have seen something? Shouldn’t he have noticed? Even though Erik kept his mind as neat and compartmentalized as everything else in his life, no one could control every stray thought in their mind. At some point, Erik must have slipped, and Charles should have caught it. Had Erik truly kept his affection so deeply hidden that it never touched the surface of his mind? Or had Charles been willfully blind somehow, not wanting to risk rocking the boat?
“No,” he said miserably. “I had no idea.”
Raven whistled lowly. “Charles, I know I say this a lot, but you are truly the worst fucking telepath in the entire world. How can someone so smart be so fucking dumb?”
“I know,” he moaned, covering his face with a hand. “I know. I’m such a bloody idiot.”
“So one, he was totally okay with your telepathy,” Raven said, holding up a finger. “Two, he’s pretty much the hottest guy I’ve ever laid eyes on and honestly, he’s kind of out of your league.”
“Three,” she continued blithely, “he has a steady job. Four, he’s good in the sack. I assume he is because you banged him more than once. You’ve been banging him for…”
“Four months,” Charles muttered.
Raven slapped his arm in outrage. “Four months? And you never told me! Jesus Christ, you were practically married! You might as well have opened a joint bank account and decided on baby names!”
“Might I remind you we were only fuck buddies for four months? We weren’t exactly dating.” Not that I was aware of anyway.
“Charles, any relationship that lasts longer than twenty-four hours for you is a minor miracle. I’d say four months is a major miracle. And there must have been something about him that kept you coming back every time.” Raven lifted a fifth finger, eyebrows raised. “Five, there must have been something about him that kept you coming back.”
“Yes,” Charles said, “that something was his cock.”
Raven spluttered for a moment, seemingly torn between shock and laughter. Finally she just rolled her eyes heavenward and said, “After all these years, you’re still such a total slut.”
“As if you have a leg to stand on,” Charles sniffed.
“I’m in a stable relationship now, in case you haven’t noticed.” Her grin faltered. “Well…I was anyway.”
It took several moments for Charles’s muddled mind to switch modes from bemoaning the state of his existence to comforting and consoling. “Listen, Raven — ”
“Give me that.” She snatched the whiskey from his hand and took two long swallows. When she paused, he reached for the bottle, but it turned out she was only stopping to catch her breath: as soon as he tried to reclaim the bottle, she put it to her lips again.
“You’re going to have a hell of a hangover tomorrow,” Charles observed.
“Mm,” Raven said through a mouthful of whiskey.
Charles watched for another moment, then wrestled the bottle from her hands. “Okay, as your older brother, I feel responsible for cutting you off before we have to take you to the hospital to get your stomach pumped.”
Wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she scoffed. “As if. I’ve got the metabolism of a — a — fuck, what has a good metabolism?”
“Obviously a — ” Charles thought for a second. “Well, a…”
Damn, it was getting hard to think. He reached for the lid of the bottle and screwed it clumsily back on. “Alright, I’m cutting us both off.”
“Noooo — ”
“Sit right there, I’m getting us water.”
He stood up, wobbled for a moment, and put a hand on the arm of the couch to steady himself. When he was sure he wasn’t about to fall over and crack his skull open on the floor, he made his way to the kitchen and fetched two glasses from the drying rack. Then he stood there for an indeterminate amount of time, trying to think of what do next.
Water. In the fridge. Brita filter. Right.
As he opened the fridge, the light caught on the shiny nickel of the two magnets on the freezer door up above. One was a depiction of the Eiffel Tower, from when Erik had gone to Paris in March. The other was a miniature of the White House, from Erik’s Washington D.C. trip in May. They were handmade of course — Erik didn’t believe in buying souvenir magnets when he could make his own. Actually he didn’t really believe in souvenirs at all, but Charles had jokingly asked for him to bring something back and…Erik had made him these instead.
God, he really had been dating Erik the whole time, hadn’t he? He’d just been far too fucking stupid to see it.
With a groan, Charles shut the fridge again and trudged back out to the living room. “I really am the world’s worst…”
He trailed off when he saw that Raven was sprawled out on the couch, fast asleep. Then he remembered that he’d gone off to the kitchen to get water, which he really should go back and get…but also the other end of the couch beckoned, and what he really wanted to do was lie down and hope the world stopped tilting like a carnival game.
Sighing, he dropped down onto the couch beside Raven and pulled the afghan down from the back of the couch to cover her. Then, unable to help himself, he checked his phone.
No missed calls, no missed messages.
What did you expect anyway? he wondered. Whatever you had with him, it’s over.
Unhappily, he lay down, nudging at Raven’s legs until there was enough space for him to stretch out. When he closed his eyes though, he kept seeing Erik’s face when Charles had told him incredulously that they hadn’t really been dating, that they hadn’t been boyfriends at all. He had looked so…lost. It was an expression Charles never wanted to see on Erik’s face again.
Not that that was going to be a problem. He was never going to see Erik’s face again period.
Those thoughts went round and round in his head, compounding his misery with each cycle, until eventually, mercifully, he fell asleep.
Erik was in a toweringly bad mood, and he knew it. Kitty and Sean knew it. The customers seemed to know it as well. But Erik couldn’t bring himself to give a shit about it.
“Hey,” Kitty said, pulling him into the back room after he’d sent yet another customer fleeing out the door like a terrified rabbit. “What the fuck’s going on with you?”
“I am your boss,” Erik said coldly. “You can’t talk to me like that.”
“Oh, would you rather I tell your mother how much of a bitch you’re being then? Because I can do that. I have her on speed dial right here — ”
With a flick of Erik’s fingers, Kitty’s phone yanked itself out of her hand and vanished back into her apron pocket. “Don’t.”
“That’s what I thought,” she said smugly.
That was the problem with employing the girl he used to babysit, the girl who still attended the same synagogue Erik and his mother did: Kitty had known his mother for about fifteen years now, and she wasn’t ever afraid to capitalize on the fact. It was really fucking annoying sometimes.
“I have to check the oven,” he said curtly, moving to push past her.
She caught his arm before he could escape and hauled him back. “Seriously though, what’s going on with you? You’ve been pissy all week. What happened?”
“Nothing happened.” When she just raised a skeptical eyebrow at him, Erik scowled. “Does it matter?”
“Uhh, yeah, it matters when you keep stomping around looking like you want to murder someone and scaring all the customers off. Did you forget that we actually want people to hang around for longer than five seconds?”
Erik didn’t have a good answer to that. Instead, he ground his teeth in annoyance. Of course he’d noticed that his black mood was having an effect on the clientele. Some people who might otherwise have stayed and hung out in the café area took their orders to-go. Even the regulars hadn’t been dropping by like they always did. And it was affecting his baking, too. He couldn’t bake while angry. Everything just tasted…off when he did.
Not that he was really angry. He was just — adjusting. Reassessing his priorities and reconsidering who belonged in his life and who didn’t.
“I’ll stay in the back,” he muttered.
Kitty held onto him as he tried to leave again. “Are you okay?”
“I said I’ll stay in the back. Isn’t that enough?”
“I’m asking as your friend.” She squeezed his arm gently. “I know something happened. Do you want to talk about it?”
The sympathy in her eyes was unbearable. Erik didn’t need sympathy.
Pulling his arm roughly from her grip, he said, “I’m fine,” and marched back to the kitchen.
After checking on the cookies in the oven — they looked good so far but he could tell they could use another five minutes in the heat so he left them in — he started mixing up some fresh dough. It was a mindless task; he’d been doing it since he was a boy in his mother’s kitchen, learning every recipe step-by-step with her careful guidance. These days Erik could bake nearly anything in his sleep, which he was normally quite proud of, but at the moment, it left him with far too much time to think.
He hadn’t lied to Kitty. He was fine. Or, more accurately, he’d be fine. This was hardly the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He’d recover from it in a few days, like bouncing back from a bad cold. By this time next week, he’d barely even remember Charles’s name.
The jingle of the bell above the front door announced the arrival of a customer. Before he could think better of it, Erik leaned out from the kitchen to see who it was. A gaggle of college students spilled in, laughing and chatting as they approached the counter. Erik told himself sternly that he wasn’t disappointed.
Why did he want to see Charles again anyway? What was the point? Charles had made it very clear that their relationship boiled down to sex, nothing else, and that these past few months had been nothing but a huge, fucking humiliating mistake. What could Charles offer him now beyond pitying apologies?
No, what Erik wanted was to scrub every hint of Charles’s existence from his life, pretend the last four months had never happened, and move on. In fact, he’d already started: he’d emptied out Charles’s drawer, collected Charles’s toothbrush and deodorant and all the books and pens he’d left over, and dumped all of it into a box. He planned on doing a final sweep of his apartment before sealing the box up and mailing it to Charles. Then that would be the end of it.
He realized he’d been kneading the dough for far longer than necessary. With a growl of annoyance, he looked up to see Kitty in the doorway. “What?”
“Did you hear what I said? We’re almost out of babka.”
“Okay, I’ll take care of it.”
Instead of ducking back out, she eyed him with a frown. He tensed, thinking for a moment that she was going to ask him again if he was alright. But after a few seconds, she just sighed, shook her head, and disappeared back around the corner.
She definitely wasn’t going to let this go, he thought with a wave of irritation. Kitty wasn’t the type to let things go, especially not things that could be gossiped about. Kitty loved shit like that. But she wouldn’t breathe a word of this to anyone if he told her not to. She might enjoy gossip, but she also knew when to shut up.
Of course, none of that mattered because he wasn’t going to tell her about Charles. He wasn’t telling anyone about Charles.
That resolution lasted until about five o’clock that afternoon when his mother called. As soon as Erik saw her name appear on the screen of his phone, he felt his stomach sink. He’d been ducking her calls all week long, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to get away with it for much longer. Better to just get it over with, he decided.
“Hello, Mama,” he said, putting the call on speakerphone. With a gesture, he levitated the phone near his ear, leaving his hands free to pull bills from the register. Thankfully Sean had left half an hour earlier, and Erik had sent Kitty home fifteen minutes ago. If she’d still been here, she would have been all-too-happy to eavesdrop.
“Erik,” she said sternly, and he winced — he could sense the lecture coming down the line as surely as one could anticipate a sunrise. “I’ve been calling you for the last three days, and you haven’t answered once. Where have you been?”
“I’ve been busy, Mama. The bakery’s been busy. It’s midterms for the college students so we’re getting a lot of traffic.”
“You’ve been avoiding me.”
“Erik,” she said warningly, “you can’t lie to me. You know this. Even as a boy, you could never lie to me, and you have never gotten any better at it. So what is going on?”
He was only halfway through totaling up the cash in the register, but at that, he put the bills down and pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. She was right — he’d never been able to lie to her. Even over the phone, she was more insightful than she had any right to be.
There was nothing to do but tell her the truth. Or part of the truth anyway.
“Do you remember how you told me to invite Charles over for dinner this weekend?” he asked.
“Of course I do. We talked about it last week. I’m not senile, Erik.”
“Yeah, well, he’s not coming.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“We…” Erik exhaled slowly. “We broke up.”
“What! But you two were getting so serious!”
Apparently not, Erik thought sourly. Apparently we weren’t ever serious to begin with.
Aloud, he said, “Things didn’t work out. So…I won’t be bringing him over.”
“Oh, boychik, I’m so sorry. Do you need me to come over?”
The sadness in her voice made him wince. He should never have told her about Charles in the first place. He’d only gotten her hopes up. “No, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? I’ll bring food. I’ll make dinner.”
“No, really, I’m okay. It was a mutual decision. We weren’t interested in the same things.”
“Alright. If you’re sure. Am I going to see you this weekend?”
What Erik really wanted was to spend the weekend holed up in his apartment resolutely ignoring the outside world, but that would only worry his mother further. Then she’d pry and pry, and he’d end up confessing everything that had happened between him and Charles because he could never keep secrets from her. Then she’d insist on cosseting him like he was some sort of injured bird, or she’d demand Charles’s address so she could march straight over there, grip him by the ear, and make him regret ever being born. Most likely she’d do both, and either scenario was equally mortifying.
So he said, “Yeah, I’ll be over just like always.”
“Good. Mrs. Abrams was asking about you. Her oven has been acting up again.”
Erik suppressed a groan. “Mama, how many times do I have to remind you that I’m not a maintenance man? Mrs. Abrams should hire a professional.”
“But you always figure these things out anyway. Do a mitzvah and take a look at it when you’re here. She will be so happy if you can get it working again.”
Why could he never say no to his mother? “Alright,” he sighed, “I’ll take a look.”
“Perfect. Then I’ll see you Friday night, boychik. Don’t forget the challah.”
“I never do. Bye, Mama.”
Sliding his phone back into his pocket, Erik mentally prepared himself to spend at least an hour with Mrs. Abrams, who was even nosier than his mother. Not to mention all the ladies at the synagogue, who all knew about Charles because of course his mother had told them the instant she’d found out…
It was going to be a really fucking long weekend.
For the rest of the week, Charles went through the motions: class in the mornings, lab in the afternoons and evenings, grading and organizing his TA notes at night before bed. All of that kept him busy, but he was still surprised by how much free time he had on his hands in between tasks. He hadn’t realized just how much time he’d carved out of his schedule for Erik, how many responsibilities and commitments he’d shuffled around so he always had at least an hour or two every day to text or call Erik, or see him in person.
Now that Erik was no longer a part of his life, Charles had no idea what to do with those gaps in his schedule. Every time he put on a movie, he remembered how he and Erik used to cuddle up on the couch together with a bowl of popcorn between them, booing poor performances and dumb character choices, occasionally flinging popcorn at the screen during more egregious flicks. And every time he so much as glanced at the chessboard tucked under his coffee table, he felt an enormous surge of melancholy that left him glum for hours afterward.
“You’re moping,” Raven told him. “You’re moping worse than I am.”
“I am not,” he sniffed. What did he have to mope about? Yes, it was a shame he was no longer getting his brains fucked out on a regular basis, but he’d get over it. He’d find someone else eventually.
Though…it was admittedly difficult to imagine someone who could match up. Was it normal to need a rebound from your fuck buddy? Several rebounds maybe?
“I’m just in a transition period,” he informed her.
Raven rolled her eyes. “Transitioning from getting sex to not getting sex?”
“Yeah, I think most people don’t exactly go into deep mourning when they call it off with their fuck buddy.”
Charles laughed. “I’m not in deep mourning. That’s ridiculous.”
Raven raised an eyebrow, radiating skepticism. “Charles, you have a ton of talents, but self-awareness is not one of them. Believe me when I tell you, you’re being super dramatic about this. You’re acting like you were just abandoned at the fucking altar or something.”
This time when Charles laughed, it sounded a bit thinner and more uncomfortable than he’d intended. “That’s even more ridiculous. Besides, I left him.” He winced. “Well, we both decided that it would be in our best interests not to continue our relationship.”
“Yeah, it sounds like you had a super rational, mature discussion about ending things,” Raven said dryly. “Was that before or after he told you to get the fuck out of his apartment?”
If there was one good thing in his life right now, it was the fact that he had Raven to commiserate with at least. She and Hank still hadn’t made up, and she’d been crashing at Charles’s place for the last few nights. Hank had told Raven he needed some space, so she’d gone back to their apartment only to pack a bag and came straight back to Charles’s.
“He says he needs space,” Raven groaned. “That’s code for, We’re totally done. Fuck.”
“No, that’s code for, I need space,” Charles told her. “You know Hank. It takes him a little while to work through his feelings. Remember how long it took him to figure out how to ask you out?”
“This is different.”
Charles shrugged. “I’m just saying Hank processes emotional things more slowly than you do, so give him time. I’m sure he’ll be asking you to come home by the end of the week.”
But the next couple of days came and went, and by the time Saturday rolled around, Raven had resigned herself to being single again for the first time in three years.
“I’ll have to pack up so much stuff,” she said morosely. “We’ve collected so much shit together over the last few years, it’s going to be a pain in the ass deciding who gets custody of what. Like our blu-ray player. And the PS4. And the fish. We can’t split them up, they’re bonded.”
“You’re not going to have to break up the fish,” Charles said firmly.
She fixed him with a scathing look. “You said he’d be begging me to come home in a few days. You’re not to be trusted.”
“Well I read minds. I can’t tell the future.”
“Real helpful, Charles.”
For a few minutes, they sat together on his couch in silence, stewing in shared misery. Earlier they’d put on Jupiter Ascending, one of their guilty favorites, but even the normally delightful distraction of Channing Tatum doing his damnedest to be a canine couldn’t lift their spirits. This was pathetic, Charles thought. Desperately pathetic, even for them.
He sat up. “I’m going to talk to him.”
“The president,” Charles said dryly. “No, who do you think?”
Raven eyed him. “Your baker?”
“First of all, he’s not my baker.” But Charles couldn’t quite deny that he liked the sound of that. He’d always enjoyed the fact that out of everyone who had passed through that bakery and made eyes at Erik, he’d been the one to snare Erik’s attention. But that was a moot point now: Erik was no longer his in any sense.
“Second of all,” he continued, “things ended quite conclusively for us, so I imagine I won’t be speaking with him ever again. But you and Hank are entirely different.”
“You’re going to talk to Hank?”
“Yes!” Charles leaped to his feet, warming to the idea. “What day is it? Saturday? He should be home right now, right?”
“Yes, but…” Raven sat up straight, frowning. “What are you going to say to him? Please don’t be embarrassing.”
“I’m not going to be embarrassing.”
“That’s what you always say before you do something embarrassing!”
“Look,” Charles said firmly, “sitting here being miserable isn’t going to fix anything. My love life’s gone down the shitter and there’s nothing I can do about that, but yours is completely salvageable. I don’t know if I can fix it, but you’re my baby sister and at least one of us deserves to be happy, so I’m damn well going to try.”
Raven simply stared up at him for a long moment, long enough that Charles started to feel slightly foolish, making a grand speech like that. But then she got up, threw her arms around him, and squeezed the life out of him. “Sometimes you’re the worst,” she whispered, “but sometimes you’re also the best.”
“High praise,” Charles wheezed. “I think you’ve cracked a rib.”
“Wimp,” she said, releasing him with a laugh.
Ten minutes later, he was bundled up warmly and on his way to Hank and Raven’s place. They lived only a twenty minute walk away, and Charles found the exercise surprisingly invigorating. He hadn’t realized until now how little fresh air he’d been getting in the past week. The only reason he’d crawled out of his apartment in the last few days was to make his classes, and aside from Raven, he’d hardly spoken to anyone since last Thursday.
They both badly needed to get out. When he got back, he decided, he was going to drag Raven out somewhere. Dinner at the diner down the street maybe — Raven worshipped the chocolate fudge milkshakes there.
Only once he was standing on the doormat at Hank and Raven’s apartment did he stop to wonder what the hell he was going to say. Part of him thought, Just wing it. Another part thought, You have a spectacular talent for saying the exact wrong thing when you try to wing it. Or did you forget what happened with Erik?
Damn. Maybe he should have written something down before coming over. And was Hank even home? This was going to be rather anticlimactic if Hank had stepped out.
Discreetly, Charles swept the apartment with his telepathy. To his relief, he found Hank just inside, near the door. Before Charles could raise a hand to knock, Hank was already pulling the door open.
He froze when he spotted Charles on the doorstep.
“Hello,” Charles said cheerily. He eyed Hank’s coat, his backpack, the keys in his hand. “Are you heading out?”
“Yes,” Hank said slowly. “I was going to Rosa’s.”
Rosa’s was the café a few blocks away where he, Hank, Raven, and a few of their other friends had hung out during their college years. They’d spent innumerable afternoons studying in the cozy nooks there, chugging teas and coffees, chowing down on grilled cheeses and slice after slice of spinach cake. After graduation, their friends had mostly dispersed from New York, and grad school had since left Charles and Hank much too busy to frequent Rosa’s with the same fervor as they had in their undergrad years. Charles hadn’t been in probably close to two years.
“Can I walk with you?” he asked. “I came by to talk to you about something.”
“Is that something your sister?” Hank asked, turning away to lock the door.
Hank’s shoulders sank as he sighed. He’d never been very adept at shielding, so Charles could easily read the tangle of emotions rippling across the surface of his mind: uncertainty, resignation, hope, exasperation, lingering anger. More than anything though, he wanted to know what Charles had come to say. He wanted to hear about Raven.
“Okay,” he said. “Come on.”
They took the elevator downstairs and started toward the café. Neither of them spoke for a couple of minutes as they walked down the block, but as they crossed the street, Hank said tentatively, “I assume she’s been staying with you?” When Charles nodded, he ducked his head, cheeks pinking. “Sorry for the inconvenience. I didn’t mean to get you mixed up in this…thing.”
“It’s fine. She’s my sister, and you’re one of my best friends. I’m kind of automatically involved.”
“Yeah…” Hank hesitated, shoulders hunched uncomfortably. “Listen…Raven told you I said I wanted space, right?”
Charles nodded. “I know. And I’m not here to say you and Raven have to figure everything out immediately. I don’t mind having her over for as long as it takes for you two to work things out. I just wanted to…offer a few words on her behalf, I suppose.”
“She told me that you argued. Some…strong words were exchanged.”
“She told me I was ‘really fucking boring,’” Hank said flatly, drawing air quotes with his fingers. “She told me to my face that I should date someone else — someone in my own league, she meant.”
“That’s not what she meant,” Charles protested.
Hank’s eyes narrowed. “Isn’t it? I’m not delusional, Charles. I know Raven’s way out of my league. She’s gorgeous and outgoing and amazing, and I’m…her exact opposite. She could have anyone she wanted. Every time we go out, there are guys falling all over themselves to hit on her, and when they see me with her…” The blush on his cheeks deepened. “I don’t have to be a telepath to know what they’re thinking.”
Really? Him? She’s with that loser? What a joke.
The heavy layer of self-loathing that coated Hank’s thoughts made Charles’s heart squeeze in sympathy. He reached out and caught Hank’s arm, drawing him to a stop. “You’re selling yourself awfully short, my friend. You’re bloody brilliant, for one. You’ve got a mind that works at twice the speed and capacity as almost everybody else’s. More than that, you’re kind and endlessly loyal, almost to a fault. You’re one of the best people I know, and you and Raven are equals in every way. So what if you’re different? She loves you for being you, no one else.”
Hank glanced away, his flush creeping up to his ears. It was no longer a flush of humiliation though — instead, pleasure bloomed across his mind, warm and bright.
“Thanks,” he muttered, ducking his head. “That, uh, means a lot, coming from you.”
“Apparently I’m in the mood for pep talks,” Charles said wryly. “Lucky you.” As they stopped at the next intersection to wait for the walking light, he added more seriously, “She does love you. You know that, right?”
Hank sighed. “Honestly…sometimes it’s hard to tell. I love her, I really do, but…we’re such different people. I don’t know if we can work out in the long term.”
Charles resisted the urge to point out that they were working out in the long term. Three years was very long term in Charles’s book. But he knew that wasn’t what Hank wanted to hear. Instead, he said, “Relationships between people who are polar opposites work out all the time. Take Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom.”
“Er…what about Dax Shephard and Kristen Bell?”
Hank gave him a blank stare. “I don’t know who these people are.”
Charles heaved a sigh. “Remind me to introduce you to my friend Moira sometime.” She was Charles’s source for all celebrity gossip, and the only reason why he was able to keep up with pop culture and avoid becoming the old fuddy-duddy that Raven liked to accuse him of being.
After a moment of thought, he said slowly, “Well, I know this…couple. You couldn’t find two people less alike in the world. One of them is a neat freak and the other is…well, messy is a kind way of putting it. One of them sort of hates people and hates going out and the other is an extrovert. Even their politics are totally different — one of them is an integrationist and the other is a staunch separatist. But they get along amazingly.”
Or we used to get along amazingly, Charles thought with a pang of regret. Then, more thoughtfully, he mused, We really did fit together nicely, didn’t we? Even though we disagreed about nearly everything…I suppose that was part of the charm.
He was surprised by the sudden rush of disappointment at the realization that he’d lost that for good. He and Erik would never argue about politics over dinner again. They would never play another game of chess that devolved into bickering foreplay. He would never again listen to Erik gently complain about Charles leaving empty mugs on the coffee table, or about Charles tossing his socks on the floor. It wasn’t just the sex he missed — it was everything else, too.
What the hell did that mean?
“How long have they been together?” Hank asked skeptically.
“Years,” Charles found himself saying. “Longer than you and Raven even.”
“And the fact that they’re total opposites hasn’t ever been a breaking point?”
“No. I think…” Charles hesitated for a moment, grasping for the right words. “I think they balance each other out. They understand each other but they also challenge each other to be better. Isn’t that the mark of a good relationship?”
“Yeah, I suppose.” Hank frowned, brows furrowing as he pondered the evidence. He had one of the most analytical minds Charles had ever encountered, and it was ticking away in overdrive now, considering Charles’s words, working to apply them to the current situation. Charles could feel him narrowing down to a conclusion, though he didn’t dive deeply enough to see what it was.
At last, Hank said slowly, “So…Raven and I, you really think we have a chance?”
Charles smiled, half in reassurance, half in relief. Maybe he had managed to say the right thing for once. “I do. As long as you’re still willing to meet each other halfway, I think you’ve always got a chance.”
“Okay.” Hank took a deep breath. “Thanks. I needed to hear that.”
“Anytime, my friend. Sometimes we get lost in our own heads and we need someone else to put things in perspective, that’s all. You’d do the same for me.”
Feeling rather pleased with himself, Charles clapped Hank companionably on the shoulder as they rounded the corner. About halfway down the block, a man walking down a set of stairs to their left stepped out into their path. “Sorry,” he muttered, moving to the side.
Charles stopped dead. “Erik?”
Erik had been looking back the way he’d come, but at the sound of his name, he turned. When his eyes met Charles’s, a flicker of shock passed over his face for a split second before he shut it down ruthlessly. “Charles,” he said, his voice extremely flat. “This is a surprise.”
Charles stared up at the building Erik had just come out of. Of course. Of course the route to Rosa’s happened to take them by Erik’s synagogue, and of course it was Saturday so Erik was just getting out of a shabbat service. Of course this was happening because the universe clearly hated him.
“H-hi…” Charles stammered, scrambling for something more to say. Are you okay? Are we okay? Are you still angry at me? You know it was a misunderstanding, right? You know I never meant to hurt you? Or were they not going to talk about that? Should he make an inane comment about the weather? Or ask if Erik was having a nice shabbat? Was that something you could ask about?
Erik’s eyes shifted from Charles to Hank, taking him in. Though Charles didn’t dare touch Erik’s thoughts directly, he could still sense the dark, unfriendly steel of Erik’s mind, all but shouting, Fuck off! That seemed to be a pretty clear indication that no, they were not okay.
After a moment, Erik’s icy gaze returned to Charles. His voice was a sneer as he said, “New boytoy already?”
Hank blushed bright red. Charles stared at Erik open-mouthed, too shocked to even muster up a denial.
“A word of advice,” Erik said to Hank. “Don’t get attached. He certainly won’t.”
Hank stepped forward, his mind a swirl of embarrassment, confusion, and protective anger. If Charles’s brain weren’t almost completely fried at the sight of Erik, he would have been deeply touched. “Excuse me?” Hank demanded, sounding partly bewildered, partly suspicious.
“Interesting.” Erik gave Charles a chilly smile. “You’ve already got him wrapped around your finger, don’t you, Charles? How do you do that?”
“You know him?” Hank growled.
Charles hurriedly put a hand on Hank’s arm to restrain him. “Yes, he’s a…friend.” He winced, seeing Erik’s jaw tighten at the word. But he couldn’t very well tell the truth, could he? All he could do was barrel onwards. “Hank, this is Erik. Erik, this is my friend Hank.” He hoped Erik heard the emphasis on friend.
Before any of them could say more, the synagogue door opened and a crowd of older ladies walked out, chatting amongst each other and waving goodbye to the few who headed off down the street. One of them, a diminutive woman with dark hair streaked with gray, came down the steps toward them. “I’ve spoken to Mrs. Abrams, Erik, and if you have some time tomorrow, she’ll be home all day. And also Mr. Liebowitz said…” She trailed off as she noticed Erik wasn’t standing alone. Her eyes passed over Hank quickly but widened in recognition when they landed on Charles.
“Hello, Mama,” Erik said, reaching out a hand as she approached. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gestured to Charles and Hank. “This is Charles and this is Hank.” He glared hard at both of them. “Charles’s new friend.”
Charles wondered if the earth might be so kind as to develop a sinkhole under his feet and swallow him up forever please. When the ground underneath him remained disappointingly solid, he forced a smile and said, “It’s, ah, very nice to meet you, Mrs. Lehnsherr.”
Erik snorted. Mrs. Lehnsherr favored Charles with such a withering look that Charles had to resist the instinctive urge to bolt at full speed in the opposite direction. She knew, Charles realized, his stomach sinking. Erik had told her what had happened, and she was now looking at him like she was fantasizing about seeing his head on a stake. Charles was far too terrified to even peek at her mind.
“Hmm,” she said. That was all.
“Come on, Mama,” Erik said after a moment. He took her elbow to steer her away, or possibly to prevent her from leaping at Charles’s eyes and clawing them out — judging by the simmering rage in her gaze, that was a distinct possibility.
Without even a cursory farewell, Erik and his mother headed off down the street. Charles watched them go, a riot of emotion roaring in his head. Part of him wanted to call out to them, to ask Erik to wait, hang on, could they talk for a moment? But while he was still fumbling to find words, Erik and his mother had already disappeared around the corner.
Once they were gone, Hank frowned at him. “What was that?”
Charles swallowed hard. “Nothing.” When Hank gave him a deeply skeptical look, Charles merely clapped him on the shoulder again and said, “I should get going actually. I’ve got work to do. But give Raven a call, will you? She’s dying to hear from you.”
“Uh, yeah, I will, thanks.” But Hank continued to study him worriedly. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Charles smiled. “Yeah, perfectly fine. That was just — ” He waved his hand vaguely. “It’s not anything to worry about. I’ll see you later sometime?”
Charles made his escape, not sure whether he was thankful or disappointed that he and Erik were headed in opposite directions. What would you have said to him anyway? I’m sorry? As if he’d want to hear that. He clearly hates you. Just forget him and move on.
But that was easier said than done, wasn’t it? Charles hadn’t missed the way his heart had fluttered madly at the sight of Erik, or how Erik’s voice, even frigid and unforgiving as it had been, had sent a thrill down his spine. He would have gladly endured another few minutes of Mrs. Lehnsherr’s terrifying glare if it had meant another few minutes with Erik.
Only now did he finally know what he’d wanted to say: I missed you. I made a mistake. I want you back.
The realization stunned him with all the force of a lightning strike.
When he trudged back into his apartment an hour later, Raven leaped out of the kitchen, tackling him in the entryway. “He called!” she crowed. “We talked! I don’t know what you said to him, but he told me he missed me and asked me to come home. Of course I told him I missed him, too, and I’ve already got my bag packed and I’m going to…” Pulling back slightly, she frowned at the expression on his face. “Hey, are you okay?”
It took a moment to find his voice. “Raven, I…I really fucked up.”
Her joy and relief morphed rapidly into concern. Stepping back, she held him by the shoulders. “What happened? What is it?”
“I think,” Charles said unsteadily, “I think I’m in love with him.”
Mornings at the bakery were Erik’s favorite time of day. He arrived at around 5:30 to open up, double check the item list for the day, and get started on baking the required pastries and breads that would last them until closing. For two hours every morning, he enjoyed the sort of quiet solitude he couldn’t get anywhere else: it was just him and the meditative rituals of mixing ingredients, kneading dough, icing pastries, and carefully arranging display trays. Kitty and Sean normally came in around eight, but until then, the bakery was Erik’s and Erik’s alone.
This morning, however, was proving to be less peaceful than expected. Someone had been knocking on the front door since six, and though Erik had resolutely ignored them for nearly twenty minutes, they hadn’t given up. He could hear the tireless knocking from all the way in the kitchen, a rhythmic drumbeat that set his teeth on edge. It couldn’t be Kitty or Sean — they never showed up before seven, and if they had some reason to come in early, they would have texted or called him. More likely than not, it was someone very drunk or very high, banging on his door at random. He told himself they’d move on eventually and focused on mixing a new batch of royal icing.
But come 6:30, the sharp rapping hadn’t stopped. Teeth gritted, Erik iced one cookie, then another. Then, finally, he set down the piping bag and stormed out to the front, unlocking the door with a wave of his hand.
“What?” he barked, just barely cracking the door open.
“Finally,” said a sharp, exasperated voice from outside, as if they were the one being inconvenienced. “My hand fucking hurts from knocking.”
Erik pushed the door open another inch. The face that appeared was unfamiliar: a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and frowning disapprovingly, like he’d somehow failed to meet her standards in the three seconds they’d interacted. She didn’t look drunk or homeless or high, but Erik eyed her suspiciously all the same. “We’re not open.”
“I know,” said the woman. “I was hoping to catch you alone actually.”
Erik stared at her. Too old to be a Girl Scout, not dressed like a missionary or a saleswoman, not giving him lustful once-overs, so probably not a stalker. He couldn’t even begin to guess at her purpose here.
“I’m working,” he said, and moved to shut the door.
“It’s about Charles.”
Erik froze. That gave her the opportunity to grab the edge of the door and hold it forcibly open. “I just want to talk,” she said, sticking her foot across the threshold. “Please.”
How did she know Charles? Had Charles sent her because he’d been too much of a coward to come himself? Or was it because he’d known Erik wouldn’t have given him the time of day? Or had something happened to Charles?
That thought sent a pang of worry through him that he tried to stomp out immediately. Who cares if something’s happened to him? Erik snarled at himself. You don’t have to care about him anymore.
But still, he couldn’t bring himself to shove the woman back by the metal on her body and slam the door in her face. After a long minute, he turned away with a growl of frustration. “Fine. Come inside.”
The bell above the door jingled as she followed him in. Sitting down on the edge of the nearest table, he crossed his arms and glared at her. “What do you want?”
“My name is Raven,” she said. “I’m Charles’s sister.”
Erik raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know he had a sister.” Evidently he hadn’t known very much about Charles at all.
Raven smiled ruefully. “He didn’t tell me very much about you either.”
“Not surprising. I doubt he told you very much about any of his flings. After all,” Erik tried not to grind his teeth, “we weren’t serious.”
“Charles told me about what happened.”
Fucking great. So Charles had spread word of Erik’s humiliation around, had he? What had Raven come here for, to laugh at him like Charles had? To rub it in his face for some godforsaken reason?
“So you know I have no reason to ever talk to him again,” Erik said coldly. “We’re done.”
“He’s been miserable, you know.”
Erik snorted. “Really. Somehow I don’t believe that.”
“It’s true,” Raven insisted. “He’s been moping around for weeks since the two of you broke up. I’ve never seen him like this before.”
Erik leaned back, meanly satisfied. He might not want to see Charles ever again, but it was extremely pleasing to know that Charles hadn’t just dropped him and neatly forgotten about him. “Good. It’s the least he deserves.”
Raven sighed. “Can you forget that you’re mad at him for a second and just listen to what I have to say?”
Erik narrowed his eyes. “I’m not going to — ”
“Charles has commitment issues,” she interrupted. “I mean, serious commitment issues. He’s got this pathological fear of rejection, so he keeps his distance from pretty much everyone. Ever since he was a kid, people looked at him differently because of his telepathy, and he’s never gotten over that.”
“And what does that have to do with me?” Erik growled. “I never had a problem with his telepathy.”
“Yeah, but all his past relationships crashed and burned because of his telepathy, so I can’t blame him for assuming everyone’s going to have a problem with it eventually. Hell, even I had a problem with it for a while, and I freaking grew up with him. So yeah, you can tell him you’re fine with his powers all day long, but he’ll still believe you’re lying.”
Erik laughed harshly. “He’s a fucking telepath.”
“Yeah, and he’s fucking terrible at it,” Raven said without missing a beat. “Look, you just have to accept something about Charles: he’s a huge fucking idiot sometimes. So you gotta cut him some slack when he’s being dumb. So all those boyfriend things you did like making dinner for him and bringing him flowers and shit? Anyone else would probably have gotten the hint, but Charles has his head so far up his ass sometimes that he can’t see what’s right in front of him. I love him, but it’s one of his biggest flaws.”
“So you’re here to beg me to take him back?”
“I’m not going to beg. I’m just trying to explain…why he is the way he is, I guess.”
Erik shook his head dismissively. “Is all of this supposed to make me feel sorry for him? You’re going to have to try harder than that.”
For the first time, frustration flickered across her face. Her eyes, previously blue, flashed yellow, which made Erik blink in surprise. “Look,” Raven snapped, “I’m just saying, us mutants, we go through life wondering if society’s ever going to accept us. Charles has gone through his whole life wondering if even the people closest to him will ever accept him. So yeah, he’s got trust issues. He’s got this fucked up idea that no one can ever really love him, telepathy and all. And here you come along, acting like the one, and honestly, I can’t blame him for self-destructing. It probably felt too good to be true.”
Erik opened his mouth, then stopped as his brain began to really process everything she was throwing at him. What she was saying made sense, frustratingly enough, and now that she was pointing it out, Erik could see it: Charles had had a habit of randomly growing chilly and distant after bouts of cuddly affection; he had seemed to have difficulty accepting gifts and even minor things like compliments; and he had asked Erik probably a thousand different times if it really was okay to use his telepathy around him, and every time Erik had said yes, Charles had looked at him wonderingly, as if he’d been expecting to hear no.
Also — the one?
“I’m not saying he didn’t hurt you,” Raven said softly, “I’m just saying he didn’t do it on purpose. He hasn’t forgiven himself for how things ended between you two.”
“Well, I’m over it,” Erik said gruffly. “You can tell him that.”
Even to his own ears, he sounded resoundingly unconvincing. Raven slanted him a skeptical look. “You could tell him yourself. He really wants to talk to you again, you know. But he’s convinced himself that you hate him and you never want to see him again, so he hasn’t called.”
“Good. I don’t want to see him again.”
“Then tell him that, too. Just put him out of his misery, one way or another. Because he will mope forever if you let him.”
Erik scoffed derisively. “I doubt that. He’s already moved on. I saw him on Saturday with his new…fling.”
Raven’s eyes widened. “What?”
So she hadn’t known. She’d come all the way over here to advocate on his behalf, and she hadn’t known about this. Erik’s jaw tightened. “I guess we both don’t know him as well as we thought.”
Raven shook her head incredulously. “He doesn’t…he’s barely set foot outside his apartment since he broke up with you. Who’s his new fling?”
“How should I know? Some kid with glasses. Tall. Nerdy type.” Erik’s lip curled. “My exact opposite. I suppose he’s trying to tell me something.”
To his utter surprise, Raven burst out laughing. Erik stared at her for a second, bewildered. Was she…laughing at him? At how pathetic he was, getting jealous over a man who had never really been anything more than a convenient fuck buddy?
Angry, Erik stood, intending to toss her straight out the front door. But Raven threw up a hand and gasped out, “Wait, I’m not — I’m not laughing at you, I swear, it’s just — god, the thought of Charles and Hank — ” After a moment of wheezing for breath, she managed to calm down enough to speak again, though she was still grinning from ear to ear. “That wasn’t his new fling. That was my boyfriend.”
The self-righteous rage that had been building in Erik’s chest sputtered, like a fire suddenly doused with a bucket of water. “What?”
“That was my boyfriend,” Raven repeated with another, softer laugh. “We were going through a rough patch, and Charles went to talk to him on Saturday to smooth things over. He said he ran into you while he was out. I didn’t know you’d seen him with Hank though.”
“Your…boyfriend,” Erik said dubiously.
“Yeah, we’ve been dating for three years.” She pulled out her phone, unlocked it, and turned it toward him. “See?”
There on her phone’s wallpaper was that tall, lanky, awkward-looking boy next to Raven, one of his arms wrapped around her shoulders, the other extended out of frame, holding the camera. They were both grinning, faces pressed together, quite obviously cuddling.
Something in Erik’s chest loosened.
“I’m not asking you to give him a second chance,” Raven said quietly. “Honestly, I’m not even really sure why I came over here. But he’s always fixing my love life, so I guess I figured I should try to return the favor.” She tucked her phone back into her pocket and gestured toward the door. “I’ve said my piece, so I’ll let you get back to your baking or…whatever it is you do this early in the morning. Thanks for listening, I guess.”
As she walked to the door, Erik allowed himself to wonder if he did want to give Charles a second chance. His pride bristled at the idea — Charles had humiliated him so completely that forgiveness seemed beyond the pale. And yet, his stupid, mindless heart leaped at the thought of seeing Charles again.
“Wait.” When Raven paused at the door, Erik growled, “Tell Charles he can come over tomorrow to get the stuff he left at my place.”
There, that wasn’t a concession, really. He was just…tying up loose ends. Getting closure.
Raven flashed him a dazzling grin. “I’ll let him know.”
The bell jingled cheerily as she slipped out. Erik stared at the door for a long time after she’d gone, wondering what the hell he was doing.
Most of Tuesday passed in a blur. Charles knew he’d gone to class, knew he’d taken notes even (he’d filled up two pages in his notebook, though he couldn’t recall writing a single word), but he couldn’t have even named the lecturers if his life depended on it. All day long, the only coherent thought cycling through his head was, I’m going to see Erik tonight. I’m going to see Erik tonight.
Erik wanted to see him. Or Erik was at least willing to see him. Charles’s heart raced at the thought.
Sure, he’d only invited Charles over to collect his things, but Erik could have dropped the stuff off at Charles’s door. He could have shipped the box to him. Hell, he could have tossed it all in the nearest dumpster, but he hadn’t, and that had to mean something, didn’t it? Or did it only mean something because Charles wanted it to mean something?
There was something extremely ironic and inconvenient about realizing you were in love with your fuck buddy only after you’d already broken up with him for having feelings for you.
Knowing Erik normally didn’t get home until seven, Charles lingered in the lab on campus as late as he could, despite the fact that there wasn’t much to do. His experiments were running autonomously and wouldn’t need to be checked on until tomorrow afternoon, so he messed around with some data in Excel for a while, watching the clock the whole time. Finally, at six-thirty, he shut down the computer, said goodnight to the other couple of grad students working in the back of the lab, and set off for Erik’s.
About ten minutes later, he realized he should have left himself time to go home to change first. He should have worn that blue shirt that brought out his eyes, and those old ripped jeans that did wonders for his ass (Erik’s thoughts, not his). As it was, he was going to have to make do with loose slacks and this comfy sweater that Raven always said aged him by about fifty years. Not exactly conducive for a seduction.
Is this what this is? Charles wondered, startled by the thought. A seduction?
He wanted Erik back. There was no longer any question about that: he’d spent the last couple of days slowly coming to that conclusion, and then another day after that bemoaning his own idiocy. But he hadn’t actually allowed himself to wonder if it was possible to get Erik back. He’d burned that bridge as thoroughly as bridges could be burned, or so he thought. Then Raven had come flouncing into his apartment with the announcement that Erik had told Charles to come by to get his things, and suddenly a door that had seemed very shut had cracked open again.
He was trying his damnedest not to get his hopes up, but…maybe if Erik would listen to him for just a minute, Charles could explain — no, apologize. He’d tell Erik he was sorry about failing to clarify their relationship after it became more than just sex, about leading him on and willfully ignoring Erik’s feelings for his own comfort, about everything. And maybe that would be enough to…to…
To what? He honestly couldn’t imagine Erik forgiving him. Erik held grudges against people who forgot to bring their mugs and plates over to the dishwasher station at the bakery. Erik was definitely going to hold a grudge over this.
Well, Charles still had to apologize. Whether Erik forgave him or not was out of his hands. And whether Erik decided to give him another chance or not…Charles tried not to consider the possibility. Too much room for disappointment.
Before long, Erik’s apartment building appeared in the distance. Nervously, Charles walked up, hesitated by the intercom, stepped back to try to work up the nerve to press call, then ended up just slipping in as someone else walked out. In the lobby, he loitered by the mailboxes for another few minutes before finally making himself get in the elevator.
The walk down the hall to Erik’s apartment was painfully familiar. How many times had he come over and stood outside Erik’s door to surprise him after work? How many times had he and Erik stumbled out of the elevator kissing, too impatient to bother waiting another twenty feet to get inside?
As Charles neared Erik’s door, he tentatively scanned the apartment with his telepathy. Instantly he knew Erik was home: that bright, steely mind was impossible to miss. Charles ached to press into it, to say hello the way he used to, with an affectionate mental caress. Instead, he raised his fist and knocked.
Instantly, that brightness dimmed, cold mental shields slamming up. Charles winced. Erik had never shielded around him before, but he’d told Charles once that an old college friend had taught him how. Apparently she’d taught him well — Charles couldn’t even glean a surface thought now, not without actively trying to pry apart Erik’s defenses.
A moment later, the door swung open on its own. “Come in,” Erik called from somewhere in the living room.
That was promising, wasn’t it? Charles had half-expected Erik to just dump a box on him at the door and then tell him goodbye for good.
Slowly, he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. At a glance, nothing about the apartment had changed in the last couple of weeks: Erik still kept it impeccably clean, and the place still smelled faintly of the citrus air freshener Erik favored. As Charles walked down the hall to the living room, he was ambushed at the threshold by a ferociously meowing ball of fur.
“Amelie!” he exclaimed, bending down to scoop her up. “My goodness, you’ve gotten so big!”
The last time he’d seen her, she’d been perhaps five or six pounds. Now she looked lankier and longer, growing with all the gangly inelegance of adolescence. She was still as cuddly as he remembered though, purring as he draped her over one shoulder and scratched her ears.
Erik emerged from the bedroom down the hall, carrying a moving box in his hands. Setting it down on the coffee table, he eyed them for a moment, then said, “She missed you.”
Charles’s heart leaped. It looked like he wasn’t going to get kicked out immediately. “I missed her, too.” He paused, wondering if he should take the chance. But what the hell — it wasn’t like he was going to get another one. “And,” he added bravely, “I, ah, I missed you, too.”
Erik’s expression was as unreadable as his mind. After a moment, he said, “Can I get you a water?”
“Oh. Yes please.”
Letting Amelie hop out of his arms, he followed Erik over to the kitchen and hovered awkwardly in the doorway, trying to get his thoughts in order. He figured a comment like You look really good wouldn’t go over well, even if it was true. Though Charles felt like a wreck, Erik seemed entirely untouched by their breakup: his hair was combed, his beard was trimmed, and he was as neatly dressed as ever. Even after a long day of work, he still looked like he’d just come straight from a photoshoot. It was agonizing.
“So,” Charles said finally, unable to bear the silence for a second longer, “you met my sister.”
“She didn’t exactly give me a choice.”
Charles winced. Raven hadn’t explained exactly how she’d gotten Erik to speak to her, but Charles could guess that Erik hadn’t given in easily. “I’m sorry if she…overstepped.”
Erik said nothing. He merely handed Charles a glass of water (not one of his good glasses, Charles noted with chagrin) and turned away again to pour himself some as well. Charles sipped from his glass, wishing it was something alcoholic. Whiskey would have fortified him better.
“I’m sorry,” he said abruptly.
That made Erik turn back toward him, eyebrows rising. When he didn’t say anything, Charles took that as permission to continue. “I should have realized we weren’t on the same page. We started out casual, and eventually things became…more. I didn’t mean for our relationship to get more serious, it was just…it was so easy to be with you that I let myself go along with it. I realize now that I ended up giving you loads of mixed signals, and I’m sorry about that.” He hesitated. “Mostly I’m really sorry I hurt you.”
Erik’s stony gaze didn’t soften, which wasn’t encouraging in the slightest. Charles resisted the urge to mumble an excuse and flee. You started this, he told himself sternly. Now finish it.
At last, Erik leaned back against the counter behind him, crossing his arms. “Fine.”
Charles frowned. “Fine?”
“Fine,” Erik said coolly. “Was there anything else you wanted to say?”
“Well I…no, not really, but I — ”
“Then you know where the door is.”
“Hang on, hang on,” Charles said desperately. This couldn’t be it. Surely this couldn’t be the definitive end. “What…Didn’t you want to talk to me? Isn’t that what you told Raven?”
“Your sister said you wanted to talk to me, so I told her you could come over. You talked, I listened. Is that it?”
Despite having prepared for the possibility of being dismissed out of hand, Charles hadn’t actually believed that would happen. He’d expected Erik to be angry. He’d expected Erik to yell a little, if that would make him feel better. But he hadn’t expected Erik to be so chilly, especially after Charles’s apology.
He doesn’t owe you anything, and he certainly doesn’t owe you forgiveness, Charles reminded himself. As bitter as that pill was to swallow, he had to accept it.
Still, his feet wouldn’t move toward the door. After twisting his hands around his water glass for a restless moment, he found himself saying, “The thing is…after things ended between us, I realized something. I realized I missed you a lot. I don’t mean the sex, though of course I missed that, too. I realized I missed the way you smelled after work, like bread and flour and sugar. And I missed the way you’d kiss me on the forehead when I was still in bed before you left in the mornings. And I missed our chess games, and I missed listening to your commentary on dumb movies. I missed the way you used to complain about how I’d just toss my clothes on the floor. I missed being able to text you whenever I wanted just because I wanted to see what you were up to. I just missed being with you, period.”
As he paused for breath, he risked a glance at Erik’s face. To his intense disappointment, Erik’s stoic mask hadn’t cracked in the least bit. He continued to regard Charles with that flat, impassive stare that made Charles feel like shrinking away, like a child being chastised. Erik wasn’t convinced, Charles realized. He wasn’t the least bit convinced.
Deflated, he set the glass down on the counter. “I guess I should get out of your way.”
Ears burning, he went back out to the living room and hoisted the box of his things up into his arms. It was surprisingly heavy — evidently he’d left more of his possessions here than he’d thought — but he figured he could manage it. Trudging all the way home with it was going to be a bitch though.
Amelie wound herself through his legs as he headed for the door. “I’m sorry, darling,” he said, nudging her gently out of the way with his foot, “I can’t stay.”
Meowing insistently, she followed on his heels as he headed toward the door. He didn’t glance into the kitchen as he passed — he couldn’t face Erik again, not after that mortifyingly one-sided conversation. What the fuck had he been thinking? Trying to win Erik back? He’d have had greater luck leaping off the edge of the world.
Trying to balance the box on one arm, he fumbled with the doorknob.
“You took the train, didn’t you?”
Frowning, he turned and found Erik stepping out of the kitchen into the hallway. Hesitantly, he said, “Yeah?”
Erik’s wallet and keys lifted off the table by the door and flew to his hand. “I’ll drive you home,” Erik said gruffly. “It’s late, and you’ll piss people off trying to get that box onto the train.”
“You…” Charles’s thoughts scattered in a dozen different directions like a school of fish under attack. Why was Erik offering? Was he just being considerate? Did he want to continue the conversation? Was it foolish to allow a flicker of hope to spring up in his heart? “You don’t have to.”
“I know.” Erik opened the door with a wave of his hand and squeezed past Charles. “Are you coming or not?”
Bewildered, Charles followed him out.
The elevator ride down to the ground floor and the subsequent walk out to Erik’s car passed in uncomfortable silence. Charles glanced at Erik several times, hoping Erik would say something, or give him some kind of indication of what he was thinking, but Erik studiously ignored him. When they reached the car, Erik gestured the trunk open and said, “Put the box in the back.”
After a moment of hesitation, Charles obeyed. Then he walked to the passenger door, opened it, and stopped.
Already sitting in the driver’s seat, Erik shot him an impatient look. “What?”
“Why are you doing this? Not that I’m complaining but…I could make it home on my own just fine.” The box would be an inconvenience, but the train ride wasn’t that long. Charles and his friends had once managed to move an entire couch via subway, so this hardly registered on any scale of difficulty.
For a minute, Erik simply gazed at the dashboard, fingers drumming a restive rhythm against the steering wheel. Then he turned on the engine with a flick of his fingers and said, “Get in. We need to talk.”
Heart thumping madly, Charles got in.
As they pulled away from the curb, Erik’s mind swirled restlessly. Though his thoughts remained shielded, Charles could still sense their turbulent flow, like waters eddying beneath a thick layer of ice. Part of him itched to break the silence, but a greater part of him was afraid to.
Finally, Erik said, “Raven told me you have commitment issues.”
Charles winced. “…Oh.”
“She said the guys you dated in the past didn’t like your telepathy.”
“That was…a long time ago. Years.”
“And you haven’t dated anyone since then.”
“Because of your telepathy.”
“Well, I…not just because of my telepathy, but yes, that was a factor.”
“Did I ever make you think that I wasn’t okay with your telepathy?”
“What?” Charles stared at him, eyes wide. Where was this conversation going? “No! Did Raven tell you that?”
Erik shrugged. “I was just wondering.”
“No,” Charles said again, adamant. “You were…you were wonderful about my telepathy. So wonderful that it was hard to believe, honestly. People are usually fine with my telepathy in bed because it’s a unique, interesting experience, but the moment my telepathy doesn’t serve any purpose for them…well, then things get more complicated. But you weren’t like that. You didn’t seem to mind when I used my telepathy at any time.”
“I didn’t mind. Your telepathy’s a part of you, just like my magnokinesis is a part of me. Why would I mind?”
When he put it like that, it seemed so simple. And for Erik, it was simple, wasn’t it? He’d never tried to separate Charles from his telepathy like some people did. He’d never once recoiled from the potential of Charles’s power.
“It wasn’t you,” Charles said softly. “You were perfect. I was just…too caught up in my fears to see it.”
He turned to look out the passenger window, not wanting Erik to see the way his eyes were suddenly prickling. God, why hadn’t he seen all of this sooner? Why hadn’t he realized what a good thing they’d had until it was already over? And now he felt like a goddamned idiot, sitting here trying not to let Erik see just how torn up he actually was about the breakup he’d caused in the first place.
“Raven said something else,” Erik said after a minute. “Something about how you thought I was the one.”
For a moment, Charles was confused. The one what?
Then the words fully sank in, and his heart tried to sink and flee up his throat at the same time. It took a second for him to force any words past the sudden constriction in his throat. “She said what?”
“She didn’t say it directly. She implied.”
Charles groaned low in his throat. He should have known Raven would take his confession and run with it. “My sister likes to…exaggerate.”
“So that was an exaggeration,” Erik said, his tone abruptly colder.
For a second, Charles was tempted to go along with it. Yes, it was an exaggeration, she misunderstood me, she didn’t mean anything by it, so let’s just forget all about it, yeah?
But he couldn’t bring himself to lie. After everything that had happened, he owed Erik the truth.
“No, it wasn’t. I’ve had other friends with benefits before. A lot of them, in fact, and when things ended, I always moved on without any problems. But you were different. After things ended between us, I was…a mess, honestly. I thought about you all the time. I thought of a hundred different ways to run into you again. I missed you. It took me a long time to realize why.”
Charles had to stop and take a deep, steadying breath. His pulse thundered in his ears. He was really doing this. He was really going to say it.
“I’m in love with you,” he blurted out, much less gracefully than he’d intended. “I think I’ve been in love with you for a long time, only I’ve been too bloody dense to see it.”
Charles held his breath, his whole body tensed, braced for impact.
Erik didn’t react. He didn’t even blink. Charles was starting to wonder wildly whether or not Erik had actually heard him when the car suddenly veered toward the sidewalk, so unexpectedly that Charles yelped, jerking against his seatbelt.
Erik threw the car in park and twisted toward him, his expression thunderous. “Prove it,” he snapped.
“Prove it.” Erik tapped his forehead. “Show me.”
Charles started to give a nervous laugh, then swallowed it when he realized Erik was dead serious. The shields that had been wrapped tightly around Erik’s thoughts all evening dropped, leaving Erik’s mind shining brightly, tantalizingly within reach. But still, Charles hesitated. “Are you sure — ”
Slowly, giving Erik every opportunity to pull away, Charles lifted his hand and set his first two fingers against Erik’s temple. Then he closed his eyes and let his telepathy rush forward, blurring the boundaries between their minds.
For a moment, all Charles could do was bask in the gorgeous familiarity of Erik’s mind. It wasn’t nearly as welcoming a place as it used to be, but still, sliding into the steel-lined vault of Erik’s thoughts felt strangely like coming home.
I missed this. With their minds blended together, Charles couldn’t quite tell if that thought was his or Erik’s.
Show me, Erik commanded.
He gathered up the most relevant memories and played them one by one, like feeding film into a projector.
First: those awful, miserable couple of days after the breakup. Then that drunken night with Raven. Waking up alone in his own bed and missing Erik’s warmth with an intensity that stole his breath away. Studiously avoiding the bakery every day on his way home from classes, despite wanting nothing more than to take a peek inside, hopeful of catching a glimpse of Erik inside. Describing their relationship to Hank and realizing just how good they had been together. Seeing Erik again for the first time since the breakup and feeling as if he’d been struck by lightning. Realizing he wanted Erik back.
Realizing he loved Erik.
I didn’t know what this feeling was, Charles said softly. It took me a long time to figure it out.
Erik’s mind sparked with a jumble of different emotions: surprise, disbelief, anger, wonder, and others Charles couldn’t readily identify. You…love me.
You told me we didn’t want the same thing.
Charles winced. Yes…and I’m sorry I said that. I was clearly being an idiot.
He gave Charles a mental push, gentle but firm. Trying not to feel hurt, Charles opened his eyes, withdrew from Erik’s mind, and curled his telepathy tightly back up.
Erik sighed and bowed his head over the steering wheel, running a hand through his hair. After a long minute, he said quietly, “It wasn’t all your fault.”
“I shouldn’t have assumed. It wasn’t all your responsibility to make sure we were on the same page. And you did make it clear at the beginning that you wanted things to stay casual.”
“Still, you gave me plenty of hints.”
“Hints that you obviously missed.”
“Because I’m shit at dating.”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly an expert myself. The last time I dated anyone was when I was still in college. That was almost ten years ago.”
Erik had never mentioned any past relationships before. Hell, Charles didn’t even know what he’d studied in college. The only reason he’d known Erik had attended university in the first place was because Charles had requisitioned Erik’s old NYU sweatshirt too many times to count.
There was so much about Erik he didn’t know. And yet, he felt like he knew Erik in other, more intimate ways that no one else ever had. It was the same the other way around, too: Erik hardly knew anything about Charles’s background or his family, but he knew how Charles liked his tea. He knew how to tuck Charles back in in the middle of the night after Charles had kicked off the covers in his sleep. He knew all the most important parts of Charles, and he’d never flinched from any of them, even the less flattering parts.
“I don’t expect you to forgive me,” Charles said through the sudden, tight lump in his throat. “I don’t expect you to give me a second chance. But I’d…I’d like it if you did.”
Erik exhaled softly. “If I were a better man, I’d tell you there was nothing to forgive. It was a stupid misunderstanding, that’s all. But I’m not a better man. I’m still pissed at you. What happened was fucking humiliating.”
“God, Erik, I’m so sorry — ”
“But,” Erik continued, “my feelings for you haven’t changed. God knows why, but they haven’t. So even though I want to tell you to fuck off, I can’t.”
Charles let out an unsteady breath. “So…”
Erik put the car back into drive and pulled off the curb. “So you can come back to the bakery tomorrow. Sean misses you.”
The non sequitur threw Charles for a loop for a moment. Then he smiled tentatively. “Only Sean?”
“Kitty too,” Erik said gruffly.
“And so did I,” Erik said, sounding annoyed by having to say it. “Don’t you already know that? You were just in my head.”
“Yes, well I was rather more focused on showing you what I was feeling than sussing out what you were feeling.”
“I missed you,” Erik said brusquely. “So stop avoiding the bakery.”
Charles’s smile widened. A wave of happiness spread through his chest, as warm as a rising sun. “Does this mean we can go back to the way things were before?”
Erik raised an eyebrow. “The way things were before?”
“Yeah. Except this time we’ll be a real couple and we’ll do real couple things, like cuddle and watch movies and make dinner together and…well, basically all the things we were already doing. But this time I won’t be such an idiot and we’ll be official. If you want.”
Erik was silent for a long time. Too long. Charles wiped his sweaty palms against his legs and bit his lip, resisting the urge to stammer out a retraction.
Finally, Erik said, “I’m still mad at you.”
Charles’s shoulders slumped. “Right.”
“I’ll drop you off, but you can leave your things. I imagine you’ll need them if you come over to my place again.”
Charles’s heart, which had been in freefall, jerked to a stop. “If I…what?”
“I want things to go back to the way they were,” Erik said evenly, “but honestly, I’m going to need some time to get over being mad at you.”
“Oh. Oh. Of course.” Erik wanted him back. He needed time and space, but he wanted Charles back. Charles found himself very nearly breathless at the thought. “Would it help if I groveled? I’d be very happy to grovel. I’ll ecstatically grovel.”
Erik huffed. He didn’t sound angry anymore, just…a bit exasperated, and maybe even reluctantly amused. “You’re making it difficult to stay mad at you.”
“Sorry. I can’t help it, it’s my natural charm.” Charles flashed Erik his best winning smile.
“Ridiculous,” Erik muttered. He pulled over in front of Charles’s building and unclicked Charles’s seatbelt with a wave of his hand. “Alright, get out.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be groveling?”
“Oh right.” Charles opened the door, climbed out, and then bowed deeply, several times. “Thank you so much for driving me home. I would surely have died if you hadn’t been so generous as to offer me a ride — I’d be lying in a gutter right now, absolutely murdered, if not for your kind grace — ”
He felt Erik’s eyeroll more than saw it. “God, shut up.”
The edge of irritated affection in Erik’s voice made Charles grin. “Yes, sir, of course, sir. Shutting up.”
“That’s not groveling,” Erik said. “That’s being obnoxious, which you’re unusually good at. It’s going to take more than that to get back in my good graces.”
“Roger that. I’ll brainstorm ways to be less good at being obnoxious.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Erik muttered. “Go inside. It’s cold out and you’re not wearing enough layers, as usual.”
Charles grabbed the edge of the door before Erik could tug it closed with his powers. “I’ll see you tomorrow? At the bakery?”
“I work there every day,” Erik said dryly, “so I assume so.”
Charles smiled. Dropping the humor, he said softly, “Thank you.”
Erik met his eyes, and Charles saw in his gaze the same emotions coursing through him: uncertainty, hope, a cautious joy. Neither of them had any real idea where this was going, but they were going to try again anyway.
The thought filled Charles with a rush of warmth.
With a gentle exhale, Erik shifted the car back into drive and said, “Goodnight, Charles.”
Charles stepped back so he could close the door. “Goodnight, Erik.”
Erik didn’t tell his mother that he and Charles were on their way to getting back together. On Friday night during the shabbat meal, she asked him how his week had gone, and he briefly considered filling her in on everything: Charles coming by his place, the conversation in Erik’s apartment, then the second conversation in the car, and their eventual, unexpected reconciliation. He considered telling her that Charles had come by the bakery yesterday and ordered his usual (Earl Grey tea and a generous slice of lemon sponge cake), and though Erik had been too busy to pay him much attention, Charles had lingered by the counter and done his best to be sweet and charming and distracting. Even after everything that had happened, Erik wasn’t immune to his charms, annoyingly enough. Whatever anger still lingered over his wounded pride dwindled every time Charles favored him with that sunny smile that just radiated affection and delight.
Erik could feel himself teetering on the edge of falling head over heels for Charles all over again, and he couldn’t decide if that annoyed him or scared him, or both. Yes, the last time Erik had thought things were going well, they had crashed and burned. Yes, Charles had come closer to breaking his heart than anyone else ever had (not that Erik would admit that to anyone). And yes, Erik still hadn’t quite gotten over it, despite Charles’s apologies, despite Charles’s promises to do better, to do it right this time.
But the difference was, this time they were on the same page. This time, they’d clarified their expectations. This time, they were both looking and measuring the distance before they jumped.
That brought him back to his mother. Erik could hold a grudge forever, and his mother knew it. He could remember everyone who had ever slighted him in one way or another, big or small. And yet, he found that he didn’t truly want to be angry at Charles. For the first time in his life, he’d rather let his anger go than hold onto it, and that was…something of a revelation.
He had to thoroughly iron out his feelings about this — about Charles — before he told his mother anything. Otherwise he’d crumble under her merciless interrogation.
On Monday morning, he arrived at the bakery at 5:30 as always. As he got out of the car, he realized with a jolt of surprise that the back door was unlocked. And there was movement inside — one of the ovens was on, and smaller bits of metal were shifting around in the kitchen, at least one…no, two people.
Burglars? But why the hell would anyone break into a bakery to fire up the ovens? Besides, if someone had broken in, the alarm system would have gone off but it clearly hadn’t, which meant whoever had gotten in had had a key, which meant…
Erik focused in on the metal bits, tracing them over until he found one that was familiar: it was the Magen David pendant that Kitty never took off. Suspicions rising, he turned his attention to the other person in the kitchen, searching for that battered old watch…and there it was.
What the hell was Charles doing here?
He pushed the door open, frowning.
“Erik!” Kitty exclaimed. “You’re early!”
“We weren’t expecting you for another few minutes.”
“We?” Erik echoed, as if he didn’t already know who else was standing in his kitchen.
Charles appeared at the threshold between the kitchen and the narrow back corridor, wiping his hands on the apron tied around his middle. Erik was momentarily arrested by the sight of Charles standing there in his apron, as if he were the baker.
“Good morning!” Charles said cheerily.
Erik stared at him. “What are you doing here? Are you…” For the first time, he noticed the aroma permeating the kitchen. Something fresh. Something chocolatey. “Are you baking a cake?”
A vivid memory of Charles laughing about once setting a kitchen on fire trying to make ramen sprang to Erik’s mind. “Have you ever baked anything before in your life?”
“No, but that’s why I asked Kitty to help me.”
“Kitty takes the orders and makes coffee!”
“I have eyeballs,” Kitty said wryly. “I’ve seen you baking before. It’s not that hard.”
“It’s not what?”
Charles and Kitty looked at him for a moment. Then they both burst out laughing.
“I’m sorry,” Charles said, giggling harder when Erik glowered at him. “You just looked so scandalized.”
“Baking is not easy,” Erik snapped, which set them both off on fresh peals of laughter. Erik glared at the two of them, wondering how the hell his morning had derailed like this. Ten minutes ago he’d been running through inventories in his head and mentally tallying up how many croissants he’d have to bake for the day, and now he was standing in his kitchen being told his job wasn’t hard. And his ex was baking him a cake. And something smelled like it was starting to smoke.
“Is something burning?” he demanded.
Charles’s eyes widened. “Oh shit!”
Erik tried to follow him into the kitchen, but Kitty grabbed his arm and steered him out to the front of the bakery. Despite being a head shorter than he was, she was startlingly strong. “The cake’s a surprise,” she said firmly. “You can’t see it yet.”
Erik resisted for a moment, then gave up when he saw the flinty look in her eyes. That look meant she wouldn’t budge for a charging bull, let alone for Erik. “If Charles burns down my bakery,” he grumbled, “I will hold you accountable.”
“Don’t be dramatic. He’s not going to burn down the bakery, he’s just doing something very nice for you because he really wants to win you back and…” Her voice dropped into a threatening whisper. “…how dare you not tell me you were dating him!”
“I didn’t tell anyone I was dating him,” Erik said, a bit stiffly. “Apparently I neglected to tell even him.”
Kitty snorted. Evidently Charles had explained everything to her because she didn’t look surprised, only exasperated and amused. “Only you, Erik. This would happen only to you.”
“Please,” he muttered, “as if you and Piotr were always perfect.”
“Yeah, but at least when we started dating, we both agreed to start dating.”
Grinning, she guided him over to one of the tables and shoved him down into a chair. Taking a seat next to him, she leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Okay, so tell me everything. I mean everything.”
This was why he hadn’t told her anything about Charles in the first place. She was honestly worse than his mother when it came to having a compulsive need to ferret out every detail of his private life. Running a hand through his hair, Erik shrugged and said, “There’s not much to tell. I imagine Charles has already told you everything.”
“He told me his side of the story. I want to hear yours.” She kicked him under the table. “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me! I’m like your best friend!”
“You’re the annoying kid I babysat when I needed extra cash,” he informed her.
“What’s it say about you that that annoying kid is now your best friend?”
Kitty was really very aggravating when she wanted to be, Erik thought. He kicked her back and said, “We had an arrangement for a while. Then we ended things. Now he wants to start things again. That’s everything.”
“He wants to start things again?” Kitty asked, her eyes bright. “Is he the only one?”
“Maybe.” At her stern look, Erik sighed. “No.”
Kitty’s grin widened. “Are you in love with him?”
Erik pushed his chair back in irritation. “I should go make sure Charles isn’t destroying my kitchen.”
“He’s not that bad. I’ve been watching him all morning, remember? He seems to know what he’s doing. And anyway, you’re avoiding the question. Are you in love with him?”
“Do I have to talk about this with you?”
“Who else are you going to talk about it with? Sean?”
Thankfully, he was saved from having to reply by Charles emerging from the kitchen, grinning hugely. He had a cake stand in hand, its contents hidden underneath an opaque cover. “All done!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “And I haven’t burned a thing. Except perhaps the oven mitts a little, but I think they’re salvageable. At least I hope they’re salvageable.”
Erik crossed his arms. “So what did you ransack my kitchen to make?”
Charles glanced at Kitty, who jumped up. “Actually,” she said, “I should get going. I forgot I had an errand to run. I gotta…pick up some dry cleaning.”
“It’s six in the morning,” Erik said.
“It’s a lot of dry cleaning! I’ll be back at eight!” As she passed Charles, she turned back and gave Erik an I’m watching you gesture. “Don’t fuck this up again.”
Once she was gone, Charles laughed a bit nervously. “I’m sorry if you didn’t want her to know about us. I honestly didn’t expect her to be so…enthusiastic.”
By day’s end, probably half the Jewish community in New York was going to know about Erik and Charles, but for some strange reason, Erik couldn’t really bring himself to care very much. He was, at the moment, much more interested in what Charles was doing here — and what he’d put together on that plate.
“Sit down?” Charles said. When Erik sat obediently, Charles placed the cake stand in the center of the table and wiped his hands on his apron. “I’ll, er, I’ll get a plate first.”
He vanished back into the kitchen for a moment, then returned with a plate and a fork. After setting both down in front of Erik, Charles put his hand on the cover and took a deep breath. “Alright. Please keep in mind I’m not at all a professional, and also I used a recipe I found on google, so obviously the quality won’t be what you’re used to — and it won’t be anywhere near what you can do — that’s like trying to compete with Beyoncé or something ridiculous like — ”
“Charles. Just show me the cake.”
Charles lifted the cover. The cake underneath…honestly did not look terrible. Erik had seen worse. Erik had made worse, back when he’d still been an amateur.
“It’s a dark chocolate mud cake,” Charles explained quickly. “I know it’s your favorite because it’s not too sweet but it’s still got the chocolatey taste. I made it from scratch, so…apologies if it doesn’t taste quite right. I did eyeball some measurements.”
Charles made him a cake. Charles woke up before the sun, an absolute miracle, to bake Erik his favorite cake to surprise him.
In that moment, Erik felt very doomed.
Brandishing a knife, Charles cut a large slice and carefully maneuvered it over onto Erik’s plate. A trail of crumbs followed as he did, and he stopped to lick a bit of icing off his finger. “Sorry, I’m making a mess.”
Erik tried not to watch Charles’s tongue. “A slicing knife would have been better. Not the serrated blade.”
“Ah. Well.” Charles licked his finger again. “This is why you’re the baker, not me. Right, well…” He huffed. “Moment of truth. Try it.”
Erik picked up the fork, cut himself a corner of the slice, and slid it into his mouth. He chewed slowly, thoughtfully, letting the flavor roll over his tongue.
Charles was watching his expression very closely. After a second, he winced. “That bad?”
Erik swallowed. “It’s decent.”
“Oh, it’s really bad.”
“No, it’s…” Erik poked at the slice. “It’s a little dry, and you might have overmixed the batter. It makes the cake tough and chewy. But the frosting is good, not too sweet, and the overall taste isn’t bad. Try it yourself.”
He passed the fork over to Charles, who took a bite. His eyebrows rose as he swallowed. “That’s…not as terrible as I was fearing.”
“Pretty good for your first time,” Erik said.
Charles smiled, clearly relieved. “I’m glad. I was really worried I’d fuck this up.”
“What exactly is…” Erik circled his fork around the cake. “…this?”
“A romantic gesture. Or an attempt at it anyway. It was Raven’s idea, and Kitty was very obliging when I asked her if she’d help me.”
“How did you even get in contact with her?”
“Of course.” Erik took another bite of the cake, eyeing Charles contemplatively. A romantic gesture, hmm? Had it come from anyone else, Erik would probably have scoffed at it. But there was something annoyingly attractive about Charles earnestly baking him a cake as some sort of…declaration of love. The fact that Charles was annoyingly attractive in general probably had something to do with it.
“You’re making it impossible to stay mad at you,” Erik grumbled, setting down the fork.
Charles grinned. “That is the point.”
After a long minute, Erik leaned back in his seat and reached out to tug at the apron still tied around Charles’s waist. “This is mine.”
Brows furrowing, Charles glanced down. “Er, yes?”
“I like how it looks on you.”
Understanding dawned in Charles’s eyes, and his grin took on a distinctly seductive edge. “Is that so, Mr. Lehnsherr?” Slowly, obviously telegraphing his intent, he put his hands on Erik’s shoulders and settled onto Erik’s lap. Then he looked up at Erik with wide-eyed surprise, as if he was startled to have gotten this far.
Erik resisted the urge to touch Charles for a moment — but only for a moment. With a sigh of resignation, he ran his hands down Charles’s back to his ass, hitching him a little closer.
“You don’t look very happy about this,” Charles murmured, his bright blue eyes so very close to Erik’s own.
“I want to stay angry at you,” Erik replied, “but I can’t. Why is that?”
“Because you love me?”
Charles clearly meant it teasingly, but it came out sounding much more uncertain than anything. Erik stared at him for a few seconds, his gaze tracing over those familiar features: Charles’s dark expressive eyebrows, his sea blue eyes, those two freckles on that too-big nose, those obscenely red lips. He hadn’t thought he’d ever be this close to that mouth again.
“Yeah,” Erik said roughly. Then he leaned forward and kissed him.
It had been three weeks since he’d last kissed Charles, and somehow, even though so much had happened since then, it felt like no time at all had passed. His body still reacted to Charles as strongly as ever: his pulse began to pick up at the mere taste of him, and his breath hitched as Charles dug his fingers into Erik’s hair and tugged. He pulled Charles closer, one arm wrapping around his back to steady him, and Charles moaned softly against his mouth, lips parting sweetly. When Erik pushed his tongue into Charles’s mouth, Charles made a deeply appreciative noise and ground down against him.
Abruptly, Erik realized he was getting hard. Of course he was getting hard — how could he not, with Charles a warm, willing weight on his lap? If they were anywhere else, Erik might have (would have) allowed this to continue, but he couldn’t. Not here.
With extreme reluctance, he pushed Charles back slightly. “Wait.”
“What?” Charles asked, distracted by trying to undo the buttons on Erik’s shirt.
Erik caught his wrists and squeezed gently. “We are not fucking in my bakery.”
Charles pouted. “But you said I looked hot in your apron.”
“That doesn’t mean I want to bend you over right here!”
“But you could.”
It was tempting. Admittedly, Erik might have fantasized about having Charles against the counter here more than once. But after a moment of trying to force the blood back to his brain, he shook his head. “And risk a health code violation? I don’t think so.”
With a deep, put-upon sigh, Charles leaned back. “Alright. I suppose I wouldn’t want you to get shut down.”
“Thank you,” Erik said dryly.
“But…does this mean we’re…” Charles hesitated. “…back together? Officially?”
Erik realized that he didn’t want to fight it anymore. Really, this had been the inevitable conclusion since the night Charles had shown Erik that he loved him. Erik figured he would much rather be kissing Charles than brooding about him, so, with a soft sigh, he said, “I guess it does.”
Charles started to smile. “So we’re boyfriends now.”
“Boyfriends,” Erik echoed, testing the word. And yeah, it sounded good. Really good.
“From now on,” Charles murmured, “I promise to always ask if I’m unsure about where we stand, and I promise not to be so much of an idiot, though I can’t promise I’ll always get it right.”
Erik lifted his hand and stroked a strand of hair back from Charles’s forehead. “And I promise not to make assumptions about our relationship. I’ll try to be more open about communicating. And I won’t hold it against you when you’re an idiot.”
Charles laughed. “You truly are a romantic, darling.”
The endearment made Erik’s heart twist painfully in his chest, but in a good way. “Hey,” he said, dropping his hands to Charles’s thighs, “I’m not the one who broke into a bakery and baked a mediocre cake as a romantic gesture.”
Charles’s laugh morphed instantly into outrage. “Mediocre? You said it was decent! And I didn’t break in, you wanker, I was let in.”
Charles’s rapid turn to pouty anger made Erik laugh. “I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I’m just saying that of the two of us, you’re the romantic.”
Leaning forward, Charles grumbled something against Erik’s shoulder, then started to kiss his way up the side of Erik’s neck. When he realized these weren’t absent, innocent kisses, Erik squeezed his thighs warningly. “What are you doing?”
“Seducing you,” Charles replied.
“I said — ”
“I know. But — ” He kissed Erik’s jaw. “ — I think — ” That sensitive spot underneath Erik’s ear. “ — you can make an exception just this once. After all, I am your shiny new boyfriend, and it would be a damn shame if you didn’t take advantage of me right here — ” He took Erik’s earlobe lightly between his teeth, then began to suck on it gently. Right now.
Only a herculean exertion of will could have allowed Erik to resist Charles then. Erik learned in that moment that he possessed no such defense against Charles’s particular brand of warfare.
“Just this once,” he managed to say. Then Charles was wrapping the apron strings around Erik’s wrists and…well, all of Erik’s blood drained south at that point.
“So,” Raven said, “everything worked out.”
“More or less,” Charles said smugly, licking his spoon. He and Raven were parked on his couch, eating cookie dough ice cream straight from the container. They’d put on a movie, but Charles hadn’t been paying any attention, too busy recapping everything that had happened last week. Well, almost everything — he judiciously edited out some of the events at the bakery.
“So you should be thanking me,” Raven said, when he’d finished. “You should be on your knees thanking me.”
Charles waved his spoon at her. “Hey, remember when I talked to Hank and singlehandedly ended your little separation? And now you’re back to being all lovey-dovey and adorable?”
She rolled her eyes. “We’re not adorable. And I already thanked you for that.”
“Umm, did you forget that the only reason you’re back together with Erik is because I woke up at five in the fucking morning to go bang on his door and tell him to take you back?”
“Yes, and then I told you you were the absolute best sister in the entire world, and now we’re even.”
“You still owe me,” Raven sniffed. “Hank was giving me the cold shoulder, but Erik actively hated you. I think I had the harder job here, honestly.”
Charles couldn’t argue with that. It was strange to think that a mere two weeks ago, Erik really had hated him. Charles’s love life had seemed so bleak, and their relationship had been completely unsalvageable, or so he’d thought. But now here they were, officially dating. It was surreal in the best of ways.
“I owe you one,” he agreed. “You’re the best, best, best, best, best, best, best, best — ”
She punched him in the arm. “You don’t have to lay it on that thick, you old fart.”
“ — best sister ever, and I love you,” he concluded, grinning. “But I am going to have to kick you out now.”
She blinked. “What?”
“It’s almost eleven, and I told Erik I’d meet him at his place at eleven-thirty. Lunch date.”
Raven groaned. “But the movie’s not even over yet!”
“Do you even have any idea what we’re watching?”
“Well, I…” She stared at the screen for a moment. “…no. But I don’t want to move.”
“Too bad, you sloth.” He took the ice cream from her and put the lid on it, standing up. “Come on, up you get.”
He sent her off with a kiss on the cheek, and then twenty minutes later, he was trotting up to Erik’s door, gift bag in hand. Even though he and Erik had made up, Charles still hadn’t been able to banish the guilt that lingered over causing their breakup in the first place. Every time he brought a little gift, Erik rolled his eyes and told him he could stop groveling already, but he also didn’t seem displeased. So Charles was determined to keep bringing him little things as an apology, at least until Erik eventually got fed up with Charles filling his place with clutter.
He knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for a reply. Erik always seemed to sense Charles approaching and unlocked the door with his powers ahead of time.
“I’m here!” Charles called out, swinging the door shut behind him. “I hope you’re hungry, I’m absolutely starv…”
He trailed off as he noticed the presence of another person in the kitchen. It wasn’t Erik’s familiar steely mind, though it felt strangely similar.
The reason why soon revealed itself: a woman stepped out of the kitchen, the same woman Charles had briefly met outside Erik’s synagogue that day they’d run into each other. Erik’s mother.
Charles’s heart plummeted.
“Erik told me you were on your way,” she said coolly.
Erik had told her Charles was coming? Why hadn’t Erik told Charles she was coming? What was she doing here? Was she going to lunch with them? Was this an ambush? Did she know he and Erik were back together? How much had Erik told her?
“Uhh…” he said intelligently.
Erik appeared at the end of the hall. Charles shot him a panicked look.
“You’re early,” Erik said, frowning. I’m sorry, I was going to text you.
Erik’s mental projection could still use some work, but Charles, who had already been reaching for his mind, caught his words easily. What is she doing here? he demanded, trying not to sound hysterical. Did I miss something?
She didn’t tell me she was coming. She does that sometimes when she wants to bring me some food. I’m sorry, I didn’t get any warning myself — she just got here five minutes ago.
He wanted to ask Erik what he’d told his mother, if she still hated Charles, if she was going to be okay with Charles being here, but there wasn’t any time: she was already speaking again. “Erik tells me you’re going to lunch.”
“I…” Charles hesitated, trying to figure out the right answer. “…yes?”
“He tells me you two have gotten back together.”
“…Yes?” Charles glanced questioningly at Erik.
“Yes,” Erik said firmly. He came over and slipped an arm around Charles’s waist. I told her you were coming over and then I obviously had to tell her we’d made up. But it’s going to take her a while to warm up to the idea. Just a warning.
I would expect nothing less, Charles replied, his heart hammering. God, he wished he could have prepared himself for this somehow. Erik’s mother already had the worst first impression of him; he wished he’d had time to figure out a way to put his best foot forward first this time.
Erik squeezed his hip gently. It’ll be fine. She’s not going to eat you.
Charles eyed the way she was eyeing him. Are you quite sure?
“If I had known you were having…company,” Erik’s mother said slowly, “I wouldn’t have dropped in unannounced.” Her gaze bounced between the two of them several times before finally settling on Erik. “I wish you would have told me you already had plans, boychik. And with who.”
“It’s…a long story, Mama.”
“Clearly. And how long has this been going on again?”
Charles tensed when he felt Erik’s mental wince. “Just, ah…just a week,” Erik muttered, sounding meeker than Charles had ever heard him before.
“A week. And I suppose you were far too busy for a phone call.”
“Well — ”
“It’s alright.” Despite her thin smile, the disgruntled ripples in her mind suggested things weren’t actually alright. After a moment though, she waved her hand dismissively and said, “I’ll put the food I brought in the fridge. You boys enjoy your own lunch. Erik, we will speak later.”
“Okay,” Erik said weakly.
Charles watched her start to pack several large Tupperware containers into the fridge. On a sudden burst of courage, he blurted out, “Why don’t you stay for lunch?”
Both she and Erik turned to stare at him. Holding onto that shred of bravery, Charles said, “You brought Erik lunch. It would be a shame to have to heat that up later.”
Are you sure? Erik asked.
No, Charles said, trying not to broadcast his apprehension, but it’s kind of too late now, isn’t it?
“Alright,” Erik’s mother said. She set one of the Tupperware containers back down on the counter. “There’s enough for all of us. Erik, bring out plates for us, will you?”
As Erik moved to obey, Charles scurried to fetch silverware. Once the table was set, he hovered around in the kitchen, ready to leap into action if any more help was needed. Erik’s mother glanced at him a couple of times but otherwise ignored him, so Charles just awkwardly tried to stay out of her way.
Eventually, Erik corralled him against a counter and pressed a reassuring kiss to his temple. “Go sit down.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, Mama and I can finish prepping plates. Go on.”
Relieved, Charles went to sit at the dining table. He tried to pretend he didn’t notice Erik’s mother watching him as he did.
Five minutes later, Erik set a full, steaming plate in front of Charles, who inhaled appreciatively. “This smells delicious.”
“It’s Mama’s famous cholent,” Erik said, sitting down with his own plate. “Potatoes, beans, and brisket.”
“And a few other things,” she said as she took the seat next to Erik. “You’re not Jewish, are you, Charles?”
“Ah, no, I’m not.” Charles licked his lips nervously. Was that bad? Should he be Jewish?
“Erik says you’re a student,” she continued.
“A graduate student, yes.”
“How old are you?”
Charles hesitated. “Twenty-three.”
She glanced at Erik. “He’s younger than you, boychik.”
“By eight years,” Erik replied. “You and Papa were twelve years apart.”
“Yes, but that was different. I am concerned…” When her attention returned to Charles, her eyes were hard. “…that this boy may be too young for you, Erik. Too immature.”
“Mama,” Erik growled.
“I think my concerns are perfectly valid,” she continued, unrelenting. “He hurt you, Erik. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that.”
“I haven’t either,” Erik said sharply. He reached over and took Charles’s hand, lacing their fingers together. “But he apologized, and I decided I didn’t care anymore. I want to be with him, and he wants to be with me. That’s all that matters.”
The hard edge to his voice seemed to startle her. Eyes widening, she stared at them for a long moment, her mind whirring busily as she considered Charles, then Erik, then Charles again. Finally, like a lioness backing off and lying back down, she leaned back in her seat and said thoughtfully, “Very well.”
Charles had no idea what that meant, but she didn’t interrogate him further. For the rest of lunch, she and Erik discussed the bakery (mostly Erik), shared observations about their neighbors (mostly his mother), and deliberated over their plans for Yom Kippur (both of them). Normally Charles would have felt awkward about being excluded, but in this case, he was mostly just relieved. At least when Erik’s mother wasn’t paying attention to him, he didn’t have to worry about her judgment.
At last, everyone finished eating, and Erik’s mother rose to clear the table. Charles hopped up hurriedly to help, and as he was setting the dirty plates down into the sink, she said, “Erik, did I mention I brought my vacuum cleaner over in my car? It hasn’t been working for the last week. I was hoping you could take a look at it. Charles and I will do the dishes.”
Charles turned to Erik with a look of horror. Erik said quickly, “Actually, Mama, Charles and I can do the dishes while you bring the vacuum cleaner in and I’ll take a look after.”
“Nonsense,” she said firmly. “Go bring it in. Charles and I will be fine.”
“But — ”
Charles had never thought Erik would take orders from anyone, but in the face of his mother’s expectant stare, he shut his mouth, shot Charles an apologetic look, and stepped back out of the kitchen.
Erik! Charles exclaimed.
You’ll be fine, Erik said, though the thread of concern weaving through his mind undercut the reassurance. I’ll be quick.
No, Erik, I can’t —
“Come here, Charles,” Mrs. Lehnsherr said, beckoning to him. “I’ll wash, you dry.”
Charles gave Erik one last beseeching look before trudging over to the sink in defeat.
“Now,” Mrs. Lehnsherr said as the door swung shut behind Erik, “let’s talk.”
Fuck, Charles thought.
She studied him for a moment and then, to his shock, gave him a little smile. “Don’t look so stressed. I’m not going to yell at you.”
“Oh,” Charles said, not relaxing in the slightest.
Turning on the water, she began to soap up the dishes. Charles picked up the drying towel just to give his hands something to hold onto anxiously.
“I know my son,” she said after a minute. “That boy can and will hold a grudge until his dying day. There was once a girl in kindergarten who accidentally tore the picture he was coloring. Accidentally, mind you. And Erik never forgave her for that. Years and years later, she walked into his bakery. Obviously she didn’t recognize him, and even if she did, she probably doesn’t even remember what happened. They were both five at the time, after all. But Erik remembered, and that night, he called me and told me all about seeing her at the bakery and hiding in the back because he didn’t want to face her.”
Charles couldn’t help himself. He said incredulously, “But…a grudge from kindergarten?”
Mrs. Lehnsherr laughed, a rich, warm sound. “That’s what I mean. He never forgives, and he never forgets.” She raised her eyebrow at him and handed him a rinsed plate. “Until you.”
Flushing, Charles studiously examined the plate, scrubbing at every speck of water. He didn’t dare take a peek at her thoughts, far too daunted to even consider it. So all he could do was wait in agony until she continued.
“I saw the way he looks at you,” she said softly, returning her attention to the dishes. “Never in his thirty-one years have I ever seen Erik look at anyone like that. He cares about you more than he cares about his pride, which tells me something. It tells me you’re special in some way. He loves you, Charles.” She turned to him with another plate, her eyes hardening. “I want to know that you will never hurt him like that again.”
Accepting the plate from her, Charles swallowed hard. He forced himself to meet her eyes as he answered. “I would never knowingly hurt Erik,” he said, hoping she could hear the earnest sincerity in his voice. “If I could go back and do things over again, I would in a heartbeat. I’d make sure Erik knew from the beginning just how important he is to me, because he is important to me. I love him, Mrs. Lehnsherr. I love your son so much, and I’m sorry I didn’t realize it until after I’d already hurt him. And if he’ll let me, I’ll spend every day trying to make it up to him.”
He held his breath as she scrutinized him, eyes roving over every inch of his expression, no doubt searching for signs of deceit. At last, her gaze softened and she raised a hand to pat his face. “You are a good boy, I think. I won’t say I don’t have my doubts but…you seem like a good match for my Erik. But,” she arched an eyebrow, “if you break his heart again, you will have to answer to me.”
Charles ducked his head. “Yes, Mrs. Lehnsherr.”
“Edie,” she said, taking the towel from him and swiping at the line of wetness she’d left on his cheek. “Call me Edie.”
Only a moment later, Erik appeared in the doorway, carrying a vacuum cleaner. “Mama, how many times have I told you to just throw this one away? It’s almost as old as I am. I’ll get you a new one.”
Charles realized abruptly that he hadn’t heard the door open a second time. When did you get back? he asked slowly.
A few minutes ago, Erik replied. But I didn’t want to interrupt.
Oh…and er…how much of that did you hear?
Enough. Erik’s mind swirled with a bright, soft warmth that Charles was beginning to understand meant love. Love for him.
Oh, he said, a bit unsteadily.
For the record, I will let you, Erik said. Spend every day making it up to me, I mean.
Charles couldn’t help but smile. Good. Because I’m becoming something of an expert in groveling.
“Why throw it away when I’ve got you to fix it?” Edie asked, waving a hand.
“So you can get a better one?”
“I don’t want a better one.”
Erik heaved a sigh. “This is like when you used your Blackberry until it literally wouldn’t turn on anymore. Would it kill you to get an upgrade?”
“When the old one still works perfectly fine, yes. Honestly,” Edie said, turning to Charles, “you have to get him to stop spending so much money on new gadgets, Charles. He doesn’t listen to me, but he may listen to you.”
“Those gadgets are necessary to keep the bakery running,” Erik harrumphed.
“Oh, is that why you get a new phone every year?”
“That’s one luxury!”
“He is obsessed with his technology,” Edie told Charles. “It’s a problem, I tell you.”
As they continued to bicker back and forth, Charles realized with a dawning sense of wonder that this was Edie accepting him. This was Edie folding him into the family as easily and neatly as anything, all because she had seen that Erik loved him. A lump rose and lodged in Charles’s throat at the thought, and for a minute, he had to stare furiously at the plate he was drying to keep from doing something embarrassing like sniffling.
Eventually, they finished washing and putting away the plates, and Erik fiddled with the vacuum cleaner until it was successfully roaring again. Then he carried it back to the car, with Edie and Charles trailing behind him. Once it was stowed in the trunk, she hugged Erik tightly, then turned and enveloped Charles in a bone-crushing hug as well. Startled, Charles froze up for a moment before he could relax into the embrace.
“I won’t force you to spend the rest of your day with me,” she said with a smile, stepping back. “Erik, I will see you next Friday?”
“Don’t forget the challah.”
Erik huffed. “I never do.”
Bidding them both goodbye, she climbed into her car and pulled away. When she disappeared around the corner, Erik wrapped an arm around Charles’s shoulders, and they started to walk slowly back to his apartment.
“That wasn’t a completely disaster,” Erik said.
“No,” Charles agreed. “I think it went pretty well actually. Don’t get me wrong, your mother is absolutely terrifying but…I think she doesn’t hate me anymore at least.”
“She likes you a lot. I can tell.”
“Good. I like her a lot, too.”
Erik ruffled his hair. “You should come celebrate shabbat with us on Friday.”
Charles looked up at him, eyes widening. “Is that allowed?”
“Of course it’s allowed. Why would I invite you if it wasn’t?”
“What about your mother?”
“Charles, she basically just gave us her blessing. Believe me, she’ll be more than happy to set out an extra place at the table.”
“Oh.” Charles smiled. “Alright then.”
As they walked back into Erik’s apartment, Erik said, “If you don’t have classes on Friday, you should come by the bakery and make the challah with me.”
“I’m not a very good baker,” Charles said doubtfully. “You know that.”
Erik smiled. “I’ll teach you.”
And…well, that sounded good, Charles thought. That sounded really good.
“I suppose I should learn to bake a few things,” he said. “Now that we’re dating and all.”
Erik sat down on the arm of the couch and used Charles’s watch to tug him forward in between his legs. “Yes,” he said, running his hands along Charles’s sides. “I can’t have people saying my boyfriend can’t make a simple bread.”
“The horror,” Charles murmured, stroking his fingers through Erik’s hair. His heart sang every time Erik called him his boyfriend. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to that.
“Although…” Erik said, one of his hands wandering down to Charles’s ass. “I’m more interested in other buns at the moment.”
Charles stared at him for a moment. Then he said, “Oh my god.”
Erik grinned. “What?”
“We cannot date if you’re going to make bread puns about my ass. No, I can’t handle that.”
Erik started to laugh. “That’s where you draw the line?”
“You’re damn right that’s where I draw the line!”
“Well too bad. You’re stuck with me.”
“Not if you make another bread joke.”
“So I can’t say I want to knead your buns?”
“Good lord, Erik! I swear to god — ”
The rest of his threat was lost as Erik surged up to kiss him. Forgetting his indignation, Charles wrapped his arms around Erik’s neck and thought, I could get used to this.
Erik smiled against his mouth. Me too. Then he squeezed Charles’s ass gently and whispered, “Preheat the oven to 350 because I’m coming in hot.”
Charles tackled him into the couch. Erik’s laughter filled his chest with so much warmth that all he could do was kiss Erik over and over and over again, until they were both breathless and dizzy. Then Charles collapsed down on top of Erik, resting his head against Erik’s chest. Ruffling his hair, Erik wrapped an arm around him, strong and warm and steady.
“Let’s just stay like this for a while,” Charles murmured. He pressed a kiss to Erik’s chest, just above his heart, and closed his eyes. “Please.”
“As long as you want, Liebling,” Erik said softly, nuzzling his hair. “As long as you want.”