“You know, we really should do something for Christmas.”
Charles barely lifted his head at the sound of her voice, continuing to push papers around his obscenely cluttered desk. “Hm?” came the preoccupied grunt.
Raven was used to it, so she pressed on. “We should do something. Like, celebrate. I mean, we could all use a little break.”
The fireplace flickered in the darkened room as Raven paced back and forth lazily, twirling her golden locks between her fingers. She paused briefly, waiting for some kind of acknowledgment. Not surprised when she received nothing, she shaped her thoughts into something more concise: “Charles. Christmas. We should celebrate it.”
The small desk lamp illuminated Charles’s face as he finally lifted it towards the sound of her voice. He blinked rapidly, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness around him. There was a stark contrast between his desktop and the rest of the study. “When did it get so dark?” he thought.
“Chaaaaaarles,” she whined, hopping up and down a bit, “let’s do Christmas!” She threw her hands together in a soundless clap. Her sweater sleeves hung too far past her wrists, and the fabric muffled the contact. He marveled at how young she suddenly looked in the low light, with the dancing flames softening her features.
Sometimes he forgot how young they all were.
“I don’t know if that’s the best use of time, Raven. We still have much work to do if we’re to be any match for Shaw.”
She frowned before he even finished his sentence. Saying no to Raven had never been easy. But now, watching her jubilant glee quickly dissolve back into world-weary heaviness was too much to bear.
“Fine,” he sighed. He couldn’t hide his smile as she practically leapt into the air. “But…”
“There’s always a ‘but’ with you, Charles. Why can’t you just let me have this?” But she was smiling brightly, reveling in her small victory.
“My acquiescence comes with a caveat: no gifts.”
Raven’s mouth dropped open. “But I love gifts! Are you kidding me, Charles? Presents are the best part!”
“Just think of how it might make the others feel. Away from their families, cut off from the world…”
“All the more reason to give them stuff. It’s a proven fact that stuff fills gaping emotional holes.” She nodded matter-of-factly
“It’s really not up for debate, Raven.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. He was suddenly aware of his stifling exhaustion. “Oh,” he said, glancing back up, “and we’re not calling it Christmas.”
Raven’s eyes bulged out of her head. It was as if someone had just told her Santa Claus was a sham. “This isn’t even funny.”
“It’s not meant to be. Some of us don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Whadda you mean? You celebrate. I’ve seen you. Remember that time you drank all that eggnog and got so drunk you threw up all over Aunt—” She stopped mid sentence, her voice taking a more serious tone. “Oh, but we’re not talking about you, are we?”
“No, my dear, we are not.”
“Yea, Erik’s super Jewish, huh?”
Charles let out a small laugh. “Yes, I believe Erik is ‘super Jewish,’ as you so eloquently put it.”
“Well, you’re probably right then. I don’t know anything about Chanukah. We should play it safe so I don’t do something stupid.”
“And we all know how often that happens,” he teased. “So we’re on the same page now? No gifts. No ‘Christmas.’ It will simply be a relaxed night, with a proper meal, and wonderful company.”
“Fine,” she huffed out, obviously overjoyed but too stubborn to admit it.
When Charles strode downstairs Friday evening, he wasn’t a bit surprised to see twinkling lights lining the archways and door frames.
“She never listens,” he muttered under his breath, shaking his head slightly. The smile that crept across his lips betrayed his agitation. He found the sight quite lovely, and counted himself lucky that Raven hadn’t plastered a paper Santa on the door.
Charles leaned on the banister at the foot of the stairs for a moment, just taking in how normal the place suddenly looked. The strings of light had transformed the mansion from makeshift war room to a home. He could hear the faint tinkle of voices coming from the dinning room. The place felt alive; it felt lighter. He tried to push the weeks of training, and all the heartache, from his mind. He wanted to enjoy this night. He needed to.
He was roused from his thoughts by the warm hand on his shoulder. Charles twisted his head around to see Erik taking the last stair in a long stride, coming to rest beside him. He gave Charles’s shoulder a firm squeeze.
“The place looks beautiful, Charles,” he said wistfully.
“I’m sorry, my friend, I told her not to.”
“What’s to be sorry for? It’s a nice to see the place like this. Besides, we deserve a little cheer.” He shot Charles a slightly lopsided grin.
Charles couldn’t help but offer him a broad smile in return, his face bathed in the glow of the colored lights. “Well, I can’t argue with that.” He let his eyes slip from Erik’s to slowly travel down his body. “Bloody hell, you look smashing,” he blurted out suddenly.
Erik’s face reddened, clearly not expecting the unrestrained enthusiasm directed at his wardrobe. “It’s been a long time since I dressed for, um, festivities. I wasn’t quite sure.” He looked down at his torso self-consciously.
After studying him for another few beats, Charles smiled up at Erik with abandon. Erik wore a cream colored shirt with the top buttons open. Over it was a dark brown cardigan. He had never seen Erik look so comfortable, so unguarded. This was no three piece suit or head-to-toe black ensemble. Charles beamed.
“I assure you, this is perfect.” They stood there for a moment in the easy silence. Charles let out a thoughtful sigh and extended his arm towards the dinning room. “Shall we then?”
As Erik and Charles entered the room they were greeted by a long round of applause. Both men froze like deer in the headlights.
When the children finally let up, the clapping dissolving into a steady stream of giggles, Charles took his place at the head of the table. Erik situated himself at the other end. Both men eyed the children in quizzical amusement.
“Well, what was that all about?” Charles inquired of the table as a whole.
“Now we can finally eat!” shot Sean from his place at Erik’s left side.
Erik offered Charles a single raised eyebrow and a nod of the head, in silent agreement.
“Quite frankly I’m honored you even bothered to wait,” Charles joked, placing his napkin gingerly in his lap.
“Raven didn’t want to,” Alex tattled.
“Yea, we practically had to hold her down,” said Sean.
“If you look closely, Professor, you can see where she was picking at the turkey.”
“Hank!” Raven exclaimed, incredulous that he had joined in on the taunting.
“What?” Hank looked around the table mystified, not quite sure what he had said wrong. His eyes settled on Charles who was seated next to him. “You can see it if you look under the leg.”
At this the table exploded in laughter. Hank hesitantly followed suit, clearly still unsure what exactly he was laughing at.
Everyone quickly fell into a steady rhythm of eating and chatting. The theme of the evening appeared to be teasing Raven. So Charles gladly joined in.
“And, young lady, I seem to remember…” Charles trailed off motioning towards her head. Atop it sat a velvety soft Santa hat. Even though the deep shade of red paired beautifully with the tint on her lips, he was a bit miffed she’d chosen to go against his wishes.
She answered with her signature pout, and Charles couldn’t bring himself to be angry at her. The feeling in the room was warm, and safe, and he had no words to express how full his heart felt. Raven’s silly hat clearly made her happy, so he didn’t really care.
Charles cast his gaze at Erik who was happily sipping his glass of wine while Alex recounted some tale that called for the use of wild hand gestures. He lowered his glass as a wide grin broke across his face, laughing in earnest.
“This may be the happiest day of my life,” Charles thought, taking in the scene.
The meal wound down after much pie had been consumed; nearly three whole ones, actually. Hank had somehow managed to eat five pieces himself. Alex still found a way to harass him about it even though he himself had wolfed down four at Charles’s last count.
It was a lovely meal, and Charles’s cheeks were flushed from what had most likely been too much wine. He had skipped the desert and went straight for another glass of Pinot Noir. He was so wrapped up in the easy flow of conversation and bubbling joy that he’d indulged. He allowed his guard to lower.
Charles and Erik took the half empty bottle of red and retired to the library. They settled into what had, without any discussion, become “their” chairs and wordlessly began their chess game.
After a few moves, Erik broke the pleasant silence. “You know, you could have let Raven go ape. I know this sort of thing makes her happy.” The corners of his mouth pulled up as he said Raven’s name. “It wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest,” he added.
Charles removed the hand that had been rubbing across his lips in concentration and laid it in his lap. “I didn’t want you to feel left out, my friend.”
“That’s hardly something to be concerned about. I haven’t celebrated anything since I was a boy. This was wonderful, and calling it Christmas wouldn’t have changed that. Next year, let her have a tree.”
Charles breathed out a chuckle, nodding his head in passive agreement. Erik stared intently at Charles. His gaze was thoughtful, the gears in his head clearly turning.
“Besides, I don’t think you could make me feel left out if you tried.” Erik’s words were heavy with sincerity.
Charles smiled wide, showing all is teeth, his eyes brightening immediately. “That’s very kind of you to say, Erik.” Charles moved his hand to the pocket of his thick wool sweater. He clasped something in his fist that Erik couldn’t quite see.
Charles gave Erik a shy grin before extending his hand, reaching across the chessboard. “I told Raven no gifts…”
Erik reached out his hand hesitantly, leaving it to hover under Charles’s.
“I broke my own rule,” Charles laughed out nervously, letting the object drop into Erik’s waiting palm.
Erik brought the brilliant silver object close to his face to inspect it further. “Oh Charles, it’s gorgeous,” he breathed out as his gaze swept over the exquisite pocket watch.
“I know it’s nothing like the fine German craftsmanship you’re used to. But it’s a Bulova—Swiss—and they did wonderful things for veterans after the war…” Charles trailed off, practically busting out of his skin, giddy with joy. The way Erik ran his fingers appreciatively over the watch, as if to memorize its face, made Charles’s heart clench in his chest.
Erik looked up at Charles, who had not once looked away since giving the man his gift. Erik’s smile was plastered to his face; the corners of his eyes seemed permanently crinkled.
“Thank you, Charles. It’s perfect.”
Charles’s felt drunk with something more than wine as he sat gazing across the board at his friend. “Happiness suits you, Erik. You certainly deserve it.”
At that, Erik’s face suddenly fell into deep concern. “But I… I didn’t get you anything.” He looked down, rather ashamed.
“There’ll be plenty of time for that, my friend,” Charles dismissed him quickly with a laugh and a hand wave.
Erik’s eyes were cast down at his lap, his hands, and the watch. He flipped the gleaming object over in his hands almost nervously. It was then that he finally noticed the engraving:
Never forget where your strength lies
There was no hope of him catching the single tear that ran down his cheek.