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Shovel Talks and Other Hazards

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When Charles received his invitation to his sister's wedding, he responded to it the same way he did with every item of mail he didn't want to think about right away: he tucked it into the four-inch stack of mail on top of his desk. He'd deal with it later, was his theory at the time. Later as in after he'd had his morning coffee. Later as in before bed. Later as in over this weekend. Later as in next weekend. Later as in never right now.

This came back to bite him two Saturdays before the wedding. Over the course of that Thursday and Friday, he received fifteen increasingly irate text messages from Raven, all of which he treated in the same way he did frightening email—i.e., he skimmed them so he wouldn't appear to have anything unread in his inbox, but otherwise ignored them.

When he woke up on Saturday morning, he had three voicemails from Raven, all just as irate as the text messages, though probably louder and longer—though since he deleted them without listening all the way through, it was possible there could have been some surprises in there. It was completely possible, for instance, that instead of yelling at him, Raven had informed him that she and Irene had decided to elope last night, and thus there was no need for Charles to RSVP, or decide whether or not he was bringing someone.

Three minutes after he'd deleted the voicemails, Charles' phone pinged with yet another text from Raven: Are you bringing a date or not??? I'm trying to PLAN A WEDDING HERE you know!!!

Well. So much for that theory.

****

"So, let me get this straight," said Erik, who lived in 5B just down the hall. "You want me to be your fake date for your sister's real wedding."

Charles had gone to Erik with this for five very solid reasons:

1. Erik was gay, and thus unlikely to have a big straight freakout at the idea.

2. He was single, meaning there was no boyfriend to have a big gay freakout and veto the idea.

3. He had a sense of humor, meaning he might actually agree to do it.

4. It was a very dry/deadpan sense of humor, so he was unlikely to give the game away by laughing at a serious moment.

5. If he didn't think it was funny, or even thought Charles was pathetic and stupid for even asking, well, it wasn't as though Charles hadn't embarrassed himself in front of Erik before.

Unfortunately, that last one didn't prevent him from feeling amazingly stupid now that Erik was laughing at him. Erik wasn't showing it, not in any way someone who didn't know him (or who wasn't a telepath) would have recognized, but he was definitely laughing.

"I pick up your mail whenever you ask me to," Charles said, a trifle defensively. Probably he should have led with that. "I feed your stupid cat when you're out of town." The cat in question was currently sitting on Charles' lap, which she had considered her personal property since day one. If he stopped petting her neck, she would nip his fingers. If he kept petting this side of her neck when she wanted him to move on to the other side of her neck, she would nip him some more, and mrrrrr and mew at him until he got the picture. His lap was her own personal rolling lap. His fingers were her own personal masseuse. His objections were disregarded and his opinion irrelevant. Charles resented cats in general, but none more than this particular specimen. "You owe me one."

"Uh-huh," Erik said. He'd clearly been in the process of making breakfast when Charles showed up at his door, and now he said, "One egg or two?"

Charles knew better than to decline entirely. Erik claimed it annoyed him when people just sat there watching him eat, and while this was probably true, Charles suspected the offer was always at least half manners, drilled into him by his mother. At any rate, as with Erik's pushy cat, it was easier not to resist. "One is fine unless you're making omelettes, in which case two. Anyway, I know how it sounds, but I can't go stag. I just know she'll try to set me up with someone if I do." At Erik's skeptical expression, he clarified, "Her taste in men doesn't exactly align with mine. In fact, she's got awful taste in men, full-stop. I'm just glad she's marrying a woman. She's got much better taste there."

"Uh-huh."

"Anyway," Charles said, forging onward, "I'm not seeing anyone at the moment, but even if I were, I wouldn't want to bring him. Did I mention Raven's given shovel talks to my boyfriends before? I can't have her scuttling a promising relationship, if I had one."

"But you can have her scuttling me," Erik said.

Charles squinted, but couldn't make out Erik's face; he was looking down at whatever he was doing at the stove, obscured by the kitchen counter. "Well, I'm sure you can handle yourself. And since you wouldn't actually be my date, we could laugh about it later?" Charles hadn't meant for it to come out as a question, but the whole thing had sounded much better when he'd thought of it forty-five minutes ago in the bathroom.

"Mm-hmm," Erik said, which Charles decided to interpret as 'I think it's hilarious when people threaten to kill me and bury my body in the backyard if I hurt their brother.'

"Oh, and if I meet anyone at the wedding who I want to hook up with, I need you to break up with me dramatically in public."

Erik looked up with an annoyed expression. Really, that was the part he thought was the most annoying? Well, maybe he got a lot of death threats. Maybe he was used to getting them.

"And you should look like that when you're doing it," Charles said. "Whoever I'm after would feel so sorry for me he'd just have to comfort me long into the night."

"You're an idiot," Erik said, looking back down at the food he was preparing. Something was starting to smell good.

"Well? Will you do it? Or at least think about it? Though, think quickly, because the wedding's in two weeks and my sister's going to murder me if I don't get back to her today."

Erik didn't say anything for a minute, but then, just as Charles was certain he was going to say no, and that he'd embarrassed himself for absolutely no result, Erik said, "Where is this wedding? Doesn't your sister live in California?"

"Er, yes. I should have mentioned—the wedding is in California, two weeks from tomorrow. I was planning to fly out that Friday afternoon, and come back Sunday night."

"I'll need to find someone else to feed my cat," Erik said, which was an agreement, wasn't it? He was saying yes? Yes, he was definitely saying yes. Charles hadn't even had to tell him about the free food and booze. Well, probably most people expected weddings to involve those things.

"Please do," Charles agreed. The cat in question made grumpy mrrrrr sounds at him when he stopped petting her long enough to text Raven: +1, sorry

When he was halfway finished with his breakfast, his phone pinged: FREAKING THANK YOU IT'S NOT LIKE IT'S HARD

****

Charles spent the next two weeks laying the groundwork, which largely consisted of whatever came into his head whenever he started worrying about how well Erik would go over with Raven.

"Here," he said to Erik once they were past the point of no return, meaning thousands of feet in the air and on their way. "Read this."

Erik took the iPad Charles was offering him. "Oh, good. You brought me homework."

"Those are all the texts I've sent Raven about you. I thought we should be on the same page, so there won't be any inconsistencies in our story," Charles explained. It seemed a little less logical now that he was having to explain it. He wasn't sure why that kept happening.

"Uh-huh," Erik said, and commenced reading, not giving off much as he did so. He had a very good poker face. Too good. "We've been dating for six months, but you were hesitant to ask me because you didn't know if I'd be up for you. You mean it." Maybe Charles should have edited those texts somewhat before letting Erik have them. "Because I'm 'a bit of a free spirit.'"

"Yes, well, she asked about you. I may have panicked," Charles said, feeling somewhat defensive, which wasn't fair even if Erik really was the furthest imaginable thing from a free spirit.

Erik kept reading. "We met while I was buying flowers for my mother."

"What's wrong with that?" If there was one thing in those texts that was more or less true, well, the implication that Erik was a mama's boy was probably it. The only telephone conversations Charles had ever overheard Erik having had always ended with him saying, 'I love you too, Ma. Bye.'

"You're making me sound like a hippie." Erik looked, and sounded, rather agitated now. "I'm not a hippie."

"What does it matter?"

"It matters because people are going to think I'm a hippie!"

"Well, I could have made you sound like a mobster. Would you have preferred that?"

"Yes," Erik said, still reading. "I foster orphaned kittens from the Humane Society? Seriously?"

"Well, you do have a cat," Charles said, wondering where Erik's sense of humor had gotten to, and if it would come back sometime over the rest of their nearly six-hour flight.

"I need a drink," Erik muttered.

"What, at two-thirty in the afternoon?" Charles said, conveniently ignoring the fact that he'd been known to start drinking even earlier than that when life was being particularly trying. Erik gave him a flat look, and Charles said, "You know what, I think I'll join you."

"Great," Erik said. "I volunteer at the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving???"

"You're extraordinarily selfless. Why do you think I fell for you?" Charles said, which he thought was hilarious, even if Erik didn't agree. "Now, put your arm around my shoulders. We may as well start practicing for later."

****

By the time they'd landed, picked up the rental van and checked into their hotel room, it wasn't as late as it could have been, so Charles texted Raven to let her know they'd be coming over. It was best to get the initial introductions over within a more contained space, he thought, so that everything would be settled before brunch in the morning with all of Raven and Irene's nosy friends. (Charles wasn't actually acquainted with many of their friends, so it was hard to gauge their potential nosiness ahead of time, but he thought it better to be prepared. Anyway, it was Raven's reaction that mattered the most.)

"Remember, let me do the talking," Charles said as he rang Raven and Irene's doorbell.

"If you say so," Erik said.

Before Charles could ask what that was supposed to mean, Raven opened the door. "Hey, guys, come on in," she said.

Once they were inside the front hallway, Charles blurted, "Raven, I'd like to introduce you to my long-term serious boyfriend, Erik."

"Hi," Erik said.

"Hi. I'm Charles' long-term serious sister." Raven gave Erik a pointed look for some reason, which she then aimed at Charles before leaning down to give him a quick hug. She kissed the top of his head, too, which as usual was her passive-aggressive way of saying she still thought he was stupid for not having let his hair grow back in yet.

"Please don't hug me," Erik said.

"I wasn't planning on it," Raven said, and the two of them shook hands instead, in a manner which seemed much stiffer and more aggressive than necessary from what Charles could tell.

Is there a problem? Charles asked, with the sudden sinking feeling that perhaps Raven and Erik knew each other somehow. Despite giving one of his boyfriends a shovel talk that one time, Raven was usually relatively warm and welcoming to any of them that she met, and he couldn't think of another reason why she'd be acting this way right off the bat. "Where are the kids?" he asked out loud. He had candy and stuffed animals stashed in a pocket of his chair, which he planned to tease Marie and Kurt about before producing. It was one of his favorite parts of being an uncle.

You tell me, Raven projected back. "We put them to bed half an hour ago so they won't be cranky tomorrow."

Tell you what? You're the one who's acting weird. Charles would have plenty of time to see the kids tomorrow afternoon, he supposed, but still, it was always a little disappointing to not get to see them right away. "Oh, that makes sense."

If you can't figure it out by yourself in the next six weeks, I'll think about telling you, Raven said, which was the worst possible thing she could have said, and she knew it. Charles hated not knowing things, especially for a prolonged period of time. He did his best to respect her boundaries re: telepathy, so in his opinion she owed it to him to let him in on everything anyway (though he knew better than to actually express this opinion to her). "Hey, where'd he go?"

Most people quickly got bored of listening to their two-facet conversations, with all their weird and loaded silences—Erik, evidently, wasn't one of those people who was willing to just stand around awkwardly until Charles and Raven were finished. They found him in the living room, chatting with Irene, who was curled up on the couch in her robe.

"Hi, Irene," Charles said.

Irene waved vaguely in their direction. Charles waved back, which in retrospect seemed just as silly as it usually did, but oh well.

Once Raven had sat down next to Irene, and Erik on the love seat opposite with Charles parked next to him—if the atmosphere had been a little more cozy, he'd have transferred over, but he felt as if he might want to make a quick getaway—Raven said, "So, Erik. How did you and Charles meet, again?"

"Um, I told you all about that," Charles cut in, at the same time Irene said, "Raven," in the resigned tone of voice that indicated when she knew something obnoxious was about to happen, but there wasn't much she could do to stop it. Raven was a force of nature when she got her mind set on something. Charles knew that feeling well; he and Irene would have explicitly bonded over it a long time ago if Raven wouldn't have held it against both of them. At any rate, it couldn't bode well.

"Yeah, well, I forgot," Raven said, which was a flat-out lie. It had to be—picking up and remembering details was a part of Raven's mutation which extended to even parts of her life completely unrelated to cataloguing other people's speech and actions. "So, Erik—what's the story?"

Charles had never spoken to Erik telepathically before, and didn't want to startle him now, but he couldn't help projecting a little reminder anyway: You were buying flowers for your mother. You bumped into me and dropped the whole bouquet in my lap. Yes?

"All right," Erik said. He clasped his hand on Charles' knee, though why he thought he was at liberty to do that, Charles didn't know. (Upon reflection, it might have had something to do with the seven or eight times Charles had mentioned that they would probably want to act physically affectionate to some degree, especially considering how often Charles and each of his previous boyfriends had been told to get a room. Anything else would be suspicious, he'd insisted. Erik, of course, had uh-huh'd his way through the entire thing, to the point where Charles hadn't been convinced he was listening.) He smiled, winked at Charles, leaned forward, and, in a confidential tone that boded nothing good, said, "I don't know what kind of story he told you, but I met Charles when he was trying to break into my apartment in the middle of the night."

"Erik," Charles objected, but Erik ignored him.

"He'd just moved into the building earlier that week, and he'd gone out and gotten so smashed that he couldn't remember where he lived. I don't know how long he'd been sitting in the hall before I woke up and felt him trying to open my door."

"Erik's mutation is metallokinesis," Charles said, a last-ditch attempt to stop Erik from telling the story of how they'd actually met. "Or, well, I guess it's more like magnetic manipulation, isn't it?"

Unfortunately, though Erik usually went off as soon as someone brought up this distinction—'it's called metallokinesis, that's what it's always been called, there is no such thing as metallokinesis that isn't also the manipulation of magnetic fields, I'm so fucking sick of people telling me what word to use for my own fucking mutation' and so on and so forth; it was one of the subjects guaranteed to send Erik into a frothing vent no matter what else had been going on, which was still not going to make a stellar impression on Raven but would surely be better than this—now he only gave Charles a pointed look and said, "Yes. I could feel him twisting my doorknob back and forth, trying to get in. So I got up and answered the door to find out why some jackass in a wheelchair was trying to get in to my apartment."

"Erik, please stop."

Erik didn't stop. "So when I opened the door, he looked at me, and he said thanks, and asked me what the hell I was doing in his apartment. I told him it was my apartment, and he said the hell it was, he knew where he lived, and he'd thank me not to burgle it again."

"Oh, God," Charles said, resisting the urge to put his face in his hands, but not by much. "None of this is true, by the way."

"I'm sure," Raven said, in a tone that indicated she believed every word coming out of Erik's mouth, and not a single word of what Charles was saying. Charles usually appreciated how good Raven's bullshit detector generally was, but not so much at this moment.

"It's all true," Erik said. "Anyway, so I finally convinced him he didn't live there, and helped him find his actual apartment. The bartender had taken his keys, so I had to let him in. Then he came on to me," (as Charles recalled, he'd told Erik that he'd read his mind and seen that he had a lovely huge cock, and Charles would be very happy to suck it for him. Thank God Erik had sanitized that part of the story), "I turned him down, and he didn't speak to me or look me in the eye for six months."

"That sounds like Charles, all right," Raven said.

"I don't think he ever would have if I hadn't cornered him in the laundry room and asked him out," Erik said. Finally, he acknowledged the dirty look Charles was giving him and said, "What? I'm not going to lie."

He had lied, actually, because when he'd cornered Charles in the laundry room, it had been to say that he really needed someone to watch his cat that weekend when he went out of town on business, and Charles owed him one, here's my key, don't move in while I'm gone. But Charles couldn't very well say as much. "If I'd wanted my sister to know that story, I'd have told her myself, wouldn't I!"

"Well, maybe you should have. I'm starting to think you're ashamed of me."

"What? I'm not ashamed of you! Christ. I just wanted to make a good impression," Charles said, not at all sure what Erik was trying to do here, or why Raven's body language was now one hundred percent less hostile.

"Uh-huh," Erik said, but somehow he said it differently than he usually did, in a sulky, moody tone.

What are you doing? Charles asked.

Erik didn't project back, not in so many words—he hadn't the training, probably—but when Charles dipped into his surface thoughts, there was a definite sense of 'they believe us now, so just go with it.'

Well, he had a point there. "I'm sorry, darling," Charles said, taking Erik's hand and trying his best to look contrite even though he was still honestly annoyed as hell. "I'm not ashamed of you. I was just nervous. That said, I would really appreciate it if we could not have the rest of this conversation in front of my sister and her fiancée."

****

The tale of how Raven and Irene had met was a much more romantic story, and, once Charles had gotten everyone redirected, they were happy to tell it—or would have been, if the reasons they had met hadn't chosen that minute to get out of bed.

"Uncle Charles, Uncle Charles!" Marie shouted, barreling into the room. Charles let go of Erik's hand just in time to catch her as she climbed up into his lap to give him a hug.

"Hey there, it's my favorite niece," Charles said, returning the hug and giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Now, where's my favorite nephew?"

"What are you doing up?" Raven asked. "You're supposed to be in bed."

Marie looked at her and said, "Kurt couldn't get to sleep." As that was also the moment Charles' favorite nephew trudged in, carrying his favorite teddy bear and looking like a zombie (which was, minus the teddy bear, also pretty much the way Raven always looked in the morning before she'd had about three cups of coffee), it was instantly clear which of them had harangued the other into getting up to share the blame. Marie, however, was not hindered by worrying too much about whether or not her story would fly; she turned right back to Charles and said, very intensely, "What did you get me?"

"What makes you think I got you anything?"

Even at the age of four, Marie knew bullshit when she smelled it. "Yes you did, you always get me something!"

"I'm afraid I've been very busy for the last few weeks. I'm sorry," Charles said, trying very hard to sound serious and not smile. He managed to hold it somehow, and Marie's gaze, until her certainty started to waver just the slightest bit and Raven had made a 'go ahead, may as well, we'll never get her back to bed until you do' gesture. "Oh, wait, actually, I think I did get you something." He reached into his pocket and brought out a small stuffed giraffe, the latest new addition to the menagerie.

"Thank you!" Marie said. She took it—not quite snatching it out of Charles' hand, but close—and seemed just about to climb back down when she spotted Erik. "Hi," she said, sticking out her hand. Marie liked shaking hands. She'd gone through a phase last year when she wanted to shake everyone's hand every time she came into the room, and every two minutes while she was there. She seemed to thrive on the attention.

"Hi there," Erik said, sounding somehow gruffer than usual as he shook her hand.

"Marie, this is my friend, Erik," Charles said, feeling he ought to say something and having used up his lying-to-small-children quota for the day already. "And now I think your mom wants you."

Raven took Kurt from Irene, who'd picked him up in the meantime—he had his face hidden in her shoulder, and hid it in Raven's shoulder as soon as he was moved over, either very sleepy indeed or shyer about strangers than his sister, or both—Charles could definitely wait until tomorrow to give him his presents—and said, "That's right. You're going back to bed, and this time I want you to stay there. You can see Uncle Charles some more tomorrow."

After Raven and the kids had disappeared down the hall, Charles said, "I got her a Frozen-themed Play-Doh set, too, but I didn't think that would be a good right before bed gift." He always felt a little awkward telling Irene things, given that she probably already knew all about them. Sometimes he felt awkward around Irene in general, such as when she seemed to be looking intensely at something several inches to his left, a gaze he was growing ever more certain was meant for him.

"Charles," Irene said, "no one cares that much."

"About what?"

"And don't make a scene at our wedding."

"—Was I going to?"

"Not anymore." Irene smiled, a bit enigmatically, not that Charles had ever seen her smile in any other way, except maybe at Raven and their kids. "Which means I don't have to make a scene at yours."

"Wait, who am I getting married to?"

Irene raised an eyebrow at him. She was the only other person Charles knew who could do that, besides Raven, whose mutation made it as easy as changing the color of her hair. He always wondered if she had practiced it for months in a mirror (or, well, with another person to report on her success, he supposed) when she was a teenager, too.

Charles considered asking her not to tell Raven anything she knew about his and Erik's not-really-a-relationship, but decided not to push his luck.

****

When they'd checked in at the hotel earlier that evening, Charles had asked Erik to take all their luggage in while he stayed in the car. It would be easier that way, he'd pointed out, since Erik could simply levitate it all behind him, like a mama duck with a line of baby ducklings following him. Though evidently less than charmed by this comparison, Erik had done it.

"You could have mentioned there was only one bed," Charles said when they made it back to the hotel. "Now I have to sleep on the floor."

Erik seemed unimpressed by this dilemma. "You're the one who booked the room."

Charles had booked the only wheelchair-accessible room in the block of rooms Raven had reserved for out-of-town wedding guests. He hadn't really been paying attention otherwise—not that he was about to admit as much. "I actually can't sleep on the floor."

"No one's sleeping on the floor."

"I can't sleep in the car. I'll have a crick in my neck for days."

"We're in a long-term serious relationship. I think we can handle sharing the bed," Erik said, which Charles guessed meant he wasn't planning on offering to sleep in either of those places, or in the armchair in the corner either.

Charles couldn't remember the last time he'd shared a bed with someone he hadn't had sex with. (Actually, yes, he could; he'd been twelve or thirteen, or something like that, the last time Raven had climbed into bed with him after she'd had a nightmare.) He wasn't at all confident in his ability not to accidentally grope Erik's ass in the middle of the night, especially considering that his conscious mind was aware that Erik had a very nice ass, and his subconscious mind was probably not above taking advantage of the fact. "I suppose. I hope you're not handsy in your sleep. And you'd better not steal my blanket. And if you snore, fair warning - I will smother you."

"You can try," Erik said. "No, I don't snore."

"Well, that's something, anyway," Charles said.

As it turned out, Erik didn't snore. He did breathe, unfortunately, and even after he'd stopped fidgeting and gone to sleep, it seemed very loud to Charles. He had a fan in his bedroom at home which he used to drown out all the ambient noise inherent to living in the city; he wished he had it now, especially once Erik started dreaming. They were loud dreams—not that Charles could make out any of the details, he never could with dreams, but whatever Erik was dreaming about, his mind was shouting it.

Charles tossed and turned all night, but it wasn't Erik's fault, not really. He never had been able to sleep properly the first night away from home, especially not when he was this keyed up about something. He hadn't really expected to be this agitated over all this with the initial introductions out of the way, and wasted far too much of the night trying to put his finger on what had set him off.

****

Charles got up first the next morning by virtue of having been awake for much of the night and having been contemplating getting out of bed since roughly six. By the time he emerged from the bathroom, Erik had woken up too, made a cup of coffee, and was sitting in the armchair, flipping through television channels with the volume turned down very low.

"Good morning," Charles said.

Erik, already squinting, made an even grumpier face, which Charles took to mean, 'What's good about it?' and sipped at his coffee. Charles hoped the caffeine would help with that. It would certainly help him. Thankfully, Erik had made enough coffee for two, which was good since Charles desperately needed it and otherwise would have had to resort to making his own. It always came out dreadful when he tried to make it. (Thank God for Starbucks.)

Around the time Charles was feeling halfway alive, and had not coincidentally drunk two and a half cups of coffee, Erik said, "I didn't know you shaved your head."

"What makes you think I shave my head?" Charles asked, though in retrospect— "Oh. Your mutation. You felt me using my hair clippers." He was just grateful he hadn't been shaving anything, well, south of the border. "Yes. Well. You didn't think I'd gone bald naturally, had you?"

"It crossed my mind," Erik said, in that dry tone Charles had come to associate a long time ago with Erik laughing at him.

"Well, I didn't. I'm only thirty-five! No one goes completely bald at my age." Well, maybe some men did, but certainly not any Xaviers. "A bald spot, maybe. A large bald spot, possibly. Bald is in these days, you know."

"Uh-huh."

"I never had any bald spots anyway. I probably still wouldn't if I were to try to grow it back out now." Charles paused, giving Erik the opportunity to ask why he'd started shaving his head in the first place.

All Erik said was, "Uh-huh."

"There's a pretty funny story behind it," Charles said, deciding not to let Erik's lack of enthusiasm stop him. "I took almost an entire semester off after my accident. The night before I was due to go back, I panicked and shaved my head." He decided to leave out the part where he'd cried in the morning after remembering what he'd done. "But it worked out all right, because when I got up in front of my first class, I was able to joke about it. I said that since I'd had most of them in my Genetics 111 class the year before, they might have noticed something different about me, but that I'd appreciate if they didn't mention it, since I was still rather sensitive about having lost all my hair so abruptly."

"Ha," Erik said, which wasn't quite as good a reaction as Charles had hoped for, but still better than the one he'd gotten from his students, which had ranged from awkward to embarrassed and back again. Or maybe most of the embarrassment had been Charles', since he'd been the only one to laugh.

"I considered growing it all back, but then I decided I liked the shape of my head. Anyway, it doesn't take that much more effort than normal shaving," Charles said, leaving out the part where he hadn't wanted anyone asking awkward questions if he had let his hair grow back in. He was pretty sure one or two of the slower students had believed him, and he'd have felt awkward constructing some elaborate story about hair implants or Rogaine.

****

Brunch was, well, brunch. Charles didn't really know any of Raven and Irene's friends, so while he wasn't thrilled when Erik told the 100% true story of how they met four more times at the restaurant, acting much too pleased with himself, it wasn't all that embarrassing since these people were strangers, by and large. Or at least that was what Charles told himself. It didn't matter what a bunch of strangers in California thought of him when he was going to be back in New York on Monday morning.

In practice, telling himself this turned out to be similar to telling himself that no one was thinking about him or judging him, that everyone's lives were about themselves and the amount of attention he paid to most people was about the same as most of them paid to him. Except the problem with that was that, while his telepathy backed this up much of the time, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes, people looked and judged and remembered, and held what he'd done or said or worn against him, because that was what people did, even him. But, unlike other people, Charles always knew when this was happening, and could never tell himself, well, that man is glaring at me because he's thinking about some argument he had with someone else, unless it were actually true.

Thankfully, nobody at brunch did care all that much, other than thinking it was a funny and cute story. Charles might even have agreed if he hadn't been the butt of the joke. He probably wouldn't have minded even that so much if he and Erik were actually dating, or if Erik had even taken Charles up on his offer of drunken sex, but as it was, it was highly embarrassing to be reminded that he'd not only made a fool of himself in front of his frankly very attractive neighbor, but been turned down. Not that he could object on those grounds, since it would involve both admitting that he thought Erik was attractive while sober and giving everything else away.

So Charles was very glad when brunch came to its natural end and he was able to say, "Well, I think we're ready to head out. We just need to move the kids' car seats over from Raven's car and then we can go."

"Uh, what?" Erik said. "Why would we do that?"

"We're watching Marie and Kurt for the day. It's part of my wedding gift for Raven and Irene." (The other part was a blender with a ten-thousand dollar check attached to the box. There was no way Raven would ever cash it unless Irene managed to convince her that it would be easier than fighting about it, so after 90 days Charles intended to have that amount transferred into her bank account anyway.) "I told you this."

"No, you didn't," Erik said. For the first time he sounded somewhat panicked. Charles tried not to feel smug. "You never said anything about that."

Charles was sure he had, but then again, he could be wrong. He'd often been told that he had a bad habit of assuming everyone else knew what he was thinking, just because he always knew what they were thinking if they thought it often or loudly enough in his presence. "Oh, well, sorry. But yes, that's happening. Unless, of course, you'd rather go out with the girls and have your hair done and get a pedicure, and whatever else is on their agenda for this afternoon."

Erik looked tempted.

"Well, too bad," Charles said. "You're here with me, and we're taking the kids to the zoo."

"I don't know anything about kids."

"Oh, kids are easy," Charles said, leaving out the part where he'd been terrified of both of them when they were tiny, and still found himself at a loss much of the time. Kids' minds were hard for him to make out, so the younger they were and the less perspective and experience they had with the world, the more they felt like little aliens to him. (He had said this once to Raven, when she'd been pregnant with Kurt and asked him if he could sense the baby's mind, and had barely lived to regret it.) "I'm sure you'll be all right. Do you have any younger brothers or sisters?"

"No."

"Any friends with kids?"

"No."

"Ever babysit?" All things considered, this seemed like a longshot, but Erik hesitated. "Oh, you did. See, this will be just like that. It'll come back to you. It'll be easy."

"It wasn't like that," Erik said. "When I was growing up, the neighbor kids used to follow me around to see what I was doing. It's not like anyone was paying me."

"Well, it still counts," Charles decided.

"I doubt it. I taught them how to hotwire a car."

"—Just don't hotwire any plastic fire trucks at Toys-R-Us and I'm sure it'll be fine."

****

"Uncle Charles," Marie whispered as Charles strapped her into her car seat.

"Yes?" Charles whispered back.

"Mommy's getting married."

"Oh, she is? Who's Mommy getting married to?"

"Mommy," Marie said, still whispering.

"I see," Charles said, checking the buckle just one more time just in case it had come loose or something the last three times he'd tested it. "Why are we whispering? Is it a secret?"

"No!" Marie shouted, proving she still had plenty of energy left even after all the excitement of being cooed over and shaking everyone's hands at brunch.

Once Charles was done triple-checking to make sure Marie was securely fastened in, he double-checked Kurt again. Unlike his sister, Kurt didn't have much to say, but then he hadn't in a while; he couldn't speak all that clearly yet, and seemed newly self-conscious about the fact around people other than Raven, Irene and Marie (and, presumably, the speech therapist he was seeing for an hour once or twice a week). Charles felt a deep kinship with him on that front, as he hadn't spoken aloud until he was five due to his telepathy.

"Okay," Charles said once he'd rolled up behind the driver's wheel and strapped himself in, "first we're going to the zoo, and then we're going out for I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M."

"Ice cream?" Erik asked, just as Charles began backing them out of the space.

"ICE CREAM!" Marie hollered. Kurt hollered with her, although in his case it was just a shout. Apparently today was going to be one extreme or the other when it came to decibel levels.

"Thanks, Erik," Charles said. "I was absolutely spelling it out so you could share what I meant with the class. It had nothing to do with wanting to keep it a secret. You can clean up the vomit when that happens, by the way. Which it will. That's why I wanted to do snacks later."

"—Wonderful," Erik said.

****

One aspect of babysitting that had always stymied Charles was what to do when one of the kids had a tantrum. If, for instance, Kurt got halfway through his ice cream cone and asked someone, in this case Charles, to hold it, and then had a complete meltdown involving crying and screaming on the floor because Charles had done so, well, there wasn't much Charles had ever been able to do to convince him to cut his fit short. So far, he'd worked out that cajoling absolutely did not work, nor did bribery, and that he should never mention anything of the sort to Raven, who would only point out that Kurt very rarely had tantrums at home anymore, and so Kurt wasn't actually the problem. He knew he could get away with it with Charles, according to her. It was entirely possible she was right.

"Um," Charles said, as always at a loss as to how to placate a screaming child, "please stop?" He doubted Kurt could hear him, as he could barely hear himself. He waved the ice cream cone at Kurt again. "You can have it back. I don't even want it."

Charles glanced at Erik, more to see if Erik was judging him (as the other nine people aside from the four of them in here all were, since even those who were parents and had had their children behave badly in public could still come up with some reason why that was different) than because he expected him to be any help. Erik, however, seemed to take it as the latter; he muttered something Charles couldn't have caught without super hearing, got up, bent over to pick Kurt up, slung him bodily over his shoulder, and walked out the door with him.

"Let's go, Marie," Charles managed, after a panicked, Please don't murder my nephew, he's only three, in Erik's direction.

By the time Charles and Marie had caught up, Erik and Kurt had made it to the van. Kurt had stopped screaming, and was now sniffling thoughtfully, his tail wrapped around Erik's upper arm for balance. His face was wet from crying and his face was still flushed purple, but otherwise he appeared to have gotten over it. Apparently hanging upside down was much too distracting for him to remember what he'd been upset about.

He also appeared to have accepted the idea of Erik as a new person to have around, because when they got to the zoo and Charles said, "All right, rules: While we're here, you can either ride with me or hold Erik's hand," Kurt made it very clear that he would actually much rather ride with Erik.

"No, I want to go piggyback!" Marie said when she caught wind of what was going on.

"If Erik wants to give piggyback rides, which is entirely up to him, you're going to have to take turns," Charles said, more than halfway hoping Erik wouldn't want to. Marie and Kurt had always thought wheelchair rides were neat, which was a viewpoint Charles had made a point of encouraging even if he wasn't exactly a four-wheeler. He liked feeling special. Who wouldn't? It wasn't as if using a wheelchair came with a great deal many other perks (although being an uncle certainly did).

Apparently Erik was not immune to feeling flattered when small children fought over him, because all he had to say was, "I don't mind."

So he didn't mind showing Charles up, did he? Well, who would mind being the shiny, new, freakishly tall person and getting to be the center of attention? Erik liked attention. Charles was beginning to suspect he'd agreed to all this just for the sake of showing off.

Charles sulked his way through the wolves, polar bears, penguins and seals. Then Kurt and Marie switched places and Charles continued sulking through the monkeys and great apes, making numerous comparisons between Erik and the latter, some of them out loud. (This did not have the desired result, as Erik merely rolled his eyes, while the kids found his comparisons hilarious.)

It wasn't until the kids switched again and they were on their way to see the big cats that Charles finally started paying attention to other things, picking up what other people were thinking about them. It was too busy and too hot on a Saturday in June for most people to give them more than a passing thought, which was nice—between Charles' wheelchair and Kurt's blue fur and tail, Charles had picked up on more than one less than charitable thought on their past outings. This time, though, there seemed to be a new underlying assumption. Namely, all these strangers who weren't thinking that much about them seemed to think that they were a family, two parents taking their kids to the zoo.

This was a new experience for Charles. He was used to people assuming he was the kids' father—that was a common assumption when he took them somewhere by himself, and a similarly common (and rather annoying to everyone) assumption when he, Raven, and/or Irene took them somewhere together when Charles was visiting. What he was not used to was people jumping to the conclusion that he was romantically involved with whatever man he was with. Whenever Charles had a boyfriend, people who didn't know them always seemed to ask if they were brothers, or cousins. Apparently small children changed the entire picture.

They were in the snake house, looking at a gigantic python which seemed large enough to eat Erik, when Charles said, "You know, everyone here is assuming we're a couple."

"Good," Erik said, sounding somewhat distracted, probably because Kurt was leaning forward toward the glass and was in imminent danger of toppling off sideways. "That's the idea."

"The idea wasn't for total strangers to think we're married with children." Charles didn't know why this bothered him so much, but it did. It was one thing to sell people on a story he'd spent a lot of time and effort on, but something else altogether when he hadn't meant to give off that impression in the first place.

"Mm-hmm," Erik said. He didn't seem all that concerned. And when the cashier at the gift store told them they had a beautiful family, Erik said, "Thank you," and kissed Charles on the side of the head. Charles responded by remaining annoyed with him right up until they were pulling out of the zoo parking lot, when he realized that both the kids were asleep in their car seats and no one had vomited, which made this particular outing comparatively stress-free.

****

The rehearsal dinner was lovely, and although it was a somewhat larger crowd than brunch had been, Charles still managed to recognize some faces from earlier in the day. However, he found himself growing restless after about twenty minutes or so, as he always did at events where he had to wear a tie. It was, perhaps, a Pavlovian reaction of sorts from his childhood, when Sharon had dragged Raven and him to event after event and expected them to sit still and behave. (They never had, of course. In the early years, hiding underneath the table had been their norm; later on, they'd taken to sneaking out on the balcony with a bottle of wine.)

Well, at least he had Erik to talk to. Charles may not have known many of Raven and Irene's friends, but Erik only knew him. That was another advantage of this whole plan, really—to have a familiar person to chat with when intermingling with strangers got to be a bit much.

"You know, if we were really dating, we'd probably be making out in a closet somewhere right about now," Charles said.

"Oh, really."

"Mm-hmm. I've been caught half-dressed in a closet at any number of parties over the years." Charles just barely managed not to mention that he'd lost his virginity at one of his mother's parties, one of the times he hadn't been caught—and had lost it not to his date, but to one of the guests, a man twenty years his senior. (To make matters worse, Charles had been sixteen at the time, and the man in question had been married. At sixteen, he hadn't exactly minded, but now that he was in his mid-thirties and could see what sixteen-year-olds actually looked like from this side of thirty, he really had to wonder about that guy.) Charles had had several glasses of wine tonight, and drinking tended to make him worry less and run his mouth more, but still, he had the sense that it might be better to keep that particular story to himself. People tended to react badly to that one, for some reason. "I think it's expected of me at this point."

"Uh-huh," Erik said. "In that case, I'm up for you. I mean it."

Erik was laughing at him again. For some reason, it stung this time, in a way it usually didn't. "You don't need to make fun of me. I was just trying to have a conversation."

"What? I'm not making fun of you." Now, instead of his amused-neutral face, Erik looked annoyed.

"Well, then what were you trying to get at?" Charles asked, feeling annoyed himself.

"If you want to get caught making out in a closet, we can do that."

****

"I really wasn't hinting around," Charles said, once he and Erik had found a suitable-looking coat closet and crowded in. "I was just talking. Really. Making out with me was never in the required curriculum when I asked you to pretend to be my boyfriend. It's more like an elective."

"So, how are we doing this?" Erik asked.

"Uh, I guess we wait until we hear someone coming." The bathrooms were just down the hall, so it wouldn't be too long. "Then, er, kiss to attract attention." They'd left the door open a good inch; anyone who passed by was sure to notice what was going on in here.

"Okay."

It took a good five minutes for anyone else to come along, which gave Charles all too much time to think of how silly an idea this had been. They didn't really need to do this for the sake of authenticity; they could as easily have ducked into some other room and chatted quietly for a while. No one was going to check up on him to make sure he really had been making out with Erik if they disappeared for a few minutes. It was clear even to Charles by now that, as Irene had said, no one cared that much. He didn't know what he was doing here, shoved up against his neighbor in a dark enclosed space. Erik was practically in his lap already. Charles could feel his body heat. It felt far more intimate than it should have, although they'd shared small touches in front of other people all day—but that had been an act performed for an audience, and even though this would be, too, there was no one else here yet. It was just the two of them, breathing on each other in a way that should have been much more claustrophobic than it was.

"Someone's coming," Erik said.

Charles couldn't hear anyone, and there were too many people he didn't really know in the other room for him to be able to tell one way or the other what any one person was doing. "How can you tell?"

"They have a set of car keys and eighty cents in their pocket."

"Oh. All right. Well. Come here, then," Charles said, feeling oddly breathless.

He felt a little more breathless once Erik did, coming in closer than he was already, so that Charles reached out to steady Erik by the waist. It occurred to him how tall Erik actually was, how awkward an angle this was likely to be.

"Ready?" Erik asked.

"Sure. Let's try it," Charles said.

Their first kiss was dry, careful, considering. The next few were more of the same. By the time Charles heard footsteps coming toward them, however, they'd progressed to open-mouthed kisses, which seemed terrible awkward to him but could probably pass for passionate making out to someone opening the door on the scene.

The footsteps came closer, then passed them, accompanied by a shadow which briefly blotted out the light coming in from the hallway. The door didn't open, though, and the footsteps soon stopped, their owner presumably having located the restroom.

"—Maybe it was an emergency and they'll be more observant on the way out? Should we take a break, do you think, or keep it going?"

"Whatever you prefer," Erik said.

"Well, having a constant stop-and-go sounds silly to me," said Charles, mostly because a constant stop-and-go sounded just a little bit too sexy to him. "Let's keep going."

By the time the footsteps returned, the kisses had gone from awkward to fluid, something shifting so Charles could relax into it, almost enjoy the taste of Erik's mouth, the scrape of Erik's five o'clock shadow against his skin.

The shadow passed by on the way back, too.

"Well, this looks like a failed experiment," Charles said, oddly disappointed about having to stop.

"There's someone else coming," Erik said. "We could try again."

"Oh, all right."

So they tried again as the next unsuspecting person walked by. They didn't get caught this time, either, but by the next time Charles heard footsteps approaching, he wasn't certain whether or not the second set had left yet. He'd stopped paying attention a while back, too distracted by the taste of Erik's mouth on his own, one of Erik's hands resting on the back of his bare neck and the other braced on the back of Charles' chair. His own hands had let go of Erik's waist at some point in favor of running up and down Erik's back, and pulling him an inch or two closer. It wasn't that Charles had forgotten he was kissing Erik, his neighbor he wasn't actually dating, so much as he'd forgotten he wasn't supposed to be getting off on it. Erik didn't seem to have any objections, either, for his kisses, originally careful, were now filthy and heated enough to send a continuous jolt of arousal down Charles' stomach.

Charles came to his senses several sets of footsteps later, just as he was pulling Erik's shirt out of his pants, and had the distinct feeling that if he'd come to his senses two minutes later, he'd have been undoing Erik's fly.

"Uh," Charles said, pulling back. "Sorry, I got a little carried away there. Um. This obviously isn't going to work. We should get back out there before someone misses us."

Someone missing them was precisely the object of the exercise, but thankfully Erik didn't point that out, and allowed Charles to flee in peace.

****

It had been one of those days so long and eventful that you couldn't help but come down once it was over. And so down Charles went, minutes after saying goodbye to Raven, Irene and the kids and having been reminded (for the fifth time tonight) when and where they needed to be for the wedding the next day.

It wasn't his usual drop, a vague melancholy he knew could be best combated by going to bed without having anything else to drink—no, this was rather more specific than that.

That was why Charles waited until he and Erik had gotten back to their hotel room, and then said, "We have to break up."

Erik had been halfway to the bathroom, loosening his tie as he went, oddly cheerful. He'd been cheerful during the drive back, too, had kept reaching over to pat Charles on the knee as if he'd forgotten that they no longer had an audience; now he turned around, looking more annoyed than Charles had seen him this weekend. "When did you have a chance to meet someone? Was it before or after you stuck your tongue down my throat?"

"What?" It took Charles a second to catch up to the conversation from two weeks ago that Erik was referencing. "Uh, no. I didn't meet anyone. I just—" He faltered, not really sure how best to address the issue. He usually didn't address issues at all, preferring to ignore them entirely except for those which led to him going into a tailspin followed by a meltdown. That was what he was trying to head off at the pass now, as he'd spent the last forty-five minutes becoming increasingly convinced that his current dilemma was what Irene had meant when she'd told him not to ruin the wedding. "I swear I didn't invite you here under false pretenses."

"Uh, yes, you did. That was the whole idea."

"Well, yes, but that's not what I meant," Charles said.

Erik's brow furrowed. "So what did you mean?"

"Um." Charles fought the urge to say never mind, just kidding, I got you; normally he'd have backtracked from any sign of conflict like a pro, but he couldn't do that this time. "I swear I didn't feel this way when I asked you. Or at least I didn't think I did. Or, well. I don't know."

Apparently this was less than enlightening. Explaining things to non-telepaths could be so tedious. "Feel what way?"

"I'm attracted to you," Charles said. "I think I might have feelings for you." That these feelings were a combination of 'I really wish you would stick your dick down my throat' and 'you know, if we dated and things got serious and we eventually had our own kids to take to the zoo, I think I would like that, provided you let me be the fun parent every so often,' he felt was best left unspecified. "I don't want to put you in an awkward position. I mean, it's not really appropriate, is it? So I don't think you should come with me to the wedding."

What definitely wouldn't be appropriate would be if he sat up all night thinking about it, working himself up into a state only to try to have a big emotional conversation with Erik about it in the middle of the wedding. That, Charles was convinced, was exactly what would happen. It was exactly the sort of thing he was likely to do, even when he knew he was likely to do it and also all the reasons why he shouldn't and should theoretically have been able to stop himself. He'd never been all that good at choosing his moments.

"So, let me get this straight," Erik said. Of all the reactions Charles had expected, it hadn't been for Erik to laugh at him some more, but laughing at Charles he was. That smirk made it unmistakable. "You want to break off our fake relationship because you have real feelings for me."

Charles swallowed. He couldn't take it back now, much as he wanted to. Well, he'd give Erik some space for a week or two when they got back, and then they could go back to the way things had been. They'd been friends for the better part of a year now, and Erik was already too important a part of Charles' life to let him slip away. They would stay friends. Charles would give it some time, then wheel down the hallway to knock on Erik's door again when he was feeling a little less embarrassed about everything. He would. Really. He would. "That's about the size of it."

"Great. Done. We're fake broken up," Erik said, jumping in before Charles could say that he would, of course, be happy to pay for Erik to spend the night in a different room. "So, do you want to go out sometime?"

"What?"

"Yeah, I was supposed to go to this wedding tomorrow, but the jackass who invited me just ditched me, so. Maybe you could come with me instead."

"I'm confused," Charles said.

"I'm asking you out," Erik said. "I was thinking about it before this weekend, too."

"Really?" Charles was too stunned to know what he felt at this revelation. He was going to have emotional whiplash in a minute. It was likely he had it now. "Why didn't you say something?"

Erik shrugged. "I thought this would be a good test run. I was going to do it when we got back if things went well. Why didn't you just ask me to come as your date?"

"Well, for one thing it didn't occur to me." There had been a whole slew of other reasons, as well, but somehow none of them seemed very viable now that zero shovel talks had been administered. "And for another thing, you had already turned me down once. I wasn't about to force myself on you and ruin our friendship."

"Yeah, well, I wasn't going to force myself on you when you couldn't even remember where you lived," Erik said, which had to be at least the twentieth time this weekend he'd referenced that stupid story. "I told you to come talk to me when you sobered up, but you didn't."

"—I don't remember that."

"Because you were completely fucking hammered."

"Yes, well, for future reference, if I'm conscious enough to offer, that's good enough for me," Charles said. "And, yes—I'd like to go to my sister's wedding with you. And, uh, I hope I didn't hurt your feelings at any point this weekend." He had the sense that, in retrospect, a lot of the things he'd said might have come off as insensitive.

"No, you were just annoying," Erik said. "It's not news."

Erik had always seemed to regard Charles with more irritated affection than anything else. He was regarding Charles with it now as he returned his attention to removing his tie, then unbuttoning his shirt.

"Uh, why are you taking off your clothes? I mean, not that I'm complaining, but it seems a bit, well..." Hasty? Premature? It wasn't as if Charles wasn't in the habit of immediately falling into bed with people whose names he'd just learned, but, well, he'd usually just met them. There wasn't usually any history there.

"I'm getting ready for bed." Shirt hanging open, Erik unbuckled his belt. "I was hoping we could fuck first, but that's up to you."

"That works," Charles said, deciding he actually had no issues with being hasty the moment he glimpsed Erik's happy trail. Then, because if you can't beat them, join them, he added, "I guess you're up for me after all."

****

"I just remembered why we can't be together," Charles said, about two minutes after they were finished. (He'd actually remembered it about four minutes ago, but he hadn't really wanted to derail his orgasm, especially considering how surprising it was he'd even had one, given he'd left his Viagra prescription home on the off chance he and Erik had the same luggage. He hadn't wanted to deal with awkward questions.)

"Uh-huh," Erik said. "And why is that?"

"You have a cat, but I hate cats. It's never going to work."

This was actually a serious concern, but Erik rolled his eyes. "What are you talking about? You love my cat."

"I absolutely do not."

"'Here, kitty, kitty,'" Erik said, in a croon that contained a remarkably good English accent. "'Aren't you a nice kitty? Aren't you a sweet kitty? Yes you are, you're a pretty kitty.'"

Charles flushed. He was finding he really hated it when Erik quoted him. It was even worse in bed. "Stockholm syndrome doesn't count."

Erik rolled his eyes again. "You can wait to sabotage our relationship until after the wedding. Go to sleep."

And with that and a wave of Erik's hand, the lights went off.

****

The wedding took place in a hall decorated in the sort of modern style that would have made Sharon turn over in her grave. Charles would forever be convinced that was why Raven had chosen it, but in the moment it didn't matter.

What did matter was that the wedding went just as it should have. Raven and Irene both walked down the aisle in their wedding dresses; Marie made a wonderful, if opinionated, flower girl; Kurt was the ringbearer (for all of five seconds, as according to Irene, any longer and there would have been a ninety-percent chance of him swallowing one or both of the rings). Charles sniffled through the vows while holding Erik's hand and being glad that he didn't have to worry too much about whether or not it looked authentic. No one was looking at the two of them, anyway.

Everyone was looking at Charles later, when it was time for him to give the toast at the reception. He didn't mind being looked at in this situation; public speaking had never bothered him. It was why he'd chosen to be a teacher instead of, say, a greasy unwashed shut-in (something he had briefly considered after the accident, since pizza delivery people's judgement didn't really count—especially considering it could be mitigated by a generous tip). It was one thing to have people randomly judge him, but another thing altogether to have people listen to him about something or someone he loved.

"About three and a half years ago," Charles said after his whole 'most of you don't know me, but I'm the bride's brother. No, not that bride, the other bride. No, no, half of you have still got it wrong,' spiel, "Raven called to tell me she'd met someone. You see, when she'd gotten out of her most recent prenatal appointment, Irene was sitting in the waiting room with her six-month-old daughter. She spoke to my sister for a minute or two, then told her that if she waited until Marie's appointment was over, there was at least a seventy-five percent chance they'd get married someday.

"Now, Raven's never listened to anyone else who's told her what's going to happen, but she said she was intrigued, and that she wanted to see where this went. And to be honest, I thought she was out of her mind. I thought the whole thing was crazy." At the time, he'd been within three phone conversations of convincing Raven to move back in with him. He'd been this close to renting a three-bedroom apartment and buying a crib. He'd been livid at the change of plans, right when things had finally seemed to be looking up from the entire Azazel disaster. "But you know what, I was wrong—because by the time Kurt was born, they'd moved in together. And just look at them now." Charles paused for a second, waving at the happy family, who waved back, Marie continuing to wave even while both of her moms dabbed at their eyes and her brother wiggled impatiently in his chair. "I think you all know this story by now, but what you probably don't know is what Irene told me a year or two later. There was a seventy-five percent chance they'd end up together if Raven waited for her, yes—but there was only the slimmest chance that she would wait in the first place. It was a shot in the dark, but one Irene thought was worth taking. And because she took that chance, my sister gained a daughter and a partner in addition to her son—and, today, she's gained a wife.

"I haven't asked Irene what the chances are that their marriage will last, and I'm sure she wouldn't tell me if I did—but I don't need to ask anyone in order to see the wonderful future they'll have together. I see it in the present, every time I come to visit. I couldn't be happier for them.

"And now," Charles said, raising his glass and smiling at Raven, whom he hadn't been able to look away from since he'd begun speaking, and who looked more radiant than he'd ever seen her except for the moment, several hours before, when she and Irene had exchanged their vows, "let's raise our glasses to the lovely couple, and the many years of happiness they'll have together."

****

If they'd been in a car, the windows would have fogged up five minutes ago. It was a good thing neither Charles nor Erik wore glasses, because that would have made it even harder to see than it already was with the light off. They'd managed to mingle for a little while after the toasts, but had perhaps unsurprisingly gone in search of a closet after a while, eventually finding one about half the size of the one from last night.

It was a tight fit, but they'd managed to pack themselves in somehow, and now Erik's fingers were on the back of Charles' neck, holding him still as he sucked on Charles' earlobe, breathing heavily and warmly into Charles' ear in a way that was even more erotic than the occasional scrape of his teeth. For his part, Charles had his hand down the front of Erik's pants, although they had so little room to maneuver that he was less giving Erik a handjob than providing something for Erik to rub himself off against.

Erik's other hand was under Charles' open shirt. Initially he'd been playing with Charles' nipples, but now he was close enough that his hand was gripping Charles' shoulder, too distracted to do more than two things at once.

Then, just as Erik's orgasm was building, a sensation Charles already knew intimately, the closet flooded with light. It took Charles a moment to realize just what had happened and pull his hand out of Erik's pants, as it took the bridesmaid who'd opened the door a moment to realize what she'd walked into.

"Oh my god," she said. "I'm—uh—sorry! So sorry!"

And with that she slammed the door and ran the other direction, followed by the guy who'd been with her.

"—Uh," Charles said. He couldn't see Erik's face, but the awkwardness was palpable. "I think we're okay. She and that guy were just looking for their own makeout closet, it seems. I don't think they're going to make a scene." When Erik said nothing, he added, "So you can go back to sucking on my ear, if you don't, er, mind."

He reached out, but Erik was already standing up, and from the sounds of it, re-doing his zipper. "I do mind," he said. "Sorry."

"What, really? I thought the risk of being caught turned you on."

"Yeah, well, getting caught turns me off," Erik said.

There was no convincing him otherwise, so Charles paid a visit to the bathroom, where he washed his face, dried off his ear, and waited for it to return to a more or less normal pinkish before returning to the reception.

****

Before they left to catch their flight, Charles said goodbye to Irene and the kids, then drew Raven aside and insisted on a lengthy hug. "I'll see you in a few weeks," he said, because he'd visited every month or two since she'd moved out here, and intended to keep it up as long as she stayed, even if it turned out to be forever, which was the way it had really been looking for the past three and a half years. "Congratulations again."

"Thanks," Raven said. She looked like she was about to cry again, though that could have just been the champagne.

Charles thought about saying he was sorry, if he'd made this weekend too much about him and his issues, without paying enough attention to Raven, whom this weekend was supposed to be about. But she didn't seem to have noticed his preoccupation, and maybe that was the way it should be. So instead of that or any of the other apologies that came to mind, he motioned for her to bend down again, and kissed her on the cheek. "I'm so happy for you. The both of you. All four of you."

"Thanks," Raven said again. "Make sure to call when you get home, okay? We'll still be on the plane," (they'd still be over the Pacific, in fact, on their way to their honeymoon in Hawaii, which Irene had forecast as having a one hundred percent chance of being perfect) "but I'll feel a lot better if I hear from you as soon as we land."

"All right. And call me back the second you land, you hear?" Charles said. "And I want daily updates. With pictures. And wear sunscreen, and—"

Five minutes' worth of advice later, Raven finally told him to shove it, and Charles hugged her and Irene and the kids a couple more times each, and then he and Erik were finally off.

****

Epilogue

Charles spilled the beans some six months later. He'd never planned on coming clean, but he'd really heard quite enough about how Raven and Irene were trying for baby #3. While he was excited about the prospect of becoming an uncle again, he was tired of hearing about how they were trying the natural way every time Raven called him. He'd never wanted to know about his sister's sex life in any detail whatsoever, and so when she started oversharing yet again, 'You know, Erik and I weren't actually dating when I asked him to your wedding. We were just pretending,' just sort of slipped out. The rest of the story followed, too, until it was maybe Charles who was doing the oversharing.

When he was finished, Raven said, "Yeah, I kind of thought you'd hired an escort at first. At least until you started bickering like an old married couple."

"You thought I'd hired a prostitute? Raven!"

"Well, you were acting really weird!"

"No, you were acting weird," Charles said, remembering the stiff way Raven had greeted them that first night, which now seemed to make a lot more sense in context.

"Yeah, because I thought you'd hired an escort!" Raven said. "I mean, what was I supposed to think? You send me all those weird texts, and then you show up with a guy who looks like that, and you're all, 'I'd like to introduce you to my long-term serious boyfriend'? Who talks like that? That's weird, Charles."

"Yes, well, you seemed pretty determined that I bring a date. I wasn't seeing anyone at the time, so I had to figure out something."

"Uh, what? When did I tell you you had to bring a date?"

"You kept texting me about it before the wedding."

"Yeah, because I wanted to know if you were bringing a date or not! So we could figure out the seating and everything! If you didn't want to bring a date, all you had to say was you weren't bringing a date."

"If I didn't bring a date, I was worried you would try to set me up with someone. I didn't want to deal with it," Charles said, feeling frustrated, lightheaded, a little bit like he was about to embarrass himself by crying—the way he always felt when some big, emotional thing he'd been worrying about for ages was being dragged kicking and screaming into the light.

"Why would you think I was going to set you up with someone?"

"Well, you did it that once." It had been a blind date with some guy in Raven's friends circle, not long after the accident. Charles still didn't know why he'd agreed to go in the first place, and it had been clear within the first ten seconds that it was also a pity date that would go nowhere. As it had also been Charles' first date of any kind after being paralyzed, it had been beyond humiliating.

"Yeah, and then you asked me not to do it again, so I didn't," Raven said. She sounded frustrated, too. "I don't get why you'd be that worried about it. Or why you'd think I would even have that kind of time to worry about your love life during my wedding. And if you were that worried, why couldn't you just bring a real date?"

"I didn't want you scaring off a real date," Charles said, feeling very, very small. "If I asked someone I really liked, I didn't want you threatening to kill them if they hurt me, or whatever else."

"Oh."

"And don't say you never would, because you did," Charles said, because she had; his first actual boyfriend after the accident, she'd taken aside and threatened. He'd thought it was hilarious when he'd told Charles about it, and Charles had laughed too, but really he'd been incredibly embarrassed. The relationship hadn't been all that serious, and had ended amicably a month or two later, but Charles had worried ever since then that Raven was going to do the same thing to anyone else he dated for the rest of his life.

"Yeah, I know," Raven said, sounding more subdued than Charles had heard her be in years. "And for the record, I'm really sorry. I felt really stupid about it as soon as it happened. I wanted to apologize, but I didn't know if Joe mentioned it to you. I didn't want to bring it up if you didn't know about it. I didn't want to embarrass you."

"Well, he did tell me. And, yes, I was embarrassed," Charles said. He'd been so embarrassed that he'd never dared to bring it up before. He'd been so embarrassed that he'd more or less avoided the majority of Raven's calls until a year or two later, when she'd found out she was pregnant just a week or two after Azazel took off. He'd been so embarrassed that he'd let that one experience color their entire relationship for years when it really hadn't needed to. "But I should have said something to you instead of letting it hang there between us."

Raven sniffled, which made Charles feel a little better about how hoarse he sounded himself. "Like I said, I'm really sorry."

"Anyway," Charles said, when neither of them said anything else for a minute. "So, what do the kids think of the idea of having another brother or sister? I mean, if you've mentioned it." It could be hazardous to tell four-year-olds about anything that wasn't going to happen immediately in the next two seconds.

"Oh, we asked them about it last week, without telling them we're actually going for it, you know?" Raven sounded a little less sniffly now, which was good. "Kurt seems to like the idea, but according to Marie, one brother is plenty."

Charles laughed. "I'll bet."

"She says she'd rather have a puppy—but she is absolutely not getting one, so don't you dare bring one into this house the next time you visit."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Charles said, as if he weren't tabling that idea as he spoke.

"Anyway, you should bring Erik with you the next time you visit," Raven said. "I mean—you two are really seeing each other now, right? God, you haven't been making that up too, have you?"

"No, no—that part's true," Charles said. He reached down and petted Erik's hair, much to the cat's annoyance—he'd been holding the phone in one hand, petting her on his shoulder with the other throughout most of this phone call. They'd been watching a movie when Raven called, which in reality meant that Erik had been watching a movie, but had fallen asleep on Charles' lap halfway through. Charles had been reading a book with the TV muted when Raven called. "And yes, we really are moving in together when his lease is up. I mean, I can hardly believe it either, but—it's happening."

"Well, I'm glad it all turned out okay."

"Me, too," Charles said. He and Raven chatted for a few minutes more. After she'd hung up, he petted Erik's hair for a while longer, then looked at the clock, grimaced, and said, "Okay, time to get up so we can go to bed."

He had to repeat himself a couple more times before Erik stirred and said, sleepily, "Fake bed or real bed?"

"Bed," Charles said. "Let's go."