A Gift For: minarchy
Characters/Pairings: Charles/Erik, Azazel/Irene/Raven
Rating: PG-13 for slight language and naughty references
Length: 7,769 words
Summary: Raven is determined that everyone will have a merry goddamn Christmas whether they like it or not. There's a pie, a threesome and a questionable pair of mittens, and though everything starts going downhill pretty fast, it might still be the happiest day of the year. (I meant to write crack, pure and simple, but it kinda got fluffy somehow as well. So it's...crack-fluff. No Beach Divorce, no Shaw, just wacky mutant-family hjinks. I sort of combined Prompts 1 & 2 and...well, there you are.)
It all started with the TV commercial. They had all been lounging in the sitting room one night after dinner in November, and a bunch of the kids were gathered around some board game and Angel was braiding Raven's hair and Charles and Erik were reading in armchairs and no one was paying much attention to the TV, where an episode of the Jetsons was playing. But then an ad came on, with a kid tearing into a living room and finding a beribboned toy truck underneath the Christmas tree as some sort of boppy, twinkly music played in the background, and Charles looked over and rolled his eyes.
"God, already?" he groaned. "Every year it starts earlier, I swear. Bloody nightmare." And he'd ambled out of the room to make a cup of tea, and Raven had just laughed wryly, saying he was like this every year. When Erik asked, she explained that holidays in the Xavier household were usually more or less a nightmare and Charles had loathed coming home from school for a few weeks of tension and rows and questionable fruitcake, and as a result had hated Christmas ever since.
Erik hadn't been very surprised by this, from what he'd heard from Charles about his family life, and had simply said "Well, maybe it'll be different now that we're all here," and gone back to his book. But Raven had looked up and grinned a slow, wide grin at him, and said that was a very good point and it was different, and there was no reason why they couldn't do it on their own this year, because they were basically a family now and everyone would like it and maybe they could make Charles stop being such a Scrooge. And before Erik knew what was happening, Raven and Angel had rushed over to where the others sat across the room and started scheming in excited, hushed voices, and when Charles returned a few minutes later and handed Erik a steaming mug and asked what everyone was on about, Erik quite honestly replied that he had no idea. He didn't hear anything more over the next several days, so after a while he rather forgot about it.
But then a few weeks later, just before the 25th, Charles had informed them that he'd be away for most of the day on Saturday because he had to go into the city to finalize some forms about turning the place into a school, and Raven had looked extremely pleased and then come to Erik that night, telling him that now was the time to put the plan in motion. At first she'd eagerly suggested that he could do "the whole Hanukkah thing" and show them all how it was done, but he'd squashed that one pretty quickly; he could tell she was trying to be nice, but the idea of sitting all the kids down and teaching him all about the miracle of lights just gave him a dull, throbbing pain behind his right eye. He had no intention of being a ringleader in this insanity. One holiday with this gang was more than enough, and besides, as he told her, Hanukkah had passed two weeks previously. Raven looked disappointed, but rallied quickly.
"Well, OK, we'll just do the other stuff, then. And I think the best plan is to just do all the set-up when he's not here so he doesn't have the chance to get all annoyed about it. See, if we tell him about it ahead of time he'll just complain and say it's stupid, but if he comes home and everything's suddenly all decorated and pretty and cinnamony he'll totally just get into it whether he likes it or not," she'd said excitedly. It was the way she kept saying 'plan' that made the whole thing sort of alarming, Erik decided. It sounded oddly diabolical, as though it should have the word "master" in front of it. And that manic look in her eye didn’t help.
"I don't know, Raven," he said doubtfully. "You're pl--intending to do this all in one day?"
"Yeah! Come on, we can pull it off if we all do stuff. It'll be fun. We just have to be organized about it." Seeing the skeptical look on his face, she added "C'mon, Erik, most of them--well, most of us don't have anywhere else to go, but we're all here together now and I just...really want it to be special, OK? And I really think we can help Charles get over all his weird childhood drama stuff if this year is really cool and memorable. Please?"
She looked so eager that Erik couldn't help himself. "Well, OK, fine, but--"
"Oh, good! So the plan is that Alex and Armando are gonna get the tree, and Angel and Sean are going to decorate the house, and Azazel and Irene are coming over to help me make dinner, and you and Hank can shop for everything else we need. Oh, and by the way, you got Charles for Secret Santa, so you can take care of that while you're at it. And you should make it something really good." She gave him a knowing grin and a wink and handed him a piece of paper with a long list written on it, and then turned away and bounced off down the hall while Erik stood there and blinked, still stuck on "cinnamony" and wondering what secrets Santa could possibly have.
And that's how he ended up standing in a crowded department store clutching that damn list in one hand, with Hank standing beside him looking thoroughly alarmed. It was kind of uncomfortably warm and there were noisy little kids running around and everyone seemed to be wearing the same snowman sweater, and Erik looked sideways at Hank and said "So what now?"
"Well--" He took the list from Erik's hand. "She wants us to get ornaments for the tree, and a wreath, and--" He squinted at the paper. "What are tapers?"
"I don't know. Maybe she meant 'tape.' Like for wrapping things."
"And a tree skirt." He looked up at Erik, slightly panicked. "Is that a joke? I think she's teasing us. Trees don't wear skirts."
"Yes, I'm aware of that." He glanced around the store. "Should we split up? We'll get out of here faster if we--"
"No," Hank interrupted, as if afraid to be left alone there. "No, let's...stick together. You know, this doesn't even make sense. Christmas as we know it today is just a random amalgamation of customs from all different cultures and times. The giving of presents probably comes from Saturnalia, but the tree is from the tradition of the Paradise tree used on the name day of Adam and Eve, and neither has anything to do with--" He stopped at the expression on Erik's face. "Um. Sorry. I was just saying."
"Well, save it for the dinner table. I wouldn't want everyone else to miss out." Erik looked at the list again, as though it may have changed in the last thirty seconds. "We're supposed to get gifts too, aren't we? For the secret thing?"
"I believe so," Hank said. "I'm buying something for Armando, and you've got Charles."
"I've no idea what I'm supposed to get him," Erik admitted, shoving his hands in his pockets. He couldn't really think of anything that had ever made him happier than meeting Charles and everything that had followed over the last several months, but sometimes the logistics of it all sort of freaked him out. It wasn't really his area of expertise.
"He likes books," Hank suggested pragmatically. Erik shrugged half-heartedly.
"He's got a lot of those, though. I think he reads about one a day." He wondered vaguely if it was supposed to be something...special, or whatever, all things considered, but he didn't remotely know what that ought to be and didn't feel much like asking Hank. He was a pretty smart guy and all, but that was not really a conversation they'd had yet, and it didn't seem like the time or place, not while that stupid holly-jolly song was playing over the loudspeaker again.
"That's true. Maybe something he needs, then." Hank stopped in front of an enormous wall of brightly-colored ornament balls. "Good heavens," he murmured. "What color are we supposed to get?"
Erik checked. "It doesn't say on the list." Hank looked fretful.
"Gold? Or silver? Or is it supposed to be some sort of primary color? Yellow is supposed to stimulate the brain and make you more decisive."
"Maybe we should go stare at something yellow for a while, then."
"Blue?" Hank suggested, reaching for a box. "Blue Christmas? That's a thing, isn't it?"
"I dunno. I think it's a song. You're asking me?" Eventually they made a decision and grabbed several boxes' worth, and then headed off around the rest of the store, trying to make sense of Raven's list. It took some searching, but after a while they found everything she'd written down, more or less. Hank found a record that he thought Armando had been wanting, and Erik even managed to find a gift for Charles that he thought might be all right. Hank seemed pleased with their accomplishments as they drove back to the mansion. "I think we did rather well," he said contentedly, peering through their purchases again. "Raven will be quite happy."
When they entered the house, laden down with bags, Hank said "good heavens" again at the same time that Erik said "holy shit." The entire place had been violently decorated, with paper chains, strings of popcorn and giant red flowers hanging all over every available surface, including on the high ceiling, making Erik sure it was Angel's handiwork. There was also a snowman made out of what looked like rolled-up socks sitting on the table by the door with a profoundly creepy drawn-on face that Erik thought had Sean's distinct flair. Raven came hurrying into the hall as Hank shut the door, wearing a smudged apron and shoving her hair off her face. "Oh, good, you're back," she said hurriedly. "Bring the stuff in the kitchen, will you? I've got a bunch of stuff cooking." Seeing their expressions, she added "Yeah, Angel and Sean kinda overdid the decorations a little. I had to send them out to get the rest of the dinner stuff just to stop the madness."
Erik and Hank followed Raven into the kitchen, where her dinner preparations were fully underway. A pie was cooling by the window, and a pot was simmering on the stove, and Erik could feel the oven humming away and the whole room was warm and extremely messy, every surface strewn with bowls and measuring cups and broken eggshells. It did smell good, though.
They said hello to Irene and Azazel as Raven began digging through their bags, and they realized fairly quickly that she was not, in fact, happy. "What--where are all the ornaments?" she demanded, pulling out the cardboard boxes. "You got all green?!"
Hank blinked owlishly at her. "Yes. Was that not right?"
"The tree's green!"
"Right, and those will...match." He looked anxiously at Erik, who spread his hands helplessly. "Isn't that the idea?"
"Not really, no," Irene offered from her spot at the table, where she sat cutting up beans. "Even I know that. You're supposed to kind of mix and match." Hank looked crestfallen, and Raven gave the boxes a dirty look as she set them aside.
"OK, wreath, holly, good..." She pawed through the rest of their purchases, and then frowned. "What's this?”
Hank glanced at Erik again. "It's a...tree skirt?" he half-asked, lamely. "Is that...not your size?" Raven pulled the green fabric out of the bag and shook it out. The little bells sewn onto it tinkled sadly, and Azazel, seated on the counter beside the stove and stirring the pot (with the spoon held by his tail), broke into a hearty guffaw.
"That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen," he crowed, as Raven looked in horror at the garish felt design. "You're really gonna wear that, Rav?"
"No!" Raven looked ready to throw it at him. "I didn't mean a skirt with a tree on it, I meant--it's for the tree! It's not for me! You put it underneath to catch the needles and stuff!"
"Oh." Hank looked profoundly saddened, but then brightened. "But if it's a fir tree, a Fir genus Abies, then it won't shed its needles when it dries out because of the--"
"Hank." Erik caught his eye and shook his head briskly.
"What? I wasn't talking about Saturnalia, I was just saying--"
"Wait." Azazel frowned over at Irene in apparent confusion, his scarlet brow creasing. "How'd you know the thing about the ornaments? I thought you couldn't see any colors. Just stuff that's gonna happen."
Irene said nothing, just pressed her knuckles hard to her mouth. Raven leaned over and patted Azazel on the knee. "That was the joke, honey," she said patiently.
"Oh." He nodded slowly, and then grinned. "Oh, I get it."
"That's good." Irene's shoulders were quivering. Raven returned to the shopping bag and let out a chuckle of her own. "Who're these for?"
"Charles," Erik said, and she gaped at him. "You said...you said I should get him a present."
"And this what you picked?!" she exclaimed, pulling out his purchase in a clenched fist. "Mittens?"
"He lost his gloves!" Erik protested, as Irene stopped trying entirely and burst out laughing. "He needs new ones. We were out a few weeks ago, and he left them in a cafe, and..." He scowled at the look on her face. "Look, they've got Xes on. For 'Xavier.'"
Raven looked at the mass of blue wool in her hand. "Those are snowflakes!"
"They're not!" He snatched them away from her. "Are they?"
"God." Raven rubbed her forehead briskly with one hand. "I don't know what I was thinking, sending the two of you shopping on your own. Mittens."
"He needs them," Erik retorted stubbornly. "I was trying to be...practical."
"Jesus, Erik, this is not a time for practical," Raven barked, smacking a hand on the counter and sending a small cloud of flour into the air. "I know you're not used to this whole cutesy-domesticated thing, but I'm sorry, that is not an acceptable present when it's Christmas and you've been screwing like rabbits for six months."
This remark had several different entertaining effects: Irene's eyebrows shot upwards and she started laughing anew, Hank choked on a piece of raw cookie dough that he had pinched from the bowl on the table, and Azazel said "What about rabbits? I thought you were making a turkey."
"Thanks a lot." Erik gave her a withering look, which she returned, and thumped Hank on the back, stuffing the stupid mittens into his pocket with the other hand.
"Oh, it's not like everyone doesn't already know already," she said, going over to the oven and peering inside. "Hank, come on, you walked in on them in the shower together last week. And I'd like to think you're too smart to believe Charles' bit about 'he's helping me fix the water pressure.'" Charles wasn't exactly killing himself to hide it, Erik reflected, but he still seemed to be sort of squirrelly about the others finding out--unlike Raven, who was cheerfully open about her relationship (or relationships, really) to the point of mild embarrassment sometimes. Erik, for his part, didn't much care who else knew or didn't know; if he was honest with himself, as long as he got to be with Charles, he didn't care about too much else.
"Well...yes, all right, that's true," Hank admitted, wiping his eyes on his cuff. "But--still, I think that's a perfectly nice present. It's considerate, and it shows he's paying attention..." Raven just shook her head. "That's what one's supposed to do in these sorts of relationships. Isn't it?" He looked at Azazel, who shrugged. Erik groaned. It was really rather nice that Hank was jumping to his defense and all, but at the same time Erik sort of wanted to shove that wreath in his mouth right about now. "Irene? Don't you think it's appropriately romantic?"
"Bowl," Irene replied matter-of-factly, idly making a bean pile.
"Pardon?" As Hank turned, his elbow hit the mixing bowl on the counter, and after teetering mockingly for a few seconds, crashed to the floor and shattered. Raven whipped around at the sound.
"Oh, damn it!" Hank hurriedly sank to the floor and started picking up porcelain shards, apologizing all the while, but the dough was a lost cause. "I needed that," Raven said tragically, kneeling beside Hank with her apron gathered on her lap. "The first batch burned and the yams are in the oven, but Angel and Sean aren’t back with the turkey yet and I'm all out of eggs and butter and..."
"Raven, it's all right," Irene said easily. "We'll go to the store. You just stay here. And try to relax." She set down the potato in her hand and got to her feet, stretching. “Erik, want to take over here?” Erik lifted a hand and the knife resumed its work on the beans. Irene moved over to Azazel and pulled him down off the counter by the arm. "Come on, you drive."
"OK. Thanks, you two." Raven got up from the floor and scribbled a list on a slightly damp piece of paper, which she handed to Azazel, then gave them both distracted kisses on the cheeks and checked the oven again. He slipped an arm around Irene's waist, and Erik saw her grin as they vanished in a cloud of red smoke.
"Things still going well between you three?" Erik asked as Raven heaved a sigh and returned her attention to the stove.
"Oh, yeah, it’s good," she replied, stirring whatever was in the pot and turning the heat down slightly. "And they’re actually pretty into this whole holiday plan. Irene knows, like, a million Christmas songs on the piano, and Azazel's going to make a casserole. And he made that pie earlier. I really didn’t know he was such a good cook."
"I didn’t know he could count high enough to do any measuring," Erik said dryly. "I thought his talents were purely...physical." Raven threw a dishtowel at him.
“Oh, shut up," she said, as Hank snickered behind her. "He has...he has many assorted talents, I’ll have you know. You’re getting as bad as Charles. He's already made it totally clear that he doesn't approve, so don't you start."
"He’ll come around," Erik chuckled, still moving his hand in lazy peeling gestures as the potatoes sheared themselves. "Just give him time."
"It’s been, like, three months,” Raven pointed out, and Erik had to admit this was true; Charles was being a bit stubborn on this one. He still seemed to be kind of peevishly disapproving of Raven, Irene and Azazel’s whole thing; at first he'd been quite pleased that Raven was "doing a bit of recruiting as well" when she'd first started bringing Irene and Azazel around a few months ago, but then he'd started picking up on the fact that there was a bit more going on than that.
"Just out of curiosity, Raven, which one of them are you dating, anyway?" he'd finally asked one night, smirking. She'd spent the evening laughing with both of them on the couch in the sitting room, her legs in Azazel's lap, her fingers threaded through Irene's, and Charles and Erik had both followed her into the kitchen when she went to get snacks. And Erik had been more than a little amused when she'd started making popcorn and calmly replied "Well, both of them, actually" and his expression had immediately shifted to flustered astonishment.
"What--what d'you mean, both of them?"
"Just that." She'd given him that defiant, steely-eyed look that made most people flinch. "I like both of them, and they both like me, and they like each other, so...that's it. We're just together." Charles had made a noise that sounded like an owl sneezing, and Raven had given him an exasperated-stern look. "What?"
"I didn't say anything," he said unconvincingly. "But--how would that even work?"
The look intensified. "What, do you want a diagram?"
"I do," Erik piped up, leaning cross-armed against the fridge. "Do you have one? Or maybe you just flip a coin to see who goes where. You know, heads or tails." Charles made the owl-noise again and threw both hands up in a scandalized gesture. "Or maybe it's by a color scheme--red-white-blue one day, blue-red-white the next." He nodded approvingly. "It's very patriotic of you. Or...French, I guess."
"For God's sake," Charles half-yelped, giving Erik an appalled look as he started to laugh at his own hilarity. "I don't need that in my head!" Behind him, Raven bit down on a grin.
"Oh, don't be such a square," she admonished. "Last I checked, you weren't exactly about to settle down with a wife and kids." She shot a meaningful look at Erik, and Charles went as red as Azazel and turned to look at him as well.
"Of course he didn't. We share a wall, Charles," Raven cut in tiredly. "It's kinda hard to miss. And I couldn't be happier for you both, so you don't get to wig out about us."
"I'm not wigging out," Charles protested, and Erik just had to laugh again. Somehow, the way he said it made Erik both want to kiss him and throw something at him. "It's just...it's a bit...weird."
"Well, it's weird the way you start yelling in Latin halfway through every other night," she retorted, with another significant glance at Erik, "but you don't hear me complaining."
"I think it's sexy, personally," Erik offered, as Charles spluttered incoherently.
"You--I--really," he exclaimed, giving them both an indignant look. "That's--that's not something I intend to discuss with--"
"Well, then, don't be so judgmental," Raven told him smoothly. She turned the stove off and took the foil dome off of the stove and headed back into the living room, calling "Bring the salt in when you come back, will you?" over her shoulder.
Charles had gaped at her retreating back for a few seconds, and then turned back to Erik. "Well," he'd said huffily. "She--she's just trying to be scandalous. I mean, honestly, the three of them?"
"I don't know, I think it's sort of nice. It's very democratic. Aren't you always trying to make people get along with each other?"
"That's not exactly what I meant by peaceful coexistence," Charles replied grumpily. He reached for the teakettle, paused, and then sighed "oh, to hell with it" and opened the fridge, retrieving two beers and handing one to Erik, who uncapped both of them with the twitch of a finger. "Thanks." After a pause he said "Do you think they all know?"
"What, about us? Maybe. Probably. It's not that big of a house. And you do get a little noisy sometimes," he grinned. Charles leaned against the counter beside him and elbowed him in the ribs. "Does it matter?"
"I don't know," he muttered. "I s'pose not. And I don't suppose anyone will really notice us while those three are running around." He shook his head. "It just sounds absurd."
"Makes sense to me," Erik shrugged. "They all see different things they like in each of the other two, and they get to have what they all want in different ways. And besides, Azazel's got a tail," he added thoughtfully, taking a sip of beer. "That's got to be a big draw. I'd like a tail, actually."
"What would you do with it?" Charles asked, sounding half-afraid to hear the answer.
"What wouldn't I do with it?" Erik replied mischievously, and turned at an angle to kiss him square on the mouth. And Charles put his non-beer hand on Erik's hip and kissed him back, right in the middle of the kitchen, which he had never done before.
After a moment, Erik broke away with a grin. "But I guess flipping a coin wouldn't work with three of them, right? Maybe they use dice. I was wondering why they were missing from the Yahtzee box." Charles just groaned and gave him a push in the chest and slumped back out into the sitting room, and ever since then had maintained a frostily disapproving attitude about the whole thing--he never actually said anything when the other two came over to the house, though he always cleared his throat an awful lot when they were all in the same room and glared over the top of whatever he was reading. Erik, on the other hand, took to calling them "les amis du Tricolore" because it always made Raven and Irene laugh and made Azazel frown in confusion and made Charles squawk in annoyance, and Erik found the whole thing pretty hilarious.
Once the smashed bowl was cleared away, Raven assigned Hank to set the table. "I'm just saying, you could get him something a little more exciting. And sexier," she said to Erik, as though there had been no interruption. "That's why I made sure you got him for Secret Santa. I thought it'd help with the whole making-him-like-the-holidays thing if he got a gift from you." She flashed a fiendish grin and took Azazel's former spot up on the counter beside the stove, still stirring the pots carefully.
Erik helped himself to a gumdrop from the open bag on the table. "Like what?"
"Well, something he wants, not something he needs," she said. "Something fun and spontaneous."
He chewed for several seconds. "Like...a Vespa?"
"How the hell does your brain go from mittens to a Vespa?" she demanded. "And he'd kill himself in a day and you know it. No, it doesn't have to be extravagant, it should just be something that has meaning to both of you. Personally."
Erik frowned and thought this over. Before he could think for very long, however, the front door banged open and both of them looked around, startled. Armando's triumphant voice echoed in from the front hallway: "Raven, we got the tree!"
“Oh, thank God," Raven muttered, hopping down from the counter and hurrying out of the kitchen. Hank and Erik continued their respective tasks for only a few seconds before they heard her yelp. They jumped up in unison and ran into the front hall, where she stood gaping at a bundled-up Alex, who looked slightly sheepish, and at Armando, whose scarily muscle-ized arms were just visible around the sides of the tree he was carrying. The tree looked off, though, Erik thought. It was weirdly asymmetrical in places, and the bottom branches looked sort of dead. In fact, they looked sort of...burned.
"What...what's wrong with it?" Raven asked faintly, as though the day's mounting stress was about to overwhelm her. "Where'd you get it?"
"From the woods, I'm guessing," Erik suggested. "Common place to find trees, or so I've heard." Raven scowled. Hank moved closer and peered curiously at it.
"Did you--knock it down with a plasma blast?" he asked hesitantly, touching a singed twig with a finger. Alex shifted awkwardly.
“Well...it just seemed a waste to spend all that effort chopping it down with a stupid axe," he mumbled. Armando piped up cheerfully from somewhere amidst the branches.
“You should've seen him, he was really good! He kind of missed with the first few, but once he got the aim right this one fell just perfectly, and if we just turn this side to the wall, it’ll--"
"What do you mean, 'kind of missed'?" she asked sharply. "You're saying this was your best effort? Did you set a bunch of trees on fire or something?"
"No," Alex retorted, annoyed, just as Armando said "Don't worry, we put it out right away." Raven buried her face in both hands as Hank looked alarmed and Erik started to laugh.
"You couldn't just buy one?" he asked. Alex looked grumpier still.
"That's what I said, but then he--" he pointed at Armando, still holding up the tree "--said that she--" he pointed an accusing glove at Raven "--would say it had to smell all nice or whatever for this freaky Herman Rockwell Christmas thing. So then we saw the woods and just thought..."
"Better to buy one than bring this home!" Raven cried. "It looks like you stole someone's tree from last year!"
"Listen, you're the one who came up with this whole psycho-speedy Christmas thing," Alex retorted. "We just spent the whole afternoon walking around the damn forest looking for this stupid thing. And it's really cold out, you know. It's s'posed to storm later. And then we dragged it all the way back here--"
"Uh, we dragged it back here?" Armando interrupted, sounding somewhat less cheerful now. "Can I put this down, by the way?"
"Hey, I am trying to make this nice for everyone," Raven shot back, apparently not hearing Armando. "It's our first holiday here all together and it's all gonna work if everyone does a little bit, but that doesn't include starting a forest fire!"
"Oh, whatever, it's winter; all the squirrels and stuff are dead or something," Alex snapped, and Hank looked horrified.
"Even in winter there's still a very delicate ecosystem that needs to be maintained, you know," he blurted, and Erik just sighed and rubbed his temple as Alex shot him a death glare. That throbbing pain behind his eye was back. That was not particularly Christmassy, as far as he knew. Raven looked ready to hit someone.
"You guys, I asked you to do one simple thing--"
The front door opened again, and a blast of icy air accompanied Sean and Angel into the hall. They were both carrying shopping bags and looked windswept. Angel pulled off her handmade knit hat and said "Why're we all standing in here?"
"Because apparently staring at a mangled plant is what Christmas is all about," Raven said through clenched teeth. Sean set down his bags and moved closer.
"Whoa," he said, his eyes widening. "That tree's messed up." Raven gave him the same look Alex had just given Hank and, apparently sensing danger, Angel hurried over to her and said "Look, Raven, we got the rest of the dinner stuff. We got ice cream for the pie, and cranberries--and of course the turkey." Sean proudly held up a large bag, and Raven took a few calming breaths.
"OK. Good. Thanks." She reached for the bag, and Sean handed it to her. "God, that's heavy. I ran out of some dessert stuff while you were out, but Irene and Azazel went to get those, so as soon as they get back, we'll..." She trailed off, feeling the outside of the grocery bag with both hands. "Why is this so...?" She knelt suddenly on the floor and tore open the paper bag. "You got a frozen turkey?"
"Well--that was all they had left," Angel said worriedly. "It was pretty cleaned out, you know, because of the holiday--"
"What's wrong with it?" Sean asked, a little indignantly, apparently unhappy that his contribution was being insulted. Raven looked up at him in wild despair.
"This has to be ready in about three hours! It takes, like, two days for one of these to defrost! You were supposed to get one that was already cooked!"
Alex perked up. "Hey, I could heat it up pretty fast if I just--"
"No," said Raven, Armando and Hank together. Alex's face quickly went back to sullen.
"I was just saying."
"Well, next time I'm making baked Alaska, I'll call you. At least that's supposed to be served on fire." Alex opened his mouth angrily to retort, but Angel interrupted him.
"Um," she said. "Actually--is something burning?" There was a moment of silence in which they all sniffed curiously, and then Raven blanched.
"Oh, God. Oh, no." She scrambled to her feet and ran for the kitchen, shortly followed by the others, except for Armando, who bellowed after them "Seriously, guys, what do I do with this tree?"
Erik skidded into the kitchen a few steps behind Raven--the room didn't smell all that good anymore, and clouds of smoke were issuing from both the stove and the oven. "Oh, no." Erik quickly turned off both appliances with a jerk of his hand, and Raven ripped the oven door open, fanning away the smoke with her hand. "My yams," she wailed piteously. "Oh, God, they're ruined. My beautiful yams."
Erik came up beside her and took the lid off the pot, peering at the blackened cement-like substance inside as everyone else hurried into the room as well. "What's this supposed to be?"
"The soup," she said miserably. "The mushroom soup, for the casserole. Oh, it's all fucked." She banged the oven door closed in a hopeless sort of way, and Angel hurried over to put an arm around her. Sean, however, lit up excitedly.
"Hey, there's pie!" he said happily, hurrying forward and pointing at the pastry by the window. "It looks really good, too. And pie's always the best part. Of life."
Raven narrowed her eyes at him slightly, but then reached forward and picked it up to inspect it. "Well, there you go," she said wryly. "Everything else has gone to hell, but we've still got pie."
WHOOSH. Irene and Azazel materialized in the middle of the kitchen in a burst of red smoke, appearing about a foot away from Raven. She shrieked in surprise and jumped, and the pie slipped from her fingers, smashing spectacularly on the floor and sending apple and dough everywhere.
"We're back," Azazel announced to the room at large. "Raven, it was so weird, everyone was shopping at the same time and they were all out of lots of stuff, so we couldn't find any butter. But we got cranberries!" He suddenly noticed Raven's expression, as well as everyone else's, and the mess on the floor, counters and wall. "Aw, geez! What happened to my pie?" Raven buried her face in her hands, and Angel resumed hugging her.
"Don't worry about it, Raven. We'll just eat the other stuff," Armando reassured her from the other side of the table. "I'm sure it'll all be great."
"There is no other stuff," Raven moaned. "There's no turkey, there's no yams, there's no casserole, there's no pie, there's no cookies because Hank knocked the damn bowl over..."
"Hey!" Hank piped up indignantly. "That wasn't my fault."
"I did warn you," Irene pointed out. Hank glared.
"About two seconds ahead of time. What's the use in that?"
"Hey, don't give her a hard time." Azazel glared over at Hank in turn. "You're the one who was out buying that dumb skirt while we were here cooking."
Sean snickered. "Dude, you bought a skirt?"
"No! I didn't--I just thought--he said it was the right thing!" Erik realized Hank was now pointing accusingly at him.
"Why'd you listen to him? He doesn't know anything about Christmas trees," Alex scoffed.
"I know you're not supposed to set them on fire," Erik shot back at him. Irene piped up suddenly from her side of the room. "Um, guys?"
Angel looked appalled."You did what?" she demanded of Alex, who gave a defiant shrug.
"No, no, he didn't," Armando cut in hastily, but Sean laughed again.
"He kinda did," he pointed out. "That tree looks pretty gnarly." Over by the stove, Irene was frowning in concentration. "Guys, seriously--"
"Oh, yeah, good point," Alex growled at Sean. "Maybe I should've just screamed at a bunch of 'em and hope one fell down. Because that's a really useful talent."
"Hey, he can fly too," Angel pointed out. Alex rolled his eyes.
"He can fall. It's not the same thing." Erik started to laugh at that one, and Sean gave him a peevish look. "Dude, you bought a skirt, you can't laugh at me."
"Maybe if she had written an actually useful list--" Erik started to point at Raven, just as Irene said "You guys--" and Raven bellowed "All of you, just shut up!"
And that, of course, was the moment that Charles picked to walk slowly into the kitchen, dragging his scarf from around his neck and looking completely bewildered. "Um, Charles is on his way in," Irene finished sadly.
Charles looked around at the ransacked kitchen, over which a cloud of smoke was still hanging, and at all of them standing crowded together, looking mulish and harassed. "What the devil is all this?"
At this, Raven appeared to give up entirely. She folded both arms on the wooden table and slumped her head down on them, saying in a muffled voice "It's Christmas," using the sort of tone one might use if they were saying "it's smallpox." This didn't appear to clarify anything for Charles, and he turned his gaze to Erik, now looking slightly alarmed as well as bewildered. Erik felt a terrible desire to laugh at the look on his face and at the general madness of the situation, but he thought Raven might actually murder him if he did. Unable to think of anything else, he just said "So...has Hank ever told you about Saturnalia?"
Dinner, which was served an hour later, wasn't a very jolly affair. Raven picked unenthusiastically at her boiled green beans and didn't even touch her grilled cheese sandwich, and when she brought out a dessert and declared, slightly hysterically, that it was "cranberries jubilee," Erik was relieved that not even Azazel chose to point out that it was really just vanilla ice cream with cranberries on top. Around 8:00 Raven ushered them all into the flower-strewn living room to watch some Christmas movie she'd seen the year before; the hastily-decorated Christmas tree leaned sadly against the wall in one corner (although, as Armando pointed out, the green ornaments did stand out a bit better on the singed branches).
The movie didn't go over too well either, though. It was some sort of kids' thing with lots of singing and odd-looking characters. Azazel attempted to explain the onscreen actions to Irene, but kept getting all the reindeer confused and wondering why the guy in the hat couldn't just go to dentist school at night or something, and Hank kept pointing out that they'd made a mistake because male reindeer lost their antlers in the winter and that breed couldn't survive at the North Pole anyway. Armando and Angel were singing along cheerfully, but Alex thought the whole thing was stupid ("especially that snowman guy, geez") and Sean just wanted the monster to show up again and eat everyone, but Irene told him that he was going to get all his teeth pulled out at the end and he howled that she'd ruined it, and Raven just sat on the end of the couch looking like she was plotting all of their violent deaths.
"I have to say, I might've expected this nonsense from these other miscreants, but not from you," Charles said to Erik in a dry undertone as they sat side-by-side on the smaller couch. "I thought you were supposed to be the pillar of sanity around here."
Erik raised a defensive hand. "Don't blame me, it was all Raven. I was shanghaied into servitude. Actually, she did have a fairly decent plan going earlier, it's just that everything went sort of...comedy of errors."
"But why on Earth did you go along with it?" Charles asked, starting to laugh quietly as well. A string of popcorn hanging over them came loose and fell on his head, and he shoved it away. "Forgive me, but usually you're not one for class participation, let alone for a ridiculous holiday that you don't even celebrate."
"Your sister can be frighteningly persuasive," Erik informed him. "Besides, she...made it all sound nice. She said things were different for all of us now that we're all here together, and...you know." Charles was watching him with a slightly softened expression, but before Erik could say any more, Angel sprang from the couch and moved over to the window.
"Hey, look, it's snowing!"
And indeed it was; giant white flakes were falling fast and silent beyond the half-fogged windows. In an instant, it seemed, all of them (except for Raven) had jumped to their feet and sprinted from the room, heading down the hall and out through the door into the cold night. Erik could hear them laughing and yelling as though they'd never seen anything so thrilling in their lives, and Charles heaved a sigh and half-grinned as he rose from the couch. Raven still looked bad-tempered, but she trailed along behind the two of them as they followed the others outside and stood in the doorway watching as Angel soared joyfully up into the dark sky and the boys immediately started having a snowball fight in the grounds beside the mansion, though there was only an inch on the ground so far. "They're all idiots," Raven groused, her arms folded. "I asked them to do the simplest stuff today and nobody got any of it right, and now they're running around out there like a bunch of kindergar--"
A snowball pffed against her arm. She jerked her head up and looked around furiously, and saw Irene and Azazel standing side-by-side ten yards away. Apparently knowing that Raven was looking, Irene just pointed at him. "Wasn't me," she called.
Raven just stood there shaking her head, unable to stop a slow grin. "Idiots," she said again, and then she was running out into the grounds and launching herself at the two of them, throwing her arms around both of them and laughing uproariously as they tried to smash snow into her hair.
Charles shook his head as well. "Mental, all of them." He looked up into the black sky and shivered, crossing his arms over his chest. "God, it's really coming down. I'm glad I came back early; I shouldn't like to drive in this. The roads are terrible around here when it snows."
"Expect so," Erik said, and then, for no reason at all, "Perhaps if you had a Vespa or something."
"Oh, God, no," he snorted. "I'd kill myself in about a week." Erik turned away slightly so Charles wouldn't see him laughing.
"So," he said after a minute, "this is Christmas, is it?"
"Ah, right, of course, it's your first one," Charles noted. "So, what do you think?"
"Not quite what I expected," he said, and Charles grinned. "I didn't know there had to be so much...burning of things. And semi-homicidal mania."
Charles snorted. "Actually, they're both more common than you'd think. I really can't imagine why she went to all that trouble. I had no idea she liked this time of year so much. Perhaps I never asked. Or perhaps I just unfairly assumed that she was as curmudgeonly as I am."
Erik chuckled. Then, after a pause in which Sean joyfully rugby-tackled Alex and Angel swooped low and dumped an armful of snow onto their heads, he said "I think that's it, actually. I think it was mostly for you."
"What do you mean?"
"She said she wanted to make it special because it was our first year all together, and I'm sure she did, but I think it was really more about you. She very much wanted to make you forget about everything that happened when you were a kid and...start over, kind of. I think she just really hated the idea of you being unhappy over the holidays."
Charles looked thoroughly taken aback. "I--I didn't realize," he said, turning to look back out over the grounds, and at Raven, who is busy making snow angels with the other two. "I didn't know she..."
"And they really helped a lot," he added, when Charles fell silent. "Both of them. All of them, really, but the other ones know you, and they live here. I think Irene and Azazel did it just because she asked. I think they really care about her." Charles watched the three of them for another moment, then looked at the ground, then sideways at Erik, a slightly bashful expression playing over his face.
"Point taken," he said. "I suppose I've been a bit Puritanical about their...arrangement, haven't I." Erik doesn't say anything, but Charles seems to read the look on his face and huffs a laugh. "I guess if they're good to her, and to each other... Perhaps they're not that weird. Or rather, everything in this house is weird now and they're just right on target." Erik smiled. Then, after another pause, Charles said, almost shyly, "And you helped as well." He flashed that impish grin that always made Erik's stomach squirm with happiness. "I did notice that."
"I'm just very into Christmas now," Erik told him matter-of-factly. "The whole thing with the tree and that baby in the barn--it's all very interesting. I may very well convert." Charles began to laugh. "But aside from that..." He looked back out over the grounds. "I got everything I wanted this year, so I guess I wanted everyone else to enjoy themselves as well." He didn't even have to turn his head to see that Charles was beaming, radiant. "So did it work?"
"Do you adore Christmas now? Should we expect to find you ready to go out caroling tomorrow?" Charles laughed again.
"Perhaps it's starting to grow on me a bit," he said, and he reached over and took Erik's hand, which he had never done before. Erik raised his eyebrows at him with a playful expression. "Don't look at me like that; my hands are just cold," he said with dignity, trying and failing to keep a straight face. "I've lost my gloves, and I really must remember to buy new ones soon."
"Oh, of course." Erik put his other hand into his pocket.
"What are you grinning about?"
"Nothing," Erik said. They watched as Armando danced with Raven and Angel and Azazel threw snowballs at each other from thirty feet up as the others cheered, and then "Hey, Charles."
"I got you a present."