What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Toys were hard to come by in the ghetto. One had to barter, smuggle, lie and plead with the Germans – who were for the most part all too eager to fill their own pockets and empty yours – to get food and clothes and soap, let alone anything extraneous such as a plaything for a child. They made do in other ways. Mothers would make little dolls out of wood splinters and dishrags – dishes being less and less common as time went on – and fathers would carve little figures out of broken furniture, while children fought in the streets over tin cans to kick to arbitrary goalposts.
Erik had been one of them.
So when his father had returned to their tiny apartment (he'd miss it when they're moved a year later) on a day just like any other, a secretive smile on his face, Erik, who'd been busy carving his family's initials into the floorboards with a rusty nail (even then he'd known the importance of names), hadn't expected anything more than a potato.
But the familiar heavy footsteps had stopped next to him, and finding a large shadow suddenly encumbering his meticulous work, Erik had raised his head in askance.
His father had looked so proud as he sat on the floor next to his son. "Come see what I brought you," he'd said.
Curious, Erik had scooted closer on hands and knees and looked critically at the flat checkered box in his father's lap for a long, anticlimactic moment. When nothing occurred, the boy frowned back up at the older man's face.
"It's a box," he'd said blankly.
His father had laughed quietly. "It is far more than a box, Erik."
His forehead wrinkled, he again peered at the box, but the second glance yielded no more than the first. It was a shiny thing, prettier than most of what they owned, which was strange since Father had usually been the first to reprimand Mother for missing the nice things they had to sell when they came to the ghetto. Be thankful we're all here and together, meine leibe, he'd say, and Mother for her part would smile and say I am, I am but she'd look at Erik and his little sisters in their threadbare secondhand clothes and cry a little as she said it.
Erik had learned every lesson his father ever taught him, and all of them agreed: there was no point to a pretty box.
"…Is there a gun inside?" he'd said at last, confused.
His father's smile had faltered for a heartbeat, and when it returned it seemed different somehow, twisted in a way that for some reason reminded Erik of Mother saying I am, I am. "No - no," he'd said strangely, handing Erik the box. After a moment, he cleared his throat. "It's a… it's a game. For us to play."
Erik hadn't really been sure how a box could be much of a game, but he took it from his father's hands, raised it to his ear and listened to the way something inside rattled when he shook it. His eyes widened; he opened the tiny latch on the side hurriedly, excitedly, and suddenly his father was smiling just the way Erik had always thought he should smile, even though Erik hadn't given him anything in return.
The box opened silently. He stared in wonder.
There were miniature figurines inside, black pieces and white, castles and horses and crowns elegantly carved and carefully worn. They were nothing like Erik had ever seen – they were the richest thing Erik had ever seen – and they seemed to almost glow faintly in the gray light coming in from the window.
His voice dropped to an amazed whisper. "What is it, Papa?"
The rare, rare smile grew.
"Chess, Erik," Father said, eyes bright and alive. "This is chess."
A game of kings and men, his father called it. Which sounds odd, in retrospect, since as Jews they had been the farthest thing there was from both. But it had been a secret, a real, special secret, of which there were many in the ghetto but none between Erik and his father, that is until then; and Erik had never looked forward to anything more than to the times his sisters were asleep and his mother wrapped around them both, when he and his father would pry out the box from underneath a loose floorboard, sit by the window and play under the scant light of the moon, because candles were nigh impossible to come by.
Erik had loved those times. So had his father.
But when Ruth and Esther were dragged away, blue eyes huge and scared in their small pale faces, Erik remembers thinking his father looked as though he wished he had gotten a gun instead after all.
The soldiers must have thought the same, because they didn't even hesitate before shooting him in the head.
...And when Erik's little sisters screamed, they shot them too.
(Erik hadn't screamed. But he wishes, sometimes)
The first time he met Charles Xavier, the other man had come to know him in a matter of seconds more thoroughly than anyone Erik had known since the age of twelve. Erik hadn't bothered to dwell on the experience overmuch since – the mere concept of his privacy being invaded so grossly was enough to grit his teeth and stiffen his hands as if on their own; it was something that couldn't be helped, now, after all.
And really, if it had to be anyone seeing into Erik's most private memories, it might as well be Charles. The man was so idealistic and naïve he'd probably repressed most of them. Besides, having the knowledge and knowing what it meant truly were two very different things, as Erik knew fully well.
It came in handy sometimes, too. Not that he would ever bother to acknowledge them, but there were, perhaps, advantages, to someone knowing when to push and when to back off, someone spotting when a conversation hits a sour note, someone realizing in time just when Alex and Sean needed to get the hell away from anything with a metallic sheen to it if they valued their skins.
Some people might say that it is more or less an invitation for manipulation. Erik, being more pragmatic, knows that it makes them a better team. And really, however hard Charles might try, Erik will only allow himself to be manipulated if he feels so inclined, curious enough to see where it might lead.
...Which, admittedly, occurs more often than he'd expect, around Charles.
Erik has yet to decide what this means.
There is such a thing as too much, however, and when after two months of knowing Charles he opens his door and sees the man waiting for him with a chess set, Erik's first reaction is fury.
(The second, just as painful but far less easy to accept, is betrayal)
"Explain yourself," he says softly.
Charles' gaze is wide and earnest and Erik hates it. "What's there to explain," he says, with a laugh that he never learned to keep to himself. He waves the lacquered box in his hand – Erik's gaze follows it unwillingly, cataloguing every missing chip and every absent crack that keeps it from perfection (it is far more than a box, Erik). "I thought we might play."
"Play," he repeats, and feels his nostrils flare. He wants to pull the steel framework from the walls, say how dare you how dare you I thought I could trust you but instead he says calmly, damming the anger and hatred and pain roiling in his gut, "I haven't played in over twenty years."
"So it really is about time, isn't it?" Charles says, and makes as if to enter.
Erik blocks his progress with a measured step. There's no one else in the hallway – not that it would have mattered much to him if there were. "I suppose I should have known," he says offhandedly. "Temptation too much to resist, was it?"
The man has the nerve to frown like he has no idea what Erik's talking about. "Sorry?"
"Don't act the fool, Charles," he snarls. "It doesn't suit you."
Charles furrows his brows. "Is there something wrong?"
"You looked, didn't you, you know I haven't – " he can't quite focus on Charles' face, gazing quizzically back at him. "Is that what this is to you? A game? Is that what I am to you?"
"I am not your pet, Charles -" he cuts himself off, chest heaving as he tries to regain control. The sewage pipes tremble, the metal skeleton of the building hums at his ears; he forces himself to let them go.
His stomach clenches unpleasantly at the realization that he's overplayed his hand. He doesn't even need powers to read you, he thinks to himself bitterly.
Blue eyes blink at him.
"But of course not, Erik," Charles says simply. "You are my friend."
It is too easy, it is far too easy. Erik loses hold of his anger and metal piping in his surprise, and Charles smiles gently back at him, eyes crinkling as if he has only been stating the obvious.
And what if it is? What if it is obvious, had always been?
How is it that Erik never realized?
"I thought you would enjoy the strategic thinking involved, but perhaps I was mistaken," Charles says quietly. Absurdly, he seems tentative, bracing for hurt. "Would another game suit you better?"
Erik stares at Charles for a long moment, and sees nothing of guile.
...Just a boy, then. Just a boy, hoping to play.
(A game of kings and men, his father called it, but perhaps it is also Erik's and Charles')
"No," he croaks, and drops his eyes. "It - it's fine."
"Then if that is the case," Charles says suddenly, "I will ask you again. Would you care for a game of chess?"
And only Charles would extend his hand like that, and not expect anything more in return.
Erik swallows, then clears the doorway wordlessly.
"This is going to be truly marvelous, Erik," his friend says, stepping fearlessly inside Erik's room. "I have a feeling this will be the first of many such games."
He sits and opens the box on the table, arranging the pieces in a pattern Erik finds achingly familiar.
Charles looks up at him, eyebrow raised. "Well then. Ready, my friend?"
Erik sits across from him slowly. His hand reaches across the board almost automatically, and picks up a black king.
He looks at it for a long, long moment. He sets it down.
"Yes," he says.