Wow. I finished a multi-chaptered story. That hasn't happened in years. Years, I tell you.
Anyway, an overwhelming thank you to everyone who has supported this little story of mine. You've honored me, dear readers.
And, for those who are interested, there's more to the story. The first chapter of The Last Train Home, prequel to this story, should be up in a few days.
For now, enjoy the fluff. :)
"Checkmate," Charles says with a cheeky grin and Erik's eyes narrow.
"Wait. Your king was wide open … you trapped me," Erik accuses, realization dawning on his face.
Charles savors the triumph, leaning back in his chair and letting his grin widen at Erik's baffled expression. "That I did, my friend."
"What kind of strategy was that?" Erik asks, crossing his arms and peering down at the board as though it holds the answers beneath its wooden veneer.
"It's called the King's Gambit, I believe," Charles replies, enjoying the feel of the cool fall wind on his face. After being cooped up and constantly surrounded by his anxious students and colleagues for two weeks, it's nice to be out in the fresh air.
Even though it had taken a great deal of convincing for Erik to move their chess game to the balcony.
"I've never heard of it." Erik picks up his king, turning it idly in his palm.
"It's a more creative move, and a dangerous one. After all, it puts the king at risk."
Erik glances up at him with a deep frown. "That's never a good idea."
"It has its advantages, you must admit." Charles shrugs, ignoring the slight twinge of pain from his still-healing ribs the motion incites. His wrist is aching, as well, but overall it's a good day and he refuses to let his injuries ruin it.
"But what if the trap fails?" Erik inquires, staring at him intently and Charles is almost certain they're not talking about chess anymore.
"Then the king is lost. Hence the risk."
"I still don't think it's a good idea."
Charles smiles. "But, you see, the king has the queen to protect him. She's the most powerful piece on the board, after all. She's good at keeping the king safe."
"That doesn't mean the king can throw himself headlong into danger." Another pointed look and Charles is definitely certain this has nothing to do with chess.
"I don't throw myself headlong into danger," he argues, giving up the metaphor.
Erik places the king back down on the board with a sharp sigh. "You certainly don't do anything to avoid it either."
"Risks are a part of our life now, Erik. We all have to accept them."
Erik shakes his head stubbornly. "Promise me, Charles. Promise me you won't get stuck in that kind of situation again."
"We can't lose you," Erik cuts off his protests, leaning over the board and pinning him with a firm stare.
Charles feels something heavy in his chest, then, and when he reaches for Erik's mind he can see it—the pale faces of the boys, the late nights staring at the ceiling trying not to go crazy, the crushing emptiness, how lost they all felt without his guidance. It stuns him, how much he has come to mean to them, and he feels the rest of his arguments die in his throat.
"Do you see?" Erik presses and Charles nods mutely, still overwhelmed. "So promise."
"I'll do my best."
"That's not good enough!" Erik fires back, reaching across the table to grip his good wrist. "You're too important to…"
"Erik," Charles slips his arm from Erik's hand and in turn places it on his shoulder. "I can't promise the impossible. But, it'll be alright. I have the queen to protect me. I have you, and the others, and I know you'll never leave me behind. That's good enough for me." He squeezes Erik's shoulder and smiles, projecting his certainty and faith toward the other man.
Erik has only failed him once, and the trust they've been building since then—that steady kind—is the kind that endures through any trial. Erik blinks, mouth forming a quiet "O" of surprise, before the beginnings of a smile flickers on the edges of his lips and he nods in understanding.
Charles lets go of his shoulder with another private smile and leans back, glancing at the board then up at Erik with a raised eyebrow. "Fancy another game?"
Erik flashes him a quick grin and begins to set up the board again. "Of course. And I promise you won't beat me so easily this time."
Charles smirks teasingly. "I should hope not."
The next game starts, sucking them in easily, and for the moment Stryker and the war seem far away. Tomorrow there will be new fears, new obstacles to face, but for now the sky is blue, the sun is warm, and he is in the company of his best friend.
For now, they are merely ErikandCharles, and that is enough. More than enough, actually.