Disclaimer: Characters belong to their respectful owners
Fandom: X-Men: Movieverse
Rating: Teen and up
Pairing: Cherik – Erik Lehnsherr x Charles Xavier
Genres: Fanfiction, slash, alternate universe
Characters: Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto), Charles Xavier (Professor X), Raven (Mystique), Sebastian Shaw
Warnings: implied of torture and past abuses
Three times Erik found himself in this all-white room, Charles was there. Comforting him, soothing him, and then urging to return to where he came from. The fourth time, Erik decided to stay with Charles, but Charles was gone. Erik took his place, waiting for him to come back.
And Charles did.
The very first time Erik had seen Charles, he must have been around four or five.
He had come down with a high fever. It must have been because Erik and Mikael, his older cousin, had spent an hour in the downpour before their fathers came to drag them home by the ear. He was on his bed, slowly cooking like a potato in Mama’s soup. The last thing he remembered was Auntie’s scolding Mikael mingled with Mama’s fussing and the cool feeling of the wet cloth folded and placed on his forehead. Then he drifted off.
When Erik came around, he was neither on his crumpled bed nor in his tiny bedroom. The place was white, blinding white, with pillars raising indefinitely. He craned his neck as best as he could and still couldn’t see the ceiling. In the bleached white canvas, the only dash of color was a brown armchair in which a young man was sitting. He had chestnut hair that curled slightly at the ends, a tad longer than the cropped style Erik was used to seeing. A pair of round glasses slid down the bridge of his nose as he slumped in the enormous chair, seemingly being swallowed by the leathery mouth. His lips parted, his head tilted to the side, supported by his hand, he was dozing.
It was Erik’s wails, the result of confusion and fear, that ruthlessly ripped him from his sweet, sweet dream. He nearly jumped in his seat, and the glasses slid off his face and fell to his lap. His eyes opened wide, glancing around in search of the godawful noise that had disturbed his nap. It took him but a second to spot the little Banshee sitting on his behind, his mouth a perfect ‘O’.
The young man scampered to Erik, who was really just a dozen steps from where he had been sitting. He kneeled down on the tiled floor and had his arms around Erik’s small frame. “Shush, don’t cry, don’t cry,” he cooed, one hand moving to pat the boy’s back and the other to cradle his head. “It’s alright. You’re alright. Nothing to fear. I’m here with you. No need to cry.”
It was not his words, which on hindsight were probably comforting nonsense, but rather his cadence that had a calming effect on the boy. Like a flame being cut off its oxygen source, his panic quickly diminished until Erik was free from its grip. His crying ceased, and he wiped his eyes with the back of his hands. The tears felt sticky on his skin. The young man smiled at him and procured a white handkerchief from his breast pocket, which he used to dab at the corners of Erik’s eyes. “There, all good,” he said. “Would you like to blow your nose too?”
Erik looked at the pristine cloth and even young as he was, he was averse to staining it with his snots. He shook his head. “Who are you?” he asked.
Erik noticed the impossible blue of the young man’s eyes as they studied the boy. Just like the pretty marbles he had begged Mikael to lend him for a little while; he would never play with them, too afraid to have them scratched, or worse, broken, and would be content to hold them in his palms and admire them. The older boy had never granted his wish; rather, he had given Erik one of them as a birthday gift. It had been his little treasure from then.
“I am called Charles,” the young man said, smiling. “It’s c-h-a-r-l-e-s.”
Erik bit his thumb, recalling the alphabets Mama had taught him through a tune. “I think I can write it.”
“Very good. Now your name is Erik, isn’t it?”
“How do you know my name?”
Charles ruffled his hair. “I know everyone’s name. It’s my talent.”
“You’re bluffing.” Erik pouted.
“I’m not,” Charles exclaimed, feigning hurt. Erik knew he was because the smile still clung to the corners of his lips. His lips were quite pink, Erik noticed, pink like the insides of those strawberries his family could only afford once in a while.
Charles turned Erik around and pointed to a white door on the wall not too far from them. At first glance, it was not easy to distinguish it from the wall; even the doorknob was painted white. “See that door, yes? That’s where you came from. Now you need to turn the doorknob and go in, then you’ll be home. You can do that, right?”
“Me? I am here. This is where I live.”
Erik scanned the vast white room and decided that he disliked the color white. It seemed cold and lonely. Erik disliked cold and lonely. “It’s cold and lonely,” he voiced his thought word-for-word. “You’ll be cold and lonely.”
Charles grinned and caressed Erik’s cheek. His fingers were warm and soft, uncalloused. So unlike Mama’s and Papa’s. His eyes were clear, so clear the boy could see his reflections in them. “I’m used to it,” Charles said, his grin fading but not entirely gone; there was its shadow on his features. “Besides, I have my books for company. Now, go home or your parents will get worried.”
“Can I come here and play with you?”
“I’d love that but no, you can’t be here. Not yet. Your time hasn’t come.”
As he was speaking, he was gently ushering Erik to the door.
“When will my time come?” Erik asked, one hand on the doorknob, turning it. It was steely cold, as he had guessed.
“Hopefully very long from now. Now go.”
Erik opened the door and blinding light flooded in, engulfed him. He knew nothing but darkness for some time.
When he was conscious again, he was on his unmade bed, in his low-ceilinged room. His head felt lighter and he didn’t feel like burning up. His fever was gone.
The second time Erik had seen Charles, Erik was ten. He had obnoxiously taunted Mikael to climb a tall tree near their houses. The older boy refused to take the bait and advised his cousin to give up, sounding a lot like his stern father. When that failed, he threatened to tell his Mama, and Erik, with his childish petulancy and over-confidence in his ability, disregarded his warning. “Fine, Mikael, I’ll do it if you don’t,” he said before starting to climb in front of the older boy, who was fuming with frustration. Smugness swelled in his small chest as he reached the top and looked down on a small dot below that was Mikael. He was probably shouting something but up here, it was hard to make it out with the winds howling – it had been a particularly windy afternoon. Once he’d had enough of his taste of height, Erik made his way down. This was where things had gone awry for him: mindless of a hollow branch he had noticed on his way up, he had stepped right on it. He yelped at the same time Mikael cried. There was a sense of free-falling, excruciating pain and then, blackout.
Charles was sitting in his armchair when Erik arrived at the bleach-white room via means he himself couldn’t figure out. His posture was straight, his polished glasses were secured on the bridge of his nose and behind the round lenses, his marble-like eyes were boring into the chessboard on the table before him. His eyebrows were drawing together in concentration. It seemed he was playing both white and black.
Unlike last time, it wasn’t Erik’s cry that roused him – Erik was a big boy now, and he wasn’t going to cry like a baby even when he looked at his left arm, cradled in his right, and saw his fractured bone poking out from mangled flesh. The sight made his stomach roil and he did his best to suppress a gagging noise. It was painful, too, painful like he had never known the true sense of that word before and had only now experienced it. His breathing came in quick pants, and he thought he was probably hyperventilating. It must have been what alerted Charles, for his gaze landed on the boy at once. Abandoning his unfinished game, he hurriedly stood up. Through blurry eyes Erik watched him taking long strides to him, a prominent frown etched into his features.
He crouched down so that they were eye-level and he inspected the injury on Erik’s arm. “Erik, what happened to you?” he asked, his eyebrows knitting so that they almost became one line.
“I fell off a tree.” Though he had told himself not to cry, his voice came out choked.
“So that’s why you’re here again,” Charles murmured. “It must be very painful, right?”
Erik nodded. He could feel the tears pricking the rims of his eyes; his nose started to clog.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“No, I don’t think so. Only my arm.”
“I see. I’m not supposed to do this but…” he trailed off, his gaze never leaving the wound. He hovered his hand above it, carefully not to touch. His thin fingers were almost as pale as the sleeve of his white shirt, pressed and buttoned up to his throat. “Whatever. It’s not like they’re constantly watching me. Even if they are, the worst I’ll get is a scold. Let’s see what we can do with it.”
His fingers were glowing as if they were coated in a sheen of light. From them light trickled into the wound like drops of liquid gold. It was warm where the light touched and as warmth spread to his entire arm, the pain receded until it became a feeble presence at the back of his mind. It had not disappeared, but it was bearable. Erik breathed out, relief flooding his body. The grotesque appearance of his injury was unchanged, though.
Like a switch turning off, the light vanished, and Charles withdrew his hand to press his palm against Erik’s cheek. “Much better?”
Erik nodded frantically, wiping his forming tears.
“I can’t heal you but at least, you won’t be in so much pain. Promise me that you won’t do something so dangerous like that again.”
Erik resisted the urge to pout – ten-year-old boys don’t pout – and grudgingly nodded. “Alright.”
“Good,” Charles said, the frown finally ebbing away from his face, replaced by a budding smile. “Now you will go through that door like last time and return to your family.”
Up close and with eyes not blurred by tears, Erik noticed that Charles had a few light-colored freckles sprinkled on his nose, which took a few years off his youthful countenance. Somehow he found them so endearing that the longer he looked at them, the more urgent the spontaneous urge to kiss them grew. So he acted without giving it too much thought, pressing his lips to the tip of Charles’s nose. Light as a butterfly.
Charles’s eyes widened and his ears turned pink.
“Thank you,” Erik said, “for helping me. Can I stay a little longer?”
“No, I’m sorry, you cannot.”
“Why?” Erik was definitely not whining.
Charles’s smile became indulgent and he placed a hand on Erik’s shoulder, turning him towards the door. “This is not a place you can stay. Not yet. Your time hasn’t come.”
Charles was repeating what he had told Erik last time. It only served to confuse the boy. “I don’t understand.”
“You will, in time. Now, go.”
His hand on the doorknob, its chill attacking his skin, Erik turned his head to Charles, pursing his lips. “Can I see you again?”
“In time, Erik.”
When Erik was seeing again, he was back in his bed, back in his room. His left arm was in a plaster cast and his Mama told him that he had had his ulna broken and the doctor had given him a dose of sedative so that he could work on fixing him.
“Does it hurt so much, because it’s about time the painkiller worn off.”
“No, it doesn’t, Mama,” Erik replied. Thanks to Charles. But he wouldn’t tell his Mama a young man in a white room had soothed his pain with his glowing fingers, and perhaps, his gentle smiles. His Mama would probably think the fractured bone had made him delirious.
Erik healed in record time. He believed it was thanks to Charles’s magic.
It was a good five years later that Erik got to see Charles again. Lots of things had happened in the span of five years, terrible, horrifying things that had left Erik homeless, orphaned and strapped to a metal board while exposed to the harsh blinding light from a dozen lightbulbs most of his waking time. The room in which he was kept was spartanly furnished, stark-white and oh-so cold, and, if he mused about it during his stagnant, idle hours when he wasn’t having his limbs attached to some sort of machine or his skin pierced with several needles, not unlike Charles’s dwelling. The resemblance caused him to shudder and curled into a ball on his cot, which was fittingly white. How he loathed it.
White was the color of Sebastian Shaw’s lab coat and surgical mask as he was looming over Erik, once again secured on the examination table and susceptible to whatever perversion Shaw was having in mind. All in the name of science, as he had once assured a frantic Erik, those false words. His eyes behind the horn-rimmed glasses appeared white, without irises and pupils, and they were barren of emotions in their scrutiny. Why shouldn’t they be? He was a scientist, wedded to his desire for discovery and laying in front of him was not a human being but a valuable subject. A precious if expendable lab rat. Scientists didn’t feel for their lab rats. His gloved hand reached for the tray on the adjacent table. Erik heard metal clanking. Out of instinct, he turned his head aside to have a look at the tool that was about to get acquainted with his body – Shaw had no shortage of them. His blood froze at the sight of a hand-held circular saw, its teeth glinting in the light, brand-new and sharp.
He must be going mad.
No, he was mad. The pain had maddened him, made a lot worse because he couldn’t scream, couldn’t thrash, bound and gagged as he was, and thus couldn’t release even a molecule of its sheer mass, pressing down onto his mind. Erik didn’t have a mind of steel, and his greatest fear was that one day, under the relentless assaults, it would shatter. That seemed to be happening now, for there was no plausible reason to explain why Shaw’s masked face was transforming into Charles’s.
Charles was looming over him, much the same way Shaw had. He was wearing a mask, too, but one of absolute horror. His blue eyes were dark, the ocean on a stormy day. His lips were trembling and he worried them between his teeth until they bled.
“Erik!” Charles screamed his name, which was odd because in their previous encounters, not once had Erik heard the young man raise his voice. Always soft-spoken like a gentleman of the last century. “Can you hear me? Heavens! There’s so much blood on you!”
Erik found himself nodding, and even such a small gesture was aching like hell. Tears pooled hotly at his eyes, and he couldn’t care less about embarrassing himself in front of Charles. Charles wasn’t real any way, he couldn’t be. Just a shard of his fragmented mind that stayed while others had been washed down the whirlpool of agony. He let them fall freely. “It hurts,” he sobbed, his eyes squeezing shut. His lungs constricted, and it was difficult to breathe. “It hurts so much.”
He felt his torso lifted and encased in strong arms that at first glance didn’t appear to possess the strength they had. His head was laid to rest on Charles’s shoulder, his face inches away from the young man’s neck. His scent wafted in front of his nose, a clear, pleasant scent of dewy roses. Erik inhaled deeply, and somehow it hurt a little less.
It was warm, so warm. Like being submerged in a tub of hot water his Mama had once drawn for him, before he decided bathing was time-consuming and would prefer to clean himself as quick as possible so that he could join Mikael and the rest of the boys in some game. He cracked open an eye and the sight took his breath away for a second. He was glowing, no, Charles was glowing, his neck, shoulders and chest, everywhere he was in contact with Erik. The light cocooned both of them, lulling him into a sense of security he hadn’t felt in years. Time seemed to rewind and he was once again a baby cradled in Mama’s arms while she gently rocked him and sang him a lullaby that had been passed down by her mother. His hand clung to Charles’s shirt as the pain was steadily corroding until all that was left of it was a faint echo in his head, his limbs.
With that, the light was switched off. The clarity that he had thought to be lost was returned to his mind.
Charles let go off him and Erik immediately bemoaned the loss of contact. Somewhat dazed, he looked down at his shirt and saw it was not merely stained, but dyed with crimson. His guts churned and he could hear his heart beating at his eardrums. He chanced a look at Charles and couldn’t help a gasp because Charles’s pristine white shirt was blotched with the same color.
“I’m sorry,” Erik mumbled, eyes casted down.
“Don’t be,” Charles replied. The storm had passed, and his eyes were clear; however, its vestiges were visible in his bitten lips, the tautness of his jaws. “It’s me who should be sorry.”
“I don’t want to go back.”
To Shaw’s cruel face, to his prodding tools, to the world of pains and the empty, windowless room.
“It hurts. I can’t go on like that. I just can’t.”
“I know, Erik.” His voice was hoarse as his hands, shaking ever so slightly, held Erik’s arm, one that had been broken in an accident five years back. He stared at the row of tattooed numbers on the inside of Erik’s arm hard enough for the boy to feel scalded by shame. Charles knew their meaning, that they were proof stamped into his body that the person named Erik Lehnsherr had been reduced to an object. Every time he saw them, they seemed to come alive, sneering at him, and all he wished was to bring a torch to his skin. He flinched but didn’t jerk his arm away when Charles’s smooth fingers touched the blue numbers. “I know what they did to you, Erik,” Charles said, looking into Erik’s eyes. A sheen of moisture was glazing over his eyes. “I saw it all, sitting here, but I couldn’t do anything. I’m so sorry.”
Erik’s cheeks, barely dry, were wet again.
Charles wrapped his arms around Erik’s reed-thin frame. “It pains me so much but I have to send you back through that door. I can’t keep you here. You can’t be here because you still have so much time out there. Nothing or no one can rob you of it.”
Charles cradled Erik’s face in his hands and to Erik’s mild shock, he went on tiptoe – malnourishment had not hindered Erik’s growth spurt – and kissed Erik on the forehead. His lips, as Erik had fantasized once in a while, were soft. “You are strong, Erik,” Charles said, pressing his face to the front of Erik’s soaked shirt. “Stronger than anyone I’ve known. You will survive this nightmare. You will live. I am sure of that. One day, so long from now, we will meet again.”
Erik nodded, convinced by Charles’s conviction. Still, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t feel a terrible loss once Charles broke his embrace. The young man took his palm and covered it with his own. Erik felt something small and solid against his flesh. When Charles’s hand retreated, he saw that it was a chess piece. A black king.
Charles’s voice lingered in his mind after he woke up in the sterile, windowless cube that was his room. He had been changed and even bandaged. Shaw’s orders, no doubt. Wouldn’t want his favorite lab rat to die do soon. He supposed he ought to feel grateful that he wasn’t missing any limbs or fingers. Every time he woke up in this room, fear gnawed at his insides that some part of him had been stolen in unconsciousness.
Erik felt something in his hand. When he opened his palm, he saw a black king. He clutched the sleek piece to his aching chest, recalling Charles’s words, “You will survive this nightmare. You will live.”
He survived. He lived.
In order to kill Shaw.
He did it.
He finally killed Shaw.
Twelve years. He had spent twelve years chasing the man’s elusive shadow across the world. In the end, Erik had found him at the exact place the man had found Erik, ripped from his Mama’s embrace, kicking and screaming at the top of his lungs. The look Shaw gave him as he cornered him, hand a vice-grip on his windpipe, was heady wine that Erik drunk with greed. What? Never thought that I would survive the purge you had ordered on the facilities when the Allies armies arrived? Well, here I am.
Under his shirt, the black king heated up as if there was a piece of hot coal on his chest. He relished the scorching sensation it brought.
Shaw’s grimace morphed into a wild grin and it was Erik’s turn to be stupefied. He was accustomed to seeing grins twisting into grimaces, not the reverse. Shaw clasped his wrist and Erik anticipated an attempt to fight from his former captor and tormentor. None came. In this moment he looked feeble and aged, not quite the menace he had been most of Erik’s adolescence and early adulthood. “I have misjudged your caliber, son,” he rasped. “I thought you were just like the other boys, weak, fragile, prone to break. But you are a survivalist. A champion.”
“No thanks to you.”
“No, son, I made you the way you are. And I am very proud.” Shaw’s eyes narrowed. “Too bad, we’re both going to hell today.”
Erik’s lips stretched into a wide grin. “I don’t care” was his reply.
The world went white.
When Erik’s eyes recovered, he found himself in the white room again. Familiarity and relief swirled in his chest, and blood raced in his veins. His lips curled up in a smile. Facing him was the back of the leather armchair. “Charles?” He called, anticipated to see a head of coifed chestnuts hair peeking out and warm blue eyes twinkling with joy. Welcoming him back. Welcoming him to stay. This time he would. He had avenged his family, his Mama and himself, and he had no more attachment to that dreadful world. He closed the distance in a few strides, his heart bouncing in his ribcage, and—
What? Or more precisely, who?
Erik halted, his heart taking a dive. This wasn’t Charles. Charles was certainly not a pretty woman with wavy blonde stresses cascading down her milky shoulders, laid bare by her flowing white dress. Her eyes were also blue, but they lacked the mesmerizing quality that was uniquely Charles. Erik was stunted, not by her beauty, which he admitted was immensely pleasant to the eyes, but by the glaring truth that she was in Charles’s place while Charles was nowhere to be seen.
“You must be Erik?”
“Where is Charles?”
They said at the same time.
“That answers my question,” the young woman said, her gaze scrutinizing Erik, her doll face unreadable. “I am called Raven, sister of Charles.”
Erik blinked. “But Charles has never—”
He cut himself off. He had only met Charles three times, all under peculiar circumstances. It was understandable that he knew nothing about the man except that he was a kind gentleman who was also a keen reader and he played chess.
He didn’t fail to notice a chess set on the table in front of Raven. He had seen Charles playing against himself on that same chessboard.
“I didn’t know he has a sister,” Erik corrected.
“That’s because he and I are not meant to be in the same place for long. He guarded this gate and I do another.”
“You said ‘guarded’. What happened to Charles? Where is he?”
Raven was donning a serene mask. Immaculate and carefully crafted, but a mask nonetheless. And Erik had learned to detect a mask when he saw one. A mask’s purpose, after all, was to conceal the wearer’s emotions. He could now see the web of tiny cracks on her mask through which her emotions underneath were about to seep. She worried her rogue lips between teeth, a habit she shared with her brother. Her eyes shone and the rims of her eyes reddened. Trying to restraint the tears, Erik knew it well. “He is in your world now. Reincarnated as a mortal to live and suffer the way every mortal does.”
Erik’s heart fell through his ribs into a pool of ice. The ground beneath his soles gave off tremors as though it could open a hole under him any moment, and he would fall into infinity.
If Raven had seen the colors drain from his face, she made no comment and continued, “Lessening your pain was one thing. They could tolerate his little meddling with a mortal – he was their darling after all – as long as it had zero effect on the mortal world. But they couldn’t turn a blind eye to his intervention with a human’s lifespan.” Raven’s tone took a sharp note and she looked straight into his eyes, the blue of her eyes a muted storm. “Do you know what it means, Erik?”
Unconsciously he gripped the chess piece in his palm. He had an inkling where she was going, and he was afraid to hear it.
“Nobody was supposed to survive the explosion Shaw had ordered on his facilities. Charles had dabbled his hands in the course of events and they penanced him for his misconduct.”
Erik nodded, understanding. If Erik believed in God, he would have thought his sole survival a miracle. But he didn’t, and somehow he had always known, that he was protected under a slab of metal, that he was able to crawl his way out of the rubbles, that the wintry chill and a dozen fresh cuts he had acquired didn’t kill him, all of them had been Charles’s helping him. “He said that my time would be long. Can’t believe he lied to me.”
Raven’s gaze softened at his trembling voice, which betrayed his accusation. “He didn’t,” she said. “You will have a long life. If Charles were here, he would say his intervention had been nothing more than Fate playing her hand.”
“So I just go back through that door,” he said, vaguely gesturing at the white door that seemed to melt into the wall, “and live my life to the fullest.”
“That’s what Charles would want you to do. You have probably realized now that this place is not for the living.”
“For years I had been hunting down those who had murdered my family. Today I killed the last one of them. I left everything behind before I came here. I absolutely do not intend to go back, especially after knowing what Charles did for me.”
“There’s an alternative,” Raven said, uncrossing her legs, standing up. “I’m not going to beat around the bush: you can either choose to return to your world, or you can take this chair and his place as a guardian. Since Charles is absent, they demand another to fill this post. I have my own gate to guard and I cannot be at two places at the same time.”
His heartbeats quickened as he contemplated Raven’s words. “Does every human have to go through the gate?”
“Yes,” Raven replied, her gaze veering to the empty place aside. There was something there that she could see but he could not. “They need to go through it to enter the afterlife. No exception.”
“I will take Charles’s place,” Erik said, clenching his fists. The chess piece, as if sensing his determination, warmed up.
Raven stared at him, her body still. A long, unblinking, wordless stare that unnerved Erik even though few things unnerved him now. He endured it with practiced patience. When she became animate again, she shook her head slightly, a rueful smile ghosting over her delicate features. “When we meet again, and it will be quite long from now, Charles won’t let me hear the end of it. He knew what you would choose and I was supposed to dissuade you from taking his place.”
“I’ll tell him you tried really hard. But alas.”
For the first time since he saw her, Raven’s eyes were shining with mirth rather than moisture. “I think I begin to like you, Erik. I see now why he was taken with you.”
Erik chuckled. “Are you going to teach me how things go around here, since you are kind of my senior?”
Raven scoffed. She stepped closer, her heels clicking on the tiled floor, and patted Erik on his shoulder. “There’s no need for teaching. You’ll figure it out on your own well enough.”
“Basically I just sit here and while away the time until someone comes?”
“Basically,” Raven replied. “And send them back if their time isn’t over. Such cases are rare, but not nonexistent.”
With a wink, Raven bid her farewell and faded away.
Erik sat down in the armchair and studied the chess set. All the pieces were neatly arranged and present, save one: the black king. He took the missing piece from the chain around his neck and put it in its place. It fitted right with its siblings.
“Might as well hone my skills while waiting for you, Charles,” he murmured.
The wheels made soft skidding noise as Charles wheeled himself on the white tiled floor. It was so clean and well-polished that he felt kind of guilty to leave mud tracks on it. Still, when he stopped and looked back, he saw the floor as it had been before he started moving: white and pristine. It was odd, but the thought didn’t bother him too much, and he wheeled on.
In his dreams Charles had been in this all-white room many times. His first time here was as old as his first conscious experience of the world around. He remembered being too young to be afraid of the unfamiliar surroundings, but old enough to be awestruck by the white pillars rising indefinitely. From then, this place where white reigned over other colors had become his sanctuary when he needed to take refuge from his mother’s negligence and his stepfather’s belt. Had it not been because of it, Charles believed he might not have survived and reached adulthood, when he finally was able to grown his wings and take flight from the nest of nightmare. After that it continued to be his shelter in his darkest hours, where he found himself returning to have his wounds mended and his heart salved, so that he could persevere despite what life had taken from him, among which were his legs.
Charles saw a brown armchair and his heart did a flip. His hands sped up as his mind conjured the image of a young, handsome man with auburn hair, sitting cross-legged before a chessboard, his eyes focusing on the chess pieces in an intense battle against himself. Lost in the game, he was a statue meticulously carved out of the same marble that made up the pillars, but Charles knew as soon as his name was called, the spell would be lifted and liveliness would breathe into the young man once more so that he would turn to Charles with a grin, showing far too much teeth to be endearing yet somehow Charles still found it immensely so. He also knew why it was that when the young man fixed his gaze on him, the colors of his eyes shifting whereas the underlying passion remaining constant, his heart started to palpitate.
“Erik.” Charles called the name he had known by heart.
Charles swore he could see the magic working underneath his skin. The unmoving eyes blinked slowly before they landed on Charles. Charles fought a hint of a blush creeping up his face. His chest under the form-fitting black turtleneck started heaving. “Welcome again, Charles,” he said with a faint German accent, long, lean fingers resting on the armrest.
“Hello, my friend,” Charles greeted, wheeling himself toward the young man. “This time I’m here to stay.”
Charles kind of wished he could say something along the lines of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel or his life flashing before his eyes (he mentally scoffed at the well-worn clichés), but in reality it was plain and brief as snuffing out a candle. A total blackout that lasted a fraction of a second and then he was here, in this white room, with the knowledge searing into his mind that he was, without a doubt, dead as a doornail.
Yes, death could not be any more anticlimactic. Charles would love to tell that to all those poets and writers who were so keen on waxing poetic about death.
Erik smiled a knowing smile. “I see.”
Charles nodded, deciding against his curiosity to ask whether Erik had witnessed his final moments up here. They weren’t… pretty, and neither was his death. If Charles were a more pessimistic person he would be quite traumatized right now. He was grateful for his rather positive outlook on life, or in this case, death. “Is this when you’re going to show me the gate and perhaps bid me a safe journey to wherever-land?” Charles asked, half-joking. He actually had no plan to pass through the gate so soon.
“Not yet,” Erik said, amused. “I have something for you first.”
He stood up and crossed the small distance to Charles’s side. “Open your palm,” he requested.
“What is it?” Charles asked, his interest piqued as he held out his right hand. Of all the time he had befriended Erik, he knew the man as a type who didn’t fancy surprise in any form.
His hand briefly covered Charles’s. Something cool and small and solid touched his skin. When Erik’s hand withdrew, Charles saw that it was a chess piece standing upright in his palm.
A black king.
The chess piece transformed into a person and grew into human size. With his leather-clad hand he reached out and veiled Charles’s eyes. Charles anticipated black, but it was white that descended, together with a conglomeration of sights and sounds and senses. A perfect chaos tightly wrapped in serenity. Myriad lifetimes condensed in a blink of an eye. Memories filled in the reservoir of his mind to the brim, drowning out his recent death, the incident with his legs and the large, hollow mansion that housed his mother’s nonchalance and his stepfather’s belt.
Charles exhaled. In his palm the Black King stood, tiny and inanimate. He lifted his head to look at Erik and saw not only the dashing, intense young man that had been his only friend since childhood, but also the snotty child he had hugged and comforted, the boy who had bravely suppressed his tears despite his broken arm, and the youth who had been brutally forced to grow up too fast. He saw them all blending into a single man standing with his back straight as a pole, whose sharp features immediately softened as he fixed him one of his trademark stare. “Are you alright, Charles?” he asked.
Charles clenched his fist, imprinting his palm with the outline of the chess piece. “I just went through a millennia’s worth of memories. I think it’s safe to say I’m a little overloaded.”
Concern was etched into the crease between Erik’s eyebrows. “I’m sorry. I don’t know a better way to return your memories.”
Charles relaxed his fist and patted Erik’s forearm. Under the sleeve there was a row of numbers Charles wished to erase, along with the agonies Erik had been through, but never could. “I’m fine, Erik. I remember.”
Erik’s eyes lit up. “Everything?”
“Everything,” Charles echoed. All the centuries he had sat in that armchair, watching humans live and die and guiding them to the afterlife as his duty dictated, until he met a special boy who had tumbled into this place, alive. “Especially you, Erik.”
At that, Erik went on his knees so they were equal in height and hugged Charles, burying his face in the crook of Charles’s neck, taking in the his unique scent that hadn’t lost in the human years. Charles stroke his broad back and marveled at how the boy of that fateful day had grown into such a fine man. “Good to see you again,” they both said.
Charles pulled back and cupped Erik’s face in his hands, studied him and was amazed at how much of his childish traits had retained in his handsome countenance. “I really need to have a word with Raven. She promised me.”
“You can’t blame her. I was adamant in my choice and there was nothing or no-one that could change my mind.”
Erik shook his head with a rueful smile.
A boulder started to weigh on his heart as he began his next words, “My punishment is over, I have returned and you don’t have to stay in this place anymore. You can go into the gate, into the afterlife or reincarnation and start your existence anew.”
Charles felt his hand being squeezed in a slightly larger one. “So you’re saying I’m released from this post,” Erik said. “What if I don’t want to? I want to stay, Charles. I made up my mind the day I arrived to find you gone. Tell me, is it not possible to have two guardians at one gate?”
“It’s not impossible, not that I’ve heard of. But you said it was cold and lonely.”
“I’m used to it.” And it wasn’t until his second sentence that Charles realized he was echoing Charles’s words in their first encounter. “I have books, and chess and most importantly, I have you. Will you be so kind as to not throw me out?”
A smile found its way to Charles’s lips, and soon it became mirthful laughter. Still laughing, he brought his face closer to Erik’s and kissed his lips. It was the chastest among the chaste kisses, which carried in its innocent touch a promise of something more inclined to sin. But they would have plenty of time ahead, Charles mused, and there was no need to rush.
Maybe he wouldn’t tell Erik that he was enamored with the shade of cherry blossom coloring his cheeks. It contrasted so sharply with his chiseled features that it was the loveliest thing Charles had seen in centuries.
“Fancy a game?” Charles asked, handing him the black king. “I’ll go easy on you.”
“No, you won’t,” Erik replied, taking the piece. “You never will.”
They both laughed.