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Interlude

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Charles woke up with the worst hangover in the world and the most terrible case of dry mouth in history. Licking his cracked lips, he pried one eye open and almost immediately closed it again with a wince. Judging by the sunlight spilling in through the open window, it was already well past dawn and probably creeping in toward noon. His stomach rumbled sullenly, making its displeasure about his skipping breakfast known. Uncomfortable as his body was, he noted the situation with absolute satisfaction: nothing felt better than sleeping in, especially when one’s head was pounding hard enough to wake the neighbors.

Erik, predictably enough, had other ideas. Charles had barely reburied his head into his pillow when the bedroom door slammed open with a bang and Erik’s voice called deafeningly, “Are you awake yet? Come on, get up! Let’s go!”

Charles groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. “Go away.”

The bed dipped violently as Erik leaped onto it. A hand grabbed his bare ankle and shook it. “Come on, let’s go for a run.”

Charles kicked at him. “We literally outdrank everyone in the bar last night and you want to go for a run. Get off me.”

“Come on, my hangover is killing me.”

“You know, most people eat things to get rid of their hangover,” Charles grumbled, clutching his pillow stubbornly. “Or sleep.”

“How can you sleep? We won the fucking FA Cup two days ago.”

“And I’m celebrating by sleeping in. So leave me be, Erik—Erik!” He grabbed at the duvet as Erik tried to yank it off him. “Go away!”

When the tugging on the duvet ceased, Charles pushed his nose into his pillow again and obstinately shut his eyes. But Erik was never easily deterred: his new strategy involved kissing Charles’ ankle, then his calf, and once he reached Charles’ thigh, there was no shoving him away. Charles’ cock was already stirring in interest, the traitorous thing, and when Erik wrapped his hand around the base, Charles couldn’t help but tilt his hips up to accommodate him.

“If I suck you off, will you go for a run with me?”

Charles turned until he was fully on his back and covered his eyes with his forearm. “I hate you. Yes.”

Twenty minutes later, he was blearily wiping the sleep out of his eyes as Erik hurled his running shoes at him. He struggled into a serviceable t-shirt, guzzled down some water to soothe his parched mouth, and performed some dynamic stretches as Erik laced up his shoes. Then Erik all but hauled him out the door by his arm, horribly energetic for having spent half the night drunk dancing with Charles in the living room until they’d both collapsed.

Mr. Pryde was outside with his daughter as they left their flat. They were kicking a football out on the tiny strip of lawn in front of the building, two buckets forming a makeshift goal by the door. “Charles!” Kitty shouted when she spotted them coming down the front stairs. “Erik!”

“Hello, Kitty,” Charles said with a smile, trying not to grimace at the blinding sunlight. “How are you?”

“I’m Ramsey!”

“Oh, are you?”

“She’s been replaying the FA Cup final all morning,” Mr. Pryde explained with a smile. “Now she wants to be Aaron Ramsey when she grows up.”

“I’m hurt,” Charles teased. “You wanted to be me last week.”

Kitty shrugged, unaffected by his pout. “You score the winning goal in the FA Cup and then we’ll see.”

Erik laughed. “She’s ambitious, Charles. Can’t blame her for it.”

Shooting him a mock-glare, Charles shoved his shoulder with a grin.

“Can you play with us?” Kitty asked eagerly, juggling the ball from foot to foot. “It’s the 109th minute. Erik, you can be Giroud. Charles, you’re Hull City.”

Charles frowned. “Why does Erik get to be Giroud?”

“Because you’re not tall enough!”

“Because you’re not tall enough,” Erik echoed, amusement radiating off him. Charles gave him a look that said he’d be paying for that later, extensively.

“Dad, you’re Hull City, too,” Kitty ordered. “You’re in goal.”

She arranged them to her liking and then whistled sharply between her teeth to signal beginning of play. With a pass to Erik, she raced toward the goal, her ponytail bouncing wildly behind her. Charles watched Erik dribble slowly toward him for a couple of seconds before walking forward to defend. He wasn’t intending to seriously contend for the ball, so he ended up practically standing still as Erik put on a sudden burst of speed and flashed past him with a piece of footwork far too fancy for how falling-down drunk they’d gotten last night. He flicked the ball off to Kitty, who aimed it right between her father’s legs straight into the goal.

Hollering, she ran down the strip of lawn pumping both fists, shrieking when Erik scooped her up to spin her around. As they sailed victoriously down the sidewalk, Mr. Pryde held his hand out to Charles and said, “Really, congratulations. You and Erik were excellent in the final.”

Charles smiled and shook his hand. “Thank you. I’ll bet Kitty was bouncing off the walls.”

“Oh, you have no idea how hard it was to get her to go to bed last night. She wanted to watch all the replays and all the replays of the replays.”

“We’re glad to have not disappointed her,” Charles said fondly, watching as Erik let Kitty scramble onto his shoulders for a piggyback ride. That was something he’d never get tired of: watching Erik dote on Kitty like she was his own daughter. “Kitty’s welcome to come up to our flat later to hang out if she wants. We’ve got a press junket in the afternoon, but we’ll just be lazing about for the rest of the day.”

Mr. Pryde smiled. “I’ll be sure to tell her.”

After Kitty had run Erik sufficiently ragged, they said their goodbyes and left Kitty taking shots on her father in goal. As they headed down the sidewalk, Charles laced his fingers through Erik’s and said, “Let’s just take a walk.”

Kitty must have really stolen Erik’s breath from him because he nodded in agreement. They’d brought their baseball caps as usual to pull down over their faces, which normally served as adequate disguise when they ventured out in public. No one glanced their way as they ambled down the street, occasionally pausing in the shade where the sunlight wasn’t so harsh on their eyes.

“So,” Erik said after a while, “as FA cup winners, I was thinking we need to celebrate tonight.”

Charles groaned. “Please don’t talk about alcohol while I still have an hangover.”

“I was thinking we could finally have that Star Trek marathon you keep talking about. We’ll get takeout, pop in a few DVDs, have sex on the couch…yea or nay?”

“Mm, Star Trek, takeout, and sex—how could I resist?”

After a furtive glance around them, Erik ducked his head to press a quick kiss on Charles’ mouth. They rarely engaged in any PDA; though their relationship was no secret, it was still disconcerting to find pictures of supposedly intimate moments floating out on the Internet somewhere or on the front page of a gossip rag. But having won Arsenal’s first trophy in nine years, Charles felt they could be forgiven for indulging. He buried his fingers into the curling hair at Erik’s nape and pulled him closer for a slower, deeper kiss.

When they parted, Erik said, “We need to brush our teeth.”

Charles laughed. “Ever the romantic.”

They strolled around the neighborhood until they were ravenously hungry. When they returned to their flat, they had sloppy shower sex, emerged a little cleaner than they’d been when they went in, and went about preparing lunch. As Erik whipped up some leftovers, Charles sat on the stool by the kitchen counter and played the messages on their answering machine. The majority of them were congratulations from friends, a couple were from reporter acquaintances trying to solicit exclusive interviews, one was a reminder that they were expected to arrive half an hour before the team press conference this afternoon, and one was from Raven, asking if they were planning on coming stateside any time before they had to report for national team training.

“Probably not, right?” Charles asked, skipping through the last couple of congratulations.

“Hmm?”

“Raven asked if we’d have time to visit before World Cup.”

“No, probably not. Isn’t she coming to Brazil?”

“She might come for a few days. Kurt’s old enough to travel now without being a nuisance, so it should be alright.”

“We’ll see her there then.”

Charles hummed in agreement before slipping off the stool and rounding the counter so he could wrap his arms around Erik from behind.

“You’re affectionate today,” Erik remarked as he scooped reheated pasta onto two plates.

“We won a major trophy two days ago and we’re going to the World Cup next month. I’m going to be a little sappy if I want to be.” When Erik caught one of his hands and kissed it, he smiled and added, “Besides, you’re a thousand times sappier than I am on a daily basis.”

“Maybe,” Erik said, “but no one knows it.”

The public was very invested in the idea of Erik as Arsenal’s stoic, robotically precise striker who rarely celebrated goals and whose emotional capacity on the pitch ranged from frustration to grim satisfaction. They’d no doubt be surprised to find that Erik was an aggressive cuddler, had an immense love for dark chocolate, and melted at the sight of puppies. It was a shame, Charles thought sometimes, that most people had no idea how funny and kind Erik could be. He was occasionally tempted to post pictures of Erik making smiley-face pancakes for Kitty on his Instagram, but he still hadn’t really gotten the hang of social media yet and besides, he wasn’t actually in any hurry to shatter the public’s illusion of emotionless Erik. He liked the feeling of having Erik—the real Erik—to himself.

He had an aspirin with his tea as they settled in front of the telly, and Erik turned on the news with the volume down low. Shots of the FA Cup bus parade from yesterday rolled across the screen, and every once in a while, Charles could pick out the two of them leaning over the bus deck railing, still hungover from the night of partying they’d had after the match. Erik, who normally avoided getting drunk in public, was red-faced and smiling headily. He kept dragging Charles closer with the arm he had slung around Charles’ shoulders, seemingly intent on keeping Charles plastered to his side for the entirety of the celebration. Ozil appeared behind them, yelling something that was probably German that Erik laughed at, and then the camera panned away.

Charles looked over at Erik then and felt a swell of immeasurable love and gratitude for him, for Arsenal, for the whole lot. “This is the happiest moment of my life,” he said truthfully, and Erik cocked his head at him with a quizzical look and teased, “Now who’s being sappy?”

Charles kicked his thigh. “I’m serious. Three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined being where I am today. Winning trophies, getting to go to the World Cup, just playing again—I didn’t think…after the accident…”

Erik smiled and took his hand. “But you did. You made it.”

“All thanks to you.”

“I think McCoy deserves a little credit for that.”

“Doctors aside,” Charles said wryly, “you pulled me through. I just really—” He huffed. “I just really love you, alright? A lot.”

Erik stared at him for a moment. Then he set his plate down on the coffee table and leaned forward to pull Charles into his arms. “Come here. You get credit for not giving up, too. I’m glad every day that you didn’t. I love you, too.”

Charles kissed him, silent and fierce. Sometimes it shocked and scared him how much he owed this man. The doctors had saved his life and his legs with timely surgery, of course, and the physical therapy team had worked him like a draft horse every day for more than a year, but it had been Erik who had dragged him out of bed to do home exercises when he didn’t want to wake up, it had been Erik who had believed with unwavering conviction that Charles would walk again, and it had been Erik who had pushed Charles to keep going every time he wanted to quit. And now here they were, three years later, and Charles couldn’t imagine a better place to be.

When they parted, Erik whispered, “Can we have very sappy sex now?” and Charles laughed breathlessly before they proceeded to do just that.