Hal leisurely strolls into a (
) dead man’s study and makes himself at home, while Nick struggles to catch up, stumbling over one of the corpses strewn across the carpet runner and looking around warily, as though something is about to leap at him from behind the heavy curtains.
Hal smirks in his direction and pours himself some whiskey from the decanter resting on a mahogany desk. After a momentary consideration, he fills a second glass and sits down behind the desk before gesturing at a traditional black and white marble chess set and leaning back in his newly acquired comfortable chair. “A game of chess, if you will?”
Nick’s brow furrows in his usual unguarded puzzlement as he stays rooted to the spot. “But we--”
“No buts,” Hal cuts off, waving his hand dismissively. “There is no rush,” he adds, his tone turning to that of an endlessly patient tutor or a wise progenitor. “Sit down. Have a drink.”
Nick plops down into a smaller chair in front of him and it raises a full chuckle out of Hal when Nick gulps down the offering too quickly, scrunching up his face.
Hal watches Nick’s posture (it seems even Hal can’t break Nick of the habit of slumping his shoulders) and hands as Nick sets the pieces. Nick is intimidated, of course -- Hal wouldn’t have it any other way -- but not nearly enough not to play to win. Nick has his pride, which makes him both entertaining (these days it’s a rarity for Hal -- nothing amuses him as it used to) and almost too easy to manipulate. Moreover, Nick is intelligent. Lately Hal has surrounded himself with a pack of wolves, sharp fangs and nothing of significance between the ears, so he’s missed the presence of quick wits in the immediate proximity.
Hal lets him play white. The advantage is insignificant.
“Shall we place bets?” Hal offers after making his first move.
Nick’s gaze turns warier. Clever boy.
“If you win,” Hal says easily, as though it were a possibility (never forget to throw your dog a bone), “you can have the rest of the night off.”
The possibility seems to animate Nick a little: he straightens up in his seat and surveys the board with renewed vigour.
“If I win... Hmm. I can’t seem to make up my mind.” Hal flashes him a sharp smile. “Not to worry, I shall inform you when the time comes.” Have him on his tiptoes and guessing -- distracted.
Nick chews on his underlip and Hal can practically hear the gears turning in that funny fluffy-haired head of his. Hal rather likes ruffling Nick’s hair.
Hal nods approvingly at Nick moving his pieces without hesitation, but, truth to be told, Nick doesn’t have a playing style of his own -- it’s evident he’s merely emulating someone else’s winning combinations and textbook maneuvers. Hal even recognises some of his own.
“You will have to try much harder than this,” Hal murmurs, the pad of his thumb resting on the pointed crown of his king piece. It’s so sharp he could prick his finger on it.
Hal makes outlandish moves, meant to mislead and knock in for a loop, all the while bestowing advice of the “more improvisation, my friend,” variety in a benign tone of a teacher. He also engages in small talk, forcing Nick to constantly look up and participate in the conversation. Nick’s mouth curves in displeasure, but he dares not to call Hal on it. You can’t cheat at chess, after all.
While Nick ponders over his next move, Hal’s gaze slides off Nick’s concentrated face and wanders around the room before meeting a corpse’s glassy eyes. The empty quality of them is... disquieting. Hal instantly wants it put away.
“Check,” Nick says tentatively, like he can’t believe it really happened.
“Good,” Hal praises, his poker face intact, although he definitely hadn’t seen Nick’s move coming.
From then on, by contrast with the calm, meditative quality of their match’s opening, the middle game turns unexpectedly, delightfully intense, pieces falling and carefully crafted plans spiralling into unabashed chaos. Hal grins wickedly and Nick runs his hands through his hair, making frustrated noises.
Hal does not do mercy nor does he pull his punches. “Next time I won’t go easy on you,” he promises, the line of his mouth drawn a tad too tight.
Nick’s returned smile is painfully shy and he looks pleased with his victory. Hal will have the expression wiped off Nick’s face.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks somewhat irritably, sounding too much like a crotchety old man for his own liking. “Off you go. Shoo.”
Nick blinks and looks at him intently. “I’d rather... stay by your side. If you allow it, of course.”
Hal’s laughter makes Nick shudder, amusingly enough. “Nothing better to do?”
Nick ducks his head, shoulders jerking in a not quite a shrug. “You could says that.”
Hal springs to his feet and prowls to Nick’s chair, coming to a halt behind his back and patting his shoulder, the fingers clamping down hawkishly and kneading into the bone. Nick whips his head to look up in uncertainty and Hal leans closer, his voice a golden syrup. “Tell me more about how you don’t take days off, Nick .”
He fidgets under Hal’s hands. “I, uh -- what do you even want me to say?”
“Wrong, Nick.” Hal circles the chair and grabs Nick’s face “You must always have an answer for me.”
“Is this--? Look, just because you didn’t win--” Nick coughs and falls silent.
Hal arches an eyebrow and shows the keen edges of his teeth. “What was that?”
“I mean, I’ll do whatever you wanted me to do in case I lost.”
“A music to my ears.” A slow, anticipatory smile spreads across Hal’s face as he drags Nick out of his chair by the collars of his jacket and pushes him onto the table, the chess pieces scattering around and hitting the floor in a series of dull thuds.
Hal Yorke always wins.