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Twenty Moves or Less

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“Nervous?”

Laurent rolled his eyes at Auguste. “I am quite confident.”

Auguste smiled. “Go get ‘em.”

Laurent knew that Auguste knew he wasn’t nervous. They had both played in so many chess tournaments that they now had fun with the competition instead of letting it be a source of worry, but the question was a hearkening back to Laurent’s first tournament, when he was five and unsure he would be able to make it. Then, Auguste had asked him if he was nervous; shaking, Laurent had said “no,” and then proceeded to beat the pants off every kid playing in his division. Stunned, Laurent walked onstage to accept the trophy, but Auguste wasn’t surprised a bit. It had become a ritual after that, a good luck charm--Auguste checking in.

Laurent opened the double doors to a familiar sight: row after row of tables with polished chess boards, and a black bag of pieces next to each, waiting for the next contestants. Not a chair was out of place.

Auguste followed Laurent through the room, and they both made their way to the auditorium for the opening ceremony.

“Have you seen the roster yet?” Auguste asked.

“I checked it three days ago. I’m not anticipating that much of a battle until the next level, although Jokaste may give me a run for my money.”

“They last-minute addition is interesting. Damianos Vassos. I believe he’s from Greece.”

“I would hardly call it ‘interesting’ if someone was kicked out of Paris for cheating and then suspended. They would let him back? I can’t believe that any tournament of repute would admit a player with such a record. If this were my tournament, I wouldn’t.”

“I think I have to play him,” Auguste said. He projected disinterest as if this Damianos was just another opponent, but Laurent knew that someone who didn’t play by the rules here was as dangerous as they were rare. He grabbed Auguste by the elbow of their matching suits.

“Just watch him closely, okay? I want you to win your title,” warned Laurent.

“I watch everyone closely.”

“I love you, but I’ve seen a couple things sneak past you now and then. You’re too trusting.”

Auguste shook the hand off his elbow and took Laurent’s arm as they made their way to their seats. “And you’re too suspicious. We make quite a pair.”

The ceremony didn’t last long. The director explained the rules, explained the prizes, and wished everyone the best of luck. Afterwards, the competitors had thirty minutes to go to the bathroom, freshen up, and get their thoughts straight before the first match. A woman in a trench coat and red lipstick closed her eyes, probably visualizing the board to review what she would do in certain situations. A teenager in a suit and an elderly man, most likely his coach, were conversing on the balcony for a breath of fresh air. Other players just talked with friends. Laurent knew some people here, but he hadn’t seen any of them as of yet. Auguste headed to the skittles room to grab a bite to eat.

Laurent took another moment to look at the schedule even though he nearly had it memorized by now. Auguste had said that it would be he who was facing Vassos, but here his name appeared in Laurent’s bracket. He didn’t mind going first, but he wanted to ask a tournament director to be sure.

“Excuse me, but for round three, is this Laurent or Auguste Revere?”

“Laurent.”

At some point, Laurent would have to face Auguste, but he didn’t mind. They played at home all the time, and his chances of winning or losing were 50-50.

“Are you sure?”

“It says it right here, on the schedule,” the director said, pressing a button on his smartphone. Laurent craned his neck to get a better view, and the director tilted the screen towards him so he could see for himself. He guessed it was true.

Most cheating nowadays involved the sly use of computer engines to aid in picking the best move. Sometimes, a player would go to the bathroom or another private area to pull out their cell phone and access the software, but other times they could be caught for communicating with someone in the audience who would use the computer for them.

So far, Laurent hadn’t been involved in any tournaments where this behavior was found to continue, but he had heard of it happening. In Damianos’s case, for that matter. No one knew officially what he used, but tournament officials became suspicious when Damianos at 1800 rating points beat a grandmaster at 2400, the level that they were both at now.

Whatever it was, Laurent was going to humiliate this man so thoroughly that he never participated in an international chess tournament again. Beat him in twenty moves or less. That would be a good game.

Laurent had two matches before Damianos. He had to stay focused until then, so he reworked a chess puzzle he had found two days prior and settled his mind on matters that were less vindictive.

---

“Damianos Vassos. You can call me Damen,” the man in front of him said, offering his hand. Laurent ignored it and took his seat.

“It’s polite to shake your opponent’s hand before you begin, you know,” Damen suggested, as if Laurent was the one in this situation who lacked manners.

“So we are following the rules of etiquette, then?”

“You tell me.”

Damen sat down at the table and began setting up the pieces. Outwardly, he was composed, but as he set up his half, Laurent remembered how good it felt to grind his teeth.

“You have a preference?” Damen asked, referring to the choice of black or white.

“White,” Laurent said, hoping to press the first advantage. If Damen wanted it, as most opponents usually did, they would have to flip for it. In the end, it was inconsequential, because the game depended on the player’s individual skill throughout, but there was always a chance depending on how your opponent reacted that for a few moves, you would remain ahead a tempo.

“Do you wish to flip for it?”

“No, black suits me fine.”

Laurent moved first, advancing a pawn to try and control the center. Then he watched Damen. If Damen was going to try and cheat, he assumed it would come in the middle of the game, once it became clear that a victory was not assured and they were both deep in thought. He looked for any bumps or wires, and any area in Damen’s shirt where the fabric could be loose enough to conceal a microphone. He was looking for hand gestures, unnatural expressions, but this was a losing strategy because over the course of a few hours, everyone was bound to make some.

Eventually, Laurent tired of splitting his attention between concentrating on Damen and concentrating on the board. The game was getting tough. Laurent had seen this opening before, but the decisions he made led him not to develop all his pieces in the beginning as well as he should have. He was just bringing them out now, and as he did, he could feel the tension rising as they both took equal positions and waited for the other to make a mistake. From there, the tension would drop off and it would be one man’s game. They didn’t have timers, so it was a long period of silent concentration interspersed with furious scribbling of the most recent moves on the scorecard because they recorded their own games.

Laurent thought he knew which pieces he could afford to lose, and how to goad his opponent into taking them, but Damen wouldn’t buy into Laurent’s deceptions and took exactly what Laurent was trying to protect at least twice. Within the half hour, Laurent had been beaten so swiftly and elegantly that he almost could have admired his opponent.

“That’s checkmate,” Laurent commented after Damen had made his final move. He didn’t know what to say, after that. He supposed Damen would say “good game,” try not to make it condescending, and move on. Then they would report their scores, and Laurent would stretch his legs, because even though this game hadn’t gone well, he still had quite a few to play before the day was up.

Damen scrutinized the board as if he was looking for other options.

“Yes, you’re right. You played well.”

“How did you--” Laurent scrambled in his brain for words but he couldn’t find any to string on to the end of the sentence.

“How did I…?”

So Damen was going to make him finish the question. Either he would say, “how did you beat me” in which case he would be drawing attention to his loss, probably to Damen’s satisfaction, or he could say something along the lines of “how did you know to avoid castling, there at the end,” drawing attention to a specific instance but still admitting to Damen that he knew something Laurent did not, which was unavoidable because he had already started asking the question, but he couldn’t help it because he was in shock.

Eventually, Laurent settled for asking, “What were you thinking, throughout the game?”

Damen looked around.

“Here. Let’s go in another room.”

So Damen showed him. His thinking was quite streamlined, really, and once he had explained, Laurent realized there were some things there that he could incorporate into his own strategy.

Not everyone would have taken the time to discuss the game with their opponent. Growing up, Laurent had faced many people who had shaken his hand and then left, even after they had taken the victory.

Still, he couldn’t bring himself to compliment Damen, not after he knew that he was capable of cheating.

His disgust must have shown on his face, because before he knew it, Damen had a hand on his shoulder and was saying, “Laurent. That is your name, isn’t it?”

Laurent looked up. He supposed he hadn’t formally introduced himself.

“Losing--don’t take it so hard, okay? It’s still the beginning of the tournament, and there are plenty of matches to go. Shake it off, and move on so you can concentrate come the next match.”

“I’m not taking it hard.” It wasn’t losing that he minded, but losing to Damianos. He had lost plenty of times. It happened every tournament. He wouldn’t have gotten this far if he hadn’t.

“Are you sure? Something looks like it’s bothering you--”

Laurent shrugged Damen’s hand off his shoulder and returned to set the pieces back up for the next players.

“I said ‘I'm fine.’”

Damen took his hand back and also focused on tidying up the pieces, but when he reached for a white pawn that had made it over to his side, his and Laurent’s fingers met, and Laurent snatched the piece away to place it on the other side of the board from where Damen was intending.

“Go report the scores,” Laurent ordered, pointing off in another direction.

“Do you want me to wait for you?”

“Just go.”

---

After the next game, which he won, thank you very much, Laurent ran into Jord, a close friend from high school.

“Is it going well? I have a good feeling you’re going to win this one,” Jord said with conviction, face lacking the smile that said he was trying to be encouraging and opting for a forecast that he thought was realistic.

“I had success with my last match. However, the first one was not so great. Can you guess who it was with?”

“Jokaste?”

“Damianos Vassos.”

Jord nearly spit out the water he was drinking from the free bottles they offered.

“Damianos is here? I thought he was kicked out of chess forever.”

“He should have been. I don’t understand how anyone who disgraces the sport like he has should should ever be admitted to one of these again.”

How did your matches go?” Laurent asked. According to the schedule, Jord had played three in the space of Laurent’s two.

Jord grimaced. “Don’t ask that question. Competition’s tough.”

It sure was. Laurent supposed he could simply look up the results later, if he wanted to know, but if Jord didn’t want him to see that, then he wouldn’t.

They looked around the lounge at people playing chess; this wasn’t the tournament room, so the room was still noisy, despite the number of people engrossed in their game. They weren’t breaking the silence by taking a moment to talk.

“Speaking of Vassos, did you hear he’s dating Jokaste?” said Jord.

He had not. He was mainly preoccupied with how Damen had beat him and he hadn’t even seen it coming.

“Good for him, I’m sure. Look, you have the next hour off, right? If I remember the schedule? I need you to find out, for me, if Damianos is cheating. Can you do that?”

“Sure. Do you mean--”

“Laurent!” a high voice came from behind his back. Laurent spun around and was greeted by the sight of Nicaise, a thirteen-year-old boy with a clipboard and a pen behind his ear trying to look official.

“They need you up in room two, they’re waiting on you, let’s go!” Nicaise said, consulting the clipboard.

“What do you mean, ‘they need me in room two,’ I checked the schedule this morning and there was no such obligation.”

“A few of the participants didn’t show up, so they moved the entire schedule to be more efficient.”

“And you helped them do it, did you?”

Nicaise beamed.

“Forget about me, Laurent, pretty soon it’ll be Nicaise who’s running this whole operation,” Jord said.

Laurent crossed his arms and smirked at the child. “Oh? You think so?”

“Just come with me,” Nicaise repeated, tugging on the fabric at Laurent’s elbow. They always said Laurent came overdressed to these things, but a suit was perfectly acceptable. He wanted to keep talking with Jord, but things like this were more important, and he knew there would be time left to visit afterward.

Nicaise left down the hallway. Laurent turned to say one more thing to Jord, but his watch said there wasn’t enough time. A player who failed to arrive early enough might forfeit the match.

“I’m leaving!” Nicaise announced. Laurent didn’t like to be rushed by other people, but in this case, he made an exception.

---

In France, if one went out to see the city and wasn’t watching where one placed one’s stuff, it was safe to assume you would be visited by pickpockets, especially if the area you were in had a reputation for being popular and crowded. Everyone knew this. Nicaise knew this, too, although he became aware of it at a younger age than most.

Nicaise had grown up in an orphanage until he was adopted at the age of eight by Laurent’s uncle, which was how he came to know Laurent. Laurent’s uncle had done an excellent job teaching Nicaise and exposing him to the finer things in life, realizing that the boy was incredibly bright and would do great things in life if only he had some guidance, but the boy was a pickpocket, plain and simple.

 

He wasn’t as young now as he was then, but he could still do it if he tried. It was like chess; the habits and skills you learned in your childhood never really left you.

They said he could help with this conference. They gave him a clipboard and a pen to hold behind his ear, but he wasn’t really busy. All the real work was left to the adults.

So he decided to help Laurent. Laurent had instructed Jord to figure out whether or not some guy named Damianos was cheating, either at chess or with his girlfriend, and he knew Jord would probably need help since he wasn’t the brightest guy on the planet. Laurent had talked with him a couple times about getting a boyfriend, so he assumed it was the latter. In all honesty, he was probably talking about chess, but Nicaise ignored this possibility because it sounded much less fun. Besides, they had directors on the floor watching for that. Why would Nicaise want to be one of them?

Nicaise found the room Damianos was in, and watched him unobtrusively, pretending to talk to one of the staff. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that before beginning a game, Damianos always placed his phone face-up on the table, off, but where everyone could see it.

It was late in the day at this point, so some of the participants had begun to stream back to their hotels. Empty boards laid about. Nicaise thought he would clean some of these boards. If Damen’s phone got caught in the pile, who would know?

Nicaise cleaned up the boards and did just that. Back behind the counter at the reception, he put the boards and pieces away and admired his work. Laurent would like this...if only he could unlock it.

---

“What’s that?” Jord asked, when he came upon Nicaise fiddling with the phone later. Lazar was with him. They had both been drummed out of the competition early, and since they were both sore and wanted to improve, Jord had suggested they watch Damianos, and kill two birds with one stone.

“A phone. I...forgot the combination.”

“I’m surprised kids your age have phones, nowadays. When I was younger, my mother refused to give me one until I was a teenager.”

“Yeah, but you’re old.”

“Not much older than Laurent,” Jord protested before taking a closer look over Nicaise’s shoulder at the lock screen. “Leave it alone for now, the more wrong combinations you input, the longer you’ll be locked out.”

“I know that.”

Jord paused. “Nicaise?”

“Yes?”

“Why is your phone in Greek?”

Nicaise stuttered. “Uh, I--Mr. Revere suggested that I learn it in my downtime.”

“And that’s why you can’t open it?” Lazar asked. “I didn’t realize the numbers changed, too.”

Nicaise scrambled to think up another excuse, but at a harsh stare from both of the grownups, he decided it was fruitless. “Fine, it’s Damianos’s phone. I overheard Laurent talking to Jord earlier about some espionage, and I thought this was the best way to do it. Happy?”

Jord blanched. “No! Not at all. We need to give this back.”

“Not now. While the competition continues, every person is focused on playing their best, so for the next couple hours, at least, it is unlikely that we will be caught. Besides, it’s the best way to figure out whether or not Damianos is cheating. We already have it, so why not make use of it?” Lazar asked.

“Because I can’t open it,” Nicaise whined.

“Oh, that’s no problem. Do you know how many people simply put their birth year? By the looks of him, Damianos has to be somewhere in his twenties, 27, maybe?”

“25,” Nicaise offered. That information was right in the computers.

Lazar punched the corresponding year into the keypad.

“What do you know, it works!”

Jord rested his face in his hands. He was not affiliated with these guys. He was not. He sighed. The things he did for Laurent.

---

They changed the schedule and I’m about to face Jokaste, Laurent texted his brother as he was walking towards the door and hit send.

The reply came as soon as he reached it. She’s just another opponent. There’s nothing more special about her than there is about any other person here.

I know, but she’s a good player.

So are you. Keep your head up.

Laurent pocketed his phone as he entered the room and sat down at the table. Nicaise was right; everyone was ready. Jokaste was smiling as he sat across from her.

“Laurent, long time, no see?”

“I’ve been preoccupied.”

“Not too preoccupied to play chess, I hope?”

Jokaste’s eyes twinkled and her lips curled in a sweet smile. My, she was bubbly today.

The game dragged on and on, like a dinner with a few glasses of wine afterwards when the bottle is slow to run out. Laurent won, eventually. It was challenging, but he was surprised to learn that some of the things Damen said helped.

Hm. Perhaps he had overestimated her skill in his mind. Either way, he had this competition in the bag, and now there was nothing to worry about except Damianos.

---

“You took his phone?” Laurent screeched once he learned what they had done. Laurent pretended to be scandalized, but secretly, he was proud. It was nice to know that his uncle hadn’t driven the street out of Nicaise completely.

“And unlocked it. Remember what I said about Damianos dating Jokaste?”

“Yes.”

“She broke up with him just last week.” Jord showed him the exchange as he scrolled through the texts. His first thought was how is this relevant, but then he remembered that he had a lot of things on his phone he didn’t want people to see. A lot of a man’s secrets could be kept on his phone. Laurent stored the information away for later, in case it might be useful. That explained why Jokaste looked so happy.

“Why are you so fixated on Damen and Jokaste?”

“Didn’t you say you wanted us to find out whether or not he was cheating?” Lazar asked.

“At chess! Why else do you think we’re here?”

“I mean, I thought…” Jord stumbled, “he was your type.”

“My type?”

“You know, men who are big, broad upper-body--”

“Stop right there.” Laurent could feel his face turning red. “Don’t you say anything, or I’ll get Uncle to ground you for a month,” he said, pointing at Nicaise. He ran his hands through his hair. “At any point, did you see him use it to gain an advantage, or otherwise communicate with anyone during a game?”

The three of them shook their heads. No matter; Laurent still had what he needed to ensure that Damen would regret his past actions. They needed to return the phone, but for now, Laurent decided to hold onto it for safekeeping.

---

The next time he played Damen, he laid into him for all he was worth.

“Have you seen a phone laying around, by chance?” Damen asked.

“No, I haven’t. Did you need it?”

“No. Let’s start playing.”

They set up the pieces again, and got started. As soon as Damen made an intelligent move, Laurent said in a low voice, “So I heard your girlfriend broke up with you.”

Damen took in a sharp breath.

“Where did you hear that?”

Laurent had to be careful here; if he had the wrong source, Damen could get suspicious. “I played her this afternoon. We’re old rivals. Beautiful woman.”

“That she is.”

Damen’s face carefully schooled itself into a composed expression. Laurent could tell that he was getting through, but he would have to try harder if he wanted Damen to make anything other than the quick, methodical moves of a juggernaut.

“Did you love her?”

Damen didn’t respond for several minutes. Laurent assumed he was going to ignore the question, but then, in a quiet voice, he said, “yes.”

“You must have done something incredible to make her leave.”

“I did not.”

“Are you sure?”

Damen captured a rook.

“Why don’t you shut up and play?”

“Oh, I am.” Damen was just as fun to manipulate as the game. In the next few moves, he made mistakes. Although he kept his composure, he could see that Damen was beginning to crack. Now all he had to do was sit back and watch it happen.

“Come on, don’t look so sad. Jokaste certainly didn’t look that way when I was playing her.”

He couldn’t see beneath the table, but he could see the muscle on his arm tighten up from where his hand was clenched into a fist. A few times, when he was considering his next move, his hand hovered over the king, as if he was thinking about resigning. Do it, Laurent wanted to say, but Damen never did.

“Check.”

It would be interesting to see how Damen got out of this. Then Damen smirked, and unleashed his reply.

“Well, I imagine I looked happy when I was beating you, too.”

“I won.”

“You won? Against Jokaste?”

Laurent sucked his tongue into his cheek. He took the queen, and while it was definitely possible to continue to have the upper hand without it, it was a psychological blow, and afterwards, Laurent was sure that he would have no problem decimating Damen’s defenses. He was almost there.

“I did. And I did it without cheating, either.”

“Oh, really? Well what would you call what you just did?” Damen asked.

“Chess.” Technically, it was considered rude to say things of such a nature to an opponent, but Laurent believed that this was an exception.

Damen lost in the end, but Laurent had to continue to fight for it. Another hour passed before he finally secured the win. It was nothing he couldn’t handle, but this tournament was certainly taxing.

---

The next day, Laurent was irritated to check the standings and see that Damianos was still in the lead. He guessed that all of his efforts had been for nothing.

In the middle of the day, when he had time to himself, he went up to his hotel room to lay on the bed. The suite was a courtesy of the organization that was sponsoring the event. They were known internationally, and part of that prestige was making sure their participants were well taken care of.

He didn’t have a view of the city--his room wasn’t high enough, like some of the rooms of the other participants, but he still had access to a queen-size bed with a widescreen TV, and a porch that overlooked the pool. He might swim in the pool later, if only he could find the sunscreen.

First, he wanted to take more time to look through Damen’s phone. He wanted to see the evidence for himself. He ignored the chess apps, and he didn’t care about the texts from Jokaste, so he scrolled past those, and went all the way back to the date of the tournament from last year, where supposedly, he had committed his crime.

There were calls from a lot of official numbers, texts from his mother, and texts to someone named Nikandros, who was a close friend, if his rudimentary Greek skills were still intact. And..they seemed to be protesting something.

I don’t know why they accused me, it said. One of the tournament directors checked the logs, and they said the outcome of that game could not have happened with my skill level as low as it was.

So they thought you were too good?

Apparently. I tried to explain to them the thinking that led me to make those moves, but then another person who was watching me said he saw me do something illegal.

Did you?

No! And coach wouldn’t even stand up for me!

What a --- !

Laurent couldn’t translate this last insult, but he assumed it was something despicable. Laurent extracted his laptop from his case and pulled up some of the articles he had read about the scandal. They were consistent, but a lot of them were based on speculation.

He did another search on Damen, and learned that before the scandal, he had been dubbed Greece’s most talented prodigy. The community at the time had predicted that before the age of 20, he would win the regional tournaments and possibly go on to become their youngest grandmaster.

Obviously, this guy was good. The fact that he would cheat just didn’t make sense. After all, he had played the guy, during which time Damianos hadn’t removed his eyes from the board once. He beat him, but only because he was playing dirty, and Damianos had practically won the tournament after that, even after Nicaise took his cell phone. He just couldn’t see it.

When Laurent looked at a chessboard, what he saw was a set of endless possibilities. With a case like this, it was possible to compare the series of moves made by a player to the series of moves that would have been made by popular computers, but there had been no such analysis.

Laurent went over the logs himself, and saw that the person Damen was playing at the time had been losing rapidly. He laid on the bed with the chessboard balanced on his lap, pieces carefully formatted as they had been that day. Perhaps...perhaps he should talk to Damen about all this, and give him another chance. If the man would talk to him at all after their last game, though--Laurent knew that on Damen’s ego, he had probably done a number.

He looked through the communications with Jokaste just out of curiosity, after that. It turned out that she and Damen had begun dating right after the tournament that day because she was one of the few that believed him about not cheating. They had been together ever since, and it was a healthy relationship, from the looks of it. Laurent could feel himself blushing again, and he had to put the phone down to go get a breath of fresh air.

They had broken up because Damen was...gay? He didn’t quite explain it like that, but it was something along those lines.

But if he didn’t cheat, then Laurent had behaved horribly in their last game.

Laurent needed a break. He guessed he would go to the pool.

---

He went down the steps and opened the gate to the pool, which was largely unoccupied except for a couple mothers and their children. Laurent didn’t know either of them. He planned to lay his towel and his book on the side table under the umbrella, but as he was passing the water, a pair of hands on his back shoved him towards the water.

Laurent barely managed to throw his book out of the way as he tumbled towards the water in his t-shirt and swim trunks. He could swim well enough, but he didn’t manage to take a breath before he went in, and he spluttered when he came to the surface, only to see Damen standing on the concrete, grinning.

Laurent glared.

“I want a rematch,” they both said at the same time.

“You want a rematch?” Damen asked. “But you won the last one.”

“I was thinking that you could do better,”Laurent explained as he brushed his sopping hair out of his face and made his way over to the edge of the pool. He tried to pull himself up, but Damen pushed him back in.

“I can do better, in fact, and you knew it. What was that back there, asking a million questions about my ex? Does this tournament mean so much to you that you would resort to such underhanded tactics when you couldn’t win it on your own merit?”

Laurent stopped trying to exit the pool and sank back into the water.

“I’m sorry,” Laurent said. Damen’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I thought that you had cheated at your last tournament, and I was angry you had been invited back.”

“I thought as much. A lot of people have that response. Do you know how hard it’s been working to earn back that respect? By now, it’s probably gone forever.”

Wait, what do you mean, ‘you thought?’” Damen asked.

“You didn’t cheat.”

“How do you know that?” Damen offered him a hand and pulled him out of the water. Laurent began to squeeze out his towel before he realized it was a lost cause and slung it over his shoulder anyway.

“You seem like a good person. I misjudged you.”

Damen narrowed his eyes. “Give me my phone.”

“What?”

“Give me my phone.”

“Why do you think I have your phone?”

“I talked to Jokaste after the day’s events. She didn’t tell you anything. And the only reason you would know about the breakup and the fact that I didn’t cheat is if you had my phone, which I know was stolen, because I have it next to me on the table during every game.”

“It’s in my hotel room. I’ll go get it,” he said.

Damen tagged along, and Laurent felt like he was back in grade school being escorted to the principal’s office or when one of his parents caught him doing something naughty. Every step he took up the stairs with Damen behind him, he could feel his cheeks burning.

He handed Damen his phone as soon as they got in the door. It was laying on the kitchen counter.

“I could have you arrested for this. Even if you thought I was cheating, that’s not an excuse to steal. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t call the authorities.”

“You have it back now, right?”

“That’s not the point. The phone isn’t even the point. In fact, you and I are probably both rich enough--”

“I’ll clear your name.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what happened, or why they say you did it, but what I saw on that phone convinced me that you didn’t do it. I read news reports, I played through your games, looked at footage, and there is no way you could have done it.”

Damen scoffed.

“I have been fighting this for the past two years. What makes you think you can help?”

“I’m French. As it stands, one or both of us is slated to win this tournament. If I win, either I’ll donate all the prize money to supporting your cause, or I won’t accept until they clear you.”

“You’re not just saying that?”

“No! Look, I know I was mean to you the last time we played, but this isn’t something I would lie about.”

Damen relaxed a fraction and it was as if he was sinking down into his toes. He still hadn’t put a shirt on from the pool, and his sunglasses were still perched on his hair.

“If you want to go back and shower, you can, or you can shower here and I’ll find a shirt so we can play chess.”

“Where can I put my stuff?”

Laurent pointed to the couch. Damen took him up on his offer, so Laurent found a loose-fitting button down in his suitcase and laid it out on the bed. Then he realized that even the biggest article of clothing he owned was not designed to stretch around Damen’s back, so he brought out the fluffy hotel robe that came with the room. It would have to do.

In the end, Damen ended up going back to his room to get clothing, but he did wear the robe out of the bedroom before he decided to go back.

“You know Greek? That’s pretty impressive,” Damen said once Laurent had brought him a coffee and they had started the game.

“I went to a lot of international competitions when I was young. Also, a lot of the servants in my uncle’s household were Greek immigrants, so he thought it would be worth it if I learned.”

Do you know French?” Laurent asked. He assumed the answer would be “no,” because that would be too good to be true.

“Yes. I do, actually, so we can dispense with this English.”

Laurent was thrilled. There was nothing wrong with English, but it was a common language. As such, he had always found it slightly impersonal. But there was something else he couldn’t get out of his head, either.

“You...like men?”

“And women. But, yes, I do like men.”

There was a moment where they caught each other’s eyes, and Laurent’s mouth went dry. He coughed and changed the subject.

“You’re a good player, you know. If you hadn’t stopped to teach me yesterday morning, I wouldn’t have won against Jokaste.”

“Really? We actually don’t play each other that much. It tends to lead to arguments.” Damen laughed, and then sobered, reminiscent.

“You must have had a fraught relationship.”

“No, it was pretty good, actually.”

“Tell me about it.”

So he did. They left the game and sat on the couch, Damen with one ankle resting on one knee, and Laurent with his legs crossed, but both turned towards each other. Laurent heard about the good times, and the bad. There were a few times when his voice wavered and Laurent could see Damen trying not to get emotional, but he never broke.

He had to get out his phone to text Auguste not to come in for the next few hours, but other than that, his full attention was on Damen. He assured him that he didn’t mean any of the things he said, but Damen still didn’t seem to believe it, so Laurent took a risk.

“Damen, look at me, okay? Turn around and lay back,” he said, inviting Damen to stretch out over his lap. “There you go,” he said as Damen complied. He could see his chest rising and falling rapidly and ran a hand over it, and at this, Damen seemed to calm down.

“It’s a awful that she did this to you,” Laurent said, lowering a kiss to Damen’s lips. Damen kissed back like a man desperate for air, but Laurent kept it slow and delicate. He placed a kiss at the side of Damen’s mouth, then moved on to kiss his jaw and down his neck. Damen moaned low in his throat and tilted his head back to grant access. Pretty soon, the kisses grew heated, and they were tugging at each other frantically to bring each other closer together.

Laurent continued to smooth his hand down Damen’s chest, but soon he went back to Damen’s mouth, pressing against his lips and caressing Damen’s mouth with his tongue.

“You only like me because I beat you at chess,” Damen joked, and Laurent denied it. Maybe it was partly true, but that wasn’t all he liked.

“Hey, do you want to meet my brother?” he said when they broke apart, and Damen was in much higher spirits than when he had first met him.

“We have an early morning tomorrow, so I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

“At the tournament then?” Tomorrow was the last day. Damen was still in, and so was Laurent. But if they got there early, they would still have time for introductions, and possibly to grab a bite to eat.

Eventually, they decided that they would have breakfast in the morning, then walk together over to the tournament building. From there, it was up to Laurent.