1.24. The French Defense
Lark has dreamt about chess every night for the past week. In the dreams, she stands fixed to a spot, unable to move for what feels like hours at a time, her only company the unspeaking fairy on the opposite side.
It’s becoming tiresome.
On this particular night, though, she isn’t alone on her side the board. Instead, she’s joined by three men, the same three men she dreamed about a few nights earlier. The tattooed man is another pawn, the young man a knight, and the haggard man is the king.
She looks at them quizzically. “Hello?” Her voice echoes in the still air. Their gazes are fixed forward and they remain motionless. Suddenly she feels compelled to move forward. She takes two large steps, then glances back over her shoulder, but the rest of the pieces--and people--remain where they are. She looks forward again, and there’s the strange fairy, smiling at her with her wide, twisted mouth.
Lark wakes up in a rotten mood. She looks at the clock on her nightstand: 5:30 AM. It’s far too early, well before anyone else is typically awake.
She yawns as she trudges down the stairs towards the kitchen. She stops when she hears a voice drifting up the stairs: it’s her mother’s, speaking her name. She tiptoes down the last couple of steps and peeks around the corner. Her parents are sitting at the dining room table, deep in conversation.
“I just don’t know, Quen,” Luna’s voice is worn, “I want to help, but I don’t want to get Lark involved.”
“It sounds like a complicated situation,” Quentin agrees, “but think of what he said about his friend. How would you feel in his shoes? If you were going through the same thing, you’d want help, right?”
“Yes, but we’ve gone so long without hearing from Mercury, and Nova has been looking for him for years--and he was so weird around her when she was a teen. I’m just not sure I trust him, especially around our children.”
“I agree. He’s a creep. But you don’t have to leave her alone with him, right? You’ll be right there to make sure everything is on the level. And from what you’ve described, it’s really his friend that will be talking to Lark.”
“I guess,” Luna sighs, “you’re right. If we can help, we should. But I’m not sure why they think she can do.”
“I don’t know,” Quentin shrugs.
“I just hope Lark is mature enough--”
The floor creaks, startling Luna and Quentin. They turn to the noise, but Lark has already made her escape, having bound back up the stairs in a panic.
The conversation made no sense to her, but her parents sounded so serious. Lark is used to her mother’s despondency--she has her ups and downs, which is balanced by her father’s unrelenting optimism. But her mother sounded graver than normal.
The conversation echoes in Lark’s mind all morning, filling her with a sense of dread. Could she be in trouble? Has she done something unforgivable? Was it the bubbles? None of those conclusions match up with the concern for her in her mother’s voice, but paranoia begins to overtake her anyway.
She tries to clear her head by tending to the Bee’s indoor garden While she had been banned from touching the Bee garden as a child, that ban was overturned once it became obvious that Quentin could no longer tend the rapidly growing garden by himself. Lark is a natural, though, and soon takes over most of the work. This is a relief to Quentin--it frees him up to spend more time on some of his other hobbies, such as chess, and it’s good to know that his youngest daughter has a hobby. She has rarely shown an interest in anything other than video games and spending time with her friends. Not that either of those things are bad, of course. They just can’t be represented on a CV.
So Quentin is a little surprised when she asks to learn how to play chess.
“I thought Luke tried to teach you?” He asks as he sets the board.
“Yeah, but he’s kind of a bad teacher. So how do the pieces work again?
Quentin explains each piece on the board, gesturing as he talks: “Eight pawns, two knights, two bishops, two rooks, a king, and a queen.” He demonstrates how each piece can move differently.
Lark furrows her brow as she tries her hardest to concentrate. “Which piece is the strongest?”
“The queen. She can move in the most versatile ways, whereas the other pieces are more limited. But there’s more to the game than that. The strength of a play comes from using the pieces in unison, and the willingness to make sacrifices to protect the king. “
“Oh. So how do you win?”
“With a checkmate, when you back your opponent’s king into a position he can’t escape.”
“Duh. I know that,” Lark rolls her eyes, “I meant how do you get to a checkmate?”
“Um, there’s a lot to it. But part of the key to winning is having a good opening,” Quentin explains, “if you mess up early, it can be impossible to regain control.”
“What’s the best opening?”
“That’s hard to say. There’s so many different ways to play, and you have to know a lot about the different tactics and strategies to win. Why the sudden interest in chess?”
“I’m bored, okay? I just thought this wouldn’t be a horrible way to pass the afternoon.”
“Then let’s start with the French Defense. I’m playing white, so I make the first play. I move my pawn two spots forward, to e4. You begin the defense by moving this pawn,” he points, “to e6.” Lark moves the piece to where her father indicates. “This strategy is played asymmetrically, so black tries to throw off white. White focuses on the kingside, trying to cause a check there, while you--the black side--will focus queenside and take out the pawns.”
Lark can hardly follow her father, but he tells her what to do on each step. She wins in the end, but it’s a manufactured victory.
“So,” Quentin smiles brightly, “not that hard, right?”
Lark makes a face, “when you’re playing for me, no.”
“Sorry,” Quentin looks sheepish, “I just thought it would be easier for you to learn if you had help.”
“Whatever. So let’s say I’m playing white, not black, and black uses the French Defense. How could I counter?”
“I guess a good beginning strategy is the King’s Indian Attack.”
“So how do I play that?”
“Well, it’s not that formulaic. Typically you push your central pawn to the middle, and then line up your pieces in such a way that will allow you to divide the board…” Quentin continues, but Lark’s eyes glaze over. Why is this so hard? It shouldn’t be that hard. As his voice drones on, she becomes angrier and angrier.
“I don’t get this! If you have to be a genius to play this,” Lark raises her voice, “then what’s the point of me learning?”
Quentin, in turn, raises an eyebrow, “to have fun and spend time with your father?”
“Sorry, dad,” Lark mumbles, “I--I guess I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Hmm,” Quentin looks thoughtful, “a boy? ‘Cause I don’t know if you realize this, but your old man is pretty knowledgable about the ways of love.”
“Please don’t,” Lark cringes, “let’s just play another game, okay?”
While a boy isn’t Lark’s reason for wanting to learn chess, there is indeed one on her mind. And when Nikolas texts her in the middle of losing her third consecutive chess game, she’s more than happy to accept his offer to hang out. Besides, Kyra isn’t answering any of Lark’s texts right now, so she doesn’t exactly have better offers on the table. Thus, she agrees to meet Nikolas that evening.
“Hey,” Nikolas greets her with a wave, “thanks for meeting me here.”
“No problem. I didn’t have plans, so it’s not like I had anything better to do,” she pauses, “so what’s the deal with the beanie? Are you having a bad hair day or something?”
“No,” he tilts his head, “are you?”
“Hey,” Lark frowns, “rude!”
“Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he smirks, “Aww, I didn’t mean it. C’mere.” He gestures for a hug. Lark rolls her eyes but reluctantly leans in. Nikolas wraps his arms around her and squeezes tight, tighter than she expects. He holds her for a few seconds, his breath hot on her neck before she shifts uncomfortably and pulls away. He lets go hesitantly, but not before gently running his hand from her shoulder down her arm, eliciting a shiver.
“Um,” Lark says uneasily, “so wanna go inside?”
Nikolas invited her out to play pool. She had recommended Level Up (it’s bright, packed with people, and geared towards teens), but he insisted on a local pub, Bartleby’s. It’s small (“intimate,” the pub’s website claims), dark (“atmospheric”), and staffed by a bartender who doesn’t ask any questions about the patronage of teenagers (“friendly”).
Nikolas offers to rack up the balls and break first. His face is serious as he focuses, and he doesn’t waver as Lark taunts him.
“I won’t,” he replies aloofly.
She continues with different variants of the same barb with each of his shots. When his turn is over, he smiles coyly and gestures at the pool table, “your turn.”
Lark surveys the table. He has made good progress, but she’s well-practiced. She settles on a strategy and leans forward, putting her weight on the pool table as she lines up her shot. The balls bounce off each other, and three sink--including the eight. Game over, man. Game over.
“Wow,” Nikolas laughs, “you sunk the eight ball on your first shot. Shit, that’s funny. I thought you told me you were good at this game?”
“Ha ha ha ha,” Lark mocks him, “Don’t get too cocky. It was just a stroke of bad luck.”
“If that’s what you wanna call it,” he shrugs.
Nikolas suggests a game of darts next, but Lark declines. Her stomach is rumbling, so she finds a seat at the bar and examines the pub’s menu.
“No alcohol,” the bartender reminds her as she curiously inspects the cocktail list.
“As if,” Lark scoffs, “I’ll have the nachos.”
As Lark waits for her overpriced, poorly prepared bar food, she notices another patron enter. And to her surprise, it’s Kyra, who hasn’t returned any of Lark’s texts for the past 12 hours. Kyra doesn’t notice her, though. She heads straight for the bathroom, never once looking back at Lark.
Lowell enters the bar seconds later, just in time to find a fuming Lark.
“Oh,” he says uncomfortably when he sees her, “hey. I, uh, I was just--”
“Looking for Kyra?”
“Um,” Lowell hangs his head, “yeah. She said you couldn’t make it tonight, so--”
“That’s fine,” Lark interrupts, “she didn’t invite me. You know that. It’s cool. Whatever.”
“Lark, we just wanted to--”
“Go on a date. I understand,” Lark glares at him, but he refuses to make eye contact.
“Lark?” Kyra’s voice sounds confused, “what are you doing here? I mean, nice to see you! Man, I totally flaked on texting you. I’m sorry.”
“Hi, Kyra,” Lark snatches up the plate of the nachos just as the bartender sets it on the bar, “Have fun on your date. I’m here with Nikolas, so don’t worry about me bothering you.”
“Please don’t take it personally,” Kyra pleads. But Lark’s icy retreat speaks volumes.
Lark takes the nachos to a table near the bar, and Nikolas joins her. “Did you invite your friends?” he asks, “I mean, that’s fine. I just thought it would be the two of us.” He serves himself some nachos, somewhat presumptively--Lark feels like she could eat the whole plate, but it seem she’ll have to share.
“No, they’re here on their own,” she grumbles.
“I see. They didn’t invite you?”
“Weird,” he furrows his eyebrows, “I mean, this is the second time I’ve seen you in this kind of situation. You know, where your own friends ditch you.”
“You’ve been in Aurora Skies for like two minutes, so don’t pretend like you have a good grasp of the situation.”
“I just think you deserve better,” he shrugs, “I guess I don’t understand why your friends wouldn’t want to hang out with you.”
The conversation becomes softer after that. Her antagonism towards Nikolas fades away, replaced by conspiratorial gossip as the two talk quietly about Lark’s friends--her sneaky, lying, unfair friends. It becomes clear how similar he is to her: lonely, weird, a little mean, but playfully so. It makes him perfect company for a night like tonight. And he’s pretty cute, though Lark is loathe to admit it.
It’s well after curfew by the time the pair finishes the nachos and their conversation. It’s a cold night, signifying the beginning of autumn, and the air smells of rain and wet grass. The moon peeks out from a gathering of clouds, illuminating the wet streets. As they step outside, it begins to rain.
“I had fun,” Nikolas smiles, “maybe next time we can something that involves better food, though?” She watches his lips as he talks, but she barely hears his words. She’s distracted ruminating on a question, one that she’d thought of the night she met him: do his piercings make kissing awkward?
“Sure. Um,” she looks down at her feet, “I have a question. Something I think you can answer.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Just something I’ve been wondering about off and on since I’ve met you,” her heart begins to beat faster, and she immediately regrets bringing this up. She tries to think of a lie, something she could say in place of the embarrassing truth, but she draws a blank.
“Then ask,” he shrugs, but she’s add more. “Hey, are you okay?”
Suddenly--and with too much force--she jolts forward, clumsily pressing her lips against his. She hardly even notices his lip rings, though she can feel his lips are a little chapped. When she pulls back he stares at her, his eyes wide with surprise. It matches her own--she doesn’t know where this came from, but she felt overwhelmed by the question, compelled to seek its answer.
“That was,” he trails off.
“The answer to my question,” she cringes as soon as she says the words. She doesn’t know it now, but the memory of this graceless kiss is going to resurface right before bed at least once a week for the rest of her life, the cause of many sleepless nights.
“Surprising,” he finishes with an awkward smile. He grabs her hands, which are shaking a little from the adrenaline, and pulls her in for another kiss.
When the two finally part, Lark feels far too warm and incredibly lightheaded.
“It’s late,” she exhales, “I should go.”
“I’ll text you tomorrow,” he promises
Lark types quickly. She’s writing a short story for the next meeting of the Nature and Nurture Writer’s Club. It’s proving to be an interesting exercise, and--more importantly--it’s keeping her from looking at her phone every two seconds. It’s well into the evening the day after her date with Nikolas, and so far he hasn’t fulfilled his promise to text her. But that’s no big deal. She’s not the kind of girl who would let a boy get her down.
“What have I told you about using my computer?” Lark jumps when she hears her mother’s voice. Luna is leaning in the doorway, her face blank.
“I’m being careful,” Lark smiles sweetly, “it hasn’t been overheating or anything!”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
“I’m sorry, mom. I was looking into clubs at school and the writing club seemed interesting.”
“Really? I’ve never seen you write, and you hardly read.”
“Well then now’s a good time to start,” she rolls her eyes, “anyway, I’m a shoo-in since my mom’s a famous writer and everything. It’s probably hereditary.”
“Yeah,” Lark says proudly, “it’s called epigenetics.”
“Um, I don’t think that’s how that--you know what? Nevermind. Can I take a look? I could give you some tips.”
“I guess,” Lark says hesitantly, “but it’s a first draft, so don’t be mean!”
“I wouldn’t,” Luna leans over Lark’s shoulder, her eyes darting back and forth as she reads. It’s a sparse short story, only a couple of pages long, about a girl playing life-sized chess against a fairy queen. It’s overwritten--far too many unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, many of which fit awkwardly into the prose--but the metaphor is interesting, if not overused.
But the story sounds so similar to something Luna had heard just a few days earlier. She frowns. Her decision is made for her, it seems.
“So,” Lark smiles nervously, “What do you think?”
“I think we need to talk.” Luna pulls up a chair and sits on the edge, her back straight.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Lark laughs nervously, “was it?”
“No, honey, not at all. I mean, we can talk about purple prose, but not right now.”
“I have a favor to ask of you, and your story reminded me of that.”
“A...friend of mine reached out to me recently. He’s, um, working on a--a project. And I think you might be able to help him.”
Lark wrinkles her nose, remembering the conversation she eavesdropped on the day before.“A project?”
“He’d explain it better, honestly,” Luna’s voice is thin, “I’d like you to speak to him, just for a little bit.”
“Um, okay,” Lark shrugs, “I guess I can talk to some guy. When?”
“I’ll call him and let him know you’re willing to help. It’ll be a few days before he can make it out here.”
But it isn’t a few days. The following afternoon, Lark comes home from school to find three familiar strangers sitting in the living room. Her chess partners: the haggard man, the tattooed man, and the young man.
Author’s note: I sent Lark out with Nikolas for because she has the friendly trait and rolls a lot of wishes to hang out with people. She immediately rolled a wish to kiss him, hence the haphazard first kiss. That, and I can’t write a romantic scene without it being steeped in awkwardness.
Kyra and Lowell showed up at the pub on their own and flirted throughout the night, which I thought was cute. I tried not to intervene that much, hence the sparse conversation. By the next morning, I got a notification from Story Progression that they were dating. I’m happy with that, but I figured Lark would be a little peeved.