Colin Pearcy may have a lot to win if he dares to make his opening move.
Word Count: 3,923
Notes/Warnings: Mentions of PTSD and clinical depression.
For "The LGBT Writing Contest: Open!" prompts: #1. A random meeting on the street brings a significant change to your character's life, and #3. Leaves. Powered by Phillip Glass’ “Metamorphosis” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hMw1C6fPt8).
“So. You’ve been sizing me up for the better part of a fortnight—I’ll bet you know all my cleverest moves, by now—care to finally have a go?”
Startled by the familiar, almost-like-home accent—plus a faint-but-there, singsong lilt for flavor—Colin Thwaites Pearcy found himself blinking in utter shock, and looking right at the young chess-player sitting one bench over.
It was a chilly fall day, all bluster and bite and dust-devils of orange and gold leaves. The same aggressive breeze that carried the distracting swirls of October finery around the mostly empty park, flirted with Colin’s brassy, grown-out hair, and swept it across his furrowed brow. Thankfully, his overdue-for-barbering shag wasn’t quite long enough yet to obscure his vision.
Though, the same probably couldn’t be said for the young man opening the small box made of battered-smooth, but unvarnished wood. His pale, tapering, spidery-graceful fingers deftly plucked chess pieces from the box and began setting up a game on one of park’s many stone tables, with the fading, painted-on chessboards. As he did so, his hair, shoulder-length, thick, and the color of banked embers, whipped around a pale, delicate profile, into eyes Colin had yet to meet. But those fingers seemed to know what they were at in a way that mere obscured vision wouldn’t except.
“Mm, normally I take silence as assent, but I think that in this case, I’ll need a firmer answer.”
Blinking again, his brow furrowing even more as he frowned, Colin’s mouth and throat worked to force out a relevant and word-like noise. He was rather surprised when he partially succeeded. “Ah . . . erm . . . whah?”
The other did not respond until the board was set. Then, he brushed his messy, fiery hair out of his face and tucked it haphazardly behind one pink, slightly pointed ear. The pale-peach cheek revealed was also pink from the day’s chill and bluster, and lightly freckled.
Then, Colin was blinking again, and gaping, too, as he found himself gazing into wide, lucent eyes greener than the heart of summer, and set in a face that certainly delivered on the delicate, lovely promise of its profile. Colin’s breath caught, and his mouth went instantly dry—not that that was such a feat, lately, as he was almost always dehydrated—and his pulse beat a panicky tattoo in his temple.
The young chess-player quirked a left-crooking smile, his curving, untamed red brows lifting just a bit as he tilted his head and regarded Colin with friendly amusement. Between that mischievous smile and those dazzling summer-eyes, Colin not only lost the plot entirely, but couldn’t imagine what it had been, in the first place.
“Oh, I make a habit, you might say, of not thrashing strange, brawny men at chess without receiving their fully-expressed permission, first. If only in the interests of keeping my scrawny arse unkicked. Relatively,” he added wryly, waving one elegant hand at the waiting game. Colin, still gaping, managed to close his mouth halfway, only for it to fall open again as more word-noises—not especially relevant ones, but the effort made by his cluttered-sludgy brain was much appreciated—fell from his chapped lips.
“I, er, don’t, um. That is.” Colin closed his mouth and his eyes for a moment, attempting to collect himself. It wasn’t anything close to a victory. His pulse refused to slow; his breathing refused to return to its normal, involuntary rate of steadiness; and his mouth was still a dust-bowl of choked, useless sounds. None of which was helped by that pretty, puckish face, which was apparently branded on the back of Colin’s eyelids and the front of his very psyche, all huge, kind-curious eyes and sweetly curving lips, set in such an even, fair complexion and framed perfectly—contrastingly—by that wild, fiery mane of gorgeous hair.
When he opened his eyes nearly a minute later, it was to see the chess-player still watching him with that keen, clear gaze and an inquisitive, but still gentle expression. Patient and generous. Colin’s heart slowed for a moment, nearly to a stand-still, before speeding up alarmingly, doing triple-time behind the cage of his ribs. He flushed, then blanched, then flushed again, his entire body chilled even as it broke out in a light sweat. To Colin’s sudden dismay, he realized he’d once again been so obsessively focused on his narrow purview that he’d missed the radiant forest for an admittedly intriguing tree. This skilled chess-player was—face-on, and after two weeks of distant observation of the man’s game rather than his looks—lovely beyond Colin’s previous frame of reference for the word. Beyond the point of distraction, to the realm of a gut-punch that was likely to repeat each time Colin saw that face anew.
Really, the second time was even more intense than the first. Colin dared not look away again, for fear the third glance would fell him immediately upon looking back.
And he couldn’t imagine not looking back.
“Who are you?” Colin heard himself ask finally, his voice soft, shaken, and sore-sounding. The other man’s smile deepened, making his large eyes even more luminous. Faint lines at their outer edges crinkled attractively, as did his pointy, pixie nose.
“Well! I admire a man with the stones to ask the big questions first, and save the small-talk for the afterglow!” Those wild, expressive brows waggled ridiculously and Colin, torn between a blush and a blanch yet again, was saved from having to choose a response when the young chess-player went on blithely, while sketching a brief, jaunty half-bow from his seated position. “Niall-Fintan Lochlann Oisin Brendan Kelly-Devine—everyone seems to call me Brendan or Brend, whether I ask them to, or not, so I suppose I may as well ask you—lately of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, by way of several lovely, but forgettable parts of Jolly Ol’ . . . ever at your service.”
Colin could only stare as the man straightened, still smiling his big, glowing smile, his wind-pinkened complexion gone a bit pinker. That gentle dusting of freckles was now impossible to make out.
“And you are. . . ?” the young man—Brendan—prodded when another half-minute went by with only Colin’s gobstruck staring and dinning silence to mark it. He could barely hear Brendan over the rushing of his own pulse in his ears and ragged, whistling breaths through his nose. Could barely seem to think over the overwhelming loveliness of the other man, now that he’d finally noticed it.
At this realization, Colin finally did blush and tear his gaze away. Let it travel around this particular clearing—empty, but for Colin and the chess-player, several benches, and the stone chess tables and adjacent stone seats—then aimed his skittering eyes at the chess-board.
“I . . . my name is . . . Colin,” he once again heard himself mutter, and with some surprise. And he was uncertain he was at all happy with the admission. He focused on Brendan’s long hands and tapering, graceful fingers, and his brow furrowed even more deeply. Displeased lines etched themselves at the corners of his mouth, too, no doubt. “Everyone just calls me Colin, I suppose. Lately of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Er. By way of . . . several places.”
“Several Places, eh?” Brendan hummed and chuckled, lifting his left hand to make an “OK” gesture with his slender fingers. “Never been there, meself, but I hear the food is to-die-for.”
“Ha!” The startled bark of a laugh exploded out of Colin’s underused throat and under-expressed being as if it’d been chased out at gunpoint. It sounded as angry and terse—as ill-tempered and miserable—as Colin tended to be in forced social situations with strangers. And sometimes even with his family. He could hear, as if she were looking over his shoulder, his older sister’s gentle chastising of him for being such a grump. Suzanne’s cheeky teasing of his ever-grimmer and grimmer nature, however, had the power to make him smile, even now: when she wasn’t present and he was, himself, far from comfortable.
Though, he could only imagine his shifting facial expression achieved, at most, discomfited grimace-status, since he’d been starting out at such a scowling deficit.
But he certainly wouldn’t have thought it, simply going by the bemused curiosity and open friendliness on the peachy-lovely face still observing him with humor and kindness. Undoubtedly, Brendan’s every expression was equally arresting and attention-grabbing . . . breathtaking. And not just because of his physical beauty, but because he seemed to radiate goodness . . . sweetness . . . optimism.
All the things of which Colin hadn’t had even a small share in many years. Things of which he couldn’t even recall the slightest feel or taste, let alone what it was to have them be innate facets of his character.
The unintentional comparison and contrast of their looks—their personalities—their very baseline natures—was . . . disheartening to Colin. But then, these days, few things weren’t.
He found his gaze skittering here and there as he eased his way along the bench, further from Brendan and in preparation to hurry off.
“Oi, now,” Brendan tutted gently, sounding amused still, but not necessarily at Colin’s expense. Which was the only reason Colin paused in his easing-away, and looked up into those bright eyes. Brendan’s glowing smile was a bit hapless and hopeful. “I know I can be a bit . . . much, sometimes. A chatty, obnoxious twat, and all that. But I promise, that’s only on days that end in ‘Y,’ yeah? The rest of the time, I’m very, very charming, but demure. Like a tipsy nun!”
This time, a wry snort escaped Colin and, on the back of it, a grimace that was very nearly a half-smile. But Brendan’s smile brightened as if Colin had given him the key to New York City. Like a spotlight piercing the incrementally deepening, four a.m.-darkness that had been Colin’s life for the past three years.
The breeze kicked up stiffly, ruffling Colin’s grown-out hair across his brow and whipping Brendan’s fiery locks into his face hard. He laughed and didn’t bother to brush his unruly hair away, merely let it fly around his head and obscure his features. Though, it didn’t quite obscure those gorgeous eyes, nor did it dim the brightness of that smile. Colin still felt the other man’s beauty like a gut-punch and this time, it left him winded and weak. Floundering and helpless in its path, like a dead leaf on a careless zephyr.
Suddenly, even standing seemed arduous, let alone striding away at his usual light-speed near-jog.
“Oh, don’t stop almost-smiling, now! You’ve got such a nice one. Or, so I imagine, if even this wee, melancholy quarter-smile—eh, maybe one-third smile—is so captivating.” Brendan winked and looked back at his set-up game while all the blood drained from Colin’s already pale face . . . only to immediately refill it to capacity. “And, anyway, you owe me a game, Mr. Colin.”
“I,” Colin began, then cleared his throat so his next words wouldn’t be a worn-out, tiny whisper, “that is, I . . . what?”
“A game. You and me. You owe me one. Well, I owe you one, as well—it’s kind of a mutual owing sort of thing, I suppose?—but you’ve been studying my game for two weeks, now. Studying it hard. Which means you think I’m an interesting challenge—or at least not a depressingly easy win. Worth observing, and therefore, worth weighing-in against. And I must admit,” Brendan hummed, sing-song, excited, and off-key. “I’m terribly flattered. No one of, ahem, note has studied my game for so long or in-depth, in quite some time.”
Again, those remarkable eyes met Colin’s, shining and merry, as Brendan waved at the game once more.
“C’mon, then, Mr. Colin, sir! Have a seat and make your move! As you can see, I’ve been very magnanimous, and let you have red.”
Colin’s right eyebrow quirked and his grimace of a smile made a slight return. “Yes . . . how gracious of you to allow the presumptive-challenger the first move, so you can do some sizing up of your own and begin mounting both a strategy and defense!”
Brendan laughed, bright and unrestrained, tipping Colin a charming wink. His cheeks were rosy and Colin wanted very much to brush his fingers along the curves of them, to see if they were as warm and smooth as they looked.
“Well,” the other man said with suspect modesty, voice and lips quaking with laughter, still. “I’m a man who tends to play aggressively. Always on the offense. But sometimes . . . I like to step out of my accustomed role and live dangerously. Especially when my opponent is likely to be brave enough to do the same.”
Now, both of Colin’s brows lifted. “You’re reading rather a lot into someone to whom you’ve only barely said . . . well, quite a few words, actually.”
Brendan shrugged, his smile fading a bit into something melancholy and wry. “’Twas once my bread and butter, the sizing up of opponents in a few instants. The very air I breathed. Not anymore, but . . . I like to think I haven’t lost the knack of that. It comes in handy, more than it doesn’t, I find,” he added quietly, visibly cranking up his smile to its former, seemingly effortless brilliance.
Colin decided to store that change in expression—from enchanting-charming to regretful-sad, and back, but with far less genuine feeling—for later consideration. As it stood, he was already far beyond his comfort-level when it came to interaction with strangers, no matter how pleasant and attractive.
“In that case, I do hope you, er, find a suitable challenger soon. I’m afraid I . . . need to be shoving along,” Colin said, flushing and blanching repeatedly, until he felt light-headed when he attempted to at last stand. He even faltered a bit, and noticeably enough that from the corners of his averted eyes he could see Brendan’s face crease in lines of worry.
“Are you alright, Colin?” Brendan asked, his rich tenor low and unexpectedly solemn as he half-stood, as if preparing to catch Colin, should he topple over.
Smiling—actually smiling—just a bit in the face of such earnest concern, Colin’s face finally settled somewhere between flush and blanch. He straightened steadily, stretching and letting the accompanying chorus of snaps, crackles, and pops speak for him. At least for a few moments.
“I’m about as well as I ever am, er, Brendan.” Shooting a quick glance the other man’s way, it was to see those large, lovely, leaf-green eyes sans all merriment, now, and keen almost to the point of grimness in their assessment of Colin.
“And yet, I’m more concerned, now, not less,” Brendan murmured, and Colin chuckled wearily.
“I’m fine,” he claimed, and for once it wasn’t even a lie . . . or not by much. “And, anyway, I really must be going. I’m supposed to pick up Robin shortly. Ugh, very shortly,” Colin added as he checked his phone for the time. It was just after two. School would be letting out in about half an hour. Just enough time for him to stretch his legs getting there, rather than having to take the bus. Or, worse, the subway. “There’ll be Hell to pay, if I leave him waiting. I’ll never hear the end of the complaining.”
“Ah. Well. My loss is, er, Robin’s gain, I suppose. The good ones are always taken or straight, alas and alack,” Brendan said with put-on despair, but the merriment still hadn’t returned to that strangely piercing gaze. Colin huffed cynically.
“Then I must not be one of those good ones, since I’m neither.” Pressing his lips together in an ungenerous line, he answered Brendan’s quirked red brows with some more gaze-darting, as well as nervous, uncontrolled brow-waggling. “And anyway, Robin’s my six-year-old nephew. I, er, pick him up from elementary school and look after him until Suzanne and Alex—my sister and her husband—get home.”
“Ah,” Brendan said again, turning a fetching, rosy pink once more, his gaze dropping for a moment, even as his smile returned: small, but very pleased. “Right. In that case, I’ll . . . let you go, Colin. With my sincere hope that you manage to avoid the scolding of an impatient six-year-old. And I . . . also hope you haven’t been so put off by my blatherskite, flirting, and clumsily transparent attempt to suss out your relationship status and preferences, that you won’t take me up on that game, sometime soon.”
When those eyes met Colin’s again, they were a bit shy, but warm and hopeful. This time, there was no contest between the flush and the blanch. Colin’s face felt as if it’d gone up in flames.
“I, er,” he began, inching around the table in front of his bench and reluctantly away from Brendan’s pure, bright gaze. “That is. . . .”
“I’m here almost every day, usually between noon and three. Part of my daily routine, this chess-sharking.” Brendan winked and sparkled up at Colin, his eyes doing blatant recon as they travelled down Colin’s form—from the reddish-brown, knit jumper; the unzipped, heather-gray windbreaker worn over it, in which pockets Colin tended to shove his big, nervous hands; his too-pristine-to-be-fashionable straight-legged blue jeans, and his worn-but-cared-for grey boots—then back up. That assessing gaze was approving and interested, when it met Colin’s startled one again. “Hmm, and now that I’ve got a shot at a worthwhile challenger, I’ll have even more reason to be here, of an afternoon. Grand!”
“Oh!” Colin replied on one explosive exhale, as if the response had been kicked out of him. Brendan’s smile widened and curled impishly, and he gave Colin another once-over that was heated and promising, if Colin wasn’t misreading it. And misreading was a distinct possibility, though Colin’s tendency was to see danger even where there was none, not interest where there wasn’t likely to be any.
And besides, Brendan had said . . . flirting. Sussing out of relationship-status and preferences and . . . flirting.
Flirting and such were, surely, things some people merely did as par for the course, regardless of with whom. It was simply a quirk of personality, for some. Brendan Devine might be one of those people, true, but. . . .
But the sussing . . . why would that matter to someone who was only interested in flirting and banter and teasing? Why—
“You look like a rabbit faced with a winter-starved wolf!” Brendan exclaimed gently, and it was both coo and tut. The soft-kind flicker in his eyes lingered for long moments during which Colin stammered and blushed, quickly and embarrassingly, until Brendan laughed again. “Oh, Colin, you’re bloody adorable! I can’t stand it that you’re so cute, yet standing so far away . . . ah, me.”
“Well, now, you’re just making me blush on-purpose!” Colin accused with shaky offense. Brendan’s lilting laugh turned into snickers, and he snapped the fingers of his left hand.
“Rats! You’ve caught me out, then. You are especially fanciable when you’re blushing and discombobulated, Colin. Especially.” Brendan waggled his brows meaningfully and winked. “But I promise I don’t bite, unless asked. Or unless I’m extremely . . . tempted.”
Another bright, heated flash of that unmistakable interest in Brendan’s lucent eyes and again, Colin’s blood went rushing. But not to his face. Not in that direction at all.
For the first time in nearly three years—since being discharged from the army, and shuttled off back home, then eventually to the States and Suzanne, when Brice and Rose couldn’t deal with keeping an eye on a barely-functioning older brother, as well as their own hectic lives—Colin Pearcy was strongly, actively attracted to someone.
Overwhelmed, yes, by both that person and his own attraction to said person, but . . . attracted, nonetheless. Very strongly.
“Keep giving me those come-hither baby-blues, Mr. Colin, and you’ll shortly find yourself with an amorous armful and prey to some very insistent nibbling,” Brendan warned, his pretty face flushed once more. The green of his eyes was like a handful of emeralds seen through licking flames and Colin couldn’t look away or speak. He could only stand there, stare, and hope that his rapidly intensifying physical reaction wasn’t as obvious as it felt.
After an eternity of locked gazes and wordless exchange in which Colin participated even as he wished he could bloody understand it, Brendan turned his gaze back to his board and hummed, ending their silent dialogue. “Lovely. Well, run along, then, Colin. Before you give wee Robin reason to scold his uncle. And perhaps . . . I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Perhaps,” Colin agreed breathlessly before his brain could make him say an unequivocal no. It was clearly of the opinion that the last thing Colin needed was any sort of entanglement with someone so unpredictable. Someone who might, sooner or later, demand of Colin something he was no longer capable of giving. Even if he wanted to. But he refused to let his usual megrims and paranoia ruin such a spontaneously wonderful moment. For once, he’d take this pleasant interlude at face-value. His near-smile widened and firmed up a bit, twitching higher on the right side than the left. “G-good day, Brendan.”
“Mm. Good day, Colin.”
Then Colin was turning toward the exit while his alarmist brain remonstrated and warned at a lower volume than usual. His gut-level instinct, however, energetically stoked the embers of attraction that seemed to be flaring under Colin’s skin and in his marrow, as well as . . . other places.
From the burnt-out, wary-weary cinder that had once been Colin’s heart . . . there was silence, as ever. But for once, it was the wakening hush of roused consideration. Not the vacuum-stillness of a pile of ash gone dead beyond all resurrection.
For a moment, Colin even felt the ghost-memory beat of his long-absent heart keenly: a thud in his chest that ached; a throb in his veins that burned; and a return of an entire spectrum of color that’d gone M.I.A. during his final tour of duty. It’d been replaced by the stark, sharp grey-black-white of survival-focused paranoia and constant, debilitating fear . . . or, as the doctors called it, combat-related PTSD with co-occurring clinical depression.
But the moment passed and Colin blinked up at the overcast, white-blue swirl of sky, his mind tranquil and relatively free of its usual rat-run anxiety and clutter. Smiling, he hunched his shoulders against the wind and chill, and picked up his already quick pace. Just the thought of Robin’s pouty-mouthed frown and old-soul hazel eyes—a mix of Suzanne’s bright blue and Alex’s dark brown—should Colin be even five minutes late, made him snort and actually grin for a few seconds.
With his eyes on the road ahead—even as he felt Brendan’s considering gaze on his back—Colin hurried off in an eddy and flurry of orange and gold. Fall, itself, carried him out of the park and on his way.
But the indelible memory of Brendan’s eyes kept him warm-warm-warm: from his flushed face to his twiddling toes, and from the thoughtful-silent cinder in his chest to the hands that were shoved, as ever, in the pockets of his gray windbreaker.
All the way to Robin’s school, in the back of his mind, he played his way through his favorite chess strategies—brushed up on his long-neglected offensive and dusted off his best moves. In less than twenty-four hours, he had a chess match-up—and perhaps more—to win, after all. His first meaningful challenge in longer than he cared to remember.
And even if he lost the match-up, well . . . Colin had a good feeling that for once, he’d come out a winner, nonetheless.