Ralph put his hands on the edge of the kitchen table, and eased himself up from his chair. "Dec, I've got to get up early for work tomorrow. It's past midnight. I'm going to bed." He rose slowly, trying to make his motion as invisible as possible, resenting that he'd had to state the screaming obvious. Just like all the other times.
Dec froze, the chess piece in his hand hovering over the square it belonged to. "You selfish asshole."
"What? Because I want to not be a zombie at work tomorrow? Fuck off, Dec." Ralph was straightening his knees now, slowly. A few more seconds and he'd be ready to walk to his bedroom.
"You know I need to win the tournament on Saturday. I need to practise."
"So practise. Study those strategy books, or something. Just let me get some sleep."
"Oh right, rubbing it in. Ralph MacPherson has a job, and that makes him king of the goddamned world. Let's see how smug you feel at the end of the month if I can't make my half of the rent. I need to win this tournament."
Ralph bit his lip. He sat back down. "One more game. Promise?"
Dec shot him a look and replaced the white queen. "Of course. I'm not being unreasonable."
Ralph reset the chess clock.
Dec had given Ralph white, so he opened the game using classic moves he'd memorised as a child, playing with his father. That was the worst part — he remembered liking chess. It was one of the things that had brought he and Dec together.
It was one of the things that had made him decide it would be all right having Dec as a room-mate.
He moved a knight and hit the button on his side of the chess clock. They were mid-game now. He was going to have to actually pay attention soon. He needed to think.
If he'd just buggered off and gone to bed, Dec would have berated him for hours, even through the closed bedroom door. They had a "no going in your room-mate's room" rule, and Dec obeyed it, except for with his voice. The last time Ralph had skipped a game, Dec had lectured and harangued him right through to when his alarm clock had gone off.
Ralph had nearly lost fingers at work twice that day, trying to operate machinery on no sleep in over twenty-four hours.
He could have made up an excuse and crashed on the couch at Dave's, but midnight was too late at night to try shit like that. Dave's wife already resented him for the amount of time he spent over there.
He could have gone to his sister's. She'd let him in any time of day or night, no questions, no judgements — Fran was great that way — but the last time he'd gone there, Dec had smashed up Ralph's hi-fi. Said he'd been trying to vacuum behind it and it had toppled over. Because Ralph hadn't set it up right, he said.
Fran only had a bedsit. She was breaking the rules to even let him stay one night, although her landlady was willing to let it slide every once in a while since they were brother and sister. He had to sleep on the floor in her spare blankets.
The sudden, sharp sound of chrome and particleboard being struck by a grown man brought him out of his head. Dec was glaring at him across the chess board, the left edge of his mouth curling up in contempt.
"I'm not competing against fucking sleepwalkers," he said. He snapped his fingers in front of Ralph's face, three times in rapid succession. "Wake up. Honest to God, I'd be better off practising against a trained monkey."
Ralph glanced at the board, recognised the pattern as one his uncle had taught him when he was twelve, and chose a response favoured by some of the Russian masters. He tapped the chess clock.
Dec snorted. "If you don't play in earnest, we'll have to keep going until we get a game where you do."
"They allow smack talk at chess tournies now, do they?" said Ralph. Tired as he was, he was pretty sure Dec didn't know the master he was copying his moves from.
Dec snorted again, but continued to study the board.
Ralph didn't dare look at the clock on the stove, but he guessed it was still before one AM. So if he got up at five as normal, worked from six-thirty to four (he crossed his fingers under the table against any overtime tomorrow)... he might be able to make it to the rental agent's before closing time. He just needed to get his name on the lists. He'd even take a bedsit like Fran's if it got him out of living with this nut.
Dec made a move — the one predicted as most likely in the series Ralph's uncle had taught him. Ralph made the prescribed response and tapped the chess clock.
Shit. The agent always called you at home when they had a lead on new digs. Dec spent nearly all his hours at home. They weren't supposed to get personal calls at work, but Brenda the receptionist seemed like a good sort. He wondered if he could ask her for a favour.
"Fuck you," Dec breathed. He threw up his hands. "You've fucking won."
"That was from a book, by the way," said Ralph. "Now seriously, I'm going to bed."
"You can't even be bothered to be pleased about winning," said Dec. He had his arms folded, and was glowering at Ralph. He startled and slammed the kitchen table again, making the chess pieces jump. "Which book?"
"One my uncle had."
Dec pushed away from the table and marched to his desk in the living room. "Don't you dare fucking move," he said.
"Dec, for fuck's sakes, you said one more game..."
Dec thrust a pad of graph paper and a pencil at him. "Write down the sequence."
"Dec, I'll do it tomorrow, I swear, just let me get to bed..."
"Write down the goddamn sequence, and this time I'll play it and you goddamned play against it."
Ralph pushed the pencil and paper away. "What the hell will that prove? I won't be strategising against it like I don't know it. You won't learn anything."
"Write it down."
Ralph sighed and scratched down the first line of the sequence.
"And when you're done," said Dec, sitting down and resetting the pieces, "we'll go. Again."