In his early years, Jack had developed an uncanny habit of sneaking into the antique attic of his uncle’s modest estate only to brush the dust off his pungent nose in the process of dragging out of a large chest a beautifully ornate wooden box that contained a set of chess board and the pieces, made of ivory and sequoioideae (“From America,” Queeney would say, “the biggest trees you ever did see!”) The chess set had been, as he was told, his uncle’s most prized possession – and not because it must have cost a fortune (though from the looks of it, Jack hadn’t the slightest doubt that it had), but because of its formidably curious nature, particularly in the hands of a person of distinct magical talents. Talents Jack and Queeney most gratefully possessed, more so as they are thus allowed the sight of the chess pieces’ true nature.
The boy loved his fights. He would dream of battling man and beast, his fists flying through imaginary flags of privateers as he stomped through the halls of the old Aubrey manor, all the way to the small garden belonging to his late mother which his father, General Aubrey, hadn’t the time to attend until one day the poor old man came home from the Admiralty to find that his only son had succeeded in making the wild roses float in the air like an army of spectral Celtic tribesmen. Jack imagined the chess pieces as such – tribes of wildlings battling each other for blood and honor upon grounds of a somewhat similar ancestor, and despite his father’s strenuous efforts to divert the young man’s interests to subjects upon which he would be introduced to the arts of ship management, his little heart would always wonder throughout the year to summertime, when the Aubreys would spend weeks under the familiar sun of Streatham Park and the little boy scuttling about the attic out of the supervision of his dear cousin Queeney. There the two would sit, and there the pair would delve themselves in the endless enchantment of destroying each other’s pieces and putting them back together only to have them fall apart all over again. Each of Jack’s destroyed pieces would send Queeney to a delightful laugh that filled the wooden crevasses of their fantastical cavern. “Shush, shush!” he would say, “pray, be very gentle with your voice, lest papa will hear!” His papa never did consent to magic – it is, therefore, his and Queeney’s little secret.
Stephen, on the other hand, entirely detested war of any scale.
They had been sat in the Great Hall for hours on an end, the dread of OWLs creeping about the candles hovering over the heads of the remaining younger students munching about pre-Christmas treats and their seniors with their noses stuck in books. Jack would raise his head occasionally from Stephen’s herbology parchment – lent to him by the momentarily mute Ravenclaw sitting across him ledged between two shambled towers of tomes – and glance with desperate hope at the other tables. They were scarcely filled – most of the youths in the campus had gone back to their dormitories at this time of day, and Jack, taking into account the little flakes of fraudulent snow beyond the long tables in the hall and real ones floating about the air outside the great windows, was left with an undulating desire to hop on to one of those fireplaces which would take him straight to his bed. He heaved a great sigh and put his quill down along with his head upon the parchment, golden locks sprawled across the table. Stephen, his glasses drooping to the tip of his nose, contemplated upon his friend’s wretched state of being and concluded that he had had too many a chicken breast and butterbeer.
“Your persistency to ignore my advices regarding your diet has once more astounded me, Jack,” he remarked calmly after some moments of consideration as he closed the book under his chin and folded his arms to ponder the blonde chunk of hair on the other side of the table. “Do teach me how to bear such a commitment – I cannot seem to stray far from my birds and bees.”
“How tragic it is, Stephen, that your only excuse for entertainment would be to have me suffer under your regime,” Jack retorted in an incomprehensible mumble.
“Your lips are destroying my notes.”
“Please, Stephen, I’m absolutely positive I’d die from another minute of this.”
“Jack – “
“Oh, this is most vile, most vile – “
“Jack, I beg you, my parchment. Oh, there it is, utterly destroyed.”
“Stop fretting, Maturin,” the larger boy gruntled as Stephen snatched away his parchment, a considerable wet blotch in the middle. “See, I marked your notes an ‘O’! Ha-ha-ha!”
Stephen ignored the heads turned their way at the echo of Jack’s shameless thunderous cackle, and proceeded to stuff the notes between the pages of one of the books stacked next to his exposed elbow. His side of the table was absolute chaos – at least two quills were scattered amongst parchments, books, and condiments amongst little trinkets and a small crumpled ball of golden candy wrapper which Jack had attached paper wings to and made fly. Presently the faux-snitch was purring beneath Stephen’s Transfiguration essay, and purring still as Jack pulled it from beneath the havoc and cradled it on his palm. Behind them, a bunch of Hufflepuff girls were sneaking glances over Stephen’s thin shoulders. He caught Jack’s rascal grin, a too familiar grin, as the paper snitch flew toward the other table, Jack’s eyes gleaming even more intense under the glow of winter candles – a saturnine tinge of blue.
“It appears that Sophie Williams has chosen to stay for Christmas,” Stephen said, completely ignorant of context.
“Has she? I hardly noticed.”
“Her cousin, however, seems to have disappeared.”
“I dare say it’s the armored knights – she very much despises carols, as I’ve heard.”
“I see. A shame – and here I was thinking she was at least partial to the lavishness of it all. I had planned on composing her a tune to suit the occasion.”
Jack suddenly sat upright. “Were you going to give Diana Villiers your musical composition as a Yule Ball invitation?” he hooted, his facade flushed with glee, “Why, Stephen, I did not think you had it in you. I definitely consider it a most capital plan.”
“Don’t tease me, Aubrey.”
“I have no intention to.”
Jack’s voice was firm, yet tender. The space between them was filled with distant crackles of firewood and the humming of various mouths, a cordial void they had come to know and enjoy, one which awakened beneath Stephen’s mind a familiar sensation of the earlier days of their acquaintance.
“Still, the tournament accounts for no lack in amiable prospects – “
“ – particularly those Beauxbatons. Have you considered other options, Stephen?”
“Do you not find the constant reemergence of the subject of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes repulsive, Jack?”
“It appears to me that you are only deprived of the proper strategies of engaging in social quandaries.”
“Exactly what they are – quandaries, which I refuse to engage in. And not, may I remind you, simply due to the impending bore.”
A second bout of silence befell them as the hall slowly emptied of inhabitants.
“Well then, my dear,” Jack finally called, halting Stephen from grabbing another book to devour, “perhaps you would not refuse a friendly game of chess?”
To this Stephen repressed a frown. “You very well know I never like unnecessary confrontation.”
“Leave that conservatism of yours for a moment, Stephen, it is but a game.” Jack shuffled through his sling bag and pulled out a rather large chess board of a beautiful milk-white and red color. “I’ve improved on my extension charm, you see.”
Stephen hurried to set his assortments aside before Jack placed the board gently upon the table and clicked the silver lock open to reveal rows of beautifully carved pieces. He shoved them into his broad palms and said, “Besides, I believe your talents in strategy might need a little honing.”
Stephen observed his companion’s rotund fingers gracefully arranging the pieces on the board – they were slightly rounder than the last time he’d examined them, and more pink. Jack must have been eating most fervently, Stephen pondered, blaming Jack’s incessant studies and the coming Quidditch games. He wanted to comment on the approximately two stones he’d gained since the start of the semester, but then recalled how Jack was especially sensitive of his weight.
“I guess I’d like to stretch my hands a little.”
“Good, good,” Jack’s face grew red with delight, his eyes brighter still – a contrast to his green scarf. “Such respite – you do understand the game, do you not, Stephen? Oh, come now, I was teasing – save that face for the exams.”
The chess pieces were different than the ones Stephen commonly came across in the displays on Diagon Alley or the homes of his peers. His own family never owned any – unlike Jack, they would rather exercise their strategies in a more empirical manner. These, however, captured his fox-like attention as would a demiguise. They were modeled after characters of the naval universe – captains and first lieutenants, masters and commanders, bosuns and coxswains and midshipmen for pawns, with first-rate ships of the line as the rooks. It was, indeed, a curiously fascinating set, the most wonderful Stephen had ever laid his eyes upon.
“Pray, Jack, was this set manufactured by and for your family?”
“Ah? Oh no, no,” his fingers slowed in motion, “my cousin, Queeney, you remember her? A superb witch, the most compelling of her generation. She and I would play chess in her father’s estate, as we were both quite isolated from the rest of the muggle members of the family – we were young’uns, you see, quite satisfied with our own world. As I was about to enroll into Hogwarts, she confided her having transformed our old chess set to remind me of – “
Jack stopped halfway into his sentence, much to Stephen’s expectation. He had grown accustomed to Jack’s rapid switch of emotions - he was, in fact, quite wary of Jack's intense underlying melancholy, more so because he couldn't do anything about it. In about five seconds, he counted, Jack's face would grow redder still, and he would straighten his back to regain control of his corpulent physique before returning Stephen’s concerned look with forced gaiety.
Stephen shushed him before his predictions could take form, pushing a plate of gingerbread cookies to Jack’s side and taking the other youth’s fist into his, reducing his muscle’s tensions as to release the imprisoned man-o-war from Jack’s clutch.
“In your own words, Jack – “
“The bird is flightless.”
“It’s not going anywhere.”
Both resorted to a smile. A shift in the air, as though the fairies had quieted down and the candles were putting themselves out in accordance to the faint murmurs of the carol-singing armors outside the hall doors, seeped into Stephen’s ears and down his throat.
“After all this is over, I might finally take you to Woolcombe with me next summer, if you would allow me,” said Jack, little by little regaining his usual cheerfulness. “I’m convinced the sea would do your skin good, Stephen, it is growing alarmingly pale. Jam?”
“Thank you, Jack, and yes,” Stephen replied, receiving the jam-clad cookie from Jack’s hand, “I would very much like to visit Woolcombe with you next summer. I may, however, need to settle matters with my estate beforehand. Or shall I take you to Spain first? I trust you will adore the sheep, above all. A hearty bunch – makes for the best merino wool. I do apologize for not inviting you these past years – what with the state of things, I’d always thought it improper.”
Jack reflects upon Stephen’s words and let his mind wander beyond propriety and the sheep and the wool and the castle on the outskirts of Spain.
“Capital,” he remarked, a soft glow upon his face.
“I believe the rooks – the ships should be on the farthest sides – yes, here, am I correct? What a fine carving, I congratulate Queeney on such exquisite magic. Oh Jack, the midshipmen! And such detail – I have never – “
Jack looked on wonderingly as Stephen remarked on every piece of the chess set, slipping his fingers to the smallest cut and curve however possible and commenting on the tiny buttons and the breeches and the jibs on the tips of the rooks. Stephen’s excitement manifested in suppressed guffaws, and as he put the pieces down on to their respective squares he sighed deeply.
“I wonder if Queeney would agree to my commissioning a similar modification of a chess set?” Stephen chirped still, “Perhaps a squadron of Galapagos iguanas – extraordinary creatures – versus a colony of Cornish Pixies – “
His ecstatic babbling came to an abrupt stop as he caught Jack’s face. He quickly resumed his capacity, blushing terribly. “Ah yes, the game. I believe the white goes first?”
“Correct. And may I suggest, Stephen, that you be cautious with your opening move? The first advancement, as is any advancement of various engagements, could result in the fate of your imminent decisions.”
“You may also find yourself a more flexible set of measures in accordance with a wise opening move, to your advantage of course.”
“Eventually, thus, you might set forth for my King.”
“A most interesting approach," Stephen remarked, toying with a midshipman pawn with his bony fingers, "Pray, is there anything else you might fascinate me with?”
“I have indeed, for quite some time, been meaning to tell you that I am entirely in love with you.”
Stephen nearly damn dropped his midshipman.
The other boy's smile hadn't subsided, but Stephen recognized the trembling of his hands. "And I suppose since Miss Villiers wouldn't be attending - "
Jack was not looking at Stephen’s face as he uttered his words, and after realizing the eerie pause into which Stephen had fallen he was quite taken aback at the sight of the latter’s constricted jaws and widened eyes below his scraggly black mop of a hair. Jack, to his own horror, had transformed Stephen into an even worse mess.
“Stephen, are you alright?”
“Are you unwell? Would you like me to fetch you some butterbeer? Yes? Would butterbeer help?”
He stretched his pungent front across the table and held his hand across Stephen’s forehead, feeling the sweat drip from every inch of his temple. From the far end of the hall, before the door, Sophie Williams stood almost as rigid as Stephen, mistletoe in her cloak pocket. Jack turned his head and saw her biting her knuckle, and for what felt to him like a good five minutes his palm had accumulated enough sweat off Stephen’s temples to wet a galley. Jack wiped Stephen’s flaccid cheek with his fingers, the latter’s jaws clenched still though easing in tension as Jack’s absent-minded hands were stuck in a perpetual motion, eventually crawling upward to his temple before his entire body unexpectedly jerked rightward the next moment, nearly tumbling over Stephen’s books. A shriek from the hall doors – Sophie Williams cupped her mouth, having just realized she’d cursed a great deal more than her whole lifetime.
The hall was mute. Of all the years Jack Aubrey had known Stephen Maturin, he had been quite convinced that despite the smaller boy’s peculiar bony fingers and his often shadow-like gestures and habit of suddenly appearing in the most unprecedented places and moments, he had never conceived any kind of notion that would put Stephen into the category of students he should fear. This is not to say that nobody feared him – his size alone is enough to threaten a first-year from the end of the corridor – hence his absolute astonishment and utter confusion when Stephen’s hand slammed against the left of his face with sheer, unmitigated force, throwing him off his elbow and sending Stephen’s parchments and knick knacks across the other end of the table where three Ravenclaw third-years were sitting. They looked at Jack wearily, thinking it against their better judgement to stay any longer. Stephen turned to face their timid, cautious eyes, then back to Jack, whose form had taken up the entire wooden space between them. Stephen had no preconception of how much his slap would hurt, but compared to the utmost relief of finally, after years and years of fighting to extinguish his fury, hitting Jack Aubrey in the face, it was worth the embarrassing silence, though he came to worry a little bit when Jack showed no movement.
Jack wasn’t as furious as he was stupefied, more so from the lack of anticipation. He cursed his lenient grip on the table, cursed his elbow, cursed his dim wits, and cursing still he lifted himself up, his hair disheveled most ungentlemanly, and shot Stephen with his eyes a vehement plea for explanation carried out in quite a disagreeable manner:
“What the devil were you about, Maturin?” he cried, red from his forehead to his neck.
Stephen glared at Jack with his reptilian eyes, his expression unchanged. From the farther end of the hall, the school caretaker yelled for Jack to “get off the table this instant, Aubrey, or I shall send for your prefect – Williams, stop your gawking there, for all love, to your dormitory now, miss, your dormitory!”
Within the same second, Stephen swiftly glided forward. Jack had no time to recollect his wits or reflect upon the situation and could only brace for another hit, as never in his lifetime could he imagine hitting Stephen back. Upon closing his eyes he realized he was not up against another slap – rather, the impending collision occurred against his lips.
An elated gasp – Sophie Williams squeaked and skittered out of the hall toward the staircase, bumping against the caretaker. The crone, her eighty year-old bones shocked and rattled, was furious. Stephen could not find the energy to draw himself away, and thus Jack Aubrey felt like he was about to drop dead.
This he almost did until he gathered enough power in his belly to open his eyes and let Stephen’s head go – he hadn’t realized until then that his hands were on Stephen’s back collar. How long was he there? he thought. Goddamn you, Jack Aubrey, damn you and your reflexes and Stephen's eyes and -
“Beg pardon, Jack – “
Candle lights poured back into Jack's world. He held his breath.
“I shall fetch you some butterbeer,” Jack susurrated before galloping toward the center of the ever-stretching table, his boot steps reverberating across the hall in which Stephen was the only person left, a soft thump-thump-thump again in his ears and throat and stomach along the soothing tunes of carols and the strangely reassuring whispers of waves ramming shores he did not know whence to compensate for the complete and utter loss of sixty seconds from his white pawn’s opening move.
“To the devil with you, Stephen Maturin,” Jack Aubrey muttered, a gleeful grin seen only by the passing Bloody Baron.