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in which games aren't always just games

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Robert’s behind the counter, polishing the last of the glasses, when a heavy hand lands on his shoulder. “Friend of yours here to see you, Robbie,” booms Rivington. 

Robert hides his instinctive flinch at the touch. “Oh?” he says, doing his level best to sound bored and uninterested. 

Rivington hums; finally moving his hand; and Robert sets the glass down, turning to find a familiar, finely dressed redhead standing by the door. 

He tries not to purse his lips. “Mulligan,” he says. 

“I’ll leave you to it,” Rivington says, fluttering his fingers and grinning widely, “do try not to plan on seducing any ladies without me.”

As if. Robert doesn’t voice that though; just watches his partner ascend the stairway and Mulligan draw close. 

As the candlelight illuminates him, Robert has to hide a small gasp of shock at how dishevelled the other looks. “Has Arnold no head for proper procedure?” he mutters.

Mulligan catches it; smiles as well as he can; a twitch of his lips on the left side of his face—the other side is too bruised. “Had he,” he says, thick accent curling the vowels as if he savours them, “he would still be a Continental general.”

That, Robert has to concede. “Can I get you a drink?”

“I know you’re closing soon,” Mulligan replies. “You need not trouble yourself—“

“No trouble. We’re open for five more minutes.” Robert avoids looking at the man as he picks the glass up. “Ale, whiskey, or wine?”

He can feel Mulligan studying him. “Mead, actually,” he says, finally. “If you have any, that is.”

“We do.” It’s in the back room—they hardly sell much of it in comparison, but Robert finds he doesn’t resent the extra time it will take. “Give me a moment.” 

“Take your time,” Mulligan calls after him; settling down into one of the chairs. 

Robert makes it back in short order; bottle of mead in one hand, and he pours the tailor a full glass, and makes his way to the table he’s sitting at, carrying the candle in his other hand, setting it down between them.

Mulligan raises a brow. “Guarding the establishment?”

“Perhaps I simply wished to talk to a friend of a friend,” Robert returns, neutrally; and finds himself watching the other drink. “I was, after all, unaware of your...position.”

Mulligan takes another sip, and sets his glass down. “That’s how we know it’s working,” he says. 

“But you knew of me.”

“Aye.” He doesn’t elaborate. “I hear you play draughts,” he says, after a few beats. “I know you have questions.”

Robert worries his lip. “You’re willing to gamble that?”

“Well.” Mulligan smiles. “I expect the same in return.” 

Something about his voice makes Robert blush. “Fair enough, I suppose,” he says, hoping the other can’t see how red his ears undoubtedly are. 

“I’ll see tomorrow, then?”

“Tomorrow?” Robert frowns. “I was just about to invite you to my quarters for a game.”

“You’re closed...”

“Not for a friend.” He hopes he says it levelly, and fears he hasn’t. Thankfully, Mulligan merely hums, and then nods. 

“Alright. I haven’t anywhere to go tonight anyway.”

Robert leads him up the stairs and into his quarters; pulls out the extra chair and his draughts board, the paint worn away in some spots from use. “Red, or black?”

Mulligan’s shrug is fluid. “Your choice.” Since I have the advantage, he means, and Robert still doesn’t know how he feels about that. It should unsettle him. Instead, he finds himself watching Mulligan’s hands as he arranges the red pieces a few moments later. 

His opening move is a classic; or so Robert thinks, until five moves later he’s lost three pieces. He retaliates in kind. 

Mulligan’s lips twist from a smile to a concentrated grimace. “Our friend didn’t mention this."

“He didn’t mention you either,” Robert retorts, and takes one of the other’s pieces.

Mulligan shrugs; affects a nonchalance and a defence. “To be fair, he didn’t learn of me until a few weeks ago.”

Robert hums; counters the move. “Mulligan,” he says, rolling the name around. “You are...oddly unassuming, for a man so vibrant. I hadn’t heard of you until when you came in the other day.”

“Please, call me Hercules. And,” he moves a piece; a feint, Robert deduces, “I cannot say the same. James raves about you, you know. Especially about how you seem to be impervious to the charms of women, much to his consternation and confusion.”

Robert tenses. “King me,” is all he says. 

Mulligan raises his hands. “I intend no ill,” he replies, “Townsend, surely, you see—we have more than our profession in common.”

“King me,” Robert repeats; and Mulligan sighs and does as told. 

“You needn’t be so defensive, you know.”

“On the contrary, the fact that you know means I ought to be more defensive,” Robert says flatly; and captures two of Mulligan’s pieces. 

Mulligan grimaces. “I only saw it because I was looking,” he replies. “Though—all austere and silent as you were, can I be blamed?”

Robert’s cheeks heat. “You won’t win like this,” he warns. 

“Perhaps I don’t wish to win,” Mulligan replies; leaning forward over the board to make his next move. His eyes are dark. “Perhaps i merely wish to...explore.”

Robert bites the inside of his cheek; suddenly at a loss; moves a piece blindly. “Explore,” he echoes. 

“If you find it an agreeable offer, yes.”

Does he? Suddenly, Robert finds himself thinking about the line of Mulligan—no, Hercules’ —jaw; the moue of his lips, and the light ginger cascading in waves down his shoulders. 

He swallows; rises; game forgotten. “I do,” he says.

Hercules smiles; and rises as well. “I am pleased to hear that, Robert.” he takes a few steps forward, until they are chest to chest. “May I...?”

His fingers are on Robert’s jaw; gentle, forefinger and thumb calloused. the point of contact burns; hotter than the fire crackling in the fireplace mere paces away, illuminating the other in a warm glow. 

Robert nods; and when he speaks, it’s soft; barely above a whisper. “Yes.”