Playing The Game

by Hercat

Disclaimer: I didn't make any money from this.

Notes: Some inspiration by Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett.

Acknowledgements: Thank you Mog for creating this AU, and all the others who contribute and make it a special place to live.

Part of the Solitudes series.

Damn Southerner.

Sitting here in the hospital, where I've spent too much of my life, all I can think of is how mad I am with him.

Mad that my last words to him were cruel, mad for the time I spent thinking him my enemy, but mostly mad that he's hurt us like this, scared us like this.

The last time we were here, the time we thought Buck would die, I yelled at him. Demanded to know where he'd been while we were pacing and worrying.

'Why Mr. Jackson, I was playing poker with an old friend who came to visit.'

I nearly strangled him.

It was lucky the Doc came out just then and told us Buck would make it, or there'd have been another patient.

Thinking back I see things now I didn't then, the end of an adrenaline rush, the pale strain around his eyes.

I should have been surprised that he'd sacrificed himself for the kid. I mean, I keep telling myself that he's playing us all, but that started to ring false a long time ago. For a while it was the only way I could keep working with him, thinking him a cheat the only excuse I had for the words his irritating, antagonising presence always made me say.

I'd wondered if I was past that, but when I saw him lying there bleeding after saving JD, I felt pain, but no surprise, sorrow and grief, but no surprise.

Damn Southerner, bringing me to this.

+ + + + + + +

I first saw the guy when he sat next to me in the waiting room, the shift of the flimsy plastic alerting me to his presence.

I turned and saw it was the guy Ezra had been playing cards with the last time, and he got a glare for that, didn't seem to phase him. I go back to looking at my hands, but when I look up a moment later he's still there looking vaguely towards me as if trying to make a decision.

'What?' I demand and glare at him again.

'Could I interest you in a game?' I try to keep my temper.

'Like hell' I snarl and realise I haven't done such a good job. 'Course if I was Chris he'd be picking up his teeth. Play a game while a friend is in surgery? That's Ezra's thing.

I turn to him, half ready to threaten him with Security, when I make the mistake of meeting his eyes.

Even now, the only way I can think to describe what I saw is that it was like a graveyard. Flowers and quiet peace on top, but you just knew that underneath there was death. I felt a chill go through me from the inside out, the kind of cold only friends can warm.

And so help me, when he got up to go I went with him.

+ + + + + + +

I would have told him I would rather not play poker, but he drew a chess set from his pocket so I didn't have to. He said it was more traditional with a wink at me, and I was beginning to realise just what I'd gotten myself into. I tried not to think about it.

He passed me the whites, so I knew I would go first. Oddly enough, when I saw the other half of the set was red instead of black it didn't surprise me.

When the board was set up, two plastic armies facing off across a red and white battlefield, he took a ring off his finger and placed it on his king.

The gesture seemed to fit, so I took off my own ring, passed down from my mother's father to me, and put it on my own side. An outsider might assume we were playing for the rings, but I knew better.

God help me, but I'd felt bone when I touched that white plastic king, and I knew better.

+ + + + + + +

My grandfather taught me to play when I was just a little kid. I can still remember sitting around the kitchen counter after supper as he passed the time passing on his knowledge. I'd always enjoyed the games almost as much as the stories he told while we played, the sense of history, tradition in that small room almost a physical thing.

In a way the stories I'd learnt were more of a legacy to me than the ring now resting on the crown of the chessman in front of me.

I preyed that he was watching over me as I make my first move.

+ + + + + + +

We've been playing for a few minutes now, and my opponent seems more relaxed. I wish he were more worried, but it's early yet.

My opponent. In a way he always has been, and not just because of my training.

I can still remember my grandfather's funeral. I'd cried, not so much for the family I'd lost as the stories still untold he'd taken with him. A lifeline to my past severed forever.

I was younger then.

My mother's funeral was a much different affair. Where her father's had had a quiet grief drifting in the aisles hers seemed to have an unseen rage.

I felt the anger like a ghost drifting among the mourners. It trapped our pain in walls of rage and left us hard, harsh and unable to grieve properly.

The silences were the worst.

"So what should I call you?" I've had enough quiet. He smiles at me, glad I asked. He shouldn't look like this; friendly, normal. Harmless. He should look frightening, evil. After all, he's the one who took my grandfather, one of the strongest men I've ever known.

"Call me Thane. It was my name. . .before." I raise my eyebrow at him as he moves a pawn. He elaborates as I contemplate my rook. "Before I killed myself. Or rather, tried to. What a godawful day that was" he mutters to himself. "Couldn't even get that right."

"Nathan" I say as I take a pawn. He nods and smiles as he returns the favour.

"I'm sorry for roping you into this."

"Why Ezra?" What has Standish done to deserve a second chance like this? I don't begrudge him life, God knows I wouldn't be here if I did, but why not my mother? The grief and anger of what happened still eats at me sometimes, though less nowadays.

"A few years ago he did something no one should ever have to to help me out. After this the debt will be paid."

"What, he made it possible for you to keep killing people?" My voice is bitter, but he doesn't seem to take offence and speaks calmly.

"The human race kills itself very well without any help from me. I just clear the decks afterwards. He takes a bishop and I curse myself for not paying attention. A teammate's life is at stake, I can't get distracted.

+ + + + + + +

Suddenly I see it. A path to the red king resolving itself like one of those pictures made out of dots that JD was so fond of.

My expression doesn't change. That's something I have to thank him for, the man in surgery. He taught me a few things about playing poker even if the lessons weren't cheap.

I suppose that's one thing the two games have in common, chess and poker. You can't let your opponent read you.

He takes my queen and I jerk even though I knew it would happen. No turning back now.

I take his rook with a bishop and prey his next move will be the one I expect. He meets my eyes, and a smile so subtle Vin would be hard pressed to find it crosses his face. He knows. And he gives me the game in his next move.

The tension runs out of me like water out of a cracked vessel. I feel drained, empty. That doesn't last long.

A point of anger starts to grow in my chest swelling like a fireball. How dare he. Playing games with someone's life. 'Giving' me my friend's life like any other possession that could be won.

'Maintain your rage' Ezra had said to me once when we'd arrested a rapist and I'd nearly lost it.

I'm still not sure if he meant 'keep your temper' or 'keep your anger', but I'm well past that point now.

I viciously snap up my knight and start to slam him down towards the square that will checkmate the red king.

As I do, I look up to see, no young man across from me, but Death as I have always pictured him, a skeleton bleached white in a black cloak. I shouldn't be able to read a face with no eyes, but I can't help but see sadness there.

Then the base of the knight touches the chessboard and everything goes black.

+ + + + + + +

I jerk awake to find Josiah's strong hand on my shoulder as the doctor walks in, his scrubs still covered with blood.

We all rise like suspects awaiting a verdict.

The doctor smiles, says 'He's going to be fine' and we relax.

I would question whether it really happened. I would put it all down to a frightening day and a worse few hour of stress except for one thing.

The fragments of white plastic in my hand, and the ring there that now has one more memory forged into the band.



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