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A Game of Chess

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Giles knows him instantly. From the back, from ten meters away. Even though his hair is going gray and his shoulders look thinner than ever, in essence he's unchanged. He still holds his body the same way: poised, ready, as though he's waiting to be photographed. Ethan was always waiting to be photographed, always waiting to be recognized and acknowledged.

For several minutes Giles just stands on the path, next to a forlorn, shrivelled patch of flowers, and watches him. He's turned slightly to one side, and every so often his arm moves to shift something on the bench that Giles can't see. Otherwise he's completely still, despite the cold wind that must cut through even his heavy coat and scarf. Ethan has always been good at stillness and waiting. When he did move, he glided from one pose to the next--hands flowing through a spell or neck arched back to laugh. Like a series of still photographs, with only the aftermath of motion visible. Perhaps he simply moved too fast to be seen.

Giles circles around cautiously, less like a predator than like wary, forewarned prey. But before he can see what Ethan is doing, Ethan says, still without moving, "Hello, Ripper. You're right on time."

Stealth doesn't work with Ethan. Giles should have remembered. "Hello," he says, coming forward. "Does that mean you were expecting me?"

There's a small magnetic chess set on the bench next to Ethan; he moves a black knight, then takes a black pawn with a white rook before answering. "Of course. Sit down."

Giles sits, drawing his scarf a little tighter. After six years spent mostly in California, his blood's gone thin. This is an unusually cold day, as well. Watching him shiver, Ethan makes a show of hiding a smile; his lips twitch and his eyebrows lift. "Every morning, between 7:15 and 7:20, you cross the park. What a regular creature you are."

It's the sort of remark that normally comes out of Ethan's mouth dripping venom. Today it's merely a statement, and Giles is relieved, even grateful. Since the Initiative took Ethan away in a big black jeep, Giles has had time to consider pain and betrayal. He's thought about the hatred that flowed back and forth between them for years, regular as the tides, grinding them both to sand and wearing them away. Right and wrong have dissolved in it, mostly. They're both sinned against, both sinning, and after so many years, so many sins, recrimination can't be anything but petty.

"I like to get to work at half-past," Giles says. "There's a lot to be done, reorganizing the Council." It can't be news to Ethan that Giles is now running the Council, such as it is. Giles finds he's not worried about what Ethan might know. The Watchers' secrecy no longer seems terribly important. It's a new world, and it has been ever since the spell that opened the Slayer's birthright and spread its burden. Perhaps the new world began even earlier, when the old Council was annihilated along with all its records and traditions. Or when Buffy stood up to the Council, time and again. Or even when Giles first came to Sunnydale full of reforming energy, determined to let the Slayer lead a mostly normal life. It was less than seven years ago, but in Giles' memory he was very young. Idealistic, or perhaps moralistic, in the way only the young can be. Strange, that his vivid ideals have helped make the world so much more complicated.

"It's your move," Ethan says, nodding at the chessboard.

Giles thinks about the stacks of paper awaiting him--field reports from Xander and Willow to review, dossiers to update, immigration documents for Slayers from eastern Europe and Asia to fill out. All of it vital, all of it tedious. He settles in more comfortably on the bench and studies the board for a moment. "I notice I'm already losing." His king is in no danger, but Ethan has the stronger position overall. Giles moves a bishop to block Ethan's knight. "Chess hardly seems like your sort of game. So much strategy and planning."

Ethan stares at the board, then lifts his head. In the morning light, his eyes are deep-sunk, and Giles doesn't remember all those lines around them. His smile, though, is still wide and tinged with irony. "You never knew me quite as well as you thought." Barely looking at it, he moves a pawn, clearing a path for a rook. "Anyway, chess is only strategy for grandmasters. For the likes of you and me, it's very close to chaos." Ethan's tone is neutral, even friendly, but Giles can't trust it. For years, everything Ethan says has been baited and barbed, ready to lure Giles in, catch him, leave him gasping on a hostile shore.

Trying to take the offensive, Giles moves his queen up a few spaces. "No, it isn't. Well, maybe for you. Everything is chaos for you."

"Silly boy." Instead of bringing his rook forward, Ethan moves his other knight, a puzzling lateral move that doesn't seem to gain him any advantage. "Five turns on, how will this knight affect the game?"

Giles considers, but the possibilities expand dizzyingly, become infinite-seeming strings of ifs and thens. "I don't know." His hand hesitates over the pieces. Each one is overlaid with ghosts of future moves, blurred and portentous. Finally he takes his best guess and jumps a knight over a pawn to bring it closer to his queen.

Instantly Ethan moves his own knight again. "Exactly. Being neither grandmasters nor oracles, we can't see what consequences will come echoing back. I never imagined, for example, that taking you out for a drink would lead to my spending almost four years in prison." When Giles starts to protest, Ethan cuts him off. "The Fyarl was only a joke. If you weren't so afraid of magic, you could have turned yourself back. And if you'd let me stay the night in your lovely warm bed instead of chucking me out, I'd never have done it at all." He starts to smile, and then doesn't. "Consequences."

Giles gazes at the pieces, thinking. If consequences expand infinitely, then so do causes. Tracing causes multiplies them, creates a whole family tree of blame. There's no single ancestor, no Adam and Eve. No single line of transmission from Ethan to Eyghon. Ethan is not patient zero, unleashing death, taking all the unbearable blame. As Giles has known for years now, there's blame enough to go around. "I got you out," he says, looking up from the board to Ethan's face. "It took a while. The Council wouldn't do anything." Remembering the curl of Quentin Travers' lip, the narrowing of his eyes, and the scorn in his voice still makes Giles' face burn. "And then, after . . . the Council isn't what it was, and the negotiations dragged on. I'm sorry."

Ethan's hand brushes his, glove against glove, and Giles imagines he feels the warmth of Ethan's fingers. "Of course." It's not ironic; Ethan's voice is almost gentle. "They didn't hurt me, you know. Well, not much. They wanted to learn from me."

Ethan, Giles knows, has an odd sense of pain. 'Not much' could well have added new scars to his collection. Ethan had beautiful skin when he was young, lush and as brown-gold as pale honey. Ruined, now. There were scars everywhere, the last time Giles saw him naked. Raised scarifications outlining magical symbols, thin traces of ritual bloodletting, small round burn scars on his thighs and chest that had nothing to do with magic. There was one jagged knife wound from when Randall, possessed by Eyghon, tried to kill him; another, a few weeks younger, from when Giles tried to kill him in a fit of righteous anger.

If they'd never met, if Giles hadn't added his knowledge to Ethan's wild curiosity, Ethan might not be scarred. Maybe he'd have become an artist, like he used to talk about, early on. Before magic became the only thing he wanted.

Until now, Giles has never thought about it. But Ethan wasn't doomed, wasn't born with the mark of Cain stamped on his forehead. Believing that would be too simple, too self-serving. Ethan, too, has been caught up in consequences, in the chaos that they made between them.

"It's your move, Rupert," Ethan says.

Giles sighs. "I don't want to play anymore."

"Well, then." Ethan looks steadily, unreadably, at him. His eyes used to be expressive, but now light disappears into them; now they're darkened windows with the curtains tight-drawn. "You know what to do."

Giles' fingers close around a piece, and he moves it randomly. Then he says, "I offer a draw."

"I accept." Ethan smiles, but just a little. It's a small, naked smile, stripped of its irony, exposed to the daylight and the cold. A smile as bare as Ethan's eyes are veiled.

Giles smiles back at him, knowing that his own eyes must be every bit as cautious and secret. Then he finds his mobile phone and rings the office, leaving a message for Andrew that he won't be in today.

"You know," Ethan says, "when grandmasters play chess, it's not just about winning. It's about finding the truth of the position. Knowing every consequence a move can have, every implication of the state of the board."

"That sounds impossible," Giles says. He tries to touch Ethan's face, but Ethan flinches away from his gloved fingers.

"Too cold." Ethan watches, still with that faint smile, as Giles takes off his glove and reaches out again. This time he tilts his face into Giles' palm and closes his eyes for a moment. "It's not impossible, but it's difficult. Usually no one really understands until afterwards, weeks or even months later, when all the analysis has been done."

"At least it's calculable," Giles says, putting his glove on again. "Knowable. How nice for the players not to be left wondering what they should have done differently."

Ethan drops his eyes and spends a while adjusting the ends of his scarf. Ethan's gloves make his long fingers seem thick and clumsy, so Giles watches his face instead. His skin felt smoother than it looks, less worn, although not as soft as Giles' first memories of it. "Well," Ethan says. "Any chance of a cup of tea for a cold and weary traveller?"

"I expect so."

They don't talk as they walk back towards Giles' flat. Their arms brush occasionally, and then more often. Giles thinks about the inevitable next move. They can both see that far ahead, to kisses, to clothes scattered across the floor, to Giles baring Ethan's new scars and working his tongue over every one. To the slide and catch of skin on skin, to bruising fingers and hot mouths and the meteoric flare of orgasm.

It's beyond that, beyond the sound of Ethan's cries and the drowsing weight of his body, that Giles can't predict. Maybe he'll never know the truth of the position, never know who's won and who's lost. Maybe the game doesn't even work that way now. He'd like to hope this is a new game, a game they can both win. But, he thinks as he unlocks his door, the only way to find out is to play.