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Play the cards

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Patrick knows what he is the moment he steps through the door.

Well. Steps isn't exactly the right word. Rolls, maybe, except the elevator in this building likes to stop just shy of the floor, so it ends up a thump and a muttered curse. But, still, Patrick knows a hunter when he sees one, and this--

"Heard about your poker game," the guy says gruffly, not quite meeting Patrick's gaze directly.

--is off, somehow.

"Did you, now." Patrick leans back, head cocked, studying the guy. Hunter, yes, but hunters on the job come in with killing in their eyes; some with bravado and bluster, some with practicality, some with bloodlust, a rare few even with sympathy, but always, they've come to kill.

This guy, though... Patrick can see hints of death lurking in the shadows, but also shame, and need. He isn't reaching for a gun, or knife, or any other sort of weapon. And he handles the wheelchair awkwardly, like it's new.

Patrick smiles slowly. "And?" he prompts, even though he knows the answer already, even before the guy wheels up to the table and glowers at him with the defiance of the desperate.

"And I want in."

#

The guy's good, it turns out. Better than most. For easy marks, Patrick throws in a few deliberate losses just to hook them in, but it isn't necessary here. The guy knows what he's doing, that's for sure.

He's not a talker, though; he gives his name when asked, first name only, but doesn't respond to Patrick's questions or chatter. Just plays the cards, with grim determination. But his story is easy enough to piece together, with the too-new wheelchair and the frustration and the places on his hands that are chafed but not calloused yet.

Patrick's not a bad guy. He's very good at managing his games. The ones who deserve to win, do, at least a little bit; the ones who don't win don't deserve it. He's kind of like Robin Hood, really, taking from the careless rich and giving to the needy poor.

The hunters he's played against have all lost, of course.

#

There's a part of the game where Patrick's "luck" changes. Where the hands seem to start coming out better for him than for whoever he's playing. (Where his betting patterns change subtly.) It's all downhill from here, and the lucky ones are the ones that Patrick takes pity on; the rest bet away their lives, with a gambler's faith that the next hand has to be better.

It's his marks' choice to play the game. Patrick's choice to let them.

All the cards for this round are dealt; the board has a pair of nines, three hearts, nothing that can make a straight. The other guy bets most of his dwindling pile. Patrick doesn't look at his hole cards. He doesn't need to. He knows what he has. Fairly sure he knows what the other guy has, from the way he's been playing.

Fairly sure he knows what the other guy wants, too.

Patrick toys with one of his own chips, considering, and then calls the bet. When he looks up, Lia's standing in the doorway, watching him. She nods, ever so slightly.

Showtime.

The other guy shows his cards: two hearts, which gives him an ace-high flush. It's a good hand. Lucky, since the last heart was the last card dealt, but good.

Not as good as the full house Patrick has.

"Hm," he says, and meets Lia's gaze. He dips his head in acknowledgment at her, and leaves his cards face-down. "Good hand. Pot's yours."

#

The pot brings the other guy up to thirty. Five over the buyout. "I'm cashing in," he says.

Patrick affects surprise. "Only five? You've got skill, and luck. Why not try for more?"

"Because I'm no idiot," the other guy responds. Now that the game's over, he meets Patrick's gaze unflinchingly: I know what you are too, that gaze says. "I don't rely on luck. Five's enough for what I need, anyhow. Do it."

Patrick does, and feels sorry for him.

#

The thing about Patrick's magic is, it isn't time travel, and it isn't exact. It's more like an approximation. If he takes twenty years from someone, they grow twenty years older, but they don't look precisely like they would if they had spent those years normally; if he gives twenty years back to someone, they grow twenty years younger, but they aren't the same as they had been twenty years ago. Life changes you in different ways than magic does.

He can play with age, with years, with time. He can't touch anything else. Even if he wants to.

#

"It didn't work," the other guy insists.

"Did. Sorry." Patrick spreads his hands. "Nothing more I can do. I gave you your five years." He doesn't point out that there's less grey in the other guy's beard; he doubts it'll help.

"But I can't *walk*." He slams his hands down against the arms of the wheelchair as punctuation. "Five years ago, I could. This was supposed to fix me. So fix me, damn you."

"We played for time," Patrick says softly. "Nothing more."