Original Story Title: The Long Game
Original Story Link: http://stardust-made.livejournal.com/14043.html
Original Story Pairings: Sherlock/John
Original Story Rating: NC-17
Original Story Warnings: N/A
Remix Story Title: Ante
Remix Author: sprl1199
Remix Beta: baseblack
Remix Britpicker: baseblack
Remix Story Pairings: Sherlock/John
Remix Story Rating: PG-13 (or T for teen)
Remix Story Warnings: N/A
They stand close inside each other’s space, eyes locked. Sherlock says softly:
“Why wouldn’t I want to play poker with you?”
“Because I’m very good.”
“Excellent. So am I.”
The air was warm and dry as it wafted through the open flap of the tent: the sickly, dry scent of the poppies over the ridge competing with the dust, sweat, and blood on the bodies of the men inside.
At least, John thought he smelled blood. But then, he always thought so. Maybe it was only a fancy on his part.
“What’s it gonna be, Doc?” Boyd was an American and a proud father of two little girls. He’d tattooed their names and birthdates on his shoulder just below a rather faded image of a flag. He wasn’t a bad sort, for an American. And he reacted to his dwindling pool of money with surprising cheer, which John found admirable. It was Jackson who was the troublemaker.
“We haven’t got all night,” Jackson snapped impatiently. He was Australian, though it seemed to John that every other Australian he’d met (not that there were an exceptional number that he’d come across in Afghanistan) was unhurried and even-tempered. It caused a small shock of dissonance every time Jackson opened his mouth.
John took his time while he considered his cards. He’d decided on his bet ages ago, but he never could resist riling up the bullies on the schoolyard. His sister had called him a scrapper once when he was about eleven, and he had embraced the appellation.
“Take it easy, Jackson,” Emmett broke into the altercation with a nervous smile. He was barely twenty, and John could hardly bear to look at him. Of the small group of NATO soldiers who gathered for the poker games (weekly, monthly, whenever they could pull together the time and cards), it was the young ones that John had the most difficulty with.
He couldn’t help but see them—with an internal eye that ever more frequently betrayed him—lying on his table, beyond his ability to aid.
“You take it easy, school boy,” Jackson growled. “I’m sick to death of waiting.” Emmett flinched just slightly before looking away.
“Ain’t nothing waiting for us you should be in a hurry to catch up with, man,” Boyd said to Jackson lightly, and though he was smiling, his eyes didn’t reflect any mirth. John barely knew the man, but his protective impulses towards the younger soldiers—American, British, or what have you—were obvious to anyone who spent more than a few minutes with him. “Not out there.” Boyd gestured abortively with his arm to encompass the miles and miles of desert and sand: broken here and there with low, unexpected hills and the ever present fields of poppies with their equally enduring aroma.
Jackson wasn’t placated, but he shifted his glare from Emmett back to John. Which John was fine with. “Yeah, well, it’s in here that I’m more worried about. The Doc is going to kill us all if he keeps quibbling over his bet.”
“Raise you two,” John said, not wanting to belabor the moment. Scrapper or no, he preferred only those bits of drama that were directed at himself, not some child just from school who spoke frequently of his girl back home (Eileen) and his tomboy younger sister (Jemma).
“Finally,” Jackson muttered, while the rest silently added their bets—torn bits of paper and a few rocks standing in for markers—to the pot.
It was Emmett’s turn next. “Call,” the young man said, licking his bottom lip and signaling to anyone who’d known him more than a few hours that he was bluffing.
“You sure you want to do that, son?” Boyd asked. He moved his contribution to the pool of money in the middle of the scarred, wooden table ponderously, allowing Emmett a chance to reconsider. Jackson was smirking.
“We’d let you bow out,” John said suddenly, surprising himself as well as the other men. Take backs weren’t typically an aspect of these night games. John blamed his sympathy on the irritating grin on Jackson’s face. “The stakes are getting high.”
Emmett dropped his cards resolutely on the table and turned to John with a smile (a smile that made him appear even younger and caused John’s insides to knot). “Don’t worry about me, Dr Watson. I know what I’m doing.”
John didn’t answer, and, because of this, he was able to hear Emmett clearly as the other men around the table let out a whoop of encouragement and fed the growing pot. “Sometimes you have to go all in,” Emmett said in a breathy whisper.
Perhaps it was the wan light that made the young man’s skin appear suddenly and shockingly sallow, but John couldn’t help but feel an unpleasant whisper of foreboding.
The next day, John was en route back to England with a wounded shoulder, and Emmett was dead.
Mycroft leaned forward to pin him with an intense stare. “I demand your absolute assurance that you will tell Mummy that you love her on two separate occasions, and also that she is beautiful on at least two others. Are we agreed?”
“We are.” Sherlock nodded once emphatically before turning his hand to the IOUs, noting the promises in penmanship that he knows from his instructor’s notes to be at once ‘precise,’ ‘cramped,’ and ‘yet oddly graceful.’
He was ten years old. Mycroft had decided to teach him poker.
“I believe the rewards are in balance,” Sherlock’s brother said gravely, motioning to Sherlock’s slips of paper as they stand against Mycroft’s watch and favored Moleskin notebook on the rickety card table they have requisitioned for this purpose. “Shall we commence with betting?”
Sherlock shifted. Mycroft’s eyes narrowed. “I take it you disagree?”
“This is boring,” Sherlock said, knowing his tone is petulant but not caring. “We both know the cards dealt and the statistics for the various hands needed for victory. Why are you bothering with something so trivial?”
Mycroft sat back on in the faded green chair. They were in the conservatory, and the light through the windows painted a prism on the bend of his shoulder. “Ah,” Mycroft said in that infuriating way he had adopted since announcing at dinner one evening that he was bound for university and would be leaving them all—leaving Sherlock—for the foreseeable future. Since his announcement, Sherlock had found him at least three times more irritating than before.
“Poker, Sherlock, isn’t about the cards. It’s about the people,” Mycroft lectured, speaking calmly but with an obvious expectation that Sherlock listen raptly. Sherlock rolled his eyes visibly, but his brother ignored him.
“Reading the behaviors and actions of your opponents,” Mycroft went on. “Deducing the cards in their hands without the luxury of viewing them yourself. These are valuable skills you would do well to master.”
Sherlock snorted derisively. “Psychology, is it? Are you certain you want to go off for school, Mycroft? It sounds as though your mind is already beginning to atrophy.”
Mycroft acted as though he hadn’t heard. “And of course, there’s a lesson to be learned about oneself in poker as well.”
“How long one is able to overlook tedium before going mad?”
“What precisely one is willing to lose,” Mycroft corrected with a gentle smile, visible only in the slight upturn of his lips. “No matter how well you know the odds of a particular hand, there is always a degree of risk involved, Sherlock.”
“If I never lose, it won’t be a risk at all,” Sherlock said a bit wildly, knowing even as he said it that Mycroft would see it as childish bravado.
But Mycroft only continued to look at Sherlock with his strange not-quite-there smile.
“I wish that were possible,” his brother said in a low voice quite unlike his typical register. “But I fear you must prepare yourself for at least an occasional loss. In gambling, you should never bet with something you’re not prepared to lose.”
I’m losing you, Sherlock thought. In a game I was never invited to play and with a hand I never even saw. But instead of saying these things, he scattered the IOUs and moleskin with a violent sweep of his arm before stalking out of the conservatory.
The next day, Mycroft left for university, and Sherlock was alone.
Heat and the soft tapping sounds as the playing cards fell from the table John was spread across to collide with their floor.
Heat and the percussion of the cards and Sherlock above him, one hand braced beside John’s head and the other grasping desperately at John’s belt.
All in John thought, and then laughed.
It was a beautiful day. Sunny, bright. Gentle, masking clouds swept lightly across the sky, but it was a beautiful day nonetheless.
The pavement—far, far below him—was damp with the last signs of rain, but he thought—he hoped—the weather would continue to improve: to fulfill that promise of clear skies the warm breeze seemed to be whispering.
The ledge was too small for his feet, and the wind was buffeting him, but he didn’t allow himself to rock.
Instead he kept his eyes trained on the figure who had just exited the taxi on the street below: a seemingly small figure, but Sherlock knew it was due only to the angle from which he found himself observing the other man. In every way that counted, John Watson was the tallest of men.
Sherlock allowed himself a small smile. Mycroft was wrong. Gambling wasn’t about what one was prepared to lose.
It was about valuing something (someone) so completely that the situation wouldn’t allow for anything other than one last, desperate roll of the dice. It was about what one refused to let go.
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