Games and Conversations by Raine Wynd
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Author's Notes:
Disclaimer and Notes: Panzer/Davis owns the Highlander concept and its characters. This is a work of derivative fiction created for my own amusement and the enjoyment of fellow fans, and is not distributed for profit. (Wow, that sounded pretty darn official, didn't it? ::snickers::)

This is yet another Lyric Wheel Challenge story. Lyrics to Queensryche's "Empire" courtesy of Rhiannon Shaw. No, Amand-r, this doesn't mean you completely succeeded in pulling me out of dueSouth-land. Silly chica, don't you know Trix are still for kids? :-)

Tuesday afternoons, Joe's didn't open for business to the public until five o'clock. Officially, it was reserved for private functions, which it wasn't a lie. Anyone who called asking to reserve the bar for that time, however, was politely told that it was booked for the rest of the year. It was during this time that the bar conducted Watcher business, and as no one saw the Game ending soon, that reservation wouldn't be changing anytime in the near future.

This particular Tuesday found the usual game of poker being played. A Chronicle lay open on the table while several field journals competed for space with beer bottles, a wine cooler, and a glass of brandy. Seated at the round table were five Watchers: two women, three men.

"Seems weird without Joe here," one of the women, a plain-faced brunette named Jeannie commented as she tossed two cards down on the table. "Two please, Mike."

"He's flying in from Chicago tonight," Mike, the assistant manager of Joe's and one-time Watcher of Richie Ryan, responded. He dealt the two requested cards and turned expectantly to the heavyset, rumpled, middle-aged man to Jeannie's right. "No doubt, tomorrow he'll be griping about family reunions."

"What did we say was wild? Eights?" the man on Jeannie's right questioned, revealing a slight Portuguese accent. Rafael was his name, and he was newly arrived in town on the heels of his Immortal. Murmurs of confirmation met his question. "All right. Give me three, Mike."

Mike traded cards, then asked, "Irene, what about you?"

The stunningly attractive redhead at Rafael's right twisted her classic features in disgust. "Why do I ever think I'm going to win one of these? Three, and here's hoping some of the magic Caitlin claims to have has rubbed off on me."

Her words were greeted with a snort from the man on Jeannie's left. "You really believe your Immortal can do real magic?"

"Why not?" Irene countered. "Cassandra has Voice. I heard Connor MacLeod's psychic. Why can't Caitlin have real magic? Or are you just jealous, Tony, because you got the new kid on the block and Dylan Scott's not much more than a fifteen-year-old punk? He's got a long way to go before he's a contender in the Game."

"At least he's a punk with a teacher," Tony shot back. "One, Mike." Discarding a card, he took the one Mike dealt him, and added, "Have to admit, I'm disappointed that Duncan MacLeod referred him to someone else."

Mike looked at him, one eyebrow cocked in surprise. "Do you really think he wouldn't have? He's not really gotten over Richie's death yet, even if it's been almost three years. Hell, I haven't quite gotten over it, either — Richie was turning into someone who had a shot, and I liked him a lot. Besides, Mac turned down Amanda when she asked him to teach Nick Wolfe a year ago, and that was something Joe thought would've been a sure thing."

"Yes, but — no offense to you, Irene — Caitlin? She's a doctor, not a fighter."

"Would've you rather Dylan gotten picked up by Domingo Gutierrez?" Rafael interjected dryly, referring to his Immortal. "Believe me, Gutierrez is only here because he thinks he can take on Duncan MacLeod, who he thinks laid down his sword after Richie Ryan's death. How such gossip travels among Immortals is beyond me — they seem to know just as well as we do what they're up to, and then some."

"You think Gutierrez is going to lose? I thought you said he's a good fighter," Irene remarked, studying her cards.

"Gutierrez is scum, selling crack to the people who pay," Rafael stated flatly. "I Watched Kiem Sum for a while, and told the Tribunal that I wasn't going to watch drug dealers anymore. Guess who I get as my new assignment?" He sighed in disgust, and tossed a few dollars into the pot, then gestured to the open Chronicle. "Whose is this?"

"Mine," Jeannie replied as she added to the pot. "Well, in a manner of speaking. I just got it assigned to me for translation, and I'm stumbling over the ancient Chinese. I haven't even figured out whose Chronicle it is yet — it seems to start halfway through someone's life, and the Watcher who wrote it seemed to have assumed anyone who read would still be reading Chinese. Sometimes it sucks being a remote researcher; I was spoiled when I lived in Paris, and had the audacity to bitch about lack of resources. What I'd give to have those now. I was hoping someone here could help."

"Be glad to," Rafael offered. "I should have some time tomorrow, after Gutierrez loses his head." He tossed money into the pot, matching the bet, as the rest did the same.

"You that certain he's going to lose?" Tony questioned.

"He's up against the Highlander, how can he win?" Rafael countered. "He's arrogant, got an AK-47 for his best friend instead of a sword, and the only reason he's got this stupid idea about challenging the Highlander is because he thinks that, for once, he can not cheat and win. He left his AK-47 at home, this time."

"He's toast, then," Irene remarked. "You'll be moving on soon."

"Probably," Rafael agreed. "Maybe this time I'll get lucky and be assigned someone new like Tony did."

"Lucky?" Tony scoffed. "Watching a new Immortal is the pits. Half the time you're convinced they'll never make it, and the other time, you have proof. How'd you manage it, Mike?"

Mike chuckled. "Richie made it easy. He was with Mac most of the time, and when he wasn't, he was on the road, kicking ass and taking names. He knew about me, and the only thing he made me promise was not to tell Mac about some of the stuff he did."

"He knew about the Watchers?" Jeannie's eyes were wide.

"Come on, Jeannie, don't be stupid," Tony retorted before Mike could answer. "MacLeod's Richie's teacher. Connect the dots, will you?"

Jeannie glared at him. "Call or fold, Tony. Yes, I knew that, but not all teachers teach everything they know."

Tony studied his cards before adding his bet to the pot. "Call," he said, as Jeannie reached for the open Chronicle and, marking her page with an unfolded cocktail napkin, removed it from the table to stick in a cloth bag beside her chair. "The MacLeods are thorough teachers; it's why they're the best in the Game," he remarked. "Wouldn't you say that, Mike?"

"Hey, I'm biased; I know the man, and I knew his last student well enough to call them friends. I lost my right to be objective a long time ago." He laid out his cards. "Three of kind. Looks like I beat your hand, there, Tony."

"I'm not friends with Caitlin," Irene commented. "She doesn't know I exist, and I like it that way. It's the way it was meant to be. Personally, I think the Game's a stupid exercise in brother killing brother for the profit of another, and if the Immortals just concentrated on helping everyone, we might not have so many wars." She paused. "Four of kind," she announced. "Top that, my friends."

"Well, that was a waste," Jeannie declared, dropping her cards without stating what they were. "Isn't that completely Pollyanna, though? Just think — some group of Immortals get together with the idea of peace and world harmony, and they end up building an empire instead. That has the potential of being just as bad as the Game."

"Especially," Rafael added, "if those Immortals are like the one I Watch, or the Four Horsemen." He spread his cards out. "I have a straight."

Tony swore, checked Rafael's cards against his, and laid them out, revealing he had nothing. "So much for bluffing. Another round?"

Murmurs of agreement met his question, and the game began anew.

"So how true is the rumor I hear that Adam Pierson's really Methos?" Rafael asked as he rearranged his winnings. He looked directly at Mike, who met his gaze without flinching.

"Really, Rafael," Irene reprimanded lightly before Mike could do more than shrug and open his mouth in preparation to speak. "You should know better than to ask some things. Or have you been that out of touch?"

"Oh?" Rafael challenged. "Am I hearing the party line now?"

"You might say that," Tony answered for the group. "Let's just say that, hypothetically speaking, you were to be correct, and that information were to be leaked to certain players, we wouldn't want to be cause of another Tribunal, especially since certain parties with observation authority owe favors they can't repay." He sounded like he was repeating something he'd been told before, but the threat was clear.

Rafael sat back. "All right," he said with a trace of disgust in his voice. "I get it. Joe owes Methos, so while we're in his bar, we don't talk about Methos. Or is it Adam?"

"Let it go, Rafael." Mike finally got his words out. "You don't help anyone by solving the puzzle on this one. Are you that ticked off that he got the better of you in Academy?"

"How'd you— " Rafael began.

Jeannie's mouth twisted sardonically. "Come on, Rafael, you think we invite just anyone to poker? There's fifteen known Immortals living in this city or its vicinity right now. All of them have Watchers, and there are four field researchers assigned here including me. We all play poker with each other at some point. Even if we never play poker again, we know who's going to play by the rules in this town."

"And those are?" Rafael asked, eyes narrowing.

"Don't do anything to hurt Joe," Irene answered. "He's been through enough."

Disgusted, Rafael tossed his cards down. "To hell with the Oath, is that what you're saying?"

"No," Mike replied steadily, staring at the older man. "Have you ever sat down and had a beer with the one you're watching, the one you're researching? Have you watched them try to deal with a Quickening when it's the first time they've ever had one? Seen them come crawling in to a bar like this one when they took one they almost lost? When it was a lover they once had? Or watch them fall in love with someone who you knew was dying, and not run away?" Mike's voice grew softer. "Or had them demand that you break your Oath to save the life of your boss, the one man you care about like you would a father?"

Rafael held the bartender's gaze, then looked away, unable to hold it any longer. "No." The single word, reluctantly spoken, still held traces of contempt. "I wouldn't let myself get that close."

"Never?" Irene questioned. "I heard you were trying to get a spot as Amanda's Watcher. Ever since she's found out about us, she's made it a game to see how long one of us lasts as her Watcher. Nobody stays on the job for long, and those who try usually are interested in her for more than just a research subject. Just how close were you planning on getting so that you could stay as her Watcher?"

Rafael flushed furiously at the sexual insinuation in Irene's tone. "Whatever it takes." He started to rise from the table.

"Then what's so different about this?" Tony spoke up. "Come on, Headquarters doesn't have a clue what it's like to be out here, busting our butts every day and putting up with the risk of being arrested for stalking or worse. We're not doing anything but looking out for Joe Dawson, one of our own, and Pierson used to be one of us, too. Where's the harm in that? Besides, for all you know, you could wake up one day and be Immortal. If you piss off all your friends from before you died, how are you going to survive the Game?"

Caught by the logic, Rafael sat back down. "All right," he surrendered. He picked his cards back up. "This only happens in Seacouver, right?"

"What? Poker?" Jeannie asked innocently, taking the cards she was dealt. Her eyes weren't on the cards, though, but on the ivory-skinned, black-haired woman with sloe eyes who'd walked into the bar at the tail end of Rafael's question. "Can we help you?" Just to be safe, she repeated her question in French, Spanish, and Chinese as the bar phone rang and Mike rose to answer it.

"Showoff," Irene teased her, but she turned slightly to see who the newcomer was. Sotto voce, she answered Rafael's question with an affirmative.

"Nguyen Mai," the woman introduced herself, her voice distinctly Vietnamese accented. "I was sent here. Train with Irene — " she paused and dug out a scrap of paper from her skirt pocket to check the name— "Walsh."

"Congratulations on the newbie," Tony told Irene, amusement underlying his words.

Irene ignored him. "I'm Irene. Do you want an interpreter?" In an undertone meant only for the members of the table, she remarked sourly, "Figures I get someone whose primary language is one I don't speak."

"No. Speak French, yes?"

Irene let out a relieved sigh. Switching languages easily, for it was the language of the Watcher Academy, she asked, "Is this better?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Guess you must be the new person that they just told me would be reporting in," Mike remarked, also in French, as he hung up the phone. "God, I love this business," he complained in English.

Grinning, Tony teased him in the same language, "But didn't you want to grow up and be a secret agent?"

Mike snorted. "Very funny, Tony." Turning back to the newest Watcher, Mike welcomed her in French, then asked, "Do you play poker?"

"No," Mai answered, eyes wide.

As if that was the cue, the game broke up and the winnings quietly collected. "Some other time, maybe we'll teach you," Jeannie offered in French, then switched to English. "Tony, you mentioned something about wanting to check some information?"

"Yeah, I don't know that much about the sword Caitlin gave Dylan," he began, following Jeannie to another booth in the back of the bar, thus giving Irene and Mai privacy to go over New Field Watcher Orientation.

Mike paused on his way to the bar. "Rafael?" he asked as the other man stood and collected his things. "You headed out?"

"Don't worry, Mike," Rafael answered the unspoken question. "I'm a team player."

Mike shook his head. "I wasn't worried about that. Just wanted ask, if you happen to be at the airport tonight about nine o'clock, that you make sure that Joe gets out of the way."

Rafael stared at the other man a moment, then observed, "I see why he puts you in charge when he leaves. You don't miss much, do you?"

Mike chuckled. "I'm a trained Watcher," he reminded Rafael, earning him a chuckle in reply before Rafael walked out of the bar.

For a moment after Rafael's exit, Mike studied the scene before him, hearing the low murmur of voices, the mingling of French and English, and thought about how strange the scene would appear to someone who didn't know what was going on. It had been a long time since he'd been a new Watcher, not much older than Dylan Scott, when he'd discovered Immortals and got initiated into the Watchers. As Mike moved to prep the bar for opening, he overhead snatches of Irene's conversation with Mai as she got to know the other woman, and it made him realize how he'd accustomed he'd gotten to the life he led. He could only hope that Mai wouldn't wash out after a few months in the field, then he sighed, shrugging.

Sometimes, the only crime in being alive was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such was how many people discovered Immortals, Mike reminded himself, and many Immortals had discovered their Watchers that way. Not everyone could be like MacLeod or Richie, who accepted them and treated them like friends, or like Amanda, who seemed to just enjoy making their job more of a challenge than it already was, and didn't mean it maliciously. Not all the Watchers were like Horton, either. Mike wondered what kind of fortune would befall Mai, and hoped that his instincts about Rafael were right. He knew, though, that whatever happened, the Game would go on, and someone had to be around to observe and record.

*** Finis ©8.13.00 Alice in Stonyland/Raine Wynd***