*Reposted* This was never meant to be part of the series proper but it's invaded my conciousness - forcing me to re-evaluate the next story in the series, hence the delay!
Disclaimer: Neither BtVS, The Magnificent Seven TV show nor its wonderful ATF AU created by Mog belong to me.
Ezra knocked on the nondescript door.
Musing on the events that had bought him here, he felt a small twinge of guilt. In the end, the temptation of finding out a little more about Xander’s past was too much, despite the fact he’d told his son he wouldn’t pry. Technically, if he didn’t ask any questions it wouldn’t be his fault. Semantics, to be sure, but from what he’d seen so far Xander’s friend Spike was going to be a great source of information with very little prompting required. Plus, who was he to turn down a game of poker?
Hearing someone approach the door, Ezra automatically smoothed his attire. Appearances were everything, after all. He winced as the action pulled at his stitches. Nathan would probably be berating him if he found out that he was going out already, but then again Nathan always was a worrier. As long as Chris didn’t find out, he could handle it.
The door swung open and Ezra forced himself not to step back. The man was huge. Ezra carefully schooled his expression as he took in the unusual tattoos that adorned the man’s face -- the things people did to themselves were incredible. Although Ezra would be surprised if even a mother could love that face.
“Good evening, sir. I understand there’s a game here this evening.” Ezra was unfailingly polite, in spite of his trepidation. He was under the impression this was to be a friendly game. God, he hoped so: the other members of his team would never let him live it down, otherwise.
“Invite only.” The tone held menace, but Ezra paid little attention, too caught up in his study of the man’s teeth. Good grief, he’d had them filed into fangs!
“I have an invite. Mr. Spike suggested I might enjoy a game.” The strange fellow looked him over once more before bellowing back into the premises. Receiving a reply, which simply sounded like a series of grunts and growls to Ezra, he was ushered toward the proverbial back room.
“Sorry, Master Spike never said anything.” Figuring it was as close to an apology as he was going to get, Ezra simply smiled and nodded.
As they entered the room Ezra was once again brought up short. At first glance it appeared to be like any other back-room poker game: green baize table, heavy smoke lingering in the air, and a scattering of glasses filled with alcohol. It was the players that threw Ezra. Who played poker in fancy dress?
The gentleman from the door he could understand; people these days went for the weird and wonderful biomods. Only the other day, young Mr. Dunne had shown Ezra an email picture of a man who had surgically altered his features to look like a feline. It was bizarre, but if that’s what someone chose to do, who was he to disapprove?
But to come to play poker in some kind of rubber mask…? Well, it wasn’t sportsman-like. How was one supposed to read latex? Ezra took a deep breath. He was a professional. Not all tells were in the face--body language, betting patterns, it all came together. He’d show these bad-mannered idiots that it took more than a little face paint to best Ezra P. Standish.
He smoothly stepped forward and introduced himself. A couple of the ‘gentlemen’ from the table ignored him, but most simply nodded. Further awkwardness was spared as Spike returned to the table.
“Ezra! You made it. Great.” Spike moved to take a seat, indicating Ezra should sit next to him. “Everybody met?”
“We’ve not been introduced,” Ezra answered as he took a seat to Spike’s left.
“Right, then. So next to you there, that’s Mikey. Then we’ve got K’dash, Tiny, Clem, Hiram and Bob.” Spike went around the table in order.
“A pleasure, gentlemen.” Ezra mentally tagged them all as the introductions were made. The attempted cheat was Clem; the man with the tattoos was Tiny; Mikey wore shades and had an unfortunate stoop; K’dash had some kind of deformity, judging by the reduced number of fingers in his gloved hands; Hiram looked normal but showed the same kind of pale complexion that Spike had; and Bob, well, Bob looked a little green.
“Everyone, the Reb here is Ezra, the White Knight’s Pa. So, best behaviour, boys.” Ezra noted the uncomfortable shuffling from K’dash and Tiny at the information. It was a little unnerving that his son had such influence, even on unsavoury gentlemen such as these. They really needed to have a talk, and it needed to be sooner rather than later.
“Er, Spike. Does Mr. Bel Devan know about this?” Bob spoke up nervously.
“Bel Devan made an agreement with the Slayer’s Knight -- no unpleasantness with his family. And this here is going to be a nice friendly game, right?” Spike finished pointedly.
“Uh. . . yeah, sure.” They all nodded, some more enthusiastically than others, but Ezra was relieved to feel the atmosphere relax.
“So that’s all sorted, then. Cut for the dealer?” Spike placed a deck of cards of the table.
“What’s the ante, gentlemen?” Ezra pulled a small wad of bills from his inside pocket.
“Usual stakes, fellas?” Spike spoke up, but Ezra was confused as, instead of reaching into their pockets for cash, the other players produced wicker baskets from beneath their chairs.
“Sure thing. Bets are limited to what’s on the table?” K’dash’s gravely tones sent a tremor down Ezra’s spine. It was unusual to find himself so disturbed by the presence of others. He dealt with the scum of the earth on a regular basis and was able to maintain a civil attitude to the dregs of society, yet here in this room he felt…. small. More like the quarry than the hunter, and it made him extremely uncomfortable.
“Agreed, although I feel it’s only fair to tell you boys that I got me hands on a dwarf Russian Blue.” Spike smirked.
”You calling me a liar?” Spike bristled at the suggestion.
”All I’m saying is we all gotta agree you got a dwarf Russian blue.” Mikey looked to the others at the table for support.
“Fine.” Spike reached into his basket and pulled out a small kitten.
“Damn, where the hell did you get your hands on that?” The disgust in Tiny’s tone shook Ezra out of his shock.
“That’s my business, mate. Everyone happy it’s a dwarf blue?” Spike looked round his opponents, his gaze finally coming to rest on Ezra.
Ezra had found it difficult to tear his eyes away from the adorable bundle of fur currently squirming in the blond’s grasp. A quick glance at the others around the table revealed a total lack of surprise and an alarming predatory gleam in K’dash’s eyes.
“Reb?” Spike’s query forced him to look away.
“I must confess, when you mentioned unusual stakes, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” Ezra said mildly.
“Problem?” Mikey tensed as he spoke, and Ezra sensed the implied threat was quite real. Did it really matter what the stakes were? He was, after all, just here for a game of poker and a little information.
“No problem. However, I did not come properly prepared. Perhaps you gentlemen could lay out monetary equivalents for your feline currency?” Ezra settled himself more comfortably in his chair at the obvious approval in Spike’s regard.
“Sounds reasonable. Let’s figure something out. Boys?” Spike began what became a heated discussion into the value of the various breeds. While it was fascinating to watch, Ezra became disturbed by the anticipatory desire he detected in K’dash.
Before long, the guidelines had been set out and the game began in earnest. Ezra tried to remain dispassionate, but realised before long that he was playing to keep the kittens away from K’dash, as opposed to winning outright. He’d thrown at least one hand that he was confident he could have bluffed, simply to ensure the pot went to Spike rather than his deformed opponent.
Finally, as the evening wound down Ezra found himself in a particularly large pot. The only players left were himself, Hiram and K’dash. Spike’s high-value Russian blue was attempting to clamber its way out of the basket in the middle of the table, and Ezra had decided long before that there was no way that it was going to fall into the hands of K’dash.
“Call. Time to show your hands, gentlemen.” Ezra took a deep draft from the glass beside him. While confident he had the crippled man beat, there was always the outside chance he had miscalculated. K’dash casually laid down his cards.
“Two pair, aces over eights.” All eyes turned to Hiram.
“Three of a kind.” The pale man gave a smug smile and reached out a hand to the pot.
“I’m afraid I must spoil your premature celebration, my friend.” Ezra laid down his cards with a smile. “A flush.”
Hiram stood suddenly, forcing his chair back, knocking it over.
“You’re a cheat!”
“Sir, I resent that accusation. Aside from it having no basis in fact, I would consider myself a deplorable player if I could not best the likes of you honestly.” Ezra ignored the snarling man and reached out to snag the pale grey kitten from the basket.
“I say you’re a cheat, and the Knight ain’t here to protect you now,” Hiram ground out.
“Bel Devan!” Bob’s alarmed cry had no effect on Hiram, but Tiny and Mikey backed off, not wanting to get involved in the local politics.
“Listen, mate, no need to be a sore loser. So the human outplayed you. Get over it.” Ezra grimaced at Spike’s attempt to ‘help’. No wonder Xander was apprehensive about the man: it was really hard to tell if he was actually on your side or not. And what the hell did he mean by ‘the human’?
Ezra noted that Tiny, Mikey and Bob had slipped out of the room, leaving Spike facing off with Hiram. Clem was making a call from the area of the bar. K’dash, however, was attempting to abscond with the abandoned kittens. Ezra slipped the blue he’d just won into his pocket and palmed his derringer.
Moving swiftly, he placed himself between the others and the door. It appeared the argument between Spike and Hiram was about to get physical. Clem, Ezra felt, could be regarded as a noncombatant, but K’dash would have to be dealt with directly.
Ezra was going to wait until the other man made a move to leave, but was horrified to witness the man remove a kitten from the basket and make as though he was going to bite its head off.
“Hey!” Ezra called out, just as a crash from his left signalled the onset of the fight between Spike and Hiram. Ezra forced himself to ignore it and focussed on the psycho with the kitten fetish. He maintained a steady aim on the man, as the brute turned to face him.
In the poorly lit room the man’s eyes appeared to flash with an unholy gleam. Once again, Ezra was forced to reconsider the nature of the man he’d been playing poker with. In the course of his undercover career he’d met men like this, ones with unnatural desires, and slowly, one by one, they had all fallen to justice. Whether by the law, or the natural order -- albeit, unnaturally accelerated-- of death.
“Put the kitten back in the basket,” Ezra calmly. “Now.”
“You think that puny weapon will stop me?” K’dash growled at him.
“Many a man has maligned my weapon, but as I have pointed out so many times, one shot is all I need to end your miserable existence. Step away from the kittens.” Ezra took a slow step closer. Unexpectedly, rather than replying, the man began to remove his gloves.
Ezra watched in mute horror as the material peeled away from tapered digits to reveal talons that dripped with an unhealthy looking ooze. There was no way that was something surgically created. Maybe it was some kind of freakish genetic mutation, or…
“Bollocks!” Spike’s shout startled him, but years of ingrained experience prevented him from turning away from his foe. “Whatever you do, don’t let the bastard scratch you. It’s kinda fatal.” Spike was breathing heavily, but from the tone of his voice was clearly enjoying his little sparring match.
“Thank you for the information. Don’t let me keep you,” Ezra blithely replied. 'Never let your opponent sense fear'-- always a good rule of thumb.
Ezra moved to his left, keeping the other man in his range in an attempt to edge him away from the basket. He looked once more at the vicious claws. While their supposed lethality was not entirely surprising, how could something be ‘kind of’ deadly'? Ezra rebuked himself for allowing his focus to wander. Understandable, he felt, given the unusual circumstances of the evening, but foolish.
“Sir, I’m sure we can settle this amicably. You leave our feline stakes behind, and I won’t have to shoot you. Perhaps you could take the time to get your hands looked at. I believe my mother has the number for an excellent plastic surgeon,” Ezra offered sincerely.
“Don’t taunt him, you idiot,” Spike yelled. “Bloody hell, no wonder the whelp was always getting into shit -- it must be in the genes,” Spike ended, muttering. Insulting a Freel’s talons was a sure-fire way to get yourself killed. This is why, he thought, telling the man would be easier. There was less chance of putting your foot in it if you knew what you were playing against. Then again, maybe introducing Xander’s dad to the local nightlife wasn’t his best idea in the world. He’d just wanted to be friendly. Ezra and he were kind of family now, so to speak.
Spike groaned. Xander was sure to blame him for this, and it wasn’t even his fault. Xander’s Da had taken it all in his stride. Spike was fairly impressed; it wasn’t everyone who could sit down with a bunch of demons to play poker, and, more importantly, actually manage to win.
Damn Hiram, it was all his fault. Spike was gonna end his pathetic existence right here. Then maybe he could present his ashes as a peace offering to Xander. Spike snarled and threw himself back at the dark-haired vamp, fully intending to rip his throat out.
Ezra, in the meantime, had managed to hold off his confrontation with K’dash by apparently confusing him with an exceptionally verbose apology. It was times like this that Ezra was particularly thankful, for having men like Buck Wilmington on which to practice his skills. The ladies' man, while far from stupid, had a tendency for plain speaking and liked to take the time to translate Ezra’s comments for his colleagues. Buck's antics had simply served to encourage Ezra to expand his vocabulary in order to properly challenge his workmates. In times like this it also served to temporarily confound a madman.
Unfortunately for Ezra, he had miscalculated his opponent’s capacity for passivity, and it was only his superior reflexes that saved him from receiving a painful, and possibly fatal, swipe from the enraged demon. Ezra’s well-placed bullet to the eye catapulted the demon back into the wall behind him, before it slumped to the floor.
Ezra stepped a little closer before quickly picking up the basket of kittens and moving them to a safer locale. He turned to observe Spike’s continuing fight, wondering if he should step in to help.
Ezra was, however, stunned to find a transformed Hiram hissing at a bored looking Spike. The man now clearly sported fangs, and his brow had become unnaturally ridged.
“As much fun as this has been, mate, I really think we should end it. The Reb ain’t no cheater: you lost fair and square. Let it go, and we can all live to play another day,” Spike offered.
“No. I’m going to kill him and take back what’s mine,” Hiram hissed.
“Don’t say I didn’t offer. You hear that, Clem?” Spike wanted to be sure that, on the off chance Hiram was protected, it wouldn’t affect Xander’s little truce.
“Yeah.” At the reply Ezra looked down behind the bar to find the masked fellow was now cowering there.
“Don’t you get hot in that?” Ezra found himself asking, even as he returned to watching the continuing battle that raged across the room.
“In what, my coat?” Clem asked, puzzled.
“No, the mask,” Ezra replied. Glancing down, he frowned. “Not you too!” Ezra pointedly removed the kittens from out of the reach of the now drooling individual.
“I’m not wearing a mask.” Clem’s voice had a disturbing degree of honesty that nearly distracted Ezra from witnessing the end of the fight.
Spike took what was clearly a glancing blow, but surprisingly stumbled to the floor. Ezra only just spotted the fact that he’d picked up a piece of broken chair, but had not anticipated the killing blow as Spike impaled Hiram through the heart.
“Dear God.” Ezra watched, stunned, as Hiram appeared to crumble to dust before his very eyes.
The room fell quiet as the last of Hiram floated gently to the floor. Spike casually pulled out a smoke and lit up.
“What the fuck was that!” Ezra dropped all sense of propriety as his brain tried to process what just happened.
“Oh, bugger.” Spike's gaze traveled between the ashes on the floor and a shocky looking Ezra. Xander was going to kill him.
“I said…,” Ezra wearily went to repeat his question.
”I heard ya; just not sure what to tell you.” Spike frowned.
“How about the truth?” Ezra tried to pull the tatters of his composure together. Spike took a deep draw on the cigarette in his mouth before deciding there was a first time for everything.
“Of course, what else could it be.” Ezra looked from Spike to the floor, then remembered the other occupant of the room. “So… not a mask.”
“No.” Clem remained behind the relative safety of the bar. They lapsed into silence once more, which was only broken by an occasional mewl from the basket.
“What happened to K’dash?” Spike finally asked.
“I shot him,” Ezra answered.
“Shit!” Spike exclaimed worriedly. “Where?”
“In the head,” Ezra replied absently.
“No. Where’s the body? He’s not dead.” Spike frantically scanned the room. The last thing he needed right now was a seriously pissed-off Freel on his ass.
K’dash, realising that his playing possum had been discovered, rose up from the floor. While not fatal, gunshot wounds to the head were painful. His plan had been to wait until everyone was distracted, grab the kittens if possible, and then head home for a large drink. Sometimes you just had to know when to fold 'em.
There was a crash from the front room, and everyone turned to face the door.
“Spike? Ezra!” Xander strode into the room, locking his eyes on his father and rapidly scanning him for injuries.
“Alright, mate. What brings you here?” Spike opted for acting innocent. It wasn’t likely to work, but there was always a first time.
“Clem called.” Xander nodded to the demon behind the bar before turning to the Freel who was wiping ichors from his face. “K’dash, how’re the kids?”
“Not bad, Xander. J’kan loves the rocking horse.” K’dash retrieved his gloves and carefully replaced them.
“Excellent. Was a little worried it wouldn’t hold up to the extra mass, but I figured the combination of yew and oak should do the trick.” Xander smiled.
“Well, gentlemen, I’ll take my leave.” K’dash took one last look at the basket, causing Ezra to shift and shield it with his body.
“Nice seeing you again.” Xander reached out and shook the demon's hand.
Waiting until the demon left, Xander whirled and confronted Spike.
“Kitten poker!” Xander hissed as he walked over to Spike and backed him into the wall.
“It was just a friendly game,” Spike defended.
“With ‘people’ of alternate descent,” Xander ground out.
“You mean vampires, and, um, other things?” Ezra glanced at Clem but was pleased that he managed keep the tremor out of his voice.
“Demon,” Clem added helpfully.
“Of course, how rude of me. Vampires and demons.” Ezra reached behind the bar and pulled out the whisky he’d spotted there earlier. He poured himself a large glass and drained it swiftly before refilling it. Absently, his hand slipped to his pocket, and he began stroking the small grey kitten he had hidden there.
Xander groaned. This was not how he’d envisioned his father finding out about his life before Denver.
“So… until recently you’ve been fighting these creatures.” Ezra looked over to Clem. “No offence intended.”
“None taken. Er, I think I’ll just head home. Spike, Xander.” Clem nervously headed out the door, not looking back.
“Well, looks like you’ve got some talking to do. I’ll leave you to it.” Spike started towards the door, too. With any luck he’d be able to catch a flight and be out of Harris’s reach before his little conversation with Dad was over.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Xander snarled. “I want you on hand for the practical demonstration on how to deal with a vampire.”
Ezra looked between the two ‘men’ facing off with each other. So, Spike was a vampire. Explained a few things, he mused. He was starting to feel a little buzzed and was surprised to find nearly half the bottle gone already.
“I believe I have already received a demonstration. I assume Spike’s application of a chair leg to Hiram’s chest was what one might call ‘staking’? The turning to ash makes disposal of the body rather simple at least.” Ezra moved to a table, bringing the bottle with him.
“Ezra, I…” Xander sighed. Grabbing a glass, he joined his father at the table. “Spike, don’t leave town. If I have to hunt you down, your untimely end will not be swift. Understood?”
“Fine. I’d tell you to lock up, but I’m guessing your entrance made that impossible.” At Xander’s glare Spike backed up. “Easy, easy. I won’t leave town tonight.”
Spike made a hasty retreat, leaving Xander alone with his Dad.
“Am I to understand that you have been fighting things like that since you were fifteen?” Ezra decided to cut straight to the chase.
“Er, yeah, kind of. Mainly I was in more of a support position, but over time it was inevitable that we all got involved.”
“Couple of High School students, the Librarian…”
“Did he encourage you to be so… reckless?” Ezra couldn’t believe that this man had allowed children to fight such dangerous creatures.
“God, no! Giles tried to stop us, but once we’d found out about the local nightlife we could hardly turn our backs on it.” Xander smiled fondly. “Our graduating class had the lowest fatality rate since records began in the town.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Xander grimaced as Ezra passed out, his head thunking on the table. With a sigh, Xander got up and moved round to check on Ezra. Gently he removed the sleepy kitten from Ezra’s pocket and placed it in the basket with the others. Pulling his father to his feet, he slipped an arm over his shoulder and grabbed the basket in the other hand. As he prepared to take Ezra home, Xander gave a small smile.
All in all, it had gone better than he had expected.