To Play With Fire
Riza slid bit as she crested the hill. The darkness was heavy and she was tired. Her mind spun from the sharp jabs of hunger in her stomach and the events of the day. She'd been moving around for hours, looking, searching. Her life had flashed before her eyes on more than one occasion, and she wasted a few choice hours cursing herself for being a damned fool.
It was a bad habit that she couldn't break, to worry at a goal like a dog worried at an old shoe. Her grandfather despaired that she would never learn to just leave things be, then prayed that she would learn to turn it to a good use one day.
Well, apparently, that day hadn't come, she muttered to herself. Or she wouldn't have been scrambling all over a war zone looking for one scrawny, solitary soldier among the crush of dusty uniforms and dirty faces and bloodied hands.
Sharp rocks cut into her knee as she knelt and peered at the encampment just ahead. Its precise organization, the neatly lit fires and equipment confirmed that this was a military camp. Small encampments such as these were dotted all over the city and she hoped she'd finally found the right one.
Her coordination was slipping dangerously, she realized as she tripped again. She looked up at the sky; the moon was high and full. She'd been awake for over thirty hours, and expected to be awake for quite a few more hours.
Her foot was starting to hurt. She looked down, hoping that it was only a sprain. At that moment, she couldn't tell one way or the other.
As she closed in, the fires and organization made it easier to make her way. She limped through the tents, hoping he hadn't decided to hide in one of them. She rather doubted it.
That one didn't seem to be the type to hide from his own shadow.
The camp was still busy. Preparations for the following morning, she supposed, sliding out of the way of bustling aides-de-camp and making dammed sure she stay out of the line of sight of any one wearing more stars than she wanted to see.
And sure enough, somewhere near the center of the camp, was circle of exclusive tents. This was the protected section, where the Generals gave their orders. And where the precious weapons and other ordinance were kept from harm.
She stumbled to a sudden halt when she came upon him. After her entire day, it had been as easy as this. He was sitting, still, quiescent even, staring into the fire. It was as if they were alone in the whirling midst of the chaos surrounding them.
Two steps and she realized that he wasn't staring at the fire. A small table was situated in front of him, and in the midst of the chaos, and by the light of the modest fire, he was considering a...chess board. He had a scrap of paper in his hands; he glanced at it a moment, then back at the board. As she watched, dumbfounded, he picked up a piece and placed it – from the other side of the board, then went back to his study from his side.
She stopped a few paces from the fire and rested her rifle in the sand. The sound caught his attention; his head snapped in her direction, his hand poised to snap.
"Who's there?" he called. "Identify yourself, soldier."
She limped slowly into the circle cast by the fire. Bracing herself on her rifle, she pulled her hand up. "Cadet–,"
He stood slowly toward her. In his eyes danced the reflection of the fire. For a second, he looked demonic. He looked her up and down slowly. "Come to finish your job?" He said quietly, turning back to the board. "Such a little girl to complete such a big job."
Riza bristled at the insult. She knew she probably looked like a child in her big brother's uniform, but she also knew how hard she worked to get where she was. He didn't. He probably didn't know one grunt soldier from the next. His kind usually didn't. She stood as straight as her foot would allow. "If your ... actions had not rendered my task unnecessary, I wouldn't have need to find you to complete my job. Sir." She met his eye this time when he turned back to her. "You would have been dead in that building right next to those two doctors."
"Remind me. How old are you, girl?"
She was beginning to regret her decision. She didn't want to be anywhere near this acidic bitterness. "How old are you, sir?"
He frankly stared, shocked at her temerity. Then he smirked. "Check and mate, Cadet. Let's just say we're both a little young to be playing...at this game. But, really, how old are you? Sixteen? Eighteen?"
"Does that matter, sir?"
He gave her a dangerous smile. "It could." He came closer and gave her a head-to-toe glance that skated across her raw and tired nerves like a branding iron. "Why have you come, Cadet?"
Riza tore her eyes away from him and looked out over the tents. She considered the question carefully. Why had she come? Or, at least, what could she give him a reason? "I've come to see something."
A dark eyebrow arched. "Really?"
Riza blushed, glad he probably couldn't see it through the grime and the moonlight. "Do you still believe?"
He looked away from her for a second. "Believe in what?"
"You know what, Major."
She counted her own heartbeats in the silence. One. Two. Three. Four…
"Even more than before."
Riza nodded and hitched her rifle more comfortably on her shoulder. "You'll need good people to support you. To protect you."
She watched him rub his index and middle finger on his right hand together, thoughtfully, almost reluctantly.
"Don't you have a commanding officer?" he asked. "The person who sent you on your–special mission?"
Riza winced. "I report for duty wherever I am needed."
Again that spark in the Major's eyes, and she realized she might have said something wrong again. "I don't need a little girl like you. What do I need with the likes of you?"
Before she could call them back, the words flowed. "This little girl almost put a bullet right into your head!" She closed her eyes and gathered her tattered nerves about her. "And I can make sure that no one even thinks of trying the same thing again."
He stared at her for a long moment, then bowed his head in mute acknowledgment. "Again, check and mate. Come over here, Cadet. I bet it's been a while since you've taken a rest."
When she made it over to the other side of the fire, she sat cautiously. He pulled a flask from his inside pocket and handed it over. "Be careful. They use that stuff to fuel the tanks."
After her eyes settled back into their sockets, she handed the flask back and waited for him to tell her what she was supposed to do.
He took his time with the chessboard, explaining as he considered his pieces. "My friend and I have been playing this game for six weeks. It keeps me sane, and keeps him from worrying about where the hell I am."
She nodded, not quite sure what to say. Had he accepted her offer or was he just toying with her?
Finally, he chose his move and then stood and stretched.
Before he entered the tent, he looked over his shoulder. Riza watched the shadows from the fire play over his features and thought at that moment, he looked much older than a mere twenty-three year old should.
He reached in the tent and threw out a bed roll. "Sorry," he said, "it's all I can offer you for tonight. Tomorrow, you'll have all of the proper equipment that my subordinate deserves."
It was then that he gave her a first order.
"If you don't mind," he said, his voice whisper thin. "Keep the fire lit. Darkness is not an enemy I care to meet tonight."