by regann

The first time they played chess, he let her win.

Elizabeth was surprised by that; she'd expected a career military man like Steven Caldwell to be a little more competitive on the metaphorical battle field. Someone who savored strategy and tactics was the last person she'd thought would be generous -- or maybe even patronizing -- enough to lose deliberately, out of what she could figure was some warped sense of chivalry.

And she was sure that Col. Caldwell had lost on purpose, too; she could see the flicker in his eyes across her smooth, bone-white desk as his hand hovered over a black chess piece, making a decision at the last instant to slide his hand over and move different piece that turn. That turn had given her checkmate, minus three moves, and he was magnanimous in his first defeat, murmuring a "Well done, Dr. Weir" as he reset the computer's parameters, again choosing to play black. Weir thought it fitting he play black, although she couldn't quite articulate why.

She won the second game, too, but it was no capitulation from Caldwell that brought it. As she reset the computer this time, she saw grudging admiration in his eyes, and a hint of amusement as they eyed each other over the virtual chessboard, a hint of a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. He rarely smiled, she'd thought as she decided on her first move, and it gave him a lightened look that could almost make her forget that this was a man she usually wanted out of her city as soon as possible.

Elizabeth watched him with placid green eyes as he deliberated.

That third match was much closer, longer, silent; no quips and barbs and idle conversation when they were concentrating so very closely on the game at hand. She'd been impressed by how well he played and had watched him as he thought, calculated and thought again.

And she thought perhaps he'd done the same to her when she was thinking, too, but she never glanced up to see.

She would have liked to see how that game would have ended, so close and even and well-matched. Unfortunately, it had been abandoned in favor of a crisis, left idling on her computer until she'd returned later, so angry at him and his high-handedness that she could have screamed. At that moment it had been difficult -- exceedingly so -- to remember that she'd only just thought that he smiled well when he wanted to that morning because she wanted to do hateful, irrational things to that smile, if she'd been able.

It wasn't until much, much later that she remembered his quaint offer of consolation in the midst of everything that had happened.

After their less-than-cordial parting, Elizabeth didn't see him again until the Daedalus had left and came back again, though she'd done some thinking in the interim. She'd looked over Caldwell's suggestions -- most of them helpful, if phrased a bit high-handedly -- and she couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever understand the points she'd been trying to make about how those changes said to the world that John Sheppard was gone and Caldwell was here and that that was something Weir didn't want anyone thinking because John was important and...

She was half-way through the same circular argument -- this time, in Latin, to make it sound richer in her head -- when she began to wonder if maybe he'd had a point somewhere in there, too.

Then the Daedalus landed and Elizabeth decided to spend the day in her office and absolutely not looking for Col. Caldwell because she had nothing to say to him, although there were a few questions that she wanted answered but didn't want to ask. Things like "Didn't you care that Col. Sheppard was dying?" or maybe "Is everyone so cold about death in the military?" or maybe even "Could you not see that it was just the wrong time for a petty grab for power?" were in her mind, begging to be given voice but she withheld because she wasn't certain what answers she wanted him to give her and that was always a dangerous thing.

But, in the end, Elizabeth didn't have to look for Caldwell; he came to her, in her office, just around the Atlantean dusk when the crew working in the 'gate room began to thin and a sense of serenity fell over the place along with the rose-lavender glow of the setting sun as it flickered through the stained glass. She noticed him before he reached her door, his tread irregular and heavy, so much so that it distracted her from the report she was reading.

"Evening, Dr. Weir," he said pleasantly, mildly, holding a heavy parcel in his hands.

"Colonel," she returned the greeting, glancing up from her work. The parcel was wrapped in plain, brown paper and, for some reason, Weir thought that that suited him.

"I, ah...are you busy?" he asked politely, a little formally. Then something flickered in his eyes. "A particularly difficult hand of solitaire, perhaps?"

She laid down the tablet, assessing him with her eyes. "I'm reading some reports," she told him, a little sternly as if he'd accused her of never doing work instead of trying to jest about one moment of their acquaintance that didn't involve the implied threat of bloodshed. "They can wait, though. What can I do for you, Colonel?"

"Actually, it's what I'd like to do for you -- and me," he explained before nodding toward her desk and then down at his hands where he still held the parcel. "May I?"

She made a sweeping gesture of permission. "Please, go right ahead."

Caldwell set down the package and unwrapped it in efficient military fashion until there was a box, which he opened, and packaging material, which he removed, and finally, out came two vacuumed-sealed plastic bags full of white and black pieces and the chessboard they belonged to. He set the board flat on the desk as she tucked away her tablet computer in silent symphony to his actions, Weir watching with curious eyes as he opened the bags and the pieces spilled across the checkered surface with a clink, the sounds she'd expect ivory and ebony to make. The white queen was smooth and cool to her fingers as she picked it up, looking at Caldwell as she waited for an explanation.

"It wasn't getting used on Earth," he told her without preamble, "and there's only two sets here on Atlantis. I thought that maybe you could use this one when you wanted to play."

Weir glanced down at the scattered pieces, noting the fine quality evident in the sleek lines. She wouldn't have been surprised if the set was antique. "And you brought this for me to use?" she asked, skepticism in her voice.

Caldwell returned her assessing look as he took the seat across from her. "And myself, of course. I was hoping that you'd want to play a game or two with me when the Daedalus was in port. Nice way to pass the time between crises, don't you think?"

"It's been known to be pleasant, yes," Weir told him, still watching him over her hands, hands that still rolled the white queen between slightly-calloused fingers. "But what makes you think that we'd have...ah...time for a game?" It was obvious from her tone that she was talking less about time and more about mutual antipathy.

He shrugged -- a very Gallic movement, she noticed -- unflappably calm as he faced her veiled statement of dislike. "Who better to play chess against, Doctor, than your favorite foe?"

"I thought you said you weren't my enemy, Colonel," Weir reminded him.

"I'm not," he told her again. "You're the one who likes to place us on opposing sides of everything that happens here." He leaned toward her. "I'd just like to do that with this chessboard."

She noticed it again, that flicker in his eyes -- something warm and inviting, lit with good humor. It wasn't a look Elizabeth saw often on Col. Steven Caldwell but when she did see it, she liked it.

At her prolonged silence, Caldwell shook his head, a little amusedly. "It's only a game, Doctor."

It was still in his eyes, that look, and it was being warmed even more by an almost-smile. Elizabeth felt something unknot across her shoulders and ease at the base of her spine as she smiled -- just a little -- back at him. "You're only saying that, Colonel, because I beat you the last two times we played."

"Three," he corrected her. "And, no, I'm not."

Weir frowned. "Three?" she asked.

Caldwell nodded, eyes on his hands as he began to set the board with quick, practiced motions. Choosing, as always, to play black. "Twice on the computer and once about Sheppard," he told her as he set the last piece in place. He looked up into her startled face and said, "If you'd release that queen, we could start."

She placed the queen on the board in its waiting spot. "By all means," she said. "Let the game begin."

Hours later, white was gaining on black and Caldwell was losing with the same tolerant grace she'd seen in their first two matches. Elizabeth knew she was winning as she slid the lovely ivory queen across the board. "Queen takes knight," she announced.

Caldwell's eyes caught hers and the crinkles around his eyes that lightened his face deepened as a real smile softened his mouth. "That doesn't surprise me, ma'am."

Their eyes held for a moment and Weir suddenly thought that maybe he was talking about something other than this game, or even chess, and maybe it had something to do with the warmth in his eyes, and the furrowed laugh lines that bunched at the corner of his eyes as well as something else entirely, like the way he brought her an antique Italian chess set to use, in a galaxy far away from its home in what she presumed was his cozy, overstuffed library back home.

"Elizabeth," she heard herself say before she actually did much thinking. At his raised eyebrow, she hastened to add, "Since we're here and not working...it would be fine for you to call me Elizabeth. Here. When we're playing chess."

If Caldwell was surprised, dismayed or offended by all the conditions she'd put upon the use of her given name, he didn't show it. Instead, he nodded and clasped his hands where they lay on the bone-white desk at the end of the chessboard, the dark blue of his sweater-clad elbow shining through the fence of small white chess pieces. "Then, Elizabeth, you should call me Steven."

"Very well," she said, smiling a little herself.

Caldwell -- no, Steven -- was leaning in even closer as his own smile answered hers, and for the first time in a long time Elizabeth could feel her mind rifling through arbitrary, unnecessary concerns about whether the sensible, minimal make-up she wore here on Atlantis fully covered up the dusting of freckles that had danced across her nose and cheeks since she was a child or if she still smelled strongly of the coffee she'd knocked over on herself earlier that morning.

It felt nice, in a silly, absurd way, and Elizabeth's smile grew, reaching her green eyes where they met Caldwell's.

As if he could sense her thoughts, Steven grinned in sly humor, eyes still warm and heavy on her.

Elizabeth had never noticed his eyes before. Brown. Dark, like brandy or that dark rum her mother used to use to make fruitcakes at Christmas. Warm and intelligent, too.

She cleared her throat. "Your move...Steven."

Caldwell nodded, pulling his eyes away. "Indeed it is...Elizabeth."

The game continued.