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Playing Pretend

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Sam packed up his papers and slid them into the desk drawer.

He’d started volunteering again at the VA recently and it had been… good. He’d forgotten how much he himself had needed the support groups.

The people who ran the local office had called him in that weekend to run one of the groups on short notice when the usual guy had called in sick, but that had been fine. They had said Riley was welcome to hang out with the other vets in the game room and the fourteen-year-old had seemed pretty excited about it.

Sam hadn't been able to play games with him as often as he'd been able to in the beginning, what with all of the rescue missions and meetings.

A few months ago, when all of the kids had first shown up, the two of the Wilson boys had still been trying to find a healthy equilibrium and games had been a safe way to do that.

Sam needed to get to know his kid, so they played word and role-playing games; “What if?” type things that made a person think. And Riley needed to feel safe, so every kind of game was, well, fair game. They’d even started playing word games while they were in the car at one point.

It became a sort of ritual for them. Anytime something felt off or they had a disagreement, a board game or a box of cards would come out and they'd work through the problem as they played.

So far, nothing big had come up, just small little familial disagreements, but he knew something would come up sooner rather than later. Sam was a stubborn man and Riley had obviously inherited that trait from him, so it was a wonder they hadn’t had a problem already.

Sam stepped halfway into the game room to see Riley, shifted to look like Sam did at that age, hunched over a table with a big, butch lady on the other side and a chess set in between them. The boy hummed under his breath before moving a single piece and sending the ex-Marine sputtering in confusion.

“How did you do that?”

Riley shrugged with an I don’t know sound before he saw his dad and waved.

“Ready to go?”

Riley nodded and grabbed his backpack.

“Hey, Wilson.” The Marine pointed. “I want your kid back here for a rematch.”

“Why?” Riley smirked playfully. “It's not like the outcome’s gonna be any different.”

Sam laughed.

Traffic in New York was almost worse than in DC. Almost.

“So. Twenty Questions?”

Sam smiled. Their games had overflowed into their boring car rides, which was good. It was still good bonding time.

“Favorite planet?”

Riley's eyes lit up to their usual orange for a moment in his excitement.

“Persephone. Definitely Persephone.”

Sam furrowed his brows as he stopped at the light.

“I kinda meant in our solar system.”

Riley laughed.

“I know. NASA’s been thinking there was a tenth planet for decades, but they couldn't find it and thought it might've been a sensor ghost,” he explained, gesticulating wildly as he spoke. “Then they demoted Pluto.”

“Pluto’s still a planet,” Sam interrupted.

“Yes it is,” Riley agreed. “But they're gonna find Persephone soon and name her that because ‘ that's what Pluto would have wanted. ’”

Sam was ninety-nine percent sure that was an inside joke amongst the kids somehow and he had to remember to ask about it later, because the look on Riley's face told him it was hilarious.

He waved towards the teenager, indicating it was his turn.

“Dumbest thing you've ever done?”

Sam blinked, a memory immediately coming to mind. Yeah, no, that story was not child friendly. Riley may have been fourteen, but he could be forty and Sam still wouldn't tell him that story.


Riley squinted.

Sam held up a finger to emphasize his point.

“I have one pass for the whole game. I'm using it here.”

His son's squint deepened, so he asked his next question.

“What's your least favorite holiday?”

Riley's face twisted up.

“Halloween,” he sneered.

Sam frowned.

“Can I ask why or is that a separate question?” He glanced over at the passenger seat. “I mean, free candy and you get to run around with your friends? That sounds great to me.”

Riley breathed like he was going to answer, hummed, and breathed again.

“Imagine spending every day of your life wearing a costume,” he began. “Now imagine that anyone who finds out calls you a liar and a fake, but if they actually see who you are, you're suddenly a monster.”

Sam's heart broke at the sadness in Riley's voice.

“But there's one day a year where every single one of those people that demonized you for pretending to be like them… they pretend to be like you.”He huffed out a breath. “I mean, the goth kids have it bad enough, but me…”

Sam chewed on that for a moment, put himself in Riley's shoes.

“Yeah, that- that sounds pretty bad when you put it that way.”

New House Rule: No Halloween.

He was going to have to start an actual, written list of rules at this point and they were all for himself.

“What about, like, movies and plays? Is that weird or…?”

Riley shook his head.

“No, that's different. Portraying a character to tell a story, whether it's strictly for entertainment or to show a moral or social issue, is good.” He twisted in his seat. “It can show someone that they're not alone or show society at large that there are different kinds of people besides themselves or bring attention to a larger issue.”

Sam pulled into the next lane.

“That was… really well thought out.”

The teenager shrugged.

“You think a lot about the things that matter to you.”

Sam decided then and there that some of their game time was going to be switched to just plain talking.