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Reaching for a Ghost

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JJ turned around, from where she'd been peering into the breakroom, to find Solomon Todd behind her. "Looking for Villette? I wouldn't go in there, you might burst into flames."

Duke chuckled. "What's he doing, this time?"

"I think they're playing poker." JJ's eyebrows arced up in a way that expressed all she thought of that idea.

"You're kidding me." Duke leaned around the other side of the door, peering in at the two men playing cards over a whole pot of coffee. "Your boy thinks he can beat Villette?"

"Reid's just that good." JJ shrugged, a little defensively.

Duke shook his head. "Not that good. Villette's... not operating on the same plane. It's not physically possible to bluff him, and I meant that completely literally."

They watched as Chaz squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, hissing, "You cheat," across the table at Reid, who looked entirely dispassionate.

"So do you." Reid smiled wryly, sliding another two creamer cups into the middle of the table. "I'm merely defending my lead."

Duke watched them curiously, trying to figure out what Reid was doing, and if he was going to have to tell Falkner they'd adopted another stray beta. Whatever was going on at that table was not normal -- he knew normal; he'd lost to Chaz enough times to know what normal looked like.

Sweat broke across Chaz's forehead and his knuckles turned white where he gripped the table, the hand on his cards undisturbed, as he looked like he might swallow his lips.

"My money's still on Villette," Duke decided.

"He looks like he's had way too much coffee." JJ shook her head. "Count me in for Reid. Loser buys lunch."

"For us, not for them," Duke clarified, and JJ nodded, not quite understanding the difference. "Done."

"I hate you so much right now," Chaz panted, staring dizzily at his cards and trying to remember what he'd meant to do with them.

"You could always stop trying, and we could finish this out like two perfectly normal individuals with outrageous card counting and statistical abilities." Reid's smile was a little too smug, and JJ glanced at Duke hoping for a clue, but he looked just as lost as she was.

"But that's not the game we agreed to," Chaz argued, finishing with his cards and shoving more creamer cups into the space between them. "I'm winning this on the terms we agreed to."

"Are you sure?" Reid asked, closing his eyes and taking a few slow breaths as Chaz curled over coffee in front of him, knocking his head against the table with a choked off whimper, his entire body shuddering.

Chaz's hand clenched on the edge of the table, and Reid looked like he'd been slapped, the cards sliding out of his hand as his eyes rolled back and his mouth rounded around a stunned "Oh."

Hands shaking, Reid carefully picked the cards out of his lap and re-ordered them, bending down for the one on the floor, before Chaz sat back up. "I still think you should fold."

"And miss out on the spoils, when I win?" Chaz drew a shaky breath. "You can go straight to hell, do not pass 'Go', do not collect two hundred dollars."

"What the hell was that?" JJ hissed, side-eyeing Duke.

"I know what that looked like..." Duke blinked a few times as the game continued, both opponents shivering under a light sheen of sweat.

"Call," Chaz finally decided, his face twisting in horror as Reid laid his cards out. He tossed his own cards on the table. "Next time I'm pushing harder."

Reid stretched his legs under the table, looking like the cat that ate the canary. "Make my day."

"Shit." Chaz laughed and tossed a creamer cup at Reid, gathering the cards back into a deck. After a moment, he looked up. "I'm still worried about this. Promise me you'll tell me if I start pushing too hard. i don't want to hurt you."

"Even if you do break through, I've had worse." Reid shook his head. "I'm not worried about it."

"It's not about worse, it's about I don't want to be part of it happening again. I don't want to do that to you," Chaz insisted, stacking the creamer cups into a castle of moderate size.

"I trust you--"

"Don't. Not with this." Chaz looked up, catching Reid's eye. "If I slip, even a little... If it gets away from me, I will do irreparable damage."

"I'll tell you if you get close, but I won't fear you." Reid pushed his chair back and stood. "Not even the way you fear yourself."

Chaz opened his mouth like he might protest that description, but his eyes lingered on Reid's and some unspoken thing passed between them. "Call me, later, and tell me where I'm picking up dinner."

Reid batted his eyes, innocently. "Picking up dinner? And here I thought I'd get you to cook, after that win."

"Thought we were working at yours. I'm not cooking in that shoebox you call a kitchen. I lived in one room and I still had a bigger kitchen than you."

"Not tonight. It's getting claustrophobic in there. I need to be able to go home."

"Yeah, all right. That's fair. Hafs is going to be ecstatic -- Frank's coming over and I'm cooking enough for all of us." Chaz turned around, finally spotting the two faces in the doorway. He paused. Blinked. "Work. Serious business."

"Serious enough to bet on. You just lost me a good lunch!" Duke complained, watching for a reaction.

"I just sold myself as a kitchen slave for the night. He's better at this than he looks." Chaz stepped out of the way to let Reid past him, and he caught the way Duke sniffed audibly when Reid passed.

"So... what was I watching?" JJ asked, as Reid ducked past her.

"Five-card draw." Reid offered a bland smile. "And he almost beat me, too."

"That did not look like any game of five-card draw I have ever seen, played, or watched you play." JJ folded her arms and cocked her head at Reid.

"Five-card draw featuring enhanced interrogation techniques." Chaz wiggled his fingers.

Duke's eyes rounded and he shot a look at Reid before tipping his head back to look all the way up at Chaz, beside him. "And he still beat you?"

Chaz shrugged slowly until his shoulders stopped by his ears. "What can I say? He's pretty good for an alpha."

"You cheat; I cheat. I'm just better at it." Reid smiled entirely impolitely.

"For now." Chaz huffed.

"Break me, and I'll buy you dinner." The smile stayed in place.

"If I break you, Frank will kill me." Chaz squeezed out of the room, between the two people still in the doorway. "Speaking of Frank, you pick him up? I've got to get dinner started."

"Sure. I have to pick up a few boxes anyway, if we're working at your place, tonight."

The two nodded at each other and parted, headed for opposite ends of the building, leaving JJ and Duke still standing in the doorway of the breakroom.

"Enhanced interrogation techniques?" JJ made fingerquotes.

"Villette's got some ... special skills. And yes, he can cheat at cards with them." Duke shook his head. "I've just never seen anyone fight back. Sure as hell not with any level of success. Sure as hell not like that."

"Fight?" Both of JJ's eyebrows migrated toward the ceiling and she turned to look after Chaz. "That didn't look like fight..."

"Like a pair of stags." Duke pointed. "I should catch him before he leaves for the day."


"How the hell are you so cheerful?" Hafidha asked, reaching around Chaz to steal a potato fritter.

He smacked her hand with a spoon, which did nothing to discourage this behaviour, but he had to at least make the effort.

"I know you. You are not an innately cheerful person. And you've been a wall of mope since ... well, you know." Hafidha waved the hand not holding the fritter dismissively, and took a bite. "Mmm, ginger. You do love me."

"Please, it shouldn't take ginger in the batter for you to notice that." Chaz laughed, counting dishes and checking the time on the oven again.

"That's it, isn't it." Hafidha leaned her back against his arm. "You're in looooove. Not with me."

"And not with Spencer, either." Chaz reached up to slide a tray of rolls into the warmer.

"Ew, of course not. That would be creepy." Hafidha hoisted herself onto the one part of the counter that wasn't covered in half-finished food, leaned over, and pulled a bag of chocolate truffles out of the freezer. "Frank."

"Just because you have a crush on Frank..."

"Not relevant, baby brother!" Hafidha bit into a chocolate and purred with delight. "These are so good. I am so spoiled. Why didn't I move in with you sooner?"

"Because I spent years fending you off with pastry in the office." Chaz adjusted the temperature on the lower oven with one hand and poured a bowl of barley into a pot with the other.

"Point is, we're not talking about me, we're talking about you." Hafidha put the other half of the chocolate into her mouth and licked it into her cheek to dissolve, while she kept talking. "And you are unreasonably cheerful. It's freaky. I like it, but it's freaky, even for you -- especially for you. So my bets are still on you falling madly in love with Frank."

Chaz stopped and tipped his head back, squinting and chewing his lip as he considered the idea. "No, that's not me, that's definitely Spencer. I can tell the difference, you know."

"You had to think about it."

"I just wanted to make sure I wasn't getting bleed." Chaz shrugged and stirred the pot with the barley. "And I'm not. Besides, you know what I look like when I'm in love. This isn't it."

She did know, and she hadn't seen it in a very long time. There was a lot less fluster in whatever he had going with the happy couple from down the hall, but she liked the way they made him smile, all the same. Maybe it wasn't love, but for once in the entire time she'd known him he almost looked like he fit in his skin, like he wasn't looking for an excuse to shrug it off and leave it to whoever'd hooked him with a question, this time. He'd found people who didn't look at him like a freak or a curiosity -- and sure he had her, he had their team, but neither she nor the team particularly wanted to sleep with him, where Frank and Spencer very definitely did. Loudly.

"Something's up," Hafidha insisted, mouth once again full of chocolate. "You're not like this."

"Maybe it was time to be something different." He held her gaze a long moment, face perfectly still. "You should--"

"Get the door." She finished the sentence and winked, hopping down from the counter and licking the chocolate from her fingers as she headed that way. "He dropped into the network about three blocks out."

Chaz listened to the banter in the doorway, not wanting to take his eyes off the food. It was good having friends -- not that he didn't have friends before, but since Daphne... no one really visited just to see them -- either of them. When they wanted to be seen, they went out. They went to holiday parties, to clubs, he still went climbing. Everyone they worked with knew where to find them, but no one dropped by to talk shit and play video games. And he supposed that was still sort of the case, now, but he'd still totally mopped the floor with Langly in a PvP match, last weekend. They worked, but they knew when to stop working, when to slow down and do other things, how to wait for the pieces to fit together.

He could feel Reid behind him, from the kitchen door. That had gotten easier, with time -- whether or not he could use the mirror without line of sight, he could absolutely find Reid in a Metro station with his eyes closed. He wasn't sure how he felt about that -- if it meant the Anomaly was about to gift him with some new horror that would keep him inside for months until he got a handle on it.

"You just staring at my ass, or...?"

Reid's attempt to cover a laugh by clearing his throat didn't quite work, producing an amused squeak. "No, I'm... Watching you cook is really calming."

"That's just you." Chaz glanced over his shoulder and offered half a smile. "Most people get a little nervous, but they don't see time and space like you and I do."

"They just know they can't do it, so they assume you can't do it." Reid shook his head and leaned against the cupboards just in from the door. "You... I can see the pattern. I know how it works, even if I couldn't repeat it. He makes me nervous, but that's more the amount of hot oil I've watched him wipe off his glasses."

"I'm pretty sure he's figured out how to deep fry everything. Are we sure he's not Scottish?"

"I've never asked," Reid admitted, after a moment. "He doesn't talk about his family. None of us do."

"And I like it better that way." Chaz picked up a pot that should have been too heavy to lift one-handed, moving it to a back burner, as he tipped the other pan with the other hand, squinting at the contents. "But, in honour of your boyfriend's ability to thrive on untempered grease, there's Korean potato fritters in the warmer. English fritter, not American fritter. More like tempura, but a totally different batter."

"How much did you cook?" Reid blinked, finally realising how much of what was piled across the counters was actually done or nearly so. "It only took us three hours to get here!"

"Please, I've been doing this for decades. If I couldn't do it quickly, I'd have died years ago." Chaz waited a beat and when the disbelieving laugh didn't come, he looked over his shoulder. "I have to cook for the week, anyway. I do half the prep while I'm unpacking the groceries, and then it's just putting it all together, later. Have you seen our freezer? Not this one, the proper one. You could fit most of a cow in it. And I've got six burners, and my bakeware fits together like tangrams, if I'm not doing round cakes. Everything's about temperature and timing. Once you figure out what you can put in with what else, stews and casseroles become the default, and then throw together a few other things just to keep it from getting repetitive. Bread goes in when I get home from work, most nights. That's kind of essential, and I've been fucking off about it, because I've been staying with you so much."

"Sorry."

"No, that's not what you should be sorry about. You should be sorry your kitchen sucks and there's barely anything in it." Chaz snorted and shook his head. "You know Duke was on my ass, today, about you being a beta? I told him I'd seen what you eat in a day, and you'd be dead."

"I--!" Reid managed a single syllable and a moderately offended look.

"He's right. You don't even drink your calories." Langly stepped into the kitchen and looked disappointed at the lack of things he could turn into finger food without making an ass of himself.

Hafidha squeezed between Langly and the doorframe. "If we're all in the kitchen, that means it's a party, right?" She offered the bag of melting truffles to Langly, maintaining a tight grip on it.

"Not if we're all still wearing shoes," Chaz protested, turning off the heat on the upper oven.

"So, how are the chances of us getting any food down before we start working, again?" Langly asked, sucking chocolate off his fingertips. "Because Fitz just pulled a connection straight out of his ass, and I want the two of you to look at it, before I go after it. I don't like it, but I think he might be right, and I'm really into the idea of getting some of whatever smells so good, before I demonstrate, once again, that my kung fu is the best."

Hafidha elbowed him and snorted. "Fight me."

Langly sized her up. "After dinner."

"During dinner. Keep it fair. Food on the table."

Reid looked entirely put-upon, when Chaz looked back, again.

"Half an hour until food, and if you're going to duel at the dinner table, you get to do it at the other end. I don't want to wear my stew, because one of you slapped the table."

Langly huffed and sputtered. "That's--!" He paused, blinked, and tipped his head. "Probably fair. Hacker tourney at the other end of the table. You and me versus the Black Queen."

"Pick something difficult," Hafidha scoffed. "Or did you forget I built half the system you're going through to get to her? Besides, there's one of her, two of us, and she can't do the things we can do. It's not even a challenge. If we both hit her, she's going down."

"You and me versus Belmont Computing. The government contracts."

Hafidha's eyebrow slid smoothly upward. "You're on."

"Whoever gets the dirtiest secrets wins."

"Done."