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Person, Not a Puzzle

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He forgets.

Of course he does. They all do, eventually. You stumble along in fits and starts, too cheerful, too fast, too earnest. They laugh and exchange looks, but you’re damn good at your job.

So they forget.

(Well, almost all of them do. You can’t help wondering where Will Gardner of all people learned to let you set the pace like that, to not push certain limits. While Kalinda Sharma just never, ever stopped watching. There are also those few who never forget and won’t let you either, who never stop setting traps for you to stumble into so they can point and laugh.)

But mostly they forget and then one day you’re stuck fumbling for your wallet, without any words left. You’re left staring at the bills and coins because you can’t remember how to make those shapes into that number.

And he frowns.

And he keeps frowning and the people behind you are glaring and the girl working cash looks like she can barely restrain her impatience. You get a bit distracted because she looks like the kind of person who will tell this story later, complaining about the fucking retard she had to deal with and playing it for laughs. You drag your attention back and swallow, look hard at the numbers and try to find the decimal point, then look down at your bills. You’re not doing time well either right now but you know it takes you too long to get from the green glowing three digits to the secure knowledge that any of the two digit bills will do.

The cashier gives you an incredulous look and hands you back four bills and too many coins and you know you gave her too much money and you can only hope she’s giving you the right change. But you only drop a couple of coins on the counter and you grab them and your fucking coffee and you turn towards him.

‘Lead the way, oh golden one,’ and your voice is strange even for you, rough and a little slurry. He does lead the way though, looking at you like you’re a puzzle he’s working out. You follow stiffly, taking note of the exit options in case this goes downhill fast. You hold out a little hope though, still, because this is Eli Gold. He treats everything like it’s a puzzle he needs to decipher and the calculating look he’s giving you is one you’ve seen directed at just about everyone.

He chooses a table and you put down your coffee. It’s hard to remember how to remove your purse and where to put it, and you trip over your feet trying to sit down, but nothing breaks or spills. You take a large sip of your too-hot coffee. Eli’s still staring at you but you don’t prompt him or challenge the stare. You just take the opportunity to burn your tongue some more.

And it works. By the time he’s ready to talk you’re pretty sure you can make a reasonably coordinated, inoffensive exit if push comes to shove. You’re pretty sure the coffee will get left behind if it comes to that. Which would be a pity, but leaving a good coffee behind is hardly too high a cost.

You’ve taken another sip when he opens his mouth and you swallow fast. It burns going down but now there’s no chance of choking on it, so you’re counting it as a win.

‘Are you okay to have this meeting right now?’ It’s almost hesitant and it’s clear he’s struggling with the phrasing. You smile and nod, though the smile probably looks a little forced. It is, but you’re picking your battles. There’s a pause and his eyes are narrow. ‘Are you sober?’ Your smile flinches a little, but you wave your coffee cup at him in answer. He nods like it’s an acceptable answer and you get a little more hopeful.

He laughs only once, at a joke you deliberately make about state politics.