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He was at the back of the elevator around three or four other people when she got on.

The iced-on Miss Dearing smile passed a quick sweep around before she turned to press her number and stood in her tight poise of mental multi-tasking that they all knew well, because hers was a job that meant everyone was exposed to her more often than she had to be familiar with them; and that, really, was all there was to know.

If he had ever thought that hard about her, or thought more often about his own inclinations, it might have occurred to him back then that his disinterest in the case of Claire Dearing was oddly close to discriminating, but it just came faster to pass it off as her being too...too. She was pretty, alright, but nothing that made you look for very long unless she demanded it. There was a way that women made it known when they wanted to be an ornament; she was something else.

He had his shoulder leaned to the wall in the opposite corner, his glance idling in and out of the present company. This elevator never grumbled, but it seemed to drag. It picked up its speed in time with her slow sigh, and with the sigh came her right leg shifting to pick up the weight; the left slacked just enough for the suede black stiletto to shift off her heel and slip slowly to the floor.

The others in the elevator seemed too still and oblivious, unaware of some pre-hurricane change in the air: from under that surface that devoured all color her lower ankle had turned up a red brim of chafed skin. That horizon of irritated heel was like a split peach, or something flushed where he hadn't realized there was any red with which to redden. He had never pictured what was underneath any of that clean pressed parade of manikin outfits, never pictured blisters; the sudden glimpse felt obscene, like he wasn't meant to see this thing that made her naked.

He was breathing weirdly. He had stopped looking.

He craned his neck to look again.

 

 

She would think later that he was in disguise, more or less, the first time she ever had much reason to notice him. He didn’t show up in a nice jacket like a lot of the other male employees, but he'd made the unusual effort of getting a dark grey button-up pressed to a sheen for the grand opening party, and she had no reason at the time to think this was the exception to the rule. She on the other hand hadn't sprung for a new dress and instead wore the black one with beige trim around the breezy skirt, probably looking more on the side of young academic than professional adult. It was a bit like they'd accidentally met each other in the middle.

There had been something about her mood that landed on him like the pen you can just tell is going to write more smoothly than the one next to it. Shortly after arriving she'd seen him with his hands in his pockets and the mildest of confused scowls at what Jason-from-marketing was saying, and wanted him immediately. She'd let it sit there and sing in her mind like the same old chocolate craving or urge to take a day off, with no real intention of pursuing it or even a thought of just how long it had been.

“God, who planned this spread?” he asked, gesturing in amazement at the banquet table. “We haven’t even made a dent.”

“I did all the planning,” she said, unfazed.

“Really?” He looked over as they passed the desserts, paying attention less absently now.

“Well, it's hard to prepare for how hungry everyone will be,” she said in her defense, though admittedly that colorful tower of macarons was a bit much, especially as no one had yet dared to potentially set off a Jenga reaction by taking one. “And we allow the help to take home all the leftovers, so—”

He cracked a short laugh. “Let them eat cake?”

“I mean—” Do not blush. “They're welcome to have some food at the party too; uh, as long as they wash their hands after—? If they—”

He chuckled again, letting her off the hook. “I'm Owen Grady.”

She was only languidly insulted. “I know that. You're the senior trainer in research.”

“Anyway, I meant it's strange that you’d be the one to plan this. It's to celebrate your work, really, so why not let someone else throw the party for you?”

She wasn't sure if this was flattery or not. Don't, don’t, your complexion is certainly not flattered when you go red as berries, Claire. “Well, I wanted everything to be just right.”

“...Yeah,” he said, slow, considering.

 

 

“Listen,” she said, “I don't think it would make the best impression if I was seen going home with a colleague.”

He almost tripped his foot into a wrong angle. “Ughm,” he grunted, in the spark where a curse of shock could have come out instead, as horrified as if she’d caught him out, read his mind, or something: it had been the first hint, and it was only a tad more subtle than a reprimand.

They were dancing. Earlier she'd made some polite exit from their conversation with something about how it was no good to stand aside like a wallflower at your own party, so he'd given her a good amount of time to make the chatting rounds while he died of boredom trying to explain his everyday work after conversational inquiries from people who clearly didn't even have a theoretical grasp on the magic of it and were just being polite. And then he’d waded back around and asked her. A slow dance seemed more her speed, and he'd pulled off his best impression of the loose ballroom stepping he’d kind of thought they only did in movies, until somewhere in the middle of the song she'd slipped this into his ear, and he managed just barely to keep dancing and think of the reply.

“I have a room,” he said, with a shrug that came out like he had an itch. “One of the cabin suites way out close to the petting zoo paddock.”

“What?—”

“I can't exactly walk to my camp, and,” he was reluctant to say, “I thought there would be more alcohol.”

“Oh!” A bright smile came out, as if she was immediately more at ease in the role of eager-to-please. “I could probably bring a bottle of wine?”

He was still bewildered when she came knocking later with one hand around the neck of a Pinot noir, and before he knew it she was tightening into a fluster next to the window at the realization that she'd forgotten to grab a corkscrew. “Do you have one?”

He sauntered into her space, doing a saucy wink. “Lady, just what kinda corkscrew did you come here for?”

She scoffed and pushed the bottle into his chest so that he took it, and then she made a little gasp when he set it on the table and closed the distance to move his hand to her chin, her mouth up to his.

She closed her eyes through the first of his kisses, through the time he took just testing the taste of her. For a good moment he was satisfied with less than he’d done on a porch step at the end of a date, and when the kiss deepened she was the one to make the push, wanting, declaring. At her firmness he grappled into her clothes, tugging her skirt up her thighs, groaning.

Instead of making any move towards the bed, she ended up stepping him over to the itchy arm chair by the table and messing aside his belt and fly until he dropped into it. He unbuttoned and took off his shirt and then slowed, staring, as she stepped so deliberately out of her shoes. And then just in that way, she reached up the cloth of her dress and shimmied and pulled a pair of dark blue panties down her thighs.

This woman was a stone-cold study in prioritizing and she’d gotten undressed in that order and for that reason one hand that had been busy freeing his cock from his pants gave a helpless series of impatient strokes while he gaped in an obvious awe that had some effect on her: she bit her lip around a shy but sure breath of fascination that made her ditch the effort of taking the dress off to put her knees up around him right as he scrambled to kick his pants down, resuming their kissing with a squeeze around his shoulders that he returned by holding her around the waist. The chair was barely big enough for both of them; she needed to hold onto the side for the leverage to reach down and feel him a few times up and down, taking her time.

This close to him she seemed brighter, something about her eyes set to a slow light, looking into his. “Nice,” she said absently.

Fuck, oh—honey—” he whispered, his mumbling falling into her clavicle as she continued to stroke him. He freed a hand to rub fleetingly up her breast and then higher to cup gently at the back of her neck. This was her phase of trying to figure out what to do with her hair for a position that needed to project both approachability and professionalism, or something, and that night was a complicated bun that looked looser and more improvised than he thought it had to be when he encountered the palpable knot of it, but that made the little tiny hairs that breathed loose at the nape all the more tantalizing. He had wanted to touch them before, he realized. “C’mere.”

He kissed her in a way that got them both more restless, pausing only to let her peel his undershirt up and off, and her gasps were getting needier before she finally moved to hike up her skirt farther. “Yeah, just—” she led, or went along, as he reached to position himself, floundering between her grasps on his shoulders and the chair. It was her moving her knees that much more forward and leaning back just enough, and only a steady rocking movement to take him into her heat.

His mind dropped wide as her mouth did. She took it at an aching, trembling pace, and as he watched some relief or release unfurl in her eyes, he felt like they were this once somehow really, very easily, communicating. She started to grind on him more greedily with reedy gasping and he muttered to her through it, in soothing urging words he would only half remember later.

After a time, a lock came loose from that mandala of red, falling from her forehead and tickling him. He cracked a smile and blew it out of the way in a hard puff of air; she laughed, and the laugh surprised him so much that he had to swallow it with his lips in a mindless tremor of kisses she returned just as feverishly until she was too restless, moving up and down him like a laving. He sensed when she wanted him to take up a rhythm and carried her under the ribs into it, picked his hips up with all the frustration of a long sweating heat. He felt her loosen and soar as her hands climbed up through his hair, heard her groan an astonished “Grady,” almost matter-of-fact, and his laugh carried through a moan as he sped up and up and, and. Her ankle was underneath his hand.

 

 

He did have a corkscrew on his army knife, and had promptly filled a water glass up past half full with the wine, offering her the other glass with an absent stammer that made her frown down at the wrinkling in her skirt after giving a terse decline.

She wondered how long they would manage to make small talk, or medium-sized talk, since they had obviously gone a little bit past the weather. She wasn't so good at that part, getting this far. The honesty of it.

He asked her a few things about work, and this tactic of evasive thoughtfulness struck her as a little pragmatic for someone who had just gotten off. It occurred to her, in what she thought might not have been the first time, that he was arrogant. No need to ring the alarm bells too loudly just yet, but the strangest thing was that there was something...almost comforting about his arrogance.

“Do you always drink this much on dates?” she asked, after he'd made it to the bottom of his second glass at a not exactly savoring pace.

His eyes only landed on hers for a second before he slouched back, rubbing a hand through his hair. “Only when I’m nervous,” he said, when she had begun to think he wouldn’t say anything.

It didn’t strike out the arrogance, but it hadn’t been a quick admission, either. “What are you nervous about?” She was trying to sound amused.

He gave her a rueful smirk. “We both know this isn’t a date.”

She felt a little proud for being the one to stay well-oiled. “So?”

“I just mean...” He made a gesture of frustration, seeming to feel misunderstood. “I really don’t want to kick you out, but I also don’t want to hear your one-night-stand equivalent of ‘We are currently considering multiple candidates for the position.’”

Her laugh was a surprised one, short and just seared with something a little bitter.

“What's so funny?”

“It's just…You can't act like you know all my lines,” she paused for the self-explanatory beat, and said, “when you were the only applicant at the time.”

“Well, you should probably seek out some other options for this...position,” he finished, his eyes glinting with the weak entendres.

“Or you could take me out some time.”

He sniggered a little. “So you can swear you're a class act.”

She couldn't even keep up with him fast enough to be mad. “Because why not? The conference at the end of the month is in San José. We could find something to do.”

“Wait, am I supposed to be at that conference?” Her expression of horror made him sit forward. “Sweet Jesus, I'm joking. I'm showing the presentation to Barry tomorrow night.”

“...You can’t do that to me.” She forced a chagrined smile, a little relieved that he'd swerved back to harmlessly giving her a hard time. She was distracted now by that bit of hair that wouldn't stay back behind her ear.

“You have my number,” he said after a moment, his glance too heavy.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Of course I do.” And she left.

 

 

The date, of course, was a disaster.

At first he carried his theories about why. Just maybe it wasn’t actually typical for her to prepare for dinner and bar lounging with the picky particulars she applied to everything she did at work—after all, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that she could be a little impulsive, all things considered. He didn't know if it was always like this with her, this need for something to be perfect to be worth even trying, or if it was something about him. He just thanked God he hadn't given into the temptation to try to get her to come inside at the end of the night regardless of the state of the mood, that he'd been struck away from the swaying hypnosis of the thought that if he could just, if they could just—it would be easy, like before. That desire had suddenly looked embarrassing to him in some later morning recollection when it occurred to him just how hard he'd been willing to try.

She chopped her hair off into a set of gleaming angles, seemed to make less compromises, had resolved to be someone who wouldn't yield. The job probably got to be two handfuls. He mainly saw her from a distance and only every once in a while. He thought about her less. She was a ribbon on the peripheral horizon, colorless clothes, button nose.

One day out around the landscaping next to the welcome center when she'd walked by with a group of sponsors, he noticed he could recognize her by the click and rubbery whisper of those rigid shoes. He wondered if there were calluses now where the edges used to bite, wondered about the expanse of her he hadn't seen at all.

He didn't turn his head any more when she passed.

But he wondered.