pg-13 | no warnings apply

(And if he'd known she was going to insist on an outside table, he would have gone back for his coat.)

He sipped his coffee, almost fascinated by how she cut up the long strips of cold chicken, the huge chunks of lettuce. She seemed hungry, ravenous, the way she chopped up her food and shoved forkfuls into her mouth, although maybe it was just an excuse to avoid talking to him. But he wasn't even trying, not yet; he just sat and drank his coffee and watched her fingers manipulate her utensils and wondered why he ordered anything at all, as he had eaten a late lunch just two hours ago.

"You've been avoiding my calls," was what he decided to open with, when she reached for her glass of water. It was supposed to be a question, supposed to be a 'why?' But he was distracted by the skin of her neck, the muscles underneath rippling as she drank. She put down her glass and stabbed a large piece of chicken, chewing on it for long, drawn-out moments, as if she hoped he would forget that he had spoken, even though what he had said didn't require a response.

So he stared, until she put her fork down and stared back. The intensity of her gaze startled him. He almost looked away, but stood his ground instead, wondering when exactly their relationship had become a battleground.

(And he wondered who had thrown the first grenade.)

"I've been busy," was what she gave him, her words sharp and cold and impersonal.

"So have I," he shot back, matching her tone. She returned to her salad, cutting up the leaves of lettuce into smaller and smaller pieces. He kept staring at her, his frustration failing to prevent him from admiring how good she looked. Her suit was impeccable, her hair beautifully arranged, pinned up and sprayed down, her makeup perfectly applied. The only thing that marred her appearance was the small frown she wore, and that was when he noticed that the forkfuls of lettuce and chicken were being brought to her lips less and less often, her mouth chewing for longer and longer times, even though each bite was smaller and smaller, and she grimaced when she swallowed, as if -

"You ate already," he said, his voice soft and confused.

She pushed away her plate, settling back in her chair. He couldn't tell if her expression was one of resignation or relief, because she turned her head away, apparently studying a tree, even though he couldn't see what was so special about it.

"Chinese with Will," she admitted, her voice quiet and fleeting.

"Why'd you accept my invitation to dinner, then?"

"I thought it would get you to leave me alone."

(And he had thought that it just. wasn't. possible. to get any angrier with her.)

A million questions tumbled over each other in his mind, pounding at the door, begging to be let out. He ignored them all, latching his gaze on that tree she seemed so enamored with. He wouldn't ask her what it was that he did wrong (because every time he asked a woman that question, it was a mistake), and he couldn't ask her if she ever cared about him at all (because it seemed inappropriate, stupid, immature, and more to the point, he feared the answer would be no), but those were the only two questions he wanted to ask her, so they sat in limbo until she gave up on staring at the damn tree.

(And she had to have cared for him once, he told himself.)

"Don't call me anymore."

"Why are you doing this?"

It was just like before, with the temp and the post-it, and the tears were just. right. there. and he congratulated himself on his ability to keep them at bay.

"Because I know why you are doing this, and ... I'm not going to fall for it."

"What do you think I'm doing?"

She folded her napkin, then unfurled it and folded it up again. "I'm not coming back to answer your phones. And if you think you can trick me into revealing campaign secrets, you must think I'm really stupid and naïve."

(And there had to be a point, really, when he couldn't possibly be any angrier, and he had to reach it soon, preferably before that artery on the side of his head exploded.)

"You think that's why I kept calling?" He was making a scene but he didn't care anymore. "I have three very able-bodied assistants working for me. I don't need - or want - you to take messages for me. And in case you haven't noticed, my guy's beating your guy - not to mention everyone else's guy - by at least 14 points! The election's just a formality. I'd only be trying to steal inept campaign strategies from you if I wanted my guy to lose!"

(And as he watched at her, he could pinpoint the. exact. moment. when her heart -)

"Go to hell," she whispered. There wasn't any malice in her voice, but he thought that was probably because all her emotional reserves were busy keeping those tears from spilling out of her eyes. He felt like a bastard, but the anger wouldn't subside, and he couldn't seem to muster up the words to apologize.

"I have a meeting in the morning, and I really need to go," she said, fumbling with her purse, her wallet.

"Don't worry about it. I'll pa -"

"Good." She closed her purse with a loud snap, yanking her jacket off the back of the chair. He dropped the credit card he was fishing out of his wallet (on the ground somewhere, but he didn't care), and grabbed her elbow, mildly surprised at how little resistance she put up.

"I called because Will told me I should. I called back because you interrupted me, saying something about a minor emergency and you'd get back to me, except you never did. I kept calling because ... I don't know why. I know I felt stupid every time I picked up the phone, and I felt even stupider every time your little assistant told me she'd need to take a message."

"I've been busy."

"So have I."

"What do you want from me?" she said bitterly.

"Not 'from' you," he said, his frustration building.

"I don't understand."

(And he thought that, really, he didn't either.)

The fleeting thought broke his concentration, and before he could blink, she had extracted her arm from his grasp.

"I have to go," she said.

And he watched as she navigated tables and chairs and people, and then she was out on the street, moving, almost jogging, until she was a couple blocks away. The annoyingly straight streets and the flat terrain let him keep his eyes on her as she moved farther and farther away, until she was hardly even a speck, still moving towards the horizon, her horizon.

(And she was gone.)


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