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Nadine curls her fingers into the pillow underneath her, sinking her teeth into it to muffle a helpless moan as he slides deep, deeper, until she's gasping into the fabric.

They'd never made it off the couch.

She should be appalled by her own weakness, her inability to resist this. But right now he's fucking her in earnest, like he's trying to hit the back of her throat with his cock, and she just doesn't care.

"God," Mike says, from behind and above her. He holds her hips with near-bruising force as he pulls her back into him. This was the one thing they always got right.

She had gotten his pants off first, but he'd just plain gotten her off first — had shoved her pants and underwear down, pushed her onto her knees, and pressed one hand flat on her lower back as he worked the other hand between her legs, sliding two fingers through her heat. He'd gotten her off just like that, working her with his fingers until she'd come so hard and so fast that she'd had to fight for her air.

He was smug as anything. I still know you, she could imagine him thinking.

He readjusts the angle of his hips now, pulling her back with every thrust, searching for—

"Oh!" she moans, arching her back harder. "Oh, God."

"There it is," he murmurs. He begins to piston into her just like that, hitting her right where she needs, fucking her until he breaks her apart at the seams. She cries out into the couch cushion.

She barely hears his groan as he comes right on the heels of her own orgasm. She's too busy trying to get the breath back into her body. He bends down over her, presses his lips to her shoulder, inhales the scent of her skin. She allows it.

She's pure, sated liquid now. A long moment, then he pulls out of her gently, and then he's collapsing into the cushions next to her. Nadine rests her head against her bent arms and sighs. The regret is already nudging in on her afterglow, demanding to be felt. But he pulls her into him, presses his lips to her shoulder blade, wraps an arm around her narrow waist. And she grants herself the luxury of sinking into his embrace because this is the last time she'll allow it, it has to be, and she shamelessly wants to soak up the familiarity of it, the security of it. Only for a second.

She has to talk herself into disentangling herself from his and getting off the couch. Wordlessly, she goes to lock herself in the bathroom.

Nadine pees, flushes, washes her hands. Studies her reflection in the mirror, and god, she looks every bit her age and feels it, too. She wonders if she could get away with just standing here until he gets the hint and leaves. If she can hide out so that they don't have to talk about her poor decision-making skills.

But then there's a knock on the door and honestly, she should know better than to think he'd just tuck tail and leave.

"Are you okay?" he says softly through the door.

"Just a minute." She rakes damp fingers through her hair until the curls fall back into submission. Wipes her hands dry on her bath towel. Pulls down the satin-thin robe hanging on the back of the door and wraps it around herself; ties it tight. She can do a lot of things, but facing him naked for the conversation she's planning to have isn't one of them. Finally, she opens the door.

Mike is fully dressed, though he hasn't bothered with the belt and the hem of his shirt is rumpled and untucked. His sleeves are pushed up to his elbows and the top two buttons are undone. Nadine has to remind herself not to get distracted by him. Mike does not seem to be reminding himself of any such thing — his own eyes roam her body with open hunger. "Are you okay?" he asks again, to her face.

She nods. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have… I didn't mean to… pounce on you like that," she says.

"I don't mind." He's smiling. He steps aside so that she can exit the bathroom and they both drift back to the living area. He has gathered her clothes folded them into a neat little pile, she notices. They're stacked on the arm of the couch.

"I'm not being fair to you," she says. She turns to face him. "I shouldn't be getting close to you when I've already decided… when I already know…"

"You're not doing anything I don't want."

"That's the problem, isn't it."

He shakes his head. "I don't care."

"Mike," she sighs.

"No, you're not hearing me. I don't care." He takes her hands in his. "Nadine, I meant it when I said I love you. I know I should have shown it more, and I know I fucked up, but you have to believe that I mean it. I've never… never loved anyone the way I love you. So. I don't care if you think you're being unfair to me, or if you think you're doing this wrong, or if you think you're using me somehow. Because I'll take it. I'll take whatever you give me."

Nadine steps into him and presses her face against his neck.

"I'll take it," he says again, softer.

She's silent for awhile. Finally she murmurs, "There was always a part of me that hoped we could have worked..."

He waits for the drop. "But?" he prompts.

She has to put herself first this time. She has to think about herself first. She pulls away from him. "But," she says, "I can't make room in my life for could have."


October 2018 (one year later)

There's a knock on her office door.

"Come in," she says. She doesn't have scheduled office hours right now and her door is closed, but that's okay. She has a lecture in ten minutes, but it's just downstairs and she isn't scrambling to prep. She could do it in her sleep, if she had to.

She'd moved out to Berkeley for good around March; had found a nice apartment in Piedmont — not too far from Roman — and had spent her time helping out with her granddaughter. And though she loves the baby, and loves her kids, the endless free time of retirement had quickly lost its sheen. It made her stir-crazy.

Roman had encouraged her to apply for a teaching position at UC Berkeley, and so now she's here as adjunct faculty in the PoliSci department. The hiring process had been swift and easy, and they had given her keys to an office and a bare-bones curriculum around which she was expected to design her class. By the time summer had rolled in, she'd settled comfortably and was itching to work again. She teaches one class (Modern Global Diplomacy) three times per week and has two fantastic grad TAs who split the discussion sections and most of the grading between themselves, though the term papers Nadine likes to look at herself.

Academia is much sleepier than the world she comes from, but she finds that she enjoys the change of pace. She likes the teaching and loves her students, and doesn't even mind compactness of her little office. It's different from when she'd give guest lectures at GW or Georgetown, because these students are hers and she gets to see the way they think, the way they grow, and she loves that. She can understand now why it had been so difficult for Conrad to pull Elizabeth away from UVA all that time ago.

"Come in," she calls again — louder, because it doesn't seem like her voice carried far enough the first time. Her visitor pokes their head around the door. Nadine smiles when she sees who it is. "Hi, Will."

"Hey, Nadine." William Ansell, whose office is just down the hall from hers. He's her age or maybe a little older, and one of the tenured lecturers in the department. He's very much her type — tall, the dark hair that's going salt and pepper, a strong jaw and a kind smile that uses his whole face. In some ways, he reminds her a lot of Vincent, if Vincent had been unmarried and actually a good person.

Not that she's thought about this or anything.

"Do you have class soon?"

"In ten minutes," she says. "Walk me down?"

"Sure." Will waits for her to gather her things into her bag, and then takes it off her arm without asking. She scoots them both out of her little office and locks the door behind her. He walks with her toward the stairwell and holds the door for her. They descend the two flights to the ground floor. "So I was thinking," he says. His voice echoes up and down the stairwell.

"Hm?" She does like him. She likes that he's sweet and he's clever and that his jokes are actually quite funny. She likes that he doesn't take himself too seriously. And he'd been so welcoming and kind, had really helped her settle in. Everyone in her department has been welcoming, of course, and nice — but she just gets on well with Will.

"Would you want to get coffee later? My treat."

The invitation takes her by surprise, though later as she's delivering her lecture (and unable to focus on anything she's saying, distracted as she is by the memory of that smile) she won't know why it had surprised her. Except that perhaps she'd been so preoccupied with sorting out her own opinions of Will that she'd never stopped to consider that he may have opinions of her.

She smiles at him, warmly pleased, as they emerge out onto the first floor of the building. "I'd love to get coffee with you," she says. At the side entrance of the lecture hall, Nadine sees a handful of students milling about, some of whom she recognizes from her class, burning the last few minutes before they have to go in. She wants to burn hers here, talking to Will.

There's a look of giddy relief in his eyes, as if he'd worried she might actually turn him down. "Great. I'll come find you when you're done." He hands her back her bag, and his hand brushes against hers in the exchange. "Have a good class," he says, and disappears back up the stairwell, back up to his office.

Nadine pauses, needing a second to process what just happened.

One of her students walks by her and grabs the lecture hall door, but doesn't go inside. "I saw that," the girl — Lisa — says confidentially, hanging onto the door. Nadine turns to look at her, giving her a one-eyebrow-raised kind of stare that does absolutely nothing to faze the young woman. "He totally has a crush on you." Lisa gives her a shit-eating grin.

Nadine fights a smile of her own. Lisa is one of her favorite students, though Nadine would never admit it. "You think so?"

"It's so obvious. I see him in lecture sometimes, you know. He sits in the back. I thought he was like, evaluating you or something, but he says he just thinks your class is really interesting."

"What?"

"He's such a dork sometimes. I told him he should just man up and ask you out already."

"Lisa!"

"Oh, you have to give him a chance!" she says, and it's a whole wide-eyed plea. "He's so nice and he's such a good teacher and everyone likes him. I took his class last semester and it was like my favorite one ever, except for yours obviously. And he's so cute. If I didn't have a boyfriend and Dr. Ansell wasn't like the same age as my dad, I would totally—"

"Okay, okay, point made! Get inside, Lisa, you're going to be late."

"You're going to be late, professor," she says, shit-eating grin firmly in place.

/

"I do have a confession to make," Will announces over his black coffee with mock-seriousness.

"And what's that?"

"I've been sitting in on your lectures." At her puzzled look, he adds quickly, "Not every day! I'm not a creep, I promise — just. Occasionally." He shrugs, and the amusement dancing in his eyes is a reflection of the one in hers. "I admit I was curious."

Nadine doesn't give away that she already knows. "Had to size up the new guy?" she asks instead. She breaks off a piece of the orange cranberry muffin that sits on the table between them. Will had gone and gotten Nadine her preferred soy latte, but had also come back with a whole tray of confectionery goods. ('I'd never let you go hungry,' he'd said. 'What kind of person would that make me?')

"Had to see this new Washington insider we'd landed. This hotshot who came all the way out west to teach world diplomacy."

She snorts at his dramatic description, at how he just lathers it on. "And what you got was little old me instead. Sorry to disappoint."

"Oh, definitely not a disappointment." God he's smiling again, and Nadine has no explanation for the way this sets off a cascade of butterflies in her stomach. "I was quite impressed, truth be told. Even with all my lofty expectations." He's just teasing her now, but she doesn't mind. It's nice not to have to take anything too seriously these days.

"Good to know I pass muster," she says facetiously, and that's all she says, because she refuses, refuses to fish for the compliments he seems so eager to dish out. She has some pride, thank you very much. "Which one did you sit in on?" Or not.

"Oh, let's see. The one on the intersection of media and international politics; American intervention on human rights violations; the balance of powers in the UNSC; Secretary McCord's execution of the Iran deal—"

"Jesus, that's half my syllabus!" she exclaims. "You creep."

He holds his hands up in mock surrender. "Hey, in my defense, your classes are very conveniently scheduled in the break between my morning lecture and noon discussion. So sometimes I poke my head in."

"'Sometimes'," she repeats, slightly flustered.

"Your class is interesting," he says simply.

"Well." She takes as sip of her latte, gathering her thoughts. "I'm planning on doing a negotiation simulation with them later in the semester."

"They'll love that."

"Maybe you could lend me a hand since clearly you have nothing better to do than take my class." Her mouth twitches.

He laughs (thankfully), and holds his hand to his chest. "I would be honored," he says expansively.

"I should come sit in on one of your classes," she adds, reaching for another piece of the muffin. "Size you up."

"You should. In fact, I think I'm offended that you haven't done that already. The interest here is clearly one-sided."

She looks up quickly. He's watching her, a little smile playing on his lips, and her heartbeats trip over themselves. She wills the blush to stay off of her face. "It's not," she says simply, and he smiles widely. The butterflies are uncontrollable.

/

It's Sunday and she's promised Roman that she would join them for lunch today. She lets herself into their house with her own key, and she's hardly put down all the things in her arms (her purse, the produce Roman had asked her to pick up from the grocery store that was on the way, some of the baby's things that had been left behind at Nadine's apartment the last time they'd visited) before Shindy's placing the baby into them.

"Well hello, my sweetheart," Nadine coos, pushing her nose against that warm baby scent. Ava snuggles into her neck without a fight. "Hi, hon," Nadine adds, leaning in to kiss Shindy's cheek.

"Hey Nadine," Shindy says. "Roman's out back; we thought we'd eat outside today."

"That sounds lovely." She follows Shindy through the house and onto the back patio, then maneuvers the baby into her high-chair.

"Hey, mom," Roman says, and pulls her in for a hug. He's got the whole spread already set up on the patio table. He turns his attention to his daughter; fits the tray onto the top of her high-chair and spreads some tiny puff cereal pieces over it. Ava grabs for them immediately. "She's already eaten, but she won't mind hanging out with us for a little bit. We just got her up from her nap."

Lunch is good; nothing fancy, but by the time she's done Nadine feels full and a little sleepy herself. Shindy gets up and takes Ava inside for a diaper change.

"Everything going well at work?" Roman asks.

"It's great." She doesn't tell him about Will or their dinner date last night, even though its front and center in her mind. That's not really work-related, anyway. She says instead, "I was talking to Elizabeth the other day—"

"Your old boss Elizabeth?"

"Mhm. I'd love to bring her in to guest lecture. But it's… she hardly ever has business on this side of the country, so it would be hard to execute."

"Yeah no, that would be insanely great. She'd be phenomenal."

"She was the one who brought it up, even. She misses academia sometimes, I think," Nadine says, and she knows all about that feeling. Nadine misses her old job, too. Occasionally.

Roman pauses. Then he says, a little hesitantly, "Mom, you are happy out here, right?"

She turns to him, a little surprised. "Oh honey, of course I am. I get to see you guys all the time. I get to teach. I get to slow down. Why wouldn't I be happy?"

Nadine had loved her job, but she had given everything to it, and in the end it had half-digested her. The goal had always been to get out of Washington in more or less one piece, and she saw her opportunity and took it. Every day she knows that this decision was the right one.

Her phone buzzes in her pocket. She pulls it out and checks the text — it's from Will.

Can't stop thinking about you.

Nadine puts her phone away (she'll respond later, when she's not in the middle of what feels like a semi-serious conversation) and tries not to smile like an idiot.

"Just making sure," Roman says.

"Trust me," Nadine assures, "I am right where I want to be."

/

She's in her office the next morning when she gets the email.

Nadine,

I'll be in San Francisco for a few days next week on a consult. I'd love to see you when I'm out here if you have the time. Let me know.

Best,
Mike