Raquel Murillo's house was a mess.
There were bottles of alcohol on the coffee table in her living room. Two empty pints of what seemed to be vanilla ice cream lay abandoned near the trashcan in her kitchen, completely missing its target. Crumpled tissues filled her couch, the white material contrasting the black velvet fabric of the furniture.
Her apartment was no doubt stripped from its former glory. Everything inside it was out of its usual order. Including the house owner herself, Raquel Murillo.
The bun on top of her head was disheveled, framing her face with loose hair strands she had given up on taming. Her usual three-piece suit and high heeled boots were replaced by a pair of comfortable shorts and a rather large sweater. "Universidad Francisco de Vitoria," the fading print on the hoodie says. It's not hers, but it very well could be. Her eyes were bloodshot, her eyeliner smudging on both her lids. It hurt to close her eyes, but it was uncontested compared to the pain she's feeling because of a re-opened wound.
The wound in question? Sergio Marquina.
Raquel feels guilty. Of course, she would. She ended their "relationship" on her terms, after all.
"If you think I'm ever letting you go, Raquel, you're wrong." He grabbed her wrist and urged the brunette to look in his eyes. "Please," he whispered, "don't."
"Look," Her fingers cradled his cheek so softly, her touches felt like knives seething through his skin. "We would have never worked out." Her eyes wandered around, drinking in his presence for what could probably the last time. But she never met his eyes.
He whimpered, "how would you know? You never allowed us to start."
"It's because you and I would only hurt each other, Sergio." She said matter-of-factly. "You of all people should know that."
He remained silent.
She sat at the patio in front of her mother's old house. He followed suit.
"You're my best friend, Sergio. What we had for months were never supposed to happen." His fingers started to twirl around her hair-just like how he always did in bed, as he basks in the after-sex glow. It's his way of telling her, "go ahead, I'm listening."
She continued, "we were messing around, and found it satisfying for both of our needs. But we both know that we'd have to eventually stop. It's not healthy for the both of us, you know?" She chuckled, trying to make a light in the situation, but his eyes and fingers never left the ends of her hair, he seems content on just studying her. Raquel wanted to cry at the gesture.
"You believed that we had to stop." He started, finally sitting straight and touching her jaw to grab her attention, "I didn't. A relationship is a two-way street, Raquel."
"We aren't in a relationship, Sergio."
"Then what are we? A pair of adults who shag to their convenience? Best friends who are too afraid to admit that they feel something for each other?" His voice trembled. "Tell me, were we 'just friends' when you asked me to stay the night because you saw me with my ex-girlfriend? Were we 'just friends' when you cooked breakfast for the both of us with you running around the kitchen with nothing but my shirt on? If that's not a relationship, I don't know what is."
Her eyes were watering now. "We never agreed on that, Sergio. Please, stop putting me in this situation."
The silence was deadly. But the words he uttered next scathed her more than any other blade can cut through her skin.
"I love you, Raquel." She knew this was his last act of desperation, like an accused criminal on his death bed, saving his breath for a final plea. He never said it before, not even in the highest peak of their vulnerability. Sergio knew this a losing battle and he had to make his last offense before surrendering to defeat. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to," he whispered. "But tell me now if I ever have a place in your life. If I still do, I will fight for this, I will fight for you, Raquel."
"Sergio, I-" she stammered, not knowing the answer to his sudden declaration of love. Oh, how much she wanted to wipe all the pain she has caused him. "I'm getting married to Antonio, Sergio."
She would never forget the look on his face as she mentioned the name of her fiancé, a handsome, strutting man, waiting for her across the country. All emotions that Sergio have channeled finally drained off of his face, his jaw was firm and set, and his eyes were almost glassy. The person who laid all of himself in front of her was now nothing but an empty shell of a man.
He stood up, almost ready to leave. "Sergio," she called.
And she did the unthinkable. She kissed him. His hands found her cheeks, cradling it ever so softly. Her fingers were entangled in his hair. This was nothing like their kisses before. This one wasn't filled with lust nor anticipation. It tasted like going home to your best friend after a long, winding journey. It tasted like reading your favorite book; despite having all the passages tattooed on your mind, you couldn't help but enjoy as you read them over and over again. It tasted like sunshine passing through your windowsill in the morning, with a hope of a brighter tomorrow slipping through its rays.
But most importantly it tasted like regret. This was the last weapon in her armory. Her last attack before surrendering to a stalemate.
She was the first to concede. "Sergio," she called once again. "I'm sorry." Raquel was now clutched to Sergio's chest, her tears marking on his shirt. "I'm sorry," she repeated. Sorry that she took advantage of his vulnerabilities and charged at him at his weakest point. Sorry that she's too coward to pursue what they have, relationship or not.
"I'm leaving for Madrid tonight, please don't follow me." She pleaded.
He never did.
It's been two years since their last encounter, and she could still taste his final goodbye. She never married Antonio. Broke it off before they were too deep in wedding preparations. Raquel consistently asked him to move the wedding to a further date. Antonio thought it was because of the stressful preparations. Raquel knew it was her guilt and doubt eating at her.
It's been two years since their last encounter, and it's been two years since she last felt something. The night she left for Madrid, she shed her last tears for what could have been. She hasn't taken a breath ever since. She reckoned that her and Antonio's love is more of a fireplace whilst what she felt for Sergio was more inspired by a pyrotechnic performance on New Year's Eve. It was already too late when she realized that she only felt the thrill of a fireworks display and the warmth of a fireplace during the winter when she was with Sergio.
She's been holding herself up for the past two years so gracefully that you wouldn't see past the strong woman façade she puts on every day. But her armor wasn't enough to save her from the force that tried to protect her in the first place.
Sergio Marquina was in Madrid.
His work as a writer and researcher became his gateway to traveling the world. He has traveled to the United States. Madagascar. The Philippines. Singapore. Finland. But never to the capital city of his own country. Madrid. He knew that even with a population of three million in the city, he'd always be drawn to that one person he's trying hard not to remember. Like a magnet to a needle lost in a haystack.
Raquel would very much like to blame this on her friend, Agata. She was the one who spilled to her that Sergio was to be at a book signing event, at a rather enormous bookstore near her apartment complex. Her left hand cradled a wine glass and her other hand clutched her phone. She might have deleted his number a long time ago, but it was etched on her mind. In a drunken haze, her light giggle filled the room as he dialed his number on her phone.
Her heart finally beats again.
A sharp intake of air.
She holds it in.
"Hello?" She finally breathes again.
Raquel didn't even know what to say. "Sergio?"
"Raquel?" He asks. The familiarity of his voice almost sends her knees to the ground, she had to grab the kitchen's counter for support.
She breathed, "yeah. I heard you're in Madrid?"
A beat passes. "I am."
"Uh, congratulations on your new book. I heard it was a success."
"It is. Thank you."
She looked for the right words, but she couldn't. "Alright."
"Raquel," his breathy voice sent shivers to her spine. It seems like the effect he has on her is not lost. "Why did you call? It's almost 1 a.m."
"I thought maybe you wanted to see an old face?" She suggested.
"You could've texted me in the morning."
"The last time I heard that, you went away for two years." He said matter-of-factly.
Her head was throbbing, and she couldn't even think straight, "I live at the apartment we used to look at in Madrid. So I guess, you'll know where to find me." Her laugh was exactly the way he remembered, like the hazy afternoon sun just before it starts to set. "Sorry for rambling. I'm a little drunk right now, and all I could think about is how I miss you.
"I'm sorry I called," she explained. "Just forget that this call even happened."
She was about to end the call when he heard him say, "Raquel, don't go to sleep yet."
She swears she could see him smile even at a phone call. "You'll see." Then he hung up. It's not as if she's planning to go to sleep anytime soon.
About half an hour later, he arrives with a bag of Chinese take out from the restaurant near her complex. He holds the bag out like it was a peace offering. All wars are ceased. All weapons laid down.
"Hi," he breathes. He looked the same person as she remembered him. He still towered over her for a few inches. He still wore the classic gold wristwatch she gave him for his 38th birthday. The black slacks, and white button shirt was still present. It felt like nothing's ever changed for him.
She couldn't believe what was standing in front of her, "hello."
Raquel Murillo was nothing but a mess in the wee hours of midnight, but when she gave him a small, shy smile, Sergio swears he has never seen anyone more beautiful.
"How was your flight?" She asked, trying to break the ice that was starting to freeze the whole room.
They were treading on it, just waiting for one person to slip.
"Long," he decided on an answer, "and tiring."
"Ah. Would you like to come in?" She finally offered, pulling the door slightly more open for him to enter.
"Thanks. You have a nice home."
She snorted, "it has seen better days."
Sergio knows the interior of the apartment very well. They used to talk about what their apartment would look like if they were to escape San Sebastian. A two-bedroom unit (one for him and one for her) with a balcony that looks out on a vast range of colorful buildings and plazas. As he drank the surroundings in, he realized how very well lived the apartment looks like.
Everything spoke of Raquel. From the white upright lamp standing next to the couch, the framed abstract paintings on her wall, to the mismatched dining table and chairs near her kitchen. Even the empty bottle of alcohol and crumpled tissues on the couch talked of Raquel.
She's been crying, he decided. "Raquel, are you okay?" He pointed his gaze toward the mess in her living room.
She smiled sheepishly, "yeah." Everything's okay now you're here, she wanted to add. That could wait. "What can I get you? Water? Coffee? Wine?"
"Do you have a red?" He contemplated.
She grabbed a bottle from one of her cupboards and two wine glasses and handed one to him. "No ring?" He asked.
She shook her head. "No ring. We never got to say our vows," Raquel opened the bottle with a cork and started pouring in his glass, "Antonio and I."
He took a sip, the rich prune flavor bursting in his tongue, "And how have you been coping?"
"It's been two years. I'm doing fine."
The wall between them was thick, and none of them were trying to break it. There were about a thousand words that are left unspoken between the two of them. So then and there, they were transported to the deadly silence they've been in before. "Do you," she said shyly whilst picking up the crumpled tissues sitting on her couch, "do you want to sit down?" He only stared at her.
She chuckled, "Is this how we're going to be for the rest of the—" she glanced at the wall clock to her right, "midnight?"
His reply was nothing but a good-hearted laugh, but he obliged. He offered her his hand and she grabbed it, leading her toward the furniture. He drank her in, never believing that he'd be seeing her again. They never bothered to contact each other. It's not as if he's active in his social media sites, and it's not as if a sober Raquel would allow herself to reach out to him.
She knew how dangerous her hands was for him. What Raquel did not expect, however, was that she still had an effect on him. It was evident by the way he immediately tensed as she reached out to him. Her fingers were lost in his hair, and then to his trimmed beard, slowly, slowly, slowly, down to his jaw and neck. Then her palms traveled to his shoulder. She tried to calm the tensed muscles but to no avail. Then it slowly made its way home back to his chest where she can feel his loud, yet serene heartbeat. It matched hers.
He took a sip of his wine and placed a finger on her lips as if to stop her from muttering any words. The brunette cocked her head to the side in curiosity. His hands found his phone in his pocket and opened a music application. "Dance with me?" He asked slyly.
A smile made a way to Raquel's eyes as the familiar voice of Tina Turner filled her apartment. "Come on, this is your song." He urged once again and offered his hand. "A dance won't hurt us."
"I remember when your brother forced you to go to that nightclub for his birthday," She started, her hands flinging around his neck as he found her waist. "You were mortified. I can't believe you were in your late thirties and that was your first club!" She laughed, rolling her head to the side as she reminisced the memory.
"It wasn't my first! I just don't like nightclubs at all. Not my turf."
She nodded, "your throne was your work desk in your apartment. And your kingdom was the library."
"I could beg to differ and tell you it's in your arms, but I don't want to be kicked out at 1:30 in the morning."
She pretended to think, "maybe not."
"Why didn't you get married?" He asked.
"Artistic differences," she said smugly.
He teased, "don't quote Chicago on me, you nerd."
"It didn't feel right." She was now serious, unafraid to meet his eyes. "It felt like I was preparing a wedding for a different person, not for me."
"Ah. I see. And he felt the same?"
She shrugged, "it was uncontested."
And it was silent once again.
"Thank you for coming tonight," she whispered, her voice barely audible.
He gave her that famous lopsided grin of his. "Thank you for not kicking me out." That would have been enough reason for Raquel to punch her best friend, and yet all he received was another confusing look.
She raised her left eyebrow, "why are you here?"
"I have a book signing event tomorrow." He teased.
"No. Why are you here?" She repeated the question.
"Because," Sergio said matter-of-factly, "you wondered if I wanted to see an old face."
"And you did?"
He laughed lightly, "And I did. It's not as if I have anywhere else to go."
"Your hotel room?"
"And what? Enjoy five-star dining instead of eating take-out and drinking cheap wine with you? No can do, Señora."
She rolled her eyes. "Still ever the charmer, I see."
"Only for you, Inspectora." He smirked as he used his old nickname for her. "That, and you sound drunk on the phone."
Raquel nearly slapped his arm, "Oh. So you had to play the role of my knight in shining armor and save me?"
"No, not save you. You forget that you were my best friend. You can't handle being alone drunk."
The past tense didn't seem to slip from Raquel's ears. "Were?"
Sergio looked at her softly. "It's not as if we're allowed to pick up wherever we took off."
She avoided his eyes as she apologized, "Sorry. And hey, it's been two years. I can now hold my arsenic."
"Still not over that Chicago phase, huh?"
Her laugh filled the room, almost drowning out the voice of Tina Turner. Sergio didn't mind. Her laughter was music to his ears. "Never!"
They were too close now, her body morphing into his as they swayed to the beat of the faint music from his phone. They were silent, yet neither of them minded. There they were, in the middle of the living room, clutching each other as if they were their lifelines.
"Do you have any regrets in your life?" Sergio asked.
She contemplated for a second, "Isn't the sole purpose of life to live it with no hints of regret?"
"Touché," he agreed, "but do you have them?"
Her eyes found his. "I do."
And then she's silent.
Sergio used his forefinger to lift her chin, "Hey, what's going on in that beautiful mind of yours?"
"Nothing. I just—" she said breathlessly. "You could be living here too, you know. Remember when we planned to live here? You would have taken the bedroom on the left, and you'd be hanging your stills on the wall. Your unabashedly enormous number of shoes would be next to mine, and you'd be cooking us breakfast every day, because I love that sandwich you always bring to work for me."
He placed his palm at the small of her back to steady her. "Mi amor, you're rambling."
With his words, Raquel felt something grow inside her chest. Confidence? Not quite. Hope. Hope that maybe this isn't over for them. Hope that she may get her second chance after all. And it keeps spreading, and spreading, slowly into the night, slowly into their future. "You and I would have movie night every Friday and dates on Saturdays. You wouldn't mind me ordering pizza every two days because you know it's the only fuel I need to keep me going." She paused. "Do you know the real reason Antonio and I broke up?"
"You don't have to tell me, Raquel."
But she pushed through, "Yes, yes I need to. It's because every day, since I left for Madrid, all I could see was you. You were everywhere. My bedroom, at the café where I always get my morning coffee, at work, you haven't stepped foot in Madrid in the two years I was here, but you are all I see.
"When I finished what we had, I thought by ending an affair, it would give me peace of mind. It didn't, Sergio. I kept pushing the date of the wedding back because I thought I needed time. I realized a few months later that the reason I did that was because the only man I ever saw myself spending my life with was you."
The tall man didn't understand what he was hearing. "What are you trying to say here, Raquel?"
She took a sharp intake of breath, "I'm laying all my cards here, Sergio." He stared at her.
"I'm laying all my weapons down. I'm not sure when I will be seeing you again. So here I am, in all my glory, surrendering myself to this. To you. If you'll still have me."
Raquel was drunk. Not by alcohol, but by this man standing in front of her. Not knowing what to do, her hands found his jaw and pulled him closer to her. She lightly pressed her lips onto his, vividly remembering the last kiss they shared was the same as this one. A product of tears and submission to their vulnerabilities. They took each other as if they were the last bit of air on earth, and yet they did it so softly. They were holding something too fragile.
"I love you, Sergio." Her voice was barely audible. She whispered like the walls could hear them. It was only for his ears to hear. And those three words were all he needed to change his mind.
For years, he's been living alone, content with his life's work and travelling. Now he's making plans for his future. Their future. He doesn't know how they have lived without each other for years. He cradled her neck in his hands as he smiled at her, "I think we both know that the bedroom on the left would never be utilized."
She laughed, "you ass!"
Then he kissed her again.
And she hopes it never ends.
Sergio and Raquel ceased to exist. They were not two individuals anymore, just two parts of a whole where they couldn't fathom where one started and the other ended.