Raquel was the first person to speak.
And Sergio was the first person to begin a steady descent into hysteria.
It wasn't that he couldn't handle this calamity that was about to unfold. No, he totally could. If he was given a few hours of preparation time, a cup of lightly sweetened chamomile, and some fresh fountain pens to outline his game plan with, he could handle it.
But it wasn't simply that his mother was there. It was that his mother had arrived seconds after Sergio realized that he had thought about kissing Raquel.
Kissing her. On the mouth. You know, like a predator.
In fact, he had wanted her to kiss him. He had almost prayed for it. Amidst the complete lunacy of this piece of damning thought, one thing he had not felt was fear. He was supposed to be scared of her, not grind up against her on his marble countertops. That wasn't the proper use of countertops at all!
"I said who is she?" Maria Marquina asked one more time.
"What magazine?!" Raquel repeated herself.
Sergio only stood there, drawing meek breaths that were a little too shallow to be alarming. His pulse. His pulse seemed to be doing something… Something that wasn't good for his heart.
What was she thinking indulging him like that, wrapping her arms around him like he was someone she liked? What he wanted, he was ashamed of. What she wanted, he didn't know. But whatever it was that had caused her to reciprocate the nonsense that had just occurred, whether it was because she was still chasing the high from her most recent kill or whether she just enjoyed his friendship, she really needed to stop indulging him, or else he was going to end up doing something that would destroy both their lives.
Intimidate me. Make me afraid of you. Make me so afraid of you that I wouldn't want to touch you again.
"Sergio!" Both women yelled at the same time. He had been silent for far too long. From the outside, it almost looked like his lungs were slowly taking in fluid.
"M-mother," he began weakly because if he didn't speak, he had a feeling Raquel would finally be following up with her long-overdue death threats. He didn't want his mother to witness the carnage because she had just arrived, and they might as well have a cup of tea first before Raquel began extracting his liver from his body with a pair of scissors. In a weird way, this thought only amused him. "This… This lady right here… is my business associate."
There was silence. And then there was Raquel throwing him a sharp look with a faint shake of her head.
His hand instinctively went to his liver to protect it from her wrath. Ok so, that was a bad lie. So what?
Bite me, Raquel.
On second thought, don't.
Maria let out a mock laugh and held up her copy of the Business Insider for everyone to see. The picture of the kiss was too damning for Sergio to look at directly in front of his mother. His gaze immediately slid down on the floor in shame, only faintly aware of Raquel's baffled expression upon seeing the photo.
His mother had never seen him kiss a woman. Ever.
"If that's how you treat your business associates, I'm curious to see what kind of a company you've been running over here."
"A very well-mannered one," he gritted between his teeth.
"This photo is anything but well-mannered," with that, she rolled up the magazine into a thick tube and began swatting him on the arm like he was nothing but a mosquito. "Didn't," swat, "I," swat, "teach you," swat, "…to respect women?" She swatted him again.
He tried countering the blows as they came, but Maria seemed to know exactly where his weaknesses lay. It was as though she had given birth to him or something.
"What?!" Maria exclaimed. "Embarrassed in front of your girlfriend, are we?!"
"She is not my-"
"Yes, yes I am," Raquel jumped in with a smile on her face. A smile that was almost too sincere. Surely, she wasn't amused by the minor display of violence, was she? "I am the girlfriend. My name is Raquel, and he has been respecting me. I feel incredibly respected. Nice to meet you."
Grateful for the help, Sergio let out a deep breath in relief. He had forgotten how great Raquel was at lying. Now that she was on his side, everything would be okay. Hopefully, they would explain his mother everything, convince her of their charade, and send her on her way with some biscuits. After all, there wasn't anything serious going on between him and Raquel. Just some deceit and a light threat of imprisonment if he did not cooperate. So really, it wasn't too bad.
He noticed a wave of emotion surging from deep within him when he thought about his relationship with her, and he smothered it immediately with resentment.
Not now, go away.
Maria stopped her assault on her son and took a step back, staring at the two of them. Her eyes, suspicious yet observant, took in their state. From the nervous look in their eyes to the meter-long distance between them, she took it all in.
"Is this true?" She asked quietly.
"Yes, he definitely does respect me. A little too much, actually."
"I do, mother. I respect her very much," Sergio chimed in, carried off by a desperate attempt to convince his mother. He needed this to be over soon, or else he was going to melt into a puddle of nerves and show himself out from the nearest clogged drain. "I cook for her, right?" He turned to Raquel. "I cooked for you!"
"Yes, he did! And he washed my sheets," she said with an enthusiastic nod. "Tell her about the sheets."
"Yes, the bedsheets!" he was grateful that she'd remembered. "I used fabric softener, just like you taught me!"
"And they were soft," Raquel supplemented him. "Very soft!"
"Were they?" He turned to her, suppressing the urge to jump up and down from excitement.
But then, in their desperate enthusiasm, their eyes met, and Sergio was immediately reminded of what had taken place between the two of them mere moments ago, what had almost taken place between the two of them. The way she had her legs around him and the way his hands tasted the feel of her thighs.
Then in perfect coordination, they both stopped smiling, swallowed, and quickly looked away. Sergio began tapping his foot on the floor, and Raquel seemed to be mesmerized by the patterns on his ceiling.
Maria broke the silence. "What I meant was… is she really your girlfriend?"
Remembering their promise to put more distance between them after the incident, Sergio leaned further away from Raquel. Raquel wrapped her arms around her body.
"Yes…" they whispered guiltily like they were just caught stealing candy from a store.
"And this?" Maria unrolled the magazine and held it up for them to see.
"That," Raquel snatched the magazine from her hand. "…is a conversation that I need to have with your son. If you'll excuse us."
Sergio visibly gulped.
The truth was, he did mean to tell Raquel about the magazine, he really did. He was just going to do it in private, alone, preferably after getting her black-out drunk and making sure that she didn't remember any part of the conversation in the morning. That had been the plan.
But now she was swiftly making her way down the hall, signaling him to follow her, and he didn't know what else to do besides grab his glasses from the counter (because she had taken them off, and why would she even do that?), put them on, and scurry after her.
He called out to his mother. "We'll be right back. Help yourself to some coffee."
Raquel disappeared into her room, and Sergio followed her in there, not knowing whether he was coming out in one piece. He closed the door after him, turned around slowly, and waited patiently for Raquel to shove the magazine down his throat.
For a minute, they stared each other down.
He was really beginning to regret having been born. The way she looked at him was so unnerving that a part of him wanted to snatch the magazine from her hand and shove it down his own throat for her convenience. Another part of him realized that they were about to have this confrontation in no other place than her bedroom, which gave her an unfair home court advantage.
Don't indulge me again, he wanted to scream. Threaten me. Yell at me. Please, just kill me already. No, really, I want this.
"Leg or arm," she said quietly. "Pick."
"Arm," he said almost automatically, with quite a bit of relief. This was their comfort zone. "I like walking."
"Left or right?"
"Alright, come here," she motioned him, stretching her fingers and cracking her knuckles to prepare herself. "Try to relax."
"Wait," he put his hands out. "Before you break my bones, will you let me explain?"
"You have ten seconds."
"Thank you," he cleared his throat and began his story. "So, as you know, it was unusually sunny this morning."
He continued, trying very hard not to be phased by the countdown. "And I had difficulty finding a parking spot at work, but thankfully Agustin doesn't come in until later, so I was able to-"
"It was Andres, it was all Andres. I swear!" He exclaimed suddenly in panic, enveloping his left arm in his hand, shielding it away from her. "I was under the table, then he came in, showed me this, and told me to fight you!"
Raquel interrupted his hyperventilation. "He told you to fight me?"
"What else did he tell you, figuratively?"
Sergio let out a deep sigh and covered his face with his hand. It was no use; the cat was out of the bag. His hands dropped to his side, and he gave her an exasperated look. "Stop with the scary cop act and tell me how bad it is. Are we screwed or not?"
With an irritated look, Raquel lifted the magazine to her face and looked at it.
Really looked at it.
She drew in a ragged breath as her eyes landed on the photo. In return, he watched her reaction. Her eyebrows were arched, her lips were parted, and Sergio realized that she had been staring at the photo nearly as long as he had stared at it. For some reason, the picture of them kissing plastered on the cover of one of the most important business magazines in the world was too mesmerizing. It was difficult not to look.
"There's an article in there too," he said softly.
After throwing him a brief look of incredulity, she began going through the pages to find the article. Her eyes scanned the page, taking in all the information. He kept silent as she read through it, hoping that the magazine would do the talking for him. Frankly, he didn't trust the words that might come out of his mouth if he were to speak.
Once she was done, she lifted her head and stared at him.
"Oh, we're so screwed."
Somehow, he knew she'd say that.
Within a matter of seconds, he was beside her, taking the magazine from her hands and flipping it back to the cover to take a better look at the photo. "We're just kissing. Only your profile is visible, and your eyes are closed. No one can tell it's you."
"What makes you think I won't be recognized by my profile?" Raquel groaned in frustration, taking a seat on the edge of the bed.
"At least your name isn't mentioned," he tried, sitting down next to her on the bed with the magazine still in his hands. Somehow, he didn't want to be too far away from her. The promise of distance was long forgotten now that she was in trouble. "Do you think whoever's after you will see this?"
"Of course he will, I guarantee it," she said, burying her face in her hands.
"Maybe… he won't? I don't really see how the members of a terrorist organization would have monthly subscriptions to Business Insider."
Raquel cracked a weak smile. "Thank you for the insight, but he has eyes everywhere."
For a minute, they sat in silence on the edge of the bed, staring at the magazine in Sergio's hand.
A familiar sense of concern overtook him, and he was once again lost in a sea of desperation. He hadn't at all intended for their kiss to make the cover of one of the most popular magazines in Europe. Well, technically, he hadn't intended for the kiss to happen, period. It had been her who had kissed him. Nevertheless, he had done such a swell job at kissing her back that now they were the talk of the town, and soon their popularity would be her demise.
"When did you find out about this?"
Sergio was snapped out of his thoughts. "Today. I was going to tell you when I got home."
She reached over and took the magazine from him, turning it over in her hand, looking at the article, then flipping the pages back to the cover until she was looking at the photo again. It really was captivating. The kiss looked too… real. Suddenly, Sergio understood why Prieto had thought they would make a great couple when they'd first met. They really did look like they belonged together.
Then he proceeded to blame his thoughts on the distortion brought on by 120 mm camera lenses.
"I suppose it's good that we caught it early. Now, we-," she stopped and corrected herself. "I know it exists, and I'll be prepared."
"Prepared for what?"
She shrugged. "I don't know."
He wasn't sure why he expected her to make it all better for him, but she had just succeeded in doing the opposite. With a grim expression, he turned away from her and stared at his polished floors in despair. Not only was Raquel dealing with the ghosts of her past alone, but now, thanks to this photo, her job had gotten a thousand times more difficult. Something needed to be done, but what? He couldn't just sit and watch, could he?
He turned to her. She was the most resilient woman he had ever met and compared to her, he was nothing but a bucket of nervous moisturizer. How could someone like him help someone like her? Her strongest suit was to handle high-profile white-collar crimes. His strongest suit was to remove stains. It was as though they belonged in two different worlds that existed in two different dimensions that did not intersect in any way. Any and all effort spent worrying about her was futile because, at the end of the day, he was simply not equipped to handle a fraction of her problems.
"Well, at least let me thank you," he said weakly after a beat.
"You singlehandedly raised our share price by kissing me."
She arched a brow and threw him a confused look. "What?"
"Well, thanks to that kiss, our stock price went up," he explained like it was the most obvious thing in the world. He adjusted his glasses and tried flashing her his best smile.
"How are the two even related?"
"Well," he began, trying to remember Andres' words. "Women… bring in investors. And investors bring in stocks, no wait, that can't be right. Investors bring in money, and money brings in women, which then increases our stocks… I think."
"That makes absolutely no sense."
"It sounded better when Andres explained it."
"Either way, we should tell your mother the truth," she said. "We don't have to lie to her about this. She is not a part of this investigation."
Well, Sergio had completely forgotten about the fact that his arrangement with Raquel was only one part of his life, and he could preclude it from spilling it over to a more personal side if he wanted to. Up until then, he had always thought that this was it. Whatever they had together was it for him, and he didn't breathe unless he was with her.
He didn't even know that coming clean to his mother was an option. But then the thought terrified him. If his mother found out that he had lied about having a girlfriend and kissed a woman out of wedlock in front of a thousand people, she would actually drive them down to the city hall herself and sign the marriage license. No, what he had been doing with Raquel did not include an ounce of respect, and the last thing Sergio needed was his mother's disappointment.
Besides, there were the practical considerations.
"No, no, no," he shook his head. "My mother knows Andres. She is a loose end."
"Would she tell him?"
"I don't know, but do you want to risk it?" He turned to her. Their gazes locked, and she looked away. He continued. "Besides, if I tell her that I am a suspect and that I might actually be arrested if I don't cooperate, she will be incredibly worried. I don't want that."
Raquel fell silent for a moment. When she looked up, there was apprehension in her eyes. "So, you want to keep lying to her?"
"If you don't mind."
"Of course not," her features softened. "That's what I'm here for, isn't it? To lie for you."
Right, this was all for the best.
There was a scenario he had created with Raquel. There was a narrative. He had worked hard to stick to it. He didn't want to unstick from it. Strange enough, their roles were becoming somewhat comfortable to him, and he would prefer that comfort over the hassle of slipping in and out of lies.
"It is a rather nice photo," she said suddenly, dispersing the darkened mood around them.
He watched her as she looked at the picture. She looked almost captivated, though he supposed anyone would have reacted the same upon seeing their photo become the cover of Business Insider. Even Andres was graced with the opportunity only once in his lifetime.
He shifted a little closer to her on the bed and peered over her shoulder to get a better look at the photo he had already spent twenty-four full hours analyzing. A faint whiff of her perfume reached his nose, drawing him in.
"It is very aesthetically pleasing," he replied. "The way the lights hit your hair is quite elegant, it almost looks staged."
She turned to him with a smile. "I have my tongue down your throat, and you're commenting on the artistic choice?"
"Would you rather have me comment on your tongue?"
She flushed red and looked back on the magazine, her lips pulling into a tight smile. Sergio warmed at the sight. He briefly wondered what had been stopping him from flirting with her thus far.
Then he remembered. The fear of death and all.
"So, my mother in there," he began. "She's not going to be too happy about this tongue business."
"Please stop saying tongue," she rolled her eyes.
"Tongue," he said it again, eliciting another exasperated sigh out of her. He felt a pleasant buzz in his hands whenever she was close enough to touch.
"Say it again, and there won't be tongue next time."
She paused. So did he. No one was laughing anymore.
Just then, they heard footsteps in front of the door. It took Raquel a few seconds to snap out of her trance and look around in panic.
"Shit, we can't let her see this room!"
Sergio was still staring at her, trying to process her words. Why was he never given time to process anything? Next time? What did she mean by that?
Would she kiss him again? Or was it an implicit threat to cut his tongue off?
There wasn't any way to tell, really. It seriously could have been either of the two.
But which one?!
"The room. Look around you!"
He blinked a few times and looked around. They were in his guest bedroom, which had become hers over the course of her stay with him. After having the police carry all sorts of equipment in there, she had turned the place into her little den. There were three monitors on the giant desk, a few tracking devices, and machines that he didn't recognize but knew made loud whirring noises just to intentionally spite him. There were stacks of files practically everywhere. And clothes. Her clothes were scattered all over the room.
It was a little difficult to convince his mother of their love if they were staying in different rooms.
With a gasp, he jumped to his feet. A panic attack was right around the corner, but he got a hold of himself before it could spread.
"What do we do?"
"She's coming in, hurry," with that, she grabbed his hand and dragged him to the door.
Together, they exited the room and shut the door behind them so loudly that Maria yelped and almost collided with them. With fake smiles, Sergio and Raquel stood in front of the closed door, barricading the room from Maria's sight.
"What's going on?"
"Nothing," they replied at the same time.
"Well, move," she replied. "I need to drop my things off at the guest room."
"No!" they yelled.
"What? Why not?"
Oh, God. Dear God or whoever's up there, help!
"Well," Raquel began because it was always her who led their daily fraud. "Before you go in there, have you seen the bathroom?"
She threw him a desperate look.
"You have to see the bathroom, mother," he said slowly, looking into Raquel's eyes, who nodded encouragingly. "I just renovated."
"Last week," he said.
"Last year," he corrected himself.
Raquel coughed again.
"Six months ago?" he tried again.
Maria squinted so hard at the two of them that her eyes turned into thin little slits. There was nothing but suspicion in her gaze. She frowned, and she opened her mouth to speak, but she had waited too long, which had earned Sergio and Raquel a few seconds to think. A few seconds was all they needed.
"And the bath, the bath is amazing, you have to see it!" She linked her arm with Maria's and began dragging her away from the guest room.
"It's huge, it can fit five people in there!" Sergio chimed in, taking her other arm. Though Maria was not being too easy, so they began semi shoving her in the direction of the bathroom.
"You have to take one!"
"A bath?!" Maria exclaimed. "Right now?"
"So soothing," he encouraged her.
"Very relaxing," Raquel joined. "We'll put that thing in there for you, that…"
"Eucalyptus oil!" Sergio completed her sentence. "It's in the drawer. Take your time, enjoy!"
They pushed Maria into the bathroom a little too forcefully and shut the door closed after her.
Out of breath, they turned around, rested their backs against the door, and turned to each other in panic.
"Let's go," Raquel whispered to Sergio.
It took them fifteen minutes to empty out the guest room. Fifteen frantic minutes.
After a brief fight about where her belongings should go, with Sergio insisting on the tiny storage closet and with Raquel pointing at the triple monitors and calling him a blind idiot, they finally settled on tossing everything into Sergio's room. She rolled all of her clothes into a big ball and shoved them in his closet as he carried all of her work files, dumping them on whatever empty surface he found in his bedroom. They carried the big whirring machines together, Raquel explaining the importance of tracking and communications and Sergio mumbling something about the outdated technology and the worldwide use of smartphones. They bumped into a few walls, almost cracked a monitor screen, and threatened each other with vowing to never speak again after this farce.
Sergio insisted on changing the sheets, Raquel reminded him that they were almost out of time, Sergio began a lecture on nighttime hygiene, and Raquel followed it up with a mild insult about his pajamas. He got offended, she got angry, but together they managed to come out of this in one piece, and by the end of fifteen minutes, the guest bedroom was thoroughly vacated of Raquel's presence.
They stumbled out to the hallway, out of breath, exchanging unpleasantries, just in time for Maria to leave the bathroom.
"You were right, that bath was rejuvinat- Were you two just having a fight?"
"We never fight," Raquel replied almost automatically. "Ever."
"Raquel doesn't have an ounce of aggression within her," Sergio said angrily. "She was born with a heart three sizes too big, kind of like a teddy bear."
"That's me," she said, matching his aggression with her own. "A teddy bear."
"My teddy bear," he smiled because he was still quite pissed off at her earlier comment about his pajamas, and he knew she wouldn't particularly enjoy being called a plush animal.
The look she gave him was deadly but satisfying.
"Careful," she replied, gritting her teeth. "This teddy bear is a little too soft, it might smother you in your sleep."
"I would need to be sleeping with the teddy bear for such an accident to occur."
"If that's the reward, the teddy bear would love nothing more than to sleep with you."
They were so lost in their useless metaphor that they were growing entirely unaware of how this entire exchange was beginning to look to someone who wasn't fully convinced of their relationship to begin with. Maria frowned, watched them carefully with the attention of a mother who cared, and finally interrupted them before their banter turned inappropriate.
"Is this what the kids get off to nowadays?"
"W-what? Get off?" Sergio stammered, finally managing to tear his gaze off Raquel.
"Back in my day, if we liked someone, we were nice to them. A lot has changed apparently since then," Maria said with apprehension.
"Raquel has a unique love language," he replied with unease, attempting to turn the situation back around. "She's a little difficult to work with, but she pulls through when she needs to."
Raquel did not look like she enjoyed that remark. "And Sergio has no love language whatsoever, but he pulls through when he is forced to."
A faint chime of the doorbell was heard in the background.
"And Raquel doesn't shy away from forcing," he replied with a fabricated smile. Attention still on the two most important women of his life, he went to answer the door. "But that's okay because she is the nicest, sweetest, and the most lovable person you'll ever-"
He opened the door. He was met with a bouquet of flowers.
When the hands holding the bouquet lowered, he came face to face with no one other than his downstairs neighbor.
And a little rat named Pamuk.
"The recycling man!" His neighbor yelled back, with a rainbow of bruises decorating his face. Pamuk whined angrily.
Before Sergio could react, Raquel had already heard the familiar voice, and she was now marching up to the door. "Did I hear that correctly?"
The man's face paled upon seeing his bully from earlier. He gasped. "It's the lady with the boots!"
"You!" Raquel hissed. "Oh, I'm going to ki-"
Sergio reacted quickly. He reacted because he knew her, and he knew what she was about to do.
He reached out from behind her, grabbed a fistful of her shirt, and pulled her harshly back to himself before she could attack the man. Raquel's back collided with his chest, and he grabbed hold of her hip to keep her still.
"Stop it," he whispered in her ear, then pointed at his mother. Much to his surprise, Raquel listened. She did not speak, but she did not punch him either, which, to Sergio, was a great sign. Instead, she remained tucked close to him, breathing through her nose like some sort of a caged animal.
At this point, Maria also came to the doorway to see what the fuss was about. Her face brightened upon seeing their guest.
"Oh hello, welcome," she said warmly.
"My Maria!" His neighbor practically melted at the sight of her.
"Excuse me, your what?!" Sergio blurted out.
"Your what?" Maria frowned.
"My mother is your date?!" Oh, no. He felt faint. He turned to his mother in shock. "Mother, is this true?!"
Maria began shaking her head. "I came across him downstairs when I arrived, he helped me with my bags. So, I just invited him to dinner."
"What. Dinner." Raquel practically growled.
"The dinner we're having," Maria said. "Tonight."
"What. Dinner." Sergio repeated.
"The one you're cooking," Maria replied.
"We're eating with them?!" His neighbor exclaimed.
"I am cooking for him?" Sergio yelled.
"And he's eating?" Raquel chimed in with offense.
"And I'm getting to know my daughter-in-law," Maria smiled. She stepped closer and put a hand on Raquel's shoulder, and the latter began vibrating from stress.
"Mother, if we could just-" Sergio began.
"Wait a minute," Maria interrupted him. Suddenly her attention was on the neighbor, her face crumbling into an expression of scrutiny then to concern as she scrunched her eyes and tried to get a better look at the man before her. "Are those… bruises on your face? What happened to you?"
His neighbor opened his mouth to speak. "I would be happy to tell you what happened to me. I was minding my own business then Ra-"
In a coordinated panic, Sergio and Raquel reached over, grabbed hold of his shoulders, and yanked him inside before he could finish his sentence. Pamuk yelped as he too was dragged inside with its owner. They shut the door behind him.
"It was the rain!" Sergio squeaked fear.
"He fell in the rain!" Raquel yelled.
"And I will cook!"
"You will?" Raquel turned to him in shock.
"Why is everyone yelling," Maria mumbled quietly.
"I will cook, and you will help if it means that my lovely neighbor here is having a good time," then in a shouting whisper, he added quickly, "and keeping his mouth shut!"
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that?" Maria said.
"He said he was very excited to cook," Raquel replied with unease. She too was visibly trembling now, holding onto the man's shoulder with such force that her knuckles were turning white. "Sergio is very respectful."
"Well, an hour ago, he wasn't respect-"
"WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE, CHICKEN OR STEAK?" Sergio yelled over him in panic.
"Well, if you're asking, lobster sounds kind of nice."
Raquel clenched her hand and dug her fingernails in his arm.
"Chicken sounds great!" His neighbor yelled in terror.
"Chicken it is!"
Then there was silence. Silence as they waited for his mother to process the act that had just been played out before her. Silence as they waited to see if she believed their performance. Sergio laughed a bit too nervously, Raquel's smile was way off, and his neighbor was keeping quiet thanks to the sheer physical force Raquel was applying to his arm with her nails alone.
Maria did not buy it.
But she had always been more observant than she was confrontational, so she did not dwell on this much longer.
"I'm going to get dressed. By the time I'm back, make sure whatever all this is…" with that, she gestured vaguely at the three of them. "….is handled."
"Yes, mother. Thank you, mother. Will do, mother." Sergio began muttering in gratitude.
They stood there, frozen in the same silly position with forged smiles and uneven breathing, and watched as Maria made her way to the guest bedroom, mumbling quietly to herself in confusion. They did not move until they watched her disappear into the room and close the door behind her with a soft but sure click.
Sergio and Raquel gave each other one brief look. He didn't need to talk to her to know what she was thinking. He also didn't need to verbalize his assent for her to know that he understood her. This was the necessary evil, and they were once again out of options. Their cover was already beginning to show cracks. One more blow, and their charade would come unraveling.
So, they began dragging his neighbor down the hall.
"Hey, where are you taking me?!"
"Shut up and be quiet," Raquel grunted.
Pamuk hissed in a fury.
"You too," she said.
Pamuk let out a disgruntled sob but kept silent.
Together, they shoved the man into Sergio's bedroom and closed the door behind them. For a second, he didn't know what to do. The room was filled to the brim with Raquel's belongings. Then he formulated a quick solution and pushed the man to the armchair. With the help of Raquel, he made him sit down, grabbed the stool from his dresser, and pulled it in front of him, sitting down himself.
"What the hell is going on?" The man asked, though from the sound of his voice, Sergio could tell that he knew exactly what was going on.
Seconds later, he heard the distinct sound of someone cocking a gun behind him. Then, just as he predicted, Raquel appeared in his line of sight, now with a small hand pistol in hand, directing it at none other than his downstairs neighbor.
"A gun!" The man yelled and tried to get up.
Sergio pushed him back to the armchair, and he turned to Raquel. "I thought your gun was at my office."
"I have a spare," she explained.
Of course she has a spare.
Sergio directed his attention back to the neighbor, completely unaware of the fact that the evening was slowly turning into a realistic reenactment of a Soviet interrogation.
"Alright so," he began calmly.
"A gun!" His neighbor began again. He was breathing so hard that Sergio could practically hear the straining in his lungs. "She's got a gun to my head! A real gun!"
"That's okay," Sergio said calmly. "Just ignore it."
"How can I ignore a literal gun pointed at my head? Are you insane?"
Sergio sighed. "You learn to tune it out."
"Her," he replied and gave her a mock smile as payback for their earlier bickering before his neighbor had crashed the party.
A faint growl escaped Raquel's throat, and suddenly her gaze was zeroing in on him. His heart picked up a familiar pace in his chest. He watched as her lips curled into a sly smile, and she slowly began turning the gun until the barrel pointed at his own temple.
His neighbor let out a breath of relief.
He swallowed dryly, already beginning to feel the sweat building up in his palms. But then logic took over. She wasn't going to shoot him in his own bedroom, not now. They were knee-deep in this debacle together, and she needed him just as much as he needed her. Besides, there was the whole investigation bit to worry about. He relaxed a bit.
"If you kill me, you would have to do the cooking alone," he replied calmly.
Then he did something he had never done before.
He reached over, pushed the barrel away from his face with two fingers until the gun was pointing back at his neighbor again.
He waited for her to lash out, but Raquel just rolled her eyes with a hint of a smile playing at her lips. Was it possible that she liked it whenever he stood up to her?
"How are you not afraid of her?!" The man exclaimed, once again in utter fear at the prospect of being held at gunpoint for the second time that night by the same woman who had left traces of her violent tendencies on his face a mere hour ago.
Sergio looked up at Raquel. Yes, she had a gun in her hand, and maybe that would have terrified him a month ago, but nowadays, he was used to her occasional rampage, accepting it to be part of her nature. He had even begun embracing it. He couldn't help but admire the grace and fluidity of her body as she flexed her arm and held the weapon. Besides, the gun was currently pointed at the man he hated most in the world, so who was he to complain?
"I seem to have some sort of an immunity when it comes to her," Sergio replied carefully, eyes still on Raquel.
With a short huff of breath, she turned the gun back to him again, as though she was provoked, and she was trying to prove him wrong.
His neighbor sighed in relief.
Annoyed, Sergio pushed the barrel back to the man. His neighbor gasped in panic.
That is enough, his eyes seemed to say.
They did not break eye contact, any other presence in the room already forgotten.
"That was for the teddy bear comment," she smiled sweetly at him.
He was momentarily caught off guard by her smile. Even though it was mocking, and it screamed of irony, there was also a hint of sincerity behind it. He knew that glimmer in her eye, he was quite familiar with it. In fact, he sought for it, he tried to elicit it from her at every chance just for his own sake. Purely out of selfish reasons, really. He was beginning to love the way she made him feel.
He also loved to take her mind off the doom that followed her everywhere she went, especially after the magazine surfaced.
"If you're going to put a gun to my head with every sweet comment, we have a long night ahead of us."
"Then maybe you should stop with the sweet comments," she snapped.
"Or you should stop with the gun."
"I second that," his neighbor chimed in.
"Shut up," they said at the same time, eyes back on each other.
There was a brief pause where they eyed each other down, daring the other to speak first. Aware of their predicament, Sergio was beginning to conquer his fears. Raquel's potential to inflict harm decreased significantly around witnesses. Besides, there was one more person in the room whom she hated more than she hated him, so if she were to fall victim to her blind rage, he knew who'd die first. And it wasn't him.
So, he wasn't surprised when she spoke first, with an attempt to even out the playground.
"I'll tell you what. I'll back off if you don't overdo it."
He considered this offer for a bit and countered it with his own. His neighbor stared between the two of them, trying to understand what the hell was going on.
"That is too vague," Sergio replied. "You have to give me something more explicit if you want me to work with you."
Raquel rolled her eyes but cooperated nonetheless. "Alright, nothing too lovey-dovey," she said, drawing the boundaries of their pretend evening.
"No teddy bears. We're not teenagers, so treat me accordingly."
He nodded, deeming her request reasonable. "Noted, I'll keep it serious."
"And honest," she added quickly. "Your mother is suspicious. Keep it genuine."
The gun was still pointed at the neighbor's head, who watched the exchange in utter confusion.
"If you're requesting honesty, then you shouldn't feel the need to warn me about getting too sweet."
"Right, how can I forget?" Raquel scoffed, looking away from him. Her voice was barely audible, and he almost didn't hear her. "We don't actually like each other."
"That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean?" She looked back at him.
"I meant that if you're asking for sincerity, that's what I will give you. I can't be sickly sweet even if I wanted to. I wouldn't know how," he replied honestly. Because at the end of the day, Sergio did not know how to be someone's boyfriend. He was also quite bad at lying regardless of his recent experience with it. He might have gotten better at it, but it certainly did not mean that he liked it.
So really, sincerity worked out for everyone.
"What does your sincerity entail then?" She asked with an inquisitive tone. Then she added quickly after a beat. "I-I mean, I wanna know what I'm getting myself into."
He let out a short laugh. "You're already in it. There's no going back now."
"That doesn't mean you can't answer the question."
"No, it does not mean that. But I won't answer the question regardless."
"Because it's time you stopped being impatient," he said with a smile. Oh, to have her in the palm of his hand like that was rare. She had lost most of her leverage for the night when she had agreed to lie to his mother immediately after compromising herself by punching the man who was to spend the evening with them. Raquel's freedom to lash out was finally under semi control, and Sergio was absolutely pleased. With confidence, he continued. "I am not letting you demand answers from me when you will find out soon enough."
"And that's the end of it." he interrupted her. "One night of honesty in exchange for truce. You will cease your hostility. If not for me, then for my mother.
She gave him a long look as she weighed her options. She was backed into a corner where there weren't that many choices, and Sergio suppressed the urge to laugh out loud in delight.
"One night," she replied carefully.
Raquel under control?
Amazing. Beautiful. Magnificent. The best thing to ever happen to him. This was a good sign. Maybe he could go invest in some stocks or something before a meteor fell on his head. After all, he couldn't imagine why the God of finance had finally smiled down upon him unless he had something truly sneaky in store.
They continued to stare at each other. Sergio memorized the look of submission on her face, enjoying every minute of it. Raquel looked like she was trying to read into his mind.
"Hello?" Someone spoke up, bringing them out of their reverie. "I'm still being threatened over here?"
He cleared his throat, allowing himself to return to the task at hand without losing his sense of control. From the corner of his eye, he saw Raquel tightening her hold on her gun, surprised to see her loosen her grip to begin with.
"Alright, so," Sergio began, turning to his neighbor. "You cannot tell my mother about the little altercation that occurred between you and Raquel earlier in the hall."
"Altercation?" The man gaped at him. "You mean aggravated physical assault?!"
Sergio scoffed, attempting to keep the discussion simple. "Oh please, she barely touched you. It was quite minor."
"Minor? I can't breathe out of my left nostril!"
"You got two, use the other one," he gritted between his teeth, growing annoyed.
"Or better yet," Raquel said. "Don't breathe at all."
His neighbor turned to her in shock. "You want me dead?"
"I got a gun to your head. Take a guess."
"Anyway," Sergio interrupted before the situation could escalate. "You will not tell my mother how you got the bruises. And you won't tell her about this conversation either. You won't tell her anything."
Alright, good. This was going according to plan. His demand was fairly easy to follow. The gun to his head made it easier for him to agree. Maybe, he thought, just maybe, keeping Raquel around wasn't such a bad thing. She and her violent streak came in quite handy when he needed to be heard. Maybe he could get used to this.
"In exchange of what?" His neighbor asked.
Raquel growled. "In exchange of me not shooting you."
"If you're going to kill me regardless, then there's nothing stopping me from telling my beautiful Maria the identity of the person who's about to kill me."
His beautiful Maria. The nerve on this man.
Sergio shifted in his seat, trying to get a hold of himself. He couldn't let his control escape, not after having worked so hard to gain it.
"Listen here you little sh-"
"Raquel," he interrupted her. "He's right. This is a negotiation."
Ignoring her, he faced his downstairs neighbor once more. "Name your price."
Clearly, this was what the man had been waiting for because, in a matter of seconds, he produced his offer with a confident voice. "A three-course home cooked meal with two hours alone with Maria."
Sergio almost hit the man with his chair.
But he kept his cool regardless, gaining a whole new respect for Raquel for having no filters. Maybe life was much easier if you were a short woman with a license to carry a firearm.
"One-course meal and no time alone."
"Three-course meal and four hours alone."
"You're supposed to go down, not up," Sergio said in exasperation. "This is a compromise."
"Doesn't feel like a compromise when I have a gun to my head."
Raquel removed the safety to the gun with a loud click. "Does it feel like a compromise now?"
"Raquel," he warned her.
Raquel rolled her eyes and put the safety back on. "You're no fun."
"And you are a little too much fun. We need to balance," he replied and turned back to his neighbor again, repeating his offer. "One-course meal."
"Two-course meal and two hours alone," the man countered.
"One meal and one hour alone."
"Two-course meal with one hour alone."
"One-course with dessert and one hour alone," Sergio said. "That's my last and final offer."
Sergio sighed and looked at Raquel expectantly.
A little help please?
Raquel nodded and smacked the man on the back of his head with her gun.
"Ow, fine!" The man whined, one hand coming up to rub his head.
They shook hands, and Sergio tried to ignore the disappointed look on Raquel's face at not getting to kill someone today. He threw her a stern look.
Cry me a river.
She arched a brow and looked away with indifference.
Terms and conditions were exchanged, and Sergio finally managed to get her to lower the gun and put it away. They escorted the man out, but right after he left the room, Sergio grabbed a hold of Raquel's arm and pulled her back.
"Do you agree to all this? Can you give me your confirmation in writing?" He whispered.
Amused, she looked up at him. "Do you want me to draw up a contract or something?"
"Funny," he said. "I need you to tell me that you're on board with all this. I can't do it without you."
"Well, well, well," she crossed her arms and looked at him. "Look how the tables have turned. You need my cooperation. That reminds me of something. Hmm… I don't know what. Do you remember?"
"This is not the time to mock me."
"Oh, this is exactly the time to mock you."
He stepped closer to her, invading her space. She stopped laughing and uncrossed her arms.
"Listen to me. We're going to prepare an excellent meal, give this man some time alone with my mother, make sure that he keeps his hands to himself and his mouth shut. We will refrain from serving his insides as dessert, all the while keeping up with our pretend love which, per your request, will be conducted with honesty. Are you in or not?"
Raquel swallowed. Her gaze locked with his. "I don't get paid enough for this shit."
"I don't get paid at all."
She let out a light chuckle. He immediately softened at the sight. A part of him did not want to leave this room. He wanted to stay in there with her forever.
"I feel like I haven't made you beg long enough," she replied softly.
"Come on, Raquel," one more step closer, and he was practically towering over her. He loved the way she craned her neck to look up at him from behind her long lashes. "Would you rather have me on my knees?"
"Hmm…" she teased. "It would be a pretty sight."
"You're a masochist," he said, surprised when his tone came out more affectionate than insulting. "You enjoy inflicting people with pain."
"Not people," she smiled. "Just you."
"Then this evening is the perfect opportunity for you," his voice came out lower. He could feel the change in his tone. Why did he do that? Did he subconsciously want her to lean in closer to him? "I will be absolutely miserable tonight. I will probably have a heart attack halfway through, burn the food or sauté this man for coming onto my mother. I need you there to keep me sane."
"You need me?"
"I need you."
She licked her lips. His eyes went to her mouth, and he leaned in just a bit closer. The curve of her lower lip was slightly damp, and he couldn't look away.
"Then I'll do it," she said suddenly, her voice like velvet against his skin.
"Yes. I'll do it for you."