Actions

Work Header

Personal Relationships

Chapter Text

 

Raquel Murillo wondered how the fuck she had ended up here. A few months ago, she had been a wife, a mother, a respected and highly-ranked police officer. Now she was in the back of a police van, in handcuffs, being driven to a low-security prison just outside of Madrid. She was still numb with disbelief. She’d known her ex-husband was a bastard – she just hadn’t known how much of a bastard until she had served him with divorce papers and threatened to win full custody over Paula. The van bumped a little over an uneven patch of road and she was jostled against the two police officers sitting next to her – officers she would have outranked only a few days ago.

Then the van abruptly came to a stop, and she frowned. They couldn’t be there yet. She tensed alongside her two ex-colleagues as they heard shouting outside, and the men exchanged nervous glances. A moment later, the door in the back was pulled open, and four large men were standing there, covered in tattoos and aiming heavy semi-automatic guns straight at them. They’re making a mistake, was her first thought. They think this is a money transport. The policeman on Raquel’s left raised his hands immediately, but the cocky twenty-something on her right actually drew his gun.

“Don’t be stupid”, she snapped at him. “Put that thing down. You’re clearly outnumbered and they have better guns.”

One of the tattooed men grinned. “Listen to the lady, kid. She makes a lot of sense.”

The young policeman hesitated, then put his gun on the floor of the van and kicked it towards the back. The tattooed man caught it.

“Good”, he said, then nodded towards Raquel. “You. Come with us.”

“Me?” she said in utter confusion.

“Yes, you. Come out or I’ll drag you out.”

She didn’t much like the thought of going with four men who were armed to the teeth, but she didn’t see any other options, either. She slowly got up and made her way towards the back of the van, where one of the men took her by the arm and helped her out. Then they slammed the back door, and led her away from the vehicle.

“Look”, she said, “I think there’s been a mistake. What the hell could you possibly want with me?”

The man who’d spoken before turned to her. “The Professor wants to talk to you.”

She frowned. “Who?”

“He has a job offer for you.”

She stared at him. “A job offer? I’m going to prison.”

“But you’re innocent, right?”

Her eyebrows rose. “How do you know that?”

“The Professor knows a lot of useful things. If you come with us, you don’t have to go to prison.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Where would you be taking me?”

“To a safe location, where the Professor will be waiting for you.”

“Who is this ‘Professor’?”

He grinned. “That’s information I can’t disclose. The only thing you need to know right now is that he has a proposition for you. Do you want to hear it or not?”

She shook her head. “I only have a short sentence to serve, I’d be out in a few years on good behavior. If I go with you, I become a fugitive for the rest of my life. At least when I come out of prison, I can go back into society.”

He gave her a sly look. “But will they give you back your daughter?”

She stared at him. “How do you know about my daughter?”

“Doesn’t matter. Will you ever get custody of her again?”

She swallowed hard. “Maybe.”

“The Professor has a plan that will get you reunited with her in six months.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “How?”

“I’ll let him explain that. Are you coming with us or not?”

“What if I say no?”

“Then we’ll say we made a mistake, put you back in that van, and let you go serve your prison sentence. It’s your call.”

She hesitated. “Six months, you say?”

“Give or take.”

She did a quick mental calculation. If she went with them and didn’t like the proposition of this ‘Professor’ character, she could always turn herself in again, say she was kidnapped. It probably wouldn’t add to her prison sentence. If I could see Paula again in six months… Maybe it couldn’t hurt to hear what he had to say.

She nodded. “Alright. Take me to the Professor.”

Sergio was fidgeting in his chair in the middle of the living room of the safe house, nervous. Getting his team together had been relatively easy so far, but this next person could present something of a challenge. She wasn’t crucial to the success of his operation, but she could be very useful, and when the opportunity to recruit her had presented itself so neatly, he felt like he would be a fool not to try. Raquel Murillo. For the longest time, he had assumed that she would be their negotiator for the heist, and he had researched her as much as possible. Then her ex-husband had framed her in order to win a custody battle, and his careful planning had been upset. Still, the situation could turn out to his advantage.

When he heard a car draw up outside the front door, he stood up and took a few deep breaths. When they led her in, he immediately recognized her from the many pictures he’d seen of her: an attractive woman in her early forties, looking tired and beaten down after the last grueling months of court cases and inquiries. He’d researched her extensively, but he hadn’t been prepared for the sheer presence of her – her quiet strength, the intelligence apparent in her dark eyes as she took in every detail of her surroundings. From that very first look, he realized that she would be a valuable member for their team.

He tried a tentative smile and nodded at her.

“Ms. Murillo.”

She gave him a suspicious look. “Who the fuck are you?”

“They call me the Professor.”

“So I’ve heard. What’s your real name?”

“You don’t need to know that.”

He held out a hand to a chair opposite his, and she sat. Only then did he notice that she was still in handcuffs. He shot his associates a reproachful look.

“Why is Ms. Murillo still cuffed? She’s a guest here, not a prisoner.”

One of the men produced a metal pin from his pocket and deftly opened Raquel’s handcuffs. She rubbed her wrists as she eyed him, tense, on the edge of her seat. He shook hands with the four men, and her eyes followed them as they left. He sat down in his own chair and began.

“Life has dealt you a terrible hand, Ms. Murillo. You got divorced, you got framed, you lost custody. Now you were headed for prison.”

She gave him a cold look. “Thank you for summing that up so nicely.”

“I have a proposition I think might interest you.”

“They said you can reunite me with my daughter. How?”

He nodded. “I think I can. But I’ll require your cooperation first.”

“You’re blackmailing me?”

He shook his head. “Merely offering you an option beside prison. You’re perfectly free to refuse.”

Her eyes were still suspicious, but she nodded. “Alright. Let’s hear it.”

He cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up his nose. “I’m assembling a team for an operation I have planned. Your inside knowledge of police procedure could prove very valuable to me. If you want to join us, it will require several months of preparation in a secure location, and your assistance during the operation itself.”

“What kind of operation?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“But it’s illegal, I presume?”

He inclined his head. “Technically, yes. However, if everything goes well, nobody will get hurt. Nobody will get robbed. Nobody will suffer any long-term negative consequences.”

“What kind of things would I have to do?”

“You would work as a kind of… consultant. Nothing violent, nothing that might offend your sensibilities. I only want to draw on your knowledge and experience. And, of course, you wouldn’t provide those things for free. If everything is successful, your share of the gains would be at least 100 million euros.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “That’s a lot of money.”

“It is”, he said, leaning forward. “Enough money to start a new life somewhere with your daughter, far away from Spain and your ex-husband.”

He could see her realize the options which that much money would give her. She remained skeptical, however.

“How would I even get my daughter?”

“That’s a simple enough matter of getting her out of school one morning and leaving the country before anyone catches on.”

“How would I get out of the country?”

“I can assist you with that.”

She was quiet for a while, thinking. “What’s to stop me from going to the police with this information? I could probably bargain it for a reduction of my sentence.”

He shook his head. “What exactly would you tell them? You don’t know my name or what kind of operation I’m planning. All you know is the location of this disposable safe house, that I’ll never set foot in again if you decide not to join my team.”

She gave him a calculating look, then slowly bent down and picked the open handcuffs off the floor. “I could arrest you right now and take you in myself.”

He tensed, but didn’t move. “You could try.”

They sat in silence for a moment, measuring each other up. She’s brave and resourceful, he thought, I like that. He liked it even more, however, when he saw her reach the only rational conclusion and throw the handcuffs back onto the floor.

“I don’t have any evidence against you”, she said bitterly.

He shook his head. “No, you don’t.”

She could keep a cool head and think fast – those were valuable things in a control room. He wanted her on the team even more now. He leaned forward again and tried a different tack.

“Ms. Murillo, do you really want to go to prison for a crime you didn’t commit?”

“Why are you so sure I didn’t do it?”

He gave her a careful look. “I’ve researched you thoroughly, Inspectora. You are not the kind of woman to steal drugs from an evidence locker with the intention to sell them. You’re too smart for that, not to mention that you have too much integrity. I assume your ex-husband planted them in your house?”

She pressed her lips together and nodded. “He did.”

“And the judge didn’t believe your allegations of domestic violence?”

He could see that the injustice of it still stung her deeply.

“No”, she said bitterly. “He didn’t.”

He looked into her eyes. “You don’t deserve to go to prison, Ms. Murillo. You don’t deserve to have your daughter taken away from you. If the system is unjust, you need to fight it. That’s what we’re going to do.”

He could see that his words were beginning to sway her.

She frowned at him. “How big is the risk?”

He shrugged. “There’s always a risk, of course. But I can assure you that I’ve planned this operation most meticulously, and you would be the person who will be least likely to get caught.”

“And what if I do get caught?”

“Then you’ll go to prison. Not unlike your current situation.”

She hesitated, and he played his trump card. He’d rehearsed this next part over and over.

“Think of your daughter, Ms. Murillo. How many years did you get?”

She bit her lip. “Nine, but I’ll be out in seven.”

“And how old is she now?”

“Eight.”

“So she’ll be fifteen when you get out. Think of all the things you’ll miss. Birthdays and Christmases, report cards and play dates. New friends. Her first boyfriend. She’ll be almost grown up the next time you see her.”

There were tears in her eyes. “I’ll still see her!”

His voice was soft. “Really? You think your ex-husband will allow her to visit you in prison?”

She glared at him. “This is pure emotional manipulation.”

“Maybe it is, but does that make it any less true?”

She kept glaring at him for a few more moments, then lowered her eyes. “No.”

He gave her a moment to regain her composure as she took a few deep breaths. Then…

“What if I say yes?”

He perked up. “Then you’ll stay in this safe house for the next two weeks. There is plenty of food and clean clothes, a television and books to read. They’ll be looking for you, so you shouldn’t go outside under any circumstances until one of my associates comes to pick you up to bring you to the location where we will prepare for the operation.”

She was quiet for a long time, staring at the floor. After several minutes, he moved to get up.

“No need to decide now, Ms. Murillo. You can stay here for a few days while you think things over.”

“No”, she said softly. “I don’t need to think things over.”

He sat back down, and when she raised her gaze he saw a fire in her eyes that hadn’t been there before.

“They took everything from me”, she said in a low voice, “and I thought that I couldn’t do anything about it. I thought my life was over. But you’re giving me a chance, and I’ll be damned if I don’t take it. I won’t be a victim anymore. I’ll show those bastards.”

She gave him a fierce look, and he felt a flash of admiration.

 “You really think I could get my daughter back?”

He nodded. “I can promise you that I’ll do everything in my power to arrange it.”

She took a deep breath, then gave a determined nod. “Alright. I’ll do it.”

Two weeks later, he stood on the front steps of the house near Toledo that he’d rented for the occasion, and watched the members of his band trickle in. He greeted them all without calling them by their names, including his brother, who arrived at the same time as the rest of them so as not to give away the personal nature of their relationship. Raquel was the last to arrive, and he wondered for a moment if she’d run away after all, if his associate would have found an empty house waiting for him. Then the car came up the driveway, and she got out, dressed in a leather jacket, carrying two bags. He noticed immediately that she looked much better than she had two weeks ago: well rested, full of energy and determination. Hope could do that to people.

When she reached him at the front door, she gave him a nod, unsmiling, and he nodded back.

“I thought perhaps you weren’t coming.”

“Like hell I wasn’t”, she said, and he could feel the quiet anger burning underneath her calm exterior. “If I say I’m in, I’m in. Let’s fucking do this.”

He smiled to himself as she swept past him into the house.

Now that everyone was there, he let them file up the stairs and into their ‘classroom’ for the first time. They all sat down, some of them a little tense, others immediately at ease. He turned to the blackboard, trying not to show how nervous he was, and wrote ‘Bienvenidos’. The instant he turned around to face them, though, he felt his nervousness disappear. This was it. The moment he had been preparing for all these years. He knew what to do. He knew what to say.

“Welcome, all. I want to thank you for accepting this job offer. We will live here, far away from any distractions. We will stay here for five months while we study this heist.”

“What do you mean, five months?” asked the man he knew to be Agustín Ramos. “Are you mad?”

He sat on the edge of the desk and prepared to explain his reasoning, a reasoning that he had repeated to himself dozens of times. “Look. People spend years in school, to end up with a salary that, even in the best of cases, is kind of shitty. What are five months? I’ve been thinking about this…” he needed a moment before he could continue, thinking of the years, the decades of his life that he had spent planning this, “… for much longer. So I would never have to work again. And neither will you. Or your children.”

They all shifted in their seats.

He nodded, then moved to the blackboard, all business. “Right. We don’t know each other, and we’ll keep it that way. I don’t want any names, or personal questions, and of course…”

He looked up, and his eyes were drawn to the back of the classroom, where Raquel was sitting, looking at him intently. “… no personal relationships.”

 

 

Chapter Text

At their first dinner together, the conversation went smoother than Sergio had feared. The younger people took to each other immediately, and there was joking and laughter and a general atmosphere of giddy excitement about the adventure they were embarking on together. By the end of the meal, everyone was joining in… except for himself, of course. He preferred to observe rather than participate. Then he noticed that, on the other side of the table, Raquel wasn’t saying anything either, leaning back in her chair with a serious expression, listening to the jokes without even a smile. He wondered if she was having second thoughts.

After the plates were cleared away, an awkward silence fell, and Sergio decided to break it by asking:

“Why don’t we go around the table and you introduce yourselves with the city name you’ve chosen and the part you will play in our operation?”

He nodded to the woman sitting on Raquel’s left, and she said:

“You can call me Nairobi. I’m a specialist in falsified banknotes, I’ll be in charge of quality control.”

Next up was his brother. “My name will be Berlin. I’m the Professor’s second-in-command, and I’ll be your captain once we’re on the ground.”

One by one, they announced their city names and functions. Raquel was last. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“I’m here as a consultant”, she said shortly.

“What kind of consultant?” Nairobi asked.

“Police procedure.”

“How come you’re an expert on police procedure?” Tokyo asked suspiciously.

Sergio opened his mouth to intervene, ready to give a vague answer, but Raquel didn’t give him a chance. She raised her chin defiantly and said:

“Because, until a few months ago, I was a police inspector in Madrid.”

Sergio grimaced. He wished she wouldn’t have put things so bluntly, but he had to admit that she had guts. There was an immediate outbreak of angry shouts as everyone turned to him in indignation.

“What the fuck, Professor!” Tokyo shouted. “You brought a fucking cop here?”

He raised his hands, trying to calm them down. “She’s not a cop anymore.”

“So she turned on her former colleagues? She’s a fucking rat and you think we can trust her?” Tokyo turned to Raquel with a look of utter contempt. “The only thing worse than a cop is a corrupt cop.”

Raquel’s dark eyes flashed. “I’m not a corrupt cop.”

“Yeah, right”, Nairobi laughed. “I’m sure you’re here because you’re so honest.”

“Ladies”, Sergio said, raising his voice slightly. “She has as good a reason to be here as anyone.”

“I’d like to hear it”, Moscow said calmly, and everyone fell silent, all eyes on Raquel.

She shot an angry look around the table. “You want to know why I’m here with you lot, a bunch of fucking criminals? Well, I’ll tell you. I got framed by my son of a bitch ex-husband for a crime I didn’t commit, and I was sentenced to nine years in prison. The Professor got me out on my way there.”

“Right!” Nairobi said. “Your escape was on the news two weeks ago. That’s where I recognize you from.”

“Yes”, she said. “That was me. The Professor gave me a second chance and I took it. And now I’m here, I’m in this just as much as you are.”

Sergio cleared his throat. “If this operation is to succeed, it is of vital importance that we all trust each other.”

“How the fuck can we trust her?” Tokyo said heatedly. “She’s probably just here to learn about the plan, and the first opportunity she gets, she’ll rat us out to her pals!”

“You think I still feel any loyalty towards them?” Raquel said, equally heatedly. “For those bastards who’ve known me for twenty years, but who believed that I was corrupt without question? Not a single one of them testified for me. Not a single one! You think I want to help them now? Fuck them!”

A murmur of approval sounded around the table, but Tokyo remained unconvinced.

“You’re making a mistake, Professor. Let’s kick her out now before she can gather any more information.”

Raquel rolled her eyes. “Are you an idiot? If you’re afraid I’d go to the police and tell them what you’re planning, kicking me out would be the stupidest thing you could do. If you don’t want me on the team now, your only option would be to keep me a prisoner here until after the heist. Or kill me.”

Sergio quickly intervened before Tokyo could get any ideas. “Nobody’s killing anyone! Listen, I know she won’t betray us. I have a good reason to trust her.”

“Oh yeah?” Tokyo challenged him. “What is it?”

Sergio looked at Raquel – it wasn’t his place to talk about her daughter – but she crossed her arms and gave Tokyo a dark look.

“That’s none of your goddamn business.”

Tokyo turned to the others. “What do you all think of this?”

There was a short silence, then Berlin straightened up.

“If the Professor says we can trust her, that’s good enough for me.”

Sergio nodded at him in gratitude as the others voiced their agreement, however reluctantly.

Tokyo shot Raquel a venomous look. “Fine. But just because I have to put up with you doesn’t mean I have to like you.”

Raquel stared coldly back. “Likewise.”

Sergio sighed. “Really, friction in the group is extremely counter-productive. We need to be able to count on each other in the heat of the moment. We need to be a team, a well-oiled machine. A single grain of sand can ruin things.”

Raquel snorted. “Don’t worry Professor, I’ll remove your grain of sand. I’m going to bed.”

She got up, then turned back to the table. “Oh, and by the way… you can call me Lisbon.”

Over the next few days, they settled into a rhythm of classes, meals and free time. There was an overall atmosphere of goodwill and enthusiasm for the plan, and soon friendships began to form –  in the beginning, Denver and Moscow mostly stuck together, as did the two Serbians, but after only a few days, the individual people began to coalesce into a tight-knit group. Sergio noticed, however, that their easy camaraderie didn’t extend to Raquel. The group might have accepted her, but they never talked to her, and Tokyo was actively going out of her way to be unpleasant. This meant that Raquel spent most of her free time alone, only braving the company of the others for classes and at mealtimes. Sergio was concerned about this. Even though Raquel wouldn’t be entering the Mint with the others, she would be manning the control room with him, and she would be in charge whenever he needed to sleep or in case he had to leave for some reason. The others needed to trust and respect her enough to take orders if needed.

He’d never been good at just talking to people, especially in a group context, so apart from when he was lecturing them, he mostly kept out of the conversation, content with listening and laughing along. After a few days, though, he felt like he needed to make an effort to make Raquel feel more included, since nobody else seemed inclined to try. Unlike the others, he had never had any run-ins with the police, so he didn’t share their distaste for her – in fact, he respected and even liked her instinctively. He didn’t want her to feel lonely. So he set aside his social anxieties and tentatively tried to strike up conversations with her.

At first she rebuffed him, giving only short answers and walking away from him, but after a few days her natural desire for companionship seemed to become too strong for her, and she started to seek him out, exchanging a few words with him during most breaks. During their conversations, short as they were, she kept surprising him with her intelligence and quick wit. When they talked about the classes, she showed a deep insight in and appreciation of his plans, which both impressed and flattered him.  After a few days their conversations, though remaining superficial, became longer and longer, and he realized that he was starting to look forward to them and that, without thinking about it, he had made a habit of sitting down next to her at every meal. He knew he shouldn’t focus his attention so much on one person, but for some reason, he felt much more comfortable with her than with any of the others.

One day during lunch, Tokyo had been particularly nasty to Raquel, and the others had ignored her as usual. After the meal was over, she got up silently and went towards the front door. He quickly pushed back his chair and went after her.

“Where are you going?”

“For a walk”, she said shortly.

He hesitated. “Would you mind if I accompanied you?”

She shrugged. “Do whatever you want.”

They went out together into the gray and chilly day, and they walked for a few minutes in silence as he tried to find the right words to say.

“I’m sorry the rest of the group is so unpleasant to you.”

She hunched her shoulders against the wind and frowned. “It’s really only Tokyo who’s unpleasant. The others just don’t like me.”

“I’m sure they’ll come around once they get to know you”, he tried to reassure her. “They just need to stop seeing you as a policewoman and start seeing you as a person.”

“You mean they don’t see me as human?”

“They can’t really help it… They’ve only ever had negative experiences with the police before.”

“Yes”, she nodded. “I suppose I can understand why they don’t want me here.”

She took a breath and glanced sideways. “You don’t have to feel obligated to talk to me just because nobody else does.”

“I don’t feel obligated”, he assured her. “Besides, we have to get to know each other anyway.”

She gave him a surprised look. “You want to get to know me?”

He hastened to explain: “Not… not personally, of course. But we’re going to spend a lot of time together in the control room. We need to be comfortable around each other, learn one another’s rhythms and habits.”

“Oh”, she said tonelessly. “Yes, of course.”

They were silent for a while. Then she turned to him.

“So that rule you gave us on our first day here? No names, no personal questions…”

“… and no personal relationships”, he supplied.

She nodded. “Yes, that one. Now what I’m wondering is this: how are we going to get to know each other without asking each other any personal questions?”

He hesitated. “I suppose we’ll have to keep to neutral questions.”

“What’s a neutral question, according to you?”

He thought about it. “Well… what’s your favorite color, for example?”

“Red”, she said, then raised an eyebrow. “Do you feel like you know me better already?”

He ran a hand through his hair. “Yes, I see what you mean. Perhaps… perhaps questions of a semi-personal nature might be acceptable.”

One corner of her mouth quirked up. “Questions of a semi-personal nature…”

“Yes.”

“Can you give me some examples, so I can learn to distinguish between the different categories of questions? I wouldn’t want to accidentally break a rule and ask you something personal.”

He vaguely sensed that she was teasing him, but she was getting a serious answer anyway.

“Alright,” he said, “A neutral question would be something like… ‘what do you like for breakfast’ or ‘do you like cats or dogs?’”

“Question: are there neutral, personal and semi-personal answers as well as questions?”

He frowned. “I think the answer would usually align with the category of the question.”

She gave him a grin that should have warned him. “I don’t agree.”

“You don’t?”

“Take your neutral example questions, for instance. If you ask me if I prefer cats or dogs, I could say ‘cats’ and leave it at that. Neutral answer. But I could also say: ‘I prefer cats as pets, but I prefer doggy-style in the bedroom.’ Still a neutral answer?”

He was blushing now. “You’re making fun of me.”

She grinned. “Just a little. Now can you give me an example of a personal question? Be sure to make it very personal, so I can clearly grasp the concept.”

He blushed even deeper. “I’m sure you’re mature enough to be able to distinguish between personal and impersonal questions without needing explicit examples.”

“Don’t forget the semi-personal ones.”

He suppressed a smile. “Stop mocking me.”

She chuckled, then said: “So can I try to ask you one of these semi-personal questions?”

“Sure”, he said, tensing a little.

“How about: why do they call you ‘the Professor’?”

“Oh”, he smiled. “It’s just a nickname I have.”

“Where does it come from?”

He hesitated, glancing at her, then decided that it couldn’t hurt to tell her. “I was often in hospital as a child. The nurses got to know me rather well. I was always reading, and I loved to talk to people about the things I’d learned. After a while, one of the nurses started calling me ‘the little professor’. It caught on, and the nickname has stayed with me for my entire life.”

She smiled. “That’s cute. So what’s your real name?”

He shook his head. “Rule number one, Lisbon: no names.”

“You don’t have to give me your full name, I’d just like to know your first name.”

“I’m sorry”, he said, “I can’t tell you that.”

“But it’s not fair: you know my name. In fact, you know everything about me. What could it hurt if you just told me your first name?”

He gave her a pained look. “I really can’t.”

She looked away from him. “You don’t trust me either.”

“No, that’s not it at all!”

“It’s okay, why would you?”

“Look”, he said, trying to explain. “I wouldn’t tell any of the others either. If I don’t follow my own rules, how can I expect anyone else to?”

“Fine”, she said expressionlessly. “It doesn’t matter. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone.”

And with those words, she turned and walked away from him, leaving him standing on the open hillside, feeling like he’d royally screwed up the situation.

She avoided him all evening. At dinner, she did not sit down next to him as usual, but between Moscow and Berlin, who were the least unfriendly towards her, and he felt vaguely disappointed. He knew he should try to make up with her somehow, because it really was important that they worked well together, but he had no idea how to go about it. After dinner, she got up and went straight to her room. When he went to bed that night, it took him a while to fall asleep – it bothered him that she was mad at him, he preferred to avoid interpersonal friction as it was a distraction from the things that really mattered. Finally he had to resort to breathing exercises to quiet his mind sufficiently to fall asleep.

He was awoken in the middle of the night by noises coming from the hallway. He opened sleepy eyes and frowned at his watch – 3.58 am. What the hell. He heaved himself out of bed and walked down the hallway towards the source of the noise: there was still a light on in the room of one of the women, and a soft strain of music was coming from beyond the door, accompanied by suppressed laughter and sounds of people moving around. His frown deepened as he opened the door. Tokyo and Nairobi were dancing around, wearing weird clothes and glasses, clearly drunk. Nairobi was actually wearing a string of fairy lights around her neck.

He cleared his throat and they froze. Giving them his sternest look, he pointed at his watch.

“It’s 4.03 am. There’s a lesson in the morning. It would be great if you were rested for class.”

They mumbled apologies, but as he turned around and left, he heard them giggle, and he had no faith that they would actually go to bed now. He shook his head. He would never understand other people. They knew they had class in the morning. They knew that class was important. They knew they would be tired. They were adult people, perfectly capable of following that train of reasoning, and yet they chose to stay up and be tired in the morning. It was beyond his understanding, but he’d done all he could do, and he had to go back to sleep himself.

About halfway down the hallway, he passed Raquel’s room and stopped. Did he hear noises coming from behind that door, too? He couldn’t imagine that she’d have someone in her room – nobody even talked to her. Yet, there it was again, a soft but unmistakable noise of distress. He hesitated, then quietly turned the doorknob and opened the door just an inch. The room was dark, illuminated only by the light of the half-moon falling through the window onto the bed, where Raquel was sleeping. It was immediately clear to him that she was having a nightmare – she was tossing and turning and crying out in her sleep. He hesitated again. She’s going to wake the others. He quickly slipped into the room and closed the door behind him, then moved to stand beside the bed.

“Lisbon”, he said softly, then a little more insistently: “Lisbon.”

She didn’t seem to hear him. He stretched out a hand, hesitated, then withdrew it again. “Raquel.”

This time, she woke up with a start.

“What?” she said, sitting up and looking around with confused eyes. “What’s happening? Why are you in my room?”

“You had a nightmare”, he said apologetically. “I didn’t mean to intrude, I just wanted to wake you. I’ll go now.”

He turned to leave, but she stretched out a hand. “Wait… please.”

He turned back to her, and she rubbed her face. “Would you mind staying, just for a moment, and talking to me? I need something to distract me from that dream.”

He hesitated. “I’m not sure that’s wise.”

“Oh, get over yourself”, she snapped. “What could it possibly hurt to talk to me for five minutes?”

He considered this for a moment, but he couldn’t think of a way to extricate himself from the situation without being unforgivably rude. He nodded reluctantly. “Alright. Five minutes.”

She threw him an amused look. “Are you just going to keep standing there? Sit down.”

As she switched on the light on her night stand, he gingerly sat down on the very edge of the bed. There was an awkward pause.

“What do you want to talk about?” he finally asked her, and she shrugged.

“Anything.”

He thought for a moment, then said tentatively: “Can I ask you something? Why haven’t you told the others about your daughter?”

She gave him a stubborn look. “It’s none of their business.”

“It would make them trust you more.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about anything personal? My daughter is personal.” Her eyes got a distant look as she continued in a soft voice: “That’s what my dream was about... Paula. She… she was in trouble and I couldn’t help her.”

He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay”, she sighed, rubbing her face again. “It’s just hard, you know? All of her life, I’ve watched over her, and now I can’t anymore.”

He nodded, and she went on: “I can only hope my sister will take care of her.”

He frowned. “Your sister?”

“Yes”, she said, giving him a wry smile. “My sister is living with my ex-husband now. Doesn’t that sound like something straight from a soap opera?”

He hesitated. “Doesn’t… doesn’t it bother her that he framed you for drug possession?”

She gave him a dry look. “Does it bother her? Hell, she testified against me in the trial.”

His eyebrows shot up. “She did what?”

“I know”, she nodded. “Unbelievable, right? My own sister. She was so eager to impress Alberto – he has that effect on women. I should know, he once had that effect on me.”

He tried to understand, but he couldn’t. “But… he’s an abuser, isn’t he?”

She nodded sadly. “Sometimes it takes a long time to see the monster inside the man. It sure took me a very long time to see it, and my sister hasn’t gotten to that point yet. But she will someday.” She shook her head. “I still wish I could protect her from him. Even after all she’s done to me, I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“You’re a good person”, he said softly.

She looked up at him. “Am I? It doesn’t feel like it. I feel like such a failure.”

He frowned. “Why?”

She swallowed. “Because of Paula. I should be there for her, and I’m not.”

“You can’t help what happened to you, it’s not your fault.”

“I shouldn’t have let him frame me. I should have been smarter, I should have seen him earlier for what he really is.”

He could see that she was getting upset and it alarmed him. She went on, her voice breaking:

“And now Paula is alone with him, and I don’t know what will happen to her.”

He was torn between his sympathy for her and discomfort at her distress. “Do you… do you think he’d hurt her?”

“I don’t know. He never has before, but what if he starts taking his anger out on her now that I’m not there anymore to catch it?” To his utter consternation, tears were starting to slide down her cheeks. “I’m her mother, I should be there to protect her, and I’m not.”

He stared at her, at a loss for words. Crying women always made him deeply uncomfortable, and he wished with all his might that Tokyo and Nairobi hadn’t woken him up. He knew he should say something, but what?

She was crying harder now, wiping away the tears as they fell. “Instead I’m here, and I’m of no use to anyone. Everyone hates me and nobody trusts me and it’s just…” Her voice was down to a whisper now. “… I’ve never felt so alone.”

He desperately cast around for something, anything, to comfort her. Then…

“Sergio”, he said suddenly. He wasn’t sure what made him say it. He only knew that he couldn’t stand seeing her hurt like this.

She looked up at him. “What?”

“Sergio”, he repeated. “My name is Sergio. I… I trust you. You’re not alone.”

She stopped crying. “You trust me?”

He nodded. “I do.”

“Why? You barely know me.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just do.”

She was quiet for a moment, her eyes on his face with a look he couldn’t interpret. “Well… thank you. Sergio.”

Hearing her say his name sparked something inside his chest. No one except his brother had called him by his name for years, and it felt very intimate. He quickly stood up.

“I… I should go”, he mumbled. “It’s late… there’s class in the morning… you should sleep.”

She nodded, still looking thoughtful. “Yes, we both should sleep.”

As he turned around, her voice sounded behind him again.

“Thank you for talking to me.”

He didn’t turn, just kept walking towards the door as he murmured: “No problem.”

She turned off the light. “Goodnight.”

At the door, he glanced back at her one more time. “Goodnight.”

He walked down the hallway towards his room in a state of utter confusion, a swirling mess of emotions and thoughts inside of him, none of which he could identify, all of which made him uncomfortable. He wondered if he regretted giving her his name, then decided that he didn’t. As he got back into bed, one emotion finally gained the upper hand – it wasn’t a feeling he was particularly familiar with, so it took him a while, but as he turned onto his side and closed his eyes, he recognized it. He felt strangely happy.

 

Chapter Text

 

Slowly but surely, the others warmed to Raquel. It started off with Nairobi saying ‘good morning’ to her one day, and Tokyo asking her for the salt without insulting her. Then one afternoon he saw her talking to Moscow during break, and at dinner that night she exchanged a few words with his brother, and he actually saw her smile. They were small things, but he noticed them all.

After the very personal conversation they had had in her bedroom, he had tried to keep his distance from her for a bit, but he’d been spectacularly unsuccessful. Every break, every mealtime, he just automatically gravitated towards her, unable to refrain from at least saying a few words to her, or asking her opinion about something, anything. And if he didn’t go to her, she usually came to him. Somehow, without conscious thought, they always eventually ended up next to each other, like two leaves circling the same drain. He was relieved to find that she didn’t act differently towards him now – she wasn’t overly familiar, didn’t refer back to their conversation and never called him by his name, not even when they were out of earshot of the others. After a few days, he began to relax around her again.

She was showing increasing interest in the plan, which he appreciated deeply. It was becoming a habit for them to stay behind after every class to go through the finer details of the day’s lesson together. She said she wanted to study certain parts of the plan more closely, so he gave her some of his files and notes, which she started studying at night.

“I’m glad you’re taking this so seriously”, he said to her when she came asking for more files.

“Of course I am”, she replied. “If I’m going to be in the control room, I need to know the plan as well as you do.”

The next morning after class, she came to him with a folder in her hand and a thoughtful expression on her face.

“Have you been able to study those files already?” he asked her.

“Yes”, she said. “And I was wondering… can I suggest some improvements?”

His eyebrows shot up. “Improvements?”

“Yes, improvements.”

“I’ve been working on this plan for years.”

“But you’re only one person”, she said sensibly. “Don’t tell me you’re so arrogant that you don’t think another pair of eyes might notice something you’ve missed.”

He leaned against his desk, curious. “Alright, what do you think I’ve missed?”

She opened the file. “I’ve been studying the profiles of the hostages. They’re very impressive, by the way. How did you manage to get so much information about the people working at the Mint?”

“Ah”, he said, pleased. “I sent in one of my associates as a representative of a worker’s union to ask certain people about their working conditions, their bosses and their colleagues. It was very informative.”

“Nicely done”, she said appreciatively, extracting a page from the file. “Based on that information, I think I’ve identified a threat to our operation: the director of the Mint, Arturo Román.”

He frowned as he took Román’s profile from her. “You think he’ll cause trouble?”

“I’m almost sure of it.”

“Why? I never noticed anything in particular about him.”

“Well”, she said carefully. “Forgive me for saying this… you have a lot of talents, but people skills isn’t one of them.”

He grimaced. “Fair enough.”

“I’m a trained negotiator, so I’ve developed something of a sense for this kind of thing.” She pointed at the profile. “Look at how his employees describe him: arrogant, cocky, overbearing. That kind of overinflated sense of self-importance could cause trouble. I also think he’s having an affair with one of his employees, Mónica Gaztambide.”

He frowned. “Why do you think that?”

She tapped a certain paragraph. “One of the women you had interviewed said that they were “quite close”. I know what that means. That gives him one more reason to play the hero.”

He looked up at her. “So what do you propose we do with him?”

“Keep him isolated”, she said. “Lock him in a room where he can’t do any harm.”

He gave her a thoughtful look, then nodded. “Alright, it can’t hurt to be cautious. I’ll instruct Berlin.”

“Good”, she said, then she smiled. “I have to say I’m pleased you’re taking my suggestion.”

“Of course”, he said. “You made a keen observation, I’d be a fool to risk not listening to you. The smallest disruption can have a big impact.” He gave her an earnest look. “You may have saved someone’s life with this.”

She seemed pleased but waved away his compliment. “Oh, it probably wouldn’t have mattered at all. Anyway, do you have any more files I can look at?”

He gave her a long look. “You’re really invested in this, aren’t you?”

She looked up at him in surprise. “Of course I am. We all are.”

He shook his head. “I don’t see any of the others asking me for extra material to study.”

“They rely on you”, she said. “They trust that you’ll tell them what they need to know.”

A corner of his mouth quirked up. “And you don’t trust me?”

She grinned. “Not in the blind way the others do, no. I like to see certain things for myself. I prefer to go over the details a second or third time, let them really sink in, think about the whats and whys and such.”

He looked at her in such a way that she tilted her head and said: “What?”

He quickly looked away and smiled to himself. “Nothing. It’s just that… I’ve been working on this plan for so long. Most of my life, really. It’s become more to me than just a plan. It’s… my life’s work.”

She nodded. “It’s art.”

He gave her a grateful look. “You understand.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “It must be a very meaningful experience for you to finally be able to share it with other people now.”

He blushed slightly. “It is. But most of the others just listen to it and accept whatever I tell them. They don’t think about it critically. They don’t engage with it. They don’t really appreciate it. Not… not like you.”

“I like engaging with it”, she said honestly. “It’s so well thought-out, so ingenious, so balanced. Beautiful.”

He felt a fierce surge of pride at her words, but all he could manage to say was: “Thank you.”

She smiled. “You’re welcome. Now, do you have any more files for me?”

He handed her a stack of folders, and she thanked him, then said: “Can we talk these through tomorrow?”

“Of course”, he said.

His eyes followed her as she left the room. He couldn’t wait.

 

 …

 

A few days later, they were sitting next to each other during lunch, as usual. At the end of the meal, he turned to her.

“I’m giving the others the afternoon off”, he said. “I’d like to work one-on-one with you today.”

“Okay. What do you want to work on?”

“I would like to practice negotiations. I want you to pretend that you’re still part of the police force, and negotiate with me the way you would have done in that situation.”

She nodded. “I can do that. I suppose you want constructive feedback?”

“Yes. Anything that will help me get an edge over the negotiator during the operation.”

They left the clean-up to the others and went upstairs to the empty classroom. He sat down in the swiveling chair behind his desk, and she drew up a regular chair to sit beside him.

“First things first”, he said. “Now that you’re fired, who do you think they’ll replace you with?”

She thought about it for a moment. “That’s tricky. There’s nobody who could replace me directly. The person closest to me in rank and function is my colleague Elena González.”

He nodded. “That’s what I thought. What can you tell me about her?”

“Nothing much, she’s a pretty normal person. About 35, not married, no kids, capable policewoman, very committed. I like her. She keeps a level head.”

He was taking notes. “How likely do you think it is that they’ll bring in Alicia Sierra?”

She raised her eyebrows. “You better pray they don’t feel the need to bring in Alicia.”

“Why?”

“Because Alicia is a battering ram. They’ll only bring her in if they no longer care about consequences, in which case your goal of getting in and out without anyone getting hurt will become a lot more unlikely.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Let’s not push too hard then, so they don’t feel the need to use her.”

“That would be best.”

“What about your partner, sub-inspector Rubio?”

“Ángel? What about him?”

“Do you think they’ll promote him now you’re gone?”

She considered this. “Maybe. Personally, I wouldn’t put him in charge of a critical situation like the one we’re planning to cause, but he’s been on the force for a long time and my superiors might choose to give him a chance.”

“So he might be our negotiator.”

“He might.”

He gave her a calculating look. “Would that make things harder for you?”

She hesitated. “Honestly, yes, a little. Ángel and I are good friends, I hope we don’t have to go up against him.”

He was taking notes again. “Is there anything you can tell me about him that we might use to our advantage? Were you close?”

She hesitated. “Well, yes, quite close.”

He looked up. “Um… I’ve recently learned what ‘quite close’ means…”

She colored slightly, so he asked: “Were you…?”

She frowned. “I don’t want to tell you things about Ángel. It feels like a betrayal.”

“But it’s information that might help us during negotiations, yes?”

She sighed. “Yes.”

He put down his pen and gazed at her steadily. “Look, Lisbon, I don’t like asking you this. I don’t want you to feel like you’re betraying a friend. But every little scrap of information I have can be the difference between successful and failed negotiations. Between a successful and a failed operation. And if we fail…”

She nodded. “I don’t get Paula back. Yes, I understand.” She took a deep breath. “Well, it’s not like this is the best-kept secret of the force anyway. Ángel is in love with me.”

His eyebrows went up. “Are you sure about that?”

“Very sure. He’s been in love with me for years.”

“That is extremely useful to know. We can certainly use it to our advantage. Were you having an affair?”

“No”, she said, but something in her voice made him look at her more closely.

“But you slept together?”

She gave him a disgruntled look. “I don’t see how this is any of your business.”

“The more information I have, the more I can use against him. Did you sleep together?”

“Once”, she admitted reluctantly.

“Was it good?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I can’t imagine how that’s relevant for your negotiations.”

“I need to know what kind of emotions are attached to this encounter. Was it good?”

She shrugged. “It was okay.”

“Just okay?”

“For me, yes.”

“I’m more interested in his point of view. Was it good for him?”

She’d clearly had enough. She raised her chin and looked him straight in the eye. “Buddy, if I sleep with a guy, you can bet it’s going to be good for him.”

He felt himself go red. “Oh, I… I didn’t want to imply that…”

“… that I’m bad in bed?”

“Well, yes, I mean, no, I would never think that.”

“So this is something you’ve been thinking about?”

Was the room getting hotter? “I… no, I didn’t…”

She raised a suggestive eyebrow. “Do you want to give it a go?”

He was blushing furiously now. “I… well… I… no…”

She kept a straight face for a few more seconds as she watched him squirm, then she grinned broadly. “I didn’t think so.”

He relaxed as he realized that she was only teasing him, then tensed again as she leaned closer to him for a moment.

“Next time, don’t ask me questions you can’t handle the answer to.”

She pushed against his chair so it swiveled halfway around. “Alright, let’s practice some negotiations, shall we?”

“Yes”, he said, slowly turning his chair back, still red in the face. “I think that’s a good idea.”

He reached into the cupboard under the desk and took out several thick binders full of papers. She raised her eyebrows.

“What are those?”

“My notes on the negotiations.”

She let out a low whistle. “You’ve been preparing rather thoroughly.”

“These negotiations are very important. I want to be prepared for every eventuality.”

“But… you can’t possibly prepare for every eventuality. You’re talking to a human being, you can’t know exactly what they’re going to say.”

“There are assumptions you can make about where the conversation is going, though. Police negotiators have their scripts. I made one of my own.”

She gave him a thoughtful look. “You really need to feel like you’re in control of the situation, don’t you?”

He shot her an annoyed look back. “Of course I need to be in control of the situation. If there comes a point where I’m not in control of the situation, we’re in trouble.” Then he sighed and relented. “But yes, fine, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with unscripted conversations, especially if they’re important. And these are extremely important.”

She gave him a curious look. “Do you script conversations in daily life, too?”

“Not on paper”, he said, then admitted reluctantly: “but yes, I sometimes rehearse conversations in my head.”

“Have you ever rehearsed a conversation you’ve had with me?”

“I’ve tried”, he grumbled. “But it’s impossible.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re too unpredictable. I never know what you’re going to say.”

She smiled. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay”, he said. “It keeps me on my toes. Now let’s get started.”

They set up their chairs so they were facing away from each other.

“Okay”, he said. “Let’s say we’ve taken over the Mint, the police have set up their center of operations, and this is the first phone call I make to, presumably, Inspectora González. Are you ready?”

“Yes”, she said.

“Good.” He took a deep breath, then said: “Inspectora, what are you wearing?”

She turned around in her chair in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? That’s how you want to open negotiations?”

He turned around too. “Yes.”

“And what if it’s Ángel on the other end of the line?”

He grinned. “Then I’ll let you ask the question.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Very funny. But seriously, why the fuck would you start by asking Elena what she’s wearing?”

“It’s unexpected”, he explained. “It’s personal and a little sexual. It will unbalance her right from the start, allowing me to set the tone for the conversation.”

She looked at him in disgust. “You’re only asking her that because she’s a woman.”

He nodded. “Yes.”

Her eyes suddenly widened. “Wait – you were going to ask me that!”

He nodded again, a little more reluctantly. “Yes.”

“What else were you going to ask me?”

He hesitated. “Um… maybe it doesn’t matter.”

“I’m going to be in the control room with you”, she reminded him. “I’m going to hear it anyway. What other inappropriate questions are you going to spring on my unsuspecting colleague?”

He cleared his throat and checked his notes. “Well… keep in mind that these will be sprinkled through the conversation, spread out over several days. So, um… "What are you wearing?', ‘Tell me about your first time’, ‘Have you ever faked an orgasm?’…”

He looked up at her tentatively to see how she was taking these. She gave him an unimpressed look, then said drily:

“You’re a pig.”

He ran an embarrassed hand through his hair. “Look, I know it’s crude, but I need to unbalance her somehow and these are better than the alternative.”

“What’s the alternative?”

He sighed. “Vague threats. Like letting her know that I know what school her kids go to, that sort of thing.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“I agree. That’s why I prefer these, they’re much more elegant.”

“What if she just gets annoyed and angry?”

“That’s fine, it will mean that she’s not thinking straight. It will still help me get the upper hand.”

“But you already have the upper hand. No matter what happens, you’re so much smarter than anyone you could get on the other end of that line.”

“That wouldn’t have been true if it had been you”, he said without thinking.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Flattery won’t get you back in my good books.”

“I wasn’t…” He suddenly stopped, pushed his glasses back up his nose and completely changed his tone. “Look. This isn’t a negotiation. I’ve thought this through, I’ve decided on a strategy and I’ve been working on this strategy for months. I’m not changing it now because it offends your sensibilities.”

She gave him a long look, then nodded. “Fine.”

“Unless you think these questions won’t work”, he said. “In that case I’m open to suggestions for improvements.”

“Oh, no”, she said drily. “If your goal is to annoy your negotiator, these will definitely work.”

He looked at her. “You’re annoyed at me too.”

“That’s a very astute observation.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a sexist asshole who’s going to embarrass my colleague in front of all her coworkers.”

“Ex-colleague”, he said softly. “Ex-coworkers.”

She sighed deeply and leaned back in her chair. “Yes, of course, you’re right. I shouldn’t care anymore. In fact, I should be happy that you have a good strategy worked out.”

He gave her some time to collect her thoughts, then he saw her mentally shake herself.

“Alright”, she said, sitting up straight again. “Let’s do this. Ask me what I’m wearing.”

 

 

That evening, she didn’t sit down next to him at dinner, and she didn’t say a word to anyone during the meal, eating with a rather subdued expression on her face. After the plates were cleared, she got up and walked out of the room. He hurried after her and caught her at the foot of the stairs.

“Can I talk to you in private for a moment?”

“Sure.” She glanced up the stairs. “In my bedroom?”

He took a step back. “Um… it doesn’t need to be that private.”

She threw him an impatient look. “Where, then?”

“The classroom?”

“Fine.”

They went up to the classroom together, and she leaned against the desk, facing him.

“So?”

He hesitated. “Are you still mad at me?”

She shook her head. “I’m not mad. I’ve just had to make a difficult mental adjustment and I don’t like it.”

He nodded. “I understand. You’d rather still be with the police force if you had the choice.”

“Yes”, she said honestly. “I would. Then I’d be home right now, cooking dinner with my mother, putting my daughter to bed. Instead I’m here.”

“Well”, he said carefully, “I know this doesn’t make up for all that you’re missing, but I have something for you.”

She looked up at him in surprise. “You do?”

He took an envelope out of his pocket and gave it to her. She opened it, curious, then gasped as she took out several photos of Paula at the playground. She went through them slowly, her eyes big.

“How did you get these?” she whispered.

“You said you were worried about her”, he explained. “So I sent someone to check on her. She seems to be alright, both emotionally and physically. As far as we could determine, your ex-husband and sister are taking good care of her, and your mother keeps an eye on all of them.”

She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the pictures, drinking in the familiar face of her daughter.

“Can I keep these?”

“Of course”, he said.

He waited a few more moments, then decided to give her some privacy. He started to leave, but as he passed her, she put her hand on his arm and looked up at him. There were tears in her eyes.

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you, Sergio.”

He was so aware of her hand on his sleeve that his mind totally blanked on a response. He stammered out some incoherent syllables for a moment, then cleared his throat and pulled himself together. “You’re welcome.”

She withdrew her hand and turned back to the pictures. He kept looking at her for several more seconds before he remembered that he was leaving. As he walked out the door, he felt a little dizzy, and he vaguely wondered why. His skin was still tingling where she had touched him.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

They took turns preparing the meals. One day around noon, Tokyo and Nairobi were in the kitchen, and Raquel was out on a walk, so only the men were gathered around the table waiting for lunch. Sergio was reading, only half paying attention to the conversation of the others.

“I hope the food turns out better than last time”, Berlin said. “Those two are terrible cooks.”

Rio laughed. “Who cares if they can cook when they look like that?”

There was a general murmur of agreement around the table, and Denver grinned, nudging Rio.

“Which one do you prefer?”

“Tokyo”, Rio said immediately. “She is so hot.”

“But totally crazy”, Moscow shook his head.

“Oh come on papa”, Denver said. “What does that matter? Have you seen her body? She’s smoking.”

Sergio frowned and bent deeper over his book.

“Though I wouldn’t say no to Nairobi either”, Denver continued.

“Yes”, Rio nodded. “They’re both hot.” He turned to the Serbians. “What do you fellows think?”

Oslo and Helsinki merely shrugged.

“What about you, Berlin?” Denver asked. “Which one would you prefer?”

Berlin shook his head. “Neither of them.”

“What?” Rio said. “Really?”

“Tokyo and Nairobi are both attractive, but they’re girls. Give me a real woman over them any day.”

Sergio looked up. “Please don’t.”

“Oh”, Denver laughed. “You don’t mean…?”

Berlin nodded. “I think Lisbon has a lot more to offer than Tokyo or Nairobi.”

Moscow nodded thoughtfully, but Denver and Rio protested loudly.

“You’re crazy!” Denver said.

“How could you prefer her over a bombshell like Tokyo?” Rio asked.

“Tokyo is hot”, Berlin conceded, “but she’ll burn you. I much prefer a steady fire in a woman. And if anyone’s got a steady fire, it’s the Inspector.”

“Please don’t”, Sergio repeated, a little louder, but no one was paying him any attention.

“I suppose she does look good for her age”, Rio mused.

“Yeah”, Denver said. “She has a nice pair of…”

“Stop it”, Sergio said, so forcefully that everyone looked at him. His heart was beating fast. “These women are members of our team and you should treat them with respect.”

“Come on Professor”, Denver grinned. “You’re a man.”

“We’re just having a bit of innocent fun”, Rio added disarmingly.

“Reducing people to body parts isn’t innocent or fun”, Sergio said quietly.

An awkward silence fell. Berlin finally broke it.

“The Professor is right”, he said. “Let’s not discuss our colleagues in this way.”

Moscow nodded. “Personal relationships aren’t allowed anyway. Let’s talk about something else.”

The conversation turned to more innocent things, and Sergio bent back over his book, relieved. He didn’t see the thoughtful look Berlin shot his way.

 

 

That evening, the weather was so nice that they stayed sitting outside for a long time after dinner. After a while, the general conversation broke up into smaller groups: the Serbians had their heads together; Moscow was talking to Denver; and Tokyo, Nairobi and Rio were laughing while they passed around a bottle of wine. Sergio was pleased to see that his brother sat down next to Raquel and struck up a conversation, and he was even more pleased that she didn’t get up and walk away. He returned to the book he was reading with a pleasant sense that the group was beginning to accept her, and that she was starting to feel more comfortable around them, too.

After a while, though, he noticed that he couldn’t keep his mind on his book. His eyes kept getting drawn to Raquel and his brother, who, he suddenly realized, were sitting rather close together and who seemed to be having a great time. He told himself that he was glad that she was smiling, but when she burst out laughing, he felt a sudden stab of a feeling he couldn’t identify, and it made him uncomfortable. Then his brother, smiling broadly, put a hand on her arm for just a moment  and, alarmed, his mind went back to the conversation around the table at lunchtime. I much prefer a steady fire in a woman. God help him, please no.

He loved his brother, but he’d seen him go through woman after woman, and the thought of Raquel being the next on that list made his blood run cold. He heaved a deep sigh of relief when she got up after a while and went to bed, waving at him in passing. Finally, he checked his watch and loudly told the group that it was time to go to sleep. They grumbled at him but got up anyway, collecting the glasses and plates off the table to take them into the kitchen. Berlin lingered in the kitchen to get a glass of water while the others traipsed out, talking and laughing. Sergio stayed behind with him, waiting until the door closed behind Oslo before turning to his brother.

“Andrés.”

Berlin looked up in surprise. “I thought we said we wouldn’t use first names while we were here?”

“I know, but I need to talk to you about something personal.”

“Alright”, Berlin said, leaning against the kitchen counter with a serious expression. “What’s wrong?”

He hesitated, then blurted out: “Please don’t sleep with Lisbon.”

His brother’s eyebrows went up. “Why do you think I want to sleep with her?”

“Because of what you said at lunch. That she has a… steady fire.”

Berlin grinned. “I’m sure she does.”

Sergio raised a hand. “See, there, that! Please don’t!”

His brother gave him a calculating look. “Why does this bother you?”

“I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“Why do you assume I’d hurt her?”

“Because you and women, Andrés, it never ends well. And she’s been through so much. She’s lost her marriage, her job, her daughter, her home.” He shook his head, then continued softly: “Don’t put her through another heartbreak.”

Berlin was still eyeing him closely. “Why do you care?”

“Because… because she’s a member of our team and I don’t want her distracted by emotional issues. She needs to be focused only on the heist.”

His brother raised an eyebrow. “Like you?”

“Yes, like me. I don’t allow myself to be distracted by anything.”

“No”, Berlin said smoothly. “I see that.”

“Just promise me you won’t sleep with her. Or even try to sleep with her.”

His brother drew himself up. “You told us at the beginning that we are not supposed to have personal relationships. I take your words very seriously. I may look at a colleague in appreciation, but I would never break your rules.”

Sergio felt himself relax. He knew his brother would keep to his word. “Thank you.”

“Can I still talk to her?” Berlin grinned.

“Of course”, Sergio said, confused. “She’s part of the group, I want her to feel included.”

“Yes”, his brother said thoughtfully, “I’m sure you do.” He pushed himself away from the kitchen counter and passed Sergio on the way to the door. “Well, I’m going to bed. I’d wish you sweet dreams, little brother, but…” He grinned. “I don’t think that will be a problem.”

Sergio was left alone in the kitchen, staring after his brother and wondering what the hell he had meant by that.

 

 

The next day was particularly warm and sunny, and early during the afternoon’s class, Sergio noticed that everyone’s attention was drifting as the temperature rose and people started throwing longing looks out of the windows. He decided to end the lesson early and send them outside. They smiled and thanked him as they filed past him out the door. Raquel was the last in the line, and she stopped by his desk.

“This must be killing you, having to end your lesson early.”

He sighed. “I don’t like it, no, but they just weren’t paying attention anymore, and I can’t afford to have them uninformed about this part of the plan. Better to lose some time now and work a little harder tomorrow morning when it’s cool.”

“You don’t have to completely waste this time, if you want. I could stay here and we could practice negotiating some more.”

He shot her a grateful look. “You would do that?”

She shrugged. “What would I do with that extra free time – bond with Tokyo?”

He grinned. “Alright, let me get my notes.”

They practiced for about an hour, serious negotiations mixed with less serious banter, interrupted every now and again as she gave him feedback on how he could improve his strategy. They were well-matched as negotiators, and he was enjoying himself immensely, feeling rather disappointed when she suggested a break and went down to get them something to drink. They both sipped their water in silence as she leaned back in her chair and idly looked up at the ceiling.

“Hey”, she said. “There’s a trapdoor up there. Where does it lead?”

He looked up too. “I don’t know.”

She turned shining eyes on him. “Do you want to find out?”

“Not particularly.”

“Come on, where’s your sense for adventure?”

He gave her a dry look. “I’m currently channeling all of it into this enormous heist we’re planning.”

“Well, I want to know what’s up there.”

“It’s probably just a dusty attic.”

“But who knows what treasures we could find there? I’m going to look for a ladder.”

It only took her ten minutes before she was back, carrying a rusty stepladder, which she placed underneath the trapdoor. He eyed her apprehensively as she started climbing.

“Please be careful. I can’t take you to the hospital if you fall and break a leg.”

She merely nodded as she reached the ceiling and lifted her hands, pushing experimentally against the trapdoor. To her delight, it opened inwards without too much effort, and she ascended a few more steps on the ladder until it was open completely. The ladder wasn’t quite high enough, so she had to heave herself up through the hole and into the attic. A moment later, her voice drifted down to him.

“Professor, this is amazing, come and see!”

He hesitated only a moment, then his curiosity won out and he carefully ascended the ladder, too. When he heaved himself up into the attic, he noticed immediately that there was very little space – almost all of the floor was taken up with furniture, boxes and chests. There were only a few inches of open space around the trapdoor, and he carefully got to his feet, edging around the hole in the floor to a spot where there was a little more room.

“I can’t believe all of this stuff is up here”, she said wonderingly. “Isn’t it fantastic?”

He had to admit that it was quite a collection. There were large oak wardrobes, moth-eaten chairs, heavy wooden chests, an old rocking horse, and boxes upon boxes filled with yellowed paper and black-and-white photographs. He took half a step back to take it all in, and accidentally bumped against the raised lid of the trapdoor, which swung shut with a loud ‘bang’, making her jump.

“I’m sorry”, he said quickly, then bent down to open it again. “Uh oh.”

“What?”

“I think there must have been a ring attached to this trapdoor at some point, but it must have broken off. There’s no way to lift it now.”

“What do you mean there’s no way to lift it?” she said, alarmed.

“I mean I can’t get it open again”, he said, straightening up and looking at her in dismay.

She bent down and tried to get her fingers around the edges, but there wasn’t enough space to really get a grip. After a few minutes of fidgeting, she looked up at him with big eyes.

“Fuck. What do we do now? Shout for help?”

He shook his head. “They’re all outside, nobody will hear us.”

“Can we shout through a window?” she asked, looking around, but the two small windows were set up high in the roof, inaccessible. She laughed in disbelief.

“Well this is a nice situation! What the hell do we do?”

He shrugged and sat down on the floor. “Nothing we can do but wait until they’ll come looking for us, I’m afraid.”

She gave him a look of horror. “But that could be hours! They probably won’t notice we’re missing until dinner!”

He nodded. “Yes, probably.”

She sat down heavily on the floor next to him and shot him an annoyed look. “You had to bump into the trapdoor, did you?”

“Hey!” he said indignantly. “It wasn’t my idea to come up here, you know!”

“Alright”, she said soothingly. “Let’s not fight, we’re going to be stuck here for a while.”

He loosened his tie. “It’s really warm up here.”

“Yes”, she agreed, “it really is.”

His eyes widened as she began unbuttoning her shirt. She was wearing a black top underneath, hemmed with a lacy fabric and showing rather a lot of cleavage. He quickly averted his gaze and subtly shifted away from her as she shrugged out of the shirt. She noticed, however, and raised her eyebrows.

“Are you always this uncomfortable around women?”

He kept looking at the floor. “In general? Yes.”

“Why?”

“I just… haven’t been around them much.”

“What about girlfriends?”

He shook his head. “Not really.”

“Oh. Boyfriends then?”

He quickly looked up. “No, I’m not gay.”

“Alright.” She hesitated, then delicately asked: “So you have had… experience with women?”

He shot her an annoyed look. “Why are you women all so obsessed with the status of my sexual experience? You’re the second person this week to ask me if I’m a virgin.”

That surprised her. “Who else asked you?”

“Tokyo.”

She gave him a look of disgust. “Please tell me you didn’t sleep with Tokyo.”

He stared at her. “Of course not.”

“Are you going to sleep with Tokyo?”

“No!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes! First rule of this heist: no personal relationships.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Does that mean that you would sleep with her if the situation was different?”

He gave her a look. “Why do you care?”

She drew herself up. “I don’t”, she said with dignity.

“Doesn’t sound like it.”

She gave him a look of supreme indifference. “Seriously, sleep with whoever you want.”

An awkward silence fell. She kept shooting him looks, however, and he felt like she wasn’t done with the subject yet. And sure enough…

“So what’s the answer?” she asked.

“To what?”

“Are you a virgin?”

“No!” he said, exasperated. “Why would you assume that?”

She smiled. “You just seem so innocent.”

He shot her a dark look. “I resent that. I am not innocent.”

“Says the man who started sweating just because I took off my shirt.”

“It’s hot in here”, he said defensively.

“Not that hot”, she grinned.

He sighed. “Look, I’ll tell you what I told Tokyo. I’ve had relationships in the past, just… not very many and they never lasted very long.”

“Nobody you’d call a girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “I’ve just never met someone who was really interesting to me.”

She considered this for a moment, then asked: “And what about sex?”

“What about it?”

“Don’t you mind having to live without it?”

He shook his head. “Honestly, I’ve never understood how other people just… do it. Sex is very… intense and… and very personal, and I’ve never met someone I liked enough to actually want to do it with. I mean, I have done it!” he clarified quickly. “I just didn’t like it much.”

She nodded thoughtfully, then said: “Do you think it might be different with someone you were in love with?”

“Maybe”, he said stiffly. “I wouldn’t know.”

He was relieved when she didn’t push the matter further. Instead, she asked:

“So you don’t want to sleep with Tokyo?”

“No.”

She nodded, satisfied. “Good.”

He gave her a calculating look, then asked: “Do you want to sleep with Berlin?”

She looked surprised. “What? No, of course not!”

“Why not?” he pressed. “Women usually like him. He’s handsome.”

“Yes”, she nodded, “He’s very handsome, and funny, and charming, and also a complete and utter sociopath. You think I want to sleep with a man like that?”

He considered her for a moment. “Most women don’t see that about him. At least, not straight away.”

“I’m a negotiator”, she reminded him. “I know men like him.”

The last of his anxiety about her and his brother disappeared, and he felt some of the tension in his shoulders dissolve.

She was eyeing him closely. “Why do you care?”

“First rule”, he said quickly. “No personal relationships among members of the team.”

“Yes”, she said softly, and there was something in her eyes he couldn’t interpret. “That’s a very important rule.”

They looked at each other for a long moment, then he cleared his throat and looked away.

“Well… since we’re going to be here for a while, why don’t we take a look at some of these boxes? We might find something interesting.”

“Yes”, she said. “Good idea.”

They each turned around and pulled up a box of papers, which they started to sift through. Every once in a while, they showed each other interesting photographs or notes they found. Finally, he noticed that she hadn’t said anything for several minutes and was staring intently at a yellowed piece of paper with flourishing handwriting on it.

“Look at this”, she said, and he shifted closer to see.

“What is it?”

“A love letter”, she said. “Look at this line, it’s lovely.” She put a finger on the letter, then read out loud: “The sun has set twenty-four times since I last saw you, my darling, and it will have to rise twice as often before I can set eyes on you again. But then our life together can begin, and we will never be apart again, but eternally happy in a perfect union of souls.”

“That’s a nice way to look at marriage”, he said.

She smiled. “Young love, so hopeful, so optimistic.”

“When was it dated?” he asked.

She looked at the top of the letter. “September 25th, 1901.” She looked up at him with shining eyes. “That’s amazing! This letter is more than a hundred years old!”

He nodded. “It’s strange to think that the person who wrote it is long gone now.”

“But a bit of his love is preserved forever in this letter”, she said, smiling down at it.

He looked at her. Over the past few weeks, she’d always been so tough, so strong, and he admired her for that, but now he was seeing a glimpse of something else, something softer. He wondered what it would be like to have her look at him with that look in her eyes. The next moment, she looked up and their eyes met. The words she had been about to say died on her lips as they kept staring at each other for several long moments, unable to look away. She was so close. His heart was beating frantically against his ribs. Then the trapdoor creaked open and Rio’s head appeared.

“There you are!” he exclaimed.

Sergio hastily scooted away from Raquel, but Rio’s face had already split into a big grin.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your cozy “practice session”, I just wanted to let you know that dinner is ready.”

He moved to go down the ladder again, letting the trapdoor close behind him, and they both shouted: “No!” at the same time.

“It doesn’t open from this side”, Sergio explained to a surprised Rio. “We were trapped here for hours.”

“Sounds terrible”, Rio winked at him.

“Yes, well, it could have been worse”, he murmured as he pulled the trapdoor fully open again and lowered himself down the hole onto the ladder after Rio. He looked up. She was looking at the letter again. “Are you coming?”

“Yes”, she said, then she glanced at him. “Do you think I could keep this?”

“Why not”, he shrugged. “It’s not like anyone’s going to miss it. But why do you want to keep it?”

She hesitated. “I’m not sure. It’s just… I don’t want it to molder away to nothing in this dusty attic. Besides”, she said, folding the letter and putting it in her back pocket. “It’s a nice reminder.”

“Of what?” he asked.

“That love exists.”

And with those words, she came down the ladder after him, closing the trapdoor on the attic and its contents.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He was having trouble sleeping. For several nights now, he had lain awake in bed, staring up at the ceiling for hours on end or turning from one side to the other, trying to get comfortable. He had tried every breathing exercise he knew, every meditation technique, but his mind simply refused to quiet down enough for him to fall asleep. Then when he did sleep, he would wake up in the early hours of the morning, his body humming with a weird kind of energy he usually only experienced in the early stages when a new idea was forming in his brain. He had no idea what was causing it now. The only reason he could think of was the heist – even though it was still months away, he must be getting nervous for it already and it was keeping him awake.

Today, however, the week’s lack of sleep had caught up with him and he had slept right through the alarm on his phone. When he woke up and sleepily squinted at his watch, he was alarmed to see that it was already breakfast time. He hastily got out of bed, his mind still fuzzy with tiredness, and started to dress. He didn’t like being late for breakfast – he was the leader of the group, he should set the example. Without looking in the mirror, he hurried to the door and walked out, only to bump straight into Raquel, who was standing in front of his door with her hand raised, about to knock. Startled, he took several paces back, but she just smiled.

“Ah, there you are. I was just coming to get you.”

“I overslept.”

“So I figured. It’s not like you to be late for breakfast.”

“I didn’t hear my alarm.”

“It happens.”

She gave him a funny look, and he frowned.

“What?”

“You dressed a bit too hastily, I think. Here, let me fix you up.”

Before he knew what was happening, she had reached out her hands and was undoing his tie, and the last fuzziness of sleep left his brain as he was suddenly wide awake. He knew he should push her hands away – he could knot his own tie – but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His tie was undone now and she was fixing his collar. For a fleeting instant, her fingers brushed against the skin of his neck, and he felt a shiver go down his spine.

She nodded. “It’s a bit chilly this morning.”

Yes, he thought. That must be it. She was knotting his tie now, and he looked down at her face as she focused on her task. He wondered how he’d never really noticed before how beautiful she was.

“There”, she said. “That’s better.”

She looked up at him and caught him staring at her. He knew he should look away but he couldn’t, and for a moment their eyes locked. Then her face broke into a big smile.

“What?” she asked him.

He quickly looked at the ground. “Nothing.”

“Why were you looking at me like that?”

“You were standing right in front of me”, he murmured. “Where was I supposed to look?”

“Well, now that you’re presentable, let’s go have breakfast before it’s all gone. I’ve never seen anyone eat as much as those Serbians.”

As he followed her down the stairs, he felt a little dizzy – undoubtedly his blood sugar was low because he hadn’t breakfasted yet. But when they entered the dining room and he sat down behind a steaming plate of eggs and bacon, he could only stare at it, and he realized that he didn’t really want to eat. He worriedly wondered if he was getting sick.

After breakfast, they all trooped up to the classroom. He got up in front of them and took a deep breath as he felt himself slip back into the confident, focused state he always experienced when teaching. 

“Good morning”, he said. “Today we’ll have an anatomy lesson.”

There were a few grins and giggles.

“Well, Professor”, Tokyo said, leaning forward in her chair. “Maybe you need an anatomy lesson, but I know where everything is.”

“I don’t know”, Denver laughed. “It’s been so long for me I think I’ve forgotten a few things.”

“If anyone needs to learn, it’s the kid here”, Nairobi teased, nodding her head at Rio. “I think he’s old enough for someone to have ‘the talk’ with him. You want to do it, Professor?”

He ignored their jokes. “We’re going to learn about the major blood vessels in the body. Please gather around the desk.”

They all got up.

“Too bad, Rio”, Nairobi said. “Blood vessels. You’ll have to learn about the birds and the bees another day.”

Rio merely grinned. “Maybe you can teach me someday in a private session.”

Everybody laughed, but Sergio remained serious.

“Alright”, he said. “I need a model.”

They all looked at him.

“Can’t we learn from a picture or something?” Moscow asked.

Sergio shook his head. “It’s much better to learn directly on the body.” He held up a marker. “I need a model.”

They all looked at each other. There was still an early morning chill in the room, and none of them were particularly eager to take off their clothes.

“Come on”, Sergio urged them impatiently. “Everybody will need to practice, so you will all need to take a turn. Who will go first?”

There was an awkward silence, then Raquel sighed and stepped forward.

“Fine, I’ll do it.”

He immediately felt his calm desert him.

“Oh”, he blurted out. “I didn’t mean…”

She looked at him. “You didn’t mean what?”

He couldn’t see a way out of this. “Nothing. Uhm…” He could feel himself going red. “You’ll… you’ll need to take off your top.”

“So I assumed”, she said, shrugging out of her shirt, then grabbing hold of the hem of the top she was wearing underneath. He quickly averted his eyes as she pulled it over her head, but as she hopped onto the desk and lay down, he had no other choice than to look at her. He wasn’t entirely sure why this made him feel so deeply uncomfortable – he had the vague sense that it wouldn’t have been nearly so bad with any of the others, but he couldn’t imagine why. He only knew that he felt like he was invading her privacy, and he didn’t like that at all.

She looked up at him and quirked an eyebrow. “Are you okay?”

He took a breath and focused. “Alright”, he said briskly. “Please pay close attention.”

Carefully avoiding her eyes, he looked down at her bare stomach and put the tip of the marker against her skin right above the waistband of her pants. He noticed that she had slight stretch marks on her lower abdomen, and it distracted him for a moment to the point where he couldn’t remember what vein he was supposed to be showing them. Several long, awkward seconds passed before he suddenly recalled the right name and he began drawing a thick, purple line up her stomach.

“Iliac artery”, he said. He drew two lines left and right. “Renal arteries, left and right.”

He let his marker move further upwards, and he couldn’t help but notice that the black bra she was wearing had a little lace around the edges. His voice was a bit strained as he struggled to keep his focus.

“Gastric artery.”

He had to lift the marker for a moment to move over her bra, then put it down again between her breasts and continued drawing, his hand shaking ever so slightly.

“Pulmonary arteries, left and right.”

For the next part, he had to move his marker over the slight curve of her left breast.

“The heart”, he whispered, drawing a circle. He cleared his throat and found his voice again as he drew two lines under her collar bones.

“Left subclavian. Right subclavian.”

He drew a long line over her shoulder down her arm, and he wondered for a moment how soft she would be to touch.

“Brachial.”

He moved his marker back up to the delicate skin of her throat.

“Internal jugular”, he said, then more softly: “Please turn your head.”

She did so, and he drew another line up her neck. “External jugular.”

He was starting to feel a little dizzy again as he took up the red marker now. “In red, the most important arteries.”

“Wait a minute”, Denver said, and he was abruptly aware of the presence of the others again. “You want us to learn medicine like this, with some stupid markers?”

He looked up and needed a moment to gather his thoughts. “Yes. If one of you gets hit, you can’t go to the hospital. You’ll have to take care of it yourselves.”

He looked down again and started tracing her arteries in red. Her skin was so thin underneath her collar bones that he could actually see the faintest blue outline of her veins. It felt strangely intimate. To his annoyance, though, Denver wasn’t done complaining.

“This is suicide.”

Moscow tried to shut him up, but he continued: “Being trapped is one thing, but dying is another.”

To Sergio’s relief, his brother intervened.

“Denver. You only need to know how to remove a bullet.”

“Yeah”, Nairobi supplied. “It’s not difficult. Just grab the tweezers, pull out the bullet and don’t fuck it up.”

“Oh, just like that?” Denver said. “No way. If I get shot, take me to the hospital.”

Sergio didn’t look up from where he was tracing a line down Raquel’s other arm. “The answer is no.”

To his surprise, Tokyo agreed with him. “I’d rather lose a leg and be free, than be healthy in jail.”

With difficulty, he tore his eyes away from her skin, annoyed that he had to interrupt his task, but knowing that he needed to intervene. “Nobody leaves. You are a team. If anyone wants to get out, now would be the time to say so. Otherwise, you’ll stay for as long as the heist lasts.”

He looked at Denver, who shook his head and looked away.

“Alright”, Raquel said, looking up at him. “Are you done? I’m getting cold.”

He looked down at her and noticed that she was covered in goosebumps.

“Of course”, he said quickly, taking a step back as she sat up. He handed her her clothes without looking, and she got off the desk. “Next. Come on. Rio?”

Rio stepped forward. “Sure.”

He handed the marker to Tokyo. “Show me what you’ve learned.”

As Tokyo drew lines down Rio’s body, he felt himself relax again, but he still avoided looking at Raquel. One by one, they took a turn with the marker and a turn on the table. After the class was over, there was a discussion over whose turn it was to prepare lunch, then Denver and Rio reluctantly left for the kitchen. As the rest of them went outside to wait for the food, Sergio noticed that Nairobi went up to Raquel and started talking to her. A few minutes later, the two women left together to take a walk. He smiled. If Nairobi warmed towards Raquel, the others wouldn’t be far behind.

That evening, Raquel went up to her room right after dinner. She felt like she needed some time to think. The conversation she had had with Nairobi that afternoon kept playing through her head, and she could use some peace and quiet to really process it.

“So you have a kid?” Nairobi asked, once they were out of earshot of the others.

Raquel looked up, startled. “What?”

“Stretch marks”, Nairobi clarified. “On your stomach.”

“Oh. Yes, fine, I have a kid. So what?”

“Calm down, you don’t have to get so defensive. Look, I understand why you haven’t told anyone.”

“How could you possibly understand?”

“Because I have a kid too.”

Raquel had to admit she’d been surprised by that admission. Nairobi – fun-loving, badass Nairobi, quick with a joke and quick to anger, hadn’t struck her as particularly maternal. But as they walked along together in the bright sunshine, a shadow had fallen over Nairobi’s face that Raquel only recognized too well. It was the same darkness she felt when she thought about Paula. Nairobi didn’t just have a kid – she’d lost one, too.

Seeing her own pain mirrored in the face of the other woman had loosened something inside Raquel. She’d talked about Paula to Sergio, and he’d been sympathetic and kind, but he couldn’t really understand what it was like. Nairobi could. So Raquel told her everything.

“Bastard”, Nairobi spat out once Raquel was done talking. “If someone did that to me, they wouldn’t just have to convict me for drug possession, it would have been a fucking murder charge.”

Raquel smiled. It was nice to feel like someone from the team was on her side for once.

“I get why you’re here now”, Nairobi said. “You want to take the money we’ll earn, grab your girl and get out of this shitty country.”

“Yes”, Raquel nodded.

“Well, good for you.” There was a short pause, then Nairobi said: “I’m sorry for not trusting you before.”

“It’s alright. Why should you?”

“But if you’re here to get your kid back, I know you won’t screw us over. So I’d like to start over.”

She stopped and held out her hand. Raquel hesitated for a moment, then shook it.

Nairobi smiled. “Welcome to the team.”

“Thank you. Please don’t tell the others though.”

“I won’t tell them about your daughter, but I will tell them to lay off you. I’ll tell them you’re okay. You’re one of us now.”

Raquel still felt a confusing mix of emotions about those words. You’re one of us now. Was that a good thing? That she belonged to a group like them, a group of criminals – people she’d been fighting her entire adult life, that she’d been fighting only a few months ago? Logically speaking, she couldn’t deny that she was a criminal too, now. Even if she’d done nothing illegal yet, just being here and not reporting these people to the police made her complicit. Yet when it came to her feelings, she hadn’t made that shift yet, of thinking of herself as anything other than a cop.

And yet… “You’re one of us now” had also made her feel good. She’d never felt so lonely in her life as she had over the past few weeks. If Sergio hadn’t been so kind to her, she wasn’t sure if she could have born it. Criminals or cops – at the end of the day, they were all people, and watching the others talk and laugh and form friendships while she watched from the outside had been difficult for her. Like any other person, she just wanted to belong – especially now that she was so completely unmoored from everything she had held dear before, adrift in a life where she no longer belonged anywhere or to anyone, acceptance into a tight-knit group like this one seemed very attractive. A new place of belonging. A new home – at least for a little while. She hated herself for it, but she wanted it desperately.

Moreover, while the others hadn’t gotten to know her over the past few weeks, she had gotten to know them. She’d listened to them talk, she’d watched them joke and grow closer. They were no longer nameless criminals to her, but people. Rio wasn’t just a hacker, but a gentle kid with a sweet temper. Moscow was kind and thoughtful. Denver had a good heart, she was sure of it. And Sergio… Well, Sergio was… She shook her head. She couldn’t think about him right now.

And then there was Nairobi, opening up to her, telling her the story of how she’d lost her son. Raquel had wisely held her tongue, but that afternoon, she’d privately thought that it was only right that Nairobi should have lost custody over her child. What mother would leave a toddler alone like that, even for five minutes? But now that she’d had some time to think about it, she felt guilty about her initial reaction. Who was she to judge Nairobi? When she’d been a respectable middle class mother with a steady job, it had been easy to look down on people who sold drugs on the street – why didn’t they just get a job, like the rest of them? Crime was a choice, wasn’t it? An easy way out? And yet here she was, a fugitive, about to become a thief, a robber, a hostage-taker. She rubbed her hands over her face. She wasn’t in a position to judge anyone anymore – not now she’d experienced first-hand how life could knock you down in ways you just couldn’t recover from. What did she know about what Nairobi had been through?

She took a deep breath and considered her situation. They were all here for the same reason: because, somehow, the system had screwed them over. And each and every person in that group was prepared to risk everything to defy that system. She nodded to herself. Yes. She was proud to be one of them.

That night, Sergio again couldn’t sleep. He kept revisiting the morning’s lesson in his mind, over and over again, and he tossed and turned for an hour and a half before he decided that it’s wasn’t going to happen, sat up, and turned on the light. He propped a pillow behind his back and leaned against the headboard as he took up the book he was reading and tried to focus on it. About half an hour later, a soft knock sounded at his bedroom door. He looked up in surprise. Who could be knocking on his door at one in the morning?

He got out of bed and opened the door, and there stood Raquel, dressed in loose pants and a white top.

“Is everything alright?” he asked her.

“Yes”, she said quietly. “I’m sorry to disturb you. It’s just that I woke up and then I couldn’t sleep anymore and when I went to the bathroom, I saw that your light was still on.”

“What woke you up? Are Tokyo and Nairobi making noise again?”

“No, no”, she said, “nothing like that. I… I just had a rather vivid dream.”

She clearly didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but he understood that she’d had another nightmare, and his heart went out to her.

“Can I come in?” she asked tentatively.

His eyes widened in alarm. “Why?”

“I’d just… like to talk for a bit.”

He realized that she wanted to distract herself from bad thoughts, but he still hesitated. Tokyo had been in his room only yesterday and it had not been a pleasant experience. He didn’t think he could bear it if Raquel would make fun of him, too. She noticed his hesitation.

“Of course”, she said, taking a step back, “you don’t have to. It’s late, I’ll just go back to bed.”

“No”, he said. “It’s okay, you can come in.”

He opened the door wider and she slipped past him. He observed her nervously as she looked around the room, watching her take in the neatly folded and stacked clothes on his spare bed. She didn’t say anything, however. Then she noticed his origami, and she went over to look.

“What’s this?” she said, and he detected nothing of Tokyo’s mockery in her voice, only genuine interest.

“Origami”, he said.

“Can I touch it?”

He hesitated, and she quickly said: “I’ll be very careful.”

“Yes, alright.”

She picked up a delicately folded bird and examined it closely.

“This is beautiful.”

He gave her a shy smile. “Thank you.”

She put down the bird again and her eyes roamed over the other figures. “You’re really good at this.”

“I’ve been practicing for a long time.”

“How long?”

He thought about it. “Oh, ever since I was… ten or eleven, I think.”

“Why do you do it?”

“It’s a kind of meditation technique, for me. It calms me down and helps me focus at the same time. It’s great for when I need to empty my mind, or to keep my hands busy.”

She turned away from the origami and sat down cross-legged on his bed.

“Who taught you?”

“My father gave me a book”, he said, “and I kind of taught myself.”

He stood awkwardly next to the bed, feeling like he should sit down, too, but not knowing where. He glanced towards the spare bed, but he didn’t like the thought of having to move his clothes. She followed his gaze and seemed to understand.

“Sit down”, she said, patting the mattress beside her. When he still hesitated, she moved all the way to the end of the bed to make room for him. He carefully sat down at the other end. There was an awkward silence, and he cast around for something to say.

“I saw you talk to Nairobi today?”

She nodded. “Yes. During your anatomy lesson this morning, she noticed the stretch marks on my stomach and she came to ask me if I had a child.”

“Did you tell her?”

“I did. She told me she’s a mother, too.”

That surprised him. “Really?”

“Yes. Though I don’t think she wants anyone to know, so don’t mention it to her.”

“I won’t.”

“Thank you. We talked about our children for a while. I told her how I’m doing this to get Paula back, and she seemed sympathetic. She said she trusts me more now that she knows why I’m here, and she promised me she’d vouch for me with the others.”

He smiled. “That’s great.”

“Yes”, she said. “I’m glad I told her. It makes me feel a little less lonely, somehow.”

He felt happy for her, but he didn’t know how to express that. Having her in his room, on his bed, was such a weird experience. She glanced towards his origami again.

“Were you a lonely child?”

He hesitated. “Look, that’s… a personal question.”

“Right”, she said quickly. “And I’m not supposed to ask those.”

She was quiet for a moment, then gave him a careful look and asked: “Aren’t we past that, though?”

“Past what?”

“The point where we can’t ask each other personal questions.”

“We need to keep things professional.”

“We’re going to be stuck with each other in one room for ten days, though. Don’t you think it would be good if we were… friends?”

He stared at her. “I don’t… really have any friends.”

She shot him a look he couldn’t interpret. “That’s rather sad.”

He shook his head. “No, it’s alright. I prefer to be alone. I don’t need anybody.”

“That’s absurd”, she said gently. “We all need other people.”

“Not me.”

“Of course you do.”

“I… I used to get lonely”, he said. “But I grew out of that.”

“Okay…” she said slowly, and he could see that she didn’t believe him.

“Really”, he said. “I see my brother a few times a year and that’s enough.”

“Then this must be rather a shock to your system, having to live with nine other people in the house, day after day.”

“It’s challenging”, he admitted. “I miss my privacy.”

She grimaced. “And here I am, barging into your room in the middle of the night. I’m sorry.”

She started getting off the bed, but he held up a hand to stop her. “No, please, it’s okay. I don’t really mind it when it’s you.” The moment he said it, he knew it was true. He didn’t mind having her in his personal space. For a moment, he felt surprise – he’d never been comfortable with anyone in his personal space. Then she spoke again and he pushed the thought away.

“So what do you think?”

“About what?”

“About us becoming friends.”

“What would that involve?”

“Well… it would mean that we sometimes talk to each other and that we care about each other’s happiness and wellbeing.”

“Oh”, he said, then he fell silent.

She gave him a few seconds, then she asked: “Oh?”

“Well…”, he said. “We already talk to each other sometimes.”

She nodded. “We do.”

“And… I don’t know about you, but…” He felt himself go slightly red, but he said it anyway. “I already care about your wellbeing. I mean…” he clarified quickly, “I’m the leader of the team, I care about everyone’s wellbeing.”

She gave him an amused look. “Of course. For what it’s worth, I care about your wellbeing too.”

“Well…”, he said carefully. “Are we already friends, then?”

“I don’t know”, she said, a corner of her mouth quirking up. “Are we?”

“Yes”, he said decidedly. “I think we are.”

The smile she gave him went straight through him. He had to look away – it was like trying to look into the sun.

“I’m glad you think so”, she said, then she laughed. “Looks like you accidentally made a friend.”

He felt a strange surge of happiness. “Looks like I did.”

“Alright”, she said, still smiling. “I think I’ll be able to sleep now.”

She got off the bed and crossed to the door.

“Goodnight, Professor.”

“Goodnight, Lisbon.”

She softly closed the door behind herself and he let himself fall back onto the mattress, staring up at the ceiling. The happiness inside his chest was overwhelming, and he felt like he would never sleep again.

 

 

Chapter Text

The younger people in the group were getting restless. He noticed it in everything – they were paying less attention in class, they were drinking more in the evenings, and they were often in each other’s rooms, playing music at all hours of the night. When he was once again out of bed in the early hours of the morning to scold them for making too much noise and staying up too late, they told him they needed a distraction.

“We’re so tired of being cooped up in this house, Professor!” Tokyo complained. “Why can’t we go into Toledo on the weekends to party?”

“Yes, please?” Nairobi asked. “Just on Saturdays?”

“No”, he shook his head. “First of all, we can’t draw any attention to ourselves. The less people see us, the better. You’re all known with the police, and Tokyo especially might get recognized. Secondly, I need you rested for classes in the morning.”

“Come on Professor”, Denver wheedled. “We’re under a lot of stress, we really need to blow off some steam.”

“Yes”, Rio added. “For once, let us do something fun.”

He considered them. “I’ll let you do something fun as long as you don’t have to leave the grounds of this house to do it.”

“Like what?” Tokyo asked.

“I don’t know. You can think of something and come to me with a proposition.”

Over the next few days, he often saw them with their heads together. Finally, they presented him with their proposition while they were all having lunch outside one day.

“Professor”, Nairobi said, “We’ve come up with the perfect thing to relax for a bit, and the entire group can participate.”

“Alright”, he said carefully. “What is it?”

Rio grinned broadly. “Let’s have a game of paintball!”

There was an excited murmur around the table as the other members of the team perked up. Everyone seemed to like the idea.

Sergio frowned. “You mean that game where you shoot each other with bullets of paint?”

“Yes!” Rio said.

“We’re not going out to a paintball range to play.”

“We don’t have to”, Rio said. “You can buy second-hand equipment online. We could play right here.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. We can’t afford for anyone to get hurt.”

“You don’t get hurt in paintball”, Rio laughed. “You wear vests.”

“And what if anyone gets shot in the face?”

“You wear helmets, too.”

“Accidents happen”, Sergio said stubbornly. “I can’t replace any of you if you lose an eye.”

“Come on Professor!” Tokyo said. “Nobody’s going to lose an eye! It’s just a game!”

He got up. “The answer is no.”

They all made noises of complaint, but he ignored them and went inside. At the door, he threw a look back and saw the entire group congregated around Raquel. He frowned. What were they doing? A few minutes later, the question answered itself as Raquel followed him inside and found him in the classroom.

“Have they sent you to persuade me?” he asked.

She grinned. “Yes.”

“Why do they think that will work?”

She shrugged. “They seem to think I have some sway over you.”

“Well”, he said grumpily. “They thought wrong.”

She leaned against his desk. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to change your mind.”

“You’re not?”

“No. I just wonder if maybe you’d made a snap decision without really thinking it through?”

He threw her an annoyed look. “Don’t tell me you are in favor of this stupid game?”

She grinned. “I’m in favor of anything that will allow me to shoot Tokyo.”

He had to suppress a smile as he tried to remain stern. “Well, it’s a pleasure you’ll have to forgo, I’m afraid.”

“Alright”, she said. “But have you considered the other advantages of this game?”

“Like what?”

“It’s a great team building exercise”, she said.

He raised an eyebrow. “You think shooting each other is good team building?”

“You don’t just shoot each other, you have to work together too. As Rio explained it to me, paintball is usually played in teams. And how do you get people to bond together most quickly?”

“By presenting them with a common enemy”, he murmured.

“Exactly. So, yes, this can definitely be considered as a team building activity.”

“Okay…”

“It’s also the perfect game to play to prepare for the heist.”

“How so?”

“Not for you and me, per se, but for the others. Paintball requires a lot of skills they will have to use when they’re on the ground at the Mint: quick thinking, working together, staying calm under pressure.”

He nodded reluctantly. “I suppose that’s true.”

“This really is a good idea, Professor.”

He looked up at her. “You really think so?”

“I do. I think it would be a great way for everyone to blow off some steam. And I’ve never done it before, but it sounds like it would be so much fun.”

He looked at her shining eyes. “You would enjoy it?”

“Honestly? Yes, I would love it.”

He hesitated a few more seconds, then nodded. “Alright, fine. If Rio can get the material, you can have a paintball game.”

She gave him a broad smile. “I knew you’d come around.”

She went out to tell the others, and he was left with the uncomfortable thought that maybe she did have some sway over him.

A few days later, the material arrived: camouflage suits, closed helmets with visors, protective vests, ten paintball guns and a heap of paint pellets. They all stood around it, chatting enthusiastically, a sense of excitement in the air. Rio took up one of the guns and showed it to the others.

“Now this is really quality material”, he said proudly. “Not those flimsy little guns they use for children’s parties – these are the real thing. They pack a lot of power, so we need to agree on two things: one – aim to shoot only on the vests. And two – no shooting at close range.”

“What do you consider close range?” Raquel asked.

“Anything closer than three meters, though five would be even better.”

Sergio frowned. Rio had assured him that playing paintball wouldn’t be dangerous, but that’s not what it sounded like.

“So how are we going to play this?” Rio asked. “Every person for themselves, or will we play teams?”

“I don’t want you to play for yourselves”, Sergio said. “This was supposed to be a team building exercise.”

“But I don’t want big teams”, Denver said quickly. “Then I can never remember who’s on my team and who’s on the other team.”

“How about we partner up, then?” Rio suggested.

Everybody nodded.

“Sure”, Nairobi said. “But then there’s one big question: who gets the cop?”

They all looked at Raquel, who raised her eyebrows in surprise. “What?”

“You’re obviously the best shooter here”, Nairobi explained.

“Am I?” she wondered. “What about Helsinki and Oslo? They’ve been in an actual war.”

“We’ve done a lot of shooting”, Helsinki nodded. “Aiming, not so much. If you fire enough bullets, sooner or later you’ll hit something.”

“You’ve had actual training”, Nairobi said. “Whoever gets to partner with you will have an advantage.”

“Alright”, Rio said. “There’s an obvious solution. We partner the best shooter with the worst.”

Nairobi nodded. “Agreed. So who’s the worst shot?”

They all turned to Sergio. He quickly took a step back.

“Oh no”, he said. “No, no, no. I’m not playing.”

“But you have to play”, Tokyo pointed out. “Otherwise we’re uneven.”

“I really… I can’t… I don’t… just… no.”

Raquel seemed to take pity on him.

“It’s okay”, she said. “I don’t need a partner, I can fly solo.”

“That’s not fair”, Denver said.

She grinned. “Don’t worry about it. I like a challenge.”

“But you’ll have nobody to watch your back”, Nairobi said.

A fierce internal battle was going on in Sergio’s mind. He didn’t want Raquel to be the only one without a partner, but he also felt a desperate desire not to make a fool of himself in front of her. Which was a pretty inevitable outcome if he tried to play paintball. He looked at her, and she smiled at him.

“Really”, she said. “I don’t mind.”

He closed his eyes. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

The group cheered, then everyone started grabbing gear from the pile and pairing off. Helsinki and Oslo stuck together, of course, as did Denver and Moscow. Tokyo and Rio formed a partnership, which left Berlin and Nairobi, who promptly declared themselves the game’s power couple. The different pairings walked a little way from each other to put on their gear and talk strategy. Sergio reluctantly followed Raquel until they were out of earshot of the others.

“Okay”, she said, turning to him. “Tell me how fucked I am. How bad are you, exactly?”

He grimaced. “I know how to shoot a gun and I don’t have terrible aim, but I don’t do very well under pressure.”

She stared at him. “Oh”, she said. “Then it’s a good thing you’re not planning anything particularly stressful in the near future.”

“That’s different”, he said. “I’ve been preparing for that for years, if everything goes well I’ll be in full control of the situation. But when you’re out shooting at each other, it’s chaos. There’s no rules to it, no logic. You have to think on your feet and react instinctively. I’m terrible at that. I’m pretty sure I have no instincts.”

“Nonsense”, she said, picking up one of the camouflage outfits and pulling it on over her regular clothes. “Everybody has instincts. You’re just so much in your head that you’ve forgotten how to listen to them. When you’re on the field, you have to try to turn off your thoughts and let your natural reflexes kick in. Something moves, you shoot it. It’s really not that hard.”

He hesitated. “That’s another thing. I… I don’t like the idea of shooting people.”

“You do realize there’s only paint in these guns, right?”

“Yes”, he said, “I do realize that. But look…”

He took up one of the guns, aimed it at the ground and pulled the trigger. A paint pellet shot out and exploded, leaving quite a deep hole in the earth.

“These pellets have quite a bit of force behind them”, he said. “They have to, since you need to be able to shoot them over quite a distance. Hitting people with these won’t kill them, but it will hurt if you don’t manage to hit them on the vest. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“I’ve had a rough couple of months”, she said drily, pulling on a protective vest. “I’m rather low on empathy at the moment.”

“But these are members of our team!”

“Well”, she said thoughtfully. “Most of them have been a little nicer to me since I had that talk with Nairobi, but they were all pretty shitty to me for weeks. I feel like I deserve to shoot a few of them.”

He couldn’t help but grin. “You’re a lot more vengeful than I thought you would be.”

She grinned back as she shouldered her gun. “Let that be a warning for you not to screw me over.”

“I wouldn’t dare”, he murmured, pulling on his own gear.

“Look”, she said. “If you really don’t want to shoot anyone, then don’t. Just stick close to me and try not to get shot. I can always use an extra pair of eyes.”

They all walked together to a little forest that was on their grounds. They maneuvered through the trees until they found a little open spot almost in the middle of the woods. There, Rio planted a stick in the ground and hung a white handkerchief from it.

“This is the flag”, he said. “First team to capture it, wins. I’m also putting a whistle on the ground here, so if you’re the first to the flag, blow it so everyone knows the game is over. If you get hit by a paint pellet, you’re dead and you have to go wait at the edge of the forest.”

They all walked out of the forest again. On the way out, Tokyo came to walk next to Raquel.

“You know, out in the real world you go to jail for shooting a cop, but in here it’s allowed. And I’m going to enjoy shooting you.”

“Not if I shoot you first”, Raquel said lightly.

“Don’t get cocky just because you had some training. I’m going to destroy you.”

Raquel gave her a cool look. “We’ll see about that.”

They came out of the woods and spread out. Tokyo gave Raquel one last dirty look, and Raquel nodded at her.

“May the best woman win.”

They spaced themselves out, two by two, at the edge of the trees. Sergio felt terribly nervous as he eyed the others. They all seemed to feel so much more comfortable holding their guns than he did. Then he looked at Raquel, who gave him an encouraging smile.

“It’s only a game”, she said softly. “Just have fun.”

He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and nodded.

They all put on their helmets. The next moment, Rio shouted out: “Three… two… one… go!” and they all ran forwards into the trees. Sergio let Raquel take the lead, and he followed her for a couple of yards into the forest before she came to a stop and listened.

“Do you hear any of the others?” she said, her voice muffled by her helmet.

“No”, he whispered back.

“Okay”, she said, “then let’s continue on as quietly as we can. I think we need to go a little to the left.”

She kept a watchful eye on the trees around them as they made their way through bushes and patches of nettles. Sergio felt his heart beat rather frantically, and he tried to take a few deep breaths to calm down. He really wasn’t made for stuff like this, and he couldn’t help but throw admiring glances at Raquel, who seemed focused and completely calm.

Several minutes passed without incident, then they heard movement ahead of them. Raquel quickly crouched behind a bush and motioned for Sergio to get down, too. As the noises came nearer, she jumped up, her gun at the ready.

“Don’t shoot!” a voice sounded. “We’re already dead!”

Sergio got up too, and raised his eyebrows as he saw Denver and Moscow, their vests completely covered in paint. “What happened to you?”

“Tokyo”, Denver grumbled. “That girl is fucking insane. She’s not even wearing her helmet anymore, she said it reduced her vision.”

“They’re a bit ahead of you”, Moscow warned them. “I’d hurry up or they’re going to get there first.”

“Come on”, Raquel said to Sergio, before hurrying off.

They moved faster now, making more noise as they went, but it couldn’t be helped. They got to a patch of forest that was more open, with broader trees that grew farther apart from each other and fewer bushes on the ground. Raquel set a fast pace, and Sergio hurried to keep up, until suddenly a paint pellet exploded against the tree right next to him.

“Watch out!” Raquel shouted.

He froze, but she grabbed him and pulled him behind the tree. It was only just broad enough to shield them, so she pressed her back against the trunk and pulled him in against her. Her sudden closeness alarmed him so much that he took several steps back without thinking.

“What are you doing?” she hissed at him. “You’re going to get shot!”

She was proven right as a paint pellet whizzed past him and missed his shoulder by inches. She grabbed his collar and pulled him close again, into the cover the tree provided. Several more paint pellets shot past them, and a few exploded against the tree.

“Alright”, she snapped. “Shoot!”

It was extremely hard to think with his body pressed to hers – even though they were both wearing vests and helmets, she was still very, very close. Finally he managed to say: “No, we agreed I wouldn’t shoot.”

“Not to hit anyone!” she said. “Just to scare them off.”

Leaning against her to stay in the cover of the tree, he raised his gun and fired in the direction the shots were coming from. The rain of pellets stopped immediately. They waited for several breathless seconds, then they heard the sound of people moving away from them.

“Okay”, Raquel whispered. “I think they’re gone.”

She looked up at him.

“What?” he said, his mouth dry.

She grinned. “You can get off me now.”

He hurriedly scrambled backwards, and she laughed.

“You really don’t do well under pressure, do you?”

She carefully peered around the tree, then motioned for him to follow her. As he walked next to her, he noticed that his heart was beating rather fast again – probably from the excitement of the game, he thought. They found a path and stayed on it for a while as it wound deeper into the forest. The trees grew very close together here, and visibility ahead of them was poor, which made him nervous. And sure enough, when they rounded a bend around a clump of bushes, they were suddenly face to face with the Serbians. Before Sergio had really registered the situation, Raquel had already raised her gun and put two splashes of blue paint on their vests.

“I can’t believe how fast you reacted”, he said as Oslo and Helsinki walked past them to get out of the forest, muttering Serbian curses under their breath.

Raquel shrugged. “These kinds of reflexes are what they train you for in the police academy. Looks like old habits die hard.”

They decided to get off the path because it turned away from the direction they need to head in. The next part of the forest was crisscrossed with ditches, most of them dry, and Sergio knew they were getting closer to the flag. He kept shooting looks at Raquel – he couldn’t help but admire her focused determination, her cool head, her quick thinking. She would be an amazing partner for him in the control room. Looking at Raquel, however, meant he wasn’t looking at the ground, and he was painfully confronted with the consequences of that when he tripped over a root and fell flat on his face.

She turned around in surprise. “What happened?”

“Root”, he said succinctly, feeling himself go red as he hastened to get up again.

She was clearly torn between laughter and concern. “Did you hurt yourself?”

“Only my dignity”, he muttered darkly as he brushed himself off.

She allowed herself a broad grin now. “That won’t kill you. Now watch where you’re going.”

They were walking alongside a ditch when a sudden rustle from a nearby bush made them look up. A helmet appeared through the leaves, followed by a gun…

They immediately turned around and jumped into the ditch together. As they crouched at the bottom, Raquel nodded approvingly at him.

“Glad to see you didn’t freeze this time.”

He bristled. “I’m not totally useless.”

She grinned. “Says the man who was taken down by a root.”

“You know”, he said with dignity, “we can’t all be good at paintball. I have other talents.”

She winked. “I can’t wait to discover them.”

He didn’t know how to respond to that, but she had already returned her attention to the game. She got up carefully and peered over the edge of the ditch. Immediately, paint pellets came whizzing over her head, and she quickly ducked back down.

“I think it’s Nairobi and Berlin.”

He looked around. “This ditch is closed off on the left. Let’s go right.”

She jumped up, fired a couple of rounds into the bush and ducked back down. More paint pellets flew over the ditch as they crawled along the bottom to the right. After a few yards, however, the way was blocked by a rock. They could get over it, but it would mean exposing themselves for a few precious seconds.

“Okay”, Sergio said, assessing the situation. “Nairobi and Berlin are probably still looking elsewhere, so one of us can probably safely get over this rock.”

Raquel nodded. “But Nairobi and Berlin will definitely see that, so there will be two guns aimed at the second person.”

“Yes”, he said. “Only one of us can get out.”

“Fuck”, Raquel muttered.

“Look”, he said. “I think we’re really close to the flag. It should be you, you stand a much better chance of getting there. I’ll stay behind.”

“No way”, she snapped. “We’re a team, we’re in this together.”

He looked at her in dismay. “Then what do you propose? That we both stay here like sitting ducks until one of them comes over and shoots us?”

At that point, however, they heard shouting and the sound of guns coming from the direction of the bush. Raquel peeked over the edge of the ditch.

“It’s Rio and Tokyo!” she said quietly. “They’re chasing off Nairobi and Berlin.”

She ducked back down, and they waited until the running footsteps of the two other pairs receded in the distance. Then he turned to her and grinned.

“Saved by Tokyo. That must sting.”

“I didn’t need saving”, she said haughtily. “I would have shot Nairobi and Berlin myself if I’d had the chance.”

They carefully pulled themselves out of the ditch and hastily left in the direction opposite that which the others had taken. They walked for several more minutes, and then – to Sergio’s immense relief – they glimpsed a spot of white through the trees. Sure enough, it was the flag, and they seemed to be the first ones there. Before stepping onto open ground, however, Raquel flung out her arm and stopped him.

“Let’s get behind a bush and wait.”

“What are you talking about?” he said. “The flag is right there, just grab it and let’s get this over with!”

“No”, she said, grabbing his arm and dragging him between some bushes. “I want to shoot Tokyo.”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “Seriously?”

She grinned at him. “Oh, I’m deadly serious. I might never get this chance again.”

He rolled his eyes. “This was supposed to be a team building game. I don’t see how you and Tokyo are going to get any closer if you shoot her.”

She kept her eyes on the flag. “I’m sure I will find it much easier to be nice to her after I’ve had the pleasure of shooting her in the face with a big blob of paint.”

“On the vest!” he said, alarmed. “You’re shooting her on the vest, right?!”

“I don’t know”, she murmured. “Maybe I can’t aim that well.”

“Your aim is perfect”, he said sternly. “I forbid you from shooting Tokyo in the face.”

She gave him an amused look. “You forbid me?”

“Yes”, he said staunchly. “I do. I’m the leader of this group and you’ll do as I say.”

“Fine”, she grinned. “Can I shoot her in the shoulder then?”

“No.”

“In the leg?”

“No!”

She sighed in mock disappointment. “You’re no fun at all.”

“That’s what I’m known for, yes”, he mumbled.

She gave him a look. “I think you could be fun”, she said. “Under the right circumstances.”

“And what might those be?”

Her eyes sparkled as she opened her mouth to reply, but before she could, a paint pellet whizzed between them and exploded against a tree. They quickly ducked.

“Fuck”, she said. “Tokyo and Rio. There goes my element of surprise.”

They peered between the leaves of their bush and could vaguely see two people crouching behind another bush on the other side of the clearing where the flag was. Raquel pushed her gun between the branches and shot a few rounds at them, but it only made them shoot back. Sergio frowned.

“Looks like we’re in a stalemate.”

For several minutes, they kept shooting in each other’s general direction, then they noticed that they were getting significantly fewer pellets back.

“I think they’re running out of ammo”, Raquel said, pleased. “And then we’ve got them.” She turned to him. “I’m a bit worried about Nairobi and Berlin. Could you keep a look-out for them?”

He moved away from their bush, staying low to the ground until he reached a clump of trees, then he stood up behind one of them and scanned the forest. For a minute, he didn’t see anything move – then Rio emerged silently from behind a rock, creeping in Raquel’s direction.

For a moment, Sergio froze. He was afraid Rio would spot him if he moved, but Rio seemed intent on reaching Raquel. He knew he couldn’t shout to warn her without getting shot himself. Carefully, very carefully, he raised his gun and aimed. He took a deep breath to steady himself while Rio disappeared behind a tree for a moment. Then, when he reappeared, Sergio pulled the trigger.

The blue paint pellet exploded against Rio’s vest with a satisfying ‘splat!’, and Sergio grinned broadly as Rio looked up at him in surprise.

“Fuck!” he said, and then his face split into a big smile. “But that was quite a shot, Professor! Maybe we didn’t give you enough credit before.”

They walked out of the trees together to where Raquel was still crouching behind the bush. She turned around and her eyebrows went up.

“What happened?”

“The Professor shot me”, Rio said cheerfully.

Her eyebrows went up further. “I thought you didn’t want to shoot anyone?”

“I didn’t have a choice”, he said defensively. “I wasn’t just going to let them win.”

She smiled at him, but then a rush of movement in the clearing caught her eye: Tokyo was using their distraction to make a run for the flag. She wasn’t fast enough, however – Raquel whirled around and, with deadly accuracy, hit Tokyo square in the chest with three successive shots.

Oh”, she said, her eyes shining triumphantly. “That felt good!”

Sergio could only stare at her. God, she was magnificent.

They took off their helmets and vests as they all walked out into the clearing to where Tokyo stood glowering. Raquel plucked the flag off the stick with a big grin.

“Nice try, Tokyo”, she teased, going right up to her. “But it looks like the best woman won.”

As Raquel turned around, Sergio saw the look of fury on Tokyo’s face, and he somehow knew what was going to happen. Tokyo raised her gun straight at Raquel. Sergio didn’t think. He stepped between them.

The impact hit him right in the chest , and it felt like he’d been hit by a hammer. All the air was knocked out of him as he bent double, gasping, pain shooting through him as he struggled to take a breath. The next moment, Raquel flashed past him and slapped Tokyo right across the face. He straightened up with difficulty and hastened to grab Raquel around the waist and pull her away from Tokyo, who was being restrained by Rio.

“Let me go!” Raquel yelled at him.

“No way”, he said, struggling to keep hold of her. “One slap was enough!”

“But she shot you! You didn’t have your vest on and she shot you!”

“It’s only a paintball”, he soothed her, though the place where it had hit him was still throbbing. “Besides, she didn’t mean to hit me.”

“I don’t care who she meant to hit, she hit you!”

He couldn’t help but feel a little pleased that she was getting so angry on his behalf.

“Calm down”, he said, suppressing a smile. “I’ll survive.”

Between him and Rio, they managed to keep the women away from each other, then Rio blew the whistle to alert the others that the flag was captured. After a few minutes, Nairobi and Berlin emerged from the trees, and they all left the forest together, to find the others at the edge of the woods. Raquel triumphantly held up the flag, and they all cheered and applauded her. Sergio was happy to see that almost everyone congratulated her on the way back to the house.

When they reached the house, the group sat down around the table outside, laughing and discussing the more exciting moments of the game. Before Sergio could sit down, however, Raquel put a hand on his arm.

“Does it still hurt?”

“Yes”, he admitted. “It does.”

“Let’s get some ice on it.”

They walked to the house together and into the kitchen.

“Let’s see how bad the damage is”, she said briskly, and before he knew what was happening, she was unbuttoning his shirt. He quickly took a step backwards as he felt himself turn red.

“I can do that myself”, he murmured.

She merely shrugged and grabbed a tea towel, then went to the freezer to get some ice cubes. When his shirt was unbuttoned, she gave a low whistle.

“That’s quite a bruise.”

He looked down at his chest, where a big purple bruise was indeed beginning to blossom. She handed him the towel with the ice and he gingerly pressed it to his chest.

“Do you have some arnica cream?” she asked him. “That helps a bit with bruises.”

“In the first aid kit”, he said. “In the bathroom.”

She left and returned a few minutes later with the right tube. Coming right up to him, she pushed his hand away and started applying the cream to the bruise, and he felt himself go red again. He knew he should insist on doing it himself, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to say anything as her fingers carefully touched his skin.

As she applied the cream, she shook her head with a slight smile.

“I can’t believe you took a bullet for me.”

He felt like she was giving him too much credit.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision. I just reacted instinctively.”

She smiled up at him. “I thought you didn’t have any instincts?”

He looked down at her. “Looks like they kick in when it really matters.”

Her hand was still on his chest as she looked into his eyes. He felt like she expected something from him, but he couldn’t imagine what it was. Was he supposed to say something? Do something? What?

Before he could think it through any further, the kitchen door opened and Berlin and Denver walked in. Raquel took a step backwards and screwed the cap back on the tube of arnica cream.

“Beer!” Denver said obliviously as he went straight for the refrigerator.

Berlin, however, came over to them. “So how is our heroically wounded leader? Any broken ribs?”

“Just a bruise”, Raquel smiled.

“Are you sure he doesn’t need bedrest?” Berlin grinned. “And maybe the care of a dedicated nurse?”

Raquel laughed. “I’m sure he’ll recover on his own.”

She left to put the arnica cream back in the first aid kit, and Sergio buttoned up his shirt again. Berlin gave his brother a sly look.

“Did we interrupt something just now?”

Sergio looked confused. “What would you interrupt?”

Berlin laughed and shook his head. “Oh, nothing.”

The atmosphere at dinner that evening was extremely cheerful, and the air was full of laughter. Sergio couldn’t help but notice that Raquel was a part of the conversation now, and he smiled to himself. He knew the others would come around eventually and see her for the amazing person she was. After the food was gone, he suddenly felt exhausted as the stress of the day took its toll on him. He excused himself, urged them all to go to bed on time, and walked towards the front door. Before he could go inside, however, Raquel caught up with him.

“I just wanted to say goodnight”, she said. “And thank you.”

“What for?” he asked.

“For saving me from a bruise”, she smiled. “And for everything else. I had a great time today.”

“Me too”, he said, surprised to realize that it was true.

He watched her walk back to the table, then he went upstairs and changed into his pajamas. He was so tired that he expected to fall asleep instantly, but a weird sensation in his chest kept him awake. He couldn’t really tell if it was just the bruise hurting him, or something else.

 

Chapter Text

 

Before breakfast the next day, exhausted by another sleepless night, Sergio went up to his brother’s bedroom and knocked. Berlin opened the door, and Sergio quickly slipped inside.

“What’s wrong?” his brother immediately remarked as he closed the door again and continued dressing.

“Why do you assume something’s wrong?”

“We agreed we wouldn’t give the others any reason to suspect that there was a closer bond between us, and yet here you are in my bedroom.”

“I just wanted to ask you if you’re going to the pharmacy to get your medication later?”

“Yes, I am, do you need something?”

“Some anti-anxiety medication, please.”

His brother frowned. “Are you under that much stress?”

He nodded. “To the point that I’m experiencing physical symptoms.”

“What kind of symptoms?”

“Loss of appetite, inability to sleep. My stomach is upset, I’m experiencing cardiac arrhythmia, moments of shortness of breath, and spells of dizziness.”

Berlin smiled broadly. “You know what those are symptoms of?”

Sergio looked at him. “Yes. Stress.”

Berlin snorted. “You know, for such a smart guy you can be inconceivably stupid.”

“What do you mean?” he bristled.

“Isn’t it obvious? You’re in love, Sergio.”

Sergio stared at him. “What? No, that’s impossible.”

“I’m pretty confident in my diagnosis.”

“But I feel awful.”

“Yes, that’s what happens. I do have to congratulate you on your excellent taste. Raquel is a fine woman.”

His heart started beating faster at the sound of her name. “Raquel?”

“Of course. Do you think I’m blind? I see the way you look at her.”

“But I… no, Andrés, I can’t be in love with her, I can’t. That would cause so much trouble.”

“Tell me if this is true: you can’t stop thinking about her.”

He felt a little dizzy as he suddenly realized that it was true. “Yes”, he said softly.

“And what can’t you stop thinking about? Her ass, her breasts, her mouth?”

“Her eyes”, he whispered. “I can’t stop thinking about her eyes.”

Andrés clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Then you’re in trouble.”

Sergio sank down on the bed, and his brother frowned at him.

“You really had no idea?”

“It… it never even entered my mind as an option. Falling in love… I don’t fall in love, Andrés. I never have.”

“There’s a first time for everything.”

He shook his head. “No. You’re mistaken. People don’t fall in love for the first time at forty. And certainly not me.”

“Why do you think you’re immune?”

“Because I don’t like any of that emotional stuff. It’s messy and dangerous and painful and it doesn’t affect me.”

“Then what are you feeling for Raquel?”

“Friendship”, he said firmly. “She’s my friend.”

Berlin gave him an amused look. “Don’t kid yourself. She’s more than that.”

“No”, he said firmly, closing his mind to any other possibility. “She’s not. I don’t get emotional over people, Andrés. I never have and I never will. The only person I love is you.”

“That’s very sad.”

“I don’t care if it’s sad – it’s true. I’ve never loved anyone outside of my family and I don’t plan to start now.”

He got up. “So if you could just get me some anti-anxiety medication from the pharmacy, I’m sure I’ll feel better.”

His brother shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“I’m not in love!”

“Keep telling yourself that”, Berlin smirked. “It might make it true.”

He left Berlin’s room with the firm conviction that his brother was mistaken. Just because Andrés had never been friends with a woman in his life without trying to sleep with her, didn’t mean that the same was true for him. He had a friend who happened to be a woman – there was nothing wrong with that. And if he noticed every once in a while that she was very attractive, well, that was only an objective observation. If he liked talking to her more than he liked talking to any of the other members of the team, that was only because she was clever and funny. It was true that he sought out her company, but that was only because she would be in the control room with him and they needed to get comfortable with each other. He shook his head to himself as he went down to breakfast. He knew himself. He’d never fallen in love before and it wasn’t happening to him now.

He went up to the table and only realized that he’d automatically chosen the seat next to her after he’d already sat down. It’s only normal, he told himself. We’ve gotten into the habit of sitting next to each other. That’s what friends do.

She turned to him with a smile. “Good morning. How’s the bruise?”

“It’s okay, but it did keep me up last night”, he sighed.

“I’m sorry”, she said contritely.

He looked at her in surprise. “What are you sorry for?”

“That paint pellet was meant for me, not for you. I should be the one with the bruise.”

“Well”, he said without thinking. “I’m glad it didn’t hit you.” Then he quickly clarified: “Because we’re friends! And that means I care about your health.”

She looked at him, slightly confused by his outburst. “Yes, of course. Well, thank you anyway. You’re a good friend.”

She smiled at him, and he tried to ignore the way his heart skipped a beat. They both turned to their breakfast, and he told himself he was just happy that she’d called him a good friend. He hadn’t had many friends before – he was just pleased that he was doing it right.

During class that morning, he became aware for the first time of how his eyes kept getting drawn to the back of the classroom, where she was sitting. I just want to make sure she’s paying attention, he reasoned to himself. It’s important that she absorbs every detail of the plan, since she’ll be in the control room with me. Later, when he arrived last at the table for lunch and the seats on either side of her were already taken, he noticed a stab of disappointment, but he waved it away. He was, of course, just as happy to sit next to anybody else.

It was a warm, sunny day that ended in a warm, beautiful evening, and after dinner, Raquel announced that she was going for a walk. The rest of them remained seated around the table, talking and enjoying the last rays of the sun. After a while, however, clouds came drifting in from the east, and a chill wind made the temperature drop dramatically. They were already moving everything inside when the first raindrops began to fall. Sergio glanced in the direction Raquel had left in, but she wasn’t in sight yet as he hurried inside after the others. They all dispersed to their rooms, except for Sergio and Berlin, who remained behind in the main hall to talk. Sergio kept shooting glances at the front door. Finally, he couldn’t deny anymore that he was worried.

“What’s the matter?” Berlin asked, noting his distraction.

“She’s not back yet. She never stays out for more than an hour and now it’s been almost an hour and a half.”

“She’s probably taken shelter from the rain”, Berlin said reasonably.

“Yes”, he said. “Right, of course.”

The rain stopped as they discussed the progress of Sergio’s teaching. According to his calculations, they were slightly ahead of schedule.

“Good”, Berlin said. “That accounts for any unforeseen circumstances.” He suddenly frowned. “Will you stop fidgeting? It’s getting annoying.”

Sergio threw a worried look out of the window. “It’s going to get dark soon. Where is she?”

“I’m sure she’s fine. Maybe she was tired of our company and decided to walk a little further today.”

“But what if something happened to her?”

“Like what?”

“The rain made everything slippery. What if she fell and hurt herself?”

“I’m sure she would have called you. You gave everyone your number.”

A cold feeling was spreading through his chest. “What if something worse happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“A woman out alone… what if someone…” He stopped. He didn’t even want to think about the possibilities.

Berlin shook his head. “There’s very few people in the vicinity.”

“Exactly!” he said, getting upset. “So there would be nobody around if she got attacked…”

“Sergio” Berlin said firmly. “Calm down. I’m sure she’s fine, but if you’re so worried, why don’t you go out and look for her? You know the path she took.”

“Yes”, he said, relieved that he could do something. He got up, put on his coat, and went outside.

It was drizzling again, and the wind was worse than before. He set off at a brisk pace, trying to reason away his worries. She’s fine, he kept repeating to himself. She’s fine. Yet he couldn’t keep darker thoughts at bay. What if something had happened to her? What if she was seriously hurt? He couldn’t take her to a hospital – she was a fugitive. His heart was beating much faster than was normal for how fast he was walking, and he could only just suppress the panic rising inside him. He knew objectively that he was probably overreacting, but it didn’t stop him from worrying. It was getting dark now, and she still wasn’t back. He knew something must have happened. What if she slipped and fell, what if she was unconscious somewhere? What if someone had come across her, all alone in the woods? He quickened his pace.

There were a number of large rocks beside the path, and as he turned a bend and passed them, there she suddenly was, sitting on a smaller rock by the side of the road. The relief he felt was so strong, it made him dizzy, and for a moment he just closed his eyes in gratitude. Then he hurried up to her.

“Raquel! Are you okay?”

She looked up in surprise. “Oh”, she said. “Yes, I’m fine.”

The relief he felt was tipping over into anger. “Then where the hell have you been?”

“I sprained my ankle”, she explained. “A loose rock rolled away under my feet and I tripped. I took shelter from the rain for a while, then I’ve been making my way back, but it’s slow going on one leg. I had to sit down every five minutes.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

She frowned at him. “With what phone? You busted me out on my way to prison, I didn’t have a phone on me. And I haven’t been off the grounds here, when would I have bought a new one?”

He felt unreasonably frustrated. “You should have asked me! I have a dozen extra phones.”

She shrugged. “Everyone I can talk to in the entire world is with me in that house, what did I need a phone for?”

“Emergencies like this!”

“Yes”, she said, giving him a tired smile. “I realize that now.”

He suddenly noticed how exhausted she looked, and he felt bad for yelling at her. The rain was coming down harder again, and she was shivering in her wet t-shirt. He quickly shrugged out of his coat and draped it over her shoulders.

“Oh”, she said, “You don’t have to…”

“Yes I do”, he said firmly. “You’re cold and I still have my jacket.”

She gave him a grateful look and buttoned up the coat. “Thank you.”

“Alright”, he said, calmer now. “Let me see that ankle.”

He kneeled down in front of her and she pulled up one pants leg to show him.

He shook his head. “Yes, that’s really sprained. You can’t put any weight on it at all.”

“I know”, she said. “I’ve been hopping all the way over here.”

She got up with difficulty, balancing on one leg, and he noticed her grimace in pain.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?”

“I wasn’t”, she said, “but after putting all my weight on one leg for miles, everything hurts.”

He hesitated, his heart beating faster at the very thought, but he couldn’t see any other solution. There was no way in hell that he was letting her walk a single step further while she was in pain. He took a deep breath.

“Well, then there’s only one option”, he said.

“What?” she asked, then gasped in surprise as he suddenly picked her up off the ground, one arm around her shoulders, the other under her knees. She instinctively wrapped her arms around his neck and looked at him in disbelief.

“You can’t possibly carry me all the way back to the house.”

He didn’t dare look at her, so he kept his gaze straight ahead as he started walking. “It’s only a few more minutes.”

“Really”, she protested weakly. “I can walk.”

“No”, he said. “You can’t.”

He felt her entire body go soft with relief.

“Thank you”, she said quietly.

“Don’t mention it”, he murmured.

They were silent for a few minutes as he carried her through the rainy twilight. He was soon out of breath from the exercise, and he needed all his mental energy for not noticing how she leaned against his chest, how her arms were wrapped around his neck, how her face was only inches away from his. Then he noticed that, despite his coat, she was still shivering with exhaustion and cold. He carefully put her down and shrugged out of his jacket.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her teeth chattering.

“You’re still cold.”

“No”, she said firmly, shaking her head. “I’m not taking your jacket.”

“Yes you are.”

“But it’s cold.”

“I’m warm enough from carrying you.”

“But it’s raining.”

“My shirt is already wet anyway.”

It was true – the rain was coming down hard now and his shirt was already soaked through. She reluctantly unbuttoned his coat, and he helped her into his jacket, then she pulled the coat back on.

“You’re a real gentleman, you know that?” she said softly as he picked her back up.

He snorted. “Because I don’t want you to get hypothermia? Hardly.”

His shirt was clinging to his skin now, and she gave him an appreciative look.

“You have really nice shoulders.”

He had absolutely no idea how to respond to that, so he just turned red and kept walking.

Just when he started thinking that he couldn’t carry her much farther, the house came into view, and he sighed in relief. He put her down so he could open the heavy front door, and she hopped inside, where Berlin was waiting for them.

“Ah”, he said, looking up from the book he was reading. “There’s our damsel in distress. What happened?”

“Sprained ankle”, she said succinctly, before letting herself fall into a chair. “God, I’m tired.”

“I’ll get you some water”, Sergio said.

When he came out of the kitchen, Berlin had gone up to bed. Raquel gratefully accepted the water, drank it, then got up. He watched her as she tried to hop across the room, but after only a few paces, she overbalanced, and he only just caught her before she fell. Without a word, he picked her back up and carried her up the stairs to her bedroom. He was acutely aware of the symbolism of carrying her over the threshold of a bedroom, so after he’d gently deposited her on the bed, he hurried back out to get her some ice.

“Alright”, he said, as she held the towel full of ice cubes against her ankle. “Keep that on for at least half an hour, and then I advise you to take a hot shower to get warm again. Do you think you can make it to the bathroom?”

“Yes”, she smiled up at him. “I’m sure I can. Thank you. For coming to find me and for carrying me home.”

“Of course”, he murmured, then he turned to go.

He was already at the door when she said: “Next time I go out walking, I’ll be more careful.”

He turned around. “Next time?”

She looked up at him. “Yes?”

He stared at her. “You can’t go out anymore after this!”

“Well, not immediately of course, but after my ankle heals.”

“But you’ll take someone with you from now on, right?”

She frowned. “No, I don’t think so. I’m cooped up in this house with ten people for days on end, I need a little bit of alone time every now and then.”

He was shaking his head. “No, no you can’t go out alone anymore. You can’t.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Why not?”

Because I was too worried, he thought. Because I can’t stand the thought that something might happen to you. Out loud, he said:

“Because I say so.”

Her eyebrows went up further. “Because you say so?”

“Yes!” he said heatedly. “Just because we’re friends doesn’t mean that I’m no longer the leader of this operation. It’s my responsibility to keep you all safe, so if I say that you can’t go out walking on your own, that’s final.”

“Sergio…” she said, and he felt a sharp stab in his chest.

“Don’t use my name”, he snapped.

She was taken aback. “Why are you getting so upset?”

Because I want you to be safe, he thought desperately. Because I care about you. Because I want to take you in my arms and… The realization hit him with such force that it left him reeling. He stared at her. Oh god. That feeling in his chest that he’d been trying to ignore… that wasn’t just friendship, was it? It was normal to care about your friends, but to care this much… that was something else. Even he recognized that.

She noticed him staring and frowned. “What?”

He abruptly turned away from her.

“It’s late, I’m going to bed.”

“What?”

He opened the door without looking at her. “Ice that ankle, then take a hot shower. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Before she could say anything else, he closed the door behind himself. Out in the dark hallway, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. This was bad. This was so, so bad. When had this happened? Since when had she come to mean so much to him? When had her smiles become the highlight of his day? When was the first time that he had wanted to touch her, when he usually didn’t want to touch anyone? When? He felt dizzy. He hated that he had no grip on this – the feeling of going down a slippery slope with nothing to hold onto.

He took a deep breath. Now that he looked back on it, it was obvious: he’d been falling in love with her all along, ever since the day they met, when he’d seen the fire in her eyes rekindle after she’d accepted his offer. He’d fallen in love with her during their practiced negotiations, when she constantly challenged and surprised him with her intelligence and quick wit. He’d fallen in love with her when she’d confided in him after her nightmares. He’d been falling in love with her continuously: when they were stuck in that attic together, when she’d been so careful with his origami, during that paintball game, and every time she made him laugh. Looking back over the past few weeks, there wasn’t a single moment when he hadn’t been falling in love with her. He couldn’t believe he’d been so blind.

In his mind’s eye, he could see the hurt look on her face when he’d snapped at her. He’d have to apologize to her in the morning. His eyes opened in alarm. Oh god. He’d have to see her again tomorrow. How was he going to face her now? How was he going to talk to her, look at her, when everything surrounding her was such a swirling mess of emotions? His chest was so full that it felt like he was suffocating. He knew that he needed to talk to someone, and since it couldn’t be her, there was only one other person he could confide in.

With the utmost reluctance, he pushed himself away from the wall and walked a few doors to the left, then knocked.

Berlin opened the door, still fully dressed, and Sergio walked straight past him inside, then sat down heavily on the bed.

“Andrés”, he said quietly. “I’m in love.”

His brother grinned broadly. “No, really? What gave you that idea?”

He looked up pleadingly. “What do I do about this?”

“Well, I suggest you take a nice bottle of wine and you go to her room after everyone’s asleep and…”

His eyes went big. “God no! I meant, how do I make it go away?”

“Go away?”

“Yes! How do I stop being in love? People fall out of love all the time, don’t they? I’ve seen it happen to you so often.”

“Yes, people fall out of love sometimes, but it takes time.”

“Well, I don’t have time. I need to focus on the heist, I can’t afford any distractions. How do I fall out of love now?”

His brother sighed. “I don’t know, Sergio, I’ve never tried.”

“I’d be grateful for any suggestions at all.”

“Well, have you tried focusing on her negative qualities?”

He buried his face in his hands and groaned. “What negative qualities? She’s perfect.”

Berlin gave him an amused grin. “God, you’ve got it bad.”

“I know”, he whispered. “I’m so screwed.”

“The only thing I can think of that might work is if you limit your exposure.”

He looked up. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you have to limit your interactions with her as much as possible. No more sitting next to her at mealtimes. No more walks together. No more intimate talks in either of your bedrooms. Treat her like any other member of the team.”

“But we’re friends”, he protested weakly.

“I’m sorry”, Berlin shook his head. “But you can’t be friends with this woman if you don’t want to fall in love with her any further.”

“You’re right”, he murmured sadly. “This has to stop now.”

His brother paused for a moment, then said: “Look, Sergio, would it really be the worst thing in the world to start a relationship with her?”

He looked up, astonished. “A relationship? What makes you think she’d want that?”

“I’m fairly certain that she likes you too.”

He shook his head. “No, women don’t like me. They like you.”

Berlin grinned. “I know you don’t have much experience with women, but let me tell you that women are not in fact a collective entity with one single opinion. Different women can, and do, like different men.”

“It doesn’t really matter though. She’s only just gotten out of a terrible marriage, and she’s lost her job and her daughter. I’m sure relationships are the furthest thing from her mind right now.”

“Well”, Berlin said, “you could at least ask her.”

“No, I can’t. All of this is beside the point, because there aren’t supposed to be any personal relationships between us!”

“Says who?”

“Well… me.”

His brother grinned. “Isn’t that convenient? If you made the rule, you can break it, too.”

“But it’s there for a good reason! Emotional entanglements complicate everything to the point where they can completely screw things up.”

“Do you really think it would be so bad?”

He gave his brother a serious look. “I don’t know. All I know is that I’m not risking it. This isn’t a game, Andrés. This is my life’s work. I’ve been planning this for literal decades, and I’m not going to let anything disturb the delicate balance I’ve created.” He continued more softly: “I owe it to Father.”

Berlin nodded. “I know this is a very personal thing for you.”

He looked up. “But it’s no longer just my project, though. I’ve gotten nine people involved with it, and they all depend on me. I can’t lose my focus. I can’t afford any distractions. The slightest hitch could be the difference between life and death for someone. Emotions cloud your judgment, and I need my judgment unimpaired.”

“But she’s going to be in the control room with you. Don’t you think your judgment will be clouded by all the unresolved feelings between you?”

He shook his head. “The heist is still months away. I’m sure I’ll be over it by then. And if not…” He squared his shoulders. “Well, for years I planned to do this heist without her. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be a valuable addition to the team, but I can dispense with her if I feel like she would distract me.”

His brother was still looking doubtful, but he said: “Alright, fine. If you think this is the best way forward.”

He nodded decisively. “I do. No personal relationships. I was a fool to become too friendly with her, to allow her even this close. From now on, I won’t make that mistake again.”

He got up, thanked his brother and went out. He threw one look at the light shining from underneath her door, then firmly turned around and went to his room. That night, he lay awake for hours again, and for the first time, he knew why.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

When he woke up the next morning, it took him a moment to remember why he was feeling so miserable. Then the realization of the previous day hit him again, and he pressed his hands over his eyes and groaned. Why? Why did this have to happen to him now, when he was in the middle of the preparation of the most important event of his life? He took a deep breath and steeled himself. His determination of the night before hadn’t faded: he would stay away from her, as much as that was possible while they were cooped up in this house together. They were no longer friends. He would eliminate this feeling no matter what. After all, it was just a matter of controlling his thoughts and emotions, and he should be capable of doing that.

He got up and started dressing. When he wanted to put on his jacket, he remembered that he’d left it in her room the night before, still wrapped around her shoulders. He felt a sudden stab of yearning for the moment before he’d realized he was in love with her, when he had been obliviously happy, when he could still give her his jacket without thinking that it might mean something more. He heaved a deep sigh and shook his head to clear it of any thoughts of her. Yet he still remembered that he had promised to give her a phone, so he opened the drawer where he kept his spares and went out into the hallway to find her. Before he could knock on her door, however, it opened and she came out. His heart started beating in his throat at the sight of her, but he pretended not to notice.

“Good morning, Professor”, she said carefully.

He immediately felt guilty for snapping at her for using his name the night before. The next moment, however, he firmly pushed down the feeling and assumed a carefully neutral tone. He held out the phone to her.

“Good morning, Lisbon. I wanted to give you this. My number is already in there.”

She took the phone from him and slipped it in her pocket. “Thank you.” She looked up at him and took a deep breath. “About yesterday…”

He quickly said: “Yes, I meant to apologize for that. I was having a…” An existential crisis. “… a bad day, and I took it out on you. I shouldn’t have. Of course you can go out walking as often as you like. Just take that phone with you from now on.”

“I will”, she nodded. “But what I wanted to say…”

“How’s the ankle?” he interrupted her.

She frowned at him. “A little better. I still can’t really put a lot of weight on it. Now look…”

He glanced at his watch. “It’s time for breakfast.”

Without waiting for her reaction, he turned around and went down the stairs, leaving her looking very confused.

She watched him walk away from her and frowned. What had just happened? She had just wanted to thank him for last night, and he’d cut her off every time she tried. She looked at her own watch – it was still twenty minutes until breakfast time, so why had he hurried off so suddenly? She returned to her room to put away the phone he’d given her, then she sat down on her bed to wait until it was time to go downstairs. As always happened lately when her mind was unoccupied, her thoughts strayed to Sergio. She smiled softly to herself at the memory that he’d come out to find her last night, that he’d been worried about her. His jacket was still hanging over the back of the chair next to her bed, and she reached out for a moment to stroke it. Then she sighed and pulled back her hand, shaking her head at her own foolishness. What was she doing?

She knew fully well what was happening: she was falling in love with him. She couldn’t really believe it, after everything she’d been through, and with everything that was happening now, but she couldn’t deny it any longer. She’d realized fairly early on that she was attracted to him, but she hadn’t thought it would grow into anything more than that. When he had been the only one talk to her for weeks, she’d merely been grateful for his friendship. But the better she got to know him, the more she started to like him, in all his complexity – this man who was so stern and fiercely intellectual, yet awkward and soft at the same time, and so kind to her. It was his kindness that drew her to him so strongly, she thought. She had a sudden vivid recollection of Alberto, gripping her arm so tightly it hurt, his other hand raised for another slap. She shook her head to get rid of the image, as she felt a deep sense of certainty: Sergio would never do that.

Yet she realized all too well that, no matter what she was feeling, it couldn’t go anywhere. She didn’t think that he was absolutely indifferent to her, but she was sure that he’d keep to his rule of not having personal relationships with the members of his team. And besides that: what future could they have? They were here for another few months, but then there’d be the heist and they would go their separate ways. It was much better for her to just focus on the preparations, to try to make sure that the operation was a success, so she could get Paula back. That was the only important thing in her life right now. Yet when she thought about him, she couldn’t help but smile. He might only be in her life for another couple of months, but that wouldn’t stop her from enjoying the time she had with him.

It was time for breakfast now, and she slowly made her way downstairs, careful not to put too much weight on her injured ankle. She couldn’t stop herself from wishing that Sergio would come and carry her again, her heart beating faster at the memory of last night. When she came to the table, she was disappointed to see that he’d seated himself between Berlin and Moscow, but she shrugged and sat down next to Nairobi, who immediately struck up a conversation. She couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t look at her once during breakfast, nor during their morning class. At lunch, he didn’t sit down in the empty chair next to her, but on the other side of the table. When she approached him after lunch to talk to him, he suddenly left the room to go upstairs, and he didn’t reappear until it was time for their afternoon class. She got the feeling that something was wrong, but she wasn’t sure what it was and he didn’t give her a chance to ask in the evening either.

When his strange behavior persisted all throughout the next day, she slowly began to realize that he was avoiding her on purpose, and she wondered why. In the evening, she bumped into him when she was coming out of the bathroom, and he muttered an apology without looking at her, then hurried off before she could say anything. Throughout the next three days, nothing changed, and she was starting to feel confused and upset. He wasn’t unfriendly, exactly, but he wasn’t friendly anymore either. In fact, he treated her as if there had never been any friendship between them at all, like she meant nothing to him, and she couldn’t deny that it hurt her, she couldn’t deny that she missed him.

She wondered what she could have possibly done wrong to deserve this indifference. On the evening of the third day, she lay awake thinking about him, and it suddenly struck her. He’d started acting weird that night when he’d carried her home: he’d snapped at her for using his name and he’d given her such a strange look, then hurried out of the room. She felt herself go red with embarrassment as she suddenly understood why. He must have realized that she was developing feelings for him, and that was why he was keeping her at a distance now – he didn’t want to encourage her. Oh, this was mortifying! Had she really been so obvious? The next moment she realized that, yes, of course she’d been obvious. She’d been seeking him out at every opportunity, always sitting next to him, talking and laughing with him, asking him personal questions. She cringed at the thought of how she’d flirted with him – she’d told him he had nice shoulders, for crying out loud. She buried her face in her pillow. No wonder he was avoiding her. She sighed deeply and told herself that she needed to pull herself together. He didn’t want any personal relationships, and she needed to respect that.

The past week had been hell. At least a dozen times a day, he silently cursed his brother for making him realize that he was in love with her, because now it was all he could think about. He’d always thought that he was firmly in control of himself, so he was alarmed to realize how untrue that was. His eyes sought her out automatically; his heart started beating faster whenever she was near; he couldn’t control his breathing. It was a constant conscious effort to keep himself from looking at her, from talking to her, from straying close to her. It was as if she exerted a strong magnetic force on him, and he was exhausted from trying to resist it. He forced himself not to think of her, but while he was capable of controlling his thoughts during most of the day, she always snuck in the moment his guard was down: when he was falling asleep or just waking up, or when his mind was wandering. Somehow, it always wandered in her direction.

He was determined not to give in to his impulses, though. It was taking all his strength, but he needed to stay away from her. He just wished it wasn’t making him feel so desperately unhappy. He hadn’t anticipated how much he’d miss her – how much he’d miss her smiles, their talks, the simple fact of her nearness. On the third day after he’d carried her home, he’d found his jacket back in his room, carefully washed and ironed, with a post-it on it that simply said ‘thank you’, and it had almost made him cry. After a few days, he could see that she was hurt and confused by his change of attitude, and he hated himself for it, but he could see no other option. He needed to get rid of this feeling no matter what the cost. Yet the more he tried to push it away, the stronger it seemed to become.

During one afternoon class, he had them clear away all the desks in the classroom.

“You’re going to be armed when you’re in the Mint”, he said. “That should be enough to keep the hostages under control. But there may be a time when, for whatever reason, you’ll need to physically restrain someone. So today I’m going to teach you how to induce something called a ‘syncope’, where the restriction of blood flow to the brain results in the person passing out, which can be very useful.”

He picked Rio for a demonstration and took hold of him with one arm.

“Grab the person from behind, like this, then press against the carotid sinus, here. Within a few heartbeats, the impaired blood flow to the brain will make them lose consciousness. Take care, because it means they’ll fall, so you’ll have to support them to the ground. Don’t worry about safety: this isn’t dangerous and it doesn’t hurt. Now, pair up and let me see if you can find the right spot. Don’t actually press too hard, I don’t want anyone losing consciousness right now.”

Helsinki grabbed Oslo, and Moscow Denver. Tokyo paired up with Nairobi, and Raquel took hold of Berlin, while Rio waited his turn. Sergio went by the different pairs one by one, and corrected their grip and the placement of their fingers. When he came to Raquel and Berlin, he didn’t look her in the eye and he didn’t touch her as he instructed her to move her fingers a little higher.

“Alright”, he said. “Now switch.”

He had just turned to Tokyo and Nairobi again when there was a sudden commotion around Raquel and Berlin and everybody started talking at once. Sergio hurried over to them – his brother was bent double, trying to catch a breath, while Raquel was backing away from him, eyes wide, her hands raised in apology.

“Oh my god”, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”

“What happened?” Sergio asked sharply.

“She just elbowed him in the stomach!” Rio said, astonished.

Sergio turned to Raquel and asked in a softer tone: “What happened?”

“He… he grabbed me and… and…” She was beginning to shake, her breathing fast and shallow. “It was…”

Her entire body was trembling now as she looked around frantically.  

“Oh god…” she whispered, “I felt… Alberto…”

Sergio suddenly understood.

“Everybody out”, he ordered them, in such a tone that they obeyed him immediately.

As the door closed behind Berlin, he realized with a jolt that he was now alone in the room with her, and his first instinct was to leave, too, but the next moment he felt disgusted at himself. How could he be concerned with his own petty problems at a time like this? She needed a friend right now, and that was what he’d be. He approached her carefully, and she looked up at him with frightened eyes, still breathing much too fast.

“What’s happening?” she gasped, panicking. “I… I can’t breathe.”

“You’re hyperventilating”, he said with a calm he didn’t feel. “Don’t worry, it’s not dangerous, nothing bad is going to happen.”

“My fingers are tingling”, she whispered, and he noticed that she looked very pale.

“You’re about to faint”, he said, getting ready to catch her should she fall. “Sit down slowly.”

She carefully lowered herself to the ground, then leaned against the wall. He crouched down in front of her so they were at eye level. His heart was pounding, but he kept his voice low and quiet.

“Lisbon”, he said. “We’re going to slow your breathing, okay?”

She made a noise of distress and closed her eyes tightly.

“You’re going to be okay”, he said. “I promise. Now don’t close your eyes. Look at me.”

She opened her eyes, and he calmly met her gaze.

“Good”, he said softly. “Are you with me?”

She nodded, looking so scared that it made something contract inside his chest.

“The reason you’re feeling like you’re not getting enough air is, paradoxically, because you’re breathing too fast, which causes a lack of carbon dioxide in your blood. We’re going to slow your breathing, and then you’re going to be fine. Alright?”

She nodded again, swallowing hard.

“Now purse your lips like you’re going to whistle and breathe through them. We’re going to count your breaths: four seconds in, then you hold your breath for three seconds, then seven seconds out. Okay? Here we go.”

He counted the breaths for her, and though she struggled at first, he kept encouraging her until she managed to follow his rhythm. Slowly but surely, her breathing slowed, and as she went through several more counted breaths on her own, he kept talking to her.

“Good”, he murmured. “That’s it. You’re going to be fine. You’re safe. You’re safe.”

Finally he felt that she was calm enough to breathe normally again, and he told her so. Then he got up.

“Where are you going?” she immediately said, her eyes wide. “Don’t leave me!”

He quickly crouched down again.

“I’m not going to leave you”, he said softly. “I’ll stay here with you for as long as you want. I was just going to open a window. Is that okay?”

She nodded, relieved, so he got up, opened the window, then returned to her. He hesitated for a moment, then he slowly sat down next to her against the wall, careful not to touch her.

“How are you feeling now?”

“Better”, she sighed. “Thank you.”

“Lisbon…”

She looked at him. “Please call me Raquel.”

He took a deep breath. “Raquel. I’m so terribly sorry. I should have realized this exercise wasn’t safe for someone with your… history.”

“How much do you know?” she asked, rubbing shaking hands over her face. “When you – for lack of a better word – ‘hired’ me, you mentioned that the judge hadn’t believed my allegations of domestic abuse. How did you know?”

“I got copies of the court transcripts”, he admitted. “I read your testimony. I know all the facts.”

She nodded, unsurprised. “Then you know he used to hit me.”

“I do… Raquel, I’m so sorry.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry for making such a scene. God, what must the others think of me now? And poor Berlin, getting punched in the gut.”

He gave her a gentle smile. “He’ll survive. And the others won’t think any less of you. You had a PTSD flashback, you couldn’t help it.”

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been Berlin”, she whispered. “Really, anyone but him. He reminds me too much of Alberto.”

“Why? Berlin is many things, but he’s not physically violent.”

She thought about it for a moment. “They both have a cold streak in them. They don’t care if they hurt other people. The way he grabbed me, with such impersonal efficiency… Alberto rarely lost control – he was very methodical in his violence. He never bruised me in places that other people might see. Something about the way Berlin took hold of me reminded me so much of…”

She was starting to hyperventilate again, and he calmly guided her through a number of counted breaths again before she could continue.

“For a moment”, she said softly, “I was right back there. I never fought back then, but now I couldn’t help it. I’ve become so much angrier since the court case. I’m not sure I like the person I’ve become.”

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall.

“I think you’re an amazing person”, he said quietly. “I think it’s only normal that you’re angry, after everything he did to you.”

She opened her eyes and gave him a soft look. “You’re kind to say that.” She turned her head away from him again and her eyes got a faraway look. “It’s funny. Afterwards you think: how could I have been so stupid? How could I not have seen what was happening while it was happening? But you’re with someone you love and trust, and you don’t see it. The first time he yelled at me, I didn’t see it. People get angry sometimes. The first time he pushed me into a table and left a bruise, I didn’t see it. Of course it was an accident. And that’s how things gradually get worse, until one day you look around and you don’t recognize your life. You’re living in a nightmare and you don’t remember how you got there.”

Slow tears were trickling down her cheeks, but she seemed unaware of them. Seeing her like this was breaking his heart. He wanted to help her, but all he could do was listen, so that’s what he did.

“You know, he used to hit me when I least expected it. Something small that I said or did would make him unreasonably angry, and out of nowhere, he’d hit me.”

He could see that she was getting upset again. “Raquel… You don’t have to tell me this.”

She raised a hand. “No, please, I need to talk about it. I’d come out of the bathroom in the morning in a skirt that he deemed too short, and he’d hurt me. I’d talk to a male co-worker for too long and he’d hurt me. If I did or said anything wrong, I’d pay for it, often hours later, when I had already forgotten about it. It was so random, there was no pattern to it, it’s not like he would get violent when he was drunk or anything. He was completely unpredictable. And after a while, you live in a constant state of fear, because you never know when the next slap is coming. People often think of abused women: why don’t you just leave him? They don’t realize how hard that is once the fear has taken over your life. Fear makes you weak. And weak people don’t fight back. They lie down and they take the blows.”

He looked at her as she spoke, and there was such an ache in his chest he could barely stand it. He couldn’t believe that anyone could possibly bring themselves to hurt her.

“But you did fight back”, he said gently. “You left him, you were strong.”

She shook her head, more tears spilling down her cheeks. “I only did it for Paula. I could never have done it for myself. A year and a half of slowly escalating violence and humiliation will break you down to the point where there’s almost nothing of you left. That was one of the hardest things after I eventually left him. I had to find myself again, figure out who I was without the fear, without my coping mechanisms. I never realized how much mental space was taken up by constantly worrying about him until I suddenly didn’t have to worry anymore, and it left this gaping emptiness. But after a while, I started noticing things again. I started finding enjoyment again in the little things that I used to love. I felt like I’d been living under water and I was finally surfacing again – it was a slow process, but I was getting there. And then Alberto planted those drugs in my house and there was the arrest, the court case, the inquiry and the conviction, and it felt like I was thrown back into the water with my hands tied behind my back and I was sinking and sinking and sinking…” She turned her head to look at him. “… and then you saved me.”

He was at a complete loss for words. He could only look at her as she continued, turning away from him again:

“I still don’t feel fully alive again. I wonder if I ever will. But at least I’m living. At least I’m fighting. At least I’m free.”

They sat in silence for a while. She was lost in thought, and he couldn’t stop looking at her, an aching tenderness in his chest that threatened to overwhelm him. Finally she turned to him again.

“Sergio”, she said softly, and his heart skipped a beat as she said his name. “I know this isn’t your strong suit, but I could really use some human warmth right now. Nothing that will make you uncomfortable”, she reassured him quickly. “I won’t ask you to hug me or anything.”

He gazed at her steadily. “Would you want me to hug you?”

She glanced at him. “Honestly? Yes, I would, but…”

He stood up and held out his hand to her. She hesitated, then took it, and he pulled her to her feet. They stood looking at each other for a moment, then he opened his arms and she walked into them, settling herself against him like she’d done it a million times before, circling her arms around him and leaning her head against his chest. He swallowed hard and, ever so carefully, wrapped his arms around her and held her close. She took a deep breath and relaxed against him, hugging him tighter, and after a first moment of panic, he felt a deep, joyful sense of rightness settle over him. He didn’t stop to examine it. He couldn’t remember being hugged like this. He simply closed his eyes and allowed himself to savor the moment, the feeling of her, her solid warmth. He felt like his heart would burst.

Their embrace went on for moment after moment, and he didn’t move, allowing her to decide how long she wanted it to last, wishing against his better judgment that it could last forever. Finally she let go of him, and he immediately felt a cold emptiness where she’d been. She looked up at him with soft eyes.

“Thank you”, she whispered.

“Anytime”, he murmured, and he meant it.

She hesitated, then said: “Sergio… for the past week or so, there’s been a distance between us, and I’m not sure why, but… it’s been difficult for me.”

He swallowed hard but stayed silent, and she continued carefully:

“I know you’re a very private person, and I don’t want to ask too much of you, but… I really value your friendship.”

He suddenly felt like a terrible person for being so cold to her. “I value your friendship too”, he whispered.

She gave him a pleading look. “Then can we go back to the way things were? Please? I… I don’t think I can do this without you.”

God help him, how could he say no to her when she was looking at him like that? She needed him and, he suddenly realized, he needed her too. He’d missed her so much over the past few days. He desperately wanted things to go back to the way they’d been before – he knew he shouldn’t, he knew he should resist, but he couldn’t bear it anymore. She was offering him a way to repair the damage and he took it.

“I’m sorry for pushing you away”, he said quietly. “I was… struggling with something, but now I realize I’ve been foolish. I would very much like to be friends again… if you can forgive me?”

She gave him such a sweet smile that it took his breath away. “Of course.”

They stood looking at each other for a long moment, and he wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms again, but then he shook himself and noticed how exhausted she looked.

“You must be tired”, he said, and she nodded. “No more classes for you today. Go to your room and lay down for a bit. Take a nap if you can. I’ll come and call you when dinner’s ready.”

She nodded again and moved across the room. At the door, she looked back at him, and it looked like she was going to say something, but then she changed her mind and left. As the door closed behind her, he let himself fall into a chair and buried his face in his hands. Why did she affect him so much? He knew he should have been stronger, he knew he shouldn’t have given in, but all he could feel right now was an overwhelming joy at the thought of being able to talk to her again. He took a deep breath and considered the situation. Maybe it was better this way. He’d thought it would be better for his focus to stay away from her, yet over the past week, so much of his mental energy had been directed towards not thinking about her. Maybe it was actually better to just accept his feelings for what they were – it didn’t mean that he had to act on them. They could never be more than friends, but her friendship would be enough for him. He was sure he could find an appropriate balance between the personal and the entirely impersonal. A curious lightness settled over him as he reached his decision, and, feeling happier than he had all week, he got up and went downstairs to find the others.

 

Chapter Text

 

Over the next few days, they went back to normal – except not really. After she’d opened up to him, there was a new closeness between them, and he was constantly struggling to keep her at an appropriate distance while all his impulses and desires pushed him in the opposite direction. He was acutely, painfully aware of her at all times. Even when he wasn’t looking at her, he knew where she was in the room, who she was talking to, how she was standing or sitting. When she was near him, he was aware of every inch of distance between them, every millimeter separating his skin from hers. They usually sat next to each other at mealtimes again, and every time her elbow brushed against his, or their knees touched under the table, it went through him like a jolt of electricity. Once, during dinner, she put her hand on his sleeve to get his attention, just for a moment, but he felt the place her hand had been for hours afterwards. Often when she talked to him, he found himself unable to focus on her words because he was so distracted by the curve of her mouth, the depth in her eyes, the texture of her skin.

He started developing strategies and rules to follow in order to stay within the bounds of what friendship would allow. One out of every four meals, he would sit down next to other members of the team. During classes, he only allowed himself to look at her every few minutes. In the evenings, he made sure they were never the last two to stay up, and he stopped asking her to practice negotiations with him. He avoided going anywhere near her bedroom door, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to knock. For a while, he tried limiting all his conversations with her to fifteen minutes, but he enjoyed talking to her so much that he quickly gave that up as a lost cause.

All in all, it was a relief when he took Rio into Madrid one day to set up the screens and software in the hangar he would use as their center of operations. For a full day, he was spared the sweet agony of her presence, and for the first time in weeks, he was able to fully give his attention to the things he was doing. And yet, on the drive back home, he couldn’t wait to see her again.

The next Saturday morning, Tokyo, Rio, Nairobi and Denver came to him after breakfast and begged to get the afternoon off.

“We’ve been having classes all day every day for weeks now, Professor”, Tokyo said. “We need some time to relax.”

“You can relax as much as you want after the heist”, he said. “Your entire lives, in fact. But now you need to focus.”

“But we’re exhausted”, Rio complained.

“This is worse than school”, Denver grumbled. “And I hated school.”

“We’ll be able to focus much better tomorrow if we’ve had some time to chill”, Nairobi added.

He sighed and looked around at them, then relented. “Fine. No class this afternoon.”

They cheered and told the rest of the team, all of whom looked rather relieved, too, and Sergio felt like maybe it had been the right thing to do after all. After lunch, though, he felt rather lost, until Raquel came up to him and smiled.

“So”, she said. “How much are you hating this?”

“Well”, he said, “I must admit that I don’t like this disruption of our routine.”

“Can we afford to lose this time?”

“Fortunately, we can. We’re a bit ahead of schedule.”

“Good”, she said, then her eyes got a dreamy look. “It’s nice to have the afternoon off, but I wish I could get out of the house for a while.”

“Why don’t I take you into Madrid and show you the control room?” he suggested without thinking, then was hit by instant regret as he realized that it meant they would have to spend the entire afternoon alone together. The very thought made him feel uncomfortably hot around the collar.

It was too late to take it back though: her eyes were shining with enthusiasm.

“Yes!” she said. “I’d love to see the control room, and you can explain to me how everything works.”

“Alright”, he said. “Uhm, let me ask the others if any of them want to come with us.”

The rest of the team, however, showed no interest at all in a control room they would never set foot in until the very end of the heist. It was a hot, humid day, and nobody felt like doing anything except lie around in the shade and relax, so Sergio reluctantly got into the car with just Raquel, who seemed happy and excited at the prospect of getting off the grounds for the first time in weeks.

She eyed him closely as they drove off. “Are you alright?”

“Yes”, he said, though he felt a dizzying mixture of joy and nervousness at the thought of spending an entire afternoon in her company.

“You look a little tense.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, but I understand why.”

“You do?” he asked, alarmed.

“Up in the house, we’re in our own small bubble and the heist feels very far off”, she said softly. “But going into town makes it all feel much more real, doesn’t it?”

“Yes”, he sighed in relief. “That’s it exactly.”

They drove along in silence for a while, then she started talking about the morning’s class, asking follow-up questions and talking through some of the finer points of the plan. As always, she surprised him with her insightful comments and dedication, and time flew by – it seemed next to no time before the suburbs of Madrid came into view.

As they drove into the city, dark clouds started gathering, and he had to focus all of his attention on the road as a heavy rain began to fall, reducing the visibility and the speed of the traffic. They slowly drove into the city center and he was lucky enough to find a parking space right in front of the hangar, so they could hurry straight inside without getting wet.

As the door of the hangar closed behind them, she looked around with raised eyebrows.

“This is it?”

“Yes”, he said, “this is it.”

She turned to him. “You expect me to spend ten days in this place? Look at how dark and damp it is! There’s actual puddles on the floor!”

“Oh”, he said, looking around. “I hadn’t really noticed that.”

She snorted. “I’m sure you hadn’t. Well, we’re just going to have to come back a few times to clean it up a little.”

“Is that really necessary? The decorations aren’t exactly the most important thing about this operation.”

“I’m not even talking about decorations, I’m talking about basic things like keeping my feet dry. Alright, you can explain the computer stuff to me today, but next time we’re coming back with some buckets and a mop.”

They picked their way through the puddles to the tables where the computers were set up, and he was pretty sure he could hear her mutter “men” under her breath as she looked around at the sparse furniture. The rain pattered loudly on the roof as he explained everything to her, and she listened attentively. Afterwards, she wanted to go for a drink at a nearby café, but he insisted they head back home.

As they drove out of the city and back onto the country lanes, the rain came down heavier – an absolute downpour out of huge black clouds that reduced visibility to almost nothing. Sergio kept going for as long as he dared, but finally he drew the car over and stopped by the side of the road.

“I can’t drive in this”, he said, dismayed. “I can barely see where I’m going.”

Raquel looked outside and frowned. “We can’t stay here for too long either, though. The road is flooding.”

She took out her phone and typed in ‘weather forecast’, then looked up at him with wide eyes. “They say it’s going to be like this for the rest of the night.”

He cursed softly.

She considered the situation. “We can’t possibly drive all the way back to the house through this, and we’re already too far away from Madrid to return to the hangar.”

“I agree”, he said. “So what do you think we should do?”

She was on her phone again. “There’s a small village only a few miles from here. If you drive very slowly, I think we should be able to make it there.”

“And then what?”

“There’s a hotel.”

He stared at her. “You want to stay the night there?”

“Well, what else do you propose? We can’t drive faster than walking pace through this, so making our way back to the house would take all night, and it would be really dangerous, especially when it gets dark. Even if we take turns, it would be exhausting. I don’t think we should risk it.”

All sorts of alarms were going off inside his brain – hotels were places where… things… happened – but unfortunately, her logic was pretty solid. Their only other option would be to sleep in the car, and how could he defend that to her if there was a much better solution available?

He took a deep breath and nodded. “Alright, tell me how to drive.”

They crawled through the curtain of falling water at a snail’s pace, and it took them almost an hour to drive the few miles to the village. The street in front of the hotel was full of cars, and they had to park at quite a distance. They looked at each other in dismay.

“You don’t happen to have an umbrella in the trunk, do you?” Raquel asked hopefully, but he shook his head.

She shrugged. “Well, then there’s nothing for it. We’ll just have to run.”

They both steeled themselves, then opened the car doors and hurried out. Sergio gasped as the icy rain hit him – in the few seconds that it took to lock the car door, he was already soaked down to his skin.

“Come on!” Raquel called to him, and they ran together through the downpour to the door of the hotel.

Once inside, they leaned against the wall in the entrance, panting, shivering, dripping water all over the carpet. Then they walked into the lobby, where a line of people was waiting at the concierge desk, clearly there under the same circumstances as they were.

As they waited, Raquel looked around appreciatively.

“This is a really nice hotel.”

Sergio nodded. It was clearly an old building, but very well maintained, and the wooden beams in the walls and ceiling gave the place a rather charming atmosphere.

The line shrank slowly and finally it was their turn.

“Two rooms, please”, Sergio said to the stressed-looking concierge.

“Only one room left, I’m afraid”, the woman said. “People have been pouring in off the street ever since that rain started.”

He suddenly felt very warm despite his soaked clothes. “Only… only one room?”

He glanced at Raquel, who smiled at him as she shivered.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind. As long as I can take a hot shower.”

Sergio turned reluctantly back to the concierge. “Alright, we’ll take it.”

“It’s our most expensive suite”, the concierge said apologetically.

He sighed. “Fine. It’s not like we have much of a choice.”

They took their room key and headed up the stairs. As he opened the door, Sergio stopped dead. The room was truly exquisite, with soft, plush carpets, elegant curtains, a beautiful wooden fourposter bed and a big fireplace with a roaring fire. A vase full of roses was arranged on a warm mahogany desk. There was only one way to describe this damn room, and that was – he groaned inwardly – fucking romantic.

Raquel didn’t seem to have any of his reservations – she pushed past him and hurried to stand in front of the fireplace, shivering uncontrollably.

“Oh”, she sighed. “This is nice.”

He reluctantly closed the door, and didn’t advance any further into the room. She looked up at him.

“Aren’t you cold? God, that rain was freezing. Do you want to shower first?”

“No”, he said. “Go ahead.”

She disappeared into the bathroom, then called out to him:

“Well, the good thing about this expensive suite is that it comes with all sorts of extras. Sadly not dry clothes, of course, but there’s bathrobes and soaps and toothbrushes and stuff.”

He went to stand in front of the fire as she closed the bathroom door and he heard her turn on the shower. He tried – he really tried! – not to think of her under the shower, then decided that he’d better distract himself by calling his brother and letting him know they weren’t coming home that night.

“Yes”, Berlin said, “I agree that you shouldn’t drive in this weather. Where are you staying?”

“In a hotel we found along the way.”

He could clearly hear the grin in his brother’s voice. “You know, nobody would blame you if you took advantage of the situation.”

He stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re out of the house… a little privacy… how about you knock on her door tonight and just see what happens?”

“I can’t knock on her door”, he mumbled. “We’re in the same room.”

Berlin laughed. “And I thought my little brother needed my guidance. Sounds like you’ve arranged things very nicely.”

“I haven’t arranged anything”, Sergio bristled. “There was only one room left.”

“Well, didn’t that work out perfectly?”

“Nothing worked out, Andrés, I’m not going to sleep with her!”

“Fine, it’s your call. It just seems to me like a waste of a perfectly good opportunity.”

Sergio sighed as he hung up. Great, now he felt even more awkward. He just hoped she didn’t also think that he was going to make a move on her – he would hate for her to feel uncomfortable in his presence.

A few minutes later, she came out of the bathroom in a soft-looking bathrobe. She took a chair and put it in front of the fireplace, then began arranging her wet clothes over it so they could dry. It wasn’t until he saw her underwear, too, that he suddenly realized she wasn’t wearing anything underneath her robe. It flustered him so much that he quickly fled into the bathroom.

The hot water washed away the chill he was feeling, but not the embarrassment. He desperately wanted out of this situation, but since that wasn’t possible, he supposed he would just have to try to keep things as professional as possible. Coming out of the shower, he wanted nothing more than to put on his clothes again, but they were so wet that it really wasn’t an option. He wrung them out in the tub as best he could, then put on the second bathrobe. He put on his underwear first, though. Even though it was damp, there was no way he was going to be in a room with her while only wearing a robe.

When he came out of the bathroom, she was sitting in front of the fireplace with her arms around her knees, staring dreamily into the flames. He took the second chair and placed it next to hers, draping his clothes over it to dry. Then he sat down on the bed, as far away from her as possible. She turned around so her back was to the fire, and he tried not to notice her bare legs, her damp hair falling over her shoulders, the way her robe fell open to reveal a bit of cleavage.

“I’m sorry”, she said.

He frowned. “What are you sorry for?”

“I know you don’t like people in your personal space, and tonight, for all intents and purposes, this room is your personal space.”

“You’ve been in my room before.”

She grinned. “Yes, but only for a little while, and back then we were both in a… more advanced state of dress.”

He felt himself go red, and she laughed. “Don’t worry, this fire will dry our clothes in no time.”

It felt like an eternity to him, though, and he felt an immeasurable sense of relief when she finally disappeared into the bathroom with her clothes and came out fully dressed again. He felt even better when he could do the same ten minutes later. Feeling like his balance was more or less restored, they went out of the room together to check out the hotel restaurant. Neither of them wanted to go outside again to look for a different place to eat.

The dining room was packed with other guests, and they had to wait for a while for a table to open up. When they sat down and ordered, Sergio started feeling a little more at ease again, and they made light conversation as they waited for their food. Then, just after the waiter had brought their plates, there was a rumble of thunder outside and all the lights went out.

“Oh!” Sergio heard Raquel say across the table from him. “Power outage. Must be because of the weather.”

All across the dining room, guests were taking out their cell phones to use the flashlight, but soon waiters started coming in with candles that they put on every table. Raquel flashed him a grin as a waiter brought them their candles.

“Looks like we’re in for a romantic evening.”

Sergio felt like he wanted to sink through the floor and disappear. Why, why, why did this have to happen to him? She seemed to pick up on his discomfort, because she leaned across the table and put a light hand on his.

“Sergio”, she said softly. “Relax.”

He swallowed hard. How could he possibly relax when she was touching him? The next moment, though, she withdrew her hand and focused on her food. He tried to do the same, but it was so hard to eat when she was sitting in front of him, her face so lovely in the candlelight that he couldn’t look away.

After dinner, the waiters urged them to each take a candle upstairs for light. They made their way up to their room in silence. In their absence, someone had been in to stoke the fire, because it was burning more brightly than before, giving the room a soft golden glow. Sergio put his candle down on a bedside table, then took a pillow from the bed and dropped it onto the floor.

“What are you doing?” she said sharply.

He looked up at her, confused. “Sleeping on the floor.”

She gave him an exasperated look. “Don’t be ridiculous. Have you seen how big this bed is?”

“Honestly”, he said, “I don’t mind, the carpet is quite soft.”

“Then why don’t I sleep on the floor?” she said.

He stared at her. “No, that wouldn’t be right.”

“Why not?” she said, amused. “Because I’m a woman? That’s pretty sexist.”

 He didn’t know how to respond to that. She took another pillow off the bed and dropped it on the floor at her side. He got annoyed.

“Look, I’m not letting you sleep on the floor, alright?”

“Then why should I let you sleep on the floor?”

“Because… because…”

She grinned at him. “Either we’re both sleeping in this bed, or neither of us is. I demand equality.”

He stared at her in disbelief, then grumpily threw his pillow back onto the bed. “Oh, you’re impossible!”

She picked up her own pillow with a smile. “Yes, saving you from a sleepless night of back pain, I’m a terrible person.”

She took off the shirt she was wearing over her black top, then started to unbutton her pants.

“What are you doing?” he said, alarmed.

She looked at him in surprise. “I’m not sleeping in my jeans, I’d never get comfortable.”

He quickly averted his eyes as she stepped out of her pants and into the bed.

“Come on”, she said. “Get in.”

He took off his jacket and tie, but stubbornly kept on his shirt and pants. It felt weird to get between the sheets fully clothed, but there was no way in hell he was taking off anything else. He carefully lay down at the very edge of the mattress, and she threw him an amused look.

“Would you like me to build a pillow barrier between us?”

He privately thought that that was an excellent idea, but he realized just in time that she was being sarcastic. He didn’t deign to respond.

“Goodnight”, he said stiffly, blowing out his candle.

“Goodnight”, she smiled, and turned to her side so she was facing away from him.

He was just starting to relax, when she suddenly turned back to him and he startled so badly that he fell out of bed.

She sat up, alarmed. “Oh, for crying out loud, Sergio! Are you okay?”

“Yes”, he mumbled, more embarrassed than he’d ever been in his life, and that was saying something. He scrambled to his feet, but didn’t get back into the bed. In the light of the fire, he could see her frown at him, then a softer look appeared on her face.

“Look”, she said gently. “I’m sorry this is making you so uncomfortable. If you really think you’d feel better sleeping on the floor, then go ahead.”

He hesitated. He was trying at all costs to avoid making her feel uncomfortable, but she didn’t seem to mind this nearly as much as he did, and he suddenly felt ridiculous.

“No”, he said, “I’ll sleep in the bed.”

“Alright”, she said. “But get in properly this time. You can’t fall out of bed every time I make a sudden movement.”

He got back in and shifted slightly to the middle. She eyed him critically.

“A little more”, she said, and he sighed and shifted about half an inch further towards her. When she gave him a stern look, he added another inch to that. Finally she seemed satisfied. She turned on her side again and, after a few minutes, he noticed that her breathing became deep and even, and he knew that she was asleep.

He lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling. He wasn’t even going to try to sleep – he knew full well that that would be a lost cause when she was so close to him. He turned his head and glanced at her. How could he possibly fall asleep when she was so close he could just reach out his hand and touch her? As he was watching her, she shifted onto her back, turning her face in his direction, and as the firelight played over her skin, she looked so lovely and serene that it took his breath away. He knew he shouldn’t be staring at her while she slept, but he just couldn’t help himself. The moment felt so soft and intimate, and he felt so privileged to be allowed to see her like this.

The next moment, however, she shifted again, and before he knew what was happening, she’d turned onto her side facing him and draped an arm over his chest. He froze as she shifted closer to him and rested her face against his shoulder. His eyes were wide with panic and his heart started beating frantically. What the hell was she doing? Was she doing this on purpose? He eyed her closely… no, she seemed to still be sleeping soundly. He suddenly realized that she was used to sleeping next to someone – she probably thought he was her husband.

His mind was racing. What was he supposed to do now? He didn’t want to wake her – that would be so awkward for both of them. The only thing he could do was just lie still until she turned around again. He was careful not to move a muscle, but after a while he couldn’t help but become aware of how nice it felt to have her so close to him, to have her arm around him, to feel the warmth of her skin even through his shirt. He couldn’t keep himself from wondering what it would be like to sleep next to her every night, to hold her in his arms as he drifted off to sleep. He could hardly imagine being lucky enough to be the person to wake up next to her every morning.

She turned her head slightly, and a lock of hair fell over her face. Without thinking about it, he lifted a hand and carefully brushed it away. The next moment, he froze as she stirred, opened her eyes and lifted her head in confusion. She looked up at him, her gaze soft with sleep, her dark eyes even darker in the half-light of the fire.

“Sergio?” she said softly.

“Yes”, he answered, a whisper all he could manage.

She looked into his eyes for a long moment, and he was acutely aware of the fact that she was still pressed against him, her arm still over his chest, and her face so close to his that he would only have to lift his head to…

With a jolt, she suddenly seemed to wake up properly, and her eyes widened in alarm as she hurriedly scrambled backwards.

“Oh my god”, she said, turning so red that he could see her blush even in the near-darkness. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s alright”, he said, feeling more disappointment than embarrassment. “You just turned around in your sleep.”

“Oh, I’m mortified”, she groaned. “I’ll go sleep on the floor now.”

She moved to get out of bed, and he quickly reached out to take hold of her wrist. “No, don’t, please. I… I really didn’t mind.”

“But I was already invading your personal space just by being in the same room as you, and now I…”

“Please”, he repeated quietly, not letting go of her wrist. “Please stay in bed.”

She hesitated, then settled herself back between the sheets.

“I’m sorry”, she said again.

“Don’t be”, he said.

He still hadn’t let go of her wrist. She glanced down and he quickly released her, and she lay down again, facing him. She was quiet for a while, but she didn’t close her eyes, and he patiently waited for her to speak.

“I did that subconsciously”, she finally said.

“I know”, he replied.

“I just miss it sometimes”, she whispered.

“What?”

“Sleeping next to someone. It’s so weird to sleep alone again after so many years of always having someone in the bed with you.”

“I can imagine.”

“Don’t you miss it?”

He shrugged. “You can’t miss something you’ve never done.”

“You don’t mean… never?”

He shook his head. “Not since I was very small.”

“But you told me you’d had relationships?”

“I’ve dated a few women, but I’ve never felt comfortable enough to sleep in the same bed as someone else.”

She raised herself up on an elbow. “You mean… I’m the first person ever you’ve shared a bed with as an adult?”

“Yes”, he nodded. “I suppose you are.”

She stared at him, speechless, then burst out laughing. “Oh god, and so far you’ve fallen out of bed, you’ve been cuddled against your will and you still haven’t slept a wink. This must be a terrible experience for you.”

He felt himself go slightly red. “It hasn’t been that bad”, he murmured.

She laughed again. “That’s very polite of you.”

She lay down. “Well. Shall we try this again? If I touch you again, just push me away, okay?”

“Okay”, he said, privately thinking that it would take a much stronger man than he was to have the resolve to push her away.

“Goodnight, Sergio”, she whispered.

“Goodnight”, he replied softly.

This time, he turned himself onto his side so he was facing away from her. He lay awake for a long time yet, half hoping that she would curl up against him again, but she stayed on her own side of the bed now, and after a while, he fell asleep.

The next morning, he woke up before she did. He felt confused for a while as to where he was, and he felt a sharp stab of panic as his eyes fell on Raquel sleeping peacefully beside him, then the events of the previous day came back to him and he calmed down again. The rain outside had stopped and a watery ray of sunshine was making its way through the curtains to fall on her face. He gave her a long look, then he shook his head at himself for staring at her and got out of bed to shower. When he came out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later, she was just waking up.

“Good morning”, she said, stretching luxuriously. “Did you get any sleep?”

“Yes, I did”, he said, noting privately how lovely she looked with her hair all tousled and her eyes still soft with sleep.

She got up and showered too, then they got ready to go to breakfast. Before she opened the door of the room, she turned to him.

“Thank you for stopping me from sleeping on the floor”, she said.

“Well”, he said. “Likewise.”

She smiled. “I’m sorry your first time sleeping next to someone had to be with me.”

“No”, he said quietly. “I’m glad it was you.”

Her eyes lit up so beautifully it made his heart skip a beat. She reached out and brushed her fingers against his hand, and for a second he felt an overwhelming desire to take her into his arms, but the next moment she’d turned away from him and walked out the door. She looked back as she realized he wasn’t following her.

“Come on”, she said. “Breakfast. And then we need to get back to the house.”

He realized suddenly that he hadn’t thought about the others or the heist for twelve hours. He sternly shook his head at himself as he followed her down the stairs. She wasn’t good for him. He would have to try harder to maintain his focus. Yet he was alarmed to find that there was a part of him that didn’t want to focus on the heist anymore, a part of him that wanted only to focus on her, that wanted nothing in the world except to sleep next to her again. He firmly pushed it away with the unsettling feeling that, slowly but surely, she was unraveling him. He didn’t know what to do about that. He only knew that being apart from her was not an option anymore.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

They were having a discussion over whose turn it was to do the cooking. Berlin and Moscow had prepared lunch, so they kept out of it, but the others were arguing.

“I prepared dinner yesterday and the day before”, Raquel said. “It’s someone else’s turn now.”

“I’m sure it’s Denver and Rio’s turn”, Nairobi said. “They haven’t been in the kitchen in days.”

“We did the shopping!” Rio said. “We shouldn’t do the shopping and prepare dinner on the same day, it’s not fair!”

“We need a schedule”, Sergio said quietly. “You’re having this discussion every couple of days. I’ll draw up a roster so everyone takes their turn fairly.”

“You know Professor”, Tokyo said suddenly. “I haven’t seen you in the kitchen yet.”

“He’s the boss”, Denver said. “He shouldn’t cook.”

“I don’t agree with that at all,” Tokyo said. “We’re all in this house together. We all need to eat. It’s only fair that we all take a turn at cooking, including our mastermind.”

“I agree”, Nairobi said. “No special treatment for anyone, we’re a team.”

They all looked at Sergio, who felt himself turn red. “But… I don’t know how to cook.”

Rio grinned. “Neither did we, but we made it work. You can look up instructions online, it’s not that hard.”

“I’ll help you”, Raquel said, and Sergio’s heart leaped.

“You shouldn’t”, Tokyo said. “You’ve already cooked two days in a row.”

“I don’t mind”, Raquel shrugged. “I’d rather help him than have him completely screw up the food.”

Sergio grimaced, but he knew she made a fair point. He followed her gratefully into the kitchen and Raquel turned to him.

“Question: do you really not know how to cook or were you just trying to get out of having to do it?”

“I really don’t know”, he admitted.

“But you lived alone for most of your adult life, right?”

“Yes.”

She stared at him. “Then what did you eat?”

He shrugged. “It never really mattered that much to me. Bread and cheese. Warmed up soup from a packet. Take-out. Oh, and I can make eggs.”

“Congratulations”, she said, amused. “In other words, you’re going to be no use at all.”

“I’m afraid not”, he said, embarrassed.

She turned and opened the cupboards.

“Well, let’s see what those boys brought from the store and what we can make of it.” She raised her eyebrows and took out bunch after bunch of tomatoes. “Okay, lots of tomatoes, and a bunch of other vegetables in the fridge… How about pasta with tomato sauce?”

“Fine”, he said. He pulled out his phone and typed ‘tomato sauce’ into Google.

She got out a few pots and pans, two cutting boards and two knives. Then she started chopping onions.

“What are you doing?” he said.

She looked at him, confused. “Cooking?”

“Don’t you need a recipe?”

“I think I can manage a simple sauce.”

“Without any instructions at all?”

She shot him an amused look. “I’ve been cooking for twenty years, I think I know what I’m doing.”

“Are you using a recipe you’ve memorized?”

“No”, she laughed. “Cooking really isn’t an exact science. You just throw some stuff together and see if it tastes good.”

He stared at her in horror. “That’s madness. What if it’s bad?”

“It won’t be bad.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Experience. Now make yourself useful and cut those tomatoes.”

He hesitated. “How?”

She threw him a disbelieving look. “With a knife, genius.”

“I know that”, he bristled. “But do I cut them into slices or cubes or rectangles or…”

“Just… into pieces”, she said. “It doesn’t matter what shape.”

“Big pieces or small pieces?”

“Small pieces.”

“How small exactly?”

She rolled her eyes. “Jesus, it doesn’t matter! Just… dice them, okay?”

“I just want to do it right”, he muttered.

“There’s really no way to do it wrong”, she smiled. “Relax.”

He washed the tomatoes, then cut into one. After a few seconds, however, he stopped.

“What?” she said patiently.

“This is a nightmare”, he complained. “How do you cut something round into even pieces?”

She stared at him, then burst out laughing. “Oh, you are priceless. They don’t have to be even. Come on, hurry up. I’m going to need those tomatoes in a minute.”

He sighed and resigned himself to producing uneven pieces as he cut tomato after tomato while she chopped the rest of the vegetables at a much higher speed.

“You know what’s weird?” she said after a while.

“What?”

“Tokyo has been really polite to me lately.”

“Yes”, he said, “I noticed. Do you know why?”

“I noticed a change after I slapped her across the face in that paintball game.” She grinned. “I think I should have done it sooner.”

He laughed. “I still can’t believe you actually slapped her.”

“She shot you! What did you expect me to do?”

He still got a warm feeling every time he thought back at how angry she’d gotten on his behalf.

“Well”, he smiled. “Thank you for avenging me.”

Her eyes were sparkling. “I’d avenge you anytime. Especially if it involves hitting Tokyo.”

“You really don’t like each other, do you?”

“Look, I don’t have a problem with Tokyo, Tokyo has a problem with me.”

He shot her a quick sideways look, amused. “You don’t have a problem with Tokyo?”

She sighed. “Alright, maybe she’s not my favorite person. She just has such an abrasive personality. And I really don’t think she’s good for Rio.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you are aware that they’re sleeping together, right?”

What?” he yelped, looking up sharply, and his knife slipped and cut deeply into his hand.

The next moment, there was blood everywhere. The pain was so sharp that it took his breath away, but Raquel cursed, grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him over to the sink, where she turned on the tap and held his hand under the water. Even through the pain, he was acutely aware of her fingers on his wrist.

“Well”, she said drily. “You weren’t kidding when you said you couldn’t cook.”

“You startled me!” he said indignantly. “Are… are Tokyo and Rio really sleeping together?”

She raised her eyebrows and looked at him in surprise. “You didn’t know?”

“No, of course not!”

She laughed. “God you’re oblivious.”

He threw her a dark look, then withdrew his hand from under the tap and examined it. There was a long, deep gash at the base of his thumb, and blood kept seeping from it in a steady trickle.

He grimaced. “I think this is going to need stitches.”

She perked up. “Oh, excellent!”

He raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“I didn’t mean it that way”, she quickly amended. “It’s just that you taught us to stitch last week and I’ve been wanting to try it out on something other than the bananas you gave us.”

He cradled his hand protectively. “I’m not letting you stitch my hand.”

“Well, we can’t go to the hospital”, she reasoned. “And would you rather one of the others did it?”

Sergio remembered Tokyo’s sloppy work and Denver’s absolute bungling.

“No”, he said reluctantly. “I suppose you were the best at it.”

“You’re damn right I was”, she nodded. “Come on, up to the bathroom. You’re bleeding all over the kitchen and it’s not hygienic.”

They went out into the dining room, where the others were sitting at the table.

“Wow, what happened?” Nairobi asked, as she saw the blood trickling down Sergio’s wrist.

“I stabbed him”, Raquel said. “He was annoying me. Can someone take over in the kitchen? I’ve got to stitch up our beloved leader.”

Berlin got up and disappeared into the kitchen, and Raquel led Sergio up the stairs to the bathroom, where their medical supplies were. He sat down on the edge of the bathtub, and she took out the first aid box.

“There’s a lidocaine spray in there”, he said. “If you’re going to perform a test run of your newly minted stitching abilities on my hand, I’d rather not feel it.”

“Fine”, she said, rummaging through the box.

She took out the things she needed and arranged them all on a clean towel on the floor. Then she kneeled down in front of him.

“God”, he groaned. “It really hurts.”

She looked up at him with a sparkle in her eyes. “Do you want me to kiss it and make it better?”

He felt himself go red at the thought, but he tried to maintain his dignity. “You know, you shouldn’t make fun of me. I’m very hurt.”

“Yes”, she grinned. “Bravely injured in the Tomato Wars.”

He suppressed a smile and noticed that, despite her teasing, she took hold of his hand with the utmost care. She sprayed a liberal amount of lidocaine on the cut, then she sat back on the floor while they waited for the anesthetic to start working.

He cleared his throat. “Look… are you sure about Tokyo and Rio?”

She nodded. “Quite. They’re not particularly subtle.”

“But… but there aren’t supposed to be any personal relationships between the members of the team!”

“Yes, I know, you’ve made that abundantly clear.”

He groaned. “Oh, this is bad.”

She considered him for a moment, then asked: “Why?”

Why?”

“Yes, why is this such a bad thing?”

“I want to run a clean operation. Emotions make things messy.”

“You’re putting ten people in a house together for five months. What did you expect was going to happen? That no emotional attachments were going to be formed at all?”

He hesitated, and she exclaimed: “That’s really what you thought? My dear Professor, have you ever even interacted with humans at all?”

“We’re all adults”, he grumbled. “Is it too much to ask for a little restraint?”

“Restraint?” she said, amused. “From Tokyo? Now you and me, we can control ourselves, but…”

“You and me?” he said sharply.

“I mean… just as an example”, she said quickly. “Because we’re mature adults.”

He was silent for a while, then he sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to talk to them.”

“And say what? ‘Stop fucking’?”

“Well… yes.”

“And how are you going to check up on that?” she laughed. “Are you going to sleep out in the hallway so they can’t sneak into each other’s rooms?”

“They’re both adults. I’m sure they’ll understand the situation if I sit them down and explain it to them.”

“Rio is barely an adult”, she said. “And I don’t think Tokyo qualifies for that label either.”

“But then”, he said, exasperated, “what am I supposed to do?”

She considered him for a while. “It’s the emotions that bother you?”

“Yes.”

“If they were just sleeping together and it didn’t mean anything, that would be okay?”

He hesitated. “It’s still not ideal, but yes, that would be less bad.”

“Well”, she said simply, “then there’s nothing you can do. Any feelings they may or may not have for each other won’t go away if they stop sleeping together. You could, maybe, get them to stop fucking, but you can’t control the way people feel.”

He was quiet for a moment. He’d very recently found out how true that was. “So what do you suggest?”

“Let them do whatever the hell they want. I think Tokyo might give you much more trouble if you took away her toy than if you let her keep it.”

“What is she, a cat?”

“No”, Raquel said drily. “She’s a tiger. And she can do a lot of damage to the operation if you antagonize her.”

He was silent for a while as he processed all of that. He didn’t like it at all, but he couldn’t deny that Raquel had a lot more people skills than he did, and he felt like he should respect her expertise and follow her advice.

“How does your hand feel?” she asked.

“Much better”, he sighed. “I don’t feel anything anymore. I think you can start stitching.”

She was very careful as she took hold of his hand and set to work. He couldn’t feel a thing, but he still didn’t like the look of the needle piercing his skin, so instead he looked at her face as she was focused on her task. He loved looking at her, and he was glad to have an opportunity to just stare at her for several minutes without her noticing. Finally, she had produced a neat row of stitches.

“There”, she said. “All done.”

She sprayed some disinfectant on the stitched cut, then very carefully wiped away the blood on his palm and wrist with some cotton wool. Then she ran a light finger over the inflamed skin next to the cut, so tenderly that it produced an ache in his chest.

“I hope it won’t scar too badly”, she said softly. “You have such nice hands, it would be a pity.”

“I don’t think it will”, he murmured. “You did a good job.”

“Thanks”, she smiled, brushing a lock of hair away from her face, leaving a smudge of blood on her cheek.

“Oh”, he said. “Let me just…”

He reached out his uninjured hand and brushed his thumb over her cheek, wiping the blood away. She looked up at him, and something in his eyes seemed to strike her, because she didn’t say anything and she didn’t look away. For several breathless moments, they just looked at each other, then she seemed to shake herself and averted her eyes.

“Let’s put a bandage over that cut”, she said briskly.

She didn’t look at him again as she wrapped a bandage around his hand and then cleared the first aid stuff away, and he got the distinct feeling that he had made her uncomfortable. He told himself he should be more careful in the future – all she wanted from him was friendship, and if she realized how he felt about her, she would start to feel awkward around him. She might even start avoiding him. He felt a stab of panic at that thought, and vowed to keep a firmer grip on himself from now on. No more looking at her like that. She wasn’t his to look at.

During class the next morning, she seemed a little subdued. She looked tired and absentminded, and he wondered if she was having trouble sleeping. At lunch, he noticed that she wasn’t eating much.

“Are you alright?” he asked her.

She gave him a weak smile. “Just a little tired. I need to go to bed earlier tonight.”

He kept shooting her concerned looks throughout the afternoon’s class. At first she started looking pale, then her cheeks began to flush and he saw her shiver several times. After class was over, he stopped her as she walked past his desk.

“I think you’re getting sick”, he said, concerned.

She shook her head. “No, I just have a headache. I’m going to take an aspirin and then I’ll be fine.”

He observed her critically. “You’re shivering, your face is flushed, and on top of that you have a  headache? Sounds like you might have a fever. Can I feel your forehead?”

“Fine”, she shrugged.

He gently pressed his hand against her forehead and frowned. “That definitely feels warm to me. Let’s get you to bed and take your temperature.”

She pushed his hand away impatiently. “I’m not sick, I don’t need to go to bed.”

As she tried to walk away from him, however, she swayed and had to lean against the doorframe for a moment. He was immediately at her side.

“You’re dizzy”, he said urgently. “You’re sick!”

“I’m just a little faint because I didn’t eat at lunch.”

“Why are you being so stubborn about this?” he asked, exasperated.

“Because I never get sick!” she said. “I haven’t been sick in years.”

“You’ve been through a lot lately”, he said softly. “Your immune system may be a bit weaker than usual.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m not getting sick. I refuse.”

He shot her an amused look. “I don’t think you have much say in the matter.”

“I’m going to take an aspirin, eat something, then go for a walk. Some fresh air will clear my head.”

“You’ll do no such thing”, he said sternly. “Bed is the only place you’re going, if I have to carry you there myself.”

For a moment, her eyes sparkled. “You know, maybe I do feel a little faint.”

He snorted. “If you’re strong enough to joke about it, you’re strong enough to walk. Come on.”

As she let go of the doorframe, however, she staggered slightly, so he wrapped his arm around her waist and helped her to her bedroom. He sat her down on the bed, then went to get the thermometer, which confirmed a few minutes later that she had a fever.

“Bedrest”, he said firmly. “Put on your pajamas, I’m getting you something to get your temperature down.”

When he came back in with a glass of water and some medication, he was glad to see that she’d obeyed him and put on her pajamas. She was just getting between the sheets, shivering.

“Oh”, she groaned. “I hate this. Getting sick is bad enough, but it’s even worse in a strange place with nobody to take care of you.”

He said nothing, merely gave her the water and meds. Even under the blanket, she kept shivering, so he went to his room and got his own blanket from his bed. She protested weakly when he covered her with it, but he ignored her and carefully tucked it in around the edges.

“Thank you”, she said reluctantly.

He pulled out her desk chair and sat down.

She raised her eyebrows. “What are you doing? You can’t stay here.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m going to get you sick, too.”

“If you’ve got the flu, you’re contagious a full day before you start showing symptoms. I’ve already been exposed when you stitched my hand yesterday.”

“Still, you shouldn’t increase the risk. Go away.”

“No.”

“If you get sick, you won’t be able to teach for days!”

“I’m not leaving you alone.”

She chuckled. “I’m not dying. It’s just the flu. Go away!”

“No.”

She sighed. “Look, Professor, I’m not strong enough to argue with you right now.”

“Good”, he said quietly. “Now get some sleep.”

She shot him an incredulous look, then settled herself deeper under her blankets. Soon, he saw her surrender to her exhaustion – her eyes closed and her breathing became deep and even. He got up and got a book from his room, then made himself comfortable in the chair next to her bed.

He couldn’t focus on his book, however. He’d promised himself only yesterday that he wouldn’t look at her anymore, but now that she was asleep, he thought it couldn’t hurt, and he just couldn’t help himself. It was so nice to be able to look at her for as long as he wanted, and he kept drinking her in, minute after minute. Then he made a supreme effort and tore his eyes away from her face. What would she think if she woke up and saw him staring at her like that?

At dinnertime, he went down, got himself a plate of food and came back up to eat it. As he entered her room again, she woke up.

“How are you feeling?” he asked her.

“Awful”, she groaned.

“I’m sorry”, he said, full of empathy. “Here, take another tablet, that should at least keep your fever down.”

She swallowed the pill, then lay back down in the pillows to watch him.

“Do you want something to eat?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “No. But you should go down and eat with the others.”

“I can eat right here.”

“Sergio”, she said softly. “You don’t… you don’t have to take care of me.”

“I know I don’t have to”, he said, and he started to eat.

After he was done, he went downstairs and made her tea. She sat up against her pillows to drink it. They were silent for a while, then he said:

“I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday, about Tokyo and Rio.”

“You’re not still thinking about separating them, right?”

“No”, he sighed. “I’m going to follow your advice. But do you… do you think their feelings for each other might just… go away?”

She considered this. “They might. It happens sometimes. But I’m not sure that’s something you should be hoping for.”

“Why not?”

“Well”, she said. “We’re all stuck here together, so there are only two likely scenarios.”

“Which are?”

“Either they’re going to start liking each other more and more, or they’re going to start annoying each other, and then they might not want to work together anymore.”

“So you’re saying I should be happy about them forming an attachment?”

She gave him a soft look. “Emotions aren’t bad things, Sergio. Even in a situation like this, they can be good. Make people care more, draw them together.”

“And you said their feelings for each other are unrelated to whether or not they sleep together?”

She nodded. “Sleeping with someone you like can make the feeling stronger, but not sleeping with them won’t make it go away. In fact, it often makes it worse.” She smiled. “Unrequited love, you see.”

“What do you mean?”

“People are very good at wanting things they can’t have. You start romanticizing the person in your head, you start building them up to something they’re not.”

“Oh”, he said, wondering if that was what was happening to him. Would it actually be better if they… He felt himself blush and firmly pushed the thought away. He shouldn’t think about her like that.

She yawned and put her empty cup on the bedside table. “Thank you for the tea. I’m going to go back to sleep, and you should go to bed too.”

He got up. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’ll check on you in the morning. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight”, she murmured.

He went to his own room and lay awake for a long time, thinking about what she’d said.

The next morning, he gently knocked on her door before breakfast.

“Come in”, she said, and he opened the door and went in.

“How are you?”

He didn’t really need to ask, though. Her face was flushed and her eyes were bright with fever.

“I think it’s worse”, she croaked. “I didn’t sleep very well tonight, everything hurts.”

“I’ll get you some more medication”, he said.

After she’d taken it, she looked up at him with soft eyes.

“Thank you for checking in on me. I’ve been awake for a few hours and it was… lonely.”

“I’m going to breakfast now, but I’ll come back right after.”

She smiled. “Thank you.”

He came back into her room twenty minutes later, telling her how everybody had asked about her, and that seemed to cheer her up a little. They talked for a while, then he got up to go to the morning’s class. At the door, however, he glanced back at her, and she looked so small and sad. His heart was breaking at the thought that she would have to spend the entire day alone in this room. He closed the door again and sat down.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m staying with you today.”

“No”, she protested. “You can’t do that.”

“I don’t want you to be sick and alone.”

“But what about classes?”

“We can afford a day’s delay. And besides, I can’t teach if you’re not there. You’re an essential part of the operation, you can’t miss anything.”

She knew full well that he was just making excuses, but she didn’t object further.

“Thank you”, she said softly.

He got up. “I’m just going to tell the others.”

He came back with a book, and he spent the entire morning reading to her, occasionally getting up to get her more meds, making sure she drank enough water and tea. By the afternoon, she was getting tired again.

“I think I’m going to sleep for a bit”, she sighed. “Then you can go and do something else.”

“I’m staying right here”, he said quietly.

“But I’ll just be asleep”, she said.

“And I’ll be here if you need anything.”

As she slept, he considered his situation. If he was entirely honest, he had to admit to himself that he wasn’t doing this out of selflessness – he was actually glad about this opportunity to stay with her, to talk to her, to take care of her. He sighed deeply as he rubbed his eyes. He’d hoped his feelings for her would gradually disappear again if he couldn’t act on them, but he realized that the opposite was happening. Every day he thought he couldn’t possibly like her more, and yet he was proven wrong again and again as the feeling got stronger day after day. He knew he shouldn’t be sitting here with her. He knew he wouldn’t have done it for any of the others. But how could he leave her? He just didn’t have the strength.

For the first time in weeks, he forced himself to think ahead several months to the heist, and, more significantly, to after the heist. They would go their separate ways then, all of them. She would take her daughter and start a new life somewhere else, and he would lose her forever. The thought of it took his breath away, and he wondered frantically how this had happened to him. A few months ago, he hadn’t even known her, yet now he couldn’t imagine his life without her. The money, the glory, the achievement of a lifelong dream – what would it mean, any of it, without her?

She woke up and he shook himself from his dark thoughts to smile at her and talk to her for a bit, but it was clear that she was feeling worse and worse, and she soon went to sleep again. He went down to eat at dinnertime, then settled himself back in the chair next to her bed, unwilling to leave her alone when she was sleeping so restlessly, tossing and turning, her cheeks a burning red because of the fever. She woke up every hour or so, and he gave her water and meds, talked to her soothingly for a few minutes, then watched her go back to sleep. The hours passed, and he still couldn’t bring himself to go to bed.

In the early hours of the morning, the fever reached a peak and she began talking in her sleep. He watched her, helpless, worried, unable to do anything except sit by her bedside and wait for her to wake up. When she did, he helped her to sit up and sip some water. She turned feverish eyes on him, and he wasn’t sure if she was entirely awake when she whispered in a cracked voice:

“Sergio… Please don’t leave me.”

“I won’t”, he assured her. “I’m here.”

“You’re so sweet to me.”

“Nonsense. We take care of each other, you and me. That’s what friends do.”

He helped her lie back down, and she suddenly took his hand and stroked it softly.

“Thank you”, she murmured, her eyes closing. “I love you.”

He stiffened. “What?”

She was already back asleep, however. He heavily sat back down in his chair and stared at her. Had he misheard her? Had she really said that? His heart was beating fast, but he tried to reason himself to calmness. She had a fever, she didn’t know what she was saying. Her words kept echoing in his head, however, no matter how much he tried to banish them.

He noticed that she was sleeping more calmly now, and her fever seemed to be breaking. After a while, he dozed a bit in his chair, but he woke up again at the first light of dawn. An hour later, she woke up too.

“Sergio?” she said sleepily.

“Yes”, he said. “I’m here.”

“How long have you been waiting here?”

He hesitated, and she opened her eyes wide. “You did go to bed, right?”

He blushed. “You were very sick, I didn’t want to leave you.”

“You were here all night?”

“Yes.” He hesitated again. “Raquel… about what you said…”

She pushed herself upright and leaned against the pillows. “What I said when?”

“Last night, when you woke up.”

“Did I wake up?”

“Yes, you did, and you said…”

He looked at her, and he saw no understanding at all in her eyes. She didn’t remember.

“You know what?” he said with a slight smile. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Did I say something embarrassing?”

He shook his head. “No, not at all.”

“Oh, good”, she said in relief.

He abruptly got up. “I’m going to take a shower and then get ready for this morning’s class. I’ll come and check on you during the breaks, okay?”

“Okay”, she said softly. “Thank you for staying with me tonight.”

“Don’t mention it.”

He didn’t look at her as he quickly exited the room and closed the door. He got clean clothes from his room, then went into the bathroom. As he stood under the shower, he wished he could wash away the feeling of disappointment that was filling his chest. He sternly berated himself: of course she hadn’t meant it, of course it was only the fever talking – she’d been confused, she hadn’t realized what she was saying. After everything she’d been through, and with everything she was still going through, of course romance was the furthest thing from her mind. And even beside that… how could a woman like her possibly care for someone like him? He knew it was for the best – they couldn’t be together anyway, but it still surprised him how badly this hurt. It was the first time in his life that he’d been in love, and he hadn’t realized how painful it would be to be confronted with the fact that it wasn’t mutual. He had no idea how to deal with this. Just a few more months, he told himself. Then she would be gone from his life and he would be able to start healing. In the meantime… he’d just have to bear it. He stood for a long time under the steaming water of the shower, feeling tired and lost and miserable.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

She undressed for him slowly. He looked on with bated breath as she undid her shirt button by button, then shrugged it off and let it drop to the floor. Next, she took hold of the hem of her top, and he swallowed hard as she pulled it over her head. He wanted to touch her so badly. His heart was beating fast as she undid the button of her pants, then stepped out of them, and it started beating even faster when she joined him on the bed, smiling. She put her hand against his chest and pushed him down into the pillows, then she leaned forward slowly, and he could already imagine her lips on his…

He woke up with a start, breathing fast, his heart racing. His first reaction was one of disappointment and frustration that she wasn’t really with him, but a moment later he felt an all-consuming, burning sense of shame creep through him. He rubbed his face hard, trying to erase the memory of the dream. He was not, not allowed to think of her like that, even subconsciously. He wondered vaguely what had woken him up at such a crucial moment – just in time, he thought. Was it the noise from Nairobi’s birthday party, which had still been in full swing when he had gone up to bed? He listened… no, that couldn’t be it, everything seemed quiet. The next moment, however, there was a knock on his door, and he realized that had been what had woken him up.

He switched on the light and got out of bed, his mind still fuzzy with sleep, and opened the door. His eyes went wide as he saw Raquel standing there, smiling at him. For a moment, he wondered frantically if he was still dreaming, but then he realized that she was really there, and he felt himself go bright red at the memory of his dream.

She raised her eyebrows. “What are you looking so embarrassed about?”

“Nothing”, he said quickly. “Is… is something wrong?”

“No”, she said idly. “I just didn’t want to go to bed yet. Can I come in?”

“Uhm”, he said, but she didn’t wait for his answer. She slipped past him into his room, and let herself fall down on his bed.

He quickly closed the door and turned around, flustered to the extreme to have her in his room, in his bed, only minutes after that dream. His cheeks were burning, and he felt so awkward he wished the ground would open up and swallow him.

She sat up and threw him a curious look. “Seriously, why are you looking like that?”

He took a deep breath and tried to change the subject. “How was the rest of the party?”

She grinned broadly. “So much fun! You missed the best part.”

He suddenly noticed something he hadn’t noticed before because of his embarrassment.

“Are you drunk?”

She winked at him. “Only a little.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “I think it’s more than a little. How much did you have to drink?”

“I lost count”, she said lightly, then she patted the mattress next to her. “Don’t just keep standing there, sit down.”

“No thank you”, he said stiffly.

“Come on”, she smiled. “Relax.”

He cleared his throat. “Why are you here?”

“The party’s over.”

He checked his watch. “It’s three o’clock. You have class in the morning. Go to bed.”

“But I’m not tired yet.”

He gave her a stern look. “So you thought you’d come and bother me?”

She grinned. “I didn’t think you’d mind. Why did you leave the party so early?”

“I have class in the morning too. I don’t like to be tired.”

“Don’t you ever have fun?”

“Not usually, no.”

She gave him a long look which he couldn’t really interpret. When she spoke again, her voice sounded a little wistful.

“Wouldn’t you like to, sometimes?”

“What?”

“Have a little fun.”

She slowly got up from the bed and he stiffened as she walked towards him. His instinct was to back away, but he stood his ground. His heart started beating faster as she came very close to him.

She looked up at him. “Don’t you ever want to just cut loose?” she whispered. “Do something stupid?”

His heart was beating painfully hard now. “Why… why would I want to do something stupid?”

“Just because it would feel good”, she murmured, her eyes still on his.

He made a supreme effort and looked away. “I’d only regret it later.”

She came even closer to him. “Maybe you would”, she said softly. “Maybe you wouldn’t.”

She reached up a hand and ran it along the collar of his pajamas. Her nearness was making him dizzy. His blood was pounding in his ears and he couldn’t breathe right. Her hand was on his chest now, and he wanted to touch her so badly it hurt, but she was drunk, she wasn’t thinking right. She wouldn’t be here if she’d been sober. He took a big step back.

“I’m pretty sure I would”, he said firmly. “Goodnight.”

She gave him a sad look. As she turned away from him, she stumbled over the carpet and almost fell, and he realized she was drunker than she looked. He caught her by the elbow.

“Alright”, he sighed. “Let’s get you to bed.”

“I can get to my room by myself”, she said with dignity, but she leaned rather heavily on him.

“You’re going to fall and hurt yourself”, he grumbled as he steered her towards the door.

When they got to her room, he sat her down on the bed, then went downstairs to get her a glass of water. He sat down next to her.

“Drink all of this. Hopefully that will make your hangover tomorrow less severe.”

She did as he said, then handed him back the empty glass. As he wanted to get back up, however, she stopped him with a hand on his knee.

“Do you want to stay?” she murmured. “Just for a bit?”

He was unable to move as her hand slid up his thigh, then he shook himself and firmly pushed it away.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

She put her hand on his sleeve.

“You’re always so well-behaved, Sergio”, she said softly as she moved her hand down his arm. When she started stroking his hand, he closed his eyes for a moment as a deep, desperate longing shot through him. She wasn’t making this easy on him.

“Always the perfect gentleman”, she whispered as she leaned her shoulder against his. “Always. Even when we were sleeping in the same bed. Even now.”

“Your judgment is impaired”, he said stiffly. “You really need to sleep now.”

“I suppose”, she sighed regretfully, then she withdrew her hand from his and got between the sheets fully dressed.

He got up and turned off the light. “Goodnight, Lisbon.”

“Goodnight, Professor.”

As he walked back along the dark hallway to his room, he told himself firmly that this didn’t mean anything. She was really drunk, she just wanted some companionship and he had been her best option. He supposed he should just be grateful that she hadn’t gone knocking on his brother’s door. When he got back into bed, he lay awake for a long time, afraid of the dreams he might have if he let himself fall asleep.

The next morning, he was just knotting his tie in front of the mirror when there was the softest knock on his door. He opened it, and there she stood, giving him such an embarrassed look that he forgave her on the spot.

“I’m so sorry”, she whispered guiltily. “So, so sorry.”

He shook his head. “It’s alright.”

“No, it’s not!” she said. “I made you uncomfortable.”

“Your judgment was impaired”, he said.

“Yes, it was”, she said firmly, confirming his suspicion that it had been just the alcohol talking last night. “I didn’t mean to…”

“I know”, he said quickly.

She pressed her hands to her face. “God, I’m mortified.”

He gave her a smile. “There’s no need for that.”

“I want you to know that I would never have done that if I’d been sober”, she assured him.

“Yes”, he said with a sinking feeling. “I realize that.”

“Good”, she said, relieved. “Can we… can we please never talk about this again?”

“Consider it forgotten.”

“Thank you”, she whispered.

She turned away, and as he watched her go, he wished – for just one fleeting moment – that he could have been just a bit less of a gentleman last night.

 

After dinner that night, when they were all gathered around the table, he suddenly noticed that Nairobi was missing. When he asked about her, Tokyo informed him that she’d gone up to her room because she said she wasn’t feeling well. Concerned, he went up the stairs to check on her. He walked up to her room and knocked.

“Yes?”

He opened the door and went in.

“Nairobi, are you alright?”

She was lying in bed, but she sat up as he came in. “I think I have a fever.”

He sat down on the bed next to her.

“You may have caught Lisbon’s flu. Let me see.” He touched her forehead with the back of his hand. “No, I don’t think it’s a fever. Maybe it was the food, I don’t feel very well either.”

He knew perfectly well that his current state of inner turmoil had nothing to do with the food, but it was true that he didn’t feel great. So when Nairobi said: “Well then, lie down. There’s room”, he hesitated for only a moment, then lay down beside her with a sigh. He wished he could just tell her everything, he wished he could unburden himself, ask her for advice, but he knew he couldn’t.

As they lay shoulder to shoulder, he noticed how different it felt to be in the same bed with Nairobi compared with Raquel. Sure, he still felt a little awkward, but there was none of the same tension between them, and his body didn’t react to her presence with any of the distressing things it did when Raquel was near him. Nairobi didn’t seem to be experiencing things the same way, however.

“Is it me”, she said, “or is there some tension in the air?”

“Tension?” he said, surprised. “Here?”

“Yes”, she said, turning to him, and he suddenly felt less comfortable. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been locked away in here for months, or maybe it’s the fever, or maybe…”

She reached out a hand and touched his tie, and he stiffened. “… maybe it’s your sex appeal.”

He wondered how the hell this was happening to him twice in two days. What was it with the women in this house?!

She gave him an appealing look. “Don’t you feel the same way about me?”

He felt supremely uncomfortable. The truth was ‘no’, but how could he tell her that without hurting her feelings?

“Well”, he said awkwardly. “There’s no denying that you’re a strong woman. A confident woman. And you’re beautiful, and of course I’ve noticed that. But… personal relationships are not allowed.”

She gave him an amused look. “I don’t want you to marry me.”

He noticed how it cost him no trouble whatsoever to say no to her. It wasn’t at all like last night. “No, we can’t.”

“Just this once?”

She was getting much, much too close to him and he didn’t like it at all. He was just about to get off the bed when the door suddenly opened and Raquel walked in.

“Nairobi, how are you…?” She stopped dead when she saw them. “Oh.”

He immediately scrambled off the bed, feeling himself go red. “I… I was just checking up on Nairobi.”

She gave him a cold look. “Yes, I’m sure you were.”

Nairobi looked between the two of them, then raised her eyebrows. “You know what, I’m really not feeling well. Can everybody leave, please?”

Raquel turned around and marched out the door, and Sergio hurried off after her into the hallway.

“Look…” he said, “Wait! It wasn’t…”

She sharply turned on him. “It wasn’t what?”

He cast around awkwardly for the right words to explain. “It wasn’t what it looked like.”

“Really?” she snapped. “Because what it looked like was that you were getting very cozy with Nairobi.”

He glanced at the stairs, at the bottom of which the others were probably still gathered around the dinner table.

“Let’s continue this conversation in private, shall we?” he murmured, then opened the door to his bedroom and gestured for her to go in. For a moment, it seemed like she would refuse, but then she pushed past him, throwing him a filthy look in passing. He closed the door behind himself and turned to her.

“Look, I was really just there to see if she was okay.”

“Then why were you in the bed with her?”

“I wasn’t feeling great either and she asked me to lie down.”

“It took me hours to convince you to get in the same bed with me when we were at that hotel! But when Nairobi asks you, you have no problem with it?”

“It’s not the same thing”, he said softly.

“No”, she said, sounding very upset. “Apparently it isn’t!”

“It wasn’t anything like that!” he hastened to assure her. “Nothing happened!”

“Only because I walked in on you!”

“No!” he said. “Nothing would have happened.”

“Oh please!” she snapped. “You were only inches apart! Her hand was on your tie!”

“I didn’t want it there!” he said, exasperated. “But what was I supposed to do?”

“Push her away!” she said. “You had no problem pushing me away yesterday!”

“You were drunk!” he said.

“You’re a hypocrite!” she said, and he could see tears in her eyes. “You’re always talking about how there shouldn’t be any personal relationships between us, and then I find you in bed with someone else!”

Nothing happened”, he said, confused by her reaction. “Why are you getting so upset about this?”

He could see something inside her break, some restraint that had been holding her back.

“Because I’ve been trying so hard to keep to your stupid rules!” she shouted. “I’ve been trying so hard to respect your boundaries, your needs, your personal space! And it’s been killing me! It’s been slowly driving me insane because… because I am so in love with you!”

His frantic train of thought came to a screeching halt. He stared at her. “You’re… you’re in love with me?”

She gave him a pained look. “Yes. I really don’t want to be, but yes.”

Inside his brain, things were suddenly clunking into place. A warm, golden feeling of joy was sparking inside his chest, but he didn’t dare let himself believe it yet. “Are… are you sure?”

She quirked up one corner of her mouth. “Pretty sure, yeah. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, and no matter how hard I try – and believe me, I’ve fucking tried – I can’t think about anything else.”

He couldn’t move for a moment as the glorious realization of it swept through him, numbing his thoughts, filling him with happiness.

She went on: “I’m really sorry. I know I shouldn’t have said anything, but I just couldn’t keep it in anymore. I know you don’t want this, I know you only want to be friends.”

God, she was saying stupid things. Such stupid, stupid things.

“I know I’m making a fool of myself here, I know you don’t care for me in the same way…”

He kissed her. He didn’t think about it – he just leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers. When he pulled back, she looked at him in surprise for a moment. Then she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back, and he wrapped his arms around her waist as he reveled in the feeling of her lips on his, the unutterable satisfaction of holding her, finally, finally holding her. The joy of her closeness was so all-consuming that nothing else really registered outside of the fact that he was touching her.

The next moment, however, she pushed him back against the wall as she kissed him more deeply, one hand in his hair, and alarms started going off inside his brain as she pressed herself close to him. His heart was beating frantically and he felt terribly dizzy. Still kissing him, she undid his tie, then her fingers started on the buttons of his shirt, and as he suddenly realized what was happening, he felt a stab of panic like he’d never felt before. Were they really going to do this? What if he did it wrong? This was a momentous thing they could never come back from, and she meant so much to him... Her mouth was still on his, her body pressed against him, and it was flooding his brain, it was so deeply overwhelming, it was too… too much.

Gasping, panicked, he pushed her away from him. She looked up at him in confusion.

“What’s wrong?”

“We… we can’t do this”, he panted, steadying himself against the wall, trying to keep from shaking.

“What?”

“We can’t do this!”

The confusion in her face was changing to hurt, and he hated himself, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t.

“Why?” she whispered.

His brain wasn’t working right. He cast around frantically for a reason, and he instinctively reached for the thing that gave him certainty in life: rules – guidance, safety.

“No personal relationships between members of the team”, he mumbled, not looking at her.

She was silent for a long time, and he tried with all his might to pull himself together, to get a grip on the conflicting emotions that were threatening to drown him.

Finally she said, in a quiet voice: “Are you serious?”

There was still a swirling vortex of panic inside his chest, but he managed to look outwardly calm as he looked up at her and firmly said: “Yes.”

He needed her to leave, he needed to be alone, so he went on blindly: “This was a mistake. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…”

She gave him a soft look. “Sergio…”

Hearing her say his name was so painful that he couldn’t stand it. “Please leave”, he whispered, his voice breaking.

“But…” she said appealingly. “Don’t you feel…”

No”, he said sharply, and she abruptly stopped speaking. “Please… please leave.”

The look she gave him was so full of hurt that a small, distant part of his brain yelled at him to stop her, to take her hand, to explain, but the little voice was drowned out by his overwhelming need to think, to stop and sit down and process this. So when she slowly walked to the door, he let her go.

As the door closed behind her, he sat down heavily on his bed, shaking, and buried his face in his hands. What had he done? He’d been so happy at finding out that she was in love with him, too, that he’d acted on an impulse, and now he had upset the delicate balance that they’d been able to create. He’d never even considered the possibility that she might reciprocate his feelings, had never allowed his thoughts to stray to what might happen if she did.

He took a deep breath and tried to figure out why he had reacted so strongly, why her presence had suddenly become unbearable to him. He didn’t like breaking rules, that was definitely a part of it. Especially a rule that he had created himself, and for a good reason. He still believed very strongly that an emotional bond between them would cloud his judgment and endanger the operation. It was bad enough already even now, before anything had happened between them – how much worse would it be if they actually started a relationship? What if he, at some point, had to decide between her safety and the safety of all of his crew, or the success of the operation? What if she distracted him so much that he couldn’t think straight anymore? The lives of nine people depended on him. He couldn’t allow it, he couldn’t risk it.

And then – he swallowed – there was the personal aspect of it. Now that he was calmer, he could take a step back, and he realized that he was terrified. He’d never been in love before, and it was scary as hell. She was so wonderful, so amazing, and he just knew he was going to screw it up. Hell, he groaned, he’d already managed to screw it up, in about a minute and a half after she’d told him she was in love with him. That must be some kind of record. He knew he was woefully unequipped for this sort of thing: barely any experience with previous relationships, no social skills, no emotional intelligence whatsoever. And it had suddenly gone so fast. He’d barely had time to register that she had feelings for him too, and he felt like he would need at least a week just to come to terms with that, and then slowly, very slowly, think through all the possible routes they could take, all the possible things that could go wrong or – he barely dared to think about it – all the things that could go right. Time. He needed time. But he’d robbed himself of that by kissing her, and setting things in motion he wasn’t prepared to handle.

What must she think of him now? Kissing her, and then pushing her away like that. He shuddered to think how angry she must be, but he couldn’t possibly talk to her again before he’d figured things out for himself. He suddenly shook his head. What was there to figure out? They couldn’t do this – he couldn’t do this. There were a thousand reasons not to go there, and he shouldn’t. He wouldn’t. He’d apologize to her – when he could gather the courage to face her again – and then he’d stay away from her for a while, until things went back to normal. If they ever could. He buried his face in his hands again. What had he done? Don’t you ever just want to do something stupid? Just because it would feel good? Her words echoed in his mind. Well, he’d certainly done something stupid now, but it didn’t feel good at all.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He barely slept that night. In his mind’s eye, he kept seeing the look on her face as he had asked her to leave, and it was tearing him apart. He felt so guilty for hurting her, so angry at himself for initiating a kiss when he should have known he couldn’t follow through, so anxious to set things right. A dozen times, he almost got out of bed to go and apologize to her, but he didn’t think it was a good idea to be alone with her right now. He’d apologize tomorrow, in a semi-public setting, like the kitchen or the garden, somewhere that didn’t feel too private. He’d apologize and explain his reasoning. She’d understand, wouldn’t she, that he needed to focus on the heist? After all, the operation was important to her, too – she needed it to succeed so she could get her daughter back. He tossed and turned in his bed, consumed by the fear that she wouldn’t forgive him, that they wouldn’t be able to go back to normal.

And underneath all of that was another emotion, one he desperately tried to ignore: a bone-deep, frustrated longing that he’d never experienced before. No matter how hard he tried to push it away, the memory of kissing her kept intruding on his thoughts. He closed his eyes and allowed himself, just for a moment, to relive it – the exact instant his lips had touched hers, the surprise on her face, quickly changing to joy, the feel of her arms around his neck, the sensation of her body pressed against his… He opened his eyes again and forced his thoughts away from there. What made him imagine for even a second that he was allowed to think about her in that way? And yet – and yet… the memory of holding her made him ache.

After only a few hours of sleep, he dragged himself out of bed in the morning, dreading the moment he would have to face her, but knowing that he needed to apologize to her and try to repair their friendship – if that was still possible. He went down to breakfast and she wasn’t there yet. He couldn’t eat as he waited for her to come down, and as she appeared, his breath caught in his throat and the longing inside him threatened to overwhelm him, but he pushed it down, down, down. As she reached the table, her eyes flicked to him for just one moment, but the expression on her face told him nothing, and she didn’t look at him again as she sat down next to Nairobi, who seemed to be feeling better today. She didn’t look at him all through the morning’s class, either, keeping her head bent over her notes, nor could he get her alone during lunch or in the afternoon. When she went up to her room directly after dinner, he realized with a sinking feeling that she was avoiding him, and of course he couldn’t blame her.

As he went up to his own room an hour later, he stopped in the hallway and stared at her door for a long moment. He so badly wanted to make things right between them, but he knew he shouldn’t go to her room. If he was honest with himself, he had to admit that he was afraid of what might happen, afraid that he might break down and kiss her again. He hated this feeling of not being in control of himself. He sighed deeply as he tore his eyes away from her door and went into his own room. See, this was exactly why they couldn’t be together: she affected him too much. It was dangerous – it was terrifying – he couldn’t lose himself. So he sat down on his bed in utter misery and prepared to spend another sleepless night thinking about her.

As dusk fell, there was a sudden knock on his door, and he looked up, alarmed, his heart pounding. Could it be her? What would he say to her? Was she here to yell at him? He almost hoped she was, maybe it would lessen the crushing guilt he was feeling. He slowly got up and walked to the door, trying to keep himself from shaking. When he opened it, though, it wasn’t Raquel standing there. It was Nairobi.

“Evening, Profe”, she said. “Can I come in for a minute?”

He hesitated. “I’m… I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

She flashed him a grin. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and seduce you again.”

Relieved, he gestured for her to enter, and he closed the door behind her. She walked to the middle of the room, then turned to him, arms crossed.

“Look, I just thought you should know. Lisbon came to talk to me. She’s leaving.”

He suddenly felt himself go cold. “What?”

“She says she’s leaving, first thing in the morning. She didn’t tell me why.”

He felt like he was falling, fast. “But… but what about her daughter? I was going to help her get her daughter back!”

“She said she’s going to try and do that on her own.”

“But how is she going to get out of the country?”

“I gave her the address of a friend of mine, who can help her get a false passport and arrange for her to leave the country undetected.”

“What about money?”

“I gave her money.”

“What?!”

She shrugged. “After this heist is over, I’m either going to be dead, in prison, or filthy rich. Either way, I won’t need that money anymore.”

His head was spinning. “Nairobi, why are you helping her leave?”

She raised her chin defiantly. “Because I don’t think any woman should be forced to stay in a situation she doesn’t want to stay in anymore.”

He swallowed hard. “What… what do you mean?”

She crossed her arms again. “Look, Profe, I don’t know exactly what you did to her, but I’m sure it was something shitty. After that fight you had yesterday…”

“You heard that?”

She snorted. “Please. You think I’m deaf? My room is right next door and you weren’t exactly quiet.”

He had to lean against the wall for a moment, dizzy. “She’s really leaving?” he whispered.

She nodded. “She’s packing up her stuff right now.”

He gave her a pleading look. “Nairobi… she can’t leave.”

“Why not?”

“Because… because I need her.”

“You were planning to do the heist without her until the last minute.”

“I don’t need her for the heist”, he said desperately.

“Why, then?”

He struggled to find the right words. “I need her because… because… Nairobi, she’s everything to me. If she leaves, I don’t know how I’d be able to cope.” He blinked as he was hit by a blinding realization. “I… I don’t think I can live without her anymore.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Well for fuck’s sake, Profe. Why are you telling me this? Go say it to her!”

He hesitated, and she pointed at the door. “Go!”

His thoughts were racing as he left the room and walked down the hallway. With sudden perfect clarity, he realized that what he’d said to Nairobi was true: he needed her. He’d been so afraid that she would distract him from the heist, but now he could see that that distraction would be nothing compared to what it would do to him if she left. How could he continue with the operation if he was shattered beyond repair, if his every waking moment was filled with regret at letting her go? He’d been so afraid of letting her become more important to him than the operation, that he hadn’t noticed, he hadn’t seen… she already was. So what was the use in fighting it? And yes, getting close to her was scary – so scary that it made his stomach churn – but he suddenly realized that the alternative was unthinkable. The thought of being with her made him panic, but it was nothing compared to the panic he felt at the thought of never seeing her again. He had to stop her from leaving, no matter what it took.

His heart was racing by the time he reached her door, but he felt an unshakeable sense of certainty, and he didn’t hesitate to knock. When he heard her say ‘yes?’, he took a deep breath, then opened the door. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, folding laundry from a basket on the floor, and the moment he saw her, he felt even more certain that he couldn’t possibly let her go. As he entered and closed the door behind himself, she looked up at him in surprise, but he started speaking before she could say anything.

“Raquel”, he began in a rush, “I owe you an apology. I behaved abominably to you yesterday, and I understand that you’re angry, I understand that I hurt you and that you never want to see me again. I understand that you want to leave.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but he quickly raised his hand to stop her. “No, please let me finish. I need to tell you something.”

He frantically cast around for the right way to start. Expressing himself had never been his forte, and this was so crucial – the wrong words, and he would lose her.  “Raquel, I’ve always been a man of the mind. I valued reason and rationality above all else, because emotions are messy and complicated and confusing. That’s why, at the beginning of this operation, I created rules for myself to keep out all feeling. I had a perfect plan, and nothing was going to mess that up.”

He was looking at her, trying to gauge her reaction from her face, but he couldn’t read her expression. He forged on, his heart in his throat. “And then you walked into my life, and you’ve turned it upside down in ways I never imagined. I’m… I’m feeling things for you I’ve never felt before, things I never thought I’d feel, and it’s terrifying and overwhelming and wonderful.”

He took a deep breath, and continued rather desperately: “I’m in love with you, Raquel. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you yesterday – I was a fool and an idiot and I hadn’t fully realized how much you meant to me. You can be mad at me, shout at me, slap me – God knows I deserve it! – but don’t go.”

His voice was soft with emotion now. “Please. Let me make it up to you. Don’t leave.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Are you done?”

He swallowed. “Yes.”

Her face suddenly broke into a smile. “I’m not leaving.”

The relief he felt at her words made him dizzy. “You’re not?”

“No. What gave you the idea that I was?”

“Nairobi told me.”

Her smile widened and she chuckled. “I think Nairobi has been playing you.”

He stared at her. “You mean… she lied to me? On purpose?”

“Seems like it.”

Why?”

She grinned. “I think so you’d say exactly what you just said.”

He was stunned. She seemed unfazed, however, as she slowly got up from the bed and walked towards him.

“So…” she smiled up at him. “You’re in love with me?”

He completely forgot his confusion as he looked down at her.

“Yes”, he whispered. “Desperately.”

“Are you sure?” she teased, using the question he’d asked her yesterday.

He smiled and echoed her answer. “Quite. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, and no matter how hard I try – and believe me, Raquel, I’ve tried – I can’t stop thinking about you. Dreaming about you. You’re always on my mind. For weeks now, it’s been you, you, you and only you.”

Her eyes were shining. She was very close to him now, but she didn’t touch him, waiting to see what he’d do. He hesitated only a moment, then he opened his arms to her, and she walked into them, hugging him, leaning her head against his chest. As he wrapped his arms tightly around her, he was once again overcome with that feeling of absolute rightness, which he’d also experienced the first time she’d hugged him. This was how it should be. This was where she belonged – right here in his arms. He buried his face in her hair and tried not to cry.

It felt so good just to hold her. He could barely believe she was his to hold, finally, after all those weeks of longing and misery. He closed his eyes and savored the feeling of it, the shape of her, her warmth. Things had gone so fast yesterday that he’d barely had time to register anything, and he was determined to make up for that now, to absorb every detail. He took a deep breath and breathed in her scent, which was so lovely and warm and sweet that he never wanted to stop smelling it.

“Why did you push me away yesterday?” she murmured against his chest.

He hugged her tighter. “Because I’m the stupidest man in the world. I thought I needed to keep all of my focus on the heist – I didn’t realize it was already much too late for that. I didn’t want to lose myself, and I didn’t see that I was already lost. Can you forgive me?”

She looked up at him. “Yes.”

He hesitated. “Are you sure you don’t want to… I don’t know, yell at me for a bit?”

She chuckled. “No, I don’t want to yell at you.”

“Are you sure? I was so awful to you. Weren’t you angry?”

She carefully disengaged from him and took a step back. “I wasn’t really angry – more upset and confused. Why would you kiss me only to push me away moments later? But when I calmed down a bit and thought about it, I realized that it made sense. And I think I need to apologize to you, too.”

He looked at her in surprise. “Why would you have to apologize to me?”

“I went much too fast for you yesterday”, she said, embarrassed. “You gave me such a sweet kiss and I immediately began undressing you.” She gave him an apologetic smile. “You’ll have to forgive me, Sergio. I’d been fantasizing about kissing you for weeks, and when it finally happened, I got a tad… overenthusiastic. I forgot that you’re kind of new at this.”

“Very new”, he said. “I’ve really never been in love before.”

She gave him a soft look. “That must be scary, especially for someone like you.”

“It is”, he admitted. “I’m terrified.”

“Well then…” she said. “How about we take this slow?”

“Whatever you want”, he said quickly, but she shook her head.

“No”, she corrected him gently. “This has to work for both of us. It has to feel right for you, too, I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed. If we go too fast, you’ll just end up panicking and pushing me away again.”

“Never”, he whispered. “Never again.”

She looked up at him with such a sweet smile it took his breath away. He reached out a careful hand and brushed a lock of hair behind her ear, then he let his fingers drift to slowly stroke her cheek. She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. When she opened her eyes again and looked into his, he placed his fingers under her chin and gently lifted her face. He took a step closer and bent his head to lightly brush his lips against hers. This time, she didn’t rush him – she just reached up a hand and tenderly touched his cheek. He kissed her again, a bit longer this time, noticing how soft her lips were, how nice her hand felt on the back of his neck. He stroked her hair as he gave her kiss after kiss after kiss.

After a while, she opened her mouth just a little, and he followed her lead. The moment the tip of her tongue brushed his, a shiver shot all down his spine, and he felt dizzy with the sheer, giddy joy of it. It happened again, and his entire body started tingling. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him as their kiss deepened, one hand on the small of her back and the other in her hair. They explored each other slowly, and he loved every second of it, his brain buzzing, his heart pounding, his knees weak. He loved the taste of her, the feel of her mouth, the fact that he could touch her, hold her close.

She reached up and slowly wrapped her arms around his neck, leaning her body against his as she stood on tiptoe to kiss him more deeply. Both of her hands were in his hair now, and he held her tighter and kissed her more passionately, minute after glorious minute. He couldn’t get enough of her, and as her fingers stroked the back of his neck, he shivered in delight. A moment later, she shivered too as he ran light fingers up her spine.

They kept kissing for a long time, completely wrapped up in each other as the world fell away. To Sergio, the heist and its preparations and the team were all very far away now, and she was his only immediate reality. He felt like he’d spent his entire life asleep, and she was waking him up a little more with every kiss she gave him, making him aware of things he’d never been conscious of, alerting him to what really, truly mattered. This day, this moment. This kiss. Her.

Finally they stopped and she hugged him again, and for several minutes, they just stood holding each other. He couldn’t stop marveling at how unspeakably good it felt, how her body fit with his so perfectly.

“I still can’t believe you’re really in love with me”, he said softly.

She hugged him tighter and smiled. “Well, believe it.”

“I just never thought it could be possible.”

She snorted. “And yet I was so obvious about it.”

“You were?”

She looked up at him in surprise. “Of course. I was always seeking you out. All those long, lingering looks. All the flirting.”

His blinked. “You were flirting with me?”

She grinned broadly. “I can’t believe how oblivious you are. I tried not to flirt with you too much, but sometimes I just couldn’t help it.”

“Like when?”

“Like at the paintball game. Or when I was bandaging your hand. Or when you were carrying me home when I sprained my ankle and I told you you had nice shoulders. God”, she laughed, burying her face against his chest, blushing. “I was so embarrassed about that afterwards. It was so unsubtle.”

“I never noticed any of that”, he said, surprised.

She smiled up at him. “No, I don’t suppose you would have.”

He gazed down at her with a soft look in his eyes. “I’m so glad you told me yesterday that you were in love with me. I never would have figured it out on my own.”

She nestled herself closer to him. “I’m glad I said something too. We could have both died of old age waiting for you to say something.”

He chuckled. “That’s probably true. You know, it took me ages to even figure out I was in love. Berlin had to point it out to me. I just thought I had really bad anxiety.”

She laughed softly, and they held each other in silence for another few minutes. Then she took a deep breath and let go of him.

“Okay”, she said, taking a step backwards. “Go away now.”

“What?” he said, confused. “Why?”

“So you can take some time to process this”, she smiled. “I don’t want you freaking out on me again.”

He felt such a rush of gratitude it threatened to overwhelm him. She understood. She really understood, and she didn’t mind, she wanted him anyway. He swept her into his arms and pressed a long, lingering kiss to her lips.

“You’re amazing”, he whispered as they broke apart.

She gently pulled his head down again and leaned her forehead against his. They stood like that for a long moment, eyes closed, just connecting. Then she took a step back and smilingly stroked his cheek.

“Alright, go.”

He leaned in for one last kiss, then he turned to go. At the door, he looked back at her and she gave him a soft smile, which he returned. Then he opened the door and stepped out.

As he walked down the hallway back to his own room, his heart was so full he thought it would burst. On an impulse, he passed his own door and knocked on the next one. Nairobi opened it and smiled broadly as she saw him.

“So?” she asked, her eyes sparkling. “How did it go?”

Wordlessly, he hugged her, and she laughed.

“Okay, I’m guessing pretty well. Good for you, Profe.”

He let her go, and she patted his cheek.

“Now don’t screw this up, okay? She’s a good person.”

“I know”, he said softly. “I won’t.”

“Good”, she smiled. “Sweet dreams, Profe.”

“Goodnight, Nairobi.”

He went into his room and let himself fall onto the bed, gazing up at the ceiling, a delirious, electric sense of joy coursing through his veins. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep for hours, but he couldn’t care less. The only thing he wanted now was to replay the last hour in his head, over and over and over again, so that’s what he did, reliving every kiss, every caress, every moment spent in her company. He felt like these memories were the beginning of his very own treasure trove, and he wanted nothing more than to make it grow, to add more memories to it, to capture every moment with her and store it away safely, day after day after day. As he stared up into the moonlit darkness, he couldn’t wait for tomorrow, to see her again. From now on, he knew, all of his tomorrows belonged to her.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He woke up at dawn the next morning because his stomach was full of butterflies. For a moment, he wondered why he was feeling so utterly happy, then the events of last night came back to him, and he rolled onto his back with a broad smile. He marveled at how the misery he had felt over the past few days had been swept away so completely by the simple act of kissing her – one moment they had been apart, and the next they were together, and it changed his entire life, just like that. Together… the word made the butterflies in his stomach flutter frantically as he started thinking for the first time what that would mean. He hadn’t considered it before – hadn’t allowed himself to consider it, because it had seemed such an impossibility, but now that he’d finally grasped that the real impossibility was living without her, he had to come to terms with what that would entail.

As he considered the situation, he began realizing that the butterflies currently occupying his stomach were about half due to happiness, and half due to a deep, urgent sense of nervousness. Nothing in his life had prepared him for this – the few ‘relationships’ he’d had in the past were barely worth the name, and they had gone so poorly that it made him terrified that the same would happen with Raquel. He was apprehensive about every aspect of the situation: from the emotional to the physical, there were so many ways for him to screw up, and he liked her so much. He felt like their relationship was a precious, fragile thing that he was holding on to by his fingertips, and that it would slip out of his grasp and shatter the moment he made a wrong move. His heart started beating painfully fast at the thought that, at any time, she could still decide that he wasn’t worth the trouble, he could still lose her, and it would probably be his own damn fault.

He took a few deep breaths and tried to reassure himself: she’d said she was in love with him too. He couldn’t really, truly grasp it, but he supposed if she said she was he should believe her. And she’d been so understanding of him so far, so kind and patient and forgiving of his mistakes… and god – he grimaced – had he made mistakes. He could only try to do better in the future and hope that she would forgive him again if he unwittingly screwed things up once more. He thought that she would. She seemed to really see him, to understand him in a way that none of the other women in his life ever had. That gave him hope that, this time, it would be different. This time, it might work. Because, for the first time in his life, he truly wanted it to work.

He decided he was too full of energy to stay in bed any longer, so he got up to shower. There was a definite advantage to waking up so early, before the morning rush started, when everyone wanted to use the bathroom at once. He smiled dreamily as the warm water streamed down his body and he let his thoughts drift to her. Only a few more hours before he would see her again, and he just couldn’t wait. He got out of the shower and brushed his teeth, then he went out into the hallway and stared longingly at her door for a few moments. He wanted to go knock on it so badly it hurt, but he felt like he couldn’t very well wake her up at six in the morning just because he couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing her for another two hours. He knew he had to keep some measure of control over himself, so he sighed deeply and firmly turned around to go to his own room, to read a bit until it was time for breakfast.

He sat down on his bed and tried to focus on his book, but it was a lost cause. He couldn’t think of anything except her. This worried him a little: what about the operation? It had been at the center of his life and thoughts for years now, and it felt so strange to have it displaced so suddenly, and in such an unexpected way. He shook his head – it was true that he’d lost part of his focus, but he’d tried resisting it and it hadn’t worked. He’d just have to accept that there was nothing he could do about it now, and trust that his years of preparations would be sufficient to carry him through this period of distraction. He’d just reached this conclusion when there was a soft knock on his door, and he looked up sharply, hopefully.

“Yes?” he said, and Raquel slipped into his room, her hair still a little damp from her morning shower. She closed the door behind herself and turned to him with a radiant smile.

“Good morning.”

He couldn’t help but smile back, his heart rate rising sharply at the very sight of her. “Good morning.”

“I’m sorry for waking you this early”, she began, shooting him an apologetic look. “I just… I just couldn’t wait to see you again.”

His heart lifted at hearing her say that, and he quickly got off the bed. “You didn’t wake me. I’ve been up for an hour, I just couldn’t sleep anymore.”

“Me neither”, she grinned.

They stood looking at each other for a moment, and he felt suddenly nervous, but then she crossed the distance between them, put her arms around his neck and kissed him, and his nerves were forgotten in the sheer delight of holding her again. His senses were filled with her – the taste of her mouth; the smell of her, so clean and lovely; the feeling of her hand in his hair, of her body against his. The sensations were so intense, for a moment they threatened to overwhelm him, but then he realized that he should just let it happen, and instead of trying to resist, he decided to lean into it. He wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her back, and it was pure joy to be overwhelmed by her.

They kept kissing for several long, breathless moments, then she drew back slightly, still keeping her arms around his neck as she looked up at him with shining eyes.

“You know”, she said softly, “kissing you was the only thing I could think of from the moment I woke up. How did you sleep?”

His reaction was delayed by about a second, because he was looking at her face and he felt a little dazed by how lovely she was. “I didn’t sleep much, but I think I dreamed of you the entire time.”

She gave him a delighted smile, then buried her face against his chest. “God, Sergio, I feel like I’m sixteen again.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I’m in love like a teenager.”

He smiled. “I don’t have any experience in the matter – how do teenagers fall in love?”

She looked into his eyes with a tender expression. “Utterly.”

He leaned down and kissed her, a soft, sweet kiss. “Then I’m in love like a teenager too.”

She hugged him, leaning her head against him as he wrapped his arms around her and held her close.

“After my divorce, I never thought I could fall in love like this again, so completely, without reservations. I didn’t think I could ever sufficiently trust anyone again for that. But I trust you.”

He hugged her tighter and fiercely resolved to be worthy of her trust. Yet there was a small, nagging voice inside of him that told him he wasn’t.

“Raquel”, he said softly, “I’m sorry. After everything you’ve been through, you deserve someone better than me.”

She pulled back and gave him a serious look. “Don’t say that.”

“But I don’t know what I’m doing”, he said, a little desperately. “I’ve already hurt you once. What if I hurt you again?”

“Sergio”, she said earnestly, “I realize that this isn’t your strong suit. And yes, because of your inexperience or… the particular challenges of your personality, you might end up hurting me. I accept that. It happens.”

“But I don’t want to hurt you!”

She nodded. “I know. And that makes all the difference. Men like my ex-husband, they enjoy inflicting pain, in many different ways. You’re not like that.”

His heart bled for her, for what she’d been through. She leaned against him again and he held her tenderly, wishing he could protect her from the hurt in the world, wishing he could go back in her past and erase all of the pain.

“Will you help me?” he asked her softly, and she looked up at him.

“Help you with what?”

“With not screwing this up. I’ve never had a relationship of more than a few weeks before, and I want this one to last…” Forever. “… longer. I really want to try and do this right, Raquel, but will you please tell me when I’m doing something wrong?”

“Relax”, she smiled. “Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. I’m sure things will turn out fine.”

He wished he could share her optimism. “You may need to have a little patience with me.”

She hugged him tighter. “That’s alright. And of course I’ll help you.”

“Thank you”, he said, relieved.

She smiled up at him. “Let’s take this one day at a time, shall we?”

He felt his insecurities melt away as he looked into her eyes, so warm, so trusting. “Yes. One day at a time.”

She stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips against his in a long, tender kiss. He twined his fingers into her hair and kissed her more deeply, and they remained wrapped up in each other for a long while, until they heard a door close down the hallway. She reluctantly let go of him.

“I suppose I’d better return to my room before everyone is up”, she said.

He hesitated. “Are you okay with keeping this a secret for a while?”

She considered him, then nodded. “Alright. Let’s give this some room to breathe before we face the scrutiny and teasing of the others.”

“Exactly.”

“Then I really should go.”

Yet she didn’t. She stood looking up at him for a long moment, then she suddenly hugged him again.

“God, I’m so happy”, she murmured against his chest, and he thought his heart would burst.

Then she stepped back, took a deep breath to pull herself together, and left the room, smiling, quietly closing the door behind herself.

If he’d thought it had been difficult to hide his feelings for her before, it was nothing compared with how hard it was now. He tried to act normal at breakfast, but he felt like happiness was radiating off of him like a heat haze, and he was sure that everyone could see it. Yet nobody seemed aware of anything except Nairobi, who threw him a knowing wink. He couldn’t stop smiling, and it took a herculean effort to keep his eyes away from her for even a second. Class that morning was a special kind of torture, with her sitting all the way in the back of the room, smiling at him with shining eyes. He had to drag his mind back to the course material over and over again, trying to ignore how desperately he wanted to look at her, touch her, hold her, kiss her – god, he wanted to kiss her.

Thankfully, they found several moments throughout the day to meet in empty rooms or hallways, and she never lost any time to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him hungrily for minutes on end. He didn’t have very much to compare it with, but even with his limited experience he realized that she was a very good kisser. It made him a little hot around the collar to imagine what else she might be good at.

After dinner that night, she went up to her room quite early, but he took care to wait for half an hour before following her up. She was waiting for him in his room, and she rushed up to kiss him the moment he came in.

“Oh”, she murmured. “This was a long day. I’ve been looking forward to this moment all afternoon.”

He immediately felt nervous again. It was evening, and they were alone together in a room with a bed. What would she expect from him? His mind flashed back to the limited number of sexual encounters he’d had in the past, all of which had been uncomfortable and unpleasant and so awkward. What if the same thing happened with her? He desperately wished they could have a few days to just get used to each other before venturing there.

She noticed his hesitation. “What’s wrong?”

“Uhm… what are your plans for… for this evening, exactly?”

She grinned up at him. “Well, I sure as hell wasn’t planning to play cards with you.”

He swallowed. “What, then?”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and murmured: “I would very much like to spend this evening just kissing and kissing and kissing you.”

He smiled nervously. “That sounds nice. But can we… uh… perhaps establish some parameters beforehand?”

She took a step back and gave him a confused look. “You want to establish parameters for making out?”

“If you don’t mind. I know it’s not very romantic”, he said apologetically, “but it would really make me feel more comfortable.”

“But why are you uncomfortable?”

“Because… because I’m not sure what your expectations are regarding… us spending the evening together.”

“Oh!” she said as comprehension suddenly dawned on her. “You want to know if I want to have sex tonight?”

He felt himself go red. “Well… yes.”

She gave him a soft look. “I don’t think you’re ready for that though, are you?”

He went even redder. “I know it’s weird. I know men are supposed to always want sex.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s not weird. And you’re not supposed to want anything.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to!” he hastened to clarify. “But it’s still so new, you and me…”

“I understand”, she smiled. “You don’t even like people in your personal space, so sleeping with someone must be quite intense for you.”

He nodded, and she continued: “Don’t worry, we said we’d take it slow, so we’ll take it slow.”

He felt so relieved. “Thank you. So… parameters? What are your expectations?”

“Alright”, she said patiently. “Let me tell you what I’d like to do and then you can tell me if you’d be comfortable with that.”

He nodded gratefully. “Great.”

She smiled up at him. “I would love to lie down on the bed with you”, she said softly. “Just so I could be close to you. And I’d like to kiss you and cuddle with you and talk to you. We’ll keep all our clothes on.” She flashed him a grin. “And I promise to keep my hands above the waist.”

He laughed. “I think we have a deal.”

“Good”, she smiled.

He gave her an apologetic look. “I just like to know what to expect.”

“I understand”, she said gently. “And I think it’s better this way, now you don’t have to spend all evening nervous about what might happen.”

 She took his hand and led him to the bed. He took off his jacket and lay down, and she cuddled up to him, one leg over his, one arm over his chest, and then she started kissing him, and the rest of the world fell away. He’d wondered at how she’d said she wanted to spend the entire evening just kissing him – wouldn’t they get bored? But after only a few minutes, he realized that it was quite the opposite: he just couldn’t get enough of her. In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever get enough of her. After every kiss, he immediately craved another one, and another, and another. She felt so nice, half lying on top of him, and he had one hand in her hair, the other roaming up and down her back. After a while, his fingers touched the waistband of her jeans, and he hesitated for a moment, his heart beating fast, then he carefully let his hand glide further downward.

She pulled back and raised her eyebrows, grinning. “Getting a little adventurous, are we?”

He quickly pulled his hand back, blushing. “Sorry. Hands above the waist.”

Her smile broadened. “Oh, I promised to keep my hands above the waist. You promised nothing of the sort, so…” She pressed another kiss to his lips, “… feel free to continue.”

He hesitated, then moved his hand downwards again to slip it into the back pocket of her jeans. It felt like a surprisingly natural thing to do, and he was starting to feel more comfortable with her by the minute. He was so glad that he didn’t have to worry about things progressing any further, or about his performance. It was pure bliss to just be close to her and enjoy this time together without any additional pressure.

After a long, long time, she pulled back and looked down at him, smiling.

“God, I love kissing you”, she sighed. “I don’t know what I’ve been doing with my life so far, when I was clearly put on this earth specifically so I could kiss you.”

He grinned in delight. “Why are you stopping, then?”

“Because I want to ask you something”, she smiled. “When was the first time you wanted to kiss me?”

He had to think about that for a while. “I think I’ve wanted to kiss you for a long time, but I wasn’t really aware that I wanted to. The first time I remember feeling really tempted, to the point where I almost did it, was when we were in that hotel together, and you cuddled up to me in your sleep. When you woke up, you were so close to me, and the look you gave me…”

“Oh”, she grinned. “I remember that moment. Do you want to know a secret?”

“Absolutely”, he said, perking up.

Her eyes were sparkling. “I was dreaming about you. That’s why I gave you such a strange look when I woke up, because I was dreaming about kissing you and suddenly I woke up and there you were, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to actually kiss you. It took me a moment to remember that that was not a thing we did.”

“So you really were asleep? I’ve always wondered if maybe you were pretending.”

She laughed. “No, I really was asleep! I would never have invaded your space like that if I’d been awake. You must have been so uncomfortable!”

“No”, he said softly, looking into her eyes. “I loved it.”

She gave him a sweet smile and pressed her lips to his.

“You know”, he mused, “right from the beginning I’ve felt more comfortable with you than I’ve ever felt with anyone outside of my family. I’ve never minded you in my personal space. I never even minded it if you touched me. That’s never happened to me before, and I can’t explain it. It just feels right with you.”

She stroked his cheek. “I’m so glad.”

He smiled at her. “So when was the first time you wanted to kiss me?”

“Hmm”, she said. “Let me think. The first time I remember realizing I was attracted to you was when we were trapped up in the attic together.”

“Right”, he smiled. “When you read that love letter to me.”

She sighed dreamily. “That was such a romantic moment. But the first time I remember really wanting to kiss you was after the paintball game. After you’d taken that bullet for me and we were alone in the kitchen, and I was taking care of your bruise.”

Something suddenly clicked for him. “Oh! I remember you looking up at me like you expected something from me, and I didn’t know what it was.”

She laughed. “Well, now you know! I was hoping that you would kiss me.”

“Why didn’t you just kiss me?”

“You looked so confused”, she smiled. “I didn’t want to startle you.”

“I wish you had, though”, he said softly. “Then we could have gotten together weeks ago. I feel like we lost so much time.”

“I think you needed that time, though”, she said, still smiling. “When did you even realize you were in love with me?”

“Embarrassingly late”, he admitted. “Berlin pointed it out to me, but I didn’t believe him at first. I only realized he was right after you’d sprained your ankle and you didn’t come home from your walk. After I’d carried you up to your bedroom, I suddenly realized that the worry I’d felt was born from something more than friendship.”

“Oh!” she said, her eyes widening in comprehension. “So that’s why you suddenly got angry at me for using your name!”

“Yes”, he said. “I’m sorry about that. It just felt unbearable in that moment. You using my name has always felt really intimate to me.”

“And yet you gave me your name so early on”, she said. “Do you remember? I was crying because I felt so alone, and you gave me your name.”

“It was the only way I could think of to connect to you. I couldn’t stand to see you cry.”

“You know”, she said, smiling softly. “I think that was the moment I started to fall in love with you. You were so clearly uncomfortable with being in my room, and with me being upset, yet you stayed. You tried to make me feel better. You made me feel less alone.”

They shared another kiss, soft and sweet. Then she asked:

“When did you begin to fall in love with me?”

He considered this. “That’s so hard to answer, because it took me so long to realize what was happening to me. Let me think… in retrospect, I’m sure I was already in love with you at the paintball game… and yes, certainly already during the anatomy lesson, when you volunteered and you took your shirt off.”

She laughed. “That must have been an interesting experience for you!”

He grinned. “God yes, I didn’t know where to look. I promptly forgot everything I knew about anatomy.”

She kissed him again, then prompted with sparkling eyes: “Go on.”

“I’m sure I was already falling in love with you when we were trapped in the attic. Maybe it started when we were negotiating together for the first time, and you were so clever and sharp and witty. I remember how surprised I was.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You didn’t think I’d be a match for you?”

“I don’t mean to be arrogant”, he said carefully, “but not a lot of people are. Yet you managed to truly challenge me. You still do.”

“Good”, she smiled. “I wouldn’t want you to become complacent. So you fell in love with me when we were negotiating together?”

“Well”, he mused, “that definitely contributed to it, but it may have started even earlier. I must have already felt something for you when I gave you my name, or I wouldn’t have given it to you.”

He tried thinking back over those very first days together. He distinctly remembered seeking her out, wanting to talk to her, and he realized now that that was because he’d already been attracted to her. But when had it started? It suddenly hit him.

“It was the day we met”, he said quietly.

“You’re making that up”, she smiled. “It can’t have been that early.”

“But it was”, he said earnestly. “You looked so beaten down when you first came in, but towards the end of our conversation there was a moment when that changed completely, the moment you decided to join me. Suddenly, there was this fire in your eyes that hadn’t been there before, and you looked so fierce and strong. I got a first glimpse, then, of who you really are, of how magnificent you can be. That was it. That’s when it started.”

She gave him a tender look, then pressed a long, lingering kiss to his lips. He hugged her tight, suddenly overcome with emotion.

“You’re so incredible, Raquel. You are so beautiful and amazing, and I can’t believe my luck that you’re with me. You deserve someone so much better.”

“Stop saying that!”

“But it’s true”, he said, his throat painfully tight. “I’m so inexperienced, so socially and emotionally inept. I’m weird and clumsy and awkward, and I just can’t understand why you would want me.”

“Then you can’t see what I see”, she said fiercely. “Because I see someone who has been so kind to me, right from the beginning. Someone who set aside his discomfort and shyness to talk to me and make me feel included. You’ve been so wonderful to me, Sergio. You’ve protected me, listened to me, comforted me. You came to look for me when I sprained my ankle and you carried me home. You gave me your jacket. You cared for me when I got sick.”

She put her hand against his cheek and looked into his eyes. “You are gentle and sweet and smart and I don’t think I could have fallen in love with a better person.”

He still couldn’t quite believe her. “I’m afraid I’ll prove a difficult person to live with.”

“You’re a little different”, she admitted. “But that’s not a bad thing. I like you exactly the way you are. So you listen to me, Sergio: I choose to be with you. That’s my choice, and I won’t have you questioning it. You’re not perfect, but neither am I, and we… we just fit together so well. Don’t you feel that?”

“I do”, he whispered. “Of course I do.”

“Then will you please stop doubting yourself?” she said gently. “I feel just as strongly about you as you do about me.”

He couldn’t stop looking at her. “That doesn’t seem possible.”

She narrowed her eyes at him in mock annoyance. “Are you calling me a liar?”

He smiled. “I wouldn’t dare.”

“Smart”, she nodded, then her expression changed and she gave him the softest look. “I’m so in love with you, Sergio, God help me.”

And then she kissed him with so much tenderness and passion that he wrapped his arms around her and started to believe her.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The next three days were, without a doubt, the happiest days of his life so far. He was careful to add the ‘so far’, because he had a suspicion that things would only get better from here, and he couldn’t wait. They started each morning with kisses before breakfast in one of their rooms, then spent the day exchanging glances and stolen kisses between classes, before ending their evenings on his bed, talking softly and kissing for hours. She remained mindful of their agreement to take things slow, and every day he felt more comfortable with her, to the point that it was getting very difficult to keep his hands off of her. He’d never felt this way before – this irresistible, magnetic pull towards another person, this constant longing to touch her, the feeling that every minute he spent not kissing her was a minute wasted. When they were together, he felt painfully divided between wanting to be more intimate with her and being too shy to make the first move, so they didn’t go beyond kissing, and the tension between them grew every day until his entire body felt charged with electricity whenever he was near her, every kiss and every touch sparking feelings and desires that were entirely new to him.

On the fourth day, they decided that it would be nice to get out of the house for an afternoon, so  Raquel suggested they take some buckets and mops and go clean up the hangar that would be their control room during the heist. Sergio agreed, ordered the team to spend the afternoon studying under the supervision of Berlin, and they set out together in the car, giddy with relief at being away from the others for a while. He couldn’t help but compare this trip to the last time they’d gone to the hangar together, when he’d felt so uncomfortable being alone with her. Now, he was light-headed with happiness, and they spent the drive talking and laughing, her hand on his knee the entire time, while he had great trouble keeping his eyes on the road. When they got to Madrid, he parked the car a couple of streets away from their headquarters.

“Why are we stopping here?” she asked him.

“I want to show you something.”

They got out of the car and he opened a door, after which they went through a short hallway covered in plastic sheets.

“What is this place?” she asked.

“You’ll see.”

The hallway led to a dark room. Sergio felt around for the light switch, then turned it on, and Raquel gasped in wonder as fairy lights popped on everywhere, revealing a large space filled with a mixture of furniture, like a bed and a couch, and assorted objects, like an old car and an apple press.

“Seriously, what is this place?” she smiled.

“It’s a back-up location, in case we need a cover.”

“But this is so much nicer than the actual control room! Why can’t we set up here?”

“Because I’ve had the other place for years, and we’ve already dug part of the tunnel from there. I’ve acquired this location much more recently.”

“It’s lovely”, she nodded. “But why are we here?”

He hesitated, and his eyes flicked to the bed, which had been a bunk bed until yesterday, when he’d made some calls and had it replaced with a much more comfortable double bed. She followed his gaze.

“Oh!” She turned to him with a broad smile. “I see.”

“If that’s okay with you”, he said quickly. “I don’t want to presume…”

She flashed him a grin. “Presume away.”

She came up to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. “You really are a genius. Privacy, comfort, romantic lighting… it’s perfect.”

She kissed him, and he immediately felt nervous, his heart racing. He wanted her so badly, but oh god, what if he did it wrong? She seemed to sense his discomfort, because she pulled back and considered him for a moment.

“Sergio, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“How long has it been since you last had sex?”

He did a quick calculation. “I think… about fourteen years.”

She stared at him. “You… you haven’t had sex in fourteen years?”

“Give or take.”

“God, Sergio! No wonder you’re nervous! I can’t even imagine… Didn’t you miss it?”

He shrugged. “Not really. I tried it a few times in my twenties, but honestly, I never really liked it.”

She hesitated, then asked carefully: “You’re… you’re not asexual, are you?”

He snorted. “If you could have seen the dreams I’ve had over the past few days, you wouldn’t ask me that.”

She smiled in delight. “Good.”

He continued more seriously: “I’ve thought about it, of course. For years, I thought that maybe I was asexual. I could always perform when I needed to, my body did the things it was supposed to do. But it didn’t make me feel anything. I never used to feel desire for another person.”

He pulled her closer with an arm around her waist and whispered in her ear. “But god, Raquel, I desire you.”

She shivered and pressed herself closer to him, turning up her face to kiss his neck. He closed his eyes at how good it felt, and a wave of longing rose up inside of him, stronger than anything he’d ever felt. It was amazing and scary as hell, making him shake slightly. She noticed, pulled back, and took his face between her hands to give him a soft look.

“Tell me why you’re nervous.”

“Because it’s you”, he said. “Because I want to be good for you and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it right.”

“You do know what to do, right?”

“Only the basic stuff”, he admitted. “The very basic stuff.”

“Well”, she smiled at him. “You’re never too old to learn something new. And I think I can teach you a thing or two.”

He couldn’t help but smile back. “I’m sure you can.”

“Let’s take our time. We have all afternoon.”

The thought of making love to her all afternoon was glorious and terrifying. He suddenly realized that this would be the first time she slept with someone after her abusive ex-husband – this was a significant moment for her, and he barely knew what he was doing. He felt himself spiral into panic again, but she pulled him back with a hand on his cheek.

“Sergio, look at me. Why do you want this?”

He didn’t understand her question. “We’re in a relationship. Am I not supposed to want…”

She shook her head. “I don’t care what you’re supposed to want. Think about it for a moment and tell me: why do you want to sleep with me?”

He considered it, then said: “Because I want to be close to you. Because you’re making me feel things I’ve never felt before and I wonder what it will be like, with you. Because…” His voice dropped to an embarrassed whisper. “Because you’re very sexy, and I want to touch you and kiss you… all over.”

“That’s a good thing”, she smiled. “Don’t be embarrassed.”

He smiled back, encouraged. “I also want to do it because I want to find out what you like and then… then do those things.”

Her smile broadened. “Those are all excellent reasons. And you know what’s so lovely? You don’t need technical skills or lots of experience for any of them. You only need to like and trust each other. Do you trust me?”

He looked into her eyes. “I do.”

“Good”, she said softly. “Then why don’t you try turning off your brain for a bit and just doing what feels right. What do you want to do right now?”

“I want to kiss you”, he whispered.

“Well isn’t that a coincidence?” she smiled. “I want to kiss you too.”

He bent his head and pressed his lips against hers, and much of his nervousness melted away in the familiarity of her kisses, the joy of it, the delight of her hand caressing the back of his neck. When she opened her mouth and deepened the kiss, he felt another surge of longing for her, and this time, he didn’t overthink it – he let it sweep through him and carry him away. Everything would be alright as long as he could be close to her.

She took off his jacket and undid his tie, slowly, without any urgency. Then she led him to the bed and they lay down together, and she kissed him for a long time, until he felt comfortable, and then a little longer, until he felt more than ready for more. Then she started kissing his neck and throat, and he sighed softly as the sensations sent shivers down his spine. She moved up a little and nuzzled his ear, then she took his earlobe between her teeth and pulled gently, causing a stab of arousal to shoot through him, making him inhale sharply.

“Do you like that?” she murmured.

“Yes”, he breathed. “Do it again.”

She obliged him, and he closed his eyes with a groan. Then her fingers undid the top button of his shirt, and she dipped down to kiss the newly exposed skin. She did the same thing for every button she undid, trailing kisses down his chest and stomach, igniting fires within him that had never been lit before. Then she helped him shrug out of his shirt, and she eyed him approvingly.

“You have such nice shoulders”, she said, running light hands over them. “And nice arms.”

She trailed her fingers down one arm, drawing paths of delicious fire, waking up his skin to her touch.

She picked up his hand. “And you have such lovely hands. Strong and sensitive.”

She kissed his palm, then looked up at him with sparkling eyes. “I’ve been thinking about your hands a lot lately.”

He swallowed, his heart racing. “Have you?”

“Yes”, she said, slowly stroking the palm of his hand and his fingers. “I love your hands. I love them in my hair, and on my back. I just love it when you touch me, Sergio.”

Pushing him back down onto the bed, she lay down next to him and let her hand roam over his chest and stomach as she kissed him, keeping her touch light, making him sigh with the pleasure of it. He marveled at how good it felt, how unspeakably lovely, to be touched by her when he usually hated to be touched by anyone. When she did it, it just felt right.

She sat up and started unbuttoning her own shirt, but he stopped her with a hand on hers.

“Please”, he murmured. “Let me.”

She smiled in delight and he undid her buttons with careful fingers, one by one, exposing the white top she was wearing underneath, feeling like he was unwrapping a present. He slipped the shirt off of one shoulder and kissed it slowly, moving over towards her neck, and she tilted her head and sighed. Encouraged, he kept kissing her there, and she reached up a hand and twined her fingers in his hair, keeping him there for several long moments.

“That feels so nice”, she whispered, so he kept pressing kisses to the sensitive skin of her throat as he slipped her shirt off her other shoulder and stroked the exposed skin gently, then trailed his fingers down her arm, making her shiver. He realized suddenly that he didn’t feel any nervousness anymore, only wonder at how amazing she smelled, delight at making her sigh, and a joyful eagerness to explore her further.

She shook off her shirt and threw it on the floor. Mirroring what she’d done with him, he took her hand and pressed a kiss to her palm, then each of her fingertips, before brushing his lips over the delicate skin of her wrist and the crook of her elbow. He loved discovering her body like this. He wanted to get to know every line, every curve.

Like she read his mind, she took hold of her top and pulled it over her head, then lay back into the pillows. He suddenly felt a little awkward again, and he averted his eyes automatically.

“Sergio”, she smiled. “Come on. You’ve seen me like this before, when you gave that anatomy lesson.”

“I could barely look at you then.”

“Well, you can look at me now. It’s not a big deal, it’s just a body.”

He gave her a serious look. “It is a big deal to me. It’s not just a body, it’s your body, and I get to see parts of it that other people don’t get to see. I feel like I’m invading your privacy.”

“But that’s the beauty of it”, she said gently. “Baring parts of myself that are usually covered, and showing them only to you.”

“I feel like this is such a precious gift you’re giving me”, he whispered.

She sat up and pressed her lips to his. “Yes. And it’s so wonderful and intimate, and I really want to share it with you.”

She lay back down, and he finally allowed his eyes to drift over her, noting the lacy edge of her black bra, the mesmerizing curves of her breasts and belly, drinking in every detail.

“You’re so lovely”, he whispered. “I can’t believe I get to touch you.”

He reached out a hand and touched the little hollow below her throat, then let his fingers trail downwards over her chest, between her breasts, over the black lacy fabric of her bra, then over her stomach, until he stopped at the waistband of her jeans and looked up at her questioningly.

She smiled. “You can take them off if you like.”

He undid the button and zipper with trembling fingers, and she wriggled out of the pants, then kicked them off the bed. Then she pulled him down beside her and he kissed her tenderly as he let one hand roam over her body, tentatively at first, caressing her stomach, and then a little bolder, running his fingers down the side of her body and over the curve of her hip. Taking a deep breath, he moved his hand back up and, very carefully, cupped a breast. Through the fabric of her bra, he could feel that her nipple was already hard, so he lightly ran his thumb over it, eliciting a soft gasp from her.

“Did you like that?” he asked her, a little worriedly.

“Yes”, she smiled. “Very much. Please do it again.”

He repeated the motion and was rewarded with another small gasp. That made him brave enough to take her nipple between his thumb and forefinger and squeeze ever so gently. She responded with a little moan that made his heart pound. He loved the way she was reacting to him, loved that he could give her pleasure. He wanted more – more sounds from her, more sighs, he wanted to touch her, kiss her, make her moan, make her tremble, make her… Oh god, the very thought of it was making him dizzy.

She called his attention back to her with a hand on his cheek.

“Hey”, she smiled. “Stay with me.”

He smiled back and refocused his attention on the moment. He bent his head and kissed her, a long, deep kiss, while he squeezed first one and then her other nipple, and she hummed her approval against his lips. Then he slowly trailed his fingers down her stomach until he reached the edge of her underwear. He lifted his hand and put it back down on her thigh, and she opened her legs slightly so he could stroke the inside of her thighs. He noticed that she was breathing faster now, and when he moved up his hand and brushed his fingers against her underwear, she let out a small whimper.

“Is that okay?” he asked her earnestly, and she smiled up at him.

“Yes”, she whispered. “I just want you so much.”

He felt flattered and a little breathless, and he kissed her again to cover his confusion. He ran light fingers up and down between her legs, caressing her through the fabric of her underwear, and she opened her legs a little wider. Taking her cue, he moved his hand up to her lower stomach, then he hesitated with his fingers at the edge of her underwear.

“Can I?”

“Yes”, she murmured. “Please, please do. I’m all yours.”

He marveled at how she was surrendering to him so freely. His heart racing, he slipped his hand into her panties and began exploring her with light fingers. She shivered and closed her eyes as he felt his way, slowly, carefully, downwards. He let out a soft groan as a sharp stab of arousal shot through him.

“Oh”, he whispered. “You’re so wet.”

She opened her eyes again and gave him a look full of longing. “Yes. You turn me on, Sergio. You turn me on so much.”

Hearing her say that, and feeling how true it was, was one of the sexiest things he’d ever experienced, and he had trouble keeping his breathing under control. Slowly, very slowly, he slipped one finger inside of her, and when he added a second, she moaned softly. Then he pulled back and moved upwards a bit, but he had only a vague idea of what he was looking for.

“Help me out here”, he murmured, and she took his hand and placed his fingers on the right spot.

“There”, she whispered.

He moved around carefully, and suddenly he felt it.

“Here?” he asked, moving his finger, and she gasped.

“Yes! Yes, right there.”

He was intrigued, and he started drawing slow circles around the spot she indicated. To his delight, she tilted her hips and started moaning, and he made the circles smaller and smaller, keeping his touch feather-light.

“Oh!” she sighed. “Oh, you’re very good at this.”

He felt a warm glow of pleasure at her words, and started focusing on the exact right spot, moving his finger left to right, and then up and down. Her eyes were tightly closed and she was breathing fast now, and he loved, loved, loved the sounds she was making. He noticed when her reactions were most enthusiastic, and he settled there in a steady rhythm, making her clutch at the sheets, and it was so incredibly hot he could barely stand it. Suddenly she buried her face against his chest and moaned as she tensed, and he kept up exactly what he was doing.

“Don’t stop”, she whispered against his skin. “Don’t stop, don’t stop, oh, that feels so good!”

She was making him so hard it was almost painful, but he barely noticed it as he focused all of his attention on her. She suddenly arched her back and cried out, and he held her close as she trembled in his arms for several long moments, then she took his hand and made him ease off gradually. She shivered one last time, then relaxed back onto the mattress, breathing fast. After a few seconds, she looked up at him with shining eyes.

“That was so sexy”, he whispered. “So, so sexy. Oh god, Raquel.”

She hummed in contentment as she stretched luxuriously, then she pulled him down for a kiss.

“That was amazing”, she said softly. “Oh, I love your hands.”

He felt so overjoyed, all he could do was cover her face in kisses. She laughed in delight and stroked his hair.

“So”, she said smilingly. “Shall we continue?”

“Don’t you need some time to recover?”

“No, not at all. In fact”, she said, pulling him in for another kiss, “I only want you more now.”

He marveled at the way the female body worked. He pressed another kiss to her lips, then he hesitated.

“You can ask me”, she said.

“Can I… can I take off your bra?”

“Of course”, she smiled.

She sat up and he carefully unhooked the clasp, then slid the straps off her shoulders, kissing her neck as he did so. She threw the bra aside and took off her panties too for good measure, then she lay down again, and his breath caught in his throat for a moment.

“Oh, you’re perfect”, he whispered. “Absolutely perfect.”

He bent down to kiss her throat, then moved down slowly to press kisses to her chest, then her breasts.

“You’re so soft”, he murmured between kisses. “So, so soft.”

She made a sound of contentment as he reached a nipple, then gasped as he flicked his tongue over the very tip. He did it again, and again, then he closed his mouth over it, and she sighed happily and twined her fingers into his hair. He realized suddenly that he was enjoying himself so much – nothing in his life had ever given him so much pleasure as this: exploring her, discovering ways to please her, hearing her soft sounds of pleasure, making her… oh, the mere memory of it sent another sharp stab of arousal straight through him, and he couldn’t wait to do it again. He sucked gently, and he was delighted when she moaned.

“A little harder”, she breathed, and he happily obliged. Her fingers were churning in his hair now, and she was moving her hips in the most tantalizing way. When she moaned again, his desire for her became so strong it took his breath away, but he didn’t want to stop what he was doing for the world, so he moved to her other nipple, making her moan all over again.

Suddenly she pushed his head away, and he noticed that she was breathing fast again.

“Not good?” he asked her, but she shook her head.

“No, it’s too good, Sergio, I can’t stand it anymore. Give me a second or I’m going to combust.”

He felt rather pleased that she was reacting to him so strongly, so he sat back and watched as she took a few deep breaths and collected herself. Then she looked at him.

“Can I take off your pants?”

She sounded so hopeful that he couldn’t help but laugh and tease her a little.

“What if I say no?”

“Well”, she said with a slow smile, “then I’m going to die a little but respect your decision.”

He chuckled and took her in his arms. “I wouldn’t want to cause you any distress. If you really want to, you can take my pants off.”

Her eyes were sparkling. “You’re so kind. How can I possibly repay you?”

“I’ve got a feeling that you’ll be able to think of something”, he whispered, then kissed her.

She put her hand against his chest and, still kissing him, she gently pushed him down into the pillows. He suddenly noticed how at ease he felt, how natural this all was. He was in bed with a naked woman and he didn’t feel awkward at all. The only thing he felt right now was an all-consuming desire for her. In fact, he was surprised that his brain was still functioning – it felt like all of the blood in his body was currently in one very specific location. The very thought that she was going to touch him there made him tremble, and he hoped to god he’d be able to keep a grip on himself.

She was kissing his neck now, and he groaned softly as her hand slid down his chest, over his stomach, to deftly undo the button of his pants, then the zipper. He lifted his hips and she pushed his pants down, then he kicked them off. She came to lie close beside him and kissed him again, while her hand slipped into his underwear. His feeling of comfort and ease immediately disappeared as he suddenly realized that he had no idea how he measured up compared to the other men she’d slept with. What if she was disappointed? But then her fingers brushed against him and every worry was driven out of his mind, leaving only a single thought: god yes.

She stroked him for a few moments and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move – she was touching him so delicately, making him ache for more. Then she wrapped her fingers around him and he inhaled sharply and tightened his arm around her waist, then he turned his head and kissed her, hard.

“Raquel”, he whispered against her lips, “I want you, I want you so badly.”

“Oh, thank god”, she said, withdrawing her hand. “I don’t think I could wait another second.”

He smiled in delight as he took off his underwear. “You’re very eager.”

She grinned. “You bet I am. I’ve been fantasizing about you for weeks. Oh, I’m going to enjoy this so much.”

“Do we need a condom?”

“No, I’ve got an IUD, I can’t get pregnant.”

She pushed him back into the pillows with a firm hand, and he bit his lip as she came to sit astride him. He loved that she was taking control, making it easy for him, and he couldn’t imagine anything sexier than seeing her on top of him, watching as she took hold of him and guided him inside. When she sank down on him, it was such total bliss that it took his breath away. He couldn’t believe how good it felt to be inside of her – she was so warm, so soft, so wet, and when she started moving, the pleasure of it was so great that he feared for a moment that he would lose control immediately, but then he took a deep breath and focused on her. She was moving up and down now, and the sight of her was glorious: her hair streaming over her shoulders, her lips slightly parted to let out a soft moan every time she sank down on him, and god, the way she moved her hips was driving him almost past endurance.

He gripped her hips with one hand, then let his other hand drift between her legs, placing his thumb on the spot she’d shown him earlier. He immediately knew he’d made the right call, as she threw her head back and moaned, and he drew tight circles as she started riding him harder. She was breathing fast now, her chest flushed, her eyes tightly closed, her hands on his chest, and he couldn’t stop looking at her as his fingers continued their work. When she suddenly tensed, he bucked his hips to take her deeper, again and again and again, and she started trembling, making the most delicious sounds, and he had to keep a tight rein on himself not to be tipped over the edge as her nails bit into his chest while she cried out, shaking, clenching around him as the orgasm rushed through her for several long moments. Then she collapsed down on him and he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her hair as she caught her breath.

 After a few moments, she looked up and kissed him deeply.

“I like your stamina”, she murmured approvingly, and he felt a warm glow of pride at her words. “I love that we don’t have to stop yet.”

He tightened his arms around her waist and whispered: “Please stay close to me now.”

“Of course”, she said softly, and she kissed him deeply and sensuously as she slowly started moving again, keeping her body pressed against his, making him sigh in ecstasy. This was it, he thought, this must be the best feeling in the world. He’d never felt so close to another person in his life, and he never wanted it to stop, he wished they could keep this going forever. But she was kissing his neck now, and he knew that he wouldn’t last much longer – the way she was moving was too good, her naked body in his arms too sexy, and when she bit his earlobe, he gasped and closed his eyes. She quickened the pace, letting out a small, whispered ‘oh!’ every time he filled her up, and the tension that had been building within him was fast becoming unbearable.

“That feels so good”, she murmured in his ear. “You feel so amazing inside of me.”

Her words tipped him over the edge. He held her tight and buried his face in her hair as the tension inside him peaked and broke, sending wave after wave of pleasure through him, making him gasp for breath as the orgasm rocked him, moment after glorious moment. Finally, gradually, the sensation receded and he relaxed again, breathing hard, holding her close, his entire body buzzing with wonder and satisfaction.

“Oh god”, he whispered, stunned. “Oh god, Raquel. Oh my god.”

She kissed his cheek and smiled. “Was it better than you remembered it?”

Better?” he said. “That doesn’t even begin to cover it. This doesn’t compare in the slightest, Raquel, I don’t know what you did to me but oh! Sex never made me feel anything before, but now I felt… everything. It was so intense, so amazing. You are amazing.”

She looked down at him with a delighted grin. “I’m glad you’re so enthusiastic. So does that mean you’ll want to do it again?”

He pulled her head down and kissed her. “Yes, please. Again and again and again.” He sighed in disappointment. “In fact, I wish we could go again right now.”

She laughed as she slid off him. “We still have time, give it an hour or so and then we can have another go.”

She started to get off the bed, but he caught her around the waist and pulled her back.

“Where are you going?” he asked, nuzzling her neck.

“To the bathroom”, she laughed. “To clean up. Can I?”

“I don’t know”, he murmured, pressing kisses to her shoulder. “How long will you be gone?”

“Ten minutes?”

“That’s unacceptable. Make it five.”

“Nine”, she proposed, smiling.

“Six”, he offered.

“How about we compromise at seven and a half?”

“Alright”, he said, reluctantly letting her go. “But not a second longer.”

She pressed a kiss to his lips. “I’ll hurry.”

He longingly looked after her as she crossed the room and disappeared into the small bathroom. After what he’d just experienced, he didn’t want to be apart from her for even a second anymore, and he felt ridiculously eager for her to come back. When she came out of the bathroom a few minutes later and walked back to the bed, smiling at him, his breath caught at how lovely she was. He immediately took her in his arms again and kissed her hungrily.

“So”, he said. “We have to wait an hour?”

“At your age? Yes, I think you’d need at least that much.”

He considered her. “But you don’t.”

“Well, technically I don’t, but…”

“Please”, he murmured in her ear, running his fingers between her breasts and down her stomach. “An hour is too long. I can’t wait a whole hour to hear you moan again.”

He moved his hand back up and gently pinched a nipple, and she let out a soft ‘oh!’.

“Yes”, he breathed. “Just like that.”

He reached down and stroked the inside of her thighs, and she opened her legs with a sigh.

“Raquel”, he whispered. “I would love to know how you taste. Can I?”

She bit her lip in delight and nodded, then settled herself comfortably on her back as he moved down to sit between her legs. Then he hesitated and looked up at her.

“I’ve… actually never done this before”, he admitted. “I may need a little guidance.”

“That’s perfectly alright”, she smiled. “I don’t mind guiding you.”

He bent down and marveled at how she opened herself up to him. He started by kissing the inside of her thighs, slowly inching closer to her until she was squirming for contact. Then he stuck out his tongue and licked her, one broad upward stroke that made her shiver. He loved the taste of her, so he licked her again, and again, and again, making her sigh as she opened her legs wider. Then he pressed his mouth to her and started exploring her with his tongue, slowly and thoroughly, and she hummed her approval and reached down to twine her fingers into his hair. When his tongue reached the right spot, she immediately let him know by letting out a soft moan and tilting her hips, and he settled down there, circling and licking, trying out different things to see what made her react with the most enthusiasm.

“Oh!” she whispered. “That feels amazing.”

He reached up and touched her with his fingers, delighted to feel that she was wet again. He slipped in two fingers and she let out a long, low moan as he started moving. After a few moments she lifted her head, her eyes soft and dark.

“Sergio”, she murmured. “Curl your fingers up and see if you can feel a soft spot.”

He felt around, but…”Everything feels soft”, he said.

“A spot where the texture is a bit different. Almost… a little lower…” She suddenly gasped. “Oh! Yes, there exactly. Now push up, hard.”

He did as she asked and she fell back into the pillows, moaning softly. He applied his mouth again and found just the right spot, then settled on a steady rhythm with both his tongue and his fingers, and soon she was breathing fast and clutching at the sheets.

“Yes”, she breathed over and over again. “Don’t stop!”

He continued, eager to make her come again, to feel her tremble and hear her cry out. Finally she tensed and grabbed his hair, and he loved every second of it as she arched her back and started shaking.

“Oh god!” she gasped loudly. “Oh, oh, ohhh!”

He kept going until she pushed against his head, then he eased off gradually and pulled back to look up at her. God, she looked amazing – her hair tousled and her cheeks flushed, breathing hard. He’d enjoyed that so much more than he thought he would, and he felt a little regretful that it was over so fast. Then he smiled as he had an idea.

“Raquel”, he said, and she opened her eyes to give him a soft look. “Some women can have more than one orgasm, right?”

“Right”, she said.

“What about you?”

“I’m not sure. Nobody’s ever tried to make me come twice in a row.”

That was beyond his comprehension. “Why not?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Honestly, as a woman you’re lucky if the guy you’re sleeping with cares enough to make you come even once.”

“But what a waste of an amazing ability! And you haven’t ever tried it on your own?”

“I’m a busy woman, Sergio, when I masturbate it’s usually for quick tension relief.”

He grinned. “Well then, let’s try it out.”

“I don’t know”, she protested weakly, “I may be too sensitive now, I…”

She stopped abruptly as he pressed his mouth to her again, then let herself fall back into the pillows with a sigh. When his tongue touched her there, she twitched.

“Careful!” she gasped, but then immediately afterwards: “No, wait, keep going! Oh, yes!”

He kept his touch feather-light as he licked her, and as he inserted two fingers again and pushed upwards, she arched her back and twined her fingers into the sheets. She was moaning with every breath now, and it only took a few minutes before she started trembling. He quickened the pace, and she suddenly tensed and rose up on her elbows, sobbing his name as the feeling crashed through her again in one short, intense burst. Afterwards, she immediately pushed his head away and fell back into the pillows, panting and shivering. He was feeling very pleased with himself as he moved up and took her in his arms, and she pressed her face against his chest and moaned softly as she shuddered through the aftershocks. He stroked her shoulder as he looked down at her, and felt such a rush of tenderness that it threatened to overwhelm him. She was so, so precious to him.

Finally she quieted down and opened her eyes, a little dazed.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes”, she breathed, then gave him a radiant smile. “Wow.”

“That was so hot”, he murmured. “Hearing you say my name when you were coming.”

He shivered at the memory.

She blinked. “Did I say your name? I don’t even remember.”

“You came so fast”, he smiled down at her.

“Yes”, she said, surprised. “It was all so sensitive now.”

He hesitated, then asked a little anxiously: “So… how did I do? Was it good for you?”

She gave him an incredulous look. “Seriously? You made me come four times this afternoon and you ask if it was good for me?”

He gave her a shy smile. “Is that a yes?”

She laughed. “Yes, Sergio! God yes!” She pulled his head down and kissed him. “You were amazing. I don’t know why you were nervous before, you’re a natural.”

“It’s all thanks to you”, he said earnestly. “You made me feel so at ease. I enjoyed it so much more than I ever thought I would.”

“Good”, she said, smiling broadly. “I have to admit I was a little apprehensive when you said you’d never liked sex before. I’m so glad you liked it this time.”

“I loved it”, he said softly, hugging her closer. “I’ve never felt like this before.”

“Like what?”

“Like all I want in the world is to stay close to you.”

She gave him a soft smile and stroked his cheek. “Then let’s stay close.”

“I loved sharing this with you”, he whispered. “Thank you.”

“I loved it too”, she smiled.

He bent his head and kissed her. As he pressed his lips against hers and she stroked the back of his neck, he silently marveled at what she’d done to him. He never could have imagined the impact she would have on his life. He never could have imagined that today, on this grey, ordinary Tuesday afternoon, she would wake him up out of a slumber he hadn’t even been aware of, and make him feel more alive than he ever had before. So he kissed her, again and again, because he didn’t know how to thank her for that.

 

Chapter Text

She insisted they did at least some cleaning – “It’s disgusting, Sergio, really! – so they spent the last two hours of the afternoon in the control room, laughing and joking and generally getting very little cleaning done but a lot of kissing. Still, at least the puddles on the floor were gone by the time they left to go home, so Raquel was reasonably satisfied. Sergio eyed her critically as they stepped outside into the sunlight.

“How did you manage to get that much water on yourself?”

“I’m an enthusiastic cleaner”, she shrugged.

He pulled her close and nuzzled her neck. “You’re enthusiastic at a lot of things.”

“Are you complaining?” she smiled.

“Not in the least”, he murmured, then leaned in for a long, deep kiss.

When they got into the car, however, she grimaced and shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“Oh, wet jeans are the worst.

He turned the key in the ignition and started to pull out of the parking spot, but he stopped abruptly as she started unbuttoning her pants.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking them off.”

“You’re… you’re going to sit there… for the entire drive home… in your underwear?”

“We’re in a car, nobody will see.”

I’ll see.”

She flashed him a grin. “Do you mind?”

He considered this. “You know what, I don’t think I do.”

“Good”, she said, then wriggled out of her pants.

Driving back to the house in the state they were in was just plain irresponsible, Sergio thought to himself, but they had to get back somehow. They were both light-headed and giddy, and he kept missing turns because he was looking at her rather than the road. When it happened for the third time, she couldn’t stop laughing.

“You are adorable”, she smiled, leaning in to kiss his cheek.

He frowned as he turned the car around. “Don’t distract me even more. It’s going to take us a week to get home if we keep going like this.”

“I expected more mental fortitude from you, Professor”, she teased. “I didn’t think you’d be this easily distracted.”

“I was allowing myself to be distracted”, he said with dignity. “If I choose to focus, nothing can break my concentration.”

She grinned. “Nothing?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

“Well…”, she said, “Why don’t you focus on the traffic then?”

“I will”, he said, and firmly fixed his eyes on the road ahead, determined not to so much as glance in her direction again.

After only a few minutes, though, he suddenly felt her hand on his knee. He swallowed hard as she started to move it up his thigh.

“Stop that”, he warned her sternly.

“Stop what?” she asked in her most innocent tone.

“What you’re doing is very dangerous.”

“What am I doing?”

“You’re distracting your driver.”

She grinned. “I thought my driver couldn’t be distracted?”

“True”, he said quickly, squaring his shoulders. “I am a fortress.”

“I’m sure you are”, she murmured, then leaned in to kiss his neck.

He steeled himself. “You’re not going to break me.”

“Of course not”, she said, running her fingers through his hair.

He had to close his eyes for just a second at the feeling of it. Damn it, why did she affect him so much? He’d never been susceptible to this kind of thing, but now he could feel his brain cloud over at her merest touch. Her hand was sneaking higher up his thigh and, to his embarrassment, he felt his body react to her automatically. He quickly pushed her hand away.

“If you can’t behave yourself, I’m going to pull over and put you in the back seat”, he threatened.

“I’m sorry”, she teased. “I thought you were a fortress?”

He took a deep breath and, as she kissed his neck again, he tightened his hands on the wheel until his knuckles whitened. He could resist her. He was stronger than this. This was a battle of wills, and he wasn’t about to lose. He could control himself. He could… But when she bit his earlobe and he nearly crashed into a tree, he had to admit defeat. She was a force of nature – he might as well try to resist gravity.

He pulled the car over to the side of the road and immediately turned to kiss her, and she threw her arms around his neck and returned his kiss with enthusiasm.

“That was easier than I thought it would be”, she smiled.

“It’s not my fault”, he grumbled. “You’re objectively irresistible, it’s not fair. I can’t keep my hands off you.”

“Well, that makes two of us”, she murmured, pressing her lips against his again. “Oh, this stupid seatbelt!”

He heard her seatbelt click, and the next moment she was astride his lap, kissing him fiercely. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight as he kissed her back, feeling like it had been an eternity since he’d last held her rather than an hour. Her hands were in his hair, on his shoulders, on his chest, and then her fingers were unbuttoning his pants.

He stopped her hand, alarmed. “What are you doing?”

“Isn’t that obvious?”

“This is a public road!”

“Correction”, she said, her eyes sparkling. “It’s a deserted road.”

“People could drive past at any time!”

“Unlikely”, she said, kissing him again. “And honestly, I don’t care if they do.”

“But…”

“Of course”, she said slowly as she ran her fingers through his hair, “if you don’t want to…”

She pressed her hips against him and he gasped.

“… we don’t have to…”

She bent her head to kiss his neck, and he closed his eyes and groaned.

“… please don’t feel…” She pressed her hips against him again. “… obligated.”

He couldn’t believe how much he wanted her. She smelled so good, she felt so good in his arms, her mouth on his so soft, then hungry and insistent – so hot – the way she moved her hips against him driving him crazy. But what made him truly lose all restraint was the realization that she wanted him – she really wanted him. How could he say no to that?

He pulled her head down and kissed her. He kept one hand in her hair, and slid his other hand down her back, over her hips, to run it over her bare thigh. Then he moved it back up to her lower back so he could press her even closer against him. Her shirt hung open, so he bent his head and nipped at her nipples through her top, making her utter little gasps as she twined her fingers into his hair. This time, when she started undoing his pants, he didn’t stop her, and he groaned softly as she drew him out. The next moment, she lifted her hips, pushed her underwear to the side and guided him in, letting out a long, quiet ‘ohhh’ as she sank down on him, and fireworks started going off in his brain. She pressed her lips against his as she started riding him, slowly at first, and he savored the feeling of being inside her, the ecstasy of it as she enveloped him fully. He wrapped his arms around her waist and held her tight. After a few minutes, she picked up the pace, and soon they were both breathing hard, little moans escaping from her lips every time she took him in. She felt so incredibly good around him, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stand it much longer, and as she rode him harder, he closed his eyes and surrendered to the tension building inside him. A few moments later, he buried his face against her shoulder as his arms tightened around her, then he shuddered and groaned as the feeling swept through him in a fiery wave, making him shiver and tingle all over.

She moved up and down a few more times, then she stopped and held him close as he leaned against her in a state of absolute bliss.

“That was amazing”, he whispered, and she smiled and kissed him.

“It sure was.”

She leaned back for a moment to catch her breath, and accidentally pressed against the car horn, which honked loudly. They both jumped, then started laughing uncontrollably, the tension broken.

“Oh”, she said, wiping her eyes. “It feels so good to laugh. It’s been so long.”

“I love hearing you laugh”, he murmured, pulling her in for another kiss.

“I’ve got a feeling you haven’t laughed much in your life”, she said, stroking his hair.

“No”, he admitted. “I’ve never had the necessary… lightness of spirit. But you make me laugh. I love that about you. In fact, you make me do a lot of things I never thought I’d do. Like have sex in a car right by the side of the road.”

She grinned. “I can’t believe we didn’t even make it to the house. How are we possibly going to keep our hands off each other for entire days of classes?”

“I don’t know”, he said earnestly. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to bear it. I wanted you so desperately just now.”

They kissed again, and he sighed as he leaned his forehead against hers.

“What have you done to me, Raquel? I don’t recognize myself anymore. I’m not the man I was mere months ago.”

She hesitated. “Do you mind? Would you prefer to go back, if you could?”

“No”, he whispered. “Not for the world.”

When they were almost back to the house, Sergio stopped the car one more time so she could put her pants back on and they could have one last kiss. Then they broke apart reluctantly and he drove around the last bend, to where the others were gathered around the table outside.

“Is anyone preparing dinner?” Sergio asked.

“Rio and Tokyo”, Moscow answered. “They said it would be at least half an hour yet.”

“Then I’m going to take a shower”, Raquel said, and she disappeared inside.

Sergio let himself drop into the chair next to Nairobi, who took one look at him and raised her eyebrows.

“Looks like you had a good time cleaning.”

He cleared his throat and said carefully: “It was alright.”

“Oh, I think it was more than alright”, she teased.

He quickly glanced around the table, but the others were talking among themselves and not paying attention to them. Still, he remained evasive.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

She grinned broadly. “You’re not fooling me, Profe.”

He gave her a dignified look. “I don’t know what assumptions you’re making, but I can assure you that…”

“You missed a button on your shirt”, she said drily, then laughed as he turned bright red and hastened to fasten it.

“I… I think I’ll go and look for Berlin”, he said, getting up hastily.

“You do that”, she said, amused.

He hurried inside and went looking for his brother. He found him at the desk in the classroom, reading through some notes. He drew up a chair and sat down on the other side of the desk.

“How did the studying go?”

“Good”, Berlin said, without looking up. “I just sent them outside ten minutes ago. How was cleaning?”

“Fine. We didn’t get everything done though, we’ll have to go back.”

Berlin looked up at him and immediately narrowed his eyes. “Why are you smiling like that?”

“Like what?” he said, quickly adopting a more neutral expression.

His brother studied him closely. “You look like a cat who got the cream.”

Sergio shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Was he that obvious? “It was just nice getting out of the house for a while.”

“Yes”, his brother said slyly, “Especially in good company, right?”

“Raquel is… pleasant company, yes.”

“I thought you were going to stay away from her?”

He cleared his throat. “Well, I… I gave it some serious thought and I changed my mind about that.”

“Are you no longer in love with her?”

He felt himself go red. “That’s… uhm… not exactly…”

His brother’s face suddenly broke into a wide grin. “You slept with her, didn’t you?”

“What? I… no!”

“Yes you did!” Berlin grinned appreciatively. “And not a minute too soon. Well done, little brother. I’m glad to see you came to your senses.”

“But how could you possibly tell?” Sergio said, exasperated.

“You look much too happy and satisfied for a man who is supposed to be thwarted by love.” He chuckled. “Ah, that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“I heard Raquel come in earlier and she was humming.” His brother flashed him a grin. “Looks like you did a good job.”

Sergio couldn’t help but feel pleased, and Berlin laughed.

“By the look on your face, I’m assuming you’re going to do it again?”

“As soon as possible”, Sergio said without thinking, then blushed as his brother laughed again.

“So you’re together now?”

“Yes”, he said, feeling a warm, bright sense of joy at hearing his brother say it. “Yes, we are.”

Berlin gave him a fond look. “Well, who would have thought it? My baby brother finally found someone he likes.”

Sergio just couldn’t contain a smile. “I do. I like her so much.” It felt so good to be able to talk to someone about this. “Andrés, I can’t describe this feeling. She’s so amazing.”

His brother raised his eyebrows. “And judging from your general air of satisfaction, pretty good in bed.”

He felt himself redden slightly, but he couldn’t resist mumbling: “That’s an understatement.”

“Good for you”, Berlin grinned.

“Please don’t tell any of the others though.”

“No”, Berlin said, amused. “I don’t suppose you’d want them to know that their leader is breaking his own rules.”

“I don’t know how this happened to me”, Sergio said quietly. “I thought I was stronger than this.”

“It has nothing to do with strength, Sergio. There are some forces in the universe that we weren’t made to resist.”

“I tried”, he said. “I really tried.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me. I don’t care if you’ve broken some silly rule.”

“It’s not silly to me, Andrés”, Sergio said seriously. “I worry about this. I don’t know how she will affect me during the operation.”

“I’m sure she’ll be great for a little tension relief”, his brother grinned.

“We can’t do that during the operation!” he said, alarmed. “One of us will need to man the screens at all times. What if something crucial happens while we’re… distracted?”

“I’m sure nobody’s going to die just because you’re having sex.”

“You can’t know that.”

Berlin gave him a skeptical look. “So you’re going to spend ten days with her in one room, and you’re not going to sleep with her once?”

Sergio hesitated as he remembered that they hadn’t even made it through a two-hour car ride together.

“It’s… it’s going to get easier, right?”

“What is?”

“Keeping my hands off her.”

His brother grinned. “You’ve really got it bad, haven’t you?”

“I know”, he sighed. “But is it? Going to get easier?”

“Sure, but not for the first few months.”

He groaned, but his brother said: “Don’t worry so much about it. You’ll have other things on your mind by then, I’m sure you’ll be able to focus on the operation.”

Sergio sighed. “I can’t honestly say that I regret that this happened, but I know it would have been better if it hadn’t. If I hadn’t recruited her.”

Berlin considered him for a moment. “Sergio, tell me something. Has there ever been a point in your life when you could say you were truly happy?”

He hesitated. “No.”

“And unless I’m much mistaken, you’re happy now?”

“Yes”, he whispered. “I am.”

“Then I advise you to stop worrying and just enjoy it. Who knows how long it will last? We may all be dead by November. Take this happiness while you can, little brother. Life is short.”

Sergio gave his brother a pained look. “I know. Andrés…”

But Berlin shook his head. “We said we wouldn’t talk about it. Let’s go have dinner.”

They both got up, but before they reached the door, Sergio took his brother by the arm and hugged him. Berlin patted him on the back.

“Count your blessings, Sergio. There are worse things in life than to be distracted by love.”

That evening after dinner, he was the first to go up to his bedroom. Waiting the agreed upon thirty minutes for her was agony – it seemed like forever ago since he’d last held her. When she finally opened his bedroom door and slipped inside, he immediately opened his arms and she let herself fall onto the bed and cuddled up to him. They spent the evening in each other’s arms, talking softly, kissing often. Finally, she checked her watch and sighed regretfully.

“It’s past midnight. I suppose I’d better go to my room.”

“No, don’t go yet”, he murmured, hugging her closer.

“But we need to sleep”, she reasoned.

“Ten more minutes?”

“We have class in the morning.”

“Yes, I know, you’re right”, he said, letting her go with the utmost reluctance.

She pressed one more kiss to his lips, then slowly got off the bed and walked across the room, looking back at him. God, he hated to see her go.

“Goodnight”, she whispered at the door.

“Goodnight”, he said, a sinking feeling in his stomach as she opened the door and went out.

He missed her immediately. There was a cold emptiness where she had been, and the next eight hours loomed dark and seemingly endless before him, promising another sleepless night in which he wouldn’t be able to think about anything but her. After today, he didn’t want to be apart from her anymore – it felt so unnatural, after the closeness they’d shared. But they had to sleep, and… Something suddenly clicked in his brain, and he scrambled out of bed.

He was almost at the door when it opened and she came back in, an apologetic look on her face.

“Sergio…. what if I slept here?” she asked, at the exact same instant that he said:

“Please sleep here.”

She gave him a radiant smile and threw her arms around his neck to kiss him.

“Oh thank god”, she murmured. “I really didn’t want to sleep alone tonight.”

“Me neither”, he said, hugging her close.

“I wasn’t sure if I should ask you. I thought maybe you liked your space when sleeping.”

“I’ll gladly share my space with you.”

She kissed him. “I’ll go put on my pajamas.”

She walked towards the door, then turned around again. “You know, it’s a very warm night.”

“It is”, he said. “What’s your point?”

She smiled. “What if we didn’t put on any pajamas?”

He raised his eyebrows. “You want to sleep naked?”

“Wouldn’t it be nice?” she murmured, coming close to him. “To sleep without anything between us?”

He honestly couldn’t think of anything nicer. He locked the door, quickly undressed, then got into bed. She remained standing by the side of the bed for a moment, hesitating.

“What are you waiting for?” he asked her.

“It’s a very small bed.”

“Then we’ll have to sleep close together”, he smiled.

“Are you sure you don’t mind? Will you be able to sleep?”

“I don’t know”, he admitted. “We’ll have to see. But I’d rather lie awake with you next to me than sleep without you.”

She smiled and got between the sheets. “Do you remember the last time we shared a bed, in that hotel? You couldn’t get far enough away from me then.” She grinned. “I hope you won’t fall out of bed this time.”

“I remember thinking the next morning I would give anything to sleep next to you again”, he said softly. “But I didn’t think it would ever be possible.”

She kissed him tenderly.

“How do you like to sleep?”

“On my side.”

“Perfect”, she smiled. “Then you can spoon me.”

“What?”

She turned onto her side. He followed her example, and she shifted closer to him, fitting her body against his and taking his arm to tuck it around her waist, her fingers intertwining with his. He couldn’t believe how lovely it felt to lie so close to her, to have her naked in his arms, his skin lighting up where it touched hers until he felt illuminated from the inside out as their bodies connected full-length. He pressed his lips against her bare shoulder and breathed in the sweet scent of her skin.

“Thank you”, he whispered.

“What for?”

“For today. It’s been… just amazing, Raquel. You’re so wonderful.

She nestled herself even closer against him. “I’ve had a wonderful day too.”

 She soon fell asleep in his arms, and the deep, even sound of her breathing was so soothing, making him sleepy too, but every time he started to drift off, he forced himself awake again – he didn’t want to sleep just yet. He wanted to savor it all: her warmth, her softness, the wonderful feeling of her body against his – finally, after months of longing, there was nothing separating them anymore. The thought that she would be with him all night, and that she would be the first thing he would see when he opened his eyes in the morning made him indescribably happy. Count your blessings, he heard his brother say, so he thought: her laugh. Her voice. Her kisses. His arm around her waist and her hand in his. Her kindness, and the light in her eyes as she smiled. Her touch. He felt himself slipping into sleep with a warm, fuzzy feeling of utter contentment. Count your blessings. This moment, he thought, hugging her tight. This moment.

 

Chapter Text

Since he wasn’t used to sharing a bed with another person, Sergio had feared that he might not be able to sleep very much, but he slept unexpectedly well. He kept half-waking in the middle of the night to reach for her, instinctively seeking out her warmth and nearness, only to fall asleep again immediately with a warm sense of contentment once she cuddled up to him. When he woke up in the morning, she wasn’t touching him, and for a fleeting moment he felt with a horrible certainty that she wouldn’t be there when he opened his eyes, that it had all been a dream – but then he turned around and there she was, and his heart started beating faster at the very sight of her. What an inexpressible joy it was to wake up next to her, for her face to be the first thing he saw in the morning, so beautiful and serene, the beams of the rising sun playing over her skin. He just kept looking at her and looking at her, feeling like the luckiest man alive, feeling like there couldn’t possibly be a better way to start the day.

She turned onto her other side, so he shifted closer and, careful not to wake her, he wrapped his arm around her waist and fitted his body to hers. She made a small sound of contentment and pressed herself closer to him, which made him wake up in more ways than one. He was suddenly very aware of her naked body in his arms, her skin warm against his, and the most tantalizing memories of yesterday’s events started crowding his mind, making his body react with embarrassing enthusiasm. In his mind’s eye, he saw her again on the bed in the back-up location, gasping as he touched her, arching her back with a moan. He relived the feeling of having her sink down on him, first on the bed and later again in the car, and he felt a deep, aching longing to experience it again – that exquisite sensation, that closeness.

He was painfully hard by now, but he wasn’t sure about the etiquette – would it be impolite to wake her for this? Was he allowed to make the first move, or should he wait for her to show an interest? What if she wasn’t in the mood? What if she felt obligated? He decided he didn’t want to risk it, so he stayed perfectly still, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths in an attempt to diffuse his desire for her. It was still so new to him, this desire for another person, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it, a little alarmed by how intense it was. He tried to force his thoughts in a different direction, but it was impossible to focus on anything except her body against his. He was just thinking that maybe he’d better get up and take a cold shower when she yawned and shifted against him, sending another stab of longing straight through him.

“Good morning”, she murmured, her eyes still closed.

He nuzzled her ear. “Good morning. In fact, great morning. I can’t remember a better one.”

She smiled. “I think we can still improve on it.”

“Really?” he said, trying not to sound too hopeful. “How?”

She responded by pressing herself even closer to him, and he groaned softly.

“Oh, Raquel. Are you sure you want to?”

“I want to”, she whispered. “Just… gently. I’m not really awake yet.”

“Let me help you with that”, he murmured.

He started by pressing kisses to her neck and shoulder, and she hummed her approval, then she lifted her head so he could put his arm underneath it to lie even closer to her. He buried his face in her hair and breathed in deeply – the smell of her was so intoxicating, it made his head spin. His fingers were roaming over her skin, gently stroking her arm, her stomach, her hip, her thigh. She responded with soft sounds of contentment, and after a while he reached his hand up and cupped a breast, stroking her nipple with his thumb until it hardened.

“A little more”, she whispered, so he squeezed it and was thrilled when he heard her sigh.

He kept kissing her neck as he alternated between stroking and squeezing her nipples until her breathing quickened and she started moving her hips against him ever so slightly, driving him half-mad with longing. Suddenly she took his hand and moved it downwards, making him smile. She opened her legs to allow him access, and he started exploring her with careful fingers, keeping a tight rein on his desire, patiently waiting to ensure that she was ready – more than ready – for him. He dipped his hand between her legs and slipped in one finger, then, feeling how wet she was, a second one. He still couldn’t quite fathom that this was really happening, that her body was reacting to him with the same enthusiasm as his was to her. He wondered for a moment if she could possibly want him as much as he wanted her, but then she tilted her hips so she was pressed hard against his palm, and he tentatively allowed himself to believe that, yes, she did. It was the most amazing feeling.

“Are you ready?” he murmured in her ear.

“Yes”, she whispered. “Oh, yes.”

He withdrew his hand and guided himself to her, and she let out a low, drawn-out moan as he pressed into her ever so slowly, closing his eyes to really savor it: her softness, her warmth. He wrapped his arm around her waist and held her tight as he started moving inside her, and she intertwined her fingers with his and sighed with pleasure at every stroke. They took their time, their bodies still a little heavy with sleep, their movements slow and languorous. Sergio was surprised all over again at how good it felt – somehow, since yesterday, he’d already partly forgotten the exact feeling of it, how amazing she felt around him, how connected it made him feel. He had a suspicion that it would keep surprising him, over and over again, for a long time until he got used to it. He hoped he’d never get used to it.

He wanted nothing more than to make it just as good for her, so he moved his hand down between her legs and let his fingers try out different things, until she gasped: “yes!” and he struck up a rhythm. She put her hand on his to indicate the pressure she wanted, and soon she was breathing fast, little whispered moans escaping her lips. He thought regretfully of the delicious sounds she’d made yesterday when they didn’t need to worry about anyone overhearing them, and resolved to take her back to a private place as soon as was humanly possible. He kept up his movements, and when he felt her tense, he picked up the pace just a little – just enough. She suddenly gasped and started trembling in his arms, then turned her face into the pillow to stifle her moans, squeezing his hand between her thighs as she contracted around him. He carefully kept himself in check so he could stay focused on her as he eased off gradually, making her shiver with the aftershocks. Then he halted, giving her a moment to recover and catch her breath.

She heaved a deep sigh of contentment, then whispered “go on”, and he gratefully pressed into her again, feeling about ready to burst. Sure enough, it only took a few more strokes for the pressure inside of him to reach a peak, and he buried his face against her shoulder and groaned softly as he let himself go, little lights dancing behind his closed eyelids as the absolute pleasure of it washed over him. He pushed himself deep inside her one more time, then he lay still, panting, feeling a warm glow of satisfaction spread through his entire body. He hugged her tighter and pressed soft kisses to her neck. What a way to start the day. Holy hell.

After a while, she turned around and pushed him onto his back so she could lie close against him, her arm over his chest, one leg over his, and her head in the hollow of his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her and sighed happily. What a feeling this was. What an absolutely wonderful feeling. His mind was pleasantly fuzzy, but as he gradually came back to his senses, he became aware that something extraordinary was happening to him, and as he held her, he realized what it was.

He’d never felt so close to another person. After a lifetime of self-imposed isolation and a constant, gnawing sense of loneliness he’d taken for granted, it was filling him with wonder. He hadn’t thought this could happen to him, hadn’t thought he was even capable of making this kind of connection. It had always felt so far removed from his lived reality – something that other people experienced as a matter of course, but that was beyond his grasp. Not that he wanted it, he’d always told himself. A life of the mind was infinitely preferable: clean, focused, unencumbered. Now she cuddled closer to him, and he kissed her hair and realized what a fool he’d been to discard an entire aspect of the human experience. He’d always realized that it was a major motivating force for most people, but he’d never understood it – until now. She was reframing the world for him, refocusing his view on life to a perfect, crystalline clarity he’d never experienced before, vividly reminding him of the first time he’d put on glasses and suddenly seen things clearly. This was important. This was what truly mattered.

A thought occurred to him, so alarming that it took his breath away.

“Raquel”, he whispered.

“Mmm?” she responded, her eyes closed.

“Do you realize… we almost never met.”

“What do you mean?” she said, looking up at him sleepily.

“All of this… you and me… it almost didn’t happen.”

This feeling, this beautiful, newly-discovered happiness had almost passed him by, and he shuddered to even consider it.

She frowned and seemed to wake up properly as she focused on him. “Why not?”

“I almost didn’t recruit you. I still remember the exact moment I made that decision. I’d been following your court case, and then I heard about your conviction, that you’d been sentenced to prison. You need to know, my plan had been finalized for over a year. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make any last-minute changes to it, because I knew I wouldn’t have the time to really think through all the possible consequences. I remember staring at the file I made about you, trying to make up my mind. I closed it. I closed it, Raquel. I decided against recruiting you.”

She was staring at him. “What made you change your mind?”

“A picture of you had fallen out of the folder. I picked it up to put it back, but then, for some reason, I took a closer look at it. It was a picture of you, in handcuffs, being led from the courtroom to a police car. You looked tired but undefeated – you held your head high, your shoulders back. At that moment, I decided that I wanted you on my team. Life had thrown so many horrible things at you, and yet you weren’t broken. I admired that. I thought you might prove valuable to the operation, so I re-opened your file and went through it again. I decided to risk the last-minute change for the possibility of significantly improving the plan.”

“So you almost didn’t bust me out of that prison van”, she said softly.

“That’s right”, he said, a burning feeling in his chest at the thought. “I almost didn’t.”

“I didn’t know you hesitated about recruiting me”, she said. “Just imagine. If the circumstances had been slightly different, I would have been in prison now.”

The thought of her in a prison cell made his blood pound in his ears. He tightened his arms around her and hugged her protectively.

“It’s so strange to think how much depended on that exact moment”, he said. “If that photograph hadn’t fallen out of that folder… if I’d put it back without a second look… if any of a thousand factors had been different, influencing my decision… we wouldn’t have been here.”

“I don’t want to think about that”, she whispered.

“Yet I can’t help but wonder about it”, he said. “How such a small decision, a moment that seems so insignificant at the time, can impact your life in such a major way. We all make decisions like that every day. Tiny, throwaway choices, not worth thinking about too much. But any of them can end up changing your life.”

He kissed her hair.

“I was right about one thing though”, he continued. “I could never have foreseen the consequences of recruiting you. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think we’d end up here.”

“Me neither”, she said. “You know, I had a fundamentally decisive moment as well.”

“Tell me.”

“When those armed men you sent stopped our van and asked me to come with them. I hesitated. I almost said no. That’s another decision that almost kept us apart. They said they would bring me to the Professor – I never imagined in that moment they would bring me to you.”

He smiled. “Do you remember what you thought when you first saw me?”

“Who the fuck is this dude?” she laughed. “I remember thinking that you didn’t look nearly intimidating enough to be a gang leader. In fact, you looked a little nervous. Were you?”

“I was”, he nodded. “By then I’d decided that I wanted you on my team. I’d already started adapting the plan, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to persuade you. I had a feeling that you had a strong moral code, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to convince you to break it.”

“What did you think when you first saw me?”

“You surprised me. I’d only seen pictures of you, I hadn’t expected you to have such a… presence.”

“A presence?” she smiled.

“Yes. You were so wary when you came in, so suspicious – and you had every right to be, of course. There was a quiet intensity to you. You looked ready for anything. I knew immediately you’d be a formidable opponent if you chose to be.”

“You know”, she said thoughtfully. “We almost were.”

“What?”

“Opponents. What if things had gone differently for me? What if Alberto hadn’t been such a bastard, and had accepted the divorce quietly? Then I would have been your negotiator during the heist.”

“Yes”, he smiled at the thought. “And you would have been in charge of the team fighting against us.”

“You like that idea?” she asked, noticing his smile.

“I have to admit that I do. I would have loved going toe to toe with you. We’re well-matched.”

“You think you could have outsmarted me?”

“I think I could”, he said smugly.

“Don’t flatter yourself”, she huffed. “I’m sure I would have caught you in the end.”

“I suppose we’ll never know”, he smiled, and kissed her hair again. “So do you think we’ll get caught during the heist?”

“No”, she said drily. “Because I’ll be on your side now.”

He laughed. “Aren’t we cocky?”

“I know my worth”, she said. “My colleagues are good, but I was the best. They don’t stand a chance against you and me. We make a great team.”

“Yes”, he said softly. “We do.”

Her eyes got a faraway look. “That’s another situation in which we never would have gotten together: if I’d been your negotiator.”

He gave it some thought. “Are you sure about that?”

She looked up at him in surprise. “Of course. We would have been on opposite sides, communicating only through headsets.”

“I still think there’s a chance that we might have ended up together.”

“Really?” she said. “How? How would we even have met in person?”

“It’s always been my plan to try to establish contact with the leader of the case.”

“What? Why would you put yourself at risk like that?”

“It’s not really a risk, they wouldn’t know who I am. And it could yield valuable information or insights into the investigation.”

“So how would you have contacted me?”

“Your favorite café in the neighborhood of the Mint is Hanoi, right?”

“Yes”, she said, surprised. “How did you know?”

“I researched you”, he reminded her. “So I would have waited there for you.”

“How would you have established contact at the café?”

He shrugged. “I would have found a way.”

“I would have been so suspicious though”, she laughed. “If a random guy in a café started asking me questions during an investigation of that magnitude, I would have assumed he was an undercover journalist.”

“I would have convinced you”, he said firmly. “I would have gotten you to talk to me.”

“You seem very sure of that.”

“I am”, he said earnestly. “Raquel, if I’d seen you anywhere, under any circumstances, I know I would have fallen for you, hard. If I’d somehow managed to find you, no matter how, no matter when, don’t think for a moment that I would have let you get away.”

“You would still have been a criminal, and I would still have been a cop.”

“I think I would have been able to persuade you to join us.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yes, because I know your weak spot.”

“My weak spot?”

He winked at her. “You can’t resist my charms.”

That made her laugh. “Very true, you are pretty irresistible. But the heist is only going to last for ten days at the most. Do you think that would have been sufficient time to get to know each other well enough to establish a real connection?”

“I don’t think we would have needed much time. We’re right for each other, Raquel. I think we would have recognized that no matter the circumstances.”

“Yes”, she said quietly. “Maybe we would have.”

They were silent for a moment, each caught up in their own thoughts. Then she hugged him tighter and sighed.

“You’re right though”, she said. “We came so close to never meeting.”

“And yet”, he said softly, “I feel like my whole life has led up to this exact moment.”

He reflected how everything he’d ever thought or done, every decision he’d made which seemed meaningless at the time, had served to bring him closer to her. How all the different aspects of his life and hers had been separate strands in a tapestry being woven, two different patterns that never touched each other, but that inevitably came closer and closer to finally merge and make one bigger, better, brighter pattern. He could only hope they’d never separate again.

They both jumped as the alarm on his phone suddenly went off.

“Time to get up”, she said regretfully as he pushed a button. “I’m going to take a shower. Check to see if the coast is clear?”

They got out of bed and he stuck his head out the door, making sure there was nobody else in the hallway before gesturing for her to go. She pressed a quick kiss to his lips, then slipped out. He wished with all his might that he could shower with her, but the risk of bumping into someone on their way out of the bathroom was just too big. He let himself fall back into bed and buried his face in her pillow to see if it smelled like her. It did, and he breathed in deeply, feeling like his head and chest were filled with champagne bubbles. He would sleep next to her again tonight, and tomorrow, and the night after that… what a glorious thought. The only difficulty now, he reflected, would be to keep their relationship hidden from the others. The day suddenly seemed very long to him – an eternity in which he would have to keep his hands off of her before she would be in his arms again tonight. For a moment, he was very tempted to order the team to studying for another day so he could take her to the back-up location again… but then he shook his head. He had to be strong now. He was sure he could resist her for a day. After all, he’d be thinking about other things while he was teaching. He hummed softly as he got out of bed and started selecting his clothes for the day. Really, how hard could it be?

 

Chapter Text

 

It promised to be a hot day. Sergio looked up from the breakfast table to see Raquel coming down the stairs wearing a light summer dress instead of her usual pants and shirt, and his breath caught in his throat. She looked so lovely. He couldn’t stop looking at her legs as she walked towards the table, and when she sat down, he noticed how her hair fell over her bare shoulders, making him remember that he’d been kissing those shoulders only an hour ago. He could still feel her soft skin against his lips, her gentle curves under his hands. She caught his eye across the table and winked, which made him feel rather hot around the collar. Oh, he wanted to take her straight back upstairs, take off that dress and… the thought of it made him stir, and he quickly returned his attention to the food on his plate, feeling himself go red. Why did she have such an effect on him?

After breakfast, they all trailed up into the classroom, which was already getting rather warm, and settled behind their desks, Raquel taking her regular seat behind the others at the back of the class. Sergio took up position at the front of the room and, as always, he took his phone out of his pocket and placed it on the desk in front of him. Then he turned to the blackboard and started mapping out the key points of the next part of the plan, feeling himself slip back into that calm, focused state of absolute confidence that he always experienced when teaching. It was a relief after the insecurities he’d felt for the past few days, constantly wondering if he was doing things wrong, if he was going to mess up somehow, uncomfortable and unexperienced as he was with relationships. He felt none of that now – only the cool certainty that he knew perfectly well what he was doing. In this room, for a few hours every day, he could leave Sergio at the door and just be the Professor.

He turned around to face the team and started explaining the next stage of the plan to them. They listened to him attentively – all except Raquel, who had taken out her phone and was typing something. His eyes were suddenly drawn downwards as the phone on his desk lit up and a text message appeared on the screen:

<<You’re very sexy when you teach ;)>>

He momentarily lost track of what he was saying, stumbling over his words as his eyes automatically sought her out and she winked. Then he cleared his throat and pointedly looked away from her, picking up his sentence again where he’d trailed off. From the corner of his eye, however, he noticed her take up her phone again, and when his screen lit up a second time, he couldn’t resist the temptation to flash a quick look at it.

<<I think I might need some private tutoring later>>

He glanced up at her again and she raised a suggestive eyebrow. He really couldn’t allow this.

“Lisbon”, he said sternly. “Put your phone away and pay attention.”

Everyone turned to look at Raquel, who quickly put her phone down.

“I’m sorry”, she said.

He nodded and pointed at the blackboard.

“Point three…”

To his consternation, his phone lit up again.

<<Ooh, very firm, I like it!>>

He had great trouble suppressing a grin. When he looked up, she blew him a kiss, and he stumbled over his words again. He decided that teaching wasn’t going to work this way.

“Alright”, he said. “Enough new information for this morning. You spent all of yesterday studying part four of the plan, and I’d like to see how much you’ve learned.”

He started handing out blank pieces of paper.

“Reproduce the twelve points of part four. Anyone who misses a point will spend tonight studying again.”

They all groaned and sighed, but bent over their papers and started writing. When he handed Raquel her paper, he shook his head at her, but she merely grinned.

He returned to the front of the room, only to see his phone light up again.

<<You’re a very good teacher>>

This time, he texted back.

<<You’re a terrible student.>>

She responded immediately.

<<I can’t help it. You distract me too much.>>

He snorted.

<<That’s no excuse. Now write down part four.>>

<<I can’t focus>>

<<You’re going to fail the test.>>

<<It’s okay, I’m sleeping with the teacher ;)>>

He suppressed a smile.

<<Do you think that will get you special treatment?>>

<<I’m sure we can make some sort of arrangement for a passing grade>>

He swallowed.

<<What kind of arrangement?>>

<<Feel free to be creative ;)>>

<<I cannot be bribed. All twelve points of part four, now.>>

<<Or what?>>

<<Or I’ll put you to studying tonight.>>

<<Are you sure you want to do that?>>

He steeled himself.

<<Yes.>>

<<I can think of more enjoyable things we could be doing tonight…>>

<<The evening is long. You can study first.>>

<<Alright. But I think I’d be too tired to do anything afterwards>>

<<You’re resorting to blackmail?>>

<<I sure am. Is it working?>>

<<No.>>

He hesitated, then followed up with:

<<Maybe.>>

He looked up to see her flash him a delighted grin, then she readjusted a strap of her dress which had fallen off her shoulder. He bit his lip.

<<You look amazing in that dress.>>

<<Thank you>>

<<But I’m sure you’ll look even more amazing out of it.>>

<<Oh! Am I reading this right? Are you actually flirting with me??>>

<<I would never flirt during a class.>>

<<Then what was that last message?>>

<<A statement of fact.>>

She smiled, then considered him for a moment before returning to her phone.

<<You must be hot in that suit. Take off your jacket>>

He raised his eyebrows at her, and she gave him a challenging look. He slowly put down his phone and shrugged out of his jacket, draping it over the back of his desk chair.

<<Much better. Now roll up your sleeves>>

He did as she asked, and got another text.

<<Very nice. Now take off your tie>>

That’s where he drew the line, however.

<<No.>>

<<Please?>>

<<No.>>

<<It’s 30 degrees, nobody will think it weird if you take off your tie or even… dare I suggest it… open a button of your collar>>

<<My tie stays on.>>

<<Why do you even wear a tie in the first place?>>

<<I don’t feel properly dressed without it.>>

<<I’d like to see you improperly dressed, though :)>>

<<Not going to happen.>>

<<What’s stopping you?>>

<<My dignity. What do you have against my tie anyway?>>

<<It’s one more thing I have to take off>>

He suppressed a smile.

<<Taking it off takes about ten seconds.>>

<<That’s ten more seconds I’ll have to wait tonight>>

<<Patience is a virtue.>>

<<I’m more into sin these days ;)>>

This time he couldn’t suppress a grin.

<<You’re a bad influence.>>

<<Not bad enough, apparently, since I can’t even make you take off your tie>>

<<How about we compromise?>>

<<I’m listening!>>

He looked straight at her, then loosened his tie a little and opened the top button of his shirt. Her eyes were shining as she bent back over her phone.

<<Very, very sexy>>

<<Now you do something for me.>>

She looked up at him in surprise.

<<What?>>

<<WRITE DOWN THE TWELVE POINTS OF PART FOUR.>>

She stifled a laugh behind her hand, then picked up her pen and started writing.

She sat down next to him at lunch, outside in the shadow of a tree.

“That was an interesting class.”

“You’re a nuisance”, he grumbled under his breath.

She gave him an amused look. “I’m sorry.”

“No you’re not.”

“No, I’m not.”

“What happened to you? You used to be such a dedicated student.”

“I found more interesting things to focus on.”

Moscow and Oslo now sat down on either side of them, so they fell silent. Under the table, however, she bumped her knee against his, immediately attuning his body to hers again. He couldn’t help glancing down at her bare legs under the table, and when she brushed her hair back, exposing the soft skin of her neck, suddenly all he could think about was kissing it. The sunlight through the leaves was throwing dappled shadows over her bare shoulders, and her dress revealed rather more cleavage than she usually showed, which made him imagine running his tongue…

“What are we doing this afternoon?” she asked, snapping him back to reality.

“More class. Why?”

“Oh, it’s just that it’s been weeks since we last practiced negotiations.”

She leaned past him to grab the salt, and he was caught off guard by her sudden nearness, by the warm smell of her skin. He needed a moment to refocus.

“Well, we really do need…”

He trailed off as, under the table, she ran her hand up his thigh, sending a wave of longing through him and making his mind go fuzzy.

“You were saying?” she prompted him innocently.

He shook his head to clear it. “We really do need to get through the next part of the plan.”

“Too bad”, she said lightly, turning to her food. “I was in the mood for a thorough session of hard negotiations.”

He stared at her for a moment, then cleared his throat and turned to the team. “It’s too hot for classes today. You all get the afternoon off.”

They all cheered, and immediately started making plans for going into the village for ice cream. He did notice, however, that Nairobi shot him a rather knowing look, so he quickly bent over his plate and started eating.

After lunch, the rest of the group stayed outside, while he and Raquel headed back in and up the stairs to the classroom. The moment he closed and locked the door, she grabbed his shirt and pushed him up against it, kissing him fiercely. As he kissed her back, however, he became aware that something was shifting inside of him. The room was having its usual effect on him, making Sergio disappear, causing the Professor to emerge. In this room, he was in charge. In this room, he knew what to do and what he wanted. And he knew exactly what he wanted.

He wrapped his arms around her waist and turned her around to push her hard against the door, pressing his body against hers. She let out an ‘oh!’ of surprise, but then wrapped her arms around his neck in delight, responding enthusiastically to his kisses. His hands were all over her – he wanted to touch her everywhere at once, one hand disappearing under her dress to run up her thigh, the other cupping a breast. When he felt her nipple harden, he squeezed it, hard, and she moaned against his lips. He put his hand over her mouth for a moment to remind her to be quiet, and she bit the inside of his palm, which sent such a stab of arousal through him that he almost took her right up against the door.

Instead he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off the ground, making her gasp and clutch at him, but then she relaxed and kissed him as he carried her to the desk. He sat her down on it, still kissing her, then pushed her knees apart so he could stand between her legs. He twined his fingers into her hair and tugged sharply to tilt her head back so he could kiss her neck. She sighed, her own fingers churning in his hair as she surrendered to him, leaning back as he trailed kisses down her chest, then nipped at her nipples with his teeth through the fabric of her dress. When she moaned softly, he suddenly couldn’t wait any longer. He pushed her down onto the desk with a firm hand, then let his hands disappear under the skirt of her dress to find her underwear.

“Lift your hips”, he ordered her, and when she obeyed him, he pulled off her panties and threw them aside.

He grabbed her hips and roughly pulled her closer to the edge of the desk, then he pushed up her skirt and dipped a hand between her legs to check if she was ready, groaning at how wet she was. He had to have her, now. It was a relief when he could unbutton his pants and draw himself out, and he pushed inside her with one, deep thrust, which made her gasp loudly and clutch at the edges of the desk. He took hold of her hips and started taking her hard. She looked so sexy sprawled below him on the desk, her hair fanning out around her head, her chest flushed, her lips parted, and he kept his eyes on her face as he pushed into her again and again. She felt so good around him – too good – he couldn’t stand it – he didn’t want it to be over yet. Just in time, he drew back and stood for a moment, leaning on the desk, panting, waiting for the feeling to recede. She opened her eyes and started to sit up, but he stopped her with a look.

“Stay down”, he said. “I want to look at you.”

Her eyes were shining as she lay back down. “Alright. Whatever you say, Professor.”

When he felt that he’d re-established his grip on himself, he entered her again, setting a slower pace this time, but taking her deeply with every thrust. She closed her eyes, moaned, and lifted her knees to take him in even deeper. He reveled in the feeling as he disappeared inside her again and again, gradually picking up the pace again as the tension inside him built until it was almost unbearable. Then she started moaning his name and he lost all restraint. He pressed into her a few more times, hard, as wave after wave of pleasure swept through him, making him gasp and shake. Finally, he stopped, leaning heavily on the desk, completely out of breath.

“Oh”, he heard her sigh. “Oh, that was so good.”

She sat up and kissed him, running her fingers through his hair. “I like this side of you.”

He suddenly felt a little alarmed at his own behavior. “Not… not too rough?”

“Not at all”, she smiled. “I loved it.”

He buttoned up his pants again and she patted the wood of the desk, still smiling.

“You know, the last time I was on this desk was in very different circumstances. Do you remember that anatomy lesson?”

“Vividly. Do you still know where the different arteries are?”

“You know”, she said, her eyes sparkling. “I’m not sure I do. Maybe you should remind me.”

He immediately felt his confidence return. “Get up.”

She hopped off the desk and he came to stand behind her, brushing his lips over her bare shoulder as he slowly unzipped her dress, then slipped the straps off her shoulders so it pooled at her feet. He quickly unhooked her bra and took that off, too.

“Now lie back down.”

She did as he asked, her eyes shining, and he bit his lip as he looked down at her. Having her completely naked in this room, on his desk, felt thrilling and just wrong enough to make it incredibly hot. He wished he could take her all over again, but it was much too soon, so he merely let his eyes roam over her until she was trembling with anticipation. Then he placed his fingers on the side of her neck and slowly traced a line downwards, making her shiver.

“External jugular”, he murmured, then delicately ran his fingers down her throat. “Internal jugular.”

He traced her collarbones. “Subclavian.”

Then he let his fingers drift down her chest, to draw a line between her breasts, making her nipples harden again. “Pulmonary artery.”

He remembered how uncomfortable this had made him the last time he did it, and marveled at how at ease he now felt with her body. Last time, he had used a marker and had wondered the entire time how her skin would feel under his hands, so now he derived extra enjoyment from being able to touch her. She was softer than he could ever have imagined back then.

By the time his fingers reached her stomach, she was covered in goosebumps, even though the room was very warm.

“Gastric artery. Renal arteries, left and right.”

His fingers were now at the bottom of her stomach. “Iliac artery.”

He moved down to stand between her legs. “You know, there’s one artery I didn’t show you last time.”

“Which one is that?” she smiled.

He got down on his knees and pressed a kiss to the inside of her thigh.

“The femoral artery. It runs from the knee all the way up…” he moved his lips along the sensitive skin of her thigh, and she sighed and opened her legs a little wider to allow him better access. He pressed his mouth against her, focusing immediately on her most sensitive spot, and she gasped as his tongue found it. He wasn’t playing around – he wanted to hear her moan. By now, he had a sense of what she liked and where, so he struck up a steady rhythm, knowing he was on the right track when she tilted her hips to increase the pressure. To his delight, a soft ‘oh!’ was escaping from her lips with every breath, so he kept going. It didn’t take long at all before her breathing quickened, and he picked up the pace a little until she suddenly tensed and arched her back, gasping, then she moaned as the delicious sensation rushed through her, making her tremble and shake. He kept going until she pushed against his head, then he eased off gradually and stopped.

He got up, wincing a little at the pain in his knees, but it was totally worth it to see her like this: her eyes closed, her hair tousled, her face flushed, breathing fast. He sat down next to her on the edge of the desk and stroked her stomach while she recovered. Finally she opened her eyes and sat up to kiss him with a satisfied expression.

“That was an interesting learning experience”, she smiled.

“Will you remember the arteries now?”

“I don’t know”, she whispered. “I’m afraid I’m a slow learner. You may have to show me a few more times.”

He grinned. “With pleasure.”

She got dressed again and they decided they might as well negotiate for a while, since it was still early in the afternoon. She twisted her hair up and stuck a pencil through it, and  they started running through every different ‘what if’ scenario they could envision for the heist, going through each of the scenarios multiple times with slightly different wording. It went well until they reached a scenario in which one of their team got wounded and he had to bargain for a doctor. He frowned.

“You’re not giving the answers you should be giving.”

“Yes I am.”

“No”, he said, pulling out the standard police negotiator script that he’d memorized back to front. “Look, section 17.8 says…”

“What version are you using?” she interrupted him.

He checked. “Version 6a.”

“They updated section 17.8 only a few months ago”, she informed him. “Right before I was fired.”

He cursed. “I thought I had the most recent version. Was anything else changed?”

“No, just that section. I remember most of it, I’ll write down the changes for you.”

“Thank you”, he said, and they moved on to a different scenario.

Before they knew it, two hours had passed and they decided to take a break, so she pulled the pencil out of her hair and it cascaded back down over her shoulders. As she went down to get them some water, he let his mind drift back to the morning’s class, and the texts she’d sent him. When she came back, he had a question for her.

“So you think I’m sexy when I teach?”

“Yes”, she smiled. “Very.”

“Why?”

“You’re confident, you’re knowledgeable, you’re in control of the situation. Don’t you think teachers are sexy?”

“I’m not sure”, he frowned.

“Didn’t you ever have a crush on a teacher when you were young?”

“I never really had the chance”, he said. “I was in hospital so often, I missed a lot of school.”

“Well, take it from me, then”, she said. “Teachers can be very hot.”

He considered this for a moment, then smiled. “Show me.”

“What?”

“Show me. Teach me something.”

She grinned. “Like what?”

“How about section 17.8?”

“Okay”, she said, getting up.

He got up too, and she pushed him down behind one of the desks. He smiled broadly as she twisted her hair back up and stuck the pencil through it again. Then she turned to him with a business-like expression on her face.

“Now”, she said firmly. “Section 17.8.”

He nodded, watching her intently. As she started talking, he had to admit that it had an appeal. She was an engaging speaker, and she laid out the different points clearly and succinctly, which he appreciated. Then she started pointing out flaws in the structure, ways to exploit the system, impressing him once again with her perception and keen insights, sparking a warm glow of admiration in his chest. She was so amazing. He liked her so much. He lost track of what she was saying as he lost himself in appreciation of the intelligence in her dark eyes, the graceful movements of her hands as she talked, her quiet strength. She was incredible, and he couldn’t believe his own luck that he’d found her. She had everything he could possibly want – she was smart, strong, kind and spirited, and on top of that she was beautiful – so beautiful.

He cast an admiring gaze over her, taking in the graceful lines of her back as she wrote on the blackboard, and the way she held herself, radiating competence and self-possession. She was right: this was almost unbearably sexy. He could watch her all day and never get tired of her. His eyes drifted to her cleavage, the curves of her hips, her bare legs… and he noticed that his body had recovered enough to start responding to her again.

She suddenly turned to him.

“So those are the first points. Do you see?”

“Yes”, he said thoughtfully. “I think I see it now.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You weren’t paying attention, were you?”

“On the contrary, I was paying very close attention.”

She laughed as she came closer to him. “Not to the right things, though.”

“Oh”, he said, stretching out a hand to slide it over her hip, “to all the right things.”

She pushed his hand away, amused. “I’m not done yet.”

“Take pity on me”, he murmured, taking her wrist and pulling her into his lap. “I can’t focus anymore.”

“I see”, she said, her eyes sparkling. “Perhaps you would prefer a more… hands-on approach?”

“That does sound intriguing”, he said, one hand sliding down her back, the other up her thigh. “How would that work?”

“I talk, but I will try harder to keep you engaged.”

“How?”

She got up and took off her panties. He raised his eyebrows.

“You have my full attention.”

“Good”, she smiled.

She sat astride his lap and ran her hands through his hair.

“Change four to the script”, she said, then proceeded to explain it as she trailed her fingers down his neck and over his shoulders, making him sigh. “Are you following me?”

“Yes”, he assured her. “Completely. Go on.”

As she continued talking, she ran her hands down his chest and stomach, then unbuttoned his pants. He groaned softly as she drew him out.

“Now the next point is very important”, she said as she lifted her hips. “It may require some deep thought.”

“I will give it my full consideration”, he whispered, then gasped as she sank down on him. He closed his eyes at how good it felt, but he opened them again as she tapped his cheek.

“Are you still with me?” she teased him.

“Utterly”, he said, his voice a little hoarse. “Please don’t stop.”

She kept talking as she started moving her hips, and for a moment he was fully consumed by the sensations, unable to absorb even a single word she was saying, but then the first intensity of it passed and he was able to breathe again. He established a tight rein on himself, placed his hand on her back and pressed her closer to him so he could kiss her neck.

“What are you doing?” she asked sharply.

“Don’t worry”, he murmured against her skin, “I’m still listening. Do go on. Unless… I’m distracting you?”

“Not at all”, she said with dignity, but as she continued her voice hitched a little as he kept kissing her neck.

Then he leaned back a little to create some space, and slipped a hand between them, searching among the fabric of her pulled-up skirt until he found the sensitive spot between her legs. She gasped as he started drawing circles around it with his thumb.

“Problem?” he asked her quietly.

“No”, she said, breathing rather fast, her voice strained, but unwilling to admit defeat. “What you need to realize about point five is that… oh… no matter what you say… you… you’re still… oh god…”

He smiled in satisfaction as she closed her eyes and moaned. “Anything else you want to teach me?”

“I think you’ve got it”, she whispered, then her fingers gripped his shirt and she gasped as he bucked his hips to take her deeper. He was moving his thumb up and down now, and she was rendered speechless, her breathing fast and uneven, and the pencil dropped out of her hair so it fell to frame her face in the most lovely way. A minute later, she arched her back and threw her head back with a soft cry, shuddering through her release. After several long moments, she relaxed against him, panting, leaning her forehead against his shoulder as he gently stroked her back. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him as she started moving again, and he finally allowed himself to get lost in the feeling. Her lips on his, his hand in her hair, her fingers stroking the back of his neck while she moved up and down on him, taking him in fully with every stroke, so warm and wonderful and oh. The sheer, bright joy of holding her close. Suddenly she stopped kissing him and bit his earlobe, and that sent him straight over the edge with a gasp. His arm tightened around her waist as the feeling shook him, and he whispered her name over and over and over again.

They held each other tight for several breathless minutes, then he took her face between his hands and kissed her.

“Well”, he said, “You’ve certainly proven your point: teachers are very sexy.”

“How did I do?” she smiled.

“Best class of my life”, he said. “Hands down. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”

“So I’m a good teacher?”

“You’re an excellent teacher”, he said, then he smiled and added: “Profesora.”

She gave him a delighted grin. “Oh! I like the sound of that.”

He was in such a good mood over dinner that he didn’t even feel embarrassed when Nairobi winked at him knowingly. He just smiled at her and kept eating, his knee touching Raquel’s under the table. Later, in bed, when she had fallen asleep with her head in the hollow of his shoulder and his arm around her, he lay looking up at the ceiling and processed the events of the day. He’d failed spectacularly at keeping to his morning resolution to keep his hands off her during the day, but he really couldn’t care. The iron self-discipline that he’d cultivated so carefully throughout the years simply crumbled when she was near him – one after the other, she broke through all of his restraints, all of his self-imposed rules and restrictions. If he’d known beforehand that she would have that effect on him, it would have scared him so much that he’d never have recruited her. Yet now that it was happening, he couldn’t regret it at all.

He kept waiting to feel guilty about canceling class that afternoon, but the feeling wasn’t manifesting – not even a little bit. The truth was that he wasn’t sorry at all. He would never be sorry about time he spent with her. He tightened his arm around her and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead, thinking back on what he’d said to her, that she was an amazing teacher. It was true. She probably didn’t realize it, but she was teaching him so much. She was opening his eyes to things he’d been blind to for so long, showing him new vistas, new points of view. Every day with her was a revelation. It might take him a long time to learn everything he needed to know, but he knew he would get it right in the end. Slowly but surely, he was learning what it meant to be close to another person instead of pushing them away, what it meant to truly connect. To care. To commit. To love. And like all the best teachers, she made it seem so easy.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Over the next week, they settled into a new routine. Sergio managed to refocus on the preparations for the heist, pushing the team in classes each day so by the end of the week they were caught up on the material again. He and Raquel fell back into their old habit of discussing the plan more in-depth after every class, and during the evenings, she could often be found studying his notes. After having distracted him for a while, he now found that she stimulated him to really engage with the plan again, and talking over the details with her renewed his enthusiasm for the heist. Her knowledge of the plan was starting to rival his own, and it was a great source of comfort to him to know that she would be able to take over from him whenever he needed to leave the control room for a while. He no longer felt like he was leading this operation alone. They were a team now, she and him, and together they would be unstoppable.

They slept together every night, and Sergio still woke up every morning with a sense of wonder that she was in his arms. He loved their conversations before bed, loved that his sheets now smelled of her, loved her sleepy smiles in the morning. He especially loved making love to her, hot and urgent in the evenings after a long day of not touching each other, or slow and sweet in the mornings. His days were enlivened by her winks in class and her casual touches during mealtimes, and his nights were filled with kisses and warmth. Everything was so different now they were together – so much lovelier, so much brighter, so much better overall. There was a sharp distinction in his mind between Life Before Raquel and Life With Raquel, and these were entirely separate things. Thinking back on his life before her was like watching a black-and-white movie, whereas he now felt like he was surrounded by vivid color. Every time she touched him, he felt brilliantly, intensely alive.

One bright morning she turned to him while they were dressing.

“Someone needs to go grocery shopping today after class.”

“Yes”, he said. “You’re right. I think it’s the turn of the Serbians.”

“I want to go.”

“No”, he protested, “we agreed from the start that you and Tokyo wouldn’t leave the grounds, you’re both fugitives.”

“Sergio”, she said in a pleading tone, “I have to get out of the house, I’m going mad.”

“Someone might recognize you.”

“I’ll wear a hat and sunglasses.”

“It’s too dangerous, Raquel!”

“It’s been months since my face was last on the news, I’m sure people won’t recognize me anymore. Please.”

He hesitated. “Alright, but don’t go to the nearest village. If someone tips off the police that they saw you, they’re less likely to trace you back here.”

She perked up. “Excellent! I’m in the mood for a nice drive.”

They had a productive day of classes, but Sergio remained nervous about letting her go out. Finally he walked her to the car and said:

“Let me come with you.”

“You said you wanted to go over your notes for tomorrow’s class.”

“I can do that later tonight.”

She smiled and raised a suggestive eyebrow. “I’d rather do other things later tonight.”

He grinned. “That’s a strong argument.”

“You stay here and go over your notes. I’ll be back in an hour.”

She looked around, then gave him a quick kiss. He watched her drive away with an uneasy feeling in his stomach.

Two hours later, he came down from the classroom and walked outside to where the others were sitting gathered around the table.

“Isn’t Lisbon back yet?”

They all shook their heads and continued talking. He frowned. He knew he’d told her not to go to the nearest village, but he didn’t think she’d drive that far. He sat down next to his brother and tried to join in the conversation, but he couldn’t focus, throwing looks down the driveway every few seconds. After half an hour, he decided to call her. It went straight to voicemail.

“What’s wrong?” Berlin asked him.

“She turned off her phone”, he said. “Why would she turn off her phone?”

“Maybe the button got pushed accidentally.”

“Maybe”, he said, shifting nervously in his chair.

“She’ll be back soon”, his brother soothed him. “Don’t worry so much.”

Moscow and Denver made dinner with the last of last week’s groceries, but Sergio couldn’t eat. He kept checking his watch. Now she’d been gone for three hours, now three and a half. Every ten minutes, he tried calling her, but the result was always the same. Finally, after she’d been gone for four hours, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He got up and went into the house, and his brother followed him.

“Something happened to her”, he said desperately once they were inside.

“You don’t know that”, Berlin said reasonably.

“What if she got caught?”

“That’s very unlikely.”

“But not impossible!”

He was pacing up and down, his heart beating frantically. In his mind’s eye, he saw her in handcuffs, behind bars.

“I need to get to the police station in Toledo. That’s where they’d take her.”

“How are you going to get there?” his brother frowned. “She took our only car.”

He felt himself spiral into panic. He needed to find her, he needed to help her. “Oh god, Andrés, why did I let her go? She was safe here, why did I let her put herself at risk?”

“You said she wanted to go out.”

“But I could have stopped her! I could have said no!”

“Sergio, calm down. Remember last time when she didn’t return from her walk?”

“Yes.”

“You were so worried, and in the end it turned out that she just sprained her ankle. I’m sure this is something similar. Maybe she decided to go into town to do some shopping.”

“But why hasn’t she called me, Andrés? Why is her phone turned off?”

Before his brother could answer, Tokyo came in, followed by the others.

“Professor, where is Lisbon?”

He took a deep breath to calm himself down.

“You know where she is”, he said evasively. “Grocery shopping.”

“For four hours?” Tokyo said suspiciously.

“I told her not to go to the nearest village.”

“Still”, Nairobi said. “She should be back by now. She missed dinner, and she knows at what time that is.”

“Have you tried calling her?” Moscow asked.

“Yes”, Sergio said, trying not to let his worry show. “Her phone goes straight to voicemail.”

The others exchanged looks.

“I thought we’d agreed that Tokyo and Lisbon wouldn’t do the shopping?” Moscow said. “Why did you let her go?”

“She really wanted to get out of the house”, Sergio explained.

“And why do you think that is?” Helsinki asked.

Sergio frowned. “Are you going somewhere with this?”

“Well…” Rio said. “It’s just… this is the first time she’s been off the grounds on her own, and she hasn’t come back…”

“What are you implying?”

“Oh for god’s sake!” Tokyo interrupted. “Isn’t it obvious? She’s jumped ship, Professor! She’s gone to rat us out to her police pals!”

“We don’t know that”, Nairobi interjected. “I told you all you aren’t being fair to her.”

Sergio was staring at Tokyo. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it?” Tokyo said. “Then why isn’t she back yet? Why isn’t she answering her phone?”

He shook his head. “No, Tokyo, that doesn’t make sense. Why would she betray us now, after all these months? If she was going to betray us, she would have done it long ago, after learning what we were planning to do. She could easily have stolen the car and driven off at night. Why stay for all of these months if she was planning to double-cross us from the start?”

“Maybe she wasn’t planning it from the start”, Rio said quietly. “Maybe she’s lost faith in the plan.”

“The plan is beyond question”, Berlin said firmly.

“Then maybe she stayed to gather more information”, Denver said.

“Yes!” Tokyo agreed. “Delivering the full plan to the police might reduce her sentence more than if she just told them the general idea of what we were planning.”

“It still doesn’t make any sense”, Sergio said stubbornly. “Why now?”

“Did anything particular happen over the last few days?” Moscow asked.

“Yes”, Tokyo said. “Did you reveal any crucial information to her in one of your cozy discussion sessions after class? Did you give her any notes about an essential part of the plan?”

Sergio felt himself go pale as his mind went back to the conversation they had had in his room only last night.

“I’ve been wondering”, Raquel said, lying on her stomach on his bed, studying his notes. “Where is everyone going after the heist?”

“I’ve arranged for them to go to different locations across the world.”

“I know, but where?”

“Indonesia, Argentina, the Philippines, countries like that.”

She nodded, and he considered her for a moment, then walked over to the spare bed and kneeled down to pull a small safe from underneath it.

“What’s in there?” she asked.

“Information”, he said. “A file on each of you, containing your real names and your fake passports, and detailed instructions on where to go and what to do after the heist.”

He hesitated for a moment, then said: “The code is 5-3-8-7.”

She looked up, startled. “You’re giving me the code?”

“Yes. Just in case. If something happens to me, I want you to make sure that everybody gets their file, so they can get to safety.”

She nodded solemnly. “I’ll take care of it. Repeat the code to me?”

“5-3-8-7.”

She repeated it a few times. “I think I’ve got it.”

“I’m going to take a shower”, he said. “And then let’s go to bed.”

“Sergio”, she said as he was almost at the door. “I just realized… I don’t know your last name.”

He turned around and smiled. “You’re right. It’s Marquina. Sergio Marquina.”

He felt a little dizzy. He’d left her alone with the safe right after that. She could easily have opened it and read the files. She could easily have taken them, even. All of their names and their escape plans, presented neatly to the police… wouldn’t that make for a nice bargaining chip to reduce her sentence? It might even be enough to dismiss her charges altogether, especially if her information led to them being captured. She could walk away from this a free woman.

The others were all staring at him.

Well?!” Tokyo prompted him. “Did you give her any sensitive information?”

He pulled himself together. “It doesn’t matter. I have a good reason to trust her.”

“What is it?” Denver asked.

“I… I can’t tell you that.”

“You expect us to just take your word for it that she’s trustworthy?” Tokyo scoffed.

His brother put a hand on his shoulder. “I think it’s time to tell them.”

“Tell us what?” Tokyo asked suspiciously.

He frowned at his brother. “Really?”

Berlin nodded. “It’s the reason you trust her. They deserve to know.”

He looked at Nairobi, who nodded. “Yes, tell them Professor.”

“Tell us what?” Tokyo insisted.

Sergio took a deep breath. “Lisbon and I… are in a relationship.”

A stunned silence fell. Everybody stared at him.

“I trust her completely”, he said quietly.

“I thought there weren’t supposed to be any personal relationships within the team”, Moscow said sharply.

“I know”, Sergio nodded. “This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did.”

“How long?” Helsinki asked.

“We’ve been together for two weeks”, Sergio said.

“And that’s why you trust her?” Rio said.

“Yes.”

They all looked at him in disbelief.

“What?” he said defensively.

“Jesus, Professor!” Tokyo burst out. “We were under the impression that you were a smart guy, but apparently we were wrong!”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been sleeping with her?” Tokyo asked.

“That’s none of your business”, he said coldly.

“Actually, it is”, Rio said.

“Why?”

“Are you an idiot?” Tokyo yelled at him. “She’s been trying to get close to you from the start! Obviously she’s been sleeping with you to get information out of you!”

Sergio felt like she’d hit him across the face. His mind was reeling.

“No”, he whispered. “No.”

Did you give her any?” Tokyo demanded. “Did you give her any sensitive information?”

He swallowed hard. “Yes.”

“When?”

“Yesterday.”

“Oh, fuck you, Professor!” Tokyo shouted. “And now she’s gone? She played you!”

He looked around. “Do you all believe that?”

Moscow averted his eyes. Rio and Denver shook their heads at him. The Serbians scowled. He shot a pleading look at his brother, who hesitated, then shrugged. Nairobi, however, stepped forward.

“Don’t believe them, Profe! I’ve seen the way she looks at you, even when you’re not looking. I don’t believe she left to betray us.”

“Are you willing to bet your life on that?” Tokyo snapped. “If she’s gone to the police, they could be on our doorstep any minute! I say we don’t risk it – let’s pack up and get the hell out of here before the cops show up!”

They all started talking at once. Some of them agreed with Tokyo, others argued that they should wait another hour. Nairobi staunchly kept defending Raquel. Sergio didn’t say anything. He felt numb. She’s been trying to get close to you from the start. He remembered her coming over to talk to him during break times, sitting down next to him for every meal. She played you! Had it all been a lie? Every smile, every touch, every kiss? Had she not meant any of it? I just realized that I don’t know your last name. Had he been blinded by his feelings for her? Had she recognized those feelings and exploited them? 5-3-8-7. No, he told himself. No, this was real. He knew her. He trusted her. She wouldn’t leave him, wouldn’t betray him. She wouldn’t. She wouldn’t… Would she?

Before he could make up his mind, the front door opened and Raquel walked in, exhausted. She looked at them in surprise.

“What’s going on?”

Tokyo walked right up to her. “Are you alone?”

“What?” she said, confused. “Of course I’m alone.”

“Then where the fuck have you been?”

“The stupid car broke down”, she said defensively. “I was only halfway back from the village, I had to walk for miles.”

“Why didn’t you call us?” Nairobi asked.

“My phone battery died. I use that phone so rarely that I always forget to charge it.”

Sergio felt dizzy with relief at the sight of her. She was back. She was back, she was here, she hadn’t left him. He wanted to cry. She hadn’t left him.

Raquel was still looking confused. “Where did you think I was?”

Sergio realized with a stab of panic that they couldn’t let her know. He opened his mouth to intervene, but of course Tokyo wasn’t kind enough to keep her mouth shut.

“We thought you’d gone to rat us out to the cops”, she said acidly.

What?” Raquel shouted. “What the fuck? After all these months?”

She turned to Sergio. “Can you believe this?”

By now he was feeling horribly, horribly guilty for not trusting her, even for a moment. He felt himself turn red and he knew his guilt was clearly visible on his face.

She looked at him and he saw the comprehension dawn in her eyes.

“You did”, she whispered, stunned. “You believed her.”

“I… no… not really…”, he tried weakly, but he realized he was only making it worse.

She looked as if he’d slapped her. Then she turned and strode right past him to the stairs and up to her room. He watched her go, paralyzed, until Nairobi came up to him and punched him hard on the arm.

“Go after her!” she snapped. “Go apologize to her right now!”

As he hurried up the stairs, he heard Nairobi say to the others:

“Alright, let’s all go outside, people.”

He caught up with her at the door to her room.

 “Raquel!” he said. “Wait!”

She turned around, and he backed away quickly at the fury on her face.

What?” she snapped. “What could you possibly want to say to me?”

“I’m sorry”, he said quietly.

“You’re sorry?” she shouted. “You thought that I was a traitor but you’re sorry?”

“I didn’t really think that!” he tried to defend himself. “It was just… Tokyo said…”

“So you’re believing Tokyo over me?”

“No! Of course not!”

He could see that she was truly upset.

“I can’t believe you thought I’d betrayed you, Sergio! Didn’t the last two weeks mean anything to you?”

“They meant everything to me!” he said desperately. “Don’t you see?”

“No, I don’t! Why would I tell you that I was in love with you if I was planning to betray you all along? Why would I have kissed you? Why would I have slept with you?”

He felt himself turn red again as he gave her another guilty look. Her expression turned to horror.

“Tell me you didn’t think that”, she whispered.

“I’m so sorry”, he breathed, crushed. “Please try to understand. Don’t you see what it looked like? I’d given you the code to the safe only yesterday and now you were gone…”

He thought she’d been angry before, but it was nothing to how she was looking at him now.

“You thought I’d slept with you for information?” she yelled. “That’s what you think of me? That I’m a fucking whore?”

“No!” he said. “Of course not! But Tokyo implied that I’d been blinded by my feelings for you and for just one moment I thought… maybe she was right. It was just one moment, Raquel, I swear!”

“Well fuck you for thinking it, even for a moment!”

And she slammed the door in his face.

He was sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands when Nairobi found him.

“I fucked up, Nairobi”, he whispered hoarsely.

“Yes”, she said succinctly. “You did. Why did you doubt her, Profe? If I know how she feels about you, how come you didn’t?”

“Tokyo made some strong arguments”, he muttered.

“You know that shouldn’t have swayed you. What was the real reason?”

He looked up at her. “I’m terrible at reading people, Nairobi. And I’m a firm believer that emotions cloud one’s judgement. So it isn’t at all unlikely that someone could get close to me just to get information without me seeing it.”

“But I would have seen it”, she said firmly. “If you didn’t trust your own judgment, Profe, you should have trusted mine.”

“I know”, he said softly. “But it all went so fast, and I was so worried. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“That much is clear”, she said drily.

“She’ll never forgive me for this”, he said with quiet desperation. “I can’t believe I’m going to lose her over something like this.”

“You’re not going to lose her.”

“It feels like I already have.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. Go apologize to her again.”

“I kept knocking on her door for twenty minutes. She doesn’t want to talk to me.”

“That was an hour ago. By now she’s had a chance to calm down.”

He shuddered. “She was so angry.”

“And she had every right to be – her boyfriend is a jackass. But she won’t stay mad forever.”

He looked up hopefully. “Do you think so?”

“I do. Now go bring her some food and something to drink. The poor thing hasn’t eaten yet.”

She filled a plate with the leftovers from dinner and pushed it into his hands with a glass of water. Then she turned him by the shoulders and pushed him towards the door.

He slowly went up the stairs and knocked at her door.

“Go away”, she said from inside, but he heard that the fight had gone out of her voice.

“Please let me talk to you, Raquel”, he said quietly to the door. “Please.”

“I don’t have anything to say to you.”

“But I have things to say to you.”

Silence. He tried a different tack.

“I brought food.”

Silence for another few moments, then she said:

“What kind of food?”

“Salad, and bread and cheese.”

The door opened. He quickly held out the plate to her, and she took it without looking at him, then walked over to her desk and started eating hungrily. She left the door open.

“Can I… can I come in?”

She shrugged, and he took that as a yes. He walked in and closed the door behind himself, then stood awkwardly in the middle of the room as she ate. He noticed with a stab of guilt that she’d been crying.

She finished all the food on her plate and drank down the entire glass of water. Then she turned to him.

“Have I been a fool these past weeks?” she asked him quietly. “Have I misjudged the situation? Because I thought we were experiencing the same thing, but you never would have suspected me of such awful things if you felt what I feel.”

“But I do feel it, Raquel. I do.”

There were tears in her eyes. “Then how could you, Sergio? How could you?”

“I’m so sorry”, he whispered. He felt so guilty it was suffocating him.

The tears were spilling down her cheeks now. “Don’t you know how much you mean to me? I could never betray you!”

He felt close to crying, too. “It’s just so hard to believe, Raquel! When I really think about it, it seems too good to be true, you and me. For a moment I thought that it was. I shouldn’t have doubted you, not even for a second! It was just… just my own insecurities talking.”

He swallowed hard before he could continue. “You’ve brought so much joy into my life, Raquel. It baffled me. I never thought I was destined for… for this kind of happiness. So when it looked like it would all go away again, like it had all been a lie – well, for one dark, desperate moment, that seemed like the much more believable option. I never really doubted you – not really! I doubted myself.”

His throat was painfully tight now. “Please, please forgive me for being the world’s biggest fool. I would trust you with my life. I think I believed Tokyo so readily because it looked like my biggest fear was coming true: that you would leave me. That idea terrifies me. I’m not used to being so dependent on another person, and I don’t know how to deal with it. You… you know you are my first love.”

She looked up sharply. “You love me?”

He gave her a confused look. “Of course I do.”

“You never said it.”

“I thought you knew. How could I live with you for four months and not love you? Honestly, how anyone could live with you and not love you is beyond my comprehension.”

She gave him a soft look, then said quietly: “I love you too.”

A hot, bright fire kindled in his chest at her words. The next moment, though, she shot him a pained look.

“But that’s why this hurts so much. That you thought that I’d been lying to you all this time, that I’d betray you.”

“I know”, he said quietly. “I let Tokyo get inside my head, and there’s no excuse for that.”

A single tear was sliding down her cheek. “You don’t know how much you mean to me, Sergio. I was so lost, and then you found me. You’re my anchor, the one thing that keeps me steady in the storm that my life has become. If you lose faith in me…”

His heart was breaking. How could he have doubted her?

“I won’t”, he whispered. “I swear on my life that I’ll never doubt you again, Raquel. Never, never again.”

He tentatively opened his arms, and to his immense relief, she walked into them and hugged him.

“Do you really love me?” she whispered.

He wrapped his arms around her, held her tight, and simply said: “I do. I really do.”

They stood there for a long time, just holding each other, and he felt overcome by emotions. He was so relieved that she’d forgiven him, painfully aware of the fact that she could have chosen to break up with him instead and there would have been nothing he could do about that. He imagined it for a moment: not being able to talk to her anymore, no more laughter, no more hugs like this. What would it have been like to see her every day without being able to hold her? Sleeping without her. Living without her. It seemed like a physical impossibility. Instead, she told him that she loved him, and he felt an all-consuming gratitude and tenderness.

After a while, she lifted her face up to him and he pressed a soft kiss to her lips. Kissing her when he had thought that he might never kiss her again was an inexpressible joy to him. He deepened the kiss hungrily and she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back with equal enthusiasm. He felt an overwhelming need to touch her, and his hands were in her hair, on her back, in the back pockets of her jeans, as she pressed herself close to him and kissed him until he was breathless. Suddenly, just holding her wasn’t enough anymore – he wanted to be closer to her, as close as possible, and the way she looked at him told him she was thinking the same thing.

He started undressing her, desperate to feel her skin against his, to feel it against his lips, to run his hands over her body and convince himself that she was still here, she was still his. She seemed just as eager, pushing his jacket off his shoulders, unbuttoning his shirt with nimble fingers. Soon their clothes were off and they fell onto the bed together, naked, tangled. He ran his fingers over her skin in tender worship of her body, pressing kisses to her shoulders, her chest, her stomach. How familiar she had become to him in just a few weeks, how intimately he knew her. And oh, how he loved every part of her. His mouth sought out his favorite spots: the elegant curve of her neck, the delicate skin of her wrists, the infinite softness of her breasts. She gasped as he closed his lips over a nipple and sucked, tangling her fingers into his hair to keep him there for a while.

He had never known how much satisfaction it could bring him to be the cause of someone else’s pleasure, but now he would gladly dedicate his life to pleasing her. He wanted nothing more than to take her to a deserted island and spend entire days and nights kissing her, caressing her, making love to her. When this heist was over, he promised himself, he would do just that. For now, he moved down and settled himself between her legs to press kisses to the soft inside of her thighs. She sighed happily and opened herself to him, and he slowly inched his way upwards, drawing out the thrill of anticipation until she was trembling. Finally he pressed his mouth to her and she immediately tilted her hips with a soft moan. He started exploring her thoroughly, running his tongue up and down, enjoying the taste of her, delighted to hear her sigh. When he settled on the right spot, she gripped the sheets and started uttering soft little oh’s that drove him to distraction, and he kept up a steady rhythm in the way he knew worked best for her. Soon she was arching her back, her breathing fast and uneven. He picked up the pace just a little and it was enough – she gasped, tensed, then gave a soft cry as the feeling rushed through her, making her shake and call out his name.

He eased off gradually, making her shiver with the aftershocks, then he returned to kissing her thighs, more than ready to go again after she recovered. She reached down, however, and gently tugged at his hair.

“Come up”, she whispered. “I want you close to me.”

He obeyed her willingly, his desire for her surging immediately to the point where it became nearly unbearable. He carefully covered her body with his and looked into her eyes.

“Raquel”, he murmured, “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve you.”

She reached up a hand and pulled his head down to kiss him tenderly. He guided himself to her and entered her, the sensation of it exquisite – so warm, so soft. She sighed against his lips as he filled her completely, then he stopped and they remained like that for several long, blissful moments, holding each other tight, connecting, as close to oneness as they could get. When he finally started moving inside of her, he kept his body against hers, skin against skin, and she wrapped her legs around him to pull him in even deeper. He never wanted it to end, this closeness, this connection, this total intimacy with her. The way she was moving her hips, however, combined with her soft moans, were quickly driving him beyond endurance. Her fingers were stroking the back of his neck, sending the most delicious shivers down his spine, and he closed his eyes tight and groaned as the wave inside of him reached a peak and then crashed over him, flooding his brain and all of his senses and the entire world was reduced to this place, this feeling, this moment with her.

She held him close and stroked his hair as he recovered and caught his breath. After a while, he worried that he might be getting too heavy and he tried to roll away, but she made a plaintive sound and kept him on top of her.

“Don’t go yet”, she murmured. “I like to feel your weight on me.”

So he stayed where he was, in her arms, as he kissed her and kissed her and kissed her.

Finally, regretfully, she let him go and he fell onto his back so she could settle her head in the hollow of his shoulder, her arm draped across his chest. They dozed for a moment, content just to be together. Then she looked up at him.

“Say it again”, she whispered.

He smiled. “I love you.”

She kissed him, then drew back and gave him a careful look.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“I haven’t brought this up before because I didn’t want to freak you out, but… what happens after the heist?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said everybody’s going to different countries. What about us? Do you want me to come with you? I… I would bring my daughter and I don’t know if you want that. You don’t have to answer me right now”, she said hastily. “I know you probably haven’t thought about it yet.”

He got up. “Come with me.”

“Where?”

“I want to show you something.”

They got dressed and he took her to his room, where she sat down on his bed as he kneeled down next to the spare bed.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He pulled the safe from underneath the bed and entered the code. Then he took out a folder and handed it to her.

“What’s this?”

“My own file. Open it.”

She did so, and pulled out three passports. The first was his. The second, hers. The third was for her daughter. She looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Of course you’re coming with me, Raquel. I never even considered anything else. I can’t believe you thought I wouldn’t want that.”

“When did you merge our files?”

“Two weeks ago, the very second we got together. I was yours completely from the start.”

She gave him a radiant smile. “So where are we going?”

“The Philippines. Palawan, more specifically.”

He reached into the file and pulled out a postcard to show her.

“What do you think? Is that okay with you?”

She took the postcard from him and looked at it with shining eyes.

“Oh, it looks wonderful.”

He sat down next to her and took her hand. “After this is all over, I want nothing more than to start a life with you. If… if you want that too, of course.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and pushed him down onto the bed, kissing him fiercely.

“Is that a yes?” he laughed.

“Yes”, she smiled. “Yes, of course.”

They kissed again, then he settled himself on his back and she cuddled up to him. They were silent for a while, just enjoying each other’s company, and he stroked her shoulder as he became lost in thought. Finally he said:

“Raquel… when you didn’t return today, I thought something terrible had happened to you. I’m so glad you’re safe.”

“I was never in any danger.”

“I thought for a while that they’d caught you. I’m not sure I’d be able to rescue you a second time. I was afraid I’d lost you.”

She stroked his chest. “But I’m still here.”

His eyes had a faraway look. “It was such an awful feeling. I was beside myself when I thought I might never see you again.” He turned to her with an earnest expression. “I realized something today. I can’t live without you.”

“What are you talking about?” she said with a gentle smile. “You lived for forty years without me.”

“I wasn’t living”, he whispered. “I existed.”

She gave him the softest look, then put her hand against his cheek and kissed him. He kissed her back for several long minutes, then the thought of losing her became too much for him and he tightened his arms around her until she gasped, then laughed.

“I can’t breathe like this! Let me go!”

He loosened his grip, but he kept his arms around her as he pressed a tender kiss to her lips.

“Oh Raquel”, he said quietly. “I’m never letting you go again.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He didn’t want to get up the next morning – he wanted to spend the entire day in bed with her. After the emotional turmoil of yesterday, he wanted nothing more today than to kiss her, to hold her close, to be reassured and comforted by her solid warmth in his arms. She seemed to feel the same way, because she clung to him tightly, cuddling close and burying her face against his chest. He was so grateful that she reflected the way he was feeling, because he didn’t think he’d be able to stand it if she made light of what happened, if she hadn’t matched his own intense longing to stay close. He didn’t want to start the day, didn’t want to face the scrutiny of the others yet. How would they react to seeing them together? So far, this had been something that belonged to just the two of them, but now they would have to share it with the outside world, and he worried that it would change things. So they stayed wrapped up in each other for as long as they could, until the alarm on his phone mercilessly reminded them of reality. She pushed the button on the phone, sighed regretfully, pushed back the blanket and moved to get out of bed. He immediately pulled her back, however, and she laughed as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled the blanket over them again.

“We have to get up, Sergio.”

“No, we don’t.”

“It’s almost time for breakfast.”

“Who cares about breakfast? All I want is you.”

“We still have classes afterwards.”

“I’m the teacher. Maybe I’ll decide we won’t have class today.”

She smiled at him. “Then what will we do all day?”

“This”, he whispered, then started pressing soft kisses to her neck.

She hummed in contentment, and for a moment he could feel her melt against him and he thought she might relent. But the next instant she shook herself and laughingly pushed against his head.

“Stop it! What will everyone think if you cancel classes?”

“I don’t care”, he murmured against her skin. “There are more important things in life than what other people think. Like… this spot, right here…” He kissed her right behind her ear. “This spot is extremely important to me right now. I never noticed how soft you are there. Now I wonder if there are any other spots I’ve missed.” He ducked down and she laughed in delight as he started kissing her all over. “I think this calls for a very, very thorough investigation.”

“Mmm”, she said, stretching luxuriously, “that does sound nice…”

“Then stay in bed with me.”

“But I want to shower”, she argued.

He shook his head. “Showers, breakfast, classes… why are you concerned with such trivialities?”

“Because I like to be clean, and fed, and informed about the massive heist we’re planning.”

She quickly tried to slip out of bed, but he caught her around her waist and pulled her back again.

“You won’t escape so easily.”

She was putting up a very half-hearted struggle, her eyes full of laughter. “I can’t be the only adult in this room, Sergio! Pull yourself together!”

He tightened his arms around her and looked down at her. “What if I just refuse to let you go?”

She surrendered and smiled up at him. “Well, then I suppose I have no choice but to stay in bed with you all day.”

“Now we’re talking”, he rumbled, leaning down to kiss her. Then he sighed. “I suppose we really should get up, though.”

“Yes”, she nodded. “I’m afraid we should.”

He let her go, but followed her with his eyes as she rolled out of bed and started dressing.

“Alright, I’m going to take a shower”, she said. “Will you check to see if the hallway is clear?”

“Oh”, he said. “We don’t have to do that anymore. They know about us.”

She looked up, startled. “You told them?”

“Yes, yesterday, when we were talking about why you hadn’t come back. I was trying to show them that I had a good reason to trust you.”

“Oh”, she said. “How did they react?”

He grimaced. “Well, as you know, Tokyo immediately suggested that maybe you were only sleeping with me for information, so not great. They’ll get used to it in time, though.”

“Well, I have to say I’m glad it’s out now. I was getting rather tired of hiding all the time.”

“Yes”, he agreed. “Me too.”

She suddenly smiled at him. “So… now that we don’t have to keep things secret anymore… do you want to shower with me?”

He was up and dressing in a flash, and she laughed.

“I thought you didn’t want to get out of bed?”

“Looks like it was just a question of finding the right motivation.”

Raquel, naked and wet in his arms? He’d get out of bed for that anytime.

***

Oslo had been waiting in front of the bathroom for a solid twenty minutes now. When he’d knocked on the door, he had been momentarily surprised when two voices answered the knock at the same time, but then he remembered what the Professor had told them yesterday and he smiled – apparently they’d made up. Twenty minutes later, however, he wasn’t smiling anymore. It was almost time for breakfast and he wanted to shower, too, but there was still a sound of running water coming from the bathroom. Nairobi passed him on her way downstairs and noticed his scowl.

“What’s the matter, Oslo?”

“Bathroom’s occupied.”

“Have you been waiting long?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“Who’s in there?”

Oslo shifted uncomfortably. “The Professor.”

Nairobi frowned. “He doesn’t usually take this long to get ready in the mornings.”

“Don’t think he’s alone.”

Comprehension dawned on Nairobi’s face. “Oh!” Then she grinned. “Have you tried knocking again?”

He shook his head.

“You’re much too polite, Oslo”, she said, then she started banging on the door with the flat of her hand. “Hey, you two! Get out!”

They heard Lisbon laugh, then say: “Go away!”

“Look”, Nairobi shouted through the door. “I’m very happy for the two of you, but you can’t go hogging the bathroom! Other people need it too!”

“Alright, give us a minute”, came Lisbon’s answer from inside.

Nairobi grinned broadly. “No sex in shared spaces! That’s not polite. You both have a bedroom, so use it!”

Oslo felt rather embarrassed, but Nairobi’s tactic seemed to work: the water was finally turned off and there were sounds of movement from inside. A few minutes later, the bathroom door opened and Lisbon and the Professor came out, both damp and flushed, Lisbon smiling broadly and winking at them in passing, while the Professor avoided eye contact, red in the face.

“We’re sorry”, he apologized in passing.

“No, you’re not”, Nairobi laughed.

He looked up and suddenly a grin appeared on his face. “Okay, maybe we’re not. But it won’t happen again.”

They disappeared down the hall, and Nairobi patted Oslo on the shoulder.

“There you go.”

“Thanks”, he muttered, looking in the direction the couple had gone in. The Professor had always seemed like such a dignified person. He shook his head. This only confirmed what he already knew – love could make a fool out of any man.

***

Rio was sitting at the breakfast table, spreading butter and jam on his toast, when the Professor and Lisbon came in together and sat down opposite him, smiling and talking softly. Right, he reminded himself. That was a thing now. He couldn’t help but notice how close they sat together, how they looked at each other, how she casually put her hand on his arm, and he suddenly felt hopeful. Would this mean that relationships were allowed now? He shot a surreptitious look at Tokyo on the other side of the table, wondering if she’d agree to talk to the Professor about the two of them. After all, it had been the Professor who had made the rule about not having personal relationships between the members of the team, and he really had no right to judge anyone on that anymore.  

Oslo came in, making the group complete, and Nairobi shot a significant look around the table before clearing her throat. Rio knew what was coming – they had discussed this last night.

“Lisbon?”

Lisbon looked up, clearly only now becoming aware that there were other people at the table.

Nairobi continued. “These idiots would like to say something to you.”

She nodded at Rio, who had volunteered to do this – he didn’t mind apologizing if he’d been wrong, and he’d been wrong about Lisbon. He shot her an apologetic look.

“We’re sorry we thought you were a traitor.”

“Yes”, Denver said. “We really are.”

“We want you to know that we trust you”, Moscow supplied.

They all murmured their agreement, except for Tokyo, of course, who crossed her arms with a sullen expression.

Lisbon hesitated, then said: “Look, I understand. Your natural instinct is to distrust me. I get that. But I’m not a cop anymore, and I never will be again. I’ve accepted that, and it would be nice if you could, too.”

They all nodded, and she nodded too.

“Well, then, let’s forget this happened.”

Rio was glad she was taking it so well. He didn’t like the thought that they’d hurt her. Everyone returned to their breakfast, and Rio’s eyes were drawn to Tokyo again. He would love to sit next to her, stop pretending, stop hiding. She was such an awesome woman – a real powerhouse, so passionate, and a knock-out too – he was so proud that she was his, and he couldn’t wait to tell everyone. Yes, he decided. They should talk to the Professor as soon as possible.

***

Tokyo hurried up the stairs to the classroom. She was late – class should have started five minutes ago and the Professor was very strict about that. She expected a stern look from him when she walked in, but he was otherwise occupied: Lisbon was leaning against his desk and he was standing close to her, talking softly, smiling. Tokyo went to her usual seat and sat down. The others were talking among themselves, not paying the couple at the front of the room any attention, but Tokyo couldn’t help but glance at them. They looked disgustingly happy. Not that she cared, of course – she just hoped that Rio wasn’t getting any ideas now. Half the fun of her relationship with Rio was that it wasn’t allowed – the thrill of keeping a secret, the constant risk of discovery. But now that the Professor was openly dating Lisbon, he might be okay with other relationships within the team. How boring.

She couldn’t understand how the Professor could sleep with a cop – even an ex-cop. Cops were pigs, garbage, robots who chose to surrender their humanity in order to mindlessly obey a faceless authority. They shot and killed people – good people. Tokyo felt the old anger and hurt inside her well up again, and she didn’t try to stop it. It was good to stay angry. The others might have accepted Lisbon, but she would never trust her, never forget for a moment where she came from. Cop. Traitor. Tokyo didn’t feel guilty about voicing her distrust of Lisbon when she hadn’t returned yesterday. It was better to be careful. A woman who turned on her former companions could easily turn again. The Professor might think that they had something special, but the Professor was naïve and easily flustered by women – in fact, Tokyo herself had had a lot of fun flustering him on several occasions. But it wasn’t so much fun now that their lives and their freedom depended on his good judgment.

At the front of the room, the Professor straightened up, cleared his throat, and announced that class would begin. Lisbon walked between the desks to take her usual seat at the back of the room, shooting Tokyo a dirty look as she passed. Tokyo returned it with interest. No matter how much the others tried to convince her, no matter what the Professor said – she would never, ever like this woman.

***

They had lunch outside under the shadow of the big tree. The food was good, and Moscow felt pleasantly relaxed as he listened to the conversation of the others. He didn’t take this for granted, the good food, the companionship, the relatively easy life they’d been living over the past few months. He noticed and appreciated it, and he was mindful to be grateful for it while it lasted. It would all be over soon. He looked over at his son, sitting a few places to his left, and he hoped for the thousandth time that he hadn’t made a mistake dragging him into this. He wasn’t worried for himself – his life had never been that important, and now that his son was grown and didn’t need him anymore, it was even less so – but he worried for Ricardo. When the Professor had contacted him to be a member of the team, he had insisted that his son be a part of the operation, too. He wanted a better life for the boy, a better life than he could give him.

Moscow shot a look at the Professor, who was talking to Lisbon, their heads close together. He hadn’t really been surprised when the Professor had announced yesterday that they were in a relationship – he’d suspected something for a while now. Those two had been drawn to each other right from the beginning, and Moscow understood why. They were a good match. He had been surprised that the Professor would break his own rules, though – he’d thought they would wait until after the heist to get together. Moscow couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive as he watched the two of them so absorbed in each other. The Professor had struck him as a man with a singular ability to focus, and that was what had made Moscow trust him with his life – and, more importantly, his son’s life – on this crazy, dangerous mission. Yet he seemed to have lost a lot of that focus now. Moscow could understand that. He had once been in love like that. But he couldn’t help but worry how it would affect the operation.

He watched as the couple got up and left to go on a walk, hand in hand, radiating happiness, and he smiled in spite of his apprehension. It might not be ideal for the mission, but on a human level, he was glad they had found each other. He didn’t think that the Professor had known much love in his life, and Lisbon had clearly been through some hard times. They deserved this. Moscow let his thoughts drift back for a moment to the love of his own life, how beautiful it had been during those first few years, the good times, before things had turned so ugly. Letting her go had been the biggest mistake of his life, and he would carry that guilt and regret with him until the end. He should have tried harder to help her, he shouldn’t have given up on her so easily. Looking back now, he knew what he hadn’t known at the time: that a love like that was worth fighting for. He watched the Professor and Lisbon disappear among the trees, and he hoped that they realized that.  

***

Helsinki was hungry. Granted, he was usually hungry, but it was twenty minutes past dinnertime and the food hadn’t materialized yet, and his stomach was complaining loudly. The Professor and Lisbon had disappeared into the kitchen more than an hour ago, and he couldn’t imagine what was taking them so long. Helsinki decided to get up and see if he could hurry things along a bit.

When he pushed open the door to the kitchen, the question of why the food hadn’t appeared yet immediately answered itself. Lisbon was sitting on the kitchen table and the Professor was standing in front of her, and they were so busy kissing they didn’t even hear him come in. Helsinki crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.

“You call this cooking?”

The Professor looked up in alarm and immediately took several steps back, blushing. Lisbon, on the other hand, hopped off the table with a smile.

“I’m sorry it’s taking so long, Helsinki.”

“People are hungry”, he pointed out.

“I know, I promise it’s almost ready.”

“You can’t kiss in the kitchen.”

She grinned at him. “No, I don’t agree with that, it worked perfectly well.”

He grinned back at her. “Do I need to keep standing here to make sure you’ll actually cook stuff now?”

She laughed. “Or you could help us, to make up for lost time.”

“So now I have to work because you act like teenagers?” he pretended to grumble, but he started taking out plates to set the table anyway.

“Come on Helsinki”, Lisbon smiled. “Haven’t you ever been so in love you forgot to eat?”

So they were actually in love, then. He’d wondered. Not that he felt like it was any of his business who did what with whom and why, but hey, good for them. He grabbed a stack of plates and walked out of the kitchen again. He supposed he should be grateful that he hadn’t walked in on them doing worse things on that kitchen table.

***

All throughout the day, Berlin had been watching his brother with Raquel, and he had to say he was satisfied. She was good for him. His little brother. Such a serious child, an earnest teenager, a sober adult – and now he was smiling, laughing even, with a levity of spirit that Berlin had never observed in him before. He’d always liked the thought of this relationship, and now that he had seen them together, he liked it even more. His brother was a changed man.

After dinner, it so happened that it was his and Sergio’s turn to do the dishes, according to the rotating roster that Sergio had drawn up. So they ended up in the kitchen together, and Berlin washed while his brother dried with a soft smile on his face. He left him to his daydreams for a while, but then he couldn’t resist saying:

“You look very happy.”

Sergio looked up at him, a warm expression in his eyes. “I am. Andrés, she’s… she’s so amazing.”

“I’m glad you were able to reconcile after your little disagreement yesterday.”

His brother’s expression immediately turned more sober. “So am I. I was so afraid she wouldn’t forgive me.” He was quiet for a moment, then said: “How do you think the others are taking this?”

“Not bad, on the whole”, Berlin said.

Nairobi came in with more dishes, then went to the fridge to take out another bottle of wine.

Sergio shook his head. “I was rather taken aback by their reactions yesterday. I thought by now they would trust her.”

“They didn’t really distrust her, they were just egged on by Tokyo. She’s the only one who really has a problem with Lisbon.”

“I have to admit that it worries me. We can’t have this kind of discord within the team. For a while, it looked like it was getting better, but yesterday’s events really made things worse again. I don’t know how to solve this. I care about them both and I can’t stand to have them at odds.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything you can do”, Berlin said.

“I know I shouldn’t take sides, but…”

Nairobi slammed the fridge door. “Oh, yes you do.”

Sergio turned to her. “I do?”

“Yes! You take Lisbon’s side in this!”

“But I’m the leader of the team, shouldn’t I be impartial in a disagreement between its members?”

Nairobi rolled her eyes. “Sure, if you want to terminally piss off your girlfriend. You stay out of this, Profe.”

“Alright”, Sergio sighed, turning back to the dishes. “Then we’ll just have to see how things develop. But this bothers me so much.”

“I don’t care if it bothers you”, Nairobi said from the doorway. “You keep your mouth shut and try not to fuck up again. You won’t find another woman like Lisbon anytime soon.”

“I’m well aware of that”, Sergio said, his tone serious.

“Good”, Nairobi nodded, then left.

Sergio glanced at Berlin. “Do you think she’s right?”

“Yes, I do”, Berlin said appreciatively, “Stand by your woman. You have to be aware of something very important, little brother: a woman like Raquel should be treated right.”

“How… how do I treat her right?”

“Ah”, Berlin grinned. “Now you’re asking the right questions. Let me share some of the wisdom I’ve acquired after five marriages.”

“Not to mention five divorces”, Sergio muttered.

Berlin waved a hand. “Sure, sure, it never worked out in the end, but we had some good times along the way and I know how to keep a woman happy.”

“Alright”, Sergio said. “I’m quite painfully clueless, so I’ll take any advice I can get.”

“Rule number one: don’t flirt with other women.”

Sergio snorted. “Couldn’t if I wanted to. What else?”

“Women like strong men. Don’t be afraid to take the lead.”

“Well…”, he swallowed. “I can try… Anything else?”

“Compliment her. Show her that you see her, that you appreciate her.”

His brother nodded thoughtfully. “That’s actually good advice.”

“Of course it is. And I think it’s especially important for you to remember.”

“Why me?”

“You know you get distracted, Sergio. After the first flush of being in love fades, make sure she doesn’t start thinking that you’re taking her for granted. That’s when they leave you. I’ve been there, I know.”

His brother turned to him with an anxious look. “How do I keep her from thinking that I’m taking her for granted?”

“Show her you care, do something romantic every once in a while.”

“Like what?”

“Buy her flowers. Tell her you love her. Have you ever even taken her out on an actual date?”

“No”, Sergio said, flustered. “Do you think I should have?”

“It certainly can’t hurt.”

He shook his head in dismay. “It never even occurred to me that that might be something she would want.”

“See, what you need to remember”, Berlin grinned, “is that women like to be wooed.”

“That doesn’t sound like something I’d be good at”, Sergio said, a little alarmed.

“It’s not that hard.”

“So what should I do?”

“Tell her you want to take her out, for starters. Make reservations at a nice restaurant. Something romantic, mind you. Tell her she looks beautiful.”

“Alright… I suppose I could do that. You really think she’d like that?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Well, then, thank you. I’ll follow your advice.”

Raquel entered the kitchen, and Berlin noticed how his brother’s eyes lit up at the sight of her.

“Are you almost done?” she asked. “It’s such a nice evening, I hoped we could go outside and enjoy it for a bit.”

“Go”, Berlin nodded. “I’ll finish up here.”

When he was alone in the kitchen, he dried the remaining plates with a vague feeling of relief. He’d worried about what would happen to his brother after he was gone – Sergio didn’t have any friends, and they had no family left. Berlin had watched over his little brother all his life, and he hadn’t liked the thought of leaving him entirely alone in the world. But he had a feeling that Sergio had found something real at last, and he felt comforted by the thought that there would be someone to take care of him when he himself couldn’t be that person anymore. Sergio was… special, and he sensed that Raquel understood that. Good. He was glad.

Berlin smiled to himself, satisfied. His many ex-wives had invariably left him with the bitter reproach that he didn’t care about anything but himself. They were wrong. He cared about Sergio.

***

It was late. Everyone else had gone to bed, but Denver wanted one more cigarette before going up to his room. He stepped out onto the terrace, but was stopped by the sound of voices – the Professor and Lisbon, sitting in the same sun lounger, sharing a blanket against the slight chill in the air. Denver hesitated for a moment, then decided not to disturb them. He assumed they would like their privacy, so he went to smoke on the steps in front of the front door instead. There was a weird feeling in his stomach as he thought about the couple on the terrace. He wasn’t great at identifying weird feelings, but he gave this one some thought. He wasn’t usually interested in other people’s relationships, but the Professor and Lisbon’s looked nice. All the girls he’d dated – and there had been a lot – had been shallow and vain, and dating them had been a turbulent and unsatisfying business, but he’d never questioned it. Now he wondered what it would be like to be with a good woman, a really good woman.

Looking back over the day, he remembered the Professor and Lisbon talking together, walking together, laughing quietly at some private joke. There seemed to be an understanding between them, a companionship, a mutual respect that was foreign to Denver. He didn’t know many good relationships – his mother had left him and his father, his friends broke up and got back together at the speed of light, and he himself had certainly never had a relationship he would call ‘good’ – but he recognized one when he saw it. He suddenly realized what the feeling in his stomach was: it was longing. They had looked so cozy, so intimate, close together under the stars. He wanted that too. He wondered if he would ever find it. He knew he wasn’t exactly a catch: he was a knucklehead, a brawler, a petty criminal. But for a good woman, he would get his act together. For a good woman, Denver knew, he would do anything.

***

Nairobi was lying on her bed, reading a magazine, when she heard the door of the room next to hers open and the sound of two people talking quietly. She smiled. She was glad that those two idiots had been able to work things out. They were clearly right for each other, but at a certain point Nairobi wouldn’t be around anymore to save their asses, so the sooner they figured things out, the better. She had to admit that she’d been particularly pleased to see them together today. After all, it was thanks to her that they’d gotten together in the first place, so she felt rather invested in this relationship, and it seemed to be going well.

She suddenly didn’t feel like being alone anymore, so she got up and went down the hall to knock on Tokyo’s door.

“Can I come in?” she asked as Tokyo opened the door. “Or are you expecting company?”

“Not tonight”, Tokyo said, and let her in.

They turned on the radio and let themselves fall on the bed.

“So no Rio tonight?”

“No”, Tokyo said shortly.

“Trouble in paradise?”

Tokyo sighed. “He’s gotten this stupid idea in his head that the Professor will be okay with us sleeping together now that he’s dating Lisbon.”

“He probably will be. You should talk to him.”

“Don’t you start, too”, Tokyo snapped.

“I thought you wanted to be with Rio?”

“Look”, Tokyo said, “he’s a cute kid, but I don’t want anything serious right now. Talking to the Professor would make it so… official.”

Nairobi nodded, reminding herself that it had only been a few months since Tokyo’s boyfriend had been killed. It took time to get over that sort of thing.

Tokyo sighed. “I wish they could just have kept things quiet, him and that stupid cop.”

Nairobi turned on her side to face Tokyo. “Why do you hate her so much?”

“Why don’t you hate her?”

“She’s a good person.”

“There’s no such thing as a good cop”, Tokyo scoffed.

“She’s not a cop anymore, though.”

“Once a cop, always a cop.”

“I don’t agree with that. I think people deserve second chances.”

“Do cops ever give people second chances?” Tokyo said heatedly.

“It’s important that we function well as a team, all together.”

“She won’t be entering the Mint with us, she’s not really a part of our team.”

“She’ll be in the control room though, you’ll need to take orders from her if necessary.”

“I’ll take my orders from Berlin. I don’t care who he gets his orders from.”

“I think you should at least give her a chance.”

“Forget it, Nairobi. I don’t owe her anything.”

“True”, Nairobi said. “You don’t owe her anything. But you owe the Professor a great deal.”

Tokyo raised her eyebrows. “Do I?”

“You know you do.”

“What I know is that I’m about to risk my life to execute his plan for him while he’ll be safe in the control room.”

“But if it works, you walk away with millions of euros.”

“It’s still a big risk.”

“A risk you wouldn’t even be able to take if the Professor hadn’t kept you from getting arrested! You know he’s the only reason you’re not in jail!”

Tokyo gave her a sullen look. “So?”

“So this is hard on him, you and Lisbon fighting. If you can’t like her for herself, then at least accept her for his sake. You owe him that much.”

“You really think I owe him that?”

“For your freedom? For your future? Yes”, Nairobi said firmly. “I think you do. I think we all do.”

Tokyo was quiet for a while. Then she gave a short nod.

“Fine. I’ll try. For the Professor.”

“Good”, Nairobi said, wisely dropping the matter. “Now turn up the music and hand me that bottle of wine.”

***

Sergio fell back into the pillows, out of breath, and opened his arms so she could cuddle up to him. He loved holding her afterwards, loved how she stroked his chest, loved the way she tilted up her face to kiss him.

“I love making love to you”, he murmured.

“Lucky for me”, she smiled.

He sighed happily. “What a great ending to a great day.”

“Yes”, she said, “it was rather lovely, wasn’t it?”

“I’m so glad we don’t have to keep this a secret anymore.”

“Me too. I hadn’t fully realized how annoying it was to hide until we didn’t have to do it anymore.”

He’d thoroughly enjoyed everything about this day – showering with her, going down to breakfast together, standing close to her as they talked before class, the casual touches that they didn’t need to hide anymore, going out walking together, kissing her in the kitchen, and especially sitting out under the stars with her on the terrace, close together under the same blanket. These were all small things, but they were new to him and he felt quite delighted. So this was what it was like to have a girlfriend. He could get used to this. Then he remembered the conversation he’d had with his brother.

“Raquel”, he said, and she looked up at him.

“Yes?”

“Would you like to…” Women like strong men. He started over. “I want to take you out.”

Her eyebrows went up in surprise. “Really? Where?”

“To dinner. A woman like you deserves a proper first date.”

She smiled up at him in delight. “You’re asking me out on a date?”

“If you want to…”

“Yes, I would love that.” She kissed him. “That’s so thoughtful of you.”

Sergio silently thanked his brother. “Not at all.”

Her eyes suddenly started to shine. “Can we go dancing?”

“Dancing?” he said, alarmed. Berlin had said nothing about dancing.

“It’s been ages since I’ve been dancing and I love it so much.”

 He felt torn. He wanted to make her happy, but this? “Can we… can we maybe wait a few dates before I have to make an absolute fool of myself?”

She laughed and kissed his cheek. “Sure.”

They were quiet for a while, and soon she fell asleep. He carefully kissed her hair and reflected that he’d been needlessly worried that morning. The fact that the others now knew about them didn’t change a thing. In fact, it made him feel even stronger how she and him were now a team within the team, an alliance, a partnership. Even in the midst of the others, in the classroom or at the dinner table, she only had to look at him to reaffirm that connection, to re-establish something of the intimate little world they inhabited when they were alone. Though he also couldn’t wait to take her out and really be alone with her again. On a date. Their first, real date. Where should he take her? He wanted it to be somewhere special, to show her that he cared. Make sure she doesn’t start thinking that you’re taking her for granted. That’s when they leave you. He hoped he would never, ever take her for granted, he thought as she cuddled closer to him in her sleep. She deserved better than that. He hoped he could give her better.

 

Chapter Text

 

It was early afternoon and classes had ended for the day when Raquel went to Nairobi’s room and knocked.

“Hi Nairobi, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Could I maybe borrow some of your make-up? I didn’t bring any… you know, since I was on my way to jail before I came here.”

Nairobi opened the door further. “Of course. Come on in.”

She indicated that Raquel should sit down in front of the mirror and placed her bag of make-up in front of her.

“Use whatever you like.”

“Thank you.”

As Raquel was rummaging through the bag, Nairobi sat down behind her on the bed, watching her.

“So why are you getting all dolled up?”

“The Professor and I are going out and I’d like to look nice.”

“You do know his name, right? Or do you call him ‘Professor’ in the bedroom too?” Nairobi teased.

Raquel grinned at her. “Sometimes. But yes, I do know his name.”

“So whose idea was it to go out?”

“His”, Raquel said, then, seeing Nairobi’s expression in the mirror: “I know, I was surprised too! He said we should have a real, proper first date.”

“Where is he taking you?”

“I don’t know”, she smiled. “He wouldn’t tell me.”

“How mysterious.”

“I know.”

“You can’t just go to a restaurant though, can you? You might be recognized.”

“Yes, and I’m sure he’ll have thought of that, so I have no idea what he has planned for today.”

She held out two different lipsticks towards Nairobi. “Which one do you think would suit me best?”

Nairobi considered them for a moment, then said: “The red one.”

Raquel shook her head as she turned back to the mirror, smiling softly to herself. “It’s so silly. I feel like I’m sixteen again, and getting ready for my first date with the boy I like.”

“You really like him, huh?”

She looked up, her eyes shining. “I do. I know it’s strange, I know I should focus on the heist. He’s just so…”

She sighed, and Nairobi laughed, then threw her a curious look.

 “Can I ask you something personal?”

“Sure”, Raquel said, applying mascara.

“What’s he like in bed?”

She smiled broadly. “I can’t complain.”

“He just seems so cold and distant.”

“Oh, that’s just the way he is in public. He’s not like that at all in private.”

“Then what is he like?”

A dreamy expression appeared on Raquel’s face. “He’s so sweet. A bit absent-minded at times, sure, he sometimes gets lost in his thoughts. But apart from that he’s so attentive, so gentle.”

“He seems like such a weird dude to date.”

“Well”, Raquel said thoughtfully. “I can’t deny that he’s challenging at times. But he makes up for it in so many ways. I won’t pretend that he’s perfect, but he’s perfect for me.”

Nairobi nodded. “Fair enough. I couldn’t do it, but I’m glad it works for you.”

“He just needs a little patience and understanding”, she said gently.

Nairobi laughed. “That’s exactly why I couldn’t date him. My patience is pretty limited.”

Raquel suddenly turned to her. “But you tried to sleep with him, didn’t you?”

“Hey”, Nairobi said, raising her hands defensively. “That was before I knew you liked him, I haven’t given him a second thought since I found out.”

“Oh, I’m not jealous”, Raquel quickly clarified. “I just meant: you must have found something attractive about him, right?

She shrugged. “Sure, he’s handsome.”

“So is Berlin. So is Denver. So is Rio. But as far as I know, you haven’t tried to sleep with any of them.”

“Rio is a child, Berlin is a bastard, and Denver is… well, Denver. So, yes, if I had to choose from the lot, I’d choose the Professor. He’s a good guy. I’d sleep with him, but I’d never date him.”

“All the better”, Raquel smiled, and turned back to the mirror. “By the way, Nairobi, I never properly thanked you.”

“What for?”

“For getting us together.”

Nairobi grinned. “Yeah, well, it didn’t seem like this idiot was handling things particularly well and it looked like you could use all the help you could get. So I just… nudged him in the right direction.”

“That was very kind of you.”

Nairobi rolled her eyes. “Honestly, I just couldn’t stand his sad puppy eyes the day after you had that fight. I’ve never seen a man so defeated, it was depressing just to watch. Especially since it could be solved so easily.”

“I’m not sure he would have come around if you hadn’t told him I was leaving.”

“He just needed to be confronted with his feelings. I’ve never seen anyone so blind to what was right under his nose.”

Raquel put the last touches to her make-up, then got up. “Well, thank you. And thank you for the make-up.”

“Anytime”, Nairobi said. “Have fun on your date!”

He was tying his tie in front of the mirror in his room. For the past few days, his brother’s words had kept echoing in his head: a woman like Raquel should be treated right. He felt instinctively that that was true, but he wasn’t entirely sure how to go about it, and he just hoped this date would be a good start. Women like strong men, so don’t be afraid to take the lead. That would be more difficult, but he would give it a try. He wanted to be the man she wanted him to be. As he gave his tie a final tug, he couldn’t help but feel rather nervous – he knew she was looking forward to their date and he couldn’t help but feel like a lot depended on it. This would be the first time they went out together, and it felt like anything could happen. In the house, they had their habits and routines, which regulated much of their interactions. How would their dynamic change in a purely social setting? Would she find him lacking in a romantic context? He knew he was venturing into territory that was unknown to him, and he was afraid that he would fail to do things she expected of him, simply because he wasn’t aware of the social protocol. A woman like Raquel should be treated right. He so desperately wanted to treat her right.

After one final look in the mirror, he squared his shoulders and went out into the hallway to knock at her bedroom door. She opened it with a smile, and he felt his heart skip a beat. She looked gorgeous. Her eyes were darker and even more compelling than usual, her lips red and so kissable. Her hair flowed down in waves over her shoulders, left bare by the thin straps of her summer dress. He could only stare at her, until she raised an eyebrow and asked:

“Ready to go?”

He shook himself, feeling a little dazed. “You look beautiful.”

“Thank you”, she smiled, taking her purse and closing her bedroom door.

“So where are we going?” she asked him in the car.

“You’ll see”, he said lightly.

They drove for about an hour, talking about the heist, which was only about a month away now, and getting closer every day, looming larger and larger. Sergio was starting to feel a twinge of nerves every time he thought about it, but talking to Raquel always helped him regain his confidence. Finally they drove into Madrid. She kept looking around curiously to see where he was taking her, until he parked in front of the fake workplace where they had first slept together.

They got out of the car and she grabbed him by the shirt and kissed him. “So we’re spending some more time here? That’s perfect, I have some very good memories of this place.”

He smiled. “No, I’m just parking the car here, I do have something specific planned for the afternoon.”

“What?”

“You lived in Madrid for a long time, right?”

“Yes”, she said. “Since my early twenties, after I finished at the police academy.”

“Are you attached to the city?”

“Yes, I am”, she said. “All my life, I wanted to live here, so I moved as soon as I could. I didn’t grow up here, but I built my life here and I feel like it is my city.” A sad look appeared in her eyes. “It breaks my heart a little that I’ll never be able to come back after the heist.”

“I thought so”, he nodded. “So I suggest we use this afternoon to go into the city, so you can say goodbye to the places you love the most.”

She looked up at him with shining eyes. “I would love that, Sergio. That’s so thoughtful of you!”

She kissed him, then said: “But isn’t it rather risky for me to go out in public, especially in Madrid?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you think I thought of that?”

He took her inside. “It’s mostly risky for you if you stay in one place for a while, because then people could recognize you and call the police. But if you just pass people on the street, you’d be long gone by the time the police could get there, so it’s not really an issue if someone were to recognize you. But just in case we should pass a policeman, I have these.”

He handed her a wig and fake glasses.

She grinned. “I’ve never worn a wig before, this will be fun.”

She went up to the mirror in the bathroom, pinned up her hair, and tried it on. It was a short black wig, with hair that fell just to her shoulders and bangs. She grimaced.

“I look just like Tokyo now. Did you really have to get a wig with bangs?”

“It’s the bangs that change your face the most”, he argued. “They’re necessary.”

“I look awful.”

“I don’t agree”, he smiled, wrapping his arms around her, but she pulled back from him.

“Don’t kiss me while I look like Tokyo!” she protested laughingly. “I don’t want you making those kinds of associations!”

He snorted. “I think I can keep you and Tokyo separated in my mind, thank you very much.”

“Well”, she said slowly, wrapping her arms around his neck. “In that case…”

She kissed him, and for several long moments they sank into it, her hands in his hair, his hand sliding down her back.

“Are we coming back here after our tour of the city?” she asked him huskily, pressing herself close to him.

“Yes”, he murmured. “I thought we’d spend the night here.”

She looked up at him in delight. “You mean we’re not driving back to the house tonight?”

“No. If you want to stay here, that is.”

“Oh, I want to”, she smiled. “I’m curious – do you have a particular reason why you want to stay here tonight?”

He hesitated for a moment, then said: “At the house, we always have to be so quiet.” He pulled her closer to him and whispered in her ear. “Tonight, I want to hear you moan when I make you come. Again… and again… and again.”

She shivered, then looked up at him with such a look that it made his heart beat faster.

“Do we really have to wait until tonight?” she murmured, brushing her lips against his. “The bed is right there…”

Her nearness and the scent of her were clouding his mind, but he tried to stay strong. Women like strong men.

“No, we’re going out first.”

She ran her fingers through his hair. “Are you sure?”

He closed his eyes and groaned as she stroked the back of his neck. “Don’t tempt me, Raquel, you know I can’t resist you.”

“Then don’t”, she whispered. “Let’s lie down and…”

She started to unbutton his shirt, and he pulled himself together with a supreme effort of will. He took her by the shoulders and firmly pushed her back.

“No! I told you I was taking you on a proper date, so we’re going to do this right.”

She grinned. “That’s very firm of you.”

“Yes”, he said, carefully keeping her at arm’s length. “I’m putting my foot down.”

“Alright”, she smiled. “Take me on a proper date then.”

She put on the wig and fake glasses, and they took the subway into the center of the town. He let her decide where she wanted to go, and she seemed happy and excited to show him her favorite spots in the city. They steered clear of the big touristy places, and instead she took him along crooked streets with charming little shops, through shady green parks and to a café in a hidden courtyard where the jasmine crept up against the wall and spread the sweetest scent. She pointed out the shabby, cramped apartment where she used to live in her twenties, and her favorite bar from back in the day, where she used to go out with her friends in the weekends. She took him to a little cobbled marketplace in the same neighborhood, where he bought her a single red rose at a flower stall, and then they threw coins into a delicate trickling fountain and made a wish.

“What did you wish for?” she asked him.

“I can’t tell you that”, he said. “Or it won’t come true.”

She laughed. “Really? You’re the last person I expected to be superstitious.”

“I’m not risking it”, he said. “It’s too important.”

“Well”, she smiled. “I think I can guess it, anyway. Seeing as you’ve got to pull off the biggest heist in history in a few weeks.”

Yes, he thought, he probably should have spent his wish on the heist. But as she took his hand and they walked along the sunlit street, he couldn’t stop looking at her and he didn’t regret his wish for a moment.

They went gradually east, back in the direction of the hideout. As they walked through the literary district, he dragged her along for a short detour past the house where Cervantes died.

“I’ve never seen it”, he said. “And I’ll never get the chance again.”

Looking up at the house that had once belonged to Spain’s greatest writer, Sergio asked her:

“So how old were you when you read Don Quijote for the first time?”

She grimaced. “I have to admit something. I’ve never actually read it.”

He stared at her in disbelief for a moment, then said: “I’m sorry, I’m afraid this isn’t working out. I wish you a lot of happiness with your next, hopefully illiterate, boyfriend.”

She laughed and punched him on the shoulder. “I mean, I’ve read fragments of it in school, of course. But I’ve never actually sat down and read the entire thing.”

“Why not?”

“Do you have any idea how enormous that book is? I’m a busy woman, I have other things to do.”

“When this heist is over, I’m going to sit you down on a beach somewhere with a copy of Don Quijote and you’re going to read it cover to cover.”

She smiled. “I would actually really like that.”

“Good”, he teased her. “Because I cannot tolerate that kind of uncultured behavior near me.”

She snorted. “You are unbearably pretentious, you know that?”

“Erudition is not the same as pretentiousness”, he said with dignity.

“When you use words like that, you sound like a pompous university professor.”

“I have to live up to my name somehow”, he smiled.

They went on hand in hand, crossing through the El Retiro park on their way home, with its large monument to Alfonso XII at the edge of a lake. There were some people out on boats on the lake, and when Raquel saw them, she turned to him with shining eyes.

“Let’s take a boat out onto the lake”, she said.

He looked at her in horror. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“No, I’m not! I used to take Paula out boating all the time here, I’d love to do it one more time.”

“But it’s going to get dark soon”, he tried. “They’ll be closing.”

“They only close at nightfall”, she said. “We can enjoy the sunset out on the lake and bring the boat back immediately afterwards.”

 “I don’t like boats, Raquel.”

“Aren’t we leaving Europe on a boat after this is over?”

“I don’t mind big boats, but I can’t stand small ones. They make me nervous.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to fall into the water.”

She laughed. “Why would you fall into the water? I’ve been on this lake dozens of times, and I’ve never seen anyone fall in.”

When he still looked thoroughly unconvinced, she gave him a sly look. “It would be very romantic. Something to do on a real, proper date.”

He laughed. “Oh, that’s not fair!”

“Please?” she wheedled.

He hesitated. Women like strong men. He supposed it wasn’t exactly attractive to be afraid of little boats.

“Fine”, he sighed. “Fine. But I’m doing this under protest!”

“Duly noted”, she said, amused.

It took some convincing on Raquel’s part, but the man at the boat rental let them take out a boat on the condition that they bring it back immediately after sundown. Raquel walked to the end of the jetty and got down into a boat. Sergio followed her with the utmost apprehension, very careful not to rock the boat as he got into it, but he still didn’t like the way it wobbled or how close the murky green water was. He did his best not to show it, though. He took up the oars and, after a little trial and error, he managed to row them out into the middle of the lake, where they drifted peacefully, watching the sky erupt in fiery shades of orange and gold as the sun went down. He had to admit that it was a spectacular sight as the colors were reflected in the still water of the lake. She took his hand and smiled at him, and he forgot all of his discomfort at the sight of that smile.

Still, he couldn’t wait to get off that boat once the sun was down, so he set a quick pace rowing them back to shore. In fact, he was so eager to get off, that he stood up as the boat sped the last few yards towards the jetty, ready to jump out as soon as possible.

“No, don’t!” she said warningly. “Stay down until…”

But it was already too late. The boat bumped into the jetty, hard, making it wobble like mad, and the next thing Sergio knew, he was in the water. It was shockingly cold, but it wasn’t deep, and to his relief his feet quickly found the bottom. When he resurfaced, spluttering, Raquel was bent double, helpless with laughter.

“Oh, yes”, he grumbled, as he heaved himself out of the water onto the jetty. “Very funny. Absolutely hilarious. This is so unhygienic – there’s ducks and geese on this lake, I’ve probably caught salmonella.”

“I’m sorry, Sergio”, she said weakly, taking off her fake glasses to wipe away tears of laughter. “It’s just… One moment you were there and the next you were…”

She started laughing all over again. He looked at her as he wrung out his jacket, and his chagrin and embarrassment started to fade. He’d never seen her laugh like that, with such childlike joy, her entire body shaking. Suddenly he didn’t mind half as much that he was soaked and cold – it was almost worth it to see her this happy. Almost. Provided he hadn’t actually caught salmonella.

He had to help her out of the boat, because she was weak with laughter.

“Ohh, my stomach hurts”, she gasped as she took his hand. “I haven’t laughed this hard in years.”

“Glad I could entertain you, at least”, he said drily.

Fortunately, it was only a short walk from the park to the hideout, where a shower and dry clothes and shoes were waiting for him. She kept bursting into fits of suppressed laughter all the way there, and by the time he was clean and dry again and he no longer smelled of duck pond, he supposed he could see the humor of the situation. When he emerged from the bathroom, however, she was waiting for him with a contrite expression on her face.

“I’m sorry I laughed.”

“It’s okay, I’m sure it looked very funny.”

“It did”, she said, her face breaking into another smile, which she quickly suppressed. “But I can imagine it wasn’t funny to you.”

She walked up to him and pulled him close as she looked up at him appealingly. “Can you forgive me?”

He felt something inside him melt as he looked down into her big, dark eyes. Why did she always have such an effect on him?

“Yes”, he whispered, then leaned in for a kiss, which she returned with enthusiasm.

“So”, she said as they broke apart again, throwing a longing glance at the bed. “Can we move on to the next stage of the date now?”

“Yes”, he said, carefully disengaging from her. “That would be dinner.”

“Oh, come on”, she said, glancing at the bed again. “Can’t we just…”

“No”, he said firmly. “We have a reservation in half an hour.”

“A reservation?” she said in surprise. “I thought we’d just order some take-out.”

“Excuse me?” he said indignantly. “You think I’d serve you take-out on our proper date?”

“But we can’t go to a restaurant! You said I couldn’t stay in the same place for fear that someone might recognize me and call the police.”

“And you thought the best solution I could come up with was take-out?”

“Isn’t it, then?” she smiled.

“I’m deeply offended that you don’t think more highly of my problem-solving skills.”

She laughed. “My apologies, Mr. Genius. So where are we going?”

“You’ll see”, he smiled mysteriously.

He took her to a very nice restaurant which was only a short walk away. She hesitated as he walked up to it.

“Sergio, we can’t go in there.”

“We’re not”, he assured her. He took out a key and opened the gate next to the main entrance. “Come on.”

He led her to the back of the restaurant, where there was a tiny but cozy garden, the trees and bushes hung with fairy lights. A single table was waiting for them there, set for two, with a candle in the middle.

She looked at him in delight. “Is this for us?”

“Yes”, he said, smiling at the look on her face. “I convinced the restaurant to let us use their garden for the evening. Do you like it?”

“I love it”, she said, kissing his cheek. “This is really shaping up to be quite a decent date. Sunset on the lake, dinner under the stars. You really know how to charm a lady.”

He felt a warm glow of pleasure at her words. He had so badly wanted to do this right.

A waiter came out and took their order. Raquel frowned at his retreating back as he went back inside.

“What if the waiter recognizes me?”

“He’s been thoroughly bribed”, Sergio assured her. “He’ll be discreet.”

The food was excellent, and the wine even better. Sergio was starting to feel pleasantly relaxed as they talked over dessert and coffee. Then she shot him a smile.

“You know, a few days ago I borrowed a magazine from Nairobi, and there was an interesting article in there.”

“Really?” he said vaguely. “What was it about?”

“Some guys at Harvard have developed three questions that will determine if a relationship has a good chance of succeeding in the long term.”

He suddenly felt very alert as he sat up a little straighter. “What?”

“There’s three questions, and if you both give the same answer to all three of them, the relationship has a better chance of success than if your answers differ.” She grinned. “Do you want to try answering them?”

“No, I don’t!” he said, alarmed. “What if we don’t answer the same thing?”

“Don’t tell me you of all people would take this sort of pseudo-science seriously”, she scoffed.  

“I don’t”, he said. “But I believe in the power of suggestion, and if our answers differ, that might make you question if we’re really compatible and then who knows where that would lead?”

She gave him a soft smile. “I’m not going to like you any less if our answers differ.”

“I’m not risking it”, he said stubbornly.

“But aren’t you curious?”

She had him there.

“Yes”, he admitted reluctantly.

“Then let’s answer them!”

“You really want to do this?”

“Yes!”

“Alright… you go first, then.”

She laughed. “No way! Then you’ll just copy my answer. I’m going to ask the question, and then we answer at the same time.”

“Fine”, he grumbled.

“The first question is very simple: do you like horror movies? Answer on three. One… two… three.”

“Not really”, they both said at the same time, and Sergio felt a surge of relief. That was at least one point in favor of compatibility, then.

“What a strange question to test for romantic success, though”, he said.

She nodded thoughtfully. “I think it might measure levels of empathy, but I’m not sure.”

“What’s the next question?”

“The second one is an objective question about your past, so we don’t have to answer at the same time. Have you ever traveled in a foreign country on your own?”

“Yes”, he said. “Often. You?”

“Yes”, she replied, and he felt another surge of relief. “When I was twenty, I was going to go on a trip with a friend, but she got sick at the last minute and I decided to go without her. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but in fact I met a lot of interesting people and I had a great time.”

“Alright”, he said, tensing again. “What’s the last question?”

“That one is a lot harder to answer, so let’s take some time to think it over. I’m going to quote it literally as it was formulated in the article: ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to chuck it all and go live on a sailboat?’”

He didn’t really need to think about that. He’d go live on the damn moon if that’s where she wanted to go.

“You answer first”, he said.

“Yes”, she smiled. “I think that might be fun, at least for a while. To sail around the world and see new places and cultures. I’d like that.”

He gave her a serious look. “Then let’s do that when this heist is over.”

“We can’t”, she shook her head. “Paula has to go to school.”

“In the holidays, then”, he said. “We can rent a boat and learn to sail it.”

She laughed. “Are you sure you want to get back on a boat after today?”

He grinned. “I’ll stay in the middle of the deck at all times.”

“So does that mean your answer is yes, too?”

“Yes”, he said thoughtfully. “The sailboat part isn’t entirely necessary for me, but the thought of ‘chucking it all’ and living a carefree life somewhere? Well, yes. That’s kind of what I’m doing this heist for. To escape the system.”

She gave him a radiant smile. “Looks like we’re compatible then.”

He heaved a big sigh of relief. “Thank god.”

“Were you worried?”

“A little”, he admitted.

She gave him a soft smile. “I wasn’t.”

He returned her smile. She was so amazing. As he paid the bill and they got up to go, he could feel himself really relax for the first time all day. Their date was almost over now, and – aside from the little mishap on the lake – everything had gone smoothly. All that was left now was to return to the hideout and take her to bed, but he wasn’t really worried about that part. As they left the restaurant garden hand in hand, she was humming slightly and he felt like he’d passed an important boyfriend test. Their first date had been great – and now there was nothing that could go wrong anymore. He felt like humming himself as they walked into the fragrant summer night.

 

To be continued…

Chapter Text

 

On their way home from the restaurant, they made a short detour, which led them past the Mint. They stood looking at it for a while, hand in hand, silent. In only a few short weeks, they would be back here, and the events inside that building would determine the rest of their lives. Sergio suddenly realized something. All his life, he’d been focused on the future, always able to picture the years up until the heist with crystalline clarity. But now, when he thought of his future after the heist, he couldn’t see anything. He’d never really thought about after: the operation itself had eclipsed everything else. He’d had a vague idea of himself and his brother on a beach somewhere, but now he couldn’t even see that anymore. He tried to picture his life with Raquel, but the images wouldn’t come – the heist was too big of a risk, the outcome too unpredictable. This could end in so many different ways. Paradise. Prison. Death. He looked at her and saw his own thoughts reflected in her face.

She squeezed his hand. “Let’s really enjoy the rest of our evening, shall we?”

He nodded and shook his head to clear it of dark thoughts. She was right, they should enjoy their time together while they still could. He took a deep breath and focused on her again, noticing suddenly that she was shivering in her light summer dress. He shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over her shoulders, and she smiled up at him.

“Thank you, that’s very sweet of you. You’re a real gentleman.”

He smiled, pleased. Then she suddenly leaned into him and whispered in his ear:

“Now let’s go home so I can get you out of your pants too.”

He grinned. “I thought women don’t usually sleep with men on the first date.”

She ran her fingers through his hair and bit his earlobe. “I’ll make an exception for you.”

They smiled at each other, then she took his hand and they started heading home. After a few blocks, however, a tantalizing strain of music on the night air made her look up eagerly. It was coming from a café on the other side of the street – inside, there were colored lights, energetic music, and a lot of people were dancing. He glanced at her and noticed the way she looked at the dancers with an expression of longing. A woman like Raquel should be treated right. Oh god. He hated crowds, he hated noise, he hated dancing, but she clearly wanted to and… women like strong men. He spoke quickly, before he could change his mind.

“Let’s go in.”

Her eyes lit up. “Really?”

He steeled himself. “Yes, you said you wanted to go dancing.”

“But you said you didn’t.”

“I changed my mind”, he lied.

She bit her lip as she threw the café another longing look. “Do you think it’s safe to go in?”

“I should say so, it’s quite dark in there and nobody will pay us any attention anyway.”

Her eyes were sparkling. “Alright, then let’s go in!”

So, his heart beating fast with apprehension, he crossed the street with her and they entered the café. He regretted his decision instantly. The music was so much louder inside, everything smelled of spilled beer and sweaty bodies, and it was so crowded that people kept bumping into him. Raquel didn’t seem to notice any of it, though, turning to him with a broad smile.

“Do you want to get something to drink first?” she asked, having to yell to make herself heard over the noise.

He nodded gratefully – anything that kept them from dancing for as long as possible. They made their way through the crowd to the bar, and she ordered wine while he just asked for water.

She raised her eyebrows. “Water, really?”

“We already had wine at dinner”, he said. “Too much alcohol clouds my mind.”

“It might help you lower your inhibitions a little, though”, she grinned.

He shuddered at the very thought. He’d already fallen into a lake today – he felt like he’d made enough of a fool out of himself for one date. If he was going to dance, he wanted to be in full control of his mental faculties, so he stuck to water as they sat down and watched the dancers. He could feel himself get increasingly nervous as he noticed her tap her foot along with the rhythm, and watching the men on the dance floor didn’t help either: they all seemed so confident, swinging their partners around with easy grace. And why did the music have to be so loud? His head was starting to pound. Finally he decided he should just get it over with, so he got up and offered her his hand, and she took it with a radiant smile.

They stepped onto the dance floor, looking for an open spot, and there were people all around him, crowding close. The noise was overwhelming. Suddenly he froze, paralyzed. What was he thinking? He couldn’t dance. He would never be able to do this right, he’d only embarrass her, and what would she think of him then?

She was frowning at him. “Sergio? Are you okay?”

The noise, the heat, the crowd – he suddenly couldn’t take it anymore. He started pushing his way through the dancers towards the door, feeling an immediate wave of relief wash over him as he stepped into the quiet darkness outside. He was gratefully gulping in the cool night air when she stepped out too.

“Okay, what just happened?”

“I’m sorry”, he said quietly. “I just couldn’t do it.”

“I get that”, she said. “What I don’t get is why you proposed it in the first place, then.”

“You’re angry”, he said, a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d let her down.

But she reached out a hand and gently stroked his cheek.

“No, of course I’m not angry, I’m just confused. It was your suggestion we go in to dance, I didn’t ask you to do it.”

He took a deep breath. “I just wanted this to be the perfect date for you.”

“By pushing yourself over your limits?”

“I should be able to do something as simple as dancing, though”, he said, frustrated with himself. “You deserve someone who can take you dancing. You deserve someone strong and confident. Women like strong men.” He looked up and noticed her frown. “Don’t they?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Who have you been talking to?”

“What?”

“You didn’t come up with this nonsense on your own. Who said you had to be strong and confident?”

He hesitated for a moment, then said: “Berlin.”

She gave him a look of horror. “You’re taking romantic advice from Berlin?”

“A lot of women like him”, he said defensively.

“Sure, until they get to know him better. Sergio, I don’t want you to be like Berlin!”

He looked up. “You don’t?”

“No! You know who was strong and confident? My ex-husband. Do you think I want another man like that? I like you, Sergio, because you’re different from men like Alberto or Berlin. You’re kind and sweet and that’s what I love about you. Who cares if you can’t take me dancing?”

“But you love to dance.”

“Not if it makes you so uncomfortable.”

“Berlin said a woman like you should be treated right.”

“Well”, she smiled. “I won’t object to that, but treating me right shouldn’t come at the expense of your happiness or wellbeing. A relationship should work for both parties involved.”

“I just want you to be happy”, he murmured.

She wrapped her arms around his neck and looked up at him. “But I am happy. You make me happy.”

She gave him such a soft smile that he could barely stand it. What had he done to deserve her? He bent his head and pressed his lips to hers, and she leaned against him as she responded. Twining his fingers into her hair, he pressed her closer with one hand on the small of her back, and kissed her harder, deeper, for several long moments. When he pulled back, she was slightly breathless.

“Goddammit Sergio, you can’t kiss me like that in the middle of the street.”

 He smiled. “Why not?”

She grabbed his hair and murmured in his ear: “Because if you do it again I’m going to have to drag you into an alley and fuck you up against a wall and as a former cop I can tell you that’s definitely not allowed.”

He grinned. “Let’s get you home then, before your libido gets us arrested for public indecency.”

The moment the door closed behind them, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him fiercely, then started moving towards the bed.

He pulled back, however. “No, Raquel, wait a minute…”

She gave him a look of highest indignation. “No, I’m not waiting another minute! You know, you can’t promise someone you’re going to make her come over and over again and then not deliver. That’s just not polite.”

He smiled broadly. “Oh, I’ll keep my promise, don’t worry. But technically, this is still part of our date, so I want to do it right.”

“Then take me to bed”, she pleaded. “That’s really all I’m asking for at this point.”

“In a minute”, he said. “Let me just set the mood first.”

She groaned in frustration. “Sergio, I’m already in the mood.”

He grinned. God, he loved her enthusiasm. “I’ve noticed. But I’m not ending this date without a little romance.”

He reached for the fuse box, dimmed the big overhead lights and lit the fairy lights that were all over the workplace. Then he went over to the record player and carefully selected a slow, romantic song. When the music started up, his mind went back to the café, and he hesitated. Maybe he could still make this the perfect date, just… in his own way.

He turned around and held out his hand to her. “May I have this dance?”

Her eyes lit up. “Are you sure?”

“Yes”, he said. “I don’t mind dancing here, when it’s just you and me. You’ll have to teach me, though.”

She took his hand, smiling. “Let’s keep it simple.”

She placed his arms around her waist and wrapped her own arms around his neck.

“Now just… feel the music”, she whispered.

He liked this song and he knew it well, so moving to the rhythm wasn’t as hard as he’d thought it would be. After a minute, he felt himself relax and pulled her closer to him. She leaned her head against his shoulder and sighed happily as they turned in slow circles, and he had to admit that, actually, this was quite nice.

They kept dancing until the song was done, after which she kissed him softly.

“That was perfect.”

“Let’s dance through the next song, too.”

She pulled back a little and looked up at him.

“Sergio… I’m afraid I have a problem.”

He frowned at her in concern. “What’s wrong?”

“Well, see…” she murmured, leaning into him and putting her hand on his tie. “My boyfriend is too damn sexy and I can’t keep my hands off him.”

He grinned in delight. “That sounds like the opposite of a problem from my perspective.”

“Oh, but it is a problem”, she assured him seriously. “Because I’ve been trying to get him into bed all day and he keeps insisting that we do other things first.”

He matched her serious expression. “Hmm, that does sound challenging.”

“You have no idea”, she sighed dramatically.

“Maybe your boyfriend can make it up to you now”, he suggested.

She looked up at him, her eyes shining. “And how does he propose to do that?”

She gasped as he suddenly spun her around so her back was pressed against him.

“Like this”, he murmured, and she sighed as he started kissing her neck. He moved his hands to cup her breasts, using his thumbs to stroke her nipples through the fabric of her dress until they hardened. “Was this the kind of thing you had in mind?”

“Yes”, she breathed, leaning back against him. “Oh, yes.”

He squeezed her nipples and nipped at the soft skin of her neck with his teeth. She bit her lip.

“You don’t have to be quiet”, he reminded her. “In fact, please don’t be quiet.”

She smiled, and when he squeezed her nipples again she closed her eyes and let out a soft moan.

“That’s what I like to hear”, he murmured. “But I think we can do better than that.”

He might not feel very comfortable on the dance floor, he reflected, but here he knew exactly what he was doing, and he felt a calm, quiet confidence settle over him as he reached one hand underneath her dress and pressed his palm to her so she gasped. Then he slipped his hand inside her underwear so he could touch her, and he groaned.

“I can’t believe you’re this wet already.”

Already?” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this all day and you…”

She abruptly stopped speaking and heaved a sigh as he entered her with two fingers. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and held her tight as he moved his fingers up and started stroking her where she wanted him most, and soon she was breathing fast, her eyes closed, her lips slightly parted, uttering soft moans that made him ache with longing for her. He kept himself firmly in check, however, as he focused entirely on her, and soon she was trembling in his arms. Recognizing the signs, he quickened the pace of his fingers, and suddenly her eyes flew open.

“Sergio!” she gasped, clutching at his arm. “I need to lie down!”

“I don’t think you do”, he murmured in her ear, tightening his arm around her waist. “I think I’m going to make you come right here.”

“I don’t think I can… standing up…” she panted, but he knew exactly where to touch her, and she threw her head back with a moan.

“I won’t let you fall”, he whispered. “Trust me.”

“Oh god…” she moaned, her eyes tightly closed, her fingers gripping his arm. “Oh god!

The next moment, to his utter delight, she started shaking, then leaned heavily against him as short, whispered moans escaped her lips. He kept up the movements of his fingers until she gasped and pushed his hand away. Immediately after, he felt her knees give way, and he quickly swept her up in his arms and lifted her off the ground. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, then murmured against his lips:

“I want you, I want you, I want you so badly.”

“Good”, he rumbled in response. “Because I’m not nearly done with you.”

“Oh”, she sighed happily, then she kissed his neck as he carried her to the bed, and he felt his desire for her flare up with a sudden breathtaking intensity.

They undressed each other with eager hands, and he covered her in kisses before saying, a little breathlessly:

“Get on your knees.”

She sat up and gripped his hair, then kissed him, hard.

“God, I love it when you take charge.”

She turned around and got to her hands and knees, and he quickly got behind her. He couldn’t possibly want her more. Yet he took his time to run his hands over her back and buttocks, and down her thighs, loving the sight of her like this. They didn’t use this position back at the house because it made the bed rock and creak too hard, so he was going to damn well enjoy it now.

She looked back at him. “What are you waiting for?”

“Just looking at you”, he murmured, still caressing her. “I love looking at you.”

She laughed. “You can look at me all you want later, now please get on with it.”

“Oh no”, he said, slowly running his hand up her inner thigh, making her squirm. “You can’t have it both ways.”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t say that you like it when I take charge and then try to rush me. If I’m in charge, then I get to decide what happens and when.”

He withdrew his hands. “If I want to look at you, then I’ll look at you.”

He moved one hand around her hip and slipped it between her legs, making her shudder. “If I want to touch you, then I’ll touch you.”

He smiled, then said: “And if I want to take you very, very slowly…”

“Oh god, no”, she groaned.

“No?” he teased her. “Then what would you like?”

“You know what I want, Sergio”, she said.

“Yes”, he murmured, stroking her inner thighs again. “But I’d like to hear you say it.”

“Hard”, she whispered. “I want you to take me hard.”

He guided himself to her and gripped her hips with both hands, then he suddenly pushed into her, filling her entirely with one stroke, making a sharp cry burst from her lips.

“Like this?”

“Yes”, she breathed, “exactly like that. Now don’t stop!”

He gripped her hips even tighter and started taking her, hard and fast, pressing in deeply with each thrust, making her moan each time. She tilted her hips and he gasped as she was suddenly so tight around him, the sensation of it exquisitely, unbearably good. He gritted his teeth and took a deep breath – he didn’t want to come yet – he had other priorities. He moved his hand around her hip again and quickly found the right spot, stroking her in time with the rhythm of their movements. Soon she was breathing hard again, and when he picked up the pace, she hung her head and started trembling, gasping, her hands gripping the sheets. Suddenly she cried out and he felt her clench around him, almost pushing him over the edge too, but he managed to hold on. God, feeling her come like that was almost unbearably hot.

He stopped and pulled back his hand to let her catch her breath, then he slipped his fingers back between her legs to start stroking her again. She quickly pushed his hand away, though.

“It’s too sensitive now.”

He pulled back from her entirely. “Then we’ll have to find a different approach.”

 “What?”

She gasped as he pushed her onto her back, then laughed as he spread her legs and settled himself down between her thighs.

“What are you doing?”

“I seem to recall telling you I’d make you come again and again and again. I’m a man of my word.”

She was smiling, but said: “I’m not sure I can come three times in a row, Sergio.”

“Let’s find out”, he grinned. “This is the perfect time and place for a little experimentation.”

“It’s so sensitive now, though…”

He could feel her apprehension, so he dipped his head down and gave her the softest lick.

“How does that feel?”

“Oh”, she sighed, and he felt her relax. “Yes, that feels nice. Do it again…”

He obliged her happily, applying his tongue in such a way that she was rendered speechless. He kept the pressure very, very light, but he made up for it by entering her with two fingers and pushing upwards. She arched her back and moaned. He struck up a steady rhythm and soon she was breathing fast again, her fingers entwined in the sheets, her head thrown back. It took a little longer this time, but he didn’t mind at all. He was thoroughly enjoying the sounds she was making, loving every second of it, feeling richly rewarded when she rose up out of the pillows with a loud cry, then sobbed his name as the waves of the orgasm washed over her again and again. He reduced the pressure of his tongue, keeping her going for as long as she could bear, until she pushed his head away and fell back into the pillows, gasping and shivering.

He came up to lie beside her as she pressed her hands to her face and moaned softly.

“Oh my god, Sergio.”

“I told you I’d keep my promise”, he said smugly.

“I can’t believe you made me come three times.”

“This is really good to know for future reference”, he grinned.

“You can’t make me come three times every time though”, she laughed. “I’m exhausted.”

He took her in his arms and gently stroked her shoulder as she recovered. After a few minutes, she pulled his head down for a kiss.

“Weren’t you the perfect boyfriend today”, she murmured against his lips.

“It’s no less than you deserve”, he murmured back.

“Well”, she said, her eyes sparkling. “And you deserve something in return now. I think I know just the thing.”

She pushed him onto his back and started kissing his neck. He closed his eyes and smiled as she trailed her kisses down his chest and stomach, but when she went even lower and he realized what she was about to do, he stopped her.

“Raquel… I don’t like that.”

She sat up and gave him a look of utter disbelief. “I’m sorry… you don’t like getting blowjobs?”

“Not really, no.”

“Have you ever even gotten one?”

“Yes”, he said. “Once.”

“And you didn’t like it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Teeth”, he said succinctly. “Also, it was rather dry and just generally unstimulating.”

“Oh”, she said, comprehension dawning. “Was it your partner’s first time doing it, by any chance?”

“I… I think so, yes.”

She nodded. “Then she was probably rather nervous and clumsy. Well, I can assure you that is not what a blowjob usually feels like.”

“It isn’t?”

“No”, she said, her eyes shining. “Are you willing to give it another chance with me?”

“I… I don’t know, Raquel.”

“I promise I won’t hurt you. In fact, I one hundred percent guarantee you that you’ll love it.”

He had to admit that she had him intrigued. “You seem pretty confident.”

She grinned. “Oh, I am.”

“Well, then I don’t suppose it could hurt to try again… But you’ll stop if it’s not working?”

“I will”, she promised him. “Now lie back and relax.”

“You don’t mind doing it?” he asked her, remembering the definite lack of enthusiasm of his previous partner.

“No, I don’t mind”, she said. “In fact, I rather like it. I’m also rather good at it.”

His curiosity was definitely piqued now. “Alright then. Go ahead.”

His expectations were still low. Very low, in fact. Which was a good thing, he supposed, since it meant he wouldn’t get disappointed. He settled himself more comfortably on his back and waited for her to start. She went to sit between his legs and at first she just ran her fingers lightly down his stomach, stopping short just before she reached critical territory. When his body started responding to that, she moved her hands to his knees and ran them upwards over his thighs. She repeated the motion a few times, then he inhaled sharply as she lightly used her fingernails to draw paths up his inner thighs, the feeling of it electric. When he shivered, she bent down and started pressing kisses everywhere but there – his lower stomach, the sensitive creases of his legs, his inner thighs. Soon he was entirely hard and squirming for contact – any kind, as long as she would touch him.

“How’s your enthusiasm for the idea?” she asked him, smiling.

“Growing”, he said. Then, when she continued her tantalizing kisses, he groaned. “You’re teasing me.”

“That’s a very astute observation.”

He laughed. “Will you stop?”

“Not until you’re begging me.”

“You’re asking me to beg you for something I don’t really want in the first place?”

“Exactly.”

He considered this. “I’m not sure my dignity will allow that.”

She grinned. “Believe me, in a few minutes you’ll feel like your dignity was a very small price to pay.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I think I might need some more convincing.”

“No problem”, she whispered.

Then, very carefully, she ran her fingernails up his shaft. He shivered and closed his eyes for a moment.

“Oh. Do that again.”

She obliged him, and he shivered again. However, he already knew she was good with her hands, so…

“This isn’t convincing me about the blowjob, though”, he argued.

She nodded. “Good point. Let me give you a preview, then.”

She bent down, and this time she ran her tongue up his length. It felt soft and warm and he closed his eyes and sighed as she did it again. Then she reached the top, closed her mouth over him, and sucked, and his eyes flew open.

“Oh!”

She was doing something with her tongue now – he wasn’t sure what, but he was damn sure that he liked it. Just when it was getting really good, she stopped and looked up with a smile.

“So. Should I continue?”

“Yes”, he breathed.

“Then you know what to do”, she said smugly.

“Please”, he said immediately. “Please, Raquel, I’m begging you. Please do the thing you were just doing, it felt so good.”

“That’s what I like to hear”, she smiled. “I won’t have you unenthusiastic when you’re in bed with me, it just won’t do.”

“Well, I’m not unenthusiastic anymore. In fact, I couldn’t get any more enthusiastic.”

She laughed. “I bet you can, though. Alright, foreplay is over, let’s begin.”

He blinked. “Wait… that wasn’t it?”

She grinned at him. “I’m just getting started.”

As she bent down again, his entire body was now tense with anticipation. When her warm, wet mouth closed over him again, he shut his eyes with a groan, then he inhaled sharply as she started moving down, taking him in as far as she could. God, that felt good. His breathing quickened as she started moving up and down, but she wasn’t finished yet. Now that he was wet, she closed her hand around him with a firm grip, and put her mouth right behind her fingers. When she started moving up and down again, he gasped and clutched at the sheets.

“How… how are you doing that?”

The sensation was indescribably delicious: her hand so tight around him, with the added pleasure of her warm, soft mouth… holy hell. This compared in nothing to his previous experience: no teeth, no dry chafing, and all the right kinds of stimulation – he felt like he was floating. She did the thing with her tongue again and he moaned.

“Oh! Oh god, Raquel, what are you doing to me?”

Just when he thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, she cupped his balls with her other hand and started massaging them gently, adding a whole new layer of sensation to an already overwhelmingly ecstatic experience. This is it, he thought. This must be the absolute summum of sensual pleasure. The next moment, even that thought was extinguished as he surrendered himself entirely to the feeling of it. He wanted it to last, but he knew perfectly well he wouldn’t be able to bear it much longer, so he reveled in every second he could get before it was over. Oh, the things she did with her tongue were driving him mad!

He could feel the tension inside him start to build – fast. He pulled himself together just enough to gasp:

“Raquel, I won’t last much longer.”

He expected her to pull back, and he silently swore his undying love for her when she didn’t. A tingling was starting up in his lower stomach, and he gripped the sheets so tightly his knuckles whitened, every muscle in his body tensed.

“Don’t stop”, he whispered. “Please don’t stop.”

She didn’t, and all at once the orgasm broke over him, making him cry out sharply as a delicious fire spread through his entire body, lighting him up from the inside, taking his breath away. Wave after wave of pleasure swept through him, each an infinite moment of utter delight, and the only thought in his mind was Raquel. Then the sensation receded and he relaxed back into the pillows, panting, shaking, the skin all over his body tingling with a warm, golden afterglow.

He opened his eyes just as she drew back, and his eyes went wide as she swallowed. That was, without a doubt, the hottest thing he could imagine, and he couldn’t possibly adore her more. She moved up to sit beside him with a rather satisfied smile on her face, which he felt she had earned ten times over. He could only look up at her, stunned.

“So”, she said. “Thoughts?”

“I…” he tried, “that was… I mean… it felt…”

He gave up, and she laughed. “Out of words, are you?”

He nodded, smiling, and opened his arms to her. When she settled into them, he covered her face with kisses.

An hour later, after much cuddling and kissing and, once he regained the power of speech, offers of eternal devotion, she was idly walking around the room.

“What’s underneath here?” she asked, pulling away a sheet. “Oh! A piano! Do you play?”

“I do”, he said.

“Well, now you have to show me”, she smiled.

He got up from the bed and settled himself behind the piano. It had been a while since he last played, but his hands took up position automatically and his fingers instinctively picked out the notes of one of his favorite tunes. She sat down next to him and when he looked up at her, her eyes were shining.

“That’s very sexy”, she whispered, then leaned in to kiss his cheek.

He smiled. “Good to know. I’ll have to play the piano for you more often.”

“Please do”, she murmured, biting his earlobe and making his fingers stumble over the keys.

“Don’t distract the pianist”, he laughed.

“I would never”, she said innocently. Then, when he transitioned into a different song: “Oh, I know this tune.”

She started humming along and he looked up at her sharply. “You sing?”

“A little”, she smiled.

“Now that’s sexy. Will you sing something?”

“If you play a song I know.”

“Let’s find one, then.”

It took them a while to find a song they both knew. Finally they settled on an old Spanish folk song that everyone in Spain seemed to just know from birth – neither of them remembered learning it, yet they also couldn’t recall a time when they hadn’t known the words. He struck up the first chords, and he was surprised when she added her voice to the music, a warm, slightly husky alto that was very pleasant to listen to. He closed his eyes and allowed his fingers to find their own way across the keys, letting the sound of her voice wash over him. She leaned against his shoulder as she sang softly, giving new life to the old words he knew so well. He suddenly realized something – sitting here with her, making music together, shoulder by shoulder, the memory of a perfect day behind them, the echo of her touch still humming through his body – he’d never been happier. The thought of the heist intruded on his thoughts for a second, a dark cloud looming on the horizon of a clear blue sky, but he pushed it away again. He didn’t want to think about the future right now, about everything that might happen, everything that could go wrong. He wanted to live forever in this perfect, golden moment with her.

 

Chapter Text

 

Three weeks until the heist. Sergio had been enforcing a strict bedtime schedule to keep them all fresh and focused in class, so the members of the team were all in their respective rooms – except for Rio and Tokyo, probably, but he didn’t know how to stop that. For once, Sergio hadn’t adhered to his own curfew, but was instead sitting in front of the fireplace with his brother, sipping wine and talking things over.

“We’re on schedule”, Sergio said. “I’ve laid out the entire plan, we can start revising it soon to make sure everyone has it memorized.”

“Are you getting nervous yet?” Berlin grinned.

“A little”, Sergio admitted. “I suppose you’re not?”

“No”, Berlin said calmly. “I have faith in the plan.”

Sergio nodded. “It’s a solid plan, I know it is. There’s only one thing that worries me.”

“What?”

“Raquel.”

“You still think she’s going to be a distraction to you in the control room?”

“No, I don’t. In fact, I’m grateful she’ll be there. I was a fool for thinking I could man the control room alone, it really is a two-man job. No, what worries me is what will happen when I leave the control room.”

“What do you mean?”

“She might need to give orders when I’m not there. Will the team follow them?”

“All orders will go through me”, Berlin reminded him, “and I can assure you I’ll follow any commands she gives me.”

“Forgive me, Andrés, but we don’t know what will happen in there and you’re… you’re not well. You may be incapacitated at some point. The other members of the team need to be willing to follow Raquel’s orders too.”

“They seem to accept her, though. Well, all except Tokyo.”

Sergio nodded. “Tokyo worries me. But the others, too – I agree that they’ve accepted her as a member of the team, but not as a superior.”

Berlin raised his eyebrows at him. “How can they accept her as their superior if you treat her like a regular member of the team?”

“What do you mean?”

“You want them to see her as their leader, but you don’t let her lead. She sits in class like the rest of us.”

Sergio frowned. “So what should I do?”

“Organize some activities where she can be in charge instead of you.”

“Like what?”

“She’s a cop – let her teach them how to shoot properly. Moscow looks deeply uncomfortable with a gun in his hands and Denver couldn’t hit an elephant.”

“That’s actually a good idea.”

“I’m full of good ideas.”

Sergio gave him an amused look. “Any other suggestions, then?”

“Put her in front of the class with you when you teach. Show everyone quite literally that she’s with you, separate her physically from the rest of the group.”

Sergio gave a thoughtful nod. “I’ll do that. Thank you.”

He drained his glass of wine and involuntarily shot a look at the stairs. He knew Raquel would be waiting for him in his bedroom. His brother followed the direction of his gaze and gave him a nod, smiling.

“You should go to her.”

“No”, he said quickly, “I’m talking to you.”

“It’s only a few more weeks until the heist, though. Like you said: we don’t know what will happen then. You should enjoy the time you have left with her.”

Sergio shook his head. “If everything goes well, I’ll have my whole life to spend time with her. Whereas you…”

Berlin raised his hand. “We already had a lifetime together. Believe me: if something goes wrong with the operation, you’ll regret every moment you didn’t spend with her. Go.”

Sergio hesitated, torn between the only two people he loved in the world. When he stayed seated, Berlin got up instead, grinning.

“Indecisive as usual. I’ll make the decision for you, then. Goodnight, little brother.”

Sergio lost no time implementing his brother’s suggestions: the very next morning, he put Raquel in front of the class with him. She knew the plan so well by now that she was able to take over parts of the lesson from him, while he stood back and watched her. She did it so well, yet it was a deeply uncomfortable experience for him to surrender control. He supposed he should get used to it, though, since he’d have to do it in the control room as well – after all, he needed sleep like anyone else, and there would be times when he’d have to leave the hangar altogether.

In the afternoon, he set them to target practice. They stood in a long line and fired at the targets he’d provided, while Raquel went by them one by one and corrected their grip or their aim. All went well until she reached Tokyo.

“Don’t hold your gun like that when you want to make a precision shot”, she said, reaching out to correct Tokyo’s grip.

“Back off”, Tokyo snapped, pushing her hands away. “I know how to shoot a gun.”

“Clearly you don’t”, Raquel fired back.

“I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”

Sergio stepped forward.

“Tokyo”, he said sharply. “Lisbon knows what she’s doing. Follow her instructions.”

Tokyo shot Raquel a resentful look, but allowed her to adjust her grip. Later, however, Raquel took Sergio aside.

“I know you meant well”, she said, “but you can’t keep stepping in when the others question my authority. It will only weaken my position. I need to fight this battle for myself.”

“I’m sorry”, he said. “You’re right.”

“We need a situation where I’m in charge without your presence to back up my authority.”

“What do you propose?”

“Send us on a short mission, just to practice, nothing dangerous.”

“Like what?”

“In the police academy they sent us on droppings of multiple days. I know we don’t have that kind of time, but maybe just for an afternoon?”

“What would that entail?”

“You’d take us to an unknown location away from the house and we’d have to find our own way back, no smartphones, just a map. It’s great for team building.”

“I don’t want you or Tokyo traipsing along public roads where anyone might recognize you.”

She shot him an amused look. “We just spent an entire afternoon ‘traipsing’ through Madrid. Weren’t those public roads?”

“That’s different, that was just you and me in a big city where nobody was looking at us twice. But in small villages like the ones around here, a big group of strangers on foot will draw attention.”

“We’ll stay away from the villages, then”, she said. “Cut cross- country. That will only add to the challenge.”

When he still hesitated, she insisted: “They need to get used to following my orders, Sergio. This will be the perfect opportunity.”

He sighed. “Alright. I’ll arrange some things and we can do the dropping on Friday.”

She kissed his cheek. “Great.”

And so it came about that, on Friday, Raquel found herself in the back of a windowless van with seven members of the team: Berlin had stayed home, pleading a headache, though Raquel strongly suspected that he just didn’t like the idea of walking cross-country all afternoon. She didn’t mind – Berlin wasn’t the person she was worried about ignoring her orders. The van passed over an uneven patch of road and she bumped shoulders with Tokyo, who gave her an annoyed look. Raquel sighed inwardly. Now that one she was worried about.

Her thoughts drifted as they went along, and she couldn’t help but shudder at the memory of when she’d last been in a van like this, handcuffed, desperate, on her way to jail. But then the van had stopped and the doors had opened, and the men who freed her had brought her to a new life – had brought her to Sergio. Thinking back on it, she still couldn’t entirely wrap her head around how her fortunes had shifted so suddenly, so completely. From the darkest moment of her life back into the light.

The van stopped abruptly and Sergio opened the back doors, making them all squint at the bright sunlight streaming in. One by one, they got out, shading their eyes, into the simmering air of an unusually hot autumn day. Raquel put on the cap she had brought and they all turned to Sergio.

“Alright”, he said. “I’m leaving you here to make your own way back to the house. Remember: stay off the roads as much as possible. Lisbon is in charge. She has a phone, but it’s only to be used in case of emergency – you’ll have to rely on the map to get you home. I’ll see you all tonight.”

He got back into the van and Raquel watched him drive away, then she turned to look at their surroundings. They were on a small road in the middle of some fields, stubbly with the remains of the harvest. There was a clump of trees a short distance away and a single house in the opposite direction. She took a deep breath and addressed the members of the team, who were all looking at her expectantly.

“First things first”, she said. “We need water and we need to get out of the sun while we find our bearings.”

She handed the empty water bottles they’d brought to Rio and Nairobi.

“You two go to that house and ask if you can fill these bottles. Meet us at those trees over there.”

Nairobi and Rio left without comment, and Raquel led the others into the shade of the trees, where she spread out the map on the ground.

“We need to find the name of this road”, she concluded. “Helsinki and Denver – go right and walk along the road until you find a street name or a signpost to the nearest village. Preferably both.”

“That doesn’t make any sense”, Tokyo argued. “They should go in opposite directions, that way there will be a better chance of them finding something sooner.”

Raquel shook her head. “No. If one person finds something, we have no way of alerting the other person to come back, so we’d still have to wait for him.”

“We could send someone running after him”, Tokyo argued.

“We’re doing it my way, Tokyo”, Raquel said shortly, acutely aware that the others were paying close attention to their argument.

“But…”

“This decision is not up for discussion”, Raquel snapped, then turned to Helsinki and Denver. “Go right, both of you.”

To her relief, they went off without questioning her, and Tokyo walked a few paces away from her and sat down on the ground with a sulky expression. Raquel sat down next to Moscow, who gave her a sympathetic smile.

“Don’t let her get to you”, he said quietly.

Raquel smiled back. “I won’t, but thank you.”

“You certainly seem to know what you’re doing.”

“We did a lot of droppings at the police academy.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll lead us home very capably.”

“If only Tokyo had as much faith in me as you do.” She shook her head. “I wish I could get everyone to trust me, Moscow. They don’t have to like me, but it’s important that we all trust each other once the operation starts.”

“We trust you”, he said quietly.

“You didn’t a few weeks ago when I didn’t return from grocery shopping because of the car breaking down.”

“Those were unusually suspicious circumstances, though. We were just being careful. Afterwards, when things calmed down, we all realized we’d been very wrong to distrust you.”

“Except for Tokyo”, Raquel said bitterly. “She still doesn’t trust me at all.”

“It will be different during the operation. Once we’re on the ground and our lives depend on you and the Professor in the control room, I’m sure she’ll come around.”

Raquel sighed. “I hope so.”

He gave her a thoughtful look. “You’re a good person. You care about the operation and you care about the team. Sooner or later, she’ll realize that.”

She was touched. She liked Moscow, and his good opinion meant a lot to her.

She reached out and put a hand on his arm for a moment. “Thank you.”

He gave her a gentle smile and patted her hand. “I like you, Lisbon. You keep a steady head. I’m glad you’ll be in the control room with the Professor.”

Rio and Nairobi returned with the water and a little later Denver and Helsinki returned with the name of the street they were on, and from there Raquel quickly found where they were on the map, give or take a few hundred yards. They all set out, Raquel in front and the team behind her, talking and laughing. It wasn’t easy going across the uneven fields, though, and soon they were all sweating in the hot sun.

“It’s so fucking hot”, Denver said plaintively for the hundredth time, wiping the sweat out of his eyes.

“I thought you wanted to go live on a tropical island after this was all done, Denver”, Nairobi laughed. “It’s going to be much hotter there, so you’d better get used to it.”

“When I’m on my tropical island, I’m not going to be tramping through the fields, though”, Denver retorted. “I’m going to lie on my backside on the beach and drink piña coladas.”

“I can’t wait to go to my island”, Rio said dreamily. “Just lie in a hammock and take naps in the middle of the day.”

“Yes”, Tokyo supplied, “so we can go partying all night.”

“Are you looking forward to partying too, Moscow?” Nairobi said, elbowing him amicably in the side.

Moscow smiled. “I’m just looking forward to a quiet retirement.”

Behind him, Helsinki nodded. “Never having to shoot a gun again. Living the good life.”

Raquel said nothing. Life hadn’t been particularly kind to her lately, and she wasn’t going to tempt fate by day-dreaming about their idyllic lives after the heist. One day at a time, she kept telling herself. One day at a time.

There were frequent stops to consult the map, which was made harder by the fact that they weren’t using the roads. Everybody had an opinion about what direction they should take, and there were some heated debates, but Raquel made the final decisions. Once, though, the entire group insisted they should go left when her gut told her they should go right, and she let herself be persuaded. After a difficult trek through a patch of forest with thick undergrowth, they came to a village that told them they had gone in entirely the wrong direction. Raquel quietly turned around to head back, but Tokyo walked up to her angrily.

“I thought you knew what you were doing? Now we have to go through that forest again and I’m sick and tired of getting stung by nettles.”

“It’s our own fault, Tokyo”, Nairobi said. “We were the ones who persuaded her to go left after the last stop.”

“No”, Raquel said calmly. “She’s right. I’m in charge, this is my responsibility.”

“You shouldn’t be in charge if you don’t know what you’re doing”, Tokyo said acidly, then fell back to her usual position at the back of the group. From that point onwards, Tokyo argued with every decision Raquel made, and after a while it really began to piss her off. The others accepted her leadership without question though, and all in all, they were working together rather smoothly as they made their way, slowly but steadily, back in the direction of the house.

By the time that it was getting dark, however, everyone was tired and hungry. They hadn’t brought any food, because Raquel had expected to be back by the house by dinnertime, but moving through the fields and patches of forest was rather slower going than she had anticipated. When they passed close by a village, Tokyo stopped.

“Let’s go get some food.”

“We don’t have any money”, Raquel pointed out.

“So? I can sneak some things out of a supermarket.”

“We’re not shoplifting”, Raquel said firmly. “Nobody’s taking a risk like that this close to the operation.”

“But we’re all hungry”, Tokyo complained.

“Then let’s stop this pointless arguing and get back to the house so we can eat.”

There were nods of agreement all around, and they moved off the road again into another patch of forest, Tokyo at the back of the group. A few minutes later, however, Raquel heard Rio call out.

“Lisbon! Tokyo’s gone!”

She turned back sharply. “What?”

“She was right behind me a moment ago, but now she’s gone!”

“But… where?”

“Knowing Tokyo”, Moscow said tiredly, “she’s probably gone into the village anyway.”

Raquel cursed heatedly. “Alright, let’s turn back. Quickly!”

They all hurried back the way they came, and when they stepped out of the trees, they were just in time to see Tokyo walk into the village in the distance and disappear between the houses.

Raquel stared after her, astonished that Tokyo would go to such lengths just to spite her. They had a quick argument about what to do, then Raquel took them to the edge of the village, where they peered down the street. There were several small shops that Tokyo might have gone into, but they had no way of knowing which. Raquel was just instructing them to each check a different shop, when a police car came tearing out of a side street with its lights on. It stopped in front of one of the shops and a police officer stepped out and went inside.

“She’s been caught”, Rio said with a stricken look. “If they take her to a police station she’ll be recognized for sure!”

They all turned to look at Raquel, who was thinking fast. There was no time to call Sergio – in a few minutes, Tokyo would be at the local police station and her fingerprints would reveal her identity. She would be questioned… and then who knew what she might say?

“Lisbon!” Nairobi said urgently, pointing at the store, where the cop was leading out Tokyo in handcuffs. “What do we do?”

Raquel swallowed hard. There was only one thing for it.

She grabbed Rio by the arm and gave him some quick instructions, then she took a deep breath, stood up straight, pulled her shoulders back, and walked straight towards the cop before she could think it through and change her mind. She was counting on something she’d observed so often in witnesses: the inability of most people to recognize faces outside of their usual context. The police officer was pushing Tokyo into the back seat as she reached him, and to her relief she saw that he was just a kid, not much older than Rio. A rookie. She cleared her throat.

“Everything alright, constable?”

He turned and gave her a confused look. “Yes, ma’am. Uhm…?”

“Chief Inspector González”, she introduced herself. “Madrid, second district. I’m on holiday here. I was just passing by.”

She shot a look at Tokyo in the car, and the cop clarified: “Just a shoplifter.” Then he gave her a closer look. “Do I know you from somewhere? You seem familiar.”

Exactly as she’d expected – he recognized her but didn’t know from where. Now she just had to suggest a plausible explanation to him before he could think about it too hard.

Her heart was racing, but she kept a carefully neutral expression. “Yes, you look familiar too. What station were you in before this one?”

“Madrid fourth district, patrol duties, for a year. Until three weeks ago, when I was transferred to this backwater.”

She nodded. “Yes, I was at the fourth until about a year ago. Vice. Our paths must have crossed just as I was leaving there.”

“Vice, huh? So you were stationed under Inspector Gómez?”

She gave him a mild smile. “Gómez was stationed under me.”

The kid looked impressed. Right on cue, Rio came running up, panting.

“Sir! The supermarket around the corner was robbed! They’re asking if you can come quickly.”

“Another robbery?” the cop said, flustered.

“Must be a gang”, Raquel said.

The cop frowned. He shot a look from Tokyo in the car to Rio, clearly suspicious that the situation was exactly what it was: that Rio was there to create a distraction and bust out Tokyo.

“Please sir!” Rio said. “Someone’s hurt!”

“Alright”, the cop nodded. “But you’re coming with me.”

Rio shook his head. “I can’t, I have to get home.”

He scampered off, and the young police officer was clearly torn, looking from the direction Rio had disappeared in to the direction of the supermarket. Then he shot an uncertain look at Raquel, who nodded at him.

“Go. I’ll stay here to keep an eye on this one.”

The kid shot her a grateful look. “Thanks.”

Raquel heaved a sigh of relief as he pushed a button to lock the car and started to go, but after only a few paces he turned back to her and she tensed again.

“That guy might come back though, to try and free the girl.”

“Don’t worry about it”, she said. “I can handle him.”

The cop shook his head. “I don’t feel comfortable leaving you here without a way to defend yourself.”

He took the baton off his belt and handed it to an astonished Raquel.

“Thanks”, she said, and the kid nodded at her and hurried off.

Raquel waited until he disappeared around the corner, then turned to the car and, without a second’s hesitation, smashed the baton through the driver’s window. Then she reached in, pressed the button that would unlock all the doors, opened Tokyo’s door and pulled her out by the scruff of her neck.

“You idiot girl”, she hissed. “You absolute imbecile. Now run!”

The two of them ran out of the village as fast as they could, picking up Rio around the corner, who laughed and whooped at the sight of Tokyo. The others were anxiously waiting for them at the edge of the houses.

“Let’s go!” Raquel yelled as she ran past, and they dove straight into the woods at the side of the road.

She didn’t allow them to stop running until they were quite a way into the forest, then she halted and they all stopped, panting.

“I can’t believe you did that”, Denver said, staring at Raquel.

Raquel grimaced. “What was I supposed to do? Let him take her?”

“But you could have been recognized!” Nairobi said. “Your face was all over the news when you escaped.”

“It’s dark and I’m wearing a hat. Also, it’s been four months since I escaped from that prison van and the police were looking for me.”

“Still”, Moscow said, shaking his head. “You took quite a risk.”

“It had to be done”, Raquel said. Then she turned to Tokyo. “And you! If you ever disobey orders again, I will not hesitate for a second to kick you off the team! This is not a fucking game, Tokyo, I am your superior and all of your lives will depend on you following my commands. Fuck with me again and you are out! Do I make myself clear?

Tokyo gave her a defiant look, and for a long moment, they stared each other down. Then Tokyo lowered her eyes. “Yes.”

Raquel felt a fierce rush of satisfaction. “Good. Now let’s get the fuck back to the house.”

“You should have seen her, Professor”, Rio said enthusiastically. “She was so cool about it. She didn’t hesitate or anything.”

They were sitting around the dinner table, hungrily eating the pasta Berlin had cooked, and telling Sergio all about their adventure – all except Tokyo, who was staying remarkably quiet.

“Yes”, Nairobi chipped in. “She walked straight up to that cop like it was nothing.”

“I wouldn’t have known what to do”, Denver said, “but Lisbon came up with a plan like that.” He snapped his fingers.

“She’s a quick thinker”, Moscow added appreciatively. “And she certainly saved Tokyo from a one-way trip to jail.”

Raquel wished they’d just shut up. Sergio was listening to the story with a carefully neutral expression, but she could see that it was costing him a lot of effort, and beneath his calm exterior, she could feel a storm brewing. When they had walked up to the house, Raquel had considered asking the others not to talk about what happened in the village, but she felt that she couldn’t very well ask them to lie just to save her a fight with her boyfriend. Now she had a fun conversation to look forward to after dinner. She realized very well that his quick mind had probably already figured out all the ways in which the scenario with the cop could have played out differently, ending with her and Tokyo both in jail.

The others didn’t pick up on Sergio’s mood, however, and the atmosphere around the table was one of celebration, of elation that everything had turned out so well, that one of their own had outsmarted the cops. That’s something, at least, Raquel thought. Nobody’s going to doubt my loyalties anymore after this. She was well and truly one of them now, and she basked in the warm feeling of acceptance she felt emanating from the group.

Tokyo quietly disappeared upstairs right after dinner, with Sergio following her soon afterwards, and Raquel assumed that Tokyo was in for a rough ten minutes. Good, she deserved it. Raquel stayed at the table a little longer after she heard his bedroom door close, letting him cool off, gathering her strength for her own rough ten minutes, for the fight she had known she was going to have from the moment she walked up to that cop. She understood why he was angry, but she was very tired and she wished they could just have this fight tomorrow. Finally she decided she should just get it over with, so she took a deep breath, wished everyone a good night, and went up the stairs.

Tokyo was waiting for her in the hallway, the very last person she wanted to see right now.

“What?” Raquel said coldly.

Tokyo gave her a thoughtful look. “You took a big risk out there. That cop could have recognized you and then you would have gone to jail.”

Raquel nodded, silent.

Tokyo seemed to struggle with herself for a moment. “Why did you do it? You could have let him take me in. You didn’t need to put yourself in danger.”

“Yes, I did. We’re a team.”

“I wouldn’t have done it for you.”

Raquel gave the girl a long look. “Well, then that’s the difference between you and me, Tokyo.”

She started to turn around, but Tokyo spoke again. “I was wrong about you.”

Raquel turned back.

“I didn’t trust you, but you risked everything for me tonight.” She hesitated for a moment, then said: “That was a pretty badass thing to do.”

And she turned around and quickly walked to her room. Raquel watched her go and realized that this was the closest thing to an apology or a ‘thank you’ that she would ever get from Tokyo. She smiled to herself. It was enough.

Then she turned to the door of Sergio’s bedroom, steeled herself, and walked in. He was standing by the window, looking out into the night, his arms crossed. When she closed the door behind herself, he turned and gave her a look of cold anger.

“What were you thinking, Raquel?”

She refused to get angry in return.

“I wasn’t thinking”, she defended herself calmly. “That’s the point: there was no time to think. I made a snap decision, and I don’t regret it.”

“Do you have any idea of the risk you took?”

She raised her chin defiantly. “I’m not apologizing for doing what needed to be done, Sergio. I had to get Tokyo out of there, I thought you’d agree with that.”

He gave her a look of horror. “You think I’d want you to sacrifice yourself for Tokyo? What do I care about Tokyo, compared to you?”

“You’re not thinking straight”, she said firmly. “If she’d been taken in, who knows what she might have confessed to get a reduction on her sentence?”

“You think she’d have betrayed us?”

“I’m saying it’s not impossible.”

“What about Rio? Do you think she’d betray him too?”

“Honestly Sergio, who knows what Tokyo thinks or feels? She may be in love with this boy or she may just be fucking him, and I wasn’t going to risk the operation on the mere chance that it’s the first option.”

“Still, you were damn lucky it turned out the way it did! This could have gone so wrong!”

“But it didn’t”, she said reasonably. “Please don’t get so upset over something that didn’t even happen.”

“I’m not allowed to get upset?” he said heatedly. “Raquel, have you even considered what could have happened? If that cop had recognized you, you would have been arrested! You would have gone to jail, and I would never have seen you again! I didn’t… I didn’t even kiss you goodbye!”

His voice broke, and he took a shaking breath. She quickly crossed the room and he opened his arms to her, then held her so tightly it hurt. She didn’t say anything, however – he needed this. She just held him in return, leaning her head against his chest.

After several long moments, he whispered: “Raquel… what would I do if something happened to you?”

She pulled back to look at him, reaching up a hand to stroke his cheek and saying gently: “I’m okay though. You worry too much.”

He took her hand and kissed it – her palm, her fingers, her wrist – and she was reminded once again how deeply he seemed to feel things. It was so easy to forget that in day-to-day life, when he presented such a cool and detached façade to the world, and often even to her. But when he let his guard down and looked at her like he did now… nobody had ever looked at her like that before.

He bent his head and pressed his lips to hers, and she felt her body respond to him the way it always did: instantly and with boundless enthusiasm. She’d had her share of sexual partners in the past, and she knew that some people were simply more compatible in bed than others, but she’d never felt anything like this. The first time he’d kissed her had been such a surprise to her – the thrill of it, the breathtaking intensity of the desire he woke in her. Theirs was a compatibility on a level far beyond anything she’d ever experienced before, a connection that went so much deeper than the physical, but that reflected on it as well, and made the experience so much richer. It wasn’t that he was more skilled than the other men she’d slept with – though he was learning quickly – but simply that he made her feel so much more. She couldn’t explain it. She only knew that, at forty, he was making her feel like a hormonal teenager and she simply couldn’t get enough of him.

He was kissing her more deeply now, one hand in her hair and the other on her back, pressing her close to him, and she felt the familiar tingle between her legs that his kisses never failed to elicit. She kissed him back hungrily and started undoing his tie, pushed his jacket off his shoulders, unbuttoned his shirt, at which point, to her delight, he lifted her off the floor and carried her to the bed. He lay her down carefully and joined her, kissing her throat while letting his hand roam down her body – over her breasts, down her stomach, between her thighs – until she simply couldn’t stand it anymore. She started unbuttoning her own shirt, but he pulled her hand away and took over, making his way down slowly, button by button, kissing every inch of bared skin along the way. She was still getting used to the way he treated her body – not like it was something to possess, something that existed to give him pleasure, but like every inch of it was precious to him, like he was discovering it all over again every time they made love, and every time he seemed delighted by what he found. He made her feel so beautiful.

He didn’t allow her to take off a single item of her own clothing, gently but firmly pushing her hands away and undressing her with that quiet confidence he had developed over the past few weeks. She couldn’t help but smile as she thought back on their first time, in the fake workplace, how nervous and careful he’d been, asking for her consent at every step. It had been exactly what she needed, after Alberto. Even now that he was getting more confident – which she loved – he was never rough with her, never demanding, never taking more than she was willing to give. As he ran his hands over her naked body, she realized how safe she felt with him, how attentive he was, always putting her needs first, always making sure she was comfortable in every way. But he could make her shiver, too. In just a few weeks, he had uncovered all the secrets of her body, and she sighed as he unfailingly found her most sensitive spots, playing her expertly with his fingers, pressing his warm mouth against her skin until she gasped, until she trembled, until she ached for more.

“Sergio”, she whispered. “I want you.”

“Not yet”, he murmured, then closed his mouth over a nipple and sucked, making her moan as the fire between her legs flared higher and higher until her longing for him became almost unbearable. He switched to her other nipple and reached down a hand to stroke the inside of her thighs, coming so close but never quite touching her, driving her to distraction. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore – she took his hand and pressed it against her, and he looked up with a smile.

“Always so impatient” he said softly, moving up to kiss her, and she shuddered as his fingers merely brushed against her.

“Yes”, she groaned. “Will you hurry up, I can’t stand this.”

She’d never been with a man who liked to take his time with her as much as he did, and she loved it as much as it pushed the very limits of her patience.

“Hmm”, he murmured. “Let me see what I can do.”

She whimpered softly as he slipped one finger inside of her – that made her hunger for him so much worse, teasing what was to come without satisfying her in the slightest. She grabbed his hair and gave him a threatening look, and he chuckled softly and slipped in a second finger, making her sigh.

“You’re so wet”, he whispered in her ear, and she gasped as he added a third finger and pushed in deeply. She closed her eyes and sighed with pleasure, but it still wasn’t what she craved so desperately – his body on hers and his arms around her as he buried himself deep inside her.

Sergio”, she moaned, and this time he obliged her, pulling back his fingers and settling himself between her thighs, and she sighed as he covered her body with his, loving the solid warmth of him in her arms, the delight of lying skin to skin. He didn’t move for a moment, and when she opened her eyes he was looking down at her with a softness that struck an answering chord deep inside her, making her reach up a hand and gently pull his head down for a kiss. It kept surprising her, this sweetness in him, that he was capable of such tenderness. She’d had a lot of good sex in her life – great sex, even – but until she met him, she’d had very little experience with tender sex. Perhaps, she reflected, she’d always chosen the wrong men. Until now.

He kept kissing her as he entered her, and she moaned against his lips at the bliss of feeling him fill her up inch by inch. She loved having him inside her, and she loved it even more when he started taking her with slow, deliberate strokes, pushing in deep each time. She closed her eyes and held him tight, reveling in the sensation, lifting her knees so he could take her even deeper, making her sigh with every thrust. He picked up the pace and soon they were both breathing fast, their bodies moving in perfect synchronicity, and she felt the familiar pressure inside her begin to build. She knew it wouldn’t lead to an orgasm in this position, but she wasn’t worried – he’d never left her disappointed yet. Suddenly he gasped and tensed, and she held him close and stroked the back of his neck as he shuddered his release.

He remained motionless for a few moments to catch his breath, then he looked up at her with a smile and kissed her, first on the lips and then along her neck, over her chest, down her stomach. She smiled broadly in anticipation as he settled himself comfortably between her thighs – she loved how generous he was in bed, never satisfied until she was satisfied, sometimes making her come more times in a week than she used to come in a month. In the past, she’d often had trouble reaching orgasm, but it all felt so right with him, and he had such a startlingly intense effect on her body that he barely had to touch her to set her off… again… and again… and again. She settled herself deeper in the pillows and sighed with pleasure as he pressed his mouth against her and began exploring her with his tongue, long, broad strokes interspersed with teasingly light ones until she was squirming to feel him where she wanted him most.

Finally he settled in the right spot, and she moaned as he set to work in earnest. She’d already been halfway there, so it didn’t take long before she felt a delicious tingle start up in her core, making her tilt her hips as she tangled her fingers in the sheets.

“Yes”, she breathed, her voice strained. “Yes, just like that. Oh, yes, yes, yes!”

She gasped loudly as the wave inside her suddenly crested and broke, making her shake uncontrollably as the feeling rushed through her with an intensity that took her breath away. She threw her head back and moaned and moaned as the sensation just kept going – he eased off ever so gradually, drawing out her pleasure for as long as she could bear. Finally he pulled back, but he didn’t come up, and kept her tingling with little soft licks as she caught her breath. She wasn’t surprised – he was rarely satisfied with making her come just once. Not that she minded.

After a few moments, he moved up again and immediately had her gasping. She was so sensitive now, and his tongue felt so, so good against her. A moment later, he added another delicious sensation to her experience as he pressed into her with two fingers, and she moaned as he curled them upwards and hit just the right spot. Soon, her breathing was fast and uneven again, her back arched, her hands tightly gripping the sheets. He picked up the pace slightly, and that was all it took to bring her to the edge – she tensed, every muscle taut, then started trembling as the feeling crashed over her a second time with a tingling she felt down to her toes, and she rose up on her elbows with a soft cry as wave after wave of pleasure rushed through her. After several endless, ecstatic moments, she pushed his head away and fell back into the pillows, shaking, her breath coming in sobs. When he moved up to take her into his arms, she buried her face against his chest and held on tight to him as he gently stroked her back.

After she’d recovered, she looked up and kissed him.

“That was amazing”, she whispered, and he gave her a pleased smile and bent down to kiss her again, a long, slow kiss that they both sank into.

Finally he pulled back and gave her a serious look.

“I’m sorry about how I reacted earlier”, he said quietly. “I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you.”

“It’s alright”, she said. She was pretty willing to forgive him at this point.

He shook his head, however. “No, it’s not. You did such an amazing thing today.”

She looked up at him. “Really?”

“Really”, he said. “You were brave and clever and selfless, and you’ve earned everyone’s respect, including Tokyo’s. I’m… I’m proud of you.”

She felt a warm glow at hearing him say that and hugged him close. He tightened his arms around her in return and buried his face in her hair.

Then he whispered: “But please never do anything like this again.”

“I won’t”, she assured him. “Next time Tokyo gets herself arrested, she’s on her own.”

“It’s just…” he said, “it took me forty years to find you, Raquel. I can’t stand the thought of losing you now.”

She thought about the heist, coming closer every day, dangerous and unpredictable. There was no way of knowing how things would end. One day at a time, she warned herself. One day at a time. Yet here in his arms, she felt strong enough to tempt fate, just this once.

“You’re not going to lose me”, she said. “It’s you and me, my love. Always, you and me.”

“Yes”, he whispered, holding her close. “Always.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Sergio put down his phone with a deep frown.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“You know how we’re supposed to leave Europe on a ship, after the heist?”

“From a small town near Porto, yes.”

“Well, the captain just called me and told me our deal is off.”

She grimaced. “Damn. Why?”

“He says he’s thought it over and the risk is too big. I think I may still be able to change his mind, however.”

“How?”

“By offering him more money, of course. The problem is that he’s going to want part of it beforehand, in case the heist goes wrong and he should get nothing. He’ll want it in cash, too.”

“Do you have an associate nearby that you can send to him?”

“Nobody I’d trust with that kind of money.” He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I think I’d better drive down there myself to try and persuade him. This is too important.”

“Are you seriously going to drive all the way to Porto? Couldn’t you use a fake passport and take a plane?”

He chuckled. “Yes, I’m sure the people at customs won’t question why I have twenty thousand euros in my carry-on.”

“Alright, good point. When would you go?”

“Right now.” He picked up his phone. “It’s a six hour drive. If I leave now, I could get there by seven.”

She frowned. “You can’t drive six hours by yourself, Sergio, that’s not safe. Take me with you.”

He shook his head. “Believe me, I’d like nothing better than a second driver and a little company, but I need you here. There’s only two weeks left until the heist, and I won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon. We can’t afford to miss any more classes at his point. Would you mind taking over teaching from me this afternoon and tomorrow morning?”

Her eyes lit up. “Really? You think I could do that?”

“Of course”, he nodded. “You know the plan as well as I do, and it’s only revision now anyway.”

“I’ll try my best”, she said.

He kissed her. “I have complete faith in you.”

He set out on the long drive to Porto with an uneasy feeling in his stomach. It was essential that he secure their passage on a ship out of Europe before the heist started. It had taken him months of careful inquiries and bargaining to find this captain – if he backed out now, it could create some serious problems. The drive went smoothly, and he took care to stop at regular intervals so he wouldn’t exhaust himself, but he was still very tired when he finally arrived at the small harbor town where the captain lived. He lost no time going to the man’s house, but his heart sank when he got there and saw that the windows were all dark. He rang the doorbell, but nobody answered – clearly the captain was out tonight. When he called him, all he got was a generic voicemail message.

Cursing softly, he got back in the car and drove the twenty minutes to Porto itself, where he knew a small but clean hotel that would probably be able to take him last minute. He checked in, then took his bag up to the tiny room and let himself fall onto the bed, his mind already formulating a plan: he’d talk to the captain tomorrow morning and still get back to the house by dinnertime. He called Raquel to let her know she’d have to teach in the afternoon, too.

“Why didn’t you call ahead and let the captain know you were coming?” she asked him.

“He would have told me not to come”, he said. “He said he’d made up his mind. Better to confront him face to face with a bag of cash.”

“Yes, that might sway him.”

“How did teaching go this afternoon?”

“Good, I think.”

“Did Tokyo give you any trouble?”

He heard the smile in her voice. “No, Tokyo has been remarkably well-behaved since I busted her out of that police car.”

“As she should be”, he said firmly.

They talked for a few more minutes, then she said:

“Go to bed, Sergio. You sound exhausted and you need to be rested if you’re going to drive all the way back tomorrow.”

“You’re right”, he said, suppressing a yawn. “I’ll call you tomorrow after I’ve talked to the captain. Goodnight, Raquel.”

“Goodnight, my love.”

His vision was hazy with tiredness as he got into his pajamas and then between the sheets. He fell asleep instantly.

In the early hours of the morning, he awoke suddenly with the feeling that something was very, very wrong. He sat up, his entire body alert, and automatically reached out a hand to the place beside him – then he realized what was wrong… she wasn’t sleeping next to him. He let himself fall back into the pillows with a sigh. He’d been so exhausted when he fell asleep that he hadn’t really been aware of anything anymore, but now he was wide awake and faintly but insistently uncomfortable. They hadn’t spent a single night apart since they’d first started sleeping together, and lying in this bed alone was just deeply weird. He wondered how he’d gotten used to it so fast, in just a few short weeks, after having slept alone all of his life. He tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable, but it was a long time before he managed to go back to sleep.

 

 

 

The next morning, he went to the captain’s house and rang the doorbell. When there was no answer, he tried calling him again. This time, the captain picked up.

“Salva? What do you want?”

“To talk to you. I’m in Porto.”

“You shouldn’t have come, I told you I’ve made up my mind.”

“Please talk to me anyway, I came all this way.”

“I’m visiting a friend in Lisbon right now, but I’ll be back tonight. I can meet you in Porto for dinner at eight.”

They arranged a place to meet, then Sergio hung up and drove back to his hotel. He didn’t like this at all – this would mean he’d have to spend another night in Porto. He called Raquel to explain, assured her that he’d drive back at dawn the next day, then wondered what he’d do until eight. He hadn’t brought anything to work on, since he hadn’t thought he’d need to kill time. He went out and wandered the streets of the city for a while, until he stumbled on a tiny, dusty second-hand bookshop and decided to go in and buy something to read. He browsed the messy stacks for a while until a familiar cover struck him: a collection of poems by Pablo Neruda.

He took the book off the shelf and ran his fingers tenderly over the spine. This book – this exact same edition – was one of the few things he had of his mother. He’d leafed through the pages so often that it was almost falling apart, so he hadn’t taken it with him to the house in Toledo, instead choosing to keep it in a safe location, meaning that it had been six months since he’d last read it. On a whim, he decided to buy this one and take it back to his hotel.

At eight o’clock sharp, he was at the agreed upon restaurant, waiting for the captain. The man arrived at ten past eight and they shook hands and went inside.

“I’m sorry you came here for nothing, Salva”, the captain said once they were seated.

“Don’t say that, Pedro. Please listen to my proposal, at least.”

Pedro shook his head. “I told you, I can’t do it anymore. For your safety as much as mine.”

“What do you mean?”

The man heaved a heavy sigh. “The police have been sniffing around me, Salva. A friend of mine on the force has told me that they’re keeping an eye on me – and they’ll probably continue doing so for several more months. I don’t know exactly what you’re planning to do, but I’m guessing you won’t want to leave Europe on my ship if the cops are monitoring it.”

Sergio cursed inwardly. “No. You’re right.”

“But I’ll tell you what. I can call a friend of mine and see if he’d be willing to help you – for the right price, of course.”

“Of course.”

The captain went outside to make the call. After a few minutes, he was back at the table.

“He’s willing to consider it, but he wants to meet you face to face and he wants advance payment in cash.”

Sergio nodded. “Alright. When can I meet him?”

“He’s out at sea right now. He’ll be back the day after tomorrow.”

Sergio winced. That meant he’d have to stay in Porto for two more days – he couldn’t very well drive back home tomorrow only to have to make the same trip again the next day. There was nothing for it, however. They needed their ship.

“So you’re staying in Porto for two more nights?” she said, sounding dismayed.

“Three”, he said apologetically. “I won’t be able to meet the captain until late at night the day after tomorrow, so I won’t be able to drive back afterwards.”

“That’s a long time”, she said softly.

“I’m sorry”, he said. “Are you okay teaching for so long?”

“Oh yes, that’s not the problem”, she said quickly. “It’s just…”

“What?”

“God”, she said, “I’m embarrassed to say it. It’s just that I… I missed you last night.”

“I missed you too”, he said quietly. “I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t get back to sleep.”

“Oh thank god”, she laughed. “I thought it was just me! And I felt so ridiculous because it was only one night, but we haven’t slept apart in weeks now and… I suppose I just got used to it.”

“Me too.”

“I thought you might be happy to have the bed to yourself for once.”

“I wasn’t. It wasn’t pleasant at all.”

“I know I steal the blankets.”

He smiled. “That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

“Call me tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“Goodnight, my love.”

“Goodnight.”

That evening, he tossed and turned in his bed, unable to fall asleep. He just missed her next to him: the shape of her, her warmth, the way she draped a sleepy arm over his chest before she fell asleep or curled up against his back in the middle of the night. He’d fallen asleep every night to the calming rhythm of her breathing and now the silence was deafening. The empty space next to him was deeply unsettling, and he kept waking up throughout the night with the feeling that something was missing – something important, something he couldn’t afford to lose. Finally he gave up sleeping and watched the pink light of dawn creep in through his window, wondering if she was awake too, and if she was thinking about him.

That day, he had nothing to do, so he spent a large portion of the day just roving aimlessly through the city, trying to leave behind the worry he felt about not being with his team this close to the start of the heist. But beside that worry, there was another thing tugging at him: he couldn’t stop thinking about her. They hadn’t been apart for any length of time since they’d gotten together, and he hadn’t been aware of how much she had seeped into him, how deeply he’d become enmeshed with her, how she’d become part of the very fabric of his being. But he noticed it now, acutely, in the constant, raw feeling of incompleteness that made him unable to focus on anything else. He walked the streets without taking in any of the sights of the city. He stopped to eat, only to realize after the meal that he hadn’t tasted a single bite.

Finally he went back to his hotel and opened the copy of Neruda’s poems that he’d bought yesterday. His mother had clearly loved these poems – in his own copy, there were copious markings and underlinings from her hand. He’d read the book so often that, even in this unmarked copy, he knew exactly which passages she’d marked. He knew the poems must have carried a deep significance for her, but it had always eluded him – night after night, as a teenager, as an adult, he’d pored over Neruda’s words, yet they refused to yield their true meaning to him. They were just words to him, flat, empty, lifeless. He’d always wondered what his mother had seen in them that he simply couldn’t.

He didn’t expect the poems to reveal their secrets to him now, either, but he greeted them as old friends, soothed by the familiarity of their imagery and cadence. He flipped through the pages at random, skimming one poem after another, not really paying attention. Then, his eyes opened wide as a passage suddenly struck him with unexpected force.

I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.

He stared at it. He knew this passage so intimately, but it suddenly seemed to him like he was reading it for the first time, because, for the first time, he recognized himself in those words. How was this possible – how had Neruda captured the experience of his day with such simple clarity? Excited, he leafed through to another passage, and another, and another, really paying attention to them this time, seeing if other parts of the book would also hold a new significance to him.

They did. It was like a lifelong fog had lifted and the words suddenly revealed their meaning to him, clear and smooth and true. With trembling hands, he sought out the passage that, in his own copy, his mother had underlined so much that her pencil had broken through the paper. He wondered if he would finally, finally be able to grasp why.

“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.”

Yes – yes – he knew what that felt like. The feeling of her hand on his chest until she seemed to melt into him, until he could no longer tell where he ended and she began. This love that had seemed to come out of nowhere, inexplicable, just there. A love so complete that it seemed to erase the boundaries of personhood.

He wondered if his mother had loved his father like this, with the same sort of love that he felt for Raquel. God, he hoped so. He hoped it so fervently, that’s she’d known that kind of love before she died, that she’d experienced the heartbreaking beauty of it, the burning intensity, the softness. He felt a new closeness to her now, knowing they shared this, and he started to get an inkling of why people liked to read poetry: to see the universality of their experiences affirmed, to have that moment of intimate recognition of the self in the other, to connect to others across space and time and even death. He stayed reading deep into the night.

When the new captain called him the next day and told him that he’d hit some bad weather and would be delayed another two days, he wanted to cry with frustration. The heist was only ten days away now, and he wanted – he needed – to be in Toledo with his team, with her. He felt a tight, hot sense of panic constricting his chest when he thought about the heist coming closer and closer while he wasn’t where he needed to be – in control of the situation. He took a deep breath, reminding himself that Raquel was there, and that he trusted her. He knew she would be steering the team capably through the last of the preparations. When he called her to deliver the bad news, however, he heard his own dismay echoed in her voice.

Another two days?”

“I know, I’m sorry. Will you be okay with the team?”

“Yes, we’re fine, we’re steadily reviewing the plan. But Sergio… I don’t want to sound clingy, but I miss you. I miss you like crazy.”

His heart lifted, hearing her say that. “I know. I miss you too.”

“I hate that we have to spend this time apart so close to the heist.”

He knew what she meant: what little time they had left together – the only time that was still guaranteed to them, since nothing was certain once the heist began.

“I hate it too”, he said softly.

They talked for a long time, both unwilling to hang up and break what little connection they had.

Falling asleep that night seemed impossible. Missing her had turned into something that felt alarmingly like withdrawal – his entire body ached, physically ached, with the need to hold her. He told himself he was being ridiculous, that a person couldn’t possibly feel so bad because of the simple fact of someone’s absence, yet here he was. To try and distract himself, he started thinking about the heist, but as the night progressed, his thoughts turned increasingly darker.

Watching two am come and go, he was slowly filled with a deep, chilling sense of dread. He’d always known that there were three possible outcomes of the heist: he’d been hoping for success, resigned to death, but he’d never given that much thought to the third option. Now, however, it rose up before him like a specter. Prison. A life sentence, most likely. It hadn’t worried him too much before – he hadn’t seen much difference between a largely empty and ascetic life between the walls of his apartment or in a prison cell. But that had been before. Now, prison meant something else entirely: it meant loss, it meant separation, it meant living without her, and the thought of it made his stomach turn. This week had been just a small taste of what that would be like, and the experience had been unexpectedly harrowing. Time had gone by so slowly over the past few days, the hours of the night especially dragging their feet, and all throughout there had been this pervasive, piercing sense that the most vital part of himself was missing and he desperately needed it back. How could he possibly face the empty years without her?

He became painfully aware of the risk he was taking with the heist. It hadn’t mattered before – he’d had nothing to lose. Looking back on it now, he recognized how barren his life had been, how empty, how colorless. Somehow, he realized, he’d managed to live a lifeless life, dry as old parchment. But then, miraculously, he’d been given this gift, this perfect, shining happiness that was irrevocably tied to her and her alone, and he felt like he was holding it in the palm of his hand, a fragile, fledgling thing that could grow into something so solid and strong if only he let it. Yet instead of protecting it, he was rushing headlong into danger, like an idiot, walking – eyes wide open! – into a situation where his newfound happiness could be snuffed out of existence in an instant. One mistake. One error. One miscalculation and she’d be gone.

And they’d had so little time together. Mere weeks. He wanted more – he wanted so much more – he wanted everything. He wanted all of her days and all of her nights, all of her smiles and her joy and her heartache too. He wanted her good days and her bad, every high and every low, every hue in the colorful kaleidoscope of her personality. He wanted her old age, too, every line and every wrinkle his to cherish. Would they ever get that? Would they ever have more than these few weeks? Or would the heist rob them of everything that could have been? He’d seen his father after his mother died – a broken man, never the same again. Was the same fate waiting for him? He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling for a long, long time, his mind filled with thoughts of love and loss.

When the captain’s ship came into port and he was finally able to meet with the man, the actual deal was quickly made. The sight of twenty thousand euros in cash, accompanied by the promise of more, was enough to make most men forget their scruples, Sergio had found. They spent half an hour figuring out the details, then they shook hands and parted ways and he was finally done with the matter. Outside the café, he checked his watch – it was eight o’clock. He should go back to his hotel, have a good night’s sleep, and leave for Toledo in the morning, when he was rested. On the other hand, if he left now, he would be with her in seven hours. It really wasn’t much of a dilemma, he thought, as he walked back to his hotel, packed his stuff, got into his car, and drove off.

It was three am by the time he got to the house, but he wasn’t tired at all. The thought that he was mere seconds away from holding her again made his pulse race, his entire body feeling like there was electricity running through his veins. The house was dark and silent as he quietly opened the front door and made his way up the stairs. He went straight to her room, feeling his heart in his throat, only to feel a distinct sense of disappointment when he opened her door and saw an empty bed. Where could she be, at three o’clock at night? Then he smiled and walked down the hall to his own room – and sure enough, there she was, fast asleep in his bed. He quietly closed the door behind himself and kneeled down next to the bed, drinking in the sight of her face in the moonlight. He suddenly noticed what she was wearing – it was one of his shirts, and he felt such a rush of tenderness for her that it took his breath away. He couldn’t wait anymore, he had to wake her.

“Raquel”, he whispered. “Raquel… wake up.”

She slowly blinked open her eyes and looked at him, a soft, sleepy look.

“Sergio? Am I dreaming?”

“No”, he smiled. “No, I’m really here.”

“You are?”

“Yes. I drove back as soon as I could, I couldn’t wait another day to see you.”

She reached out a hand and touched his cheek, and he closed his eyes and leaned into her touch, feeling like he could cry. Something inside him shifted, and the feeling of displacement that had been with him all week faded, to be replaced with a powerful sense of rightness, pure and strong and unshakable. He was back where he belonged.

He leaned forward and kissed her, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him onto the bed with her, and the relief he felt when he closed his arms around her was beyond measure.

“You’re here”, she kept whispering between kisses, like she needed to convince herself that it was true. “You’re here, you’re finally here.”

She pressed herself close to him as he worked his hands underneath the shirt she was wearing, and his brain flooded with bliss at finally being able to touch her again, making him feel rather light-headed and happier than he had felt in days. The worries that had been plaguing him all week disappeared in an instant as she pulled him effortlessly into the present. Getting their clothes off was tricky, because they were unwilling to break apart for even a second, so there was a lot of fumbling and muffled laughter, and by the time they were finally naked they were both breathless and giddy with the joy of being together again. He couldn’t stop smiling as he pulled her in for yet another kiss, and she was so soft and warm and lovely in his arms, the feeling of her skin against his an inexpressible delight.

He rolled her onto her side and came to lie close behind her so he could hold her, one arm beneath her head, the other tightly wrapped around her waist, their bodies connecting. She fit so perfectly in his arms. He pressed kisses to her neck and shoulder, reveling in the mere fact of her closeness, breathing in the familiar sweet scent of her skin. He would be perfectly content to just stay like this all night, to hold her and hold her and hold her and then fall asleep with her in his arms, but when she pressed her hips back against him, his body responded immediately with a desire to be even closer to her. He started stroking her slowly, first her shoulder and arm, then he ran his fingers down the side of her body, making her shiver. He cupped a breast and smiled as he felt her nipple harden against his palm. He brushed his lips against her neck as he gently squeezed it, and she sighed and pressed herself even closer to him. He loved her every mood in bed – when she was playful, when she was passionate, when she took charge – but he particularly loved it when she was like this: soft and sweet and pliant under his hands, surrendering herself to him so willingly, all smooth curves and soft sighs. He let his hand move down and she opened her legs to him, inviting him to explore further. She let out a small whimper when he touched her, and he closed his eyes at how wet she was. He would never get over the way her body reacted to him, never, not in a hundred years.

“Are you ready?” he murmured in her ear.

“Yes”, she breathed, pressing her hips against him again. “God yes.”

Oh, how he loved her enthusiasm – he wanted her so badly he could barely breathe. When he entered her, he gasped at the sudden sensation of it, so intense that it threatened to overwhelm him, and it took every ounce of restraint he had not to come at the very first thrust.

She turned her head to look at him.

“You holding up there?” she smiled.

“Barely”, he laughed, taking deep breaths. “I haven’t seen you all week and you feel so, so good, Raquel.”

When he felt like he was in control of himself again, he started moving inside her with slow, deep strokes that made her sigh with pleasure. He closed his eyes, and as he gave himself over to the feeling, he was filled with wonder. Somehow, in that week apart, he seemed to have forgotten exactly how amazing it was to make love to her, and he eagerly rediscovered it now – the unique intimacy of it, the way their bodies moved together like one, the sheer and utter joy of sharing this experience. He dipped his hand between her legs and she moaned softly as he found the right spot. She put her hand on his to indicate pressure, and he picked up the rhythm of his movements, taking her faster and deeper, making a whispered ‘oh!’ escape from her lips at every thrust. Nothing in his life had ever given him the satisfaction that he felt whenever he made her come, quivering under his hands, her most intimate moments his alone to witness.

When she tensed and started trembling, he kept up exactly what he was doing, and suddenly she let out a soft cry and contracted around him, shaking in his arms, breathless. He eased the pressure of his fingers to draw out her pleasure for several long, exquisite moments, then she pulled his hand away and tucked it around her waist again, and he held her tightly as he finally gave himself permission to let go. He buried his face in her hair, and the world narrowed down until there was nothing left but her – wonderful, heavenly, perfect.

Afterwards, he kissed her over and over again, unable to get enough of her, unwilling to let her go. Finally she pushed him onto his back and cuddled up to him with a happy sigh, her hand on his chest, her head in the hollow of his shoulder, and he felt at peace for the first time all week. As he held her, he felt her melt into him and he heard Neruda’s words echo in his mind. There is no I or you. Yes. He felt acutely how true that was: there was no I or you, there was only them, simple and true, made whole in each other’s presence.

But as he stared up at the ceiling, the euphoria of seeing her again faded gradually from his mind and reality forced its way back into his consciousness. The dark thoughts he’d been having about the heist resurfaced, making something inside his chest contract. This feeling, he reflected, this connection he had with her was priceless, a treasure. And it could be taken from him so easily, just a few short days from now. Her breathing deepened as she drifted off to sleep in his arms, but he’d never felt more awake as his thoughts started racing frantically – he might lose her, he might lose her so soon. Then a sudden thought struck him with almost physical force.

For more than twenty years, his life had seemed a perfectly straight road to him, leading him straight to the heist and beyond. But now, he realized with a blinding flash of insight, he was standing at a fork in the road. One path would lead him directly to her, their future guaranteed, a small but peaceful life. The other path was crooked and dark, with many pitfalls and obstacles, its destination hidden from view. Who knew how they’d get out on the other side – if they got out on the other side. One thing was clear to him, though: this heist wasn’t an inevitability, as he’d always thought – it was a choice. A choice that he could make – or not.

He turned to her.

“Raquel… Raquel, we don’t have to do this.”

She opened sleepy eyes. “Don’t have to do what?”

“All of this. The operation. We don’t have to do it.”

She raised her head and shook it to clear it of the fog of sleep. “Wait… what are you talking about?”

He sat up, forcing her to sit up too, then he took her hand and gave her an earnest look.

“We haven’t committed to anything yet, Raquel. We could still walk away, you and me… find Paula and get out of the country, start a life together as a family. We could go anywhere in the world. I could get a job and we could buy a small house and live a… a normal life.”

She was staring at him. “Have you gone insane?”

“Why are we taking this risk, Raquel?” he insisted. “I know what I want: a future with you. And I can have that, it’s right there if I want it, I just have to reach out and take it! Why are we risking that, risking everything, when we can just choose not to do the heist and start – start living now.”

“What about the rest of the team?”

“They can go back to their lives. I didn’t promise them anything – the outcome of this was never guaranteed.”

Her eyes were big. “Would you really do that? Call the whole thing off?”

He’d never been more serious in his life. “For you, I would. If you ask me to do it, I will. Just say the word – say one word and it’s off.”

“Would you be happy though?” she said quietly.

“Of course I would. I’d be with you. What do you say?”

She gave him a long, long look, and he held his breath as she considered both options. He wasn’t sure what he wanted her to choose – he only knew that, whatever decision she made, he would follow her.

Finally she shook her head. “No, Sergio. We can’t give up now. This is your life’s work – if we walked away now, you would always regret it. It would haunt you for the rest of your life, and you would end up bitter and unsatisfied with our ordinary lives. And worst of all: you would resent me for it. You’ve worked so hard. You’ve lived with this for so long. You need to do this.”

“But what if we lose everything?” he whispered.

“I have faith in the plan.” She leaned forward and put her hand on his arm. “I have faith in you. You know the plan is good – it’s really good, and I’ll be with you every step of the way. If I thought this was a suicide mission, Sergio, I’d say let’s do it, let’s walk away now. But I think, I genuinely think that we can do this, we can pull this off. You and me together. We’re unstoppable.”

He felt his mind clear and realized that she was right – he had to do this. There was only one road after all. A difficult and dangerous road, but with her by his side, it suddenly didn’t seem so dark anymore, the pitfalls avoidable, the obstacles surmountable. They might still stumble, he knew as he lifted her hand and kissed it. They might still fall. But it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that they’d walk this road together.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The last week before the heist seemed to go by in a flash, and Sergio’s mood constantly fluctuated between cool confidence in his plan, and barely suppressed panic that it would all blow up in his face. He tried to tell himself that he was prepared for every eventuality, but he knew that there were too many variables, too many unknowns, and even the best chess master could be surprised by a sufficiently skilled opponent. He’d had a lot of time to research Raquel when he still assumed she’d be their negotiator, but he still wasn’t sure who they’d replace her with, and he hadn’t had time to conduct a thorough investigation into the different possibilities. There was nothing he could do about that now, though, so he steadily went through the list of things that needed to be dealt with in the last days before the operation started.

“What else needs to be done?” she asked him one night when they were both sitting on the bed in his room.

“The car has to be destroyed.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“I’ll send Helsinki to a junkyard and let him pay a thousand euros so they’ll destroy it immediately.”

She gave him a skeptical look. “You’re going to send Helsinki with a thousand euros?”

“Yes, is that a problem?”

“Look, I like Helsinki, but what’s to say he won’t just drop off the car and keep the money?”

He frowned. “Do you think he would do that?”

“Why not? The success of the heist isn’t guaranteed, at least this way he’ll have a thousand euros. Better than nothing.”

“That’s a good point.”

“I’m not saying he would do that, I’m just asking if you want to risk it.”

“No”, he said. “I don’t.”

“Then go drop off the car yourself and stay there until it’s crushed.”

He nodded. “Alright, I will.”

“Good.”

He kissed her. “Thank you. It could have caused so much trouble if that car wasn’t properly destroyed.”

Then he said: “Let’s go over the escape protocol again.”

She rolled her eyes. “We’ve gone over it a thousand times already, I know it by now!”

“One more time”, he said.

“Do you know how goldfish are supposed to have a very bad memory?”

“Yes?”

“How they’re supposed to forget everything after a few minutes?”

“Yes”, he said, frowning. “So?”

“Do you think I’m a goldfish, Sergio? Do I look particularly fishy to you today?”

He laughed. “I don’t mean to insult your intelligence, I just want to be sure you know the plan.”

“Sergio, a rock would know the plan by now. I’m pretty sure if you asked your slippers here they could give you a half-decent answer.”

He suppressed a smile. “This is so important, Raquel. Please humor me.”

She sighed. “You’re such a control freak. Fine, we can go over the protocol one more time, but I want something in return.”

“What?”

“A kiss”, she smiled. “And I’d like payment in advance.”

He leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to her lips. He’d intended to leave it at that, but it felt so nice that he kissed her again, and again, and again. His hand snuck around her waist and the other into her hair, and she threw her arms around his neck and deepened the kiss.

“You’re trying to distract me”, he murmured between kisses.

“Is it working?” she smiled.

“No”, he said, but he didn’t stop kissing her.

She started stroking his neck. “How about now?”

“No.”

She slowly ran her hand up his thigh. “Now?”

“No”, he repeated, but there wasn’t much conviction left in his voice.

She kissed his throat and he groaned.

“Stop that.”

“I don’t think I will.”

“You’re playing dirty.”

“I don’t mind getting a little dirty every once in a while”, she grinned, stroking him through his pants.

He groaned again. “Raquel, you’re killing me.”

She bit his earlobe and he snapped.

“Alright, that’s it!”

He pushed her down into the pillows and ducked down to lift her top and kiss her stomach, tickling her with his beard. She squealed and laughed, half-heartedly trying to push him away.

“Stop!”

“Oh no”, he said. “No mercy!”

He continued until she was absolutely helpless with laughter, then he came up again to take her in his arms and kiss her.

“How about we compromise?” he suggested. “We go over the plan one more time, and after that you can get as dirty as you want.”

Her eyes started sparkling, and he quickly amended: “Within reasonable limits! There’s other people in the house. Think of poor Nairobi in the next room.”

She laughed. “Alright, let’s get this revision over with.”

He felt much lighter as they sat up again and he took out the relevant documents. He was so grateful for these little moments with her, to relieve, at least for a little while, the anxiety he felt. He quizzed her on the different escape plans they had for different scenarios, then went over the files with the different locations the people in the team would end up in.

“Two people to the Caribbean, three to Argentina, two to Indonesia, and Berlin comes with us to Palawan”, she listed.

“Exactly.”

"Have you decided yet who's going where?"

"No", he said quietly. "I haven't."

"Why not?"

He hesitated. "It feels like tempting fate."

"What do you mean?"

"Raquel... we don't know who will actually make it onto that ship out of Europe. Maybe all of us. Maybe only a few. Let's leave off pairing people until we know what people we're sending off."

“That’s a good point.”

“We’ll see who wants to go with whom after the heist is over.”

“But you’re absolutely set on Berlin coming with us?”

“Yes”, he said firmly. “That was decided long before you joined the team and I’m not changing it now.”

“Alright”, she shrugged. “I know he’s your friend.”

He gave her a rather guilty look, which she didn’t notice because she was looking down at the files. He still hadn’t told her about Andrés being his brother. If he told her that, he would also have to tell her about Andrés’ disease, and that he was dying, and he just couldn’t stand the thought of that conversation. He knew she would want to talk about it, and he and his brother had been dealing with the situation just fine by not mentioning it. Talking about it would make it so real, and he couldn’t face that right now. So he kept putting off telling her day after day, and now, right before the heist, it just didn’t feel like the right time anymore. He’d tell her after the heist, when they were all safe on some beach somewhere and there weren’t so many other things going on. He knew he’d have to come to terms with his brother dying at some point, but just… not now. Not yet.

She looked up at him with a smile. “Alright. Did I pass the test?”

He pushed his sadness away and smiled back at her. “Yes, with flying colors.”

“Then I want my reward.”

He let her push him down into the pillows, and gladly lost himself in her embrace.

Between the busy moments of the last week, he often found himself sunk deep in thought – if this wasn’t the time to reflect about your life, when was? Most often, his thoughts turned to Raquel. She had changed his life in every possible way, beyond recognition, beyond belief. But the most drastic change, he realized, was in the way he now looked at his life after the heist. Before he met her, he had never really thought about his life after the heist, because the heist itself had claimed all of his attention. He’d always vaguely sensed that life wouldn’t be easy after it was all over, whether things worked out or not, because the completion of his plans would rob him of the main reason of his existence, the entire purpose of his life. What would he do with himself after it was done? He would take care of Andrés at first, of course, but after he was… gone… what then? He hadn’t wanted to consider what came after, because all he could sense there was a vast emptiness.

And then Raquel had burst into his life and changed everything. Suddenly he wasn’t just looking at his time after the heist without dread – he was actually looking forward to it. A life with her, a family… not even in his wildest dreams had he imagined that could be an option for him. She had given him a purpose, given him a reason to live even after the heist and his brother were gone. She would never know how much she meant to him. She had given him a future, and he could never repay her for that.

So there was one thing he kept repeating to himself over and over again: whatever happened, he would protect her. No matter what it took, no matter the sacrifices. Her life was so much more important than his own, because without her, there was only nothingness.

On the last night before the heist, they gathered around the table for one last meal together. The atmosphere in the room was very peculiar – a mix of solemnity and giddy excitement. They’d all helped to prepare the food tonight, under the supervision of Raquel, the kitchen full of laughter. Everyone was dealing with their nerves in a different way: Tokyo with over-confidence, Rio by joking, Denver by singing. Nairobi was laughing at everything and Oslo became even more quiet than usual. Sergio himself felt like an arrow in a bow – the bowstring drawn and taut to the point of breaking, the arrow pointing straight at its target, ready to fly.

He looked around the table, at the people gathered there, talking and joking, and he suddenly felt a rush of affection for them all. Cheerful Rio, surprisingly gentle Helsinki, thoughtful Moscow. They were all here for him, to help him realize his life-long ambition. Tokyo, saved from a life in jail, calling him her guardian angel. Nairobi, who had proven herself over and over to be such a valuable friend and ally. His brother, who always had his back. Then his eyes were drawn to the person next to him, always next to him. Raquel.

When the food was gone but the wine wasn’t, Nairobi suddenly started tapping her knife against her glass, producing a clinking sound that got everyone’s attention.

“Speech!” she said, looking at Sergio, and the others took up the cry.

“Speech! Speech!”

Sergio felt himself go red. He hadn’t prepared anything to say, and he wasn’t great at improvising, especially when people were looking at him. He looked at Raquel, who gave him an encouraging smile and squeezed his hand. He cleared his throat.

“I… I don’t know what to say. These last five months with you have been… pleasant.”

“Boooo!” Nairobi said. “You can do better than that, Profe!”

Everyone laughed, and Sergio gave an embarrassed grin.

“Alright”, he admitted. “They were more than pleasant, they were… very special.”

As he paused and looked at them, he felt a sense of calm clarity descend on himself, and he suddenly knew what to say.

“They were… magical, almost. We all came here as separate people… individuals… unconnected. Yet throughout these months, a chemical process has occurred that has fused us into more than the sum of our parts: we are no longer a collection of individuals – we are a team.”

He looked around at each of their faces, beaming at him in the low light.

“A family.”

There were nods and smiles all around.

“From the start, something united us: a desire for something bigger, something better than life had offered us up to this point. Tomorrow, we’ll go after it. Tomorrow, my friends, we face this challenge together and we fight, side by side, for victory. Whether things will end in glory or destruction doesn’t matter. What matters is that we battle with honor, with pride, against the tyranny of an unjust system that is designed to crush people like us. Tomorrow we show that we will not be crushed. Tomorrow, we are the resistance.”

He raised his glass. “To the fight.”

Nairobi raised hers. “To the plan!”

Berlin followed her gesture. “And to the Professor.”

They all raised their glasses and drank.

He ordered everyone to bed so they would have a good night’s sleep, but he stayed behind with his brother, to have a last glass of wine before the fire. They were silent for a while, then Andrés said:

“So. Tomorrow it all starts. You have to promise me something, Sergio. If it all goes wrong… escape. Don’t stay waiting for us in the hangar, take Raquel and run.”

“It won’t go wrong.”

“You know as well as I do that everything can go wrong. I won’t leave here until you promise me that you won’t let yourself get caught if things go to shit.”

Sergio gave him a long look. “I’m not promising you that.”

Berlin raised one corner of his mouth. “You’re giving me your promise right now, or you won’t have a captain tomorrow.”

When Sergio didn’t reply, his brother continued: “You owe it to Raquel, Sergio. She deserves to stay free.”

He shook his head. “I won’t let anything happen to Raquel, don’t worry. But nothing’s going to go wrong.”

Sitting here with his brother, on his third glass of wine, he was having one of his moments of absolute confidence. “We’re the resistance, right?”

When he saw that Andrés wasn’t convinced, he softly started singing the song his grandfather had taught him.

Una mattina… mi son alzato…”

He looked at his brother, inviting him to sing along.

“Bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao.

Andrés frowned, trying to resist the temptation to join in, knowing that he wouldn’t get a promise out of Sergio once he gave in.

Una mattina… mi son alzato…”

Very softly, his brother started to sing along.

E ho trovato l’invasor.”

They quietly sang the next lines together:

O partigiano porta mi via
Bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
O partigiano porta mi via”

Sergio suddenly stopped at the next line, so Andrés sang it alone:

“Ché mi sento di morir.”

It feels like I’m dying. Sergio looked down for a moment, a lump in his throat, unable to look his brother in the eye, but Andrés continued the song, a little stronger now.

E se io muoio da partigiano
Bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao”

With difficulty, Sergio pulled himself together and started singing again, in a whisper at first, but then more strongly, joining his voice with his brother’s. At the next stanza, Andrés got up, and Sergio smiled and got up too so they could sing standing close together. He felt another lump in his throat when his brother lifted a hand and stroked his hair, then placed it on the side of his neck, a gesture of connection, of support, of love. They turned outwards, raising their glasses, and his brother’s hand was on his shoulder as they sang the end of the song, full of conviction now on the word “liberta”. That’s what they were fighting for. Freedom.

Afterwards, they put down their glasses and embraced each other, and Sergio’s eyes were full of tears as he gripped his brother tightly.

 

He found her out on the terrace, looking up at the stars, and as he regarded her for a while in silence, he slowly felt the confidence drain out of him. It was all very well, telling his brother that he was sure nothing would go wrong, but standing here, looking at the woman he loved, he felt like he needed to be prepared for every scenario. Things could go wrong, and though he hadn’t promised his brother anything, he was determined to get a promise out of Raquel.

He drew up a chair next to her.

“Can we talk?”

“Of course”, she said.

He gathered his courage, then he took a deep breath and started.

 “Raquel, you have to promise me something.”

“What?”

“Once the operation starts, I need you to follow every order I give you.”

“Of course I will. You’re in charge.”

“No”, he said earnestly. “I don’t think you realize what I’m saying. When I say every order, I mean every order, even if you don’t agree.”

“Of course”, she repeated, but he raised a hand.

“No, listen to me. If I tell you to do something, I need to be sure that you’ll do it. If things go wrong and I tell you to run and leave me, I need you to do it. If things go very wrong and I tell you to leave the country without me, I need you to do it. Do you understand?”

She gave him a stricken look. “I can’t promise you that, Sergio.”

“Then you’re not coming with me tomorrow”, he said firmly. “You are not setting foot in that control room until I have your promise that you will follow my orders, no matter what I ask you to do.”

“Let’s talk about this.”

He shook his head. “This isn’t up for debate, Raquel. Either you promise me or you’re out.”

“You’re being unreasonable!”

“No, I’m not.”

 “But…”

“No buts.”

“However…”

“No howevers either. Either you promise me or you’re out.

She glowered at him, but he returned her look and refused to back down. Finally she clenched her jaw and nodded.

“Fine. I promise.”

“You’ll follow my every order?”

“Yes.”

“Even if you don’t like it?”

“Yes.”

“Even if I tell you to save yourself and leave me?”

She gave him a resentful look. He raised his eyebrows. She nodded curtly, but he shook his head.

“I need you to say it, Raquel.”

“Fine”, she snapped. “Yes, I promise.”

He felt a heavy weight lift off his chest. “Good, thank you.”

Then he steeled himself. “Then this is your first order: if we should get captured, you will fully cooperate with the police. You will tell them that I kidnapped you on your way to prison and that I kept you prisoner for five months. You will tell them that I forced you to participate in the heist against your will.”

She gave him a look of highest indignation. “I will do no such thing!”

“Yes you will!”

“But that would make things so much worse for you!”

“But you’ll get a much lighter sentence.”

She was shaking her head, but he said: “Raquel, you promised me!”

“This isn’t fair!” she shouted at him.

“I don’t care”, he said implacably. “This is an order and you’ll do as I say. Now for your second instruction.”

“There’s more?”

“Yes. If I get captured and you don’t, you are not allowed, under any circumstances, to try and rescue me.”

There were tears of frustration in her eyes now.

“Don’t ask me to promise that”, she whispered.

He gritted his teeth and continued: “I’m not asking. You already promised that you would follow my orders and this is an order. It’s not a request. It’s not a suggestion. You will not put yourself at risk for my sake.”

“What if I get captured and you don’t? Will you try to rescue me?”

“Of course.”

“You’re applying a terrible double standard here!”

“It’s my heist”, he said stubbornly. “It’s my standard.”

“You’re a hypocrite!” she yelled.

He nodded calmly. “I’m fine with that.”

“Sergio, I’m not agreeing to this!”

“You gave me your word”, he said heatedly. “Are you going to break it?”

“I didn’t know what I was agreeing to! You tricked me!”

“Don’t blame me for outsmarting you”, he said coldly.

She gave him a disgusted look. “You’re an asshole.”

She got up and stormed off inside. He watched her go with just the faintest trace of regret, but he quickly shook it off. If she had to be upset with him, so be it. It was a price he was willing to pay if it meant that she would be safe. Still, he would try to make it up to her – he didn’t want to start the heist fighting, and he was sure she felt the same way. He gave her a few minutes to cool off, then followed her upstairs.

He found her in their room, standing by the window, and it was immediately clear that she was much calmer.

“Alright”, she said as he came in. “Let’s make a compromise.”

He shook his head. “This isn’t a negotiation, Inspectora.”

“At least hear me out. I will agree to tell the police what you told me to say in case I get captured. I will even agree…” She swallowed hard, then continued: “… I will even agree to run and hide if it looks like our location may be found out, even if you stay behind. You’re right – it makes no sense for both of us to risk being captured.”

He nodded. “Good.”

She gave him a piercing look. “But if you get captured and I don’t, I will try to rescue you. That’s not up for negotiation.”

“Indeed it isn’t up for negotiation!” he said angrily. “Because you already promised me you wouldn’t!”

“Why am I not allowed to do everything I can to get you out?” she said. “Don’t you think I’m capable enough to rescue you without getting caught myself?”

“This isn’t a question of capability, it’s a question of risk! And I’m not letting you risk yourself for me!”

“Why not?”

“Because of Paula, Raquel! You have a child! If you’re lucky enough not to get caught when I get caught, then you’re going to use that precious freedom to take care of your daughter, not me!”

She raised her chin. “I can take care of both of you.”

I don’t matter, don’t you see?”

“You matter to me!”

“Look”, he said desperately. “You have a daughter, someone who needs you. Nobody needs me.”

I need you!”

“No”, he said firmly. “You don’t. Not the way your daughter needs you. So I don’t want you to risk your freedom. If something happens to me, you engage the escape protocol we have in place, you take Paula and start a new life somewhere. I want you to be free, with or without me.”

“There is no ‘without you’, Sergio! It’s you and me, remember? Always. Always.”

He grimaced but shook his head. She came closer to him, her eyes and voice softer now.

“Sergio”, she said quietly, “This thing we have, you and me? It’s real love. This is it, my friend. It doesn’t get any realer than this. So many people spend their entire lives looking for it, and we actually found it. And you know the thing about a love like this? A breathtakingly, heartbreakingly real love like this? It’s something you hang onto for dear life, because if you lose it, that’s something you can never come back from. So I’m going to fight for it, Sergio, I’ll be damned if I don’t! And you can’t stop me. Fuck your orders, fuck my promise – if you get caught I’m coming after you, come hell or high water, do you hear me? You saved me once. If I need to, I’ll do the same for you, you just watch me.”

“Raquel”, he said desperately. “If you get caught because of me, how could I live with that? How could I bear that responsibility?”

“I’m an adult woman, Sergio. This is my responsibility, my choice to make. And I choose you. I will never not choose you.”

“I can’t change your mind?” he said quietly.

“No”, she said calmly.

He rubbed his eyes. “Then I suppose I have no choice but to accept it. If I get caught, you’ll rescue me.”

“You bet I will”, she said fiercely, then rushed into his open arms and squeezed him so tight that he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t mind, though. She took his breath away anyway.

After several long moments, she gently disengaged from him and looked up at him with a serious expression.

“Alright, now it’s my turn.”

“Your turn?”

She nodded. “Sergio, if something happens to me during the heist…”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you”, he said sharply. In all the hours he’d spent thinking about all the possible outcomes of the heist, this was the one thing he’d always refused to think about, because it wasn’t a possibility, it wasn’t. Nothing was going to happen to her because he wouldn’t let it. “You’re not leaving the control room, unless something goes seriously wrong, and then we’ll engage the escape protocol.”

“Still”, she said quietly, “If I die…”

“Don’t even say that, Raquel!”

“Sergio”, she said sternly. “If I die, you need to promise that you’ll do something for me.”

“What could I possibly do for you if you’re dead?”

“Live”, she said simply.

He suddenly felt tears burning behind his eyes. How did she know?

“I mean it, Sergio”, she said softly. “If something happens to me, you can’t give up.”

“You… you think I’d shoot myself?”

She shook her head. “No, but I think you’d put yourself in increasingly dangerous situations without regard for your own life until something would kill you.”

He shifted guiltily.

“Promise me you won’t do that”, she said softly. “Promise me you’ll take care of yourself.”

He looked away from her, but she put her hand against his cheek and turned his face back to hers.

“Promise me.”

He shook his head, unable to speak.

Promise me.”

He gave her a bitter look. “You didn’t promise me what I asked you to promise. Or rather, you did, but then you took it back. Why should I promise you anything?”

“Because I’m asking you”, she said simply.

“What does a promise even mean?” he said evasively. “It took you all of five minutes to break yours. I believe your exact words were: ‘fuck my promise’.”

“I didn’t know what I was promising. I know you’ll keep yours”, she said calmly. “You’re good like that.”

He tried another tack. “If you’re dead, what does it matter to you if I live or die?”

“It matters to me now. I need to know you’ll be okay.”

“How could I possibly be okay? What about all the things you said before, about never coming back from losing a love like ours?”

“That’s still true, and I still believe we should fight for it if we have the choice. But you may not have that choice, and I need to know that you’ll still go on.”

“Why?” he whispered. “Why would I?”

“You’re not the man you were when I met you”, she said. “You’ve changed. You’re more open, you’ve grown, you’re connecting to other people.”

“You taught me”, he said quietly. “You taught me to be happy.”

“Yes. You’ve learned to be happy, and I believe that, in time, you could learn to be happy again.”

“But not like this”, he said, his voice strained.

She shook her head. “No, not like this. But there are other, smaller happinesses to be found. Live for those. Live for me.”

He tried to look away again, but she caught his face between her hands and looked up at him.

“Please.”

“I can’t.”

“Please, Sergio. Please.”

When he still didn’t reply, she clearly decided to play her trump card.

“Sergio, if I die, I need you alive to keep an eye on Paula. To make sure that… that Alberto isn’t hurting her. Will you do that for me?”

He gave her a look of dismay. “I can’t believe you’re playing that card.”

“I’ll play any card I have to.”

“How can I say no to that?”

“You can’t. So say yes.”

He frowned. “Fine, yes. Yes, of course I will. As… as long as I’m alive, I’ll watch over her.”

“But then you have to promise me you’ll try your hardest to stay alive.”

He grimaced, and she put a hand against his cheek. “Don't let me down, Sergio.”

He took a deep, shaking breath. For several long moments, he silently struggled with himself. Then…

“I’ll try. I promise I’ll try.”

She seemed to realize that that was the best she would get out of him. She wrapped her arms around him and allowed him to pull her close. She leaned her head against his chest, and he leaned his cheek against the top of her head as he held her. For a long time, they simply stood holding each other, while he tried his hardest not to think of life without her.

It didn’t work – he kept thinking of all the ways things could go wrong, all the possible circumstances that could take her away from him. She seemed to sense his inner turmoil, because she reached up a hand and started stroking the back of his neck, and he gradually felt himself calm down as his attention was drawn to the sensation, as she grounded him in the present with her touch. The future was uncertain, but he was here with her now, and in this very moment, that was all that mattered. He was acutely aware of every brush of her fingers against his skin, and when she lifted her face to his and pressed a tender kiss against his lips, it was like he was kissing her for the first time again. He marveled all over again at her softness, the sweet taste of her, the way she parted her lips for him. With just one kiss, she captured him completely, pulled him out of the storm of his thoughts and brought him home to her.

How did she do that? How did she keep surprising him, with these flashes of wonder, these undreamt of moments of connection, each a tiny miracle to him, each so far beyond the realm of anything he’d ever experienced before he met her. Oh, how he adored her. How he treasured her.

How he loved her.

Their kiss deepened and turned into something else, something hungrier, as they started undressing each other with a sudden deep urgency to remove every barrier between them. They didn’t break apart for an instant as they moved towards the bed, and as they lay down together, skin to skin, they were both painfully aware that this might be their last time together. The thought brought a sharp edge of desperation to the way they held on to each other, and he pressed his lips to hers over and over and over again, trying to kiss a lifetime worth of kisses in one night.

As she pressed her naked body to his, he became aware that something was shifting between them. He’d never felt so close to her. They had always been in synch with each other when making love, but what he felt tonight was of a different level entirely, a connection so complete it consumed him. He felt it in his skin, his veins, his very core. There was no fumbling or clumsiness or bumping into each other tonight – they moved as one, both so finely attuned to the other that it seemed like there was no difference between her body and his, her face lifting up to his when he even just thought about kissing her, her hands exactly where he craved them. When he stroked her, his own skin started to tingle, and when he kissed her throat, a shiver ran down his spine. Their eyes met and he knew that she felt it too.

They kept very close to each other, kissing, touching, caressing. All of his senses seemed heightened tonight, and he was more aware of her than ever, of the sweet smell of her skin, her soft sighs, every stroke of her fingers sending a thrill straight through him. He sensed within her the same conflicting desires that he was experiencing: the desire to take their time, to make it last as long as possible, competing with a desperate yearning for each other, a deep, aching longing for absolute intimacy. Finally, at the same time, they both decided that they couldn’t wait any longer – she opened her legs to him at the exact moment he reached down a hand, and they were both breathless with joyful anticipation as he covered her body with his and she guided him in.

When he entered her, her arms wrapped around him, his mouth on hers, the connection between them seemed to strengthen even more, her pleasure bleeding into his, their bodies fitting together perfectly. Then they started moving in easy synchronicity, until he couldn’t really remember what it was like to be apart, until the idea of them ever not being together seemed ridiculous… absurd… a physical impossibility. How could they be separated when they were, in fact, one?

He wished that this feeling could last forever, that this night would never end, but all too soon he felt the tension inside him begin to build, and he sensed that she was close, too. The moment he formulated that thought, she put a hand against his cheek and he opened his eyes to meet hers, so dark and warm and beautiful.

“Together?” she whispered, and he nodded, knowing immediately what she meant.

They hadn’t tried this before, but tonight it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to come together. How could it happen any other way? They changed positions without breaking contact, and he sat on the edge of the bed so she could straddle him on her knees. He immediately pulled her close again and she kissed him deeply as she sank down on him, flooding his brain with bliss once more. They set a quicker pace now, a soft moan escaping from her lips at every stroke, and she moved a hand between them to put her fingers on the right spot. He kept a tight rein on himself as he waited for her to get there, feeling the tension inside each of them build together, until it reached an almost unbearable pitch. He wrapped his arms tightly around her as he felt a fiery tingling start up inside him, and from the way she caught her breath he knew she felt it too. When the wave broke over them, they rode it together, his pleasure amplified by hers, their bodies connected in a perfect union, and for just one eternal moment he lost all sense of self and it was glorious.

Afterwards, they kept holding each other for a long time, losing themselves in slow, lingering kisses and caresses. Then they sank down into the pillows and cuddled close, unwilling to let go of each other for even a second. They didn’t talk about what they’d just experienced – there was no need for words. As he lay there, holding her, he was overcome with a feeling of serene tranquility, in the unshakeable knowledge that she completed him, that they were two pieces of the same object, their broken edges fitting together perfectly. Apart, they had been fragmented, but together, they were whole.

After a while, she pushed him gently onto his back and came to lie with her head in the hollow of his shoulder, and they were quiet for a long time as he stroked her arm and gradually came back to the realization that this might be their last night together. He suddenly felt the need to express to her what he was feeling, to show her how important she was, to convey to her at least a little bit of how much she meant to him. If this was the last intimate moment they ever had together, what did he want to say to her? He struggled for the right words, and realized that he could never find them on his own. So he borrowed someone else’s.

“I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry tree”, he quoted softly.

“That’s beautiful”, she said, surprised. “Who wrote it?”

“Neruda. That’s what you did with me, Raquel. What spring does with the cherry tree.”

She put her hand against his cheek and gave him the softest smile.

Then she said: “Do you remember our talk after I had that panic attack when you taught us how to induce a syncope?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t know if you remember, but I told you that I still didn’t feel fully alive again after everything that happened with Alberto. That I wondered if I’d ever really feel alive again.”

He nodded. “I remember.”

“You made me feel alive again, Sergio”, she whispered. “More alive than I ever thought possible. So yes, my darling, yes. You have been my spring, too.”

He felt close to crying as he stroked her hair. He didn’t know if they’d ever see summer, he reflected, but at least they’d known spring, in all its freshness, with all its tiny miracles, in all its pink-petaled glory. Their time together had been a burst of cherry blossoms, sweet and beautiful and gone too soon. No matter what happened with the heist, that could never be taken from them again.

She looked up at him with soft eyes. “You and me?”

He bent his head to kiss her.

“You and me, my love”, he whispered. “You and me.”

They wrapped their arms around each other and held on so, so tight, waiting for the morning and whatever it would bring them.