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