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Raquel Murillo stepped off the plane at La Coruña airport, and it was like nothing had changed. It had been nine years since she’d last been in Galicia, but the airport still looked exactly the same: small but neat, the hallways lined with natural stone. She felt rather nostalgic as she walked towards the baggage claim belts, memories tripping over themselves in rapid succession – the small, threadbare bag she’d used back then – her favorite sweater – worn black sneakers on her feet. For a moment, it felt like no time had passed since she had first been here – like she was still thirty, and looking forward to her first big movie. The feeling faded when she walked into the arrivals hall with her suitcase, and saw the uniformed driver waiting for her there, holding up a neat sign with her name on it. It was clear that he recognized her, but he was a professional, so he didn’t make a fuss.

“Ms. Murillo?” he asked.

“Yes,” she nodded.

“Are you traveling alone?” 

“Yes,” she said. “Just me.”

Her agent had been telling her for years that she should hire a personal assistant, but she’d tried that and it just hadn’t worked for her. She didn’t like being surrounded by people all the time. Her agency took care of her work and travel arrangements, and that was all she needed.

The driver merely nodded.

“Let me take your suitcase,” he said. “The car is just outside.”

 He led her out to a sleek car with the name of an expensive car service on it, and as he held open the door for her and she got in, she felt so keenly that she wasn’t the small-time actress anymore that she’d been nine years ago.

Last time she’d been here, she’d taken the bus. She couldn’t afford a taxi, and nobody had cared how she got to the set, as long as she got there on time. It hadn’t mattered. She’d still been so excited – she had a lead part in a real movie by a respectable studio, and she’d hoped that it would lead to bigger things. Now, as the car turned onto the road in the direction of Ferrol, her feelings were much more mixed. On the one hand, she looked forward to seeing everyone again – she’d been told that the cast and crew would largely be the same as last time, and it would be lovely to do another project with these people. But another part of her was dreading it, and she knew she wouldn’t have said yes to this movie if she’d had a choice.

When she’d signed that contract nine years ago, she never would have thought that she’d regret it one day. It had seemed like such a great opportunity back then: a contract to do two movies instead of one; it seemed like a dream. When the first movie hadn’t done very well and the sequel had been shelved as a consequence, she’d been so disappointed. It had never occurred to her that the studio would suddenly regain interest in the project nine years later, and that they would hold her to that nine-year-old contract. She’d tried to get out of it, but her lawyers had told her that the contract was iron-clad, and the studio hadn’t been prepared to renegotiate it. So here she was.

She stared absent-mindedly out of the window as the car sped on, not paying much attention to the beautiful Galician landscape outside. Her mind was occupied with one thought: in just half an hour or so, she would see him again. They hadn’t spoken in nine years, and she had no idea what things would be like between them now. After what had happened, she felt her stomach twist nervously at the thought that she’d have to work with him again – and yet she couldn’t deny that there was a part of her that looked forward to seeing him too. She wondered, with a sudden stab of hard-to-suppress hope, if he was feeling the same way.

When she started to recognize the landscape and villages, she realized that they were close to the set. Contrary to last time, however, she wouldn’t be staying in the village of Mundín itself – instead, the car drove right up to the coast, and drew up in front of a big, fancy five-star resort, right at the beach. Raquel raised her eyebrows. This was very different from where the studio had put her up nine years ago – though of course she should have expected that.

The driver opened the door for her and a porter rushed out to take care of her suitcase. She got out of the car and looked at the open doors of the building in front of her, trying to keep her nerves under control. It would be fine, she told herself. It would be fine. They were both adults, and it was so long ago. Maybe he’d forgotten all about it. She took a deep breath, then walked into the large, airy lobby of the resort, which was full of groups of people talking, laughing, greeting each other. Some of them she recognized, others she didn’t – but as her eyes swept the crowd, she knew that she was only looking for one face.

Before she could find him, though, a man broke off from a nearby group and walked over to her with his arms spread in a welcoming gesture.

“Raquel!” he said, taking her by the shoulders and kissing her on both cheeks. “It’s so good to see you again.”

“Andrés,” she said, giving him half a smile as she accepted the kisses. Andrés de Fonollosa wasn’t her favorite producer, but he wasn’t the worst she’d worked with either. “Good to see you too.”

“We’re excited to work with you again,” he said, keeping a hand on her arm. “Especially on such a wonderful project.”

“Yes,” she said, taking a careful step back. “I’ve read the script, it looks good.”

He started talking about the writers and how brilliant they were, but she wasn’t really listening. Her eyes were still scanning the room, and finally she couldn’t stop herself.

“Andrés,” she said when he stopped to take a breath. “Is… is your brother here too?”

“Yes,” he said, vaguely looking around. “He’s around here somewhere. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”

Raquel wasn’t so sure, but she wanted to get it over with – the uncertainty was killing her. Andrés was now looking around too, but not for his brother.

“Where is my other half?” he said, his eyes roving over the crowd.

“Don’t call me that!”

A woman came through a nearby doorway: about Raquel’s age, with sharp dark eyes, her hair pulled back into its customary ponytail. She shot Andrés a disgruntled look as she came up to them.

“I told you to stop saying that,” she said, and he grinned.

“But it’s true. We’re two halves of a team.”

The woman rolled her eyes, then turned to Raquel and smiled.

“Hello, stranger.”

“Elena,” Raquel smiled back – a genuine smile this time – as she moved in to kiss her friend on the cheek.  “It’s so good to see you. It’s been too long.”

“I agree,” Elena nodded. “What’s it been – a year, since we last had dinner?”

“I know,” Raquel said apologetically. “Things have just been crazy. I was in the middle of my divorce back then, and after that it was just one project after another…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Elena said in her usual matter-of-fact manner. “I know how busy you’ve been.”

“So,” Raquel said, eyeing her friend and Andrés. “You’re producing this one together too.”

“Yes, we are,” Andrés grinned, and Elena shot him a dirty look.

“Under protest.”

“Oh, come on,” he said, still grinning. “Deep down, you know you’re fond of me.”

“Not even a little bit,” Elena said dispassionately. “But we produced the first one together, and we share the rights to the sequel, so I’m stuck with you.”

Andrés threw Raquel a smug look.

“She likes me, she just can’t admit it.”

Raquel really doubted that, but Elena didn’t react this time – she merely took Raquel by the arm.

“Come,” she said, ignoring her co-producer. “Let me show you around. This is a very nice place.”

They left Andrés behind as Elena steered Raquel out of big glass doors and into a large garden, lush with early summer flowers and crisscrossed with little paths. Elena chose one, and they started walking. Raquel couldn’t help it – she kept looking around if she could see him somewhere, a tight little ball of nerves in her stomach.

“That man,” Elena said the moment they were out of earshot. She sounded thoroughly exasperated, and Raquel reminded herself that she and Andrés must already have been working on this movie for a while.

“I know,” she said, turning her attention to her friend with some effort. “I’m sorry you have to put up with him again.”

“I’ll survive,” Elena said drily. “I just wish he wasn’t such a pig.”

“Is he still sleeping with one actress after another?”

“A different one every month,” Elena nodded.

“Do they just want parts in his movies?”

“Of course they do,” she said curtly. “But he genuinely seems to think that they’re attracted to his… looks, I guess, since his personality is such a spectacular dumpster fire.”

Raquel laughed.

“You really hate him, don’t you?”

“And here I thought I was hiding it so well,” Elena said drily.

“Then why did you agree to do this movie with him?”

Elena sighed, shaking her head.

“You know this is a passion project of mine,” she said. “I’ve been trying to get this movie made for nine years, but the studio wouldn’t hear of it after the first one did so poorly.”

“Why did they change their minds now?” Raquel asked, though she had a suspicion.

“Because of you,” Elena said, confirming it. “You suddenly became such a big star – of course the studio wanted to revive the project. Having your name on a movie these days almost guarantees that it will be a success.”

“I’m not that big a deal,” Raquel protested weakly, but her friend gave her an amused smile.

“Oh, please. What project are you coming from – Almodóvar, was it?”

“Yes,” Raquel said, pleased that Elena had been keeping track even if they hadn’t talked in a while.

“And where did you fly in from? London? LA?”

“Just Madrid,” she demurred.

“And before that?” Elena insisted.

“New York,” Raquel admitted.

“I thought so,” Elena smiled. “Really, we’re very lucky that we still had that contract you signed nine years ago. We never would have been able to get you otherwise.”

It was true, but Raquel didn’t say it. They passed some buildings, and Elena pointed out some of the features of the resort: the bar, the gym, the indoor swimming pool.

“There’s an outdoor pool too,” Elena said. “I’ll show you. I advise you to swim there instead of in the ocean – I know the sea is right there, but it’s damn cold and the pool is safer. We don’t want to lose you.”

“Alright,” Raquel nodded.

They came to a strip of sandy beach which was part of the hotel, and they started walking along it. It was a beautiful spot: the water was blue and turquoise, with a nice view across the bay to Ferrol. Behind the hotel rose grassy hills, their forested slopes only dotted here and there with a little house. It was very quiet out here – only the sound of the wind and the gently-lapping waves could be heard, which was a relief after the bustle and noise of New York.

“How are you, Raquel?” Elena asked. “I haven’t talked to you since your divorce.”

“I’m alright,” Raquel said. “It’s been… weird, not being married to Alberto anymore.”

“I can imagine,” Elena nodded, though she’d never been married herself. “How are you coping with… what happened?”

“I’m fine,” Raquel said, and it was mostly true.

Elena threw her a sideways glance.

“Is he still with her?”

“No,” she said. “They broke up recently.”

“And let me guess,” Elena said shrewdly. “He’s been calling you ever since.”

Raquel looked up, surprised.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“I know men like that,” Elena said, her tone full of disdain. Then she gave Raquel a look. “Are you thinking of getting back together with him?”

“No,” Raquel said immediately and truthfully.

“Good,” Elena said. “He doesn’t deserve it after cheating on you like that, especially in such a public way.”

Raquel merely nodded. There were other reasons, but nobody knew about those – not even a friend like Elena. She wanted to keep it that way.

“How is Paula?” Elena asked.

“She’s fine, thank you for asking.”

“Is she staying with him now?”

“Yes,” Raquel said. “We have shared custody – she always stays with him when I’m on location.”

She didn’t like that much, but there had been nothing she was able to do about it without revealing things to the whole world that she hadn’t wanted to reveal. She didn’t want people to look at her that way.

They reached the end of the part of the beach that belonged with the hotel, so they took a path back into the garden. Elena showed Raquel the outdoor pool, the tennis courts, and the restaurant.

“You can eat here if you want,” she said. “I’ve been here for a few days and the food is very decent, but you can also easily take a taxi to a nearby town. Just ask the front desk for anything you need.”

“Alright,” Raquel nodded. “I will.”

“I should be going now,” Elena said. “But I’ll get you the key to your room first.”

They went back into the lobby, and Elena got a key from the woman behind the front desk, then handed it to Raquel.

“Your suitcase is already up there,” she said. “Let’s have dinner tonight, alright? At eight?”

“Yes,” Raquel smiled. “I’d like that.”

Elena nodded, then briskly walked away to talk to some people who were just arriving. Raquel turned around, looking for the elevator – and there he was.

He was standing on the other side of the lobby, talking to his brother. The moment she saw him, Raquel’s heart skipped a beat, and she stood there for a moment, just looking at him, unable to move or tear her eyes away. There he really was. She’d dreamed about him so often that now she had trouble accepting that she was actually seeing him. He hadn’t changed at all – still the same tall man she’d met nine years ago – still wearing a close-kept beard and glasses – still in a suit, even though casual wear would be fine under the circumstances. Sergio. The sight of him made something twist painfully in her chest, and it suddenly became harder to breathe.

Across the room, Andrés spotted someone and walked over to them, leaving his brother alone. Sergio looked around… and then he saw her. Their eyes met, and for a moment, neither of them moved. The space between them suddenly seemed filled with unresolved issues; the past an almost palpable presence in the room. There was only one question in Raquel’s mind. Had he forgiven her for what had happened? She dreaded knowing the answer, but she had to find out.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to move, walking across the space of the lobby towards him. He didn’t walk away when he saw her approach, but neither did he smile. He merely waited for her, and when she reached him, his expression was completely blank. She swallowed hard.

“Hi,” she said.

He looked at her.

“Hi.”

Oh god, being so close to him and looking up at him was bringing back so many memories. They crowded her mind, one after the other, threatening to overwhelm her. She spoke without thinking, saying what she really felt.

“It’s so nice to see you again,” she whispered.

He looked down.

“You too.”

It didn’t sound genuine at all, and there was a sinking feeling in her stomach. But there was bound to be some awkwardness between them after all these years, so she tried again.

“This is quite something, isn’t it?” she said, gesturing around the lobby. “Such a nice place.”

“Yes,” he said, glancing up. “It is.”

She gave him a tentative smile.

“Do you remember,” she said, “the crappy little hotel they put us up in last time? What a difference.”

He looked at her, still unsmiling, and she just couldn’t read his expression.

“Yes,” he said. “I remember.”

His voice was empty of any inflection. He was acting as if they barely knew each other – as if she had never meant anything to him. It hurt… but she knew that she deserved it.

She still kept trying anyway. She couldn’t help it.

“The studio must have a bigger budget this time,” she said.

“Of course they do,” he said, looking away from her. “Because they’ve got you.”

He took a deep breath and seemed to steel himself, then looked back at her.

“I have to congratulate you. You’ve done really well.”

Her heart – her foolish heart – leapt as he said it. Had he been following her career the way she had been following his?

“You’ve heard about that?” she said.

His expression didn’t change.

Everybody heard about that,” he said. “It’s been impossible to avoid. Your movies are everywhere.”

“Have you seen any of them?” she asked, suddenly hopeful.

He looked down.

“No.”

He didn’t offer an explanation, and she felt her heart sink again. She told herself that she shouldn’t have expected that – just because she had seen everything he had done over the past nine years didn’t mean that he had done the same for her.

She didn’t know what to say anymore, and he was still looking at the floor. There was a pause as they just stood there – an island of silence amid the bustle of people happy to see each other again. Finally, just when she was about to excuse herself, Andrés turned up again, his arms wide.

“And here they are,” he said. “My two leads. You know, we’ve gotten you two the nicest suites in the place – top floor, beautiful view of the ocean. Gorgeous sunsets.”

“That’s wonderful,” Raquel said politely. “Thank you.”

“My brother should thank you,” Andrés grinned, clapping Sergio on the shoulder. “It’s thanks to you being here that he’s getting star treatment too.”

The corners of Sergio’s mouth drew down ever so slightly, and Raquel felt her heart sink even further. What were the odds that those two top suites would be right next to each other and they would bump into each other constantly? Sergio shook off his brother’s hand.

“I have to go.”

He walked away without so much as glancing at her again, and she watched him go with a terribly empty feeling in the pit of her stomach. That couldn’t have gone worse. She felt so stupid for hoping earlier – what had she been thinking? He couldn’t have made it any clearer… he hadn’t forgiven her at all.

She forced herself to keep talking to Andrés for ten more minutes, giving Sergio a head start so they wouldn’t have to take the elevator together. Then, she slowly made her way up to her room.

This was a very nice hotel indeed – the hallways richly carpeted, the decorations stylish – but she barely noticed any of it. Her thoughts were still on Sergio as she reached the door to her room and slid in the keycard. Why had she thought that he would have forgiven her? There had been no sign of that at all: no calls, no messages for nine years – not for her birthday, not for the birth of her daughter, not for premiers of really big movies. When he hadn’t even reached out to her after her divorce, that should have confirmed it for her: he didn’t want anything to do with her anymore. Of course he didn’t. She shouldn’t have fooled herself.

And now they were stuck together. Raquel walked into her suite, only vaguely noting the size of the rooms and the big windows that did indeed offer a magnificent view of the ocean. She trailed through the sitting room and peeked into the palatial bathroom, then she let herself fall onto the king-size bed and stared up at the ceiling. How had she screwed things up so thoroughly? She felt so terrible – she couldn’t bear the thought that he hated her now, even though he had every right to.

Her thoughts suddenly went to the script for the movie they were about to make, and she sat up, feeling a little sick. She went back into the sitting room and pulled the script out of her bag, then sat down to leaf through it. Yes, she remembered it right – scene after scene with just the two of them, representing the hours upon hours that she would spend with him over the next weeks, having to act like a couple. Her eyes flew over the stage directions, and words jumped out at her.

He puts his arm around her and pulls her close.

They share a look of understanding.

She kisses him.

Almost all of the scenes they had together required them to be close to each other – sharing emotional moments – touching – kissing. After the way he had greeted her just now, she couldn’t imagine doing any of that with him – she could barely imagine a civil conversation. She pressed her hands to her face and groaned. How had things become such an awful mess? She desperately didn’t want to do this anymore… but she didn’t have a choice, and neither did he. They had both signed a contract they couldn’t get out of. She would just have to count on him being professional and setting his personal feelings aside, at least in front of the cameras. She would try to do the same.

She told herself it wouldn’t be all bad. She liked the crew and the director, and Elena would be here much of the time. There were plenty of people she could talk to between scenes, and spend time with in the evenings. And she knew him: he would probably keep to himself most of the time. With any luck, they wouldn’t have to see each other off set at all.

She sighed and put the script aside, then got up to take a shower. It was only two months. She’d survive. It would be hard to work with him under the circumstances – she knew it would be painful – but there was nothing she could do about that now. She would just have to make the best of it.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

Sergio was nervous. When he walked into the small conference room of the hotel on their first morning of work, there was a tight ball of apprehension in his stomach. He was always a little anxious when he had to meet an entire new cast and crew of people, but it had been a long time since he’d been this nervous at the start of a project. Then again, he’d never had a part like this, so it was only logical that he’d feel more pressure than usual.

He thought he’d be the first person in the room – he usually was – but one of the producers was already there. He hadn’t worked with Elena González before, but from the little he’d seen of her so far, and from what his brother had told him, she seemed extremely dedicated to her job, and he had the sense that she would be more closely involved with the running of this movie than producers usually were.

“Good morning, Mr. Marquina,” she greeted him. “You’re here early.”

“I like to be on time,” Sergio murmured.

“That’s a quality I appreciate,” she nodded. “Especially in my lead actors.”

She gestured at the tables and chairs, which had been arranged in a large square shape in the middle of the room.

“Please, have a seat.”

He chose a seat at random and sat down gingerly, his nerves increasing. Soon, he’d meet the rest of the cast, which was always a tense moment for him. He never fit in completely, but some people were easier to work with than others.

Ms. González kept walking in and out of the room, directing a number of assistants who were setting up coffee, arranging more chairs, carrying in scripts. Finally, everything was ready, and the producer came over to him.

“How are your accommodations?” she asked him. “Everything alright?”

“Yes,” he said, surprised that she would ask. “Everything is fine.”

“I know this hotel isn’t anything fancy,” she said. “But there isn’t much choice in this area, and it’s close to where we’re shooting.”

“Really,” he said. “It’s fine.”

It was true that the hotel wasn’t fancy at all, but it was clean enough, and aside from a bed and some privacy, Sergio didn’t need anything more.

An assistant came up to Ms. González to ask a question, and she excused herself and walked out of the room again. Sergio stayed behind, fidgeting a little. He wished his brother could have been here so he would have had someone to talk to, but Andrés had business elsewhere.

Finally, a second member of the cast walked in: an attractive woman of about his own age, with long brown hair and rather beautiful dark eyes. She smiled when she saw him, and walked over to him.

“Can I sit here?” she asked, indicating the chair next to him.

“Of course,” he said politely.

She sat down and turned to him, holding out her hand.

“Raquel Murillo,” she introduced herself. “I’ll be playing Eva.”

“Sergio Marquina,” he introduced himself in return, shaking her hand. “I’m playing Tristán.”

She had a nice smile, and he liked her immediately. It surprised him – he never liked people at first sight. 

When she heard the part he’d be playing, her eyes lit up.

“Ah, you’re Tristán! It’s really nice to meet you. I’ve read the script, and it looks like about half of the scenes will be just the two of us.”

“Yes,” he nodded. “We do have a lot of scenes together.”

“Some very interesting material,” she said. “The story is so well-balanced.”

“It’s very well-written,” he agreed. “And I like the historic setting. The Civil War has always interested me.”

She nodded, leaning back in her chair, and he noted that she didn’t seem to be nearly as anxious as he was. He felt some of his own tension drain out of him – he’d been particularly nervous about meeting his leading lady, but Raquel seemed nice. Very nice, even.

“I guess we’re the first ones here,” she said, then she leaned closer to him with a conspiratorial smile. “I’m not usually this early,” she confided in him, “but this is the biggest project I’ve ever been a part of, and I want to make a good impression.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. He couldn’t help but smile too – there was just something about her that drew him in. “This is the first time that I’m playing a lead part.”

“Really?” she said, giving him a curious look. “Uhm, don’t take this the wrong way, but… isn’t your brother a producer? In fact, isn’t he producing this movie?”

“That doesn’t give me special treatment,” he clarified quickly. “It’s thanks to him that I became an actor in the first place, yes, but we don’t often work on the same projects. When we do, he stays out of casting decisions.”

“I see,” she nodded. “I’m sorry if it sounded like I was implying that he got you this part.”

“I’d understand it if you did think that,” he said. “There’s a lot of nepotism in this business.”

“That’s true, sadly.”

More people were arriving now, and for a while, there were handshakes and introductions all around.

“Have you worked with anyone here before?” Raquel asked, turning back to him as their fellow cast members settled down around the table.

“Yes,” he said, pointing. “With Jorge and with Pilar, though we didn’t work together very closely. What about you, do you know anyone here?”

“No,” she said. “I haven’t had that much work yet. I started rather late, you see. I got a psychology degree before I decided to go to acting school, so I’ve only been in the business for a couple of years.”

“How are you finding it?” he asked her. He wasn’t usually this good at keeping a conversation going, but for some reason, he found her easy to talk to.

“It’s tough,” she sighed. “I do other jobs here and there between projects. I’m really hoping that this movie will lead to more opportunities.” She looked at him. “Do you act fulltime?”

“Yes,” he said. “Small projects, mostly, but I get by.”

“I hope I’ll get to that point someday,” she said, smiling rather wistfully.

She pushed her hair behind her ear, and he noticed that she was wearing a wedding ring. Then, his attention was drawn to Ms. González, who stood up and cleared her throat.

“Good morning everyone,” she said in a clear, crisp tone. “I think we’re all here, so we can start. My name is Elena González, and I’m one of your producers, together with Andrés de Fonollosa, who couldn’t be here today.”

Her eyes swept around the table, taking in their expectant faces.

“This is going to be a challenging production,” she said, “since we’ve decided to film entirely on location instead of on a set.”

Next to him, Sergio saw Raquel smile.

“I love that,” she whispered to him, and he smiled back at her and nodded. Her obvious enthusiasm was infectious.

“I’ll be around much of the time,” Ms. González was saying. “Let me know if there’s anything you need.”

There were nods all around the table, and Ms. González continued.

“Then I’ll leave you in the capable hands of your director. Ágata?”

She sat down, and the woman sitting next to her stood up – Sergio recognized her from the audition process. She was about thirty, with long, swept-back black hair and thick eyebrows, and she surveyed them all with black eyes and an air of casual confidence.

“So you’re my troops,” she said, her voice firm and commanding. “Welcome. I’m your director, Ágata Jiménez, but everyone calls me Nairobi.” She grinned. “If you want to know why, buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story.”

There were smiles around the table, and curious looks. Sergio was curious too, but he didn’t often go out drinking with the cast and crew.

“We’re going to do a table read today,” the director continued. “You know how that works: we go through the entire script and you read your own part. The story is set in 1936, at the beginning of the Civil War, right after the Nationalist troupes of General Franco captured the naval base at Ferrol. Our location is a tiny village on the other side of the bay, where a Republican soldier, Tristán, washes ashore.”

Here Nairobi nodded at Sergio, who inclined his head.

“He’s found by a local woman, called Eva,” Nairobi said, now nodding at Raquel, who gave a cheerful wave.

“Eva hides Tristán in a barn on her farm,” Nairobi went on, “and takes care of him. Cue love story. Once he’s healed, Tristán leaves to go fight for the cause, but he returns to Eva at the end of the war, and we assume that they live happily ever after.”

Sergio glanced at Raquel, who smiled at him.

“Any questions so far?” Nairobi asked. “No? Alright, then let’s start the reading.”

Sergio sat back. He didn’t have any lines in the first few scenes, since the movie started with some establishing shots of the naval base at Ferrol, and some historical exposition. Then, it moved on to him washing ashore, unconscious and badly burned. There was an argument between Eva and her brother about what to do with him, then they loaded him onto their donkey and took him to their house at the edge of the village.

The first time he had lines was in a scene where he was alone with Eva – which was the case for the majority of his scenes. He took a deep breath. There wasn’t much acting required yet at a table read, but he still liked to get into character as much as possible.

“Where am I?” he read, his voice soft and hesitant.

“You’re safe,” Raquel read beside him. “You were wounded, but nobody knows you’re here.”

“We were attacked!” he said, as if he suddenly remembered. “What happened?”

The conversation went on – the first of many. The script really focused on the developing relationship between Tristán and Eva, and there were some very nice character moments. He liked the way Raquel was reading the part of Eva, and as they continued, he started feeling more and more at ease. He and Raquel played off each other perfectly, effortlessly establishing a rhythm to the conversations, and he knew almost immediately that they would work really well together. Often, it took some time to attune to your fellow actors in a scene, but every once in a while, things just clicked right from the start. Sergio had felt it a few times before, but never this strongly.

By the end of the table read, he was really looking forward to the shoot. Nairobi closed her script looking very satisfied.

“Nicely done,” she said, eyeing him and Raquel in particular with a pleased expression. “I think we’ve assembled the right cast for this thing. I look forward to working with you.”

She told them they could go, and everyone started talking enthusiastically. Next to him, Raquel turned to him with shining eyes.

“That went well,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Really well.”

They smiled at each other, and as he looked at her, he felt it again. Click, like two pieces of a puzzle connecting. Yes, he was sure of it. They would work really well together.

 

The present

When Raquel woke up the next morning, she didn’t feel any better about the situation she was in. They would have a table read first thing today, and after yesterday, she rather dreaded having to see Sergio again – but there was no way around it. She showered, then ordered breakfast in her room so she wouldn’t risk bumping into him in the breakfast room. It wasn’t a nice feeling, having to hide in her room like this, and she rather feared that the rest of the cast would think that she’d become too stuck-up to eat with the rest of them, but she really couldn’t face him before she’d had some coffee.

An hour later, she walked into the conference room of the resort feeling some trepidation, but also determined to make the best of it. She immediately saw that Sergio wasn’t there yet, but she almost bumped straight into Nairobi.

“Raquel!” the director said, pulling her in for a hug. “It’s so good to see you again!”

“You too, Nairobi,” Raquel smiled, hugging her back. “I’m so glad I get to work with you again.”

They broke apart, and Nairobi gave her a big grin. Raquel had really enjoyed working with her last time, and she thought that the feeling was mutual.

“I never thought I’d see you again,” Nairobi said. “Now that you’ve outgrown us.”

Raquel shook her head, smiling.

“I could never outgrow an excellent director like you.”

Nairobi’s grin broadened even more.

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” she said. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been good,” Raquel said. “What about you?”

“Fine, fine,” Nairobi said. “I’m really looking forward to this project! There’s some really juicy scenes to get into with you and Sergio. Very interesting character work.”

Yes, Raquel had read those scenes, but she wasn’t looking forward to them at all. She was careful not to show that to Nairobi, though.

Elena came in and greeted Raquel, then took Nairobi aside to discuss a practical matter. Raquel went to sit down at one of the tables, which had been arranged into a square, as was customary for a table read. As she saw the members of the cast trickle in and sit down, she had a strong feeling of déjà vu. This room was much nicer than the cramped conference room at the shabby hotel where they’d stayed last time, but the people were the same. They all greeted Raquel, but none of them sat down next to her. Last time, she hadn’t been particularly close to anyone on the cast except Sergio, and now they all seemed a little intimidated by her. She’d been experiencing that more and more often, and it made her feel rather sad. Several times, she saw from the corner of her eye that people were talking with their heads close together while throwing glances her way. She still wasn’t used to that – to being the topic of conversation in every room she entered – but her very public divorce last year had given people a lot to talk about.

She had bigger concerns, however. With every new person who entered the room, she felt a little jolt of nervous energy, but none of them were Sergio. It wasn’t like him to be this late, and she felt rather dejected as she wondered if he was late because he didn’t want to be in a room with her any longer than necessary. Then she sternly shook herself – she shouldn’t think that everything was about her. There were plenty of reasons why he could be late. Maybe it had nothing to do with her – maybe he hadn’t spared her a second thought since seeing her yesterday.

When he did finally walk in, he didn’t look at her. Even though both seats next to her were still open, he sat down all the way at the other side of the table; at an angle, so they weren’t directly opposite each other either. She hadn’t expected anything else, but it still hurt, especially when she thought back to the last table read they’d done together – how she’d sat down next to him without even thinking about it, pleased to meet her co-star, the conversation flowing easily. He’d seemed so shy and nervous, and she’d liked him immediately. Everything had been so simple back then. And then she’d screwed things up so terribly.

The final members of the cast, Jorge and Nico, finally hurried in and filled the seats next to Raquel, and Nairobi turned to address them all. Before she’d said anything, though, her eyes swept over the tables, and she frowned.

“No,” she said. “That won’t do.”

She briskly marched over to Sergio and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Get up.”

He gave her a confused look, but did as she asked. She took him by the shoulders and steered him around the table towards Raquel, who had her eyebrows raised. Then Nairobi nodded at Jorge, who was sitting on Raquel’s right.

“Switch,” she said.

When Jorge got up out of his chair, Nairobi firmly pushed Sergio down into it, then she patted him and Raquel both on the shoulder.

“That’s better,” she said, sounding satisfied.

She went back to her own seat, leaving Sergio next to Raquel. She threw him a cautious glance, but he was staring down at the table and didn’t look at her.

“Welcome!” Nairobi said, clearly happy to see them all again. “It’s a pleasure to work with this team again. We made a great movie last time, ladies and gentlemen, and we’re going to do it again.”

There were smiles and nods all around the table, and Raquel put on a smile too. Next to her, Sergio still didn’t look up from the table, and his expression didn’t change.

Just like she had done last time, Nairobi started with a quick summary of the story.

“It’s simple enough,” she said. “Same place as last time, but ten years later. Eva and Tristán have been happily married for a decade – but then an old friend of his turns up and persuades him to join the resistance against Franco’s regime. That causes problems both in the village and in his marriage.”

Raquel couldn’t help herself – she glanced at Sergio again. If only he would look at her… but he didn’t. She didn’t blame him for still being angry, even after all these years…  Yet she wasn’t even sure if he really was angry – he was just completely closed off, and she couldn’t read him at all.

Nairobi sat down and told the cast to start reading, and Raquel tried to put her worries out of her mind so she could focus on the story. Right from the start, there were lots of scenes between Eva and Tristán, showing how their relationship had developed after ten years, and how close they had become. There were some scenes that established that Tristán had never been fully accepted in the village, and then some conversations between Tristán and his old friend, played by an actor who was new to the cast. Then there were more scenes between Tristán and Eva.

As they read, Raquel felt her heart sink. Sergio didn’t turn to her once, not even during intimate, emotional moments. He was clearly trying not to show it, but it was so clear to her that he didn’t want to be here, and it was affecting her too. The rhythm that they had used to fall into so easily during scenes like these was gone, and the conversations felt awkward and stilted. Raquel kept glancing up at Nairobi, whose frown she saw deepening by the minute as she listened to them.

It was a relief when the reading ended. Nairobi stood up to address the cast, telling them once more that she was looking forward to working with them, and that they were going to make something beautiful. Everyone got up, talking and laughing, and started moving towards the door. Beside her, Sergio got up too, still without looking at her. From across the room, though, Nairobi called out.

“You two! Wait a minute, I want to talk to you.”

Raquel had no doubt who she was talking to, and Sergio froze as well. He didn’t sit back down next to her, however – he just stayed standing with his arms crossed and a blank expression on his face. The room slowly emptied around them, and Raquel waited with an uncomfortable feeling in her stomach. She doubted that this would be a fun conversation.

Finally, the three of them were the only people left in the room, and Nairobi walked over to them. She took a chair and sat down to face Raquel. When Sergio didn’t move, she raised her eyebrows at him.

“Sit.”

He pulled out his chair and subtly moved it further away from Raquel before sitting down. Again, it hurt. Would it ever stop hurting?

Nairobi took a deep breath.

“Look,” she said. “I know it’s been nine years since you last worked together, but this is not good. You used to have such a great dynamic, and now it’s completely gone. What’s going on?”

Sergio didn’t say anything. Raquel swallowed.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

Nairobi waved an impatient hand at them.

“This! You look like you can’t stand each other! We’re making a love story here, people! I repeat: what’s going on?”

This time, neither of them replied. The silence stretched uncomfortably, but Raquel simply didn’t know what to say. There was no way she could explain everything that had happened. Nairobi considered them for several long moments, then frowned.

“Alright, don’t tell me,” she finally said. “You may think it’s none of my business, and maybe it isn’t – but making a good movie out of this story is my business, and it’s not going to happen like this!”

Raquel knew that she was right – after this table read, she had no idea how they would be able to shoot any of those emotional scenes in a way that felt even halfway believable.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” Nairobi continued. “But you need to solve it. I don’t care how, I don’t care what you need to do, just fix this.

Raquel looked over at Sergio, to see him glance at her in return, only to look away again immediately. He seemed to be struggling with something, but she couldn’t gauge what it was. She suddenly felt so desperately sad. They used to be so attuned to one another. She used to be able to read him so easily. Now, it was like looking at a brick wall.

Nairobi was still frowning at them.

“You’re having dinner together,” she suddenly said. “Tonight.”

They both looked up, startled.

“What?” Raquel said.

“Dinner,” Nairobi repeated. “Just the two of you. I’ll make a reservation.”

“I don’t think that’s…” Raquel started, while Sergio said: “I’m not sure I can…”

Nairobi held up a hand, and her eyes were so stormy that they both stopped talking immediately.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she snapped. “You’re going to talk this out like adults, whatever it is. You’re going to be playing a happily married couple and I’ll be damned if I’m letting you in front of a camera while the energy between you is like this.”

She got up, cutting off the possibility for any further protest.

“I’m booking a table for you at a nearby restaurant. I’ll leave the details at the front desk and they’ll call you a taxi. I expect you to be there at eight.”

Then she turned and walked out of the room, leaving Raquel feeling completely flustered. Oh, this was awful. She’d thought that they would just be able to avoid each other off set – she’d counted on that. Sergio couldn’t make it any clearer that he didn’t even want to be in the same room as her – the two-minute conversation they’d had yesterday had been terribly awkward – and now they had to spend an entire dinner together? How?

She looked at him, and he finally looked back at her and didn’t look away. For the first time over the past two days, she felt like they were on the same page. Neither of them wanted to do this at all.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

After the table read, they had the afternoon off – filming wouldn’t start until tomorrow, so today they were free to do whatever they wanted. Sergio followed Raquel and the other members of the cast out into the hallway of the hotel, planning to go right back up to his room, but then Raquel turned to him.

“What do you think?” she said.

“About what?”

“Shall we go out and explore the village?” She smiled at him. “It might be good to get to know each other a little before we have to start acting like a couple.”

Sergio always spent the day before the start of a shoot preparing: going over his lines again, getting into the character’s headspace, that sort of thing. He opened his mouth to tell her that, but that wasn’t what came out.

“Yes,” he heard himself say. “I’d like that.”

“Great,” she smiled. “Let me just go up to my room and get my bag.”

He waited for her in the lobby, feeling rather confused by what had just happened. He never usually spent a lot of time with his fellow actors off set, and he didn’t know what had possessed him just now – but he supposed he should follow through now. It only took her five minutes to return, and then they trailed out onto the street together.

The hotel was right in the middle of a small but charming Galician village. The streets were lined with traditional houses of natural stone, with small windows, wooden balconies and red-tile roofs. They started walking side by side, and the bright summer weather soon made Sergio feel rather warm in his suit. He took off his jacket and carried it over his arm.

Raquel glanced at him, probably much more comfortable in her loose pants and beaded top.

“Why are you wearing a suit?” she asked him. “It was just a table read.”

He shrugged.

“I don’t really feel comfortable in anything else.”

“Hmm,” she said mildly. “Fair enough. As long as it works for you.”

He was surprised that she didn’t ask him why he was only comfortable in a suit – other people usually did, and he never knew what to say. He was rather pleased that she seemed to just accept this about him.

She changed the topic.

“Have you ever been to Galicia before?”

“Once,” he said. “We came here on holiday when I was very small. What about you?”

“No,” she said. “I’ve never been here before. The coastline is supposed to be very beautiful. I don’t think it’s very far – do you want to go and see?”

He nodded.

“Yes, that sounds good.”

They walked along in the warm sunshine, asking each other questions about their lives. He soon found out that she had just turned thirty – “Can you imagine? Thirty?” – that she lived in Madrid, and that she’d been married for just over a year.

“His name is Alberto,” she said. “You’ll probably meet him at some point – he’s coming to visit me in a few weeks.” She looked sideways at him. “What about you? Do you have a partner?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t.”

She didn’t ask any further questions, and he appreciated that. The topic always made him feel uncomfortable.

They left the village behind and started walking through the green fields just outside. When the road led them to the top of a hill, they could suddenly see the ocean in front of them.

Raquel smiled.

“I love the sea,” she said. “I hate that we’re so far away from it in Madrid.”

“I’m not too fond of the beach,” Sergio admitted. “But I do love the sound of the waves.”

They started walking downhill now, and soon they came to the coast. A little further along, they could see sandy beaches, but where they were now, tall cliffs rose up out of the sea, making it impossible for them to reach the water. They walked along the cliff for a bit, then sat down together on the edge. Sergio felt a little uncomfortable with his legs dangling over the twenty-foot drop, but Raquel seemed perfectly at ease. She leaned back with her hands on the grass, and surveyed the ocean.

“This is a really nice spot,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “It really is.”

They kept talking, and as the conversation flowed easily, he gradually started to relax. He loosened his tie and opened the first two buttons on his shirt; then he rolled up his sleeves too. Next to him, Raquel looked out dreamily over the ocean as she talked about how she’d decided to become an actress.

“There are just so many different kinds of people in the world,” she said. “I really like the thought of exploring ways of being that are different from my own – different psychologies, different ways of thinking, different lifestyles. I like the thought that I don’t have to be limited to just being me, you know? This is the closest I can come to experiencing what it’s like to be other people, and it just keeps fascinating me.”

He nodded in appreciation – he liked that that was what drew her to acting, rather than the idea of fame or fortune.

“What about you?” she asked, turning to look at him. “Why did you become an actor? You don’t really seem like the usual type.”

“I know,” he said. “It happened more or less by accident.”

“How do you become an actor by accident?” she laughed.

“My brother,” he explained. “You know he’s a producer. One day, when I was still a student, he was working on a production and one of the actors fell ill very last minute. It was a small part, and Andrés felt like I was the right type, so he called me and I filled in.”

He smiled a little at the memory of his first time on set.

“I never thought I’d like it,” he said. “But I did.” He paused, trying to find the words to explain. “You see, you’re right that I’m not the typical ‘actor type’. I’m not… I’m not confident and outgoing like most actors I’ve met. In fact, I’ve always… struggled with most human interactions. I’ve always been too quiet, and too shy, and I never know what to say.”

He looked out over the gentle waves in front of him. Next to him, Raquel was listening attentively.

“When I’m on set,” he continued, “all of that changes. I don’t have to be nervous anymore, because I know what to do. I know what to say. There’s a script, and stage directions, and instructions from the director, and I just have to follow those. It’s easy – in a lot of ways, it’s so much easier than life.”

Raquel was smiling slightly, but she didn’t interrupt him. He took a deep breath.

“You said you like acting because it allows you to explore what it’s like to be someone else. Well, for me… when I play a character, it allows me to explore myself, if that makes sense. It’s like I can summon different parts of myself – parts that are there, but that I can’t always access. Parts that I’m not usually brave enough to show.”

“Like what?” she asked gently.

He ran a hand through his hair, thinking.

“Well,” he said. “Confidence, for one thing. Ease, with myself and with others. And just… emotions, I guess. Any kind.”

“Is it an outlet for you?” she said softly. “A situation that feels safe, perhaps, because the circumstances are controlled?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “I think that’s exactly it. I always…”

He stopped abruptly. What was he doing? What was he saying? He’d never told anyone this – it was much, much too personal – and now he was telling this total stranger? He felt himself go red. How had she gotten him to talk like that?

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m talking too much.”

“Not at all,” she said, and it sounded like she meant it. “It’s such an interesting motivation.”

She reached out a hand and lightly touched him on the arm.

“Thank you for sharing it with me,” she smiled.

He looked at her, and he could feel his embarrassment fade. She was just so… he wasn’t even sure what it was.

“Thank you for listening,” he said. “And thank you for sharing yours.”

She nodded and smiled again, and then they were quiet for a while. It was an easy, comfortable silence, in a way that silences were never comfortable for him. He found himself thinking how nice it was just to sit here with her, and that it had been a good idea to spend some time together. He did feel closer to her now, and he could imagine that that would be good once they started doing scenes together.

“It’s getting late,” she finally said, and as he looked at his watch, he realized with a jolt that they’d spent the entire afternoon together. It hadn’t felt that long at all.

“What do you want to do?” she said, looking at him. “Do you want to go back to the hotel, or do you want to get dinner somewhere?”

Spending this much time with someone usually left him feeling exhausted, but he wasn’t tired at all today. He gave her a tentative smile.

“Dinner,” he said. “Dinner sounds good.”

 

The present

Raquel watched Nairobi leave the room with a feeling of utter dismay. Once the director was gone, she turned to Sergio.

“Alright,” she said. “What are we going to do?”

He gave her a confused look.

“What do you mean?”

Raquel decided that it was time to stop hedging. She took a deep breath.

“Do you actually want to have dinner with me?”

He looked down, shifting uncomfortably, and didn’t reply. She hadn’t expected anything else, but it still made her so sad.

“I didn’t think so,” she said quietly. Then she steeled herself and lifted her chin. “Well, then we won’t go.”

He looked up at her, surprised.

“But… what about Nairobi?”

“Nairobi doesn’t have to know,” she said firmly. “We’ll just tell her we went. You had the chicken and I had the fish and we talked things through and everything’s fine now.”

“Oh,” he said. “Yes, I suppose we could do that…”

“Good,” she nodded. “Then that’s settled.”

She got up – she couldn’t stay in this room any longer – it was too painful. When she was halfway to the door, however, he stopped her.

“Raquel,” he said, and she turned. It was the first time that he’d used her name, and it made something spark in her chest. Hope.

He seemed to be struggling with himself.

“Thank you,” he finally said without looking at her. “For understanding.”

The spark went out again. She knew what he meant – for understanding that her company was unbearable to him now. For understanding that he couldn’t spend an entire dinner with her anymore. She thought back to the first dinner they’d had together nine years ago, laughing over wine and tapas, and something twisted in her gut. She would give anything to be back there – anything to be able to do things all over again and not make the same mistakes.

It was a useless thought. She’d made those mistakes, and she could do nothing to fix them now.

She nodded at him, her throat tight.

“Of course,” she whispered, then quickly turned and left the room.

She spent the afternoon in her hotel room, going over her lines and trying to get back into the headspace of the character she had played nine years ago. Seeing the names of the characters in the script brought back so many memories of the scenes that she’d acted out with Sergio back then, and there was a constant feeling of nostalgia and regret in her chest. She hoped to god that it would go away soon – she couldn’t imagine feeling like this for the entire two-month duration of the shoot.

At seven-thirty, just when she was thinking of ordering up room service for dinner, there was a knock on her door. She went to answer it, hoping that it would be Elena – but when she opened the door, it was Nairobi who was standing there… with a very uncomfortable-looking Sergio at her shoulder.

“Nairobi,” Raquel said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“Picking you up for dinner,” Nairobi said lightly. “Isabel and I decided to go to the same restaurant – she’s leaving tomorrow – so I thought we could share a taxi.”

Raquel wasn’t fooled. Clearly Nairobi hadn’t trusted them to go by themselves – rightly so – so she was taking them herself.

Nairobi raised her eyebrows.

“Is that what you’re wearing? This is a nice restaurant, Raquel, you may want to change.”

Raquel looked at Sergio, who shrugged ever so slightly. Apparently he’d resigned himself to the situation, and Raquel couldn’t see any way to get out of it either.

“Alright,” she said. “I’ll change. Just give me five minutes.”

She closed the door and went over to her wardrobe, trying not to think of how awful it would be to spend at least a full hour with him when he didn’t even want to be in the same room as her. As she put on a dress, she tried to tell herself that maybe it wouldn’t be too terrible, but she just couldn’t really believe it. Thank you for understanding, she heard him say, and she felt so bad for him. He hadn’t asked for any of this – not nine years ago, and not now, when it was her sudden success that had made the studio revive the project.

She quickly brushed her hair, then hesitated, before putting on some mascara and lipstick as well. Finally, she stepped into a pair of high-heeled shoes and grabbed her bag, and then she was ready to go. When she walked out the door, Sergio glanced at her, only to immediately avert his eyes again, as if he couldn’t even bring himself to look at her. This was going to be just great.

The three of them walked down the long hallway to the elevators; Nairobi the only one who seemed at ease. They took the elevator down to the lobby, where Nairobi’s wife Isabel was waiting for them. Raquel and Sergio greeted her, and then the four of them went outside, where two cars were waiting for them. Raquel threw Nairobi a dark look.

“I thought you said you wanted to share a taxi?”

“I did,” Nairobi said airily. “The front desk must have called two by mistake. Oh well, now that they’re here… Isabel and I will take this one.”

And the two women stepped into the closest car, leaving Sergio and Raquel standing next to each other. They shared an uncomfortable look, but then he seemed to steel himself, and opened the door of the other car for her.

“You don’t have to do that,” she mumbled as she got in, but he closed the door without comment.

The car ride was tense and silent. Usually, Raquel didn’t have any problem with making small talk, but she was afraid that she’d only get silence in return, so she didn’t even try – she just stared out the window, dreading the next few hours. The car ride seemed to last forever. Contrary to Raquel’s expectations, they didn’t drive to the nearest village, but to a small town a little further along the coast.

When they arrived at the restaurant, Nairobi and Isabel were waiting for them, and they led the way inside. It was indeed a nice restaurant – someone took their coats at the door, and inside, a hostess was waiting to greet them.

“Good evening,” she said. “Do you have a reservation?”

“Yes,” Nairobi said. “Two tables, under Jiménez.”

The hostess nodded, then led Nairobi and Isabel to their table first. Sergio and Raquel waited, still silent, avoiding eye contact. When the hostess came back to get them, her eyes suddenly went wide as she recognized Raquel.

“Oh,” she said, but then she recovered her professional poise. “Yes. Right this way… Ms. Murillo.”

She led Raquel and Sergio to a table in a corner, covered by an immaculate white table cloth and set with clearly expensive plates and glasses, and a single candle. Raquel sat down with a feeling of despondent resignation, grateful that at least Nairobi had a table on the other side of the restaurant, so she wouldn’t hear if they said nothing at all to each other for the entire duration of the meal.

She looked up and saw that Sergio was looking at something behind her and frowning.

“What?” she said.

He shook his head.

“There are people coming out of the kitchen to look at you.”

She felt herself go red – as if this evening wasn’t awkward enough.

“They’ll stop in a minute,” she said, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. Instead she took up the wine list and started studying it as if she were genuinely interested. Across the table, he did the same, though she suspected that he cared about the wine as little as she did.

Before they could make a decision, though, a waitress arrived at their table with a bottle of champagne.

“Oh,” Raquel said. “We didn’t order…”

“It’s on the house,” the young woman smiled. “It’s a pleasure to have you here, Ms. Murillo.”

Raquel felt her blush deepen as the waitress put down two glasses and poured the champagne. She wished that this didn’t have to happen in front of Sergio.

“Please let me know if you need anything,” the woman said brightly, then left.

Sergio raised his eyebrows at her.

“Does this sort of thing happen often?” he asked.

“Every once in a while,” she admitted. “Definitely not all the time.”

“Yes, well,” he said. “This is a small town. You coming here is probably the most exciting thing that has happened to them all year.”

His eyes were amused, and she saw the beginnings of a smile tug at the corners of his mouth, but then he seemed to catch himself and quickly looked down at the wine list again. He turned it over, frowning.

“There’s only wine on this,” he said. “Where’s the menu?”

Raquel raised her hand, and instantly the young waitress was back at their table.

“How can I help you?”

“Could we get the menu, please?” Raquel asked, but the waitress shook her head.

“We only serve a fixed menu,” she explained. “You have a choice between meat, fish, or vegetarian.”

Raquel suddenly had a strong sense of foreboding.

“How… how many courses is the menu?” she asked.

“Five,” the waitress said brightly, and Raquel suppressed a groan. Five courses, and probably a pause in between each course – that would take hours. She silently cursed Nairobi, who had of course known exactly what she was doing by making a reservation at this particular restaurant.

“Alright,” she finally said, keeping her expression and tone carefully friendly. “I would like the fish, then.”

Across the table, Sergio nodded.

“The same for me, please.”

The waitress nodded.

“Perfect. I’ll be right back with the first course.”

Raquel was hungry, yet she couldn’t feel very excited about the prospect. Five courses. This would be awful. As the waitress left, a silence fell. At every other table in the room, people were talking to each other, creating a soft, continuous murmur that only served to emphasize the silence between the two of them. Neither of them touched the champagne that had been poured for them. Champagne meant celebration – and they didn’t have anything to celebrate. When the first course arrived, they ate in silence, too.

Suddenly, two people appeared next to their table – a young couple, looking nice and well-dressed.

“Excuse me,” the woman said carefully. “I’m… I’m so sorry to bother you, Ms. Murillo… But I’m such a big fan of your work. Could I… could I maybe get your autograph?”

Raquel smiled at her.

“Yes, of course. Do you have anything for me to sign?”

The woman gave her a big smile, then held out a small appointment book, opened at a blank page, and a pen. Raquel took them both and quickly put her autograph on the page – a swift, well-practiced gesture.

“Here you go,” she smiled as she handed the items back.

“Thank you!” the young woman said, her eyes shining. “Thank you so much! Have a nice evening.”

“You too,” Raquel said, and the couple walked away.

Sergio watched them go, frowning. Once they were out of earshot, he turned to Raquel.

“Doesn’t that sort of thing bother you?”

“No,” she said. “Not when they’re polite like that.”

He grimaced slightly, so she asked him the obvious question.

“I suppose you would hate all of this?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m not saying I could have been as famous as you, even if I’d tried, but I certainly never tried. I’ve only ever taken parts with small, local studios.”

She knew all of that – she’d followed every step of his career, after all. She’d always wondered if he was choosing these small productions on purpose.

“I’ve heard that you don’t really do publicity either,” she said before she could stop herself.

He looked up, surprised.

“True,” he said. “I usually have a clause added to my contract that I only have to do minimal publicity.”

“You really don’t want people to recognize you, do you?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“I value my privacy.”

She nodded. There were certainly times when she wished that the entire fame thing would just go away so she could live her life like a normal person again. She knew better than to complain about it, though. She knew that she was lucky in so many ways.

“I understand,” was all she said.

He seemed to have followed her train of thought, though, because he carefully looked up at her.

“I don’t know how you do it, Raquel,” he said in a low voice. “I mean… your divorce… It was everywhere: in the papers, and on the news, and online.”

She swallowed hard.

“Yes,” she whispered. “That was… a difficult time.”

For a moment, she thought that he was going say something – something that could have been the start of an actual conversation – but once again, she saw how he seemed to catch himself, and he didn’t say anything more.

The silence returned, even more awkward than before. It swelled and billowed between them, filled with all the things they could have said but weren’t saying. She hated this – she hated it so much. It all felt so wrong, when things used to feel so right between them. The second course arrived, and again they ate in silence. Raquel supposed that the food was good, but she barely tasted it. She was starting to wonder if perhaps Nairobi had been right – perhaps they really should try to talk about this. Once their plates were cleared, she looked at him across the table, and she felt so sad. They had been so close, once. There had been a time when they simply couldn’t stop talking, no matter how much time they spent together. How had they come to this?

“I’m sorry,” she suddenly said. She just couldn’t keep it in anymore. “I’m sorry about what happened, Sergio. I really am.”

He looked up, startled, and for a moment she saw emotion flicker behind his eyes, but he looked down again before she could really see what it was.

“Please,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I know I hurt you,” she went on anyway. “And I need you to know… I mean, I know this doesn’t fix anything… but I need you to know how sorry I am.”

He was shaking his head.

“You did what you had to do.”

Was that true? Had she really done what she had to do? It had felt like that at the time, but over the past nine years, she had wondered so often if she couldn’t have made a different choice after all.

“It still wasn’t fair to you,” she said, feeling the old guilt surge again. “And… and I completely understand that you’re still mad.”

“Please,” he repeated, still looking down at his plate. “I really don’t want to talk about this.”

She felt so sad. She wished so desperately that she could do something to make it right, but she didn’t know what. And if he really didn’t want to discuss it, she should respect that.

“Alright,” she whispered. “I understand.”

They turned back to their food, but Raquel couldn’t eat anymore. There was a tight knot in her stomach, and the fish that was left on her plate looked deeply unappealing. She kept glancing across the table at Sergio, and gradually she became aware that he was struggling with himself. His brows were furrowed as he picked at his food, and he seemed deeply conflicted about something. Then, after the plates were cleared, she saw him come to some kind of decision. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders, and when he looked up at her, his expression had shifted.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and his voice was much calmer than before. “I’m not mad at you, and I’m sorry if I made you think that I was. It’s just that… seeing you again was… Well, it doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t have behaved like that. It wasn’t very mature of me, and it wasn’t professional.”

She stared at him, confused by the abrupt change. He barely seemed like the same person anymore. He went on, still in the same calm, reasonable tone.

“I want you to know that I’ll try harder from now on. Nairobi is right that we have to work together, and… well, we have to find a way to make that work somehow.”

He swallowed hard, but he didn’t look away from her, and she suddenly had a suspicion. Was he acting? Was he goddamn acting in front of her, thinking she wouldn’t notice?

“We’ve had some… personal issues,” he continued. “But we don’t need to let those interfere with our work. I think we can both be professional.”

Some personal issues? Was he kidding? She looked into his eyes, trying to gauge if this was really just an act he was putting on. She couldn’t be sure. Did she really still know him well enough to tell when he was acting? After all these years? He was looking at her with a steady, open gaze, and there was no hint of emotion left in his face. Maybe he really was sincere. Maybe he’d really decided to let go of the past, and set aside what he’d been struggling with.

“Raquel?” he prompted gently. “Can we be professional?”

She looked at him a little longer, but his expression didn’t waver.

“Yes,” she finally said. “Yes, of course.”

“Good,” he nodded. “Then that’s settled. I’m sorry again for how I acted. I promise you I’m over it now.”

Was he really? Just like that? It seemed very sudden to her, but she supposed it was possible.

The third course arrived, and she kept observing him surreptitiously as they ate. He genuinely seemed to feel more comfortable – not relaxed, exactly, but composed. The air between them seemed to have cleared somewhat; the silence was less tense. As the plates were cleared again, he folded his hands on the table in front of him and assumed an attentive expression.

“I’d be interested to hear about your last project,” he said, his tone interested but neutral, as if they barely knew each other. As if they were working together for the first time, and nothing had ever happened between them. “I think I heard that you worked with Almodóvar?”

“Yes,” she said, considering him, still trying to gauge what he was really feeling. “Are you… are you sure you want to hear about that?”

“Please,” he nodded, his tone so awfully, clinically polite. “If you want to share.”

She hesitated, then started talking about the last movie she’d worked on, and he listened politely, nodding and asking questions that carefully kept them in neutral territory. She kept looking at him closely all throughout the rest of the meal, but by the end of it, she was still undecided. She simply couldn’t tell if he was really fine now, or just pretending. Finally, and with a feeling of considerable sadness, she had to conclude that the connection they’d once had was completely gone. Nine years ago, he’d been an open book to her, but now… she couldn’t read him at all anymore.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

Working with her was like a dream. The first few days of the shoot, the weather was bad, so Nairobi decided to save outside shoots for another week, and start with the scenes in the barn, most of which were entirely between Eva and Tristán. It meant that he and Raquel spent almost all of their time together, and Sergio enjoyed every minute of it. From the moment that they started shooting the first scene of Tristán waking up in the barn, his suspicion was confirmed: they worked incredibly well together. There was an ease between them like nothing he’d ever experienced; a fluent and perfectly natural dynamic. They just fit so well together, effortlessly feeling out the other’s tone, mood and movements, playing out scenes on the first take as if they’d been rehearsing them for months. After a while, Nairobi stopped giving them any instructions before a scene, preferring to see how they let things play out by themselves, and often making only minor adjustments.

“Ah, you two,” she’d say, looking at them with shining eyes. “You’re every director’s dream, you know that? Alright, let’s do a few more takes, just to have some back-up.”

Sergio had always taken his job extremely seriously – he enjoyed it, but it had still always felt like work to him. He’d never really fit in with the other actors, so the social aspects of the job were mostly lost to him. But now, for the first time in his career, he was having fun on set, and it was entirely thanks to Raquel. There was a lot of sitting around involved in shooting a movie – in the makeup chair in the morning; in the actors’ trailer while things were being set up; on set while the cameras and lights were adjusted – and he spent all of that time talking to Raquel, laughing with her, smiling at her gentle teasing. They had a wonderful and easy dynamic off-set too, and they soon developed inside jokes that nobody else understood; references and innuendos that only made sense to the two of them. It made him feel like they were an island in the sea of people that always surrounded them; a team within the team. The sound guys, the lighting people, the cameramen, even the director – when he was on set with Raquel, they all kind of faded into the background.

He'd never gotten along with a fellow actor like this. He liked everything about her: she was funny and smart, and he liked how she was just as dedicated to her job as he was. He liked her smile, and the way she teased him, and the way she seemed so at ease with him. She was so incredibly talented, and he felt so lucky that he got to work with her – he felt that she made him a better actor, too, just by being in a scene with him. It felt to him like she lit up any room she entered, effortlessly brightening even the gloomy barn where they spent all of their days. They were shooting the scenes in chronological order, which Sergio always preferred, and as the relationship between Eva and Tristán evolved, so did his relationship with Raquel. Acting with her felt so natural, and the characters fit them so well, that he started having trouble telling where the scenes ended, and real life began.

When the weather became better, they shot some scenes outside – Tristán washing up on the beach; Eva going out into the village to get supplies for him, and raising suspicion – but then it was back to the barn, where Eva had made a makeshift bed for Tristán out of hay and some sheets. Sergio spent hours and hours on that bed, while they shot scenes of Eva taking care of Tristán, and of them talking about everything: their lives, their families, the war. The romance between them blossomed, and at a certain point, Sergio started getting nervous. The scene of their first kiss was approaching, and he was rather anxious about it.

Because he'd never done a kissing scene before. He wasn’t sure how he’d been able to avoid them for so long – he’d just always played secondary characters so far, and he’d never had a romantic storyline. To make matters worse: he’d only kissed a handful of women in his entire life, and those hadn’t been long-term relationships at all. He didn’t think that he was particularly good at kissing – it had always made him uncomfortable, and he really didn’t like the thought of having to do it in front of an entire crew of people and under the critical eye of a director. Most of all, he was afraid of doing it badly, and then what would Raquel think of him?

All in all, he didn’t sleep much the night before the scene was scheduled. He kept tossing and turning in his bed, a squirming feeling in his stomach. What would it be like? How many takes would they need? Would he be clumsy? Would Raquel get annoyed if he was? And there were other questions, which caused him even more anxiety. What kind of kiss would it be? The script didn’t specify – it just said ‘they kiss’. Would Nairobi tell them exactly what to do, or would she just let them improvise, the way she usually did? And if so… what should he do? Should he keep his mouth closed? He’d seen enough on-screen kisses to know that that wasn’t what usually happened, but the thought of doing something that Raquel might not want was awful to him. Oh, this was all causing him so much stress. He rolled onto his back, his hands pressed to his face, and groaned. What a nightmare. How did other people do this?

He was a bundle of nerves all throughout the next day. He’d rather get things over with as soon as possible, but there was another scene to shoot first, and Nairobi was in an unusually critical mood, making them do takes over and over with tiny adjustments in lighting and sound. When they finally got to the crucial scene, it was already late afternoon, and Sergio felt absolutely frayed with anxiety.

“Let’s move on,” Nairobi finally said. “Scene seventeen, first kiss.”

She eyed the two of them – Sergio was sitting up in his makeshift bed, and Raquel was sitting very close to him – close enough for him to just lean forward and…

“Alright,” Nairobi said. “Let’s see what you make of it. I’m thinking soft and sweet, but apart from that, just feel it out.”

Sergio stared at her. That was it? That was all the instruction he was getting? Just feel it out? Nothing about intensity, or type of kiss, or… or what to do with his hands? He looked at Raquel, and she smiled at him – an easy, reassuring smile.

“You okay?” she asked him.

He merely nodded – he didn’t want her to know how nervous he was.

“How… how are we going to do this?” he said.

“I think you should initiate,” she said.

“Alright,” he said, swallowing hard. “Uhm… how?”

She gave him an amused look.

“Just lean in and kiss me.”

“Right,” he said.

“I’d like an establishing shot first,” Nairobi said. “A moment of tension before it happens. Just look into each other’s eyes for a bit and make it clear that you both want to kiss each other. You know what I mean.”

Sergio looked at Raquel, who gave him another smile. She didn’t look nervous at all.

“Ready?” she asked him.

No, he thought.

“Yes,” he said.

“Alright,” Nairobi said. “Camera ready? Go!”

The set went silent as the cameras started rolling, and Sergio took a deep breath and looked into Raquel’s eyes. God, the way she was looking at him was making his heart beat faster. Her eyes were full of a soft, dreamy kind of longing that pulled at something inside of him, and her lips were slightly parted. She’d never looked so lovely.

And all he could think about was that he was going to do it wrong.

“Cut!” Nairobi yelled, startling both of them. “Sergio, could you look slightly less terrified, please?”

There was muffled laughter among the crew, and Sergio felt himself go red.

“Sorry,” he said. “Let’s try again.”

“Good idea,” Nairobi said crisply. “Camera ready? Take two!”

They tried again, but Sergio felt even more uncomfortable now. His palms were sweaty and his mouth was dry, and he knew even before Nairobi yelled ‘cut!’ again that it wasn’t working.

Nairobi leaned forward in her chair.

“Sergio,” she said. “Sweetheart. You know I love you, but what the hell was that?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, wishing he could just disappear. His cheeks were burning, and next to him, Raquel was considering him with a curious, slightly confused look in her eyes.

“What’s the problem here?” Nairobi said. “Why are you so tense?”

“It’s just…” he said. “I’ve just… I’ve never done this before.”

Nairobi frowned.

“You’ve never done what before?”

“Kissing,” he said, feeling like his head could catch fire any minute now. “On camera.”

The crew exchanged amused glances, and Sergio didn’t dare look at Raquel. Nairobi leaned back in her chair.

“Dear lord,” she said. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” he mumbled. “Unfortunately.”

“And you have a problem with it why?”

He shrugged slightly, feeling so deeply, utterly embarrassed.

“I’m just… a little nervous,” he said – the understatement of the century.

Nairobi considered him for a moment with narrowed eyes.

“Do you need a drink?” she suddenly said, before turning to her assistant. “Would it be unethical to get him drunk on set?”

“Probably,” the assistant said, and Nairobi turned back with a sigh.

“I guess.”

She considered him for a few minutes more while he squirmed with discomfort – then she glanced at her watch.

“You know what,” she said. “It’s late. We’re all tired. Let’s try this again tomorrow.”

Sergio felt an intense mixture of relief and dismay – this had done nothing to soothe his nerves, and he wasn’t looking forward to another sleepless night, but at least it was over for now. He got off the bed without looking at Raquel – he was afraid of what he would see there. If she laughed at him… he didn’t think he could stand it.

He wanted nothing more than to just get out of this building so he could go hide in his hotel room, but of course Nairobi stopped him when he tried to get past her.

“Wait a minute,” she said, pointing at some chairs at the side of the room. “Over there.”

He reluctantly did as she said, sinking down into a chair with a heavy feeling. He supposed he was in for a stern talking-to.

Meanwhile, Nairobi was talking to Raquel. The room was noisy with people clearing things away for the day, so he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he saw them glance his way, and then Raquel nodded.

“Sure,” he heard her say, and then she came over to him. He watched her approach with a feeling of trepidation, afraid that she’d be annoyed at him, but she gave him the same easy smile she always did.

“Shall we go for a walk?” she said.

That wasn’t what he’d expected. He glanced over at Nairobi.

“I’m not sure I’m allowed to leave yet…” he said, but Raquel was still smiling.

“It’s alright, it’s Nairobi’s idea. She thought it might be good for you and me to talk for a bit.”

He’d still rather go hide in his room, but he didn’t feel like he had a choice, so he got up and followed Raquel out the door.

It was raining when they got outside, and Raquel frowned.

“Hmm, maybe not a walk, then. Shall we go into our trailer?”

“Alright,” he shrugged.

Since the barn they were shooting in only consisted of one room, two trailers had been set up right next to it: one for hair and makeup, and one for the actors to change into their costumes. This second one was for the actors only – a place where they could leave their things for the day and where they could find a moment of peace and privacy between scenes. There was a table and two chairs, a mirror and some clothes pegs, but also a couch with some pillows where they could relax. He and Raquel had spent many hours on that couch, discussing their characters and how to interpret certain scenes and lines of dialogue, or just talking about… anything, really.

“Shall we sit?” Raquel said, and he nodded and joined her on the couch.

She turned to him with a gentle smile.

“So,” she said. “You’ve never done this before.”

He sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose.

“No,” he said. “I know it’s ridiculous.”

“Not at all,” she said kindly. “Most of us went through this at acting school, but of course you never went to acting school.”

“Right,” he said.

“And maybe you’ve never had a romantic storyline before?”

“No,” he said. “I usually get hired for parts like teacher, or lawyer, or doctor. I’m not really the type to play the romantic lead.”

“I don’t agree with that,” she smiled. “I think you’re perfect for this part. But we do need to get the kissing right.”

“I know,” he said, feeling himself go red again.

She considered him for a moment.

“Sergio,” she finally said, carefully. “Would you maybe feel more comfortable if we rehearsed it first?”

He looked up at her, eyes wide.

“You… you want to rehearse it? The scene?”

“Yes,” she said. “If that would be okay with you.”

He blinked, completely caught off-guard. Had he heard her right? Was she going to kiss him? Now?

When he didn’t respond, she continued:

“I just think that you might feel more comfortable in here, when it’s just the two of us. That way we can talk about how we want the kiss to be, and try things out without people staring at us. What do you think?”

What she was saying made a lot of sense. He really would feel more comfortable with just her, and this way, he would know what to do tomorrow in front of the crew and Nairobi.

“Yes,” he said, finding his voice again. “Yes, please. I would like that.”

“Good,” she smiled. “Do you want to talk about it first?”

“Yes,” he said firmly. “Please. I don’t want to… to just try something and maybe do something that you wouldn’t like, or that would make you uncomfortable.”

“Thank you,” she nodded earnestly. “I appreciate that.”

She thought about it for a moment.

“Okay,” she finally said. “This is a first kiss, and both Eva and Tristán are careful people. Nairobi said that she wanted it to be soft and sweet, and I agree.” She looked up at him. “I think we should just… ease into it.”

“Alright,” he said, trying to keep his nerves under control. “How… how would we do that?”

“Let’s get into position first,” she said, and he nodded.

He lifted his legs onto the couch, and she came to sit close to him on the edge, the way they would be for the actual scene.

“Well,” she said. “Maybe you could try… just touching my cheek first?”

He swallowed hard, then lifted a hand and gently cupped her face, stroking her cheek with his thumb. She was so soft.

“Good,” she smiled.

They just looked at each other for a moment. Why was his heart beating so fast? She gave him that look again – the one that she’d given him earlier on set – the one that pulled at something in his chest. Oh god. She was so close. She smelled so nice. He liked her so much.

“Now let’s just… ease into it,” she whispered.

And the next moment, she leaned forward, and just brushed her lips against his. It was the softest, sweetest thing he had ever felt. He closed his eyes, suddenly finding it hard to breathe, and she did it again. His heart was pounding, and his brain felt fuzzy. She pulled back slightly.

“Then,” she said softly, “it should probably turn into a proper kiss. Is that alright?”

“Yes,” he said, a whisper all that he could manage.

She shifted a little closer to him, then pressed her lips against his – softly, gently – and something started fluttering frantically in his stomach. What… what was happening to him? Why was she affecting him this much?

She drew back, and they looked at each other, a little breathless. He saw the look in her eyes, and wondered if she was really still just acting – but he immediately pushed the thought away.

“I think,” she whispered, “I think it should probably turn into… into something more, after that.”

He could only nod – he didn’t think he could speak anymore.

She shifted even closer, and she pressed her lips to his again – still gently, trying to feel him out. Then, she opened her mouth slightly, and brushed her tongue against his lips. He responded in kind – carefully, a little tentatively – and when the tip of his tongue touched hers, a shiver ran all the way down his spine. His knees went weak, and he was suddenly glad that he was sitting down. This was all so overwhelming… yet he didn’t want it to stop for the world.

And then something happened. The easy connection that they had in every other regard suddenly asserted itself here too, and within an instant – click – everything suddenly felt exactly right. He didn’t have to think about it anymore – he didn’t have to worry. Kissing her was the most natural thing in the world.

He gently pulled her closer, and at the same time, they deepened the kiss. His hand was in her hair now, and for several long moments, they just lost themselves in each other – tasting, savoring, exploring. Then he deepened the kiss even more, and she put her arms around his neck as she kissed him back – deeply, breathlessly, her fingers in his hair – until they entirely disappeared into the moment. He’d never kissed anyone like this before; like she was the only thing in the world that mattered to him; like he never wanted to stop kissing her. It was a great kiss – an amazing kiss. A perfect kiss.

Finally, at the same time, they broke apart, and he opened his eyes to look at her. For just a moment, she seemed so flustered.

“Oh,” she whispered. “Oh…”

Then she composed herself.

“Yes,” she said, looking away from him. “Yes, that… that should do it. I think you’ve got it.”

“Yes,” he whispered back, unable to look away from her. “I think I’ve got it.”

She abruptly got up.

“Well, then… we won’t have a problem for the scene tomorrow. We’ll just… do this.” She looked at him, still seeming a little flustered. “I guess… I guess I should go.”

And yet she kept looking at him, as if she couldn’t quite believe it – then she shook herself, and nodded.

“Alright,” she said, more firmly now. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes,” he managed to say. “Tomorrow.”

She stepped out of the trailer and closed the door behind her, and he just kept staring after her for a long time. His heart was still racing – his knees still weak – his lips still tingling – and he knew, with a profound sense of absolute certainty, that he was deeply, deeply in trouble.

The present

Usually, Raquel liked to work with directors who shot scenes in chronological order – it helped her keep track of where the character was in the story, emotionally speaking, and it was fun to see the story progress instead of jumping back and forth. This time, however, she was less than thrilled when Nairobi said that she wanted to start shooting right at the beginning of the script.

“Is that really necessary?” Raquel asked, taking Nairobi aside first thing in the morning, while the crew was still setting up. “Can’t we start with a different scene?”

“Why?” Nairobi frowned. “We have to shoot them all eventually.”

“I know,” Raquel said. “But… but one of the other scenes might be better to… help us get into character again.”

“I don’t agree at all,” Nairobi said. “The first scenes are perfect for that. We get some shots that re-establish the relationship between Eva and Tristán – that show us how happy they are living together, and that they love each other. I think they’re the perfect scenes to get you back into the characters’ headspace and get you where you need to be for the rest of the movie.”

When Raquel still hesitated, Nairobi threw her a calculating look.

“You did manage to clear things up between you and Sergio, right?” she said. “Or is this going to be a problem?”

“I… I think we cleared things up, yes,” Raquel said carefully. “At any rate, we’ll be professional.”

“I sure hope so,” Nairobi grumbled. “I have no time for teenage drama on my set.”

Raquel nodded contritely.

“Yes,” she said. “I know.”

“Alright,” Nairobi said. “Then you should go get your hair and makeup done, and get ready to shoot the first scenes.”

Raquel went off to hair and makeup with a heavy feeling. She wished she could do a few regular scenes with Sergio first, before they had to start acting like a couple – Eva and Tristán had several arguments in this movie, and she felt that they’d be able to do those scenes quite well at the moment. It would allow her to see what it would be like to act alongside him now, and it might have offered them a chance to get comfortable around each other again.

Instead, they’d be thrown right into the deep end. The first few scenes of the movie were all short shots of Eva and Tristán, happily married on their little farm: scenes of the characters walking hand in hand; hugging; kissing. Sergio had been perfectly polite to her all throughout the rest of the evening yesterday – nothing more, nothing less – and she dreaded having to act out these scenes with him now.

He was already sitting in the makeup chair when she arrived in the trailer.

“Good morning,” he said as she came in. He was still using that awful polite tone, and his expression was carefully neutral. She hated it.

“Good morning,” she replied, sitting down into the chair next to him.

Nine years ago, they had traditionally spent this time in the morning talking through the day’s scenes together, discussing the characters’ motivations and developing relationship. Now, he didn’t give any indication that he wanted to start a conversation, and she had no energy to try to initiate it herself.

It felt strange to revisit this character. The costume Raquel got wasn’t exactly the same as last time, but it was very similar, and seeing the barn where they had spent so many happy hours filming the first movie brought back so many memories, which made her feel terribly nostalgic. They wouldn’t film in the barn today – instead, they would film out on the fields around it, and in the farm house next to it, where Raquel had shot a few scenes last time with the actor playing her brother. She was glad that these locations, at least, were fairly neutral to her.

Everything was ready to start shooting by the time they arrived on set – lighting and sound, cameras and props. Nairobi was walking around with a sense of purpose, directing her people like a general.

“Good!” she said, when she saw Raquel and Sergio arrive. “Let’s get started!”

They were shooting in the kitchen of the farm house, which had been arranged to match the time period of the 1940s. Nairobi gestured at the table in the middle, where plates and food had been set out.

“I want you to sit down there,” she said, “and just start eating. Then I’d like you to look at each other and smile, like you’re happy with your life and each other. Easy enough.”

Raquel sat down gingerly across the table from Sergio, vividly reminded of their dinner last night. He didn’t look at her until Nairobi said ‘go!’ and the cameras started rolling – then he looked up and smiled at her. He wasn’t doing a bad job. Raquel knew it would probably be fine for the cameras, but it didn’t fool her. She felt the lack of warmth behind that smile so clearly, and it made it hard for her to smile back at him with the necessary intent.

“Cut!” Nairobi said. “Let’s try that again – with a little more feeling this time, please.”

They did the shot over and over again, which wasn’t unusual for the filming of a movie – but Raquel knew that, nine years ago, they wouldn’t have needed nearly this many takes. Finally, Nairobi sighed.

“Alright, I think that’s the best we’re going to get. Let’s move on.”

They set up at the sink this time: Raquel as Eva washing the dishes, the camera beside her, filming her in profile.

“Sergio,” Nairobi said, walking up to him. “You’re going to enter the frame from the left, come up behind Eva, put your arms around her and kiss her neck. Raquel: a smile and a loving look, please.”

Great, Raquel thought. This would be just great.

Beside her, Sergio didn’t give any indication that he didn’t like the instructions – he merely nodded and went to stand off-camera. Raquel put her hands into the soapy water in the sink, and tried to mentally prepare herself – with little success. When Nairobi said ‘go!’, she didn’t feel ready at all yet, but there was nothing she could do.

She heard him walk across the creaking wooden floor, and suddenly his arms were around her. She had to close her eyes for a moment at the rush of feelings and memories that were caused by his closeness. He still smelled the same. His arms around her were so familiar – still warm and strong. She swallowed hard and tried to focus, and the next moment the memories faded and she became aware of the painful differences instead. He was holding her rather stiffly, not really pulling her in against him. When he bent his head and pressed his lips to her neck, it didn’t really feel like a kiss at all – he was just going through the motions because he had to. The moment Nairobi yelled ‘cut!’, he immediately let go of her and took a big step back.

Nairobi asked them to wait as she adjusted the lighting. Raquel could so vividly imagine how this waiting time would have played out nine years ago: the two of them leaning against the sink, their shoulders touching as they talked and laughed, discussing the scene or sharing an inside joke. Now, he turned away from her ever so slightly, and they waited without speaking. He was being professional, as he’d promised her yesterday – he was doing what Nairobi asked him to do on camera – but nothing more than that.

The real challenge came in the afternoon, when the cameras were moved outside onto the green field between the barn and the farm house. Nairobi came over to Raquel, and a prop person handed her two wooden buckets that were half-full of water.

“You’ve gone to the well to get water,” Nairobi explained. “And you’re walking back to the house. Tristán,” she said, gesturing at Sergio, “will come up to you and take the buckets from you to help you carry them inside.”

Raquel nodded, her lips a tight line. She knew from the script what was coming next. Nairobi turned to her.

“I want you to put your arms around his neck and kiss him,” she said. “Sergio – let her kiss you for a moment, and then drop the buckets so you can put your arms around her waist and kiss her back. I want a proper kiss, alright?”

Raquel steeled herself as she hefted the buckets. There was no way around this. They’d just have to try.

She started walking across the field, and Sergio hurried up to her from outside the frame. She gave him her best smile as he took the buckets from her, and then – her heart beating painfully fast – she put her arms around his neck and carefully pressed her lips against his.

Nine years ago, scenes like these had been so easy for them. After their first rehearsal, Sergio had completely gotten over his embarrassment, kissing her with warmth and ease and considerable enthusiasm, take after take after take. Raquel had later watched those scenes when the movie was out – it hurt, but she couldn’t stop herself – and she’d recognized that those had been truly excellent kisses. She’d acted out many a kiss in her career, but never – before nor after – had she ever had so much chemistry with a fellow actor. It was off the charts.

There was none of that now. When she leaned against him and pressed her lips to his, it was like kissing a statue – he was giving her nothing. He went through the motions, alright: he dropped the buckets and wrapped his arms around her waist, but she felt no emotion from him at all; no warmth; no spark; nothing. There was a distance between them that she just couldn’t bridge – not now, and not for the next ten takes, as Nairobi put them through the scene again and again. Raquel knew that she wasn’t doing a good job – she knew she was holding back too – but she just felt so uncomfortable, knowing that he didn’t want this at all.

Finally, Nairobi gave the crew a break and took the two of them aside with a stormy expression.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “At some point in the past nine years, did the two of you find out that you’re related somehow? No? Then Sergio, will you please, for the love of god, stop kissing her like she’s your sister!

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking down. “I’m trying my best.”

“Well try harder!” Nairobi said. “Jesus!”

She shook her head, looking between the two of them.

“What happened to you two? You used to have such a perfect dynamic in front of the camera – never seen anything like it! I thought that we were going to have to slap a PG-13 rating on that first movie with the way you were kissing each other! And now – nothing. I just can’t understand it. All that chemistry must have gone somewhere.” She looked at them and raised a stern finger. “Find it.

And she walked away, leaving them to shift uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact.

“Look,” Raquel finally said. “We have to do better. The worse we do, the longer this drags out.”

“I know,” he said, and she could hear genuine frustration in his voice. “I’m trying, I just… I just…”

For the first time all day, she felt some emotion from him. He seemed so conflicted, and she wondered why. He didn’t finish his sentence, though – he just trailed off and sighed, looking down.

“I’ll try harder,” he said in a low voice, and once again she felt so bad for him. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like for him to be obligated to kiss her now, after what she’d done to him.

She looked at him as they went back to their respective starting positions. She thought back to their past kisses, and for the first time, she allowed herself to remember them in detail – the heat in them; the joy she’d felt; the passion. She took a deep breath and allowed herself to feel those things again – to want to kiss him again. She remembered her body against his, and the way he used to bite her lip, and his hands in her hair. Those memories had always woken a sharp, painful longing inside of her, so she usually didn’t let them surface – but she let them now, and she let herself feel all of the longing they evoked.

The crew returned to their positions, and this time when Nairobi said ‘go!’, Raquel was ready. Sergio walked up to her and took the buckets from her, and this time she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, the way she wanted to kiss him. She didn’t hold anything back this time, giving him everything she had with complete vulnerability; every last shred of feeling; every bit of longing. She pressed herself against him, and this time when he dropped the buckets, he was dropping them in genuine surprise.

He froze, and for a moment she thought that it wouldn’t work – but then he wrapped his arms around her, and suddenly she could feel him yield – she could feel something break inside of him – some restraint – and then he was kissing her back just like he’d kissed her all those years ago – deeply, and with total surrender. He pulled her close and then his hands were in her hair; his mouth warm on hers as he deepened the kiss and they sank into it, moment after moment. She forgot about the shoot – she forgot about the fields around them and the people watching them – she forgot about Nairobi ordering them to do better – she was kissing him because she wanted to kiss him… and for several long moments, she could believe that he wanted to kiss her too.

They broke apart, but kept each other close, and she looked up at him, feeling completely breathless. He was looking down at her with that look that she remembered so well – the look that she hadn’t been able to get out of her head for the past nine years. Like she was everything to him.

The next moment, though, Nairobi said ‘cut!’, and they looked up, startled, and quickly stepped apart. Raquel’s heart was beating frantically, and she suddenly had to fight against an absolute flood of emotions, as if a dam had burst and every feeling she’d been suppressing for nine years came up at once. She glanced at Sergio, but he was looking down at the ground, and she couldn’t read him – couldn’t tell if he was experiencing the same thing she was. The look he’d given her just now was gone completely, and she immediately wondered if she’d imagined it.

Nairobi’s eyes were shining, and she had a big grin on her face.

Yes!” she said, punching the air. “Yes, that was it! Finally!”

Raquel kept looking at Sergio, her heart still beating fast. Had she imagined it? Had she just seen what she wanted to see? And if she hadn’t – how real had it been? Had he meant to kiss her back like that? Had he just been caught up in the moment? Or had he just made a supreme effort, and managed to give one of the best performances she’d ever seen from him?

His expression was completely neutral again, and he wasn’t looking back at her.

“Do you need another shot?” he asked Nairobi, his tone calm and professional.

“No,” she said, still grinning broadly. “I think we got it.”

“Alright,” he said. “Then will you excuse me for a moment, please?”

Nairobi gestured that he was free to go, and Raquel watched him walk away, down the hill towards the restrooms. He seemed perfectly composed, but how much of it was real? She relived the way he’d pulled her close and kissed her just now, and suddenly it was hard to breathe as all of those long-suppressed emotions surged again, threatening to overwhelm her. Oh god, she hadn’t expected to react this strongly at all, and she felt so flustered. What was this? But then she shook her head at herself – she knew exactly what this was. She watched his retreating back in the distance, and she admitted it to herself with a sinking feeling in her stomach. She still wasn’t over him.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

Sergio had never been in love before, and at this point in his life, he’d assumed that it was never going to happen. Women had always made him vaguely uncomfortable, and the few experiences he’d had with romance hadn’t been particularly positive: awkward, short-term things that were over before they really began, the end of which left him feeling more relieved than anything else. By now, at thirty, he’d assumed that love and relationships just weren’t meant for him – that he simply wasn’t the kind of person who fell in love. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that it would just hit him over the head one day, startling and profound and all-consuming, and that there would be nothing he could do about it.

Because there was no denying that he was in love with Raquel – after they had rehearsed that first kiss together and it had practically short-circuited his brain, he just couldn’t come to any other conclusion. He was in love for the first time in his life, and it was simultaneously the most wonderful and most horrible thing he’d ever experienced. Whenever he was with her – acting, going out for drinks, having dinner – he was happier than he’d ever felt… but sooner or later, he was always reminded of the fact that they couldn’t be together, and then he lay in bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, deeply and acutely miserable. The feelings astounded him by how intense they were – how they kept him up at night – how they filled his stomach so he couldn’t eat – how she was the only thing he could think about, no matter how hard he tried. It flustered him and threw him off-balance, making him shy around her for a few days, until he felt reasonably certain that he had things under control.

He tried his best not to show her how he felt about her. The last thing he wanted was to create any awkwardness between them, which would be inevitable if she knew how he felt. So he tried to monitor his behavior around her; the things he did; the things he said; even the way he looked at her. It was such a relief to get on set with her every day – they were playing scenes as a couple now, so once the cameras were rolling, he could finally look at her the way he always wanted to look at her. On set, he could hold her hand, and pull her close, and kiss her and kiss her. He felt so conflicted about those scenes – on the one hand, they were so wonderful, but on the other hand, he felt bad about looking forward to them. He told himself that it wasn’t right to want to kiss her on set – told himself over and over again that it was wrong of him to think of her that way when she was just doing her job – but he just couldn’t help it.

Every once in a while, he thought – just for a moment – that perhaps she liked him back. Sometimes, when Nairobi yelled ‘cut!’, the look in her eyes would linger for a few more seconds as she looked at him, making something tingle in his stomach. Other times, he caught her looking at him when they were supposed to pay attention to something Nairobi was saying, and when he caught her eye, she quickly looked away. It was true that she stood very close to him whenever they talked these days – that she touched him on the arm or knee more and more often – that she sought out his company at every available opportunity. And yet, he tried not to read into those things, because there was one fact that he just couldn’t forget, no matter how much he wanted to. She’s married, he told himself again and again, every time he felt the familiar butterflies – every time he began to hope. She’s married. Of course she didn’t like him back.

He knew that he should try harder to maintain some distance between them, but he simply didn’t have the strength. The fact that she was married was, indeed, a fact, and he was aware of it, but it remained an abstraction – her husband a vague, unknown figure in her life that she barely talked about. He sometimes called while she was out with Sergio, but she never answered the phone in front of him – instead she just sent a quick text message and then continued the conversation. He assumed that she always called him back later – their hotel rooms were next to each other, and he could sometimes hear her talking through the wall – but in general he tried not to think about her husband too much. Until, one day, he suddenly became very real.

“Alberto is coming to visit me tomorrow,” Raquel said to him one Friday over dinner. “He’ll be here for the weekend.”

“Oh,” Sergio said, startled. His instant reaction was a feeling of dismay, but he tried not to show it to Raquel. “That’s… that’s nice for you.”

“Yes,” she said, though he couldn’t detect much enthusiasm in her voice. “It is.”

“You must have missed him,” he continued, trying to treat her as he would any friend. “Five weeks is a long time to be apart.”

“It hasn’t been so bad,” she said. “Don’t you feel like time has really flown by? It doesn’t feel like we’ve already been here for five weeks at all.”

“I know,” he nodded. “It’s really gone by fast.”

“And yet,” she continued, a far-away look in her eyes. “On the other hand, it feels like we’ve been here forever. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I have a life outside of this shoot, you know? That there’s a world out there beyond this little corner of Spain.”

He knew exactly what she meant – this village and this shoot had become his whole world as well. He’d experienced this dreamlike state of feeling disconnected from the outside world on other projects before, but never as strongly as he did now.

“Yes,” he murmured. “Exactly.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve always known it here,” she said quietly, and then her eyes focused on him. “Like I’ve always known you.”

He swallowed hard, not trusting himself to speak. He just nodded.

“Don’t you feel the same way?” she gently prompted him. “Doesn’t it feel like we’ve known each other forever, rather than just five weeks?”

“Yes,” he whispered. “It does.”

They looked at each other across the table, and he felt his heart begin to pound. But she was married – her husband was coming to see her tomorrow. He was the first to look away.

“What time is your husband getting here tomorrow?” he asked her, looking down at the table.

She shook herself.

“Uhm…” she said. “His flight comes in at ten. I’m going to pick him up at the airport, so… you and I won’t be able to spend the weekend together this time.”

“That’s alright,” he said, though it didn’t feel alright to him at all. They only had three weeks left until the end of the shoot anyway, and now he was robbed of an entire weekend with her? It didn’t seem fair – but of course she’d rather spend time with her husband than with him. It definitely wasn’t right for him to be jealous.

He took a deep breath, and tried to get over himself. He should be happy for her.

“I hope you’ll have a good time,” he said, trying to put as much sincerity into his voice as he could manage.

“Thank you,” she said, but again he thought that he could detect a lack of enthusiasm. The next moment, though, he firmly told himself that he was just imagining things, and that just wanting things to be a certain way didn’t make them true.

The next morning, he woke up with an uneasy feeling in his stomach. He didn’t stop to examine it – he knew perfectly well what was causing it, but he didn’t want to admit it to himself. He tried to think of something he could do today. Every weekend so far he’d spent with Raquel: taking long walks along the coast; taking the bus to explore neighboring villages; or just sitting for hours in small cafés if it rained, sharing stories and a bottle of wine. Now, he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He’d bonded with Raquel so quickly that he hadn’t even tried to make friends with the other people on the cast, and his brother would be in Madrid until late that night.

He spent the first few hours of the morning in his room, reading, but it was a nice day, so he finally decided to take a walk. The moment he left his room, though, he bumped right into Raquel and the man he presumed must be her husband.

“Oh,” he said, flustered. “I’m sorry.”

He had no desire whatsoever to meet this guy, but there was no way out of it now without being extremely impolite, so he didn’t just walk away like he wanted to.

“Oh, hi!” Raquel said. “It’s good to see you – I’d like you to meet my husband. Alberto, this is Sergio.”

Sergio disliked the man immediately. He had a sneering mouth and dark, calculating eyes, and he gripped much too hard as he shook Sergio’s outstretched hand.

“Nice to meet you,” Alberto said, though it didn’t sound like he meant it. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Likewise,” Sergio said, though it wasn’t true. He told himself that this man was important to Raquel – she loved him – so he decided to make an effort, for her sake. “It’s good to finally meet you too.”

“You know,” Alberto said, and though his tone was light, his eyes were cold. “Raquel just does not stop talking about you. You must have a lot of scenes together.”

Sergio glanced at Raquel and thought that she looked a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure how to interpret that.

“Yes,” he said. “We do have a lot of scenes together.”

“Raquel tells me you’re a fulltime actor,” Alberto went on, somehow managing to make it sound like an insult.

“Yes,” Sergio said, keeping his voice carefully polite. “I am.”

“Must be a nice job,” Alberto said, keeping his eyes on Sergio. “Spending all day just playing around a bit.”

Sergio felt himself bristle.

“There’s a bit more to it than that,” he said, sticking to his polite tone with some effort.

“Of course there is,” Raquel said, throwing her husband an annoyed look. “He knows that.”

“I don’t know,” Alberto went on, and his voice was definitely cold now. “It sounds like playing to me. Putting on costumes. Pretending to be someone else. Spending hours kissing people.”

Ah, Sergio thought. So that was the problem.

“Don’t,” Raquel said, putting a restraining hand on her husband’s arm. He shook it off.

“I’m just stating a fact,” he said. “Isn’t that what you do all day?”

Sergio felt like he didn’t owe the man any more politeness at this point.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I have to go.”

“Sergio…” Raquel said, but he shook his head.

“It’s okay,” he said in a low voice as he walked past them. “Have a nice day.”

He walked over to the elevators, and as he got in, he could just hear Raquel say:

“Did you have to?”

He was rather glad that the doors closed after that and he didn’t have to hear her husband’s reply.

He spent several hours just wandering around the village. Lunchtime came and went, but he didn’t feel like eating. At a certain point, he saw Raquel and her husband on the other side of the village square, but they didn’t see him. They seemed to have made up – Alberto’s arm was around Raquel’s shoulders, and as Sergio was watching, he stopped her and bent his head to kiss her. The sight of it hit Sergio like a punch in the gut – it was so painful that he had trouble breathing. Suddenly, it really sunk in, in a way in which it hadn’t sunk in before: she was married. She had a husband. A husband she loved – a husband she would return to as soon as the shoot was done. No matter how much Sergio was in love with her… all of this was only temporary. They could never be together.

He returned to his hotel room after that, afraid of bumping into them again somewhere. The sight of them together kept haunting him – Alberto’s arm around her shoulders; the way he’d stopped and kissed her in the middle of the village square. He could do that, because he was her husband. He could kiss her wherever and as much as he wanted to. And she’d kissed him back. His throat felt tight. He let himself fall onto his bed and pressed his hands to his eyes. Why was she with this guy? He seemed so deeply unpleasant, and she was so wonderful. She deserved someone so much better. She deserved the world. He wished he could give her that. He wished it so much it hurt.

He spent the afternoon on his bed, trying and failing to focus on his book. At a certain point in the early evening, he heard voices out in the hallway, and he realized that Raquel and Alberto had returned. He heard the door next to him open and close, and the muffled sound of people talking. Then he heard the sound of the shower being turned on. He tried to focus on his book again.

A moment later, there was a sudden knock at his door. He looked up in surprise, and went to open it, wondering if Andrés was back earlier than expected. He wasn’t. It was Raquel.

“I’m sorry,” she said, the moment he opened the door. “For Alberto. For the way he behaved.”

“It’s fine,” Sergio said. “Don’t worry about it.”

She glanced at the door to her own room, but the sound of the running shower could still be heard. She took a deep breath.

“He’s not usually this unpleasant,” she said, keeping her voice low. “It’s just… well, he’s jealous.”

Sergio swallowed hard.

“Oh,” he said. “Uhm… why?”

She gave him a rueful smile and shook her head.

“It’s my own fault,” she said. “I’ve been talking about you too much. It’s just that we work so closely together, and we spend so much time together, that all of my stories involve you somehow. And then when he found out that we have quite a few kisses together on screen… well, he didn’t like that.”

“Haven’t you kissed people on other projects before?” he said carefully. “Doesn’t he know that… that it’s just your job?”

It hurt to say it, but it was true. She sighed.

“I know,” she said softly. “I told him that, but… he’s never liked it when I have scenes like that, and this is kind of different from the other projects I’ve done. I’m away from home, and he hasn’t seen me in weeks, and I’ve never spent this much time with another actor before.”

“I understand,” he nodded.

She looked towards the door of her room, and he couldn’t quite read her expression.

“It’s weird having him here,” she said quietly. “It doesn’t feel right. He’s not a part of this, and… and he doesn’t understand the first thing about what we do and why I love it.”

Sergio nodded again.

“It can be hard for other people to understand,” he said. “If you’ve never been part of a project like this, you can’t imagine what it’s like.”

She gave him a grateful look.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m glad you understand.”

The sound of running water stopped abruptly, and she looked up.

“I should go,” she said. “Sorry again.”

“It’s alright,” he said. “Really.”

She went back into her room, and he went back into his, feeling so sad. She shouldn’t have to sneak out to talk to him without her husband knowing. She shouldn’t have to explain herself for just doing her job. She really did deserve someone better – someone who understood her; who trusted her. How he wished that he could be that person. It tore him apart that he couldn’t be.

Fifteen minutes later, he heard them leave for dinner. He finally couldn’t ignore his own rumbling stomach anymore, so he ordered up some room service – he didn’t want to risk running into them at the hotel restaurant. After he’d eaten, he just lay on his bed and stared at his book with unseeing eyes, the letters on the page blending into each other. He wasn’t really aware of time passing, until he heard the door next to his being unlocked again, and the sound of two people entering. He was just thinking that he should just go to bed, when he suddenly heard the low rumble of voices through the wall, followed by the unmistakable sound of bed springs.

He veered up immediately, grabbed his wallet and his phone, and was out the door in an instant. He didn’t know where he would go or what he would do – he just knew that he couldn’t lie there and listen to the sounds coming through that wall – he just couldn’t. The mere thought was completely and utterly unbearable.

He took the elevator downstairs, hesitated for a moment, then went into the hotel bar, where he dropped down at a corner table and ordered a beer. Then he just stared blankly in front of him, trying with all his might not to think about… about… He ran a hand over his eyes in an attempt to rub away the image of the two of them together, then downed half of his beer at once. He’d never felt so deeply miserable.

The bar was quite full, but he wasn’t really aware of the people around him, until a familiar voice caught his ear, and he looked up to see his brother enter the bar with his co-producer, Ms. González. They sat down at a table near him, but Andrés didn’t see him – all of his attention was on Elena.

“What would you like to drink?” he asked her, with that charming smile that Sergio knew only too well – seemed like his brother was looking to make another conquest. Sergio didn’t know where he found the energy to pursue so many women – it seemed thoroughly exhausting to him.

Ms. González was having none of it, though.

“I don’t want a drink,” she said curtly. “I’m only here because I want to know what the people at the studio said.”

“In a minute,” Andrés said smoothly, signaling at a passing waitress. “Two glasses of wine, please. Red, preferably Rioja.”

The waitress nodded, and Ms. González gave his brother a cold look.

“I said I didn’t want a drink. Now, what did the people at the studio say?”

“No evening has ever gotten worse with a glass of wine,” Andrés said, ignoring her question as he leaned back in his chair and gave her an appraising look. “Or a pretty woman.”

Ms. González took a deep breath, closing her eyes as if praying for patience. Sergio couldn’t blame her.

What,” she said in clipped tones as she opened her eyes again, “did the people at the studio say?”

“They said that you should relax every once in a while,” his brother grinned. “Working so much isn’t good for you.”

“Working with you isn’t good for me,” she snapped, but his brother’s grin only widened.

“That’s because we don’t really know each other,” he said smoothly. “Would you… like to change that?”

She gave him an unimpressed look.

“Not even if you paid me,” she said drily. “Which I’m sure wouldn’t be the first time for you.”

His brother laughed, then leaned forward.

“I think we would be great together, Elena,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “You can’t deny that there’s something between us.”

“Yes,” she said crisply, getting up. “An immense amount of annoyance on my part. Never mind, I’ll call the studio myself in the morning.”

“Alright,” his brother gave in, raising his hands in surrender. “Alright. I talked to Sierra, I’ll tell you what she said.”

Ms. González considered him for a moment, then sat back down.

“Make it fast.”

Sergio lost interest in the conversation at that point. He sat quietly, drinking his beer until Ms. González pushed back her chair.

“Thank you,” she said to his brother. “I’m going to bed. Goodnight.”

“Are you sure you won’t stay for a drink?” Andrés tried again, and Sergio had to admire his tenacity.

Ms. González suddenly gave him a smile, and Sergio’s eyebrows went up. Oh. Would she? But then…

“Not even if you were the last man on earth,” she said pleasantly, and Sergio snorted slightly as she turned and walked out of the bar. Good for her.

He waited for Andrés to stop looking after her – then he raised his hand and caught his brother’s eye. Andrés picked up his glass of wine and came over to him, grinning.

“What a woman”, he said appreciatively as he dropped into the chair opposite Sergio.

“I don’t think she likes you,” Sergio observed, but Andrés just waved a hand.

“Oh, she does,” he said, still grinning. “She just doesn’t know it yet.”

Sergio decided to let it go – he wasn’t in the mood for arguing tonight. His brother gave him a curious look.

“What are you doing here?” he said. “You don’t usually sit alone in bars.”

Sergio looked down.

“I just felt like having a drink,” he mumbled.

Andrés narrowed his eyes at him.

“Why?”

Sergio shrugged, still looking down.

“Do I need a reason?”

His brother observed him for a moment, and when he spoke again, his tone was carefully light.

“I saw Raquel earlier,” he said. “Who’s the man with her?”

Sergio swallowed.

“Her husband.”

“Ah,” Andrés said. “I see. And her room is next to yours?”

“Yes.”

His brother merely nodded, then turned and signaled the waitress.

“Two whiskeys please. And keep them coming.”

Sergio shot his brother a grateful look as he turned back and started talking about something else. He knew his problems wouldn’t just go away – Raquel was still with that man – he was still miserable – but at least he wasn’t drinking alone anymore.

The present

Raquel couldn’t stop thinking about the kiss out on the hilltop all throughout the next few days. They’d moved on to other scenes afterwards, and they hadn’t had to kiss like that again, but she still wondered about that moment of connection she’d felt from him. Had his true feelings come through for a moment? She just couldn’t be sure. She knew that he was an excellent actor, and he could very well have made an extra effort after Nairobi had yelled at them like that. Alternatively, he might just have been affected by the same memories that had taken hold of her all of a sudden – she might have caught a glimpse of his past feelings for her and nothing more. One look doesn’t say anything, she told herself sternly. Don’t go making assumptions. Don’t expect things to change.

And yet. As the shoot went on, she felt that there was a change in Sergio. When he came back to set after they’d had that kiss, he was stiff and formal, and he avoided eye contact with her – but when they shot the next scene, Raquel could feel that something had shifted in him. The total restraint she’d felt from him that morning was gone, and with every scene they shot, it seemed to crumble a bit more. Slowly, over the next few days, their dynamic in front of the camera kept improving, and they started needing fewer and fewer takes. He was still excessively polite to her off-camera; he still didn’t talk to her in between scenes; but during the scenes themselves, she could sense that something was definitely different. He wasn’t holding back quite as much anymore; he was giving more of himself – still carefully, but she noticed it immediately, and so did Nairobi, who took them aside again after a few days to tell them that they were doing much better.

Then, one morning, Sergio turned to her while they were in their makeup chairs.

“Raquel…” he said, and she felt him hesitate – but then he took a deep breath. “I was reading today’s scenes, and I was wondering what you think about scene four.”

She could barely believe it – he was talking to her? Voluntarily? About the scene, yes, but still.

“What about scene four?” she asked carefully, afraid that she might say or do something that would make him change his mind.

“Well,” he said, “at a certain point Tristán asks Eva to leave the room so he can talk to his old friend alone. How do you think he would feel about that? Do you think he’d be apologetic?”

“Hmm,” Raquel said. “That’s an interesting question…”

They started discussing it – and when they were done with the scene, they started discussing the next scene, and the next. They were keeping the conversation firmly on the topic of the script, but something inside of Raquel was soaring. The two of them talking about character motivations was just like old times, and she hoped so fervently that it would be a first step on the way for them to return to normal in other ways too.

Things improved markedly after that. Sergio’s attitude towards her kept shifting bit by bit – slowly, but unmistakably. It felt like he was thawing somehow; like he couldn’t resist the pull of falling back into their old dynamic, just a little – a pull she felt so strongly herself. They started talking again between scenes – only about the story and the characters, but it was still a big improvement. She felt how he still maintained a careful distance between them, but he did seem to be getting more comfortable with her as the days went on, and after a while, she really started enjoying working with him again. She even allowed herself to hope that the feeling was mutual, because he seemed to be in a much better mood than he’d been at the start. She was careful not to push him, though – to let him come to her at his own pace and in his own time. And he did, more and more often, as if he just couldn’t help himself.

She couldn’t help herself either. Every day that they worked together, she felt the return of her old feelings for him more and more keenly, especially after they started talking again. She realized now that those feelings had never really gone away, and she just hadn’t wanted to admit it to herself. Looking back now, of course they’d still been there. Hadn’t she followed every step of his career? Hadn’t she seen every movie or show he was in, even if he only appeared for a moment? Hadn’t she kept thinking about him in unguarded moments, even after all those years? She’d done all of those things and more. She simply hadn’t been able to admit to herself why she was doing them.

She also realized that she hadn’t been completely honest with herself when she came here. She’d told herself that she didn’t want to do this project – that she didn’t want to work with him again. She’d told herself that she was only doing it because she couldn’t get out of her contract… yet now she wondered if maybe she could have gotten out of the contract if she’d tried harder. She realized that she hadn’t tried harder because some part of her had wanted to take this project – had wanted to see him again. Some part of her had never been able to let him go, and she’d hoped – somewhere deep down – that maybe things wouldn’t be as bad as she feared – that maybe he could forgive her – even that maybe, just maybe, they could be friends again… or more. And now, with every passing day, that hope grew stronger.

As they moved into the third week of shooting, she started getting that feeling again: the feeling of the rest of the world dropping away as the shoot became her whole life – almost, at least. Because, unlike nine years ago, there now was one thing that kept her firmly tied to the real world: Paula. Raquel called her every evening between school and dinnertime, to ask her about her day and if everything was okay at home. She missed her daughter, and she always looked forward to those daily calls – but they had one significant disadvantage.

“Vicuña residence,” a voice said as she called the landline one evening.

Raquel took a deep breath. The sound of that voice still made her slightly queasy, and she always had to steel herself before she could answer.

“Alberto,” she said. “It’s me. Can I talk to Paula please?”

“Hi, Raquel,” he said, and she knew immediately from the way he said her name that this would be one of the bad calls. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” she said, then she hesitated. Maybe if she was friendly enough, he wouldn’t cause too much trouble. “How are you?”

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot,” he said, and she closed her eyes at her own stupidity – she shouldn’t have given him an opening.

“Please don’t,” she said, but she knew he wouldn’t listen now.

“If you would just talk to me, Raquel,” he said, in that persuasive tone she knew so well. “If you would just let me tell you how sorry I am.”

She felt a stab of annoyance. She knew she shouldn’t engage with him, but she couldn’t stop herself.

“You’re not really sorry,” she said. “The only reason you want me back is because Laura broke up with you.”

“That’s not true,” he said immediately. “I’ve never stopped loving you, Raquel. What happened with Laura was a mistake.”

“A mistake you kept making over and over again,” she said coldly. “Even though you knew you were bound to get caught.”

His tone changed – an unmistakable edge of accusation creeping into it.

“You know why I did it,” he said. “You know you weren’t really in that marriage anymore. I couldn’t keep it together by myself.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, because of course he had a point – she hated it, but it was true.

“Raquel,” he continued, and his tone was bringing back awful memories of things she was trying so hard to forget. She felt her nausea increase. “I really am sorry about what happened. I never meant to hurt you.”

The phrase was like a slap in the face. How dare he say that to her, when he’d hurt her so much, in every conceivable way. The memories rushed in, and she felt herself begin to shake – she couldn’t keep talking to him – she couldn’t.

“I want to talk to Paula,” she whispered. “Put her on the phone.”

“Raquel…”

“I don’t want to talk to you, Alberto!” she said, close to breaking, her voice tinged with pain and anger and fear. Still, fear. “Let me speak to my daughter!”

He seemed to sense that he shouldn’t push her any further right now.

“Fine,” he said curtly. “Fine. I’ll go get her.”

She took deep breaths as she waited, trying to let go of the bad memories and the negative emotions they brought up before she spoke to her daughter. When Paula finally came to the phone, Raquel had more or less composed herself.

“Hi mom.”

“Hi sweetheart,” she said, feeling slightly better at the sound of the familiar little voice. “How are you?”

“I’m good,” Paula replied. “Dad took me to the zoo today after school.”

“Oh,” Raquel said. “That’s nice. What kinds of animals did you see?”

Paula started chattering excitedly about elephants and zebras and monkeys, and Raquel listened intently and asked questions, trying, as always, to gauge if Alberto was really treating Paula well. She was reassured by the cheerful patter of her daughter’s speech – if something was wrong, Raquel thought that she’d be able to tell. For all of his flaws, Alberto still seemed to be a good father, even when Raquel was working on location and couldn’t keep an eye on him.

After about fifteen minutes, Paula announced that dinner was ready at her end, and Raquel regretfully said her goodbyes, promising to call again tomorrow around the same time. Then she hung up, and started getting ready for dinner herself – she was meeting Elena at the hotel restaurant, something they’d been doing several times a week.

Her friend was already there when Raquel arrived at the restaurant half an hour later. She sat down, apologizing for being late, and they ordered drinks. Elena asked her how filming had gone today, and they talked about the shoot for a while, but Raquel was rather distracted. She kept thinking about that phone call – I never meant to hurt you. She still couldn’t believe that he’d said that to her.

“Raquel,” Elena finally said. “Is something wrong?”

Raquel sighed and rubbed her forehead.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just a little shaken. Alberto insisted on talking to me before he let me talk to Paula.”

“What did he say?” Elena asked.

“He tried to apologize again,” Raquel said, a hint of bitterness in her voice. “As if that would help.” She took a deep breath – she desperately needed to talk about this. “He cheated on me with my sister,” she said. “My sister. And not just once – for weeks! How can he think I’d forgive him for that?”

She knew that Elena already knew all of this – for a while, the story had been everywhere – but her friend let her talk, and Raquel was grateful for that.

“And he didn’t even have the decency to hide it properly,” she continued, feeling the old anger rise up again. “He left his car in front of her house all night, even though somebody was bound to notice that. This was right around the premier of a really big movie I’d done – the paparazzi were following us everywhere. And then they had sex with the curtains open, so there were pictures. I didn’t even find out by myself – I had to see the pictures online, when a friend sent me a link.”

She shook her head, her anger surging. The memory of it was still painful – her broken marriage laid out for everyone to see. Her husband had cheated on her with her sister, and the whole world had known about it. The humiliation of it still made her cheeks burn more than a year later.

“I think he wanted to get caught,” she said quietly. “I think he wanted me to find out like that – and he wanted the rest of the world to find out too. He wanted to embarrass me.”

Elena didn’t ask why – she just shook her head.

“I’m so sorry you had to go through that, Raquel.”

Raquel took a deep breath, trying to pull herself back together.

“It’s fine,” she said. “In the end, it was probably for the best. It gave me the courage I needed to finally end things with him. I should have done it years ago, but I just… I just couldn’t.”

Again, Elena didn’t ask why, and Raquel appreciated that. There had been so many reasons why she hadn’t been able to bring herself to leave Alberto, but she couldn’t talk about any of them, even to Elena. She could already imagine the pity in her friend’s eyes if she would tell her everything that had happened, and she didn’t think she could bear that.

Elena gave her an earnest look.

“You did the right thing, Raquel,” she said.

“Yes, well,” she said, looking down. “After the whole world finds out that your husband cheated on you with your sister, you can’t very well not divorce him.”

“Still,” Elena said, leaning forward. “It was really brave of you, when you must have known that the divorce itself would get a lot of publicity too.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “That wasn’t much fun.” But then she took a deep breath and shook herself. “But it’s over now. It’s over. I just wish I didn’t still have to deal with him over the phone every time I want to talk to Paula.”

“I understand,” Elena nodded. Then she shook her head. “You really didn’t deserve any of this.”

“I don’t know…” Raquel whispered.

Elena didn’t know the whole story. Raquel had made mistakes, and she’d paid for them. As she should.

Her friend frowned.

Of course you didn’t deserve any of this, Raquel. You’re a good person, and you deserve someone so much better than your ex-husband.”

Raquel’s thoughts immediately turned to Sergio. She knew she didn’t deserve him after what she’d done… but the thought of him still stirred something in her chest, and she felt herself soften.

“Yes,” she said softly. “Maybe.” Then she shook herself. “Anyway, let’s talk about something else.”

“Alright,” Elena nodded. “But if you ever need someone to talk to… I’m here.”

“Thank you,” Raquel said, and she meant it. “I appreciate that.”

When Raquel returned to her room that night, it was already quite late. As she opened her door, though, she couldn’t help but glance one room over, and she noticed that there was still light coming from underneath Sergio’s door. She went into her room and kicked off her shoes, then undressed and put on her pajamas. She picked up her script and curled up in bed with it, intending to go over tomorrow’s scenes one more time – but she couldn’t focus. Her thoughts kept wandering over to Sergio, still awake in the room next to hers. You deserve someone so much better, she heard Elena say again, and she suddenly felt such a longing to go over and knock on his door. That would be too much, though – she knew that. She felt instinctively that she had to patient with him, that she had to be careful. But… maybe a small nudge couldn’t hurt? To see if she could move things along?

She picked up her phone off the bedside table and unlocked it, then scrolled through her contacts. Yes, there it still was – his name. She’d never been able to bring herself to delete his number. She took a moment to think, then she typed a short message:

<<Still awake?>>

She hesitated, then put her name behind the message – he’d probably deleted her number a long time ago.

She pressed ‘send’ before she could change her mind, and then all she could do was wait. As she waited, though, she started thinking it through a little more, and suddenly she felt terribly nervous. What had she done? Had she made a mistake? What if he didn’t reply? What if she’d just made things really awkward again?

She couldn’t focus on the script now – she just kept looking at her phone, waiting with bated breath as several minutes passed. Then, a message appeared on her screen, and her heart leapt.

<<Yes. You?>>

It was only two words, but she didn’t care – he’d replied, to a random text from her, and he’d asked her a question in return. She felt like this was progress in the best way.

<<Yes.>> she typed. <<Just going over tomorrow’s scenes.>>

His reply came almost instantly.

<<Me too. Scene twelve looks interesting.>>

She quickly thumbed through the script and glanced at scene twelve. It was a scene just between the two of them, and her heart leapt. She quickly texted him back.

<<It does! I look forward to shooting it.>>

Again, he replied almost immediately.

<<Me too.>>

She felt so pleased – he was looking forward to shooting a scene with her! She considered her screen for several long moments, wondering what to say now. She didn’t want to push him too far, but now that they’d made a start, she also didn’t just want to end the conversation after three messages. Finally, she took a deep breath, and decided to take a risk.

<<I had a good time at the shoot today.>>

This time, his reply took a little longer, and her heart was beating almost painfully hard as she waited. Then…

<<So did I.>>

She felt her spirits soar. He was answering her, they were talking, and he said he’d had a good time – a good time with her. She bit her lip. Could she take it one step further?

<<It’s been so nice working with you again.>>

She stared at the words for several long moments, wondering if she was brave enough to send them. Finally, she closed her eyes tightly and hit ‘send’ without looking.

The wait was even longer this time, and finally she couldn’t sit still anymore – she jumped off the bed and started pacing, holding on tight to her phone, waiting for the telltale vibration. Oh, she felt like she was fifteen again, and waiting for the boy she liked to call her back.

Finally, the phone vibrated, and her hands were almost shaking as she opened the message.

<<Yes.>> it read. <<I agree. It’s really nice to work with you again.>>

She closed her eyes for a moment, overcome with happiness and relief. After the way things had been between them over the past few weeks, this meant so much to her, and she felt so grateful. She’d never thought that he’d ever say something like this to her again.

Then she hesitated. Could she try to push things a little bit further? She glanced back at her phone – It’s really nice to work with you again. This was such a good sign. Maybe she could take just one more risk tonight? She took a deep breath, then typed another message.

<<Do you maybe want to meet over breakfast tomorrow to discuss scene 12?>>

She swallowed hard and pressed ‘send’, then sank down in a chair to wait for his reply, her eyes glued to the screen.

Minute after minute passed, and she wondered if he was just getting ready for bed, or if he was thinking about what she’d proposed, wondering if he should say yes. There was no way to tell, and her stomach was churning as she waited. She could so clearly imagine how conflicted he might be about this. After fifteen minutes had passed, she started to think that he just wasn’t going to reply at all, and her stomach sank. She put the phone down on her bedside table and went into the bathroom to brush her teeth – but then she heard the familiar buzz and she hurried back out.

<<Alright. Eight o’clock?>>

She could barely believe it. Sure, they were just going to discuss the scene, but he was agreeing to see her off-set – he was voluntarily going to spend more time with her than he absolutely had to for work. This was such a big step.

<<Perfect.>> she texted back, her heart beating rather fast.

This time, his reply came much quicker.

<<Good. Then we should probably get some sleep now.>>

Fair enough, she thought. This was plenty for one evening.

<<You’re right.>> she typed. <<Goodnight.>>

<<Goodnight.>>

She knew there would be no more messages now, but she still kept looking at her screen for a while, smiling to herself. He was meeting her for breakfast tomorrow. This was more than she had dared hope for only a few days ago, and she felt so, so grateful. She felt that it indicated that he might be willing to take their relationship beyond the strictly professional again – that he, maybe, would be willing to be friends again at some point.

She wanted it to happen so badly it hurt – but she knew she shouldn’t push him any harder than this. One step at a time, she told herself. Then maybe, in time, he could begin to forgive her. And maybe… just maybe… he could start liking her again. Tomorrow would be a start, and as she got between the sheets and stared up at the ceiling of her room, she felt something flutter frantically in her chest. She knew it for what it was.

Hope.

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

Sergio was so relieved when Raquel’s husband left again on Monday – and it looked to him like Raquel was, too. He told himself firmly that he was imagining things, but she certainly didn’t seem sad after she’d taken him to the airport. When she arrived on set, she walked straight over to sit with Sergio, and apologized again about Alberto’s behavior. Once he’d said that it was okay, they started talking about other things, and soon they fell back effortlessly into their usual dynamic. She didn’t mention her husband even once after that. Sergio wasn’t sure what to think of that, but he told himself not to read into it.

He’d resolved over the weekend that he would try harder to keep some distance from her, but over the next few days, it became clear that she didn’t see the need for that, and he wasn’t strong enough to enforce it on his own. As he watched her smile at him between scenes the next day, he made a decision then and there: if he only had three more weeks with her, he was going to make the most of it. They couldn’t truly be together, but he could still enjoy her company as a friend – and it seemed like she wanted that, too.

They now spent almost every minute of every day together now: meeting over breakfast; then hair and makeup; then hours spent shooting together; and after that they had dinner and drinks, sometimes with the rest of the cast, sometimes just the two of them. They kept staying out later and later as the days went by and they found that they never ran out of things to talk about. Weekends were spent together too, and even when Raquel had scenes without Sergio – with the actor playing her brother, or with people from the village – he came to set anyway so they could talk in between scenes. Nairobi told him that he should take some time off and relax, but he just didn’t see the point of sitting alone in his room when he could be spending time with Raquel.  

He'd never had a bond like this with anyone – he wasn’t even this close with his brother – and it continually astounded him. There was just something that happened when the two of them were together – something that felt almost magical to him. They just connected. Nobody had ever made him feel the way she did: like she accepted him and liked him just the way he was. Like she understood him, in a way that nobody ever had. When he was with her, he felt like he could really be himself, and it was such a wonderful feeling – like, for the first time in his life, he could be at peace with himself and with the world. Being with her just felt exactly right, like this was how things were supposed to be.

He often wondered if she felt even a fraction of what he was experiencing. Was this kind of closeness normal for her? Was this just how she treated her best friends? Or was this something more for her as well? Increasingly, he thought that he saw little things in the way she looked at him or touched his arm, or in the way that she sat close to him when they talked, but he just couldn’t be sure. He’d never been good at reading other people – and either way, it didn’t matter, because of course they could never be together. It made him so desperately sad. The thought of having to say goodbye to her in just a few weeks was so unbearable to him that he pushed it away as soon as it arose. He just didn’t want to imagine what things would be like after this movie was done, and she would be gone from his life.

He loved every minute of time he could get with her, so when they were out together in the evenings, he was never the one to suggest that they go back to the hotel. Raquel never seemed to want to go to bed either, so they often stayed out much too late and only slept for a few hours. After a while, Sergio was getting rather tired, but he still couldn’t bring himself to cut short his time with her. Finally, the lack of sleep and the stress of trying to hide his feelings took its toll on him, and with two weeks left of the shoot, he woke up one morning not feeling well. He was cold and achy and he felt very weak, and it only got worse as he got out of bed and showered and dressed. When he arrived in the breakfast room of the hotel, Raquel was already there, and the moment she saw him, a frown appeared on her face.

“Good morning,” she said, standing up from their usual table. “Are you okay? You don’t look so well.”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice cracking. “I don’t feel too well either.”

Her frown deepened as she reached up a hand and felt his forehead.

“I think you have a fever,” she said, and he groaned.

“Oh, that’s just great.

“You should go back to bed,” she said.

“No,” he protested weakly. “We have scenes to shoot.”

“I’m sure they can wait,” Raquel said.

“But we have such a tight schedule…”

“Sergio,” she said firmly. “You can’t work like this. You have to take care of yourself.” She pushed him down into a chair, and he was too weak to resist. “Wait here.”

He looked after her as she crossed the room. He had to admit that he rather loved that she was showing him so much concern. A minute later, she came back with Nairobi in tow.

“Look at him,” she said, and Nairobi frowned.

“Yeah, you’re right, he doesn’t look good. Must be the flu.”

“I can still work,” he said, though there wasn’t much conviction in his voice. “You can just use a little more makeup…”

Both women shook their heads.

“Sweetheart,” Nairobi said, gesturing at his face, “no amount of makeup is going to be enough to cover this up. Besides, you’d just get the rest of the cast and crew sick, and we can’t have that.”

“I suppose,” Sergio said, glancing over at Raquel. It was true that the last thing he wanted was to get her sick.

“Bed,” Nairobi said firmly. “I’ll rearrange the schedule so we can do some scenes without you.”

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I suppose that would be for the best.”

The director gave him a sympathetic nod.

“Just get some rest and focus on getting better.”

Sergio nodded and got up, wincing at the pain in his joints. God, he hated having the flu.

“Try to sleep,” Raquel said. “I’ll come see you after the shoot, okay?”

That cheered him up considerably.

“Alright,” he said, managing a weak smile. “Thank you.”

He went straight to his room after that, put on his pajamas, and fell into bed. It took mere minutes before he was asleep.

He drifted in and out of sleep throughout much of the day, until he woke up in the afternoon and really couldn’t sleep anymore. Then he picked up the book he was reading, but his head hurt too much to focus. When he turned on the TV, there was nothing that really appealed to him, but he chose a random program anyway and just stared at it listlessly.

A little after four o’clock, there was a knock on his door, and he looked up hopefully.

“Yes?”

Raquel came in and gave him a soft look, and he immediately felt a lot better.

“How are you doing?” she asked him.

“I’m okay,” he said. “It’s just… well, the flu.”

She walked over to the bed and put down some boxes of medication on the bedside table.

“I went to the pharmacy,” she explained.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, but she waved a hand.

“It was no trouble. Now, you can take these every few hours to keep your fever down. And I’ve asked room service to bring up some tea for you. Have you been drinking enough fluids?”

“Yes, nurse,” he smiled, and she laughed.

“Yeah,” she said, “I’m getting so used to caring for you on set – it’s becoming second nature.”

“Well,” he said, still smiling. “You’re getting very good at it.”

She winked at him, then pulled up his desk chair and sat down next to his bed.

“I’m sorry it took me so long to get here,” she said. “But the shoot only just ended.”

He glanced at his watch and frowned.

“You’re done already? We’ve never been finished before five.”

“Yes, well,” she said, and he noticed to his surprise that she was blushing slightly. “We worked a little harder than usual.”

“Why?” he said, confused.

Her blush deepened.

“I kind of hurried everyone along,” she said. When he kept looking at her questioningly, she admitted: “I wanted to come check on you.”

He didn’t know what to say to that. He couldn’t believe how sweet that was. He couldn’t believe she would do that for him.

“Thank you,” he finally said. “But you didn’t have to… I’m okay, really. Just a little bored.”

“Well,” she smiled, “hopefully I can provide some entertainment.”

“You don’t have to,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean…”

“What else would I do with my evening?” she said lightly. “When my usual dinner companion is sick.” She glanced at the book on his bedside table. “Would you like me to read to you?”

“No,” he said softly. “I’d rather talk to you. How was your day?”

They talked about the scenes she’d shot for a bit, then moved on to discuss the next scenes that were scheduled for the two of them, and the hours suddenly flew by as they became absorbed in the conversation. At dinner time, she called room service again and ordered a meal for herself, and some soup and bread for him.

“You have to eat something,” she said, propping up some pillows against his headboard so he could lean against them. “Give your body some fuel to work with.”

When the food arrived, she came to sit cross-legged on the bed with him, and they talked and laughed as they ate. Sergio had never had such a good time while being sick – sitting here with her like this was incredibly cozy. For a while, he was able to forget both his discomfort and his usual worries, and just enjoy his time with her.

When they were done eating, she cleared away the plates and sat back down on the chair next to the bed.

“What do you want to talk about now?”

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to stay here. You should go out and have drinks with the rest of the cast.”

“I don’t want to have drinks with the rest of the cast,” she said. “I want to stay here with you.”

He gave her a long look. Why was she doing this? Why was she choosing to spend her time in this dreary hotel room instead of socializing with the other actors in a nice bar in the village?

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “For keeping me company.”

“Of course,” she said. Then she gave him a look. “Wouldn’t you do the same for me?”

Yes, he thought. Yes, of course he would, but that was because… because… He didn’t dare finish the thought. He shouldn’t – he shouldn’t – start hoping. She was married, after all. Married.

He looked away from her, but he felt like he had to answer her.

“Yes,” he mumbled. “Of course.”

She reached out and gently squeezed his hand, making his stomach swoop as if he’d just missed a step on the stairs.

“That’s what friends do,” she said. “Right?”

“Right,” he said. Friends. “Right.”

He hesitated, then carefully turned his hand so he was holding hers. His heart was beating fast, and he’d never felt so conflicted in his life. They probably shouldn’t be doing this – but if it was wrong, why did it feel so right? He glanced up at her, and for a moment they just looked at each other, her hand still in his. Her eyes were so soft, and he felt something flutter frantically in his chest. Oh, he was so screwed – so completely and utterly screwed.

The next moment, she shook herself and gently disengaged from him.  

“Do you maybe want to watch a movie?” she said, looking over at the TV.

“Sure,” he said. It was probably for the best if they just focused on something else for the rest of the evening.

She picked up the remote control and flipped through the channels, until she found something she liked.

“Oh,” she said, “this is a good movie, and it looks like it only just started. Is this okay for you?”

“Sure,” he repeated. He really didn’t care.

They started watching, and he tried his hardest to focus on the movie, but all he could think about was how wonderful it had felt to have her hand in his – for real, this time, and not because they were acting. He would give anything to be able to hold it again, all throughout the movie. He stared at the TV, and he knew it wasn’t just the flu that was making him feel so deeply, acutely miserable. Why, why did she have to be married? This was the first time in his life that he’d experienced something like this – why did it have to be with someone who was so completely out of his reach?

He carefully glanced at her. She was looking attentively at the screen, but he remembered the look in her eyes earlier. He really thought, if she hadn’t been married, that maybe… maybe she could have liked him back. He suddenly wished with all his might that he could have met her a few years earlier, before she was married – when everything was still possible. It felt so fundamentally unfair to him that they couldn’t be together just because of bad timing. If only he’d known that she was out there somewhere, he would have done anything to find her. He knew instinctively that they could have had something really amazing, and the fact that it couldn’t happen because he was just too late felt like some big, cruel cosmic joke. He stared at the TV with unseeing eyes, not registering the movie at all.

Somewhere, in another life, he could have taken her hand in his, and never let go.

The present

Raquel felt unreasonably nervous as she waited for the elevator to take her downstairs to the hotel lobby the next morning. It was just breakfast, she told herself. Just breakfast. She shouldn’t expect too much – she shouldn’t expect anything. And yet she knew that a lot depended on this breakfast. It was the first time that they’d be spending time with each other outside of work in nine years – if it went well, he might agree to spend more time with her. If it went badly… well, she didn’t really want to think of that. She wanted to hold on to the hopeful feeling she’d had since last night for as long as she could.

When she arrived in the breakfast room, he was already sitting at a table with a cup of coffee. She walked over to him, her heart beating fast.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning,” he replied, and she couldn’t quite read the mood he was in.

She stayed standing next to the table, hesitating. What if he’d changed his mind? What if he didn’t really want her to sit with him? The next moment though, he looked up at her, then gestured at the chair on the other side of the table.

“Please,” he said, and she sat down with a feeling of relief.

“How did you sleep?” he asked her, and she took it as a good sign that he wasn’t jumping right to talking about the script.

“I slept fine,” she said. “Though I’m still a little tired.”

He gave her a slight smile.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t start texting people after midnight,” he said, and her heart leapt. He was teasing her. He was smiling at her – only a slight smile, yes, but she felt that it was genuine. She gave him a smile in return.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I saw the light under your door and I didn’t think that you would mind.”

“I didn’t,” he said, and she smiled again. He hesitated for a moment, then asked: “You were out late, then?”

“Yes,” she said, her spirits rising further. He was making conversation with her. He didn’t just want to talk about the scene. “I had dinner with Elena.”

He gave her a questioning look.

“You seem to be good friends. Have you done a lot of movies with her after… well, after the first one?”

“A few,” she said. “We became friends fairly quickly once…” Once I wasn’t spending all my time with you anymore. “… once we did a few more projects together.”

He nodded.

“That’s good. It’s nice to have a friend around when you’re filming on location.”

Her thoughts immediately started racing as she tried to interpret what he’d just said. Had he meant anything by that? Was he thinking about their friendship nine years ago? Was he implying that he wanted to be friends again now? She couldn’t tell. She hated that.

“Yes,” she replied. “It really is nice to have Elena around.” She shot him a wry smile. “Your brother is still driving her mad.”

He shook his head and chuckled.

“Still the same as nine years ago, then.”

“Yeah,” she said quietly, looking at him. “Some things never change.”

He glanced up, and for a moment they just looked at each other. She thought she could see something in his eyes – was it the same longing she had? To return to the way they’d been back then? Again, she couldn’t quite read him, and then he cleared his throat and looked down at the table.

“Shall we discuss scene twelve?” he asked.

She thought she could feel that he was affected by the moment they’d just had, but she didn’t push him. He needed space if he was going to forgive her. She couldn’t hurry him. One step at a time.

“Yes,” she said. “Let’s discuss scene twelve.”

The next day, she was the first to be down for breakfast, and she couldn’t quite believe it when he came over to her and asked her if she wanted to discuss the scenes of the day again. She said yes, of course, and soon they were talking about other things as well. From that point onwards, they had breakfast together every day – and then it only seemed like the natural thing to do to sit down next to him at lunch as well. She felt some ambivalence on his part: he was clearly struggling with himself, and she thought that he would have preferred to stay away from her – but clearly he couldn’t. The easy dynamic they’d once had was still there, underneath all of their issues, and she still felt the pull of it so strongly – she would give anything to return to it. After a few days, she had to conclude that there was a part of him that wanted that, too, and that he was increasingly failing at keeping his distance. She couldn’t have been happier about that.

Because it felt so good to spend time with him again – it felt so wonderful. They were still a long way from what they’d been before, but there were more and more moments that came close – where she felt glimpses of the connection they’d once had. It was battered and damaged and frayed, but it was still there, and she felt that they could restore it if only he would let it happen. She increasingly realized that she still liked him so much.

Then one day, when they were done shooting a little earlier than normal, he asked her what she was going to do with the rest of the afternoon.

“I was thinking about going into the village,” she said. “I have a few errands to run.”

“Oh,” he said. “I was thinking about going into the village too. I’ve been reading a lot in the evenings, and I’ve run out of books.” He hesitated, then said: “Do you… maybe want to share a taxi there?”

She felt her heart leap. This was just like old times – just the two of them going out together. She was sure that he was remembering it too, and she was so glad that he’d suggested it anyway.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s a good idea.” Then she glanced out of the window. “Though the weather is really nice… How about we walk? It’s only half an hour or so.”

He hesitated again, but then he nodded.

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go change.”

They each had their own trailer now. She felt rather nervous as she went into hers and changed out of her costume, then had her makeup removed. This was a big step. Up until now, when they’d had breakfast and lunch together, both of them had always had the option to walk away when things became awkward – as they sometimes still did. Now, walking to the village, they wouldn’t really have that option. They would be spending at least half an hour in each other’s company, and there was the implication that they could run their errands together and walk to the hotel together too, as they’d done so often before.

As she waited for him outside of his trailer, she felt a twinge in her stomach, and she shook her head at herself – she shouldn’t be this nervous. It was only a walk. When he came out, though, she felt another twinge, as it became immediately clear to her that he wasn’t entirely convinced that this was a good idea. Indeed, as they started walking, the few attempts she made to start a conversation faltered, and she had a sinking feeling that increased with every step. Sometimes she really thought that they were making progress – but then suddenly things were awkward again. Could they really go back to normal again, like she’d hoped? Or was she expecting too much? Had she damaged things between them irreparably nine years ago?

The twinge in her stomach returned, stronger this time, and she winced. He glanced at her, but didn’t say anything. They walked on, amid the quiet green fields, passing trees and cows and the occasional car. The silence went on, until Raquel started regretting that she’d suggested a walk – if they’d taken a taxi, they would have been there already. The pain in her stomach didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse and worse, and at a certain point she inhaled sharply at a particularly painful stab.

He glanced at her again.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she said. “My stomach is just a little upset.”

They walked on and finally reached the village. By that point, the pain was almost constant, and she couldn’t help but press her hand against her stomach. Sergio turned to her, frowning.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m… I’m not sure,” she said, shaking her head. “Maybe not.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just… feeling this stabbing pain,” she said. “In my stomach.”

“Where exactly?”

She gestured towards the bottom right corner of her stomach.

“Here.”

His frown deepened.

“Have you had your appendix out?”

“No,” she said, suddenly feeling worried. “Do you… do you think it’s appendicitis?”

“Could be,” he said, and she saw genuine worry in his eyes. “It’s about the right location.”

“Fuck,” she whispered. “That’s not good.”

“No,” he said. “It isn’t.”

“Maybe I should look up where there’s a doctor around here…” she said, looking in her bag for her phone.

He shook his head.

“A doctor can’t tell if it’s appendicitis without additional tests,” he said. “You should go straight to the hospital.”

She stared at him.

“Isn’t… isn’t that a little drastic? It’s just a twinge…”

“If you go to the doctor with pain in your right lower abdomen, they’re going to send you to the hospital anyway,” he argued.

“I don’t know…” she hesitated, but as she said it, she felt such a stab of pain that she gasped and bent over.

“Alright,” Sergio said, sounding very alarmed now. “You’re definitely going to the hospital.”

She didn’t protest this time – she was too busy gritting her teeth. He took out his phone and called the local taxi company, then he steered her to a nearby bench and sat her down on it.

“They’ll be here in five minutes,” he said, kneeling in front of her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“The nearest hospital is in the next town over,” he said. “It’s only a fifteen-minute drive.”

“Alright,” she said, swallowing hard. “Uhm… isn’t there a danger of… of the appendix rupturing if you wait too long?”

“Yes, but don’t worry about that,” he said in a soothing tone. “That only happens if you wait a long time, and you haven’t been in pain for very long, right?”

“Right,” she said, but she still couldn’t help but worry as she felt the pain increase.

Thankfully, the taxi drew up at that moment, and Sergio jumped up to hold open the door for her.

“Thank you,” she said as she got in.

“Of course,” he replied.

He closed her door, and she leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. There wasn’t much worse than having to go to the hospital by yourself. She considered calling Elena, but then she remembered that her friend was in Madrid for a few days, and she felt a sudden urge to cry. She so desperately didn’t want to be alone right now.

But then the door on the other side of the taxi opened, and Sergio got in.

She stared at him.

“What… what are you doing?”

He frowned at her.

“I’m going with you.”

“Oh,” she said. She felt an almost painful surge of hope, but she felt obligated to say: “You don’t have to.”

His frown deepened.

“I’m not letting you go alone, Raquel.”

Then he turned to the taxi driver and told him to take them to the nearest hospital, and they were off. They were silent during the drive, but she didn’t care anymore – she was so grateful that he was here with her – she was so grateful that she wasn’t alone. The pain constantly came and went now, so she closed her eyes and took deep breaths as they sped along.

When they arrived at the hospital, Sergio helped her out of the car, then took her straight to the emergency room. Raquel gave her ID to the nurse at the front desk and told her why she was there, and then they had to sit down in the waiting room. Sergio kept fidgeting nervously as they waited.

“What’s taking them so long?” he grumbled, and she couldn’t help but think how sweet he was for worrying.

After about fifteen minutes, a doctor came and called Raquel’s name.

“Ms. Murillo?” she said.

“Yes,” Raquel said, standing up. “That’s me.”

Sergio stood up too.

“Can I come with her?” he asked. “Or should I wait here?”

The doctor gestured at Raquel.

“If she wants you to come, you can come.”

Sergio gave Raquel a questioning look, and she hesitated, but only for a moment.

“Yes please,” she whispered, and he actually looked relieved as he followed them.

The doctor took them to a small examining room and asked Raquel to lie down on the bed there and tell her what was wrong. She explained about the pain, and that she was afraid it might be her appendix. Once she pointed to the location of the pain, the doctor frowned.

“Yes, that could be your appendix, but it could be other things as well. We need to make sure, so we’ll run some tests.”  

She asked Raquel a few more questions about things like her food intake and medication use, then she glanced at Sergio.

“Are you her husband?”

Raquel winced at the question, but Sergio merely shook his head.

“No,” he said calmly. “Just a friend.”

“Can I put you down as her emergency contact?”

Raquel quickly opened her mouth to say that Elena should be her emergency contact, but Sergio had already answered.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s fine.” Then he glanced at Raquel. “If… if that’s okay with you?”

“Yes,” she whispered, feeling such a warm glow. This was so much more than she had any right to expect from him.

He gave the doctor his phone number, and then she nodded.

“Alright,” she said. “I’m going to send in a nurse in a minute to take some blood.”

The moment she left the room, Sergio turned to Raquel.

“How is the pain?” he asked.

“Not great,” she grimaced. “But manageable.”

They had to wait about ten minutes, while Sergio kept shooting her worried glances, and then the door opened again and a young nurse walked in.

“Good evening,” she said. “I’m going to take a blood sample so we can check for markers of infection, and then I’m going to attach an intravenous drip so we can administer some pain killers.”

The nurse disinfected a spot on Raquel’s forearm – then Raquel gritted her teeth as the nurse pushed in a needle. From the corner of her eye, she saw Sergio wince in sympathy, and that made things slightly better – he really was so sweet.

The nurse filled several vials with blood, then attached the intravenous drip.

“That should relieve the pain soon,” she said. “Please be aware that these blood tests will take a while – probably an hour and a half, at least.”

She left, and Raquel glanced over at Sergio.

“You don’t have to stay,” she said softly.

He merely shifted his chair closer to the bed.

“Of course I’m staying.”

She wanted him to stay so badly, but she felt like she had to give him the option to leave, so he wouldn’t be trapped in a room with her for an hour and a half against his will.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “Please… please don’t feel obligated.

He gave her a look, then shook his head.

“I don’t. Really. Now don’t argue – I’m not leaving you here alone.”

She opened her mouth to thank him, but just then the pain surged, and she had to close her eyes as a groan escaped her lips. When she opened her eyes again, he was looking at her with such a worried expression.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes,” she said automatically, but then she pressed her hand to her mouth as she suddenly realized how awful this could turn out. She had to swallow hard before she could speak again. “I don’t know. If it’s my appendix, it will have to come out, and… and I really don’t want to have surgery.”

“I get that,” he said quietly. “I do. Any kind of surgery is scary. But it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

She nodded, her throat tight. The thought that she might have to spend several days all alone in a hospital room was making it hard not to cry. He seemed to be following her thoughts, however.

“Raquel,” he said, and when she looked up at him, he was looking back at her with a calm, steady gaze. “You’re going to be fine. Whether you need surgery or not – you’ll be fine. And whatever happens – I’ll be right here with you. Okay? I’m not leaving you.”

The urge to cry grew stronger. She didn’t deserve him being so kind to her. She really didn’t. After what she’d done… She pushed the thought away with some effort, and managed to keep her tears from spilling over.

“Thank you,” she whispered. She hesitated, then carefully reached out and touched his hand. “Really. Thank you.”

He didn’t pull away. Instead, she saw him hesitate – and then he carefully took her hand in his and gently squeezed it – such a warm, reassuring gesture.

“You don’t have to thank me,” he said quietly. “Really.”

He held her hand for just a moment more as they looked at each other. Then, he let go, but slowly, as if he didn’t really want to. He looked down at the ground.

“I just want you to be okay,” he murmured, and she experienced such a surge of feeling. He cared about her. Still, after all this time, and after everything that had happened – he cared. It was such a wonderful feeling, and the thought even occurred to her that maybe the pain was worth it. Knowing that he still cared was worth so much to her.

She looked at him, and she suddenly felt such a keen stab of regret for the mistake she’d made nine years ago. He was such a good man. There were so many unresolved issues between them, and he clearly still struggled with being around her – but now that it mattered, he was putting all of that aside, and he was here for her. She loved him for that – such a sweet, soft feeling in her chest. A feeling that had never gone away completely, and was now blooming again.

They had to wait for almost two hours, and he stayed close to her the entire time as they talked softly. The intravenous drip helped ease the pain, and after a while, it seemed to be getting less severe on its own too. Still, Raquel was taken away for several more tests, like an ultrasound and a CT-scan. Every time she came back to the room, Sergio was still waiting for her.

Finally, the results of the blood test came back.

“We can’t find anything wrong,” the doctor said as she came in with them. “No sign of infection, nothing on the ultrasound or the CT-scan. How is your pain now?”

“It’s almost gone,” Raquel admitted.

The doctor nodded.

“Then I think you were just dealing with some intestinal spasms. They can sometimes occur spontaneously, often during moments of stress, but they’ll go away on their own and they’re nothing to worry about.”

Raquel suddenly felt very embarrassed.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry I made such a big deal out of nothing.”

“Not at all,” the doctor said. “These spasms can be extremely painful, and it could definitely have been something else. It’s a good thing that you came in. You can go home now.”

Raquel felt her cheeks burn as they left the hospital and got into the taxi that Sergio had called.

“I’m sorry,” she said, turning to him once they were on the road back to the hotel. “I made you wait for hours and it turned out to be nothing.”

“Don’t apologize,” he said, and it sounded like he meant it. “You heard the doctor – it was good that you came in. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

She nodded, her cheeks still red.

“I suppose.”

“Raquel,” he said, and she looked up at him. “I don’t mind. Really.”

She was still unconvinced, and he seemed to notice. He gave her a soft smile.

“Do you remember,” he said quietly. “Nine years ago, when I got the flu during the shoot?”

“Yes,” she said, the memories suddenly very vivid. Sharing a meal with him on the bed. Her hand in his. “Of course I remember.”

“You took care of me then,” he said. “For days. That was such a… such a kind thing to do. I’m just glad that… that I got to repay you today… just a little.”

“You didn’t have to repay me for that,” she whispered.

“I know,” he nodded. “But I’m still glad I could.”

They looked at each other for a long moment, and she felt how things between them were shifting – how they were slowly settling back into something that could be called a friendship. She knew that she didn’t actually deserve this… but she was so grateful all the same. So, so grateful.

They were both hungry, so they asked the taxi to stop at a small restaurant along the way, and they had some tapas at the bar. It wasn’t really a full dinner, and they didn’t stay long, but it still reminded Raquel so much of the many nights that they’d spent together over tapas and wine in the past. The conversation flowed easily now, and she felt so clearly that he was more comfortable around her than he’d been before. One step at a time, she told herself again. One step at a time. She wondered, with a hopeful flutter in her stomach, where they would eventually end up if things continued like this.

Once they were back at the hotel, they went up in the elevator together, and then they were at the door to her room and she had to say goodnight to him. She realized that she didn’t want to – she wanted to go to the hotel bar with him and stay up half the night talking, like they used to do… but that would be too much for one day. One step at a time.

“I hope you sleep well,” he said to her. “This must have been very stressful for you. You must be tired.”

“Yes,” she said, suddenly realizing that she was, indeed, very tired. “You’re right.”

They looked at each other, and she wondered if, perhaps, he didn’t want to say goodnight either – but then she told herself that she shouldn’t read too much into things.

“Well,” she said. “Thank you, Sergio. For everything. For staying with me.”

He shook his head.

“No need to thank me. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

She hesitated… but she just couldn’t help herself. She wanted to do something to show him how much this had meant to her. She stepped closer to him, then stood up on her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

“Still,” she said. “Thank you.”

As she stepped back, he looked like he’d been struck by lightning. She suddenly wondered if she’d made a mistake… but then he shook his head and cleared his throat.

“Uhm… you’re welcome,” he said, looking down at the ground. “Really.”

Was he turning red? He was. Even at forty, he was still so cute – but she realized that she should probably give him some space now.

“Alright,” she said. “I’ll go to bed now. Goodnight, Sergio.”

“Goodnight,” he whispered.

She put her key card into the slot in her door, and it opened with a beep. She walked inside, then threw one more glance at him as she closed the door. He was still standing in the exact same spot, and he was touching his cheek with an expression that she could only interpret as wonder.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

The last weekend before the end of the shoot, Nairobi invited the entire twelve-person cast out for drinks. There would be a party for the cast and crew after the last day of shooting, but Nairobi said that she wanted to have one last proper conversation with just the cast so they could say goodbye outside of the drunken chaos of a wrap party. Sergio wasn’t feeling very enthusiastic about the prospect of spending the entire evening with a big group of people – he only had one week left with Raquel, and he would have preferred to spend the evening alone with her. Nairobi didn’t take no for an answer, though, so that Saturday, he and Raquel got ready in their separate rooms, then met out in the hallway to go to the bar together.

Sergio was ready first – ten minutes early, as usual – and waited patiently for Raquel to emerge from her room. When she did, he felt his heart skip a beat. She was wearing a nice dress, and her hair was wavy and shiny, her eyes dark. She looked even lovelier than usual.

“You… you look nice,” he said, and she smiled at him. How he loved that smile. How he would give anything to kiss it.

“Thank you,” she said. “You look nice too.”

They left the hotel together and walked through the twilit streets of the village towards their usual bar. They didn’t say much, but they walked close together, and Raquel’s arm kept brushing against his. He felt a little jolt in his stomach every single time it happened – no matter how much he touched her on set, this was different – it was real, and he could never get used to it; so acutely aware of every brush of her skin against his; of every time she touched his arm in conversation. Even a week later, he still remembered the feeling of having her hand in his, and as he walked beside her now, he wanted nothing more than to take it again and just hold it all the way to the bar.

But ever since they’d held hands, things had been a little weird between them, and Sergio wasn’t sure what to do about it. There had been moments over the past few days when it felt like they were closer than ever, but there had also been moments when he’d felt like she was struggling with something. He often caught her looking at him intently, her expression sad or conflicted, and when he caught her eye, she looked away. He didn’t know how to interpret that. He didn’t allow himself to think about it too hard – she was probably just sad about the upcoming end of the shoot, just like he was. It was never easy to say goodbye at the end of a project like this.

About half the cast was already at the bar when they arrived. They slid onto a bench together, and when the rest of the cast arrived a few minutes later, things got rather packed and Raquel had to move very close to Sergio. It flustered him so much that he missed a big chunk of the conversation – all he was aware of was her body pressed against his. When some people shifted, and there was more room again on her other side, she didn’t move away from him. That flustered him even more, though he wasn’t sure if she was even aware of it.

It took a while before everyone had a drink, but then Nairobi raised her glass.

“To a great shoot,” she said. “And a great movie. You all gave this story everything you had, and I’m so proud of what we’ve done. You’ve been a great cast, and it was an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with each and every one of you.”

There were cheers all around as the cast members raised their glasses and toasted.

“And to a great director!” Jorge said. “One of the best.”

More cheers, and more raised glasses as they all toasted Nairobi, who inclined her head.

“A director is only as good as her cast and crew,” she said. “And this was a great cast and crew.”

“Yes,” Nina said, one of the younger women. “I feel like we’ve become a family.”

There were murmurs of agreement, and Sergio glanced at Raquel, who looked back at him with a warm smile. She’d become more to him than family. She’d become a part of him, and he knew that when they left here and returned to their individual lives, it would leave him incomplete.

The thought was too painful. He turned away from her with an effort and refocused on the conversation.

“It will be hard to say goodbye to you all,” Nina was continuing. “I rather wish we didn’t have to.”

“I agree,” Raquel said. “I don’t want to go home.”

Sergio couldn’t agree more. Raquel’s shoulder was warm against his, and there was another day of scenes with her to look forward to tomorrow. He wished this shoot could just continue forever.

There was a short pause in the conversation as everyone drank, then Jorge leaned forward.

“Nairobi,” he said, “on our first day here, you told us that you’d tell us the story of your name, but you never did.”

“That’s because none of you cheapskates ever bought me a drink,” she grumbled, and people laughed and gestured towards the waiter. Soon, Nairobi had an assortment of drinks in front of her.

“Alright,” she said, grinning. “That’s better. Now you deserve the story.”

She leaned back comfortably in her chair, and Sergio perked up. He’d been curious about this for weeks.

“Well,” Nairobi started, “my wife Isabel is actually the one who gave me the nickname, after I’d spent three months trapped in the city of Nairobi because of a bit of an… incident.” She sipped one of her many drinks, and continued. “This was when I was only just out of college. I took a job as one of the assistants to a movie director who was going to do a location shoot out in Kenya. He had a reputation of being an absolute asshole, but it was a cool project so I thought it would be worth it.”

“Let me guess,” Jorge said. “It wasn’t.”

“No, it was not,” Nairobi said emphatically. “A really bad director can make life hell for everyone on set. I’d warn you never to work with this guy, but he’s out of the business by this point, thank god. He made us all miserable – the actors, the crew, the local staff, but especially us, his four assistants. We were out in the middle of nowhere in the Kenyan bush, so there was nothing for us to do in the evenings except sit around and drink bad beer and complain.”

Several people were nodding – unfortunately, complaining about the director was a traditional part of many shoots.

“And after several weeks of abject misery,” Nairobi continued, “we decided that something had to be done. We were only assistants, of course, so we had no power whatsoever, but we weren’t beyond some petty revenge. We decided that we were going to get back at him somehow, but we were really bad at coming up with a plan that would work. And then…”

She sat up straighter, her eyes sparkling.

“You see, one of the guys on the crew was this kid called Marcos. Really nice guy – well-mannered, kind of quiet, wicked smart.”

She grinned at Sergio.

“He was a lot like our professor over here.” She shook a warning finger at the group. “Never underestimate people like that. They may seem really innocent, but some of them are real criminal masterminds. You better watch out.”

Everyone grinned at Sergio, who gave an embarrassed grin in return.

“You better be careful there, Raquel,” one of the women quipped.

“Oh, I’m not worried,” she said lightly, nudging her shoulder against Sergio’s. “Not about this one. He doesn’t bite.”

“Maybe he will if you ask him nicely,” Jorge grinned, and everyone laughed. “You know, spice up those kisses on set.”

“Lord no!” Nairobi said, raising her hands in mock alarm. “Any more spice in those kisses and the film might catch fire.”

Everyone laughed again, and Sergio could feel himself go a bright, burning red. Nairobi winked at him.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” she said. “You’re doing a great job with those kisses.”

“I agree,” Raquel mumbled beside him, and everyone laughed again.

Sergio was rather pleased about that, but his cheeks were still burning.

“Go on, Nairobi,” he said, trying to get the attention off of himself. “What plan did Marcos come up with?”

“Well,” Nairobi said, getting back on track. “What you need to know about this director is that he had this weird habit of taking a foot bath in the evenings. Always had one of the cleaning ladies prepare it for him – this absolute bag of hair never did anything himself. So…” Her eyes started glittering. “One evening, Marcos heard us assistants complain about this guy, and he said that he had an idea. The next day – don’t ask me how, I have no idea – he came to us with a jar… full of leeches. Big, black, squirming leeches.”

Everyone around the table recoiled and made disgusted sounds.

“Oh god,” Raquel said, her hand to her mouth, clearly torn between laughter and disgust. “You didn’t.”

“We did,” Nairobi said, nodding in satisfaction. “Put them right in his foot bath before he got in.”

There was laughter around the table and more disgusted sounds.

“Did they attach to him?” Jorge asked, clearly fascinated.

“They sure did,” Nairobi grinned, then her eyes got a dreamy look. “Oh man, you should have seen his face when he lifted out his feet. He jumped up, screaming, then started doing the maddest dance I’ve ever seen. It was glorious.”

Everyone around the table was bent over laughing now, and Sergio was grinning broadly. Nairobi was grinning too.

“It was the perfect prank,” she said, but then her expression turned more sober. “Except we forgot one thing.”

“The cleaning lady,” Raquel said.

“Exactly,” Nairobi nodded. “Of course she was the one who got blamed, and we couldn’t have that, so we ‘fessed up. And that’s how I got fired from my very first job, and spent three months doing odd jobs in Nairobi to earn enough money to buy a plane ticket out of there.” She grinned broadly. “It was totally worth it, though. No regrets.”

There was more laughter and chuckles all around, and Sergio had to admit that it was an excellent story.

“So was your wife one of the other assistants?” Raquel asked.

“No,” Nairobi said. “I met her on the next shoot I did. I told this story to a couple of people on my first night there, and Isabel thought it was hilarious. She started calling me ‘Nairobi’ after that, and it caught on.”

Everyone was still chuckling, and another round of drinks was ordered. Sergio glanced over at Raquel, who was still leaning against his shoulder. She looked up and smiled at him, and he felt the familiar flutter in his stomach. He loved little moments like this, where they looked at each other and it suddenly felt like it was just the two of them, even in the middle of a crowd.

Nina leaned forward in her chair.

“So,” she said to Nairobi. “You met your wife on set.”

“Yes,” Nairobi said. “She’s a set designer – she’s doing a project in Madrid right now. We met on a location shoot near Barcelona, and we knew pretty quickly that we were right for each other. Sometimes you just know, you know?”

Sergio involuntarily glanced at Raquel again, only to see that she was glancing at him too. They both quickly looked away again.

“Location shoots are like that,” Nairobi went on. “You get very tight with your co-workers very quickly, because you don’t go home at the end of the day, and you don’t see any people outside of the rest of the cast and crew. The shoot kind of becomes your entire life.”

There were nods all around – they’d all experienced that over the past two months. Then Nina leaned forward again.

“Nairobi,” she said. “Does it happen often that people on your shoots get together? You know, as a couple?”

Sergio saw her glance at Jorge from the corner of her eye as she said it. Oh, he thought. She likes him.

“Sure,” Nairobi said, sipping another of her many drinks. “Happens all the time.”

“And does it usually work out?” Nina asked carefully.

Nairobi leaned back in her chair.

“Now that’s a different question,” she said. “Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It did for me and Isabel, but I know plenty of cases where it didn’t.” She thought for a moment before she continued. “You see, what we have here… no matter how nice it is… it isn’t real. We’re in a unique situation, and a lot of the time, relationships that are formed on set don’t survive when you go back to real life.”

Sergio frowned and started listening more closely. He was glad when Nina asked a follow-up question.

“Why not?”

“Because here on set, we don’t have to deal with any real-life issues,” Nairobi said. “It’s all work and play, and you don’t have to worry about anything except doing your job and having fun.”

Nods around the table again – yes, that was the magic of a location shoot. Nairobi was looking rather thoughtful.

“It’s almost inevitable that relationships develop on a shoot like that,” she continued. “It’s a situation of artificial closeness, but still. Put people close enough together for long enough, and they’ll start to bond. It’s human nature. But once you go back to real life, the relationship often doesn’t last – and this is true for both romantic relationships and friendships, by the way. Not many people keep in touch for longer than a few weeks after a shoot. Real life gets in the way. Other people and projects come along. You move on.”

Sergio knew from experience that this was true, and it had never bothered him before. Now, however, he didn’t like the thought of it at all, and he wasn’t the only one who looked rather dismayed. When Nairobi saw their faces, she quickly amended:

“I’m not saying the friendships you make on set aren’t meaningful! They are! But saying goodbye to people is a fact of life in this business. And on the plus side: you’ll always keep meeting new people.”

That didn’t make Sergio feel better. Next to him, he felt Raquel shift in her seat, and when he glanced at her, she looked as uncomfortable as he felt himself. Was this what their friendship was? Just the effect of… artificial closeness? He suddenly felt so dejected. After they returned to Madrid, would they just… drift apart? He’d known all along that he wouldn’t see her every day anymore, but he’d still hoped – still counted – on them staying friends. He’d hoped that, that way, maybe he could still see her, every once in a while. It wouldn’t be nearly enough, but it was better than nothing.

He suddenly realized with a sinking feeling that they hadn’t talked about it at all, he and Raquel. No matter how much time they spent together – no matter how many hours a day they spent talking – he now saw that they’d been carefully avoiding the topic for weeks. He hadn’t wanted to think about the shoot ending, and apparently neither had she, and now he had no idea how she felt about the matter. Did she even want to stay friends after the shoot was done? Would she still want to see him? Or was this just something temporary for her? He suddenly felt a terrible sense of doubt set in. What was he to her? Was he just someone to pass the time with while she was out on location, cut off from the people she really wanted to spend time with? Would he never see her again after this was over? The thought made him nauseous, and suddenly the room felt much too hot – the air thick with the smell of beer, the noise overwhelming. He needed some air.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled, then slid off the bench.

“Are you okay?” Raquel asked. He merely nodded without looking at her, then made his way between the crowded tables until he reached the exit.

Once outside, he leaned back against the wall of the building and took a few deep breaths. Artificial closeness. The words kept echoing through his head. Was that really what it was? Was none of it real? Would they just… fall apart once they left this place? He swallowed hard and looked up at the sky, trying not to cry. Just being friends with her when he felt so much more was tearing him apart, but not seeing her at all anymore? It was unthinkable. He couldn’t lose her completely. He couldn’t. He didn’t fully know what it would do to him – he just knew that it would hurt.

He kept taking deep breaths, trying to pull himself together enough to go back in. Just when he finally felt like he could face the group again, Raquel came out.

“Hey,” she said. “Are you alright?”

The mere sight of her made something contract painfully in his chest. He tried not to show it.

“Yes,” he managed to whisper, but she wasn’t fooled.

“What’s wrong?” she said, frowning as she came closer.

He gave her a long look. Finally, he decided that he had to know.

“Raquel…” he said quietly. “What happens after… after we’re done here? What happens if we go back to Madrid? Will I… will I still see you?”

“Of course you’ll still see me,” she said immediately. “Of course. Don’t listen to what Nairobi said.”

He swallowed hard.

“What if we… what if we drift apart?”

“We won’t,” she said, and he wished with all his might that he could share some of the certainty in her voice. “We’re friends now. Good friends. Best friends. Nothing can change that. Nothing.”

He wished he could believe her.

“Your husband doesn’t like me,” he murmured, his eyes on the ground.

She raised her chin.

“Alberto doesn’t get to decide who I’m friends with,” she said firmly. “Ever. That’s my business. If I want to see you, I get to see you.”

When he stayed quiet, she took another step closer to him.

“Sergio,” she said, and when he looked up at her, her eyes were so earnest. “This is real. It just is. There’s nothing… artificial about it. What we have, you and me…”

She faltered, and for a moment he could see that conflicted expression again. Then she took a deep breath and it vanished.

“I don’t know what this is, Sergio,” she whispered. “I just… I just know that I don’t want to let it go.”

His throat felt tight. He so desperately didn’t want to let it go either. They looked at each other for a long moment, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. There was a pull between them – he felt it so clearly – a deep, magnetic force, and it was tugging on him so hard it hurt. He felt how every fiber in his body was urging him to go to her – to open his arms and pull her close – to hold her and hold her and hold her. Forever.

The conflicted expression was back on her face. She looked up at him with those dark eyes of hers, and he could just feel that she was struggling. He wasn’t sure what she was struggling with exactly, but his heart was still beating painfully fast as he looked at her. She hesitated for several long moments, then she gave him a soft look, and stepped forward and hugged him.

He couldn’t move for a moment. She was leaning against him, her arms around him, her face buried against his chest, and he was having trouble registering that this was really happening. Then, slowly, very slowly, he wrapped his arms around her in return. He held her carefully at first, feeling like he wasn’t really allowed to do this, but then she squeezed him tight, and he tightened his own arms around her in response and held her the way he wanted to hold her – as close as possible.

He couldn’t say how he felt. He was feeling everything at once: relief at being able to give in to this longing; joy that she wanted this too; gratitude that she’d initiated the hug. Something inside him was soaring at finally, finally being able to hold her, and his heart was racing… but underneath it all, there was a desperate, searing sadness that he couldn’t shake. This was so wonderful, but they could only share it for a moment. It couldn’t last. There was so much they couldn’t be, and it made him want to cry. Why, why, why? This was such a beautiful thing – something so rare and precious and pure, and it wasn’t right that they couldn’t let it be. It wasn’t right. His entire soul was rebelling against the unfairness of it all. He leaned his cheek against the top of her head, and from the way she was holding onto him, he thought that she felt it too.

He loved her. He realized it with a depth of sudden understanding that didn’t leave any room for doubt. There was nothing fake or trivial about their relationship – nothing artificial. He’d never felt anything like it before, and it was true, and painfully real. What we have, you and me… He didn’t know what it was either; he just knew that he didn’t want to live without it anymore. That he would do anything to keep it. That he desperately, desperately didn’t want to let her go.

And so they stood there, in front of a noisy bar in a small Galician village, under a dark and star-strewn sky, and held on to each other – just a little longer. Just for now.

The present

After Sergio had taken her to the hospital, Raquel felt a definite shift in their relationship. He felt like a friend again. He initiated contact on his own now – he asked her how she was – he smiled at her. They’d already been talking again before, but there had still been a clear distance between them. Now, in the days after the hospital visit, she gradually felt it disappear as his attitude towards her became warmer and more genuine. He seemed to want to be around her again. Before, she’d felt so clearly how he was purposefully trying to stay away from her – but not anymore. She wasn’t sure if he was actually choosing to spend time with her again, or if he just couldn’t help himself, but either way she was grateful. It had been so difficult to see him every day, acutely aware of the disconnect between them when they used to be so close. Now, they were slowly reclaiming that closeness. It felt… it felt like he’d forgiven her, and it almost made her want to cry. Could they really reconnect again? Could they move beyond what had happened?

She wanted it so badly. After he’d been so sweet to her at the hospital, the feelings she’d once had for him had returned in an absolute flood, and as their new friendship gradually developed, they only grew stronger. She realized now that they’d never really gone away – for nine whole years, she’d carried her love for him with her, carefully locked away in a corner of her heart. She’d denied it and repressed it, because she had to, and even when she’d arrived here on set and seen him again, she hadn’t dared set it free, because she had thought that he could never forgive her. But now… now they were spending time together again, and it felt so good. It felt warm and familiar and wonderful, and suddenly her feelings for him couldn’t be contained anymore – they burst out of the restraints she’d placed them under, flourishing in the new warmth between them, branching out and growing each time he smiled at her, each time they had a moment of connection. She cherished those moments beyond anything. Whenever they managed to connect again – just a little, just for a moment – she felt all the hurt from the past fade away. For just a moment, the world would feel exactly right again, like it did back then, in a way that she hadn’t experienced for nine whole years.

She loved him. She’d always loved him. She loved him still and she loved him again, and their renewed closeness was the most precious thing in the world to her. She hoped so fervently that, with time and patience, he would be able to trust her fully again. She felt that she saw him clearer now than she had nine years ago, with a depth of appreciation that she simply hadn’t had before – to her infinite regret. He was so kind. Even after what she’d done – when she’d needed him, he had been there for her, sweet and thoughtful and compassionate, like he’d always been. And there was something else… It took her a few days to place the feeling, but then she realized what it was.

He made her feel safe. He’d always made her feel safe. It was something that she hadn’t even really been aware of nine years ago – but she definitely was aware of it now. After what she’d been through over the past few years, the feeling was incredibly precious to her. He accepted her for who she was, instead of trying to change or control her. He was so gentle with her. He made her feel like he cared. It all made her want to cry. None of those were things she could take for granted anymore, yet he made them seem like the most natural things in the world. She loved him so much for that.

She didn’t deserve him. After what she’d done nine years ago, she knew she didn’t deserve him. And yet, she hoped with all her might that he would give her a chance – a chance to put right what she’d once done wrong – a chance to make things up to him – a chance to be to him what he was to her. Because this time, they had a chance, and she so desperately wanted it. The closer she got to him, the more she felt it – underneath it all, they were still them, the way they had been all those years ago. They were still reconnecting – carefully, tentatively – they were still feeling out how they’d both changed over the years, acquiring new scars and bruises and broken edges. But in the end, she hoped that they could fit together again, like they once had – perfectly and true. Because she loved him… and every day, her hope grew stronger that he could love her again, too.

Their dynamic on set was almost back to what it had been for the first movie, and Raquel was enjoying herself so much, both when the cameras were rolling and between takes. It felt so good to do this with him again – it felt so right. After they were done shooting for the day, she and Sergio often spent a few more hours together, discussing the scenes and then moving on to other things. Just like nine years ago, they often couldn’t stop talking, and it felt so incredibly wonderful. They were spending more and more time together: at breakfast and lunch, between scenes and after shooting. All of that stayed within the bounds of a regular close co-worker relationship though, and she wished they could move beyond that. She wanted to ask him if he wanted to meet her on the weekends again, like they used to do, or if he wanted to have dinner with her, just the two of them. She was afraid to ask him, though. She didn’t want to ruin what they had now by asking too much of him.

Then, towards the middle of the shoot, they had to move locations for a week. The previous movie had all been shot in and around the village of Mundín, but they had a bigger budget now, and the writers had added a few scenes in the town of Ferrol, across the bay. It was too far to travel back and forth from their hotel every day, so the studio booked a different hotel for the cast and crew in Ferrol itself. Raquel was looking forward to it – it would be nice to have a change of scenery, and she had particularly good memories of Ferrol from going there with Sergio last time. They had taken several trips there, once staying for a whole weekend, and they’d always had a wonderful time. She rather hoped that being there would bring back those memories for him, too, and that it would bring them even closer.

When they got onto the cast and crew bus to Ferrol on Monday, he sat down next to her as a matter of course, and she felt the familiar flutter in her stomach at his nearness.

“This is just like old times,” she smiled at him.

“Yes,” he smiled back. “Though back then we didn’t have a private bus – we had to make do with public transportation.”

He shot her a sideways look. “Actually, I’m surprised that the studio didn’t offer you a separate car – you being the star of this production.”

She started blushing, and he laughed.

“They did!” he said. “They did offer you a separate car! Why didn’t you take it?”

She shrugged.

“I didn’t want everyone to think I was above them,” she said. “And besides, it’s much nicer to travel with the rest of the cast. They’re good company.”

Of course, she was only here because she wanted his company. From the look in his eyes, he understood – and when he quickly looked down, she wasn’t sure if he was embarrassed or pleased.

“Well,” he said softly. “Either way – it’s nice to take the bus with you again.”

He was pleased, she decided, and she felt a happy spark in her chest. More and more often, he was  responding to her when she brought up shared memories or when she carefully showed him that she still liked him. There were still times when he didn’t respond, but then she felt that it wasn’t indifference on his part, but rather that he was still consciously holding back, just a little. She was trying to be careful, but it wasn’t easy to keep the true depth of her feelings hidden.

He looked out the window as the bus started making its way along the winding road between the hills, and she observed him from the corner of her eye, as she’d been doing more often over the past few days. Now that they were closer again, she was starting to notice the changes in him. He was still easy to fluster, but on the whole, he felt steadier, somehow, than he’d been nine years ago. Harder to shake. More mature. He seemed to have a better sense of who he was and what he wanted… though she wasn’t always sure what that was. There were other changes too, ones she was sorry to see. He felt sadder than he’d been nine years ago. More careful, more self-contained. She wondered guiltily if that was her fault – but then she shook herself – that was nine years ago, and she knew nothing of his life in between. She shouldn’t make everything about herself.

The bus suddenly took a sharp turn, shaking her from her thoughts as she slid sideways against him.

“Oh,” she said. She tried to shift away from him, but it was a long bend, and gravity was too strong. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” he said.

Her heart was beating fast, and he looked a little flustered too, but then he gave her a slight smile, and she felt that flutter in her stomach again. Oh, she wished she could just stay close to him like this. When the road became straight once more, she moved away from him, but not completely, letting her knee just slightly touch his. It just felt so natural. He didn’t shift away from her, and she felt her spirits rise. It was such a small thing, but it meant so much to her, especially when he kept his knee against hers for the entire rest of the journey.

When they arrived in Ferrol, it suddenly felt to Raquel like she’d only been there yesterday – like no time had passed at all between now and nine years ago. Everything still looked exactly the same. A sudden flood of memories arose, and she and Sergio spent the trip through the town pointing out the windows and exclaiming at the familiar landmarks, laughing over suddenly-remembered anecdotes. She touched his arm, and again, he didn’t pull away. When they arrived at the hotel, she was glowing.

The shoot took up much of their time over the next days, but in the evenings the cast and crew got together in various configurations for dinner. Raquel usually joined one group or another, and to her surprise, Sergio always came too. He hadn’t mixed at all with the rest of the team until now, only socializing with his brother when Andrés wasn’t in Madrid, so she wondered why he was joining them now. She hoped so strongly that it was because he wanted to spend time with her – and indeed, he always sat down next to her, and they had more and more conversations just between the two of them while the rest of the group chattered on around them. Just like it had been nine years ago, she increasingly felt like the two of them were in their own little bubble, where the big, noisy world of other people couldn’t reach them. She loved those moments. She would do anything to have more of them in the future.  

They had a wonderful time together during the shoot as well – their dynamic kept improving by the day. Most of the scenes in Ferrol involved the characters Sergio and Raquel were playing, but a few of them were between other characters, too, so on Friday, Nairobi gave them both the afternoon off. When Raquel asked Sergio if he wanted to go around town the way they’d done in the past, he smiled and nodded, and the two of them set off together after lunch. Raquel couldn’t stop smiling as she walked next to him, the conversation flowing easily. Things felt so good between them again, and she was so happy. Step by step, they were getting nearer to each other.

They walked along the familiar streets for a while, then sat down in the little courtyard of a small café. There were flowering bushes all around them, and a little fountain trickled merrily in the background. Raquel looked around with a smile.

“I remember this place,” she said. “We came here last time as well.” A memory suddenly surfaced. “Wasn’t this the café with the nice waiter? He brought us complimentary cake.”

Sergio shot her an amused look.

“The waiter wasn’t nice,” he said. “He was flirting with you.”

She looked at him, surprised.

“He was?”

He laughed.

“Yes!” he said, his eyes dancing. “Poor guy. Trying his hardest to get your attention, and you didn’t even notice.”

He’d noticed though. She felt so pleased about that – not only had he noticed a man flirting with her – he still remembered it nine years later. And he was teasing her, laughing with her. It felt so good to laugh with him.

“You’re right,” she said. “I really didn’t notice.”

He shook his head, smiling.

“You’re so oblivious sometimes. Next you’re going to say that you didn’t realize that one of the cameramen had a crush on you last time.”

She stared at him.

“What?” she said. “Who?”

He burst out laughing.

“Oh, come on, Raquel! Miguel, of course! He was always trying to get your attention, trying to get you to talk to him. I can’t believe you didn’t notice.”

She shook her head, flustered.

“I… I thought he was just friendly.”

He was looking very amused.

“People must seem very friendly to you a lot.

She felt herself go red as she laughed.

“Not everyone who’s friendly has to be flirting with me!”

He gave her a slight smile.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” he murmured.

She looked down, smiling, her cheeks red. It was nice of him to think that.

“And of course,” he continued, “now it’s even worse.”

She glanced up at him.

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” he said, “now you’re a famous movie star, and everybody likes you. Everybody wants to be noticed by you, and talk to you, and be close to you.”

She felt herself go even redder.

“You’re exaggerating,” she said. “I haven’t noticed anything like that at all.”

He gave her a long, soft look, then looked down.

“Well,” he mumbled. “You were never very good at seeing when people like you.”

Her heart suddenly started beating faster. Was he talking about himself? It was true that he’d always been subtle about it – even nine years ago, when things had been much clearer, it had still taken her weeks before she was completely sure of his feelings. Was he talking about that? Or… or did he mean now? Was he trying to show her how he felt, and was she not fully picking up on it?

She looked at him more carefully, and she thought she could see signs that he was struggling with something. She had no idea what it was, though. Was he trying to hide his feelings? Trying to show them? Was he struggling with himself, because he was starting to like her again, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that? She hated that she couldn’t tell. The uncertainty was making her nervous and unsure of what to do. She wanted to encourage him, show him how she felt about him – but if he was feeling conflicted, then too much encouragement would scare him off. She should let him come to her at his own pace.

She decided to steer the conversation to a topic he would be more comfortable with.

“Do you remember the little band that played in this courtyard last time, when we came here after dinner?” she said. “The music was so nice.”

“Yes,” he said, and she was glad to see that the memory was pulling him out of his momentary discomfort. “It was really warm that night. We stayed out too late.”

“Right,” she smiled, remembering how they couldn’t stop talking. “We missed the last bus, and we had to stay in a hostel.”

“We walked over the embankment by the sea to get there,” he added. “I remember the stars that night. They were so bright.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I remember them too.”

They looked at each other with soft smiles, and she had such a warm, lovely feeling at the shared memory. There were so many wonderful memories from back then. She so badly wanted to make more.

Perfectly on cue, a magnolia flower from an overhanging bush drifted down into Sergio’s lap. He looked at it for a moment, then picked it up and held it out to her. It seemed to have been an unconscious gesture – he turned red almost immediately, as if he hadn’t actually meant to do it – but it was still so sweet. She took the flower from him with a smile and a rush of feeling, and when their fingers touched, she was suddenly caught by the look in his eyes. They looked at each other for a long moment, and she felt her heart beat frantically. Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to lean over and kiss him – to feel his lips soft against hers; to touch him; to feel his hand in her hair. The longing was so strong it took her breath away.

The next moment, he looked away, but she knew what she’d seen – she knew what she’d felt. Just then, their coffee arrived, and that broke the tension. She put the flower behind her ear, and as they sipped and talked, she noticed that he kept glancing at her. With every glance, things became clearer to her. She knew that look. She remembered it so well. She felt so hopeful now that they might really be able to return to what they had been before – so hopeful that it actually, physically hurt. She loved him. All she wanted was for him to love her back, the way he had once.

By the end of the afternoon, she was sure of it. She couldn’t tell if it was love yet on his part, but she was sure that he at least liked her again. As they walked back to the hotel, so close together that their hands kept brushing against each other, she felt like she was walking on air. He liked her. He still liked her. Maybe soon he could even love her again, the way she’d never stopped loving him. They had had such terrible timing last time, but now… now the timing felt exactly right. They were in the same place again, and this time, there was nothing standing between them.

They drove back to the resort near Mundín that evening. She and Sergio spent the entire ride next to each other, talking softly. When they arrived, they said goodnight to the rest of the cast, then continued up to their adjoining rooms together. They stopped in front of the door to her room, and she was reminded so vividly of how they’d stood here two weeks ago, after he’d taken her to the hospital. She remembered how he’d looked after she’d kissed him on the cheek – how he’d touched the place where she’d kissed him with such a sweet expression. She might have known right then how he felt about her, but she couldn’t be sure yet. Now, she was sure.

She stepped forward and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek again.

“Thank you,” she said. “I had a great time this week.”

He swallowed hard, looking down.

“Me too.”

Her heart was beating fast. She wished she could go to him and hug him – wrap her arms around him and hold him close – feel his arms around her in return – but she wasn’t quite brave enough for that yet. Instead, she reached out and lightly touched him on the arm.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “Would you like to have dinner tomorrow? Just the two of us?”

He looked up at her. For a long moment, she held her breath as she saw him hesitate – but then something inside him seemed to yield, and he nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “That… that would be nice.”

She felt a bright, heady rush of joy. He was agreeing to have dinner with her, alone, on a Saturday. That didn’t feel like they were co-workers. It felt… it felt like a date. That was so wonderful and amazing and scary, and it made her nervous and excited and so happy. She smiled at him.

“Alright,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

He nodded, giving her a long look.

“Yes. Tomorrow.” He took a deep breath. “Goodnight, Raquel.”

She looked back at him.

“Goodnight, Sergio.”

Neither of them moved for a long moment – but then he shook himself and turned, and she opened the door to her room and went inside. She brushed her teeth and put on her pajamas in a daze of happiness, then fell into bed with a smile. She pulled a pillow up to her chest and closed her eyes as she hugged it tightly. They would have another chance. She couldn’t quite believe it – she knew she didn’t deserve it – but they had another chance… and this time, she would do everything she could to get it right.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

The last days of the shoot went by so fast it made him dizzy. The time he had left with her was so limited now that he could count the hours – and it filled him with despair to see them ticking past; to feel minute after minute of his precious time with her slip through his fingers. He wished that things would just stop – he wished that he could smash some big cosmic clock so this week would never end and he’d never have to say goodbye to her. He tried to cling to every moment they were together, every word they spoke, every second he could look at her. He wanted to absorb it all – her smiles, and the look in her eyes, and the way she made him feel – so he could carry the memories with him when he wouldn’t be able to see her every day anymore.

The last day of the shoot arrived much too soon. He had so much trouble staying in character as they shot their last scene – Tristán returning to the village after the war, Eva running to meet him. His heart was beating in his throat as Raquel ran up to him, and he wished with all his might that the two of them could have a happy ending like this. When she jumped into his arms and kissed him, he wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground, then allowed himself to disappear into the kiss one last time. The thought that he would never kiss her again was unbearable, and he could barely keep himself from crying when they broke apart. She looked up at him, and her eyes were dark with emotion too. He completely forgot himself for a moment – forgot that they were on camera, and he had a set of instructions to follow. He took her face between his hands, closed his eyes, and leaned his forehead against hers.

“Cut!” Nairobi called, and he drew in a startled breath as he let Raquel go. He shouldn’t have done that. That was so unprofessional.

But Nairobi was beaming.

“Beautiful,” she said. “Amazing work, both of you! And well done with the forehead lean, Sergio. Good instinct!”

Everyone was emotional as Nairobi called a wrap on the scene and the movie, and Sergio was glad for that. Everyone was hugging, which meant that he could hug Raquel too – she stepped in against him and held him so tight that he could barely breathe, but he couldn’t care at all. He wrapped his arms around her in return and held her, just held her, his eyes closed as he savored her warmth. He wanted to memorize the exact shape of her in his arms – etch the feeling of holding her into his skin.

They stayed like that for moment after moment – an island of stillness while everyone else surged around them. Neither of them could bear to let go. Finally, they had to, though, when other people came up to them and wanted to hug them too. He let her go with the utmost reluctance, and she gave him one desperate glance before she turned to the other actors with what looked to him like a forced smile. He didn’t want to hug anyone else – he just wanted to go to his room and stare at the ceiling for the rest of eternity. He excused himself, and went to hide in the bathroom.

There was a big party in a nearby bar that evening for the cast and crew. Everyone dressed up, and there was dancing and laughter and a lot of drinking, and Sergio saw a few people make out in the corners of the room. He and Raquel didn’t dance or drink – it didn’t feel like a moment for celebration at all to them. All Sergio could think about was that tomorrow, Saturday, would be their last day together. On Sunday, he and Raquel would board a plane to Madrid, and she’d return to her life and her husband, and he’d lose her. He told himself that he’d still see her, they’d still be friends, and that was the most important thing, but he couldn’t help it. He knew that they would never again have what they had now, and it made him desperately sad.

They spent the evening at a table, sitting close together. Sergio just wanted to be alone with her, but to his dismay, people kept joining them, and they had to be polite and make conversation. Towards midnight, people kept getting drunker and louder, and Sergio was getting more and more frustrated about this lost time that he could have spent with Raquel alone. He was so relieved when she turned to him and said:

“Do you want to get out of here? The beer smell is making me nauseous, and I think we’ve stayed long enough.”

“Yes please,” he said immediately, getting up. “Let’s go.”

They walked back to the hotel side by side. Neither of them spoke. Sergio didn’t know what to say anymore. He felt so deeply, acutely miserable. He didn’t want to leave, he didn’t want to return to his neat and quiet life – he’d never felt lonely before, but after spending every moment of every day with her for the past weeks, he knew instinctively that his life would feel terribly empty now, without her.

Beside him, Raquel wasn’t speaking either. He glanced at her, and he couldn’t read the expression on her face. She looked miserable too, yes, but there was something else, something he couldn’t place. She seemed to be deep in thought, frowning down at the ground as they walked. When they arrived back at the hotel, he wasn’t sure what to do. Should they go into the bar so they could talk quietly? What would they even say to each other?

Raquel walked straight past the bar, however, so he followed her. They took the elevator upstairs, and stopped in front of the door to her room. She looked up at him, and she looked so terribly conflicted. He could sense the struggle in her – but then she took a deep breath.

“Do you want to come in?” she said, opening her door. “I… I think we should talk.”

He nodded, but when she walked into the room, he stayed by the door for a few seconds, hesitating. He’d never been in her room before – they’d been careful not to cross that boundary, except for the three days that he’d been sick and she’d cared for him in his room. He felt that he shouldn’t go in – that it wasn’t allowed – but she’d asked him in and he wasn’t strong enough to say no.

He slowly walked in and looked around. There were some clothes on a chair, and she’d kicked off her shoes next to the bed, but other than that, the room was neat. It smelled like her. She gestured at the bed, and he gingerly sat down on the edge of it, watching her as she paced up and down a few times. She was so clearly struggling with something, and he assumed that she wasn’t looking forward to saying goodbye either. Then she went up to the window and looked out into the dark night. She didn’t move for several minutes, and he didn’t say anything – he felt like she was coming to a decision about something, though he couldn’t imagine what it was.

Finally, she turned and gave him a long look. He looked back at her, still silent. Then, she walked over and sat down next to him on the bed.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “I feel like we should talk. It’s been… so amazing, doing this shoot with you. When I got here two months ago, I never… I never thought that I’d meet someone like you. I never thought that… that I could get so close to someone so fast.”

He nodded, his throat tight as she continued.

“This has been… so special to me,” she said. “It meant so much.”

He looked down, and tried not to show how this was breaking his heart. She was saying goodbye. He couldn’t bear it. But then…

“Sergio,” she whispered. “What we have is so… so wonderful. I don’t… I don’t want to say goodbye to you.”

He couldn’t help himself.

“I don’t want to say goodbye to you either,” he whispered back.

She shifted a little closer to him.

“Then maybe… maybe we don’t have to.”

He looked up at her.

“What do you mean?”

She took a deep breath, and he could see her hesitate for just one more moment… but then she looked at him, and her gaze was steady.

“Just that,” she said. “I don’t want to say goodbye to you. I don’t want to go back to Madrid and… and not see you every day anymore. I don’t… I don’t think I can do that.”

“Raquel,” he said carefully. “You’re married.”

She looked down and swallowed hard.

“Maybe I don’t have to be,” she whispered. “Maybe… maybe I don’t want to be married anymore.”

He felt like his heart had stopped. He couldn’t move – he couldn’t breathe – he couldn’t think. Never, never had he considered that this was a possibility. He couldn’t believe it, he couldn’t allow himself to hope… But she went on.

“I love my husband,” she said soberly. “I do. Our marriage has been fine.”

She looked up at him.

“But when I’m with you…” she continued quietly. “It’s so much more than that. I’ve… I’ve never felt anything like this before. I never thought that something like this could even exist. What I feel for you…” 

She looked into his eyes, and his heart started up again, going from zero to a hundred in a second, suddenly beating painfully hard against his ribs.

“I’m not prepared to let that go,” she whispered. “It’s too special. It’s too real. I… I don’t want to say goodbye to you. I can’t.”

He was having trouble breathing as her words finally started sinking in – but he needed more than this – he was afraid that he was assuming too much. He swallowed hard.

“So… so what will you do?”

“That depends,” she said, looking at him with slight apprehension. “What… what do you think about all of this?”

He hesitated. The words he’d wanted to say to her for weeks were burning inside of him, and he was so tired of keeping them in and the pain it caused him. But she was only implying things. She’d used a lot of maybes. What if she wasn’t really serious? What if he bared his heart to her, and she still decided against him anyway? He wasn’t sure he could take that – he wasn’t sure how to survive that. He tried to take a deep breath, but it was difficult to get in enough air. There was so much at stake here.

“I… I’m not sure what I should say about this, Raquel,” he whispered. “This… this has been… special for me too. Of course it has. Very special.”

She gave him a look full of disappointment.

“That’s it?”

He was so torn – he didn’t know what to do.

“I’m… I’m not sure I should say more than that,” he said helplessly. “You’re married, Raquel.”

She seemed to understand.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “You’re trying to do the right thing, and I appreciate that. But we can’t keep dancing around it anymore.” She took a deep breath. “I’m… I’m considering a very big change in my life. It’s not a decision I’m taking lightly. If I do this… I need to be sure of you. Really sure. I need to know… I need to know where you stand on this.”

His heart was pounding harder than ever. She was right. This wasn’t the time to hold back. If she was genuinely considering… if they had a chance… then he had to let her know how he felt. He had to put all of his cards on the table, and take the risk. He had to tell her. He looked into her eyes, and finally said what he’d been wanting to say.

“I love you,” he whispered – offering her his heart, just like that, when he’d always guarded it so closely. “I’ve loved you from the start. You’re… you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met, Raquel, and I can’t believe how lucky I am that… that I met you. I’ve never felt about… about anyone the way I feel about you.”

She let out a big breath and pressed her hand to her mouth, looking at him with eyes full of emotion and relief.

“Really?” she said. “Do you mean that?”

“Every word,” he said quietly. “Every word, and more. You must have known, Raquel. You must have seen. I… I don’t think I was hiding it very well.”

“I thought I knew,” she whispered. “But I had to be sure. This is such a big decision…”

He leaned forward, feeling very earnestly like he needed to say this.

“I want you to know,” he said, even though it cost him. “That I don’t want… I don’t want to pressure you. I don’t… expect anything from you. This is your choice to make, and… and I’ll respect whatever…” He swallowed hard. “Whatever you decide.” He took a deep breath. “I just wanted you to have all the information, so… now you know.”

He sat back feeling like he’d just placed his happiness fully into her hands. He just hoped… he just hoped she wouldn’t toy with him. He just hoped that she was really considering this, and that he hadn’t bared his soul for nothing.

She was looking at him, and he just couldn’t read her expression.

“If I leave him…” she said slowly, and he felt his heart rate increase sharply. “Do you want to be with me?”

He had nothing to lose at this point.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, more than anything.”

She gave him a close look.

“Are you sure about that?”

He looked back, unwavering.

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

She closed her eyes and paused, and he couldn’t bear the suspense… but he understood. This was such a big decision for her. She had to think about it. How long would it take her to decide? Weeks? Months? He knew a decision like that would take him…

She opened her eyes and looked at him.

“I want to be with you,” she said simply.

He eyed her apprehensively, still tense. Was there a ‘but’ coming?

There wasn’t.

“I want to be with you, Sergio,” she repeated, and her expression was so soft. “I don’t have to think about it any longer. I’ve… I’ve known for weeks, I just… I just felt like I couldn’t blow up my marriage just like that…” She shook her head. “But I can’t go back to Alberto now. Not… not after this. Not now that I know you, and what we have together. Not now I know that… that you feel the same way.” She looked up, and he saw nothing but certainty in her eyes. “I want to be with you. I’m choosing you.”

He couldn’t believe it. He simply couldn’t believe it. This was completely beyond the bounds of anything he’d ever dared to think of. Never, not even for a moment, had he allowed himself to hope… had he dared to dream… Was this really happening?

She took a deep breath and raised her chin.

“I’m going to go home on Sunday,” she said. “And I’m going to tell Alberto it’s over.”

His stared at her, his eyes wide.

“Raquel… are you serious?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve made up my mind.”

He swallowed hard.

“Are you… are you sure?”

She gave him a soft look.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “Yes, Sergio, I’m sure.”

“Don’t you… want to think about it a little longer? I’d understand it if you...”

“No,” she said, calmly, steadily. “I don’t have to think about it anymore. I’ve thought about it long and hard, and I’ve made my choice. I love you, Sergio. I love you so much.”

He felt tears burn behind his eyes. She loved him back. She was so wonderful and remarkable and beautiful and sweet, and she loved him. His throat was tight, and he couldn’t quite believe the way she was looking at him – like she really felt what he was feeling, too.

“Oh,” he whispered, a warm, golden feeling of joy sparking in his chest. “Oh, Raquel.”

She gave him the softest look.

“I want to have a life with you,” she said, and nothing had ever sounded so amazing to him. She reached out and touched his hand, and, with a feeling of absolute wonder, he slowly turned his hand to take hers. When he closed his fingers around it and she squeezed, he had to swallow hard. Finally – finally – he had her hand in his again. He’d wanted this so badly, and it felt just as amazing as he remembered. And this time… this time, he was never letting go.

The way she was looking at him was pulling at something inside of him, and he felt himself lean in almost without thinking… but then he hesitated. He wanted to kiss her more than anything, and he thought she wanted that too, but she was still married. Maybe they shouldn’t… maybe they should wait. He saw her come to the same conclusion, and she was the first to look down.

“Soon,” she whispered, and he nodded his understanding.

“Yes,” he whispered back, though he felt such a deep, aching longing as he looked at her. “Yes, soon.”

She looked down at their joined hands, and then she softly started stroking his hand with her thumb. He had to close his eyes at the sensation, the longing in his chest intensifying tenfold. Oh, he wanted to kiss her, he wanted to hold her so badly. She said she loved him. She said she wanted to be with him. He understood that they needed to wait, but it was the most difficult thing in the world not to kiss her after that.

She was running her fingers over the back of his hand now, softly, gently, and he could barely stand it – it was the sweetest agony. She slowly turned his hand around, then let her fingertips trace the lines of his palm. Her touch was unbearably light, but the most amazing thing at the same time, and he didn’t want it to stop for anything. He realized that he was holding his breath, and he had to make a conscious effort to start breathing again as she continued, caressing his hand, his fingers, his wrist. They were barely touching, yet it was one of the most intimate things he’d ever experienced. How? How was she making him feel so much with something so simple?

Finally, she entwined her fingers with his, and they held on tight. He wanted to kiss her more than anything, and there was a definite edge of desperation to the feeling now. He had to do something – he had to express at least some of what he felt somehow. He raised her hand to his lips, and pressed a long, soft kiss to it.

When he looked up at her, he saw his own longing reflected in her eyes, and she shifted closer to him.

“This just feels so right,” she murmured, giving him an almost pleading look. “Doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” he whispered. He wanted to say so much more, but he just wasn’t capable of forming full sentences right now. Her closeness was overwhelming – the pull of her too strong. “Yes. It does.”

“It felt right from the moment I met you,” she said, and her eyes were so soft. “I’m so glad I sat down next to you on that first day.”

“Yes,” he said. “Me too.”

“Do you remember that walk we took, on the cliff? Do you remember how we talked? It’s really rare to have that kind of connection right away.”

“I know,” he said, then pulled himself together – he had to say more than two syllables! “I… I’ve never had this kind of connection with anyone.”

“Me neither,” she said quietly. “The way we connect… I’ve never felt like this before. Ever. With anyone.”

He stroked her hand with his thumb as he looked into her eyes, so liquid and dark and warm. She gazed back at him steadily, and he couldn’t feel any hesitation from her at all. She really seemed to have made her choice. He’d never wanted to kiss her more – the distance between them felt so wrong, so unnatural. Could he maybe… hug her, at least? Hold her? The moment the thought occurred to him, he couldn’t stop himself – he had to try. He tentatively pulled on her hand, and marveled at how she leaned in to him immediately, settling herself against his chest as if she belonged there. No, he told himself. She did belong there. She always had. She always would.

He couldn’t believe that she was really in his arms – warm and wonderful and his. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tight as she leaned her head against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her in return and held her so, so close, burying his face against her hair and closing his eyes. They didn’t move for a while, just holding each other, just reveling in the fact that they could, that they could hold each other as long as they wanted to now, and that nobody and nothing would force them to let go again.

They stayed like that for a long while, just basking in each other’s closeness, enjoying each other’s warmth and touch… but it wasn’t enough. He wanted more, with a longing that went beyond anything he’d ever felt, and he had to use all of his self-control not to tilt her face up to his, not to cover her with kisses. Finally, he felt her stir, and he thought he could feel her hesitate. Then, she turned her face and pressed a kiss to his shirt, and he felt something contract almost painfully inside his chest. Oh, he wanted this so much. She was too hard to resist – it was beyond him. He bent his head, and pressed a soft kiss to her hair in response. She shifted, then softly brushed her lips to his skin, just above his shirt collar. His breath hitched, and a shiver ran down his spine – it felt so intimate. He still couldn’t quite grasp that she was really doing this.

She pressed a kiss to the side of his neck now, softly, letting her lips linger, and he closed his eyes at the sensation and forgot to breathe again. Oh, he had to be dreaming – he’d wanted this so much for so long that now he was hallucinating  – but her hand felt very solid when she put it against his cheek, and he could smell her perfume, and her lips were warm and soft as she slowly trailed her kisses upwards, following the line of his jaw, then pressing a kiss to his ear, his cheek, the corner of his mouth. He was shaking now – she was killing him – and when she pulled back and looked into his eyes with such longing, it was almost too much for him.

They looked at each other for several long, breathless moments, and then he saw something give in her.

“Oh fuck it,” she whispered, and the next moment her mouth was on his and sparks erupted in his brain in an absolute wave of euphoria. He twined his fingers into her hair and pulled her closer, and it was the most satisfying thing he’d ever experienced to kiss her now – nothing had ever come close. Oh. Oh. He couldn’t believe that this was happening. He decided not to fight it any more – he couldn’t – he just didn’t have it in him. They both finally let go of the last bit of resistance between them, and gave in to each other. Once they started kissing, they just couldn’t stop anymore, and they didn’t try.

It was the most beautiful feeling. Letting go of a resistance that had caused them so much pain felt incredible – giving in to what they both wanted without having to fight it – embracing this new reality with full surrender, and wonder, and joy. His heart was still racing, and yet, for the first time in weeks, he felt at peace. For the first time in weeks – for the first time in his life – things felt exactly, and perfectly, right. He pulled her even closer and kissed her softly, tenderly, putting everything he felt into that kiss. He loved her. He loved her so much. And she loved him too.

He’d kissed her before on set, and that had been amazing – but this was completely different. Their movie kisses had always been scripted, and they hadn’t been real. This was real. This was happening because they both wanted it to, and that was such a wonderful thing. He could still barely believe it. The fact that he could just kiss her now filled him with wonder – he could just kiss her, and kiss her, and kiss her, and nobody would yell ‘cut!’ and drag him back to reality. This was his reality now, and it was more beautiful than anything he could have imagined.

She ran her fingers through his hair and drew his head down to kiss him again, and again, and again. On set there had always been little breaks between takes, so he’d never shared more than one kiss with her at a time, and now it overwhelmed him in the best way. Her kisses were taking his breath away – her closeness was making him dizzy – he loved the way her fingers were in his hair, then brushing his cheek, then stroking the back of his neck. Her touch made shiver after shiver run down his spine, and when she opened her mouth slightly and brushed her tongue against his lips, he felt something flutter frantically in his stomach.

He wrapped his arm around her waist – was he really allowed to do this now? – and gently pulled her closer still, so he could kiss her more deeply, marveling at the way she responded to him so eagerly. Oh, this was incredible. They sank into the kiss – warm and soft and wonderful – and for the first time, he could kiss her for as long as he wanted to… and he never wanted to stop. They let the kiss go on for what felt like forever – a blissful eternity where they explored each other slowly until the world narrowed down, until nothing existed anymore outside of this room, and she was the only thing that mattered.

Finally, she gently pulled him down onto the bed with her, and they shifted and moved close to each other. He wrapped his arms around her, and she fit her body to his – they fit so perfectly. They just leaned their foreheads together for a while, while he stroked her hair, and she caressed the back of his neck with soft fingers – the feeling of it unbelievably sweet and tender. He brushed his lips against hers again, and they sank into more kisses, each more wonderful than the last. How would he ever stop kissing her? How would he ever get anything done ever again? He decided that he didn’t care.

She was running her hands over his shoulders now, then down his back, and he shivered. He moved down his own hand in return, lightly running his fingers down her spine – and he was so delighted when he felt her shiver too. When she pulled back from the kiss, she looked rather breathless.

“Sergio,” she whispered. “I still don’t think we should… we should sleep together yet right away.”

He immediately pulled back his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean…”

“No,” she smiled, taking his hand and kissing it. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that…” She looked at him with dark eyes. “It’s just that I was thinking about it,” she admitted. “But this… this really wouldn’t feel right before I told Alberto…” She paused, giving him a soft look. “I want it to feel right.”

“I want that too,” he whispered. “And we can wait as long as you want. I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” she said, and he couldn’t believe that she was looking at him like that. “Because I do. I really, really do.”

God, he hadn’t even considered it until now. He couldn’t even quite imagine that he would get to share something like that with her – something so intimate, so beautiful. He remembered how it had felt when she’d stroked his hand earlier, and the thought of more than that was almost too much for him. For a moment, he felt a little nervous, but then she kissed him again, and the feeling disappeared. This was Raquel. They fit – they fit together so effortlessly in every way. He knew that this wouldn’t be any different. He knew it would be wonderful.

Something she’d said had caught his attention, however, and he gently pulled back.

“Raquel,” he said quietly, “what will you do after? After you’ve told him? Will you… will you still stay there?”

She sighed, looking just a little sad, but still not hesitating.

“No,” she said. “No, I don’t think I could. I’ll probably pack a suitcase and go stay with my mom for a while.”

He hesitated, then carefully ventured:

“You could… you could also come stay with me.”

She looked at him.

“Really? Do you mean that?”

“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

“Wouldn’t you mind having me in your personal space?”

“No,” he whispered. “No, I’d love it.”

She looked at him with softly shining eyes, then kissed him again.

“That’s so sweet of you.”

“Does that mean yes?” he said hopefully. “Does that mean you will?”

“If you’re sure,” she smiled.

“I am,” he said. “Really. It would… it would be so hard not to see you every day anymore.”

“Yes,” she said softly. “I don’t like the thought of that either.”

“We can take things slow,” he quickly assured her. “I can give you all the space you need. You can have my room, and I’ll sleep on the couch.”

She laughed softly and kissed him again.

“You’re so sweet,” she repeated. “But I don’t want you to sleep on the couch, Sergio. I’ve been dreaming of sleeping next to you for weeks now, and now that I can, I most certainly will.” She looked at him, and her eyes were so soft. “Will you stay here tonight?”

“Yes,” he whispered immediately. “Yes, I would love that.”

“Good,” she smiled, stroking the back of his neck again. “I would love it too.”

They kissed again – another long, slow kiss. When they broke apart, she sighed and melted against him, and he loved the way she looked right now – absolutely, glowingly happy.

“What part of Madrid is your apartment in?” she asked, idly running her fingers down his arm, then stroking his hand.

He told her, then said:

“It’s nothing fancy. Just a one-bedroom apartment, nothing big.”

“Do you like living there?”

He eyed her. Was she going where he thought she was going with this?

“It’s fine,” he said carefully. “But… but I’m not attached to it, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“It is,” she smiled. “I was thinking we could maybe find something a little bigger, for the two of us.”

Oh, he felt his spirits soar. Living with her – he could be living with her soon. Permanently. He’d never wanted to live with anyone before – never even considered it – but now it felt like the most wonderful prospect in the world to him.

“Yes,” he whispered. “I’d like that.”

“What parts of Madrid do you like?” she asked. “Where would you like to live?”

His throat felt tight. She really was serious about him – about them. He couldn’t be happier. Never, in a million years…

“Anywhere,” he whispered. “As long as I’m with you.”

She looked up with a smile, and kissed him.

They stayed up late that night, talking about their future together. Slowly but surely, the view he had of his life shifted to make room for her – and he would make room for her so gladly. He’d never considered that he might want to spend his life with another person someday… but now he couldn’t imagine it without her anymore. He couldn’t quite fathom the effect she’d had on him. She’d just walked into the same room as him one day, and without even trying, she’d started filling his life with so much light, and laughter, and life, changing the very nature of his being – the very colors of the world – the very texture of his existence. She was… extraordinary. And she was his. He would never stop being grateful. He would never take her for granted. He would never stop trying to make her as happy as he could.

They lay close together, and finally she fell asleep with her hand in his. He just kept looking at her for a long time, unable to sleep himself. He gradually became aware that something had shifted inside of him – something crucial – and he realized what it was. All of his life, for as long as he could remember, he’d had the feeling that he was waiting for something. He hadn’t known what – he’d just known that it felt like something was missing, and his life couldn’t really begin until he’d found it. Now, the feeling was gone. He hadn’t been waiting for something, he’d been waiting for someone, and now he’d found her. Raquel. His love. He’d been looking for her all of his life, and he hadn’t even known it. He couldn’t believe his luck that he had actually found her now, and he planned on never letting her go again for as long as he lived. She was the key to a door that he’d never been able to open – a door that led to an existence that was warmer and fuller and brighter than anything he’d known so far. He didn’t have to wait anymore. With her in his arms, his life could finally begin.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Nine years ago

Raquel woke up the next morning feeling happier than she had ever felt. She drifted at the edge of consciousness for a moment, wondering why she was feeling so happy – but then the previous evening came back to her in a rush, and she remembered – Sergio. She opened her eyes… and there he was. She experienced such a warm rush of feelings as she looked at him, sleeping beside her – yes, he was really sleeping beside her, the way she’d wanted for weeks now, and for a moment she had to fight back tears. She’d thought about it, fantasized about it, dreamed about it, and now it was real, and he was here, solid and warm in her bed.

She spent a moment just basking in the thought of it – the thought that she could finally be with him, that she didn’t have to keep her distance from him anymore. It had been so hard to fight what was happening between them, and now she felt a little shiver of happiness as she realized she could just kiss him if she wanted – but he was still sleeping, and she didn’t want to wake him, so she just lay there looking at him with a smile. There was a glow inside of her, warm and golden like nothing she’d ever felt before. Never had she been this happy. Never had things felt so right. Not in any previous relationship – not even with her husband. She’d thought she knew love, but what she was feeling now had so much more depth to it than anything she’d ever experienced – it was richer, and more beautiful, and it went so deep. It took her breath away.

A small part of her had been afraid last night that she’d change her mind in the morning. In her experience, that was always a risk if you made a decision after midnight – it had been an emotional day, and there were things that felt possible in the depth of night that just didn’t seem right anymore in the cold light of day. But now it was morning, and as the bright summer sunlight streamed into the room, Raquel realized with a deep sense of certainty that she’d made the right decision. She didn’t regret it one bit. She had no second thoughts. She looked at Sergio beside her, and her heart felt so full. She loved him so much. She wanted to be with him. It had been a difficult decision, and she’d struggled with it for weeks, but she knew she’d made the right choice by choosing Sergio. He was so different from Alberto in every way, and she couldn’t understand how she could love two men who were polar opposites, but she did. She loved them both. She just loved Sergio more.

She kept looking at him. His face was different without his glasses, but still so handsome. She loved his shoulders, and she loved the way his arms had felt around her yesterday. His hair was messy in such an adorable way – and suddenly she couldn’t resist anymore. She shifted closer to him and gently ran her fingers through his hair, then stroked his beard. When he stirred, she cuddled up to him, sighing blissfully as he rumbled softly and wrapped his arms warm around her. Oh, this felt so wonderful, it felt amazing, and she couldn’t be happier. She nuzzled her face into his neck and breathed him in, and he opened his eyes and gave her a sleepy smile.

“You’re here,” he whispered. “You’re really here.”

“Yes,” she whispered back, smiling up at him. “I’m really here.”

This was the first morning of the rest of their lives, and she felt a bright, buzzing sense of joy as he bent his head and softly pressed his lips against hers. She couldn’t wait to explore this with him – find out everything about him, and how they fit together. She couldn’t wait to start her life with him, to discover all its joys and delights, all its big and small moments of happiness. She couldn’t wait to wake up in his arms every day, and to fall asleep with her hand in his. They shifted a little closer to each other, limbs entwining, seeking out each other’s warmth and nearness, and as she pressed her body to his, she felt a little shiver of anticipation. Yes, she couldn’t wait for that either. She wished she could just start undressing him right now – she wanted to be close to him, and to feel his hands on her, his mouth on her skin, his… She swallowed hard and pushed the thought away. Soon. Really soon. Then she planned to make love with him for hours and hours – and she was going to savor every minute of it.

They spent what felt like hours in that bed, lost in their own little bubble as they shared soft kisses and caresses, completely wrapped up in each other. The world outside seemed very far away, and completely irrelevant. Nothing mattered now except his lips, and his arms around her, and his fingers in her hair. She felt herself disappear into his warmth – melt into him – connect. The slow, sensuous way he was kissing her was making her feel soft and warm and tingly, and she never wanted it to end. She hummed softly in absolute contentment and kissed him back, fully surrendering herself to the moment. After so many weeks of resisting him, this was heaven.

The thing that finally brought them back to reality – after an hour? A day? A year? – was a loud, insistent rumble from her stomach. He pulled back slightly.

“Are you hungry?”

“Just a little,” she said, unwilling to stop kissing him. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter,” he said, giving her a soft look. “I don’t want you to be hungry. Let me go get you something to eat.”

“I don’t want anything,” she whispered, shifting a little closer to him. “I just want you.”

“You have me,” he whispered back, stroking her hair. “You’ve had me from the start, Raquel. You have me now and you’ll have me always.” He smiled. “And you’ll still have me after breakfast.”

She smiled back at him, such a soft feeling in her chest.

“That makes me really happy.”

“It makes me really happy too,” he said, then nuzzled her cheek. “Now will you please let me get you breakfast? Let me take care of you. I’ve been wanting to for so long.”

How could she say no to that? She nodded with a smile.

“Can we at least have breakfast in bed?” she asked. “I don’t want to see other people.”

“That sounds like an excellent, excellent compromise,” he rumbled, then kissed her again.

They let the kiss linger for several long moments, and Raquel felt a keen sense of regret as they broke apart. She didn’t want to let him go – as he shifted away from her, she just wanted to pull him back and keep him in the bed with her. She told herself firmly that she was being ridiculous. They had the whole day together – their whole lives together. He’d just be gone for half an hour and then she could spend the rest of the day in his arms.

So she let him go. She lay back into the pillows and watched him get up with a smile. He’d slept in his clothes – they both had – so he put on his shoes and tried to get the creases out of his shirt, but it was hopeless.

“I think I have to go by my room to change first,” he said apologetically. “I can’t go outside like this.”

She sighed in resignation.

“You know what,” she said, “why don’t we both shower and change, and then you can go out to get breakfast. What do you think?”

“I think that might be best,” he smiled. “Alright.”

He came back to the bed and bent down to kiss her again. She twined her fingers into his hair and kissed him more deeply, and his expression was slightly dazed as he pulled back.

“Oh,” he whispered. “God, Raquel, I love the way you kiss me.”

“Then hurry back,” she smiled.

“I will,” he assured her, then kissed her again. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“I won’t,” she smiled. “I’ll wait right here.”

He straightened up and walked towards the door. Right before he opened it, he looked back at her.

“I love you.”

She gave him a soft look.

“I love you too.”

He looked at her for another long moment, then shook himself and smiled, and walked out the door. She kept looking at the closed door for several long moments, just smiling to herself – then, she got out of bed to go shower.

The moment her feet touched the floor, she was hit by a wave of nausea. Her first thought was that she was hungrier than she’d thought, but then she remembered that she’d been feeling nauseous off and on for the past few days. She’d assumed that it was because she was worrying so much about the choice she had to make – Sergio or Alberto – but now she’d made her choice, so why was she still nauseous? Was she still subconsciously conflicted over it after all? She frowned and thought about it as she went into the bathroom – no, she didn’t feel conflicted at all.

She kept wondering about it as she opened the bathroom cabinet to take out her toothbrush – but then her eye fell on a box of tampons, and she suddenly felt herself go cold. Wait. Shouldn’t she have needed them by now? She quickly checked her birth control strip, and her nausea increased. Yes, she should have had her period last week… and she hadn’t. She’d been so wrapped up in her friendship with Sergio and the choice she’d had to make that she hadn’t even noticed that it hadn’t happened. Fuck… Oh, fuck.

She forced herself to take a deep breath, and tried not to panic. It might be nothing. She’d been late before – though never while she was on birth control... Still, she told herself, still, she shouldn’t assume the worst – she’d been under a lot of stress and she hadn’t been sleeping enough and all of that could be having an effect on her body. How would it even have happened? She hadn’t even slept with Sergio.

But then she realized – Alberto’s visit, three weeks ago. When they’d gotten back to the hotel after dinner, he’d pulled her straight into bed, and she’d forgotten to take her birth control that night. She’d realized it the next morning, but she hadn’t thought that it was a problem. She’d been in this situation before, and her doctor had told her that the birth control was still effective as long as she took it within a twelve-hour window of her regular time. That’s what she’d done. At least, that’s what she’d almost done: it had technically been thirteen hours before she’d remembered, but she hadn’t thought it would be an issue. She’d just taken the forgotten tablet and she hadn’t thought about it since.

And now… now… For a moment, she thought that the nausea would make her throw up, but she took a deep breath and pushed the feeling down. No, no, she wouldn’t panic yet, it could still be nothing. But she had to make sure, immediately. There was a pharmacy just around the corner – they would sell pregnancy tests.

She didn’t stop to change her clothes – she just pulled on her shoes, took her purse, and rushed out the door. In the room next to hers, she could hear the sound of Sergio’s shower. There was no need to worry him – she’d be back with the test in five minutes, and hopefully she’d be reassured that everything was fine in ten. She was too impatient to wait for the elevator, hurrying down the stairs instead, then out the door and into the street. It did indeed only take her five minutes before she was back in her room with a pregnancy test.

She was more nauseous than ever as she waited for the results. She told herself over and over again that it would be nothing, it would be negative, things would be fine. She’d had scares like this before, and things had always turned out okay. Still, her hands were shaking when the waiting time was up, and she turned over the stick.

Two lines. There were two lines. There weren’t supposed to be two lines. She double-checked the leaflet, hoping so fervently that she got it wrong, but there it was, in black and white. Two lines. Positive. She was pregnant.

Fuck.

She slowly sank down onto the edge of the bath, numb with disbelief. No. No, this couldn’t be happening. She might have wanted children someday, sure, but not now! How was this possible? How had she messed up so badly? Why, why had she forgotten to take her birth control that night? Why hadn’t she been more careful the next morning? Why hadn’t she gone to the pharmacy for a morning-after pill when she’d realized she was thirteen hours late with taking the tablet? Why? Why? She couldn’t believe her own stupidity – her recklessness. Why hadn’t she taken this more seriously? She was so, so angry at herself.

And now she was three weeks pregnant… She pressed her hand to her mouth, staring out into the middle distance. Oh god, what was she going to do? She wasn’t ready for this. There was a baby growing inside of her. An actual baby. She felt a sudden, terrible sinking sensation in her stomach. Alberto’s baby. This was Alberto’s baby.

Sergio.

She panicked then, her heart pounding against her ribs, her thoughts tumbling over one another as she tried to think... What… what did this mean for her and Sergio? She couldn’t lose him! She was going to be with him – they were going to start a life together! What… what would happen now? She suddenly felt herself grow dizzy, and she realized that she was hyperventilating, her breathing much too fast and shallow. She slid down to sit on the bathroom floor and leaned her back against the bathtub while she took measured, calming breaths for a few minutes. Think it through, she told herself. Stay calm. Panicking never helped anyone. Just stay calm and think.

Slowly but surely, she felt both her breathing and her racing mind slow down. One thing at a time. One thing at a time. What was the first thing she had to deal with? She realized that there was one fundamental question she had to answer first – would she keep this baby or not? She only considered the thought for a moment before dismissing it. She knew she could never bring herself to get an abortion. Snuffing out this little life growing inside of her would haunt her for the rest of her life, and she knew she’d never be able to live with herself. No matter if she wanted this or not… she was going to be a mother. She swallowed hard and pushed the thought away before she could start panicking about having to be a parent – that could come later. She had to deal with other things first.

Sergio. She felt something contract painfully in her chest as she thought of him. Her sweet, loving, careful Sergio. He was used to a quiet life, ordered and neat, everything in its place. She knew he liked it that way, and she was pretty sure that he’d never considered having kids – let alone care for another man’s child. If she told him she was pregnant, he might just tell her that he didn’t want that, and that would be that. And yet. She knew him well enough to know that there was a chance that he’d accept this turn of events and still want to be with her. He seemed to really love her. She believed that.

Which meant that she had to consider a scenario now where she would have to make a choice – a choice she thought she’d made last night. Would she start a new life, and a family, with Sergio? Or… would she stay with Alberto after all? She groaned and pressed her hands to her face. She’d struggled with that choice for weeks, and she desperately didn’t want to deal with it again. She didn’t have a choice, though – the circumstances had changed so drastically since last night. There were a million new things to consider… and she’d have to do that right now. She owed that to both Sergio and her husband. She had to go home tomorrow and see Alberto, so she didn’t have a few days to calmly think things through. She would have to decide now and she would have to decide fast – soon, Sergio would be back with breakfast.

She felt so overwhelmed by having to make such a life-altering decision on such short notice – and she wasn’t only considering her own life anymore – she had to think of the child as well. She almost panicked again, but then she forced herself to take a deep breath, calm down, and think. What did she want? That was easy: she wanted to be with Sergio. But this was Alberto’s child. That mattered. It changed things – drastically.

She and Alberto had agreed that they wanted children quite early in their relationship, and ever since they’d gotten married last year, her husband had been asking her to go off birth control so they could start trying. She’d always told him no, because she wanted to focus on her acting career first, and she didn’t have a particularly burning desire to become a mother right away. It had always mostly been Alberto who had wanted it to happen. Alberto wanted this child. She knew he did. It felt so unfair of her to take it away from him.

She reminded herself with some effort that she did love her husband. Not the way she loved Sergio, but still. She didn’t want to hurt him like this. They’d been together for four years now, including one year of marriage, and she’d been happy. Not… not as happy as she’d felt yesterday and this morning, but happy enough. Alberto had a tendency towards jealousy, and he didn’t understand her job or why she loved it, but apart from that, he’d been a good husband, and she knew he would be a good father. She did love him. Leaving him would be hard, especially now that they shared this baby. It created a bond that she just couldn’t ignore or deny.

On top of that, Alberto had a stable job at the police, and he would be able to support a family – whereas she knew that Sergio was only just scraping by as an actor, and that was as a single man. It made her feel terrible to have to consider finances of all things, instead of love, but babies were damn expensive and she would have to be able to feed it and clothe it and raise it somehow. She didn’t have a stable job herself, and even if she got one, it would be hard without a second income. She had a friend who was a single mother, and that wasn’t an inspiring existence. She didn’t want that for herself or her child.

And that was the crux of the matter, she suddenly realized. She was afraid that she would end up alone if she chose Sergio. Their relationship was only a few hours old, and there was no guarantee that it would last. She loved him, and she wanted to be with him, but they’d only known each other for two months. Was she really going to raise a child with him now? What if things didn’t work out? What if they broke up, and she was left alone? She didn’t want to raise this child by herself – the thought of that scared her more than anything.

She felt completely numb as she stared at the bathroom wall with unseeing eyes. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that Alberto was the safer choice. She wanted to be with Sergio… but she was going to be a parent now, and she couldn’t just do whatever she wanted anymore. She had another life to consider – the life of a tiny human being who would depend on her completely. She wanted to offer them the best life she possibly could. She owed that to her son or daughter. If she’d been terribly unhappy with Alberto, that would have been another matter, but… she wasn’t. She did love him. Choosing between him and Sergio had been a difficult choice either way – she’d agonized over it for weeks – and now there was this new, all-important factor to consider.

And yet she didn’t get up off the floor. The thought that she would have to leave Sergio made her deeply, overwhelmingly nauseous. She didn’t think she could stand it. She didn’t think she could do it. She loved him too much. Theirs was a connection that went deeper than anything she’d ever felt before, and she so desperately didn’t want to let it go. Never in her life had she wanted anything more than to stay with him and start a life together… but wouldn’t that be selfish of her? And was she brave enough? She couldn’t count on Sergio yet. She barely knew him. What if she threw away her marriage with the father of her child for something that might turn out to be just an infatuation brought on by… by the artificial closeness of the set? Who knew what their relationship would be like in real life? She had no way to be sure.

She stayed sitting on the bathroom floor in quiet despair for the next half hour. She couldn’t bring herself to get up. She couldn’t bring herself to shower, or change her clothes, or even move at all. There was a tight, heavy ball of pain in her stomach at the thought of the choice she had to make. Both options were terrible in their own way, and she just didn’t know what to do. She just knew that she didn’t want to do this. She so desperately didn’t want to choose at all.

The numbness was like a heavy blanket, pressing her down as she wondered how she’d come to this. She’d been so happy. Only an hour ago, she’d been so happy. They’d had so little time together, she and Sergio. Not even a full day. Why had she let him go, earlier? Why had she let him get out of bed? They could have had a little more time together – just a little. She would give anything for even one more minute with him, back in the warm, bright bubble they’d had a mere hour ago.

It couldn’t be. She’d have to tell him the moment he returned. She heard the door to her room open and close, and she felt a sudden hot stab of panic. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t even close to making this decision. She squeezed her eyes shut, wishing desperately that she could just shut out the world for a while – she wished she could just curl up into a ball on the floor and cry at the unfairness of it all… but she heard him call her name, and she knew she’d have to deal with this somehow, even if she didn’t have the strength for it. There was such a sick feeling in her stomach as she got up and opened the bathroom door.

The moment she saw him, the doubt she felt increased tenfold. It was all well and good to think about choosing the safer option while she was alone, but standing here in front of him, it was a different matter entirely. She looked at him, and her feelings for him surged in her chest – an absolute tidal wave, almost sweeping away all of her reasonable arguments. She loved him so much. She wanted to stay with him so badly it hurt – it actually, physically hurt. How could she have this conversation with him? What if… what if the result was… She couldn’t even bear to finish the thought.

When he saw her come out of the bathroom, his eyes lit up and he smiled – but then she saw him take in her rumpled clothing; her uncombed hair; the expression on her face, and his smile disappeared.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

She was struggling with herself, second-guessing every thought she’d had. Her head was telling her that she had to be smart about this, and make the responsible choice – that she had good, solid arguments for choosing Alberto. But her heart… her foolish, aching heart... It was only telling her one thing as she looked at Sergio. I love him.

“Raquel,” he said, stepping closer with an expression of worry. “What’s wrong?”

She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to say. She’d never felt so torn in her entire life.

But she owed him an explanation. She had to tell him, at least. Maybe he wouldn’t want anything to do with the baby after all, and then her choice would be made for her. She almost wished that would happen. It would be painful for her to find out the limits of his love, but then at least she wouldn’t have to make this god-awful decision.

She took a deep breath.

“We need to talk,” she said – a whisper. “I have to tell you something.”

He frowned as she sat down on the bed, then sat down next to her with a serious expression.

“What is it?”

She looked at him, and she felt so bad for him. He clearly had no idea what was coming. The nausea was back, stronger than ever, but this time she knew it wasn’t because of the baby. It was because she so deeply, desperately didn’t know what to do. The only thing she knew was that she wanted to lean into him, and kiss him, and for him to put his arms around her and tell her that things would be okay and they would figure it out. She wanted to pull him down onto the bed and spend the day in his arms. And tomorrow, too. And every day after that. They’d almost had that. They’d come so close. They were talking about their life together only last night – how had things taken such a horrible turn? Why was there no way to go back, and fix her mistake?

Sergio was looking at her questioningly, and she felt so terrible. How could she make this choice? She didn’t know where to begin – she didn’t know how to tell him this. But she had to anyway. She took a deep breath, and when she spoke, her voice was shaking.

“Sergio… I’m pregnant.”

He froze.

“It must have happened when Alberto came to visit me,” she went on helplessly. “I… I forgot my birth control.”

He didn’t move, and his face was blank with surprise.

“It was an accident,” she continued, still so mad at herself. “I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

He cleared his throat, clearly very flustered.

“Are you… are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said sadly. “I missed my period and I took the test just now and… and I’m pregnant.”

He stared into the middle distance for a while, completely at a loss for words. For a moment, she thought that he would tell her that he couldn’t do this. She wouldn’t blame him. This was not what he’d wanted. She would understand it if he wanted out. It would hurt, but she’d understand.

But this was Sergio – the man she loved for being sweet and caring and kind. He was starting to recover, blinking, trying to process it – and then she could see his mind begin to race. She just let him think for a while as he worked through the implications. Finally, he shook himself, and took a deep breath.

“It’s okay,” he said softly.

She swallowed hard, shaking her head.

“It’s not,” she whispered.

“Yes it is,” he said, taking her hand. “It… it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t change anything.”

“Sergio,” she said, a little desperately. “It changes everything.

He was shaking his head with a determined expression on his face.

“No,” he said firmly. “It doesn’t. Not for me. It doesn’t change anything. I still love you. I… I still want to be with you. If that means… if that means a baby, then so be it.”

Her throat was tight.

“Sergio… do you even want children?”

He hesitated, and she could see his answer so clearly on his face. No, he hadn’t wanted children. And this wasn’t even his own child – this was another man’s child. Alberto’s child. She reminded herself again that Alberto would be happy about this. She knew he would be. He wanted this… and she wanted this child to be wanted. She felt her stomach sink. Maybe her choice was clear after all…

But then she saw Sergio take a deep breath and steel himself.

“Children…” he said. “Well. Maybe… maybe it’s not what I wanted before, but… but I’ve changed my mind. If it means that I get to be with you, then yes, Raquel. Yes. I… I’d do anything to be with you.”

He was so sweet… but how could he make such a big decision just like that? She was shaking her head as she pulled back her hand.

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she said. “A baby, Sergio. You don’t know what it would mean…”

“I do,” he said earnestly. “I’m not saying this lightly. I understand everything that it would mean, and I’m ready to accept all of it.”

She looked up at him, and suddenly she wavered – she felt so torn. He still wanted to be with her, and she so badly wanted to be with him too… But she didn’t believe him for a second when he said that he really knew what it would all mean.

“Sergio,” she whispered. “Do you have any idea of what the next year would be like for us? If I tell Alberto I want a divorce while I’m pregnant with his child, he’ll do anything he can to stop it. Anything. He’ll make our lives miserable. The divorce would take forever – there would be lawyers and lawsuits and court visits. He wouldn’t just take it lying down. He would fight, every step of the way.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We can handle it as long as we’re together.”

“And in the middle of that,” Raquel went on, “there will be pregnancy stuff to deal with – doctor’s visits and morning sickness and mood swings. Who knows what I’ll be like over the next couple of months.”

“I don’t care,” he said staunchly. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll go with you on all the doctor’s visits, I’ll… I’ll read every book I can.”

Oh, he was so incredibly sweet… But she wasn’t done yet.

“And just when things will calm down with the divorce,” she continued, “the baby will be born, and we’ll have to deal with a newborn. That’s hard, Sergio. That’s so hard.”

“I’ll help you,” he said immediately, and without any trace of hesitation. “I’ll help you with everything.”

He really wasn’t giving this any proper thought, and it exasperated her.

“Have you ever had a baby in the house, Sergio?” she said, a little desperately. “I’ve seen my friends after their kids were born. There’s diapers, and throwing up, and sleep deprivation, and so much crying. It takes up their entire lives. They can’t talk about anything else anymore, because they just don’t have time for anything else! It’s noisy, and gross, and they’re tired all the time.”

She could see that the prospect wasn’t terribly appealing to him, but again, he steeled himself.

“I can deal with that,” he said. “It’s only for a while. They do grow up, and then things will get easier.”

He really had no idea about any of this.

“Then there’s other stuff to deal with,” she explained. “Potty training, and teething, and… and later on there’s homework, and parent-teacher meetings, and taking them to ballet or basketball practice. And just… just raising them right. It’s so much work. It’s so damn difficult to do it right.”

“I’ll deal with it all,” he said, and he was so earnest. “If that’s what it takes to be with you, I’ll do it. I’ll change the diapers. I’ll get up in the middle of the night. I’ll do the parent-teacher meetings. I’ll do it all, Raquel, I’ll do it right. Please, you have to believe me.”

She wanted to so badly. He did seem serious about this, and for a moment, she teetered on the edge of saying yes, yes, let’s do this, together. But she was afraid that he wasn’t thinking straight – that he was only listening to his heart, and that he would walk into a situation he wasn’t even remotely prepared for, only because he wanted to be with her. He wasn’t taking any time to think about this – so she’d have to think it through for the both of them. She hated that she had to do this, that she had to argue against the very thing she wanted, but she was so afraid that he would commit to something without thinking, and that he would regret it later.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “The divorce, the pregnancy, the baby… It’s so much to deal with. Do you have any idea what all of that would do to a new relationship? It would take a toll on any relationship, but we’d have to deal with it before we were able to build anything even resembling a solid base – before… before we’d be able to even begin to figure things out between the two of us. It’s too much. What if we don’t survive it?”

“We would,” he said emphatically, taking her hand again. “What we have, Raquel, is stronger than that. It… it would be hard, but we would figure it out. I’m sure… I’m so sure we would figure it out, as long as we’re together.”

For some reason, his certainty was pushing her in the other direction. Why, why did he have to be so sure? Why couldn’t he see what she saw? Every second, she was becoming more convinced that he had no idea what he was getting into.

“How can you be so sure?” she said, and she couldn’t keep the exasperation out of her voice. “Sergio, you’ve never even had a long-term relationship. How can you be sure that things would work out between us even under the best of circumstances? You’ve never committed to anyone. You’ve never lived with anyone – let alone a screaming baby. How can you promise me it will work? How can you give me any guarantees?”

“I know myself,” he said, and she could see the conviction in his eyes. “I know that this is different! Maybe things never worked out for me in the past, but I’ve never felt anything like this, Raquel. Not even close! Not even a little bit! This… this is real to me, and I know it will work. I know it. Please believe me.”

Again, she wanted to believe him so badly… but she realized to her utter dismay that she couldn’t. She knew all of his arguments were based on his feelings for her – he didn’t want this life, but he’d do it for her. How long would that last? How long until he started to resent her – or worse, the baby? And what happened then? She knew what would happen – he would leave, and she would be alone.

“I don’t know if I can risk it,” she said, and her voice was shaking. “It… it kills me, Sergio, but I just don’t know.”

She couldn’t believe she was saying this. She couldn’t believe where this was going. She’d gone into this argument undecided, but things were increasingly becoming clear to her, and she hated it so much. She had to take a deep, shaking breath before she could continue.

Sergio… do you realize what things would be like for me if you’re wrong? If things don’t work out between us? If I chose you now, and we broke up, then… then I’d be all alone with a little baby. Do you know how much it costs to raise a child? I don’t even have a stable job! I’m… I’m so scared that I wouldn’t be able to afford it, that I wouldn’t be able to care for this child. I don’t… I don’t want to have to bear that responsibility alone.”

“You won’t be alone, Raquel,” he said, and she could see that he truly believed it. “I promise I won’t leave you.”

“You can’t promise something like that,” she said, so exasperated again. “You just can’t. We don’t know if our relationship is even viable in real life – we’ve only been together here, on this shoot. We haven’t had to deal with any real-life issues, any family matters, any complications or roadblocks at all. You heard what Nairobi said. Most relationships that form on set don’t survive the transition to real life.”

“I think ours would,” he said stubbornly. “I’m willing to take the risk.”

She drew in another shaking breath – oh, this was so awful. This was so unbelievably, horrifyingly awful. She wished she could just give in, the way she wanted to so desperately – but the rational, scared part of her wouldn’t let her.

“Sergio,” she said. “If it was just me, I’d be willing to take that risk too. I was willing to take it. But it’s not just me anymore. I have a responsibility for another human being now, and I don’t know if I can risk it anymore. I need… I need security, I need stability. I need to be sure of my partner.”

He didn’t speak for several long moments, just looking at her. When he spoke again, she’d never seen him so serious.

“Then marry me,” he said quietly.

She stared at him in shock.

“What?”

“Marry me,” he repeated, a little more firmly, taking both of her hands in his. “Marry me, Raquel. I understand that you need security. I understand that you need stability. Of course you do. Of course. So… so that’s what I’m offering you. I want to show you that I’m serious, that I’m… that I’m committed. I’m all in. Marry me. Please.”

Everything stopped. Her fears and her racing thoughts and her frantic heartbeat – it all just stopped. Because she could see it so clearly: their life together. She could see herself walking down the aisle to him, while he was looking at her with that look she loved so much. She could see herself kissing him in the moonlight on their honeymoon. She could see the two of them, sitting in a hospital bed, smiling down at a little baby. It looked so real. It looked like something she could really have. And she wanted it. She wanted it with a clear and irrepressible longing that was sweet and aching at the same time; that was full and strong; that was tinged with more than a little desperation. A life with him. It would be wonderful. It would be so beautiful. It would be theirs. For a moment, it really felt within reach – as if she could just reach out and have it.

It was a fantasy. Marriage wasn’t just white dresses and moonlit kisses and honeymoons. It was also two people learning to live with each other, and the inevitable friction that came with it – impatience, and arguments, and getting annoyed at each other’s flaws. It was money issues and accidents and dealing with each other’s family. It was messy and complicated and it could be so exhausting. It was fighting and making up and endless, endless compromise. It required patience, and endurance, and the willingness to stick it out when things got rough. It was hard work. It could be sweet and wonderful and it could be worth it, but it was still work. Work she knew he’d never had to do.

She looked at him and, with a supreme effort, she set aside her feelings for him – the love, the attraction, the magnetic pull between them – and just thought. He was a thirty-year-old man who’d never had a relationship that lasted more than a few weeks. Not months. Not years. Weeks. She believed him when he said that he’d never before felt what he now felt for her, but that didn’t change the fact that he had no idea what it was like to be in a committed relationship, let alone a marriage – let alone a marriage with a child. How would he deal with not having any personal space anymore? How would he deal with the noise, and the messes, and the tiny human being constantly claiming his attention? How would he take the responsibility, and the fact that he’d have to sacrifice his own time and needs and desires for someone else? What if he couldn’t do it? What if it all just… became too much? There was no way of knowing. There was no way to be sure. It would all be one big, reckless gamble – with her life, and that of her child.

She stared down at her hands in his, and she realized with a sick feeling that she knew what she had to do. She’d known what she had to do all along – she just hadn’t wanted to accept it, because it was too horrible. It hurt too much. It was too unthinkable. She felt another intense wave of nausea sweep over her – her entire body rebelling at the thought of what she had to do. It didn’t change anything. She still had to do it. There was one big, all-important fact that she just couldn’t deny: she was sure of Alberto in a way that she could never be sure of Sergio at this point. Not even if he thought he was sure. Not even if he promised. Not even if she loved him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He went on as if he hadn’t heard her, holding on tight to her hands.

“I’ll take care of you,” he said, his eyes so earnest. “Of you and the baby. I’ll… I’ll stop acting and get a real job and take care of you both. I’ll be a good husband, Raquel, I swear. I’ll care for you, and make sure you never lack anything, and… and I’ll love you. I’ll love you so much.”

His words cut right through her. Two tears trickled down, drawing burning paths down her cheeks. She loved him so much too, and she so desperately wanted what he was offering her. He meant so much to her, and she’d wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. It was killing her that they wouldn’t – it was tearing her apart. But she had to be strong now. She was going to be a parent – she had to make the responsible choice. She had reasons to stay with Alberto. Really good reasons.

“I can’t,” she whispered, more tears trickling down her cheeks. It was so hard to breathe. “I want to say yes so badly, Sergio, but I can’t. Please understand. Alberto and I have been together for years, and he wants this child. I know our relationship is solid. With you… with you nothing is sure, and you can make all the promises you want, but you just can’t know how things will turn out! I can’t risk it. I’m too scared that I’ll… that I’ll end up all alone with this baby.”

“Please don’t make this decision right away,” he said earnestly. “Please take some time to think about it. Take all the time you need. I’ll wait. I will.”

Oh, he was making this so, so hard. He was sweet, and considerate, and so earnest. It felt so heartless to do this to him – she felt so cruel. Part of her wanted to take his offer of more time – anything not to have to say goodbye to him right now – but another, more mature part of her knew that it wouldn’t be fair to string him along while she’d already made her choice. She shook her head, and the tears were streaming down now as she felt how they’d reached the end of the road.

“More… more time won’t change anything,” she said, wiping her tears away. They kept falling. “I have to face the facts.”

He was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again, she saw desperation in his eyes.

“Raquel,” he said. “I… I don’t know what else I can say to make you believe me.”

Part of her wanted him to keep talking anyway – keep trying to persuade her. Maybe it would work, maybe he would say something that would change her mind… but she knew she’d thought it through too thoroughly for that to happen. The arguments against staying with him were too solid, and she couldn’t ignore them. She reminded herself forcefully of the baby, and of the fact that she loved Alberto. She did love him. Not… not like she loved Sergio, but it was good enough. It would have to be good enough.

So she did what she had to do, even though it hurt like hell. She pulled back her hands.

“You can’t say anything,” she said quietly, ignoring the pain. “I’ve made my choice. I’m… I’m so sorry, but I have to stay with Alberto.”

“Don’t say that,” he whispered. “Please, Raquel, please don’t say that. What we have…”

“What we have is a twelve-hour relationship!” she said, with a sudden feeling of despair. “Don’t you see? Don’t you see that that doesn’t guarantee anything? You can’t marry someone after you’ve been together for twelve hours, Sergio, you can’t!

“Please just give us a chance,” he said. “Please. Give me a chance to prove…”

“Sergio,” she interrupted him, “I can’t just be with you for a couple of months and then, if things don’t work out, go back to Alberto. That’s not how that works! I… I told you… if it was just me, I would risk it all – I would. But I’m going to have a child. I have to… I have to do what’s right for this baby, I have to be responsible.”

“Let’s talk about this,” he pleaded. “Let’s talk this through.”

“I don’t think there’s anything left to say,” she whispered. “I… I can’t do this… There’s no sense in dragging this out any longer than we have to…”

“But…” he said, and now his voice was shaking too. “But you can’t… you can’t just go? You can’t just… leave? We… we love each other. We were going to find an apartment together in Madrid…”

His words were wrenching at something inside of her, and the tears kept streaming down. She wanted it, she wanted it so much. A life with him, a family. A voice inside of her was screaming that she was making a mistake, but that was her heart, and she had to use her head now, she had to be rational. The facts were all there. She barely knew him. She couldn’t give in. There was too much at stake.

“I wanted that,” she said. “I really did. But things have changed.”

“You said you were serious,” he whispered, looking horrified. “You said… you said you were sure.”

“I was,” she said desperately. “I really, really was. But the situation is entirely different now. I can’t… I can’t choose you anymore. I’m so sorry, Sergio. So, so sorry. Please believe that.”

“No,” he whispered, and he looked absolutely devastated. “No, this can’t be it.”

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated helplessly.

She was crying hard now, but she had to be strong. She had to be strong… for her child.

She took a shuddering breath.

“You should go now.”

He was looking at her with wide eyes.

“No…” he whispered. “No…”

She got up. It was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do, but she got up. He got up too, his eyes desperate.

“Is… is this really it?” he whispered.

The tears were hot on her face, and she couldn’t speak anymore. She just nodded. They just stood looking at each other for a moment, and there was so much pain between them. It hurt so much. She saw the same hurt reflected in his eyes, and she couldn’t bear it. With a sob, she rushed forward, and the next moment she was in his arms.

“Please don’t go,” he whispered against her hair as he wrapped his arms around her. “Please. Please. I love you.”

“I love you too,” she whispered, and she felt her heart break into a million pieces as she said it. “I do. I love you so much. I want to be with you, Sergio, but we can’t. I can’t. Please… please understand.”

She felt him start to shake, and the next moment she realized that he was crying too. It only made her cry harder, and she pressed her face against his chest and sobbed, her entire body shuddering. They just stood there for a long time, crying, desperately clinging to each other, unable to let go. How could she possibly let him go, knowing that this would be the last time she would ever get to hold him? She couldn’t believe that this was the end. She couldn’t believe that they had to say goodbye. It felt so utterly impossible. He’d become a part of her, and now it felt like it was violently being ripped away, leaving her raw and bleeding and incomplete.

But it had to be done. They couldn’t keep standing here forever. She knew it would never get easier. It took her all the strength she had, but finally she unwrapped her arms from around him and gently pushed against his chest.

“Sergio…” she whispered. “You have to go now.”

He couldn’t seem to let her go – as she pulled back, he touched her cheek, her shoulder, her arm, her hand, his eyes so full of despair.

“Can… can we at least stay friends?” he whispered. “I… I can’t lose you, Raquel.”

More tears, more pain. She hadn’t thought she could contain this much pain.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she whispered back. “It would be too painful to see you now, I… I don’t think I could bear it. I think… I think it would be best if we didn’t have any contact at all for a while.”

He pressed his lips together and nodded, looking away from her as tears trickled down his face.

“I understand.”

Her throat was so tight it hurt – he couldn’t stay here – she felt how she was on the verge of breaking down completely.

“Please,” she said, and her voice was shaking hard. “You have to go now.”

He gave her one last pleading look, and it hurt like nothing she’d ever felt before. She almost went to him again, but she thought of the baby and she held on. Desperately clinging to the last remnant of her composure, she gathered all of her strength and didn’t give in.

“Goodbye, Sergio,” she whispered.

She saw something break in him. The look in his eyes went through her like a knife, and it would haunt her for the next nine years. But she didn’t give in. She stood firm, and let him walk out the door.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The present

Raquel woke up on Saturday morning with a feeling of nervous excitement. She couldn’t wait for tonight. Tonight, she and Sergio would go out to dinner together for the first time in nine years, and, contrary to nine years ago, she wasn’t married anymore. When they’d spent time together back then, it had always explicitly been as friends, because they couldn’t be anything else. But now… now things were different. They weren’t just having dinner as friends this time – even if they hadn’t said it out loud, there was no mistaking the situation. This was a date, and Raquel was looking forward to it more than any other date she’d ever had.

She kept lying in bed for a while, smiling softly to herself. The week they’d spent in Ferrol had brought them so much closer again, and now she couldn’t wait to see him. She was a little nervous, yes, but in a good way. She’d never thought that they would get a second chance like this – a second chance at the happiness they’d come so close to having nine years ago. She could barely believe it. She remembered how it had felt, nine years ago, for the few hours that they’d been together. The memories were still breathtakingly vivid – she’d revisited them so often over the past nine years that they’d never had a chance to fade.

She remembered the feeling of his body against hers as they lay close together on the bed. She remembered his arms around her. She remembered the way he’d looked at her – like she was the most beautiful thing in the world. She remembered the exact feeling of his mouth on hers – the memory of how he’d kissed her caused a warm tingle in her stomach, and she had to close her eyes for a moment at the longing she felt. How she wanted that again – she wanted it more than anything. She remembered his hand in her hair, and his fingers trailing down her back, and the way her body had responded to him. But most of all – she remembered how happy she’d felt when she woke up next to him the next morning. Even after all these years, she could still evoke the ghost of that feeling: a bright, golden light inside of her, telling her that everything had fallen into the exact place where it was meant to be. A sense of eager anticipation for their future together. A love that was beautiful and deep and true, in a way she’d never experienced before.

She hadn’t felt anything that even came close to that moment in nine years, and the thought that she could soon have it again made her feel breathless with longing, and so, so hopeful. After all of the misery and pain, maybe they could finally be happy again.

More memories surfaced – of the time right after they’d had to say goodbye. Those memories were still so vivid too, but for entirely different reasons. She didn’t think she’d ever forget the pain of those first few weeks, when she’d gone back home to Madrid and her husband. It was the hardest thing she’d ever had to do. She hadn’t thought that she could miss someone this much – his absence was a deep, constant ache in her chest, so painful that it was hard to breathe – hard to speak or think – hard to focus on anything else. She’d cried herself to sleep every night; quietly, so Alberto wouldn’t notice. It had been so hard to have to hide everything from him. She’d felt so desperately alone.

She’d broken down one day and confided everything to her mother, and that had helped a bit, but still. For months, she hadn’t been able to shake the feeling of grief she’d felt – deep, painful, and all-consuming. It had stopped her from enjoying anything at all – her work, her pregnancy, her marriage. The guilt she felt was suffocating – a stabbing, breathtaking guilt over how much she’d hurt Sergio, and a more insidious, low-burning guilt towards Alberto: for returning to him when he wasn’t really her first choice; and for no longer being capable of loving him like she should. For months, she couldn’t bear it if he touched her, and she kept bursting into tears at random moments. She’d blamed it all on the pregnancy, but she knew Alberto didn’t believe her; she knew he was suspicious. That’s when things had first started going wrong…

She took a deep breath to push down those memories as she got out of bed and went into the bathroom to shower. She couldn’t even blame Alberto for being suspicious and jealous. She’d given him every reason to be. She’d wanted to move on – she’d tried – but she just couldn’t. She kept thinking about Sergio all the time, no matter what she was doing – working; meeting with friends; lying in bed at night, unable to sleep – and of course her husband had noticed that she was absent-minded and distant; of course he’d noticed that something had changed. She couldn’t even stop thinking about Sergio after Paula was born. At every important point in her daughter’s life, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop wondering what it would have been like to experience those moments with Sergio rather than Alberto by her side. She knew it was wrong of her – she knew it wasn’t fair to her husband – but she simply couldn’t stop it from happening.

The memories she had of their time together were the most precious things to her, and she kept revisiting them over and over and over again, keeping them alive as best she could. She kept looking up Sergio’s name online – he didn’t have any online presence, but sometimes she could find mentions of him in articles about upcoming movies, at least. She watched those movies, in secret or with a friend; sometimes multiple times, even when his part was small. It hurt so much to see him, but she could never stop herself from doing it anyway – she craved every little crumb of him she could get.

And then she and Alberto had gotten divorced. For several months after her divorce was final, she’d found herself staring at Sergio’s name and number in her phone, over and over again, her finger hovering over the ‘call’ button – and yet she never pressed it. She was sure that he wouldn’t want to hear from her after all those years; that he would never be able to forgive her. She knew that she had absolutely no right to expect him to take her back, just because it had turned out that she’d been stupid and made the wrong choice. He must have known about her divorce – it had been everywhere in the news – so if he wasn’t reaching out to her himself, then she was sure that he just didn’t want any contact anymore. She’d felt that she should respect that.

But now, she stepped into the shower with such a bright feeling of hope. She didn’t want to think about the past anymore, about all of the pain and the misery her mistake had caused. Today, she only wanted to focus on the present, and the future – on reclaimed happiness and second chances. The past was in the past. It couldn’t hurt her anymore. She turned on the shower, and closed her eyes, smiling, as the water pattered down on her. She remembered the way Sergio had looked at her yesterday, the look in his eyes so close to the way he’d looked at her nine years ago. Maybe… maybe they could pick things up again where they’d left them then – not immediately, but maybe soon... The mere thought of that made her shiver with an eager, aching longing that came from somewhere very deep inside of her, where she’d kept it hidden all those years. It hadn’t diminished. It hadn’t faded. And now, with them getting closer again, it was stronger than ever.

She wished they could just go on their date right now – it would be hard to wait until tonight. Luckily, Elena had asked her to meet for lunch, so that would distract her for a while. Raquel spent the morning studying lines for next week’s scenes, then at noon, she went down to the hotel restaurant to meet her friend.

It had been nice to spend so much time with Elena. Raquel had always felt like she and the producer were somewhere between friends and close coworkers, but now they’d firmly tipped over into friendship, and Raquel was glad about that. With the life she was living now, it felt harder to make friends, because she could never be sure if people sought her out for her fame and success, or because they genuinely liked her. She didn’t have to worry about that with Elena – she knew her friend didn’t care about those things, and that was refreshing.

Elena was already at the restaurant when Raquel arrived, and they greeted each other with a smile.

“How was the rest of the shoot in Ferrol?” Elena asked as Raquel sat down.

“It was nice,” Raquel said, unable to keep herself from smiling at the thought of the time she’d spent with Sergio there. “Very nice. It’s too bad that you couldn’t stay the entire week. How were your meetings at the studio?”

Elena shrugged.

“The usual politicking and big executives telling me what to do,” she said. “Alicia Sierra is back from maternity leave, so she had to be caught up. And I had some meetings with people pitching new ideas.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Yes, actually,” Elena said. “There were a few pitches I really liked, but unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to sell any of them to the studio.”

Raquel nodded her understanding.

“It’s a pity how good projects sometimes can’t find any funding just because they’re not marketable enough.”

“Exactly,” Elena nodded. “Everything is about money in this business.”

“You know,” Raquel mused, “I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I should fund a project I believe in someday.”

Elena smiled at her.

“That’s a great idea,” she said. “If you ever do, let me know. I’d love to work with you.”

“Yes, please,” Raquel smiled back. “I could really use your expertise.”

At that point, someone entered the restaurant behind Raquel, which made Elena look over – and suddenly her smile turned into an expression of distaste. Raquel didn’t even have to turn to know who had walked into the room.

“Andrés?” she said, and Elena nodded, her lips a tight line.

“Unfortunately.”

Andrés came over to their table, inclining his head in greeting, charming as always.

“My apologies for disturbing you, Raquel,” he said. “I was just wondering if I could have a word with the love of my life.”

Elena gave him a dark look.

“Try again.”

“The light of my existence?”

“Wrong again.”

“The apple of my eye.”

What do you want, Andrés?”

He grinned broadly – whenever Elena got annoyed, it only seemed to encourage him more. Raquel didn’t get it at all, but he’d been this way from the day she’d first seen him interact with her friend. She supposed Elena posed an interesting challenge to a man who usually got what – or whom – he wanted without too much trouble.

“I was wondering if you’ve got that memo from Sierra for me.”

“It’s a Saturday, Andrés,” Elena said coolly. “I’m not working today, which means that it’s patently unfair that I still have to deal with you.”

“I just want the memo,” he said, still grinning. “Then I’ll leave you alone.”

“If only I could believe that.”

He put a hand against his chest with a look of mock surprise.

“You don’t trust me to keep my word?”

“No,” Elena said shortly.

“Why not?”

She gave him a look of outrage.

Past experience,” she said. “Every interaction we’ve ever had.”

His mock surprise changed to mock hurt.

“You wound me, madam.”

“Keep this up and you won’t just be able to say that metaphorically.”

That made him throw back his head and laugh, and Raquel had to suppress a smile too.

“Well, this time, I solemnly swear,” Andrés said, putting a hand over his heart. “If you get me that memo, I won’t bother you again until Monday.”

Elena frowned.

“It’s all the way up in my room.”

He grinned again.

“Then be a dear and go get it for me.”

If looks could kill, they’d be holding Andrés’ funeral tomorrow. Raquel leaned back slightly – she recognized that look – Elena had reached the end of her patience. Andrés seemed to recognize it too, because he quickly recanted.

“I mean, I would really appreciate it if you could go get it for me. I’d like to catch up on some work this afternoon.”

Elena considered him for a moment more – then she heaved a deep sigh and got up.

“Just so I’ll be rid of you, you get that?” she said as she passed him.

“Perfectly,” he grinned, then stood looking after her until she was through the door.

“I wish you’d just leave her alone, Andrés,” Raquel said, a touch of reproof in her voice.

He turned to her, unbothered.

“I don’t think that’s your concern,” he said smoothly.

Then, to Raquel’s surprise, he sat down in Elena’s empty chair.  

“So,” he said. “I hear you’re having dinner with my brother tonight.”

Raquel immediately felt suspicious. Had Andrés actually sent Elena away so he could talk to her?

“Yes,” she said carefully. “I am. So?”

He leaned forward and folded his hands.

“I’d like to ask you what your intentions are.”

Her eyebrows went up.

“My intentions?

“Yes,” Andrés said coolly. “Your intentions. How serious is this for you? Are you actually interested, or are you just toying with him again?”

“I never toyed with him,” she said, offended. “What happened nine years ago…”

He shook his head and cut her off.

“I don’t care what happened nine years ago,” he said. When she opened her mouth, he raised a hand to stop her. “I’m sure you had your reasons for doing what you did,” he said. “I don’t care. I just care if you’re going to break his heart again.”

Raquel gave him a cool look.

“This is really none of your business, Andrés.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” he said. Raquel had only ever seen him full of charm, but now his eyes were cold. “I’m the one who had to pick up the pieces last time.”

The guilt – her constant companion for nine years – surfaced again, but she took a deep breath and stood her ground.

“Sergio is an adult. He can make his own decisions when it comes to me.”

“No, he can’t,” Andrés said bluntly. “He’s never been able to think straight when it comes to you. He needs someone to look out for him.”

Raquel felt herself soften. He was just looking out for his brother. She appreciated that. She leaned forward.

“I’m not going to break his heart, Andrés,” she said quietly. “Really. I… I care about him. Very much. I’m serious about this. I couldn’t be more serious.”

“So you do want to get back together with him?”

She hesitated.

“Maybe,” she said. “If… if he wants that too.”

He gave her another cool look.

“Are you going to change your mind again the moment you do?”

She felt herself bristle again – it hadn’t been that simple. She felt like this wasn’t the right time to argue, though, so she just shook her head.

“No,” she said simply. “I won’t. The circumstances are completely different now.”

He gave her a long look, then nodded.

“Alright. Then it’s up to you.”

She felt that he still disapproved, but that he wouldn’t stand in their way. She was glad about that – she knew Andrés’ opinion mattered to Sergio. Something suddenly occurred to her, something she’d been wondering about, but had been too shy to ask Sergio about directly.

“Andrés…” she said carefully. “Is he… is he seeing someone?”

He gave her another long, considering look.

“No,” he said finally. “He’s not.”

She felt a rush of relief. She’d been fairly sure, but it was good to have confirmation.

“Alright,” she said, and she couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you.”

He was still looking at her, and for a moment, she thought that he would say more, but then suddenly, Elena was back beside the table, holding out a file to Andrés.

“Here,” she said. “The memo. Now leave.”

He shot Raquel one last look, but then he got up and took the papers from Elena, his easy smile back in place.

“Thank you, love,” he said. “Have a good weekend.”

He nodded at Raquel, then turned and left, leaving Elena to look after him with an expression of complete surprise.

“What was that?” she said, as she sat back down in her chair. “No inappropriate comments? No attempts to ask me out? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, it’s just weird.” She looked at Raquel. “What were you talking about?”

“Nothing,” Raquel said quickly.

Elena eyed her more closely.

“What did he do?” she said, throwing a suspicious look at the door. “Was he bothering you?”

“No, no,” Raquel hastened to say. “Nothing like that.”

Elena didn’t seem convinced.

“Are you sure? Because if he’s starting this crap on you now, I swear…”

“Elena,” Raquel smiled, touched by her friend’s concern. “It’s fine. He didn’t do anything wrong. We were just talking.”

“Alright…” Elena said. “If you’re sure you’re okay…”

“I am,” Raquel said firmly. “Now, what was in that memo that was so important?”

“Just Sierra complaining about our budget,” Elena said. “She says she might fly out here one of these days. Let’s hope it won’t come to that.”

Raquel nodded, and the conversation moved on after that. About half an hour later, they got up and said their goodbyes, and Raquel returned to her room.

When she got there, she opened the big glass doors at the back of her room and stepped out onto the balcony. She leaned against the railing and looked out over the ocean, taking a deep breath of the clean, salty air. What are your intentions? She had to admit that the conversation with Andrés had shaken her a little. She realized that she really did have to be sure before she started anything again. For a moment, she felt herself hesitate. Was it really wise to go on this date with him tonight? She so desperately didn’t want to hurt him again.

But then she shook her head. No, she wasn’t going to hurt him again. She was sure. This time, there was nothing standing between them – nothing could tear them apart again. By some amazing twist of fate, they had found each other again, and this time, she wasn’t going to screw things up . This time, she was holding onto him and she was never letting him go again. They’d been given a second chance, and she’d be damned if she wasn’t going to take it. She would make things up to him – she would. She would do everything she could to make him happy this time; to make right what she’d once done wrong; to erase the hurt of the past. The connection they’d once had was still there. They could still have what they’d once talked about – what they’d once dreamed about. Both of them. They’d both wanted it so desperately, and now, they could finally have it. She wasn’t just going to throw that away. She was going on that date.

At ten to eight that evening, she stood in front of her mirror, nervous butterflies in her stomach. She’d taken a long time to get ready tonight, doing her hair and makeup with extra care. Then she’d put on her nicest dress – a simple, elegant green one – and a pair of high-heeled shoes, and now she was ready. They’d agreed to meet out in the hallway at eight o’clock, so after one last glance in the mirror, she took her purse and walked out the door.

He was already waiting for her, and she suddenly had such a strong sense of déjà-vu – nine years ago, he’d waited for her like this every evening, and she took it as a good sign that things felt the same now. His eyes lit up when he saw her – another familiar sight – and she felt the butterflies in her stomach increase. He was so handsome, and she just wanted to go to him and kiss him – oh, his mouth on hers, his hand in her hair – she pushed away the memory with some effort and smiled at him.

“You look nice,” she said, and he looked down with a shy smile.

“You do too.”

“Shall we just go to the hotel restaurant?” she said. “Or do you want to call a taxi and go out?”

“No,” he said, “the hotel restaurant is fine.”

They walked down the hallway towards the elevators, and she felt how things were slightly awkward between them. No matter how familiar this situation felt – they weren’t the same people anymore, and it was new for them now. They were moving beyond mere friendship with this dinner, and the air between them was filled with everything that could be. It was exciting, and tantalizing, and a little scary, and it was normal that that made things somewhat tense.

When they got down to the restaurant and were led to a table for two, it really did feel like a date, and as they sat down, the atmosphere was heavy with the implications of that. Raquel saw Sergio shift uncomfortably in his chair – he seemed nervous, even more so than she was. She decided to try to put him at ease.

“It was nice to go back to Ferrol, wasn’t it?” she said lightly. “I think the shoot went very well.”

He nodded, clearly relieved to have something familiar to talk about.

“Yes,” he said. “It really did go well. Scene twenty-three was a challenge, but I think we pulled it off.”

They ordered glasses of wine and talked about the scenes they’d shot and the ones they’d shoot next week for a while, and she gradually saw him relax as they went over this neutral and familiar territory. It was nice to talk to him about their work – it was safe; it was comfortable. Once the food arrived, though, she decided to steer the conversation in a different direction – this wouldn’t be much of a date if they only talked about work, after all.

When there was a pause in the conversation, she looked at him across the table.

“I’m glad that we’re doing this, Sergio,” she said softly. “Dinner, you and me. Just like things used to be.”

He looked down at the table, and she couldn’t quite read his expression as he nodded.

“Yes,” he murmured. “This is… nice.”

She felt the return of the earlier awkwardness, so she quickly searched for something familiar again – a shared memory might work.

“Next time we should go back to our usual tapas place in Mundín,” she smiled. “We used to go there all the time. Do you think they’d still remember us?”

He looked up, and she was glad to see the amused look in his eyes.

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll remember you,” he said. “Or at least, the chef will.”

A sudden memory surfaced, and she laughed and put her hand to her mouth.

“Oh god,” she said. “I’d forgotten all about that. I’d really had too much wine that night.”

“Yes,” he said, still amused. “You really had. Usually people don’t ask if they can give their compliments to the chef only to kiss him twice on each cheek.”

“Yes, well,” Raquel said, torn between laughter and embarrassment. “I didn’t expect him to come out of the kitchen every time we went there after that for more kisses.”

There were little lights of laughter in his eyes as he looked at her, and she felt a tingle in her stomach.

“That chef was a wise man,” he grinned. “I’m sure he still tells people every day about the time that famous movie star Raquel Murillo used to come into his restaurant and kiss him. There’s no way he’s forgotten you.”

She laughed.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m sure of it.”

“There’s no way.”

“Let’s go there and find out,” he said, still grinning. “I’ll prove it.”

She looked up at him, so pleased. He wanted to go out with her again. He wanted to go back to that restaurant, where they had so many wonderful memories.

“Alright,” she said softly. “Let’s go there.”

The mood shifted, and they looked at each other for a moment, before he gave her a crooked smile.

“I’m sure the chef will like that.”

She shook her head, smiling too.

“I’m sure he doesn’t even remember me.”

He looked at her, and again, she couldn’t quite read his expression.

“Believe me,” he said quietly. “You’re not easy to forget.”

They looked at each other, and the air between them was suddenly charged with so many things – the implications of that statement – past hurt – future possibilities. When he didn’t look away from her, the butterflies in her stomach started fluttering frantically, and she experienced a sudden surge of feeling; warm and clear and wonderful.

She loved him. She knew it with such a profound, unshakable sense of certainty – the feeling of it unmistakable, and deep, and real – love carried over from nine years ago, kept safe all those years, and love that was tender and new, brought on by a new, more mature appreciation of who he was now. He meant so much to her in so many ways, and the look he was giving her… her heart started beating in her throat as she saw her own feelings mirrored in his eyes. It gave her the courage to take a risk – to risk everything. She took a deep breath. It was time.

“I haven’t been able to forget you either,” she said softly.

He immediately looked down, and she couldn’t read his expression anymore, but she knew what she’d seen. She went on.

“It’s been so nice to be here again,” she said. “It’s been so nice see you again, and… and spend time with you.”

He swallowed hard, still looking down, and she felt something squirm in her stomach as she held her breath. Didn’t he feel the same way? But then…

“It’s been nice to see you again too,” he murmured, and she could breathe again.

Encouraged, she went on.

“I’ve had a really good time with you this past week. It… it made me realize that… that I still care for you, Sergio. I’ve never stopped caring.”

He glanced up at her, and she could see that her words had struck something in him – something deep. But then he looked down again, and again she couldn’t interpret his expression. Her heart was beating painfully fast, but she had to know. She waited for a moment, then gently prompted him.

“Do you… still care for me too?”

He looked up at her, and seemed to answer without thinking.

“Of course I do.”

She felt such a rush of joy and relief – she’d read him right after all – he still cared, he still cared. Oh, this was so wonderful – it was so much more than she’d ever dared to hope for when she came here. She knew it was more than she deserved, but… a second chance. They would have their second chance.

She reached out across the table, and touched his hand.

“Sergio,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry about what happened last time. So, so sorry. I… I’ve regretted it so much. You have to know… I’ve never stopped thinking about you. Last time we had such terrible luck, but… but now…” She took a deep breath. “Now things are so different. Do you think… we could try again?”

He froze, and she could see him hesitate.

“It doesn’t have to be right away,” she said quickly. “I’d just… like to spend more time with you. I’d like to get to know you again. I’d like to see if… if this time, we can work things out.”

She’d never seen him so conflicted. He kept looking down, and she could see his thoughts race. Then… very carefully… he pulled back his hand. She immediately felt her stomach drop; the joy she felt disappearing.

“I’m sorry, Raquel,” he whispered. “I… I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“But…” she said, confused. “You just said… you just said you still cared for me.”

He swallowed hard, still looking down at the table.

“I do,” he whispered. “Of course I do. I’ll… I’ll always care for you.”

“Then I don’t see…” she said. “I mean… why?” There was such a sinking feeling in her stomach. “Are you… are you still angry about what happened?”

“No,” he murmured. “No, I’m not angry. I understand why you made that choice.”

“Then why are you saying…?”

He finally looked up at her, and she abruptly stopped talking. It was true – he wasn’t angry at her. Not at all. What she saw in his eyes was hurt – deep, intense, and painful – and she was completely taken aback by it. Still? After all this time? Hadn’t it faded at all?

Oh, Sergio.

The guilt – always right underneath the surface – surged painfully, and suddenly it was hard to breathe. He’d been hurt so badly, and it was all her fault.

“I’m sorry, Raquel,” he said again. “I… I just don’t think I can do it.”

“Why not?” she whispered. It was an automatic response – she could see in his eyes why not.

He shook his head and looked down again.

“You said it yourself last time. We’ve only known each other on set. Who knows what things would be like between us in real life. Who knows if… if things would work out.”

“The situation is so different, though,” she said, unable to stop herself from trying. “Last time, I was going to have a baby. I… I couldn’t take the risk. Now… now we can.”

He shook his head again, his eyes fixed on his plate.

“Maybe you can,” he whispered. “But I can’t.”

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “Please think about it. I don’t need an answer right away. We’re so good together. You mean so much to me…”

He pressed his lips together and she could feel him struggle.

“You mean so much to me too,” he said, and his voice was shaking. “That’s… that’s exactly why I can’t do this.”

He swallowed hard, then took a deep breath, still looking down.

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “Getting over you was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. If things don’t work out… if you leave again… I don’t think I can do it again.”

There was so much pain in his voice – so much quiet despair – that she didn’t try to argue anymore. She didn’t know what to say.

“I’m sorry,” he said, pushing back his chair. “I… I thought I could do it, but I can’t. I’m sorry… I’m sorry for making you think…” He got up, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have… I didn’t mean to… I’m just… sorry.”

And just like that, he walked out of the restaurant.

Raquel stayed in her chair, unable to move, looking at the door through which he’d left, and it took her a while before she could gather her thoughts. She felt so shaken. She just hadn’t realized that the hurt still ran so deep for him, and she cursed herself for not seeing it. Of course – of course. The sadness she’d seen in him, underlying their every interaction. The way he’d often seemed so conflicted when they’d spent time together. The way he’d looked away from her every time they had a moment. She should have seen. She should have seen that he wasn’t ready. She couldn’t believe that she’d been so inconsiderate – that she’d let her hopes blind her to how he was feeling.

She suddenly realized that she hadn’t taken enough time to think about what things must have been like for him back then. She’d known that she’d hurt him, and she’d felt terrible about that, but maybe she hadn’t grasped the full impact it had had on him. The situation had been terribly hard on her too, but of course it must have been even worse for him. At least the separation had been her decision, while he hadn’t had a choice. She’d had a life to go back to – a husband, a family. Once Paula was born, there had been light in her life again. She still missed him, and it still hurt – it never stopped hurting completely – but she’d still been grateful for what she had. It hadn’t been everything she’d dreamed of – especially in later years – but it had been something. Sergio, on the other hand… he’d been alone. What had things been like for him back then?

She had to know. She signaled a waiter and told him to bill the meal to her room, then she got up and left. She walked straight through the hotel garden from the restaurant to the bar, where she hoped… Yes, there he was: Andrés, talking to Nairobi over a drink at the bar.

She walked up to them, feeling numb. She had to know.

“Oh, hi Raquel,” Nairobi said when she reached them. “Would you like to join us?”

Raquel swallowed hard.

“I need to speak to Andrés,” she said quietly.

Andrés frowned. Nairobi took in Raquel’s expression, then she got up from her chair.

“I think I’ll go to bed,” she said tactfully. “Catch up on some sleep. We can talk about the budget tomorrow.”

“Alright,” Andrés nodded. “Lunch?”

“Sure. Goodnight.”

Nairobi left, and Andrés took Raquel by the elbow and steered her to a table.

“What happened?” he asked as they sat down, his eyes cold. “Did you hurt him?”

“No,” she whispered.

“Then what?”

“Andrés,” she said, looking up at him. “What happened, nine years ago? When I… when I left? You said… you said you had to pick up the pieces. What happened to him? How did he deal with things?”

Andrés gave her a long, silent look, and Raquel could see that he was considering if he should tell her or not. Finally, he seemed to decide that he should.

“He didn’t,” he said. “He didn’t deal with things at all. After he went home, he didn’t leave his apartment for a month. I had to go over there and drag him out. He was a mess. Didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, didn’t answer his calls. I thought he was dead by the time he finally opened the door.”

He shook his head with an expression of distaste.  

“I’m nobody’s babysitter, Raquel, but he was broken. So I went over there and I made sure he showered and I made sure he ate, because he sure as hell wasn’t doing it by himself. I’ve never seen anyone so devastated.”

Raquel was listening to it all with a feeling of horror. She hadn’t known. She hadn’t known any of this. She’d known it would be hard on him, of course, but she hadn’t… she hadn’t suspected this.

Andrés went on.

“It took me months before I could get him to take on work again. Years before he started resembling a functional person again. Note that I said resembling, because I often suspect that he’s just going through the motions. He never seems to enjoy anything anymore – never laughs, never takes initiative – and of course, he hasn’t been near another woman at all – not in nine years.”

He shook his head.

“I don’t know exactly what you did to him, Raquel,” he said. “But he was never the same again. Never. What you did… it destroyed him.”

She felt sick. She’d hoped that Sergio’s response tonight might have been a knee-jerk reaction – that he’d reacted without thinking because she’d surprised him. She’d hoped that he might still change his mind if she gave him some time and space to think. But… but if he’d been hurt this badly… then of course he didn’t want to try again. Of course he couldn’t trust her anymore. Of course he couldn’t see her anymore, or talk to her, or touch her, without being reminded of the pain she’d caused him. How had she been so blind? How had she thought that they could have a second chance, after she’d broken his heart so completely? He might have forgiven her, she realized now, but he would never forget.

Andrés was regarding her with a cool expression.

“So you can imagine that I’m not exactly thrilled about the prospect of the two of you dating again.”

She felt completely cold. After he’d been through all of that… of course he didn’t want it to happen again. Of course he didn’t want to risk it. Of course.

“Don’t worry,” she murmured through numb lips. “We’re not dating.”

He gave her a closer look.

“So… you’re not getting back together?”

“No,” she whispered, and she felt such a stab of grief as she realized it. “No. It’s over.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The present

On Sunday, Raquel didn’t leave her room. She didn’t think she could interact with anyone right now – she just ordered up room service and stayed in her pajamas all day. She only picked at her food and spent hours staring at the wall between her room and Sergio’s. How was he feeling right now? Sad? Confused? Relieved? She wished she could just go knock on his door and talk to him, but she couldn’t. He was right there, on the other side of that wall, but he could as well have been on the moon. After last night, she had no intention of disrespecting his need for space ever again – he needed distance from her, as much as that was possible under the circumstances, and the least she could do was give him that.

She couldn’t believe she’d messed things up so badly. She’d been so wrapped up in her own feelings for him, which were so whole and untarnished, that she hadn’t stopped to consider that things might not feel the same way to him – that, for him, any interaction with her would always carry the association of pain and unhappiness. If only she’d paid more attention to all the signs he’d been giving her. In hindsight, she could see them so clearly. He’d been so hesitant, all along, to start up a friendship with her again – at every point, she’d been the one pushing things along – she’d been the one approaching him, and even though she’d seen on several occasions that he seemed to be acting against his own better judgement, she’d ignored that entirely. She hadn’t wanted to see those things – she’d only been concerned with what she wanted, with how she wanted things to go.

She didn’t deserve him. That was the truth of it. Maybe she could have deserved him nine years ago, but she sure as hell didn’t deserve him now – not when she’d been too blind to see his worth back then – not when she’d broken his heart like that – and definitely not when she had been so inconsiderate of his feelings now. She should have left him alone right from the start of this project, like he’d so clearly wanted. She should have respected it when he’d said that he wanted to keep things professional. She felt so bad for him now – she couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for him to come back here. It must have been so hard for him to see her again those first few days, and even worse to have to act with her, and touch her, and kiss her like he meant it. She now wished with all her might that she’d tried harder to get out of this project – for both their sakes. But part of her had wanted to see him again, and once more she hadn’t asked herself how he would feel about it.

She felt so sick at heart. The regret and guilt she felt for everything that had happened – both nine years ago, and now – went so deep that she had a stomach ache. It would have been a relief to cry, but she couldn’t. All she could do was stare at the wall separating them, and dread tomorrow. Because no matter what had happened between them… the shoot was still going ahead, and she’d still have to act with him. She’d still have to see him. She’d still have to talk to him between scenes. After yesterday, she now had no idea how she would do any of that. She just couldn’t imagine. Things were so messed-up now – she’d dragged up all of that old hurt, and then she’d forced him to tell her that he didn’t want that again. Things were so unbearably complicated now – her feelings were all over the place – and she wished she didn’t have to deal with it all anymore – she wished she could just run away and leave him in peace. He deserved that, at least.

Around noon, she was suddenly shaken from her thoughts when her phone rang. She immediately felt her heart sink, and when she glanced at the screen, her suspicion was confirmed: it was Alberto again. He wasn’t just trying to talk to her anymore in the evenings when she called to speak to Paula – he was now actively calling her, sometimes several times a day. She wished she could just ignore his calls, but he had one important piece of leverage over her: Paula. What if he was calling her because something was wrong with their daughter, and she didn’t pick up her phone? She just couldn’t risk it.

Today, however, she had no patience for him. She pressed the green button and held the phone to her ear.

“What?” she said.

“Hi, Raquel.”

She’d thought that she was already too full of negative emotions to feel any more, but his voice still had its usual effect on her: bringing up pain, shame, fear. She pushed the feelings down impatiently and kept her voice steady.

“Is Paula okay?”

“Yes,” he said. “I just wanted…”

She pushed the red button and put her phone down. It immediately started buzzing again, but she didn’t pick up. After a while, the buzzing stopped, but then the phone pinged with a text message. She sighed and picked up her phone to read it.

<<Can we talk?>>

She knew better than to text back. He knew her answer anyway – if she engaged in any way, it would only encourage him. A few minutes later, though, another text arrived.

<<I could fly out there to talk in person.>>

She stared at the screen in horror. From anyone else, this message might read like a genuine offer to talk, but coming from Alberto, it felt like a threat: I could come over there and make you talk to me. She knew he was probably only sending her this to manipulate her into calling him – she had to admit that she felt the urge to do just that, to tell him that he should, under no circumstances, come to the set. But of course, that was exactly what he wanted – to get her to talk to him, no matter about what – so she took a deep breath and put her phone down again with some effort. She wasn’t going to give in to his manipulation. She was just going to ignore that message – he wouldn’t really fly out here just to see her. She was almost sure of that.

She rubbed her face, feeling so tired. How had her life become such a mess? The man she wanted to talk to more than anything was the one person she couldn’t speak to – whereas the only person on earth she absolutely never wanted to talk to again kept trying to contact her. The irony wasn’t lost on her, and it was damn depressing.  

The next morning, she dreaded seeing Sergio so much that she actually considered calling in sick… but of course that didn’t make any sense. She’d have to face him again at some point – better get it over with. So she went down to the breakfast room of the hotel the next morning at her regular time, her stomach churning with nerves. For the past weeks, she’d always had breakfast with Sergio on week days, to go over their scenes for the day. Now, she wasn’t sure what to do. How would he react when he saw her?

When she entered the breakfast room, however, he wasn’t there. She spotted Elena and Nairobi together at a table, so she picked up a cup of coffee and went over to sit with them, wishing them both a good morning.

“Good morning,” Elena said from behind her own cup of coffee. “Did you have a nice Sunday?”

“It was fine,” she lied. “I mostly spent it studying my lines.”

“Good,” Nairobi said, putting jam onto a piece of bread. “Then you’re ready for the shoot today?”

“Yes,” she lied again, making a considerable effort to keep her voice neutral. “There’s a nice scene on the schedule for this morning.”

“True,” Nairobi nodded. “Twenty-six has some really nice character work.” Then she looked around, frowning. “Actually, why aren’t you talking about it with Sergio? Isn’t that what you usually do in the mornings?”

“I’m… I’m not sure where he is this morning,” Raquel deflected. “Maybe he overslept.”

“As long as he’s not late,” Nairobi said.

“I think I already saw him head out in the direction of the set,” Elena said. “He must have gotten an early start.” She smiled. “You know, I’m thinking of coming to set myself today. I don’t have that much else going on, and it would be nice to see how filming is going.”

“You’re always welcome,” Nairobi nodded. “At least I know you won’t try to sleep with my interns, unlike some other producers I know.”

“Speaking of Andrés,” Elena said, getting up. “There he is. I’m going out the other way, I can’t deal with him on a Monday morning.”

Raquel decided to leave too – she didn’t want to see Andrés either, and she didn’t want to eat, so she accompanied her friend outside, glad for her company. They took one of the many little shuttle buses that took the cast and crew from the hotel to the set and back each day, talking about inconsequential things along the way. It wasn’t quite enough to distract Raquel from the squirming feeling in her stomach, but it was still better than making this trip alone, when she usually made it with Sergio.

It only took a ten-minute drive through the green hills before they arrived at the farm house where they’d be filming that day, and when Raquel went into the trailer for hair and makeup, her mouth was dry and her stomach filled with nerves. Sergio wasn’t there, however.

“He’s already come through,” the stylist said. “He was really early this morning.”

Raquel nodded. Clearly, he was avoiding her, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. On the one hand, it was a relief not to have to face him, but on the other hand… it hurt, more than she’d anticipated.

She finally spotted him when she walked into the farmhouse kitchen, where they would be filming today’s scene. He was sitting in a chair at the side of the room, studying his script, and her heart started beating faster at the sight of him. Oh, no matter what had happened between the two of them on Saturday – her feelings for him hadn’t changed at all, and even just seeing him affected her so much. She had to swallow hard as she went to stand at the other side of the room – this was going to be even harder than she’d thought it would be.

Since he’d been avoiding her that morning, she thought that he would pretend not to notice her now until they had to start shooting – but then he glanced up at her. For a moment, she saw him hesitate, but then, to her surprise, he got up and came over to her.

“Good morning,” he said, in a carefully polite voice.

It was hard to be near him now, for so many reasons. She so badly wanted to spare him the pain of having to interact with her – and she wanted to spare herself, too. Yesterday, she’d been mostly focused on how inconsiderate she’d been of his feelings, and she hadn’t dealt with her own feelings yet at all – she hadn’t been able to. Now that he was standing in front of her, however, she was suddenly confronted with them in the most painful way. She loved him… and she’d lost him. Again.

She took a shaking breath.

“Good morning,” she replied, managing to keep her voice steady.

She didn’t know what to say to him now. How are you? How was your weekend? Are you looking forward to the scene? None of those were options.

He seemed to have something to say, however. He came a little closer to her, and she had to make an effort not to back away. His closeness was painful.

“Raquel,” he said, in a low voice so the crew wouldn’t hear. “I’m sorry. About Saturday. I shouldn’t have walked out like that.”

She shook her head.

“No,” she said. “No, please don’t apologize. It was my fault.”

“I should have stayed,” he said. “We should have talked about it.” He took a deep breath. “Do you… do you want to talk about it later?”

“No,” she said immediately. She was sure that he didn’t actually want to talk to her, and she wanted to spare him. Aside from that, it would hurt too much to hear the reasons why he didn’t want to be with her. “No, I understand why… why you said what you said.”

He looked at her for a moment, and he seemed so sad.

“I want you to know,” he said quietly, “that I hope we can still be friends.”

She swallowed hard.

“Yes,” she said, looking down. “Yes, of course.”

He gave her a close look.

“Are you… are you okay?”

The question almost made her cry. Why was he being so nice to her? She didn’t deserve that – not at all – not after how she’d treated him. She steeled herself – it was the only thing to do.

“Yes,” she lied. She’d been lying a lot today, and it was only nine o’clock. “I’m okay.”

He nodded, such an earnest look in his eyes.

“I’m glad,” he said. “I… I really didn’t want to hurt you.”

Oh, this was killing her. He was so sweet, and so considerate, even after she’d been so terribly inconsiderate towards him – even though she’d hurt him so deeply. He was such a good man… and she’d lost him.

Before they could say anything else, Nairobi walked into the room, and immediately the relaxed atmosphere on set changed as people jumped up and went to their positions. Sergio stepped back a few paces, creating some distance between them as they waited for their instructions for the scene.

“Good morning,” Nairobi addressed the crew. “Small scene this morning – only Eva and Tristán. We have a guest today…” She motioned over to Elena, who was sitting at the side of the room. “… so let’s show her what we’ve got.”

Elena inclined her head, then smiled at Raquel, who tried to smile back. Then Nairobi came over to her and Sergio.

“Alright,” she said. “This scene is pretty pivotal. We’ve had several arguments in previous scenes about Tristán joining the resistance against Franco. This is the scene where Tristán tries to make amends, and they make up.”

Great, Raquel thought. Really excellent. Perfect timing. Sergio was putting on a carefully neutral face, but Raquel knew him well enough to see that he was struggling with the prospect too. He didn’t let Nairobi see, though – he just nodded.

“Soft and careful?” he asked, and Nairobi gave him a satisfied nod.

“My thoughts exactly,” she said. “You’re both pros, and you know these characters. Let’s see where you take them on your own and I’ll adjust if necessary.”

Raquel usually liked to get this kind of creative freedom from a director, but this time she really wished she could have gotten a little more direction – she felt so lost in her own feelings that she was having trouble putting herself into the headspace of the character.

There was nothing for it, though. She’d just have to try.

She went to the sink, where Eva was washing dishes at the beginning of the scene, while Nairobi took up position in her director’s chair.

“Alright,” she said. “I’d like a few long, continuous shots, so just play it through a few times until I say cut.”

Raquel took a deep breath, and put her hands into the warm, soapy water. She knew what was coming, and she didn’t feel ready at all. She had a sudden vivid memory of their first day of shooting, when they’d had a scene similar to this one – she standing at the sink while Sergio came up to her. She hadn’t felt ready then, either. How had they ended up back here?

The set quieted, and Nairobi called action. Raquel started washing a plate, but she stopped as Sergio came through the doorway into the room. She turned, then dried her hands on her apron.

“What do you want?” she said, keeping her voice cool. They’d had a big fight in the previous scene, after all.

Sergio as Tristán was looking very guilty.

“To apologize,” he murmured.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to accept any apologies,” Raquel said, then turned back to the sink. The next moment, he was next to her, and touched her on the arm.

“Please,” he said softly. “Please hear me out.”

She turned to face him again, her chin raised, trying to summon an anger she didn’t feel.

“What do you have to say, then?”

He took her hand – and his touch seared her skin with an unexpected intensity. Suddenly, she wasn’t there anymore, in that farmhouse kitchen – she was sitting on a bed with him, in her old hotel room, while he stroked her hand. The next moment, the image was gone, but it left her shaken and close to tears. He would never hold her hand like that again.

She swallowed hard and tried to steady herself.

“I’m sorry,” he was saying, looking down. “I’m sorry for not listening to you before. I know… I know you were only worried about me, and I shouldn’t have dismissed your worries like that.”

“No,” she said, glad that her voice was supposed to be tense for this. “You shouldn’t have.”

He looked up at her, and it suddenly became hard to breathe as he looked into her eyes.

“Eva,” he said softly. “You have to know that you’re the most important thing to me. I want to help Pedro, but… but not if it means I’ll lose you.”

He lifted a hand to her cheek, and she had to close her eyes as his touch woke so many unwanted feelings inside of her – love… loss… longing. When she opened her eyes again, he was gazing at her with a look she knew so well – a look he’d given her so often before. It went right through her.

“I love you,” he whispered, and she couldn’t tell if this was real or not – if it was Tristán or Sergio speaking – she just knew that it hurt.

He stepped closer to her, and her heart was beating painfully hard as he bent his head… then lightly brushed his lips against hers.

It was the softest sensation, but it stirred so many memories – lying on the bed with him, kissing him for hours – his arms around her – his voice in her ear. I love you, Raquel. You’ve had me from the start. You have me now, and you’ll have me always.

Always.

It was unbearable – she couldn’t do it – she pushed him away with a stifled sob.

“Cut!” Nairobi called. “Raquel, you’re supposed to kiss him back.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, fighting to keep at least a semblance of composure. “I’m… I’m not feeling well. Excuse me.”

She rushed out of the room and out of the house, across the field to her personal trailer. Once inside, she leaned back against the door, and pressed shaking hands to her face. Oh, that was the most unprofessional thing she’d ever done – she couldn’t believe she’d lost it like that in the middle of a scene. She was a professional actress, for crying out loud. She should be able to separate her personal feelings from her work… but it had just been too painful – being near him, touching him, kissing him, after she’d just lost him for the second time. For good.

“Raquel?”

It was Elena’s voice, coming from outside. Her friend had come to check on her.

“Raquel, are you alright?”

She took a deep breath, and tried to compose herself. She wished she didn’t have to, but she couldn’t hide in here forever. She opened the door, to see Elena looking at her with a worried expression.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”

“No,” she said quietly. “I’m not sick. Just… just not feeling great.”

Elena’s eyebrows went up.

“You’re not pregnant, are you?”

The words brought back such horrible memories, and she could feel herself begin to shake again.

“No,” she said, her voice unstable. “I’m not pregnant.” Not this time.

“Raquel,” Elena said, stepping closer. “What’s wrong?”

Her voice was full of concern, and it was enough to break down the last of Raquel’s restraint. She pressed her hands to her face, and started to cry.

“Oh,” Elena said, clearly flustered. “Oh, no.”

She gently put a hand on Raquel’s back and steered her into the trailer.

“Come on,” she said. “Come on, let’s sit down.”

They sat down on the couch together, tears still pouring down Raquel’s cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Elena said calmly. “Just tell me what’s wrong.”

Raquel looked at her friend through her tears. She’d never told anyone this except her mother – let alone someone who was so close to the situation – but she just couldn’t handle it anymore. She had to talk, she had to tell someone, or she felt like she would burst with all the pain and sadness and grief that had gathered inside of her. Elena was here, and she was a friend. That was all that mattered now.

“It’s Sergio,” Raquel whispered. “It’s a long story.”

“We have time,” Elena said, still in that calm voice. “Don’t worry about that.”

So Raquel told her everything – how she’d fallen in love with Sergio on the shoot of the first movie. How she’d decided to leave her husband for him. How she’d found out that she was pregnant only the next day, and the heartbreaking choice she’d had to make.

“And now we’re back here,” she said, her eyes still streaming. It felt like she was crying nine years of saved-up tears. “And I still love him. I thought… I thought this was a second chance for us, but we talked, and he said he doesn’t want to try again.”

Elena had listened to it all without commenting, which Raquel appreciated. Now, she nodded, her expression serious.

“I see.”

“I let him go,” Raquel sobbed. “We could have been together, back then. I loved him, and he loved me, and I just… I just let him go.”

The regret of it was crushing her, and she couldn’t stop crying. Why, why, why had she been so stupid? Why hadn’t she seen? How had she ruined her own life so completely?

Elena was quiet for a while, just letting Raquel cry until her tears finally dried up, and she calmed down just a little. Then her friend spoke.

“I’m so sorry you have to deal with all of that,” she said softly. “I… I knew you were close with Sergio, and I suspected something but… this is rough. I’m sorry.”

Raquel nodded, wiping away her tears. It had felt good to finally be able to talk about it. It didn’t really diminish the pain, but it lessened the pressure she’d felt build inside of her.

“I just wish I hadn’t been so stupid, nine years ago,” she said quietly.

“You did what you thought you had to do,” Elena said. “You made the decision you thought was right under the circumstances.”

“It wasn’t the right decision,” Raquel whispered. “It was the biggest mistake of my life.”

She could see the empathy in her friend’s eyes.

“You didn’t know that at the time,” Elena said. “You couldn’t have known. You made the best choice you could with the information you had.”

Raquel nodded, trying to steady herself with a deep breath.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I know you’re right. But it’s… it’s still hard to accept that.”

“I get that,” Elena nodded soberly. “Forgiving yourself can be a really difficult thing to do. Don’t try to force it. Give yourself time.”

Raquel felt one more tear trickle down her cheek.

“I just wish… I just wish I could go back and undo it all.”

“I understand,” Elena nodded, putting her hand on Raquel’s arm. “I’m so sorry about all of this, Raquel. I wish I could help. I know… I know it hurts right now, but it will get better.”

Raquel nodded. She knew by now that time didn’t always heal everything… but the pain wouldn’t always be this overwhelming. She knew that too.

Elena was looking at her with slight apprehension, and Raquel felt her hesitate.

“Do you…” she finally asked, “uhm, do you want a hug?”

That actually made Raquel smile.

“Thank you,” she said. “But it’s okay. I’ll be okay.” Then she sighed and rubbed her face. “Though I can’t go back out there right now – I’m a mess.”

“Take the rest of the day off,” Elena said firmly. “I’ll go back there and tell everyone you’re not feeling well and need to rest. They can shoot some scenes without you. Go to your room, take a hot bath. Watch some television, read a book, call your daughter. Put your mind off of it.”

“Yes,” Raquel said, pulling herself together with another deep breath. “Yes, I’ll do that. Thank you.”

Elena nodded.

“No problem. And if you want to talk more later… just text me, okay? I can be right there, and I can bring wine.”

Raquel gave her a grateful look.

“Thank you, Elena. Really. I appreciate this.”

They both got up. Raquel hesitated – but then, on an impulse, she reached out and hugged her friend after all. Elena stiffened for a moment, but then she carefully hugged Raquel back.

“You’ll be okay,” she said quietly. “You’re stronger than you think.”

That was exactly what Raquel had needed to hear. It was true. She’d been through this before, and she’d survived. She could do it again.

“Thank you,” she repeated as she released her friend. “For listening. For… for understanding.”

“Anytime,” Elena nodded as she walked towards the door. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

“I will,” Raquel said.

Her friend walked out the door, and Raquel sank back down onto the couch, wiping away the last of her tears. She didn’t feel better, per se, but… lighter, somehow. The sadness was still there, but it was less desperate. She wouldn’t be okay for a while, and she didn’t think the pain of losing him would ever go away completely – she’d already carried it with her for nine years, after all. But for the rest of the day, she would focus on herself. And tomorrow… tomorrow she would find a way to put herself back together, and deal with things like the professional actress she was.

That afternoon, after a nap, a hot bath, and a full meal with a glass of wine, Raquel was feeling slightly better. She’d just settled on her bed with a book for some distraction, when there was a brisk knock on her door. She got off the bed and walked over to open it, expecting to see Elena – but it wasn’t Elena. Standing there instead was a smooth-looking young man of about twenty-five in an expensive suit, looking down at an iPad and wearing a Bluetooth headset.

“Yes?” Raquel said. “Can I help you?”

“Alicia Sierra wants to see you,” he said, not even looking up from his device. “She’s in conference room A.”

She blinked at him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Who are you?”

“I’m her assistant,” the man said, still not looking up. “Conference room A, please. She doesn’t like to wait.”

Raquel felt herself bristle at both his tone and his attitude.

“Excuse me,” she said. “What is this about?”

“Ms. Sierra would like to propose some changes to your contract,” the man said, busily swiping at something.

Raquel frowned.

“Changes to my contract?”

“Ms. Sierra will explain everything to you,” the man said impatiently, pressing a button on his headset. “Hello? Yes, we’ll be there in a minute.” He finally looked at Raquel. “We need to go.”

Raquel still didn’t like his attitude, and she was thoroughly confused, but she supposed she’d better go out and see what this was about. She put on her shoes and pulled the door closed behind herself.

“I didn’t know Ms. Sierra was coming here,” she said to the man as he led her down the corridor.

“She made a last-minute decision this morning,” he said. Raquel wasn’t sure how he could see where he was going with his eyes fixed intently on the screen of his device. “We arrived about an hour ago.”

They took the elevator down, then went to the room where the actors had gathered on the first day for the table read. This time, there was only one big conference table in the middle of the room. The assistant held open the door to Raquel, and as she walked in and saw the people gathered there, she immediately felt wary. What was going on?

Elena was there, as was Andrés, and so was Nairobi and a number of people Raquel didn’t know. As she came into the room, she heard that Elena was in the middle of a discussion with a red-haired woman Raquel supposed must be Alicia Sierra – Elena and Andrés’ superior at the studio.

“It’s completely unnecessary!” Elena was saying. “There’s no point to it at all!”

“I agree,” Nairobi chimed in. “And it would slow down the pacing.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Sierra said, looking down at her phone with a bored expression. “Audiences love to see that sort of thing.”

“That doesn’t mean we should compromise the artistic integrity of our product,” Elena argued. “This is a good movie – I won’t have it cheapened!”

“That’s really not your call, darling,” Sierra said lightly, pressing a button on her phone and putting it away to look up at Raquel. “Ah, Ms. Murillo. Have a seat.”

Raquel sat down on the edge of a chair at the opposite side of the table, throwing a wary glance at the people around it. Elena was fuming, Nairobi seemed displeased, and even Andrés had a disapproving look on his face. Only Alicia Sierra seemed perfectly at ease.

“What’s going on?” Raquel asked.

“We’re discussing a scene change,” Nairobi explained succinctly.

Raquel frowned. That was not something actors were usually involved in at all.

“Then why am I here?”

“I’d like to take a look at your contract here,” Sierra said, tapping some papers in front of her – the contract Raquel had signed nine years ago, at the time of the first movie.

“What about it?” she asked.

“We’d like to see if you’d be willing to renegotiate a certain clause,” Sierra said lightly.

You,” Elena snapped. “You want to see if she’ll renegotiate. I’m not on board with this at all.”

Raquel gave Elena a confused look.

“What clause?” she asked.

Elena gave her an apologetic look, but it was Sierra who answered.

“The nudity clause.”

Raquel’s frown deepened.

“Why? There’s no nudity in this movie at all.”

Nairobi shot Sierra an annoyed look.

“That’s what she’s trying to change.”

“No,” Sierra said smoothly. “That’s what’s going to change.” She gestured at the people Raquel didn’t know. “I’ve brought the writers, and they’re going to write in the scene right after we establish what’s possible.”

“I still don’t agree!” Elena said heatedly. “The story doesn’t need a scene like that. The first movie didn’t have a scene like that either – it will feel completely out of place!”

“Darling,” Sierra said, and Raquel saw Elena bristle at the condescension in her voice. “If you suddenly have a movie star like Raquel Murillo at your disposal, you use her.”

Raquel’s eyebrows shot up.

“Excuse me?”

“She’s not a prop!” Elena said, and Raquel could see that her friend was really angry now. “She’s not just a thing you can play with!” She turned to Raquel. “I’m so sorry about this, Raquel.”

“I still don’t understand what’s happening exactly,” Raquel said. “Use me how?”

Andrés leaned forward – he’d been remarkably quiet so far.

“She wants a sex scene,” he said bluntly. “You and Sergio.”

Raquel felt herself go cold. No. No, please, not that.

“It just wouldn’t fit,” Elena argued again. “It wouldn’t suit the tone of the movie at all!”

Sierra shrugged.

“I don’t care. If we can market this movie as having a sex scene with Raquel Murillo in it, it will be a guaranteed success.”

Raquel felt stunned for a moment, but then she realized something.

“No,” she said, with a feeling of considerable relief. “No, I wasn’t supposed to do any intimate scenes for this movie. That was a clause in my contract. I remember it clearly.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Sierra said. “I’d like you to reconsider your contract.”

Elena shook her head.

“You really should discuss things like that with her agent, Alicia.”

Sierra waved an impatient hand.

“That would only slow things down,” she said. “The agent would have to check with Ms. Murillo anyway, so why not go straight to the source?” She turned back to Raquel. “So… will you reconsider your contract?”

Raquel didn’t have to think about it. There was no way she was doing a bedroom scene with Sergio under the circumstances.

“Absolutely not.”

“We’re willing to offer you a compensation, of course,” Sierra said. “A generous one.”

She slid a folded piece of paper across the table, but Raquel didn’t even touch it.

“I’m not interested.”

“Come on, Ms. Murillo,” Alicia cajoled. “You’ve done scenes like that in other movies. We’ve all seen them. Why not now?”

It was true: she had done scenes like that before, and she’d never minded them at all. They were interesting enough in their own right, and they were a part of the job. But now… now it would be Sergio on set with her. She’d fallen apart just kissing him that morning – there was no way she could handle a more intimate scene.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sticking to my contract this time.”

Alicia gave her a mocking look.

“Have you become a prude, Ms. Murillo?”

Raquel wasn’t about to let herself be goaded into this. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.

“I guess I have.”

“Well,” Elena said briskly. “Then there’s no point in continuing this conversation – if Raquel won’t do the scene, then that’s that.” She turned. “You can go, Raquel. Sorry for bothering you.”

As Raquel got up, Elena turned to Sierra and started talking about the budget – but Sierra’s eyes were still fixed on Raquel. When she walked out of the room, she wasn’t surprised that Sierra caught up with her only a few paces down the hall.

“Raquel,” she said. “Wait. Let’s have a talk.”

“You’re not going to change my mind, Ms. Sierra,” Raquel said. “There’s no use in trying.”

Sierra gave her considering look. Then she suddenly said:

“How has your health been lately?”

Raquel frowned in confusion.

“Fine.”

“Really? Because I heard that you had to take a trip to the emergency room a few weeks ago. One of the other actors took you?”

“That was nothing,” Raquel said. “Just stress.”

“I see,” Sierra nodded, and Raquel didn’t like the look in her eyes at all. “You must have had a lot of stress over the past few years.”

Raquel froze.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said, keeping her voice carefully controlled.

“Well,” Sierra said, not taking her eyes off Raquel. “What was it… seven trips to the emergency room in three years?”

Raquel’s heart started beating faster.

“How do you know about that?”

“Let’s just say I have my sources.”

Raquel had to make an effort to keep her expression blank.

“Yes, well,” she said. “I had a number of accidents. It happens.”

“Yes,” Sierra said, giving Raquel a sweet smile. “You seem to have been very clumsy. Funny how those ‘accidents’ always happened after you came back home from shooting on location.”

“Coincidence,” Raquel said coolly.

“Mmm,” Sierra nodded. “Then I’m sure it’s also a coincidence that they stopped happening after you got divorced.”

“It is,” Raquel said. Her heart was beating fast now, but she forced herself to stay calm. All this woman had was speculation – the worst she could do was start a rumor, and there were already so many rumors about Raquel.

But then Sierra took out her phone.

“Quite some accidents they were, too,” she said, then started reading off her screen. “Patient came in with a broken wrist. Bruising on the upper arm and opposite wrist. Patient was offered support for domestic abuse victims but refused.”

Raquel couldn’t move. All she could do was stare at this horrible woman.

“Where did you get that?” she whispered.

“I have my ways,” Sierra said.

“Those are confidential records!” Raquel said. “You shouldn’t have them at all!”

“It’s amazing what a person can get if she can put a little money in the right hands,” Sierra said calmly.

Raquel’s blood was pounding in her ears.

“I should report you to the police!”

“Darling,” Sierra said, in the same condescending tone she’d used on Elena earlier. “Do you really think I’d let them catch me with these? No. You see, one of two things is going to happen here. Either you agree to revisiting your contract, so we can add the scene I want to the movie. Or…” she said, letting her finger hover over her phone, “… I press this button, and your medical records will be sent to every major press agency in Spain – from an untraceable account, of course. I’m sure none of those journalists will have any trouble putting two and two together either… and I don’t think you want that, do you?”

Raquel was fuming. She’d tried so hard to keep everything quiet – she hadn’t told a single soul, not even her mother. She just couldn’t risk it getting out. She could already see the headlines: Raquel Murillo, the victim of domestic abuse. Raquel Murillo, beaten for years by her husband. Why hadn’t she reported him? Why hadn’t she left? Why hadn’t she spoken up, for women everywhere? It would define her – for the rest of her life, she’d be that actress. She could already imagine it – the speculation, the calls from journalists and activism groups, being asked about it in interviews. The pity. The shame. The worst moments of her life, laid bare for all the world to see. She couldn’t bear it.

“I feel like you’re coming around to my way of thinking,” Sierra said, and her smile was like a dagger. “Let’s talk terms, shall we?”

Raquel felt numb. She saw no way out of this. Sierra would probably be careful and capable enough to make sure that the leaked records would never be traced back to her – and even if they were, the damage would be done, and Raquel would be the subject of pity of all of her friends and family – her co-workers – the world. Every person she ever met again would know about this. No. She couldn’t let that happen.

She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

“Fine,” she snapped. “You’ll get your scene. But no full nudity. No way.”

Sierra’s eyes were gleaming.

“Nudity above the waist,” she said, “and below the waist from the back.”

Nothing below the waist,” Raquel countered. “And no breasts.”

“Breasts but no nipples,” Sierra offered. “And down the back to just a hint of buttocks. That’s my best offer.”

Raquel opened her mouth to argue further, but Sierra shook her head.

“No,” she said. “That’s my best offer. Take it or leave it.”

When Raquel hesitated, Sierra prompted her.

“Come on, Raquel,” she said. “I’ve seen your movies. You’ve shot scenes exactly like that before. Every actress has. This is not a big deal.”

Under any other circumstances, it would indeed not be a big deal, but… Sergio. The mere thought of shooting a scene like that with him after what had happened over the weekend made it hard to breathe. But she glanced at the phone still in Sierra’s hand, and she knew she had no choice.

She drew her lips to a tight line, and nodded.

 “Good,” Sierra smiled, slipping her phone back into her pocket. “I knew we’d be able to work things out. Now let’s go back in so we can do the paperwork.”

Raquel slowly followed Sierra back into the room. She felt dizzy with disbelief. What the hell. What the hell. She couldn’t believe that someone could be this awful – and all for a movie. All to get a few more bucks at the box office. What the hell.

“We’re back,” Sierra announced to the room. “She’s changed her mind.”

“What?” Elena said, and Nairobi was frowning too. “Why?”

“I offered her more money,” Sierra said lightly. “Everybody has a price.”

Raquel sat down in her chair, and Elena gave her a flustered look.

“Raquel? Are you sure about this?”

“Yeah,” Nairobi said, “you really don’t have to do this.”

“It’s fine,” Raquel said, somehow managing to keep her voice steady. “I don’t mind.”

Meanwhile, Alicia had slid a new contract across the table.

“Only the appropriate section has been altered,” she said. “You can read it if you want.”

Raquel’s eyes swept over the relevant paragraph – nudity above the waist, no nipples, hint of buttocks. Sierra had gotten exactly what she’d come here to get.

She swallowed hard and picked up a pen. She had no choice.

“Raquel,” Elena said again, urgently. “You don’t have to do this.

Andrés suddenly leaned forward.

“Yes,” he said. “Don’t feel obligated, whatever Alicia said to you.”

Raquel looked up, surprised that Andrés would stand up for her – but then it dawned on her. Of course. He was trying to protect Sergio – from having to do a scene like that with her. She realized that Sergio’s contract must be different from hers, and that he might not have the option to refuse. She suddenly felt so, so bad for him, but she didn’t have a choice.

She shook her head, and then, in one fluent movement, she signed her name.

Excellent,” Sierra said. “I’m glad we could come to an agreement.”

She turned to Nairobi, who rolled her eyes.

“Fine,” the director said. “Fine. If we have to do it, I guess we have to do it, but I’ll decide what it looks like.” She gestured at the writers. “You can have your people write whatever they want, but when we shoot it, it will be classy, you understand? I’m not ruining my movie with something raunchy.”

Sierra considered her for a long moment.

“I guess that’s fine. As long as we have some interesting images to show in the trailer.”

“Sure,” Nairobi said, and Raquel could see that she was really annoyed. “I’ll get you some interesting images for your trailer. Now let’s not take up any more of Raquel’s time with this nonsense. She’s not feeling well today.”

“Thank you,” Raquel nodded, and got up.

She turned and walked right out of the room with her head held high. The moment the door closed behind her, though, she stopped in her tracks – she had to take a breath. She couldn’t believe – she couldn’t believe this. She remembered how difficult it had been that morning just to kiss Sergio… and now they had to do this? She didn’t know how she would manage it. She just couldn’t imagine.

The door behind her opened, and Elena came out.

“Raquel,” she said. “What the hell happened? What did Sierra say to you?”

“Nothing,” Raquel said. She didn’t want Elena to know – she didn’t want anyone to know.

“You just changed your mind?” Elena said, looking very suspicious. “Just like that?”

“Yes,” Raquel said, though it cost her. “She… she made some good arguments. I think that… that it’s going to be a good scene.”

Elena was staring at her.

“After what you told me this morning?” she said. “About you and Sergio? Now you want to do a sex scene with him?”

She swallowed hard.

“It won’t be too bad,” she said. “We’re both professionals. It’s just acting.”

“Raquel,” Elena said quietly. “You started crying this morning when you had to kiss him.”

“I was tired,” Raquel said evasively. “I hadn’t eaten. I feel better now.”

Elena gave her a long look.

“What does she have over you?” she finally said.

“What do you mean?”

“Sierra. She’s putting pressure on you somehow. How? What does she have?”

Raquel looked down.

“Nothing.”

Elena took a step closer to her.

“Please tell me,” she said softly, “I might be able to help.”

Raquel took a deep breath, and for a moment, she was actually tempted. But no. She shook her head. It was too late now anyway.

“You can’t help,” she said. “I signed the contract. It’s done.”

“But..”

“Elena,” Raquel said, looking up at her friend. “I appreciate this. But there’s nothing you can do. Let it go. Please. I’m asking you.”

Elena looked at her for several long moments, but then she nodded.

“Alright. It’s up to you.”

“Thank you,” Raquel said quietly.

Elena heaved a deep sigh and rubbed her eyes.

“Okay…” she said. “Okay, then we’ll just have to make the best of it. Tasteful shots only. The studio can make us put in a scene like that, but Sierra won’t be there on set and Nairobi is the one who determines how stuff like that gets shot. You heard her – we’ll keep things classy.”

Raquel nodded gratefully.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

“We’ll work with a reduced crew,” Elena went on. “I’ll make sure there will be as few people as possible on set for that scene.”

Raquel nodded again – that wasn’t what was bothering her about the scene, but she still appreciated it.

“That would be nice, yes.”

“We’ll make the scene as short as possible,” Elena said. “Maybe just a collage of shots, and as few takes as possible.”

“Yes,” Raquel said, swallowing hard. “Alright.”

She told herself firmly that it wouldn’t be too bad. She knew that Elena would do everything in her power to make this easier on her, and she trusted Nairobi to indeed keep things classy. They probably wouldn’t have to do anything too provocative – just… just a collage of shots, like Elena said.

“I have to get back in there,” Elena said apologetically, glancing back at the door. “There’s other stuff to negotiate.”

“Of course,” Raquel said. “Go.”

Elena gave her a look full of concern.

“Are you going to be alright?”

Raquel took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

“Yes. I’ll be fine.”

She walked back to her room in a bit of a daze, then let herself fall onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling. She felt so shaken. She still couldn’t believe that Sierra had gone to such lengths – committing an actual crime – just to get her to take her clothes off. Sometimes she really hated this business, and the people who ran it. Some of them simply didn’t care about the real people involved in the shooting of a movie – all they cared about was the money.

She took a few deep breaths, and tried to tell herself that it wouldn’t be too bad. She knew she wouldn’t have minded it with anybody else, and Elena had said that it would be just a collage of shots. But she knew fully well what kinds of shots they would be… She and Sergio, half-dressed, lying close together. His fingertips on her skin. His hand in her hair. His mouth on hers. It was everything she’d been trying so desperately to forget.

She pressed her hands to her eyes and groaned at the unfathomable irony of life. Just when she’d decided to respect his wishes and keep her distance from him, circumstances were forcing them closer together than ever. Only a few days ago, she would have been looking forward to a scene like this, and the increased intimacy it would create between her and Sergio, but now… now she had no idea how she would react to it. She could only hope that it wouldn’t be as bad as the reaction she’d had that morning.

At least she knew that it would take a while before the scene would be ready to be shot – it still had to be written, and a new set would have to be prepared in one of the bedrooms, and the lighting and sound would have to be discussed. She’d have at least a week to mentally prepare herself. Hopefully, by then, some of the intensity of the pain she felt would have faded. Hopefully, by then, she’d be ready.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

As Raquel had expected, the new scene was put on the shooting schedule for the next week, and she watched it come closer every day with an uneasy feeling. She wondered over and over again why Sergio had agreed to doing the scene, but she didn’t ask him. Things between them were still difficult. The first time he’d seen her after she’d broken down on set, he’d asked her if she was okay, and it was clear that he was concerned, but she’d brushed him off. He was clearly trying to be nice to her, which only made things harder for her, and she would prefer to stay away from him. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t possible.

They had to return to the scene that had caused her to break down, and she still had trouble keeping herself together. Since there would now be a love-making scene right after it, most of the kisses in the make-up scene had been cut, and Raquel was glad for that, but there was still one big kiss left. It now had to lead up to a bedroom scene, so it had to go through a number of different stages: from the careful tenderness of the make-up scene, through a fuller engagement as they reconnected, to a clear expression of desire that would make the cut to the bedroom believable. It was a long, complicated kiss, and it took them forever to get it shot. For an entire afternoon, Raquel had to kiss Sergio over and over and over again, and still Nairobi wasn’t satisfied.

Raquel knew why – she wasn’t giving herself completely to the kiss. She couldn’t. She had to hold back some part of herself, in order to protect herself from the hurt she’d felt when she’d broken down. She had to mentally and emotionally disengage from him when he was near her, and of course it was affecting her performance. She could feel that Sergio was struggling too, and there was just a fundamental disconnect between them that made it impossible to feel each other out in the kiss. They kept rushing it, trying to get it done, and when Nairobi finally lost her patience and told them in no uncertain terms that they had to slow down, they couldn’t get the transitions between the emotions right because they weren’t in sync. Things just felt… wrong.

As the afternoon moved into evening, Nairobi finally gave up.

“Let’s wrap this,” she said, even though Raquel could that see that she was disappointed. “This new scene has thrown off the schedule completely and we have to move on or we won’t get anything done in time.”

Raquel immediately stepped away from Sergio, and they went to their individual trailers in silence. He’d tried to initiate a conversation with her a few times between or after takes, but she just couldn’t talk to him right now – it was too painful – so he’d stopped trying.

Over the weekend, she had trouble sleeping. On Sunday night, she spent half the night tossing and turning in her bed, unable to fall asleep. Tomorrow, they were going to shoot the scene in the bedroom, and she was more nervous for it than she’d been the first time she’d had to shoot a scene like that. Back then she hadn’t known what to expect, but now she knew it exactly, and that was the problem. Bedroom scenes were no different from usual scenes in the sense that they required take after take after take to get the necessary shots, so she knew that she would spend the entire next day – maybe even the next several days – close to Sergio. Very close. They’d gotten the script to the new scene a few days earlier, but it hadn’t contained much information – just some general stage directions for the characters to undress each other and move to the bed. After that, it just said “various shots of them making love”. It would be up to Nairobi to decide what those shots would look like, so Raquel had very little idea of what she had to prepare herself for.

When she arrived on set the next morning, her stomach was churning. A construction crew had been called into the farmhouse to break down a wall between two bedrooms to make room for all the cameras and lighting, and an intimate set had been constructed against one of the walls, with a bed and a fireplace. The windows were blacked out to create a cozier atmosphere, and the room was already getting warm. They were working with a reduced crew today, as was usual for intimate scenes.

Raquel felt so tense. She had to focus on doing her job properly today. For the start of the scene, she was in her usual costume – a skirt and a blouse, with a simple white shift underneath, as appropriate for the time period. A minute later, Sergio arrived on set too, wearing his usual brown pants and white shirt. As always, her heart skipped a beat when she saw him – it just wouldn’t stop doing that, refusing to catch up with what her head already knew – that he would never be hers again. He gave her a tentative smile, and she could see that he was nervous too as he came over to her.

He cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up his nose.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning,” she replied. She assumed that he felt obligated to talk to her, and she wished he wouldn’t – to spare his feelings as much as her own.

“How… how are you feeling about this scene?” he asked her carefully.

“It’s fine,” she said, producing a nonchalant shrug with some effort. “I’ve done this kind of thing before.” She shot him a look. “I… I suppose you haven’t?”

“No,” he said, and she could see him go red. “I haven’t.”

A vivid memory – the two of them sitting in their shared trailer, nine years ago, rehearsing his first on-screen kiss. That had been it… that had been when she knew.

She pushed the thought away. There would be no rehearsing this time.

“It’s not very different from shooting other scenes,” she said, avoiding his eyes. “Nairobi will tell us what to do.”

“Uhm…” he said. “She… she doesn’t usually tell us what to do in other scenes either.” He paused and swallowed hard. “Do you… do you think we could talk about it first?”

It was too late for that, however – Nairobi came striding into the room with her usual air of determined energy.

“Listen up, people!” she said. “We’re working with a reduced crew today, so everyone will need to work a little harder. None of us asked for this scene, but it’s here now, and I’ll be damned if we don’t make something beautiful out of it.”

Raquel’s stomach squirmed – she really didn’t know if she would be able to manage ‘beautiful’ – but she supposed Nairobi would be able to paste something passable together if they did enough takes and she could pick and choose.

Nairobi walked over to her and Sergio.

“Alright,” she said. “We’re going to make the most of this. I’d like to start with just a few kisses in front of the fireplace to set the mood, then a few shots of undressing, then move to the bed. That okay with you?”

“Yes,” they both said – what else could they say?

They started, and immediately it became clear that this whole thing would be a disaster. They couldn’t even get a simple kiss right – Raquel was too tense, and things between them felt stiff and awkward. She could only let herself touch him if she completely shut off the emotional part of herself – the part of her that cared. Unfortunately, that was also the part that made her a good actress, and not being able to access it made it impossible to fully engage in the scene.

Soon, Nairobi was rubbing her temples, and Raquel couldn’t blame her.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay, let’s try something simpler. I get that it can be hard to get into the mood at nine o’clock in the morning. Sergio, could you just take her hand and kiss her palm? That should be doable, right?”

Raquel felt so relieved. Sergio looked at her, as if asking for her permission, and she nodded. He took her hand, and they waited until the cameras were ready. Then he bent his head, and pressed a soft kiss to her palm. He did it so tenderly that something resonated inside of her, in spite of all of her defenses, and she had to close her eyes.

“Yes!” Nairobi said. “That’s much better. Now a kiss to her wrist, please.”

Sergio complied. The kiss he gave her was so sweet, and Raquel felt the same resonance in her chest – her defenses wavering. No – no, she couldn’t let that happen, or she would be a sobbing mess in her trailer again. They shot the same kiss for several more takes, and it was enough for her to steel herself again. When Nairobi asked her to start unbuttoning Sergio’s shirt, she merely nodded, the walls she needed firmly back in place. She was glad that she was allowed to look at the buttons while she worked, instead of up into his eyes – it was taking her all of her focus not to think about how often she’d wished she could undress him for real.

Once his shirt was off, Nairobi wanted something different. She let Sergio stand behind Raquel to unbutton her blouse – then, when it was unbuttoned, she had him push it off, and kiss Raquel’s shoulder. The sensation was almost unbearable – his warm breath against her skin – the way he kissed her so gentle – his arms around her waist making her defenses waver again. The walls inside her began to crumble and tear under his soft kisses, and to her utter dismay, she felt herself begin to shake.

Thankfully, at that point, Nairobi decided that they had enough shots of the undressing, and that it was time for everyone to take their lunch break. Raquel went to her trailer – she needed some time alone to pull herself together for the afternoon shoot, which would be even worse. Once her break was over, she went to wardrobe to take off her costume. For the bed scenes, she would only be wearing her panties, and she was given covers for her nipples, as stipulated in her contract with Sierra. Nairobi would make sure that the nipple covers were never visible to the camera in various ways – by filming her slightly turned away from the camera, or by strategically positioning an arm, or… by putting her very close to Sergio. Raquel swallowed hard at the thought, then steeled herself. She could do this. She’d done scenes like this before. She just wouldn’t think about the fact that it was Sergio there with her.

She was given a bathrobe to cover herself as she walked to the set. Sergio was already there, sitting on the bed, only wearing pants. She didn’t look at him as she walked over to the bed too and sat down as far away from him as she could, waiting for Nairobi’s instructions.

“Alright,” Nairobi said, when the lighting and cameras were all adjusted for the next scene. “I’d like to start with a few loose shots. Raquel, could you lie down on the bed on your stomach, please?”

Raquel nodded. She noticed how Sergio averted his eyes as she took off the bathrobe and handed it to an assistant. Then she lay down on the bed, pulling the sheet up over her hips – again, as per her contract with Sierra.

“Do you want me to look at the camera or away?” she asked Nairobi.

“Away,” she said. “Look at Sergio.”

Wonderful.

Nairobi instructed Sergio to go sit next to Raquel on the bed, so she was in front of him from the camera’s perspective. When she’d done scenes like this in other movies, Raquel had never felt particularly ill at ease – the equipment all around and the presence of the crew had always made it feel like it was just work – but now that she was lying like this next to Sergio, the situation felt terribly intimate, especially when she turned her face away from the cameras and suddenly he was the only person she could see. When the set quieted for the take, it felt like they were alone, and the feeling made her heart beat faster.

“Sergio,” Nairobi said, “I’d like you to just run your fingers down her spine. Slowly, please. Just repeat that a few times so we can have a few different shots. Camera ready? Go!”

Raquel steeled herself for his touch, but when he carefully moved her hair away and his fingers brushed her skin, it was still a shock. She was so acutely aware of his touch as he slowly started trailing his fingers down her back. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine that it was someone else next to her – some random actor that she didn’t really know – but it was no use. He was so close, and the smell of him was so familiar that she just couldn’t pretend it wasn’t him next to her. His touch was so tender as he ran his fingers down her spine, and it was tearing at her defenses again. Something inside her just couldn’t help but respond to him – to remember – to wish that he were really touching her like this. Slowly but surely, with every added stroke of his fingers, he was undoing her.

Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore – she turned her face into the pillow to hide her expression. He immediately pulled back his hand.

“Are you okay?” he said, bending close to her so that only she would be able to hear it.

She took a shaking breath and tried to nod – but she couldn’t. Her eyes were burning and her throat was tight. She couldn’t help herself. She shook her head, just the tiniest bit.

He straightened up, and Nairobi called ‘cut!’.

“I’m sorry,” Sergio said to the room at large. “Could we have a moment?”

Raquel’s eyebrows shot up – shy, awkward Sergio had never directed himself to the entire crew before – only the director could give orders to the crew. They all looked back at him with surprised expressions.

“Sorry?” Nairobi said.

“Could we have a moment?” he repeated. “This is… kind of an intimate scene, and it would be nice if… if we could have a moment to talk, here, where it needs to be shot.”

Nairobi blinked, but then she shrugged.

“Alright, why not. Whatever helps. Take five, everyone!”

The crew trooped out of the doorway and down the stairs to the breakroom, which had been set up in the barn next to the house. Nairobi shot them a look at the door.

“Just five minutes, guys. We have a schedule to keep to.”

Sergio nodded.

“Yes, I understand.”

The moment the door closed behind Nairobi, Sergio picked his shirt up off the floor and carefully covered Raquel with it, then averted his eyes again as she sat up and buttoned it.

“I can’t believe you did that,” she said quietly, looking at the door through which the crew had left.

He shrugged, then moved to sit on the side of the bed. She hesitated, then swung her legs out of bed to sit next to him. His shirt was big enough that it reached halfway down her thighs.

“Raquel,” he said. “Andrés told me you signed a new version of your contract to include… this kind of scene. I thought… I thought you’d agreed to doing this, but… but that’s not what it feels like to me.” He looked up at her. “Do you even want to do this at all?”

She hesitated.

“I don’t… I don’t mind the scene itself, but it’s just… hard, you know? Because… because it’s you and me.”

He rubbed a hand over his eyes.

“It’s hard for me too,” he said quietly, and once again she felt so bad for him. He hadn’t asked for any of this – it was because she had given in to Sierra’s threats that he was here now.

“I’m sorry, Sergio,” she suddenly said. “I’m so sorry.”

He gave her a confused look.

“Why?”

“For… for all of this,” she said, gesturing around. “For dragging you into this second movie. For… for dragging you into this scene. I’m sorry that you’re forced to be around me – I’m sorry that you have to see me every day, and talk to me, and…”

“Raquel,” he said gently. “Stop. You don’t have to...”

“No,” she whispered. “No, I have to say this.” She looked at him and swallowed hard. “I’m sorry about what happened at dinner last week. I’m sorry for asking… what I asked. I was only thinking of myself, and what I wanted. I didn’t take your feelings into account at all. I was selfish, and inconsiderate, and I’m sorry.”

He gave a slow nod.

“Thank you for saying that,” he said. “But I’m sorry too. I… I know I’d been giving you mixed signals. I was just… not sure how I felt about it all, until… until you asked me. That’s when I realized… I can’t go through that again.”

“I understand,” she whispered. “I do. I’m sorry for putting you on the spot like that. I should have talked to you, asked you how you were feeling about it all.”

“Don’t take all of this on yourself,” he said gently. “I could have initiated that conversation too. I was just… too confused.”

She sighed and pushed her hair behind her ear.

“I should have seen that,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t.”

They sat in silence for a moment, before he carefully spoke again.

“Raquel… I do still care for you. I… I’d like us to be friends. If you want that too.”

She swallowed hard – it wasn’t easy to hear him say that. But she’d told herself that she would respect his wishes from now on, so that was what she’d do.

“Alright,” she said quietly. “Let’s be friends. I… I’d like that.”

He gave her a relieved look, and Raquel felt a little relieved too. Things hadn’t turned out the way she’d hoped, but at least now they both knew where they stood, and it felt like they’d cleared the air somewhat. However, there was still the present matter to deal with.

“So what do we do now?” she said. “About this scene?”

He swallowed hard.

“Well,” he said. “It’s not easy, but… I think I can handle it.”

She gave him a closer look.

“Sergio,” she said. “Did they even discuss this with you? To see if you were okay with it?”

“No,” he said soberly. “Andrés just told me that it was going to happen. The contract I signed nine years ago included scenes like this.”

She frowned.

“Really? Why? There were no intimate scenes in the first movie.”

He gave her a crooked smile.

“Do you remember the first kiss in that movie? Tristán was in bed with his shirt off because Eva was taking care of his burns, and then they kissed. So that’s what’s in my contract: kissing, in bed, shirtless. In other words: the scene we’re shooting now falls well within the parameters of my contract, and I didn’t really have the option to say no.” He shook his head. “But I don’t want to cause you any pain. If this scene is too much for you, then we should just say that we won’t do it.”

She shook her head.

“I can’t do that,” she whispered.

He frowned at her.

“Why not?”

She took a deep breath.

“I… I can’t tell you why, I’m sorry. I just… I have to do it.”

He was still frowning and she could see him think, and come to certain conclusions.

“Andrés told me that you said no at first,” he said slowly, “but then you talked to Sierra in private and you changed your mind. Raquel… why did you change your mind?”

Raquel hesitated.

“I just… I just did.”

He gave her a close look, and his eyes were very serious.

“What did she say to you?”

“Nothing,” Raquel whispered.

“Raquel,” he said softly. “Please. What did she say to you?”

Raquel ran a hand over her eyes.

“She… she threatened to leak something to the press,” she finally admitted. “Something that… that I don’t want people to see.”

His eyebrows went up, and she suddenly realized that he must think that she was talking about compromising photographs or… or a sex tape or something. She opened her mouth to correct him, but then she stopped herself. She’d rather prefer that he think that, than know the truth.

He was shaking his head.

“That’s awful, Raquel,” he said. “Really awful. She… she shouldn’t be pressuring you to do a scene like this if you don’t want to do it!”

“It’s not the scene itself that I mind,” she said. “I’ve done scenes like this before. It’s just hard… given the circumstances. But I… I don’t have any choice.”

He gave her a long look.

“Raquel,” he said. “I really don’t feel comfortable doing… doing things like this if you don’t want them.” He paused, thinking. Then he steeled himself. “If you can’t break your contract, then… then I will.”

She stared at him.

“No, Sergio, you can’t do that.”

“I can,” he said staunchly. “The studio might be able to pressure you, but they have nothing on me. Maybe you can’t refuse, but I can.”

“They’d ruin your career,” she said, stricken. “You know actors who break their contracts aren’t hired anywhere anymore.”

“I don’t care,” he said stubbornly. “I’ll be fine. I won’t let you do this if it’s something you don’t want.”

She looked at him. How, how was he so good to her after she’d broken his heart like that – no, not just broken – shattered. He’s never been the same again, Raquel. Never. She could still hear Andrés’ words echoing in her head. She’d done that to him – and now he was willing to sacrifice his career for her?

She couldn’t let him do that. There was no way.

“No,” she said, and she was surprised by how firm her voice was. “No, Sergio, you’re not doing that. It’s… it’s so sweet of you, really, but I’m not letting you throw away your career over one stupid scene.”

He opened his mouth to argue, but at that point the door opened.

“Sorry guys,” Nairobi said, sticking in her head. “But we really have to move on.”

“It’s alright,” Raquel said, her voice still firm. “Come in. We’re ready.”

Sergio was shaking his head, but she reached out and touched his arm, just for a moment.

“Sergio,” she said. “I’ll be fine. Really. I just… I just have to get over myself.”

When he still hesitated, she nodded at him.

“Really. I can do this.”

She would just have to try harder. She would just have to be more professional – put aside her personal feelings and just act. The crew came filing back in, and soon they were all at their positions again. Nairobi came over to Raquel.

“You okay?” she asked. “If you don’t want to do this…”

“No,” Raquel said, squaring her shoulders. “I was just… a little tense. I’ll be fine now.”

“Alright…” Nairobi said. “If you’re sure.”

“Yes,” she said, keeping any hesitance out of her voice. “I am.”

“Then I’d like to move on to the next part,” Nairobi said to both her and Sergio. “I’d like to shoot some kisses. Sergio on top. Soft and sweet at first – you’ve only just made up after a fight, after all.”

Raquel glanced at Sergio, to see him glance at her too. They both quickly looked away again.

“Then I want you to sort of sink into it,” Nairobi continued. “I’d like to give you some space for this. We’ll do some long takes, so you can get into it. Just see where it takes you.”

Long takes. So they could get into it. Perfect. Just perfect.

But then Raquel shook herself – no, she could do this. As Nairobi walked over to her director’s chair, Raquel started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing with a feeling of determination. She could do this. Before she took off the shirt, she took a deep breath, and made herself go completely emotionless – shoving down everything she’d ever felt for him, to be dealt with later. Right now, she would just do what she had to do, and she wouldn’t allow any feelings to interfere with her work.

She lay down on her back and Sergio kneeled down next to her.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” he murmured.

“Yes,” she said, though her heart was beating fast. Traitor. If only she could control that, too.

“Positions,” Nairobi said, and Sergio carefully lowered himself so they were lying chest to chest. Feeling him on top of her, his skin warm against hers, was making something flutter madly in her stomach, and she steeled herself even more. She might not be able to control how her body reacted to him, but she could at least control how she felt about it – nothing. She couldn’t allow herself to feel anything.

Nairobi called action. Sergio looked into her eyes for a moment, then bent his head and kissed her – softly, gently, feeling her out. She tried to kiss him back, but she couldn’t allow herself to feel him out in return – she had to keep up her walls – she couldn’t connect to him, or it would hurt – but just like before, they couldn’t make the kiss work properly. Nairobi let it go on for several long moments before calling ‘cut’. Sergio immediately sat back up on his knees.

“Raquel,” Nairobi said. “You’re holding back. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work like that.”

“I know,” Raquel said, pulling the sheet up to her chest. “I’m sorry.”

“I want to adjust the lighting,” Nairobi said. “Try to get yourself in the right headspace, please.”

She walked over to the lighting crew, and they started adjusting the screens and lights around the bed. Meanwhile, Raquel took a few deep breaths. She didn’t know what to do anymore – she didn’t know how to make this work.

Sergio was looking at her. Then he bent a little closer to her, so the crew wouldn’t hear them.

“Raquel,” he said softly. “You don’t have to do this. Just say the word and I’m calling it off.”

“But your career…”

I don’t care,” he said, quietly but emphatically. “This isn’t happening if it’s hurting you.”

She looked up at him, and she could feel something stir in her chest, in spite of all the defenses she’d put up against him. It meant so much to her that he cared so much. More than anything, it showed her that he still loved her – in some ways, if not all. And she loved him too. She loved him so much. The way he was trying to protect her now was making her feel so safe… and it made her wonder if maybe she could let go after all…

She suddenly remembered their first day of shooting this movie – how they’d had to shoot a kiss, and how they hadn’t been able to do that properly either, because they’d both been holding back. She remembered how they’d finally gotten it right: because she’d finally allowed herself to want to kiss him again – she’d given free rein to her feelings and kissed him the way she wanted to kiss him. That had done it. But she also remembered how that kiss had woken up all her slumbering feelings for him – how they’d returned in a wave that had swept her away, helpless. She was so scared that the same thing would happen now – but she realized it was the only way. 

She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. She’d been shielding herself from the full impact of having him close – kissing him – touching him – because she’d been afraid of the pain, but she couldn’t keep doing that – not if they wanted this scene to work. There was no sense in trying to avoid the pain. It was unavoidable. She had to stop fighting it – she had to stop protecting herself.

Underneath it all – underneath the pain and the confusion and the difficult feelings – they were still them. She knew if she could just set aside their issues, she would be able to connect to him again. If only she were brave enough.

“Alright,” Nairobi called out to the room as she returned to her chair. “Let’s try again. Take two.”

Raquel looked up at Sergio. His eyes were warm and steady as he looked down at her, and something surged in her chest. She loved him. She loved him so much. What had happened last week hadn’t changed that at all. And she wanted to kiss him. God help her, but she still wanted to kiss him.

“I can do it,” she said softly.

He looked at her.

“One word,” he said. “And I shut it down.”

She nodded at him, such a tender feeling in her chest. 

“Thank you,” she whispered. “But I’d like one more try.”

He gave her a long look, trying to gauge her feelings, but then he nodded.

“Alright. One more try.”

Nairobi called action, and he came to lie half on top of her again. He bent his head, and just brushed his lips against hers – tentatively, waiting for her reaction. She closed her eyes and, for the first time, she allowed herself to feel – to feel how soft his lips were against hers – to breathe him in – to really feel his body against hers. He kissed her again, and this time when she felt her defenses waver, she let them. She let the walls inside her crumble and fall until there was nothing left of them, and she was left defenseless before him; open and vulnerable. She wasn’t just feeling his kisses now, she was savoring them – allowing herself to fully experience the delight of kissing him, the wonder of it. She reached up and touched his cheek, and he pulled back slightly. They looked at each other – and then he smiled, and suddenly – click – things fell into place.

He bent his head and kissed her more fully now, and she twined her fingers into his hair and kissed him back, with full and utter surrender, and it was the most wonderful thing in the world. The disconnect she’d felt earlier was gone completely as they gave themselves to each other, neither of them holding back anymore. Her heart was beating frantically as she kissed him and kissed him, finally giving in to her longing for him. The taste of him was so warm and wonderful, and she couldn’t get enough of him as they explored each other deeply. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down, wanting nothing more than to feel more of his weight on her, to have him even closer.  

She allowed herself to forget that this wasn’t real – allowed herself to forget about the cameras and the crew – allowed herself to forget that he wouldn’t be hers anymore once this scene was done. She could believe that he was hers now, and that was all that mattered. He was kissing her as if nothing had ever happened between them – as if kissing her was the only thing he’d ever wanted to do – as if he never wanted to stop – and she was kissing him back with all her heart. Oh, she’d longed for this, she’d dreamed of this, and it felt so right. They were perfectly attuned to each other now, moving effortlessly between careful tenderness and passion, and back again.

When Nairobi finally said ‘cut’ and Sergio pulled back, Raquel felt completely breathless. Nairobi was saying something complimentary, but Raquel barely heard her – she was looking into Sergio’s eyes, and he was looking back at her, and the air between them was filled with longing. All she knew was that she wanted more, and when Nairobi called for a second take, he immediately bent his head and kissed her again – eagerly, hungrily – and she sank back into it with the immeasurably satisfying feeling of having her deepest desire met. She knew it would hurt afterwards – it would hurt like hell – but she didn’t want to think of that right now. Right now, all she wanted to think about was his closeness and his mouth on hers.

The rest of the afternoon went by in a daze. She lost herself completely in his nearness – in the taste of him on her lips – in the warm scent of him – in the feeling of his hands on her skin. In between takes, they stayed close together, careful not to lose the feeling between them, returning to each other with complete surrender the moment the cameras started rolling again. His mouth was on hers – then on her throat – his fingers trailing down her side – her hands in his hair, on his shoulders, his back, pulling him closer – over and over again, pulling him closer. They shot take after take after take, and for once, Raquel was glad for the endless repetition. She never wanted to stop – she never wanted this shoot to end.

Yet end it did – long before Raquel was ready to let him go.

“That’s a wrap!” Nairobi called out, sounding very pleased. “Absolutely amazing job, people! I think we really made something beautiful today.”

Raquel wasn’t paying attention. She and Sergio were still lying close together, and the way he was looking at her… She felt the look resonate in her chest, pulling at something inside of her, and all she wanted to do was draw his head down and kiss him again – but this had only been for the duration of the scene, and now the scene was done.

The next moment, he swallowed hard, and she could feel him adjust to reality again.

“Are you… are you okay?” he murmured.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I am.”

They looked at each other for one more moment, and Raquel so clearly felt the closeness that existed between them now. She wished so desperately that she wouldn’t have to let it go.

But then members of the crew came over to the bed to start removing the lighting screens, and they hastily broke apart, the bubble around them broken. An assistant came up to Raquel with her bathrobe, and she pulled it on, while Sergio picked his shirt up off the floor and put it on. His sudden absence left her feeling cold and numb – she felt like she’d been woken from the most beautiful dream with a bucket of ice water. The numbness lasted while she went back to her trailer and put her regular clothes back on. Then, she sank down on her sofa and buried her face in her hands. She’d known the pain would come afterwards, and now it washed over her, leaving her shaking and gasping for breath.

Oh. Oh. That had been everything she’d been dreaming of for nine years – having him in her arms, so warm and amazing and deeply, wonderfully intimate. For a few hours, she’d been allowed a glimpse into an alternate reality – a world in which she’d made a different choice, and he was hers, wholly and completely. For a few hours, they’d been everything to each other, just like they’d been for twelve glorious hours nine years ago, and it had been so beautiful. It had been everything she wanted so desperately, and now it killed her, because she knew that this was it – that she’d never have it again, and it hurt.

She didn’t allow herself to fall apart completely, though. Not this time. This time, she would be strong. She’d known that it was going to be painful the moment she decided to lower her defenses, and now she wouldn’t let it break her. She allowed herself a few tears, but she wiped them away immediately and forced herself to take deep breaths. She’d get over this. She would. She’d carry the memories with her forever, but she wouldn’t let them consume her. She took a deep breath and got up, throwing a quick look in the mirror to check that her eyes weren’t too red. Then she walked out of her trailer.

Sergio was standing there. He was back in his normal clothes too. As always, her heart – so broken, yet still so in love with him – skipped a beat.

He looked like he wasn’t sure why he was there.

“It just… didn’t feel right to just… leave,” he explained.

She nodded. She felt the same, after what they’d just experienced together.

They stood looking at each other for a long moment – and then he opened his arms to her, and she stepped in against him, settling herself against his chest. It felt like coming home.

“Thank you,” she whispered. She wasn’t sure exactly what she was thanking him for. For breaking through her defenses, earlier. For letting her in. For waiting for her afterwards. For hugging her.

“Thank you too,” he whispered back, and she wondered if he was grateful for the same things she was.

He held her tight for a moment… but then she felt something shift in him, and he opened his arms and stepped away from her.

“Raquel,” he said, looking down, his voice shaking slightly. “I… I think I need some time away from you now. This is… harder than I thought it would be.”

She felt tears burn, but she knew he was right – today had made everything so much harder. And she never wanted to ignore his boundaries again.

“Yes,” she said. “I understand. We don’t have any more scenes together this week, so… so let’s keep our distance.”

He nodded, his lips a tight line.

“You have to know,” he said. “That I do still want us to be friends. I just… need a little time after this.”

Her throat was tight.

“Yes,” she whispered, looking down. “That would probably be best.”

He nodded again. He looked at her for one more moment, but then he shook his head and turned away. As she watched him walk away, she could still feel the ghost of his kisses on her lips.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

For the rest of the week, Raquel barely saw him. Sergio had a scene to shoot in the village which required a number of extras to create a crowd, which meant that filming was very slow, and even just one scene took days to shoot. In the meantime, Raquel had some time off, and she tried to make the most of it. The weather was nice, so she spent her days reading by the pool, regularly stopping for a swim. She took a taxi into town to do some shopping. She had dinner with Elena. She took long walks to clear her head. Sergio seemed to be doing the same thing, because she sometimes caught glimpses of him in the evenings: on the beach or on the green hills around the hotel. Whenever she did, she changed directions and went the other way.

She had no contact with him at all. When she wasn’t having dinner with Elena, Raquel ordered all of her meals up to her room through room service, so she wouldn’t bump into him in the hotel restaurant. After the closeness they’d been rebuilding over the past few weeks, it now hurt to be apart from him again, and Raquel felt lonely – but she knew that it was for the best. Having some distance from him was good for her. She’d been so caught up in him that she’d lost herself. His absence now was painful, but she felt how, slowly but surely, she was regaining some of her balance.

And she had one big thing to cheer her up: that weekend, her mother and Paula were coming for a visit. Raquel had been counting down to this visit for weeks, and now she was looking forward to it more than ever – she couldn’t wait to hug her daughter again, and to let her cheerful chatter distract her from her worries. It would be a good reminder that there were other things in her life that she cared about – other people she loved – other things that mattered. Being isolated here on set made it easy to forget that.

Her only fear was Alberto. He’d been trying harder and harder to get her to talk to him, and lately she’d been giving in – letting him talk to her sometimes when he asked – because she was afraid that, if she kept hanging up on him, he’d fly out here to talk to her in person. So when she went to the airport on Friday evening to pick up her mother and Paula, part of her was afraid that Alberto would be with them, too.

She felt such a wave of relief when she saw just her mother and Paula walk out through the doors in the arrivals hall. He hadn’t come with them – thank god. Thank god. Now, she could be uncomplicatedly happy about seeing her daughter again. She opened her arms with the biggest smile, and Paula came running to her, and it was so good to hold her again; to have the familiar shape of her daughter in her arms and feel the little arms wrapped around her neck.

“Mom! I’ve missed you!”

“I’ve missed you too, sweetheart,” Raquel said, squeezing her tight. “So, so much.”

When she put her down again, the girl held out a flower to her, and Raquel took it with a smile. But then…

“It’s from dad!” Paula said brightly.

Raquel felt her delight turn to horror, and she almost dropped the flower.

“What?”

“He asked me to give it to you,” Paula said.

Raquel felt stunned. How dare he? How dare he use their daughter as a go-between? What an awful, manipulative thing to do. What if Paula started thinking that…

Too late.

“Are you getting back together?” the girl asked, her expression eager, hopeful.

Raquel felt terrible.

“No, sweetheart,” she said gently. “We’re not, I’m sorry.”

“Dad wants to,” Paula said, and Raquel felt her anger at Alberto increase. What had he been telling the child? Why would he give her hope like that? But she knew perfectly well why – in order to pressure Raquel. The thought made her livid.

She pushed down her anger, though, and kneeled down in front of Paula.

“Sweetheart,” she said, her voice gentle but steady. “Your dad and I are not getting back together.”

Paula gave her a disappointed look.

“Why not?”

Raquel cast around for a way to phrase things – there were so many reasons, but she couldn’t tell any of them to her daughter.

“Because… because it’s better for both of us if we’re apart. But it doesn’t mean that we love you any less, okay?”

“Okay,” Paula nodded, though Raquel could see that she was still disappointed.

“Do you want to go to the hotel?” Raquel asked, trying to distract her. “Maybe we can still go for a swim before we go to bed?”

That cheered the girl up – she smiled and nodded.

“Yes!”

“Alright,” Raquel said, relieved.

She got up and finally turned towards her mother.

“Hi mom,” she smiled, moving in to hug her. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Hi sweetheart,” Mariví said, embracing her warmly in return. Then she quietly said: “I’m sorry about the flower, I didn’t know he gave it to her.”

“It’s alright,” Raquel said, then she took a deep breath and put the whole thing aside, to be dealt with later – she wanted to focus on being with her family right now. “It’s so nice of you to fly out here with Paula.”

“Of course,” Mariví said. “It’s good to be out of the city for a few days, and you said the hotel is so nice.”

“It is,” Raquel said. She looked at her mother and daughter, and for the first time in days, she was smiling. “It’s really nice. Shall we?”

She took up Paula’s bag in one hand, and her daughter’s hand in the other, and together, the three of them walked out of the airport to a waiting taxi.

It was so good to have her daughter next to her in the car, and Raquel listened to Paula’s non-stop chatter with delight. She asked all the right questions to keep her talking, and shared regular smiles over Paula’s head with Mariví. She was so glad to have the two of them here – so, so glad. For the next few days, at least, their constant company would distract her from thoughts about Sergio.

At least, that’s what she thought – but the moment they arrived at the hotel and walked into the lobby, they bumped straight into Sergio and Andrés, who were heading out.

Raquel felt too flustered to speak for a moment, but Andrés was suave as always.

“Ah!” he said, spreading his arms. “The Murillo family! Welcome to Galicia.”

He held out his hand to Mariví, who shook it with a questioning look.

“Andrés de Fonollosa,” Andrés introduced himself. “I’m one of the producers on this movie. You must be Raquel’s mother.”

“Yes,” Mariví said. “We’re here for the weekend.”

“Well,” Andrés said with his usual charm. “I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time. The weather will be nice, and the beach is right outside.”

Raquel wasn’t listening – all of her attention was on Sergio. He wasn’t moving – he was just looking at Paula. Raquel couldn’t read his expression, but she could only imagine how he must be feeling – this child was the reason why the two of them weren’t together. If it hadn’t been for Paula… his life would have been so different. Raquel could only imagine that it must be painful for him to see her, and she wished she could have spared him this, but now that they were here… She took a deep breath.

“Paula,” she said. “This is Sergio. He’s a friend of mine.”

“Nice to meet you,” Paula said politely, and Sergio blinked and seemed to catch himself.

“It’s… nice to meet you too, Paula,” he said.

Andrés held out his hand to the girl, and when she put her little hand in his, he bent down and kissed it, making Paula giggle.

“It’s a delight to meet you, little miss.”

“This is Andrés,” Raquel explained to Paula. “He’s my boss.”

“Nice to meet you,” Paula said again. Raquel was proud at how polite she was.

Mariví was looking closely at Sergio now.

“So you’re Sergio,” she said softly.

It was clear from her tone that she knew all about him, and Sergio went a little red.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s… it’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Murillo.”

He held out his hand to Mariví, and she shook it, still giving him that close look.

“Yes, well,” Andrés said lightly, breaking the tension. “We have to get going, we have a reservation. Have a nice weekend.”

“You too,” Raquel said.

The men walked past them, and Raquel saw from the corner of her eye how Sergio turned and looked back at them – but then Andrés said something, and he turned away.

“So,” her mother said softly, looking after the men too. “That’s Sergio.”

“Yes,” Raquel said quietly.

Her mother gave a thoughtful nod, but they couldn’t discuss this in front of Paula, so Raquel took a deep breath, and led them to the front desk.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s get you a key to your room.”

It was wonderful to have her mother and daughter there for the weekend. On Saturday, Raquel showed them all around the hotel and the village, and Elena even accompanied them for a tour of the set. Paula looked at the cameras and other equipment with big eyes – Raquel usually tried to keep her away from set in Madrid, because there was always too much press hanging around. Here, though, she hadn’t seen any press yet, and Paula was very enthusiastic about seeing where her mom worked. Raquel and Elena took turns explaining how things worked to the girl, and she absorbed it all with an eager expression. Mariví looked quite interested too, though she was rather tired afterwards.

On Sunday, they decided to spend the day in the hotel. In the morning, they lounged besides the pool while Paula swam, and then they had lunch in the hotel restaurant. Afterwards, Paula asked if she could play on the beach, and Raquel agreed. Mariví said that she was tired again, and went to her room for a nap, so it was just Raquel and Paula who spread their towels on the warm sand.

“Can I go look for sea shells?” the girl asked.

“Of course,” Raquel said. “Shall we look for them together?”

“No,” Paula said, smiling broadly. “I want them to be a surprise for you.”

Raquel smiled back.

“Alright,” she said. “You go, then.”

She settled on her towel, looking at Paula as the girl walked along the line of the waves and bent down to pick up shells at regular intervals. This was definitely the hardest part of location shoots – having to spend so much time away from her daughter; having to miss everyday moments like this. She used to fly home to Madrid during weekends to see her, but she’d noticed over the years that it was always very hard for her to return to set afterwards and get back into character, so for the last couple of shoots, her mother and Paula had flown to visit her instead. It was a solution that worked for everyone, as her mother enjoyed traveling and Paula got a little holiday.

Her bag suddenly buzzed, and she dug around in it to find her phone, which was all the way at the bottom. It was a message from her agent about a new project. Raquel thought about her reply for a moment, then typed the message and put her phone back into her bag.

She looked back up at Paula – but she couldn’t see her anymore. Raquel looked around in confusion for a moment – had she walked in the other direction, or up the beach? No, she couldn’t see her anywhere. She jumped up and called ‘Paula!’, but there was no reply. Her heart suddenly pounding – no, no, no – she ran to the edge of the waves, but the sea was clear and calm, and she couldn’t see anything in the water. She looked back to where she’d last seen Paula – she’d been close to that formation of rocks. Maybe she’d gone beyond them.

She started running over the wet sand, her heart beating frantically. How had this happened? Five minutes! She’d been looking at her phone for five minutes!

But then she rounded the rock formation… and there she was. The little figure of her daughter, squatting beside a tide pool, looking absolutely fascinated by the life squirming around in there. And beside her… Sergio.

“Paula!” Raquel said as she stopped running, clutching a stitch in her side. “You shouldn’t go off like that! Always stay where I can see you!”

Sergio straightened up, looking flustered.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought… She said you knew where she was. Otherwise I… I would have taken her to you, of course.”

“It’s alright,” Raquel said, feeling more relieved than angry. “I’m glad you found her.”

“Well I… I was just walking here… She just came up to me and asked about the fish in there…”

He still seemed very flustered. Meanwhile, Paula was completely unbothered by the fuss the grown-ups were making. She was still looking intently into the tide pool.

“Sergio,” she said, pointing. “What’s this?”

Sergio looked at Raquel for permission, and she nodded.

“Well,” he said, kneeling down beside the girl. “That seems to be a kind of starfish…”

He started explaining about the different kinds of starfish, and Paula listened attentively. Raquel could only stare at them. Oh, this was so deeply, utterly strange, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Worlds were colliding here – she had kept these two people apart so purposefully, and now they were meeting anyway. She was so grateful that Sergio didn’t seem to resent Paula… But of course he didn’t. This was Sergio.

She felt that this must be painful for him, though, and she wanted to spare him any further hurt.

“Paula,” she said gently. “Let’s go, sweetheart. We should let Sergio continue on his walk.”

“Oh,” he said, seemingly without thinking. “No, I was just coming back.”

“And I want to know more about the starfish!” Paula said.

“Why don’t we go get some ice cream at the pool?” Raquel suggested, trying a diversion tactic.

It worked – Paula jumped up.

“Yes!” she said. But then… “Can Sergio come too?”

Sergio’s eyes went wide, and he looked up at Raquel.

“I’m sure Sergio has other things to do, sweetheart,” Raquel said quickly, but Paula wasn’t so easily deterred. She turned to Sergio.

“Do you want to come?”

Sergio looked down at her, then back up at Raquel. He seemed so flustered.

“You don’t have to,” she assured him. “Really.”

“But…” he said. “She asked me.”

Raquel could see that he was charmed, and she couldn’t help but smile.

“Well…” she said. “If you want…”

He hesitated.

“Can starfish really grow back their arms, Sergio?” Paula asked, right on cue, and that seemed to sway him.

“Why, yes,” he said. “They can, and there’s something even more fascinating: some species can regrow an entire body from a separated arm!”

“No!” Paula said. “Really?”

They started walking in the direction of the hotel, and Raquel followed them, feeling deeply bemused by this unexpected turn of events. This was the last thing she would have expected to happen today.

Paula kept asking questions, and Sergio kept answering them, as they reached the bar next to the hotel pool and sat down at one of the small tables. They all ordered ice cream, and Raquel kept looking between Sergio and her daughter as they talked and ate. This was surreal – she felt like she was dreaming. In another life, this could have been her everyday reality. If she’d made a different choice nine years ago, Sergio could have been Paula’s stepfather, and they would have had so many moments like this – Raquel had no doubt that he would have spent many an afternoon teaching the girl things. Once again, she felt such a deep, painful stab of regret for the choice she hadn’t made – for the life she could have had. No matter how things would have turned out with Sergio, she had no doubt now that they would have been a million times better than what she’d been through with Alberto. If only she’d known back then. If only.

It was no use thinking like that. She hadn’t known back then, and there was no sense in frustration or regret – if she thought about it for too long, it would just make her cry.

So she pushed away any thoughts of what might have been, and joined the conversation for a while, until all the ice cream was gone.

“Can I go swim now, mom?” Paula asked, looking at the pool.

“Sure,” Raquel said. “But be careful.”

“I will!” the girl said, then pushed back her chair and ran over to the pool.

That left Raquel alone at the table with Sergio. She looked at him.

“This was very nice of you,” she said quietly. “To answer Paula’s questions like that.”

He was shaking his head with a slight smile.

“It was no trouble,” he said. “She’s a bright girl.”

“Yes,” Raquel smiled. “She is.”

He hesitated for a moment before he spoke again.

“I’m… I’m glad that I got a chance to meet her.”

He kept his eyes on the table as he said it, and his voice was soft – no note of accusation in it, no recrimination – but Raquel still felt guilty. She remembered it so vividly – the two of them, sitting on the bed in her hotel room, talking about the future. I’ll do it. I’ll change the diapers. I’ll get up in the middle of the night. I’ll do the parent-teacher meetings. I’ll do it all, Raquel, I’ll do it right. She hadn’t given him a chance – she’d been too scared. If only she’d been braver.

She didn’t know what to say, so they just sat in silence for a moment. He could go now – there was nothing keeping him here anymore – and yet, he didn’t. He just stayed sitting there, looking out over the pool. Raquel realized that he didn’t want to go, and she didn’t want him to go either. She’d missed him. She’d missed him so much.

“It must be nice to have them here,” he finally said. “Your mother and Paula.”

“Yes,” Raquel said. “It is. I miss them a lot when I’m on location.”

He nodded soberly.

“I can imagine. It’s great that they were able to come visit you. Did you show them the set?”

Raquel nodded and smiled, then told him about the set visit and how interested Paula had been. From there, the conversation moved to Sergio and Raquel’s respective first times on set, and how confusing and overwhelming it had all been. Soon, they were both smiling as they told each other stories about the faux-pas they’d made at the start of their career, when they hadn’t known any better.

As they talked, Raquel gradually became aware of something. The tension and the awkwardness that she’d felt between them since the beginning of this shoot was partly gone now. She knew why. Right from the start, she’d been hoping to establish a relationship with him again – right from the start, she’d been wanting things from him; expecting things from him. Now, that was gone. Now, she knew where they stood, and there were no more expectations. She could just sit here, and be grateful for the time she had with him. She now realized that she hadn’t really been able to do that before – in every interaction they’d had before this, she’d been too wrapped up in trying to gauge how he was feeling – in trying to see if he still liked her; if he’d be interested in her again. It had stopped her from truly enjoying his company, and it had created a tension between them that hadn’t allowed them to fully be themselves around each other. There had always been the underlying implication of something more.

Now that this implication was gone, the tension was mostly gone as well. Both of them were still careful, of course. They still had to figure out how to do this – how they related to each other now. But as they kept talking, Raquel could see Sergio grow visibly more relaxed as he seemed to realize that she wasn’t expecting anything from him anymore. For the first time since they’d seen each other again, it looked like he was starting to feel at ease around her. Gone were the awkward silences between them, and the innuendos, and the meaningful glances.

The situation hadn’t worked out the way she’d hoped. She didn’t want to be just friends with him… but she would take it if it meant that she could still talk to him – if she could still see him. And she did have to admit that she felt a little more at ease around him now too. She realized that, on a certain level, she’d always been performing for him until now – just a little bit. She’d always been trying to be cheerful, and funny, and witty, so hopefully he would start liking her again. She’d always been careful about how she looked, and what she said, and how she acted. Now, she didn’t have to do those things anymore, and she found that she felt… relieved. As someone in the public eye, she often felt like she had to perform for the entire world. It was a nice feeling not to have to do it for him anymore.

Her bag suddenly buzzed again, and she took out her phone, thinking that it might be her agent again. When she saw the name on the screen, though, her stomach dropped and she grimaced.

“Everything okay?” Sergio asked.

“Yes,” she said, taking a deep breath. “It’s just… Alberto again.”

She put her phone away without replying to the message – after he’d sent Paula to her with that flower, she’d called him and told him in no uncertain terms that he should leave their daughter out of this, and that she didn’t want to hear from him again. Ever since, she hadn’t answered any of his calls or messages anymore.

Sergio was looking slightly uncomfortable, and Raquel regretted mentioning Alberto. That was undoubtedly another sore topic for him.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have brought him up.”

He took a breath, then shook his head.

“It’s okay,” he said calmly. “He’s a part of your life, and we’re friends.” He hesitated for a moment, then carefully said: “It… it must be hard sometimes to share custody.”

“Yes,” she said soberly. “It is.”

She glanced over at Paula in the pool, making sure she was safe. When she looked back at Sergio, she saw Elena and Andrés appear on a garden path behind him, clearly bickering about something as usual. When they saw her and Sergio, they both stopped and raised their eyebrows – Andrés seemed disapproving, Elena just surprised. Raquel saw how Andrés started to walk over to them, but Elena caught him by the arm and held him back – and then they started bickering about that.

Raquel couldn’t help but chuckle, and Sergio turned to see why.

“Oh,” he said, as he turned back to her. “I wonder what they’re fighting about this time.”

“Us,” Raquel said simply. “Andrés doesn’t like that we’re talking. He’s very protective of you.”

Sergio frowned.

“I’m not a child. If I want to talk to you, I can talk to you.”

She gave him a careful look.

“And do you? Want to talk to me?”

He took a deep breath.

“Yes,” he said. “I do. This… this has been nice.”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I agree.”

He leaned forward, an earnest look in his eyes. He hesitated for a moment, but then he said:

“I think we can do it, Raquel. I think we can be friends.”

She felt so conflicted about that. She looked at him, and she felt how her heart was beating – how something fluttered in her stomach as she looked into his eyes. She wasn’t over him. Of course she wasn’t – if she hadn’t gotten over him after nine years, a week apart wouldn’t make any difference. She didn’t think he was completely over her either – not after the way he’d kissed her only last week. So that led her to wonder one important thing: if they both felt the way they felt about each other… could they be friends?

Before she could answer him, though, her mother showed up at their table.

“Hello,” she said, looking completely unsurprised to see Sergio there. “It’s nice to see you again, Sergio.”

He looked up at her, a little flustered.

“It’s… it’s nice to see you too, Mrs. Murillo.” He hesitated for a moment, then pushed back his chair and stood up. “I should be going.”

“Please don’t leave on my account,” Mariví said. “I can go check on Paula.”

“No,” Sergio said, giving her his shy smile. “No, I really should go look over my lines for tomorrow’s scene.” He nodded at both of them, and his eyes lingered on Raquel. “Have a good evening.”

Raquel watched him walk away while her mother sat down at the table. She looked well-rested after her nap, and her eyes were keen.

“Did I interrupt something?” she asked.

Raquel hesitated.

“Not… not really,” she said. “We were just talking.”

“Alright…” Mariví said, clearly waiting for more.

Raquel hesitated, but then asked:

“Mom… do you think… if two people are in love… they can be just friends?”

“Hmm,” her mother said, her expression thoughtful. “Is that what you were talking about? Being just friends?”

“Yes,” Raquel admitted. “He says he thinks we can be. What… what do you think?”

Mariví gave her a soft look. They’d talked two days ago after Paula had gone to bed, so her mother knew everything about the situation.

“I don’t think you want to be just friends with him, do you?” she said quietly.

“No,” Raquel admitted. “But it’s what he wants, and I want to respect that.”

Her mother nodded.

“That’s good of you, sweetheart, but… I think it would be very hard on you.”

Raquel swallowed hard.

“It… it wouldn’t be easy, no. But I’d still like to try.”

“I understand,” her mother said softly, and Raquel could see that she really did. “You can’t let him go.”

Her throat was tight as she shook her head.

“No,” she whispered. “I can’t. I know we can’t be what I want us to be, but… but I still want to see him. I still want to spend time with him. He’s offering me that… he wants to be my friend. I… I don’t think I can say no. I just… don’t have the strength.”

Her mother leaned forward and took her hand.

“Then be his friend,” she said. “If that’s what he needs for now.”

“What… what do you mean?”

Mariví smiled at her.

“I saw the way he looked at you, Raquel. I think he just needs a little time.”

There were tears burning behind her eyes now.

“No,” she whispered. “No, I hurt him too much.”

“Hurt can heal.”

“If it hasn’t healed in nine years, it won’t heal now,” Raquel argued, but her mother shook her head.

“The situation is different now,” she said. “Give him time, sweetheart. Who knows what will happen…”

Her tears spilled over, and she pulled back her hand to forcefully wipe them away.

“No,” she said, her voice full of determination. “No, mom, I can’t go there again! I can’t… I can’t start hoping again. It… it hurts too much, and it’s not fair to him! He’s made it clear where he stands, and… and I need to respect that.”

Mariví was nodding.

“Alright,” she said soothingly. “Alright, you know best. I’m just saying… wait and see. If it’s meant to be, it will be.”

It clearly wasn’t meant to be, but Raquel didn’t want to argue any further. She’d made her decision. She would be his friend. It would hurt, but it was better than nothing. If she had the chance to see him, and talk to him, and spend time with him, then she was going to take it. And maybe, in time, her feelings would fade, and she’d be able to be his friend without pain or regret. In the meantime, she only knew that she couldn’t lose him completely. She couldn’t. Not again.

If it’s meant to be, it will be. No. Her mother was an eternal optimist, but it was time to face the truth. It was time to let go of her dreams and hopes and desires, and accept that this was all they could be from now on. Friends. She wiped one last tear from her cheeks and took a deep breath. It was enough. It would have to be enough.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Raquel felt rather sad after her mother and Paula left on Monday. It had been so nice to have them there, and she wished they could have stayed longer – but she reminded herself of the fact that there were only three weeks left of the shoot, and she would see them again soon. She hated that she’d had to send Paula back to Alberto, though – who knew what he’d be telling the child? He’d stopped calling or messaging Raquel, since she wasn’t answering anyway, and it left her with an uneasy feeling. She didn’t believe for a moment that he’d given up, and she wondered with a sick sense of dread in her stomach what his next move was going to be. She still remembered the message he’d sent her last week: I could fly out there to talk in person. It had probably just been a way to get her to call him, but she knew that he was really capable of doing it. When they’d been married, he’d shown up unannounced on set several times.

She tried to put the thought from her mind and focus on her work and her life on set, but that wasn’t much better. Things were weird between her and Sergio – they’d agreed on being friends, but Raquel wasn’t sure what that entailed, and it was clear that Sergio didn’t, either. They talked when they saw each other on set, but neither of them really knew how to behave. Raquel was afraid that she’d push him too far again, or that she’d give him the impression that she still wanted more, so she kept her distance and was careful about what she said or did around him. He kept a careful distance in return, clearly afraid that he’d send the wrong signals and give her hope again. All in all, things were awkward, and they didn’t move beyond some superficial conversation. It made Raquel so sad, after what they’d once been to each other. She felt so clearly that this wasn’t real friendship, and that it wouldn’t last beyond the shooting of the movie. Three more weeks, and then she’d lose him all over again.

A few days after Mariví and Paula had flown back to Madrid, Raquel came back to her suite of rooms after one of her dinners with Elena. She wasn’t very tired yet, and as she slipped her key card into the slot on her door, she was vaguely thinking that she should use the rest of the evening to study lines.

The moment she opened her door and stepped into her room, however, she froze. The lights were on. Had she left them on? But no – it had still been light out when she’d left the room to go have dinner with Elena, and she was sure that the lights hadn’t been on then. Her heart was beating fast as she looked around the room – was anything different? Yes – yes – her laptop wasn’t where she’d left it, and it looked like some of the furniture had been moved. There was only one explanation: someone had been in her room.

Or someone still was in her room.

There was only one thought in her mind: Alberto. He’d flown out here and now he was waiting for her here, maybe in the bedroom. She suddenly couldn’t breathe. No. No. If he was here, that could only mean one thing…

She was pressed against the wall, her arms raised to ward off another blow.

She was hiding behind the locked door of the bathroom, wondering if he’d break it down. He did.

She was on the floor, crying, cradling her broken wrist.

Fear – horror – despair. Pain. Over and over again. Pain.

And worst of all: knowing she deserved it.

She couldn’t move – she couldn’t breathe – the memories kept her nailed to the floor – but then the fear fully took hold of her, and she panicked. She turned sharply and ran out of the room, pulling the door shut behind her with a loud ‘bang!’. Out in the hallway, she retreated against the opposite wall, paralyzed by fear – what should she do? What should she do? If he was there, he must have heard the door – was he going to come after her? Oh god, oh god! Panic overwhelmed her, and she started running towards the stairway without thinking about it – she just knew that she had to get out of there.

As she passed the elevators, however, one of the doors opened, and Sergio stepped out. She ran straight into him, and he only just caught her before she fell.

“Whoa!” he said, flustered. “Careful!”

Then he saw her face, and his expression changed to concern.

“What’s wrong?”

She was shaking, her breathing fast and uneven.

“There’s… there’s someone in my room.”

“What?” he frowned, glancing down the hallway. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said. She was getting dizzy, and she realized vaguely that she was hyperventilating. “Oh god. Oh god.”

“It’s okay,” he said, his hand still on her arm. “It’s okay, Raquel.”

“I…” she whispered, looking back at the door of her room. “I think…” Nobody had come out, but that didn’t mean… “Alberto.”

“Oh,” Sergio said. “Did you… did you invite him?”

She shook her head, and Sergio’s frown deepened.

“Do you want to me to go check…?”

“No!” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “No, don’t!”

“Alright…” he said slowly. He looked at her, taking in her wide eyes and scared expression. “Raquel, I’m going to call down to the front desk for security, okay?”

She nodded, her mouth dry, her eyes still fixed on the door down the hall. The first wave of panic was passing now, but she was still shaking. There were two armchairs and a little table in front of the elevators, and Sergio carefully steered her by the elbow to one of the chairs. She sat down and tried to take deep, calming breaths while Sergio called down to the front desk.

“Yes, room 502,” she heard him say. “Yes. Thank you.”

A moment later, he kneeled down in front of her chair.

“Security is on its way,” he said steadily. “They’ll check the room. Everything will be okay.”

She gave him a grateful look. His calm tone and steady presence were calming her down – and as she did, she started to realize that she’d overreacted rather dramatically. She swallowed, and managed to pull herself together.

“Maybe… maybe that’s not necessary,” she said. “I was just… surprised. If it’s Alberto, I’ll… I’ll go talk to him.”

Sergio was shaking his head.

“No,” he said. “Let’s wait for security. If there’s someone in your room, you can’t go back in there.”

“It’s probably just Alberto,” Raquel said, trying to keep her voice steady. “I’ll… I’ll tell him to leave.”

“Raquel,” Sergio said quietly. “Please wait for security.”

She took a deep breath, then nodded.

“Alright.”

It only took another minute before the elevator doors opened, and a man in a black suit stepped out.

“Security,” he said. “What’s the problem, ma’am?”

“Well,” Raquel hesitated. “The lights are on in my room, and… and my things have been moved…”

The man frowned.

“That could be a burglar,” he said. “I’ll go check.”

“Thank you,” Sergio said.

The man walked down the hall, and Raquel and Sergio followed him. Raquel’s heart was starting to beat faster again – if it was Alberto, and she’d called security on him, then things would only be worse for her afterwards – but it was too late now.

Sergio was looking at her closely.

“Are you okay?”

She made an effort to keep herself together and nodded.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m… I’m sure I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Alberto said he might fly out here, he’s been wanting to talk to me. Maybe… maybe he got a key from the front desk.”

“Let’s check anyway,” Sergio said.

The man in the black suit went into the room while Raquel and Sergio waited just outside. Raquel was nauseous – what if it was Alberto? She couldn’t have the security guard take him outside – what would people think? She’d just have to deal with him…

The security guard came back out.

“There’s nobody in there, ma’am.”

She felt faint with relief.

“Really?”

“I’m positive,” the man nodded. “I looked around thoroughly.”

“Someone was still in there, though,” Raquel said. “My things were moved.”

“Well,” the guard said, “I see that your laptop and your jewelry are still there, so I doubt that it was a burglary. Perhaps it was just housekeeping?”

“They always come in the morning,” Raquel said. “My things were moved after I’d been in the room in the early evening.”

Sergio took out his phone again.

“I’ll call Elena,” he said. “She’ll know what to do.”

Elena assured them that she’d get to the bottom of this, and it only took her five minutes before she showed up with someone from hotel management in tow.

“Nothing to worry about,” she said. “Just a misunderstanding.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Murillo,” the manager said, and he did look very apologetic. “This morning, the housekeeper spilled something on the big rug in your living room. We came in later today to change it, and that’s why your things were moved.”

He stepped into the room, and came out with a small card, which he handed to Raquel.

“I explained it all on this card, and put it on your table.”

“Oh,” Raquel said, suddenly feeling very stupid. “I… I didn’t see it.”

She felt herself go red as she looked at the people gathered around her.

“I’m… I’m so sorry. I really overreacted.”

“Nonsense,” Elena said crisply. “I’d have been worried too in your place, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

Sergio was nodding, and so were the men of the hotel.

“Still…” Raquel said, her cheeks burning. “I’m so sorry to bother you all.”

“No bother at all, Ms. Murillo,” the manager said. “This was entirely our fault. My apologies again.”

He left, together with the security guard. Raquel looked at the open door to her room. It was silly of her – she knew everything was alright – but she still didn’t want to go in there. She was feeling really shaken, and she didn’t want to be alone.

Elena noticed.

“You need a drink,” she said firmly, putting a hand on Raquel’s arm. “Come on, let’s go to the bar.”

Raquel glanced at Sergio, who gave her a slight smile.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. “If you need anything… I’m right next door.”

“Thank you,” Raquel said quietly.

He nodded, gave her one last look, then went into his room.

“Come on,” Elena said, patting her arm. “Let’s invite Nairobi too and have a girl’s night.”

“Yes,” Raquel said, taking a deep breath and putting on a smile. “I’d like that.”

The bar was full enough to create a lively atmosphere, but not so full that it felt crowded, and Raquel, Elena and Nairobi had a table to themselves. They talked about the movie they were shooting, about other projects they had worked on or would work on in the future, and about the challenges of being a woman in this business – as an actress, director and producer respectively. Raquel was so glad for the distraction, and she had a great time. Elena and Nairobi both had a cutting brand of humor, and they played off each other really well as they reminisced about all the awful people they’d worked with through the years. Raquel laughed until there were tears on her cheeks – she couldn’t remember when she’d last laughed like this.

They kept the drinks coming, but after a while, Raquel switched to water.

“Water?” Nairobi said, on her fifth beer herself. “Why?”

“I don’t like to get drunk in public,” Raquel said.  

“Why not?” Nairobi asked, but Elena was nodding thoughtfully.

“I get that,” she said. “When you’re such a public figure.”

“Ohh,” Nairobi said, looking around. “You’re afraid that someone would take your picture?”

“Yes,” Raquel said. “A picture, or a video. Now that everyone has a camera on their phone, everyone’s a journalist. No public space is safe if people recognize you.”

“Got you,” Nairobi nodded. “You don’t want to get drunk and do something embarrassing in front of a bunch of people who know who you are.”

“A picture like that could get them a nice sum with the gossip magazines, I suppose?” Elena asked, and Raquel nodded.

“Exactly.”

“God,” Nairobi sighed. “I’m so glad I’m only behind the camera. It must be so exhausting to have to be perfect all the time. People should be allowed to make mistakes.”

“It’s not so bad here,” Raquel said. “We’re in such a secluded spot here that there’s no press, and that’s such a relief. Filming in Madrid, there’s always paparazzi buzzing around. It’s been nice to have a break from that.”

“I can imagine,” Nairobi said, throwing back the rest of her beer and signaling the waitress for another one.

Elena was nodding too, but then she said:

“You know, Alicia Sierra was complaining about that the other day.”

“About what?” Raquel asked.

Nairobi snorted.

“What was she not complaining about?”

“The lack of publicity,” Elena explained to Raquel. “She doesn’t like that there’s no press hanging around the set, or following the actors around. Less press means less free publicity for the movie.”

“God, that woman is awful,” Nairobi said drily. “We were talking about horrible people we’ve worked with earlier – well, she’s one of the worst.”

At that point, a man came over to their table – about forty, in a suit, with his hair combed back.

“Excuse me,” he said to Elena. “I couldn’t help but notice you… Can I buy you a drink?”

Elena looked him up and down, then shook her head.

“No, thank you,” she said. “I’m having an evening with my friends.”

“Alright,” the man shrugged. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Nairobi watched him walk away, then turned to Elena.

“Come on!” she said. “He’s cute! Why not?”

“He’s not my type,” Elena shrugged.

“I’d go for him if I wasn’t married,” Nairobi said. “And you’re single! Go for it!” She grinned. “When was the last time you had a little fun, Elena?”

Elena gave her a dignified look.

“That’s none of your business.”

Nairobi’s grin widened.

“A long time ago, then.” She nudged Raquel and started scanning the bar. “Come on, let’s find Elena someone to hook up with tonight.”

Raquel laughed and agreed, and the two of them spent some time rating the men in the bar while Elena looked on with an amused expression, giving her veto every time Nairobi proposed someone.

Then, suddenly, her expression darkened, and Raquel turned around to see Andrés walk into the room with one of the younger actresses on his arm.

“Oh,” she said, turning back to Elena. “Wasn’t he with a different girl just last week?”

“Of course he was,” Elena said, with an expression of utmost disdain. “He goes through women like other men go through clean shirts.”

“I’ve had three interns quit because of him!” Nairobi said. “Three! Guy should learn to keep it in his pants.” But then her eyes started sparkling. “Or maybe he can put that talent to good use tonight.”

She threw Elena a meaningful glance, and Elena’s eyebrows shot up.

Excuse me?”

“Why not?” Nairobi exclaimed. “He’s handsome, he’s charming, and there’s all this chemistry between you!”

Elena looked highly offended.

“That’s not chemistry,” she said. “That’s me wanting to strangle him.”

“A little kinky,” Nairobi grinned, “but maybe he’s into that.”

“Over my dead body,” Elena said, leaning back and crossing her arms. “He’s the most arrogant, narcissistic asshole I’ve ever had the displeasure to work with.”

“And I bet he’s terrible in bed,” Raquel mumbled into her drink.

That made the other two women laugh.

“Yes!” Elena said. “I bet he doesn’t even try!”

“Then maybe he needs someone to teach him a thing or two,” Nairobi grinned.

“Nairobi,” Elena said threateningly, “I’m very fond of you, but if you keep going like that, you’re going to end up with a drink thrown in your face.”

“Sounds like you really need to get laid,” Nairobi grinned, then jumped up, laughing, as Elena picked up her glass. “Fine, fine, I’ll shut up!”

Andrés settled down with his date at a nearby table, and the three women had some fun guessing what kind of terrible pick-up lines he was using on her. Elena and Nairobi kept ordering drinks, and they were both quite tipsy when Andrés’ date got up and left right after midnight.

“Oooh,” Nairobi said, “he struck out!”

“Good for her,” Elena said with considerable satisfaction.

Andrés had spotted them, however, and came walking over to them, his usual rakish grin in place.

“Evening, ladies.”

“Oh no,” Elena said. “Just because your date ditched you, doesn’t mean you should come bothering us.

Andrés ignored her and sat down in an empty chair.

“Can I buy you all a drink?”

“For once in your life,” Elena said, “could you just go away when you’re not welcome?”

Andrés turned to her with a grin, and they started their usual bickering. Nairobi shot Raquel a meaningful look and got up.

“I think I’ll go to bed,” she said lightly. “You coming too, Raquel? Early start tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Raquel said, pushing back her chair. “You’re right, I should go to bed too.”

They said their goodnights, and left Andrés and Elena arguing at the table as they made their way into the hotel lobby.

“Those two,” Nairobi said, grinning. “They should just get a room.”

Raquel threw her an amused look.

“Be glad that Elena didn’t hear you say that,” she said.

“Oh please,” Nairobi grinned. “It’s all sexual tension. Be good for both of them – and for the rest of us, I might add – if they’d just do it already.”

Raquel laughed as they stepped into an elevator together.

“You’re mad, Nairobi.”

“Either way,” Nairobi said, turning to Raquel with a smile. “We should do this again.”

“Definitely,” Raquel smiled back.

Nairobi hugged her and kissed her on the cheek, then stepped out of the elevator as it reached her floor. Raquel continued up a few floors more, all the way to the top floor of the hotel.

As she stepped out of the elevator into the empty hallway, she felt her good mood evaporate. She walked up to the door of her room, then stopped. Even though she knew that Alberto wasn’t there, the room still had an icky feeling to her now, and she still didn’t want to go in there and be alone. The scare she’d had earlier had brought up bad memories, and she could still feel them lurking in the darker corners of her mind, waiting to pounce again.

Then, suddenly, the door next to hers opened, and Sergio peeked out.

“I thought I heard you,” he said softly, coming out into the hallway. “Are you… are you okay?”

“Yes,” Raquel said, not entirely truthfully. “I’m okay.”

“Did you have a good evening?”

“Yes,” she smiled, “until your brother came along and started fighting with Elena.”

“Ah,” he said, smiling slightly too. “The usual.”

“Quite,” she said, then gave him a curious look. “You’re up late.”

He hesitated as he looked at her, and she felt a warm rush of feeling as she understood. He’d been waiting for her to come back.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

“I… I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said, giving her a careful look. “You seemed really shaken, earlier.”

“Yes,” she said, feeling her spirits sink again as she turned back to face her door. “I was.”

They stood in silence for a moment as Raquel tried to find the courage to open the door. Finally, Sergio spoke again.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” she said, giving herself a shake. “I’m just being stupid.”

“What do you mean?”

“I… I don’t want to go back in,” she admitted. “Even though I know nothing happened. Stupid.”

He gave her a long look. Then he suddenly said:

“Do you want to go for a walk?”

She turned to him in surprise.

“What?”

“A walk,” he repeated, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the beach. “So you… so you don’t have to go back in right away.”

“But… it’s the middle of the night,” she said.

He shrugged.

“It’s nearly a full moon. We should be able to see just fine.”

She looked at him.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “You don’t have to do this.”

He looked up at her, and his gaze was steady.

“You’re my friend,” he said. “I’d like to help… if I can.”

She only hesitated for a moment. She would take any excuse not to have to face her empty room just yet. And… she would also take any excuse to be near him.

“Yes,” she said. “A walk would be nice.”

He nodded and pulled his door closed, then they walked towards the elevators together.

They were silent as they rode the elevator down and walked across the hotel lobby. Once they stepped outside, Raquel took a deep breath of the cool sea air. She could already feel that this was a good idea.

“By the beach?” she suggested, and he nodded.

“Whatever you’d like.”

They crossed the hotel garden and started walking along the beach. The moon was indeed almost full, and it was shining brightly in a cloudless sky, illuminating their way. There was nobody else on the beach, and the only sounds were the wind and the gently-lapping waves.

“Thank you,” Raquel finally said, quietly. “For suggesting this. And for staying calm earlier, and… and calling security and such.”

“No problem,” he said steadily.

“I’m sorry I overreacted so dramatically,” she said, feeling herself go red again at the memory.

He glanced at her.

“I’m not sure you were overreacting at all,” he said quietly.

She felt herself go even redder. What kinds of conclusions had he drawn? She shouldn’t have mentioned Alberto at all – she should just have said she thought there might be a burglar in her room.

“I did overreact,” she said, trying to deflect. “Nothing happened.”

He gave her a long look as they walked along, and she could feel what was coming.

“Raquel,” he finally said. “Please tell me if this is none of my business, but… your ex-husband… is he… is he bothering you?”

She sighed and felt her stomach sink.

“He… he just wants to get back together,” she said.

“Oh,” he said, and she could sense that he was making an effort to keep his voice carefully neutral. “And are you… are you considering it?”

“No,” she said, tense. “Never.”

Steep cliffs were rising up before them now, and they had a choice to stay on the beach, or take a path that led up the cliffside. They chose the path, then were silent for a bit as they climbed.

Once the ground leveled out again, they started walking along the side of the cliff. She felt that Sergio was hesitating to speak.

“You can say it,” she said.

He sighed and shook his head.

“I tried to stay away from stories about you in the press,” he admitted. “But your divorce…”

“I know,” Raquel said soberly. “It was everywhere.”

“I can’t… I can’t believe he cheated on you,” he said, and she could hear emotion in his voice – anger, indignation, disgust. “And with your sister.

She realized what he must be thinking – this is the man you left me for? This is the man you chose? He was kind enough not to say it, however, and she was grateful.

“I know,” she repeated. “It was… a difficult time. Laura and I were never close, but it… it still hurt.”

He was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was careful.

“Well…” he said slowly. “I suppose we can’t help who we fall in love with.”

She gave a mirthless laugh.

“Oh, Alberto wasn’t in love with Laura,” she said. “Maybe she was in love with him, but not the other way around. He just wanted to hurt me – embarrass me in front of the entire world.”

He looked at her.

“Why?” he asked quietly.

She swallowed hard.

“Because I hurt him,” she said with some effort. “Because, nine years ago, I returned home to him and… and things were never the same.”

“Oh,” he said softly, and when she glanced at him, she couldn’t read his expression. “I see.”

“I don’t mean to drag things up here, Sergio,” she said quickly. “We don’t have to talk about this.”

He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.

“No,” he said. “It’s okay. Maybe… maybe we should talk about it.”

She suddenly realized that she agreed – yes, it was time. They’d been dancing around the topic for far too long, and it towered between them like a mountain. They needed to address it. Now. She took a deep breath.

“You have to know,” she said quietly. “When I made that decision, nine years ago… I made it with my head.” Her throat was tight. “My… my heart was never in it. I didn’t want to be with Alberto anymore. And… and of course he could feel that, and it made him… so mad. For years, he held on to that grudge, and… and the more successful I became, the more he resented me. The thing with Laura… it was just a way to get back at me once and for all. The ultimate humiliation.”

He shook his head.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” he said quietly.

She shook her head, her lips a tight line.

“It was my own fault,” she said bitterly. “It wasn’t fair, what I did to him. He didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve to be my… my second choice.”

“Still,” Sergio said, and his voice was soft but firm. “That doesn’t mean that he should have cheated on you like that. That… that wasn’t right.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, but she couldn’t believe him.

They arrived at a certain spot, and she recognized it immediately: this was the spot where they’d sat, all those years ago, on the day they first met. They’d gone for a walk then too, and they’d sat down on the edge of the cliff and talked. Right here.

At the same time, they stopped, and, without a word, they sat down together, their legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. They were quiet for a while, looking out over the moonlit sea. The sky was speckled with stars.

Then, suddenly…

“I thought about calling you,” he said.

His voice was so soft, but she’d still heard it clearly, and she looked up at him in surprise.

“You did?”

“Of course I did,” he said, looking straight ahead at the waves. “Every day, for years. But… but I saw pictures of you and him… on TV, and in the newspapers. You… you looked so happy.”

She felt tears burn.

“We weren’t,” she whispered. “We weren’t happy at all. It was just a show.”

He gave her a long look, and she could sense that he’d felt the weight behind her words.

“Raquel,” he finally said, quietly. “What did he do to you?”

She hadn’t told anyone – not a single soul. It had been too difficult to talk about – too painful – too humiliating. But his soft question broke something inside of her. Everything that had happened had been building and building inside of her for years, and now there was this pressure inside her chest, and the events of earlier that evening had shaken her. Sergio’s presence beside her was soft and steady and comforting. He made her feel like he’d understand. He made her feel like he cared. He made her feel safe.

And suddenly, she found herself talking.

“When I went back home nine years ago,” she said. “I was a mess.”

She threw him an apologetic glance.

“I mean… I know it must have been a million times harder for you…”

He shook his head.

“This isn’t about me,” he said calmly.

She gave him a grateful look, then took a deep breath and continued.

“I… I didn’t want to be there at all,” she said. “I didn’t want Alberto, and I didn’t want the baby – all I wanted was you.”

She didn’t look at him. It would be too painful.

“Alberto noticed,” she said. “Of course he did. How could he not? He’d already gotten suspicious the first few weeks of the shoot, when I couldn’t stop talking about you on the phone. So when I came home like that… well… it didn’t take him long to connect the dots.”

“Connect the dots how?” he asked carefully.

She sighed.

“He asked if I’d slept with you. That seemed to be all he cared about. I said no, but he didn’t believe me. Things were never the same after that. We stayed together, but it was never the same.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, and she felt such a stab in her chest.

“No,” she said, her voice wavering. “No, please don’t say that. I made my choice, and I had to live with it. My… my reasons for making that choice hadn’t changed – I still wanted a good, stable life for Paula. So I stayed. I thought things would get better again – and they did, for a bit. After Paula was born, there were times when things were… almost okay.”

She swallowed hard, and she needed a moment before she could continue. Sergio stayed silent, giving her time to gather her thoughts.

“But he never let it go,” she whispered. “Not completely. Things were fine as long as I didn’t take on any acting jobs – but when I did… he… he didn’t handle it well. I had to tell him about everyone I talked to, everything I did. I wasn’t allowed to stay for drinks after filming. I wasn’t allowed to stay in touch with anyone after the shoot. I understood. Of course he was jealous – of course. I… I tried to accommodate him, but it was never enough.”

Sergio was listening carefully, but he didn’t interrupt her, and she was grateful for that. She took a deep breath.

“And then, after a few years, I finally went on a location shoot again.” Her voice was quiet now. “When I got back…” She had to swallow several times before she could go on. Her hands were shaking. “When I got back, he… he accused me of sleeping with the other actors. He got mad. He yelled at me. And then…” A whisper. “He hurt me.”

She didn’t dare look at him. This is the man you left me for? This is the man you chose?

“It took weeks before I could take on work again,” she said, her voice so quiet. “That’s when the bruises faded.”

She glanced at him, and she noticed that his lips were a tight line. She quickly looked away again – she didn’t want to lose the courage to keep talking.

“It… it was like that every time I returned from a location shoot – and as my career took off, there were more and more of those. You… you may wonder why I kept doing them, but… but I loved the work. And every time it happened, he apologized afterwards. Every time, he said it would never happen again. And every time, like an idiot, I believed him. And so… so I ended up in the emergency room… again… and again… and again.”

She was struggling to keep talking; this was so hard for her, when she hadn’t told anybody before. But she wanted him to know – she didn’t want this secret standing between them anymore. So she bared herself to him in the most intimate way she could think of.

She pulled up her sleeve – hesitated – then showed him a thin white line on her wrist.

“That’s from when they had to operate, after he broke my wrist,” she whispered.

She opened her hand, palm up, and showed him a crisscrossing of little lines that weren’t a part of the natural map of her hand.

“That’s from when he pushed me down, and I fell on broken glass.”

She wasn’t just showing him the lines on her skin – she was showing him her scars in every way – the most bruised, most vulnerable parts of herself. And he was listening. He cared. She didn’t deserve it, but he still cared. She had to hold back tears.

She pushed aside her hair with shaking hands, and showed him a small mark behind her ear.

“From… from when he knocked me against the wall.”

This was who she was now. These things were a part of her. She wanted him to know.

She lifted her right pant leg, to show a white nick just below her knee.

“From when I tried to get away from him, and I caught my shin on the corner of the coffee table.”

She dropped her pant leg, and looked down.

“There’s… there’s more, but they’re harder to show.”

She fell silent. When she finally found the courage to glance up at him, he was looking at her, and his eyes were full of pain and shock.

“God, Raquel,” he whispered. “God. That’s… I… I had no idea.”

“Nobody did,” she said, looking down again. “I didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t. It was too awful, and too embarrassing, especially… especially since it was my own fault.”

“How could you say that?” he said, quiet horror in his voice. “No! No, none of that was your fault!”

“But it was,” she said, and two tears started trickling down her cheeks. “I stayed with him even though I didn’t love him anymore – just because I wanted that security. I used him. Of course he was angry. Of course he resented me, and my acting, and my success. Of course.”

“That doesn’t…” he said, struggling to find the words, and she could hear so much frustration in his voice. “That didn’t give him the right… Nothing would have given him the right to…!”

He suddenly stopped, and sat up straighter, and she could see a terrible suspicion dawn in his eyes.

“Raquel…” he said quietly. “Why did you stay with him? All those years… Why?”

The tears were streaming down now.

“Because I chose him,” she said with a sob. “I chose him over you! If I left him afterwards then it.. it all would have been for nothing! I would have hurt you like that, for nothing!

He froze, his face a picture of absolute horror.

“Oh god,” he whispered. “No… Raquel…”

He turned towards her, pulling up his legs so he could sit beside her on his knees.

Raquel,” he said, and she could hear an edge of desperation in his voice. “You didn’t… you didn’t owe me anything!”

“I hurt you so much,” she sobbed. “I hurt both of us, so much. It… it had to be for something, it had to have a reason!”

He pressed his hands to his face.

God, Raquel…” His voice was shaking. “You stayed with him… all those years… even though he hurt you… even though… your wrist… and your hand… and, and everything else… you had to go to the hospital!”

He lifted a hand, but he didn’t touch her.

“That’s never what I wanted,” he whispered. “Please, please know that. I never wanted you to hurt. I… I hoped you were happy, I really did.”

That only made her cry harder. He was such a good person. How had she not seen that nine years ago? How, how had she made such a mistake?

He looked like he was close to crying too.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry that you thought that… that you had to stay; that you couldn’t leave him. I’m sorry, Raquel. I’m so sorry.”

She reached for him, and the next moment, his arms were around her. Neither of them hesitated – it was the only thing that felt right. He pulled her close and held her, just held her, as she cried against his chest – tears streaming down her face – nine years of pent-up grief pouring out of her at once. She cried for herself, and for him, too. She cried for everything they’d lost, and everything they could have had – for the life she threw away, and the life she got in return – for the pain, and the sadness, and the endless, bottomless regret of it all. For years, it had torn her apart, and now she was letting it out for the first time – safe in his arms. Where she always should have stayed.

He was stroking her hair, gently, letting her cry. The way he held her was so careful, so protective – she hadn’t been held like that in years. She held on tight to him in return, and she felt that he needed this as much as she did – that he was shaken, and hurting, and needed to hold her. They stayed like that for a long time – the other’s nearness an inexpressible comfort. With his arms around her, she gradually felt how the hurt lessened, just a little – how the pressure inside her was relieved – how things felt… less awful. Less painful.

Sergio… He made things better. He just did. Always.

It took a while, but in the end, her tears dried up. She felt tired, but so relieved. For years, her secret had eaten away at her, and now it was finally out. She was so grateful. She knew she couldn’t have told anyone but him.

She gently disengaged from him, and sat up to wipe her face.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you.” Then, automatically, because it was so ingrained by now: “I… I’m not sure I deserved this.”

Gently, so gently, he took her hand in his.

“Raquel…” he said softly. “I don’t know what he told you over the years. I don’t know what he made you believe. But you deserve love, and understanding, and… and someone who cares.”

Tears were sliding down her cheeks again. His hand was so warm around hers, and his eyes were so earnest.

“And you did not deserve what he did to you. Even if you made a… a choice at some point. Even if that choice hurt people. Even if it’s hard to believe. You did not deserve any of it.

Her throat was so tight.

“Does that mean… that you forgive me?” she whispered. “For… for what I did to you?”

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “There’s nothing to forgive. There never was. You made a choice that you thought was right, for yourself and for your child. It… it hurt, yes. I won’t pretend that it didn’t. But I don’t blame you for that. You had every right to make that choice. I don’t need to forgive you for that.” He gave her a soft look. “But… but I think… I think that you need to forgive yourself.”

She was crying hard again, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close again. She shifted against him, fitting her body against his so they were sitting close together, side by side, and she could lean against him, her arms around his chest. There’s nothing to forgive. There never was. She felt something shift inside her – some hurting, tortured part of her soul come to peace. His arms were protectively around her, and she felt that he really, truly meant what he said. She didn’t deserve him – but he was here anyway, and he was showing her the same kindness he’d always shown her. In spite of the pain and the misery of the past nine years – he wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t resentful. He was still, and always, kind. That took… strength. And an extraordinary heart.

Slowly, gradually, her tears stopped again. Her breathing slowed, and she closed her eyes and breathed him in – the familiar smell of him, and the warmth of his body next to hers, were more soothing than anything else could have been. She leaned against him, and felt a stillness where there had only been turmoil for the longest time.

Things were different now. The mountain between them was smaller. They’d finally moved closer together.

They’d taken a first step towards working through the pain and misery of the past nine years. She felt that they still had a long way to go – but they’d finally started.

I think you need to forgive yourself.

“Do you think you can do that?” he murmured.

Maybe. Maybe, finally.

She leaned her head against his shoulder, and took a deep, shaking breath. He was next to her. When she spoke, her voice was a whisper – but she said it anyway.

“I’ll try.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Raquel slept through her alarm the next morning. She and Sergio had gotten back late, so she hadn’t gotten much sleep, and she only woke up half an hour before she had to be in hair and makeup. She rushed out of bed and into the shower, then dressed in a hurry and took the elevator down. Breakfast was just a piece of toast snatched from the buffet in passing, and then she was on one of the little busses that drove people to set.

She didn’t regret last night, though. Not even a little bit. It had been intense, and painful, and exhausting, but it had been worth it. She felt tired today, but lighter – the secret that had been weighing her down for years finally out. It had been so good to confide in Sergio – and he’d been so wonderful. There was such a warm feeling in her chest as she remembered the way he’d comforted her; the way he’d held her. It had been so inexpressibly comforting to have him that close – it had felt so right. You didn’t deserve any of it. You deserve love, and understanding, and someone who cares. She hadn’t realized how much she’d needed to hear those words.

As the little bus drove on, Raquel wondered what things would be like between them now. Last night had been a big step, and it had been good to talk about the past a little, but she wasn’t sure how it changed things. She felt rather nervous at the thought of seeing him now, and she wished she hadn’t overslept, so maybe she could have talked to him before breakfast – there was so much left to talk about. Now she probably wouldn’t see him before they had to start the day’s shoot.

The bus arrived on set, and Raquel went into her trailer to put on her costume. There were butterflies in her stomach as she got dressed in the usual skirt and blouse – in spite of her slight apprehension, she couldn’t wait to see him again. She was just about to leave to go to hair and makeup, when there was a knock on the door of her trailer. Raquel looked up – could it be him?

“Yes?”

The door opened, and to Raquel’s surprise, Elena walked in.

Raquel’s eyebrows went up – her friend looked terrible. She was pale and drawn, and she looked like something had really shaken her. Raquel had never seen her like this.

“Are you alright?” she asked, gesturing towards the sofa. “Come in, sit down.”

Elena walked over to the sofa and dropped down on it, looking like she was very nauseous. Raquel gave her a sympathetic look. Her friend had drunk a lot last night.

“Bad hangover?” she asked.

“You have no idea,” Elena said, rubbing her temples.

“Maybe you should have stayed in bed,” Raquel suggested.

“No,” Elena said drily. “It’s my own fault. Besides, I have work to do. I’m just here to ask you to stop by wardrobe later – the designer wants to do a fitting for your final costume.”

“Alright,” Raquel said. “I’ll stop by on my lunch break.”

“Thank you,” Elena nodded.

Raquel expected her to go – her friend was always busy during working hours – but Elena kept sitting on the sofa. It looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t.

“Anything else?” Raquel finally asked.

“Uhm…” Elena said. “No, not really…”

Raquel frowned – something felt off.

“Elena,” she said carefully. “Is there something you’d like to talk about?”

Her friend gave her a conflicted look, but then shook her head.

“No,” she said. “No, it’s nothing.”

“You can tell me,” Raquel said gently. “God knows I’ve confided in you often enough. Whatever it is… you can talk to me.”

Elena hesitated a moment longer, a look of anguish in her eyes. Then she apparently couldn’t keep it in any longer.

“I slept with him,” she whispered.

For a moment, Raquel couldn’t think who she was talking about.

“You slept with someone?” she said. “Who?”

Elena glanced up with a haunted look, and Raquel’s eyes went wide.

“No,” she said, staring at her friend. “You didn’t.”

“I did,” Elena said, closing her eyes with a pained expression.

“What… how?”

Elena swallowed hard.

“We… we kept talking after you left last night. It’s all a bit of a haze… I’m pretty sure I threw a drink in his face. But… but after that I… I somehow ended up... sleeping with him.”

That was about the last thing Raquel had expected.

“But why?

Elena was rubbing her eyes.

“Because I had too much to drink,” she said succinctly. “And… and I suppose Nairobi got in my head.” She buried her face in her hands and groaned. “This is it, Raquel. I can never show my face again. I’m going to have to quit the business and move to Paraguay.”

Raquel was torn between empathy and amusement. She sat down next to Elena and patted her on the shoulder.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said soothingly. “It won’t be that bad.”

Elena shook her head.

“He’s never going to let me live this down,” she said. “Never. He’s going to hold it over me until the end of time.”

Raquel had to admit that that was a distinct possibility.

“I can already imagine the smug look on his face,” Elena went on, an edge of despair to her voice. “Oh god, I’m never drinking again.”

“Well…” Raquel said. “You’re right that he probably won’t take this very… graciously, but you can deal with it, Elena. You’ve been dealing with him for weeks. You can handle this too.”

“I guess,” Elena sighed. “I just don’t understand how I could have been so stupid.”

“We all make mistakes,” Raquel said reasonably. “And the shoot only lasts two more weeks. Then you’ll be rid of him, and you never have to work with him again.”

Elena nodded.

“Yes, you’re right. It’s only two more weeks. I… I suppose I can survive that.”

“Yes, you can,” Raquel said firmly.

Then she threw her friend a curious look – she just couldn’t stop herself.

“So…” she said, suppressing a smile. “How was it? Was he as bad as we thought he’d be?”

Elena went red.

“Uhm…” she said. “He… he didn’t exactly get a chance to prove himself. I… I kind of took charge.”

Raquel grinned broadly.

“Good for you. That was probably the best way to enjoy the experience.”

That got a chuckle out of Elena, and Raquel saw with satisfaction that her friend seemed to be pulling herself together. She sat up straighter, then sighed deeply.

“Well,” she said, glancing at Raquel. “Thank you for listening. Let’s get you to set now, it’s getting late.”

“Yes,” Raquel said. “And I still need to get my hair and makeup done.”

They both got up, and left the trailer together. Unfortunately, the moment the door closed behind them, they spotted Andrés in the distance. Elena froze, but then she drew herself up and squared her shoulders. Raquel had to admire her strength.

“Alright,” Elena said. “Let’s get this over with.”

She walked up to Andrés, and Raquel followed, too curious to resist. She expected a big, smug grin from Andrés when they reached him, but to her surprise, he just gave them a nod.

“Good morning,” he said politely. “Raquel. Elena.”

Elena looked at him with narrowed eyes, clearly suspicious at the lack of gloating.

“Good morning, Andrés,” she said carefully in return.

“I’ve got that memo you asked for,” he said, and Raquel blinked. She’d never seen him act like that around Elena – polite, civil, professional. “I can bring it to the set if you’re staying here today.”

“I…” Elena said, clearly taken aback. “I… Yes, that would be good.”

“Perfect,” he nodded, and as he looked at Elena, Raquel could only see one thing in his eyes: respect. “I’ll drop it by later.”

He wished them a pleasant day, nodded again, and turned and left. Elena looked after him with wide eyes.

“What… what just happened?”

Raquel was grinning broadly.

“I think you broke him,” she said.

“He… he was so polite.”

“I think he’s deeply impressed,” Raquel said, still grinning. “Taking charge seems to have been the right approach.”

“Not one inappropriate comment,” Elena said, sounding so perplexed. “Not one.”

“Let’s hope it sticks,” Raquel said drily. She glanced at her watch. “Damn, I really have to go. Will you stay for the shoot today?”

“Yes,” Elena said, shaking herself. “I will. You go to hair and makeup, Raquel. I’ll tell Nairobi that you’ll be right there, and that it’s my fault you’re late.”

“Thanks,” Raquel smiled, then patted her friend on the arm. “I told you it would be okay.”

“Yes,” Elena said, smiling back. “You did. Thank you. And… and thank you for not judging me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Raquel said, and then she rushed off.

A little while later, she walked into the farmhouse with her hair and makeup done, and looked around. Sergio had already gone through hair and makeup before she got there, so she still hadn’t seen him, and the nervous butterflies in her stomach were back.

The moment she stepped into the farmhouse kitchen, where they’d be filming, she spotted him at the side of the room with his script in his hands, and the butterflies started fluttering like mad. She felt rather breathless as she walked up to him.

He lowered his script as he saw her coming, and smiled – a tentative smile that told her he was a little nervous too.

“Hi,” he said softly.

“Hi,” she replied.

They just stood looking at each other for a moment. Raquel couldn’t think of anything but the hug they’d shared last night, and she wondered if he was remembering it too. She wanted nothing more than to go to him and hug him again, but she felt very keenly that the circumstances had been exceptional last night, and that she shouldn’t expect too much from him now.

“How… how are you?” he asked. “You weren’t at breakfast this morning.”

“I overslept,” she explained. Then she gave him a careful smile. “I’m… I’m good,” she said, then swallowed. “In fact… I’m better than I’ve been in a long time.”

“Good,” he said warmly. “I’m glad.”

She took a small step closer to him.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “I’m really glad we talked.”

He nodded, an earnest look in his eyes.

“Me too.” He hesitated, then asked: “Do you… do you maybe want to go for another walk this afternoon? After we’re done?”

She felt her heart leap.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’d really like that.”

“Good,” he smiled. “Maybe we can walk back to the hotel instead of taking the busses.”

“Yes,” she said, smiling back at him. “That’s a good idea.”

At that point, Nairobi stood up and addressed the room.

“Alright, people!” she said. “Let’s get started. Raquel, Sergio, you can sit down at the table. I’d like cameras two and four on them.”

Raquel looked at Sergio as they sat down, and they shared another smile before Nairobi called ‘action!’ The butterflies in Raquel’s stomach were fluttering harder than ever.

From that point onwards, they took a long walk together every day – after filming during the week, and the entire afternoon during the weekend – and they talked. After Raquel had opened up to him, a barrier between them had fallen away, and now they could finally talk freely to each other, about everything that had happened nine years ago, and everything that had happened since. They didn’t stay away from difficult topics and painful memories, but discussed them openly, showing each other empathy and understanding and full, complete trust. It was hard work, and often painful, but Raquel felt that it was worth it. Slowly but surely, they were working through their issues, and it was bringing them closer to each other. She felt that so clearly.

“I didn’t have a choice,” he said as they walked along a forest path one day. “There was this… this enormous thing that changed my entire life, and I just had to accept it.”

“That must have been hard,” she said softly.

“It was,” he nodded soberly. “That was one of the hardest things about it – the fact that… that I had no say in it. You just… left, and there was nothing I could do about it – nothing at all, no matter how much I wanted it. No matter what… what I was willing to do, or say.”

She felt so bad for him. She’d been trying to let go of some of the guilt she’d internalized over the years, and Sergio had been helping her with endless patience and kindness – but sometimes it still took over.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I took that choice from you.”

“It’s alright,” he said quietly, like he did every time she apologized. “That’s just how life is. Sometimes you can work for what you want, but sometimes… sometimes you just have to accept things.”

She nodded, and took a deep breath, trying hard to make herself believe that it wasn’t all her fault. She managed not to apologize again – she tried to relate to him instead.

“I felt the same way about the pregnancy,” she said. “That wasn’t my choice either. I… I just had to accept it too.”

He nodded, and they shared a look of understanding.

“It got better for me after Paula was born,” she said. “Because I did love her, no matter what.” She looked up at him. “How long did it take you? To… to accept what had happened?”

He thought about that for a moment.

“I think… it was a very gradual process. It certainly wasn’t linear. There were days when I could handle it, and then other days when I just couldn’t accept it – when I took my phone and almost called you. After a while, there were more better days.”

She hesitated – there was something she’d been thinking about for nine years, over and over again, and now she really wanted to know what he thought about it.

“I’ve always wondered,” she said quietly, “how things would have been if I hadn’t told you I was leaving Alberto the night before. Or if I’d found out about the pregnancy even just one day earlier.”

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I’ve wondered about that too.”

“Maybe… maybe it would have been better if we hadn’t had that moment of hope, you know?” she said, her throat tight at the memory. “That moment of happiness. Maybe it would have hurt less.”

“Maybe,” he said quietly. “But I still don’t regret it. It was… the happiest moment of my life.”

She looked at him, and she wanted to go to him so badly. She wanted to hug him, and hold him, until everything felt better. But after that one night out on the cliff, he hadn’t touched her again, and she felt very strongly that any contact should be initiated by him – the last thing she wanted was to cross his boundaries. So she just whispered:

“For me too. I can’t regret it either.”

They had many conversations like that, walking everywhere around the hotel: side by side on the beach, or by the edge of the cliff, or between the green hills of the countryside. They talked and talked for hours. About what they’d been to each other, nine years ago. About the repercussions of her choice, for both of them. About regret, and missed chances, and lost happiness. And finally, carefully, about what they were to each other now.

“I’m really glad that life brought us back together,” he said. They were sitting on the beach together, leaning back against the cliff behind them, facing the waves. He was looking down at the sand as he spoke. “I really am. I’m… I’m so glad that we’ve been talking like this.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, me too. There were so many things unsettled between us. So many things I wanted to say to you over the years, but couldn’t, because we weren’t talking.”

He nodded.

“Exactly.” Then he looked at her. “I… I’d like to stay in touch this time,” he said. “When the shoot is over, next week. I’d like to… to be able to keep seeing you.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I’d like that too.”

There was such a struggle inside of her – she knew that he’d told her he didn’t want to try again – that he couldn’t take that risk – but they were so much close again now, and part of her couldn’t help but wonder if maybe his feelings had changed now that they’d been talking things through. Part of her couldn’t help but hope, just a little…

But then he went on.

“I… I really hope we can be friends, even after we leave here,” he said. “This is… really precious to me. I’d really like to keep you in my life.”

The little flame of hope in her chest flickered out again. He still just wanted to be friends. And of course, she understood. He’d been so hurt before, and she understood that he was scared to open his heart again – that, maybe, he just couldn’t anymore. She wasn’t going to push him. This time, he was the one who got to make the choice, and she would accept it, no matter what. That was the least she could do.

“Yes,” she repeated, and she managed to keep any trace of disappointment and sadness out of her voice. “I’d like that too.”

He reached out and touched her hand – lightly, briefly, but it still left her skin tingling and her heart fluttering. Her stubborn, stubborn heart.

“I’m glad,” he said softly.

She loved him so much. She would give anything to be with him – but she was going to give him all the space he needed. She felt that their relationship now was like water in the palm of her hand. If she kept her fingers open, it would stay. If she clutched, it would dart away.

The shoot was drawing to a close. Raquel wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She was proud of the work they’d done; she thought they’d made a good movie. She was going to miss Elena, and Nairobi too. And of course, she was going to miss Sergio – it was going to hurt like hell to say goodbye to him again. But on the other hand, she knew that it would probably be better for her to have some distance from him again. She loved spending time with him so much – and that was exactly the problem. She loved him too much, and no matter how much she valued their friendship, it hurt more and more every day that they could never be more than that. She hoped that the pain of it would lessen at least a little bit after they returned to Madrid, and she wouldn’t see him every day anymore. She didn’t hope that she’d get over him completely – she hadn’t gotten over him in nine years, and she felt that she should just accept that she never would.

Two days before the end of the shoot, they were filming the last big scene in the farmhouse: Tristán deciding that he wasn’t willing to risk his life with Eva for the sake of the resistance. There was an intense conversation with Tristán and Eva, and everyone was a little emotional as they wrapped at the end of the day. There were hugs all around, and mutual congratulations on a job well done. Elena addressed the crew with a short speech, and there were cheers and clapping. After that, the crew still had work clearing things away, so Raquel and Sergio were the first to leave the house to go to their trailers.

The moment they stepped outside, all hell broke loose.

“Raquel!” a dozen voices yelled at once. “Raquel!”

People surged forward, holding microphones and cameras, and the two of them backed away in alarm.

“What the…” Sergio said beside her, before someone shoved a microphone in front of him.

“Sergio!” the woman asked. “How does it feel to reunite after so many years?”

“Did you always keep loving her?” another asked, pushing forward in the throng. “Is she the one?”

“Do you think it will last this time?” a young man asked, holding out another microphone.

There were journalists everywhere, and microphones, and cameras flashing, and it was terribly disorienting. Raquel saw Sergio blink and look around in absolute consternation – but this kind of scene was all too familiar to her.

She quickly stepped in front of him, shielding him from the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” she said, with a calm she didn’t feel. “We’re not taking any questions right now.”

Then she turned around, took Sergio by the arm, and firmly steered him back into the house.

She pushed the door closed behind them, and as they walked from the tiny entrance hall back to the living room, people looked up at them and gave them questioning looks.

“Forget something?” Nairobi asked.

“No,” Raquel said, shaken. “It’s absolutely crawling with press out there. Cameras everywhere. It’s a nightmare.”

Elena stepped forward, frowning.

“What?” she said. “Why?”

“Let’s find out,” Raquel said, though she had a terrible suspicion. She took out her phone and typed her own name into Google. Her eyes went wide as she saw the headlines – all published a few hours ago.

Raquel Murillo Reunited With Long-Lost Love

Raquel Murillo's Secret On-Set Affair

Love Story of the Century: Mystery Actor Conquers Star’s Heart – Twice 

World Exclusive: Raquel and Sergio

Raquel Murillo: Will This Man Give her a Second Chance at Happiness?

She stared down at her phone, horrified. What? How? She clicked on one of the articles, and phrases jumped out at her: fell in love nine years ago… Murillo’s marriage to Alberto Vicuña… Raquel and Sergio reunited on the set of the sequel movie… deeply in love… And then, horribly: Who is Paula’s real father?

There were pictures of her and Sergio – stills from the first movie, of her and Sergio kissing, and more recent pictures as well. Her feeling of horror increased as she saw pictures of the two of them walking next to each other on the beach. Of course – any passerby with a phone could have taken their picture, and they’d been too wrapped up in each other to notice. But… but still. How had this story suddenly gotten to the press? How was it in all the newspapers at once? How did they know they’d been in love nine years ago? And why did they all seem to think that she and Sergio were together now?

Then her eye fell on one particular phrase: someone high-up in the studio confirmed that the two actors are a couple now.

“Alicia,” Elena said. She was looking down at her own phone, and her voice was full of disgust. “This fucking reeks of Alicia.”

Raquel looked up at her.

“Do you really think…”

“Of course,” Elena snapped. “She kept complaining about the lack of press around here. Looks like she took matters into her own hands to remedy that.”

Raquel stared at her – she couldn’t believe that someone could be this awful.

“But…” she said, “but we’re not a couple.”

Sergio looked up.

“What?”

Raquel swallowed hard and handed him her phone. He’d find out soon anyway, and he had a right to know. His eyes went wide as he read the headlines, and he seemed too stunned to speak.

Meanwhile, Elena was shaking her head.

“Alicia doesn’t care if you’re really together or not,” she said. “This is all just a stunt to promote the movie – now everyone is talking about it!”

Fuck,” Nairobi said, looking at Elena’s phone over her shoulder. “That bitch!”

“Alright,” Elena said, squaring her shoulders. “Damage control. How do we handle this?”

Raquel was having trouble thinking – she kept throwing worried looks at Sergio, who was still staring down at her phone with wide eyes. She had a feeling that he wasn’t taking this well.

“You have to go out there,” Nairobi said to Elena. “Make a statement – say there’s been some miscommunication, and none of it is true.”

“Yes,” Elena said. “I will.” She turned to Raquel. “I’ll also make a call to get you a car with tinted windows. It can drive right up to the house, and you can leave through the kitchen door.”

“Alright,” Raquel said, grateful that Elena was taking charge of the situation. “Thank you.”

Elena put her phone to her ear, and soon she was talking to the car company. Raquel became aware of the fact that the entire crew was staring at her and Sergio, and she felt herself go red.

“Come on,” Nairobi said, clapping her hands. “Everybody back to work.”

“Let’s go into the kitchen,” Raquel murmured to Sergio, but he didn’t respond. She went up to him and put a gentle hand on his arm. “Sergio.”

He looked up at her, startled.

“What?”

“Let’s go into the kitchen to wait for the car.”

“Oh,” he said, looking dazed. “Yes. Alright.”

He let her steer him into the kitchen, where she sat him down on a chair, then sat down next to him, still throwing him worried looks. She knew perfectly well that he hated media attention – that, his entire career, he’d only taken small parts specifically because he didn’t want to be in the press – because he didn’t want to be famous; didn’t want people to recognize him on the street. And now this. After today, all of Spain would know his name.

All because of her.

She felt terrible. She didn’t know what to say. What could she say?

He finally handed her back her phone, and pulled out his own, only to stare at the screen in horror.

“Raquel,” he said. “I have thirty-one missed calls. Twenty-seven messages.”

“I know,” she said helplessly. “People will want to talk to you now.”

He put his phone down on the table, then sat back and rubbed his eyes. Things seemed to be sinking in, and as he was processing, she could see that he didn’t like this one bit.

“Fuck,” he whispered. “Fuck, this is… Fuck. How… how am I supposed to deal with this?”

“Well,” she said. “I recommend that you change your number. Your agent must have given it to the wrong people, and now it’s out there. Change it, and tell your agent to be more careful.”

He nodded, still looking dazed. Then he threw another look at his phone.

“If… if this is Sierra’s work… How… how did she even know about us?” he said. “About… what happened nine years ago?”

Raquel shook her head.

“She doesn’t know anything,” she said. “But she probably heard from a couple of people that we were close – everyone could see that at the time – and she spun a story around it for the press. It just… it just happens to be true.”

He blinked, and she felt so clearly that he was still having trouble processing it. Of course he was. He was such a private person, and now his most intimate feelings were smeared out across front pages everywhere. She still remembered how disorienting it had felt to her when she’d had her first successes as an actress and the media started paying attention to her for the first time – and that had been a fairly gradual process. He was getting the full blast of it at once, and she couldn’t imagine how he must be feeling, especially after he’d tried so hard to avoid all of this.

The guilt she’d been trying so hard to work through suddenly returned in full force, and it became hard to breathe.

“I’m sorry, Sergio,” she found herself whispering. “I’m so sorry.”

He looked up, frowning.

“What are you sorry for?”

Her throat was tight.

“For… for getting you dragged into this. If it wasn’t for me… you wouldn’t be in this situation now.” She pressed a hand to her face. “I… I just can’t seem to stop ruining your life.”

He leaned forward, and though she could see that he was shaken, his eyes were earnest.

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “This isn’t your fault. You didn’t put out this story.”

“No,” she said, her voice unsteady. “But it’s still because of me that every journalist in Spain now wants your statement.”

“I… I’m sure it will pass,” he said, and she could see that he was trying hard not to make a big deal out of this. “Elena said she’d make a statement saying it isn’t true, right?”

He had no idea what he was dealing with. He had no experience in these matters at all.

“That won’t matter,” Raquel said. She was starting to go numb as the reality of the situation started sinking in for her. “It’s out there now… Even if we deny it, there will be rumors. So many rumors – and they won’t go away for a long time… People will keep speculating.”

His eyes were worried, but he was still trying to downplay it.

“That’s… that’s okay,” he said. “I mean, they’re just rumors. It’s not that bad.”

She shook her head, memories from the time of her divorce surfacing.

“Things like that affect your life,” she said. “As long as this is a story, they won’t leave you alone. Everywhere you go, there will be cameras. In front of your house. If you go to the store. Everywhere. People with microphones, trying to get a soundbite. Random people on the street taking your picture.”

She could see that the prospect horrified him – and how could it not? Quiet, shy Sergio, with his quiet, orderly life, suddenly thrust into the public eye.

“That… that sounds awful,” he said.

She nodded sadly.

“I know. It’s not fun for anyone, but… I can imagine that it would be especially hard on someone like you.”

He rubbed his face.

“I’ve tried so hard to stay out of the press,” he murmured. “I’ve only taken small parts. I’ve never given interviews. I… I don’t think I can deal with this…”

She understood. He might be able to deal with it for a while – lie low, stay inside, ignore the calls and messages – but not in the long term. It would slowly wear him down… and she couldn’t let that happen. This was her fault, and she had to make it go away.

And she knew there was only one way to do that.

She felt the numbness spread through her entire body as she realized what this meant, and things became horribly clear to her.

“We can’t see each other anymore,” she whispered.

He frowned.

“What?”

She swallowed hard, fighting back tears. This tore her apart – it was the last thing she wanted – but she couldn’t see any other way.

“You… you said you wanted to be friends, after the shoot was over. You said you wanted to keep seeing me. I… I want that too… but after this… we can’t.”

“Why not? Why should this change things?”

“Think about it, Sergio,” she said, feeling so helpless. “No matter how hard we deny this, people will be paying attention to you now. They’ll be scrutinizing your every move over the next few months, at least. If… if we keep seeing each other in public, people will take pictures. The story won’t have a chance to die – it will surface over and over again. Journalists will keep bothering you – will keep calling you, and messaging you – will keep showing up everywhere you go – at work and at home. Every time we see each other, it will all start up again.”

There was only one thought in her mind: she couldn’t let that happen. She had to protect him. No matter what: she had to shield him from this. He didn’t want any of this, and it would make him miserable. She’d already caused him too much misery. She couldn’t add any more. She couldn’t.

“No,” he murmured, giving her look full of consternation. “No, Raquel, I… I don’t want to stop seeing you. I don’t want to lose you again, for something as stupid as this!

“I don’t want to lose you either,” she said, fighting so hard to hold back her tears. “But I’ve lived through this before, and I know what it’s like. On the whole, I can… I can live my life in an almost normal way, but when there’s a big story like this… There’s just no peace. No more privacy. People watch everything you do, scrutinize everything you say. Every time they’d see us together, it would happen all over again.”

She looked up at him.

“Are you prepared to deal with that?”

He swallowed hard, hesitating… but then he looked down and shook his head.

She took a shaking breath.

“Then… then you’ll have to trust me on this. Please. I hate this, but it’s the only way. We can’t keep seeing each other after the shoot is over.”

He gave her a sad look.

“For how long?”

“It wouldn’t be forever,” she said. “Maybe… maybe six months, or a year. This will blow over eventually, but it will take time before people stop paying attention.”

He looked so dejected.

“A year?”

“We’d have to see,” she said helplessly. “It’s hard to predict these things. But… but we can message each other, and video call. We can still talk. We just need to… give the story time to die.”

He was quiet for a while, thinking. Finally, she could see from the dejected expression on his face that he’d come to the same conclusion she had. It clearly pained him – but he nodded.

“Alright,” he said. “Alright. We can just… call each other, and message, until… until you think it’s safe again.”

She was so relieved that he wouldn’t put himself through this – but at the same time, she felt a deep, desperate sadness well up inside her. They’d come so close. They’d come so close to establishing a real friendship, and now circumstances were driving them apart again, and once again, she felt like they didn’t have a choice in the matter. Once again, things were decided for them.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all.

She looked up at him, and she saw her own sadness reflected in his eyes.

“I can’t believe this is happening again,” he whispered.

It was so hard not to start crying.  

“Me neither,” she whispered. “But.. but you’re not losing me this time,” she added, as firmly as she could. “It… it will just be for a while, and we can still talk.”

But she felt so keenly what he meant. In only two days, the shoot would be over, and they’d have to say goodbye. The thought was so awful. They’d only just found their way back to each other, and she desperately didn’t want to let him go again. She tentatively reached out a hand, and he took it and squeezed softly.

“I’ll call you,” he said quietly. “Often.”

“Yes,” she said, swallowing hard. “Often.”

Outside, the press was waiting. Camera vans, and flashing lights, and endless, invasive questions.

So they kept sitting in the kitchen, hand in hand, quiet. All they could do, was wait for the storm to pass.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

For the last two days of the shoot, they avoided each other as much as possible. Raquel hated it, but they’d talked and agreed – it would be best not to be seen together at the moment. After Elena had made her statement to the press, and told them in no uncertain terms that neither Raquel nor Sergio would talk to them, some of the reporters had left, but there were still plenty hanging around both the set and the hotel. They were clearly hoping to talk to someone on the crew or the staff of the hotel, and even though Nairobi and Elena had forbidden anyone from talking to the press, Raquel knew that it was quite likely that someone would do it anyway. She didn’t want to give them anything more to talk about, so she and Sergio only saw each other on set. They didn’t go out for walks, they didn’t have meals together, and they decided not even to meet in one of their rooms. The risk that someone would spot them going in or coming out, and take a picture, was too big.

They were a miserable two days. She felt terrible about how this was all impacting Sergio, and how it was robbing them of the last time they could have spent together. She also tried hard not to think about their agreement not to see each other after they returned to Madrid. She knew she’d miss him like crazy, especially after how close they’d been over the past two weeks. He was her safe place, and being cut off from him so abruptly left her feeling rather untethered. They talked quietly between scenes, but it wasn’t the same. In the evening, he sent her sweet messages to see if she was okay, and it made her cry.

All in all, when Nairobi called a wrap on the last day of shooting, Raquel wasn’t in the mood for the wrap party at all – there would be a lot of people with phones there, so she wouldn’t be able to be around Sergio there either. She hated that she couldn’t trust her co-workers, but that was where things stood, with reporters waiting just outside the gates of the hotel. She wished she could just spend the evening alone in her room, but Nairobi wouldn’t hear of it.

“No way,” she said, when Raquel came up to her after the last scene. “You’re not moping alone in your room all night, Raquel. I know things are shitty right now, but that’s all the more reason to have a few drinks with the people who care about you.”

Raquel felt touched, and like she couldn’t refuse after that. So after a last dinner with Elena that night – in the hotel restaurant, to avoid the press outside – they headed over together to the hotel bar, where the party would be held. The room was already crowded, and Raquel immediately spotted Sergio at the bar – undoubtedly Nairobi had roped him into this too. He was talking to his brother, and Raquel didn’t go over to him. They just shared a sad look, and then Raquel joined Elena and Nairobi at a table. There was music, and many people were dancing, but Raquel felt that that was beyond her tonight.

“Well,” Nairobi said, when all three of them had a drink. “The last two days have been a little weird – but apart from that, this has been a great shoot.” She raised her glass. “It was an honor and a privilege to work with you two.”

Raquel had to smile in spite of herself. She raised her glass and clinked it against Nairobi’s, and Elena did the same.

“It was a pleasure to work with you too, Nairobi,” Elena said. “I really hope we get the chance to do it again.”

“That’s completely up to you,” Nairobi grinned. “Just hire me for your movies.”

“I will,” Elena smiled. “Every chance I get. Or maybe Raquel can hire you when she starts her own project.”

“Oh,” Nairobi said, turning to Raquel with an expression of interest. “Are you going to fund your own movie?”

“I’m thinking about,” Raquel nodded. “There are too many stories out there that deserve a platform, but can’t find the funding.”

Excellent idea,” Nairobi said. “Please consider me if you’re looking for a director. Sounds like a great project.”

“It’s just an idea at this point,” Raquel said, smiling. “But you two will be the first people I’ll call if I actually decide to go through with it.”

They toasted again to that, and started talking about how to go about finding talented writers who were being overlooked by the business. Raquel actually started enjoying herself – the more they talked about it, the more she liked the idea. It even put Sergio from her mind for a while, which was a welcome relief.

After about an hour, she felt so much better that she even let Nairobi pull her onto the dance floor to dance a little. She closed her eyes for a moment and just felt the music, allowing her mind to empty – allowing herself to just be in the moment. She reminded herself that things wouldn’t be like this forever. It would be okay. Sooner or later, everything would be okay again.

But then she opened her eyes again, and froze.

A man had walked into the room. A man who looked completely out of place amid the happy, dancing people. A man who shouldn’t be there at all.

Alberto.

He was scanning the room, and Raquel had no doubt who he was looking for. His eyes were dark, and his mouth was twisted in anger in a way she knew so well. She suddenly couldn’t breathe anymore. No. No, this couldn’t be happening.

Before she could move – before she could even begin to recover from the shock of seeing him, he’d spotted her, and came walking straight towards her. He parted the crowd effortlessly as people stumbled out of his way. He looked livid.

“We need to talk,” he snarled the moment he reached her. “Now.”

She swallowed hard – people was starting to look at them – she couldn’t lose her composure.

“Alberto,” she said, and she somehow kept her voice from shaking. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Like hell I shouldn’t!” he shouted, and more people started turning towards them. “There has been a fucking horde of journalists outside my house for the past two days!”

Raquel felt herself go pale – of course – how had she not thought of that? Of course the reporters would want his take on this.

He went on, his eyes flashing.

“They keep asking for my statement about how you cheated on me nine years ago. They keep asking me how it affected our marriage. They keep asking me if I’m really Paula’s father!”

Raquel felt nauseous – both because of the situation he’d been put in, and because him shouting at her like that was bringing back awful memories.

“I…” she said, feeling herself begin to shake. “I’m so sorry…”

He looked like he had more to say – but then, suddenly, Sergio was there.

“What’s going on?”

At the sight of him, Alberto got even angrier.

“You!” he yelled, pointing an accusing finger at Sergio. “You’re the fucking cause of all of this! You ruined our marriage nine years ago, and now this! You can’t fucking stay away from her, can you?”

The entire room had gone quiet now – everyone was looking at them, and Raquel could feel her cheeks burn. No – no – this was all going to leak to the press, and that would make everything so much worse. She had to do something – she had to be brave now.

She ignored all of her instincts, and took a step forward.

“Please,” she said in a low voice. “Not here.”

“You’ve been ignoring my messages and calls for weeks!” he snarled at her. “I’m sick of it! We’re talking, now.

“Alright,” she said soothingly. Anything to get him out of here. “Alright, let’s talk.”

Sergio stepped between them, turning towards her.

“Raquel, no.”

Alberto took a threatening step forward, and Raquel quickly pulled Sergio to the side, away from him.

“It’s alright,” she said to Sergio, and she didn’t know how her voice was so calm. “It’s alright. I’ll deal with him.”

“No,” he said emphatically but quietly, “no, Raquel, don’t! Let me call security! They can throw him out.”

“No,” she said firmly. “No, then he’ll just talk to the reporters outside. That… that would make things so much worse.”

“Raquel…”

“Please,” she said, looking up at him. “Please, just let me handle this.”

He looked at her for a long moment, his lips a tight line, but when she didn’t waver, he stepped aside. He clearly didn’t want to – but she’d asked him, so he did.

Alberto had followed the conversation with a dark look on his face, and from the way he was looking at Sergio, Raquel just knew that he was on the verge of punching him – and she couldn’t let that happen, no matter what. She quickly stepped up to Alberto, and, fighting back her fear and revulsion, she took him by the arm and pulled him towards the door.

“Come on,” she said. “Come on, let’s talk.”

She wasn’t sure what she was doing – she just knew that she had to get him out of that room before things escalated. If he hurt Sergio, she would never forgive herself.

They emerged into the hallway – still a public place, but at least it was empty, so it would do. She gathered all of her strength, and turned to him.

“Look,” she said. “I… I understand that you’re upset, and you have every right to be. We… we can talk when I get back to Madrid, okay?”

“No,” he said angrily. “No, we’re talking right now.

Before she knew what was happening, he took her by the shoulders, and steered her through an open doorway into an adjoining room. It was a small conference room, and it was empty. He slammed the door behind them, and Raquel immediately felt a surge of something that was all too familiar – panic.  

“No,” she said, her voice shaking. “No, not here…”

She tried to get past him to the door, but he caught her and pushed her back.

“Is it true?” he asked, his eyes dark and dangerous. “Did you cheat on me? Is he Paula’s father?”  

No,” she said emphatically. “No, of course not!”

He was advancing on her, and she was stumbling backwards, bumping into chairs and tables as she tried to get away from him.

“I don’t believe you!” he growled. “I knew it – I just knew something was up when you got back from that shoot!”

The wall was at her back now – she couldn’t retreat any further – and he was still yelling.

“I knew it all along! You slept with him, and then you got knocked up and he didn’t want you anymore!”

She was shaking hard now – but that was so untrue.

“No,” she whispered. “No, that’s not what happened.”

He wasn’t listening. He just went on.

“He ditched you, so you came crawling back to me!”

“No,” she said, a little louder now. She was breathing hard. “No, you’re wrong.”

“I should have fucking known,” he said, his lip curling in disgust. “You just came back because you had no other option.”

Her blood was pounding in her ears. She heard Sergio’s voice, still so clear in her mind after nine years: Please. Please don’t go.

Alberto was still yelling.

“And now you’re back with him, when he screwed you over like that nine years ago. You’re pathetic.”

No – no – she couldn’t take this – she couldn’t let that stand. She wasn’t just shaking with fear anymore. She wouldn’t – she wouldn’t let him talk about Sergio like that.

“I chose you!” she suddenly yelled. “I fucking chose you, Alberto! I thought you were the better choice for me and Paula! Like an idiot! And you know what? It was the biggest fucking mistake of my life! I wish he were Paula’s father! I wish! Then I wouldn’t have had to go back to you!

He looked so taken aback for a moment – but then his eyes flashed, and he slapped her right across the face.

In an instant, she was back there. She felt the sting of the slap, and she was right back where she’d been all those years: cowering before him – weak, helpless, afraid. All the fight went out of her as she raised her arms to protect her head and backed away against the wall, and as he kept hitting her, the familiar thoughts echoed through her head again. It’s your own fault, they said. It’s your own fault. Of course he’s mad – of course. You ruined his life – you keep ruining it. His – and Sergio’s. You deserve this. Yes, she thought, yes, it was her fault, and she did deserve this, so she didn’t try to run – she didn’t try to fight him off – she just pressed herself back against the wall, and took the blows.

There was a sudden pounding on the door.

“Raquel!” a voice yelled. “Raquel!”

More pounding on the door, and she realized that Alberto must have locked it. There was no escape.

“Raquel!”

The voice sounded so desperate. Sergio.

Alberto hit her again, and she shrank back even further against the wall. She deserved this. It was all her fault.

“Raquel!”

Sergio. She’d hurt him so much. She’d hurt both him and Alberto, and now she deserved to hurt in return. She knew that.

The pounding on the door grew louder, and she couldn’t believe that he was trying so hard to get to her.

“Raquel, please!”

She took another blow, but all she heard was the desperation in Sergio’s voice. He really cared – he didn’t want her to get hurt, even when she deserved it.

And suddenly something happened. A small, determined voice inside of her spoke up.

No, it said. No.

Suddenly, the room was gone, and she was sitting on a moonlit cliff. Sergio was sitting beside her, and his hand was warm around hers.

You didn’t deserve what he did to you, Raquel. You didn’t deserve any of it.

No, the small voice said again, a little louder. No, I don’t deserve this.

“Stop,” she whispered. Alberto hit her again, but this time she braced herself.

You deserve love, and understanding, and someone who cares.

“Stop,” she said. “Stop.”

He didn’t listen, of course – but the voice inside of her was strong now.

I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this.

“Stop!” she shouted, straightening up, suddenly feeling so, so angry. “Stop it!”

She pushed him away – hard – and he stumbled backwards, clearly taken by surprise.

“Don’t touch me!” she shouted, the anger surging inside of her. “Don’t you touch me ever again!”

He looked uncertain for just a moment – she’d never, ever fought back before – but then he raised his hand again.

She didn’t hesitate. The rebellious little voice inside her was ringing in her ears. I do not deserve this. Her heart was pounding like mad, and she couldn’t breathe, but she didn’t hesitate.

She made a fist, and with all the strength she had, she punched him right on the nose.

Bones cracked, and she felt her fingers bruise, but she didn’t feel any pain. She only felt a wild, burning anger as she pulled back and watched him double over, clutching at his face, blood pouring between his fingers.

“Fuck!” he yelled. “Fuck!

At that point, the door violently flew open, and two security guard stormed in, followed by a wide-eyed Sergio. The security guards stopped at the sight of Alberto, their eyebrows raised – but Sergio ran straight to her.

“Raquel!” he said. “Raquel are you alright?”

Just like that, the anger left her. She just stood there, frozen, so shocked by what she’d done. All she could do was stare at Alberto, who was still holding his nose and cursing. She… she couldn’t believe she’d done that.

Sergio didn’t touch her – he stayed a few paces back from her, and carefully said her name.

“Raquel… Raquel, are you alright?”

She was beginning to shake, and she felt herself disconnect from reality. Nothing seemed quite real anymore.

A second person stepped up beside Sergio.

“She’s in shock,” a voice said. Elena.

Her heart was still racing, and she felt sick. The shaking grew worse.

“A chair,” Elena said sharply. “Get her a chair.”

One of the security guards quickly pulled up a chair, and Raquel sank down in it, feeling like she was in a dream. A nightmare. She kept staring at Alberto.

“Get him out of here,” she heard Elena say, though her voice seemed to come from far away. “Get him to a different room, and keep him there. I’m calling the police. Fuck.”

Raquel just stared straight ahead, not really seeing anything – but then Sergio kneeled in front of her.

“It’s alright,” he said quietly. “It’s alright, Raquel. You’re safe. You’re safe.”

Her eyes focused on him.

“Sergio…”

“Yes,” he said, clearly relieved that she was finally reacting. “Yes, I’m here, and you’re safe. Raquel, are you hurt?”

At his question, the pain suddenly hit her – her arms and shoulders were sore and bruised, and the hand she’d punched Alberto with hurt like hell. She gasped and clutched at it with her other hand.

He leaned forward, his expression so worried.

Are you hurt? Do I need to call an ambulance?”

“My hand,” she whispered. “It… it hurts.”

“I’m sure it does,” he said quietly. “Can I… can I take a look at it?”

She slowly let go of her hurt hand, then held it out to him. Her hands were still shaking, and the knuckles on her right hand were bruised.

He drew in a sharp breath, and his mouth was a tight line, but when he spoke, his voice was so soft.

“I need to make sure nothing’s broken,” he said. “Can I… can I touch you?”

She swallowed hard, then nodded. The next moment, he took her hand in his – so, so gently. He just held it for a moment, making sure she was okay with the contact, and she felt something shift ever so slightly. His skin was warm against hers, and her nausea lessened. He was here. He was here with her.

She looked down at his face as he was focused on her hand. He was here. Things became slightly more real again as he slowly bent and unbent her fingers with infinite care.

“Does that hurt?” he said, and she shook her head.

“No, not really.”

“Good,” he said, clearly relieved. “No broken bones, then.”

Then she saw him look at her bare arms, taking in the bruises that were beginning to appear there.

“Oh,” he whispered. “Oh no. Oh, Raquel… Do you… do you need to go to the hospital?”

“No,” she whispered. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m so sorry, Raquel,” he said, and his voice was shaking. “I shouldn’t have left you alone with him. I’m so sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner – the door was locked, and I couldn’t break it down – I had to get security.”

She nodded. She felt numb, but one thought was piercing through the haze around her.

“Paula,” she whispered. “If he thought she wasn’t his…”

“She’s with your mother,” Elena said, appearing next to Sergio again. “I just called her.”

“Did he… did he hurt her?”

“No,” Elena said, and Raquel felt herself go faint with relief. “No, she’s unhurt, and she’s safe. Your mother is keeping her away from the press, so she doesn’t know anything.”

Something else suddenly occurred to Raquel.

“The police…” she said. “Elena… If they come here… the reporters…”

“Don’t worry about that,” Elena said. “I asked them to come here in a civilian vehicle, and the hotel manager will let them in through the service entrance.”

Raquel swallowed hard and nodded again. She suddenly felt terribly cold – so cold her teeth were chattering.

“Th… thank you.”

Sergio immediately took off his jacket, and carefully draped it around her shoulders. It was warm with his body heat, and she huddled gratefully inside it. The warmth, and the comfortingly familiar smell of him were drawing her further into reality again.

“Try to take deep breaths,” Elena said quietly. “Slowly, so you don’t start hyperventilating.”

Raquel tried it, and it helped somewhat. The haze around her cleared a little. She reached out her hand, and Sergio immediately took it in his again. That helped even more. He was her safe place – her anchor. She looked into his eyes, and all she could see there was warmth and empathy and concern.

You deserve love, and understanding, and someone who cares.

She finally felt the shaking stop. He was here with her. That was all that mattered.

“I’m going to see if the police have arrived,” Elena said. “Will you stay with her?”

“Yes,” Sergio said. He didn’t look away from Raquel. “Yes, I’m not going anywhere.”

By the time the police arrived in the room, she was calm enough to give a statement. Her voice shook, and it was hard to relive it all, but Elena and Sergio were next to her, and Sergio kept her hand warm in his, and that gave her the strength she needed.

She told the policewoman everything that had happened. When she was done, the woman asked:

“Will you be pressing charges, ma’am?”

“No,” Raquel said automatically.

Both Elena and Sergio looked at her with wide eyes.

“Raquel,” Elena said. “Are you… are you serious? After what you just told us?”

The policewoman leaned forward.

“Has he done this sort of thing before?”

Raquel hesitated, but she was so, so tired of hiding it. She’d always felt that she deserved it – but no more. No more. She swallowed hard.

“Yes,” she whispered.

The woman nodded.

“Then I strongly recommend pressing charges, ma’am. In fact, I’d recommend you file for a restraining order.”

“Yes,” Elena said immediately. “You should.”

Raquel felt so torn.

“But…” she said. “But then it would go to court, and… and the press would be all over it. And then everyone would know…”

“I understand,” Elena said gently. “But you can’t risk this happening again, Raquel.”

Raquel looked at Sergio.

“What do you think?”

He hesitated. His eyes went to the bruises on her arms, and he carefully stroked her hurt hand.

“I… I think he shouldn’t get away with this,” he said softly. “But I understand if you don’t want to go through a public court case. This is a very private thing, and… and I understand that you don’t want the whole world to know.”

“I’m… I’m not sure I can do it,” Raquel whispered.

“You wouldn’t have to do it alone, though,” Sergio murmured, squeezing her hand ever so slightly. “You have people who love you. We’ll help you.”

“Yes,” Elena said, leaning forward. “Anything you need.”

Raquel gave her a grateful look, then looked back at Sergio. He was gazing at her steadily.

You didn’t deserve what he did to you, Raquel. You didn’t deserve any of it.

It was true. It was still hard to accept, but she finally believed it. She didn’t deserve this.

She took a deep breath, and addressed the policewoman.

“Yes,” she said. “I’d like to press charges.”

Sergio squeezed her hand again, and she looked at him. You have people who love you.

That was true too. And with those people next to her, she could do this.

It took a while before everything was settled and the police left, taking Alberto with them. The adrenaline had drained out of Raquel by then, and a bone-deep tiredness had settled over her. She didn’t want to go up to bed, though. She couldn’t bear the thought of being alone – of having to let go of Sergio’s hand.

Elena seemed to understand.

“I don’t think you should be alone tonight,” she said. “I’d happily stay with you, but… I think you might prefer…”

She glanced at Sergio.

“Of course,” he said immediately. “Of course I’ll stay with her.”

Raquel looked at him.

“You… you will?”

He gave her a soft look.

“Of course,” he murmured. “If you want that.”

She felt tears burn.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, please.”

“I’ll go up first,” Elena said. “And make sure there’s nobody on your floor to see you.”

“Thank you,” Raquel said, and she truly felt grateful for her friend. The last thing she wanted now was a picture of her and Sergio leaking to the press.

They waited for Elena to text them the all-clear, then Raquel reluctantly let go of Sergio’s hand. The hotel manager would let them go up in the service elevator so they wouldn’t have to cross the lobby, but they could still run into hotel staff on the way. Once they got up to their floor, the hallway was completely empty though, except for Elena, waiting in front of Raquel’s door.

“Will you be okay?” she asked as Raquel and Sergio reached her.

“Yes,” Raquel said. “Thank you for everything, Elena.”

“Don’t mention it,” her friend said, then she gave her a soft look. “I hope you can get some sleep tonight.”

Raquel nodded, then they said their goodnights, and Elena left. Raquel took out her key card, and Sergio gave her a careful look as she unlocked her door.

“Are you sure you feel comfortable with this?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Please… come in.”

As they went into the room together, she was suddenly reminded so strongly of nine years ago. She’d invited him into her room then, too, on the evening of the wrap party. She’d slept in his arms that night. The memory made something ache inside of her – but the circumstances were very different now. She’d been almost sure of his feelings for her back then, but tonight, he was here only as a friend. Still – she was grateful.

When the door closed behind them, they stood looking at each other for a long moment, unsure of what to do. Then, to her utter, utter relief, he opened his arms to her, and she stepped in against him and hugged him tight. As he wrapped his arms around her, she felt something fall from her shoulders – the pressure of having to keep herself together while there were other people around. Now, in the privacy of her room and the safety of his arms, she could finally allow the full impact of what had happened to hit her. Memories of the evening started crowding her mind, horribly vivid. She was cold, and exhausted, and everything hurt, and when Sergio started stroking her hair, she felt her restraint break. She leaned against him, and quietly started to cry.

He just held her, and kept stroking her hair, so gently that it made her ache and hold onto him even tighter.

“It’s okay,” he murmured, over and over again. “It’s okay.”

His arms around her were so warm and comforting, and gradually her tears stopped. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and leaned her head against his chest. The tears had left her more tired than ever, but relieved, too. He didn’t pull back from her – he just kept holding her, and she was so grateful for his warmth and nearness.

“You were so brave, Raquel,” he finally murmured. “I can’t believe how brave you were.”

At his words, a small flame of pride kindled in her chest. She’d done the impossible. She’d stood up to him. She’d fought back.

She looked up at him.

“I remembered what you said,” she whispered. “That… that I didn’t deserve what he did to me.”

He looked at her, and his eyes were so warm and soft.

“It’s true,” he murmured. “You deserve only good things. Wonderful things.”

His arms were still around her as they looked at each other for a long moment. She was the first to look away – she couldn’t allow herself to hope. She leaned her head against his chest again, closed her eyes, and just savored his closeness. She didn’t want more than this, she told herself. She didn’t. She didn’t.

They kept standing there for a long time, until he finally asked:

“Do you want to go to bed?”

She didn’t want to let go of him, but she felt how tired she was, and she knew she needed to sleep. So she nodded, and he gently let go of her. The moment his arms weren’t around her anymore, she immediately felt cold again, and she was shivering as she went into the bathroom to put on her pajamas. When she came out into the bedroom, he was waiting beside the bed. She got in between the sheets with a tight feeling in her chest – the bed was so big, and she felt so small, and so cold. She looked up at him, and saw him give her a questioning look.

“Will you stay with me?” she whispered, and he nodded and took off his shoes.

The next moment, he was next to her, and she shifted closer to him, so grateful as he took her in his arms again. She huddled against him, letting his warmth chase away the cold.

“Is this okay?” he murmured, and she nodded and shifted even closer to him.

“Just… just hold me a little tighter,” she whispered.

“You’re bruised,” he said softly. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

That almost made her cry again. She couldn’t believe how careful he was with her. She didn’t deserve… But then she cut off the thought. No. No, she wouldn’t think like that anymore.

“Thank you,” she whispered instead. “For being here.”

“Of course,” he murmured, tightening his arms around her just slightly. “Of course.”

She couldn’t believe that he was really holding her like this. She couldn’t believe that she would really sleep in his arms again. It wasn’t exactly the same as it had been nine years ago, but it was still more than she’d ever dreamed she would have again. She closed her eyes and buried her face against his chest.

I love you, she thought. I love you, Sergio. I love you so much.

His arms were warm around her, and when he bent his head and pressed a soft kiss to her hair, she knew that he loved her too.

The thought was soft and sweet and beautiful, and she held onto it as she gently drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Throughout the night, they kept half-waking up to shift closer to each other; instinctively seeking out each other’s warmth and nearness even when they were half-asleep. It felt so natural to be in each other’s arms again – they fit together so perfectly. At a certain point, Raquel woke up out of a nightmare, gasping, and he immediately pulled her close and held her while murmuring soft, soothing things. She held onto him, trembling, so grateful for his presence. Once she’d calmed down a little, she pressed her face against his chest and breathed him in, and the warm, familiar smell of him was infinitely comforting, chasing away the after-images of the dream. He was here. He was really here. Everything was so much better with his arms around her. Soon, she was asleep again.

When the morning light started streaming through the windows, Raquel didn’t open her eyes. She didn’t stir. She was warm in Sergio’s arms, and she wanted to stay there forever. Maybe if she didn’t open her eyes – if she didn’t move a muscle – they could stay like this, in the soft, formless space between dreaming and waking where everything was simple and they could just be close to each other. There were a hundred worries and concerns tugging at the edges of her consciousness, but she ignored them for now. She was here with him. Her entire world was warm and sweet and lovely, and she didn’t want to think of anything else.

He stirred slightly and held her a little tighter, and she felt such a serene, golden glow of happiness. Everything was just right. She’d only had this feeling once before: almost exactly nine years ago, when she’d woken up in his arms for the first time, happier than she’d ever been.

He stirred again, and she realized that he was waking up too. She finally opened her eyes to see him looking at her with a sleepy gaze.

“Good morning,” he murmured softly.

“Good morning,” she whispered back.

He didn’t pull back from her. He was still holding her close, and he didn’t look away from her. Her heart started fluttering madly at the look in his eyes, and suddenly, it felt like no time had passed at all. Maybe it hadn’t been real. Maybe the last nine years hadn’t happened at all. Maybe she’d just dreamt that they’d been apart, and now she was waking up in his arms.

Maybe she’d never hurt him.

Maybe they were starting a life together after all.

Maybe she could just lift her face… and kiss him.

She felt absolutely breathless as she looked into his eyes and he pulled her a little closer – but then she leaned onto one of her many bruises, and she involuntarily drew in a sharp breath at the pain.

He immediately let go of her and drew back, his eyes wide.

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said quickly, but the spell was broken. This wasn’t nine years ago. They weren’t waking up after a night of kisses and caresses – the only reason she was in his arms was because he’d been comforting her. Memories of last night suddenly started crowding her mind, dispelling her sweet sense of contentment. Alberto showing up – the locked conference room – the pain, the guilt. She closed her eyes tightly and tried to push them away.

“Are you alright?” Sergio asked, his voice full of concern.

She swallowed hard.

“Yes,” she said with some difficulty. “I’ll be fine.”

He was just here as a friend. She couldn’t forget that. The soft feeling of the morning dissipated, and reality reasserted itself, with all of its sharp edges and sad truths. She’d have to pull herself together, and face it in all of its complexity.

He sat up, so she reluctantly sat up too. She just wanted to pull him down with her and cuddle close to his warmth again – to feel his arms around her and bury her face against his shirt and forget about the world – but there was no way. He was just here as a friend, and he’d already given her more than she had any right to expect.

He was giving her a close look.

“How are you feeling?” he asked softly.

How could she answer that question? She had so much to deal with in the aftermath of yesterday’s events – the pain of her bruises, and the consequences of her choice to press charges. She’d have to talk to the police again, and find a lawyer, and deal with the press. She’d have to decide if she wanted to sue Alberto for full custody now. She’d have to have a very difficult conversation with Paula to try to explain things to her the best way she could.

And most painful of all: she’d have to say goodbye to Sergio.

The thought was almost unbearable, but there was no way around it. They both had tickets for flights home today.

She took a deep breath.

“Well…” she said. “Things are… a lot right now.”

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I can imagine. But I meant what I said yesterday, Raquel. You won’t have to deal with this alone. I’ll help you any way I can. Just… just let me know if you need anything. Anything at all.”

His eyes were so earnest, and as she looked at him, she suddenly had the mad thought that she could reschedule her flight, and ask him to do the same, so they could have a few more days together. But of course that wasn’t an option. Paula was waiting for her in Madrid, and she would have to be told about the situation. Besides, Raquel had no idea if Sergio would want to stay here with her any longer. Nothing had changed, after all. After last night, she felt closer to him than ever, but nothing had really changed. He hadn’t given her any indication that he wanted to be more than friends. They still had to stay away from each other because of the press. They’d still have to say goodbye.

But not right now. Right now, they still had a few hours, and… and he’d asked her if she needed anything. She looked up at him, and she ached to be close to him again.

“A hug?” she whispered tentatively.

To her utter joy, he gave her a soft smile and stretched out an arm. She moved in against him, and they leaned back against the headboard together – his arm around her; her head on his shoulder; his cheek against the top of her head. She closed her eyes and just savored his nearness – she would take every second she could get.

It no longer felt like no time had passed. She felt so keenly now that they weren’t the same people anymore that they’d been back then, and that this wasn’t the same relationship. Nine years ago, loving each other had been so easy, and there had been nothing but happiness between them that morning. Now, they had both been marked by past hurt, and they were more careful. Love wasn’t the uncomplicated thing anymore that it had been back then. It wasn’t just pure unadulterated happiness – it could be pain, too – it could cut and tear and leave a person broken. They both knew that now. They’d both felt it, and things could never be the same again.

And yet their relationship also felt more meaningful now than it had nine years ago. There was pain there, yes, but also so much understanding, and compassion, and care. They had connected to each other in a way that felt deeper, more mature, and more significant than it had back then. They had shared themselves with each other like they never had before – talked about their scars and their worst memories, their fears and their hopes. They had worked through past hurt and found ways to bridge the gap between them, forging a new bond in spite of the things that stood between them. It wasn’t as easy and straightforward as the bond they’d shared nine years ago, but Raquel felt so clearly that it was stronger. More solid. More profound. She sensed that it was more resilient now, and she felt – she hoped, so fervently – that it wouldn’t break even if they had to stop seeing each other for a while.

They just kept sitting like that for a long time – in fact, she thought they might have just kept sitting like that all day and let their flights leave without them… but then the alarm on her phone suddenly went off and mercilessly reminded them of the time.  

She had to let go of him to turn it off, and when she turned back to him, he was giving her a questioning look.

“Well…” he said. “Are you hungry?”

A memory, suddenly – so vivid.

“Are you hungry?”

“Just a little,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Maybe we could order up some room service,” he continued.

“I don’t want you to be hungry. Let me go get you something to eat.”

“I don’t want anything. I just want you.”

There was a sudden ache in her chest, and it was hard to breathe.

“You have me,” he’d whispered. “You’ve had me from the start, Raquel. You have me now and you’ll have me always.”

Always. Always.

And yet…

She looked at him, and she had to try so hard not to cry. What she wouldn’t give to be back there. What she wouldn’t do to get the chance to do it all over again.

He started to move out of bed, and she almost begged him not to go – almost begged him to please, please give her another chance. But another memory surfaced.

“Please just give us a chance, Raquel. Please. Give me a chance to prove…”

She hadn’t given him that chance back then. She couldn’t blame him for not giving her another chance now.

He turned before he left the bed, however, and gave her that questioning look again.

“Raquel? Do you want me to call room service?”

“No,” she whispered. “No, I’m not hungry.”

He gave her a closer look.

“Are you okay?”

No. Not at all.

“Yes,” she said with an effort. “Yes, I’m… I’m okay.”

He considered her for a moment.

“What time does your flight leave?” he asked her.

“At two,” she said, pushing away the painful memories. “Yours?”

“At six.”

He considered her for a moment before he spoke again.

“Raquel…” he said. “I… I really don’t like the thought of leaving you alone. Maybe we can call the airlines and see if I can still book a seat on your flight, or… or you on mine. That way we can travel together.”

There was such a soft feeling in her chest. He still wanted to take care of her. She really wanted to say yes – she wanted to say goodbye to him less than ever – but then his phone gave a short buzz on the bedside table, and she felt her stomach sink. Undoubtedly that was another reporter, wanting to talk to him. If they traveled together, it would only make things worse.

“I would love that,” she whispered. “Really. But… but I don’t think we should. We agreed that people shouldn’t see us together.”

He completely ignored his phone. He just gave her a careful look.

“Do you… do you still think we shouldn’t see each other for a year?”

The thought made something contract painfully in her chest. No – no, she couldn’t miss him for a whole year, she couldn’t bear it, she wasn’t sure if she was strong enough… but his phone buzzed again, and she took a deep breath. She would have to be strong enough.

“Maybe not that long,” she said, though she really wasn’t sure. “Maybe six months or so would do it.”

He gave her another long look, and his eyes were so sad.

“I hate this,” he murmured. “I hate it so much.”

“I know,” she whispered, fighting back tears. “I hate it too, I… I can’t even tell you how much. But it won’t be like last time, Sergio. You’re not losing me, I swear.”

“Really?” he whispered, and she could see so many bad memories behind his eyes.

Really,” she assured him. “I don’t want to lose you either, Sergio. I don’t… I don’t think I could bear that.” She swallowed hard. “But we have to deal with the facts. Every time people would see us together, it would be a story again.”

As if to emphasize her words, his phone buzzed a third time. This time, he picked it up, but he only glanced at the screen before putting it down again. He took a deep breath, then looked up at her.

“What if I don’t care?” he said suddenly. “What if I don’t care about… about the press. What if I still want to see you, and don’t care about what people think?”

There was such an ache in her chest. He didn’t want to say goodbye any more than she did. But she’d thought long and hard about this, and she knew what would happen.

“Sergio,” she said quietly. “I really want to keep seeing you too, you have to believe me. But… you have to know what it would mean. Now that the rumor is out there, people will be watching us. If we keep seeing each other, soon half of Spain will know your name and your face. People will come up to you in the street. Reporters will show up everywhere you go. It will really impact your privacy.”

She could see that he didn’t like the thought, but he had a stubborn look on his face.

“Maybe I’m willing to risk it.”

Oh, she wanted to give in so badly – she wanted to tell him that she didn’t care either, that she was willing to risk it too – but that would be selfish of her. She knew how deeply it would impact his work, his privacy, his happiness. It would ruin his life. She would ruin his life – again – just because she couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing him.  

“No,” she whispered, even though it took all the strength she had. “No, you can’t do this, Sergio. You’ve tried so hard to stay out of the spotlight. You never wanted to be famous.”

“Yes, well,” he said quietly. “We don’t always get what we want, and… and sometimes things are worth a sacrifice.”

She felt like she couldn’t breathe properly. Every option she saw was equally terrible. If she gave in and kept seeing him, then his life would change so drastically, and she was so scared that it would make him unhappy and that he would start resenting her for that. Then she’d lose him… But if she didn’t give in and insisted that they couldn’t see each other anymore, then she would, once again, be the person who kept them apart, and that would make him unhappy too. She saw no way out – no matter what she did, she would hurt him. Why did she have to keep hurting him?

She suddenly saw things so clearly. She was bad for him. Being around her only brought him pain. He would be better off without her in his life. He would be better off if they kept their distance – so that was the choice she made, even though it was so hard – even though it broke her heart.

“We can’t keep seeing each other,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “You have no experience with this, Sergio. I do. I know how bad it would be. It would impact your entire life.”

“I can handle it,” he said stubbornly.

She kept shaking her head. She had to protect him – no matter what, she had to protect him – from herself, and the disastrous impact she would have on his life.  

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she said, a little desperately. “You don’t know what it would mean…”

She abruptly stopped talking. This all felt so horribly, horribly familiar – Sergio arguing in favor of the two of them together, while she tried to make him see sense – it was the exact same situation they’d been in nine years ago. She was even using the exact same words. She suddenly felt nauseous. How was this happening again?

From the look of horror in his eyes, he’d noticed it too.

“I can’t believe we’re back here,” he whispered.

She couldn’t believe it either – she couldn’t believe that once again, she was hurting him. He rubbed his face – then suddenly shook his head and swung his legs out of bed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I need a minute.” He swallowed hard. “Would it… would it be okay if I went to take a shower in my room?”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “Of course.”

He got up, and she watched him walk out of the room. She understood so well how he felt. He stopped for a moment to check if there was anyone in the hallway – then he walked out and closed the door behind himself. She looked after him for a long moment, remembering how he’d walked out of her room nine years ago too – except they’d both been so happy then.

I love you.

I love you too.

And then everything had fallen apart.  

She had a sick feeling in her stomach as she got out of bed, and that was horribly familiar too – but this time she knew it was just emotional distress. She went into the bathroom and took off her pajamas, then stepped into the shower. As she washed herself, she saw the black and purple bruises on her arms, and then she was reminded of last night again. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe – she leaned back against the wall of the shower and pressed her hands to her face, overwhelmed by memories. So many memories – nine years ago and last night – all so vivid – all tumbling over each other in one big mess of voices and images.

Did you cheat on me?

I don’t think we should sleep together yet.

Is he Paula’s father?

I missed my period. I’m pregnant.

He ditched you, so you came crawling back to me.

Please don’t go, Raquel. Please give me a chance.

I just knew something was up when you got back from that shoot.

I love you, Sergio. I love you so much.

She was gasping as tears ran down her face, mixing with the water coming down from the shower. How had her life become such a mess? How had she screwed things up so completely? She was learning to deal with the guilt of it all, but the regret – the regret would never go away. Knowing that she’d thrown away the best thing that had ever happened to her – she’d have to live with that for the rest of her life.

She leaned her head back against the wall and just let the tears flow for a minute. Then, she took a deep, shaking breath and pulled herself together. It would be okay. She would be okay. She’d dealt with it before, and she’d deal with it again.

She had no choice, after all.

She finished showering, then got out, toweled herself dry, and got dressed. Suddenly, there was a knock on her door, and she went to open it.

It was Elena.

“How are you, Raquel?” her friend asked, her eyes full of concern.

“I’m… I’m okay,” Raquel said.

“Did you manage to get some sleep?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Good.”

Her friend looked past her into the room.

“Is Sergio still there?”

“No,” Raquel said, and she felt so empty. “No, he went back to his own room.”

Elena gave her a careful look.

“How… how are things between you now?”

“The same,” Raquel said shortly. Then she took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter. I’m leaving in an hour anyway.”

Elena gave her a look of sympathy, but she seemed to understand that Raquel didn’t want to talk about it.

“Alright,” she said. “Do you want me to call you a car?”

“Yes, please,” Raquel said. “Tinted windows, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Elena nodded. “I’ll come and get you when it’s here.”

“Thank you.”

Raquel spent the next half hour packing, and the sick feeling in her stomach got worse as she wondered if she’d even see Sergio again before she had to leave. She understood that the memories had overwhelmed him too, but she would still hate to leave things between them like this.

Then there was another knock on her door, and she looked up sharply. Would it be Elena again? Was the car here already?

But this time, it was Sergio, in clean clothes, his hair still damp.

“I’m sorry,” he said the moment she opened the door. “I shouldn’t have walked out like that.”

“No,” she whispered. “No, I understand.”

“It was just… it all just reminded me so much of…”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I know.”

He took a deep breath and gave her a contrite look.

“Can I… can I come in again?”

“Of course,” she said, feeling so relieved. She stepped back, then closed the door behind him.

He walked into the middle of the room, and they stood looking at each other for a moment.

“I’m sorry for saying that we shouldn’t see each other anymore,” she said. “Because I want to keep seeing you. More than anything. Please, you… you have to believe that. I hate this as much as you do.”

He gave a sad nod.

“I believe you,” he said.

“It would just be so hard,” she said. “Trying to maintain a friendship under these circumstances would be so hard. I’m so scared you’ll resent me. There would be so much pressure. I’m… I’m so scared we’d fall apart because of that.”

Then she took a deep breath.

“But I don’t want this to be like… like last time. This is your choice too, and I don’t want to take that from you.”

“Thank you,” he said quietly.

He was silent for a moment, and she let him think. Then he looked up at her.

“You have more experience with this than me,” he said. “If you say it would be bad, I… I believe you. You’re right that I don’t want that kind of attention. I also really don’t want our friendship to fall apart because of the strain.” He sighed. “Do you really think that staying apart for a while would be the best option?”

“Yes, I think so,” she whispered. “I’m afraid that… that our friendship wouldn’t survive it otherwise. I’m afraid that all the attention would make you miserable.” She looked up at him. “But it’s your choice this time, Sergio. Completely. I want to make it perfectly clear that I want to keep seeing you, so if you say we’ll go for it, then… then we’ll try to make it work. I promise you I’ll do everything I can to make it work.”

She could see that that struck something in him.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “That means a lot to me.”

She felt something shift between them – the easing of some long-held tension. Nine years ago, she’d taken a crucial choice from him, and now she’d almost done it again. She didn’t want that. Not again. Today, she would finally make things right, as best she could. Today, he got to define their relationship. She meant what she said: no matter what he decided – this time, she would follow him. No matter what.

He was looking down at the ground, considering things. She didn’t even know what she was hoping for – both choices were terrible in their own way. Either she’d have to say goodbye to him, or they’d have to brave the media storm and just pray that their friendship could survive it.

Sergio was clearly struggling, and she sympathized with him. She knew what it was like to have to make a choice with no good options. She would never forget that horrible feeling.

Finally, he rubbed his forehead.

“Fuck,” he said. “This is… so hard. I feel like, either way I decide, I’m going to regret it.”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I know the feeling.”

“This is awful.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “It is.”

His eyes cast around the room as if he was hoping to find an answer somewhere – he gave her a long, considering look, and opened his mouth to speak – but then his phone buzzed and he took it out of his pocket to glance at the screen. She knew there were probably dozens of notifications of missed calls and messages on there by now. He pressed his lips together and put the phone away again.

Finally, he heaved a deep sigh and ran a hand over his face.

“Alright,” he said, his voice low and sad. “Let’s not risk it. I don’t really know what that kind of sustained media attention would be like, but I don’t think I want to find out. And… and I think you’re right, and it would be hard on our friendship.” He swallowed hard. “So let’s… let’s keep to our agreement. We won’t see each other for a while.”

Even though this had been what she’d argued for, she still had to hold back tears. After last night – after she’d spent the night in his arms – she wanted to say goodbye to him less than ever. She needed him – she needed him so desperately – but it would be so selfish of her to keep seeing him and to bring the entire media circus down on his head. The last thing she wanted was to cause him more misery than she already had.

“Alright,” she whispered. “I agree.” Her throat felt tight as she looked at him. “I just wish… I just wish things could be different.”

“Yes,” he whispered back, and he looked so sad. “Me too.”

They looked at each other for a long moment, and then he stepped closer to her and wrapped her in his arms. She closed her eyes as she settled against his chest.

“It will be okay,” he said quietly, and she could hear that he was trying to convince himself as much as her. “We can… we can still talk on the phone, and message, and video call. It will be okay.”

“Yes,” she nodded, though she didn’t really believe it. “It… it won’t be so bad.” She was trying so hard to make herself believe it. “And… and it’s only for a while. Once people stop paying attention so much, it will be easier to see each other quietly.”

She felt him nod. She wrapped her arms around him in return and held him tight – the last time she’d get to hug him for who knew how long. But she couldn’t risk it. If they had actually been together, things would have been different. She knew that the media attention wouldn’t be nearly as bad then, because it would just be a big story once, and then people would move on to other things. But if they denied being a couple, and then kept seeing each other, people would keep watching them, and keep speculating. Then the story would never die. And it would ruin his life. She couldn’t let that happen. Not after all the pain she’d already caused him. Not after what he’d done for her over the past few weeks – not after he’d been so good to her.

There’s nothing to forgive, Raquel. There never was.

He’d done so much for her, and now she wanted to do this in return. It was thanks to him that she was starting to let go of the guilt she’d felt all of those years – the guilt that had been eating away at her endlessly – that had made her feel like she deserved everything Alberto had done to her. I think you need to forgive yourself. She was getting there. It would take a while longer, but she’d taken the first steps, and she knew she could never have done that without him. It was his kindness, and understanding, and support that had made her feel like forgiving herself was an option. That had made her brave enough to stand up to Alberto last night. That now made her brave enough to face the consequences, and see things through.

She looked up at him.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you, Sergio.”

He looked down at her.

“What for?”

She swallowed hard.

“For being the kindest person I know,” she said. “For everything you’ve done for me. I’m… I’m not the same person I was when I came here, and it’s thanks to you.”

He looked at her, and his eyes were so soft.

“You don’t have to thank me for that.”

“I do,” she said, and she had to fight back tears again. “I’m so glad that we found each other again, Sergio. And… and I’m going to miss you so much.”

“I’m going to miss you too,” he whispered, and she heard the tremor in his voice.

They looked at each other for a moment, and her feelings for him surged in her chest. She would give anything not to let him go. She would give anything to be able to lift her face, and kiss him, and say that they’d face the world together. Anything. But this time, it wasn’t her choice to make. It was his.

Something shifted in him, and he suddenly seemed so conflicted. She could feel that he was struggling with himself, and she knew he was trying to make a choice again – that he was trying to decide what he wanted them to be. She wondered what he was thinking of right now, and if conflicting memories were warring inside of him too – the euphoria of their first real kiss clashing with the shattering pain he’d gone through after they’d said goodbye – the bliss of the night they’d spent together contrasting with the month he’d spent locked inside of his apartment – the golden happiness of waking up in each other’s arms stark against the way she’d broken his heart.

He was still scared. She could see it in his eyes – he was still scared it would happen again. And she couldn’t blame him. She could still hear Andrés, on the night when Sergio had walked out on her at the restaurant. He was never the same again. Never. What you did… it destroyed him.

There was a knock on the door.

“Raquel?” Elena’s voice said. “Your car is here.”

Raquel didn’t move. She was still in Sergio’s arms, and he was still looking down at her. He looked so torn.

“Raquel?” Another knock on the door. “Are you ready?”

He was never the same again. Never.

She shouldn’t be doing this to him. She shouldn’t expect things from him that he wasn’t capable of giving anymore. He’d shown her so much kindness and understanding. The least she could do was give him the same in return.

She stood up on her toes, and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.

“Bye, Sergio.”

Then she gently disengaged from him.

He hesitated for one more moment – looked like he was about to say something – but then took a deep breath and nodded. His eyes were so sad.

“Have a good flight, Raquel,” he said quietly.

Her heart was breaking, but she wouldn’t let him see. She wouldn’t make this any harder for him than it had to be – but she had to get out of here now. It hurt too much.

“Thank you.”

“Will you call me when you get home?”

“Yes,” she said. “If you’d like that.”

“Yes,” he said quietly. “Please.”

She took her suitcase, and opened the door.

“Is everything alright?” Elena asked, but then she saw Sergio. “Oh. You know what… I’ll wait for you downstairs.”

“No,” Raquel said. “No, it’s okay.”

It was too painful to keep talking to him now – she needed to be alone. She stepped out into the hallway, and Sergio followed her. She closed the door to her room for the last time, then looked at him.

“We’ll talk,” he said quietly. “All the time.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I’d like that.”

They looked at each other for one more moment. Then, with an extreme effort, she turned away from him, and followed Elena down the hall. As she stepped into the elevator, she looked back one more time, and saw that he hadn’t moved. He was still looking after her, and she felt tears burn as the elevator doors closed between them.

Elena didn’t say anything as they rode the elevator down to the lobby, and Raquel was still struggling to keep back tears as they crossed the lobby together, then walked out of the hotel towards the waiting car.

The driver took her suitcase and put it in the trunk, while Elena turned to Raquel.

“I’m sorry things didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped,” she said quietly.

“It’s okay,” Raquel whispered, trying to make herself believe it too. “We’re friends again. That… that’s more than I could have hoped for when I came here.”

Elena suddenly stepped forward and hugged her. Raquel was taken by surprise for a moment, but then she hugged her friend tight. She almost broke down then – it would feel so good to cry on the shoulder of a friend – but there were other people around too, so she kept herself from falling apart.

“Thank you, Elena,” she whispered, and her voice only shook a little. “For everything.”

“Don’t mention it,” Elena said. Then she stepped back and gave Raquel an earnest look. “Call me if you need anything. Anything, okay?”

“Okay,” Raquel nodded, so grateful for her friend.

“I’ll be back in Madrid next week,” Elena said. “I’ll call you, and we can have dinner.”

“Yes,” Raquel said quietly. “I’d like that.”

Elena gave her a half-smile, her eyes full of empathy.  

“I’ll see you soon then.”

“Yes,” Raquel nodded. She tried to produce a smile in return, but she couldn’t quite manage it. “Soon.”

The driver opened the door of the car for her, and she got in. One more wave to Elena, and then the door closed. The driver got behind the wheel, and the next moment they were off, leaving the hotel behind – and all of her hopes with it. Raquel took a deep, shuddering breath, buried her face in her hands, and cried.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Two weeks later -- Madrid

Raquel stepped into her house and pulled the front door closed behind her with a feeling of complete exhaustion. What a day. What a horrible, godawful day. She was so glad to be home – though this house she’d shared with Alberto didn’t really feel like home. It never had. No house with him had ever felt like home again after she’d returned from the shoot nine years ago.

They’d bought this one when Raquel’s career had taken off and they could afford a bigger place, but things had already been so bad in their marriage at that point that Raquel had never felt safe or comfortable here. After the divorce last year, she’d had the intention to move at some point, but things had been so chaotic for a while and she hadn’t wanted to uproot Paula right after the divorce, so they’d stayed. Now, as she walked into the large, airy living room after a hard day, she felt that it was finally time to start looking for a different place.

She opened one of the big windows at the back of the room, which looked out over the garden and let in the last of the evening sunlight. She needed air after today – she felt like she couldn’t quite breathe right. She closed her eyes and leaned on the windowsill.

Raquel, how long was this going on?

Raquel, why didn’t you leave him sooner?

Raquel, will you challenge him for custody of your daughter?

Raquel! One more question! Raquel!

She pressed her hands to her face to try to shut out the voices. They echoed through her head, amplified by the silence of the house around her. Her mother had picked up Paula from school this afternoon, and the girl was sleeping over there tonight, so the house was empty. Raquel was glad that she didn’t have to take care of anyone tonight – she was just too tired for that – but she still couldn’t help but feel a little lonely.

She left the window open and went to sit on the couch. She knew there was only one thing that could make her feel better now. She picked up her phone, and called him.

“Hi.”

Sergio’s voice was warm and soft, and as always, it instantly made her feel better.

“Hi,” she said, pulling up her legs to settle herself more comfortably on the sofa.

“I’m so glad to hear you,” he said, as if they hadn’t been calling each other every evening for hours. “How did it go today?”

Raquel, why didn’t you speak out sooner?

“Awful,” she whispered, but then she took a deep breath. “But I did it,” she said, and there was just a hint of pride in her voice. “I filed the forms for the restraining order. There will be a court hearing in two weeks.”

“Well done!” he said, and she could hear pride in his voice too. “Well done, Raquel, that’s such a big thing.”

“Yes,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “It’s… it’s a relief.”

There had been some awkwardness during their first phone call after they’d left Galicia, but they’d gradually found a new balance. Things felt good between them again. Not seeing each other was making it easier to talk as friends, and over the past two weeks, they’d gotten into the habit of calling each other every night. Sergio had been so supportive of everything she’d been going through, and she was so grateful for that.

“I saw you give your statement to the press in front of the courthouse,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

“Yes,” she said tiredly. “I thought it would be.”

“You did so well,” he said, and his voice was so warm. “You were calm and firm and you didn’t hesitate. Really, you were amazing.”

That almost made her smile.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I’m glad I prepared the statement beforehand.”

“It must still have been hard,” he said softly.

She swallowed hard at the memory of how she’d had to admit – in front of the entire world – what had happened to her. I came here today to file a restraining order after years of continued domestic abuse.

“It was,” she whispered. “It was so hard. But… but I don’t regret it. Maybe it will inspire other people to speak out too.”

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “You did a great thing today, and I’m so proud of you. You’re… you’re the bravest person I know.”

Her throat was tight. His support meant so much to her – it was what she drew strength from when things became too much. She knew she could never have done this without him.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for saying that, and… and thank you for being here for me. Our phone calls are… are really the thing that are keeping me sane.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he said earnestly. “I… I always look forward to them too.”

His voice was so soft, and suddenly she missed him so much it hurt. It was nice to talk to him every evening – she wouldn’t want to stop having those calls for the world – but she missed his warmth; the look in his eyes; the way he made everything better with his calm and steady presence. There was a short pause in the conversation, then he asked:

“Are there still reporters in front of your house now?”

“No,” she said. She’d noticed that immediately when she came back to the house this evening. “They’re finally gone – for the first time since I came back from Galicia. The statement in front of the courthouse must have satisfied them for now.”

“That’s good,” he said.

She sighed.

“I’m sure it won’t last. They’ll have a field day on the day of my court hearing.”

“You’ll be able to deal with them,” he said encouragingly. “Is Elena still going with you to the hearing?”

“Yes,” she said. “She’ll testify about… about what happened on the night Alberto came to Galicia.”

“Good,” he said in a low voice. “Are you still sure you don’t want me to testify?”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I think we should probably stay away from each other a bit longer. I think it’s working. Are the reporters in front of your house still gone?”

“Yes,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone in days. You’re… you’re right that it’s probably working and they’re losing interest.”

Another pause. She took a pillow off the couch and hugged it to her chest. She would give anything to hold him right now.

“Sergio,” she whispered. “I miss you.”

His voice was so soft as he replied.

“I miss you too.”

She hugged her pillow more tightly. He missed her too. To her utter dismay, tears started sliding down her cheeks.

“I wish I could see you,” she said, and her voice was shaking as she wiped the tears away. “I wish we could talk face to face.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. She was just starting to wonder if there was a problem with the connection when he spoke again.

“Raquel,” he said, and she couldn’t interpret his tone. “I have to go.”

She frowned.

“What?”

“I… I just have to go.”

The next moment, the line went dead. She stared at her phone for a long moment. He’d hung up on her. He’d just hung up on her, when usually they talked for hours. But she knew why – she’d made him uncomfortable. No matter how much they’d talked over the past two weeks, they’d never discussed what they were to each other now. She’d never told him she missed him before, or that she wanted to see him – and now, clearly, that had been too much for him. She was so mad at herself. How often did he have to make it clear to her that he just wanted to be friends? When would she learn? When would she finally respect his boundaries?

She stayed sitting on the couch for the next half hour, just staring at the wall as tears slid down her cheeks. She was so exhausted, and it hurt so much that he’d just hung up on her. The room steadily grew darker, but she was too tired, and too numb, to move. She barely noticed it when her stomach began to rumble, and when the cold evening air coming from outside made her shiver, she didn’t get up to close the window. She just… couldn’t.

Raquel, do you have any proof?

You’ll receive a hearing in two weeks, ma’am.

Raquel, has he ever hurt your daughter?

You should prepare to testify in front of a judge.

Raquel, what would you say to other abused women everywhere?

Yes, ma’am, your ex-husband will need to be there too.

Raquel. I have to go.

Then, suddenly, the doorbell rang. She looked up, but didn’t move. Probably a reporter, wanting to ask her questions again. They’d go away if she ignored them.

But the doorbell rang again, and again. Her thoughts were a little sluggish, and suddenly she wondered if maybe it was her mother with Paula. Had she misunderstood when her mother said Paula could sleep over? Had she actually said she’d bring the girl home in the evening?

She had to check. With an effort, she got up from the couch, stiff with cold and with sitting for too long in one position. She finally turned on some lights, then went to open the front door.

The moment she did, her eyes went wide.

It was Sergio. Sergio was standing there, with his messy hair and his typical suit and a tentative expression on his face.

“Hi,” he said.

She had to blink a few times to make sure that she was really seeing him.

“What… what are you doing here?”

He gave her an apologetic look.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I… I know we said we wouldn’t see each other, but...”

She shook herself, then quickly looked up and down the street to check that nobody had seen him. Nobody there – she stepped back and gestured him in.

“Come in,” she said. “Come in.”

He walked past her, and she closed the door behind him. Then they turned and just looked at each other for a moment. It was so strange that he was suddenly here – it was so surreal to have him in her house.

“Why… why are you here?” she said.

He gave her a slightly helpless look.

“It just… it sounded like you needed a hug. And… and you said you missed me.” His eyes went soft. “And I missed you too.”

She stared at him. He’d come here… at the risk of being spotted by a reporter… because he missed her? Her lips started trembling, and then he opened his arms to her, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She stepped forward into them, letting him wrap his arms around her as she leaned her head against his chest. Oh, oh, this was exactly what she needed – his warmth and his nearness and his arms so strong and sheltering around her. She felt herself melt against him, and she hoped he would never let go again. How could this possibly feel so good? How could this possibly feel so right?

She could barely believe that he was really here – she wrapped her arms around him and held him tight, just to be sure. Yes – he was really here and she wasn’t dreaming him – his arms were warm around her and his chest was solid underneath her cheek, and when she closed her eyes and breathed him in, it really was his familiar, comforting smell. He was here. He’d heard that she needed him, and he hadn’t hesitated, but come right over. She pressed her face against his shirt, and tried not to cry.

“You feel icy,” he said quietly. “Raquel, are you cold?”

Only now did she realize just how cold she was – the cold had seeped into her down to her bones, and even with his warm arms around her, she was shivering.

“Yes,” she whispered. “A little.”

“Why aren’t you wearing a sweater?” he asked gently. “Why didn’t you turn on the heat?”

She closed her eyes and leaned against him.

“I was just… too tired.”

He stroked her hair, and held her a little tighter.

“Of course,” he murmured. “Of course you’re tired after such a long day.”

But then he pulled back from her, and she made a soft sound of dismay as his warmth went away.

“I know,” he said, “but we need to get you warm again. Come on, where’s your living room?”

She led him through the doorway, still shivering, and he barely spared the room a glance – all of his attention was on her.

He gently steered her over to the couch and sat her down, then took the blanket that was on the armrest and wrapped that around her.

“There,” he said. “That’s a start.”

Then he went over and closed the window, after which he found her thermostat and pressed a few buttons. She heard the gurgle of the radiators as they started working.

“I’m going to make you a cup of tea,” he said firmly.

She watched him go into the open-plan kitchen, and there was already a warm glow in her chest. She couldn’t believe he was taking care of her like this.

He turned on the electric kettle, then opened a few cabinets until he found where she kept her mugs and tea. A minute later, he came out of the kitchen with a steaming mug, and pressed it into her hands.

“Here,” he said quietly. “That should help.”

He sat down beside her, and she was so grateful when he wrapped his arm around her – that helped more than the blanket or the tea ever could, and slowly she felt a soft, golden warmth steal through her.

He pulled her in a little closer.

“Now tell me all about your day,” he said softly.

She leaned against him, and as she started talking, she slowly felt the tension of the day leave her. It felt so good to talk about it – to have someone who listened so patiently; who asked all the right questions. His nearness was infinitely comforting, and she gradually felt the cold and the numbness and even some of the exhaustion drain out of her.

“… and then you just hung up on me,” she finally finished. “Just like that.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said, and he did sound very apologetic. “I didn’t think about it – I just wanted to go to you immediately.”

“It’s alright,” she whispered, cuddling a little closer to him. She felt soft and warm and calm, and everything felt alright now. “You definitely made up for it.”

“I’m glad,” he said softly.

There was a short pause, and they just sat together quietly.

“Thank you,” she finally whispered.

“Anytime,” he said, and his voice was so earnest. “Anytime, Raquel. Are you… are you feeling a little better now?”

“Yes,” she said. “I feel much better.”

“Good,” he said. Then he gave her a closer look. “Have you eaten anything yet?”

“No,” she admitted, and he nodded.

“I didn’t think so. Alright, let me make you something to eat.”

“Oh,” she said, as he started getting up. “No, I can do that myself. Really, you don’t have to…”

“It’s no trouble,” he said lightly. “Though you’ll have to tell me where you keep some of your cooking supplies.”

She got up too.

“Maybe we can cook together,” she suggested tentatively, and he smiled at her.

“That sounds like an excellent compromise.”

The next hour was pure joy. Raquel could barely grasp that this was happening – that he was really in her house, and she could see him, and talk to him, and touch him. It quickly became clear that he barely knew how to cook at all, and Raquel cheered up immensely as she laughed at his clumsiness, and made him grin with some gentle teasing. She couldn’t believe how natural it felt to do this with him – it felt so nice, and fun, and comfortable, as if they’d been doing this for years. There was an ease between them that felt warm and effortless, and they stayed close together. She often found herself reaching out to touch his arm, just to reassure herself that he was really, really here, and he did the same in return. Each time he touched her – a hand on her arm; his shoulder brushing against hers; his hand on her back as he passed her – she felt her skin tingle and her heart skip a beat. It all felt so comfortable and natural that she had to keep reminding herself that they weren’t together; that she couldn’t just lean against the kitchen counter and pull him in for a kiss, no matter how much she wanted to – and god, did she want to.

She tried not to let it show, however – the last thing she wanted was to ruin the ease between them by making him uncomfortable. She couldn’t help glancing at him as they worked, though. It was so nice to have him here. It was so wonderful. Every once in a while, she caught him glancing at her, too, and then she couldn’t quite read the look in his eyes.

When dinner was ready, they ate together at the table in the living room. They talked and laughed, and it felt so amazing to be here with him – it felt so damn right. At a certain point, she looked at him as he put some more pasta onto her plate, and suddenly she felt a stab of deep, heart-wrenching sadness. This. This was the life she could have had – a life full of warmth, and deep companionship, and someone who cared about her – someone who truly cared. It almost made her cry to think that she’d just thrown all of this away – that one stupid, bad choice had robbed her of so much happiness. She’d already been regretting it – for nine years, she’d been regretting it – but sitting here with him made it all so much more real, and for a moment the sadness threatened to overwhelm her.

She pushed it away – she wanted to enjoy this evening with him, because who knew when she’d get another – but it lingered as they finished eating and cleared away the dishes. He hesitated for a moment as they came out of the kitchen, clearly unsure of what to do now, but she went straight to the couch and sat down, and she was glad when he followed her and sat down too.

He sat down close to her, and as they looked at each other, she felt her feelings for him surge all over again, filling her entire chest. She felt how something inside her was pulling her towards him, and she needed all of her strength to resist it – what she wouldn’t give to just be able to give in to that pull. She loved him so much, and it hurt that she would never have him again.

She swallowed hard, trying to keep her feelings under control – but she couldn’t. Not quite.

“Sergio,” she found herself whispering. “This was so nice. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Yes,” he said quietly. “Me too.”

She took a deep breath – but she couldn’t take it anymore. She looked at him, and some resistance inside of her broke, and suddenly she found herself talking.

“I… I don’t want to stay apart anymore,” she blurted out. She saw him open his mouth, and she continued: “I know we said we wouldn’t see each other for a while. I know. But… I want to find a way. I gave up on us nine years ago, and… and I don’t want to do that again. I want you in my life, Sergio, no matter what it takes. No matter what. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but I know… I know I never want to walk away from you again.”

He was looking at her, and she couldn’t quite read his expression. It looked like her words had struck something very deep in him.

“Do you mean that?” he asked quietly.

“Yes,” she whispered. “More than anything.”

“What about the reporters? You were worried about that?”

“We’ll find a way,” she said. “We’ll make it work.” She swallowed hard. “You and me, Sergio… no matter what… no matter what you want us to be… I’m all in.”

He looked at her, and she was afraid that maybe she’d said too much – that maybe she’d made him uncomfortable.

And then, suddenly… he leaned in, and kissed her.

He just leaned in and kissed her, and it was the most amazing thing. He reached up a hand and touched her cheek, and just brushed his lips against hers – just for a moment… but it was enough to change everything.

Oh.

Oh.

He shifted closer.

“I want you in my life too, Raquel,” he whispered, his head close to hers. “Desperately. I’ve been so miserable over the past two weeks. I’ve missed you so much.”

Oh. Oh. She couldn’t quite breathe. He looked up at her, and his eyes were soft and appealing.

“Did you really mean what you said?” he whispered.

“Yes,” she said immediately, and she put her entire heart in it. “Yes. I’m never walking away from you again. Never.”

For a moment, he looked overcome with emotion. She tentatively reached out and touched his hand, and he took her hand in his and held it tight.

“I’m never walking away from you again either,” he whispered.

She felt her lips tremble. She hardly dared to ask.

“Really?”

He swallowed hard, but nodded.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, really. I shouldn’t have let you walk out of that hotel two weeks ago. I… I’ve just been so scared.” But then he looked up at her, and his eyes were so soft. “But after tonight… I just know that I don’t want to live without you anymore. I can’t live without you anymore. Not… not when I don’t have to. You make me feel… you make me feel…”

He had to stop for a moment, and her throat was tight. Oh.

His hand was warm around hers, and when he looked at her, the look in his eyes made her heart flutter. She hadn’t dared to hope that he’d ever look at her like that again. She remembered that look so well from nine years ago, when he’d told her –

“I love you, Raquel,” he murmured, and she had to press her hand to her mouth and close her eyes at the surge of emotions that suddenly swept through her. “I really do. I’ve loved you from the start and I never stopped. Never.”

Tears started sliding down her cheeks. Never, never had she thought he’d say those words to her again, and now... He went on.

“I want to be with you,” he said softly. “If… if you want that too.”

Was this real? Was she dreaming, and would she wake up in a minute to cold morning light and tears?

“Are you sure?” she whispered, her voice shaking.  

He nodded, and his eyes were so full of emotion as he looked at her.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, I am. I know there’s always a risk, but… but you’re worth the risk.”

She couldn’t believe it. Nine years. Nine years of missing him – nine years of longing, and now… now…

She looked at him, and she could see that there was still some pain left in him – still some anxiety – still some fear. He’d been hurt so much, for so long. But there was no trace of hesitation in his eyes. None at all.

She closed her eyes, and two more tears trickled down. He shifted even closer to her, and lifted a careful hand to brush them away.

“I’m sorry, Raquel,” he whispered. “I’m sorry that it took me so long… I was so scared.”

She held on tightly to his hand, shifting closer to him in return.

“I understand you were scared,” she whispered. “But I believe in us, Sergio. So, so much. I’m so sorry I didn’t believe in us nine years ago. It… it will always be the biggest regret of my life. But I believe in us now. I’m yours – I’m yours so completely.”

He seemed unable to speak – he just pulled her into his arms, and it was the most wonderful feeling in the world. She shifted against him and hugged him tight, and he leaned his cheek against the top of her head and held her so close.

“I love you, Raquel,” he murmured, and his voice was shaking. “Always. Always.

She let out a sob, and there were more tears on her cheeks. He stroked her hair, and she pressed her face against his chest before she spoke in a whisper.

“I love you too. I love you so much.”

He reached up a hand and wiped his own cheek, and she realized he was crying too. She suddenly had such a vivid memory – nine years ago, the two of them crying, holding on to each other so desperately as they were forced to say goodbye. Never would she have thought that she would one day end up here – that they would somehow find their way back to each other – that, after so many tears of heartbreak and pain, one day there would be tears of joy.

They held each other for a long time, just staying close together, until the intensity of the emotion passed somewhat, and the comforting sense of each other’s presence made the tears stop. There was such a soft feeling in her chest. She realized that, for the first time in years, she felt at peace.

She looked up at him, and when he looked back at her, his eyes were warm and soft. He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek, and she closed her eyes at his touch, leaning into it. Her heart was so full. She opened her eyes again and looked at him, and once again she felt that pull between them, drawing her to him so strongly – and this time – unbelievably – amazingly – she could give in to it – and she’d never wanted anything more. She leaned forward, and softly pressed her lips against his.

Her kiss was a little tentative at first, but when he responded with tender warmth and pulled her closer, she let herself engage a little more fully. She felt nothing but tenderness in the way he kissed her back – no doubts or hesitation – no second thoughts or misgivings. He wasn’t holding anything back – so neither did she, and soon they were entirely wrapped up in each other.

Kissing him was familiar and new at the same time. She had carried the memory of his kisses with her for nine years – the memory of lying on a bed with him and finally, finally kissing him to her heart’s content. For so many years, she had felt the ghost of those kisses on her lips whenever she closed her eyes. Then there had been kisses on set – dozens – hundreds – always flirting with the thin line between fiction and reality. There had been soft kisses and passionate kisses – lovely kisses and kisses that had cut her to the core of her being – mere brushes of lips and full, deep kisses. Some had been reluctant, and others had been all-consuming. She had kissed him in every possible way, and yet… nothing came close to this. This kiss contained worlds.

As he twined his fingers into her hair and gently pulled her closer, she could feel it so clearly. With his lips soft against hers, there was a life she was leaving behind and a new life she was gaining. This kiss was the end of nine years of hurt and heartbreak. It was a new beginning – fresh and sweet and tender. It was the culmination of so many years of wishing and regret – the realization of a dream she’d never been able to let go – the fulfillment of a longing that had been the undercurrent of her life for years; deep and steady and ever-present. Hidden within this kiss was the promise of a life with him – of days filled with joy and companionship – of long evenings spent talking – of nights spent in each other’s arms. This kiss meant warm hugs, and laughter, and soft touches. It contained the promise of a million more kisses.

It contained so much love.

It was everything a kiss could be, and they sank into it for a long time – connecting to each other with a full and utter willingness to be open to each other – to share and show themselves with complete vulnerability. She could feel something blossoming in her chest: a feeling so warm and wonderful, bright and golden and true. It grew until it filled her up completely – until she was brimming with it and it threatened to overflow.

For nine years – nine long, awful years – the world around her had never felt quite right. She’d lived every day with the quiet but unmistakable feeling that things were wrong, somehow – that they’d been contorted and twisted out of their rightful place. And now – now – with his words still echoing in her ears and his lips on hers, things suddenly shifted and… clicked into place again. This was how the world was meant to be. This was so right. She was back where she belonged – in his arms.

Home.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

She couldn’t stop kissing him. It wasn’t an option – unthinkable – physically impossible. Now that she was finally kissing him, after wanting to so desperately for so long, she just couldn’t stop. Fortunately, he seemed to be feeling the same way – he kept her close, and kissed her and kissed her like he just couldn’t get enough of her. His mouth was warm on hers as they sank into kiss after kiss after kiss, and she loved, relished, savored every moment of it; closing her eyes and reveling in the taste of him – the feeling of his lips on hers – his hand in her hair. As he tightened his arm around her and pulled her even closer, she felt such a dizzying, sweeping sense of joy – warm and golden and all-encompassing.

She still couldn’t quite believe that he was really here – that he was really hers. She kept having to reassure herself – she had to touch him, to feel him, to taste him. She touched his cheek – the back of his neck – his chest – to feel him warm and solid under her fingers. He was really here. How wonderful it was that she got to touch him now – that she could feel his skin, and run her fingers through his hair, as much as she wanted to. She wanted to be closer to him – they shifted on the couch so she could put her legs over his lap, then put her arms around his neck and lean against his chest. His arms were around her, and she didn’t think she’d ever been happier than she was now. Kissing him for that one night nine years ago had been wonderful – but they’d only spent a few weeks longing for each other then, and she’d known that she only had to make one decision and he would be hers. Now, they’d had nine solid years of longing, and she’d believed that he would never be hers again. What she felt now as he kissed her… it went beyond words.

Their kisses were sweet and soft at first. Both of them were emotional, and their kisses reflected that – soft brushes of lips against lips, which said without words is this really happening? and can I really kiss you now? After they’d established that the answer to both questions was yes, yes, yes, they gradually sank into deeper kisses, where they explored each other slowly, feeling each other out so effortlessly. They took their time with those kisses, and each kiss, each touch carried so much meaning. A long, deep kiss said I’m all in. A touch to his cheek – I’m yours. His arm around her waist – stay close to me. The connection they’d always had deepened and strengthened as it turned into something more – something so sweet and so softly beautiful, and their kisses expressed that. They lost themselves in those kisses, and found each other.

I can’t get enough of you, they kept saying wordlessly as they kissed each other over and over again. Not in a lifetime. Not in a hundred lifetimes. Raquel was so, so hungry for him – after nine whole years of longing, she couldn’t possibly stop kissing him – stop touching him – stop running her hand through his hair. They were entirely wrapped up in each other for a long time, sinking into slow, deep kisses that they really took their time for. All she wanted was to be close to him – now and always – for the rest of the night, and the rest of their lives.

“Sergio,” she whispered against his lips, stroking his cheek. “Will you stay the night?”

“Yes,” he whispered back. “Yes, I’d love that.” Then he gave her a soft look. “But I want you to know that I’m not… I’m not expecting anything… I know you had a hard day. I… I just want to hold you.”

She pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.

“You’re so sweet,” she whispered. “And nothing has to happen. But maybe… maybe we can just see what feels right?”

He bent his head and pressed the sweetest kiss to her lips.

“Alright,” he whispered. “As long as I can stay close to you.”

They kissed again – a kiss that meant I don’t want to spend another minute without you. It meant I’ve waited so long for you, and now I can’t bear to be apart from you anymore. It meant I want to wake up in your arms.

She didn’t want to keep sitting here anymore – she wanted to take him to her bed and feel his arms around her and make a warm space for just the two of them under the blankets – and preferably never leave it again.

“Shall we go up?” she asked, and he smiled and nodded.

It wasn’t so easy, though. Once they got up, they found that they couldn’t just walk out of the room – every few steps, they stopped for more kisses, leaning against every wall they passed. I can’t let go of you, those kisses said. You’ve captured me so completely. You pull me in and I can’t resist. He kept pulling her close, and she kept drawing his head down, and they kept sinking into kiss after kiss – against the wall in the living room, and in the hallway, and on the stairs. She wasn’t quite sure how they eventually arrived at her bedroom door.

Just as they were about to go in, though, they heard the ringing of the telephone downstairs. Raquel’s first thought was to just let it ring, but then she realized what time it must be. It took so much effort to draw back from him – she felt dazed and breathless and her lips were tingling from his kisses. But…

“That must be Paula,” she said. “Calling to say goodnight. Would you mind if…”

“No,” he smiled, “of course not.”

She just wanted to pull him into bed and keep kissing him – but her daughter was waiting, so she swallowed hard and took a step back from him.

“You can go in,” she said, gesturing towards the bedroom door. “I’ll be right back.”

“Alright,” he murmured, giving her a look so full of longing that she moved in and pressed her lips to his again.

They let the kiss linger for several long moments, but then the telephone started ringing a second time, so she made a supreme effort and gently disengaged from him. They smiled at each other, and he held onto her hand until the last moment as she moved away.

Sergio looked after her until she disappeared down the stairs, then he went into the room and looked around. It was so like her, and he breathed in deeply, because it smelled just like her too. He took off his shirt and his shoes, then hesitated for a moment – he wasn’t sure what she’d be comfortable with. He decided to keep on his pants and undershirt, then turned on the lamp on the nightstand, and got into bed. He lay on his back between the sheets, and pressed his hands to his face.

He couldn’t believe how happy he was. He couldn’t stop smiling. Every fiber of his being was telling him that yes, yes, yes, he’d made the right choice by kissing her – the best choice he’d ever made in his life. It felt so good. It felt so right. He’d struggled with this decision for such a long time – his fears and past pain clouding his judgement – but now everything was finally clear. He wanted to be with her – no matter what. Two weeks of missing her had already removed a significant portion of his hesitation, and then tonight had pushed him over the edge. Tonight, he’d gotten a glimpse of what life with her could be like, and he knew he wanted it. He’d never wanted anything more. And when she’d told him that she was all in, he’d finally allowed himself to believe it. He’d finally allowed himself to believe that this time, it would be different. This time, she wouldn’t break his heart.

For just a moment, he was back there: nine years ago, standing in her hotel room, holding onto her so desperately as they both cried. He’d never really been able to leave that moment. He could still feel her shaking in his arms; still remembered how her tears had soaked through his shirt; could still hear the tremble in her voice as she said goodbye. That moment had haunted him for nine years, and the pain had never truly left him. Over the last weeks of the second shoot, though, there had been a drastic shift in him. They’d spent so many hours talking about everything that had happened – so many hours working through the pain and the memories – until he felt that he was finally, finally, coming to terms with things. For the first time in years, he started to feel at ease with those memories. For the first time in years, he was able to step back from them and look at them from a healthier distance. The past was in the past, and for the first time since it had happened, he realized that he was finally able to leave it where it belonged.

He’d needed time. Seeing her again had brought up all the old feelings again, both good and bad, and he’d needed time to regain his balance – to heal – to process things. He realized that he’d never been able to start that healing process before. He realized now that he’d needed her for that. And even then, it had still taken him many weeks, but he felt that it had been worth it. Now, finally, he’d been able to make a decision out of love instead of fear.

So much love. As he lay there waiting for her to return to his arms, he felt it surge and burgeon in his chest. The feeling had never left him – never – not in nine whole years, even though he’d tried so hard to banish it. For years, he’d ignored it and quashed it and pretended that it wasn’t there anymore, but it had quietly, stubbornly refused to leave. When he’d arrived in Galicia two months ago, it had been a small and broken feeling, locked away in a corner of his heart, but it had still been there, and the moment he’d seen her again, it had started pounding at him to get out.

He’d tried so hard to keep it contained – keeping such a firm restraint on himself during those first few days – putting on a front during that awful dinner Nairobi had made them go on. But then they’d had to shoot that scene out on the hills, and when she’d thrown her arms around his neck and kissed him like that… his heart had simply cracked open and he’d been powerless before the rush of feelings that had overwhelmed him. The next weeks had been torture. He’d never felt so torn in his entire life. He’d sworn – he’d sworn to himself: never again… but he was still so drawn to her, and in the end he hadn’t been able to resist.

And tonight, he was laying it all on the line again. He was putting aside his fear, and he was finally allowing himself to be vulnerable again. He was offering her his heart – hoping, praying, that she wouldn’t break it again. For a moment, he felt the old pain again, but then he heard her voice. I’m all in. I’m never walking away from you again. Never. He believed her. He trusted her. He loved her. For a long time, his fear of another broken heart had been too strong to overcome – but no more. He was choosing love tonight – once and for all, he was choosing love.

She walked into the room, and his breath caught in his throat. She looked so lovely, with her dark eyes and her hair streaming down her shoulders, and he couldn’t believe that she was his. She’d conquered his heart on the day he met her, and she’d never left it. She was smart, and sweet, and caring. She was so, so strong, yet so soft in his arms. She was brave and beautiful and kind, and the most wonderful person he’d ever met.

She was the love of his life. He’d never doubted that – not once in nine years.

When Raquel came into the bedroom, she had to stop at the door for a moment to take things in. He was here. He was in her house – in her room – in her bed. She’d given up hope of this – she’d thought their last night in Galicia would have been the last time they spent the night together. And now… now… He looked up and smiled at her, and the look in his eyes pulled at something inside her chest, and suddenly she couldn’t stand the thought of being apart from him for another second. She rushed to the bed, her entire body aching to be close to him again, and when she slipped between the sheets and he immediately opened his arms to her, it was the best feeling in the world.

She shifted close to him, and her entire body shivered with joy as he wrapped her in his arms and pulled her close. This. This was heaven – to be close to him, with his body next to her, and his arms around her making her feel warm and safe and so absolutely, blissfully happy. They pressed themselves close to each other, their bodies connecting full-length – their hands finding each other; their legs intertwining.

“I’m so happy you’re here,” she whispered. “So, so happy.”

“Me too,” he whispered back. “You have no idea.”

It was the most amazing thing to be able to take her in his arms – he marveled at the way she settled herself against his chest – at how she fit there so perfectly – at how right it felt. He experienced such a rush of feeling – strong, deep, and so vivid, in a way that he hadn’t felt in nine years. For all of the past nine years, things had felt muted and lifeless to him; the world cold and uncaring and colorless. He realized that he hadn’t been truly living. The entire time, he’d just been waiting for her, even when he hadn’t realized it – even when he’d told himself he wasn’t. And now she was back in his arms, and he felt himself come alive again in the most breathtaking way – recovering a depth of feeling that he’d thought had been lost to him forever.

He pulled her a little closer, and pressed his face against her hair.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he whispered.

“Me neither” she whispered back.

They shared a soft kiss, confirming this is real. You’re here. You’re here.

“You know,” she murmured. “For years, I dreamt about that one night we spent together. I would have given anything to go back to it.”

“That was the happiest night of my life,” he said quietly. “I… I’ve never been able to stop thinking about it. Not for nine years.” He gave her a look full of wonder. “And now it’s finally happening again.”

They shifted even closer to each other, and suddenly she felt so overcome. She couldn’t believe that they were actually getting a second chance. She’d hoped for it for so many weeks during the shoot, and then she’d abandoned that hope so completely. The fact that it was happening after all now made something ache in her chest, so acutely that it became hard to breathe.  

She lifted a hand and touched his cheek.

“I won’t screw things up this time, Sergio,” she whispered, and her throat was tight. “I promise. I know I caused you so much pain, but I’ll make it up to you.”

He stroked her hair.

“My love,” he said quietly. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to make anything up to me. You don’t.”

She swallowed hard.

“But… but it’s because of me that we were apart for so long. All the pain… and all the time we’ve lost.” There was a tremble in her voice. “I can’t believe how much time we’ve lost.”

“But we’re here now,” he said softly, stroking her cheek. “That’s all that matters. We’ve found each other again. And we have so much time left.”

“I know…” she whispered. “But still…”

There were so many conflicting emotions in her chest. She was happy, yes, but she still wished that she could have done things differently – that’s she’d made a different choice – that they could have had more time… There was still so much regret inside of her, and it still hurt.

He pulled back a little so he could look into her eyes. Then he cupped her cheek in his hand, and his gaze was so earnest.

“You can’t keep carrying the past with you,” he whispered. “I’ve done it for too long, and… and it kept me from you. I don’t want that anymore. I don’t… I don’t want anything to stand between us now.”

She knew what he meant. The pain – the guilt – the regret… if she kept holding onto them, then they would seep into everything they tried to build. Then they would never truly be able to move forward – and she wanted to move forward so badly. What had happened, had happened, and they couldn’t change it anymore. They could accept it, and honor it, and talk about it – but she realized that it was time to let go of the painful feelings she’d carried inside her for so long.

He was looking at her, and his eyes were so soft.

“I really want this to be a fresh start,” he murmured. “A clean slate. A new beginning. What do you think?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I want that too.”

He gently pulled her closer and gave her the softest kiss. I love you, that kiss said, and I want you to be happy. It said everything is okay between us. It said you don’t owe me anything. She felt it as clearly as if he’d actually said the words, and she felt her eyes burn as something shifted inside of her. Ever since their nighttime conversation on the cliff, she’d been working to forgive herself, and now she felt that maybe it was time. Maybe she was ready. Two slow tears trickled down her cheeks as she felt a knot inside her chest loosen. Sergio held her close and tenderly kissed the tears away, and with them the sting of her guilt – the ache of her regret – the echoes of her pain. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and let them go. They wouldn’t define her any longer.

This was a new beginning for them – fresh and sweet and tender – and they would go into it without carrying the burdens of the past with them. She just wanted to be with him now, because she loved him now – not some memory of who he’d been nine years ago, but the person he’d become – steady and thoughtful and understanding. The past nine years had scarred them both in different ways, and she knew this wouldn’t be the relationship it could have been back then… but that was okay. They would be a little softer with each other – a little more compassionate – careful of each other’s bruises – and they would love each other even more because of it.

She buried her face in the crook between his neck and shoulder, and he tightened his arms around her and pressed his face against her hair. They stayed like that for several long moments, just holding each other, just… together. She was so acutely aware of him – the wonderful smell of him – the tender strength of his arms around her – his skin warm against hers. He was hers now. He was hers, and she was his so completely, and together… they were something new. It was still tender, but it was strong too, and so true. She felt so keenly that, now that they’d finally found their way back to each other, nothing could tear them apart anymore – this was much too real, and much too precious, to lose again.

Any kind of separation was completely artificial now – any distance unbearable – there should be nothing between them anymore. She lifted her face, and his lips were soft against hers, and she felt so close to him. She wanted to be even closer – she wanted the physical to reflect what was already true in every other way – that they belonged together. His hands drifted down her back, and she pressed herself closer to him, and whispered a soft yes against his lips.  

They started undressing each other slowly, gently, removing the last barrier between them. After nine years, they were finally giving in to their longing for each other, and the thought of it almost made her cry. It was the most wonderful thing. There was so much tenderness between them, and they touched each other with soft hands, asking with every brush of their fingers, over and over again, is this real? Can I really touch you like this? It felt almost impossible – that after so much pain and separation, they were now connecting like this. As she felt his skin warm against hers, Raquel could barely believe it. It felt so good. It felt so right. She pressed her lips against his, and her heart was so full.

They stayed close together, caressing each other and sharing slow, lingering kisses. She loved the feel of him – after wanting to for so long, it was an inexpressible delight to touch him. His chest was broad and strong under her hands, and she let her fingers play over the muscles of his arms for a long time; familiarized herself with the strong lines of his shoulders and back. She remembered the bedroom scene they’d filmed in Galicia – how she’d wished that that had been real, and now it was – now she could run her hands over him as much as she wanted to, instead of having to follow scripted paths – now they were choosing this, freely and fully. It was such a sweet feeling that she could just give in to her every desire now: that she could just run her hands through his hair when she wanted to – that she could draw down his head for unlimited kisses – that she could trail her kisses down the side of his neck and kiss his chest.

Sergio felt almost dizzy with the wonder of it all. He realized that, for the past weeks – months – years – he hadn’t allowed himself to feel the full force of his longing for her, but he felt it now, and it took his breath away. When she touched him like that – her fingers gliding over the skin of his arms, his shoulders, his chest – he felt shiver after shiver run down his spine. And when she started kissing his neck and chest, he had to close his eyes at the feelings that threatened to overwhelm him. Her kisses and touches were saying I want to know you. I want to know you completely, and it made something resonate so strongly in his chest. He wanted to know her too – to erase whatever distance was left between them. It filled him with so much joy that he could touch her in return, and he moved his hands over her skin almost reverently.

He loved the shape of her – her skin warm under his fingertips. His hands slowly discovered the contours of her body, and he reveled in the things he encountered: the soft curve of her hips; the dip of her spine; the beautiful arch of her back. She was unimaginably soft. He couldn’t quite believe that he could really touch her now. He looked into her eyes and touched her cheek, asking Are you really mine? She shifted against him and kissed him, telling him yes, yes – in this way, and every other.

Oh, how she loved the way he was touching her, the way he was kissing her – with a gentleness and tenderness that she’d never known, and that made her feel so cherished. How she loved the feeling of his hands on her skin – how she’d longed, how she’d wished, how she’d dreamed about that, and how she was enjoying it now with every fiber of her being. She felt how her body was responding to his touch – how he was waking up parts of her that had mostly been asleep for the past nine years – how he was sparking a desire that she’d thought she’d lost. He kept stroking and caressing her, slowly, sensually, until her entire body was humming with his touch, and she felt more sweetly, vibrantly alive than she had in years.

He kissed her deeply, fully, and he loved the way she melted against him as she kissed him back. They sank into the kiss for a while, then he dipped his head to trail his lips along the line of her jaw. She tilted her head so he could kiss her neck, and the way she sighed said don’t stop. The fact that he could kiss her like this, the fact that she was reacting to his kisses and caresses like this, was beautiful and exhilarating, and it made things flutter frantically in his chest. He kissed the delicate skin of her throat – the little hollow between her collarbones – then moved down to her chest. She was so soft – the smell of her so sweet – he loved the taste of her skin. He looked up – yes? – and she whispered back – yes.

As he closed his mouth over a nipple and sucked, she threw her head back with a gasp as the feeling seared through her, impossibly hot and vivid. Her fingers gripped his hair to keep him there – oh, how could this possibly feel so good? She felt like he wasn’t just touching her skin – his touch was going straight to the very core of her being, creating an experience that was deeply emotional as well as physical. She loved that they were experiencing this together – that they were exploring each other like this, introducing a new, meaningful layer to the connection they already shared. The bond between them was so strong, and it was amplifying her pleasure, drawing moans from her lips as he moved his mouth to her other nipple. He was creating a desire in her that went beyond anything she’d ever felt – a deep and aching longing for more of what he was giving her.

Oh, the sounds she was making were making his heart beat frantically, and he loved the feeling of her fingers in his hair. The way she was responding to him went beyond anything he’d ever imagined, and he just had to come up to kiss her again, saying I love this. I love this so much, and when she kissed him back, he knew it meant please go on. Then she took his hand and moved it down, and he felt his breath catch in his throat as she opened to him – freely and with complete surrender. It filled him with so much wonder. This was Raquel. Raquel. She was so beautiful and wonderful and always, always out of his reach. He’d loved her from afar, and he’d never dreamed that he would ever get to touch her like this. His fingers were shaking slightly as she led him past soft curls, and he couldn’t quite understand how he could be this lucky.

She felt how gently he touched her – his fingers exploring her so carefully – and she had to close her eyes. This was Sergio – her Sergio. She’d wanted him for so, so long, and to have him touch her like this now felt so inexpressibly right. She felt her body respond to him, immediately and with endless enthusiasm. She’d never felt anything like it – nothing had ever affected her like this – her skin started tingling, and she was trembling, and she could barely breathe – and then he touched her in the exact right spot, and to her infinite surprise, she instantly fell apart under his hands – completely and utterly. She barely had time to gasp in a breath as the feeling rushed her – she clutched at him and pressed her face to his chest, letting out soft, startled cries as she trembled and shook, the feeling of it deep and strong and unbelievably good, lighting up her entire body with a bright, golden pleasure.

When it faded, she found herself breathless in his arms. Oh. What had just happened? How had he done that so effortlessly, with barely a brush of his fingers?  

She drew his head down for a kiss, and he felt such a glow. He couldn’t believe she’d responded to him like that – he could barely contain his feelings. The kiss she gave him said that was amazing, and he kissed her back, over and over again, saying yes, yes, yes, it was, and so are you.

“Never,” she whispered against his lips. “Never, in my entire life, have I felt… anything like this.”

He was almost bursting with happiness.

“Really?” he murmured.

She gave him the softest look as she stroked his cheek.

“Really,” she whispered, and her voice was soft with emotion. “It’s because it’s you. Because I’ve wanted you for so long, and… and this feels so good.”

He nodded – her words resonated so deeply with how he was feeling himself.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, it does.”

He bent his head and brushed his lips against hers, and the kisses they shared were so sweet. He felt how there was a new intimacy between them now – warm, and soft beyond imagining, and so full of love.

He’d never felt this close to anyone before. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to express that – to realize that closeness in every way. He felt the way she touched his cheek, and he knew what it meant. He shifted, and gently covered her body with his.

“Yes?” he whispered.

The look she gave him went right to his heart. He couldn’t believe that she was looking at him like that.

“Yes,” she whispered back, her eyes full of longing as she drew his head down. “Yes.”

They shared another soft kiss, and Raquel was reveling at how wonderfully, perfectly right this felt. His body on top of hers was everything she’d ever wanted – lying skin to skin with him – connecting with him like this. She reached down a hand, and he closed his eyes as she touched him.

“Oh,” he whispered. “Oh, my love.”

Suddenly she couldn’t wait anymore. She wanted him with a longing that took her breath away – a longing that went beyond the physical – pure and intense and so deep. She guided him to her, and he bent his head to kiss her.

When he entered her, she gasped against his lips at how good it felt. He moved into her slowly, and she had to close her eyes at the wave of feelings that washed over her – she’d wanted him for so long, and the satisfaction she now felt was inexpressible – the joy of it endless – the bliss so complete. When he filled her up completely, they just stayed like that for a moment, and they couldn’t speak – they could only hold each other and feel out this new connection between them.

This was such a beautiful thing. Nine years ago, they’d become a part of each other, and when they were torn apart, it had left them broken and incomplete. Now, in this new, loving closeness between them, they were made whole again – they had finally returned to each other, and now the missing pieces fell back into place, and for the first time in nine long, lonely years, they were complete. More than complete, in fact – they felt that so clearly. Together, they were more than they’d ever been apart; forming a new whole that was true and strong and unbreakable. They were no longer two lost souls searching for each other. They had found each other once and for all.

When they started moving together, they kept each other close, and Raquel felt almost overwhelmed. This was all so deeply, wonderfully meaningful in so many ways, and that came paired with a physical pleasure that was so intense that it made her clutch at him and press her face against his shoulder, moaning against his skin. Her entire world narrowed down to just the two of them – to his body on top of hers, and his lips brushing hers, and the immeasurably satisfying feeling of having him inside of her, filling her up again and again. She’d never felt anything that came even close to this – the experience was so full, so rich in every way – just like before, he affected her so much, his touch seeming to go beyond the physical to create a hot, bright, golden glow at her very core.

The heavens had finally aligned for them, and now they were beautifully aligned with each other as well – their bodies, their desire, their movements perfectly in tune. They were lifted up together, her pleasure and his melting into each other, and when it reached a peak and everything became pure feeling, the sensation swept over both of them together. They were so close, trembling in each other’s arms, soft sounds against each other’s lips, transcending the laws of time and the very boundaries of personhood as, for several timeless, breathless, ethereal moments, they were one.

When the feeling passed, they found themselves soft and breathless in each other’s arms, both so full of emotion. After all this time – after all this longing, it felt almost impossible that they’d shared this now, and they kept each other so, so close, completely overcome. Nine years ago, they’d cried together as they had to say goodbye, and now, there were tears on their cheeks again as they came back to each other. They were more connected than ever now, and they stayed close together as they brushed away each other’s tears with tender fingers.

“I love you,” they whispered over and over again. “I love you. I always have. I always will.”

He moved to lie beside her and took her in his arms, and she couldn’t quite stop the tears running down her cheeks. Over the past nine years, she’d felt so constantly, deeply, achingly lonely. After things had gone so wrong with Alberto, it had caused her to become terribly isolated from her friends and family. She’d learned to live with the feeling of being alone in life – of not really having anyone to count on – of missing a full and true connection to anyone. Now, for the first time in so many years, the feeling was gone completely. She wasn’t alone anymore. She would never be alone again. The connection she had with Sergio was so strong, and it went so deep, and she was so sure that it would be there for the rest of their lives. As he held her and pressed soft kisses to her hair, the tears gradually stopped, and she relaxed against him with a deep sigh. She felt… at peace.

Sergio felt her melt against him and buried his face against her hair. His heart was so full. He loved her so deeply. The feeling was so clear, now that it was finally unclouded by fear – it was so bright, and so pure, and the truest thing he’d ever felt. When she’d left, all those years ago, an unbearable sadness had settled at the very heart of him, and it had never gone away. Tonight, in her presence, after the beautiful experience they’d just shared, he felt himself transcend the lingering pain. Her kisses had healed old wounds that had felt beyond healing – her words mending a trust that had felt shattered beyond repair – her touch making him feel more whole than he’d ever thought he could feel again. He felt how the sadness had finally left the central place it had occupied inside of him for so long, and that something else had taken its place. She was his heart now.

She reached up a hand and stroked his cheek.

“That was so wonderful,” she whispered.

He couldn’t quite speak – he could only nod and kiss her, and hope that the kiss would speak for him.

“I can’t believe I’ll get to sleep in your arms tonight,” she whispered against his lips.

“Believe it,” he murmured, pulling her a little closer. “Because there’s no way I’m letting you go again.”

She gave him a smile that made something flutter in his chest. He gently stroked her hair as he looked into her eyes.

“You and me?” he asked softly.

She nodded.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, from now, it’s you and me. Always, Sergio. Always.”

He bent his head, and as they shared a slow, soft kiss, they both knew so clearly what it meant. My love. My love. You are everything to me.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Raquel slowly rose up out of sleep the next morning when Sergio wrapped an arm around her waist and cuddled up to her, putting his warm skin against hers and pressing a few sleepy kisses to the back of her neck. Sunlight was pouring in through a small gap in the curtains, illuminating the room with a soft, golden half-light that gave everything an other-worldly quality, and Raquel wasn’t quite sure if she was dreaming or not. If she was, it was the loveliest dream she’d ever had, and she decided that she didn’t want to wake up – she wanted to live in this dream forever. She slowly turned around in his arms, and there was a warm glow of happiness in her belly as she saw him sleeping right beside her. For a few moments, she just looked at him, drinking in the sight of him in her bed. Then she lifted a hand and gently stroked his cheek.

He gave a sleepy smile without even opening his eyes, and then, to her delight, he pulled her closer, and she settled against his chest to press her face against his skin so she could breathe him in. When she gave him a few soft kisses, he sounded a warm, low rumble of contentment and wrapped both of his arms around her to hold her close, and she couldn’t remember ever feeling happier. She kept kissing his chest, seeking confirmation in his solid warmth that this was real – that she was not dreaming this moment, even though it felt like so many dreams she’d had for so many years – both asleep and awake.

He pressed a kiss to her hair in return, and she lifted her face to see him looking at her, his eyes so warm and soft. She reached up a hand and touched his cheek, and he bent his head to press his lips against hers. They sank into warm kisses, soft and sweet in the golden morning light, and Raquel’s heart was so full. Full of tenderness for him. Full of a bright, beautiful happiness. Full of love – and for the first time in years, she could welcome in the feeling without any reservations. For the first time in years, it didn’t hurt.

For nine long years, love had been a cold and cutting force in her life that had caused her nothing but pain. Her love for Sergio had been an ever-present ache in her chest – her love for Alberto withering with every passing day until there was nothing left of it – his love for her a cruel and possessive thing. Now, lying here with Sergio, love was warm and soft again. It was sweet kisses and soft touches. It was his fingers slowly, tenderly, drawing a path down her arm. It was the way he was looking at her, causing an answering flutter in her chest. This love was sweet and golden, and with every passing moment lying close to him – with every kiss – with every touch – she felt it suffuse her further, until its glowing warmth drove away the cold that had seeped into her bones.

He kissed her with a tenderness that was so new to her. Only a few weeks ago, she wouldn’t have felt like she deserved it, but he’d shown her that she did, and now there was the most wonderful ache in her chest as she allowed herself to believe it. She felt so safe in his arms. The careful way he touched her told her that he would never, ever hurt her, and that meant more to her than she could ever say. She was starting a new life now, and as she looked into his eyes, she knew it would be so much better, in every way, than the life she was leaving behind.

They stayed like that for a long time, cuddled close to each other; their legs intertwined, as they drifted in the cozy, undefined space between sleeping and waking, just basking in each other’s warmth and nearness. Raquel drifted in and out of sleep, until the noon-day sun crept across the room and awakened her with a beam of light on her face. She stretched happily and sat up, looking down at Sergio. He was still sleeping, and she didn’t want to wake him – she decided to make him breakfast.

She couldn’t stop smiling as she got out of bed, and her smile broadened as her eyes fell on his shirt, lying on the floor next to the bed. She picked it up and put it on, something inside of her just soaring with happiness at this simple expression of the fact that he was hers now. As she did up the buttons, a memory surfaced, of the bedroom scene they’d filmed together in Galicia, and how he’d sent everyone out of the room so they could talk. He’d given her his shirt then, too. She gave him a tender look as he slept in her bed. He was the best man she knew.

She went downstairs, barefoot, only wearing his shirt, and she felt so incredibly happy that she just couldn’t contain the feeling – she turned on the radio and danced a little as she set the table, then took some eggs out of the fridge. She was whisking them in a bowl, intent on her task, when suddenly there were two strong arms around her waist, and his warm voice in her ear.

“I love seeing you like this.”

She smiled and closed her eyes as she leaned back against him, just savoring his warmth at her back and his arms around her.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Yes,” he murmured, nuzzling her ear. “Yes, without a doubt the best morning of my life.”

Her smile broadened as she turned around in his arms, to see him looking down at her with softly shining eyes.

“Hi,” he said.

She reached up and wrapped her arms around him, stroking the back of his neck.

“Hi.”

In the bright sunlight streaming through the kitchen window, Raquel felt how the dreamlike quality of the morning dissipated, and how reality reestablished itself. She could barely believe that this was her reality now – it was better than any dream she’d ever had. He was really here, and they were starting their life together. 

“How are you feeling?” she smiled up at him.

“Wonderful,” he murmured, bending his head to bring his lips close to hers. “Amazing. You?”

“The same,” she whispered.

Oh, the pull of him was so strong – she felt so incredibly drawn to him. He was irresistible… and she felt such a rush of joy because she knew that she didn’t have to resist him anymore. She lifted her face and kissed him, and as he rumbled softly and kissed her back, she felt nothing but happiness.

Such happiness. His mouth was on hers; his fingers running through her hair; his body warm against hers, and she felt the feeling spark and burgeon inside her chest – the joy of being with him like this – of surrendering herself to this happiness – of being able to give in to her desire for him so freely. She pulled him closer and deepened the kiss, and he responded in kind: he pulled her against him with an arm around her waist and kissed her, kissed her, kissed her until she felt her knees go weak and she was completely out of breath. She didn’t pull back though – not for a moment. She never wanted him to stop.

They let the kiss go on for minute after minute, warm and deep and sensual, and she felt things stir deliciously in her belly – a deep, insistent longing – a hot tingle between her legs. When they finally drew apart, they were both rather breathless, and they stayed close together. He ran his hand down the side of her body and over her hips, while she ran her fingers over the muscles of his shoulders and arms. He was only wearing his undershirt, and she had to say that she really appreciated that.

“Hmm,” she murmured, stroking his arm. “I like this. You should be shirtless more often.”

He chuckled.

“I won’t have a choice if you intend to keep stealing them.”

She leaned back against the kitchen counter and pulled him in against her, drawing his head down to bring her lips close to his.

“You’re free to take it back,” she murmured.

He wrapped his arms around her waist.

“But then… what would you be wearing?”

She brushed her lips against his, tantalizingly light.

“Why don’t you find out?”

His eyes turned warm.

“Oh,” he whispered. “I’d love to find out.”

He bent his head and started kissing her neck, and she tilted her head and sighed in delight. Meanwhile, his hands came up to undo the first button on the shirt, and he slowly trailed his kisses down to her chest. Another button, and another, showing that she wasn’t wearing a bra. He gave a deep rumble of approval and nudged the shirt aside to reveal a hard nipple, and when he closed his warm mouth around it, she gasped as the sensation of it shot right through her.

“Oh,” she moaned softly, twining her fingers into his hair to keep him there. “Oh, yes. A… a little more…”

He obliged her and sucked harder, and she gasped again as she felt it down to her toes – a delicious pulling sensation that was causing a deep, insistent throbbing between her legs. Oh, the effect he had on her body was absolutely breathtaking – he made her feel so good, and she was suddenly so hungry for more.

She let go of his hair, and he took her cue to pull back and undo another button, and another, going down on his knees as he gradually kissed his way down her stomach. One last button revealed that she wasn’t wearing any underwear either, and he let out a soft ‘oh’ full of longing, then pressed a kiss to her curls.

When he looked up at her, the question in his eyes was clear, and she bit her lip and nodded. She leaned back against the kitchen counter as she opened her legs to him, and when he kissed the inside of her thighs, she felt breathless with anticipation. He hadn’t even touched her, and yet there was already a tension inside of her – a deep, vibrant thrumming that made her ache to feel his mouth on her. He took his time, though, kissing the inside of her thighs while his hands stroked her hips, letting the anticipation build until she could barely stand it anymore.

Finally, he touched her with gentle fingers, making her desire flare sharply as he used his thumbs to open her folds. Then, he ran his tongue along her, and her entire body shuddered as she gasped – oh, that felt amazing. He did it again, and again, tasting her, exploring her, until she was shaking with longing to feel him where she wanted him the most. When he finally settled on a specific spot and pressed his warm mouth against her, she threw her head back and moaned.

“Oh! Oh, yes, right there…”

He started stroking her with his tongue in a steady rhythm, and the pleasure was so intense that she could do nothing but lean back and surrender herself completely to him – her breathing fast – her chest flushing – her fingers in his hair. He was creating the most delicious pressure inside of her; sparking and humming and tingling; every stroke of his tongue adding to it until it rose to a near-unbearable pitch and she was gasping – her back arched and her head thrown back, entirely lost in the sensations he was evoking.

“Yes,” she kept whispering, “yes, yes, yes!

Only a few more strokes were enough to tip her over the edge, and the pressure released in the most glorious wave of ecstasy, sweeping through her so completely that she cried out, again and again, gripping his hair, her entire body shaking – oh yes, oh god – and then the feeling faded, leaving her breathless and tingling and very weak at the knees.

He stood up and caught her before she could fall, his body warm and strong against hers as he pressed her against the kitchen counter, and she immediately drew his head down for a kiss.

“Oh,” she whispered against his lips. “Oh, that was…”

“Good?” he asked, and she nodded, a little dazed.

Amazing.”

“Good,” he murmured, and then he kissed her more deeply.

She realized immediately that her desire for him wasn’t diminished in the slightest – on the contrary, the way he had made her come like that only made her want him more, with a longing that took her breath away with its intensity. She kissed him back, so hungry for his mouth on hers, for his hands on her skin, and for everything else. She’d never felt a desire like this – it went beyond mere desire – it was a deep, aching need that was just begging to be satisfied, and when he pressed her harder against the kitchen counter and she felt him hard against her hip, she couldn’t wait anymore. She’d waited nine years for him and now she had absolutely no patience left – she had to have him right now.

“Sergio,” she gasped. “I want you, I want you now.

To her delight, he immediately wrapped his arms around her and lifted her onto the kitchen counter. She spread her legs and pulled him in to stand between them, and as he kissed her hard, she felt the same urgency in him that she felt herself. Her hands flew to unbutton his pants, and he groaned against her lips as she drew him out. He pulled her closer to the edge, and they were both breathless as she guided him to her – and then he pushed himself into her, hard, filling her up entirely with one stroke, drawing a sharp moan from her lips. The pleasure was immediate and absolute, and it only increased as he started taking her, setting a fast pace; his hands on her hips; his mouth hot on hers as she twined her fingers into his hair.

Fuck, the things he made her feel… His hard length inside of her was hitting all the right spots, and once again he was affecting her so much – causing a fiery tingling deep inside of her – a tension that built so inexorably, growing stronger and stronger each time he pushed into her until her every breath was a moan. This was Sergio – after years of longing he was finally taking her the way she had wanted him to for so long, and the thought of that was so hot and satisfying that it brought her to the edge almost effortlessly – and then he bent his head and nipped at the skin of her neck with his teeth, and she gasped as it suddenly tipped her over – the feeling catching her completely off-guard as it washed over her, blazing and vivid and beyond intense. All she could do was bury her face against his chest, and moan, moan, moan as it rocked her; making her shake in his arms; making her gasp for breath. Only a moment later, his arm tightened around her waist and he shuddered and whispered her name as he came too, buried deep inside her.

They held each other close as the feeling subsided into a golden glow that left them warm and tingling as they tried to catch their breath. Finally, she took his face between her hands and kissed him, feeling so full of wonder, and so deeply, thoroughly satisfied.

“Oh,” she whispered against his lips. “Oh, how did you do that? You weren’t even touching me and I…”

He looked so pleased.

“You mean… that’s not usual for you?”

“No,” she smiled, running her fingers through his hair. “No, not at all. It’s never happened to me before… I didn’t think I could.” She leaned in and brushed her lips against his. “But you… you make me feel things, Sergio… oh. Things I’ve never felt before.”

His eyes were so warm as he pulled her a little closer.

“I love that,” he murmured against her lips. “I love that so much.”

Then he slightly shook his head with an expression of wonder.

“I know what you mean, though. It… it’s been a really long time for me, but I know that it definitely never felt like this before.”

They shared a soft smile, then sank into more kisses, sweet and lovely, as they caressed each other with gentle hands. Raquel felt so elated. It had all been so perfect so far. Last night had been soft and sweet and unbelievably lovely, showing the tenderness between them – and now it was clear that there was passion too; hot and fiery and amazing. She loved all of it. She felt how compatible they were in every way, and she couldn’t wait to explore more of this with him – to discover all the delights they could share.

It was hard to break apart – neither of them wanted to let go – but finally they managed it. They cooked breakfast together, but when it was done, neither of them really felt like eating – Raquel felt like her stomach was too full of butterflies. They kept sharing looks of longing across the table, and soon they abandoned the idea of breakfast altogether, to end up on the sofa together in a tangle. She drew his head down and kissed him deeply, while he ran his hand up and down her bare thigh.

“I love your legs,” he murmured between kisses. “I’ve changed my mind – I don’t want my shirt back. All of my shirts are yours now; please never wear anything else ever again.”

She laughed softly and kissed him again.

“Alright,” she said. “Whenever we’re alone in the house, I won’t wear anything but your shirts.”

He smiled, his eyes shining, but then he looked up.

“Actually,” he said, glancing at the clock on the wall. “When is your daughter coming home? We have to make sure we’re decent before…”

“She’s not coming home today,” she smiled, drawing his head back down. “When she called yesterday evening, I asked her if she wanted to stay at her grandmother’s for another night, and both she and my mother agreed.” She pressed her lips against his. “I wanted you all to myself for at least another night.”

“Oh,” he murmured, his eyes warm. “I love that.”

They shared another kiss, but then Raquel pulled back slightly.

“Sergio…” she said tentatively. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Mind what?” he said.

“Paula,” she said. “She’s going to be here a lot.”

“No,” he said softly. “I don’t mind at all.”

She sat up, and so did he, but they stayed close together, their hands intertwined.

“It’s just…” she said, “if I get the restraining order for Alberto, then I’m going to sue him for full custody. I can’t trust Paula with him anymore.”

He gave her a serious look as he nodded.

“I understand.”

“That means she’ll always be here… My mom can take care of her every once in a while, but most of the time, she’ll be here.”

He gave her a slight smile.

“Raquel,” he said, “I told you nine years ago that I was willing to help you take care of her… that I wanted us to be a family. I meant that. I still mean it. I’m all in.”

She leaned in and kissed him, and he stroked her hair as he kissed her back. When they broke apart, his eyes were still serious.

“I’ve been thinking…” he said. “The hearing for the restraining order… it’s in two weeks, right?”

“Right,” she said. The events of last night and this morning had driven the hearing from her mind, but now the thought of it caused a small, tight ball of dread in her stomach. It would be so awful to see Alberto again, and to have to talk about everything that had happened in front of a judge.

Sergio was stroking her hand.

“I want to come with you,” he said softly. “I know we said I shouldn’t, but I can’t let you go there alone, Raquel. I want to be there.”

The dread she felt immediately lessened as she suddenly felt so hopeful. Having him there… especially now that they were together… she knew it would make all the difference.

“That would mean a lot to me,” she said quietly, stroking his hand in return. “But if we’re seen in public together… that means that the press will find out that we’re together, and it’s only two weeks from now.” She looked up at him. “Maybe that’s too soon? Maybe you want to give it some more time before we announce it?”

“No,” he said, looking into her eyes with a steady gaze. “No, we can announce it tomorrow if you’d like. I told you, Raquel: I’m sure about this. And the whole world can know about it.”

She was so happy that he was just as sure about this as she was, but now that she’d mentioned the press, she realized that there was something they hadn’t discussed yet.

“Sergio,” she said tentatively. “What about the media attention? Are you… are you okay with that?”

He looked a little uncomfortable, but he didn’t waver.

“It won’t be so bad if we’re together, right?”

“No,” she said. “It won’t be as bad as it would have been if we’d just tried to be friends. Now it will just be a big story once and then people will move on.” She swallowed hard. “But Sergio… it will never go away completely. If you’re with me, you can’t stay out of the spotlight entirely. It’s… it’s part of my life, and I know you never wanted that.”

“I understand that,” he said calmly. “And it’s alright.”

“Is it really, though?” she said, looking up at him rather anxiously.

He gave her a reassuring smile.

“Raquel, when I said that I was sure, I meant it. When I spent weeks thinking about this, I considered every aspect, including this. You’re right that it’s not exactly what I wanted for myself, but I can deal with it. Being with you… it’s worth it.” He raised a hand and brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “As long as we’re together… I can handle anything.”

She could feel how firmly he believed that, and she felt a rush of relief as she allowed herself to believe it too. She drew his head down, and as he kissed her, she let go of the last of her worries, and just let herself be happy – so happy that her throat felt tight. As she looked into his eyes, she was so aware of the connection between them: strong and solid and unbreakable.

“My love,” she whispered. “This feels so right. So, so right.”

“Yes,” he murmured, and his eyes were so soft. “Yes, just… perfect.”

They looked at each other, and she felt it so strongly.

“This is it, Sergio,” she said softly, stroking his cheek. “For me… you’re it. Now, and always.”

“Yes,” he said, brushing his lips against hers. “Now and always.”

They leaned their foreheads together and closed their eyes, and just sat like that for several long moments, sharing that feeling of connection. Raquel suddenly realized that the feeling of dread in her stomach had disappeared completely. Yes, the next few weeks would still be tough – the court hearing would be hard, and she knew Alberto would fight her about the custody, and the press would be all over it and their new relationship.

But it would be alright. She leaned her forehead against his, and she knew it with a calm, steady sense of certainty. From now on, everything would be alright. Because as long as they were together… they could handle anything.

The next evening, they were cooking together. Sergio had gone home to get some clean clothes, but he’d returned immediately afterwards – they’d both agreed that they didn’t want to be apart anymore. Now, they were preparing dinner, and sharing kisses and small touches and soft smiles in the process. Raquel could see that Sergio was a little nervous, so while the sauce was bubbling away, she pulled him in for a deeper kiss, stroking the back of his neck with light fingers.

“It will be okay,” she smiled as they broke apart.

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he said, giving her a nervous smile in return. “I just hope Paula won’t… won’t mind having me in the house.”

“She’s an easy-going child,” Raquel said. “And she already met you and she really liked you.”

That seemed to reassure him somewhat. Still, he jumped a little as the doorbell rang.

“That will be them,” Raquel said, wiping her hands on a dishcloth and turning off the stove. Then she held out her hand to him with a smile. “Come on.”

They went to open the door together to see Mariví and Paula standing there.

“Sergio!” Paula said immediately, and Raquel was pleased that the girl remembered him.

“Yes,” she said as she stepped back to let her mother and daughter into the house. “Sergio will be joining us for dinner tonight.”

Mariví’s eyes were shining as she looked between the two of them – Raquel had told her on the phone how things stood between them, and her mother was clearly very pleased. She took Sergio’s face between her hands and, ignoring his flustered look, kissed him twice on each cheek.

“It’s so good to see you again,” she said.

“Uhm…” Sergio murmured. “You too.”

They all went into the living room together, and Raquel was thinking that maybe she should take Paula aside for a moment to tell her that she and Sergio were together now – but the girl was too fast for her. She looked up at the two of them with that sharp look she had, and said:

“Are you dating?”

Mariví chuckled and Sergio turned red, but Raquel merely smiled and took Sergio’s hand.

“Yes,” she said. “We are.”

“Alright,” the girl nodded matter-of-factly. “Sergio, my teacher wouldn’t believe me when I told her that starfish can grow back their arms. Are you sure it’s true?”

“Well, yes,” Sergio said, pushing his glasses up his nose. “It definitely is. You see, many marine species like that have regenerative abilities that mammals lack…”

Raquel smiled in delight as the two of them sat down at the table, already deep in conversation. She was so glad that Paula was taking this so well. She went into the kitchen to get the food, and Mariví followed her in to help.

“I knew he just needed some time,” she smiled wisely, and Raquel couldn’t help but smile too.

“Yes,” she said. “You were right.”

Then, on an impulse, she turned and hugged her mother.

“Oh mom,” she whispered. “I’m so happy. So, so happy.”

Mariví patted her on the back, and Raquel could hear how pleased she was.

“Good,” her mother said. “You deserve it. You both do. You’re right for each other.”

“Yes,” Raquel said, straightening up and throwing a glowing look into the living room at Sergio. “Yes, we are.”

A few minutes later, they were all sitting around the table together, talking companionably over the food, and Raquel was glad to see Sergio gradually relax. Mariví and Paula were both clearly happy to have him there, and the atmosphere was nice and cheerful. By the time the food was gone, Paula and Mariví were laughing at a joke Sergio had made, and Raquel looked at them all, and she could barely believe that this was real. This was it. This was the life she had thrown away nine years ago – the life she’d always regretted – the life she’d never thought she could have.

When she’d had to make that choice nine years ago, she had felt so clearly that there were two lives she was choosing between. She’d chosen one… but the other had never really disappeared for her. It had always been there; an alternate reality running parallel to the one she was in – never touching, but always there in her mind: a life with Sergio. She’d imagined it more times than she could count: when Paula was born and at every milestone of her daughter’s life – whenever she saw one of the movies he was in – when she woke up from yet another dream about him – but most of all, whenever Alberto yelled at her, or made her feel small, or hurt her. In those moments, she’d always pictured the life she hadn’t chosen, and she’d ached with regret.

Never – never had she thought that one day, it could be hers after all.

She looked around the table, at her family, and her heart was so full. She’d made a mistake nine years ago, and she’d paid dearly for it – but now she had finally managed to set it right. Now, things were finally as they should be. As they always should have been.

Sergio.

She reached out and took his hand, and he looked at her, and she knew. He felt it too. Life’s branching paths had taken them away from each other for a long time, but now they had crossed again, and this time, nothing could tear them apart anymore. Her hand was in his, and as he looked into her eyes and squeezed gently, she knew that they were never letting go again.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

One year later – Madrid

Raquel stepped out of the limousine into the flash of cameras and the clamor of dozens of voices shouting her name. She smiled and waved, then turned back to the car to see Sergio get out too, a little flustered by the noise and the lights. He was getting better and better at dealing with the media – he had attended several red carpet events with her so far – but he always needed a moment to steel himself. She reached out to take his hand and give it an encouraging squeeze, and he gave her a grateful smile. She knew he counted on her to take the lead at these kinds of events, and she was careful never to leave him alone. They shared a look, then he nodded, and they started walking down the red carpet together.

There were reporters and fans all along the side of the carpet, and they called out for pictures, so Raquel stopped to pose, her arm around Sergio. She knew this sort of thing still made him a little uncomfortable, but he wasn’t showing it at all. She looked up at him, then leaned in to whisper in his ear.

“You look so handsome in that tuxedo.”

He smiled at her, then murmured back:

“And you look beautiful in that dress.”

She was wearing a long, cream-colored dress with a low neckline that had been specially designed for this occasion. And of course, that was all the reporters were interested in.

“Raquel!” they called at her. “Raquel, who designed your dress?”

She rather liked the dress, but it annoyed her that actresses were always asked about designers, whereas their male costars were asked questions about the movie or their career. Next to her, Sergio shifted.

“You know,” he said mildly to the reporters, “Raquel recently started her own production company with Elena González. Maybe you can ask her about that.

The reporters seemed rather confused, but Raquel gave Sergio a glowing look, and he smiled back at her.

“Yes,” she said turning back to the reporters. “We’re trying to give a platform to underrepresented voices in the industry.”

The reporters started asking follow-up questions, and Raquel answered them happily, keeping her arm around Sergio the whole time.

After a few minutes, more people arrived at the end of the carpet, so they moved on a little. There were fans shouting her name, so Raquel went over to them to sign some autographs and take a few selfies with them. Sergio stood back and waited, as usual, but then a group of young women started calling out.

“Sergio!” they shouted, waving at him. “Sergio!”

He looked confused, but Raquel smiled at him.

“This is your movie too,” she said, giving him an encouraging nod. “Go on.”

He hesitated for a moment, but then walked over to the women, and Raquel looked on with a smile as she saw how delighted they were when he agreed to sign the things they were holding out to him.

“That was very strange,” he murmured as he returned to her, and they started walking along the carpet hand in hand.

“You’d better get used to it,” she said. “I’m sure the movie will be a success, so you’re going to have fans of your own.”

He shook his head in consternation.

“I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

“It’s really not that bad,” she reassured him. “Most people are very nice about it.”

“It’s just… I don’t know what to say to them.”

“You don’t have to say much,” she said. “Just smile and sign your name or take a picture with them if they ask.”

“I guess I can do that,” he said.

“You know there are advantages too,” she reminded him as they walked into the building where the premiere was being held. “To making a name for yourself. You know you won’t have to audition as much, for example – you’ll get offered parts, and you’ll be able to pick and choose the most interesting ones.”

He gave her a slight smile.

“That does sound nice.”

Once they were inside the building, away from the crowd and the cameras, she felt him relax a little. There would be press at the screening of the movie too, of course, but until that started, they could wait in a VIP area that the press didn’t have access to. Once they were in, Raquel stood up on her toes to press a kiss to Sergio’s cheek.

“You did great. Thank you for redirecting the attention of those reporters.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, shaking his head. “They really should get their priorities straight.”

People came up to greet them – the familiar faces of the cast and crew – and they made light conversation for a while as more people arrived. Then a man in an expensive suit walked into the room and came straight over to them.

“Is she here yet?”

“Hi, Andrés,” Raquel said, amused. “It’s nice to see you too.”

“Oh,” he said, clearly remembering his manners as he leaned in to kiss her cheek. “Yes, hello, Raquel. You look lovely as always.”

“Thank you,” she said, while Andrés clapped his brother on the shoulder, then looked around the room.

“So… is she here yet?”

Raquel didn’t have to ask who he was referring to – Andrés hadn’t stopped talking about Elena all year.

“No,” Sergio answered, also without needing to ask. “We haven’t seen her yet.”

“Well,” Andrés said, raising his hand to someone across the room. “I need to speak to Jorge for a moment, but when she gets here, please tell her that I want to talk to her.”

Raquel couldn’t help but grin.

“I think she knows that by now.”

Raquel had been seeing Elena regularly over the past year, so she knew that Andrés had been calling her friend about once a week to ask her out. She also knew that Elena had refused every time – but tonight, Andrés would finally get his chance to ask her in person.

“He didn’t bring a date,” Sergio noted as they watched Andrés walk across the room. “Again.”

“Yes,” Raquel said. “He’s really changed his ways, hasn’t he? No more sleeping around at all… he must really like Elena.”

Sergio shook his head with a slight smile.

“I’ve never seen him like this over a woman,” he said. “He just can’t get over her.” Then he glanced sideways at Raquel. “Of course, I can very much relate to that.”

She smiled and reached up a hand to draw his head down for a kiss. He wrapped his arms around her, and for several moments, it was only the two of them in that room – the rest of the world forgotten. It was always like that – had always been like that. No matter if there were cameras on them – a dozen crewmembers watching them – a room full of people surrounding them – it all fell away when they had a moment like this. Raquel loved these moments: just she and him, a quiet island in the bustle, entirely wrapped up in each other.

They only broke apart when a familiar voice said:

“Hey, love birds! People want to talk to you!”

They looked up to see a grinning Nairobi standing next to them, and Raquel let go of Sergio so she could hug her.

“Hi Nairobi!” she said. “It’s so good to see you!”

“Good to see you too,” Nairobi said, then she looked between Raquel and Sergio with a satisfied expression. “I heard you were a thing now, and I see you’re not trying to hide it.”

“Yes,” Raquel smiled, taking Sergio’s hand. “We are a thing now.”

“Good,” Nairobi said, taking a sip of her drink. “About time, you were driving me up the wall with all that pining for each other.”

Raquel felt herself color slightly.

“You mean… you knew?”

Nairobi snorted.

“Do you think I’m blind? Of course I knew! We all knew! The cast, the crew… hell, I’m pretty sure even the caterer knew.”

Raquel glanced at Sergio, who gave an embarrassed chuckle and pushed his glasses up his nose.

“Yes, well…” he said. “We had… some issues, but we worked them out.”

“Excellent,” Nairobi said, patting him on the arm. “I was rooting for you two, you know. Even ten years ago, when you were still married to that awful guy.” She looked over at Raquel. “I heard you got a restraining order against him?”

“Yes,” Raquel said. “I did. And full custody over my daughter.”

It was still such a relief: no more phone calls, no more messages, no more unexpected visits – an entire year without having to deal with Alberto at all. Raquel shifted a little closer to Sergio and squeezed his hand. He had been such an important part of her strength throughout it all.

“Well done,” Nairobi said earnestly. “He deserved it.”

“Yes,” Raquel said quietly. She had finally come to a place where she could really believe that. “He did deserve it.”

At that point, another familiar figure walked into the room, and Nairobi immediately waved her over.

“Elena! Over here!”

Elena came over to them, smiling. Her hair was in a tight ponytail as ever, but she’d dressed up for the occasion: she was wearing a black blazer without a shirt underneath, showing quite a bit of cleavage. Raquel and Sergio shared a look, and she knew they were thinking the same thing: Andrés was going to love this.

“Hi there,” Elena said as she reached them, and there were hugs and kisses all around. “How is everyone?”

Nairobi waved an impatient hand.

“We’re all fine,” she said. “But more importantly: tell me about this production company the two of you have started! I’ve been hearing some really exciting things.”

Raquel and Elena smiled at each other.

“Everything is still in its early stages,” Elena said. “But we’re going to start working on our first project soon.”

“Yes,” Raquel chimed in. “And we wanted to ask you, Nairobi, if…”

“I’m in,” Nairobi grinned. “Just tell me when to start and I’ll be there.”

Raquel laughed.

“Don’t you want to know a few things about the project first?”

“No need,” Nairobi said airily. “I’m sure whatever you two came up with will be interesting, and I’m very sure it will be nice working with you.”

Raquel smiled at her, but Elena was all business.

“Good,” she said briskly. “I’ll have our secretary contact you to set up a meeting soon.”

“Looking forward to it,” Nairobi said. Then she gave a broad grin. “By the way, Elena, Andrés wants to talk to you. Or, well, I’m guessing he wants to do more than just talk.”

Elena gave her a dignified look.

“A man can dream,” she said drily.

Nairobi kept grinning.

“Well, I promised him I’d tell him when you got here, so I suppose I’ll go look for him now and send him over. I’ll talk to you all later.”

She left, and Raquel glanced over at Elena.

“Do you mind seeing him?” she asked, and Sergio put a step forward.

“If you don’t want to talk to him, Elena, I can tell him to leave you alone.”

“Thanks,” Elena said, raising her chin. “But I’ve been avoiding him all year. I guess I should just get it over with.”

Raquel noted that she no longer had the look of disgust on her face that she used to have whenever Andrés was mentioned. The night they’d slept together had really shifted things between them – even if Elena hadn’t agreed to go out with him. Indeed, when he came up to them, she merely gave him a polite nod.

“Andrés.”

“Elena,” he said, and his eyes were shining as he gave her his charming grin. “You’re looking even more ravishing than usual tonight.”

“Don’t waste your breath,” she said drily. “It’s not happening.”

He raised his hands, his face the very picture of innocence.

“I don’t know what you’re referring to,” he said. “I merely wanted to ask you to have dinner with me.” Elena opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Andrés went on: “Purely business. I have a proposal for your new company.”

Ah, Raquel thought. Well played.

Elena hesitated, narrowing her eyes at him.

“Just business?”

“Just business,” he nodded, and Raquel almost believed him.

Elena was still hesitating, and Raquel felt that she didn’t believe him either, and that she was leaning towards ‘no’… but then Andrés suddenly took a step closer to Elena, and his manner changed. The charming grin was gone, and he seemed… sincere.

“One dinner, Elena,” he said quietly. “That’s all I ask. And if you only want to talk business, then we’ll only talk business. I swear.”

Elena considered him for a moment. Raquel knew that her friend had also noticed that Andrés had considerably cleaned up his act over the past year, so she looked on with bated breath to see what her answer would be.

Finally, Elena nodded.

“Alright,” she said. “One dinner.”

Andrés couldn’t look more pleased.

“Good,” he said. “Friday? I’ll pick you up at eight.”

“Fine,” Elena said. “Now if you’ll excuse me – there are some people I need to speak to.”

She briskly walked off, leaving Andrés to look after her with admiring eyes.

“Well,” Sergio said. “That was unexpected.”

“Not at all,” Andrés said smugly. “I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist me in the end.”

Raquel shook her head at him as he walked away, and Sergio looked after him with a pensive look.

“Do you think he has a chance?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” Raquel said honestly. “I know Elena doesn’t detest him anymore the way she used to, but… I think he will need to drop the act and be sincere for more than five minutes, and I don’t know if he’s capable of doing that.”

“I don’t know either,” Sergio said. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

At that point, a little bell sounded, alerting everyone to the fact that the screening of the movie was about to begin. Sergio smiled at her and held out his arm.

“Well,” he said. “Shall we go see what we made of it?”

“Yes,” Raquel said, taking his arm with a smile in return. “Let’s go.”

They walked into the screening room, along with the other actors. There were seats reserved for them at the front, so they sat down together, hand in hand, smiling at each other.

“I feel like this is going to be weird,” Raquel said, looking at the blank screen.

“Why?” Sergio asked.

“Well…” she said, considering. “Because of… how things were between us during filming. I think it might be strange to see the awkwardness in some scenes when… when we now are where we are.”

“Yes,” Sergio nodded. “I see what you mean.”

The room darkened, and people hushed as the opening credits came onto the screen. Raquel settled herself more comfortably in her chair, content and curious. She remembered the premiere of the first movie they’d done together, one year after everything had happened. She’d been so terribly nervous to see him again, only to find out upon arriving that he wasn’t attending. It had been a relief and a terrible disappointment at the same time, and watching the movie had been a truly harrowing experience: to see the two of them together on the screen – talking, kissing, holding each other – the chemistry between them so palpable – their eyes filled with so much genuine affection for each other. She had sat in the dark, alone, unable to take her eyes from the screen while tears ran down her cheeks.

Now, things couldn’t be more different. Now, they were sitting here together, really together – her shoulder leaning against Sergio’s, her hand in his – and she’d never been happier.

The movie started, opening with several wide shots of the green Galician hills and the cliffs along the coastline. Then, the camera focused on the farm building where they’d done most of the shooting, and there was a collage of shots of Eva and Tristán living together. Raquel knew it probably wasn’t visible to the average viewer, but to her it was noticeable that she and Sergio hadn’t been comfortable around each other back then. They were professionals, of course, so they hid it well, but some looks between them were a little awkward – the smiles looked just a little forced – and when he came up behind her at the sink to put his arms around her waist, Raquel could see in several small details how stiff and tense they’d both been – she knew him so intimately, and she could read the subtle signs of his body so clearly.

“Do you remember,” she whispered to Sergio. “How awful those first days were?”

He grimaced and nodded.

“It was just so hard,” he whispered back to her. “To see you again, Raquel… it was so hard. To look into your eyes, and have you smile at me, and… and to touch you. I was struggling so much.” He gestured at the screen, a little worried. “Do you think it’s obvious?”

“To me it is,” she said, “but that’s only because I know you so well. I don’t think anyone else will be able to tell.”

She stroked his hand and gave him a soft look.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That you had to go through that.”

He gave her a soft look in return.

“It’s okay,” he murmured. “I’m glad for it now.” He squeezed her hand. “It was all worth it.”

They shared a soft kiss, then turned back towards the screen, their heads close together. They’d come to the shot where Tristán took the buckets from Eva, out on the hill, and she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Raquel bit her lip as she saw how different this shot was from the previous ones. She knew that it wouldn’t be noticeable to the rest of the audience, but to her it was completely obvious that this wasn’t Eva and Tristán kissing each other – this was Raquel kissing Sergio with everything she had, and Sergio kissing her back.

“God, Raquel,” he murmured beside her. “That kiss… you have no idea what you did to me.”

They looked at each other, and suddenly she just wanted to be alone with him, so she could kiss him and kiss him and kiss him, and they could reassure themselves that they wouldn’t ever be apart anymore – that they were together now, and that they loved each other, and that things were finally as they should be.

“I can’t wait to take you home,” she whispered, and she could see the same longing in his eyes as he nodded.

There was no way they could leave now, however, so they stayed in their seats and watched the rest of the movie. Their performance was believable, but there were still subtle variations in their chemistry between the different scenes. It was quite clear to Raquel during which scenes things had improved between them, and during which they had been awkward again. Sometimes there were moments of genuine connection and chemistry, while at other times there were small but unmistakable signs that they were uncomfortable with each other. In the audience, she and Sergio kept sharing looks, alternately grimacing or smiling at each other.

Finally, they arrived at the love-making scene, and Raquel was very curious to see what it would look like. Nairobi had promised them that it would be classy, and it was: a shot of Sergio’s fingers trailing down her spine, her skin golden in the light of the fire; and then some shots of them kissing each other. It all looked very convincing, and Raquel wasn’t surprised – she remembered how wrapped up they’d been in each other during the shooting of that scene.

She leaned close to him again.

“That was a special kind of torture, wasn’t it?” she murmured.

He nodded earnestly.

“God, yes. That was simultaneously one of the most wonderful and one of the hardest days of my life.”

She couldn’t help herself – she grinned at him, her eyes sparkling.

“Pun intended?”

He chuckled quietly.

“Not intended, but very much accurate.”

They shared a grin, then leaned in for another kiss. On the screen, there was a shot of Sergio kissing her throat, while she tilted back her head and sighed, and in the audience Raquel gave him a warm look, which he returned. She knew they were both thinking about the many nights they’d done this for real over the past year, and she could see in his eyes that he was just as eager as she was to do it all over again.

“I can’t wait to take you home,” she repeated, a whisper in his ear. This time, he leaned close to her and murmured back:

“I have a surprise for later.”

She looked at him, pleased and curious.

“What kind of surprise?”

But he merely shook his head with a mysterious smile and gestured that they should return their attention to the movie.

There was a part now where they didn’t have any scenes together, and Raquel watched with interest at the scenes she hadn’t been a part of. The storyline was interesting, and she kept paying attention until the end, when the lights came on and everybody clapped. People stood up, and Nairobi and Elena came over to them.

“Congratulations, Nairobi,” Raquel said. “You did an excellent job.”

Nairobi grinned, and Raquel could see that she was satisfied.

“Yes,” she said, “it turned into a good movie.” She nodded at them. “You two did a great job too.”

Raquel and Sergio exchanged an uncertain look, then Raquel turned back to her friends.

“Well…” she said, “I’m not sure we gave our best performances, since we were… dealing with some personal issues during the shoot.”

“Don’t worry,” Nairobi assured them. “You just see it because you know what to look for, but I’m sure nobody else noticed.” She grinned. “Sure, we filmed some disastrous shots, but that’s the advantage of shooting a scene over and over again: you can pick out the best shots and put together something decent.”

“Yes,” Elena said. “It really turned out well. I didn’t notice anything off about your performances.”

“Thank you,” Raquel smiled, relieved, and she could see that Sergio shared the feeling.

The next hour was rather chaotic – there were congratulations all around, and more photo opportunities and questions from the press. Raquel didn’t let go of Sergio – both because she knew he’d feel uncomfortable navigating this scene alone, and because she genuinely didn’t want to be apart from him. Watching this movie had brought back a lot of conflicting memories and emotions, and she was waiting impatiently for the point where they’d have fulfilled the publicity demands in their contracts and could leave. Raquel could feel that Sergio was just as impatient as she was to be alone with her, so as soon as the first people began to leave, they said their goodbyes and left too.

The limousine they had arrived in was waiting for them, and they got into the back seat together. Raquel gave the address of the new house they’d bought together a few months ago – but then Sergio leaned forward and handed the driver a note.

“Actually,” he said. “Take us here.”

Raquel gave him a curious look, and he smiled.

“This is a special night,” he said. “This movie brought us together again, and I want to celebrate that.”

She smiled and kissed him. Paula was staying with her grandmother tonight anyway, so they had no reason to hurry home. As the car drove through the well-lit streets of Madrid, they sank into long, deep kisses, reaffirming their connection, over and over and over again.

After only a short drive, the driver drew up the car in front of a large building, and Raquel’s eyes went wide.

“Oh,” she said. “This is a very fancy hotel.”

“I know,” he smiled, and to her surprise he looked a little nervous, as if he wasn’t sure she’d like it. “I thought we could spend the night here.”

She gave him a warm look and leaned in to kiss him.

“That sounds like an excellent plan.”

They got out of the car and went into the lobby to check in. They didn’t have any bags, but a bellboy still accompanied them in the elevator, taking them all the way to the top floor by using a special badge.

“The presidential suite,” he said, as the doors opened directly into the room.

Raquel looked at Sergio in wonder.

“You really went all out.”

He gave her a shy smile.

“Well,” he murmured, “it’s our one-year anniversary in a few days, so I thought we could celebrate that and the movie in one go.”

They stepped out of the elevator, which closed behind them, and looked around. It wasn’t just one room, but an entire suite of rooms: a sitting room, a big, marble bathroom, and a palatial bedroom with a king-sized bed that looked very comfortable. Raquel drew Sergio’s head down for a kiss, and he pulled her closer with a soft rumble.

“You know,” he murmured, a tender look in his eyes as he lightly ran his hand down her back. “Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am.”

“In what way?” she smiled.

“Well,” he said, shaking his head with a look of slight disbelief. “All those reporters, earlier, wanting your picture… All those fans along the side of the carpet… All those people at the reception wanting to talk to you…” His eyes were soft with wonder. “The whole world loves you, Raquel. I… I can’t believe that I’m the one who gets to take you home. Sometimes I still can’t believe you’re mine.”

There was such a soft feeling in her chest.

“Oh, my love,” she whispered, drawing his head down again. “I’m yours so completely. And really… I’m the lucky one.”

They shared a soft kiss, which gradually turned into something deeper and warmer, and as always, her body reacted to him with breathtaking eagerness, causing a tantalizing tingle in her lower belly and making her hungry for more.

“How about we try out that bed?” she murmured against his lips.

She felt that he was tempted, but then he drew back slightly and smiled at her.

“Later,” he said. “You haven’t seen the best part yet. There’s a particular reason why I chose this hotel.”

He took her by the hand, and pulled her towards a pair of glass doors in the sitting room, which opened to the outside air. As they stepped out, Raquel gasped. They were on the hotel roof, with a stunning view of the city below – but that wasn’t the best part. There was an entire garden on this roof, with small trees and bushes hung with strings of lights, and flowers everywhere. In the middle of the garden, there was a pool, blue and inviting; the water steaming slightly in the cool night air.

“Oh,” Raquel whispered, looking around with wide eyes. “This place is amazing.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Sergio smiled, pleased.

They walked into the garden, hand in hand, marveling at the fact that a perfect little oasis like this could exist in the middle of the city.

They stopped by the side of the pool, and she looked up at him and wrapped her arms around his neck to kiss him.

“This is wonderful,” she smiled. “Thank you.”

“I felt like we should celebrate the release of this movie properly,” he said, wrapping his arms around her waist. “Since it brought us back together.”

“Yes,” she whispered, lifting her face to kiss him again. “I’ll always be grateful for that.”

He pulled her a little closer.

“Me too.”

She smiled up at him.

“You know, seeing the movie… especially some of the better scenes… we really do play off each other very well.”

“I agree,” he nodded. “We just… work together, and it’s nice to see.”

She ran her fingers through his hair.

“Would you like to make another movie together at some point?”

“Yes,” he smiled. “I’d love that. Working with you has always been a dream, and I’m sure it will be even more wonderful now that we’re together.”

She smiled back at him, but then something occurred to her and her smile widened.

“Do you think any sex scenes we would hypothetically shoot from now on would be even better, or do you think that we’d have less chemistry because all of the sexual tension has been resolved?”

He bent his head to nuzzle her neck.

“I feel like we don’t have any problem with chemistry whatsoever.”

She tilted her head and sighed in delight as he kissed the sensitive skin of her throat.

“Hmm,” she hummed happily, her fingers in his hair. “You make an excellent point.”

Then he looked up at her, and his eyes were dancing.

“But if you’re worried about that, I’m sure we could recreate some of that unresolved sexual tension for the shoot,” he teased. “I’m sure a few weeks of abstinence would do the trick.”

She laughed, then looked up at him with shining eyes.

“Do you think you could resist me?” she said.

“Maybe,” he smiled.

She pressed herself closer to him, and he swallowed.

“Maybe not...”

She stroked the back of his neck with light fingers, and he closed his eyes and shivered.

“Probably not…”

She lifted her face and brought her mouth close to his. His eyes turned warm, and he looked down at her lips with a clear look of longing.

“Okay, no,” he whispered. “Not for a second.”

She smiled in delight as he twined his fingers into her hair and pulled her in for a kiss. They sank into it for several long, blissful minutes, entirely wrapped up in each other. When they finally broke apart, she felt his mood shift as he gave her a soft look.

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “Are you happy?”

She looked at him with softly shining eyes.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I couldn’t be happier.”

His eyes were warm and steady.

“It’s you and me, right?” he murmured. “Now and always?”

“Yes,” she whispered, drawing his head down for another kiss. “Now and always.”

They sank into another sweet, lingering kiss. When he drew back, he gave her a smile.

“What would you say if we ordered up a midnight dinner? The food here is supposed to be very good, and they serve it all through the night.”

She liked the idea, but the pool at their feet looked so inviting.

“I’d like that,” she smiled. “But I really want to go swimming first.”

“Alright,” he nodded. “The water does look good… maybe I should have told you to bring a bathing suit.”

“No,” she said, smiling up at him with sparkling eyes as she pressed herself closer to him. “I don’t think we’re going to need bathing suits.”

“Hmm,” he murmured, bending his head to brush his lips against hers. “I like the way you think.”

“Let’s see about that,” she grinned, and then she pushed against him so they both fell into the water together.

They landed with a splash! The water was nice and warm, and Raquel was laughing as she surfaced. Over the nine years that they’d been separated, she’d gathered such a burden of guilt, sadness and regret that had constantly weighed her down – but this past year with him, he’d helped her to lift all of that, and she’d gradually recovered a lightness of spirit that she’d thought she’d lost forever. For the first time in years, she could laugh again, be playful, enjoy herself – and oh, how she enjoyed every minute she could spend with him.

He was spluttering in surprise as he surfaced, so she wrapped an arm around his shoulders and wiped the streaming hair out of his eyes. Then, she took his face between her hands and kissed him.

Hey,” he spluttered indignantly. “Now our clothes are all wet!”

“So?” she smiled, kissing him again. “Nothing I have planned for us for the rest of the evening requires any clothes whatsoever.”

He gave her a look that was half amusement, half exasperation.

“Well, maybe you didn’t have anything planned, but maybe I did.”

She gave him a curious look.

“Like what?”

“Well,” he said, “maybe a little dinner, a little champagne... And…”

He considered her for a moment, and the look in his eyes made her heart skip a beat. God help her, she was so in love with him. Then, he smiled and slightly shook his head.

“Alright,” he said, “I wanted to do it properly, but… I don’t think I can wait anymore.”

He gently disengaged from her, and she floated in the water, watching him curiously as he reached into the inside pocket of his suit. When he drew out a small square box, her eyes went wide.

“Oh,” she whispered. “Oh.

“My love,” he murmured. “This last year with you has been… I never thought that I could be this happy. You make me so happy.” He laughed softly as he glanced at the water around them. “Even when you ruin my plans.”

His eyes were warm and soft as he opened the box and held it out to her. There was a ring inside.

“Raquel,” he said quietly. “Will you marry me?”

She lifted a hand to her mouth. Oh. There was such a rush of feelings inside of her at his words, and suddenly, she was back there, ten years ago, sitting on a hotel bed with him.

Then marry me, Raquel. I want to show you that I’m serious, that I’m… that I’m committed. I’m all in. Marry me. Please.

She would never forget the look in his eyes – so painfully hopeful – or the searing pain she’d felt when she’d realized what her answer would be. It had been a mad offer, made out of desperation, and she knew saying no had been the rational thing to do… but that still hadn’t stopped her from regretting her answer every day for nine years. She’d made such a terrible mistake back then – such a fundamental error of judgement – and it had ruined her life for so long. In fact, she’d thought that this particular mistake would have been permanent. She’d never dreamed that he would one day ask her again – not even after this past year – because she’d hurt him so much when she’d said no.

And yet… now, in the blue water of a warm pool in the middle of Madrid, he was asking her again. He was giving her the opportunity to finally correct her mistake – to change her answer, and set things right once and for all. She knew what this meant… he was asking her because he knew what her answer would be – because he finally trusted her again, completely. They’d finally been able to erase the damage she’d once done, and it meant the world to her.

She realized suddenly that she was crying – that she was sobbing; tears streaming down her cheeks as she tried to stay afloat. In an instant, he was close to her, pulling her into his arms, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and held him so tight.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, Sergio, yes, I’ll marry you. I’ve never wanted anything more.”

He held her even tighter and pressed his face against her hair, and she thought her heart would burst. Oh, how could any one person contain so much happiness?

She drew back slightly to look at him, and she saw her own emotions reflected in his eyes: joy – and endless tenderness – and so much wonder that they’d found each other again. But above all…

“I love you, Raquel,” he whispered. “More than I thought possible. More than I can say.”

“I love you too,” she whispered back. “I love you so much, Sergio, and I want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with you.”

He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek, and then softly brushed his lips against hers. As they sank into the kiss, Raquel couldn’t quite believe that this was real – that after all the pain and heartbreak, they’d ended up here. She was so grateful for second chances – so grateful that life had brought them back to Galicia – back together. For nine long years, she’d thought that he was lost to her forever, and that there was nothing she could do about that. She’d had to say goodbye to him, and she’d thought that it had broken them both beyond repair – and yet now, as they were floating together under a midnight sky full of stars, kissing deeply as the steam of the water rose around them… they were beautifully, glowingly whole again.