Content warning: A mild content warning for this chapter for descriptions of a death. It isn’t a detailed description, but I still ask that you tread with care.
Lia was quiet on the way back to the cabin and Teo couldn’t blame her. She cradled the broken pieces of her voice recorder in her hands while he kept a few paces from her, slumping his shoulders. It was a relief when they entered the clearing and ran the last metres to the door. Not that it made much of a difference—they were already soaked before they made it and the first flash of lightning tore the sky.
Once inside she took off her outerwear and placed her recorder on the dining table. It had broken into too many pieces and only some of them even made it back with her, so even if he had a clue how to fix it, it was impossible. Teo looked at the bits of plastic and metal and felt like there was a symbol for how this whole endeavour would end. Hurt and broken. Lia had barely said a word since he finished his story and nearly crushed her with a tree.
She was still quiet now, her fingers brushing through the debris as though she searched for meaning in the meaningless destruction. He wanted to tell her that there was none—that he was an angry asshole, and this was how it always went when he was around people. The best thing he could do now was try and repair the damage and send her on her way. Everything in him protested and his mind came up with excuses for why it would be okay to see her… and then he remembered her reaction to his suggestion that she could come around once the interviews were done. Lia was too polite to say no way in hell, but he could read between the lines.
Not that his stupid brain got that. He remembered that he had all but cuddled her in the forest, when he was scared that she had been hurt and she stood looking at him in horror. It was hard to say what upset her more—his almost flattening her with a tree, his story, or the physical contact. Probably a bit of everything.
All she did now was stand there, staring at the broken bits in front of her.
Teo pulled off his jacket and hung it before he stepped towards her carefully. “I’m sorry. I’ll replace it.” Somehow.
Lia shook her head with a fragile little smile. “Don’t worry about that.”
“What about all the interviews?”
“I’ve transcribed most of them, but we’ll have to redo a few. Really, it’s fine.”
Her voice was even, but there was an undercurrent of something he couldn’t place. She may say that everything was fine, but something wasn’t right. She had stepped out of the boots and taken off her jacket and jewellery, but her hair was still wet and dripping on the floor and her silence was noticeable.
“Want a towel?” he asked carefully.
Lia turned to him with a smile that was all surface, no feeling. “Oh… yes. Thank you.”
When he had changed out of his own wet clothes and came back with the towel, she had picked all the pins out of her hair and after she had dried it, it hung over one shoulder. It was slightly messy, still damp, and she looked remarkably like a few of his fantasies, which he definitely shouldn’t think about now.
“I have to light a fire,” he said stupidly and left the room.
Lia followed and while he lit the fire, she sat down in the sofa. Once the fire was lit, he went to make tea, another excuse to get away from her and from the feelings that were getting harder and harder to keep in. The pieces of the broken recorder on the kitchen table were a grim reminder why he had to do that.
He finished up making tea and then made excuses to do the dishes. It wasn’t vital to do dishes at that moment, but it kept his hands occupied so he didn’t go in there and beg her to want him as much as he wanted her.
After only a few minutes of working, he was interrupted by her voice from the doorway.
“I don’t think I realised how frustrating this sort of behaviour can be,” she said.
Teo spun, as though he had been caught doing something wrong. His hands dripped soapy water on the floor.
“This sort of behaviour?”
“Working to avoid confrontation.”
“I’m not avoiding anything,” he said.
Lia crossed the floor to where he stood and he watched her every move, every elegant, cat-like step she took. Her hair glowed in the light from the lamps and her eyes looked a darker shade of blue now.
“Did you know,” she said, “that in the past two days I’ve worked for over twenty-four hours?”
“Lia.” He couldn’t help the flurry of concern or the outrage in his voice. “You shouldn’t do that.”
“It helps me relax and for the past few days my emotions have been… I don’t like the way I feel lately. I think you know what I mean. I never thought we’d have anything in common, but I’m starting to realise that we do. We really do.”
Teo shook his head. “Yeah? I don’t see it.”
“Come now,” she said. “You have to see it. We’re both caught up in our work because it distracts us from undesirable feelings and memories of the past. We both do it to an unhealthy degree.”
“But only one of us is a weirdo living alone in the woods.”
“I live alone in the city,” she said. “I see my family every now and again but besides them, I’m alone. You can be alone in a crowd, Teo.”
“I’m out here because I’m dangerous,” he said in a low voice. “I hurt my dad. Really hurt him.”
“At least he survived,” she said and then, without missing a beat she drilled her eyes into his and said the last thing he expected to hear. “The man I hurt wasn’t as lucky.”
Teo heard her perfectly well, but he still asked. “What?”
“Tito Conti, the son of a wealthy banker that our family used to see. I pushed him into a mantle. He died.”
His breath caught. It was because of the words, but also because of the look on her face. She looked destroyed.
She kept talking.
“He was one of my lovers and I say one of, because there were so many, I lost count.” She took a few steps away, sitting down at the table to play with the pieces of her recorder. In the meantime, Teo was rooted to the spot, dripping soap water while he listened.
“I saw him only for a little while, but at the time I had a habit of discarding lovers when I got bored with them and Tito didn’t take it well. He kept hounding me at every party and function we went to and when that didn’t get him anywhere, he started showing up when I went out. He even came to our house when I was home. He called and sent me notes and letters… it got to a point where I couldn’t leave the house for fear of him being there. No matter what I said, he wouldn’t listen, and my brother couldn’t do anything. My father wouldn’t do anything. All he said was that I could marry him and then it would be solved, but I was terrified just thinking of him at that point.
“I barely slept at night and when I did, I had nightmares where he was suddenly in my room, cornering me. I flinched at shadows, I stopped going anywhere in the end and just stayed home, holed up in my room and wondering when he was going to find me there, too…
“And then… Then one night he did corner me. It was at a gathering at my father’s house where he shouldn’t have been. My brother convinced our father not to invite him, but he somehow managed to get in anyway. I had gone to have a moment to myself and he cornered me in one of our drawing rooms. Before Tito even spoke, I knew he was going to hurt me, just from the way he looked at me. There was something wrong about him—I knew he was in love with me, but it wasn’t right. He wanted me, but he wanted to hurt me. I can’t explain it. All I knew was that I was on high alert as soon as I saw him and when he lunged for me… I pushed him.”
She paused, a tense moment of silence stretching in the room.
“I can still hear the sound of his head hitting the mantle, that… dull thud. He was quiet for a moment, eerily so, and all I did was stand there and look at him. I didn’t move until my brother came—he took care of everything, he even made Tito promise he’d leave me alone and he sounded so serious. I… I’ll never know if he was serious, because two days later he fell over, dead.”
The room was quiet, except for the rain that pelted the windows and the howl of the wind. Teo could tell that Lia tried to look unaffected, to draw a veil of calm over her face, but after a few moments of silence, she bent her head and hid her face in her hands. As if in a daze, he dried his hands and went over to crouch next to her. Not for the first time in his life, he wished some of his dad’s eloquence had passed to him.
“That’s… a lot,” he said, like an idiot.
Lia looked at him from between her fingers. “Somebody named Fabrizio found out about it and blackmailed my brother and me. He forced me to get engaged to him and I suppose it was only fair. All I have ever done was cause problems for my brother to solve and while he tried to sort it all out, I just let it happen. I made it worse.”
“So that’s what you meant when you said you’re a troublemaker.” Teo placed his hand over both of hers.
Lia nodded and bent her head again, so her hair fell like a curtain around her face.
“Now you see why I’m not particularly disgusted with you. Rather, I’d say you should be disgusted with me.”
“I’m not.” He put a finger under her chin and lifted her eyes to meet his. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“It was my own fault. If I hadn’t rejected him the way I did, he never would have bothered me.”
“Bullshit. You don’t get to stalk people because they reject you.”
“No,” he said. “There’s no excuse. It’s not great that he died, but you weren’t waiting around a corner to push him into something. Sounds like self-defence to me.”
Lia looked unconvinced, so he did the only thing he could think of and put his arms around her. She was still for a while, but then she returned the embrace and buried her face at his shoulder. After a few moments like that, he felt her shaking and sensed rather than heard her low sobs.
“It’s okay,” he said gently, stroking her hair. “It wasn’t your fault.”
He held her while the sobs raked her body, and he wasn’t ashamed that tears stung his own eyes. It was both from sympathy, but also the relief of having told his own story, of putting it out there and sharing it with someone who didn’t leave in disgust but… somebody who understood. Holding her like that suddenly felt right, not like he was imposing.
They spent long minutes like that until her sobs stopped, and he no longer cried. Lia sat up, looking sheepish and drying her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt.
“I’m so sorry for that,” she said. “I feel ridiculous.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs and adjusted her hair. “Just let it all out.”
“I don’t even know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know why I told you. After you told me what you did, it’s like my brain must have malfunctioned.”
She paused, biting her lip. She looked so vulnerable and all he could think of was a young woman being stalked and harassed, who later had to deal with the guilt of causing someone’s death. He wanted badly to go back in time so he could stop it from happening or at least to be there for her. Instead, he opted to try as much as he could to make it better right now.
“I’m glad you told me,” he said, placing a hand on her cheek.
His other hand took hers and his heart skipped a beat when she wove her fingers into his. Her scent of lilac surrounded him, and she shifted in the chair to be closer. Teo froze where he was on his knees.
“Is it strange,” she asked in a whisper, “that I don’t feel… alone anymore?”
Teo was bad with words already, but now he was nearly mute, so all he managed to say was:
His hand on her cheek shifted to the back of her head, his fingertips tangled in her soft, black hair.
For one wild, confused moment he wondered if he should kiss her. He knew that he shouldn’t. All the reasons he shouldn’t marched at him—he was dangerous, she deserved better, she didn’t even want him… But he still drew her a little nearer and in the next instant he realised she moved forward, too. It was her lips that first touched his.
He had thought she would be measured and controlled and careful as always while kissing, but it just went to show that he never knew what was going to happen with her. The kiss was as far from careful as he could imagine. Her lips, soft and full, moved over his and it was her that eased his lips apart to sneak in a tongue. She was the one who bit his lip sensually and let her hands roam his shoulders and his chest. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons on his shirt and he felt a shiver as her bare hands touched his skin.
Teo pulled back for a moment, looking at her with wide eyes. Desire for her coursed through his body and he had to really hold back to not just have her right there. She smiled, all blue eyes and messy hair, and looked like something out of a dream.
“I’ve wanted to touch you,” she whispered, while her fingers followed the lines and ridges of his chest.
“Uh, why?” he asked.
She laughed, a sound as clear and pure as the clucking of a forest brook, laughed in a way he had never experienced before. Her cheeks were slightly red, and her eyes shone.
“Because I like you, silly man.” She licked her lips and continued to caress him. The chill that ran down his spine made it feel almost other-worldly. “You’re attractive, gifted, interesting…”
Teo couldn’t stop the stupid grunt that came out of his stupider mouth. “Right.”
“Do you think I’m lying?”
Lia placed her fingertips on his naked chest and let them move up until her hand was on his neck, caressing the soft skin there.
“I didn’t think you even wanted to come back here when we’re done. You said…”
She nodded. “I was scared.”
“I hurt people. I take and give nothing in return. I use them.”
There was a vulnerability about her again, a little break in her voice and that, he thought, was the real reason they shouldn’t have kissed. Teo instinctively wrapped his arms around her and she leaned in, resting her forehead against his.
“That doesn’t sound like you,” he said.
“You can ask your cousin’s husband. He—” Her voice cracked.
He stroked her arms. “I don’t need to hear his opinion. I know what I think. All those nice things you said about me, you’re all that and fifty times more. If he doesn’t like you, screw him.”
“He has good reasons to dislike me.”
“And I have good reasons to like you. Who gives a shit?”
Lia shook her head but still smiled. Then she gave him another kiss, a hot, searing, head-melting kiss that left him dizzy when she broke it. Her hands were still on his body and it took all the strength of mind he had to move them from his skin. He held them in his and kissed the back of each one in a very chaste manner that was a sharp contrast to the blood that had rushed to a lower part of his anatomy.
“I should get you a fresh cup of tea. Yours must have gone cold,” he said.
She blinked. “I thought you wanted something else.”
He did. Shit, he really, really did. He had fantasised about a situation that was very close to this, but with one important difference…
“Not when you’ve been crying,” he said. “That’d feel weird.”
When she opened her mouth and frowned, he stopped her.
“It’s not because you look bad. You’ve never not looked good, so don’t start. It just feels, I don’t know, like I’d be taking advantage of you.”
“You’re not,” she said.
“Maybe not, but it’s not like it’d kill us to wait. I need tea, how about you?”
Lia nodded. “All right.”
Teo pressed a quick kiss to her hair and stood to make tea. He was filling the kettle with water when Lia interrupted.
He turned and she smiled up at him, again with tears in her eyes. Teo started, ready to rush over to give comfort, but she held up a hand.
“I’m all right, it’s only that… I really appreciate you.”
The words were the same as he had said to her in the forest and they struck something deep inside his chest, making his eyes water, too. And if he hadn’t already been falling for her hard, that would have done it.
Author’s notes: Hi guys and welcome back to a chapter for once. This is where I admit that I could have posted a few days ago since I had already done the pics for this chapter and edited them. And then I realised that I hated them and felt they were too lazy and low-effort. Hence how I ended up retaking all of them. 🤷♀️ At least I can say I think the result is much better. I’m sure I’ll blab a bunch about those pics later and muse on why I changed them, but I think the biggest issue for me was the lighting. Lazy, low-effort lighting? Not in this story! (Except when it is don’t look at my older chapters because shame was my game).
I won’t make any promises whatsoever about the next chapters. I do want to post some musings before then, because the next one is, ahem ahem ahem – it’s of the spicy variety, at least partially. SO. Expect some words at some point before the next chapter. Not soon, mind you. The state of my private life is basically: I’m single and that hurts. Oh, and also I’m super anxious literally all the time because imposter syndrome is a bitch and coding is hard.
So, um, yeah. I hope everyone’s doing okay and I’ll be seeing you in the next post.
Love you all,