The next interview was easier than expected, which was a relief. When Lia arrived, Teo seemed a little on the grumpy side, but once they started talking, he relaxed and spoke without slipping into any lies. Maybe it was because she went easy on him and talked about his mother and brother. It was like he could talk about the two of them for hours without feeling too bad, and even when his nerves reared their ugly head, it was easy to steer him back. At points during the interview, he was positively upbeat. He chopped firewood while they spoke and when he took short breaks to wipe the sweat from his brow, he had a charming grin on his face.
Lia was unusually interested in the activity. That was what she told herself, at least. She watched his movements with interest because she had no idea how one went about such a thing. Sure, this study of the technique involved her looking at Teo’s body, at the way the muscles moved under the skin as he swung the axe. But it was because the activity interested her, nothing more.
Which he must understand, because once they finished the interview and she stopped the recorder, he looked at her.
“Ever try it?” he asked, motioning towards the axe.
“Me? Goodness no.”
“Come on then,” he said. He picked it up again and held it out to her. “Give it a go.”
“Oh no, I’m sure I don’t have the strength.”
“Eh, it doesn’t require that much. Let me show you.”
Lia shook her head but found herself walking over to him anyway. He put the axe in her hand and the weight of it was different; it looked completely awkward in her clean, soft grip.
“You want to grab it with both hands, firmly. A little further apart, like this.”
His big, calloused hand wrapped around hers and adjusted her grip. It meant he was closer than he had been before and let her feel the hard planes of his chest press against her back. He was a little close for what he had to show her, she thought, but it didn’t occur to her even once to ask him to step back. She instead inhaled his scent of pine, earth, and firewood. And, under that, there was a scent of something very human. Very him. It made it hard to focus on the implement in her hand.
“Oh, is this… right?” she asked. Her voice was a little low.
“You got it,” he said.
Lia had to concentrate hard when he told her how to actually swing it, because his breath hit the exposed skin of her neck as he leaned in to show her the correct movements. The sensation sent chills down her spine.
Finally, he let go of her hands and stepped away. Cool autumn air rushed in and replaced his heat, which was a little too disappointing. He grabbed a log which he set down in front of her.
“Okay, give it a go,” he said.
She looked at him, hoping that he didn’t hear the panic in her voice. “I’ll end up chopping off my foot.”
“Nah, you’re good. Give it a swing.”
“O-okay. Here I…”
“No, no, no,” he rushed over and stopped her with a laugh. “Lia, don’t close your eyes.”
“Oh heavens, I did that, didn’t I?”
He still laughed. “If you want to chop off a foot, that’s how you do it. Keep your eyes on the log, give it a swing. You’ve got this.”
“I’m so glad I have accident insurance.”
“That’s the spirit! And I can stitch you up, so if it goes completely awry, we’ll sow your foot back on.”
“Lovely.” She took a deep breath. “But I’ll… try.”
She looked at him and he bumped her shoulder with a fist. It was a supremely awkward gesture, but it made her cheeks flash hot, nonetheless. It was starting to get annoying how much of an effect he had on her. At an encouraging nod, she turned towards the log in front of her and swung the axe like he had shown her. To her amazement, the tool sailed through the air and lodged itself in the log, like it had done for him before.
“See?” Teo asked with a grin. “We’ll make a weird hermit of you yet. Now just leave the axe there and go again.”
Lia lifted the axe as well as she could, and the log fell down again with a clunk, splitting further. She couldn’t help a stupid smile as she realised why he would do this kind of work— something about it was satisfying. It was a very different kind of satisfying from completing an article for her work but still satisfying. Teo returned her smile.
“You’re already halfway to lumberjack. Go again? Or do you want me to finish it up?”
She handed over the axe with shaky hands. “As thrilling as that was, I think that was enough excitement for one day.”
Teo nodded and finished up the rest, giving her another chance to foolishly stare. Because she wanted to see his technique, of course. When the log was split, he let the axe sit in the stump he’d used as a base and put the firewood away under the half-roof.
“I think it’s about time I cook,” he said.
“I can work until you’re ready, then.”
He snorted. “Or you could relax with a cup of tea.”
“I much prefer working.”
With an eyeroll, he waved her inside. “It’s up to you. Just saying that relaxing isn’t a crime and it’s a good idea to do sometimes.”
“Says the man who can only do interviews while working.”
Teo held the door open for her. “Yes, I’m a hypocrite, but that’s why I know what I’m talking about and that’s why I worry. The first few weeks out here I barely slept, and it beat the crap out of me—you shouldn’t pull all-nighters just to interview my sorry ass.”
“I didn’t pull an all-nighter.” She hadn’t last night, anyway.
He turned to her, hands on his hips. “Okay, compromise: you go work in the sofa and I’ll get you a cup of tea. It’ll be almost like you’re relaxing, but with work.”
“Fine, I suppose I’ll compromise.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said and bumped her shoulder again. “Take a seat and I’ll be there with the tea.”
Lia took her purse with her into the living room of the cabin. She hadn’t actually been in the room before now. She had glanced through the doorway a few times, but now she got the chance to really see it—and it was quite the room. Far from the marbled halls of her childhood home, it still had its own kind of elegance to it. The last light of day spilled in through the tall windows, onto the wooden floors and furniture.
Everything about the décor was so very Teo, it radiated personality in a way her father’s house definitely did not. The furniture here was made of heavy, dark wood and leather, the colours kept in reds and forest green, as though he wanted the forest to have a place inside the house as well. It was almost hard to find a spot to sit in the sofa because of the many, many cushions and blankets stacked there, but Lia found a spot where she could squeeze into a corner. Across from the sofa was a fireplace where embers still glowed among powdery ashes.
She sat down with her laptop but hadn’t even booted it up when Teo entered with a mug in each hand. He had her hold them both while he went to the fireplace to add more wood and prod the embers until they took hold of the new fuel and set it ablaze. He then took a seat next to her and took his own mug.
“Just need five minutes before I cook,” he said.
“Of course. You really don’t have to do this.”
“I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s the least I can do for what I’m putting you through.”
She shook her head. “When you say it like that, it sounds like quite the ordeal.”
“Don’t tell me managing my moods isn’t an ordeal.”
Lia leaned back in the cushions. “I’m not managing your moods,” she protested. “I’m trying to make you feel at ease so we can complete this biography and it’s in my best interest to do so. You must realise that this is a beneficial arrangement for me as well.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“I’ve worked as a journalist for just under a year. The most thrilling story I’ve been entrusted with in the past three months was the anniversary of the city’s oldest bakery. Not many people would want an inexperienced journalist like me writing their biography. If I do this well, it’ll be a boost to my career. I’m not just here out of the kindness of my heart—in fact, I assure you there is very little kindness in it.”
She tried to keep her tone light as she said it, but even to her own ears, the strain was obvious. Teo took a drink of his tea and looked at her.
“You mean… because you’re cold?”
“That’s a load of crap.”
Lia shook her head. “No, I assure you, it’s true. I’ve never been a warm person or a sweet one. You may ask your cousin and she can tell you how I treated her when we first got to know each other.”
“Stanza has only ever said that you’re sweet and a great friend.”
“Yes, I somehow managed to forget that Costanza speaks well of everyone.”
“No, that’s where you’re wrong.” He leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees. “Stanza is sweet and if you make a genuine effort, she’ll forgive you for most things, but she doesn’t put up with just any old shit you throw her way. There’s a line. If you cross it, you’ll have to make a serious effort to get back in her good graces—ask that husband of hers.”
Lia started. “Lorenzo? What could he possibly have done to cross the line?”
“I don’t know the whole of it. She comes out here when she’s a little out of it, but she only told me the broad strokes—apparently, he had a hard time letting go of an ex or something.”
“Oh.” She looked away, her face reddening. “I see.”
There was a long, drawn-out pause and then he, too, said: “Oh.”
“Um, I should… food.”
Teo smiled shortly and left with his tea, while Lia sank back into the many cushions. She wondered if there was any way to be swallowed up by the sofa, but the furniture didn’t seem hungry enough to eat her. Work, she concluded, was the second-best thing. She grabbed her laptop and was about to get to it when Teo’s head popped into view in the doorway. There was an odd look on his face.
“It makes better sense to me now,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
He bit his lip. “I always wondered how he could be so hung-up on an ex when he had Stanza but… well, it makes sense.”
She blushed furiously and found it impossible to say anything. Teo smiled and ducked out of view again, leaving her completely unable to do her work. The sound of her pounding heart wouldn’t let her concentrate.
She still felt tense when they sat down to dinner, but not because of self-consciousness. It was more that she was very aware. Teo’s eyes were on her and now she wasn’t sure if she imagined his look to be intense or if it was just because of what he had said. The words kept spinning in her mind as she looked for possible alternate meanings. She found none.
It resulted in most of their meal being eaten in silence, and she couldn’t say she was too sorry. He had made baked fish so tender it melted in her mouth and it was seasoned with a variety of herbs—from his own garden, he told her. Along with it, he poured her a glass of the local wine from his apology lunch. She ended up groggy once she had eaten.
Their silence had lasted, though by the time her glass was empty, the tension eased and when he offered another glass, she happily accepted. She studied his face while he poured.
“I’ve never asked about your hair,” she said. “Is it your natural colour or…”
He snorted. “Yeah. I started going grey in my twenties.”
“Yup. If it keeps going like it did for dad, I’ll end up with white hair in half a decade or so.”
She nodded. “I have seen a few photos. He had very distinctive hair.”
“Distinctive is a nice way of putting it. I can’t say it bothers me, though—nobody comes out to see me anyway except for Costanza… and you. For a while, at least.”
“A while?” she asked.
“It won’t take forever to research the biography, will it?”
Lia shook her head. “It won’t.”
It hadn’t even occurred to her. Thinking about it, she must be over halfway with her research, at least the part that would involve Teo. The rest would be checking school and public records to fill in the blanks. Potentially a few interviews with acquaintances, a photoshoot or two at the cabin. But… he was right. At the point when she started writing, she wouldn’t need to see him anymore. She tried telling herself that it didn’t bother her.
“I mean, you’re welcome to come back, of course,” he said.
“It would be a pleasure,” Lia replied without thinking.
“Yeah, it would.”
She met his eyes over the table, confusion meeting confusion. In her mind, she could imagine it. Could imagine leaving work in the afternoon to go here, not to do more work, but for the sole purpose of seeing him. The thought was absurd and exhilarating at the same time. Maddening and wonderful. Terrifying.
“I’d be happy to come with Costanza and Lorenzo,” she blurted.
Teo’s shoulders sank, but he put on a smile. “Oh yeah, they’d love that.”
Author’s notes: Hi guys! I’m finally ready with another chapter. It’s been a while, I know, and I’m sorry for how inconsistent posting is lately. If you’ve been reading along, you already know things are nuts. A couple of months ago, my boyfriend broke it off while I was preparing my exam and looking for internships. Well, first of all, I’ve found an internship! It was all sorts of terrifying, having to go to interviews at the company, but they offered me an internship starting this August, and so I’m super relieved.
Another thing is that shortly after, boyfriend got in touch to express regret. He took full responsibility for what happened and we’re back together. I’m not taking it lightly, of course. We’re back together under the condition that we go to therapy together and that he eventually gets help himself. Both of us are willing to fight to make it work, so I’m hopeful that it’ll turn out well. It’s very emotionally taxing, however, so my creativity levels aren’t the highest. That’s also why these photos aren’t exactly the ones that I’ve put most effort into. All the things going on have made me so very tired.
Anyway, that was just a bit of explaining from me. Thanks for reading if you made it this far somehow and thanks for all the love and support I’ve received over the past two months. It feels like things might finally calm down. My summer is still busy what with an exam retake (I had to redo because of stupid technical difficulties… sigh), moving back to my old home, and preparing stuff for the internship and my brother’s upcoming wedding, so I have absolutely no idea when the next chapter’s out. Please bear with me.
Love you all!