Something Better

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Chapter 11

After the third time we found ourselves in bed together, we stopped kidding ourselves. This was no longer a one-night stand.

Even so, our fling had its own sell-by date. Neither of us talked about it, but we both knew it would be over once the six months in Edinburgh were up.

Not that it mattered – it was just sex, wasn't it?

But the damnedest thing was – we were also starting to become friends. Real friends, not the type that reluctantly admitted to being friends just because we were sleeping together.

Over time, our little clique had solidified. Even though I had made other new friends, and also gotten closer to Louisa and her other friends, I now spent most of my time with Tatiana, Kjell, David... and of course Aksel. We hung out, went for parties, went sight-seeing together... We were approaching the stage where we were practically inseparable as a group.

When spring came and the weather started getting warmer – warm according to Edinburgh's standards – Tatiana decided she wanted to climb Arthur's Seat. What she hadn't specified was what she had meant by 'climbing'.

"No, no, no, no," I said, looking up at the steep cliff and taking a couple steps back. "No way."

"Oh, come on," Tatiana urged. "All we need to do is climb up from the side, and we'll be at the top in no time."

Kjell was eyeing the side of the cliff with a glint in his eye. "Oh, yeah. This will be fun."

"I'm not doing it." The mere idea of it scared me spitless. I was still backing away, so much as that I was almost out of earshot. Besides, the more logical part of me thought, my accident insurance didn't cover this type of thing. "I'll just go up the trail and meet you guys up there."

"But the trail will take hours!" Tatiana protested.

"I'll walk fast," I promised.

David was frowning. "Are you sure? Or maybe we could all take the trail."

"No, it's fine," I interjected. "I don't want to spoil your fun. I just want to see the view on the way up. Seriously, I'll meet you guys at the top." And before anyone could say anything else, I turned and headed for the start of the dirt trail that wound around the circumference of the volcano to slowly approach its peak.

Looking up from the bottom, I gulped. Even the trail looked awfully steep and narrow at some parts. If I lost my footing... Taking a deep breath, I put one foot in front of the other and started uphill. On the way up, I stuck close to the inside, running my hand over the jutting surface of rocks as I walked, as if it would help me find purchase should I fall.

That worked to calm my nerves for a little while. At least, until I saw an elderly couple coming down the trail from the opposite direction. They were chatting gaily, seeming to be in no fear whatsoever of the fact that they were just a few inches away from the edge of a cliff.

They separated as they neared, walking one behind the other so that we would all be able to pass each other on the narrow road. Since they were heading straight towards me, I took my hand off the rocky facade to let them pass. They smiled at me as they moved past me, but I was too jittery to respond. Without the safety crutch of my hand against the rocky surface, I found my lungs turning to stone. I struggled to breathe, even as I involuntarily looked down.

Even though I couldn't have been more than two or three metres up, it still looked like a long way down... I stood near the edge, frozen with fear, unable to move, yet equally unable to look away.

Then I felt a large, rough hand close over my wrist. Almost jumping out of my skin, I looked down at the long fingers curled around my wrist, and up again at the face of its owner. Familiar ice-blue eyes looked back down at me. Aksel tugged me towards him, manoeuvring the both of us so that I was back on the inside and he was standing between me and the drop.

"Okay?" he asked.

"You... Why aren't you with the others?" I blurted, when I found my tongue. But I couldn't deny that his appearance had made my heart still in relief.

He shrugged. "The trail seemed more interesting."

"Okay," I said. I didn't care about his reasoning; I was just glad he was here. His solid presence beside me gave me the courage to start moving again.

He didn't try to engage me in conversation, just walked on silently next to me. We went up, up, up this way. I focused on putting one foot before the other, telling myself that the first checkpoint – a plateau of sorts – was just in sight.

I was in so much of a hurry to get to it that I forgot to watch my footing for a moment. My foot slipped on some loose gravel and my heart popped into my mouth. I didn't lose my balance, but my hands were turning cold at the thought of what could have happened if I had. I stood still on the narrow path, my heart pounding in my ears, my breaths coming in short pants. I no longer wanted to move. I didn't even want to go back down the hill, because even the way back down looked absolutely terrifying.

I felt warm hands cup my shoulders from behind. Without looking, I knew it was Aksel. "Breathe," he said in a hushed voice.

I tried to level my breathing, aware that it was coming in short pants. He was stroking my back, and I found the repetitive motion soothing. When I was no longer in danger of hyperventilating, I felt Aksel let go of me and move slightly ahead. Thinking he was going to head on and leave me to follow, my heart spasmed. But he stopped a few steps ahead and turned back.

Wordlessly, he held out his hand to me.

I slipped my hand into his.

His grip was firm and warm on mine, and after a while, my hand stopped trembling. Taking a deep breath, I tightened my clutch around his fingers and started moving again.

He spoke, after we had taken a couple steps together. "Why didn't you tell anyone you were afraid of heights?"

I didn't bother denying it. It had to be obvious. "What good would that have done?" I was focusing on the ground, watching my every step.

"They would've come up with you."

"Tatiana and Kjell wanted to climb up the side," I said. "I didn't want to spoil it for them."

"Then you shouldn't have come up."

"Everyone's coming up."

"And you don't want to be left behind?"

I bit my lip.

"You try too hard to fit in," he said, but he sounded resigned, like he knew nothing he said was going to change my mind.

"Doesn't everyone want to fit in?" I asked shortly. Except for him, maybe. But he fit in even without trying.

Aksel didn't respond to my rhetorical question. "Don't focus so much on your feet," he said instead.

I didn't look up. "What if I fall?"

"You won't."

"You don't know that for sure."

His hand tightened around mine. "I won't let you."

That was complete hot air – like he was going to be able to stop me if I rolled down the slope – but his words did make me feel a little safer.

"Look," he said, pulling at my hand so that I looked up at him. His own gaze was fixed on the scenery over the side of the cliff. "There's no point in coming up if you don't look at the view."

Swallowing hard, I looked. The buildings down below looked like miniature models; the people mere specks of dust. There was a bell tower in the distance, sunlight glinting off the bell. He was right – it was beautiful.

When the familiar tightness in my chest that came with being too high above the ground spread out to seize my lungs, I looked away. I felt Aksel squeeze my hand, as if to give me strength. Then we continued walking.

I had no idea how long it took for us to get to the top. It might've been an hour – maybe more, maybe less. I was starting to get used to the ascent. If I used Aksel's hand as an anchor and tried not to look over the edge, the usual crippling fear was manageable. But when we came to the last stretch of the trail, I felt my mouth go dry. The trail was too narrow, too steep. And it petered off halfway. To get to the peak, we would have to climb the rest of the way.

I backed away, but only succeeded in backing right into Aksel. I jerked around to face him. "I can't," I said. "I'll go back down... tell the others I got lost–"

He leaned down and grasped me by the shoulders. "You've gotten so far. Just a bit more."

"I–" I looked back at the tiny strip of a trail that led almost vertically upwards.

"Use your hands if you have to. You won't fall. I'll be behind you." His hands settled around my waist briefly. Then he gave me a shove. "Go."

"Why does it matter to you if I do this?" I whispered. But I took a few hesitant steps towards the trail.

"If you give up here," he said, "all that effort you put in just now would've been for nothing."

Biting my lip, I considered my options. He was right. If I gave up now, I would've walked up that damned trail for nothing. Stepping into the thin strip of dirt path, I started upwards.

Halfway to the top, I found that I could no longer remain upright. My knees were shaking so badly, it would take a miracle for them to hold me up. Besides, all that lay before me were rocks. I hesitated, then reached up and closed my hand over a piece jutting out from the uneven surface.

Then I started climbing.

I got tired soon enough. I wasn't used to climbing up vertical surfaces – it was something I actively avoided, in fact – and the fact that I was about two hundred and fifty-one metres above ground-level was constantly pressing against the back of my mind. Not to mention, it didn't seem like I would ever reach the top.

After scrambling for yet another foothold, I stopped to catch my breath. But once I'd stopped, I found, I didn't want to go on again. I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling my hands tremble.

"I'm right behind you," I heard Aksel murmur.

Drawing strength from his presence, I pulled myself up and found myself on the peak of the volcano. My heart was thudding sickeningly, and my legs, when I straightened slowly up to my full height, were shaking. But the adrenaline pumping through my veins felt like nothing I had ever experienced. I had made it!

I turned around to smirk triumphantly at Aksel, who had come up behind me – and promptly forgot all about doing so when I saw the sparkle in his eyes. He was grinning right back at me.

My heart stuttered, and self-preservation made me jerk my eyes away. I took a few deep breaths before glancing back at him. By then, he had schooled his features back into his usual inscrutable mask.

"Finally!" I heard Tatiana's voice a second before she flew towards me. "You two took forever. We've been waiting for ages!" Then she frowned at me. "Are you all right? You look really pale."

I laughed nervously. "I'm fine. The trail was just longer than I thought."

"You should have climbed up with us," Tatiana said. She grabbed hold of my hand and pulled me along, towards the edge. My heart leapt into my mouth. "Look!" she exclaimed, gesturing outwards, "isn't the view from here amazing?"

The trees down below were the size of my fingernail. My head swam. My heart was hammering so hard in my ribcage, I was almost certain all of them could hear it. Acting on instinct, I tore my hand out of Tatiana's and took a few steps back.

And Aksel was suddenly there, standing behind me. I felt a warm pressure exert itself at the small of my back.

The light touch of his hand calmed me a little. "Yeah," I said, when I had managed to find my tongue. "It's beautiful up here."

Tatiana gave me an odd look.

"Come on, sit down," David said, patting the uneven surface next to him. "I'm sure you two need a break before we go back down."

"Are we climbing back down later?" Kjell asked.

I felt my throat freeze up. Of course. What went up had to come down. I had been so caught up in the triumph of getting to the peak, I had forgotten to worry about the journey back down.

"No." Aksel spoke up. He wasn't looking at me. "We should take the trail."

Kjell frowned at him. "Why? It's so much of a detour."

"I'm afraid of heights," Aksel said, without any change of expression.

Kjell let out a burst of laughter. "What? You?"

But Tatiana was suddenly looking at me, a new light dawning in her eyes. And I knew that she knew.

She spoke now. "Yeah, let's take the trail. I want to look at the scenery on the way down."

Kjell grumbled, but relented.

We stayed on the peak for a while, long enough to see the sky turn orange to signal impending sunset. Then we had all scrambled to head down before it turned too dark.

The way down the hill took a shorter time than it had, coming up. For the entirety of the descent, Tatiana had taken it upon herself to anchor herself to my side. She had her arm looped loosely through mine as we walked over the rocky path. Kjell, always impatient, was far in front. He turned back occasionally to check that we were still in sight, but seemed mostly content to forge on ahead alone. David was somewhere in between the gap separating Kjell from Tatiana and me. He was strolling casually along, hands in pockets, whistling short snatches of tunes every so often. Aksel was at the very rear, behind me and Tatiana, so I couldn't see him. I did, however, hear the crunch of his footsteps, a sound that inexplicably soothed me.

"He knows, doesn't he?" Tatiana whispered to me.


"Aksel." Tatiana leaned in to peer at me. I tried to ignore her, concentrating instead on my steps. "When he said he's afraid of heights… He was covering for you, wasn't he?"

I didn't answer, but she hadn't needed an answer. She had already figured it out for herself.

I waited, with bated breath, for her to comment on what she'd seen back at the peak – how Aksel had stepped up to subtly calm me after I had torn away from her. But other than throwing another quick glance at me, she didn't say anything. I relaxed, sure that she wasn't going to bring it up.

But she was only biding her time.

That night, sitting in my room, she commented, out of the blue, "You've gotten really close to Aksel."

I had been lying on my stomach on my bed, tapping away at my laptop. At her words, I jerked and accidentally hit the return key, sending out an unfinished message. Muttering a curse under my breath, I set to work composing the second part of the message.

"Are you ignoring me?" Tatiana asked. I looked up and saw that she was smirking at me.

"No," I scowled. "I just thought that statement was so ridiculous it didn't warrant a response."

She made a tutting noise with her tongue. "Oh, please. You're getting closer to Aksel, and it scares the crap out of you."

"We're sort of friends," I said. I was having trouble concentrating on the message I was supposed to be typing to Tessa, one of my best friends back home. "You can be friends with your fling."

Tatiana shook her head. "I have never seen two people more reluctant to admit they're falling in love," she said. It sounded like a throwaway remark, but she was watching me with hawk eyes.

"You can't fall in love in just six months," I denied. "Besides, we're just..." I bit my lip. The term 'friends with benefits' was suddenly leaving a rotten taste in my mouth – sort of like how the carton of milk had tasted back when I had left it out for three days during the hottest days of summer.

"I think you have to figure out what you want before the end of the term," Tatiana said softly. "Finland's not that far from Germany–"

I cut her off. "We don't have that kind of relationship. This is a fling... It ends when we go home."

Tatiana sat staring at me for a long moment. Then she sighed. "If that's what you want."

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