Something Better

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Chapter 2

Before my arrival, I had expected the first few days of my life in Edinburgh to be filled with sightseeing and new adventures. Instead, I found myself friendless and slightly lost in a foreign land. It didn't help that I had to spend most of my time unpacking and visiting banks, telecom companies and grocery stores.

The problem wasn't with Edinburgh. It was a perfectly lovely place – quaint and almost town-like, after you're used to a city like Hamburg. The problem, as always, was purely me.

I didn't make friends easily. My constant self-conscious sense of disbelonging, added to my personal reticence, didn't mix well in a society that privileged those who could speak well. People laughed at the adage 'still waters run deep'. It was, an old classmate of mine had said, an excuse for people who were too stupid to think of something – anything – to say.

But it wasn't that simple, I thought. Just because someone was quiet didn't mean they didn't have a thought in their brain. Still, not being on one end of the extreme didn't automatically mean they belonged on the other. More often than not, people were just average. Being quiet didn't mean one was an airhead, but neither did it mean they had to be pondering philosophy.

At this particular moment, for example, I definitely wasn't thinking about anything sophisticated. I was wondering how much beer I would need to imbibe before I became comfortable enough to start mingling.

When I had seen the crude, handwritten flyer for a party shoved under my door one night, I had leapt at the chance. The party would be held in the pantry of the third-floor, which meant most of those going would be likely be living in the same block. It was the perfect way to get to know some people. All I had to do was walk in, introduce myself to some friendly-looking strangers, and I would be in.

Except, standing alone against the wall, feeling invisible to the rest of the crowd, I was starting to think that my plan had been a little too optimistic.

All around me, I saw people busy chatting, drinking, laughing. Everyone seemed to already know everyone else. There looked to be people of all nationalities here, but, amongst all of them, I still felt like the odd one out.

After this beer, I promised myself. Then I scowled, because I knew I was just putting it off.

I took another sip from my bottle and had to cough when a voice startled me out of my reverie.

"Hi. Do you speak English?"

"Yeah," I said, looking up at the two tall boys towering over me. I hadn't even seen them approach – so absorbed I was in my own thoughts. There was something about their features that struck me as particularly Scandinavian. One had blond hair; the other had brown. But both had baby blue eyes that made them look like brothers.

"You look bored," the one standing closer to me – the blond one – commented without preamble. I found my gaze drifting to his long fingers, where he was twisting the beer bottle in his hand absent-mindedly.

"Um," I said, a little caught off guard, "not really. I just... don't know anyone here yet."

"Ah," he nodded like he knew what I was talking about. "It's hard to walk up to someone and start a conversation, huh?"

I couldn't stop a chuckle from escaping. "You don't seem to have a problem with it."

He grinned back. "I'm Kjell," he said then, reaching out to shake my hand. He pronounced his name like the English word 'cello', except without the last syllable. "And this," he paused to jerk his thumb at his brown-haired friend, "is my friend David."

"Hi," I said, "I'm Emilie."

"Emilie," Kjell repeated, his blue eyes widening a little. Perhaps he had been expecting a more exotic name. "That's a pretty name."

I laughed. "Where are you guys from?"

"We're from Sweden," David told me, addressing me directly for the first time since Kjell had started speaking to me.

"Which part of Sweden?" I asked, intrigued.

"Uppsala. It's near Stockholm. Heard of it?"

"Sure," I said. Judging from David's double take, I had surprised him. "I have friends who've been there. I've only been to Stockholm, though."

"Really? We go to university in Stockholm," Kjell told me. "How did you find Stockholm?"

"Really cold!" I blurted out, and both he and David laughed. "I really liked it there, though. Didn't get to stay long, but I managed to visit the Vasa Museum, the Royal Palace, the old town... And some of those districts, with lots of cool, quirky shops?" I laughed. "I forget what it was called."

Kjell and David looked at each other. "Quirky shops?" Kjell asked.

"Maybe Södermalm," David suggested.

"Ah," Kjell said, dragging the word out as he mulled that over.

"You're both from Uppsala?" I asked now.

"Yeah, we've known each other since we were kids," Kjell said. "I left Uppsala go to Stockholm for university, but unfortunately this guy ended up there too."

David snorted rudely.

I watched their easy interaction with some amusement and more than a dose of envy. "And you're both on exchange together? Must be nice to have a friend here." I tipped my beer bottle slightly, letting my lips curl into a wry smile. "I was going to try my hand at meeting some new people after downing enough liquid courage."

Both of them laughed. They probably thought I was joking.

"Well," Kjell said, grinning, "now you know us."

He was about to ask something else when David whirled around in a quick movement, reaching out to clap someone on the shoulder as the latter walked past. "Hey," he greeted, turning away from us briefly, "how're you doing?"

The newcomer – a tall, lean blond who flicked a disinterested glance over me – shrugged. "Fine. What's up?"

Seeing both Kjell and I watching them, David turned to me and introduced his friend, "This is my next-door neighbour, Aksel."

"He's from Finland," Kjell said, then added jokingly, "he hates us, but as long as he doesn't steal our beer, we let him tag along sometimes."

The Finn cracked a smile, rolling his eyes at the good-natured ribbing. They had obviously gotten close enough to make little jokes like these without anyone getting offended. He turned to me after a while, his smile fading. Cold, ice-blue eyes stared at me piercingly for a long while before he said, "Hi." It was just one word, but I felt a sudden shaft of awareness tingle down my spine.

I swallowed.

"Um, hi. I'm Emilie." I held out my hand and he took it after a pause. I almost snatched my hand away in the next moment. His touch on mine felt like that one time when, as a child, I had pressed an electric doorbell with my bare finger on a rainy day. He dropped my hand after a quick shake, like he had felt the same static charge and wanted to avoid prolonged exposure to me.

I discreetly wiped my hand on my jeans to try to get rid of that tingle.

The Finn had stepped away from me in the same moment he let go of my hand, and was now leaning against the wall behind Kjell, positioning himself outside the little triangle we were standing in. He made no effort to join in on the conversation. I wondered why he'd decided to stay, if he was so uninterested in our conversation.

I saw Kjell exchange a quick look with David, who shrugged in response.

"Where are you guys staying?" I asked, directing my question to no one in particular.

"On the third floor of this block," David said. "I'm in thirty-eight, Kjell's in thirty-five..." He glanced at the Finn, who didn't even seem to be listening to us, "and well, Aksel's in thirty-nine."

"Cool," I said, "I'm on the second floor, in twenty-four."

"Ah," said David, "no wonder we haven't seen you around."

I smiled. "I've only been here less than a week."

"We came over early," Kjell divulged, "right after Christmas."

"Wow. So you guys have already seen all the sights around here?"

"Well, not all," Kjell said. "But yeah, we've been to Edinburgh Castle, Arthur's Seat, the war museum... Places like that. We're going to Camera Obscura soon. You should come too, if you want."

"Oh, that'd be great," I said. "I've been wanting to do some sight-seeing, but you know," I grimaced, "I've been busy moving in, settling down and all that."

David laughed. "I know exactly what you mean."

The conversation wound down and we stood in a moment's silence before Kjell piped up again. "So, where are you from?" For a moment I thought he wasn't going to tack on the dreaded afterthought, but then he did, "China?"

"I'm from Germany," I said, "Hamburg, actually," and steeled myself for the reaction I always got.

True to form, they looked me over with a mild degree of shock. The only one who retained his original expression was the Finn – what was his name again, Axel? He wasn't even looking at me, but staring out at the rest of the crowd milling around the room.

"Oh," David said finally. "But you look Asian." He tilted his head and studied my features again, clarifying, "Sort of." I knew what he was seeing. Other than the brownish colour of my hair and my deep-set brown eyes, I had wholly Asian features.

"I'm half," I said, not wanting to get into the details. But people, when meeting me for the first time, always wanted details.

"You're half German, half Asian?" Kjell asked, looking intrigued. "Which part of Asia?"

"Singapore," I said, inwardly preparing myself to explain further if I had to. It was a sentiment I'm sure most people from small countries have had to face abroad.

"Ah," Kjell let out a satisfied sigh that he had placed it. "I've been there."

That got my interest. "Really?"

David was staring at him too. "You have?"

"Very hot and humid," Kjell elaborated, grinning. "But it's a nice place. It's so modern, and there are so many skyscrapers!"

I smiled at his description. Almost every European who had been there had said virtually the same thing. Personally, I had practically no memories of my life in Singapore. I had been too young, and it had been too long ago. Plus, I hadn't been back to Singapore in the past twelve years.

"And what was that called? The mascot? That half fish, half lion?"

"The Merlion?" I asked.

"Yeah," Kjell said. "Strange, mythical creature..." He trailed off, probably recalling his travelling experiences. "Very interesting."

I smiled again, not knowing what to say.

"So, did you grow up in Hamburg?" David wanted to know. "Or Singapore?"

I shrugged. "I was born in Hamburg, but I spent part of my childhood in Singapore before we moved back to Germany when I was, what, eight?"

"Where's home for you, then?"

I thought about that for a while. "Hamburg, probably?"

"Cool. I've been to Hamburg," he offered. "I had to wake up at 5 to make it to the Fish Market."

"Oh, the Hamburg Fish Market," Kjell jumped in with this rejoinder. "I've been there too! I've always wanted to ask one thing."

"What's that?" I asked obligingly.

"Why do you sell sausages at a place called the Fish Market?"

I laughed at that. Then I shrugged, jokingly falling back on an old stereotype, "It's Germany, what do you expect?"

"What's it like, being biracial?" David wanted to know.

I pursed my lips. How did one answer a question like this? "I can't speak for all Eurasians, but for me it's kind of a pain."

David let out a surprised laugh. "But you get the best of both worlds!"

Or I belonged in neither. I just smiled wryly in return.

"Do you feel more European or more Asian, or is it a combination of both?" Kjell pressed.

I shrugged, looking down in a moment of self-consciousness. I wished they would get off this topic. How did being of any heritage feel? I just was. "I don't know..."

"Well," David answered for me, jolting me back to attention. "She did grow up mostly in Europe..."

I laughed, more than a little uncomfortable. "Yeah," I joked, "I grew up on beer like the rest of Germany."

I accidentally glanced to my right and saw that Axel – or whatever his name was – was now looking at me. His face was still as expressionless as before, but his light blue eyes were fixed on me.

It didn't seem like a friendly gaze.

"Germans," Kjell rolled his eyes, and even though his tone was light, there was a hidden barb in his words. "You think you own the beer industry. We Swedes can hold our liquor too, you know."

"Oh, no," I heard David mutter from the side. "Here we go again."

I raised an eyebrow at Kjell. "So what you're saying is... you think you can out-drink me?"

"Oh yeah," he drawled. "Definitely."

I raised my beer bottle, "Why don't we have a nice, friendly competition, right here? Germany versus Sweden." My tone was challenging, but I was grinning at him.

Kjell laughed, reaching out to clink the neck of his beer bottle against mine. "Challenge accepted."

"Excuse me," the Finn muttered, pushing away from us.

"Not joining us?" David asked. "This is going to be interesting."

"Nah," Axel said, "you guys have fun." He threw his friends a brief nod but didn't acknowledge me before he turned and pushed through the crowd.

I felt my lips purse up of their own volition. "Your friend Axel... He doesn't seem to like me."

Kjell looked surprised. "What, Aksel? Nah. In fact, I think–" He cut himself off abruptly and exchanged a glance with David. The other Swede muttered something in a language I didn't understand – presumably Swedish – and Kjell smirked. Then he turned back to me and slung an arm around my shoulders. "Don't worry about that grouchy Finn," he said. "Let's go drink ourselves silly!"

"I'll help you judge the competition," David sighed, sounding resigned. I got the feeling that, out of the two of them, David was usually the one who had to keep an eye out for Kjell.

"How do I know you won't help Kjell cheat?" I challenged, even as I let them steer me towards the large table in the middle of the room, where all the alcohol was.

"I don't need to cheat to win!" Kjell declared before David could defend his integrity.

"Promises, promises," I mocked.

Kjell clambered onto the table, narrowly missing kicking over some bottles. Then he raised his hands up high and shouted, "Hey, everybody! Sweden and Germany are having a drinking contest right now, come watch if you want!"

"Oh, my God," I laughed, embarrassed. I had never been any good with crowds, and it looked like the entire room was starting to turn towards us.

David slammed down a couple more unopened beer bottles on the table. "Okay," he said, "we need some rules."

"Screw rules!" Kjell exclaimed. Some others who had gathered around echoed his sentiment.

David let out an exasperated sigh. "We need some rules," he repeated. "No mixing, just beer. The first person to throw up, or give up, loses."

I shrugged. "Fine by me."

Kjell grinned, holding his hand out, palm up, towards me in a 'ladies first' gesture. "Ready whenever you are."

"Still sure you wanna go against me?" I joked, even though all the attention was starting to make me a little queasy. "We don't have the highest beer consumption in Europe for nothing, you know."

"That's not right!" A guy stepped out from the crowd that had formed around us, raising his own beer bottle. "We have the highest beer consumption in Europe."

"Yeah?" I laughed. This was becoming a bigger to-do than I had expected. "Where are you from?"

"Czech Republic," he announced, coming around to stand at the head of the table. "Bet I can drink the both of you under."

"Oh, yeah?" This new threat to his male ego made Kjell sit up and take notice. He swept a hand the encompass the both of us, "Take a seat and prepare to get thrashed."

The Czech sat down at the table and smirked at us cockily. "Bring it on."

As I reached for the first bottle and bit off the cap to the crowd's cheer of approval, a flash of blond a short distance away caught my eye.

David's neighbour, the Finnish guy Aksel, was standing less than two metres away, watching me with disapproving eyes.

I looked away. Then I put the rim of the bottle to my lips and chugged.

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