Something Better

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Chapter 3

I woke up with a pounding headache. Then I remembered that my last memory from the previous night was of vomiting into a toilet bowl and sat up in a panic.

I was in a stranger's bed.

But I was still dressed in my own clothes. That had to count for something, at least.

At this point, I had to put a hand to my head to stop the spinning. I had been too reckless last night. What had made me think it was a good idea to challenge two grown men to a drinking contest – and without a safety net in place?

Stupid, stupid, stupid. If anything had happened last night, I only had myself to blame.

Out of the blue, I felt a glass being pressed into my hand. I looked at the clear liquid in the glass, then twisted my neck sideways to look into the light blue eyes staring back at me. I shrank back against the walk instinctively, sloshing the water around in the glass and spilling some onto the coverlet draped over my lower body.

"It's water," the Finn from last night – David and Kjell's friend; Aksel, was it? – said drily, then handed me a white box. "For your headache," he added, when I continued to sit, making no effort to take his advice.

I stared at the box for a long moment. There were more vowels with umlauts among the printed words than I was used to. I blinked a couple of times to clear my sluggish mind, before croaking out, "It's in Finnish."

He leaned over me to point at the word 'Paracetemol' emblazoned on the front of the box. "This one is universal," he said.

"Is this..." I squinted a little to read the brand name, then gave up and skipped over it, "like Thomapyrin?"

His expression was blank. "What is Thomapyrin?"

"Ah, what the hell," I muttered. Still holding the glass of water in one hand, I tried to open the box with my other. After a futile moment, Aksel took the box from me and shook out two tablets, which he placed on my palm.

I swallowed them with the help of a gulp of water. Then I sagged against the wall, all my energy gone from the simple action. The cool surface felt soothing. I felt Aksel tugging on the glass in my hand and let go. I listened to the clatter of him placing the glass atop his desk before I asked baldly, "Did we sleep together last night?"

"No," he replied immediately, almost as if he had been expecting the question.

"I wouldn't blame you if we had," I said, even though a little part of me would have. But it had been my own decision to get so drunk out of my head, without thinking of the consequences. That made it partly my fault. "I just want to know the truth."

"No," he clipped out, his voice turning as cold as the climate his country was known for. "What kind of guy do you think I am?"

"How did I end up here?" I asked, instead of answering his question. It had probably rhetorical. I barely knew him – how was I to know what kind of person he was?

"You were drunk."

When he didn't elaborate, I prompted, "And...?"

He shrugged. He was back-facing me, probably still annoyed by my indirect accusation. "David asked for my help. He couldn't take care of both you and Kjell."

"Why would you help?" I asked, the drumming pain in my temples making me blunt. "You hated me on sight."

He didn't bother giving me an answer. Then again, I hadn't really been expecting one.

I scratched at my neck absently in the silence that followed. "Uh... Where did you sleep last night?"

"At my desk," he said, like it was no big deal.

"Sorry about that," I mumbled, but my attention had already moved elsewhere. I ran my hand over my neck, feeling the all-too-familiar bumps on my skin. Lowering my hand, I flipped it over to examine the underside of my forearm.

The small red bumps had already formed there, too.

I was so busy looking myself over that I didn't realise Aksel had come back to stand by the bed. Before I knew it, he was leaning over me.

I pushed him away. "Get out of my face," I mumbled, trying to hide my arms from his gaze. He moved back, but continued staring at me.

"You're allergic to alcohol," he said suddenly. He was looking at my neck.

"It's just a rash," I muttered, my hands coming up to cover my neck. Then I remembered the rashes were on my hands, too, and pulled the duvet up to cover more of myself.

Then I remembered, too late, that it was his duvet. I had practically ensconced myself in his bed.

He muttered a vulgar-sounding word in what I assumed was Finnish and stalked away from me. I heard him rummaging in his wardrobe for something. He returned with a tube in his hand, which he threw at me with no courtesy.

It fell onto the bedspread. I reached for it, noticing that the words on it were all as undecipherable as the previous box of medication he had given me. "What's this?"

"Cream for the rash," he responded shortly. He was standing about an arm's length away now, hands shoved into his pockets.

I held up the tube and stared at it. "What the hell are you running in here, a First-Aid camp?"

Ignoring my sarcasm, he questioned levelly, "Why did you drink so much, if you're allergic to alcohol?"

I felt my mouth twist. Not wanting to answer him, I leaned against the cool wall and let my eyes fall shut.

"You–" Aksel began to say, a tinge of exasperation finally leaking through his usual reserve, when the door slammed open.

I opened my eyes to see David standing in the doorway. "Good," he said, when he saw me, "you're alive."

"Quiet, please," I muttered, rubbing at my temples.

"Hangover?" David was grinning widely.

"Shut up."

"As long as you're awake... You passed out cold in the toilet last night. Aksel had to drag you out. We thought you were dead."

I squinted at him. "Don't be crazy. I wouldn't have died from that measly beer."

David shook his head in mock-disapproval. "Still acting tough, are you?" Then he laughed. "But I'm glad you're fine. I was worried, leaving you with Aksel."

Aksel rolled his eyes in exasperation. "As if I would do anything."

David just gave him a pointed look.

Aksel glared back, as if something about David's unspoken insinuation had personally offended him.

"Don't worry," I murmured, closing my eyes again to cool, comforting darkness. "He hates me too much to do anything."

There was a pause, before I heard someone snort.

This time, when my eyelids fluttered open, it was to the sight of Aksel turning his back on David's smirk.

"How's Kjell?" I asked David.

He chuckled. "Sleeping like a baby now, after he spent half the night throwing up." He crinkled his nose, "Let me tell you, taking care of him last night was not fun."

I let out a strangled laugh, amused but too exhausted to really express it. "I guess Czech won, then."

"I don't know about that," David said, an amused lilt creeping into his voice. "He looked to be in pretty bad shape himself."

I flopped back onto the pillow, uncaring that I was for all purposes lying in Aksel's bed. I would wash the sheets for him later, no matter how big a pain that might be. For now, I just needed a little more shut-eye.

"Let's go," I heard Aksel say to David whilst I was in that fuzzy place between wakefulness and sleep.

"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" David asked in a strange tone my mind couldn't place, before there was the sound of a slight scuffle and the click of the door closing quietly.

And then blessed, blessed silence.

When I next opened my eyes, the room was dark and empty. A quick glance out the window told me the sun had already set. Considering it was winter, though, that little fact didn't mean much. It could've been any time ranging from four in the afternoon to the middle of the night.

I fumbled for my phone. The screen, when it lit up, temporarily blinded me. After a moment's squinting, I made out the numbers seventeen and thirty-eight.

Five-thirty-eight in the afternoon. I had slept the entire day away.

I sat up, groaning a little when my bones resisted. I pushed back the unfamiliar duvet, shivering as the air hit my skin. It was colder than I was used to. I swung my legs off the warm bed, cursing under my breath at the iciness of the floor against my feet, and raced across the room to turn up the heat. It was off – typical Finn, my brain groused. So it hadn't been a dream after all. I was in Aksel's room. Speaking of whom – where was he?

I stood shivering beside the heater, casting my eyes around the room. While the lack of decorations in his room seemed to reflect his reserved nature, he was still messier than I'd expected him to be. There were books and papers strewn across his desk, and his suitcase was still propped up half-opened in the corner of the room. Then my gaze fell on his unmade bed.

I had taken over his bed for the entire day; the least I could do was to help him make the bed before leaving.

When that was done and he still hadn't returned, I turned the heater back off and tiptoed out the room. Since he'd taken his keys with him, I simply closed the door behind me and hoped no one would go barging in and rob him blind before he returned. He would have a real reason to dislike me then.

I was halfway down the hall when a shout made me turn.

"Hey! It's my drinking buddy!"

Kjell was standing two rooms down. From the keys in his hand, it looked like he had just been about to lock up. Instead of doing that, he left his door slightly ajar and came towards me.

"Hey," I greeted, unable to suppress a smile at how rumpled he looked. He looked like hell.

He stopped more than an arm's length away from me, smiling back sheepishly. "I know, I stink," he said. "I just woke up. Last night was crazy, huh?"

"Yeah," I agreed, adding, "I don't remember a thing. So who won?"

He blinked in surprise. It appeared that the question hadn't occurred to him until right then. "Shit," he said finally, "I have no idea."

I grinned. "I guess we're going to have to try that competition again, then."

He let out a loud laugh. "My God, you are crazy."

I laughed too, even as I brushed my hair forward so that it would cover the redness on my neck.

"Hey," he said, like it had just occurred to him, "do you have any dinner plans? David and I are going out to grab a bite later, wanna come with?"

"Oh," I was a little startled by the invitation. "Sure, I'll come."

"Room twenty-four, right?"

Surprised that he had remembered my room number, I nodded.

"We'll come get you," he promised.

"Okay," I said. "See you then."

"Yeah, later." With a short wave, he turned to head in the direction of the bathrooms, probably to wash last night's stink away in the shower.

As I watched him lumber off, I couldn't stop a grin from spreading across my face. It had taken some beer and some rashes, but I had just made my first friends in Edinburgh.

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