Something Better

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Chapter 6

Thanks to Tatiana having pointed it out, I had started to become more conscious of Aksel's persistent gaze whenever we were both in the same place. It was true – he did seem to be in the habit of staring at me. The thing was, I didn't quite buy into Tatiana's take on Aksel's supposed feelings for me. It didn't matter what she had said about knowing how Finnish boys looked when they were interested. Narrowed eyes, a slight frown – dislike was a universal emotion, and I felt it in every glance Aksel threw me.

Unfortunately, being friends with Kjell and David meant running into Aksel quite a bit. Whenever that happened, I strove to ignore his presence as much as possible. It wasn't difficult to do, considering his reserved nature. Even when I had to face him while hanging out with Kjell and David, he would be so silent most of the time that it was easy to pretend he wasn't even there.

Or it would be, if only I didn't keep feeling his eyes fixed on me.

I found myself in yet another of these situations at dinner one night. I had agreed to meet up with Kjell and David for dinner at a bar-and-restaurant in the Grassmarket, and hadn't realised, until I had met up with them after class, that Aksel would also be there. Judging from the flicker of surprise on his face when I'd appeared, the guys probably hadn't notified him about my presence either.

"We're going to Camera Obscura tomorrow," Kjell was saying now. He and David were sitting on the side opposite, forcing Aksel and I to sit together. There was a huge space in between us, as I stuck as close to the wall as possible while Aksel was sitting with half a leg sticking out of the booth. "You wanna come?"

My eyes widened. I had heard only good things about Edinburgh's Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. "I'd love to!" I exclaimed.

"Awesome," Kjell said.

Feeling Aksel's stare boring into me, I turned to look directly at him and said, a little sarcastically, "That is, if you don't mind."

His expression didn't change. "Why would I care?" he deadpanned.

Kjell and David raised their eyebrows at each other like there was an inside joke there.

"Who else is going?" I asked, turning back to Kjell.

"The three of us," Kjell gestured to David, Aksel, and himself. I had thought as much, but I still felt my heart sink at the confirmation that Aksel would be there too. Kjell was still speaking, "And another guy from class, Alex."

In other words, the veritable sausage fest. I pursed my lips. "Is it okay if I bring a friend?" Tatiana and I had exchanged contacts at the end of the party that night, and she had in one of our frequent meet ups expressed interest in visiting Edinburgh's Camera Obscure.

"Of course," Kjell said, brightening at the thought. "Bring some girls!"

David laughed, then said something in quick, staccato Swedish.

Kjell burst out laughing and nudged David with his elbow. "Sorry," he said to me, "what he just said is too rude to translate. He's a rude guy, ignore him."

"I am not," David protested.

I smiled at their horseplay, then turned to the menu. "What are you guys getting?"

"Have you heard of Haggis, Neeps and Tattis?" Kjell asked. "It's a traditional dish in Scotland."

"Yeah, I'm definitely trying it today," David said. "How can you come to Scotland and not try their traditional food, right?"

"Me too," I said. "I've wanted to try it since I got here."

Everyone looked at Aksel.

"Okay," he said, shrugging.

"All right, so four Haggis," Kjell said, raising a hand to wave the waiter over. "We'll have four Haggis."

The waiter nodded, not even bothering to write down a note on his pad. He probably got that order a lot, especially from tourists. "Would you like any drinks with that?"

All three of them ordered various variations of beer. Then it was my turn.

"Um," I looked up from the menu, "could I have a bottle of Apple Cider, please?"

"No, no, no," Kjell interrupted, startling both the waiter and me. "Why are you so polite? You're the customer! You don't ask if you can have something, you say you want it. Be more confident!"

I snuck a glance at the waiter and saw that he was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to stifle his smile.

"Come on," Kjell said, spreading his hands, "try it!"

My neck was growing hot. "Ehm," I coughed and looked apologetically at the waiter still hovering at our table, "A bottle of Apple Cider... please."

The waiter gave mock bow and said, "As you wish, miss." He was grinning at me. I smiled back, weakly.

"You'll have to work on it," Kjell told me after the waiter had departed with our orders. "Don't worry – we'll keep reminding you." He winked at me.

I laughed. "Does it even matter?"

Kjell spread his hands wide, "Of course! When you're paying for something, you're the king. And kings don't ask for permission when they want something."

"It's called 'ordering' for a reason," David chimed in.

I shook my head, chuckling.

"Let her order how she wants," Aksel said.

I feigned shock. "Oh, he speaks."

He frowned at me, like he couldn't understand where this surge of hostility had come from. I wasn't quite sure either. All I knew was: if he hated me, I wanted to hate him back. "I'm helping you out."

"Well, maybe I don't need your help."

"Oh," Kjell commented, smirking at the two of us. "Our Emilie has claws."

I mock-hissed at him.

Aksel had lapsed back into silence, his face turned away from me.

I resolutely pushed away the little prick of guilt. He had been nothing but unfriendly since the day we had met. Why did I have to be nice to someone who only glared and said rude things to me? I didn't owe him anything.

The Haggis turned out to be delicious – an opinion that Kjell supported and David vehemently disagreed with – and the rest of the dinner went by in a flurry. Kjell's antics were entertaining as usual, overshadowing even the dark cloud that seemed to hang over Aksel's head. Still, by the time we were done eating, I was more than ready to call it a night.

Aksel's mere presence exhausted me.

Kjell and David tried to cajole me into joining them at a gathering with some other exchange students, but I was adamant about returning to my room. Maybe next time, I'd assured them. They walked part of the way with me before I took my leave.

"You won't get lost or anything, will you?" David asked.

I chuckled at that. "I'll be fine. You guys have fun."

"Good night!" With a wave of his hand, Kjell turned and lumbered off, with David following shortly after.

I felt a hand on the crook of my arm as I turned to leave as well. I turned around to see Aksel, his face half-hidden in the dim glow of the streetlights.

"Hey," he said, "do you have a problem with me?"

"I don't know," I said, tossing my head. Some loose strands of hair flew into my face, forcing me to tuck them behind my ear irritably before continuing, "Do you?"

"What?"

"What's your problem with me? Why do you keep glaring at me?"

He dropped his arm, lowering his head even further so that I couldn't see his expression at all. "I do?"

"You hate me, don't you? So why do you care if I hate you back?"

He studied my defiant face for a minute. "You hate me because I hate you? Isn't that a bit juvenile?"

"So I'm juvenile," I shrugged. But I noticed he didn't deny his dislike for me. He opened his mouth to say something else, but I'd had enough of this conversation. Not even bothering with an excuse, I turned away and headed down the street.

He let me go without another word.


When I met up with the group the next day, with Tatiana at my side, I noticed two things at once.

First, that Aksel was resolutely looking at anywhere but me.

And second – Kjell was staring at Tatiana as if the sun rose and set with her.

I introduced Tatiana to the others, and in return had the new guy, Alex, introduced to me. He was a tall, dark-haired Greek, and he shook my hand wordlessly when we were introduced.

The minute I was alone, Kjell materialised beside me. "Emi," he whispered, his arm slung around my shoulders, "you never told me you had a goddess for a friend."

I laughed at the love-struck look on his face. "She's single, as far as I know."

"Ah," Kjell breathed. With his piece of information in mind, he straightened and walked away. Not a moment later, I saw him with Tatiana, both deep in conversation.

"Kjell is after your friend," David commented from behind me.

I laughed. "That's obvious. Did you see his face when we got here?"

The journey to Camera Obscura should have been uneventful. Kjell and Tatiana were lagging behind, seemingly caught up in each other. David and Alex, for their part, were engaged in a discussion about the state of the economy. That left Aksel and I walking in front. Aksel was being his usual quiet self. He seemed to have taken my words the previous night to heart, and was walking a slight distance away from me.

Pretty soon, we came to a pedestrian crossing. According to Kjell, who had surfaced from his Tatiana-induced fog long enough to announce this, all we had to do was cross the road and head down the left to reach the attraction.

And that was when I made the mistake.

I looked to the left to check for traffic, saw that there was none, and stepped out into the road. All of a sudden there was a loud blast of honking that almost startled me out of my skin. While I was swinging my head in the other direction, looking for the source of the noise, an arm wrapped itself around my mid-section and hauled me back onto the pavement.

A car shot past, barely missing me by an inch.

I'd instinctively clutched onto the arm that was around me. My back was pressed against someone's chest, and I had to crane my neck to look up at Aksel's tight jaw and narrowed eyes. He didn't look pleased at all.

"Thanks," I whispered, too shaken to say anything else, or even to let go of my grip on his forearm.

He didn't say anything, but he didn't let go either.

We stood there, still locked in an almost-hug, until the others caught up and swarmed around us.

"Are you all right?" Tatiana asked, her eyes wide with concern. Kjell started to smirk when his gaze fell on Aksel's arm around my waist.

"I'm fine," I said, swallowing hard. My heart was still pounding from the adrenaline rush. "It's stupid – I forgot they drive on the left here."

"He was supposed to slow down anyway," Aksel said, sounding disgruntled. "It's a pedestrian crossing."

For the first time since that near brush with death, I wondered if it wasn't me he was angry at, after all. Maybe he didn't hate me as much as I had thought.

Just as that thought flashed through my mind, he realised he was still holding me and all but shoved me away, taking a few steps backwards for a good measure. I stumbled a little from his sudden movement, reaching out to stabilise myself against the railing.

Nope. Still an asshole.

"Good thing Aksel was there, huh?" Kjell said, one corner of his lips curling upwards.

"Uh, yeah." I cleared my throat when everyone continued to stand around me, unmoving. "I'm fine. Let's go."

My little scare had caused a slight rearrangement in the group's walking formation. Tatiana had broken away from Kjell and was now beside me. The others were clustered behind us, and I could hear their voices rising and falling as they discussed what they had heard about Edinburgh's famous Camera Obscura.

I couldn't hear Aksel's voice, nor see him out of the peripheral of my vision, which almost made me turn to see where he was. I stopped myself just in time.

As it turned out, I hadn't needed to worry about it. In the next moment, I felt something brush against me as Aksel appeared to my left. I moved away from him instinctively, pushing Tatiana towards the inner side of the path as I did so. If Aksel noticed, he didn't give any indication of it.

Tatiana hooked an arm around mine as we walked on. When we were a further distance away from the rest, she leaned in towards me and whispered, "Told you, he likes you."

I wasn't following her train of thought. "Who?"

"Aksel," she said, her tone tinged with just a bit of exasperation.

"Do you Finns have your likes and dislikes mixed up?" I asked drily. "Because I don't see it."

"Didn't you see the way he went to walk on your left, so he'd be in between you and the road?"

I blinked. Was that what he had been doing? "It was just coincidence," I said.

She just laughed. "Trust me. He likes you."

"Okay," I said, dragging the word out. "Whatever you say."

She jabbed an elbow into my ribs. "You're both fighting it. That's fine. You'll see that I'm right."

Then the conversation turned to other things as we arrived at our destination. Throughout the tour, Tatiana stuck close to me. For some reason, Aksel was almost always within earshot, so we spoke about everything other than him.

Only at the souvenir shop at the end of the tour did I realise that Tatiana was no longer beside me. In fact, I could see none of the others, bar Aksel, who was hovering nearby, looking at the sticks of rock candy they were selling.

Shrugging, I moved through the shop, glancing around for souvenirs that caught my eye. Soon enough, I came to a stop in front of the keychain rack. I stared at the souvenir keychains for a long moment, trying to convert the price in my mind.

"Six euros," Aksel spoke up suddenly from behind.

I whirled around. "Uh?"

"Six euros," he repeated. "Five pounds is six euros."

"Oh," I said, snagging one of the keychains in the shape of Scotland off the rack. It was really expensive, but I wanted one as a souvenir. "It's stupid to keep converting, I know," I said, a little embarrassed that he'd had to catch me being so calculative. "Maybe it's the Asian in me," I tried to joke.

He shrugged. "I do it too."

"How much is it in... uh, your currency?"

He gave me an odd look. "Six euros."

"Oh," I could feel my face heating up. I felt very, very stupid. "Sorry, I forgot... The other Nordic countries have their own currencies."

"Yeah," he shrugged again, sounding like he could care less about the topic, "Finland is the only one that also uses the euro."

I made a face. "I should have known that. I keep doing these stupid things today." I laughed, a little embarrassed.

He shrugged. A normal person would've rushed in to say, no, you're just having an off-day – but not Aksel.

I gestured to the keychain I had taken, "I'll just... uh, go pay for this."

Disconcertingly, I found that he had followed me to the cashier. After paying for the keychain, I turned to him, albeit a little unwillingly. "Where are the others?"

"No idea." He didn't look too concerned.

"How can four people just vanish like that?"

He shrugged again.

I was quickly getting fed up with his lack of concern. "All right, I'm calling Tatiana." I didn't wait for his response, whipping out my phone to do just that. When the call went to voicemail, I ended the call without leaving a message.

"She didn't pick up," I told Aksel. An ominous feeling was starting to dawn on me. This couldn't be her idea of a childish prank?

"Yeah," Aksel said slowly. He was staring at me in a way that suggested I was missing something.

"Okay," I said, shoving my hands into the pockets of my jeans. "So... What happens now?"

He shrugged again. "I'm hungry. You?"


And that was how I found myself sitting in a cosy little cafe alone with Aksel that afternoon.

We ate in silence, neither of us speaking a word or even acknowledging the presence of the other for a good part of the hour.

I finished my sandwich long after he had, looking up to see his gaze flit away quickly, like he had been watching me while I hadn't been paying attention. I dabbed at my lips with a serviette, suddenly self-conscious.

"You done?" Aksel asked brusquely.

I gestured to my half-full mug of coffee. "Not really... You can leave first if you want to, though."

He remained unmoving in his chair.

"It's kinda strange, isn't it?" I asked, feeling awkward in the silence now that I knew he was waiting for me. "The rest of them vanishing like that."

"More like trying to play matchmaker," he muttered.

My eyes widened. He looked up at me, a grimace crossing his face when he realised I'd heard. He had probably been speaking more to himself than to me.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'm not interested." He was focusing very hard on his empty plate as he said this.

"Okay." I tried to say this breezily, like his casual rejection hadn't bothered me even a little.

There was a bit of a silence before I said, laughing awkwardly, "Bet you wish it was Tatiana here instead of me, huh?"

His gaze shifted to land on my face briefly, before he looked away again. "It would've been better, probably," he muttered.

"So... You're interested in her?" I asked, schooling my voice to sound casual. A little of what I was feeling must have leaked out, because Aksel glanced sharply at me.

He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "She's pretty. For a fling... I wouldn't mind."

I willed the rising sourness in my stomach away. He was little more than a stranger to me. Why should I care whether he found Tatiana attractive, or that he was open to having a fling with her?

But why – why did I feel like crying?

"Okay," I said, forcing my voice into a chipper tone. I tried to laugh, "You should probably know, though, that Kjell is after her too."

Aksel was still speaking. "She's safe."

I was looking down at my plate now. "Huh?"

"She's safe. Being with her would be safe because I know it'd be only a physical thing. There are no emotions involved."

"How do you know for sure? You might fall in love with her after a while."

"No."

"You never know," I said, even though I wanted to bite my tongue afterwards. What was I trying to do – push Aksel to admit that falling for Tatiana was a real possibility?

"It will never happen," the certainty in his voice was slightly reassuring, even if I would never admit it. "Not with her."

"Why not?" I pressed. "She's gorgeous. And she's nice."

His jaw was set. "So?"

I rolled my eyes. Guys. Even perfection was never enough for them.

"You sound like a total jerk," I said.

He didn't say anything back.

"So, a fuck buddy is all you're looking for? None of that romantic, gushy, mushy love stuff?"

"We're only here for half a year," he said. He had turned his face away from me. "It's impractical to fall in love. At the end of six months, I want to leave without a broken heart."

"Love isn't something that can be manipulated to suit your convenience, you know."

From my angle, I could only see his side profile. His gaze was narrowed, trained on a spot that only he could see. "I know." He said this very, very quietly.

There was a story here. "You've been in love?" And I wondered why my heart was clenching at the thought of a faceless, nameless girl – in my mind she was a tall, slender blonde not unlike Tatiana – who had ensnared his heart so tightly, enough to put this expression of pain and longing on his face.

His eyes slid over to meet mine. There was a flat darkness in his gaze. "Could be," he said finally. "But I'll never find out."

Then he stood up, not even bothering to look back to see if I was following, and headed for the exit.

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