Something Better

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Chapter 9

Before I left for class at 9 A.M. the next morning, I took a detour up to the third storey and rapped on Aksel's door.

"What's your surname?" I demanded without preamble, when the door swung open and he stood in its frame, squinting blearily at me.

"Hä?" he asked, looking in all the world like a grouchy bear roused from his winter hibernation. It was obvious I had woken him before he'd needed to be awake. His hair was standing up all over the place and he didn't even have a shirt on.

"Aren't you cold?" I asked, distracted for a moment. It was freezing in the hallway. Then again, it wasn't like his room was any warmer.

He said something, something that sounded to my unpractised ear like 'mitah sanoit'.

"I don't speak Finnish," I said drily, then rolled my eyes. "Oh, never mind. Just tell me your surname and I'll let you go back to sleep."

It had occurred to me the night before that I had already slept with him twice, but didn't even know his family name. So much for Finnish stereotypes, I'd scoffed at myself. I wasn't Finnish and I was conforming to the damned stereotype.

He said something else, in what still sounded to be Finnish. Something long. The only thing I caught was that it seemed to have started with a T.

"Do you only speak Finnish in the mornings, or what?" I asked.

He snorted, and a corner of his mouth cranked upward. "It's my surname," he said in English. "Aksel Toivonen."

"Oh." I cleared my throat, embarrassed. "Okay. Mine is–"

"Hoffmann," he finished. "I know."

"Oh." The wind thoroughly taken out of my sails, I pursed my lips at him.


"No reason," I hedged, turning away. "Go back to sleep. Bye."

He came out to the hallway after me. "Is this about your stupid stereotypes again?"

"Rude," I said, turning around to glare at him. Then I realised he was wearing neither a shirt nor socks. I was wearing my winter coat. "What the hell? Do you prance about naked in the ice or something back in Finland?"

He shrugged. "Pretty much."

I shot him an aghast look, before seeing the twitch of his lips. "Very funny," I muttered. He seemed to be in a mischievous mood this morning – as mischievous as he could get, I supposed. That expression on another person would've probably equated hysteria.

"So?" he asked, looking like he was waiting for an answer.


"Is this about your stupid stereotypes?"

"It was just a thought," I mumbled.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a lock turning and a door swung open before I could duck down the stairs. A girl walked out of her room, stopping in surprise when she saw us in the hallway.

"Hey," she said to Aksel, including me in her smile.

"Hey," he replied, smiling back at her. It was a faint quirk of the lips, but it was more than anything I had ever gotten out of him.

Her eyes swept over him and her smile grew bigger. "What are you doing out here dressed like that?"

He shrugged. "It's an old Finnish tradition. Keeps away the evil spirits." He glanced sideways at me, "Seems it didn't work today, though."

I stared at him in disbelief. He was making a joke. At my expense. He was joking with her! Who was she?

She laughed and reached out to slap him lightly on the arm. "Manners," she reminded him, rolling her eyes. "Look, I've got to run, but catch up with you soon?"

"Yeah," he said. "See you."

"Morning," she greeted me as she passed in her way down the stairs.

I started. "Morning," I mumbled, but she was already gone.

Aksel eyed me for a moment, then shook his head and headed for his room. Effectively dismissing me.

"Who is she?" I asked, striving for a casual tone. I'd almost succeeded, too, until my mouth disconnected with my brain and added, "Have you slept with her, too?"

He turned around and shot me a withering glare. Without answering, he stepped into his room and slammed the door behind him.

I bit my lip. Well – hell. That hadn't been the best thing to ask. But how was I to know? He was nicer to every other girl than he was to me.

"That's what makes you special," Tatiana told me, later in the day. She had come over to hang out in my room, and we were both seated on my bed. She had discovered some glittery nail polish I'd packed and was busy at work on her nails. I, on the other hand, was leaning against the wall with my laptop perched on my thighs.

I snorted at her analysis of Aksel's actions towards me. "Nonsense."

"Trust me," Tatiana advised, "it makes perfect sense." She sat back, examining her newly-coated fingernails with a satisfied air. "Besides, I was right, wasn't I? About him liking you."

I rolled my eyes. "He doesn't like me. It's just sex. Sex is a natural human need." That was what he'd said, that first night we'd slept together.

Tatiana paused. "Well – yeah. But it's not just sex with you two. There's... something else."

"Whatever," I muttered, not believing her for a moment. I wasn't as cavalier about sex as Aksel apparently was, but even I knew that 'something else' had no place in a one-night stand.

Well, two one-night stands.

He was angry with me.

I didn't know how I could tell, but it was somehow obvious. If I had thought he had been almost-hostile in those days before we'd slept together, he was positively glacial now.

Tatiana and I spent the whole of Sunday night hanging out in the kitchen of our block with Kjell, David, and some other exchange students – including Aksel. He didn't even glance in my direction, however. The closest he got was when he came over briefly to talk to Kjell and David, but even then he kept his full attention on them and left as soon as Kjell tried to draw me into the conversation. I hadn't realised how much Aksel had gone out of his way to hang around me until he no longer did.

And that realisation made me angry.

What was his problem? The guy was moody as hell. I'd put up with all his hostile glares and rude comments; he could cut me some slack over a thoughtless, throwaway question.

Tatiana was eyeing me knowingly. "Something happen between you two?"

I made a moue but said nothing.

"You two have been dancing around each other like two bad-tempered reindeer all day."

I held back a grin. Bad-tempered reindeer? This was so... Finnish.

"I think even Kjell has noticed," she continued.

I snorted. Kjell was so wrapped up in Tatiana, I doubted he would notice if the sky fell down on him.

Tatiana laughed, correctly interpreting my snort. "Okay, maybe not Kjell," she relented. "David, though."

"Yeah, well," I said, "There's nothing going on. Nothing that I'm going to do anything about, anyway."

Tatiana raised an eyebrow, but let it be. "I'm getting us more beer," she announced instead. "You want another?"

"Um..." It was on the tip of my tongue to reject her offer when I saw Aksel turn from two feet away and glower at me. He was part of a conversation with a few other people that I didn't recognise, but he had apparently been eavesdropping on us. Raising my head defiantly, I declared, in a voice that probably carried right down all the way to England, "In fact, yeah. I feel in the mood for another bottle or four." Several people turned around to stare at me, and I reached up to rub at the back of my neck uncomfortably.

Tatiana looked at me like I'd grown two heads. "Okay," she said slowly, "I'll get you another." She slipped out of her seat to head for the fridge.

Her seat didn't remain empty for long. A shadow fell over me and there was the light screech of chair legs against the floor, and then I looked up to see Aksel sitting down beside me. He saw me looking and held my gaze, his expression curiously blank.

"I thought you were ignoring me?" I asked snarkily.

Kjell laughed before Aksel could reply. He was leaning against the wall beside the table, since the rest of the seats were being occupied by another group deeply immersed in their own conversation. He shrugged unapologetically when we both turned to glare at him. "It's funny," he said, still grinning. "Emi is usually so easygoing and even a little bit shy, but when it comes to Aksel, the claws come out."

David muttered something in Swedish that made Kjell chortle and Aksel turn an icy glare on him.

"Wait, you understand what he said?" I asked Aksel, momentarily forgetting that I was angry with him too. "You know Swedish?"

Aksel shrugged. "Had to learn it in school."

"How many languages do you know, then?"

"Four?" He shrugged again. "And a bit of French." I counted them off in my head – Finnish, English, German, and now Swedish. Plus 'a bit of' French. If he was as good at the other languages as he was at English, he would practically be a walking translator.

"I've heard that Finns are very good at foreign languages, way above the European average," I mused.

"More stereotypes?" he asked.

"This is a good one, isn't it?"

I happened to glance over at Kjell at that point and saw that David had joined him in watching us with rapt attention. Kjell spoke up now, "The two of you..."

Tatiana returned at right this moment, cutting off Kjell's statement when she slid a glass bottle towards me. She eyed Aksel briefly, as if internally debating if she wanted to force him out of her seat, then shrugged and went over to Kjell. He turned to her, sliding an arm over her waist. I frowned at her, and she gave me a sunny smile.

"Thanks," I told her, half-sarcastically, before reaching for the beer – only to encounter air as it was swiped from right under my nose. My head snapped to the side. Not looking at me, Aksel popped off the cap using the edge of the table as a lever, before calmly taking a long swig.

"That was mine!" I was aghast.

Aksel paid me no mind, lowering the bottle back onto the table. But he left his fingers curled protectively over around it. He levelled a challenging look at me, as if to say, what are you going to do now?

Tightening my lips, I made to get out of my seat so I could get myself a new bottle, but Aksel's hand closed over my wrist. "Don't," he said in my ear.

"I've been drinking way before you ever came along," I snapped. "I don't need you hovering, trying to protect me or something."

He sat, looking at me with glittering ice-blue eyes, and I took the chance to try to steal my beer back. Distracted, he had loosened his grip on the bottle. I raised it triumphantly when it was in my hand. "Don't try to come between a German and their beer," I joked.

"So you're a 'real German' now?" was his reply.

I rolled my eyes. Hadn't he been the one who'd berated me when I'd repeated that quote? Now he was the one doing it when it suited him. When I lifted the bottle to my lips regardless, he added, "I just drank from that."

I raised my eyebrows. We'd already done far more than swap saliva. What did he think I was – a five-year-old scared of cooties? Defiantly, I put the rim to my lips and drank.

His lips curled upward, just the slightest bit. Mesmerised by that barely-there smile, I found myself absently lowering the bottle in my hand.

We stared at each other, frozen in the moment.

"Whoa," Kjell's voice broke through my reverie. "Okay. What's going on between you two?"

His innocuous question snapped Aksel into action. "It's late," he said, not looking at any of us, least of all me, "I'm going." Without another word, he pushed his chair back and rose.

We all watched him shoulder his way through the other groups of people clustered around the kitchen. I turned back to Kjell and saw that he and David were exchanging a look – something they had always done with regard to Aksel and me. I now understood why. "Sorry," I said. "Seems like he hates it when people link me to him in any way."

"Why are you apologising for him?" David asked slyly. "Are you two together?"

I coughed, pulling the beer bottle away from my lips. Tears came into my eyes as I tried to expel the liquid that had gone down the wrong pipe. "No!"

Tatiana was smirking at me, the fiend.

I shot them a dirty look. "Since all of you have nothing better to do than gang up on me," I announced, pushing to my feet, "I'm off to bed." I eyed the still-full bottle of beer sitting atop the table, then decided to leave it. I hadn't really wanted it, anyway.

Kjell raised an eyebrow. "Aksel's bed?"

I exhaled loudly and rolled my eyes. Then I turned my back on them.

"She's even starting to act like him," I heard Tatiana say, from behind. Traitor.

Shaking my head at their laughter, I made for the kitchen door. I was about to slip out when Tatiana appeared beside me.

"Aw, don't go," she said, eyes sparkling mischievously. "We were just having some fun."

I laughed. "I know. But it really is kinda late, and I have an early class tomorrow. I'll see you guys soon, okay?"

She looked me over, her gaze turning serious. "I know we were joking about it, but... are you? Going to him?"

I hit her lightly on the shoulder. "Don't be silly! I'm going back to my own room. I mean it."

Barely a minute later, I was standing in front of Aksel's door, knocking.

When there was no reply from within, I impulsively tried the door knob. It turned easily, swinging open. I hesitated, aware that I was invading his privacy, then brazened it out and stepped in.

Aksel looked up from where he was sitting, propped up against the wall, on his bed. His feet, still covered in his Converses, hung over the edge of the bed. "What are you doing here?" But he didn't look surprised. Neither did he make any move to chase me out.

"I don't know," I said honestly, looking around his room. It hadn't changed much since the last time I'd been in here, which admittedly hadn't been too long ago. "Your room is on the way from the kitchen to the stairs. I passed by, and…" I exhaled, deciding to cut to the chase, "Why did you run off like that?"

He pushed himself off the bed and stood. "I didn't run off."

"Are you still angry with me?"

He paused, but didn't pretend to evade the question. "No."

"What were you angry about?" I asked then, even though I had the feeling I knew.

He shrugged.

I eyed him. "I don't understand you at all," I muttered. "You blow hot one minute, cold the next… You give me a headache."

"So do you," he replied, in that mild, indifferent way that drove me crazy.

So I said the one thing guaranteed to press his buttons. "Yeah? Why are you always so rude? Are you trying to drive me away? Maybe you expecting someone else... Some other girl?"

As expected, he turned to face me, glaring. "I told you," he grated out, "I don't do this with just anyone."

He really had a thing about being accused of sleeping with other girls, I mused. The Finnish promiscuity stereotype had really bothered him.

"Forget your damned stereotypes for a minute."

"I wasn't thinking about anything like that," I lied.

He just stared disbelievingly at me.

"Oh, come on!" I burst out. "You're nice to everyone but me. You can't blame me for being unsure..."

He only blinked, but I could tell he was taken aback. "I'm not nice to you?"

"You're not," I confirmed, even though, seeing his surprise at my statement, I was beginning to secondguess my previous interpretations of his actions.

He had taken care of me when I'd been drunk out of my mind, tried to counsel me when I'd sat brooding into a bottle of vodka after the intercultural class, saved me from an oncoming car, tried to protect my virtue – and miserably failed – and had in general attempted to look out for me, albeit in the most incomprehensible manner.

Maybe in his own way, he had been nice. That didn't offset the rudeness of the way he spoke to me, however. Maybe that was why I found him so confusing. His actions and words didn't match.

"I don't understand you," I muttered again, less heatedly this time. I frowned at him. "Is this the cultural gap they're always talking about?"

"Not everything boils down to a difference in culture."

"It usually plays a big part," I countered.

He shook his head. "You're never going to let this culture thing go, are you?" And I knew he wasn't talking about cultural differences anymore.

"Unless I become a whole instead of two halves... Probably never," I admitted.

"That made no sense," he said. "Two halves make a whole."

I wrapped my arms around myself and scowled at the floor. "You know what I mean."

There was silence, before he took a deep breath and said, somewhat gruffly, "Come here."

My head snapped up. He stood unmoving, waiting, ice-blue eyes focused on me. Drawn by his gaze, I walked, as if in a trance, over to him and straight into his arms.

As his arms slowly closed around me, for a brief moment, I understood him. Physical touch was universal, at least. No mistranslations or misunderstandings – just plain, straightforward human touch.

It felt good to be held by him. But since when did Aksel hand out comfort like this?

Just as that thought crossed my mind, he abruptly let go of me and turned his back. "You should go," he said brusquely, repeating his words from before.

I cocked my head, observing him – trying now to see beneath the cover of unfriendliness. He didn't turn around – probably wasn't going to until I left. Shaking my head with a sigh, I walked towards the door.

"You're the most confusing guy I've ever met," I said in parting, as I let myself out.

It would take some time to understand his brand of nice.

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