Where I Learn From My Mistakes
©2014 dear-llama. All Rights Reserved.
I saw him long before she did.
He stepped into the tutorial room at approximately 8:09 in the morning, on the day of the very first Business Law class. I had been looking at the door at that exact moment, for some incredible, unknown reason. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have been the first to see him.
I had known, from the very first glance, that he had been someone special. That shock of short blonde hair, that fair, blemish-free skin, those strong, sharp features that could've hinted at blue-blooded lineage in his family tree...
He was very, very good looking. It didn't help that the sunlight streaming in behind him through the open door bathed him in a soft golden glow and made him look like an angel that had somehow gotten lost and walked right into my life by mistake.
It was suddenly becoming a chore to breathe normally.
Lilly was still chattering away beside me, talking about the first day of class or something equally inane, but my whole attention was fixed on this... this angelic boy who had just walked into class.
He was looking around as he passed, possibly looking for a friendly face but found none. In the end, he had to walk past our table to reach the other side of the room, where the bulk of empty seats were.
The messenger bag slung over his shoulder bumped against the edge of our table as he squeezed past.
"Sorry," he said politely, glancing briefly at us.
He had an accent. Well – everyone had an accent. But he had an accent that didn't sound like everyone else's. His words had a certain foreign lilt to them – a melody that flowed through the air danced its way straight into my heart.
By then, Lilly had stopped talking and was also looking at him.
"Oh, my gosh," I whispered when he was out of earshot, burying half of my face into my hands, so that only my eyes were uncovered. Beneath my palm, I could feel the heat radiating off my skin. "He is so cute."
"Eh," Lilly said in an unimpressed tone from beside me, "he's okay."
My heart was beating hard. There was a feeling of euphoria rising in my chest – the kind that you had when you were around someone you really, really liked. There is an English word for it – limerence. But that doesn't sound particularly romantic. The Danish equivalent – forelsket – sounds much better.
Everything usually sounds much better in a foreign language.
"Do you think he's Scandinavian?" I whispered out of the corner of my mouth to Lilly while I snuck another look at him. He had sat down one table away and was now rummaging in his bag. He looked like one – he had the typical fair skin, blond hair, blue eyes...
"Maybe," Lilly said. She was looking out of the corner of her eye at him too.
When class began and attendance was taken for the first time, I learnt that his name was Bernt Eriksson. Eriksson – that was a Swedish name, wasn't it?
I spent the entire class in a daze, straining to catch glimpses of Bernt out of my peripheral vision whenever possible. Unfortunately, since he was seated on the side of the room nearer to Lilly, she was in the way of my direct line of sight most of the time. By the end of the class, I was a little grouchy from straining my eye muscles so much.
"Are we meeting the others for lunch?" Lilly was asking me as we were packing up to leave. I took a moment to reply her, since I was concentrating hard on trying to hear what Bernt was saying as he walked past our table with some other guy he had apparently befriended over the course of the class.
"Yeah, I'm from Sweden," I heard him say.
"Cool," his new friend responded. "How long have you been here?"
Never before had my obsession with other cultures and languages come more in handy. Long ago – another lifetime ago, when I had been more than a little intrigued by the Scandinavian countries – I had dabbled in a few Swedish phrases.
"Ja," I said to Lilly, in a louder voice and stronger accent than necessary. It wasn't an entirely conscious act, but perhaps a part of me wanted to attract his attention.
I felt, more than saw, him turn around and his gaze land on me.
Lilly was regarding me oddly. "Um, okay," she said, choosing not to comment on my sudden change in volume or accent. "Let's go, then."
I felt his gaze remain on me as we left and grinned to myself. With that one word, I had managed to get his attention. And – who knew? Maybe in time, something else, something exciting, could happen...
The semester had just started, but I loved Business Law class already.
"He is so cute!" I gushed, tapping the tines of my fork against my plate for emphasis. I was probably breaking all the rules of dining etiquette, but I didn't care. "His name is Bernt, and he's from Sweden... And he has these amazing eyes..." I trailed off to stare into the distance with what I was sure looked like hearts in my eyes.
All around me, I could see my friends exchanging amused glances.
"What?" I demanded.
"Let me guess," Wendi drawled, "he has blue eyes?"
"And blond hair?" Raine laughed.
"Yeah," Lilly confirmed, with a quick glance at me.
I pouted. "What, am I so predictable?"
Wendi joined Raine in her laughter. "You have a really obvious type."
"Fine," I said sulkily. "He really is very cute, though."
"Is he?" Raine turned to Lilly.
"Hey!" I exclaimed, slightly insulted that she'd felt the need to ask for confirmation. Why was she deemed to be a good judge of cute guys, when I apparently wasn't? She always went for guys that I found incredibly boring – her most recent ex, for one. They'd been broken up for over a year now, and he'd graduated long since, but I could still remember the horror stories Lilly had regaled me with back when they'd still been dating.
"Well, yeah… He is good-looking," Lilly hedged.
"If Lilly says so, it must be true," Wendi said.
"Hey!" I repeated.
"Sorry, Kay," Raine told me, still laughing slightly, "it's just that you find every blond and blue-eyed foreign boy cute."
"That's not true," I muttered.
"Uh, it kinda is," Wendi said.
"I hate you guys," I whined, stabbing my fork into the meat on my plate.
"Okay, okay," said Raine, always the mediator. "What's he like? Tell us."
"I don't know what he's like," I pouted. "I haven't talked to him yet. But he has a really nice accent, it sounds so melodic..."
"There she goes again," Wendi said with a chuckle.
"Well, his accent is kind of nice..." This from Lilly.
I brandished my fork at her mock-threateningly. "I saw him first. Cute Swedish boy is mine!"
She grimaced, holding up her hands in an 'I surrender' gesture, but she didn't say anything.
Fate was on my side, it seemed. Two days after I had first seen – and fallen hard at first sight – for Bernt in that Business Law tutorial, I ran into him again, this time at the library.
I was in the printing area, waiting for the printer to spew out the notes I needed for my next class, when I turned and saw Bernt, of all people, standing at the printer right beside mine. I whipped back head back to stare down at my printer, my head thudding sickly in my chest.
Holy crap. This was my chance, wasn't it? All I needed to do was turn to him, smile nicely, and say hi...
Absently realising that my printer had stopped its groaning and shuddering, I grabbed the papers from the tray and stuffed them into my bag. I was still trying to figure out how to casually introduce myself to Bernt when I turned and saw him watching me.
There was a light in his beautiful blue eyes that told me he had somehow – miraculously – recognised me. I had frozen under his gaze, my eyes wide, my hand still half in my bag. We stared at each other for a long, drawn-out moment.
Then, slowly, his lips tilted upwards into an uncertain smile.
It was at that point in time when I completely lost control of my facial muscles and they shifted themselves to rearrange my face into a scowl.
Bernt stepped back, a startled look spreading across his face.
I swept past him after that, heart pounding, a well of self-hatred pooling within my chest. I scrunched my face up even as my feet led me away.
What the hell was wrong with me?
Why hadn't I just smiled back like a normal person? And why hadn't I said hi?
What use was it that fate was on my side, if I was the one mucking things up for myself?
"I can't believe I overslept!" I groused, slipping into the open seat Lilly had left for me in the Marketing lecture we had together. "I missed the Biz Law tut completely!" And it was the only chance I got to see Bernt too, I lamented internally.
"Don't worry," Lilly said, "she didn't cover anything that important. I'll lend you my notes, if you want."
"Thanks," I said gratefully, pitching my voice lower as the professor started speaking up front.
Fifteen minutes into the lecture, Lilly spoke again in a low voice. "You know," she trailed off, pausing to look closely at me before diving back into her sentence, "I had coffee with Bernt just now."
I stared at her, my mouth falling open. "Bernt?" I hissed, retaining the sense to keep my voice down even in the midst of my astonishment. "As in, cute Swedish guy in our class – that Bernt?"
She rolled her eyes at me, huffing a little at my apparent obtuseness. "How many guys named Bernt do you know?"
I was so shocked, it took me a moment to find a suitable response. "How... Did he come up to introduce himself, or something?" An image flashed in my mind of the day he had tried to smile at me and I had rebuffed him.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I could've been the one to have coffee with him, if only I'd smiled back. Said hi. Anything but frown and walk away.
"Well, no," Lilly said, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. "I offered him a piece of chocolate, and we started talking."
"You..." That casual statement of hers had stunned me. I shook my head in disbelief, "You offered him chocolate?"
"Well, I had lots of it," Lilly said, a little defensively. "Sharing is good, isn't it?"
But Lilly never offered strangers anything. Even when it came to guys – even when a guy she didn't know smiled at her, she would often cast her eyes away disdainfully. So Lilly offering a guy food out of the kindness of her heart? Completely unheard of.
"Oh," I said, because there was nothing else to say if I wanted to avoid outright confrontation. "So... How did it go – having coffee with him, I mean. Was it something like fika?"
"What's fika?" she sent me a sideways glance. "Sounds..." She made a face that suggested she'd just heard an expletive.
"It's... a Swedish tradition... A... coffee break of sorts..." She knew nothing about Sweden, I thought, helplessly resentful. I knew more about his culture than she did.
She didn't seem all that interested in my explanation. "Anyway," she went on, "he was telling me about how he liked green tea more than coffee..."
I didn't want to hear about her 'date' with him – but at the same time I wanted to hear more about my crush.
"What else did you talk about?" I asked.
"About all sorts of stuff," she shrugged. "Like... Just everything and anything."
She wasn't going to tell me? But she'd told me everything about her dates with her ex-boyfriend Alex, back when she had been dating him. My stomach was falling straight to my feet, but I mustered up a smile. "Sounds like you had fun."
"Oh, yeah," Lilly said, smiling now. "He's kinda interesting."
"Are you two friends now?" I asked, at one last attempt to try to figure out her feelings towards Brent. "You could introduce me, right?"
"That's..." She pursed her lips. "That'd be a little weird, out of the blue."
"Why would it be?" I asked, feeling that sour sensation come back into my stomach. "People introduce each other all the time. Besides, we're in the same class – you could just invite him over to sit with us sometime."
She shrugged. "I don't know... He has his own group of friends in class, you know... And it'd be weird... You should just go say hi to him yourself."
The way she had, I read. She wasn't going to help me with him.
"Right," I said, lowering my gaze back to my half-written notes. So much for eh, he's okay.
Beer was my best friend that evening. I'd heard that there was a party at the frat house, so I crashed it. Or, more like: I snuck into the kitchen, grabbed as many cans of beer as I could – oh, come on, they weren't going to notice – and ran out the back. Then I found an isolated gazebo nearby that most students had forgotten existed, parked myself there, and started systematically drowning myself in my sorrows.
I had just popped the tab on my last can of beer and was deep into my wallowing when someone interrupted my pity party. The rustle of footsteps on grass startled me half out of my skin, and what remained of the rational part of me had the foresight to grope around in my pocket for my keys. Just in case it was a drunken guy, you know. A girl can never be too careful.
A tall figure came into view, then stopped a couple feet away. It was a guy, and he had a beer in one hand, but he didn't look drunk. Yet. He was looking at me, crouched on the ground, keys between the fingers of one hand, beer can in the other.
"What are you doing?" he asked mildly.
I frowned as I studied his face. He looked familiar. His voice had sounded familiar too. Really, really familiar... And then my frown turned into a full-fledged scowl when I finally placed him.
It was that asshole, Alex – Lilly's ex-boyfriend.
"You!" I exclaimed, pointing the jagged ends of my keys at him, as if they were tiny daggers. "What are you doing here? I thought you graduated."
He stared at the keys warily. "I stayed on for my Master's," he said.
I raised my eyebrows. "Master's, huh? Then what are – were – you doing at a frat party? Aren't we undergrads beneath you now?"
He rolled his eyes. "Hello to you, too," he said drolly. "I see you haven't changed in the year or so since we last saw each other."
"How would you know if I've changed or not?" I challenged. "We barely spoke three words to each other back then."
He chose to take a long drink of his beer instead of replying.
"Are you going to sit down, or are you going to go away?" I asked, hoping he would choose to do the latter. I couldn't exactly wallow with him right here.
Naturally, being the contrary guy he was, he sat down beside me. He saw me glaring at him and said, "I came out for some peace and quiet. I'm not leaving just because you're here."
Having nothing to say to that, I drank in silence for a while. He treated me as if I weren't there, staring moodily into the darkness as he fiddled with the can more than drank.
He was so caught up in his own thoughts that I saw him visibly jump a little when I spoke. "Aren't you going to ask about Lilly?"
"Why would I?" He shrugged. "I don't care how she's doing."
The irritation rushed back at full force. I had never liked him, even when Lilly had been dating him. He had seemed so... boring. Lilly herself had always complained that he lacked the romantic gestures other guys tended to shower on her. "She's your ex-girlfriend," I said.
"Emphasis on the ex."
"Yeah, but she was once important to you. Doesn't that count for something?"
He shrugged again, even more half-heartedly this time. "What's over is over."
I made a rude noise. "You're so unfeeling."
He didn't respond.
"But," I said, after another short silence, "I guess I can understand. I'm mad at her, too."
He made a noise that sounded like the hybrid child of a grunt and a questioning hum.
"Yeah... She... I think she likes the same guy I do." I put my lips to the can again and realised that it was empty. Huh. Strange. It had been almost full when Alex had first appeared.
He didn't say anything. In the darkness, I could hear the sounds of him swallowing his beer.
I let the empty can roll out of my hand as I went on. "You know her – she's not the type to be particularly forward with guys... She'd rather they chase her, than go after one herself."
I looked over and saw that Alex's jaw was clenched, but he still wasn't saying anything.
"But she went after him. They went on a date... Well, it's probably not a date-date, but..." I frowned down at the ground. "She never instigates anything with guys. Except with you, I mean – but this time, it's even worse. She's been more forward with Brent than she ever was with you." I heaved a sigh and cranked my neck back to look up into the sky. I was drunk. I knew I was drunk, but I couldn't stop myself from spilling my dirty guts out to Lilly's ex-boyfriend.
"Okay," he said drily. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that his face was tilted downward, and he was staring broodingly at the ground.
"I know this is kinda childish," I grumbled. "But I liked him first. I noticed him first… She didn't even think he was cute at first. I was the one who – wait, where are you going?" I broke off from my rant to demand.
He was shifting to get to his feet. "Away," he said, without even trying to mince his words for courtesy's sake.
I closed my eyes and muttered, "Rude." Then I opened them again to look at him, "Does hearing about Lilly bother you so much?" Was he still in love with her? What was it about Lilly that attracted so much attention from the boys?
"No," he said shortly, "I'm not interested in hearing about your romantic drama."
"I think you owe me," I said boldly.
He paused in the act of getting up, one hand pressed against ground to support his body weight. "Why should I owe you anything?" he asked incredulously.
"I had to listen to all the relationship drama between you two when you and Lilly were dating." Night after night, Lilly would come to me, complaining about how Alex hadn't done this, or that. It had been exhausting, to say the least.
He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Then Lilly owes you. None of my business."
"You forget that being Lilly's confidant," I boasted, "means I know everything about you."
He stilled. "Everything?"
Hah. That had gotten his attention, hadn't it? He sure as hell wasn't thinking about leaving now.
"I know you guys didn't have sex, even though she wanted to," I announced.
He didn't say anything, but he buried his face into his hands and didn't move for a while.
"Are you still alive?" I asked. I was almost a little worried for him.
"What else did she tell you?" he asked in a strangled voice.
I frowned, trying to remember. Everything was so fuzzy. "Nothing much... Just that you were still a virgin–"
He sprang at me so quickly that I never saw it coming. I lost my balance and we toppled to the ground, him on top of me. I stared up at him, acutely aware of where certain bits of his body was pressing against, but he seemed to be too busy glaring at me. "Do not," he growled, "talk about that again. Ever."
"Okay," I acquiesced hastily. He was obviously touchy about this. Besides, he was practically sitting on me, and he was heavy.
It wasn't exactly an appropriate position to be in with your good friend's ex, no matter if you were mad at her right then.
"Now get off me," I said, when he continued to glare at me.
The inappropriateness of our position must have finally occurred to him, because, with a grunt, he got off me.
"Being a virgin at twenty-two is kinda strange, but it's nothing to get so worked up over–" I cut myself off when he swung back with a dangerous expression. I made a zipping motion over my lips. "Okay. No more. I'll shut up."
"Go home," he said irritably.
"I will," I mumbled, suddenly feeling the energy seep out of me, at the reminder of who I would have to face when I did go back. "In a bit." I didn't want to have to see Lilly just yet. This was the problem with being angry with your roommate – you couldn't even go back to hide out in your room anymore.
I thought he would leave then, but he stood staring at the beer cans sprawled all around me. "How much did you drink?" he asked. But it was a rhetorical question. There were eight. He was the one in grad school – he had to be able to count, at least. He looked around, like he was hoping someone would appear that he could foist me off onto. But the area was completely empty, save for the two of us. He sighed loudly then. "Come on, I'll walk you back if I have to."
"You don't have to do anything," I muttered.
"Well, I don't really want to, but I'll do it anyway," he said.
"If that's the way you always talk," I said, "it's no wonder Lilly broke up with you."
"Trust me," he said flatly. "What you think you know isn't what really happened."
"How would you know that?" I challenged. "You don't know what I know."
But I didn't know anything. Lilly hadn't told me why they'd broken up; she had just revealed, casually one day, that it was over. For once, she hadn't offered any details, and I hadn't pressed. Now I wished I had – I could shove my knowledge in Alex's face.
"I know that anything you heard from Lilly was probably skewed, to put herself in a good light."
"Just like anything you say would be biased towards yourself, too," I pointed out. "There's no one absolute truth."
He stared at me for a while, then shook his head. "You make for a philosophical drunk."
"I'm not drunk," I denied, then cocked my head as I realised I was seeing two of him. "Eh, not that drunk," I amended.
He sighed. "You're drunk enough," he said. "Come on, you should be getting back."
"Not yet," I said. I didn't want to go back yet.
He sighed again, but sat back down next to me. "Hurry up," he said, none too nicely. "I don't want to sit out here all night."
"Nobody's forcing you to wait," I snapped.
"I ought to leave you to those drunken frat boys," he muttered.
"Nobody comes out here," I said confidently.
Alex shot me a disbelieving look. "You mean you've been out here alone, at night, before? Do you have no sense of danger?"
"What danger?" I asked. "I just told you – nobody comes out here. Especially not at night."
He gave his head a quick, sharp shake. "One of these days..." he muttered, then frowned, like his own thoughts had bothered him.
This conversation was getting tedious. Then again, everything about Alex was tedious – I remembered the times Lilly had come crying to me about how much like a block of stone he was. I leaned my head back against the wall and closed my eyes.
Oh. This felt good.
"It's so hard to remember that I'm trying to be a decent human being, when I'm around you." Alex was still speaking – probably to himself, the nut – but his voice was starting to sound more and more distant to my ears. "You're so– shit, are you falling asleep?"
"Mm," I managed to murmur, even though what I had wanted to say was shut up, and that was the last thing I remembered before I lost consciousness.
I opened my eyes to the rising sun.
Sometime during the night, I had curled up into a ball to try to preserve body heat, and someone had thrown a jacket over me. My fingers were so cold, it was almost tempting to snuggle more deeply into the garment, until memories of the previous night flooded back and it hit me that the jacket was probably Alex's.
I leapt up, feeling everything spin dizzily as I did so. I put out a hand to steady myself against the railing. My other hand clutched at the jacket, preventing it from falling into the ground.
"Holy shit!" I shouted, when the first wave of dizziness had passed. Then I grimaced, because my voice had given myself a headache. I spoke more softly now, "Lilly is going to freak out!"
About a foot away, Alex stirred, enough to glare at me blearily. "Will you shut up? What time is it?"
I was in a state of panic that even my hangover couldn't quell. "Shit, we fell asleep out here... Do you think anyone saw us? Well, probably not, since nobody ever comes out here..." I looked over at Alex and saw that he was scrubbing tiredly at his face. He didn't seem half as panicked as I was – he didn't seem panicked at all, really. "Don't you care if this gets back to Lilly?"
Then it struck me that she must have noticed I hadn't been back the entire night. I felt the blood drain from my face – what if she thought... But no, Alex wouldn't be the first person to pop into her mind. Heck, I hadn't even known he was still around until last night. And last night had been the most I had ever spoken with him in the whole time we had known each other. Even if Lilly thought I had spent the night with some guy, Alex would be the person furthest from her mind. I would just tell her it was some random guy from the party, if she asked. Or I could tell her I'd fallen asleep at the gazebo. She knew I came out here sometimes.
"Why should I care?" Alex was shrugging, even as he stood up and stretched to get the kinks out of his neck. "We broke up long ago."
Well – of course he didn't care. He wasn't her girl friend. There were unspoken rules about these sorts of things.
"What time is it?" I demanded. Automatically, I patted my pockets in search of my phone – and realised I didn't have pockets. I was wearing a dress. "Shit, where's my cell?"
Alex had fished out his own and was checking the time from the screen. "It's six forty-eight."
"Where's my cell?" I repeated, casting a frantic glance all around the spot we had been in.
"How should I know?" Alex sounded annoyed, but he was looking at the ground, too.
"Shit!" I said again. I didn't have enough money to afford a new phone. And my entire life was in my phone – the curse of technology. Lose your phone, and you might as well have lost part of your brain.
"Look," Alex said, "what's gone is gone by now. Let's go, it's fucking freezing."
I realised then that I was still holding onto his jacket. He probably wanted it back. "Here," I said, shoving it into his arms. He took it automatically, but made no move to put it back on.
"Thanks for the jacket," I muttered, moving further outside. I was going to retrace my steps from last night and hope that nobody had picked it up yet.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for my phone."
Silently, he came with me. I cast him a startled look. "Why are you still here? I thought it was fucking freezing."
"Yeah," he said shortly, "can't let you fucking freeze alone, can I?"
Ignoring him, I started walking the way I had come, keeping my eyes glued to the ground as I did so. As I moved, I wrapped my arms around myself. He was right – it was freezing.
Dimly, I registered Alex coming towards me, before I felt the thick material of his jacket land across my shoulders. Stopping for a moment, I stared at the garment like I had never in my life seen a jacket. "Since when were you such a gentleman?"
He cast me a droll look. "No need for insults. If you don't want it, you can give it back."
I slid my arms into the sleeves and turned the collar up. "No. It's fucking freezing."
The corners of his mouth turned up.
We conducted the rest of the search in relative silence. I was just beginning to give up hope when Alex emerged from where he had been bending over in some bushes and lobbed something at me. Instinctively, I reached out to catch it – and realised I was holding my missing cellphone in my hands.
"Oh," I said, so surprised that words failed me for an instant. After a pause, I found my tongue. "Thanks."
"You dropped it in the bushes over there," Alex said, pointing. "What the hell were you doing, anyway?"
"I don't know," I said, even though it had been a rhetorical question. I shrugged out of his jacket and handed it back to him. Our fingers brushed briefly when he took it from me. His fingers were cold. Very cold. "Thanks... for the jacket," I said. "And the phone."
"Are you gonna be okay?" he asked, even though he had already put the jacket back on. "It's really cold."
"I'll live. I'm going back now."
"Okay." He hesitated, "Do you need me to walk you back?"
I rolled my eyes. "It's broad daylight – and most people aren't awake yet. I'll be fine."
He stuffed his hands into his pocket. "Okay," he repeated, seemingly at a loss of what to say. "Be careful."
"Yeah." I turned to go. "You too. Bye."
But before I could leave, he caught my wrist in his hand and pulled me back. "Hey," he said, "don't come here alone at night anymore."
I glared at him. "You're not the boss of me. I'll do what I damn well want–"
He sighed, then said, somewhat reluctantly, "Look... If you want to drink and wallow again, come to my office."
I frowned. "Your office?" He had an office? But wasn't he just a student, still?
"Yeah," he shrugged. "All research students have their own offices... No one will hear you. It'll be private." Then he muttered under his breath, "And much safer."
"You're inviting me to go to your office whenever I feel like it?" I eyed him suspiciously. "We don't even know each other."
"You know who I am, don't you?" he sounded like he was getting frustrated with me. "Isn't that safer than coming out here into the middle of nowhere?"
I thought about that. "Sometimes, no," I said honestly. "Sometimes the most dangerous guys are the ones you do know and trust."
"And now you suddenly rediscover your sense of danger," he muttered under his breath. Louder, he said, "Well, you don't trust me, so at least that will put you on your guard, hey?"
"I don't even know where this office is," I hedged. And added as an afterthought, "Or if it really exists."
"It exists," he said, somewhat irritably, "look, it's easy to find. Just go left from the cafeteria, out the exit towards the Faculty of Math and Physical Sciences, and..."
I listened to him ramble on about the directions, nodding blankly when he glanced at me to see if I was paying attention. Even if I was, there was no way I would be able to remember them. I was notoriously bad with directions.
He finally finished talking, then stood staring at me. Then he smiled wryly, "You didn't get any of that, did you?"
"What? I did."
"Okay – where is it, then?"
I blinked. "Um... Cafeteria... Exit to the left?"
"The right," he corrected, throwing up his hands in a gesture of futility. "You're just as bad at directions as Lilly always said you were."
"What?" Lilly had talked about me to him?
"Look," he said, running a hand through his hair and mussing it up quite terribly, "ask someone for directions if you get lost, okay? Any Physics or Math major should know where the graduate offices are. My room is on the first level – number fourteen. Just remember that – fourteen."
"Fourteen," I said. "Got it. But that doesn't mean I'll go."
"Humour me," he said, "or I'll tell Lilly that we spent the night together."
I glared at him. Why was he so insistent about this? And he knew the shit would hit the fan if Lilly found out about this. They had broken up long ago, sure, but Lilly could be quite territorial about what she saw as 'hers'.
"Fine," I said dismissively, sure I would never take him up on his offer. The gazebo suited me just fine. Anyway, he would never find out if I came here again.
It started out innocently enough.
I had been passing through the cafeteria when I'd caught sight of Bernt sitting alone at a table, just finishing up his food. I'd stopped in my tracks, shamelessly drinking in the sight of him. People who had been walking behind me pushed past me to get by, but I paid none of them any mind.
I probably would have simply stared my fill and then gone on my merry way, if only he hadn't stood up in that moment. As it was, the minute I saw him striding towards the exit after – very responsibly, I might add – depositing his empty plate at the collection counter, my feet automatically started moving in the same direction he was heading.
My phone started buzzing incessantly in my pocket, but I ignored it. Lunch could wait. My friends could eat without me. It wasn't every day that I ran smack into the cute Swedish boy who had the ability to make my heart go badump with his mere existence.
I followed him down the little outdoor path, back into another building, past another two sets of doors, and down several twists and turns that led into a pair of doors that had the words "School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences – Graduate Office" emblazoned across them.
Wait... Graduate office?
Bernt had vanished through the doors, so I hastened to follow. Through the doors was a narrow area with several numbered doors on both sides of the hallway. I meandered slowly down the hallway, wondering if Bernt had gone into any of the rooms I had already walked past. The short hallway branched out soon enough on both sides. A sign hanging on the wall announced that the pantry was on the right, while the left led to rooms number 14 to 39.
I stuck my head around the left corner just in time to catch sight of Bernt's back disappearing into room number fourteen.
Wait – number fourteen? Why did this number sound so familiar?
I stood in the middle of the hallway, still half hidden behind the wall, aware that I was loitering like a suspicious character. And then it hit me.
Fourteen – I remembered now. It was the number Lilly's asshole ex Alex had forced me to memorise.
Before I knew it, my feet were carrying me towards the door. I was barely a foot away when the door opened again and Bernt walked out. Immediately, I dipped my head downwards shoved my hands into the pockets of my hoodie.
I felt Bernt cast me a look as he walked past me in the narrow hallway, but I kept my eyes fixed to the ground. After he had moved past, his elbow brushing me slightly as he did so, I stood, unmoving, listening to his footsteps fade away. Once I was certain he was gone, I covered the remaining distance in three large strides and barged in through the door I had just seen him come out of.
"You know him!" I exclaimed accusingly, the moment I burst into the room.
Alex, who had been back-facing the door, whirled around to stare at me. "Huh?"
"You know him!" I jabbed a finger towards the hallway outside. "The guy I was talking about – the one Lilly and I both like! Don't lie to me, I saw him come in here just now!"
"What are you... Bernt?" Realisation was dawning on Alex's face. "Bernt Eriksson? That's the guy you two are fighting over?"
I frowned at him. "I wouldn't really call it fighting…"
Alex narrowed his eyes at me. "And what are you doing here?"
"You're the one who invited me to come," I shifted my weight from one foot to the other restlessly.
"Yeah, as an alternative to drinking alone at the gazebo in the middle of the night." His eyes flicked over me, "You're not drinking. And it's not dark out yet."
I cleared my throat. "I was just… uh… checking out the premises. And then I saw Bernt come in and–"
"Okay, I get it now." Alex was looking at me like I was something the cat – in this case, Bernt, probably – had dragged in. "You were stalking him and ended up here by accident."
Even though that was exactly what had happened, I found myself protesting. "It wasn't stalking him, per se… We were just walking in the same direction… I really was coming to see if your office even existed."
"Right," Alex said drily.
"Anyway," I decided a change of topic right about now was probably in my best interests, "how do you know him? Bernt, I mean."
"We're both in the Guitar Club–" Alex began, before I cut over what he was going to say.
"He plays the guitar?" I exclaimed, clapping my hands together. "That's so cool!"
Alex was looking at me with an expression on his face that looked like he was barely holding back an eye-roll. "You play the fucking guitar," he said.
I stared at him. "How did you know?"
"You're roommates with Lilly, aren't you?" he said drily. "I saw your guitar in the room, back from when we were still dating."
"Oh." I waved this away. "Yeah, but it's different when a guy does it."
He opened his mouth as if to say something else, then changed his mind and grimaced instead. He gave his head a short shake, as if to shake off the thoughts that had settled in his head.
"Okay," he said finally, in a sardonic tone.
I cleared my throat. "So..." I let my voice trail off before deciding to plunge into it. "Does he come here a lot?"
"Why do I get the feeling that if I say yes, I'll be seeing a lot of you?"
I glared at him. "What are you insinuating? I'm not a stalker."
He just stared flatly at me.
"Just answer the damned question, already." To hell with this guy – I couldn't stand him. No wonder Lilly had broken up with him.
"No," he said decisively. "We're barely even friends. You're not going to see him at all, even if you camp out here or something."
"And I don't believe you."
He shrugged. "Believe what you want."
I glowered at him. "Fine."
"Fine," he responded. Childish, I thought to myself.
I folded my arms. "Well," I declared, "I've decided to take you up on your kind offer, anyhow."
"What?" He was eyeing me suspiciously.
"You did say I could come to your office whenever I felt like drinking alone," I reminded him with a smug air. "Well, I'm taking you up on it."
"I suppose it's too late to take it back," he muttered.
"Be a man of your word," I retorted.
"Fine," Alex said, irritably, "I did say it... You can come here instead of drinking alone at the gazebo. But at night," he stressed, "only at night."
"Bernt's not going to be here at night, though," I mumbled to myself.
He glared at me. "I told you, he rarely ever comes here. He was only here to return something he borrowed last week. If you're coming only to see him, don't bother."
"Whatever," I said, waving his explanations off. He was hardly going to tell me if Bernt would show up out of the blue. Who knew? If Alex kept lending him things, he would have to come back sometime. "I'm still coming."
"Suit yourself," Alex said, jingling his keys in his hand. "Now get out of here, I've got to go to the lab."
My concentration was shot. I could feel my heart drumming away in my ears, so loud I was sure he could hear it from his seat opposite me. I shuffled my papers around, hearing them sound unbelievably loud in the otherwise silent room. He looked up briefly, then looked back down at his work.
I'd had the unbelievable luck to run into Bernt again in the library, this time when I had been studying for an upcoming test. The truly amazing thing, though, was that, out of all the vacant seats he could have taken, he chose to sit in the one directly opposite mine.
This, I thought, this was my chance for a do-over. He was right opposite me. How hard would it be to look up, wait until he made eye contact, and then smile and say hi?
I had to do it this time. I would do it this time.
I kept on sneaking glances at him, so frequently that I ended up looking more at him than at my textbook. The boy was a complete distraction – I was going to fail if I carried on this way.
Just as this thought entered my mind, he looked up and caught my gaze. Pinned down by those beautiful blue eyes, I felt my entire body freeze up.
After a long moment, the corners of his mouth turned up. He was smiling. He was smiling at me.
Smile, I thought to myself. Smile!
Before I could realise what I was doing, my eyes had narrowed and I found myself glaring at him.
The smile slid slowly off his face. Frowning a bit, he lowered his gaze to his books again. And this time, he didn't look back up.
Shit, I thought in frustration. I should have smiled back.
"I should have smiled back," I told Alex.
"Uh-huh," he said, sounding none too interested. "Why didn't you?"
"I don't know," I said miserably. "My brain froze up. My face froze up."
"You said you glared at him," he said, proving that he did, at least, listen to me when I talked. "It obviously didn't freeze up."
I buried my face into my hands. "I don't know why I keep doing this." My voice came out muffled, but the whine in my tone was unmistakable.
"It's your own fault," Alex said pitilessly. "You've had chances, but you didn't take them."
"You're really bad at this whole comforting thing."
"I'm not here to comfort you," he said. "Heck, I'm not even here to listen to you talk about some guy. You're the one who keeps coming back to tell me about every insignificant thing that goes on with him."
"You were the one who told me to come to your office if I wanted to wallow," I retorted.
"Yeah, to wallow," he said, with deep emphasis, "quietly. Not tell me your entire life story."
I huffed. But he was right. It was just that I had no one else to talk about Bernt with. Lilly was definitely out of the question – she was part of the problem, after all – and we had so many mutual friends that it didn't feel right to talk to them about her role in this whole business with Bernt.
Anyway, who knew? Maybe they would be on her side. She had achieved first contact with him, after all.
And it wasn't like I could force our mutual friends to take sides. Way to make things awkward, or to ruin the friendship entirely... Alex was a safe choice, because he was outside of my usual social circle. Plus, he didn't appear to have much of a good opinion of Lilly since their break up, and – to be honest – this was exactly what I needed. I didn't need someone who would keep telling me to 'put myself in her shoes' once every five minutes.
Sometimes, you just needed to rant. Alex was quite disdainful and uninterested in the whole thing, but ultimately, he always listened to me rant.
It was starting to become part of my routine – coming into his office and pouring out my troubles with Bernt to him. I had even stopped bringing the beer.
"You're the only one I can talk to about this," I muttered. "I don't have anyone to talk to, when it comes to Bernt and Lilly."
"Are you trying to guilt-trip me?" Alex asked suspiciously.
I looked up at him hopefully. "Is it working?"
He took a second to look away from his screen and shot me a droll look. "Fine," he muttered, a groan mixed into his words, "talk about your pointless love drama. I don't care."
"You know, you're not that bad of a guy."
"Thanks," was his sarcastic response.
"No, I mean it," I said, "I used to think you were a complete asshole to Lilly, but... you're not that complete of an asshole, it seems."
"So – what's your side of the story? About what happened with Lilly? Every story has two sides, doesn't it?"
He was glaring at his computer screen. "I'm not the one who finds the need to blather about my love life to anyone who will listen."
"Fine, it's none of my business." I scowled down at the carpet. He wasn't into reciprocity, it seemed.
"No, it's none of your business," he agreed, in a biting tone. "Lilly shouldn't have told you as much as she did."
"Sorry," I said, uncomfortable now. It did feel like I had been some sort of voyeur in their relationship. Lilly had shared way too much. She had the tendency to do that, sometimes. Okay – most of the time. She liked to talk about things that had happened to her. "If it makes you feel better, I don't remember most of what she said, just the important parts."
"It doesn't matter," he said, even though it sounded like it did, still, to him. "It's all in the past now."
"You keep saying that," I pointed out. "Are you really that over Lilly?"
"Yes." His answer was short and simple – he obviously didn't find the need to justify his statement with an elaboration.
"If you say so..." I tapped a finger against the carpet musingly. "Not many guys find it that easy to get over Lilly, I think."
"Trust me," he said drily, "when you've dated her, it becomes very easy. The guys that never get over her are the ones she strings along but never gives a chance."
I blinked at this assessment of Lilly's dealings with guys. "Strings along...?" Did she?
Alex glanced at me. "You can't tell me you haven't noticed the guys who keep panting after her."
"She doesn't string them along, though," I defended, "they're the ones who keep coming back even though they know nothing's ever going to happen."
Alex scoffed. "Guys don't 'keep coming back' when they know nothing's going to happen. She gives them hope – that's why they keep coming back."
"What are you talking about? How does she give them hope?"
"She accepts every gift they give her – even the expensive ones... And she agrees to meet them alone all the time, doesn't she? They end up thinking it's a date, even though she doesn't think it's one."
I thought about it. He was right about her actions – he did know Lilly that well, after all – but... "Well, it's... It's a misunderstanding on their parts, isn't it? She doesn't mean it that way."
"Really?" Alex's tone was disbelieving. He didn't have much faith in Lilly, it seemed. "How do you define 'stringing along', then?"
"I..." I was stumped.
"She strings guys along," Alex said, his tone final.
"Maybe," I conceded. "But probably not on purpose."
"Why do you keep defending her? Isn't she your love rival now?"
I chewed on my bottom lip as I cast my eyes away. "Yeah... But she's still my friend."
He shook his head. "So you come to me to complain about her... but at the same time, you're willing to defend her to the grave. You're a contradiction."
"I... Not to the grave," I muttered. "I'm more than aware of her flaws... But we're still friends. I'm supposed to defend her against her asshole exes."
"I'm back in the role of the asshole ex now, am I?" he observed.
I sighed and laughed simultaneously. "I mean... You're not that much of an asshole. I was kidding. But you're not allowed to talk bad about Lilly – only I can."
Alex let out a muffled laugh.
"Yeah, I mean..." I stared at my knees, drawn up towards my body since I had tucked myself into one corner of the room, "Lilly... She has her flaws. But she's a good friend, at least." But then I remembered something. "Well, most of the time..."
"Most of the time?"
"I guess... Bernt is an exception. Lilly doesn't want to introduce me to him," I twisted my lips at the reminder. "I asked her outright, and she told me to go talk to him myself." I huffed. "As if it's so easy!"
"Offer him food, like she did," Alex said darkly. I had told him about the way Lilly had initiated contact with Bernt.
"She's already done that," I pointed out. "He's going to be suspicious of everyone comes up to offer him food."
"Not everyone," Alex said, "just you and Lilly."
"Hey." A thought had suddenly occurred to me. "What about you? Why don't you introduce me?"
"I would," he replied, "just to get you off my back. But, unfortunately, I don't see him anymore. We're not really friends."
"I thought you were in the Guitar Club together?"
He lifted a shoulder and let it fall. "I don't have time for club activities anymore."
I pouted. There went my easy route into Bernt's life.
"Why don't you join the Guitar Club?"
Alex's suggestion made me sit up. Now, why hadn't I thought of that? "I should," I exclaimed, suddenly inspired. "Maybe we'll become jamming buddies or something, and we could play love duets together... And he'll be so impressed with my guitar skills, he'll fall madly in love with me!"
Alex cast me a look that told me he thought I was, beyond a doubt, crazy. "Yeah, yeah."
"They're not accepting members anymore," I complained, the next time I found myself back in Alex's office. I had stopped going every night due to the ever-increasing workload, but it was Friday now, and I reasoned that it had been a while since I had blown off some steam regarding Bernt. "I checked the website, and that's what it said."
"You give up rather easily, don't you?" Alex commented.
"I don't," I denied, "and anyway – what's the point of banging my head against the wall? If it isn't going to happen, it isn't going to happen."
"Sometimes you have to make things happen. What you want isn't going to fall into your lap."
"Yeah, like how Lilly went to introduce herself to Bernt," I muttered. "She sure did make that happen."
Alex was silent. The only sound in the room was that of his fingers clacking away at the keyboard.
"Why are you stuck in here doing work on a Friday night?" I asked. "Do you have no life?"
"Then why are you here, watching me do work on a Friday night? Isn't that worse?"
I huffed. "I'm... I'm hanging out with you. Because I'm a nice person, and you seem to be in need of some entertainment."
He made a noise that was half snort, half chuckle.
"But – seriously. Don't you ever take a break from your research? What's it about, anyway?"
"I'm investigating the nuclear structure of the cadmium isotopes, particularly the 112Cd, through beta-decay–" he saw my blank look and cut himself off. He smiled wryly and amended, "Nuclear physics. That's my research topic."
"Oh." I didn't know what he was talking about, but I had liked the light shining from his eyes when he was talking about those isotopes or whatever. Boring as it sounded, he really liked what he was doing. "Then – don't you have to be in the lab or whatever, instead of being here all the time?" Because he was always here when I chose to show up.
He shrugged. "I'm in the lab all day. I only have the nights to work on my thesis. Besides, I told you to come here at night, didn't I?"
That was a non-answer if I had ever heard one. "So you're just working on your research all day and all night?" I asked, scrunching up my nose at the prospect. This was why I would never join a research-based programme, if I ever decided to get my Master's. "Don't you get sick of it sometimes?"
"Yeah, but what can you do?" He shrugged again. "There's research to be done, deadlines to meet."
I bit my lip. "Am I bothering you?"
"Kinda, yes," he said.
My answering scowl was wasted on him, because he didn't even flick a glance in my direction. "Fine," I muttered. "I'll shut up, then."
He simply snorted.
After five minutes of listening to him type away in silence, I said, "Well, you don't have to listen to me, but I'm gonna talk."
"I knew you couldn't hold out," was all he said in response.
I stuck out my tongue at him, but he didn't see that, either. Then I sighed and leaned my head back against the wall. "I guess my problems sound insignificant compared to your nuclear physics stuff or whatever, but... they're important to me, you know? And there's no one I can talk to, because... well, they're all friends with Lilly, too."
He didn't say anything, so I went on. "All of my close friends are Lilly's friends too. I guess that really says something, huh? I don't have close friends of my own."
Alex spoke so suddenly, I jumped a little. I hadn't thought he'd been listening. "These close mutual friends... Who met them first? You, or Lilly?"
I thought about that for a moment. "I met them first, I suppose," I said slowly. "Then I introduced them to Lilly..."
"Then you do have close friends of your own, don't you? They were your friends first."
"Meeting someone first doesn't mean anything," I said sulkily. "I liked Bernt first, and that doesn't mean anything."
His quick agreement annoyed me. "It's so unfair," I whined, "I liked him first. And I know more about Sweden and Swedish culture than she does," I muttered, feeling my lips twist into a grimace as I propped my chin up against my palm. My elbow was balanced on my knee and the sharp bones digging into one another was getting rather uncomfortable, but I didn't care. My entire life was one uncomfortable moment after another. "Heck, I even speak more Swedish than she does! I deserve him more."
"That may be the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say," Alex said.
I smiled wryly. He never pulled any punches with me. "Yeah," I muttered, looking down now, observing the tiny specks of dust scattered across the floor. "I guess so. There's no such thing as deserving to have someone just because you know more about their background, huh?"
"I would probably deserve you the most, then," Alex said. He wasn't even looking at me as he said this; he was still typing away at his computer, eyes fixed on his research data on-screen. "Listening to you talk about your problems all the time like this."
"You're not the one who knows the most about me," I huffed, even as my mind searched for someone else who would hold the title and came up blank. Nobody, I realised, really knew that much about me. Different people were well-versed in different parts of my life, sure, but nobody really knew everything about me. "My life revolves around more than just Bernt and Lilly, you know."
"Could've fooled me," I heard him mutter under his breath.
I shot him a withering glare that he completely missed. "Seriously," I insisted, "there are plenty of things going on in my life. I have my... college stuff, and my friends... um..."
"So why are you here, with me in my office, on a Friday night? Where are your friends?"
"Out," I admitted sulkily. "And FYI – they invited me; I just didn't feel like going along."
"I... I don't know." Why had I chosen to spend my Friday night with Alex over a night out with my friends? Alex wasn't even fun. Heck – he wasn't even looking at me half the time. I sniffed defensively. "Well, at least I have more of a life than you do."
I let out a startled laugh at his candid reply. He finally turned to look at me, a faint smile across his lips.
"You must have friends," I said.
"Friends? An asshole like me?"
I rolled my eyes. "Yes, even an asshole like you should have friends."
He sobered, turning back to his screen. "Yeah, they've all graduated. I still see them sometimes, but everyone has their own lives now."
"What about... the other grad students?"
He gestured widely to the room at large. "We're usually holed up with our own research... It's not easy to meet people when you're in grad school."
"That sounds..." Really lonely. "Sad."
He shrugged. "It's life."
"I wonder... I wonder if I'll stay friends with Lilly and the others, when we've all graduated."
"Maybe," he said, but he didn't sound very convinced, "if you try."
"You know," Lilly said to me one day, over the rattle of the bus engine, "Bernt told me something the other day."
Taken completely off guard at the sudden mention of Bernt, it took me a moment before I regained my powers of speech. "Oh?"
"Yeah." Lilly was looking directly at me, studying my expression so closely I began to feel more than a little uncomfortable. What was she doing?
"What did he say, then?"
"I asked him if he was a dog or a cat person, and he said neither. He doesn't like dogs and cats."
"Oh." I wondered why she was telling me this. "What animal does he prefer, then? Rabbits?"
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe. He said he doesn't like large animals."
"There are small dogs and cats," I said, half-marvelling at the inanity of this conversation. And anyway – not liking dogs or cats? I could understand being indifferent towards them, but not liking?
"I don't know," Lilly said. "That's what he told me."
"What else did he tell you?"
She shrugged, suddenly cagey. "Just this and that... Stuff."
"Oh," I said, smiling simply to hide the pang that had hit me right in the sternum at her words. "So... Are you two, like, good friends now?"
"Nah," Lilly said, going back to watching me closely. She looked like she was searching for something in my face – a reaction? "We're... not that close."
"Oh." But I couldn't stop myself from pressing, "You sound quite close. You guys seem to talk a lot."
She laughed, her voice ringing out oddly. "Nah," she repeated, looking away. "Not that much."
"I think Lilly was testing the waters with me the other day," I said, hugging my knees to myself in a curled-up position that becoming all too familiar to me.
"Hm?" Alex was paying less attention to me than usual, squinting intently at some hastily scribbled values on a piece of paper.
"A couple days ago, on the bus – she just started talking about Bernt out of the blue... And she was watching me really closely the whole time. It was... strange."
"Yeah." I scuffed the sole of my shoe against the carpet, finding some sort of satisfaction in the scratchy tsch-tsch sound it made. "It sounded like she was trying to figure out if I still liked him... Maybe they're getting closer and she..." I swallowed the lump in my throat. I didn't want to say the words out loud.
"I don't know..." I watched Alex out of the corner of my eye, then asked impulsively, "Are you a dog or a cat person?"
He flicked me a glance. "I like both. Why?"
"Me too," I rested my chin on one of my knees. "Bernt doesn't like either. Strange, huh? How can someone not like either? Or maybe he prefers rabbits. Or gerbils."
Alex continued to focus on his work, and I sighed long and loud. "I don't really see him around anymore," I admitted. "Bernt, I mean. I only see him in class, but usually he sits so far away that I can't look at him without being too obvious."
He wasn't even listening, I thought irritably. But then again, he was under no obligation to listen to me. It was just that he was usually more attentive than this.
"Are you busy?" I asked. Then I shook my head. Stupid question. He was always busy, wasn't he? "I mean... Busier than usual?"
"This report is due tomorrow," he said.
"Oh." I knew I probably should have left him to work on his report in peace, but something in me balked at the thought. So I was selfish – sue me.
I watched him work in silence for a while – he was right-handed, I observed, as he picked up a pencil to scribble along the margins of the paper – before I spoke again.
"You know, Bernt is left-handed."
There was a beat, before Alex said slowly, "Okay."
"I've seen him write in class... You know what they say about left-handed people – they're more artistic, creative..."
"Good for him."
"They also have shorter average lifespans than right-handers, living in a right-handed world."
Alex paused. "Maybe not that good for him, after all," he conceded.
"Well, the Scandinavian countries have a pretty high life expectancy in general, though, so I wouldn't worry about him that much."
"I've heard Finland has the world's highest IQ average." This was the longest sentence he had spoken thus far that night.
"Yeah," I said, "but Finland isn't a part of Scandinavia – not really."
That got his attention. "It isn't?"
"Scandinavia only consists of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden," I told him.
Alex put down the notes he had been examining and swung to face me. "Really?" he asked, clearly intrigued. He wasn't interested in my stories about Bernt, but this he was interested in. "What about Finland and the others, then? What are they called?"
"Scandinavia and their territories, plus Finland and Iceland – all of them, together, make up the Nordic countries." A lot of people used Scandinavia and the Nordic countries interchangeably, even when they did not consist of the same countries.
"Cool," he said. "I never knew that."
I smiled wryly. "Most people don't. I was once really crazy about Swedish things and went to read up a lot about Scandinavia."
"Aren't you still?" he returned. "Crazy over Swedish things… people."
I knew he was talking about my crush on Bernt. "That's not... That doesn't have anything to do with where he's from. It's a coincidence."
Alex raised an eyebrow. "Right… You're always falling for foreign guys, you know."
"Really?" My eyebrows drew together, as I tried to run the list of my ex-crushes through my mind.
"Yeah," he said. "I remember, you had – what – three crushes on three different guys back when Lilly and I were still dating. They were all from elsewhere, weren't they?"
"I don't remember," I muttered.
He started ticking them off his fingers. "There was that Swede in your Accounting class – Johannes, or something? And then that French guy, from the Art department... And another Swedish guy, the one that dressed weird and Lilly told you he was probably gay." He seemed to think about this a little. "You really like Swedish guys, huh?"
He was probably right. I shrugged, "Swedes are really good looking. All that shiny blond hair... blue eyes... and that fair complexion..."
Alex leaned forward out of his chair to shove a crumpled Kleenex at me. "For your drool," he said drily.
I glared at him, my fingers rising self-consciously to touch my lips. I wasn't really drooling, was I?
"Blue eyes," Alex was muttering to himself. "Yeah... They all had blue eyes."
"Blue eyes are pretty," I defended.
"There're plenty of guys here with blue eyes, too."
"Yeah, but..." I bit my lip.
His lip was curling in displeasure. "So, you only like foreign guys with blue eyes?"
"Well," I said, mulling that over. He was right. All of my past crushes had had blue eyes, and none of them had been from here. Strange – I had never realised. "Maybe."
"Isn't that a bit unfair? People don't get to choose what colour eyes they're born with, or even what country they come from."
"Life is unfair," I pointed out. "People don't get to choose where they're born, or what family they're born into, or whether they get born into a war zone or not... You don't get to choose your skin colour, or your heritage, or your sexual orientation. But different people have different preferences, too, and that's mine."
He was silent for a while. "Fair enough," he said finally. "Just like I prefer leggy blondes with a nice rack and ass."
I side-eyed him. Lilly was none of that. "Are you being a typical guy on purpose, so that I'll have to admit that my preferences are ridiculous?"
"Oh, come on," he said, spreading his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "The way someone looks is important, yeah, but you don't fall in love with looks."
"But you can't fall in love with someone you don't find attractive, either," I retorted. "And anyway – I thought guys were all about looks. All the guys I've met just want a girl who is 'pretty' and 'understanding'." I used air quotes for those two words, finding them just as ridiculous now as I had the day I'd first heard them.
"Then you haven't met the right guys," Alex said simply.
I chortled. "You're saying, you're one of the right guys?"
He didn't answer my question. "Guys think about love too, you know," he said, more to his loosely clasped hands between his knees than to me. "We have feelings, too."
I blinked. "I know," I said slowly, even though there had been times when I had forgotten that. To a girl living in a patriarchal society, the male species as a whole sometimes felt like an enemy. It was so easy to fall into generalisations, to say that all men did this, or believed this, or that. It was easy to point at news articles and say, men are scum. It was easy to forget they were individual human beings, too.
"Did you love Lilly?" I asked, and instantly felt all the doors leading to what was deep in his heart slam and bolt shut in that instant.
He shrugged. "I can't pretend to know what love is."
"Nobody knows what love is. That's why it's this great mystery; that's why everyone is searching for it."
"Maybe what we thought was love at some point, isn't real love, after all."
"If you thought it was love at that point," I said, "then it was real love." I hated it when people discounted previous feelings of love just because a relationship didn't work out. Love didn't have to last to have had been real at some point.
"Who knows?" He was frowning contemplatively into the distance. "You might have thought it was love, until you found the real thing – and realised what came before was mere infatuation."
"If you keep thinking this way," I said, "then you can never be sure of any feeling, can you? There is always the chance of meeting someone else that can change your perception of what something is. But if I meet someone who makes me angrier than I've ever been in my life – does that mean every angry moment that came before was never real anger?"
He blinked. "You make quite persuasive arguments," he said, "for someone who is so irrational about the guys you deem crush-worthy."
I ignored that slight dig about my dating preferences. "Well, no one is really that one-dimensional," I said. "I can't be thinking about the intricacies of life all the time, but that doesn't mean I fan-girl all the time either. I mean," I added, "before I started talking to you like this, I only ever thought of you as Lilly's boring asshole ex."
"Thanks," he said drily.
"Oh, come off it." I rolled my eyes. "You probably only thought of me as some ditz with some irrational fetish for foreigners."
He gave a one-shouldered shrug, but I saw wry acknowledgement in his eyes.
I shrugged back. "No one is that one-dimensional," I repeated.
"That's true," he said. "And Bernt Eriksson – he's more than just his blue eyes and foreign accent, too."
"I know that," I said irritably. He thought I didn't?
"Do you?" Alex asked mildly. "Or do you like him just because he's Swedish – exotic? What do you know about him, really?"
I opened my mouth to give a snappy retort, but nothing came out. I subsided, then, into sulky silence.
Point made, Alex didn't bother elaborating any further.
"I know tons about him," I said eventually. "I know that he likes green tea more than coffee..."
"Uh-huh," said Alex, sounding completely unimpressed.
I remembered something else, "He doesn't like large animals." Just saying it out loud brought me back to the day Lilly and I had had this conversation. She had acted so strangely, oddly private about when and where she had interacted with Brent, even though she had been the one to bring him up first. She did that a lot, I realised. But whenever I pressed for more details, she would clam up.
She was a lot like Alex in this aspect, I thought. They both clammed up when you wanted details. In Alex's case, though, his kryptonite was Lilly.
"Okay," said Alex now. "How did he handle living in Sweden, then? Don't they have elk over there?"
I hesitated. That, I didn't know. "I'm sure the elk don't go wandering the streets in the city," I said. "He's from Stockholm."
"Stockholm," he repeated. "Capital city of Sweden, right?"
"Yeah… I want to go there someday," I sighed.
"It is technically just a plane ride away," he said.
I rolled my eyes. "Technically, yes. But we all know it doesn't work that way."
He chuckled. "True."
"If I marry Bernt, I could probably visit Sweden with him every year. Or even move there."
It was his turn to roll his eyes. "Right," he said.
I laughed. "I was joking," I said.
I stared at him, surprised. Not many people got my sense of humour – they tended to think I was a ditz, or completely unhinged, when I said stuff like that.
He saw my surprise and chuckled. "I've been listening to your ridiculous chatter since day one, haven't I?" he asked, rhetorically. "I know when you're joking."
Unexpectedly, I felt his words wrap around my heart like a little vine of warmth.
He was still looking at me, smiling a little now, like he wasn't quite aware he was doing it. It was contagious – that small, almost-there smile of his. I found myself smiling back before I was even aware that my facial muscles had moved.
We both sat there, smiling at each other, for a long moment before Alex cleared his throat and turned back to his work. I saw that his brow had furrowed, as if he was reflecting on something. I turned away to look at the wall, sure that a mirroring frown was on my face.
So he understood me a little bit more than I thought he did. Big deal. But why had it felt so... so special?
The following week, I trudged into Alex's office, dragging my feet so hard that I was almost sure I would leave marks in the carpet.
He sat up when I entered.
That was a first, I noted absently. He was usually so busy typing away that he barely even looked up when I arrived. "Hi," I mumbled.
"What's wrong?" he asked, watching me like a hawk.
I shrugged. "Nothing, I just..." I trailed off long enough to settle down into the nook that I always sat in – the corner of the room right next to his desk. Once I was comfortably tucked into the corner, I pulled up my legs and hugged them to my chest. Then I sighed.
"I think they're getting closer," I told Alex. "Lilly seems to tell him everything. Some of her stuff got stolen yesterday, and she told him before she told me... She was telling me about his reaction to it and all I could think about was this. That she tells him everything."
He shifted in his chair. For once, he wasn't typing, or focusing on his computer screen. His hands were propped up on his desk, but he wasn't doing anything with them. It was so quiet that I could hear the fabric of his clothing rustling as he moved. "Maybe," he said, an odd note in his voice, "maybe you should give up."
I turned my head in his direction so quickly, I almost gave myself whiplash. This was the last thing I had expected him to say. He had frequently questioned the depth of my feelings for Bernt, but never before had he, outright, told me to give up.
"Maybe some things are not meant to be," he said, looking at me, shadowed brown eyes searching my face. His expression was mild, but his lips were pressed together in a straight line. He wasn't kidding.
His matter-of-fact statement made me angry. "That's just a form of self-justification for people to feel better about themselves when something doesn't work out," I said.
He shrugged. "And sometimes things don't work out."
"You never know until you try."
"Then why haven't you tried?"
"I…" I frowned. "I could. I will. Someday. It's easier said than done."
"Someday… You're never going to do it," Alex said. "Might as well give up now."
I sat up straight, clenching my teeth together so tightly that it felt like my jaw was hewn shut. "You… What are you saying now? I thought you were on my side."
He sat up straighter too, eyes flashing. "There are no sides here. I'm just telling you – sometimes you have to learn when to give up on someone who is so obviously not for you."
"And what would you know about whether or not he is for me?" I snapped.
He looked away. "If he was, something would have happened by now."
"These things… These things take time," I said. "I was reading an article on the dating culture – well, non-dating culture, really – of Scandinavians the other day–"
"You were reading what?" Alex interrupted incredulously.
I felt my face heat up. "Not on purpose," I defended myself, "I was looking up some Swedish words and the article happened to pop up…"
"Right," he said, a flatness to his tone that broadcasted his disbelief loud and clear. "And you were looking up some Swedish words… for no reason at all."
"I–" I shook my head and fixed a glare on him. "I don't have to explain myself to you."
He shrugged. "You don't."
But I found that I wanted to. I didn't want Alex to think I was... I was... What – obsessed with Bernt, and every other little thing I could associate with him? Alex already knew that.
"I... It wasn't because of Bernt," I blurted out. "I mean, I've always been interested in other cultures... I..."
"No, really," Alex said. He had swivelled his chair to face away from me at some point, so now I couldn't even see his expression. "You don't have to explain yourself to me."
"Alex," I managed, before I started to feel annoyed that he wasn't even facing me during this conversation. Leaping up, I grabbed the back of his chair and whirled him around. He was frowning; at my sudden action he looked up with angry brown eyes. Why was he angry? I was the one who should've been angry. I pressed my hands against his shoulders, pushing him back against the chair, feeling the flesh and blood pulsing under my fingers. His flesh and blood. And suddenly, I felt the sour prick of tears at the back of my eyelids as a hollow feeling welled up inside of me. What came out of my mouth next was something I hadn't planned on saying. "Alex... We're friends, right?"
It had caught him, too, by surprise. There was a brief moment, before he said, slowly, "Yeah. I guess we are." He was still frowning, but the anger had melted off his face. He was looking away now, a million emotions hidden in his eyes.
"Well – I'd say friends don't judge each other, but to be honest, I don't think that's entirely true." Friends did judge each other, just secretly, I believed. It was human nature to judge, no matter what. Anyone who disagreed with my theory must've had better friends than I did. Or was a more naive person than I was. "But... I don't like it when you judge me."
"I'm not judging you," he said, finally looking back at me. "You like foreign cultures for themselves, not because of the guys... I get it. It's a part of who you are. What's there to judge?"
"Okay." I knew I sounded almost confused. "Then... Why..." Why was he acting so weird?
He stood up so suddenly that I didn't have time to move back. My hands – I had forgotten my hands had still been on his shoulders – slid down his shoulders to rest against his chest from his sudden change in height. Before I could pull them away, he had wrapped his own arms around me in a hug.
The strength behind his embrace startled me. After a moment in which my heart had started hammering away in my chest, I shifted my arms to curl around his waist and hugged him back.
"I don't want to see you get hurt," he murmured, so quietly that I wondered if I'd been meant to hear it.
"Why would I be hurt?" I mumbled into his chest. He was kind of warm. It was like having a rather lanky teddy bear. "You think he's going to reject me?" I tried to joke, but the laugh was stuck in my throat. It seemed that Alex wasn't one of those people who kept a space between his body and the other person's when he hugged someone. I was pressed up directly against him and I had suddenly forgotten how to breathe.
What was going on? Why was I feeling like this?
"I just think... Maybe... Maybe there are some people not meant to be yours," he said, in the same quiet voice that sounded like he was divulging a secret. "Maybe... there are other people who know you better, who would be a better fit for you..."
I tore myself out of his embrace, glaring at him. "So that's what it all boils down to?" I asked accusingly. "You think I'm not good enough for him, so I should just give up?"
Spreading his hands in a gesture of resignation, Alex sat back down, laughing – a little mockingly, I thought. He shoved his feet, flat, against the carpeted floor, the soles of his shoes making a loud scuffing noise even as the wheels beneath his chair spun and sent him sailing backwards, away from me. "Not good enough for him? What's so good about him in the first place?"
"He's cool," I said, stumbling awkwardly over my words. "He's–"
"Yeah," Alex said, a self-deprecating smile curling at his lips, "he's Swedish."
"It's not just that–" I started to say, but he barrelled over me.
"You're only interested in the things you're interested in," he said, and it didn't sound like a good thing, judging by the way he said it. "Anything outside of what you deem to be worthy of your interest... you don't notice."
That stopped me short. It felt like we were having two completely different conversations at once. "What are you talking about?"
"Never mind." He rubbed a hand across his face tiredly, letting his breath out on a long exhale. "Never mind."
But he didn't reply. Avoiding eye contact with me, he rolled himself back to his desk and placed his hands back on his computer keyboard. Before long, he was typing again, shifting back into work mode, only pausing long enough to say, "I still think... you should give up."
"Where's Lilly?" Raine asked me, when I showed up alone for the third time in a row for our usual Saturday hangout session.
"You know," Wendi said, "I haven't seen Lilly in ages."
"Actually – me too," I said, frowning.
Raine stared at me in surprise. "But you live with her!"
I shrugged, "She's been going out a lot, lately. And by the time she gets back, I'm usually asleep."
"Did she get a new boyfriend, or something?" Wendi joked.
"No way!" I exclaimed. "She would've said something." This, I was absolutely certain of. Lilly had always told me, whenever she had gotten into a new relationship.
Lilly liked to talk about things, especially those pertaining to herself. There was no way Lilly would have gotten a new boyfriend and not told me.
"But it's a little suspicious, don't you think...?"
I trailed off when I realised that Alex wasn't listening to me. He was frowning at the screen of his cell phone. Leaning down, he rummaged around in a drawer and fished out a slip of paper. Then he got to his feet and started for the door. Halfway there, he seemed to remember that I was still there and turned around to look at me. "I'll be right back. Stay here."
I spread my hands wide. "Where would I go?"
After another slight hesitation, he shook his head and closed the door after him.
The office was far too quiet when Alex wasn't here and I had no one to talk to, I deduced in the time he was gone. It couldn't have been more than ten to twelve minutes, but the silence was beginning to get to me when the door handle turned and Alex walked back in.
"Did someone want something?" I asked, feeling illogically happy to see him again.
"Yeah," he said, sounding a little distracted, "I had to return something to Bernt–" Then, realising what he had just let slip, he stilled.
I leapt up. "Bernt?" I asked, my voice coming out too eager, but I didn't care. I hadn't seen him in forever, it felt like. "You just saw Bernt? Where is he now? Is he still here?"
"No," Alex said, shoving both hands into his pockets. "He left."
I walked up to him and studied his face. He was holding my gaze steadily – a little too steadily. "You're lying," I said. I didn't know how I knew that, only that I did. I jabbed my thumb in the direction of the main entrance, "He's right outside, isn't he?" Walking around him, I made for the door.
Suddenly, Alex was beside me, holding me back. "No, wait," he was saying urgently, but I shook him off.
"Oh, don't worry," I glanced back to grin wryly at him. "I just want to look at him for a bit; I'm not going to stalk him or anything like that."
"No, that's not–" Alex, for some reason, had followed me out into general office area. He tried to grab my arm, but I evaded him by stepping neatly to the side even as I continued walking. "Kay–"
And then I pushed through the main entrance doors and saw what Alex had been so hell-bent on preventing me from seeing. Or rather – who.
It was Lilly.
She was with Bernt. They were standing close together – so close together that it was impossible to misunderstand their relationship.
I saw the way his body was turned toward hers; the blinding smile on his face. I saw the way his blue eyes sparkled as he gazed down at her. And in that moment, all my breath escaped me in a whoosh. It felt like someone had punched me straight in the chest.
My lungs seized up. My mind was blank save for one recurring howl that overwrote all else: he was in love with her.
And then I saw her turn and look at me. Saw the guilty expression that flitted across her face. The way her hand jerked and broke away from his, even as I watched.
Through the sound of my heart shattering, I found myself thinking – to hell with that. To hell with being the victim, the one betrayed. To hell with being the only one with the broken heart. To hell with that.
I reached up and grabbed Alex by the lapels of his collar, forcefully pulling him down to my height. He was so surprised, he automatically bent down towards me.
And then, with Lilly watching on, I jerked him forward and crushed my lips to his.
"What was that?" Alex asked, when we were alone again. He didn't sound angry, just mildly curious. At least, that was what I would've thought seven weeks ago. But then I'd gotten to know him, and, able to read his emotions as I now was, I could sense a brewing storm in him waiting to break free at the slightest provocation.
I didn't care. I felt blessedly numb. We were back in his office and I was seated atop the table, swinging my legs, staring into space.
Lilly and Bernt. Bernt and Lilly.
Their names sounded so exotic together. So... suited to each other's.
Alex had stopped pacing and was simply staring at me. "You're not even listening, are you?"
"You knew," I realised. "You knew they were together. That's why you told me to give up."
He didn't say anything.
"You should have just told me," I muttered. It wouldn't have come as such a shock, if he'd warned me beforehand.
"Would it have made a difference?"
"Maybe then I wouldn't have reacted by kissing you."
It had worked, though. Lilly had looked scandalised, and, dropping all pretence of guilt, grabbed Bernt's hand and turned on her heel. As she'd stomped away, dragging a confused Bernt after her, she'd deliberately glanced back and, while locking gazes with me, entwined her fingers more tightly with his.
Alex's eyes narrowed at the reminder. "Yes," he said bitingly, "because this is everyone's first reaction when they find out their crush is with their best friend – grab the nearest guy and kiss him for revenge."
"Lilly isn't my best friend," I gritted out, feeling a fresh wave of betrayal rise up in my throat. And it wasn't just the anger speaking, either – we were roommates; we had been close... But at no point had I considered her my best friend.
Maybe because I had known she had had the capacity for this type of backstabbing.
All of a sudden, I found myself crying – loud, wet sobs that clogged up my nose and probably made me sound like a dying walrus. I cupped my face in my hands, but even though that hid my face from view, it didn't muffle the wretched noises coming out of my mouth. Halfway through another sob, I started hiccuping.
I heard a long sigh before I felt warm arms enfold me. Alex stood in front of me, hugging me so tightly that I was being half-lifted off the table. I uncovered my face to tell him to let me go, that I was okay, but found myself wrapping my arms around his shoulders and holding on tight. I couldn't stop hiccuping enough to apologise for the mess I was being, so I buried my face into the crook of his shoulder instead. I hiccupped several times against him, knowing the tears and snot still leaking out of my eyes and nose were landing on his skin, but unable to stop myself.
"You are a mess," he sighed, even as I felt him stroke my back with one hand while the other remained wrapped around my waist. "Take a deep breath and hold it in, that'll stop the hiccups."
I did as he said, somehow managing to draw in a deep, shaky breath through my mouth before clamping my lips shut to keep it in. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against Alex's shoulder. My eyes hurt. My nose hurt. My heart hurt. Everything hurt.
I wanted it to stop hurting.
After a while, I felt Alex shaking me. "Hey," he said. His voice sounded a little panicked. "Hey. You can breathe out now."
I realised then that I had still been holding in my breath. I lifted my head long enough to letting my breath slowly escape on a long exhale, before I let my head loll back against its warm human cushion. "They're together," I mumbled. Saying it out loud made it seem all the more real; horrid.
She was with him.
And she hadn't told me.
She hadn't told me a lot of things.
"She should have just... told me." I would have tried to find it in myself to feel happy for her. "She should have just told me from the start... instead of going behind my back like this."
Alex's arms remained locked around me, but he said nothing.
I craned my head up to look at his face. "How did you find out?" I whispered.
I saw him press his lips together, like he didn't really want to reply. But he said, after a slight pause, "I saw them together... at a party. They've been to a lot of parties together."
"Oh." I felt so stupid. All this time, I had been secretly pining over Bernt, when he had already been Lilly's. I laughed, and it came out as a cracked little sound escaping my dry throat. "No wonder she's been going out so much at night." I laughed again. "She told me she was studying with friends."
Alex dipped his head to look at me, but couldn't quite manage, because my head was still against his shoulder. My eyesight was starting to blur again. Warm tears spilled over and ran down my cheeks, but I made no move to wipe them away.
"Who goes behind your back to do something like this?" I muttered, in between noisy sniffles.
"Rotten people," he responded.
My gaze flew up to his. He wasn't looking at me but at a spot a short distance away, his eyes hooded.
"You dated her," I reminded him.
He just shrugged.
"What did she do to you?" I whispered, even though I knew he wasn't going to tell me.
I felt him shrug again. "Nothing that bad, really."
"Then why do you hate her so much?"
"I don't hate her," he said. His fingers tightened around my waist. "Not for me."
I didn't understand what he was saying, but maybe it didn't matter. It was between him and Lilly, after all. And Lilly was the last person I wanted to discuss at this moment.
How could she? How could she have kept this from me? Started going out with Bernt behind my back?
I was such a fool.
"This sucks, Alex," I whispered. "Seeing the person you like, completely in love with someone else... Someone who was supposed to be your friend. It sucks."
He stroked my head softly, not speaking for a while. "I know," he said finally.
For the first time since it had become our 'thing', I skipped our Saturday girls' night out, too. It was unlikely that Lilly would be there – she had gone AWOL on us for too long for that – but I hadn't felt like hanging out with people who would inevitably ask me about Lilly, or start talking about her.
And that was how I found myself hovering outside Alex's office door once again. I hadn't come back in two days – not since I'd kissed him in front of Lilly, and then cried my eyes out in his arms.
Thinking back, it was a little embarrassing, to say the least. And I knew he had been angry about the kiss – he had only swallowed his anger with me because I clearly hadn't been in the right frame of mind to endure a lecture from him at that point in time. But what about now? If I walked in now, would he blow up at me?
Well – I wasn't going to find out if I kept standing out here like this, was I?
I pushed into the room, hesitating when I saw that he was standing at his desk, bag in hand. He looked ready to leave.
"Hi," I squeaked out, when he did nothing to acknowledge my arrival, even though he must've heard the door open.
He turned around to look at me. "Hi."
Uncomfortable under his scrutiny, I let out a choked laugh. "You really are here every day."
"I'm leaving," he said, reaching over to turn off the monitor. "I don't stay that long on Saturdays."
"Oh." I moved out of the room when he did, but hesitated behind him, knowing I should be leaving, but not exactly wanting to. I didn't want to be alone tonight.
He locked up in silence, taking his time with it. I listened to the clack of the locks turning and ran my fingers along the window panes fixed into the wall next to his door, wondering why the words that had always flowed so easily out of me when I was around him were now gone.
Finally done with locking up, Alex turned to me. "Why are you here?"
"I..." Biting my lip, I shrugged. "I guess... I didn't want to be alone tonight."
"What about your friends?"
I looked down at the floor. "You are my friend," I said.
He went quiet. I peered up at him through my eyelashes. He looked to be thinking about something.
"I'm sorry I kissed you," I blurted out, then cringed at the way it had come out. "I mean... Not that it was bad, or something – I just... I shouldn't have done it..." The more I'd gone on, the softer my voice had gotten, until the last few words had been almost inaudible.
Alex's gaze moved over my face, searching my expression for something. "Forget it," he said, looking away briefly, then back at me again, as if he couldn't quite make up his mind regarding the next course of action.
"Are we... are we still friends?" I asked in a small voice.
I heard Alex inhale deeply, before he said, "Yeah. Of course."
"Okay." I looked back down at the floor.
He stood there, not offering a new line of conversation, but not exactly leaving either.
"Are you going home now?" I asked, with a quick peek at him.
"Back to my room, yeah."
"Can I... come with?"
He hesitated for so long that I rushed to dismiss my own request, "Never mind, I just..."
"Yeah," he said abruptly, cutting over my excuses. "Why not?"
Half an hour later, I was sitting on the floor of Alex's room in the graduate residence halls, wondering what had possessed me to invite myself into his room. He had never been considered good company even when he hadn't been mad at me, but, in the mood he was now, he was barely tolerable.
It had been better when he had been broodingly silent, seated on the floor with his legs stretched out in front of him, nursing a can of beer. But after two cans of beer, he had suddenly gotten chatty. And not the good kind of chatty.
The interrogating kind of chatty.
"So – what differentiates someone like Bernt from someone like me? You'd date him in a heartbeat, but not me?"
"Well, he's Swedish," I said, trying to joke, to lighten the mood that had seemed to settle over him like a dreary cloud.
"Sorry I'm not Swedish enough for you, then." For the first time, I heard the anger in his voice.
My gaze flew up, startled at his vehemence. There was something simmering deep within his eyes. "What are you... I was joking."
It didn't look like he had heard what I'd said. His expression was rapidly darkening with every second. "Must a guy have blond hair, blue eyes, and a foreign accent to be able to win your heart?"
Stung, I denied, "I'm not that superficial." Everyone had a 'type', right? I couldn't help that all the boys I had fallen for were similar in certain ways.
He snorted a humourless laugh. "Yes, you are."
"You can't help who you fall for."
I saw a muscle in his cheek twitch. "No, you can't," he agreed, "but you can open your mind to accept things that you would normally discount."
I frowned. Where had this come from? What was he talking about?
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. "Forget it," he muttered. "People only see what they want to. You're never going to get it."
"What?" Hating the pained crease in his brow, I scrambled over to sit beside him. I laid a hand on his arm, wanting his attention. "Get what?"
He opened his eyes and looked at me, but he shook his head.
"What?" I repeated, my voice pitching in frustration.
I saw him look at me again – really look. "You still like him, don't you? Even though you know he's with Lilly now."
I pressed my lips together so that I wouldn't have to answer. But it turned out that Alex wasn't waiting for an answer.
"What are you going to do, then? Keep pining over him even though he can never be yours?"
"I..." I frowned at the floor. "Obviously I don't want to. I want to get over him, but you can't just turn off your feelings like that. My mind says one thing, but my heart..."
"Yeah," Alex said sardonically. "Your heart still beats for him."
"I wouldn't call it that–" I started to protest, but he had gone on another tangent.
"Or maybe you're hoping he and Lilly will break up soon? Then he still wouldn't be yours, but he wouldn't be hers, either."
"I–" He was changing tack so quickly that I could barely keep up with his train of thought. Where was all this coming from?
"Or maybe it's less about liking him now, and more about not losing to Lilly..."
"Of course it's about me liking him!" I burst out, indignant. "This isn't about Lilly, except that she went behind my back with the boy she knew I liked."
"How can you know if it's him you really like, instead of some exotic impression of him you've built up in your head? You've never even talked to him properly."
"I just... I've seen him around – I know what he's like, okay? It's not because of his nationality–"
"So," Alex barrelled on with his ruthless interrogation, "it's not about his nationality? If he were here right now... If he wanted to sleep with you... You wouldn't do it?"
I sputtered. "What? What kind of a question is that? What kind of girl do you think–"
"You would, wouldn't you?" He closed his eyes again, a bitter smile curling at his lips. "You would, just because he's Swedish. Exotic. Even though you know absolutely nothing about him."
"That's not true," I said. But I had a sinking feeling that he was right. If it had been Bernt here, right now – if Bernt had been interested... Maybe, I would have. But it wouldn't be because he was Swedish, or that he had blue eyes – would it? I had a crush on him… It was normal to want to… wasn't it? "I know... I know stuff about him–"
He snorted. "Oh, yeah? What about his dreams, ambitions... What does he want to do after graduation?"
"I..." I scowled. Those were hard questions. "I don't know those things about you, either," I pointed out. Although I did sort of know what Alex wanted to do after he finished his Master's. He wanted to go on to do a Ph.D. He wanted to be a researcher. He'd let that slip, in one of our previous conversations.
"Ah, but you wouldn't be so eager to jump into bed with me," he said.
I tossed my head defiantly. "Maybe I would."
He froze. Slowly, he opened his eyes. I had managed to shock him.
A terrible sense of determination came over me. I climbed into his lap, repeating, in a softer tone of voice, "Maybe I would."
Fast dilating brown eyes stared back at me. He should have pushed me away then, but he didn't.
I leaned in and kissed him.
He sat, stock-still, unmoving for several moments before his hand slid up the back of my neck and pressed me harder against him.
And then he started kissing me back.
I opened my eyes and stared blankly past his shoulder. A shiver ran down my spine – not the kind from the cold, even though I was cold, from the hint of a chill whispering across my bare skin.
"That happened because you were trying to prove a point, weren't you?" he asked quietly. He was still holding me in his lap, looking solemnly into my eyes. Our clothing was scattered on the floor all around us.
"You're a guy; you just scored. You're supposed to be smug, not trying to analyse what happened," I told him. Outwardly, my voice was calm. Inside, I was freaking out. Shit, shit, shit. I had slept with Lilly's ex-boyfriend.
And he had barely even shifted from his original position on the floor. I had practically clambered onto him and...
A muscle spasmed in his jaw. He lowered his eyes to take a deep breath, before looking back at my face. "Was it good for you?" His expression was stoic, but I caught a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes.
That was probably the moment when it all sank in.
There was something in my chest that felt heavy and full. I wanted to cry. It had been his first time, and I had slept with him to prove a point. "Yeah," I whispered, even as my eyes filled up. "It was great."
He touched two fingers to my cheekbone. "Why are you crying, then? Did I..."
"Shut up, Alex." I blinked, and the tears leaked out of the corners of my eyes and straight down the sides of my face. I reached up to wipe away the remaining wetness. "Stop being so nice."
"Okay?" He sounded bewildered, but he fell silent. We sat in silence for a while, listening to each other breathe.
Finally, I bent my head and kissed him softly on the tip of his shoulder blade. His skin was warm beneath my lips. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
"Why didn't you sleep with Lilly?" I asked, instead of replying.
I felt him go still. "I thought I told you never to talk about that again," he said, after a long pause.
"Were you waiting for a girl you really loved, or–"
"I'm not talking about this with you," he sounded disgruntled. And after a moment, "I wasn't waiting. Guys don't wait – the sooner you do it, the better."
"So why didn't you?"
He was silent for a while. "It just didn't happen," he said finally.
"You and Lilly dated for, what, three months?" And here I'd thought guys always started pressuring for sex after two. In their relationship, Lilly had been the one who had wanted to do it. I would know – she had complained about it to me enough. "Why didn't–"
"I'm not talking about this with you," he repeated, pushing me away from him. I fell off his lap, still watching him.
"I said," he was getting angry now, "that I don't want to talk about it. Just because we had sex doesn't give you the right to pry into my business."
I hesitated, a little hurt by his declaration. He knew everything about my business. "Okay," I said, turning to retrieve my clothing, frowning to keep the tears from escaping my eyes.
We dressed in silence. When Alex next spoke, he was sitting on his bed, looking at his hands. He'd obviously had time to think while I had been struggling with getting into my clothes. Guys had it easy when it came to things like getting dressed.
"You slept with me just to prove a point, didn't you? 'It's not about his nationality – look, I'm fine with local guys too'."
I shifted from foot to foot, feeling the pricks from the barb of truth in his words. "I wouldn't call it that."
He shook his head. "You forget," he said. "I've been here from the beginning... I know everything."
"You only know what happened with Bernt, and with Lilly... That's not everything."
"That's everything that matters in this situation, isn't it?" He fixed a withering gaze on me. "Bernt and me... We're just expendable pawns in your female mind games."
"I'm not playing any mind games," I retorted. "I don't know what Lilly did to you, but don't lump me in with her kind."
"Her kind? You're not that much different from Lilly, you know?" He didn't give me a chance to deny it before he went on, "Self-centred, doing what you want without thinking about others..."
I folded my arms across my chest. What was he saying? I was empathetic. I might not have been a saint, but I tried my best to understand things from other perspectives. I hadn't done what she had. I wouldn't. "I'm not like her at all! I do think about other people. I've wanted Bernt from the beginning," I pointed out, and saw him flinch a little. "But I stayed away from him, didn't I? Especially after she started to act interested in him, too..."
"Maybe you just didn't want him enough," Alex said. There was a tinge of darkness in his tone, a strain that he couldn't quite hide.
"I wanted him more than I've wanted anything else," I said, even though I wasn't sure I had. But at some point in time, it had felt that way.
There was a stillness in Alex's face that made me frown. His brown eyes stood out starkly against his skin as he bore his gaze into mine. "Did you? Then why didn't you go for it?"
"I just told you. Lilly was interested in him too, and I–"
"Is that the best excuse you can come up with?" he asked, almost sneering now.
My heart seized up. Why was he being so mean? Hadn't he always been by my side, watching me struggle with my feelings for Bernt when I'd found out that my good friend liked him too? Hadn't he always been on my side, especially after seeing Lilly and Bernt together? My hands curled into fists. Was he betraying me too? "Why are you being like this?"
"Because I think it's time for you to face a few hard truths about yourself," he said, tone hard and unrelenting. "You're not as considerate or selfless as you seem to believe you are."
That sparked some defiance in me. "Who are you to tell me who I am?"
He looked stonily at me. "I've heard you talk about Bernt, about Lilly, about yourself... I know you."
"You think you know me," I corrected. "But who really knows anyone else? What you think you know is just what I chose to tell you."
"No," he said, "what I know is what was in-between the lines of what you thought you were choosing to tell me."
There was no chance of me understanding what he'd just said. "Now who's the one playing mind games?"
"You can read a lot from what someone isn't saying," he said simply. "Probably more than what they do say."
"This goes both ways, doesn't it?" I challenged. "What about you? Every time I ask you about Lilly, you clam up. What does that say about you?"
True to form, he snapped his mouth shut, glaring at me.
"Are you picking a fight with me because I was prying about you and Lilly?" Because he was. Deliberately picking a fight.
"No," he said lowly, "I'm just sick of your utter blindness, when it comes to things that are not related to your damned foreign guys."
"What are you talking about?" Why was he still so hung up on foreign guys? Hadn't I shown him that I was completely fine with guys who weren't foreign, too...?
Wasn't that what all those questions of his had been about, from the start?
I saw the knuckles of his hand start to turn white from the pressure he was exerting as he clenched his hands into fists. "I'm right, aren't I? You slept with me partly because you wanted to prove a point, and partly to pay Lilly back for hurting you."
I pressed my lips together. I wasn't touching that with a ten-foot pole. Besides, he was to blame, a little bit, too. If he hadn't goaded me like that, I wouldn't have felt the overwhelming need to prove something to him.
"Just because someone hurts you, doesn't give you a reason to pass that hurt onto others."
I opened my mouth, then closed it again when I realised how he'd phrased it: 'pass that hurt onto others'. He wasn't criticising me for trying to hurt Lilly. "Who else am I hurting?"
A corner of his mouth turned up. "Guess," he said simply.
I stared at him. "I don't understand. Are you talking about yourself?"
He shrugged. "There's no point in telling you, if you can't figure it out for yourself."
"Why are you talking in circles?" I snapped, frustrated. "I thought it was the girl that was supposed to act all ambiguous and shit."
"And I thought the girl was supposed to be more sensitive."
"Not when you are acting over-sensitive enough for the both of us," I sniped.
He shot me a half-lidded glare, one that told me he was fed up with what he saw as my glaring flaws.
"Are you still in love with Lilly, or something?" I flung at him. This was the only scenario in which his sudden anger made sense. "Me hurting her hurts you, or some sort of mushy crap?"
Alex was shaking his head; staring at me like he couldn't believe what was coming out of my mouth. "What the fuck?"
"If that's not it – then what?" I challenged.
"Are you that blind?" he bit out.
"If you're not going to tell me–"
"I've tried to tell you so many times!" he exploded. Twin slashes of colour had appeared on his cheekbones, and his ears were also getting dangerously red. "But you insist on being blind to everything that doesn't involve your beloved foreign guys–"
"Why do you keep harping on the foreign guys?" I couldn't keep the snark out of my tone, "Do you have an inferiority complex, or something?"
He had turned his full glare on me. "And whose fault is that?"
I threw up my hands. "What the fuck are you trying to say? Is everything my fault now?"
He shook his head in disgust. "You're so self-absorbed, you can't even see what's been in front of you all along. You're exactly like Lilly," he added with a grimace. "And I've had enough of girls like her to last me a lifetime."
"I am nothing like her," I snapped.
"How can you say that when you treat people the exact same way she does?"
"When have I ever treated people as expendable?"
He just stared at me. After a silence that dragged on for far too long, he said lowly, "When haven't you? Falling for guys based on superficial reasons, and then taking what you want with no regards for anybody else's feelings... When it comes to this... you could be her clone."
"I'm–" I was so offended at being called a clone, and what was more – Lilly's clone, a film of red had spread itself over my eyes. "Well – what about you? You sit on your high horse and judge me for my personal preferences, even though you said you wouldn't... And you know everything about me, but when I ask you about one tiny thing, you either clam up or flare up out of nowhere!"
Without waiting for a reply, I stalked towards the door, yanking it open violently. "You know what? You are the one who's exactly like Lilly," I said, as a parting jab. "You two should get back together – you deserve each other."
"Yeah, you would love that, wouldn't you?" His angry voice filtered through from behind, just as I was halfway through the door. "With the two of us out of the way... you could have your own happy little ending with your fucking Swedish guy."
I slammed the door in my wake.
Ever since I had first seen them together – and kissed Alex right in front of her – Lilly had taken to spending the nights away from our room. So when I slammed back into our room fifteen minutes after storming out of Alex's, the sight of her standing in the room took me completely aback.
Lilly, it seemed, didn't have the same problem. "What are you doing here?" she asked, in a tone that could never be misconstrued as friendly.
"I live here," I retorted, finding my tongue at long last. "More than you have been lately."
"I didn't want to see you," she muttered.
"Excuse me," I said, crossing my arms across my chest in an offended pose, "that should be my line."
That seemed to have been the thrown gauntlet for her.
"Your line? Your line? How does anything I did match up to what you did? How could you go for my ex?" she snapped, rearing forward with glittering eyes, all pretence at civility gone. "You really want my leftovers that much?"
I was offended on Alex's behalf. "Don't talk about him like that – he isn't anyone's leftovers!"
She ignored my defence of Alex. "How could you?" she repeated, and had the gall to look hurt. "He's my ex. He's supposed to be off-limits!"
I bit my lip, the feeling of guilt an uncomfortable coil sitting at the bottom of my stomach. But I shook it off – if she hadn't gone behind my back and gotten with Bernt, I never would have kissed Alex in the first place. "So your hurt is real, but mine isn't?"
She broke eye contact. "Bernt was never yours," she said, even though she was starting to sound uncomfortable now.
"You knew I liked him first," I couldn't stop the words from coming out in a sort of whine. Inwardly, I cringed, but I plowed on, "Everyone knew I liked him."
"So?" She tossed her hair, even though the action looked forced, like she was deliberately trying to seem flippant. "I was just being friendly... And things happened. It's not my fault."
In her defiant tone, I read: it's not my fault he likes me better.
"Okay," I said, trying to emulate her casual air. "Fine. And you broke up with Alex a long time ago. It's not my fault he's with me now."
Except he wasn't, the rational part of my brain whispered. He wasn't even talking to me anymore.
She scowled at me. "That's different. I was with Alex. He was mine. You knew going after him would be a problem. Besides, you're with him now just to spite me, aren't you?"
"God!" I exclaimed. "Why does everything have to be about you? Have you ever thought that maybe I do like Alex for who he is? That it has nothing to do with you at all?"
She raised an eyebrow at me. "Really?"
I fell silent. The words I'd unthinkingly blurted out replayed themselves in my mind.
Lilly misunderstood my silence. "You think I'm selfish for going after Bernt even though you liked him, too," she said – her first direct acknowledgement of my feelings for Bernt – "but what about you? Isn't it worse to string Alex along just to get back at me? We may not have ended on good terms, but I care about what happens to him, you know."
I didn't bother explaining. I couldn't have cared less about what she thought right then. But there was one thing I wanted to know. "What the hell happened between you and Alex?"
Lily's lips tightened, but she didn't say anything. I didn't know what I had expected. Of course, Lilly wasn't going to start spilling her heart out to me in the middle of an argument. And this was, for all purposes, the beginning of the end of our friendship.
"Fine, whatever." Lilly made a furious, impatient gesture with her hand. "If you want to be with Alex, be my guest. It's not going to last, anyway. He gets bored way too easily."
My eyes narrowed. "You mean, he got bored with you? That was why you broke up?"
She sniffed. "He has no taste."
He had probably gotten sick of her constant demands. Now that the blinders had been ripped off, I could see the truth for what it was – Lilly was high-maintenance. And she wasn't a very good girlfriend. Neither was she a very good friend, apparently.
"And he's so unnatural," she went on. "I've never met a guy who was so uninterested in sex. Maybe he's gay."
He wasn't interested in sex with you, I thought to myself. He had seemed plenty... up for it, the day we had slept together, right there on the floor of his room. I bit my lip to stifle the grin that was threatening to emerge.
He hadn't wanted Lilly, not even after three months together. But he'd wanted me.
Even if he'd blown up at me afterwards, I still had that, at least.
"Just because he wouldn't sleep with you doesn't mean he's not interested in the entire female species."
She slung the night bag she had been haphazardly packing across her shoulders. "Whatever."
"Off to your boyfriend's?" I asked, deceptively lightly.
She pursed up her lips, as if considering whether to take the bait. "I won't be back for a while," was all she said, in the end.
Her evasion had been unnecessary, as it turned out. I had barely moved out of the way to let her pass before I saw another figure heading down the hallway towards us.
Lilly muttered an expletive under her breath. "I told you to wait downstairs," she hissed at Bernt, when he came to a stop beside her.
"You were taking too long," he replied. His gaze landed on me, standing a feet away, leaning against the door frame.
"Hi," I said. The first word I had ever spoken to him – and it had been after my crush on him had dissipated. Go figure.
He looked surprised that I was acknowledging him for the first time after so long, but he responded, "Hi."
He still had that melodic accent and those dazzling blue eyes that had sent my heart rate soaring so long ago, but now... Now my heartbeat remained steady, rhythmically thumping away – waiting for something else, someone else, to set it off.
Alex had been wrong – my heart didn't beat for Bernt anymore.
And that, I thought as I watched Lilly loop her arm through Brent's as they walked away together, was that.
He wasn't here.
This was a first – for every night since that first time he'd reluctantly invited me to wallow in his office instead of alone at the gazebo, he had been here. Every time I had come, the light had been shining in his office.
But not today.
I tried the door, out of habit, even though I knew it would be locked. It was. I leaned my forehead against the cool, smooth surface for a while, then slid down to sit on the floor. He always had work to do, didn't he? He would have to show up eventually.
I didn't know how long I sat there waiting, but I must have dozed off. When I next came to, sunlight was streaming in from the windows.
What the hell. I had slept out here in the corridor the entire night. I raised my hands up high and stretched. There was a crick in my neck from sleeping upright.
Where was Alex? Why hadn't he come by? Had I gotten him all wrong? Was he not a workaholic, after all?
Just as that thought flitted through my mind, I heard footsteps tapping down the hallway. I swung my head towards the direction the sound was coming from and waited.
Don't get your hopes up, I warned myself internally. It might not be him.
Then I shook my head at myself, because who else was crazy enough to come to the office this early on a Monday morning? It had to be him.
Finally, Alex rounded the corner and stopped short when he saw me sitting by his door. He was holding a stack of papers in one hand. His hair and clothes were rumpled; his eyes tired. Had he spent the entire night working on his experiments?
He stared at me. "You..."
I scrambled to my feet. "I... You weren't here last night," I mumbled.
"Why..." He shook his head and changed tack, "How long have you been here?"
"Um..." I didn't want to tell him I had waited the whole night for him. How pathetic. "A... A while."
"Is everything..." Then he seemed to remember something and his expression hardened. "Never mind." Without another word, he unlocked the door and stepped in.
I followed timidly, not sure if my presence would be welcome. He was at his desk when I entered, packing up the papers he had brought into his drawers. He didn't look at me even when I came to stand right beside him.
I bit my lip. "Alex..."
Apparently done with his task, he slammed the drawer shut. Then he swung around and headed for the door. He was ignoring me.
I felt a pang of hurt stab me right in the chest. He had always listened to me, even in the beginning, even when he hadn't wanted to. "Alex?" My voice wavered.
His hand reached for the door, then he stopped. I saw his shoulders slump in a sigh before he turned slowly around. "What?" In direct contrast to his almost hesitant actions, his tone was abrupt.
I miss you. But I didn't dare say it. What if he turned back around and walked away? "Are you still mad at me?" I asked instead.
He looked at me standing by his desk, fingers clutching the edges so hard that they had turned bloodless. He shrugged.
"I..." I didn't know what to say. He looked so closed off, so like a complete stranger. "I saw Lilly on Saturday for the first time since... Well, since. She's been staying with Bernt–"
An expression of disdain came over his face. "I'm done being your Aunt Agony," he said, turning away. "Take your love problems somewhere else."
"Alex," I said, but he wasn't stopping this time. I stood watching him leave, tears springing into my eyes. I hadn't wanted to talk about Lilly and Bernt, but I hadn't known what else to say. It wasn't like I could tell him what I had realised just the other day–
Or... Could I?
Why couldn't I?
But... What if he rejected me? What if it ruined the tentative relationship we had built up over the past few months? What if he never wanted to talk to me, or see me, ever again?
Then again, wasn't that already happening now? He was going to walk out of my life if I let him. And it was this realisation that made up my mind for me.
To hell with this stupid fear of rejection. If he rejected me, I could bury myself in a hole and cry myself to death afterward. But at least I would've known that I had tried. I hadn't even tried with Bernt, because – a part of me could admit it now – I hadn't felt a particularly strong motivation to start anything with him. But with Alex... Alex was worth the heartbreak.
I shoved myself away from the table and stumbled forward. My hand flew out and barely managed to grasp the corner of Alex's jacket – the same jacket he had once placed over me – before he went through the door. Thinking the corner of his clothing was caught on something, he absently swiped at his jacket without looking – and came into contact with my skin. Jerking, as if in surprise, he turned back and saw my hand curled around the hem of his jacket, holding on so tightly that my fingers were turning white.
Slowly, he lifted his head to look me in the face.
"Don't go?" I whispered, scared that if I opened my mouth to speak too loudly, my heart would fall out. I felt curiously lightheaded – my pulse was pounding away in my head. Thump, thump, thump – it went. It was like my heart had reawakened, and was telling me – this is the one. This is the guy I'm beating for.
"Why?" His expression was still stoic. "Is there no one else willing to listen to all your–"
"It's not that." I pressed my lips together, not knowing how to put this ache in my chest into words. "I miss you," I finally said, but the words sounded so flat, so inadequate. I tried again. "You... You are important to me," I said.
Alex turned to face me fully, even though he was still focusing guarded brown eyes on me, like he wasn't sure where I was going with this. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," I was still whispering. My fingers loosened their grip on his jacket; my chin dipping so that my gaze was fixed on the ground. I couldn't look at him, I found, as I said this next part. "Probably even more important than Bernt."
There was a pause – a long beat in which he did nothing. My heart was falling with every breath, and I found myself standing with my hands fisted by my sides, head tilted toward the floor, eyes squeezed tightly shut. So this was how real heartbreak felt like.
Then I felt large, warm hands frame the sides of my face. I opened my eyes, feeling the newly-formed tears already on my eyelashes, just in time to see Alex bend down towards me and press his lips to mine.
His kiss was warm, gentle. With a little sob, I threw my arms around him and kissed him back.
When we broke away for breath, he swept his thumb over my cheek and said simply, "You're important to me, too."
Suddenly shy, I dropped my gaze from his. We both knew what those words really meant. There were some things you didn't need to say out loud. The emotion shining in his eyes said it all for him.
But... What now?
As if reading my mind, Alex slid his hand down my cheek, down my neck, across my shoulder, down my arm... until he reached my hand. He held it lightly, giving me the option to break free if I wanted to – asking a silent question.
I smiled through my tears, and curled my fingers around his more securely.
He looked down at our clasped hands. "More important than Bernt?" he asked then, as if seeking reassurance.
"Yes," I said. I found myself anxious to clarify, "You know, I wasn't that upset about Bernt."
He scoffed. "Yeah. You were crying so hard, you even stopped breathing for a while. Definitely not upset at all."
"Really," I said, frowning earnestly at him. "I wasn't. It was more about Lilly. She... I thought our friendship meant more to her than that." I grimaced. "Calling it a 'betrayal' makes it sound so... serious, like it's such a big deal... But that's pretty much what it was, wasn't it? She chose a boy over our friendship."
"So did you," he said quietly.
She did it first, I thought, but I realised how much of a hypocrite that made me sound. "Yeah," I murmured, eventually. "I guess I did."
Maybe some people were worth sacrificing others for. Maybe Bernt, to Lilly, was like what Alex had become to me. And if that were true, how could I blame her for her choice? It didn't matter that I would never have gotten with Alex if it hadn't been for her defection; I was with him now, and he was her ex. I had broken the girl code.
Alex was watching me knowingly. "Regretting it?"
I tightened my grip on his hand. "Never."
"Never say never." But he squeezed my hand back.
I frowned at him. "Why are you being such a downer? You want something to go wrong?"
"No," he said, sighing a little. "I just think..."
"What?" I demanded, when he left his sentence hanging.
"You like foreign guys," he said simply, after a while. His thumb was moving softly, back and forth, over the skin of my palm. "You've always liked them."
He shrugged. "So you'll get bored."
"Of you?" I asked, disbelievingly.
He shrugged again.
"So... If I fall for someone like Bernt again, you're just going to give up? You're not going to fight for me?"
"If someone else tries to steal you away – yeah, I'll fight him every way I can," he said. "But if you fall for him too... If it was your choice... There's nothing I can do about it, is there?"
I was silent for a while. He had an insecure streak I never would've guessed at. But what he'd said... also meant that he still thought I was fickle. Prone to falling for other guys – foreign guys. He didn't really trust in my feelings for him.
"That's what..." His voice cracked a little, and he had to stop to clear his throat. "That's what happened with Lilly."
Startled by this confession, I glanced up at his face. His eyes were shuttered, but there was residual bitterness framing the corner of his lips. "She was always falling for other guys, flirting with them–"
It hit me then. This was the true reason behind their break up – a complete misunderstanding. Lilly hadn't understood Alex's subtle ways of showing he cared, so she'd set about trying to make him jealous by flirting with other guys in front of him. And that had backfired spectacularly – Alex, for his part, had thought that Lilly had lost interest in him and had retreated even more from her.
What a couple of idiots.
"She was just trying to make you jealous," I told him, before I thought the better of it.
Hesitant now that I realised I could be digging my own grave, I scowled. What if, after I told him the truth, he wanted to get back with Lilly? But she was happy with Bernt now, wasn't she? Would she want him back?
Stupid question – who wouldn't want Alex back?
"Kay?" Alex was looking at me questioningly. But he didn't look overly concerned about the topic at hand, and that was what made me open my mouth again.
"You know... Your break up with Lilly – it wasn't what either of you thought. She thought you were bored of her because you didn't do any of the romantic stuff she wanted you to do. And the more you wouldn't sleep with her–" which, come to think of it, I was now beyond grateful for– "the more she tried to make you jealous by flirting with every other guy around... She wasn't really interested in any of them. It was all a big misunderstanding."
I looked up at Alex, and saw that he was staring contemplatively into the distance. A light of realisation was dawning in his eyes as he digested what I'd revealed to him.
"If you go back to her now," I said fiercely, feeling tears prick my eyes again at the thought of losing him just as I'd found him, "I will fight you every step of the way."
That made him swing back to look at me, eyes slightly widened in surprise. "I'm not going back to her," he said. "I told you... What's over is over. We were never really a good match, anyway."
I bit my lip. "Okay, then. Good."
He cast me a curious look. "But you would fight me, if I wanted to?" He looked like he was holding back a smile.
"I'd knock you unconscious and tie you to my bed," I said, somehow managing to get the words out with a straight face. "By the end of it, you would never want to leave."
His lips twitched. "I'll keep that in mind."
"There are some people," I said, sincerely now, "who are worth fighting for. If Lilly wanted you back... I would fight her, too."
"You didn't fight her for Bernt."
I looked at him seriously, "Because I didn't want him enough."
He didn't smile then, but his eyes softened. He tugged at my hand, and I moved closer wordlessly. With a sigh, he slid his arm around my waist and pulled me flush against his side. I stared up at him, at the shadows in his expression, at his dark brown hair and brown eyes. He was right – he was so physically different from the usual blond, blue-eyed guys that I tended to fall for. But... I had never known any of them – not properly. I had fallen for their looks, but I had fallen for Alex's soul.
"You know," I said, after a little silence, "I read somewhere that brown eyes are also blue eyes, just underneath a layer of melanin."
He rolled his very brown eyes. "If thinking about it this way makes you feel better that you ended up with a boring, brown-eyed guy... Why not?"
"I'm not trying to make myself feel better about anything," I objected. "I don't have to. You're the best there is for me." Then, to take my mind off the ridiculously mushy sentence I had just uttered, I added, "Besides, beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
He finally smiled. "Is that your way of telling me I'm ugly?"
"No!" I placed my hands by the sides of his face and yanked him forward. Sure, he didn't have those pretty blue eyes I had always been so intrigued by, but his brown eyes weren't just a colour to me – they were familiar, warm – and they were deeply set into a face with sharp features and firm jawline... He was kind of good looking. It had just taken me a while to realise that. "You know what? I think you may be even better looking than Bernt."
He let out a laugh then, and touched his lips lightly to the tip of my nose. "Now I know you must like me a lot. Weren't you just waxing poetic about how incredibly handsome Swedes were, up till a few weeks ago?"
I felt my face heat up. "They are a good-looking bunch," I muttered. "Anyone would look ugly next to them."
"Well, leave them to it, then. We can be ugly together."
I spluttered, indignant. "Are you saying I'm ugly–"
But he leaned in and kissed me so thoroughly that the protest died on my lips. Then he pulled back, breathing hard, and looked at me.
"You're probably not the prettiest girl in the world," he said, leaning back in to bump noses with me when I scrunched up my nose at his decidedly unromantic declaration. "I mean, you're definitely not."
I glared at him. "Thanks." I knew I wasn't really pretty, much less the prettiest girl in the world, but he wasn't supposed to be this direct.
Alex smiled and pulled me into his arms. I went willingly, resting my forehead against his shoulder blade. Then I heard him whisper in my ear, his words caressing my skin and settling deep into my heart,
"But you're beautiful to me."
I felt the tears flood my eyes.
"You're beautiful to me, too," I whispered back.
And, this time, I wasn't talking about the way he looked.
A/N: This story... is pretty much based on true events (well, except for the Alex part). I've somehow found myself in some type situation a Swedish boy... and of course that's perfect story fodder. Ah well.
The title is from The Dirt Radicals' 'Pop-Punk Left Me In A Pop-Funk'. I started this story with the intention of writing about something quite different from what it turned out to be... but oh well. And, eh, I must seem like I have some sort of fetish for Swedish boys (three stories with Swedes in them so far...), but it's a complete coincidence, I swear. I started learning some Swedish back in... 2010, I think? Or 2011 – the year I also wrote Facebook Official. But, yeah, total coincidence that I ended up crushing on a Swede boy and writing yet another story about him. Although I admit to still being quite obsessed with the Nordics at this point in time. I'm still trying to learn Norwegian and Finnish, with quite unfortunate results, haha.
Thanks for reading, as always, and please review? :)