Somehow, Aelita quickly became a part of every piece of Jeremie's life. He wasn't sure how it happened, but he wasn't about to complain. They didn't sit next to each other in classesthat was determined by last nameand he still ate by himself at lunch, but instead of spending most of his time in his bedroom, he found himself sitting with her. They studied together, usually, and joked about their schoolwork and plans to depose whichever one of them had the top rank in class this week.
He hung out with Odd and his friends more, too. Not on purpose, but because they hung around Aelita, and Aelita hung around Jeremie. He didn't mind that, either. Odd was annoying, but he sort of grew on youonce you got past his singing. And Ulrich and Yumi were actually really nice. Having someone else to talk to was nice, and watching Aelita light up around them was a grand treat.
He couldn't help but like it better when they were alone, though, especially when they sat in his room together on his bed, talking back-to-back as they worked. Her shoulders were comforting and solid against his own; with her there, he could finally believe she wouldn't just blow away in the breeze.
It was easy to believe, sitting there with her, that they had always been this way. The only way he knew time had passed were the three new levels of his video game.
Spring break was coming up, which meant every teacher was trying to stuff as much knowledge into their head and then test them on it before they left. A nefarious trick, but Jeremie had never had any trouble with it; he liked school too much.
Aelita might have made studying harder, but when he was with her, he usually found it easier to concentrate. The voice in the back of his head that always told him he was too somethingtoo dorky, too scrawny, too stupidshut up around her. It was impossible to be insecure when she looked at him like she was the one who couldn't believe her luck.
Jeremie had been prepared for everything except a last-minute essay test. English literature was his worst subject; he only took it because some form of humanities was compulsory, and he had already taken all the history classes at his level. And now he had to finish The Old Man and the Sea and figure out some kind of position on it.
Jeremie was not a procrastinator or a slacker, but he could not get himself to finish the book. He had no problem reading in Englishhis parents had raised him to be bilingualbut it was so unutterably dull he couldn't seem to get through more than a paragraph at a time without wanting to throw the book at the wall.
Instead of studying, he found himself sitting on his laptop, shooting furtive glances at the book as he tested the newest level of his game. It wasn't due to premiere for another three days, but he had finished it already and thus lost any way to distract himself.
Two knocks, one soft, one loud, came at his door. If anyone else knocked (not that anyone ever did), Jeremie wouldn't have bothered to get up, but that knock meant Aelita. Jeremie stood up so quickly he almost knocked over his laptop and opened the door. Aelita grinned at him over an armful of books. "Chemistry?" he asked. Chemistry was Aelita's least-favorite subjectbut she, unlike him, was unwilling to let her dislike get in the way of studying.
She nodded. He took her books, because it was the gentlemanly thing to do, and she slipped inside and sat on his bed. Jeremie set down her books and sighed. Aelita glanced at his computer screen, and a small smirk crossed her face. She tucked her legs up and rested her hand on her ankles. "I take it you have made no progress in The Old Man and the Sea?"
Jeremie shook his head, sitting not quite close enough beside her to touch. "Not a bit."
Aelita considered this. "Well," she said after a moment, "I haven't touched the list of organic compounds we're supposed to know. We should help each other." She picked up her chemistry book and nudged Jeremie's lit book toward him. "You read of this until you're sick of it, and then you can test me."
Aelita's list had a hundred items in alphabetical order. For their test, they would be given either the name of a chemical and have to describe it, or a description of what it looked like, what it was used for, or what it reacted with and give the name. It was, actually, a very efficient way to study. Every ten pages or so, when his disgust reached its pinnacle, he set aside his book and quizzed Aelita until she didn't know one. Then he went back to reading and she went back to muttering chemical qualities under her breath, punctuating each word with a tap of her pencil.
She looked awfully cute when she studied; she bit her lower lip and ignored the bits of hair falling into her eyes, all her concentration focused on her paper. That concentration was usually enough to shame Jeremie back into reading attentively. There would be plenty of time for that sort of thing later, when they were both sick of studying.
By the time they got to the V's, Jeremie, to his surprise, had finished the book. It was only about a hundred and ten pages, after all, but reading it alone had been so torturous he'd thought he'd have to resort to a frantic speed-read the day before the test. Now he had to figure out some kind of point to make about the book, but that could come later. He stretched out across the bed.
Aelita lifted her eyes from her paper. "Oh, dear, are you done already?" She looked down into his face; Jeremie smiled up at her, nodding. She tweaked his nose. "Well, that's no help to me."
"You can keep studying," said Jeremie. "I don't mind."
Aelita lifted up her paper and considered it, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. "Yes," she said absently, "but if you have nothing to do, there is no incentive for me to keep studying instead of just spending time with you. And I really should try and finish this today." She made a face. "I definitely won't want to do it later." She looked down into his face again, and her expression brightened. "I know! We can play a game."
Jeremie blinked. He had never been the sort to need anything to keep himself on trackhe had never really had anyone to study with before or any reason to do anything but study. "A game?" He sat up.
Aelita reached over and pushed his glasses up his nose before he could, grinning. "Yes! That way it still feels like we're doing something together, even if is mostly for my benefit." She rubbed her jaw. "Now
what should we do?" Jeremie shrugged, and she poked his nose again.
He wished he could touch her as casually as she did him, but when they weren't already snuggling in some manner, it seemed like there was some kind of barrier between them. "Well
how about I get something every time you get something wrong?"
Aelita cocked her head to the side. Her eyes had taken on a particular sparkle that had nothing to do with studying, but her voice was light and innocenta trick she had no doubt picked up from Odd. "Like what, Jeremie?"
He loved the way she said his name.
He swallowed. A kiss was the first response that came to mindbut they were not anywhere near kissing, and he didn't think he could ever get them there. Especially not like this. "UmI could ask you a question, I guess. And you have to answer."
Aelita's mouth twisted to the side; he couldn't tell if it was confusion or displeasure. But then she shrugged and scooted over beside him, so their shoulders touched. This, he had learned, was a cue for him to put his arm around her, and so he did, resting his cheek atop her hair. Aelita tucked her head into the gap between his shoulder and head, her eyes narrowing in concentration. He watched her eyes move over the paper and rubbed his hand slowly up and down her arm.
After a few minutes, Aelita nodded and set down the paper (Jeremie didn't need it to quiz her; this was a good way for him to study, too). "Okay. Go."
They started over from the beginning; Aelita got disulfiram wrong. She looked at him expectantly, and Jeremie realized that, though he had a thousand questions still unanswered, he had no idea what to ask her. "Um
" He sighed. "Have you got any other family?"
The look on her face made him regret the question immediately, but she didn't hesitate. "My mother's grandparents are still alive, but they don't know me. I'veI've thought about getting in touch with them, but it's
it's difficult. Daddy left me their address and everything, of course, but
She looked up; he started rubbing her arm again, to remind her he was still here. "Sometimes I feel like it's easier to be an orphan than part of a family, you know what I mean?" A shadow passed over her face. "Yumi's family fights all the time, and Ulrich's parents hardly ever speak to him. I might
I might miss my parents, and I wish I didn't have to stay here over the breaks, butit's easier to be alone than to be rejected."
"I can't imagine anybody rejecting you," he said softly.
She touched his face, smiling. "You're sweet. I always thought you would be."
She met his eyes for a moment, and then she picked up the paper and started reading again. As she studied, something began to form in the back of Jeremie's mind. Odd's words had been knocking around in the back of his skull for a while now. They seemed less and less important, but he was still curious. And this was probably the only way he would ever have the courage to ask.
Aelita set the paper down again, snapping him out of his thoughts. This time she got all the way to prednisone without a mistake. Jeremie's heart began to pound; she must have felt it, because she tilted her head back a little so she could look him in the eye better. Jeremie shifted so his face was over hers, only a few inches apart. "Aelita
" He cleared his throat. "When... when you came up and talked to me that first day, was itwas it just a random thing, or had you been wanting to for a while?"
She blinked, and then she shrugged, as though she hadn't expected the question. Her lips twitched. "For a while," she whispered, and there was that shyness in his eyes that made him like her all the more because it echoed the way he felt around her. She put her hand on his cheek and rested it there; he covered it with his own. "I always wanted to get to know you, butI thought you wanted to be left alone like I wanted to be left alone, so I did. But
" She blushed and dropped her eyes. "But it was just too good of an excuse to talk to you. And thenthe way you looked at me when I did it"
So Odd had been telling the truth. Jeremie felt light and giddy. Aelita looked up at him again, and he realized how close they were. He wanted to kiss her, and that made him back offhe didn't want to ruin his good fortune by showing her he had never kissed anyone, that he had never wanted to kiss anyone like he wanted to kiss her. "Um. Wherewhere were we?"
Aelita tilted her head to the side, her eyes twinkling like they had before, and this time she rattled off the definition of prednisone without a problem.
"With an i or an e?"
She got through the list on her next try, so they decided to change it up: Jeremie read her a random definition, and she gave him the chemical. Through this method, he learned her favorite color (pink, of course), the names of her parents (Waldo and Anthea), and how she first started hanging out with Odd (aiming for Sissi, he accidentally threw mashed potatoes in her face).
She messed up on triclosan. When he told her so, she sighed. "I think I'm getting sick of this," she muttered. "Now I remember why I don't like chemistry."
They were sitting side-by-side now; Jeremie had gotten a cramp in his neck, and this way was almost as good because it was easier to look at her. "We're almost done," he said in a soothing voice. "Anyway, I get to ask you something again, remember?"
She grinned. "Jeremie, that's the only thing I've enjoyed about this." She put her hand on his knee. "Ask away, brainiac."
Jeremie did not mind at all when she called him that. He put his hand on top of hers and thought about it. Her answer to his last serious question had dazzled him so much he'd forgotten everything else he'd wanted to ask her, but now that he thought of it, there was one more left. "
Why did you take me out to the Hermitage that day?" Aelita went very still, and Jeremie winced. Again, he'd let his own curiousity get in the way of her feelings.
But when she looked at him, she was smiling. "Do you mean 'was it the first thing I wanted to talk to about?'" Jeremie nodded. "No." She drew in a slow breath. "No, it wasn't." He pressed his cheek close to hers; she didn't look sad, but just in case
"It was Daddy's birthday. And I wanted to go in there, take a look aroundbecause obviously I haven't since he diedbut
I couldn't do it alone. And then
and then there you were."
She looked at him suddenly, and her eyes were fierce and bright and he wasn't even distracted by their proximity, the whisper of her breath on his skin. "And you'd let me sit with you, and you were so nice, so much more than I thought you'd be... I guess I went a little crazy. But you didn't care." She brushed her fingers over his cheek. Her touch felt different, somehow, and it made him blush.
Jeremie couldn't think of what to say; he was hypnotized by her hand, which was moving down his neck and across his shoulders, like there was actually something worth touching there. As always when faced with surprises, he turned to facts. "Um. It'sit's yellow. You can use it to make dyes and as"
Her face was closer to his now; more importantly, her lips were closer to his, and the look in her eyes made him break out in gooseflesh. It was not a bad feeling, not at all. "As?" she whispered, although she had put her other hand on his face and was working the other one up under his shirt.
"A f-fungicide," he breathed. Their noses touched; she rested her closer hand on his throat. His pulse beat wildly against her hand. Trembling, he put his hand on her waist.
Aelita smiled beatifically. "Xanthene."
His hand was clutching her shirt now. He was terribly aware of everywhere their bodies touched: shoulders; hips; knees. His other hand came up to her cheek; he brushed his fingers through her hair. Their lips were almost together now. "I or an e?"
Aelita kissed himor maybe he kissed her, because it was sort of like her lips were magnets, or maybe the event horizon of a black hole. Once you got to a certain point, there was never any going back.