And Onwards We Go
None were really sure what they had been expecting at the end.
The end, in fact, had never been a particularly tangible concept. The ongoing battle with XANA had thrown them so many curveballs, and a continuous string of new developments as the corrupt programme developed more and more ways to keep up with the group, that without realising it, they had all stopped giving any real thought to a theoretical time when it might all be over. Although the Lyoko warriors had tossed the words "when all of this is over" around so many times, that magical arbitrary date of 'when' that marked the start of a million half-forgotten plans was too far away to consider as anything but a pipe dream.
"When all of this is over, we'll go to the movies."
"When all of this is over, we'll plan that trip to the beach we always talked about."
"When all of this is over, I'll tell her how I feel..."
Yumi, Ulrich, Odd and Aelita stood in a half circle, watching solemnly as Jérémie pulled the lever and the large metallic structure that was the supercomputer sunk slowly into the floor with a mechanical creak and hiss. A disc, bearing XANA's insignia, closed over it in three pieces, finally sealing shut. The last echoes of the creaking machinery died away, and as everything settled, the Lyoko warriors released a collective breath they hadn't realised they were holding.
The constant whirr and hum of the supercomputer was conspicuous only in its absence. For the first time in as long as they could remember, the factory was finally quiet, but for the dripping of water echoing somewhere as it fell from the ceiling and the distant echoes and rumblings of the world outside. Those sounds still felt surreal to the five teenagers who were each mentally replaying memories of Lyoko, of their last climatic battle against XANA, and the sobering reality that their victory had come at the cost of Franz Hopper's life.
They stared at the circle in the floor that bore XANA's emblem for a long time, each lost in their own thoughts with the fact that the supercomputer was shut down for good not fully sunk in yet. Even after trying this once, thinking about it, disagreeing, finally agreeing and trying it again with success, it was difficult to believe that it was all over, just like that.
No more Lyoko.
It was a sad thought, yet one inevitably tinged with relief.
After a few more long moments of thoughtful silence, Odd was the first to laugh.
"Hey, come on you guys!" He gave his signature grin and clasped his hands behind his head as he turned to face his friends. "Let's not hang around in here all day. It's actually pretty cold when you're standing around and not fighting XANA-fied ghosts or anything. Besides, I'm really hungry!"
Aelita gave a weak smile as the others laughed, giving various murmurs of "no surprise there."
As one, they turned to leave, savouring each step out of the factory, standing quietly in the elevator and exchanging quick smiles with each flash of eye contact. Every moment seemed precious somehow. Despite Odd's previous outburst, none were ready to break the spell just yet. The elevator doors finally opened, releasing them to the top floor of the factory, where sunlight streamed in through the high windows above the entrance.
It was a perfect, near-cloudless day, and as the sun hit each of their faces, it broke the spell of sombre silence and brought them properly to life, the real world injecting them with a fresh, bubbling enthusiasm. There was a noticeable spring in the step of everyone but Aelita, as the friends made their way across the bridge. Their skateboards and scooters, with the exception of Odd's, would remain in the sewers for some time afterwards as a simple relic of the adventures they had shared.
Odd heaved a large sigh. "You know, I think I'll kinda miss getting to have all of those do-overs."
Ulrich shuffled his feet, hands in his pockets as usual, and gave a wry smile. "You're kidding, right? The amount of times I had to sit through the same class twice..."
"Yeah, right," Odd smirked, "and it still didn't improve your grades, huh?"
Odd broke into a run as Ulrich gave chase and they hurried, half-yelling, half-laughing, across the bridge. The others continued at a more leisurely pace, Jérémie and Yumi side by side and in fits of laughter, with Aelita trailing after. The pink-haired girl gazed down glumly at the steely grey water of the river below, one hand running lightly across the cool metal of the railing.
Jérémie's laughter subsiding at last, he turned back to watch his friend and made to slow down even further, hoping to walk beside her and offer some comfort, but a gentle hand on his shoulder stopped him. Yumi smiled down at him and shook her head.
"Leave her be for a while, Jérémie. She just lost her father, she needs to think some things through on her own."
Jérémie seemed unsure, his neck still craned in the direction of the girl behind them. Aelita hadn't even heard their conversation, or spoken to anyone since they left the factory – she did indeed seem completely lost to her thoughts. Jérémie realised with a pang of discomfort that he didn't know what to say to her anyway; there was a small part of him that felt maybe he had had the means to save Franz, if he had just had a little more time to figure something out... but it was all in the past now. There were many questions that couldn't be answered, and dwelling on them, in the face of their celebration and this beautiful day, just didn't seem right. Conceding defeat, Jérémie nodded his head.
Aelita, he told her silently, when you're ready to talk, I'll be right here.
The light-heartedness of that definitive afternoon didn't last for too long.
Ulrich for one, had a restless sleep. Harsh nightmares filled with monsters, spectres, and red flashing eyes woke him in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, his heart hammering, instinctively reaching for his mobile phone. He couldn't rest again until it was clutched in his hand, and when he drifted off to sleep for the second time it was without any dreams at all.
But the ghosts of his nightmares seemed much less threatening as morning broke, bright sunshine chasing away the lingering fear lurking in his subconscious. Ulrich cracked open tired eyes ten minutes before his alarm clock with a sudden, mounting sense of excitement flooding through him, a smile slowly dawning on his face as he placed the emotion, and its reason: with the supercomputer shut down, this marked their first official XANA-free day. Ulrich lay on his back, arms behind his head as he savoured the warmth of his bed. His room mate, true to form, had opted to celebrate the occasion by rolling over and remaining stubbornly asleep.
"Time to get up, Odd," Ulrich called eventually, heaving himself out of bed with some effort. It wouldn't do to dwell on things in bed all day; the rest of the world went on as usual after all.
"Mmmph," was Odd's mumbled reply, followed by a groan of protest as Ulrich threw a pillow at him.
Thirty minutes later, they filed down the corridor with the rest of the students on their way to morning classes, meeting Jérémie on the way.
"Where's our Princess today, Einstein?"
Indeed, Aelita was conspicuously absent.
"I thought she was with you two. She probably feels pretty down after yesterday. I'll go and check on her after class is over."
They continued to make their way through the crowd, Jérémie leading the way with Odd and Ulrich following along behind. They bunched up together awkwardly when Jérémie came to a sudden halt.
"Einstein, what are you... oh."
Directly ahead of them, delving into his locker, was William. The black-haired boy drew back, holding the pile of books he had evidently been searching for, before slamming his locker door shut. He turned and made eye contact with them, frowning.
Things had been awkward to say the least since William's return from Lyoko. Their trust had been broken and they still weren't entirely sure how to react around the older boy. William took no pains to talk about Lyoko with them, and there had been an unmistakeable look of relief in his eyes upon hearing of XANA's defeat; presumably, he was still scarred by the incident and was glad that it was over, despite his insistence that he'd wanted to play the hero. Odd, Ulrich and Jérémie exchanged looks, wondering what to do. William watched them silently. He had extended the hand of friendship to them, helped them out even when they had rejected him. Now it was their turn.
To the others' surprise, it was Ulrich who spoke first.
"Uh, hey," the older boy replied, clearly thrown off-guard greeting. Odd and Jérémie swiftly followed suit, walking past on the way to their first class of the day.
"Good morning William."
The disappeared into their classroom, and William's expression of astonishment gave way to a smile. Perhaps things would be okay after all.
Jérémie, Ulrich, Odd and Yumi's exceptionally good mood wasn't lost on the staff of Kadic Academy. The four met up briefly when the bell heralded the end of first lesson, Jérémie expressing his plans to go and check on Aelita. Their small congregation was broken up however, by a suspicious Jim Moralés. The Kadic gym teacher loomed over them, arms crossed.
"You three seem cheerful this morning."
"Well it's a lovely day Jim, don't you think?" Yumi replied innocently.
Jim turned to the window and squinted up at the sky. "Looks like forecast rain later if you ask me." Then, noticing Aelita's absence, he demanded to know where Stones had disappeared to.
"She's not feeling well. I was just about to go and check on her, actually so if you'll excuse me Jim, I'll be off. See you later!" With a quick wave to his friends, Jérémie was briskly walking down the hallway in the opposite direction. The others, too, made to move off to wherever they had to be, but still suspicious, Jim called after them.
"Yes well, the five of you had better not be up to something."
Odd scratched the back of his head. "Why Jim, you always expect the worst from us! Since when have we ever been up to anything suspicious?" The Phys. Ed teacher narrowed his eyes.
"I'd rather not answer that, Della Robbia."
The teenagers turned away quickly so he wouldn't see them grinning.
Aelita, meanwhile, stared despondently about of her bedroom window, watching students and staff cross the courtyard. Shouts and laughter filtered through the open window, the sounds of people absorbed entirely in their own worlds. She didn't know how to feel. On the one hand, she was so relieved that it was over. On the other, she missed her father so much. They had hardly even had a proper conversation, and the final moments before XANA's defeat had been so intense and sudden that she hadn't even managed to say goodbye to him. Should she even be allowed to feel happy that they had won, when her father's death weighed on her with such immeasurable guilt?
Aelita sighed and hugged Mister Puck close to her chest.
A sudden loud knock at the door made her jump.
"Aelita?" It was Jérémie. She should have guessed, of course. Slowly, she dragged herself over the door and opened it slightly, to meet the concerned face of her friend.
"I told Mrs Hertz you were feeling sick and wouldn't be in class today. But," he held out a ring binder, "I collected the notes for you so you won't fall behind. And I brought you a hot chocolate too. It tastes surprisingly good today." She couldn't help smiling as she accepted the items he held out towards her. Placing the binder on the floor, she cupped the soothing hot drink in both hands and took a sip. Although she had only opened the door a fraction, making it clear she wanted to be alone, Jérémie lingered, concern evident on his face.
"Are you okay, Aelita?"
"I'm..." she bit her lip. "Maybe not right now, but I will be. I just want some time to grieve for my father. Alone," she added, firmly but not unkindly.
Satisfied, Jérémie nodded. "I understand. I'm – we're - right here if you need to talk, all right?"
"All right. Thank you, Jérémie."
He stepped back, and she pulled the door closed again.
In the ensuing week, the former Lyoko warriors began to notice many little things and realised, in fact, they were behind on quite a lot.
"Ulrich, Odd, Yumi!"
"Hi you two," Ulrich, hands in his pockets, nodded his greeting as Milly and Tamiya approached them. He, along with Odd and Yumi, were clustered around one of the benches in their usual spot as they enjoyed an afternoon of freedom from lessons and homework. On this occasion, Jérémie and Aelita were nowhere to be seen. "Going somewhere?" Ulrich asked the two younger students. The pair were equipped with their usual bags and notebooks, Milly with a pen tucked precariously behind one ear.
"This afternoon's the first showing of Zombie Revenge 3! Didn't you hear?"
"Yeah," Tamiya added, "Milly and I are going to do a whole feature for the Kadic News, it'll be a really great scoop!" The three older students looked at one another and shook their heads.
"Wait, Zombie Revenge 3? I hadn't even seen the second one!" Odd exclaimed indignantly. Milly rolled her eyes as though to say, Older kids; don't know what they're missing, and with Tamiya on her heels they walked briskly on their way with a waved "well, see you later!"
As Odd, Ulrich and Yumi watched them go, all three were thinking the same thing: How much had they missed? It was an odd, innocuous event to spark the revelation, but there it was. Sure, they had missed the odd movie or book release here and there, between fighting XANA, catching up on sleep and struggling to find enough time for school work, and they couldn't argue that watching monsters on screen was anywhere near as cool as fighting them for real in a virtual realm, but it was still strangely jarring. It was a sobering thought that hit them; the realisation that this whole time they had been fighting a battle in secret and yet the world had gone on without them, taking snatches of their youth with it. Odd yawned, resting his chin on his hands.
"Boring. I'd much rather be fighting Megatanks than watching lame zombie movies any day."
"Yeah. Movies can get pretty lackluster knowing that you've done way cooler things without even needing any special effects," said Yumi.
"I still kind of want to see it. I bet we can skip straight from Zombie Revenge 1 to 3 and still understand the plot. These kinds of movies are all the same after a point."
"Ulrich's right. If nothing else, it will cheer Aelita up." After that first day, the pink-haired girl had returned to classes and to the untrained eye she had cheered up immensely, but the others noticed that she was still prone to lapses of sad silence. Odd, Ulrich, Yumi and Jérémie had taken it upon themselves to distract her with as many light-hearted activities as they could think of. She would be okay, they knew, but time was the greatest healer.
Aelita knocked on the door of Jérémie's room a few days later.
"Come in!" he called cheerfully. His voice sounded oddly muffled and there was a clatter of something landing on a desk. Aelita made to do so, but found something blocking her way. She forced open the door with some difficulty and edged through, eyes widening as she noticed the chaos. The bed, unusually for Jeremy, was made, but the rest of the room was a mess and there was a pile of boxes beside the door.
Aelita scanned the room for Jérémie and spied him bent at the waist with his rear in the air as he rummaged through a cardboard box. He held up one finger to signal that she should wait a moment and rifled through the bottom of the box, finally emerging with a small, silver disc and an exclamation of triumph.
"Oh! Hey, Aelita," he smiled, running one hand through slightly unkempt hair.
"Hello Jérémie. What are you doing?"
"Oh," he said again, this time looking sheepish. "I'm, well, I'm actually going away for a few days." Aelita frowned but he was quick to reassure her.
"Don't worry," Jérémie explained, "it's nothing serious. It's just that it's my mother's birthday this weekend and she wants me to come home. I've made excuses for the last two years - you know how I didn't like not being here in case there was a XANA attack – but now I can go!"
Aelita hid her disappointment behind a smile. Kadic always felt a little emptier without Jérémie around. Now she was just beginning to come out of her shell again and, although it was with help from all of her friends, she craved his company over anyone else's.
"That's great," she told him warmly.
"Yep. I'm leaving tomorrow and I won't be back until after the weekend, so I'm just taking the time to reorganise my room a little. You never know when Jim will spring an inspection, and whether I'm here or not he'll find a way to give me detention."
Aelita nodded, shuffling over to the bed and smoothed out the duvet, perching on the edge. "Is there anything I can help with?"
Jérémie paused to think, one skinny elbow cupped in his other hand. "If you could move those boxes," he motioned to the ones by the door, "that would be great."
Together, they tidied the room in companionable silence.
Mr Belpois watched his son from the doorway
Ever since they had brought him home a few hours ago, and especially on the car journey, Jérémie had seemed distant, pensive.
Sometimes Mr Belpois would catch him like this, staring out of the window, his fingers drumming a pattern against the window ledge, almost as though they were so used to frantic typing that they hadn't quite adjusted to stopping. Mr Belpois started in alarm as his wife's hand brushed against his shoulder. He turned to her and they shared a solemn glance, bending their heads forward to speak in hushed tones so that their son wouldn't hear.
"Do you think something's happened?" Mrs Belpois asked.
Her husband could only shrug in response. "I have no idea. He just seems so... listless."
Mrs Belpois craned her neck to glance back at her son over her husband's shoulder. They had known that a condition of sending their only son to boarding school was the inevitable missing out of his day-to-day growing up, and especially at this age, he would return to them at every vacation slightly less of a child and slightly more of a man. Jérémie had spent so much time away. Always too engrossed in schoolwork to come home, he insisted, and on his rare holidays he holed himself in his room, poured over books and computers. They'd expected him to grow up, of course, but the young teenager seemed wise beyond his years. There were hints of shadows beneath his eyes and his gaze was often distant and haunted, as though he had borne struggles that aged him far too much.
"It's..." Mrs Belpois hesitated, trying to find some way to voice her thoughts. "It's as though he'd been away to war, not boarding school. I know that doesn't really make much sense," she added quickly, "but it's the only way I can think to describe it."
Mr Belpois grimaced. "I know what you mean."
During their conversation they had edged further out into the hall. Now, turning back to the door, they turned to see Jérémie still poised by the window. He watched raindrops race their way down the glass, converging and separating into tiny rivulets. Yet he also seemed to be looking past them, staring into something else, trapped in his thoughts.
"Do you think you could talk to him?"
"Yes. I think this needs a father's touch." Mrs Belpois planted a quick kiss on her husband's cheek. "And if you don't break through to him, I'll see what I can do."
"Right. I'll give it a go." Secretly, he hoped he wasn't about to be thrown into giving that talk. Mr Belpois was a sensible man, but that certainly wasn't something he felt adequately prepared for. He and his wife stepped apart, and, clearing his throat, Mr Belpois swung the door open fully and entered the living room.
"Is something wrong, son?" Jérémie leapt up in alarm, spinning so fast he almost fell over, but relief flooded his features when he saw his father and his expression grew from surprise to embarrassment.
"Sorry," the boy blushed. "You startled me for a moment."
"You look a little stressed out, Jérémie." Mr Belpois crossed the room in two quick strides and placed a reassuring hand on his son's shoulder, at once calming him and guiding him gently towards the sofa where they could both take a seat. "Is anything the matter? Something your mother and I should know about?"
Jérémie sighed, his pinched, pale face creasing in thought. He looked up and met his father's gaze; warm, concerned a little apprehensive. He decided to try and be honest. Pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts, Jérémie polished his glasses on the hem of his shirt whilst his father waited expectantly. "I, uh, I just finished a big project," Jérémie said at last. Well, it was close enough to the truth.
"That's great!" Mr Belpois smiled. He was proud of his son; even though he wasn't sure he understood the boy's intense fascination with technology. Even though Mr Belpois admitted he wouldn't know the first thing about finding his way around a computer, even he recognised that some of the things his son had come up with were incredible. "When do we get to see it?" he asked.
"Um," Jérémie hesitated. "It's not exactly something I can really show you." That was another thing, he realised suddenly with a pang of disappointment, that all of those X.A.N.A.-specific programmes were some of his best work and he couldn't show them to anyone. He wasn't even sure how he could use them now, really. Though of course any progression in his programming skills was invaluable, and he had backed everything up twice, just in case they should ever need it again. "But the thing is," Jérémie continued, "is that it took up so much of my time."
"I see. And now you've gone from being so busy to being at a loss as to what to do with yourself," Mr Belpois finished, realising at once his son's predicament.
Jérémie nodded. Of course, it wasn't just that – there was a lot of guilt as far as his failure to save Aelita's father was concerned, and the anxiety surrounding constantly anticipating XANA attacks had yet to fully subside, but his father understood some of how he was feeling, and that was enough. Mr Belpois, too, noticed the sudden shift in his son's body language, as it shifted from tense and guarded to a fraction more relaxed.
"Well, who says you have to be doing anything? You should relax a little! If you've worked that hard on this project, you deserve a rest. Don't you think?"
"I suppose you're right..."
"Just take a long walk, go out with your friends or something. How about that Aelita girl you're always talking about? He gave a knowing smile and Jérémie's face flushed bright red.
"Daaaad!" he exclaimed, shoulders hunching up in embarrassment. Mr Belpois chuckled and patted his son lightly on the back. A moment later, his expression once again turned solemn and he tilted the boy's chin upwards so that they were eye to eye.
"Jérémie," he said solemnly. "I know that you work hard, and a lot of what you've been doing will probably go right over our heads, but... I just want you to know that your mother and I are very proud of you."
Jérémie blushed again and looked away. "Daaad," he protested again, cringing under the praise, even as the smile crept onto his face. "Thanks," he mumbled.
There was a pause and they sat like that in slightly awkward silence, unaccustomed to sentimental talks. Finally however, Mr Belpois straightened, glancing about the room to find where he had last discarded his shoes. "Come on son," he said brisquely. "We're leaving for the restaurant in about half an hour. I'll need you to distract your mother so we can sneak her birthday cake into the car."
Uknown to Jérémie, Yumi was experiencing a similar predicament. The Ishiyamas were eating lunch on a dry Saturday afternoon when it happened.
A sudden, ear-splitting bang erupted from the street outside, causing the four family members to jump in alarm, Mr Ishiyama accidentally spilling a bowl of rice across half of the table. He scrabbled to pick it up at the same time as his wife bent to retrieve her fallen chopsticks with a nervous laugh.
"That gave me quite a scare! Right Hiroki, Yumi? Yumi!"
There was the slam of a front door, and Yumi was gone. The moment she had heard the sound Yumi was on her feet, cell phone clutched in her hand. A moment earlier she had been eating quietly, thoughts on the maths homework she would have to tackle that evening. Then instantly she was back in the mindset she had adopted for so long to ensure her survival - that any anomaly was a XANA attack. Her mind was already racing with plans to get to the factory, fingers flying over the keys on her phone as she dialled Jérémie's number.
She was out of front door and halfway down the drive before she remembered.
It couldn't be a XANA attack, because XANA was gone, forever.
And she was safe.
Her head whipped around for the source of the noise, until she spotted the woman across the road tutting frustratedly at her car exhaust. A backfired car engine. That was all. Yumi's heart was still hammering in her chest, her head spinning too much to notice her concerned parents, followed by Hiroki, emerging from their house behind her.
The realisation had finally struck. And Yumi Ishiyama, the warrior, the brave, the stoic, sank to her knees on the cold hard pavement and sobbed.
Later that evening there was a knock on Yumi's bedroom door. Frantically, the teenager bolted upright from where she had been lying on the bed and grabbed a book, flipping it open to a random page to give the pretence of reading when her mother entered the room a second later.
"Yumi?" she said softly.
"I'm sorry about dinner," Yumi said quickly. "I didn't mean to make you worry, I was just deep in thought and freaked out that's all." After the incident, she had excused herself to wash the tears from her face, retreating to her bedroom for the rest of the day. It was too much to hope for that her parents wouldn't be after an explanation for her strange behaviour. Her mother didn't look completely satisfied with the explanation, but couldn't do much more than accept it. Sitting down beside her daughter on the bed, she pulled her close and stroked her hair, like she had done when Yumi was little.
"It's not healthy to be so stressed. Our father and I appreciate that you work hard, but you must rest now and then."
"I will Mother. I'm just going to read my book for a while, if that's okay."
"Of course, dear."
Giving her daughter one last hug, Mrs Ishiyama left the room, frowning. Yumi was always so independent, and if something was troubling her she didn't expect the headstrong teen would be willing to talk about it. She and her husband would simply have to keep a close eye on the girl. Yumi kept her eyes on her book until she heard her bedroom door close, then glanced at the clock on her beside table. It was only half past nine in the evening, not too late. There was no school tomorrow.
After a moment's hesitation, she picked up her phone and sent a quick text to Ulrich:
-Can we meet up tomorrow? Want to talk to you.-
Barely a minute later came the single-word reply. To others it might have seemed abrupt, but Yumi, who understood that Ulrich wasn't one for long text conversations, read the short message and smiled.
Yumi was waiting for him on a bench in a secluded corner of the park. She had brought a book with her and was so absorbed in her reading that she didn't notice Ulrich's arrival. Standing at a distance, he took a moment to watch her, admiring the way the dappled sunlight shone on her jet black hair, and the way her eyebrows furrowed slightly in concentration as the novel took a particularly exciting turn. Finally he closed the gap between them, Yumi looking up as his form threw her into shadow.
"Hi Ulrich," she said. "Thanks for coming."
"No problem." She shifted over slightly to give him more room and she sat down beside her. Close to her now, he saw the troubled expression on her face and the distant look in her eyes, and his heart flooded with concern.
"Yumi, what's wrong? You look a little off." All manner of things were spinning around in his head. Was it something to do with her parents again? Or was she moving away? Or... his heart hammered against his ribs. Maybe it was something to do with... them. But what were they? He didn't even know, hadn't ever really known, and the fight with XANA being over hadn't magically cleared everything up like he had hoped it would.
Yumi shifted uncomfortably, scuffing her boots against the grass. Ulrich waited as she gathered the words, appearing calm on the surface. "It's silly, really," she admitted, mouth twisting in embarrassment and casting a quick glance around to check that they were alone. "But yesterday, at lunch..."
She told him everything, omitting the part about her crying, and although her eyes were still dry when she finished speaking it was clear she was upset. Ulrich felt uncomfortable. He hated seeing her like this but wasn't sure what to do or what to say.
Cautiously, he edged over and wrapped his arms around her, breathing in the scent of her hair as she relaxed against his chest.
That same afternoon, Odd threw his hands out to the sides as the wheels of his skateboard rolled against the bumpy gravel in the grounds of Kadic Academy. He grinned; in his mind's eye he was swooping over the Desert sector on his Overboard, ducking and weaving out of reach of a whole host of Hornets...
"What are you doing?" a voice asked pleasantly.
Odd didn't respond at first, because why would Sissi be talking to him? And so nicely at that. His path was interrupted however – in his imagination his Overboard was swiftly disintegrated by a blindsiding laser – by a pair of feet planted firmly in front of him. Odd barely managed to swerve out of the way in time, but flipping the board upright to catch the edge in his hand, he finally turned towards the principal's daughter.
"You shouldn't ignore people, Odd. It's rude," Sissi continued, sticking her hands on her hips and her nose in the air.
Odd resisted the urge to roll his eyes, simply responding with a wary "Ulrich isn't here."
Sissi looked around the nearly empty courtyard, shrugged. "I know. So... what are you doing?" Odd stared at her once more, sweeping her with a critical gaze. What is she up to?
"I'm just goofing around," he said. "Jérémie's away this weekend, Aelita's catching up on work she missed this week, and Ulrich and Yumi are... somewhere, but not here," he added in explanation.
Sissi shrugged again, in what she clearly hoped was a casual way, and smiled. "Cool." It was strange to see her so nervous, Odd thought, her shoulders hunched up slightly and her eyes directed slightly down and to the side, rigid as though auditioning for a role that she had over-rehearsed. She hadn't even flipped out at the fact that Ulrich and Yumi were in an unspecified location, alone, probably even together. Yet, with her mouth turned upwards in a genuine, if shy, smile, rather than a smirk or a sneer, Sissi actually struck him as rather pretty. Clearing his throat and blinking hard, Odd cast this thought abruptly aside. Sissi's head snapped up at the sound, and there was an awkward pause, before Odd realised it was his turn to contribute to the conversation.
The conversation that he was currently having with Sissi. In which they hadn't exchanged a single insult, and in where Ulrich's name hadn't even left her mouth yet.
Ordinarily, Odd would have put this down to a XANA attack and would be texting the others straight away, but without even that as an explanation, he was at a complete loss.
"Uh," Odd began, mentally scrabbling for something to comment on. "Where are Nicholas and Herve?"
"Oh." Sissi frowned. "I guess... we don't really hang out with each other any more."
"Oh. Right." He hadn't really noticed, but then Sissi hadn't been bothering them so much lately. As Odd thought this through, Sissi cringed, feeling the heat of a blush begin to creep across her face. She had indeed rehearsed this exchange in front of the mirror this morning, until she had forced it down to what she thought was an appropriate level of casualness, and yet the smooth conversation she had played out in her head was almost the opposite to what was actually happening. It was all going so wrong! Still, she had to try. Steeling her resolve, Sissi spoke up once again.
"So..." she tried, gesturing to the skateboard in Odd's hands. "Did it take you a long time to learn?"
"Okay," Odd said suddenly. "I'm not going to lie Sissi, you're kind of creeping me out. Say, uh, you wouldn't happen to have been possessed by a crazy computer virus or something would you?" He craned his neck to peer up into her eyes, but nope, no eye of XANA. Just a normal, soft brown.
"Nothing!" Hastily he explained, "you're just acting strange is all."
"Well!" Sissi snapped, and suddenly the scowl was back, and her face grew redder, anger now mingled with the embarrassment. "We're friends now, right? Ulrich said! He said I can be friends with you guys!"
You really don't know how friendship works do you, Odd realised, face deadpan. He had a sudden recollection however, of his first ever day at Kadic; a new student, exuding confidence but unable to shake the underlying fear that he wasn't going to fit in – that no one would find his jokes funny, that people would just dismiss him as 'that new kid with the weird hair', and suddenly he realised that he kind of knew how Sissi felt. He took another moment to weigh things up in his mind, as Sissi stared him down with her arms now crossed over her chest.
No XANA. No secrets. Nothing to lose. Sissi was kind of pretty when she smiled.
...And hey, hanging out with Jérémie could only be a good thing, Odd thought; his intelligence might just rub off on her. Odd held out his hands, palms up in a gesture of defensiveness.
"Okay, okay. And to answer your question, no not at all. I was practically a pro from the moment I first stepped up on a skateboard!" His mouth stretched into a playful grin, and Sissi raised a sceptical eyebrow. "But really," Odd added. "It's not that hard. It just takes practise. And good balance, that really helps." A pause, and then he released the board so that it landed at her feet with a slight clatter.
"Want a go?"
They sat like that for a while, arms around one another and warmed by the afternoon sunlight.
"Thank you Ulrich," Yumi said eventually, her words muffled by the fabric of his shirt. Taking this as a cue to let go of her, Ulrich released her from his arms and she sat upright. They both stared at the ground in front of them.
"It's okay, you know, to be scared," Ulrich said. He felt awkward, hated talking about his feelings, but he felt like after Yumi's confession it was the least he could do. She needed to know that she wasn't alone. "I still have bad dreams about XANA sometimes."
He nodded. "Uh-huh."
"Me too. It's only just hit me that it's really over."
There was another long pause. Ulrich picked a blade of grass from beside his feet and began to twist it between his fingers. He had a feeling this conversation wasn't over yet. He was right.
"I..." Yumi took a deep breath, as though what she was about to say would cost tremendous effort. Ulrich's heart began to race again and his palms felt clammy with nerves. For the second time that day, he waited for Yumi to compose herself. She didn't look at him when she spoke, her gaze fixed on a spot just over his shoulder. Her ordinarily pale skin began to flush pink. "I was scared, Ulrich," Yumi managed finally. "It sounds silly," she reiterated, "but..." and like before, the words came tumbling out in a rush. "All that time, it was like XANA was watching us. When it morphed into those polymorphic spectres and made Odd kiss Heidi, and Jérémie kiss Heidi, and the way it knew to change into our friends and family, people we would find it really hard to hurt... I never wanted to take on any more than I could bear to lose. I thought that, if we got too close, XANA would use us against each other. I've been afraid for what XANA might have made me do to my parents, or Hiroki... but I don't think I could ever really hurt a likeness of you.
Ulrich was stunned. Yumi still refused to meet his eyes so she didn't see his jaw drop or the blush that flooded his own face. He swallowed nervously and cleared his throat, finally understanding. At the same time, he felt ashamed; Yumi had had such noble reasons for denying anything that they might have had, and yet the only reason he hadn't confessed to her was that he had been too afraid.
"I-I understand, Yumi," he stammered. "I... wish we'd talked about this. It's all been so complicated. But you didn't say anything this whole time."
"And you did, huh?" Yumi shot back. Ulrich flinched at the sudden tone of anger she had taken on. "You've never made it clear whether you like me, Ulrich."
"Well," he said, surprised by the own flash of annoyance that sparked through him, and even more surprised at the confession it provoked. "I'm making it clear now." It was a second before he fully realised what he'd said, and then he stared at her, wide-eyed. All of the times he had imagined confessing to Yumi, of all the scenarios he had played out in his head, this wasn't what he had expected.
"S-so you...?" Yumi asked shakily.
Ulrich gave a shy smile, and he had gone too far to back out now, so why not be honest?
Acting without another moment's thought, he kissed her.
And she kissed back. It was soft and slow, and he could feel the warmth of her skin as her hands sought out his across the bench, and this was another thing he had imagined hundreds of times but he could never have conjured up the complete perfection of this moment. After what felt like a lifetime they pulled away, breathless. Neither Yumi or Ulrich could find words adequate for the moment, but they didn't need them; their emotions were written plainly on their faces in matching smiles. And the relief that spilled out of them that it had finally happened was so immense that a moment later they burst into embarrassed giggles.
Finally they calmed down, leaning against each other on the bench. Yumi looked down at their hands, still placed comfortably over one another, and lightly ran her thumb over Ulrich's palm.
"We really have to stop fighting so much, though. From now on, we talk about our feelings okay?" she said.
Ulrich grimaced. That would be hard for both of them, but if it meant more kisses like that... well, he would gladly work on it.
"Right. And one more thing."
"We don't believe a word Sissi says without asking each other about it first. Ever."
They held hands on the walk back to Kadic, yet grew more and more self-conscious as they approached the main building. Yumi and Ulrich tried to merge with the crowd of students also returning from a day out, but Odd and Aelita shouted to them from over by the vending machine.
"We'd better get this over with," Yumi said solemnly. Ulrich gave a determined nod.
"Right." He squeezed her hand in reassurance and they strode in step towards the others.
As they approached, Odd's face lit up in a grin, his eyes immediately darting to their intertwined fingers. Out of the corner of his eye, Ulrich saw Aelita tapping out a text on her phone with a knowing smile.
"Oh, so this is it huh?" Odd asked. "It's finally happening? For real?"
Yumi and Ulrich exploded in simultaneous blushes. Ulrich raised his other hand, one finger pointed in warning, and mumbled "not one word, Odd," to which he and Aelita burst into laughter.
"Well, congratulations you two. And from Jérémie too," Aelita waved her phone at them.
"I suppose now our greatest challenge is going to be distracting Sissi so the two of you can go on dates," Aelita said.
"You know, for some reason, I don't think that'll be a problem," Odd spoke without thinking. The others looked at him in confusion.
"Really? What makes you say that?"
Odd shrugged. "No reason." He had spotted Sissi returning from a shopping trip earlier, holding a bag full of bright pink elbow pads and other skateboarding safety gear, but the others didn't have to know that.
Monday morning dawned crisp and clear, and Aelita was there to greet Jérémie at the gates when the Belpois' car pulled up outside of the academy. He bade goodbye to his parents, and between them he and Aelita carried his suitcases inside, dumping them in his dorm room to tend to later, once morning lessons had been attended.
"So, did you have a good weekend at home?" Aelita asked, leaning against the wall as Jérémie locked the door to his room. "I did, thank you," he replied. "It was a nice break."
"You deserved it. You've been working hard."
Jérémie blushed. "Heh. That's exactly what my parents said. And they don't even know about Lyoko. But speaking of," he said, expression turning serious once again. "I just want you to know, that I haven't given up on searching for your father, Aelita. If there's any way at all of retrieving his data, I'll find it and bring him back."
"It's no trouble!" he interjected hastily. "Really, Aelita, I don't mind doing it, for you. I know how down you've been about your father being gone." She pushed off from the wall and took a step closer to him, gazing up into his eyes and lightly placing her hands on his upper arms.
"Jérémie. I think we both know that..." she lowered her head, trying to hide the disappointment in her eyes and the growing lump in her throat which threatened to give way to tears, "...that there's no way... I was always intimately connected to Lyoko. I could- I could sense XANA's pulsations, and in a similar way I could sense my father too. But at the end..." she swallowed, and Jérémie looped an arm around her and pulled her close to him, feeling the wetness form on the front of his shirt. He rubbed Aelita's back in soothing circles, waiting for her to regain her composure. "I felt him disappear, when he sacrificed himself for me. It's going to be hard for me to accept it, but... he's not coming back, Jérémie."
"Aelita," Jérémie whispered, shocked.
She pulled away slightly and wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve. "But it's okay," she said again. "I think one day, I'd like to maybe go travelling and try to trace any family I have left. Find some closure or something. But that's so far in the future. Right now, I'd just like..." she trailed off, her face flushing the colour of her hair. She smiled shyly up at the bespectacled boy in front of her. "I'd just like you to tear yourself away from your computer for a while so we can spent some time together. I missed you this weekend."
"Oh," was all Jérémie could manage, feeling a matching blush creep along his cheeks and tinge the tips of his ears bright pink. "Well, I-I guess I can do that. I-I-I mean, I'd like that."
"Good!" she smiled at him, wrapping her arms around him once again and feeling the reassuring, familiar heartbeat thudding through his shirt. "And..."
"Remember what you were saying the day we shut down the supercomputer, before Sissi interrupted us? About how we did all of these amazing things and no one will ever remember them?"
"Well," she blushed. "I'll remember. I owe you everything, Jérémie. Thank you."
"Oh, Aelita, you don't- it's been nothing, really-"
"Don't be silly! Now come on, we're going to be late for class!" She beamed at him, her first genuine smile for weeks. Grabbing Jérémie by the hand, Aelita raced down the corridor, pulling him along after her.
Later that day, the friends decided that they needed to talk. As soon as the bell rang for the last lesson of the day, the five of them met up and piled into Odd and Ulrich's room. Food and drink were pulled from bags, and before long the group were trading quips and snacks, filling the room with the sound of laughter and the satisfied crunching of potato chips. Presently, the atmosphere tapered to a comfortable quiet.
"Okay, it looks like I'll be the one to say it," Jérémie said. "It's not just me, right?" His gaze swept anxiously around at his friends. "Because I don't know about you guys, I'm really glad XANA's gone and all, but I don't... I guess I just don't quite know what to do any more."
"It's not just you Jérémie. I know what you mean," Ulrich added quietly. "How do we just go back to normal? What is normal?" He sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I just... don't know what to do with myself." He sighed. "It's like Aelita was saying, about how it was all so terrible and yet so great at the same time."
Jérémie clapped his hands together once, breaking the sombre stupor that threatened to settle over them.
"Okay. How about this. We'll each say one thing that really scared us, during that time with XANA. And then we'll say one thing that made it all worthwhile."
Yumi cleared her throat before speaking up. "I keep freaking out thinking every loud noise is XANA launching an attack."
With that admission, the confessions started to pour out.
"The nightmares are just so bad sometimes, you know?"
This one was met with murmurs of agreement.
"I keep forgetting I can actually sleep without my phone pressed to my ear."
"Lyoko was so much fun, though!"
"I wouldn't be who I am now without any of this. And without all of you."
Odd was the only one who hadn't spoken, choosing instead to listen whilst occupying himself with scratching Kiwi behind the ears. Finally, they turned to him expectantly.
"Odd? What about you?"
He shrugged. "I'm okay. Well, I guess I was sort of freaked out by the whole thing sometimes. But I always knew things would work out." He grinned and hoisted Kiwi into his lap. "I had you guys after all. But clearly," here he stretched and, in a fit of mischief, grabbed a pillow from the bed and tossed it across the room towards Ulrich, who caught it with a defiant smirk. "Clearly you're all suffering from a very serious case of post-traumatic XANA depressive disorder," Odd concluded.
"I think you mixed up two conditions there, Odd," Aelita pointed out.
"Listen to us, though!" Odd exclaimed. He clutched his chest dramatically and pretended to swoon. "It's like... oh, XANA! What will we do without you?"
His expression was so comical that the others collapsed into peals of laughter, and Ulrich, fighting to catch his breath, chimed in, "XANA, how ever could we have taken you for granted?"
Then Jérémie added, "You've overridden the mechanisms of my heart!" which set them all off again.
Finally settling down and wiping tears from their eyes, they all conceded that Odd was, for once – "and what's that supposed to mean, huh?" - right. The only thing left to wrap up was all of the unsolved mysteries about Carthage, and Aelita's own search for closure but, as she explained to the others, that was all things that could wait until they had had a much-needed holiday. "It's just taking us a little longer to get used to than we thought. It's a big change, suddenly going from saving the world almost every day to not being in danger at all," the pink-haired girl reasoned.
Odd leaned back on his elbows and grabbed some candy from one of the half-eaten packages. "You're right Aelita. And hey, who knows? Without XANA messing everything up, I might finally be able to focus on finding the right girl."
Yumi snorted. "Since when did XANA ever stop you doing that?"
"Yeah, I don't think it was XANA's doing that none of those girlfriends ever worked out," Aelita teased. Ulrich and Jérémie laughed as Odd scowled.
"You guys just don't appreciate the pursuit of romance." He leaned forward again, mouth curving into a triumphant grin as the comeback formed in his mind. "I mean, look at you guys."
Jérémie, Aelita, Ulrich and Yumi glanced at one another.
"What about us?"
"You two," Odd gestured to Jérémie and Aelita with one finger, "and you two," this time to Ulrich and Yumi, "are perfect for each other. And how long did it take you to start dating? Exactly!" He grinned triumphantly as they all blushed, gazes fixed steadfastly on their shoes or opposite walls in their effort to avoid eye contact. Needless to say, their ribbing of Odd about his relationships was swiftly dropped.
The day that marked two weeks post-XANA found the group formerly known as Team Lyoko sipping milkshakes at a small outdoor café just outside of Kadic. Time had gotten away from them and they had stayed out especially late. Sunset was now approaching; the clouds above them were tinged gold with pink, and the shadows they cast across the ground grew gradually shorter.
Yumi glanced at her phone for the time, picking up her bag from beside her feet as she did so. "I should get going you guys, my parents are expecting me home."
"We'll walk with you," Ulrich said, quickly downing the remainder of his drink and pushing out his chair. "At this rate, we're going to have to sneak back in so Jim doesn't catch us out after curfew again."
The others followed suit and they left the small café behind, chatting excitedly amongst themselves about the day-to-day things that make up a teenager's world. The future stretched out before them, filled with potential for amazing things, new adventures, coupled of course with days of simply doing nothing at all. Things had finally achieved a semblance of normality, and in fact, they looked brighter than ever. Even those not in the know about what they had experienced had noticed the fresh surge of vitality and life that had been injected into the Yumi, Ulrich, Jérémie, Odd and Aelita. They no longer appeared worried and pensive, constantly patting their pockets to make sure their cell phones were there, or jumping at the slightest noises. Gone too, were the seemingly random and oh-so-urgent trips to the Infirmary that had so greatly confused Kadic's faculty. With time to pay proper attention to their studies, the teens' grades had even begun to improve. Mrs Hertz had almost fainted with shock when Ulrich handed in a chemistry test, after three days of focused revision with Jérémie, and scored a solid eighty percent.
Yumi and Ulrich subtly bumped hands, then caught one another's fingers and watched with joint smiles as their shadows merged into one before them. Odd threw out his arms in a burst of energy and leapt carelessly over a crack in the pavement.
"I think tomorrow will be a wonderful day of catching up on skateboarding!" he announced.
"Yeah, provided you can get out of bed before noon," Jérémie quipped.
"And who knows Odd, if you do you can give Sissi some more private lessons," Aelita added, beaming as the comment invoked roars of laughter from everyone except Odd, who blushed to the roots of his hair.
"Hey, how did you...? No fair Aelita!"
Ulrich sniggered. "It's about time she got some ammunition for all the jokes you make about her and Einstein."
It was the latter's turn to blush, and Ulrich and Yumi, miraculously exempt from teasing for once, smirked.
"Yeah, well," Odd spluttered. "I've got a lot of mileage left on you four yet!"
"Like what?" Yumi asked warily. Odd grinned, walking backwards in order to face the rest of the group.
"Oh well, that would be telling wouldn't it?" And with that, he turned tail and pelted down the street in the direction of the academy, to shouts of "get back here!" and "oh no you don't!" as the others ran after him. The five friends sprinted after one another, laughing in pure abandon until their sides ached and their lungs pleaded for air. Finally slowing to a walk with the academy building in sight, they slung arms around one another's shoulders and walked side by side the rest of the way.
Odd, Ulrich, Jérémie, Yumi and Aelita, Lyoko-bound no longer.
The real world, that which they had dedicated two difficult years of their life to defending, was saved, and now, at last, they were free to enjoy it. With the setting sun on their backs, they together walked along the pavement.