Jeremie Belpois wasn't going to get a lot of sleep tonight. Usually it was due to a X.A.N.A attack, but now it was just because he was up late writing an essay for Ms. Hertz. He had under an hour until he had to leave to attend the dance Aelita was DJing at. Dances weren't really his thing, nor was loud music, but he would support Aelita in anything she did. Besides, the others were going as well.
His phone rang and he stifled a yawn, lifting his head from his desk and pressing the phone to his ear. It was reassuring to know that the reasons his friends called him now wasn't because they were being chased by a polymorphic specter.
"You awake over there? Don't forget that we're supporting Aelita tonight!"
"I haven't, Odd. I'm just doing some homework."
"On a Friday night?" Jeremie could hear the disgust in his friend's voice. "Don't you ever stop?"
Actually, he didn't. It was a habit he'd acquired during the times of X.A.N.A attacks and midnight trips to Lyoko. They never knew when X.A.N.A would strike, so he always tried to get his homework done ahead of time if he could. The habit hadn't faded and he wasn't sure it ever would. Besides, he was just too organized for that to happen.
"Anyway," Odd continued. "Ulrich has gone off the deep end."
He said it so non-chalantly that Jeremie almost second guessed what he said.
"He's been acting weird for a while. Not exactly mopey, but he skipped math class to stare at the ceiling today and when I came back and tried to talk to him he basically told me to screw off and left the room."
"Are you sure this isn't something to do with Yumi?" Jeremie only found it necessary to ask.
"I already asked him. He didn't really give me a direct answer. I have a feeling it's something bigger than Yumi though."
"He has been acting absent-minded lately," Jeremie agreed with a sigh just as there was a knock on his door. "That must be Aelita. Yumi should be here soon. Come to my room. We've got to leave soon for the concert anyway."
Aelita opened the door halfway, peering into the room with a smile on her face. Jeremie saw her pink hair before anything else. "It's almost time!" she squealed, pushing open the door the rest of the way.
"I know," he said, swiveling around in his chair. "Are you nervous?"
"A little," the pink-haired girl admitted, crossing the room to sit on Jeremie's bed with the Einstein poster above it. The thick mustache that Odd had drawn on him weeks ago was still there.
"You're going to be great. You're a natural at it." It was one of the things Aelita discovered about herself after coming to Earth. She had musical talent. It was just one of the things that had made her feel human again. That was all Jeremie had ever wanted for her and he was pleased to see that was exactly what she was getting.
Aelita bashfully grinned at him. "Thanks," she said. "Where are the others?"
"I'm here!" Odd's voice powered through the closed door before he threw it open. "Sorry, I was dealing with a grumpy roommate."
Aelita looked expectantly at him for some sort of explanation. "I think something is really wrong with Ulrich," Odd told her. "He just left the room in some sort of mood. Although it's not quite one I've seen before."
"What about Yumi?" Aelita asked, digging her pink cell phone from her bag.
"She said she'd be here," Jeremie offered, as Aelita called her.
"No answer," she declared after a few moments.
"Hmm, the love birds are missing at the same time. What could that mean?" Odd joked, even if he knew it wasn't really the time. If Ulrich had been there, he would have heard 'Cut it out, Odd!' before he was shoved.
"Are they in a fight?" Aelita wondered aloud to which Jeremie shrugged in response.
"At least we know they're not in any danger. We don't have to worry about that anymore, now that X.A.N.A has been stopped."
Jeremie's words hung in the air for much too long. Aelita's gaze had shifted to her skirt, where she pulled at a loose thread.
Moments later, Odd finally nodded at Jeremie, a strange, nostalgic feeling overwhelming him. "Is it weird to miss it?"
"Miss what?" Jeremie inquired.
"I mean….just being a Lyoko warrior, you know? Fighting…being a part of something."
"Why would you miss that? So many horrible things came along with it. We barely made it out alive. How can you miss it?" Jeremie didn't sound angry, more along the lines of not understanding Odd's point of view, which is what a lot of people had trouble with regarding Odd.
"We were a team. It was like a video game. We were heroes." Now all he had was actual video games, which seemed quite boring in comparison.
"Do you hear yourself, Odd?" It wasn't a game! We didn't have the option to just lose and start over." Now Jeremie was becoming frustrated. Didn't Odd realize what he was saying was completely insane? He couldn't look back on the experience as a good one. There had been way too many close calls. Instead, he preferred to look at it logically and in a logical perspective, they should be glad to even be alive and appreciate what they had now.
"Jeremie…" Aelita's gentle voice cut in. They turned to her, realizing she'd been silent the entire time.
"What? It's over. We don't have to deal with any of it any longer. Life is better. Especially for you, Aelita." Did she not see things his way? Usually he and Aelita saw things eye to eye, in a logical manner. Although from time to time, they didn't. She was a female after all.
"We still have to deal with it," Aelita said in a low voice. "I think about my father every day, about the danger I put you all in to bring me back to Earth. X.A.N.A may be gone, but the scars he left are everlasting."
Jeremie adjusted his glasses. "I know that it's been a long journey, Aelita. I was just saying that we're free. You're free. X.A.N.A doesn't have any hold on you anymore. You can live a human life? Doesn't that make you happy?" He hadn't meant to say Aelita should just move on and forget about it. "Odd's making it seem as if it was a vacation we should reminisce on."
"It's not all bad," Odd pointed out. "You seem to forget that Lyoko is the reason we are all friends. Not to mention, the very reason why Aelita is here with us today. It does have good memories, along with the bad. Maybe I just prefer to concentrate on the good times, so that the bad don't get to me, alright? What happened to optimism?"
"I'm not being pessimistic or optimistic, Odd. I'm being realistic. We can't…we can't afford to dwell on the past. We accept that it was hard and we move forward. I'm grateful we met Aelita, trust me, but…thinking about all of the good things, only brings all the bad memories with it." Jeremie couldn't look back on those, or he'd probably get an ulcer. He just chose not to. Life was different now.
"We're allowed to think about what happened to us, to be happy or sad about it. Maybe Ulrich's just having a little bit more trouble with that than you are, maybe we all are."
Odd's eyes widened as Aelita's eyes filled with tears. She stood up with fists clenched at her sides. "We can't just pretend it didn't happen, Jeremie. Our past is a part of us. It always will be."
And in Jeremie's mind, he knew Aelita was speaking the truth. He would never be able to shake all that had happened, but he wouldn't let it get to him. He'd concentrate on computer programs and algorithms instead. Those were things he could handle. The emotional turmoil that came with the memories, he could not.
Odd's eyes shifted back and forth between Jeremie and Aelita, before he finally spoke, thus breaking the thick silence that had settled over them. "Come on, guys. Let's go watch Aelita kick ass and just have a good time. We can talk about this later, alright?" There was so much tension in the room and Odd felt like he'd caused it. He shouldn't have brought anything up, but at the same time, it felt like he'd brought something into the light that nobody else had been willing to talk about. Unfortunately, it might have made things a lot more difficult.
The two nodded in response and Odd took out his cell phone on the way out of the room to text Yumi.
I don't know what you're up to. Aelita tried calling you. Her show's tonight, remember? Anyway, if you're not coming, could you at least try and get through to Ulrich? He's being stubborn.
Ulrich felt the wind rustle his hair as he climbed up the ladder from the sewers down below. So many times he had ascended and descended that ladder in an urgency specific to X.A.N.A attacks, but he wasn't being chased by a spector or needed on Lyoko. His journey to the factory had been leisurely if anything. He'd wandered along, ghosts of memories surrounding him, the soles of his shoes traveling the familiar path that had long since worn them down.
Even now he felt as if he should be running from something or to something; his feet ached in anticipation.
For a second he thought he was imagining the figure standing a few feet away from him, clutching the railing of the bridge, but he knew he wasn't insane.
"William, what are you doing here?" he asked incredulously, taking a step towards him. Ulrich understood all too well why Aelita had been so nervous around him since they'd freed him from X.A.N.A's clutches. It was as if you expected him to turn around and see the symbol of X.A.N.A in his eyes before he tried to end your life.
Still, there was a certain hesitation in his step as he neared the guy.
"Honestly?" William finally spoke, his gaze finally tearing away from the water below them. "I don't really know."
Ulrich didn't remember the last time he'd spoken to William after they'd brought him back. He almost seemed to be trying to stay away from the group, something that was unusual for him, not that Ulrich was complaining. William should have never gone to Lyoko in the first place, even if they did need some extra help. He'd never been William's biggest fan anyway. He'd only gotten in the way of their group dynamic and put them through more trouble, not to mention he complicated his and Yumi's relationship even more. Ulrich was used to trying to muster up the courage to tell Yumi how he felt, but as far as he was concerned, he had unlimited time, that was until William came along. He made it so that Ulrich had to tell Yumi how he felt and beat William to the punch. William reeked of courage, something that Ulrich always had trouble with. But despite all of this, he was happy to see William alive, especially when the chances of him coming back to Earth had seemed so slim.
"What are you doing here?"
It took Ulrich a moment to realize that William had thrown his own question back at him. He pondered why he was here and decided that he really didn't know either. His feet had led him here, as if there was some sort of magnetic force that had pulled him towards the factory.
He released a sigh. "For old time's sake?" he half-joked, although his heart wasn't in it.
William laughed, a sort of bitter sound. "Funny." He turned back to stare out into the distance once more, the tiniest hint of a smile on his face, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I'm not sure I remember you being this funny."
Normally, Ulrich would toss an insult back at him, but he didn't. He just didn't have it in him.
A silence fell over the two rivals and it was only broken when a question suddenly floated into Ulrich's mind. "Do you remember anything?" It slipped from his mouth so quickly that he hadn't realized that it wouldn't make sense standing alone. William didn't exactly know what was going on in his mind. "I mean, from when you were possessed," he added.
At first he wasn't sure William would answer and then he took a step back from the railing and turned to meet Ulrich's eyes. "Not really," he muttered. "Sometimes I'll randomly remember little bits and pieces, but when I try to put them together, nothing makes sense. It's useless really."
And suddenly Ulrich was burning with envy, except this time it wasn't at William's confidence or good looks, it was simply because he could live in blissful ignorance of all that had happened to him. "Consider yourself lucky," he told him.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you don't have to live with the memories of it. Sure, you went to Lyoko a few times, but then you were captured and taken over by X.A.N.A. You don't have to live with remembering all of the things that have happened to you. I know that being a Lyoko warrior was all fun and games to you. You thought you were hot shit and that it was some live-action video game and maybe all of us thought that at first, but it isn't like that. It's dangerous."
"You think I don't know that I acted stupidly, Ulrich? I know. You guys gave me a chance and I only became a prisoner. I was supposed to make things easier for you guys, not more difficult. I can admit when I'm wrong, Ulrich. That's more than I can say for you." His eyes narrowed as he tried to explain himself.
Ulrich turned away, gritting his teeth and fighting the urge to lash out at him.
"I can barely face any of you without feeling ashamed, without feeling hated by you guys for what I did," he continued.
"We don't hate you, William," Ulrich told him truthfully. He knew that none of them did. He thought that they were all just mostly unsure of how to feel. "I don't even hate you. You just-"
"Remind you all of what you've been through, I know. I'm a reminder of all of the bad things that happened."
Ulrich found himself nodding, he really couldn't deny that because it was true.
"So, you're wrong. I don't get to live in blissful ignorance. I know that I was possessed and I know that the things I did weren't necessarily me, but that doesn't stop me from feeling like a complete idiot for getting myself in the situation to be captured. I have to live with the fact that I lost all of your guys' trust. Is that bad enough, or do you want me to feel worse?"
Actually, Ulrich didn't really know what he wanted, but he sure didn't think that William had been this torn up about what had happened. He just seemed to stay out of their way after asking for another chance to prove himself. But maybe he had been wrong about William, he was only trying to make things easier for them after what he'd done. He found himself not knowing what to say.
"Anyway, if you're so plagued by everything, then why are you back here, at the source of it all?" William gestured to the factory behind them.
That was a good question. Did he think that coming back to the factory would make him realize that it really was all over? That he had nothing to fear and then he would slowly be able to let go of it all? Or had he just come here on instinct? "Maybe we're here for similar reasons. Did you ever think of that? We're trying to figure out a way to make sense of what happened to us and thought that maybe going here would give us answers."
"How is it working out for you?"
William shook his head. "It's not." He stuffed his hands into his pockets and kicked at a rock on the ground. "Will you…not tell the others that I was here?"
"No problem, as long as you don't tell them I was here." They hadn't exactly made a pact to never return here again, but they had agreed that it would be better for them if they didn't. He just didn't want to stir up any trouble.
Ulrich didn't know what he had come here looking for, but he did know that he'd somehow expected it to make him feel better. He sought refuge in the old abandoned factory, thinking it would ease him, but in fact, it hadn't had that effect at all. If anything, he felt worse. It was as if coming here had unburied thousands of memories that he'd tried to repress. They were all fighting to get to the forefront of his mind.
He shuffled away from William, ready to leave before he was driven mad by memories. William's voice stopped him for a moment. "Hey Ulrich? It's uh, it's over now, right?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"All of it, it's over. X.A.N.A's not coming back, is he?"
"Yes, it's over. He can't come back. That's impossible." Where was William going with this?
"Then...shouldn't everything be better than this?"
Ulrich thought it would be. He thought that he'd be able to concentrate on himself, on his interest in sports and his friendship with the others. Maybe he could even boost his grades and try to start some sort of a relationship with Yumi, but instead, he felt stuck, as if he was still waiting for X.A.N.A to launch an attack at any moment and constantly reflecting on every single previous attack in his mind.
He didn't know how to combat it.
"It should be," he agreed, moving to step down the ladder again. "But somehow it's not."