Chapter 3...we're getting there, guys, I mean it! I'd really like to thank the people that are reviewing, faving, and alerting this- you guys are awesome in a can. If awesome was sold in a can, it would have your faces plastered all over it. I wish we could still reply to reviews in-fic so I could give all of you personalized hugs…though sweetsummerrain gets special giggles for being the fifth, or "Fifth" person to review this fic xD
So let's get back to kids running around. ^_^ This is another instance where this copy of the chapter is not beta'd. Beta'd will be loadsanloadsbetter.
Disclaimer: I don't own Code: Lyoko. But acting like I own it gives me a good healthy dose of ego inflation. I also do not own any of the show excerpts in this chapter, including lyrics.
(Adaptation Notes: The drinking age in France is 16.  denotes another language being spoken. I've fixed Chapter 1 to include those.)
March 21, 2007
29 Mouscadet Street
The Pepin homestead was larger than many of the other houses in the area, and a good acre away from them on all sides. The windows flashed as if they were on fire, except where the silhouettes of partygoers interrupted the display. Several more spilled out of the front door, talking and laughing and sipping drinks from plastic cups. The party hadn't quite gotten into swing, but it was well on its way.
Ulrich and Odd were waiting near the front gate, looking impatient. Ulrich felt impressive in a green polo shirt and khakis, but he kept brushing away imaginary dust in a nervous sort of way. Odd's white leisure suit was brighter than the whole house, and it was unclear whether his cologne or his pheromones smelled worse. He was looking at his cell phone, lips pursed. It vibrated in his hands.
"Oh! Text from Milly! She's on Martin Street…" He put the phone away, licked his finger, and ran it up his hair. "How do I look?"
"Dreadful." Ulrich wasn't looking. He saw some commotion out of the corner of his unfocused eye up the road, and turned his head to see more clearly. "Someone's coming…wait, is that Aelita? I thought she was inside already."
Odd hopped up on the fence to see what his friend saw. It was indeed Aelita, running up the street about as fast as she could, as if trying to escape something. She had a large bag slung over her shoulder, which was swinging to and fro as she ran, eyes downcast. Both of the boys ran to the gate, arms waving. "Aelita!" Odd called.
Aelita stopped where she was, and looked right at them. "Ulrich! Odd!" She smiled a pained, nervous sort of smile, and completed the run to them. She placed her bag down, and greeted each of them with a quick hug. "I'm so happy to see you…"
"Glad you could make it too, Princess. Better late than never," Odd replied, giving her a thumbs up. "Hey, this idiot wouldn't be honest. How do I look? Is it too much? Too little?"
"You look like you just stepped out of 'Paco The King of Disco'," Aelita said, giggling a little too hard. She looked around the dark front yard. "Wait, where's…"
"Jeremie?" Ulrich started, guessing what she was thinking. He shook his head. "Sorry, Aelita. I went to go get him, and he was asleep. I couldn't wake him up. Not like that, I mean, he's just out."
"I left about a million messages on his phone, though, so if he doesn't get his bum over here, he's…really tired," Odd said, tactfully. Aelita's smile didn't falter- it only looked a touch more strained. "But, don't worry about it! The weather's cool, the party's hot, and you're going to rock the house!" He grinned up at her.
"Yes. Yes…yes I am." She giggled again, as if shocked at her own words.
"Of course you are!" a new voice interrupted. The three of them turned to the gate. Milly was there, catching her breath, holding her camcorder in one hand and fixing her shirt with the other. Tamiya was nowhere to be seen.
"Milly!" Odd ran to her and pulled her into a kiss, but worked quickly so he could get a better look at her outfit (purple tube top, orange suspenders, yellow short shorts). "You look amazing," he went on, speaking to her bosoms.
"Oh, thank you! You look…interesting." She raised her eyebrows, grinned affectionately, and gave him another kiss on the cheek. This accomplished, she turned to Aelita. "And you too, Aelita! That's the outfit from the Subdigitals concert, isn't it?" None of them had to predict what Milly would do next- she held the camcorder up to Aelita. "And this'll be your third public performance, right? How does it feel to be in demand? Do you plan to play any other venues?"
"Um…" Aelita grimaced, and looked to the side. "I don't really want to answer any questions right now, Milly. Maybe after the party, so you can get a better perspective."
"Oh, that's a great idea! I'll be sure to give you credit for it." She put the camcorder away, and turned back to Odd. "So…you wanna go?"
"Uh, hold on…" Odd looked back at his friend. "Hey, Ulrich, Milly and I are going in. You're alright waiting for Yumi alone, right?" He winked at him.
"Sure, do whatever," Ulrich said, waving them off. "I'll be in soon."
"I should go with you," Aelita said, very quickly. "I'm sure Alex is-"
"-waiting patiently for his DJ?" another new voice finished. While everyone had been focused on Milly, Alex Pepin had left his house, come down the driveway, and positioned himself behind Aelita. His ironed white shirt, black skinny jeans, newly-slicked hair, and confident expression proved a classy contrast to the mayhem behind him. He twirled a bone-dry champagne glass in his right hand, giving him an edgy appearance without any edge to fall from.
He attracted attention like honey attracts flies; every response to his presence was positive. Aelita's smile relaxed a little. Odd clapped and gave a low whistle. Milly pulled her camera out again and aimed it at his face ("This is amazing, Alexandre! You're probably one of the few people in the whole world that can pull off a party like this on a Wednesday night. What's your secret?"). Ulrich was especially brave; he walked right up to him, pulling his attention in another direction.
"Hey, Alex," he began, in a very familiar tone. "This looks great! I haven't been inside yet or anything, but from the looks of it, you've pulled out all the stops. Everyone's going to have a great time." He laughed, and held up his fist. "Really, I can't thank you enough for letting us all come."
"What? Oh…" Alex ignored Odd and Milly, but completed Ulrich's brofist somewhat unenthusiastically. "No problem, no problem at all. I hope you like it, yes, yes…" Without skipping a beat, he turned right to Aelita, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Aelita! You're…" He looked her up and down, and then up again. "Fashionably late."
"Oh. Ah, sorry." Aelita said. She looked legitimately concerned; more legitimate than she'd looked the entire evening. "I just…"
"You don't have to make excuses. Really, I'm overjoyed you showed up at all. Is Jeremie here?" he went on in a suddenly serious tone.
"Sorry, Alex, he couldn't make it," Ulrich interrupted, having overheard that snatch of the conversation. "Last I saw him, he was asleep."
"Really? Well, that's too bad," Alex said, sounding like all his dreams had come true. He didn't even try to restrain himself anymore; before Aelita knew it, Alex had wrapped his free arm around her, ushering her up the drive. "We've set up a station for you in the laundry room," he went on. "I know it doesn't sound glamorous, but it has the widest range soundwise, and everyone can see you. And that's the optimal thing, for everyone to see you."
"I guess that's part of the performance," Aelita said. It was the last thing Ulrich, Odd, and Milly heard before the two were out of earshot. Before they disappeared, Ulrich got a good look at Aelita's face, which confirmed what he thought he'd seen from the beginning.
"Did you see her face?" Ulrich said, very seriously.
"Of course," Odd said, sounding confused. "She's excited like Jim at a sumo convention. Why?"
"Maybe," Ulrich said, "But her eyes were red-rimmed, and her face was all blotchy…" He looked very worried. "Do you think something happened between her and Jeremie?"
"Ulrich…" Odd shook his head. "Don't you think if Aelita was having any trouble, especially with Einstein, she'd tell us right away? And look at her, she's happy as a clam. It was probably just the light." He put his arm around Milly, who looked like she was trying very hard to hide her excitement at the prospect of drama. "Really, we're going in now."
"Okay…I'll keep waiting." Slightly defeated, Ulrich turned back to look at the road. He heard Odd and Milly's chatter blend into the cacophony of the home behind him. With nothing tall and dark-haired to look at, his mind was stagnant. With all he'd ever had to think about, he'd almost forgotten what it was like not to think of anything at all.
"Don't tell me I'm the only one that showed up." His heart skipped a beat as he started thinking again, and then a few more when he saw why. Yumi had just walked in the gate, completely alone, and was now leaning against the fence. It took him a second to recognize her outfit. Sleeveless sweater, short skirt, striped stockings. He tried to look like he wasn't ogling.
"Yumi!" he interjected, in a manner of greeting. "No, no, everyone else went inside…Odd and Milly are still sickening, but I think Aelita should be ready to go in a few minutes." He tugged at his collar.
"She really is going to DJ, then?" she replied, looking impressed. Just as she finished, she was proven right as a chord cut the air. Before this, no music had been playing; all the atmosphere had come from partygoers' chatter. As the first song began- an active number that might have been a much improved Aerosmooth remix- a cheer rose up that almost drowned out the music entirely. Within seconds, everyone that had been standing and talking was flailing and flying, lost in the dance.
"Apparently," Ulrich said loudly, trying to make himself heard over all the new noise. His throat clenched; he couldn't think of anything else to say. He couldn't possibly notice that Yumi caught in the same sort of tension, and that her foot-tapping was not an idle habit, but a nervous one. Against his better judgment, he found his eyes wandering back to her outfit. Vaguely, he remembered girls liked to be complimented on their clothes. "Uh…I remember that outfit," he started, a bit awkwardly. "You wore it to Prom last year."
"Oh?" Yumi seemed shocked that a conversation had actually started. "Yeah…yeah, I did. Giant chemical teddy bear."
"Never mind." She rounded on him suddenly, and grabbed his hand. "Well? The night's not getting any longer, and neither of us came here to stand around." Her smile was like a nuclear bomb on his heart. "Are we going in?"
Ulrich hoped Yumi couldn't see him blush in the semidarkness. He nodded his head, and smiled as confidently as she did. "I thought you'd never ask." They pulled each other up the drive and into the crowd.
Only the faintest vestiges of the evening's firey sunlight remained to tickle the horizon. Within half an hour, the setting sun would dissolve them completely, leaving Alex Pepin's house as the brightest source of light for miles.
There were no skateboards or scooters on the sewer wall anymore. William wasn't sure if the others had removed them after their last trip through the tunnel or if they had been stolen since the last time he saw them. He wouldn't know those kinds of things. Either way, he hadn't been able to make use of them, so now he was running, running as fast as he could. If he remembered right, he was about halfway to the factory. But he might not have been right. He didn't have enough experience to know.
He wasn't sure why he was going to the factory, or, metaphorically, where he was going at all. Aelita had been right in the plainest way; there was nothing left in the factory for them but a shell of a computer, a useless virtual universe. Now that the threat was gone, so was the secret. Of course, she and the others had been prepared to throw its existence away as soon as they could. He hadn't quite adopted that mindset yet. He'd tried, because they had, but his mind was too mixed up for him to forget.
He didn't entirely understand what had happened to him, as the others had been rather vague in explaining things. Jeremie had mentioned that William had been "taken" and "imprisoned" by XANA, which was bad enough, but he could have sworn he had heard the word "slave" come up in many an overheard conversation. And he didn't remember anything about the five months he had missed himself, so his own memory was of no help. From what he could piece together, the Schyphozoa had turned him off, so to speak, and shut him away in some prison of XANA's, necessitating a difficult rescue on the part of his teammates. This, really, was the worst his ego had ever been bruised. He had been inflated with outlandish powers and promises of heroism, and then, with just one half-mistake, he had been shunted into the position of the damsel in distress and stripped of all respectability, in and out of Lyoko. He wasn't a Lyoko Warrior; he had never truly felt like one.
He reached the sewer's end, and climbed the ladder to the surface, breaking through to the fire-streaked sunset. He was wrong to think he'd find any sympathy with Aelita, he thought. Sure, she had connections to the computer through her father, but now that that father was gone, however tragic the event, things were over and complete for her. She had never been imprisoned by XANA, she couldn't relate to him. And yet, the image of her sobbing on the bedroom floor couldn't get out of his mind. "He's gone and I can't do anything. And I hate it. I hate it so much."
Staring at the water as he ran across the bridge, Aelita twisted herself into Yumi. Yumi, the only one he had been trying to please with placidity and acceptance. "Of course they know how dangerous it is, but they're just too nostalgic," she had told him the day after XANA died. "I think life without Lyoko is going to be different, but okay." He loved her, but he disagreed with her, but he still loved her. She was so determined to distance herself from her past with Lyoko, he couldn't bear to remind her of it at all, or let her think he was weak. So, for the past week, he had acted like he was in perfect agreement with her, and buried himself in books so he wouldn't be tempted to speak. But, as he had just realized, just because he wanted to put up one front for her didn't mean he needed to put up the same front with himself. She needed to live in her reality, and he needed to live in his with the help of what she had left behind.
The ropes had thankfully not been cut. William grabbed one and swung down the drop, as Yumi had shown him on his first night. To his mild surprise, the factory looked no different; it was in the same state of abandonment as usual. The elevator was gone; William assumed it had been sent to the bottom of the shaft, and he didn't know the code to get it back up. Unfazed, he walked back to the boiler area, where he knew there was a staircase down to the supercomputer. He found it easily, opened the cover, and climbed down.
He didn't look away from the ladder when he entered the interface room, and kept his eyes fixed on the wall as he moved the cover to the next ladder. It was unnaturally dark; the entire room felt dead. He didn't have any reason to look at the interface; it didn't mean anything to him yet, that much he knew. The same darkness met him at the bottom of the second shaft, but he didn't see any similar cover under his feet. Hopeful, he looked around. It was clearly the scanner room, only dimly lit by ceiling lamps overhead. The scanners were closed, as they should be. This room too felt dead; there was no hum of activity in the giant wires that had once accomplished the impossible.
An unfamiliar lump in the middle of the scanners caught his eye. He remembered and recognized the hatch, but not the coil of rope tied to it. He could dimly see a piece of paper stuck to the coil. He ran to the center, feeling faintly dizzy, knelt by the hatch, and tore the note off. He could just barely read it in the semidarkness- "Emergencies only. 14/3/07 JB." He shrugged and tossed the paper aside. With a mighty shove, he pulled the hatch open.
A column of light shot out of the hole, blinding him temporarily. After he stopped seeing spots, he looked down. There were no stairs or handholds, just a direct drop onto a floor emblazoned with the Eye of XANA. As he watched, the plates on which the Eye was painted opened and separated – it was not a floor, but a cover. A tower-like structure rose out of the hole, sending tendrils of coolant smoke over the floor and up the hatch. This, he knew, was what he was looking for.
William threw the rope down the hatch and swung down to the floor, just like he had in the upper factory. He landed right in front of the supercomputer, and got to his feet to look at it. Like the interface and the scanners, the computer was dark and dull, but the light hitting the metal made it shine and sparkle, as though that alone could bring it back to life. Right in front of him on the dais of the computer was two interlocked panels, marked with the Eye. Next to these panels was a button- the only thing resembling a button on the structure at all. William walked up to the panels and pushed the button. The panels opened up, like a monster flashing its teeth, revealing a small, simple lever. It fell out before him, limp.
He grabbed the handle with both hands, laughing a little. The Lyoko Warriors couldn't tell him anything, but this computer, this evidence, would reveal all their secrets. And then, maybe when he understood what had happened to him, he could have some peace, and stop driving himself insane with incomprehension. It would be better that way. He knew he was right about that.
"I hope I'm not going to regret this in a minute," he muttered jokingly to himself. Without any more hesitation, he pushed the lever up.
Alex's house was just as nice inside as it was outside, all abstract photography and modern furniture. In fact, it might have been a calm, comfortable place to live if not for the fact that every room was full of students, Kadic or otherwise. They were drunk on adrenaline and who knows what else, and most of them were dancing wildly to the peppy hip-hop number blaring from the laundry room into the living room.
Ulrich and Yumi were dancing as well, or rather trying to. Everyone around them was twisted up with someone else, moving against each other in ways that neither of them was willing to admit they wanted to do with the other. By some unspoken agreement, they instead moved independently in each others' general vicinity, watching each other intently. They ended up bumping into a lot of other people instead. When the song ended in a flurry of cheers, they faced each other, panting heavily, looking flustered but satisfied.
"Still having fun?" Ulrich asked. Yumi shrugged; she hadn't heard him over all the shouted requests for the next song. "Never mind. Hey, Aelita's looking this way." He pointed at Aelita to get his point across. The crowd was too thick around the booth for either of them to get to her, but Yumi gave him a thumbs up, and the two of them waved to her.
Aelita was standing behind a large speaker system and an open laptop, which she was putting a different CD into. She couldn't actually hear anything the kids were shouting at her, but she did see Ulrich and Yumi behind them. She smiled and waved back at them. Yumi mouthed, Can you leave? Aelita shrugged, and hit a button on the laptop. The music swelled again- a new, unfamiliar tune- and the chatter died. For some reason, it was now easier for them to hear each other.
"It was worth a shot," Ulrich said. "Do you, uh…want a drink, or something?"
"No, I'm fine." Yumi stretched. "You want to dance anymore?"
"I could use a break." The two of them started for the other end of the room, which had a TV and two couches facing it. The TV was blaring, but no one was watching. Some people were alone, nursing drinks, others chattering in pairs. One couch was full of a couple that didn't go to Kadic making out violently. The other was empty except for one girl, who was staring off into space, looking annoyed. She was ignoring her open drink. Ulrich recognized her bun and dress immediately. "Sissi?"
Somehow, Sissi had heard him. She jumped up from the couch, nearly tripping over her own feet, and grabbed her drink. "Ulrich!" She ran over to him, ignoring Yumi and looking triumphant. "So you did come! My, you look…well dressed." She ran a finger over his shirt, just barely touching it. Ulrich cringed. Without removing her finger, she turned to Yumi. "And you too, Yumi. You're rocking the retro look better than I thought you would." Yumi nodded in a disdainful manner of greeting. "Why didn't you tell me Aelita was going to be the DJ?"
"We didn't know," Ulrich said quickly.
"Really? That's a bit strange. Maybe she wanted to keep it a secret. I could've given her some CDs to play, but she seems to be doing just fine for herself without me…" She took a careful swig of her drink. "Want any? You look parched."
"Uh…" Ulrich looked uncertain. Sissi went on without waiting for an answer. "Oh well, more for me, I guess. So, I guess Jeremie's in the crowd around Aelita, right? Wait, never mind. Where's Odd? Off making a scene with his new girlfriend?" Her tone was sharp.
"Oh-" Ulrich was thankful for the lighter conversation topic. "Yeah, probably. I haven't seen him since I came in, but I'll bet they're bringing down the house."
"You don't have to bet." Yumi pointed behind them. While they had been talking, the crowd had migrated from the living room to the front hall. Only they, a few younger girls, and the makeout couple remained. Even Aelita was gone. "If I know Odd as well as I do, he's probably right in the middle of that."
The three of them ran to the edge of the crowd. The hall was packed with people- there were even a few that had jumped a blockade on the stairs to watch from above. They had all formed a ring around two people, who were performing the strangest dance any of them had ever seen. Odd was standing in the middle of the circle, swinging Milly around by the arm. She was clearly having the time of her life; she was screaming and twisting as much as she could. As the music swirled and dived, he pulled her back in, twisted her around, and then took her place being swung around. He let out a wild whoop and attempted to slap hands with those closest to him. Then, Milly let go suddenly, and Odd went barreling into the crowd.
Everyone erupted into cheers. Odd got up, ran back to Milly, grabbed both her hands, and threw her under his legs. She went right through, got up, grabbed Odd, and did the same. They came together and began dancing against each other, switching positions every so often. When the song ended, they stopped in place, panting heavily. The crowd went nuts, laughing and cheering in turns. Yumi was dumbfounded. Ulrich was holding back laughter. Sissi, taking a drink, looked duly unimpressed.
The crowd dissolved, and the kids went back to what they had been doing before. Ulrich thought he could see Alex leaning against the stairway, glass in hand, but when he looked again, he was gone. Odd and Milly were the last to emerge, laughing at each other. Odd saw them right away, pointed at them, and said something to Milly. They rushed over. "Guys!" he shouted to Ulrich. "Did you see that? Did you see her?" He pointed at Milly.
"Oh, I saw something, all right," Ulrich said, punching Odd mockingly. Yumi didn't even try to keep a straight face. "They'll remember that one for the rest of the night."
"If I have anything to say about it, they'll remember it for years," Milly said triumphantly. "I just wish Tamiya hadn't been too tired to see it…" Her melancholy vanished when she spotted Sissi. "Wait, what are you doing here?"
"Enjoying the lax security," Sissi said flatly. She removed her cup from her mouth. "And keep in mind you're only here because of your little squeeze over there-" She pointed at Odd- "-so don't go judging others so quickly."
"Hey!" Odd went up to Sissi and went up on his toes to look her in the eye. "You can't just insult my girlfriend like that!"
"She won't be your girlfriend next week, so what does it matter?" Sissi muttered. She looked down at the livid look on Odd's face, and then up at the ambiguous looks on Ulrich and Yumi's faces. "Alright, alright, I'll be good, I'll lay off. You too have whatever fun you want. What should I care?"
"Exactly, you shouldn't. I can do whatever I want." Odd grinned, and went back to join Milly. He noticed that her eyes had trailed to the makeout couple, who were still at it on the couch. Her expression was unreadable. Odd cringed. "Oh…uh, well, look at that. Sure, that looks fun, but we don't have to do that if you don't…"
Milly cut him off mid-sentence by copying what she'd seen. Odd's eyes appeared to roll back into his head; he was in heaven. The two of them stumbled over to the other couch. Yumi, Ulrich, and Sissi watched for about five seconds before deciding they'd had enough.
"Sickening," Sissi mumbled to herself. "But I guess that's how couples are." Suddenly, she turned to Yumi. "Speaking of that, Yumi, I think I can see that William didn't show up?"
Yumi and Ulrich looked at each other, fireworks going off in their heads. "Did he…tell you he was going to be here?" Yumi began.
"Well…" Sissi threw her empty cup aside. "He was pretty vague, but he was in a hurry. He told me he wasn't going, but I can't think of any other reason he'd be going off on his own in the woods. Unless…" She looked up at Yumi and Ulrich, who were trying very hard not to look shocked. "Oh, it's no big deal. He's probably going to go kill squirrels or whatever." She turned around. "I'm gonna get another drink, so I'll see you later. Oh, and if Herb and Nicolas come looking for me, tell them where they can shove it, okay? Thanks, dears." She turned away from them, stumbling slightly on her way out.
"I'm glad I didn't drink that," Ulrich said, looking shaken. "But what she said about William…you don't think…I mean…he…" His throat froze.
"I…" Yumi's teeth were gritted, and she looked worried- but only for a second. Then she whirled around, looking happier than ever. "I'm sure whatever it is it's his own business. Come on, let's go back in. I love this song." Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed his hand and pulled him back into the fray.
"Diary of Jeremie Belpois, Kadic Academy 7th grade student, October 9th, 2004. A few weeks ago I was hunting for some parts to finish building my miniature robots…"
William watched Jeremie's talking head on the interface screen with rapture. The entire experience, the feeling of sitting in the chair and and actually using the supercomputer from the outside was strange and unreal. But he knew it was real, and because it was real, he had to find out about it. And with a folder called "Diary" sitting right on the interface desktop, that couldn't have been any easier to do.
"December 14, 2005. After the last Return to the Past, Ulrich, Odd, and Yumi didn't return from Lyoko. Aelita and I discovered that they were being held inside a bubble on Lyoko, where they were trapped in a virtual replica of Kadic. They're all out and fine now, but it was a very close call. Actually, it might be our closest brush with death yet…" An intriguing story, but it predated him. He'd look at it later. He clicked another.
"February 1, 2006. We just found out the hard way that every time we use a Return to the Past, the supercomputer becomes stronger- and so does XANA. Yesterday, or for the last three days, technically speaking, he seized control of the program and reversed time until he was strong enough to possess a human. Sissi's fine now, thankfully, but XANA seized the opportunity to attempt to steal Aelita's memory again with the Schyphozoa…" William resisted the urge to stop here. This was an old entry; long ago dealt with. But he couldn't get the words "Sissi's fine now" out of his head. He clicked another.
"October 5, 2006. XANA's attacking all the time. We're too busy to think about school. After the prowess he showed in handling today's attack, I suggested we recruit William Dunbar into our group to ease the stress on the rest of us. But Yumi absolutely refuses. I don't know why. I have a feeling their friendship has been rocky lately…but to me, that's not important. What's important is that we do all we can to stop XANA."
William paused again. He'd found what he was looking for- his involvement. He was somewhat lifted by the fact that they had been impressed by him (whatever he'd done) but chilled by Yumi's rejection. Yumi, he realized, was another thing he didn't totally understand. He didn't know why she rejected the people he knew she loved, why she would never open herself up to anyone, why she was so eager to cast Lyoko away. He was more worried than he was angry about her. But his excitement regarding Lyoko was growing. He was getting closer.
He rushed through the next entries. "October 10, 2006. Ulrich and Odd were hit by a-" Click. "October 14, 2006. The computer was-" Click. "October 17, 2006. Ulrich's body hasn't-" Click. "October 20, 2006. Attempts to restore Odd's-" Click. "October 23, 2006." William didn't dare move a muscle.
"Yumi's finally agreed to let William into the group. I don't know what persuaded her, but she's all for it now. Just a few hours ago, we introduced him to Lyoko, and he consented to be scanned into the computer. Tomorrow we're going to teach him some of the basics of fighting. We haven't told him everything about Lyoko yet; just that we need to fight XANA. We'll tell him about the history of what we've been doing, about Aelita and all the attacks and everything, before his training. But for now, I think we've made a good decision. He seems eager to help us, and I think over time things will settle down with Ulrich and Yumi. I see a lot of good things coming from this."
William didn't know what to think anymore- and he hadn't even gotten to his biggest question. He'd had so much potential, they thought he had so much potential, and he'd failed them. As much as he loved to think that this mindset had stayed with them, he had to face the truth someday. His finger hovered over the Enter key as he prepared to watch the next entry.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.
"Huh?" He started at the noise, which went on and on without any signs of stopping. A window he recognized as a vector map of Lyoko opened itself over Jeremie's face. A short red line connected a point on the map to a data box off to the side. William vaguely remembered that these boxes held life point information, with an Eye of XANA in the corner. But the box had nothing in the corner. It read only one thing- "?".
He stared at it, teeth clenched, dumbfounded. The thing didn't go away; it was moving in a sort of rectangle, stopping every so often. It wasn't destroying anything, but William knew it wasn't supposed to be there. He couldn't completely wrap his head around it. If there was something in a dead world like Lyoko, good, bad, or netural…
His first thought was to go in and fight it, but he needed a second person to do the virtualization. His fingers closed around the cell phone in his pocket. Just turn the computer back off, a small, still voice in the back of his head told him. You've only caused them trouble. If it's a threat, they'll think it's your fault. He shook his head, and pulled the phone out of his pocket. Causing a problem and abandoning it was worse than causing a problem and trying to fix it.
He called Jeremie first, as he figured he was the most capable and rational. The call went to voice mail; he hung up. He didn't want to deal with Ulrich, and halfway through dialing Yumi's number he realized he didn't want to deal with her either. Odd was a good guy who wasn't inclined to freaking out, but he wasn't sure he was confident in his ability to use the supercomputer. He only had one option left.
He dialed Aelita's number, held the phone to his ear, and waited for her to pick up.
"L'univers, à portée de nos mains, L'univers, ensemble nous appartient demain!"
Aelita ended her remix with a twisted flourish, which was followed by the usual cheer. She smiled and waved at them, and ignored all their shouts as usual. The crowd had thinned slightly in the last hour; some of the dancers had paired up and wandered off. She didn't see any of her friends in the crowd, but this didn't bother her. As far as she could see, she was entertaining them well.
"Excellent work." Aelita turned around, slightly surprised. Alex was leaning against his family's washing machine, smiling placidly at her. His glass was still dry, as it had been all nght.
"Oh, thank you, it's no problem," she shouted back at him. "I hope it's up to what you wanted."
"Mostly." He waved her over. "Here, you've been working for an hour now. Take a break. Put on something longer. I want to talk to you." Aelita nodded. She turned around, set up a playlist, and then walked over to join him at the washing machine. The music was a dull thump in the background; she could actually hear herself talk now.
"Everything looks like a success so far," she began, idly. "At this rate we could keep it going until eleven, if too many people aren't called home. But I guess you must be one of those people that can start Friday's party on Wednesday and pull it off, like Milly said." She didn't notice Alex reach into the washing machine, take out a bottle with a fancy label, and pour the contents into his glass and another one on a shelf. "I wouldn't know. I've never been to a house party myself. My friends usually don't…"
"Thirsty?" Alex offered. He held a glass out to her. The drink was a sparkling off-white. "You must be, after all this time."
"Uh…" Aelita eyed the bottle on top of the washing machine. "I'd love to, but I'm not going to be sixteen for another two years."
"That's not-" Alex stopped and shook his head. "Okay, so you are. I'm sorry, I didn't know that. Silly me, giving wine to someone underage." He put her glass back on the shelf. "Come to think of it, I'm not going to be sixteen for another year either. I don't know what came over me." He put the bottle back in the washing machine, but he didn't empty his glass. Aelita looked at the glass nervously.
"I'll go get sodas from the kitchen," Aelita said, standing up. "I think that would be-"
"So Jeremie didn't show up to see you, did he?" Alex interrupted.
Aelita turned back to face Alex, trying and failing to smile. "No," she said confidently. "I haven't seen or heard from him at all."
"That's too bad." Alex stood up. "Actually, that's terrible. Isn't it terrible, the way he just blew you off without telling you?" He turned and walked toward her, leading her away from the doorway. "You know, I might be having a few more parties this year. Four, maybe five more. I'd be willing to make you the centerpiece of all of them. I could let you have the time of your life, week after week. You'd be the most popular girl at Kadic in no time at all."
"I…" As much as this idea sounded attractive to Aelita, her gut told her that something was wrong. Something had changed about Alex; his eyes had a hungry gleam to them. His cologne wafted into her face, choking her. "I don't-"
"And those friends of yours, they'd always be here with you, I'd make sure of that. Even Jeremie…that is, if you still want him around." He had backed her against a wall. "I know he's your boyfriend or whatever, but let's be honest. If he can't appreciate you, he doesn't deserve you."
"I don't understand what you're trying to tell me." She understood perfectly, but the longer she could keep him talking, the better. She tried to inch away from him.
"I didn't throw this party for nothing, Aelita," he went on, placing a hand on her shoulder. His tone softened; he was trying to seem kinder, but instead sounded pathetic. "Everything I've done tonight I've done for you. You're impressed, aren't you? And Jeremie couldn't do this, could he? No. But I'm different. I know what you want." He put his other hand on her other shoulder, while still holding the wine. The smell nauseated her. "I can give you everything he never could, Aelita. I could make you the star only I know you could be." He began to play with the strap of her shirt. "And all you have to say one little word…"
"Don't touch me!" Aelita screamed. She pulled away from him, upsetting the glass in his hand; it fell to the ground and shattered, spilling wine on the linoleum. His hand was caught in her strap; he was able to pull her back. He pushed his face to hers, incensed.
"Listen to me," Alex said. "I'm giving you the best offer of your life. I've seen you with Jeremie. I saw the way he looked at me. Do you know why he looked at me that way? Because he couldn't stand to see someone that was better than he was. Tell me, Aelita…" He let go of her, and stepped back until he was about a meter away. "I'll let you run away after this, really, but I need to know. What has Jeremie ever done for you? Is there some big secret to why you've been dating him all this time? It can't just be pity."
Images Aelita had no intention of sharing flashed through her mind. They were painful to see in some instances, but she had to let them take over. "You'll never understand what he means to me," she snarled. "If you're trying to persuade me that you love me, you're wrong. I have known love and loved deeper than you can take seriously. You are transparent, and selfish, and psychotic, and if you think that I'm going to stay here another minute-"
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Aelita didn't even ask to be excused; she grabbed the phone and flipped it open. "Hello?" she said, hopefully.
"Aelita?" the wrong voice replied.
"William?" Aelita's eyes widened in fear. She resisted the urge to hang up, even though she felt trapped between a rock and a hard place. Alex, who had been taking deep breaths by the washing machine, mouthed what she had said. The other glass was beside him. It was empty.
There was a long pause on William's end. "Where are you?" Aelita didn't respond. "Are you still at the party?"
"Yes," Aelita said tersely. She looked up at Alex. He wasn't moving; he appeared to be waiting patiently for her to finish.
"Oh. Okay." There was another long pause. Just as Aelita was about to hang up and make a run for it, William spoke again. "I'm at the factory."
Aelita's face froze. "Why?" she squeaked, hoping he couldn't hear her.
"That's not important. There's-" He began talking very fast. "There's something moving on Lyoko. The computer doesn't recognize it, and I can't tell what it is from here. But I can't go to Lyoko without someone to virtualize me, and I can't get to Jeremie. Hello? Aelita?"
The phone fell from Aelita's hand and hit the ground with a clatter. She looked down where it had fallen, and stood for several seconds staring at it. She could hear William calling to her faintly- "Aelita? Aelita?"- but she couldn't process it. She couldn't be angry, or terrified, or shocked, or anything. She could only repeat what she heard in her head. "Aelita? Aelita?"
"Aelita?" Alex had walked a little closer again, acting as though he was still welcome. "What did William say, Aelita?" Aelita looked up to him. Her face turned livid as the hazy look on his made everything rush into her mind at once. She knelt down, scrambled to pick up the phone, and held it to her ear.
"Listen to me," she whispered into the receiver. "When I get outside, I'm going to tell you how to do it yourself. Don't touch anything I don't tell you to touch. If you see anything you don't recognize, leave it alone. I'll call the others and meet you there in five minutes."
She put the phone back in her pocket, but didn't hang up. She ran to the speaker area, grabbed her CD case, and ran for the other exit. Alex didn't chase her- everyone would see him if he did- but he did yell after her. "What did William want? Where are you going? You can't leave! You're throwing me away, Aelita, you're throwing this away!"
It was no use. Aelita went through the kitchen and out the back door without listening to a word he'd said. Incensed, Alex threw the last champagne glass to the ground. It smashed to pieces alongside the other one. Then he reached into the washing machine, grabbed a third, and stormed out into the kitchen.
"Okay, I did what you said, and now this countdown's come up. 'You Kids Get Offa My Lawn'?"
"It's a long story," Aelita said from the receiver. "The bottom line is that's a delayed virtualization into Sector 5. You have a minute and thirteen seconds to get to…which scanner is highlighted?"
"The scanner on the right," William said, looking at a display beneath the rapid countdown.
"You have to get into scanner that's on the right when you leave the elevator. You should be running to it right now."
"Right." William jumped out of the interface seat and ran to the ladder shaft. He put the phone in his pocket and climbed down, emerging in the scanner room. As Aelita had said, the scanner furthest to the right was open. William pulled the phone back to his ear just in time to hear Aelita say "-black wall is supposed to be there. And don't worry about the Sector 5 countdown, we've removed it."
"I'm at the scanner," William said. "I have to go."
"Alright. I'll talk to you when I get to the factory." She hung up. Clearly she didn't want to talk to him anymore.
William put the phone back in his pocket. Knowing he didn't have any time to waste considering his decision, he stepped into the open scanner. It closed just as he got in. As lights flashed and winds blew, William thought of Yumi and the others getting calls from Aelita with the news. William screwed up again, he knew she'd say to them, and he knew they'd agree. And then he couldn't think anymore, because his mind went numb.
A second later, he fell onto a bright white light.
"Huh?" He stood up, dazed, and looked around him. He was standing inside a circle inside two other circles of light- a giant, glowing Eye of XANA- on the rotating floor of a tall blue room. He was relieved to recognize all of it- it was the entrance to Lyoko, the first landscape he had seen when he went for the first time.
"Oh my god," he said aloud. He had never, ever expected to enter this place again. Just to make sure the whole scene was real, he looked down at himself. He recognized the white and blue bodysuit he was wearing, and the giant sword he held in his right hand. The sight of the weapon sent a familiar surge of power through him. He tried to hold it back, but he liked it too much.
The floor stopped rotating, and an opening appeared in the wall. William knew what to do from here- he ran through the long blue hallway into the main area of Sector 5. Some seconds later, he stopped dead in his tracks because he had reached the end of it. Where there had once been a large blue room, there was a short dropoff with a giant black structure in front of it. This, William thought, was the "black wall" Aelita had told him about. So much had changed in the months XANA had imprisoned him. Vaguely, he wondered if this was the prison in which he had been kept.
A shining blue lift swung down from the top of the structure, coming to a halt at the platform on which William stood. William looked at the lift uncertainly. He couldn't see anything else out of the ordinary, and this was the only way out. Besides, the thing he had seen had been slow, not fast like this. He stepped on the lift, which swept him up along the black wall.
The entire room darkened around him as the lift slowed. He looked up at it. The room was full of more black structures, which formed a ring around five black stalks, which were slumped against the edges of the ring. The more William looked at it, the more he thought it looked like a prison. "I feel like I've been here before," he said to himself. The lift stopped at the black ring, and William stepped out onto it. There was no way out that he could see.
He grabbed his sword with both hands, held it out in front of him, and walked along the ring, looking back and forth for anything moving. The sword was no lighter than it had been five months ago, and he found himself stumbling as he carried it along.
The words were small and quiet, but in a small, quiet place like the prison, William heard them clearly. He whirled around, sword pointed in the direction of the sound. "[Who's there?]" he called back.
Whatever it was, it didn't answer him. There was a flash of red light from behind a stalk several yards away, and then the voice again. "[LANDSCAPE ANALYSIS 017, FEED BEGUN. ANALYZING. ANALYZING.]" It was high, cold, and inhuman, a robot's voice.
"[Seriously, what are you?]" William called again, knowing he wouldn't get any more answer than he did the first time. He ran around the ring toward the stalk, holding his sword out. "[I'm armed!]"
He saw the thing as he rounded the corner, and stopped in his tracks. Whatever it was, it wasn't- it couldn't be- a monster. It didn't look organic, or even three-dimensional. It was a perfectly flat rectangle, about half his height, floating a yard away at his eye level. It appeared to be made of black and white pixels, which were arranged in a random mishmash that made it look like a block of television static. It chanted "[ANALYZING, ANALYZING]" as something from the side that William couldn't see focused a ray of red lightning on the stalk.
William clenched his sword. His first thought was to run it through, but he didn't know what the thing was doing. He considered that this might be one of those times that it was better to make rash decisions about. "[Get away from that!]" he shouted, moving closer and preparing to swing.
"[DATA FEED INTERRUPTED.]" William stopped mid-swing as the thing's red lightning vanished. It rotated to face him. This side was different from the other. Most of it still looked like noise, but in the middle of it, a clear logo was printed. It resembled a stylized eagle on a purple background, with a ring of yellow stars around it.
The thing floated in front of the frozen William for a second before talking again. "[UNKNOWN THREAT,]" it said. "[ANALYZE AND EXTERMINATE.]" A beam of red lightning shot from the logo, aimed right at William's heart.
"You have six new messages." Boop. "Hey, Einstein! We're at the party, and we're waiting for you! Ulrich says you're asleep, but I hope this wakes you up! Bye!" Boop. "Einstein, really! Get over here! Don't you want to see Aelita?" Boop. "Alright, Jeremie, last warning. You're sure a heavy sleeper. Please wake up! Boop. "Really, Jeremie, I mean it!" Boop. "Alright, sleep if you want to! I don't want to be you tomorrow when you missed this." Boop. Machine sounds. Boop.
Kiwi pawed at the phone, trying to get it to make more sounds. When this didn't work, he clamped the phone in his mouth, walked across the bed to Jeremie, who was sleeping like a log, and put it on his lip. He barked. Jeremie mumbled a little in his sleep, but didn't move.
The phone buzzed. Jeremie mumbled a little louder. "Hmm, materialization…huh?" His eyes flew open. It took him a half-second to register everything- the room was dark, he was in the wrong room, and there was a phone ringing on his face. "Aack!" He sat up, sending the phone flying into his hands. He juggled it for a second before getting it to his ear. "Hello?"
"Jeremie?" Aelita answered. She sounded very out-of-breath, and he could hear her footsteps in the background.
"AELITA-!" Jeremie was panting about as hard as she was. "Oh, no- what time is it? I'm sorry, Aelita! I fell asleep, and-"
"What? No, Jeremie, it's okay!" A pained tone entered Aelita's voice. "But-"
"No, I'll throw something on and head over, Aelita. I'll be there if you want me to be." He ran out of Ulrich and Odd's room and headed for his own. "I don't care about Alex or anything, I-I just want to see you. It's not over, is it? I mean, that's not why you're calling, right? I'm sorry…" He threw the door of his room open, and headed for his closet. "I'm really, really sorry…"
"Jeremie, calm down!" Aelita barked. Jeremie had his hand on his closet door, but stopped when he heard her. "The party's not over, but I'm not there anymore."
"You're not?" He took a breath to calm himself. "Why?"
"I wish I didn't have to tell you, but…" There was a pause. "William just called me."
"William?" Jeremie swung away from the closet entirely. "Why? What did he say?"
"He's at the factory. He turned the supercomputer back on. He says there's something moving in Sector 5-"
"WHA-WHAT?" Jeremie shouted, unaware of his volume. His brain disengaged- he started babbling. "But- I- he- what happened? What did he do to it?"
"I'm sure he didn't do anything he thought would cause any real trouble. I let him virtualize himself to investigate-"
"You what? But what if he-"
"-But I can see the factory now, so he won't be alone for long. I need you to come over here. Right now. I'm going to call Yumi, Ulrich, and Odd, if they can hear me…I would've gotten them from the party, but I'm not going back in there."
Jeremie was overloaded with information and confusion. "But-" was all he could say. "But- but- you- I- what's going on?"
"Jeremie," Aelita said in a tender tone, "I love you. I'll see you at the factory."
She hung up. Jeremie fell down on his knees, staring at his floor. Not completely thinking about what he was doing, he used the hand that wasn't still holding the phone to his ear to punch the floor until it seemed to shake.
I love you. Jeremie started to tremble, then to giggle as he turned those words in his head atop everything else. By the time he had gotten up, gone back to Ulrich and Odd's room, grabbed his bag, and headed out of the empty dorm towards the woods, he had gone past laughing, and had stopped at howling like a maniac.
Alex stormed through the kitchen and across the hall, a murderous look marring his handsome face. No one paid any attention to him, which wasn't surprising, considering only about two-thirds of them had a good idea of what he looked like. He saw them very well, though- he was scanning them all, looking for familiar faces. He found the four he was looking for alone in the hall, leaning against the side of his stairs, talking and laughing about things that went fuzzy in his tipsy mind. Odd and Milly's faces were smeared with pink lipstick, which was probably also all over his white couch. Ulrich and Yumi were teasing them while holding hands. They were far too happy for his liking.
He stormed up to them. He cut off all greetings aimed at him by grabbing Odd by the shoulder and turning him to face him. "Get out of here," he growled right at him, before looking up at the other three. "All of you, leave my house, right now."
All four of them let out exclamations of shock and confusion. Milly looked horrified, while Yumi and Ulrich looked more worried than not. Odd fought against Alex's grip, but he couldn't get away. "Hey, what's all this about?" he shouted, trying to get attention from him and all the people that weren't listening. "What the hell did we do?"
"Your little friend ditched the party," Alex snarled on. "Every second she's been gone, you've been abusing my hospitality. Out of my house. Out."
Ulrich, hoping he could safely intervene on Odd's behalf, walked over to Alex and grabbed his arm. "Hey, Alex, calm down," he said, trying to sound concerned when he was really just confused. "You don't have to get all violent about this. Why did Aelita leave? We could try to find out where she went…"
Alex stopped, to let his mind absorb what Ulrich had said. "You want to know something, Stern?" He turned to Ulrich and gave him the evil eye. "I don't give a damn whether you're on the soccer team or not. But the suggestion did butter you up enough for me to get what I wanted. God, you must've looked like such a fool, begging for a spot!" He laughed in Ulrich's livid face, and rounded next on Odd and Milly. "You two. Together you must be a match made in heaven. No one can pity either one of you because their date is insufferably despised." Odd strained to get away, but he still didn't let go as he turned to Yumi. "And to be honest, I've wanted to throw you out all night. Matthias Burel couldn't make it, and he's the only person outside your group who likes you at all…"
"Don't you dare say anything to her!" Ulrich had had his fist ready since Alex had insulted him first, and now he let it fly. Alex dodged it, throwing Odd in its path instead. By a miracle, it missed him by inches. A "huh?" was heard from the kitchen, but otherwise no one had noticed the argument yet. Alex let go of Odd and staggered back, grinning madly.
"If it's a fight you want, then it's a fight I'll give you." He held up his champagne glass, swinging it by its base. "But you should count yourselves very lucky I'm giving you the chance to leave without making a scene. Because they'll never believe you. That's the way things are."
All four of them were glaring at him, unsure of what to do. Ulrich held up his fist again, but decided against violence. "You can't throw us out," he said, finally. "We're leaving. Come on, Yumi." He and Yumi walked together out the door. Milly and Odd hesitated for a moment, and then hurried out after them. Alex stared at them out the doorway until they moved out of his sight. Then, neither of them could see what the other did next.
The four of them stopped at the end of the driveway, panting for several reasons. Odd was hugging Milly, apologizing repeatedly in a hushed voice, reassuring her that he had no idea that this was going on. Milly was mumbling something about "Friday's paper". Yumi rounded on Ulrich. It was rare that he had ever seen her angrier than this. "What was that?" she shouted at him, pointing at the doorway. "What the hell was that about?"
"He's insane," Ulrich shot back, just as angry, but not at her- more at himself. "He's completely insane. If Aelita left the way I think she did, then I'm glad she got out as fast as she did." He pulled out his phone. "I'm going to call her, just to find out where she is. Then we'll take you home, and we'll go back to the do-"
To his surprise, the phone vibrated in his hands, and "Call from Aelita" flashed on the screen. He looked down at it, eyebrows raised. "Well, that's one thing taken care of." He held the phone to his ear. "Aelita? Where are you? Are you okay?"
He paused for a minute. Yumi and Odd crowded around him, trying to hear Aelita's replies, but they were too fuzzy to pick up. They could only hear Ulrich's responses. "Good, thank god. Did you tell Jeremie?" Pause. "Well, tell him. And don't worry. The next time I see that son of a-" Pause. "What?" Pause. "What?" Long pause. And then, loudly, "WHAT?"
Yumi jumped. "What's going on?" she yelled at the phone. "What'd he do to you, Aelita? I'll kill him!"
"Yumi, hold on," Ulrich said hurriedly. "What did you say, Aelita?" Pause. "Okay." Pause. "We'll be right there." He hung up, and turned back to Yumi. His expression had changed; he didn't look angry anymore. He just looked shocked again. "Aelita's okay," he said, gravely. "But she's not with Jeremie." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "We need to get rid of Milly."
"We'll go together to take her back to the dorm. I'll explain when she can't overhear us." Ulrich looked over to the couple. "Odd, we're all going back to the dorms together to check on Aelita."
"Huh?" Odd looked up from Milly, worried. "Is she alright?"
"Yeah, but I think we should check on her." He turned around. "Come on, we have to hurry."
"Ulrich…" Ulrich stopped two steps later, and looked back at Yumi. She was now as shocked as he had looked. "'When she can't overhear us'…what do you mean by that?"
Ulrich looked at her, but didn't speak. He didn't have to; he knew she'd figured it out. Odd, too- he'd come to join them, and heard every word he'd said. But he turned away before Milly could notice. "Let's go."
They were out the gate and about a block and a half away when a small, shiny car containing a man, a woman, and two young children drove past them. This car was not in any way remarkable until it slowed and stopped at the end of the block. A loud swear rent the air, stopping them all in their tracks. There was a loud screech as the driver floored it up the block, coming to a halt in the Pepins' driveway. Ulrich watched the scene with a mixture of shock and glee, shaking his head disbelievingly. "That's not…that can't be, we can't be…"
"Ha, ha!" Milly shouted, breaking into a smile. "If that's what I think it is-" She turned to Odd. "I have to go back and see this! It's going to be a social event gold mine!" She gave him a swift kiss on the cheek. "Give Aelita my best, okay? Oh, and tell Tamiya I'll be back soon!" She ran back toward the house, pulling out her camcorder as she went to film the scene from a distance. Odd stared after her, looking nervous. Ulrich and Yumi, however, looked very relieved.
"Well, that was easy." Ulrich turned back around. "Come on, guys. Follow me. There's a lot of nasty things I need to tell you…"
As soon as the couple walked through the door, chaos dissolved into chaos as the wholly adolescent atmosphere shattered. Screams erupted, drinks were tossed away, and windows were made into emergency exits. Children poured out of their house from all sides; a black-haired girl in a torn dress had the nerve to rush past them out the door. The man and woman hardly seemed to notice them- they were looking only for one boy. They ran into the house, dragging two identical nine-year-old girls behind them.
They found Alex in the middle of their laundry room, calmly holding his mother's best champagne glass and standing in the wreckage of two more, staring out at the scene around him with glazed, unfeeling eyes. He didn't seem to respond to his father's shouts. "EXPLAIN this now what the DEVIL HAVE YOU done Alex TALK TO ME TALK TO ME"- it all ran together in his mind, in one ear and out the other.
Finally, he looked up at his family, his expression unchanged. "I didn't invite them," he finally said. "They just showed up. I wasn't here when they got here."
"But- you're drinking!"
"This isn't my glass."
"I won't stand for this! Tell them to leave!"
"They're not my responsibility."
Holy crap, I actually finished again! I'm sorry about the length, I promise later eps won't be this long!