"Just a little to the left... and... perfect! Jérémie, what do you think?"
"I think the couch still looks a bit off. Do you think we should put it against the opposite wall?"
"Jérémie-! Worry about that later, won't you?"
"Okay, okay. I'm coming."
Jérémie stood up, rubbing at the dull, stiff ache forming at the small of his back and wiping an unpleasant sheen of sweat from the bridge of his nose, where the skin pinched on his still-new glasses. He crossed the room and came to stand beside Aelita, who was poised with her hands on her hips. Her face was set in a proud grin as she stood there, admiring the arrangement of ornaments on the mantelpiece. Surrounding the pair were piles of unpacked boxes, pooled in small clouds of dust stirred up on the linoleum floor by the couple's arrival.
The blond boy – not a boy any more, not really, but still with the awkward and unsure stance that had been a distinguishing characteristic in his teens and beyond – stood beside his fiancée and followed her gaze across the mantel.
"So?" Aelita prompted.
"That jar in the middle? Really?"
She turned and blinked huge green eyes at him, twirling one strand of bubblegum hair absently about her finger. "Of course. Why not?"
"It's so... eh..."
Jérémie struggled to think of a diplomatic way to phrase his response. Unwieldy? Obtrusive? He stared critically at the huge, rounded celadon jar, a sort of washed-out blue-green with texture like cracked jigsaw pieces engraved into its surface.
Just plain ugly, that's what it is. Odd has terrible taste.
Instead, Jérémie just sighed and shrugged.
"If you like it, then it's fine."
She crossed her arms, her eyebrows drawing down in a light scowl. "That's a complete non-answer Jérémie, and you know it. I want our new home together to be perfect."
"Well yeah, but..."
He steadfastly avoided her gaze, eyes directed now on his shuffling feet. He drew a pattern in dust with the toe of his shoe, and the hands clasped behind his back played out their new habit; twirling the plain silver band of his engagement ring around his finger. He heard her shrug, or at least the light 'hmph' that accompanied the gesture, and when he looked up again she was staring once more at the celadon jar.
"What do you think, Daddy?"
As one Aelita and Jérémie turned to the coffee table in the corner. A laptop was positioned carefully in the centre and a soft glow reflected iridescent light patterns in the glass surface. The ever-present chat window sat squarely in the centre of the screen, and a new line of text appeared beneath the existing ones.
Whatever you think, dear.
Jérémie couldn't help but grin. The laptop's presence in their life wasn't something he'd quite gotten used to (strange, considering how many times he'd spoken to Franz Hopper through the Internet during the Lyoko years) but he couldn't deny that there was some novelty in having the old scientist around. In mind, if not in body, exactly...
It was quite a shame that they hadn't managed to fish Franz out of the Digital Sea. More unfortunate still was that, after years of hard work and research and frustratingly endless attempts to extract Franz's digital code so that he could be rematerialised in one piece, Jérémie and Aelita had returned excitedly to their old home town, clutching a disc with that life-saving programme... only to find the old Renault factory replaced by a pathetic pile of rubble.
Aelita had stumbled past security table into the wreckage, held up a small fragment of a scanner door, and burst into tears. The supercomputer was gone, right along with the ability to virtualise or materialise any living soul ever again.
And so the Belpois-Stones household had had to improvise. It wasn't too bad, really. If Franz ever got overbearing, all they had to do was 'accidentally' forget to plug the laptop in.
Jérémie was stirred from his reverie by a slender hand squeezing his shoulder. Aelita was smiling at him again, in that dazzling way that often resulted in him tripping over something, or spilling a cup of coffee, or generally forgetting that he had senses and limbs of his own.
Sure enough, when she turned her head away, he found himself holding a pile of boxes that certainly hadn't been in his arms two minutes ago, and he blinked at the offending items in mild confusion.
"Would you mind unpacking those?" Aelita asked suddenly. "I'm going to get started on the kitchen. It's amazing how quickly these floors gather dust, isn't it? We were only here signing the lease a week ago."
"Yeah..." Jérémie mumbled, moving to the couch, (which still looked as though it could be moved a little more to the left) and dumping the boxes there. He was pleasantly surprised when, peeling back the tape on the first one, he found a pile of college memorabilia.
"Huh," he said to himself. "I'd almost forgotten about these."
Already forgetting his assigned task, and tuning out the sounds of clattering in the kitchen, Jérémie took the first item from the box and polished the photo frame with his sleeve. He smiled fondly at the faces of his friends, a moment of pure bliss captured on their faces and preserved since two years ago, and lost himself once more to memories. Yumi and Ulrich, arms around each other. Their engagement gift to Jérémie and Aelita had been a practical one, at least. It was Odd (in the photograph clad in an slightly oversized, purple college hoodie, a hotdog in one hand a 'Kick Me' sign leaving the other for a short-lived stint on Ulrich's back) who had given them the jar on the mantelpiece.
Jérémie placed the photograph back in the box and sighed. Strange guy. He doubted that would ever change, but the thought was one crafted in fondness rather than irritation.
He looked up at last, sweeping his gaze around the pitifully barren room.
"Well," he said to the laptop in the corner. "The sooner we get everything packed away, the better."
Indeed, Franz replied. There was a moment's pause, before he added, I suggest you make a start before Aelita returns.
"All right, all right." Jérémie stretched, winced at the popping in his joints, and stood up once more.
It didn't take quite as long as he thought, and a few hours later Jérémie and Aelita were seated by the fireplace in their new apartment home, palms cupped around warm mugs of tea and the box of photographs emptied onto the rug between them. The sun was setting beyond the new curtains, and the room glowed like the embers of a dying fire.
Aelita was giggling uncontrollably as she held up something that might once have been a scarf, though the item was more befitting of the description 'unravelling piece of wool' than anything else.
"Remember when Yumi took up knitting that one semester?" she said, running her hands through the threadbare material.
Jérémie couldn't help the grin tugging at the corners of his own mouth. "And when she knitted Ulrich that balaclava-"
"And it wouldn't even fit over his head!" Aelita finished. "And he wore it as a hat for an entire two months because he couldn't bear the thought of offending her..."
The giggles subsided, lapsing into contended sighs.
"We've done all right, don't you think?" Aelita asked presently.
"You know," she elaborated, "the new home, and everything."
"Yeah," Jérémie agreed. "Not bad at all."
"You still hate the ornaments though."
He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Are we going to argue about this? Because I really don't-"
He caught her gaze, and the twinkle in her eye with it, and abruptly closed his mouth.
Aelita grinned, shuffled over to close the gap between them, and leant into his side.
"If he comes over, he'll wonder what we've done with it."
She nodded to the jar on the mantelpiece.
"Oh come on," Jérémie protested. "This is Odd, he can't even remember what happened two days ago, unless it involves what he ate for breakfast."
"True," she mused. "Maybe we could put some flowers in it-"
"At the back of the garden?" Jérémie ended hopefully. Aelita laughed, swatting him playfully on the arm.
"God forbid we start our life together discussing the furniture."
"Let's make it an annual thing. Like a spring clean."
The laptop in the corner flashed with a new message, but neither of them noticed. Franz, or what remained of him within the digital chasms of the Internet, heaved an approximation of a sigh. He knew what his daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law were like. Between their work schedules and their personal projects, they'd be forgetting about him. He anticipated, mournfully, being confined to a single view of the opposite side of the room, craning to see the television as he gradually gathered dust.
Meanwhile, Jérémie adjusted his own position on the rug, turning to face Aelita as he placed his hands on her waist and pressed his mouth softly to hers. He felt her lips curve into a smile against his own, her hand wind its way up into his hair, and closed his eyes.
Wordlessly, he reached over and pulled the laptop screen closed.