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Chapter 16

“What took you so long?” Alia asked, peering through her red tinted glasses as she switched off her camera, the one she used to film most of her vlogs.

“To whom do I owe this magnificent welcome?” Erska asked, walking towards Leisure’s entrance where she was greeted by two of her friends.

“Girrrrlll. That dress though! We didn’t receive any memo….are you going to abandon us that soon?” Gina asked, looking at her up and down.

“I thought, you know…it will be fun, trying out something different..dress up..” managed Erska as her voice trailed off in doubt.

“Obviously. Loverboy Bastian has you charmed. Why are you lying?” Alia said with a matter-of-fact voice, her eyebrow raised playfully.

Gina nudged Alia instantly a little too hard, catching Alia by surprise for a moment that she stepped back. Then, she just nodded at Gina and stepped forward towards Erska. Erska, watching the whole exchange of conversation without words, frowned, looking back and forth. “Well. Are you hiding something?”

“Why would we anyway??” Alia said, linking her arms in Erska’s. “Let’s go. I’m bored.” Saying that Alia dragged Erska away from Leisure.

“Ummm..guys...Leisure’s that way..” Erska said, standing rooted to the ground, facing the entrance.

“We know that. We’re bored. Let’s go elsewhere,” added Gina as she glanced briefly at Alia before turning towards Erska.

“I’m either going in there or I’m going home,” Erska said, trying to break free from Alia’s linked arm that also had a double usage as a barrier.

“Because you want to see Bastian?” Gina asked, arms folded.

“Honestly, yes. He’s helping with regards to my novel, believe it or not, and I want to talk to him.”

“That sounds dumb, Erska. I thought you said he faked his way to get to you.”

“He did. He apologized yet he’s making up for it. Don’t ask me for details. You know that I want to keep stuff low key before I prepare to get it out fully,” Erska elaborated.

“I’m tired and sick. Let’s go somewhere. It was already effin’ hard to pull you out of the dungeon,” Alia whispered weakly, letting Erska drag her.

Gina’s eyes widened as she looked at Alia who simply sighed, showing her crossed fingers in return.

“So, where’s he? You should know if you were able to spot him earlier..” Erska asked, a little too eager.

“Do you even care about us? I get the excitement of your puppy love but you aren’t attempting to hide it!” Alia exclaimed with a partial eye roll.

“I-I ummm… I am not bothered anymore. Lead the way or else we are going to climb all twenty floors!!” Erska whined, putting her foot down.

“Waste of time. He’s right there – the bookstore,” Alia said, gesturing towards Lettered, leaving Gina stunned. Erska studied their reactions and stomped off, saying, “No offence, I’m in a hurry while you can follow me at your own pace…”

When Erska was out of earshot, Gina grabbed Alia anxiously. “Are you crazy?? It’s going to hurt her!!”

“She’s going to have to learn, Gina. She isn’t a baby anymore,” Alia replied, slowly removing Gina’s hands off her shoulders.

“For the first time…she’s falling for someone after such a long time and this is the best we can do??” Gina asked, frowning

Alia sighed. “What else can be done? We can’t control feelings or people. We are simply cupids, Gina. Reality isn’t the kind of fairy tale she writes.”

“We are in agreement with one thing in common at least,” said a familiar piercing voice, breathing down their necks.

They turned in mild astonishment to see Mrs. Saphine, playing with her car keys as she smiled at the girls. “Now, what is my dear daughter up to?”

Erska was disappointed as soon as she stepped into the bookstore. For the first time, she wished so many books were trying to present itself as obstacles. A quick scan around the store also failed. She was going to have to resort to finding a needle in the haystack in order the find a long haired figure.

As she passed aisle after aisle, stopping at different points to glance at books – she spotted a vaguely familiar employee that came off as ‘overhyped.’ No. No. I do not have the time for putting on my happy-social-smile filter today. Mentally noting the casualties of an unintentional meet with the aforementioned subject, she carefully trod the opposite direction. If not, she could always play hide and seek inside Lettered where she had conducted fanmeets so often that she had developed the added ability of being able to shadow as an employee.

As Erska stooped to look at a book, the self-reflective board titled ‘Mystery’ caught her eye – a portion of her unusually glammed-up self, staring back at her. She stepped back until she was able to get a full view of herself, ironing out the wrinkles of her shiny torso. She did a short twirl, looking back and forth at the netted bodice that hung on her hips. Running her fingers through her violet hair, she tossed it in the air as she smiled to herself. Not bad. With a little effort, you look..umm..presentable. Nope. I definitely look pretty. Beautiful. Okay..that’s going too far. Pretty, it is.

“I would have thought you were going to attend a pageant, Miss Saphine,” chuckled Bastian.

Almost instantly, Erska bit her lips while her eyes widened. Embarrassed as she was, she was afraid her smile muscles were going to make her look like a freaking idiot. Slowly, she turned around to see Bastian grinning at her, hands in his pocket and his abnormally long hair doing the work of staying flawless. How nice it would be to feel…Oh .My. God. Girl. Get yourself together.

“Oh heyy...Bastian! Fancy seeing you here…” she managed as she looked straight into his eyes which was so distracting that she turned towards a rack of books, pretending to go through it. “I just came to look at some books. You know, like for inspiration…” She picked one from the shelf while the back of her brain was screaming internally, her insides all giddy. She paused and looked up from the book to stare at the same grin Bastian had plastered on from the beginning.

It started to get annoying a bit. “Why are you smiling?” she barked, replacing the book.

“Never mind. Where are you headed off to?” he asked, his face serious yet the thin glint in his eyes stayed the same.

Erska gripped onto the chain of her cross-body clutch as she felt her heart pounding, the tempo increasing every passing second. “I think I already told you. I came to look for inspiration.”

“And you haven’t dressed like that for me?” he asked with the same face.

“How was I supposed to know you hang out at bookstores? If it was a museum, I would have been even more surprised.”

“That’s fair. I agree,” Bastian answered, thoughtfully yet he winked a second later, saying, “You’d never know though.”

“On a second note, I wanted to talk to you regarding the that I’ve met you coincidentally,” she stressed, mentally hitting her head against the wall.

Bastian grinned, denoting his low-key flirtatious nature. “After all, I wasn’t mistaken when I saw Alia and Gina in here…”

He knows?? Fuck promiscuousness. “Can we please go back to the novel?” Erska started, biting the ends of her lips that would prevent the formation of a blushing smile.

“Go on,” he said, folding his hands.

“So, here’s the thing. I’ve decided that I’m going to write a new novel. Not a sequel. A totally new one,” she said.

“That’s progress,” Bastian asked, “Next?”

“I’ve no clue,” she replied, her shoulders drooped as the enthusiasm evaporated into the atmosphere.

“What’s the first step to writing?” he asked as he shook her bodily existence like a rag doll.

“Actually doing it,” Erska replied, allowing her temporarily soulless self to be handled.

“Then, do it,” Bastian said, bringing her back to rest. “Let’s get something. Coffee?”

“Hot chocolate, it is,” she stated as they walked towards the store’s inbuilt café.

“You should cut your sugar down,” he adviced as they settled themselves on the counter.

“Worried about my health? Thanks but no thanks,” she said as she proceeded to take a sip of chocolatey goodness.

He held her arm midway and said, “Promise you’ll take care of yourself. I don’t want the same thing that happened to you at the club happen again.” His eyes no longer glinted, softening down yet it scared Erska a bit because of the proximity.

“I am looking after myself. Rest assured. After that incident, my mother grew ten times hysterical and drastically cut down sugar. I do not get the usual dose of chocolates slash hot chocolate I used to in my daily diet. This is like my cheat meal,” she explained, sipping a generous amount.

“But I do not understand. I thought your mother’s hysterics covered everything. How did you get away with ingesting so much?” Bastian wondered as he bit into a savoury puff pastry.

Erska looked mildly annoyed. “I didn’t know that I might have a problem until now. I mean hot chocolate is the fuel to my entire existence. It gets the job done for my mom, perhaps,” she said as she unhappily stared the chocolate stained empty cup. Fuck. I need more of that.

“The cup won’t magically fill itself, Erska. Here’s an alternative,” he said as he offered a piece of his pastry.

“Thanks,” she said, swallowing it in one bite.

Bastian took a tissue and wiped off the puff’s little crumbs hanging onto her lips. “Kid,” he snickered.

“Shut up,” she shot back, grabbing the tissue as she wiped off the rest hurriedly.

“And that’s how the girls fall for you. I’m not surprised,” interrupted Fleur as she held onto a stack of books, trying hard to balance them.

“Here, let me get that for you,” Bastian said as he helped her place it on the counter.

“These are my favourite ones,” Fleur said looking back and forth at Bastian and Erska.

“Oh. Thanks. I’ll be sure to go through,” he said, smiling. In fact, Bastian wasn’t sure what to do. He was so engrossed in talking to Erska that he had forgotten about Fleur.

“So, she’s your..?” Fleur asked as she looked at Erska.

“ friend,” Bastian said, fake laughing.

Friend? Erska turned towards Bastian in one rapid motion. She rubbed her arms as she pasted a smile. Wasn’t he the one teasing all the time?

“A tip, Bastian. Don’t be nice to everyone,” Fleur said as she stared at Erska, “That is if you are flirting with me. Do one thing.” She reached for the scribbled paper from her pocket and placed it in his hand. “That’s my number. Call me.” Saying that she walked off – her stoic face instantly giggling like a little girl in love. You did good, Fleur. You got him floored.

Erska’s presence began to shrink to invisibility as she watched the exchange between them. A million thoughts raced into her mind. Of course. He wanted to be a friend. That’s what he said from the beginning. He was being nice and I mistook it for romance. That was just teasing. Friends tease, right? She slowly got up as revelation dawned on her.

Bastian exhaled as he turned towards Erska – unsure of what he had to say. “Look, Erska…” She seemed transfixed. She raised her hand, her head down. “Uhh..umm,” she mumbled as she adjusted her tone. Finally, she looked up, her lip wearing a smile that Bastian has seen before.“You don’t have to explain. I understand if you don’t want to talk about your romance,” she said hurriedly, not to feel like an idiot at her own deception.

“So, you understand?” Bastian asked again, trying to get a clear view of her jet black eyes which seemed to wander from his eyesight.

“I do…dude! What the hell!” she said, hitting him in the arm as she walked past him, looking at her feet. She wanted to run away. Her brain began the process of bringing up every single encounter she had with Bastian. She was feeling an embarrassment of a lifetime. She wanted to shut a door that would take her away from everyone. How stupid you are, Erska. What a fucking idiot. To think of romance!

Bastian caught her arm, taking her by surprise as he pulled her back. They stared at each other for a second, unmoving.

“You’re hurting me,” she whispered, trying to remove his grasp on her arm.

“Oh. Sorry,” Bastian responded, moving his hand.

“What do you want? I told you I accept umm whatever you do..” she said, folding her arms. The nail of her left thumb buried itself deep in her skin, hoping her nervousness wouldn’t give away.

“Truly?” he asked in all seriousness, a hint of glint back in his eyes.

“Truly,” she replied, unable to look away.

“Operation Romance is a go?” he asked playfully.

Erska stepped back instantly, inhaling deep breaths. A tiny seed called anger which was sowed in her heart, waiting to grown ravines burst in a split second.

“Yea. Right. Fine. What the fuck, dude! What do you want me to say??” she snapped.

Bastian was taken aback. “Okaaay. Slow down with the cursing. Geez,” he said, rolling his eyes.

That pissed her off majorly. Yes, I was guilty mistaking teasing for actually being interested. Yes, I am inexperienced with this kind of thing and hoped for love..but not this. I don’t deserve to be taunted this way.

“Well, maybe if you weren’t a flirty little piece of shit, it could have been better,” Erska shot back, hands folded while her arms grasped tightly onto her hands. It was anger in small parts, shame and acceptance being the larger ones.

“Mind your language, Erska,” Bastian stated furiously, his index finger pointing at her. The last thing he wanted was to be called that.

“This is the last time I’m seeing you. I want you out of my sight,” she stated and walked on before Bastian could react but two steps forward and she was stuck to the ground, staring at her mother whose frame seemed twice as big now.

As if instincts had wrapped her bodily functions, Erska backed away slowly, hands on the clutch tightened with every step back.

“So, this is your new hobby? Lying and hanging out with boys?”

“You know it is not like that, mom,” Erska blurted.

“I have nothing against boys, Erska. You know that. You simply did not have the time and we understood that your personal space is yours,” Alice stated as she walked forward. “What I do not understand is the lying part…you could have said you were going to meet your friends or Bastian but no…so, I wonder what exactly was I missing out and thanks to your friends,” she gestured to familiar silhouettes that stood out of the store,“I arrived at the cause for the disruption in your normal daily routine.” Alice’s calm eyes changed demeanour, one eyebrow raised. “Looks like Bastian has been feeding your head with lies about this new novel that you want to do and I can’t believe you trust that stranger,” she said, pointing at Bastian who was now standing close behind Erska.

“It’s a pity that a stranger believes in me than my own mother,” she whispered, choking on her voice. Her instinct to flee was hindered by Bastian’s frame.

Alice stepped forward to reach out to Erska’s cheeks. “A stranger that is bound to leave you anytime. Listen to mother. Come. You know what I’ve always thought the best for you-”

“ Stop emotionally guilting her. Erska is a fully grown woman that can decide for herself on the subject that she wants to write. If she wants to do something new, she will do it,” thundered Bastian's voice as he cut in front of Erska, sheltering her. Erska simply stared at his mane, her finger clinging to the back of his shirt for support.

“Youngman. Maybe you don’t know whose support it was that got you here today, I think you should step out of a family issue,” she replied, trying to get a glimpse of her daughter who hid behind Bastian’s slightly lean muscular physique.

“No, Mrs. Saphine. Erska is pure talent. All her necessities might have been what you fed her with but if not for her talent, books won’t sell. If not for your daughter’s talent, you wouldn’t go around flaunting your daughter’s talents.”

“So, you think she can do it without me? Be successful without me?” she challenged Bastian.

“Yes, she bloody well can. She will do it,” Bastian stated in a determined tone, looking straight into Alice’s unwavering eyes.

“I think Erska herself ought to speak,” Alice snickered, peeking at the violet hair.

“Yes, mother. I would. I mean, I can and I will,” Erska replied with slight uncertainty as she pushed Bastian aside.

“Very well then,” Alice said, turning her back on them as she walked towards the door, “ I’ll consider this a ticket out of the house. Let’s see what you can do.”

He looked sideways. Erska was rooted to the ground as both fists were clenched while she blinked rapidly. “So, Erska. What are you thinking of-”

“Keep quiet. Just for a minute,” she said in a low voice, resting her head against his arm.

He could feel her slow breaths, the warmth of her skin against his as she prayed for little tears to wash away this scene. She did not ever want to relive it.

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