Just As You Are

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Chapter Eighteen

MIKA

I don’t know if I’m mad or happy about this, but what I’m so sure of is that Zel looks so adorable when he’s asleep. It reminds me of the first time I saw him, curled up on a bench outside his house, sleeping soundly like the little boy he was.

Now I look at him, and I see glimpses of that kid again: in the way his head tilts to the side, the way his lashes catch sun rays and shine a soft gold, in the fall and rise of his chest and the way his lips part with each breath. I smile despite myself, and despite the deep urge of punching him in the face.

Today, when Zel arrived and stood in front of me, when he stared hard at me with his golden-brown eyes, I knew he had done lots of thinking before he took this step. I knew he’s definitely willing to capture the light, even if it’s faint. I’m happy he made a commitment, even though it cost me billions of nerves, and a small desperate kiss.

I touch my lips and look back at him. He’s so cute it’s messing with my head! He looks like a sweet baby, although he could use a shave.

I look outside the window, steering my thoughts away from him, otherwise my heart might jump out of my chest. Today by afternoon, we’re supposed to reach Eustitia Mountain Lodge, where we’ll stay for our training camp. By now, all junior classes are off on the school retreat, and I hope she who shall not be named is buttering up someone else with her kisses and sugar-coated talk. I hope the one she puts her reigns on will take her to the Maldives and never comes back. I can’t believe what she’d done to my brother. As if he needed extra drama.

It was already suffocating with me and Sadie worrying Ian to the point that he spent a night in my room, but this girl came and strangled him. With the troubles we’re dealing with at home, and the issue with that person who calls himself our father, Ian and I needed a break from our minds.

But the moment we decided to celebrate acing our exams, Rachel butted right in, and my mind clogged with all kinds of waves, going completely blank when she kissed him, fully on the mouth. It felt as if sugar evaporated from my blood. I realized then that Ian isn’t just my twin brother, but he’s also my weakness that people will use to get back at me. I push Rachel-related thoughts away and try to tune out everyone else’s voices.

Outside, the landscape gradually shifts from the noise and the monotone of the city to the beauty and the serenity of the forest. Green flags of trees become sepia-toned, waving in the southerly wind, and through the array of browns there’re shining reds. My hair whips into my eyes, carried by the brisk autumn breeze. Winds like these never fail to amaze me; a chilly blend of cinnamon and warm spices, carrying a warm chaos of oranges and golds.

I shiver, lean over to close the window, and when I sit back, something bumps my shoulder. Someone. Looking to my right, my view is blocked with tufts of messy brown hair. My heart starts beating a chorus in my ears, and my face burns like thousands of shining suns.

Zel had lost balance and tilted toward me, his head resting on my shoulder. I can feel the rise and fall of his chest, and almost hear his heart beating under that thick sweater. Whenever I look at Zel, I’m always amazed how his colors blend with those of Autumn. He looks so warm, like a foamy mug of hot chocolate, or a hazelnut latte. I love him so much I want to snuggle by his side and forget all about my duties until we reach the lodge, but first things first.

I have to finish explaining how things will work this year to avoid troubles, so I stir him gently and try to resist passing my fingers through his hair or brushing his bangs to see his eyes clearly.

“Zel,” I whisper. My brother fidgets in the seat behind. I ignore him. “Zel, wake up.”

Zel opens his eyes and sits up slowly. “Where am I?” Then he looks around vaguely. “Oh, right . . .” He looks so sweet I’m contemplating staying here, but then Ian kicks the back of the bench in half-jealousy–half-annoyance, and I spring up with clipboard in hand.

“Guys, attention please!” I start, and everyone falls silent, eyes on me. “To all those who are new on the team, welcome to our soccer training camp!” I muster my brightest smile, and everyone cheers and whoops. I’m happy to see them this eager. “As most of you know, this year’s theme is Training in Nature, and for this reason we voted on Eustitia Mountain Lodge because the lodge is surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, waterfalls, and rivers of our lovely country.”

I remind them that we’re staying in the lodge for two weeks and that we’ll be cooking for ourselves and doing our laundry, and that our first match will take place three days post the training.

“After four days of holiday, we will train for seven days and rest for three days. I emailed you the schedule in case you’d like to take a look.”

They fish out their phones. Ian keeps staring blankly outside the window, and I realize Zel is staring at me between his light bangs. I blush, considering myself lucky that everyone is busy with their phones.

Clearing my throat, I continue, “During training sessions, I expect you to be on the field by seven-thirty in the morning”—I’m already hearing groans—“in you cleats and uniforms.”

“Mika.” Clara raises her hand. “I have a question.” I nod for her to go on. “Isn’t it too early? If we need to be on the field by seven-thirty, this means we have to be up by five. How do you expect us to be ready?”

I saw that coming. “I don’t see why you’re against it; it’s our usual schedule, we’re always on the field around this time. We are not on vacation; I don’t expect you to arrive dolled up. We’re here to practice. We’re doing this for the sake of the team.”

“True,” she says, satisfied.

“Oh, and one thing more; anyone who arrives late will run ten laps around the lodge,” I add.

“Mika!” everybody groans. Ian rolls his eyes, and Zel seems oddly interested.

“What about holidays?” Gilda asks.

“Where are we going to sleep?” Lucifer pipes from behind.

“Quiet down, I’ll answer all your questions!” I pause for a breath. “You can do whatever you want on your days off,” I announce, “there is a convenience store past the hills and open baths that are connected to the hot springs deep in the mountains.”

Everybody cheers.

“But.” They look at me intently. “Baths and bedrooms are separate, and I don’t want to see couples making out during training sessions or sleeping in the same futons.”

“Ahh!”

“That means you guys.” I point at Marsha and Clara, and they both blush. I still can’t get over the fact that Marsha and Roy have been dating for two years; they made a great job hiding it. Not that I can control these guys or watch them all the time, but better safe than sorry.

“Now, about meals.” I flip a page. “Junk food is strictly prohibited during training sessions. Your meals are based upon balanced nutritional portions and accurately calculated calories.” I look up to see all eyes staring at me. “What?”

“No offense sweetie,” Tabitha says, “but your cooking is terrible.”

Blush sears through me, and I hide my face behind the clipboard. “You didn’t have to mention it.”

“That’s not true.”

“Huh?” Peeking over, Zel’s eyes meet mine.

“That’s not true,” he says again, “Li—Mika makes the best raisin cookies and blueberry muffins in the world,” he declares.

My heart picks up pace, and every part of me becomes warm. He remembers.

“Yeah, he’s right,” Ian mumbles “As for the other things, you suck!” he says with a frown that makes me smile. “Akuni can cook for us, right?”

“With pleasure, Young Master,” Akuni replies humbly.

“I can cook for you too.” The voice is a shaky whisper, and the face is a beautiful hue of red. Kiki twists her lips into a smile. “My cooking is good,” she says.

I make a quick glance at Ian; he’s not looking away from the window, but his eyes are wide, as if the voice had perked up his interest. It seems that things will get better once we settle down.

“Oh my, oh my!”

“What was that?” I mumble.

“Oh my God! This is amusing!”

An unsettling shrill arises from the back of the bus, sending a cold shiver up my spine. At first, I think Clara and Tony—one of the midfielders—are over each other, but they’re sitting on a bench in the middle, perfectly still, listening like the rest of us to the unceasing laughter.

“Who’s there?” I ask irritably.

On the back bench a girl sits up, wearing a ridiculously large purple hat and black sunglasses that cover half of her face. Her rouge lipstick is unmistakable, and when she smirks, I want to instantly smash her teeth.

“How boring you guys are.” Rachel mocks. Kiki’s face blanches, my stomach flips, and Ian looks genuinely disgusted.

“I thought that if I ditched the school retreat and came with you it’ll be much fun. I thought I might bless you with my glory.”

I wince.

“Apparently you’re going to spend your time like old hags.” She waves her hands dramatically and removes her sunglasses. Her blue eyes meet mine through the distance. ”You’re not allowed to do this, you’re prohibited from that. What are you, their mother?” She clicks her tongue, and my veins pump cold fury.

I expect someone to snort a laugh, but instead their eyes widen, and their faces lose color. It’s like they’re saying if I were you, I wouldn’t pick a fight with her. They’re right, even I wouldn’t pick a fight with me.

“Royal b*tch,” I mutter under my breath.

“Hmph, screw this. I wasted my time. I thought I’d share a futon with Ian!” Rachel muses, injecting a dose of sweetness into her voice.

Ian puts on his headphones, and I’m sure his ears will almost bleed from the blaring music. But his waves, I could sense them; tired and chaotic, begging me to do something. That’s it! I’m going to smack her pretty face.

“RayRay, you’re going way too far!” Marsha demands.

Rachel smiles her smug smile. “It’s just love! I mean what’s wrong with being with the person who likes you all the time?”

“He doesn’t—Oh my God, I just. . . felt a creepy chill.” She whips around. “What’s this scary aura?”

I take a step forward, considering lunging myself at her and pull the remaining two hairs off her head, or burn the remaining two cells in her brain into ash, when someone catches me by the wrist.

It’s Zel. His face is inscrutable, but his eyes talk more than needed. Consider this slowly. Don’t let her get to you. “Calm down, Lilium,” he whispers, his voice still gruffy, “think it.”

I blink. Think it, he says. Letting his unexpected logic settle me down, I turn to look at Rachel, whose arms are reaching around my brother’s neck. I’m there before her, grabbing her wrist and yanking her away to look at me.

“Mika,” she says with a smile.

Fat-assed crazy royal chick. “If you want to stay with us, you are welcomed,” I say. Her face beams.

“Mika!” the girls object.

“But.” I let go of her before her idiocy rubs on me. “If you want to stay, you’re going to stay with my rules.”

Rachel frowns. “Your rules are boring, why would I go with them?”

“That’s the condition.” I wring my arms over my chest and arch an eyebrow at her. “This is my team, and I’m the leader here. If you want stay under my roof, you’ve got to abide by my rules.”

“What if I don’t want to?” She challenges.

I take a step closer, feeling invincible. “Then squeeze your ass out the window because we don’t have time to make a stop for ya,” I whisper in her ear, “and don’t ever think of touching my brother.”

“Wha—?”

Victorious, I leave Rachel irked behind my back and walk over to the front, watching my friends beam at me. Then I sit beside Zel with obvious satisfaction.

“That was . . . wild.” His eyes swim between brown and gold, and a smile plays on his lips.

I blush and look away before I kiss him again.

“Ah, Mika?” someone calls from behind. I perch on the bench and look over. “Who said that you make the best raisin cookies ever?” Gilda asks.

“Oh, that would be—”

“That would be me,” Zel replies. He sits like me, looking at his new teammates. “Zel Lemercier, it’s a pleasure to meet you all,” he says with a large chunk of confidence.

My heart swells; where did that come from?

“Oh, you’re Clara and Tabitha’s classmate.” Tony concludes.

“Yes, I hope we’d get along.”

“What position do you play?” Roy asks.

“Midfielder.” Surprisingly, Ian is the one to reply. He looks up with fake disinterest, removes his headphones and slicks his hair backward. I hold my breath. “The guy excels in dribbling.”

“Oh God . . .” I exhale; thanks God he didn’t go that rat bastard who is trying to goad my sister or something like that.

“So, you’re going to play for our team,” Roy says.

My brother interjects again, “Not so easily.”

“Ian!” I thought it’s going smoothly, but apparently my brother is so bored to the point that he won’t mind picking a fight.

“Not before going through a trial,” he says.

“A trial?” I ask, and Ian looks at me like I’m stupid.

“Yeah, so try not to fail it.” Ian’s challenging Zel, just like he did to every newbie.

Zel rolls his eyes. “I won’t,” he mumbles.

“Thought so.” Then Ian puts on his headphones again, and fades away. I smile.

“I’m still wondering.” Gilda tilts her head. “How did we miss such a pretty boy at school?”

“Gilda!” Clara and Tabitha exclaim in unison. “You’re making the boy uncomfortable!”

“What?” The word slips through my lips without notice, and my eyes quickly flick to Zel, whose face is gleaming a bright red, eyes a beautiful hazel.

He sinks down and pulls on his hood, hiding the remaining of his face. I don’t know if he’s embarrassed or scared, but with that scar across his eye, I’m sure he has a complex about his face. Instinctively, I reach out and squeeze his hand lightly. He squeezes back, and we listen to the girls as they fire questions about Zel at each other.

“Does he have a girlfriend?”

“No!”

“Do you think he’d like to date someone?”

“I don’t think it’ll be you!”

“Did he ever have a girlfriend?”

“Could you change the subject?”

“Why is he sitting next to Mika? How do they know each other? Why didn’t it cross my mind to ask all that before? Am I that dense?”

Upon that, Zel and I lock gazes and burst into a fit of silent giggles.

“The girls might be overwhelming, but they’re kind. I promise they won’t bother you,” I assure.

He smiles, and it feels like I haven’t seen it in years. “As long as you’re there for me, I’m sure no one will.”

I blush so hard that I have to look away. What was that? I’m not used to Zel being this sweet. What’s happening?

Fortunately, I don’t have to reply because the bus comes to a stop, and everyone becomes a moving chaos. They start loading their luggage bags and moving in couples while I stand at the door, waiting for them to file out, positive that Ian will stay till the end. Lucifer and Roy take care of the royal chick, while Zel waits outside by the bus.

“Ian.” My brother’s eyes flicker between grey and blue as I rest my palm to his cheek and smooth his hair. “Please promise me one thing.”

“What?” he says with a tired smile.

Oh, my idiot brother. “Try to enjoy these four days. I love you.” I kiss his forehead and watch him go. I love you too, he thinks.

“You didn’t have to wait for me,” I say as I head outside, taking my trolley bag from Zel and walking by his side. He doesn’t say anything, which makes things all the more uncomfortable.

The place is magical. When you first peek over the horizon and see nature without any filter, with the naked eye and the mind open to the beauty of this reality, amazement comes. Jagged mountains surround the lodging house from each side, and I could hear birds chirping despite the cold and the sound of water from the river beyond. In this light that peeks between the clouds and paints my skin so warmly, the trees are dancing. They move in perfect time with one another, and I wonder how many hues of gold and red my eyes are witnessing. As they stretch upwards and outwards toward the light, I stretch my arms up too, fingers spread toward the sun.

Everybody stares about in awe as a woman in her sixties comes out to greet us.

“Mrs. Cho!” Coach Luna meets the woman rather amicably, pulling her into a warm hug. They start chatting right away and catching up to the latest news, and I think they forgot all about us until Coach turns around and gestures for me to come closer. “This is my team manager,” she says proudly, “if you’d give her a minute, she’d really insisted on talking to you.”

I had asked Coach for a minute or two with the lodge owner to thank her for hosting us and give her a small gift. Mrs. Cho looks grandmother-lovely, not that I know how grandmother’s love is; Sadie’s Mom died when we were three; but Mrs. Cho gives the vibe of a big softie.

“Mrs. Cho, on the behalf of EHS soccer team, I’m so pleased to meet you,” I say with a bow of my head and everyone follows. “I’m Mika Roselie, the manager of the team.” I extend my hand. Mrs. Cho takes it in both hands, and a deep warmth surges through me, like she injected the magic of the place in my veins. I smile. “We are so grateful you agreed to be our host, please take care of us.”

“Such polite and healthy youngsters.” Mrs. Cho gives us a radiant smile. “I’d be so pleased with your acquaintance.”

“Thank you so much. To express our gratitude, I got you something.” I open my sack, looking for the lily bulbs I especially saved for her, then it hits me, and blood drains from my face.

I never saved the bulbs.

I vented my utter madness and rage on Zel then turned my back on the lilies and left. “Ah, it must be here somewhere.”

What a shame. How do I say the lilies are precious to me when I betrayed them, and left them for the wind and cold to dry them up? And they say I’m a lily. How am I supposed to face everyone now? I’m going to have an ear full from Coach about this. Ugh, and Rachel is going to speak of it forever. My stomach flips, and I’m sinking in my own embarrassment, fiddling around my bag like a stupid cat.

“I’ve got it.”

The voice rings in my ears and makes its way right to my heart, pulling me out of my head. The tightness in my chest softens as I look up and see his face, so close to mine it takes my breath away.

“I’ve got it,” Zel says again, his eyes a warm hazel, “you left it with me? Remember?”

“Huh?” What is he talking about? What did I leave with whom? I nod even though I don’t know what I’m agreeing on.

“Calm down,” he says with a smile.

My insides melt as I watch Zel reaching to the side pocket of his duffle bag, grabbing a paper bag and handing it over to Mrs. Cho.

“These are lily bulbs.” Then he looks at me again. “From a lily.”

My heart keeps skipping beats . . .

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