Just As You Are

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Chapter Nineteen

ZEL

The flames dance in the stony fireplace in front of me, and my mind plays tricks and glimpses of memories that’ll never fade. My back itches, and I know it isn’t from the couch I’m lying on, it’s Mama blowing a new layer of heat on my everlasting burn scar.

I couldn’t sleep; it was too dark in my room, and thunder sounded different from that in the city; so, I crept to the living room with a blanket in hand, started a fire in the chimney when I realized I might freeze to death, and stationed myself on the couch facing it. I know I shall not act like I’m home, but I can at least relax a bit when no one is around.

I’m still a bunch of nerves around the new people; it’s a new atmosphere that I don’t belong to, and I gotta try to fit in, but I’m kinda outnumbered. Plus, the girls called me pretty, which scared the hell out of me. I’m scared they’ll come after me when I’m asleep.

Anyway, Mrs. Cho—the lodge owner—said it herself: Make yourself at home and make use of all what’s in your hands. I instantly liked her; she’s a soft and a happy lady who emits grandma vibes, not that I’ve ever had a grandma or met one, but that’s how it felt.

Now I lie on my back, clear my mind, and try to drift to sleep, but the scent and the silhouette dancing with the flicking fire, and her faint breath make me alert. I sit up.

“Lilium.”

“Zel.”

The flames paint her face yellow, her hair a fiery orange, as if she needs more glow to blind me. Lilium is wearing a baggy violet sweater that reaches her knees and a pair of fuzzy colorful socks, and holding a steaming mug in her hands. The perplexed expression on her face is enough to know that she’s still embarrassed and surprised since I gave Mrs. Cho the pack of lily bulbs. She has all the right to be shocked; I didn’t tell her that the moment she turned her back on them, I found myself covered in soil and dust right away, saving every last one.

She looks from the fire to me and presses her lips together. “You . . . started a fire.” She sounds surprised. I nod. “How did you—? Didn’t you—?” Biting her lip, she turns around. “I’ll . . . just go back.”

“Wait.” What did she want to—? Scrambling up quickly, my leg gets caught in the blanket and slides backward, and I end up hitting my forehead to the arm of the couch.

“Zel,” Lilium yelps.

“Can . . . you . . . stay?” I mumble in pain.

“D-Do you want me to?”

I rub my forehead and look up; Lilium is standing close to the couch and rubbing one foot with the other, her face an attractive shade of pink despite the glow of the fire, and her eyes a gleaming red, looking away in shyness. A twinge blooms around my heart. “Maybe,” I mumble, sinking down and wrapping myself in the blanket. I put a cushion on the carpet next to the couch and Lilium approaches it wearily, then she hands me the mug, fluffs the pillow and sits down.

“What’s this?” I ask, taking a whiff. Instant relaxation pours on me.

“Herbal tea,” she replies.

I hand it back. “Can’t sleep?”

She takes a sip and studies me for few moments. “Would it be mean of me to say that I’m glad I’m not the only one?”

My eyes widen and the echo of a smile creeps on my lips. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.” We don’t say anything for few minutes, and silence fills with the sound of our breathing and the crackling fire.

“So, why can’t you sleep?” she asks.

“I . . . think it’s because the place is new. You?”

It takes her few breaths to reply. “How can I sleep with the idiot royal chick kicking my side?” she mutters.

I stifle a laugh. I’m kinda glad each of us guys got separate rooms and the girls got only one to share.

“Want some?” Lilium asks then, extending the mug.

I blink. “Really? Can . . . I drink from the mug itself?”

“Sure. It would be a hassle to make one for you anyway—” She backtracks. “I-I mean, I’m too relaxed to get up.”

“Okay . . .” I take the mug from her and try a sip. It’s sweet, and a bit spicy. We pass it between us as we chat.

“What about Ian? Is he fine with you being here?” I ask, curling a lock of her red waves. He looked out of it all the way here.

“It’s not his business,” she mumbles.

“I mean, won’t he sense that you’re awake?”

“Nah-huh, he’s in deep sleep.” Her voice softens. “I’ve never seen him this tired in a long time. I’m relieved he fell asleep the moment he finished unpacking. Actually, I’m scared he might get sick.” She hugs her knees to her chest.

I get her. When we were kids, I noticed Ian would get ill frequently, especially when he’d overexert himself, whether physically or mentally, and Lilium would always stay by his side to cheer him up. I’m not used to her being down. To me, she was always the bright and radiant girl who wanted everyone to be happy.

“You know, Sadie came home,” Lilium says now, passing me the mug.

I brighten up; Sadie is my favorite person of all the times, she was like a temporary mother to me. I dunno if she knows about my condition; maybe Lilium knows something, she won’t throw a tantrum and say my mother didn’t love me for no reason; but if Sadie knew anything about it, she didn’t show it. She always welcomed me in her house and warmed me with her genuine kindness, treating me like one of her kids, as if I wasn’t disturbing her family’s safe bubble with my misery.

“Yeah? How is she?”

“Not good.” Lilium pauses. “Apparently, that man wants to meet us.”

“Oh.” I don’t hafta ask who that man is. It’s the father. And I thought I was the only one intruding on them. “And . . . what are you gonna do? Gonna see him?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t find time to talk to Ian about this. If I have to take a decision, then I’ll take it with my brother. I have to put him ahead of me sometimes.” She takes a deep breath and sighs.

I smile. “Whatcha talking about? You’ve always been putting him ahead of you.”

“Huh?” She turns around, her eyes a blazing red.

“Now that I think of it, you’ve always been putting people ahead of you.” Including me. Like how she took my hand and never let go, or how she never gave up on me and kept looking for threads to meet me. How she gently tended to my injuries and smiled despite the fact that I’ve been hurting her and pushing her away.

“What’s with your smile? Do you think I’m stupid?” Lilium asks, the steam from the mug blurring her face.

I take the mug and look in her eyes. “I think you’re selfless.”

How did I miss this? I’ve never seen her do something for herself or ask for something before. Lilium is not the type to ask for the moon. She’s so kind, and her kindness soothes me, it’s something I thrive for. I haven’t said any of this out loud, but Lilium’s eyes shine with tears that instantly roll on her cheeks; it’s as if she’s reading my mind. Too late to back away, I brush her tears and thread a lock behind her ear.

“I-I can’t let them down. I can’t be discouraged. If I do that, if I loosen up for a bit . . . I feel . . . I—” Fresh tears fill her eyes and she tries wiping at them with both sleeves. “They might break. It’s like I’m the one who holds them together.”

“Shush, please don’t cry.” You look so beautiful even when you’re crying. I wrap the blanket around her and hug her to me, muffling her voice to my shirt. “You’re so kind.” I don’t think my heart or anyone else’s deserves all this kindness. “You’re so loving and caring and always smiling. But it’s okay to be discouraged. In your case, it’s okay to be selfish every once in a while.” I wrap one arm around her and smooth her hair. We stay like that for a few minutes, listening to the fire crackling beside us.

“You’re one to talk,” Lilium says at last.

“Huh?” I look down at her. She’s so close I could see every detail of her face. My eyes keep darting to her lips, even though I’m trying so hard not to stare. Her lips are a pale pink that remind me of a rose bud. The top lip is thinner, but not too thin, and has a natural cupid’s bow; the bottom one is plusher. I stared at them while she drank from her mug, thinking what flavor of lip balm she’d applied to them. I want to feel her lips against mine, and I know I’m crazy for even thinking about that. “Huh?”

“Don’t huh me,” she mutters. “Don’t go around telling people to be selfish when you’re the one who doesn’t care about your own life.”

“Ugh . . . that again.”

“Plus, I’ve seen what my selfishness did to me and to people around me.”

“Selfishness isn’t supposed to contain other people.” Her face scrunches like I’m talking nonsense. “You trying to help me isn’t a selfish wish; you’re still putting me ahead of you.”

“So what? If that’s the thing I want to do, it doesn’t matter if it’s for me or for someone else. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not,” she says crossly.

“Lilium—”

“Don’t!” She holds a finger in my face. “You’ll say you don’t deserve this, and that I’ll get hurt and blah blah blah.”

I bite back a smile.

“I don’t care about all this, if I’m going to do something, I’ll do it, even if you lock me in a tower without doors.”

“Why would you do all that for me?” I ask, even though I know the answer. Even though I know that she was right about everything she said; Mama never loved me, and I deserve to live every second of my life in happiness; and even though I wanna thank her and say she was right, I can’t. I was an idiot, and it’s too embarrassing.

“You know because . . .” Lilium rests her forehead to my chest and mumbles the three words again, right over my heart. How much does she know about me? What does she know that made her like me?

“I know enough to like you for a lifetime,” she whispers.

Cool. Must’ve said that out loud. My neck prickles.

“I know you are full of love and you deserve to be healed.”

I shake my head, trying my best to keep the lid shut on all my emotions, those that I can’t yet understand. “How could someone like you wanna be with me? Cry for me? And pray for me? How do you know I have feelings for you?” I don’t want you to be Mama’s prey. It’s enough that I’m. I’m pushing her away again, but every bit of me is praying that she would resist this. That she would hold onto me.

“You looked me in the eyes for a little too long to not have feelings for me,” Lilium whispers.

Heat rises in my face and I look away “I-I’m afraid you’ll end up seeing me the way I see myself,” I blurt. Nice job keeping the lid shut. Lilium glares at me like I’m an idiot, which is the case; I’ve been an idiot my entire life.

“So what?” She jumps onto the couch and I hafta put the mug away and scoot to the other end to make space for her. “Is it really that bad if someone sees who you are? Why is it humans have problem with letting someone else see that they are human?” Launching herself at me, I end up pinned under her, her claret waves splayed across my chest. Lilium’s soft grey eyes blaze with the color of fire, and she’s staring at me intently as if hearing my thoughts. My breath catches and my heart thuds in my ears. She clenches at my heart. “Show me what you are. Show me the heart you’ve been hiding.”

I swallow hard, and we stay like that for a while, me holding my breath and resisting the urge to turn the tables, and Lilium breathing like fire.

Finally, I extend my hand and pick the mug again. “Herbal tea?” I ask dubiously.

To my surprise, she blinks and bursts into a fit of silent giggles then gets off me. I smile and extend the mug. Lilium shakes her head. “Ah, what am I going to do with you? Just drink it.”

“Ah . . . Thanks?”

“Do you know what this is?” she asks, pointing at the mug.

Herbal tea, I think, but that’s not the answer she wants. “Sharing,” I whisper after a minute, childishly proud that I remembered something she taught me.

“Nah-huh. That, my darling”—she scoots closer—“is an indirect kiss.”

I almost spit my drink and start coughing. “Wha—a what?” I ask in a whisper.

“An indirect K-I-S-S,” she sing-songs. My face burns. “And that would be your first lesson in Romance 101.” Lilium plants a kiss on my cheek and stands up. “Good night, Zeline.”

I watch her go, my chest fizzy with a warm sensation that I’m sure won’t settle for a while, and in her spot, I see the strangest thing: a blue heart lily shimmering like stardust.

Picking it up and flopping back I realize it. “Dammit, called me Zeline.”

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