Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty

MIKA

“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!”

“Patience, Young Mistress.” Akuni flashes me an endearing smile along with one of her famous remarks as she ties the apron for me. “Now if you’ll excuse me.” She gives me a small bow and heads outside. “I’ll be on my mission.”

I cock my head to one side. “Take it easy, it’s grocery shopping!” I call after her. That girl takes everything as a mission.

I look back to the girl at the other end of the kitchen counter. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” I whine, and go back to peeling sweet potatoes. I’m supposed to be showing off and making my famous blueberry pie, but instead I’m busy doing Sweet Potato Brownies. Believe me, not my idea.

Kiki looks up from her cooking book and wipes at her cheek, leaving a smudge of flour. She’s wearing an apple-green apron over a soft purple turtleneck sweater and a pair of jeans, her dark chocolate hair pulled up in a very neat bun. She looks so cute and neat in the early hours of the morning, and here I am dying of jealousy.

I stare at my outfit and pout; I’m still in last night’s clothes, wearing a pink apron over them. I didn’t get a wink of sleep after returning to our common room because, one: Rachel kept kicking my side; she either did it on purpose or was a wrestler in her past life; and two: each time I close my eyes I see them: Zel’s deep honeyed eyes, staring at me with a gleam of red.

I wanted to ask him lots of things; Aren’t you scared of the dark? How did you start the fire? But I was scared, and worried he might push me away again. Plus, I had lots going on, and then I ended up dumping it on him. And crying. Again.

God, I’m so pathetic!

Now Kiki gives me this apologetic look, and pink blooms on her cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Mika. I really am. B-But this is for the sake of the team!” Her tone is desperate. “I-If I’m gonna fulfill my duties and become a dependable manager like ya, then I hafta do this at least,” she finishes with a long exhale, her face beet red.

My eyes widen and I stifle a laugh. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to.” Oh wow, she said I’m dependable. My heart felt kind of light when I heard this. “Geez Kiki, you’ve got to read the atmosphere.”

“Huh? Did I say something wrong?” She drops the knife and bites her lip.

“No no.” I wave a hand. “I mean, you’ve got to know when people are messing with you.”

“Oh.” Kiki resumes chopping mushrooms and smiles. “I’m kinda dense about these things.”

“But you know what.” I smile. “I’m glad you’re talking to me.” I find myself blushing. “I mean that was a good talk. Usually, girls don’t tend to like me, so I’m glad we’re talking.”

“I’m glad too.”

“Remind me why am I doing Sweet Potato Brownies again?” I ask as I chunk the potatoes.

“It’s an after-practice snack,” Kiki replies rather enthusiastically, “it’s energy-boosting, filling, hunger-combatting healthy snack.”

“Ahh . . . what if it turns out as a huge mess?”

“It’s okay, messing things up is a step of the process.”

I smile; the girl keeps changing and surprising me.

“Morning, love.”

Kiki and I exchange a surprised glance then turn to the door. The only guys who’d add love to their words would be Roy or Tony because they are well, in relationship. Or Bardwin, Gilda’s older brother, and a senior on our team. So, when Ian bursts into the kitchen looking so hot and sweaty and out of breath after a morning run, my first thought is he’s talking to Kiki, because I’m his sister and he always calls me idiot or short stuff or redheaded female clone; he used to call me Mi-chan, but that died long ago.

Kiki blushes from the end of her neck to her hairline as I glance at her, and my mind whirls with all kinds of thoughts. When did he confess? Did they already start dating? Is my brother the type to call a girl ‘love’?

But then Ian makes a beeline for me and drapes his arm around my shoulder, and all the thoughts pop into thin air. It’s when something crackles in my ear that I notice he put one of his earpods in.

“Sadie’s on the line,” Ian mumbles.

Oh, he was talking to Sadie.

“Mika’s here!” I announce dubiously.

“What was that? Idiot.” There it is.

“Shut up, I’m talking!”

“Guys, don’t fight! I’ll talk to you both,” Sadie yells on the other end of the line. “Mikki-chi, how’s everything?”

“It’s fine, Mom. I love the place, it’s calm and serene. And Mrs. Cho is super sweet and cool.”

The place is really amazing. The lodging house has a storage basement and two floors. The first floor contains a large common room; where us girls will spend the nights; a kitchen and a living room, as well as six bathrooms complete with showers and bathtubs. The second floor is where the bedrooms, the infirmary, and the library are. Mrs. Cho lives on a separate building beside the lodge and apparently Coach is staying with her. Behind the house is the heavenly open bath connected to the hot springs in the mountains, and the training building.

As for a girl who’s been here for less than twenty-four hours, I’ve spent my first night teaching a romance class to Zel and crying in his lap.

It’s only our first day, what does Mom want to know?

“Ooohh Mikki-chi, stop teasing me!” Sadie fake-whines. “I’m lonely here and you’re making me jealous! Should I come?”

“No!” Ian and I yell simultaneously.

“Geez, Mom.” Who’s the kid here? “You could use your lonely time to do lonely things.” Ian and I exchange a glance. “Read a book. Go to the spa. Have your hair cut. Try all the new muffins at S&S. Forget that you have kids.”

“Mika!” Ian nudges me in the ribs.

“What? I’m trying to be useful,” I mutter.

The line crackles as Sadie laughs. “Hmm . . . Mika’s right. Maybe I could use some alone time.” Then she sighs loudly, and I could picture her throwing her hands in the air; something we Roselies have in common. “Okay!” Her voice emits a cheerful tone, and my body relaxes a bit. “You twins have fun out there and be safe. Tell me when something comes up and I’ll come drive you home. Eat well and sleep tight. Love you!”

“Love you, Sadie!” Ian and I say in unison, then we hang up.

“God, that was unexpected.” I exhale, then go back to whisking eggs. “I mean, it’s the first day, did she miss us already? We always spend months without seeing each other and she doesn’t call that much, what happened now?”

“I was the one who called,” Ian mumbles, popping a couple almonds in his mouth. I stare at him. “What? I was worried.”

I look away with a sigh. “I know. But remember when we talked about not letting yourself worry on your own? I’m worried about Mom too. You could’ve told me and we could’ve figured it out together.”

I can tell he’s blushing. “Sorry,” he whispers.

Wiping both hands on the apron, I take his face in my hands. “Whatever happens.” I’ll be here for you. I’ll protect you.

“Whatever happens,” Ian echoes.

“Oh, there you are!”

Standing at the door behind Ian, Tabitha bears a perplexed expression. “Mika, can I see you for a second?” she asks.

“Sure!” I practically shove my brother out of my face, take off my apron, and head over to her. “What’s up? You okay?” I ask. Usually, the players tend to me if they have a problem, I’m their manager after all.

“No actually”—Tabitha shifts from one foot to another—“it’s not about me. It’s about Zel, I’m worried about him.”

I blink. “Uh-huh . . .? How worried?”

“Ah . . . you see, today is the day of the trial, and since I’m kinda the closest to him on the team, Ian asked me to wake him up.”

“What? I mean—What?” I gape at my brother. Is he crazy? Does he or doesn’t he know that we are the closest to him on this team? And in the world! “Why would he—?”

“Oh, no, Ian tried to wake him up himself, but Zel didn’t respond. And I was passing by so he asked me.”

“Oh.” So Ian tried. How heartwarming is that, to see Ian trying to bond with Zel for the sake of the team at least?

“Then I knocked on Zel’s door and he didn’t respond. I didn’t try opening the door or anything because I know he likes to have his own space, so I decided I would . . . ask you . . .” Tabitha’s expression shifts. “Hey, you okay?”

Staring ahead blankly, I try to keep myself steady. I’m supposed to part my lips and respond, but my tongue lies thick in the floor of my mouth and words are lodged in my throat. My mind races with all kinds of thoughts and images, then I find myself rushing past Tabitha and thudding upstairs.

“Oh God, please help me,” I pray under my breath, hoping that I didn’t push Zel past his limits to the point that he’d hurt himself or something.

“Mika! Mika!”

I ignore my friend and take the stairs two at a time, my heart pounding, and when I reach the door to Zel’s room, I force myself to stop and think rationally. “Calm down, Mika,” I mumble with a shaky breath. It was just today past midnight that I saw him, and he was fine. I’m sure if he wanted to do anything irrational, he wouldn’t have come here; Zel isn’t the type who would put me through troubles. He would shut me out and hurt me, but he wouldn’t be a nuisance.

Knocking on the door softly, I see Tabitha and the girls in the corner of my eye, snooping at me.

“Zel, it’s Mika. Open the door please.” I wait for one whole minute. No response. I try again, this time a bit louder, and wait a bit more. “Zel, this is not funny, we’re worried here. Please, open up.” Still nothing. I’m starting to worry. I put my hand on the door knob. “Zel, I’m coming in. Excuse me.” Turning it, I open the door, and freeze in my spot.

“Oh, God.”

The room is warm thanks to the air conditioning, and Zel is lying in bed in a short-sleeved flannel shirt and shorts, his eyes closed, the blanket under his feet.

Holding my breath, I close the door behind me and approach him slowly. Zel is here, he’s intact, and all I have to do now is check that he’s alive. On his nightstand is a medicine tablet; an anti-anxiety drug; probably to help him sleep. After all what he passed through, I’m sure he’d had nightmares for a lifetime, and there’s no way these eyes would rest on their own.

I sit on my knees and take his hand, check his pulse. His heart is going doki-doki-doki, and I’m sure my heart is going much faster. He’s alive.

Sighing in relief, I allow myself to take him in. My heart clenches as my eyes roam over the scars along his arms. Long cuts. Bruises covering every inch of his pale skin. Purple marks on his wrists. That’s why he’d always wear long sleeves. That’s why he never allowed anyone to touch him. I trace each one with my fingers, engraving each inch of his skin into memory, kissing every scar gently. I want to know about each of those.

I rest my forehead to his hand, finally letting myself breathe. “You scared the hell out of me. Dumbass. I thought you died, you know I can’t continue without you, right? You can’t go, Zel. We have unfinished business.” Looking to the side, my eyes idly fall on something I hadn’t seen in a long time. Blue and white petals, the little stars shimmering about it; it’s a blue heart lily. What is it doing here?

“I want to thank you for saving the lilies when I turned my back on them. I don’t deserve to be called a lily.” I sigh and rest my forehead to his hand again. “You know, you make me mad. You could’ve said you’re scared of the dark, and that you tried hard to start a fire. I was a bit scared of the dark too.” I don’t know why I’m saying all this, maybe because he’s sleeping and it’s easier to talk when someone’s not listening. My eyes fall closed. “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad . . .”

“You could’ve saved some for my funeral.”

Zel’s dark, gruffy voice strikes me like lightning. He shifts, his other hand resting on my head, patting my hair. “Of course you’re a lily. A very rare one. A lily with eyes a shining blue, and copper hair much like the sun.”

I blush, partly because he heard me, and partly because what he just said is so lovely.

“You know, I also have a lot to tell ya.” He pauses for a deep breath. “I-I get this feeling around ya, a warm one that I’m trying to comprehend. It’s growing every day and I-I can’t keep up with it. I feel that you know about me more than I know about myself. I feel safe around ya. I always did.”

Heat flushes my face and neck and my eyes flood with tears. Zel is talking to me.

“I know I’m a difficult person, I’ve always caused troubles even after Mom and Dad took me in. I-I used to keep a knife with me. I would hear Mama in the dark, whispering things to me.”

My hands curl into fists, and I try so hard not to flinch.

“Sometimes I’d jump off the wall around our house, and run away. I’d hurt some kids at school when they try to touch me, and my parents would think I was doing that to get back on Mama.”

I squeeze my heart space.

“I was troublesome. It’s a disgrace that I had the nerve to stay alive when I had no reason to.”

As if on cue, my heart skips and I jerk up, ignoring the tears streaking on my face. With my hands wrapping around his, I almost choke the words out. “You’re looking for that reason. Deep down, you’re probably desperately searching for it. On your own!” I suck in a breath as Zel brushes my tears with the backs of his hands; the way he used to when we were kids.

“I . . . I think no one is born already having a reason to live. Because it’s maybe something you need to find and decide for yourself. Maybe . . . Maybe you can find the reason in a dream, or a job, or in others. Sometimes the reason you find might seem vague and uncertain.” You might even lose the reason . . . “But as long as you’re alive, you want a reason. I get it.” I want one too. And, if I’m able to, I want to find the reason in someone else. To become someone who can live for the sake of others. I brush the first tear that rolls on his cheek. “Because if you have the nerve to live, you might meet the person who wants to be with you the most.”

I’m crying. Zel is crying, his hazel eyes glistening with a fresh round of tears.

He wipes at them and brushes at his bangs. “I hope . . . I hope I can say to someone”—he looks away, aware that he’s crying in front of me—“I was born for your sake. I hope I can say that someday, and I hope whoever I say it to . . . is waiting for those words.”

“I hope so too,” I whisper with a smile.

Zel looks at me then, the way he always does, with this intense mix of gold and little specks of brown, and my face flushes. It’s as if he’s saying it, except he needs the words to make it true.

“Lilium, will you wait for me?” he asks desperately.

I want to say yes, I want to say I will, but I don’t know what gets into me.

Standing up, I take the blue heart lily. “Remember when you told me it’s okay to be selfish every once in a while?” I ask. He nods.

“I’ll be selfish.” I reach up for my messy bun, unwrap the red ribbon in my hair, and let it tumble down my back, all the while ignoring my beating heart and the insane expression on Zel’s face. “This, whatever is happening to you, this becoming will ask you to be patient. To fight. Transformation is made of both surrender and strength.” Then I tie the ribbon around the lily and hand it to him. “But I won’t wait. I told you, lilies can’t wait all winter.”

“Lilium?”

I smile. “Catch up to me.”

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