Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty One

IAN

I was a complete idiot when I thought running will help me escape the increasingly crowded knot of thoughts harboring my mind. I ended up returning to the lodge with a mind full of endless loops, and calling Mom. I don’t know what got into me; I just flipped my phone open, called her number, dragged the silence for a while, then dumped the entire thing on Mika. And when Mika left my side, the wheels of my brain started running again.

That’s how I ended up in a pink apron, standing on the kitchen counter, and chopping sweet potatoes. I can’t seem to focus at all, and my mind keeps wandering to my girls. I spent the entire weekend after exams sneaking into Mika’s and Sadie’s rooms at night to check up on them, so I had a couple sleepless nights and the days after that weren’t any better.

Now I glance at Kiki across the kitchen counter; she looks surprisingly calm today, not blushing or anxious. She has a small smile across her face, and I think she’s enjoying herself.

It’s annoying.

I’m in a position where I’m lamely cutting potatoes, and the girl I like is smiling goofily on the other end, but I can’t cross this distance and do anything to her because I’m sure she will freak out and beat me to a run. She might be small and weak, but she’s surprisingly fast. I’m bothered by her strangely calm demeanor despite witnessing it all. What did I expect from her? To look for me until she finds me? To comfort me? I bet she doesn’t care. Kiki only thinks of me as a friend. Was I waiting for her to blame me for not preventing it from happening? How was I supposed to prevent it anyway? It was so unexpected.

I mean, one second I was with Kiki, checking our rankings for midterms; I was delighted she ranked first again; and the next I found myself in the middle of a crowded aisle, with Rachel kissing me. My mind blanked for a second and I didn’t know what to do. Then it hit me all at once. Bile rose in my throat, I ran into the nearest bathroom, and ended throwing up on the very sparkling bathroom tiles. It never crossed my mind to pull a tantrum or argue with the girl in front of the entire school. It would’ve been humiliating and embarrassing for both of us.

Later, my friends, and Zel—because I don’t know if he’s my friend or not—found me half-dead on the soccer field, staring at a fierce-looking sky. Mika didn’t say anything, because she was still in the process of digesting the news, and Kiki didn’t say anything, because I’m sure she thinks it’s not her business.

But as much as I seemed out of it, Kiki seemed less than neutral. It felt like she was silently emitting dread vibes; she didn’t react to anything. Even when I said I like someone; all the while staring at her; she didn’t even blush. She just stared at the sky blankly.

It was as if the emotion button inside her had broken.

So here I’m now, slicing potatoes, my eyes trained on Kiki as she sashays like a princess from a fairy tale between the counter and the sink, and my mind wandering to Mika, who disappeared in a certainly Zel-related mission an hour ago and never came back.

My sister is not coming back.

She’s not coming back. She’s not coming back. She’s not coming—

“Ouch! Ouch! Dammit!”

A cling sounds from the other end of the kitchen and I glance up, instantly locking gazes with Kiki. Her face is tinged with a soft shade of pink, wavering between embarrassment and genuine surprise.

“I-Ian. W-Whatcha . . .” Then her gaze shifts to my hand and she snaps to attention. “Y-You okay? What happened?” Kiki’s by my side in an instant, cupping her hands below mine. That’s when I remember that I cut my finger, and that it’s bleeding, scarlet droplets falling into her palms.

“Oh my God, you’re bleeding! I-Is it a deep cut? What happened?” Her face twists in concern, and a gold hue stands out in her eyes as she guides both of us to the sink. “Open the sink!” she yells, pressing her lips together.

I startle at the sound of her voice and do as she said. It’s the first time I’ve heard her voice this clear. I never thought it has this beautiful ring to it.

“And please say something Ian, you’re scaring me! How long have you been here? I thought you left.” She looks at me. “W-Why are you smiling?” Her voice drops to a whisper, and her face flushes.

I didn’t realize I was smiling.

The sound of the running water fills the silence between us. So she wasn’t aware I was here. This means that anyone could come and whisk her away and she wouldn’t bat an eye.

“You should speak up more,” is what I come out with.

“Huh?” Kiki blinks then shakes her head and holds my hand. “I dunno what are you talking about. More importantly, you cut your finger.” She speaks in a hushed voice again as she inspects the injury and presses on the cut gently. It stings, but I can withstand it.

“Kiki, it’s only a small cut.”

She glares at me, sending a shiver down my spine. “That’s why I didn’t want anyone to help me. I always get carried away when I focus on something. I had no idea you were here.” Then she looks away. “It’s my fault this happened to ya.”

“Wha—?” That again!

“Ahh! What am I gonna do now?” Kiki looks around frantically. “Hold it.” She lets go and wipes her hands on the apron, then reaches for the cabinet under the counter, and comes back with a first aid kit.

“Kiki, come on, it’s a small cut. I’m not a little kid!” I demand. That sounded rather childish.

“So what? You won’t take care of it?” Without giving me a chance to argue, she wipes my hand with a piece of gauze, applies antibiotic, then puts a Band-Aid to the cut. “There. We’re done.” A smile spreads across her face; she looks genuinely happy with her tiny achievement.

I look at the Band-Aid; it has a yellow chick on it. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. I’m your manager, and you’re the only goalkeeper on our team. You need your hands.”

“Now that you mention it, we don’t have a backup goalie,” I mumble dubiously.

Kiki shakes her head. “And that’s the number one reason why you shouldn’t be spacing out when using a knife.” She drops the knife in the sink then goes back to her station and starts at the mushrooms. I watch her, mesmerized by her small but steady hand as she finishes the work professionally. “You shouldn’t be holding a knife in the first place. Your hands are so precious.”

Heat creeps up my neck. It’s the first time I’ve been affected by her words. Usually, it would take her a hundred light years to get them out, but now that she said it, I peek at her face, and it shocks me to see a neutral expression. “You must’ve been thinking”—she stops chopping—“about lots of things . . .”

“Yeah . . .” I glance idly at the door. “It’s Mika . . .” And other things.

Kiki tenses beside me then moves to slicing avocados. She’s either totally ignoring me, or intercepting my thoughts and dodging them. I don’t know how she feels about me, but I’m sure I like her. So much. I like the way her dark bangs fall into her eyes, how her eyes gleam gold when she’s reading something interesting. How she blushes all together. How calm and composed she looks when no one makes contact with her. I like when her magenta lips curl into a small smile, and how strong she is when it comes to protecting herself. I like that she’s pushing her way through almost on her own, and I hate it at the same time. It’s like she doesn’t need me anymore. I want her to need me.

No, I want her to want me.

“Kiki?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I want to help you.”

“Nah-huh! No way.”

I roll my eyes. “I can do anything that doesn’t require finger cutting. Or burning.” She doesn’t respond. It’s killing me to know what she’s thinking. “Kiki!”

“If you guess what I’m making, I’ll let you help.” She challenges.

I smile, and taking a deep breath, I blurt it out. “Mixed veg omelet with avocados!”

Kiki leaves the knife and gapes at me, her eyes gliding between me and the cook book. “You big cheater!” She bangs my chest playfully with her small fists and I burst out laughing. Busted. “You were looking at the book. It doesn’t count.” Her lips had curved into a small pout and it takes every nerve in me to not tackle her and kiss her.

“Oh God . . .” The laughter seizes and my breathing evens. “I needed this.”

“What did you need?” She goes back to chopping. Chop chop chop. Cut cut cut.

You. Your beautiful voice. The constant blush of your face. Your cuteness. “The laughter,” I reply, “it felt like a breather.”

And then without adding another word, Kiki and I fall into a rhythm. She works on the chopping the vegetables and frying the onions part, and I whisk eggs, add spices, and mix feta cheese after sneaking a couple tangy slices. The kitchen crowds with clinging noises as our friends move in and out to help set the table and wash cooking utensils.

“Whoa, Mika!”

I’m shaken by the voice, and all the thoughts bump into one another. My eyes flicker to the door, and my stomach flips. It’s Zel. He’s holding my sister against him, his hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes. Zel straightens Mika on her feet and rolls his eyes. “For God’s sake, worry about you footing over your sleeves,” he mumbles, but the small smile that tugs on his lips stabs me.

I feel like throwing up.

Mika smiles. “Sorry.”

I clear my throat, catching their attention, and both of them look at me and blush. Stop being so sweet to my face. Dammit.

“I knocked on your door a couple times; you didn’t respond,” I say to Zel. I got kind of worried about him. I considered asking Mika, but thought it’ll drive her crazy. But here they are, looking like the best versions of themselves.

Zel’s smile is replaced by an inscrutable expression. Nice, do I look like someone who can read minds? I’m not Mika. Maybe because I’m not close enough to him, or because I’ve never put an effort to know him better. I think it’s too late anyway.

“Yeah, I was asleep,” he replies vaguely.

“At least someone got some sleep.” Mika walks over to the counter and takes a pot, fills it with water and puts it on the burner.

“Give me a break.” Zel throws his hands in the air; a Roselie gesture that grew with him over the years he spent with us. “It was only a couple hours.”

“Whatever, you betrayed me.”

“It seems someone didn’t sleep a wink last night,” Kiki whispers with a smirk. I assume it’s one of her rare moments where a bit of her nonchalant self surfaces. Mika blushes, and Zel laughs silently.

Then he stretches his arms above his head. “Manager Kiki, I’d be counting on ya to pump me with energy today.” His eyes flicker with challenge as he glances at me. “I hafta join the team no matter what.”

“Yeah, or you could enjoy the view and the house and everything for two weeks without having something on your mind,” Mika mumbles.

“I don’t think I came here for that.”

They hold each other’s gazes for a long while that my stomach roils, and I’m thinking of walking my sister out of here when a hand circles my wrist.

“Leave them be.”

In the chaos of this place, my mind zeroes on Kiki’s eyes, on this lake of emerald green that reflects sun beams.

“She found her person. Find yours.”

I can’t stop staring at them, even though the girl I like is right behind me.

“You’ll be fine. You’re strong, and I believe in you,” Mika tells Zel while he warms up.

Everyone had gathered in the stadium, waiting for us to enter the field and start the trial. It’s wasting sometime of our post-exams vacation, but today is an exception.

Zel stands up and pats my sister’s hair. “You worry too much. I’ll be fine.” Then he jogs and centers himself in the middle of the field.

Someone grabs my sleeve. I turn around to Kiki’s dazzling emeralds. She’s staring at me, and I can’t help but notice how her eyes gleam every time they move. They seem to draw me into a daze and I can’t seem to let go. It’s like she’s trying to tell me something.

“Ian!” I cringe, and the spell breaks as Rachel jumps right between us. “You look so handsome today,” she says with an overly sweet smile, “you’re going to shine out there! I’m rooting for you!”

Tying my shoelace, I try to ignore the sickness in my stomach. “It’s not a real game,” I mutter.

“Huh?” Rachel bends down and smiles at me, her short black hair falling to one side.

I stare at her, thinking that if I want to put an end to this, I got to give her a proper answer to her feelings. “Once this is over, we need to talk.”

“Huh?”

I ignore her and get up, my gaze falling at Kiki who is sitting at the bench next to Mika and everyone else, absorbed in excitement. Didn’t she have something to tell me?

I jog to my spot, and pull my hair up. “Ah, I forgot my tie.” I turn for my sister. “Mika! Hair tie!” I yell.

Mika shakes her head. Then Kiki stands up, loosens her ponytail, and walks in my direction. I can’t stop staring as she comes closer, her long chocolate tresses swaying after her.

“Here,” she whispers when she reaches me. In her palm is a black hair elastic, and her lips twist into a smile as I take it from her.

I pull my hair up. “Thanks.”

Kiki blushes all together. “I hafta talk to you when we’re done.” And then she runs. One day, I’ll stop her from running away from me.

“Captain, you’re ready?” Clara calls from her position.

I give her thumbs-up and scan the field. One thing I like about being the goalie, is that I have a view of the entire field that helps me observe the movements of my team and my rivals, upon which I base my commands and guide the movements of my comrades.

Across the field, Zel and I hold each other’s gazes. “You’re up against the elite group!” I tell him.

“I know! I wouldn’t have accepted any less than this,” he says confidently.

I find myself smiling; the guy is getting back on me. Is it weird that I’m sure he’s up for the challenge? I brace myself and shake my shoulders, and so does everyone on the field. Mika, Kiki, and the rest of the team have their eyes glued on us, and when Akuni blows the whistle, I swear Zel disappears.

“What the hell!” Marsha’s voice rumbles as he dodges her.

Zel is so swift and fast, and I can barely see his movements as he skids and dribbles between the players, leaving them, and me, dumbfounded with his incredible speed and control.

Everyone on the bench is on their feet and in a matter of minutes, my players are exhausted from chasing him around, the entire defense is broken, and Zel is standing in the penalty area, the only hurdle between him and the goal is me.

What the—? I collect my jaw off the floor. “You little devil.”

Zel smiles smugly and balances the ball on his knee. “I’ll give ya fifteen seconds to get ready.”

I take some neck circles and focus. “Show me what you’ve got.”

And he does.

I can feel Mika’s eyes on me, her breath catching each time Zel’s kick glides beyond my reach and hits the net. We keep going back and forth like that for what feels like hours, because everyone on the field sits down and watches us, and because I insisted to never stop until I block it.

The truth is I know I can’t, but I want to taste a bit of it. I want to feel it with my own hand. When everyone seems fed up with us, I push myself to its limits, and when my fingertips graze the ball, fire ignites within me. The force is amazing and I can’t stop myself from smiling. I sit down cross-legged, and throw my head back. Then a silent stream of giggles escapes me.

“What’s so funny?” Zel asks.

“I can’t believe I’ll say this.” I meet his eyes. “Boy, you’re freaking awesome.”

He breaks into a toothful grin. “Does that mean . . .?”

I find myself grinning too. “Welcome to the team, you cheeky bastard.”

And the stadium erupts into cheers.

I’m sorry. I have someone I like.

“Ahh . . . that was so lame.”

I drag my feet up the concrete steps to the roof. It was too hard to deal with Rachel. Once I was done with Zel, we met behind the lodging house and I rejected her. To begin with, she didn’t exactly confess to me, but I had to reject her to sort things out for myself. Rachel cried. She cried real tears that I had to hold her tight until she was done. She might’ve really had feelings for me after all.

Sigh.

“I had no idea you’re a sigh person.”

To my side, the setting sun is making her eyes gold, and as I continue to stare at her, her face becomes the exact shade of sky-pink. She’s wearing a denim overall over a wine long-sleeved sweater, and her hair is loose, the breeze blowing through it. She looks simple, but beautiful, and if I don’t stop staring, my heart will explode into meaty chunks.

“K-Kiki! What are you doing here?” I totally forgot that the roof is her favorite escape too.

Kiki points at the horizon, where the sun is a sinking ball of dull yellow, and the colors are a blend of hot pink and fiery oranges.

“Doing something new,” she declares.

My eyes widen as I process the thought. “This is the first time you watch the sunset,” I mumble. She nods, a tinge of pink seeping to her cheeks. “Wow. That’s . . . unexpected.”

“I know, right? I can’t see the sunset from the window of my room, and my parents won’t let me climb to the roof to see it.” Then she glances at me and rolls her eyes. “They love me so much.”

I smile. Of course they do; she’s their only daughter, and she’s an incredibly pretty and precious one.

“You said you have to talk to me,” I mumble, watching the pinks and oranges merge together.

“Yeah, I’m not gonna take a lot of your time.” Kiki grips the railing and breathes audibly but softly next to me. She keeps glancing over then looking away, considering what to say.

“You can look at the horizon, close your eyes, and tell me,” I say.

“But—”

“I’ll listen to you.”

“Okay . . .” She fiddles with her sleeves and stretches them over her hands, looks at the horizon and closes her eyes. “I-I wanted to thank you”—her voice drops to a whisper, and I force my heart to calm down—“for everything you’ve done for me. My life was tough, and I’m sure tough times will come up along the way. But it was tough for me to be alone, then I met you, and slowly but all at once my whole world began to change.”

It’s either both the wind and the sun are playing tricks on me, or what I’m seeing and hearing is the utter truth. Kiki’s dark chocolate hair flows behind her back, and a pink smile is playing on her lips. She looks amazing. Confident. As if she stepped ahead without me.

My throat tightens. It’s annoying. What a perfect timing to break my heart and tell me she doesn’t need my help anymore.

My pulse quickens.

“Your existence even in the distance is a tremendous support for me.” Her lashes flutter open, but she doesn’t look at me. “To me, you’re not a familiar person . . . You’re wonderful and fascinating . . . I always saw you in a different way, attracting me in your different kind of feeling, your kind heart, your kind initiatives, your words that heal my soul and your looks that take me away from thinking about myself. You’re not ordinary. You’re soft and tender.”

My heart picks up pace, and I’m forcing myself to stand still otherwise I would have left long ago. I don’t want to hear this. It’s like she’s telling me I’m her kind friend. I don’t want to be her kind friend only. I don’t want to hear her thanking me. I want—

“But I don’t want this.”

As if Kiki is reading my thoughts, her emerald orbs flicker and meet my eyes. “I don’t want you to be kind to me. I don’t want you to be my friend. I want more.” She takes a deep breath, and her face mirrors the ruby hue of the sky. “I know I’m selfish, and asking for more is unforgivable, but . . .”

For the next few heartbeats, silence falls on us.

“I like you.”

We stare at each other for what seems like hours, my heart fluttering in my chest, wanting out, until she finally drops her gaze. “And there’s one more thing.” Her voice is quieter now, but hadn’t been any surer.

Kiki looks up at me, a gentle flush of pink arising in her cheeks, making her look vulnerable. My breath catches as she leans up on the tips of her toes and lightly presses her soft lips to mine. And then I don’t know what happens. My head goes hazy, and my body becomes stagnant at the sensation of her lips against mine. So this is what kissing you feels like? Honey-sweet and silken enough to melt my heart. Just as I’m about to lose myself in this moment, she breaks the kiss and walks away, her hair flowing about her. Kiki runs away again.

Sitting down by the railing, I cover my face in my hands and exhale loudly.

“I’ve been waiting for this.”

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