Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty Two

KIKI

I don’t mind staying here until I become sea foam. Nah-huh, let me rephrase this. I don’t mind staying here until I become stewed beef. I’m not getting out of here. I’M NOT!

I must’ve been dreaming because there is no way I would do such an irrational and brazen thing. I’m a normal human being and I have a thinking mind, and in such a case my thinking mind would absolutely say DON’T DO IT! with sirens and red flashlights going off. Yes, it must’ve been another dream. Another dream where we kissed again.

Yes. I did not kiss him. I did not kiss Ian.

“Oh my God! I did I did I did!”

I wrap my arms around myself and sink under the water.

I’ve been in the hot open bath all alone for about half an hour, and I can’t seem to relax at all. Each time I close my eyes, I see Ian with the same dazzled look that’ll stay imprinted on his face for the eternity. He was spacing out during dinner, and it was me who made him like that. Ugh, I can’t believe how careless I am! It never crossed my mind that I could mess with his mind this much.

And in order to escape the train of thoughts rushing in my head, I decided to make a stop at this luxurious spa-like bath.

The place is heavenly; it smells of scented candles, and there is a variety of bathing salts and oils that are accessible for use. I can even smell a whiff of fresh pine carried from the mountains. And to top all that, the sky is quite dazzling for a November night; it had cleared up after last night’s rain, and the stars are shining silver pinpoints on a night-blue blanket.

Ahh . . . It’s like looking at his eyes all over again.

Under water, I open my eyes and try to focus on the opening through which the water is being pumped into the bath. My head is going hazy, and my lungs are burning for a taste of oxygen.

“Kiki? I know you’re . . . here, but . . . where are you?”

“Bwah-huh!” Emerging from water, I gasp for air. That was a very bad idea.

“Oh my God!” Marsha flinches. “What were you doing under water? You idiot! Do you want to die?” She kneels down next to me in her blue cutout swimsuit and rubs my back gently. “What were you doing under there anyway?”

Thinking of Ian makes me blush all over again, and I’m saved by the girls as they appear from the changing room, bright smiles shining their faces. They’re all wearing colorful swimsuits ranging from plunge neckline to tankini tops, and when they see the steaming water, they start squealing and jumping. Actually, Clara and Gilda plunge right into it.

And then Mika comes out, followed by Akuni. She’s wearing a grey and pink patterned one-shoulder suit, red hair pulled up in a messy bun, and I can’t help but stare at her slender legs, at the freckles across her shoulders and neck. She’s so beautiful. After getting into the water, Akuni takes Mika’s hand, and ever so slowly, the latter steps in, her face flushing red and her eyes glowing a silver-blue as the water touches her skin. She’s a queen of her own existence.

Treading through the water, Mika swiftly settles herself next to me, and loosens her hair over one shoulder.

“You must be thinking how royal I seem,” she mumbles.

I flinch. Busted. Right on mark.

Mika stifles a laugh. “I’m not royal or anything. Akuni is more like a sister to me than a maid.” She passes her fingers through her hair, untangling it. “If it wasn’t for Akuni, I probably won’t be this lively. Plus, she was just helping me because I’m clumsy.”

She laughs. I laugh. Then she looks around. The girls are splashing one another with water, and Akuni is already approaching her mistress with scented oils and massaging her shoulders.

“Where’s Rachel?” Mika asks, her face serious. My throat tightens as she looks from one face to another.

“RayRay, after the trial game, she came back to our room, and her face was streaked with mascara,” Marsha mumbles. “When I asked her what’s going on, she clammed up and refused to talk.”

“I heard her crying before coming out here.” Tabitha floats on her back and stares at the sky. “She even refused to come to the bath with us.”

“Hmm . . .”

“You know something, Young Mistress,” Akuni claims.

Mika wrings her arms over her chest. “Of course I do.”

“For God’s sake,” Clara chimes in, “you know everything.”

“Ian rejected Rachel today.”

My eyes widen, and something stirs inside me. Relief? Guilt? Confidence? Am I sad for her? Am I happy about this? I dunno, but something definitely shifted. Something seems off.

The girls exchange glances and then Gilda shrugs. “Well, we’ve seen that coming. Ian doesn’t like her in the first place.”

“How did you know that anyway?” Tabitha asks.

“He’s my brother, how am I not supposed to know?” Mika replies.

“Is that why he was spacing out during dinner?”

Akuni slides into the water and stretches her legs. “It’s probably the other girl.”

“The other girl?” the girls exclaim.

“You know, the one he likes.”

I try to ignore the burning stare from Mika’s eyes as I busy myself with twisting my hair into a bun, but my face betrays me and my cheeks flare.

“I’m not supposed to meddle with your brainwaves,” Mika hisses, and a shiver runs up my spine, “but I can’t quite ignore the pleasant tingling I get when I receive them.”

“W-What do you mean?” I whisper.

“You’ve done something.” Now I look at her; she arches a questioning eyebrow at me—you’re the other girl?—and I nod. “Ugh . . . I can’t keep up with all this.”

I sink down a bit more, but when Mika lifts me up, her eyes widen and she gapes at me.

“W-What the hell!”

I flinch and close my eyes on impact.

“What? What happened?” the girls ask.

“What the hell are you wearing?” Mika yells out loud enough that I’m sure the boys heard us.

I look at my outfit; I’m wearing my navy-blue one-piece swimsuit. What’s the problem with it?

Mika passes a nervous hand through her hair. “Are you crazy? Why are you wearing your middle school swimsuit?”

The girls gasp, and heat runs through me.

“I can’t believe you! What kind of aesthetic sense you have? What’s this lame appearance? Is something wrong with your head?” she snaps, and my face flushes.

This is so humiliating; I never thought Mika would be judgmental; it’s clear I still dunno her well, and it seems that being by her side like this is embarrassing her. Did I miss on something? Was she only pretending to be friendly with me? I knew I can’t be more than a stone. Will she allow me to stay friends with Ian at least? My heart will get crushed.

“Young Mistress, calm down!” Akuni pleads her raging mistress.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, my throat tightening, “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“Huh?” Mika scowls. “What the hell are you talking about?”

I blink as she looks me up and down. “I’m saying”—she points at me—“this body of yours is so beautiful to be wasted in a plain school swimsuit,” she mutters.

I blush so hard to the point that I get dizzy. Is it the heat? Is it the flattery? Or maybe it’s my thoughts crashing into one another because I don’t quite get it anymore. “Huh?” And it comes out more like a hiccup than a question. I’m too shy to look her in the eye.

“Don’t huh me! And don’t run wild with your mind.” She flicks my forehead.

“Mika, what are you planning?” Clara asks as she sips her green tea.

“I’m thinking, we should take this chick to buy a swimsuit on the next holiday,” Mika announces.

“W-Wait!” I stand then immediately sit down because I’m now too aware of myself in this lame suit. “T-There’s no need for it. S-Summer is still far away; besides, I don’t have much money on me,” I mumble shyly.

“We’re not going to wait till summer,” Marsha says. “If we wait till summer, you’ll become chopped liver.”

“Huh?”

“Who said you’re going to buy it?” Tabitha mumbles. “It’s a gift from us.”

Blushing, I stand up again, waving my hands in a crazy manner. “N-No! There’s no way I can accept more gifts from you.” I curl my hair nervously. “I’m happy with your company and that’s enough. P-Plus I still have the goodies you brought me last time.”

“No good!” Mika points her finger in my face. “I’ll not accept any objection.”

“Just go with it, sweetie. You’ve been preparing our meals and taking care of the team,” Akuni adds.

“That’s right!” the girls chime in unison.

“B-But, we hadn’t started training yet . . .” But my voice drops to a whisper, and no one is listening to me anymore. I sink down and hug my knees to my chest. There’s so much going on that I can’t comprehend.

Mika nudges me lightly. “Look forward to it.” She smiles. I smile. “And now tell me, what have you done?” she says it softly this time, and I take it as a chance to drop a heavy pebble out of my heart.

“Something selfish,” I whisper, partly because I don’t want anyone else to hear.

“Selfish?” Mika beckons me to look at her.

I smile. “Yeah, you probably don’t do that, Mika. You’re not selfish.”

She blushes and curls the tips of her hair.

I stare into the gleaming water, across which the light of the moon and the candles is reflected. “You know, sometimes my heart hurts . . . when I think about how I felt the need for more, even with a family that loved me so much.” I needed someone to support me and be my friend. I wanted to be like everyone, to find a place where everything tells me to stay. A place that feels like home. Then when I found home, and it turned out to be a person, I wanted this person to be for me only. This person who touched my heart so tenderly, who always gave me a forward push. Probably, that’s why I said all that to Ian. In a moment of heat, I spilled my heart content to him. Because the sunset.

“S-Sometimes I envy you, Mika.” Her gaze lands on me, her warm hand on my arm. “I envy your ability to appreciate what you have in this moment, instead of always wanting more.”

Mika drops her hand and hugs her knees up. “It’s normal. It’s okay,” she whispers.

I glance at her in surprise. “It’s okay?”

She meets my eyes; they’re Ian’s, but without the black sprinkles. They’re silver and clear. “It is,” she says with a nod. “We are humans. We can’t live without others. I bet that no matter how oppressed you are by others, how hopeless you are, or how loved you are by your family, you want to be accepted by others.”

Her words strike me, and the warmth in my heart floods into my chest.

“It’s okay to want more. You know, someone told me that I’m a selfless person, and that I should be selfish sometimes. Stop putting people ahead of me,” she murmurs.

“Well, that person is quite wise.” I rest my head to her shoulder. “But don’t you think I’m asking for too much? I mean, I have my family and I have you guys and . . .” I trail off as heat ignites in my cheeks.

I could sense Mika’s smile in her tone. “So what? Balance it by doing something for others, although in my opinion, I’d still be slightly happy even if what I’m doing mostly benefits others.”

“So you’re saying that there’s no purely selfish wish.”

“Probably,” she pauses, “that wise person isn’t wise after all.” She laughs.

I laugh, and easiness creeps into my heart.

After bath, we wrap ourselves in our warm and fuzzy bathrobes, and head into the vestibule that connects the house to the changing rooms. We are shuffling into the house when one of the girls stops, sending us all bumping into one another.

“Why did you stop?” Mika hisses.

It’s almost eleven and the boys might be asleep by now, or that’s what I thought. Clara points at something and we swivel our heads in the direction of the aisle; there’s a guy standing in the shadow by the door of the boy’s open bath.

Mika cranes her neck to see above our heads. “Who’s that?”

“Mika?” The guy looks up, and the seven of us catch our breaths.

“Ian?”

He’s wearing swim trunks and a bathrobe, his hair done in a small bun, and when he spots me, his eyes linger on mine until we both blush and look away.

He remembers. It hadn’t left his mind yet. Now it’ll be awkward between us and everyone will notice and I won’t know how to explain. It was the spur of the moment, I would say. But then no one will believe me and they’ll think I’ve been scheming to get Ian from the very beginning and—

“What are you doing here?” Mika’s voice pulls me back to present.

“I’m waiting for the rest of the guys to get out.” Ian points at the door. “It seems they’re quite taking their—Ouuuuch!” And that’s when Zel butts in and kicks Ian on the back of his leg, just below the knee.

“Get outta my way,” Zel mutters.

His hair is—as usual—falling in his eyes, and he looks so scary and grumpy in a grey long-sleeved pajamas and pants. He shakes his hair and next to me, Mika represses a laugh.

“You . . . freak . . . ing . . . bastard . . .” Ian gets up slowly and faces him. “What?”

“You’re giving the girls a heart attack.” Zel points in our direction.

“Huh?”

“Huh?” I glance to my left. The girls are all red-faced and wide-eyed, and I can swear if I look in their eyes, I will see Ian’s image reflected on them. Even mascara-streaked Rachel is peeking outside our common room and looking at him. The girls exhale collectively, and I have to control each muscle of my face to prevent myself from scowling at them.

Ian clears his throat. “And what do you want?”

“Y’all to get outta here so I can have the place to myself,” Zel replies immediately.

Surprisingly, Ian unfolds his arms, his eyebrows shooting upward. The two of them exchange a knowing look after which Ian asks the guys to empty the place in five minutes.

“And what are you girls doing here?” Zel asks impatiently. “Wanna die from the cold?”

“Oh my God,” Mika mutters, “just stop staring and go inside already.”

As if the spell had broken, we shuffle into our room behind Rachel, but Mika and Akuni stay back for a while.

Inside, I dry my hair and braid it, put down my futon and change into pajamas, all the while trying my best to ignore Rachel’s deadly gaze on the back of my head. I lie down and close my eyes, pretending that my heart isn’t thudding, that my chest isn’t burning. Rachel knows. She knows that Ian rejected her because he likes someone else. She knows that I like him. To her, I’m a nuisance. I’m a stone in her path that she has to get rid of.

I press my hand to my heart space. I had no idea that love would be this heavy.

“Lucifer, you rascal! I told you not to tell anyone!”

I’m heading to the kitchen to prepare brunch, when Lucifer appears at the stairs, dragging Zel down by the arm. The boys are well-dressed in sweaters and jeans, but Zel’s hair is still in his eyes. I wonder if it falls naturally like that or it’s just that he doesn’t even bother to comb it. It’s annoying; I can’t talk to him eye-to-eye like that.

“Come on, cheer up! Stop being such a stubborn head for once in your life. It happens one time a year anyway.”

“I . Don’t. Care.”

When they spot me, they both halt and say their morning greetings. Apparently, everyone had a good night after a good bath.

“Good morning, where are you going? We’re having brunch soon,” I tell them.

Lucifer smiles and tugs Zel’s arm tighter. “We’re going to the post office to fetch a package that came for us.” Then he drags Zel down the last step and practically kicks him out the door. “We won’t be late, now if you’ll excuse us.” Lucifer gives me a little bow, and then they’re gone. Such an energetic boy.

Well, he’s not the only one.

“What’s going on?”

The girls are blocking the entrance to the kitchen, and I stand on my tiptoes, trying to peek inside to see what’s happening, but I’m the shortest on the team and all I can see is a big blond brush of Marsha’s curly hair. Ugh.

“I think Mika’s up for something,” Clara whispers.

“Something like what? And why are we whispering?”

“Because she hates it when someone interrupts her,” Tabitha offers.

“And what is she doing?”

“Cookies or something-pie. I think there’s a special occasion today.”

“Raisin cookies. Blueberry pies.”

The voice is thick with sleep, and hearing it makes us all snap to attention. We swivel around, and before our eyes, the captain of the team materializes in all his glory.

Ian! Oh how handsome he looks first thing in the morning, with his hair all messy and his bangs falling into his sleepy eyes. I don’t think he’s even paying attention to any of us because he almost floats into the kitchen. Or probably because we’re practically drooling over him.

“Aren’t you making too much?” he mumbles, stuffing a cookie in his mouth.

Mika swats his hand and glares at him. “Why the cookies first thing in the morning?”

“It’s almost noon.”

“Some things do never change.” She sighs.

“What?”

“This is not yours.”

Ian looks between me and Mika.

What? Why are you looking at me? Do you want me to support you? I shrug; I don’t know what is going on either.

He looks deflated as he looks back at his sister, but takes another cookie and stuffs his mouth anyway.

“It’s Zel’s birthday,” Mika says.

Ian chokes and starts coughing.

Crap! I clench and unclench my fists then run inside and rub his back. I can’t stay away from him for a long time even if I’m shy of him. “You okay?” I whisper.

He tenses then glances at me, a slight blush rising on his face. How cute. “I’m fine, thank you.” Then he looks at Mika, “You’re right. How did I forget?”

They exchange a glance, and something passes between them. Something they can only understand.

“I know,” Mika says with a smile. Then she shoos her brother outside, demanding that he needs a shower, sends the girls to the living room to start a fire and arrange for a teeny tiny party. When everyone is busy with work, she exhales loudly.

“You can’t work under pressure, huh?” I put one of the pies in the oven. It smells like home in here.

“It’s a special occasion,” Mika says softly, “Zel is turning eighteen today. I still can’t believe he lived all these years. I want him to feel special.” Standing by the window near a vase of lilies, Mika brushes the white petals softly. In a lily-patterned black dress, sorbet leggings, and her famous heeled black boots, she is one of those lilies, standing proudly yet gently. “I want him to know how much we love him, how much we care about him. I want him to feel needed.” She curls the end of her braid and blushes. “It’s a selfish wish.”

It’s okay to be selfish sometimes.

“Mika!”

Lucifer barges into the kitchen, and brushes past me with a large sac. “Look what Zel got for his birthday!” Opening the sac, it floods with little hard candies of every color, and surely, of every flavor.

“Oh wow! That’s an odd thing to give on someone’s birthday!” Mika says with amusement.

“See, our siblings are little kids, and that’s their present.”

Our siblings? Lucifer and Zel . . . are brothers? But don’t they have different last names? Are they half-brothers? I can’t see the resemblance. Is there something more I dunno?

“Here, it’s a blueberry.” Unwrapping a blue candy, Lucifer pops it in Mika’s mouth, pressing his index finger to her lips. I blush at the gesture, but Mika just smiles and enjoys the flavor. “What do you think, awesome, right?”

“Hmm-mm!”

Lucifer smiles, a cute smile that only a boy in love would have, then he comes closer to her, definitely wanting to kiss her on the cheek.

And that’s where he stops.

“YOU CHEEKY BASTARD,” Zel rumbles behind us, “I leave you outta my sight for a second, and you start flirting with our managers right away!”

“Is it really the managers you care about or—?”

“Shut your trap!” Zel bangs Lucifer on the head.

“Okay, okay. I just want to give Manager Kiki some candies too.” Manager Kiki, it has a beautiful ring to it. Lucifer digs his hand into the sac and comes with a golden candy. “They say you like honey. Well, you’re as sweet as honey so it’s just expected.”

“LUCIFER!” Zel roars, and we giggle.

“Thanks Lucy, you have quite the sweet tongue,” I say with a smile, “but I’d like a lemon one.” A sour one. A calming one that would buffer all this dizzying sweetness in my life.

“Sure thing.” He gives me one and smiles again before Zel drags him out of the kitchen, Mika in tow.

I unwrap the candy slowly, relishing the moment as if it’s a treasure. The air is perfumed with the sweet scent of lilies and baked cookies. Sunlight filters through the window, casting shadows and lights on the orange tiles. The candy in my mouth is so sour; it’s pumping freshness through my veins. I close my eyes and enjoy the moment with all my senses.

“What did you get?”

My eyes flutter open, meeting his. The color of rain, suddenly so close I could count his lashes, and so fierce to the point that it takes my breath away. Without giving me a chance to move, speak, or even breathe, Ian wraps his arm around my waist and the distance between us becomes a null. My heart goes rocketing out of my chest, heat plummeting in my veins.

“Ahh . . . a lemon candy, huh?” The smile on his face is so soft. Satisfied. Triumphant. Annoying. And when he leaves, I gasp, taking all the oxygen in the room.

“Kiki? You okay? Your face is so red.”

Who is that? I dunno.

“He . . . he stole my candy . . .”

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