Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty Three

IAN

“Stop practicing in a trickle! If you want to win, use your heads you bunch of lowly muscle-heads!”

“Typical Mika.”

“Ugh . . . get off our backs!”

“I need a breaaakk!”

“Whoa . . . she’s so strict . . .”

Zel wipes his face with the hem of his long-sleeved shirt and collapses with a huff. Damp hair falling into his eyes, shirt sticking to his back, I wonder how he’s holding up so far. Among the other guys on the team, he seems to have better stamina, and I could tell he’s so careful and sharp about his movements, making the least physical contact with the rest of the team. If he needs anything he asks Mika or Lucifer and in the rarest of the cases, me.

That night when he asked to have the bath for his own, I felt a stab of guilt; if I had been closer to him, if he’d been a bit open to me, I would’ve kept him company and assured him that everything is fine. But I knew better; Zel isn’t confident enough to expose his scars in front of anyone, even if this anyone is the one who’d been closely watching him for almost eight years. I was happy too, because he reached out and asked me for help. That night, Mika stayed behind and requested a long-sleeved uniform for him, otherwise he won’t be comfortable.

Now Zel glances in my sister’s direction. “You could’ve at least said Good job! Keep it up, but you sure know how to bend a straight arrow!”

Mika sticks her tongue out at him. “Don’t worry. I’m saving them for the right time.”

“Okay. Okay, that’s it!” I sit up and shake my bangs out of my eyes; I’m so sick of their everyday arguments, I’ve been keeping up with it for the past couple days. “That’s it for today, everyone!” I yell, and almost instantly, everyone collapses on the field. Well, that’s expected with Mika’s strict training program.

“And you two”—I point at both Zel and Mika on my way to the benches—“I’d rather you both shut up for the rest of the day.”

They exchange a smile that I pretend not to see as I head over to take my duffle bag. My head is light and I’m kind of queasy; let’s hope it’s not one of my usual illnesses.

“Ian.”

“Uh-huh?” Ah! That voice!

My eyes flick upward, and the chocolate bangs brushing the long lashes of a pair of emerald and summer-gold orbs take me by surprise. Heat creeps up my neck and I look away. “Y-Yeah?” I wait a few beats but she doesn’t reply. Why did I look away? I shouldn’t have to! Things were fine yesterday. I even kissed her back. Ugh . . . maybe I should’ve not.

Glancing up again, my heart leaps. Kiki’s face is glowing a very bad shade of red; like that of sunburn; she’s biting her lip, and her eyes are lit with fury.

Taking a short breath, she slams a bottle of lemon soda on the bench and storms off. Kiki is being so considerate of me and doing her duties as a manager despite me acting like a jerk. I can’t face her. I’m kind of embarrassed.

“Ugh . . .” I cover my face in my hands and exhale loudly. What the hell am I doing?

“Hey, you’re being melodramatic,” Mika mutters from behind. She hands me the bottle and smiles. “Do me a favor, and ask her out already.”

“Wha—?” My voice catches in my throat. My sister is mirroring my thoughts; that’s what I’m trying to find time to do.

“It was night and the Dark Fairy was heading east. She always traveled at night; it was too beautiful to sleep it away.” How am I going to ask her out? Should I build up for such a situation, or wait for the right time naturally? “Black hills and forests drifted by the train window under a star-studded sky, but from time to time the glass suddenly showed her a face. Now she saw him everywhere whether she was awake or asleep. The boy made from sacred stone.” It might piss her off if I wait more time. I shouldn’t have kissed her. I shouldn’t have. “Soon he would make all the stories come true, told long before he had been born. She saw it all so clearly. All Fairies knew about the fruit—that the future grew from the seeds of the past, even when time was still hiding it in its folds. Maybe it couldn’t keep its secrets from them because past, present, and future don’t mean anything to immortals.”

Ugh . . . I’m so pathetic.

I can’t even find the right words to express my thoughts. My actions speak for me, but that’s not always good. Some people need reassuring. Some people need to listen to certain words to wear their anxiety away, and Kiki is one of those.

A blow lands on my head all of a sudden, interrupting my peaceful slumber.

Gritting my teeth, my eyes open into slits. My head pounds as I sit up. “What?” I mumble in a gruffy voice.

I look up to find Mika in a buttercup yellow apron, wearing a navy-blue bandanna patterned with yellow and pink flowers, her red hair running in waves about her face. She’s carrying my copy of Petrified Flesh in one hand, and a towel in the other. Don’t ask how I can tell the colors in my dark room; light is coming from the hallway.

“Bro, you read too much, and then you pass out. I think you could use some socializing.” She points at the door, and I stare at her blankly, trying to tune out the muddle of voices downstairs. I’m not used to a having a large number of people in the same place. In our house, it’s only the four of us.

“What? Am I talking gibberish?” Mika mutters.

I don’t respond. My head is throbbing, pain rushing to the back of my neck. It’s as if something bad is going to happen, and I did a lot of thinking in the past hour—or hours—and now I can’t even open my eyes.

“I don’t want to.”

She stomps her foot. “Oh come on! You’re the captain, you should be down with everyone.”

“That’s totally unreasonable.” What does me being the captain have to do with sitting and listening to them talking rubbish?

“Plus, we want to choose who’ll go and buy us snacks from the grocery store up the hills.”

I sigh. “Do I look like I want to move?” My head throbs again, and this time I open my eyes to find Mika’s boring into mine. She had moved closer, and the abrupt closeness sends a shiver down my spine.

Her brows knit together. “You okay?” she asks in genuine worry. Few more octaves down and my sister’s voice will break.

I rake a hand through my hair. “Yeah, just a headache.” I should’ve kept it to myself.

Immediately, she sits on my bed, grips my arms and presses her forehead to mine.

“Mika!”

She closes her eyes and takes a deep staggered breath.

“I’m fine, I swear it’s just a headache. Nothing serio-”

“Shush.” She grips tighter. “I’m just checking your temperature.”

I know, because you’re scared I might run a fever again.

For so long, I’ve always been the weak one. I couldn’t play around or run like any normal kid, not only because of my frequent illness, but because I was attached to my sister more than I thought I was. The thought of losing her to someone else creeps up again, and my nerves twitch. Whenever Mika overthinks or gets excessively tired, I run a fever. It’s a twin thing, and it always feels like it’s ripping a part of her soul away.

I open my eyes. Mika’s are still closed, and her hands are resting on my cheeks.

“You’re overthinking,” she whispers, and my heart jumps like that of a terrified rabbit, “talk to me.”

“What if it’s you who’s overthinking?” I whisper.

“Nah. I’m fine. Zel is fine,” she says, reading my thoughts.

“I just . . . have a bad feeling, so I spent my energy reading between the lines. Asking what ifs.”

Mika opens her eyes and releases me.

“Could you be safe for me?” I ask.

Her lips curl into a smile and she nods. “Only you have to come. And you have to patch things up with Kiki.”

I blush and look away, then let my sister pull me up and drag me down with her to the living room where everyone is sitting on pillows around the fireplace and chatting unceasingly. They look so cozy it makes me gag. When they spot me, they give a ridiculously long round of applause and ask me to sit with them. Kiki smiles at me from the opposite end of the circle.

“What book did you have your nose in?” Zel asks. He’s occupying the couch and the only person who is allowed to sit next to him is none other than my sister. I wince.

“Okay.” Tabitha claps her hands together. “Now that Captain is here, and before you guys launch into snipping at one another, let’s decide who’s going grocery shopping.”

“Through a lottery?” Clara suggests.

“I don’t see where to find papers and pens now,” Rachel mutters as she polishes her nails. She looks like a jumble of nerves that could explode any moment. I made her a jumble of nerves.

“You’re just way too lazy, RayRay,” Marsha comments.

Lucy puts a log in the fireplace, and sits on the carpet by Zel’s side. “How about Rock-Scissors-Paper? It’s easier. No one has to go anywhere. And no one has to write. And no one has to draw. And no one—”

Zel ruffles Lucy’s hair. “Gotcha.”

“You don’t know when to stop running your big mouth,” Mika says with a laugh.

“Anything to make milady smile,” Lucy says.

“Shut up!” Zel and I mutter in unison. Mika blushes, and everyone giggles.

“Okay then, shall we all join our fists in?” Gilda asks, and we nod and put our fists out. “Ready?”

We shake our fists and then, “Rock-Scissors-Paper!”

“Oh wow.”

You must be kidding me, right?

“How often can this happen?”

We stare at each other, as if no one’s here but us.

“I mean we all got rocks and papers and . . . they’re the only ones who . . .”

“And we repeated it for three times . . .”

“Is this fate?”

“Stop being silly!”

It is fate. It’s telling me to finish one thing after another to make things easier on us.

“Anyway.” Clara shakes her head and looks between Kiki and I. “You guys are going?”

We look at each other again, aware that everyone is staring at us. We did the same thing three times, and in the three times we’re the only ones who got scissors. Of course we weren’t timing it. It wasn’t on purpose.

Now Kiki’s blushing, and I could tell her natural redness from the glow of the fire on her face. Her eyes are glowing a shade of purple and she’s anticipating something; she’s waiting for me to make a move. My mouth is sour.

“Ahh!” Mika springs off the couch all of a sudden, grabbing both Kiki’s arm and mine and pulling us off the ground.

“What are you doing?” I hiss.

“Mika, calm down,” Kiki whispers.

In one swift motion, she kicks us out of the lodge house and into the freezing cold of November. Then few seconds later, she opens the door again and throws us our jackets and shoes. “Get some fresh air, and don’t come here until you’re back like normal!” Mika shuts the door on us, and we are left in the care of the howling wind.

Shit.

Kiki and I walk side by side out the gate of the house, the scenery around us shifting from a sky pinned with stars and a few clouds, to a sky towards which the forest trees are reaching. There’re few inches between us, but the silence is so deep, and the only thing I can hear is her steady breathing and the thumping of my heart. All the more, our hands keep brushing as we walk, making me want to reach out and take hers in mine.

Crap. My heart is beating in my ears. Am I going to die?

“I’m sorry you got dragged out here with me,” Kiki whispers, “you could’ve asked someone else to go in your place.”

My heart skips a beat, and the tension shifts between us. “So that’s how I looked like?” I mumble to myself. “I can’t let anyone else come in my place. I don’t want anyone else to come with you in my place,” I add desperately.

Ignoring the crazy rhythm of my heart and the heat in my chest, I reach out and take both her hands in mine, halting us to a stop. Her hands are so cold and I hold them close, blowing warm air and rubbing them with my hands. “So cold . . .”

Kiki blushes and looks away, but she doesn’t let go nor does she say anything. I take it as a sign to start talking.

“Will you listen to me?” I ask. She nods.

“Sorry for avoiding you in the past couple days. I know I was being a jerk, b-but you know this is not me.”

She remains silent, and she’s still not looking this way.

Ugh . . . she knows how to make it harder on me. I swallow the lump in my throat, ignore the heat creeping up my neck, and inhale a deep breath. The girl said she liked me, and I need to give her a proper answer. Kissing her back wasn’t enough; it felt more like I was teasing her than conveying my feelings. “I swear it wasn’t on purpose.”

Kiki glances at me then ducks her head.

Sigh. “I thought a lot on how to respond to your confession.” Inhale. Exhale.

“This isn’t the first time you get confessed to, why did it take you all this time?” she asks, her voice edgy.

Is she referring to Rachel? No. I did get a whole lot of confessions before I got to know Kiki, and I remember always answering with not interested in dating anyone. That’s how I became the famous, single, and hot soccer team captain, and my fan base grew out on me.

“It’s because y-you’re . . . special.”

Ugh . . . I can’t believe I’m saying this. My heart feels like stopping dead any second! “I’ve been thinking . . . I don’t want to be your kind friend only.”

Her eyebrows shoot up; a gesture I see for the first time, and I hold my breath.

Just say it already.

“I want more too. I don’t want to be the person you approach only when you’re in trouble. Ah, o-of course I want to listen to your worries.” My face is on fire, but I can still keep going. “But I also want to make good memories with you. I want you to be the person I lean on. In other words, I want you to be my person.” I let go of the breath I’m holding, ignore the fire in the pit of my stomach, and look at her properly.

Emerald eyes glistening, flushed face, Kiki had let go and is wiping at the tears dripping on her cheeks and down her chin. I haven’t even said what I want to say, and she’s already a crying mess. A laugh escapes as I pull her to my chest, rocking her gently and smoothing her hair.

“Can you not creep into my heart too much?” she whispers.

I pull away and smile. “I can’t.” Then, releasing her, I properly say the words I’ve been meaning to say for so long.

“Kiki, please go out with me. Please be my girlfriend.” Dammit, I can’t even say I like her. But Kiki blushes and smiles, and it’s all I need. It feels warm and kind of sweet. Like fusing a bit of honey in a lemon drink.

“I think we should make a run for the market.” I take her hand and start walking.

“What are we gonna get again?”

“Ahh! Now that you mention it, they didn’t tell us what they want!”

But I like her so much.

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