Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty Five

ZEL

The moment I opened my eyes to life, I was bound to this place; a big house in the middle of the forest with walls adorned in ivy. The house had many rooms, but I was never out of mine. I lived in here with my birth mother who worked as a barmaid, brought me stories when she was in a good mood, and drank and took her anger out on me when she had all these horrible mood swings.

Mama wasn’t kind like any other typical mother. She used to tend to me like I’m some kind of tool she needed to keep to continue living. She would always tell me that I was the reason she wasn’t happy, that I was the reason no man wanted her at all.

She would tell me pitch-black things in a pitch-black room. Deny the things I imagined in the dark room. Deny the things I desire.

“You’re useless . . . You’re hopeless.” She would entertain herself by using me as her toy whenever she wanted. Time would extend to hours to days to months to years, and each day, she would come up with something new to satisfy her desire.

I didn’t think of why she would do this, and each time I asked her she would say, “Because I love you.”

Whenever I approached the window or the door, she would yank me back and mutter in my ears, “You’re going to live along this pitch-black path without potential or hope, so don’t think that you’ll ever be saved. Don’t delude yourself.”

And I took each of her words to heart.

Yet, I wanted to believe I wasn’t deluding myself. I wanted to believe it’s not all pitch black. That even if the rain pelted down on me, the sun would shine again. Even if the pain overwhelmed me, kindness continued to shower me. From that day . . .

The first time I met Lilium, she was five years old, a redheaded child stuck on the oak tree opposite my window. She was screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, while I was curled in my room, excessively alert to every movement.

I crept to the window and looked outside at the tree. Lilium was looking down with fear, screaming and yelling every now and then. I couldn’t bear it; her voice was so loud and I wasn’t used to noise. I wasn’t used to anyone’s voice but Mama’s. That’s when I decided to go out and get rid of her. So, I walked outside my house, aware that Mama won’t be back until it was dark, and stood under the tree.

“Help me. Don’t leave me here.” Lilium sobbed silently when she spotted me.

I remember thinking, who’s this girl? What is she doing here? How did she find this place? I remember extending my hand up to her, even though she was so far up on the tree, and waiting for her until she climbed down. I remember thinking, you’re doing it. Keep going. You’re almost there.

And when her little bare feet hit the ground, I brushed her tears with the backs of my hands, got momentarily mesmerized by her gleaming silver eyes, and disappeared back into the dark.

It wasn’t all dark.

“Zel! Are you going to kick the ball or just keep staring at it?”

“Huh?” I glance behind to find the entire team looking at me with soft smiles, except for Ian who has this grim expression as he waits for me to kick from the penalty area.

We’re practicing penalty kicks while the rest of the team polishes dribbling and passing skills, but Ian seems kinda restless. He keeps pushing his hair backward and sighing—it must be hard playing with his hair down, and both our managers aren’t here to give him a hair elastic. They’ve been gone for a good while now, and I’m kinda worried.

I kick the ball and it goes straight to the net because one: I’m pretty good at penalty kicks, and two: Ian doesn’t even bother to move and block it.

“Now you’re the one spacing out,” I mutter.

“Shut up and kick another. And you.” He looks over my shoulder across the field. “Don’t stare at us like that and keep practicing!”

“Yes Captain!” Everyone echoes.

I kick another one, and this time Ian manages to block it pretty elegantly, so we keep going back and forth, scoring and blocking.

“I wonder what’s taking them so long,” I mumble, intercepting a ball. “It’s not like making a snack takes this long, right?” I kick the ball, and Ian thrusts himself at it, bumping his shoulder to the goalpost.

“Shit.” He winces.

“Hey, you okay?” I ask. That was a rough take.

“Yeah. No big deal.” But his face sells him off. I hope he didn’t hurt himself.

“Be careful, you’re our only goalie.”

Ian doesn’t reply. His face clouds with concern, and I’m positive his mind is running wild with thoughts. “I have a bad feeling about this,” he mumbles.

I don’t ask him what he’s thinking about, but we could ask Akuni to help us if he’s that worried.

“How can I help you?” she asks when I request for her to come.

“Could you please check up on Kiki and Lilium? They’ve been gone for a long time and Ian is kinda worried.” He’s not the only one; that fiery sensation in the pit of my stomach is snaking its way up to my chest. I have a bad feeling too.

Akuni frowns at Ian. “Young Master, why didn’t you say anything?” He doesn’t reply. “Young Master, are you okay?” Her voice tips from concern to panic.

“Ian! Is it another attack?”

Ian clutches his chest and sits down, coughing and wheezing, and I’m right by his side in an instant, gently rubbing his back. It’s been a while since I witnessed this, but I think I know how to deal with it.

Turning to Akuni, I ask her to call Coach so that we can phone Sadie, but Ian grabs my sleeve, willing me to look at him. He shakes his head and coughs again, his face bright red. He doesn’t want Sadie to know. “You don’t want them to know, huh?” I mutter.

“What’s wrong? What happened?” Everyone has gathered around us.

“Is Ian okay?” Roy kneels down by his side. “What happened to him? Should we call an ambulance?”

I shake my head. “He doesn’t want anyone to know. He’s been struggling with bronchial problems ever since I’ve known him.”

Ian grips tighter on my sleeve. “It’s . . . Mika . . .” The words hardly tumble out of his mouth, making my chest tightens instantly. “I’m sure . . . she’s not—” Another coughing fit hits him, and we wait until it wears away. “I need to find her,” he mumbles with a bit of effort.

“What are you saying, Young Master? I’m sure Young Mistress is fine. I’m gonna find her for you so you wait here, and rest please.” Akuni stands up, but Ian pulls her down again.

“I know she’s not fine,” he says madly. A look passes between them. “I have to find her!”

Akuni presses her hand to her forehead. “I don’t know why I’m agreeing to this.” Then she stands and helps him up, “If we are doing this, you’re not gonna leave my sight.”

“Deal.”

Following Ian’s gut feeling that his twin sister Lilium; who happens to be the same girl I’m interested in; is in danger, and since Kiki had disappeared too, he asked the entire team to search the entire lodge house for both of them. So, we split up into groups and started looking.

“It’s like a crime scene in here.”

“What did you find?” Ian asks me from behind, while Akuni stands at the door, keeping tabs in case anyone finds them.

Ian looks over me, and his body tenses. “Oh no . . .”

“I know.”

It’s terrible. The kitchen is a horrid mess; there are half-sliced lemons on a vegetable cutting board on the counter; which is normal; but we find a knife and two red ribbons on the orange tiles that are littered with long locks of brown hair.

Ian crouches down and picks up the ribbons, his hands shaking visibly. “These are . . . Kiki’s. She was wearing them in her hair today!”

“Shit.” What could have happened to her? And where’s Mika? Aren’t they supposed to be together?

“There she is!” A voice call downstairs, and we both snap to attention. “Hey, someone come over here! Somebody, call Ian!”

“What’s up? What’s wrong?” Ian and I head down and step into the storage room at the same moment.

“Captain! It’s Mika, she’s right here!” Lucifer calls from behind the door.

“Mika!” Ian reaches out for his sister, taking her face in his hands. “Oi, Mika, what’s wrong? What happened? Answer me.” His tone is the softest I’ve ever heard, and I’m hanging between staying by the door and approaching them.

“Lucifer, tell everyone that we found Lilium, and to start looking for Kiki,” I tell him. He nods and rushes past me.

“Mika, can you hear me?” Ian whispers.

Lilium, curled up in the dark corner behind the door, looks up blankly at her brother. Her face is so pale, and her body is shaking with fear, it makes me want to hug her and hold her close. How did she end up in here? I thought she’s not good with closed spaces.

“Ian . . .” Her voice is a cracked whisper, and my heart tugs painfully as I watch the tears staining her face.

“Oh my God! Thank God Mikki’s fine,” Marsha whispers from behind.

“Shouldn’t we find Kiki now?” Tabitha asks. Apparently, the entire team is standing behind me.

“Kiki scowled at me and said she doesn’t want to come in,” Lucifer mumbles, “and Rachel is not even around too.”

I turn around and glare at them. “Could you pipe down? We have a delicate situation in here.”

Ian looks from us back to his sister, caresses her cheeks, rests his forehead to hers, and they close their eyes while we stand behind, watching their silent talk.

“It’s okay. It’s fine. No one’s hurt, okay?” he murmurs

“But she’s going to . . . she’s going to . . .”

“Shush . . .”

“I have . . . protect . . .”

“You’re fine. You’re fine. I’m here. No one’s hurt. You’re fine . . .” Ian chants as Lilium leans towards him.

At this moment, it kills me to realize that I was wrong about them. I always thought Ian and Lilium are different, two separate beings, like two faces of the same coin, but apparently, they’re not. They’re two halves of one whole. Soulmates that complete one another. And without one another, I see them breaking down. But both of them; regardless of the history and the bonds and the constant snipping; mean a lot to me.

Warmth spreads in my chest when Mika’s face retains a bit of its color, her head falling to her brother’s chest, completely passed out. Ian, as if completely used to such situations, doesn’t fret or panic. Instead, he holds his hand out to me, breaking the spell of their little twin shell.

“What?” I ask in confusion.

Ian rolls his eyes. “My shoulder,” he says, gesturing to his injured shoulder.

“What?”

Now his gesture becomes a glare. “I can’t carry her out!” he snaps. Everybody echoes a giggle, and my face flushes.

“So, you want me to carry her out?”

He clenches his teeth. “Why do you have to be so dense?”

“My bad,” I mumble, covering my mouth with the back of my hand. Taking Lilium from him, I place my hand under her neck—hot and bright red—rest her head to my chest, then wrap one arm around her waist and the other below her knees. “Here we go,” I whisper as I lift her up. Last time she was in my arms, I was thinking that I don’t wanna be anywhere near her, but now everything is different. My heart is so full of her that I don’t think it’s mine anymore. I can’t take my eyes away from her. Lilium shifts in my arms, and tugs on my shirt. She looks so much in pain that I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about it.

“You think she’s gonna be fine?” I ask Ian when everyone else lets us through.

Ian reaches out and brushes hair locks out of Mika’s face. “She’s Mika, she’s going to be fine. She’ll always be okay. She has to be. For herself. She falls and breaks, of course she does. But she will always pick herself back up and put herself back together. It’s what she does.”

Yes. He’s right. She thinks it’s her duty to take care of everyone. Crazy redhead.

“What do you think happened? How did she end up in the storage room? Her face was so pale as if she saw a ghost.”

Ian gives me a thoughtful look. “All I could tell you is that she’s not good with closed spaces.”

“I know.” I’ve been there. In the same closet with her. Don’t say it. Don’t say it or he’ll bury you alive!

“I’m sure Mika will tell you the rest eventually.”

I wanna ask him what she will tell me about, but Lilium shifts again, her head resting in the crook of my neck. Her breath lands warm on my skin and when her lips touch the scar on my neck, I flinch and halt.

“Apple scent . . .” She curls her fist tighter around my heart. “Zel . . .” Her voice cracks, and my heart skips a beat.

“Hey, why did you stop?” Ian, who seemingly noticed my absence a bit too late, glances back at us. When I don’t reply he adds, “Zel, you’re blushing.” A lopsided grin breaks across his face.

Heat creeps up my neck, and I’m sure my ears are redder than Lilium’s hair. “Your sister,” I mutter, “is a badass!”

Ian bursts out laughing. “Listen, take her to the infirmary and don’t leave her side.”

I nod.

“She’s not fine alone.”

“What about you?” I ask.

Ian stares at the red ribbon tied around his wrist. “I have to find Kiki.” Then he jogs out of the house.

“Is she okay?” Roy comes down from the second floor. “Everyone is panicking up there,” he says.

“Yeah, I think she’s okay.” I look back at her. “Mika, you’re okay. You’re gonna be fine,” I whisper her name as I thud upstairs where everyone is standing in the corridor outside the rooms, and it takes me a good while to shoo them away and reach the last door in the floor. Lilium tugs harder on my jersey and slightly opens her eyes. “She’s coming back to her senses!”

“Really?” Roy says from behind.

“Yeah, she just . . . tugged at my jersey.” My voice drops to a whisper and my face blushes. I can’t be this happy just because she did that.

“No, no, don’t sleep now! Talk to me, Mika. Here, open your eyes. Look at me!” Dammit! She’s heating up. I tuck her into one of the beds, and apply a cold compress to her forehead; the poor girl is running a fever. I’m scared; I’ve never seen her this sick, but—

“You must’ve been so scared inside that room alone,” I murmur as I take off her shoes, “you scared the hell outta me, how did you end up there?”

I slide a chair to the bedside and sit by her side, brushing tendrils out of her face. Lilium is bright red, and her lips are shivering as if she’s muttering something. It’s like she’s having a bad dream. I lean closer to listen.

“I have to get him . . . out of there . . .” she whispers, “If I don’t . . . she’ll . . . kill him . . .”

The words ripple through my body like shock waves, and my chest tightens. Lilium is definitely having a dream, and I have a strong feeling that I know what she’s talking about. Suddenly, I can’t hear anything but the loud thumping of my heart, and my head crowds with all those thoughts and images, as if a portal from the past had split open in my brain. Willing myself to regain focus, I push them away, and lean closer to her. I have to confirm this feeling.

“Zel . . .” Every letter of my name is full of her broken voice that my chest aches. “I have to save him . . . she’s going to . . . his eyes . . .”

“What the—?” A ragged breath rattles my insides, and I sink heavily to the floor, my face hidden in my hands, the scar across my eye hurting like a scorching and bristling heat. The images and voices in my head replay over and over again, but I fight the memories back, because I can’t give in to this after I came this far, especially now that I know it.

The girl knew more than she had too. The girl was there when the biggest nightmare of my life happened. This girl; Lilium; she saved me again. Not only did she show me the world and taught me everything I know, but she was the reason I had left that house. She was the reason the world noticed me and helped me, and she’d been struggling with the memory for a long time. I wasn’t the only one struggling.

Now that I know how tremendous this is, I realize I can’t keep running away forever. Even if my heart is still overshadowed with fear, there will come a day when I need to confront my weaknesses.

I can’t believe I’m thinking this, but the mess inside my head is overflowing. I gotta open that lid, and spill it all out.

For her. For me. For us both.

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