Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty Seven

IAN

That pinprick-like sensation that spread in my chest, the moment I felt it, I knew very well that I should not ignore it.

We were focused on our practice in the training building when Mika and Kiki left, and the moment I noticed it, I already knew it was too late. I kept convincing myself that they were gone to prepare a snack for us, but the tightness in my chest and the hot waves that ran through my body overwhelmed me. Soon enough, my vision blurred and I couldn’t breathe any more, then I was positive that my sister was not well.

Could you be safe for me? She needed me.

Under Akuni’s supervision—because she insisted on watching me in case I happened to collapse—we split into groups and started looking around the house. The situation in the kitchen was much worse.

“It’s like a crime scene in here,” Zel commented upon the terrible mess we discovered.

It was really dreadful. On the floor was a knife, two thin red ribbons, and locks of hair that haphazardly littered the orange tiles.

My heart pounded heavily as I was hit by reality. I recognized the dark tresses before my eyes. These were the locks through which I itched to pass my fingers. Kiki’s burnt umber hair was scattered on the kitchen floor, and my heart was hammering between my ribs. Where was she? What happened to her?

“These are . . . Kiki’s. She was wearing them in her hair today!” My voice sounded so far as I took the ribbons, as if I was under water, and every breath I took spread like bristles in my chest. I was getting worse, but I had to hold my composure and carry on the pain, otherwise Akuni would forcefully lock me in my room until I would get better.

But as much as I knew that my condition was worsening, I knew I could bear with it a bit more. I knew myself more than anyone else after all, and if there was a person who knew me better than I do, then that person was hunched over herself behind the door of a locked storage room.

When Lucifer yelled that he found her, Mika was already beyond consciousness. She was eight years old again; her eyes had frozen over like the surface of a winter puddle, robbing them of their usual warmth. She was in there, but it was like she just took a huge step back from life. I wanted to reach in and tell that everything was fine even when it wasn’t. I always knew she had pain inside, but it was visible on her face and I instantly wished it would go away.

I know that’s selfish, but that’s my sister and I wasn’t ready to see her breaking down again.

I was never ready.

I rested my forehead to hers, kept reassuring her that things were fine and that no one was hurt, all the while trying not to let any word slip from her mouth to their ears, especially to Zel. I knew what was running in Mika’s mind, what nightmare was replaying before her eyes, and I knew that with my weak body and my sister’s condition, I won’t be able to stand another breakdown. It would’ve been utterly unpleasant if something happened to Zel too.

In the end, Mika passed out and I had to hand her over to Zel to carry her to the infirmary because I had injured my shoulder and couldn’t carry her myself, but I was relieved that she was okay and in the right hands at least.

Plus, I had my person to find.

Now, I’m looking for Kiki, and every bit of me is burning at the image of her gorgeous hair being cut down. I wonder what happened to her.

Jogging around the lodge house, I find her sitting down in the backyard, arms draped around her knees, staring at the sky. She looks terrible. Kiki’s hair had lost at least half its length and now falls unevenly about her shoulders, and that golden glint in her eyes is not there anymore.

I sit down next to her. She doesn’t stir or look at me; it’s like I’m not even here. She keeps staring at the sky, her breathing shallow and ragged. I look up. The sky is a reflection of her soul; gloomy, grey and unsettled, yet breached with a bit of blue here and there.

A bit of hope.

Kiki leans toward me, her head bumping my shoulder, and I instantly wrap my arms around her small figure and hug her to my chest. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, she is a tiny girl; a trinket brunette, very pretty, very pale, and hard as nails.

We stay like that for a while, huddled together and breathing the same air. I pass my fingers through her hair and kiss the top of her head as she trembles in my arms like a little bird.

No words. No tears.

Nothing but a pressing silence and shaking breaths that rattle through my being.

“I’ve never told you anything about me.”

It’s a voice that doesn’t belong to Kiki. It doesn’t sound like a voice. It’s flat, monotonous, and emotionless, and hearing her talk like this makes my heart ache more. I miss her soft shy whisper. It feels like she’s kind of fading away; I want to ask her what happened, how she ended up like this, but I also want to listen to her.

“When I was a in middle school, students called me Stone,” Kiki starts.

My heart clenches, but I keep my arms around her, keep holding her trembling hands in mine.

“I was born in a loving family. Mama’s condition got urgent while she was in labor, and we were both on the verge of death before some miracle happened that saved us both. The moment I was able to move in my surroundings, my parents would always freak out about the tiniest things. I knew this was their act of love, but it led to drastic changes.” Kiki pauses to retain her breath. “Mama and Papa loved me so much. They would take me to the park to play like all the other kids, but not with them. Mama would wait for me at the end of the slide, and Papa would push me from behind on the swing. I was just a little kid, satisfied with everything my parents gave me, living in my little happy and safe bubble.” She folds on herself and leans into me, and I embrace her. “I never thought about getting to know other people because I didn’t think I need to, and that caused the majority of problems at school.”

Kiki tells me that she wasn’t used to communicating with people because she thought she would never need it, and hence people would turn their backs on her.

“I became an easy target to tease for students at school, probably because it looked like I was ignoring them, while I was actually pondering on how to deal with them.” Kiki tugs at my arms and pulls me closer, as if I’m her protective shield.

Ignoring my erratically beating heart, and the heat sweltering in my chest, I try to focus on what’s more important. Her.

“So, students were annoyed with me, especially girls. It always seemed as if they were waiting for me in hoards.” She clenches at my arms. “They would trip me in the hall, steal my lunch, lock me in the toilet during breaks. Sometimes they would tear my books and notebooks, or even litter my desk with garbage. They get creative sometimes.” A humorless laugh escapes her throat and my head throbs, pain hitting me in shock waves.

“Kiki—”

Without looking back, she presses her index finger to my lips; a gesture that she wants me to keep quiet. She has to let this out.

“There was this one time when they scalded my arms with matches just to see me react.” I bristle, but Kiki doesn’t even budge to the point that it makes me wonder if she’s breathing at all. How could she have lived through all this on her own? And I was the one who told her to react someway. I was the one who told her to face people head-on without even knowing her circumstances.

“And there was this one time when a group of girls trapped me in the girls’ bathroom, each with a pair of scissors.” She passes her fingers through her hair, and some locks fall out. “They cut it, just like today.” Then she turns around and looks at me properly, the color in her eyes is that of a frozen lake. “You must be thinking that I’m pathetic, that no one with self-respect would let someone do all that and still do nothing,” Kiki whispers with a tiny smile.

I shake my head.

“But today, I didn’t let her finish me.” Her eyes flicker a brilliant emerald, and my heart flutters. “I stood up for myself today, okay?” She plummets at my chest with both fists. “I’m not pathetic! Do you understand? I respect myself! I have an existence, okay?” she yells, her voice never been this clear.

Gripping one of her wrists to make her stop, Kiki drops down heavily and takes few shaky breaths while I watch tears rolling down her cheeks. I smile despite the situation and brush them away, then cup her face so she’d look at me.

“You’re not pathetic. You respect yourself. You love yourself. You have a tremendous existence and you made it here on your own,” I say in a serious tone, “I’ve seen that in you, and I see that every day.”

“It’s been hard . . .”

“It’s been really hard, Kiki, but you’ve been so brave,” I murmur.

“What if no one really wants me here?” Tears stain her face and she flushes. “She said that no one wants me! What if she’s right? Maybe I should just disappear into the shadows again! Maybe being alone is much better for me!”

I shake my head and brush her cheeks again. “I want you, isn’t that enough?”

Kiki nods.

“Don’t you want me? Do you want me to be alone without you?” I ask. I know it’s embarrassing, but I’m too lightheaded to feel anything anyway, and I want her to reassure herself with her own voice. To make what she wants clear.

She tugs at my sleeves and looks at me; there is something breathtaking about her eyes that I can’t seem to unlock. Or maybe it’s the fever.

“I want you,” she whispers, “I wanna be with you.”

I give her a small tired smile. “Promise me, you will not shrink yourself in order to make others feel comfortable.”

Kiki nods again.

With her cheeks reddened the color of peach, her shining teardrops are endlessly clear and vibrant. I couldn’t have prepared myself for this moment. Her eyes gaze upon me like there are no surroundings or time or sound to distract her. Like I am all that exists.

All I could remember is the sound of my heart thumping in my ears, and the soft feel of her pink dusky lips . . .

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