Just As You Are

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Chapter One

ZEL

“Lilium! Look, it’s just like ya!”

The petals were white on the inside, light blue on the outside. Blue stemmed stamens with brown heads rose from the center. The lily was so elegant. So rare. So radiant.

Lilium smiled, and my heart felt a little bit lighter, calmer despite the constant chaos.

“It’s a lily. A flower like ya.”

I’m often told that what happened to me was a miracle, that it was a marvel the moment I escaped the cruelest creature one could encounter. The creature that lingers on the living, snatches where it can without pretending to care or distinguish, and sucks lives bit by bit until there’s nothing remaining.

The odious faceless shadow had one name.

Yes, I’m talking about death.

I. Escaped. Death.

It wasn’t some kind of heroic act I did to save myself. Let’s say I was a lucky guy. Lucky to have someone at a certain period of my life, who popped out of the blue, pulled me from a dark pit, took my hand, and showed me the light.

You might think that after being rescued, I’m spending my life doing good deeds and important things to benefit the universe, but you’re wrong. I’m not doing anything that deserves praise. All I’m doing is trying to live a normal high-school student life by ignoring everyone who comes in contact with me, trying not to die every single day, and focusing on preparing for midterms.

No, stop. Let’s have a clean start. No lying.

I’m not studying.

I’m watching my life move in front of my eyes.

I’m watching her.

She’s sparkling. Radiant. And I still can’t bring myself to approach her or talk to her. I was lucky to have her, and I’m still lucky to see her every day, even from this distance. She’s the girl who showed me the world, and taught me everything I didn’t know. She’s the one who changed me.

The girl who gave me life is right there in front of my eyes, and I’m scared if I come any closer, I’ll hurt her.

The air is perfumed by the heavy scent of lilies. Their white petals are striking against the backdrop of stone walls—simply beautiful. I’m sitting by the window in the school library, my books resting uselessly on the table as I watch her watering lilies. Next month, she will be trimming them and drying the bulbs for next spring. She waters nothing but lilies, and never allows anyone to do that in her stead.

Now she clicks her black heels—which she’s not supposed to wear to school—and starts humming a familiar song with her a pure, beautiful voice. As she leans forward to sniff the flowers, her hair moves with her, hiding her face until she straightens and flicks it over her white shirt. The silver-lily pendant around her neck shines foggily as she moves gracefully from flower to flower, along with her dark red hair and wondrous grey-blue eyes. The dark pink ribbon that decorates her head emits a smooth luster and her pink sweater finely matches her calm and dignified air, bringing out the milky white shade of her freckled skin. As she bends to sniff a flower, her hair catches the late sunlight and shines with a million hues like a setting sun. Radiant.

My heart speeds up.

“Yo, Zel!”

I suck a sharp breath and jerk around abruptly, bumping a few books with my elbow. They slide and fall off the table, earning me the evil eye from our librarian. Taking in the face before my eyes, I exhale in relief.

“Lucifer!” I hiss. “You damned brat, you scared the hell out of me.”

He covers his mouth to hide his smile and sits on the chair next to me. “I called your name several times, but you didn’t respond.”

“They would have kicked us out.” I bend under the table to get my books.

“You weren’t doing anything in particular.” I know this sneering tone; it’s always the start of a talk. He wants to get me talking. Not. Gonna. Happen.

I’m lifting my head when he says, “Except, you were staring,” and I end up bumping my head under the table so hard that the rest of my books clatter to the floor. Lucifer snorts as I get up and sit back on my chair. Screw that kid; he has the eyes of an eagle and the slyness of a fox. He won’t stop trapping me. It’s so annoying!

I frown and open my calculus book. “I’m studying, and you’re interrupting me.” I can see his smug smile from the corner of my eye as I scan the pages for AP questions.

“Yeah, I’m sorry to interrupt your stalking-your-girlfriend session.”

I’m not stalking her, and she’s not my girlfriend. I don’t even have feelings for her. I wanna say this, but I know better than to say anything that will open his fire hydrant of a mouth.

If I talk, Lucifer will be like, Then, why are you staring at her? If you don’t have feelings for her, then stop watching her during your break and P.E sessions and when you’re leaving to the lab and when you come to school first thing in the morning. Stop hiding whenever she turns around. Simply, stop stalking her!

Then I’ll say that I don’t have feelings for her the way he thinks I do, and that I’m watching her because I think I’m obliged to protect her. I can’t approach her. I’m the type of guy who has the capacity to damage anyone who comes in contact with me. If I open my mouth, I’ll never hear the end of it.

Not. Gonna. Happen.

“Come on, say something,” he mutters when I stay silent. “You’re pissing me off.”

I study him with a look, rummaging my brain for something that doesn’t have anything to do with me. “Aren’t you supposed to be studying for your exams?” I ask, and flip another page. “Ahh, finally something to solve.” What a relief!

He sighs rather loudly. “I can’t study at school, it makes me uncomfortable. Plus, we aren’t as busy as you guys are, and I have soccer practice.”

I glance up from my book and look at him. “I always forget you’re a freshman.”

Lucifer is two years younger than me, but his charming looks and unexpectedly smart mouth can make him a ruler in the country. Despite the fact that he’s my brother, and we’ve been living together for eight years now, and I root for him no matter what, I detest his ways of unstoppably butting into my business. I mean, who’s the older one here? Why is he annoyed with me anyway? Does he have a crush on her?

“So, you really not gonna ask her out?” he asks, resting his head on the table to catch my eyes. His blond hair gets matted to the side of his head. He has a crush on her.

“You’ll be late to practice.”

“At least talk to her,” he mumbles with a yawn, “you’ve been watching her since last spring.”

I know.

“Did she notice you yet?”

“Dunno. I’m not sure.” How can I know when all she’s doing is running from class to class like a rooster? I wonder if she had already blown my cover. Maybe she doesn’t know I’m back in the first place.

“Do you think watching her is enough? What if she knows you’re here and thinks you’re ignoring her, or you don’t care about her?”

I sigh. “I’m being extra careful around her. It’s for the best if we don’t cross paths.”

“Yeah, right.”

“What?”

“Nothing,” he mumbles, “I’m thinking if you even know anything about her. Mika is like a mind reader. She has this terrifying intuition, and she almost always gets things right.”

“I . . . dunno about that.” I put my pen down, trying to regain the composure that almost shattered after hearing her first name. “How do you know her anyway?”

A slight blush blossoms on his cheeks as he averts his eyes. “Sh-She’s our team manager.”

“Oh.” He really does like her, no wonder he’s obsessed with her.

“Anyway, are you going to answer my questions—without asking extra questions?” he asks annoyingly.

I bite back a laugh. “I’m telling ya, rest assured, I’m not gonna ask her out.”

Lucifer clicks his tongue at me. “And I thought I’d get myself a dignified rival.”

“I don’t like her.” I close my book with an edge.

“Yeah, right.”

“For the love of God!” I’m not studying anything if this brat is gonna sit here and pester me. What’s his problem? Where is he going with this? “I swear, I don’t like her. I don’t have feelings for her. I just want her as far away from me as possible. Happy now?”

“So, you don’t like her.”

“I. Don’t.” I say between gritted teeth. “You know what, take her. If you want, I’ll even gift-wrap her for ya and hand her over.”

He scoffs, gets up and carries his duffle bag. “I’ll try asking her out then.”

“You do like her.” I tease.

He points his finger in my face. “I know that you like her too. You’re just not aware of it. If you don’t do something about it then I’m not gonna back away. Is this all what you’ve got? Is this how much you care?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, standing up.

But Lucifer doesn’t reply. Just like that, he shuts the library door as he leaves, and it rattles, making everyone glance up and glare at me.

What’s his problem? Why did he flip out? What does he know about me that’s making him so pushy? Of course I care about her. It’s because I care that I can’t see myself by her side.

Dammit. This is a major headache. I rake a hand through my hair and sink into my seat.

Resting my head to the table and glancing at the window, something pink catches my eye. I practically pounce off the chair, my heart beating in my throat.

The flower is like a bride from the heavens, resting neatly at the window seal. Its white petals radiate magnificently and its sweet smell fills my lungs without the effort of breathing. Around its middle there’s a pink ribbon tied, letters scribbled across it. My eyes keep darting between it and all the faces in the library, just in case it’s for one of them. Then it hits me, and I reach for it carefully, gently removing the ribbon.

My heart thumps in my ears as I read.

Oh dear sweet Lily, how sad that life is dragging us apart, and that by choice you are living a life on your own.

I peer outside the window, catching a wisp of red, and dread fills my veins. She knows I’m back.

She knows, and she reached out.

That’s the last thing I want you to do, Mika Lilium Roselie.

–Lily, by Gert Strydom

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