Just As You Are

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Chapter Thirty

MIKA

It’s a clear night of a full moon, and we’re huddled together under the stars, and a blanket—because it’s freaking freezing out here—finally putting what we carried in our hearts for so long under the spotlight.

Zel is lying beside me, his hands supporting his head, his breathing even, and his eyes definitely a mesmerizing mix of auburn and gold.

Thank you was the last thing he said; it was a small whisper, but it reached my heart. He didn’t say anything else. We both clammed up, and here we are lying deep in the awkward thick night silence, so thick to the point that my head is full with nothing but the pounding sound of my heart.

THIS IS SO AWKWARD!

“You know . . .”

At first, I think I’m hearing voices again, but then I glance over, and yes, it’s Zel who’s speaking. Finally! I roll on my side and wait a few breaths before he continues.

“The fact that I’m useless was drummed into my mind. But that day, at that moment, it was the only time I ever felt needed.” He glances over and smiles, and I’m sure that if it wasn’t for his thick bangs that are hiding his eyes, I would’ve seen them shining in the moonlight.

“That moment when you asked me to help you”—when I was on top of the oak tree—“when you said don’t leave me—

I blush and look away, covering my face in my hands as the memory of the day we met shines. That day, I was playing hide and seek with Ian, and since I was in monkey-girl phase, I decided to climb the tree and hide up there. I climbed without looking down, and when I did, my legs froze and I couldn’t move. Ian didn’t come for me, but then Zel appeared. He was a pale little kid with messy umber hair and honeyed eyes, and when I saw him, I knew he was my last resort. I was so lucky he came to my rescue.

“—that moment, that was the first time I was ever needed. And you probably dunno how happy that made me feel. You probably dunno that you’re the one who’s always saving me.” Zel waves my hands away, and looks down at me with sparkling orbs, making my stomach flip. “You always shared your kindness, warmth, and joy with me. You kept showering me with them so generously. From the very beginning.” He brushes at my cheeks, wiping away the tears I didn’t know had fallen. “That’s why I won’t lose. I’ll keep moving forward. I can definitely believe.”

There may be times when we want to run away . . . but we’re all fighting through it.

“Thank you for saving me that day too, I had no idea you were there.” He lies down again. “You’re genuinely a badass.”

I blush so hard and nudge him in the ribs. “I had no idea what to do.” My eyes brim with tears, and I gulp. “I . . . was scared. I p-panicked.”

Zel grabs my arm and pulls me down next to him, wrapping his arms around me and hugging me to his chest. “Shush. It’s okay now. It’s okay,” he whispers in my hair.

I lean into him. “It was horrible. I-I was scared you might die in there. You were watching your mom, but I was watching you both.” It replays in my mind vividly, how the image of the lively boy I spent my childhood with had shattered in what felt like a moment from another world.

“It was horrible. And you were scared. I’m sorry you had to see such vulgarity.” He rubs my shoulder. “But then you went out there and did something that saved my ass.”

I sniff and look up at him. “I didn’t do anything worthy. I called the police. The man thought you were a cat.” Zel’s eyes widen, and I burst out laughing again. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! It’s strange to be laughing about something so painful.”

“Whatever.” A pink tint rises on his cheeks. So cute. “You saved me. You were brave.”

I put a hand to his face, caressing his cheeks with my thumb. “You were brave too.”

“Huh?”

Dammit. I’m melting under this soft gaze of his.

“What are you talking about?

“You were so brave; you should’ve seen the look in your eyes.”

“Mika . . .” Zel breathes my name like it’s a little secret between us.

“I told you, I was watching. You were so brave.”

He looks away sheepishly. “Whatever. You were the one who saved me.”

“Yeah? And as a thanks, you gave me the cold shoulder.”

Zel sits up abruptly. “Well, I had to protect what was in my heart!” he yells.

What? I blink at him.

It takes Zel a few seconds to realize the importance of what he said, and when he does, his face colors and he looks away. “Sorry, that was kinda extreme.”

“What . . . was in your heart?” Sitting up, I slowly place my hand flat on his heart space. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. It’s beating a steady rhythm that I can feel on my skin.

Zel stares into my eyes. I stare into his. His hazels are a mosaic of browns and greens, framed by long lashes, their beauty hidden behind thick brown bangs. I can recognize them anywhere, even if they are far more serious now than I’d ever seen them before.

“What did you have in your heart?” I ask as my heart skips, playing an uneven beat. Show me what this heart of yours is!

“I had you,” he says without hesitation.

It’s a whisper, but it reached me. I heard it. And it shook me to the core. Tears flood my eyes again, and his face blurs.

“You were always in there, from the very beginning.” Gulping, I look up and let the tears fall, and soon enough, the backs of his hands are brushing my cheeks gently. “I’m sorry for pushing you away. I was just trying to protect you, but apparently you had the biggest part in all this,” Zel says with a smile. “Actually, I wanted you away from me, but you were creeping into my life, quietly spilling like a song—”

“That lingers in your memory and echoes,” I complete for him, even though my face is so hot.

“Whenever you reach out to me, your reach with pure intentions. There’s no desire that can change the way you treat me. Soon enough you had a place in my heart that I didn’t know about.

“The truth is”—Zel puts both hands on mine that’s on his heart—“I like you,” he says, and I swear his heart picks up pace right at the moment mine does, radiating through my touch. “A lot. More than I liked anyone for a long time. And to be honest”—he averts his eyes for a moment then looks back at me—“it kinda scares me. I don’t wanna ruin what we have, whatever it is, and I’ve fallen pretty damn hard for ya.”

His hand glides down my arm, folds over my hand. His fingers lace with mine, palms kissing. I can feel the fast thud of his heart through this single touch. “I just hope that whatever happens, we don’t ruin what we had before.” Zel pauses for a breath then looks at me again. “Truth is? I love you.”

I listen for the echo of my heart, because I’m certain it’s beating loud enough to hear one. He’s sitting close to me, but none of us is moving. I can hear his breaths, feel his closeness, and smell his apple scent. I wait for him to speak the unspoken, to say the words that are making his eyes gleam.

“I can’t stop thinking about your lips on mine.”

Without waiting for me to react, he cups my face in his hands, and when his lips touch mine, I gasp. He kisses me so deeply that I don’t know who is breathing for who, but all I know is that he tastes like warm honey.

I don’t know how long it lasts, but when he lets go of me, I miss it already.

“Did I catch up to ya?”

Catch up to me.

I answer with my lips.

With the way we’re sitting right now, it feels as if the last few days were a bunch of fluffy, dazzling dreams that come with a free ride on a drastically melodramatic emotional roller-coaster. But I know that all what happened was true, because since the moment he sat on the bench to my front, Zel has been staring at me unstoppably.

His eyes are so intense I want to look away. Or never look away, I can’t decide! They’re dancing with mischief, then mischief turns into triumph. Damn those magical eyes! I blush and look down, then I remember what’s resting on my lap and sigh.

“He’s gonna be okay, right?” Kiki asks in concern from the seat in front.

We had finally concluded our training camp for the year, thanked Mrs. Cho for her hospitality and apologized for any inconvenience. Then we packed up our stuff and climbed into the bus so we could go home, but we’re still waiting for Rachel to hop on so we can leave.

It’s been a couple days since the incident with me and Kiki, and Rachel spend them both in our common room or smoking at the rooftop. I had no idea she smokes; not that smoking has anything to do with her nasty personality. I bet she took a drag because she felt guilty about what happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into her that made her do that to us, but I’d like to listen to what she has to say properly. That is, if she had anything to say.

Anyway, the problem is not Rachel.

The problem is much bigger. It started with a loop of nightmares playing in my mind, and ended with a redheaded young man whose head is now resting in my lap.

Before yesterday’s practice, Ian collapsed and completely passed out even before setting a foot on the field, and I had Zel and Roy help him up all the way back to the lodge house and into his room. It seemed that all the drama that happened to us and the nightmares I was having rendered him sleepless, and intensified his bronchial attacks, until he came down with a fever. Everyone left us alone, but Zel, Kiki, and Akuni sat outside the room—I could tell—occasionally knocking on the door and checking if we needed anything.

Luckily, I was smart enough to pack my brother’s nebulizer because it would’ve been drastic without it. I packed his stuff, and watched him all night as he struggled to breathe. I felt like breaking down each time he called my name.

“I’m here . . . I’m here,” I kept saying. I wanted to cuddle up next to him and hug him close. It was as if my voice wasn’t reaching him.

“Ian’s going to be fine,” I say now, smoothing his hair.

“Still hot?” Zel mumbles.

I kiss Ian’s forehead. “No, but he could use some sleep.” Good grief, the boy didn’t sleep a wink. I look between the three of them. “You guys should rest too. I know you’ve been sitting outside his room all night.”

Kiki blushes, and Zel gives me that Dammit, that’s my girl! smile, then plugs his earphones to my phone—because his phone plunged to its death from the roof the other night—and lies on the bench.

Akuni, my faithful sister, agrees to my request as expected. “Understood. I’ll sleep on the way home because Young Mistress will definitely be tired by then,” she says before slumping down.

“Mikki!” Marsha yells from the door of the bus. She looks as if she had run a mile, her blond curls springing about her flushed face. Ian stirs but doesn’t wake up.

“Pipe down, blondie,” Lucifer hisses in annoyance, “Captain is trying to rest.”

Marsha cups her mouth. “Sorry, but I have a letter to deliver,” she whispers.

“I’m listening,” I say.

“Rachel’s gone,” she starts.

Kiki’s eyes snap open and she cranes her neck back to meet my eyes. She ran away?

“She packed up and took a cab last night and went back home,” Marsha adds.

“It probably happened during all the commotion,” Zel mumbles with his eyes closed. Probably. We weren’t even conscious about our actions to pay attention to her. Everything happened really fast and the wounds were still fresh to be opened again.

“Mikki?”

I glance up. “Get in, we have to leave. We’ll discuss that later. Coach is expecting us for a last meeting before the game.”

“Roger!” Marsha hops in, the bus door closes behind her, and we start moving. I gaze out the window at the thick trees of the forest; things will be fine. Everything will be fine.

Someone tugs at my sleeve. I look down.

Mika, Ian mouths. His eyes are half-opened, glazed and sparkling like stars, as if he’s subconscious.

“Go back to sleep,” I whisper.

He smiles weakly, and something in my heart cracks. Did you tell Sadie? he mouths very slowly.

I brush hair out of his eyes, the knot in my stomach tightening; I have to hold myself together, just a little bit more.

“Was it that bad?” he mumbles weakly.

Zel and Kiki stir; they must be really worried about him, but they know better than to meddle in this. It’s our precious moment.

I nod. “I’m sorry, honey. I had to tell her so she can pick you up from school.” I swallow. “I’m sorry, okay?” I’m sorry for all the nightmares, and for worrying you. I’m sorry you were traumatized even though you’ve seen nothing. I’m sorry for giving you a hard time. I’m sorry you were forced to handle my insanity all these years.

Without realizing it, Ian’s cool palm rests on my cheek. “Stop apologizing,” he croaks. “You can cry now.”

My eyes brim with tears and flood instantly, and I cry silently, my brother’s soft smile blurring as he brushes my cheeks. “I can’t tell you how terribly glad I’m that you’re going to be fine,” I whisper, “I . . . I wouldn’t know how to act without a twin.”

“Shush. I’m not going anywhere, whatever happens.” Even when he’s weak, he’s reassuring me.

“Whatever happens,” I echo.

“You sure you don’t wanna go home?” Zel asks for what feels like the hundredth time.

I tug on the strap of my duffle bag and thrust forward so that I’m walking by his side. “For the God-knows-what time, I don’t want to go home, Zel.” I half whine. “It’s going to get stressful if I go right now.” I don’t want to get stuck with Sadie, explaining to her what happened in the past few days, so I sent Akuni with Ian to the car, and used my responsibilities as a team manager as an excuse to run away for the time being. I hope Akuni will cover for me. “It’s like a living nightmare.”

Zel reaches out and takes my hand, then puts both our hands in the pocket of his parka. “I know, but . . . do we have to go to my house?” he asks, red rising to his face.

I smile deviously. “You’re blushing.” Then I start giggling.

“Shut up.” He bumps my shoulder playfully, and I bump his back as we walk the unpaved road to Sun Garden.

“Don’t worry, I won’t take long. I just want to apologize for dropping your phone into a pot of chicken soup.” I press my lips together to hold myself from laughing again, but Zel arches his eyebrow at me and his eyes crinkle as he laughs.

“Don’t mention the chicken soup,” he says.

“Okay.” I lean on my tiptoes and peck him on his cheek.

“Really?” Zel says with a lift of his eyebrows, a glint of mischief lighting his eyes. He tries to pull me closer, but I escape his grip and duck down, running around him. “You little devil.” He eyes me intensely, his eyes a blend of greens and golds that shift and change under the sun.

My stomach plummets and heat rushes to my face as he moves closer, pinning me against a tree. His face is inches from mine when a voice calls his name.

Zel’s breath catches, his hands tensing on my shoulders. Something’s wrong. His face pales, his eyes widen and become blank. Staggering a few steps back as if possessed, Zel lifts his head up, so slow to be normal, and the word that rushes out of his lips shakes me violently.

“Zel, what happened?” I ask in concern.

Across from him is a woman in her forties, clad in a grey fur jacket, jeans and black heeled boots. Her bobbed blond hair is greying, but the look in her hazel eyes is unnerving to the point that I stand frozen in my spot. The woman starts walking toward us, her eyes never leaving Zel.

I watch him trembling in fear, but I can’t do anything. I can’t move because I know who this woman is. I’m just dead scared.

“M-Mama . . .”

Every muscle in my body clenches and my heart thuds dangerously with each step she takes.

When his mother reaches him, she throws her purse on the gravel road, and slithers her perfectly polished nails around his neck, slowly and deliberately running her fingers on his jaw line and his face.

“How is my boy doing?” she asks. Her voice is smooth, poisonous, making my nerves jitter.

Zel’s response is a stolen breath, a blank gaze, an ashen face. My response is a shuddering breath, a sick stomach, a scared heart. Pull yourself together, Mika.

She runs her nails on his cheek. “It’s embarrassingly painful to watch you try to live so optimistically. Extremely,” she murmurs. Then she tuts and shakes her head, “You made Mama sad. I thought you’d obediently wait for me at home, but here you are, living a life like you don’t owe me anything.”

“I . . . I—”

She grabs his face in her hands, and I gasp, falling backward a few steps, my back hitting a tree. “I know what you want . . . what you yearn for . . .”

Zel stands lifelessly in front of his birth mother, his face bleeding as she digs her nails into his skin.

With the last pulse of strength in my body, I walk towards her, lightly pushing her away from him.

“Go! Go Zel, go!” I yell.

It’s takes a second, and he’s breathing and running again.

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