Just As You Are

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Chapter Thirty Seven

IAN

Things can’t get worse, right?

“Captain, can you please take a photo with me?”

Ugh . . . Seriously? I’M NOT THE CAPTAIN ANYMORE!

“Captain! It’s your graduation and we might not be able to see you again! Why? Why weren’t I born a year earlier so I can graduate with you?”

“Stop fawning over him, you’re barely passing your exams in our year and you wanna be a year older? Captain, could you please sign an autograph for me?”

God, please take me now.

It’s graduation day, and instead of being in the school garden with my mother and sisters to snap some photos before the ceremony, I’m sitting in class, clad in a white shirt and black pants and shoes, trying to get past the excessively violent hoard of girls who make up my fan base.

Roy, on the other hand, doesn’t seem troubled at all while dealing with them. He signs autographs, and smiles sweetly in the photos, giving me a sickening feeling.

“Must be hard on you, huh?”

I glance up to meet a pair of ice-blue eyes and finally let myself whine, even though I’ve never whined in front of this amount of people before because, instead of finding me annoying, they think it’s cute.

“Rachel.”

“Hey, don’t give me that look.” Rachel pouts, and her cheeks become rosy. “You’re making girls die from your cuteness.”

“Don’t go. Get me out of here,” I whisper slightly desperately.

“I wish I could, but I have more important things than becoming the gossip talk of Eustitia High on the very last day for me.” Then she slams a photo of me on the table, “Here, sign me an autograph,” she demands.

I wince. And I was the one who thought we’re friends. Actually, we’re not exactly friends, but we’ve been more than classmates. Partners maybe. I can tell since that incident with Kiki, Rachel has been gradually changing. She might still have a huge and unbearably sweet crush on me, but she’s not bothering Kiki anymore. In fact, Rachel keeps taking every chance to help Kiki in order to get on her good side and get Kiki to forgive her.

Things have been better for my girlfriend too. Since that day, she’d become someone who never stops pushing forward, always changing and shifting to become stronger. I’m proud of her, and so are her parents. Speaking of which, they had finally acknowledged me as the redheaded brat who takes care of their daughter.

I should be meeting Kiki on the roof before the ceremony, and if she beats me to it, I’ll lose the reward we agreed on.

As it seems, I’m not going anywhere. “I’m not giving autographs!” I mutter.

Rachel clicks her tongue at me and says something, but I don’t catch it because my mind is zeroing on the tremendous amount of energy that’s about to barge through the door.

I push my chair back and stand up. “Crap, she’s coming!”

“Huh? What’s this scary aura I’m sensing?” Rachel mumbles.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”

All the girls lined in front of me flinch, and instantly open a path as Mika stomps into the class followed by Akuni, her jaw set and her eyes blazing.

“There you are!” Mika mutters, pointing her red-wine fingernail at me. She crosses over to the table I’m sitting behind and slams her hands. “I’ve been looking all over the place for you! Why didn’t you call me sooner?” Her tone changes from fury to concern in a moment.

Call her? Me?

“I didn’t call you,” I mumble.

“Calm down, Young Mistress.” Akuni pleads.

“Who’s that vulgar person?” one of the fans asks.

“Why is she talking to Ian like that?”

“Captain, do you know her?”

She’s my twin sister, but with her crazy demeanor, and my totally-uninterested-in-human-beings personality, no one will ever see the resemblance.

Mika spins around and gives them the cold glare. “Shut up, you nefarious wicked fawning rats!”

“Who are you calling fawning rats?”

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Crap, as if we need more drama on our graduation day,” Rachel says before she snakes her way out.

My sister steps forward. “Get any closer to him and I’ll blow your useless brains into meaty smithereens,” she hisses.

I flinch, but then all the girls blanch as well.

Mika turns to me and grabs my arm. “You called me, brother?”

“BROTHER?” the girls yell in unison.

You called me. I could hear you, her eyes whisper.

“Did I ever tell you I love you?” I say as she drags me outside the class.

“I know. Now we’ve got to run.”

“Oh my God, Sadie!”

“You know, she just arrived straight from the airport!” Mika says.

Mom is standing by a cherry tree, dabbing streaks of mascara off her face. She spots us coming and instantly runs to us, collecting us in her arms. Okay, I collect my girls in my arms because I’m the tallest. It would be so awkward if Mom got her arms around us all with me standing like a bamboo shoot between them.

“Sadie, you don’t have to cry now. The ceremony is in an hour,” I mumble, blood trickling to my cheeks.

“That’s why they invented waterproof,” Mika adds.

“Please don’t cry, Mother.” Akuni rubs Sadie’s arm as the latter cries into her shoulder, then my sisters join in, and I have to hold the three of them until they calm down.

“Oh, come on!”

“I’m sorry.” Sadie dabs her eyes and smiles. “I just can’t believe that my kids are leaving the house all at once.”

I roll my eyes. “It’s your fault for having twins,” I mutter.

Mika rolls her eyes at me. Like you’re not half the fault.

“Now, now. Stand close so I can take a photo of you,” Mom orders.

“This one is definitely going on the wall,” Mika says with a smile, “so let’s make it a good one.”

She links her arm through mine and tilts her head in my direction, while Akuni stands on my other side, and I put my hand on the small of her back. Then the three of us are supposed to look at the camera and smile, and that’s it. Easy.

“Ian? Where are you looking honey? I’m right here,” Sadie says.

Where am I looking?

Ah, sure . . . I’m looking far ahead into the crowd, at a beautiful brunette, clad in a red-wine colored A-line dress and a pair of brown sandals, her emeralds definitely shifting to a molten gold the moment she spots me.

Her eyes are those of someone who had just fallen in love, someone who sees nothing but her lover, who has no fear of anything. The eyes of someone who believes that every dream will come true, that reality will move if you just give it a push.

Kiki smiles at me across the crowd, her face coloring a soft pink, the color of the blushing petals falling about her, and my heart skips a beat.

Then she runs.

This time, I follow her.


KIKI

His eyes search the crowd until they find my face. My heartbeat lives in my throat, lives in my cheeks. I smile, and bolt into a run.

I just remembered something really important.

“Ahh! What am I gonna do now?” He saw me. IAN SAW ME! It was obvious that I was staring at him intently and waiting for him to look back at me! How could I do that? I should’ve waited until I met my parents at least. Now things will become awkward.

“Who’s that crazy girl?” Who’s that? Ahh! Leave me alone!

“Hey, look at her! She’s so fast!” I KNOW!

“Is she a senior?” YES!

“Was she in the track team?” No, but now I wish I was.

“She’s like Zephyr!”

“Ahh . . .” I stop in the middle of the crowd in the school garden to collect myself. Oh God, gotta take a breath otherwise I’ll just drop dead. If I keep this pace, I’ll reach the roof before Ian.

I look up. It’s spring and the cherry trees are fully bloomed, generously showering us with soft pink petals that are light as feathers and fleeting as the wind, making the perfect mood for graduation. And love.

“Kiki!”

My heart speeds, and because I have a bizarre connection with nature, the wind picks up, and I find myself surrounded by blushing blossoms. Spinning around, I see a pair of silver-blue eyes looking around the crowd.

“Oh my God!” I run again before Ian spots me, crashing into someone. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

“Kiki?”

I glance up. “Mama? Mama!” I squeal with delight and hug her. “You’re late. Where’s Papa?”

Mama pulls back and cups my face. “Oh, my beautiful beautiful daughter. I’m sorry, Papa is gonna be late. You know, he’s the Chief.”

“Yeah, I know he has duty.” Thank God it’s only Mama, because if we run into Ian while Papa’s here, it might turn into an interrogation. I still can’t believe that my father had warmed up to him.

“Why were you running anyway?” Mama asks, dabbing my cheeks and neck with a handkerchief.

I brush her hand away and look around. Ian is out of sight. Crap, he might pop out of nowhere if I don’t start moving soon.

“Mama”—I kiss her cheek and start running again—“I’ll see you soon! Gotta go!”

By the time I reach the roof, my legs are burning, and I’m feeling a bit queasy. I’m about to perform a celebration dance when I see him lying flat on his gown, his eyes closed, facing the sky.

I kneel down by Ian’s side and poke his cheek until he opens his eyes. Freshly shaven baby face.

“You can stop now,” he mumbles.

“You beat me to it, you big cheater.”

“Thanks to my lovely assistant, Mrs. Marie.” Ian smirks and his eyes twinkle, and my face becomes hot. He sits up. “I can have my reward now, right?”

“Sure.” I snake my arms around his neck. And then, “Ah! When did you cut your hair?”

He blinks. “Last night, why?”

“You know I wanted to be the one to do it.” I cross my arms over my chest and look away. “I told you I’ll miss the ponytail.” God, I sound so childish!

“I had no idea you’ll miss it this much. Hey, you’re pouting.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s cute.” Ian cups my face in his hands and looks in my eyes. Then he tilts his head toward mine and kisses me. Slowly. Softly, that I feel sparks running in my veins instead of blood. “I’ve never thanked you before,” he whispers against my neck. “Thank you for loving me, Kiki.”

Huh? Where did that come from?

I stifle a laugh. “What are you talking about? I’m the one who should be thanking you. For everything.”

For noticing me, and extending your hand to help me. For protecting me, and accepting me the way I am. For giving me a little push forward each time I cowered. For loving me deeply and never pushing me away. I wrap my arms tight around him and blink my tears back. After I met you, I came to know that there’s someone who needs me. Someone who needs the invisible and hopeless me. And knowing that thing alone brought me so much happiness.

“Thank you.” Thank you so much.

“No seriously.” Ian doesn’t let go. I can almost feel his heartbeat on mine. “Ever since you appeared in my life, it’s as if a flower had bloomed, and made my world even brighter. I like the person I’ve become when I’m with you. I never had these feelings with anyone previously, and possibly never a next time in the future.”

“Are you saying that you like me?” I ask as a joke. I know he will never say it.

But Ian doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even move.

“Hey, you okay?” I ask. When I get no answer, I pull away, nearly giving myself a heart attack.

“Oh my . . .”

The first thing that tugs on my heart is the shifting colors in his irises. Ian’s eyes are a blurry mix of soft grey and pastel blue, fixed on a blind point over my shoulder, and his face is the exact shade of his hair. A deep blossoming red. He looks out of breath, and he’s making me out of breath. Then all of a sudden, he puts his hand against his face and looks away. “Don’t look at me,” he mumbles in a husky voice.

Just now . . . It can’t be. I wanna know what kind of expression he’s showing.

Smiling, I take his hand and will him to look at me. “If I knew I’m able to see you make this expression, I would’ve asked you this before.”

“Kiki . . . I-I like—”

This time, I’m the one who silences him. Don’t say it, so I can see you make this face over and over again.

This person is the reason why I’m who I’m today. I walk with him hand in hand as we push our way together to celebrate our last day as students in high school. Our friends smile at us and wave for us to come over so we can take photos together.

I’m glad with being a part of this group who accepted me despite being weak and broken. I’m proud that I made a place for me here that will always feel like home.

I might still get scared. I might run away again and come across walls that I can’t overcome on my own. But today, my world is still spinning along with the people I’m connected to, and it sparks brightly.

Maybe we need someone to voice our thoughts. To love us, without boundaries, without limits. To love us unconditionally, with our scars and flaws and constant pain and sadness. To love us for us.

Just as we are.

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