Just As You Are

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Chapter Six

MIKA

There is something happening.

I know because my chest is tight to the point of burning. It must be something crucial and something that I yet have to process. Something I can’t ignore because it’ll cause a major headache.

And because it’s making my brother burn holes through me from all the glaring.

I risk a glance at him. His dark red hair is tousled, and the ends are held together in a short ponytail over his shoulder. I stare at my reflection in his eyes, the same shade of grey as mine. I look nervous without even knowing the reason.

“What?”

Ian blinks to attention. “What?”

“You’ve been glaring at me for a while now,” I demand.

He frowns, and I’m instantly reminded of Sadie, how her brows knit together as she frowns, making deep creases on her forehead. Now, she is certainly on a plane to somewhere in the world, enjoying her job to a full extent.

“I’m gazing, not glaring,” my brother says.

“Now you’re glaring,” I mumble. “So tell me, what is it?”

You know what, his eyes say, but his lips part and the words that come out throw me off. “Where’s your ribbon?”

“Huh? E-Excuse me. I-I don’t understand.”

We stop in our tracks.

“Just now, you had a white ribbon in your hair, and it’s gone.”

“Wha—?” I’m sure I’m hearing what he’s saying, but my brain is one step behind in processing.

Ian passes his fingers through my hair, from the top of my head to the ends, and comes out empty-handed. “See?” he says.

I blink, then weave my hair to one side and pass a hand through it. “Oh no . . .” It’s true. I’m sure I left the house with a ribbon in my hair, but now it’s loose and flowing in a huge chaos.

“I know,” Ian says. “How did you lose it? It’s the second ribbon this week.”

I instantly start defending myself. “Maybe I didn’t lose it. Maybe I left it in my bag, or in my locker, or curled up in my hand so you couldn’t see it. Do I have to tell you? Do I?” I snap. Why is he being scrupulous all of a sudden? Maybe he noticed something or he knows I sent it away with a lily. I told him it won’t take long, is he being impatient? Am I unreasonably questioning my twin brother?

Ian presses his lips together and avoids my eyes to suppress a laugh. “I’m just worried about my hair service.”

Wringing my arms over my chest, I remind him, “You’re allowed to use hair elastics, not ribbons.” Then I look behind me, trying to focus and track the way I took before arriving to our floor. “I don’t know how or where I lost it.” It’s a long way; I could have lost it the moment I left home.

“No, you idiot.” He flicks my forehead. “You had the ribbon in your hair during morning practice, remember?”

Wow Ian! He can read my thoughts?

“Your hair was in a ponytail,” he adds.

Oh yes, I remember now. I re-did my hair and tied it with the ribbon after practice in the girls’ lockers’ room. So where did I lose it?

“That doesn’t make sense,” Ian mumbles.

Almost everything doesn’t make sense in my life in the past few days. I could have dropped it on the way here, but there’s no way I’ll go back and look for it.

“Mikki!”

A high-pitched voice startles us, and we turn to Marsha, who’s rocket-speeding toward us from the door of our class. Her hair is pinned up in a high bun, blond curls jumping about her face. In her ears are large silver hoops, skinny at the top and widening toward the base. As her head moves, they do too, drawing attention to her long neck, and on her lips is a faint red color. She’s been taking good care of her looks, no wonder she missed practice. Marsha skids and crashes into Ian, tugging on his arm to catch her breath—a view I see almost every day, just with a different girl each time.

Ian curses under his breath and shrugs her off.

“Mikki . . .” She huffs.

“Marsha, where’ve you been? You didn’t come to practice today!” I scold.

“Cramps . . . Cramps!” She heaves, clutching her side. Looks like she’s been running for quite a while. “Mikki . . . come and see . . . at class . . .”

“What’s at class?” Ian asks impatiently.

“On your desk . . .” she replies with an urgent edge.

My brother and I exchange a look before advancing in the direction of our class.

What is it? A warm bubble swells in my chest. Please, please, let it be a reply.

We arrive to find our classmates standing around my table, murmuring between one another; and when they spot us, the whispers recede, and they open a path for us to pass.

“Young Master, Young Mistress.”

“Akuni, what is it?” Ian asks, his face twisting into a mixture of genuine worry and confusion. I ignore them and glance over at my desk.

“We found this on the Young Mistress’s table,” Akuni replies.

Oh God . . . What is this feeling?

“What is it? Mika, you okay?”

I wish I can name the feeling flooding through me. It’s relief, maybe. Relief that my messages had reached him and that there might be a slight chance to talk. Air rushes out of me the moment I spot it, and heat runs in my veins. The flower is pure white, trumpet-shaped with a light-yellow center and a delicate sweet fragrance. In all its elegance, the White Heaven lily rests on my desk, my white ribbon wrapped around its center, and curvy letters are scrawled across it with a black sharpie. My heart swells; it was him all along.

I glance at my brother, whose eyes are glued on the flower, fists clenched at his sides. He knows whose flower this is, and he will surely do something irrational if I don’t step in. He’s about to reach for the flower when I tug on his sweater, willing him to look at me. I shake my head; I know it’s bugging him, that after all what happened to me because of a certain someone, I’m still looking for them. I hope he doesn’t know I started this, and that I’m okay with being crushed as long as I’ll be able to protect them.

My brother was always jealous of that person.

I take the flower and untie the ribbon to read what’s written, and my heart instantly drops between my lungs. The cruelty of the world lies in these three words: Mind your business. The bubble bursts instantly, and dread hits me in shockwaves.

“What happened?”

They’re whispering again.

“What does it say?”

“It’s asking her to mind her business.”

I drop the flower on the desk and plug my ears, but I can still hear them.

“Whoa! She might have done something to deserve this.”

They have to stop. They have to stop!Stop them, Ian. Stop them! If you don’t stop them now, they won’t stop talking. They will start gossiping! Why are they still talking? Somebody, anybody stop them!

“I think it’s something bad.”

Stop them . . . My head throbs. I’m nauseous. I wanted to protect him, but . . .

“I always knew she’s creepy.”

Stop . . . Who said that?

“This is going to be a huge scoop for the school’s newspaper!”

Stop!

“Rumors she uses waves and caused brain damage to a freshman!”

My ears are ringing and the room spins. My chest is tight and my breath moves in and out in short and quick gasps. I place a hand to my heart space and squeeze. I wanted to protect him, but he’s pushing me away. He doesn’t want me around. I should have noticed; he wouldn’t replied this fast if he really wanted to meet me.

“Mika!”

A steel grip lands on my shoulders, jerking me back to focus. It’s Ian, and his eyes are full of pain that I can’t tear my eyes away, but when I respond, his face floods with relief.

He leans closer to me and looks in my eyes. “You’re overthinking. Whatever you’re thinking of won’t happen,” he whispers.

I want to say how do you know what I’m thinking of, but then he’s my twin brother, my other half; and if I’m the person who can barge into all kinds of minds, then he’s the only person who can barge into mine. Uninvited.

“I’ll quiet them down, don’t worry,” he assures.

“Yeah, we’re here for you, Mikki,” Marsha adds.

Ian squares my shoulders and I look up at him. “Now you go and hunt that bastard down and show him what you’re made of!” he yells.

I giggle. Don’t let anything get to you, his eyes say. I’m always here for you.

“You have something to do, Mika? Then do it. Because if you don’t”—his teeth clench—“I’m going to hunt him down and kill him.”

I swallow. He’s sounds so serious I almost believe him. I have to calm down. If I lose it, my brother will get sick again. I nod.

How can he do that to me? Mind my business? How can I when he’s all the business? I hold my head high and glare at my classmates, then pull my hair into a ponytail and deliberately tie the ribbon around.

“Sharing is caring; now give me your hoodie!” I tell my brother.

He gives me a quizzical look. “You’re making no sense.”

“Just give it to me!”

Ian shrugs out of his jacket rather reluctantly and hands it to me. I put it on then pull on the hood; I can’t risk being busted before pulling that guy into a set-up, that’s how the element of surprise works. Now all I need is an iron rod or a thick piece of wood and I’d magnificently lead a group of delinquents. Just kidding. I’m not going to beat that idiot up, a fist to his pretty face is more than satisfying. I can’t hurt him.

I can’t see him get hurt either.

I’m walking through the aisle, fantasizing about our fateful meeting and the beautiful colors my fist will leave on his face, when I realize I don’t know what class he’s in.

“Crap.”

The duration of morning assembly will be wasted if I visit the student council to check his name and class. If I want to find him before the first bell, I have to change my plan. So, here’s what’ll happen: I will search all second-year classes for a guy with these standards: cute/sandy brown hair/ hazel eyes. I will scan each class with the eyes and claws of a hawk.

And it seems to work. No one is bothering me or talking to me, or even risking a look at me, definitely because I’m wearing a black hood that hangs low over my eyes, making me look like a serial killer.

I reach class seven and poke my head in; the class president is sorting duties. Some students are already in their seats, chattering unceasingly and catching up to the latest news, or copying each other’s homework before the homeroom teacher arrives; while others are filing into the class from the back door because, obviously, I’m blocking the front way with my supposedly intimidating appearance. I don’t want to get my hopes high.

I search the faces for someone familiar when I find Tabitha, a member in the soccer team, applying a layer of glittering purple nail polish. “Ahh, do you think this color suits me?” she muses.

“I don’t think it suits the color of your eyes,” I mumble, chipping at the silver polish of my nails.

She meets my eyes and grins. “Mika! What are you doing here?” Then she springs off her desk and saunters in my direction.

“I’m looking for someone,” I reply.

“Would you like me to help you?” Tabitha asks.

“I would be grateful—”

“Get outta my way.”

The voice is unexpected. Low, deep, with a trace of huskiness and power that sends a chill down my spine. I would’ve ignored it if it wasn’t the voice I’m yearning to hear. It’s been a long time since I heard his voice, but my heart says it’s him. It has to be.

“Watch your manners, Zel,” Tabitha mutters annoyingly. Then she turns to me, “Don’t mind him, he always has this attitude.”

“I know.” I can’t register the words coming out of my mouth, so I turn around; it’s time to face him.

My eyes travel upward as I take him in. In a black sweater over a white shirt and a pair of jeans, he looks normal, like any other male student at our school. His tie is crooked, and his hair is falling against his right eye. His eyes. It’s his eyes: crystal hazel, framed in thick lashes, staring at me with an impassive yet intimidating look, without a flicker of recognition flashing through them. His annoying demeanor is making my blood boil, and I’m about to give up and leave, but my body has a mind of its own.

“You sh*thead!”

My fist connects with his face, and his body jerks backward, hitting the ground with a thud.

“Sh*thead?” Tabitha purses her lips to hold back a stream of giggles.

“Why haven’t you contacted me?” I snap, grabbing his collar and shaking him. “You moved away without saying a single word! I’m really mad at you! I’ll make sure you will tell me everything. What you’ve done. Where you were until now!” I stop and let out a loud exhale.

Say something!

Zel breaks free and stands up, and I notice students are staring at us. Without even sparing me a look, he grips my wrist then starts walking away from the crowd with me in tow.

“Hey, you’re hurting me. Let go!” I try to rotate my wrist out of his grip, but it’s too tight that moving it makes it hurt all the more. “Hey!” I hiss, but he doesn’t budge.

I look down at our hands. He’s not holding my hand like he used to when we were kids. His hands were always cold and wrapped up in bandages, but his grip was tight and strong. It’s still the same grip, but it’s breaking my wrist. They’re still the same hands, now with scars that will never fade.

We reach the end of the aisle, and he takes the stairs down to the second floor, dragging me behind until we reach the door of the infirmary. Then he flings the door open, shoves me inside, and shuts the door behind him.

I land on my hands and knees. “What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?” I’m practically snarling, but who cares.

Zel slides down the door and rakes a hand through his hair then glares at me, his mouth set into a thin line.

I can’t look at him. Even though I’ve been waiting to meet him, but I can’t look at him. Not when he’s this close, not when that scar is so clear, making me guilty all over again. I swallow the lump in my throat and force myself to look up. His hand is still hanging in his hair, but he had closed his eyes at some point, and rested his head to the door. I catch a glimpse of something pink on his wrist. There’s no way it would be there because—

“I have nothing to tell you about,” he says flatly, wiping blood off his mouth. I must’ve hit him a little bit too hard. “I have nothing to do with you.” Standing up, he turns the door knob around, then the earth stops rotating.

“Li-Lilium.”

His voice is full of my name, and I swear I don’t know how I ended up here. I curl a fist on the back of his sweater, resting my forehead to his back, my heart jumping between my ribs. I know I shouldn’t be this close to him but—

“Why?” I whisper. “Why did you say that, Zel?”

He stiffens at the mention of his name, then takes a deep breath. I can feel the air moving in and out of his lungs.

“I’ve been worried about you all the time—”­­­

“Lilium—”

“—you didn’t even try to contact me, and now you’re distancing yourself!”

“Lilium.”

I grip tighter. “I’m talking!” And trying not to snap.

He whips around. “We don’t have time, we’ve gotta hide.”

“What?”

Without adding another word, he throws a look around frantically, takes my hand, and pulls me toward him.

“Um . . . ?”

I look up at him; there is a roughly thirty centimeters difference between our heights, and I know we’ve met ten minutes ago, but my neck already hurts. Also—

“Why are we here?”

“Shush.”

Zel and I are hiding in the farthest closet of the room, and it’s dark and stuffy to the point that I can’t see or breathe. Zel’s body is pressed to mine in this narrow space, my forehead resting to his chest, his hot breath falling on my neck. He’s still holding my hand, and his hand is cold, just like it used to be. This is the closest I’ve been to him in the past ten years, and I’m sure my heart will stop any second now.

This guy is my childhood friend, I remind myself. We used to hang out together to play, and now we are definitely not going to make out. I don’t like him. I don’t! One afternoon, I ran out of his house screaming, and the next day he had already disappeared and another family was moving into his house. I completely lost contact with him, and the second he reappears in my life, he’s acting all high and smugly. I hate him.

“Zel,” I whisper, looking up at him.

“Shush!” He puts a finger to his lips and glares at me.

I glare back. If you want to shush me that bad, then you could’ve kissed me while we’re locked in here. Wait, what? Why am I thinking like that? How did this indecent thought slip through? Why are we here in the first place? Blush sears to my cheeks. “What are we—” I suck in a breath as he clumps my mouth shut.

The door clicks open.

“Ahh, where did I put my files again?”

It’s Dr. Clarke, our school doctor, the one with the confident voice that soothes you and makes you feel secure in her presence, but she’s a little bit of a scatterbrain and always forgets the place of her stuff. Cool, her stuff might as well be in this closet.

Zel glances through the slits in the door, his arms tightening around me, hopefully protecting me. With that impassive look on his face, and my dizziness due to hypoxia—or his closeness—my vision is blurring and it’s getting harder to read him. I close my eyes for a fraction and try to focus on listening.

“Yay! There it is,” she cheers. “Oh no wait, that’s last year’s archive. Mmm . . . it should be here somewhere.”

I sigh. “This is going to take a while,” I whisper to his chest.

“Perfect,” he hisses, “the exact thing I need now is a scatty crazy lady.”

I can feel his gaze on me.

“And why are you clinging to me like that?”

I open my eyes, and lift my head a bit to meet his eyes. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I like you or anything. I’m just a bit dizzy.” Narrow spaces and closed areas are not my best allies. A flicker of concern flashes in his eyes then he’s back to that inscrutable expression in an instant. He looks outside and clenches his teeth.

I smile. “You don’t like the fact that you are stuck here with me”—his eyes snap to mine—“because you want to spend the least amount of time with me,” I mumble.

His eyebrows knit together. “You think we should have this conversation here?” Then he leans closer; he’s too tall to stand in here, so he has to bend his knees a bit to fit in.

“People don’t usually have their life talks in cramped spaces. It’s a rare opportunity. Seize it.” Then I rest my head to his chest because it’s pounding.

“Yah, found them!” The doctor squeals. She surely is a crazy lady.

“She’s out,” Zel says without looking at me. Then he pushes the door of the closet. “Dammit!”

“What? What happened?” I ask lazily. It’s really hard to breathe and focus with all these dark spots clouding my vision.

“It won’t budge,” he mutters.

“Oh no . . .”

“You don’t sound troubled at all.”

I’m too busy trying to breathe to express emotions. “Maybe we should stay here and wait for someone to come and get us,” I mumble after a few attempts.

He rolls his eyes as if to say really?

“They’ll find out we’re missing soon,” I add.

“How are you now?” I ask after a beat of silence.

Zel shifts in position, his head resting in the crook of my neck, and my heart squeezes.

“I’m fine. A family adopted me,” he whispers.

I can’t read his voice. Is he happy? Sad? Would he think I pity him if I don’t interact? I’m just too hazed to think of something to say. My breath becomes shorter and faster. “Are . . . you happy?”

“I am.”

Light spreads in my chest.

“What about . . . your letter?” My eyes fall closed, and suddenly my limbs become heavy, and I can’t hold myself on my own feet.

“Hey, you okay? You’re shaking,” Zel says. He takes my hands, and his entire body tenses. “Dear God, your hands are freezing! Please don’t tell me you’re heating up!”

I don’t know what is happening to me. Except I’m sure my heart is going berserk and my mind is fuzzy, and all I can see are little colorful dots. I can’t stay here any longer.

“Lilium, hang in with me,” he says softly. “Breathe slowly and please, please don’t pass out now.”

I try to do as he says, but the place is so hot and lacks oxygen; and my heart is drumming in my ears, my breath shaking.

Then there’s another drumming beat, another shaking breath, and oddly enough, it’s making me feel calmer and safer. I’m engulfed by a sweet apple scent as he gently peels off my sweater and loosens the uniform ribbon around my neck.

“I’m sorry.”

Huh? What’s going on? Zel? Why is it so dark?

“I knew I can’t be with you.”

What the hell is that? Why can’t I move? Did I pass out?

“I’m scared if I’m with you, you’ll die.”

God! I need to get up to stop that dumbass!

“I can’t let you get hurt.”

“Waah!” I spring up, my heart still beating frantically. “Oh . . . my God . . . I thought I was going to die!” Looking around, I realize that I’m in one of the beds in the infirmary.

And Zel is gone.

Except, his words are still floating in my mind, and I don’t know whether or not they’re real.

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