Chapter 14:

Quests and Questions

Are You Real?


The week passed like a car heading the other way. Ai had been going to class and Kiro hadn't been falling asleep in class. Between the two of them, their lunchroom meetings had evolved into a mix of banter and creative work side-by-side. There was nothing but good weather.

As Monday was coming to a close though, Kiro found himself in a predicament.

When Maia kicked down the door and took her seat at the front without looking at him, Kiro thought that he was in the clear. At the very least, things ended on a neutral note compared to last time, so he was semi-confident that the day would end without a new addition to his collection of bruises.

“Group work,” Lovecleft announced at the front. “I’ll have you working in pre-assigned pairs for our first unit project.”

The remedial class collectively groaned. Kiro had figured there were some tricks up the teacher’s sleeve, but he couldn't have possibly imagined the level of scheming that went into the newest one.

Maia and Kiro soon found themselves forced to sit together at the front of the room, glaring at each other with a scowl and a grin respectively.

"Stop giving me that dumb grin and start coming up with ideas, Art Boy.”

“Okay, Maia.” Kiro then leaned in, covering his mouth with a hand as he whispered. “Did you do the reading?”

Maia frowned. “Yeah, but only the first half.”

“And your pet ate the other, I’m guessing?”

“No.” She swung her backpack onto her desk, landing it with a crash. “My mom did.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means piss off with the questions and start getting creative.”

Tuesday was much of the same story. Ai came to class, Kiro managed to stay awake, and Maia just narrowly never finished the readings. But, noticing the bags under her eyes, Kiro didn't let it get to him. It was a bit of a pain, but it was ultimately an easy choice. Sacrificing fifteen minutes of Packetman: Grow was nothing in the face of a five-minute Lovecleft lecture.

“Listen, if you don’t stop doodling monster girls in your book, we’re never gonna get this done.”

“We’re not getting this done either way. I already finished my half of the work.”

Despite all their theorizing, neither of them could figure out where the pencil she threw at his head went. It was only when he was showering later that night that he heard a peculiar clatter and looked down to find it stuck in the drain.

By Wednesday, the bickering had shrunk to the first ten minutes, the pretending to work had dwindled to fifteen, and they even managed to make actual progress for the rest of the class. The day after, their actual progress had shot up to thirty minutes, and the two of them managed to catch up on what they had to read. On one hand, Maia's eyebags and Kiro's Packetman scoreboard placement had worsened.

On the other…

“There, I got my half done. And look at that. You only had time for one doodle.”

“Hey, slime is hard to draw with nothing but a pencil!”

“How hard can a self-portrait be?”

Later that day, Maia found Kiro’s eraser in her pocket as she clocked out from work.

By Friday, they had learned to split the readings into two pieces ahead of time. Their thesis statement of the girl’s “humanity in the face of rising tides” had developed in parallel with Lovecleft’s diorama, which now took up every inch of the countertop that encircled the classroom seats.

“Can't believe we’re actually on schedule,” Maia said.

“It's a team effort, you know,” Kiro replied. “The least you could do is pretend not to be surprised.”

“Oooh,” Maia crooned. “When’d you grow a spine?”

Kiro let out a sigh. He slapped a fat stack of papers on the desk.

“Take it,” he said.

“W-what the hell’s this?”

“Notes from Lovecleft’s classes. The whole week's worth.”

“And you're giving them to me, because…?”

“Because I know you've been trying your best.”

“Do you still think I'm a charity case? I already told you-”

“No. Think of it this way.” Kiro raised a palm. “It's a simple exchange. All you need to do is keep your life going and do your half of the work. That’s all.”

Maia’s button nose twitched. “And what exactly are you getting out of this?”

Kiro put on a goofy smile. “I don’t have to unclog any more soggy pencils from the shower drain.”

Maia’s scoff exploded into a laugh halfway through. She took the stack of papers and shoved them into her backpack.

“For a stalker, you can be strangely charismatic at times.”

Kiro chuckled. “When’d I get an upgrade from weirdo?”

“Hope you enjoy your promotion.”

“Speaking of,” Kiro started, “How long have you been working at that store?”

Maia let her bag fall against her desk. “None of your business.”

“Listen, I’m just trying to get to know you.” Kiro blurted out. “You know, like a good stalker should.”

“You know what?” Maia turned back to him. “Let's make a deal. If you finish your work first and don't bother me a single time, I'll answer your question. Good?”

Kiro nodded.

If the day before had been a cool thirty minutes of solid work, this one must have been forty. The last time Kiro remembered studying this diligently was for the V.I.A.S. High entry exam. Except this time, there was no Richard Lane to bust in through the door every fifteen minutes with a plate of cookies and a, “Heya champ!”

Kiro set his pencil down five minutes clear of the bell. He turned to Maia, ready to fire away with this question, only to pause. On the canine girl's face was a look of pure, tongue-biting determination.

She’s really trying.

Her handwriting wasn't any better in practice than on her name tag in the convenience store, but Kiro could still make out her list of bullet points just fine. It was nothing to brag about, but by the time that she set down her pencil, her half of the work had gotten them to a passing grade for the outlining stage.

Huffing as if she had just run a mile, Maia slapped her pencil down.

“There,” she announced. “I won.”

Maia turned to discover that her partner had had enough time to both finish his work and sketch a high-def rendition of Lovecleft’s handmade scenery. She sat still for a whole minute before her hand came down on his desk.

“Ask your question already!”

Kiro jolted in place with a yelp.

“What, oh! Sorry, I-!” He regained his composure with a deep breath. “I guess I meant to ask why you're working at that store.”

“Why else?” She snapped. “I need the cash.”

Kiro rubbed the back of his head. “Well, I knew that.”

“Then why'd you ask such a dumb question?”

Kiro's resolve cemented in his stomach. “Because you're in here with me. If you weren't working you'd have more time to study, wouldn't you?”

Maia shifted back into her seat.

“Why are you doing this to yourself?” Kiro continued. “I'm sure your mom would understand if you wanted to focus on your studies.”

“You don't know what you're talkin’ about. I'm doing this because of her. Because she never got to finish what we're going through right now.”

“Your mom never finished high school?”

She shook her head. “The first person to finish college in my family was my dad, but…”

Kiro watched as Maia gripped her arm with one hand.

“It’s fine,” Kiro said. “You already answered my question. No need to talk about it.”

She stared at him with her beady black eyes. “Yeah. I know.”

The two of them sat in silence for a few seconds, before she cleared her throat. She stared at the stack of notes filling up her backpack.

“I owe you a little more than a half-answer. And there's nothing I hate more than owing something to someone. You got any other dumb questions?”

“Have you ever tried selling any of your baked goods?”

All other conversation in the class lapsed into a wave of murmurs. The palm of her hand shot to his mouth. Maia leaned in and spoke in a low growl.

“I was being sarcastic, you dork! Don't say that out loud!”

“What?” Kiro whispered back, raising a coy eyebrow. “The baking?”

“Ugh,” Maia pulled her hand away. “Couldn’t you have asked literally anything else?”

“Fine.” Kiro mustered all his confidence into a serious expression. “Are you running the fighting ring because you want to, or because you have to?"

Maia shrunk back from him, her face frozen mid-snarl. Kiro cowered in place, expecting a piston punch to come flying his way at any second. But Maia just sat there, staring at her desk with the same look of concentration as when she was writing her paper.

“Huh,” Maia muttered to herself.

The bell rang. Maia slung her backpack onto her shoulder and shot up out of her seat. Before she rushed out of the room though, she turned over her shoulder to face Kiro with two last words:

“Coconut oil.”

“What?”

“Tell your dad to try coconut oil.”

After she briefly stopped to hand Lovecleft her end of today’s thesis, Maia was gone. As Kiro was packing his bags, he glimpsed Lovecleft casting him approving nods.

“You know,” Lovecleft said, as he accepted his student’s papers, “She seemed more chipper today. Wonder why?”

If all the snarling and manhandling was supposed to be considered nice, Kiro shuddered to imagine what would’ve happened if he stuck around the alleyway that day. The boy glanced at the diorama unfolding all around the room in search of something to shift the topic. Amid the pipes, beams, and leaky ancient faucets of the countertop, Kiro noticed that some of the high-rises of the cardboard city had been linked by pieces of toilet paper tubing at the higher floors. Every single tube was lovingly painted in a crude attempt to evoke bright, azure windows.

“Nice work on the sky bridges,” Kiro told Lovecleft. “They’re some of your best work yet.”

Lovecleft was too stunned to speak. As Kiro left the room, the boy swore that he could make out the deep, green undercurrents of a blush amid the teacher’s cheek tendrils.

---


“Kironius! You've hardly touched your victuals, nor have you drunken from your holy grail.”

The party of players turned to the auburn-haired boy with an air of concern.

Cricket Rick let out a chirp. “What’s wrong, dude? Scared of the Mighty Spas-ilisk? I told you that you should have bought the rod of righteousness back at the shop.”

“It's not that.” Kiro waved his hand. “I'm just thinking.”

“Well,” Zahra the Beetle replied, “We’ve only got fifteen minutes left before the loitering policy kicks in.”

“Holy hand grenades!” Wang cried, his dimpled Ox-cheeks jiggling in disbelief. “It’s almost been three hours already?

“Time does indeed fly,” Keano narrated in his villainous voice. “Will our brave party of heroes be able to quell the Mighty Spas-ilisk? Will their hellhound finally cough up the dungeon key that it swallowed? And, last but not least, will Kironius finally admit what he’s been hiding from the group? This one supposes that you lot shall have to find out next week, in the next installment of Dangers and Depths!”

The table let out a collective “Awwww!” As the others began to pack away their character sheets and dice, Kiro stared into the oils pooling in his mushy seafood salad. His ominous reflection in the putridly-sweet soda in his hands did little to distract from the question in his mind.

“What's wrong, Kironius?” Keano asked, his angler dangling right between Kiro’s eyes.

“I'm just worried is all,” Kiro said. “You know, about where to take her for a second date.”

Keano let out a slight chuckle. “Don't overthink it, brave warrior. It's only a second date.”

“Oh!” Kiro’s face lit up. “I forgot to tell you! We're official now!”

The entire table turned to look at him with a series of stunned expressions.

“Official?” Keano’s tone dropped back to normalcy.

“Yeah! The cat cafe was a genius idea, dude! Thank you so much!”

“I mean, I’m happy for you, but-” Keano scratched behind his gill-fin ears. “After just one date?”

“Nah, don’t worry. We really connected, you know? Plus, I can tell that spending time together is helping her out.”

“Don't you think you're getting a little bit ahead of yourself?” Keano asked. “You know, like you used to back in middle school?”

Kiro froze. His face twisted before swiftly reversing course into a smile.

“I've got this. You really don't need to worry about me so much.”

The bulb on Keano's head stalk glowed for a second, before the Anglerfish-Boy shook the thought away.

“Hey, I have an idea,” Klara the Kitsune called from across the table. “What if you take her to see a movie?”

“Yeah,” Cricket Rick chimed in, “And when she gets scared, you can play the big strong man and hold her in your arms.”

The insectoid boy let out a pained chirp as Klara planted her fluffy elbow into his thorax.

“Rick’s perversions aside,” Zahra added, “that doesn't sound like a bad idea at all.”

“A movie, huh?” Kiro wondered aloud.

“Yeah,” Keano spoke up. “Maybe you should take her to see Dimension Invaders 2. I hear the special effects are like, really bad, but in a so-bad-it’s-good way.”

Kiro pulled out his phone. He scrolled through the massive, ever-growing collection of text messages and painstakingly-Spoogled emojis between him and Ai.

Maybe some cheesy monster stuff could put her at ease.

“Dimension Invaders 2 it is.”

Pope Evaristus
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epicene
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potadd!!
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Bubbles
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Ryka
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Steward McOy
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tanktrilby
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AWiddleStar
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Sammich
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Cora
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ArgentCosmonaut
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Armorien
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Bravo
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Alyssa Aurinia
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