Chapter 16:

Fermenting Thoughts

Are You Real?


There's only so many ways you could possibly mess up a waffle. Consequently, the overpowering aroma of a syrup-stuffed Waffle Wednesday in V.I.A.S.’s cafeteria wasn't as gut-wrenching as it could have been. In fact, it was just pleasant enough to give everything a warm golden vignette, as if midday had been exchanged briefly for golden hour.

Amid the distant clinking of utensils and spirited chattering, Kiro and Ai found themselves smiling uncontrollably. They leaned on each other's shoulders, unable to look each other in the eye for fear of revealing their respective flustrations.

“I can't believe you've never watched Space Trek before,” Kiro gasped.

“Well,” Ai replied, brushing hair from her face, “my parents didn't really let me watch TV growing up.”

“What?! But how did you keep up with all the latest cartoons?”

Ai let out a sigh-laugh. “I guess you could say TV and cartoons weren't a big part of my childhood.”

“Oh man,” Kiro hopped in his seat. “That means that you've never seen Incarnate: The last Elemental Master before! If I could watch that show for the first time again…”

This time, she giggled. “I guess I can look forward to watching it with you then.”

Saying this, Ai finally turned to look at him. Splayed out across her countenance was a look of pure, close-eyed contentment. Instead of being flustered, Kiro was reminded of something. The way that she looked at him as he tried to explain his Quickipedia summary of Dimension Invaders lore from their last date. Their last date.

“Say. You're feeling okay, right?” Kiro asked.

Ai raised an eyebrow. “Where’d that come from?”

Kiro’s fingers squirmed along the pencil in his hair as he tried to piece together the right question from thin-air.

“I guess what I'm trying to say,” Kiro started, “is that I noticed you've been going to class now. A lot.”

The bell rang the moment the last word left his mouth. Trained like dogs to a bell, the teenagers immediately got to their feet.

“It's still hard,” Ai smiled. “But it's been a little easier recently. I’m with you, after all.”

“That's…” Kiro stopped mid-sentence along with his thoughts. “Sweet. Sweet of you I mean.”

Ai leaned in to give him a peck on the cheek and took off for the exit on her own accord. She gave him one last smile over her shoulder before she disappeared. For some reason, he was left staring at the doorway trapped deeply in thought, as if Ai’s afterimage was going to turn into the real thing.

Does she really see everyone like that?

It was hard to believe, but even a cursory re-examination of her napkin doodle sent a chill down his spine.

Maybe she’s starting to see things differently.

After all, Ai did say that things were getting easier. Kiro’s thoughts were a blur as his classes flew by.

She seemed utterly and entirely happy, after all.

Geometry had his mind going in circles, and his thoughts returned to that notion.

I’m pretty sure that she makes me feel the same way.

Even during the free-draw portion of his industrial design class, Kiro couldn't shake the undeniable fact that still remained.

At the end of the day, we’re still the only humans in this world…

And yet, the disfigured napkin doodle kept flashing in his head as if it was taunting him.

“Hey, dork. Did you finish memorizing the presentation? We're up next.”

Kiro shook himself from his thoughts. He looked up to find himself facing Maia's black, bagged eyes. Somehow, half of the remedial class had elapsed since he drifted off while staring at their script. The other students in the underpopulated room stared expectantly at the power duo from their strangest dreams. Lovecleft’s diorama had now grown to encompass most of the two dozen unused desks in the room.

“Oh, yeah. Of course.” Kiro replied. “You ready?”

That classic look of truant determination flashed across her face. She nodded with a grunt that sounded more like a bark.

It started off a bit tenuously. Kiro and Maia quickly realized that the anything-goes chemistry they cultivated while scrambling to complete the group project wasn't well-suited to showing confidence in their chosen topic. After stumbling through the explanation of their thesis statement, though, they dove into the subsequent thematic analysis of water with the mental reset potential of a pro sports team. As they crossed into the psychological breakdown of the female heroine, both Kiro and Maia began to hit their stride. It was a bit of a startling realization, but despite all the goofing off, they really had put in the work.

By the time they wrapped up and circled back to their thesis, they managed to explain it far better in the conclusion than they had at the start. Just as suddenly as they were shoved into the spotlight, the dynamic duo was ushered from the front of the room with a wave of Lovecleft-approved jazz hands. The pair were fortunate enough to catch an approving glance from Lovecleft himself as they took their seats.

To cool down from the stress of almost embarrassing themselves, Kiro and Maia took to doodling and reading recipe magazines, disguised in grammar textbooks respectively. Minutes melted away, and if it wasn't for the ringing of the bell, the two might have gone on until the sun went down.

They stared at each other for a few seconds before Kiro was able to speak.

“I guess this means that our little group is dissolved.”

Maia scrunched her face in consideration before responding.

“Nah.”

Kiro looked at her, his head askew. “What?”

“I can’t let you off the leash with your dumb ideas about baking.”

---

V.I.A.S. High was a school of many specialties, replete with a state-of-the-art computer lab and all the modern sports facilities on the campus that anyone could dream of. It was even the proud and often very boastful owner of a full video and sound production studio. Within its multi-acre campus and towering four main buildings, there must have been hundreds of rooms with dozens of purposes.

Among all the top class amenities advertised by the school, nowhere on the list was a thirty-counter home ec room.

Kiro never expected to find himself in this relic from the past. Him and Maia were almost insignificant at their single station amid the sea of set-ups beneath the 30 feet vaulted ceiling. Even as he watched the dough fluff and brown through the little gold window of the oven, it felt like they were somewhere they weren't supposed to be.

Maia tapped her foot. “Tsk. Can't believe I'm saying this, but this is taking too long.”

“Why’s that?” Kiro asked.

“Because someone messed up the starter dough three times.”

“Hey, I thought you said my dad needed to use more oil!”

Maia bounced an empty flour carton off his head. “Yeah, for French toast. I didn't say anything about using it to make regular toast!”

“How was I supposed to know that toast and bread are two different things?!”

“This is why I said you need to be kept on a leash!”

Kiro balked at the irony. “Oddly fixated on the leash thing, aren't we?”

“Not even in your dreams, dweeb. Pass the tray, we gotta start on the muffins.”

Kiro obliged. The pair laid out half a dozen wrappers one at a time. They ran to the vast, refrigerated walk-in pantry in the back for ingredients. Eggs, milk, batter powder mix, and last but not least, no less than two handfuls of edible sparkles.

“Is there any reason you want them to come out looking like disco balls?” Kiro asked.

“The prettier they are, the better they taste. Duh,” Maia replied. “Also, I like them.”

“Huh.”

“What?”

“Didn't expect you to like things like that. “

“Like what.” Maia glared at him with a spatula raised for battle. “Spit it out.”

“L-Like…” Kiro stuttered. “You know. Sparkles.”

The plastic spatula rebounded off of his forehead with a dull thwap.

Kiro rubbed the pink mark on his forehead. “Careful! You could kill someone with that thing.”

Smoke billowed from the oven next to them. Maia’s eyes widened.

“The only thing getting killed is our dough starter!” She yelped.

She dropped to her knees, ripping the tray out of the oven. They stared at the burnt loaf in the tray, as if they were administering the wounded in a war.

“Scraping knife!” Maia yelled. “Now!”

“Yes, sir! I mean, uh- ma’am!” Kiro fumbled the tool into her hand.

“Sprinkling water!”

“Got it!”

“We're losing it! 3rd degree burns over 70% of its surface!”

Kiro snapped a baking glove into her hand and looked her dead in the eyes. “Then I guess we’re going in.”

The surgery proceeded with utmost haste as they peeled back the charred surface of the loaf. A tiny, edible center revealed itself. In desperate sawing motions, they managed to salvage the hardened, but still spongy core.

“Condition stabilized.” Kiro noted.

“Neat. Now it's time for the muffins.”

After the first giant blunder, the muffins miraculously came in and out of the oven without much incident. Unlike the bread, the danger this second generation of baked goods faced only materialized once they were out of the fire. While Maia went to put away some of the materials, Kiro's eyes were caught by an icing piper that was left on a nearby table. Doing his best to keep things symmetrical and even, Kiro added hefty, pirouetted dollops of icing onto each muffin, with a pinch of sparkly sprinkles for good measure.

When Maia returned to their baking station, she almost dropped her freshly washed tray in shock.

“Who assaulted our muffins!?”

“Oh. I guess I sort of made them into cupcakes.”

“You what.”

“Cupcakes and muffins aren’t all that different, right?”

Maia's nose twitched as she raised the spatula. Expecting the worst, Kiro shrunk into his shoulders.

But all that came was a laugh.

“You're a funny guy, Kiro.” She scooped a muffin up with her spatula. “You almost got me with that one.”

With the same spatula, she shoved a muffin into his still-cowering hands.

“Mm. Not bad,” she said, practically shoving the entire thing into her mouth in one go.

Kiro sniffed the cupcake before following suit, as if to see if he could detect the slightest hint of cyanide. He closed his eyes, slowly and cautiously taking a small bite. While he definitely wasn't new to muffins or cupcakes or whatever this abomination was supposed to be, the earthy notes of nutmeg and the spongy consistency of the thick center felt like a brand new experience. Between the lovingly scattered sugary sprinkles on top and the last minute addition of what must have been carrot cake icing, the personal touches only made it taste two times better. So tasty in fact, that neither him nor Maia noticed how fast they each scarfed down a second helping.

“Wait! I need to save one for my mom!” Maia yelped, ripping a third muffin cake just out of her jaws’ reach.

“Good point,” Kiro snatched the last cupcake from the tray. “We almost ‘taste tested’ all of them there.”

“I hope your dad learns something from his taste test.”

Kiro's laugh was interrupted by a splash sound from his phone.

“Hey Kiro. How’d the date go?”

“Pretty good, thanks. Though neither of us watched the first movie.”

“Don't worry, you’re not supposed to watch the first one. Anyways, let me know if you want to bounce ideas for your next outing.”

Kiro stared at the phone screen, his fingers frozen over the keyboard. It was almost invisible, but something about Keano’s words irked him. No, it was what the Anglerfish-Boy had told him last time that was bothering him now.

About middle school.

“Nah, it’s alright. I think I'm going to come up with an idea myself. Can't rely on you all the time, haha.”

“Oh, okay. Good luck, and see you on Fridleday, dear Kironius!”

Kiro set his phone down on the counter, and stared at the muffin cake in his hand. Maia, seeing that her attention was no longer needed, was halfway to the exit. He took one last look at the phone before facing her.

“Say,” Kiro said, “I think I might have a crazy idea.”

Maia turned her head without stopping. “Crazier than me teaching you baking?”

“Maybe.” Kiro grinned. “How would you feel about getting some more taste testers?”

“Where?”

“You’ll see. How does this Friday-?”

Two pairs of shoes squeaked to a halt behind them. Kiro turned to the source of the sound and his face went pale. Maia followed his mortified gaze.

“Mad Dog?”

Birch’s voice made Maia visibly grimace.

“What’re you two doing here?” Maia asked.

Sally crossed her arms. “You weren’t at Mr. L’s afterschool class. They said you headed somewhere in this direction.”

“We were looking all over for you!” Birch added. “We really need you at The Jungle today! Why didn’t you answer any of our calls?”

“Oh.” Maia glanced at her phone. “I left it off. Was busy with something.”

“Maia.” Sally’s tone went sharp. “There’s a five hundred dollar pot on today’s match.”

“I got it.” Maia waved her off. “I’ll be there.”

“What’re you even doing here?” Birch asked.

“I just said, I was busy.”

“No, Mad Dog.” Birch glared past her. “I was talking about him.”

Kiro waved at the pair of girls with a sheepish grin.

“Don’t worry about him.” Maia walked by him, pocketing her hands. “Let’s just go.”

The Hodag and Jackalope stared at her as she passed them. Without giving Kiro a second glance, the trio headed off in the opposite direction, leaving him standing alone in the hallway.

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