Chapter 17:

The Whirlwind Zone

Are You Real?


The crowd was quieter than usual. Far quieter at least, than a Friday night fight should have been. Bottles, skateboards, and screams should’ve filled the air, pushing them all ever closer to the inevitable boundary of getting caught. Instead, like watching an opera, everyone silently spectated the slugfest in front of them.

From her place onstage, beside the massive half-pipe ramp of the skatepark, Sally could barely make out the top of Maia’s beanie. Birch stood opposite to her idol on the pipe ramp, holding her fire bell with a steeled, silent gaze. To anyone but Sally, Birch probably looked like her mind was empty of thoughts. But because it's Birch, and because she was Sally, there was nothing more obvious than the truth.

She’s worried sick.

Sally kicked off from her leaning spot against the pipe ramp and slunk away from the stage. Peeking into the pit, the two contestants in there were as fierce as ever. But, much like their overseers above, the crowd seemed to be counting down the seconds before it was over.

Sally approached the bush line and fumbled in her pocket for a small, cardboard box. Before she could withdraw any of its contents, her eyes were caught by a jarring flash of orange grass.

Wait. Orange grass? That’s-

That dweeb that Sally saw two days ago with Mad Dog. No, rather it was that dweeb that kept conveniently cropping up all over the place. And he was heading straight for her in a lopsided, heaving jog.

Sally shoved her hands in her pockets. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I'm here,” Kiro heaved before continuing, “to… tell something to Maia. Or, uh, Mad Dog. Whatever you guys call her.”

“Well, she's busy.”

“Can you at least take a message?” Kiro reached into his pocket. “Had a feeling it would come to this.”

He slipped a small, folded piece of notebook paper into Sally's hands.

“You'll get this to her, right ? Kiro asked. “Pals’ promise?”

“I’m not your pal.” Sally pointed in the opposite direction. “Now scram, before someone thinks otherwise.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.” Kiro said, jogging away.

“Wait, I didn't say I’d do it-”

Sally cut herself off as the boy disappeared around a bend of green. Almost immediately, she opened the note up. Her eyes narrowed at the text, clenching the piece of paper just short of ripping it.

Just as the smallest hint of a tear started to form on the note, an idea popped into Sally’s head. Doing what she did best, she returned to the stage as if she had never left.

“Come on, who taught you how to cheer!?” came Birch’s voice. “Can't you see these boys are spilling their guts out for ya?!”

The crowd reacted with a lull at first. After a few seconds though, the seeds of two opposing chants were planted. Amid a rising clamor of voices, up above, Maia stared on. Her eyes were caught in that peculiar fugue state as she was deep in thought.

Figuring it was a waste to just stand around, Sally joined in on Birch’s chants as the fight began to pick up momentum. Charged by the intensity in the air, the boxers came out of their corner swinging. The fight had lasted four sluggish rounds without anything of note. But with one minute left on the clock, things entered what the jocks had dubbed the, “Whirlwind Zone”. Everything could change in an instant, between the passion of those with skin in the game and the encouragement of those in the stands.

It was only a matter of time before the Whirlwind Zone claimed its first victim. A deafening slam burst forth from the pit. The challenger raised his fists in victory over the crumpled pile of his opponent.

“No sweat!” he yelled, to a retort of approving cheers.

Things picked back up again. Seeing Birch’s face light up, Sally couldn't help but smile. That was, until she also saw Mad Dog slinking by the corners of her vision.

“Wait.” Sally called. “I’ve got something for you.”

She observed Mad Dog carefully before handing her the piece of paper. Maia unfolded and glanced at the note before shoving it into her pocket.

Maia began to walk away. “Later.”

“You’re in a hurry,” Sally said.

Maia's nose twitched. “You want somethin’ from me?”

“What's your relationship with that dweeb?”

“You want the truth?” Maia rubbed the bags under her eyes with her hands. “He's just someone that I was working on a group project with. After that ended, I didn't feel like doing baking by myself. It was nice to have some help, that's all.”

“I'm glad you know how to ask for help, but how about helping us for a change? Birch was trying her best out there, you know?”

In response, Maia let out a sharp exhale and walked off.

Sally stood there, unable to move as she watched Mad Dog disappear past the bush line. It wasn't until a big, heavy hand came down upon her shoulder that she managed to snap out of it.

“Today was rough, huh?” Birch asked.

“Yeah,” Sally turned to her. “Tough crowd.”

“Right. We both know that's BS.” Birch stared at the bush line. “What's up with Mad Dog just walking off like that?”

“She's probably going off to meet up with that dweeb. Had me pass a note to her, can you believe that?”

“Huh? What dweeb?”

“Remember that weirdo we saw walking with her on Wednesday?”

Birch recoiled at the news. “What? But that’s… Mad Dog would never hang out with a nerd like him!”

“The note I read said otherwise.”

Birch stood in silence. Then, a dark glint came over her eyes.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“If I am, then no.” Sally frowned. “I'm not gonna follow her. What’re we, obsessed?”

“No one's obsessed,” Birch replied. “I'm just worried about her.”

“I am too.” Sally said, putting a hand onto the one on her shoulder. “But she's our friend. We need to respect her boundaries.”

“Look, boundaries are one thing. But we're losing interest.” Birch pulled away from Sally’s comforting gesture. “If people start doubting Mad Dog, we'd lose everything that the three of us are trying to build here!”

Sally paused. She could read Birch like a book and the pages were crying out for something to quell their anxiety. Sally wanted to ask if it was the meatheads that were doubting Mad Dog, or if it was Birch herself.

Before she could make out the words to her question, Birch leaned in for a hug.

“Sally.” Birch whispered. “Please.”

---

Maia laid the piping hot rack of pastries onto a makeshift holder of layered paper towels. The dim light bulb above struggled to cover even this cramped space. The only ventilated air came from the cracks between the taped up windows facing the street.

She lowered a second, completely unbaked tray into her one-rack oven and thrusted the rusty door shut with her hip. As she was taking off her gloves, the lock on the front door rattled open. As someone entered and slammed the door shut behind them, the floorboards creaked a decibel away from breaking.

Aya- I told you not to leave the shoes all over!”

Her mom's voice shot across the paper thin walls of their two-room flat. Maia shrunk into her shoulders as the voice materialized directly behind her.

Wa! I didn't know you were baking again!”

Maia couldn't respond for a lack of words. Fortunately, with her mother, she rarely had to.

“Sorry,” her mom continued instead. “You’re probably late to see your friends.”

“What’re you apologizing for?”

“Oven’s too small. Wastes a lot of time. I'm sorry we don't have a bigger one.”

Umma!” Maia turned around, her eyes narrowed with furious gravitas. “How could you blame yourself for that? Ours is at least better than the one they have at school.”

“Don’t yell.” Her mother consciously eyed the oven again. “Why not go to a friend’s house? Maybe they could lend you their oven.”

Maia pauses halfway through laying a dirty mixing bowl into the crowded sink. She doesn't say anything, but this time her mom gives her time to think. Just as the girl reached her invisible conclusion, her mother came up from behind and hugged her.

“Umma?”

“You’re coming home early this week. You’re doing well in class now, aren’t you?” Pulling back, her mother reached up to clear some hair from her daughter's eyes. “I’m so proud of you.”

“You don’t have to say it like that.” Maia puffed out her cheeks and looked away. “It's embarrassing.”

“It’s my job, no?” Her mom patted Maia’s head one more time before disappearing into the other room. “Get some sleep. The bags under your eyes are getting worse.”

Maia wrapped up her baking to the sound of gentle snores emanating from the other room. With great, covert care, she sifted all the pastries into a pair of professional white desert boxes that she had bought on her way home. Gingerly stowing the boxes into a bag, Maia stepped out of the apartment.

“I could say the same for you,” Maia whispered to herself.

She made sure the rickety lock made as little noise as possible as she closed the door.

---

“Don't worry. She’ll be here.” Kiro said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I'm sure of it.”

Keano sipped from a glass of water. “I shall consider her fashionable lateness for your sake, dear Kironius!”

“The wait is killing me,” cried Cricket-Rick. “Why aren't you letting us order desserts again?”

“I-”

Before Kiro could finish his sentence, the door to the cafe jingled open. A chill immediately fell upon the table in the form of a nearby shadow.

“Sup,” said the droopy-eared stranger.

Everyone went dead silent as they stared up at the foreboding figure. Kiro casually gestured towards her.

“Keano, this is Maia. Maia, this is Keano.” Kiro pointed around the table. “And that's Cricket-Rick. And-”

“I can ask them myself.” Maia said, setting down her two bags of goods on the table.

“Ah, a brave wandering merchant has arrived with exotic wares for sale,” Keano narrated.

Maia paused, less frozen and more like out of her brain lagging to process the Anglerfish-boy’s words. She turned to Kiro.

“Why is he talking like that? Is this some sort of cult?”

“Wha- No! Of course not.” Kiro sputtered. “He's just, uh…”

“It's called role-playing, dear Kironius, and there’s no shame in it.” Keano said, his grin widening. “Maia, was it? Take a seat, we must discuss the terms of our barter.”

“Barter?” Maia murmured as she sat down. “Kironius?”

The row of players opposite from Keano scooched down. Maia plopped onto the freed-up spot. Nobody dared to say a word.

Kiro leaned towards her with a conspiratorial whisper. “Go on. Show them.”

Maia withdrew the two fancy boxes and laid them atop an empty section of the gridded dungeon board. When it came to opening them, however, she couldn't help but hesitate.

Keano frowned. Then, his lips twisted into a smile as he adjusted his glasses with a glint.

“But of course,” he narrated, “our dear merchant would likely want to speak of compensation first and foremost. Before we're worthy of seeing her wares, our brave party of heroes shall reveal their identities to you as a sign of mutual trust.”

“Oh! Uh, right!” Kiro gestured to himself. “I’m… Kironius. The Rogue.”

“I’m Wang,” the Ox-Boy said. “The Paladin.”

“Zahra. The Healer,” Zahra the Ambiguous-Beetle across from them added.

I’m Rick. The Ranger, and also the most valuable member of the party. Everyone calls me Cricket-Rick.” He leaned on his head with both his chin and pedipalps, giving Maia a wink. “But you can call me whatever you like.”

“I’m Klara. The Mage.” Right next to Cricket-Rick, the acne-faced Kitsune punched the side of his arm. “Pleased to meet you.”

“She’s the damage dealer of the party…” Cricket-Rick rubbed at his fresh bruise as he mumbled.

Maia's nose twisted in confusion. By the time that the rotation was done, her shoulders were noticeably less tense, despite the bewildered look in her narrowed eyes.

“And I am…” She paused. “Just, Maia. I guess.”

“Ah,” Keano adjusted his glasses. “But of course. You are Maia, the Just. We've no doubt heard of you amid our many adventures.”

Maia’s gaze flicked onto Kiro, as if to ask what did you tell them. But Keano continued.

“Honored guest. Feel free to present your wares,” he concluded with a bow.

Though Maia bore a look akin to frustration, Kiro felt in his gut that she was almost enjoying herself. Seeing that she had cracked open the box after a little more hesitation, Kiro knew she needed just a bit of help. Standing in his seat, Kiro nodded to Maia.

He opened the box for her the whole way and presented it to the table. Maia's efforts were greeted with a series of enthusiastic gasps.

Before them sat a perfect set of gridded strudels. Delicate bridges of lovingly sugared golden crust strode across fragrant canyons of strawberry and apricot jam fillings. While no longer piping hot from their long trip over, the pastries retained every bit of that wonderful glow through the windows of a bakery first thing in the morning.

“Are you telling me you made these?” Zahra asked, their hands to their chitinous, grooved face.

Klara’s nine tails wagged. “These look super professional!”

Kiro had never seen Maia cower away from anything, but in that moment he could see the beginning of a blush building up beneath her dense fur. Taking on a bit more of the burden, Kiro distributed a pastry each to the members of the table. After a short deliberation period of fawning and taking photos, the group dug into their respective portions.

At once, a collective “MMMM!” shook the air.

The blush grew deeper on Maia’s face. She turned away while the others finished their pastries. By the end of the taste-testing, there were nothing but grins on their faces.

“Ah. A meal fit for a king,” Keano narrated.

“I could feel the mana coursing through my veins in every bite!” Wang said, patting his stomach.

“Yes.” Klara nodded in approval. “Consumables as potent as this would cost more gold than our party has to offer.”

“In fact,” Zahra added, “it would be a crime for us not to offer something in return.”

Keano nodded. Then, he reached into his pocket and presented Maia a paper bill.

“What's that for?” Maia asked.

“Rightful compensation,” Keano smiled. “Plus, thanks to you we don't need to buy desserts, so it's the least we can do.”

After the entire table took turns passing her their share, Cricket-Rick crossed his arms and tried to put on an aloof air.

“D-do you have any more? Asking for my mom, I mean.”

Klara snickered. Kiro nudged Maia's elbow. The canine girl flipped both boxes upside down, and nothing but crumbs came out.

“I guess we're out. I should probably get going.”

“That's a shame,” Keano replied, pleating his hands just below his nose. His glasses tilted at the perfect angle to go full-glint. “We could use another player, you see.”

“Yeah,” Kiro said. “You can take my place.”

“Nonsense,” Cricket-Rick chirped. “She can play the Hellhound.”

“I don't, uh…” Maia scanned the bizarre combination of figures and gridded illustrations before her. “Know exactly how to play pretend.”

“It's easy,” Keano said. “Provided that your courage matches your Justness.”

“Alright, fine. I'll bite just this once. But only ‘cause you guys were nice,” she said, cradling the Hellhound figure in her hands.

“You don't have to be the party’s dog if you like.” Keano quickly readied the pencil and paper in front of him. “I can make you a character sheet right now.”

“The dog’s good with me,” Maia replied. “Thanks.”

In that moment, Kiro could almost see the bags under her eyes shrink. Maia, at long last, was smiling.

---

Maia's smile reflected in painful clarity across the cafe’s glass. Sally broke free from the cafe windows, pulling Birch along with her.

“Huh. Never saw her smile like that before,” Sally thought aloud. “I guess she's really buddy-buddy with those nerds.”

“Almost like she's forgetting about us,” Birch said, her throat shaking with the syllables.

“I don't think it's that big of a deal. As long as things keep running smoothly in the ring, there's no problem.”

“We both know there's a problem,” Birch shot back, plunging her fist into a nearby light pole. “She hasn't been giving it her all. We both know that. And now, we might’ve just found out why. The reason why she's throwing away what the three of us built.”

As she waited for Birch to calm down, a strange, but gripping notion crossed Sally’s tongue.

“Birch. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Sally placed a careful hand on Birch's shoulder. “Do you really think Maia was all that interested in The Jungle? It was originally your idea after all.”

“I thought it was something that we shared. Girls like us don't have it easy.” Birch’s gaze lowered. “And I thought Mad Dog understood that. She's a legend to all of us that don't fit in.”

“And you're feeling like that legend isn't all that it's cracked up to be?”

“It's not just that!” Birch pulled away from her again. “I thought she was different. I thought that she mattered. But if the meatheads at the ring find out that she's gone soft, there's no telling what might happen.”

“Calm down, Birch. We’re gonna get caught if we make too much noise,” Sally said. “Look, we can talk to her later and straighten things out. For now though, since we're in this nice area and all, I was thinking we might take some time to chill. Just the two of us, like the good ol’ days. Deal?”

Birch nodded and pulled Sally in by her waist. “Yeah, I think I'd like that.”

The two of them walked off side by side towards the carnival of reds, blues, and yellows down the street. As the cafe was about to shrink out of view, Sally cast one last look at it over her shoulder.

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