Chapter 23:

Collision Course (Part 1)

Are You Real?


Going to the supermarket on Saturdays always felt like you bought a free ticket to the zoo. The joyous screaming of youngsters who discovered the candy aisle, the embarrassed fretting of mothers running after them, and the scowls of the elderly shambling in the background like zombies. From the moment that he walked in, Kiro couldn't have felt more out of place amid the flurry of jaws and paws.

This wasn't helped, of course, by the body length perimeter at which the store's patrons kept from Maia at all times.

“Is there any reason why I had to come with you?” Kiro asked, sinking into his turtleneck.

“Part of baking is getting the right ingredients, so I’m teaching you just that.” Maia shoved a box of baking powder into their basket. “This is gonna be my first time working with a good oven without the risk of getting caught by a janitor.”

“Yeah, but this is gonna take hours. On a Saturday.”

“It’ll go by faster if you quit your whining and help me find the sprinkles.” Maia said, scanning the aisles. “Plus... it's for a special occasion.”

“You don't have to go all out for next week's DND group, you know. They already like your baking.” With a wink, Kiro added, “And maybe even you, too.”

“Huh?” Maia tore herself away from a rack of spices. “Oh, yeah. The next meetup, right.”

Kiro cocked his head and followed her deeper into the aisle. Before he could ask a follow-up question though, Maia dropped a large bag of flour into his hands.

“Here,” she said. “It's premium.”

Kiro lets out an exasperated wheeze. “And why am I carrying around all the stuff?!”

“Well, it's not like you know where to find the ingredients.” Maia's muzzle curled into a grin. “I mean, seriously. Shouldn't you at least know where the milk aisle is? This place is like, ten minutes from your house.”

“Hey,” Kiro said, finally managing to prop the flour bag against his knee. “As I'm sure you're aware, I have a busy social life.”

Maia examined a canister of pralines. “Yeah, I'm sure your dolls really enjoy the quality time.”

“They're not dolls, they're action figures!” Kiro replied. “And you could at least help with the heavy lifting.”

“I'm going to be doing the real heavy lifting when we get back.” Maia's lips curled into an incisor-heavy smile. “You know, when I'm doing all the baking.”

Kiro pouted. “I can help too, you know.”

“Oh yeah?” Maia crossed her arms. “So what else do we need then?”

“Well, uh…”

He glanced around for clues, but his Art-Vision was instantly rendered useless amid the sea of identically shaped and nauseatingly colorful packaging.

Maia raised an eyebrow. “I'm waiting. But it's your precious time that you're burning.”

Kiro puffed out his chest. “Cream.”

“And where would that be?”

Kiro's finger shot out in a random direction. Maia’s gaze followed where he was pointing, landing on the cleaning supplies aisle.

“Yeah, I'm sure that bleach will go delightfully well with our lemon zest feeling.”

“You know, I'm starting to regret letting you use my oven.”

Maia let out a singular, concussive laugh and continued walking. “Keep whining and you won't get a crumb when it's all over.”

Kiro did his best to keep pace, finding that the most effective method was to waddle.

---

Kiro pressed the doorbell to his house for only half a second before his father appeared in the doorway. From Richard’s strangely charismatic, hip handed posture to his goofy, head-sized grin, the two teenagers couldn't be blamed for thinking he was waiting there the whole time. Between the doorbell that sounded like something out of a decades-old pirate movie and the sudden appearance of the great red mass in front of them, Richard had first move advantage.

“Heya, champ.” The big red fuzzball said, plucking the bag of flour from his son's shaking hands. “Wow, this is a lot lighter than it looked!”

Kiro heard Maia snicker behind him. Before the boy could shoot her a scowl, Richard ushered the two of them in with a hand on the shoulder. Stepping inside, the teens were faced with a strange sight.

The house had seemed like a modest, two-story home on the outside, and the inside certainly delivered what was on the tin. What was bizarre about the meager entranceway, the reasonably-sized kitchen up ahead, and the kitsch-covered living room beyond that though, was the fact that it was spotless. Like, suspiciously spotless. The kind that it would take for a whole platoon of servants to achieve mere seconds before the queen herself walked through the door.

“Wow,” Maia mumbled, watching Richard saunter over into the kitchen. “Your dad’s… thorough.”

“Whoops,” Richard let out a nervous laugh. “I guess I got a little carried away. Can't remember the last time Kiro had a friend over is all.”

Kiro felt his stomach trying to walk away from the situation as his cheeks started to burn. “Can we please just get to baking now?”

“Yeah,” Maia replied with another snicker. “Mister busy social life over here just can't wait to watch me do all the work.”

As the three of them got situated in the kitchen and donned an identical series of lobster-themed aprons at Richard’s behest, the reality of things soon dawned on Kiro. His dad might have been a terrible cook, but he was a quick learner. When Maia asked for a whisk, it appeared in her hands within an instant. And when she demanded that the batter mix be prepared, it had already been mixed half a minute ago. Kiro tried to dodge and weave between their hands as they went at it, but his most pivotal role wound up being milk runs from the fridge to the counter and back.

Try as he might, Kiro couldn't break an egg correctly if he wanted to. And while neither could his dad, at least Richard could reach the rolling pin tucked in the high shelf above the loaded sink. After his dad mentioned out of nowhere that Kiro used to have mini dinner parties with his action figures, Kiro resorted to damage control. But intercepting a dad's attempts to relay comedic childhood anecdotes would take its toll on even the bravest soul.

While Richard and Maia set the dough aside to let it rise, Kiro threw himself into a wicker chair. As the fraying material dug into his back though, he had something of an epiphany.

“I'll be right back,” Kiro yelped, before running out of the kitchen.

Rounding the kitchen wall with its counter style window, Kiro practically threw himself up the stairs on all fours. When he stepped back into the kitchen, it was with the Monsterpedia in tow.

“Been a while since I saw you lug that thing around,” Maia said.

Kiro’s mouth hung open for a second, before he remembered that she was the one that returned it to him. It was hard to believe it’s been four weeks since then.

“I guess I just haven’t made as much time for drawing lately.” He laid it neatly upon the counter alongside a pencil.

“Aww,” Richard replied, balancing a tray full of cupcake molds in one arm. “Didn't you used to love drawing?”

“I still do,” Kiro said, as he picked up the pencil on his ear. “But… for whatever reason, I just didn't have the motivation for it recently.”

The oven let out a hearty ding, drawing the eyes of everyone present.

With the first batch of pastries finally out, Maia entered a state of supreme focus. All the two Lane boys could do was watch as she alternated between frosting, sprinkles, and filling additions in a frighteningly fluent frenzy. And just when they thought she was done, the oven dinged once more.

By the time that she finished dressing up an entire zoo's worth of animal-shaped cookies, she was wiping what looked like a bucket of sweat from her brow. After a gentle nudge from Richard, Kiro ensured that a cup of cold water quickly found its way into her hands.

She downed the glass in one go. “Thanks. Or whatever.”

“You've done a fine job, miss,” Richard beamed, unsubtly eyeing the cookies. “Why, if you ever feel like you'd want to use our humble kitchen again, it would be an honor. That is, if you don't mind making extra.”

“Baker's Code,” Maia replied, with the toothiest, most awkward version of a genuine smile that she could muster. “Always make more than you need.”

Saying that, she neatly divided what had been finished into a plate and a box, the former for the Lane household and the latter for her own purposes. Kiro watched his father furtively reach for the plate and devour a strawberry elephant with a forcibly dainty bite. For some strange, but not entirely incomprehensible reason, Kiro was reminded of how his party was gobbled up by the Spasilisk.

Something sparked in his brain.

While Maia and Richard supervised the second wave of baked goods, Kiro set pencil to paper. After getting half-a-dozen rusty caricature doodles out of the way, he finally managed to whip up a rough sketch that he was proud enough to present.

“This is the first time I really tried to draw something that wasn't someone else,” he said, as he held the paper up to them.

Maia leaned in to inspect it. It was a minimalistic, circular logo of a geometric Doberman wearing a cupcake for a Baker's hat. The text that ran around it read, Hellhound’s Pastries, with the tagline just below: If you're going to pay for your sins, you might as well have a full stomach.

“I don't like the name,” Maia said. “And the quote’s cheesy.”

Kiro bit his lip and buried his chin in his turtleneck.

“But overall, I think it's pretty cute,” Maia added, chuckling. “Mind if I take it to get printed?”

With an eager nod, Kiro extracted the page and handed it over. Maia folded it carefully and put it in her pocket, trying to avoid eye contact as she did so.

The doorbell’s jaunty sea shanty rang across the kitchen.

“I'll get it,” Maia said, taking off her apron. “You boys clean up.”

As she walked off to the door with her tail gently wagging, Richard turned to his son.

“I didn't expect you to go that type, but you really snagged a keeper,” Richard whispered.

Horror etched across Kiro’s face at the speed of lightning. “Dad. I don't know where you got that, but you have the wrong i-”

“Uhh, Kiro,” came Maia's uneasy voice from the doorway. “There's someone here to see you. Someone important.”

Kiro threw off his apron and started jogging in the direction of the front door. When Maia stepped back to let the visitor in, he stopped dead in his tracks.

“Ai?”

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