Chapter 25:

Wasting Away

Are You Real?


With a sigh, Keano slumped into the hard, pizzeria booth. Try as he might, he just couldn't get himself to relax. One second, he would take out his phone to check his messages, and the next, he would be shoving it hastily into his pocket after hearing the slightest shuffle on the passing street.

“Good luck,” came Klara's final text from an hour ago.

Cricket-Rick’s message just minutes before that read:

“Remember, be assertive. Otherwise you put the ass in-”

Keano didn't bother to finish reading it, although looking back at it gave him a good chuckle. The crisp Sunday morning beyond the establishment’s glass had rapidly decayed into a flat gray against all forecasts. If he was the one running this world as a campaign behind the scenes, Keano would be rubbing his hands at the set dressing. But unlike the controlled chaos of a campaign, he was once more about to enter into the uncharted territory of emotions.

Keano clutched a small, wave shaped pendant that hung from his neck. The glibness of the calm before a storm was hard to fight off—he was all-too-familiar with it.

After all, this wasn't the first time.

---

“Ughhh…” grumbled the Leech. “I can't believe we have to do this stupid project.”

“Yeah.” The Pilotfish exhaled. “It's like, so stupid and useless.”

“I wanna go home.” buzzed The Mosquito.

Sitting in a trio, the three parasites had done nothing up until that point. Keano was sitting across from them, watching as they took side-glances at Kiro nearby.

Kiro nodded with a tired smile. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Whoa, seriously?!” the Mosquito yelled. “Dude, you’re a lifesaver man, thanks so much.”

“For real.” The Pilotfish nodded in agreement.

“Thanks dude.” The Leech laid a slimy limb on Kiro’s shoulder. “Can always count on you.”

The Mosquito stretched his long legs out before getting out of his seat. “Welp. I’m gonna go take a bathroom break.”

The Leech got up. “Me too. Been holding in a dump.”

The Pilotfish followed them. “I’ll come wash my face.”

With that, the three freeloaders left, with Kiro happily waving them off. Keano was left staring at Kiro after he laid down his portion of the work. He wasn’t sure if Kiro himself had noticed them eyeing him earlier. What he did expect though, was for them to not return before the end of class, turning the five-student group project into a two-student scramble.

Keano took two of the sheets that Kiro was working on.

“You don’t have to do that,” Kiro said.

“Neither did you,” Keano replied. “You’re gonna get crushed at this rate.”

“Oh, y’know. I'm just trying to be nice.”

“They need to do their part of the work.” Keano stood up. “I should tell Mr. Soundatch-”

“No, no, no.” Kiro waved his hands, gesturing for Keano to sit back down. “It's fine, really.”

Keano hesitated on a step before returning to his seat. After getting through a page of work each, Keano watched Kiro pull out a spring-spined planner. Kiro rifled through the pages, each one more jam packed than the last with hasty scribbles:

Homework for Jaiden

Loan 5 more bucks to Joey U.

Walk Ougi’s dog

Finally arriving to the most recent, abominably crowded page, Keano watched Kiro write: Finish group project for-

Keano couldn't stand to look at the dozen-or-so entries in the boy’s book any longer. Instead, he stared at the boy himself. Kiro's auburn hair was the messiest he'd ever seen it, long since due for a haircut. The bags under his eyes and his bitten nails were a testament to all the hours of work that weren't his. His shirt was wrinkled, noticeably stained, and evidently had just barely passed that morning’s smell check.

This wasn't just your average middle schooler who didn't take care of themselves. This was a middle schooler with an excuse not to take care of themselves.

“You're not doing this to be nice,” Keano said. “You're doing this to be liked.”

Kiro's hand stopped writing. His pencil dropped on the planner page as he looked up.

“What do you know, Keano?”

Keano stayed silent.

For the two semesters he had known Kiro, Keano had always suspected his acquaintance was being used. It was only now, after finally having the opportunity to be able to work with him on a group project, that the severity of the situation truly sunk in. But by then, as it turned out, those were the last words that they spoke to each other for the rest of middle school beyond the customary “Hello” in the halls. The last thing that Keano remembered about Kiro, was how uncharacteristically silent and sad the boy was on the day of their group’s presentation.

And how it stayed that way until graduation.

---

Keano stared at his phone, and decided to reply to Klara with simple "thanks". Shortly after the text went through, the bell at the pizza place's entrance jingled.

“Hey.”

As soon as he heard Kiro's voice, Keano lowered his phone and stood up to greet him. By the subtly sour expression on Kiro's face, it was clear that he wasn't thrilled to be here.

"Thanks for coming," Keano said. "I know it was a little short notice, so sorry about that."

"It's fine," Kiro replied, playing up the already-present tiredness in his voice. "So why'd you call me here?"

"There's something I'm still waiting for before we can talk about the main topic at hand," Keano gestured to the pizza counter. "Let's order our slices first."

Kiro shrugged and followed Keano. The pizzeria owner took their orders, pronouncing the name of their slices with a thick accent and exaggerated waves of his long, saw-like snout.

Keano already has his wallet in hand. "I'll pay."

"Keano, no-"

But the bills were already in Keano's hand. "It's the least I can do for calling you like this out of left field."

Kiro's frown couldn't help but level out.

"Two Margarita slices for the round boy, and one square for the fluffy one," the owner yelled. "Coming right up!"

"So," Keano said, returning to their booth first, "that Megatroid rerun sure was something. Right, dear Kironius?"

Kiro nodded as he glanced around the pizzaria. "Mhm."

Keano cleared his throat.

"How are things with your girlfriend?"

Kiro sighed. He locked eyes with Keano.

"Is that what you called me here to talk about?"

"Look man." Keano splayed his palms. "I helped you figure out where to go for your first date. And I helped you with the... protection spell. The least you can do is let me in on your life a little."

Kiro hesitated, staring off at the pizza oven instead. When he spoke, it was in a hushed, almost choked-up tone:

"Life is… complicated. You think it's going fine one second, but the next, things are falling apart."

Keano tried to formulate his tone as if Maia had not filled him in on what happened the evening before.

With a nod, he said, "Ah. I get that."

"I don't know," Kiro mumbled. "I think I need some time to... Think about things."

"Three slices!" came the accented voice from behind the counter.

Both boys got up from their seats, but Keano insisted for Kiro to sit back down with hand motions.

"All I'm saying," Keano continued after returning with their slices, "is why do it alone?"

The entranceway bell jingled. Keano raised his head towards the door in acknowledgement, while Kiro could only blankly stare. It suddenly clicked in Kiro's head as to why Keano had ordered two slices, despite being the kind of person that could barely finish his bubble tea.

Maia walked in through the door and plopped herself down beside Keano.

"Sorry I'm late," she said. "Had to help my mom translate what the electrician was saying."

"Worry not, Noble Hellhound." Keano replied, sliding a slice towards her. "In fact, as always, you're in the nick of time."

Maia thanked him with a nod. Keano turned back to Kiro, whose bewildered expression hadn't faded.

"Keano," Kiro said flatly. "What's going on?"

Keano gestured to the door.

"Let's step outside. There's some nice seats out there."

---

The trio took to a small, circular table under the awning of the pizzeria, arranging themselves in a title triangle of seats. With Keano's subtle cues, Maia was coaxed to sit between the two of them.

"As I'm sure you've guessed…" Keano pleated his hands together below his chin. "I didn't call you here to talk about the Megatroid reruns."

Kiro's face had already started to take on a light shade of pink, way ahead of schedule.

"I don't need an intervention," he said, his syllables snapping throughout the last word.

"Kiro," Keano said. "Don't think we haven't noticed how your behavior has changed in the past few weeks."

Kiro shifted in his seat, and brought himself to stare his friend in the eyes.

"Listen, it isn't your business to get involved. If anything, me being willing to show up today is enough of a service as it is."

Keano frowned. "What exactly do you mean by that?"

"Ai told me…"

Kiro paused, looking away at the floor before he could respond. Keano and Maia exchanged a glance.

"She told me," Kiro continued, "to promise that I wouldn't hang out with other people for a while."

Keano's mouth fell open.

"What."

Kiro's face reddened even deeper. "Look, she's just not in the best place right now. And she's been trying to change herself for my sake recently, so it's the least I could do for her back."

"Do you have any idea…" Keano said, his eyes narrowing. "How terrifying what you just said sounds right now?"

"Huh?"

Keano rubbed his cheeks and gulped down some air. Without a proper breakthrough, they were bound to go in circles. Instead of elaborating, he glanced at Maia.

She scratched her head for a second and mouthed something uneasily before replying. "Look, dude. I also think it's really weird that she'd tell you to do something like that. Like, that doesn't sound like something that someone normal would say."

Kiro's face was now entirely red.

"What do you know?"

Maia recoiled, blinking blankly at his response. Beside her, Keano tensed up, knowing full well what was about to come next.

"You're not one to talk," Kiro continued, "Even I could tell that you're not getting along with your friends from the Jungle. Y'know, the ones that harassed my normal girlfriend. It's obvious that you're avoiding them."

"Kiro-!" Keano warned.

"And you have even less to say, Keano!" Kiro turned his sights on him. "You haven't even met her!"

"Exactly!" Keano said, his headfins flaring out. "And she hasn't met us. So why would it make sense for her to stop you from seeing us? Did you try telling her that?"

Kiro swallowed air without a single word in exchange. Keano crossed his arms, waiting for an answer.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm not one to talk about things like friends." Maia growled. "But it does piss me off that she's making you choose."

"Kiro, I'm sorry, but this isn't the first time you've had this problem. It's always been like this since middle school." Keano tried to dial back his tone. "You treated yourself like a self-sacrifice, thinking that you'll be friends with everyone that way. But in the end, you just ended up being used until you got burned out, just like now."

Kiro's eyes widened. His chest was knocked off rhythm and his hands crumpled the edges of his pizza plate in their grip.

"Friendship? You wanna talk about friendship?" Kiro exclaimed. "If you're so smart Keano, then why were you a loner in middle school too?"

Keano's face twinged. He drew all of his emotion into his lungs and let them out in one slow breath.

"There's no point in continuing this talk," Keano said.

Kiro was taken aback. "Huh?"

“At this point, we’re not going to get anywhere productive.” Keano got up from his seat. "I was hoping that I was wrong, but you're clearly not mentally prepared to talk about these issues. If you want to fix things, you'll have to come to me yourself."

To even Maia's surprise, Keano left his pizza untouched and started walking off. He could feel Kiro's glare on him, but no matter what Kiro would say, experience taught him better than to turn back around.

SPLAT!

Something lukewarm and wet slapped the back of Keano's head. In shock, he stumbled forward. Passing a hand over the back of his head, Keano brought his fingers to his eyes and saw remnants of melted cheese and pizza sauce. Turning around, he saw Kiro, heaving like a pitcher that just threw the curveball of his life. Maia stared somewhere between the two of them, slack-jawed and frozen.

Something snapped in Keano's head as he charged at Kiro.

Years of harassment and anger propelled his every step. On the last step, Keano landed the strongest hook he could muster into the boy's cheek, nearly knocking him off his feet. Before Keano himself could realize what he had done, Kiro fired back with his own punch.

Just as the two of them pounced at each other, the two teens soon found themselves being lifted by their collars. Maia had jumped between them.

"Knock it off!" She glowered with the fiercest scowl either of them had ever seen. "NOW!"

She shoved them in opposite directions, and both boys fell straight onto their rears. Their faces were steaming with indignity, but neither of them dared make another move. Instead, they simply glared at each other.

"You don't deserve my answer,” Kiro barked.

Saying that, he scrambled backwards before clambering onto his feet and storming away. Keano snapped back to his senses when Maia offered her hand in front of his face. He took it and she helped him to his feet.

Her scowl had softened, but her face was still entirely stern. “I'm disappointed in you.”

“What?!” Keano cried, rubbing his injured face. “He started it! You saw he threw the pizza that I bought him at my head!”

“I know. I’m not saying you were wrong.” Maia scoffed. “I’m saying, was punching him in the face really gonna make things better?”

Upon hearing those words, Keano couldn't bear to look her in the eyes. He climbed onto his seat, staring at the ground in shame.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I woulda knocked his lights out myself if it wasn't for the fact that he's obviously got a few screws loose right now.”

“Kiro hasn't changed.” Keano collapsed into his own folded arms. “He hasn’t grown at all since middle school.”

“About that…” Maia took her seat next to him. “What exactly happened back then?”

“Kiro, he…” Keano let out a sigh, speaking into his pizza. “He always used to do the work for others. Going out of his way to help, even if it hurt him. Some were grateful. Others squeezed him to the bone.”

“So basically, he became a doormat. Is that right?”

“That’s… one way to put it, yeah.” Keano narrowed his eyes. “But, after one group project we had, he sorta just went quiet. Stopped really talking to people altogether, in fact. He developed this unapproachable air around him, and I guess other people thought the same way too.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Maia rubbed the bridge of her muzzle. “I guess some of that explains a lot. Can’t help but feel there’s more to that story, though.”

“I wish I knew as much as you do. And deep down, I regret I never asked.” Keano shrugged dejectedly and raised his head. “The thoughts came back to me from time to time. Like, what if I actually told the teachers what was going on? What if I bothered to talk to him some more, even when nobody else did? Maybe that guilt is part of the reason why I tried to bring him back into my life.”

Keano let out a sad chuckle. “And after all that grilling I did about his savior complex. I'm such a feeble hypocrite, aren't I?”

“Nah,” Maia said. “You aren't. There's a difference between being a doormat and caring about your friends.”

Keano's eyes pulsed, and then they met hers. For whatever reason, without him ever realizing it, that was exactly what he needed to hear. At least, that's what the rapidly clearing blockage in his throat indicated.

“Speaking of hypocrites that can't take advice, it’s about time I got a clue myself. At least, to prove him wrong.” Maia rose from her seat with her slice in hand. “Don't worry about Kiro. He's might be a shrimpy dork, but he's not stupid. He’ll figure it out.”

“Thanks,” Keano replied, rising from his seat. “I should probably go and wash the pizza off myself.”

Maia cackled. “With aim like that, maybe he should be the Archer next time instead of Rick.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Keano mumbled, feeling his face flush. “Attacking the DM is against the rules.”

As he dusted himself off, he watched Maia stare at the remains of the barely-eaten pizza that was tragically sacrificed in their struggle. Keano waved her goodbye as he walked off, but not before he heard her mumble one last time:

“What a waste.”

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