Chapter 31:

Debts and Shame (Part 2)

Are You Real?

The hospital was an imposing structure, no less sleek and modern than the buildings around it, and no more navigable. Kiro did his best to follow the signs along its aquamarine and white walls, but he still had to ask for directions several times over. It was as if the insides of the building were constantly shifting, like a living organism composed of every disease and all their sufferers. Eventually, at the end of a rather quiet ward composed of separate rooms, he found the right door.

Earlier that day, Maia had been transferred out of the emergency room, although Kiro would have been forgiven for thinking that decision was a bit hasty. With an arm and a leg in a cast, a splint on her chest and hips, and enough bandaging for at least two low-end mummy costumes, Maia was barely recognizable. If it wasn't for the dog nose muzzle sticking out of her mostly wrapped head, Kiro would have thought he entered the wrong room.

“See, Keano?” she grumbled weakly, in a voice that was both lower and softer than usual. “Told you he’d come.”

Kiro's eyes darted to the figure sitting directly to the right of her hospital bed. The Anglerfish boy was dressed and groomed quite seriously, as if he asked his mother to prepare him halfway to prom. Even as Keano gave him a wave and a smile, Kiro could hardly believe his eyes.

“Sit down already, Kiro,” Maia said. “You're weirding me out more than usual.”

Kiro slumped into the empty seat across from Keano, still struggling to meet his eyes. Keano shook a small, colorful rectangular carton in front of Kiro’s face.

“Juice box?” Keano asked.

It was then that Kiro noticed the tray of untouched hospital food bridged across Maia's torso. He took one cautiously, before stopping to ask, “You sure you don’t want it, Maia?”

“She's been having trouble eating,” Keano said matter-of-factly. “I asked her if she wanted me to feed her, but she just glared at me instead.”

“Shut up,” Maia replied. “I told you, I just wasn't hungry.”

Keano let out a laugh that spread to the other two, interrupted only when Maia coughed in pain. She waved away their concerned expressions with her unrestricted wrist.

“Go on.” She glanced at Keano. “Don't tell me you're gonna chicken out now.”

Keano’s hands fumbled with the clip-on bow tie atop his dress shirt. “I, uhh-”

His face grew flustered and he turned away.

“Oh for crying out loud,” Maia said, looking at Kiro. “We wanted to see if you could put your differences aside and come here.”

“And you did,” Keano said, sheepishly.

“Oh.” Kiro rubbed the back of his neck, clearing his throat. “I’m s-”

“-orry,” came Keano's response, simultaneously.

The two boys started each other with mortified expressions. Kiro was the first to recover, though.

“No, I should be the only one who's sorry here.” Kiro shook his head. “I didn't listen to anything you guys said, and I only ended up making things worse because of it.”

“Don't say that,” Keano replied. “It's my fault too.”

“No,” Kiro repeated. “I'm serious. I'm starting to think that both of you would be better off if I didn't meet you. I mean, look what happened to-”

“Don’t you dare finish that sentence.” Maia barked. “I won't forgive you if you regret even a single thing that we've been through together. That goes for the both of you.”

The two boys stared at her in surprise.

“What?” Maia growled.

Keano waved her off. “Nothing. It’s just, I didn’t take you for a very sentimental type.”

Maia’s expression softened. “I… might’ve gotten it from my mom.”

Keano straightened out in his seat at the sudden shift of attention. “You’re right, though. We’re all friends here, and friends need to stick together. You’re not much of an adventurer without a party, after all!”

The lame joke wrung a chuckle out of Kiro. “I'm sorry about- you know.”

“All debts were already forgiven, my dear Kironius.” Keano’s face slipped into a devious grin. “Paid in advance, with the bruise on your face.”

“Is it still that noticeable?” Kiro rubbed at his half-sore cheek. “I really should’ve asked my dad how to use his makeup.”

The three of them laughed. Maia forced herself to sit up, joining the two boys by nursing a juicebox in silence. From time to time, they exchanged shy, but warm glances between each other.

Maia scrunched-up her juice box when she finished and let a drop onto the tray with a clatter.

“Both of you guys stuck to your guts and apologized.” She glanced at her phone. “But I haven't been sticking to mine.”

“Huh?’ Kiro asked. “But you haven’t done anything wrong.”

The door to the room opened. Maia's brown hazel eyes noticeably brightened As the new visitor stepped in, while Kiro's face contorted in shock. Keano glanced between the both of them, confused by their diametrically opposite reactions.

“Hey, Sally,” Maia pressed a button behind her back, raising her bed. “Thanks for coming.”

Sally set down several bags of what looked like groceries. She pulled up a chair at the foot of Maia’s bed. With a glance over her shoulder, she lowered herself into her seat and combed back the hair between her antlers.

“Sorry I was late,” Sally replied. “Earlier today… things happened.”

“Wait,” Maia’s smile dropped. “Where’s Birch?”

Sally clenched her teeth. Her paws were folded neatly over her legs, but they couldn’t hide their twitching.

“Birch couldn't make it,” she replied, avoiding Maia’s gaze.

“What do you mean? Is she still mad?”

“That’s just it.” Sally shook her head, slowly and bitterly. “Earlier today, the Jungle got raided.”


For the first time between the three visitors, they heard Maia's voice lift into lofty peaks of shock and anguish.

“Birch got arrested.” Sally finally met Maia’s eyes. “She’s gone, and I don’t know if she’s coming back, Maia.”

“What is she talking about?” Keano whispered to Kiro.

“Shh,” Kiro hushed him, his own face slightly pale. “Not right now.”

Maia's face had taken on her signature blank, distant stare that indicated that she was deep in thought. She emerged from it with a hasty stutter:

“But- Birch’ll get out of it, right? She always has.” Maia forced a scoff. ”I mean, that idiot always got away with graffitiing Mad Dog on every single wall in the school. She’d never-”

“I don't know.” Sally’s voice shook harder as she buried her face in her paws. “I don't know.”

“Sally, pull yourself together,” Maia said, ignoring the hypocrisy behind her own shaking voice. “You have to tell me what happened.”

Sally wiped her face and looked up. “Everything just kept going downhill, but we never expected this to happen. It’s all because of the new management.”

Maia narrowed her eyes. “The Hood.”

Sally nodded. “They wanted to make things more exciting. More violent. No gloves, no breaks, it was a bloodbath, plain and simple. I think they got off on the thrill or something. Then, a bunch of big guys dressed in black just show up out of nowhere and start grabbing everyone. I don’t know if they’re even cops, Maia.”

Maia was silent. Her eyes dropped to the crumpled up juice box on her lap.

“It was going to happen eventually,” Sally continued. “I mean, you saw how it was. All those suspicious people and all the stuff they were doing.”

“I'm sorry,” Maia croaked. “It's my fault, if only-”

“Nah,” Sally said, shaking her head. “We were dragging you down. I think even Birch was realizing it in her own way. I just didn't want to admit i-”

Maia smacked her free fist against the railing of her hospital bed, silencing her.

“You’re wrong. You never dragged me down. I was the one that left you behind just because I made some new friends.”

Sally's eyes widened as she stared at Maia.

“Yeah, you heard me right.” Maia nodded her head in self-affirmation. “I abandoned my friends. I’m responsible.”

Sally rabbit's nose twitched with a sniffle. To everyone else’s surprise, Maia drowned Sally out with her own sniffle. Then, Maia broke into a couple of soft sobs. They tried not to stare at her, giving her the dignity to wipe her eyes in peace.

“Y’know, earlier today? My mom had a visit from some big-wig,” Maia said. “She made a deal that she didn’t have to make because of me, and now there’s gonna be no justice. All to pay off the debt I added onto her.”

Nobody else knew what to say in reply.

“It hurts. It hurts knowing that my mom had to take some shady deal just to cover my sorry ass.” Maia’s breathing grew more unsteady. “What was all that for? What did Birch get caught for?”

Years’ worth of bottled-up suffering had broken their way through as Maia cried. Sally pulled Maia to her chest.

“It’s okay. We’re gonna figure this out.” Sally tightened her arms around Maia, desperately keeping her own emotions together like a glass cup ready to shatter. “We’re gonna fix this.”

Keano stood up, breaking Kiro’s attention from the scene in front of them. “Let’s go, Kiro.”

Without another word, Kiro obliged. As he followed Keano out the door, he took one last glance at the two girls before exiting. Until they reached the elevator and its doors closed, they could still hear Maia from her room.

Kiro saw Keano put a hand to his chin. “What’re you thinking?”

“Considering I’m still left mostly in the dark, I don't know what to make of it,” Keano said, staring at the doors in front of them. “But as an experienced Dangers-and-Depthsmaster, I know my fish. And there’s something Maia said that bothers me.”

“And that is?”

“About the big-wig.” Keano looked at Kiro. “People don’t pay your debts for free.”

The elevator doors dinged to the ground floor. They stepped out.

“In any case, I want to apologize again.” Keano continued. “For trying to force my ideals onto you and for trying to force you to change. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wish both you and Ai the best in your relationship, and I’ll always be there to lend an ear if you need it.”

Kiro shook his head. “You won’t have to.”


“Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people around me. About all the ways that I’ve hurt them. I think I’m starting to realize that I needed to hear the truth.” Kiro leveled his head. “This isn’t what I want.”

Keano's mouth hung open. An uncharacteristic expression of confidence had built itself on Kiro’s face.

“And I think some other people need to hear it too,” Kiro concluded.

Needing no reply to validate himself, the raggedy, auburn-haired boy walked off. His steps were uncertain, but they moved forward.

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy
Kya Hon
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