Chapter 1:

Chapter Kiss

Paint the World - Bonus Chapters

[The following chapter contains strong language. Reader caution is advised.]

[The following chapter is set between Chapters 26 and 27.]

Tuesday 19th January 1999

Y’know that thing where you see a couple being all close and kissy and you feel like yelling at them to get a room? It’s something that I’ve had to deal with quite a few times, especially now I’m in my teens and so many people are dating. I mean, not that I’d actually yell at them, I’d just feel very awkward and uncomfortable.

It's really weird to be on the other side of that situation. And what I’ve found really interesting to learn is how little I care about what other people think now I’m on this side.

“Jesus, you two…” Will grimaced as he walked past Dakota and me during a lunchtime smooch session, and I couldn’t care less because I was kissing my cute, sexy, wonderful girlfriend.
“I don’t know how you survive lessons without each other.”

“Let them be, they’re in looove!” Harriet mewed from not too far away. Dakota broke our kiss to giggle at that, and I found myself chuckling along with her in a smitten daze.

“He’s just jealous,” Zahid spoke with an audible smirk.

“Whatever…” Will grumbled, and let out a bit of a grunt while heading off in his unbroken stride.

“One of these days, he’s gonna floor you and I’m just gonna be like ‘you brought this on yourself’,” Kendal told Zahid with pre-emptive disapproval. I was going to add a quippy remark, but then Dakota’s lips sealed mine, at which point I happily surrendered the opportunity in favour of more kissing. (For the record, it would’ve been “he won’t take that lying down”.)

“Oh shit, I think he took that as a challenge…!” I heard Bao squawk a moment later. While I wasn’t at the right position to take a peek, I could confidently guess that Zahid was giving Kendal quite a glare.

“So long as he doesn’t turn it into another fight,” Kendal maintained, “he got sick of everybody talking about the last one…”

“It wasn’t a fucking fight!” he growled.

“Okay, let’s not get into another argument…” Harriet pleaded.

“It wasn’t an argument before, just Zahid being stubborn!”

“Bao-bear, you’re not helping…!”

“Out of the way, Harriet,” Zahid started, “I’m gonna bang their heads together…”

Almost like those words – or rather, his tone of voice – were a chequered flag waving in her head, Dakota took her lips away again, and looked past me, at the others.
“Play nicely, people,” she warned with a deceptive warmth.

I took the chance to turn my head to look at the four of them, and just about managed to see Zahid glowering in grizzly submission before noticing Bao waving at me.

“Hey, Alex, while you’re free, I just remembered I was gonna show you the snowboarding level in Sonic Adventure…”

“Yeah, you did mention Knuckles banged Sonic and Tails’ heads together-”

He sighed just a little at that.
“No, see, I said he was being stubborn, and there’s that saying about ‘stubborn as a mule’, so then I was trying to remember how donkeys and horses are related and I went through what I know about the Equus family tree, but then I wondered if “Equus” and “equinox” share the same root and I pictured a snowy winter…”
A light, brisk nod punctuated the end of his explanation, as though he was approving it after-the-fact.

“No, I mean, I get that, sort of…”

“Glad somebody did,” Zahid chimed in, brow lowered and shoulders hunched.

“Well, there we go,” Kendal beamed, “next time Zahid wants to get aggressive, just have Bao explain his thought processes, it wears him out!”

“See now you made me picture Zahid on the Cosmic Treadmill except it’s powered by my mind,” Bao decided to announce.

The bell rang to signal the end of lunch right after that, and Dakota grabbed me into a hug before I could so much as register how Zahid (or anybody else) had reacted to what Bao had said.
“Aaaah, see you at the gate!” she cooed, and gave me a final parting smooch.

“Yeah!” I grinned back at her. “Love you!”

“Love you too!”
She proved herself far stronger than me, drifting away from me with nothing but a lingering hand-hold and an adoring stare. I had to steel my nerves in the moment, marching off to my final lesson of the day like I was heading to the frontlines.

Honestly, within five minutes I was wondering why it felt so hard to part from her, because it wasn’t like I couldn’t function without her. I’d managed to get by as a single guy for most of my life, and a few weeks of being with her wouldn’t change that. The final hour-or-so of school passed like normal.

And then I waited for all of a minute outside the school gate before Dakota jumped out of the crowd and grabbed me into a hug so affectionate that I almost literally melted into it.
“Never leave me again…” I begged her pathetically.

“Awwww,” she managed to say amidst giggles. “Maybe we can share classes? I can play piano with you, you can dance with me, it definitely won’t affect our grades…!”

“Yes, please, anything…” I nodded, with far less sincerity now, playing into her tongue-in-cheek fantasy, then kissing her for good measure.

“Third wheel, rolling in!”
Kendal strolled brazenly into view behind Dakota (I only opened my eyes because I heard her, don’t worry, I’m not that much of a weirdo that I kiss with my eyes open).
“Don’t mind me, I’ll keep myself entertained somehow,” she assured us.

All the same, after a few more moments of kissing, Dakota stopped, turning to Kendal.
“Nah, it’s okay, got it out of my system,” she claimed.

“Yeah, for about five minutes,” Kendal jibed playfully.

… I should’ve kept an eye on my watch, because I don’t know if it was five minutes or not but we were kissing again by the time everybody else turned up.

Look, I know. It’s kind of a lot even for us.

We actually managed to stop for the sake of getting our homework done once we got back to Dakota’s place – apparently, her feelings for me can’t overcome her need to complete homework ASAP – and so it was the better part of an hour without any lips locking.

“That’ll do…” Zahid insisted with a huff, shoving his papers and pen back in his bag as we finished up.

“I don’t agree with that attitude,” Dakota noted, accompanying her words with an accusing stare with just enough charm to remove any sting they could have held. Her own work was neatly organised back into her folders, tucked away in plastic wallets designated “homework”.

“Look,” our friend began, “you’re our leader when we’re fighting monsters, I’m cool with that. You have us do these homework sessions, fine. If I’m happy with what I’ve done, let it be.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” she shrugged more flippantly than I could’ve expected, but of course, I realised why a moment later as she grabbed hold of me and kissed me.

“Man, get a room!” Bao heckled us, which was enough for Dakota to stop in her tracks.

“This is my house, you get a room,” she jested back, with a smirk that told me she was proud of how quickly it had come to her.

“I mean, it’s your uncle’s house,” he contested. Dakota’s eyes narrowed just a little, and I turned to see Bao giving her an expression that read “checkmate”.

For a few seconds, the room was silent as the two of them stared competitively at each other, locked in a silent battle.

“Bao-bear, if they wanna kiss, let them kiss…” Harriet finally spoke up, putting her hand on Bao’s shoulder. His response was swift, almost as though he’d spent that wordless duel plotting it out. Lightning-fast, he span around and grabbed hold of his girlfriend, embracing her and kissing her with a fiery passion. Any resistance – any shock – Harriet may have shown in her surprise faded like steam on glass.

I could almost feel the intense pressure of Dakota’s engorged competitive streak behind me. She took my shoulders and brought me into yet another kiss; I quivered, completely taken with the feeling, trying my best to match her passion.

“Hey, Zahid…”
Kendal’s voice off to the side of me was more alluring than I’d ever heard it.

“Cut it out,” he grunted back.

“But I don’t wanna be left out, and you’re the only person here!” she whined. “I know I don’t swing your way but…!”

And right there and then, I could see a change in light through my eyelids. I opened my eyes, curious, and found myself and Dakota behind some kind of podium. And it still took a tap on the shoulder to get Dakota to stop kissing and start noticing what had happened…

The floor was hard, deep yellow with something of a golden sheen, almost reflective. While the silver podium was blocking my view to the right, I could see a curved white wall and a ceiling criss-crossed with scaffolding holding up a dozen spotlights. If all of that hadn’t already given me a good idea of what weird place we’d suddenly found ourselves in, then the apparent roar of a crowd from beyond the podium certainly would have.

“Not good…” Dakota murmured, suddenly in business mode. She looked past me, and I turned: Bao and Harriet were behind a second podium, looking thrown. They nodded at us – presumably at Dakota specifically – and began rising to their feet. Dakota tugged my arm, guiding me up too, rising with me until we were at full height and able to see the audience full of gelatinous people applauding and cheering (and Kendal and Zahid sat amongst them, her enthralled, him disgruntled).

“Hey, I always wanted to be on TV…!” Bao remarked less than confidently.

Another jelly-like figure strolled in wibble-wobble fashion into the space between the podiums and the audience, and began speaking in what would best be described as gibberish… second-best described as the sound of somebody somehow talking both underwater and with their mouth full. On monitors hung above the audience, simple depictions of our Lokon weapons emerged.

“Let’s assume that’s an instruction…” Dakota spoke beside me, summoning her Lokon spear. The rest of us copied her, and our actions earned a cheer; we blasted on our Painter gear and the bizarre audience cheered again.

“I feel left out…” Harriet squeaked, fidgeting the sleeves of her school uniform and earning a sympathy pat from her boyfriend.

Our host began another unintelligible sentence, and a “Round 1” replaced the weapons on the monitors.

“I’m putting two and two together and I’m not sure if I like where this is heading…” I commented. Dakota and me, Bao and Harriet, and a gameshow set-up right after a competitive make-out session…

The screens now showed two figures the likes of which you’d find on public toilet doors, the man behind the woman with his stubs-where-his-hands-would-be pressed to her back. The Jellymen that constituted the crowd seemed to approve; Kendal was visibly confused, Zahid utterly disinterested.

“Oh, I know this!” Bao called out joyously, and proceeded to drop his Lokon blades, step behind Harriet and start rubbing her back. The gentle moan he elicited from her within seconds had me rattled at the prospect of losing a game I’d only just managed to comprehend (and had Harriet covering her mouth in embarrassment).

And then there was that tone of voice, so pressing that I found myself stood behind my girlfriend with my hands at her upper back almost without thinking. I had no confidence in my back-rubbing ability, and no clue how many rounds would follow this so that we could make up for a likely defeat here, but I knew that it would probably be bad news if we lost the game outright.

For the time being, all I could really do was try my best, working my thumbs between her shoulder blades and below, trying to compensate for her jacket and t-shirt. The audience cheering on (Kendal included) at least made me feel like I was doing alright…

“Aah… a bit lower…” I was advised, and I obliged; she jolted a little.

“Was that good or-?”

“You’re rubbing too hard…”

“Sorry, sorry…”
I eased up a little, hoping that I was getting close to doing a good job, and then for some stupid reason, I looked over to Bao and Harriet. Her arms were folded on the podium, head buried in them, muffled moans barely audible beneath the cheers as Bao’s handiwork graced her back.
“How the hell did he get so good at this…?”

“It’s okay,” Dakota reassured me between soft huffs. “You’re better with feet, I guess.”

I muttered vague somethings while my cheeks grew hot. That was a hell of a consolation…

The number 5 flashed onto the monitors, then a 4, and the crowd counted along (Kendal in English, the Jellymen in their characteristic gibberish) until the round came to an end. The host gestured with wobbling arm towards Bao and Harriet; his hands abandoned her back, rising to the air in triumph, while she remained in place, the movement of her body suggesting that she was drawing deep breaths.

Another image filled the monitors: the same two figures, now in what would best be described as “that Saturday Night Fever dance pose”.

“That’s more like it,” Dakota purred beside me, and as two spotlights came on in front of the podiums, she took my hand and led me out.

“I mean we know I’m going to screw this up too…” I told her while some up-tempo music started up.

“You’re not,” she told me sweetly. “You’re better than you think. Now, no nerves. Follow my lead.”
Her body effortlessly began capturing the music in movement, and I cast my mind back a month, recalling what she’d taught me, attempting to join her despite knowing that Kendal and Zahid were watching (and a load of Jellymen, but they didn’t really matter). And the more we danced, the more I found myself regaining my confidence from before, the two of us almost moving as one.

Then Kendal shouted “yeeeaaah, go Alex!” and I felt very self-conscious for the next few seconds…

Still, could’ve been worse. I caught glimpses of Bao and Harriet a few times, and – personal attitudes and biases accounted for – I’d say we were doing better than them. They’d opted for the “just move around” route, and while Harriet at least seemed to be taking her Dance lessons into practice, Bao apparently thought that Chandler from Friends was a good example to imitate.

It didn’t take long before Dakota and I were declared the winners of round 2.

“And now we’re even,” she boasted to Bao and Harriet; he scowled back at her.

“This is fun!” Kendal asserted from among the gelatinous folk, grinning eagerly. Beside her, Zahid was looking pained.

Dakota, Bao, Harriet and I returned to our places, and the next round was cued up: the two bathroom figures facing each other, leaning forwards and kissing like something on a cutesy Valentine’s card.

The Jellymen whooped (such as they could), the host gesticulated wildly with its gummy arms, and I felt Dakota’s half-amorous, half-competitive stare to my left.

I shrugged in content surrender, and for the hundredth time today, my girlfriend and I began making out.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of our fights were like this?

A minute or so had passed of just her and me (and Bao and Harriet) kissing when I heard Zahid snarl in what I think was boredom more than frustration. The characteristic fwoosh of a Lokon-based attack followed, then the Jellyman equivalent of screaming. Dakota and I tore our lips apart and watched as the host’s upper body fell away from its waist, splatting onto the floor like… jelly, really.

“What did you do that for?!” Kendal wailed at Zahid, as the audience around her freaked out.

“Because it’s a fucking monster!” he rightly pointed out. “Screw their dumb kissing contest, we should be fighting!”

“Good point…!” Dakota nodded, grabbing holding of her spear; that was all Bao, Kendal and I needed to take up arms in turn. The audience of Jellymen erupted and scattered out manically across the studio immediately after.
“Fan out, cut them down!”

We quickly spread out, and I began cutting down one Jellyman after another. That old saying about a knife through butter sprung to mind: they offered almost no resistance at all beneath the blade of my sword, and their bodies splatted and lost all semblance of shape when they hit the floor. I looked amongst the others when I could, Dakota elegantly swiping through with her spear, Bao ducking and diving while making swift strikes, Kendal firing enthusiastically, Zahid making aggressive swings at any Jellyman close enough, Harriet stood precariously atop her podium in an effort to keep out of the way. The floor was quickly becoming covered in a mass of colourless goop.

“This is the easiest fight we’ve ever had!” Bao declared brazenly. “Wait, I shouldn’t have said that, should I…?”

The studio felt a little more tense as we kept attacking the crazed Jellymen, awaiting a twist that seemed fated to happen. Steadily, their numbers dwindled, the floor becoming more and more challenging to stand on, and yet no twist ever came.

Bao struck the final two down at the same time, swinging his arms out and slicing through them on either side of him, and our fight was over.
“Phew, I was worried I’d jinxed us…!”

Beneath our feet, the gelatinous mess began moving, amassing and surging, turning into a singular amorphous entity traversing the studio floor.

“Can we tape Bao’s mouth shut next time?” Zahid asked, quite possibly sincerely.

“That might be the safer option…” Bao conceded.

The living sludge began to rise up, a large serpentine head and body emerging, featureless and yet still clearly sizing us up. Kendal fired right at its head, but the arrow wedged in without making a lick of difference. Dakota and I both sent arcs of Lokonessence its way, and they did nothing but create cuts which filled out again immediately. Like we were taking turns, the Jellysnake then made a dive for Dakota, knocking her to the floor before she could move out of the way.

I hurried to her side, though she seemed fine, getting back to her feet with little more than a confident smile my way. Then the head of the Jellysnake slammed down beside her: Zahid was standing by the remaining part of the body, axe still held out in the aftermath of his strike. Even as the rest of the monster began to dissolve back into the sludge, it burst into tentacles and ensnared Zahid, throwing him across the studio.

“I think we need to get rid of all the gunge!” Kendal suggested; she opened fire on the ground, though it didn’t seem to make much difference.

“We need, like, a big vacuum cleaner or something…!”
Right after saying that, Bao threw his arms out in disbelief.
“We should make a big vacuum cleaner!”

“Can you do that…?” Harriet asked from where she was perched.

“We can try!”
I held out the tip of my sword, urging elements of a vacuum cleaner to emerge, and Dakota, Bao and Kendal all did the same with their weapons, the four of us steadily generating a vague multicoloured device: a hovering chamber with a nozzle pointed straight to the ground. The tentacles attacked at it, to no avail.

“Aaaand… activate!” Dakota commanded, and the cleaner came alive, powered by our imaginations and our wills, sucking up the living gelatinous mass at remarkable speeds. Zahid rejoined us, his eyes narrowed. I think I heard him sigh behind the noise of the cleaner.

The tentacles were the last part to be sucked into the machine, thrashing and writhing and shifting into other shapes in a vain effort to avoid its demise, before finally losing all form and disappearing up the nozzle.

“Now, implode!” Bao cheered, and the Lokon-generated Hoover promptly collapsed in on itself at his instruction.

“Thaaaat’s how we do it!” Kendal spoke excitedly while dusting her hands for effect, while Bao helped Harriet down from the podium.

“Sure,” Zahid sneered, “but we’re still stuck here.”

“I mean, you interrupted round 3…”
Kendal couldn’t hide her smirk as she said that.

“True…” Dakota chuckled next to me.

I tensed up a little in anticipation.

She pressed her lips to mine, and we embraced lovingly, kissing for love and for victory and for getting out of the weird gameshow studio from Jelly World. I didn’t have to look to know that Bao and Harriet were doing the same.

Another Zahid sigh found my ears.
“Great, thanks…”

“Hey, you were the one being a grump about it…”

“Okay, Kendal, I get it…”

And so Dakota and I made out like there was no tomorrow, our passion rising as though this – this devotion, this lengthy a time together – was what we’d needed all day long, until she pulled me to the floor, moving on top of me, running her hands into my hair as I did the same to her, heading to levels of hunger we hadn’t yet reached.

Beyond our smooching, I heard Harriet’s voice:
“Oh my god, I have to catch my breath…”

“Haribo…! Ah, wait, what’s happening…!”

“You stopped!” Kendal observed. “I guess that means Alex and Dakota won!”

I think I felt the carpet of the living room floor return beneath me, but I was too engrossed in kissing Dakota to pay much attention to it. I wasn’t even surprised that Dakota didn’t stop to celebrate. Nothing else seemed to matter in that moment (or the next, or the next).

When she finally took her lips away from mine, I opened my eyes and stared up at her through hazy vision, desperately catching my breath.

“Fourteen minutes!” I heard Kendal cry out, then saw her running past in my peripheral vision.

Dakota bit her lip softly, gazing down at me with love in her eyes.
“Okay. I think I got it out of my system.”