Author's Note: Here's what happened: out of boredom, I re-read The Perfect Puzzle Piece recently, realized that I still loved it, and decided to try updating it. However, I found that a lot of the content was outdated (*cringe*) and that my writing style has much changed, so a simple rewrite wasn't going to work. That said, consider this a updated/rewritten version of The Perfect Puzzle Piece. Hope you enjoy!
P.S. I'm REALLY hoping that FF doesn't flip and take this down, but no promises...
The Cheezaria was poppin'. No, not just poppin' - jalapeno cheddar CHEESE poppin'. It was the first day of summer, and the youth of Gallagher Heights did not waste any time to congregate at the most popular food joint in town. Waiters darted in every direction carrying trays of cheesy goodness from table to table - cheese pizzas, cheese burgers, cheese fries, cheese sandwiches, cheesecake - you name it. And with every minute that went by, another hoard of teenagers poured in through the double doors, eager to claim another table.
Fortunately for Kuki and her best friend Abby, they had already managed to claim a spot. It was a round, spacious booth at the corner of the restaurant, and the only thing left to do now was wait for the rest of the gang to arrive.
"And that's why The Rainbow Monkey Show is as relevant today as it was when we were ten!" Kuki said triumphantly as she slammed her delicate fist against the table, almost as if she were literally punctuating her point. She then stared at Abby with her wide, bright eyes, eagerly waiting for an enthusiastic reception. Instead she was met with a blank stare masking a repressed laugh. "You weren't listening, were you?" She accused.
"I was!" Abby broke into laughter.
"No, really, I was!" Abby waived her hands in apology as she giggled. "It's just that... Dude. It's Rainbow Monkeys. You know I'm not a fan."
"I know, I know..." Kuki said, feigning sadness. "I still love you for pretending to care though."
"What can I say? I'm a good friend."
"Yes, you are."
They both grabbed their sodas and toasted in honor of their friendship, and they were just about to take a sip when a tall-glass-of-water of a human being showed up at their table.
"Nigel!" Kuki exclaimed when she recognized another one of her best friends.
"Sorry I'm late," Nigel said as he slid into the booth with all the grace of a posh forty-year-old man stuck in a seventeen-year-old's body.
"Glad you made it, Nige," Abby said to him, "Kuki was just telling me about the timeless relevance of Rainbow Monkeys."
"Ah yes, I remember her telling me about this. Something about how Pretty-In-Punk Rainbow Monkey challenges viewers to question their own biases through her character complexity?"
There was a momentary pause as Abby and Kuki examined his sincerity, then they both broke into laughter.
"What's so funny?" He asked.
"Nigel, ARE YOU SERIOUS?" Abby said to him. "Character complexity? In Rainbow Monkeys? REALLY?"
Nigel's face broke into a charmed smile as Kuki reached past Abby and squeezed his face with both hands. "You see this face, Abby? THIS is the face of a true friend! You're the best, Nige!"
Their laughter continued, and it was still floating around the table when a familiar voice chimed in from the aisle.
"Heeey, who told you guys to get the party started without me?" Hoagie appeared with all his usual comedian-like charisma.
"HOAGIE!" Kuki exclaimed at the sight of her third best friend. She jumped up and grabbed his cheeks, giggling as she gave them a playful squeeze.
"Ow, ow, ow! Geez, Kuki!"
"I can't help it! You're so cute!"
"In case you all haven't noticed, I lost the baby weight long ago."
"Still some in your cheeks though," Nigel and Abby said in unison, then more laughter ensued.
"Alright, you buttheads. At least Kuki gets points for pointing out how cute I am."
Kuki giggled and scooted over to make space for Hoagie, but just as he crouched down to sit, a hand appeared out of nowhere and grabbed him by the back of his collar. With minimal effort, he was hoisted up and flung to the other side of the booth, leaving Kuki to sit alone on her side.
"Ow! Geez, Wally!"
Kuki's smile faded at the sound of her fourth best friend's name and gulped discreetly as she turned to watch him arrive. Wally appeared into view like an eclipse looming over her in slow motion, his green eyes piercing her from beneath the strands of his scruffy blonde hair. He glanced at her only momentarily as he walked past the open seat next to her and headed for the opposite side of the table instead.
"That was for the noogie you gave me earlier, baby cheeks," He said to Hoagie, punctuating his words with a punch on the shoulder. "MOVE."
"Help, Nigel, he's abusing me!" Hoagie said pseudo-dramatically as he pushed Nigel further into the booth.
"Get off me, Hoagie!"
Everyone scooted further into the booth as Wally claimed the last spot, directly opposite Kuki. His body had grown so lanky these days that he had to keep one of his legs out in the aisle just to be comfortable.
"Hi Wally," Kuki said hesitantly.
Wally's eyes drew towards her and stared at her vacantly, and with barely a hint of a smirk, he returned her greeting with a slight nod.
"Miss, here's your pizza," said the boy behind the counter as he slid a plate towards Kuki. "Sorry about that. There were a bunch of tables that ordered veggie pizzas. I didn't mean to mix yours up."
"It's not a problem at all!" Kuki replied as she took the plate. "Thank you so much."
She was just about to return to her table when a strange look on the boy's face stopped her. Tilting her head slightly, she asked, "Are you okay?"
The boy stumbled back slightly and blushed. "Uh... Y-yeah... It's just that uh... I'm sorry if this is out of line, but... You're really pretty."
Kuki blinked a few times then a smile spread widely across her face. The kid must have been a few years younger than her, and to see him squirming so helplessly melted her to the core.
"Thank you so much!" She giggled. "You really made my day."
The boy's face colored into a deeper shade of red and, after an awkward nod, he scuttled away.
Still giggling, Kuki happily took a bite out of her pizza and turned around to rejoin the others, but she stopped when she almost ran into what seemed like a wall that had suddenly appeared behind her. Her eyes rolled up and found Wally's green eyes looking down at her, his daunting figure towering over hers.
"Wally...?" She said awkwardly through a mouthful of pizza.
He stared at her vacantly as he quietly chewed on a piece of the pepperoni pizza he was holding. Then his eyes moved towards the pizza on her plate, and his face scrunched up at the sight of the spinach mingling with tomatoes and cheese.
"VEGGIE pizza?" He said in disgust.
Kuki swallowed her mouthful of pizza and tried to maintain her usual, cheery tone. "Yeah. It's really good. Wanna try?"
"I'd rather eat dirt."
"I'm sorry you feel that way, but some of us actually like to eat things that grow from the ground."
"I suppose it's better than some of the weird stuff you eat."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You eat tofu."
"What's wrong with tofu?"
Wally smirked. "Tofu should be against the law."
"I like tofu!"
"That's because you're a weirdo."
"Nigel eats tofu too, you know. He says they're great."
"Nigel's a weirdo too. I tell that to his face all the time. Ask him yourself."
Kuki frowned and placed a hand on her hip. "Did you come all the way here just to insult my food preferences?"
"Nope." Looking steadily into her eyes, he brought his pepperoni pizza to his mouth and shoved the rest of the slice in. "I came to order more food. You know - normal food?"
Kuki scowled as Wally smirked through the pile of dough in his mouth, and without another word, she walked away, taking care to bump him on the shoulder as she went past. On her way to the table, she stole a glance at him, and though he was facing the other way, she could tell he was laughing from the way his shoulders shook.
Kuki was more than happy to spend the rest of lunch talking to Wally as little as possible. Their encounter earlier had left a bad taste in her mouth, and it left her with a desire to interact exclusively with friends who didn't make fun of her. She was just starting to feel safe again when the topic of Rainbow Monkeys came up, and much to her displeasure, Wally seemed determined to seize the opportunity at hand.
"RAINBOW MONKEYS?" He exclaimed, grinning mischievously as his eyes turned towards her. "Isn't that the show you used to watch when we were ten?"
Kuki's insides tensed at the sound of his mocking tone, but she didn't show it. "Yeah. So?"
"And you still like them?"
"So what if I do?"
"How old are you again?"
"Oh, you're one to talk. Don't you still watch the same reruns of wrestling matches from a decade ago?"
"That's different - wrestling is an art!"
"You know it's not real wrestling, right?"
"It's more real than a bunch of colorful stuffed monkeys singing songs together."
"Mom, Dad, Wally and Kuki are fighting again," " Hoagie said to Abby and Nigel while mimicking a childish voice.
Nigel and Abby both laughed, but to Kuki's relief, they came to her rescue.
"Alright Wally, that's enough," Nigel said.
"Yeah, Wally, leave her alone," Abby added.
"Well I have to now, don't I?" Wally continued, seemingly encouraged by the reprimand. "I just found out that she still has a fetish for brightly-colored fictional animals. I'm not sure if we could be friends after this."
"Hey, Wally, come on, man..." Hoagie said, his smile fading.
"Than again, maybe you should keep it up," Wally continued, turning his grin back to Kuki, "I'm sure there's a weirdo out there who would be into that. You guys can go out on a date and eat tofu while watching freaky cartoon monkeys together."
"Wally, stop..." Someone - Nigel, Abby, or Hoagie, it didn't matter who at this point - chimed in, but their words only fell on deaf ears. Wally's grin only deepened against his cruel expression.
"Or maybe I should ask you out," he said tauntingly to Kuki, "I have a thing for weirdos, you know..."
By then, Kuki was fuming so hard that she had to grip the edge of her seat just to keep herself from throwing something at him. Vitriol bubbled up inside, and when it rose to her throat, it came out in a cold mutter under her breath, just loudly enough for everyone to hear.
"Like you have a chance. Who would date a jerk like you...?"
The table grew quiet as the grin on Wally's face faded. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Kuki spoke quietly, glaring directly at him as she hissed through gritted teeth. "You are such a jerk."
"You know I was joking, right? I don't care if you like the stupid Rainbow Monkey show."
"It's not just the Rainbow Monkeys, it's everything!" Kuki continued as her volume rose out of her control. "You are such a jerk. ALL THE TIME. You were a jerk when we were kids, you're a jerk in school, and you're a jerk now!"
"Will you RELAX? I said I was joking."
"How do you expect me to relax when I'm forced to be around you all the time?"
The casual mocking expression on Wally's face was gone now, and it was replaced by growing anger. "You think I like being around you?"
"Obviously not, from the way you act around me!"
"You're such a baby."
"And you're a jerk! Jerk! Jerk! JERK!"
"Stop calling me that! You're so annoying!"
"AND YOU'RE A BULLY!"
"I HAVE TO BE A BULLY BECAUSE YOU'RE SO ANNOYING!"
"ALRIGHT, THAT'S ENOUGH!" Nigel's voice, shockingly unrecognizable compared to its normally calm tone, boomed over both of theirs. "You two are making a scene! Shut it down NOW before we get kicked out!"
"Yeah, and BOTH of you need to calm down!" Abby added firmly. "Wally - Kuki's right - grow up and cut it out. And Kuki - stop letting him get to you!"
Both Wally and Kuki crossed their arms and leaned back against their seats, fuming as they turned their eyes away from each other. For a few moments, the table remained silent, until Hoagie took it upon himself to ease the tension.
"So uh... You guys wanna go to the beach some time this summer?" He said clumsily, failing to disguise his blatantly obvious attempt to change the subject.
Following his suit, Nigel and Abby filled the silence in with their own tedious comments, and the three carried on the conversation until the tension eased just enough to be bearable.
Kuki didn't speak to Wally for the rest of the time. She was furious; so furious that her mind raged with all the possible insults she could throw at him had her other friends not been there. Despite her rage, however, she stole a glance at him every now and then, and a small part of her foolishly hoped that she would find him repentant - that there would be regret in his eyes, maybe even followed by an apology. But for every time she allowed herself to look in this direction, she only found a steely glare. Wally's eyes were the same as always - indifferent, insensitive... Cold.
She decided to ignore him for the rest of the afternoon, turning away from him and the rest of the group every now and then, desperately hoping for no one to notice her eyes watering slightly.
Kuki made it home later that day in a surprisingly lighter mood, much thanks to Hoagie and Nigel offering to walk her home.
"Sorry about Wally, Kuki," Hoagie said as he balanced himself along a stone fence. "He and I were rough-housing before we came to the Cheezaria. Sometimes when we spend too much time together, he gets carried away and forgets to act like a normal person when we're around people again."
"And you know how Wally is," Nigel added. "He's not a bad guy, he just tends to make rash decisions."
"I know, I know..." Kuki sighed. "I still don't think it was okay for him to say those things to me though."
"Oh, trust me. Abby will make sure he knows that."
Kuki smiled at the thought. She could picture it now - Wally shoving his hands in his pockets, shrugging his shoulders, and pouting like a child while Abby gave him an earful.
"It's just that..." Kuki continued, "I feel like over the last few years, he and I have been fighting so much. Sometimes I wonder if we're even actually friends."
"Of course you are," Nigel put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
"But he's so mean to me!"
"He's mean because he's dumb!" Hoagie, who had fallen behind as he balanced his last few steps along the fence, called out after them. He hopped off the fence and jogged up towards them. "Don't worry, Kuki, we'll knock some sense into him."
Kuki let out another sigh before slipping each of her arms into theirs and pulling them close. She nuzzled a cheek into Hoagie's shoulder, then Nigel's.
"Why couldn't Wally be like you guys?" She said sadly.
"Trust us, you don't need him to change," Nigel said to her, his eyes soft and comforting. "Just give him time."
"Yeah," Hoagie added. "He'll come around. We promise."
Kuki smiled at them sweetly, even though deep inside, she didn't believe them.
Later that day, she laid in bed staring at the ceiling as she replayed the argument over and over in her head. What's his problem? She thought again and again.
She turned to her side and looked at a photograph on her bedside table. It was a picture of her and her friends from seven years ago when they were all just ten years old. To the very left was her - smiling brightly as she stood arm-in-arm with a young Abby. Right in the middle was Nigel who, even back then, already had the same charming smile he has now. After him was Hoagie, hardly recognizable from his former plumpness if not for the same cheesy grin.
And then there was Wally.
Wally stood all the way to the right of the frame with his arms crossed, scowling beneath Hoagie's arm. Even back then, he was already grumpy and hot-tempered. Kuki used to think it was a way to overcompensate for his tiny frame as a child, but given that he towered over everyone nowadays, she couldn't fathom another excuse. There was no conceivable reason as to why he was so gruff and unfriendly, and particularly so whenever he was around her. He always had something rude to say, always had an insult reserved just for her. It was as if he derived a certain pleasure in pushing her buttons, almost as if he enjoyed being...
"…A jerk," Kuki said out loud.
She gave out an exasperated sigh. Looking at the picture once more, she now noticed that everything about her and Wally stood on opposite ends. She stood to the very left while he stood to the very right. She was happily arm-in-arm with Abby while he scowled beneath Hoagie's unwanted arm around his shoulders. She was smiling widely and happily while he was pouting childishly towards the camera.
Kuki wondered now if that detail had been more significant all along. She and Wally had been opposites for as long as she could remember. It's been that way since the beginning of their so-called friendship. Even now, she could see how they fit into the group. They were like bookends holding a set together, standing on completely opposite sides while everyone else stood in between. Nigel, being the natural leader of the group, was like a brother to both of them. Likewise, Abby was like a sister. And Hoagie, being the neutral point, toggled back and forth between being Kuki's favorite joker and Wally's partner-in-crime. All in all, it seemed like they had an actual friendship with everyone except each other, and all that was left there was...
Kuki scowled as the image of Wally came to mind - his insensitive eyes, he mocking grin, his mischievous laugh... She hated the way he cracked his knuckles and the pure arrogance with which he did it. She hated the way he constantly ruffled his hair - with complete and utter disregard for the way he looked to the people around him. She hated it. She hated it all...
Except she didn't really hate it. And she didn't really hate him.
Kuki buried her face in her pillow as if it would stop the thoughts slowly seeping into her mind, but it was too late. Because the truth is...
She liked him. She liked everything about him.
She liked the confidence with which he cracked his knuckles, and how casual, relaxed, and perpetually messy his hair was. She liked the way he laughed, how it was a perfect song of everything that he was - boyishly charming, mischievous yet playful, rough yet oddly smooth... She liked his smile - wide, perfect, sometimes devilish, sometimes charming. And his eyes... His ever-so-green, ever-so-piercing eyes... They made her weak, no matter how distant or insensitive or cold they were, and even weaker in the rare occasion when she would catch him looking at her sincerely.
Kuki groaned into her pillow. What would everyone say if they found out that she actually liked him? Even worse, what would he say?
He'd probably laugh in my face...
The thought stung. They could barely get along as friends. Could she really expect anything more?
Her eyes landed back on the picture next to her bed, and she thought of the vast distance that stood between her and Wally.
"That's exactly what it is," she told herself, "We're meant to be on different sides…"