Sjörén Earns His AAA Rating
Dedicated to macteazle, AAA's biggest fan and all-around great person!
It was a good thing Sjörén had taken a moment to prepare quietly for his next session, or he wouldn't have heard the scuffling outside. It wouldn't behoove him to permit a first session to start so disruptively, especially with such a high-profile client as this one. If this went well, it could very well be the opportunity this overlooked Camouflage Hissi needed to break into the upper echelons of the psychiatric field.
He dimmed the lights slightly, took a calming breath, and opened the door.
Outside, three of Neopia's most famous youths were holding a stand-off. Abigail Avinroo, a precocious Blue Aisha, tossed back her curled bangs defiantly. Next to her, her red-haired cousin Lulu folded her arms with a resolute expression, blocking the retreat of Sjörén's potential new client, Neopia's self-proclaimed Games Master, AAA.
"Aristotle, we've been over this," snapped the Aisha, in a parental tone that Sjörén suspected was a common one in the Avinroo household. Despite her firm voice, her eyes were moist, on the verge of tears. "Whatever's going on, you need help."
"And we're not returning your lucky controller until you do," interjected Lulu. "And don't even think about using your hidden backup controllers and control pads. I found them all."
AAA smirked superciliously. Lulu raised an eyebrow in return, and added, "Your joystick, too."
The Blumaroo's face crashed into a defeated frown. "I should never have moved my stuff back into the bedroom. Or at least invested in some Virtupets locks."
Sjörén drank in the exchange calmly, making observations, mentally filing details away. "Young man, please step inside. We'll just have a quick chat. If you still decide therapy isn't helpful, that'll be the end of it, and I'll see to it that your stolen goods are returned."
Lulu's white Cybunny fur reddened under Sjörén's pointed gaze.
AAA's eyes darted inside the office, up at the Hissi's face, and then back at his kin. "Fine," he said, turning his back on them and stomping into the office. He'd played enough games of Petpet Rescue to know that sometimes you had to retreat into unwanted enemy territory in order to make good your escape.
Abigail's lip quivered. Sjörén rested his wing gently on her shoulder. "It's all right, young lady. Thank you for seeing him this far. I'll take it from here."
Abigail looked into the Hissi's smiling eyes, and wiped away a tear. "Thank you." She took Lulu's arm and bravely walked away.
Sjörén stepped inside and closed the door with a quiet click. AAA stood in the middle of the room, his shoulders tensed. He glanced around the room, noting the sky-blue motif of the walls, sofa, even the box of Cloudy Tissues on a side table.
"Have a seat." Sjörén gestured towards a comfy Cloud Print L-Shaped Sofa bookended by two fluffy Blumaroo Paw Pillows. AAA gritted his teeth and sat down, shifting his weight with discomfort.
"I'm used to superior seating," muttered the Blumaroo.
Sjörén tilted his head thoughtfully. "I'm saving up for a Light Faerie Sofa, but they're awfully rare. I suppose this is a step down for someone accustomed to a hoverchair. I could arrange for a nice Kreludan Hover Sofa for next time, if you'd like?"
AAA looked as though Sjörén had just cheerfully offered him a plate of Rotten Omelette.
"In the meantime, I could offer you this." Sjörén opened a closet and pulled out a Tooth Faerie Bean Bag that matched the décor perfectly. The involuntary gleam in AAA's eyes was an early victory for Sjörén.
AAA's yellow fur bristled. "My sister's wrong, you know. I don't want therapy. I have a chart-topping IQ. I'm certainly smart enough to know I don't need it."
A dozen counterarguments arose in Sjörén's mind. He quickly dismissed them all.
"I wouldn't normally recommend therapy – counseling – for someone who didn't want it, unless there was dangerous behavior involved. That's not you, is it? You strike me as someone who's developed a lot of coping strategies. You're famous for winning games. You thrive on facing obstacles and finding ways to overcome them."
The Blumaroo opened his mouth, but said nothing.
Sjörén glanced meaningfully at the door with unfocused eyes, as though imagining something that lay beyond.
"You care for your sister a great deal, don't you?"
AAA said nothing. His face was a chimera of protestation and vulnerability vying for control.
"Why not treat this as a game? No, no, hear me out." Sjörén brushed the fingertips of his wings in front of his heart. "The object of the game is to make your sister and cousin see you're just fine."
"And you're the opponent, I suppose?" retorted the self-proclaimed Games Master peremptorily. His powerful tail flexed.
Sjörén smiled placidly, moving his hands to his sides, opening his posture. "The referee, perhaps? Or better yet, Linae in Eye of the Storm. It's your journey, but I'll point you in the right direction from time to time."
The Blumaroo's eyes narrowed. He paused. "Deal."
Sjörén reached for a cerulean Blue Clipboard, and flipped open a bright yellow Lemoran Notepad. AAA blinked with surprise at the sudden scratch-and-sniff citrus fragrance.
"Does it bother you? Most people find a light Lemoran scent helps them think more clearly."
The Blumaroo stared at the notepad, then took a sniff. If Blumaroos had visible nostrils, his would be quivering. Nodding to himself, he found a loose piece of Scrap Paper (with the famous stowaway Gnorbu's image as the watermark, a crumpled leftover from Y11's Games Master Challenge) and scribbled a note for future reference.
"May I ask what you were just writing?"
"A true Games Master has to use every legal advantage at his disposal."
The Hissi nodded, and made a note in his own notebook, releasing a minute whiff of Lemoran. "May I ask what you were just writing?" inquired AAA, mimicking the Hissi's tone.
Sjörén smiled. "Sorry, that's against the rules of our game."
The Blumaroo scowled, but acquiesced.
"Your full name, please?"
"Aristotle A. Avinroo."
"And where do you live?"
"Roo Island, of course, with my parents and sister."
"How do you feel about living with your parents?"
"My parents said I could live in their basement as long as I want."
Sjörén paused. The Blumaroo fidgeted, wondering why the Hissi appeared to be waiting for something more. After a moment, Sjörén jotted something down, and continued.
"You're not one of those shrinks who's going to try to blame my mother for all my problems, are you?"
"What does bring you here today, Aristotle?"
"AAA, please. And nothing. Like I said, I don't need therapy. Counseling. Whatever."
"Your sister seemed very concerned. Why is that?"
AAA kicked his feet, and looked down as though they had suddenly become the most interesting thing in the room.
"She's... she's upset about Daily Dare being cancelled this year. She's just being silly and stupid."
"You feel that your sister is stupid, then?"
The Blumaroo's feet froze. "Abigail's not stupid. She could beat me, if she'd only put her mind to it." He shifted his gaze quickly out the window.
The Hissi flicked his tongue over his pencil's point. "When she first spoke to me to set up this meeting, she said she was worried you might be depressed because it was cancelled. Have you been feeling depressed?"
"No, that's not... I mean..."
The Blumaroo adjusted his trademark 3-D glasses, and sighed. "Abigail once said I'm too serious. I care too much about the score and not the experience of playing the game itself. But she's wrong. Wrong about a lot of things. Yes, I haven't been myself lately, but it's not because of Daily Dare being cancelled. She just doesn't understand."
"I'm not depressed because Daily Dare was cancelled. Daily Dare was cancelled because I was too depressed to deal with it."
Sjörén's clipboard rapped sharply as he set it down on his desk. AAA couldn't help being reminded of the thud at the end of a round of Destruct-O-Match III.
"Congratulations, you just leveled up. I'll see you next week for Level 2."
AAA smiled wryly despite himself.
Sjörén had to give the lad credit. It had only been a few weeks, but AAA was demonstrating Zen-level avoidance far beyond his years.
"Of course I resented Chadley. Abigail should have known better. I'm Neopia's consummate gamer. Do I really have to spell this out? I know best how to run a Daily Dare. She should have known she needed me, not some fourth-rate narcissistic git."
Sjörén suppressed a smile. "How do you feel about narcissism?"
The Blumaroo smirked. "Very funny. Look, there's nothing wrong with excellence. Everyone should strive to be the best they can. I just happen to be the best of the best. But you know something? I'm not just naturally gifted. I hone my skills."
"Are you saying you felt betrayed, being replaced by someone whose gaming skills were subpar?"
AAA frowned. "It wasn't my fault some obscure Oracle's obelisk ruined my usual Daily Dare."
"I was just watching from the sidelines, but it seemed to me that Chadley's scores were more challenging to beat than some of your scores from previous years," pressed the Hissi. "I thought you respected excellence where you found it."
"I thought therapists weren't supposed to ask leading questions."
"We're allowed, when the analysand is being particularly evasive."
"Fine," snapped the Blumaroo. "I was angry with Abigail for falling for some pretty boy. Just like everyone seems to. It's not like I care about being a fashionplate, or about popularity, but I hate losing at anything, and I couldn't help but compare my Q rating to his."
"That's a good insight. Learning how not to make those comparisons is something we can work on, if you like. But I sense we haven't arrived at the heart of the matter yet."
AAA shrugged with practiced nonchalance. "I'd much rather have my IQ rating than a high Q rating anyway."
"I believe you. But since you don't really care about popularity, why else might you be angry?"
"I was angry that people embraced him as my replacement. I may have flaws, but I own them. I'm the best there is at gaming and I won't apologise for it. Chadley doesn't recognise his own flaws."
"Abigail should have had the common sense to see those flaws before she got in over her head and had to signal me for help."
"How did you feel about her calling for help?"
"Smug. Happy. Angry."
"Those are good answers. Can you explain them a little?"
"I could beat Chadley with my tail wrapped around my hands. I choose not to post my very best scores. If I did, I'd just intimidate everyone. But then they wouldn't try, they wouldn't push themselves to get to that next level. It's because I'm the best that I don't need to prove it by beating everyone. Part of the challenge, for me, is figuring out exactly what scores to challenge other players to beat. Achieving those exact scores for the event, as opposed to the best scores possible, is my own little personal game. It felt good to know that Daily Dare would fall apart without me."
"That explains smug. How about happy and angry?"
"I missed my sister at camp. I was glad to hear from her. Glad she needed me. Glad I could help."
The Blumaroo sighed. "I really wanted to make the perfect game this last summer. I mean, duh, it's Camp Wannamakeagame. Look at Lulu. She couldn't even be bothered to keep her postcards straight. I was taking camp seriously. I'm Neopia's Games Master. I'm in charge of the Games Room. I should be able to make new, better games just to live up to the name."
Sjörén switched tactics. "You take great pride in being a Games Master, but I can't help noticing there are many games you don't play."
The Blumaroo glowered. "Name one."
"NeoQuest II, for example."
"I'll have you know I happen to know what's behind the locked door in the Techo Caves. I just happen to have been sworn to secrecy."
"Yes, of course. But you don't play role-playing games as a rule, or any co-op games. Why is that?"
"That's not true. The last three Games Master Challenges have been group challenges."
"Yes, but you didn't join either team."
"I played Dungeon Dash as a co-op game."
Sjörén nodded sagely. "Why, so you did. What's special about that game that makes it an exception, do you suppose?"
For the first time, AAA fell silent.
"Let's just put a pin in that. I think it's worth revisiting. Let me ask you this, instead, AAA. You're the Games Master. It's obviously very important to you. Why is being a Games Master so important?"
The Blumaroo posed dramatically. "It would be a crime against genius for someone of my superlative cognitive capacity not to be acknowledged as such."
Sjörén clapped. "Bravo. Now answer the real question, please. Why do you have to be the best gamer? Why not the best poet, or chef, or athlete?"
"A truly excellent game expands all of your intelligences. Spatial, verbal, kinesthetic, all of them. I can feel my intelligence expanding, anyway."
"Nice try. Now please answer the question. Why do you need to expand your intelligence? Why work so hard to get everyone else to expand theirs?"
"Surely brilliance such as mine is its own reward."
"Aristotle, enough! Yes, you are highly intelligent... too intelligent to be unable to answer a simple question. Frankly, too intelligent not to realise that you're dodging the question. What purpose is served by excelling at games?"
AAA glared. "You're always after feelings, right? Well, there's nothing like beating your top score and going beyond what you thought was your best. It's a great feeling, isn't it?"
Sjörén smiled, to AAA's surprise. "How do you feel about Abigail?"
"My little sister has no idea what she's up against, competing against me. I almost feel sorry for her. Almost."
"And how do you feel about Abigail playing Dungeon Dash?"
AAA's façade of arrogance vanished. "She shouldn't have been there."
"Roothless' issue was with me, not her. I'm her big brother. It's my job to keep her safe."
"Was there ever a time when you didn't keep her safe?"
AAA suddenly seemed to be having a hard time breathing. After a moment, he pulled off his glasses. Sjörén made a mental note – glasses = armour – but didn't move a feather, not wanting to disrupt this critical moment. Finally the Blumaroo gave in and reached for the sky-blue tissue box.
"You... you can't tell Abi about any of this."
"Strictest confidence, AAA."
"She was so little, she doesn't remember. Years ago, before all the new Roo Island development. My family was out for a walk, when we got caught in a storm."
"No. A gummy storm. It started raining huge gummy hailstones."
"Like Attack of the Gummy Dice."
"Not like it. It actually happens on Roo Island. Effluvia from jelly volcanoes."
Sjörén, despite himself, looked doubtful, and scribbled a note. AAA recognised the motion of the Hissi's pencil making a question mark. "I'm not delusional, if that's what you're thinking. I'm one of Neopia's greatest intellects. I know perfectly well where Jelly Blobs of Doom come from, and these came from the same place. Anyway, my parents... didn't know what to do. Abi got... Abi got hit by a Rock Die. The hardest kind to get rid of. Luckily a Defender of Neopia happened to be nearby. If she hadn't..."
AAA held back a sob.
"We would have lost Abi. We almost did. And none of us had the skills to save her."
Sjörén mulled this over. He was relieved, even exhilarated, by this breakthrough, but he knew AAA hadn't quite connected all the dots yet. Even a brilliant intellect can miss what's right beneath his curved nose.
"So last summer, when you went to camp, and Abigail tried to handle Daily Dare," prompted the Hissi.
"I left Abi alone, and she made a huge mistake. Luckily it was only Chadley, but it could have been worse. I can't let Abigail be by herself again. I don't want her taking dares or facing challenges she's not ready for." He blew his nose prodigiously.
Sjörén leaned forward. "You've been an excellent big brother. Your sister is growing into an intelligent, capable, sociable young woman. You've been a big part of that."
AAA pulled a backup pair of glasses from his pockets, and put them on. "I just don't want her to be hurt. I couldn't bear it if it was one of my events that hurt her."
"Congratulations. You've just defeated the hardest level of the game."