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Rakkel, a shameless early-riser, climbed from the bunk as carefully as xe could, so as not to wake xir bunkmate. To xir surprise, Welton was already awake and reading quietly. He looked up at xir as xe stepped down to the floor.

"Morning," he said, quietly, and went back to his book.

"Morning," said Rakkel. Xe pulled a new pair of pants from xir bag. Xe sniffed the shirt, decided not to bother with it, and put it back. "Is Doople awake?"

"I shouldn't think so," said Welton. "He'll get there eventually. We might have to make our own breakfast, though."

Having had a good night's sleep, Rakkel felt refreshed and much less reluctant to lean on the unexpected hospitality xe'd found. "I'll go down and check out his kitchen, maybe get things started," xe said.

"Not going to just run away or something, are you?" Welton said it in a friendly, joking tone, but the way he stared at Rakkel suggested a genuine fear.

"After last night's dinner? Not on your life! I'll run away after breakfast, maybe."

"Don't run away until after I've shown you the market," he said. "Seriously."

"Aren't you new around here yourself?"

"I've been here a whole two and a half days already, so compared to you, I'm a native." He twitched his snout.

"Ha, okay, well, we'll see." Rakkel climbed carefully over the ladder-hole to get into the bathroom, where xe'd hung up xir poncho to dry. It was just as narrow as everything else - to get to the toilet, one had to step into the shower. Unlike the other rooms, though, this one was built like some kind of garden shed, with thin wooden walls and a roof of some thick, semiopaque plastic that formed a shell over the top, meeting the walls halfway up. Rakkel didn't see how Doople would be able to stand using it during cold weather, but the way it let the light of morning in had a kind of charm to it, crude though the setup felt.

Having grabbed xir poncho, Rakkel returned to the bedroom area.

"What's with this apartment, anyway?" xe asked Welton. "Someone was confused about which axes square footage is supposed to be measured on."

"I honestly don't know. It seemed a little rude to ask."

Rakkel finished folding the poncho, stuck it into the messenger bag's lid pouch, and went down the ladder. Xe leapt gracefully over a snoring pile of beanbags and descended to the kitchen area behind the storefront shutter.

To xir surprise, there was another door here that xe hadn't noticed the previous evening. It was tucked away behind a very thin refrigerator unit and led into the rear wall, in a direction that until now Doople's apartment hadn't shown any indication of extending.

Xe tried the handle. Of course, it was locked.

Shrugging to xirself, xe looked around for suitable breakfast fare. The slender fridge unit held several baggies of frozen buns that resembled the ones they'd had for dinner. Xe pulled out some of these and heated them in a toaster oven. They didn't look as good, when xe'd finished cooking them, as the ones they'd had last night, but xe wasn't sure what to do about this short of waking Doople to ask him what the trick was. Possibly xe should have thawed them first, or rotated them halfway through cooking, or something along those lines. But alas, the way they were, they'd merely be delicious.

Xe carried them back up in a tray like the one from the previous night. It took some finesse to maneuver them past Doople's nest, and then even more to make it up the ladder with a tray in one hand, but nothing Rakkel couldn't handle.

"Breakfast," xe said, setting the tray down next to the bunks.

Welton looked up from his book, grabbed a bun, and went back to reading.

Rakkel sat down on the floor on the opposite side of the tray and took a bun of xir own. Xe regarded Welton for a moment, expecting questions or conversation, but the pig seemed engrossed in his book.

Xe took the AR device from xir messenger bag and began fiddling with it. It was an old model, from back when they'd been designed to resist attempts to repair them, but the front panel still popped right off when Rakkel hooked xir hygeine claw into the seam and pulled. This only revealed three asymmetrically-placed screw-wells, though, which looked like they held the two halves of the device together.

Rakkel started hunting through xir bag for a screwdriver.

"Is that a Freeview 6M?"

"Eh?" Xe looked up. "Yeah, it is. You know anything about them?"

"I absolutely do! I design holos."

"I thought you said you were a bug collector or something."

"And a scribe. A holo-scribe. Everyone wants their shop signs or their information panels or restaurant menus or whatever done in holo, but who has the skills for it?"

"You do?"

"I do." Welton held out a hand. "Mind if I take a look?"

"It doesn't work, though," said Rakkel, handing it over. "I think it has a busted cap or something."

"Could do."

Rakkel found the screwdriver in the bottom of the bag and handed it over. Carefully, Welton unscrewed it and pulled the pieces apart.

"Of course," he said, "it's a pretty old one. They can be made much smaller and lighter nowadays." He tapped the side of his eyeglasses.

"That's an AR unit?" Rakkel boggled. "Your glasses? It's tiny!"

"It wasn't easy to get. For my profession, though... Ah, here we go. Vertex buffer unit's come dislodged." He handed it back to xir. "Now you'll have to let me show you around the market: I know someone who can solder it back into place for you."

"I can solder it myself," said Rakkel.

"Do you have the tools?"

"Not with me, no," xe admitted.

"There you go, then." He slipped a colorful rectangle of paper into his book and tucked it into the pocket of the jacket that hung next to the bed. "I'm happy to set out as soon as you're ready."

"Listen, I don't know what you're expecting of me, but you're probably wrong. I'm just a person who happens to be a lemur. Where I'm from, we don't think that much about body modding. We just do it, if we want to. So it's not like you and I really have anything in common. Whatever it means to you isn't what it means to me."

"Yes we do," he insisted. "Please. I'm not saying we have to become the best of friends or something. But I've never ever met anyone else who wasn't stock human, or close to it. At least, not really. I just want to hang out for the day. Get to know you a little bit." His eyes, Rakkel noticed to xir surprise, were watering, though he was trying not to let them.

"Okay. Well. I really don't understand why this means so much to you," xe said, "but I'll go along, sure. I guess I don't mind the company."

"Thank you! Yes! I promise, you won't regret having me along."

"We're sticking to my itinerary, though. I have things I need to get done. In fact, we'd better head out now." Rakkel stuffed the rest of the meat bun into xir mouth.

"No problem." Welton grabbed a shirt from the duffel by the foot of the bed and his jacket from off the hook. He already had his trousers on. He dressed while Rakkel chewed.

Having prepared themselves, they descended through Doople's apartment, again without waking him.

"Do you have everything?" asked Welton when they reached the front door. "It'll lock behind us."

Rakkel nodded and hefted the messenger bag. "Though I do feel bad, not thanking Doople properly."

"He's not going anywhere. You can come back later."

"True enough."

"He'd probably let you stay for as long as you want."

"No. That I won't do. I appreciate his hospitality, but I don't want to be a burden. Especially not since he's putting you up already. The first item on my itinerary today is to find a hostel or the like."

"Very well."

With that, they stepped out into the alleyway and the rainwashed sunshine of the morning.

 

Forash - as cities do - sprawled. It sat on the landscape like the accreted block games of several generations of children left to their own devices in an otherwise-neglected nursery. Not one but two major rivers ran through it, meeting near the center in an entirely artificial and carefully architected mixing pool before separating and ultimately flowing away from the city's outskirts in entirely perpendicular directions. The rivers were called Aeltspring and Sedgeriver, or Aelt and Sedge for short, and their own complicated history would have filled volumes. Wars had been fought.

Naturally, the Forash Market sat right in the crotch between the two rivers, although its arms extended across several bridges and around the east side of the mixing pool, and then for a short while along the exiting bank of the Sedge.

Doople's vat-meat stall lurked slightly down an alleyway on the northeast periphery of the market, only a couple of blocks from the incoming Sedge and just west of the part of the city where the night-life tended to congregate; many of Doople's best customers were drunk partiers stopping by en-route to the next bar, or half-aware wanderers stumbling from the smoke dens in search of something to satisfy their munchies before retreating back into the comforting hazes they'd emerged from.

At this hour of the day, this part of the city was nearly silent. The bars and smoke dens hid, embarassed, from the early morning sun beneath awnings and shutters akin to Doople's.

Welton trotted along the red cobbled streets just ahead of Rakkel, pointing out some of the shuttered bars and smoke dens that he'd been to already.

"That one," he said, "was very interesting. Very interesting indeed. They have live toads housed in these sorts of vertical, cylindrical, tiered terrariums. You can watch them hop around while you smoke."

"You know, I didn't really take you for the sort of person who's into that sort of thing," said Rakkel. "You don't seem like a druggie. Or a bar-hopper, even."

"Not normally. At least, I'm not sure if I am. I've hardly tried any of it. I had fun the other night. Didn't much like how I felt afterward, though. But I could never get away with going to any of these places back home. So, naturally, I had to give them a go.

"What about you, though?" he asked, turning back to look at xir. "You sound like you disapprove."

"Not exactly."

"No?"

"Do any of them do fop-tiger?"

"Eh? What's that?"

"Well, it's a drug. Of course. One you smoke." Xe spread xir arms out. "It makes big, billowing clouds that you can really, you know, get your head lost in."

"Not sure, but I bet they might."

"Could be they call it something different here. I don't like anything addicting, but fop-tiger's pretty safe if you don't do it too often. Though there is a very, very minor risk of heart attack."

"Oh? Eeh."

"It's very minor," said Rakkel.

"If you say so."

"If you find that uncomfortable, I'd not go back to those dens if I were you. Some drugs will do a lot worse a lot more quickly, you know."

"Really? I always thought the, you know, all the warnings were exaggerated. My family's big on warnings," he said. "They're very cautious. You should have heard them go on about..." he waved a hand at his body. "Mom still thinks it's a matter of time before I'll forget how to talk. Every conversation we have, she ends it with some pointed comment about how she'll have to learn to understand oinks."

"Oof. Really?"

"Yeah, when I had it done, I was this close to selecting 'black sheep' instead of 'white pig.' Just to, I don't know, make my point."

"Is that why you did it? To disassociate yourself from your family?"

"No, it wasn't that. That'd be dumb."

"Why then? If you don't mind my asking."

He was silent for the rest of the block. At the intersection, he waved xir toward the correct street without saying anything.

"You don't have to answer that, you know," said Rakkel. "I get it."

"Oh, no, I want to explain myself. I think if anyone will get it, you might. I'm just trying to figure out how to put it into words. Sorry."

"Tell me later, then, once you've thought it through. Meanwhile, I want to ask you why you're leading me away from the market. Thought that's where we were headed." Xe tried not to sound suspicious as xe said it, but xir voice went a little hard towards the end.

"All the cheap hostels are out this way. Next to the market, it's just really expensive hotels. All the merchants who come here from far away cities stay there."

"And how do you know that?"

"Found out the hard way. Um, see, I didn't go right to Doople when I got to the city. Actually, I wasn't going to have anything to do with him, originally. If you see him again, don't tell him I said that."

"You weren't planning to stay with him?"

"Not exactly. I found a lot of hotels that I couldn't afford, and then I found one hotel that I could afford but that I really won't recommend for reasons I'd rather not go into, and then I couldn't afford anything anymore. So I hunted down my cousin in desperation. Thank goodness he was so willing to take me in..."

The street narrowed and turned into a twisting avenue between several run-down, blocky-looking buildings of concrete. Bare, dirty solar panels with dangling wiring studded the rooftops.

"Most of the city's hostels are around here," he said. "Don't go to that one in particular." He pointed. That one in particular sat back from the road in a lurking sort of way. "I think there are a few closer to the waterfront, too, from some stuff I overheard. Might've passed them on the way in. Or else those were bars. I can take you there too, if you want, and we can find out. It might be good for me to know, too, actually, in case cousin Doople decides he can't have me around anymore."

"None of them look very nice," said Rakkel.

"I don't think they are, no."

"No recommendations? Only an anti-recommendation?"

"I can tell you any number of snobby hotels to avoid, too, if that helps."

Rakkel shrugged and decided to pick one at random.

As it turned out, it wasn't as bad on the inside as it was on the outside. The front gate led to a little courtyard with a very basic and slightly overgrown garden and a withered old tree in the center. It could've been creepy, but instead it merely gave the impression that it was trying its best, and if only the soil were a little less dry, or the caretaker a little more dilligent, it would be lovely, or at least acceptably pretty.

All around the inside of the courtyard, dirty little windows peered down from the building. Most of them had curtains.

Just outside on the inner door on the far side of the courtyard from the front gate, a little booth sat underneath a big, plastic umbrella. A little woman sat behind the booth. She looked to be asleep.

Rakkel cleared xir throat.

"Yes?" said the woman without opening her eyes.

"I'd like a room, please," said Rakkel.

"We're not that kind of establishment," said the woman.

"Excuse me?" Rakkel looked down at the sign on the booth, which reiterated from the sign out front that this was "Charming Garden Hostel" and listed rates and check-in times and the like. "What kind of establishment is this, then?"

"No couples," clarified the woman.

"Oh! We're not a couple. I only want a room for myself." Rakkel could feel xirself blushing under the fur.

"We're not that kind of establishment, either," said the woman.

Rakkel looked around at Welton, who shrugged. "I promise I don't shed," xe said.

"No rooms," clarified the woman. "No rooms for individuals, anyway. It's three to a bunk, three bunks to a bungalow. Unless you want a suite."

"What if I want a suite?"

"You're out of luck. They're all full."

"Okay. Good thing I don't want one, then. Give me a bunk."

"Alright. Here's your key. Seventh floor, end of the hall." The woman nodded toward the top of the booth without opening her eyes. A little plastic card appeared from a slot.

Rakkel took it. "Thanks," xe said.

"We close officially at 11:OO, but you can still use the card to get in the front gate," said the woman. Then she lay back in her chair and assumed a posture that clearly indicated the conversation was over, along with any semblance of wakefulness on her part.

"You might want to check it out first," said Welton. "Make sure it's clean and all that. I can wait here."

"I'll come back later," said Rakkel.

"Suit yourself. Okay, then we'll go to the market next. We can get your AR unit repaired." Welton smirked at something - Rakkel wasn't sure what.

Rakkel pocketed the card. "Lead on, then," xe said.

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Dylan Craine

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