It began to rain again.
Rakkel watched it through Doople's shutter. Xe stood behind his shop counter, leaning on it, picking at the remains of a dumpling stew.
"I'll pay," xe told Doople as he walked into the room behind xir. "I have money now." Doople had been more than happy to let xir use the terminal tucked into the far corner of the kitchen. It was an ancient, grease-stained device with a brown plastic shell and round keys that booted on the third try. Rakkel's paws itched to cannibalize it for parts, on the grounds that they weren't doing anything much in their present configuration. But eventually, xe'd been able to connect to the city's network and check xir account. Sure enough, 5000 credits.
"Rakkel," Doople said, exasperation in his voice, "I invited you to have breakfast with me. I'm not gonna charge you for it."
"But I feel like I'm in your debt." Xe felt awkward for even having stuck around after Welton left. Like xe had no business being there without him.
"Pay me back by being good company!" Doople said.
So they talked. Xe'd thought they'd have nothing to talk about, but beneath his gruff exterior, Doople proved to be a shockingly good conversationalist. He had a knack for listening, xe discovered. Xe imagined him, night after night, standing here at this counter and taking orders from customers, all with that same expression on his face that said that he truly heard, comprehended, and was curious about whatever they had to say. Xe could see xirself ordering food from him just for the satisfaction of that. Maybe even staying to chat while xe ate. Was that how it went for him? Or did he give them their food and hurry them along to make room for the next customer?
Xe found xirself telling him about xir journey from home to the city.
It'd been tough. Tougher than xe'd expected, for all that xe'd explored the countryside around home. And the Trolley, being what it was, saw varied countryside. But xe'd never been more than a day or two away from home, and usually even then xe'd been in a small group, not all by xirself.
Xe told him about an old, overgrown vineyard xe'd stumbled across. Grapes grew wild everywhere. Once upon a time, their ancestors had been genetically modified, and now they took on all kinds of different colors and flavors. Most sported distorted corporate logos on their sides, warped beyond legibility by crossbreeding and genetic drift into feverish, blotchy patterns of contrasting colors, almost but not quite recognizable as letters or regular shapes. None of the flavors were recognizable anymore, either, save for a pervading tang of background grapeness.
Xe'd spent two days exploring the area, sampling all the different varieties, then filled up some bags with them and hung them on the sides of xir bike. They'd supplemented xir provisions for a while afterward.
"And you didn't worry they'd be poisonous?" asked Doople. "Carcinogenic, maybe?"
"I did," said Rakkel. "But sometimes you have to take risks. Anyway, they were grapes. They were supposed to be edible. Whoever'd modified them wanted them to be edible. Even the grapes themselves wanted to be edible, from an evolutionary standpoint. They'd certainly managed not to be seedless anymore."
"But what happened to your bike?"
"Without going into the embarrassing details, I wrecked it," xe said. "Just outside the city. It's hidden under a bush. Or at least, it was when I left it. I hope it's still there."
"You could bring it here, if you'd like," he said. "I'll watch over it."
"You barely have room for it! No, it's fine."
"You sure? I could hang it up on the ceiling. It wouldn't be in the way."
"Doople, we barely know each other." Xe shook xir head. "I came to this city all ready to be distrustful of strangers. Then the first person I meet - by accident - treats me like I'm family. At least Welton actually is part of your family."
"Yeah, but not by blood," said Doople. "My momma was his da's business partner. Listen, I just think it's right for people to be good to each other. To help each other. You know?"
"Well, yeah," said Rakkel. "I mean, I agree."
"If it'd been me standing outside your door in the rain, would you turn me away?" he asked.
"Probably not." said Rakkel. "At least, I hope I wouldn't."
"There you go."
But you threw Welton out, xe didn't say, and now he's out there in the rain somewhere. Why?
"I still can't figure Welton out," xe said. "He seems very immature."
"Ha! Yeah, I'd say so," said Doople.
"But earnest. And lonely."
"That's about the size of it," said Doople. "So what can't you figure out, then?"
"That's how you see him? But you threw Welton out," xe said after all, "and now he's out there in the rain somewhere-"
"Yunno, he's more spoiled than he wants to be," said Doople. "I've heard him go on about his parents. And I think part of it is, he's scared that he really is who he thinks they were trying to make him into. And the sad thing is, he's kinda right."
"So the way I see it, if I can knock some of the immaturity off'f him, that's all for the best, yeah? So I'm teaching him a lesson. He'll be fine, I'm sure."
"He showed up at my hostel last night," said Rakkel. "Passed out drunk at the front gate. I found him there and carried him up to my room."
"Huh. Don't think he has much experience drinking. I'm glad you found him."
"He said you'd be worried about him."
"He was right, I was." Doople shook his head. "He's got a lot of growing up to do all at once."
"I just think, to come back here and immediately get thrown out... you don't think that's a tad much?"
Doople frowned, or at least he frowned a little bit more than his default frown. "Maybe," he said. "Guess I didn't know about that when I did it. But that's the thing about consequences, Rakkel: They happen when they happen. You can't go about expecting them to wait until you're ready to face them. Not how life works."
"Yeah, but this particular consequence isn't just 'life.' It's under your control. You have the ability to make things better," said Rakkel. "Which is the only way they ever get better. We've got to push back against 'life's not fair,' if we think fairness is worth having. Don't you think? It's part of people being good to each other. Why it matters."
"I really meant it, though," said Doople. "I can't have him ruining my business. He needs to learn this lesson if he's going to stay with me. I think he can learn it, but there's a difference between 'can do' and 'has done.'"
Rakkel boggled. "What'd he do, anyway? How could he ruin your business?"
"If you want to know, find him and ask him. Not my place to tell you. But you never answered me. What can't you figure out about him?"
Rakkel thought about this, and realized what bothered xir the most. "Er... does he like women? Or men? Or...?"
"Ah, you have a thing for him?"
"I think he has a thing for me. Or at least, maybe he does - that's what I can't figure out. Not really sure how to deal with it," xe admitted.
"You say you brought him up to your room when you found him passed-out drunk?"
"Yeah. Fortunately, there was an empty bunk."
"Hmm," said Doople.
"The thing is, I'm not really a man or a woman," xe said. "And I'm not really attracted to him. I'm not really sure how attraction works, to be honest."
"Eh? Not really a man or a woman?" Doople blinked in confusion. "Is that normal for leezurs?"
"'Lemurs,'" corrected Rakkel. "It's normal for people where I'm from, lemur or otherwise. Um. If you're really good friends with someone, sometimes you go in on genders with xir, one way or another. And then you might get a bio mod so you can experience sexual attraction. Or just the latter, if you can't really figure out a gender that works for you."
Doople looked perplexed. "Is that so?" he said.
"Yeah, but I've never really been close enough to anyone to go for that," xe said. "Got some friends back home I'll cuddle with, of course, but that's all."
"Oh," said Doople. "Er... oh."
"I know things are very different along the river cities," xe said. "More traditional."
Doople's brow was furrowed. "I know some folks who use bio mods to go from man to woman or woman to man," he said. "Did it myself when I was young, actually."
"Sure," said Rakkel.
"Seems weird to me not to be either, though."
Rakkel shrugged. "Honestly, it's always seemed weird to me that it's even a thing," xe said. "Never saw the point of it. But other people seem to enjoy it, so I guess, more power to them. Some of my parents are gendered," xe added.
"Er," said Doople again.
"But people outside my community sometimes mistake me for a girl," xe said. "Just because I'm skinny, I guess. And I think maybe Welton's done that. And I'm not sure how to explain that I'm not? I don't want to hurt his feelings."
"Wish I could help," said Doople, "but I'm having trouble with it too. So you don't have attraction until you've already got a relationship?"
"That's what I said," said Rakkel, patiently. Xe felt a tad surprised that Doople was experiencing so much confusion over this. It seemed straightforward to xir.
"Which bathroom do you use?" asked Doople.
"Whichever's closest," said Rakkel.
"Huh," said Doople.
"I do want to be friends with him," xe added. "I mean, he irritated me at first, but I think he's basically okay."
"Would you... would you 'go in on genders' with him?"
"What? No! I mean, ask me again after I've known him for years instead of days. Anyway, he's already got a gender."
"Would you cuddle with him?"
"Probably, yeah. If he wanted to. But he might take it the wrong way, wouldn't he? If he's got some kind of crush on me, I don't want to make things worse."
"Huh," said Doople. "Okay. Er, would you cuddle with me?"
"Absolutely," xe said. "You want to? This is good weather for a nice cuddle." xe reached an arm out.
"No!" he shouted, pushing xir arm away. "No, I'd rather not."
"Ah. Okay. It did kind of surprise me that you asked. You don't seem like the cuddly sort."
"Sorry," he said, "I didn't mean I wanted to. Just curious."
"No worries," xe said, rubbing xir arm.
Doople sat back and cleared his throat. "Well, I already knew you were a weirdo," he said, amiably. "Guess this is just part of your weirdo-ness."
Rakkel felt like xe should take offense at that, but didn't. Xe'd meant it when xe'd said xe'd cuddle with Doople, and xe wasn't willing to get that physically close with just anyone. But xe trusted him and, at this point, liked him. In fact, the 'weirdo' thing was part of it: He might not be able to understand or appreciate some aspects of xir identity, but he didn't let it get in the way of his basic respect for xir as a person. He was able to put it aside and not worry about it. Xe supposed he could do better than that, but he could do a whole lot worse, too. For xir, it was enough.
"As far as Welton goes," he added, "I don't think he knows what he likes. Does he have a thing for you? Does he just like that you're a weirdo, like him? I don't think there even is an answer yet. He's still figuring it all out himself. Could go either way. But regardless, you shouldn't be afraid of it. Help him out. Tell him what you're about, and that'll let him know what he can expect, or hope for, or whatever. He's lived a very sheltered life. He needs all the help he can get."
"If I ever see him again."
"You'll see him again. He'll be back here, for sure. And I hope you will, too. I need more weirdos around. Stops me from getting complacent," he said.
Xe pictured Welton sitting wet and miserable on a street corner somewhere, his nose still leaking blood, his ears drooping, his clothes still messy from the previous night.
"You could've at least waited until the rain stopped before throwing him out," xe said.
"Didn't know it was going to rain," said Doople, apologetically.
"Do you know where he went?" xe asked, thinking, I should really go after him.
"Yeah, but I'm not telling you. This is his business. He needs to do it on his own. A little rain never killed anyone."
There was a knock at the door.
"Maybe that's him," said Rakkel, jumping up.
"I'm not letting him in if it is," said Doople, firmly. "That'd ruin everything." He beat Rakkel to the door and opened it a crack.
"Oh," he said. "Who're you, and what do you want?"
"Is there a 'Rakkel' here?" said an unfamiliar voice.
Doople looked suspiciously back at xir, but saw xe looked totally perplexed.
"Are you here?" he mouthed at xir.
Xe shrugged. "Sure," xe mouthed back.
"Yeah, there's a 'Rakkel' here," he said. "Come on in. Huh, at this rate I should stop selling street food and start hosting weirdo conventions." He stepped back, and in walked an anthropomorphic porpoise.