gHurry, hurry, this way!h cried Patrick as he lightning-bolted blindly through the dense crowd.  Only his fingers, tightly encircling Beyafs slender but strong wrists, could confirm that she was still with him.

                The torrent of repetitive inquiries came as an ad hoc fugue, each one in a fresh voice popping out from beneath the previous one on the same tune.  gIs it true that you used to be a priestess on Xishebelle?h  gWhat kinds of clothes did you wear?h  gWhat do blue vegetables really taste like?h gIs it true that you used to be a priestess on Xishebelle?h

                The questions were endless and almost menacing, and try as she might to fight fire with water and provide as many answers as she could, Beya could not keep up the motor-mouthing while exhaustedly trying to catch her breath as she ran.  Scarcely minutes ago, she had undergone the rigorous xenosanitation procedure to catch unidentified alien pathogens before her passage into Catleya, and certainly it was no gentle scan en rinse given the complexity of divergent and convergent evolution.

                gHoly cow, Patrick.  Ifm thinking that c reclusive c hags lead rather c appealing lifestyles c right about now,h Beya managed, rather admirable in coherency, between gasps for air.

                gOh come on now, enjoy the attention.  Youfll never be free of it as long as youfre dating me.h

                gDating you?  Since when c was I c dating you?h asked Beya.  gYoufve never asked me c out before c lame c lame c lame c lame c .h

                gOh cut it out!h interjected Patrick.  gWhere exactly do you propose to have a romantic outing on a planet of collapsing stone buildings and gigantic dragons?h

                gI would think that c kissing c a priestess with a vow c of celibacy c would be the harder part c .h

                gFor an adolescent male?  What planet are you from?h asked Pat.

                Beya gave no reply, just glaring, hoping it would penetrate the back of Patfs head.

                gOh yeah!  Not this one!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha,h laughed Pat at his own attempt at a joke.  He felt a wrist trying to wriggle out of his grip.

                gI make this prayer that I be freed from the misery of a lifetime bad jokes, so just let me cast myself on faith into the crowd,h said Beya in a mock solemn voice.  But before she could make her cunning escape, the two suddenly burst upon the palace drawbridge and hurtled into the front foyer.

                gWefre home!h announced Patrick, his palms dropping to his knees.

                gCan I change?h asked Beya, tugging on her sweat-laden patterned dress.

                gSure, what would you like?  We have dresses that feel like water or flower petals, for instance.h

                gOh no, please dress me like a normal person.  And by that, I mean no dresses for now.h

                gUh, okay, whatever suits you,h said Patrick, calling his personal computer from its floating state.  He descended and then unfolded, the two parallel bars of the monitor zipping apart and the screen materializing.  gHere, take your pick and let the scanner head determine your sizes.h  The girl took the computer and sifted through the virtual mall, settling on a simple pairing of a t-shirt and denim shorts.

                A small bead-like probe swept around Beya, tracing a path that looked like a spring.  Beya twisted around to follow the probe, earning reminders from Patrick to stand still.

                gWoah, that little guy is pretty cool.  But I bet hefs perverted, just like you,h she said.

                gPerhaps,h Patrick replied with an ambiguous smirk.  He whistled loudly and a scampering was heard in the distance.  Beya turned around to see a large box bounding forward.

                The prince knelt down and tapped the computer to the boxfs head, and it sprouted two engines, flying off into the distance.  Beya just stared in awe, even long after the box had vanished into the horizon.

                gTechnology is quite the spectacle, ainft it,h said Beya.  gI gotta get used to all these gizmos you guys have,h she resolved.

                gHey, have you seen Sonya around?h asked Patrick suddenly.  gI havenft seen her for the longest while.h

                gI think she said she was going over to a friendfs house to play angelball or something.h

                Patrick frowned and tapped his headset to call his sister.

                gHe-llo?h came an energetic voice.

                gHi, Sonya.h

                gOh wait, itfs just you?h she said, sounding disappointed.

                gJust me?!  What do you mean by that?  I was being a dutiful brother, worrying about you, and this is all the love I get?h
                gOh, no, Ifm sure youfre getting plenty of love right now, if you know what I mean.  Purr purr.  Thatfs why I came over here to Winnyfs house, so you guys didnft have to look after me.  I even made sure that there were clean sheets on the bed.  And velvet pillows.  Purr purr.h  Sonya cackled manically.

                gSONYA!h shouted Patrick, blushing red.  Beya gave Patrick a shove.  gJust what perverted thing are you scheming now?!h she snapped.

                gHey, hey, it wasnft me!h said Patrick in defense.  gSonya, itfs Sonya being perverted!h

                gOh right, blame it on your little sister.  Very manly of you.h

                gAh, you women conspire to ruin me,h whined Patrick with flush lips and puppy eyes, earning him a gentle kiss planted on his forehead.

                gOh yes, ruin you we shall,h said Beya with a wink.  gIfm gonna go take a shower.  You will have no balls if you peep on me.h

                gWait, but I thought it took balls to peep in the first place.h

                gThat it does.  Peeping has a negative derivative with respect to the number of balls you have.h

                gOhhhhh,h said Patrick, who was about to reply with something when Sonya cried angrily through the phone, gHey, donft ignore me!  I said you can purr purr in your room, not purr purr while talking to me!h

                gMultitasking is an art,h pointed out Patrick, playing along.  gWe are siblings, so we are inextricably connected.  I bet when you purr purr, youfll also call me to chat.h

                gYou messed up pig!  Bye!h exclaimed Sonya, hanging up.

                Patrick sighed and sat down on a bench, letting his legs relax.  Sweltering too, he pulled off his shirt and spun it around to fan himself down.  gYeech, this thing reeks.h  He stood up and trudged over to his room on the second floor, where he flopped onto the ground and fell fast asleep.

                Fifteen minutes later, as Patrick snored away, Beya suddenly realized that she had not yet received her change of clothes yet, and she had to choose between wearing her drenched ones again or going out in the full glory of her underwear.

                gPatrick!  Patrick!  Help!h she cried.  No response.

                gPATRICK!h  Again, no response.

                gDarn it,h she muttered to herself, shutting off the shower.  gOh, what the fuck, this is the last resort.  HONEY!!  Ifm feeling terribly horny right now!  And c Ifm ass-naked!h

                Patrickfs inner man jolted awake and guided him to just outside the bathroom, then promptly abandoned him as his upper mind took over.

                gBeya, did you need something?h he asked groggily.

                gMy freaking clothes!h she shouted back, through the door.

                gOh!h he replied, a lightbulb going off in his head.  gYeah, the clothes.h

                He ran down the corridor and slid down the central staircasefs handrails, arriving back at the foyer where the box was sitting, playing cards with a smaller bubble-wrapped box.

                gYoufre late,h said the box.  gI see you and raise you twenty cents.h

                gWait, are you betting the change from the money I gave you to pay for the clothes?h

                gAnd what if I am?h asked the box.

                gWhatever, just give me the clothes,h said Patrick.
                gPlease,h reminded the box.

                gNo, you were late.  Let me finish this round of poker first.h

                gCanft you open up while you play?h

                gYes, I could, but that might break my poker face.h

                gYou donft have a face,h noted Patrick.
                The box sighed.  gYou seem to miss the point.h

                gThe point being?h

                gThat youfre late and now you are being punished for it.  Whatever, Ifm all in, baby.h

                gThatfs five thousand Conodee Dollars!  Where on Catleya are you getting these sums?h

                gThe store clerks think Ifm cute, so they tip me.h

                gAnd you spend it all playing poker?h asked Patrick.

                gOh no.  This hunk of box makes a profit.  Itfs how I treat the ladies out every night.h

                gBoxes donft have gender, either,h said Patrick.  gAnd gambling is bad for your health.h

                The box opened.  gJust get your sexy clothes and leave me alone!  It ainft easy being a box.h

                Patrick grabbed the shirt and shorts and carried them up the stairs.  gThanks,h he muttered.

                gDid you just say something?h

                gNo, nothing,h said Patrick.  gBeya-miei, Ifm setting your clothes down here.  You just have to open the door and walk to the top of the stairs to get them.h

                gNice try,h said Beya.  gYou leave them right outside the door, then you go into your room, lock the door, and cover your eyes.  Count to twenty and then you can come out.  While still covering your eyes just in case.h
                A voice came from downstairs, gMannn, shefs got you whipped!h

                gShut up,h retorted Patrick defiantly, laying the clothes beside the door and dragging his feet into his room.  Beyafs ear was pressed against the door so intently that she could feel the little grooves in the painted wood surface.  There was the characteristic click of a locking door, and, satisfied, she opened the door a crack, grabbed her clothes, and put them on, remembering how Sonya got dressed while in the conventfs sanctuary as a reference.

                gPatrick,h she said, stepping out.  gYou can come out of your room now.h

                But she got no response.  Puzzled, Beya glanced at her watch.  gItfs been twenty seconds already; you can come out.h  She walked over to the closed door and rapped the door with her knuckles, twice in a long-short pattern.  Again silence.

                Cautiously, in case her boyfriend was sleeping, she tried turning the doorknob – it was unlocked.  She pushed forward with great restraint, the hinges creaking slightly and not letting up even though she tried to halt the movement every time a sliver of a creak seemed to start dribbling out from between the metal.  Intently, intently, she opened the door, until she could see through the tall narrow crack.  A hint of a poster, a bit of bed, and one staring eyeball.

                gHoly shit!h she shouted, swinging the door so violently that it smashed into the wall with a bang and crackle.

                gHaha, gotcha!h shouted Patrick, who had fallen backwards onto the floor due to the swinging door.
                gHow old are you again?h asked Beya when she had caught her breath.

                gGood grief, teenage boys really are so immature.h

                gAww,h said Patrick.  gNow thatfs just too bad, isnft it.h

                gHey, can I borrow some money from you to go shopping?  I wanted to see what the markets are like here.h

                gSure, but didnft you just take a shower to get rid of the sweat?  Itfs still thirty-one degrees out there, you know.h

                gItfs okay,h said Beya, gI can always just put up my hair.h  She reached up and deftly swept her long hair into a florid penta-knot, sealing it with a kebob skewer lying atop the dresser.

                gWoah, howfd you do that so quickly?h

                gIt was standard for morning prayer,h Beya answered.  gDo you think it looks nice with these sorts of clothes though?h she asked, twisting her body to look at herself.

                gI think you look really cute,h Patrick said.  Beya smiled and twirled around twice, cocking her head at the end so that her hair bounced a little.

                gYay!  Alrighty, Ifll head out to the market then.h

                gUm, which market?h asked Patrick.

                gOh yeah, therefs more than one, isnft there c,h said Beya, forgetting that she was no longer at home.

                gAre you looking for open-air markets or department stores?h

                gUm, Ifm not sure what a department store is c,h admitted Beya.

                gIn that case, do you just want me to show you around?h

                gOhhh no no no!  I want to go by myself.h

                gHuh?  Ifll go wherever you want, though, not just places I want to go,h said Patrick, a little bit crestfallen at Beyafs insistence on going without him.

                gNo, really, itfs okay.  I wonft get lost,h said Beya.  gIfll be back before dinner, okay?h

                gAlright c,h he answered.  gWhy donft you take my computer with you, just in case.  And herefs a hundred thousand Conodee dollars.h

                gWhat?!h cried Beya.  gI donft think I need that much to buy c,h but then she trailed off.

                gTo buy?h

                gAnything.  You know, new earrings, skirts, smoothies, books.h

                gWell, you can leave some of it in your room, if you want, but I insist that you at least start with this much since youfre coming here with absolutely none at all.h

                gAww, thanks so much,h Beya said, giving a very tight hug.  gSo where will I be staying?h

                gHmm, you can probably have one of the guest rooms.h

                gIs your mom going to approve of me mooching off of you all?h

                gWell, youfre a foreign exchange student, so itfs not like youfre just idling around or anything.h

                gStill, I feel bad,h Beya said, frowning.  gI should get a job or something, shouldnft I?  I want to be able to pay you back for everything.h

                gLighten up a little, will you?  You just moved from one planet to another and jumped about five thousand years in terms of technology.  You deserve to take it easy.h

                gTherefs a difference between taking it easy for work and taking it easy morally.  The latter shouldnft be done for any account.h

                gMorally?  Listen, Amaglahael isnft here anymore.  Please, go enjoy yourself.  I want to see you come back with both hands full of bags, okay?h

Beya nodded.  gAlright, I will,h she said, turning around to leave.

gWait, Beya,h called Patrick.

gYes?h she asked, stopping, secretly hoping that he wanted to give her a goodbye kiss or tell her that he loved her.

gYour t-shirt is solid white.h  Beya sighed in her mind, sad that Patrick didnft seem to notice that he hadnft told her that he loved her for the past few days.

gSo it is,h said Beya, not knowing what else to say to that rather obvious observation.  gI think it suffices for a simple girl like me.h

gNo no, that means that you havenft downloaded any patterns onto it yet, silly!  Itfs the default appearance.  Here, what do you like?h

gI like c uhh c water pitchers?  You know, the pretty ones.h

gWater pitchers?!  No one makes water pitcher designs for t-shirts!  Thatfs like asking for a design with a small elf standing on a hunking slab of ham.h

gWhatfs wrong with elves on ham?  I personally think thatfs a cute touch.h

Patrick just raised an eyebrow.

gAhem, well then, hmm, bamboo stalks or something?h

Patrick deployed his computer and pulled up a bamboo design from the companyfs website.  He tapped the computer onto the side of the shirt and suddenly stylized yellow and green bamboo graced the front and back of the shirt.

The leaves swayed a little, as if touched by a bit of wind.  Beya stared at herself for a full minute before Patrick poked her.

gOh, haha, itfs kind of mesmerizing.  Thanks!h

And then she stood there for another minute.

gUm, you can stop checking yourself out now,h said Patrick, a little bit embarrassed.

gWhat, you want this hot action all for yourself?h teased Beya, looking up at Patrick and lowering her eyelids halfway, fluidly gliding and shuffling towards the boy, her hips swaying like a pendulum, brought into stark relief by her bold gold-and-silvery belt.  gHmm?  Mmm?  Mm-mmm?h  She licked her lips gently, leaving them glistening.  Patrick shifted uncomfortably, unused to his pure lily acting in this way. 

gWell, you canft have it just yet,h she said with a giggle.  gThese .. gupgradesh .. only appeared a year ago, so I need to do some quality checks on them first.  When youfre not around, that is.h  She crossed her arms and grabbed her shoulders, letting out a sigh of mock ecstasy.  gBeing in a place without any guys, you know, a girl learns how to fend for herself.h

gGah, stop it!  Youfre making me blush,h said Patrick, feeling that searing warmth extending all the way up into his tear ducts.

gAw, my cute widdle straw~berry.  I wonder what he tastes like?h

Patrick shoved Beya towards the door.  gGo!  The lack of shopping must be making you delirious!h

gSigh, youfre no fun,h said Beya, returning to her normal, casual expression.  gYeah, yeah, Ifm outta here.h


                Beya returned a few hours later without announcing herself, stashing her bags away in a few empty cabinets in a second floor kitchen that was primarily being used for storage, since the first floor kitchen was much better kept.  With a new friend floating nearby, she walked over to ask Patrick about which guest room she could use, given how many there were.  But Patrick was strangely absent with a note posted on his door.

                gDearest Beya, Ifve gone to pick up Sonya from Winnyfs house.  Make yourself at home in any guest room you choose.h

                She happily obliged, skipping down the hall and peeking into each open guest room – there seemed to be different color schemes and furniture traditions, ranging from classical to modern to futuristic.  Some rooms were floridly elegant, or unabashedly girly, or just plain gothic.  She settled for a decently-sized room with blue floral patterns and dark red-and-burnt-painted pseudo-wood.  The room looked like it hadnft been touched for ages.  She smiled and flopped onto the bed, tucking her legs beside her breasts and opening her first personal computer.

                It let out a pleasant windchime sound as the mouse-fingers sprouted, the screen unfurled, and the keyboard film floated out.  She recalled all of the technical lessons Patrick had given her secretly after curfew in her convent room, although she was still slower than everyone she had seen in the endless stores – and she had only ventured two blocks out from the palace; the fifty-story shopping center was more than bewildering already for a girl from a planet where the tallest building was three stories tall.  All of the men and women walking around seemed able to type, chat out loud, and purchase things, all at the same time and doing each at such a rapid pace.

                Was Beya just too slow for this society?  The thought scared her as she slowly plunked in her user name and password at the prompt using her index finger.  She would have to learn how to type properly, perhaps from Sonya so that she did not make a fool of herself in front of the guy she loved and wanted to impress.

                The gentle hums were shocking in contrast to the hustle and bustle outside, and the girl felt herself sinking slowly into the plush comforters, her fingers instinctively undoing her hair and letting it flow in sweeping curves all over the flowers and leaves in the pattern.  The tendrils of her hair flopped about just like the tendrils of the morning glories below them.  The shadows of Beyafs splendid hair could even pass as part of the design.

                She idly started surfing the web, trying to familiarize herself with its mysterious workings.  While typing her her right hand (attempting to use more than just her index finger), her left hand twirled strands of hair that fell into her eyes.  She mused that an ugly duckling like her had suddenly turned into something of a beauty, and she didnft know what to make of it.  Even though no one could recognize her, the gazes still hovered and lingered.

                The mirror in the room told her she was beautiful, and it scared her somewhat.  Something in her wanted to just cover it up in cloaks and wrappings of petals, just to hide away.  She had grown up being taught every day to spurn physical beauty and lust.  But if it were so bad, why did it feel so good, the gteasingh teasing this morning that she perhaps wished werenft teasing?

                Beya sighed for the thousandth time in the day, shutting off the computer and letting herself achieve a half-dozed state, her eyelids not fully closed but her mouth hanging idly open, a hint of drool slipping down her otherwise pristine face.

                Patrick reentered the palace proudly, sister trailing him, grumbling the whole way back.

                gGeez, why couldnft you let me finish playing that one match with Winny?  I was winning, too!h

                gThen youfve won,h said Patrick.  gYou girls were playing til sixty, and you werenft even halfway there!h

                gWe were at thirty-one!h protested Sonya. gWe were more than halfway there!h

                gAngelball is a slow game – play it when youfre done catching up with the classes you missed!h

                gOh, and purr purring with Beyabeya is a good use of time?  It isnft even exercise!h

                gYes, it is!h retorted Patrick.  gWait.h

                Sonya gave a knowing grin.  Nothing got past that girl.  gOhhhh so you have purr purred, havenft you?  And she likes it c athletic?  Totally didnft see it in her.  Guess you can never tell from a cute face what demonesses lie beneath.h

                gSonya!  Youfre fourteen!  Donft talk like youfre twenty-one!h

                gYoufre not denying that you did it.h

                gI didnft do it!h

                gNow Ifm inclined to think youfre lying.h

                gIfm lying?  Why donft you ask eBeyabeyaf then?  You trust her, donft you?h

                gAfter the way she seduced you this morning?  No way!h cried Sonya.

                gShe didnft seduce me!  She hit me, for the godsf sake!h

                gWhatever, you stink.h

                gSo do you, Sonya.  You really need to take a shower, or people will mistake you for a turd.h

                gHey, I actually smell quite good, thank you very much.h

                gFor a turd, that is.h

                gOh, shut your face,h said Sonya, throwing her sweaty towel at Patrickfs face and climbing the central staircase to go to the shower.

                gTurd!  This smells like turd!h shouted Patrick, waving his fists wildly.

                gBoys c,h groaned Sonya.  gI think Ifll go visit Beya afterwards instead.  Hefs the turd in the family, not letting me finish my game. 


                Sonya quickly located Beya after her shower, donning an oversized Coast City jersey and matching green gym shorts of similar fabric.  They reached down to her knees, and with her short hair, they made her look like a boy in just that way that looked adorable on a girl.  You could take her seriously, but she also carried an air of cute independence that surrounds girls her age who demand to be treated like one of the guys.

                gAhoooyyy, Beyabeya!h cried Sonya.  Beya sat up on her bed and waved.  gHiya, Sonya.h

                gOoh, you look cute!h  She stopped for a minute and stared at the bamboo.

                gUm, you can stop checking me out now,h said Beya with a laugh.

                gHey!h shouted Sonya, crinkling her nose.  gItfs not like that.  Eehee, donft you want some at-home clothes though?  I totally canft stand wearing jeans and sitting on my bed at the same time.h

                gWell,h said Beya in her normal, calm tone.  gIfm afraid I donft have any pajamas at the moment.h

                gWait, but eTrick just told me you went shopping for clothes and stuff?h

                gOh, I bought this guy,h Beya answered, gesturing towards the teal-and-silver folded computer.

                gAh, hefs so cute!  Whatfs his name?h

                gUhh, I havenft gotten that far yet.h

                gHmm, you should name him eOrtreat!fh suggested Sonya.

                gWhat on Catleya does Ortreat mean?h

                gWell, Patrick is eTrick, so your computer can be Ortreat!  See?  Isnft that cute?h said Sonya.

                gUm, that might make him feel unwanted,h confessed Beya, tugging a little on her shorts to try and cover a bit more of her thighs.  She felt slightly self-conscious about it upon seeing Sonyafs decided modesty.

                gUnwanted?  I was just thinking of it as a theme.h

                gYeah, but on Hallowfs Eve you get the treat, not the trick.  He might get jealous.h

                gAh, jealousy of a man upon his loverfs computer.  Very understandable.  I might have to tell my future boyfriend that he has to accept that I will always be betrothed to my digital lover.h

                gI think that might be a bit much to ask out of a guy.h

                gTo the contrary.  I would, in exchange, allow him to own a shaver.h

                gA what?h

                gA shaver.  For shaving his beard and mustache.h

                gHow is that even comparable?  I wouldnft want to date a guy who didnft own a shaver.h

                gBut ah,h said Sonya, gDonft you ever feel jealous when that thing touches his face, strokes it, encircles his lips?  And the electric ones vibrate, too!h

                gI guess Ifm just not the jealous type,h admitted Beya.  gI wouldnft mind watching Patrick shave, even if the shaver vibrated a lot.h

                gThe scintillating vibration doesnft conjure up dirty thoughts in you?h

                gHuh?  Why would it?h

                gOh nevermind, youfre too innocent,h said Sonya, hoping Beya would not press the question any further.  There were some things Sonya really rather wished she didnft know.

                gIfm never jealous of Patrick,h said Beya quietly.  gI just wonder sometimes whether I even deserve someone like him or not.h

                gThat turd?  Ifd say you deserve better,h said Sonya, sitting down on the bed beside her girlfriend-in-law.  gIfll be frank here and say I donft think he quite understands you.  Not deeply so, yet.h

                gYoufre right that he doesnft,h said Beya.  gBut one day he will.  Hefs done so much for me already, and I just feel like a loser being dependent on him for everything.h

                gOh, perk up, Beyabeya.  Youfll be revving to go in no time!  You can become a waitress or something like that if you really feel awful, but I personally see no point in that.  Just do something special for him so that he knows that hefs appreciated!h

                gWell, Ifm planning on giving him a surprise tomorrow, but I donft know.  What if he doesnft like it?  Or thinks itfs lame?h

                gDo you have faith in my brother?h asked Sonya.

                gYes,h replied Beya, staring at her crossed legs.

                gThen do you have faith that hefll appreciate it?h

                gNo,h said Beya.

                Sonya rolled her eyes.  gOkay, letfs try this again.  Do you have faith in my brother?h

                gYes,h replied Beya, staring at her crossed legs.

                gComplete faith?h

                gYes, complete faith.  Thatfs what it means for me to love him, isnft it?h asked Beya.

                gYes, if thatfs what your love is about.  Now, do you have faith that hefll appreciate anything you do for him with your heart?h

                gNo,h said Beya.

                gAh, donft be an idiot!h cried Sonya, grabbing Beyafs face by the chin and turning it towards her own.

                gLook at me, Beyabeya,h said Sonya.  gIf you truly have faith in Patrick, then you canft doubt him on this.  You just canft.  Complete faith also means having faith that hefll know what you mean.  Donft you forget that, okay?h

                Beya laughed heartily.  gGetting a talking-to about love from a fourteen-year-old.  Ifm really hopeless.h

                gOh no, itfs really okay.  Hey, why donft you come over to my room and pick out some comfy clothes to use for bed.  You also donft want to sleep in that kind of t-shirt, because therefs the slight chance youfll smash some of the tiny lights inside.h

                gYeah, that sounds like a plan,h said Beya, standing up.  gIfm probably around the same size as you.h

                gWaist and hip, maybe, but you got me beat up there,h said Sonya matter-of-factly.

                gBelieve me, I wish they were smaller,h said Beya, earning a punch in the side.

                gBe grateful for what you have, dear sister,h said Sonya with narrowed eyes.

                Beya shivered a bit at the glare shot in her direction, but Sonya quickly returned to her normal smiling self.

                gAnyway, here we are,h she announced, opening the closet door.  The lights were off, but Beya could tell that there was quite a collection of items inside, if only from the lack of echo as they stepped inside. 

                The lights flickered on, revealing several racks of clothes.

                gDamn,h said Beya, otherwise speechless.  gBut mostly they all kind of c look the same.h

                gNo!h countered Sonya.  gNot the same at all!  Look, this one was Ovlindosfs, 44, and over here is Jerridafs, even though she was also number 44.  But the pattern on the trim changed in the four years between their peak seasons.h

                gAnd c the point?h

                gTheyfre collectorsf items!  Ah, I suppose no one else would understand,h said Sonya with a mock frown, slinking away in an cloud of emotive isolation.

                gDo you actually wear all of these?h inquired the older girl, ignoring the princessfs theatrics.

                gOh no, no, I actually only wear the clothes on this rack here,h she said, pointing to an array of more varied garments from sweatshirts to tennis skirts to bathing suits to overalls.  gIfm just an c avid collector, you might say.  Ah, here, this one is nice.h  She pulled out a matching set of loose clothes, a sleeveless top and elastic shorts with gratuitous amounts of cute pigs printed all over.

                Beya reached out and stroked the clothes.  gOoh,h she said, squirming a little, gitfs so soft!h

                gIsnft it?h said Sonya, smiling.

                gYes it is, isnft it!h agreed Beya.

                gHere, itfs yours!h  Sonya outstretched both hands and laid the pajamas into Beyafs open arms.

                gThanks!  What are these things?h asked Beya.

                gWhat are what things?h asked Sonya.

                gWhat are what are what things?h asked Beya, growing confused.

                gLike, what are what are what these things youfre talking about?h asked Sonya.

                gThese!!h cried Beya, exasperated, pointing at the pigs.


                gTheyfre whats?h

                gPigs, theyfre pigs,h said Sonya.  gTheyfre rotund little fellows with short gold and white furs and large lower tusks.h

                gDo you like them?h

                gPigs?  I suppose I do,h said Sonya.  gAnyway, letfs go down for dinner.  Patrickfs probably almost done cooking.h

                gEh?  Why is Patrick cooking?h asked Beya.

                g eCause we arenft?h suggested the princess matter-of-factly.

                gNo no, I mean, why not your mom, or a maid, or something like that?h

                gMom is at a summit in Miaocon for the weekend, and besides, itfs better if Patrick is cooking.  As for maids, we donft have one.  There was a nanny here but he quit a few years ago.h

                gWhy did she quit?h asked Beya.

                gNo no, he.  And c Ifd rather not talk about that,h said Sonya, avoiding eye contact.

                gAww, come on,h said Beya, shuffling closer to the other girl.

                gFine!  So there was a pig.h

                A lengthy period of silence followed afterwards, during which the only sound that could be heard was the crackling of a distant stove.


                gThatfs it,h said Sonya.

                gYou did something bad with the pig, didnft you?h

                gIt was justified,h said Sonya, with a humph of remorseful pride.

                gYou unleashed a pig on the nanny, didnft you?h

                gHe had it coming!h

                gYou put it in his room for revenge, didnft you?  And when he opened the door, the pig was there, waiting for him with its big tusks, wasnft it?h

                gIt didnft hurt him!  It only smelled bad!  It was a big friendly pig!h

                Another lengthy period of silence ensued.

                gWait,h said Sonya, a few gears clicking in her head.  gWait, you just made me admit the whole affair to you!h

                gCall it a precocious motherly intuition, dear,h said Beya with a wink.

                gAh!!  Older women are not to be trusted!h cried Sonya.

                Beya smacked her upside the head with the pig shorts.  gIfm not old!h

                gGeez, older women are violent, too,h muttered Sonya, tsk tsking all the while.

                The elder teenager just ignored her, strolling out into the curved second floor corridor.

                gPatrick-me, are you down there?h she called out, the voice resonating exuberantly off the bare parts of the wall and especially the stone-laid foyer.

                She received no response, so she ran down the stairs towards the source of the crackling sounds.  She peered over the edge of the wall through the entrance of the doorless room that was radiating the delicious scents.  It was somewhat dark inside, but she could make out a shadowy figure wearing an apron.

                gPatrick!!h she shouted with enthusiasm, enough so to make Patrick perk up in surprise and drop his spatula on the floor.

                gGah, hold on, Beya!h he said frantically, picking up the spatula and rinsing it off with water.  gDonft scare me while Ifm dealing with hot things!h

                Patrick certainly had not intended this to be a harsh statement at all – if anything, it was only a joke – but Beya felt an irrational response in herself welling up from it nonetheless.  It was as though she were just a nuisance, not useful at all.

                She ran back up the stairs so that Patrick would not see the tears that were coursing out of her eyes as she bit her lips to stifle any outward sound.  She passed by Sonya on the way up, but with her head ducked, she managed to squeeze out a quasi-normal-sounding, gIfll be right back.  I have to pee.h

                It wasnft completely a lie, and a half-minute later, Beya was sniffing softly, sitting on the cold and lonely porcelain toilet, the scents of flower gardens percolating through the room, her own spirit enwrapped in the gentle grass-leaves.

                Downstairs, Patrick asked Sonya if he had seen Beya.

                gShe just went upstairs,h said Sonya.  gWhy?h

                gI swear she was just here, but by the time I finished washing the spatula I dropped, she was gone!h

                gShe said she had to pee or something.  Although I could have sworn water was coming out of the wrong spot for it to be pee.  Unless people on Xishebelle pee that way.  Which would be nasty.h

                gEh?  She had diarrhea?h

                gNo, dummy!  She didnft have diarrhea on the stairwell!  Like, tears.h

                gShe was crying?!h exclaimed Patrick, with greater shock.

                gYeah, I think so,h said Sonya.  gBut I decided it would be best for me to not get involved.h

                gArgh, Sonya, you move the food to the serving plate and set the table, okay?h

                Sonya nodded.

                gThank you,h said Patrick, tearing off the apron and tossing it approximately onto the counter, although it missed and slowly toppled and rolled off the edge, its flapping body expanding as it lightly touched down onto the ground with the signature sigh of fabrics.

                Patrick knocked on Beyafs door, but no one answered.  He cautiously opened the door to find that it was empty, the lights out.  Suddenly, from behind, he felt two arms clasping his chest tightly, then a warm, moist patch on his back.

                gWoah,h said Patrick.

                gDonft move,h ordered the voice.  gDonft move.h

                gEh?h asked Patrick, craning his neck to look at his beautiful assailant.

                gThis is a robbery.  I am trying to steal your belly-button.  Just hand it over and no one will get hurt.h

                gWait, what?h

                gI sense that you are not cooperating.  Well then, take this!!h  The girl reached up under Patrickfs shirt and gave a decisive tickle, the boyfs limbs turning jiggly and collapsing into a heap, taking Beya down with him.

                gAhaha!  Stop it, cut it out!!h

                gMuuu,h said Beya, tousling his hair.  gFine.h

                Patrick saw his opening and lunged forward, tickling Beyafs midriff, exposed by the distortion of her t-shirt as it folded over itself.

                gYeeeek!h she squealed, swatting away the hands.  gStop it, stop it, ahhh!!h

                gWell, thatfs what you get for trying to steal my belly-button,h said Patrick haughtily.

                gAh, but that was only a diversion.h

                gFor what?h asked Patrick, only to be suddenly caught wide-eyed, lips locked firmly, the ridged, dry skin suddenly pressed against smoother, moister counterparts of the same species.

                Beya backed off and sat down, legs half-crossed, right arm supporting her slightly off-balance stance.

                gThatfs what I really wanted to steal.h  Patrick smiled, the luster of the kiss still sparkling in nerves all over his lips.

                gHow would you steal my belly-button, anyway?  I donft think itfs a discrete object.h

                gSure it is.  The belly-button isnft the hole; itfs the wall that creates the hole.h

                gBut thatfs just part of my belly.h

                gItfs called a button, isnft it?  And a button is a discrete object.h

                gWhich still begs the question of why anyone would want it.h

                gOh, donft be naïve.  You mean to say you havenft heard about the Black Market?h

                gIn belly-buttons?h
                gYes, they fetch a very nice price.  Especially the ones from princes.h

                gI suppose those would be rare items,h admitted Patrick.

                gBut alas, I have chosen love over wealth,h said Beya with a sigh that glided gently down a treble scale.

                gBeya, seriously, were you crying?h

                gWho ratted on me?!h she cried.  gYeah, I guess so.h


                gHey, if you want to give me comfort, donft interrogate me!h said Beya without anger.  gBesides, you should already know.h

                gI donft think I do,h said Patrick.

                gIf you just thought about it and used some sensitivity, you would!h

                gAre you mad that I told you  not to scare me?h asked Patrick.

                gYes,h said Beya.

                gWait, what?!  I donft think thatfs entirely reasonable of you.h

                gNope, it isnft,h said Beya.

                gThis is really unlike you, dear.  Whatfs up?h

                gYou didnft even tell me you were starting dinner!  And then you pushed me away when I only said your name!h cried Beya.  gI  may be unreasonable but you have to understand how badly I feel c .h  She frowned.  gIfm fine.  Ifm not crying now.h

                Patrick leaned forward and hugged the girl, getting no response but flaccid hands drooping down and a diverted gaze.

                gWhy do you keep doing things on your own like that?  I want to be part of this relationship, too, not just a recipient of it.h

                gA recipient?  You feel that way?h asked Patrick, genuinely dumbfounded.  gYoufre the one who went out shopping by yourself!h

                gBut that c thatfs because c,h said Beya, but she realized that he had a point.  gWell c it was because c I wanted to surprise you.h

                gAnd tonightfs dinner,h said Patrick.

                gHuh?h asked Beya, looking up and seeing Patrickfs gleaming green eyes.

                gTonightfs dinner was supposed to be a surprise for you, too!h

                gWait, really?h asked Beya.  gOh c I get it.  Still, shouldnft we do things together?  Form a common identity together?h

                gWe can always do that, too, Beya-me.h

                gThen can we start tomorrow, please?  Letfs tend to the garden outside together, since no one has been taking care of it lately.h

                gAlright,h said Patrick, hugging the girl intently, and this time getting a full, enthusiastic response.  He blushed a little as he felt her chest pressing against his.

                gItfs okay,h whispered Beya, noticing his uneasy expression.

                The two stood up and walked downstairs, where Sonya was happily helping herself to food.

                gAh, you didnft wait for us,h said Patrick.  gBoooo.h

                gAw, it was just so delicious-looking that I couldnft resist!h said Sonya with such a big, childish grin that Patrick couldnft help but forgive her.

                Beya nodded.  gYeah, it looks amazing, even with Sonyafs slobber all over it.h

                gI didnft slobber on it!h shouted Sonya, garnering light laughs from the other two.

                gWhatever, letfs dig in,h said Patrick.  The three ate noisily, despite the lack of conversation.  The food was simply so good that the inner beasts leapt out and soon peels and bones were lying all over the kitchen table.  Beya and Patrick leaned together, their greasy hands held roughly together despite a lack of correspondance of fingers.

                gMmm, that was really delicious,h said Beya.  gI could stand to get used to this.h

                gOhoho,h said Sonya.  gBut I cook half of the time!h

                gIs that c a good thing?h

                gI inherited my cooking skills from mom!h said Sonya happily, a wide, toothy grin developing on her face.

                Beyafs eyes widened in fear.  gWait, no, it canft be c .h

                Patrick poked Beya on the shoulder.  gShefs kidding.  Sonyafs really good, too; she just cooks simpler things.h

                Sonya blushed – Beya swore internally that it was the first time she saw the brash tomboy sheepishly flush red.

                gThatfs enough!h cried Sonya.  gShimegiomenziyn; Ifm off to go do some of my catch-up work.h

                gEh, whatfs that word she said?h

                gShimegio c,h said Patrick.


                gc menziyn,h finished Patrick.

                gMen c zaaan.h

                gc Ziyn.  Nasally, like that.  Ziyn.h

                gMen-ziyn,h repeated Beya.

                gYeah, thatfs it, youfve got it.  It means ethank you for the foodf in Gonosan Language.  We usually say it after meals here, optionally, but in any cat country, you always say Shimegiomenmiao before the meal.  Just keep that in mind.h

                gOh!h said Beya with her turn to blush.  gYeah, I forgot to say thank you.h

                gItfs okay,h said Patrick.  gThe way you ate is appreciation enough.h

                Beya pouted.  gIfm not sure if Ifm supposed to take that as a compliment.h

                gYou are, dear pig of a lady.h

                gPig?!  Like those yellow things?  Thatfs a term of endearment?h said Beya, alarmed.

                gWell, thatfs one sort of pig.  I was using it figuratively, though.h

                gAs in?h

                gEating like a pig means eating like a sloppy monster,h piped up Sonya.  gSo Patrick was calling you a sloppy monster.  Shame on him.h

                gGrr,h growled Beya, stepping sharply on Patrickfs foot.

                gOww!  It was a joke, it was a joke!h cried Patrick, waving the white flag.

                Beya leaned in a kissed him on the forehead.  gI guess itfs time to do the dishes.h

                gOh no, itfs my day to do that,h said Sonya.  gYou two go and frolick in the meadow now.h

                gThe meadow?h asked Beya.

                gWell, if not a meadow, whatever floats your boat.h

                gYou look kind of tired,h said Patrick, brushing Beyafs hairs out of her face.  gDo you want to go to bed?h

                Beya looked at her watch to check the time.  gWait, this watch is useless on this planet.h

                gOh yeah.  Well, itfs around twelve sixty-seven right now, so itfs still kind of early.h

                gHow many hours are in your day again?h asked Beya.  gSorry, I  must sound really dumb right now.h

                gOh not at all!  There are sixteen hours, and each is divided into a hundred minutes, and each minute is divided into a hundred seconds.  Breakfast is a bit past four, lunch is at around eight, and dinner is at twelve.h

                gIs mid-night at zero or sixteen, then?h

                gAh yes, it is at sixteen.  It goes from sixteen zero-zero to zero one immediately afterwards.  Youfll get used to it.h

                Beya nodded.  gI guess Ifll go get changed and sleep for a bit, then.h

                gSounds good,h said Patrick, watching Beya go up the stairs, eyes trailing her exquisite auburn hair, which was untied and flowing all over.


                The next morning, Patrick awoke to the sight of a radiant face squished between two supporting arms, the elbows sinking into the mattress.

                gGoooood morning!h

                gEh?  Wah.  Oh.  Hi.h

                g eHi.f ?!  Thatfs all I get?h  Beya pounced on her boyfriend and prodded him until he started rolling, gathering blankets and then falling clear off the far edge of the bed.

                gAh, you got disposed of!h observed Beya.  gAre you okay down there?h

                gMmmff mff,h said Patrick.  Beya rushed over and uncovered him, dragging him forward.  gCome on, rise and shine!h

                Beya was wearing a cute apron with a large cartoon of a grill in the center.  The bottom of her blue shorts just barely peeked out from beneath the apron, and her hair was tied into a long pony-tail.

                gHave you been in the kitchen?h asked Patrick, sniffing her like a bunny.


                She led him into the second floor kitchen, where the table was set for four, with large semi-circular omelettes on every plate and intricate braids of herb-leaves forming wreaths around the perimeters of the plates.

                gTa-da!  Specially for you, my dear prince,h said Beya, smiling but actually very nervous inside.  She clasped her hands behind her back so as not to be seen fidgeting, and it seemed to work.  Patrick turned to her and kissed her on the lips.

                gWow, you really went all out, didnft you!  Thank you so much, Beya; this is the most wonderful thing a man could wake up to.h

                gAhaha, taste it before you pass that kind of gleaming praise,h said Beya with a fragmented laugh.

                gLetfs call Sonya here first.  SONYAAA!  Come on, breakfast is ready!h

                gIfm coming, Ifm coming!h replied Sonya from down the hall.

                gMaybe Ifm being dense here, but why is it set for four?h asked Patrick.

                gOh, that one is for Jorge,h Beya said, pointing at one of the omelettes.

                gWhofs Jorge?h

                gJorge is a large, jolly fellow from an imaginary land.h

                gIn other words, hefs not real?h said Patrick.        

                gNope,h confirmed Beya.  gI just made him up a second ago.h
                gAnd what if he doesnft show up?h

                gThen I guess I have to eat it for him,h said Beya with a shrug.

                gSo you just wanted to eat two,h deadpanned Patrick.

                gYou could put it that way, yes.  But only if you wanted to be a boring realist.  I prefer to think that I am spritiually sharing it with Jorge.h

                gIt looks somewhat small,h remarked Patrick, sitting down at one of the three normal omelettes.

                gThatfs why it was  Jorgefs in the first place,h said Beya.  gItfs made with two eggs and not three.  The last egg in my dozen was c odd.h


                gIt didnft sound right.h

                gDo you eggs sound like anything at all?h asked Patrick.

                gWell, no, thatfs the point.  This one made a sound.h

                gA sound c do you still have it?h

                gYeah, itfs in the carton.  Ifll let you take a look after breakfast.h

                At that moment, Sonya bolted into the room wearing a blue-and-teal sundress.

                gGood morning, Princess,h greeted Beya with a smile.

                gTherefs toilet paper stuck to your slippers,h remarked Patrick.  gAnd here I thought youfd finally looked like a lady for once.  But the toilet paper betrayed your true self.h

                gAh, dammit, I hate it when that happens,h moaned Sonya, plucking the stream off her heel and tossing it into the precomposter.  gYou know, you get all dressed up and youfre ready to go and your hairfs nicely brushed and your make-upfs on and everyone notices that youfve got some toilet paper on your heel.  Hasnft that ever happened to you?h

                gUmm,h said Beya.  gEr c .  Sure, happens all the time.h  White lies were okay once in awhile, right?

                gOh, donft tease me.  Do I look okay, though?  I havenft worn make-up for five months.h

                gYes, you look really pretty,h said Beya.  gWhatfs the occasion?h

                gToday is the spring festival!  Ifm going out with my friends later on.h

                gHave you finished your work yet?h asked Patrick.  gSpring break will be over in a couple days, and we already missed school all the way since winter break!h

                gItfll be done, itfll be done.  Worry about your own homework,h said Sonya, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture.  It was only at this moment that the girl suddenly noticed the food.  gWoah, the eggs are looking fine today.  Is this your doing, Beyabeya?h

                gYep, it is!h

                gAww, so cute, so cute.  All for pinchiepinchiepoo here, right?h she said, squeezing Patrickfs cheeks.  gHmm, donft spoil him too much or hefll come to expect it.  A girl has got to assert her independence.  Cook reluctantly!  Clean reluctantly!h

                gAre you supposing that I should do a limited run in order to drive up the value of my services?h

                Patrick shuddered.  gI know that some people say that girls are calculating, but doing an economic analysis of love gestures is too much!h

                gAhaha, wefre just kidding!h cried Beya.  gRight, Sonya?h

                Sonya glared back at Beya.

                gOh.  Wait, you werenft?h said Beya, doing a double-take.

                gHeeheehee,h was the only enigmatic reply.  gAnyway, letfs eat!h

                The three chowed down happily, slurping up the scrambled eggs pregnant with all sorts of vegetables as fillings.  While all the ingredients were native, some of the idioms of the food were decidedly alien, and it came out in the exotic taste.

                gAhh, that was really delicious,h said Patrick, who finished first, with Sonya coming in a close second.  Beya, in the meantime, was blissfully taking her time on her own omelette, and then on gJorgefs.h

                gHey, can I see that egg of yours?h

                gShrr,h said Beya, speaking before realizing that she had just stuffed a healthy spoonful of food into her mouth.  She stood up and went to the refrigerator, carrying back the dozen-egg carton with only one egg left.  Patrick gently opened the carton, Sonya peering eagerly, pressing down on Patrickfs shoulder with her own arms for support.  He tilted the egg onto its side and heard a soft clunking.

                gMay I crack it open?h

                gBy all means,h said Beya.  gIfm wondering whatfs in there, too.h

                Patrick tapped the egg tentatively on the edge of the dining table, but nothing happened.

                gI think you have to tap it a bit harder than that,h remarked Beya.  gThat shell looks really thick.h

                Patrick obliged and tapped more forcefully before holding it over his empty plate.  He separated the two halves, but no liquid came out.  Instead, a single solid object clattered down onto the plate, gleaming.

                The three just stared at the plate, frozen in shock.

                gItfs a shard of some sort,h said Sonya, flipping it over with a napkin to avoid getting cut.  gA mirror!h

                The irregularly-shaped piece just sat there, reflecting without bias as any planar mirror would.

                gOh well,h said Beya, picking up the plate and carrying it over to the trash can.

                gWait!  What are you doing?!h cried Sonya.

                gThrowing it out?  Itfs sharp so we donft have to have it lying around where it could hurt somewhat.h

                gHold on, donft throw it away just yet.  I want it.h

                gYou want this?  Donft you already have a mirror in your room?h

                gYes, but it wasnft born from a chicken,h said Sonya.  gThat automatically makes this one cooler.h

                gWell, you can certainly have it.  Just be careful.h

                gYes, I know!  Ifm not a careless little kid,h said Sonya, dumping the shard onto a pile of napkins.  gIfll go put it in my room for now.h