CladeA Post-Self Anthology

True Love Lies Within and Without

Thomas "Faux" Steele

Caspian Sunspear — 2286

Caspar Sunspear knew exactly what to expect. Some experienced forking as easily as breathing, one breath out and two breaths in. For him, it had always come more viscerally. Grasping his paw over his chest, he curled his fingertips as though wrapping around a presence reaching out from a timeless void, yearning to come alive. He tugged at formless flesh until a fennec fox asserted himself between blinks.

“Hey there.” Caspar winced at the sound of his own voice. His fork gazed back at him with arms crossed, a small gold stud tucked high in his right ear. He knew him immediately as Caspar Sunspear#07a8c4b9, one of the hundreds of forks that had served him over the years. “So, how should we go about accomplishing this?” he asked.

“That was what I was hoping to discuss. Please, sit with me.” Caspar exhaled, condensation flowing across the window glass as rainfall roared on the gravel outside. Having experimented with various forms of background noise, he’d eventually settled on a steady torrent from an ash-gray sky. “You have full ACLs, if you need anything to make yourself more comfortable.”

“I’ll take my tea just the way you like it.” Caspar Sunspear#07a8c4b9 grinned as a mug adorned with polar bears—long extinct, of course—simply appeared in his paw. A wisp of steam rose from the black liquid.

“Plenty of sugar, and a lemon,” the pair said in unison.

“Just like Eythor used to make us after a long day’s work,” Caspar#07a8c4b9 added, stirring a few cubes of sugar from an earthenware dish into his tea until the granules vanished. “You want me to help you talk to your old roommate…interesting. I’m certainly aware of your crush on him, but I’m surprised that you’d fork for such a task.”

“Two minds are better than one, right?” Caspar replied, suddenly sweltering with the roaring fire at his back. “I was getting pretty desperate working through this by myself.”

“You don’t have to remind me.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 took a slow sip, nostrils flaring as he inhaled the fragrant steam. He leaned back into the tufted leather armchair like a distinguished scholar while eyeing the weathered copy of Twilight on a side table. “It seems taking guidance from pulp fiction isn’t working out, hmm?”

“Don’t laugh!” Caspar twiddled his thumbs as his fork struggled not to crack up. “I’m serious! I only turned to ancient tomes like these out of sheer yearning for that weasel!”

“Whatever you say.” The fennec’s ears flicked about with amusement as he chuckled, sending a ripple of tea sloshing over the rim. Caspar#07a8c4b9 slyly tapped the side of his head while he summoned a soft rag to wipe off the mahogany coffee table. “Still, you have a point; I know we’re not the most socially adept person in the System. Furries have always borne a strong correlation with nerdy and introverted personalities.”

“You’re not going to turn human on me, are you?” Caspar asked with a smirk. Concentrating on the slate coaster perched at the edge of the coffee table, he summoned a few fingers of whiskey to calm his nerves.

“I wouldn’t dare. Though part of you has always wondered what you’d look like clad in different fur, right?” Caspar#07a8c4b9 winked as he shifted from a wiry fennec into a muscular jaguar and then back again. “Look at that! I’m already differentiating. Isn’t that exciting?”

“Let’s circle back to why you’re here. Can you help or not?” Caspar asked, savoring subtle notes of vanilla and honey as the liquor warmed his throat. Paws trembling, he almost dropped his drink as he tried to place it down. Only Caspar#07a8c4b9’s firm grip around his wrist prevented disaster.

“Relax. I’ve got you, okay?” Caspar#07a8c4b9 dissipated the half-empty glass with a sigh. “So, you’re after Eythor. That weasel is quite the looker, and I really wish you would have accepted his invitation to grab coffee after you first moved out. Though…in that case I wouldn’t be here, so perhaps that was for the best.”

“I should have let him treat me to an Americano.” Caspar sighed. He threw himself back against the mid-century sofa, its thin brass legs clinking against the hardwood floor. “Ugh! Why am I so bad at being romantic?”

“Let’s focus on confronting the problem you’ve brought me here for.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 playfully rolled his eyes. Balancing a half-crushed lemon wedge carefully between his claw-tips, he let a few drops of pearlescent juice fall into the murky liquid. “We’re part of the same clade until I quit, right?”

“Right.” Caspar rubbed the nape of his neck, soft fur tingling against his paw pads.

“Then we’re working towards the same goal. I just want to see my smile mirrored on your muzzle.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 clicked his tongue and winked. Extending his paws outward, he summoned a tall stack of leather-bound books, gilded edges sparkling in the recessed lighting. “Let me see to what extent I can differentiate myself while you get some shut eye.”

“Good idea. I suppose an identical copy wouldn’t have much wisdom to share.” Caspar sighed, the weight of the all-nighter he’d pulled tugging downward on his eyelids. Dawn’s first light was already cresting the horizon over his fork’s shoulder. “You must be tired. Would you…like to come to bed with me?”

“It’s uncouth to date yourself,” Caspar#07a8c4b9 replied with a wink. “Don’t worry, I can summon all the energy drinks I need to make this work. I won’t rest until I think I’m at a place where I can be of assistance.”

“What is your strategy, if you’ve thought that far ahead?” Caspar asked, bending forward and arching his back in a catlike pose. Taut abs flexed beneath his long-sleeved merino wool shirt. The pleasant buzz of alcohol pulsing at the base of his skull made it easier not to feel self-conscious about the instinctive stretch.

“I think this calls for a research binge.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 flipped open the top book with an authoritative thud. “I’ll start with a little Shelley and go from there. One of the original Romantics might help me glean a deeper understanding of true love...or at least learn enough about romance to help a hopeless case like you.”

“I resent that characterization.” Caspar huffed, rolling his eyes while drumming his fingers on the coffee table. “How long do you think it’ll take?”

“Go and get some sleep. I’ll burn the midnight oil on your behalf.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 yawned as he began flipping through the pages, head swiveling as though following the progress of a 3-D printer. Caspar silently thanked the gods for the fact that he had always been a fast reader. “Spectating my progress won’t do you any good, Caspar, so I’ve summoned something to help you rest. Drink up.”

“You’re surprisingly authoritative, for a fork only a few minutes old.” Caspar glanced down at the cheap gas station cup now cupped between his paws. It was filled halfway up with warm milk spiked with fragrant lavender powder and spicy-sweet clove oil. “Fine, I’ll get going,” he said, taking a long sip of the bedtime potion. It was just like his mother used to make.

“Goodnight!” Caspar#07a8c4b9 called.

Padding toward the bedroom—really more of an alcove concealed with a rice-paper sliding door—Caspar paused in front of the fireplace. Wood-fueled flames licked at the brass grate, illuminating stag’s head grotesques atop its pillars. “You’ve already lasted longer than most of my forks,” he awkwardly murmured, not quite knowing what else to say.

“I know you struggle to say goodnight because your mother worked the second shift. You liked to stay up late to catch a glimpse of her Technicolor uniform all speckled with melted plastic.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 sighed, slamming the book shut. “I already gave you the bedtime potion. Do I have to tuck you in before you collapse from exhaustion where you stand?”

“I, uh…” Caspar wasn’t quite sure how to react to that statement. He nervously rubbed the back of his head while the flickering firelight danced across oak shelves full of impressive-looking books that he’d never so much as cracked open. “Yes?”

“Alright, come along then.” Casparr#07a8c4b9 flashed a John Bradshaw book with a cover rendered in simple primary colors. “I guess I can be kind to my inner child tonight, but don’t think that I’m going soft. You still have my word that I’ll whip you into shape before I quit.”

“Can we just talk a little more about—”

“No. Come on. You’re up way past your bedtime.” Grasping his paw, Caspar#07a8c4b9 hauled him into the bedroom, a cozy and comfortable space with room for little else besides a sleigh bed carved with motifs of laurel and holly. A few naturalistic prints adorned the walls, the most prominent of which depicted a fisher clutching a snow hare in its jaws. It hung crookedly above the headboard. “Do you need a glass of water?”

“I usually—” Caspar had to stop himself from offering unnecessary explanation. Of course his fork would know his usual routine. “Yes, please.”

“I’ll set it right here for you.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 placed the glass next to a lamp decorated with a perfect sphere of Erfoud black marble on the compact nightstand. He hefted Caspar onto the dense memory foam mattress before tucking Urial—a well-loved weasel plushie and a perfect recreation of one of his prized childhood possessions—into his arms. “All good?”

“Yeah, all good.” Caspar sighed as a weighted, down-stuffed comforter was brought up over his chest ruffs to lightly pin him in place. He wriggled his toes until he found a pocket of cool air and sighed. “Thank you. That was…oddly nice.”

“It feels good to be doted on. Forking can be a form of self-care if you let it be.” Caspar #07a8c4b9 dimmed the lights with a wave of his paw, leaving only an errant moonbeam to illuminate his soft features as he stood in the doorway. “I think I’ll take a little walk to clear my head. I should be back tomorrow morning. Sweet dreams, cocladist.”

“The same to you…when you get around to dreamtime.” The door closed with a muffled click. Anxious thoughts flitting at the edge of his consciousness like lanternflies, Caspar squeezed Urial tight against his chest and curled into a fuzzy apostrophe. Insulated against the world, the fennec soon drifted into a satisfying sleep.

Caspar had eagerly awaited Caspar#07a8c4b9’s return the next morning. But, instead of a familiar face in his living room, he was greeted with the sight of a baroque castle overlooking his once-tranquil backyard. His fork had reshaped the landscape of his private sim, turning what had once been an alpine forest into a craggy landscape filled with exotic trees and roaring waterfalls. Every evening, he’d watch the flickering candles in the stained-glass windows of the castle’s grand library and wonder what exactly Caspar#07a8c4b9 was up to.

Then, unexpectedly, on the eighth day after he forked, Caspar awoke to a gilded letter sealed with a daub of crimson wax on his nightstand. The embossed linen paper read simply, “Come and see.”

Caspar figured he had no choice but to do exactly that. He trudged up the hillside, bearing a stainless-steel water bottle whose contents were alloyed with a tablet of citrus flavored EnerGX. His ascent was aided by steps chiseling themselves from the earth at the steepest points, catching his footfalls as soon as they faltered. By the time he reached the castle’s gate, Caspar was in perfect equipoise between exhausted and intrigued.

Mahogany doors three stories tall opened at his approach. Gleaming dragon’s head knockers gazed at him from on high as he stepped inside. The foyer was richly decorated with tapestries depicting the folk heroes of Appalachia, soot-faced coal miners and moonshiners in hopped-up Fords meticulously captured in wool and silk. It was as close to a royal pedigree as Caspar—and by extension Caspar#07a8c4b9—could claim.

Stepping past a grand staircase, the fennec’s ears perked at the spine-tingling organ music sweeping down the hallway from the library. Set in a minor key, the mixture of sadness and longing in the chords conjured a tableau of a sailor forever parted from the sea. It trailed off just as he entered, ending with a brief and triumphant return to the major key.

“Welcome. I’m glad you got my letter.” Caspar#07a8c4b9 pivoted on the velvet stool and yawned. Though he retained a familial resemblance to Caspar, his softer features and longer headfur gave him a hint of androgynous beauty. “What do you think of the new look?”

“It’s a little more fashion-forward than my usual outfits.” His fork now wore a piece of true haute couture designed by one of the hottest names in the marketplace. Gold fabric crisscrossed his chest in triangular strips, leaving exposed flashes of sandy fur visible on his pecs. His modesty was preserved by a textured loincloth embroidered with silver acanthus leaves. “That’s a Benzene Designs piece, right?”

“You have a good eye.” The high-karat gold mariner link bracelets adorning his wrists sparkled as he stood up and yawned. He stroked a paw through his headfur and summoned another energy drink. Caspar noticed several more crumpled cans in the wastebasket beside the organ. “I figured you wouldn’t mind me spending a bit of your accumulated rep to give you a demonstration of elevated style.”

“I think you wear it well.” Caspar reclined on a leather chaise, reaching over to grab a pawful of grapes from a nearby footed bowl. They were delightfully sweet, a close approximation of the flavor of cotton candy exploding across his tongue as he pierced the taut flesh. “Mrm…delicious, as expected.”

“I’m here to help you become your best self, and I think I’ve undergone enough individuation to be an able tutor. Part of that involves enjoying the finest creature comforts the System has to offer.” His fork reached out and offered him an ewer of mead. “Would you care for a little hair of the dog?”

“Don’t tempt me Caspar—” He suddenly paused as the name caught in his throat like a barbed arrow tip. By pure instinct, he realized that his fork had claimed a new name for himself. “Percy. It’s a good choice of agnomen.”

“I think it suits what I’ve become,” Percy replied with a soft smile, pouring a small measure of the fragrant honey wine into a sterling silver goblet the height of a soda can. “Please, drink. You should be in a relaxed mindset for the next exercise.”

“Exercise?” Caspar tilted his head, overcome by bemusement. It was truly novel to experience a fork different enough that he couldn’t easily predict at which station their train of thought would arrive. “What exactly do you mean?”

“Let’s start with a practice date. Something simple and low stress.” Percy stroked his paw across the ivory keys, playing a simple melody until he missed a note by a half step. He instinctively tensed before slowly exhaling and carrying on. “I will hopefully provide an environment where you’re not paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Then, in sh’Allah, you will begin to learn..”

“If you think it’ll help…” Caspar trailed off, downing the goblet’s contents in a single swig. He breathed in as Percy exhaled. “I think I’m ready now.”

“Good. I know just the place. How about Roberto’s#e3d7f41a?”

“An old favorite.” A smile crept up at the edge of Caspar’s muzzle. Eythor and the Guide that met him upon his arrival in the System—Ezra—would stop by whenever the meal rotation in the communal kitchen felt too stale. “Sure. Let’s go.”

“Just get dressed first. What would you normally wear on a first date?” Percy asked. “Don’t mind my fashion choices; I want you to pick whatever you feel comfortable in.”

“Something a little less on the bleeding edge of style.” Caspar imagined the subtle elastic of his favorite hoodie hugging his wrists and the smooth denim of jeans rubbing over his inner thighs. A moment later, he was wearing the outfit as though he’d always been. Concentrating on his wrists, he summoned his usual chronograph watch and a gold bracelet to complement Percy’s outfit. “How about this?”

“You look cute enough.” Percy softly smiled with the tenderness of an old friend. His eyes traced over Caspar’s body, the bulk of the hoodie nicely filling out his slight frame. “A bit on the casual side but adding a little something to compliment your partner’s taste earns you bonus points in my book.”

“I’m not totally inept, you know,” Caspar replied. “Give me a little credit, huh?”

“C’mon then. I know you can do this next part without my tutelage.” Taking Caspar’s paw, the pair stepped forward into the foyer of a restaurant designed to resemble a working-class diner at the end of the twentieth century. “Shall we grab a booth?”

The low murmur of conversation brought life to the tired space. Dingy hardwood paneling lined the wall where half-a-dozen cozy booths were occupied by couples sharing affectionate glances over pancakes and bacon. The light odor of artificial maple syrup lingering in the air tickled Caspar’s nostrils. “Not that I don’t love this joint but…shouldn’t we have gone somewhere fancier?”

“Don’t get too ritzy on the first date. My advice is to try and keep it low-key.” Percy tugged the laminate table toward him and gestured for Caspar to slide in. The green faux leather was still warm and a little sticky against his paw pads. “You don’t want Eythor to be intimidated. You’re trying to have a little fun together, not participating in a showcase of conspicuous consumption.”

Caspar scanned over the menu, prickly heat rising through his shoulders and chest as it usually did when he felt flustered. Fortunately, the wheals hadn’t yet spread to his muzzle. When the sensation rose past his throat, he knew that a panic attack was imminent. “Pretending to date a cocladist is kind of awkward now that I stop and think about it…even when you’ve individuated further than any of my previous forks.”

“I suppose I need to change more, then.” Where a fennec fox had been just a moment before now sat a weasel with gleaming emerald eyes—Erythor’s eyes. While he didn’t fully take on Erythor’s appearance—such a thing being quite taboo—Caspar caught hints in his softened features and sharply-outlined eyebrows. “It’s amazing how much I explored in my week away from you. I even took the time to watch a basic make-up tutorial.”

“That is an improvement.” Caspar whistled, noting that he didn’t look half bad as a weasel. Percy was certainly more attractive than most of the humans he’d encountered phys-side. “Do you remember why we initially picked a fennec fox as our form in the System?”

“You were always enamored with that stupid cartoon. Sandglass Half Full, broadcast every Sunday at ten o’clock sharp on UView.” Percy leaned backward while applying a delicate layer of iris purple lipstick. “Something about being part of one big happy family, right?”

“Right.” Caspar bit his bottom lip. “I didn’t realize I had an interest in make-up lurking in my subconscious.”

“Clever change of subject,” Percy said with a wink. “I’ll give you a pass this time. Next time, embrace the opportunity to share your feelings. Shared vulnerability shoulders much of the weight involved in building intimacy.”

“Do I really look that good with a bit of eyeshadow on my fur?” Caspar asked, surprised at the non-binary beauty Percy managed to evoke from his body, like a chef preparing a wholly different dish from the same ingredients. “I know you’re a different species, but…”

“Individuation really opens one’s mind to the possibilities. Would you like me to show you?” Percy asked, twirling a fine brush in a fur-friendly palette. “No obligation, of course. I don’t want to do anything that you’re uncomfortable with.”

“Well, I—”

“What can I get you, sugar?” Cutting Percy off, the server construct gazed down at them expectantly. A middle-aged woman with streaks of gray running through her coal-black curls, she gripped a notepad just like his mother used to when scanning through the cupboards with digital coupons strewn across her tablet’s screen to stretch their meager grocery budget. “It’s been a while since your last visit.”

“We’ll start with coffee,” Percy said. Shooting Caspar a knowing wink—well-aware of the fennec’s love of caffeine—he tapped the menu entry for their extra-strength blend. “Leave the pot, if you would.”

“You got it!” In the blink of an eye, a dented stainless-steel coffee pot and two porcelain mugs so dishwasher-weathered that the Roberto’s logo had almost entirely faded appeared on the table. “Let me know when you’re ready to order.”

“Mm, I’ve missed this.” Caspar’s eyes went wide with pleasure as he took a sip of coffee. Rich and mellow, it was smooth enough that it didn’t necessitate the addition of either sugar or cream. He barely noticed draining the cup until Percy poured him a refill. “Thank you.”

“Go easy on the coffee. Taking your morning EnerGX tablet into consideration, you’re pushing the recommended daily intake of stimulant compounds.” Soft mustelid fur brushed his wrist, sending a memory of Eythor passing him a cup of tea through his mind. “I’ll take one for the team and finish this pot,” Percy said, pouring himself a second cup.

“I…” Caspar trailed off, a heady blush radiating through his cheeks. The rush of caffeine heightened the anxiety simmering in his core, paws trembling as he lowered his empty mug.

“Is something wrong?” Percy asked, brow furrowing with concern.

“I…I can’t do this.” Staring down at the table, Percy’s vision began to blur as the noise of the diner began to recede beneath an all-consuming hum. Only the beating of his trembling heart rose above to taunt him from deep within his chest. “I’m never going to find true love, am I?” he gasped. Then, as though the entire System had crashed, everything froze.

“Breathe. Touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and exhale for me,” Percy cooed, eyes glowing with concern. After what seemed like a solid minute, the sim seemed to flicker back to life, beginning with the clinking of silverware against plates. “Empty all the air from your lungs. I want to hear your breath whooshing across your teeth, got it?”

“O-okay,” Caspar replied. Gripping the edge of the table like a drowning man to driftwood, Caspar traced over the repeating swirls in the peeling wood grain as though wandering through a diminutive maze. “Even you mirroring Eythor’s species is anxiety-inducing. How am I ever going to manage the real thing?”

“One step at a time. Keep taking those deep breaths for me.” Percy’s warm paws lightly cupped Caspar’s wrists as he shifted back into the guise of a fennec. “I’m not Eythor. Nothing that happens in this sim is going to hurt you, okay? Your clade is right here by your side.”

“I’ll try.” Breathing outward while counting down from eight, Caspar resisted the urge to start gasping for air as though he had just been pitched into the vacuum of space. He exhaled until his lungs began to ache before drawing breath for a count of four. “It’s…hard.”

“I know. You’re doing great. Can you acknowledge three things you can see around us?” Percy clasped his paws tight, giving a reassuring squeeze as Caspar’s gaze darted around the inside of Roberto’s#e3d7f41a. “Ground yourself in the environment. Don’t focus on the anxious thoughts. Acknowledge them before you let them simply…flow down the stream.”

Caspar glanced at a cracked mug, the stuttering clock on the wall above their heads, and a wet floor sign haphazardly set up over top of a fallen coffeepot. He pictured every detail of the objects in his mind’s eye while premonitions of catastrophe appeared and then fizzled out at the edge of his headspace. “It’s helping, I think.”

“Good. Are you comfortable with me returning to my alternate appearance to continue the exercise?” Percy asked, waiting patiently until Caspar’s breathing had steadied and his paws stopped shaking. He had the server construct bring a perspiring glass of water which Caspar gratefully accepted. “It’s okay if you’re not okay.”

“I don’t think that I’m going to slip into a full-blown panic attack, if that’s what you’re asking.” Caspar jolted a little as Percy returned to mustelid form. While he maintained a stiff upper lip, he could sense each pulse of his pounding heart in his pinky toes. “Though I can’t quite seem to outrun my nerves.”

“Let’s talk about it then. What’s got your britches in a bunch?” Percy leaned forward, supporting his chin with outstretched paws. “I’m here to listen to anything and everything you have to say, Caspar. It stays between us, cocladists' honor.”

“Shouldn’t my fork already know?” Caspar asked, rolling his eyes and drawing his arms close against his chest. “You’re still me, underneath that nut-brown fur.”

“It’s helpful to vocalize these feelings. It’s why talk therapy works, right?” Percy’s dulcet tone complimented the buttery-soft paw pads stroking through his undercoat as he groomed the fennec’s forearms. Caspar focused on Percy’s thundering pulse, his heart also railing from a mixture of caffeine and sleep deprivation. Fortunately for the weasel, death wasn’t programmed into the System. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”

“Well, where do I start?” Caspar leaned back, clutching the empty coffee mug like an amulet of protection. “I don’t want to give you my full memoirs, especially since you’ve already got the proof copy.”

“Talk to me like I’m just starting to get to know you.” Percy smiled softly. “Stay intimate but don’t overshare. We can resume the practice date here if you like.”

“Okay. Well…I chose to upload when I was nineteen. Never had the best of relationships with my mom or my siblings. I spent a few years earning a steady flow of rep in a communal sim by producing as many interactive action-adventure stories as my chronic writer’s block would permit.” Caspar loudly sighed. Reflecting on his past was rarely a joyful experience. “Once I had enough saved up to achieve financial independence and retire early, I set out on my own. I’ve been a recluse in my private sim ever since.”

“Ever tried finding a living space that’s…more of a happy medium?” Percy asked. “It seems like your initial introduction to the System was one of the better parts of your life.”

“Living with Eythor was…nice.” Caspar found himself longing for the company. The forks working on his behalf rarely stuck around long enough to become adept conversationalists. “I miss the trivial things most. It was nice to have someone ask how my day was and then genuinely care about what I had to say in response. I’ve been feeling lonely, as of late.”

“It’s good that you’re finally sharing your feelings, and that’s progress worth celebrating. How about I get you something to eat?” Percy asked. “I think you’ll feel a bit less lonely after polishing off a plate of hash browns with a cocladist.”

“Just as long as they’re covered—”

“And chunked.” The weasel smiled, flicking his black-tipped tail to beckon the server construct. “Let’s have the usual, please.”

“My favorite.” A smile curled upward at the edge of Caspar’s muzzle as a grease-laden dish was dropped in front of him. He slapped the bottom of a glass ketchup bottle until a few splatters of red adorned the monochrome potatoes. “I’ve thought about leaving my secluded cabin and venturing out again but…something’s holding me back. Dealing with other people is hard, you know?”

“Relationships aren’t always easy.” Percy’s fork clinked against his plate. He had ordered the same thing, with the addition of a fruit cup that consisted mostly of honeydew. “Your mother was fairly distant, am I right?”

“She spent most of my childhood working.” Caspar savored every morsel of the artery-clogging dish. It wasn’t so much the flavor that did it for him, but rather the memories of happier times that the hash browns recalled. He had looked forward to being taken out to Waffle House by his grandmother every Sunday while his mother pulled a double shift. “It wasn’t ideal.”

“I think you developed an avoidant attachment style.” Percy placed his silverware neatly on the table before tapping at the tip of his muzzle with a lard-stained napkin. “When a young child has a caregiver who’s emotionally unavailable, they learn to close themselves off from others. Sound familiar?”

“I have always been somewhat of a lone wolf.” The deluge of sodium triggered Caspar’s thirst. He barely noticed draining his water glass before Percy immediately refilled it with the chivalry of a true gentleman. “A week of sulking in a nineteenth-century castle really did a number on you, huh?”

“The castle and a dozen hours of therapy I received in exchange for a little rep. You’d be amazed what a little professional advice does for one’s sense of self-insight.” Percy replied. “Maybe start with verbalizing your own emotional needs. Tell me what you’re feeling right now when you think of your living situation.”

“Well…I’m looking to make a change. I know that living alone isn’t good for my mental health.” Glancing at the cracked Bakelite ashtray at the corner of the table, Caspar summoned a pack of cigarettes—a vice carried over from phys-side. The waxed paper crinkled softly in his fingers as he playfully twirled the cigarette. He caught a pleasing whiff of tobacco as he stuck the filter between his lips. “I try not to sit alone with my thoughts for too long.”

“It doesn’t hurt to accept a little help at times.” Leaning forward, Percy held the tip of a Zippo under the cigarette’s tip until it began to subtly smolder. He flipped it shut with a metallic cling before sliding it into a bioceramic case on his thigh. “I’m living proof that having someone by your side is easier than doing everything as a clade of one, right?”

“I’m going to break character here for a second. How does this practice date help with the Eythor situation?” Caspar took a long drag on the cigarette, holding the smoke in his lungs until the familiar nicotine rush buzzed behind his earlobes. “I appreciate the self-insight, but I was hoping for romantic advice. You know, something more…flowers and chocolate.”

“You can’t form a quality relationship with someone else until you’ve fixed what’s going on here.” Percy turned his claws inward, giving his chest a light tap. “Romance comes naturally when you’re sure of yourself and what you are. Can you say that about yourself, Caspar?”

“In all honesty”—Caspar took a sip of his water, swishing it between his teeth to clear some of the acrid tobacco flavor lingering on his palette—“probably not. That’s why I’ve sought out your help, remember?”

“Look, if you want romantic advice…let’s start small. I make a reasonable doppelganger of that handsome weasel you’re after, right?” Percy leaned in close enough for Caspar to catch a whiff of the musk radiating off his fur. Earthy and sweet, it reminded him of a blend of frankincense and blackcurrant wine. “Let’s take the practice date up a notch. Pretend I’m Eythor and introduce yourself to me but be genuine this time. Be confident in who you are.”

“I’m thankful that you were still willing to come out with me.” Caspar took a final drag on the cigarette, drawing it down until only a few silvers of tobacco remained. “I’ve been struggling to get the courage to ask you out for coffee myself ever since I turned down your invitation. Living with you was the happiest time of my life. Something about being in a communal sim with all the ups-and-downs of an extended family reminded me of what I missed out on growing up. It was just like Sandglass Half Full.”

“I’m glad to hear that. It was sweet of you to finally accept my invitation,” Percy replied. Caspar held the water glass lightly in his paws, taking a deep sip as Percy’s penetrating gaze swept over him. The fennec fox nervously tapped his canines against each other, trying to maintain his poise. “Can I ask what made you change your mind about taking me out on a date?”

“I didn’t think of you that way…at least not at first. But then, you helped to acquaint me with life within the System, like an older brother that didn’t regularly steal my allowance money and then shoot me with a BB gun when I tried to get it back.” A soft grin curled at the edge of Caspar’s muzzle like the watersmooth silver edge of a summer moon. “Breathe in…breathe out…then smile. That moment was when I felt the first pang of infatuation in my heart.”

“I remember giving you that advice. You were so delicate then, so unsure of what to make of the infinite possibilities of this world.” Percy mirrored Caspar’s smile. “I’ve never asked, but those of us that choose to punch the one-way ticket into the System are usually running from something. What were you running from?”

“Where would I even start? I…” Caspar trailed off, struck by cruel self-reflection, as though he were Narcissus gazing upon his perfect image in the water. He bit his bottom lip, grazing paw pads along the underside of the table to ground himself in the subtle roughness of the non-veneered laminate. “Do you want the honest answer or the polished answer?”

“Let’s start with something forthright and see where it takes us.” Percy reassuringly brushed against Caspar’s foot with blunted claw tips. “Authenticity is attractive even in an immaterial world. This isn’t phys-side, but everything is just as real.”

“Well…my folks didn’t have much money growing up.” Caspar brushed over the luxury chronograph on his wrist, a skeuomorph of wealth from a distant past he had witnessed only through others' eyes. Flicking the top pusher, he watched the luminous second hand sweep across the silver dial like a falling star. “My mom had a lot of mouths to feed on a plastic recycler’s pay after my dad passed from the RK Virus outbreak. I had to work for almost everything, even the clothes on my back.”

“Endless toil since you could first toddle, hm?” Percy asked.

“I got tired of it pretty quick.” Turning the Rolex over in his paw, he brushed a finger over lugs scratched from frequently changing the strap to match his outfits. While in the System everything could be made flawless, there was something beautiful in allowing objects to develop natural imperfections. “When the WF introduced a one-time payment to the families of those choosing to upload, I chose the straightforward way out of my problems. It was easier than slowly dying of chloracne from working in the local chemical plant.”

“Do you ever regret your choice?” Percy’s voice wavered a little, like a violin note played with a fraying bow. Meeting his gaze, Caspar sensed his own ambivalence mirrored in his folded ears and the subtle crease around his limpid eyes. “Leaving your family behind must have been hard.”

“My feelings on the situation depend on how much I’ve had to drink.” Caspar sighed, draining the rest of his water. Flashing his composed paws at Percy to prove more coffee wouldn’t have him vibrating into the next dimension, he poured another cup—though he filled it only halfway. He used the spare room to add a minibar-sized bottle of irish cream liqueur. “I sometimes miss my mom. Phys-side wasn’t all bad. She baked the best cookies…when she could scrape together the money for luxuries like that.”

“You mean, like these?” Breaking character for a moment, Percy slid a weathered plastic tub—the kind that vat-grown lunch meat came in—across the table. Inside was a baker’s dozen of cookies, each studded with cheap art-choc chips. “I did some digging through our memories. Can you give me a second opinion on them? I’m not sure the recipe is quite right.”

Caspar gingerly took a cookie between his claws, admiring its glistening surface before popping it into his muzzle. The taste was almost perfect, bringing back vivid phantasms of a cluttered kitchen and his mother’s apron, more multicolored patchwork than flannel. “It needs just a little more nutmeg. How much did you use?”

“Half a teaspoon,” Percy replied. “I remember our mom measuring the ingredients out carefully in front of us to help practice ‘rithmetic together.’'

“But she’d always add just a pinch more after whipping up the batter, maybe another eighth of a teaspoon.” Caspar leaned back, brushing his footpaws across the satiny mustelid fur of Percy’s shins. “Did you remember that?”

“Now that you mention it, I feel that memory coming back to me. My mind is still a bit fuzzy from so many changes in such a short span of time.” Percy tapped his claw against the side of his triangular skull. “There are certain advantages to being in a clade…like being able to catch each other when we stumble.”

“How hard would it be for you to quit? I’ve never asked one of my forks how they feel about it and the System isn’t exactly built to allow me to try it for myself.” Caspar knew that the process wasn’t painful, that much he gathered from the memories he’d received. Existence simply ended as much fanfare as flipping a light switch. “Would the prospect scare you?”

“It would be harder for me than it was for the fork you created to fetch you a cup of tea,” Percy replied with a soft smile. “Who lifteth the veil of what is to come? I don’t know if there’s an afterlife for all who walk amidst Creation…but it’d certainly be interesting to find out.”

“Perhaps you’ve read a little too much Shelley. Don’t go and drown in a boating accident before I’m done with you.” Caspar sighed. “The weasel form is helpful, but I’m still not sure I’ve learned anything from all this.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Percy winked as he stood up, fur puffing out beneath the straps of his outfit as he bent over and stretched his shoulders. “Give yourself a little credit. You can be romantic, you know. I think you’re a half-decent conversationalist when you stop trying so hard. It’s much easier to get along with people when you’re comfortable in your own skin.”

“Maybe I should take you along with me.” Caspar paused, wheels turning in his mind. Even though he couldn’t date Percy, perhaps his fork might be useful in another way. “Wait…would you be willing to be my wingman?”

“I’ll lead you to the water, but you still have to do the drinking. I won’t do everything on your behalf, fellow clade-member or no.” Percy pursed his lips before hawking a hefty shot of spit onto his palm. “If that’s a deal you can live with, let’s shake on it.”

“You drive a hard bargain.” Clasping Percy’s paw, Caspar stepped forward with him into the peaceful surroundings of NewUpload#6c9b2e5a. Linden trees swayed gently in a cool breeze beneath a cloudless sky. A housing complex formed from a mixture of aluminum and unpainted birch wood peeked out from the ridge. Caspar knew the bulk of the living space was underground, with only residences constructed topside. “I haven’t been back here—”

“Since you last saw him?” Percy brushed a tender paw across Caspar’s forearm. His fur now the glossy nutbrown of a fisher’s summer coat, though he retained his lustrous green eyes. Crisp white linen was draped over his shoulders, flowing smoothly to a pair of humble leather sandals. “I’ve done a bit of scouting on your behalf over the past week. Eythor should be just about finished up with a new arrival. I think acquainting fresh uploads with the System has given him the purpose he was looking for.”

“So, he’s finally a Guide, eh?” Caspar asked curiously. It was an interesting—albeit hardly unexpected—development. “He was always intrigued by the possibility of following in Ezra’s footsteps.”

“Does this new information make it harder to ask him out?” Percy leaned forward, taking the fennec’s arm and guiding him forward like a Sherpa mountaineer. Pointing his thumbs toward Caspar’s wrists, he stroked with a rhythm like a steady heartbeat. “As a reminder, honesty is always the best policy.”

“I don’t think harder is the right word. I’m just…nervous.” Caspar sighed. “I’m sure he’s happy doing what he’s doing without me. Should I really ruin that by just showing up on his doorstep like an uninvited houseguest?”

“Adult children of emotionally immature parents can be skeptical that a relationship could enrich their life. Instead, they believe that rewarding relationships are simply too good to be true, something they can never achieve.” Percy swept his tail through the soft grass beneath their feet, stirring up a smattering of iridescent butterflies. “Everything in you up to the point of the fork is in me too. What you’re feeling is a negative expectation that can be changed.”

“Are you really quoting a psychological self-help book to me?” Caspar snorted, petulantly flicking his ears. “Fine. Let’s give it a shot, then.”

“Great! Let’s do it before you lose your nerve.” Percy lightly grasped Caspar’s paw and led him forward. Passing through a windbreak of fragrant pink mimosas, they entered a secluded clearing with only the echoing calls of a whippoorwill as accompaniment. “He’s just over there and his shift is about to end. You’ll have a window of a few minutes where you two are totally alone. Just be yourself...and I’m here if you need me.”

“Thank you for being part of my clade.” Caspar playfully punched Percy on the shoulder. “I think you’re great, even if your fashion sense is one part of my personality I’m happy to have appear only in my forks.”

“Pfft. Just wait until I show you what I can do with a mascara wand,” Percy replied, poking his tongue out of the tip of his muzzle like a chocolate-covered strawberry. “I think a little copper would bring out the best in your cheek ruffs.”

“I’ll experiment a little…after this date.” Gathering his courage, Caspar shouted to the figure standing at the center of the clearing, near a roaring campfire surrounded by a firebreak of blue-green sea glass. “Hey, Eythor! Long time no see!”

“Caspar?” The weasel turned, tilting his head as a spark of recognition flashed across his face. A slight wrinkle appeared at the corner of his eyes at the same time a warm smile swept across his muzzle. “What are you doing back here? Last I’d heard, you had moved over to Minerva Towers with that handsome Latino guy—what was his name?”

“Fernando. We broke up after he set off to parts unknown and left one of his forks behind in his place.” Caspar nervously clicked his claws together like bars of a xylophone. “The fork eventually changed in a way that slowly forced us apart. Turns out that there was a part of Fernando that wanted nothing more than to live as a seventeenth-century pirate.”

“That’s unfortunate. You know, I’ve only forked once.” Eythor’s gaze slid between the fisher and the fennec, noting the same chip-tooth smile and jagged scar across the right cheek. “I found the experience of quitting too disconcerting to make using forks part of my routine other than for work. I remain eminently comfortable as a clade of one. Speaking of which, who’s the cocladist?” he asked.

“This is Percy. He’s still me—mostly.” Caspar wrapped an arm around the fisher’s broad shoulders. If Eythor objected to the borrowing of his eye color, his grin didn’t show it. “All the same good looks, just with a little more academic understanding of romance. Right?”

“He’s just flattering me.” Percy playfully flicked his tail. Closing his eyes, he yawned deeply while struggling not to slip into a standing nap. “I’m not quite that differentiated. All that forking did was bring out the part of Caspar that enjoys looking his best.”

Eythor looked approvingly at Percy’s outfit, which was now tied together with a belt made from the silver coins of a long-fallen empire. “Taking on a distinct species is more than I’ve ever seen from one of your forks. Color me curious about the choice of a fisher.”

“I’ve always admired them,” Caspar replied. He gazed at the forest around them, imagining the sight of fishers leaping through the trees in pursuit of bushy-tailed squirrels. “I read in an old encyclopedia that they used to only live way up at the top of North America. One of them mutated to tolerate heat and spread those genes around. After that, they started expanding their range south until they reached Morgantown, my old home in phys-side.”

“They made the best of their environment…just like Caspar and I,” Percy added.

Eythor raised his index finger to his bottom lip, stroking across rose petal flesh. “I’ve never gone on a date with two cocladists before. Would you both like to grab some coffee? My shift is just about over and my kettle’s just about empty,” he said, pouring the last of the hot chocolate into a white Styrofoam cup and downing it in a single gulp.

“Yeah…we’d like that.” Caspar glanced at his fork for reassurance, breathing out as Percy shot him a subtle thumbs-up. “Percy’s my wingman on this one. Are you still up for getting that Americano?”

“I’m eager, especially after all these years.” The weasel vanished his cup and shifted his outfit. Clean white robes embroidered with spiraling fractals were replaced with a comfortable t-shirt and snug-fitting skinny jeans. A white gold choker set with cabochon emeralds that matched his eyes completed the look. “Where might you take me, I wonder?”

“Well, I know this little diner that serves the best coffee, and I am a bit of a caffeine fiend.” Caspar playfully licked his lips. “I don’t think one more cup will cause me to undergo a phase change and wind up a fiery ball of plasma. Or perhaps it will? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out.”

“I’d pay good rep to watch that. Your Americano is on me this time,” Eythor replied with a soft chuckle. “Shall we?”

“Let’s go. I’m really looking forward to this.” Taking the paws of his date and his fork, Caspar confidently guided them into Roberto’s#e3d7f41a. As the earthy odor of fresh-ground beans and gentle burbling of brewing coffee ensnared his senses, Caspar found that he wasn’t the least bit nervous. “And all it took to accept your invitation was a little true love from within…”

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