The Cladophor's water was cool in the morning, not too dissimilar from the first jump into a traditional terran pool. Amida had learned that the public water warmed throughout the day, then began cooling around 2pm. The temperature rang true to Gortha’s statement from Amida’s first day, it was always within a range of comfort for the terran.
Amida kicked her legs through a garden of sea-brush, anemones, and coral. The plants were pruned and arranged in beautiful shapes. Trunks of coral exploded into colorful biotic domes like the spires of Russian palaces. The floor was blanketed with sand and sea-grass such that any creature who wanted to take a break would find themself cradled in a soft bed of oceanic biology. Serpentine xenos and aquatic affini swam through the organic maze, only slowing down to glance at the out-of-place terran.
Along the “paths” were coral patches grown into interesting shapes like topiaries in a terran garden. Every single one of the coral art pieces was shaped like a xeno of some kind, no doubt from hobbyist affini crafting coral in the shape of their beloved florets. Amida could not find a single coral topiary devoted to an affini war hero, historical figure, or ship captain.
“Do you like the Garden?”
Amida spun around and kicked her feet backwards, letting out a light yelp in surprise.
“You’re really good at sneaking up on people, Halophele!” Amida giggled.
“Oh, sorry. I have been told I have a problem with that.”
“I kinda don’t mind actually,” Amida said.
Halophele circled Amida so fast that the terran couldn’t track her. A whirlwind of off-white and red sealife surrounded Amida’s body, then stopped in front of her face. Amida blushed, nose mere inches from Halophele’s visage. Halophele’s face was a head larger than Amida’s. Hell, Amida’s head could probably fit in the affini’s mouth.
“You smell like a fruit, but I cannot put my vine on what fruit,” Halophele said.
“Oh-oh! It’s an earth plant called apple, I still use dry-land showers and terran-shampoos,” Amida smiled, “Do you like it?”
“I do. Perhaps I will compile an apple later.”
Amida let out a dramatic gasp, “Compile? Isn’t that sacrilege?”
Halophele smiled and nudged Amida’s side, “You want me to grow an apple plant underwater?”
“First, it’s an apple tree. Second, no,” Amida said, “But you can do that, right?”
“Affini bioengineers can make any terrestrial plant aquatic and vice-versa,” Halophele looked around the garden, “Some of this sea grass- the green grass, there,” Halophele pointed to a patch of sharp emerald-green grass, “I remember Gortha telling me that was a terrestrial species.”
“Looks nice, I guess.”
“As for me personally? I have no clue how to even begin such a process,” Halophele shook her head.
Halophele offered a vine to Amida, who took it. The pair began to weave their way through the garden. It was much easier to navigate with Halophele at the helm. Amida studied her subtle movements, the way her serpentine vine-tail whipped at the water to change direction and turn on a dime. The affini didn’t look like she was putting in much effort, yet she was still swimming faster than Amida ever could.
The pair swam under brush-covered pillars and arches dotted with fruit. Small tunnels made way to large open spaces where affini and their florets laughed and played. Amida wondered if she would ever be as happy as the xa'a-ackétøth who curled around the limbs of their giant mistresses, basking in unending affection the entire day, and for all their days afterward. They had reached a nirvana of comfort and adventure that Amida could never achieve. A heavenly routine, divinely mandated by their owners.
Amida clutched Halophele’s vine tighter. It was smooth to the touch but firm in its strength.
“What do you do on the ship?” Amida asked.
“Like your job.”
“I am a writer and linguistic historian.” Halophele said.
“Oh, that first thing is cool, but I don’t know what the second means,” Amida blushed.
The pair rocketed through a cave filled with plantlife that opened into a hidden section of the garden below layers of coral and kelp that blocked light from above, requiring spotlights to be used to light the path forward. It reminded Amida of wandering deep in a forest, and in a way they sort of were wandering in a forest, it was just an aquatic forest.
“There is not an equivalent profession in the accord. I study how languages affect and affected societies. What their language says about them as a people, how speaking it affects their modes of interaction with the world around them. I also study the history of translation procedures within the compact and consult on how they can be improved,” Halophele responded.
“There are professions like that in the accord! Er, there were. We just didn’t lump together linguistics and historians and call it a new thing.” Amida smirked.
“When you are finding new xenos every day, it is important to separate the study of linguistics from the study of the history of linguistics.”
Halophele smiled and ran a vine across Amida’s hair. The terran hummed and leaned into the stroke. It was hard to move her body due to the speed the affini was swimming at, but they seemed to be slowing down, nearing their destination.
“There are a large number of affini in the compact, with a large number of interests. Thus we are able to have very specialized jobs if we please. In some ways, it helps to have an expert on everything. People with specialized jobs often do a lot of consulting, as I do. If you decide you would like to pursue a job, you can pick anything you like.” Halophele finished.
“Or I can just have no job.” Amida said, sticking out her tongue.
“Or no job, indeed. More time to work on your hobbies, or look after your mental health,” Halophele said, “Or just be lazy. We do not judge”
The pair came upon an overlook that peered out over a coral spire much like the one Amida’s hab was situated on. It was surrounded by plantlife and much less busy, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of life on the Cladophor. The spire’s construction was less chaotic, with every coral seeming to be deliberately placed, shaped, and maintained to create a symmetrical, aesthetically pleasing image. It looked like an abstract impressionist painting. At the foot of the spire sat large patches of rose-shaped coral grown in a similar manner to the topiaries Amida saw earlier.
Halophele began pulling small terran-sized canvases from her interior vines and placing them on similarly retrieved stands. One for herself, and one for Amida.
“Do you have any florets?”
“No.” Halophele stated.
“Does Gortha?” Amida interjected.
“I doubt there are many xenos who suit her amphibious lifestyle. Gortha spends portions of her day dry and portions of her day wet.” Halophele ceased her movements and craned her head, looking Amida in the face, “You would fit her lifestyle, of course.”
Amida blushed and waved a hand in the air, “Oh no, I’m not interested. Gortha is nice and all, I’m just not really ready for, y-y’know, that.”
“Sorry, that sounded like I was pressuring you. You are not obligated to be her floret,” Halophele resumed setting up the canvases, “It will be your choice.”
Amida wasn’t sure she liked the way Halophele’s statement was phrased. It will be. Halophele didn’t know that! Just because Amida spends all her time around affini and all her friends are affini and-
Oh stars, it really did seem like Amida was shopping around for an owner. Was she doing the domestication equivalent of leading on a date right now?
“I’m not really interested in domestication.”
Halophele shrugged, “That is fine, I believe only 40% of your species at most are domesticated.”
“Do you want a floret?” Amida said, almost cutting Halophele off.
Halophele paused, keeping her gaze locked on the set of paints she was opening, “I’m not opposed to it.”
“Oooh, you’re just waiting for the right xeno to come along, huh?” Amida teased, smiling and poking Halophele’s side.
“I suppose that is correct.” Halophele said with a giggle. She returned Amida’s poke.
The two canvases were set up. Both were white, rectangular, and the same size. Despite the similarities, the canvases looked small compared to Halophele, and large compared to Amida. The pair’s paints were contained within small translucent boxes. When the boxes were opened, the paint somehow did not spatter out, while the brushes tumbled out like they were in zero gravity.
“Wait, how do you paint underwater?” Amida asked.
“We use a unique compound for underwater art, cutie!”
Amida looked over her shoulder to see Gortha approaching. She appeared less put-together than the other affini Amida had seen. She maintained her green coloration, but the affini’s vines were being used more like the fins of a dolphin than a snake, and her movements were more labored than Halophele’s. It was obvious she was more amphibious than Halophele, who spent all of her time underwater.
“It’s what you would call an ‘epoxy’,” Halophele said.
“But not as bad for the environment!” Gortha continued.
“An epoxy? Isn’t it just epoxy?” Amida asked.
Gortha giggled “We have multiple epoxies, because of the fifth fundamental force!”
Amida cocked her head to the side.
“She is joking with you.” Halophele said. Amida could almost hear the eye-roll, “Thank you for offering to help, Gortha.”
“Nice to see you again, cutie!” Gortha said, petting Amida’s head with a vine. The terran smiled in response, feeling the vine ruffle her free-floating hair. Amida hummed.
“You paint?” Amida asked.
“I do! And I’m going to help you two cuties today! Every painting class needs a teacher!”
The canvases were set up such that their bottom halves were laying in the sand, and their top halves were elevated using two stilts. Amida plopped down in front of hers, kicking up sand around her. Kneeling “easels” like these seemed to be more popular for aquatic painting. Amida ran a finger across the canvas. Smooth to the touch. The terran couldn’t tell if this was because the canvas was made of some sort of strange spongy plastic or because it was woven impossibly tight.
“What are we painting today?” Gortha asked as she began setting up her own canvas.
“Amida has an interest in the Cladophor’s architecture, so I brought her to the garden tower.” Halophele responded.
Amida blushed, unable to stop herself from wiggling back and forth. Halophele pet her head with a thick vine. Halophele’s vines were so soft. It felt like the smooth skin of a shark. Amida failed to suppress a whine, which prompted Halophele to hum and scratch the terran’s head.
“You two are just so precious! A couple of cuties!” Gortha said.
Amida blushed and buried her head in her knees.
Gortha turned to her own box of paints and opened it, “Now Amida, you may have to push harder on these canvases to get the paint to rub off right, they are very different from terran canvases!”
“Mhm.” Amida responded, getting into a comfortable kneeling position above her canvas.
Amida watched as Gortha laid down a thick layer of blue and beige to begin, creating a water backdrop and layer of sand on her canvas. Halophele followed along, using small, quick strokes across her canvas. Amida was not doing quite as well as her companions, having a difficult time mimicking the natural movements of a painter underwater. The colors were right, at least, Amida felt as though she had always had an eye for colors.
“So you’re a painter too, Gortha?” Amida asked, eyes still trained on her canvas.
“Of course! I love to paint. I suggested a method similar to terran painting for this little outing. I know cutie terrans also love to paint!”
It would be more accurate to say that terran paintings were popular among those deeper in the compact, and that led to the perception that all terrans liked to paint. Hopefully Gortha wasn’t looking for a consistent painting buddy. Or someone who could recreate the classics. Or someone who was even half decent at painting.
Gortha began painting the spire, starting from the base and crafting a long, thick needle that extended into the heavens. She then filled it out with details and added cozy pastel colors.
“What did you do before you moved here, Amida? You lived on earth, correct?” Halophele asked.
Amida paused and scrunched her face up, focusing on Gortha’s kelp painting technique in an attempt to emulate it, “I worked at a terrestrial library on earth. I just sorted books. Before the compact came I worked in information technology for that library.”
“Is that what you got one of those cute little terran degrees for?” Gortha giggled.
Amida winced. The degree she had was useless, and she was embarrassed to admit what it was to affini. She relented, nonetheless: “No, my degree is in business administration.”
“Now that is a job we don’t have an equivalent to, here.” Halophele said.
“I didn’t want the degree, my dad made me get it,” Amida said. The terran frowned, unable to keep up with the pair’s painting speed.
“I am sorry Amida. That sounds unpleasant,” Halophele said, pausing and looking over to the terran, “I promise no one will ever force you to do anything you do not want here, unless it is for your own well-being.”
Amida rolled her eyes, “Well being? That’s what he said.”
Halophele placed a vine on Amida’s head and furrowed her brow, Gortha stopped painting and looked over at the pair.
“Amida, I apologize for my abrasive language. What I meant is that if you began presenting a danger to yourself and others the compact would intervene.” Halophele said.
Amida nodded her head and closed her eyes, “I know, I-I’m sorry. I’m just being edgy- er, snarky. I dunno.”
“Do not apologize. If this is a difficult topic we do not have to discuss it, or we can discuss it at a later time,” Halophele continued, “And I should have been more careful with my language.”
“Don’t worry, cutie,” Gortha said, circling to flank the terran, “We’re here, and we only want the best for you.”
“Would a hug help, Amida?” Halophele asked. The terran nodded.
The two affini swam to the terran, both of the plants wrapped their serpentine bodies around the girl and squeezed. Amida felt the thick vines stretch and constrict across her body. They were soft and cushy like the gel furniture she had inspected the day prior, but so smooth that one’s hand would slip off of them if they applied enough pressure. Warmth enveloped Amida’s body inch by inch as the affini wrapped coil after coil until they had covered her in their vines. Amida couldn’t move, but she did not care. She let the pair surround and consume her like she was a beloved toy. The sensation of being squeezed felt safe, like nothing could hurt her when she was within the grasp of Gortha and Halophele. Amida’s nerves fired and told her brain that everything was going to be okay as long as she was enveloped in the pair’s vines.
The two affini’s bodies were entwined with each other while at once curled around the terran girl like an Aesculapian rod. A candy-cane swirl of white and green made of thick supple vines floating loose in the water of the Cladophor. Their bodies exchanged warmth while sharing that same warmth with Amida.
The pair exchanged words in affini:
“Thanks for inviting me. I missed you a lot.” Gortha said.
“I thought you would enjoy painting with us,” Halophele said, “Apologies for my absence, I have been- it has been hard to focus as of late.”
“I get it, but I also want to see you more.”
“You will. I promise, Gortha.”
Gortha smiled in response. Amida began wiggling and the pair relinquished their grip on the terran. Amida free floated for a moment with her eyes closed, basking in the last moments of warmth from the pair’s embrace.
“Aww, you are so precious! Like a cute little doll!” Gortha said.
Amida blushed, “T-thank you both.”
“You are welcome. If you ever need to talk, I am here.” Halophele said.
“I am too!” Gortha appended, “You know, you could get snuggled like that every day, cutie. If you were my floret, I’d be more than happy to make sure the rest of your life is an absolute snugglepile!” Gortha beamed.
“Gortha, she can get snuggled like that every day whether she is domesticated or not, she just needs to ask for it.” Halophele said. Gortha nudged her companion’s side and scrunched her faux-face.
Amida’s face wore a mask of confusion with a light blush. Every day? If she asked for it? What if they were just being nice or they found it to be a chore? Was it annoying to have xenos ask for snuggles? How quickly would they get tired of it? Of her?
“Well, the offer is open, either way.” Gortha said, snapping Amida out of her trance.
“I appreciate it, but I’ll have to turn you down for now.” Amida said, “You’re nice and all, I like being your friend, I just-”
“No worries at all! We can still be friends, either way!” Gortha said with a reassuring smile.
“And you will still have access to your coveted snuggles, dear Amida.” Halophele said, smirking at Gortha and bumping the woman with her tail.
The group continued their painting, Gortha slowed down to offer advice to Amida, though it was hard to teach a terran to simulate the movements of a serpentine plant-alien. Adding details to paintings underwater was a very different (and much slower) process than on land. Amida found it difficult to add small smatterings of color. The terran had a better time when she took her time, acting as though she was painting at half speed, allowing bristles of her brush to make defined impressions on the canvas.
Gortha’s painting was by far Amida’s favorite upon completion. It was a wonderful rendering, each stroke was lengthy and painted with intention, as opposed to Halophele’s, which was made with quick, small strokes. Amida herself had tried to emulate Gortha’s style, but had given up midway through. The resistance created by the water made it difficult for the terran to make large brushstrokes with the accuracy that Gortha had. Amida’s piece ended up looking like a bizarre mash-up of Gortha’s painting and Halophele’s.
“Oooh! Let’s trade paintings! Here Amida, you can have mine!” Gortha beamed.
“Oh, that sounds good. I need some decoration for my hab, anyway.” Amida said, “Here, Halophele.”
Halophele hugged the painting close to her body and smiled at the terran, “Thank you, Amida. You may have mine, Gortha.”
“Yay!” Gortha retrieved Halophele’s painting with a vine and swam over to the pair. Amida began packing the paints provided to her by Halophele into their case.
“You can keep those if you would like, Amida.” Halophele said.
“Oh, thank you! I would like that, I think.” Amida said, “Can we do this again, sometime?”
“Yes, I would enjoy that.” Halophele said.
“I would too, cuties!” Gortha interjected, “I have to head out now though, I have another cutie to greet!”
“Another terran?” Amida asked.
“Nope! A Slanmogck. Aquatic critter, you know!”
“I- uhh, don’t know. But have fun!”
“Bye cuties!” Gortha said before swimming off.
“Does she call everyone a cutie? I thought it was just me. Y’know, cause I’m a terran.”
“She does not call everyone a cutie. Just xenos and me.” Halophele responded, swimming a circle around Amida. The terran closed her eyes and inhaled the affini’s scent, giving a whine in response, “Do not get me wrong. You are very cute, Amida.”
Amida put her hands up to her face to hide her blush. Halophele was so pretty. Her colors and her face and her thick supple vines and her sultry voice and her manner of speech were all just so much.
“You need lunch now, I believe. It is past noon. Would you care to accompany me? I am getting lunch with a friend today.”
“Would I bother you two?” Amida asked, cocking her head to the side.
“No, he would be delighted. he has a floret he will be bringing, it is not a private affair or anything of that sort,” Halophele said, wrapping a vine around Amida’s shoulder and squeezing.
“Let’s go then!” Amida beamed. Halophele smiled at the terran and wrapped a vine around her hand.