Most restaurants on the Cladophor had tables in a new Xa'a-ackétøth style. That is to say, they did not have tables. Instead, small parts of the floor had marble platforms elevated a few centimeters above the ground which food would be eaten from. Xa'a-ackétøth would coil their bodies and arch their necks downwards to eat. These tables only gained popularity after the serpent xenos were integrated with the compact. Xa'a-ackétøth used to eat food in one gulp. Slow, deliberate eating gained popularity after Affini ownership allowed Xa'a-ackétøth to take their time and relax.
Amida found herself kneeling on the ground in front of one of these tables next to her Affini companion. The restaurant they were eating at was made of stone, almost appearing like a sunken greek paradise akin to the ones in ancient paintings. Unlike old Terran styles the building’s construction was round and natural, with roofs that curled upwards or ended in small domes. Coral had been integrated into the design to add color and natural shapes. Every wall except the ones enclosing the kitchen itself had a sliding door that allowed the building to open to the outside world.
Xa'a-ackétøth swam between the tables toting carts piled with food. After they unloaded said food, they were provided with pets and squeezes and sent back to the kitchen as a blushy wiggling mess.
Halophele had two vines placed on Amida. One on the girl’s head, while the other rubbed her back in slow, repetitive circles. Amida admired the architecture as she let foreign smells wash over her. Sweet fresh scents were cut by a more harsh vinegar aroma. The room smelled a bit like standing at the salad bar adjacent to the main buffet at a nice Terran restaurant.
“This place is just,” Amida splayed her fingers and gestured at Halophele with a smile, “Wow.”
“I am glad you enjoy it. I did not choose this locale, though, our companions for today did.”
Amida leaned closer to Halophele, “What kinda food is it?”
“It is a kind I suspect you have not eaten yet, Ganalarioche cuisine. I would describe it as a syncretic east Xa'a-ackétøth and Mielyuan style of cooking.”
“I don’t know what a Mielyuan is, but I’ve dealt with Xa'a-ackétøth cuisine pretty well so far,” Amida said, placing her hands on her hips.
“You shall meet a Mielyu soon, my friend’s floret is one,” Halophele said, patting Amida’s back, “She is very pretty.”
As if on cue, a blue-green Affini dotted with small flowering plants swam into the room with a floret in tow. Their floret had a long, finned tail, a slim body, and two arms. Their face looked like a catfish had been squished horizontally, and their body was white with splotches of blue. Beautiful fins sprouted from the sides of their head flattened backward from the force of being tugged through the water. Amida’s pupils dilated the moment she saw the creature; the Terran clutched Halophele’s vines when she realized this was the “friend” the Affini had been speaking of.
The pair sat across from Halophele and Amida. Halophele smiled and leaned across the table to hug the Affini, and Amida waved at the Mielyu, who smiled in return. The creature’s eyes were hazy and unfocused, a typical floret daze.
“Halophele! I missed you. Where have you been?” The mystery Affini asked.
“I have been a bit of a recluse this year. Focusing too much on my work, not enough on myself,” Halophele responded, “This is my friend Amida.”
“Yes, this little Terran caught my eye the moment I swam in. My name is Melvol Ritan, eighth bloom, he/him. It is a pleasure to meet you, cutie!” The Affini beamed. Amida suppressed a blush.
“And I am Hiren Ritan, second floret, she/they.” The fish-floret said, leaning her head against Melvol and cooing. Her owner rubbed her cheek with a slim vine.
Amida smiled at the pair, then perked up and blushed, “Oh! I’m Amida Lother, uhh, no one’s floret.”
“Yet!” Hiren interjected with a giggle, nuzzling her owner’s side. Melvol squeezed her.
Amida laughed out of obligation, scooting back from the table. A reassuring vine stroked her side, she recognized it as Halophele’s.
“Thank you two for letting my sweet little Hiren choose where to eat today,” Melvol said.
“Amida has not tried Ganalarioche food before, you will have to be her culinary guide, Hiren,” Halophele said.
Hiren’s eyes lit up, “Oh wow, never? This is the best Ganalarioche place like, anywhere. Except maybe on Ganar. You’ll love it.” The Mielyu floret’s head-fins wiggled as she tapped her hands on the table.
Halophele and Melvol began talking in Affini. Hiren remained wrapped in her owner’s vines, while Amida continued to be rubbed by Halophele.
“So, like, I don’t know much about Terran palates,” Hiren flipped through a menu that had been placed in front of her, “I didn’t even know Terrans grew feathers and gills!”
“Oh, these are bodymods,” Amida said, “Terrans are all land-dwelling mammals.”
“They’re so pretty, too! May I pet your feathers?” Hiren asked, leaning over the table.
Amida extended a feathered arm, and Hiren ran long webbed fingers through her dark brown feathers. Amida hummed. Hiren’s hand was smooth if a bit bumpy. It reminded her of Gortha’s vines, but more rigid and slick. The Mielyu stroked up and down Amida’s forearm, splaying feathers and scratching deep into them. The Terran shivered and blushed, nerves blasting her brain with endorphins.
“Wow, they’re so soft! And they aren’t, like, waterlogged or anything.” Hiren said, withdrawing her hand.
“They’re waterfowl feathers,” Amida said, “Hooded merganser feathers, specifically. That’s a bird we have on earth that likes to hang out on the water.”
“Oh! So do waterfowls have waterproof feathers?” Hiren butchered the Putonghua word for waterfowl.
“水禽, They have to keep them oiled with a gland, but yes,” Amida said, stroking her feathers.
Hiren scrunched her face up, “Ough, Terran language words are so hard to pronounce.”
“Hey don’t beat yourself up over it, I thought the same thing about Xa’acan when I started!”
“Do Terrans have an oil gland, too?” Hiren tilted her head.
Amida giggled, “Oh no, I just have to wash them with special soap.”
“They’re very pretty. You’re very pretty.” Hiren said, folding her arms on the table and placing her head on them.
Amida averted her gaze and smiled, a blush filled her cheeks. Hiren was pretty too. Very pretty. Amida wanted to hug her tight like her precious Affini owner was.
“Now let me give you some suggestions!” Hiren said, picking up her menu again. Amida followed suit.
The menu was simplistic, only 2 pages front and back but filled with text. There weren’t many images or descriptions, so it was hard to tell what these meals were for a newcomer like Amida.
“I know mammals enjoy burned food, right?” Hiren said.
“Uh, not burned but, ‘cooked’, like, between burned and not burned,” Amida said.
“I don’t think there’s a Xa’acan word for that, we just say burned,” Hiren paused and ran a finger across her menu, “The bottom part of this section is all burned food if you want to look through it.” Hiren turned her menu around and pointed to a section labeled ‘Served Warm!’
Amida scanned her menu, looking through meals under the warm section. She didn’t recognize any of the names but asked Hiren to explain a few to her, which the Mielyu happily obliged. Amida settled on a meal that boiled down to fish with a fruity sauce and some edible sea-brush on the side.
Everyone at the table gave their orders to a small Xa'a-ackétøth adorned with beautiful pink flowers, who was given many head pats and compliments by Melvol and Halophele.
“So, Amida. You’re from Earth? I knew we were getting a Terran, but I wasn’t sure where you were from.” Melvol asked.
“I am, just moved here a day ago, in fact.”
“Well, we hope you’ve been enjoying your time, cutie.” The Affini responded.
“I have, it’s been a wonderful experience, honestly!” Amida said with a smile.
“Would you mind if I ask about the accord?”
“It can be a touchy subject for me, to be honest,” Amida said, tapping her fingers on the table, “But I’ll let you know if I need to stop.”
“Gotcha. I just wanted to ask about what it’s like for a land mammal to transition to being aquatic. Sorta uncommon, y’know?”
“Oh, I had to get surgeries and stuff, but it has actually been smooth. I still don’t sleep underwater, but it feels pretty natural to swim around. It’s like diving, but my body feels lighter.”
“I’m glad the dry room is to your liking. I’m a housing engineer, and we haven’t done many habs like that on the Cladophor.”
“Oh, wow. Yeah, it’s been excellent, you guys did a great job!”
Melvol smiled and nodded his head.
“What did you mean by diving?” Hiren piped up.
“Oh, in my native language we have a separate word for ‘to swim deeper’ and ‘recreational depth swimming’, 潛水, because we aren’t naturally aquatic,” Amida said, “Xa’acan doesn’t have both I don’t think? I probably should’ve specified I was talking about recreational diving.”
“Ooh!” Hiren exclaimed, snuggling closer to Melvol. She repeated the word to herself.
“Xenos like Hiren here also have to be careful when swimming at certain depths. She has to take breaks when we go deeper, things like that,” Melvol said, pulling Hiren’s head against his body with a trio of vines. The girl’s face turned bright red. Amida couldn’t tell if she was jealous of Hiren or Melvol.
“We Affini are well adapted for most depths, but must be careful with how the depth affects our cores,” Halophele said.
“What’s it like deeper in the Cladophor?” Amida asked.
“All the rings are 15km deep, but some are designed to apply more or less pressure depending on who’s living there. This ring only simulates 5km depth max, but some simulate upwards of 40km,” Melvol paused and shook his vines, “All I can say is it's dark and there’s a lot of big sophonts. It’s not particularly interesting.”
“That sounds awesome!” Amida said, eyes lit up and smile wide as could be. Halophele responded by petting Amida’s head with a thick vine.
The group’s meals arrived faster than Amida expected. Their Xa'a-ackétøth server swam up with a cart in tow, placing all the leaf plates in front of the correct patron with ease.
“This looks delicious,” Halophele cooed, petting the server with a vine.
“Thank you, ma’am!” The Xa'a-ackétøth responded.
“And you look similarly delicious,” Melvol added, also reaching to pet the server.
“Thank you! Y-you too! I-I mean, uhh, thanks!” They responded, face bright red.
After their server had been properly teased, the group inspected their meals.
Halophele and Melvol’s meals were typical Affini fare. Various plants were arranged in cute ways on a cute little leaf that acted as a plate. Amida didn’t recognize any of the foods, and if she was being honest, they looked gross.
Hiren’s meal, on the other hand, did look yummy. It was an aquatic arthropod with large, thick tentacles coated in a sauce that smelled a bit like lemon. The meal was flanked by long, emerald-green strips of seaweed.
Amida’s meal was more simple for her less-than-refined palate. A fish she didn’t recognize stuffed with sea-brush and coated in a thick sauce. All sauces on the Cladophor seemed to be thick to keep them from floating off into the water. Or maybe aquatic sophonts just liked thick sauces. Amida craned her head down and filtered water near the meal through her gills to get a good whiff. The closest scent comparison she could make was carp soaked in its white wine pairing with some kale on the side. Her meal was seared, as Hiren had said, but less so than Terran food typically was. ‘Warmed’ was a better description than ‘cooked’.
Amida picked up a small spear adjacent to her plate like a pencil. She pressed the spear into her meal and pulled a chunk from the fish. The fish was so tender it took almost no strength to rip pieces off. Amida slipped the chunk into her mouth, savoring the taste.
Carp in white wine was a decent description, but the meal also carried a nice sweet taste that meshed with the briny flavor. Amida speared another piece and crammed it in her mouth. She looked up to see Hiren, tangled in her Affini’s vines, smiling at her.
“It’s- Mmm, it’s good. It’s really good.” Amida said.
“Yay! I’m so glad!” Hiren clapped her hands and began to eat her meal.
Amida giggled. The Terran glanced at the pair of Affini, who were both watching the smaller sophonts with grins on their faces.
Halophele nudged Amida’s side, “Cutie,” she whispered. Amida wiggled in her seat and slipped another chunk of fish into her mouth.
The group drifted out of the restaurant, satisfied with their meal. Hiren was wrapped in her owner’s vines, cradled against his body like a beloved doll.
“I think our carnivores are full,” Melvol said, poking Hiren’s belly with a vine. The Mielyu laughed and swatted the offending appendage, but two more slipped around her side and poked her again.
“Amida is her own carnivore,” Halophele responded, smirking at Amida, who crossed her arms and rolled her eyes.
“I wasn’t a vegetarian before the compact showed up, but I am happily a convert now, alright?” Amida pouted.
The two Affini laughed in response, both extending vines to pet Amida, who accepted the affection.
“What’s it like being a floret, Hiren?” Amida asked after the rush of being doted on faded.
Hiren perked up, mind drifting in a xenodrug and snuggle-induced haze, “Oh, it’s lovely. Couldn’t ask for a better life,” The Mielyu nuzzled Melvol’s vines and whined, “All I have to worry about is being a good girl for master, every other worry is-” Hiren splayed her fingers and gestured upwards, “Poof.”
“And you are such a good girl, too,” Melvol resumed squeezing and rubbing his floret, who whined and laughed in pure bliss.
Amida looked at Halophele. The Affini had her gaze locked on Melvol and Hiren, smiling each time the floret wiggled and laughed. Amida enjoyed the sight of a smiling Halophele. The Affini’s wide mouth curled at the edges of her wooden mask, extending her faux lips to the sides of her face. Amida noticed that Halophele tightened her vines when she saw something cute. She did it often when Amida was around, and she was doing it now. Halophele reached a thick vine out and wrapped it around Amida’s arm, squeezing gently. Amida couldn’t tell if the affectionate action was unconscious or not.
“Well, we should be heading back to the hab now. Say bye-bye, Hiren!” Melvol let off on teasing his floret for a moment to allow Hiren to give a weak wave.
“B-bye, Halophele! Bye Amida!” Hiren said, before being tugged away by Melvol.
“Bye, cutie,” Halophele cooed.
“Bye Hiren! See you again soon!” Amida said before turning to Halophele, “Where did you know Melvol from? You two were pretty deep in conversation.”
“We worked together once when I was researching hab component translations, integration, and font choice. He is a housing engineer. From there we became friends.”
Halophele wrapped a vine around Amida’s hand and tugged her along, the Terran’s speed seemed to be underwhelming for the Affini. Amida didn’t mind, she was content to drift beside Halophele.
“He said you hadn’t talked in a while. I think Gortha said that earlier today, too,” Amida prodded.
“I, Mmm, I am just busy, at times,” Halophele muttered.
“Hey, you listened to me whine earlier today, now it's your turn to tell me what’s up.”
Halophele sighed and slowed her swimming, squeezing Amida a smidge tighter, “I give myself a lot of responsibilities, set deadlines, and then fail to live up to my standards. This happens more often than one would expect, and is unhealthy. I know it is unhealthy, as I have just stated, yet I continue to engage with this behavior.” The words came out like a robot was repeating them. More robotic than Halophele usually was.
“Oh stars Halophele, I’m sorry,” Amida hugged the Affini, who squeezed her in response, “I know how that feels, did I tell you that I kept working at that library on earth even though I didn't enjoy it? I just did it for no reason.”
Halophele tilted her head, “Why would you do that, Amida?”
“I guess I felt I had an obligation to work there, but I didn’t. It was that idea that I needed to make money and climb the ladder.”
“Archaic capitalist ideas,” Halophele interjected.
“Yeah, but I didn’t recognize that until another librarian pointed out I could just leave.”
“Are you implying I find myself in a similar conundrum?” Halophele asked.
“Mhm. Maybe you need to figure out what negative idea is rotting your core!”
“Perhaps so. I do enjoy my work, however. How do you suggest I figure this out, Amida?” Halophele’s tone was half-joking. She knew Amida didn’t have all the answers, but she had a genuine appreciation for her friend’s input.
Amida shrugged, “Iunno. I guess when you feel yourself slipping into that headspace, ask yourself why. Or you could see a therapist. Do you see a therapist?”
Halophele remained silent.
“I should, yes,” Halophele relented, nodding her head. Okay, maybe Amida did have all the answers. Or one big answer, at least.
“I’m gonna hold you to that!” Amida said, bopping one of the Affini’s vines with a hand. Halophele giggled in response.
The two stayed silent for a moment, content to enjoy each other’s presence.
“Hiren is so pretty,” Amida said.
“Mhm. You are pretty, too. I think she likes you, you should text her.” Halophele paused to inspect Amida’s face, pulling in close until she could feel the Terran’s warmth on her body, “You are both cuties.”
Amida averted her gaze and blushed, closing her eyes tight. Halophele was so big, and Amida wanted the plant to do awful things to her. Thoughts of xenodrugs and breaking filled her mind, and Amida imagined herself being reduced to a blushing giggling toy like Hiren was for the rest of her life. The Terran whimpered. Amida leaned into Halophele and hugged her close, attempting to wrap her arms around the plant’s huge body. Halophele returned the hug, squeezing Amida tighter with her vines.
“Thank you for being my friend, Halophele,” Amida said. She giggled and tilted her head to the side, “That came out way more dorky than I wanted it to.”
“You have been a wonderful friend, Amida,” Halophele said, nuzzling her face into Amida’s cheek.
The two floated in each other's arms for what felt like an hour. Amida hummed to herself. The Terran thought herself lucky to have found such a special Affini, and the Affini thought herself lucky to have found such a special Terran.