The restaurant’s sign hung over the entrance, suspended in the misty drizzle as it had for the past 490 years. It was a welcoming sign, originally painted and gilded in bright, vibrant and encouraging colors that had become dull through the march of ages, giving it a homely charm that was sought out for those in the know of it’s existence. Those in the know being, primarily, college students, the lower middle class, and others who would be happy to patronize a small local business that had become something of an institution.

It was Elder Ti’miquek’s Home Style Food, and it was all pretty fucking terrible.

This wasn’t always the case; “Elder” Ti’miquek wasn’t north of 130 when he started the business, but figured pretending that his recipes were handed down to him through generations would bring more people in. As he was in a third rate shopping center next to a community college, ‘home style’ would be how he’d sell his food, to ease the homesickness of everyone who passed through his door. The food would be reasonably priced, hearty, and warm, which would be perfectly fitting for the demographic, and weather, that his part of Gentle Expanse usually got around the middle of the year. He’d not pretend to be something that he wasn’t… well, no more pretending outside of the marketing to sell his food, of course, and for the first few years things went swimmingly.

Then his first clutch came. He cut some corners as any new parent would; Re-using yesterday’s unsold veggies, keeping the fried dough treats under the heat lamp overnight, or reheating some old baked porridge. All of it was still good, still passable, and for the most part people didn’t mind.

Then his first clutch grew into teenagers, and his second was on the way. Employing his children was always a risky bet, but Ti’miquek figured it would allow for some parental bonding and give the ‘home’ part of his marketing spiel some real ground to stand on. The menu had to change, of course; gone were some of the more complicated foods, replaced with easier, cheaper products. Corners were cut a little bit more; oil could be reused for a few days, after all, and the floors … just needed to be swept, not mopped, every day. Life continued, but his walls stopped being freshly painted every few years, and his decor got a little dated. “Cozy”, he’d call it, because “outdated” had the kind of ring to it that would get you put on dish duty if you said it in his presence. 

When his first clutch moved on to college or trade schools and his second clutch were teenagers and with a surprise third clutch was on the way, Ti’miquek just attempted to keep the lights on and his feathers from molting, and it was here that the legend of Elder Ti’miquek’s Home Style Food came to be; the food became greasy, cheap, hot, and sat in your stomach like a leaden rock. In the bathrooms, the marital aid and discrete helper dispensers were replaced with digestif and stomach medicine vending machines, and once Ti’miquek realized he could get away with a “bring your own booze and we won’t ask questions, just rent the cooler” policy, well.

Let’s just say the college crowd moved in and never left.

Elder Ti’miquek got to experience bar fights, bar flights, passed out patrons in bathroom stalls, patrons doing other things in bathroom stalls, and generally all the other chaos that adults who don’t have to quite yet adult in the real world can get into. The hose out back was used less and less to clean mats and grill covers and was used more and more to get unruly customers to comply, or to at least not make such a mess.

When the humans showed up, well. Ti’miquek decided to change up his menu once more; gone were some of the lower-selling staples and instead he tried his claw at traditional [Dirt] cuisine! He introduced such wonderful things as the sushioup, the three-sided hot dog, and the indomitable garbage plate. It’s the last item on the menu that got him his very own human slogan, uttered from a real human professor (!) who gave his establishment a try.

“Oh Dio, portami in ospedale!”

It was music to Ti’miquek’s ears, even though his translator wasn’t updated – he didn’t mind, it was such an exclamation, made with such passion – he just had to get it emblazoned on his wall, painted on his sign, and added to all of his marketing materials. The human in question apparently spread news of his food far and wide, and it was a known open secret among the locals that depending on the day and time, you might find some booths in that lovable dump occupied by some of the planet’s newest residents.

Much like tonight, in fact.

= = = = = = = = = =

“Ah fuck, ah fuck.” Jack said, running his fingers through tight, curled hair. He inhaled deeply as Tik’akri – nee Tomtom – placed the order in front of the young man, grease pooling at the bottom of the well-used metal plate. “Why’d you order me the Hushed Puppy? I hate shrimp!”

“[Well, you were the one who came into my father’s restaurant and said, and I’ll quote here, ‘I don’t want to take a shit for a week so fuck me right up.’]” Tomtom replied, smiling both with her teeth and feathery crest as she settled in beside the distraught human in the multipurpose booth, placing her drink on the table and tucking the serving tray under her thigh. “[At least I gave you a booster seat-]”

“It’s called a vertical comfort addition, I”ll have you know.” Jack said, sticking his nose up in the air. “It’s not my fault your people are freakishly large. If you were a normal size like a normal person-”

“You’d still need a seat, manlet.” Brian said, a grin on his face as he draped over Seseren, who rolled her eyes at the banter. “It’s no one’s fault but you’re own you’re five-foot-”

“Five foot 11 and 19/23rds!” Jack yelled, pointing an accusatory finger at his friend across the table. “That’s basically six feet, which means I’m not a manlet-”

“When will you ever learn?” Brian sighed, shaking his head. His rebuttal was silenced by the Jornissian in the booth, who gently placed a hand on the human’s head and pushed him onto his side.

“[That’s enough, you two.]” Seseren said, sighing. “[Be nice or I’m telling dad.]”

“[My dad, their dad, your dad…?]” Tomtom asked, and Seseren shrugged. There was a big exhalation of breath, and all eyes turned to Jack as he leaned forward, gripping the bowling-ball sized, deep-fried round meal. Inhaling through his teeth with a hiss, he pulled, ripping out a steaming chunk of food – which he immediately dropped onto the plastic-wrapped table, shaking his hand free of the heat.

“Aaah! Ah ah ah hot hot-” Jack complained, rubbing his hand on the cold pitcher of beer that sat at the human side of the booth. “-why is it always as hot as the fucking sun, Tomtom?!”

Tomtom trilled in soft laughter. “[Look, it’s either that or we don’t heat it up out of the freezer, take your pick.]”

“The service here is terrible.” Jack murmured, taking a sip of his lager. “I should have you reported.”

“[Cool. So I’ll just call dad and have you settle the tab you’ve been building for the past 5 years?]” Tomtom said, leaning over the smaller human in a show of dominance, her saurian smile hovering over Jack’s head. “[Or should I just force you to wash dishes for the next 6 months straight?]”

Jack looked up, squinting. “You know I’d almost believe you could be an intimidating badass if I didn’t catch you crying over a toddler because he was too tiny.”

“[I-hn. Mmn!]” Tomtom replied, turning away from the now-grinning human, refusing to acknowledge him further. “[So. Sesame. How are you today?]”

“[I am fine, and welcome the topic change.]” Sesame said, smiling as she shut her tablet off. “[Finishing up on my Management capstone class project here; they want us to figure out how to remain agile in a changing business environment when exo-solar companies are flooding your local market with nigh-unlimited money.]”

“Wouldn’t know nothin’ about that, sheila.” Brian said, taking a deep drought of his beer.

“[Sure, it’s not your fault, but it’s still something that’s happening. Good and bad and all that rolled into one.]” Sesame replied, sinking into the booth cushion a bit. “[More good than bad, I’d wager.]”

“[Well yeah.]” Tomtom replied, resting her elbows on the table as she propped her chin in her hands. “[Business had a nice upswing when the humans showed up, but so came the uptick in expenses so it’s basically a wash.]”

“Yeah, but you get to enjoy our company though, and that has to be worth all the gold and silver you could ever want, right?” Jack said, batting his eyes at the two ladies, who immediately looked away with feigned disgust. With murmured complaint he turned his attention to his cooling-down deep-fried meal, picking apart hunks of stuffing to rip into, cooling down the molten hot food with ice cold beer.

The door chimed, and Jack looked up – yelling out a muffled greeting that the other patrons of the restaurant only half-paid attention to. Draped over Drzen-of-Azgrn’s shoulders was a low-slung backpack, and sitting on that was a human female who had buried her head in the Dorarizin’s mane. It wasn’t because they were together (they weren’t) or that she was embarrassed about something (that’s par for the course); mainly, it was because she was tired – dead week did that to anyone who actually cared about their grades.

“Oi! ‘Sup Doobie?” Brian called out, waving his hand above the booth wall to get the Dorarizin’s attention. Doobie smiled, raising his hand in a return greeting that Brian could not physically see without turning around and standing up on his own vertical comfort addition.

“[Well hey there. Didn’t know the gang was all here! It’s not trivia night, is it?]” He asked, walking over to the booth.

“[Nope, nothing like that. Just drunken study hall.]” Sesame said, to the cheering of her human companions.

“[Oh speaking of, Sesame, could you-]” Doobie motioned to the tiny arms clasped around his neck, and Sesame raised her own in response. The Dorarizin turned around and felt a weight being gently lifted off of his back… and then the grip tightened around his neck.

“[Anne, if you’re awake you have to get off-]”

No.” Protested Anne Marie, muffled by the mane of her trusty steed. “You are soft and warm and I’m lazy and cold.”

“[Come on. You can share Jack’s singular hush puppy if you get off.]” Coerced Sesame, the gentle tug turning into an insistent pull.

Mnnnnnno. I’ll give you a dollar if you let go.” Anne said, a majority of her torso lifted off of her perch. “Two dollars. Three. Five is as high as I’ll go.”

“[Ah, what a shame, ten dollars would have bought my loyalty.]” Sesame said, smiling as Anne let go and fell onto the waiting Jornissian. Doobie hefted off his much heavier pack onto the dirty floor and scooted into the booth, reaching under Sesame’s tail to help move her over.

“Oh! I didn’t know ten dollars bought you that kind of loyalty.” Brian said, grinning as Doobie shot him a very dirty look.

“[It’s free for such a gentleman.]” Sesame said, giving Doobie a small nod as she positioned Anne within her coils. “[But I wouldn’t fuck you with a rented cunt, Brian.]”

“AYY! You said the word! You’re an Aussie now, cunt!” Brian hollered, getting rewarded with thrown food and insults tossed his way.

“[Really should call his parents.]” Muttered Tomtom, before giving a little wave to her Dorarizin friend. “[Anyway. How goes your studies?]”

“[Eh. I wouldn’t call them studies, per se-]” Doobie started, before Jack butted in.

“Liberal arts isn’t exactly something you need to study for, is it?” Jack grinned, before getting smacked in the arm a bit too hard by Tomtom.

“[I’ll have you know I need to produce a 30 page report on the dissemination of anti-establishment art in totalitarian regimes, and how such dissemination can be used to further revolutionary thinking.]” Doobie stated, matter-of-factly. “[And if you think that’s not a problem or doesn’t require study, I’ll force you to read my rough drafts.]”

“Alright, alright, fuck, I get it.” Jack said, breading-covered hands raised in defeat. “Didn’t mean to start shit so early in the night.”

Doobie sighed, slouching. “[Yeah, sure, it’s fine. I don’t exactly make it a secret that I’m just marking time.]”

“[We all figure out what we want to do on our own time; everyone lives life at their own speed.]” Tomtom said, reaching over the table to pat Doobie’s hand. “[I kind of have it easy with my degree, ‘cause I’m going to help Dad with the restaurant, but you’ll get interested in something and start pursuing it in no time.]”

Drzen looked at his friend with a tired, exasperated expression. “[Of all the sappy romance-novel level speeches ever spoken, I never thought I’d get it from you, ‘Tequila yard Tomtom’]”

Tik’akri ducked her head, leaning forward. “[SSSSH! Shut up, shut up! Fuck’s sake, he’s in the back – He doesn’t need to know my stage name!]”

“[Exactly who is in the back, my youngest daughter?]” An older Karnakian said, and the entire table erupted in various, rowdy emotions.