Professional education comes in many ways; it can be delivered in a formal classroom environment, can be self-taught, or – in many instances – is simply produced on-the-job as it happens. The rarest of all forms, however, is when a professional watches something unfold, and has enough experience to draw from to develop an internal lesson plan. In most cases, the professional in question generates their own internal narrative and slowly pieces together exactly what’s happening, how it’s happening, who it’s happening to, and most importantly why it’s happening.

Azul’s internal narrative had none of that. Anne Marie was a little rascal to Sesame, crawling over the jornissian as if she were nothing but an animate cushion, rifling through her pockets and generally being a little terror. When the food came roughly a third of Sesame’s portion was intercepted from the table, the warmcuddle happily devouring the food that she didn’t pay for. The conversation between the older professional and the younger protege came in fits and starts – mainly due to Anne Marie’s random interjections that had to be addressed, and if she wasn’t staff Azul had half a mind to ask her to leave the premises.

However. There were moments where Anne Marie was utterly charming; whenever Azul needed help navigating the new foods she ordered, or had a question about warmcuddles, or even [Gentle Expanse] itself, the warmcuddle host responded with grace, honesty and an earnest joy that was almost overwhelming. Anne Marie expressed moments of genuine concern for the quality of the food, the comfort of her guest, and the overall atmosphere of the environment; when anything was found lacking, she either found a way to fix the problem or promised to address it for a future visit.

The two sides didn’t mesh in Azul’s head.

As the night wore on, Azul left the two friends to fall into conversation with themselves, and studied the restaurant as it slowly filled out. She was seated at a green table, the only indicator of which was a little green circle slapped onto the well-worn but refurbished tabletop. All of the other guests who selected and sat at such marked tables gained a warmcuddle companion; for some they sat a few feet apart, most likely because they dined with the new patrons, while others got the Anne-Marie treatment and seemed quite bemused at the fact. It was obviously a mixture of dining and performance, and Azul could understand that part of the business structure; themed and theater restaurants were nothing new, holding an appealing charm all their own. That structure, at it’s core, made sense.

The red tables, in comparison, made absolutely no sense. Separated by a transparent, modular, manufactured physical divider the red tables were utterly confusing. Orders were given and received as normal, and the food arrived no later or worse for wear than at any other table. But once the food hit the table and the server got out of… for lack of a better term, arming distance, all hell broke loose.

 Armored warmcuddles – their suits padded and reinforced with something that looked decidedly more military surplus than civilian make – did everything they could to harass, cajole, taunt, distract and generally mess with the patron. Some diners succumbed to the tiny, soft, nearly-crying eyes of the warmcuddles as they begged to have ‘just a bite’, while others used pack tactics, secret tunnels, false ceiling tiles and a dozen other tricks up to and including flashbangs to separate a patron from the food they rightfully ordered.

Others… well. Azul watched as a male warmcuddle with a most impressive feathered mane glued to his suit’s shoulders and neck approach a single female dorarizin, who began to sweat uncomfortably. Azul could guess at what was said, and she… didn’t like the implications. Apparently neither did the patron once she acquiesced and the warmcuddle yoinked the food out from under her nose and ran.

The red tables were filled with mayhem of every single flavor possible, and it was barely 30 minutes into the night before the first gunshot went off, and Azul wasn’t even entirely sure if it was because a patron got too handsy, a warmcuddle got scared, or the beginning of a fast food eating contest. Regardless, there was a new smoking hole in the wall and a round of cheers, the ball-gunner turret in the corner of the restaurant wiggling his weapons in… victory? Menace? Something unknowable, and Azul really didn’t have the inclination to go over and ask.

In the midst of all of this, the chaos, the kindness, the shenanigans and the salsa, what finally pushed Azul over the edge was the blue tables, which were not advertised or even an option when she first came in. At first glance, Azul assumed they belonged to long-time or high-ticket patrons, but as they slowly filled up the truth was much more mundane and insane. These tables were in the far back of the restaurant, and were only accessible by warmcuddles who came in the back fire-exit door that was constantly propped open by a little hunk of wood jammed in the doorframe.

“[Locals’ only entrance, only for warmcuddles.]” Anne Marie said, jolting Azul out of her stupor and focusing her attention back to her boothmates. Anne Marie was half in the booth, half draping over it, her head and upper torso turned to follow Azul’s spotlight gaze.

She lazily pointed at the totally unguarded door over her shoulder with her thumb. “[Most people don’t pay attention, so we don’t have security there – and regardless, it is a fire escape so code won’t allow us to button it down tight. Warmcuddles want trash food too from time to time, and it makes no sense to force them through the same security mesh that we did you.]”

“<I’m just…somewhat at a loss.>” Azul murmured, taking in hand one of the filled, fried dough rounds and biting into it, the gooey and overly-greasy interior popping in her mouth with an audible crunch. “<I’ve never seen this model replicated anywhere.>”

“[So you’re saying we have something proprietary?]” Anne Marie said, grinning as she flopped back down on Sesame, the jornissian letting out a little grunt as the warmcuddle settled back in to her living seat. “[Something we could possibly patent and turn into a semi-legal franchise operating out of a deniable asset nation-state on the periphery?]”

“<You watch too much drama.>” Sesame said, teasing the warmcuddle with a piece of bread loaded with a greenish-blue dip. “<Real life doesn’t work that way.>”

“[You don’t know you’re not a doctor.]” Anne Marie replied, fussing against Sesame’s breaded attack. “[But Azul, you should definitely give the volcano dip a shot; we’ve added in our blue berries to a traditional three-spice dip, made with tree-testicles imported in from Dirt. It’s good, especially if you don’t mind fatty plant fruit.]”

“<I’ll get to it…>” Azul trailed off as she looked at the kitchen, her professional curiosity scrutinizing everything that she could see, every hint that the swinging double-doors would give her. If the green tables made sense, the red tables were managed insanity and the blue tables an island of normalcy in a sea of incoherency, the kitchen area made her downright incensed.

“<Is that a bag of unprocessed t’chouli? On the countertop – not in a refrigerated environment?>” Azul half-asked to Anne Marie, half spoke to herself. As Anne Marie began to respond, she was immediately cut off by the scrutinizing snake as she began to ramble.

“<They spoil within minutes if they’re not kept near arctic temperature – you have to take them from the freezer to the pan immediately.>” Azul said, pointing a finger questioningly in the kitchen’s general direction. “<Not to mention, you’re definitely using the same prep area for meats and ocean foods, which can’t be hygienic without a sterilization procedure between sets at minimum.>” The blue jornissian turned to the warmcuddle in question, her expression sharp with criticism – only muted slightly by utter confusion. “<Everything I’ve seen out here is fried or raw. You’re not using the same oil for multiple types of food, are you?>”

Anne Marie shrunk slightly into her friends’ coils. “[I mean, cost cutting measures don’t uh, and the food hasn’t hurt anyone yet, um, delivery partners with produce, aah, varying professional standards?]” Anne Marie ventured, starting and dropping trains of thought and excuses as she noticed they didn’t sway Azul in the slightest.

Azul leaned against her backrest, the faux-pleather padding squealing slightly in protest at the unexpected weight, and drilled into Anne Marie with her gaze. “<The intergalactic convention on processed foods requires a chemical and UV screen over food prep stations before any rotation, and I don’t see anything in that kitchen that looks remotely like a light bar. How are you stopping cross-contamination?>”

Anne Marie curled up, partly because she had fallen too deep into Sesame’s coils, and partly because she wasn’t used to being on the receiving end of a professional grilling. “[We uh. Use a wet rag with soapy water and just…]” The warmcuddle made a little wiping motion with her hand.

Azul experienced every single stage of grief within a few seconds, oscillating between disbelief, bargaining, anger, sadness, fourthmeal, disappointment, ennui, nage and aneurysm. 

Seeing the excitable nature of her companion, Sesame cleared her throat and wrapped her arms around Anne Marie defensively. “<I know it’s not managed to your exacting standards, but that doesn’t mean->”

“<Standards?!>” Roared Azul, the slightly-too-loud outburst gaining her the attention of the surrounding tables and at least one ball gunner. “<Professionals have standards! This?! This is an edible bio-hazard masquerading as a themed insane asylum!>”

“[I thought you said they couldn’t tell when we reheated the pork, Tictac!]” Yelled someone from the far back of the kitchen, and Azul trilled a high, steam-pipe burst of exhaustion and anger.


Azul snapped back to Anne Marie, and was greeted with a wholly different kind of warmcuddle; she was standing up straight, her chest was puffed out, her flair was somehow shining bright, and her eyes were full of determination. She also had a gun, and that was an important fact that helped Azul realize that she was in an illegal establishment, and that maybe yelling isn’t the right thing to do.

“[Just because it’s not something you’re used to, doesn’t mean that it’s bad!]” Anne Marie said, waving her pistol around as she spoke, much to the concern of Sesame and everyone else within gunshot range. “[Different people and different cultures prepare things differently, and that kind of uniqueness is the spice of life! None of our patrons have gotten too sick, no one’s been to the hospital, and the food is deep fried to hell and back again anyway, so if it was crawling on the countertop it isn’t when it hits your tabletop!]”

A few of the patrons looked down at their food with newfound trepidation, but Anne Marie continued with her inspirational speech. “[We’ve been following all warmcuddle food safety standards, and look at us! Healthy as beasts of burden! Swift as a coursing river! Mysterious as the dark side of the moon!]” She continued, raising her arms in triumph as she spoke. For a brief moment, Azul was taken in by the spectacle: a small being, unable to defend themselves, unable to do many things that she took for granted was challenging not only her, but the very universe itself with a defiant spirit and a loaded weapon and no fear in her heart. She was, in a word, commanding, and Azul felt the magnetic pull these new additions brought to the galaxy.

Of course, the universe, not one to be mocked, chose this time to interrupt Anne Marie’s beautiful crescendo with the only local that never paid his tab, attacked the staff with impunity, and who stole food without even being employed. A cheer drowned out Anne Marie as, with the slamming open of the propped emergency fire-exit door-

“<Is that a feral animal?!>” Azul asked, pointing past Anne Marie to the giant moth that had forced half it’s body into the establishment. The wild animal had a very obvious dent in it’s head, with a permanent but faint after-image of what looked to be a stamped license plate askew on it’s forehead.

“[Oh hey it’s Buckeye! WHO FORGOT TO LEAVE BREAD FOR BUCKEYE?]” Yelled Anne Marie, the earlier insult to her friends and family totally forgotten as the wild animal scrambled it’s forelegs against the wall, turning sideways in an attempt to get further into the restaurant. 

The moth was soon swarmed with warmcuddles, the patrons at the red tables taking the opportunity to wolf down their food in peace as the new distraction bought them much needed breathing room. The moth, who was waving it’s antenna in rhythm to the chant of it’s name only stopped it’s manic attempt to break in once a stolen entree was brought near it, the wild animal following the plate of food with rapt attention.

“[Don’t worry, they’ll shoo him out – he usually doesn’t come in from the side door, he’s more of a kitchen moth than anything else; he’s also why we all had to stop wearing cotton aprons.]” Anne Marie stated, shimmying down from her perch atop Sesame to the open space on the seat beside her. “[Speaking of kitchen, let me go check on how things are doing – I’ll also put in an order for more food safety prep bullshit, if it’s that important to you, but you’re either going to eat the food we bring you or pay for it to go cold. You good?]” 

“<Yeah… yeah. I’m good. Sorry.>” Azul closed her eyes and nodded, a century’s worth of exhaustion smothering her like a wet blanket. The media, the stories, the data painted such a picture of the warmcuddles that Azul had built up in her mind, but the reality was so much more qualitative.

The warmcuddles lived like this.

They wake up every day and they choose to live like this.

Azul rested her head against the booth’s backrest, opening her eyes to a checkerboard drop-tile ceiling. She stared into the middle distance for a few moments before tilting her head down, witnessing an incredibly bemused and smug Sesame enjoying her probably-not-food-safe warmcuddle plant dip, while in the background, past the warmcuddles who were using the distraction to steal more food from their patrons, a ball gunner teased the feral animal with the barrels of his weapon.

She took it all in, all at once, in a single, unfeeling, numb moment, and her internal, professional narration rationalized the exact wrong lesson.