“<The wonderful thing about fake flowers, other than being about as real as your last relationship, is that unlike the love you lost, these things can’t die.>

Sreshec let out a little chuckle as the stray thought hit her out of nowhere, the iridescent black Jornissian turning around in idle wonder as if to find out from where the thought struck her. Her eyes quickly rested on the dusty crystal vase that sat on the warmcuddle table, and Sreshec rested her hands on her hips.

“<Ah, I see it was you.>” Sreshec said, slithering slowly towards the unused props. In truth, Sreshec knew that she was being silly, but reveled in it; it had been 5 weeks since she had a real day off, and the pressure was starting to build. “<You believe I have forgotten you? And so you strike at me over things you know not!>”

Sreshec dragged her fingers slowly over the grey tablecloth, months worth of dust and stagnation pulled in her wake. “<But you take such good care of yourself~>”

Sreshec paused, looking down with disdain at the empty vase like the dames in the telenovelas she indulged in, before bursting out laughing, the disheveled manager slumping against the smaller furniture a bit too hard. “<Haha~! Ah, whew… lick the other one it’s hotter.>” Sreshec sighed outloud, smiling. With careful hands she began to clean the props, musing about what her next steps would be. The restaurant business was stratified into a few broad categories: the unaffiliated everyman, the franchise, the chef’s venture and the dining group. The least prestigious group was where all of the bad press mostly came from, and it was usually in terms of fraud and quality, but the halo of those complaints had to be handled by everyone else. Franchises had people like Sreshec, in think tanks, trying to figure out how to capture a new market, and use that market as marketing. Committees move slow, if at all, so first mover advantage was still out there. Chef’s ventures would be the next and only real contender for taking the lead, but brilliance in cooking does not always equate to brilliance in business, and people fall out of favor.

That left the dining groups; only the best of the best. Sreshec frowned as she cleaned the vase, rubbing the whitish cloth against the crystal. No one had even teased out a potential solution, and that gave her plans weight with the board – so difficult a problem it is to solve. The fact that some competing groups were considering an alliance was downright concerning.

Gentle Expanse lived above and below her, the planet reflecting off of the adjusted mirrors to create an almost kaleidoscopic effect, and Sreshec stared into that middle distance for a bit lost in thought. The multiple monitors on her over-cluttered workstation switched into standby mode, their bright light turning into a dim glow, before ultimately shutting off. Sreshec naturally kept the artificial lights low, and so her workstation and impromptu bedroom was soon only lit by the reflected light of her target market.

The Market.

“<What a pain.>” Sreshec thought, as she tossed the vase from hand to hand. “<Either you buy from the warmcuddles for actual highway robbery, or you build and they bury you in red tape. If you’re off-world you’re not welcome on local, and if you’re local you’re not really in the game; good luck gathering a lobby even through M&A.>”

Sreshec frowned with concern as she placed the clean-ish vase on the bare wood tabletop with a heavy thunk. “<What did warmcuddle Commissioner No-I’m-Serious mean when he said ‘I legally have to tell prospective tenants that it’s all lined with explosives.’? He laughed afterwards, so I thought it was a joke, but…huh.>”

She paused for a few moments, her eyes glazing over as a particular storm system raged on in the bus sized mirror outside her dome, the various articulator arms behind the mirror face slowly rotating it from side to side. “<Maybe the answer is to buy land and build from the ground up, after all. We hire the best attorneys, get all the permits, sit on all the ice, and at the end of it… what. If it was that easy, we’d see it by now, right?>”

Sreshec mused to herself, and with a delicate hand gesture, thought her computer awake again, her implants remoting into the terminal. She should start her search looking for… cities and towns that get enough warmcuddle traffic that they’d be familiar with them. Buying the best professionals wouldn’t be the problem; land is land, and making more of it is cost prohibitive. What do the locals do? What sports evolved here? How have the warmcuddles integrated themselves over the past few decades? What in the frozen hell was Mothing?

With a defeated sigh, Sreshec admitted to herself the unfortunate truth: Her curiosity had gotten the better of her, and now she was back in it.

And so her break ended.

= = = = = = = = = =

The roller clattered in the paint tray, it’s handle hitting the vinyl-foam floor with an unsatisfying paff. Brian inhaled deeply as he stared at his slowly-drying masterpiece, and then kept inhaling, breathing deeper and deeper and de-

“[Nope, nope.]” Sesame said, the Jornissian dropping the crate she was moving and darting towards the Human. “[We’re not leaving you in here with wet paint, not again.]” She said, tugging Brian out of the renovated restaurant by the back of his shirt.

“That was only four times! Three of which were accidental!” Brian complained, stumbling out of the newly-and-mostly-renovated Elder Ti’miquek’s Home Style Food. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Sesame moved a bit too quick, and ended up gently tossing Brian out of the restaurant on his ass. This sight was immediately celebrated by everyone in the parking lot, who erupted in cheers and applause.

“Well that’s one way to make an exit.” Jack said, taking a seat on the curb next to his prone friend. “At least they pressure wash the sidewalk once a week.”

“Doesn’t make it any softer, mate.” Brian replied flatly, grimacing as he propped himself up on his elbows.  He looked back down into the restaurant and sighed, his right hand raising up in a placating gesture as he attempted to calm down a mortified Sesame. “Sheila, it’s fine, really!” Brian called out, before laying back down on the concrete sidewalk. “Cunt. Could’a thrown me on some tits instead.”

“It’s always been man’s dream to fly, not to land.” Jack grinned, shaking his head. “Wow, that was way too poetic, even for me.”

Brian rolled onto his side, propping his head up on his hand. “Yeah bro, you doing alright? Did you go into the paint room too? You can tell me.”

“No, it’s not that – I don’t have a problem.” Jack said, looking back behind him as Sesame peeked her head out the front door. “Mainly, I’m just surprised at how this is actually coming together. I’ve never been a part of a big project, so it’s kinda nice. Has me reflecting n’ shit.”

“Yeah.” Brian grunted, stumbling to his feet. “It is do, mate! But, whew. This was probably the easy part; now we have to make it work.”

“[Can we um.]” Tomtom said, tablet and stylus in hand. “[Not do this during reno hours?]”

The trio of friends looked at Tomtom, dumbstruck at the change in demeanor and style that their friend had adopted. Soon they collected themselves and silently began to debate; a glance here, a nod there, the understanding that comes from years of friendship filling the gaps… and a private call. That helped a lot too.

A consensus was reached; Sesame leaned against the doorframe, her spine going slack. Jack leaned back, propping himself up on his arms. Brian immediately hit the dirt again, laying out in his best paint-me-like-one-of-your-french-girls pose, and all three of them just gave her a look.

And they waited.

Tomtom rolled her hips, slowly standing up to her full height. She would have cut an intimidating shape in her slightly-fitted mass produced business suit – keyword there, would have – if not for the fact that it was very cheap material, and Tomtom was clutching her tablet against her chest like a shield. Sesame, Jack and Brian said nothing, did nothing, and just sat there.

Tomtom squawked in exasperation before sagging, dipping her head in apology. “[Look, I’m sorry, but I’m just under a lot of stress, alright? I just want this to succeed! Dad said he’d help, but now he’s just saying he’s going to stay in the kitchen! All of this is on me, and that’s-]”

“Wasn’t that for regulations?” Jack said, leaning forward in newfound friendship.

“Nah, mate.” Brian said, picking himself up from the ground yet again. “We’re building to reg, but we didn’t file for shit. Anyone who looks will assume, and anyone who inspects will assume, and we keep the money we would otherwise spend on fees. Makes things easier this way!”

“Oh wow, that’s breathtakingly illegal!” Jack said, laughing. “I love it!”

“[I still really don’t like doing it this way.]” Tomtom admitted, lowering her guard further. “[But the plan will probably work, and that… I don’t know how I feel about that.]”

“You don’t have to feel!” Yelled Anne Marie, standing in the parking lot as Doobie fussed over her outfit, connecting the battery to her suit. “That was funny as fuck!”

“[Ah!]” Doobie chided, gently twisting Anne Marie’s torso back to “straight”, the human turning with her partner. “[I think this time we got it.]”

“I hope so, and again, for the record, I absolutely fucking hate this.” Anne Marie said, looking into Doobie’s eyes. “I really do.”

“[I know, I know.]” Doobie said, soothing Anne Marie the best he could. “[At least we got the comfort settings working, so it’s not super hot anymore.]”

“Small mercies, for sure.” Anne Marie said, laughing. “I really want to make sure; are we sure we’re good to go?”

“[Yes.]” Doobie said, lifting the giant foam head that looked like Anne Marie’s own head up over the human’s shoulders. “[Now are you ready to get into costume?]”

“I fucking hate this so much.” Anne Marie replied, staring fiercely at Doobie as he lowered her own head down on her head. Anne Marie had enough ambient light coming through the suit and from her control panels that she could see the netted superstructure of the head piece, the helmet turning to the left before clicking in place.

“[How are you holding up in there?]” Doobie asked the suit muffling his voice. Anne Marie gave his general direction a thumbs-up, power finally wirelessly flowing into the final piece of her costume. Anne Marie’s foam head started to spin slowly to the right as various actuators and clamps activated…. And misfired.

“[Oh! Uh, just hold still, it should fall in!]” Doobie’s muffled voice said, the foam head picking up speed as it accelerated it’s counterclockwise motion. “[No need to panic! Yet!]”

Anne Marie sighed as the inside of her helmet started to blur; she did not want to have to show her true power level, but circumstances forced her hand. Crouching, Anne Marie placed her hands around her “throat”, and with a mighty roar popped her head off like a cork. Her aim was true, and her spinning head soared over the parkinglot… and Doobie.

“[Hey! I got it! I got it!]” Doobie called out, tracking the spinning head in it’s graceful arc. Anne Marie didn’t wait around to see if he caught it; with a violent wiggle at the hips her fake torso popped off, the spacesuit-like costume opening up in both manual and automatic processes.

“Nope! No more, not today!” Anne Marie said, shimmying out of the first half of the suit. “I’m done!”

“[Well!]” Sesame said, finally coming outside into the fresh air. “[What a day. So you say your dad isn’t helping? He’s staying on to cook for you, so food quality won’t literally change at all; that sounds like help to me.]”

“[It’s… I expected him to be more active in the planning, I guess.]” Tomtom said, sighing as she pocketed the tablet. “[He gave us good advice, but it was more …guardrails?]”

“Mmm. Maybe it means he wants you to ask for help from your friends, hmmmmm?” Brian said, snapping his fingers as fingerguns towards the anxious Karnakian.

Jake rested his head on his hand, the supporting elbow propped up on his knee. “Or, that you should assume the people who are trying to help you have good intentions, and you should give them the benefit of the doubt at least once?”

“[I said I was sorry!]” Tomtom replied, quickly walking up to the humans before sitting down next to Jack, fluffing out slightly in concern. “[Are you ok? Are we, uh, good?]”

Jack sighed and gently ran his fingers through Tomtom’s side-fluff. “It’s fine, it’s fine. You’re not doing anything wrong, and you can make mistakes and take your time; just don’t boss us around, yanno? We’ll get it done.”

“[All right… I’m sorry.]” Tomtom leaned up, making eye contact with Anne Marie. “[And I’m sorry for you too – if you want to stop being on suit duty, we can get someone else.]”

“Nah.” Anne Marie said, fanning her shirt to cool down. “These things are actually powered, and once they’re set up it’s a private little world in there. I can get paid to nap.”

“[That’s… honestly, impressive.]” Tomtom said, shaking her crest side to side in curious thought. “[You just let me know what you need, then – I’m going to do my best to listen to you all from now on.]”

“Please… stop sitting on me…” Wheezed Brian, who was roundly ignored.