Letters Home, Chapter 5: Tea and Chagrin
taken by tantek
Prompt posted Oct 7 2006
|Story Type: Original|
Content Cautions: Exposition ahead, hiking boots possibly desired.
Critique: Very welcome, no kid gloves needed. Commentary in general very welcome, since hashing stuff out with folks is one of the best ways to get my creative juices flowing to write *more*.
Summary: Leigh moves from Earth to a station orbiting Mars for business reasons, but gradually becomes more and more attached to the place, for reasons her family can't fathom. I still have no plot. But at least I'm starting to get to the romance.
Previous Chapters: The Grand Tour, Futures and Pasts, Great Expectations, The Remembering Gardens. Wordcount is now 5991 (of at least 50,000).
Acknowledgements: Deepest thanks to peteralway (for calculus -- I now know how big my station is and what the gravity is on all decks, yay!) and dormouse_in_tea (for letting me babble incoherently at her until I had a better handle on where things were going).
Somehow, when her six-month anniversary was drawing near, and her manager asked her what kind of cake she wanted at her going-away party, it had never occurred to her that she might be about to leave. She didn't feel 'done' yet. She was just starting to feel like she knew her job well, with all the new little quirks. There were a couple of clients that specifically requested she handle their customer-service issues, because they liked her cheerful competence. So she decided to stay, though the decision almost felt inevitable. And her second stint wasn't a separate, different thing, just more of the same. One more day, one more week, one more paycheck. The girls from the office got together for a Hen Party at the same restaurant once every two weeks, got giggly drunk on a sparkling rose wine grown on the slopes of Olympus Mons, and shared whatever secrets occurred to them. It was a good life.
She was even starting to get used to the fact that if you looked along a latitudinal corridor, you could see people's feet poking down from the ceiling as they walked at you long before you saw their heads, and sometimes took constitutional walks in the part of Kansas without the eight-foot-high hedges they put in to disguise the fact that a kilometer of farmland curves dizzyingly up and away from you in both directions.
She still wasn't 'gone native' enough to explore the amusements in Inward Kansas yet, but she could almost see that one day, she would be. And one evening, she decided to be adventurous and begin a plan: she was going to eat at least one meal in every restaurant on the station, even the ones that looked 'too weird' or were deep in stationsider territory.
Chinese food is Chinese food everywhere, though the spicing was a little weird. There was a really great Thai place down on Deck 114, where the gravity's close to Earth's, whose walls were lined with myriads of small figurines carved of dark wood -- probably carved here. She's noticed that almost everyone born Outworld has some crafty hobby or other, turning locally-produced raw materials, or just scrap and trash, into useful objects or things of beauty. Whoever 'did' the Thai place's walls looked to be working from the Polynesian tradition, which wasn't quite right for the food, but certainly closer than if they were Black Forest gingerbread and figures. Besides, it was quaint.
She began to gain confidence as her less-ambitious forays bore fruit (and her officemates started to ask her for recommendations), and though she found quite a few that were decidedly not to her taste, she enjoyed the quest. Besides, it helped her fix the layout of the station firmly in mind. 25 kilometers end to end and two-and-a-half around at Kansas, the station continued outwards deck by deck for 150 levels, but that was misleading. There was, in theory, an arterial corridor running pole to pole (north/south in stationer parlance: one end of the station always pointed directly at Mars, and that end was called Inward or south interchangeably) at regular intervals. There were twelve of them up in Kansas, and more were added as the circumference grew, below. However, beacuse of this, Corridors 1 through 12 in Kansas had, by the time you got down to Deck 35, Corridors up in the thirties interspersed between them in a way bewildering to groundsiders. Latitudinally, at least there were always 120 rings, and they were numbered from 1 to 120 consecutively from North to South. But not every deck had every ring, because there were cargo spaces and secured areas and labs and whatnot that took over multideck areas and built bulkheads all the way around, leading to 'you can't get there from here' problems.
This is why it took her two whole hours to find a teashop that, on the map, was only thirty decks and six rings away from her apartment. Because she got stuck in a cul-de-sac and ended up detouring five corridors and thirty rings in the wrong direction before figuring out which climbway came out in the right place to get her there. Hopefully, it would be worth it; if not, at least all the walking and calisthenics down in the higher-gee corridors was getting in her weekly calorie-burn and muscle-tone.
The teashop, when she got there, didn't properly speaking have a door. It had a doorway (in which, in emergencies, a pressure door could probably slam shut) and a curtain dividing the cool grey corridor outside from the warmer beiges, whites, and dark greens within. She steps inside and smiles nervously around at the few early-afternoon patrons, feeling suddenly conspicuous. She's the only one in the room with a an orange short-timer ID bracelet, though that's far from the most obvious sign of her nonbelonging.
Stationer hairstyles tended to either the very short (and often stiffened) or the very long (and often braided). No anthropologist, Leigh reasoned that this was probably because the extremes were easier to deal with in freefall, though a lot of stationers never really went up to the Spine. Stilll, probably some kind of cultural memory of pusher-pilot ancestors, or something. Either way, her tucked-behind-her-ears shoulder-length hair stood out, but that wasn't all. Stationers ... moved different. She didn't know how to describe it, really, but they belonged here, and she didn't. It made her uncomfortable. However, she remembered the Plan, and steeled her spine, smoothing on her best "Do you want fries with that, sir?" customer-service smile and aiming it at the host as he approached. "Hello," she says, "Are you still serving lunch?" The instant the words are out of her mouth she's kicking herself for the utter lameness, but she tries not to show it.
The host accepts her fiction and finds her a table, alone, in the corner. He hands her a menu and goes to check on his other diners while she decides. She surreptiously looks at them over the top of the stiffened flimsy, pretending to consider the selection of teas and fingersnacks with serious attention. The place is about half-full, and most of the occupied tables are couples or threes in quiet, friendly conversation; the exception takes up one of the restaurant's big, round tables. It's a boisterous group of young stationers, male and female, and they're having a lot of fun. If she were back on Earth, she'd say they were college students having a birthday party or similar festive occasion, but both age and activity are much harder to guess here.
She notices the host coming back and hurriedly directs her attention back to the menu, to find that half of it doesn't seem to be English, or at least is tea-jargon or stationer-jargon she's not familiar with. She orders a Lilivaran-grown basic green tea and the savory-sandwich sampler plate, and fiddles with her napkin while she waits. She shifts, trying to get comfortable; in theory, that's a cushion she's kneeling on, but her shins are unused to being weight-bearing in that direction and want to make sure she knows it. Another sidelong glance at the stationers through her eyelashes shows that they all seem perfectly at ease with it, with that damned effortless grace they have in almost any awkward position you care to name.
A sigh, and her eyes wander back to the big group in the center. A dark-eyed beauty with spiked white-blonde hair is smilingly tipping a tiny cup of tea up to the lips of the man next to her as she reclines against his chest. It's been a long time since Leigh had anyone hold her like that. She doesn't feel comfortable dating at the office (having seen THAT blow up in people's faces far more than once), and though she's met a couple of interesting guys who work for other Terran companies stationside, it never seemed to work out. Either they travelled too often, or they got obnoxious when drunk, or they just had nothing in common with her ... or they didn't sleep with women. So her celibacy-by-choice was gradually turning into celibacy-by-default, not that Father O'Halloran back home would object to her keeping her legs crossed, whatever the reason. She reaches up to roll her tiny gold cross pendant between her fingers, absently (a habitual gesture when thinking ever since her grandmother gave it to her at her Confirmation), and smiles to herself. A Good Catholic Girl she doesn't always manage to be, at least not by her parents' lights, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have standards.
Luckily, her navelgazing is interrupted by her tea, in a gorgeous (and, given the circum-Mars givens, probably handmade) cast-iron pot with crosshatched decoration and a delicate powdery green color applied somehow. Her cup was ceramic, with a darling little elephant clutching its edge. She was thoroughly enjoying sips of hot, astringent tea and taking cautious nibbles at triangles of sandwich with amusingly-anonymous colored fillings when she realized someone was standing over her table. A quick swallow, and she blurts, "Everything is lovely, thank you," raising her eyes to ... someone who turns out not to be the host. It's one of the guys from the rowdy group in the center, and he seems amused by her embarrasment and assumption.
"Well, I'm sure Jin Ho will be glad to hear that," he says, "But that's not really why I came over. May I sit?" He points at her table's empty cushion with an utterly unfair chin. It's already strong-boned without being too square, it really didn't need that perfect little dimple in its center. And that's not even counting the perfect warm clover-honey tone to his skin, or the perfect mahogany curls fringing the forehead above his glass-green eyes. How can you possibly stay unflustered when a chin with a dimple like that is smiling at you? You can't. It's totally unfair -- she's not made of stone!. She dabs at her lips with her napkin while she catches her breath (her loose sleeve falling away from her all-too-obvious orange short-timer bracelet when she lifts her hand), then says, "Sure," with what she hopes is welcoming aplomb.