Chapter 10: Appealing to a Higher Power, Part I
taken by infinite-origami
|Story Type: Original
Content Cautions: None.
Critique: Very, very welcome.
Summary: Leigh's stationside-native boyfriend is having some cultural clash issues, so he's going for help. Part II soon, I hope.
Jak dressed with much greater care for his pending appointment than he had for dinner at Leigh's place, and with good reason. Firstly, Leigh doesn't seem to know (or care) too terribly much for matters of fashion, and certainly cannot be expected to know anything about what's tasteful or outre for a stationer to wear in a formal context. Secondly, he was about to see an individual with real, serious power in his Family, and giving the wrong impression could have massively negative consequences for him. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, she was his Auntie Neb, a kisser of his toddler boo-boos, answerer of the unanswerable, and perhaps the single largest influence upon his upbringing. He cared very deeply what she thought of him, and how he presents himself reflects upon her.
The mere thought straightens his spine, raises his chin. He combs his hair again, determined to get the wavy curls to lie in an orderly fashion, then adjusts his neckersash minutely until it lies in an expanse of brilliant emerald green from lapel to lapel. The color brings out his eyes. He turns to check the cut of his one-shade-from-black dark green coat, its slim, body-hugging line continuing down his slacks and perfectly matte-black shipsider boots.
The overall impression would be quasi-military to a Terran, but Terran formalwear fashions have been shifting to looser cuts, more daring asymmetries, whereas stationside formality has always retained an ancestral worry about sudden gravitational cut-outs: it's designed to stay where it's put and not obscure view or reach. A stationer not born to a Family, on the other hand, would probably view Jak's finery as unnecessarily plain and somber. Out-Family natives tend to dress up the same basic set of cuts as Family scions do, but with patterned and textured fabrics, or brilliantly wild colors. The styles popular in the Magnate Families tend more to the sober, and the higher your voting weight, the plainer your garb.
It's an odd reverse snobbery, in a way, probably born of the no-nonsense survival-and-practicality worldview of the indents who made it through the Uprising. In any case, that fossil preference has, two generations on, become an inflexible matter of unwritten law. The fact that the woman he's going to see personally thinks many of these fossilizations are, in her own words, "Pompous and backward," doesn't mean he shouldn't abide by them. There are standards in life.
He finally admitted to himself that there's nothing more productive he can do with his primping, and slid the panel closed over his mirror with a sigh. Throughout the short but convoluted trip from his quarters to hers, he kept reminding himself not to fiddle with his hair, his jacket. Walk. Smile at passing cousins. Look confident. Look normal. Don't overthink it. Breathe ...
He pressed her annunciator firmly, folded his hands before himself, and waited. A seemly interval later, an earnest, fresh-scrubbed-looking girl with long dark pigtails and big dark eyes answers the door. "I'm Jakarta Dunne," he says politely. "I believe I am expected."
The girl flashes a little smile of recognition before resuming her serious mien, and steps aside to allow him past. He follows her down the corridor, past small exquisite sculptures in alcoves between closed doors. They pause, and the little girl presses a button briefly before spreading her palm on the blip panel beside it.
The door opens, and within is a vista of minimalist opulence. The bulkheads are draped in falls of shimmering black/blue synsilk, turning a basic set of quarters into an exotic tent. Light is provided by a string of tiny luminators along the tent's peak, like a careful trickle of stars from some celestial hand. Here and there, graceful three-legged tables sprout from the floor, something in their spare lines suggesting spring crocuses to anyone who has ever seen a crocus.
Just past the center point of the room is a large chair, thronelike in its presence, voluptuously padded and clearly made specifically to the measure of the knife-thin woman sitting in it. Her neatly-braided hair is unapologetically silvered, largely white with only occasional strands of steel-grey. Her body's precise contours are obscured by an elegant robe of midnight-blue velvet, its folds carefully composed and draped to pool about her feet. Her face has lost all its softness in age, skin sagging, supported by bones like a bear trap. Her eyes, though; her eyes are the rich dark brown of the most expensive chocolate, and as bright and alert as when she was a girl. He still has to fight the impulse to step backwards slightly when they lock onto his.
"Jakarta, darling," she says with a smile, reaching towards him with one crippled hand, bent by arthritis into a claw. No one has ever said his name quite the way she does, nor probably ever will, lingering over its syllables and making them somehow warm and liquid.
He bends his head to her, having smoothly gone to one knee on the cushion in front of her chair as he enfolded her hand in both of his. "Auntie," he greets her, an interesting compromise between formality and familiarity, and lifts his eyes to meet hers.
"It's been too long. Now that you're all grown up and on your diversity orbit, you've no more time for your aged auntie, eh?" she teases him, though there is naturally a mild edge of real loneliness behind the fond smile. Only a fool would believe the initial 'kindly little old senile lady' persona she has used for so long it has grown part of her habitual manner.
"Oh, come now. Sixty-seven isn't so very old!" he ripostes, giving her hand a gentle squeeze, his fingers warm against her chilly, bony, curled ones.
"Not so very old, he says. Not so very old for a boy who's grown up safe behind radshields, with good wholesome food to eat every day of his life! You young ones don't know you're born. Back in the corp days, we were lucky to get fifteen hundred calories a day, and if we only took on a half a Sievert in a week we were thankful. You can hope to be young, vigorous, and busily fathering little ones for the Family at my age, but I'll be lucky if I manage to finish out my 'threescore years and ten'." She sniffs pointedly and retrieves her hand, folding it with its twin in the loose, warm velvet at her lap.
He grins, and slips his hand inside his jacket to retrieve a flat box wrapped in an iridescent tissuefoil, patterned in complex stripes of matte and shiny finish. "It *is* good to see you, Auntie Neb," he says, and offers the gift on a flattened palm.
She brightens immediately and leans forward to take it in both hands. The delicate wrapping shreds easily even in her feeble hands, revealing the box within. She opens it and finds one of his more complicated recent creations: it looks like a close-packed box full of tiny rosebuds, but it's really a single sheet of folded paper. "Oh, my," she says, gaze locked upon it, as she reaches in to touch one of the little blossoms.
"Quite a long way from a paper crane," he says with deep affection, "But only the best for you, Auntie."
She smiles as she reaches out to pat his cheek fondly. "You remembered," she says, and gazes back down at the boxful of paper blossoms. After a long moment, she sets it on the table beside her, and looks up again. "So, what brings you to my domain? I'm certain it's not my birthday, no matter what damn calendar you measure it on."
"What, I can't just want to see your smiling face?" he teases, then continues a bit more seriously, "I have a ... well, a problem, Auntie, and I wasn't sure who else I could go to. Both because I doubt they'd take me seriously, and because I don't know that I know anyone but you who could actually help me understand it."
She settles back in her chair, fingertips of one hand absently stroking the paper rosebuds now and again. "Well, then, let's hear this problem of yours, my lad."
"Her name is Leigh," he says, lowly, "And she's from Earth."
One delicately arched platinum eyebrow curves further ceilingward, though otherwise her expression remains placid. "Is she."
"Um. Yeah. And I really like spending time with her," he says, eyes fixedly on his hands as he firmly reminds himself not to fiddle with the buttons of his jacket.
"... Do you," she says.
"... Yeah," he replies, with a certain difficulty. He hadn't realized how hard it was going to be to talk about this. "I do. But ... " He casts around for a way to put his unease and confusion into words. "It's complicated," he finally adds, helplessly, glancing up at his elder for guidance.
She lets him stew for a long moment, eyeing him consideringly, before she speaks. "You want to spend more time with her," she prompts, receiving an uncomfortable nod. "But you're worried what people will think?"
"... Partly," he says, cringing inwardly at the thought of what his circle of cousins would make of him bringing a dirtsucker along on any of their social outings. And what they would say to her. Zil in particular is an utter mistress of flaying people to the bone with a single well-chosen sentence.
"Right. And the other part?" the elderly lady prompts him.
He swallows. "Earthers aren't ... like us, are they?" he asks, raising beseeching eyes to her.
Her thin lips, slightly sunken, quirk at the edges. Not quite a smile, but definitely amusement. "All the plumbing is in the same places, if that's what you mean," she says innocently, knowing full well it isn't.
With a little squirm, he replies, "No, no, I figured that much. It's just ..." he glances up again, hesitant. "She showed me this movie." He stops.
The eyebrows go up again, silently, as she waits for him to elaborate.
"It was a movie about, about these people. Earth people, from a long time ago. Who are friends, and then they have sex, and then they get mad at each other, and then they end up together again at the end." He shakes his head a bit, remembering its stranger bits, then looks up. "Auntie? What's 'married'?"
She sighs, shifting her weight slightly on the cushions. "Now, I know you could have asked *that* of any encyclopedia," she says, letting a little peevish tone creep into her voice.
"Oh, I know; I did. But I don't get it. It said marriage is an area of contract law relating to children, inheritance, and sexual exclusivity. I just don't see what there is in contract law to get that emotionally worked up about. *You* used to be an Earther, though, and I thought maybe you could explain it to me, better ...?"
Oh, the dreaded question: so, tell me, *you're* a woman/an Earther/a flautist ... The elder sighs to herself and considers her words carefully. She likes Jak, really she does, but sometimes he's just such an *earnest* boy. She certainly can't imagine many others of his generation who'd even find themselves in a situation such as this, much less ask these kinds of questions of her. "Yes, I was born on Earth, and lived there until I was older than you are now. But I've lived out here nearly twice as long as that, now, so I'll thank you not to call me Earther again."
He *had* used one of the more polite terms for people from Sol's third planet, but he takes the criticism honestly. "Sorry."
"Meantime, though ... Sometimes I think we did you young ones a cruelty, raising you the way we did."
He blinks at her, not at all following how her answer tracks to his question.
She sighs, and shakes her head slightly. "I'm not starting this story without my tea," she says, and turns her right wrist over to press a particular gem in her wide, flat bracelet with the fingertips of her other hand.
A moment later, the doorway opens and the serious dark-haired girl appears. "Yes, Madam Salazar?"
"My tea tray, Elsbeth," the woman says, "And a chair for young Jak. He'll be staying for a spell. Protocol or not, I'm not making him kneel *that* long."