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Precisely My Cup of Tea

Posted on 16 May 2019 @ 4:42pm by Natalia Johnson & Xiuling Brooke

Mission: I Don't Care, I'm Still Free
Location: Galley

With the fresh produce coming on board, Xiuling had planned the entire trips menu down to the last grain of rice. Things had different shelf lives, and she needed to make sure nothing was wasted without providing too little for the crew and their passengers to eat.

She'd inventoried every item of food, and left the fruit out on the side in the galley for people to snack on if they wanted it, as well as a box in the pantry labelled 'snacks' in case anyone got peckish and didn't ruin her calculations. She'd left a note on the door indicating that was what she'd done so that everyone knew. She was glad that while her mother had insisted she learn things outside of the normal domestic skillset that she'd made sure she'd started learning the important stuff too. Tabitha had helped for a while, before disappearing as silently as she always did, and without warning.

So now she was getting dinner ready, the rice was on, a leftover bag she'd found at the back of a cupboard that looked fine, but she wasn't sure how long it had been open so wanted to use it as quickly as possible. The curry was simmering, just needed stirring every five to ten minutes or so to make sure it didn't catch on the bottom. The flatbread she'd made to go with it was cooking slowly in the oven, and so she found herself a little idle. She retrieved her guitar from her cabin and was sat on the table with her feet on a chair so that she could keep an eye on the pots and make sure nothing boiled over or anything. Her fingers were plucking a simple but pretty tune, that spoke of Xiuling's restful mindset having been told that Nick and Reeve were safely on the planet that they'd left in the dust.


Natalia listened to the tune, simple and pretty as it was and derided it in her mind. It was honest and beautiful, pretty and simple, a pleasure to hear in the vast expanse of the black. Real Natalia knew that of course. Inner Natalia. But the Natalia who was in control, the Natalia who was shown to the world, the Natalia who was a veneer, a front to hide what little was left of her true self... she hated it. It would have been so much more convincing if she knew why.

The blonde sidled up to the galley doorway and leant, smile in place, listening to the tune, pretending to find pleasure in it. It took so much effort, so much control to pretend to like something that she was pretending not to like, but the former companion handled it well. After all, if there was one thing she could do extremely convincingly it was bullshit her way through whatever situation was at hand.

It only took Xiuling a moment or two to register that she was being watched, she looked up and smiled, continuing to play. She’d have worried the companion had only come up here because she was annoyed by the noise, but she was smiling so Xiu didn’t think that was the case.

“Good evening,” she said with a smile. She hadn’t seen the passengers arrive so she was a little stunned by the cool sophistication of the companions aura, she shouldn’t have been she knew, she had met companions during her very brief stint on Shinon before joining the cruise liner and some who worked on the cruise liner itself, but a lowly lounge entertainer was below them. “Dinner should be ready in about twenty,” she informed her.

Natalia nodded kindly and took a couple of steps forward into the galley.

“I’m sure it will be wonderful,” she lied, still smiling. “But I was more interested in the music you’re playing, where is it from?”

Just like a client, or a mark, just keep them talking about themselves...

Xiuling’s cheeks coloured slightly as Natalia asked about the music she was playing. “I’m not sure, it’s variations on the melody of a song my grandmother used to sing when I was small,” she replied. She wasn’t even sure she had the tune right anymoreit was so long since she’d heard it. “Nothing special,” she added. She reminisced more about her family when she was happier, remembering happier times.

“Special to you, perhaps?” Natalia posited, moving further into the galley and taking a seat, gently moving a chair out from the table so it didn’t scrape loudly on the floor. She perched ever so properly and kept Xiuling in her gaze.

“I wonder where it is from, what planet I mean?” She asked.

“Yes,” she nodded in agreement, it was special to her, as was her ability to play the guitar, it helped her feel close to her family when she needed to. “As far I’m aware it’s Chinese in Origin,” she explained.

“Mmm... a lot of things are...” Natalia commented idly. Fucking Chinese. The girl in front of her probably was too and the little pilot. They were everywhere. Natalia felt like part of a dying breed, one of the last few blondes, although of course she lightened her hair. Another thing for her to hate. This one she secretly knew why even if she wouldn’t admit it - she was jealous. The right combination of genes could create something very beautiful that Natalia had always admired. She felt white origin women could never quite hit the same level of appeal. It annoyed her. Of course anyone else would just consider this neurosis and probably racism too.

“This dress for example.” She continued, trying not to let her prejudice show. It was a pretty gown, dark blue with an ornate embroidered pattern in gold, obviously referencing Chinese origin. Wearing it was another calculation on her part. She mightn’t have chosen it otherwise, but with Natalia everything was a calculation.

“I’m never quite sure about it. What do you think?”

Xiuling took the invitation to take a good look at the dress. It was gorgeous, like something her mother might have worn to one of the very posh parties she might have attended with Xiuling's father before the war. "I think it's beautiful, you look amazing in it, the way the darker tones contrast your skin and the gold brings out the colour of your hair," she replied thoughtfully. "Though I can't imagine you looking less than amazing in anything," she added quickly, mostly because she honestly couldn't. What to wear and how to wear it was most definitely covered in companion training, every single one she'd met was always impeccably dressed and as glamorous as she could ever imagine anyone being.

Natalia smiled as her ego was stroked from afar. It was true there was nothing much she looked bad in, or so she believed. Most would have agreed with her, but then that was one of her talents, brought out by companion training. Her others were lying and manipulating. Depending on who one spoke to those were allegedly part of companion training too.

“You’re very kind.” She observed, gracefully. “And quite pretty enough to be a companion yourself... you clearly have good sense for fashion, did you ever consider it?”

Xiuling blushed deeper at the question. “No, I was the baby, my parents would never have wanted to send me away,” she paused for a moment, only briefly considering that she might be telling the companion too much. “Then the war started, and that was never going to be an option. But thank you, for the compliment.”

Natalia listened dutifully, nodding along as if she cared. Xiuling seemed to be under the impression she was a nice person, time to drive that home with a nice but not too overplayed sob story.

“Of course my dear.” She simpered. “It must’ve been nice for your family to want you. Mine were only too happy to release me for training. But they saw an opportunity for me to get away from the Casinos once and for all... they wanted better for me than they had and I couldn’t be angry with them for that. I left Santo expecting to come back to high paying respectable clients, but the war... did you know a companion can struggle? I thought that was impossible. Eventually I found Adam and he helped me realise my worth.”

It was a tactical abridgement of the truth. Natalia was an excellent liar, but why make things up when her own past had plenty of sorrowful morsels to pick from? Of course she was angry at her parents for sending her away, she was angry at all sorts of things and people. The fact that she herself was to blame for at least some of her misfortunes didn’t occur.

“We had a business and a stable farm, they didn’t need to send any of us away,” she explained. “I’m sorry your parents felt that was their only option, that must have been hard for all of you,” she said, she couldn’t imagine being taken away from her family like that, even for an opportunity such as becoming a companion. Still she could understand wanting to get a child away from somewhere like Santo.

“He sounds like an amazing man, so you two are... more than business partners then?” She asked, wanting to make sure she’d got it right.

Natalia chuckled, the kind of happy chuckle that comes from love. It was an inner Natalia response that outer Natalia allowed as it served her purposes well.

“Adam... yes. He is an amazing man. We have an arrangement, a long-term mutual arrangement... he saved me from my struggles on Santo. At first it was just business, but we came to have an unusual regard for one another. Now... how can I say he has me on permanent retainer without sounding like an object?” Natalia laughed. “That or sounding arrogant. I’ve never quite been able to work that out.”

Vulnerability. Good. Let her feel like she has a window to who you actually are underneath the companion exterior.

Xiuling couldn't help but smile as Natalia talked about Adam, even if the life of a companion was as glamourous as some people painted it, she couldn't imagine many companions actually falling in love with someone who had the means to keep them on permanent retainer, or were willing to shell out to do so. "Wow... he must really like you," she said, setting the guitar down and going over to the stove to stir the curry. She couldn't imagine herself in that kind of situation, not now anyway, not with what she was running from.

“I’m good for his business, he’s good for mine.” Natalia replied tongue-in-cheek, watching as Xiuling moved about the room. With a chuckle at herself she continued. “We like each other very much. I wouldn’t accept anything long term from someone I didn’t like...and trust.” She commented, more seriously.

It was nice to hear about, but that kind of happiness was a pipe dream long forgotten. Accepting something long term had been the only way to save her family and then that hadn't happened anyway. Right now her life was just about surviving.

"Finding that in this 'verse is rare, Congratulations," she managed with a smile as genuine as she could muster.

Congratulations? Congratulations? Natalia resented that, as if happiness were something that was presented by the gods to the lucky few, those with enough life credits in their purse to buy a chance at the good times. No, happiness was arrived upon by hard work, by toil, by selling your gorram soul. She had trained for it, she’d been ejected for it, rejected for it, she had worked for it, played for it, nearly died for it. She had sucked co...

“So kind. Perhaps it’s not as rare as you think? I know plenty of reputable persons who would like a chance of meeting someone with such poise as yourself my dear. Perhaps when we reach Persephone I can introduce you?”

Something about this woman put Natalia off her best game. Hopefully the compliment was enough.

Xiuling was stunned, and for a moment she gaped open mouthed at Natalia, she honestly couldn't imagine anyone wanting to meet her. Maybe if things hadn't gone wrong at home she'd have been introduced to a reputable gentleman... but now... No, she couldn't risk her name or face being displayed on the Cortex, not with Nikolai and Sergei were looking for her. Yes, maybe a long time ago that was the kind of life she had dreamed about, but she couldn't imagine that now.

"I'm not sure how long we'd be staying," she managed to reply, once she'd shut her mouth and taken a steadying breath. "Sorry, I really appreciate the offer, but my chances of making connections like that exploded with the bombs on Athens," she paused, stirring the curry as her forehead creased in thought. "That dream died a long time ago, with my parents," she said, not sure why she was telling the companion so much about herself, but she seemed to be taking a genuine interest.

Natalia shifted her seat on the chair a little. So the Alliance had done Xiuling wrong. She started to wonder about affiliations of the crew, not for the purposes of judgement, more for manipulation. She herself had no affiliation other than annoyance at the whole thing which had stolen her career from her and ultimately lead to her ejection from the Companions’ Guild. Of course Natalia had some part in things by the decisions she made, but that aspect was conveniently forgotten when there was a faceless evil to be blamed.

“I understand” she told Xiuling in tones of cotton balls and candy floss. The Alliance is an affiliation one must maintain with Guild membership. I...” She laughed nervously, as if about to put herself out on a limb and hand Xiuling a hack-saw, “I have seen much suffering brought about by the war and... well who could help but be abhorrent?”

He words were bullshit straight out of the cow pasture, but stars and suns did she sell them well. Should Natalia ever need another career, lawyer or used ship saleswoman would fit her lies like a rabbit skin fits a rabbit.

"The crazy thing was, the planet as a whole supported unification until that day, the family business had thrived under the alliance government, and then they blew it up," she shrugged. "I'm no politician though, and what's done is done, so I try not to dwell on it," she said, setting the spoon she'd been using aside and checking the flatbread in the oven, which was just starting to brown, so she turned the oven out and left it in to keep it warm for dinner.

“Family business?” Natalia wondered idly as she watched Xiuling work.

"Trade, produce mostly, I think, but I wasn't old enough to care where the money for pretty dresses came from back then," she paused and frowned a little. "Not that I necessarily liked many of the pretty dresses, but clearly that wasn't the point. The head of the business, his heir, and a hell of a lot of assets went up in smoke that day, there was no coming back from that, we had to rely on my mother's family, and the farm that was the reason my father stayed in business consistently.”

“That must have been hard for a young one to experience, I can only imagine the impact my dear. How terrible...” Natalia’s empathy was indistinguishable from the real thing. “On Santo it was all about the economy, tourism, the casinos... after the war the whole thing dried up and the workers were the first to feel it and suffer for it when no one had money to waste. I wish I could say it didn’t affect even me... Better than it being bombed out from under us though.”

"What happened to us wasn't as bad as what happened on Shadow," Xiuling replied with a shrug. She bent down to open the oven and check on the flatbread, which was perfectly cooked. She smiled and turned the oven out. she strained the rice and turned out all the heat. She moved to the drawer and started gathering cultery, which she dumped on the table in a messy pile of knives, forks, spoons and chopsticks, before heading back for plates.

“I should probably check in with Adam before dinner...” Natalia rose from her chair. “It’s been lovely getting to know you A little my dear,” she said, turning back as she had a towards the door, “originally I saw our travel problems as being a setback but I must say I’m glad to have had the opportunity to travel with you all. There is something about constant finery and luxury that is very... fake...”

There certainly was. It was Natalia.

Xiuling Brooke

Natalia Johnson


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