Down By The River
Xander felt like he’d only just fallen asleep when the soft scratching at the door woke him. Scrabbling for his watch, he found it was four hours later than the last time he’d checked it. I should probably find out about ship’s time. Might be helpful to be running on the same time as everyone around me.
“Who is it?” he croaked. Also, must find out about coffee.
“River,” came the soft reply.
“What time is it?”
Xander sighed. He was guessing the girl hadn’t slept much, if at all, and had been patiently waiting until a time that seemed reasonable to wake him. He took the impish giggle on the other side of the door as confirmation.
“Lesson the first, River. Unless there is an imminent apocalypse, do not wake the Watcher before 7. And if you do, come bearing coffee.”
“No coffee on board,” came River’s reply.Please be joking. Even if that’s only a joke, it’s pretty cruel.
“Coffee is a luxury item. This far out in the black, you might have to sell an organ to obtain any.”
Xander mentally cursed whatever Powers had been involved in bringing him to a place with no Twinkies and no coffee. If she says there’s no donuts, I may cry.
He hoped River wasn’t reading his mind at the moment. Actually, if there are no donuts, I don’t want to know right now. I don’t think my system can stand any more shocks this early in the day.
He rolled out of bed and pulled on his jeans and shoes. At some point soon, he’d have to see about finding other clothes, or at the very least laundry facilities. He ran his fingers through his hair to tame it.
Satisfied that he wasn’t going to break the bounds of decency, Xander disengaged the lock and slid the door open. River stood on the other side, in what he suspected was her version of “can barely sit still”.
“Ok, River, if there’s no coffee, what do people drink in the morning here?” he asked, trying for reasonable.
“Tea,” the girl replied.
“How is it that coffee is a luxury but tea isn’t?” Xander asked, puzzled. He’d have thought they’d be equally expensive.
“Coffee doesn’t adapt well to most worlds,” River explained. “But tea can be grown on nearly all of them, as well as in shipboard hydroponic units. Also, you can make more cups of tea per kilo of tea leaves than you can of coffee from coffee beans.”
“And weight matters in space,” Xander said. Between the coffee having to be shipped and the weight, he could see how it would be an expensive luxury on most planets, unless they happened to be one of the lucky few that could grow it. And for those who lived and worked in space most of the time, it was probably something you didn’t waste money on unless you were better off than he judged this ship to be. Dammit. Wonder how much coffee actually costs?
River led him up to the room they’d sat in last night for the explanations. Now that he was less dazed by his surroundings and the whole five hundred years thing, he noticed the food preparation area off to one side. He also noticed that someone had painted it in a warm, homey style. As River got the tea ready, he tried to keep track of where she was getting various items from.
“Can I just get food whenever I’m hungry, River, or are there set meal times? Or is this something I need to ask the captain?”
River shrugged. “Ask the captain when he wakes up, but probably whenever. Serenity does not keep a strict schedule. Things in these cupboards are people’s personal food, so don’t take from here unless you’re given permission.”
Xander nodded, noting the set of cupboards she was pointing at. Given the fights he’d seen ensue over the last Hot Pocket or one baby Slayer eating another’s favorite ice cream, he could well envision the resentment that eating someone else’s special stash out in deep space could create. Especially if it was a luxury item and you might not be able to get it on the next world the ship visited.
River set two cups and a steaming pot of tea on the table. Just as she was about to sit, she wrinkled her nose. Xander gave her an enquiring look.
“Simon and Kaylee are awake,” she informed him. “Let’s take our tea with Inara. She’s waking up now and won’t mind visitors.”
Xander recalled Kaylee and “the doc” being mentioned last night as a couple, so he could guess why River might want to put some distance between her and them, but he didn’t remember any Inara.
River paused. “The captain has silly worries about what you might think, so he did not disturb her last night. It’s just as well. His tendency to introduce her as a whore would probably have angered her more than anything you might say.”
Now Xander was well and truly lost.
“Why would he introduce her as a whore?” he asked in bewilderment.
River was doing a balancing act to try to gather cups, saucers, and teapot. She was managing where most people would probably have been dropping things, but it looked a bit precarious. Xander relieved her of the pot of tea and waved for her to lead the way.
“She is a registered Companion,” River said, as if that should explain everything.
“Ok… apparently that would be a valid explanation if I were from around here, but bearing in mind that I’m not, could you go over what a registered companion is?”
He could practically see the confusion as River tried to work out how to explain the concept to someone who had never encountered it before.
“A Companion is a…courtesan?” River sounded unsure of the word, but he couldn’t tell if the uncertainty came from not knowing the word or not knowing what it would mean to him.
He realized they were back in the warehouse area he had started out in last night, only up on the catwalk where Zoë had been instead of on the lower level he had appeared on. River led him across to another door, which she knocked on.
,” came the answer.
Stepping into the room, Xander was surprised to see that it was completely different than anything he’d seen on the ship so far. While the rest of the ship was comfortable enough, it tended to the utilitarian and plain. This room was outfitted in luxury bordering on decadence, but managed to stay within the bounds of good taste to give an overall impression of elegance. He felt like he should have left his muddy shoes outside the door.
“Wow!” was all he could say. He tried not to gawk, but couldn’t help looking around.
“River? Who is this?”
The worried query came from a dark haired woman in a dressing gown. Although River had said she was just waking up, she looked just as put together as if she’d been expecting visitors.
“Xander Harris. He is my Watcher.”
Turning to Xander, she finished the introduction.
“Xander, may I present Inara Serra, a registered Companion in good standing with her Guild.”
Xander noted she had introduced him informally but Inara formally. Deciding it would be a good idea to follow her lead, he prayed that what would be considered a polite response back home wouldn’t be a solecism here.
“Miss Serra, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said, adding a slight bow for good measure.
“Mr. Harris,” she replied, coming forward to shake his hand. “I must say I’m surprised. I didn’t realize we had taken on passengers at Athens.”
Xander looked to River, unsure of whether or not it was ok to explain to Inara Serra what he had told the others last night. River had an exasperated look on her face.
“The captain is an idiot. Tea before or after the story?”
Kaylee was the first person in the dining room most mornings. Simon near always stopped to check that River had slept through the night before joining her. Kaylee didn’t grudge Simon time with his sister, but sometimes she wished he would just come to breakfast with her so they’d have a little more time just the two of them.
Generally, Simon would join her, River accompanying him, then Zoë would arrive- always at the same time on the dot- with military precision. After that it was variable, though usually the captain showed before Jayne. Neither of them tended to have more than just tea. Inara sometimes breakfasted with the crew, but more often took her morning meal in the privacy of her shuttle. She had once confessed to Kaylee she preferred not to deal with Jayne first thing in the morning. Kaylee didn’t half blame her. The big merc was not a morning person.
She had barely reached the dining area when two things happened simultaneously. She noted the teapot was missing at the same time as a strangled yelp from Simon told her something untoward had happened. He strode into the room, looking worried.
“Kaylee, you haven’t seen River, have you?”
She shook her head.
“She ain’t in here. Maybe she went up to the bridge to look at the stars?”
Kaylee wasn’t too concerned. River hadn’t had a crazy spell in a long while, and she couldn’t see any reason the girl should have to be in her room if she couldn’t sleep. The lack of a teapot was far more troublesome.
She wasn’t surprised when Simon immediately turned and walked back up the corridor looking for his sister. Rolling her eyes, she dug through a cabinet searching for the extra teapot she knew they had somewhere. Likely Jayne had taken the other one and they wouldn’t see it again for months. He was something of a black hole when it came to plates and utensils.
To her consternation, the extra one wasn’t to be found. Jayne must have both of them already. She frowned. No teapot meant no morning tea, and morning tea was a necessity for most everyone on Serenity. Even Zoë seemed stiffer before she had hers. Maybe Inara’d have one they could borrow, just for this morning. Once Kaylee dropped him the word, Mal would make Jayne clean out the kitchen things from his bunk, as he had to periodically insist on, before the day was out.
As she reached the door to Inara’s shuttle, she was surprised to hear an unfamiliar voice coming from inside. Inara and River were talking to some unknown man.
Kaylee froze. She couldn’t help it. They were three days out in the black after not taking on passengers and there shouldn’t have been anyone but crew on Serenity. It was just like that creepy bounty hunter, but this time she knew there was someone there and she didn’t know where to run.
Abruptly, Inara’s head poked out of the door, worry on her face.
“Be easy, mei mei
,” she said, extending a concerned hand to lead Kaylee inside. Kaylee was so scared she couldn’t have refused.
In Inara’s shuttle, she found River and a stranger having their breakfast with Inara. River’s face reflected the worry on Inara’s. Must have been River told Inara she was outside in the first place. Both she and the stranger rose, River coming to hug her, the man merely extending both hands to show he meant no harm.
“You must be Kaylee,” he said, and his voice was gentle and kind enough that Kaylee let River drag her over to sit on the couch. The stranger frowned, but chose to sit on the floor instead. Kaylee noticed he had a patch over one eye, something she’d never seen on any but the poorest border planets.
“But…weren’t no passengers. Didn’t pick anyone up on Athens this time. How...?”
Kaylee knew she was babbling, but it just didn’t make sense. Inara pressed a cup of tea into the hand River wasn’t stroking to reassure her.
“He’s not a normal passenger,” River said. “Not from Athens or any world Serenity’s ever seen.”
“Where’s he from,” Kaylee asked, confused.
“Earth,” the man replied ruefully.
Kaylee looked at him for a long moment. There was no lie in his only eye. Glancing at River and Inara, she saw they also looked perfectly serious, as if this should all make sense.
“Am I still dreaming?” she demanded.