Content Warning: High-impact head pats, cuddling, and hand-holding.
The Imperial Navel Gazer was an old ship, creaky, grumpy, and dirty in the Freemens' Flotilla. The shitty diner Ishmael found herself working at was made for a crew of three, but tonight she was operating the kitchen by herself. The heat from vats of oil soaking in the air and making her gleam with sweat from the under-maintained air conditioning that never quite got rid of all the grease in the air. She had been here for five hours, cooking for a bunch of ruffians, rakes, and roustabouts that populated this particular part of the fleet.
It was only now that the regular crowd was thinning, and the usual orders of minimum priced grub and slop had stopped. Meat-paste schnitzel and desiccated flounder, packed frozen so cold her fingers stung, either from temperature or chemical burns, she wasn’t sure.
There was a certain mentality she had been taught to keep while cooking, and it was to always keep in mind that what she was handling was food, meant for enjoyment and consumption. Constant work with it could make it feel like an object, something you tossed and turned about, slowly losing its intrinsic care you would give it otherwise. She had kept true to that lesson all through her life, until, of course, she arrived here. She didn’t think she could stomach the idea of actually eating any of this food, though she would lie through her teeth about her favorites to the half-distracted patrons that came and went, eating the slop as if it were of actual quality.
This wasn’t food, and she found herself treating it as such. Her fingers, calloused from burns and chemical irritants, felt numb to the cold and hot, soggy and hard things she handled day to day. Regardless, she worked, she made food, and she served it with that fake closed-lip smile that she was expected. Ishmael worked, but mentality, in the pit of her stomach, she knew that she did not cook. Looking over the final meals of the day, she turned her attention to the restaurant, briefly eyeing the customers as she ran her hands through the barely-too-hot water.
As she turned her head Ishmael's eyes caught something impossibly bright walking into the emptying restaurant. Something that didn’t belong here, in this place. Her skin was alabaster white, and her red eyes surveyed the restaurant curiously, revealing her forehead markings as her head turned. She wore a deep red dress, ankle length that squeezed around her torso, a wide sash decorated her stomach while her back and neck were chastely covered by an impossibly snug fabric, an emblem hanging from a choker around her neck. As her head turned she caught Ishmaels eyes and smiled brightly, as if to an old friend. A heart-warming gesture in a place like this.
Ishmael tried not to think too often of her appearance, but in comparison she felt like she should be judged for her stained, white chef jacket, her less-than-cared-for ashen hair, and just the overall slovenly state of the entire diner. She was considered one of the better cooks here, but that didn't feel like much of a compliment given what she was cooking. She realized she was more or less staring at the woman in a very blunt manner. Pulling her gaze away, trying to clear her mind back to what she was doing. The heat of the recycled water returning some semblance of feeling back to her hands, and she gathered a small handful to wash the sweat and grime away from her face, hyper aware of how messy she must look at the moment. Wiping her hands and face off at a moderately used washcloth hanging on a rack, she quickly stepped out of the kitchen towards the front counter where the few remaining people lingered, talking among themselves and smartly keeping their eyes to themselves.
Grabbing a quick notepad as if to anticipate an order, tired gray-blue eyes that looked out from a pale face, trying to hide a rising feeling that this was some important businesswoman who was meant to speak to the boss. "Good evening ma'am." There were no stars that mattered here, but time of day still applied to some. "Is there something I can help you with?" She phrased cautiously, terrified to accidently peak some wrong set of word.
“Oh, yes, you may.” She replied in a smooth voice that flowed like warm honey through Ishmaels ears.
The pale but strong fingers brought up a small vacuum-sealed packet up to the dim, under-powered lighting of the restaurant. It was the size of a solid palm and must have taken up most of the space inside the small bag. Meaning the woman probably came to her specifically about this, it also meant that she was probably unarmed. At least, with a gun.
“I’d like you to cook this for me.” The honey voice continued, trickling out from between painted lips as the woman spoke.
Firmly but gently she placed the packet down on the counter between them, before her hand went back to her waist. As Ishmael looked down on it she realized it was a piece of sealed meat, but not just any meat. The lines of fat gleamed through dark red muscle, marbling covering every centimeter of the piece in front of her, glistening through its transparent vacuum seal with the promise of juices and fats.
“Use whatever spices you prefer, cook however you wish. You will be paid. Do not disappoint me.” She ordered easily, taking a seat at the counter.
The woman tipped her head, curiously watching what Ismael would do next, red eyes peering down her. This close Ishmael realized she was taller than a lot of men, hopefully most of that was heels.
Despite her want to do whatever she was told to keep from upsetting this powerful patron, she had to take a moment of silence as she contemplated just what in the stars was happening. "Oh, I..." She glanced at the woman, cautiously grabbing it. Officially there was no process for this. People didn't just walk into the diner with their own meat and say 'cook this!' Even the strange aliens who couldn't eat the same meals as humans just chose other diners more befitting of their diets, rather than risk contamination or poison from some xenophobic line chef.
"Of course ma'am." She spoke quickly, her body quicking back into action as she took the packet, and carried it into the kitchen, blue-gray eyes suddenly bright with a harsh criticism of the state of what surrounded her. This was her kitchen? She had to cook this meat here? For the love of the art, it was a disgrace to the meat! She had tried to keep it clean and orderly before, when she had just arrived, but a single person didn't have the time or the authority to fix all of this. She took a deep breath, resolving herself act precisely how she was told.
Cook however you wish.
Do not disappoint me.
That meant she could delay the actual cooking by a few minutes, right? ...Right?
The grill was disgusting, no doubt being cleaned by bored, lazy hands since the day this establishment had opened, there was no hope for it. Not even turning the heat to maximum would help scrub away the disgusting grime that would then transfer over to the meat. Seasoned pans and grills were one thing, but that? It was unacceptable. As she fretted on how to approach it, already cleaning the best knives and spatula's that the kitchen had in as hot water as her hands could handle, one of her prior blunders came back not to haunt her, but to aid her. When she had first been hired, she had wanted to turn this place around, a distant dream now, but one that had inspired her like in all those stories she had read. Part of that had been new utensils and pans, and she already was cleaning the utensils for it.
Placing them aside on a fresh cutting board that she had just cleaned, the pan came next. It wasn't perfect, mistreated by the others, but still cleaner than anything else the kitchen had to offer. She tried to ignore the fact that with the design of the kitchen and the window that aimed towards the Diner, the woman could easily see everything that she did. It never bothered her before, but those red eyes and velvet voice were different than the hundreds of grimy gang members and lowly laborers she typically saw. She wasn't familiar with what that kind of sash meant, but she could only imagine that it meant something bad if she had the misfortune of crossing the strange woman.
With the pan clean, and everything aside from spices and whatever else she would add ready, she quickly turned one of the counter burners to high, leaving the pan to heat as she quickly searched the kitchen for what she needed. Was it always this unorganized? She cursed silently, trying to suppress actually letting any become audible as she grabbed the freshest oil, as well as the salt and pepper. She stared at the three ingredients with trepidation, loathing their poor quality. Many people saw salt and pepper as this basic thing that could be cheaped out on. Ishmael disagreed, but she wasn't the one buying the supplies. Sincerely missing her hefty spice supply of home, stars away, she quickly went to make due of what she had.
The meat was perfect, even Alliance tech couldn't reproduce meat that perfect. It was grown, raised and butchered in the old styles of the old ways. The forgotten artisan crafts of raising and butchering meat, and now she was staring at one of the pinnacle towers of its labor. She added the oil, letting it simmer and roll against the heated pan as she went about salting and peppering the meat evenly. She made sure to evenly rub it into the meat on all sides and corners, into every existing nook and cranny, every crack and crevice, trying her best to not rip the meat further in the process. Doing so only increased her appreciation for it, and the speed at which it would cook became apparent as she eyed the divine meat.
Fat that high burnt fast, and it transferred heat with extraordinary efficiency. People with leaner appetites avoided it, but none could ignore the ecstatic flavor that such a fat content made. She had more spices, had so much she could try, but she didn't feel confident in the quality of what she had to work with, so she kept with the basics, kept it simple. There was some kind of drink you'd order if a bartender had a certain license, it was supposed to be the first drink they learned to make. Depending on how well they made it would tell you how well they could mix drinks. She guessed this was something similar, as she lifted the meat carefully, and gingerly placed it into the pan, hearing it fill the air with a hot sizzle, followed immediately by the most heavenly scent she had experienced since she left home.
She counted with taps on the counter, fifteen seconds and the prongs and spatula quickly and carefully flipped the meat, the quick browning immediately apparent as having spread through the meat. Fifteen more taps, and it was done, the meat transferred to the cleanest plate she could find, still hot from the washing machine. Placing a fork and knife on the plate, she quickly shifted it out to the waiting woman who's name she didn't even know, feeling crushed under those devilish red eyes, placing a glass of water next to it. "There you go ma'am, I apologize for the wait." She spoke, stepping back, hands fumbling over themselves as she was suddenly very aware that she didn't know how to stand while feeling like she was being inspected.
She tucked the purse into the front of her sash as Ismael approached, meal on plate. She smiled brightly, eyes flashing as the heavenly scent of the cooking drifted up from the steaming plate to her nose. She carefully took up the knife and fork holding each with a finger down their length and cut into the butter soft fibres of meat, splitting it with hardly a push. The sliver of meat upon fork rose to the woman's eye level and turned in the light for inspection.
With deliberate slowness she brought it to her brightly painted lips, closing around the bit of meat, pulling the fork clear as she held it on her tongue. Within seconds she made a soft moan in her throat as her eyes closed, she chewed slowly, letting it dwell on her tongue as long as she could, sighing as finally she swallowed. A long appreciative noise in her throat signalling her approval.
“Cooked to perfection, with skill and conviction. Not overcooked from fear, nor undercooked from carelessness. Not sullied with complicated spices, but not ignored.” She rated, taking up her knife again for another piece.
Those red eyes flicked up to Ishmael brightly. The glint of mischief within them.
“Take a piece for yourself, if you like.” She offered, cutting a fresh portion and entwining it on the fork, holding it up for Ishmael to sample.
What kind of sick power play was this?
The truth was though, that she hadn't considered trying the meat herself before then. A part of her fully expected the woman to eat the meal, pay, and leave as if nothing was particularly odd about the situation. "Oh, um, thank you, ma'am." She spoke, feeling like her every motion was being judged as she cautious stepped forward, bending over and quickly taking the meat from the fork with her teeth, hands poised beneath it to keep it from falling to either the table or the floor. Such cautiousness was quickly melted by the flavor, as she bit once into it, tasting the best thing she had eaten in months, if not longer. Even the best of the artificial foods here came nowhere close to this, still hot from the fat, seasoned and well-bred meat that outdid any class of standard food. A carnivore's wet dream, and the dream of any chef to handle.
She chewed it slowly and silently, though the immediate positive reaction was apparent on her face, before she ultimately swallowed it, cautious turqoise eyes going back to the strange woman. "I haven't seen meat that perfect in... A very long time, ma'am." She spoke, her voice one that was naturally timid, sprinkling polite necessities wherever they felt appropriate. Feeling like the issue couldn't be ignored any longer, she slowly phrased out the question she'd been wondering since the woman had arrived. "If you don't mind my asking, what brings you here? This isn't a very... Typical request to receive."
With the gentle tinkle of cutlery and a smile she slipped her purse back out of her sash and opened once more, ready for an all new surprise to spring out of it. A black void, empty of any further meat packets that Ishmael could see.
Lily’s pale fingers disappeared into the black purse for a second, she delicately pinched a slip of cardboard out of a side pocket with her knuckle and sliding it on the table to Ishmael. The purse was carefully slipped back into her sash before she took up her knife and fork again. She took another slice of the delicacy off the same fork she had shared with Ishmael as her red eyes watched the other woman with much interest.
It was a very special kind of power play.
The card was eggshell white, raised black letters writ in small, precise font. The subtle thickness was perfect, it even had a watermark. The subtle imprint of a coat of arms, a dog holding a sword spitting flames lurked on the surface. Hidden in direct light.
Interviews in Deck 5 Hangar 1
Bring all work gear and tools you wish to take with you.
Bar service for all successful applicants.
Lily sighed as the warmth of the food flushed through her body once again, her eyes fluttering a little as she composed herself with a gentle smile.
“May I ask your name, since we might be working together in the future?” Lily asked, holding out her alabaster hand.
Maybe she could even afford a better apartment. That would be a large step forward! Maybe she could even extend her shower times before it cut her off, though she figured that might be jumping the shark on that line of thought.
Though that little frame of excitement was visible for a second or two, and betrayed the joy at the thought of a better job. She looked up to Lily, before nodding politely, regaining her composure. "Ishmael, ma'am." She responded, giving a firm-ish handshake. "It's... Just Ishmael." Already thoughts of what to dress in to look the part were swirling through her head, though she realized that her excitement was probably playing directly into her hands. Maybe that would benefit them both. "So this interview is tonight, ma'am?" She asked, watching as what seemed to be the last of the normal patrons slowly finding their ways to the exit.
What was becoming apparent was that even with that brief lapse of control, Ishmael held a fairly reserved line of action, her words still holding polite phrasings and dignified titles. "I apologize if I seem too eager, I just typically don't receive such... Opportunities!"
“It can be, if you come with me right after we finish this.” Lily replied smoothly, not skipping a beat. “Pleased to meet you, Ishmael.”
Lily had thought the business card would be a nice touch after she had watched some movies from the Alliance about it, she still wasn’t sure about the dress, it felt a bit… Well, she was glad she had gotten it tailored. She carefully took another slice and put a hand on her cheek as the white flesh flushed slightly, enjoying the heavenly taste as it seemed to melt in her mouth. A long sigh escaping her lips as her eyes fluttered before looking at Ismael again, Sheffeldan food was not known for its taste and even basic spices could leave her in a lot of trouble, but the delicate flavors were sublime and filled her with warmth.
She carefully cut another slice of meat, there was not too much left now, and held the fork out for Ishmael to take from.
“Tell me, Ishmael, do you have any dependents or significant others you would like to be taken care off with you?” She asked, “Arrangements can be made, of course.”
That would be a terrifying realization, even if she saw it coming.
"Significant others? No..." She responded, pausing for a moment. "I'm rather alone, for the moment, on both accounts. I seem to be going through a minimalist phase, though it isn't entirely voluntary." She admitted, suddenly moving to pick up the last of the dishes of those leaving, handing them over to the washing machines. The machines never seemed to work perfectly, but if all went well, then it was quite possible she wouldn't have to deal with them again. "I'd just have to close everything up, then I'd be fully available to accompany you, ma'am."
With a single motion her purse was back in her hand, and out of it came a sleek black credstick and an elegant pen. She spent a few minutes tapping the pen against the corner of her mouth before she nodded and with a careful hand she wrote a brief note upon the back of the card, before placing it and the credstick down on the counter together. For the manager to find whenever they came by to ask why the store was closed.
Hopefully you’ll be less hard-boiled and become sunny side up when you crack this open, as I have poached your best chef.
As Ishmael closed shop Lily stood, her dress swaying around her ankles as she took her footing again, and Ishmael was reminded just how tall she was, the heels did not help. Settling her waist sash and tucked her purse back into the folds before smiling and walking over to the exit as Ishmael shut down the restaurant.
“One of the things I like about this place is there’s always a shop open. Walk with me?” She asked, offering an arm for the other woman to take.
Normally, coming off of work she would feel tired. A level of exhaustion that constant grueling work always brought about, compounded with interaction with less than pleasant people that kept her in a form of lull for most of the night. She was surprised to find that, in the wake of the sudden excitement that came along with the opportunity, she felt much more lively than she typically did. Stepping out of the kitchen, flicking off the last of the lights and flinging the kitchen half of the structure into darkness, reminding the two of them that no natural lights existed here, and no windows peered out onto some terrestrial place with a day cycle.
Stepping up to Lily, she suddenly paused as Lily rose to her full height. Ishmael had never considered herself short, if anything she was a bit taller than many of the people she knew growing up. However, Lily, wherever she was from, was clearly a different breed in that regard. It was possible that wherever she was from had sent one of their more physically intimidating members, but given the dress she found it hard to believe. That brief hesitation was then hit with another brick in the gut by that offering of an arm. The psychological blow was obvious, a brief gape of the mouth paired with a half-spoken syllable, and a brief flush of red in her face that further explained the twitch-stop of her body.
Deliberately pushing past that embarrassed hesitation, she slowly took the arm of the larger woman. She had seen such formal actions before, but they had always seemed so... Distant, like something you saw in movies or the rich nobles of distant cultures. She made a point to glance in the other direction as they walked, clearly hiding the persistent redness of her face.
“Now, we’ll need to you some proper tools, outfits, and any other materials you’ll need, and of course, a celebration.” She said, the clicks of her heels marking their passage through the ship.
The taller woman in the fine dress almost pulling along Ishmael who seemed determined to be looking anywhere else. Lily hadn’t been onboard long, but others of her kind had passed through here and told her about one particular place that was always open no matter the hour. She turned to Ishmael and smiled down at her understandingly as she guided the woman along, thinking perhaps Ishmael was just quiet because she had only just come off work, of course she needed a good meal to regain her energy.
“Ah, but first, you must be tired. Let’s eat something substantial and discuss business.” She said as they walked.
Lily’s head turned this way and that as she tried to find her bearings, before slowly she found the way she was looking for with persistent gently pull, herded Ishmael with her throughout the ship. The slow click of heels, one pace for almost two of Ishmaels as they went.
It took about ten minutes before Lily brought them both to the front of a small sliding door, a dull warm orange glow emanated from within. Strangely, the sliding door was made of wood, but not fancy wood, old, well worn wood that almost looked like repurposed floorboards. A small sign written in Kantongo, the language of Tai Pan, it was a single sign, long and gracefully hand painted on a paper lampshade that made do for a sign. Looking up one could see the small balcony above the shop for the live-in apartment facing out into the hall.
Lily looked down at Ishmael, squeezing her arm reassuringly with a bicep before opening the sliding door. Warm colours spilled out of a room made of rich earthy colours. It appeared to be a small U-shaped counter with two levels. Nine stools sat arrayed around the counter, each with a small pot filled with utensils and paper towelettes at its place. In the middle clearly where the server stood, the hint of densely packed shelves flowed into a cramped, but well-kept kitchen filled with a variety of cooking devices of all kinds. Knick-knacks and old, well used items dotted the spaces in the corners of the room, each with a story and history of its own, while on the wall hunt a piece of paper, crudely taped that read:
At the sound of them entering a tall, well built figure wearing a black apron and a gaudy, brightly patterned orange and yellow smoking jacket peered out from the kitchen. Sharp animal ears and black ringed eyes peering at them sharply.
“Welcome.” He said crisply, nodding to the two women.
"Depending on what the kitchen primarily serves determines a lot of the supplies needed. For a more... Broad kitchen, that may be something worth several trips, as for uniforms, well, I suppose that's up to the dress code?" Kitchen staff usually wore more lax attire compared to those more in public eye, given that kitchen's tended to get stuffy and uncomfortable. However, it was still important that they look good.It was part of the culture, after all.
She blinked as they entered the Taianese establishment. Normally she wouldn't consider going into such a place. The lower class places were typically so strange that she never considered them viable options for food, and the higher class establishments that borrrowed from the more dignified ranks were far too expensive for her blood. As she entered, she had the realization that she wasn't entirely certain which class this place fell under. She wasn't particularly well versed in those bizarre, isolationist transhumanists anyway.
"Good evening." She greated, feeling a bit out of place still wearing her kitchen atttire, minus the coat. Her eyes lingered on those ears, trying to quickly determine if they were real, or if they were some fashion accessory. She had heard that in Tai Pan, there wasn't particularly a difference. "Table for two?" She asked with a friendly smile, hoping to alleviate the embarassed feeling of walking into the restaurant arm-in-arm with a woman who could likely bench press Ishmael.
“Sit.” His voice was deep, not quite gravelly, but throaty.
Two women, one reminds me a certain kind of foreigner. They come through rarely, but always seem to leave an impression. They all seem to know each other.
“Good evening.” Lily replied easily, letting go of Ishmael to close the sliding door behind them before slipping around to take a seat on the side of the restaurant, with a view of the exit. Crossing one leg over the other once more and patting the stool next to her.
The owner came out of the kitchen and stood before them, crossing his arms patiently. Black ringed eyes staring at them with gentle mute interest from his tall muscular frame. Waiting for their order silently. Even a basic look around made it clear the man had far more ingredients to far more than just pork soup, even if it was a Taianese favourite.
Pork soup was a favorite, but she knew enough of the common street foods to take a guess at what else would be available. She did have to admit that she was suddenly hungry, and an order she had gotten too many times from cheap street venders came to mind.
"Pork curry rice, please. Spice B dash three-sixty, please." She ordered politely. "Or, some spice similar to it, if that's not available." She was a small woman, so it might come as a surprise to the waiter that she had ordered a spice that could make eyes water by just standing next to. Some restaurants that had spice challenges even employed the same brand of spices, though B-360 would still be considered mild compared to it.
"And tea to drink, pleace." She offered a small, polite smile, almost eager to see what kind of meal her companion would order.
“Oh, I’ll have cat rice, please!” she said with a touch of hurriedness in her voice as she made her order and raising a single finger.
“I only have sachet tea, not fresh.” The tiger grumbled deeply in an apologetic tone despite the attempt to appeal to his culture. “It is rarely asked for.”
“Ah, that’s fine. Can we also have two beers?” Lily replied quickly, that hint of hurriedness remaining.
The tiger grunted with a nod of understanding, uncrossing his arms and turning back towards the kitchen. He worked meticulously, large, muscular fingers picking ingredients from carefully selected places around his little piece of culinary heaven. He took out two glasses and two bottles of beer, expertly opening the bottles with the edge of the counter and a chop of his hand.
Ishmael could see the jar of curry base coming out as pork browned in a pot, rice was carefully scooped and placed into bowls. A beautifully crafted wooden plane came out, the bonito placed into a box inside it before being scraped carefully over the cat rice. The gentle boiling of a kettle in the background gave the place a soothing, almost homely feel.
While they waited, Lily’s porcelain white hand carefully reached out to rest over the back of Ishmaels own on the counter. This close Ishmael could see the fine details of her skin, smooth and elastic, but with the hint of a ripple of strong muscle flexing under the surface.
“Now, Ishmael, I want you to know that the customers you’ll be serving to have specific…dietary habits, and you must be very careful what kind of dishes you decide to prepare. Otherwise you might get into a little bit of trouble-“
She was cut off large muscular, scar covered hands gently placed the first of two bowls in front of the two women. Ishmaels curry, served with a pot of soup next to it, and Lily’s savory rice. A porcelain kettle, almost as white as Lily and left to cool slightly after boiling was also gently placed town with two ceramic cups to go with it. The perfect temperature for brewing tea even as two strings stuck out from around the lid of the kettle.
“Here you are.” The tiger’s deep voice rumbled gently before the large man stepped back, and with a deep sigh settled upon a stool on the threshold of the serving area and the kitchen. With slow, practiced motions he took out a box of cigarettes from under the counter, struck a match against the back of his hand and broke it in half after he was finished lighting the tube of tobacco. He held it up between two fingers, his eyes staring out dimly, returning to his own thoughts even as he was present in the room.
“My thanks, it looks wonderful.” Lily replied with a slight tightness in her throat before she took one of the bottles and poured a glass for Ishmael and one for herself before taking a drink.
It was a strange feeling, and she couldn’t fully identify where every part of it was coming from. Clearly isolation, living alone and not touching anybody had left the feeling foreign, but it left her with a tenseness that made her wish the tea to be served faster. Ishmael stared at that hand, feeling like some weakness would be shown if she looked up to the rest of Lily, but studying the strong hand simply renewed the questions of where this woman was from, given her appearance that was very uncommon around her home.
The rising question was put on hold as Lily spoke, and that too was interrupted by the quick arrival of the food and drinks.
The curry was nearly exactly as she pictured it, a bed of rice that had been neatly covered by thick sauce, paired with finely cut, breaded pork that simply begged to be dipped in the stewing concoction that gave the dish its name. For the two of them as well, simply looking at it would put pressure on the eyes in the way that only spice could. Ishmael was quick to offer her thanks to the waiter for the food and Lily for pouring a cup of tea, before taking a small sip of the soothing liquid.
Though her stomach basically demanded that she attack the plate of food, she decided to hesitate on that, and instead focus on what Lily had been saying. “I have a question, ma’am.” She began, turning her gaze to the woman cautiously. “What kind of people will I be cooking for? I’m sorry to say but I don’t particularly… Recognize where you are from.”
“Well, I suppose it’s a little bit out of charted space these days, but I come from a small country whose culinary culture has stagnated, and we would like some fresh blood to invigorate the place. Oh, and to show guests that we’re civilized humans too.” She spoke gently, not hushed but gently before her voice dipped a little to the outright conspiratorial. “Why? Do you not like people like me?”
While she waited for an answer she took up the soy sauce in the table in front of them and carefully dripped three drops onto the rice before taking up the chopsticks and carefully, with practiced but not natural hands, began to press the sticky rice together into before taking a small piece and bringing it delicately between her lips. A moan of delight sung from her throat before she swallowed and sighed gratefully.
“Ah, so good!”
It was a promising comment, somewhere that wasn't inhumanely massive, and clearly needing people to be brought in to feel the niches of work that they didn't have the experience for. In Ishmael's mind, that spoke of either a budding nation or one that had, for one reason or another, had gone through hardships and was just breaching upwards into new growth. Though it was a passing spark, for a moment it made her feel that brief hope of feeling important.
However, that train of thought was quickly snuffed as Lily's left-field comment stunned her. A brief flash of red came across her face as she opened her mouth to speak, audibly stuttering as she tried to better explain herself. "No- I mean, of course, I uh, like people like you, I think you're..." She paused as her tongue caught in her throat as she tried to dissect what she was going to say. What was she going to say? She watched with that embarassed look as Lily continued to eat as if she hadn't said something that targeted her like that. She was being played with, after all, and that brought the flash of red embarassment back for a moment. "...Wonderful." She admitted softly, before turning to her food, ignoring the burning heat that seemed to rest in her face.
She turned to her food, hoping to change the source of the heat instead. With deft and practiced hands she took up chopsticks, plucking a cut piece of the breaded pork before smothering it in the curry sauce, quickly bringing it to her mouth. She could taste the wonderfully crafted flavor of both the meat and the genetically crafted ingredients, accompanied by a slow heat that begin to rise against her tongue and anywhere else the curry found itself. Always a quiet person she gave no audible sound to it, but there was a look of brief bliss as she, too, began to eat away at her plate of food. She had a bad habit of showing up to work and simply not eating much of anything while she was there, but when it made the meals afterward feel like this? It made the work on empty stomach almost worth it.
“Isn’t it just?” She said quickly, beaming before holding the back of her hand over her mouth to cover it as she giggled at her own impropriety.
She finally finished chewing and swallowed, her hand putting her chopsticks down and taking the glass of beer, taking a long sip and turning to Ishmael, her pale cheeks growing just a little red as she smiled.
“I hope one day I can eat food like that.” She said, her smile flicking down to a small wry grin as she took another sip, eyeing Ishmaels own enjoyment before putting the glass back.
“Now, you’ll be cooking for everyone from queen to commoner, and teaching staff, of course, and you’ll be expected to cook for formal events. But if you do take up the offer, well, money, travel, papers, it can all be arranged.” She said quickly waving a hand as if it wasn’t important.
“But, really, you’ll be cooking for people who were raised on…simple foods, flavorless foods, and you’ll need to be…safe.” She paused between words, thinking carefully about her statement. Trying to communicate but perhaps embarrassed by some kind of lacking in her country. Perhaps that’s why it was so important that a chef was found.
She was brought back from her thoughts as she continued to eat her curry. Swallowing down her latest mouthful, she cleared her mouth with a swig of tea before speaking. "Spicy food? It's an acquired taste for a lot of people." She admitted. "Though there's a certain... Thrill, in it. A lot of people like capsaicin. My tolerance isn't even that high compared to some people, especially if you look at some of the weirder Taipan dishes. I've seen a few that made me cry the moment it was brought into the room." She had never considered eating something like that, though she did recall trying something much hotter than she was used to, that left her red-faced, sweating, and chugging water as it almost felt like she could feel the nerves in her mouth dying.
That one might have been a mistake.
However, it was an important revelation to hear what they were used to. "But I understand what you mean." She admitted, her brain obviously kicking into gear regarding food. Or perhaps refueling her stomach was just having some effect. Either way, she seemed to relax into a more comfortable state. "You can't expect someone who's used to plain and simple foods to immediately like heavily spiced or high-intensity flavors. They won't be used to them, and that could also cause some dietary issues." She spoke as if she had some limited experience with such concepts. "However that's much easier than making someone who's used to royal treatments of flavors and spices enjoy the more basic things." She paused as she continued to eat and drink.
"I'd say the important first step regardless is knowing what's considered common, in terms of flavors and dishes. Even basic foods can be overwhelming if they're considered unusual or foreign."
“Let me think, apart from the K-Rations, my mother used to make great Mushy Pea Soup, and the shop down the road had Jellied Eels, and then for treats we used to have beans…” She said, saying all of these terrible things as if they were normal before taking another mouthful or rice and chewing as she thought.
Her heel kicked idly in her strappy shoe as she pondered, catching the hem of her sequin dress to and fro. Her gaze wandered up the wooden walls with their warm colors to the darker ceiling as she thought. Her lips grimaced slightly as she recalled something.
“I never tasted real chocolate until I was already a woman, and by then it was nothing to me but disgustingly muddy sugar.” She muttered after swallowing.
She took a sip of tea, her dress shifting with her as she straightened to drink politely, sighing as the ceramic cup left her lips and closing her eyes. Her enjoyment of the moment meaning she missed the tiny droplet that spilled from her cup and onto her porcelain white skin, where it beaded and sat. An imperfection sitting proudly upon the skin of her breast above the top of her dress.
“What did children eat in your youth, Ishmael?” She asked, turning her head to the other woman and smiling curiously.
She swallowed a mouthful of tea, eyes glancing at the felled drop of Lily's own drink before her eyes shot back up. "It's..." She hesitated, realizing that any attempt to phrase it would sound rude in comparison. How would she describe something as basic or bland if, in comparison, it was a king's meal to Lily's childhood? "I feel like there's no proper way to describe it in comparison." She admitted after the silence grew to pressure her too much. "I'll preface it by saying that food was excessively common to come by. No one went hungry, and... Well, we had an excess, if anything. A lot of cultures merged together, and food depended on the family, what dishes they liked. Sometimes it felt like the culture of it all kind of merged into a conglomerate that rather... Represented little of where it came from."
She paused, glancing at her food. "Personally I've always liked to eat as many different things as possible. Felt it too... Demeaning, to the art of it all to simply take what I liked and never try anything new. I'd see people go to a diner and eat the same meal for years, and could never understand why." As for what people ate? She thought for a moment, trying to pin down specific examples. "Ramen was a major food, easy to make with plenty of variants, though personally, I believe Tai Pan has expanded upon the food in fascinating ways, as well as other foods they sell with street vendors. Other than that, burgers, sandwiches, pasta... It's... A lot." She frowned, realizing that there was... So much, too much to list easily.
While Lily's people ate Mushy Pea Soup.
"It's not a pleasant feeling, really. To realize how well I had it then, and how little I really appreciated that." She glanced back to her food, shoveling in another mouthful that suddenly felt tasteless. "I apologize, that's probably not a good answer."
“Hey, don’t feel bad. It’s not your fault. Trust me, it wasn’t all bad. It’s better that some of us live better than none of us at all.” She said gently, drawing Ismael closer for a soft hug.
Ishmaels head was drawn towards Lilys breast, that speck of tea upon it looming up towards Ishmael, coming closer and closer under her head was tucked under Lily’s chin. The womans pale fingers gently stroking Ishmaels hair comfortingly, completely unaware of Ishmaels close up few of the one blemish upon the skin of her bust. With the other womans arms curled around her, Ishmael could feel the strength of them carefully squeezing her just enough to be warm, not tight.
“Things are better now, and you can help make it even better. Think about it like that. I’m looking forward to going home too, you know.” She said gently.
Had she really been that touch starved? The need to fight back the tears that tried to force their way out confirmed it. How had she not noticed? Had she truly gotten used to it? She closed her eyes, entranced by the familiar but nearly forgotten feeling. It felt good to be held, and that alone was more powerful than all the scientific and chemical reactions of touch she could pull to mind. It felt good in a way she scarcely felt, and that alone made her realize that she could be asked to sign a contract without further comment and she would do it in a heartbeat.
It could be felt how her body went from tense to more relaxed than she had been prior to the hug. "I... Yeah..." She finally responded, in no immediate hurry to rush the conclusion of the hug, more enraptured by the feeling of it than any concept of where she was being pressed against. "I could definitely help..."
“Thank you.” She said quietly, her voice honeyed with genuine happiness.
She held her there a few seconds more, before her eyes opened again. The restaurateur was looking at them over the his broad shoulder, but only smiled with a dull tinkle in his eye and turned back to his cigarette, taking another slow drag and staring up at the ceiling.
Ah, I don’t normally allow this kind of carry on, but this makes a nice change. I’ll let them be for now.
The ticking of the old clock in the corner gently lulled Ishmael further into stupor, Lily’s hand left Ishmaels head and went between her shoulders, gently rubbing her back slowly. Warmth passing through her clothing into her tired shoulders, slowly sinking into soft warmth.
And, to be quite plain, that exhaustion caught up with her. There was a difference between the tension in her body minimizing from before and what Lily felt next. The slump of her shoulders, that slow collapse into the embrace, her breathing shifting, it was quite blatant what had happened. The woman was exhausted, and in that hug, she had fallen asleep. She didn't sleep all that well, usually. Even on days off where she could linger in her apartment and sleep the day away if she saw fit, rest simply didn't come. True relaxation never actually came to broach sleep with her. But here? For some reason, it was more than enough. Maybe it was all she really needed.
She was dead asleep in no time at all.
Lily’s eyes widened a little as she realized what had just happened, her red eyes flicked towards the restauranteur. He was still sitting, his shoulders rose as he sighed and ashed his cigarette in a tray and slowly stood, calming walked up to the two women and crossing his arms.
“I don’t normally allow patrons to sleep in here, but I’ll allow it a little longer.” The big tiger said in his gravely voice looking down at Ishmael with a smile before returning to his seat.
Lily nodded gratefully and looked down at Ishmael in her arms. She would have to adapt her schedule to the other womans limited stamina, but for tonight she could rest. Lily reached over and took finished off her beer over Ishmaels head and put the glass down before realizing something.
She didn’t know where Ishmael lived.
Ishmael would awaken to her head upon a soft, but scratchy surface, sequins patterned into her face from her head resting on Lily’s lap. Lily herself was leaning back against the couch they were on, her head tipped back and eyes closed in sleep, her hand still upon Ishmaels head limply. Looking around revealed Ishmael was in the long compact cabin of a small starship, small circular windows lined the walls.
It was a cozy but comfortable room with everything made no bigger than it had to be. Two comfy leather recliners sat astride a small table next to one of the windows, and a kitchenette further down the room. The ends of the room capped with two off-white hatches.
Still, given where she was, it wasn't the worst place she could end up after falling asleep in public on the flotilla.
As she took in her surroundings she became more aware of where exactly she was, either some strange apartment on the flotilla itself or on some ship that was either still docked or had already left. It was well kept, a clear design philosophy that gave it a welcoming aura that many ships and designs abandoned in favor of raw logical intent. That was, until, she realized precisely where she was in the compartment. Her head shifted slightly, and was suddenly aware that she was not sleeping on a pillow, nor was even alone on the couch. Her head rested against the strong legs of Lily, head nestled the back of her head nestled against her abdomen, the ambient breathing of the other woman having kept a rhythm that had aided her in sleeping. Her face, she could feel, was turning a bright red. A hand was kept softly on her head, and as she realized that Lily, too, had fallen asleep.
She lay there in the silent hum of the ship, something she had grown used to over the time she had been on the flotilla. All things considered, after everything she had been through, it wasn't the worst place she had waken up. All things considered, and though she hated to admit it as if it was some silent and unspoken shame, it was fairly pleasant, and something she was hesitant to disrupt. With a small flutter in her chest, she realized that it meant her apartment would go empty and whatever small things she had left behind would simply be pawned off and resold, but with her datapad on her person, it was really nothing of importance or real value that was lost. At most, someone looking for her would find a confusing dead-end of her apartment being abandoned with all of her things in it, though nothing of real importance.
Her heart settled, and she had to admit that she was quite comfortable where she is, and Lily seemed quite content to sleep like this as well. She didn't know how long she had knocked out, but surely, a bit longer wouldn't hurt? After all, Lily was trustworthy enough, it seemed. These kinds of travel conditions didn't exactly speak to someone taking Ishmael in bad faith. With such thoughts rapidly dimming, she once more closed her eyes.
After all, this was nice.
There was a moment that felt like forever before there was a loud click and hiss from one of the hatches, the white metal door opened outwards to the next compartment and a large man in a suit fit for some of the Flotilla’s finest gentlemen stepped inside adjusting his tie, half of his face seemed to be covered in some kind of flesh coloured mask. He took a moment to take in the sight on the lounge before speaking.
“Good morning, Weaver. Who’s this you’ve brought in? Found one already?” He said gently.
Lily stirred at the noise from the hatch, her head rising as she woke up, a long groan as she stretched her neck. Blearily she turned to the man, her forehead mark slightly smudged and a few wild strands of shock white hair hovering having escaped her bun.
“She’s our guest, Lockwood. Treat her well.” Lily replied with a small amount of courteous grumpiness in her voice, she shifted her body carefully to not bump Ishmael too much. “And good morning.”
"O-Oh." She started, suddenly having trouble finding words as she was confronted by a man who physically seemed similar to Lily. By the veil, were they all built like this? Was there some gene therapy occurring on this planet, or was the local religion indistinguishable from the gym? "I'm Ishmael sir." She added with an undertone of worry, taking a stand, and offering her much smaller hand. "I'm a chef, but I guess you already knew that."
“Lockwood, ma’am. Pleased to meet you.” He said crisply but courteously. “I see you’ve met Lily, she’ll look after you.”
Lily moved her hand to Ishmaels shoulder gently and gave her a comforting squeeze, a reassuring touch to let her know Lily was with her. Strong fingers squeezing through Ishmaels shirt like it wasn’t even there as strong careful fingers pressed against her bones and flesh.
“Sorry to make you wake up in a strange place, I didn’t know where your cabin was so I brought you here.” She apologized quietly, her voice soft and soothing.
“Yes, we’re still docked aboard the Navel Gazer, at least until we complete the rest of our aims for this trip. The steward will take care of any needs you might have and show you to your cabin, please be our guest.” Lockwood continued, pulling his jack straight again.
“Good to see you again, Lily. Ma’am.” He said, nodding his head to Ishmael before leaving through the opposite hatch from which he’d arrived.
“You too, Lockwood.” Lily replied lazily before stretching her arms above her head after he left.
“Well, I look like a trainwreck. I think we could both use a shower.” She as her arms came to rest, one of her hands instinctively going to the back of Ishmaels scalp and stroking it gently with her fingers.
She almost jumped as, at the same time, Lily's firm hand squeezed her shoulder, an act that somehow both reiterated the difference in strength between Ishmael and these people, and comforted her by touch alone. The warm touch made her feel safe, she had to admit, even if the way she could casually press into her back reminded her of a chiropractor. She still awkwardly stood as the two Sheffeldans gave their passing words, ending with Lockwood continuing on whatever series of tasks he was committed to finishing. "I take it that your people are all this..." She paused, trying to find the right word to describe it. "Muscular?" Was the most fitting one she could think of, but the thought was cut off quite abruptly as she felt fingers suddenly stroking along the back of her scalp, the brief touch of fingernails against it sending that strange oversensitive feeling down her neck that almost made her move instinctively and unconsciously in response, in a way that would both feel good and embarrass her far too much.
Well, these people were no puritans when it came to touch, muscles aside.
"I-I suppose that would be fine." Seeing the state of the ship, it made her want to see what kind of state the shower was in. Depending on the cost of water, her showers on the flotilla were various lengths of being sprayed at all angles by hyper-efficient faucets connected to a sealed chamber with a near-perfect draining system meant to reclaim as much as possible as soon as possible. At least it was rarely cold. "Aside from new clothes, I think a shower is all I could ask for." She stated, realizing that one of the few things of any value she had left behind were her more casual clothes, including her favorite shirt. Damn. "I try not to climb into my work clothes after a long day. Feels like it defeats part of the purpose of a shower."
“Well, some, not everyone. Ayrish are exempt, but I was born because both my parents did the procedure, most young people are.” She replied gently.
There was a lot of context she’d left out, but Lily bullishly assumed the point would get across. She slowly kicked a pale leg out and flexed her toes, her elegant sequin dress slipped off her shins as she wait for full feeling to return to her feet before she stood up. She rose from the plush leather seat and stretched again, moaning softly as she bent a creak out of her spine before sighing in satisfaction and turning back to Ishmael, extending her hand to help the other woman up.
“Shall I take you to your cabin? It wasn’t quite ready for you last night, and we didn’t want you to wake up alone in a strange place.” She said apologetically with a tilt of her head. “We’ll work out some clothes you can borrow.”
Ishmael reluctantly watched Lily stand, more concerned suddenly with the sudden lack of touch through her hair than her prior thoughts would suggest. Still, she easily reached out and was practically yanked up from her seat as her small frame was all too easy to pull up to a stand. As she looked up at the imposing figure of Lily, there was a passing thought of standing in a crowd of people like the two she had already met, dwarfed by every single one. She knew how she would view them, but how would they view her? A strange thought that made her heart buzz for a moment with confusion, before she simply nodded as she glanced away.
"O-Oh, it's fine!" She started with a small jumble of her words. Trying to catch her mind up to her tongue, she continued speaking. "I-I think waking up where I did was quite fine. It was... Comfortable." She admitted though she felt like she had just delivered one of the worst pick-up lines imaginable. "So uh, where is the cabin?" She asked as she began to glance around and hide the soft red shade of her cheeks that burned softly in the well-ventilated compartment. "Is it something communal or like the small personal apartments on the flotilla?-"
“Why, you have the premier cabin as our valued guest, it would hardly do to stick you in the wardroom when you’re travelling so far on our behalf.” She said smiling.
It became clear with the wide stair and elevator well that the ship had other levels, but it seemed destination was on the same level as the lounge, and remarkably close, barely a walk to get there. There was a faint scent from the floors below told her the galley must be on another floor.
“I’ll call the steward to wash your clothes, but I’ll fetch something for you to borrow until then.” She continued, stopping by a nondescript door and pressed the button to open it.
“I hope you like it.” She said, before stepping back.
The cabin was a small space, but well appointed. A large double bed against one wall with silky covers, a desk and terminal for her own use, a large view screen for entertainment or announcements, and a built-in ensuite with shower and tub, toilet and sink. There was even enough floor space for someone like Lily’s size to lay down and stretch on. A conscious design decision perhaps? It had a the same clean and modern stylings, but the extra touches of etching, and quality in furnishings and details made it clear this was the high class suite.
Not ostentatious, not overly luxurious. But more than enough, and not too much.
“Oh thank goodness, it has am actual shower!” Lily explained with a relieved sigh. “I’ll let you borrow my clothes if I get to use yours. The microsprays in the wardroom just don’t get into the muscles like good old hot water.”
Ishmael stared in quiet shock at it. By standard means, the average person would see it as well made but nothing extravagant. A few years ago and Ishmael would have thought the same thing. However, for months now she had been living in a cramped living space with exposed pipes and a constant hum of nearby machinery, with walls too thin to block out the sounds of strange and often horrifying events in the hallways and adjacent rooms. Even her personal shower was something that could hardly be enjoyed, spraying her with pressurized nozzles from several sides for a handful of seconds before cutting off, and a timer letting her know when the room was due for its next allotment.
In comparison, this was a paradise she hadn't expected. She would have been happy for the equivalent of sleeping on the couch, or in some communal sleeping area. Instead, for simply accepting a job offer that was too good to ignore, she got this? It struck her with a sudden, unexpected paranoia that she was overstepping some boundaries, promising results she really wasn't capable of delivering without meaning to. "This is..." She paused, at a loss for words. She could feel a welling of tears, but wouldn't know how to explain such an outburst. "...Leagues better than where I've lived for months." She couldn't help the obvious sound of welling emotion in her. Sleeping on Lily's lap was a luxury all of its own compared to the touch starvation she had felt these last months, and now this?
Ishmael had half a mind to believe that she died in her sleep and this was some bizarre and comforting afterlife.
She stepped further inside as she looked around at the place. It was simple, yes, but it came like the feeling that it wasn't hers. That, somehow, she was introducing in somebody else's room. There wasn't a better way to describe it. "Oh, sure." She responded absent-mindedly at the request to use the shower, only realizing a few seconds later what she had agreed to. She was thankful that she was looking the other way as the sudden look of surprise would have given away her thoughts far too easily. "I-I'll just go after you."
She bent her knees to put her heels by the door before entering properly, smiling broadly with excitement in her steps before she stopped in front of Ishmael. The tall pale woman dipped down with bent knees , turning slightly while one hand moved to push her elaborately braided and bunned white hair up off the back of her neck. She turned her head a little to peer over her shoulder with a smile.
“Would you mind unzipping me, Ishmael?” She asked politely.
Ishmael could see the muscles in the other womans back this close even through the sequins of the tight dress, the ceps of her arms, and the soft tender skin on the back of her neck. It was all at her eye level now, an arms reach away.
'Look!' She could imagine Lily saying to two equally muscular guards at the entrance to the vessel. 'I found a chef, and she's so touch starved that she passed out when I hugged her!' They all laughed in amusement, of course.
Shaking the thoughts from her head, her mouth suddenly feeling very dry, she reached forward to the minuscule zipper that kept the dressed taut against that muscular back, whose skin seemed to struggle to keep the inner muscles from bursting out in the same way. She did her best to steadily undo the dress's zipper, knowing that such things were prone to breaking, while her eyes betrayed where her interest actually was kept, tracing the bulges and idle shifting of muscle mass beneath the skin. She would be lying at this point if she rejected the idea that she found such muscles as anything other than attractive, and that simply gave her a confused state of being she was convinced that absolutely none of this could be real.
She let out a brief sigh of relief as the zipper reached the bottom stop, taking a step back, her face red. "T-There. I-It's no problem."