Summary: The tea ceremony is an old ritual. Other rituals are even older. River/Inara.
Rating: PG-13 (adult themes and implied sex)
Spoilers and/or Warnings: for the movie, Serenity
Title, Author and URL of original story: Synchronicity (Part 7) by zulu
One of the first rituals a Companion-in-training is taught at the Academy is the tea ceremony. It comes first not because it is simple, or easy, but because it is, above all, important.
Because of this, there are many theories about the tea ceremony, differing even among the same class of Companions. Some believe it is about hospitality, showing wanderers and travelers the way in a 'verse that is spread out, where journey is often a necessity. Another theory is that the tea ceremony is held on to so tightly like a religious ritual, one of the last in an age of widespread unbelief.
To Inara, it is about creating a home wherever you are. The people may change, the setting may change, but the events of the tea ceremony are well-ordered in a tight, linear sequence. It is a familiar course that Inara has wound her way down many, many times now. It seems eternal, unchanging - and yet it does change, every time, and will again tonight.
First, River must wait patiently for an invitation, which comes in Inara's soft, welcoming tones. "River, would you like some tea?"
Now summoned as Inara's guest, River bows her head and lowers herself to the floor of Inara's shuttle in one graceful movement, until she is kneeling with her hands in her lap. River can see the kettle of water heating up over Inara's silk-red shoulder. Just like a dancer, River hears Inara think suddenly before she clamps down on that stray thought; and that is when River knows Inara will say yes when she asks.
The two cups, along with the tin of tea leaves, are arranged on a small fold-out table, everything laid out in perfect harmony. Were they at a proper House, the arrangements would be more formal and impressive, a display of elegance and taste. Here, in the belly of Serenity, you have to make do with whatever you've got at the moment, even if it means pretending a rickety table with a shaky leg is a handcrafted mahogany tea tray.
But Inara pretends, as she does, and River is more than happy to share in the illusion. Can even tell them apart from the truths that Inara knows, now.
She's better; she's not better. River chases the question round and round inside her head like a child's game, and there's never any answer. Ever since Miranda, things have been clearer, even if Simon never fixed her as he wished. Instead of being caught up in every moment with her mind racing ahead of her, she can step in and out of the flow, learning to navigate the currents of time. Some day, there will be a River full of understanding and stillness. For now, she is in the present, fixed in this moment.
Neither one jumps when the kettle whistles; they both anticipated the precise moment it would. For a moment their eyes catch, and shimmering on their surface River can see a reflection of the course that the night will take. Then Inara looks away, lashes dipping low, and the spell is broken.
Inara retrieves the kettle and pours boiling water into both their cups, fingertips tapping a gentle counterpoint. Dry leaves swell up in bursts under the stream, and River sighs, but not out of boredom or impatience; she doesn't yet know how to explain how there is so much inside her that it must be let out somehow.
The edge of her cup faces her with all its flaws. Her small cup is handmade, and so its imperfections are its greatest beauty. River used to think she was broken, before, but now she is a girl, chipped and cracked but whole and perfect too. Inara blows gently on her tea, and when it is cool enough, River turns the (im)perfect edge away from herself, a perfect ninety-degree rotation, and brings it to her lips.
Time itself stretches between them in a tense, fragile line. River wants to reach out and touch it - grasp the strings of the universe fluttering before her, weaving together the future that is coming toward them - but she resists, knowing she must be patient. Instead, she reaches into her pocket, drawing out a pouch.
Smiling, Inara has set her cup down, now finished. "River?"
River ignores the query and pulls the bag open with her fingers, withdrawing a wad of bills. "This is for you." She places the cash on the center of the table.
Inara has wondered, her thoughts teasing at the same conclusion at the edge of her mind, River has seen it; so even though she is startled, she is not truly surprised. "River," she repeats, sounding more sure of herself.
The tea ceremony is an old ritual. But some rituals are even older than the 'verse itself, and River finds herself slipping into yet another role with ease. "I want you to teach me," River says quietly. River will be the student; Inara will be her teacher; and the subject [Simon and Kaylee, mouths gasping, hands soft and sheets rough, blood running hot underneath skin] is dizzying. But she needs to understand what she is being left behind for.
Inara's eyes are wide. "River, are you sure about this?"
"I want to understand," River says again, more confidently. The lines of Inara's clavicles dip inward, at a perfect angle of reflection. Leading lines.
All the breath leaves Inara's body at once. Her slender fingers hesitate, briefly, before picking up the money and turning away, secreting it away somewhere in a tin or a carved box, where it can't be seen. Then Inara slants a look at River, and she wouldn't have to be psychic to see all the intent behind it.
Inara rises to her feet, and holds out a hand for River, still kneeling. River takes it, twining their fingers together, marveling at the fine bones and hard knuckles she can feel there. Inara leads them both to the bed, walking hand-in-hand, and sits, smoothing down the empty space next to her.
"Come, sit." River doesn't let go of her hand.
There's a long moment where Inara's dark eyes are regarding her, and River's breath catches and her belly flutters. Inara places her cool palm on River's cheek.
River hears her question before it even escapes her lips: River, may I kiss you?
"You may," River whispers, and on impulse leans forward first. The soft press of Inara's mouth against her own makes her feel heady and light, like she is floating without the weight of gravity pulling down at her corners.
Their dregs lie cooling and forgotten; River doesn't check them for patterns or clues, doesn't need tea leaves to predict the future. The future is close at hand, now; she is almost home.