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Chapter posted Nov. 15, 2005
Mal's steps slowed as he approached Shuttle One, then came to a halt just outside the hatch. It was still dogged shut, but through its window he could see a flicker of light; that trunk of sundries, not content with providing several changes of clothing, a back-up stash of warpaint, and a battle bow he hadn't never seen before, must've been hiding a store of candles too. Strange collection of things for a woman to leave behind... a woman as weren't planning on coming back, anyhow.
He'd thought over Inara's leaving more'n once since the day she had walked off Serenity. "When you live with that kind of strength," she'd told him after her friend Nandi died, "you get tied to it. You can't break away. And you never want to." But then she'd up and done just that.
He'd conjured she'd been reminded somehow of whatever she'd been running from. Every-damn-one on Serenity had come there escaping something else; she'd never shared her reason with him nor anyone else he knew of, but her being aboard a Firefly in the first place had been a definite sign. Panicking like she done, pulling up roots, running back to the sheltering arms of her Guild-- that were a thing Mal could understand.
Understanding a thing didn't make it hurt any the less, though. Point of fact, made a man more skittish; were things between 'em any more like to go smooth this time around? She'd never even mentioned any kinda feelings for him herself. If Nandi'd never said nothing, he'd'a gone right on dancing round Inara at a distance, trying not to let on he cared too much. But she had, and he'd opened his gorram mouth....
Mal took a deep breath and pictured Inara in his mind's eye as she'd faced him in the passage the day before. Hair down, face near as clean as Kaylee's when the girl weren't under an engine, dressed simple, saying "I don't know." He didn't know what that meant. She complained he had too many versions? The woman had more'n a few of her own, and this were one he weren't familiar with.
One thing he did know, though; standing out here weren't no way to find out. He gathered up his courage and raised a hand to knock.
Inara sounded serene as always, like there weren't nothing for her to be worried about. Mal tamped down on what felt like a whole flock of butterflies in his own stomach and took her up on her invitation.
His eyes were immediately drawn to her the moment he stepped into the shuttle. She stood out in the empty room like a flower in a desert, a splash of life and color in the drab, undecorated space. He'd moved a bed and chair in from one of the passenger dorms so's she could have her familiar quarters back, but the ordinary furnishings couldn't compare to the rich colors and lush fabrics she'd filled it with before.
She was wearing the same low-cut red and gold number he'd fetched her from the Training House in, sitting on her bed with her spine stiff as a plank and her painted mask back on. She'd set her trunk between bed and chair, and the battered old teapot from the kitchen was steaming away atop it. The setup reminded him somewhat of the first and only time she'd ever summoned him herself, when she'd offered him tea, tried to use her wiles on him, and then thrown all that 'petty thieving' fèihuà in his face. It made him a mite uneasy, but he tried his best to ignore it and greeted her with a smile.
Inara returned his smile, a plastic effort that didn't quite reach her eyes. "I had a feeling I'd see you here this morning," she said.
"Did you now," Mal said uneasily, pacing slowly toward the chair. He didn't quite feel like sitting down just yet, but he felt a bit ridiculous hovering in the doorway.
"Of course," she replied, mildly. "Unless you've changed course since the last time I checked, we'll be breaking atmo this morning, correct?" She lifted the teapot as she spoke, pouring thin streams of fragrant liquid into two chipped, old cups.
"Ain't wrong about that," he answered, cautiously.
"Then this is likely to be our best chance to talk before I must give my decision to the House Priestess."
If he hadn't been watching so close, he'd never have seen the fine tremor in Inara's hands, making the tea splash not-so-symmetrically into the second cup. Mal felt his nerves calm a bit at the sight. He sat down slow, bracing his hands on his thighs, and accepted a cup from her before replying to her comment.
"About that," he said, casual-like. "Not that I, you know, got any call to make suggestions here, but..."
Inara turned her face away abruptly, smile fading from her face, and he faltered to a stop. "Inara..."
She looked back up at him, and he was startled at the change in her expression. Like Yolanda lamenting over Haymer, her heart were all of a sudden in her eyes, wide and wet with tears not yet born. "Don't," she said, quietly. "You're only going to make this harder on both of us."
Mal's grip tightened on the full teacup in his hand. "You're not stayin', then."
"I didn't say that," she said sharply, looking away, then took a deep breath and met his eyes again. "I know you care for me, Mal. I have... feelings for you, too. But that was never our problem. If love was all that mattered, I would never have left in the first place."
He blinked at her, taken aback by the bitterness in her tone as much as the depth of feeling she was admitting to. "'Scuse me?" he blurted. "Are you telling me that all this time..."
"It doesn't matter," she interrupted him, firmly. "Our problems have nothing to do with emotions and everything to do with who we are. I'm a Companion, Mal. I've allowed myself to forget that these last few weeks, but it can't be ignored forever. You've said more than once that you respect who I am, not what I do, but they're the same thing; you can't separate it out like that. I could never just turn in my Guild ID and become the Captain's kept woman, any more than you could give up your ship and join me in the Training House."
Mal sputtered at that, scrambling for a response. "Where's this coming from, 'Nara? I never asked nothing of you; I never thought--"
"Never thought is right." She shook her head at him, her expression part irritation and part anguish. "You know as well as I do that you'd never be happy sharing me, Mal. You had a hard enough time sharing ZoŽ with Wash, and you've never been romantically involved with her. How long would it be until you started interfering with all my clients the way you did with Atherton?"
"Hey now." Mal set his untouched tea down on the trunk, raising a finger to emphasize his point. "That man had no respect for you, and you know it." He knew he was letting himself be distracted, but he couldn't let that pass without a response.
"He was a regular client before you challenged him, and he never once insulted me until you stuck your nose into my business."
Mal's eyebrows went up at that comment. "Do the words, 'shoulda uglied you up so no one else would want you,' ring a bell? Don't care what he said before that, that ain't a man cares for anything but his own gratification."
"You're missing the point," she said, frowning at him. "What I'm trying to say, Mal, is that you'd never be happy unless I gave up my job, and we both know it. But it's not that simple. Being a Companion isn't like being a rancher, or a smuggler; it's not a job, it's who you are. From the age of twelve we spend years on discipline and preparation, learning how to behave, how to speak, how to be, before the act of pleasure is even mentioned. It's more than just sex, it's an entire way of life, of sharing and giving to others. Even if I wanted to give it up-- and I don't-- what else would I do?" She threw up her hands. "I don't know how to pilot anything larger than a shuttle, what basic medical knowledge I have is far outstripped by Simon's skills, I don't even own a gun, and all of my contacts would be useless to you if I gave up my registration."
Mal tried to wrap his brain around the notion of Inara at twelve, all big eyes and long dark hair, dolled up in some fancy dress learning how to play a dulcimer 'stead of doing her maths. What kinda parents would ship their daughters to whoring school at that age? Was that a normal Core thing-- had the Tams thought on sending River off to House Madrassa 'fore they'd chosen that Academy?
He shook his head, trying to dislodge that disturbing image before it could take root. "So what are you sayin', Inara? You don't want to stay 'cause of things I might maybe ask of you if'n we was involved? But we ain't involved, and ain't like to be, which point you've made clear to me on more'n one occasion. Not to mention, you coulda said all of this the first time or kept your mouth shut now and made a lot less trouble for the both of us. Somethin' else is botherin' you, and I'm getting kinda tired of you avoidin' the topic."
Inara looked away at that, a loose curl slipping from her up-done hair to trail down her cheek. The itch to wrap it around a finger, trace its path down the smooth curve of her skin, was an old and familiar temptation; Mal shunted it away, waiting with all the patience he could scrape together for her answer.
"Very well," she sighed. "Do you remember, when I first came on board, you asked me what I was running from?"
"It's been fair fresh on my mind of late," he admitted.
She sighed, then met his gaze again, defiance sparking up in the depths of her dark eyes. "You have to understand, Mal, the Guild isn't Alliance, but neither is it an entirely independent or benevolent organization. The location of the central Houses, the societal placement of those who most commonly secure the services of Companions-- it would be more surprising if the Council didn't use us as agents to forward their political ambitions."
His heart sank down somewhere in the vicinity of his boots as he realized what she was implying. "Talk plainly, Inara. You tellin' me you was sent here for some purpose?"
"Not entirely," she said, shaking her head in denial. "It's true that most Companions are allowed complete autonomy to choose their own clients-- but the best of us have always been groomed for specialized services, gently directed toward a certain type of client in particular and often one in specific. I had no problem with the concept in general, but when I realized to whom my contract as personal Companion was likely to be offered-- well, I decided to plead to the Council for an equitable alternative. Your notice of a shuttle for rent arrived on the Cortex at a particularly fortuitous time."
"Zhēn dăoméi," he muttered, grimly. "What'd I ever do to earn that kind of attention?"
"Earned a commendation for valor?" she suggested gently. "Impressed the former Independent High Command enough that they promoted you and your surviving Corporal to Captain and Lieutenant while you were in the internment camp after Serenity Valley? Your former colleagues may still refer to you as Sergeant, but I've seen your record, Mal. According to the Cortex, you're one of a bare handful of notable Independent officers who remain both alive and free. Were there to be another uprising, the Council judged that odds were high you would be somewhere in the center of it all. When the notice came up, it seemed the perfect opportunity to not only keep a passive eye on the remaining Browncoat network, but also to gather information on the status of Alliance control and societal standards in the border worlds."
Mal clenched his jaw, trying not to succumb to the anger that rose up in him at her casual discussion of events she couldn't possibly understand. He couldn't believe what he was hearing; he'd suspected Inara of fleeing some man in particular, but this notion of her as spy seemed to have come out of nowhere. Book, he could maybe have believed it of if his journals hadn't come to light, but Inara? Silk and velvet, tea and honey, heat and temptation, Inara a spy? Though putting it that way, he began to see just how effective such a spy would be; catch a man with his trousers down and his caution went out the window. Had she been sent to him for that purpose? But then, why the delay, why the anger and tears?
"So all this time, you been reportin' on me to your superiors? Tellin' 'em about my jobs, my crew, the contraband I snuck past the Alliance? I'm surprised we didn't run into no Operative a long time ago, then. Or did we? I never did find out just how that húndàn Early tracked us down."
Inara glared at the accusation. "I said a passive eye, Mal. The Guild wasn't interested in interfering; they just wanted to know whenever you met up with anyone else who'd been involved in the War. It seemed fairly harmless, especially when compared with the available alternatives. The rest of the information I passed on was all gleaned from encounters with clients."
"That's supposed to make me feel better? You're sittin' here tellin' me that you been betraying me ever since you met me, and you're expectin' me to take it with a smile on my face?" Mal felt as though he'd been hollowed out, thrust back into the uncertain footing of war and treachery he'd thought he'd left far behind him.
"I love this ship," Inara replied plaintively, as though that would excuse everything. And maybe it would, another day-- but this were touching on some mighty sensitive issues.
"It's more my home than anywhere else has ever been, and the crew has become like family to me," she continued. "I'd never betray that; I didn't even report Simon and River when they came aboard. But after Miranda-- Mal, if it isn't me, it'll be someone else. Maybe not renting the shuttle, but they'll be there, somewhere you won't expect, especially now that the populace has been made aware of the truth of the Reavers. It's starting to look as though it won't be a question of if there will be another rebellion, but when, and your legend has only grown since the rumors have begun to spread. Some of the survivors of the Maidenhead have been talking, and the remnants of the Alliance war fleet have already broken the Parliamental gag order."
"So much for my clean record," Mal said bitterly, seeing his tentative plans for the future go up in smoke. "How long I got 'til someone puts a bounty on my head?"
"I don't know. But whatever happens, I'd prefer to be aboard Serenity, not worrying on the sidelines wondering what's going on."
He digested that slowly, weighing the betrayal against the honesty of her answers, the grace her presence lent his ship, how much he'd missed her since she'd gone. Was he just supposed to let it all pass? But how could he tell her no? This was Inara. She'd been so much a part of life aboard Serenity, he couldn't help but believe her allegiances had shifted as she'd said. If nothing else, River would have said something long since.
"You should have told me 'bout this a long time ago," he finally told her, tasting ash in the back of his throat.
Inara smiled sadly as she answered. "Because you would have taken it so much better then?" She shook her head. "The only choice I regret in the last two years is the one I made to leave Serenity in the first place."
He sighed. "I don't know what to tell you, Inara. We ain't but a few hours out, but there's work yet to be done, and I can't not tell ZoŽ...."
Inara nodded slowly. "I understand. Just let me know before arrive-- and I'd appreciate a warning if you decide to tell anyone else."
Mal snorted incredulously. "Nĭ juéde wŏ hĕn bèn ma? No hidin' it from River, but I ain't got no desire to go breakin' Kaylee's heart."
She didn't reply to that, and after a moment he turned and walked out of the shuttle, not trusting himself to say anything more. ZoŽ was waitin' on those empty crates he'd promised; he'd wasted enough time already standin' around, lettin' his feelings get in the way of what needed to be done.
"A sadder and a wiser man," he quoted to himself absently, then got to work.
Qĭnjìn = "Come in"
© 2005 Jedi Buttercup.