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Chapter posted Aug. 8, 2010
Hours passed, lost in the turning of pages and the scent of dust, as Mal read until his eyes could bear the strain no more. His thoughts bucked like an unruly horse as he tried to form an objective opinion of what he was reading; it was pure shén jīng bìng, impossible when looked at with a clear mind, and yet there was enough recognizable truth to it that he couldn't just dismiss the whole mess out of hand.
He'd been a simpler man once, raised to saddle and sunlight; for a world called Shadow, life there had been remarkably bright. War had changed him; the Alliance had changed him, brought him to the edge of a darkness deeper than the Black. He'd seen men do unbelievable things, commit horrors that would never leave him 'til the day he died; was it so much of a stretch to think that the yāo mó guĭ guài of fireside tales might be just as real? Book had obviously believed so, at least after he'd broken with the Council as was supposed to deal with such things; and hell, they'd all seen River in action. In a world where human folk could create Reavers with the best of blind intention, a little honest evil might actually be refreshing.
Book's journal entries gave one perspective on the matter; the ancient texts another; and the Fray diaries yet a third. The handwritten volumes were filled with stories of the difficult second cleansing of Earth-that-Was from the demons-- as well as fears that the destiny that had gripped their aunt Melaka without warning might also sleep among the colonies, waiting to strike another girl so unprepared. The Watchers had failed their planet; who was to say they hadn't failed the new worlds, as well?
Who was to say, indeed. Mal finally closed the last entry and shut off his light-slate, rubbing at gritty eyes as his stomach rumbled with complaint.
Too tired to read any more, too hungry and heart-sore to sleep, he climbed back up the ladder to the fore passage and made his way toward the kitchen. A warm light flickered there, more than the usual dim sleep-shift lighting; he eased his suspenders off his shoulders where long, still hours had cut them deep into aching muscle, and headed for the welcoming glow.
Inara looked up from the table as he entered, delicately enameled fingertips gleaming around a soup-mug full of spiced broth. He could smell that core-world stuff she saved for special occasions in the air; she weren't wearing anything more fancy than a heavily embroidered dressing gown, but for all that, she was still the same picture of elegance she'd been the day he'd met her. A Companion even when she weren't all dolled up and ready for pleasing.
More'n a year too late, Mal thought he might finally have begun to understand what she meant when she said it were never just a job to her.
River'd been spooky even before the Alliance took her, Simon had once told him; and not just in mind, but in body, too. A 'creature of extraordinary grace'. She'd been born to be what she was; and she'd never be anything other, not now and not ever, despite all the scars she bore. Mal still hesitated to come right out and call her 'Slayer'; but he knew what he'd seen, and what he'd read, and it baffled him more'n ever that Book had trusted such a steel-feathered angel to Mal's worn and bloodstained hands.
"Nĭ kàn qilai hĕn yŏu jīngshen," he said quietly, acknowledging Inara's presence with a courteous nod.
A surprised little smile tucked in the corners of her mouth; she looked much more pleased to see him than she had the last time they'd spoke. "A pity I can't say the same for you," she said. "We missed you at mealtime."
"Got caught up in something," Mal shrugged one shoulder as he approached the table, not quite ready to reveal the whole tangle to her, not when it would mean he'd also have to figure how much was safe for her to pass on. Inara's broth smelled even more enticing as he got closer; he leaned over the table to sniff at the air, then made a show of making hopeful eyes at her. "Don't suppose there's any more where that came from?"
Inara chuckled. "I thought you might still be up. There's another bowl on the warming plate." She gestured toward the near counter, where a battered old example of second-best Beaumonde crockery added its contribution to the enticing aroma.
"You're a wonder," he said, and drifted over to retrieve the bowl, lifting it to take a cautious, appreciative sip. "Mmmm. Cooking something they taught you in school? Saffron was surprisingly good at it, too."
A quick frown drew her eyebrows together, just long enough to blink; then her face cleared, and she nodded. "Yes, actually. It's one of the many gentle arts. You weren't avoiding me, then?"
He could see her watching him with a carefully nonchalant expression as he took another sip, as though she had no care for the answer. It was plain to see she did, though; and considering all else, not all that hard to guess why. She'd been the one taking meals in her shuttle of late.
"Might as well ask if you've been avoiding me," he replied, just as casually. She had, of course; just as had he. But not in any kind of intentional way, at least on his part; more holding back, waiting for the worst of the hurt to blow over. He suspected it had been the same for her.
She glanced down, the gesture slow and unhurried; he admired the artful curve of her lashes, the slight tremble of her lower lip, and found himself wondering if it even mattered how much of her was genuine and how much a product of her long and rigorous training. The sum total full well was Inara, no matter how he turned it about in his mind; and she'd been right, she wouldn't be the woman who drew his attention so effortlessly if she shifted herself to fit his tastes. She'd be a songbird in a cage, a picture of misery, and he couldn't want that. A little more of the pain that had crimped his spirit since their conversation about her secondary Guild duties unwound then; he breathed lighter, and found himself smiling even before she looked back up.
"I apologize if it's seemed that way," she said, an apology in her eyes even as she made the expected excuse. "I've been busy, unpacking my things and reestablishing my profile on the Cortex. I think I finally have everything settled to my satisfaction, though."
"I'm glad to hear it," he replied, settling himself at the table across from her to finish the soup.
They sat together in companionable silence while they ate; the minutes passed by long and slow, but peaceful, unpressured, and the raw worries he'd brought up with him from his cabin began to soften around the edges. Finally, he tipped back the last of the dregs, then considered his spy slash ambassador for a thoughtful moment.
"'Nara, I got a professional question for you," he said, slowly. Then he waved a hasty negation as she frowned at him. "Not of that sort. T'other. Don't expect you'll know the answer, but I conjure it can't hurt to ask."
She set down her own mug, eyes wide with curiosity. "Forgive me, but... I was under the impression you'd taken 'the other' as a personal affront. I'm... a little baffled by the sudden change."
He grunted, admitting the charge. "Thought over a few things. And I've got a fair lot else on my mind. You stay square with me, we're square; though I expect we'll have words again soon. Can't say it rests easy with me, someone out there takin' notes on who I've met with and where all I've been, but that's all air through the intakes just now. And it strikes me that this other job of yours might be of use in more ways than I'd thought."
"'Of use'?" She crossed her arms and straightened her shoulders a little, giving him the inquisitive eye.
Mal gave her a wry half-smile. "Been said that's my guiding star," he said, dodging the nature of the problem a little longer.
She snorted. "Perhaps before all of this happened," she said, lifting a hand to gesture at obvious marks of repair on one of the common area's walls. "Perhaps after the War. But not now, and it's obvious that this is not a new circumstance for you. I should apologize for that as well; you were right, when you said I'd see something new if events devolved that far. You're an uncomfortable man without a cause, Mal. But you're a much more dangerous man with one."
She didn't seem to be accusing him; she didn't sound admiring, either. Just-- putting it out there. Mal weren't sure if he was at ease with her description, though; made him sound like some kinda yīng xióng. Reminded him of Book's death, and all manner of other unpleasantness. If he were any kind of hero, he were the sort ZoŽ had spoken of to the man he'd left behind on Lilac: the sort that got other people killed.
"There a compliment somewhere in there, Inara?" he asked, shifting a little in his chair.
"No," she said, softening the word with a white curve of smile.
"Well. That's as may be," he said, moving the hell on. "All the same, I don't like making the big decisions without adequate intel. And in this case, I think you might maybe have some for me."
She inclined her head, all gracious-like. "Very well, then. What's your question?"
He looked off to one side at that, frowning intently as he tried to put just the right words together not to say too much, nor too little. "You ever hear tell of another organization operating like yours?" he finally asked. "One that maybe went around tellin' folk they was teachers. Biding on a world a spell, then leaving with a girl, maybe more'n one, to take 'em off to some kinda fancy school."
"Yes, I've heard of them," Inara said, sounding genuinely puzzled. "All Companions are warned to show respect if we ever encounter one of the itinerant teachers, and to refrain from speaking of the Training Houses among their students."
Mal closed his eyes. That was all he'd been needful of: outside confirmation. He'd believed Book already, but that belief had been based on the man's own writing and what been done to River. Knowledge shared weren't always a burden halved, as his mama used to say; sometimes, it only doubled the weight. He opened them again to offer Inara a pained smile, and sighed. "Feared that might be so," he said. "Heard anything else about 'em?"
She shook her head. "No," she said, slowly. "I know they requested trainees from Sihnon from time to time, but the rest of us were not expected to work with them as more than clients. Why do you ask?"
"Book used to be one of those teachers, back before the War. Man left me his notes after he died, and 'Nara.... they were the folks as took River. Took whole passels of girls just like her, from Core and Rim alike, with promises of a better life. And you know what they did then."
Inara's eyes widened in dismay. "No. Not Shepherd Book," she objected, instantly.
He nodded, firmly. "Afraid so. Accordin' to his notes, that's why he became a Shepherd. Believed hard in the Alliance-- 'til the day came he saw what they did to those girls with his own two eyes, and couldn't blind himself no more. Found himself another purpose to cling to." Sort of the opposite of how Mal had gone about rebuilding his own shattered world; but he understood what drove the man to it. Made him respect him all the more; would've been nice to have that conversation while Book was still alive. Ah, well; man had had a right to his privacy. "Stole some important documents, got himself the hell out, and spent the rest of his life tryin' to do what was right instead."
She caught her breath. "And now he's passed his burden on to you."
"Think there might could be someone higher up in your Guild that would know more about it?" Book had left him bits and pieces, and Simon had been in one of their labs when he'd rescued his mèimei, but neither had been anywhere near the beating heart of the place, or knew what Mal would need if he were going to tear it all down. If it could even be done.
She paused a long moment, pursing her lips, then sighed. "As I said, you're a far more dangerous man with a cause," she said, ruefully. "Just promise me you're going to talk it all over with us this time, before you do anything rash."
"Long as I can," he agreed. Not that there was always time for that, but it weren't the time to get persnickety about details. "Long as it takes. I don't intend to go endangerin' anyone who ain't decided to throw their lot in; and we got us a spell to think on it this time. I plan to use it; get as much information as I can before I jump in any particular direction."
She frowned, deep in thought, attention turned inward; then nodded. "All right. I'll ask what I can, where I can. I still have a few friends highly placed in House Madrassa, though it may take a little time to get the answers you need without arousing concern."
He smiled at her, relieved; sometimes, sharing a burden did help. Then he got up to carry his bowl to the sink. He set a hand on her shoulder as he passed her and dropped a kiss into her hair as he would for Kaylee, unfreighted with any heavier meaning; she turned to look after him as he walked on.
"Mal?" she called after him.
"Yes, Inara?" he asked, as he rinsed out his bowl.
She watched him a moment, then smiled, bittersweet but as honest a smile as she'd ever given him. "I meant what I said Mal; I love this ship, and you-- the crew-- are all the family I truly have. Thank you."
He nodded back, awkward but full appreciative of the moment. "What's family for?" he shrugged, then turned toward the room's other exit, feeling much better than he had when he'd sat down.
He grew somber again as he finished his nightly perambulations, though, thinking about the parts of the story he hadn't told Inara. The details about what Book's employers had been trying to recreate in those girls, for one; what Book had got up to during the War, for another. Nor the shiny blade hanging up on Mal's wall, nor what it might mean that River could Read more than just people. She'd heard the unquiet ghosts on Miranda, and she'd known before they'd ever gone there that Mal's role in her life would change; he still remembered her question of him that morning on Lilac.
Dreams, she said. No Potential about her.
What was a Slayer meant to do, in a 'verse without her natural prey?
Mal sighed as he finally reached the pilot's chair, gripping the back as he stared out at the stars. Wash's dinosaurs were all still there, quietly keeping him company; ZoŽ hadn't had the heart to pack them away.
How many of the girls that had passed through the Slayer program had survived at all? None, he suspected River would say. One, at least, to his mind. Even if Mal never managed to help any of the others, that single one would make the effort worthwhile.
He'd let her land the ship again in the morning. Then, after her visit to her parents, they'd sit down and have themselves a talk.
shén jīng bìng = "insanity"
© 2010 Jedi Buttercup.