BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 13
Monday, June 19, 2006

First, a short break for sciencey stuff. Then – what in the world happened to get Inara so upset?


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2563    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.

Wicked long chapter here, but all this needed to be told in one place!

Regarding my science-y stuff: in my version of the ‘verse, there are many star systems. I know it’s not the movie way, but hey, it’s my story, I’ll break canon if I want to. :p

And another warning: adult content. Nothing explicit, but I’ll call it rated R.

* * *

From a distance, the planetary rings of Niflheim are a series of solid tan-gray disks separated by dark gaps. They appear smooth and uniform, and infinitesimally thin.

Up close, they are much more complicated. This is true of all ring systems, but Niflheim’s rings have a few particular traits which make them of value to the human race; these characteristics are a result of Niflheim’s unique history.

Most planetary rings are found around planets much more massive than Niflheim, and result from strong tidal forces that may prevent a new moon from forming in the proto-planetary cloud. Or, the tidal forces may actually tear apart an existing moon which has come too close to the planet’s surface. Niflheim was never weighty enough to wield such power; it received its adornment through a cosmic accident.

Eons ago, while the planet was in its infancy, it had a single small moon. That changed when a massive comet wondered in from the outer reaches of the solar system. It was caught in the planet’s gravity, settling into a tilted, highly elliptical orbit. It was only a matter of time before the comet and the moon were more intimately acquainted.

In the collision, the hard, crystalline nucleus of the comet was jarred hard enough to shed its outer layers of snow and ice, but, though fractured, the nucleus held together and was deflected into a more circular orbit. The effect on the structurally weak moon, however, was devastating. It shattered, leaving a cloud of rock that blended with the cometary ice, swarming about the planet. Any large remnants of the moon were soon pulverized to bits in the violent jostling of the debris. Countless meteors burned through the planet’s thin, corrosive atmosphere, many crashing into the lifeless surface, but a majority of the debris stayed in orbit.

Things quieted after a time, as the particles on collision courses, by necessity, settled their differences. The remnants of the moon and the outer layers of the comet broke down and blended, and the cloud gradually settled into a disk a mere 100 meters thick, though it was nearly as wide as the planetary radius.

It was a rare event to have planetary rings form around such a small planet, but the real oddity of Niflheim came in the fate of the cometary nucleus. It spiraled around the outer reaches of the system, venturing closer from time to time to careen through the outer portion of the settling debris field. The impacts involved in these visits had an effect on the nucleus, continually deepening the cracks formed during the original collision with the moon. Eventually, the nucleus was hit in just the right spot, and it fractured into smaller pieces.

This process continued, and over the ages the nucleus was worn away to nothing but fragments, and the outer portion of the rings were filled with shards and dust of the crystalline material.

The ice and snow in the rings was kept clean as continual small impacts scraped away dust that might have darkened them. Because of this, the inner rings shone in bright tans and grays, slightly colored by the rubble of the moon. The crystals in the outer rings, however, refracted sunlight, and they shimmered like jewels. It was this feature that would catch the eyes of human explorers when they finally made their way out to this corner of the `verse.

* * *

Inara turned off the cortex display. The ride from Serenity to the Cartel platform wouldn’t take long, but she needed to keep her mind occupied. The time for doubt had passed; she had to focus on the client she was about to meet in person for the first time.

She stood up and walked into the shuttle’s head to check her reflection. It didn’t seem possible that her face could look so fresh and flawless; hours of misery should leave a mark. But Guild cosmetics could work wonders, and her sleeplessness didn’t show.

She’d just finished an unbearably long four hours, carefully positioned in her bed to protect herself if Serenity’s internal gravity went out while the ship was on approach to Niflheim. Inara had been unable to sleep, her mind too busy to let her body rest. She’d gone over and over the conversation with Mal, recalling her hasty decision to travel to the Core with her client, and Mal’s bitter response when she told him she was leaving. Then, finally, she decided to go directly to meet her client without talking to the crew about her plans.

An alarm chimed in the cockpit and she turned away from the mirror. The shuttle was nearing the orbital platform where her client waited: Petrovsky Balder Skuld, heir to the Skuld Cartel, a mid-sized corporation with aspirations of greatness. Peter: light-hearted and boyish and eager to have a Registered Companion join him on his voyage to the Core.

It was the suddenness of her leave-taking that was making it so difficult, she reasoned as she went to the pilot’s seat. Sometime in the next day or two, she would come back to return the shuttle, and then she’d spend a few hours saying proper goodbyes. It would be hard, breaking the news on everyone so abruptly. But it would be harder if she stayed on Serenity any longer.

She contacted the platform’s traffic control and guided the shuttle into the specified dock, faintly aware that she was working to bring a pleasant smile to her face. Usually it was natural, requiring no effort, but now there was a weight in her chest that wouldn’t leave. It dragged her body and mind down, making it difficult to move, to smile, to breathe.

Peter was waiting to meet her at the dock, his curly blonde hair looking darker than it had over the cortex, but his smile was just as bright. He greeted her like an old friend, grasping her hands and placing light kisses on both cheeks.

“Miss Serra, my goodness. Look at you, even prettier in person.”

She sighed with relief at his artless cheer and felt her plastic smile turn real. Converstion free of half-hidden barbs and double entendres was exactly what she needed.

“As are you, Peter.”

Her words weren’t a fib. His boyishness didn’t apply to his body; he was strongly but gracefully built, wearing tailored clothing with a slightly unfamiliar cut: the most recent Core fashion, she suspected, realizing that she hadn’t been keeping up with the trends. Life on Serenity had been keeping her far from many things that had once been so familiar.

He took her arm to lead her off of the platform. She hesitated, looking back at the bags inside her shuttle.

“The servants will see to those,” Peter assured her.

“Of course.” A little more weight came off her shoulders. Back to civilization – I needn’t carry things myself. Definitely, I see a hot bath in my near future.

“Do you need time to settle in?” he asked, and she realized he was studying her face. “Are you tired?”

The thought came unbidden to her mind, I am exhausted, but she freshened her smile with an effort. “Thank you, no. I’m quite well.”

“Glad to hear it! How about a tour?”

Inara was surprised at the offer. Often, new clients needed to be reined in to some degree, their attention shifted away from the bed long enough to introduce them to the ritual tea ceremony, to show them that she offered an experience more profound than mere sex. More than whoring.

Damn him… Damn him for making me think this way.

“I’d be delighted,” she replied.

Her training settled over her like a well fitted costume. The ability to compartmentalize was a necessity for a Companion; her own emotions must not interfere from her treatment of her client. Still, she’d never felt this extreme of a separation. Her face was placid, and polite rejoinders fell from her lips, but her thoughts wandered in a haze.

Selling honor, Mal thinks I sell honor… as if someone like Peter Skuld needs to buy it.

“Really?” she heard herself ask. “And what do the processors do?” She wasn’t consciously aware of what Peter was describing. She tried to pull herself into the present, to focus on his answer.

“The average rock towed in from the outer rings has roughly 30% crystal content…”

How long will I feel this absurd need to defend myself? The man is just an ignorant, biased, petty criminal, for Buddha’s sake…

“…the separation and initial processing reduces the mass considerably, although… ”

…there is no reason for me to justify myself, to him or anyone…

“…eventually we’d like to do fabrication before shipping, but the legal rights on the process are a hotly contested…”

I spent my entire life training, building skills that deserve respect. I help people. I change their lives. He has no right to question that, to devalue what I do.

“…I never tire of this view.”

The change of subject, and tone, snuck through her internal rant, and her autopilot shut down.

“Oh – yes,” she replied dully as her mind caught up with the situation.

They had come to a stop before a large viewport; she’d seen the rings on her way in, but had been too busy with her own thoughts to do more than notice their existence. Now she took a long look.

The sun was a bright point above and to her left, shining against a backdrop of stars. Its light made the entire ring structure glow in too many shades of light tan and brown and gray to be named. The outermost rings shimmered in multifaceted color, making a long arc that disappeared behind the brown-yellow rim of the planet just visible to her right.

It was breathtaking. She let herself get lost in the view, and it calmed the bitterness in her mind.

“It is lovely.” She looked up and him and smiled, finally able to focus on the present. “You’re very lucky to have such scenery.”

“I am. I will be sorry to leave.”

“Are you really so reluctant to return to the Core?”

His mien turned wistful. “My life isn’t my own there. The paparazzi on Londinium are brutal – they’re like rodents, squeezing into any little space. And they are impossible to be rid of. Unfortunately, it’s not legal to poison them.” He finished with a laugh.

“I understand the sentiment,” she responded. “I have had some experience with them myself, though a Companion doesn’t provide nearly as much fodder as a star Cartel heir, and possible future member of Parliament.”

He gave her an sharp look. “You did research on me?”

“Not a lot. I just saw an interview with your Aunt. She denied the allegation about your ambitions, but I find these rumors often have at least a drop of truth.”

He smiled, took her arm again and continued leading her down the corridor. “Yes, there is… a drop. But the ambition isn’t mine. It’s not what I’d choose to do with my life. Auntie Beyla is very driven and I find myself swept along in her wake. She built this entire Cartel herself, you know, starting from a small supply firm my parents ran on Londinium.”

“She must be quite a woman.”

“Quite.”

Inara heard a slight tightness in his voice, so she changed the subject. Her previous absentmindedness bothered her; it wasn’t professional to be so preoccupied. She wished to make it up to him, to set him at ease by finding topics of interest.

“I’ve also heard a few things about Niflheim. Has the terraform truly failed?”

He looked down sadly. “It has. I still don’t understand why it didn’t take here, but then, we aren’t the ones in control of the planetary environment. That would be the Verdande Family.”

“Verdande?”

“The top Cartel here - they have the largest share of the market. Quite powerful. You’ll meet one of them at the party tomorrow.” He smiled as he continued, “Auntie Beyla hates him with a passion, so of course everything about the party will be perfect. She wants nothing more than to show up the great Edward Verdande.”

“He’s a tough competitor?”

“Yes. Very.” They paused at a viewport on the other side of the corridor; this one was nearly filled with the face of the planet. The oceans were a deep sapphire blue, and the continents various shades of gold and ochre and brown, glowing brightly in the full sun. Stunning, Inara thought, until she realized what the color meant.

“It’s really dead, isn’t it?”

“It’s tremendously frustrating. The world was once approaching full self-sufficiency. A beautiful place, I’ve heard. I’ve seen captures taken Before, as the locals call it. It was as green as any world in the Core.”

She found herself studying the planet’s surface for any sign of civilization. They were down there somewhere, the crew of eight, and the ship. They were probably just landing now.

“Do you ever go planetside?” she asked.

“I did once, when I first arrived. That was two years ago, and the world was pretty much dead even then. We still maintain a few compounds with living quarters for the families of the miners. Their work schedules allow them to split time between the rings and their homes planetside. Other than that, there’s hardly anyone left, just those who are too stubborn to leave. Heathens who like living without any law or restraint.”

Inara couldn’t help a small smile at that. It was an apt description of at least one man down there.

“Worthless garbage,” Peter added, “if you ask me.”

I didn’t ask, Inara thought. And he may be a bit of a heathen, but he’s not garbage and he’s certainly not worthless. She sighed and shook her head. Now I’m defending him?

“You don’t agree?” he asked, noticing her reaction.

She tried to recover with a smile and a teasing tone. “I was just thinking… maybe they’re not so different from a Cartel’s heir wanting to live away from the constricting society of the Core.”

His face tightened for just a second before he returned her smile. “No, I suppose not.”

Inara turned her head back to the viewport. She was out of practice; what an idiotic thing to say. Not the most effective way to set the man at ease. She tried to minimize the damage by changing the subject.

“So… you were telling me about the mining process, something about a fabrication scheme?”

“The bane of Auntie’s existence.” He was clearly annoyed. “I tell you, Miss Serra, I am tired of mining and harvesters and processing by-products and the rest. Do you mind if I put off the rest of the tour?”

“Of course. If you’d like to retire – ”

“Actually, I’ll need to have my right hand man Henry show you to your quarters. I’m afraid I still have some business to attend to. He’ll arrange to have dinner served in your suite. If anything isn’t up to your satisfaction – ”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” she told him. “You’ll be joining me later?”

“I have a lot to do to prepare for leaving. I’ll come by in the morning and we can finish the tour.” He kissed her hand and seemed prepared to leave her with that. Inara held on to his hand, making him pause.

“Peter, you do understand the area of expertise of a Companion?”

“I do,” he replied with a gentle smile. “But that’s no reason to abandon self control and rush things.” He saw her puzzled look and laughed, all his tension gone. “Consider me a romantic. I’d like to woo you. Besides, we’ll have several days together during the trip to Londinium.”

He stroked her cheek, and leaned in for a real kiss. It was well done, gentle and soft, not too aggressive, but promising that more would follow. He smiled down at her for a long second before he turned to a man who had been trailing some distance behind them.

“Henry, please show Miss Serra to her quarters and take care of anything she needs.”

She watched Peter leave, confusion piling on to the emotions already warring inside her.

* * *

Inara took full advantage of her suite’s mammoth bathtub and enjoyed an exquisite meal served with an even better white wine, then she spent several hours catching up on news from the Core, using the high speed cortex in the main room of her sumptuous quarters.

It was late by then, but, despite the long night she’d just passed on Serenity, she was unable to sleep. She sat in the cushioned ledge below a large viewport, sipping a second glass of wine which she usually didn’t allow herself while working, and she watched the light play in the rings. When the view slowly turned planetside, which was now in shadow, she found a few clusters of lights on the surface. The crew was down there, somewhere. Going about their business without her.

* * *

Inara woke up with a headache and a bitter mouth. She’d allowed herself that second glass of wine, and when sleep wouldn’t come she’d had a third, and a fourth.

It was already afternoon on the platform. She was surprised that no one had sent for her; this was one of the stranger appointments she’d ever had.

Ten minutes after she woke up, a gentle knock sounded at the door. It was the servant Henry, arriving with a tray of coffee, fruit, and an assortment of breakfast pastries. She noticed that the wet bar in her suite had also been stocked with the fixings for morning cocktails. Someone had noticed the bottle of wine she’d emptied last night.

In high society, it was common to have one’s behavior observed in this way. After all, one’s needs couldn’t be seen to unless they were known. It had never bothered her before.

* * *

Peter stopped by an hour later, after she’d had time to bathe and use those wonderful Guild makeups and hangover cures. She was ready for him, incense burning, lights lowered, and the tea set she’d brought prepared for the ceremony. But he refused the offer, saying he was only stopping by to inform her of the plans for the party that night.

He insisted on seeing her dress, claiming a need to coordinate his accessories. Inara watched him inspect the dress, and she saw through his excuse. He wanted to make sure she’d be up to standards. Fortunately, her white and gold gown passed the test. She didn’t tell him she’d worn it before. Nor did she tell him how she’d had reason to worry about getting blood stains on it. That wasn’t a problem at most Core society events, only the ones Malcolm Reynolds attended.

Peter kissed her again on his way out. She should have stopped him, insisted that further physical contact wait until he took part in the tea ceremony, but the situation was so strange already, a mix of the Core she knew and the edges of civilization she’d been living in for a year. It was unclear which rules applied, and she was feeling too drained to sort it out.

A few times it occurred to her to check in with Serenity, but she put it off. She remotely connected to the computer on the shuttle, but there were no messages. She decided it was best not to disturb the crew until Serenity was repaired and could safely return to orbit. Inara assumed they would let her know when that happened. She hoped so, anyway.

She’d been unfair to Mal; she was aware of that. But he couldn’t be so angry as to deny her the chance to say goodbye. Could he?

* * *

“May I introduce the lovely Inara Serra, Registered Companion.”

Beyla Skuld nodded at Peter’s introduction. The elderly woman’s posture was flawless, her bearing graceful, but she was clearly quite old. Someone in her class could afford the best age-defying treatments; for her to look as old as she did meant that her years were many indeed, well past the century mark. Inara curtsied, respectful of the years of experience before her, then stood patiently before the candid scrutiny.

“Inara arrived last night,” Peter continued, stepping closer to Inara and taking her hand with gentle familiarity. “I didn’t bring her to you earlier for an introduction, as she slept in a little late.” He finished with a squeeze of Inara’s hand and a warm, intimate smile.

Inara blinked at the insinuation. Beyla missed her reaction; the woman had turned to the side and spoke into an embroidered handkerchef. Inara just caught the words: I’ll be right with you.

“Are you all right, Auntie Beyla?” Peter asked.

“Oh yes, thank you. I have a small business matter which requires my attention. I’ll need a few moments. Could you handle the introductions for me?” She inclined her head toward the elegantly clad guests gathering in the foyer.

“Of course.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Serra,” Beyla said to Inara. “I look forward to chatting with you over dinner.”

Inara smiled warmly. “Myself as well,” she said, then on a whim she added, “Auntie.”

Beyla returned the smile, then disappeared through a doorway in the paneling behind her.

Inara turned a questioning look on Peter, which he ignored. “Let’s go ‘handle the introductions,’ hmm?” He looked somewhat less than thrilled at the prospect.

* * *

The Skuld Cartel didn’t accept Niflheim’s remote location as an excuse to lack any luxury; on the contrary, abundance was something the revelers at Peter’s going-away party seemed to take for granted. Inara found herself wondering how there could be such a wide selection of tropical fruit which tasted as if it had been picked that morning. But she didn’t ask; she tried to turn off the analytical part of her brain and just enjoy.

The conversation was engaging enough to help. Peter stayed with her all evening, introducing her to the guests with an obvious show of pride, something she was accustomed to. Or, more precisely, something she used to be accustomed to. She hadn’t had this level of admiration in some time. It felt good, and the grief that nipped at her, the pangs of already missing Serenity, faded just a little.

At dinner, she sat next to Peter, who was at Beyla’s right hand. On Inara’s other side was the Skuld’s primary competition: the honorable Edward Verdande III, head of the Cartel which had first discovered the valuable crystals in the planetary rings. Edward, as he insisted she call him, was a confident man, in his mid-fifties and clearly used to all the comforts that came with extreme wealth. He had tendered Inara an offer, though with her hurried decision she’d never even interviewed him. Inara regretted her haste now, not that she believed she would have chosen differently, but being fair was a courtesy she had never before ignored. It was yet more evidence of Mal’s detrimental effect on her life.

To her relief, Edward appeared to harbor no resentment. He was attentive and entertaining, although the few words that passed between Edward and Peter were rather stilted. The two men were clearly not fond of each other.

After dinner, Peter led Inara along a small back passageway and they beat the other guests to the viewing deck which served as the night’s hallroom. The room was long and somewhat narrow, about thirty meters wide and lined with windows. They entered at one end, where a bar and heavily laden buffet table had been placed to avoid blocking the view.

Inara and Peter wondered toward the far end of the room, arm and arm, getting some distance from the guests who began trickling in behind them.

“Did you like the great Edward the Third?” Peter asked.

“He was quite charming,” Inara answered, irony in her voice. She didn’t think Peter wanted to hear her complement the competition.

“Yes, he talks sweetly, but the man is actually quite ruthless.” Peter didn’t seemed distressed over it, in fact he sounded a little bored, but he continued. “Ed’s on friendly terms with at least half of Parliament – such is the power of wealth and lobbying. Auntie will make you deaf, going on about how the laws don’t apply to him. Mining rights, the mining and fabrication process that he has a stranglehold on... It’s all anyone can do to stay in business here, according to my dear Aunt. She thinks we’ll be going under any day now!” He gave a sarcastic sigh at the tragedy of it.

“You don’t seem to be doing too poorly,” Inara replied with a glance around the room.

“Now, that’s exactly what I think. But, to each his, or her, own standards.”

Inara shared his smile at the pointed reference to his aunt. He really was quite easy-going, not what she’d expected from a possible future member of Parliament.

They reached the far end of the room; which apparently continued for some way, but was too much space for such an exclusive gathering and was blocked off by a solid divider. Just as they reached there, Beyla appeared from a gap at the edge of the partition.

“Peter, dear,” Beyla interrupted. “How is your party so far?”

Peter greeted the matriarch with exaggerated delight. “Wonderful, Auntie. Simply splendid.”

Beyla smiled graciously. “Inara, darling – could you be a dear and fetch me some brandy? I have a small business matter to discuss with my nephew.”

“Of course.”

* * *

Inara looked back across the room from the bar. Peter and Beyla were standing apart from the crowd, deep in conversation. They didn’t seem eager for her return, so she took the long way back, staying close to the windows so she could scrutinize the planet’s surface. She had to turn a critical eye on her own behavior; here she was, attending an extravagant party with the wealthiest and most powerful people in the system, but she felt left out of the real action – as if the things happening to the people on Serenity were of greater consequence to the ‘verse than the billionaires in this room.

How long would this haunt her, this obsession with that păo lóng tào crew?

She realized she’d reached the far end of the room, passing through the small gap beside the divider. The empty space was comforting, and she stayed there while she crossed the width of the room, enjoying the quiet as long as she could. That was how, unintentionally, she ended up eavesdropping.

“What did he talk to her about?” Beyla was asking Peter as Inara came around the corner behind them.

“A lot of nothing. He was quite well behaved, actually. On a first name basis, can you believe it? Trying to weasel his way in with my Companion.”

Inara smiled at the idea. It was flattering to be fought over, as long as no actual blows, bullets, or swords were involved. She stepped back behind the divider, although she stayed within hearing distance. She was slightly shocked at her own behavior, but more amused than ashamed.

From the tone of Beyla’s voice, it seemed the woman was smiling as well. “Bù kĕ yī shì gōng jī. I’ll bet he was livid she chose you. How did you manage it? Did you plan this in advance, and have her shipped out for the occasion?”

“Not at all. Really, she showed up yesterday, and took my first offer. I didn’t even need to haggle. She doesn’t have much business sense.”

Inara’s smile faded and she felt her face heat up. Such was the price of listening in on a private conversation – hearing something unpleasant.

“You always did have the devil’s good fortune, Peter. And she’s going back to Londinium with you?”

“Yes. I imagine arriving with a Companion in my bed will silence a few wagging tongues.”

“It may, but only until the next time you get caught misbehaving. Do I need to explain to you again?”

“Please, Auntie – ”

“You’ve enjoyed your exile entirely too much. Here, you’re out of the eye of interested parties, so I’ve let you enjoy yourself, but it stops now, do you understand?”

“Don’t be so harsh,” he said lightly. “I have two more days.”

“Two busy days. I just heard from Ginger; they’ve found a ship.”

“How did they manage that?”

“She didn’t go into detail, but I saw it from the satellite. It should suffice. Thank goodness they finally made progress; I thought I would have to arrange transport for them myself, the fools.” She paused for a sigh of displeasure before continuing. “They should have left the surface by now, and we’ll have the harvester in the next few hours. I’ll arrange to have it placed on your yacht.”

“Wonderful,” he replied sarcastically.

“I cannot stress enough the need for secrecy. Our engineers in the Core will need to look at it, and no one must know. And, Peter, this means you have to behave. You cannot draw attention to yourself over some minor infraction. This is vital to our future, and to the future of others – you can’t be caught with it.”

“Yes, Auntie dear,” Peter drawled in a bored voice.

When Beyla didn’t respond, Inara peeked around the divider and saw the woman glaring at her nephew for a few seconds before her gaze returned to a dance which was just beginning in the center of the room. Inara decided it was a good time to make her presence known. She circled around the far side of the divider so she could approach them from the front.

“Auntie,” she said with as much warmth as she could muster, “your brandy.”

* * *

It wasn’t the first time a client had used Inara to further his social or political position, and it was certainly less offensive and painful than it had been the first time it had happened. Still, it brought back feelings that she’d hoped to have overcome. She’d thought she was past the bitterness that had plagued her during those last few months in the Core. She inwardly voiced one of Mal’s frequent complaints, something regarding complications and life’s general lack of smoothness.

Instead of being amused by the thought, her annoyance at that man’s continued presence in her head increased.

The rest of the evening flew by as she watched the cool Companion in herself effortlessly charm the strangers around her. Much later, Peter took her arm and started to lead her out of the room, but he was stopped by Beyla.

“Peter, darling,” Beyla said, “I just wanted to let you know. That business matter we discussed has seen a few delays.”

“You heard from her again?”

“Yes. She said they are having… technical difficulties with their transport. But it shouldn’t delay your departure.”

Inara had barely been listening, but she heard the last part, and a surge of hope rose in her chest, catching her by surprise. “Delayed departure?” she asked.

“Nothing to worry about,” Peter said, patting her hand. “We’ll be on our way as planned.”

Inara missed the rest of the conversation, just coming to herself enough to bid Beyla goodnight as Peter led her away from the party. But she was distracted yet again, and this time she fully realized why. She’d been happy to hear about a delay.

Oh, you fool, she berated herself. You complete fool. You don’t want to leave. It’s not just a matter of having enough time to say goodbye to the crew – you hate the idea of leaving. What have you gotten yourself into? How could you let it come to this?

Then she and Peter were at the door to her quarters, talking, although she had no idea what she was saying. And they were kissing, and he was gentle and smelled good and tasted good and his body felt good against her, but she hated it. She wanted to push him away, tell him to leave her be.

And then somehow she was alone inside, the door clicking shut behind her.

Inara stood frozen, trying to understand what had just happened. She honestly couldn’t remember what Peter had just said. Or did she say it? Something about it being late… a wonderful party… time to retire.

She couldn’t deny it, the last thing she wanted to do at the moment was service him. But there was a contract and she would do her best to honor it. Whatever her problems, they were no excuse for sending a client away from her door.

Quickly, she changed into a sheer nightgown under a thin but richly patterned robe, then she rang for Henry. He answered at the door looking pleasantly bored and properly unopinionated regarding her apparel.

“Yes, Miss?”

“Could you please take me to Peter?”

She thought she read hesitation on his grey features, but then he gave the faintest hint of shrug. “As you wish,” he said, and he turned to guide her though the corridors.He stayed to deserted back halls, probably in deference to her state of dress. It took a few minutes to reach a set of doors which Henry motioned her toward with another small bow. Then, without a word, he turned and left.

Inara watched his retreating back until he turned a corner, then waited until his footsteps faded. Briefly, she wondered if she could find her way back to her quarters alone; it wasn’t too late. But she shook the idea from her head and knocked.

She heard a faint invitation to enter, so she pushed the door open and stepped into a large dim room. It was decorated in a modern masculine style, bare walls and a cluster of furniture in the center of the space, stylishly but simply constructed of cream-colored leather over frames of dark brown wood. The entire side wall was transparent, and the yellow-gold light of the planet’s surface outshone the glow of the few lamps in the room.

Peter was lounging in the center of the sofa facing the windows. His black robe was open to show his tan, chiseled chest and abdomen, and the loose black silk of his pants draped to accentuate the shape of his legs. He was the picture of wealthy luxuriousness, a satisfied half smile on his face and a snifter of liquor held loosely in his right hand.

“Inara Serra. What a surprise,” he said in a smooth voice, but he didn’t get up. He didn’t move at all, just watched her with an empty smile.

She stepped further into the room, studying his face. She felt that something wasn’t right, something she couldn’t quite place.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” he continued.

“I was concerned that I may have been… hasty about ending an enjoyable evening.”

“Ah! Never fear – the evening may be over, but not the enjoyment.” His smile grew. “The fun never ends out here on the rim.” He patted the sofa next to him.

Inara sat where he’d indicated, trying to appear at ease. He followed her with his eyes, but there was an emptiness there, an absence. She had a strong feeling that how she looked didn’t matter; he was completely unaware of her body language. He continued to watch her with that same pleasant smile fixed to his lips until she shifted uncomfortably and cleared her throat.

He inhaled deeply, as if he’d forgotten to breathe. “Where are my manners,” he said.

He leaned forward and took a small glass dropper bottle off the table; it was half full of a green-yellow liquid. He unscrewed the lid, filled the dropper, and offered it to Inara. When she shook her head, he emptied it under his tongue, then closed the bottle and leaned back to wait for the drug to be absorbed into his system.

Inara knew what it was: a type of drops favored by the extremely wealthy, not widely used because of its price, its tendency to be highly addictive, and the adverse affect it had on one’s emotional stability.

She waited for him to finish with his dose, although she knew that at this point she could have gotten up and left without him noticing. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t – maybe it was exhaustion, or a growing sense of unreality. She remembered a book in the archives of the Madrassa House library, a classic from Earth-That-Was. Inara had fallen down the rabbit hole, and she felt just as blasé and accepting as Alice had been. Eat me, drink me. She felt a sudden urge to take the offered bottle, to lose herself in oblivion for a while.

But the urge didn’t overcome her common sense. She sat still, lost in her own thoughts, not even aware of his movement when he leaned forward to spit the used liquid into a ceramic jar. But he brought her back to the room when he spoke, his words coming slowly, as if he was forming each one carefully.

“A person as schooled in pleasure as yourself shouldn’t be so shocked.”

She swallowed hard and tried to smile. “Do I look shocked?”

“You look…” His smile was dreamy. “You look like you’ve seen a really scary spider.” He finished with a giggle that was oddly contagious, almost making her smile despite herself. “Big and hairy and… all legs,” he continued, then put a hand on the sofa and spidered it over to her, tickling her knee. It took all her will power not to move away from his touch.

“Have some – don’t be such a bore,” he said, holding out the bottle.

“No, really, I’m fine.

“Do you even know how much this little bottle costs?” He held it up in the dim light. It looked sickly green in front of the golden face of the planet.

“I have a pretty good idea.”

“See – I was right. Well schooled. Even a Companion can’t afford this all the time. Sure you don’t want any? It’s really… nice.”

“I can see it is.”

He set down the bottle, then let himself drape back over the sofa. Inara remembered Mal, in that same pose, not very long ago. But that had been so different.

“You shouldn’t be so disapproving,” he said, though his eyes were closed and he couldn’t see her expression.

“I don’t disapprove,” she replied, but he continued without hearing her.

“When I get back home, I won’t be able to do this anymore. Won’t be able to do a gorram thing. Have to behave. No more scandals. Auntie, pfft. She’s not an aunt, she’s a gorram tyrant. Do you know what it’s like to live with a tyrant watching over everything you do?”

“I have… an idea.”

He laughed, though the timing was a little off, the delay too long, as if he was laughing at something in his own head and not at anything she said.

“I’m glad you’re going with me. We’ll have such fun.” Without warning, he tilted into her lap and wrapped an arm around her knees.

“Cuddling is nice,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied absently, trying to force herself to relax. She lifted her hand to stroke the back of his neck, obeying an ingrained tendency to comfort.

Her touch must have felt as awkward to him as it did to her. “Don’t worry. I have no designs on you,” he said against her thigh.

Inara took a deep breath, confusion and exasperation breaking through her numbness. “Designs? Don’t you know what I am?”

He didn’t answer. She tried to push him away, but he was heavy, and his arm tightened around her knees. His happy voice was unchanged by her effort. “Relax, it’s just a cuddle. You’re not really my type.”

“Not your type? Then why did you make an offer?”

“Just playing the game. Made Auntie happy. Showed up old Verdande. Don’t be upset, I have a lot of respect for you. You’re a lovely woman.” He rolled to his back and looked at her, reaching a hand up to twirl a bit of her hair.

“I guess not everyone likes lovely women,” she said softly, and the numbness closed around her again, though she tried to fight it off. Apparently, she was a pawn in this man’s political dealings – but it was just business, not a personal insult. He had no idea who Inara Serra was. He knew her as a Companion, nothing more than that.

And, anyway, she’d bragged to Mal about this very thing. She’d practically paraded it in front of him, her pride that clients would compete, would pay a large fee, for the honor of her company. She had no right to be offended when that very thing happened.

Peter sat up suddenly and burrowed his face into her hair. “You smell good,” he whispered against her neck.

Inara turned away from him, but didn’t push him off. She tried to be amused at his behavior. “Good smelling is not your type?” she asked lightly.

Suddenly he let go of her and stood up. “Come see,” he said playfully. “You can watch if you want.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her after him.

When he pushed open the door to his bedchamber and Inara looked in, her mind went red.

* * *

When she came back to her senses, Inara was in her quarters, huddled in a chair with her robe pulled tightly around her body. She rubbed a hand against her face, felt the tenderness of her cheekbone. Had she been hit?

Then she remembered what had happened, what she’d done. She shoved it all aside except one driving thought: I need to go home.

Hastily she changed into the first dress she found, her thin peach silk, and threw her belongings into her bags. She tried to carry them all into the corridor, but there was too much; she dropped the bags in the doorway and stood surrounded by them. She considered leaving them behind, but then realized she didn’t even know how to get to the landing platform – she had no idea where her shuttle was.

Henry appeared, as if from thin air.

“Can I help you, miss?”

“I…” she forced her voice to be firm. “I wish to return to my shuttle.” She braced herself for his response, but his face was completely neutral as he bowed.

“Of course. You may leave your bags; I’ll arrange to have them moved.”

“I need them with me.”

“Please do not distress yourself, Miss Serra. Your bags will precede us to your shuttle. If you’d care to follow me?”

She hesitated, but saw no other option. “Of course.”

Henry spoke into a microphone in his cufflink as he led her down the corridor. True to his word, her bags were waiting in the shuttle when they reached it, although the walk hadn’t taken longer than a minute.

To her distress, Henry followed her into the shuttle, but he stopped just inside the hatch.

“If you please, Miss Serra, Madam Skuld has sent this for you.” He held out a sealed envelope. “It is your payment. She wishes me to inform you that she has doubled the amount.” His bored voice never changed in tone as he continued. “Also, she respectfully requests that certain things you experienced here should not be spoken of again. She would be happy to return the favor, and not make public certain actions you chose to take, which could reflect poorly on your character, as well as your standing with the Guild, should they become known.”

Inara couldn’t even begin to respond to the threat, but Henry wasn’t interested in a response. He bowed one last time, then left the shuttle

* * *

Inara took a deep breath and steeled herself against the continuing silence of the comm. She wiped a hand over her face, clearing the wetness under her eyes, trying to calm herself and failing.

“Gods, are you there? Could you just acknowledge me?”

There was still no response. This was humiliating, begging Mal to speak to her. What had she come to, that she couldn’t shake off this need for him?

“Fine,” she said in the strongest voice she could muster. “I’ll be docking in ten minutes. Don’t bother me. Ever.”

She shut off the comm, but stayed in the pilot’s seat, frozen, for several minutes.

Idiot. I’m such an idiot. Why did I ever come out here? Why did I stay so long?

Wash would have replied to her call, immediately. Anyone else on the ship would have been ready to talk to her. Only Mal would refuse.

He could have said one word. Just one kind word.

Acts of kindness had never been Mal’s strong point, but surely he was capable. The way he treated Kaylee… Inara sighed. Kaylee was such an innocent and loving soul; she invited kindness. Not like a fancied up whore.

She dropped her head and wiped at her eyes again. Mal’s opinion of her profession wasn’t all there was to it; she treated him just as poorly as he treated her. She wasn’t capable of the kind of love that could overcome the barriers he had around him, and he’d never be able to heal the hurts that life had done to her.

This is why I have to keep my distance from him. This is why I have to leave.

She forced her lungs to fill, then put her hands on the controls. She could see Serenity now, looking small in the wide empty space between the shadowed inner rings and the planet’s night side. She guided the shuttle in, handling the docking mechanism remotely. She was somewhat surprised when the equipment responded; Mal might have locked it down to keep her out, if he really wanted to avoid her.

After she powered down the shuttle, she sat still, trying to decide what to do. Mal wouldn’t bother her now; he couldn’t be that much of a bastard. To ignore her and then barge in… No, he wouldn’t. She could sleep now. Curl up and give herself several hours of peaceful emptyness. She’d probably need a tranquilizer to do it, but finally, she could rest.

She stood up stiffly and walked to a cabinet, but before she pulled open the drawer she heard the latch on the outer door of the airlock being released.

Inara turned toward the shuttle’s entrance, rage erupting from some deep place beyond her control. Mal was coming here, now, after what he’d just done. The nerve of it made her shake with frustration. But if he wanted to talk to her, fine. He was going to get a gorram earful…

She strode to the hatch and pulled it open. A man wearing a dark grey coat was waiting there, an eager sneer on his face and violence in his eyes.

* * *

He stepped forward and roughly shoved her back into the shuttle. Inara felt bewildered more than frightened; this was supposed to be home. The danger awaiting her on Serenity was supposed to be something far different from this. She should be facing callous words from Mal, not a physical attack from a stranger.

She regained her balance and stood still, watching in stunned silence as the man stepped into the shuttle and looked around. There’d been violence on the ship; the man’s nose was swollen, dark bruises were forming under his eyes, and half dried blood was smeared over his mouth and chin.

“I like the décor,” he said casually, as if he was shopping for a shuttle of his own. “Exotic. Turns me on.” His gaze settled on her, and he tipped his head to the side while his eyes raked over her body. “Funny,” he continued, “he never said anything about you looking like that.”

Inara didn’t ask who he meant; she barely processed his words. Slowly, her mind began to take in the new situation. A stranger, here, on the ship. Violence. The silent comm…

No time to consider that. She had a strange man in front of her, and he definitely wasn’t here for tea. She needed to focus on him. Snap out of it. Think.

“Oh – that’s right,” he said, and his mouth curved into a smile that would have been brilliant if his lips and teeth hadn’t been flecked with blood. “He couldn’t tell me. On account of how he couldn’t talk.”

He was watching her face eagerly, looking for a reaction. He was baiting her then, trying to draw her in to whatever game he was playing. But she didn’t respond, just stood her ground. She needed to work out exactly what he was after.

It wasn’t difficult. In fact, he did all he could to make it clear. His eyes traveled over her body again as he deliberately pulled his coat off and threw it aside, then he took a few slow, stalking steps toward her. He held himself as tall and broad as he could, as if his size alone would cow her.

Inara was well schooled in recognizing what men wanted and giving it to them, although this was far from the usual way of it. It disgusted her, but she shortened her breathing and took a few hesitant steps back, as if she was panicked.

He smiled, enjoying her reaction. “It’s a shame he was gagged,” he said. “Your man could have told me exactly how you like it.” He put his hands on the buckle of the gunbelt that slung low over his hips. “But don’t worry, sweetheart. I have a few ideas of my own.”

He looked her in the eye while he unfastened the belt, then pulled it off and dropped it behind him. He was completely self-assured, secure in his superior physical strength. Inara felt adrenaline surge through her, and her weight shifted forward to the balls of her feet, the muscles in her legs ready to move. But she dropped her head a little and concentrated on relaxing her shoulders, deliberately looking wilted, defeated.

His breath hissed out in satisfaction at her stance, and his smile turned to a sneer as he unfastened the large silver buckle at his waist. Slowly, he drew his belt through the loops of his jeans.

“I told him everything I have in mind for you, and he didn’t object. Oh – but wait.” He paused to stare up at the ceiling theatrically, looking downright pleased with his own performance. “I forgot again about that not able to speak thing. Not much able to breathe, either. But he sure could listen. Wanna know what I told him?”

He finished removing his belt and twisted it in his hands, as if considering uses for it. Inara dropped her eyes from his face to watch; he was right-handed, and held his left elbow close in to his side, as if his ribs pained him.

He continued to talk, but Inara didn’t let herself consider what he was saying. The acts he described were just a way for him to get what he really wanted, to make himself feel powerful by breaking her with fear. She understood it as much as she hated it; no one could become a Companion without learning about this side of the human psyche.

She’d also been trained in how to handle a man like this, although she’d never had someone threaten her with such outright violence. The one time she’d been taken advantage of had been very different –

“Your boyfriend did seem a bit upset over that last one,” he was saying. “Seemed to think you wouldn’t like it.”

Inara wrenched her attention back to the present. He was standing still, watching her. He had his weight back on his heels and his hips pushed forward; he wasn’t well balanced – clearly, he wasn’t expecting her to defend herself. This wasn’t like the other time; this was simple.

“Darling, what do you suppose was the last thing that browncoat did before I came here to meet you?”

Inara didn’t answer; she couldn’t let herself speak. After the past few days… she could make herself look the part of victim, but she wasn’t capable of talking it. She wouldn’t be able to mask the vitriol in her voice.

“Come on, honey. Ask me what he did.”

She let him get closer, her head down so she’d look properly terrified. But her eyes were focused on his knees, watching his stance, how he shifted his weight as he stepped toward her.

“Oh, all right, I give. I’ll tell. Last thing he did was…” he leaned closer and spat the word, “…die.”

Inara drew in a sharp breath and straightened, lifting her head. For the first time, she spoke to him.

“You’re lying.”

“Do you think so?” He stopped just out of reach, watching her with his tongue slipping out between his teeth, as if he relished some taste in the air. Then he grinned. “Poor thing. Keeping your hopes up will only make it harder on you when you see his corpse, all bloody and cut up.”

She didn’t believe him. She couldn’t point to it exactly, the thing in his body language and tone of voice that gave him away, but she was sure that he was making this up. He was trying to get into her head, to defeat her without striking a blow. This was a game to him, a game with no rules, but certainly extra points for technique and creativity. He hadn’t gotten enough of a reaction out of her, so he’d kept fishing around until he found something…

She realized that she was trying very hard to convince herself. What if she was wrong? What if she was making up the lie she saw in him? She’d made a mistake with Peter; what if she was mistaken now, too?

What if Mal really was dead?

The man was watching her face, and when the doubt came over her, he smiled broadly and threw his belt aside. He took another step toward her, coming within striking distance.

Inara realized she couldn’t move. Precious Buddha – Mal dead?

He began to unbutton the fly on his black jeans. When he spoke again, his voice was low and menacing.

“That browncoat took his last breath knowing exactly what I’m gonna do to you right now.”

Inara felt nothing but icy coldness inside, but the paralysis snapped and years of training took over. He was completely unprepared for the hard edge of her hand that slammed into his solar plexus, and the knee that drove into his groin. She leaned into him as he hunched over in pain, purposely letting her shoulder knock against his swollen nose, and she dug her elbow into his sore ribs while she used the strength of her legs to shift him off balance. He flipped over her back, his own body’s weight intensifying the impact of his skull against the deck, and he collapsed in a heap.

* * *

Inara backed away until she reached the bulkhead, moving as far from the cargo bay as she could. She slid down to sit, staring across the shuttle, over the man’s still body to the open hatch.

She might have stayed like that until she wasted away, unable to face whatever horror awaited her on the ship. But, after a time she couldn’t measure, another strange man appeared in the entrance. He had a heavy old-fashioned revolver in his hand, and his face was blank as he studied the motionless figure on the deck.

He walked in and nudged the body with his foot, then looked up at Inara.

* * *

Translations:

păo lóng tào: small time bù kĕ yī shì gōng jī: insufferably arrogant cock (as in rooster)

* * *

On to Chapter 14.

*

I’m sure you’re all noticing how the site has been tricky lately (it's taken me many many tries to post this!). I’ll try to keep posting, and please try to keep commenting, or come back later and fill in, okay?

COMMENTS

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 5:20 AM

ELOISA


I started with a certain idea of what Inara had seen at Peter's. Then I realised that that reaction would be completely out of character for her in the situation I'd thought about, and started thinking it must be something considerably worse.

Ray's more likely to kill Will than Inara right now. He's sensible enough to know when a mad dog needs putting down. I'm not worried for her; to be honest I'm not incredibly worried that Mal is dead, as he has died before and come out pretty much OK, though I'm very worried still about the whole situation.

Keep flying...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 9:42 AM

NOSADSEVEN


I also wanted to add, I liked the hints of Inara backstory, and it broke my heart when she was thinking about how Mal must be capable of kindness:

>Acts of kindness had never been Mal’s
>strong point, but surely he was
>capable. The way he treated Kaylee…
>Inara sighed. Kaylee was such an
>innocent and loving soul; she invited
>kindness. Not like a fancied up whore.
>
>She dropped her head and wiped at her
>eyes again. Mal’s opinion of her
>profession wasn’t all there was to it;
>she treated him just as poorly as he
>treated her. She wasn’t capable of the
>kind of love that could overcome the
>barriers he had around him, and he’d
>never be able to heal the hurts that
>life had done to her.


I love how you do everyone's inner conflict and self doubt so well. How we get to see the characters' weaknesses and strengths simultaneously. Like the way Inara is able to defeat Will, but is left helpless afterwards.

I've saved my comments for the last two chapters and will post them there when allowed. I'm going to be going out of town after the next chapter is posted, so I'll be able to binge when I get back, but I promise to comment as I go. It's the least I could do to show you my gratitude for taking us on this thrilling adventure!

-ns7

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 2:33 PM

2X2


Ah!! Finally finally finally I was able to get this to load up!!

Amazing chapter... Oh, I'm not sure I want to know what Inara saw... what she DID... what they might have done to her....

Loved watching her take out Will, excellent! I do love an Inara that can take care of herself! And the way she couldn't get Mal out of her head, and how that was affecting her work... how she realized she was 'out of touch' with the Core fashions and how her thoughts kept drifting to Serenity.. then the realizatin that she didn't want to go!!! Everything... I just love reading your Inara!!

I can't wait for more!! I am seriously addicted to your writing!

Friday, June 23, 2006 2:35 AM

AMDOBELL


Oh Wow, that was brilliant! Really cheered when Inara laid that *tamade hundan* out but uh oh, now she has to deal with Ray. This series is utterly compelling, can't wait for the next part. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Sunday, June 25, 2006 3:37 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oh...you can't leave off there! Hell, the suspense from wondering what in the name of all that's shiny did Inara see in Peter's boudoir that could have upset her. Cuz homosexuality is not gonna make her flip out (see "War Stories" for that evidence)...maybe incest? Peter likes to get busy with Auntie Beyla, perhaps?

And I too really like how you laced Inara's thoughts and feelings with hints of her past from before the time she joined Serenity, with all the vague notions of pain and manipulation! I really like how Inara is being shown as someone with deep-seated emotional issues stemming from something horrific in her past, since Mal and Inara are so similiar in their base traits of having the strength to carry on...but without healing fully.

And I really hope that rat bastard Will gets perforated by Ray for trying to rape Inara. It's getting off easy, but the f-tard deserves something like an Indian beauty mark (rather racist name for a headshot, I know) for his acts against the BDHs:(

BEB

Tuesday, July 4, 2006 6:48 AM

TAYEATRA


Whatever Inara did to Peter I'm guessing it was violent. Yay for her.

Will got what was coming to him.

Thanks for sharing.

Friday, July 14, 2006 4:51 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


Yay for the science-y stuff, I like it.

Inara's tour with Peter and her internal voice focusing on Mal was very well done.

Nor did she tell him how she’d had reason to worry about getting blood stains on it. That wasn’t a problem at most Core society events, only the ones Malcolm Reynolds attended.
-BWAHAHAHAHA !!!!

I also really like how she is missing Serenity and all of the crew and trying to convince herself that she doesn't need them.

Yay for Inara laying that guy out.


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Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

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Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

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The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

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