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MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II: Chapter 6 (repost)
Monday, November 12, 2007

The race to find Serenity continues on two fronts.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1893    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I'm just playing.

Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don't want to give things away. In general, don't be getting into any of this if you're not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.

Many thanks: fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and LEIASKY for beta.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ), Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ), and Book I (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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Back Stories, Book II

by Mal4Prez

Chapter 6

The race to find Serenity continues on two fronts.


 

 

Eighteen years ago

“That’s her!” Kari says, excited by the beautiful face on the shuttle’s cortex screen. It’s the first time since she came aboard the Firefly a week ago that she and Sylvia have gotten the cortex to themselves; they’ve been waiting for their chance, but the shuttles have been busy. “What’s her name? Does it say?”

“Aileen.” Sylvia sighs after she says the name, as if to add Isn’t that the best?

Kari watches Sylvia’s reaction, then she sighs too, copying the tilt of the girl’s head and trying to make her tight curls fall over her shoulder the way Sylvia’s straight blonde hair does.

“Aileen,” she repeats. “You should see her in person – she glows.”

Kari’s proud that she knows so much, but Sylvia doesn’t respond. She must have heard the story at least twenty times by now, and she’s not as excited by it as she was at first. But she doesn’t stop Kari from talking yet again about her close encounter with the Companion. Kari’s not used to that. No one in her own home ever wanted to hear her talk about anything other than what was for dinner and when the laundry would be done.

“She’s very nice,” Kari adds in a firm voice. “Adolfo adored her. She isn’t a whore, I know it.”

Sylvia turns to her, her mouth open in shock. “Who told you she was a whore?”

“My father.”

Hăo xiào! A Companion is nothing like a whore.” Sylvia’s tone proclaims her expertise. She’s only a year older than Kari, but she’s always lived on a ship that travels between worlds. She’s seen so much. At first, Kari found that daunting, and was afraid of appearing ignorant, but her understanding of Sylvia has deepened in the days they’ve spent together. The girl may have traveled a great deal, but Kari’s beginning to wonder if sometimes her new friend acts as if she knows more than she actually does.

Still, she’s a good source of information, and much nicer to spend time with than Kari’s mom. When Kari and Sylvia talk, it goes both ways.

“Do you know if Companions… when they have clients, do they…?” Kari doesn’t know how to say it, but Sylvia isn’t so shy.

Jiāo gòu?”

Kari nods.

“Of course. But sex is only a small part of what they do. They’re like artists and scholars and diplomats all in one. That’s what mother says. They can dance, and play music, and write calligraphy, and they know everything.”

“Everything?” Kari asks.

“Mm-hmm. They have to, so they can talk to any client, and their client’s friends. Really talk, you know. Not just be boring and silly. They have to sound smart and interesting, whether they’re with politicians or artists or athletes or business people. That’s why they have to study for so many years.”

“How do you know all this?”

Sylvia’s answer is a bit smug. “I’m going to be a Companion one day.”

Kari is shocked; more than that, she’s envious. “Do your parents know?”

“Of course! They say they’d be very proud of me. But they’re proud of me about everything I do.”

Kari doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know Mr. and Mrs. Peterson well – so far they seem much more generous and attentive than her own parents, but she can’t believe that anyone would want their daughter to be a Companion. Her own parents would never be happy about that. They’d lock her up for years if she ever told them she wanted to go to the Academy.

Sylvia is still working the cortex, and the screen changes too fast for Kari’s inexperienced eyes to follow. But it looks like information about the Guild.

“I’m working on my application now,” Sylvia continues, then she points at the screen. “See – it says here that you have to start at the Academy before your twelfth birthday or they won’t let you in.”

Kari studies the screen. There’s a list of requirements, but she only reads the first few items before Sylvia moves on to something else – images of teenagers studying dance, arranging flowers, reading books, painting paper screens. Kari decides that she needs to come back to the shuttle by herself so she can run the controls with her own hands and read this information in full. She begins to pay more attention to how Sylvia works the screen.

“You’re going to apply?” Kari asks. “Will they let anyone apply?”

“What? You don’t think I could be a Companion?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” Kari assures with a smile. “Of course you’d be wonderful.”

Sylvia beams at the compliment, and she does look very pretty when she smiles. The brightness of her teeth balance what can be, at other times, a big nose. “I’m sure… of course anyone can apply. I think.” She looks at the screen, biting her lip and studying it, and Kari realizes that Sylvia doesn’t know the answer. It suddenly occurs to Kari that maybe Sylvia doesn’t even plan on applying. Maybe she’s just showing off.

This doesn’t bother Kari; in fact, it only makes her feel for Sylvia. The girl has grown up on this ship with only her parents, the crew of grown-ups, her older brother, and the occasional foster-sibling to keep her company. It could be that she’s lonely. It could be that she just wants to impress her new friend.

Kari smiles as kindly as she can; she smiles the way that the Companion Aileen would if she were here. “The cortex is great. Can you show me more?”

Sylvia’s face lights up, and she starts talking fast as she moves on to other things, worlds that they’ll be stopping on in the weeks to come. Kari sits back and lets her friend do as she wishes, smiling her encouragement and enjoying how Sylvia responds.

No one’s ever been so obviously appreciative of Kari’s efforts to be nice. She likes how it works. She likes how the niceness bounces back, and wonders if this is how it feels to hand out kindness all the time the way the Companion Aileen does.

* * *

Landsdowne Docks, Persephone

Inara tapped a finger impatiently against the keyboard; this wait was nearly impossible to bear. With every minute that passed, she was lagging further behind in the hunt for Serenity.

But she wasn’t about to race off to Londinium, no matter that Badger had sent Mal to that world with goods to sell. That had been days ago, and she doubted that Serenity would stay in the Core for long. Tearing across the `verse in a second-hand transport wouldn’t be the wisest course of action, not when waves traveled faster than any ship. She could gather information without moving a meter, and may very well come out ahead in the end. She only needed to be patient and wait for Lina to return her wave.

She and Lina had arranged a special code so Inara’s incoming waves would look anonymous as stored on the House records, but Inara couldn’t take the risk of calling attention to repeated calls. Lina would know who the one wave was from. She would know it was important. If she hadn’t replied yet, she must have good reason.

Inara knew this, but it didn’t make the wait any easier.

Finally, just as the Persephone’s sun began to set, the cortex chimed.

“Lina – thank goodness!” Inara gasped. “I was so worried!”

“I could not contact you until I was alone,” Lina explained. “There have been many questions about where you have gone. Mr. Marone returned, and was here for most of the morning. I was brought in to speak to him, since it is known that I spent time with you.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing to help him find you. I said that you must have wanted time to yourself, and that you are free to come and go as you wish. He did not seem to accept that, and was persistent in his questions. But he is gone now; he received a wave and left suddenly. Since then, I have been busy with the Priestess. I am sorry it took so long, but there was much to be done because of what Marone told us.”

Inara saw reluctance in Lina’s eyes and steeled herself to hear bad news. “Shú? What did he say?”

“He claimed to be a special investigator working for the Alliance. His credentials were solid; the Priestess checked several times. We doubted, because what he said was so absurd. Inara – there are charges against you.”

Inara felt blood heat her cheeks. This news wasn’t as quite as absurd as it would once have been; her slate wasn’t pristine. “Charges?” she asked with deliberate calm. “For what?”

“He says you took part in a theft on Niflheim. Some kind of ore processor.”

“But… that’s ridiculous!” Inara protested. “I worked with the Alliance – I helped them stop the crime! He has to know that!”

“Then come and tell him. Inara, I know you are no criminal, but the Priestess is worried that you may have been taken in by those who are. She’s seen that you’ve been acting strange, and then the way you left…. She wasn’t able to deny his claims with complete confidence. If you could just come back and explain–”

“That’s what he wants,” Inara interrupted as the realization dawned. “He knows I can clear my name, but I’ll have to return to the House to do it. He’s trying to force me to come back.”

“It’s best that you do,” Lina said firmly. “It is your career at stake, your life’s work. Whatever this pirate of yours has gotten himself into, he can find his way out on his own.”

Inara shook her head. “No. I abandoned him once. I can’t do it again. I won’t.”

Inara’s resistance only made Lina’s voice grow stronger. “Inara, take care. You’ve already been suspended from the Guild.”

“What?”

Lina tilted her head and sighed, her eyes showing regret that she’d blurted the news out so suddenly. She continued in a softer, almost apologetic voice, “The Priestess must protect the reputation of this House. She did not want to do it, but she had to suspend your privileges, pending a hearing. You cannot be allowed to represent the Guild until this matter is cleared.”

Inara clenched her teeth and swallowed back panic. She turned away from the screen as she thought out the implications of this news; now she truly had no option of falling back on her Companion status. She might be able to risk threatening a criminal like Badger, but she wouldn’t be sweeping into any train stations and telling a sheriff that Mal is her hired man.

Of course, she’d still be free to slap the captain on occasion.

Inara couldn’t hold back a smile at the memory, although it brought a pang of longing so vivid that it ached. Dear Buddha, she only wished she’d have the chance to slap Mal again. If she went back to Sihnon now, she’d likely never know what happened to him. She’d always wonder if he was still out breaking the law and beating the odds, or if he was locked up in a lightless Alliance prison.

No matter the cost to herself, no matter that it was a stupid thing to do, she had to know.

Lina must have seen the determination on her face. “Inara – do you really mean to carry through with this?”

Inara fixed her eyes on the screen. “I do,” she said firmly.

Lina surprised her by smiling. “I thought as much. I know you – I have known you for some time. You always were impossible when you set your mind. I expected that you would not see sense, not even for your own good.”

“Well… ” Inara stuttered a bit, confused by Lina’s light tone. “Does this mean… you intend to help?”

“Of course, and I have the freedom to do it. The Priestess was stern in the presence of Marone – she cannot openly oppose someone with his credentials – but after he left she was different. She used veiled words, but her meaning was clear: she guesses that I have some means of contacting you, and gives me her blessing.”

Lina’s words brought Inara a rush of relief; Marone’s plan was misguided. He must not realize the bond that Companions shared. The Priestess may not be able to act openly, but she would make no final judgement without hearing Inara’s defense. That need not happen right away; the Priestess would wait until Inara returned.

Inara smiled. “I owe Aileen a great deal.”

“As do I. Tell me; what can I do?”

Inara leveled her eyes at her friend. “The people I’m looking for were heading for Londinium as of a few days ago – to the Companion House in Eastbourne. They were selling selesta.”

Lina’s expressive eyes showed her surprise. “How did they come by that?”

“Illegally, I’m afraid,” Inara admitted.

Lina’s white teeth gleamed. “Criminals and pirates, indeed.”

“Among other things,” Inara said, returning the smile. It warmed her to know that she had support from her friends in the Guild, and the panic that had arisen in her a moment ago subsided. She could do this. “Please, can you check with the House on Londinium? Anything you can find out… Right now, this is the only lead I have. ”

“I will place a wave right now. Sheydra is there – I will see what I can learn from her.”

“Marone is likely headed to that House as well; his people have heard the same news I have. The wave that called him away from you was probably about that. So, Lina – ”

“I know, my dear. I will be careful. And I will tell Sheydra to do the same.”

* * *

Guild Companion House, Eastbourne, Londinium

The place stank of love-making. Not of sex – there was no tang of sweat or any of the flatter smells that generally come with a good rut, and not a hint of stale booze or smoke hung in the air. No, this place was about a different kind of fornication, one as prettified and shiny clean as the polished marble floor. It was pure as the sunshine beaming through floating white curtains and as sweet as the perfume and incense that tickled Ginger’s nose; it was offered by dainty women walking gracefully with their eyes down, the silk of their colorful gowns rustling like naughty whispers around their fine ankles.

But none of it fooled Ginger. This place may look like a palace of delights, where everything a body could want was obediently given, but she’d met a Companion before and she knew better. She’d come up against the steel that held these women’s spines upright, and she’d learned to see the cocky strength behind their humble, submissive smiles.

Will knew about it too. He did his share of ogling as the page led them down the hall, but his steps didn’t have the usual easy swing and his neck was stiff and tense. He’d been done in by the pretty, delicate Companion on the Firefly, and it must have been eating at his pride ever since. He wouldn’t be trusting any of these ladies, no matter how frail and obliging they might seem.

But the man they had come here to find was quite at ease; Ginger heard Marone’s voice carry from a sitting room even before they reached it. His drawled words had a note of superior, casual amusement.

“But, my dear, surely you have no desire to protect fugitives?”

A woman replied, her voice just as smooth as Marone’s. “Not at all. But surely you must know the law, Mr. Marone. The business of this House is our own, and your jurisdiction does not extend past our doors.”

“Were this a matter of…” Marone stopped speaking when Will and Ginger entered the room. His eyes narrowed at them for a second, but he quickly covered his frown with a smile. “Ah – there you are,” he said, just as if he’d been expecting them.

He couldn’t have been. Will hadn’t waved ahead, just led Ginger straight here from the landing port. It wasn’t smart. They should have stayed put, hidden and out of the way. It compromised them to be seen here, but Will had seemed determined to come. Ginger hadn’t said anything to stop him, because, really, she didn’t care. Maybe they’d get pulled from the job for being so careless. That’d be all right with her.

Still, it was odd. Will might be an ass, but he usually wasn’t an idiot.

Or maybe it did make a little sense, Ginger thought to herself as the names handed round. Will stared with a kind of disgusted fascination at the blonde Companion who’d been speaking with Marone; he took her hand and leaned forward to almost kiss it, his lips coming close but not quite touching her, like he thought her skin was coated with poison. It made Ginger think back to her little brother, a boy who’d been deathly afraid of spiders but was the first to come see an especially big, hairy one hiding in a corner. Will watched this Companion the same way the boy had fixated on the spider, ready to squash it or run like hell if it twitched in his direction.

Marone finished the introductions and waved at a sofa on the other side of a low table. “Please, have a seat,” he told Will and Ginger. “Miss Sheydra and I were just getting to the heart of the matter.”

It wasn’t an especially large sofa. Will settled onto it, but Ginger moved to a wing-backed chair further away. She didn’t want to sit next to Will, not if she could help it.

While the Companion set out and filled two more tea cups, Ginger’s eyes wandered. She’d never seen anything so fine as this House. A table next to her chair had a fountain on it; a flat bowl held a small sculpture of a naked woman sitting on a rock under a waterfall, washing her feet. Unlike the residents of this place, the woman in the sculpture wasn’t obscenely perfect. Water trickled over her small, upturned breasts and her softly rounded belly and hips. Ginger stared at it, a little mesmerized; though the stone body had bulges to match her own, it was beautiful and blatantly sexual.

She raised her head to catch Will looking at the fountain. For just a second, his eyes raised to meet hers, and a sharp thrill went through her belly. That wasn’t right – what this place promised wasn’t her kind of sex, and Will wasn’t her kind of man.

It had been too long, that was all.

She fixed her eyes on the far wall, determined to ignore tingles that she didn’t want to be feeling, but an erotic Indian mosaic there didn’t help her state of mind. She tried to focus on the conversation instead.

“Miss Sheydra,” Marone said, “as I was saying: were this a matter of the Guild’s private business I would never have presumed to take up your time.”

“Regardless,” the woman replied, “no one outside the Guild is privy to House records. The anonymity of our clients is sacred to us.”

“Be assured, I am not interested in your clients. The people I am searching for are smugglers. They would be too, shall we say, thrifty to engage a Companion. They were trying to sell illegally procured selesta.”

Sheydra blinked in surprise. “Poaching? You’re concerned about poaching? I hadn’t thought the higher levels of the Alliance legal department were so concerned with environmental matters.”

Marone paused thoughtfully before he replied, “There is more involved.”

Sheydra tilted her head and smiled. Ginger didn’t know a thing about reading people, and if she hadn’t met the Companion on the Friefly she’d have heard nothing but gooey honey in this woman’s voice. But there was something under all the sugar. A ploy and a bit of hidden insult, like a middle finger raised inside a pocket where no one would see it. “Perhaps, if you explained, I could be more helpful.”

“It’s classified,” Marone replied. If he saw the woman’s game, he showed no sign. “But be assured that by helping me, you help innocent people.”

“I see,” Sheydra said. “In that case, I will speak to House security. If you’ll excuse me…?”

“Of course.”

The woman rose and left the room, and Marone turned his eyes on Will. “You made it here in good time,” he said pointedly. His meaning was clear; he wasn’t happy that they’d come.

“Yeah, well…” Will looked around uncertainly. “Ginger couldn’t wait to see a real Companion House.”

Ginger glared but didn’t reply. Marone picked up his tea cup and sat back like he wasn’t going to waste more words on them, not at the moment anyway.

“Nice decorations in here, huh?” Will said. “We should do something like this with our transport, Ginger. I especially like that little fountain.”

Ginger didn’t look at him, and, to her relief, he gave up his effort to annoy her. They all sat quietly until Sheydra returned.

“Mr. Marone,” she said after she took her seat, “I have bad news. I’m afraid that I can’t be very helpful. House security reports that two men did try to peddle selesta a few days ago, but they also expressed interest in engaging a Companion. Therefore, they are clients, and the rules of Guild protect their privacy. I cannot give you the security video, nor report the exact time of the visit. In fact, what I’ve just told you is all I’m allowed to say.”

Marone set down his tea and sat back in his chair. His normally friendly expression tightened into a frown. “That’s unfortunate,” he said.

The woman sat up straight. Ginger thought that if she touched the woman’s throat she’d feel her purring like a cat. “Yes, it is. I do wish to help, but I can’t compromise the integrity of the Guild’s privacy rules.”

Marone didn’t give up. He sighed and leaned toward her. “I was hoping not to bring this up, as it may be distressing for you to hear, but it’s possible that these criminals are tied to a Companion from Sihnon. Her Priestess has suspended her, and she is facing serious charges.”

Sheydra’s forehead crinkled in a frown. “Oh dear. It’s shocking to think that anyone in the Guild would act against Alliance law. Are you sure?”

“The matter isn’t completely decided, which is why I need your help. Once I find these men, I may be able to clear your sister’s good name.”

For just a second, Sheydra’s mask slipped. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Is that an offer?”

It was Marone’s turn to look smug. “It’s a statement of fact.”

The woman held Marone’s eyes for a long second before she replied. “Then it really is a shame that I’m bound by House guidelines. Nothing would please me more than to help a Companion in need.” She stood up. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Marone sat for a few seconds, still staring at Sheydra. Will was watching the woman as well, looking like he had some ideas as to how to get more satisfying answers to Marone’s questions. But he didn’t have a chance to try.

“No, that will be all for today,” Marone said. “Thank you for being so generous with your time.”

Ginger couldn’t help but feel light on her feet as she followed the two men out of the House. Maybe they really had hit a dead end. Maybe they’d be tied up for a spell, sniffing for a scent to follow, and she’d have time to herself. A day or two to clear out the cobwebs gumming up her thoughts - a good rut or two should do it, if only she could find a man willing to partake.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult as she’d been thinking. To hell with Will and Badger – she could be just like the woman in the fountain. She didn’t have to be some damned toothpick with big boobs and shiny hair to be pleasing.

She hummed to herself as she walked, and didn’t quiet down even when Will turned to scowl at her. He didn’t fool her a bit. He’d liked that fountain just as much as she had, and it gave her a heady kind of power to know it.

* * *

Translations

hăo xiào:     laughable; ridiculous
jiāo gòu: to have sex
Shú?: What?
* * *

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Pre-hack comments:

mal4prez       Thursday, October 18, 2007 - 06:53 Sorry for the horribly long delay. Mostly real life stuff being annoying, but also I had to sort out many following chapters before I could decide what went here. And this wasn’t easy to write either! The Ginger scene took some work – it’s the one I meant in the style thread, where I had to show Marone and Sheydra’s conversation from Ginger’s POV. Also, I’m setting up Ginger’s mind-frame for future events, which is a delicate thing to do…

There should be another 2-3 chapters coming quickly, and hopefully more if I can put some time into it over the next week. We’re getting to climax of my Mal/Zoë history, yay!


wytchcroft       Thursday, October 18, 2007 - 07:40 puttin us to shame as ever! very considered writing - your characters have real personality and you never force the pace.

i like the clash of ginger's 'smarts' catching on to Sheydra's wiles. but merciful gods - inara suspended?! eek!


KiMbEr       Thursday, October 18, 2007 - 09:17 Welcome back! This chapter is keeping me on the edge..I hope Mal notices something odd about Inara and comes to the rescue...she's in gorramn trouble!! Hurry up with the next =)

Keep flying ;)


Desertgirl       Thursday, October 18, 2007 - 18:47 Of course I had to go back and read the last several chapters so I could remember what had been going on. Which is such a shame, she says her voice dripping with sarcasm.

I'd like to echo wytchcroft. cause she took the words right out of my mouth. I really like how Ginger is waking up to her own power, but Inara oh dear, at least she has the support of those that care for her, even if it is hidden.


Katesfriend       Friday, October 19, 2007 - 01:15 Glad to see more! Wonderful job with Ginger and empowerment and sexuality. The images evoked paralleled her character deveopment perfectly. There's a real person in there somewhere - hope she's a charter member of the Kill Will fan club.

Your backstory explains more of Inara's loyalty to the Guild, but in the present how she almost has more to Mal now. How empowering to her to know she has the Priestess's blessing. Did the Priestess have her own sordid affair with a pirate?


Platonist       Friday, October 19, 2007 - 13:39 "Pirate Love"...that is so romantic, oh why, Dear God why, did they cut that scene?

I like the arc you are creating for Ginger. And Mal and Zoe... waiting on that.


misswhatsis       Friday, October 19, 2007 - 19:39 Lovely to have you back. I really admire the way you are unfolding this -- nice, nice work.


Leiasky       Sunday, October 21, 2007 - 17:33 I just love all of your attention to detail. You've developed the OC's so well that I can't help but hate them as much as I hate Niska! :)

I just love how you have the Guild try and help Inara while still keeping up their appearance of cooperation on the outside.


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