BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories II, Chapter 12
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Inara’s graduation day, an acting challenge, and a glimpse of Simon and Kaylee on Highgate.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2584    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

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

Many thanks: fireflyfans.net members: leiasky and nosadseven for beta-reading and mphillips for the artwork.

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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Eight years ago, House Madrassa, Sihnon

“Inara – here you are!”

Inara turns away from the mirror to greet her friend. “Is it time?”

“Very nearly,” Lina replies. “You look fantastic.” The last word comes out in three distinct syllables, the t’s sharp as little wooden darts, making the compliment seem to carry more weight than if anyone else had spoken it.

“I’m nothing next to you,” Inara returns with a warm smile. It may be an exaggeration – Inara knows very well that her beauty isn’t easily eclipsed – but her words are based in truth. Lina is one of the more eye-catching of the Novices taking part in the ceremony today. Her tight-fitting gown suits her perfectly; the textured white silk contrasts her jet-black skin and covers her slim body simply but without being plain. Bands of gold cross the dress’s bodice and stretch low over her shoulders to wrap her slender upper arms, but neither these trimmings nor her large gold earrings present any competition to the arresting brilliance of her eyes.

“Let us just say that we are quite a pair,” Lina says, her sharply accented words full of good humor and joy, not pride. She slides a hand around Inara’s waist and they stand for a moment, side by side, admiring their shared reflection.

No, neither of us outshines the other, Inara thinks. They are like a pair of exotic birds from different continents, complementing and showing each other to their best advantage. Where Lina is almost impossibly slender in form and simple in decoration, Inara’s oval face is surrounded by color and movement. A band of dangling rubies set in gold covers her hairline, matching her shimmering earrings and the necklace which lies heavily on her chest. Her rich red and black gown is similar to the saris of Earth-that-was, but modified to reveal more of her figure than the traditional design would have allowed.

Such a dress is necessary for this event; the elite of Sihnon have gathered to see the Guild’s newest offerings. An eye caught today is a client tomorrow.

“They have no idea what they’re in for,” Inara says with a mischievous glint in her eye.

“We will conquer the `verse,” Lina agrees, her head high, looking as regal as a goddess of old standing before her barbarian horde. “And they will love us for it!”

Her imperial pose breaks and they both dissolve in laughter.

“Inara,” an even voice announces from the room’s main doors. “You have a guest.”

“You see,” Lina says, “already they are clambering for a single moment of your time.” She ghosts a kiss over each of Inara’s cheeks, not touching so as to preserve their painstakingly applied makeup. “I will see that the Priestess is ready, and tell her you will be along directly.” She wafts out through a side passage, managing to move with smooth, easy grace, even though her tight gown limits her long legs to smaller steps than she usually takes.

Inara checks herself one more time in the mirror. Now all she can see of her reflection is the light in her eyes; she has never felt as powerful and optimistic as she does now, not even on the day she joined this House. She feels that she might very well conquer the `verse – and she certainly will be loved for it.

She smiles at her own giddy thoughts as she steps into the center of the room, placing herself to properly welcome her visitor. But the person who steps through the gilded doors is so completely unexpected that she can only take in a quick breath and stand dumbly in her place.

“Well, Kari,” the woman says. “You’re looking very fine.”

Inara hasn’t seen her mother in nearly seven years. She spent a week at home on vacation during her first year of training, but found the visit so unpleasant, her family so stiff and awkward, that she’s never returned. They’ve exchanged messages over the years; dry, superficial updates and vague wishes to visit each other, but of course nothing ever came of it.

And so Inara’s memory of her mother is much out of date. She recalls a beautiful, intelligent, strong woman with elegant manners and an impressively neat and stylish manner of dress, no matter that her clothes were second-hand. But this woman looks dull and colorless and sullen.

Inara finally makes herself smile and speak, forcing her voice to be light enough to gentle her words. “That hasn’t been my name for some time.”

Her mother’s reply is stubborn. “It will always be your name.”

“Only with you and father.”

Inara succeeds in keeping her tone and her face pleasant, something she has learned how to do no matter her feelings, but her manners only seem to challenge her mother. The woman narrows her eyes, then turns aside and walks about the room, looking at the furnishings and decorations as if she’s shopping for knick-knacks.

“I could have had this kind of life myself,” she says, her voice nearly as light as Inara’s. “But I wouldn’t have had to do the things you’ll be doing.” She turns back and meets Inara’s eye. “Have you yet?”

“Have I what?”

“Sold yourself?”

Inara almost gapes at the question, but controls herself. “I have been talking clients for more than a year now, as the final stage of my training. But I haven’t had sex with any of them, if that’s what concerns you.”

Her last sentence comes out with a hint of sharpness, and that seems to satisfy her mother in some way. The woman turns her attention to a potted palm sitting in a corner and lightly strokes a large, dark green leaf with her fingertips. She speaks softly.

“I never took a man for money. I did the opposite – I left my wealth behind to be with your father. That is honor. That is love.”

“Mother – ” Inara stops and forces herself to be calm. This is her graduation day, a day to rejoice. She won’t let herself be baited. “Mira,” she continues, using her mother’s given name for the first time in her life, “I have no wish to argue with you. I know you don’t approve of my choices, but it is finished. I’m a Companion. If you can’t take pride in that, at least be comforted in knowing that I’m happy.”

Mira turns back and looks Inara up and down. “Are you? Are you really?”

Inara doesn’t have to force a smile; it comes easily because this subject isn’t open to argument. Her answer is a plain and simple fact. “I am. This is everything I’ve wanted. Everything I’ve dreamed. I’m quite good at it – and no, I don’t just mean what you’re thinking. It’s about more than sex. You have no idea of the complexities of human nature that I’ve studied. The skills I have acquired apply to so much, so many important…” She suddenly realizes what she’s doing – belittling her trade, changing it to fit her mother’s expectations. “Not that there’s anything wrong with making my clients happy through physical pleasure,” she amends quickly.

“And taking pay for it?”

Inara sighs, feeling impatience tug at her, but she’s not going to be drawn in. She much prefers to leave this be. She left her family years ago, and there’s no use in fighting this battle now.

“The ceremony is starting,” she says firmly. “They’re probably waiting for me.” She takes a few steps toward the door, but then has to stop. Her mother has crossed the room to stand in her way.

“All my children make me proud, Kari,” Mira says. “Just by being mine. You don’t have to do this to prove yourself to me.”

This time Inara does gape. “Is that… is that what you think?”

“I know you never approved of how we lived. You always wanted more. But you don’t have to do this. Kari, you must not stoop to this level. It’s not worth it.” She reaches out a placating hand and touches Inara’s arm, gripping lightly as if she’s about to pull, to lead her daughter out of this place and back to her childhood home.

Inara shakes her arm free. “Mother – no! You don’t understand me. You never have! But then, you never really tried, did you?”

She might have said more, but a soft voice from the side door interrupts. “Inara, it’s time.”

Inara looks over; it’s Aileen, standing in the side doorway in deep blue silk and sapphires, her auburn hair piled on her head and nothing but concern in her eyes. Still, Inara has to turn away to hide the blush that must be coloring her face; she shouldn’t have let herself snap. No matter how frustrated she feels, she shouldn’t speak this way to her own mother. She’s ashamed that Aileen has seen it.

“Kari?” her mother asks. She’s still beside Inara, reaching out a hand as if she may yet take her away.

Inara straightens. From where she stands she can see her reflection in the mirror, and she’s grateful that her make-up hides the heat in her face. She looks perfect. She looks like a Companion, and not her mother’s daughter.

She should act like it.

“Are you attending the ceremony, Mira?” she asks, her voice cool and impersonal.

Mira drops her hand. “No. No, I have business in the city. I just... I thought I’d stop by.”

Inara plainly knows the lie in that – her mother is here because she heard of the ceremony. She wanted this last chance to “save” her child. Or perhaps she’s only worried about the financial support she’ll no longer receive, now that Inara’s training is ended and part of her allowance will no longer be sent home...

Beads tinkle as Inara shakes her head at herself, at the uncharitable nature of her thoughts. Her own mother deserves better, no matter her flaws. She looks again at Mira, forcing herself to see though a Companion’s eyes, untainted by the bitter little girl she still harbors inside herself, and for the first time she sees the woman’s awkwardness. In the lengthening silence, Mira looks over to Aileen self-consciously and passes one hand over the front of her plain navy sweater, lightly touching the softly rounded belly of a woman who has born eight children. Wherever Mira grew up, whatever past of privilege lost she’s held secret from her own daughter, she doesn’t belong in a place like this anymore, and she knows it.

“I’ll let you get to your business,” she finally says with brittle dignity, and then she turns and leaves.

Inara has to draw in a deep breath and hold it against tears that she can’t let fall. She doesn’t even know what upsets her – is she angry at her mother’s meddling, or sad to see this woman’s plight?

She feels a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Did you know that ‘Inara’ is also the name of a goddess?” Aileen asks.

Inara drops her head and smiles. Trust Aileen to have saved such a fact for so many years. “No, I didn’t.”

Aileen changes the pressure of her hand on Inara’s shoulder, lightly directing her out the side door as she speaks.

“Inara is the goddess of storms and protector of all wild animals. Except dragons.”

“Dragons?”

Aileen’s blue eyes crinkle with a smile; she’s aged since Inara joined the House, but the lines on her face only give her more character, a suggestion of wisdom and experience behind her beauty. “Yes. You see, dragons have a tendency to annoy Inara. So much so that she threw a feast for one of the mightiest, him and all his family, serving up all the best dragon delicacies and wines. After they gorged and drank themselves into a stupor –” Aileen holds out her hands as if the jewels on her fingers might shoot lightening down the hallway. “ – she obliterated them, tore them to shreds!”

This startles a laugh out of Inara. “Is that a suggestion?”

“Honestly, I’m just hoping to cheer up. Don’t take yourself too seriously, my dear. Any situation will improve if only you can laugh at it.”

“I should laugh at my own mother?” Inara asks. “Is it funny that she comes here at this moment? After all these years?” And should I rejoice in finally seeing her as she truly is? Now, when it’s too late to bridge the gap between us?

“Perhaps you should imagine her as a dragon. Lay out the best feast you can.”

If only there was a way, Inara thinks to herself, but she smiles wryly and plays along. “Then comes the death and destruction?”

Aileen laughs. “If it makes you feel better – but only in your mind, my dear. You’ll never become House Priestess if you obliterate all who annoy you.”

Inara takes that as a welcome change of subject, but shakes her head at the implied suggestion. The current Priestess has expressed her desire to step down, and though the date hasn’t been firmly set it’s sure to happen in the next few months. Aileen is the clear forerunner for the position.

“That title is for you to take,” Inara says. “Not me.”

“But I won’t want it forever.” Aileen smiles at Inara. “Just keep it in mind. You excel at teaching; all the novices adore you. You’re quite good with children.”

Inara shakes her head, though it’s true. For the past two years she’s been helping teach the youngest Novices, and she can’t deny that they react well to her.

They reach the entrance to the hall and hear music playing within; quiet, patient music. The ceremony is waiting on them. But Aileen pauses and turns to Inara.

“Don’t be brought down, Inara, or rue the past. Today you are your own woman, free of all bonds and constraints. You may choose your own way in life as befits you and no other. Enjoy your freedom; you’ve earned it.”

Inara smiles and accepts a gentle hug before passing through the door. She’s determined to do just as Aileen says.

* * *

VT-90 transport, Approaching Highgate

Inara’s education had touched on many subjects, and it wasn’t a stretch to include acting as one of them. But the character involved in playing a Companion was developed by each Novice over years of training, carefully designed to fit her own personality and interests, and never changed.

Now, by necessity, Inara needed to be someone else, someone entirely different from her adult self in every possible detail. And this was more demanding than her visit to the docks on Persephone – she couldn’t just hide in the background, moving quietly through crowds and relying on her own strength when she chose to show it. This time, she’d need to be able converse with locals without fear of being noted and remembered as a Companion. To help herself along, she’d chosen a real life inspiration, someone she was comfortable and familiar with.

She studied herself in her small handheld mirror, angling it down so she could see something of her newest outfit. The costuming had turned out well. She’d bought a light brown jumpsuit while she was on Persephone, just to have a change of clothes, and now it was stained with dirt and grease. A few streaks marked her face as well, and her hair was coiled up in two loose spiky buns toward the back of her head.

“I was just lookin’ for some people in a Firefly,” she tried, then worked her face into what she hoped was an innocent smile. What she saw in the mirror was so poor that she rolled her eyes and huffed. She sounded like a damned fool.

“A gorramn fool,” she corrected her reflection. “You sound downright… gorramn silly. Ain’t no one gonna fall for that.” The last sentence rolled off her tongue with something like Kaylee’s easy lilt, and Inara felt a bit enheartened.

“Now, it ain’t tricky,” she explained to the girl in the mirror. “I’m just hopin’ to find where that crew might have gone. Um… figure where they might a’ got to.”

She took a deep breath and let it out, then dropped her shoulders in an attempt to match the slouch Kaylee often had. Once again, she did her best to smile haphazardly. Not a brilliant smile – it mustn’t look smooth and practiced. Something unselfconscious and natural. Maybe even show some back teeth.

“I’m tryin’ to find where they got to.”

What she saw was at least progress. And it warmed her in an odd way, to have this little bit of her friend’s presence in this plain, empty transport. She set down the mirror and returned to the cockpit to check her location; she was nearing her destination. Possibly nearing Mal, if she’d chosen the right course of action.

Inara was betting everything on the chance that Ginger Larkin and William Cantone were performing Marone’s search, and that they would lead her to Serenity. Mr. Universe had tracked a ship identified in the captures Lina had sent Inara – the ship being used by the two Alliance agents. They’d left the Core for Muir a few days ago, then recently moved on to Highgate.

That was all Inara knew, and as helpful as it was, she still had plenty of work to do. A planet was a huge place, even one as sparsely populated as Highgate. She’d need help from the locals – hence the costume and act – and she’d start at the orbital refueling station. There was only one on the planet, so it was likely that Mal and the agents had passed through and been seen. She’d have to ask after both…

“`Bout yay tall,” she murmured to herself, imagining that she was describing Will to a crowd of lonely young men in whatever served as the station’s watering hole, charming them with Kaylee Frye’s easy sweetness instead of Inara Serra’s untouchable allure. “Dark hair, black eyes… Might have been traveling with a woman…” She clucked her tongue and adjusted her wording. “…might’a been workin’ with a lady. A quiet lady. Morose… No! Morose isn’t right; Kaylee wouldn’t say that. Um… Grumpy. A quiet, grumpy kind’a lady….”

She rolled her eyes at herself again. Channeling Kaylee was harder than she’d have thought. It was an idea worth the effort though – how else could Inara use her feminine wiles without standing out as a Companion? Kaylee had all the womanly charm one could imagine, but down-to-earth, with such a real-ness, that no one could mistake it for the result of training.

The thought made Inara uncomfortable. She’d known of the power she had over men for most of her life, but she’d never taken the kind of joy in flirtation that Kaylee did. That was the undeniable, honest-to-god, discomfiting truth. For all the romance and sex Inara’d had in her life, all the passion, very little of it had been joyful.

The cortex chimed, startling her from her reverie. It was Mr. Universe.

“Got news, Inara,” he blurted out eagerly. “You were very right about your little undercover friends – they have been on Mal’s tail, and they’re close.”

She took a breath to reply, but he barreled on, seeming in a hurry to share his news and be done.

“They got a step up for now, but only because it was a private security company that captured the ship. I’ve been searching government records, since you did say that it was the Alliance– ”

“Never mind what I said!” Inara finally managed to interrupt. “Serenity? Captured?”

He nodded cheerfully. “Being held in a colony on the surface. Now, now, none of that. No one was bound by law. The ship was empty when it was impounded, and your two undercover friends haven’t left the world yet, haven’t even sent messages to the Core, not as far as I can find. And, trust me, I do tend to find everything.”

Inara felt her mouth working as she tried to respond to any of the missiles of information the young man was firing at her, but he didn’t give her a chance. He had been staring at her, but now looked to the side. He kept talking while his fingers rattled away on a keyboard.

“And here’s what I’m going to do for you, given how very lovely you’re looking today. You’ll have official permission to land. Can’t have your little ship getting snatched up for infractions, can we? Now…” He hit a final key with some satisfaction, sending a message off, she guessed, then leaned closer to the screen and lowered out his voice as if it was storytime. “The colony where Serenity was taken has this medical clinic. The woman who runs it is known to bite the mining company’s butt now and then. Most recently, (so my cleverly concocted story goes), she called in a specialist to inspect the colony’s water purification system. Get it?”

He finally stopped talking so he could grin at her, and Inara had a moment to catch up.

“Water inspections?” she asked. “Wait – that’s supposed to be me? I’m a plumber?”

“You’re looking the part,” he replied, and Inara raised a hand to the grease stain on her cheek. She’d forgotten what she looked like at the moment. “Don’t bother to explain,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I know how it can get, being by yourself for so long…” He sighed, then looked away from the screen wistfully.

“Do they expect me to actually inspect things? But… no one’s going to believe me! I don’t even know… what pipes are made of!”

“Think of it as proof of the depth of your love, that you’ll go to such an extreme for your inamorato. Now, pardon me, but I have some love to prove myself.”

Her screen blinked out as he cut the wave, leaving her to regret that she hadn’t asked better questions. The ship captured? Impounded? But no arrests…

Maybe it was something as inanely stupid as unpaid tariffs. Maybe the crew was out gathering enough funds to pay…. which wouldn’t be a bad situation. Inara’d be able to help with that. She’d offer money, even use it as a bargaining chip if she had to. It would be something to make Mal listen to her, to get past his anger and pride, to make the crew believe that she was sincere and deserved a second chance…

The thought brought Inara up short, and made her examine something she hadn’t let herself dwell on before – it wasn’t just Mal who’d been angry the day she left. Zoë had seemed ready to skewer Inara with something especially dull and unpleasant. The whole crew, though some of them would never admit it, was very protective of Mal. They may not be happy to see her. Not at all.

Inara’s brooding was interrupted again as she neared the planet’s atmosphere. She had to take over the controls to guide her ship along. But as the flames of entry engulfed her transport, another thing Mr. Universe had said came back, replaying in her mind:

Love. Prove the depth of your love…

Her delayed reaction to his words caught her by surprise: a mix of dread and disbelief. Prove her love? Did she really love Mal? Of course she must, or she’d never have gone on this chase. But now that she may only be a matter of hours, perhaps minutes, from seeing him, she suddenly wasn’t as confident. Not in her own feelings, and not in the outcome of this madness. What if he was disgusted with her, if he turned away and refused to listen, to let her help? Would she still be able to believe herself in love? She’d never in her life had to make an effort to win a man’s affection. She’never had to grovel or beg forgiveness. And Mal wasn’t one to bestow it easily; perhaps the situation was impossible.

“Dear Buddha, why am I doing this?” she whispered to herself.

But it was too late for doubts now. She had to follow this though, and warn Mal of his danger. Any other outcome had to be left to the fates to decide.

* * *

Mining Colony E16, Highgate

Ginger finally had time to herself, but she wasn’t enjoying it.

She knew very well why Will’d left her to herself – because he thought he had her in hand. He thought he had his leash tightened enough on her neck that he could let her wander, and she’d come back docile as a lamb.

The thing that got to her, that made her day as bad as any so far on this trip – was that she couldn’t deny it like she wanted to. In truth, she was feeling bound. She was feeling gagged and tied up in knots, inside and out. Sick. Dirty.

The heat and the dry, salty air that blew through this colony didn’t help. She stayed in the shade, in a narrow gap between two buildings, sitting on a concrete block with her feet kicked up on the wall opposite, and fanned herself. It was the best place she’d found to stay somewhat cool and still be able to see the entrance to the med clinic across the way. This stake-out was her task today; Will was at the mining company headquarters, leeching what info he could from the authorities.

The hours dragged, slow and heavy, with nothing to fill her time but to think of her future, ponder her options. No matter how she came at it, things looked the same as they always had: finish the job, top priority. Get this captain back to Marone and be done with it. One bump of the uglies with Will didn’t change that, and she couldn’t let herself lose focus.

Sometime late in the afternoon, she finished the water bottle she’d brought along and tried to call Will about a break, but he wasn’t answering. She had no choice but smack her dry lips together and wait longer. She couldn’t leave her post, couldn’t risk being away when there were folks passing in and out of the clinic every few minutes.

“Liveliest damned place on the planet,” she muttered bitterly.

Slowly, the dark of evening came, bringing some relief from the heat but not from the job. People kept trickling by, though not so many as before and all leaving now, no one arriving.

Full night settled over the town and the traffic stopped altogether. Ginger was ready to give up and call her day wasted, but then one last pair came out the door.

A single bulb lit them from above, and at first she wasn’t able to make out their faces. Her eyes went straight to the man; even in the bad light she could tell he was well-made, maybe a bit younger than fit her taste, but still as fine a specimen as she could hope to admire on this world. He wasn’t fit in the stringy, spare way of the miners she’d been watching all day, but had a certain muscular plumpness that spoke of many years of healthy living and clean eating.

Her interest changed directions as she followed through on the thought – this man was from the Core. Had to be. She squinted and studied his shadowed face, getting a better look when he stepped away from the door and the light caught him better.

She sat up suddenly; she’d seen this man before. It was the doctor, the one from the Firefly. His name popped into her head: Simon.

She quickly realized that she knew the woman too. It was the mechanic, the one who’d hidden behind a shuttle’s hatch and taken Ginger out with a high-voltage shock. That’d been a downright humiliating way to end a mission.

Sāobī!” Ginger whispered sharply to herself, then she keyed on her comm. “Will, I got ID! Will!”

There was no answer, so she focused on taking in what details she could. Just then, a third person stepped out of the clinic, a tiny bird of a woman with short-cropped black hair. Despite being small in stature, the newcomer took over the situation with ease. A cheeky wave of her hand shooed the mechanic into the empty street, then the woman grabbed the doctor by the elbow and pulled him back toward the clinic’s door.

Ginger watched, curious, while the two had quiet words. Well, the women did most of the talking. The doctor stared at the ground while the stranger talked in his ear. His replies were short; he was clearly uncomfortable, and glanced at the mechanic repeatedly. The girl only looked away stiffly – her body language tried to be casual, but Ginger guessed that there might be hell to pay for whatever was going down between the doctor and the strange woman.

Ginger knew she’d read the situation right when the tiny woman laid a hand on the doctor’s shoulder, than pet down his arm in a familiar way, and the man looked like he wanted nothing more than to disappear into a chasm in the ground. The mechanic glanced at the pair once, then looked straight up like the stars were a sight to capture her full attention.

A hand suddenly settled on Ginger’s own shoulder, making her jump.

“Damnit Will!” she spat, but he shushed her. His breath smelled of beer.

“Quiet!” he whispered. “Don’t want to spook them.”

“Where the hell have you been?”

“Waiting to hear from you.” He stared at the scene across the street, taking in the three people standing in front of the clinic.

“I waved.”

“Nothing important till just now. Hey - it is them! That’s the doctor, huh? And the little mechanic. Don’t know the other…”

“I been sittin’ out here all damned day, you could’a brought me – ”

“Shut up. They’re moving.”

Ginger looked back – the stranger was stepping away from Simon, though she still held his hand. “Just think about it,” the woman said in a voice loud enough to carry, then she let go of him and turned away.

“They’re splitting up,” Will whispered. “Follow those two, and for cào tì stay hidden. They’ll recognize you.”

“Where you goin’?”

“To talk to the other one. She doesn’t know us.”

He slipped back down the narrow alley, moving fast and quiet, then disappeared out the other side. Ginger turned back to the clinic; Simon and the mechanic were moving down the street, walking an uncomfortable distance apart. Ginger was glad of it; whatever spat they were about to have, it’d keep them too busy to look around. She slid out of the shadows to follow.

The night was dark, and the town had no public lighting. She easily crept up close enough to listen in.

“You don’t gotta explain,” the mechanic was saying in an even voice. “I told you before, we both got free will to do as we please, and this ain’t gonna get complicated.” She laughed, though to Ginger it sounded forced. “You Core folks put so much weight on nothin’ but a bit of sexin’. You gotta lighten up!”

“Kaylee… it’s not about that! Tori and I were just talking.”

The mechanic looked at him sideways. “Come on, Simon. I know an offer when I see one.”

“She… OK, she did make an offer, but not like you think. She said I should stay here. She wants to open more clinics.”

The girl folded her arms stubbornly and kept walking. “Ain’t a bad idea. You’d do some good for these folks.”

“It’s not really about me. Tori thinks that River needs a stable place. I mean, after what happened last night…”

The girl didn’t take the change of subject. “And you need a better place too. I know about it. You don’t need to pretend, Simon.”

He seemed genuinely confused. “What exactly am I pretending?”

“I know you asked her `bout staying. She told me all about it.” “About… what?”

“She told me you liked it here. That you asked if she’d hire you on, so you’d get to do your kind’a job and be in one place and not be doin’ crime anymore.”

“Is that… is that what’s been bothering you? Is that why you’re mad at me?”

The girl kept her arms folded and lifted her chin into the air. “I ain’t mad,” she said stiffly. “Not a bit.”

“She lied, Kaylee. I never asked anything! She made the offer just now. I hadn’t even thought about staying here.”

And yet – Ginger noted to herself – he wasn’t telling what he’d replied to the offer. He wasn’t saying that he’d turned it down flat.

The girl didn’t seem to notice the omission. She stopped to look at the doctor, her poorly controlled anger softening. Ginger stopped too, worried about being seen, and backed carefully against a rickety porch to hide herself in the shadows.

“That the truth?” Kaylee asked. “You never asked?”

Simon held up his hands. “Honest! I had no idea! She’s obviously been planning this…”

Ginger froze – the mechanic looked back down the street toward the clinic, her eyes shooting darts of anger. But the girl’s gaze was focused off into the distance and passed right over Ginger.

“I guess I should’a figured,” Kaylee said, and her shoulders relaxed. She blew out a frustrated breath and took another long look at the doctor, then she started walking again. Simon followed, his eyes focused on the girl with a hesitant hopefulness. His relief was more obvious when Kaylee spoke up again, her voice taking on a note of teasing humor.

“I really definitely should’a known. She told me something else about you – about you back in school – and I knew that was a lie.”

The young doctor took the hook. “What?” he asked with a half-amused, half-worried kind of curious. “What’d she say?”

Kaylee glanced over her shoulder once to smile at him. “I can’t be sharin’ girl talk. There’s a kind’a code you know.”

Simon followed like an eager puppy dog at its master’s heels. “If she’s telling lies about me, then there can’t be any kind of code involved.”

“Now, just cause she’s a big fat liar don’t mean I ain’t honorable myself.”

It went on like that as the two passed down the street; Ginger stayed a little further back now that she knew their talk was about and knew for sure that she wasn’t interested. But after five minutes they stopped in front of large, rambling building to face each other, and their body language took on a serious kind of stiffness again. She crept close enough to listen.

“You think Jayne got us a ship to use?” Kaylee asked.

“I certainly hope so.” The doctor held up his hand – there was something in it. A small bag, all wrapped around whatever was balled up inside. “I’ll be ready for Mal, just as soon as I make sure the power source is working. The wiring in this house is… questionable.”

He looked up toward the building and Ginger took a closer look at the place herself, getting the hint that this was their destination. The outer walls of the place were old and splintered and the paint – a rich green, it looked to once have been, unless the dark was fooling her eyes – was faded and chipped, but rich pink curtains in the windows where shiny and lined with tassels. Ginger’s eyes were drawn to a sign hanging over the door. It was a wooden carving of a fat, swollen flower, the kind with big, thick petals that curve back, opening wide so a pollen-covered stamen could right stick out from the middle. House of Huāzhù the sign said under the carved picture.

Ginger frowned, more than a bit surprised at what the building clearly was. She knew Reynolds and his crew had lost their ship and must have found other digs, but she was expecting some crappy pay-as-you-go rental shack. This place was nothing other than a whorehouse.

“It’s fine, Simon,” the girl said. “I set it up myself this morning, `member? Come along with me and Wash to get the captain. He’s… well, Zoë’s gonna be all kinds of glad to see us. She’s gotta be worried something fierce, not hearin’ from us and all.”

“No… I should stay.” He glanced up toward the house again. “I don’t want to leave River alone. Not here.”

“Jayne’ll be with her…. Oh... Well, bring her along. Do her some good to get out. I think she’s bugged by last night too. She didn’t mean no harm, probably feels bad as anything `bout what she did.”

“Probably still feeling sick, too.” The doctor shook his head. “No, it’s best she stay in one place. You and Wash go. I should have it all ready for the captain by the time you get him back here. I just hope it hasn’t been too long for him… The rate of deterioration…”

“Hey – none of that frettin’! You done good, Simon.”

The doctor smiled when the girl stepped close to him; she was clearly out to offer her own kind of reward for whatever it was he’d done so well.

“No, you did good,” he said.

Ginger huffed and rolled her eyes, annoyed by the saccharin moment. But it didn’t last, just a short smooch and then the two turned and climbed the stairs to the building behind them, hand-in-hand now that their argument was past. The happy couple entered the palace of sin like they were returning to their lifelong home, like someone’s momma was waiting inside with a well-turned roast and an apple pie.

Ginger turned back and hurried down the street, off to tell Will her news. The captain wasn’t here, but he would be soon.

Hopefully, Will was making some progress with the stranger, cause neither of them were going to be able to walk in to the whorehouse. The crew of the Firefly would recognize them right off. But maybe the stranger, being a scorned woman (a feeling Ginger knew well), could be talked into helping. Or maybe they’d get Marone’s permission to bring in local security. Or maybe, Ginger thought distantly, they could disguise themselves.…

She snorted at the ridiculous picture in her head, but didn’t dismiss it.

* * *

Translations

Sāobī:bitch
cào tì:fuck’s sake
huāzhù:style, as in female organ of flower
* * *

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COMMENTS

Wednesday, January 2, 2008 9:44 AM

MAL4PREZ


A little note: In my imagination, where this is actually filmed and broadcast, I’m completely relying on Morena’s acting chops to carry off Inara acting as Kaylee (and doing a poor job of it). I'm sure it can be done, but... yikes! Kind of difficult to pull off!

As for the Mal/Zoë flashbacks and last chapter’s confusion: I actually wrote all this stuff forward like, then cut it up and rearranged and tried to add in enough little references to tie it together in reverse order. But I can see that, for the reader, starting at the end and going through the odd chapters backwards might make more sense. That'll be possible shortly - there’s only one more to go.

I guess I'm all about nonlinearity. And as if I don’t have enough, here I’m doing it again with Simon and Kaylee. Because of course I'll be going back to explain the stuff that Ginger overheard! (I’ll tell that part forward – the backwardness is about over now.)

So, Katesfriend: you did get the last chapter right. Sorry it took a few readings! I think I write with the intention of having it be read more than once, cause I always read things more than once. :)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008 4:02 PM

COZEN


"They are like a pair exotic birds...." Missed an, "of" there.

nigglycoz

p.s. ---> A nice examination of the price paid to acheive confidence. Even if it wasn't your intent to portray such a theme, I personally enjoyed this chapter when viewed from that perspective.

Well done, as always. Who's this "Joss", and why do we need him any more, anyway? :)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008 6:49 PM

KATESFRIEND


I'm in love with this fic, as you probably figured out by now, but to imagine how difficult it must have been to write it forward, then rewrite it backward, has me impressed to pieces once again by the unique way your mind works. Once again you crafted a wonderful story, and I'm eagerly waiting for more.

Thursday, January 3, 2008 4:16 AM

DESERTGIRL


Damn the site ate my comment ok I will try again.

I'm so excited to get another chapter. I love this series.

I loved Inara's trying to be Kaylee, who else would she try to emuate when she needed to fit into a working class world, than Kaylee some she loves and respects.

I also loved the scene with Inara's mom. I'm thinking that Inara ran at the end of easy tickets because she did nto want to give up her life like her mother did. I don't think she realizes how much she hurt the entire crew with that act, it should be interesting to see her try and fix.

Also I am still hoping Ginger flips. Will is such a jerk.

Thursday, January 3, 2008 5:03 AM

MAL4PREZ


Fixed it cozen, Thanks for the catch!

And interesting perspective... I'm still pondering...

Thursday, January 3, 2008 6:18 AM

LEIASKY


You already know how much I love this chapter! I really liked getting the tiny glimpse of how Simon and Kaylee are behaving with each other (since he was so worried when last we saw them how becoming intimate would change their relationship)and seeing it through Ginger's eyes was a refreshing perspective.

Inara pretending to act like Kaylee was well done. I can imagine how hard that was to write.

And I am just dying to know about the 'girl talk'! LOL!

Thursday, January 3, 2008 9:59 AM

NBZ


Brilliant!

Am I the only one with the suspicion that Mr Tam has been a very naughty boy? (and whatever River did was somehow linked to it - probably a connection that only she could see?)

Sunday, January 6, 2008 12:32 PM

PLATONIST


sorry, I'm so late for the party, but ya know, real life

anyway, in an attempt not to repeat what others have said above me, I'll keep it brief

THIS IS SHINY BRILLIANT!


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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

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


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