BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories I, Chapter 10/14 - Inara
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Inara finds that her time back in the Core is not as peaceful as it should be.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3052    RATING: 9    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: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.

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

Previous chapter | Next chapter: a little OC, then all bets are off...
 


Back Stories, Book 1

by Mal4Prez

SEPinara

Chapter 10/14: Inara

Inara finds that her time back in the Core is not as peaceful as it should be.


 

 

Inara feels an moment’s disorientation when she wakes up. The familiar hum of Serenity’s engines is absent, and she tries to recall what port the ship landed at. It isn’t until she sees faint shards of evening light coming through gaps around heavy curtains that she remembers where she is – back in the House.

She switches off the alarm clock, which is only ten minutes short of waking her from her nap, then pushes the covers back. It’s easier to get out of bed now that she’s planetside; the air is warm and soft on her skin. It’s a great improvement over the chill dryness of a transport ship’s artificial atmosphere.

Inara sighs. These comparisons are nearly constant, though she’s been settled into her old life for more than two weeks. It’s going to take a long time for the memories of her time in the Black to fade, but they will. In time. She has to believe this.

She begins her preparations, falling easily into her old routine. She showers under torrents of hot water, something she can’t seem to get enough of since she returned, then stands naked before the mirror, applying makeup and arranging her hair into a loose knot held by a pair of silver chopsticks. She feels like she’s doing her toilette as she always has, but when she checks the clock she realizes that she’d taken much too long. Her client will be here soon.

Perhaps she’s been using more than her usual care – the man who will be at her door in a few minutes is important to her, and she wants to look her best. But she doesn’t have time to take care choosing her outfit. Just as well, she thinks with a small smile as she pulls out the first garment her hand touches. He probably wouldn’t notice the difference between any of them anyway. He’s never been fond of finery. The black and red dressing gown will do; she slips into it and hurries to prepare the room, heating water and setting out the tea service. She just has everything ready when a knock sounds on the door.

It feels like it’s been ages since she’s seen him, but he looks exactly as she remembers. He hasn’t dressed up, although the social standards of this city are stringent, and he must have been the object of many a censorious stare on his way here. He’s never been one for show, something that annoys her but, she must admit, also draws her to him.

Brown hair hangs over his forehead, giving him a slightly disheveled appearance that she finds disconcerting. Even more troubling are his eyes, a deep blue, and they crinkle as he grins at her.

“Miss Serra,” he says, drawing her name out with just a hint of a drawl.

“Hello, Mal,” she replies.

“I took the trouble of knockin’, I think you can call me Captain Reynolds,” he says as he steps in, his presence filling the room. His wide grin reveals that his attitude is light-heartedly flippant. “Makes me feel important, havin’ a title.” He runs his thumb behind his suspenders, puffing out his chest as an important man should.

She smiles, feeling absurdly buoyant at hearing his voice and seeing that silly gesture of his. “Of course, Captain,” she says, then she steps back and motions with one hand toward the settee and tea table. “Please, have a seat.”

He ignores the offer, just tilts his head and looks at her. Not her body, but her face. His eyes linger while his smile fades.

“I ain’t here for tea,” he says softly.

“It’s part of the custom…” she tells him, but stops when he steps closer. She’s forgotten the intensity of his stare, forgotten how his eyes can cut into her. She backs away; she can’t help herself.

“I ain’t ever been good with those custom things,” he says, his voice low. He’s close enough that she can feel the heat of him. Her back touches the wall and she raises her hands to his shoulders, trying to hold him where he is, trying to keep him distant.

“This is my world, Mal,” she says sternly, hoping the weakness inside her doesn’t show. “You have to behave by my rules here.”

“Customer’s always right,” he says. “And this time, I’m a customer.”

He cocks an eyebrow but his grin is completely gone. His eyes seem darker; the weight of his gaze causes a quiver in the bottom of her belly. Still he focuses on her face, like she’s cool water to him and he’s been in a desert since she left his ship. He doesn’t look down, but his hands find her hips, and then he’s working her skirt up, bunching the fabric in his fists.

“About that payment thing,” he says, and his eyes finally break away from hers to travel down her neck. “You know I ain’t much for carryin’ a bundle of cash.” He leans over, his breath tickling her throat, and then his lips touch the skin that his eyes and breath just warmed. It contrasts the cool air that whispers on her bare thighs as her skirt hitches higher.

“Mal – ”

“I’ll be payin’ you in something else,” he says, his voice deep. “Something I think you need more than you need coin.”

Inara doesn’t ask. She knows, but she doesn’t want to hear it; it’ll only make everything more difficult in the end.

“Take your hair down,” he whispers against her ear. She holds his shoulders still, needing the support as his fingers travel downward. She whimpers at the pleasure of it, but this isn’t how it was supposed to happen. This isn’t what she planned.

“It’s… my world,” she stammers. “You can’t just… do this.”

“Take your gorramn hair down.” His voice is soft and gentle against her ear, but it’s an order. There’s no mistaking that. “Do it, Inara. Now.”

His fingers and solid heat of his body are impossible to deny. She reaches up with both hands, pulls the silver chopsticks out of her hair, and feels the slightly damp curls fall over her shoulders. Mal leans into her, nuzzling against her neck again and inhaling like he’s taking in her scent.

It’s my world, she insists to herself. It’s the life that I chose. He doesn’t belong here, and I don’t want him.

She steels herself, and then it’s like she’s watching from a distance, feeling her fingers work on their own, reversing the chopsticks in her hands. Suddenly, Mal releases her and takes a small step back, as if he knows what she’s going to do and wants to make it easier for her. She puts her thumbs over the head of the chopsticks, clutches them tightly, and drives them both into his chest.

Mal hardly moves, not even shaken by the blow. He looks down at the blood welling out of his body, thoughtfully, curiously, and then he shakes his head and looks up at her. His eyes are sad.

“I guess what I got ain’t good enough for you,” he says. “Never was, never will be.”

Then he falls away from her, pitching back into darkness.

* * *

House Madrassa, Sihnon

Inara sat up with a gasp. She immediately realized that she’d been dreaming, but she was slower to catch on to anything more. As she did every time she woke, she listened for the noise of the engines, the quiet background hum that had been lulling her to sleep for more than a year. When she didn’t hear it, she tried to remember what port the ship had landed at.

Then it finally came to her – she’d left. She’d come back to the House. That much of her dream was true.

The evening light around the heavy curtains was also alarmingly familiar, and for a few confused seconds she thought it might all happen again. She had to crawl out of her bed and go to the cortex to call up the profile of this evening’s client. She needed to see him, to stare until his features were imprinted in her mind, replacing the face that wouldn’t leave her alone. She needed to repeat her client’s name until it stuck: Ellis. Not Mal. Never Mal. She’d never see Mal again.

She went to the bathroom. Her reflection shocked her; her skin had an unhealthy, pale cast, and her eyes were wide and frightened, as if she was being hunted. She looked away quickly.

Her shower and the following preparation took exactly as long as they should; she bypassed the chopsticks on the bathroom shelf, choosing a pair of shell combs instead. She dressed quickly – this time truly not caring what she wore – lit incense, and heated water for tea.

She was soon sitting on the settee, silently waiting for her client to arrive. The dream had faded, except for the look on Mal’s face when she’d stabbed him. Sad, but resigned, as if it didn’t matter that his heart’s blood was draining away. It stung her. That kind of expression should never appear on Mal’s face. He should never give up and accept pain.

She surprised herself by starting at the knock on her door. There was no reason to be nervous, she reasoned. This may be the first client she’d accepted since she’d returned to the Core, but she’d seen him before. He’d visited her a half a dozen times before she left, and she’d always enjoyed her time with him. He’d been comfortable and unhurried while they had tea, and was similarly comfortable and unhurried as a lover. It was a good place for her to start.

“Welcome, Ellis,” she said with a fixed smile as she opened the door. The man waiting there looked surprisingly aged, considering that it’d only two years since she’d seen him. He’d gone gray at the temples, and the lines around his eyes had deepened.

“Inara.”

He lifted her hand to his lips, and she noticed the softness of the skin of his hands, the neatness of his manicured nails.

She led him into her parlor and poured tea. It was a pleasure to have the ceremony in a separate room, without the bed waiting a few steps away. She felt better able to focus on reaquainting herself with the man, without the distraction of the activity to follow. They could build up to that.

Ellis filled her in on the progress of his business, of the changes in his life since she’d last seen him. This part of the appointment was often the most interesting to her. These little snapshots of her client’s lives, the experiences they had and the transformations that took place over time, were fascinating to her. She liked to be aware of her clients in this way, to see and share in the challenges they faced.

He asked about her life, about what had kept her away from Sihnon for so long, and she entertained him with a few greatly censored tales. He found them amusing, as he should. It seemed surreal now, the time she’d spent out in the wilds of the Black. An adventure, a cleansing ceremony, a time of rebirth. And she had returned a new person, ready to continue where she’d been interrupted over two years ago.

She knew it was time when Ellis set his mug down, his mein turning serious. She slid closer to him for a kiss. His hands began to travel over her body, so she caught his arms and led him toward the bedroom.

“Gods, I’ve missed you,” he whispered against her breast a while later, as he lay next to her on the bed. He was taking his time, even more than she remembered. He must also feel the need to reacquaint himself with her, to see if she’d changed at all.

Despite herself, it annoyed her.

“I’ve missed you, too,” she replied warmly.

“There’s no one like you.” He looked at her face, and reached a hand up to stroke her cheek. “You’re amazing.” He suckled her nipple again, and his hand traveled down over her belly. “Gorgeous.”

Maybe she should have started with someone different. Someone who’d finish quickly and without fuss, not leaving her so much time to think. To compare…

“You don’t have to – ” she started as he began to slide down her body, but he interrupted her.

“I want to.” He grinned at her. “Just let me have my fun, and enjoy.”

Inara opened her mouth to reply. This isn’t for my pleasure, she wanted to say. This is about you getting what you need. Get what you paid for and go away.

The thought shamed her and she dropped her head back, closing her eyes and trying to convince her body to let go. One of the most basic lessons for a Companion to learn: to please a client, you must make it real. Let Ellis know you chose him, make him feel wanted, convince him that his desire means something to you.

The difference between a Companion and a whore…

His hands were on her thighs. I want this, she told herself. He offered and I want this.

She’d been offered it before – recently. Inara pulled her head up, looking down at the slightly graying but well ordered hair on Ellis’s head. She pictured brown hair and blue eyes, watching her with an intensity she hadn’t had the courage to look at.

Blessed Buddha, she should have looked.

Inara sat up halfway, and she couldn’t stop her hands from moving to Ellis’s head. She clutched his hair lightly, and froze when she realized that she wanted to push him away.

“Stop,” she whispered.

He looked up at her. “It’s all right,” he said. “I want to make you feel good – ” He reached for her cheek again, but she pushed his hand away.

“Please, just stop!” she said louder. He froze, and the shock in his eyes made her regret her words, but it was too late to mend this now.

“I can’t,” she gasped, and before she knew it she was up, grabbing a robe and running from her suite like demons were behind her. “I just can’t,” she said again as she hurried down the hall, all the way to a familiar door.

It was unlocked, and she threw it open. The woman inside rose as soon as Inara came in. She looked at Inara’s face, and without comment wrapped her long arms around her, stroking her back and shushing her sobs.

* * *

Fourteen Years ago

“My name is Inara,” she claims proudly. “Inara Serra.”

She fights not to squirm as the black-skinned girl with the wide eyes stares at her. Usually, Inara’s confident in her ability to charm strangers, but this girl's face has a wisdom that almost promises rejection.

However, the girl’s words, when they finally come, are kind. “You’re very pretty,” she says. “What are your origins?”

“Pardon me?” Inara asks.

“You’re almost Persian,” the girl says, “with your skin and hair. It’s very nice. Yes, you might do quite well.”

Inara straightens; this girl is the first student of the Companion House she’s met, and she’s happy to have made a good impression. The Guild is her life now, and she’s going to make everything she can of it. Things are going to be very different for her from now on. That is – as long as she doesn't fail, doesn't do something wrong and end up squandering this incredible opportunity.

Her sudden fear makes her resort to bragging. “I expect I’ll get dozens, if not hundreds, of clients,” she claims, trying to sound bored about it, just like her friend Sylvia used to talk when she made big claims. But Inara doesn’t get the reaction she expects; the dark-skinned girl just laughs. She laughs in a way Inara hasn’t often seen – the girl falls into a deep blue divan set against the wall, and doesn’t bother to cover her open mouth as her amusement rolls past her shining white teeth and into the room.

“What?” Inara demands. “Why is that so funny?”

“Oh…” The girl sits up and wipes her eyes. “Inara, you must not talk like that, or you’ll have no chance here. You must be more than a pretty face. You must have character, and pride only where you have earned it.”

“You know?” Inara demands.

“I have been here for almost a year,” the girl says, and for the first time Inara notes the odd lilt of her speech. She’s never heard anything like it. The girl’s words are crisp and sharp, but still roll like a song.

“Where are you from?” Inara asks. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Lina, and I am from the Ibengwe Colonies on Londinium.”

Inara has never heard of that place, and doesn’t know what to say. Lina watches her for a moment, then sighs as her face turns more serious. “I do not know if I will ever have hundreds of clients,” she says, “but that is not my purpose here.”

Lina loses herself in thought, still draped over the silken fabric of the divan. Inara is not comfortable with luxury, so she’s more careful when she takes a seat next to this amazing girl. She’d hate to damage the chair, or do anything stupid on her first day here. But then she takes a deep breath and makes herself recline – she lives here now, and if she succeeds the way she plans to, she’ll be surrounded with beautiful things for all the rest of her life.

“So then, why are you here?” Inara asks.

“I love people,” Lina says, a smile warming her face. “I love men, and I love sex.”

Inara is startled by that. She knows that they’re both only twelve years old, and, by the rules of the House, inexperienced. “But… you’ve never…”

“No,” Lina says, then she adds with whole-hearted confidence, “But I’m going to love it someday.”

“How do you know?” Inara asks.

“Because I love people,” Lina says, smiling like she thinks Inara’s silly not to understand. “I love to share myself with people, let them appreciate what I have to give them. I have so much to give.” She turns her lovely brown eyes on Inara. “That is what sex will be about – sharing what is the most beautiful about myself. Don’t you think so?”

Inara stares at Lina with something close to adoration; they are the same age, but Lina has been here so much longer, and knows so very much more.

Inara must learn this kind of confidence. She must, in order to keep her place and never get sent back home. “Absolutely,” she says, and she shyly takes Lina’s hand in her own. Lina smiles, and Inara knows that she’s made the first friend of her new life.

* * *

Inara woke up the next morning with a dark chocolate arms wrapped around her waist. She stroked one of her own hands over Lina’s forearm, enjoying the way the woman’s black skin made her own golden color appear milk-white. Then Lina stirred, and Inara felt soft lips on her cheek.

“Have you been here with me all this time?” Inara asked.

Lina smiled against her skin. “Mostly. I left to do damage control.” Her voice was deep and soothing as always, the sharp d’s and t’s giving her speech a pleasing rhythm. Inara knew that Lina affected an even sharper accent when with her clients; it enhanced her exotic appearance.

Once, the history books said, there had been many people with skin a deep blue-black like Lina’s, in a time when humans were separated by the wide seas of Earth-That-Was and mixing between the races was rare. But that was more than half a millenium ago, and now such a complexion was not often seen. It added to the Companion’s popularity.

“Was the damage extensive?” Inara asked.

“There was no damage. Ellis was more worried about you then himself.”

“What did you tell him?”

“The truth.”

Those two words brought Inara fully into wakefulness. Her body tensed, but another soft kiss on her cheek calmed her.

“Do not worry, Inara. I know no details. I only recognize the outcome.”

“The outcome?”

“You are not ready.”

Inara had no answer for such an obvious statement. She laid still, relaxing gradually as Lina’s soft hand stroked her neck and shoulder.

“You are not ready to provide comfort,” Lina said softly. “Are you ready to accept it?”

Light pressure on Inara’s shoulder turned her onto her back, and she stared up into Lina’s deep brown eyes, and she felt long fingers trail down her side.

“It is safe here, Inara. You have nothing to fear.”

Inara smiled, knowing it was true, but she shook her head. “It’s not you,” she said. “I just – I have so much on my mind.”

“I see. You need simple comforts.”

Lina laid back down beside Inara, her touch nurturing and gentle, not sexual. Inara felt peace descend on her, a strange, distracted kind of peace. There was certainly a problem she would have to deal with, a darkness inside her, but there was no hurry to face it, not while she was here in the House. She would be allowed a great deal of time.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” Lina asked softly.

“About what?”

“Him. The man you fell in love with.”

Inara rolled toward Lina, letting her head rest against the woman’s shoulder. “I had forgotten how năo huŏ Companions can be,” she said wryly.

Her head shook as Lina laughed. “It does not take much skill to see it in you. You are in love, Inara. Even if it ended badly, is it not news worthy of sharing?”

Inara took a deep breath. Worthy of sharing? She’d call it worthy of forgetting, but it appeared that it wasn’t going to be that easy.

“Not yet,” she replied. “Eventually, but not yet.”

* * *

Inara was spared any kind of official interview. Lina had spoken to the House Priestess, who allowed Inara time before she took another client. How much time wasn’t stated, but the Guild didn’t drive its members like chattel. Inara knew that no one doubted her devotion to her profession, and if she was having a rough spot, it would be understood, especially after the difficulties she’d faced before leaving the House a year and a half ago.

She cancelled the other appointments she’d made, claiming to have a minor flu that she’d picked up on the Border worlds. Few excuses were so effective; although nearly all illnesses could be subdued by Core medicines, no logic could dispel the paranoia that Core residents felt toward the Border worlds. Inara was certain that none of her clients would be eager to share the air she breathed, not for at least a few weeks.

She welcomed the break. She’d have even more time to enjoy the luxuries of the House – the food and her comfortable suite, of course, but also the art studios and gardens, the tuī ná and biān masters, and the exercise room and pool.

Two days after her disastrous appointment with Ellis, Inara returned from swimming to find a letter waiting. This was nothing unusual – it was currenly en vogue to send messages via the post, and she’d been receiving plenty of welcome-back’s and get-well-soon’s. But this one stood out from the rest. The envelope was small and made of coarse paper, and the handwriting was an uneven scrawl. There was no return address, but it had been post-marked on Londinium just the day before.

Inara put on a warm robe and made tea before she settled into her favorite chair, but once she opened the envelope and started reading, she forgot everything else.

Dear Inara,

I hope you are settled down and happy to be back in the Core. Are all your clients still there? Any of them bring you presents because they missed you so much?

Looks like we are back to business how we used to do it. We went by Persephone and the captain got some work from Badger. It’s gone good this time. Has so far anyhow, we ain’t quite done yet – things to sell. You wouldn’t believe what we’re selling! Or maybe you would. But I shouldn’t say too much – you know how it is.

I have kept myself busy. The new mule takes a lot of time. The ship does too, but she’s running good.

I’m sure everyone would say hi if they knew I was writing. I know R. misses you lots – I bet she wishes you was around to talk to about woman things. That Jase kid scrambled her head. But in a better way than usual ha-ha!

Guess that’s about all for now. I gotta go. Cap’s yelling at me to get some work done. You know how he is! Well, he’s the same as always. Mostly.

Love ya bunches! Kaylee

Inara read the letter through three times, then found herself staring at the last part: …he’s the same as always. Mostly.

She dropped the letter in her lap with an exasperated breath. What was that supposed to mean? Mostly. If Kaylee’d had something to say, she should have made it plain. She shouldn’t have just hinted…

Inara cut off her own rant – that wasn’t fair. She could see Kaylee’s meaning well enough, even if the mechanic was too kind to be blunt about it. The hurt Inara had done to Mal was bad enough that it was showing in him still, after three weeks. It was showing enough that Kaylee couldn't write without mentioning it.

Inara sighed and dropped her head against the back of the chair. Kaylee's reproach, mildly worded as it was, hit her hard.

The same as always. Mostly…

But what did that mean? What was Mal like? Inara could well imagine what his hurt would do to him: a bad mood that didn’t end, curt words to his crew that would damage him as much – or more – than it did them. He wasn’t one to be deliberately cruel, and he would feel guilt over every slight or undeserved scolding he handed out.

And even though the crew would know the reason behind his harshness, he wouldn’t let them help him. He wouldn’t show his hurt for what it was, he’d only isolate himself and hold his pain inside. Inara closed his eyes; she could feel his heartbreak in her own chest, and the feeling made her finally admit something she'd been avoiding for weeks:

I broke his heart. He never said he loved me, but I know he did. And I broke his heart.

She set the letter on the table and rose, walking to the window of her suite. The worst of it was, she’d never have a chance to make amends. Mal would carry his hurt, and she would carry her guilt, for the rest of their lives. There was absolutely no chance for closure, no possibility for explanations. She’d never see him…

The postmark, she realized suddenly. Londinium.

She crossed the room quickly and picked up the envelope. The postmark was just as she remembered. Serenity had been on Londinium, only yesterday...

A knock on her door interrupted her thoughts; it was Lina.

“You have guests,” the woman said without preamble.

“Oh, but…” Inara stopped, confused. Lina knew that she wasn’t taking visitors.

“Alliance officials,” Lina explained. “They insisted on seeing you. I can try to turn them away, but…”

“No, it’s fine,” Inara said. She felt a second’s hollowness in her stomach, but she forced the feeling away. Here was something else she’d picked up while on Serenity – an irrational fear of official authority. It was ridiculous for a Companion in good standing to have this reaction. It must be the letter from Kaylee getting to her, and her own regret over what she'd done to Mal.

But whoever these visitors were, she preferred seeing them to staying trapped in her own thoughts. She could use the distraction. “Just give me a moment to change,” she told Lina, trying to sound serene.

Her “guests” were waiting in one of the small parlors near the House entrance. Inara paused before going in, taking a minute to gather her wits and subdue the turmoil Kaylee’s letter had caused. She took a deep breath, lifted her chin, and entered the room.

Even with that preparation, she wasn’t able to hide her surprise when she recognized the two people who rose to greet her.

“Agent Alvarez!” Inara said, and she struggled to regaini her composure enough to shake the woman’s hand, then the man’s. “Agent Kain. Why are you on Sihnon?” She realized how abrupt her question sounded and tried to cover it. “I mean – I do hope it’s time away from your duties. There are so many lovely sights to be seen.” She managed what she hoped was a passable smile, but Kain didn’t return it. He seemed to disapprove of the idea of time off.

“Of course not,” he replied. “We are here on OPR business, to follow up on matters which have arisen since we interviewed you on Niflheim.”

Inara took a seat and folded her hands in front of her. The Office of Professional Responsibilty – the Alliance’s version of corporate internal police – had shown a heavy hand when she’d encountered them before. After the hijacking, the two agents had attempted to use Serenity’s jaded past to coerce Inara into testifying against the woman behind the crime: Beyla Skuld.

“I told you everything about my time with the Skuld’s already,” she told Kain firmly. “I thought the matter was closed.”

Alvarez took over from her dour partner. “It is closed. That case has moved on to prosecution; we’re not concerned with the Skuld cartel any longer.”

“Indeed?” Inara asked. She didn’t think Alvarez would elaborate, but the woman did.

“The evidence is overwhelming. Beyla Skuld will likely live out her life in prison. A very comfortable prison, but locked up is locked up. Peter, however…” The woman fixed Inara with a piercing gaze, but her olive eyes were unreadable. “It may surprise you, Miss Serra, but during the investigation into Beyla Skuld’s attempt to interfere with the lithium dubniate supply, we’ve found that some of her nephew’s personal habits were… let’s just say, distasteful. Not illegal, not on Niflheim –” “And why is that?” Inara interrupted.

“Pardon me?”

“Do Alliance laws not apply to Niflheim?”

“Unfortunately, we have no jurisdiction over domestic matters on planets with Settlement status. We can only do what is necessary to protect the broad economic and political well-being of the Alliance.”

“It is a shame,” Inara said pointedly, “that residents of Rim worlds don’t merit the protection of our advanced and enlightened society.” She spoke aggressively and against her better judgement – antagonizing these agents would do her no good – but she couldn’t help it. She had always considered herself to be well-informed, but somehow she’d spent most of her life unaware of the hypocracy rampant in certain of the Alliance’s laws. She was angered by seeing such blatant evidence of it in the agent’s attitude towards a man who preyed on children.

To Inara’s surprise, Alvarez didn’t take up the challenge. She didn’t even disagree.

“It’s unfortunate, but true,” the woman said. “There is usually more behind our government’s laws then the protection of human beings, but we do what we can.

“In the case of Peter Skuld, once we took a closer look at him, and especially since his Aunt’s resources have been entirely focused on her own defense, it wasn’t hard to find a long list of charges to bring against him. His habits in the Core weren’t much different from his habits on Niflheim. Miss Serra, I hope you aren’t too distressed to hear that he won’t end in a comfortable prison. He won’t be popular with the prison population, either, once the nature of his crimes are known.”

Inara sat quietly, not allowing herself to show any reaction. She wasn’t sure why Alvarez was being so open – trying to win her trust, perhaps?

“There’s something else I’d like to tell you,” Alvarez continued. “The Verdande mining system has been shut down. The battleship from which we were operating is currently orbiting Niflheim, and members of the Environmental Assurance Department are carrying on an investigation of the Verdande harvesting equipment.”

Again, Inara couldn’t contain her surprise. “You mean… you’re actually trying to stop him? You believed Beyla Skuld’s accusation?”

“It seemed worth further study. Miss Serra, we’re not monsters. The destruction of an entire planetary biosphere is a concern to us.”

“But – you were adamant that I didn’t speak of it. Beyond adamant – you threatened me!”

“I did no such thing,” Alvarez said, her voice firm but her mouth betraying just a hint of a smile. “I merely advised you that the crew of Serenity could be put under scrutiny. If you took that to be a threat, I suppose that says something about those people, and not about myself.”

Inara couldn't find that near as amusing as Alvarez apparently did. “That's an interesting interpretation– ” she started, but Alvarez held up a hand.

“It’s hardly important now; I said what was necessary at the time. Edward Verdande has supporters at all levels of the government. It was best to keep the matter secret until license was granted to shut down his operation and investigate the case. We couldn’t give him any opportunity to destroy evidence. But that’s enough of that. We should move on to why we’re here.”

“Please do,” Inara said, though she felt more than a little reticent. The agents had thus far acted benign and cordial, but she was still suspicious of their true intentions.

Alvarez nodded to her partner, who powered up his tablet. “I suppose you had quite a few adventures during your time aboard Serenity,” he said to Inara.

“Actually, most of it was on the dull side,” she said, forcing herself to relax into an easy, conversational tone despite her alarm at his choice of subject matter. She was sensitive enough over that ship’s crew already, she didn’t need the added challenge of diciphering this man’s intentions toward them. “The majority of our time was spent traveling between planets, and there isn’t a great deal to do on such a small ship.”

Kain found whatever he was looking for on the tablet; he studied it for a few seconds, then looked up at Inara. “A few months ago, Serenity delivered a shipment of cargo to Oeneus. We’d like to hear about your experiences there.”

Yet again, Inara found herself in the uncomfortable state of biting back surprise. “Agent Kain,” she replied. “Perhaps you misunderstand my situation on the ship. I was quite separate from business. I spent the time on Oeneus with a client, not with the crew.”

“Miss Serra, I did not ask about the ship's business, I asked about your own experiences. If you could just clarify the dates and times of your visit, any locations you and the crew of Serenity visited, that would be helpful. Oh – ” he added, as if it was an afterthought, “do you mind if I record this?”

“Record it? Am I testifying to something?”

“Of course not.”

“Then I’d prefer you didn’t.”

“You have something to say which you’d prefer not to have on record?”

Inara covered her alarm with a long sigh. While on Oeneus, she and the crew had snuck Mal out of an Alliance jail - that was certainly one thing she didn't want to reveal. Was that they were interested in? But why now?

She could consider the implications of the agents’ questions later. For now, she was suddenly wanting to get out of this room.

“Agent Alvarez, Agent Kain,” she said in a firm voice. “I find myself in a familiar situation with you. However, the circumstances are quite different. There is no crime involved in what you’re asking about.” Kain opened his mouth at that, but then he caught Alvarez’s eye and said nothing. Inara continued as if she hadn’t seen the exchange. “I am a Registered Companion; I am not an agent of the OPR. If you are lacking in those, this House is not the best place to recruit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have more important things to do.”

“Miss Serra,” Alvarez said as Inara stood, and the woman’s tone was no longer friendly. “We can do this the hard way, as you should already know.”

Inara stopped where she was, looking down on the two agents. “The hard way?” she asked. “Are you threatening me? Again?”

“We established that there was never a threat–”

“So doing this the hard way means what? Buying me an ice cream cone?”

Alvarez’s mouth quirked at that, but Kain showed no humor. “It means serving a warrant against you for abetting known terrorists in their actions against the Alliance,” he said in a menacing tone. “Don’t doubt that we’ll do so, if you make it necessary.”

“Really?” Inara replied, turning toward him. “Then why haven’t you already?”

Kain took a breath to reply, but he stopped when Alvarez touched his arm. He snapped his mouth shut and sat back with a glower on his face.

Alvarez sighed before she replied to Inara’s question; her voice had none of Kain’s aggression, but neither was there any waver of doubt. She believed in what she was doing, Inara saw. She believed it beyond any doubt.

“Miss Serra, we are aware of the scandal that bringing charges against a woman of your stature would cause, the attention it would draw. We’d prefer to keep this matter as quiet as possible. But we need you to answer our questions. If you force us to, we can charge you with a crime. We can arrest you and take you from this House in cuffs.”

Inara opened in mouth in amazement, but Alvarez continued unruffled.

"However, you aren't our target, and we really don’t wish to go to that extreme. Why don’t you answer my partner’s simple questions and stop complicating this. We’re not here to bring you trouble, and your obvious paranoia is unwarranted. Our purpose is actually quite noble, as it was when we spoke to you on Niflheim. In any case, as servants of the government that protects you and your way of life, I believe we deserve your trust and cooperation.”

Inara swallowed hard; she strongly disagreed, but wasn't about to explain herself. She saw quite clearly that she would learn no more from these two, and what she really needed now was time and space to think this over. She had to end this interview before she said anything that might send these people after Mal – if they weren’t after him already.

She stepped closer to the table. “I am a Registered Companion,” she said firmly. “My dealings with my clients are protected under Alliance law, and none of your business. If you wish to challenge that, and turn this matter into a public episode, that is your choice. But it would be a waste of your time and effort.”

Inara turned her back; to her relief, the agents didn’t try to prevent her from leaving.

* * *

Inara hurried down the corridor, hoping to reach her quarters as quickly as possible. Lina was seated at the base of the stairs leading toward the residential suites, as if she’d been waiting. Inara slowed her steps and caught Lina’s eye, then shook her head, tacitly asking to be left alone. Lina nodded and let Inara pass.

Once in her quarters, Inara returned to her chair and picked up Kaylee’s letter.

Looks like we are back to business how we used to do it. We went by Persephone and the captain got some work from Badger. It’s gone good this time. Has so far anyway. We ain’t done yet. Things to sell.
Inara had to fight not to tighten her hands on the paper and crinkle it into a wad. Just yesterday – they’d been on Londinium just a day ago. So close! But why? Had this job of Badger’s sent them there on his business? Could they still be in the Core?

Inara looked at the cortex screen just across the room from her. It’d be so easy to send a wave… She started to rise to her feet before she realized how stupid that would be. A wave sent from her quarters to Serenity, right after the meeting she’d just had with the OPR, would surely be noticed.

She could leave the House then, find an anonymous terminal, place the wave carefully so that it wouldn’t be tracked. It would take some effort. Inara had learned much in her time abroad – she understood now that making an anonymous wave might not be as easy as she’d once supposed. A government that could do what it’d done to River would think nothing of its citizen’s personal privacy. And an organization willing to threaten criminal charges against a Registered Companion wouldn’t hesitate to have her followed.

She settled back into her chair. She couldn’t let herself be hasty about this. She was overly emotional, and not thinking straight. Alvarez and Kain might not even have been concerned with Serenity in particular. It could be they were after her client on Oeneus, Chairman Yeng, or someone associated with him. If she let her guilt and concern for Mal get the better of her, she could actually bring trouble to him. She'd already reacted with enough defensiveness...

Perhaps she needed to be clearer about her own intent. What good would it do to contact Mal? What did she mean to tell him? That the Alliance was interested in what had happened on Oeneus? That they may be out to question him, too? There wouldn't be anything he could do about it, and if he was really in the Core, they must have found him by now.

Would he even take her wave? Too clearly, Inara could remember the last time she'd seen him, the frozen, bitter look on his face as he stared down from the catwalk. And it wasn't just him - Zoe's eyes had been full of anger and blame as she gave Inara a cold, hard handshake. Even Kaylee... this letter was short and forced, lacking the girl's usual warm chatter, hinting at discomfort rather then fondness. Inara had to make herself face up to the truth: she was no longer welcome on Serenity. She had no right to send waves to any of them, and the fate of that ship and crew were not hers to decide.

She folded Kaylee’s letter and slipped it back into the envelope. Whatever trouble might or might not be brewing around Malcolm Reynolds wasn’t her business any longer. It wasn’t her doing, and she had no power to remedy it. Mal was a grown man, a man with a history of slipping out of tight spots. He’d be able to face this new situation, whatever it was, with the help of his crew. Inara couldn’t let herself be drawn into his problems. She’d left him, and she wasn’t ever going back.

She realized that she was holding the envelope against her chest, clutching it in both hands. Slowly, she loosened her fingers, then set the letter aside.

* * *

Battleship Argent, Niflheim orbit

Lieutenant Brady cleared his throat uncomfortably before he replied to the man on the screen. “Yes, sir. I’m certain. It was Malcolm Reynolds. He gave us another name at first, but the OPR personnal identified the ship –”

“OPR?” the man said in surprise. He was calling from the Core, but the wave was top priority, taking over one of the ship’s real-time feeds.

Brady explained, “OPR – the Office of Professional Resp– ”

“I know who they are. They were involved?”

Lieutenant Brady gave a curt nod. “They were heading the mission. But Reynolds wasn’t our target… Shall I send you the full report?”

“Please do. You didn’t suspect anything of a man using a false name?”

Brady cleared his throat uncomfortably. This man he was speaking to was a civilian, but his identification granted him a frighteningly high level of clearance. He had free rein to change the mission of Brady’s entire battleship if he saw fit. There was a lot of power behind a man who could order an Alliance ship around, and Brady wasn’t comfortable with the impression he must be making.

“I thought it would be best to arrest Reynolds and his crew,” Brady said, “but my instructions were to follow the orders the OPR representatives. They brokered a deal with the crew of the Firefly.”

“What kind of deal?”

“I wasn’t privvy to the details, you’ll have to talk to the OPR.”

“I certainly will.”

“Sir – is Reynolds actually a fugitive? Because, if so, I… I wasn’t aware of his status.”

The man on the cortex screen didn’t respond, not verbally. He reached to the side, moving out of the view as he worked some controls. A few seconds later, a screen to Brady’s left flashed as a transmission was recieved. It was an official notice that Malcolm Reynolds was to be captured and brought to an Alliance base in the Core; the reasons were classified. Brady felt the blood drain from his face as he considered the implications.

“But, sir,” Brady protested, “this was issued… two days ago. It’s been nearly three weeks since we released Reynolds.”

The man either didn’t notice or ignored Brady’s defensiveness. “Do you know where he was heading when he left?”

“No, sir,” Brady replied. The man sighed impatiently, and Brady continued, speaking quickly. “We provided transport to the Core for one of his crew. A Companion. She might know where the ship was heading.”

“A Companion? Inara Serra?”

Brady was surprised at the familiar use of the woman’s name; it was as if the man knew her. “Yes. We dropped her off on Londinium.”

The man didn’t reply; he looked away from the screen with a thoughtful frown. Brady felt a tightening in his throat, he had to push his words past it. “Sir, we’ve been back at Niflheim for over a week, but it’s only to clear up some environmental mixup. It’s certainly nothing that requires our presence. I’d be happy to track down the Firefly and bring Reynolds in.”

The man shook his head. “No, that won’t be necessary.”

“Then… there are a few officers here who worked undercover on the case. They are familiar with the ship and crew. I could send them out.”

The man pondered it quietly for a moment, then he looked up decisively. “That would be helpful. But I don’t want Reynolds harmed. And I don’t want him alarmed either – he could go to ground and we’ll never find him. This is time sensitive. If your people do locate him, they need to stay back and contact me as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Was Londinium the Companion’s final destination?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know. I can track her down–”

“No. I’ll find her myself. Carry on with your mission, Lieutenant.”

“Very well. Let me know if I can be of service, Prefect.”

The man corrected him with a few simple words: “I’ve resigned my elected office; Mr. Marone will do.”

* * *

Translations

tuī ná:   form of Chinese manipulative therapy
biān:   acupuncture
năo huŏ:   annoying
* * *

Previous chapter | Next chapter: a little OC, then all bets are off...

COMMENTS

Thursday, May 31, 2007 7:03 AM

MAL4PREZ


Again - no time for proper comments, though all the feedback on Chapter 9 made me squeeee! But I'm at a conference today, barely enough internet time to post. And not enough to edit properly - I hope I didn't screw anything up...

I'll post more chatty stuff later!

Thursday, May 31, 2007 12:29 PM

COZEN


"...as servants of the government that protects you and your way of lie...." Serendipitous typo, or what? {insert 'evil' or 'tongue' emoty here}

Thursday, May 31, 2007 2:31 PM

NBZ


The plot thickens.

I have been trying to formulate my thoughts for a while now... but I can't. So I'll just think out loud. (If I ask questions, feel free to ignore them. it's just how I think...)

Inara's POV is very interesting. Very insightful look behind the porcelain mask, even if she is of the emotional state where some cracks are showing. I think someone has mentioned in some fic somewhere (I am very specific like that) that her leaving Serenity is already her second midlife crisis!

Just when the crew thought they were in the clear details from their past come back to haunt them. Could be painful.

Mr/Prefect Marone is an unknown quantity. I had seen him as the benevolent type, but now... Is it even him? Has he learnt something new? Is he on the hunt or trying to help?

The two alliance agents. Are they working for him or a third party? Are they benevolent or not?

This is all adding to the mix of people all after just one itty boat...

I still cannot see the "hints" others are seeing about where this tale is going. But (I think) I like it that way. Every single chapter so far has been a bundle of the unexpected for me. I don't think I have foreseen anything. And it has been great.

As always, very good writing.

Friday, June 1, 2007 12:15 AM

AMDOBELL


Oooh, the plot thickens, and it doesn't look good for our intrepid Firefly crew. I am now wondering if Kaylee's stilted letter was an attempt at warning Inara or letting her know something was wrong while making it innocent enough that if any of the others saw it they would just think she was contacting a friend. I really don't like those OPR officials, interesting though that despite their threats to Inara they didn't actually arrest her. Presumably they were told not to be quite that heavy handed - yet. I have a feeling the gloves are about to come off. And why the good gorram is Mal wanted now? What has changed in the last two weeks and why do I feel that Badger has had a hand in setting him up? Can't wait for the next part. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, June 1, 2007 1:34 AM

KATESFRIEND


Talk about thickening the plot! So hopefully this means that former Prefect Marone is now promoted to a more powerful position to help our BDH's, but just unknowingly released the evil Will and sidekick Ginger after them. Not good. But Mr. Marone will convince Inara to get over her sulk and help out, because the problem with Mal is time sensitive - what an understatement!

So you have a good government-bad government subplot returning(Yay!)and are really turning up the angst button - again! You are so evil to make us wait till Monday. And what an amazing plot you are weaving with your former stories. Magnificent piece of work! Loved the new character, and loved Inara's reaction to her first client. Glad to know it can be more than "just sex" for her too.

Friday, June 1, 2007 4:26 AM

HOPERULES


Inara's dream seemed both revealing and accurate. I hope she listens to her heart and conscience before it is too late.

Friday, June 1, 2007 5:10 AM

LEIASKY


I really love that Inara didn't back down even in the face of the OPR threats.

Lucky Inara had an understanding client. There could have been a lot more damage to control leaving like she did.

All these people after this little ship. Mal and crew have their work cut out for them now.

Friday, June 1, 2007 6:12 AM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Absolutely fabulous work here, mal4prez! Definitely been waiting for this chapter for ages ;D

Gotta say though...this chapter was all kinds of telling about Inara's feelings regarding Mal, with the crew and Serenity coming second-string, in that she aches for Mal to come to her and just take charge...but she can't let go. The flashback to her arrival at the Training House and her meeting with Lina definitely seems to indicate that Mal and Inara have a little more in common than Mal realizes or Inara wants to admit. Have always wondered if part of Inara's issue with starting something with Mal, besides seemingly giving up some of her control to him, is the fact he reminds her too much of her pre-Guild past growing up in a lower class of society than she’s now used to. Falling for a roguish Rim cattle rancher-cum-military officer-cum-transport captain would probably subconsciously drive her nuts, since it would be like taking a giant leap back (in her mind).

Also, I have to say I wanted to shake Inara to get some sense into her head! Here she has evidence that’s she has wronged Mal, Kaylee and the rest of the crew by buggering off to the Core and she thinks she can’t make up for it?!? Tian Yesu…does this woman need a sodding picture drawn?! One WAVE to Kaylee could go a long way….though her timing would suck

Speaking of which…how long till Inara finds out Mal’s brain is slowly rebooting itself from the final straw of her departure adding to all the pain that’s built up over the last 15 years? Cuz THAT has to get her to do something! Knowing Mal’s brain is self-erasing – machinery a la “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”? Pshaw! – has to be a gauntlet throw down moment!

We need more and we need it ASAP, mal4prez! Post soon?

BEB

P.S. Before I forget….the Inara vs. OPR agents scene? Definitely dread-inducing and worrisome. Definitely have to wonder how the Guild will react when Inara is officially arrested with the intention of getting her to talk about what she knows about Oeneus.

Friday, June 1, 2007 8:40 AM

MAL4PREZ


> this chapter was all kinds of telling about Inara's feelings regarding Mal, with the crew and Serenity coming second-string, in that she aches for Mal to come to her and just take charge

Hmmm... not sure about that, certainly not what I intended... I don't think of Inara as needing someone else to take charge! But I see your point.

The rest of what you're saying hits bang on. She is being downright silly (to be nice about it), for the reasons you say.

As for how long it'll be? Sit tight. ;) And I can't post sooner - I'm doing major rearranging of the remaining chapters of this Book. I'll be finishing Chapter 11 this weekend, I hope!

Cozen - oops! serendipidous for sure! I'll fix it!

All the other plot questions I can't go near, for fear of spoiling LOL!

Friday, June 1, 2007 11:55 AM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Oops...not quite what I meant re: Inara's dream about Mal:$

What I meant was that Inara very much wants Mal to take the leap and fight past her attempts at deflection and avoidance to tell her that he lurves her and wants to be with her. That's scary to her because...could she really do the same thing if the position were reversed (based on how you’ve written Inara so far)? For a long time, I have been aware that a major issue between Mal and Inara is that – due to widely differing reasons – they both have erected walls around their emotions and have held them there for long enough that lowering them is a Very Big Thing. Now…Mal took the gamble of lowering them to be “truthsome” in “Heart of Gold,” but Inara burned him with her little speech about what Nandi and her family at the Heart of Gold had taught her.

I totally believe Inara is quite capable of taking care of herself…when she’s in possession of knowledge or experience with a certain type of environment. Love as strong as she has for dear Malcolm (and Mal has for her)? Uh…definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto ;D

BEB

Friday, June 1, 2007 5:12 PM

PLATONIST


Oh! yes! conflicted emotions Inara, my favorite kind. I like how she runs away from her client. Is that in the Companion Handbook? LOL... Admit it Inara, you're as screwed-up as the rest of us.

She just doesn't get the "crazy love/hate thingy" at all, does she? Her attempt at making things right by creating distance between her and Mal fails miserably because she's already hopelessly attached herself to the ship.

By the way, beware of hair-chopsticks. They can take ya out! love that!

A+ writing

Friday, June 1, 2007 6:06 PM

DESERTGIRL


Now you've done it. You’ve totally blown all my theories right out of the water. After Easy Tickets, I really thought that you had written Inara as a secret agent and that she was behind what had happened to Mal. After all she brokered the deal for Serenity’s release and she hopped an alliance transport. Aren’t the guild famous for their wonder drugs, and Mal could not remember her at all, not to mention anything she accidentally let slip while in his company.

Could it be that she was just in love with him and couldn’t handle it so she ran? That’s what this chapter leads us to believe. I was jolted awake at her verbal sparring with the OPR agents. Now I have absolutely no idea what to think. It is so obvious that she is deeply in love with Mal. Yet she won’t acknowledge it.

Perhaps I should just hope for everyone to live happily ever after. (Oh right, it’d never happen, this is firefly)

Another awesome chapter – I’m on pins an needles waiting the next one. – Desert Girl

Sunday, June 3, 2007 8:09 PM

NOSADSEVEN


Phew... Well, I've finally caught back up - and what a great place to catch up to! Stuff is getting interestingly more complicated. The thought of Will and Ginger getting sicked back onto Mal and the crew is tantalizingly dreadful. I like how you've introduced Prefect Marone's involvement in an unspecified way, giving us lots and lots of possibilities to ponder.

I also appreciated Zoe's unforgiving stance concerning Inara - bespeaking the depth of the pain and damage done - and Inara's own recognition that she would not be welcome, even without knowledge of Mal's deteriorating state.

I loved Inara's rumination on the '...same as always. Mostly.' line. It speaks so loudly to her conflicting feelings on the matter - and the man. I also liked the way Kaylee went ahead and sent the letter -- but a revised version. When I saw the letter's font I thought "Oh no she di'int!" (despite have seen her give Jayne the letter), then relaxing into an "Oh, no she didn't." as I continued reading. It drew up the tension and possibilities of what Inara would do or how she would react to Kaylee's earlier draft, without succumbing to the over-the-topness that that would entail, thus maintaining the authenticity of the characters. It provided extra play value, while still maintaining a satisfying nuance.


I am so looking forward to what's coming next!


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

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The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

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Back Stories III, Chapter 19
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The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

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