The Truth of It
Tuesday, March 9, 2004

A shortish Nandi POV the morning after the night before in which she thinks about her friendship with Inara. I may have taken some liberties with the facts and with Mandarin Chinese. But it's only a story!


Disclaimer: “Firefly” and these characters belong to Joss Whedon. And they're going to be in a Big.Damn.UniversalPictures.Movie.Yay! * * * * * THE TRUTH OF IT

Gorramit, it's happened again. An' she's giving me that same plastic smile and looking at me from behind shuttered eyes. She thinks I've beaten her again and she's trying to keep all that sense of betrayal, disappointment and pain hidden from me. Might not be a Registered Companion no more, but I still read people pretty well. Wish she could read me better. See that I would never hurt her, never take anything from her. When this day's madness is over, I'm gonna tell her the truth of it. * * * * * It wa'n't just the dulcimer that drove me out of Sihnon. It was the rutting tests as well.

Tests taken every three moons. All the trainee Companions would be paired off at random and then they'd be allocated two clients, each to be serviced by both girls. First time, we was all jus' baffled by it.

Next day the House Priestess had us all assemble in the dance hall where she read down a list of our names, each followed by a number. Ling, yi, er. Zero, one, two. Me and Inara exchanged questioning glances and shrugged. Had to do it furtive, mind. When the House Priestess was speaking you had to at least look like you was giving her your full attention.

“Suki Heston: yi.”

“Inara Serra: er.” Inara smiled weakly at me.

“Nandi Shang: er.” I smiled backed. Looked like we were on the same team then.

“Antina Tian: ling.” The list went on.

At last the House Priestess looked up and surveyed the room. She was so beautiful and smiled so warmly, you'd never have known what a hard, ambitious heart beat beneath those perfect breasts. “Ladies,” she paused as everyone gazed up at her on the stage. “Your clients were asked to choose between the two trainees who serviced them. If both clients preferred you over your ... rival,” here she smiled as she said the word, as though the idea of rivalry between Companions wa'n't nothing but a joke, “your ranking will be er. If one client preferred you, but the other client your ... friend..” Despite the flutter of her lashes and the curve of her lips, an alarm bell sounded in my head at the way she said that word. Like she was pickin' up a dirty rag. “..your ranking will be yi. And if neither client liked you better,” here she dropped her eyes as though the thought was too shameful to express, “your ranking will be ling.”

There was a lengthy silence as we all tried to process this information. And throughout it, her expert eyes raked over us, assessing, calculating. Finally she clapped her hands together and we all looked up at her again. “The next assessment will be in three moon's time. Remember that as you pursue your studies.”

She turned and left the room in a swirl of whispering clouds of silk and jasmine. When she was gone the hall filled with the excited, anxious chatter of winners, losers and the jus' plain bewildered.

* * * * *

So that was the pattern of it. Every three moons we'd be in that gorram hall, waiting to hear how we rated.

“Suki Heston: yi. Inara Serra: er. Nandi Shang: er. Antina Tian: yi.”

“Suki Heston: ling. Inara Serra: er. Nandi Shang: er. Antina Tian: yi.”

An' as the tests went on, the House Priestess began ranking the whole class from top to bottom. It was downright humiliating – even if me and Inara never did move from the top of that stupid list. Besides, it had started breeding ill-feeling among the girls. They were all watching one another, envious of any achievement instead of cheered by it. Fear began driving them. They studied ridiculously hard and long out of the sheer terror of being bottom of that list. There was no joy or delight in the learning no more, jus' grim determination.

I looked at those girls, all of them as lovely in their own way as wild flowers in a meadow, and saw them shaped into cultivated blooms. Different colours, maybe, but all of a type. Felt sorry for 'em, fit to cry, but sorrier still for myself. I di'n't wanna be like that. Di'n't think I could be, even if I tried. Knew I di'n't jus' wanna play at life. I wanted to feel it.

So I stopped trying.

* * * * *

My quiet personal rebellion di'n't pass unnoticed by the House Priestess and her acolytes, although I di'n't know it. Me and Inara was still top of that go se list, out of natural talent rather than effort. We still found time to take delight in life and in each other. We were inseparable. She was like a sister to me, the little sister I'd always prayed for.

It was the Summer Moon test that changed everything. When they posted the pairings on the House noticeboard, my blood ran cold. There it was: Inara Serra and Nandi Shang. I reached for her hand and squeezed it. “Gorramit, Inara. I jus' know I'm gonna get a ling on this one.”

She smiled bravely back at me but it was like she was already somewhere else.

Decided I di'n't think much of one of the clients straight away. Pompous city type, all pretence and money an' precious little else. An' I just plain hated the other one. Sort of man that thinks he could have any woman without ever needing to try. Looked like it was gonna be a clean sweep for my mei-mei and I was glad for her. Knew how much she wanted to excel.

Next day I was ready the sneering I knew would follow the ranking announcement. I'd been at the top of that chart far too long for them as was struggling not to enjoy my fall. But I di'n't care anymore. All the enthusiam I'd had for becoming a Companion seemed to be draining away. As the competition between the other girls grew fiercer, my own desire to win had softened and dissolved.

“Suki Heston: yi. Inara Serra: ling. Nandi Shang: er. Antina Tian.....”

I didn't hear the rest of it. What in the diyu had happened? Wa'n't no ruttin' way those hunduns would have chosen me over Inara. Tamade! One of 'em ha'n't even popped his cork.

Inara gave me a bright, brittle smile. “Well, the best woman certainly won,” she said and even managed to sound gracious. “Congratulations.” And with that she was gone. Back to her room. Probably so's she could crumple into a ball an' sob in private.

As I watched Inara's retreating back, the House Priestess swept past me and I caught her eye. Saw the venomous triumph twinkling in it. The truth hit me like a laser blast. She'd rigged the results. She'd made it look liked I'd beaten Inara even though in truth she was the one who'd won their stupid little contest. Why? Di'n't take me long to figure that one out. She wanted to drive a wedge between me and Inara. She wanted to break the friendship that gave us strength but split our loyalties. The friendship that made the House less than everything to us. She wanted total and utter control over us.

Well, she wa'n't gonna defeat me that easily. I won'n't be told who to care for an' who not. I choose the people I'm loyal to. Without that, I'm nothin'.

Another year passed and we became bona fide Registered Companions but the tests went on. The next four pitted me versus Inara every time. I knew I'd lost ever damn one of 'em – I wanted to lose 'em - but I was always an er and Inara always a ling. An' each time Inara got a little more distant an' a little more sad. I tried, I really did try, to get her to see what was happening. But there was something inside her, some deep dark secret driving her to be the best, top of that list. She became ever more focused on it and the rift between us widened.

Day I smashed up the dulcimer and decided to pack my bags I went to see her. She was kneeling at her little table, practising the greeting ritual an' di'n't hear me at first. She looked so beautiful – so young and vulnerable – I wanted to cry.

“I'm going now, Inara. I just wanted to say goodbye to you properly,” I said softly, in the polished tones of a Companion I used back then.

She turned to face me and for a moment I thought I saw sorrow in her eyes. Then the shutter fell and she smiled that plastic Companion smile. “I wish you luck. Take care. Stay in touch.”

“I will. I'll miss you. Zhufu ni, mei-mei.”

* * * *

Years came an' went an' we never did keep our promises. Felt too awkward somehow. An' life's got a way of makin' pledges hard to keep. Think I'd given up hope of ever seeing Inara again.

Meanwhile I found my way here, built up a good business in The Heart of Gold, but along the way managed to make an enemy of Rance Burgess. He means to kill me today if he can. We ain't never seen eye to eye an' things've only got worse since Petaline fell pregnant. That man wants total and utter control over this moon an' everyone on it. Can't bear it when someone stands up to him.Anyone that does don't keep breathing long. Whatever he says goes an' there ain't no-one crazy enough to argue.

'Cept, it seems for me. Which has kinda put him in a killing mood.

So he's gonna come riding in here with his pack of yes-men, all guns blazing not two hours from now. Thinks it's gonna be easy to take out a bunch of whores. Thinks jus' 'cos we sell our bodies, it's gonna be easy to conquer our spirits.

Well, I carved my life outa nothin' an' I ain't goin' back there. I'll die before I let Rance Burgess take what's mine. But I'd rather it was him that did the dyin'..

Anyhow, I seem to have evened up the odds a mite by sendin' that wave to Inara. She seemed a whole lot happier to hear from me than I'd expected. The light that had grown so dim in her by the time I left Sihnon has burst back into glorious life. When I first set eyes on him yesterday, I fancied it was Malcolm Reynolds' doing. Wa'n't hard to see he was burnin' up with desire for her. But on her side, I di'n't see nothing more than distant affection, warmer than simple acquaintance but cooler than friendship. Guess my mei-mei's learnt a lot since I last saw her. All her Companion skills have been honed to perfection an' keeping your feelings to yourself is the most important of 'em.

Some might say it was Fate that brought Inara here. And Fate that brought Malcolm Reynolds with her. Too many coincidences for it to have been mere chance. But I don't hold with that go se Fate talk. Ain't no such thing. Leastways, if there is a Fate, you make it your own self with your own good hands. Think Cap'n Reynolds might well agree. Man's got more than a little of the rebellious streak that runs strong through me. Only met him yesterday, but I feel like I've known him all my life. We got a lot in common. He's a good man, strong too. This wa'n't his fight but now he's chosen it, I know he won't let us down.

We could almost be a perfect match, him an' me. Certainly seemed liked a good fit for each other last night. Fine rice wine and long lingering kisses. For a man who ha'n't sinned enough to need confessing in many a long moon, he sure remembered well. Felt like a gorram dulcimer my own self under those hands of his. Those long, strong fingers – plucking, strumming, thrilling me. An' I know he was feeling it, not just playing.

But even after all that, when I looked into his eyes, it was Inara I saw filling his thoughts, not me. Inara Serra: yi. Nandi Shang: ling. Wonder if that's why she came? To test him? To test me? Trouble with living by someone else's rule, you always gotta be thinking about whether you make the grade.

Malcolm Reynolds and me gave each other a little comfort, that was all. He stopped me worrying about the coming battle for a few hours an' I eased an ache in him that would never be healed. Well, maybe a little more'n that. When you got people depending on you, oft times you gotta put a brave face on it. Pretend to be stronger than you really are. Pretend you ain't got needs of your own. But even the strongest folk need someone to lean on sometimes. Between him an' me there was no need to pretend that wa'n't so.

But we was still jus' ships in the night. An' maybe tha's jus' as well. He's got the kind of spirit that finds freedom in the flying, whereas me, I find it in putting down roots. Even so I might've tried to keep him here awhile longer if Inara's mask hadn't failed her jus' now. Mei-mei loves this man even though she's fighting the feeling with everything she has. I'm still loyal to her even if she don't believe it. An' I wou'n't take him from her even if I could.

When this day's madness is over, I'm gonna make sure she knows the truth of it all.

* * * * * *


Wednesday, March 10, 2004 4:20 AM


Remarkable. I enjoy every story of yours, but this one is exceptional.

Thursday, March 11, 2004 7:15 AM


I loved this take on Nandi's thoughts. So sad that she didn't survive the fallout of actions taken that could not be retracted. Would love it if you did a similar piece from Mal's perspective then Inara's. Okay, so I am a greedy girl, but it sure can't hurt to ask.
*Xiexie ni* for a shiny fic, Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me


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