Disclaimer: Characters within belong to Joss Whedon, who's basically god, at least in my book.
Author's Notes: This is my first Firefly fan fic, but definitely not my first story on this site. Not even my first story in one of Joss's worlds. I hope you'll enjoy it if you've stopped by to read, and come back for more!
by Kristen Elizabeth
Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn't have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin' by
But "happily ever after" fails
And we've been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly
- Don Henley
"You're really doing it." Kaywinnit Lee looked around at the neat stacks of steel trunks and brocaded bags. Only a week earlier, she would have been sitting in the grand opulence of a Companion's boudoir. Now, she was just in a plain, standard model shuttle. The silks and scarves had been taken down and packed away, and it now looked no different than its twin on the other side of Serenity.
It made her want to cry, and she was proud of herself when she didn't. "You're really leaving us."
Abandoning her efforts to fit all of her shoes into one bag, Inara Serra kneeled down next to the younger girl. "Not you, mei-mei. Not any of you. Just…"
Even hearing just his title made her stomach twist into fresh knots. Instead of answering, Inara stood up and returned to her shoes. "If I wait any longer, we're bound to get into some sort of misguided scrape."
"I simply can't run the risk. I've made appointments on Osiris that must be kept."
Kaylee's too-even-to-be-genuine voice made the Companion turn around to face her again. "You understand then? Why I have to go?"
The girl lifted her shoulders. "I'm thinkin' there's more to it. But it ain't my place. You gotta make a livin', same as any of us."
"You will write to me, yes?"
"No power in the 'verse could stop me."
With Kaylee's smile back in place on her pretty face, Inara allowed herself to smile. "Here." She held out a pair of red silk sandals that she probably could have fit into the bag if she'd tried harder. "See if they fit."
The girl's eyes lit up like the candles on the birthday cakes she'd made for everyone in the year Inara had spent on Serenity. She kicked off the faded bunny slippers she'd picked up on an early trip to Persephone and replaced them with the expensive shoes.
"Oh!" she gasped. Lifting one leg into the air, she pointed and flexed her foot. "They're so shiny!"
Inara nodded. "I want you to have them."
"But…I couldn't. They're too nice. I'll just get oil and…and dirt on 'em and…" She stopped to take another look at the sandals. Sighing, she continued, "I ain't never had somethin' so nice. Well, 'cept for my pink dress."
Guilt struck Inara as it had so often before. She'd grown up surrounded by a million pretty things, expensive things, things that would make Kaylee faint from sheer happiness. And she'd taken them all for granted until the day she met Serenity's crew, and saw the world outside of the Core planets. At least she could comfort herself with the knowledge that she'd never take any of it for granted again.
"Promise me you'll wear them often, without worrying about oil or dirt," she instructed. A slight smile spread on her perfectly painted lips. "Promise me you'll wear them the first time you kiss our bumbling doctor."
'Our bumbling doctor,' she thought. 'Go se. When will I stop thinking of this place as home?'
From her head to her toes, Kaylee blushed. "Ain't like I ain't been tryin' to make it happen."
"Shy men often turn out to be the best lovers," Inara mused. "And well worth the trouble of bringing them out of their shells."
"Parting advice." The ship's engineer chuckled without smiling. "I'm gonna miss it."
"Mei-mei, I'll never be so far that you won't be able to reach me." Inara embraced the girl and fought to restrain her tears when Kaylee hugged her back without restraint. "That I promise you."
She sensed his presence before he interrupted the moment. Even from the hatch that separated what had been her quarters from the rest of the ship, she could smell Malcom Reynolds. He smelled just like Serenity, unrefined but dignified. She couldn't explain it any better. He would never wear any sort of cologne, it being a luxury and therefore unnecessary. But nor did he ever smell bad, even when he was sweaty and rumpled.
She would carry his scent as one of her many favorite memories of her time on board his ship.
"Hey," Mal greeted the women, although Inara got the feeling the greeting was for Kaylee and not her. "We're comin' up on Athens in an hour or so, Wash says. Best start gettin' the Ambassador's stuff to the cargo bay."
He didn't need to tell Kaylee that; he'd already assigned the job to Jayne at breakfast. Mal's reason for bringing it up, as far as Inara could tell, was much more personal. He hadn't called her "Ambassador" in a very long time.
He'd wanted to hurt her just a little bit.
"The trunks go first," Inara told him. "Tell Jayne that if I find any rips in the bags, or anything missing from them, I will make him sorry."
"What are you gonna do? Put out a hit on him? Give him a black mark in your client registry thingyg?" Mal edged closer to her. Had she been less skilled in hiding her emotions, she would have stepped back. He had an annoying way of overwhelming her. "I'll save you the trouble. He's got about four hits out on him already, at last count. And I don't rightly see him as the type to pay for a woman like you."
"A woman like me has her ways, Captain," she replied. If he was going to play the formal game, she could play it right back. And win. "Now, if you don't mind, I have things to do. And until I step onto Athens, this is still my quarters, and I don't recall inviting you in."
Mal gave her the grin he usually reserved for people he was about to shoot. "It's my ship. Always has been."
"Yes. And in two hours, you'll have it back the way you like it. Whore-free."
"Stop it, both of you!" Scowling deeply, Kaylee pushed her way between Inara and Mal. "You're actin' like little kids! Sayin' stuff just to be mean…it's dumb."
Even though he tried to look at the girl sternly, Inara could see his hard expression melt around the edges when he addressed Kaylee. "'Fore we land, I'd like to know if there's anythin' we might be needin' engine-wise. Wouldn't mind having a few spare parts in case somethin' happens later on."
She acquiesced to his order because he gave it and he was right, but she left in order to give them a few minutes alone. When Kaylee was gone, his soft edges hardened up. "So, who knew all the frippery you strung all over my ship would come down so quickly? Least it looks halfway respectable in here now."
"Pardon me, Captain, but I thought I was the respectable element on this ship."
Inara expected a stinging retort, but Mal surprised her when he merely nodded curtly. "Maybe you were. But we can always get another whore."
She looked away; without the lush curtains hiding the shuttle's cockpit, they had a clear view of the stars out the starboard window. "Why are we making this so difficult on ourselves?" she whispered.
"Don't know." Mal folded his arms over his chest, awkwardly. "Just our way, I guess."
"Hurting each other?" Inara turned back to him. "We're supposed to be friends."
His jaw twitched ever so slightly. Without her ability read body language, she never would have noticed it. "We ain't never been friends."
"You're right. Our relationship has never been that simple." She reached up to rub her temple. It ached all of a sudden. "If it was, I wouldn't be…"
"You wouldn't be what?" Mal asked.
"Nothing. Would you like some tea? My china is packed, but we would go to the kitchen."
He thrust out one arm, blocking her path to the door. Her escape route. "You wouldn't be what?" he repeated. "C'mon. I wanna hear you say it."
"Mal." She lifted her gaze to meet his eyes. His handsome face, lined with the worries of a war he'd never really stopped fighting, was blurry through the film of her tears. "Please don't. It's better this way. Leaving things unsaid. It's…"
"Safer." His arm lifted and he ran all ten of his fingers through his hair. "Hwoon dahn."
"I appreciate you going out of your way to drop me on Athens," Inara said, composing herself.
Mal cleared his throat. "Not outta our way. We're pickin' up some cargo there."
"I see." She hesitated before holding out her hand. "If I don't have an opportunity to say so later, it's been a dubious pleasure, Captain Reynolds. Good luck with your future endeavors, be they petty or not."
"You too, Ambassador." He took her hand, but rather than shaking it, he brought the back of it up to his lips. "Try to stay outta trouble."
The touch of his mouth against her skin, even so innocuously, made her question her resolve to leave. In order to keep her wits, not to mention be able to speak again, Inara pulled her hand away. "I don't imagine that will be hard. There's not a whole lot of crime in the Core."
To the unknowing eye, Osiris glittered like any one of the stars surrounding it. There seemed to be nothing but wealth and glamour, a world built to offer nothing but opulence for those lucky enough to call it home.
Storage unit #44528 in the main docks did not glitter. It was neither opulent nor glamorous. And although it was a home of sorts, no one who lived there could be considered lucky.
"When's the ship due?" a bulky woman asked her co-worker as they walked between the rows of makeshift pallets. She sensed movement to one side and immediately snapped at the offender with her horsewhip. There was a slight whimper, then silence once again. "We're runnin' low."
"Tagged to dock in the next day or so," the man walking beside her replied. "Talked to a Captain Reynolds. He'll pick the lot up in Athens and bring 'em straight here."
She snorted. "Hope they're a sight better than last week's shipment. Ain't a one of 'em been sold yet."
"Don't worry. We'll be gettin' paid soon enough."
A small, choked sob echoed off the steel walls. The woman frowned. "Bi zuie!" she yelled. "Or no one eats in the mornin'."
Not one of the thirty children moved from then on. There wasn't even a single clink from any of the chains that bound them together as they lay on their pallets, dreaming of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, worlds they'd likely never see again.
The man laughed. "Gotta tell ya, bao bei. You got a way with children."
To Be Continued