tian xiaode: heaven knows what
banfeis: a made-up word, literal Chinese for "half-price" based on the Japanese hangyoku (lit. half-charge, a geisha-in-training), who can be hired to host dinner
Mal looked down Main Street in confusion. He couldn't for the life of him remember why he'd come in to town. "Why Malcolm Reynolds, is that you?" a jolly voice behind him cried.
Mal spun around to see an old man sweeping the walkway in front of the store. "Mr. Blue!" He hastily tipped his hat. "How are you, sir?"
"Just fine, just fine. Would you like a piece of candy, Malcolm?" Mr. Blue asked.
"No, sir," Mal said. The wind picked up. Mal hugged his coat tighter around him. "I was just on my way to--." The wind stirred the dust in the street, stinging his eyes. Mal blinked his eyes and for a moment it seemed as if Mr. Blue had disappeared. He blinked his eyes again, clearing his vision. It seemed awfully quiet; he turned and looked the other way down the street. There was no one in sight. "Mr. Blue, where is everyone?"
"Oh, I expect they're at the bar, son. You're running a bit early, ain't ya?"
"Early? I--I don't know." Mal said. "Feels like I've been gone forever. Just how long--" But as he turned, he saw Mr. Blue was gone.
Across the street, a sign was flashing "Welcome. Come on in." Mal walked into the building, down a long flight of stairs into the bar.
The air was thick with smoke and muggy from body heat, but the lively strains of a fiddle filtered through the hall.
As Mal's eyes adjusted to the relative gloom indoors, he saw that on what passed for a stage, some of his Ma's hands had formed a band. He moved deeper through the crowd, pausing when he noticed that Dan and Margarita were dancing. His ma had written him that they'd been planning to divorce. He guessed she'd been wrong.
"Malcolm!" He spun around quickly, his heart nearly in his throat.
"Ma!" he hollered, throwing his arms around her and catching her in a big hug. "What are you doing here?"
"We'd been takin' bets on when you was getting here," she said. "I guess I just lost." She pulled away. "Well, let me look at ya. Aren't you fine? Still wearing that old brown coat, I see. You got to give it up one of these days, son."
Mal laughed. "Who's we?" he said.
She drew him over to the back wall where Butch and Jimmy John were arguing Holsteins versus Herefords while they played pool. An old man sat on a stool nearby watching. "Captain Perkins, sir," Mal said, saluting hurriedly.
"Sergeant Reynolds," the man said with a nod. "I'm retired now." He winked at Mal's ma. "That means you don't have to salute, but you do have to buy me a drink."
Mal patted his pockets in consternation. "I'd like to buy everyone a drink, but I don't think I--" he stopped as felt a lump. With surprise, he drew out a small bundle of cash. "Will you look at that?" he whooped. "Enough for everyone and a few more for me besides."
"You might want to leave the Wang brothers out," his ma cautioned. She nodded to where they stood by the fireplace, throwing back whiskey and singing to the chorus at the top of their lungs. "I hope they brought steady horses. Ain't no other way they're going to make it back to Silver City tonight."
"Aw, quit fussing, Miz Reynolds, we all know you're gonna offer to let 'em bed down at the ranch tonight," Butch said with a smile.
"Oh, go back to your game," she muttered. "Can you believe the sass I'm getting, Malcolm?"
Mal was grinning ear-to-ear as he looked around the place. "Don't think you can con me into taking sides," he warned. "I don't know why, but I just feel so good," he said. "Everyone's here, Ma. Everyone, I--." As his eyes strayed to the top of the stairs, he saw her. Inara. She was looking around the room, searchingly, and then he caught her eye. She smiled broadly. "Just a minute, Ma," Mal said.
"I've missed you, son, but not so much that I need you hanging around. I told you I didn't expect you for a long time yet." She shooed him with her hands. "Get."
He pushed through the crowd and ran to the top of the stairs. "Inara," he said.
"Mal." She grinned and held out her hand.
He took it, leading her down the stairs. "I'm so glad you came," he said. "There's someone I want you to meet." He couldn't remember a time he'd ever been happier.
"Ma, Ma!" he called. "Where'd you go?" "Ma?"
"Mal. Mal." He woke with a start, dimly taking in the pounding on his door.
"Come on in, Zoe," he shouted. He stood and stretched, yawning. The interruption had blown the dream right from his mind. He wondered what it'd been about. He felt like he'd lost something important.
"They've gone, Mal," Zoe said as she came down the ladder into his bunk.
"We sure?" he asked, pulling on his pants.
"Kaylee was stationed in the air duct by the airlock like you said. They definitely got on the ship; it took off half an hour ago."
He nodded, pulling on a clean shirt, and tucking it into his pants. "Good, is it morning yet?"
"All right," he grimaced, but continued. "Don't know what Inara's schedule was like last night. We can wait a bit to go fetch the doc and his sister. Make sure we're not disturbing her sleep." He snapped his suspenders. "Although, might be she'd appreciate us showing up as soon as possible. Probably wants to get back to her life."
"Sir?" Zoe said cautiously. "About Inara, sir--"
"Nothing to say about that."
"Xia shuo, sir." Zoe shook her head. "As long as I've known you, sir, you ain't been a quitter. You've gotten us in to some pretty stupid situations because of it, too."
"Well, thank you very much!" he snapped. Zoe eyed him reproachfully, and he swallowed, feeling like a naughty boy.
"What you and Inara have, sir, it's worth more than any two-bit take we ever got. It's sure as hell worth fighting just as hard for. Do you really want to go through the rest of your life wondering if only you'd said something it could've made a difference?" Zoe turned around to leave, but paused at the doorway. "You just think on that, Mal. If I were you, I'd wait a bit to fetch the Tams. Maybe clean myself up a bit first." She stalked out of the room, leaving Mal stroking the stubble on his chin thoughtfully.
It was Mal who came to tell Simon and River that it was safe to make their way back to Serenity.
They weren't gone five minutes when Mal was back knocking at her door. "I left the poem here when ... you know."
She turned around and looked. It had been sitting on the vanity ever since, and she'd never noticed. She walked over to get it, but it wasn't until she heard the click of the door that she realized Mal had followed her.
As always, he was direct. "I want you to come back to Serenity."
Inara closed her eyes, and tried to calm her heart. His words should not mean so much to her. "The Companion's Guild rules for dating are complicated."
He scoffed, "You think I want to date you?" He pursed his lips as he walked farther into the room. "Hiding behind rules is beneath you."
"Mal, I don't know. If I go back with you, if I go back to Serenity and we can't make it work, it would break my heart."
"Mine's already breaking," he said, his voice low and urgent. "Inara, I don't want to spend my life lost in the woods."
"But we are lost, Mal. I keep thinking that we're going to get past this, and then we don't," she said. "When I'm with you, everything is perfect and wonderful, and I feel so happy--"
"Me too," Mal said.
"--And then I don't. Because it isn't. It doesn't matter whose fault it is, Mal. It's just the way it is. We're like, like--" She looked wildly around the room. Her eyes landed on the ancient, cracked and crumbling scroll. "Like this fragment of a lost poem," she said, indicating the scroll. "There is always going to be a piece missing, Mal."
"It doesn't have to be that way," Mal said.
"Whether it has to be that way or not, that's the way it is, Mal. I'm a companion. I can't--I won't give that up. What would you have me do? Do you want to hire me as the cook? Maybe I can help Kaylee with the engine? Or take up knife-collecting with Jayne?" She tossed her head. "Or will I earn my keep as your private whore?"
"Don't," he warned, his voice dangerously low.
"I am a companion, Mal. That is all I know I how to be. And you can't handle it, you proved that the other day."
"One time, Inara. That was one time. A man can be forgiven for being surprised--for acting badly when he hears that--"
"I'm always going to be a whore to you, Mal. I can't forgive that, not anymore."
"Inara," he pleaded, gripping her arms tightly. "When we leave here--if they know all you say they do we're gonna need a new ship. Gonna have to find new routes, avoid the old places, push out to new ones. Get off the grid until we're sure they think River and Simon are dead. Do you understand what I'm saying? You can't change your mind. You won't be able to find us."
She pulled away. "I won't change my mind."
He stepped in front of her, blocking her escape. "I'm not going to let you throw us away like this. I love you," he yielded.
She gaped, quite suddenly sure that he had never said the words to anyone but her in his life. At least, not with that meaning.
There are some things that once said, can never be taken back. There are some words that you should never throw back in a man's face. So it was with devastating deliberation that Inara looked Mal straight in the eye, and told him, "I don't believe you. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I apologize. I should never have slept with you. I should have remembered. Things fall apart when I try to be something other than I am. I really am very sorry, Mal, but companions don't fall in love."
Once again, Inara found herself walking away from the very person she wanted to run to.
She was standing out in the hall when she realized that they'd been in her room. She walked the ship, and when she finally returned hours later, Mal was gone.
He'd lost. Well, that was fine. It wasn't the first time, wouldn't be the last. He'd had lots of experience being on the losing side. Just keep going. Had a job to do. He walked onto the ship with leaden feet. The job. Just do the job.
They were in the cargo bay, doing tian xiaode when he walked in. Waiting on him. Well, gorram, of course they were. He was the captain after all. Be the captain.
"All right, we got one more day until our contract with the cruise is up. We're gonna stay, maintain our cover. River and Simon'll lay low. Jayne and Zoe can do security. Wash, Kaylee, you start looking for places to go. We're gonna have to push out; far enough to be off the radar, not so far we can't sell the ship and find jobs."
"Sell Serenity?" Kaylee cried.
"The Alliance can tie it to us. We gotta keep them from tracking us, long enough to convince 'em the Tams really are dead. Besides," he said, "Leaving the Alliance behind was always the plan."
"But selling your ship?" Simon sounded horrified.
"She ain't worth dying for."
"But ..." Simon sighed and turned anguished eyes on Mal. "It's not fair."
"It surely ain't," Mal agreed. "Life ain't, Doc, you know that." Mal tugged on his ear. Good advice, that. He should have remembered it himself.
"I suppose I do; I just, I never wanted to get anyone else involved in all this."
Mal shrugged. "I'm a big boy, son. She ain't worth all this hand-wringing." He wished they'd all stop looking at him. He closed his eyes. "I'm taking a shift tonight," he said. "Better get some rest. Be in my bunk until then."
He didn't even bother to lie down, knowing he'd hear the click of her boots on his ladder before his head even hit the pillow.
"Mal?" she asked softly.
"She doesn't want me, Zoe," Mal said.
Zoe and Mal had been through a lot together, but she'd never had to wipe away his tears before.
Inara was surprised to see Zoe in the hall, until she remembered that Serenity was ostensibly here to provide security. "I was just heading back to the ship," Zoe said. "I had to escort a few people to the safe. Folks are jumpy." She paused. "Can we talk?"
Inara gestured to the nearby solarium. There were benches and relative privacy inside. They walked silently until they found a suitable stopping place. Zoe sat down next to Inara. Inara smiled at her hesitantly, but Zoe didn't say anything, just pulled a few items out of her jacket and began cleaning her gun silently. She seemed to be searching for words. After a long moment, she sighed. "Did you know Wash fought in the war?" Zoe asked.
"Yes," Inara answered, puzzled. She had expected something else. "He spent the last few years in a P.O.W. camp, I believe."
"That's right," Zoe said. "He was there for a long time. The man had barely started when he got picked up." She paused and stopped to study the gun stock, looked at her kit and selected some polish. "After he'd been there awhile, they started having problems with the supply lines. The camp wasn't much of a priority. Who cares if enemy soldiers have enough to eat? Most people in charge at a place like that would have fed their own people first, prisoners be damned. But the guy in charge where Wash was at didn't feel that way. He and those under him shared what food they could get equally with the prisoners. So they all starved together." Zoe paused again in her work and studied Inara out of the corner of her eye. "Wash told me that it made him really respect the Independents."
Inara's breath caught. "Wash fought for the Alliance?"
Zoe nodded. "Enlisted before the war started. All my man had ever wanted was to fly, and it was the Alliance had the flight schools. He was so scared to tell me." Zoe's eyes were faraway, and there was a faint smile on her lips. "But he felt he owed it to me to let me know before we got married. You can imagine how I felt when he told me, how I reacted."
"Yes," Inara said incredulously. "I can't believe that--"
"I married him? I wasn't going to. Not a tamade purple belly. I knew, even if Wash didn't, that it would never work. The next day, Mal and I got into a bad situation. I was sure we were going to die. And all I could think about was that look on Wash's face and the things I had said to him. I was going to die and he'd spend the rest of his life thinking I didn't love him, that I hated him."
"But you didn't."
"No, Mal pulled a miracle out of his pigu like always and when I got back to the ship I headed straight for Wash. I wasn't going to be so afraid of losing something that I wasn't going to try to have it," Zoe finished, picked up her kit and stood. "Mal still doesn't know about Wash and I appreciate you not telling him."
"Of course not," Inara said.
"We're leaving tomorrow," Zoe said. "I hope--I hope that I see you again."
"Thank you," Inara said, with a bit more warmth than she felt. She'd had quite a lot of people talking at her lately. As well intentioned as they may have been, it was not as if any of them really understood. She pushed aside the voice that said perhaps they understood better than she did.
Had anyone ever asked, Inara would have said that returning to Sihnon was the wish nearest her heart.
It had taken her mere weeks to discover that she was wrong. The lights of Sihnon blotted out the stars unnaturally. The view from the house was always the same. And heavens, the current crop of banfeis must surely be tone-deaf, if the sounds from the music room during dulcimer practice were any indication.
The worst was having to account for every moment, asking the house mother for permission to go out every time she wanted to buy something as simple as a spool of thread. Inara had forgotten how positively sinful independence felt. Losing it made her feel contracted, lesser somehow.
It was not that she wanted to stop being a companion. Some of her clients were unsavory, yes, but some were just lonely or shy or otherwise in need of companionship. It wasn't just vanity that made her feel she was helping people.
She just wished she could stop crying when she was alone.
When she'd originally left Serenity, there had been so much for her to do. She had needed the time to think and plan. But here, here everything was pretty much done for her, and there was only so much honing her skills needed. She had too much time to think. Too much time to reflect about the sameness of her days stretching on until forever. She wasn't even helping her clients much. Out on the rim, she'd gone places where companions had never been. Here there were 30 others in this house alone to take her place, and House Madrassa wasn't even the only companion house on the planet.
There were other things she missed, but she didn't let herself think of those. It was just sometimes, well, she thought of Zoe married to a purple belly, Simon no longer making embarrassingly large stacks of money, and she rather wished she'd explored that what if a little longer. She hadn't loved and lost. She'd quit. Maybe she and Mal would not have been able to work it out. Could it possibly have hurt worse than this? Could anything? She thought of Mal's mother, leaving all this for a ranch on Shadow and an early death. Had Mal been worth it? Most of all, Inara thought of all the mistakes she'd already made in her life. Times when she'd been so sure she was doing the right thing. We doubt so much with time, she remembered Jin-Mei saying.
Yes. She doubted.
Inara stood, resolute, and began to haul out her traveling cases. It might take her a very long while, but she was going to find him. A knock at the door interrupted her reverie. "Come in," she called.
The door opened far enough to reveal a banfei on message duty. "House priestess Jin-Mei requests your presence."
"Thank you, Mikayla. I will be there shortly."
Only the color of the linens had changed since Inara had last been in Jin-Mei's room. "Inara," Jin-Mei began. "A certain similarity to the clients you have chosen since returning has not escaped my notice."
"Pardon, house mother?" Inara asked, though she knew quite well to what the other woman was referring.
"Young men with sandy hair and blue eyes," Jin-Mei clarified, pursing her lips.
"Really?" Inara asked, feigning surprise badly. Jin-Mei cocked her head and just looked at her. Inara disliked that look intensely. "Perhaps," she conceded.
"Well, perhaps," Jin-Mei replied. "There is a reason for that?"
"It doesn't matter," Inara said tonelessly. "The way I left things--he wouldn't want me to come back, even if I knew where to find him."
"You want to find him?"
Inara picked up a barrette from the nearby table, hooking and rehooking the clasp. "I love him," she whispered. She looked at Jin-Mei and repeated it. "I love him," she said again, stronger.
"Then, perhaps," Jin-Mei said sarcastically. "You will be interested in this letter that has arrived addressed to you."
Inara's heart gave a thump that quickly died when she realized that the return address was the same as Jayne's mother. She gasped, however, once she drew the contents out of the already open envelope and the evidence of her eyes caught up with her brain. It was another fragment of the poem. Mal's accompanying note was characteristically terse.
Inara, What is lost can be found. Missing pieces can be mended. Any way I can have you, I want you. Give me a chance to prove it. Come home. A certain merc's mother can tell you where we are.
Tears shimmered in her eyes as she clasped the note to her chest and raised a prayer of thanks to the heavens. Jin-Mei harrumphed, having read the missive over Inara's shoulder. "It seems you were not destined to be a house mother after all," she sighed.
"Don't get emotional on me girl," Jin-Mei ordered. "Save it for the clients."
"I have to find passage to--"
Jin-Mei cut her off by slipping a list into her hand. "I've been watching you these last few weeks," she said. "Keeping a current list of transport ships in port seemed like a good idea." Jin-Mei submitted to Inara's enthusiastic hug. "Inara, if you ever decide to retire in order to get married, I probably will not have you shunned," Jin-Mei said, rolling her eyes as if the whole thing was just too outre for words.
Inara laughed through her tears. "I will keep that in mind."
Inara stepped down out of the hackney carriage into the bright sunshine high in the sky over the planet. It bounced off the metal ships blinding her. She raised her hand to shade her eyes and turned. Mal and Kaylee were perfectly framed in Serenity's open doorway, but all Inara saw was Mal. His tan had deepened since she'd seen him last, his shape a touch more wiry. He'd been working hard in the outdoors apparently. Kaylee said something that made him smile, a wide end-to-end grin that set Inara's heart knocking in her chest. She took a deep breath and stepped onto the ramp. They both turned and looked at her then. Without a word, Kaylee melted away, but not Mal. He stood there looking at her in shock, hope and wariness battling on his face. She supposed she should speak first, but she had no words.
"You got my letter," he said finally.
"No! Yes, I did but--" she rushed the last few steps up the ramp, stopping just before she crashed into him. "I don't want you to think that that is why I came. I was already packing to come after you, Mal. I swear it."
"You were?" he breathed. Even in the harsh light of the sun, he looked oddly young and vulnerable.
"Yes!" she said, throwing her arms around him, reaching up on tip-toe to cover his face with kisses. "Yes, yes, yes, Mal. I want you, too. Any way I can have you."
His arms went around her then, hard, crushing her to him. "Oh, tianna, Inara." He buried his face in her hair. "Tianna, I love you. I love you."
"I know, Mal. I know. Oh, don't--" she cried as she felt him shake against her. "Don't, I'm here. I'm here now."
"To stay?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied. "We'll work it out somehow."
There were still a lot of things to work out, and Inara foresaw many future disagreements. But the main thing was settled, they loved each other. She supposed that she might in the future wish to retire. She and Mal might get married. Or not. They might want children. Or not. For now, it was enough to be here. To be together. To be home.
Inara noticed that Zoe ate more at dinner than usual. Apparently, she and Mal weren't the only couple to have settled an argument.
She found herself grinning foolishly, her eyes roving over the ship to take it all in. "I thought you were going to sell her," she said to Mal.
He smiled at her, raising her hand to his lips. "Couldn't find a buyer. No one appreciates a good Firefly anymore."
Inara smiled back, brushing her fingertips along the hull. "I do."
Because she doesn't have an e-mail listed, I wanted to give a shout-out here to trina-k. Thanks for your comments and encouragement while I was getting this story posted here.