Elanor Tam took after her father: dark-haired and straight-backed. She kept her hands folded in her lap while Inara read her mother's letter. I love her to death, but Lord knows I just don't know what to do with her.
"I have rules and I expect them to be followed," Inara said.
"Good," Elanor said, her first touch of fervency. Before departing for her room she bowed, her grace an echo of her aunt. At the novice's table she held herself apart, still. She ate with careful precision.
"You're not making Kaylee's daughter into a whore!" Mal yelled later, in his own home where he could still say things like that.
"You show great concern for Kaylee and her family now," Inara shot back. "Two days ago you didn't know Elanor's name!"
"At least I know what's honest and dece—"
"Do you think Kaylee sent her daughter to me for that?" Inara cried. Heat and pain behind her eyes. How could they be here still, like this?
"Well it's what you do ain't it — too old to be a whore yourself, now you just shape new ones to send out into the world and confound people." The look on his face suggested how much he hated himself, but Inara was not paying attention. She was watching their daughter, blue eyes peeking out from behind the doorway.
"Is that what I do?" Inara asked, cold. She knelt down and held out her arms to the little girl, who pattered quickly into their safety. Everything must be okay now, Mommy had her.
Mal stopped, of course. Inara's arms closed around Safa's body and she stood, slowly. Her knees ached, and the small of her back. A whisper to her daughter lay on her tongue: Come on sweetheart, let's go back to the whorehouse. She refused to let it come. Safa was not a weapon in their war. "Good night Mal," she said.
He apologized, later, and half meant it. "Kaylee doesn't know how to raise a girl who isn't like her, easy and cheerful," Inara explained, angry still and equally needing him to understand. "Elanor needs rules, and guidelines. She needs — all the things you mock — to know how to move and what to say, how to use her intelligence and not let it consume her. Many of the girls here will not be Companions. There are choices and choices along the way. Every well-born parent in the 'verse wants to send their daughters to a Companion Training House. Girls emerge women. And not just, as you want it, to sell and be sold. As themselves. Able to see their choices, clearly, to make their path in grace."
He sat on the edge of her bed, his hands clasped tight, and was honest for once, stripping pretense away. "I don't want Safa to be…" he said.
She tried to be glad he was telling her the truth, and not hurt. These were things she knew already. "She won't be," Inara said, and since they were being honest she added, "But if she does want — if she chooses so — it will not be up to you."
Elanor and Wash met over tea in Inara's private solar. Elanor was fourteen, her eyes flickering between her companions as she carefully poured the tea. Wash, on the cusp of eighteen, leaned too far back in his chair as he tried to appear nonchalant. They were ill-matched, except that both tended to keep their thoughts to themselves. It was a quiet afternoon. Inara told them stories about their parents and tried not to laugh, or to cry, at their young, disbelieving faces. A new generation. Innocence.
Several weeks later Inara saw them walking in the garden. They did not touch. Elanor was tall but Wash was taller. She walked with measured steps, and watched him, and he ambled alongside, his hands in his pockets. Once they paused, and Elanor touched his arm, and then they walked on. Did they talk of the past, Inara wondered, or the future?
River came out of the sky one day. Kaylee had built her a ship, just the size for one, fast and beautiful, with room enough to dance. River landed it beside Serenity, and walked into Mal's house while he and Safa were making dinner. She had bare feet and smile lines engraved on her thin face.
"Ō, wǒ tā mā de shén!" Mal yelled, almost chopping off a finger.
"Daddy! Don't use bad words!" Safa chided him, before peering at the newcomer. She was balanced on a stool, leaning over the counter. "Who are you?"
"River Tam. Your name is Safa Serra Reynolds, and you have the heart of a young tree."
"I know," Safa said.
Later there was another dinner in the big farm house. Zoe cooked and River sat with Elanor, their blue eyes echoing one another, and Wash leaned against the wall, having finally grown into his long legs. Safa dashed from her mother to her father to River, her new best friend, and Inara helped Zoe in the kitchen and said, "I wonder if Safa spends too much time at the House. I don't want her to… we teach control there. But she's too young for that."
"I wouldn't worry 'bout teaching that girl too much control," Zoe said, and Inara smiled and scraped a plate of chopped peppers into the pot. "She'll turn out the way she's meant to, no matter what we do. We can wish, but we can't control. I want Wash to marry a nice farm girl and make lots of babies and take this place over so I can sit on the porch all day, but I don't know if that's like to happen on my schedule." She glanced over at shoulder. Wash had joined Elanor and River at the table. At twenty-one he had lost his baby fat, his face lean and handsome, his hands wide and calloused. Elanor, at seventeen, seemed twice as self-possessed, but at least she smiled more now.
In the dining room, Mal held Safa upside down by her ankles. River drifted into the kitchen, watching him and whispered to Inara, "It's time."
"For what?" Inara asked, but River only smiled, and stole a carrot to crunch between her teeth.
The next day River took Mal up in her ship. He protested, but Safa said, "Please Daddy can we go, please?"
Inara was waiting when they touched back down. Mal walked out, surprised to find earth beneath his feet again. Alone with her in the dark he cried, his body shaking both of them. "I forgot the stars," he whispered. She kept him close, so that he would remember that there were more things than stars.