A Dictionary of Misunderstood Words
Companion. The Alliance. The Black. Scars. The words mean completely different things to each of them. Mal/Inara oneshot
A/N: I was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being again the other day, and the idea for this story leapt out at me. So of course the premise (the dictionary of misunderstood words) is stolen blatantly from Milan Kundera. My apologies to him.
Disclaimer: Firefly belongs to Joss; the Dictionary belongs to Kundera.
"Because human lives are…composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence…into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life…. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress…
"While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs…but if they meet when they are older…their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them."
--The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
Their first misunderstanding, the one that tangled itself around their legs and tripped them up from the very first meeting, was about the word "Companion."
Mal is old-fashioned. He grew up on Shadow, one of the small Rim worlds, where life was about blood and earth and work. It was about finding beauty in your children and your tilled land and the fruits of your hands. It was about the community you lived in—knowing each person so well that almost no one had secrets. It was about freedom, about owning the land you worked and being your own man. It was about following your own compass, and the freedom to do so. These were concrete things, things you could touch and feel, things it was easy to fight for. And so he fought.
Inara is as progressive as they come. Life is a dance for her. From her birth, she was raised in a world of beauty and art and music, a world of ideas. After she was sent to the Training House at a very young age, her life was a continuation of that one; there was no discrepancy. Some of the girls found it difficult to adjust to a world of incense and drama; Inara slid into it as easily as she did into the silk of her new dresses. Life was about a graceful movement from one day to another, waltzing on the music of tradition. And so Inara danced.
There were whores on Shadow. They lived in a big, balconied structure on Venus Street, stuck in between abandoned buildings and shady bars. Young boys would sneak down there after school, trying to catch a glimpse of them. They were strongly built women, women just like all the others on Shadow, though they tried to hide this with layers of makeup and fancy hair and gaudy clothes.
Men did not tip their hats to whores on the street, women did not speak to them. For all practical purposes, they were not members of the community at all—they were excommunicated, in a way—and to Mal, there was no greater punishment. The men that were known to visit them were looked upon as trash who would not be satisfied by their own wives and who had to pay for something that should be given freely and by one person.
There were Companions everywhere on Sihnon. Sitting on the staircase in her nightgown, watching the party her parents had thrown swirl below her, Inara saw them: beautiful and elegant and dressed in silks, no different than the wives of senators and business men except in a lofty sort of grace only a Companion could attain.
At the Training House, they did not become people to her, not friends, except for Nandi. All the other women, women she saw every day and trained with and were taught by, were still like butterflies, graceful but untouchable. They were feted and invited to christening balls and museum openings and opera premiers—every important event in the Core worlds. And before long, she was one of them.
When Mal hears the word Companion, he thinks of whores. When Inara hears it, she thinks of butterflies. What definitions could be more opposed than those?
It was natural that Mal fought in the War. For the same reasons he could not reconcile himself with the word "Companion," he could not reconcile himself with the Alliance. People who thought that they could tell others, lightyears away, how to run their lives, simply because they had money and big fancy educations and the common people didn't; people who fought because of a draft or because of family tradition or because of an idea—that did not sit right with him. Wars like that were always wrong.
It was all wrong. Just wrong that people who knew nothing about real life would come in their big fancy ships and "establish" a government, ignoring the one that the citizens of the Rim worlds had already developed themselves, and start bossing everyone around. Just wrong that when the people of those planets tried to stand up for themselves, they were treated like cattle or traitors—as though they should have some sort of loyalty to a government so far away.
The War came to Shadow—he did not go looking for it. One day his uncle refused to pay the taxes on his cattle, the new tax the Alliance governor had just written into law. There was already a tax on cattle, one that paid the town elders, one that supported the school his children attended and the church he knelt in every Sunday. Why should he pay another to support big fancy libraries and massive armies on Osiris?
They hanged him. No second chances, no warnings, just running the door down during the night. Lynched him, torturing him in ways no one Mal had ever known would torture a dog. So he and his two cousins took their grandfather's rifles off the walls and went hunting.
From there, it was just a step to Serenity Valley.
The War did not touch Inara nearly at all. It did not change anything about her life; she took classes, she attended parties, she escorted men. Often, generals attended the parties—sometimes, they were even the guests of honor—and she heard about how well "our boys" were fighting, about the barbarity of the uncouth, ignorant Browncoats—but all they needed was someone to come in and tell them how to behave and set laws for them, and they could be as productive of citizens as anyone else.
There was propaganda. Lots of it. The news stories on the Cortex at night showed clips of bright-eyed young Alliance soldiers flying magnificent ships or being honored with medals for performing great acts of courage. On occasion, grass roots groups would air special clips of the real fighting, gory and raw, but she recoiled and quickly changed to the new performance of Oedipus Rex or a performance of Puccini.
The reality of the War intruded into her life exactly once. She was invited by a concerned father to attend to his son who was just back from the front. She accepted; later, she wished she hadn't. His eyes, the rawness in his voice, the nightmares, the stump where his leg had once been….It was the first and only time she had nightmares after a job.
To her, the Alliance was holding back the darkness that threatened to overwhelm the civilized world. To him, it was that darkness. To her, it was order. To him, it was forced unity. To her, it was the only life worth living. To him, it wasn't really life. She realizes now how different her perception of the war and hence the Alliance is from the reality. He realizes that not every person who lives under the Alliance is a mindless drone. And yet…impressions linger and do not fade.
She is the Core, and he is the Black. These two never really meet.
There are some things they share, and yet even these do not yield the same definitions. They both grew up hearing stories about the Black.
The stories she heard—told at sleepovers, whispered by well-meaning adults, spun by her senile grandmother—were boogieman tales. They spoke of a universe of endless blackness, cold and impenetrable. A darkness so absolute that those who saw it lost their minds at the thought of infinite night. Later, there came the whispers of Reavers—stories only half-believed but as fully formed as a nightmare—of rape and plunder and death. She shivered and could not sleep.
The stories he was told—by his ship's captain grandfather, by other wide-eyed boys, by his general during the War—were tales of freedom. Flying out into the wideness of the 'Verse, unmolested by the Alliance, alone with one's own soul. These stories were from the tradition of adventures, of sailors and pioneers who sailed vast oceans and found new lands. He would lie on his back and star up at the stars.
She had never imagined any life in which she would ever set foot on a ship bound for the Black. There were plenty of potential clients in the Core—in reality, she need never have left Sihnon had she not wished to. And even for a woman desiring excitement and adventure, there were…dangerous men swarming all over the Core worlds. But when the time came to run, she found herself on a beat-up derelict ship bound for the terror of absolute darkness.
There was only one choice for him after the War. He could not return home, for everything he had cared about was gone, and no other planet would accept him. The Black opened its arms to him, and he accepted its invitation as one accepts a lover, stepping eagerly into its embrace. The blood of his ancestors—sailors, settlers, adventurers—stirred within him. It felt right: the void sucked away his memories—at least as much as anything ever could—and he was his own master once again.
Like most of the citizens of the Rim worlds, he grew up on protein. It came in every color under the sun with nearly as many names, but really it all tasted the same. It had the same texture, too, and texture was the thing that mattered to him.
Sometimes, the family could afford to kill a cow or a chicken—for a wedding or a holiday or the visit of a traveling Shepherd—or his Mama could scrape up enough flour to make a biscuit. But these times were few and far between, and though he cherished each memory in his mind, it was the fruit that stood out.
It was even more rare than the other foods, and the textures amazed him. Grapes when he was six—he still remembers the feel of them exploding in his mouth. An orange when he was eleven—he peeled it carefully and the juice ran down his chin. An apple when he turned sixteen—the tart crispiness under the perfect skin. Once, during the War, his company took over the villa of an Alliance governor, and the man had a garden. Watermelons grew there, and the company carved them up with their knives—knives usually meant for grislier work. He still remembers that night sleeping under the stars in that garden, full of the watery sweetness, surrounded by spit-out seeds, as a highlight of his life—one of the only highlights of the War.
She grew up taking variety for granted. There were an assortment of pastries and cold meats for breakfast, soups and salads and breads for lunch, hors d'oeuvres and wines for appetizers, meats and vegetables for dinner, creams and cakes for dessert—and no matter the meal, fresh fruit was always an option. Her family had a cook all through her childhood, and the Guild had meals specially prepared as works of art, so she never thought about where food came from.
Meals were social events. It wasn't about the food. Of course, she ate when she was hungry, but she never knew true hunger. Instead, she knew the way people soften over a meal, the eagerness to talk. She attended a thousand elegant dinners in her life, and she could never tell you what was served at any of them. She barely thought about the food she put into her mouth, because it was all delicious.
Aside from the brewing of tea, she never had to shop for food or prepare it. No lady ever did her own cooking, and Inara Serra was nothing if not a lady. When she blundered into the world that was Serenity—the only ungraceful motion of her life—she had to learn to adjust. She tried. She was miserable at cooking; she managed to make even the protein worse than it already was. And it was an effort to choke down every meal; she had to wash the taste out of her mouth with tea when she returned to her shuttle.
Fruit is still an occasion to him. To her, it is only a memory of a world she has left behind.
Memorizing passages of poetry was a necessary part of a Companion's training. From Sappho to Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, the Guild temples collected the poetry of Earth-That-Was. They viewed themselves as light-bearers, keeping mankind out of a new dark age, ensuring the light of civilization would continue to flame. They collected the works of the great composers and novelists and painters and sculptures, as well; in truth, the Guild was the greatest collector of art in the 'Verse.
From the poems she was assigned, she learned how to speak with a soothing rhythm and grace. She expanded her memory by memorizing long passages, then improved her diction and presentation by reading them to groups of her classmates. She learned all about culture and history through this poetry.
She never enjoyed it as much as she did the novels—she was particularly fond of Kundera and Faulkner—or the music (she was appalled by Nandi attacking her own dulcimer). To her, it was just another necessary part of training; one more subject that must be mastered before she could become registered. She liked the poetry, appreciated what she learned from it, but there it ended. She never read it after she left Sihnon.
His mama had loved Yeats. She was also quite fond of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Byron, as well—all the mushy stuff, he later discovered. She'd never read cummings, and the one time she tried T.S. Eliot, she threw the book across the room in frustration—he remembers that day well. She was just a simple provincial farmer's wife who hadn't made it past ninth grade, but she had developed a love of books and begged them off of traders for the rest of her life. One of his first memories is of her reading "Annabel Lee" aloud at him as he lay in bed, wrapped warm in quilts and the glow of firelight.
It was all about the way the words sounded. Though he loved the stories he later found in the Greek epics or in Chaucer, he didn't really care about what the words meant, only the sounds that they made, the rhythm, the rhyme. When he read a poem, he heard his mama's voice reading it to him, rising and falling like the sea, soft and sweet and loving. When he read a poem, he smelled her, too, lavender and rainwater. When he read a poem, he felt the brush of her work-hardened hand against his cheek.
He took her copy of Keats to war with him. It was her last gift to him; she died while he was away. At first, he would read the words aloud at night, crouching in the mud with Zoë snoring beside him and the roar of guns drowning out the sound of his own whisper. At first it was comfort, memory, a rare glimpse of beauty. He stopped reading after the second month.
Now, poetry is a symbol of a life lost to him.
Men and women view scars differently, and these two are no different. Men see scars as trophies, signs of victory and conquest. Women view them only as scratches marring potential perfection.
He is covered with scars, and each one speaks to him. Each one is the memory of a person or an event that affected his life. He is not proud of them—not like Jayne, who likes to tell the stories behind each one—but he can map the path of his life through them, and he never worried about them lingering. Scars are what happen when you're wounded, and, because there is no way to truly heal, there is no reason to pretend you can.
He is no masochist. He does not long for scars, for the pain that accompanies them. But when the wounds come—as they must in a life like his—he sees no reason to apply poultices or salves to try to erase the mark of a moment. The memory would remain, anyways, and strangely, the scars have become a sort of reliquary, an icon, a physical place to leave the memory so that it will not scar his mind and soul.
This does not work, of course. His heart has been so broken and lacerated that perhaps it is only scar tissue now. The scars form a protective barrier around any softness he might have left, and only a rare few can get past it. He knows if he lets her past, it will only mean more scarring.
She has a few scars, tiny ones from accidents and an operation. But they are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Each time she is injured, she ensures that the doctor has the steadiest of hands and the smallest of stitches, that she can obtain the correct medicines to ensure their diminishment.
Her body is her work. It's her art, her job, her tool. And for a Companion, the body should be as perfect as possible. To her, scars are only mars on the surface of silky ivory skin: something to be erased as soon as possible. Though a few linger, pink only a shade or two darker than her skin, she would not be able to tell you where she got them. That is unimportant. Only their absence is significant.
They have a few definitions that overlap. Despite their differing backgrounds, their disparate values, their opposing worldviews, they have motifs that they share, that touch and glow with shared light. Any motif shared is a connection. Any connection is a beginning. Any beginning implies a shared road.
Perhaps, they sometimes think when these samenesses brush up against each other and they are made aware of them, there is hope.
If you asked either of them what they think of when they think of Serenity, they would both say: home.
He allows for sentimentality when it comes to his ship. Serenity is everything: it's his mother, his lover, his daughter. It's as real to him as any other person—possessing its own personality, its own quirks, its own memories—and sometimes, like Kaylee, he talks to it. When it is hit, he winces in empathy, feeling every injury as though the blow had struck his own skin. His identity is so entangled with that of the ship that he is not sure he could ever separate them again.
She loves Serenity as much as any other member of the crew. She fell in love with it at first sight—in much the same way he did—as she had never fallen for any man (except perhaps for its captain). It was simple and unpretentious and it opened its arms to her. After years of ritual and shallow flattery and restrictions, here was real life: nine people on a ship. A ship that whispered with a very real voice at night, that had aches and pains like any person, that has its own smells and sounds and even tastes.
They would agree—and are vaguely aware of this agreement, though they've never really spoken about it—that Serenity means home because of the people who call it home. They're both comforted and inspired and heart broken and made whole by Zoë's eternal constancy, by Kaylee's unshakable faith, by Wash's endless humor, by Jayne's everyday decisions not to sell them out, by the Shepherd's refusals to judge, by Simon's dedication to his sister, by River's brokenness.
They found this ship at exactly the moment they needed it. At the moment he was without faith, without a reason to live, it provided one. At the moment she was unsure of her own path for the first time, in desperate need of an absolute truth, it became one. At the moment when he was running from his past and a government that hunted him, it was sanctuary. At the moment when she was running from her future and from a life of constraints and rules, it was freedom.
For both of them, Serenity is escape.
They would both say they do not believe in it, if you asked them.
To both of them, romantic love, love with roses and moonlight and the glow of candles, is either a delusion or a weakness.
If you probe deeper, you would find that to him, love was Serenity Valley. Love was fighting and being willing to die for the man beside you. It was the heartbreak of surrender. It is Zoë, always there after all these years. It is the way he felt when he saw Serenity for the first time. It is Kaylee's faith. It is the "me and mine" of his crew—a sense of belonging that is forever (or at least till death). Now, worst and most painful of all, love is when he looks at Inara and knows that he would do anything to keep her safe.
To her, love has nothing at all to do with sex, a strange belief for a Companion. Love was her grandmother letting her play dress up in her fancy ball gowns, never worrying about the jam that found its way onto the satin. It was her best friend Sari from home writing letters to her faithfully each week after Inara was sent to Sihnon, even if she was not allowed to write back (the letters continued till the day she left to find serenity). It was Nandi standing up for her to the other girls, cruel young acolytes who felt threatened by a dark-eyed little girl with a dancer's grace (this made the betrayal later all the more painful). It was Wash and Shepherd Book dying for a reason. It was the way the crew of Serenity accepted her without any reservations. And worst and most painful of all, it is the knowledge that she would throw her old life away in an instant (she refuses to admit to herself that she already has) if Mal would bend his pride for a moment and ask her.
Love is each other, Mal and Inara and all the baggage that comes with them.
These definitions are perpendicular; they cross at the perfect point. They are also parallel; they run along side each other forever. And they are halves of a circle; they are complete and never-ending when combined.
And really, if you strip all the other echoes and connotations and barriers of the other definitions away, these are the definitions that matter. Home. Love. Life.
Perhaps there is hope beyond the realm of words.