Pairing: None. Unless you squint. Really hard.
Spoilers: Through Heart of Gold.
Title: Xing (The Lucky One)
Word Count: 2,569
Feedback: Yes, please!
mei mei - (little) sister
gou cao de - dog humping
hou zi de pi gu - monkey's butt
hundan - bastard
Alone, Inara slips the bronze capsule from the pocket concealed in her trailing sleeves and turns it over in small, well-kept hands.
It's old and dented--well-used, the Companion corrects automatically--as so many things are on the planets of the Rim. Men and women scraping for survival have little appreciation and less time for aesthetics, although the Priestess of her House on Sihnon would undoubtedly say that was the time when aesthetics were most necessary. At heart, Inara agrees. A lack of appreciation of beauty for beauty's sake had not been the reason she'd left House and home to undertake this often absurd pilgrimmage among the hoi-polloi. And if she found beauty out here as well--however small and crude--it was merely a sign of her careful training, and certainly no reason for shame.
Yet. And still...
At the sound of Kaylee's voice, Inara's fingers close over the pellet. She deposits it back in its hiding place, a gesture covered by the sleeves' length. Properly, they should trail to the floor, but the extingencies of living on a ship, particularly one as grubby as Serenity, make such niceties difficult, if not impossible. And really, it's not like anyone aboard--with the very slim possibility of Simon--would know the difference.
You know, the Priestess voice observes from the back of her mind, and that should be enough.
Inara dismisses both voice and her many memories of scrubbing engine oil from expensive tank-grown silk, and holds her hands out to Kaylee. "Hello mei mei," she says warmly. "Come to have your hair brushed?"
The mechanic is a lovely woman, but her personality and body-language are still very much that of a girl. She's a good model for Inara, who hasn't felt nearly so unjaded in years. As much as Kaylee loves her in her role as a Companion--mysterious, exotic, and perpetually poised, Inara treasures the younger woman's eternal sense of wonder and enthusiasm, her genuine warmth and her unfettered tongue. If Mal is a mystery, little Kaylee is not, and all the more precious for it.
Kaylee's hand flutters quickly over her disheveled topknot, but she shakes her head. "Naw. Cap'n asked me to come let you know we'll be in the world in just about twelve hours."
And he couldn't come himself?, is Inara's first, furious thought. She catches it before it can tumble from her lips, but from Kaylee's unhappy expression, it's obvious. Of course Mal hasn't come himself. If they've exchanged twenty words since her decision to leave Serenity, that's all it's been. After so many awkward moments, painful silences, and vicious barbs, she supposes it's just as well. She's tired now, and she just wants it over.
"Thank you, mei mei," she says, and who else on board is skilled enough to tell, if her voice is a little rough?
No one, she thinks. Her mind slips again to the little pellet of bronze, still unopened. No one at all.
If she's being honest with herself, Inara admits she's been avoiding the crew. If not, she rationalizes that she's been busy with packing--and how has she acquired so much go se in the time she's been here? She puts aside a gown, a robe, and some bracelets in colors and styles no longer fashionable. She'll give these to Kaylee, she thinks. A woman should always have at least a few pretty things, even if she does spend most of her time covered in grease and coolant and who knows what else. She puts aside a cunning little bodkin dagger for Zoe; it's a little too long for her torso, she still doesn't quite know what possessed her to buy it. It will suit Zoe admirably. A book for Simon, of course; poetry, since there's so little in his life right now. For River...
At once, she sighs and looks at the piles of gifts to be given and things yet to be packed. Is she really going to try and buy off her friends--if any of the crew are even willing to characterize themself as her friend anymore? Does she really think that any amount of fripperies will change any of the hurt feelings, including her own? What did she say to Mal?
"I learned something from Nandi. Not just from what happened, but from her. The family she made, the strength of her love for them. That's what kept them together. When you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it, you can't break away. And you never want to.
But she does want to. This isn't why she's come out here...to get tied up and tied down, or really tied at all. Quite the opposite. And so she has to go, she has to, before it's too late and she forgets the why that started all of this in the first place.
Again she thinks of the bronze capsule, as she's thought of it hundreds--if not thousands--of times since Petaline slipped it into her hands, there at the end of Nandi's funeral. "She left it for you," the pretty and round-faced whore said. Of course Inara knew what it was...how could she not? She was the one who'd sent it in secret to Nandi in the first place, just after Nandi's expulsion from the House.
Dearest Nandi, she'd said. I don't understand your decision, but lack of understanding has not changed my affection, nor our friendship. I wish you the very best of luck. Be well, my sister.
But Nandi wasn't well. She was dead. She'd fought and scraped and gambled, building a place, a home, a family from scratch. But in the end, she'd lost. Oh, not everything; Inara could recite from heart all the platitudes about how Nandi would go on in that she created, the Heart of Gold and the cockeyed family of whores she'd gathered around her. But that's all they were--platitudes. She'd lost her life holding onto it, and that was the truth of being tied down. It costs something--a lot--and the price always comes due in blood.
Which perhaps is the reason she hasn't listened to whatever message Nandi has left for her on the wave capsule.
She knows there's a message; the tiny light hidden under the clasp blinks steadily at her, red like a droplet of gore, reminder and rebuke. Blink, blink, blink... But each time her fingers stray to insert it into the shuttle's player, she instead finds herself sitting for hours at a time, turning it over and over in her hands, or tracing the line of engraved lotuses endlessly with her finger. It's been...a meditation, moments of peace in her storm-tossed mind. And if she's being honest, a part of her doesn't want to know. Because that's another tie, this one leading into the hazy borderlands of the afterlife. A Companion must be at ease in any surrounding, but that's one she has no desire to experience.
Tea, she thinks suddenly. That will settle my nerves. Just a little while longer, and I'll be through this. Just a little longer and it will be done. And I'll be free.
But if she's being honest, freedom's never felt more un...
Oh, shut up!
She was hoping to find the galley empty, but of course, no such luck. With the addition of Shepherd Book and Simon and River Tam, the galley was seldom empty at any hour any more. Still, her name had not been whispered about as the next prospective Priestess of her House for no reason; her steps are quiet and measured, her mask of nonchalance firmly in place as she enters the warm heart of the ship.
"Big day," the Shepherd greets her. Having finally acquired some of his much vaunted rosemary, he's doing something interesting with the last of the apples he'd thriftily dried, and some protein.
"Yes." She smiles and keeps moving, assembling tray, cup, stirrer.
"Looking forward to getting back into the world?"
"Well, it will be nice to be able to buy soap, or books, or embroidery floss on a whim again," she laughs, and the Shepherd joins her. "And I'm afraid I'm terribly out of date with the latest theater."
"Things do move a sight faster in the Core," Book agrees. "And I suppose there are some that like all that hurly-burly. It just always seemed to me a little too easy to lose yourself in all that jostle and fuss."
Her smile falters and she looks down, concentrates instead on making a pleasing arc of arm and water as she pours it over the strainer of aromatic herbs. The smell of lemongrass, and catnip rise like a released secret from the tea, calming. It gives her the equilibrium to say, "I suppose it's what one is raised to expect, really. After Sihnon, I think I've felt much more lost out among the sticks."
Book nods, as if he expects exactly this answer. "Then this is a happy day." He wipes his hands on a rag and tips his teacup at her in salute.
"...avoid the B3Bs at all costs," Wash advises. "Their ailerons will have you upchucking all over the place the moment you hit atmo. Oh! And steer clear of the Excelcior class ships. They look all shiny, but they've got the manuverability of a..."
"I think Inara is more than capable of finding her own boat, Husband." Zoe puts a hand on Wash's shoulder. "And other folk are waiting to make their goodbyes."
"Oh... Right!" Wash subsides, then suddenly bounds forward to envelop her in a hug. Inara is pushed to a giggle, unfeigned.
She loves to watch the body language between pilot and second, a model of another kind. Zoe is a woman of few words, but the expressiveness of her gestures--not to mention her eyes--speaks the volumes that she doesn't, and more eloquently. And Wash... Wash is all expression, as puppy-like in his enthusiasms as Kaylee, but with shadows and unexpected depths beneath his dazzling exterior.
Zoe hugs her as well. A Companion always has a certain distance; a space around her like a still pond. It's not often that space is disrupted, but she can make exceptions. Serenity has been good to Inara.
From Kaylee, there's tears, but Inara expects that, and so--though her eyes water beautifully--not a drop escapes to mar her careful make-up. Another hug. From Book, a handshake; formal, but warm. From Simon, a bow, even more formal and beautifully executed. She wonders who his teacher was. River has created a new nest in one of the smuggling cubbyholes and refuses to emerge.
"Won't," she replies, when Simon tries vainly to coax her out. "Not goodbye anyway." She snatches the square of extremely expensive chocolate that Simon tried to tempt her with from his fingers and refuses to say another word. Still, it's exactly like River, and that makes her smile.
Jayne comes forward at the last, arms outstretched, but is quickly reeled back by Zoe, who gives Inara a wink. "Only wanted to say goodbye proper," Jayne grouses. "Everyone else got a hug."
"Yes, but you'd leave her all sticky," Zoe retorts, "and mess up her shiny dress."
Amid laughter, Inara rises on tiptoe and places a chaste kiss on Jayne's stubbled cheek. "Be good, Hero of Canton," she murmurs, and the mercenary blushes. A very becoming carnation, as it happens.
Then the gifts are all bestowed, the goodbyes are all made, and her trunks are loaded on the mule. Inara keeps her spine straight and her steps even as she goes. She's not hurt that Mal didn't come. It's exactly what she expects, and really, it's easier this way. A clean break.
She doesn't look back and she's practically forgotten about Nandi's capsule, nestled warm between her breasts.
No, she's not hurt at all.
Inara's fingers tremble as she tries to insert the capsule into the player. The pellet skates over the player's face and she mutters a word she picked up from Jayne.
She was fine, the first three days.
Better than fine. It was wonderful--exciting--to be out among new people, to eat dinners not composed primarily of protein blocks, to talk about books and art and theater rather than engine repairs, and new, thrilling crime, and hilarious stories about bombs in fruit (with added torsos!). She dances, and laughs, and drinks, and lets herself think of absolutely nothing, safe behind the iron facade of a Companion.
And then, halfway through Persimmon Barnes' anectdote about chasing a bird out of her aunt's kitchen, she suddenly realises she's bored. Yawningly, slam-your-head-against-a-wall bored.
She imagines what Mal would say about the pleasure barge's passengers, and in the moment before it cuts, she feels better. She finds herself wandering past the engine room or the cockpit, but the engineer's got no time for her and the pilot keeps trying to look down her cleavage. Afterwards, the captain comes and lectures her, a talk in which the word "fraternize" figures no less than fifteen times.
After that, she starts to notice how many of the barge's matrons whisper behind their fans as she passes. She notices they keep their daughters--and especially their sons--closer to their skirts, though they still smile to her face and laugh at her jests. She thinks of Rance Burgess. She thinks of Atherton Wing.
She thinks of Mal: "I might not show respect to your job, but he didn't respect you. Inara, he doesn't even see you."
And then she knows she's lonely.
Still hidden, still unheard, the message pellet seems to weigh a hundred kilograms. And then, suddenly, she can't take it anymore and now here she is, trying to fit the capsule into the gou cao de player...
"hou zi de pi gu!"
"Mei mei," Nandi says reproachfully, when she finally slots the capsule into the socket.
But of course, it's only a recording.
The sight of Nandi's face makes her breath catch; she denies it's on a sob.
"I told you on the wave that you look exactly the same. Guess what I shoulda said was you are exactly the same; still puttin' all you really think and all you really feel behind that pretty white smile." Nandi smiles herself, crooked, knowing. "Time was, I envied you that. Hell, time was, I envied you everything. It was all so damn easy for you."
There's no rancor in Nandi's face, voice. If she ever felt bitter, it doesn't show now.
"Xing ya tou. The Lucky One; that was you. Still is, even out here in the black. Thing is, I don't hate you for it anymore. I know you don't understand...and I don't need you to, but I thought you should know. It don't matter how things turn out today; I know you'll be all right. That man of yours..." Nandi laughs. "He's a right hundan; he'll see you through. And I'll be all right too. The Heart of Gold, she's my ji yu, and I made her. So I guess we're both lucky now, huh, mei mei?"
The pellet is a small one; only good for a minute or two of play; on the screen, Nandi kisses her fingers and then presses them to the screen, a moment before everything goes black.