“Goodnight, River,” Simon said, smoothing the blanket into place and bending down to kiss River’s forehead. “See you in the morning.”
River folded the corners of the blanket inward, and pleated the middle part. “It would save a lot of trouble if she admitted that she wants to sleep with you.”
Simon sighed, and made himself refrain from stretching out the blanket again, thinking, every goddamn thing he did got undone, but trying to remind himself that if River wanted to sack out in large-scale origami, that was her lookout. “I know Kaylee wants to sleep with me. But…well, as you’ll find out, hopefully in about sixty-five years from now, sexual feelings are very complicated. Just because somebody is a nice person doesn’t mean that everybody they desire wants them back. In fact, being a nice person is frequently pretty irrelevant. Or counterproductive. Also, it’s exactly like applying life support in a very poor prognosis situation. It’s really better not to start, because withdrawing is always a lot of trouble.”
“Kaylee thinks she can make you happy.”
“ I don’t think she’s right. Kaylee just reminds me of everything I’ve lost.” And Inara, he thought, reminded him of everything he used to have. “And could I make her happy, anyway? We don’t want many of the same things.”
River rolled her eyes, although it was not visible because her eyes were closed. She knew it drove Simon crazy, so sometimes, as at present, she was glad he couldn’t see it. “Inara is not one bit smarter than Kaylee.”
“I didn’t say that.”
River didn’t really care, but you had to make your own fun. “You didn’t have to.”
“Well, let’s just say that Inara is more sophisticated, all right?”
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Inara said.
Simon raised an eyebrow, or rather, because he couldn’t operate them independently, raised both eyebrows. He wondered if that would have disqualified him from selection for Companion training. Everyone from Osiris grew up gazing, at least, occasionally, into the mirror and blaming that pimple or that crossed-over tooth or those two stubborn extra kilos for debarring them from a life of glamour and excitement.
However, even in childish games of Companions and Senators, the other kids always made Simon, on account of gravitas, play the Senator. Long before the games mutated, Simon had already acquired his first microscope, and then a mei-mei, so he had stopped playing with other kids anyway.
“I have worked with other Companions, and with properly admitted Apprentices, but never with a civilian,” she said. “But given the current financial situation…”
“Yes,” Simon said. There was no point in arguing with her. Simon knew that Inara’s partiality for the Captain would lead her to keep throwing money down the rathole that was Serenity. Enough people were furious at Simon that he didn’t want to anger someone he actually liked.
Simon had resolved to conquer his own partiality in the same direction. River had been perfectly unconcerned about what appeared to be her imminent incineration, because she was sure that Mal and Company would turn up in time. At the time, Simon had been extremely concerned. He would still be shivering if he didn’t still feel toasted.
Simon could not bring himself to be completely ungrateful for the rescue. Nor could he entirely condemn Mal’s successful maneuvers to save the Shepherd’s life, and he enjoyed imagining Mal having to go hat-in-hand to the Alliance to do it. Whereas, if the captain had had the simple decency and good sense to listen to Simon in the first place, immediate emergency treatment would have been right at hand. Simon planned to never let Mal hear the end of that, for the limited time it would take him to accumulate enough money to get the hell off Serenity and move someplace quieter.
He had prepared himself to be the target of the imperial might of the Alliance. But he felt it was too goddamn much to also be at the mercy of everyone Mal had ever infuriated (a set highly congruent with the set of everyone Mal had ever met). Not to mention inbred back-births with no idea of how to word a “Help Wanted” ad.
It was a simple favor, but there wasn’t anyone else she could ask. Inara didn’t feel comfortable about taking her Level V Tantra examination when she was so far out of practice. And once she did that, it seemed only fair to say “thank you” with an equivalent number of more conventional instances. Of course Simon was not a trained professional, but Inara was touched by his genuine desire to please her.
Inara would probably have admired Simon—who contravened her experience about the relative amount of water carried by older brothers and younger sisters—if he had looked like the back end of a bus.
She did not think he looked like the back end of a bus.
Consequently, Inara determined to impose some control before things got out of hand. This way, everybody won.
Well, everybody who deserved to win.
Simon knew he would never be seventeen again. He was growing to believe he would never be twenty-seven, ever, so he felt all the more disposed to take advantage of whatever declining sexual powers remained to him.
Kostenborg Industries didn’t rise to its multi-billion-credit eminence in dozens of worlds (none of them Osiris—Inara checked) without an appreciation for side deals when they made financial sense. So Robert Kostenborg, its hands-on CEO, was more than willing to sign up for a less-than-Guild-authorized party. As a tribute to Kostenborg’s humble origins, Inara ordered Simon a version of a workman’s sturdy dungarees and practical t-shirt, although the t-shirt was semi-sheer spun silk, and the dungarees were draped jersey. Inara wore all her jewelry, and a simple printed caftan that would be easy to lift off.
Inara hung up Kostenborg’s jacket and mixed him a strong scotch-and-water in a crystal tumbler. Simon flourished his hand open to show an emerald green pill (a vasodilator mixed with a muscle relaxant and a mild euphoriant). He put the pill into his mouth and then kissed his client hello.
In short order, Kostenborg became a CEO with four hands on him, the fragrance of eucalyptus and sandalwood diffusing through the shuttle. Occasionally Simon and Inara stole a kiss or a nibble, reaching over Kostenborg, their joined hands precariously keeping them balanced. Then a voice spoke from amid the pillows: “Okay, that’s enough!” and Kostenborg rolled over, a big grin on his face and an exuberant erection bedded down in salt-and pepper hair. Inara thought that Kostenborg would be a good maiden voyage for Simon, because he was perfectly clear about what he wanted at a particular moment, and the expectations themselves were modest. She also thought that Simon would initiate the next step, because it didn’t exactly take a gun to the head to get Simon to head downtown. Inara took advantage of the break to remove her caftan.
Sit up, baby,” Kostenborg said after awhile. “I don’t want to come that way. “ He patted the bed near the pillows for Inara, and gestured for Simon to divest redundant properties. Then he moved hands around until there were two assorted ones on everybody’s wedding tackle.
Subsequently, wrapped in a silk robe that just managed to close (in Inara’s experience, johns were seldom gaunt), Kostenborg reclined on the bed, puffing on a stogie that would not have gone friendless in a gay bar. Inara snuggled against him as they watched the Worlds Cup on the Cortex screen, leaping to her feet and shouting whenever the Sihnon LoupsGaroux scored a goal, or even appeared likely to do so. Simon sat folded on the floor, his head against Kostenborg’s knee, Kostenborg’s free hand occasionally stroking his hair.
Simon grilled slices of filet mignon (and some prawns, for Inara) on a hibachi. He didn’t mind being designated as chef; he found spectator sports pointlessly boring. Inara had been nervous about whether Simon could actually cook, but reassured herself that he would be good at things that involve defined sequences of steps. Inara had a small rice cooker, and an ice chest that held the watercress salad and the steak sauce. Serenity’s galley was innocent of an oven, so the previous day, Simon had made a sort of tarte tatin in one of the cast-iron frying pans, first cooking the pastry, then turning it out and sautéing and glazing sliced poirpoms in the same skillet.
Simon made coffee in Inara’s elaborate vacuum brewer, explaining how it worked. Over some brandy, they talked over a potential Kostenborg Industries acquisition, although it was perhaps more of a discussion and fewer soothing noises than Kostenborg found optimal.
“Well, this old man’s done for the day, but maybe you two kids have a little energy left?” Simon looked over at Inara, who gave a tiny nod and a tinier Mona Lisa smile. He lifted her up and balanced her against the shuttle wall, which soon trembled. Inara trumped his strength move with one of her own, cannon-balling until she had her legs on Simon’s shoulder. “I’m going to…let’s…uhh, sit down,” he whispered, and they slid down to the floor, getting gently waffled by the tatami mats.
He enjoyed the show, and it was his idea anyway, but Kostenborg felt a little foolish about paying a lot to watch Inara bang her fancy-piece like a screen door in a twister.
“Where’d you find this sweet thing, Miss Inara?” Kostenborg asked, straightening his silvery silk tie.
“Halfway to Boros,” she said. “Although we never actually got there.”
“Son, I don’t think this is the way you were brought up.”
“I’m from Osiris,” Simon told Shepherd Book. “It actually is how I was brought up. You couldn’t so much as click on a magazine without seeing pictures of Companions. Envying them. Wanting to be like them. If it weren’t for these little…political contretemps…my parents would be proud if they heard this was what I was doing. I mean, they’d be upset that I don’t have a license, they’re very involved in doing things the proper way.”
“Not what you’re used to, then.”
“It’s exactly what I’m used to, Shepherd. You know what’s supposed to happen? What happened my entire adult life with the exception of these last few months? I make people feel better, and then they give me a lot of money. It’s not as much money now, but then there aren’t exactly lives on the line. They’re happy to see me! They aren’t trying to kill me or bind me by law or steal something that I probably just stole anyway, very possibly from them. And, and, I know that you have beliefs, but they’re not the same as mine. If it’s all right to pay a chef for cooking your dinner, and a violinist for coming over to your table and playing sentimental ballads, when you’re sitting there with somebody you don’t know from Adam’s off ox but you hope she’ll go to bed with you if you buy her enough drinks, and all right to pay a masseur to work on your sore back. I think it’s all right to pay a Companion for all that. Not to mention the sympathetic ear when you talk about your problems—not all of the most effective therapists are licensed.”
Simon took a sheet out of the dryer, checked its condition, and folded it into a neat package. Inara ironed a mulberry silk blouse.
“I hate to be intolerant,” Simon said. “I mean, looking back historically, they’ve made a tremendous contribution to civilization, to culture, but…”
“Christians!” Inara finished.
“Thought better of you than this,” Mal said.
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t think about me at all until I did something that inconvenienced you. And what you did, didn’t just inconvenience me. You nearly got River killed.”
“What I can gather, she near to managed that little feat by her lonesome.”
Simon tried to not grin. “Yeah, River is brilliant across a wide variety of intelligences, but her judgment is atrocious. I mean, if…these days, when you find you’re in the company of a murderer, just don’t get up in his face about it.”
If Jayne had been in the room, he might have contributed some data points.
“I do think about you from time to time,” Mal said quietly. Almost as quietly as the unmentioned name.
“I’m sure you’re very proud of all of the not eating you’re doing of the cake you don’t have either,” Simon said. “Maybe next stop we can smuggle some…patisserie…right next to the beagles.”
Jayne was not pleased to find the weight bench was occupied by Simon, presumably keeping in shape for work. Jayne sneaked a look and didn’t think the cobalt blue sweatpants revealed enough to be worth serious money.
“I’ll be done in fifteen minutes,” Simon said. “We can sit down with Shepherd Book and make up a sign-up sheet.”
Jayne favored that with a sneer. “Didn’t think you liked girls anyway,” Jayne said.
“It’s not like Athens-that-Was,” Simon said, panting less than Jayne thought he should have been doing for the weight on the bar. “You don’t have to put a bean into the ballot box.”
“Huh?” said Jayne.
“My point exactly,” Simon said. “Also, there is no way I could care less about what you think about my sexuality, or my choices.”
“Well, ain’t you butch now that you’re gettin’ some regular?”
Parliamentarian Rostropov assured her bodyguards that as soon as they finished sweeping Inara’s shuttle for bugs, bombs, and offensive weapons they could spend the next few hours in the main body of Serenity. Thanks to Inara’s and Simon’s contributions of Kostenborg’s money, beer and snacks were available in the galley. It was unfortunate for the bodyguards that they tried to take advantage of River’s youth and inexperience, although in the comparatively innocent arena of Tall Card, where she relieved them of much of their latest paycheck.
Inara recommended the layered look—more of the present to unwrap!—but suggested a sweet disorder in the dress. Accordingly, when Simon went through the shuttle door, he wore his best dress trousers and his last presentable white shirt, but with the cuffs rolled unevenly, his waistcoat and top two shirt buttons undone. He carried a tray with a cocktail shaker and three martini glasses. The shaker, and one of the glasses, were filled with a drink concocted in Rostropov’s honor (frozen vanilla vodka, an eyedropper of limoncello, and a scattering of pomegranate seeds). Simon’s and Inara’s glasses were Virgin Persephones: pomegranate seeds and mineral water. Inara thriftily used the broken-open pomegranate as the centerpiece of a fruit platter. The lighting was low, with warm, flattering candles on the table.
Simon sat down on an unoccupied side of the bed and, unwilling to interrupt the activity already in progress (Inara and their mutual client necking) he grasped and massaged a flailing legislative foot. During an oxygen break, Parliamentarian Rostropov turned over, looked at Simon, blinked, and whistled softly.
“Helena, dear, shall I hang that up for you?” Inara asked, although with reference not to a wrap but to the Parliamentarian’s dress, an unwrinkled-able blue-grey structure suitable for dedicating hospitals and opening bazaars. Her cartwheel hat, jauntily trimmed with belfaz feathers, already rested on the table, next to a gigantic leather bag that, unlike the handbags of Earth-that-Was royalty, bulged with datacubes and the devices for reading the incompatible file formats of the various government departments. The legislator’s hair was coiffed in a practical short cut, dyed a utilitarian ash blonde that would allow a certain amount of gray and white regrowth between hair appointments to pass as highlights.
Inara unzipped the dress, and Simon helped remove it. Underneath was a silk teddy in cloudy lavender. Simon stroked one of the rectangles of flesh outlined by stocking suspenders. “So soft,” he said reverently. Helena smiled and relaxed a little. She unbuttoned two of Simon’s shirt buttons and rummaged around inside happily. She turned around and beckoned Inara over to the bed, then frowned a little, figuring out where Inara’s dress fastened. (It unwound from the knot behind her neck securing the halter top.)
Rostropov kept the paisley pashmina wound around her neck. Inara thought that it wouldn’t do at all. Show me a client who knows that this shuttle is a place where she can be relaxed and feel comfortable about her body, she thought, and I’ll show you a regular. So Inara untwirled the shawl, captured Simon’s wrists, and pushed him down flat on the bed with his hands tied to the headboard. “A present for you, Helena,” Inara said. “You can do anything you like to him.” “All right?” she whispered to Simon, nervous about handing out a blank check. He whispered back, “Oh yes,” not really worrying that things would get out of hand, but trusting Inara if they did. She thanked him by bending down and kissing (with a brief nip of her teeth) just the right spot on his neck.
“Ummm,” Rostropov said. “In my handbag? I thought it would be fun…but it’s so, well, such a cliché.”
In another moment of unease (the bodyguards were there to prevent Rostropov from being at the receiving rather than the giving end of, say, plastique or stiletto) Inara said, “We are more interested in our friends being happy than in their being original!” It took only a moment of One Of These Things is Not Like the Other for Inara to find the pressurized can of whipped cream.
Inara uncapped it, sprayed a few curlicues (Simon flinched a little at the cold, and breathed hard) and devoted more attention to finger-painting than to eating whipped cream (a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips) but Rostropov felt no such compunction. “Oh, this is a treat,” she said.
What is it about me? Simon wondered. About people? That they feel compelled to raid me like a midnight snack from an icebox?
“Forgive me if I’m neglecting you, Inara dear,” Rostropov said. “I shall be more attentive next time! Or perhaps…we can have a visit, just the two of us.”
Simon lay down next to Inara, marveling at a bed wide enough to leave margins, and touched Inara’s shoulder. She moved away marginally, a whisper of a signal like the announcement of an impending turn in a dance step. Just to sleep, then. He moved his arm down, around her waist, and quietly said, “Sometimes trouble is undervalued,” and whistled the notes to turn off the lights.
“And sometimes things just make so much sense…but that doesn’t explain everything,” Inara said, yawned, and burrowed into the pillow.