Inara knows it’s become serious when Mal stops brooding and starts praying. She finds him, more than once, on his knees in parts of the ship he thinks no one but him ever haunts, his fingers clenched in the chain on a metal cross, his head bowed like it’s being held down by a remorseless, invisible hand.
These Christians. If your God is a man, Inara thinks, of course the whole verse will get just as tangled up as everything else does when men take charge. Inara’s God is breath, is desire, is hope – none of which have deserted her yet.
She always passes him by silently, because a man deserves his privacy. She knows how deep it would cut him, if he thought she’d seen him like this. Poor, brittle, indomitable Mal. How she loves him, and how like him it is to make this long road toward returning to his faith just as hard on himself as the road that led away from it.
Finally she can’t bear it anymore; it simply isn’t in her not to do something to heal what’s hurt in him, and this time perhaps she can. Mal has made his peace with death, and so of his demons, that leaves only love. Love is Inara’s particular genius, or so she’s been told.
She sits herself on a crate of freeze-dried tubers beside him, and when he startles and makes to get away, she puts a hand in his hair and draws his cheek down to her knee. He’s stiff as a wrench, but he bears it. He wouldn’t have, once. She pets his soft hair and lets her energy flow into shape: no worry for him, no frustration for how slow he’s been to teach the art of surrender to, only infinite patience and acceptance. Tell me anything. I will hear anything and love you still.
Mal Reynolds is the first man Inara has ever loved. She imagined it would be very different from looking after a client, but honestly, not so much. The difference is, she’d stop if a client ran out of money, and with Mal she can’t stop until the day this go-se ship falls from the sky.
"It ain’t like with you," he says into the folds of her skirt. "You make the whole verse go spinning around wrong-way-up on me."
"I know how you hate that," she says indulgently.
"No, I – not anymore I don’t. You’re a new world, and I tell you truly, I was dog-sick of the old one. I ain’t got the first idea where I am when I’m with you, but.... Listen, when I first got off ground, my first time on a ship? I was cursing my own name back four generations for getting myself into such a fool thing. Being out in the black for the first time.... It takes me a bit, that’s all. I got to love it. Got to love...."
She touches him more deliberately, strong, soothing strokes on the back of his head, the back of his neck. "I know," she says. "It was the same for me." Not that it didn’t take her long enough to notice it, for someone who’s supposed to be a genius at love – but then, that was back when she and Mal were tearing each other bloody trying to change each other into something comprehensible. Now they are beautifully, spectacularly inexplicable to each other, and it’s the source of all this unlooked-for peace they’ve brought each other; if Inara had a ship of her own, she might name it Serendipity.
"But this is something else," Mal says, and the tone of his voice jars her into the present, reminds her that this is – well, not the old Mal Reynolds. But not a man at peace, either. "This just came out of nowhere. I could of put a stop to it, if I’d’a seen it earlier. Just snuck right up on me, like something that was meant to be there, though, Lord, I know it ain’t. I know it’s ten kinds of wrong, but it just won’t leave me be, not hardly for a moment. She ain’t ready, she’s years from ready even if this were a thing she’d consider at all, which is no small if. And it can’t be gratitude, I ain’t doing it if I think she’s grateful to me, or if I think she’s just plain lonely. Won’t do it for comfort, sure won’t do it just for the, for the – fleshy parts -- or if – if we’re just used to one another. Hell, that’s my very point! There’s a hundred ways to do it wrong, and I don’t know that either one of us has the sense to do it right. I don’t even rightly know what right is, thing like this. Whole thing feels cursed."
Zoe? she wonders, then snuffs out the thought. She won’t play this game; Mal will tell her in his own time. "If it – whatever you’re feeling, Mal, if it comes from love, it must be meant to– "
That gets him on his feet. He shoves that cross deep in his pocket and puts his hands to use as he talks, sweeping his arms wide like he won’t let a thing she says get close to him. "No, that’s Alliance talk, that’s how they think. Buy this, feel good, take everything you can lay your hands on and to hell with anything but what you want. I’m not like that, Inara! I’m not too much of a man, but I’ve lived my life different from that – took up hardship, done without, damn, I’ve sent folk to die, I’ve killed ‘em my own self, my own hands. Sometimes I confess I don’t know what I do it all for, not in – in exact terms, but I know I can’t bear that claptrap about how life oughta feel easy and wanting a thing justifies the taking of it. That’s a trap. Them that tells you that, they got something to sell, Inara, every time."
"If you would let me finish," she says. "If it comes from love, it must be meant to teach you some lesson. I didn’t say what sort, or tell you what you should do. But you can’t just throw it away, Mal. You can’t act like it doesn’t exist."
He puts his arms out to her then, not pushing her off but inviting her in, and Inara goes, resting her cheek over his heart, letting his strong hands rub roughly up and down her back. "Lord, you’re a fine thing," he says into her hair, just as roughly. Everything Mal does is rough, and that’s come to seem better than gentle to her, the same way Inara has always secretly preferred barrel-aged whiskey to champagne. She’s not afraid of the burn, of something you can feel as it’s going down. "Man who thinks you ain’t enough for him, what kind of a man is that?"
"Hearts are complicated," she says.
"Is jealousy a thing they train out of you at that school of yours? I guess it’d about have to be."
"More or less," she admits. At the very least, a Companion learned to separate truth from illusion, and Inara has never been under the illusion that she had this to keep. Mal’s heart has always been a mess of divisions, a little for Zoe, a little for his Rebellion, a little for the God who let him down but won’t quite let him go, a little for Kaylee, a little for the black, a lot for Serenity. Inara has tucked herself away in her own slice of it, her own little patch of earth to cultivate in the wilderness of Mal’s soul. That’s what she looked for and that’s what she got.
There’s nothing to be jealous of, if you have a thing that no one can ever take from you.
"Preacher used to say there was a special hell," he says. "One I’m like to see firsthand much sooner than I’d planned on, if and when her brother finds out."
"Perhaps he’ll see reason," Inara suggests, and then she thinks that over. "Perhaps she’ll protect you."
River’s toes are always cold. This is the way she likes them. She can feel each of them at the end of her feet, count them without looking. The press down on the metal floors of Serenity, they wiggle and skim the ground (it’s not ground, but it is, it’s her homeland, she remembers coming from here and everything before was a dream, in utero), and when she pulls them up to sit on the chair with her, she can see white spots on the bottom of them that fade again to red as she watches.
White spots like stars.
"When stars fall," she tells Mal, "they turn into toes."
"They really don’t," he says, but it doesn’t seem to worry him. It almost always worries Simon when she talks; it’s like he doesn’t remember that she was always like this.
She gazes forward, out the great window. She tries to tilt her chin all the way up while her hair stays in place so it’s higher than the top of her head. There’s nothing she doesn’t love about flying this ship. She thinks Wash is lucky he could die doing it, because there are seven million way to die and only this one is worth it; she tried to tell Zoe that once, but it didn’t make Zoe feel better. Mal had to grab her arm and wrestle her back, her hand stiff and trembling and flat; River could calculate the exact arc of where the slap would have landed across her cheekbone, if Mal hadn’t held Zoe’s wrist hard and yelled, "Dammit, Zoe, stand down! Girl’s just trying to help."
River could have dodged it, but sometimes when she moves very fast, things start to happen that can’t be stopped. Much better to take a slap if she has to. River knows it wouldn’t have hurt at all. Zoe can’t put a look in River’s eyes with her hand like River put in hers with words.
She still thinks it would have helped, if Zoe had only listened to what she was trying to say.
"They do," River says. "All matter is composed of cooled and recombined stellar material."
Mal is quiet for a long while. They spend most of their time up here thinking things over. Simon thinks Mal won’t think on a thing even to save his own life, but it’s not true. He doesn’t know Mal like River does. "Suppose that’s so," Mal says. "And some of us is closer kin to ‘em than others." He looks over at her and smiles, just for a second, before he remembers he doesn’t want to and looks away. River can’t breathe for that whole second. She wraps her arms around her knee and watches her toes and trembles.
Mal. Mal. Mal.
Can he hear her thoughts the way she hears his? It isn’t logically possible, and yet he’s so with her, all the time. How can she be alone in here when there’s always Mal, with every thought she thinks cradled safe in the cup of his hand?
"Got our course lined up," he says, all booming cheer while his thoughts are steepled and sharp-edged and he’s thinking God help me and bright star and yes and no. "Want to look it over, Starchild?"
She shakes her head no. She likes flying, but not navigating. Wherever they go, they’re still Serenity, and the rest doesn’t matter to her.
"Guess it’s time we pack it in for the night," he says gruffly, coming down from his chair. Now she’ll be alone with the sky, and River loves the feel of dancing in between the stars and the colored lights the control panel casts over the backs of her hands, but she loves this more, the two of them.
She twists around in her chair as he tries to pass by, puts out her hands and wraps them around his arm where he’s pushed his shirt sleeves back. He’s warm and solid and covered in almost invisible hairs, and she knows what she wants, she wants what Kaylee and Inara have, what they whisper into her mind about nearly every night, blinding solar flares of he’s my everything and never dreamed this and if only it could be like this always. She wants, she wants, hot in her belly and slow between her legs and shining in her brain and a bullet in her heart that she can’t dislodge.
"Say it again," she tells him.
Reluctantly, he looks up from her hands where they’re digging into his skin, looks into her eyes and tries to remember. "Starchild?"
"You said to Kaylee that she wasn’t allowed to name a thing. You said we’d wind up keeping it then."
"Well, that was in reference to cows," he reminds her, and he can’t help smiling down at her through the heartbeat of his fear. "You, we’ve been calling by name for some time now, and I think you know we plan to keep you."
"But you naming me," she says. "That’s another thing."
"River...." he says, but he doesn’t pull away.
"Don’t get attached, Kaylee," she says, dropping her voice, playacting Mal’s deep, dark drawl. "These ain’t pets, so don’t go giving them names...."
He falls down in front of her, down on his knees so he’s looking at her over the arm of her chair. He reaches out with his free hand and touches the wingtips of her hair, spins them around his fingers. He’s close enough to kiss, but she won’t. She won’t do that one time; once isn’t enough. None’s better. "Don’t say I treat you like no damn pet, River, you hear me? Ain’t nobody on this boat a human being if you’re not one."
She releases his arm and puts her hands to the sides of his face, the faintest touch. Burning hot, and bone so close to the surface – brain, too. He can’t hide it from her, however hard he tries. "You staked your life on it," she says. "I proved you right."
"That you did," he says.
River closes her eyes and leans closer to him – not to kiss. She just can’t help falling toward him like a star. (Stars don’t really fall, not in their natural shape. Once they become comets and toes and hearts and things, then they can.) "Name me again," she pleads with him, putting her cheek against his arm. "I slept, but my heart was awake. Listen! my beloved is knocking. ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one.’"
"That’s from the Bible?" River nods, and she can see him out of the corner of her eye, turning his head up to the ceiling and saying to it, "Now, that’s just plain mockery."
She’s so close to his heart now. His thoughts are so thick with sex and awe and dread and some celestial thing that’s a lot like what makes Simon do foolish things like climbing up onto a hill of fire alongside her. "Call me nearly anything," she whispers, "and I’ll run to you."
But he calls her, "River," and "River" again, her everyday name, and he strokes her hair and pushes her back, even though it makes pain arc back and forth between them like they were live wires severed down the middle. "You’re just too damned young, River, you hear me?"
"Eighteen," she says. "Kaylee’s barely three years older and–"
"You ain’t Kaylee. You – you’ve got no living in you yet, River, you been all your life locked up in one place or another, even Serenity’s next door to just another jail cell for you."
"I’m from Serenity," she says. "I was born here."
"You don’t know," he says, his voice breaking. "You got no way of knowing what you want. They oughta bury me underneath that jail cell just for – thinking it over."
Planetary cores are made of star, too. They can’t put Mal deep enough to where he won’t be here, here with her on the edge of all things in the sky that’s always night.
"Bury me," she begs, and presses his hands to her mouth. "Bury me, bury me with you."
"Oh, darlin’," he sighs, and even though it means no, River fastens it up in that place inside her where she keeps everything of Mal’s, every last thing he gives her.
Inara practices over and over in her mirror while she brushes her hair. I have an idea, Mal.
He’ll say no first, of course, because it wasn’t his idea. And, she grants, because...it’s a hard thing to ask. Not hard for Inara, whose whole life has been one commitment beginning where another one ends, but for Malcolm Reynolds, who finds it harder than almost anything to let go, who prides himself on caring for his family and keeping them together....
I have an idea, Mal. Trust me.
He’ll say no, but she is an expert in ignoring Mal and his foolish, pig-headed tempers. She’ll bring him around, because he’ll know she’s right. He’ll know, deep down, that things can’t go on the way they are now.
"You have to trust me," she says to the mirror. She must speak to him with dignity, confidence. He will only be persuaded if he knows she is set on this.
Inara raises her fingertips to her pale mouth. It’s been days since she put on cosmetics, and she is unaccustomed to staring at herself like this. She used to, every day without fail, even in the black – as if it protected her somehow. As if lipstick alone could make her the sort of person who could never love Mal, who could leave him behind and beneath her whenever it was required.
There is no pretense of that now. She goes days with nothing but cold cream on her face, her hair back in plain wooden clips, a canvas apron over her silk jackets while Mal teaches her how to make a protein stew taste almost like beef. She lays beside Mal in the night, stark naked and unmasked, and listens to him whisper of land, land that he knows he’ll never own on some newly opened world where the sun sets every evening, where the stars move and he sits still, and she thinks, I could be a rancher’s wife. It isn’t their future, hers and Mal’s, but it might have been. She’s found that she has it in her, once all the rest has been peeled away.
But she rarely sits and watches herself in the mirror anymore. She is unaccustomed to seeing this new skin of hers from the outside in.
"This is best for all of us," she says firmly.
The woman in the mirror looks young, much younger than Inara knows herself to be. They would never let her in the front door of the Guild house, looking as she does now.
"I have an idea," she says. "It’s not forever."
Only Mal has ever seen the training house before, and not under the best of circumstances. Inara can see them all staring – the marble, the frescoes, the hothouse flowers, the curtains of translucent silk embroidered with sun-catching gold. And this is only the patio.
Inara resists the urge to touch her hair, to see if it’s still in place. If she appears nervous here, they will all be nervous – not only her friends, but the girls she can feel lurking in the windows above her, scrutinizing everything, as girls will. She must set an example for everyone now.
"Well, now, see?" Mal says. "This is real fine. And it’s got land, plenty of land and fresh air, so it ain’t like being boxed up in some ugly city someplace."
"Ow," River says, trying to get her hand loose from Simon’s.
Kaylee hugs Inara tight; she’s wearing Inara’s green shawl with the red flowers, the one she’s hardly taken off in the two days since Inara gave it to her. "Well, I still say it’s mean of you to leave me stuck with all these menfolk – and Zoe, course, but still. Who’s gonna be girlfriends with me now, huh?"
"Yeah," Jayne says. "Gonna be a sad lack of pillow-fights around here while you and the bug are off at whore school."
"Ow!" River says. "Pian zhi de jiu chayuan."
"Sorry," Simon says, but he doesn’t let go of her hand. "River – River, you know you don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to, don’t you?"
River stands on her toes and kisses his forehead. "I’ll be safe, Simon. I’ll be fine."
"Your home is always wherever I am, mei mei. You do understand that?"
She smiles at him and butts his shoulder fondly. "I’m not stupid. But it’s not just the two of us now; you’ll have a wife to take care of soon."
Kaylee makes a small squeaking noise, and Simon’s face freezes in shock. "River!" he hisses. "I – I haven’t asked– "
"Oh," she says. "Well. Slowpoke."
Kaylee hugs River and pets her hair, saying, "I’ll tell you a secret, I’m green all over. You’re going to have all the fun! Fancy dishes and dresses every single day, and I bet there’s dancing – I bet there’s dancing all the time, and you’re so good at that, River. I’ll be stuck eating meatloaf tastes like socks and watching boys oil their guns, and you’ll be lounging around, having fun with a million new friends."
Mal’s found a hat from somewhere, a brand-new brown hat, and he’s turning it over and over in his hands. "It don’t have to be a full year," he says to Inara. "I could come back for you sooner."
"One year is fine," she says. "Anyway, less than a year’s lease on that shuttle and you won’t find anyone but drifters and ruffians to take you up on it. Do try to find someone with some decency in their soul."
"This boat’s got precious little to offer any soul with decency in it," Mal says, his smile coming and going quickly. "I ain’t gonna give your shuttle away, anyhow. Got some room to take on new passengers, but they can bunk down in the berths with us common folk."
"You may as well make some profit on it."
"I ain’t gonna," he says, and it’s the tone she knows she can’t talk him out of. "One year. To the very day. You count on me, because I’m gonna be back here to get you."
"I’ll mark the date," she says lightly, but she means it. Mal pulls her close and almost topples her hair; it feels different to kiss him with the velvet sleekness of lipstick between his lips and hers. When she pulls back, she dabs at the faint cherry stain on his mouth with her thumb. It feels like a profound moment, but Inara really has nothing to say. She’s made her goodbyes already, last night and in private, and already, just standing on the patio, she feels less like Mal’s Inara and more like the Inara Serra they need her to be here.
River is wearing one of those baggy dresses that Inara thinks her brother stitches together for her, and stiff-looking shoes that don’t match it and have probably never been worn before, but when she comes to stand in front of Mal (who’s put on his one mostly-nice set of clothes for the occasion, and slicked his hair rather dreadfully in what Inara recalls was the fashion fifteen years ago), he looks at her like he can’t look hard enough. At least the fabric of the dress is pretty, blue like perfect atmosphere. She slips her hands inside his and lets them swing side-to-side together. "It’s real fine," he says again. "Maybe not as fine as flying, but...."
"I already know how to dance," she says.
"That ain’t all they teach here. You’ll learn – about people. Even meet some people – folk like yourself, from good families. Then, next year, you still feel you want to hump around the verse with a bunch of crooks and no-accounts like us, well...then you just...come on home. We’ll keep everything right where it is for you. Your spot at the helm, I mean. You decide you miss Serenity, she’ll be there in one year, same as you left her."
She goes up on her toes again and puts her fingertip against the dimple in Mal’s chin, then smooths her fingers across his eyebrows and holds his face in between her fragile-looking hands that aren’t fragile at all. "Will Serenity miss me?"
Mal’s eyes flicker closed for a moment. "I think you know the answer to that."
"Yes," River says, and smiles up at him. "But I like to hear you say it."
"Every day and every mile," he says. "But...time’ll go quicker than you think. One year, little one, same as you left her. She may not recognize you, though, you’ll be so changed."
"I thought that was the point," River says.
Inara puts her arms around River’s shoulders and steers her toward the door of the training house. "You’ll get more waves from home than any girl here!" Kaylee promises, and she’s taken River’s place holding Simon’s hand tight. "And you have to remember everything and tell me all about it!"
"Yeah," Jayne says, waggling his eyebrows. "We’re all ears."
Zoe waves. Simon pretends he’s not crying. Mal puts his hat back on and holds his shoulders high and stiff.
The doors clang when they close behind Inara and River, but River doesn’t jump at the sound. She takes in the fountain, the mosaic-tiled floor, the crawling vines that drip from the balcony above, the wind chimes hanging from the skylight, the women who pause and bow deeply toward the floor at the sight of Inara while trying to keep their eyes on River. They may not quite know what to make of her, and Inara fears that will get worse before it gets better, but she has faith that it will get better eventually. River is nothing if not a quick study.
One of the older students is bold enough to approach Inara for a hug, and Inara can’t find it in her heart to refuse. It doesn’t fit the dignity of her station, but she misses those breathless, sudden hugs from Kaylee already. "We didn’t think you were coming back," the girl says. She is bouncing lightly with happiness, the golden ornaments in her dark hair jingling merrily.
"For a time," Inara says. "Shenna, this is River. River is not precisely coming to us for training, but she is a dear friend of mine, and I wanted her to see how it is we live here."
"Hello, River," she says, and takes River’s hand between both of hers. River gives Inara a nervous look, but Inara lets her hand fall from River’s back, surrendering her into Shenna’s care. Other students are gathering now, coming closer in breezes of silk and flocks of pleasant whispering at the prospect of something new in their carefully disciplined day. "Where are you from?"
"I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone," River answers soberly. "My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but did not find him. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love." The other girls stare blankly at her, and the whispering takes on a worried tint. River glances up at Inara, but Inara does not know what aid to bring. River looks back at Shenna and says, "Osiris."
Shenna, clearly relieved, says, "I’ve been to Osiris!" and begins to talk about the cherry tree park outside the capitol building.
River looks at the tiling underneath her feet, but Inara catches a glimpse of a little smile.
The part that’s the hardest to get used to is the noise. There are forty students and sixteen Companions and River doesn’t know quite how many but a passel of servants, far more people than she’s lived alongside before this. They all talk. They all think.
If it gets worse than usual, though, she can go to meditate. She has a long silk cushion she can unroll on the floor, and it’s very still in that room. Sometimes she can kneel in there for half a day, or at least half the day between lunch and dinner, and not realize how much she’s missed.
Most days, though, she stays with her friends.
She has friends, although it’s touch and go for a few weeks. They’re jealous, at first, of the way nobody makes River go to any classes, lets her do anything she likes. Two hot baths a day, a stone massage, a sauna, covered in white clay, rubbed down with oils, and dessert before dinner every night – like heaven, really, only imperfect because of how Simon and Kaylee would have loved to be here with her, how they’re on her mind always – but the other girls come to the dormitories at night aching and exhausted from chores and lessons and giving her nasty looks.
She starts trying to go with them, only River has forgotten how – well – how easy everything is. Her calligraphy is better than everyone’s, she makes up her own tunes in violin class, and when they take her to the gymnasium and ask her if she can walk a balance beam, she does two cartwheels, three handsprings, and a backflip on the dismount before she thinks of anything but how it’s the closest she gets to flying.
As soon as her feet touch the mat, she can hear the nag of voices inside and outside her skull, "spoiled" and "show-off" and "snob" in English and Chinese, and River hates it in this place, can’t bear another eleven months, one week, and five days until Mal comes for her again and takes her home.
Things get better, though. A girl asks her for help in calligraphy, and she teaches them how to break the encryption that’s supposed to keep them from downloading the common, unladylike music that streams over the cortex to listen to after the Companions have done the last bed-check, and she isn’t half as pretty as the rest of them, so before long she begins to find a place.
She keeps sleeping with Inara, though, just like when she was afraid everyone but Inara hated her, just because the privacy is nice. Inara has a room of her own, and River knows her thoughts, finds them soft and familiar. Inara just lifts up the covers when River pads in at night and lets River slide in between the satiny layers, drapes her arm over River’s waist and lies there in front of a whole wall of open windows, watching the stars with her curvy body against River’s back. They never slept like this back home, but all of Inara’s thoughts have the flavor of Serenity, so it feels home-like anyway.
Inara keeps busy with her work, but she always seems to have time for River, too. River doesn’t like the way anyone but Inara dresses her hair – they don’t put the little shimmering flowers and butterflies and starbursts in the right places, tucked so far back that their jewel tones only flash out like secret lights. Inara makes the seamstresses listen to what River says, tells them they have to let out her underthings a bit. "It’s to create the illusion that she has something up here," one of them insists, squeezing River’s breasts together and making River want to say I could kill you if I wanted, I could kill you before you blinked. Inara is the one who stands firm and says, "She is not a Companion and needn’t look like one if she finds it uncomfortable. River is here as a friend of the Guild."
In private, she hugs River gently and says, "You’re lovely, you have a dancer’s body. We’ll have everything made to show you off as you are, like a doe, like a swan."
"I would wear white feathers," River says, and Inara has a white gown made for her, with a feather fan to match and a woven snowflake of feathers on a pearl chain that rests over her breastbone.
Every wall in the training house has mirrors on it. Sometimes River stands for an hour, just staring at herself, at the way a piece of gauze will mold to her thigh as it drapes, or the way her earrings will catch the light. She still goes barefoot most of the time, though; Inara says she can.
There is a grand library there, and River gets on best with the girls who like to spend their hours there after dinner. There are sometimes four of them, sometimes seven or eight, and they pull the library couches and chairs into a circle and curl up in them and read; many nights, River only pretends to read, listens to the murmur of their thoughts instead – not hard enough to be nosy like the Companions have asked her not to be, but just learning the sound of them. Sometimes she doesn’t even listen, just watches their sharp knees and painted toenails and the graceful curl of their spines as they burrow comfortably into the big chairs, the way the angle makes the ridges of their collarbones stand out beneath their necklaces. They are all so elegant, so beautiful – not as serene and stately as Inara, but still the prettiest daughters of some of the most privileged families in the Alliance, girls who intend to make their way in the world by being adored.
River does not adore them, but she finds them fascinating. She’s seen these girls all her life, at her parents’ holiday parties, on skiing vacations, shopping at the grander bazaars and sipping cocktails at late suppers after the ballets her father used to take her to. She always thought they were just for decoration. Now that River can hear them think, she’s amazed that they each have their own lives, their own brains, moods, personalities. They’re real people, just like River’s people.
One of them, a Chinese girl who only reads classic science fiction, Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler, brings flowers for River. River doesn’t know what to say. She takes the flowers and hides them. Later, she hears the girl’s friends teasing her about it, saying, "Rehane wants a kiss from Miss Inara’s girl," but their thoughts are kind when they say it; they think Rehane was brave to do what she did. River goes back to her hiding place and visits the flowers every day until they wilt.
"Not my mouth," River says when Inara puts cosmetics on her face. She’s never liked her mouth, the way it seems to turn down unhappily even when she isn’t unhappy. Inara hesitates and dabs a soft powder on her lips, not the bold colors she favors herself. She likes to paint River to look different from anyone else, flecks of gold on her cheeks and a scroll of green ink lining her eyes out past the corners, red lashes mixed in with the black ones that she fixes to River’s eyelids with a pot of glue and the tiniest brush River has ever seen. She doesn’t look like all the other pretty girls when Inara is finished with her. "Is this beautiful?" she asks, staring at herself in the mirror, trying to read her face like an algorithm. "Does this make me beautiful?"
"A Companion does not wear cosmetics to be more beautiful," Inara says, "but to make her look more like a Companion. Clients pay for an illusion, an expectation. They pay for the fantasies we wear on top of our faces."
"I’m not a Companion," River says.
Inara looks almost startled, and then smiles warmly. "So you’re not. I’m sorry, I get so used to making these speeches. I think you’re beautiful with or without it, River. It’s just a thing some women like to do; only you can decide if you’re one of those women or not."
"You stopped," River says. "On Serenity, you stopped wearing this. Don’t you like it?"
Inara sighs. "I – did. When I was your age. And sometimes still. My mother was a Companion; I came to the training house seventeen years ago. I learned the fantasy well, and I suppose in a way it will always be my own fantasy, too."
"Kaylee likes it."
"Oh, yes, very much. But that’s me, and that’s Kaylee. You are River Tam."
Inara shows her all the right creams to use to take it off and to protect her skin. She pushes her flowing sleeves above her elbows and dips both hands into the warm water; rivulets run down her arms and down River’s neck as she sponges River’s face clean, then kisses her sweetly. "This is your choice," she says. "All of this is only so that you understand that you have choices."
"I want to fly Serenity," River says. "She won’t live forever, and I want to be there with her when she falls."
"Oh, mei mei," Inara sighs, "don’t you want to choose how to live, as well as how to die?"
River frowns thoughtfully, and the warm lamplight still sparkles off the water on her face, just as it did off the glimmering gold. Does she think too much about dying? She thinks they somehow turned off the bit of her brain that should make her afraid of it. But then, other times she thinks she blames the Alliance for too much; maybe this is just River Tam.
There is dancing, almost every day, but River’s favorite is the lessons on walking. It’s an agonizingly slow dance, one deliberate foot after the other, silent, swaying music and the rotation of planets in her hips – the best parts of dancing and meditating rolled up in one. She watches Inara and sees the dance perfected. She practices night and day, imitates the Companions around her in their legs and wrists and necks. She spends one whole day trying to duplicate what Inara does when she comes to the baths, the way she lets her robe fall off her body with hardly a visible motion before she steps in.
The other girls River’s own age have mostly passed their novitiate and gone on from walking and dancing to the choreography of the bed. "You can if you want," Inara tells her cautiously while River is brushing her hair by the light of the stars. "I can arrange it for you, if you would like to learn."
River thinks about it – only for a moment, but she does think. All those things she’s learning how to do with her hips make her feel warm and sleek and oiled when she really concentrates on them, and everything else here in the training house feels so rich and luxurious that River can only assume this will, too. She trusts Inara completely, but Inara can’t tell her how to choose.
"No," she says. "I slept, but my heart was awake."
"I thought not," Inara says, creamy laughter and a faint sadness that tastes like dry red wine.
She has a wave capture by her pallet in the dormitory, so that on the nights she chooses to sleep there (they come more and more often, now that the beating of all those dissonant hearts has stopped making her nervous) she can light up the frame and look at it until she falls asleep.
Amadey and her friends come by and sit on River’s sheets and pass her capture between them while River paints her toenails silver with dark blue tips. "Look," Amadey said, "it’s River’s fiancé."
"He’s handsome," Lisaline says, clearly surprised. "He’s young!"
"Lucky River," Peta laughs. Peta used to hate River, but at some point she seemed to forget that, and she treats River as a friend now, mostly because Amadey does. Amadey has liked River ever since River started a snowball fight with the boys who work in the greenhouse.
"My fiancé?" River repeats.
"We looked you up on the cortex," Lisaline says. "You’re high society, love! You went to some private school for geniuses, and then you disappear until Miss Inara brings you here, so here’s what we think: we think you met a man– "
"Somebody important," Peta says. "Someone from Parliament, maybe."
"– and he gave you to Miss Inara to get your nose out of your schoolbooks and get you ready to marry him. That’s why she brought you here, even though everyone knows you’re not to be a Companion."
River takes the capture and sets it carefully back on the floor. "This is my brother."
"Oh," Amadey says, disappointed. "But, are we right? Are you getting married when you leave here?"
"I don’t think so," River says blithely. "I think I’m just going to be his mistress."
That makes them even happier than the story about the wealthy husband in Parliament. They press her for information, fingers on her arms, giggling in her ears, and River is bemused. "He’s a ship’s captain," she says. "The finest ship in the black."
"And he is handsome," Lisaline says. "Right?"
River thinks about that. He doesn’t look much like Simon, and all her life she’s been hearing how handsome Simon is. "One of his ears is sewn on," she says.
She sleeps in Inara’s bed that night, and she asks, "Is Mal handsome?"
"Very," Inara says before she thinks about it. Then she shifts, raising her head up to look down on River’s face, and says, "Don’t you think he is?"
River shrugs against the satin and says, "He has nose hairs."
"Mei mei," she says gently, "everybody has nose hairs."
"I know," River says. "That’s why I can never tell."
Mal throws spitballs at her sometimes from across the console. He swears it’s not him doing it, but they’re the only two at the helm, and anyway she can read his mind. He thinks it’s funny. He thinks she’s too serious for a girl her age; it hurts him to think of all the silly, mindless children’s games she’s never played, because she was a genius and geniuses go to work, not out to play. Simon did his best for her, and Kaylee after that, but it isn’t enough by Mal’s lights, so he throws spitballs into her hair.
She can’t tell what handsome is supposed to mean, but she loves him true, she knows that much.
On Saturday the crew waves them. Jayne has a broken leg. Kaylee keeps her left hand behind her back the whole time and says she has a big surprise to tell the both of them when she gets there in person. Mal says they’ve fired the interim pilot and they’ll be there on Monday to collect Inara and River. "Enough of this lounging around in luxury," he says brusquely. "Time you fine ladies got back to making a living."
Monday is a year to the day since River saw him last.
There’s a surprise party that night, with a giant tower of a layer cake, marbled chocolate and vanilla, and dancing all night, until only River is still on her feet. Rehane finally kisses her, and stays red-faced and grinning all night long. Inara sits in a chair at the head of the ballroom like a queen, and people come to her in a steady stream all night long, giving her gifts and kissing her and promising her they’ll light incense every night for her safe travels. Everyone here loves Inara; even some of the older Companions cry, streaking their mascara.
River packs up all her new clothes; there’s no place to wear them on Serenity, but she can’t quite bring herself to leave them behind. She can probably let some of them out to fit Kaylee; Kaylee probably hasn’t picked a wedding dress yet, not without Inara there to help her. She packs as much cake as she can wrap up and steal from the party, too.
On Sunday River does everything, just like it was her first day here: hot bath, hot stones, oils and clay and steam, manicure and pedicure. She won’t let them paint her toenails, though. She’s still just the tiniest bit afraid that Mal won’t be able to recognize her, so something about her should be the same, and why not her toes?
Inara puts a warm, jeweled hand on her shoulder and says, "Come to my room tonight?" River nods; she’s already packed everything, including her sleeping mat, because she’d planned on it, but it’s strange that Inara would ask. She never asks.
When River lies down, Inara puts her hands on her waist and leans over her. She kisses River’s neck, and behind her ear, and her lips, and River opens her mouth slowly and runs her fingers through Inara’s curls. "Miracle girl," Inara calls her with a smile in her voice and in her thoughts. "What does it feel like to be absolutely unique in every way?"
River doesn’t have much to compare it to. "Lonely," she says. "The nice kind of lonely, like being alone in the black."
"Don’t forget me," Inara says, tracing her hand down River’s body, heat bleeding through the icy green silk of her gown. "You know where my shuttle is, and you’re always welcome."
River cups Inara’s face in her hands, her round, sweet, big-eyed face like a baby animal. She was a queen on Saturday night at the goodbye party, but now she’s a kitten, all strokable hair and nuzzling nose. "Can I come when Mal’s there?" she asks.
Inara’s breathing stutters for just a moment. "River," she says, in that drawn-out voice that people always use to break what they think is bad news to River. "It’s you he loves. You must know...he’ll be with you."
But River shakes her head, because – that’s impossible, impossible. It won’t be Serenity without the jingling, whistling sounds of Mal and Inara thinking love and lust and leaps of faith at each other, as jarring and joyful as unladylike music illegally downloaded off the cortex. "I thought you said I had choices?"
"You do, precious, but– "
"This is how I want to live," River says, and draws Inara down to kiss her again. "I want to name you, too," she murmurs against Inara’s face as Inara’s expert hands fold the silk away from her skin. "You called me a swan – I want you to be my dove, my perfect one...."
They haven’t changed at all in a year, except that Mal’s bought a suit and Kaylee’s got a ring and Zoe’s eyes are peaceful and Simon has grown a neatly trimmed beard. Well, Jayne hasn’t changed at all.
Inara kisses them all, even Jayne and Zoe. Jayne makes a joke about how she must be starving for any piece of manflesh she can get her hands on after a year in a nunnery; Zoe just looks startled and keeps wiping her mouth. She kisses Mal for a long time, even though she knows such goings-on in public make him nervous, because she’s missed him every hour of every day and prayed every night that he’d live to come back to her, and she can’t help herself.
"Well," Mal says when she finally lets him go. "Well. You’re looking – well, you seem mighty – seems like this place has been treating you all right."
"We don’t have to turn right around and go, do we?" Jayne says plaintively, eyeing the doors that lead into the training house.
"Jayne, if you tell me you can afford to stay, I’m paying you too much," Mal says crisply, and Inara laughs out loud, because new suit or no, this is the same old Mal. Thank God. He looks back at Inara and says, "Where’s, uh.... Thought we were taking on a second passenger."
"I think she wanted to make an entrance," Inara says, and they all turn their attention obediently to the door.
To Inara’s eyes, the change in her isn’t so great; she’s seen River every day of the past year, in much more remarkable finery than this. She’s barefoot still, with loose blue silk trousers that come to her calves and a deep violet silk blouse with voluminous sleeves and a jewel-embroidered band around the neckline, which in fact circles not her neck, but her shoulders and collarbone. Inara spent all morning putting River’s hair up the way she likes it, with silver pins like hidden treasures, the light catching the false red highlights artfully scattered in the leaf-brown. She’s wearing thick, dark eyelashes, and a little white jewel pasted to the corner of her eye. Inara thinks she looks like a thing out of myths, like the spirit of whatever river she got her name from, come alive.
There’s always been more than a little that’s extraordinary about River. Inara doesn’t see that the change is so very noticeable.
She does her best to glide across the patio like a Companion might, but halfway there she breaks into a run, and her hair is already coming down in whorls when she flings herself hard at her brother, making him take her weight as her feet leave the marble below. He doesn’t seem to mind, clutching her with all his strength and mumbling broken words into her bare shoulder.
Simon finally sets her down into the circle made by his hands interlaced with Kaylee’s, and River turns herself around and around deliriously, kissing both their faces. When she runs out of air, she stops and hugs Simon again while Kaylee strokes her back and coos. "I meant to keep a diary so you could read it," she tells Simon, "but I forgot. I wrote you a symphony though – for your wedding. Oh! You did...?"
"Yes, mei mei," he laughs, "this time I did. And she said yes."
"Of course she did," River sniffs. She turns her head around to peck Kaylee with another kiss and says, "I brought so many presents for you, they’ll need their own bunk."
Kaylee laughs out loud and says, "Of course you did! What else are rich sisters for?"
"You look like a pretty woman," Jayne tells her – doubtfully, as if he senses a trick but can’t quite put his finger on it. She gives him a look of amusement and passes on to Zoe, who says, "That’s a nice little frippery – there," and motions to the jewel by her eye. "Looks real shiny on you."
"Everything they do here, all day long," River says seriously, "is just them hoping to look as beautiful as you do all on your own." Zoe’s eyes widen; she looks flattered and embarrassed and bewildered all at once, and Inara feels briefly guilty. She’d always thought Zoe didn’t need such things said about her – but then, spending half your life with Mal Reynolds isn’t the way to glut yourself on compliments. That may be a thing that needs repairing; Inara has no wish to stay on at the training house, but this year has reminded her how much she enjoys the work of teaching a woman where her beauty lies, and looking at River now, she can see there’s not much more work for her to do on that score.
Mal cups River’s face in one hand and murmurs, "There’s my Starchild."
She rests her hand on his wrist and gazes up at him, River’s old, familiar look of assessment. "You are handsome," she finally says, and he grins. "But I’m glad you got rid of the hat. It didn’t suit you."
"Well, I thought long and hard on that question," he says, "because there is something comforting about a good hat. But I got the sense folk were laughing behind my back– "
"I laughed in front of your back," Jayne says.
"– and I thought, hell with it, if we can’t be the richest pirates on the outer planets, at least we have a shot at being the best-dressed. So the hat got sacrificed to fashion."
"What really happened," Simon says, "is that Zoe spaced it during a cricket game that took an ugly turn."
Inara puts her hands on River’s shoulders and says, "I can think of one more lady who’s missed you," and then River is off like a cannon shot, practically skimming over the spring grass toward Serenity.
"Was she happy?" Mal asks Inara as he takes her arm and walks her at a civilized pace toward the ship. "Did she...?"
"I think she was," Inara says. "And, no. She didn’t change her mind about anything that matters."
"So what happens now?"
Inara stops with her hand on Serenity’s hull, ready to step up the ramp for the first time in what suddenly feels like a very long year. "That depends," she teases. "Have you made a mess of my shuttle?"
He holds his hand up and says, "God is my witness, I didn’t touch it. Didn’t even dust the place." She rolls her eyes, and he puts his hand on her waist to lead her up the ramp. "You’ve been much on my mind," he says softly. It’s as romantic a thing as she thinks Mal has ever said to her, and it makes her feel light all over.
"Give me twenty-four hours to scrub the place clean," she tells him, "and I’ll let you pay me a visit. We can catch up; we’ll talk about fashion and theater and thievery."
"No, now, I make it a policy never to talk politics while I’m courting a woman."
"Mal! Mal!" River’s voice echoes from inside, ringing off the walls of Serenity. "Is this an upgrade? Because it’s uglier than a patch-job – you didn’t pay money for this, did you?"
"Go on," Inara says, pushing him gently by the arm. "Go on. There’s no sin in this, and she’s waited long enough for you. God knows I wouldn’t willingly saddle any woman with the burden of waiting on you to make up your mind about a thing." He kisses her once, and she says, "Come to me tomorrow. We have a great deal to talk about."
River can’t stay in her seat. She stands in front of the console and leans forward, raising her hands high and pressing them to the glass, to the black. She has to stand on the tips of her toes to reach.
Mal lays his hands on her bare shoulders – bigger hands, hotter hands than what River’s gotten used to. She’s been touched more this year than maybe in her whole life until now, but not like this. He lays his hands on her shoulders and moves them up her neck, his fingers and his thumbs stirring her hair. "You belong like this," he says. "You were born to end up out here."
"No," she says softly. "I chose it."
There’s something in his voice she’s never heard when he says, "Choose it again, will you? Cause I lost my taste for flying by myself, somewhere along the line." There’s something in his head she’s never heard before, too, but she knows what it is: it’s the absence of no.
She turns against him, emptying her stretched-out arms of stars, filling them up with Mal. She clenches her fingers in the back of his shirt as he kisses her. "Malcolm," she murmurs in his ear as his hands run desperately up and down her and his lips find sweet spots on her neck that River didn’t know she had until just last night. "Beloved."
"Oh, God," he says, and for once, it sounds like praise.