Chapter 12

Inara followed Kaylee, Jayne, and the Harders into what was once her shuttle, her stomach uttering a soft growl as she did. Tea had been her only breakfast this morning, and her body was making sure to apprise her of that situation. With no other choice, she ignored it as best she could, but it was another reminder of how difficult things had become. It had been almost a week since Simon's father's press conference and the government had publicly branded them all outlaws, and nearly two weeks since their escape from the Alliance frigate had put them on this course. Coasting into Anson's system on fumes, they had been treading the knife edge between getting captured and getting lost in the uncharted reaches of the black, and that was reflected in the dark atmosphere on board. There had been no noisy gatherings for dinner or bustling preparations for the next job as Inara had grown accustomed to on her first voyage with Serenity. There was just a tense quiet, like a child hiding beneath the covers, barely daring to breathe lest the monsters in the dark hear and pounce.

By some blessed miracle River's uncanny navigating skills had finally seen them to civilization, and just in time, too. Aside from the dearth of fuel, their rations were well and truly out. Another day and they would all be suffering from the early pangs of malnourishment. So, although reaching an inhabited system meant salvation from starvation, it also meant more danger, not less. Even with no obvious Alliance presence, it would be ludicrous to attempt to get anywhere near the planet with Serenity. Under normal circumstances Mal or Zoe would have made the trip to Spider in the shuttle, but with their profiles floating around on the Cortex, that was too risky. Besides, a Companion with a couple of servants on a resupply outing was less likely to engender any unwanted attention.

Inara was not looking forward to this errand by any stretch of the imagination. Besides the ever-present threat of the Alliance discovering them, it was simply going to be a long and uncomfortable journey in the small shuttle. With Serenity holding in deep orbit far out on the edge of the system, it would take at least ten hours just to get to Spider, and that was at maximum thrust the entire way. Knowing that she had to conserve fuel for the return trip, she figured twelve hours each way was a more realistic estimate.

"Get in, get what we need, and get out," Mal told her, trailing her into the airlock of her old shuttle. "No sightseein'. Call for us the minute you get back here and we'll come runnin'. Got it?"

"Yes, Mal, I've got it," she replied, letting irritation cover her nerves.

"Here," Mal pressed the last of Chrysabel's advance into her palm. "Use it all. Get as much as you can. No sense in savin' any of it for later." His eyes met hers for a second, his jaw taut. It looked like he was about to say something more, but instead he just nodded and stepped back from the airlock. The fact that he was not able to keep the worry from his usually controlled expression did not do anything to ease Inara's concerns. Trying not to reveal her own apprehension, she returned his nod and closed the door, sealing the shuttle compartment behind her.

The others were already fastened in for the trek as she passed through the main cabin and into the cockpit. She settled herself into the helm, her hands instinctively finding their grip on the controls still so familiar, but Mal's face would not leave her mind. She had rarely seen strain like that in him, not even when they were holed up in Mr. Universe's complex with a horde of Reavers and the Alliance bearing down on them. Certainly he had been afraid. But he had been determined as well, certain, defiant even, with the conviction that he was doing the right thing despite the fact that they were probably all going to die. He may have been a petty thief most of the time, but she had to admit that when it really counted, he did not balk at taking a stand. That battle was over, though. They had played their cards, revealing the secret of Miranda to as much of the Verse as they could, but it had not been enough. The Alliance still wanted them imprisoned or dead. They could only run now. And as more and more of their options were shut off, an escape was harder to envision. So far only Mal and Zoe's identities had been made public, but that was no saving grace. Soon, if it had not happened already, the Guild would want to know what happened to her. She did not want to consider what that boded for her future. From her point of view, reckoning with the Guild was a far more disconcerting prospect than facing the Alliance.

Another rumble twisted through her stomach, tugging her thoughts back to the present. More trouble was certainly coming down the line, but there was no point in worrying about it if they were starving. It was time to get moving. She activated the docking bay arm and threw the switches to start the shuttle's ignition sequence. The small craft lurched as it disconnected and began drifting away on momentum. Emerging behind Serenity, the silvery-gray sphere of Anson's World gradually filled the forward viewport. She pushed the throttle lever forward and the shuttle's engines rumbled to life, accelerating the vehicle smoothly towards the distant orb. She locked the navigation system onto the short-range beacon coming from Spider and the craft's nose swung gently to the smaller shadow traversing the edge of the planetary disk. Setting the autopilot and securing the helm, she rose from her seat and went back into the compartment.

"We're on our way," she informed her passengers.

"Great. So what're we gonna do for twelve ruttin' hours?" Jayne began griping already. Inara rolled her eyes at him.

"We could sing songs," Kaylee suggested. Jayne groaned. "Ninety-nine ping pi jiu on the wall, ninety-nine ping pi jiu! Take one down, pass it around," Kaylee belted slightly off-key. Beside her, Anna giggled.

"Shou sheng!" Jayne covered his ears. The two women shared a devious smile.

"Ninety-eight ping pi jiu on the wall!" Anna finished the verse with a laugh. Matthias and Kaylee joined her in the merriment. It was good to hear laughter again, Inara thought. There had not really been room for any lightheartedness since they had left Paquin.

"Perhaps you'd like to play for us again?" she suggested to the Harders, supposing that it might be beneficial to hang on to whatever good spirits they could manage at the moment, not to mention help pass the time.

"Yeah, that'd be shiny!" Kaylee agreed.

"You really don't mind?" asked Anna.

"Hao bu. We hardly got to hear you play anything on the ship," Kaylee replied. Jayne did not look too enthused at the prospect, but he kept silent, which was about as agreeable a gesture as was possible to get from him.

"Okay," Anna nodded. She and Matthias unpacked their instruments and then set about entertaining their small audience.

They played a variety of songs, from bouncy jigs to which Kaylee got up and danced, to sonorous ballads where Anna's voice seemed to swell and resonate beyond what was possible in the confines of the small cabin. Inara's intimation had been right, though. The music did soothe her troubled mind somewhat. Although her worries did not completely disappear, their situation did not seem as bleak as before. Even Jayne's dour attitude could not resist the power of song. He eventually took a turn on Matthias' guitar, playing a drinking tune with some comical lyrics that the doctor tried his hand at singing. Matthias clearly did not have the natural talent of his wife's voice, but his throaty baritone held its own and fit the style of the song quite appropriately. When the musical couple finally gave their fingers and throats a rest, they had managed to speed the passage of about two hours. At that point Kaylee took over and started chattering away with them on all manner of topics. Not as much one for conversation, Jayne quickly lost interest and soon nodded off. Within a few minutes he was snoring away in his seat. Kaylee kept up for a while longer, but suddenly she seemed to hit a wall as well.

"Sorry," the mechanic apologized with a huge yawn.

"No need. We've got a long day ahead still," Matthias reminded her. "Rest is probably a good idea."

"True. What with not havin' nothin' to eat and all, I guess it kinda catches up with you. You gonna be all right, Inara?"

"I'll be fine," Inara assured, although the same edge of weariness was starting to settle on her as well.

"Okay. Maybe I'll rest just for a bit," Kaylee murmured, but no sooner had she leaned back into her seat and closed her drooping eyelids than she was out cold.

"You should rest, too," Matthias encouraged his wife. Anna gave him an affectionate smile and nestled herself against his shoulder. Although it was nothing more than a normal gesture, Inara felt self-conscious watching it, as if she was intruding on something private and intimate between the couple.

"I should get back to the cockpit," she announced aloud.

"If you need anything don't hesitate to wake us," Matthias offered.

"I'll manage," she said without turning around.

Taking the helm again, Inara knew she did not have the luxury of letting herself succumb to sleep. Even with the shuttle on autopilot, someone had to monitor their course. To stave off the drowsiness and conserve what energy she did have, she attempted to meditate instead. Normally finding her center was like second nature, but this time she just could not reach a deep enough focus to keep her mind from ruminating on its troubles. Her empty belly was not facilitating matters, either. After a half hour of trying she finally gave up, realizing her failure was just causing her more aggravation. Folding her arms, she stared out the viewport, resigned to a lonely and tedious struggle against time and fatigue. She was just starting to dwell again on how she was to go about unraveling the quagmire she was sure to be in with the Guild when she heard a rustle of movement behind her. She turned round and found Anna standing near the cockpit doorway.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you," the woman apologized.

"No, you didn't," Inara answered, which was true enough.

"Um, do you mind if I sit up here with you?" Anna asked.

"No at all," Inara motioned to the empty seat beside her. Anna shuffled in a bit stiffly, and then eased herself into the copilot's seat. Her brow wrinkled into lines of discomfort until she was completely settled. "Are you okay?" Inara inquired.

"Just my Bowdens acting up," Anna explained. "Couldn't really sleep. I ran out of Pescaline three days ago." She shifted with another uncomfortable grimace, but then noticed Inara's concern and gave a reassuring smile. "I'll be okay. Doctor Tam gave me something before we left. It's not the same as Pescaline, but it numbs the pain a bit." Inara knew Bowdens could be excruciating if not treated regularly, and she found her own concerns paling a bit in comparison to Anna's condition. It had to be extraordinarily difficult for her to suffer through that without complaint.

"I've been through worse," Anna responded uncannily. Then she colored bright red. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that," she apologized.

"It's all right," Inara excused the inadvertent mental eavesdropping, though she quickly put her thoughts on guard. The intrusion was not as bad as River's had been when she had been cutting the girl's hair, but it was still slightly disturbing to have her mind read like that. She was used to being able to discern what others were thinking, not the other way around.

"Still, it's not polite," Anna went on. "I should be better at keeping to myself. Matthias helped me a lot with it, but sometimes I still slip up, especially when the Bowdens is bothering me."

"Really? I would have thought it would be the reverse," Inara mentioned, mildly interested.

"I guess it's kind of both," Anna answered. "It can distract me so I don't notice things as much, but on the other hand, it can bother me to the point that I have trouble keeping things out. I don't know if that makes any sense or not."

"No, it does," Inara mused. "I hadn't thought of it like that, but I can see what you mean. I hope I'm not bothering you, though."

"Oh, no, not at all. In fact, you're a little bit easier to be around than some of the others. Nobody expects their thoughts to be in anyone's head but their own, so they don't pay attention to what they're thinkin'. But you do," Anna offered a small smile of appreciation.

"I suppose that's good," Inara returned the smile.

"I was wonderin', is that something you learn to do when you're a Companion?" Anna ventured, curious.

"It could be, in a way," considered Inara. "A Companion must always be focused on the needs of the client. We're trained to set aside our personal thoughts and feelings in that respect. It's the only way to create the necessary bond to fully satisfy those needs."

"Shiny. Maybe I should be takin' lessons from you, then. How long did it take you to learn to do that?"

"All of my life."

"You mean you've been training since you were a baby?" Anna wondered with more than a little shock. "Not quite, but very nearly," Inara clarified.

"But how did you know you wanted to be a Companion when you were so little?"

"I didn't. But that's not how it works. Being a Companion is a highly respected and revered calling, especially on Sihnon where I was born. Like a lot of parents, mine sought the honor of having their daughter accepted into a training house, so they started grooming me from the beginning. Formal selection happens at age twelve, and usually no more than four or five girls are chosen from the hundreds who audition. I was fortunate enough that the Mistress of House Madrassa saw promise in me."

"Wow. You must've been really good to have been picked."

"I worked very hard," Inara replied modestly. "But it was nothing compared to the actual training once I got in. Discipline is the foremost concern of a Companion," she repeated the mantra that had been drilled into her on her first day in the house, and every subsequent day thereafter. "It takes years to master the skills needed to become a true Companion, and most of those skills have very little to do with physical intimacy. That's why many girls who are accepted still don't succeed."

"I didn't realize it was so hard. I'll bet your parents were really proud, then."

"It was a great honor for them," Inara stated, "and they were sure I was destined to be a great Companion."

"Oh," Anna's smile retreated only slightly, but Inara did not miss that some of the genuine nature had suddenly slipped out of it. The woman's eyes shifted away.

"Is something wrong?" Inara asked after a moment, not sure what she had said that was upsetting.

"No. It's nothin'," Anna said, though clearly something was troubling her.

"I didn't mean to offend you. If I said anything that did, I apologize," Inara tried to re-engage her.

"It's not that," Anna explained, her voice tight with the struggle of some emotion. "It's… just somethin' that's always bothered me. Nothin' I should trouble you about."

"I don't mind if you'd like to share," Inara encouraged, her instincts sharpening automatically. Anna's lips pressed into a line of uncertainty.

"It's… well, I don't like it when people talk about fate or destiny or God bein' in control of their lives," she asserted. "No offense if that's what you believe," she added hurriedly.

"None taken," Inara replied, "but do you mind if I ask why?" Anna shrugged, her glance drifting to the blackness beyond the viewports.

"When I look back on my life as it is now, and all the paths I could've taken, I know that if I'd let some such tell me what to do, I'd still be waitin' for directions," she said. "Or maybe not even here at all."

"How so?" Inara quested further, a little intrigued.

"Growin' up on Regina, nobody could explain what was wrong with me. They just thought I was crazy. I know my folks tried to do what they could, but no one really believed I would ever be anything but crazy. That's the way things were. It was part of the plan, and God don't make mistakes. But if that was the case, I wanted to know why. Why would He do this to me? There had to be a reason. But of all the voices I heard in my head, I never once heard His. He never shared it with me, no matter how much I prayed for an answer. At first I figured that was 'cause I deserved it. And if He thought that about me, what was the point anymore? I could've ended it right there, and I thought about doin' it a lot, but then I started to get mad. Sometimes I got so furious about it that I started ranting and screaming and cursing at Him. My parents probably thought I'd finally lost it completely, but they must've been too scared to try to stop me. Then, somewhere along the line, I realized that if God wasn't gonna answer me, there was no reason for me to be a part of his so-called plan. Either He didn't exist or He didn't care, and in any case it meant that I could do as I pleased with my life. If there was no preset path to follow, then I didn't have to accept the way things were. I think I was twelve or thirteen when I came to that conclusion, and it's made all the difference."

"So what do you believe in, then?"

"I believe in takin' a chance to try to live out your dreams. It was only after I realized what I did that I truly saw what was goin' on around me. People were wastin' their lives away workin' in the mines until they were too old or too crippled from Bowdens to go on. Yet they went to church every week and prayed for help with their plight. But never once did they do anything to really try and change their lives. They had choices, too. They could've done just like me and picked a different path, but they didn't. And when I left, they still called me crazy, told me I had a ghost of a chance of makin' it out there in the Verse. But for me, a ghost of a chance was enough. It was far better than stayin' and havin' no chance at all."

"That was very courageous of you. Most people don't have the strength to do that."

"Well, I can't take all the credit. If I hadn't met Matthias, I might not have made it. He helped me in so many ways, and not just with my abilities. I don't know what I'd have done without him now. And when I think about if I hadn't decided to leave and how I never would have met him, it…" her words choked off. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. "Well, it's not somethin' I like to dwell on. Of course, I also didn't really know what I was gettin' into, either," she added said with a wry grin. "I never expected to be here."

Neither did I, Inara remarked silently.

"But I wouldn't trade it for anything," Anna finished, resolute. Inara smiled briefly and with some real admiration for the woman, but her thoughts inevitably ran to her own situation. Up until a few months ago she would have had no doubts about saying the same thing regarding her life. Now, though, she had lost some of that certainty. She was not quite as sure of where she belonged anymore. She had once thought of the training house on Sihnon as home. There she was respected and valued for her skills, which was what she wanted, or so she had thought. But for reasons she herself had never fully been able to fathom, she had grown dissatisfied there, and ultimately chose to leave when she should have been at the peak of her personal and professional achievements. She needed something else, and thought conceivably that the challenge of operating outside of the safety and familiarity of the Core would provide her with it. It was only after coming to Serenity that she had started to consider that perhaps what she was searching for had nothing to do with being a Companion, but it was not like she could just abandon her life's work. Silence filled the space between the two women once more. Anna's had gaze drifted out the viewports again, apparently unaware of the turbulence her words had sparked. Inara watched her while her thoughts continued to swirl about. She was strongly protective of her independence and proud of her accomplishments as a Companion. She believed that the life she made was her own. But as she took a more critical view, she started to wonder how true that really was. Had she lived as honestly as Anna? Had she made the choices that defined her life, or had she allowed herself to believe she was making those choices, all the while conforming to some consciously or unconsciously perceived notion of who she was supposed to be? And if the answer was the latter, then who was she really?

"Anna?" Matthias' voice called from the rear compartment, interrupting Inara's reverie.

"I'm up here," Anna called back.

"Are you feeling all right?" Matthias asked, appearing at the cockpit door. Anna gave him a feeble smile that did nothing to hide her physical discomfort. "You should have woken me," he said in gentle admonition.

"You need your rest, too," she replied.

"Well, now I'm rested, so it's your turn. Come, I'll help you."

"Thank you for the company," Anna said as Matthias helped her out of the seat

"My pleasure," Inara nodded and smiled genially, though it had not been quite so pleasant as that. Anna and her husband then slowly returned to the passenger compartment, leaving her to spend the rest of the flight alone with her thoughts.

Twelve hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Serenity, the shuttle reached the edge of Spider's airspace. Its skin glowed incandescently as it broke atmo and the steady rumble and vibration of entry shook the cabin.

"Huh? Wha…" Kaylee's head lolled up at the noise. Jayne growled and stretched into a yawn, only one eye open.

"About damn time," he mumbled as he noticed superheated atmosphere flickering by the window in the cockpit.

"We'll be setting down in a few minutes," Inara said as she deployed the stabilizers for atmospheric flight. She fired the ventral thrusters to ease their descent. Soon they were gliding in over the landscape, angling for the outline of a modest town unfolding in a river valley below them. Inara found an empty berth in the small port on the outskirts and settled the shuttle on the surface. She locked everything down and paid the docking fee while the rest prepared to disembark. Anna was too weak to carry her own luggage and Kaylee had to support her as she stepped out of the shuttle. Matthias carried both of their duffels and instrument cases.

"Thank you," Anna said, breath short and in obvious pain. Nevertheless, she valiantly tried to take her bag from Matthias, who refused with a warm, yet disapproving look.

"I hope you'll be okay," Kaylee said. "It really was nice to meet you, even though the circumstances coulda been better."

"It was a pleasure meeting you, too," Anna reached to embrace Kaylee.

"Yes. Thank you for all you've done for us. I only wish there was more we could do for you," Matthias said. He bowed his lean frame to Inara. She inclined her head and returned her best Companion's smile. With a last awkward look, they started walking away, Anna holding on to Matthias' arm.

"Goodbye!" Kaylee waved. "Bao zhong!"

"Hou hui you qi," Matthias called back.

"Jian xing," replied Inara, although she knew his parting was just a pleasantry. They would most likely never see each other again.

"Bu lang bu you, if you ask me," Jayne complained. "Brought us nothin' but trouble, and can't even get the reward to make up for it."

"Jayne, how can you say that?" Kaylee scolded. "They're good people. You can't still be sore at 'em." She punched him in the arm.

"Ow!" He rubbed the spot she hit.

"Come on, you two. We have a lot to do." Inara already was feeling the urgency to get what they needed and be gone. Whereas getting planetside had once been a welcome and inviting change of pace from being on Serenity, now she wanted nothing more than to be back on the ship and away from the potential prying eyes of the Alliance. To try to minimize any attention she might attract, her outfit was the simplest she had, just a plain black dress with a golden shawl tucked into an obi at her waist. She hoped that would be innocuous enough, though she still said a silent prayer for luck. Taking the lead, she steered Jayne and Kaylee towards the center of the town.

After a good two hours of shopping and haggling, the three managed to procure enough supplies at reasonably cheap prices without having to settle for something that might give them botulism or worse. They were tired and perspiring under a warm, late afternoon sun, but without a mule they had no choice but to lug everything back to the shuttle's landing site by the sweat of their backs. Inara urged them forward at a brisk pace, much more worried about the untimely arrival of an Alliance cruiser if they dallied.

"Can we please take a break?" Kaylee begged for the third time. She was huffing and straggling at the back of their little convoy and had been falling gradually farther behind. Inara did not want to stop, but her limbs were also starting to ache from the sack she carried, and Jayne was carrying two.

"We'll stop for just a minute," she relented. Kaylee heaved her sack off her shoulder with a whuff and promptly sat down on it. Inara laid her down with a little more care, though Jayne just let his drop off his back.

"Damn, I wish I had some coin on me. Could use a good drink," the mercenary licked his lips as he peered through the open door of the tavern they had stopped in front of. Inara was more interested in a glass of water than a shot of whiskey, and she debated whether or not it would be worth it to ask for one inside. She decided against it, conceding to the urge not to linger longer than necessary, and was just about to get them up and moving again when the something on the feed over the bar caught her eye.

"What the…?" Jayne murmured, squinting at it, too, but Inara did not even hear him. She was riveted, oblivious to everything but the image of her face now filling the screen.

"We have new information just released in the ongoing investigation into the Miranda Wave and the kidnapping of the two children from Osiris several years ago. The Guild has confirmed that Inara Serra, a registered Companion seen here, formerly had dealings with Captain Malcolm Reynolds. She apparently disappeared several months ago from her position as an instructor at a training house on Highgate. No other information has been provided, but the timeline of her disappearance coincides with the events surrounding the Miranda wave. There is speculation that she may have been involved with Captain Reynolds, whose deadly rampage culminated in the attack at Satellite r25m9 in Comm Station Ring 2."

The reasonable part of Inara's brain knew that it was now extraordinarily dangerous to be lounging around in full view of the street with her picture probably on every feed in town, but somehow her feet had grown roots as she watched. She could not move.

"I think it's time we made ourselves scarce," Jayne remarked, his eyes apprehensively scanning the street as he hefted his two sacks onto his shoulders. Inara did not react. "Gorram it, let's move!" Jayne hissed and shoved her with his hip as he strode by, breaking her paralysis. She stumbled few steps into the doorway of the bar. The bartender glanced up at her, and her veins froze as she waited for the inevitable recognition to dawn on his face. Instead, though, he merely returned to wiping down his counter, his back fortunately to the feed. That was all the impetus she needed to snatch up her sack and take off at a hasty pace, the weight of her load not even slowing her down. She swiftly overtook Jayne as they scrambled through the remainder of the town and back towards the dock. Along the way, her eyes darted with trepidation at each face they passed, looking for signs of recognition or suspicion. No one bothered with more than a disinterested glance her way, but that did little to ease her anxiety. Inside, her mind kept spinning on one track over and over again. She cursed her indecision and selfishness. She should have done something sooner. Now it might be too late.

"Hey! Wait up!" Kaylee called breathlessly when Inara broke into a run for the last several meters to the ship. Almost in a panic by this point, she unlocked the door, threw her sack into the shuttle, and leaped aboard. She was already warming up the engines by the time Kaylee and Jayne climbed in.

"Let's get the hell outta here," Jayne agreed with her haste. She gave power to the thrusters and lifted the shuttle off the ground like a rocket.

Once they were out of atmo and safely on their way to rendezvous with Serenity, she tried to bring a semblance of control to her frantic thoughts. Her stomach was knotted in a manner that had nothing to do with hunger now. She knew exactly what that broadcast meant. It meant she could not hope that there might be an easy way out of this any longer. There were going to be consequences. The Guild did not just passively submit to an investigation of one of its members. Charging a Companion with a crime was a convoluted legal process not for the faint of heart, thanks to the complicated dynamics of the Guild's relationship with the Alliance. Owing to their unique position in society, Companions occasionally become privy to secrets that were let slip in the dark between the sheets, where everything was intimate and body and mind intertwined in unison. Therefore, the sanctioning agreement with the Alliance explicitly required the Guild to remain uninvolved in secular and political affairs. In exchange for their discretion, Guild members were generally excepted from governmental authority in favor of their own internal code of conduct.

However, the Guild had not established and maintained its sacred autonomy all these years by flaunting itself before the authority of the government either. It had exactly zero tolerance for any behavior, or even allegations of such, that might embarrass or shame a Companion and by extension jeopardize the organization's pact with the Alliance. So, if the Guild was cooperating with the investigation into her, it meant that they believed she was enough of a potential liability to warrant distancing themselves from her. In essence, it was a professional death sentence.

"D'ya think anyone recognized us?" Jayne asked, standing by the cockpit door.

"I don't know, but I need some privacy, please," Inara told him. Without further explanation, she pulled the door closed in front of his surprised face. Even though it was dangerous to attempt any type of communication over the Cortex, she had to wave the training house to find out what was going on. It was a calculated risk, and Mal would kill her if he knew what she was doing, but it was no different than when he allowed Simon to wave his father. Of course, he had also approved of that in advance. There was no time for her to beg and argue with the captain for permission, though. Logging into the Cortex, she entered her encrypted passkey, which either by fortune or design still worked. Gambling that the Alliance was not going to be listening in, she typed in the code she wanted and waited for her wave to be answered.

"Nin hao," a lovely blond woman with refined features answered.


"Inara! Xing fu fo tuo, where have you been?"

"Sheydra, what's going on?"

"You've been gone for months without a wave! I was afraid something happened to you. We all were. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Lots of things have happened to me. But right now I need to know what is going on. I just saw a newsfeed about me." Sheydra's expression provided an answer before she even spoke, and Inara sank back in her seat. She felt like all the air had been forcibly vacuumed out of her lungs.

"I'm sorry, Inara. I would have waved you, but I didn't know where you were."

"Sheydra, you have to tell the Guild to give me more time," she said when she felt like she could breathe again.

"I already tried. I made excuses for as long as I could, but couldn't stop them from becoming suspicious."

"They didn't believe you?"

"Inara," Sheydra almost chided her, but without any real reproach. "Malcolm Reynolds is wanted on some very serious charges. They know he came here to see you. And since you disappeared after that…"

"You think I'm implicated in it?"

"Well… are you?" Sheydra asked softly. Even though it was not an unreasonable question, it still stung to hear it. Inara fought for control, and for words.

"Sheydra, what happened with Serenity was…" she could not finish. Any explanation she gave would sound outlandish, and given recent events, may even put Sheydra in danger. She looked down at her hands, which were trembling slightly.

"Inara," Sheydra gently prodded. "The Disciplinary Council has opened an inquiry on you. They've already summoned me to testify. We were told if anyone heard from you, we were to wave the Guild immediately."

"Sheydra," Inara pleaded. "Please. I just need some more time. There are things that have to be worked out. I promise, after that I'll have an explanation that will resolve everything. You have to trust me." Sheydra looked away, torn.

"All right," she finally answered. "I won't tell them. But, please, don't take too long. If they decide to discharge you, you will never be allowed back, even if you can exonerate yourself."

"I know. I'll take care of it. Thank you."

"Hui jia jin kuai," Sheydra smiled weakly.

"I will." The screen went black. Inara leaned against the console, head in hand. Sheydra's words hit like stones at the bottom of a well that was her soul. She had no idea what she was going to do.

The other two were waiting for her just outside the cockpit door, Kaylee with a worried expression, and Jayne with an irritated one.

"Inara, what's goin' on?" Kaylee spoke first.

"Nothing. I had to see to something. A personal matter. It's okay, Kaylee. Nothing's wrong," she lied with a smile to put her friend at ease.

"Nothin? Then who the hell were you talkin' to in there?" demanded Jayne, skeptical.

"That's none of your business," she retorted coolly.

"It is if they trace the wave. I ain't gettin'caught just so's you could talk to one o' your snooty clients."

"I wasn't talking to a client, and they won't trace it," Inara snapped, her anger flaring at Jayne's prying. "I used my personal security code. The Alliance can't access it," she said, knowing that there was no guarantee that was true now that the Guild had all but given her up. But she did not want to believe that they would abandon her quite so casually. After all, they had at least convened an inquiry rather than just out and discharging her. It gave her some hope.

"Better hope whoever you talked to you can trust 'em," Jayne rumbled. "Mal finds out and he might just send you back here to fend for yourself."

"He won't find out, because you won't say anything," Inara mustered her most threatening tone.

"Oh, yeah? Why not?" Jayne challenged.

"Because it doesn't matter. Even if they do trace it, we'll be out of this system before they get anywhere near us. And I didn't say anything that might give us away."

"So you say," Jayne huffed. If he called her out, that would certainly cause her trouble with Mal, but she could handle that if and when it happened. She had far larger concerns weighing on her at the moment. "We'll be fine," she repeated, returning to the cockpit and somehow keeping the storm inside her from coming through in her voice. "Better settle in for another long ride." She set herself in the helm once more while Kaylee and Jayne retook their seats. She spent the majority of the return journey to staring out the window in silence, and very little light entered her thoughts as the black rolled by.

After another thoroughly exhausting twelve hours, the shuttle was finally close enough to raise Serenity on the radio. "Serenity, this is shuttle two, copy?" Inara called.

"Inara! 'Bout gorram time!" Mal was angry and tense.

"You knew this would take a while, Mal. If I flew any faster, we'd run out of fuel," she peremptorily deflected his criticism.

"You get the supplies?"

"Yes, of course."

"Shiny. Get back here double-time. And give me Kaylee. We're havin' issues." That did not sound good to Inara's ears, but the fact that Serenity was still flying meant at least the problems were not Alliance-related.

"Kaylee!" she shouted back into the hold. "Mal wants you." Kaylee came up to the cockpit and took the radio mic.

"Yeah, Cap'n?"

"Kaylee, you got work to do when you get back. Engine power's all over the place. We're shut down 'cept for auxiliaries. I had River take a look. She's got some know-how, but she don't know Serenity like you do."

"Fei yi suo si! All right, Cap'n." Kaylee slapped the microphone back into its holder after her transmission, scowling. "I'm gone for a day, and he let's her fall apart!" she flapped her arms. "Er bai wu." Inara silently agreed with that assessment. She eased back on the throttle as the faint speck of Serenity appeared in the distance and started her approach for docking.

About ten minutes later, the shuttle settled neatly into its berth. Kaylee was out first, reserving her meanest glare for Mal as she passed him beside the airlock. "What did you do to her?" she accused, not stopping on her way to the engine room.

"I didn't do nothin'!" Mal replied, indignant. "Just get her runnin' smooth again." He turned and was hit in the chest by a sack of foodstuffs tossed his way. "Ungh!" he stumbled back a step, glaring at Jayne. "How much you spend?" he asked, dropping the bag on the catwalk.

"Not all of it. Got us some fair deals."

"Good. Get it stowed. As soon as Kaylee rights us, we'll be on our way."

"We got more problems, though. Inara's picture's all over the Cortex now. Saw it on a newsfeed planetside."

"What'd they say?" Inara heard the edge of concern sharpen Mal's tone.

"Nothin' much. Just that she might be involved. But she waved somebody while we was on our way back."

"She what!?" Mal exclaimed. Inara breezed out of the cockpit, already feeling Mal's wrath before she could even see his face.

"I waved the training house, Mal," she explained to him.

"Do you have any idea how dangerous…"

"Yes," she interrupted him. "But I had to find out what was going on. I used my personal code. It's untraceable by anyone outside the Guild."

"Unless the Guild's handed it over to the Alliance," he retorted. His words felt like a punch in the gut, but she restrained any expression, knowing that he did not understand what it truly meant if that had indeed happened. She brushed past him instead, heading down towards the commons. "You better hope that ain't the case!" he hollered after her. She pretended to ignore him, hearing him cursing and muttering before she escaped through the bulkhead.

When she made it to her room, she dropped onto her bed and remained there, unable to move. Mal's anger was upsetting, but it was the least of her worries. The full magnitude of what she was going to face was starting to set in and she could not quell the shaking in her limbs. If the Guild did discharge her, where would she go? What could she do? There were few respectable options left in the life of a Companion disgraced.

You could always stay here. Be like Mal, a voice insider her proffered. But that thought only sent her plunging into even greater depths of uncertainty. She had tried to distance herself from Serenity from the beginning to avoid something like this. At first it was simply a professional rule. She rented the shuttle so she would have some physical separation and some privacy. But the longer she stayed on, the more attached she became. The ship drew her in with some inexorable force. It frightened her that she could not seem to resist it, and it frightened her even more that part of her did not want to. Even when she tried to break away, did break away, somehow she was drawn back. Every path, every decision she made led to this place. She liked to think she was in control of her own life, so why did she always find herself here even when she knew she should not be? Her role as a Companion had been her defense against the pull of Serenity, allowing her to believe that her situation was just a temporarily beneficial arrangement, that she did not really belong. But now that defense was gone. There was only blackness beyond, with no way to see ahead.

In the engine room, Kaylee was on her back beneath the block, working through a tangle of wires hanging from an access panel. Mal hovered nearby.

"Yep," she confirmed what River had deduced from the systems diagnostics. "One of the power relays is bad. Looks like the cables are burnt out. That's why she was fluxin'. Can't get no steady flow through scorched cables." She slid out from beneath the machinery, wiping the sweat and grime off her forehead.

"So what's it mean?" Mal asked.

"I can fix it. It ain't too terribly complicated. But we gotta stay shut down 'till I'm done. Gotta take the relay out, replace the cable. Pro'bly have somethin' around that'll work. If not, I can bypass it. It'll keep us flyin', but we'll lose some power output."

"How long?" Mal demanded.

"An hour or so oughta be all." Mal hammered his fist lightly against the engine housing.

"That's an hour of us dead in space for the Alliance to find."

"Can't help it, Cap'n. If I don't do it right, the whole thing burns out and we're never gonna get movin' again."

"Well, get on it then. Whatever it takes get power back so we can get outta this system."

"Yes, sir."

Mal turned and stalked out of stale, warm air of the engine room and into the rear corridor. It was late, or early morning to be precise. He was tired and cranky after having been awake for nearly twenty-four hours, but he was too wired up to even contemplate sleeping. He would just be a hindrance to Kaylee, and River was at her turn on the watch, which left nothing for him to do but stew. He was still particularly irked at Inara's rash decision to wave the training house. He understood her motives and knew enough about the Guild to know Companions were generally outside the purview of the Alliance, but did not know how far that freedom extended. If the government had knowledge of Inara's involvement with him, he did not know what leverage they could bring and how the Guild would react to it. He needed to get some answers so he could better assess their situation, so he ambled downstairs aiming to have a little chat with her. All was dark below deck with everything but the emergency lights off to save power. It was also more silent than usual since the engine was on stand-by. He did not like not feeling that steady thrum through Serenity's decks. It was like the space between heartbeats drawn out immensely long, so that one was not sure when or if the next one would come. As he cut across the commons, he spied a faint glow behind Inara's door. He had not expected to find her still up, but he was glad he would at least not have to wake her. He headed towards her room and knocked on the door frame. There was no response.

"Inara, you up?" he called.

"What do you want, Mal?" she finally answered. Her voice sounded a touch hoarse.

"Need to have a talk with you about some things," he advised.

"I'm not in the mood to talk. Please go away," she said after a few seconds.

"I wasn't makin' a request. I need to know some things about you and the Guild. Like how much information they might be able to pass on to the Alliance."

"I said I don't feel like talking about it. Just go away."

"Inara, gorram it, I don't care if you don't feel like" he shoved open her door angrily, but the rest of his words died on his lips when he caught a glimpse of her. She was curled up against the wall on her bed. Her face was red, bleary eyed, and stained with tears. Her make-up, which he always assumed she slept in, was not on. She was in absolute shambles. He stared at her, at first shocked and then embarrassed by his intrusion.

"Oh, Mal…" She hid her face in her arms, body shuddering with sobs. He recovered enough presence of mind after a few seconds to shut her door and at least prevent the humiliation of anyone else from seeing her in this state. He felt his chest constrict as he listened to her cry, all his anger of a moment ago forgotten. She was hurting badly. He had not thought it was possible for something to break her down like that. He shuffled his feet in place, hands thrust awkwardly in his pockets.

"So, uh… is there somethin' else you wanna talk about instead?" he asked, trying to make up for his lack of tact. She looked at him through her tears.

"The Guild thinks I was involved in what happened with Miranda, Mal. That's what I learned when I waved the training house. They're conducting an inquiry, which could lead to me being discharged and banned forever."

"What? Why?" Mal was taken with genuine surprise at how serious that sounded.

"Because of you!" she lashed out in sudden anger which just as quickly disappeared, as if she did not have the will to maintain even that much. Mal's stare drifted to the floor, a bout of shame overtaking him. He was suddenly acutely aware of how little he had considered what consequences she might face by getting mixed into things with him. Even though he had offered her the same chance as everyone to take their leave, and she had chosen to stick with him, it did not make him feel one lick better about it. Of all of them, she had the most to lose.

"I'm… sorry," he muttered, truly meaning it despite how feeble it sounded. "Look," he sought some excuse for her, "just… tell 'em that you had nothin' to do with it. Tell 'em I held you against your will or somethin' like that. Hell, I'm already wanted, what's one more charge to add on?" he tried to be flippant, but failed miserably.

"How exactly am I going to do that? And why should they even believe me?" Inara demanded. "Are you going to fly to Sihnon, waltz into the Temple, and give your testimony to my innocence?" She was right, and Mal's foolish notion of helping her deflated. It was ridiculous to think to solve it that way. "I'm going to lose everything." A fresh round of sobbing assailed her. Mal sank onto the edge of her bed, his head hung and a heavy weight descending on his shoulders.

"I never wanted any of this," he said plaintively. "I ain't been in a hole this deep since the war. Confess I don't see an easy way out, and believe me I've tried. Not a day goes by I don't try to figure it out. Just seems no matter what move I make, that hole keeps gettin' deeper. I'm sorry I had to drag you down into it with me." His look at her was open with guilt and anguish. It made her cry harder.

"It's funny," she sniffed when she recovered some. "I spent all this time not sure if I wanted to go back. Now that I can't, though, I don't have any idea what I'm going to do. Because if I'm not a Companion, then what am I?" She searched his face as if he had the answer, and her expression was one of such lost desperation that Mal was afraid it would break him as well. He did not know how to respond. "I guess I should just learn to be a regular whore from now on. It's about all I can do," she said with anguished bitterness.

"No!" Mal snapped, his denial more harsh than he intended. "No," he repeated, softening. "You're more than just a Companion. You been a friend and a sister to Kaylee. You helped protect Simon and River. You kept Jayne in line when his head got bigger than his brain. That ain't nothin' to be ashamed of. You're a part of this ship. Even if you ain't on the crew, you're a part of it as much as anyone else. It ain't right without you." There was more heartfelt meaning behind his words than he could convey and he looked away, embarrassed by it.

"Why do you have to be that way, Mal?" she flopped her hands in her lap and tried to blink the tears away.

"Which way?" he asked, clueless.

"You call me a whore, but nearly get yourself killed defending my honor. You try to protect me from your way of life, but then you bring me in on your schemes. You say there's always a place for me on Serenity, and then you push me away. Which is it?"

"I… well, I guess… I just don't know what to make of you," he stumbled over his words. "I never have."

"They what do you want me to be? Whatever it is, tell me, and I'll do it."

"It ain't like that. I don't want you to be anything but yourself."

"Then why can't I be myself?"

"When have I ever stopped you?"

"Ever since I came on board!"

"Whoa, now," Mal's mind roiled with a mix of confusion and anger at her accusation. He stood up from the bed, frowning at her. Inara looked down at her knees, ashamed by her outburst.

"I… I'm sorry," she swiftly retracted. "I shouldn't have said that. I know it's not your fault. It's just something about being here that's…" she trailed off. There was a long, awkward moment between the two of them. Mal's anger trickled away. He made eyes at his boots, feeling like something was slipping through his grasp, but not sure what.

"So, what d'you think you should do now?" he finally asked.

"Become a petty thief like you?" she proposed. That got them both smiling just a little. "I don't know," she answered. "I don't have anywhere else go." Her eyes rimmed with tears again.

"Do you… uh, do you, you know, want to stay here?" he blundered through the question.

"Do you want me to stay here?" she returned almost meekly.

"Sure," he answered quietly after a long pause. "I mean, it's shiny if you stay… as long as you… want to."

"Mal, you're so infuriating, do you know that?" she shook her head with an exasperated sigh that was half sob. He was not sure how to take that. "I never wanted to leave in the first place," she said.

"Then why did you?" he asked, truly stumped.

"I just thought I had to. I was afraid that if I stayed I was going to lose something. But now that it's gone, maybe it doesn't matter anymore."

"What doesn't matter anymore?"

"Mal, can I ask you a question. Why did you rent your shuttle to me?" she changed the subject as she unfolded herself from against the wall and stood up. "What was the reason?"

"'Cause… it made good sense. I needed the money and the respectability," he stated, trying to ignore his initial hesitance.

"That was all?" she pressed, her dark eyes searching his and glistening with uncharacteristic vulnerability. What did she want him to say? It had been a business decision. What more was there? But deeper, far beyond the edge of that, he knew there was more. It was a feeling of fire deep in his belly that both burned and enraptured. But that was a dangerous place to go. He could never explain that to her. It had to remain hidden, even from his own self. His jaw twitched at his temple, and he swallowed to clear the knot in his throat. She drew nearer, her eyes down now. She stopped only when she was so close that they were almost touching. He could smell the saltiness of the tears on her cheeks and see the faint trembling in the coils of her hair. It made his heart thump inordinately fast against his ribs.

"I just thought that… maybe there was something else, some other reason why you wanted me." Her voice was soft and husky, the question full of strained emotion.

"Uhh…" sound escaped his throat, but he could not make a single coherent word. His thoughts were spinning about, and that fire deep down was on the verge of tearing loose. He wanted to take a step away, knew he should, but the intensity of her gaze as she sudden looked up into his face prevented it. The depths of her eyes smoldered with some strange passion he had never seen before, and he was transfixed. Then, without warning, she leaned in and kissed him hard. His mouth fell open in shock at first, but that was quickly dissolved by the warmth and softness of her lips pressing against his. She leaned closer as she felt him start to give in, her tongue dancing around inside his mouth. It was a tantalizing, dangerous, consuming sensation. After an eternity of seconds, she broke away, her breath shuddering from her lips. Fresh tears were running down her cheeks, but her pupils were wide and full of desire. A battle of confusion and need raged inside him, holding him paralyzed for one more second. Then she kissed him again, and every rational fear and doubt in his mind was burned away by the fire inside him erupting outward. Their lips met desperately, over and over again. It was passionate, forceful, almost violent. Finally the purely physical desire to feel her consumed him and he willingly submitted himself to it. He pressed against her with a throaty growl. She responded by slipping off his suspenders and tugging the buttons of his shirt loose. His mouth moved to her neck and he buried himself in her hair, inhaling its sweetness. She rolled her head to the side, eyelids fluttering, lips slightly parted. Then she yanked open his shirt and ran her hands across his chest before wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him down on top of her.

His bare chest scraped against Inara's skin, so hot it almost burned. The warmth of his body was all around her, a part of her. Little electric bolts sizzled behind her eyelids. She moved slowly, not taking control, but simply responding to what he was doing. She wrapped herself around him, fingers sliding through his hair. He shifted within her and she gasped and writhed. He stifled her moan with another powerful kiss. For an instant amidst the bliss, one thought ran through her head. I… me… want this. Then the raging storm swept away all conscious awareness, leaving nothing but exuberant sensation in its wake.

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