Chapter 17: Persephone

Inara Serra shook her head, feeling beside herself as Mal continued with his counter-proposal. "Look, if Badger says it will pay-."

Inara laughed. "We have reason to trust him this time because…?" She didn't want a job of hers to be entangled with his. "Look, would you at least listen to a legitimate job offer for once? Or will that hurt your male ego?"

Mal tried a stare-down but lost as soon as she fluttered her eyelashes. "Fine! But, I think we should consider how the others would react to another week of idleness if it don't pan out. You know what the preacher done say about such things…"

Inara's look bordered on 'oh-please' and 'don't-even-try-it.' "Mal, not everyone in the 'verse is out to plot their next heist or relive a 'Robin Hood' phase. If you put in as much time towards job hunting as you do planning your insults of me, I'm sure you'd have had enough for a ranch of your own by now."

Mal bristled at the comment. "I'll meet this fella of yours and I'll listen to his offer. But, nothin' says I have to take it if I don't like it." It seemed for a moment that he'd go on with his verbal tantrum had River not stood at the door. "If you'll excuse me," he said, trying to maintain a look of annoyance on his face.

Both women watched him go before Inara spoke up. "What can I do for you, mei-mei?"

River continued looking in the direction Mal had left then said, "He doesn't want to embarrass you."

Inara bit back a smile. She gathered that herself but saw no need to say it aloud. "We're talking about you," Inara reminded her.

"I'm free, but I don't have a place here, like you, like Simon." River sat on the bed and let her hand run over the material of the bed coverings. "I want to contribute, but the way I know how makes him nervous."

"Who, sweetie?" Inara asked, picking up a brush to do River's hair. "If it's Mal, don't worry about him. He's-."

"He's protective like a good father," River said relaxing a bit with each stroke. "It's Simon."

Inara smiled. "That's what brothers tend to do, especially older ones." She decided to change the subject to a happier one. "Do you want to go to a dance with me, River? I haven't thought about arranging an escort for you just yet, but…"

River hid a faint smile. "My escort still owes you a dance; you said so."

Inara blushed. "I was only teasing him then, River. Are you sure you want to attend with Simon?"

River nodded carefully. "I'll be his left side. Kaylee belongs on his right."

"I don't know if that's how-."

River continued as though Inara hadn't said anything. "Sir Lawrence Murphy won't mind. It won't hurt him, us being there. In fact, it will help him, and us." She paused. "The captain hasn't figured out how to accept the unknown invitation without losing face."

Inara began braiding River's hair. The young girl's insights didn't disturb her in the least. "You're certain we're going," she said, more as a statement than a question.

"I know it." River began playing with some beads that were within reach. "Just like I know my brother will honor his debt."

Wash couldn't believe it. "An invite to an honest-to-goodness party, with legitimate entry! Honey, I wish I bought you a slinky dress!"

Zoë smiled, touched by his comment. "That's all right. We'd need weaves and other medical supplies more than I do a dress if the captain gets himself involved in another mess."

Mal came up behind them. "I heard that! And because I'm such a mean old man," he dug into his pocket and handed some currency to Wash. "See to it that your wife has the slinkiest dress that ever was, will ya?"

Wash refused to contain his excitement as Zoë gave him a look that asked whether or not the captain lost his mind. "We get to go shopping!" Wash said. "Hope you don't need the mule," he called over his shoulder as he led his wife by the hand towards the door.

Book stepped out of his room at the sound of Wash's voice. "I take it a rare act of kindness has just taken place?" he asked, Bible in hand as usual.

"Yep," Mal said still looking their way until the door closed. He looked Book in the eye and deadpanned, "How many sins does that buy off?"

Book pretended to ponder it a moment. "It might cover the lie of omission."

Mal narrowed his eyes. "I want to treat my first officer and pilot to a night on the town and you say I'm neglecting telling them something? That hurts, preacher. Next, I 'spose you'll find fault in my treating the mechanic and medic a chaperoned outing, too."

Book nodded. "That and abandoning a young one who wants to be by her brother's side."

"You've said nothin' 'bout Jayne," Mal pointed out.

"Neither did you," countered Book. "Who does Inara have you set to meet up with tonight?"

Mal tried to recall. "A fella named Warren Harrock."

"Sir Warrick Harrow," Book corrected. "He's an honorable gentleman." At this, Book narrowed his eyes. "The fact that Inara recommended you to carry out a job for him…"

"Hey!" Mal said. "Now that does hurt! Keep it up and I'll have to set you up being all ironical and the like." He clarified, "You in need of yourself."

Book smiled. "Clever." With that, the older man went upstairs just as Kaylee came running down.


Mal shook his head. "You go break a leg now, don't 'spect Doc to share his crutches witcha."

She laughed. "You're funny. Can we see if we can get a catalyzer this time? Please? I'll sell my dress if it helps!"

"Tsai boo shr!" Mal said. "No way! Little Kaylee, I'm not lettin' my mechanic dance a la natural at some fancy party. No, you deserved that dress. T'was Doc's money anyhow, so it be him you'd hurt most."

Kaylee swayed from side to side like a school-child. "Could we at least try for a catalyzer? Pretty please?"

Mal sighed. "Fine, we can try. But, no cryin' if we can't get one; got it?"

"Oh, no, Cap'n, I'll let you save the cryin' for you when you knowed we need one." She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thank ya!" With that, she bounded up the stairs as cheery as ever.

Shaking his head, Mal couldn't help but wonder if her lighthearted comment was a possibly ominous bit.

Inara walked arm-in-arm with Malcolm Reynolds, asking herself for the umpteenth time why she didn't enter with a proper client instead. Well, she had a client, but she'd postpone catching up with him until after she saw Mal safely to his meeting.

She had asked him earlier why Jayne hadn't been approached to escort either River or Kaylee into the ball, not liking the idea of Simon having the responsibility of both. Yet, she knew that wasn't going to be the case. And Mal's answer of laughter matched her own reaction to the absurdity of the thought in the first place.

Inara scanned the crowd and found whom she sought. Of the two siblings, River, dressed in a simple, loose dress that Simon bought her that still looked elegant on her, floated about the room with ease, not hesitating to meet each person she encountered. Simon, on the other hand, kept to a corner, watching Kaylee as she animatedly took part in a discussion about machines and the like with some gentlemen on the other side of the room.

The Companion noticed how Sir Murphy caught Simon's eye and gave a quick nod of greeting or reassurance; she couldn't tell which as their host made his way to them.

Inara made the necessary introductions and then excused herself from the men's company to meet Simon half-way as he tried to walk in her direction, cane in hand.

"I thought you came here with two lovely ladies," Inara said. "What are you doing playing the part of wallflower?"

Simon smiled sheepishly as he leaned his cane against the wall. "Saving up my strength for a dance with another lovely lady," he said as he bowed before her. "May I have this honor?"

Inara smiled demurely. "I told River…"

"I'm a man of my word. Just wanted to wait for the right moment to enjoy," he said, leading her to the fringe of the dance floor.

Inara was impressed, knowing she shouldn't have been. Even if his movements were limited, the grace remained. He had the same Alliance education she did; knew his parents were in the same upper echelon of society that Sirs Murphy and Harrow were apart of, maybe a bit lower, but still…

She couldn't help but be impressed with his strength in hiding the pain with each step, his body giving nothing away, not even a tremor of his hands. Part of her wondered if there would ever be a chance to smuggle him back into the life he should have led.

As soon as the music ended, Inara curtseyed then backed away. "This was a….pleasure. Thank you, Simon."

He bowed, kissing her lightly on the back of the hand. "The pleasure was mine," he said softly. Straightening up, he gave a faint smile, retrieved his walking stick and then sought out one of his companions. Inara watched after him as Malcolm came up beside her.

"I'd say we raised our boy right, wouldn't you?" he said sincerely. He offered Inara his arm. "I've a tough act to follow, but…" Mal led her out to the middle of the dance floor and did the best he could in keeping up with the complicated steps.

At dance's end, they walked towards the punch bowl, turning to admire the hovering chandelier. "Well," he said, "as you can see, I taught the boy everything I knowed."

Inara chuckled. "I'm sure you did," she said. Nodding her head towards the other side, she said, "There's Sir Warrick Harrow." Once I introduce you two, do you promise to behave yourself? Or should I remain by your side, knife at the read to stab you?"

Mal looked at her, a goofy grin on his face. "Why, bao bay, I think we're about to make our other married couple jealous with spousal support like that. I'm touched."

Inara rolled her eyes as she pulled him toward their intended target.

Simon found his sister and leaned close to whisper something in her ear. Before he could say anything, she said, "It is, for both of us." He glanced at the floor, embarrassed.

Her voice in his head was something he felt increase daily, accepting it without question as she said earlier and suspected that this bond would only get stronger in time. For now, River decided what she would allow him to 'hear.' She 'told' him things before others would aboard Serenity. And each time, he made it a point of being surprised at this 'first time' mentioning.

This dance, for example… He knew the name Sir Lawrence Murphy had created for him before anyone else, because River knew it first. Yet, he enjoyed the conversations spoken aloud, just to hear her voice if anything. Focusing on the present, he said, "No I want you to stay. I'm just tired, that's all."

River kissed his cheek. "Kaylee wants to dance again. It's been too long."

He gave her a wistful smile, thankful that his sister humored him in this, knowing her answer to his unspoken thought about whether or not he wanted this…bond to end or be controlled. "You're right."

"Always am," she said, helping herself to more fresh fruit before making up her mind about whom to chat with next. "Dance first. Sleep later," she told him.

Sir Lawrence Murphy approached Simon with Kaylee at his side. "I do believe you're on this elegant woman's dance card, sir," Murphy said with a slight bow.

Graciously, Simon accepted Kaylee's offered hand and led her to the rest of the dancers, not as close to the fringe as before, but not in the center, either.

The Washburnes stood beside Murphy, watching the young couple dance. "Don't they make a cute couple, dear?" Wash asked his wife.

Zoë, feeling very feminine in her new dress, nodded approvingly. "Now to find a way to multiply the days," she said.

Murphy nodded. "Your doctor's safe here; you have my word. None of my guests are the sort to turn him in. If they were, they certainly wouldn't be my friends much longer." He adjusted his sash to remove something from an inner pocket. "This is for him. Use it as you see fit."

Zoë examined the new ident card. "Thank you," she said. "It was very generous of you to-."

Murphy waved her off. "I like a house-full of happy folks. That, and I wasn't about to miss a possible visit with a lovely Companion. If you'll excuse me," he said. Murphy walked to meet Inara as she waited by the musicians then stopped to add, "Whatever you need, this house is your house - anything."

Wash took that as his cue to grab another plateful of food. "Oh, come on, bao bay, why are you about to worry?"

Zoë tucked the ident card inside of her dress. "Sweetheart, who says I'm about to worry?"

"We're married, remember? I hope I know you better than Mal."

Zoë momentary looked around the room before answering. "Then, you wouldn't be surprised if I said that our luck will probably turn for the worse?"

Wash shook his head. "Larry screens his guests through that force field, dear. No one's armed here and Mal's on his best behavior, which is saying…" His voice trailed off as he watched the same person that caught his wife's eye. "I hate it when you're right."
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