Leave Your Fields To Flower
Derek Wills let himself out of his tart's apartment. "Lover" implied affection and "Companion" an exchange of money for services rendered; he felt none of the former for Ivy Lynn and gave her none of the latter. Besides which she was already in the employ of a wealthy benefactor, a nice man, a little old but in perfect working order. If anything, Derek had just stolen from him.
Which made getting out of town all the more imperative.
He'd had a rendezvous with a small-time smuggler, a Browncoat with no particular ambitions to more than his slice of the black. The man's crew had made a minor stir in the 'verse when they'd uncovered and publicised an Alliance scandal involving Reavers and a behavioral modification experiment -- what it had meant, said Malcolm Reynolds over a stiff drink, was the liberation of his pilot from a heavy burden.
"Never seen her so happy," he said, "nor so sane. Bein' made a weapon by men that powerful, that'll break you, but I'll be damned if she ain't come up a treat since they quit huntin' her. Maybe that was half the trouble right there."
"Fear's powerful," Derek remembered saying, as if he knew more of fear than sleeping with mouthy starlets. If anything he had been a powerful man.
The role had lost its appeal at about the same time as directing. He'd fucked up his chances in the Core; the best he could get was repertory theatre on Rim worlds looking for a cultural bump. He missed the grandeur of New Broadway, the sweep of excitement as he brought a show to fruition -- the women, of course, but not as keenly as the work. Aside from fame, big musicals had got him a healthy living. Lately he was living hand-to-mouth, popping back to Londinium now and again at Ivy's behest.
She was becoming a little too attached, his ship wanted repairs, and Reynolds needed a courier. What better remedy for terminal boredom?
He had gotten ten paces from Ivy's apartment, the small, heavy package in his knapsack hot against his shoulderblades, when she called him back.
"Derek? Where are you going?"
"Running an errand," he said, which was not entirely a lie. "Go back to bed."
Ivy shook out her long, blonde curls and swept one hand over her sumptuous hip. "Come back to bed with me and I will." Her breasts stood out proudly, completely natural in a surgically-enhanced 'verse. For that alone she commanded the highest prices. For her voice she received starring roles. He might have rode her metaphorical coattails to a life of luxury; he might even have married her.
A thousand pities that he couldn't seem to find common ground with her outside the boudoir.
"Sorry, love," he said, pitching his voice to convey regrets he did not feel. "You know how it is. People to see, places to be."
Places to see, he thought. People to be. People who were not so trapped.
"I'll wave you," he lied, and boarded the elevator to the lobby.
He had rented a little speeder-bike, a one-man mule, for dirtside travel; he hadn't fancied public transport since Dyton and abject poverty. Whenever he felt a bout of self-pity coming on, he reminded himself how far he'd come since Dyton. No ordinary man would have got to New Broadway from bloody Dyton. Years on Londinium had transformed his voice, but his own ambitions had always risen above his lot in life.
And what was that lot now? Aiding and abetting petty criminals?
He parked the speeder-bike outside the appointed music hall in Shoreditch. So far he had accomplished what Reynolds wanted without trouble, retrieving the package from its dropbox in Camden without asking who was dropping contraband in Camden of all places. Ambition had not been Derek's only driving force; curiosity had lured him backstage as a boy of thirteen, and he had spent every free moment of the next seven years learning his trade.
In fact he had done it in a music hall not unlike this one, with tables in the front of the house instead of proper seating, and a well-stocked bar doing brisk business. "Table for Washburn?" he asked, and the maitre d' seated him close enough to the entertainment to get an eyeful of its practical short-style panties. He had seen as much before; the shock came not from the sight but the wearer, who was no more than twenty, with brown hair down to her waist. Unless he missed his guess, the girl had studied dance somewhere far finer than Shoreditch. He had worked with the reformed Ballets Russes five years ago. Their women moved with the same ease and grace.
They'd worn more than silk bandeaux and overlapping-petal skirts. This dancer had neither tights nor shoes, and her feet were prettier than those of the ballerinas. Likely she had left ballet before its demands had deformed her. How well he remembered pretty little Tatiana Volkova, nearing thirty but looking eighteen, how she'd wrap herself in gauze from the ankle down before she undressed. Later he had coaxed her out of her mummification, washing every battered toe, anointing the cuts and massaging the soles.
Though he had given up starlets, he drank his fill of her lean, languid performance, though he sensed a very different strength just beneath her skin. Potential energy crackled in her, like a tigress laying in wait. Given provocation, she would pounce, the result every inch as deadly as beautiful.
Thank God for the table covering his lap. "Just water for now," he requested of the waiter. "I'm not sure exactly when my party will be joining me." Reynolds hadn't even mentioned which of his crew it would be. With his luck, he reckoned he had about a fifty-fifty chance of walking away from this intact. If the other fifty percent weren't so lucrative, he might have reconsidered at some point. Not now. If he had dug his own grave, so be it.
He'd have liked one last drink. Mostly he had given that up, too. Whenever he drank, his judgment slipped away; he had drunk with Ivy, and again with Reynolds, and if he drank in the presence of the dancer with the giant brown eyes he would leave the package and take her away.
She turned her gaze straight on him, as if she knew everything about him: who he was, why he was there, where he had been, where he was going. He didn't even know where he was going, but he was sure she did. As her music wound down, she executed one last swoop forward, one perfect arabesque to bid them all zài jiàn.
He set his glass on the table. His hands were shaking as badly as they had on his first opening night. He could go down in flames tonight, or a hail of bullets. Reynolds had the look of a man who attracted trouble. With Derek's luck, he'd send some brawler more inclined to start fights than avoid them. That heavy of his, maybe, with the striped cap. And hadn't he mentioned his second from the war?
He nudged the package with his foot: still there. Good. His mind had wandered far, watching the dancer -- bai rih mohn, just woolgathering. He hadn't any right to dream anymore. He'd got his chance and squandered it. He couldn't blame the starlets; he couldn't blame the drink; he couldn't blame Ivy. Long past time he took responsibility for his own mistakes.
The chair next to his slid back, not of its own volition; there was the dancer in a black robe with poppies on, her hair contained in a sleek braid. He glanced at her feet. Black boots. An odd sartorial choice.
"My captain sends his regards." The dancer sat. "You will order us both tea."
She drank an expensive variety, a descendant of xihu longjing, now grown on Sihnon and exported around the 'verse. He preferred a Londinium breakfast blend, two sugars, just a splash of milk. Naturally, he paid.
"You'll escort me home," she said. "As you see, I am appropriately dressed for a ride on your bike."
"Like hell you are," he said. "I don't ride without full leathers and neither should you."
"I'll jump clear before we crash." She raised her cup to her lips. "I may even warn you to do the same."
Oh, that was not nice, smirking at him like she knew all the secrets in the 'verse. But of course she did; he recognised her now. "You're his witch pilot, the one the Alliance wanted. Tam shao jeh, yes?"
"Call me River," she said. "It would please us both." She held up one delicate hand. "I know your name. I pulled it from your mind the minute you looked up my skirt." And with one fine eyebrow arched, "Don't apologise. I haven't been xiao mei mei since Miranda."
Surely he was the color of her flowers by now.
"You want off this world. I miss my dancing. Inara has left us and will not return."
"What does one have to do with the others?"
"You still have friends on the Rim, yes? Friends with theatres?"
"You have no job."
"No." And after paying for her tea, no coin.
"My captain will offer you money. You could sink it into your ship." The way she spoke, she undoubtedly meant "pile of scrap metal."
"You have a better idea," he guessed.
"I am no Companion, but a dancing woman also brings prestige," she said. "You have a hole in your heart that is only filled by bright lights and applause. Give me places to dance and I'll earn you a flying stage."
"Does your captain know what you're planning?"
"What do you think?" She tossed him a narrow-eyed grin. "He'll understand. He always does."
Derek tossed the last of his money onto the table. "I haven't a helmet spare."
"Nothing can hurt me now."
"Even so, you'd better hold on tight."
And that was the last Londinium saw of them, her robe flapping in the wind, his knapsack pressed between them for safekeeping. If Ivy ever discovered where he'd gone -- but that was a worry for another day, not so nice as this.
They rode off into the sunset, as every pair of vagabonds will.