Characters: Inara Serra, Malcolm Reynolds, Kaylee Frye, etc.
Prompt: Inara helps the crew pull a job, involving either the Alliance or the Companion's Guild, with some Inara backstory, and set before the end of the series.
Spoilers: The series through Trash.
Properly edited and expanded version now found here.
"We'll next be setting down on Sihnon." Mal, despite his usual lack of an invitation, leaned against the bulkhead in the doorway of Inara's shuttle.
She turned to face him, and failed to keep the surprise from her voice. "Did you say Sihnon?"
"What? I figured you'd be happy. Plenty of rich, properly hygienic men on that fancy rock. Some of them's bound to be lonely."
"Yes," Inara said. "Many, and I appreciate the opportunity. I'm just surprised, given your dislike of Core worlds."
"We've picked up some honest cargo bound for there," Mal said. "Might give us a chance to feel out some new contacts."
He kept any deeper motives to himself, but Inara had grown familiar with Mal's inexplicable nature, and since this little mystery allowed her the chance to line up some choice clients after weeks spent on backwater moons, she welcomed it.
A day later, it pleased her to recognize several names among the proposals arriving over the Cortex. One in particular caught her eye. Wesley Holmes. Puzzled as to why he of all people would contact her, she raised her hand to select his wave, and frowned as his drawn, pale face filled her screen.
"Please forgive my presumption," he said in the recorded message. "But I find myself needing to beg a favor, and you, Inara, are the last hope that remains to me."
Mal leaned forward and met Inara's gaze over the wooden dinner table. "You want us to steal a what?"
"Can't say I see the percentage in that." Jayne leaned back and picked his teeth with a butter knife.
Simon made the same face he always made when Jayne did any of the various things that Jayne tended to do at the dinner table. "Could you not do that?"
Jayne of course ignored him.
"Wesley has agreed to pay quite generously," Inara continued. "Recovering his journal is the only way he can prove that his uncle plagiarized his work, and prevent him from doing it again. His career is at stake."
"Poets have careers?" Mal asked.
Jayne snorted and kept picking his teeth while Simon glared at him.
"I think it sounds romantic," Kaylee said. "Ain't every day we get to rescue a poet."
"How do you know this guy's telling the truth?" Zoë asked. "I'd hate to risk our hides for nothing."
"I trust him," Inara said.
"You trust him." Mal studied her face. "You know him well, then?"
"He's . . . an acquaintance."
"Acquaintances don't rate trust."
"He's an honorable man, Mal, and I know what his writing means to him. His uncle, on the other hand, is an opportunist who would stop at nothing if it meant having his ego stroked."
Mal must have caught the trace of venom that slipped into her voice, despite her best efforts, but he refrained from commenting. "We'll take the job. A poet's money spends the same as any."
"They lent their trust to the petty tyrants," River said. "Skipping with careless greed to their own destruction."
Mal frowned. "You know, if that's an omen -- "
"It's not," Inara said softly. "It's a verse from the poem."
Inara made her way to the cockpit as Serenity approached Sihnon. She'd only seen her home planet once from space, on the day she'd left it. From a distance, it looked like a giant ruby against the black. They all looked like jewels from far enough away, even the muddy little worlds visited only by smugglers, but Sihnon's crimson coloring helped it maintain the illusion for longer than most.
As they grew closer, the lights of civilization overwhelmed the planet's natural features. They sparkled like sunlight against the sea, then faded away as Serenity flew into the daylight to dock in the city Inara had once called home.
It was almost lunchtime there, and Inara walked through the crowded streets to meet Wesley at a restaurant near the university.
"Inara." He rose from his seat and smiled. "You are even more beautiful than I remember." When she leaned in to kiss his cheek, his eyes darted towards the door. "I fear my uncle might suspect me of arranging to meet someone."
"Your choice of company should be no concern of his," Inara said lightly.
"But if you're to introduce me -- "
"I can handle all of the arrangements," she said. "There's no need for you to be seen with anyone else."
He nodded, and pulled out a chair for her.
She watched as he took his seat again, and smoothed a napkin over his lap. His hands trembled as he fussed with it, and at least part of his attention remained focused on the doorway. Obviously his uncle's disposition had not improved during the years of her absence.
"If he'd chosen a different piece of work, this wouldn't be as urgent. But I made my submission to Rhapsody before I even noticed my journal missing. When he gives his reading at the university -- " Wesley swallowed and looked away. "Without that journal, it'll be his word against mine. I'll be blacklisted."
"Captain Reynolds won't let that happen," Inara said. "If your uncle still has the journal, the crew will get it back."
"He still has it," Wesley said. "I'm sure it's in the safe in his study."
Inara studied his face, not convinced that he looked sure of anything.
"He'll need time to copy it," Wesley explained. "I doubt he'd be foolish enough to entrust such a task to anyone else."
"A man like your uncle guards even his most trivial secrets," Inara said. "Trust is not something he understands."
The waiter interrupted to serve their meals, and for a few minutes Inara simply enjoyed the first authentic Agaricus mushrooms she'd had in years. The border planets always used genetically engineered mushrooms, or worse yet, synthetic substitutes. "We'll need a layout of your uncle's estate."
"I managed to get a floor plan." Wesley took a small package from his coat and laid it on the table. "If they enter through the servants' entrance, they'll avoid detection."
They discussed the security system, and Wesley answered every one of the questions Kaylee had written down earlier, but the best he could offer with regards to the safe was rough description.
"Perhaps you could pay your uncle a visit, and take a better look. The crew will want to know more about the safe than you've given me."
Wesley frowned. "But they're pirates, aren't they? They've done this sort of thing before."
She smiled at his choice of words, and laid her hand on his arm as she laughed. "The gossip mill seems to have taken some liberties with the truth. Serenity's a cargo ship."
His eyes went wide. "But I need -- "
"Pirates? Hardly." She smiled again. "Don't worry, you've hired the right crew for the job. This isn't thievery, it's an investigation."
He nodded, accepting her interpretation of the state of affairs. "I do know one thing about the safe. My aunt complained for weeks after it was installed, because it knocked the plaster out of the wall in the guest bedroom, and the dust ruined the curtains."
Inara smiled, remembering Wesley's stories about his aunt. "Did she redecorate the whole room?"
"Of course, and the hallway as well." Wesley picked at his food, and shot another worried glance at the door. "But that's probably not a very useful story."
Inara shook her head and smiled. "No, I think you've told me exactly what we needed to know."
Inara walked back to Serenity, enjoying the sights of the bustling city around her. Every shop window offered the latest fashions, or the most recent new technology, and this close to the univesity, a variety of colorful posters invited passers-by to musical performances and art shows of all descriptions.
Several advertised the upcoming poetry reading that threatened Wesley's career, but Inara was confident in the crew's abilities, and pleased with the information she'd gathered.
She smiled, and admitted to herself just how much personal satisfaction she'd take in the public shaming of one Severin Bentley. Nothing captivated people more than a scandal, and by showing himself capable of plagiarizing his own nephew, he'd attract more attention than he'd garnered for any of his widely read novels.
People would question the authorship of those novels, and Inara suspected that quite a few improprieties would come to light in the weeks that followed.
A man like Severin probably had more skeletons in his closet than anyone could guess.
"So my nephew is entertaining whores now?" The man in question stepped into her path.
Three years ago, that word had power over her, but oddly enough, Mal's casual abuse of it had thickened her skin. "You'd think that such a renowned literary figure as yourself would employ more care in his choice of words, Mr. Bentley. Your inaccuracy is sloppy of you."
"I said what I meant."
"Then what you meant differs considerably from that which is fact. Dishonesty has a way of leading to unpleasant truths."
He failed to reply immediately, and his hostile glare had little effect on Inara. She'd already stepped past him to blend in with the crowd by the time he shouted a rejoinder.
Severin wouldn't survive a week on the rim, or anywhere else outside of his sheltered little world. Inara realized, to her mild surprise, that she no longer found him particularly intimidating. Still, she was glad when she reached the docks, and the comforts of Serenity.
"The security system ain't nothing," Kaylee said. "We can get by that easy, and he don't even have cameras in half these rooms."
"It looks like we'll miss all of the cameras if we take this hallway." Zoë pointed to the floor plan. "Wash can get us onto the grounds easy enough, as long as he doesn't have sensors."
"Most homes on Sihnon have little need of them," Inara said. "There's very little crime here."
"Of course not," Mal said. "This is the Core, where everyone's rich and happy. No need for thieving."
"'Cept them that steal poems," Jayne said. "That's a crime, ain't it?"
"The job looks pretty straightforward," Mal said. "We just need to figure out these last two tiny details."
Zoë nodded. "How to crack the safe, and how not to get caught while we're cracking the safe. Tiny details."
"Kind of important details." Wash tipped his chair back and let it rock precariously on its back legs. "Unless we aim to meet every Alliance fed on the planet. But maybe we do, who am I to say?" He let the chair drop forward. "Oh, right, I'm the pilot who will be sitting in the getaway vehicle when that safe turns out to have some kind of high tech alarm on it."
"That happens, we're humped," Mal said. "But I'm sure little Kaylee's got it all worked out. Ain't that so?"
"Well there's plenty of good news," she said. "We know the safe's better than ten years old, which means it ain't likely to have many surprises. Plus, what we're after is on paper, and that means we can use an electromagnetic resonator to interrupt the power source without worrying about the contents. That makes things easy."
"So you have a plan?"
"Like Inara said, the best way to get at the safe is from the back. Once we find the place where the plaster ain't smooth, we'll just crack it open like an egg."
"A plasma cutter will cook any papers inside to a crisp," Zoë said.
"Yep." Kaylee grinned. "But I've got something better. Ice. A safe is just metal and plastic, and if you get either one cold enough, they just crumble. I reckon a compression gun full of dry ice ought to do the trick."
Mal nodded. "Which just leaves us with just the one problem, then. How do we keep Bentley occupied long enough to do the job?"
Inara smiled. She'd take particular pleasure in this.
"Severin Bentley is a slave to his own ego." Inara perched beside Mal on one of the lobby sofas at the companion house. "He'll jump at the chance to give an interview."
"You sure he'll buy me as a reporter for the Beaumonde Gazette?" Mal asked. "Why Beaumonde, particularly?"
"It's civilized enough that he'll take you seriously," Inara said. "But it's not a Core Planet, so his natural tendency to look down on it will work to our advantage."
"You mean when I screw up."
"That's not what I said, Mal."
He glanced around the room and shifted in his seat, clearly uncomfortable with the situation.
"Try to relax," she said. "Remember, you're supposed to be taking advantage of the local amenities while you're here."
"You ain't an amenity, Inara, you're -- "
She cut him off by squeezing his knee as she smiled at him, with a pointed glance towards the door. "Don't break character, Mal, he could be here any minute."
"If he agrees."
"He'll agree. He's not one to resist hollow flattery, and what's an hour of his time, in exchange for making himself a legend on yet another planet?"
Neka had been two years behind Inara at the Academy, and even then her skill with a complimentary lie had raised a few eyebrows. She'd easily convince Severin that the colonists on the rim needed a hero, and that as the greatest literary genius of the era, he made the ideal candidate for the position.
Few could wield the weapon of flattery like a trained Companion, and Severin made an easy target.
Inara prepared to let Severin's unexpected arrival startle her in the act of flirting with this handsome reporter she'd met in the lobby, and let her fingers trail along Mal's thigh.
He caught her hand. "Don't."
"Mal -- "
He was silent for long enough to make her swallow and glance away from him. "Don't be doing that and then go asking me to think."
She withdrew her hand, and laughed as if Mal had said something witty, because Severin was striding through the door with Neka wrapped adoringly around his arm. She met his gaze with her best startled expression for three whole seconds.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," she lied transparently as Neka made the introductions. "But I really must -- "
"Stay." Mal caught her arm. "I'll need your company later."
Severin smirked at her obvious discomfort.
Perfect. Now the vindictive old egomaniac had two reasons to linger.
"So tell me," Mal said, smiling pleasantly enough despite the edge in his voice. "How does a man such as yourself find inspiration?"
Wash flew the shuttle as low as he dared over the Bentley Estate, and did his best to hold steady while Kaylee, Zoë, and Jayne slid down the dangling rope and dropped into the lawn.
"Gorramit," Jayne muttered, scraping his boot on the grass. "Ruttin' poetry thief must own a dog."
Kaylee bit back a laugh, and followed Zoë to the servants' entrance. According to Inara's friend, they all had the night off, which made things real easy. As promised, the security system was little more than child's play.
"It's almost insulting," Kaylee said as she crossed the wires. "Why even bother setting a system like this?"
"Gift horse, Kaylee," Zoë chided.
They found the guest bedroom, and Kaylee ran her hands over the wall until she found the scar in the plaster. It gave way easily enough, chipping apart to rain down on the carpet after only a few taps of Kaylee's hammer, but that's where things stopped being simple, because a dozen wires poked out from under the safe.
Jayne trained the light on the wires, right where they all disappeared into the wall. "Are we humped?"
Kaylee figured they were, but she shrugged and took a closer look anyway. No sense in giving up yet.
"Kaylee?" Zoë asked.
The wires could lead anywhere, and none came equipped with labels. She'd never locate the power source, and even if she could . . .
Jayne shifted impatiently. "We gonna stand here all night?"
"This isn't going to work." She handed the resonator to Zoë. "We need to go with Plan B."
"What's Plan B?" Jayne asked.
"I haven't got one," Kaylee answered. But she set to work on it anyway.
Inara listened to Severin Bentley talk about his favorite subject -- his own brilliance. The man had grabbed Mal's question about inspiration and twisted it into a speech about the laziness of writers who merely looked for inspiration in the world around them, instead of anchoring their work upon a fundamental knowledge of the classics.
She tried to find the irony amusing, rather than irksome.
"Now T.S. Eliot," Severin continued. "There was a man who knew his classics. Of course he stumbled a bit with Prufrock. Too many passive verbs. But the borrowed metaphors sold it."
Pompous windbags always extolled the virtues of Eliot. The inaccessability of his work played to their elitist attitudes. It hardly surprised Inara that Severin took it a step further.
Mal shifted in his seat and pretended to nod along as Severin plunged ahead to offer stolen insights on more recent elitist poets.
The man had, as Mal would say, stamina. At the moment, that qualified as a good thing, because they had yet to receive Simon's all-clear.
"You can clearly see the parallels between his work and The Iliad, provided of course that you've thoroughly studied your Homer."
The last time Inara had sat in this room with Severin, he'd taught her a valuable lesson about the life of a Companion.
Severin Bentley carried an aura of celebrity, and everyone on Sihnon knew him by sight. So a younger, more naive Inara had found it humble and endearing when he'd introduced himself to her. Despite her training, she allowed herself to fall for his act, because his status made her want to like him. She had cultivated great skill at reading other people, but she failed to recognize her own blind spot.
He'd favored her for several months, and she enjoyed the time they spent together. Not that she suffered any romantic illusions, as some girls did. She didn't believe that he -- or any other client -- loved her, or ever would. Inara didn't even believe in love. Her education had seen to that.
But she had thought that Severin respected her.
"What led you to create a character like Georgia?" Inara asked. She trailed her fingers along Severin's arm in the way that he liked as they relaxed on her bed. His latest novel, released only the day before, lay on her dressing table, and she'd sacrificed quite a bit of sleep to finish it before this appointment with Severin.
"What's wrong with Georgia?"
"Nothing. I found her refreshing, yet a bit perplexing as well. She's so different from the characters in your other novels," Inara said. "Her perspective seems to contradict that of -- "
Severin cut her off with a hard look. "I am not obligated to explain my work to a whore."
Inara had other reasons for heading to the outer rim, but the restlessness that eventually led her there had started the night Severin had called her a whore.
By a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Severin might have saved her life, because the second man to apply that word to Inara promised to kill her, and would have managed it, had she lingered on Sihnon long enough for him to learn her name. But three months of restlessness meant she had a plan, and she was gone by morning.
"We all live by our own choices," Severin said. "That some choose to live in ignorance rather than make the effort to properly educate themselves is hardly the fault of those who do."
Silence settled over them as Severin paused in his oratory, and Inara tensed. She could tell from the look on Mal's face that he intended to ignore the rest of the questions Wesley had prepared, and improvise.
"One thing still puzzles me," Mal said. "You've written all of these fine books, several of them chock full of ordinary people and their struggles out on the rim, or back on Earth That Was, but you've never found the time to leave this rock and visit any of those fine folks who actually have struggles. Now why is that?"
Severin's expression soured, and he glared at Mal. "I did not come here to be insulted by some half-educated hick."
Inara tightened her grip on Mal's arm. If he let himself get drawn into a fight --
"You're with her," Severin realized aloud, his eyes fixed on Inara's hand. With the bubble of flattery broken, he put the pieces together awfully quickly. He snatched up his coat, sweeping everyone's drinks from the table as he whipped it around his shoulders. "You'll regret this, I'll see to that."
With a second angry flourish of the coat, he stormed out the door.
"Jig's up," Wash said over the radio. "I hope you've got what we came for, because Mal reckons we've got five minutes, tops, before this place is crawling with Alliance."
Zoë drew a long breath. "Kaylee . . . "
"There's no time." She tossed the compression gun to Jayne and rummaged in her pack. "We have to take the whole safe."
"And how the gorram hell are we gonna do that?"
"Watch." She pulled a hay hook from her bag. They were meant for farming, but she had learned long ago that very few heavy objects came with handles, despite the obvious need for them. She wedged the end of the hook into the small hole she'd managed to burn through the safe before time ran out, and tugged.
The metal held. She'd half-hoped that it wouldn't, but didn't bother to try a second time. She looped a rope through the handle and tossed the ends to her crewmates. "Pull!"
Say what you would about Jayne, but he never shirked hard work. He threw himself against the rope and pulled, grunting with the effort.
Zoë, her forehead beaded with sweat, could probably have moved a mountain with the way the radio crackled impatiently at them.
Wash tried not to tell them to hurry more often than every ten seconds, but the strain of that effort came through in his voice. "Guys, you need to move."
"I'm not hearing hurrying."
"Could you at least try to hurry?"
"Someone's coming, you need to move now!"
"We're moving, gorramit." Jayne braced himself and adjusted his grip on the rope. "It's this safe that ain't bothering to hurry."
With a horrible scraping noise, the safe slid into the room and teetered on the edge of crashing to the floor. Kaylee jumped forward to balance it, with Zoë only a moment behind her.
"Out the window," Zoë said.
"It's locked," Jayne reported.
"Okay," Zoë said. "Then through the window."
Working together, they heaved the safe through the glass, and an alarm began to sound.
Zoë cleared the larger shards of glass from the window, and jumped through it onto the lawn. Kaylee followed, with Jayne bringing up the rear.
It took all three of them to wrestle the safe over to the drop point. Kaylee hurried to secure it with ropes so that Wash could lift it up into the shuttlecraft. She almost had it ready when the lawn was bathed in light.
They scrambled for cover among the bushes.
"Come out." Bentley -- they assumed anyway -- aimed a laser pistol in their direction. "Show yourself, or I will kill you."
"You got me," Jayne called. "I surrender."
Zoë clamped her hand over Kaylee's mouth before she let on that Jayne wasn't alone.
He crawled out of the bushes, and hands raised, he backed slowly towards the house.
Bentley followed, keeping the pistol trained on him. With his focus on Jayne, he either didn't notice the safe, or figured it was out of danger.
And that's when they heard the sirens.
"They need help," Simon reported as Mal and Inara rushed onto Serenity.
"We'll take my shuttle," Inara said.
Minutes later, they circled above the Bentley estate. Alliance vehicles approached rapidly from the south, and Severin had Jayne at gunpoint on the lawn to the east.
"Zoë and Kaylee?"
"In the bushes," Wash said. "I can get to them, but I'll need a diversion."
"We could rescue Jayne," Mal said. "That should divert some attention."
"Works for me," Wash answered.
"We're only going to get one shot at this," Mal said. "Do you have a weapon?"
"Right here." Inara held up a crossbow.
"You expect me to shoot that thing?"
"No, I expect you to fly the shuttle. I'll do the shooting."
To his credit, Mal didn't argue.
Inara yanked down the heavy curtain that separated the cockpit from her living space. She'd hung it with a fairly heavy rope, and hoped now that it proved heavy enough. She tugged it apart, and anchored the rope to the grip at the door. "Ready."
Mal glanced back at her. "Hang on tight and don't get shot."
The air rushed by as she braced herself in the doorway, and she could see Severin looking up, expecting the authorities, and not the wrath of a woman he had once insulted.
As much as she disliked him, ending his life seemed like an extreme reaction to the situation. Besides, it would rob him of the chance to watch his reputation die, which would prove far more satisfying. She adjusted her aim.
Severin squinted upwards, the pistol still aimed at Jayne's head, and shouted something that the wind obscured.
Inara fired the crossbow.
Severin yelped in pain as the bolt pierced his shoulder, giving Jayne the opening he needed to knock the pistol away and punch him in the face.
A struggle ensued as Severin tried to recover his weapon, and Jayne tried to keep him from it.
The proximity alarm on the shuttle began to sound as Wash flew over the lawn to rescue Kaylee and Zoë. She could hear Mal cursing as the two pilots worked to avoid crashing into each other in the confined space, while still moving enough to keep the crafts airborne.
The approaching Alliance forces informed them by loudspeaker that the property was surrounded, and Inara hoped that warning was as premature as it seemed, or they'd all end up in prison.
Jayne propelled his fist into Severin's jaw, and turned his attention back to the shuttle. Inara tossed him the rope, and he wound it around his arm, still dangling precariously as Mal flew them to safety.
"Thanks," Jayne said as she helped him into the shuttle. He studied her for a long moment. "I never figured you for having a talent at this sort of work."
"My education was quite well-rounded." Inara smiled. "I always suspected that practice with a crossbow would prove more useful than the ability to play the dulcimer."
"I didn't much care for treating you like a whore," Mal said as they watched Kaylee and Jayne pry open the safe. "Even as deceit."
She studied his face, genuinely surprised to hear him say that after all the scorn he'd shown for her career. "I thought you disapproved of my work."
"I do," he said. "The job's beneath you. But I have a great deal of respect for you, Inara. Even before I knew you could shoot like that."
She smiled. "Speaking of things we learned tonight, I never knew you read Severin Bentley's novels."
"Just the one," Mal said. "And now that I've met him, I know he didn't write it. Whoever wrote that book had respect for decent folk. That man ain't got no regard for anyone but himself."
"Or his version of himself, anyway." She took the leather-bound journal that Kaylee held out to her, and found the verse she recognized from earlier. "This is it. I'll contact Wesley."
"You might let him know his fee's been covered." Zoë opened the satchel she'd taken from the safe. "Stealing poetry must be more lucrative than I'd imagined."
Jayne peered over her shoulder. "Maybe I'll take up writing. Can't be all that hard, can it?"
"They came swiftly to their end," River said. "Their treasures crumbling, snatched prizes wasting in their grasp. All except their gold, stuffed greedily away in pockets, and it became the most worthless of all."
Wash patted Jayne on the back. "Nah, it can't be that hard. All you have to do is understand stuff like that."
Mal and Inara met Wesley at the university.
"I can't thank you enough," he said. "Now that I have this, my uncle won't dare give the reading. Plus, Rhapsody contacted me this morning, asking me if I have anything else on Earth That Was. They're publishing a collection."
"Congratulations," Inara said. "That's wonderful."
"It gets better," Mal said. "We also found these."
Wesley took the manuscripts and flipped through them. "This is the proof. My uncle's been plagiarizing for years." He read the names on the corners of the pages. "These all belong to former students, I'm sure of it."
"You'll see that those people get what's due them?" Mal asked.
"Excellent," Mal said. "I like when things go smooth."
Inara laughed. "That was smooth?"
"The job got done. We got paid. Everyone got to play." He nodded. "Yep. Smooth."
"Only in your own little universe, Mal."
He just smiled.