Been Too Long

by hossgal

[Story Headers]

*-Lady Fon Maxwell and escort -*

The entrance line winds slowly through the outer halls. You lean on the arm of your companion - your client - and effortlessly match your step to his. The hallway's draperies are new - purchased and hung, gossip says, within the last fourteen hours. The Tons have once again nearly beggared themselves to bring about the social event of the season. You murmur as much to Pak Xiang, rising on your toes to murmur into his ear. The councilman snorts.

"They'll make it up within the next week, reminding all their suppliers and purchasers what a splendid party they had. Everyone will yield a point or three in the Ton's direction, out of sheer gratitude of an evening's elbow rubbing. And terror at not being invited again next year." You laugh, as much at Xiang's irritation as at the Ton's brazen effrontery.

"You are right as always, darling."

"Of course I am. Can't reach my years without knowing a thing or five." Xiang pats your hand in that fatherly way that has always vaguely pleased you. More so now than it did eight years ago, when Xiang was still dieing his hair mahogany and the smooth face gave lie to his age. Now the carefully cropped hair is graying and his jowls threaten to sag over his high collar. You make your smile brighter and beam again at the horrid lisu statute in the alcove, grateful that the mirror that adorned that nook last year has been replaced.

Ahead of you, Brigadier Murphy hands his card to the herald and enters, his youngest niece on his arm.

*-Brigadier Tirus Murphy and Miss Lorane Sihng -*

Then it is your turn. Xiang stands straight and tall and you raise your chin. Your job is to make Xiang look respectable and feel comfortable, and you do it well. Can't reach your years without knowing a thing or five.

*-Alderman Pak Xiang and escort -*

Gi Ton's grand ballroom is a wide glazed bowl, filled with a maelstrom of autumn leaves and aurora lights. All the high citizenry of Persephone are here tonight, in all their best attire. The hovering chandler makes the shadows of the dancers flutter and sway as it rises and falls, rises and falls. Entranced by the spinning waltzers, you pause to one side of the dance floor. Wisps of flora oils waft past you, mixing with the scent of fresh-cut fruit. Rose essence, lavender, strawberries and tangelos - a young couple brushes by and his scent blocks everything for an instant - a rough musk laced with sweat from a healthy male. Laughter and bright chatter echo from the arching ceiling. Even for an experienced Companion it is a glorious experience.

For a moment, it is enough to make you forget your duties. Then your duty's hand closes firmly on your elbow. You turn back to him and give him your best smile. He, in turn, looks on you fondly and remembers to loosen his grip.

"What a splendid array," you say. "I'm so pleased you asked me to accompany you." That, at least, is honest truth - contracts come fewer these days. You had spent more than a few evenings silent and alone, running and re-running your investment roster. No matter what format you arranged the figures, without income the capital fraction would not rise. It had been with great but well-hidden relief that you accepted Pak Xiang's offer for the ball.

"It ought to be fine enough," Xiang says. "The Ton woman has been doing nothing but flutter about town on party business for the last month. Hasn't made a single council meeting. And it's not as if she were actually the one buying the food or hanging the drapes."

He has to lean close to your ear to speak. You suspect his hearing - never good - has declined as of late. At least he has not turned into one of those horrid shouting old deafs. And you are grateful that his teeth remain good.

"Do you care to dance, darling?" You do. Your feet positively itch to be out on the floor, spinning and bowing, your skirts sweeping the marble when you turn. But Pak shakes his head.

"Not yet. Time enough for that later. Let the young fools get it out of their system. Oh, there's Sir Harrow- Give me a moment, my dear, I need to speak to him alone."

And he is gone, like that. No need for your best smile of release, telling the client that you will miss him terribly but would not dare to interfere in his urgent and highly important affairs. You send it after him, regardless. A Companion never stops practicing.

The edge of the dance floor is bounded by the traditional doric columns and you find one with a view of the entranceway and the dance floor, and not yet out of sight of Xiang.

The musicians draw the measure to a close and change to a lighter air. Dancers cluster into sets of eight for the swing-and-pass. One beat, then a second, and the pattern begins.

You know this dance, of course. House Madrassa was a good House, the best on Sihnon. There is not a dance that has been practiced in the last forty years - in high society or low - that you cannot follow with skill and grace. Given the opportunity, you could replace any of the musicians. Truth to tell, your ear tells you that switching roles with the second viola would improve the passage considerably.

*-Colonel Cyrus Munsen and escort -*

The air is growing warmer as the crowd increases. Your position by the pillar remains unchallenged, even though your view becomes increasingly eclipsed by passers-by. This is no more a strain than watching the dancers - this close, you can see the colors layered around the girls' eyes, check to see who is still using last year's single line of kohl and who is experimenting with the double flair. Xiang is deep in conversation with Sir Harrow, both of them leaning towards each other with the air of intent confidants. Sarah Kim pauses by your side long enough to exchange a recommendation of the vanilla flan, and then she is gone again, on the arm of Lady Oh Rok.

*-William and Lady Courtland -*

Banning Miller is across the room, with her covey of sycophants. She has only three, this year, and you wonder if the stories are true - that Sonora Jehn had finally grown a vertebral column and left Banning for better company. Not that such would be hard to find.

*-Atherton Wing and Inara Serra -*

Your heart remembers the name before you can bring her face to mind. It is the steel will that a Companion's training builds that keeps your feet bolted to the floor, your hands folded modestly before you.

It would not do at all to rush across the ballroom to her, thrusting dancers bodily aside as they impede your path. Nor would it suit your place and professional dignity to tangle your hands in her hair and drawn her to you, kiss her, taste her lips and the warm well of her mouth, there on the steps leading down into the dance hall.

It would not do. And so you wait, unmoving, until the gentleman beside you moves back and gives you a clear view.

When you see her, it is as if the years have fallen away. She has not changed - a magnificent vision in ivory and lace. The same smile, gently dimpling one cheek. Warmth shimmers from her to you, to everyone in the room with eyes to see her. Standing next to Inara, the man in grey is hard faced. You guess that he has just now realized what he has brought to the ballroom. He tugs at her hand, drawing her towards the dance floor. Towards you.

You can feel the grin spread across your face, pulling the muscles tight, creasing the skin around your eyes. It is an effort to drag your features back under control, the old Housemother's scold ringing in your ears - "Berta, you rabbit, stop leering like a camel. Smile gracefully, there's a dear. Now again...". But this is not the old matron who ran the initiate's schooling, but Inara, and she returns your smile with a blown kiss.

"Roberta, it's been too long." And she keeps walking, but the warmth in her smile melts your bones. She walks on the arm of the Wing boy, who parades her as if she were a jessed hawk. But this is Inara, not some bound creature, and she moves like a queen of old, the very ground delighting to uphold her feet. Even when she stops and bows to Grandfather Chin, it is a monarch granting a favor to an honored retainer.

Everyone in the room looks after her as she goes. You hug yourself, letting the grin seep out again, seeing the crowd watch her as only you used to, long ago.

Long ago - it has been years, more than you care to count. But it might have been yesterday; for all that your skin and your heart know. Watching her on Wing's arm, you remember when it was your hand that the thin girl with the space-dark eyes reached for. When Inara Serra came to the House, you had already a woman's height and a woman's curves, and your breasts had still stood tall and firm without the corset's binding.

She was all angles and elbows then, and clumsy to boot. The girl's dormitory could be a cruel place, for a quiet girl who dropped things. Three mornings in a row you passed the dark-eyed girl, her face swollen from weeping, before you took notice. A handful of words sufficed. Do not let the others sculpt your heart for you - some moldering phrase dredged from your novice days. There were more words, later, for the worst of the hoydens, and a promise to deliver more than words if their mischief continued.

Watching Inara now as she took the dance floor with her young client, you can hardly match that girl to this woman.

In House Magestra, the older Companions did not take lovers from the initiate levels. Do not mix honey and ink, the Housemothers said - nor instruction and love. The elders kept the younger girls close and veiled, fretting over their youth and inexperience and fearful of a poor first bedding that could ruin a Companion for life.

You had only meant to spare the child some torment. That was all. Everything else had been Inara's idea entirely.

There were rebels among the younger girls - you had been one in your own youth. Girls and women who chaffed at the rules, argued with instructors, sulked when corrected. There is a name still unspoken by the daughters of House Madrassa, of a Companion who assaulted her music peer and destroyed one of the House antiques. But most learned, eventually, to mask the discontent. Fighting the pattern only broke the dance. But dark-eyed Inara had been quiet and ready to obey. The matrons had not been over-concerned of watching that Inara went to her rooms when bid, nor that she stay there, once the deep evening lamps had been turned down.

Standing here now - in your best ruby silk, in contract to a client, on a planet twenty days from Sihnon - you know better than to bring some things to mind. So you will only watch Inara dance, laughing as she does. You will not remember how she slipped into your chamber, drenched with sandalwood oil and trembling in every finger. You will not remember how her first kisses were as clumsy as her feet, her mouth touching everywhere but your lips. You have put from mind how she gasped at the first touch of another's hand on her breast, and how her hands curled around your head, pulling you closer, your tongue rasping over the tight nub of her areola.

Inara leans on the Wing boy's arm, bright laugh chiming, and you will not try to replace the sound with your memory of her stuttering groan as your fingers touched her clit.

In your memory, her tongue had been quick to learn, and not as clumsy as her feet.

You have lost track of the time, and the waltz is coming to an end. You look about just as Xiang bows his farewell to Harrow. It is a matter of an instant only to re-center yourself and bring yourself back to the job at hand.

"My dear, I'm sorry to leave you alone so long." He says it sincerely, even though momentary abandonment is far from a banning mark by Companion standards. He offers you an arm. "Would you care to walk with me? There are guests I would like to find tonight."

There is no answer except, "Of course."

You gather a hint of his business as you go - some change to the inter-planetary quarantine rules. Warrick Harrow's name appears frequently, along with appeals to economic growth and transportation efficiency. You wonder at what Inara and her client are discussing, and your mind wanders again, to whispered conferences over cups of tea, to voiceless conversations where she learned how to make you beg for her touch. Tiny slips, but dangerous. Then it would have only earned you censor from the Housemother, and a month without privileges. Now an error might cost you your wages, and your reputation.

It is with some trepidation that you realize that Xiang has led you back to the ballroom. He pauses by the pillar again. You force your eyes away from Inara as she spins, waltzing again, and focus on Xiang's words.

"- just for another moment, my dear. And when I return, perhaps a dance?" He kisses your hand. You dimple at him in return.

"But of course." Your heart beats twice, three times, between his release of your hand and the resting of your eyes upon Inara.

She has changed partners. Now Wing stands with Harrow, watching as you do, while Inara steps through the intricate weave of a sha-don. Bow, curtsey, step, and retreat. Her partner is a man no longer young, but with a restless energy in his stride. His boots pinch, you can see, and his suit fits poorly. A drab drake indeed, bold enough to dance with the most beautiful swan in the world. You look to Inara, expecting to see her professional mask in place. Instead, she alternates an indulgent smile with an exasperated frown. Now her paper-cloak suitor says something that offends - her chin comes up and her elbows stiffen. Her voice is too low to carry over the chatter of the crowd. It does not matter. You know she is not dancing with a stranger, no matter how outlandish his appearance.

Xiang is at your elbow. "Shall we, then, in the next set?" You start to nod, distracted in mid-gesture. Inara has stumbled on the dance floor - no, it is her partner with the clumsy feet. There it is again - her ringing laugh. You realize you are ignoring your client and jerk your attention back to Xiang. But now his eyes are upon the dancers as well. You touch his arm and follow his gaze in time to see Wing seize Inara by the arm and attempt to drag her off the floor.

You take one step before you realize you must not take another.

Under the floating lights, it is obvious that Wing and the pauper have differences. Inara keeps her face downcast, turned as far away as she may with one hand still in Wing's grip. She tries to keep her face from the quarrel, to add no more tinder to the sparking fire. You long to step to her side, to cast a cloak over her shoulders and shield her from the stupidity of her men. But you have your own duty.

Everyone in the ballroom has seen Wing posture and bluster. When the blow comes, no one expects it.

Xiang puts an arm about your waist, draws you away.

"That idiot." The scorn is so thick in Pak's voice that you cannot place its target. "That fool - in public, no less. He obviously hasn't a clue who he's facing, either. I had no idea the 'verse had such a great number of imbeciles more dense than Atherton Wing."

You cast a glance over your shoulder, but Inara is already caught between too many impulses, and does not even notice you watching her. Before Xiang draws you off the dance floor, Inara leaves the side of her rustic champion and resumes her place on Atherton's arm. To another, perhaps, it looks like surrender. But you can see the synapses clicking away and recognize that look for the plotting that it covers.

It makes you smile. For all the years, Inara has not changed. Only those who do not know her suspect her of conforming to society's standards.

Xiang is still disgruntled. "What are you smiling at?" he snaps, and you drop your eyes immediately.

"I beg your pardon. The whole scene - it seemed a little ridiculous."

"Ridiculous it is. Louts, brawling in public. And dragging a respectable Companion into it. I'm surprised you find that amusing."

Now you are completely off your stride. And there is no one here to rescue you. "Not that, exactly - you're right, dear, it was somewhat awful. Would you like to sit for a moment? Or a bit to eat, perhaps?" It is not the clumsiest transition you have ever charted in a conversation, but it easily approaches.

"Eat? Wha - well." He is not distracted. You brace yourself for a barb or, worse yet, a public rebuke. His gaze brushes over your face, your hands with their crushing grip on your shawl. "Yes, I suppose. Yes, indeed. And a drink, to wash away that ugly scene." He holds out his hand and you take it. "Let us find a quiet corner, shall we? The gossips will want to talk of nothing but this for the rest of the night." Still muttering under his breath, he leads the way to a side salon, and the comfortable chairs there. He sees that you are seated, and bids the boy standing at the door to bring a dish of pears. There he tells you of the plan Warrick Harrow has to amend the livestock shipping code, and what it will mean to the shift of votes in the council meeting. You nod and smile. Slowly, you put the image of Inara, crossing the dance floor to a client's beckon, out of your mind.

Hours later, you lie back, listening to Xiang's breathing slowly even. The silence after, you think, is always the same. It is the sort of thing you told Inara, back when the only pleasure she knew was her own. Xiang's head lies on your belly, in the hollow between your ribs. You can still feel the tension in his face.

"What is it?"

"She was a friend of yours - the Companion Inara. I remember you said she came from Sihnon as well."

There is little use in lying. "Yes. We trained together."

"What were you smiling at, on the dance hall? I would have thought it not amusing, your old friend in such a fret of fish."

The sex glow is fading and you pull the sheet up against the chill. Xiang is far more perceptive than you would have liked. When you do not answer, he rolls up on his side and looks down at you in the dim light. You smile lazily and reach for his face.

"It is nothing, really. I was just remembering old times, back when I first knew her."

The corner of his mouth quirks. "Back when it was you that young fools would brawl over on a ballroom floor? Was that it?"

You swallow the hurt away before it even begins to sting. "Yes, back when it was I." Back when she had ripped Chres's best dress because the other girl had agreed to help Inara with the flute. Back when she had spent hours lying on her bed, waiting for Inara to slip in the door and curl up next to her. Back when it was her who was the champion for the dark maiden. "But it's of no matter. Every woman must grow out of girlhood fantasies."

"Nonsense." He bent his head, his lips tracing the line of her shoulder. "You should tell me these things. If I had known you yearned to have grown men reduced to fisticuffs, well..." He paused, a line settling between his eyes. "Hmmm. Well, I could certainly have hired a pair of young men. Not that I would have let either one take you home with them, you understand."

Despite yourself, you burst out laughing.

"Now stop that, my dear. I'm nearly serious. Tuesday next the Haungs are having their equinox party. What do you say? Be my escort and I'll find a couple of strapping young men to duel in your honor." You laugh harder, and seize his face to kiss him, but cannot keep it up for long before you run out of air. Xiang smiles and shifts to bring his mouth to your collarbone. One hand runs over your ribs, fingers brushing over your skin until you shriek with laughter. "Yes, yes, I'll go, I'll go with you!" Against the skin of your breast, you can feel him smile.

He has more to say, you suspect, but he puts his mouth to better use.

A knight-errant. You had not thought it of him. This raises...possibilities.

You wonder if Inara is as satisfied tonight with either of her champions. And you wonder if you will ever have the chance to ask.

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Title:  Been Too Long
Author:  hossgal   [email]
Details:  Standalone  |  R  |  *slash*  |  19k  |  10/02/04
Characters:  Inara, Other - OFC
Summary:  "Long ago – it has been years, more than you care to count. But it might have been yesterday; for all that your skin and your heart know."
Notes:  Spoilers for Shindig and Heart of Gold. Written for Misha for the Femslash04 ficathon.

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