As Wont To Do
by Cherry Ice

Laertes is a nowhere planet in a nowhere system -- seven days off the nearest Alliance trade route, three days off the better-travelled one used by those of some disrepute. It's the fourth planet back from a yellow star, one major land mass surrounded by chains of islands that swirl, green and cloud- like, across the planet's massive ocean.

They're sitting in Serenity's mess, laughing; rations forgotten on the table. Kaylee's sprawled across the couch with her hair in a messy bun, an engine part in her hand and grease on her nose. Simon is looking on, fork loose in his hand and nervousness in his eyes, as Jayne sharpens a knife as long as his forearm. Zoe and Mal are kicking back and smiling (really smiling, his eyes are crinkled and she's got one hand over her mouth), and Book looks on while River slowly spins.

Inara sits in a straight-backed chair, laughing distractedly while she runs through lists of planets and clients and Companion dues in her head.

Wash's voice crackles across the ship's intercom. Kaylee looks up and frowns -- she fixed it just last week. "We hope you've enjoyed flying Serenity," he say. "We're now approaching Laertes, where the average global temperature is a balmy twenty-three degrees celsius. Please return to your seats, store all baggage in the overhead compartment, and prepare for landing. A man with a gun will be coming around shortly -- please hand him all creds, jewelry, and other valuables."

Mal laughs and rises. Offers Zoe a hand and hauls her up, too (he's the only one anywhere who could get away with that). "You all heard the man," he says. Pulls his gun in a quick draw and covers the room. "Hand it over."

"Maybe later," Zoe says, and takes his gun away.

"Hey!" he protests. "That's mine."

River spins over to him and closes his hands around hers. "140 count. Egyptian. Died with river mud, so I'm all over it. It's all I have." She nods solemnly. "Value is as impermanent as we are, only more so."

She takes a hop and a step away and looks around. Every eye in the room is fastened on her, and she grins and takes a bow. "You're all very flattering, but you'll have other things more amusing and I'm a sideshow once again."

Inara looks forward to these little pauses. Holds on to them, when there's nothing inside her head, just attention on the outside.

Then River's gone, and Jayne blinks, and says "Well. That wasn't any odder than usual."

And life carries on.


Laertes is a nowhere planet in a nowhere system, and that's the way they like it. Every so often, Serenity returns to the empty planet. They haven't been in two years, long before Simon and River signed on board, and River covers her mouth with her hands and hollers in joy when the ramp lowers.

The grass is tall and wild, rolling across the plain in crested waves. River and Kaylee run screaming through it, playing tag in the sun. Inara sits on a boulder at the top of a rise and watches them; Kaylee's hair shining in the sun and River's flushed, pale skin and their shouted smiles.

"It's good to see them having fun," Simon says, suddenly beside her, and she nods. Serenity glitters in the rays of the sun, light disguising the burns and patches. "It's easy," he says, eyes not always on his sister, "to forget how young they are."

Inara shakes her head. "I don't find it easy at all." She knows she said she was leaving Serenity, but at times like these it's just so hard to imagine being anywhere else.

And they sit there, in silence, until River trips and disappears into the grass, and Simon bolts down the hill. She's already up again by the time he gets there, and laughs at his concern. Hand in hand, she draws him into the game.

"Makes it easier for him to forget," she says to the presence behind her shoulder, "that he's almost as young as they."

There's a silence, and the weight of surprise, and then: "You're not so time- worn yourself;" and it is not a voice she recognizes, not Mal's easy drawl, which she was expecting, or the Shepard's measured timber, which wouldn't have surprised her.

She spins and muffles a gasp, because it's no one she knows, no one she knows; and this is a deserted planet and they scanned the atmosphere for recent activity, so it means that he landed after they did; and there's only one reason she can think of for that. She's got her gun pulled out of her leg holster before it even registers, but he's not looking at her. He's looking past her, at the three running through the grass below.

"You're not too old, either," she says, with the blaster pressed to the rock beside her and hidden in the folds of his skirt.

"Maybe not," he says, and turns to regard her. The weight of his eyes hits her like a grav sled failing. "But I've died a time or two along the way."

He turns and walks away, and it is not until after he's gone that she realizes her hands are still shaking.


She knows she should tell Mal.

She also knows that if she does, he'll pack them up and out so fast that the scorch marks will run for miles. This downtime, it's good for all of them. Kaylee and River are always smiling, and even Jayne scowls less.

So she watches, and waits. The man had every chance to kill her, kill Simon, even Kaylee and River if he was a decent shot; but he didn't, didn't even threaten. She was the one with the gun. She finds hollows in the grass, depressed footprints where the plants have been crushed, and once she thinks she sees a faint plume of smoke in the distance.

He shows up again, two days later. She's sitting up on the same rock, wearing a shawl of red lace and two knives in her hair. He stands beside her silently, and watches the ship.

It's almost a sort of peace.

"What do you want?" she asks, on the third day. She keeps her words light but she won't look at him. She didn't sleep the night before, and if she doesn't like his answer, she's going straight to the captain.

"Nothing," he says, with a curl of his lip. "Everything."

"Do you have a name?"

He starts at that, and shakes his head. "Daniel," he says, and he sounds as if he's coming out of a trance. He looks around himself and blinks rapidly. "Daniel Jackson."

"Well, Daniel Jackson," she says and extends her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Inara."

And there is silence again.

Next day, he's there before she is. "Everything," he says. "I want everything."

"What, pray tell, is everything?"

"Know. I want to know." His eyes are more real than she's ever seen them. He's looking at her, not through her or around her or up to her or at some small part of her anatomy.

So she starts to talk, and the words spill out of her like diamonds.


Inara's mother was dirt-poor. Her father ran off with a planet-hopping circus when she was seven -- something to do with the matador -- and Inara used to hang out on the boardwalks in town, stealing penny candies and standing with her fist pressed to the panes of glass in front of dress stores. She used to stare up at the silk and wonder what it would feel like if she could ever get close enough to touch it.

A dress made of silk -- that was more than she dared dream, even at night.

"Tell me about your planet," he says.

She can't remember much -- dust in the air and red sunsets, the fact that they'd never been able to get carrots to grow -- but he seems starved for information, so she tells him as much as she can.

He wants to know about the Alliance and Blue Sun and cultural differences, and similar mores between disparate planets; like he's starved for information, like he's never walked the core, like he's four years old and it's killing him that there is so much he doesn't know.


Inara doesn't get kidnapped or captured all that often. She's Serenity's respectability, and mainly gets left alone while Jayne's getting backhanded, or Kaylee's tied to a chair. She doesn't get locked in rooms with no food and dripping water, or with bright lights all the time and no place to shit; she doesn't get roughed up or felt up at customs and she's never had rats gnaw at her hair while she struggled to loosen rough rope from her wrists.

But Mal still calls her a whore, and she wonders, sometimes. Sticks and stones could break her bones, but she's never bruised that easily, after all.

"If you hate it," Daniel asks, "why do you do it?"

"I don't --" or she didn't. She didn't hate it. Now, she's Serenity's respectability, and there are appearances to maintain.

"I'm in love with my dresses," she says instead.


"And you trade in..."

"Companionship. Whatever a person needs to feel incomplete."

"And for the majority of people, that includes sex in some way?"



"I prefer it when it does, actually. There are many things that I do not trade in."

"You choose your clients?"


"But you don't choose the treatment. Not really. You do what they need you to do, even if they don't know it."

"It's ... It's not that simple."

"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm just trying to understand."

She shakes her head and smiles Smile 47 -- designed to convey forgiveness and understanding. "I know. I am, too."


She kisses him, because he's sweet and he's earnest and it's something that she understands, knows how to control. Kisses him long and teasing and something about the way he grips the back of her head lets her know just how long it's been since someone touched him.

She knows she's indulging herself, but he's attractive and attainable and he doesn't want anything but to know her.


"You're lucky," he says. "That it was me who found you. Some of the others shoot first and ask questions later." He frowns. "If at all."

"And you," she says as she searches for her shoe. "You prefer not to shoot at all."

He shrugs. "They're not bad people. We're all just pretty shook up, and the blend of gases in the atmosphere isn't quite what we're used to. Everyone's on edge."

"How many are there?" she asks, and feels her stomach go numb. "How many here?"

What has she done?

"No, no, no," he says, and grabs her arm as she hops, grabbing her shoe out of the grass. "It's nothing. We're nothing. We're insignificant."

"This planet," she says, "is three days off the nearest trade route. There wasn't any rocket fuel in the atmosphere, and if you're still adjusting to the air, you haven't been here for all that long."

"We got lost," he says. "It's my fault."

She slows down when she sees his eyes, but still takes a couple of measure steps backwards.

"It all went to hell, okay? We were fighting, and we were losing -- we were losing bad, -- we'd known that we'd probably have to get out but we didn't know how soon, so our -- my -- calculations weren't finished, and there must have been a number wrong, because we ended up here."

"What are you saying?" she asks.

"I'm saying," he tells her, "that I fucked up, and we're not supposed to be here. That there aren't as many of us here as there are supposed to be, because I fucked up."

"Oh," she says, and sits down in the grass.


He doesn't understand. He's gone over the calculations a hundred, a thousand times -- Earth, he says, was under attack, and she holds her tongue, because Earth-that-was has been dead and gone for a millennia and it wasn't forces from outside that destroyed it -- and they had a gate. Something that connected them to a thousand other places, a universal doorway, down the rabbit hole; and they were fighting for Earth.

Only fighting wasn't enough, because they were losing. People dying by the thousands, lines of defense falling until it was only him, him and his friends -- they were the last line, the gatekeepers, had known this was coming but powerless to stop it -- and they took who they could and they got out.

Daniel and a woman he worked with had rigged the gate. Alien technology -- Inara doesn't tell him that they've colonized a hundred thousand planets and never found as much as chalk drawing scrawled across a cave wall -- to give the gate an extra boost, take them away from the blanket of alien occupation that surrounded Terra. Supposed to hop them right outside the influence in one passage instead of ten, and destroy the gate when they were through, but something went wrong.

They're not where they're supposed to be. They're not even when they're supposed to be.

His hands are balled in fists as he tells her this, and she places her hand atop of his.

He thinks now that they're not even in the same universe. That this wasn't a time slip, and they've run into parallel worlds before.

No aliens, she tells them. And no matter how many planets they visit, they've never found a towering gate.

His eyes are hard. My fault, he says, and she hushes him.

You got them out alive, she says.


"How many?" she asks the next day. She's got a writing film in one hand and a pen in the other.

"Look, I already told you that you didn't need to worry, so--"

"I need to know how many, and what supplies you have left. What you need."

"What we need? We need seventeen dancing girls, and two of each animal. Wide screen tvs and ambrosia."

"You're not helping."

"What? You want me to help you figure out if we're going to last long enough to be a threat to you and yours?"

"No," she snaps. "I want you to help me figure out what you're going to need to survive until the next time we come through."

"Oh," he says, and shuts his mouth.

"Now, why don't you tell me?"

He looks at her. Whips around and looks like he's about to shout. "Because I don't know. I'm the linguist. I'm the archeologist, the anthropologist. I'm nothing that we need any more."

He's trembling in anger, and she wonders if his people know how much he hates himself right now.

Probably. Someone must have seen the burn as Serenity descended the atmosphere. Someone decided to send him on a scouting mission out this way.

She wonders how hard it must be for him, to know that there's an entire continuum of culture and information and he's stuck on a rock with the same grasses he knew on Earth.


The fire is small and low, casting as many shadows as it banishes. The smallest plume of smoke twirls up into the stars, and if she hadn't been looking for it, she never would have known that it was there.

"Tell me what you need," she says. Three faces on her, surprise at her sudden appearance, and there are three guns pointed at her head. She kneels demurely beside the fire, holding out her empty hands to warm them.

"Who --" starts an older man.

"You've been watching Daniel, so you've been watching me. You know who I am."

"Are you accusing us of something?" he growls. "Because let me tell you, I don't appreciate the insinuation that --"

"I am accusing you only," she says, hands barely outside the flames, "of concern for your friend."

The woman speaks. "Put the gun down, Colonel."

"Are you telling me what to --"


The guns lower, slowly, and Inara lets her hands settle (ever so calmly) onto her lap. "Tell me," she says, "what it is that you need."


Mal doesn't understand. "You're telling me," he says, "that you've known there were people on this planet for almost a week, and you didn't find fit to let me in on that fact?"

"It didn't come up," she tells him.

"It didn't -- " he spins back to her. "It didn't come up? They could be Alliance. They could be mercs. They could be out for our gorram heads, and it didn't come up?"

"No," she says. "It didn't." What she doesn't say is that he would have jumped to conclusions, as he's doing now.

"Inara --"

"They're lost, Captain. They're lost and alone and they want to be here even less than you want them to be here. This isn't where they meant to be and they won't survive much longer if we don't help them."

"This isn't a humanitarian mission I'm running here, it's a ship, and --"

Mal's stalking the catwalk and Inara is standing there, hands on the railing, looking over the cargo bay. "Who said anything about charity?"

"If they're as bad off as you say, they certainly can't afford to pay."

She's staring out the open ramp at the fields below. "I can. People pay well for a fancy whore, after all."

He stops in his tracks. "Inara --"

She won't look at him. "I know the cost of things, Captain."

He leans against the rail beside her.

"Don't even think," she says, "of overcharging me."

He slings an arm around her, easily. "I know the price of things, too." Kisses her atop the head. "Friendship's more expensive than a few supplies."

It's the first time he's really looked at her since she told him she was leaving.

"I think you'd like them," she tells him, and somehow she thinks that Daniel isn't the only one who's been hating himself for things he did and didn't do. "I do."

"We'll work something out," he says. Kisses her forehead this time, like she's not dirty.

"We will," she says, and she believes.


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