Exaggeration and Blank Verse
Compassion
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Inara will never be a mother.

It is part of the ritual, the reconstruction of a lovely girl into a sublime Companion. Something must be given up, sacrificed for the grace and privilege of the name. Purest pleasure can only be found where there remains no fear of consequence, for it is from consequences that mankind made sin.

She wonders if perhaps it is those long-deferred and suppressed instincts surfacing in her now, tightening her stomach as she watches the man across the table.

Too young for her mind to properly call him a man, though she knows perfectly well that out on the Rim he would've been bedded and wedded long before now, and certainly that is the source of her unhappiness. His father had assured her that he boy was of legal age for the system, as he hurried her through the door and closed it at her back. He'd locked it and been gone before she could gather herself enough to protest. After the magistrate's son on Canton, she'd sworn never to stumble into this sort of mess again...

Hired under false pretenses, she thought, sipping her wine and striving to maintain the correct aura of unruffled calm. Perfect- well, perfect serenity, and if she dwelled on that precious irony she would be sick. Damn Mal anyway. His fault she had hesitated and lost her chance to dissolve the contract. If not for his recent inexplicable caution that kept her out of work, she would've had enough credits behind her to speak up before the door slammed closed. Instead she was balanced precariously on the edge of insolvency, a false step away from losing her hard-won independence-

"You're very beautiful." His voice is flat, uninflected; he is stating a certainty, a mathematical postulate, not an opinion or belief. He isn't even looking at her; his eyes are fixed on the table before him, his hands balanced lightly on the edge, his fingers braced against the surface as if he is holding himself in place.

"My career rather depends on it," she says with a smile, hoping for an answering one that does not come. Her training was based on coaxing passion out of second thoughts, shyness, or inexperience, but it all carried the assumption that since the client had taken the trouble to make an appointment, there would be desire. She never expected to find herself facing the task of creating that desire from a starting point of misery, confusion, and fear.

"I'm sorry," he says, and his voice is nearly a whisper, so soft that she leans forward to hear it. His face has gone from red to quite pale. "I'm- so sorry, my lady."

"It's all right," she says softly, reaching out to touch his hand. He flinches away, and she retreats, forcing her own confusion away behind the mask of assurance and calm. A Companion must know how to both lead and follow the dance, but she cannot hear the music in this place. "You weren't consulted about this, were you?"

"No," he says, and now he does smile, if the bitter twist of his mouth can be called that. "No. He- my lord father- he wishes me cured of...unnatural impulses and tendancies, before I leave." He closes his eyes as he speaks, his cheeks reddening again, and she could cry as she begins to understand. So that's it; another poor child raised to hate and fear his heart, twisted up inside instead of being allowed to love and celebrate what the universe has given him.

Her voice remains even and low, her mask remains perfect; she is no amateur, after all. "Before you leave?" she prompts gently, approaching him through the most harmless part of his words. "Where are you going?"

He glances up at her now, surprised enough by the angle of her attack to forget his discomfort. "The army," he murmurs, shrugging slightly. "Officer's school, on Osiris. I leave in three days."

She nods and reaches for her wineglass again, taking her eyes off of him and giving him a moment to find his composure. "A moment ago you said you were sorry. Whatever do you have to be sorry for?"

His fingertips press against the table so hard that she fears they'll have bruises. "I'm sorry for not- wanting you, my lady. You're only trying to do your job honestly, to earn what my father is going to pay you. I'm sorry that I'm making your job so difficult."

"People have so many ideas about my job," she says, losing her mask for a moment, enough heat escaping with the words that he looks at her again. "And almost all of them are wrong." She rises from her chair and walks across the little room to settle herself on the elaborately cushioned sofa, forcing herself to breathe deeply and find her center again before she speaks. "Do you want to go to the army?"

"God, no." He slumps lower in his chair, still at the table, staring at the meal he barely touched. "I want to stay here, to go to school, to just...live my life..." He presses his face into his palms for a moment. When he lifts it again and looks at her, his jaw is set like a man's, but the wild despair in his eyes breaks her heart all over again. "That's all I want, my lady."

"You don't have to call me that," she says, the mask of another smile sliding easily onto her face, designed to put him at ease. It clashes horribly against his own false stoicism, but she cannot quite bring herself to drop the forms of her training. "I can think of any number of people who would be more than happy to tell you that I am no lady."

Another twist of his lips that wasn't quite a smile. "My mother taught me to always show proper respect."

"Your mother?" she presses gently, on instinct proven true when he flinches and looks away.

"She died," he says after a moment, staring off into the corner. "A long time ago."

"I'm sorry," she murmurs, and he shrugs, and a moment passes in stillness before she speaks again. "You must be afraid you'll miss your home and your friends terribly, when you go."

"Friend, my lady," he corrects, pushing the plate away from him and rising to pace around the room, hands clenched together behind his back. "Just the one, out of all the people in this sorry city."

She reaches out and catches his sleeve as he passes, and he turns to face her. "And that is the friend that raises your father's suspicions?" she asks quietly.

He pulls back, eyes widening with surprise, then going flat and dark as his face becomes stony again. "Yes."

"He is very dear to you." Not quite a question; he can blank out his face, but he is no Companion to know how to change the feelings in his eyes.

"Except for my mother, he is the only person who has ever known me. The only person to care about me and not my father's name." He laughs then, brittle and sharp as broken glass. "And I suppose now you'll ask me if my father's suspicions are right."

"Why should that matter?" she asks, swiftly enough that it breaks his composure. He looks at her with open-mouthed shock. She gets to her feet and steps close to him, her hands settling on his shoulders, fingers arcing up to catch his chin and keep him from turning away. "People make everything about that," she says softly, staring into his eyes, willing all of her sympathy to flow across her aura and into his skin. "As if sex were the only kind of love. It's so much less important than it's made out to be." Oh, child, you are not alone. "It hurts you to leave him."

"Yes," he whispers, his eyes going bright as they looked back into hers, the last shards of his stony mask falling away.

"The paradox of love," she says, cradling his face in her palms. "It's the purest source of joy and the surest source of pain." His breath is coming faster, growing ragged with the effort of maintaining his final semblance of control. Perhaps she should let him keep that, allow him to step back and move away...perhaps it is wrong to coax him to break down completely.

She thinks of the officers she has entertained before, men with cold eyes like his father's, turned hard and bloodless by the dictates of their calling- and how did one of them ever manage to produce a son who feels as deeply as this one?- and realizes that this may be the last chance he will ever have to break that way, to mourn for what he must leave behind him. So she does not stop. She holds his face even more gently, looks up into his eyes, and lets the strict bindings of her training slip a bit as she speaks again.

"You're hurting," she whispers, her voice coming out a bit rough, unpolished, tinted with her own feelings in defiance of propriety. He is still trying to blink away the tears he thinks he should be ashamed of. She draws him closer to her. "That's okay," she murmurs into his hair. "It's all right to hurt. Go ahead, bao bei, let go."

He draws in a shaky breath, and lets it go as a sob, and then he crumples against her, burying his face in her shoulder and crying helplessly in her arms. She murmurs nonsense and rocks against him, rubbing his back and feeling his heartbeat pound wildly, dissonant with her own. She holds him until the storm passes, and when the servants return for her he lies on the couch, fast asleep, cheeks damp and body still with the utter exhaustion of draining all feeling away. She brushes his hair off of his forehead and kisses him softly there before she leaves. She will remember this one, and pray for him; that his gentle heart might not be entirely broken by the world as it made him into the man his father wanted him to be.
***
When she returns to Serenity, Mal's in a foul mood, anxious to be gone. When Wash clears her for docking, she can hear Mal shouting in the background, cursing at Jayne and scolding Kaylee for some imaginary offenses. A few moments later the radio hisses again and his voice booms through her shuttle.

"Nice of you to join us," he snaps, and she grits her teeth against replying. "Guess you found yourself a real he-man this time, and couldn't even stop the ruttin' long enough to look at a damn clock. I understand that there are terrible burdens along with bein' a whore, but I don't think they should make it so damn hard to be punctual-"

She switches off the radio and closes her eyes, seeking her center. He didn't understand; none of them did, really. They had each other, or they had never had anything. If the gods were merciful, none of them would ever learn what it was like to be left to walk completely alone.

She tries to gentle her heart, forgive Mal his bitterness, remember the truth she had felt with her entire soul just hours before. She remembers it the way it was spoken by a House Priestess instructing a pale-faced girl, remaking her into a Sister, reciting the doctrines of an old faith that no one would call wisdom anymore. "Love takes many forms, Inara, and might compassion not be the highest?"

Soft and weak; "woman's wisdom," if anything. Let the universe laugh and call that a contradiction in terms. She knows better.

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