Exaggeration and Blank Verse
The Wine Ceremony
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Companions are taught the importance of time.

The rituals, the ceremonies, they all came back to the motion of time, ever forward. Inara knew twenty-six different formulas for honoring the dead, thirty-one for the celebration of a birth, dozens more for scattered other anniversaries.

On this ship, no one seemed to want to acknowledge the passage of time. Birthdays were minor stirs, and only for the members of the crew for whom the dates were known. River and Simon, because of public notices. Kaylee, who loved a party. Zoe, only because Wash insisted.

Probably no one had ever asked Jayne or Book about their birthdays, and they didn’t volunteer. As for the captain, well, Inara had a suspicion that he had always existed and always would, unchanging and eternal in his little mantle of disenchantment and hurt.

That was unkind, she reproved herself, hands shaking as she refilled her tea cup with wine. Of course Mal was aware of the passage of time. He could probably tell her how many heartbeats had passed since the end of the war. It was just that nothing else had any meaning to him. He disavowed every anniversary except Unification Day. She raised her cup in a bitter toast.

“To Mal Reynolds, human candle burning in remembrance of the browncoats!” Quickly, she swallowed the wine. “I never liked brown anyway,” she whispered, reaching for the bottle again.

This was not a ritual of the House, and indeed the Priestesses would be horrified if they knew alcohol had profaned her tea set. Forget them anyway, clinging to their rites and precepts like Mal holding on to his one day in all the year. Inara had other anniversaries to remember. She had her own ceremonies to keep.

Time passed, and distance too- how far would she have to go? Second star on the right, and straight on to a dusty little graveyard moon that had a trick to its orbit so it never saw morning. A single headstone among the thousands, bearing a name that hadn’t crossed her lips since this day a heartbreak of years ago…

No one would bother her tonight. She’d turned off her console and sealed up the shuttle door; it was just her and her wine and her memories. She turned her wrist to the proper angle as she poured again. The line of the bottle and her arm must be open, inviting. Welcoming in the ghosts.

Ghosts. She looked up, gasping in shock. River stood at the foot of her bed, head tilted to the side, staring at Inara with those bottomless eyes. “How did you get in here?” Inara asked, fumbling to close the bottle. “The door was locked!”

“Locks are open to those who have a key.” Her hair fell forward over her shoulders, long and dark and wild, as she studied Inara. Simon ought to be ashamed of himself- Inara would never let her little sister look so unkempt.

“You’ve been crying,” River said thoughtfully. “Physiological response to sorrow or pain.”

“Or joy,” Inara said spitefully, taking another sip of her wine. Her hands didn’t shake. She would not allow them to shake. “I could be joyous.”

“No,” River said, shaking her head. “Not today of all days.”

Inara stared at her for a moment. “What do you want, River? Today of all days?”

“I wanted you to dance with me.” The girl arched an eyebrow. “But perhaps now is not the time.”

Inara smiled faintly, staring down into her cup. River loved to dance. Several times, down in the cargo bay, Inara had taken her through a few of the forms learned by girls in the Companion Houses, the steps of the ancient Earth dances revived for ceremony and ritual. Another blasphemy on her head, passing those along to a non-initiate, a crazy girl, a mad little sister. Little sister lost to ghosts and memories.

“River,” she said, putting her cup aside and getting to her feet, twitching the wrinkles out of her skirt, “I would love to dance with you.”
*****
“Up, River, up on your toes!” she laughed, stretching her arms out toward the distant ceiling of the cargo bay. “God, I haven’t done this in years!

The muscle control was still there, though, the discipline to move around the edge of the pain. She stretched one leg out to the side, foot carefully pointed- graceful, lovely- and lowered herself down again. “Mind the arch of your foot, mei-mei!

River laughed, spinning wildly across the empty room. “Not like that, like this!” Inara called after her, rising again into a proper pirouette. God, it hurt, these shoes were all wrong for this, but at least the wine helped the pain. She stumbled out of her spin as the world tilted. “Ooh!” she laughed. “I think something’s wrong with the gravity.”

“Just your gravity,” River giggled, pointing at her. Inara stuck her tongue out at the girl and started to spin around the bay, flat-footed and wild, dragging a child’s country dance out of the depths of her memory. River joined her, shrieking with laughter, until finally Inara noticed the figures on the catwalk and stumbled to a halt.

“Good evening, my lords!” she called, giving an exaggerated curtsey. “My ladies,” she added, bobbing even deeper toward Zoe and Kaylee. “I bid you greeting on this- this- this day of all days!” Something was rising in her throat, laughter or a scream, but she pushed it away and began another careful pirouette. She felt blood begin to seep down between her toes. Let it.

“She’s lost her gorram mind,” she heard Jayne mutter on the catwalk, and she fell out of her form, glaring up at him.

“Not my mind, you ignorant pig!” she shouted, wondering when her face had gotten so wet. “My heart! I’ve lost my heart!” Her eyes went to Mal, standing off from the others, staring at her through his captain’s mask. “These many years ago,” she said softly.

“She was a soldier,” River murmured, clasping her hands behind her back.

Inara nodded, eyes never leaving Mal’s face. “She was a soldier,” she said softly. “But they buried her in gray.”

There was a hand on her shoulder, and she looked over to see Kaylee, gazing at her with worry in her eyes and no trace of a smile. “Come on, Nara,” she said quietly. “Let’s get you to bed.”

River had come up on her other side. Inara looked back and forth at them for a moment. “All right,” she said, summoning up all the dignity of her House to carry her. “You may escort me.”

There was a ritual for exiting a dance, structures and precepts for every footfall. She followed them to the letter, kept her head high and proud, and didn’t look back.

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