Title: The Festival On Chuang-Mu
Author: Jo Raine (Celievamp)
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Date in Calendar: 17 June 2005
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THE FESTIVAL ON CHUANG-MU Disclaimer: Firefly belongs to the genius that is Joss Whedon and not me. No money is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended. Pairing: Inara/Zoe, River/Kaylee Spoilers: Set some time after “Objects in Space” Rating: PG Written for the Dog Days of Summer 2005 Project. Summary: Four young women on a planet dedicated to pleasure at a week-long festival celebrating everything that is woman. How can they not have all kinds of fun? Note: This is the first part of what will probably be a much longer story one of these days. THE FESTIVAL ON CHUANG-MU
“So how did you persuade the Captain to let us come with you?” Kaylee asked.
“I reminded him that Zoe could outshoot him nine times out of ten,” Inara said. Zoe grinned. “And that I was a registered Companion. Any offence against myself or my invited guests would lead to the immediate blacklisting of the planet, not only by the Guild but also by its affiliates.”
“Ah,” Kaylee said. “And I guess this place isn’t big on natural resources. Most things are shipped in.”
“It’s largely a pleasure planet, so yes,” Inara said. “The native population is fairly small. They rely on visitors, from the Rim as well as the Core. We will be perfectly safe. And to be honest I think we would be in more trouble if the guys came with us.” No one disagreed with that observation.
“They do have a knack for attracting unpleasantness,” River said. She was reading through the entry about Chuang-Mu on Inara’s Base. “I remember my father talking about this place to one of his friends. They did not think I was old enough to understand what they were saying. He called it a den of vice and iniquity. I always thought that it sounded a wonderful place. I never believed I would actually go there.”
“The rules do play a little differently down there,” Inara said. “You should all be perfectly safe but… be on your guard nevertheless. She shared a look with Zoe who nodded silently. Whilst Inara was perfectly capable of looking after herself, Zoe would keep her eye on Kaylee and River. The two young women were entirely too prone to getting so caught up in each other’s presence that they forgot about the rest of the world. But Zoe could forgive them: young love was beautiful to see.
“It was nice of him to give us spending money though,” Kaylee smiled. She had a soft spot for Mal Reynolds about a mile wild.
“That last job we did paid real well,” Zoe smiled. “I reckon we deserved a little bonus.” She hefted her small pouch of coin with a thoughtful smile. “River, you given any thought on what you’re going to buy with your share?”
“A new dress, perhaps. Something pretty. If that is not too… frivolous.”
“Pretty is good,” Kaylee smiled. “You can buy something pretty if you want, sweetie.”
“Or a present for Simon. Maybe a music chip. He left so much behind when he came for me. I know he misses his music.” River smiled wistfully then returned to her contemplation of the Base.
“There are some very good music stores on Chuang-Mu,” Inara said. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find what you want. Or the stores will make up a chip for you if they have the recordings you want on file.”
“I’d like to get Simon some music as well,” Kaylee said. “He’s been such a good friend.” River gave her a quick embrace and a slightly self conscious peck on the cheek. Inara and Zoe exchanged another tolerant smile. Chuang-Mu’s Tsat-je festival was just the place for the two young women to relax and explore their new relationship – away from their ‘big brothers’ whether real or adopted. And just maybe Inara could enjoy some quality time with Zoe.
“I have reserved lodgings for us all at the Bird Bridge Hotel,” Inara said. “Two adjoining suites.” Belatedly it occurred to the Companion that she had not actually asked the mercenary woman her opinion on the sleeping arrangements. It might be politic to do so first – what with Zoe being considered an armed and dangerous woman in most circles. “Zoe, I hope you do not mind sharing a room with me?”
“Not at all,” Zoe smiled. “If you don’t snore, scratch yourself or fart in bed you have got to be better company than Wash.”
Inara knew that Zoe loved her husband with all her heart and that Wash was equally devoted to his wife. But they were both adults. Zoe had expressed the wish to get to know Inara better. Wash had waved them off with a smile and a private instruction to her to make sure his wife didn’t get into more trouble than she could handle. And to treat her right.
River giggled and whispered something to Kaylee who started to giggle as well. Zoe sent an exasperated look her way. Inara put a mock severe expression on her face. “Behave, brats, or I’m sending you straight back to Serenity.” She knew they found her fledgling relationship with Zoe highly amusing. The two younger women glanced at each other again, grinned even more widely and chorused.
“We’ll be good.”
Inara didn’t believe it for a moment.
Inara let Kaylee pilot the shuttle into the landing site at the edge of Chuang-Mu’s main city New Shanghai. A transport was already waiting to take them to the Bird Bridge Hotel. Inara knew it was highly unlikely that her friends had ever been anywhere like New Shanghai. Zoe was as poker faced as ever. No clues to how she was feeling at all. No one would ever mistake her for anything other than a soldier. Like Zoe, Kaylee was from one of the frontier worlds, pretty much as close to the edge as you could get without falling off into the void between. She might have seen pictures of places like this on ‘tainments but that would be as close as she had got. And although Core-born, River was from a very sheltered if privileged background. Her father’s hushed reference would be the most she had ever experienced of a place like New Shanghai.
Strangely, Mal had taken more persuasion that Simon to let River come on this trip. Over the last months Simon and Book (who proved to be a pretty adept hacker as well as his other skills) had created several fake identities for River. For this trip to Chuang-Mu she was traveling as Felis Donne and they had added a year or two to her age so there would not be any problems getting her into age-restricted areas. Simon had spent long hours trying to coach her on the details before realizing that it would be much less stressful just to let her make it up as she went along as she had with Badger.
Their rooms were clean and comfortable. Inara had managed to get two adjoining suites. Zoe’s military reserve slipped a little when she got a look at the ensuite facilities – which included a large sunken bath. For a moment she looked as excited as a little girl. The bathing facilities on Serenity could best be described as functional. Zoe declared her intention to bathe and change her clothing. And that she might be some time.
“Wo de tien ah, Inara! How much are we paying for this?”
“It’s on the Guild. I’m on official business after all.”
“I can live with that!” She cast a longing glance back towards the bathroom.
“Go, have fun. I’ll see how the other two are settling in.”
Zoe reached for her, kissing her gently. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
“Later, I’ll show you a lot more reasons, I promise,” Inara whispered. “Now go, soak.”
Inara could tell that Kaylee was pretty much overawed by her surroundings. She knew from conversations with the girl in the past that her bunk on Serenity was the first time she had ever had her own room. And that was a far cry from this. It had a window for starters, a view across New Shanghai, the river delta, the cityscape to the mountains that ringed the city to the north. The sky was a pure turquoise, cloudless, the bare mountains grey brown and purple, the combination of colours seeming to change moment by moment. The city streets far below them were bustling with people, synthetics, animals, vehicles, the buildings decorated with brightly coloured flags, banners and floral garlands. As soon as it got dark there would be fireworks and a laser show. And there was music, floating in the air it seemed from hidden speakers, from musicians on every street corner, singers and drummers, harpists and guitarists, hurdy gurdy and synth. Anthems and ballads, praisesongs and love songs, music from every age and culture. And adverts. Bugs and synthetics targeting and following individuals through their assigned patch, tailoring their spiel to the on-record bioprint for their mark. The accumulated noise and lightshow was a pressure on the senses faintly penetrating even their high perch. At street level it would be just about unbearable.
River had given the view a cursory and somewhat unimpressed glance before settling herself in front of the hotel Base, quickly interfacing with the system and immersing herself in the dataflow. Inara continued to point out various landmarks to Kaylee for a little while longer, giving Zoe some alone-time to commune with the bathing facilities. And, to be honest, she liked spending time with Kaylee. She always had. She found the young woman’s complete lack of artifice refreshing. River had found an entertainments schedule for the Festival and was frowning over it, full of questions about the various activities, especially the semi-religious ones. Inara knew from mediating some of River’s conversations with Book that religion was something that she really did not get. It was another of those understanding but not comprehending issues. Kaylee answered what she could, looking to Inara to supply answers where she could not. But most of River’s questions would require the attention of a theologian or philosopher to answer, if not a goddess herself.
As with many who followed the way of the Companion, Inara had taken P’an Chin-Lien as her personal totem. The Goddess of Whores. Her likeness was in a place of honour in the Great House, the administrative centre of the Companion’s Order. On the opposite wall was the likeness of Chuang-Mu. Goddess of the bed and sexual delights. Her celebration was a focal point of the festival, a candlelit parade.
There were many separate celebrations held over the week-long festival to honour the old goddesses. One of the largest was for Nu Kua, the Great Goddess. Flags displaying the yin-yang as her totem hung all over the city and there were many stalls carrying clay figurines representing the first humans she had made from the yellow earth of the Yangtze River. All four women knew that Zoe had her own reasons for making special prayers to this Goddess. She had the power to grant children. Wash was slowly coming around to the idea.
Kaylee had her own reasons for favouring Kuan Yin, the Goddess of mercy and protector of women. She found her philosophy of compassion and non-violence comforting, something to strive to emulate. She had prayed to Kuan Yin when Jubel Early had attacked her and for a moment thought that the goddess, ‘she who hears the weeping world’ had answered her directly when River spoke to her through the ship’s systems. River had protected her, comforted her, given her the strength to free herself and help take back the ship.
Inara knew that Zoe had always loved the legend of Chiu T’ien Hsuan-nu, the ‘dark maiden from the ninth heaven,’ equally proficient in the arts of love and the art of fighting. Zoe had also blushingly told her that it was also one of Wash’s favourite endearments for her when they were making love.
River was just confused and more than a little angered by the whole thing. She liked her world black and white. The subtleties and proliferation of religious belief passed her by. Faith could not be easily quantified in her worldview.
Once she had assured herself that the two young women were okay and had everything they needed, Inara retired to her room to unpack and freshen up.
She walked through the door and stopped, stunned. She had not realized that Zoe possessed a dress. She had always appreciated that the soldier had a stunning figure under the utilitarian clothing she favoured but swathed in dark peach silk that clung to her curves in all the right places she presented a truly beautiful sight.
“Zoe… you look incredible.”
The dark woman smiled almost shyly. “My one and only dress. I think I’ve worn it… twice? I bought it when Wash first asked me to marry him. Even before I said yes… I was going to wear it when we stood up in front of the preacher. In the end of course…” she shook her head and sighed. “Long story.”
“You’ll have to tell me it some time,” Inara smiled. She knew little of Zoe’s life and that only from other people. Hearing more about her from the woman’s own lips – soft, luscious and utterly kissable as they were - would be a huge step forward in their relationship.
“Wash tells it better than I do,” Zoe giggled unexpectedly, a rich beautiful sound. “Born storyteller that man. Amazing the trouble he can talk himself out of… course he’s usually talked himself into it in the first place.”
“He’s a good man,” Inara said softly.
“Yes, he is,” Zoe met her gaze. “And I would never hurt him. The moment he’s not comfortable with any of this…”
“I understand,” Inara said. And she did. What Wash and Zoe had was very precious and much sought after. One day Inara hoped to find it for herself. Zoe walked over to her, laid a gentle hand on her cheek then lowered her head to kiss Inara on the lips. Inara leant into the touch for a moment, savouring the softness of Zoe’s skin. There was a subtle scent to her that was new, one that Inara liked very much.
“You smell so good,” she whispered, nuzzling into the dark curls..
“There are a whole array of cleansers in the shower. I liked the scent of this one best. It is called Jasmine,” Zoe said. She brought her hands up to run through the black silk of Inara’s hair. As always, the Companion was immaculate.
“It suits you well,” Inara said softly. “Jasmine was a flower that grew on Earth That Was. Its petals are white and its very beautiful. It’s been used as a perfume for millennia.” If it took every credit she had she would find at least one example of the bloom to give to Zoe.
“I still can’t believe it you know.”
“What can’t you believe?” Inara asked, though she had a pretty good idea what Zoe was about to say. For such a strong woman, Zoe could be very insecure sometimes. It endeared her to Inara even more. She nuzzled at the woman’s neck for a moment, her arms around her slim toned waist.
“That you want to be with me. You’re a Companion – you have a Base full of beautiful people who want to spend time with you, all over the ‘verse. You’re beautiful, intelligent, cultured… And when your time is your own you choose to spend it with me. Me, a lowlife grunt who can just about scribe her own name. You’re either gorram tinked or I’m working off some pretty fierce karma.”
Inara pulled Zoe over to the mirror and stood slightly behind her. “Love, bee-j’way okay, that’s total niou-se and you know it. Look at yourself, Zoe. Look how beautiful you are. Look at how proudly, how confidently you stand. You are one of the best judges of character I’ve ever come across. You are loyal, honourable, brave. Everyone on board Serenity trusts you to watch their back. You are a remarkable woman. Anyone with an ounce of discernment would want to be with you.”
A blush darkened her coffee coloured skin. “I wasn’t brought up like this, you know. Had no thought of seeing anything beyond our ten acres until the war came. Strange how something so terrible could be the makin’ of me.”
Inara had heard enough of Mal’s war stories to know just how good a soldier Zoe had been. Stone-cold according to most of them. But the war hadn’t been the making of her, it had just been a means for her to escape her likely fate. Serenity had been the making of her. It had been the making of them all. She had no hesitation about including herself in this assessment. Six months ago she had threatened to leave. They had all pleaded with her to stay… Mal, Kaylee, Book, Wash, Simon and River. Even Jayne. But Zoe had not said a word.
Then one night she had come to Inara’s shuttle. And they had talked. Inara did not think she had ever heard Zoe say so much as she had that night. They had talked of everything that happened, and everyone on the ship, of those their lives had touched, those they had loved and those they had lost. Zoe had held her as she wept for Nandi, Inara surprising herself with the depth of her emotions, her sense of loss. And then Zoe kissed her.
“I don’t know what I’m feeling now,” the dark woman had said softly. “I don’t know as I have the words. I never thought… I thought Wash would be the one, the only to touch me as he does. I thought that was the way of it. But you… you make me see things and feel things and I can’t hide them any longer. And if you go, something in me will die and it only just came to life. I’ve a mind to keep it alive a while longer.”
“I can’t stay, Zoe, not even for you,” Inara said. “This place, this ship, it’s… changing me. In ways that I’m not entirely comfortable with. I am a Companion, I don’t know anything else.”
“And I was a soldier and I truly believed that there was nothing else,” Zoe said softly. “But there is. And I learnt not to be afraid of that, of changing. It can be a wonderful thing. We all care for you Inara. We all… love you, in our way. Stay, please.”
And so Inara stayed and did not speak any more of leaving Serenity. And she never said who had persuaded her of the right of it and so each who had spoken to her separately over the previous days thought it they who had swayed her and were happy that they had done a good thing. Only Zoe knew the truth.
She stared at their reflections, their arms ‘twined round each other. “We’re gonna break a few hearts this festival,” she confidently predicted with a broad smile. Zoe matched it.
“I guess we are.” She laughed. “It’s strange though.”
Zoe turned towards her again, cupping Inara’s face in her hands. “I don’t feel as if I want to go anywhere but here, see anyone but you,” she whispered. “Right now. I want you, Inara. You don’t know what you do to me, how you make me feel.”
“Tell me,” Inara whispered, her lips close to Zoe’s throat as she gently nipped at the strong tendons there. “Tell me.”
“You make me feel as if I could do anything in the ‘verse, you make me feel strong, and safe. You make me believe that its okay for me to be strong, to be my own woman. You make me think that there is more to this life than I ever knew and that I can just reach out and take it, taste it. In some ways you complete me and in some ways you make me believe that the world is new and fathomless and beautiful and I will never understand it and yet I can’t wait to see it all with you. I love you, Inara.”
“I love you too, Zoe.” Inara led Zoe towards the bed and reached up to undo the clasp at the shoulder of Zoe’s dress. Dark peach silk slithered towards the floor, puddling at Zoe’s feet. Inara kissed her way along the sharp plane of Zoe’s shoulderblade. She smiled against Zoe’s skin as she heard the woman’s sharp intake of breath. Zoe’s fingers were fumbling with the buttons on Inara’s ornate robes. Suddenly Zoe got the trick of them and they fell away leaving Inara naked, smiling up at the taller woman. Inara nuzzled against her, sighing softly at the feel of Zoe’s palms cupping and gently squeezing her breasts, gently rubbing her thumbs over Inara’s nipples.
Inara gasped. “Zoe?”
“I need you to… bed, now,” she clung to Zoe, her breath hot against Zoe’s skin. Zoe needed no more encouragement, lifting Inara off her feet into her arms and lowering her onto the bed before covering her with her own body, hungrily kissing every inch of bare smooth skin that she could find.
Kaylee looked up, alerted by River’s soft sigh. Her lover’s eyes were closed, she was smiling, sitting crosslegged on the floor, rocking slowly backwards and forwards. Her hands were resting palm upwards on her knees.
“River, are you okay?”
“They’re making love,” River whispered. “Inara and Zoe. I can feel them.”
Kaylee listened. “I can’t hear anything.”
“No, no, not hear. Feel. I can feel them. It’s like the tide, the ebb and flow of it, like floating in soft, warm water, flowing all around you and in you and through you. It’s beautiful, so beautiful, Kaylee.”
“I don’t know what you mean, I can’t feel it,” Kaylee said, dropping to her knees beside River.
“Here. Close your eyes.” River placed her hand over Kaylee’s heart as she obediently closed her eyes. “This is what I feel from them.”
Kaylee gasped as the tide washed over her. She could feel the warmth of River’s fingers on her breast; at the same time she could feel the touch of Inara’s lips on her skin, Zoe’s fingers caressing her deeply. And everything they were feeling she felt too. To be so loved. So loved.
She was crying. River’s arms were around her. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean for it to hurt you.”
“It didn’t… I’m not… It was wonderful, River, beautiful. But we mustn’t. You mustn’t. That’s private stuff, River, things between Zoe and Inara. Private. We shouldn’t… listen in like that.” River’s face was uncomprehending for a moment, then it filtered through to her what she had done and her face fell, her lip quivering. She looked terrified, as if she expected to be punished. “It’s okay, sweetie, I’m not mad at you,” Kaylee reassured her. “But… we shouldn’t do it again and it’s probably not a good idea to let Inara – or especially Zoe – know what we did. They might not be… so understanding.”
River nodded solemnly. “An angry Zoe is not a good thing. She is very good with her gun.”
Kaylee suppressed the memory of River shooting three men dead with her eyes closed, working out the trajectories as if she was some kind of gorram weapons system. “Getting Inara mad at you might not be so clever either,” she observed. The aftershocks of what she had experienced still thrilled through her. She gazed at her young lover and smiled. “You are amazing, you know that.”
“No,” River turned her face away. “I should not be able to do that. No one should. And I should have known that it was wrong. How can I be so clever and so… STUPID at the same time?”
“All I know it’s not your fault, River, so don’t go round thinking it is. They did this to you and one day they’re gonna pay for that. But we all know you don’t mean no harm by it.” Carefully and with infinite gentleness she wrapped her arms around her lover knowing that sometimes it seemed as if physical contact was acutely painful to the young woman. Luckily this was not one of those times and River almost melted into her touch. ”Are we okay?”
“Uh-huh,” River said, her face buried in Kaylee’s long hair. “We’re okay.”