Hook, Line, Sinker
Disclaimer: Lady Inara Serra, the Companions' Guild, and the Firefly Serenity and her crew are property of Mutant Enemy and Fox, and in a deeper sense, belong to Joss Whedon. William Cale, Cale Fabrication, the house on Lake Fikiada, and the planet Cyclade are my own creations.
I can't tell them that I'm the reason they got such a choice job. Cale Fabrication is paying nearly smuggler's rates for a load of high-grade processed ceramics, fragile cargo to be delivered undamaged to the factory on Cyclade, all permits arranged, all inspections squared away in advance. Mal and Zoe are suspicious, Jayne's waiting for the ambush, Simon and River are scared. Everyone knows there must be a catch.
And there is: they got this plum job because William Cale wants me to come to Cyclade, to spend a weekend with him, and nobody else in the family dares question why he wants to hire a disreputable Firefly transport for a cargo haul that could be handled by one of their own ships.
"I want to see you one last time," his communication to me said, and I find myself beginning to fear what that means.
He wasn't my first client, but he was one of the first. His brother actually made the contract, concerned with his state of mind after the war. His son had died in the war, and his wife had passed soon after, and the grief was crushing him even a year later. My job was to bring him past the grief for a night, to give him a glimpse of how life could go on, that he needed to continue.
He didn't want anything to do with me at first, saying that in his state he wanted nothing to do with me, that it would dishonor his wife's memory to lie with me. I persisted because sometimes a Companion's task is not to give the client what he wants, but rather what he needs.
We are trained to analyze our clients, to know them perhaps better than they know themselves, and while we are under contract to them, we are not so much their property as their caretakers, responsible for their needs as dictated by the circumstances.
As young Fess Higgins needed a voice of compassion to teach him wisdom, to show him how to "be a man" in the truest sense of the word, so William Cale needed a companion in the most ancient sense of the word, someone to whom he could unburden himself, someone to share his grief. Because while his brother felt that he needed to forget the grief, I knew that he needed to express it, to acknowledge that it would never go away fully, and to learn to live with the grief, in spite of the grief.
The first night he gave me his bed and slept on the floor, expecting me gone in the morning; the second day we spoke for long hours over cooling tea, speaking of his wife and son, and the second night I convinced him to lie in his bed with me at his side, and demonstrated to him that he could honor the memories of his loved ones and still feel passion again. He cried afterwards, and I dried his tears, soothed him to sleep; it is all too common for a Companion to lie with a man in mourning, and we are experts in grief as well as passion.
We have seen each other since, an occasional meeting on Cyclade, perhaps a business function where a gentleman must be seen to have a lady on his arm, or a quiet rendezvous for a man who must remind himself once in a while what it means to enjoy oneself.
I have not heard from him since I arrived on Serenity, though, and I occasionally have looked through my list of clients and wondered if he might have found another woman to share his life. Twice I have even found myself composing a discreet note of congratulations, just in case.
"One last time," his message to me says. He is asking me to stay the weekend. I wonder whether I should find joy or fear in his words.
I lift my shuttle off Serenity's wing, following a road by eye to Cale's rendezvous, on the shores of Lake Fikiada.
Cale waves my shuttle down himself, bringing me down in a clearing by his wood house on the lake, and greets me at the hatchway with a smile. He is older than the last time I saw him, of course, more care-worn, but obviously at peace. I ask him how he is, and his answer is a shock.
"I'm dying," he says simply, calmly, and my heart catches in my throat. Galvin's syndrome, caught too late, apparently; a year ago, the signs were there, but his doctor missed them, and so what would have been a nuisance last year becomes an executioner's warrant here and now. We sit down to tea in the shuttle, and he explains the disease in terms that I can see he wishes he didn't understand. It doesn't transmit, for which he says he is thankful, and I bite off a bitter laugh at his concern over whether a disease which will kill him can be passed on to others. The disease is dormant for now, working on parts of his body that he doesn't notice, so he can still live a normal life; but his time is running out, and he wants to leave his affairs in order before it claims him.
The first night, in the shuttle, is a seduction of the classic style; a touch, a caress, a few words, and then the dance progresses as it usually does. He tries to stay awake after, to talk, but the disease fatigues him and he falls asleep. I do not wake him during the night, though he asks me to; he needs the sleep, it is painfully obvious, and I must see to his needs, not his wants.
Come the morning, he awakens, and reveals his deepest wish; he did not contract with me to share his bed, but rather, his boat. He wants me to fish with him.
Every Companion keeps at least one set of outdoor clothing in simple, rugged style, though we rarely wear them; sometimes, we know, we will be called on to be ordinary people, rather than glamorous ladies, and drink from durable ceramic mugs rather than fragile crystal goblets. I draw out a flannel shirt and denim overall from my stores in the shuttle, and when I look in the mirror, for a moment I wonder what Kaylee is doing here, before I realize the simple, fresh-faced young woman is my own reflection.
Cale and I go out on the lake and cast out lines, and as we wait for a fish to mistake an odd bit of plastic for something edible, he tells me of his family. His brother is dead, too, a year ago and more, and he has four nephews who are trying to endear themselves to him for his money; he has tired of sorting out the lies they are telling him about each other, and wants to fish once more without having to worry about insulting his boating companion by saying that he wants to be fair. He is glad to have me with him, he says, because I have never been less than honest with him. I listen, and offer my own observations, because what Cale needs this day is a confidant, someone who will listen without bias, and offer a fair assessment of his course. I tell him that his disposition of his fortune is scrupulously fair, because to my mind that is the truth, and the truth is what he needs more than a yes-man or a nay-sayer.
Cale laughs and says, "You're just saying that," and I am saved from an embarrassed response by a fish striking at my lure. He coaches me in playing the fish, tiring it out, and he scoops it out of the water with a net and remarks on its amazing size. It will feed both of us, he says, and promptly takes up his line again.
For lunch, we eat sandwiches in the boat and drink Blue Sun, and I feel a warmth within me, though I have had far more elegant and tasty meals recently. Perhaps the difference is in the simplicity itself, this man with more wealth than some entire planets chooses to spend a day bobbing on the surface of a lake, wondering if a fish will strike at his lure.
As the light begins to fade in the sky, we return to the shore, and Cale sets a fire in a stone circle to cook my fish. It has been a wonderful day, he says, and his only regret is that his wife and son could not be here to share it with him.
He speaks of them sadly but calmly, and I talk of friends I have known and how the war affected them. He asks me to tell him of my life on Serenity, those parts that I can speak of, and I falter; he smiles and asks me to just be myself for a little while, to not worry about pleasing him, to tell him about life on a transport Firefly.
I slowly open up to him, tell him of Kaylee the innocent, Jayne the crude, Wash and Zoe, colleagues and lovers, husband and wife; I mention Shepherd Book only in passing, say nothing at all of Simon and River, and find myself stumbling when it comes to Mal.
"I understand," he says, and my heart leaps into my throat again, but he means something else: his son died in Serenity Valley, six years ago, wearing Alliance purple. "The war's over," he says, "and I can't hold a grudge against a man who took up arms for a cause he believed in."
Then he looks up into the reddening sky and says, "It's a shame I'll never meet this man, this Malcolm Reynolds."
I tell him he can meet Mal tomorrow if he wishes, because he and the others are still enjoying Cale Fabrication's hospitality at the shorefront, but he shakes his head. "It's too soon for him, for a man who walked into Serenity Valley; six years isn't enough time for him to have come out again." It will be painful, he means, and he doesn't want to spend any of his remaining time causing more pain.
The fish is tasty, surprisingly so, though Cale says it might be the mysterious power of having caught it myself. After the fish, potatoes, and fresh vegetables, Cale offers me a bed in the cabin, unpacking a sleeping bag for himself by the lakefront. He wants to sleep under the stars, he says.
I ask him if he has another sleeping bag.
Under the twinkling stars, I slip out of my bedroll and join him in his own, because that is what his wife undoubtedly would have done, before the war; I lie pressed close to him, sharing the warmth of my body with him, looking up at the stars, and he smiles with just a hint of tears in his eyes. I find the dull ember of passion he still has, coax it into a flame, and ensure him a happy memory of this night.
Then he sleeps, and I watch over him.
Cale closes up the cabin in the morning, wondering aloud if he will ever see it again. A skyhopper lands in the clearing next to my shuttle, bearing his parting gifts to me: flowers to adorn the shuttle and Serenity, fresh fruit and vegetables to liven the meal table for a while ("be sure and eat it all before it spoils," he admonishes with a smile), and a simple necklace in platinum.
They are gifts, he says, not part of the payment, making the difference clear; the Guild takes a portion of our contract fees, but if a client wishes to give a Companion a present beyond the fee, the gift is the Companion's alone.
He thanks me for consenting to fish with him, smiling and saying nothing of other activities, and wishes me a pleasant journey. He kisses me good-bye and sees me to my shuttle, tapping the door with his palm after it seals to let me know I am free to fly.
I wait, though; he does not need his last memory of me to be watching me fade into the sky. I wave back to him, and he understands, and walks off to his skyhopper, letting his pilot take off first.
I wait until the skyhopper has disappeared over the horizon, blink to clear a sudden blur in my vision, and hit the hover jets to begin my journey home to Serenity.
We are three weeks out of Cyclade when the courier catches up with us, bearing a packet for my eyes only. The courier insists that his visit is confidential, that nothing of what he sees aboard Serenity will ever be known to anyone else. Mal still watches him like a hawk every step of the way, though.
"William Cale instructed that this packet was to be placed in your hand," the courier says, hands it to me, and withdraws, saluting Mal and moving off to his ship before any smart remarks can be passed. I retreat to my shuttle, looking at the packet, afraid to open it and see its contents; finally, I can summon enough courage to break the seal and read the piece of old-style paper within.
Mal comes in then, uninvited as always, and asks in that infuriating naughty-boy voice of his whether we should plan on a return visit to Cyclade anytime soon, seeing as how my client treated him and his crew so well.
"He's dead," I snap at him.
Mal steps forward, trying to offer an apology, but I tell him to leave. I must have used far harsher language than that, though, because he's backing out all of a sudden, stammering apologies, offering condolences, and he's obeyed my wishes and sealed the hatch behind him before I even realize that I needed him to stay.
I curse to myself and look at the packet again, seeing Cale's last message to me. It is simple, just a re-statement of his testament, it seems.
His stake in his company has gone to his eldest nephew, who is best at running a business; his mansion and farmland have gone to his youngest, who is most comfortable managing land; each of them will get a portion of his cash, to help them against rough times, with the balance of the money going to his other two nephews in trust.
Then the shocker: he has sold the cabin and lakefront property to a trusted friend, with strict instructions that it is to be kept in good condition for my use. And an odd stipulation, of the sort one finds in wills on occasion: if I spend one day fishing on the lake, the house and its property become mine outright. A gift, not a payment, so that the Guild won't be able to claim any of it.
I ponder the meaning of it all, think of a man who asked me to be myself, and struggle to control my emotions.
Kaylee comes in then, and sees my struggle. She asks if she can help, and I wave her off, but she must have seen a tear or something, because she approaches instead. She asks what the matter is, and I show her the copy of Cale's testament. I try to explain it to her, but somewhere in the middle, my self-control comes apart at the seams, and Kaylee is hugging me, running a grimy hand through my hair as though trying to console a daughter who just skinned her knee.
Somewhere within myself I realize that she is comforting me in much the same way as I comforted William Cale, the first time we met, and the pain hits like a hammer-blow. I want Kaylee to leave, to close me off from everyone else aboard Serenity. I want to wallow in the grief alone, but somehow, Kaylee knows that I need someone to stay.
I come around to find the shuttle tidied up, a covered plate of food on the small table I use, and myself still clothed and in my bed. My dress will need professional help to recover from my bout of tears, but I can afford it, and in the meantime, there are other dresses.
I look back into Cale's packet and find a picture of the sun setting behind the lake, with the cabin in the foreground. My cabin, now, I think to myself, and then shake my head; the concept is still too new.
Someday, when Mal is ready to leave Serenity Valley behind in his mind, I will take him to the wood cabin on the shore of Lake Fikiada. I will come up with a pair of fishing rods and a net, fishing line and lures, and I will take him out on the lake in a boat and teach him to fish.
And then, God willing, I can just be myself.