Bandiagara, Part 8b
More dancing…Mal and Inara show each other the stars.
Mal held Inara close and they swayed in time to the fascinating rhythms of the music. It was the nearest they'd come to dancing since that shindig on Persephone—the one that ended with the punching, that led to the stabbing with swords. There were others dancing around in the firelight, but they were the only two dancing as a couple. There was nothing awkward about it—Mal had a feeling, he couldn't say why, that Nana and Mamadou approved. Why that should make a difference, he couldn't comprehend, but it was good to know that he wasn't causing trouble or offending local sensibilities by standing up with Inara.
Even as he held Inara and breathed in her scent, the captain-y part of him automatically registered the presence and well-being of every one of his crew. Zoe was sitting comfortably in the firelight, sipping yet another exotic-looking juice cocktail, her hand ghosting her belly and her gaze directed inward.
Simon and Kaylee were sitting hand-in-hand and shoulder to shoulder, near Zoe but in their own world, talking quietly to each other and communing in ways unspoken.
Jayne had gravitated towards the musicians and looked like to burst into song himself at any moment, 'cept he didn't know the words.
River, she was dancing like she was born to it, in perfect harmony with the music, and Mal was surprised to see that Ip had joined her, and danced by her side, looking less like a fish out of water—or a Core boy on a Rim world—than Mal ever could have imagined. He seemed to have caught River's rhythm, and moved in concert with her. As Mal watched, they gravitated towards the edge of the dance, into the flickering shadows, and kissed.
Mal was just beginning to think what he should oughtta do about that when Inara reclaimed his wandering attention, brought him back to their dance, and he lost sight of everything else but her, and him, and the black starry sky above them both.
. . .
As the celebration began to wind down, Mamadou guided the couples of Serenity to their nighttime accommodations. Jayne was still going strong, sitting by the fireside, singing along with the griot, bonding with the local guys and downing bissap like it wouldn't cause him a hangover. River was still dancing, with her head thrown back, taking in the stars, an expression of joy on her face. Ip watched her, entranced. Zoe, pulled down by the intense sleepiness of early pregnancy, had long since retired to bed.
Mamadou led them through the narrow alleyways of the village, discreetly pointing out the directions to the "long drop" in case they should need to use the facilities. At length he stopped by the wall of one of the larger mud brick constructions, where a sturdy wooden ladder rested against the wall. "Dr Tam and your intended bride here please," he said. Simon blushed, but Kaylee smiled and whispered, "I told him we were engaged to be married, Simon, so there wouldn't be no fuss about them having to scare up more accommodations than we need." Simon gave Kaylee a gentle squeeze of the hand, and merely said, "Thank you, Elder Mamadou. I'm sure we'll be comfortable." He helped Kaylee mount the ladder, and scrambled up after her.
Mamadou turned to Mal and Inara, and led them around one more corner to another ladder, this one made of two long poles polished smooth by the rubbing of many hands, with rungs lashed in place with sturdy ropes. "Our best guest quarters, Captain, for you and your wife." Mamadou finished with a small polite bow to Inara, which is why he missed Mal's start of surprise. "May you sleep well."
"We, uh—" began Mal uncomfortably, hands rising in a fidgety gesture.
"We thank you for your gracious hospitality, Elder Mamadou," Inara broke in, smoothly capturing one of Mal's flapping arms and using it to propel herself up the ladder. Mal simply nodded at Mamadou and followed Inara up the ladder.
. . .
The top of the mud brick building was smooth, with a low smooth wall around it. In the flickering light of the lantern, Inara could see a mattress of soft batting, like a futon. Two cylindrical pillows and a quilt completed the furnishings. It was simple, but inviting. The searing heat of the day had long since dissipated, and the breeze that gently tousled Inara's hair was cool. Mal climbed over the top rung of the ladder and stood on the rooftop, taking in the accommodations with a somewhat stunned look on his face. The sleeveless gown Inara wore no longer felt adequate, and she shivered in the breeze. She quickly removed it and crawled under the quilt. "Please, Mal, keep me warm."
She was sure he was blushing, but in the flickering light of the lantern it was impossible to tell. He walked to the far side of the bed, folded himself down onto the low wall, and removed his boots. He leaned over and snuffed the lantern, and in the anonymity of the newly found darkness, he removed the rest of his clothing and lay down under the quilt next to Inara. She slid over just enough to feel the warmth of his body next to hers but did not initiate any other contact. He stared up at the brilliantly starry sky, and so did Inara.
It was stunning, actually. Inara had grown up on Sihnon, the Jewel of the Core. She loved her home world, with its gracious urban spaces dotted with emerald parks and their carefully sculpted natural beauty. At night, Sihnon was an ocean of light—sparkling city lights with a magical beauty unrivaled in the Core. She had never noticed the stars. Here in Bandiagara, the lack of reliable electric power meant that nothing got in the way of the brilliance of the night sky. Inara had never seen so many stars in such an overwhelming array. Despite spending so much time "in the Black," she realized how little time she actually spent looking at the stars, and when she did, she only took in the small slice of sky that was visible through any given window. Here, with stars stretching from horizon to horizon, and no urban lights to wash them to insignificance, the stars dazzled her. Arching high overhead, the two spiral arms of the galaxy spread like spilled diamond dust, with countless millions of faint stars glittering distantly. Next to her, Mal drew breath and she was sure he was about to—
A bright white streak shot across the sky, starting midway up the dome of the sky in the direction of Inara's feet and streaking off toward the horizon to her right, where it winked out. A moment later a fizzing sound reached her ears. "仁慈的佛 Réncí de Fó," she exclaimed. "Was that a ship?"
"Meteor," Mal answered. "We've arrived just in time for the peak of the Wolofid Meteor Shower, and we got prime seats." He arranged his arm around Inara's shoulders. "You never seen one before?" he asked.
She hadn't. And before they knew it, he was talking easily of his boyhood on Shadow, about the time he and his friends had lain out in sleeping bags on the slope of a hill to watch the Airgead Meteor Shower in late October. It was a cold time of year to be camping out-of-doors on the Northside of Shadow, and the friends had all doubled up in the bags for warmth. (Inara burrowed closer in to Mal's shoulder.) They'd watched the sky to the northeast, shot the breeze, and enjoyed the natural show. After a few hours, they'd come back inside to warm up with hot cider and headed off to bed. Other times, they'd lain out watching the aurora borealis. Mal's boyhood had corresponded with a period of peak sunspot activity, and his Northside home lay in a latitude northerly enough to make auroras a frequent occurrence. Inara had never seen an aurora and she drank in his descriptions of the shimmering, shifting curtains of colored light. She massaged the palm of his hand as it lay on her stomach.
"Can you show me the constellations, Mal?" she asked. She admired Mal's skills at navigating by the stars—something she'd never realized was so important until they'd lost their navsats out of Beaumonde a few months ago.
"I s'pose I can, Inara," he answered. "I never been on Bandiagara before, so let me just get oriented here. The landmarks just ain't the same." He scanned the night sky for the familiar polar constellations. He'd grown so accustomed to the view from space that for the moment he was disoriented, unsure if it was the northern or southern polar constellations he was looking for, and trying to visualize the correction for the tilt of Bandiagara's axis. His recollections of star-gazing on Shadow all involved knowing which way was north based on the mountain peaks surrounding his ma's ranch. "Now, if we were on Shadow, I could—" He stopped. He'd been reminiscing so easily about Shadow, he'd forgotten momentarily that his home was no more. The burden of loss started descending again, and the pain that was never completely absent moved back towards the center of his mind.
Inara was about to speak—what words could she say to comfort him for the loss of his world?—when the most spectacular meteor of the night shot across the sky, from low on the horizon over Mal's left knee, right across the high arc of the sky, til it fizzled out over Inara's right shoulder. The fizzling sound reached them moments later.
She gave his hand a squeeze, then flipped over onto Mal's chest. Kissing him, she said in a low voice, "Now let me show you the stars."
. . .
仁慈的佛 Réncí de Fó [Merciful Buddha]
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