It had been near three weeks since Inara had taken a client. Mal was feeling pretty good about that. He wasn't so cocky as to think she'd completely changed her life for him, but she hadn't left Serenity since they'd been holed up in her shuttle, and that that was a great good thing. Of course, the crew had noticed. They couldn't help but notice, he supposed, but to their credit, not a one of them said a thing. Sure, Kaylee seemed fit to burst and Jane walked around with a pained expression on his face like it was all he could do to hold his tongue, but he held it and that was all that mattered.
There was a knock at the door.
"Yeah?" Mal yelled, drying his hands on the towel that hung by the sink.
Instead of a response, he heard the hatch kick open, and a skirt of gold brocade silk appeared on the ladder that descended into his quarters. Mal caught a hold of Inara as soon as her hand left the last rung.
"Hey there," he said, pulling her close. "Didn't think I was ever going to see you again. Everyone all prettied up?"
Inara nodded, her hair soft against Mal's cheek, and he sighed. He noticed he'd been doing a lot of that lately. "Kaylee and River are fully ribboned and braided," she said. She returned his hug, then stepped back, dropping her arms.
Mal raised his eyebrows.
Inara's dark eyes were unreadable. "We need to talk."
He had a feeling what was coming. He leaned against the desk, his arms crossed, trying to ignore the clench in his stomach. "What's up?"
"Mal, it's been almost a month since I've taken a client."
Mal flashed a grin. "I know. Nice, isn't it?"
Inara frowned. "But not very lucrative, I've got rent—"
"Don't worry about the rent," he moved to put his arms around her again.
She stepped away. "And dues," she continued, giving him a pointed look.
"To the Guild."
Mal blinked. "You pay them?"
"Yes. You didn't think they made all the client arrangements for free, did you?"
"Well. I never gave it much thought."
"Look, I've put them off for weeks with excuses. If I don't get a client soon they're going to send someone out."
Mal snorted. "Fine, I say bring them on. Let them send someone out. You can tell them face to face you're done with them."
Inara blanched. "No. We don't want them to send someone out, and I'm not done with them. I have three more years at least, assuming I get back to work."
"Three more…what? I don't understand."
For the first time since their conversation began, Inara broke eye contact. "Mal, I'm still indentured."
Mal could feel rage start to stir in him. "Indentured? Ain't that a pretty word for 'enslaved'?"
Inara looked up at him, sharply. "No. I keep a percentage of what I make. I have my own things. It's just that right now I'm still paying off my training debt, so the lion's share goes to the guild."
"Well, how much is it? Maybe I can—"
"It's more money than you see in a year, much more. Besides, I don't want or need you paying for me. Then I'd be yours, not mine."
"Hey." Mal felt like he'd been sucker-punched.
She rested a hand on his forearm. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I know you're only trying to help, but there's nothing to be done. I have to go back to work."
"But your work—"
"I know what my work is, Mal."
"I have to do this."
"Nandi left, why can't you?"
"You didn't see what they did to Nandi when she left, and she didn't even finish training. I assure you she made restitution on her back as whore, not a Companion."
"But she had her own place."
"She'd had that place less than a year when we got there. Don't you wonder what life was like for her in the interim?" She stepped closer. "Besides, is that what you want me doing, running a whore house on a backwater to pay the bills?"
Mal set his jaw. "Of course not."
I have to do this."
"I know you can't. That's why I need to leave. That'll speed up the process anyway."
"Whoa, hold up there. Nobody said nothing about leaving."
"No, now what did you mean speed up the process?"
Inara walked away from him running her fingers through her hair and back down to press against her temples. "It's complicated."
Mal bit his lower lip. "Hey, I'm not just a pretty face. Explain it to me, I'm sure I'll understand at least half of it."
Inara sat primly on the edge of his bed. "If I go back to the motherhouse, I can speed up the process."
"Of paying back my indenture."
Inara pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. "I'd see more clients there. I'd see in one week the number I'd see out here in a month."
"So how long are we talking here?"
"A year, maybe a year and a half."
Mal shook his head. "No, that's too long."
"Mal there are only two choices here. I go back to the motherhouse or I stay here. If I stay here I see clients for probably three more years before we can even think about discussing a different line of work for me."
"I don't like neither of them choices."
"Well, it's not really up to you."
"I don't understand why you don't quit. You're telling me the Guild will bother chasing you down out here on the ass end of the galaxy?"
"The guild doesn't let anyone go. It's a very clear procedure. You screw up, you get counseling. You owe, you pay. You run, they chase, they catch you."
"I could protect you."
Inara shook her head. "No, you really can't. And even if I thought you could, there is no way I would put this crew in that kind of danger."
"How much danger are we talking?"
"Nandi was beaten within an inch of her life, drugged up and stuck in a whorehouse to pay off her debt by the hour. When she was free and clear she was dumped on the street with nothing but the clothes on her back. I'm sure she got passage to that backwater we found her in by paying for her ticket with sex and it was probably the most pleasant thing she'd done for months."
"She wasn't even a registered Companion yet. They'd do the same to me, Mal, but when I was free and clear they'd disfigure me and dump me on the street for daring to threaten their system. Companions are respected because we follow a code. You're not allowed to break the code Mal, not without serious repercussions."
"If the Alliance can't reach out and take us what makes you think the Guild can?"
"The Alliance has reached out and taken you, Mal, on several occasions. Besides the Guild isn't run by the Alliance, the Guild is older and much more powerful."
"The Guild is its own entity?"
"Not exactly. It's a division of Blue Sun."
Mal sat down on his bunk next to her. Blue Sun was everywhere. If the Guild was Blue Sun then she was right, there was nowhere she could go that they weren't already there. They were silent for a long time.
"I just came to tell you I have a client scheduled on Persephone." She stood.
Mal nodded. "And after you're free and clear, then you'll stop?"
"Most companions gain their freedom between 20 and 25. They rarely work past 30. Five to ten years making a full companion salary is plenty to set them up to do whatever they want."
"And what do you want?"
Inara leaned down and touched her lips to his. "I want you."