Mal sat on the walkway overlooking the hold and surveyed their take. Not a bad days work if he did say so himself. He heard Inara's shuttle start its docking procedure. He cleared his throat and tried to decide if he wanted to stay where he was or return to the bridge.
"Shuttle's back, sir." Wash's voice came over the walkie-talkie.
Mal picked it up. "Take us out of the world, Wash."
"Aye aye, Captain."
Mal felt Serenity's engines come to life through the metal floor. He cast an anxious glance toward Inara's shuttle. How long did she usually stay in there before joining the rest of the crew? He stood and made his way toward the bridge. No sense waiting for her. She'd appear when she was ready.
She apparently wasn't ready by dinnertime. Or after dinner, either, when he walked the length of the ship to check the hold and stretch his legs. He looked at her door and contemplated knocking on it. No, he'd already decided when she left to go meet her client that he wouldn't go in there again unless it was an emergency. If she wanted to be with him, she'd need to come to his quarters. He wasn't inclined to go back to her place of 'business.'
It was late. He went to his quarters.
It was a couple of hours later when he awoke to the sound of his door opening and someone's feet on the ladder. In the faint glow from above he could see Inara's robe; he settled back against his pillow. She closed the door behind her, plunging the room in to darkness. He could hear her getting undressed and couldn't decide how he felt about that. On the one hand, a naked woman was always good. On the other hand, he really felt they should talk about this.
She slipped wordlessly into the bunk beside him and rested her head against his chest. She didn't say anything. Mal started to speak, but paused; he was pretty sure he felt a tear slip down his skin.
He shut his eyes and reveled in the feel of her against him.
Ship's morning was signified by the lights in his room gradually increasing. Mal woke to the pleasant sensation of warm Inara nestled against him. He smiled, and pressed his face into her neck. He kissed her, then pulled back and opened his eyes. There was a small bruise there. It wasn't from him. He pulled back. It's her job he repeated over and over in his head. He wanted to be okay with this. He wanted to believe that he was a big enough man to deal with this until she could be free of the Guild. He didn't want to lose her, but the sight of another man's bite mark on her neck left him cold.
She not cheating, she's working, he told himself, but that did nothing to alleviate the hard pit in his stomach.
As if she sensed him staring, Inara opened her eyes. They looked at each other for a long moment. "What's wrong?" she asked, then shook her head and swung her legs over the edge of the bunk. "Wait don't answer that. I know what's wrong. I'll go. I shouldn't have come in here last night without asking."
Mal put a hand on her shoulder, preventing her from standing. "It ain't that," he said.
Inara reached down to pick up her robe. She pulled it around her shoulders, then tightened the belt around her waist. Girding her defenses, Mal thought. When she turned on the bed to face him, he noticed that she didn't look herself; her eyes were tired, and a little puffy.
"Then what is it?" she asked.
Mal rubbed a hand across his face and through his hair. "Your client bit you."
Inara's hand instinctively moved to her neck, and she dropped her head, her hair hiding her face. "I should go."
Mal picked up the end of her belt, twisting it between his fingers – partly as a distraction, and partly to tether her to him. "I just wasn't ready to see that."
She raised her head and looked at him, her eyes glassy. "I know." It came out as a choked sob that made Mal's heart break.
He reached out for her, but she pushed his hand away, standing. "This just isn't going to work, Mal."
Mal stood, and she didn't back away. "Then leave the Guild," he said.
"You know I can't do that."
"I can't be with you. I can't be with you and do my job. It's too hard."
Tears slipped down her face. "For the first time in my life I feel like a whore. I can't feel like a whore and be a Companion. I can't. I have to get my head straight to do this job."
"I don't want you to leave." He moved closer and she let him put his arms around her.
"I don't want to leave either, but—"
"Then don't leave. We'll work it out."
She pulled away and wiped her face. "I don't think I can sleep with you and be a Companion at the same time, Mal. I just can't."
He looked at her, then reached for a clean towel by the sink and handed it to her."Fine then. We go back the way it was. No harm done."
She looked up at him. "You could do that?" Disbelief tainting her tone.
"I could." He said and surprised himself by meaning it. "Could you?"
Inara blinked. "I think, maybe, maybe I could." She ran a hand down his chest, but I would miss this."
He leaned down and kissed her softly on the lips. "I would too, but not as much as I'd miss you if you were gone completely. I can wait for the Guild to claim its pound of flesh, Inara."
She nodded and leaned into him for a moment before turning and climbing up the ladder.
Several hours later, Mal was back sitting on the walkway above the hold. His ship and crew were all present and accounted for and humming around him. Jayne was cleaning his guns in the galley. Book was reading his Bible. Simon and River were playing a game of Chess in their quarters. Wash and Zoe were on the bridge, talking. The door to Inara's shuttle opened and Kaylee walked out, with Inara behind her. Kaylee's hair was elaborately braided and she was grinning from ear to ear.
Mal grinned. "That's a might fancy 'do you're sporting there, Kaylee."
"Thanks, Captain. Inara did it for me."
"Did she now? Well, it do look pretty."
Kaylee grinned at him and headed toward the engine room.
Inara sat next to him on the walkway, close but not touching.
"So what do you think?" Mal asked, indicating the hold.
"Well, they're smaller than cattle."
Mal nodded. "And fluffier, too."
Inara smiled. "Very fluffy."
Mal's first instinct was to put his arm across her shoulders and pull her closer, but he would have to unlearn that. Instead he put his hands down behind him, leaned back and surveyed the sheep. Inara sat beside him. Mal hoped she was as content as she seemed. It was hard to tell what was really going on inside her. But she was sitting there, and Mal decided that was good enough for now.