Disclaimer: Not mine. Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, blah, blah...

Post AG,AP. Mostly canon, but Serenity now has a cook. More of a character piece at the moment, while I plot out a bigger arc.

Zen and the Art of Mercenary Maintenance

Inara doesn't even have to work on her smile, now. It stays in place, natural, gracious, accepting and forgiving.

Life is ordered, calm, tranquil.

Dull.

She looks at the serried rows of hopeful faces on her screen. Too old, too young, too bald, too clean…

Her final choice is…a man, not a boy, with thick brown hair and a wry smile and roguish blue eyes.

But that's not a choice on the screen. Exasperated with herself, she slaps the capture down.

Now, the last visit had been less than successful. A few of the novices had gotten a little too interested in Simon, caused Kaylee some hurt. Jayne, told 'look-don't-touch', had sulked. Mal, on a fairly similar footing, had ended up doing likewise, and after two days, they had a blazing row, and Serenity had left. Without Inara.

That had been two months ago.

Inara was still conflicted. She hadn't told Mal, but she hadn't screened a client in months. The sweet peace of teaching absorbed her, the comfort of routine. But she couldn't deny that she was, well, bored.

Afterwards, she will blame the evening's lesson - the choosing and appreciation of wine. But she watches her finger reach out, dial a code.

0000

Mal is staring out of the window. With Jayne still nursing bust ribs, they have had to be a little more careful about their jobs. Not that Jayne won't try mixing it up, but he's already put himself back in the infirmary once, doing something strenuous that Mal don't want explained. Cargo runs like these, there ain't a deal to do. Catch up on your reading, polish your guns...Fact is, they can get mighty dull. Unless you are happy to sit and watch the stars.

Comm light blinks. To say he's surprised by the caller would be an understatement.

"Inara. This is a...well, it's good..."

"Can't I call on a...friend?" She's regretting it already.

"I'm a friend, now? Step up from petty brigand..."

"You were being an idiot..."

A slim hand suddenly hoves into view, deposits a mug.

"Your coffee, Captain...oh, sorry." A strange female voice.

"And cake? Don't I get cake?"

"I did save you a bit before himself cut loose, but I think River ate the frosting." The voice recedes. "I'll try and rescue it. Sorry to intrude."

Who the hell is she? That's an educated voice, and she's been allowed on the bridge...has Mal got himself snared up again?

"Who was that?" Astonishingly blunt, but it's late and she's been surprised.

"Oh, her?" Mal decides to tease. "Nice girl. Hell of a cook, too. What can I do for you?"

Inara's weak spot. She has all sorts of people-pleasing skills, but she cannot cook. Prepare tea as elegantly as you please, but scramble an egg, no.

Inara doesn't often give into temptation. That would be a loss of control. But she would admit to rampant curiosity. Composes her face into a serene and welcoming smile. (Which makes Mal suspicious as all hell.)

"I was wondering when you were going to be paying another visit to this part of the world. I may have a job for you." She adds, hastily.

Mal ain't fooled.

"We could stop by." He makes show of savouring his coffee. "Can't beat a good mug of java. You still drinkin' that oolong stuff?"

"It is distinctly better for you than coffee."

"Don't go as well with chocolate cake, though." Mal grins. "Doc's had a birthday, and I didn't get gutshot this year."

"How nice for you." She does not show impatience. "Shall I ask them to prepare guest quarters?"

"We'll be there in two days. Neither of can ever turn down work, can we?"

"Odd how distance does not improve you."

"And yet some people find me real charming."

Inara makes an exasperated noise, and cuts the wave before she yells at him. Mal keeps grinning. This could be all kinds of fun.

0000

Serenity lands, neat and true, in the shadow of the training house, in the beautiful red-gold of late afternoon. Inara is waiting, composed.

Something's changed on the ship. The atmosphere is - lighter; it's the only way she can describe it. Mal greets her with one of his ironic bows, and he's obviously amused by something. She gives him a cool, polite nod of greeting, eyes him quickly, looking for signs.

Zoe's watching from above. Portrait of a Companion at her most frosty. This was going to be...interesting.

"Come and say hello to our new crew member."

Inara keeps her face calm, her pace even...

'New crew member' is in the kitchen. Pauses in stirring something, says without turning.

"Don't need to be a mind reader to know that there's hands in those cookies. Scat!"

Kaylee and River hurtle, giggling, a cookie apiece. Third culprit just pads up behind her.

"I ain't afraid of you yellin'."

Inara's eyes widen, as the woman turns, lifts her face...

"Quit grappling in the kitchen. It ain't hygienic." Mal says behind her. "'Sides, company's here."

"Oh, hi, 'Nara." Jayne's grinning, but he doesn't let go. "Meet my wife."