Title: Two Times They Were Wet and Cold
Rating: PG-13 or so.
Disclaimer: It's Joss's 'verse, I just borrow it.
Summary: Two things that never happened to Mal and Inara. X-posted to LJ for the Truthsome Ficathon.
Thanks to AWindsor for all her darm encouragement. ;)
Two Times They Were Wet and Cold
1. In the Black
"You're lying on my hair."
He looks offended.
"I'm trying to save you." He says it like she should be grateful.
She wants to answer: "I didn't ask to be saved." But that's petty, and she refuses to be the petty one here. So she doesn't say anything, just gives his rump a shove and frees her hair. She trails her fingers through the strands as though she's assessing damage. And gallantly ignores him.
"You know what? Shiny. No more savin'." He's mostly teasing and a little hurt. He wanted to play the hero, and she's ruined his fun. If this were fun. Which it's not. "Amount a time you spend tending to that mane, I'd say it was a paying client."
He grins, and she wants to slap the grin off his face and while he's reeling from the blow, kiss him senseless. She imagines thrusting her tongue between his lips to lick his teeth and the roof of his mouth. Kiss him till he's fluid and gasping, his mouth opening and closing like a fish's. She thinks the shock of her kissing him might just kill him. Of course, she doesn't wish him dead. It's just that she tends to think more fondly of him when he's not in her sight. If they were to leave each other's presence for good, she might just fall in love.
". . . .oughta think about moving. Could maybe mount a half decent stand in the—"
He's still talking. She snickers and thinks, "I could do stealthy better than that." She, who was taught from age twelve to stand out.
"I, uh, been outta ammo since that encounter in the galley. I don't suppose you're carrying…anything?"
She hikes up her skirt to show the pistol riding her thigh.
"Huh," he says, and for a moment she revels in the knowledge that she's managed both to surprise and impress him. Not that the second is so hard, but the first requires talent. "Look at that."
He reaches for the weapon, and she bats his hand away.
"Don't even think about it," she advises.
"Must be a new experience for you, saying no when a man goes for the goods."
It's an innocuous comment—he's said far worse—but today it's too much.
"Go to Hell, Mal."
His pale blue eyes—by rights too pretty for a man, especially one like him—widen in surprise and maybe, she's never sure with Mal, remorse.
"You've been acting all manner of strange past few weeks," he accuses. "What gives?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't been acting anything."
"I'm trying to suss out when the bitch routine started. Seems it was right around the time of my nuptials. Heyyy. My gettin' hitched wouldn't have something to do with your mood swings by chance . . . would it?"
If she wasn't already cold and shivering, his last statement would have made her blood run cold.
In fact, she's furious with Mal, has been since Triumph. It isn't that he fell for such a practiced seduction technique as the Hapless Cooking Virgin. No, that he let Saffron play him just proves he's a man, and like all men, on occasion guilty of thinking with that part of his anatomy somewhat south of his brain. But for him to suggest that Inara, of all people, wouldn't see through the blushing Mrs. Reynolds' charade—that she would actually allow the deceitful snake to kiss her...
"Hmm, yes, that was around the time I last had a decent client," she answers evenly. "Triumph, Higgins' Moon. Where's your next thrilling caper, Mal? Some border world with an outbreak of impotence? Or maybe the land of the puritanical and repressed? I'm confident you'd have no trouble finding work."
"Whoa, ho! Just cuz I ain't lookin' for the kinda companionship comes with a pricetag don't mean I'm repressed, darlin'. Just means I got standards."
"Standards." She laughs shortly. "Right. It doesn't matter what kind of deceitful thief she is—well, I suppose the thief part isn't a deal breaker. Just so long as she acts the part of the innocent virgin for your friends and cooks you dinner!"
"She doesn't have to cook! I mean—you know what I mean. Anyway, since when do you care who I marry?"
Her head snaps up before she can control her neck muscles.
"I—I don't. Why should I care?"
"You got me. Anywho, seem to recall you having plenty of snazzy clients since I got myself hitched. Guy with the beard?" He gestures in the vicinity of his own smooth-shaved jaw. "Good-looking fella. Hell, I'd think on screwing him if he bought me dinner first."
"I'll be sure to mention if he waves," she says sweetly.
"Something else is eating you. Er...at you. Something beyond a shortage of choice meats on the borderworlds. You can tell me, you know." He grins boyishly. "Being captain is sorta like bein' a shepherd."
"Mmm, you and Book do have that celibacy thing in common."
He mouth falls open.
"Okay, that was just mean—"
"Shh!" she hisses.
"I—I thought I heard something."
"Nah, I don't hear nothing. Though maybehaps we move, try for a different location. Or, could be that's a mistake. You seen Wash and Zoe?"
"Not since the galley," she responds. "They'll probably stick together…"
"Zoe'd have a better chance on her own."
"For gods' sake, Mal." The flush of their argument fading, she realizes how cold she truly is, lying on the metal floorboards in a thin gown without sleeves. "He's her husband."
"Please. He's dragging her down."
She presses her lips so her teeth don't chatter. "You always were a romantic," she snorts.
His eyes flicker over her chest, and she remembers too late to cross her arms.
"You're freezing. It's written all over your face."
"Those aren't my face," she says dryly.
He reddens, and she feels a rush of satisfaction. She's self-aware enough to find it ironic that a Registered Companion, a woman trained in putting men at their ease, finds such pleasure in making this man uneasy.
Half smirking, he offers a hand. "C'mere."
She raises a brow. Where exactly does he expect her to come to? They're already so close she can feel the puffs of his breath, warm and soft on her cheek.
"I'm not gonna try anything," he assures, eyes rolling. He grabs her hand before she can protest and encases it in his much larger one. "Ai ya, you're like ice," he scolds in a voice soothing as a mother's.
"I'm fine," she says shortly. "You don't have to..."
The heat of his hand warms her numb fingers, and she trails off weakly, her silence as good as acquiescence. He's touched her so few times that even this, not-quite hand-holding, seems absurdly intimate.
"Starting to defrost?" he asks after a pause.
"A little," she offers. "Thank you."
He smiles that noble, crooked half-grin, and Inara rolls her eyes. She has to admire Saffron for persuading the captain to shake his pesky moral code, even temporarily. The ex-Companion must have employed considerable wiles to worm her way into Mal's bed. Or, at least shown him her considerable breasts.
She wonders how well Mal came to "know" his faux-bride. He would have passed out within seconds of ingesting the substance on her lips. Of course, her lips might not have been the first place he put his mouth. The thought has a sheen of sweat popping on her skin.
He's studying her with a bemused expressions, as though he can't quite read her mind but is getting a little close for comfort.
"You alright, there, Nara?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Hum," he says noncommittally. "So I warmed you up. Guess I should find some means of entertaining you now."
"I'm dizzy with anticipation," she says lightly. In fact, she is feeling a little dizzy.
"It's damn cold in here," he muses, rubbing his free hand against his thigh. "Reminds me of this story I heard in a bar some years back. There were these two people, a man and a woman."
"At the bar?"
"No, in the story. C'mon, Nara, pay attention." He rolls his eyes. "So anyway, there's a man and a woman, and they got caught out in the woods during a blizzard. He's a solider, and her some kind of dignitary. His job was to get her from A to B, but somewhere in between the storm hits, and they're at the mercy of the elements. They walk for hours, getting colder and wetter by the minute. They're losing feeling in their fingers, losing feeling in their toes. Both sure they're gonna die out there, except by now they're so cold they don't much care."
Inara shivers as the cold of the cargo hold trails an icy finger down her spine. She doesn't object when Mal slides a warm hand down her back, draws her casually into his chest.
"The temperature's dropping, and the man and woman are damn close to freezing. About to submit to death when, by some stroke of luck, they stumble on an abandoned cabin in a clearing. Ain't much to look at, but it's shelter and they don't exactly got call to be choosy. So they break a window and go inside."
"Breaking and entering," she murmurs. "I can see why this story appeals to you."
He makes a face.
"Can I continue, please?"
At her nod, he says, "Now, cabin don't have heat or hot water, so they're still mightily cold, but the building does offer some shelter from the elements. Still, the guy knows a thing or two 'bout survival from his army training. Roof or no, if they don't get warm soon, they're like to fall asleep and not wake up. About all the cabin has in the way of furnishings is a bed. Actually, it's more like a cot."
"Oh, how convenient," Inara says, laughing.
Mal looks put out.
"I'm sorry." She waves a hand in apology. "Go on, please."
"So there's a little bed—nothing fancy but functional in a bed-like capacity. Not unlike the one in my bunk, if you recall . . . ."
"I'll take your word for it."
"Don't have to take my word for it, seein' as you spent some time there. Took a little nap on the floor, remember? Though I guess for you the bedrooms tend to blur."
He winks, and she has to work to keep the muscles in her face from clenching. He doesn't know—couldn't possibly. And even if he does, so what? In a moment of shaky relief at finding him alive, she pressed a kiss against his lips. An innocent, friendly, warm and gently sensual lingering kiss on the lips. Uh-huh. She feels the blush creep over her features, hopes Mal is too engrossed in storytelling to notice.
"So, to get back to my story, these poor souls are near finished. Don't take 'em long to see there ain't but one solution. Matter of life or death." He waits, as though expecting a reaction. She supplies none, and eventually he sighs and says, "They take off their clothes and get into the bed. Naked."
He's studying her face.
"The human body's nothing to be ashamed of, Mal." She schools her tone to convey the appropriate level of nonchalance.
"Well, yeah. But they had no clothes on! I mean, what if it was us?" He arcs a brow in challenge.
"You and me, us?" She curses her throat for constricting on the last syllable.
"Neither of us wearin' a stitch, our shivering fleshes pressing and straining. Desperate to be warm."
"I imagine we'd do what was required to survive," she says finally.
"Survival instinct's mighty strong," Mal agrees. "Now the fella in the woods, he's always thought himself a gentleman. Never dream of taking advantage. I mean, maybe a couple dreams. She is naked and him alive. Doesn't help either that she's gorgeous."
"Gorgeous?" she repeats, a smile curving her lips.
"Most beautiful thing he's ever seen."
The words are plainly spoken, and Inara feels her heart thud against the front of her dress.
"And does she feel something for him in turn?" she asks.
Mal gives her a strange look—sad and hopeful at once.
"Ain't perfectly certain," he says after a beat. "Sometimes he thinks she just might."
Inara can speak three languages, but all her words are gone.
"That's . . .they must both . . . I mean, the temptation must be very great."
"I imagine that's so. Especially when she takes his face in her hands and . . . kisses him. On the lips."
"How does she know he'll kiss her back?"
And there is that look again: a sad, broken smile.
"Oh, reckon she knows. Anyway, he rolls her under him and hangs on for dear life. Tale goes that they make love over and over all night long to stay alive."
Inara waits a beat, and when he doesn't say more, lays a hand on his shoulder.
"Well?" she says.
"Did the couple survive the night, Mal?"
"How should I know? I'm drunk and horny by now, and the pretty redhead telling the story starts in kissing my neck. Never did hear the ending."
Inara struggles to wrench her hand free. Suddenly, she's furious, the vein in her temple pulsing in time with the thudding of her heartbeat.
"Let me go."
"I think I'd rather freeze."
"Wait, lemme tell you the rest of my story!"
"You said you never heard the rest!" she hisses.
"I never did hear what became of the man and the woman. But don't you wanna know what happened with the redhead nuzzling my neck?"
"I really don't."
"Well, I'm gonna tell you anyway since I have you here. So she's kissing my neck—sorta has this vacuum technique—"
"Let me up!"
"Fine, skipping ahead! Would think you of all people would be okay with a little sexual reminiscing. Ai ya. So I'm about to suggest we move the party someplace more private. Like her place. Before I can get the words out, girl up and tosses the drink I bought her all over my lap."
"She threw her drink on you?"
"She threw up on me."
Inara claps a hand over her mouth.
"Oh, for gods' sake."
"Hit me right in the . . . well . . . . Wouldn't have been so awful except for Zoe seeing the whole thing from across the bar. Thought I'd never hear the last of it."
She's laughing now, tears pearling at the corners of her eyes.
"Hey, now," he protests, chuckling. "It's a sad story! I was ninety percent sure I was getting lucky that night."
"At least your lap got some form of atten—"
"Shh!" A hand reaches up to cover her mouth, knuckles glancing her breast on the way. Both falter at the contact and then ignore it.
"Thought I heard something," he whispers, head cocked, body gone stiff and still.
"I don't hear—"
Now she does hear, and they each fall silent.
When it comes, she turns her face into his shirt. He's plays the hero at the end, and tries to shield her body with his, but it's too late for chivalry. She cold and wet, and somehow she just knows this is his fault.
"Nice shirt, Nara." A bawdy laugh. "Heh, you too, Mal."
Jayne lords over them, his Blue Sun Galactic Water Warrior—a hydration weapon like no either—balanced on one well-muscled shoulder. He chuckles and gives a whoop of victory before spraying Mal again in the ass for good measure.
2. In the Dirt
"You need me," she told him, arms folded over her breasts, staring down at him as he knelt on the floor of the cargo bay.
A pair of blue eyes snapped up to glare into hers.
"I can assure you that isn't the case," the owner of those eyes said quietly.
She sucked in her breath at his words, designed to wound, but pushed stubbornly ahead.
"Really, Mal. These functions are hardly your strong suit."
Finished arranging the cargo, he stood slowly, still favoring the side where he was shot a month ago. Simon said he was lucky this time. Two centimeters to the left, and the bullet would have struck something vital. It was always two centimeters, or three. Inara was very wearied by all this talk of centimeters.
"I happen to be a big hit at parties."
"You certainly leave an impression." Often he left that impression with his fist . . .
"I think I got some notion what I'm doing," he said. Hands slipped up to grasp at his suspender straps. "I've been in this game awhile now, sweetheart."
"I've been in it since I was twelve."
Anger flashed in his eyes for a brief moment before his face closed up. He never could bear the idea of children being hurt. Or forced, which was how he'd always see it. She shouldn't have said what she did, but gods, the man was stubborn.
"Mal . . . I didn't—"
"I guess sometimes I forget how experienced you are. Man looks at that beautiful face, he'd never know you . . ." He trailed off, gaze sliding to his boots. When he lifted his head again, his eyes stared straight through her. His face was etched with the dips and grooves of age—shadows and lines that weren't present when she left all those months ago. "You wanna come on the job today, Inara? I ain't gonna stop you. Wear something low-cut; maybe they'll pay out an extra ten."
He crossed the room, moving at half his usual speed because of the pain that still lingered in his side. He hesitated in the doorway, shoulders slumping.
"It doesn't matter, you know."
"I'm sorry?" she asked.
He turned, bracing on hand on the doorjamb. His eyes shone with guilt if not actual apology.
"If you're doing this 'cause you think you owe me…I don't care that you're a little late with . . . . I mean, it doesn't matter to me."
"It matters to me," she said quietly.
Whether or not Mal liked to admit as much, he had relied upon the rent money she paid him to keep Serenity in the sky, and food on the table.
"You'll settle up when you can. I know you."
I know you.
"I—Mal, I haven't been working. I mean, I haven't taken a client since . . . for awhile now."
"Yeah." He crossed and then uncrossed his arms. "Yeah, I noticed."
She waited, in case he meant to say more. But he only looked at his shoes.
Since the Hell that was Miranda, six months ago though sometimes it felt longer, she had scheduled exactly three appointments.
The first was a soldier, sweet and a bit shy, with a high, nervous-sounding laugh. If she were being honest, she'd admit that he reminded her of him. His coloring and of a similar height and weight. A younger him, certainly. Softer . . . . He had two tiny kittens that nuzzled their heads into her hand and tore at her stocking with razor-sharp claws. They talked and played with the kittens for an hour before Inara got slowly to her feet, took the soldier by the hand and gently undressed him. While he made fumbling love to her—he really was very young—she squeezed her eyes shut against the curve of his neck and pretended he was someone else. After, she lay in his arms, her cheeks flushed with lust and shame, her heart beating a thick, painful pattern against her chest.
She took another client the next week. She thought it would be easier if got back in the...well…. Deliberately, she chose a man who didn't resemble Mal in the slightest. He was older, at least fifty, and dark and wiry with a wardrobe composed entirely of black. An eccentric playwright living on the rim, he, like Inara, had emigrated from the Core for unknown reasons. She met him in New Dunsmir and spent a very pleasant evening cooking and dining in his spacious loft. They drank red wine and talked about the current operas being performed in Sihnon City. When the bottle was empty, the playwright opened another and led her into the bedroom. They had what was, in Inara's well-qualified opinion, exceptionally good sex, and after he kissed her on the temple and said he was going to write and that she should feel free to sleep or take a bath or anything she liked. She smiled, languidly, and stroked his hair. Then she went into the beautiful marble-green bathroom and filled the sunken tub. She cried until her eyes were dry, her fingers and toes shriveled, the bathwater cooling around her.
After the playwright, she allowed herself a full two months—certainly it was just a matter of time—before choosing a magistrate with family money. She'd seen him before, and found him kind and simple and direct in his requests. She canceled this third appointment, on Boros, two days before she was to arrive. Telling no one, not even Mal, she spent the day alone shopping the local bazaars. She bought a pink shawl for Kaylee, and a blue one for River. She got a pound of grapes for the others, and said it was a gift from the magistrate.
She told the Guild she was taking an extended sabbatical for personal reasons. She herself hadn't decided how long the sabbatical was to last, and Mal, for his part, didn't ask.
Still, if she was to stay, she needed to perform some function here. Fill a role just like Zoe and Jayne and the others. If that meant accompanying Mal to some borderworld ball, tucking her arm through his so he couldn't punch anyone. . .well, she would just have to grit her teeth and bear it. Even if it killed them both.
"Shuttle leaves at six," he drawled. "Don't be late unless you wanna get left."
"I won't be late, Mal."
"Well . . . good," he said, not sounding like he was entirely sure about that assessment.
He started for the door, lingered in the archway long enough to toss a look back over his shoulder.
"Try not to go startin' any fights this time. Not sure my gut can take any more pointy things bein' shoved through it."
"Funny," she mused, "but I don't recall starting the last one."
He limped away whistling.
She was absurdly pleased.
"You ever gonna quit smiling?" Mal asked, the shuttle lifting cleanly up over the snow-covered Saint Albans' landscape.
She rolled her eyes at him, her lashes long wet spikes from the walk back from the bar.
"I'm happy, Mal. We landed the job."
"Well, yeah. But I knew we would."
His hair was still damp from the falling snow, and a few wet wisps clung to his face. He looked more like a boy than a man grown.
"You should have told me the truth," she scolded mildly, "that we were meeting friends of yours."
"Probably shoulda," he agreed. "Still, the look on your face when my friend Ned pulled his gun on me . . . ." He chuckled.
"They liked me," she said stubbornly. "And I liked them too. So much so that I'm going to ignore your letting me wear Sihonese silk to a party in a pub."
"I'd appreciate that," he said amiably. "And, you know, you did good. Thanks."
She beamed at his praise and settled back in the copilot's seat. Shivering a little, she drew her legs up, tugging down her skirt to cover goose-pimpled flesh.
"Cold?" Mal fiddled with the climate controls.
"A little," she admitted.
"Should be warm soon."
He peered through the window into the pre-dawn sky.
"Huh," he said. "Looks like the snow's falling faster."
She awoke to a dull ache in her neck and fingers pinching none-too-gently at her cheeks.
"Nara. No, don't go back to sleep. Hey, listen to me."
She felt a work-calloused hand clasp hers before slipping down to tweak the flesh of her wrist. Hissing at the unexpected pain, she forced her lashes to part, revealing confused brown orbs.
"Mal?" she murmured, surprised and a little hurt to find it was he dragging her from the warm, feather-soft darkness.
Mal, for his part, didn't seem at all remorseful.
"Good girl," he breathed, relief making his voice thick. "That's a good girl."
"Where are we?" she asked. Her lips felt dry, her tongue large and ungainly.
"On the shuttle." His hands worked a gentle path over her arms and legs. "Does anything hurt? Aside from, you know, me pinching you."
"I—I don't know."
She felt sick, her stomach twisting uncontrollably. Nausea rose hot and bitter in her throat. Gods, don't let me puke on him.
"What happened?" she asked. She tried to get to her feet, an awful cold sweat breaking over her skin when she realized she couldn't move. "Mal. I can't—"
He clicked the button to release her safety harness, and she fell forward into his arms.
"Easy," he intoned, nudging her back onto the chair. "Are you sure you ain't hurt?"
She thought a moment. "My neck's a little stiff—whiplash, I guess, and . . . my chest feels bruised."
"Probably just from the safety strap, but we'll take a look. Do you remember what happened?"
She tried to remember. A problem with the engine. Mal shouting for her to strap in. His face, pale but calm, hands steady over the controls as he guided the shuttle down for an emergency landing. "Almost on the ground. That's a good girl." He wasn't speaking to Inara but to his shuttle. "That's my good girl, that's good, just set down nice and . . . oh, you dirty, dirty—"
"You crashed us," she said dryly.
He studied her grimly for a moment. Finally a small smile crooked his lips and he extended a hand.
"There's blankets in the back. C'mon. Let's both of us get a mite warmer."
She hadn't even realized that she was shivering.
"What happened to the life support?" she murmured, just now noticing the lack of heat.
"Life support systems shut down in the crash." He drew her to her feet, one hand falling to the small of her back. "Along with the 'com system."
"Serenity?" she asked dully.
"We sent a wave before taking off. They're bound to start worrying when we don't make it back on schedule. Figure they'll have a few glasses of Kaylee's engine hooch and argue awhile. Then they'll come rescue us."
Outside the capital, The City of Saints, Saint Albans was little more than an ice desert. Kilometer after kilometer of frozen, snow-blanketed earth. The chances of anyone finding them, even someone who was looking . . . .
"Inara? We just gotta wait a little while longer. Okay?"
She let him lead her into the back of the shuttle. One of the nearby moons, practically full, cast enough light to see shapes and shadows if not much else.
"Our clothes are wet," she said realistically. Her hands played over the damp fabric of her shawl, more decorative than functional in actual cold. "We should get undressed, get under the blankets."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right." He shrugged off his coat and started unbuttoning his shirt. "Could at least look away, save my modesty."
She rolled her eyes but turned indulgently to face the wall.
"I've seen it before, Mal," she reminded him as she began to undress. Her fingers, stiff and numb, fumbled with the zipper of her gown.
"I'm aware you've seen a naked man once or twice, Inara."
"No. Well, yes. I meant that I've seen you naked, though. In the desert," she elaborated at the look of surprise he flashed over one shoulder.
"Oh, yeah. Forgot about that. Still, this is different."
"How is this different?" she asked, amused.
"Uh, well, for one thing, it's a mite colder."
"Oh, well, I promise not to judge," she teased, folding her gown neatly before placing it on the floor.
He turned to face her, wearing just his undershirt and shorts. She realized she'd seen him naked but never in short sleeves, and the thought had a smile curving her lips.
"What?" he demanded, glancing down.
She shook her head.
"Did you find the blankets?"
"Oh, yeah, they're over here."
He draped her with a heavy brown army blanket, his eyes lingering a moment on her chest.
"Hold on a sec, let me . . . ." He tugged at the strap of her silk slip. She blamed the cold for the way she shuddered as he lowered the strap over one rounded shoulder, baring flesh to his careful observation. "Safety harness bruised you pretty good," he observed, fingers gliding over the abraded skin.
"I'll be alright," she said softly. "I'm not so breakable."
"No," he said, replacing the strap and drawing the blanket more tightly around her. "Guess not."
He spread another blanket over the floor of the shuttle and then lowered himself to the ground. Holding up a hand, he waited patiently for her to link her fingers with his. He drew her down beside him, and she settled, head on his chest, as though it were the most natural thing in the 'verse.
"Tell me a story?" she requested.
"Something from your childhood . . . ."
He was quiet so long she thought he would refuse.
"Let's see now. Went through a stealing phase back when I was a kid," he said finally.
"You . . . went through?" Keeping her face straight was an effort. "As in, you grew out of this phase?"
He smiled, a blush creeping up his neck.
"Make fun later. I'm trying to share something personal here."
"What did you steal?" she asked contritely.
"Candy mostly. And, well . . . gifts for the girls at church."
"Gifts?" she asked, arching a brow. Deliberately, she kept her tone light. "What kinds of gifts?"
"Just . . .gifts. Plastic bracelets and trinkets and stuff. Apples sometimes. After services Sunday, I'd take a girl out behind the rectory, give her a bracelet in exchange for a kiss on the cheek."
It was too much, and she snorted a laugh through her nose.
"That was real attractive, Nara. Charming, you might say."
Her eyes were filling with tears, her belly beginning to ache in that good way.
"I'm laughing with you," she insisted.
"Well, shiny. Except I ain't laughing." But he smiled a boyish grin and brought a hand up to play through her hair. "Got away with it for months," he reflected. "Till, one week, I got the notion to swipe perfume bottles. Were these pretty little bottles in all different colors. The girls couldn't get enough of 'em. Used to carry the things around in my pants pockets, which worked out just shiny till one of the bottles broke. Soaked my pants and cotton undershorts both. You can bet Mama had some questions come laundry day."
"Oh, gods," Inara managed when she caught her breath. "I hope your mother delivered a stern lecture on petty theft."
"She spanked me! Couldn't sit comfortable for a week, a fact which amused the girls at church to no end, what with all the squirming I did on that hard wooden pew."
Imagining Mal as a mischievous little boy, bribing girls for kisses, was hard enough. Imagining him being disciplined by his affectionately peeved mother was beyond her capability.
"Did that nip your stealing impulse in the bud?" she asked chuckling.
"Stopped stealin' perfume, you can bet!" He grinned, one hand smoothing the army blanket over her back and shoulders. "Afraid I still nicked bracelets and apples from the drugstore."
"For the girls you were sweet on," she said.
"Yeah, for them."
"You know, Mal. I like bracelets. And apples."
"Is that right?" he asked.
"Well, we'll have to do somethin' about that. You know, when we get back . . . ."
"Hush." She traced his lips with her fingertip. "You don't have to, Mal. I'm not Kaylee. Or River. You don't have to be strong for me. You don't have to tell pretty lies."
"Inara . . . ."
"The snow. It's very pretty."
"Yeah," he said, throat thick. "Is at that. You cold?"
"It's not so bad now," she said, snuggling more deeply into his chest.
She rubbed her cheek against the cotton-weave of his undershirt.
"My hands," she smiled, "they went to sleep."
Without a word, he took her hands and put them inside his shirt. He pressed them over his heart, and within seconds they began to warm and tingle. As though in a dream—it couldn't matter now—she allowed her fingertips to explore the grooves and muscles of his chest. He didn't protest as small round nails scraped his nipples, raising them to hard little buds. He shivered and bucked a little under her touch.
"Cold?" she asked innocently.
"Brat." But he smirked and ducked his head to kiss her cheek.
His lips felt nice—warm and pliant—and when he tried to kiss her other cheek too, she angled her neck so their noses bumped. She parted her lips against his and applied pressure till with a harsh, throaty sound, he yielded, opening his mouth so she could draw out his tongue. His lip was bruised, probably he'd bitten it during the crash, and she sucked hard at the swollen spot until he moaned and filled his hands with fistfuls of her hair.
"My breasts," she murmured, and he obligingly lowered his hands to squeeze and stroke them through the thin fabric of her slip.
At her urging, they shifted so they were lying on their sides. His hips thrust helplessly, erratically into her belly. Between moist, messy, desperate kisses, she wiggled a hand between their bodies and eased him out of his shorts.
"Inara . . . " He moved to still her fingers. "Ain't right doin' it this way."
One hand twisting in the damp brown of his hair, she bit the tendon in his throat, rolled her hips against his till he groaned softly and seized her lips with his.
"We could die. Without ever having . . . . make love to me, Mal."
He hesitated, his desire to lose himself in her warring with his want to reassure her that this wasn't the end.
"I need you," she said, with a breathlessness that was only half artifice, and the moment the words left her lips, she knew she'd won, convinced him, and that he wouldn't deny her anything now.
"Nara," he moaned when they were face to face, foreheads pressing, bodies rocking artlessly on the floor. He came surprisingly hard, a few seconds too soon, and whispered a muffled apology into her neck before sliding a hand down her body.
After, she played her fingers through his hair, murmuring words of praise near the ear Niska almost cost him.
"I'm an old man. Had a lot of good nights in my life, but this, being here with you, is by far the best."
"I don't even know how old you are," she mused, fingers twisting in the darkly curling hair of his forearm.
"Old," he chuckled. "Too old for you, prob'ly."
"I'm not such a kid, myself."
"Nope, not a kid."
She started to cry then, silent tears that rolled smoothly over cold pink cheeks.
"Hey. Hey, don't," he began when he felt her shoulders shaking. He drew her chin up so she had no choice but to meet his gaze. "Do you wish we hadn't . . .?"
"Mal," she said quietly. "Don't you dare ask me if I regret this."
A slow grin spread over his face.
"I wouldn't dream of it, Inara."
"I'm crying because I'm . . . they're happy tears."
"Women are a strange mystery."
"I guess," she chuckled. "I just wish . . ." Her face contorted again, and she let him kiss her cheeks, the tip of her nose, and finally her lips. "We lost so much time," she whispered.
"I know. I got regrets about that, too. We're two hard-headed people, Nara. Hell, the first time you kissed me was when you thought I was dead."
"I kissed you because I realized you were alive, you idiot." She frowned, her smooth brow crinkling. "How did you know that I . . . ?"
"Didn't." He grinned, obviously pleased with himself. "Until a second ago when you told me."
She kissed the smirk from his lips and snuggled deeper into his arms.
"I don't regret anything," she told him. Not making love with Mal in a cold, crashed shuttle on a frozen little moon. Not the woman she was before or the one she had become. "Do you . . .?"
"Do I what?" he asked, stroking her hair.
"I'm not one of your choir girls."
"Inara. The life you led made you who you are. That's the woman I know . . . the woman I'm in love with."
He arched a brow.
"Getting hard of hearing?"
"No," she said slowly. "Idiot."
"You had to wait until now to tell me?"
He laughed, relieved.
"I love you, too, Mal," she said, and the laughter died in his throat.
"Huh," he said softly. "How about that."
She yawned, and he fanned his fingers over her scalp, rubbing gently.
"You should try an' sleep," he said. "Get your beauty rest so you don't scare me come morning."
She gripped his arm hair and tugged.
Disentangling her fingers, he lifted them to his lips, nudging the digits into his mouth.
"It's not your fault," she murmured. "No matter what happens, promise you'll remember that."
"You givin' orders on my ship?"
"Mal . . . ."
"I promise," he said roughly. "Go to sleep now, sweetheart."
She curled into him, inhaling his warm familiar scent. A chuckle sounded low and soft in her throat.
"What?" he demanded, nudging her under the ribs.
"I was just thinking . . . what will the others say when they find us like this?"
They drifted to sleep smiling.