Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playing.
Summary: Inara settles affairs with the Guild, while Mal waits anxiously back at home.
Mal shifted restlessly in his bunk. Having gotten shockingly used to the luxury of stretching out on Inara's huge bed while recovering from his unpleasant second encounter with Atherton Wing, he felt more than a little cramped in his own narrow bunk.
Pleasuring Inara was just about the most amazing thing he could ever have imagined happening in his life, but he had found that simply lying beside her on those decadently cool satin sheets, whispering in the dark, was a gorram close second. Problem was, it made the nights he spent alone seem all manner of long and torturous.
Inara and her satin-sheeted bed were gone. Having come to her decision to retire from her profession in favor of a life spent with him, she had taken her shuttle to Sihnon to settle her business affairs at the Guild House there. Mal had offered to accompany her, eager to do anything that would aid her progress, but Inara had quickly and inarguably refused his company, saying only that his presence would further complicate matters. What matters those were exactly, he did not know, and it was painfully obvious to him that she did not wish him to learn. Punching his pillow into submission, he fell into a fitful sleep, the last thought in his mind the mysteries of the woman whose absence had been stealing his sleep for two weeks now.
"It is the decision of the counsel to accept your resignation, Inara," the house priestess of Madrassa said. "Though I personally must say I am highly disappointed by your choice. To demean yourself in such a manner shows a certain…base nature I would never have expected of you."
Inara, stung by the words, blinked back unwanted tears. Though she of course did not agree with the older woman, Inara had spent years conforming to the opinions of people of position in the Guild, and she had a certain amount of ingrained respect for them. She bowed her head in deference. "With your permission, Honorable Mother, may I speak freely?"
The older woman barely contained a snort. "You've certainly had no trouble speaking freely to this counsel before, or flouting the standards of this honorable institution, for that matter."
Inara gazed at her steadily, her own formidable temper infusing her spine with sudden steel.
The older woman, well-versed in body language, relented, pursing her lips in disdain. "You have leave to speak as you wish."
Inara took a deep breath, and began. "I understand entirely that my actions might seem irresponsible and my choices illogical, but I wish you to understand, with no possibility of misinterpretation, that I do not believe that choosing to retire from the Guild is in any way demeaning. Nor is it intended to be at all a reflection of how I feel about this honorable counsel or House Madrassa as a whole. I make this choice because I cannot in good conscience perform my duties in a manner that would befit a representative of the Guild at this point."
"As you wish," the house priestess said dismissively. "However, as you are aware, there will of course be stipulations to our acceptance of your resignation."
Inara inclined her head slightly. "I had assumed that to be the case." She hoped that her nervousness about the nature of those stipulations was not betrayed on her face or in her voice.
"Very well. It is the decision of this counsel that the following conditions be met prior to our formal acceptance of your resignation." As the woman droned on, ticking off the requirements with an undue amount of glee, Inara's heart sank.
As he regarded her carefully on the screen, Mal thought that Inara's face looked pale and drawn. "I miss ya' darlin'," he said, the longing in his voice warming Inara despite the chill that had settled around her heart in recent days.
"I miss you too, Mal," she replied. "But I still have several things to handle here before I can rendezvous with Serenity."
Curious as to what could possibly take so long, Mal was careful not to reveal his impatience. "Take all the time you need, bao bei. I'll come for you when you call."
Inara's smile was bright and somewhat false, he thought, an alarm going off in his head. "You okay, 'Nara?"
"I'm fine, Mal. Just a little tired, I suppose." Inara gathered her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. "I'll wave again when I can." She reached to turn off the screen.
"Inara, wait," Mal said.
"What, Mal?" she asked, weariness etched in her face.
"Just…I wanted to say that I love you," he said, shifting uncomfortably.
This time Inara's smile was genuine. "I love you too."
Hearing Inara's shuttle lock onto Serenity with a satisfyingly solid sound, Mal practically ran to meet her. Five weeks had passed since Inara's departure, and Mal had found the time insufferably long. He felt like a teenager standing outside the shuttle door, embarrassingly eager to see her again.
"Ching jin," she called in answer to his knock.
Mal stepped into the room purposefully, planning to sweep her up into his arms for a proper welcome. But his first glance at his surroundings drew him up short. "Inara, what happened? Where are all your things?"
Inara stepped forward to meet him, drawing him into the shuttle further. "It's all right, Mal. I wasn't robbed," she said softly. "I sold them."
Mal looked around the almost bare space. Where rich tapestries had hung, there was the gunmetal gray of the shuttle walls. The opulent couch had been replaced by a simple little sofa. And Inara's ornate bed was gone. In its spot sat a much smaller bed, covered in what to Mal's shocked eyes looked suspiciously like plain cotton sheets. Realizing that his mouth was gaping open, Mal gathered his wits about him. "Why? I thought you loved all that…stuff."
Inara sat on the sofa and patted the cushion beside her. She had seriously debated telling Mal a complete and utter lie, but rejected the inclination at the last moment. "Come sit, and I'll explain."
Mal sat down, sweaty palms resting on his knees. He noted with relief that Inara still had one of the tea services she favored, and he silently watched her prepare the aromatic liquid, knowing that the familiar ritual had a soothing effect on her nerves.
Finally, handing him a cup, she spoke. "Mal, I…I don't want you to be upset."
Mal swallowed the scalding liquid, and replied, "Then maybehaps you'd best just tell me what happened."
"Of course," Inara said. "As you know, I went to House Madrassa to tender my formal resignation."
Mal nodded, but held his peace, watching the emotions scrolling across his lover's face.
Inara took a deep breath. "What I failed to mention when we discussed it is that it isn't simply a matter of saying I intend to quit."
"What do you mean?" he asked in bafflement.
"Well, as long as a Companion is active, she pays a small percentage of each contract amount to the House where her training took place. It is a way of repaying the time and expense of the training one receives. A productive Companion can usually eliminate her debt to the Guild by the time she contemplates retirement. However, for those who choose to retire early, the outstanding amount can be quite …large."
"You tellin' me you're indentured?" Mal asked, a bitter tone in his voice.
"No, it's not like that at all," Inara denied. "A Companion is free to choose her own clients, and choose her repayment options. It is not indenture, as such."
"Okay," Mal said, not at all convinced by her line of reasoning, but unwilling to argue the point. "So, how much?"
Inara swallowed thickly. "I don't see how it matters…"
Mal interrupted her. "It matters to me."
"The stipulation was twenty-eight thousand credits," Inara answered abruptly, wanting to get it over with quickly.
Mal rocked back in his seat, narrowly avoiding spilling his tea. "Wu de tyen ah, Inara. How do they expect us to pay…"
Inara broke in. "They don't expect 'us' to pay, Mal. It was my debt only. You needn't worry in any case. It's been taken care of."
Mal looked at her intently, sadness replacing the anger in his eyes. Inara saw the transformation, and her heart was warmed by it. 'It's all right, air en."
"I don't think it's all right that you were forced to sell your things," he said, regret in his tone.
But Inara placed a long, slender finger delicately to his lips, halting his words. "I didn't need those things, Mal. Not like I need you."
She leaned forward, her lips replacing her finger. Mal set his cup aside, freeing both hands to pull her to him. As he deepened the kiss, Inara offered a small prayer to Buddha that he would never discover that her possessions had only been a portion of what she'd had to sell to come back to him a free woman. Pushing the memory aside, she sank gratefully into the love and warmth of his embrace.
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