Disclaimer: They belong to Joss Whedon, Russell Davies and the BBC
Feedback: is a girl's best friend. Constructive criticism is, as always, actively encouraged.
Spoilers: Through S3 for Doctor Who, S1 for Torchwood and the BDM for Firefly.
Notes: Orginally written for the Multiverse challenge.
Rating: PG for innuendo and some language.
Inara sat out on the patio of Graham Lee's city home, back straight and ankles crossed demurely. She clasped her hands in her lap and tried to keep them from trembling.
Just breath in time, Lady Mai had told her. It's a client like any other.
Easy for her to say. But Inara had never been out of the Guild House before, when it was her charms alone that would determine the outcome of the next few hours. As discreetly as possible, she wiped sweaty palms along the edge of her skirt and once more recited her lessons.
Always be polite.
Never show surprise and never judge.
You are the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Act as if it is true and it will be.
There is nothing in this moment except the act itself.
In a second of panic, she found herself at an abrupt loss for the proper way to serve tea (did she clean the whisk first or the scoop?), but a muffled boom pulled her out of her thoughts. Another boom followed and the building shook.
Yells came from inside and Inara stood, previous uncertainty giving way to small slivers of fear. She stepped back – perhaps to run or maybe just give her room to think, she wasn't sure yet – when the doors flew open to release a young man running at full throttle. With no time to get out of the way, he slammed into her and the pair fell to the ground in a tangle of limbs and skirt.
"Sorry! You okay, m – Inara?"
At the sound of her name, she took a good look at the man sprawled on top of her. Black hair, blue eyes, wonderful smile. Handsome and he probably knew it, too. She tried to place him as he helped her to her feet but he was wholly unfamiliar.
"You'll have to forgive me," she said. "But have we met?"
"Jack!" A blonde girl skidded to a halt beside them, shortly followed by an older man in a worn leather jacket. "You alright?"
"I'm fine." He glanced at Inara. "You?"
She nodded, as the second man took a look at the two of them and rolled his eyes. "You really think this is the time?"
"Huh?" As if just realizing he still had his arm across her shoulders, Jack stepped back to a less invasive position next to her. "Oh, Doc, no, it's not what you think. This is Inara. We go way back."
We do? She wanted to say but the blonde girl was already speaking. "Think you really do know everyone in the universe. I'm Rose, by the way, and that's the Doctor." She held out a hand which Inara took gingerly.
"Um, Inara," she said, trying to keep up.
"Yes, yes, isn't this nice, we're all friends now," the Doctor said. "Bully for us. Now can we go? Preferably before the building collapses?"
"What?" Inara looked at Lee's home, which was listing to the side and did indeed appear in imminent danger of falling. "But – but-"
"Don't worry, all the little humans made it out safe and sound," the Doctor said and took off again. Rose followed and Jack grasped her hand.
Having little choice, she ran. After she tripped for a second time, ripping her skirt beyond repair, Jack swept her up into his arms. Ignoring her outraged squawk, he continued after his friends until they reached a large blue box a couple dozen meters away. After he released her, she hit him in the chest.
"I don't know what's going on, but that was my client back there and I am not going to shame the Guild by running away from-from whatever it was you people thought you were doing."
"Yeah, about that." Jack pointed back at the house. Or at least what was left of it. It seemed, in their haste to leave the scene, she failed to notice the building simply giving up the ghost and collapsing in on itself. Before catching fire.
As sirens began wailing in the distance, Inara said a word she very rarely said in English.
The Doctor grimaced. "Fire's a bit of overkill, yeah."
Jack shrugged. "Hey, you wanted to make sure to get the whole infestation, nothing does it quite like blowing them up, then lighting them on fire." Suddenly he turned his blinding smile back on Inara. "Though I can't say I expected to see you there. How's tricks, Inara?"
She wondered if that was a dig at her profession, but decided no, he was sincere. If perhaps a little bit insane.
"I don't know you." She said it slowly, carefully, enunciating each word just to make sure he understood.
His smile faded. Behind him, Rose muttered a rueful "Oops," while the Doctor's expression went frightfully blank.
"Jack," he said.
"Yeah," Jack muttered. He took Inara by the arm and guided her to a spot where they wouldn't be overheard. He was gentle, but she didn't think she could have run if she tried.
"What is this?" she said. "Who are you?"
"Listen." He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her square in the eye, handsome face suddenly grave. "You have to forget you saw me today. Don't talk about it to anyone and if you see me again, don't mention it at all."
"But-" How do you know we'll meet again?
He didn't let her say the words, just kissed her in an all-together strange way, brief and sentimental.
"Go home, Inara Serra. I'll see you around."
And before she could even breath again, he left. She stood for a time, trying to put together her thoughts as the fires continued to burn. A strange wheezing noise drifted to her, like some great beast trying to lumber its way into the world. But when she looked up, there was nothing there, only a light breeze and the memory of Jack's kiss. Jack himself and his two friends had vanished, along with the blue box.
She wondered how she was ever going to explain this to Lady Mai.
Inara nearly fell over when she saw the face of her new client. However, professional that she was, she merely raised an eyebrow.
Jack grinned at her from the entryway. "Hey, Inara."
"Jack." She wondered what exactly she was supposed to say to him. Blown up any buildings lately? He had told her not to mention it, but she couldn't just ignore his existence. She finally settled on, "I didn't expect to see you again."
"I get that a lot."
When he seemed disinclined to come the rest of the way into the Guild House, she gestured forward. "I was told you wanted to discuss the particulars of your request in person?"
"Sort of. A little." He stepped back and looked at someone hidden behind the door frame. "Come on. Promise she doesn't bite."
A red-haired woman slunk into sight. Jack clasped her hand and pulled her inside. Though she stared resolutely at the floor, Inara could see the blush along her cheeks.
"Can't believe you talked me into this," the woman muttered. "'s humiliating."
"No, it's not," Jack said, sounding like he meant it. "Inara Serra, meet my very good friend Donna Noble."
"Oh god," the woman groaned and placed her hands over her face. Like his previous companions, she spoke with a Dyton Colony accent.
Inara nodded and said, "Jack, can I speak to you for a moment?"
"Sure." After he made sure Donna was ensconced in one of the plush chairs with a warning to not go anywhere, he joined Inara at the far corner of the foyer. "What's up?"
"Jack," she started, then paused. What was she to say? She still didn't know how this man knew her name or how he'd come under the impression they were friends. The steps of this dance remained frustratingly vague. But he was still a client and she was still a Companion and there were more practical matters to consider. She sighed. "If you know me so well, I'm sure you know my requirements when it comes to more… unusual requests."
"I've got the coin, if that's a problem."
She came very close to glowering at him, but her voice remained bland. "It's not the coin. It's the way you've approached me. I don't go to clients blind and I don't like being ambushed."
He sighed. "I'm sorry. You're right and I know better. But…" He glanced back at Donna, pulled in on herself on the chair. "It took a lot to get her here."
"And what is she to you? Because if you're involved-"
"What? Oh no." He grinned. "No, I wouldn't push your standards that far." His expression softened. "She's just a dear friend who's been through a lot." At some point he had grasped her hand, thumb circling the skin between her own thumb and forefinger. The gesture was both platonic and achingly intimate. "And she deserves to feel beautiful for a night."
Inara studied him for a moment, the way he stepped just a hair closer into her personal space than was strictly polite, the steady eye contact, the almost loose posture. She wasn't certain, but she believed he'd had some Companion training himself. "And you can't do that for her?"
His smile turned a bit melancholy. "She wouldn't believe me."
Inara sighed and turned to look at his friend again. A little heavy-set, on the near side of forty but probably not for much longer, clothing almost dowdy, though the colors were bright. A face that seemed plain at first glance, but, perhaps if she smiled – yes, there could be beauty there, too.
"If this happens again," Inara said. "I'll ban you from the registry myself."
Jack nodded. "I wouldn't expect anything less."
Together, the two of them walked back to Donna, who glanced up, her expression pinched and wary.
Inara smiled, gentle as a breeze. "Donna, I'm Inara. It's a pleasure meeting you."
"Um…" Donna mumbled. Inara patted her hand.
"Why don't you and Jack take a moment and I'll start making the tea."
As Inara walked back to her quarters, she heard Donna say, "We came all this way for tea?"
"Best tea in the whole 'verse," Jack answered and though she had no idea why he would say that, Inara smiled all the same.
She ran across him by accident when Serenity docked for minor repairs. Mal had taken Jayne and Zoe to negotiate with Badger (or fight with him or threaten him, depending on which way the wind blew) and she wanted to browse among the shops a bit. She paused in front of a window display and debated whether or not to get the little sun-dress for Kaylee, who lacked more feminine clothing in favor of the coveralls and old shirts she needed to bang around the engine room.
She saw his reflection walk by in the glass and before she quite knew what she was doing, turned around with a startled, "Jack?"
He didn't seem to hear her the first time, so she repeated his name. He paused, turned back and Inara had to physically stop herself from stepping back. Something had vanished from his face, some indefinable joy, and what remained almost scared her.
He mouthed her name and in two quick strides he had her crushed against him. His hands dug into her back with bruising force and she could feel the tremors in his body.
"I thought – with everything else…" He took a shaky breath, pulling back. He didn't hold on with such desperation now and he was smiling, though it didn't reach his eyes at all. "You look good."
"So do you." And that was the truth, even if the line of his jaw was tight with anger and the grey she could've sworn was at his temples the last time she'd seen him had vanished. Perhaps he dyed his hair? A possibility, but for all his looks, he'd never actually struck her as vain. "What brings you here?"
"Oh, you know, this and that. The usual." Lies. Big, fat lies and not even entertaining ones. He noticed her frown and cleared his throat. "How about you?"
Avoid, dodge, parry and change the subject. She recognized the technique after living with Mal for so long, but let it go. Because, honestly, what did she actually know about Jack that she had any right to call him out on it? "I'm fine. My ship's docked for a day or two and I'm not due to meet another client until we get back to Ariel."
She left it dangling as an invitation and Jack didn't disappoint. "Got time for a drink then?"
He offered her his arm. She slipped a hand through it. "Sounds divine."
They found a small, not entirely shabby inn with a bar and fine music. She spoke of politics on the core planets and what chance the conservatives had to take over parliament in the next elections and the rumors that a new cycle of colonial expeditions would be starting soon. He mentioned a passing interest in sports and told her an utterly outrageous story about seducing some initiate Shepherd with the assistance of only his looks and a well-timed explosion. She didn't believe a word of it, though she laughed anyway.
They spoke of nothing personal, no mention made of why she was no longer in the Guild House, no talk of his rage. And it was only with mild surprise she heard herself suggest they rent a room upstairs for however long they might need it.
He worshiped her body, gave more than he took and his intimate knowledge of where to bite and kiss, of what would make her gasp and moan just so, would have been frightening if he hadn't looked so utterly lost in wonder. She arched against him as he groaned and they came together.
He confessed afterwards. Everyone always did.
"They took two years from me. No explanation, no apology. And for a moment I thought, – it's stupid, I know it's stupid – I thought they could take you, too. They didn't, they wouldn't, but I don't even know what it was I did. What was so horrible that they erased it completely."
He looked like he might cry, so she kissed him. She couldn't comfort him any other way, not when their dance was still so strange and the words refused to move in rhythm, but ever so slowly, she was learning.
"Jack, Jack, Jack," she said.
"One day," he said. "You're really going to have to tell me why you call me that."
When she woke the next morning to Mal pounding on the door – demanding to know just what in the tain xiode she thought she was doing, not telling anyone where she was – Jack had already left.
Sometimes, despite knowing better, Inara still expected a white knight to come rescue her. To take her away and admit for once, just as a change, that he needed her. It probably said something about her life that her knight had turned out to be a cynical, small-time criminal who fought on the wrong side of a civil war.
Her knight never turned up, at least not when she actually wanted him to.
Jack did instead.
She caught one of her initiates talking to a man out in the garden. At first annoyed that the girl would break House rules to sneak him in, Inara couldn't help the smile when she saw who it was.
"Jack, honestly, you need to start wearing a bell."
He grinned and picked her up, spinning her in an undignified circle before pulling her into a hug. "Inara! How's tricks, doll?"
"As best as can be expected. How about you?" She stepped back and took a good look at him. The angry, hard lines of his face had vanished and whatever had been missing last time had reasserted itself. He looked years younger.
She frowned and leaned a little closer. No, she wasn't mistaken. He was younger, maybe even younger than when they'd first met. But that couldn't be possible, right? Trick of the light.
Except that wasn't how it worked. Not this dance and not this man, even if she wasn't quite ready to admit it out loud yet. Too many steps and her timing was all wrong.
Jack frowned. "Is something wrong?"
"No, I'm sorry. I was wool-gathering. Tell me, how long can you stay?"
"A week, maybe. My...employers gave me some time off." He tugged on his ear and grinned. "Wait. That mean I can stay here?"
"As long as you contribute a little something."
Jack looked like all of his birthdays came at once. "Really?"
Inara glanced at the initiates peeking through the windows at them. Word traveled fast. "Oh, I'm sure we'll be able to put your talents to use."
The man they brought in from the Alliance lab looked more dead than alive, the blood covering him from nearly head to foot. Mal looked grim as he left him off in Simon's care, a still sort of rage that Inara hadn't seen since Miranda.
"How is he?" she asked.
Mal shrugged and looked away. "Doc's not sure he's gonna make it."
He wasn't a hero, her knight, or at least that's what he said, but sometimes he had heroism thrust on him and somehow that made it more heart-breaking.
"River's having a bad spell," he said. "Could you-?"
"Of course." Simon would be too busy caring after their dying patient to keep an eye on his sister and Inara had a talent for calming her.
She found their pilot sitting outside the med bay, knees drawn up and hugged tightly to her chest. Inara settled in next to her and River leaned against her shoulder, though she kept her arms clasped around her legs.
"Jack-be-nimble wasn't fast enough," River said. "The candle burned blue."
Inara rubbed her shoulder. "It'll be okay, sweetie."
River sighed. "It's not easy being a fact when nobody likes the truth."
Inara said nothing. Sometimes it was easier to just let River talk and not question it.
They watched as Simon worked, first patching up, then cleaning their guest. With the blood gone, the face revealed was that of man in his middle years, hair solidly grey and face etched with hard lines.
Inara frowned and sat a little straighter. It was difficult to tell in repose, but his face struck a familiar chord.
"Oh," River said. "I'm sorry. I forgot he was your friend, too."
Inara's hand tightened enough against River that the girl yelped. When she squirmed away, Inara hardly noticed, her attention riveted on the man on the surgical table.
"Renci de Fouzu," she whispered. "Jack."
As soon as Simon told her their patient was out of the woods, she planted herself in the other bed, refusing to take her eyes off the impossibility before her. And with a closer look, there was no doubt it was Jack, aged far too much in the time she'd last seen him but here he was and there she was and that was the truth of it.
She must have dozed off at some point because the next thing she knew, a hoarse voice was saying her name. She opened her eyes to meet Jack's blue gaze.
He smiled and it took a few of the years off. "Hey."
"Hey," she said back. She stood and came to his bedside, grasping his hand in her own. It wasn't an old man's hand, not yet, but the lines and the grey didn't speak to a life of leisure. "How are you feeling?"
"Tired. Used." He squeezed her hand. "I'm glad you're here."
"Jack." She touched his hair, which had been black only a short while ago, grazed the face that had been young. That still was around the eyes. "What happened?"
"Oh, you know, took the slow path this time around." His smile turned a bit watery. "Didn't think I'd see you under these circumstances, though."
"How bad was it?"
"Had some good times along the way. Could've lived without the last few months, though." He blinked rapidly, then said, "Shit, am I crying?"
He placed a hand over his eyes and let out a shuddering sob. Inara laid her head against his chest, holding on as he wept and when he finally fell asleep again, she allowed herself to cry.
He stayed long enough to recover – which he did faster than he should have, but no one said anything about it – and asked only to be let off at the next core world.
As he gathered what few belongings he'd acquired during his stay, Inara watched from the doorway. He still looked older than he should have, but his smiles were easy now and his eyes had gotten a bit of their spark back.
"Where do you plan on going?" she asked.
"I don't know yet. I always liked Londinium. Or maybe I'll try being a colonist again. Haven't done that in... well, a good long while."
"And exactly how long is a 'good long while?'"
He grinned. "It's different for everyone."
She nodded. It wasn't really what she wanted to hear but it wasn't a lie and that was good enough for her. "I think I finally figured it out. What you are. It's impossible, of course, but it fits."
"I had a friend once. He liked to believe in six impossible things before breakfast. And sometimes he did six impossible things before breakfast which is a pretty hard standard to live up to." He winked. "But I'm trying."
"Yes," she said. "I do believe you are."
He hugged her very close and then kissed her on the forehead. "I don't think I'll be back, so you take care of yourself."
But you will she thought, keeping time in her head. One-two-three, one-two-three. You will.
However, she said nothing aloud, only nodding and letting him vanish into the 'verse once more.
It was late summer planetside when the boy arrived on Inara's doorstep.
He looked maybe eighteen, black hair in need of a cut and blue eyes full of sharp intelligence. His clothing, all wrong for this time and place, was dusty and worn and the bag slung over his shoulder had seen far better days. Inara rose as he approached.
"Howdy," he said with a grin.
Inara inclined her head, gracing him with a small smile. "Hello, Jack."
The grin faltered. "Oh, um, that's – that's not my name." He spent a moment trying to recover himself before suddenly straightening. "But for you, darling, I can be anyone you'd like."
She laughed a little at his clumsiness, though it was endearing all the same. Stepping on toes and miscounting the beat were how you learned to dance, after all. She held out a hand.
"Come on, xíâo péngyou. I have a lot to teach you."