Walking into the dining area to be greeted by a string of Mandarin expletives wasn't really all that uncommon an occurrence aboard Serenity. However, some members of the crew were a little more given to the frequent use of profanity than others.
Mal loved it when Inara swore. He loved it when she lost her temper (at people other than himself, that is). And he loved it when she laughed - anything that allowed the sparkling flashes of her personality to peek through that carefully woven veil of mysterious coy aloofness that she drew around herself.
At the moment, she was too busy sucking on her scalded fingers to bother trying to seem coyly mysterious. Mal joined her in the kitchen, turned on the cold water, and gently took her wrist to hold her injured hand under the faucet. She stiffened, but evidently thought better of pulling away from the stream of cold water. Mal let go of her wrist and took a step back to give her a slightly amused look.
"We do have potholders," he pointed out.
"I couldn't find the kettle," Inara explained, giving the offending saucepan she'd been using to boil water a rather dirty look.
"Ah. Well, it's… found a higher calling, we'll say."
She raised one smooth dark eyebrow at him. "What could possibly be a higher calling for a kettle than to be a kettle?"
"Kaylee needed it. I don't ask," he told her, before she could inquire further. "Well, I might have," he admitted, "but I'm sure I didn't understand the answer."
Inara turned off the faucet and dried her hand on the tea towel hanging in front of the sink.
"You gonna make it? Need me to fetch the doc? I can carry you to the infirmary if you like," Mal offered, fighting back a grin.
"That's quite unnecessary," she assured him, voice smooth and unruffled again. "Though in exchange for your gallant offer, may I offer you some tea?"
Profanity was a much more common commodity in Serenity's kitchen than tea, as a matter of fact.
"Find that in your trunk?' Mal inquired.
"No, I got it from Kaylee," Inara answered, prying the lid off of a dented tin. "It's herbal tea, originally from the Shepherd, I would assume. Chamomile is supposed to have soothing properties."
Mal found a second battered mug in the cupboard and set it on the counter, in the puddle beside Inara's partially filled mug. Reaching in front of her to take the saucepan, he divided what hot water was left between the two mugs, splashing a little on the sink.
"Not so easy, is it?" Inara observed, raising her eyebrows and dropping teabags into each mug. She whisked them over to the table before Mal could claim one. "You might consider investing in a new kettle."
"Why waste money when Kaylee promised the old one back good as new?" Mal told her innocently.
She gave him a suspicious look. "You'd think by now I'd know when you were lying."
Mal sat down across from Inara at the table and grinned at her. "Where would the fun be in that?" He leaned back in his chair and dunked his teabag a few times, considering her thoughtfully. "You don't think I'd boil water in a kettle that was used to fix an engine?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I wouldn't say that. It's just that I don't think you'd ask everyone else to."
"Well why bother when we can have so much fun pouring it on ourselves out of the pot?"
Inara stifled a very non-aloof giggle and cautiously sipped her tea.
"Soothed yet?" Mal asked.
"It may be some time before it takes effect," she replied, trying to hide her grin behind the mug.
"Well now, I don't know if I want to try it unless I know it works."
"I daresay your company might have a canceling influence on the virtue of the tea," Inara told him, her expression severe, but her dark eyes twinkling.
Mal smiled at her and then stared down into his mug for a moment.
"We're on course. Whichever way you decide, you'll need to go get your things at the uh…"
"Brothel?" Inara suggested, bristling. "Or, what was it… 'whore school'?"
"No, no, I think I was looking for… 'Training House,'" Mal replied, his tone placating, if a little strained.
"I'm sure," Inara retorted, refusing to meet his blue-eyed gaze.
"Why does it always have to be like that?" Mal asked after breaking a moment of brittle silence with a short, frustrated sigh.
"Like what?" Inara demanded coldly.
"… that!" Mal replied with an expressive wave of his hand. "You know, I ain't always aiming to rile you."
"And yet somehow, you usually do."
"Why is that?" Mal asked a little helplessly.
"Because there aren't many things I'd rather have than your good opinion," Inara blurted, causing her delicate olive complexion to turn first white, and then pink as she turned her face firmly way from Mal.
Mal stared at her for a few moments as she struggled to master her emotions and keep them from painting telltale colors on her cheeks.
"That's a curious thing to say, seeing as how you've always gone out of your way to tell me that you paid no heed to what I thought of you," Mal reflected slowly.
"Surely you've noticed before now that what a person says isn't always what she thinks," Inara replied, still not looking at him.
"Nor he," Mal added quietly.
"Indeed," Inara agreed.
"Inara, you… you know I ain't ever likely to approve of how you've made your way in the 'verse. Course I realize that very little in said 'verse is subject to my approval, and I've more or less made my peace with that."
"How very generous of you," Inara remarked flatly.
"It's just the way I was raised," he tried to explain, with an expressive little shrug.
"Your pa told you that whores were no good?" she spat scathingly, finally turning her eyes, brimming with anger and hurt, back to him.
"My ma taught me that some things ain't for sale or trade," Mal countered evenly, his gaze steady.
"Well far be it from me to contradict wholesome provincial …" Inara began, her cheeks coloring again.
"Before you go on to expressing your cultural superiority," Mal interrupted, raising his hand, "can I finish what I was going to say, before you get me so riled as to forget I was going to say it?"
"There was more?" Inara asked tightly, raising her eyebrows at him.
"My opinion of your occupation aside… you're a good, kind soul, Inara. Way I see it, that ain't likely to change, so safe to say … I will always think well of you."
"I… you…" Inara stuttered, blinking at Mal rapidly as if unable to comprehend what he just said.
"Now you can tell me about how unenlightened and backward I am," Mal told her graciously.
Inara took a deep breath to compose herself. "Mal, I… I understand that we come from very different backgrounds and in some respects have different values. But what I don't understand is why it bothers you so much. Even if you personally think my work is wrong, it doesn't hurt anyone."
"Well, now, see…I would tend to disagree with that."
Inara sighed. "Who does it hurt, then?"
"It hurts the folk that care about you," Mal said quickly, before he could change his mind, "to see you going off with those who don't care about you… who don't even know you."
"It's … never seemed to bother Kaylee," Inara argued awkwardly.
"Ain't talking about Kaylee, Inara," Mal retorted, staring hard at his mug of tea.
"Then to whom are you referring, Mal?" she shot back, giving him an intent, inscrutable look.
"Me, all right, Inara?" he answered, loud and reckless for a moment as he looked up to meet her eyes. "I'm talking about me," he finished, quieter again. "Now, could be I have no right to feel that way, but I do. And that's how it is."
There was silence a moment while both of them stared at their tea. "I don't want to hurt you, Mal," Inara finally replied, voice soft.
"Ain't powerfully fond of it myself. I figured it would be easier when you were at the Training House. Not knowing. Or, leastways, not seeing."
"Was it?" she inquired.
"Yes. And no."
Inara gave a frustrated little sigh. "That isn't …"
"You weren't here," Mal explained, "and that was hard too."
Inara looked up at him for half a heartbeat and then turned her eyes back at her mug. She took a sip and set the mug back on the table. "Do you think I should leave?" she asked, her voice still quiet, but calmer.
"Why does it matter what I think?"
"It doesn't. I just want to know. Do you want me to leave?"
"Are you asking what I think or what I want? Because those ain't exactly the same," Mal pointed out.
"I think you ought to do what you want to do. If you were happy at the Training House, then that's where you should be. But if you want to stay on Serenity, then stay."
"What do you want, Mal?" Inara asked.
He looked up at her, and for a few long seconds he looked into her eyes, and she looked into his.
"This ain't about what I want," he said finally, pushing his chair out from the table, and standing up.
"What if…what if I want it too?" Inara stuttered.
Mal paused, and turned back. "Are we talking about what I think we're talking about?"
"I don't know. What do you think we're talking about?" Inara asked innocently.
"Well I suppose we could start clarifying by you telling me what you think I might want that you might conceivably want too," Mal suggested.
"I hardly think that me saying what I think that you want that I want is going to clarify anything," Inara retorted.
"You'd prefer that I say what I think that you think that I want that you want?"
"Mal!" she protested, with a note of admonishment.
He smiled at her slightly as he sat back down and lifted his mug for a long drink.
"I want you to stay on Serenity," he told her simply, looking steadily at her.
"Why?" she asked, studying his face intently.
"Damned if I know," Mal replied, swigging his tea again.
"That's no kind of answer at all," she retorted.
"It's… a true kind of answer," he assured her, setting his tea down with conviction.
Inara took a deep breath. "No," she replied, more calmly. "No, it's not."
"The way things stand, Inara, I don't know why I'd rather you were here, making me crazy as a hornet's nest in a hail storm, instead of somewhere far away. If you reckon you've got some mystical understanding of it, then by all means, explain it to me."
"I certainly don't claim to comprehend the inner workings of your psyche," Inara scoffed.
"Fair's fair – I told you what I want, you tell me what you want," Mal insisted.
"I want to stay," Inara replied softly.
"Well there. Mystery solved. We both want for you to stay on Serenity."
There was silence for a moment while Inara studied her tea. "Things aren't going to be how they were, Mal," she told him, looking up to study his face instead.
"Not ever again," Mal agreed solemnly.
"And as much as I wish-"
"I know," Mal interrupted, voice quiet and a little strained, his eyes showing a flash of sorrow before he closed them.
"I don't want things to be how they were between us," she said, with a little quaver in her voice as she fought to keep her composure.
Mal opened his eyes again to look at her quizzically. "Have you got a notion how they might be different?"
Before Mal could react, Inara stood, leaned across the table, and kissed him squarely on the mouth.
It was a short kiss, but it took a few seconds after Inara had pulled away for Mal to remember to breathe.
"That's one notion," she murmured softly, still close enough that Mal could feel her warm, sweet breath on his lips. "I have a few others."
The table was a problem. Going around it wasn't going to happen without breaking contact, and that was not something Mal was entirely prepared to do yet. Inara seemed to be losing her balance – rather uncharacteristic, and if Mal had a little more capacity for coherent thought, he might have suspected that she'd done it on purpose – and he stood up to catch her, slipping his arms around her and pulling her close. After hastily pushing the mugs of tea out of the way, they settled in an untidy heap on the table, Inara clinging to Mal's suspenders and one of his hands resting at the small of her back.
When the rather pressing need for oxygen forced them apart, Inara was blushing, and if the pounding in his ears was any indication, Mal was rather red in the face as well.
"Well that… may have imparted some clarity to the situation," he managed to gasp.
"Always happy to be helpful," Inara replied dryly.
Mal shifted slightly. "I think I'm sitting on a spoon… which, all things considered, is probably my first choice for an eating utensil to sit on, but still…"
Inara smiled. "We should probably get off of the table."
"Oh, we should definitely get off the table," he agreed. "But first I just need to…"
He kissed her again, slowly, savoring it this time.
"This isn't getting off the table, Mal," Inara pointed out helpfully after a moment, her lips still brushing against his slightly as she spoke.
"See, that's what I like about you – you're … perceptive," he commented between light, lingering kisses as she slid out of his arms and back across to her side of the table.
"That's the only thing?" Inara inquired with a poorly suppressed smile, raising her eyebrows.
"Well… one of the things I like about you," Mal conceded, making his own way back to his chair. "Now, I think we should discuss your other notions – but… just discuss with words. I'm not ready for any other demonstrations yet."
"My apologies," Inara said with a rather smug expression.
"So in this… new way things might be between us," Mal said, clearing his throat. "You reckon there might be kissin'?"
Inara stared at him incredulously a moment. "You're making this an interrogation," she accused.
Mal gave her a pained smile. "You know that I of all people don't hold with an overabundance of talking when there's action to be taken, but… it's complicated."
"In what way?" Inara pursued.
"Because if you were mine, I know that I surely couldn't stand to share you," Mal told her seriously.
The remnants of Inara's blush turned pale quickly. "How do you know that I'm asking you to?" she asked coldly.
"Clearly," Mal told her, throwing his hands up in frustration, "I know very little of what is going on in this conversation."
"I wouldn't … if there was someone who… someone that I..." Inara floundered for a moment, before pausing for a deep breath. "I've been thinking I might retire," she continued in a matter of fact tone.
"Retire?" Mal repeated numbly.
"While I have my looks," she added with an ironic smile.
"You know and I know that your looks ain't going anywhere in the foreseeable future," Mal told her flatly.
"That was a rather backhanded compliment," Inara observed.
"Just a statement of fact. If you'd fancy a compliment I could try to rustle one up," he offered obligingly.
"You needn't trouble yourself," Inara replied sourly.
Mal looked up into her eyes, his expression a little apologetic. "Inara, you don't need me stumbling around with pretty words to tell you what your looking glass and any other mildly reflective surface can tell you any time."
"You make me sound like the wicked queen in Snow White," Inara said with a little smile.
"Not much of a compliment, then?" Mal deduced.
"Useful piece of information about women, Mal," Inara offered, leaning forward a little. "No matter how confident she seems to be, a woman always wants to hear that she's pretty. From anyone," she went on thoughtfully, "and especially from the man she loves."
Mal blinked at her.
"Just, generally speaking," she added hastily.
"If I'm not adequately dwelling on the profound and somewhat unreasonable beauty and grace of your person, it's partially because prose fails to do it justice and I ain't really got the knack for proper poetry."
"What's the rest of the reason?" she asked curiously.
"Anyone with tolerably good vision just happening past can tell that you're… an absurdly lovely woman. Since I know you better, I can't help being more impressed by the secrets of you."
Inara cocked her head slightly and waited for him to elaborate.
"The way you and Kaylee gab and giggle like little girls at a tea party… the way you laugh when you can't hold it in…how your eyes sparkle when you want to smile and you won't let yourself… those sickly sweet smiles of yours when you deliver a truly cutting remark – usually directed at me… the shiver in your voice when you're pretending not to be afraid."
Inara responded to each of these with a deepening blush, occasionally glancing up at Mal as he gazed at her steadily.
"Inara, it ain't your considerable good looks that –"
"Spin you about," Inara provided promptly.
Mal paused, marveling that she'd remembered his words so clearly. "Well they don't help alleviate the …spinning situation," he assured her.
"Can we steer back on course here and get to the retirement issue?" Mal asked.
Inara stood, and slowly walked back to the sink with her mug.
"I think most Companions hope to retire fairly young if the circumstances are right."
"Circumstances?" Mal prompted.
She stayed at the sink a moment to wash her mug. "It's mostly a matter of finding a new… situation. We don't tend to have a great many professional skills outside our area of expertise."
"Are you asking me for a job, then?" Mal asked, turning in his chair to face her direction.
Inara paused and then turned at the sink, drying her hands on the dishtowel. "I hadn't thought of it in that way, but… yes, I suppose I am. Everyone on Serenity has a purpose – even River, now. What would my job be?"
Mal considered. "I never did get around to hiring a cook," he suggested.
"How do you know I can cook?" she inquired.
"I can cook," he replied. "It ain't that hard, just following directions. Of course if you don't seem to have the knack for it, we can always go back to taking turns in the kitchen."
"And what then?"
"Well you…" Mal paused to think. "You do have a lot of experience handling significant sums of money."
"Serenity needs an accountant?" Inara asked with just the ghost of a smile.
"Surely. Divide up the take. Balance the accounts. See that the bills get paid. I think I could trust you not to cook the books."
"How gracious of you to say."
"You'd have an even share of the, er…revenue, but you would be expected to lend a hand with the jobs now and then," he informed her.
"I did that before for free," she reminded him with half a grin.
"You could afford it."
"What exactly might the hand I'll lend be doing?" she wanted to know.
"You've got a certain way of talking to folks that might be of considerable assistance in delicate negotiations."
"Diplomacy? Tact?" she offered.
"I believe the proper term is 'wiles'," Mal corrected.
"Cooking and household finances…add cleaning and childcare and I'll be an old-fashioned housewife."
"Ain't nobody twisting your arm, Inara," Mal snapped. "You asked what use you could be on Serenity, but if the work don't suit you then you ain't obliged to take it."
"I didn't mean -" she began to protest.
"You tell me truly if most Companions' retirement plans don't involve rich husbands – either young naïve ones or old doting ones," Mal went on.
"And you automatically assume that's what I would want?" Inara demanded dangerously.
"I didn't say that," Mal defended.
"It's the implication, Mal," she told him furiously, eyes flashing fire. "It's unfair to me and it's a cruel thing to say. Just because I have a lot of fine things and maintain a certain lifestyle required by my work doesn't mean that I only value material wealth. It doesn't mean that I don't know the importance of… the importance of…."
Inara spun back to face the sink with one hand pressed to her face, though neither of these precautions did much to disguise the fact that she was failing in her efforts to hold back a deluge of tears.
Mal stared at her in utter bewilderment for a moment and then stood and closed the distance between them with a few quick, long-legged strides. He
hesitated for just a moment before enfolding her in his arms.
"Hush, darlin'," he bade softly, stroking her dark curls gently as she pressed her wet face into his shoulder. "I wasn't aiming to make you cry."
"If you'd like to avoid it in future, you could try being less mean," she suggested muffledly.
"I just wanted you to own up to your decision, and stop making those silly evasive maneuvers, talking nonsense about what other Companions do," Mal explained.
"You wanted me to own up?" she replied incredulously, pulling away to glare at him properly. "This, from the man who doesn't know why he thinks what he thinks or wants what he wants?"
"The pot being a hypocrite ain't making the kettle any less black."
Inara laid her head against his chest for a moment, taking a deep breath. "What kettle?" she asked softly.
Mal laughed, and leaned his head to place his cheek against her hair, enjoying the feeling of her nestled against him, breathing in the smell of her.
"Stay," he said suddenly, tone somewhere between a command and a plea.
"What?" she asked, looking up to blink at him.
"Stay," he repeated. "Stay on Serenity. Stay in my arms."
Inara gazed up at him silently for a moment.
"Well… not that last part indefinitely, 'cause that could become awkward," he amended.
She smiled. "Tell me why I should," she prompted.
"You mean aside from you saying that you wanted to stay?" he asked.
"Aside from that," she agreed.
Mal let out a long sigh. "Fine. You don't want to be the first to say it, that's fine. I'll be the braver man…person. Stay because I love you."
He held his breath, for a moment intensely aware of the peculiar rhythm created by his heart pounding in his chest in counterpoint to Inara's own quickening heartbeat.
"No," Inara said thoughtfully.
Mal froze, waiting for her to pull away from him, and already feeling the first pangs of a peculiar ache he'd come to associate with her absence – not to be confused with the one caused by her presence.
"No, I should stay because I love you," she continued, eyes downcast to stare hard at one of his shirt buttons.
Mal exhaled gustily. "That's… that's shiny too."
She looked up at him, pearly grin almost shy. "Shiny," she agreed softly as Mal pulled her tighter against him. "Also shiny," she remarked, as he started to lower his head close to hers, "is the fact that you're wearing my lipstick."
He straightened, looking first startled, and then chagrined. "All this time?"
"Well, yes, since I kissed you," Inara replied with a smile, reaching for the dishtowel and wetting a corner of it under the faucet.
"I'm not sure you realize what that does to a man's dignity," he told her with a fairly good semblance of seriousness as she reached up to wipe his lips clean.
"I have an inkling," she told him dryly as she surrendered the towel to him, and he set about removing the offending cosmetic at its source. Inara tilted her head back slightly to provide better access.
"You'd think they'd make this stuff so it doesn't come off on other people," he pondered aloud, softly brushing his thumb over her lips.
"They do," she told him. "I wasn't exactly planning to need that kind when I woke up this morning."
"Plans do have a way of wanderin' astray on this boat," he mused, dropping the towel onto the edge of the sink.
"Though I might venture a guess at your plans since you took the trouble to …"
Mal kissed her again before said plan had a chance to unravel.
"And you're not the least bit curious what my other notions might be?" she inquired archly, when they took a moment to catch a breath or two.
"Giddy with suspense," he assured her. "But one thing at a time, Inara," he went on, kissing her lightly. "One thing at a time."
I found this tucked away in a corner of my hard drive and figured I might as well share it with other interested Browncoats out there. I can't help thinking that the kind of privacy needed for this to happen might be hard to come by on Serenity. Well, considering it's such a small ship, perhaps we can assume that everyone else is listening in from just down the corridor.
Mr. Whedon, you made me do it, and you know you did! Sure, maybe they're you're characters, maybe it's your 'verse, but you left me with no other option than to write fic when you ended Serenity the way you did. I hope you're happy.