1Disclaimer: I own nothing! /weeps and gnashes teeth/ Just waiting for my BDSequel!

A/N: This is inspired by one particular frame - "Precious Buddha" - from "Better Days." The bulk of what happens is preseries. I have some ideas for more, but I'm not sure which direction the characters will take me. Please, please read and review :)

She'd given up on lying to herself a long time ago. It was part of her training. As a Companion, self-deception was ineffective at best. In the worst of situations, refusing to acknowledge the truth put oneself in the kind of danger that diplomacy, charm, and control could not encompass. Inara believed this wholeheartedly, had saved herself more than once by seeing with clear eyes and making an unvarnished judgement about the gap between expressed desires and true intent.

At the Training House, she'd woven this belief into every lesson she taught, and prayed that her students didn't deceive themselves as to its importance.

Truth. She loved him.

Truth. She didn't want to love him.

Truth. She didn't want him to know.

The shock, months earlier, of having him, him, invade her mind while she shared her bed with a perfectly attractive and skilled Client...that had taken much time and meditation to accept. If she had accepted it, was that another deception? She barely knew him! Another Guild lesson: one's own mind is private and sacrosanct. No need for a Companion to dismay herself over whatever erotic image surfaces in her mind. Denial, more self-deception, inefficient, unnecessarily frustrating. Accept, enjoy, respect the unfathomable nature of the human mind. Welcome sexual fulfillment - a pleasureable necessity. A satisfied Companion sleeps better, maintains a pleasant demeanor with far less effort. Good for the complexion. Myriad physiological and psychological benefits. She knew this, had counseled as much to other Companions. So why did she find it hard to meet his eyes when she returned to Serenity? She didn't know what appalled her more - the fantasy itself or her resulting mortification when, in subsequent appointments, her imagination stubbornly refused to move on to other possibilities.

The Guild discouraged idle fantasy. To indulge in one overly specific area of sexual expression left a Companion in danger of being less receptive, less sensitive to the needs of a Client. Better that a Companion educated herself in all the realms of fantasy, in the countless ephemeral layers of possible meaning behind each symbolic act, gesture, persona. She should know all this, yet remain a generalist, the better to share a Client's appreciation for, attachment to, a particular erotic dreamscape.

She consoled herself that the insufferable man would never know this particular idiosyncracy of her mind, and that, given time, the idea of him would lose its peculiar erotic charge.

In the meantime, Inara enjoyed the new friendship she had found with Kaylee. Their upbringings could not have been more different, but Kaylee's generous heart was irresistable. Inara found herself thinking of the younger woman often, when work called her away from Serenity. She'd take extra care to notice the details of the parties and cultural events she attended, the better to entertain Kaylee with when she returned. She'd smile, inwardly of course, over any particularly funny or dramatic piece of gossip, thinking of what Kaylee would say.

"They were both missing from the board meeting. And the next afternoon, the treasurer resigned her post!" Inara passed the small, painted tin of shortbread cookies to her friend.

Kaylee accepted the tin with a sigh, nibbled at the edge of the cookie she'd chosen, then pointed it at Inara with a knowing gesture. "See, it's not just the menfolk that let their nethers make fools of 'em. Once a girl learns what she likes, she can bargain herself a world of trouble over a sweet-" She popped the rest of the treat into her mouth with a saucy wiggle of her eyebrows.

"I suppose that's entirely true, in some cases." Not the most comfortable topic. "Did I tell you about the gown the adjutant's daughter was wearing? It was exactly, exactly what I would choose for you, mei mei - exquisite!" Kaylee happily abandoned her discourse on the treacheries of womanly desire for news on the gown, the music, and all the harmless pleasures of the gala.

Inara loved listening to Kaylee. The mechanic's cheerful and sunny disposition was not the result of shallow thinking; for all her affection, Kaylee could be remarkably astute in her observations about people. She had a gift for mimicry, and had Inara close to tears of laughter many times as she recounted the crew's squabbling and misadventures.

Much later, "Thanks for the cookies, Inara." Kaylee eyed the small tin, now nearly empty except for some crumbs and waxed paper. "It's been a while. Captain always buys gingersnaps since he found out I like 'em best, but we run right out. I can't seem to leave 'em alone. So he hides some, and surprises me with 'em later." She continued as Inara busied herself sweeping shortcake crumbs off the couch and into her hand. "He's a good Captain. My pop met him - wouldn'ta let me go with anyone shifty."

Inara realized it would be a tactical mistake, as well as insensitive, to criticize the Captain to Kaylee. Her friend was wholly devoted to her Captain, and worried about his continuing solitude. She knew that Kaylee was convinced Inara took too little notice of the Captain. This reassured Inara, in the days after the Misfortune, as she privately called her imagination's inexplicable rebellion.

"Ain't right. How's a man supposed to feel easier about life alone all the time. And when we're dirtside he don't even go to any of the whore-" Kaylee looked aghast at her unguarded words, afraid she had slighted her friend.

Inara's smile reassured Kaylee. "I'm sure the Captain wouldn't appreciate us entertaining ourselves with his private affairs. Tell me about the young man you danced with at the cantina last night!"

For all Inara tried to deflect or dismiss Kaylee's pro-Mal propaganda, she knew it had affected her. She began to notice the affection he usually showed her friend, the way his voice gentled toward her even during emergencies. How he patiently answered questions, from her, that would have earned anyone else a glare if not a scathing Mandarin curse. As Inara's attachment to Kaylee grew, so did the esteem in which she held Mal for treating her friend with such care.

She told herself it was for Kaylee's sake that she felt such dismay the first time she saw him come back bloody from a job, slumped low in the passenger's side of the mule while Zoe drove into the cargo bay. She told herself it bothered her that Kaylee was sure to be terribly upset. He nearly fell out of the mule, then staggered haltingly toward the infirmary with Zoe limping beside him, providing what support she could. She told herself it was on Kaylee's behalf, her desperate hope that the blood on his shirt wasn't more than he could spare. She hated to see him so quiet, his mouth a terse dash across a face not usually so pale. He was filthy - clearly the altercation had included grappling in the dirt with whomever had wielded the knife. His sweat had drenched his hair and the few places on his shirt the blood hadn't reached. And later, when she reflected on the fact that she had abandoned her usual calm pace and run to the infirmary to see what help she could be to Zoe - well, it must have been to get him cleaned up and stabilized before Kaylee emerged from the engine room.

"Who's minding my boat whilst you fuss over me?" Hoarse, not quite strong enough to be called a growl.

"Wash'll call me if anything's amiss. Zoe's in no kinda condition to be up and about, bruised up like she is." Kaylee rested trembling fingers on the bed's metal railing as her eyes took in the quantities of gauze wrapped around her Captain's middle. " And someone needs to keep an eye on them bandages of yours. In case they - " she broke off, pressed her lips together with a tiny shake of her head.

"By the time Wash calls you it could be later than we can manage. He's liable to be flitting back and forth to Zoe all night besides. You get yourself back on the job - I have the intercom if I get too bored." Mal would not rest easy and so...

"I'll stay with him, mei mei." She was wide awake anyway, had ventured to the infirmary thinking she was sure to find Kaylee there, and heard the distress in her friend's voice. Inara opened her arms to embrace Kaylee, was disturbed at the fear and tension radiating from the mechanic's muscles. Inara's hand went to her friend's hair in a soothing gesture. She murmured, "Don't worry yourself so terribly. It'll be a relief for him knowing you're seeing to Serenity. I'll sit here with him and read my book. Maybe you both can get a little sleep."

She raised her eyes to look for the stool she'd seen earlier, and found Mal watching her and Kaylee with an unreadable expression on his bruised and exhausted face. "Just tell him good night - you'll see him in the morning," she whispered again.

Inara watched Kaylee squeeze Mal's hand gently, press the shadow of a kiss to his forehead, and retreat quickly in the direction of the engine room. When the Companion turned, he was still regarding her with an almost challenging expression. She guided the low stool a place at the left of his bed and set her basket down next to it. Aware that his eyes were still on her, she retrieved a quilted silk wrap, unfolded it, and wrapped it around her shoulders. His expression turned quizzical. "I found myself quite chilled in the shuttle tonight for some reason. There's no problem with climate control," she added quickly, before he could take offense at a perceived slight against his ship, "warm air is circulating, I just couldn't get warm myself. I brought a blanket as well in case you weren't...sufficiently...or if Kaylee" her voice trailed off. "Can I get you anything? Are you thirsty? Cold?" she laid her hand against his outer bicep and felt the sudden rise of goosebumps. "You are cold! Would it kill you to mention it? Do you enjoy being wretched?" She was unaccountably annoyed as she bent to unpack a colorful woven blanket, but she made her expression placid as she shook it out and laid it over him.

Just before she sat down, he finally spoke, his hoarse voice slow with pain and fatigue. "It smells like you. Same as how your shuttle smells." A pause. "A sight better than infirmary smell."

"I've achieved my supreme ambition, I'm more alluring than the smell of antiseptic and old bandages. Captain, you say the sweetest things, I may swoon."

"Now I'm liable to go to sleep and dream that I'm-" Mal seemed to lose focus. He closed his eyes for a long time. His hand brushed the spot on his bicep where she had touched him. "Not what you're accustomed to when you got a man on his back, I expect."

It would be terribly awkward explaining to Kaylee why she had strangled the Captain. "Annoy me tomorrow with your treasure trove of witticisms. You should sleep now."

"Bit sore at the moment. Are you the kind of mercy angel that fetches whiskey?" A faint smile telegraphed across his face, there and gone.

"That's crystalline logic - a hangover along with everything else you happened upon today. Is it time for your pain medication?" Inara did a quick estimate of the hours since Mal had arrived in the infirmary.

"Waitin' on that 'til morning. Don't want our stock to run low when we're not near a port to stock up. Whiskey?" He mimed tipping a cup to his mouth, then grimaced.

Inara ignored this. "I have painkillers in my shuttle. Let me go and get them, and you can pay me back when next you replenish yours. You can't go through the night like this, it's indecent."

"What's a Companion need this kind of painkillers for?" It didn't sound like a question when he used that absolutely flat voice. Mal was suddenly wide awake, his eyes scanning her face, neck, arms. Everywhere her skin was bare, and Inara realized how many times he'd looked at her in just this way. She'd noticed, just never realized he'd been checking for bruises. "Or is that indecent, too."

"I equipped a medkit for different eventualities when I began traveling. It's only prudent to be prepared. Accidents happen." She let her gaze wander over him. "I don't suppose that's news to you. I'm going to my shuttle - please try not to get stabbed afresh before I return." Inara shrugged the wrap from her shoulders - she certainly wasn't cold any more. She set it on the stool, a bit briskly, and pivoted to leave, her skirts spinning around her.

"Inara, wait." What stopped her from pretending to ignore him was the way his voice sounded when he said her name. He didn't say it often. She was "Ambassador," or less flattering nicknames. So she turned.

"I'm not in that bad a way, really, although I wouldn't refuse the whiskey. Just need some peace and quiet to shut my eyes and settle down." He hesitated. "Say you brought a book in that basket?"

Inara nodded, and in the spirit of charity decided not to point out to him that he couldn't both read and close his eyes simultaneously. She crossed the few steps to the side of Mal's bed, leaned down, and retrieved the book from the basket.

"What's it about?" She had expected an impertinent remark about a Companion's likely reading material, but none came.

"It's an old text from Earth-that-Was. Early 20th century. West with the Night." Mal continued to listen, so she went on, ruffling the pages of the closed book with her thumb. "The author was a pilot, she flew extensively around the continent of Africa," Inara shrugged, wondering at her sudden shyness. "If you like adventure stories, it's -"

"Read to me?"

Inara blinked.

"Don't make a fuss, it's just I could use something to concentrate my mind on to get to sleep, and your voice has a...soothing quality to it. I expect you know that."

Inara nodded, then quietly reclaimed her seat on the stool, her wrap folded on her lap. As she began the first page, she saw Mal close his eyes and smile faintly. In a very short while she heard his breathing change, but she continued to read aloud. After a while, it seemed only sensible to make herself comfortable by propping her folded wrap against the bed rail and leaning against its softness, just resting her cheek on the edge of his pillow.

"Inara." Zoe's voice and warm hand on her wrist. Inara opened her eyes. Satisfied that the Companion was awake, Zoe eased herself onto the bunk adjacent to Mal's and slowly stretched out, watching Inara all the while.

"He wouldn't rest with Kaylee here, and she was terribly worried about him." Inara tucked her wrap snugly around her shoulders. "He's sleeping," she added unnecessarily after a look at Mal's closed eyes and relaxed expression.

"He's been tore up much worse," said Zoe calmly. "I'll stay by until he wakes up." The first mate's tone was pleasant, but Inara heard the dismissal behind the words.

Later, after washing her face properly and stretching out in her own comfortable bed, she thought about opening her eyes to see his sleeping face, and it was with this thought that she fell asleep for the last few hours of the night.