Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.
Summary: One-shot in the continuing Mal/River storyline. Inara's artistic expression leads to some unexpected complications.
Inara stepped back from the easel with a critical eye. Having worked steadily on a series of sketches to show the manager of Sir Harrow's gallery, she was anxious to include only what she considered her best work. And as she looked at the sketch before her, she was confident that it was her best effort yet. Tapping the tip of her brush against her cheek, she considered exactly what to do about it. Though she was certain the manager would want to include it in any formal exhibit of her work, she was less than sure about the reaction of her subject. Sighing, she carefully covered the canvas. There was nothing to do but talk with him about it, but the very thought of such a conversation made her weary.
"Whatcha' frownin' over?" Jayne asked, stepping into their shuttle with a surprisingly light tread for a man of his size.
Inara's years of Companion training kept her from physically jumping in startled surprise. "It's nothing," she answered evasively. "Just working on a sketch."
Jayne nodded, pulling his boots off and tossing them into the corner. "Gettin' nervous over the exhibit?" he asked.
Inara looked over at him, stretched out across their bed like a large cat. "Not really," she replied, smiling prettily. "Just deciding which pieces to show the manager. Care to give me your opinion?"
Jayne snorted. "Don't reckon I'd be much help to ya' there, baby doll. You know I like all your stuff." Seeing a flicker of disappointment in her eyes, he added, " 'Course, I ain't averse to lookin'."
Inara smiled and gathered up several sketches quickly. Taking them to the bed, she set them down carefully and handed Jayne the first one. He took it gingerly, afraid to ruin the fine work with his large hands. Squinting at the canvas for a moment, he said, "Looks real pretty."
Inara sighed. "Pretty enough to show the manager?"
Jayne nodded. "Yep. Don't see a thing wrong with it."
Inara winced at the less than rousing endorsement. "How about this one?" she asked, handing him the next one on the stack.
Jayne looked at it carefully for a long moment before turning it upside down. "It ain't charitable for you to try to fool me, woman," he said, letting a hint of humor lighten his tone.
Inara laughed. "Just checking to see if you were really looking at it," she said merrily, taking it from his hand.
"I always look at 'em," Jayne protested, pulling her to him in a sloppy embrace.
Inara kissed the tip of his nose, pulling back away. "I suppose you do, at that," she replied. "Though I'm not sure it's the artwork itself that draws you in."
"Could be the artist has something to do with it," Jayne admitted, his grin matching the wicked glint in his eye.
Inara handed him yet another sketch, rolling her eyes. "Try to concentrate," she chided. "I would really appreciate a second opinion."
Jayne tried to arrange his face in a suitably interested expression as he looked at the next several sketches. Finally at the end of the stack, he asked, "What about the one over there? Want I should look at it?"
Inara felt a sudden irrational worry flit through her mind. Swallowing nervously, she replied, "That one's not quite dry yet."
Jayne, noting her odd expression, was instantly curious. "S'all right," he said, rising from the bed. "I seen your stuff before when it was still wet."
Unable to think of how to gracefully stop him from looking, Inara rose slowly from the bed and brushed past him. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the cover away, revealing the sketch to his inquisitive gaze.
Jayne stood rooted to the floor, his mouth slightly open as he looked intently at the portrait before him. Inara's pulse beat erratically in her temples as she watched him anxiously for a reaction. A painful silence stretched out between them, and she thought frantically about what to say to fill the suddenly empty space.
Tearing his eyes away from the canvas, Jayne turned to look at her. His face, usually so expressive, was a blank mask that was somehow made all the worse for its utter lack of emotion.
"Jayne," she began, her voice trembling despite her best effort at control.
"Best of the lot," he said gruffly, turning abruptly on his heel to retrieve his boots from the corner. "Ain't a doubt that one's got your heart and soul in it."
"Jayne, it's just a ……" Inara's words trailed off as he pushed past her, his shoulders a stiff line as he walked down the corridor without a backward glance.
Inara sat cross-legged on her bed, the portrait laid out before her. Better to simply destroy it if it was going to hurt Jayne, she thought, though the idea of getting rid of what she knew was her best work yet twisted her heart painfully. But it would have to be done, she realized grimly, looking at the clock. It was the middle of Serenity's sleep cycle, and Jayne had still not come back. No sketch was worth the pain she'd seen in his eyes.
A light knock on her door interrupted her thoughts. "Chin jing," she called, hoping irrationally that it would be Jayne.
River slipped silently into the room, her brown eyes huge in the candlelight.
"River," Inara said, reaching quickly to roll the portrait up.
"Want to see it," River said simply, holding out her hand as she approached the bed.
Inara swallowed thickly. "Want to see what, River?" she asked.
"Don't play," River said, with a sudden edge in her voice. "Want to see what Jayne saw."
"How did you…?" Inara asked before she could stop the words.
"He was screaming…..in here," River said, tapping her head lightly. "Very disturbed." She flicked her fingers again, motioning toward the picture.
Inara handed it to her reluctantly. "There was no reason for Jayne to be so upset. It's just a ….."
As River unrolled the portrait, Inara's words trailed off. River stood, the air about her suddenly charged with electricity as if the room itself was awaiting a gathering storm. Inara shifted nervously and opened her mouth to speak, but River shook her head, stilling her words. Small, tight lines appeared around River's mouth, and she turned to Inara with piercing eyes.
"Jayne was correct," River said flatly. "Right to be disturbed."
"River, it's just a picture…just a sketch I drew from memory. It doesn't mean anything."
"You're lying," River said, putting the picture back into Inara's suddenly trembling hand.
"No, I'm not," Inara said firmly, clutching the rolled canvas to her chest.
River gave her a withering look. "Meant something to Jayne. And to me. No right to exhibit it. Will cause him pain."
Inara took a deep breath. "It already has. Even if I destroy it now, he's already seen it. The damage is done," she said sadly.
"Wasn't talking about Jayne," River replied, her steady stare piercing through Inara's defenses. She waited, arms hanging loosely at her sides.
"Oh," Inara breathed out. "River, you do know that I don't still…."
River held up her hand, forestalling further discussion. "I know, but they don't." She paused for a moment, cocking her head to the side. "And sometimes, even you forget, just for a moment."
Inara felt the blush rise to her cheeks. "What shall I do with it?" she asked softly, unwilling to reply to River's observation.
"Burn it," River said, stepping quietly back out of the shuttle. "Tonight."
Inara nodded, blinking back unwanted tears. Holding the end of the rolled canvas to the candle beside her bed, she watched as the paper blackened and curled, the perfection of the rendering of Mal's face lost in the heat of the blaze.
Jayne sat at the galley table, staring sightlessly into his mug. Inara watched him silently from the shadows of the corridor for a time, running through all the possible things she could say to him.
"What do you want, Inara?" he asked, though he did not lift his head to look at her.
She shivered at the desolate sound of his voice. "I…I want to talk with you, Jayne."
Jayne's mouth tightened into a thin line. "'Bout what?"
Inara stepped slowly into the room and gripped the back of the chair closest to her. "About the portrait," she said softly.
Jayne looked up at her, his eyes flashing with an intense light. "Way I see it, the picture speaks for itself pretty gorram good."
"I burned it," Inara blurted out.
Jayne shrugged. "Don't matter. I saw it already."
"Jayne, please," Inara said, sitting down in the chair across from him. "I don't know what you think you saw in that drawing, but …."
"I saw love," Jayne replied, his voice thin and sharp as a razor's edge. "Plain as day. Right there on that canvas."
Inara swallowed thickly. "I was drawing a memory, Jayne. A moment in time, long ago, before you and I…..before Miranda, before I left the first time. That's all, Jayne. I swear it. Please don't be this way, love. Please don't let it upset you." She placed her hand gingerly across the top of his.
Jayne was silent for a long time, and Inara began to think that perhaps he would say nothing else at all. The idea made her feel strangely hollow inside. Finally, he spoke. "You never draw me," he said, the wistfulness in his tone making her heart ache.
"I do," she whispered. "But I never keep them. They don't….I can't capture….." she stammered, suddenly tongue-tied as a schoolgirl. Jayne's gaze finally grounded her enough to continue. "What I feel for you doesn't translate onto paper. It can't be captured with paints and brushes. At least, I'm not good enough yet to convey it through my work. You…." She paused for a moment, weighing her words. "You are not like any one else I've ever known. So many facets, so many things that defy all rhyme or reason. How could I possibly capture you on anything as lifeless as paper?'
Jayne stared into her troubled kohl eyes and saw the truth of her words reflected there.
Inara returned his gaze steadily. "Had I thought for one moment that the sketch of Mal would bother you, I would never have drawn it. Dong ma?"
Jayne nodded slowly, turning his hand upward to grip hers. "So, you burned it, huh?"
Inara nodded silently.
"So, you'll be needing something else to draw to show the manager?"
Inara sighed. "I suppose so," she said.
"Want I should pose for you?" Jayne asked, his voice a register lower than it had been a moment ago. "You know, one of them nudes?"
Inara's heart began to beat normally again. "I think I'd like that very much," she said softly.
"Well then," Jayne replied, pushing the chair back with a loud scrape. "Best we be getting' to it, dontcha' think?"
Inara nodded and followed him back to the shuttle, more grateful than she would have once imagined to be right where she was.
Mal stirred as River slipped back into their bed. Pulling her close to his chest, he murmured sleepily into her hair, "Everything all right, bao bei?"
River curled into the curve of his arm. "Is now," she whispered softly, feeling his heart beat steady and true against her cheek. "Is now."