He'd been as patient as a man could fairly be expected to be. Walked up and down the aisles, poked at everything he was even halfway interested in the existence of. Read some labels. Watched the hands on the old-style clock drag by, leaden as he felt himself. Irritatingly, perfectly soothing music in the background. Couldn't even suss out what instruments were playing it. Vocals just a bunch of aaaaaaaah's, like angels paid by the vowel. After 45 minutes, Mal decided this department store was the worst place he'd ever been in his entire gorram life. Then immediately shouted down the sensible voice in his head that listed all the places far, far more horrifying than an afternoon shopping with Inara. Inara. Inara. Where was Inara? Did she not know there was no place to sit, nothing to do...she shoulda brought Kaylee instead. Except then he'd have to bring in an extraction team to get them back to the ship.

He felt himself glowering at a pair of bright pink calfskin gloves. Who needs those? Filmy scarves, ridiculous shoes on some gleaming, rarefied shoe altar over yonder. Lady models wandering around in clothes for two seasons from now, looking benignly indifferent to their surroundings. Holo-ads shimmering to life in the widest aisles when shoppers crossed some tiny, well-hidden motion detector eye. That could have been fun. In a target practice kinda way. Mal spent another 40 minutes locating eyes he hadn't yet tripped, edging closer and closer to find out exactly how much of its field could be disturbed without activating the mechanism for the dancing Santa or the eye cream hololady or whatever. This was time well spent, he could put Kaylee on pirating the technology as soon as he had a decent grasp of the specs. But Inara didn't know that. She hadn't even checked on him, just smiled and pointed and waved now and then when she'd caught a glimpse of him on her way back and forth to...somewhere. What'd she invite him for, anyway?

That had been a nice surprise, her all smiley and glowy-eyed and looking a little bit bashful when she hinted he might come with her. She'd taken to speaking up now and then, a few sweet words about how his company wasn't exactly unwelcome. Lighting up a little when she'd see him come through her shuttle door or make his way to the galley table at mealtimes. Made him feel as happy and addled as old Festus, the sheepdog they'd had when he was a boy. Festus knew he'd get a bit of biscuit, coming in from his morning rounds. Damn dog would stand all day by the kitchen door, taking every opportunity he could to go out just to get to come right back in again, angling for another treat. And she was a treat when she smiled. When she smiled like she did when he'd taken the hint - the third hint, he never claimed to be the ship's genius or even the second runner-up - and asked if she'd like some company.

The trip had been fun at first, strolling around the store together, talking, her hand resting lightly on his arm. The strain of not grinning like an idiot the whole time was, well, he'd put up with it. And he didn't know how she managed it, appearing not to notice all the other shoppers stopping dead in their tracks, their busy day's plans forgotten, just to watch her pass by. Not that she was even dressed all that fancy today, it was just...her.

So where the hell was she? Mal stalked right through kindly doctor holo-man, nodding over his vitamins, and a garrulous holo-mermaid combing her emerald hair as glistening water lifted the fins of her tail. He felt the urge to bellow her name rising through him as he rounded a turn into a gallery lit by discreetly pink and golden lights. And stopped as dead in his tracks as if someone had dropped a gorram brick on his head.
Not that anyone would, here. These weren't bricklaying...outfits, by anyone's estimate. Lacy. Shimmery. Soft. Little bitty...hell, were there different names to go with each of these? Kimonos, gowns...something made of lace and ribbons that had a woman's curves even without a woman in it...hell. All colors, long or heart-palpitatingly short, some so insubstantial he'd expect them to dissipate entirely with the faintest stirring of air. This was not, not, not the place for him to be. Alone, towering over the display stations like some kind of hairy-skinned monster in boots, trying to act casual. Was she in here?

One particular...garment caught his attention. At eye level, which was just absolutely blatantly unfair. They must have been on a hanger, but whatever polymer it was, it was nigh invisible. So they might as well have been floating, this little pair of soft-looking white...some kind of britches, must be. Made of maybe a dozen overlapping sections, each impossibly lacy and sheer and shaped like petals of a flower. Short, the scalloped edges would just rest against the tops of her thighs. Front...sides...back. It seemed the garment was designed to move, to flutter around her each time she moved. Like the petals of a flower in the breeze. Held up around her waist with some tiny ribboned belt, gathered and tied in a bow. A tiny winking golden bead at each end of the ribbon.

He felt as though his face had stopped working. His brain definitely had lit out for the territories, because all he could think about was making the petals move. He kicked the base of the display stand, trying to jar the rack enough to send it shivering. Nothing. He kicked again, harder. Gorram thing was sturdier than it looked. He leaned very slightly forward and before he could think better of it, blew on them. Watched the petals dance and shimmy, got a glimpse of the scandalously sheer underlayer. That was an outstandingly terrible idea, because now all he could manage to think about was blowing on them again. With her, in them. He wondered if she was ticklish at all.

It had become imperative that he touch. The lace looked like the thinnest possible layer of spun sugar, ready to melt away to nothing upon contact with the slightest heat. Heat. She'd be so warm, underneath...Mal had a sudden dizzying thought of sweet icing melting over a cake that hadn't cooled entirely. Which led to an entirely not-to-be-indulged notion of petals of sweet icing melting over warm golden skin...

He held his breath as one finger traced the languid curve of a petal. He saw it moving against his finger, falling away as he moved up, but it was so light his skin barely registered feeling it. He rubbed the fabric between his fingers and thumb, managed a difficult swallow. Let go, rather than give in to the urge to gather the whole thing in his fisted hands and...and what? This is a public place, Mal told himself, tucking his hands in his pockets. Get a gr-

"I wish I had known this months ago." The voice behind him was deliciously amused, but for all that a little...breathier than she usually sounded when she had the upper hand.

"What?" The upper hand. In this game, he'd give it over gladly, but she didn't need to know that. And he hated to spoil her fun.

"How seeing a pair of lacy underthings makes you so marvellously...quiet." It wasn't the word she was thinking, and they both knew it. "So many times that knowledge would have come in handy."

"Anytime you need to show 'em, darlin', I'm happy to oblige."
Inara raised one perfect eyebrow as she tilted her head toward the garment in question. She passed him the shopping bag he hadn't noticed until then, and laid her hand on his arm. Her smile was warm, inviting, and so very beautiful. "I got them in pink, as well."