Disclaimer: Joss is still Boss.

A/N: I haven't written anything is so long I was seriously concerned. But the trick, as always, seems to be giving me a writing task I'm supposed to be doing so that I can ignore it in favor of fanfiction. I watched Shindig today for the first time in too long a time (the awesome thing about college is receiving credit for something you'd be doing to procrastinate anyway) and just, this is an issue that never fails to intrigue me: How would Mal and Inara react to Inara continuing to work as a Companion if they ever got together? Post BDM, Mal/Inara. Read, enjoy, let me know what you think.

-

(I am not sure at all
if love is salve
or just
a deeper kind of wound.

-

The first time she comes back from a job after—it's important somehow, everything that came before this one event that she'd undertaken a hundred times before in her life—Inara doesn't leave her shuttle.

The Captain is short tempered with everyone the whole day through and it's a good thing they just docked to refuel (work's waiting for them three worlds over), it lessens the chance someone'll get shot for no good reason outside a bad day. Kaylee isn't so chipper as she might be and River is extra quiet at the helm, ghosts through the ship mumbling about not waving, but drowning. Zoe works through the motions like there ain't nothing different underfoot, like its just another stop on the way to getting things done. People have called her heartless before—men with guns bigger than their brains, women with soft spots at the center of their chests—but they just don't know nothing about what it means, about being so broken that all there is to do is get through the things that need to be done because if you ever stopped long enough, the pieces wouldn't hold together.

"'Nara's docked, we'll be out this world in fifteen, Sir." Zoe tells Mal like it were any time before (before they laid Wash to rest and her bunk got bigger and quieter than it had any right to be). She knows the difference, though, there's just nothing else to be done about it.

-

It was all the little things that gave them away.

Mal touching the small of her back as they walked across the catwalk, Inara's smile when she sat the table and listened to him and Zoe go back and forth.

"You're engaging in sexual activities." River declared at the table one night during dinner (okay, that gave them away pretty decently too). Mal choked on his protein, Inara forced a civil smile. Jayne snickered into his plate while Kaylee's startled laughter turned into congratulations. Simon, beet-red and mortified, dropped his head into his hands. "Mei mei, that isn't generally a topic one brings up at mealtimes."

"Or ever." Mal croaked, still trying to remember how to breathe.

-

They had discussed it. Of course they had. Sometimes they even kept their voices down when the subject came up. She insisted on continuing to pay rent for her shuttle. "I get to earn my keep as well—" and if it had been any other time maybe she wouldn't have slapped him at his suggesting she already was.

"I don't service crew." She spat and walked away, leaving him with a stinging cheek as another wayward misconception burned down another bridge.

"Wasn't talking about the sex darlin'." But she never was around to hear the things he actually got right.

-

Most nights, he could talk her into sleeping in his bunk. Most nights she resisted—wouldn't be Nara is she didn't—said the bed in the shuttle was bigger, that they'd sleep better. "And we don't have to worry about Jayne listening in," she said, a little feigned shutter followed by a coy grin.

But Mal always said he liked being closer to the helm, case anything went wrong, said he couldn't sleep on that feather pillow she called a mattress. "Man's back needs something of substance 'neath it, 'Nara,"

So they would stay in his bunk, crowding into each other's space on the narrow thinning mattress he called a bed. And she looked out of place there, her nightdress alone finer than any one thing he had to show in the space between the walls that made up his room.

But it was better somehow, reminded him of how she chose to stay—in his bed, on his ship, with him, a part of this family—and it would ease the gnawing feeling in his stomach that always sprang to life whenever they slept in her shuttle. That inkling she was always only a stop away from realizing she didn't have to.

-

Inara don't answer when he knocks—she should know how serious it all is just from that, because even now, Mal still don't comprehend the concept of a closed door—but he lets himself into her shuttle regardless (that rings truer to character).

The lights are dim and there's a giant basin at the foot of her bed, still filled with sweet smelling water. Her clothes are folded—he can recognize the intricate pleats of the dress she'd worn out, the shimmering material of her shawl, the deep red dye of the fabric—and her jewelry lay carefully arranged in gold piles atop her vanity. And Inara was there, lying in the middle of her bed wearing a blue shirt he knows to be his own. He feels foolish and clumsy, wonders for a minute what it might feel like, knowing the words he ought to be saying right now.

-

They came to the decision—she came the decision, he just agreed not to say anything more on the subject—that she would take work where she could find it. They had never frequented the Core much even before (before the world shifted, the illusion shattered, before they fell into each other and tried to find their way), but now they never lingered in Persephone longer than business required. They kept flying, kept to the edges as best they could. Didn't mean they could just leave everything behind.

"I'm not taking the entire registry, Mal, just—it's the only way my status won't be compromised. When I left the Training House, I broke my contract. I haven't engaged a client in months, if I keep going this way, the Guild will have ground to suspend my license. I'll be forced into retirement."

("Don't see the great tragedy in that, 'Nara." But he'd learned enough by then to know better than to say it).

-

Inara smells like whatever it is she added to the water in the basin, her hair still damp and soft beneath his fingertips. She doesn't startle under the touch, doesn't turn to look at him. She don't say anything at all and the quiet's more than Mal can stand to hear.

-

"Being a Companion, its everything I ever trained for." She ducked her head, worried her fingers over the sleeve of her dress. "But that didn't change how I felt for you before. It won't now. I hope," she wrapped her fingers around her wrist, made it look small and delicate, "I hope it won't change anything for you either."

He took her hand from her wrist and trapped it beneath both of his own. "Well, now, there's a silly notion if I ever heard one." And there was a lot to tell then, enough to fill up more than a few of those books she kept stored in trunks—poetry and essays and all sorts of frivolousities on the practice of love—but for the life of him, he didn't know what to say to her. ("You could hang the moon, Nara." He'd told her once, drunk off Kaylee's wine. She'd giggled and kissed him like it was the best poetry in the 'verse.)

Her shoulders dropped and she sighed, let all the tension bleed out of her body in a rush of air. "I—" she swallowed and placed her other hand over his, "It's good to hear."

-

"This always happens, doesn't it?" Her voice is calm, even. It's almost like she's speaking too loud, makes some unreasonable part of him wish she were whispering. There's no pretending she's talking to anyone but him. He's not entirely confident in anything he could say in response. Luckily, 'Nara keeps going on without one.

"I mean, I was reasonable. This is reasonable. Everything in this arrangement makes sense." Mal don't entirely agree, no, he doesn't agree a lick with what she said, but she ain't done talking and who knows how long she's been lying there, thinking all this. "It was perfectly lovely." His stomach clenches, he don't need to hear any of this, doesn't want to sit there and hear her talk about how lovely it all was. "But in the end, all I could think was—There are reasons, sensible reasons the Guild has laws in place in regards to relationships." She turns towards him them, rolls so that she's lying on her back, not quite looking at him, but still revealing her face to him nonetheless. "It's one thing," she says slowly, softly, "thinking things will work. It's another putting theory into practice." And what Mal sees on her face is the same thing he feels in his gut, the same sense of something that doesn't sit at all right between them. She looks too young and too old all once; her eyes are bright and sad and resigned, her mouth worried and too tight.

He don't like the look on her one bit, leans down and kisses her temple, feels her shuttered breath against his neck. If she's got a few stray tears on her face when he looks at her again, he don't make mention of them, just smoothes her hair with his fingers and tries to remind them both that she's back, back in Serenity, back home. Tries to convince them both its enough.

-

The first time she comes back from a job after—it's important, the road leading up to this one event, but so is everything that follows—Mal goes into her shuttle and lays down besides her without needing to be asked to stay. He lies down like it were any other night, like they were just settling in to sleep. Inara turns on her side and Mal fits into place behind her, bends his knees into the space she leaves behind her own, drops his arm around her (and if she takes his hand and tangles their fingers together and holds them both to her chest a little tighter than's strictly comfortable, he don't make no nevermind about it). They crowd into each other's space though there's room enough not to, 'cause it eases something in them both to know they aren't alone.

-

I do not think it matters.)

-

The End

-

Excerpts from The Evidence, a poem by Erica Jong

-

Feedback is Love