Post-film, not mine, all the usual.

Mal is holding ice against his shoulder, looking none too pleased, when he slides Inara's shuttle door open. She's still fixing it back up, and the swathes of fabric that once needed to be pushed out of the way in order to enter still sit in stacks on top of a trunk. It hasn't been long at all since they retrieved all of her things from the training house, but it's a comfort to everyone that they can call the shuttle hers again without soliciting glares from the captain. (He's relieved, too, even though he isn't saying so.)

Inara has a candle lit, placed on a low table; she's fussing with her bedsheets, adjusting the silk cushions, and doesn't even turn her head (but maybe that's good; he can't catch her smiling this way) as she says, "Still haven't learned to knock, I see."

"Wouldn't be me if I had," Mal replies with a cocky smirk. "Just came t'let you know we're plannin' on docking at Persephone in 'bout a fortnight, stayin' a few days less anything goes afoul, so…"

Get to makin' appointments if you're gonna, is the implication. If she chooses to take it.

She nods. "Of course," she murmurs. (She doesn't know if she will, yet, but she hasn't quite found the way to say that.) Satisfied with her bedding, she moves to sit on the edge. She gives Mal a placid smile before she notices the ice pack and her expression turns more worried. "Mal, we haven't even – you haven't even been on a job, what the tiān xiăo de could you have done to yourself?"

He grunts, shifting slightly. "Doc says I sprained my shoulder, likely doin' repairs 'round here."

Inara shakes her head affectionately. "I see."

Mal is impatient, though; he has never been one for small talk. He starts pacing, almost, round the shuttle, and nods towards one of Inara's as-yet-unpacked boxes. "Ya need any help gettin' things settled?"

"Oh, yes, that's a wonderful way not to exacerbate your injury," Inara rolls her eyes. But Mal's already opened up the box, taking out a small, tissue paper-wrapped glass bottle and holding it up to the light.

"Whassis?" he asks, raising an eyebrow. "Some sorta special Companion elixir? Keeps ya all youthful-like?" He lifts the stopper and takes a whiff of it, coughing dramatically at the strong scent. "Phew, ain't hardly delicate."

Inara snatches the bottle away, placing it on her end table with an only slightly miffed expression. "Actually, that's just massage oil."

"Ah-hah, so lotsa clients like it when you give 'em the rub-down?"

There's another eye roll, more elaborate than the last, as she replies. "That's a crude way of putting it, but yes. Massages can be a very erotic experience when done properly, and they can also be assistive in relaxation, for clients or myself."

Mal flushes red, suddenly filled with thoughts of Inara barely clothed and caressing her own oil-slick skin –

"Was there something further you wished to ask me?"

"Nuh-uh," Mal manages, flinching with embarrassment. He reaches to scratch the back of his neck thoughtlessly, and in doing so, he tweaks his shoulder, letting out a mumbled "Gorramit" as he does.

Inara sighs. "I know Simon would never think to recommend it, but I might be able to help somewhat with your shoulder."

Mal gives her a look of bonafide confusion. "Howsat?"

She knows she perhaps shouldn't make the offer, but she can't exactly stop herself. She pats the spot next to her, sliding over to give him more room. "Sit. With your back turned towards me, please."

The very prospect makes him nervous, but, grumbling softly, he does as he's told. He angles his back towards her, and she reaches one hand up, almost tentatively, and nudges the ice pack out of the way. A moment passes (wŏ de mā, this could be a terrible idea, given their conversation; but then, she had stayed aboard, hadn't she? That had to count for something, be it a sense of his feelings or a willingness to finally act on her own) and Inara presses her thumb against Mal's shoulder, working in a slow circle around the offending area.

"Āiyā," Mal inhales.

"Don't tense up," Inara admonishes gently. Her fingers dig into his shoulder, expanding the radius of the circle. His muscles strain and crackle underneath her touch, and Mal bites his tongue, trying very hard not to make any embarrassing sounds.

"Am I in the right place?" Inara asks, her voice soft.

"Huh – uh, yes," Mal stammers.

"Good," Inara murmurs, and she presses harder against the knotted muscles, using her index finger to gently stretch the knot out, loosening it. Mal can't help himself; he exhales loudly, almost in a groan. The noise startles Inara, or it seems to; she withdraws her hands, hurriedly asking, "Too much?"

The moment of truth.

Without looking back at her, Mal shakes his head. "No, it ain't. Not in the slightest."

Inara nods, but before she continues, she's struck with an impulse to slide his suspenders down over his shoulders. That gets Mal to turn around, looking surprised, but Inara just gives him an I-know-better-than-you expression. "They were getting in the way," she tells him.

It hangs in the air a moment before she continues. The pressure she applies to his shoulder increases, but carefully so; she feels each little ridge of muscle, slowly working around, loosening the knots, easing the tension. Her fingernails scrape against the cloth of his shirt, and he sets his jaw, finding it altogether too much to handle.

"Is this helping?" Inara asks.

Another moment of truth, now. Mal turns to face her, locks eyes with her, and finds she's a bit flushed. (No more than he is, but he's not surprised by his own warm cheeks nearly as much as hers.)

"Surely is," he nods slowly. "And I'm greatly appreciative."

"There's a 'but' you're not adding to that sentence," Inara says.

"I'm just wonderin' – where the catch is in all this."

Inara tilts her head. "There isn't a catch."

"Thought you didn't service crew," Mal breathes.

She folds her arms, glaring. "I am not servicing you, Mal," she retorts. "And if that's the way you plan to take it, you can just –"

"It's not," Mal shoots back. "And I ain't."

She regards him coolly for a moment before nodding, satisfied. She reaches over to pick up the little bottle of massage oil, uncapping it. "Then we'll do this right."

Mal flushes again, but, injury notwithstanding, he catches the hint and unbuttons his shirt speedily, sliding it off and looking at Inara expectantly, almost giving her a chance to change her mind. "You want I oughta lie down?"

Servicing she's not, but this still isn't for her, not right now. She's breaking his walls down. "Whatever you're comfortable with."

He lies down.

Inara inhales deeply, pouring oil into her palm and taking a moment to really let it sink in what she's doing. But if not now, then – when? There are altogether too many possibilities for her to take in and she isn't interested in ifs anymore. Life is far too short for that.

So she presses her palms against his bare back, feeling his skin against hers. She works at the knots, the tension. Her hands travel the scarred-up, warm flesh, shoulders to waist, and as he lets out a shuddery sigh of pleasure, she thinks perhaps she could get used to this.

āiyā; "dammit"