Inara returned from her latest appointment and although she would offer no words, ill or otherwise about her client, her ever vigilant Captain noticed that she was limping a mite so he sent her to see Simon. He had no sooner given her the brusque order from the overhead walkway than he turned himself away, willing each footstep to keep itself pointed towards the bridge as he tried to quell the concern he felt at her welfare.
When enough time had lapsed, Mal set off to inform the doctor of their destination. Simon only nodded and kept about his business of organizing supplies. Mal, trying his hand at indirection, asked about the health of the crew in general but was given nothing but his own infuriation served on a platter. He was reduced to the appearance of compassion, by ordering the man in no uncertain terms to divulge Inara's injuries or be cast out the airlock. Doctor patient privilege suddenly became a much more ambiguous notion.
Mal's arms crossed to cover his insides that were quavering with uncertainty as he paced the infirmary. He wanted nothing to do with seeking his own gratification, only her comfort, which had been compromised by bruised ribs and a sprained ankle, allegedly from a fall. He'd never seen her lose her poise, much less falter a step, so his imagings did him no favors by conjuring scenarios, the nicest of which were her being pushed around. Her injuries were not serious by the doctor's reckoning, but it boiled Mal up just the same. She was to be bought, no doubt, but she was admired and pampered as a rule while the favored chosen had their time. Concern engulfed him but he knew that she would profess him to be downright improper to meddle. The Captain informed Simon of his intended course of action, with the sole purpose of being able to lay the blame at a neutral party's door. The doctor wisely endorsed the benign plan as medically sound if only to reclaim his infirmary, and perhaps to do Inara a kindness.
Inara's side and foot, while tender, were more rued for being agents of idleness than causing physical agony. She could ill afford reflection when all her thoughts brushed on the one subject she had to willfully ignore. She kept her shuttle door sealed between them but feeling his disciplined lack of affection shook her emotional need for a real human connection at a fundamental level. If she were to be truthsome, the need was not for any common man, but for a specific petty pirate. The same man who would never want her after so many have staked their meaningless claims.
She hated herself for the weakness of having any such struggle. Without emotional attachments she could go on as she had always done; pretending that she was a gem among the parched outer territories, fulfilling needs and providing a fundamental service all while being spoiled by men who appreciated her, or at least the illusion she created for them. Suddenly the baubles and fineries seemed like nothing more than civilized branding.
The knock on the door was not unexpected. Kaylee savored Inara's telling of the exquisite bits and bobs and the fine dinners and handsome gentility. She would be crushed to discover how much came from Inara's imaginings since her professional life held little variation in venues. She did not want to advertise her discomfort to her sweetly naïve friend, so she remained reclined and bid her enter. However, when she realized that her visitor was not one to be impressed by finery, she was caught so tilted she could scarcely switch from conjuring details of party dresses to defending her territory from the threat of emotional invasion.
He made no inquiries, polite or otherwise and held her gaze so little that she marveled at how he knew where she was situated. He simply mumbled something about Simon saying it was a good idea to reduce swelling and he didn't want to impose on anyone else with such a task. It was uttered as a complaint, but the slight tremor in his consistent, stead hands communicated more. He put the basin down at the end of her sofa, sat by her feet and placed the towel from over his shoulder to his lap. She had never seen him nervous and she had no recourse.
Stunned into mute inaction, she watched as he lifted her feet and slid over and rested them on the towel in his lap. He fumbled with the knot of the bindings on her ankle, unwrapped her foot with care, dampened his face cloth in the cool water then awkwardly lifted her bruised foot with his calloused hands and gingerly caressed it with the cloth. The coolness was soothing and his movements were slow and meticulous. Neither did he cause her pain nor ease her discomfort about his ministrations. He had decided to touch her through the cloth as much as possible, fearing that too much skin contact would rouse her defenses, but it pained him fiercely to comply with his own regulations.
He heard nothing but her even breathing so he chanced a look. To an outsider she would have appeared impassive but what he saw was a trickle of honest emotions to which she dare not give liberties. He abandoned the cloth altogether, lifted her sound foot, caressing and working her muscles with his gently fumbling fingers while staring back at her, his own expression shaded with a vulnerability where others would have seen only confidence.
She had not realized that there was anything for her left to experience, any form of intimacy through which her emotions could emerge barely checked. A lifetime of training in service to others taught her that her worth was enmeshed with the praise of her practiced seductions. Never had any of her mentors prepared her for feeling endeared, this dangerously overpowering urge to curl up in the arms of a man, fully dressed, for her own comfort.
Her desires were to be absolutely denied. That was her sacrifice for being chosen and poised for success. Yet, despite all her sensibilities, she quelled her better judgment and refused to pull away or order him to give up his chosen task. She felt her defects acutely. This shame of what she ought to do battled with her desire to be loved as an individual, not a commodity, and just this once she indulged it. As she stared at the soul of this man who understood her better than she realized, she was pained to admit to herself that she had nothing to offer him in return.
She was incapable of fathoming that all his satisfaction required was for Serenity to fly, the crew to be fed, and Inara to feel her worth. He had no pretensions about tomorrow, or the next day. For this moment he was a satisfied man.