"I don't have enough coin for this," Zoe had said, that first time.

"I don't want any coin," Inara told her, eyes dark and honest, so honest, but bereft of any pity.

Zoe wouldn't have gone with her if she'd seen any pity.

Now this, the dozenth time, the hundredth time, she doesn't know, there's no talk of coin. There's only Inara's strong, soft hands on her shoulders after another shoot-out and Zoe forcing Inara down onto her fancy, embroidered blanket and kissing her deep. When he first found out, Mal was angry, but he's their captain and he knows what's love and what's business, and he hasn't said anything to Zoe about it since.

Even though there's no coin changing hands, Zoe knows this is only business. She's far too deep with Wash, even still, to think about lovin' anybody else. Inara's a trained Companion, and she's got to know that this is the only thing keeping Zoe afloat, and for all that she seems to consider herself separate from the crew, she's one of them, which mean she has a vested interest in keeping their second-in-command from falling apart.

Inara still takes clients. Zoe has always been possessive, but she knows she's got no right to say anything against it. Inara's not hers, never could be. Even if they were together, it's Inara's job to take clients, and Zoe always puts business before pleasure. So she stands by, face blank, mouth like stone, while Inara smiles and charms moneybags the way she's never charmed Zoe.

One night, she brings it up. "Why don't you wine and dine me, go through all those rituals?"

Inara gives her a curious look. "Do you want me to?"

Zoe shakes her head. "I don't need it. But you never even tried to treat me like them." It's stupid that that hurts, that she lets this hurt her when she's already got so many other hurts inside, but it does.

"That's because you're not like them," Inara says, her voice pitched low and intimate. She kisses Zoe's lips gently, always so sweet, and Zoe feels the rush of guilt in her gut.

...

She makes herself stop. It's been barely three months since her husband passed on, and she's spent it in the bed of the ship's Companion, getting herself pity-fucked. It's no way for an independent woman to behave, no way for a widow- Zoe can't stand that word- to behave. She should be mourning Wash, not missing Inara's touch.

She refuses miss Inara. She focuses on work.

...

Inara comes up to her in the kitchen. Jayne looks interested, but Mal glares and drags him away. Zoe glares at him in turn.

"Zoe," Inara says quietly, and now there's pity, and it makes her stand straight and tall.

"There's nothin' wrong," she says firmly. "I don't need your help anymore."

"I wasn't with you just to help you," the shorter woman tells her, and Zoe looks over her face.

There's hurt, there, which she didn't expect. A hint of anger, but hidden- Inara's good at that. There's openness, like always, and there's affection. More than there should be.

"I'm not in any shape for another partner," Zoe says. Something inside her quivers, something that hasn't moved in months. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Just don't push me away." Inara holds her gaze for another beat, then walks out.

...

"How does this work?" Zoe asks from the doorway.

Inara doesn't startle, but she marks her page in her book and closes it, sliding to the edge of the bed. "How does what work?"

"You being a Companion and wanting to have somethin' with someone else?"

Inara looks at her like she can see inside Zoe. The former soldier is not used to this, but she doesn't let her discomfort show.

"I just do it," Inara says simply.

Zoe frowns. "You 'just do it.'"

"I am allowed to have relationships outside of my work," the Companion explains, smiling. "It takes a good deal of diplomacy, sometimes, but it's not unheard of."

"And you don't- you know that I don't want anything serious," Zoe clarifies, stepping closer to the bed.

Inara nods. "I understand you, Zoe," she says, and Zoe believes her. It's scary, scary as hell, but Zoe's never been one to let fear stop her.

"I guess we've got an arrangement, then."

"Are you sure?" Inara stops her with a quiet hand on her belly. "I don't want you to get hurt." Her expression is gentle and her eyes are worried, and that makes Zoe all the more sure.

"Wash would be okay with this," she answers. She cracks a real smile for the first time in three months. "In fact, he'd probably be cheering us on."

Inara relaxes, and lets Zoe lay her back on the bed.