She had known from the very beginning... or soon thereafter, at least... that things were not what they seemed. The looks on the teachers’ faces: too calm, as if what they were teaching were just a minor thing, as if the ultimate intent - which would explain all - was simply not theirs to reveal. The knowing smile, the sidelong glance. They were measuring the students up... but for what?
The importance they placed on the body... learning its anatomy, its physiology, how to gauge the precise amount of pressure one was delivering with a fingertip. How to read truths and lies in the eyes, the breath, the visibly fluttering pulse of a stranger. The limits of one’s own flexibility, greater than one might expect... or perhaps not, for those barely beginning adolescence had usually not yet learned enough of their own bodies to be surprised at what they could do, given sufficient training. Hidden strength, deceptive grace, the breathing control of an ancient monk, the disarmingly impish grin of a schoolgirl... which was to be practiced each night in the mirror, as it would be tested and rated each morning before breakfast.
The senses... how to recognize the aromas and tastes of perfumes and poisons from all the known worlds. Finding a face in a crowd of fifty, a crowd of a thousand. A stone this shade of blue was a diamond of rarest quality, suitable for not only gem use but, more importantly, as an excellent conductor of certain kinds of energy. But this other shade, so similar it might seem identical to those lacking the requisite discernment? Go sa, worthless, not fit for a little girl’s dress-up necklace. But not as low, in the grand scheme of things, as a person who lacked discernment.
Senses, science, and intuition, these were all fostered. But sensation for its own sake had no place, was irrelevant, scorned as too deceptive for one to rely on. The students practiced it fervently together, late at night in tiny, clandestine sips in their narrow dorm beds. Like liquor, sensation was addictive, and you would feel drowsy and dull the next day, and you would come to realize that the instructors knew. They always knew. Far from turning a blind eye, they seemed to monitor that activity along with everything else. Information was never wasted.
Ultimately, the teachers only intervened if a student seemed unable to put the night behind her. And soon enough, the ranks thinned. And soon enough, the students knew what they were there for, and had no time or inclination left for extracurricular activities.
The identity. It was important to know whom one was. One was part of something greater. One was a cog in a brilliant machine, the past and the future and a shining light in the uncivilized darkness. One was what one accomplished through training and discipline, through following instructions and asking only the right sort of questions.
Choice. Some would say that choice made the difference. And before the Reavers, she probably would have said the same. But now, she could no longer be sure. She could no longer, in fact, be sure of anything. How much choice had she actually had, by the time she found out what she was really being asked to do? After so much grooming? She had, of course, as usual, done just what she had been trained to do, even if it meant separating herself from the prospect of the type of life most people considered real and normal. The fleeting notion that she was giving up something more important than they let on was just that, fleeting. Later, she convinced herself - because she had to convince herself - that such a subversive thought had never crossed her mind.
And now? She watched as Simon and Kaylee drifted through the ship, their private ‘verse only rarely intersecting with the one the others inhabited. Even when physically apart, now, they were together. Anyone could see it, the way they breathed one another in and out. And for the first time, she acknowledged the thought that her own reality might be lacking something essential, if she was unable to even imagine how to approach the problem with which she was now faced. If all her training had left her coldest where she suddenly craved heat... had taught her only mastery of the transitory, so that she was helpless in the face of her own aching for something that might last.
She was so accustomed to having skills, tools, but she had been given none for this... and she knew he would never be the one to make the move across the divide that seemed to separate them. Even after the Reavers. Because he, unlike Kaylee, had not been handy to receive a confession of loving regret when death seemed imminent. Now the urgency had passed, leaving her with only the knowledge of what she would have said. If he’d been there. Which, damn his truth-broadcasting, Alliance-foiling, anti-heroic hide, he had not.
Inara thought of River, and - not for the first time - thought how much she had in common with the damaged fledgling now piloting the ship. How impossible the real ‘verse had been made for both of them. How they had each been manipulated with a promise of something shiny, and found out all too soon the deep meaning of “too good to be true.” Oh, Inara understood River quite well, she feared.
The vid screen flickered as the ship hit atmo with a bit of a bump. Rougher than Wash, but better than their last entry. River was doing what she did best, which was learning fast. Inara took a final glance at the half-dozen lucrative prospects on her screen, then turned the view off with a decisive motion. She might not know what to do, but she wasn’t going to do that. Not just yet, anyway.
* * * * *
He had waited until the last minute to reboard the ship, not wanting to face a drippy goodbye scene. He went straight on through to the bridge, stopping only to stow a bag of fresh root vegetables in the galley.
River was already going through the pre-flight, singing the little song she had made out of the mnemonic he’d taught her. She barely spared him a nod, and her slim fingers never stopped caressing the panels before and above her as he took the co-pilot’s seat.
With a brief word from Kaylee, they were in the air and gone before Mal ventured to ask whether the Ambassador had left behind any "stuff" this time. River favored him with a cockeyed grimace, shaking her head.
"You two are just the same," she murmured, lifting her legs up into the chair so she could rest her chin on her knees. "Send Kaylee up when you go. She's only ever thinking what she's thinking. It's restful."
"What, now?" Mal found River vastly improved since Miranda, but she could still be baffling as ever at times.
"You and Inara both think you're thinking one thing, but it's really another. Stupid. And more under that. It's onions. Not like Kaylee. She's... smooth, all through. She knows what she thinks and feels."
Malcolm replied with a cynical snort. The look she gave him then, had he but known it, had nothing to do with being a mad, mind-reading genius, and everything to do with being a teenaged girl.
"Inara didn't leave anything behind, because Inara didn't leave." She rolled her eyes at his stupidity and turned back to her instruments. It took Mal a few seconds to process her plain meaning, as he'd been braced for another slice of derangement.
"She did - what? She's still here?" As he bolted from his chair and through the hatch, he heard River hit the com, calling for Kaylee to come keep her company.
If his feet touched a quarter of the many steps that separated the bridge from the hatch to Inara's shuttle, it was by chance rather than design; Mal was flying, pounding the metal of the catwalk, swinging around corners with a breakneck haste he would never have allowed from one of this crew. But when he arrived and, without hesitation, burst into the shuttle without knocking, he was greeted with silence, and an absence of the shuttle's occupant. It was a potent absence, marked by her lingering - and still intoxicating - scent, suffusing the air with the suggestion that she couldn't be far away. She was gone, but she was still here. Somewhere. All her things remained in place exactly as he'd last seen them.
"Huh." Mal scratched his head sheepishly, and made his way out and back along the catwalk, thinking to press River and possibly Kaylee for more information. Moving more slowly this time, he noticed the open hatch to the mess hall, and heard the unmistakable sounds of food being prepared. He might be distracted, but not too distracted to pass up a meal if somebody else was doing the cooking.
And it was her.
She stood behind the counter, calmly slicing potatoes into a large skillet. She didn't look at all surprised when Mal slouched through the hatch, just lifted a sleek eyebrow and smiled enigmatically, as usual.
Gorram enigmatic smile, thought Mal petulantly. He realized too late he had no idea what to say to Inara, and had also just given her the upper hand by stumbling upon her so poorly prepared.
"Um... so. Heard you're stayin' on," he finally said, leaning back against the cabinet with his arms folded, his legs crossed at the ankle, in a vain attempt to look nonchalant. "You aimin' to be the cook, looks like?" Don't mention her work, now, he told himself furiously, don't mention her work, don't mention her work, don't - "'Bout time you found a new line of work."
The swift look she flashed him with those amazing eyes caught him straight in the pants, where it always did. Standing up quickly to distract himself, Mal paced to the hatch and back, coming to a stop beside his would-be cook. He tried to ignore the telltale flutter in his stomach, always brought on when he got close enough to smell her under her perfume. The brisk, efficient motions of her hands, still slicing the potatoes, were somehow mesmerizing; even this, she did beautifully.
"Inara... why're you here?" he asked softly, surprising them both. Too open... not his usual.
"I assume you don't mean here, in the galley." Inara kept working for a few moments, but then her hands slowed and finally stopped; she lad the knife down on the counter very carefully, almost gently, then gripped the counter's edge with both hands. Her knuckles whitened, clenched as tight as Mal's jaw for a moment, then relaxed as she released her breath deliberately.
"I decided to stay on a little longer."
"Uh-huh. You just decided that. And... that explains why you're standin' here fryin' up dinner on my ship right now, 'stead of gettin' settled in back at the Training House, where you said you was headed?"
When she didn't answer, Mal raised his hand and, in a move uncharacteristic of him, gently tipped her chin so she was facing him. Right away, he wished he hadn't. Inara's eyes were enormous, full of tears, pain, bitterness, and plenty else Mal couldn't put words to but knew meant confusion and messiness for him. What was more, her lower lip was trembling slightly with her effort not to cry. Before he realized what he was doing, Mal slipped his thumb from his chin to her lip, stroking it with the barest touch as though he could soothe the hurt that way. And touching it just reminded him of what her lips looked like in his mind, when he'd imagined (again, and again, and again) what they might feel like under his, and there went the pants again.
Only difference was, this time Inara felt it too. Somehow they'd wound up standing to close to one another, close enough that only the handspan of difference in their heights separated their faces. Too, too close.
Then she stepped back, and Mal half expected her to tell him to get out. But of course she didn't; this was his galley, his territory, not her shuttle. Her face had closed up again, just like that, and she looked completely composed as she started on the potatoes again. He would almost have believed he'd imagined the whole weird interlude, but for her voice, stopping him on his way out the door.
"Maybe I just changed my mind about heading back to civilization."
Hand on the rim of the hatch, Mal paused. "You sayin' we ain't civilized?"
Inara smiled, suddenly all dimples and curls. "Who says I want you to be? Maybe civilization isn't all it's cracked up to be."
The smile knocked Mal's mind off kilter a little, and he gave back a wry smirk of his own before he left her.
* * * * *
Dinner itself was unmemorable, and for all the wrong reasons. The stew - did it really surprise any of them? - was superb, the flavor of the vegetables and dried herbs completely masking the ever-present protein. It was rich, hearty, and Mal was tempted to think it spoke of Inara's home life before her fancy training. Then, unfortunately, he thought too much, and considered that as it was exactly the sort of dish to tempt a man, it therefore clearly fell into the category of feminine wiles.
Jayne, thinking less, enjoyed the meal more, and strangely enough actually called Inara "ma'am" when he complimented her on it. Simon and Kaylee, looking as smug and sated as two cream-gorged cats, ate hugely and left early. Inara wasn't far behind them, with a joking claim of exhaustion from slaving over a hot stove. River ate an astonishing amount, then constructed a remarkably stable pagoda from potato slices and dried rosemary stems, as Zoe began to clear the plates and clean up.
Which left Mal, with his bellyful of grudge spoiling his dinner, to wait what seemed like a reasonable time before sauntering out casually so nobody would suspect he was looking for Inara. They all let him maintain his little fiction, of course; it was a small ship, and he was the captain after all.
He didn't find her in her shuttle that night. In fact when he found her she was standing on the catwalk as she was in the habit of doing, looking out over the cargo hold. It helped, Mal knew, fight the claustrophobia that was a part of traveling, to be in a larger space for awhile, let the eyes readjust to the wider view. He stopped next to her and looked out, sharing the perspective, saying nothing. The fabric of his sleeve brushed against her arm, bare in her sleeveless dress, not fully covered by the scarf she wore as a shawl.
* * * * *
When Mal placed his hands on the railing adjacent to hers, Inara's eyes automatically followed their movement and she found herself entranced. She couldn't stop staring at his hands, with their squared-off strength and surprising dexterity. They looked practical, and very real. They looked capable. And she knew that they were, in fact, capable. Of what, she was still not entirely sure. A tiny shiver thrilled through her, and she cleared her throat and spoke to force her mind off his hands.
"I thought if we stop soon, we might barter for some more root vegetables. They keep, and we have the room. We're nearly out of fresh food. There's only so much anyone can do with just protein to work with."
"Mmm." He nodded, but didn't seem to be paying much attention. Irked, Inara looked back out over the bay, considering as always that the best view on the ship - unless one favored looking out the ports at the vastness of space - was also undoubtedly the ugliest. Perhaps Kaylee just hadn't gotten to it yet.
"Where'd you learn to cook?" The question came from nowhere... but Inara knew that every question came from somewhere.
"I haven't always lived at a Guild House." She was aware she sounded defensive, and wasn't sure why she should be. Smoothing her tone, she added, "My mother taught me some, when I was younger. I had to help cook for the ranch hands every day, from the time I was about eight until the Guild recruited me at twelve. Then once I left the Guild House, after my licensing, I had an apartment on Sihnon, and I cooked for myself there. And friends, sometimes. I even took a few classes. And I thought it might be... a useful skill." She sighed, realizing from the tightness of his lips where his question had come from, realizing that her answer was not entirely satisfying.
"I enjoy cooking. And everyone seemed to like the stew. I'd be happy to go on doing it for awhile. Unless you have some objection." Her voice was cool, now, disciplined and crisp, giving nothing away.
"No. No objection." He let the railing go, and stepped away. "It was good stew. And nobody else has been volunteering. You're welcome to it." He was already walking away as he spoke, but just before he ducked through the hatch he paused and looked back, to realize Inara was looking up at him. They both glanced away quickly, but Mal's step sounded firmer than it had before, and Inara heard him start a rough, out-of-tune song before he rounded another corner and the sound was baffled. A drinking song, a song about a girl. She was smiling as she soaked in one last gaze of the cargo hold and finally made her way to her shuttle.
* * * * *
In the course of her training Inara had learned a great deal about the phenomenon of personal space, the feeling a person had that another person was too close for comfort, or the way a trusted friend or loved one had tacit permission to come and go in that space. Mal was inclined to touch anyway, inclined to put a reassuring hand on a shoulder, or pull a friend into a hug masquerading as a headlock. She had already grown used to him in that way, was already accustomed to the way he leaned in when he stood near her, the way his shoulder brushed hers when they walked through some frontier town together. But that was true for all of them on Serenity. Personal space was a luxury anyway, in a ship out in space. Mal was the captain and he entered all their spaces, made them used to his physical presence as much as his personality. He asserted himself. She was used to that, but this new thing was so much more than that. She wondered if Mal even knew he was doing it; the slow encroachment, over days, into her already shrunken field of comfortable proximity. In the mess hall, leaning over to grab a dish, or placing his chair just so; it was always on the edge of what she would consider "too close" from anyone else. From Mal it just made her pleasantly edgy, thrilling in the knowledge that any casual movement might bring them into contact that felt anything but casual.
Their bodies were carrying on the conversation their minds weren't quite ready to begin, Inara thought. It was a conversation about alignment, about regret, forgiveness, and the possibility of second chances. The possibility of more. When Mal walked near her, or stood near her these fractions of inches closer than he had been before, she now knew it was him without looking. Not Jayne, not Simon. She knew it was Mal because a slow thrill swept from the back of her neck down to her thighs, raising every delicate hair along the way. It was a heady sensation, almost an inebriation, to feel that surge of needy energy catch and pull, ending always between her legs and lingering there sweetly. And it was something not in her control at all. He had an effect on her and somehow she had allowed herself to give in to it, and although it ran in the face of everything she had ever learned, still she found it impossible to resist.
When the conversation became overt, it was still their bodies that spoke first. Glances, not dismissive or frustrated, but thoughtful and strangely mutual. Shared jokes, a commonality of opinion about something that might be happening that they didn't need words to express. And then one night, across the dining table, out of nowhere, a look that lasted a little too long for polite company; they had caught each other unawares, and their eyes and bodies spoke volumes in that few moments. Too much to ignore. It was time, and they both knew it. But then Mal started telling an awful anecdote, something involving Zoe and a disreputable bar, and soon Inara was laughing as hard as everyone else at the table, and the rest of dinner played out in the usual manner. The moment was past.
She was still flustered though, even an hour or so later, making her way back to the shuttle. Where Mal stood just inside the airlock, leaning on the bulkhead with one leg crossed nonchalantly over the other. He was examining one of his thumbnails with studious care, and didn't look up until she lifted her skirt to step over the lip of the open hatch.
"Knock, knock," he said, with just the barest hint of a smirk.
"How... civilized of you. I don't quite know what to say." If she didn't know what to say, it was because her heart was pounding in her chest, and it was all she could do to school her expression to one of calm. If she hadn't read about this phenomenon - been warned against it, in fact - she might have thought she had taken a sudden illness.
"I do what I can." He shrugged, hands held wide, casual. She was strangely comforted to see the fluttering pulse at his neck; with some detached portion of her mind she noted that detail, the slightly rapid breathing, the way he was stiffer than usual through the shoulders. It calmed her. This, she knew how to work with.
"I told you. I may not be looking for civilization anymore." Dimples flashing, she swept past him, knowing he would follow. Though she didn't know it, he could follow her blind, trailing the scent that marked her path anywhere she went, flowers and spices and incense, silk and tea and whatever it was that made him want to bury his face in her hair.
Inara had heard the sound of the hatch closing, of the wheel spinning as he locked it behind them, and even though she had already known what would happen when she saw him standing there, that added fact - the locked hatch - somehow made it all more real. In a fantasy, you didn't have to lock the hatch; therefore, this wasn't a fantasy. She stopped, indecisive, at the table in front of the couch. "I could... make some tea?"
But before she could turn to catch his answer, he stepped closer behind her, and then placed his hands very carefully on her shoulders. Until he started to knead them, she hadn't realized how tense she had been, herself; her shoulders felt as though they had been cramped somewhere up near her ears, and the weight and insistent pressure of Mal's touch was causing the knots in them to melt like spring ice even as she felt the now-familiar ache at the bottom of her belly begin to throb with heat in time with her heartbeats.
"Not here for tea."
She let out a long, shuddering breath and leaned back a little, until her back was lying flush against Mal's chest. His hands slowed and then stopped massaging, sliding down her sides to her waist; he pulled her closer still, holding her there, breathing into her hair. It was not an accidental posture, the relationship of their two bodies now. It was deliberate, and sustained, and required acknowledgement. None of it was the appropriate procedure. Rituals of welcome, of comfort, had not been performed. Tea had not been made, ground rules not established. His move was a breach of a protocol she lived by, but one he had no reason to know. Because he's not a client. She swallowed hard once and slipped her hands over his, holding them and tugging them further around her until they met.
He is not a client. And he was nuzzling into her hair, at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, hot breath tingling behind her ear where the skin was thin and sensitive. It made that side of her body feel weak, shaky; he meant it to do that. He meant her to tremble with pent-up need, meant for her pleasure to be genuine. Mutual. She was seized with sudden fear that she wasn't capable of that, that it had been trained out of her. Her problem, she acknowledged, was that by the deliberate design of the Guild, she had no idea what a man who wasn't a client might expect. She felt bereft of the structure she'd spent her formative years learning... learning so well, indeed, she hardly knew who she might be without it.
But now his arm was tightening around her waist, he was shifting her hair to the side and molesting her neck and ear directly, pulling a soft, startled cry from her. If it was going to feel like that when he licked the rim of her ear, perhaps she was capable of this after all. For a moment, her eyes closed, she thought the sudden shift in her balance was just another sensation, that of feeling off-kilter. But it was Mal, turning her around in his arms, tipping her face up with his hand at her jaw, fingers already working deeper into her hair.
When he kissed her, she almost cried. It was, in some ways, her first kiss. The first one that was free; the first one given by someone whose interest lay in who she was, not what she was. The first one that belonged to her. She wanted to make it worth the price she would surely be paying, and she kissed Mal back with a ferocity that surprised them both. If it had happened in the heat of an argument, as she had often imagined - as she suspected they had both often imagined - and if that argument had robbed them of excuses to refrain, and resulted in a frantic scrabbling of mouths and hands and clothes up against the wall, or falling in a tangle on the nearest flat surface... then she would have expected a kiss like this one. From herself, from him.
It didn't last long that way; it wasn't what Mal wanted, and he was still holding her firmly in place. Also unexpected, though it made sense given what she knew of him, that once he had decided on this course of action, he would seize control and proceed with seeming confidence, whether he actually felt confident or not. She felt unaccountably safe, comforted, sure that he knew what to do. He eased away enough that his lips just grazed hers, the tip of his tongue slipped just within the confines of her mouth. Just within reach, but only if he let her get there... maddening, and she never wanted it to stop. She wished she could stop thinking. And then she did stop thinking.
When this one activity had gone on for a ridiculously long time, they broke apart and breathed at each other, Inara's eyes wide and astonished, Mal's half-lidded with lust at first, but then wary and thoughtful. Guarded again. Waiting for her to say something, but for the first time in years she had no idea what to say to the man she was alone with. The man she was expecting to have sex with, possibly very soon. The sudden image of that act struck her directly, viscerally, and she found herself blushing again when Mal spoke.
"Tzuh muh luh?"
"I'm..." she thought a minute, not quite sure what she was. "I think I'm... nervous." She explored the word in her mind as she said it, puzzled at the rightness of it, still not sure how it could be possible. She was relieved when he let the remark go without a wisecrack, and instead nodded philosophically.
"You're shaking," he said. He would have reason to know, as she was still pinned quite firmly against him.
"I've never done something like this before," she responded without thinking, still feeling dazed. At his baffled and uneasy look, she rolled her eyes and gave him a self-deprecating smile, tightening her grip around his waist. "I mean... without... we were never encouraged to. Never allowed to, unless it was..."
"I know, I get... I get that. Off the clock." He glanced automatically around the silk-draped space, looking for the unmistakeable ruby gleam of her hourglass. "Where is the clock?"
"Not here." Her voice was terse, tight, and he looked back at her with his head tipped to one side, considering. As he had in the kitchen that night, days ago, he brought his thumb to her lower lip and stroked there, soothing, his other fingers curling gently on her cheek.
"Good." It was enough to say, for then. And then he smiled, that smile that touched only the corners of his mouth but that always showed in his eyes, and then he kissed her, as they had both thought he might that earlier night, with a gentler passion than she had ever thought to find in him. Slow, deep, patient. This time, she accepted his pace more readily, not so frantic to respond.
She had been worried about how things would proceed without an expert directing each motion, each nuance, providing the illusion of the partner being in control while covertly managing the environment such that everything was accomplished as it should be and concluded within the proscribed time limit. She came to see she had underestimated the ability of amateurs, working with no such limitations and only the rules they cared to agree to. Mal was working on no timeline, he did what he wanted to do, so they stood there and kissed until they both felt the issue of kissing had been sufficiently addressed. Although it was clearly not entirely out of their systems, at least the initial suspense had been dealt with.
* * * * *
Still standing there some infinite time later, holding her, Mal paused and eyed the options the room offered. The bed...a lot of history there, although he was starting to wonder whether it would matter as much as he'd once assumed. Because, as Inara had pointed out in that shaky, husky voice that knocked his logic clear out of his head, she had never done this before. He was starting to see how that might make a difference, how much it might mean, how significant it also was that she had not, in fact, been a common whore but a Companion. Whores were for one thing, Companions quite another. He knew that as well as anyone, despite what he'd said so many times in the past. And the men she'd accepted as clients knew the difference, too, and chose Companions over whores for a reason.
It was a startling thought, and an odd time to have such an epiphany. He had always thought of what she had done with other men, but the more important question might be what she hadn't done? What would men who hired Companions instead of whores be inclined to do to their partners, for their partners? He would do everything to her, until he found out, he decided. And even if nothing was new to her, it might feel new, which would be something in itself. Just having a plan in the first place was something; it was good to have a plan.
All these thoughts had flashed through his mind, barely formed, while Inara had started fiddling with the buttons of his shirt, unfastening them one-handed with a certain dexterity and stealth. When they were open down to his waist she brought her lips to the skin she'd exposed and attacked hungrily, pushing the rough-spun fabric out of the way as she went. Mal shivered at the warm press of her mouth, now at his collarbone, now in the dip at the top of his abdomen. Her hands had shifted to his hips, and he felt that, too, as a pressure that mere physics couldn't account for.
She was wearing the one dress of hers he could actually say he liked, a silk tunic that covered her up almost completely, with golds and browns and then a blue he couldn't figure out the reason for but liked anyway. The whole thing was very simply cut and brought all attention to her face, which was all she needed anyway; it made her eyes look impossibly huge, those chocolate irises with hidden depths like fancy jewels. Pretty, Mal thought more simply when she looked up at him from under her lashes with a smile that could only be called bashful.
He let his hands slip lower, tracing downward from her waist and the alluring small of her back where the curves of her muscles felt molded for the curvature of his palms and fingers. Lower, hips swelling outward like they should, although she was always tinier in person than he thought of her as being when she wasn't in front of him, her body softer and lighter than her personality. Lower still, and finding another curve that fit his hands perfectly, though he was running them against the grain of the silk and had to suffer calluses snagging and releasing until he had reached his destination. She'd been watching him, but when he pressed there at the place where her buttocks ended and legs began, her eyes fluttered shut again and her lips parted with a muted gasp that was clearly audible in the silence of the room. The rosy hue of the room, lantern light catching and reflecting so much red and gold, almost hid the blush that spread across her cheeks. But not quite, because Mal was standing very close and could see the color rise. He bit his lip, feeling blood rush to his cock, which was already feeling uncomfortably hard. Because he was used to punishing himself, he pushed against her, against the leverage of his hands on her rear, until he was pressed tight against her belly.
"Mal..." He looked down but her eyes were still closed, her face still flushed. She was just... saying his name. In this state, it was his name that had come out, and the thought was like dry tinder, thrown on the open fire his lust had long since become. With a short groan that had nothing to do with the effort - he had hoisted much heavier things in his time - he bent just enough to scoop her up, and walked the few steps to the bed.
A bed is a more definite statement than standing up, a step much closer to the sort of line they could only cross in one direction. Mal laid Inara down on top of the coverlet, kissing her deeply again, hands already busy trying to find out how to get her clothes off. The tunic was defeating him, and the knowledge from his earlier forays that she was wearing little or nothing beneath it only added to the frustration. At last he reared up with a growl of irritation.
"How's the gorram thing work, anyway?"
Inara rolled her eyes but then giggled, shifting beneath him in a way that did nothing to calm him. "It doesn't fasten, it just... here, let me up a minute."
Reluctantly he rolled to his side, instantly missing the feel of her as she stood up. Her next act made it seem worth it. With just a glance back over her shoulder at him, she pulled the tunic off in one smooth, graceful motion; the fabric caught in her hair a little, spoiling the perfection of the move, but Mal was far past noticing that. The sight of her, naked from head to toe, shaking her hair back down over her shoulders, drove any other thought out of his mind. Perfection... creamy skin, smooth curves, and when he sat up on the edge of the bed and brought his hands to her hips, turned her to face him again, her skin was if anything even softer than it looked, so he felt he might actually damage her if he handled her too roughly. It made him want, perversely, to handle her roughly someday, though not today.
His mouth found a nipple unerringly, before he'd really finished appreciating her visual appeal, and his hands were busy cupping her rear again, pulling her into the space between his legs. He savored the taste of her, the intoxicating smell, the feel of skin even finer than imagination. Reveled in the way her hands wove through his hair, pulling him closer, as her heart beat faster and her breath grew rough enough for him to feel its tidal swell under his lips. He heard a whimpering noise, thought it was himself, realized it was Inara. He tried to remember what he'd been doing when she started making it, tried flicking his tongue across her taut nipple and was rewarded with a louder response.
Grinning, Mal pulled her back down to the bed, rolling her onto her back and flexing into the warmth between her parted legs as he teased at her breasts longer, until she was writhing and wrapping her legs around his, goosebumps on her flesh attesting to the authenticity of her reaction.
"Don't stop," she whispered, whining a little when he moved away.
Shushing her, he worked his way lower, tasting every inch of skin he could find from her breasts to her hips, kneading and stroking and discovering the spots that seemed most useful to get acquainted with. He didn't know what possessed him, he wanted more than life itself to be buried inside her, but when the first light touch of his fingers between her legs revealed how wet she was, he was overcome by the need to taste that, too. Against her faint, puzzled protests, he slipped off the bed and to his knees, pulling her just far enough over the edge to make his goal easier to attain.
Think this is one of those things, he thought in astonishment as he gauged her reaction once his intention became clear, when his mouth was worrying the soft pads at the tops of her inner thighs, when his fingers were teasing at her lips, spreading the moisture they encountered there.
It was only one of "those" things in a sense. Of course Inara had had orgasms before, had even been on the receiving end of oral sex before, but not with a man, and not like this. Pragmatic, necessary masturbation to take the edge off, or those clandestine, as-yet-untutored meetings in the dormitory with fellow students years ago at the Training House. Even, occasionally, with female clients, who generally seemed more interested in that sort of thing than male clients typically did, and were usually able to spot a fake. But as a general rule it was frowned upon, even considered unseemly, to have a genuine climax with a client. That sort of thing led to scattered thoughts, illogical decisions, and suggested a lack of personal discipline that could result in a damaged career. Mal wasn't a giggling schoolgirl, and he wasn't a client, and it shouldn't have made a difference but it made all the difference.
Not that Mal knew any of that. He only knew she was quivering at his every touch, that she was reacting like nothing he'd ever seen. Not that he was bad at this activity - he wasn't, and what's more he enjoyed it quite a lot, which counted for something - but the first time his tongue finally traced over Inara's swollen clit, she gave an inarticulate cry and then a roughly whispered, "yes," and it was too much. His patience was tried past its limit, and he kissed and licked at the nub only a few times before he pressed his lips there and began to suck it slowly, playing his tongue back and forth, slipping two fingers inside her and pumping in time with the action of his mouth. It was hardly any time at all, perhaps not thirty seconds, before she was moaning and gasping, and he was having to hold her legs wide and pin her hips to the bed to keep himself from getting hurt as she thrashed through her climax. He didn't let up, kept working despite her pleading, and when she fell over the edge a second time she nearly screamed. After that he couldn't get inside her fast enough, regretted not having dealt with his own clothes sooner, but his pants were quickly pushed down far enough to allow him to do what he'd wanted to do since the first time he saw this woman; he grew a little faint at the hot, slick, glovelike clasp of her around him as he entered her, the work of a second because she was so wet, so ready to receive him.
It was almost too fast, too thoughtless, that joining. He had focused on the immediacy of his need, but once inside her he realized he was inside her, and when she opened those amazing eyes and smiled, a slow, wondering, sated smile he'd never seen on her face before, he almost wanted to go back, to pay more attention to the importance of that moment. But more, he wanted to be where he was, and couldn't quite believe he finally was there. Inara twined her legs around his and arched up, raising her hips to take him deeper and humming in pleasure when he hit the limit of her. Real, it felt very real, and he wondered if he could last long enough to make her come again.
She did know a trick or two; with her feet, she managed to get his pants and shorts off without much difficulty and without him really noticing. And then, while he was distracted, she shifted the position of one leg and levered him onto his back, winding up on top with a smug look that was all too familiar to Mal. Wanting to wipe it off her face, he reached down and stroked her clit, relishing the little flicker of surprise that registered on her face before she could control it. Surprise, and then concentration, and then he stopped looking at her face because the picture her full, high breasts presented, swaying gently as she rode him with increasing enthusiasm, was too compelling to ignore any longer.
"So good," she murmured. Her head was thrown back, the white silk of the skin on her throat drawn even thinner than usual.
"Look at me." He said it before he thought it. But what the hell, it seemed like a good idea.
"Do I have to?" She was looking smug again, glib, now that she had adjusted to the way his hand was heightening her pleasure, the intensity of their coupling.
"Yes," he insisted, and she looked at him then, with that wide, vulnerable gaze.
"Want you to remember it's me."
"I can't stop thinking about the fact that it's you," she confessed with uncharacteristic shyness, and glanced down and to the side.
"Look." He sat up, struggling a bit at first to get his arms braced behind him. When he stopped moving he tugged at her legs, suggesting without words that she pull them out from under her and wrap them around his waist. Thus adjusted, more comfortable, she started working again, pulsing gently, accommodating the new angle. But with her head back again, eyes closed again.
"Inara. Look at me." With both hands he cradled her head and tipped it upright, brought his forehead close to hers, very gently forcing the issue. She rested her hands lightly on his forearms, stroking along them, making herself do what he asked, looking at him. "Why're you still nervous? We're already doin' this. Too late for nerves now. You're gonna make me think it's regret." His voice was hoarse, his speech interrupted twice by leaning in to brush a feathery kiss across her lips.
"You have any idea what you do to me?" He kissed her hard, then, grasping her hips again, pulling her tighter, thrusting as hard as possible in their current position. She worked against him until she was breathless, realized she was actually sweating lightly, she who never broke a sweat unless she'd planned it in advance.
"It is not regret," she managed to say when he slowed down again, released her lips, shifted his legs and then settled her into his lap more firmly. "You know it isn't."
Inara was struck by a thought about the absurdity of the conversation taking place when it was, where it was, with his cock buried deep inside her, the two of them entwined so closely only their sweat separated them. Thinking this, wondering at this, she moved just enough to let her fingers trail down Mal's chest, learning the direction the hairs grew, following the line of thicker hair down to where it mingled with her own, brown and black, hardly distinguishable in the soft light of the room. She stroked at the spot where he disappeared inside her, touching him, touching herself, as if to reassure herself that she had it right. Mal's hand joined hers, stroking the backs of her fingers gently. His thumb found her clit again and she moaned as he pressed there in slow circles.
"Then what?" He said again. She had trouble responding coherently, thinking coherently.
"It's just so much. It's... I've never done this before. God... Mal..."
"Good." He lay carefully on his back again, never stopping his slow, torturous fondling. She moved her legs more automatically this time to adjust to the shift, old skills reasserting themselves. His next statement startled her, but that was a reaction she was growing used to. "You do this yourself, I wanna watch you."
And he took his hand away, which she couldn't bear, and he smirked at her. Challenged, Inara reached down and found the spot he'd been working, finding it less than ideal to attend to it herself. Lost in seeking the rhythm Mal had abandoned, she didn't realize she'd closed her eyes until he instructed her to open them again.
"Tell me who you're doin' this with," he whispered then, and she shuddered as pleasure started to seep through her again. His words, even more than the sweep of her finger, had coaxed it back.
"Say my name again."
"Mal..." She rose higher, fell more sharply onto him, speeding up as she neared the breaking point. She had lost all care for what she must look like, for what he might think of her, for anything except the look on his face, and the wave of heat that was about to crest for the third time that night, possibly drowning her. She had forgotten everything but those things, everything that was not in the bed with them.
"Don't stop," he pleaded, though she had no intention of doing so, couldn't imagine stopping. "I want to feel you get there first, don't stop... ah..." Because she had climaxed then, silently but profoundly, gasping, clenching around his cock and increasing the sweet friction between them. She was silent because she couldn't speak, she thought she might never breathe again, she wondered how she could ever leave this room or this bed or this particular stretch of time again without dying at the loss. At some point Mal rolled them over again, and she must have been crying because her face was wet and he was making soothing noises and kissing the tears from her cheeks. She pulled his mouth to hers and tasted salt and Mal, the taste she craved more than any other now.
He was speeding up now, almost painful inside her now each time his length filled her and then pulled away; they had been there a long time, she mused fleetingly with the small part of her brain that could still think. She was getting sore; she thought she would be able to feel it the next morning, and liked the idea of carrying that proof with her throughout the next day. She would sit, or walk, and be constantly reminded of the expression on Mal's face, tense and determined as he finished at last with a shout, then a sigh, blissful as he came down. She would remember that she was so sensitive by then, and he had been so hard and working so deep, that she could actually feel the throb of his cock as he came inside her. She would recall the heat of his breath against her cheek as he whispered her name after he'd collapsed on top of her in exhaustion, shortly before he had rolled to one side to spare her the weight.
No warm water in a polished bronze bowl, no heated cloth for cleaning away the evidence, at least not right away. The next day they would procure those things together, wincing slightly with sheepish smiles as they dealt with tender skin, things dried into place, and muscles that complained at the unaccustomed exercise. Then, after cleaning one another thoroughly, they would fall immediately into bed again and remain there until neither could move without groaning ruefully at the pain of it.
But for this night, they fell asleep where they lay, Inara's head nestled in the crook of Mal's arm, one of his legs still twined between hers; at some point, one of them roused enough to pull the throw blanket from the floor, where it had been shoved from the foot of the bed in the course of the evening's events. The next morning, neither would recall who it was that retrieved it and covered them with it, before they fell back to sleep in exactly the same spot they'd occupied before.