Word Count: 4067
Summary: Mal checks out the mining settlement on Callas, and he and Inara finally take their walk.
Author's Note: Took a while to wrangle this one. There’s reams of words I wrote that never made it into this, arguments and alternate versions that threatened to derail them, but I think, I hope, it’s the right way now ;) Thanks always to my Hearts of Gold for their advice and hand holding :)
Serenity touched down on a dusty plateau, sand swirling in the wake of her engines. The mining settlement was visible in the near distance, and three figures made their way toward the ship, hands shielding their faces against the blowing desert.
Mal checked with Zoe and Jayne, receiving a nod from each that they were ready. He gave one final look behind him at the women, then up to the catwalk where Inara was standing with Kaylee before turning back and hitting the button to lower the bay doors. The chill evening air hit them as it rushed into the cargo bay and they stepped down the ramp onto the dun coloured moon, cautious and wary.
As the three figures from the settlement drew closer Mal was able to discern that there was one woman and two men in the little group. Only one of them appeared to be armed, and that one motioned for the other two to stop and made his way the last few yards alone. “You Reynolds?” he asked, nodding at Mal.
“That’s me. This is Zoe, Jayne,” Mal said, indicating his first mate and merc. “Who’re you?”
“Name’s Corbin. I’m Mr. Loh’s man.”
“An’ who’re your friends?” Mal asked, indicating the other two behind Corbin.
Corbin turned. “That’s Nell Boyer, the Magistrate, and this here is Moses Tao, the mine foreman,” he said, and the two came forward.
“Captain Reynolds,” the Magistrate greeted him. “I can’t tell you how pleased we are at your arrival. The future of Callas will be a little bit brighter after today,” she said.
“Mr. Loh instructed me to provide you with this little bonus, provided the women all arrived safe and sound,” Corbin said, holding out a small bag that clinked with the unmistakeable sound of coin. “Assuming they have?”
“Where’s their intendeds?” Mal asked, making no move to take the bag, still wary.
“Men are back at the settlement, in the tent,” the foreman said. “Hafta say they’re pretty anxious to meet their brides to be.”
“We’re setting up for tomorrow's reception,” the Magistrate added when Mal still hesitated.
“Is there a problem here, Captain?” Corbin asked, eyeing the crew warily, the fingers of his right hand coming to rest on his thigh near his holster.
The movement was not lost on Mal, and the tension ratcheted up a moment while he gave the three of them another look, but then he shook his head. “No problem,” he said. “But we’ll wanna have a look for ourselves. You understand.”
“Of course, Captain,” the Magistrate cut in. “I appreciate your due diligence. It’s very commendable, and you are welcome to meet our impending groomsmen and see our community for yourself.”
Mal nodded. “Zoe,” he said, turning to her. “You wanna bring our guests out? Jayne, see to last of their rations.”
“Sir,” Zoe said with a nod and headed inside, coming back a moment later, leading the twelve women down the ramp behind her.
The Magistrate stepped forward in excitement. “My dears! Welcome to the Callas mining settlement,” she said, filling her words with momentous import. “We are so pleased to have you with us! Today marks a new beginning for all of us! Your commitment to our community - your new community - will bring great days to Callas.”
Corbin motioned Mal aside and handed him the bag. “I’ll make sure Mr. Loh hears you done the job well. Could be some other work for you, he’s happy with this one.”
Mal nodded cautiously. He still wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue a business relationship with Loh, but the job had been relatively easy and paid better than most. And, as Zoe had made clear, they weren’t in a position to refuse work. So long as everything was as smooth as it appeared to be, they could be on the verge of a good thing.
The settlement rested on the bluffs that overlooked the mine and consisted of a few clusters of low, white clay buildings. Each building looked to be big enough to house maybe four families, and between each was a strip of irrigated earth that would be suitable for planting - part of the settlement’s plan for sustainability, Magistrate Boyer explained as they walked.
“Every single clay brick was laid by our miners,” she expounded. “Not a single indentured hand had a part in building the settlement, and we’re proud of that fact. Everyone puts back into the community. With the Alliance’s freeze on new immigration, we haven’t had the human resources to grow as we’d like, which is why you're here.”
The center of town opened on a square and in the middle of it a large tent had been erected, strung up with colourful lanterns and electric lights. A handful of men were busy setting up tables while another group were laying down planks that would soon become a dance floor in front of a little stage at one end. The twelve prospective grooms were easy to spot, trucked out as they were in their Sunday best, nervously awaiting their brides to be.
A twitter of excitement went through the women and the men both as they saw each other. As the two groups drew closer, each sought out their prospective spouse and soon they had paired off and drifted away together to begin tentative first conversations.
“They already know who they're marryin’?” Mal asked.
“Oh yes,” the Magistrate replied, watching with pleased satisfaction. “They've known for several weeks now. We wanted to make sure the matches would be compatible, for both husband and wife. The future of the settlement depends on it.” She turned to look at him. “I appreciate the care you've taken with these women, Captain,” she said. “Not many would extend the effort.”
“In my line of work, you mean,” Mal stated and Boyer flushed but he didn't hold it against her; she wasn't wrong.
“Please don't take offense. Skirting around the edge of the Alliance can be a dangerous business, and one needs to be cautious--”
“None taken,” he interrupted, staving off her apology.
The Magistrate nodded in appreciation. “Still, we do appreciate it. And if you and your crew would care to join us, you're welcome to stay for the reception tomorrow, if it would set your mind at ease.”
Mal considered the offer, his eyes returning to the tent, the dance floor set up under it, and the possibilities they presented. “‘May just take you up on that,” he said, a small smile finding its way onto his face.
“Well, things seem to be on the level,” Mal said once everyone was seated around the table. “Got paid an’ no one tried to kill us, I call that a win.” Jayne gave an enthusiastic “Yeah!” at that and Mal nodded, continuing. “As you know, our passengers are aimin’ to get hitched come tomorrow, and the town Magistrate’s invited us all along, if y’all are interested.” He couldn’t help but smile at Kaylee’s excited exclamation. “Conjure we can stay an extra day if that sits well with everyone?” he asked, looking to each member of his crew and ending on Inara, since it would push back getting to the Training House by a day.
“That sounds lovely,” she said, surprised and pleased that he was willing to let them take the downtime.
“Free booze?” Jayne asked.
“Imagine there’ll be some food an’ drink involved.”
“And dancin’?” Kaylee interjected, practically bouncing in her seat.
“Some a’ that too,” Mal confirmed with a nod. “Got a big ol’ dance floor set up right in the middle a’ town,” he said, eyes returning to Inara, the intent behind his look not lost on her and she ducked her head, smiling softly.
Kaylee squealed happily. “We can get all dressed up an’ do our hair,” she said to River enthusiastically.
“Is it… Will it be safe?” Simon asked hesitantly, reluctant to spoil the fun. The mood fell slightly as all eyes turned to Mal.
“Seems safe enough,” the Captain said, acknowledging Simon’s concern. “Folk here are just miners, though they are forward thinking regarding their community; might be wise not to go mentioning the fact you’re a doctor and your sister’s a mind readin’ genius, just to be safe,” he said with a wink at River.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” the doctor said, amused.
Later, Mal headed down to the cargo bay, having come up empty in his search for Inara on board the ship. He figured, unless she was avoiding him - and he didn't think he'd done anything to cause her to - off ship was the only option remaining.
He came to a stop at the top of the ramp, pausing on his way out, breath catching at the picture he saw before him. Inara stood a few feet away, staring across the vast expanse of the rocky desert at the setting sun in the distance, the sky lit in blazing streaks of orange, blue and pink. Limned by the fiery light of the sun, she fairly glowed and the beauty of her made his chest clench so tight he thought his heart might stop.
“Hey,” he said finally, coming down toward her. She turned and the smile that lit up her face literally did make his heart skip.
“Hi,” she said, happy he’d found her. “I’ve been watching the sunset. The colours are stunning. It’s one of my favourite things about travelling to different worlds, you know; being able to see their sunsets and sunrises.”
He smiled, moving beside her, pleased to know that about her, that she would tell him. “It is a sight,” he agreed, his eyes on her.
She smiled at his obvious appreciation. “You’re not looking at the sunset,” she admonished, teasingly.
“You look beautiful,” he said, by way of explanation.
A breath left her, startled by his compliment. He didn't give them often, and certainly not so directly; she could count on one hand the number he'd paid her before tonight. It had her heart stuttering in her chest and a blush creeping up her face. “Thank you,” she said softly.
Mal’s lips parted in a smile, amazed at her reaction to such simple words. Surely she’d been told so a thousand times before? But not by you, a voice inside him said, and it set his heart thumping to know that was the truth of it.
“So,” he said, running his hand through the hair on the back of his head before bringing his eyes up to hers with a smile. “Was wonderin’ if maybe you might wanna take that walk?”
She met his gaze with a surprised smile, a pool of warmth spreading through her. “I thought you’d forgotten about that,” she whispered, startled by how breathless her voice sounded.
“Next time we’re planetside, we said, I seem to recall.” He looked around, stomped his foot against the earth as though testing it. “Know it’s a moon, technically speaking,” he said with a grin, “but seems sturdy enough for walkin’.”
“It does,” she agreed, eyes shining.
The sun set as they headed down the hard packed road that led away from the settlement and out toward the mines, the lights from Serenity fading behind them as they walked, side by side. The night remained lit by two moons that chased each other across Callas’s sky, a perpetual twilight that painted the clouds red and gold with their reflected light.
“I’m glad everything went well with our passengers,” Inara said. “And it’s good of you to let the crew stay for the wedding. They could use a day to be happy and carefree.”
“They’re a good crew,” Mal agreed. He scratched his ear - the sensitive one - and cleared his throat. “Didn’t want you thinkin’ I was tryin’ to… keep you from gettin’ back to your Trainin’ House, or--”
“Oh. No, no. I hadn’t…”
“Just wanted to… give them some fun,” he said, shrugging. And get a chance to dance with you, he added mentally.
She nodded. “Of course. I know.” Drawing in a breath to fortify herself Inara said, “Speaking of the Training House, there are some things I think we should talk about, before…”
“...before before,” she restated meaningfully. “Before what we talked about last night.”
Understanding dawned in his eyes and his lips curled up in a grin as he reached for her, his hand catching her waist and drawing her to him slowly. “Oh, before before,” he said once she was close, emboldened by the fact that she’d been thinking about it too, burying his nose in her hair, his lips brushing against her neck just below her ear.
Inara let out a little gasp, her hands going to his chest as her eyes closed at the sudden heat that shot through her at the whispering touch of his mouth on her skin, a flame setting fire to the kindling of desire that had been building in her all day.
“So, you sayin’ you still want to…’before’?” he asked, every word sending shivers through her as his lips teased against her skin.
Inara shuddered, hands fisting in his shirt, amazed at the way he could render her almost incoherent with the barest of touches.
“Buddha, yes,” she breathed against him, wanting nothing more than to take him into her bed that minute, but there were the things they were supposed to talk about, things she wanted to tell him... very… important… things…
Desire shot through him at her words and his arms tightened around her as he pressed his lips to her skin in real kisses, no longer teasing.
“Mal,” she said, urging him to stop as his mouth moved down her throat in earnest now, inching toward that spot that drove her beyond control. “Mal,” she tried again, pushing him gently. “After. We need to talk first.”
“Mmmm,” he hummed against her neck. “Ain't we talkin’ now?” he asked, sliding one hand around her back and lower, pulling her tighter to him. He bit her softly, right where her neck met her shoulder, lips parting in a smile at the shiver that went through her as she gasped again. He liked it so much he bit again, and again, thrilling at the way her breath came all heavy and her fingers clutched at his shirt while her head tilted to the side so he could have better access.
She was making sounds now, little noises of breathless pleasure with every scrape of his teeth and he praised whatever deity it was had let him find this spot. She cried out as he bit harder, whimpered as he sucked and laved the spot with his tongue, all the while her chest heaving against his with every desperate breath she drew.
He’d grown hard at her first gasp and now he was feeling the ache pulse within him, his own breaths coming fast and ragged. He groaned, pressing hot, open mouthed kisses against her skin, fueled on by their promise of ‘before’.
“I'm... serious,” she managed to force out between breaths finally, now that his teeth weren't on her - God what he could do with his mouth! It made her wonder what he would be like when he-- she forced her thoughts away, knowing they'd never stop if she didn't, and pushed against him, harder. “Mal, I mean it. I want us to talk first.”
“Been thinkin' about you all day,” he protested breathlessly. “About this. About us.”
“I know,” she answered. She had too. But she still pushed him back.
He sighed, letting his head rest against hers, relenting. “We get into this tonight…” he said, letting the thought trail off. Neither of them needed him to finish it to know what he was saying; that a fight would be likely, and any hope of ‘before’ would be next to none if that happened.
“We could try not fighting about it,” she offered.
He stepped back, hands going to his hips, head bowed. “‘You think that's likely?” he asked, lifting his eyes to hers.
Inara swallowed, looking away, but then she drew in a breath and returned her gaze to his. “We need to be able to talk about things, Mal.”
“An’ by things you mean you takin’ clients.”
“That's part of it,” she acknowledged.
He sighed. “Inara, said I'd do my best to deal with it, but I can't see a way that talkin’ about it’s gonna make it any easier.”
“You must have some questions, some things you want to know. I think it would be better for us to address them now, before--”
“I really don't,” he said, shaking his head. “The less I gotta think about… you… with them, the better off I am.”
She let out a breath, saying nothing for a long moment before she raised her eyes again. “There are some things I want you to know,” she said softly. “Things I want you to understand.”
Much as he wished he could ignore it, he could see it was important to her that he know whatever it was she wanted to tell him. He knew he wouldn't have let himself see it in the past, but that weren't where they were anymore, or at least, not where they wanted to be, either of them. Their relationship had changed, was changing, and he weren’t so stupid he didn’t recognize that. He didn't know that he wanted to know it, much less understand it, but she was reluctant enough to talk about any aspect of her life as it was; could be he might ought not stop her when she wanted to.
He sighed, conceding. “Suppose... I maybe should listen, then,” he said finally, nodding.
“A Companion always has a choice in who to service,” Inara said, sitting across from Mal. They'd found a convenient collection of stone ridges that made for a passable place to sit and had settled there to talk. “It's part of Guild Law, one of our very oldest tenets,” she continued. “But the first lesson, the most important thing about being a Companion, is control. It is imperative that a Companion keep a certain level of detachment from their clients.”
“Detachment?” Mal asked, surprised and Inara nodded.
“It's the only way to properly do the job,” she explained. “But that's not to say a Companion shouldn't like their clients, or even be friendly, on a professional level. It would be tedious if she didn't enjoy their company, and there has to be a connection, a certain compatibility that you learn to recognize. But any attachment beyond that can compromise a Companion’s ability to serve. To serve a client is to subsume the self. As soon as the self becomes involved, a person is no longer acting as a Companion. The focus must be on the client. Every thought, every moment, every action, every word, all of it has to be carefully considered.”
Mal listened thoughtfully, considering her words and what they meant. “That don't sound very… spontaneous,” he said after a moment.
Inara smiled dryly. “It isn't,” she agreed. “Nothing is spontaneous, nothing unexpected. Everything must be controlled.”
Mal blinked, surprised again to learn that. “Everything?” he asked and she knew what he was alluding to.
“We call it Union. It’s... more than just the physical act of coupling. There is a spiritual facet; a transferring of energy, a calming of the mind, and a blessing of the body. For a Companion, it is a moment of giving,” she said, a reverence to her voice. “But at the same time it's all controlled; practiced, and detached.”
“Huh,” he said, the word slipping out as he processed all she'd said, hesitating before finally asking the question that wouldn't leave his mind. “So, that mean you never… with a client?” he managed to ask.
“I’d be lying if I said never,” Inara admitted. “But it's not my goal,” she clarified. “My purpose is to bring them to an awareness of their sexuality, its release, its renewal, the gift and the joy of that coming together. But it’s about their journey to that discovery, not mine. Sometimes, if they are aware, they can bring me with them to that place, but I don't seek it.”
Mal frowned at that, unable to comprehend how anyone could not be aware of that with her. “‘Don't much sound like, well…” he trailed off, uncomfortably.
She raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to finish.
“Well, I mean… don’t seem like there’s much, uh... in it… for you.” He shook his head at himself inwardly, wondering how it was that he was sitting here with her, talkin’ about her orgasms.
“Maybe not in terms of physical release, like you mean,” she acknowledged with a dip of her head, “but I help people. I’ve helped them through grief, helped them cope with loss. I've taught young men to embrace manhood, given women a respite from the demands of society. I've counselled couples and saved their marriages, chased away nightmares and taught confidence. People come to me with a need that no one else has been able to fulfil. And I help them. It can be incredibly rewarding.”
“An’ you do that with sex.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Inara nodded. “Sometimes, yes. Sex can be a catalyst, a way to bypass reservations and inhibitions that would otherwise make it more difficult to help them reach an understanding.”
“That bein’ the case then, with you so keen on me understanding an’ all, why ain't we havin’ this discussion after sex?”
“Because you're not a client, Mal.” She stood and moved towards him. “And when we’re together,” she continued, reaching for his hand, her voice dropping almost to a whisper at the thought, “I won't be servicing you. I won't be distanced, or practiced, or controlled.” She brought her eyes up to his, to ensure he was hearing her. “I won’t want to be. I'm going to be there, with you, in that moment,” she promised him, her smile sweet and glowing and full of honest love and desire, “and I'm going to want to take what I've wanted to take, and give what I've wanted to give, for so long.”
Mal stood, breathing heavy. Her words had him thrumming with desire again, hearing her speak, so open and honest, about wanting to be with him. It was all he could do not to reach for her.
She was very aware, felt the same. “This is what I want to explain, to ask you to understand - that it's different,” Inara said, seriously. “That it will be different when I'm with you. Can you understand that? Do you?”
“Conjure I can,” Mal said, his voice low and gravelly, coloured by the tight, hot need that was burning through him. “Showin’ me would go a long way t’wards makin’ it clear,” he added, sliding his hand around her waist, unable to keep himself from touching her.
Inara let him pull her close, but she placed her hands against his chest so she could look him in the eye and ask again - it was crucial that he understand this truth before she resumed taking clients; she needed him to have no doubts in this. “Can you?”
Mal hesitated, then sighed, his eyes cutting away. “...’Understand what you’re sayin’. An’ maybe it’ll make it easier, when you go, but I can’t promise--”
She covered his mouth with her fingers and shook her head, urging him to look at her again. “I just want to be sure that you know that I will never be with any of them the way I am with you.” She slid her fingers off his mouth and on to his cheek gently, staring into his eyes earnestly. “Tell me you believe that.”
He stared back at her, and she saw something soften in his face before he leaned in and and she finally let him kiss her softly.
“I do,” he said as he met her eyes again, as open and honest as he knew how to be.
Inara swallowed, a smile spreading across her face that she couldn’t contain. “Then let’s go back to the ship,” she said.
“Yeah?” Mal asked, a smile curving his own lips.
Inara’s grin widened. “Yeah,” she echoed, biting her lip.