Really, this was all Kaylee’s fault.
Somewhere along the way, she’d gotten it into her little head that the whole gorram thing would be a good idea, and Zoe had just raised an eyebrow and gone right along with her.
“It would be good for you to get out a little, sir,” she’d said, with that particular lift of her eyebrow that meant that yes, she did think he was going stir-crazy, but no, she wasn’t going to be rude enough to say it to his face. Yet.
And after that, things had just progressed. He hadn’t really expected Inara to agree, but the damn woman had just given one of those damn enigmatic half-smiles she was so good at, and nodded demurely. “If my help is that necessary, I’m sure I can find some room in my schedule — if the Captain says please.”
When she didn’t even bat an eyelash at his following insults, he began to suspect a set-up. He reckoned that soon as he got back, he’d need to lay down the law again: a joke now and then didn’t leave no damage, but conspiring against one’s captain, that was serious business.
It was like adding injury to insult, that’s what it was. As a rule, he avoided the fancy stuff when he could, but there were some places on some planets that liked to pretend that they were floating out somewhere in the armpit of the Black, too far from the Core to be of any significance — so they’d dress themselves up fancy and throw a few overpriced parties to try and impress each other.
And honestly, it wasn’t like they could afford to be picky at the moment; Serenity groaned whenever she touched ground, and coughed alarmingly if she was pushed too fast. His girl was due for a bit of a tune-up, soon as they could afford the parts for her.
… which, really, meant he didn’t have any choice.
“Now, Cap’n,” Kaylee said, as he straightened his coat and tried very hard not to scowl, “just relax. All you gotta do is stand there and look pretty while Inara hooks him in. Easy as pie.”
Mal raised an eyebrow at her. “Now, I ain’t no baker, li’l Kaylee,” he said mildly, “but I’ve heard that pie can be pretty difficult, if you don’t know what you’re doin’.” He batted her hands away. “And I don’t see why I have to keep quiet — he’s looking for me, after all.”
“Yeah, but you can let Inara do the sweet-talkin’ first,” Kaylee said, and stepped back, eyeing him critically. “He’s got a reputation for liking pretty girls, and Inara’s used to dealing with folks like him.”
“If you’re trying to make me feel better, meimei, it’s not working.”
“Aww, now, see, you’re just gettin’ shy.” Kaylee grinned at him. “You’ll be fine, Cap’n. Once Inara butters him up, he’ll definitely be willing to hire us.”
“… butters him up,” Mal repeated, muttering to himself. “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s what he wants, and more –”
“Captain,” Kaylee said. “Hush. It’ll be fine. We’ll get the job.”
“At this point,” Mal muttered, “we’d better.”
“Stop fidgeting,” Inara said, and somehow, it didn’t ruin the perfection of her smile as she nodded politely to other women and other men. “Could you possibly look any less civilized?”
“Beggin’ your pardon, Miz Sera,” Mal muttered back, “but some of us folk prefer our clothes comfortable and not starched with itching powder.”
She shot him a quick, disdainful look. “You’re not fooling me, you know,” she murmured, and though he was watching, she still somehow managed to keep her expression perfectly and pleasantly serene. “If you continue playing the country fool, you’ll scare your client off.”
“The last thing I need,” he said, “is a whore telling me how to do my own damn job –”
She stepped on his foot, and somehow managed to make it look like a natural move. She’d decided to wear her ching-wah tsao duh heels for this event, and he could feel the point even through his boots. As he bit down on his tongue to keep from swearing, she murmured, “I think that’s him, over there. The man in the gray and the blue.”
Mal blinked watering eyes. “Might be,” he said finally. “But if you’ll take that pretty little heel off my foot, I’d be much obliged.”
Inara sighed at him, but shifted her weight. “Honestly,” she sighed, as they began to make their way slowly over towards the target, “you could stand to be a little more polite. I’ve rejected men who were far more courteous.”
“Yeah, and you’re not here with them,” Mal said. “You agreed to come.”
“Because Kaylee asked.” Inara’s voice dropped slightly. “Isn’t that why you’re doing this?”
He was silent. Then, before they were close enough to say anything to the potential client, he glanced at the band, and tugged a little on her arm.
“How about a dance?” he asked, deadpan. The music was gearing into a waltz, which wouldn’t be too terribly difficult. Before she could answer, he turned and took one of her hands, putting one of his against the small of her back. The skin there was warm and soft, more finely-textured than he expected. Something flickered across Inara’s smooth face — maybe irritation, maybe something else — before she could stop it, and she sighed, nodding.
“You have a bad habit of getting out of arguments that way,” she murmured. “I’d almost think you want to avoid this kind of conversation.”
“Hey, now.” Mal raised an eyebrow. “There are a lot of things that frighten me — this, however, this does not frighten me.”
“Really.” Her lips pressed together. “I’m not sure I believe that.”
“See, this –” he almost misstepped, but recovered fairly smoothly; no one seemed to notice, at least — “this isn’t a good sign, that you’re doubting my judgment like this. And yet, you entrusted yourself to my care, so what happened to that great and mystical instinct that you Companions are supposed to have?”
“Well.” There was something in the back of her dark eyes, and he thought it might even be amusement. “Maybe once in a while, I believe in giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Which is more, I think, than you allow, sometimes.”
“In my line of work, that sort of thing usually means getting shot,” Mal said. “I’m not a big fan of that. Or being stabbed, for that matter.”
She was smiling, he realized a moment later; it was different than when she turned the corners of her mouth up. Himself, he wasn’t sure he could define the difference, only that it was there. “I don’t really think that’s going to be an issue, this time.”
“Oh, really? Good. Because it hurt, you know, I –”
“‘Got stabbed,'” she said, and mimicked his tone almost perfectly. “‘Right here.'”
He frowned mildly. “Now, that ain’t nice,” he said. “It really hurt, you know.”
“I’m sure it did.” One elegant eyebrow rose. “However, I notice it hasn’t really changed your behavior much, now, has it? You still rush in where angels fear to tread.”
“Now, see, I ain’t got the best of relationships with angels,” he said. “They don’t tend to keep their appointments. Man gets mighty tetchy about that, after a while.” He spun her, and it was a bit of a trick to keep from stepping on the hem of her fancy dress.
“There are some people who might argue that,” she murmured.
“The shepherd can say all he likes.” Mal watched their potential client out of the corner of one eye, trying to time the steps of their dance to slant towards him. “But I reckon that God’s got His own schedule to keep, and it’s up to us poor mortal folk to keep up with it — and if we fall behind, that’s where we get left.”
“Of course.” The music was coming to an end, and they were spinning closer and closer to the buffet table. “But sometimes, you’ll find someone who doesn’t leave his own behind.”
“You trying to say something?” He didn’t quite scowl at her. “Because I swear, it sounds like you are.”
She just smiled faintly at him, then slipped her hand from his and turned to the man in the stiff dress suit, staring down into his drink like he suspected something had died in there to spite him.
“Excuse me,” Inara said coyly, “are you Penderson?”
He blinked, then squinted at her; to Mal’s eye, he looked like some kind of overdressed rat, grown too big too fast for his skin. “Y– yes?”
“Oh, good.” Inara’s mouth turned up faintly at the corners. “If you don’t mind, I would like to talk to you for a moment …”
“You don’t have to sulk, you know.” Inara was smiling again, and Mal reckoned he’d like it better if he didn’t suspect she was just laughing on his behalf. “I’d think you’re too old to be this childish.”
“I’m not sulking,” he said. “Just ’cause that fancy man couldn’t keep a civil tongue in his head –”
“At least you didn’t punch him this time. That’s an improvement.”
“Don’t think I wasn’t tempted,” Mal said sternly. “But he hired us, and I don’t make a habit of hitting men who’re payin’ me.”
“Really. I’ll have to remember that.” There was something strange in Inara’s smile, like another secret. Man could get dizzy, trying to keep up with how woman’s mood changed. “Speaking of which, I owe you rent, don’t I.”
“If you’re tryin’ to say something about my character, here –”
“I wasn’t saying that.” She tilted her head just so, and suddenly half her face was lost in shadow. “But I still owe you money, don’t I. Even with you refusing to accommodate my schedule, I still need to pay.”
“That is the agreement.” Mal dropped back a step, watching; the streetlamps cast a strange glow on her hair, and on her fancy clothing. “Just like I still gotta pay Kaylee and Wash, even when we don’t make a job.”
“Of course,” she said, and he thought surely that was an opening to say something more, but one moment became several, and then that chance was gone. What was left in its wake wasn’t quite uncomfortable, but it wasn’t that shiny, either. They walked in silence, until they found Serenity, her head bent to roost.
Strange, how things got real awkward real fast when you were trying to say good-bye to a girl who lived on the same boat, just a few rooms over. They didn’t really look at each other, though Inara lingered and Mal did too, since he reckoned it’d be rude. His mama hadn’t raised him to be rude, and when you took a girl out — whether she was a fancy lady or not — you escorted her to her door, and if you were lucky, you got a kiss on the cheek for your troubles.
Of course, as Inara loved to point out, the rules were different for Companions, so maybe you were just supposed to dump ’em and leave, what the hell did he know?
“Well,” Inara murmured. Her voice sounded loud and strange. “Thank you, I suppose, for the evening. It was … enjoyable.”
“I try,” he said, and they blinked at each other. “Though it probably wasn’t half as nice as a lady like you is used to.”
Inara smiled again, and held her hand out to him. He blinked, then took it for lack of other response. He reckoned she might want a kiss on the back, which really was asking for too much, by any means — but instead, she shook his hand, and her grip was strong and confidant.
“It wasn’t,” she said. “But it had its own charm.” Her eyes flickered, and for a moment he thought she might do or say something more — but she let go of his hand slowly, backing up, her eyes on his, and then turned and walked away. He didn’t let his own hand drop for a few moments, and then he tucked it into his pocket and looked up.
“Charm,” he muttered. “If that don’t just beat all.”
He hit the button to close the hatch, and went to bed.