There are some roles that Inara is less certain about. Clients, particularly outside of the Core, usually expect what Companions are renowned for: genteel elegance, quiet understanding, discretion and excellent sexual skills.
Sometimes though, she gets requests for slightly more outlandish things. Some of these requests are enough to refuse taking a client. Others make her shake her head in surprise.
And then there are the ones that are simply amusing, and often more fun than she'd like to admit.
Serenity is set on course for the Hebrides, a series of small moons that are closely linked together by trade. The Hebrides circle a huge gas planet, and the settlements are relatively prosperous. She's been there one or two times before, not for a client, but for curiosity's sake. The gas planet is lovely, hanging blue-green in the sky above the moons. The settlements are pretty and well-planned; quaint, even if they are sometimes rough.
There are gorgeous lakes, cool, and isolated enough that a Companion can swim without drawing unwanted attention. These lakes are often the main attraction for Companions looking for a holiday and some much needed time for themselves.
This time, she's headed there for work. She can't afford the luxury of not looking for a client on the moons. Mal has kept Serenity to the edges of settled space for too long. Inara needs work, and she finds herself looking forward to it. The routine of the ship, while comforting, often leaves her unchallenged and somewhat bored.
The Cortex presents a number of potential clients. She listens to their proposals, considering each one on its own merits. None are particularly appealing, nor are they objectionable. They are simply uninteresting, and not what she is looking for after so long without a client. It's only when she gets to the second-to-last message that she sits slightly straighter and listens a little more carefully.
It's from the local sheriff of the moon that orbits most closely to the gas planet. In this case, the sheriff is far more than on most worlds -- he is one of the leading landowners, a man with considerable power, and apparently the respect of his citizens. There are no notes on him in the Companion database, so taking him as a client is a risk. However, as she listens to his proposal, she decides she likes his face. He offers her a suite of rooms in his house, and tells her about the cultural events they could attend. He mentions he has a lake on one of his properties, private and isolated.
And then, with a slight quirk to his smile, he tells her about a little playacting he'd like to indulge in. She can tell he's barely containing his laughter as he tells her the details. It isn't malicious laughter either -- he's clearly laughing at himself and his desires, as well as enjoying the idea that she might find him ridiculous. He ends the proposal by stating that he's certain he has scared her off, but to thank her for at least listening to the entire wave.
Inara finds herself smiling as the communication ends. She sits for a few minutes, thinking about whether she has the appropriate clothing for his game, eventually deciding that she does. It would also be an excellent way to extend her skills. A challenge, more than anything, and she desperately needs some of those lately. Typing in his wave code, she contacts him.
"Ms. Serra!" He seems genuinely surprised to hear from her.
Smiling, she says, "I appreciate your proposal, and I would like to accept."
There's a pause, and then his smile widens into something of genuine delight. There is no artifice with this man. "That's wonderful. I must say though, I'm surprised."
She smiles her secret smile, the one that men inevitably respond to, and says, "You shouldn't be." Delicate flattery, and he grins again. "I will be in arriving in the Hebrides in four hours. Shall I arrange to meet you at your home?"
He nods, and sends her directions. She thanks him, and transmits the terms of their agreement, and the details of how long -- two days -- she will be available. "I would like to spend the entire time with you."
"It would be my pleasure to entertain you."
"I'll see you soon then, Sheriff."
"Please, call me Dougal."
"Of course. I would be delighted if you would call me Inara." With that, their conversation ends, and Inara sets to looking through her clothes for something suitable. She suspects he wants a Companion in the traditional sense at first, and that the game will begin later. She dresses carefully, and sets the appropriate clothes aside.
At least, having travelled long enough with this crew, she has a good sense of authentic clothing for pretending to be a lusty tavern wench.*
Two days later, Inara is preparing to rendezvous with Serenity. Her stay with Dougal was quite enjoyable, and if she did feel unsure in her portrayal at first, she eventually began to enjoy herself. Dougal was amusing, and she can't ever recall laughing so much with a client. He may have paid her to seduce him in a way similar to the rough charms of the local girls, but she enjoyed it far more than she could have anticipated.
He wined and dined her, took her out to a play, took her swimming, and at night, when they were alone in the house, he asked her to dress up in her hastily put together tavern wench outfit and get a little less refined.
The other part of his fantasy came out when she returned to his side, smiling, sassy and showing more than adequate cleavage.
"It's an old-fashioned moon, in many ways," he'd said. "I'm expected to be charming and polite, no matter what I might be thinking. It would be fun to cut loose a little. Pretend to be someone else."
A mercenary, it turned out. He wanted to sometimes slap a woman on her ass, pull her onto his knee and maybe tickle her a little. He was a tired of the stiff conversation that passed for refined on a border world. Inara knows well enough what it is to be constrained by the rules and expectations of a position, and she welcomed the opportunity to shed some of those constraints, even if it was in the name of a job.
It was far from the worst contract she has ever had. Dougal went on her list of permanent clients, and she promised to contact him again when they got anywhere near the Hebrides. Then, she'd given him one last tumble -- a better word for it than anything else, considering what she had started off wearing, and how she was acting -- before getting dressed and leaving him behind.
On the way to the rendezvous point, she gets a comm from Wash indicating that Mal is in a bear of a mood. Wonderful. Her body becomes tense even as she speaks with Wash, and she inwardly curses Mal for already ruining her good mood. Once she arrives, he'll no doubt ask unsubtle questions about the last two days; and will likely make more impossible remarks about her job. It's unlikely that he'll balance them with the small acts of caring and concern that he sometimes offers as a peace offering. He generally reveals such aspects of himself only during and after horrific situations.
Inara can feel herself frowning already. A headache is starting. Oh, hell. If he wants to be an ass, then maybe she should give him something to get ornery about.*
After carefully docking the shuttle, she checks to see if anyone is waiting to greet her. Sure enough, Kaylee is outside, looking her usual cheerful self. Inara smiles. She carefully arranges her blouse, pulling it down over one shoulder, and exposing more than a little cleavage. Looking in the mirror, she sees that her cheeks are flushed a healthy pink, and her hair is tousled in a less-than-tidy, but alluring way.
Perfect. If she had a tankard of beer on a tray, she couldn't look more the part. She opens the shuttle door and starts down the stairs. Kaylee turns to smile at her, and then gapes a little.
"You sure...uh...You look pretty."
"Thank you. Left over from games my client wanted to play. Does it suit me?"
Kaylee nods, a little slowly. "It's just different, is all."
Linking her arm through Kaylee's, Inara walks forward with her. "It's good to be different sometimes, though."
Kaylee grins, a little wistful, and Inara is certain she is thinking of the ball on Persephone. "Sure is!"
"Would you like some tea?"
Together they walk to the kitchen, unfortunately not running into Mal or any of the rest of the crew. Kaylee chatters about the job, and their success, and the cut that she earned. They all did, even Simon and River, this time. A good job, a good run, and maybe, just maybe, Mal would be less of an ass to Inara for a while. Though Kaylee can't figure why the Captain's so cranky, what with the success of the job. Inara agrees that he's an impossible man, sometimes.
When they get to the kitchen, Inara makes tea while laughing at a story about Kaylee and her family. She's still laughing when Jayne wanders into the room, and stops dead.
Jayne looks her up and down, his mouth gaping. "Holy."
Her natural inclination is to dismiss him with a frown, but -- she's still in costume. She finds herself wanting to keep the role going. Deliberately roughing her speech she asks, "What're you starin' at?"
He stares for a few more minutes. "That's uh. That's a real good look on you there, 'Nara."
She dimples at him, her head tilting slowly as she pushes her shoulders back a little. His eyes glaze over.
"You want a drink or somethin'?"
Inara won't laugh. She's Jayne's kind of woman at the moment, and that means that she'd played just as well for Dougal. Excellent. She stuck with the role. "What's in it for me?"
"Uh. The drinkin'?"
She won't laugh. She won't. "Got somethin' good?"
He nods at her, a jerky kind of movement. "Be right back. Don't -- don't leave or nothin'." And he heads out of the room, moving faster than usual.
Kaylee is staring at her. "You're going to drink with Jayne?"
Inara shrugs. "Why not? You can too."
"Well, I ain't leavin' the two of you alone, that's for sure. Captain would have my hide."
Inara sits down on the couch. "Where is Mal?"
"Off doin' captainly things, I suppose."
Hmph. Well, he'd better get finished with them soon.*
Jayne ends up bringing back ale. He has a keg of it, bought with some of his cut from the successful job. He claims he has a couple others stashed away, "In case this turns into a real party." Surprisingly, the ale isn't terrible, and Inara has a glass. Then another. As she drinks, she knows she's going to regret it later, but she's enjoying playing the role. It's good to interact with some of the crew this way. Even Jayne.
She should have done this with them before meeting Dougal. She could have tested her acting. Ah well, at least it's practice for next time. A character study.
Jayne actually gets more agreeable the more he drinks. The three of them have a decent time, Kaylee and Jayne alternating telling amusing, bawdy stories, trying to shock her. It doesn't work, and instead, she brings out an old story, told to her by a friend who has long since retired from the Guild. There's no harm in sharing some of the details, and they leave both Kaylee and Jayne flushed, Jayne muttering about maybe heading to his bunk for a bit. He doesn't quite make it, though.
There's more drinking.
And then there's singing. Kaylee starts, and Jayne joins in, and Inara doesn't know the words, but she laughs as she learns.
At some point, Simon walks in and fixes himself some tea, while watching the three of them in a slightly bemused way, and declining some of the ale.
Not much later, Wash and Zoe come in and gape, then joke, and then, finally, they get Mal's attention. He walks into the room, long strides, hands on hips, and says, "What is goin' on here? And Jayne, when exactly did I say you could bring some bar harpy onto the ship? We're hours out from the Hebrides now, and I ain't turnin' the ship around when she gets all lonesome or you get sick of her."
He doesn't properly look at Inara. Wash starts to smirk, and Zoe too. Inara is about to try and calm him down, but his next words make her stop laughing.
"And Kaylee. I'd expect better from you too. You mighta got on the crew by spreadin' your legs, but that don't mean everyone does. You, Inara, now this one. I ain't runnin' a whore ship."
Kaylee goes pale, and really, Mal has gone too damn far. Ordinarily, she would have sharp words for him, and there might be one of their bitter, understated arguments. But she's not that Inara right now. She's someone else, someone who uses her body to make her arguments for her.
So instead of talking, she stands. Her legs are a little shaky, forcing her to balance on Jayne's obliging shoulder. Once she's upright though, she's fine, and she moves closer to Mal, swinging her hips all the way. When she gets to his side, his eyes are fixed on her hips, and it's only slowly that he drags his eyes up to her face. When he looks at her, he curses.
She nods slowly, then draws back and slaps him across the face. He steps back from her.
"What the hell?"
"I don't recall inviting you this party." From behind, she hears Jayne snort, a kind of knowing sound that's sure to get Mal angry. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't interrupt."
He's silent for a moment, then asks, "What are you doin' in that get up?" His eyes are dilated, and she looks down -- yes. He's interested. She rolls her shoulder back slightly, and the blouse slips a little lower. His eyes follow it.
Turning away, she walks back to Jayne and Kaylee, and grins at Jayne, who is watching her hips roll. "It's just a little something a client requested I wear. A roleplaying game." In saying so she breaks one of her rules, and it's a remark on how angry she is right now. But -- it's not as though any of them knew who her client was. And as far as Mal knows, she could be lying.
He probably assumes she is.
"It was quite a fun interlude, I look forward to being back in this part of space again." In saying so, she wonders if Mal will deliberately avoid this section of space for a good long while. Shrugging off the thought, she reaches down and picks up her glass, and then clinks it against Jayne's. He grins at her and makes an abortive move to touch her hip, then glances at Mal and clearly thinks better of it.
She chugs the drink, pleased that she doesn't choke. "If you'll all excuse me, it's been a tiring couple of days." Switching to a deeper voice, she continues, "My client certainly had a lot of stamina. What with that and the drink, I'm surprised I can walk straight."
As she walks out of the room, she hears throats being cleared, and finally, Mal saying, "Huh."
Later, Inara takes a cue from the way the crew talks about old jobs they have taken, and she thinks of the incident as the aftermath of the Wench Job. Some of the fallout of drinking the night after includes that some of the crew treat her a little less like a fancy glass bauble, and a little more like a multi-facetted human.
Jayne still stares at her with lust, but sometimes he winks at her, and she thinks he's trying to laugh with her. It's as though she has become less the embodiment of lust and more the human face of it.
Zoe talks a little easier with her, although Wash is as kind as ever. Kaylee looks at her less and less with awe and envy, but that is acceptable. The crew aren't her customers. They don't need to believe in the Companion gloss and glitter. They can see beyond the roles she plays.
Except for Mal, of course. All he sees are the roles. That doesn't change, and she doesn't think he wants it to. Admitting that she is more than her job means that he has to admit that he cares for more than just her rent on the shuttle.
She wonders if he thinks about it. Her and Dougal, acting out the game. Her blouse slipping further and further down her shoulders, revealing clear skin as it goes. Her drinking and singing and sitting on his lap, moving her hips in a slow, eager rhythm.
Mal avoids her for the next few meals, and when she does see him, he makes snide, unsubtle remarks about whores and tavern girls and the underbelly of the Alliance. She ignores him, or better yet, smiles, because she knows he liked seeing her like that, brazen and a little tarnished.
Mal has a cruel sense of humour. She's seen it in action enough times to know that he often enjoys making people uncomfortable and shamed. Not always, but enough that it grates at all of them occasionally.
She can do the same. If it unsettles him more than usual to see her playing different roles, and to be reminded of how earthy she can be, that's fine with her. If he can't see past her job, then maybe she should give him something worth seeing.*
The next time she announces she needs to prepare for a client, she heads back to her shuttle and puts on the harem outfit. The client hadn't requested it, but there's no reason for Mal to know that.
She leaves her shuttle door unlocked, knowing that in his annoying and entirely predictable way, Mal will wander in and bait her about the client.
He walks right in as she's fastening the top. It's not much of a top -- sleeveless, made from a thin fabric that ends just under her breasts. Combined with the low-slung pants, it exposes more skin than she usually displays. Her hair is up, and she is barefoot. There's a silence for a moment before he says, sneering, "Someone has exotic tastes."
She turns her back to him as she finds a long scarf. "He certainly does." Her voice is low and modulated to make him think of sex.
"Hope you can give 'im what he paid for. Your whore trainin' must have covered the kinky stuff."
She slowly runs the scarf through her hands as she rolls her hips a little. "Indeed." Slowly, she turns back to him and walks closer. "I'm surprised you would doubt it."
She barely stifles the laughter as he turns and walks out of the shuttle. Then she shuts and locks the shuttle door, and changes into something more suitable for her client. She's going to a state dinner on Ambrosia, and Justice Winthrop is an aging man who likes his Companions a little more clothed in public places.*
Next, it's the leather.
The fine-grained clothing gleams as though it were new. It essentially is, because domination games were never her specialty. She doesn't take those kinds of clients, leaving them to the Companions to which they are better suited. The leather is more of a joke than anything else -- a parting gift from an old friend who suggested that plying her trade on the rim worlds might mean using a different set of skills.
She's never worn the corset and short skirt for a client. She tried them on once and felt awkward and foolish, and the leather has lain at the bottom of her clothes chest since. Occasionally, Inara has toyed with the idea of giving the clothes to Zoe, since she's certain that Wash would enjoy them immensely. It seems presumptuous, however, so the leather is left unused.
Of course, there's no need for Mal to know that.
Mal walks into her shuttle as she's dressing. The timing is carefully orchestrated. He has a routine, and she knows almost exactly when he's going to stop by. This time it will be with some minor update about arrival times on Persephone, something he has no need to tell her.
Sure enough, he walks in saying, "We're gonna be about an hour late. Hope that doesn't interrupt your schedu--"
She gives him her best haughty look as his voice trails off. "I'm used to being late by now. No doubt you do the best you can with this ship." The laces of her corset are in her hands as she pulls it closed.
"Yeah." His voice is hoarse. He's staring at her, a common thing for him.
She doesn't bother to get angry with him for barging in unasked. Instead, she acts as though his presence is exactly to her plan. Which, in a way, it is. "Come here." Her voice is hard, and she's not sure if she can pull this off without laughing. But he comes closer. She turns her back to him. "Take the laces."
"Lace me up, please."
She sighs, as though she is annoyed by his incompetence, but unsurprised. "Just pull the laces and hold them. I'll do the rest."
He does just as she asks, pulling at the fastenings on her waist as she works the laces along her upper and lower back, until the tightness suits her fancy. Eventually, when her spine feels stretched, and her breaths are surreptitiously shallow, she takes hold of the laces and ties them off. Without turning to face him, she says, "Thank you for the assistance." Then, she walks to her mirror and starts putting her hair up. It's a clear dismissal, and he takes it, eventually.
Once he's out of the shuttle, she pulls at the hidden side zipper on the corset, the one that lets her get out of it quickly. It comes undone, and she takes a deep breath. She throws the garment across the room. Foolish thing, restricting her air.
As she dresses in a way better suited to the evening her client has requested, she thinks about Mal and Serenity and feeling airless.*
Inara has threatened to leave Serenity many times. It's true when she says she loves the ship, and cares for most of her crew. But there is only so much of Mal's intolerance she can take, and even the allure of his complexity wears thin after a while.
In the end, it's always something little that makes her stay. A brush of concern when he sees a bruised lip. The unspoken displays of affection, shown at unguarded moments when he's too distracted to remember that he thinks he possesses some moral high ground. Or when he forgets that she represents a part of the 'verse that is everything he hates.
Sometimes it's the knowledge that without the rent on her shuttle, the crew could end up drifting, or worse, scattering. She can't quite bear the thought of Simon and River losing their safe haven, or of Kaylee losing Serenity. It's worse to think of them all dead, and Serenity the target for scavengers.
Her reliable source of income sometimes keeps Serenity in fuel and food. It's another thing for Mal to resent about her. Not only does she have a job he hates, she provides a kind of charity. Tainted charity, and he takes it because he needs it.
He harasses her because of his discomfort. She ignores his moral objections and shows her skills and comfort with who she is and what she does for a living. It's doubtful he'll ever really see her as more than that, even when she retires.
She'll still be a whore in his eyes. A whore for the Alliance, a whore for the rich.
One day, she knows he'll lose sight of her altogether. There will be no more small gestures and unguarded moments. He'll see her as nothing more than an inconsequential gilded lily, a small piece of a decaying and tainted regime.
He'll stop harassing her, possibly stop speaking to her at all beyond cursory conversations about arrival times, departures and the rent on the shuttle. He won't ask her to leave, but he'll make her wonder why she stays.
In the end, she knows it will be the little things that cause her to leave Serenity.*
They're back in the Hebrides, and Inara has notified Dougal of her availability. He was as surprised and delighted as the first time she contacted him. He truly didn't believe he'd see her again.
This time, he has requested she arrive firmly entrenched in the roleplaying. They only have a night together, and he would like to make the most of it.
"If you don't mind," he'd said, unsure and clearly not wanting to be rude. Inara thinks he is as yet unclear of the rules of interaction with a Companion. "There's an orchestra performance tonight, they're quite good, if a little," he'd smiled, "overly fond of marches. We could go there, if you prefer."
She'd returned the smile, shaking her head. "The first suggestion is much to my liking."
Now, she's in her shuttle, waiting for Mal to walk in. She's long since stopped locking the door before she leaves for a client. He would just find some reason to delay her departure if he couldn't speak with her -- bait her -- first.
She's sitting on the floor when he arrives. He looks down at her, taking in the rough blouse and skirt. They're different from before. She's had a chance to go shopping, and with Kaylee's assistance has purchased something a little more authentic.
There's a pause. "Been practicin' your singin'? I bet Jayne's got some good songs you could teach your client."
She smiles a little. He's making an effort. "I know plenty of songs. I have been to a few border bars, you know."
He smiles back, likely remembering the time with pool, Jayne, and the slavers. "So. He good to you?"
"He's a good man."
Mal nods. "You ever bring him on Serenity, I'll want to meet him."
Of course. She ignores his attempt to stake a claim, and says, "I enjoy my time with him. We have fun. It's nice to unwind. It's good to stretch my skills."
His eyes flash a little. She's deliberately provoking him, although she's unsure if he realises it. Eventually, he says, "Have a good thrust."
She hates how he brings it all down to the sex. He has no appreciation of the skill it takes to fully assume and execute a role, to read a client properly and fulfill spoken and unspoken desires. He will never understand that much of her job has little do with sex itself. Instead of rising to the bait, she stands, making sure she flashes a considerable amount of leg. "I will."
It should be enough to get him to leave, but he doesn't. Instead, he closes the distance between them, and reaches out to fix the top of her blouse, pulling it up her shoulder before she can object. As he steps back, he half-smiles. "It suits you. That night, with Jayne and Kaylee. It suited you. You seemed happy." He turns and walks away, fast, only pausing at the threshold of her shuttle to call back,
"It's better than the leather, but ain't sure about them harem clothes. Might have to have another look at that to give my objective opinion." She can hear the laugh in his voice, the awareness that she was playing with him, and it makes her smile at his back.
It's the little things that will cause her to leave Serenity. But not today.
|Characters: Inara, Mal
Summary: He has no idea of the skill it takes to fully assume a role.
Notes: Beta'd by the lovely Stacey.