Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
"Well, good evening!" The old man was pleasantly surprised. "What's the occasion, Malcolm?"
"No occasion. Just wondered if you were up for a little company."
"Please." Book stood aside and allowed Malcolm to enter his small room. "Would you like some tea, Mal?"
Malcolm looked around, and saw that a pot was already prepared.
"I guess." Mal nodded, with a small smile.
Book set him up with a cup. Then he settled back into his favorite chair with his own cup in his hand as Mal sat nearby. He fixed his curious gaze on his visitor.
"What's on your mind tonight?" he asked, quietly. He had a hunch he knew the answer.
"Nothing special. I couldn't sleep, and rather than waste my time staring at the ceiling, I thought I'd tour the ship, spot-check a few things. I saw your light, and thought I'd pop in, see if you felt like talking."
The Shepherd grinned, flattered. "Well, I'm glad you did. What would you like to talk about?"
"This and that. Cabbages and kings." Captain Reynolds sipped his tea.
Nothing serious? Too bad. Book wasn't much for small talk, but there were plenty of serious things that Book would love to talk about. For example, Book had lots of nosy questions about Captain Reynold's latest misadventure - a sword duel over "Ambassador" Inara - but he held his tongue and gave Mal a chance to bring it up himself.
Well, Mal took his sweet time warming up to it. They had to chat quite a while before Mal was ready to lay an axe to the root of his insomnia.
Speaking of something else, Malcolm said, "The whole legal/illegal thing: it comforts people to think it's simple, but it's not."
The Shepherd nodded, and saw an opportunity to steer the conversation. "Just because a thing's illegal doesn't make it wrong. Just because a thing is legal, doesn't make it right."
"This duel you were involved in... there's an example."
"Of a barbaric, bloody thing that isn't moral, even if it is legal."
"Oh." Mal said, averting his eyes. He leaned forward in his chair, still looking away. "Yeah, maybe you're right."
"May I ask what in heaven's name you were thinking?" Book asked, gently.
"I wasn't thinking" Mal admitted, "But once I was committed I felt I had to see it through."
"Why?" Book persisted. "What principle was at stake that was so important that you had to put your life on the line?"
"He was acting like he owned Inara." The young man replied, earnestly. "I don't care how much he pays to rent her time - nobody owns her. She's her own woman."
"And why couldn't you trust her to tell him that?"
Malcolm thoughtfully touched the stab wound on his side. The spot was still tender.
"Ah. Yeah. Well...in retrospect, I probably should have."
Late the next morning, Malcolm Reynolds knocked on the companion's door.
The door opened slowly: Inara liked to reveal herself by degrees. First came the sliver of light, then the glimpse of the red-draped furnishings within, then the golden shoulder, and curling tendrils of gleaming black waves of hair...
Mal was impressed afresh by the force of her womanly aura.
One shining brown eye: a tiny, dark, convex mirror...
Curling rose lips that parted to say, "Yes?"
Mal hesitated, momentarily overwhelmed by the intimate odor that exhaled from Inara's sanctum. It smelled of her perfume, and of her body. Everything he'd prepared to say flew completely out of his head.
Inara faced Serenity's tall, handsome Captain, and was troubled to see that he seemed upset about something. His short, light brown hair was sticking up at odd angles, as if he'd forgotten to comb it. There was a hunted expression in his blue eyes. Now what?, she wondered.
"Hey, what's up?" Mal chirped, as if they'd met by chance.
Inara blinked. She smiled a tiny, tight-lipped smile.
"You knocked. I assume you have a reason. You tell me what's up." she replied evenly.
She was wearing a blue satin kimono, belt wrapped tight around her tiny waist. The slithery hiss of the fabric against her skin was maddening to Mal. Suddenly he realized that she was expecting him to answer her question.
He blurted, "Am I bothering you? I can come back later."
"I'm not busy. Did you need to talk with me about something?"
Malcolm now remembered why he had come.
"May I? I mean, yes. May I come in...may I please...we need to talk. Not that you need to. I mean I need to."
Inara turned away so Malcolm wouldn't see her smile.
"Come on in." She strolled away, walking softly and silently... tiny bare feet. She sat on the divan and gracefully pulled her pretty legs up under her. And there she sat, like a cat curled on a pillow.
Mal just marveled at how limber she was, for a moment.
Inara patted the cushion next to her. "Have a seat." She gave her nervous visitor an encouraging smile.
Oh, that smile. It hurt to look at her, sometimes. Mal took his place next to Inara and faced away from her, so he wouldn't have to look directly at her. That made it easier.
Mal decided to just jump in and get it over with.
"I been thinking about what happened with your client, Atherton Wing, and that whole duel thing..."
"I've been thinking about that, too."
"I owe you an apology. I should have stayed out of your business. It was inappropriate for me to interfere with you the way that I did."
"True." she agreed, nodding. "But it's all right Mal. I understand that you meant well."
"No, that's just it!" Mal exclaimed. "I didn't mean well. I have rarely meant so not well. I didn't like that guy. I just didn't like his attitude. It's as simple as that." Malcolm clasped his hands and took a breath. "But that was not for me to decide. That was your call, and I interfered, and I blew that whole deal for you. And you didn't ask me to. You tried to ask me not to. You tried talking me out of the duel, too, but I wouldn't listen..."
"Mal" Inara said, softly, touching his shoulder. "It's all right."
"No, it's not all right!" Mal retorted. "I don't want you thinking that I'm the kind of guy that wouldn't listen to you and that wouldn't respect your feelings. I was thinking at the time that I was respecting your feelings, but I wasn't, or else I would have done what you wanted me to do instead of what I did. But I didn't think of that at the time." Mal gestured with his hands for emphasis. "I wasn't really thinking. It's not like I thought, 'How can I do the exact wrong thing here?', like I had a plan. It wasn't intentional. Well, it was intentional, but it wasn't premeditated. It was really just kind of a reflex."
Inara unfolded her legs and sat upright next to Mal with her feet on the floor. She folded her hands into her lap. "I know, Mal" she sighed.
"Well, I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too, Mal."
"What do you have to be sorry about?" he asked, surprised.
"No, I shouldn't interrupt. Tell me when you are finished."
He turned in his seat to look into her eyes. Was she mocking him? He stilled his inner turmoil and became grave. If so, well, maybe he had it coming.
"I've pretty much said what I came to say" he responded, seriously. "Say whatever you like."
"Good. OK, my turn." Inara smoothed the silk fabric over her thighs. "I have something to apologize for, too." She leaned toward him and lowered her voice to a whisper. "And mine is even better than yours, because you don't even know why."
Mal pressed his back against the back of the seat, then leaned slightly toward Inara. "I am intrigued." Mal deadpanned, adopting her conspiratorial tone. "Pray, continue."
"Well, it's like this..." she murmured, and she tipped in close and kissed him.
Right on the lips! Just like that! Mal sat upright. His lips tingled where her warm lips had pressed against his.
"I should have asked before I started kissing you." Inara said, softly, imitating Mal's posture.
"No!" Mal replied. "That's not always necessary. That's what I'd call a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule."
Inara laughed, but Mal didn't, so she stopped. "I sometimes can't tell if you are joking, Mal."
"I'm serious", he nodded emphatically.
Inara sighed. "I thought you'd say something like that. You should know that that is not the first time that I ever kissed you. You don't know about the first time, because you were unconscious."
Malcolm's temperature rose abruptly. He felt unbearably flattered. He also felt puzzled, and a bit dismayed.
"What? What? Wh-when was it?"
"Right after your dear Mrs. Reynolds had had her way with you."
"So-called Mrs. Reynolds." Mal corrected. "She never really was my wife. I never even once thought of her as my wife."
"Well, I never let her kiss me, Mal. It was you. I found you unconscious, and I just impulsively kissed you. That's what knocked me out, Mal, because you still had the narcotic on your lips. It was a stupid thing to do, and it was childish of me to let you believe otherwise, so I apologize."
Mal nodded. He was seeing Inara through new eyes.
"Well, you're just a regular kissing bandit, aren't you!"
She laughed a little, pleased to see that Malcolm had regained his confidence. "Not normally, but, yes, I guess I am. I just don't want you thinking you are the only person aboard who can do foolish things for silly reasons." She batted her eyes flirtatiously. "So, Mal, do you accept my apology?"
Mal folded his arms across his chest.
"Well, I don't know. This is a shock. I'm still taking it in."
"I know!" Inara laughed. "I can hardly believe it myself! But I can't let you go on thinking that that...woman... put one over on me."
"You know..." Mal continued. "If it had been me that had revealed that I'd been secretly kissing all over you, you would have been very upset. And rightfully so!"
"And you let me go on thinking that you thought you were too good for me. That's another thing."
"Mal!" Inara exclaimed, standing. "I apologized!"
"Yes, well, I'll take that into consideration!"
Inara flushed hot with anger. How dare he? Who did he think he was?
"Fine! You do that! Will you please leave now!?"
"Now, wait a minute. I think we should finish talking about this..."
"You already said you were finished, now I'm finished, so WE'RE finished!"
"Oh, come on now, I was just playin' with you. I don't mind if you kiss me. Kiss me anytime you like. Although I've heard it's better if the two people both cooperate. That works better if both people involved are awake at the time. We could test that theory right now, if you want."
He was talking to her back. She had turned her back on him.
"Don't misunderstand me. I want you to kiss me. I just think you should give me a chance to participate!"
"Mal?" she said, in a tiny, tremulous voice. "Just leave. Please?"
Mal's heart sank all the way to the bottom of his boots. Was she crying? Women cry over the tiniest things! He wasn't going to leave things like this.
"No", he said. He didn't know what else to say. He cautiously approached her.
Inara straightened. Still facing the wall, in a clearer voice, she said:
"Things are hard enough without you making it harder."
Mal stopped. "OK, I'll leave, if that's what you really want."
"I really want you to leave, right now." She stated, firmly. Then she added, "We can finish this conversation later."
Mal brightened. "Later like when? When later?"
Zoe saw that Mal was distracted. He'd seemed distracted for days, but now it seemed worse. He had gone within a day from being quietly miserable and distracted to unusually cheerful and distracted. She knew what that meant, and she didn't like it.
She cornered her old comrade in his quarters, where she caught him in the very act of applying cologne. She hadn't even known that he possessed cologne. It was worse than she feared. There was no time to lose.
"Let me save you a hell of a lot of time and trouble." Zoe said in a ringing tone of voice that startled him. She slammed his door shut behind her so they could talk in private.
"Zoe! Come on in!" Mal greeted his Amazonian friend, fully aware that she was already in.
She enunciated clearly as she approached, eyes fixed on his. "Why don't you just let me pop your palpitating heart directly into a blender and set it to frappe'?" Zoe asked, standing before Malcolm with her hands on her hips.
There was a long pause, as Malcolm strove with his whole mind to decipher her meaning.
"Did I forget that it's my turn to wash the dishes?" he guessed.
Zoe didn't blink.
"No, you forgot that you asked me to keep you from making a pure and perfect fool of yourself. Please tell me that I'm not too late."
Mal checked his appearance in the mirror.
"Zoe, get to the point."
"In a hurry? Got a date?"
"Why do you ask?"
Zoe held up the cologne bottle, accusingly.
Mal shrugged. "So? Sometimes a guy just likes to smell pretty."
"You'll be sorry. Don't do it, Mal."
"Don't do what?"
Mal stepped up to Zoe and their gazes locked. He was about to speak, but Zoe cut him off.
"You've been mooning over her since she came. You fought a duel for her. You saw her this morning, now you're putting on cologne. I only have one question: have you two registered your pattern?"
"Registered our what?" Mal asked, genuinely mystified.
"Mal, she is all wrong for you. You do know that..."
Malcolm turned away and flopped heavily into a chair.
"...You told me that yourself the first week that she was here." Zoe anxiously continued. "And I agreed! Do you remember why I agreed, Mal? Because I know you Mal."
"Thank you Zoe, that's enough!" Captain Reynolds sighed.
"You can't share, Mal, you are not the sharing type. But you'd have to share her. And it will eat you up ..."
"THAT'S ENOUGH, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, ZOE!" Mal shouted, jumping to a stand and facing her.
"...EVERY SINGLE TIME SHE'S WITH SOMEBODY, AND THAT SOMEBODY ISN'T YOU." Zoe shouted back, unintimidated.
Radiating menace, Mal quietly said, "I'd like you to leave, now."
Zoe remained unmoved. "It already does" she quietly declared, looking Mal straight in the eyes.
Mal struck a conversational tone. "I'm thinking that now is a good time for me to say to you what you said to me when I questioned you about that Wash infatuation."
"Go ahead and say it."
"Mind your own business."
Zoe broke a small, cynical smile. "I reserve the right to say I told you so."
Zoe spun on her heel and marched for the door, but paused on her way out to look back. Her beautiful dark eyes were filled with a look of concern.
Mal pressed his lips together and said nothing. He just shook his head. Zoe left, quietly pulling the door shut behind her.
Malcolm knocked again on Inara's door. Several slow seconds passed, then it opened, slowly. He waited to see her, but she didn't appear. The empty room loomed open before him.
He clasped his hands behind his back, and took a couple of steps in. He had to step inside to see her, tucked in close in the shadow near the wall behind the door.
"What are you hiding back there for?"
"I'm not hiding. I was getting some glasses." she thrust her hand out of the shadow and it held two wine glasses.
"Oh!" Mal was pleased. She was prepared to offer wine. That was encouraging.
Inara stepped into the light past him after closing the door. Her gleaming black tresses were woven into one thick braid that hung over her shoulder. She was clad in a silky dark red dress that left her arms bare. It clung to her curves and flowed in liquid lines around her as she moved. She wore simple little ballet slippers on her feet. She walked to the side table and bent to set the glasses next to a decanter with red wine in it. She now gracefully poured them each a portion.
"Try this Mal, it's exquisite." She smilingly offered him a glass.
"Thank you very much", Mal said, accepting it, with a smile. Her fingers touched his fingers as the glass was passed from hand to hand. His fingers tickled where hers had touched him. He regarded the glass, then waited politely for her to take hers in hand.
"Should we toast to something?" he asked, raising his glass to her.
"No", she stated, flatly, "...just drink." She sipped her wine at once.
"Oh! OK." Mal sipped his. Yep, that was wine all right. He didn't notice anything extra-special about it. Mal couldn't tell one wine from another. They all tasted like mouthwash to him.
She was watching for his reaction, as if anxious for some sign of approval.
"Mmm." Mal said, to reassure her. That didn't seem to be enough, so he added, "That's pretty special!"
"Yes, it is." she replied, very seriously. "Come sit here by me, please", she said, sweetly, and sat on the divan as before.
He sat down carefully, as close to her as he dared to get. He leaned back and took in the sight of her beauty and just let it move him like it was music. He loved her dainty hands, her slender, well-muscled little arms, the creamy luster of her satiny skin. Oh, those witchy eyes. Oh that spectacular ripe mouth, that dazzling smile. Oh, her breasts pressing against the delicate fabric of her dress, like two birds caught in a handkerchief. Oh, my. How fine. What a fine, fine lady.
His mouth was dry. He quickly took another sip of wine. "So..." Mal murmured, eyeing her breasts, "...about this distressing kissing habit of yours..."
"Mal", she breathlessly interrupted. "I'd appreciate it if you'd let me talk first, this time."
"Oh. Please!" He smiled into her eyes, and nodded.
"Mal..." she took a breath. "I don't blame you for what happened with Atherton. I blame myself.
The sophisticated young woman came alive as she earnestly unfolded her thoughts.
"It was unprofessional of me to agree to dance with you. That was inappropriate. I enjoyed our dance very much, and if the circumstances had permitted it I would have been happy to dance with you all night long, but that wasn't why I was there. I was there for Atherton. I should have stayed focused on my client, instead of letting you distract me. He had a right to expect that of me, and I let him down."
Mal watched Inara closely as she spoke, utterly fascinated. He was absolutely spellbound. What a beauty. He couldn't help being distracted by her appearance.
"I can not make a habit of such lapses, or my career and income will suffer. That means that you would suffer, because you depend on the income I bring you. For both of our sakes, I can never let anything like that happen ever again."
She sighed, and took a sip of wine.
Mal cleared his throat with a polite little cough. "I understand. Now, what about the kissing thing?" Mal asked, eager to forget the past and get on with the present, which was infinitely more interesting.
"I'm getting to that. Please be patient with me."
"Oh! All right."
Inara suddenly realized that if Malcolm couldn't wait through the whole preamble, that he certainly didn't have the stamina for the whole beautiful speech she had prepared. She decided to change tacks, and to confront his pet issue directly.
She placed her glass on the table, and turned in her seat to face him. She placed her hand lightly on his thigh.
"Yes, I kissed you. I shouldn't have. I am very attracted to you, but I shouldn't be. Nevertheless, I am a human being, not a machine. I have human needs and urges. But in my profession I must maintain a high degree of emotional detachment..."
Mal felt the heat of her hand on his thigh, believed it, and decided to let his arm which was between them come up and around, to rest on the back of the seat, behind her. He let her keep her hand right where it was. He relaxed his leg and let his thigh press against hers. She didn't seem to mind. Very interesting!
He allowed her to ramble on for a while. My goodness, she certainly had a lot on her mind. Mal just sipped his wine and listened, and by the way, enjoyed the view.
Of course, everything she was saying went in one ear and out the other, directly. Malcolm's male instincts were in a full uproar. Gosh, she sure was pretty tonight. And her pretty little hand was leaving a brand on his thigh. Oh, my. Oh, my. That alone was more than any man could reasonably be expected to bear, and yet remain unmoved.
"I can't let any feelings I have for anyone interfere with the fulfillment of my contractual agreements. That's just a matter of survival... yours and mine..."
And yak, yak, yak... still talkin'. Gosh, she has a beautiful mouth. He loved watching her mouth when she talked. She had kissed him with that mouth. Do it again. Do it again. With his whole will he silently dared her to do it again.
Suddenly, she stood. She drained the last from her glass and held the empty wineglass between her hands and looked at him with sad eyes.
"We shouldn't let this go any further, Mal." she said, sadly.
"What? Who sez?" He stood, and moved close to her.
"Mal, that's reality. I'm sorry." She set down her empty glass. When she straightened, Mal was directly before her, inches away.
Malcolm asked plaintively, "What is reality? I'm getting a mixed message here. You invite me here for wine, you admit you are attracted to me, you wear THAT DRESS - and that is a beautiful dress, and you're beautiful in it, and you know that - then you tell me that there's no hope for me. Well, I knew that already, or I thought I knew that, but what is reality? I think you're playin' with me."
"No! I'm not!"
"Now, there's playin' and there's playin'. I don't mind being fun for you as long as I'm having fun too, but this cruel little game of yours has got to stop!"
She laughed, shocked. Did he really believe that?
He thought she was laughing at him, and erupted.
"Have you no respect for me whatsoever?" Mal cried. He turned abruptly and headed for the door. "I'm calling it quits!" He turned back and explained:
"You don't have to worry anymore about me messing you up, because I give up. I won't be botherin' you any more. But don't pretend to be friendly with me. You are no friend of mine."
She ran across the room to him, flung her arms around him and held him. "Mal! Don't take it that way! It's not like that! Don't hate me, please!"
His heart began to race. Oh, there she goes again! He steeled himself inwardly and refused to soften.
"I never wanted to upset you! I was trying not to!" she cried. She raised her face to look into his eyes. "I'm to blame for everything, Mal, it's all on me. I'm sorry."
And then she DID IT AGAIN. She pressed a soft little kiss on him.
"That's it!" Mal exclaimed. He took hold of her face with his hands. "Stop, Thief! You give that back!" And he pressed his mouth on hers and took back the kiss she stole.
She yielded. Her lips parted. She opened her teeth slightly and let him touch his tongue to hers.
Her mouth was sweet. Her breath was warm. The delicious aroma of her perfumed body drifted up, and around, and swirled into his nostrils, and immediately into his mind, intoxicating him.
She squeezed her arms around his solid, muscular body and held on. Her female senses swooped and soared. He inhaled her breath, like he was trying to suck the breath out of her. His kiss was everything a kiss should be: ardent, sensual, playful, tender... ravenous.
He pulled away enough to look into her eyes. They were both gasping for breath, panting like dogs.
"And give back those others!" Mal commanded, and dove for another kiss just like the first one. And then another: long, deep, hot, and painfully sweet.
Inara bent backwards, and stood on her toes to meet this onslaught. She pushed her hips toward his and pressed against him. She could feel his stiffening erection, through his clothes. Oddly, at that moment she pitied him: the woman's tender regard for the man's urgent need. Poor Mal. He seemed positively desperate.
Good lord, SHE'S HUNGRY! Mal thought. She needs it!
Inara summoned the last scrap of reason she possessed and pulled back. Mal's kisses continued to drop onto her skin: beside her ears, and onto her throat and shoulders.
"Mal...Malcolm! Ohh..." She moaned. "Come here!"
She began walking backwards, and he followed.
"Come in here, Mal". She was leading him toward her bed. He relaxed his hold and let her draw away, but he wouldn't let her pass beyond his reach. He held on to her waist with his hands. She placed her hands on his hands, and twisting her body enticingly, she wiggled out of his grasp. Guiding him by his hands, she led him to her bed.
"Come here", she whispered. Her hypnotic gaze affirmed him, compelled him, invited him. This time there could be no doubt. "You come in here, mister, right now."
The sharp-hoof'd moose of the north, the cat on the house-sill, the
chickadee, the prairie-dog,
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