AN: I'm a sucker for all things Mal/Inara. Sorry for the lack of action, but things will kick off again next chapter. This is largely unedited, so please be free with the concrit.
Inara docked smoothly as always, enjoying her sense of accomplishment at the clickbuzz of a successful engagement with Serenity’s shuttle clamps. It had taken her some determined effort to feel confident behind the controls of a shuttle – any shuttle, let alone one as occasionally wayward as this one – and every flight gave her a sense of moving further down the road that led away from Sihnon. She had not been raised to pilot herself around the galaxy. She enjoyed doing it more than she ever thought that she would.
There are more things here than this shuttle that you never thought you would care for, Inara, and it itches like cheap kohl, doesn’t it?
She finished her post flight check and rose gracefully from her seat. She was wearing her sea green silk dressing gown, one of her favourites. It had belonged to one of the House Mothers in the Temple, and still carried a faint trace of the other woman’s scent. Or perhaps it only carried her own scent now, and everything else was just fancy. She was less than two months out of the Temple. It was foolish to assume that anything from her old life would last that long.
I am a new person, in charge of my own destiny. I am free.
She had written that in liquid characters a few weeks ago, and kept it rolled up by her bed. She read it every night before she reclined into sleep to remind herself.
When she left her shuttle, changed, cleansed and neat, she did not find the crew in the bay or around the table as they normally were. At first, the relationships she formed with the crew were like tiny cuts to herself and to them, exploratory surgery as she carved a place for herself here. Slowly though, she knew, any injury was healing and she felt genuine affection for her new companions. She thought of Jayne and amended that thought to ‘most’ of her new companions. She passed through the galley, running her fingertips over the battered table top and the top of Mal’s chair, patriarchally placed at the head of the table. It was rough and grainy, homey under her hands. But the crew wasn’t there, and she went in search of them. The one thing that was still strange to her, even after months of occupation, was the smell of the ship, the metal, the oil, the old food – the unidentifiable scent of care and hope and love that seeped from bulkheads and looped around the rivets in the doorways. Inara had always identified the smell of home as the clean musk of sandalwood and cotton sheets and other women, and this unfamiliar scent was still inaccessible to her. The fringes of her red shawl shushed against the bulkheads as she passed through the corridor through to the infirmary and the common area. There she found Serenity’s crew.
Wash spotted her first, and smiled a tense welcome. He was leaning with Jayne and Kaylee in the doorway, his arm looped warmly around Kaylee’s shoulders and neck, hugging her. The casual affection displayed by the crew was a comfort after the ritualized interactions of client and Companion. Inara moved to Kaylee’s other side, squeezing in next to Jayne who didn’t make room for her, and laid a hand flat against Kaylee’s arm. Kaylee looked like she had been crying, but was in control of herself now and peering anxiously in at the activity inside the cool blue and white room. Inara followed her gaze to the exam table. Zoe was bent over a still form, her face tense and her hands moving slowly and smoothly to clean what looked to be a horrible wound. Mal hovered opposite her, applying pressure where he was told to apply it, and frowning like his brow would snap in half.
“Who is -?” Inara asked Wash, gesturing to the man beneath Zoe’s hands.
“We think his name is Graham Miller,” Kaylee replied, her eyes meeting Inara’s briefly.
“Apart from that he follows girls in side streets, and has recently killed a man, we don’t know much more about him,” Wash added. Kaylee twisted her neck to shoot Wash a dirty look.
“He wasn’t the one followed me, Wash. It was the other one, the dead one.”
“The one he killed?” Inara asked, not sure if she was following. This was a new language to her. It was she was trying not to learn too well but it was a language that was undeniably delicious on her tongue.
“That’s the one who was following me,” Kaylee confirmed. She scratched at her hand. Inara glanced down at the motion, and gasped.
“Oh, Kaylee, sweetie, your hand!” Somehow, Kaylee had raised a flap of skin from her palm with her blunt fingernails, like a laceration – but it wasn’t bleeding. Kaylee looked down.
“Huh?” She held her hand up to the light to take a closer look and to show Wash and Jayne.
Jayne reached across and took the mechanic’s small hand in his great paw. “Looks like some sort of… extra skin. Like yer sheddin’ or something,” he concluded. Mal looked up and his gaze skipped across Inara’s face before landing on Kaylee’s outstretched hand.
“What the hell? You said you weren’t injured,” he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her into the infirmary. Inara followed and took up a pad of dressing to tend to the girl’s hand. She looked closely at it.
“Pressure, Mal,” Zoe said sharply, and Mal turned back to the more urgent needs of the bleeding man. Inara frowned at the apparent injury to Kaylee’s hand. It was indeed like she was shedding a layer of skin, with the new skin underneath slightly grimy and dry, like the rest of her hand. The Companion took up a pair of small forceps from the MedKit and began to carefully peel the strange, thin skin layer from Kaylee’s palm. It came off in one piece, and Kaylee said it didn’t hurt at all but for a fierce itch once it was gone.
“What the hell is that?” Jayne grunted from the doorway. Wash was craning his neck. Kaylee grimaced. The piece was half as big as her palm, and had the same texture as a layer of skin. It hung from Inara’s forceps like a shred of silk.
“All done,” Zoe declared. “He’ll live or he won’t. I ain’t a real doctor.”
“I still say we dump him at the nearest hospital and get the hell out,” Jayne opined.
“I hate to say it,” Wash said, “but I agree with Jayne. We don’t know him. Could even be Alliance, running around like that.”
Mal shook his head, eyes on the shred of skin like stuff that Inara had passed to Kaylee.
“No, Alliance kills clean. I’ll say that. They’re good at it. If this was an Alliance operation, it went tits up when this one got himself stuck.” He flicked his gaze back to the unconscious man for a moment, then edged closer to where Kaylee was carefully holding the patch of… whatever… from her hand to the light. She squinted at it.
“Cap’n, hand me that magnifier,” she requested. He placed it into her outstretched hand and she held it over the thing in her hand.
“It’s like… tiny circuits. Amazing. So gorram … complicated in there…Nanotech. Wow.” She looked up and blinked. “Hey, Wash, c’mere and look. I think it’s some sort of… transmitter, maybe?”
Wash, intrigued, crowded in to look through the magnifier, edging Mal out of the way. Inara squeezed around the examination table, past Zoe and the brown haired young man, and almost tripped over Mal.
“Alrighty,” the captain said in an affable tone that brooked no opposition, steadying the Companion with one hand. “Fun’s been had by all, not least of all by our friend on the table here. But now it’s crowded in here with people who ain’t busy stashing those boxes from Mr Harper like needs doing. So go and do it.”
Inara smiled gratefully at Mal and took five quick steps out to the common area. Jayne grizzled as he strode past her with long, easy strides, undoubtedly on his way out to lift weights rather than stash the small boxes Serenity had picked up that morning.
“Wash, I need you to search the cortex for mention of this fella. We need to find out where to leave him… Wash?” Inara heard a trace of irritation in Mal’s voice. She peered back into the infirmary and saw him prod the pilot away from Kaylee, who was still bent over the shred of ‘skin’ and the magnifier.
“Yeah, yeah sure, the cortex for this fella. Graham Miller. Hey Kaylee, don’t do anything exciting with your robot skin til I get back, dong ma?” Wash called back as he half ran toward the metal stairs to the forward decks. Zoe grimaced and followed him out. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she tossed back to Mal.
“Robot skin?” Mal’s brow had creased in irritation as he leant forward and wrapped his fingers around Kaylee’s hand to pull the piece of skin stuff closer to his eyes. The space between them was so intimate that it had taken Inara two glances when she had first come aboard to realize the truth of the relationship between the two. There was a spark, a maybe that neither would ever dream of acting on. Mal called Kaylee mei-mei, and he meant it in all senses of the term.
There were times Inara envied the casual affections she witnessed. She hoped that someday she would be included in them.
“It’s like skin, maybe even has some real skin there. But look… circuits.” Kaylee was pointing, Mal was squinting, wearing an expression that Kaylee had described to the Companion as his Captain Dummy face.
“What is it?” he asked. Kaylee shrugged.
“If it were bigger, I might be able to guess but… my thing is engines, not nanotech.” Mal grinned an easy grin at her.
“You’re a fine mechanic, Kaylee, you don’t need to worry about nanowhatever. My question is, where’d you pick this stuff up?”
Inara moved into the infirmary again, standing by the strange man and smoothing one hand across his brow. He was pale, but breathing steadily.
“The only legal nanotech on Beaumonde is on the far side, a government facility,” the Companion said softly, eyes flicking from the man’s slack face to Mal’s sardonic expression.
“Well, ain’t it amazing what pillow talk you can pick up,” he replied, but with less bite than she might have expected.
“Pillow talk, yes,” she admitted. “I have a semi regular assignation with one of the managing directors of the facility, although I haven’t seen him in some time.”
The man stirred slightly beneath her hands and she automatically made a comforting noise, a wordless sound that seemed to sooth him into stillness again.
Kaylee moved to her side and smiled shyly at her, quickly, before gazing down at the man.
“Graham Miller,” the young mechanic said, like she was tasting the syllables. She reached one hand out to brush against his side. Mal watched closely, considering.
“He’s mixed up in something that’s giving me an uneasiness,” Mal decided.
Kaylee started suddenly, and looked at the hand she had brushed carefully against him. It was the same hand she had peeled the nanotech skin from.
She held it up in the manner of someone who had made a discovery.
“He touched my hand!” she exclaimed. “He squeezed it after he gave me the brush off.”
Mal frowned slightly. “He gave you the brush off?”
“Mhm.” Kaylee was distracted, still staring at her palm. “I guess he put the skin on my hand then. But why would he do that?”
“We won’t know anything til this fella wakes up, unless Wash can find something on the Cortex,” Mal announced.
“I’ll stay with him,” Inara heard herself offering. “Until Zoe gets back, or he wakes up.”
“Me too,” Kaylee volunteered.
“Well, ship won’t be leaving til we can figure out where to leave him, long as we can leave him somewhere in the next twelve hours. Unless we need to make a dashing escape in case friends of the dead guy come calling.” Mal ran a hand through his hair and Inara saw the creases on his knuckles.
“I’ll make sure the engines’re prepped and come back,” Kaylee said quickly. The Captain nodded. With one lingering look at the man on the table, the mechanic left the room. Inara heard her boots on the stairs a moment later. She avoided looking up at Mal.
“Why don’t things ever go smooth?” she heard him mutter. After a moment she glanced up and realized that he had asked her a question.
She gave him a small shrug and a smile.
“Think of how boring it would be,” she offered. He looked at her, eyebrows quirked, a warm smile growing on his face. He tipped his head back and barked a good humoured laugh.
“You’ll fit in just fine, Ms Serra, just fine.”
He thoughtlessly reached across the prone man and clapped one large hand against her arm in mock congratulations.
“I’m headed to the bridge. Let me know if Sleeping Beauty here wakes up.”
He regarded her again for a moment, then turned on his heel and left.
Inara was suddenly conscious of the high buzz of the lights and a trace of residual warmth on her arm.