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Zoë avoided the teacup, acutely aware of her shaking hands. “I've never done this before. Not visit a Companion...I mean the other thing.”

Inara stared over the rim as she finished her tea, her voice husky when she finally spoke. “I understand.” She slid around the table, grabbed a fistful of Zoë's hair, and yanked. “You can let go with me,” Inara whispered, breath hot against her skin.

She relaxed into the strong arm, warmth flooding her as she felt rope encircling her wrists. “Thank you.” Her mind stilled, folded into itself, floated away. A leaf on the wind.

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Zoë stood on tiptoes, the rope giving little leeway. Soft, silken cordage snaked its way over her shoulders, criss-crossing between her breasts before wrapping tightly around them, trailing down to knot between her legs. Inara had left her wearing the nylon web she'd woven with such surprising skill and disappeared into the shadows of the shuttle.

“You crave release, do you?” Inara whispered. Zoë startled, wavering on her thin line as hands encircled her. Cold metal rings slipped over her nipples and tightened. Her breasts, swollen and hot, screamed in pain. Inara tugged the rope, splitting her. “Do you?”

“YES!”

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The clamps hurt, moreso with her breasts so tightly bound. Still, it was a sexy pain, and Inara's whisper and loving arms set Zoë at ease. It hurt, but she was safe.

She needed to cry. A month since Wash died, and still no tears. Inara understood in a way no one did. Zoë didn't just need release – she needed absolution as well. The hurt, the chasm of grief that emptied her to a shell, and, maybe most of all, the guilt about staying strong. Those feelings bound her more tightly than any silken ropes.

The lash began to fall.

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I knew it was wrong. I caught River watching me'n Simon once, and I felt so violated! Yet...also oddly aroused.

When Zoë admitted to contracting Inara, the curiosity near killed me. I thought about it every time I looked at them – and every time I found myself alone in my bunk at night. I had to know.

They were so fucking beautiful. Inara was so powerful, like I'd never ever seen her before. And Zoë! Ah, was there ever a sight so wonderful as Zoë Washburne all trussed up like a Christmas goose? I think not.

I wanted. Badly.

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“We've been together several times now.” Inara's voice was deep and warm. “I think we're getting to know each other very well, wouldn't you say?”

Zoë nodded, a small smile on her lips. “I'd say you know me better than anyone else alive.”

“Ah, but how well do you know me? You get three guesses as to what I desire most tonight. If you guess, we both win. If you don't...” Inara waved a disinterested hand.

Zoë knew Inara's favorites by now. “Shibari?”

“Eh...”

She thought, then stripped and knelt on the carpet before her.

Inara slowly smiled. “Very good.”

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Inara had been contracted for a full fortnight, and the thought of parting for so long was like a shot to the gut. She'd discovered something she'd never expected with her good friend, reveling in the safe and sweet release that Inara provided.

“I have to see you again before you go,” Zoë murmured into Inara's ear, cheeks rubbing.

She felt Inara's smile. “I promised Mal I'd help smooth things over once we reach Ariel. Who knows how long that will take?”

“Please?” Zoë stepped back to look in her eyes. “I'll do anything you say.”

“You'll do that anyway.”

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Inara watched as Zoë stripped and knelt before her. Inara began disrobing herself, moving slowly as Zoë's eyes followed her. She leaned against the bed and let Zoë crawl to her, opening her legs as Zoë's hot mouth found her flesh.

Inara arched and reached for the candle at her bedside. With a wicked grin, she poured the hot wax down Zoë's back. The woman bucked up, losing her rhythm, and Inara tsked reprovingly. “Continue,” she commanded, enjoying the flash in Zoë's eyes.

Again and again, the wax dripped. Zoë moaned but continued to service her as commanded.

“Good girl.”

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It took a while, but Kaylee finally worked up the nerve to speak to Inara. “Zoë's told me a little. About you'n her, I mean. Not enough! Lord knows, not enough, but enough to make me wonder. She says it's an amazing release. I want to know what that's like.”

“Why, Kaylee!” Inara feigned surprise. “Are you trying to contract me?”

“Well, I mean, I guess so. I want to try that too.”

“Anything in particular?”

Kaylee avoided her gaze. “I thought, maybe, well... I would be your slave. Just for one night.”

“Oh, you'll want more than just one.”