Light glints on the slick glass stopper as she draws it towards her wrist and smears scent across her skin. Lotus blossom; the perfume curls through the stale ship's air like a living thing, sweet and warm and potent. Soothing. Inara closes khol-darkened eyes and her nostrils flare as she breathes in deeply. She remembers the walled gardens of Shenyang, and a time when flowers were something she took for granted. Her rooms back at the Guild had been filled daily with freshly cut blooms, sweet and clean and always new. The maid would change them long before they began to wither or fade; one never considered, at the time, that they were dying from the moment they were cut. Inara has leisure to think about this now. She inhales preserved sweetness, and marvels that crushed flowers can produce something so delicious from their death. With eyes closed, it is almost impossible to tell whether the scent is from living flowers or their ghosts.
At her side Mal shifts uneasily in his sleep and she freezes, suddenly guilty. She did not mean to wake him. Inara stealthily returns the stopper to its cut glass bottle and sets the essential oil back in its place beside the bed, each movement painstakingly slow. She is more than half dreading the moment when his eyes meet hers again, with the knowledge of vulnerability hanging between them both. It is too new, this intimacy, and she is afraid she has made a mistake from which she may not recover – but there was an inevitability to it, whether for good or ill. In the end, she could not help herself.
She hopes that, when the time comes, he will smile at her, blinking sleep out of his clear eyes, warm, welcoming, glad; but she is afraid that he will not. In the dim light Inara studies him like a poem, like a pillow book she might learn by heart, and she tries not to hope. She wants very much to stroke the soft line of his eyebrow and to taste again the sweat moistening the indent of his lip, to caress the strong curve of his collarbone and trace the outline of his tattoo with one smooth fingernail, but she holds back. She knows every expression that can cross a man's face – or a woman's – upon awakening. Shyness, embarrassment, smugness, desire, disgust, adoration. She cannot decide which expression would be worst upon Mal Reynolds' familiar features. Inara regularly opens her ears, her lips, her thighs, and provides comfort and escape from the mundane, but throughout it all she remains her own woman. She is needed, but she does not need. Normally. She gives pleasure judiciously but remains immune to hurt, encased in the protective shell of professionalism. Her heart is not involved. She wishes them well, to be sure, these intimate strangers whom she wraps in her limbs and her sheets, whose egos and flesh she massages so tenderly, but she loses nothing to them. She risks nothing with them.
This is not the case with Mal.
She has never felt so naked. It horrifies her that Mal has such power over her.
The sex was energetic, uncomplicated, desperate. She was – not herself. Amateurish. Not awkward, of course – never that – but still there was an urgency to the coupling that had her blushing afterwards. She had banged her elbow and smudged her makeup. She had been, ridiculously, on the brink of tears. He had come too quickly, that first time, and she had been furious with him; thinking, for once, not of her lover's pleasure but her own. He made it up to her with his fingers and lips, mumbling broken words of apology and love into her damp skin, touching her tenderly, as though she were made of the thinnest porcelain or the most bruisable petals. "Harder," she had demanded, beyond courtesy or pretence, biting him hard enough to hurt and wringing a startled grunt from deep in his throat. Her own breath had hitched and she dug her nails into Mal's shoulder until she felt him wince. "I won't break, damn it. Damn you. I – yes! God, yes. Like that. Harder. I can take it." She felt the rumble of his laugh vibrating through her flesh as he took her at her word, and she knew an instant's wrathful regret for so wholly losing control and dignity, for being so close to begging.
She came so hard that, for a moment, she forgot her own name.
Mal looks younger when he sleeps. People often do, of course. She wants to keep him safe. To be kept safe. It hurts to think how much she wants this. How impossible it is. There is no safety anywhere – and, anyway, even if there were, Mal Reynolds is not a man to settle down, nor can he accept her career. She loves her independence. She has spent too many years training to become who she is, has sacrificed too much already to consider giving up her work for the old fashioned qualms of a smuggler.
This is only a passing fancy, Inara tells herself, without conviction. She is, after all, no blushing maiden to be crushing on her captain. It was whimsy, and hormones, and perversity, perhaps. Desire. Nothing more. Inara is a free woman, with no ties and no commitments that are not of her own choosing. She is in control of her own life. She could leave Serenity tomorrow if she wished.
(He might not want her, now he has had her.)
He rolls over, one long leg tangling with her own as his arm falls across her waist. Sleeping fingers clasp her hip possessively. After a moment he begins to snore. A rueful smile curves Inara's mouth, unwillingly tender in the face of his obliviousness, and then something clenches in her gut and she finds tears in her eyes again.
She is in way over her head. He has become essential to her now.