"I..." she paused, lowering her eyes momentarily as he turned. "I don't know."
Twelve days had passed, and the conversation still played relentlessly in her mind. The art of illusioned vulnerability was more than an arbitrary skill in a Companion's arsenal--it was critical. Controlling each interaction and conversation, secretly, carefully. To know from first impressions where a man wants to lead you, and to guide his hand another direction entirely unnoticed. To wield discretion like a blade, maintaining dignity in lieu of thread or beads. For all her years and dedication, her education and accomplishment, it seemed ridiculous to feel so lost in such a brief hesitation.
Mal had asked her once why she continued to "doll her face up out here in the black." Considering that dress for interviews with prospective clientele now required her gold lavaliere at most (she'd insisted on a new screen, but Mal would hear none of it), she saw no excessiveness in regularly upholding her professional appearance. Or so she told him.
He was a smart man. Well, capable at least. Why he seemed unable to comprehend her intentions fell alongside the great mysteries of Serenity like "why don't the dinosaurs fall off in full burn?" and "if Jayne had been born a girl, would his name be the same?" Reviewing her behavior--a kiss while he lay unconscious, approving his night with another Companion, her decision to leave Serenity--she had provided him no clear indication of her desires, but was that not the point? Though a Companion's craft may be bought, her heart has no price. She is unattainable--all the more attractive in the fatuous eyes of men. The quality was so long embedded in her that she'd forgotten how to be anything else.
It was the relentless, fundamental paradox of Companionship; spend your life in the arms of a myriad, but in the end, you are unattached. Romantic relationships were attempted occasionally in her profession, but she had yet to hear a successful example. This was irrelevant, of course. She vowed not to form intimate relationships with the crew as a contingency of her rent agreement. Her additional clause refusing to form an emotional attachment to Mal specifically went unmentioned. Their professional arrangement would work best this way. In time, Inara realized he had come to similar conclusions, he just felt no misgivings in mentioning it.
Though far from suitable in categories like profession, class, education...(the list goes on), Mal did have a good heart; anyone--including the Alliance--could see that. He wore it on his sleeve, decorated with blood, badge, and brown. His personality, however, provided a barrier she could not penetrate. Years of distancing from emotion, of witnessing your followers die, trapped and overthrown, too proud to lay down arms, but too few to make it count. She made no assumptions, and he made no excuses. Inara did not need the specifics of his tribulations, none of them did. Whatever officer had stood ground that year, whatever man he used to be, the shell remaining now still fought the good fight. Well, if there was coin to be had. She kept far from the crime sprees, as much on Mal's insistence as her own, and she made sure her work did not interfere with the lives or undertakings of the ship. But a year's time showed her no rest from the derogatory slurs and neverending chides--honorable or otherwise intended--nor a change in his eyes. It was an impossible situation, ridiculous from the start, both of them knew that. And with each day on Serenity came the overwhelming cognizance that all her conflicting preconceptions of Mal, however accurate, made it all the more difficult to let him go.
It had been twelve days since the funeral, and here she sat in the hull of her old home. It was a new familiarity, this unanticipated restitution. Her eyes danced on cracks and holes in the walls once masked by her tapestries. She'd forgotten they were there. A warm bath, some quietly shed tears for those lost, and she would start preparing for bed. Her reflection bent back and forth in the bowl, revealing the lines and marks of imperfection she worked so hard to hide. That night, fresh from burying her friends, she finally let him see them, too. She stood on the bridge, bare skin and dull hair, stammering a pause and deciding in that breath to set a new course. To break her vow. To be attainable.
Suddenly realizing his own stubbornness had long since dissipated, Mal gave a smile and a nod and left her to sort through the various implications of his approval.