It came out of nowhere – the rain – pounding into the dust like bullets, turning the streets into a puddle-strewn wasteland; the ground so cracked and parched that the water couldn't hope to penetrate.
"C'mon. We can wait it out in there." Mal pointed at the saloon across the way, trying not be jostled by the townsfolk around them all scurrying for cover under the few tattered awnings or in the doorways of the buildings that huddled along the main road. It looked like the town had seen better days but, odds were, it had always been like this.
Inara felt a pang of regret at what the rain was about to do to the silk shawl she had wrapped around her shoulders before Mal tucked her arm in his and they dashed across the street. She stifled a shriek as the brunt of the storm came upon them, Mal cursing a blue streak until the saloon door slammed shut behind them.
She was drenched. The embroidered fabric of her gown had not been made with anything as common as weather in mind, and it clung to her form, wet and cold, even as she smoothed the water from her face and hair.
Mal, being the idiot that he was, was grinning as he did the same. "That was somethin', wasn't it? Ain't seen a rain like that in a while."
"Yes, we couldn't have possibly guessed this would happen." She unwound her shawl with difficulty, squeezing it out as they moved toward a table against one of the walls. "I'd only been telling you that we should head back to the ship an hour ago when we could see how dark the clouds were getting."
"Now don't get all huffy. You were the one who wanted to come into town."
"Because you wouldn't have gotten the job without me, and you know it!"
"True enough, but I didn't make you do somethin' you didn't want to do."
She bit down on her lip, trying to control her irritation. "Yes, because we need this job to afford to refuel. If we don't refuel, I can't work."
"And that would be a shame, wouldn't it? Me keeping you from your work." A grimace crossed his features as he shrugged off his coat and draped it over her without hesitating. "Suspect you need this more than I do. What do you want to drink?"
She glanced over at the bar, packed edge to edge with folks keen to wait out the storm, just as they were. "Cider, if they have it." She'd been on enough of these outer edge settlements by now to know that she wasn't going to find anything even remotely close to the wines she was accustomed to. As long as she didn't have to drink the rotgut moonshine that Jayne always drank, she could tolerate almost anything else.
Mal nodded and went to wait by the bar as she sat down.
Despite the large window in the front of the saloon, the late afternoon light that filtered through the storm clouds and the smeared dirt on the glass made it feel more like twilight. Music was playing from a machine in the corner, which looked as if it had been cobbled together from a bunch of odd parts and scavenged electronics. Inara smiled – Kaylee would have loved it. Had she been here, she would have been over there caressing it lovingly and talking the ear off of whoever had jury-rigged it together.
There was a small open space for dancing, only the size of a few tables, but it was empty. The tables were all full now, and occasionally the door opened for someone to either peer in and then take their chances elsewhere, or cram in by the bar with the rest. Each time, the wet wind gusted in and the steady patter of the rain on the corrugated roof got louder. She pulled Mal's jacket more tightly around herself and shivered. It smelled like him – sweat and soap and dust.
"No cider." She jumped as he set the tin cup down in front of her, not having noticed his approach. "Got you a brandy." He pulled out the other chair and sat down, taking a swig from his own cup. "Not as good as what you're used to I'm sure."
"I'm sure it will be fine." She took a sip, giving him a determined stare, and pretended that the searing burn travelling down her throat and up into her nose was perfectly pleasant. "It's lovely. Thank you."
The rain continued to fall as afternoon turned into evening. Inara was on her second brandy now, Mal his third. The mood in the saloon was high, thanks to an unexpected afternoon of drinking for the locals, but had not yet gone as far as to become rowdy or out of control. Now that she was warm and mostly dry again, Inara's irritability had dissipated somewhat. The brandy had probably played a huge part, too, she reluctantly admitted to herself. And, despite Mal trying to get under her skin, as usual, they'd managed to have a conversation that had bordered on civility.
They had lapsed into silence now, with Mal clearly lost in thought as he swirled the contents of his cup with an absent-minded motion, staring over at the one couple now dancing. The yellow-tinged lights cast long shadows into the corners of the saloon, and they flickered sporadically, making the music hiccough. He looked tired, and she suspected the stress of nearly running out of fuel before they'd landed here was a huge part of it. She was more sheltered from the pressures that he and the rest of the crew went through, but it didn't make her any less aware of it.
He pushed himself hard, gave himself less slack than he did the rest of them. She found herself wishing that things were less complicated between them – she'd struggled with what to call it for a long while, but always seemed to circle back to that one: complicated.
The way he looked at her - in contrast with all the verbal digs and jabs; how her breath seemed to get stuck in her chest when he stood a little too close. She'd never had a problem with her mind wandering when she was with a client before. Now, well, she just had to be more careful. More disciplined.
He raised his cup and drank, his eyes catching hers over the dented rim. She looked down, pretending the colour warming her cheeks was from the brandy.
"What?" He was staring at her.
She took another sip; it hardly burned at all now as she swallowed. "Nothing. I was just wondering how long we were planning on staying here, as much as I'm enjoying the ambience."
"Well, I'm not planning on going out in that." Mal poked a finger in the direction of the rain-slicked window. The wind had picked up enough that the raindrops were now battering against the glass as well as on the roof. "It has to let up eventually. I didn't exactly have any evening plans anyway. You're welcome to walk back by yourself if you like. I won't stop you." He paused and gave her a slow, infuriating smile. "You'd have to leave my coat though. Can't have you taking that when I might need it." Raising his cup to her, he proceeded to tip the remainder of his drink down his throat.
"You're an ass," she muttered, pulling the coat off from around her shoulders and half-throwing it at him.
"Just an insult? No clever retort at my expense?" He grinned.
Ass didn't even come close to it. With a hard shove, she pushed her chair back and stood up.
"Whoa… hey now, don't get all riled up." Ignoring the coat on the table, he stood as well. "I'm not making you go."
Inara folded her arms across her chest. "Well, then what do you propose we do?"
"Not drown on the way back to the ship for starters. C'mon, I'll get us another round."
She wasn't drunk yet, just pleasantly fuzzy, but she knew another one would be testing her limits. The home-brewed liquor was harder than she was used to. "Thanks, but I think we have a much better chance of getting back successfully if at least one of us can stand."
"I didn't think standing was much of a requirement in your profession."
"You know what, Mal?" Her eyes narrowed as she glared at him. "I think I'll take my chances with the rain."
She'd already turned away when he reached out to grip her arm. "Inara – wait. Don't be stupid because of me."
She could have pulled away if she'd wanted to. His hold on her arm was firm, but not tight or possessive.
"Look, I know you'd rather be back in your shuttle away from all this noise and such." He gestured around at the crowd with his other hand. "I know this isn't the fancy stuff you're used to, and that you'd rather not be stuck here with me, of all people, but we might as well make the best of it. So, let's have another drink or I'll… I don't know… I'll sing." She raised an eyebrow. "Or… we can dance." He gave a nudge with his head towards the couple dancing. The woman was staggering a little, and her partner was struggling to keep them from bumping into one of the tables. "It's nothing like that shindig a while back, but hopefully there'd be less swords involved."
Turning to face him, she struggled to keep the look of disbelief from crossing her features. "You want to dance? Here?"
Mal gave what might have passed as a careless shrug, releasing her arm. "Sure. We can't be as bad as those two."
"What's the matter? You do know how to dance when it isn't all those swanky steps and whatnot, don't you?"
"Of course I do."
"Good. It's settled then."
"But I –"
It was too late. Mal had already taken her hand and was hauling her towards the makeshift dance area. The other couple was in the process of stumbling towards the bar, and the man winked at her as they passed them, his greasy hair falling into his eyes as he laughed.
The tune playing from the machine was unfamiliar, a variety of instruments and a steady pounding beat with the staccato of the raindrops filling up the space in between. Facing him, she squared her shoulders and kept her back straight and her head high. She met his eyes, holding his gaze, as she placed one hand on his shoulder, the other at his waist, leaving a respectable several inches between them. She took in a controlled, measured inhalation before exhaling, as she had done a thousand times before. She was in control.
"Oh no, that won't do at all." Mal said, just loud enough for her to hear. "If we're gonna dance, then you have to do it proper." His hand settled against the small of her back as he drew her flush up against his body as the other couple had been. Her heart gave a sudden lurch.
"Fine." She slid the hand at his waist around to his back and moved the other from his shoulder to toy with the hair at the nape of his neck. Two could play at this game, and she was much, much better at it than him. "Let's dance."
She entered a familiar state of awareness as they began to move with the pulse of the music, working her way through an analysis of the tenseness of his muscles, the rhythm of his breathing and heartbeat… the way they both hitched ever so slightly if she pressed against him with slow deliberation. The smell of him – sweat and soap and dust – stronger and more pleasant than his coat she'd been wearing all afternoon, made her want to lay her head against his shoulder; she preferred it to the artificial perfumes and colognes her clients typically wore.
Letting the tempo guide her movements, she pushed against him as they swayed together, her fingertips stroking the back of his neck. The hand on her back tightened involuntarily. She did another run through of his reactions to what she was doing, ready to adjust and change to his –
"Stop it." It was a low growl in her ear.
"Trying to control everything." He stopped moving and lifted his head so he could see her face. "Stop treatin' me like I'm one of them."
She didn't try to pretend she didn't understand. "I'm not. This is who I am, Mal, no matter what you want me to be."
"I don't want you to be anything. Let go. Dance with me."
The song changed to a lilting melody that was slower, more languid, as he pulled her close once more. The raindrops pelted against the roof over the hum of the saloon patrons' chatter.
This time, his fingers were caressing her back as she tried to focus on nothing but how it felt to be in his arms. It felt good. Too good. Even though she shouldn't, she let her head rest against the coarse spun cotton of his shirt, breathing him in. This was dangerous. This was going to make everything worse. Complicated.
"I don't think this is a good idea."
He had to lean in closer to her to catch her whisper and then the warmth of his breath was in her ear. "Absolutely right, as always. This is a terrible idea."
She wasn't sure how and when it had happened, but both her arms were now wrapped around his neck; both of his, around her waist, and she could feel the strength of him pressed against her through the thin fabric of her dress. The rough scrape of the stubble on his jaw against the softness of her neck was raising gooseflesh down her arms.
The lights went out.
The music stopped.
The saloon fell into a silence as sudden and swift as the darkness.
"Gorram generator…" A raspy voice and the stomping of boots followed by the hushed mutterings of the crowd.
The words died on her lips as his mouth brushed the juncture where her neck and shoulder met, and she couldn't help the full body shudder that raced through her. He followed the kiss with a gentle bite in the same place and she was afraid her knees might have given out if he hadn't been there for her to lean on. The want surging through her was like nothing she had ever experienced, a dizzying euphoria that seemed to pull her out of her own body. This couldn't be real. She wanted to lose herself in it, let herself fall.
Then his mouth found hers and she kissed him with all the longing, all the need, all the heartache, all the complications and impossibilities and obligations. There was no give and take on either side – just the two of them, taking, and the sheer ferocity of her response terrified her. She had never wanted like this. Never.
She pulled back, only to find herself stealing another kiss from him, just one more, almost frantic. She could taste the hint of brandy and wasn't sure if it was from his mouth or hers. Did it matter?
Only one more.
How could she find her voice to stop this when she didn't want it to end?
Somehow, she got her palm to his chest and pushed him back with a gasp, pushed him back when that was the last thing she wanted. His breath was ragged and needy against her cheek, and she knew that her thundering heartbeat gave away the falsehood of her feigned control.
Even though she couldn't see more than his shadowed form in the muted light coming in through the window, she felt the air leave his chest as he exhaled, the tremors in the muscles in his arms and shoulders.
They stepped apart, collecting themselves, trying to find some semblance of balance and composure in the endless minutes until the lights came back on, leaving them all blinking and squinting in the sudden brightness. The music machine whined to life, now too loud. The assault on her senses, along with everything else, made her want to bolt.
His voice was soft and low. "Think I'm ready for another round of drinks now. You?"
She tried to keep her eyes on his, to not let them drift down to where his lips were as swollen and bruised as her own. It was an effort to nod, but she managed it.
They sat and drank without speaking for another long while, how long she couldn't say. The lights flickered every now and then, but stayed on. The music droned. Chairs and stools scraped the rough wood, interrupting the dull buzz of conversation. She'd drifted into a light daze, trying not to think, wanting to keep her thoughts at bay, when Mal startled her out of a fantasy that was definitely not helping matters one bit.
"Rain's stopped." Mal finished his drink in a long swallow, banging the cup down on the table and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Time to go."
They walked in silence, avoiding the puddles as best they could. He offered her his arm when she needed it, but there was a distance there that was unmistakable.
She should say something, but there was nothing to say that they both didn't already know; nothing she felt like saying out loud anyway. Too real. Too hard to take back. Nonetheless, she stopped him before he pressed the button that would open the cargo door.
He turned to face her, raising a hand to keep her from speaking. "Look, Inara, you don't need to say anything." He gave a huff of laughter that was as weary and careworn as she'd ever heard from him. "It ain't much of a secret when we both already know the truth of it." He ran his thumb down the side of her cheek, seeming as though he might end by brushing the edge of her lower lip but then thought better of it. "This don't change what we can't have. Certainly don't make it hurt any less."
She released the breath she'd been holding without realizing it. "No. It doesn't." His hand had dropped to his side, but the ghost of his touch lingered.
Mal pushed the button and the door opened with a familiar metallic grind. "Ladies, first." He gestured at the empty cargo bay that would be full of crates tomorrow morning if everything went as planned… not that that seemed to happen as often as they all would have liked.
She walked in past him and was partway up the stairs before she stopped and turned back. Mal was staring out at the darkness beyond the closing doors.
Before she could think or change her mind, she walked over to him, lifting up on to her toes to kiss the stubbled roughness of his cheek. She walked away just as swiftly. Nothing had changed. It never would. It couldn't. "Good night, Mal."
The doors sealed shut with a final clunk that echoed through the empty space.
This time, she didn't look back.