When the woman first approached, Inara was deep in an ancient poem from Earth-That-Was. She'd successfully transcribed a few lines from muddy type to character:
Adieu, farewell Earth's bliss - this world uncertain is - fond are life's lustful joys - Death proves them all naught but toys -
-- and then the thump of a coin purse on the House Madrassa censer table caused her brush hand to skitter ink over the parchment.
"I need something - oh - hell," the young woman said. She laughed helplessly, throwing her head back. Her curled hair tumbled wild over her shoulders and framed the slender sleekness of her throat. "Sorry 'bout that."
Inara smiled behind her carmine veil and felt an answering thump between her legs. The transcription could wait. "It's nothing."
The temple and the House were both busy tonight, with Companions bustling out or escorting patrons in. Tonight, Inara served as a House representative; in effect, a hostess for contracted, lost, or hopeful clientele. The greeting chamber to the House temple was lit with golden lanterns, and warm flickering light revealed the way down passageways to rooms for devotees or Companions, or both.
Someone jingling with anklets drew close behind them.
"Are you practicing tonight, Inara?" It was Tillek, one of the newest registrants and among the most eager to develop her own regular clientele. She was inept at hiding her awe of serving with Inara, but it was usually more flattering than annoying - usually. "I have a list of contract requests for you, if you're available. And the Priestess said - "
"Never mind." Inara patted her hand. "I am available, as a matter of fact."
She had initially planned to spend the evening in contemplation. Representative duty both soothed and energized her. Not only did it show loyalty to House Madrassa - something of extreme import, given that Inara would need their undivided support in her bid for Priestess candidacy - but a Companion could then meet potential patrons in person under controlled circumstances. The formal atmosphere encouraged a vogue about her, a buzz of mystery and anticipation that brought the well-to-do clientele to loiter on the House doorstep.
And suddenly, it bored her. Inara shifted her attention back to the woman.
She didn't look like one of the typical hopefuls. In fact, she didn't resemble a general temple patron at all; she had military ironed into her, and though she wore her Vessel-side vest and leathers and boots with a bootlegger's easy sway, the stance stood out like a crease in trousers. It was in the way her gaze had darted around the room, counting doors, alcoves, obstacles; the bump of a gun butt or blade hilt strapped to her left thigh; her wariness under her quick laughter.
Usually her martial clients preferred the straightforward application. And any military patron worth meeting socially - or more important, any one who could meet Inara's rates - wouldn't consider being seen out of uniform. But the woman was tantalizing, her eyes warm and yet like stone -
Tillek leaned close over her shoulder, and the waft of her strong bergamot scent made Inara desperately want a sneeze. "Military," she whispered, and Inara bit back a sarcastic really? "I've not been contracted yet tonight, and she's so lovely. Please, Inara? You have so many other potentials, and your fee - "
Inara shook her head and brushed her away. She addressed the woman with a smile. "Are you here for spiritual comfort, sister?"
"Not in the religious way, no," the woman said. "Never saw much use in it."
"Bold words for a temple." Inara hefted the purse. It clinked: small, but heavy with coin. "A donation, then?"
"Don't play with me." The woman pursed her lips. She was fierce with some restrained glow of emotion, perhaps of drink or rage; in any case, something dangerous. She was glorious. "I'm here for service. If you ain't open - "
She reached for the purse. On impulse Inara laid a hand on the woman's arm. She felt a second of heated skin under the sleeve's worn fabric before the woman twitched away.
"Are you in or out?"
Inara smiled. "In, I think. Yes."
"But - what? You don't - the list," Tillek began, and the woman flinched.
"My apologies," Inara overrode her. "Perhaps we can discuss this in a more private space. Would you be adverse to - would you allow that?"
After a long pause, the woman nodded.
"I'm engaged for the evening," Inara informed Tillek, who sighed. "Please make a note of that for any other applicants."
A liberal application of tea helped ease the awkwardness in the air. Inara dimmed her sanctuary lights, then she poured a second cup and settled into a cushion. It was a smaller room than her standard House accommodations, but she'd capitalized on the limited space by forgoing a bed for heavy scarlet carpeting and many pillows and cushions. The effect was pleasing, if somewhat haphazard. Thick tapestry layered the walls to suitably muffle any sounds from other private rooms.
The woman shifted, the tea cup delicate and incongruous in her gloved hands. She'd already walked the perimeter of the room, trailing her fingers over the walls, under the guise of admiring the tapestries. She was at once icy cold and suppressed fire. Probably a demon in combat.
"We're on furlough," she said, when Inara asked about her company. "For one more night. So I'm lookin' to release a little tension."
"You're part of an operation, then? I hadn't heard of any."
The woman shrugged, and looked away. Inara let the silence draw out and sipped her tea.
She had not offered her name. Inara had stopped expecting it. It happened. She didn't know whether the tendency was borne of shame or secretive natures, but she had learned about a small subset of successful long-standing Companion contracts based on anonymity.
The woman cleared her throat. "I don't much seek out women."
Ah. "Well, I don't generally seek them out as patrons," Inara said. "Do you still wish to continue?"
"Yes. I want - that is, I've a mind for - " The woman stopped, closed her eyes, and puffed out an impatient breath. "It's right hard to describe. I don't want someone's hands on me."
"I see." More restrained than the last one, then, Inara thought, and also, so she chose me because I was there, and more because of the veil. More obscurity. She really has no idea who I am. The realization was a gentle sting to her ego, and unexpectedly exciting. Should I know who she is? Where was this woman going? She was obviously career military, yes; but there had been talk lately about officers joining the Independents' cause.
Freedom from repression. Not likely. Inara kept her most serene smile firmly in place. "You want something impersonal."
"I - " The woman's chin went up, and she looked weary. "Yes. It's more - I don't need any sweetness. Not tonight."
It was a mix of incongruity, the restraint and sexuality radiating from this woman - the desire for disconnect when she was military. Perhaps the habit of taking orders had bled into other areas of life more easily than she'd reckoned.
"Some people might say that the mere decision to contract a Companion is business incarnate." Inara rose and crossed to the dark looming cabinet of her House implements. "But your desire is less obscure than you might think."
"This is strictly business."
Inara smiled as she unlocked the cabinet. "Of course." The desire for control and surrender was deliciously intriguing, especially in such a capable package. But she'd certainly seemed aggressive in her approach. Perhaps Inara was reading her wrong; perhaps she wanted an escape from orders.
Inara did not have many implements of desire. As Nandi would have said with a sly leer, any Companion worth the training did not require them. She mentally tidied away the image. Nandi was long gone.
Most of the cabinet was taken up by her supply of simple things such as oils and veils. But there had been one client, a young doctor visiting from Londinium, who had gifted her with a wholly unfamiliar mechanism. It was small and uncomplicated. It would do nicely.
She found the wooden box, and on a whim, drew out the long length of satin ribbon hidden in a curling pile behind it. She turned back to see the woman had risen reflexively with her.
"I don't take kindly to catchin' things. Unless you can show it's clean - "
"It's sterilized," Inara said. "And I've never used it with anyone before, I've just...improvised on my own."
The woman snorted. "I wasn't born yesterday, no matter what you think of military folk."
"Most of my clients are interested in intercourse with a sense of familiarity or affection, genuine or simulated. Military patrons included." Oh, but she did know this woman. The pieces were slowly clicking into place, the way they always did - the way, Inara hoped, they always would. She laid the ribbon aside and opened the box. "But this is for a very unique type of person."
"So, just so we're clear." The woman smirked. "I'm not any different, but I'm unique?"
Inara gave her a quelling look. "If you like."
The device was deceptively small and required some assembly. The woman raised a skeptical eyebrow. Inara didn't blame her.
"Is that metal?"
" 'A hybrid of surgical metal alloy and surgical silicone polymer with a dynamically programmed diamond-chip core, designed to work in tandem but responsive to single stimulus.' " Inara recited. "There is a manual."
The woman grinned and looked away, her cheeks flushed. "Well." She took a deep swallow of her tea, set the cup on a side table, and pushed her hands deep into her pockets.
"Well, indeed." Inara set the box down, and slipped out of her robe. She undid the straps of her dress so that it rippled down around her ankles, a pool of black silk. She left the carmine veil over her face. "If you would remove your clothing and lie back, please."
The clinical tone seemed to help. She focused on assembling the device, on pressing the pliable main shaft halfway through the center join of the flexible lemniscate that served as a base. Then she looped the ribbon through the sides, and it was ready.
Complete, it looked like a silvery spinning top, a child's toy. The thought made Inara smile. Peripherally, she could see the indistinct silhouette of the woman's body naked against the tapestry, and then heard a small sigh as she settled down into the carpeted floor.
She was gorgeous: perfect luminous brown skin against the deep scarlet. Inara caught her breath, and then set about arranging some pillows around and under her. "Impersonal or not, you'll need to be comfortable."
"Damn right," the woman said, settling back against the cushions. She jerked up when Inara extended the length of ribbon. "Don't think I ever said anything about gettin' tied up."
"And I'm not going to get a wrist cramp holding this in place while you see the face of the Goddess," Inara countered. "We Companions try to keep fit, but some things are beyond the call of duty."
"Shouldn't talk about worshipping the Goddess as though it's a penance," the woman said. But she relaxed a fraction, and Inara took the opportunity to wrap and tie the ribbon tightly around her thighs. A long shiny scar stretched the length of her right thigh, and Inara restrained herself from tracing it. Then she slipped one end of the device shaft into the woman. It slid in easily - she was already slick and wet.
The woman inhaled shakily, and grinned at Inara. "Kind of small, ain't it?"
"Size is irrevelant." Inara gripped the opposite end of the shaft and gave the device a little twist.
"I don' t know about that - " The woman leaned up and watched as Inara pressed the device in and out, more deeply each time. "Don't stop."
"But I'm not doing anything," Inara reminded her. She slowed her hand to near stillness. "You don't want hands on you. No sweetness. No touch." Slow. Slower.
"Hundan, mei-mei - "
"I'm not your sister." Inara thrust ruthlessly, and the woman bucked against the device. "Do you think of this as a machine?" Sweat began to collect between Inara's breasts and behind her knees. She pressed her thighs together and suppressed a groan. "Of me as part of it?"
"Yes. No. I - " The woman's eyes were open, she was watching Inara's hands. "I - didn't mean - it can be simple without being cruel - "
"But it's not cruelty," Inara said. She wanted so to touch those thighs, and she licked her lips instead.
The woman caught the movement behind the wisp of veil. Her throat worked. "It's more - orders -"
"Ah," Inara said. She dragged the shaft out of the woman - she was dripping - and teased the outer lips of her cleft with the soft tip. "There's more I can do without making this a lovefest."
"So do it," the woman snapped. "And judging from this evidence - " Inara nudged the device back into her, and she moaned, and gasped, "I still think size matters."
Inara chuckled, and then straddled her.
"Wait. What are you - "
"As I told you, it's really a tandem," Inara explained. The woman was tense again, but she hadn't pulled back, which was encouraging. "This version of the device was designed for two women - although there are creative ways to, well, get around that - but unless I reset the program, it will only activate if used simultaneously by two." She lowered herself onto the other half of the shaft, and sighed as she felt the mechanism whirr into operation and swell to fill her.
The woman gasped. "Oh - oh - okay. Gotcha. Hundan wo de tien, ah - " She gave a little sob, and clutched at the carpet.
That's more like it, Inara thought. She kept her thighs wide and really, there was no contact to speak of. It was maddening - she'd never known how much she herself valued touch. The device pulsed, and Inara jerked her hips forward. The woman whimpered.
"What - my god - it's - so much - "
"Not bad - for kind of small - yes?" Inara panted along with her. It was much better than using the thing alone. The pulses varied in intensity and pattern, and she pressed her knees into the carpet to avoid touching the woman, who was writhing under her.
"Please, please - "
"Please what?" Inara stuttered her hips back and forth, gasping at the sensation. Her leg muscles ached with strain, but she would not touch. "A device can only do so much."
The woman gripped one of the cushions. "It's - it's, I can feel it moving - will it stop? Does it know when - "
"Machines don't know - "
Strong hands closed around Inara's hips, and quick as a flash the woman rolled them over. The carpet was sweetly rough against Inara's back, and she cried out as the device pulsed and throbbed and coiled within her, within them.
"It stops," Inara said breathlessly, "when one of us removes it. And as it's tied to you, I believe that will be up to me."
She levered her legs around the woman's waist, and shuddered as the woman sat back and pulled Inara up and on top with another deep pulse.
"Then I think we'll be here a good while."
It would test Inara's stamina, that was clear. But now she was allowed to touch, and she did so with abandon, smoothing her hands over rosy tipped breasts until their owner cried out; exploring the curves of her waist and bottom and shoulders; licking a wet trail through her veil from the curve of one breast to another - really, Inara felt she comported herself with great detachment.
She made one blunder. As she slid her hands down the woman's belly, she delved down further and pressed her fingers against the woman's clit. The woman gave her such a grin of delight that Inara couldn't keep her other hand still; she reached up and stroked the woman's cheek, brushed back the frenzied strands of hair from her temple, marveled at the smoothness of her skin -
The woman seized her wrist and rode her onto her back, pinning Inara's wandering hand to the carpet. Then - almost ruefully, Inara thought - she rocked her hips up and back, thrusting the device more deeply within them both until they both nearly trembled apart with spiraling, sparking waves of pleasure.
Too much. Oh well. Inara was only human.
Then the base of the device shivered between them, and Inara looked down to see slender, soft feelers emerging from some hidden place.
"What - "
"Stimulant feelers. I didn't know - " Inara began. The feelers rubbed tentatively against her clit, and then there was such a jolt of warmth twisting up through her belly that the room went white. She felt the other feeler slipping down, down behind her cleft. Oh, but technology was truly a blessed thing.
The woman's hand holding her wrist slowly unclenched, and as the feeler curled around Inara's clit and squeezed, the woman intertwined their fingers. Inara gripped her hand and let the sensations overtake her.
Later, as they lay back utterly spent and loose among the pillows, Inara made a mental note to reread the device manual.
When she was steady again, Inara retrieved her robe and brewed the tea for rejuvenation. The woman looked appreciative as she pulled on her clothes and gloves, and finally her stiff boots.
"Don't suppose they sell 'em wholesale?"
Inara laughed. "I don't know. I understood this to be a thoroughly-tested prototype design. I can't deny they'd sell like hot bao and probably render the Guild obsolete."
They drank the tea in silence and smiles. The woman was already restless, it was apparent; her toe jogging against a discarded cushion, her gaze seeking out the tastefully unobtrusive chronometer. She took a small electronic box - a comm node - out of her pocket, fiddled with it, and attached it to her belt.
"I best be going. Shipping out for the edge of the Core early in the morning, something about a skirmish."
The woman shook her head, but her face was troubled, and yet - if possible - more closed off than before their lovemaking. She tied back her glorious mane of hair and stood abruptly. "Thank you. I know you're supposed to go through channels for this sort of thing - contracts -"
"We had a verbal agreement," Inara interrupted gently. "And I am a registered Companion. I may choose who I please and still be loyal to my House."
The woman smiled at her. "Good."
The electronic node at her belt beeped and emitted a tinny voice. "Corporal, come in."
The woman - the Corporal - smiled again, a bit sheepishly this time. "Thank you."
She stepped around the pillows and was gone in a whispering of curtains and veils. The sound of her boots scuffing in the passageway dwindled too soon.
Inara stretched long and languorously, sipped her tea and contemplated the heavy leather sack on the side table. She could guess at the amount. It was enough to buy a good many things. New scarves, gowns, trinkets, passage on a ship - like Nandi - or more importantly, audiences with certain dignitaries, future patrons. It was hard to think clearly, even in afterglow, about all the possibilities falling open before her. Inara closed her eyes and thought of smooth brown skin and soft sighs.
There was a jingling of ankle bracelets in the passageway, and then Tillek pushed through the curtains. "Inara? The House Priestess is on her way here. She waved and requested your presence personally, but I told her you were with a client." Tillek backtracked at the look on Inara's face. "If I've interrupted - "
Inara groaned inwardly. "No, no, sweetheart. When will she arrive?"
"Soon, a half hour or so. And I've still the list of patrons - "
"I'll look at it later. Please just upload it." Inara emptied her tea cup. The liquid was cloudy amber and clean of leaf, and she stared into the white porcelain of the bowl anyway. There was nothing to see.
Clearing the detritus of lovemaking was easy. She lit incense and offered thanks to the air, she scattered the cushions more tastefully, and she crumpled up the discarded black satin ribbon. Then on second thought, she wound it up and stowed it inside the wooden box alongside the disassembled pleasure device.
It's a memento, she told herself. Mementos are for people you won't see again. It was good to remember that. After all, these worlds uncertain are.
The slight misquote jarred her out of her reverie, and Inara sat down to set her hair aright.
Years passed. Things happened. Some of them, she kept hidden. She left the Guild - something that shocked her to her core even as she boarded the ship that would take her far away and along the Rim. She saw rough-hewn worlds and the people who tamed them. She left Serenity. She fell in and out of and back in love. And then she was back onboard Serenity, hurting with the others for the loss of Wash and the Shepherd, hurting to see Zoe so dead-faced and yet so openly bleeding for her husband.
It was late. Inara had spent the evening refitting her shuttle, rolling out rugs, unpacking the crates they'd picked up from the Training House. She'd worried at first when Mal had stopped by to watch, but he'd merely said, "Looks good," and then had ambled out again.
She wasn't sure how life aboard Serenity would progress now. But she was willing to wait and see in the time she had left.
The running lights were as harsh and as green as she remembered, so she turned them off. She lit a few candles, made a pot of tea, and waited.
The knock came later than she expected. "Come in."
Zoe sat down against the wall and ran her fingers over the rug. "Nice. Didn't take you long."
"No." Inara poured her a cup of tea. "Mal has been very accommodating."
Zoe took the cup, but she didn't drink. "Inara - I - I can't - " She choked on the words and pressed her lips together, her hands clenching and unclenching, helpless.
Inara knelt beside her. Zoe didn't seem to see her.
"I need," Zoe started, and stopped. She took a deep breath. "Something impersonal."
"Yes," Inara said. "I can do that." She took one of Zoe's fists and curled her fingers around it, and bent down to touch their mouths together.