Mal took another sip of the substance in his cup- Inara had called it wine, but few people would recognize it as such- and cleared his throat.
“How come you to know the amount of pressure it takes to pierce skin then?”
She pursed her lips and did not look at him. “I learned it in ‘whore school.’”
He looked away. “I shouldn’t have-”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” she said, her voice sharp and cold as cracking ice. “But you did.”
He sighed. “I suppose I did.”
The pair sat in silence for a few minutes. One of the cows approached them, bumping Inara’s leg until she began to pat its velvet nose. It then rested its great shaggy head on her knee like a puppy, it’s big, brown eyes as dumb and empty as the black itself.
“Why-” Mal began again, and Inara cut him off with a huff.
“Why would the Academy teach self-defense?” she asked, hotly. “Why would the Academy teach simple anatomy? Why oh why would the Academy consider the men and women who attend whole people who might be interested in things outside the bedchamber? What a novel concept!”
All things being fair, Inara would have risen then and swept gracefully from the cargo hold and back into her own shuttle (her own home) after delivering this barb, leaving the Captain open-mouthed and as dumb as his cargo. Unfortunately, the cow with its head in her lap had different ideas, and appeared to have fallen asleep. It was too heavy to move, so Inara was left twisting awkwardly beneath the great beast rather than leaving Mal in her rhetorical dust.
“Ugh!” she finally cried. “Will I never be free of gou cao de men?”
Something in the way that Mal wiped his lips with his hand told Inara that he was hiding a smile, but she supposed that he at least had the good grace to hide it.
“It would seem no man is immune to your spell. I can go if you like- it won’t be quite as dramatic, but I can be sure to sashay a bit as I do, if that would help?”
Inara slumped slightly against the wall of the ship, releasing her breath in a huff. She held out her cup and Mal filled it without comment as the two sat in silence (that was not terribly silent with the shuffle and low of the cows in the hold to break it) for several minutes.
River walked by, clinging to the walls, glaring suspiciously at the cattle as she moved, quiet as a shadow and skittish as a cat. When she reached the pair of them sitting together, her look did not soften, nor even show any recognition of a difference between the two people and the cows she seemed to find so objectionable.
She blinked for a moment, her path blocked by the cow with its head in Inara’s lap, and made a cat-like hissing noise.
“Liars,” she accused, sounding angry. She looked first at Inara and Mal, then at then at the sleeping cow, then at the others milling about the hold. “No one is what they claim to be.”
With this fascinating pronouncement, she turned on her heel and crept out of the hold, just as she’d crept in, along the wall, putting as much distance between herself and the great beasts as possible.
Mal shook his head. “I really should talk to that brother of hers about keeping her under control.”
Inara just smiled after her. “She’s a force of nature, Mal. You don’t control them, you just accept them for what they are.”
He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “That girl can’t be a hundred pounds soaking wet and you’re telling me she’s a force of nature?”
“Girls that age always are.”
“I suppose. ‘Specially when their brain-pans have been messed about by the qing wa cao de liu mang Alliance.”
“I’ve learned in my time as a Companion that most people are more or less like each other-” Inara ignored Mal’s snort at the idea that he was like anyone else “-but I think that River Tam may be one of a kind.” She turned and smiled at him. “She likes you though.”
Another snort. “Not sure how you could possibly pick that up from the four words she’s said to me in the entire time she’s been on this bucket.”
Inara wiggled her fingers at him mysteriously, Kaylee’s engine wine and River’s semi-lucid presence having taken the edge off her annoyance with Mal. “They teach all sorts of things at the Academy, including reading minds.”
Mal narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed, disturbing the cow sleeping on Inara’s lap enough to make him raise his head and huff out a stinking breath at this interruption before returning to his place beneath Inara’s hand.
“Seems you’ve made another conquest. Going to become a regular like what’s-his-name on the planet?”
Inara snorted, even as she scratched behind the great beast’s ear. “I prefer my men to bathe.”
Mal shrugged and leaned back against the wall, refilling their glasses yet again. “I suppose I can’t fault you that standard. And your Atherton appeared to bathe. Smelled of flowers and fruit, he did.”
“Better than cow shit and engine grease.”
“Those are honest, manly smells. Any man ashamed of smelling as such is ashamed of being a man, you ask me.”
“Fortunately I didn’t.”
The silence this exchange left in its wake was slightly barbed. The pair of them did not look at each other, but neither did they leave. Inara grimaced to notice that the cow was beginning to drool on her skirts, but still she stayed beside Mal even as her leg began to get that pins-and-needles feeling under the weight of the cow.
“They teach knife work to every soul passes through your Academy, or just to the ones headed out to the black to service rough men?” Mal asked suddenly. “Men what smell like cow shit and engine grease and worse.”
Inara sighed and considered what to say, remembering those bright, youthful days at the Academy. Remembering the girls and boys she’d known and loved, the way they’d made her feel, the power and prestige they’d promised her. And she remembered meeting Mal that first time, and the way he’d made her feel small and delicate- not weak, the way an adder is not weak, but small, and perhaps a bit vulnerable.
She reached over and, blaming Kaylee’s wine, took his hand in hers, opening so that she could see the lines cut deep into the skin there, hard callused and rough. Not like Atherton’s hands. Not like the hands of the girls that had touched and loved her in her school days. Not like the men who purchased her time now. Not like Simon’s hands- quick and clever and sharp as a scalpel. Nor even like Jayne’s hands- heavy and brutish, without finesse or beauty.
Malcolm Reynold’s hands were unique to him, and an extension of his personality. They were blunt and hard, yet with a capacity for great gentleness, clear in the way his hand went still as she stroked over the skin of his palm with her own fingers.
“What I learned in anatomy,” she said softly, even as she traced the lines on his palm with her fingertips, “is that skin is the largest organ in the human body. And, as I said today, the most vulnerable. There are a hundred-thousand different ways to touch it. Most of the time we think of touch- of love- as skin-to-skin, but you can be touched in different ways too.
“Some people like the touch of cool metal- the blade of a knife that presses but does not cut. The danger gives them a thrill.
“Some people relish the bite of a lash, taking joy in pain that could then be soothed with pleasure.
“Some find heat- hot wax, or even candle flame- erotic. Others find that ice… inflames.”
She curled her fingers and bit hard into the skin at the base of his thumb with her nails, leaving small crescent-shaped wounds there. His hand twitched, but he said nothing and did not draw it away.
Inara wanted to look up. To meet those terribly familiar dark-grey eyes and see what he was thinking. Mal wasn’t a man who easily hid his emotions, as much as he might want to pretend that he did. She knew that everything he was thinking would be written there, on his too-handsome, not-quite-pretty face.
She didn’t however. Where Malcolm Reynolds was concerned, she was a coward. Instead she released his hand and shoved the head of the sleeping cow away from her, pushing herself to stand in spite of the fact that she could scarcely feel her feet.
“Yes,” she said, still not looking at him as she walked (sashayed, his voice in her mind said) away from him. “They teach everyone at the Academy how to use a knife.”