Author: Jen (jazzfic)
Disclaimer: It all belongs to Joss Whedon and Russell T. Davies. Cheers, fellas!
Characters/Pairing: Inara, Tenth Doctor, Mal, Inara/Mal.
Prompt: Ten is intrigued. Inara is suspicious. There is banter. And eye sex.
Notes: Say hurrah for my first crossover, written for the Ten/Inara ficathon at sonic_tea. A big thankyou to goldy_dollar for the beta.
It could have been his mood, or perhaps just the time of day, but as she stepped into Serenity's hold, Inara couldn't help but think that Malcolm Reynolds looked like a man with something on his mind.
"Ah, now," he said as she came forward, trailing silk and perfume like a cloud. "That is indeed what I like to see. A fine lady, all trussed up an' ready to go help a bunch of rich businessmen compensate for somethin' they're...no doubt seriously lacking."
Inara ignored this, which wasn't a terribly hard thing to do, as ignoring Mal was something she'd perfected over the time in which they'd known each other. She brushed her hand over a microscopic crease in the fabric of her dress, and tried not to sigh as she felt the captain's disapproving gaze linger.
They were standing on opposite sides of the hold, and she was about to ask him if he really did have nothing better to do than wait about aimlessly under the pretence of seeing her off the ship, when he spoke again. "How'd you arrange an invite to this fancy get-to, anyhow?" He eyed her with a flicker of suspicion, though it was good-natured. "Thought you'd all but dried up your contacts in this part of the 'verse. Seems a mite indulgent to be off swannin' about the upper-echelons of society, when all I've got to look forward to this evening is Kaylee and the doc makin' bunny eyes at each other over Jayne's genuine-old-sock-flavoured meatloaf." There was a pause, and Mal frowned. "What with my first mate and her pilot husband merrily AWOL on somethin' called an anniversary..."
"It's a party, Mal," Inara replied, not unkindly. "I told you about it at least a month ago--when, if you recall, you were over-compensating for not having any work, and when everything was apparently about long term planning. Heaven forbid that on a dull evening I should be off securing contacts--contacts, I might add, that you've all but let slip into the proverbial--" She broke off and looked across at him, smiling a little at the petulant way in which he'd shoved his hands into his pockets. "I did ask if you wanted to come," she added, quietly. "But you said no."
His momentary sulk morphed sharply into a roll of the eyes. "Well, d'you blame me? Don't the lashing shadows of swords and courtly duellin' still echo in your ears? They sure as hell do mine."
"I hardly think you'd find an opponent worthy of taking on your noble thrusts this time, Mal. It's not that sort of crowd."
"Meanin', I suppose, no-one to partner you who ain't in their declinin' years, huh?"
Inara turned away. "With any luck," she murmured.
He was still looking at her, smiling a little now, in a way that made her suddenly itchy to be away from him, but at the same time wanting to rationalise his inherent stubbornness. And try not to consider why he made her want to do that.
"Careful, Inara," Mal said softly, gazing across the space between them. "Say that, an' you're liable to make a man wonder."
For a long moment neither of them said anything. Then the comm buzzed, making Inara jump. Masking her relief, she glanced at the signature, recognising her contact, and tapped at the door controls. The mechanism groaned into action, opening slowly to the warm evening air. Tugging her shawl around her shoulders as she stepped out onto the gantry and into the outside world, Inara shot Mal a look.
"Then don't," she said, and left him to his ship.
There was an air of wealth about the place that she could almost smell. Old money, that's what it was. And old hands holding onto that money. She looked about the room with amusement as one of the guards positioned at the door glanced at her invitation and waved her through. Mal had been correct: there was barely a single man near her age. And it did not bother her in the slightest.
"Have I told you how lovely you look tonight?"
She smiled at her partner, a genuine smile, and was rewarded with a pleased twitch of his grey moustache. Frederick Whaler Sutton was the last of an old family on Bellerophon. His son, once a client of Inara's, had long since moved on with the business to Londinium; but she had kept up a happy acquaintance with the father. Frederick Snr was a true gentleman, and it had been a very easy thing indeed to accept his invitation--despite her waving off the evening to Mal as nothing more than a simple outing--and she had been genuinely looking forward to catching up on all the gossip, to once again hear about the lives of the carefree and rich...and forget, just for a few hours, what it was to be apart from guns and coin, and the day to night pursuit of roughneck, petty crime.
Inara let go of Sutton's arm and nodded, her eyes gently teasing the older man. "You have," she replied. "Several times, in fact."
"Well, I meant them all. You're the prettiest creature about the place, I declare; and for being so happily placed on my arm, just as you will the fervent sighs of admiration, I'm certain to be on the end of some truly dark looks." He smiled down at her. "And pleased, my dear, to receive each and every one."
There was something so guileless, of such truth in his voice, that for a moment she felt quite touched. Compliments were part and parcel of her work, and receiving them was an art almost in itself. The felicity of her charms, the inherent consideration that came to her as naturally as speech; it was a gift that couldn't be taught. It was what made her so good at her job. But there were times when her reactions could, and did, surprise her.
She tipped her head graciously and let Sutton take her shawl. "Flattery will get you everywhere," Inara said, smiling back, "and everything your good heart desires." She placed a hand on his arm, nodded across the room to where a well-rounded and heavily bejewelled lady was trying to catch their attention, and continued in a softly conspiratorial air. "I believe someone is eyeing you in such a manner already."
Sutton sighed, following her gaze, his mouth pursed with wry amusement. "Ah, Mrs Delaware. Yes, I shall have to begin my rounds. These cursed social circles are quite unrelenting in their traditions; the inevitability, I'm afraid, for those of us who likewise uphold them, is that we must work that much harder as our years grow old." He shook his head. "I do not forget my wealth. I can only pray that I do it some good."
"You do more than you know."
He waved this off with a gruff, "Very well, very well. Then I hope I shall see you in a quadrille later on, my dear."
"Of course! Now be off, before poor Mrs Delaware bores us in half with her staring."
She let him go with a laugh, watching his steady progress through the sea of patrons, of admirers and confidants. Her gaze turned to the rest of the room. Across the way two young ladies--no more than girls, really--were huddled together in conversation. By their appearances alone, she knew at once that they had been born into money, and had no doubt they'd had not a day in their lives since without every privilege and advantage that fortunate birthright allowed them. Their clothing alone was enough to speak it; the rich sheen of their dresses catching the light in an iridescent swathe of colour, finery complimenting the skin that was--and wasn't--on show. Inara smiled, knowing the thought that had inevitably gone into that particular ratio; older men these partners may be, but money was something that far outweighed age or looks, and would always do so. Watching them now, she felt a pang that wasn't so much one of thanks as resignation. By her own life, it was a consideration she would never have to face; nor would she, age or situation notwithstanding, as long as she remained a companion.
That was not to say that thoughts such as these didn't at times play on her mind. But the job, the life she lived, dictated matters of a higher priority; the rest simply falling by the wayside, to be taken inevitably to heart by men such as Malcolm Reynolds--his temperament, his unerring refusal to uniformity, being as much a sticking point on Inara's mind as the merging of wealth through marriage was to these young women before her.
So, yes, perhaps just for a moment, she did wonder.
With a sigh Inara shook her head, forcing herself to turn away and find distraction elsewhere in the crowd. Wonder, of course, leading to judgement--and that was not how she had planned on spending this evening. It would not do to go against her own intentions and fall too deeply into self-analysis. She was here to socialise, to observe; and for own sanity, she would do well to stick to that plan.
The two women were now moving away. Inara watched them, and was about to follow herself and see were her erstwhile partner had gotten to, when something made her look back.
In the space now free, leaning inconspicuously against the wall--seemingly as much to hide within its tastefully patterned surface as to use it as a casual resting place--stood a man, dressed in a dark brown pinstriped suit, navy shirt, thickly-rimmed glasses perched like a affectation on his nose...and canvas shoes. White canvas shoes. With indelible curiosity, he was smiling at something.
Not something. He was smiling at her.
She walked over, heels clicking on the floor, and the man pushed off from the wall and stood up to his full height, pulling out hands that had been shoved casually in his trouser pockets, and folding them neatly at his back.
"Good evening, Miss--?"
His accent was strange. Not from Bellerophon, at any rate. She thought for a moment, trying to place it, but couldn't. He continued to smile, but now with less secrecy, less intrigue. It was as if proximity had taken away the allure of mystery. She wondered for a moment if he was wary of being watched.
"Serra," she replied, filling his expectant pause.
"Well...a pleasure to meet you, Miss Inara Serra." And the smile broadened, but she didn't return it, keeping her face still and her eyes firmly upon his. It was about as stony a welcome as her generosity allowed her to give; she was trained to receive the solicitations of men, but only to a point. All strangers were just that, and instinct told her that this man was nothing if not strange...
"You were staring at me." She ignored the fact that he hadn't offered his own name, and instead tilted her head bluntly, not giving him any room to entangle her with charm.
The man, quite indifferent to her accusatory tone, unlaced his fingers and pressed them together thoughtfully.
"So I was."
"May I ask why?"
"Your hair," he said.
Inara frowned. "My--"
"Your dress. Your face, your eyes. Look--let me show you something." And without warning, he reached across and took her hand lightly in his. He guided her so that together they were looking at the two young women from before. "It's a serious business, isn't it? Marriage. I've been watching those two--as were you, I believe--and I've come to the conclusion that you humans place the most undue importance on what doesn't matter, while all the time quite forgetting the things that do. The brightest smiles come hand in hand with big, fat dollar signs on them." He paused, frowning suddenly. "It is dollars here, right? Something with a Chinese bent, perhaps? No? Well, never mind. I'm trying not to be too disappointed by the fact that I waved some pounds at the barkeep earlier on and was rewarded with the sort of look one reserves for finding a goldfish in one's martini glass."
"That..." She gazed at him, trying to figure out where in the world this curious mind had sprung from. Or how every word he said seemed to make perfect, extraordinary sense. "You have not answered my question."
"Miss Serra, you want to know why I was staring at you?" And he pointed across the room, to the gilded mirror. "That's why."
And so it was that she saw herself, cream and white dress, hair piled on her head and teased effortlessly into ringlets, neck and shoulders bare, lips dark and eyes rimmed with deep brown so that her cheeks glowed crisp and pale. It was an illusion, all of it; for Sutton, for the looks of her fellow guests; and the pride of the host, for having such a companion there to be seen and admired. She thought of Mal looking at her earlier on, warning her against the wonderings of men--how he had so openly included himself, without apology. And how typically quick her response had been, shifting without hesitation, into denial.
Inara turned around. The man had shifted away somewhat, his eyes still on her, his smile still there, but distant now. Understanding. She knew she should have taken that opportunity to leave, or at least spoken some sort of rebuke against his boldness, but nothing came. And just then there was a loud chord from the musicians, who had until that moment been filling the hall with the sort of background strains suited mainly for conversation, that made her reply, for what it was, at once lost and meaningless. Inara sensed movement around her as partners were sought and formations made across the floor. It was a controlled sort of panic, and she might have laughed at the absurdity of it all, had her hand not still been in the gentle clutches of this man.
"I'm sorry," she said hurriedly, "this is all very flattering, but my partner--"
"Is right over there," the man replied. "Dancing with someone probably quite lovely, probably quite smart and engaging, but not as much as he'd like. Not you." He let the moment pass, and then, as if suddenly struck with a bolt of inspiration, held out his hand. "Come, come. They're simply murdering this music, but you stand here talking to a strange man any longer...and I'm afraid that people will talk."
And so Inara found herself being lead out into the centre of the room. She did not move the hand that settled a little too high upon her back because there was warmth in his touch, knowledge in the way he matched her movement and the steps they took, and the almost compulsive feeling that kept her there, knowing, somehow, that this man could see what those around her could not.
Despite the strangeness of it all, she began to laugh. And for the first time it was his expression that was one of confusion. "A goldfish," Inara said, shaking her head. "In a martini glass?"
"Well..." he hedged, recovering with speed and playing along as if they had barely missed a step. "Is that so odd?"
"I suppose not. We're creatures from far and wide, after all."
"We are indeed. And in my case, very, very, very far..."
"And are you ever going to tell me your name? Or is it your intention to wear me out by dancing twelve more sets, at the end of which I shall be so tired as to not care any more?"
The man only smiled, his eyes twinkling behind the dark rims of his glasses.
"Ah. So, you're intrigued, then."
He shrugged. "Mmm. Same thing."
Inara smiled, or at least tried to. She felt his hand in hers, a strange belonging in this alien touch, and she said, "I'm trying...I'm trying to figure out what to make of you." Against her better judgement it was Mal's voice in her head again; but this man, this stranger with no name, no home, no past and no answers but riddles, only smiled.
The music swung gracefully into a final chord. He stepped back, releasing her with a gentlemanly bow. As she watched him he opened his hands to the room, as if to capture the feelings and the hopes of those around them, and offer it to her, a gift of explanation. "It's like any night on Gallifrey," he said, his voice suddenly quiet. "It's like something you want so badly, but you have to keep going because it's all you know. Because it's all you can do. I saw you standing there, watching the girls with the pretty dresses, thinking yourself so far apart from their little dreams and desires...and then you smiled, Miss Serra. You smiled. And it reminded me of--" He looked away. "But it doesn't matter. Don't try and figure me out, when you're still uncertain about yourself."
He stepped back a little. "You're leaving," Inara said.
"I've outstayed my welcome."
"Yes. I have. Look around you. Every man in this place has been looking at you with wonder and admiration as we danced. And every woman with jealousy. It's no wonder he didn't want you to leave his ship."
Inara opened her mouth to reply, but the man took her hand, kissing it with a sudden, boyish grin. "Goodnight. It was an uncommon pleasure..." And then he was turning away, through the couples still standing about, and her first instinct was to call out for him to return--but as she opened her mouth the musicians started up again, a discordant wave of sound that knocked whatever bold intention was left within her to one side with a ragged blow. Confusion pulled her with the movement and music to the edge of the room, until she found herself by the mirror; and Inara, looking into it, past the dancers, past everything and everyone, thought she saw a dark head turn at the door, his eyes upon her one last time, and his smile, truth and ambiguity all wrapped in one expression, disappearing quietly from the crowded room.
But uncertainties had already begun to cloud her mind; she found herself suddenly unsure as to what had just happened. And, after a time, when the door had long since closed and the dancers had moved on, she was left with nothing more than a strangely lucid wonder, and the curious doubt that she had, in fact, seen no man at all.
Her intention, formed in contemplative silence during the ride home in Sutton's transport, had been to go directly to her shuttle and make a quiet escape to her bed--and, merciful Buddha, what sleep was left at this hour--when Inara noticed a light coming from the corridor leading down to the galley. On any other night she might have ignored it, but this time something made her follow.
And besides, she was almost completely certain that she knew who it was. Sighing a little, she bent down and unclasped the thin straps on her shoes. Captain or not--if he was going to deal with her now, she decided, it would be her and her bare feet.
So it was with no small amount of surprise that she found him, slumped and asleep, in one of the old sofa chairs in the little enclave off the galley floor. Inara placed her shoes on the tabletop and stepped down to stand before him. She sniffed the air, but could pick up no traces of alcohol. There was just the faint odour of something burnt, of a shirt gone too long without washing. Of her captain, dozing like a babe. As she stood there watching him, it occurred to her that he had an entirely different demeanour when the frowns and disappointments of the world were not sitting on his shoulders. It was almost a release--that the worry, so hard in his face when conscious, was in sleep finally gone. She wondered if he was aware of it. She wondered if he even dreamt at all.
He opened his eyes slowly. She watched, trying not to smile, as connections were made and nerve-endings alerted with a swift flash into consciousness. With a soft jerk he sat up, frowning. "Mm--nara?" he slurred, looking up at her. He blinked rapidly, and wiped a hand over his eyes. "You're back early."
"Mal, it's three in the morning."
She waited, not impatiently, as this information was processed.
Inara shook her head. She suddenly felt very, very tired. "How long have you been sitting there?" she asked, crossing her arms and taking a place on the opposite sofa. "Not all night, I hope."
There was an indignant flash in his eyes. "No," Mal said. "Just...closed m' eyes for a moment. I'll have you know that while some of us poor folk didn't get no night out on the town, there were still room for action a'plenty right here." He jabbed sleepily at the galley. "On this ship."
"Fun night, then, was it?"
He grunted. "That's one way of puttin' it."
"Dinner go well?" she asked, smiling sweetly.
"Oh, sure. If black and unpalatable is your idea of 'well'." A half-smile pulled at his lips as he gazed into the distance, thoughtfully. "Though I gotta say, the soufflé was a...slight disappointment."
"Let me guess. A flop."
"Actually no. Kind of the opposite, in fact. It's well surprisin' how much egg-substitute suddenly resembles industrial-strength glue when you're tryin' to peel it off the ceiling..."
Inara closed her eyes. "So Jayne's--?"
"Off the cookin' rota, yeah. 'Till the next harvest moon, if I have my way about it."
"We're in space, Mal. There are no harvest moons."
A lengthy pause followed, in which neither of them made any move to get off the sofas; but Inara felt the moment of light-hearted exchange fall aside as the seconds grew longer and longer. Mal was looking at her now, in between badly-concealed yawns; and she let him, not caring that she usually would have felt irritated at this. She then realised that he was smiling, and that his eyes had drifted to the table, her shoes upon it like a scene from some long-forgotten fairy tale. "I can see your evenin' went to plan, then," he remarked, with a smirk. "Dance a few old men to ground, did you? Break a few hearts..."
She closed her eyes briefly. He was baiting her, she knew it, and if it had been any other time, any other place, she would have let him. But then she thought of her strange partner, remembered his hand on her back, his gaze thick and bright with secrecy, but open to everything, and everyone. Pulling her to stare, embarrassment and flirtation aside, into a mirror to see which Inara Serra happened to look back.
"Well, actually," she said, standing and moving toward the table. "I hate to disappoint you, Mal, but no, I didn't. Hearts were left fully intact."
She looked back then, to smile, to let him know that while he would never admit to staying up and waiting for her safe return, her appreciation was genuine--but Mal, standing himself and walking over to her side, met her half way, honesty pulling the sleep from his eyes as he reached past and picked up her shoes off the table.
"Glad to hear it."
And he slipped them into her hands, an idea of some further words forming as they stared at each other, but fading fast, too late for either of them to finish. He nodded a goodnight to her and walked out of the galley.
Inara stood quietly. She listened to the silence as his footsteps faded. In the tiny kitchen, beside the small refrigerated unit that murmured with white, perfunctory noise, a tap was dripping. Shoes in hand, she walked over and turned it off.
Murmurs like music, she thought, looking into the chrome sink and seeing her reflection, pale, as if under water. Dances with strangers. Goldfish in martini glasses; glasses perched on a handsome man's nose. Men like Mal would always wonder. If she made it so, it was not her doing. It was not something she had control over, no matter what she imagined of her abilities, of her role on this ship. The fact it had taken a stranger to make her see this was something she wasn't sure she wanted to admit to. But he had, and here she was, thinking had the captain looked at her a moment longer, she might have perhaps taken his hand and kissed it there and then--an admonishment to love.
"Gallifrey..." She looked up, frowning suddenly. "Where is that anyway?"
Whatever the answer was, it would have to wait until tomorrow. She yawned sleepily, turning from the sink and switching off the galley light. Tomorrow, she would look it up on the cortex. A mystery, she decided. And probably best that it remained that way.
After all, he never did tell her his name.