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"Mal! Leave it. I'm fine."

"Inara. There are bruises. I can see them. Bruises are not ok."

"I said leave it. I don't tell you how to conduct your business."

"This is business? Well, then I hope he paid well, to be allowed to leave his mark on you like that!"

"This conversation is over."

"Fine."

"Fine."

 

***

a few years later

***

 

"Saw your ship outside of town. Staying long?"

There's no sender, but Inara doesn't need one. She knows a message from Eve when she sees one. So does her body. She can feel anticipation tightening her stomach, and her fingers shake a little as she replies "I have a client this afternoon, but I'm free all day tomorrow. We leave in the evening."

They don't cross paths often. The Verse is large and neither of them stays in one place very long. But every once in a while there will be a message from Eve, and they'll have a few hours, or a full day and night that one time, to re-connect, to forget themselves and the troubles of their lives. Or not so much forget; put in perspective against something that matters. They're both still alive. Neither of them is inclined towards relationships, or settling down, but with this one tie to each other, to who they are, and who they were, it's enough. Life is good, and it goes on.

 

***

many years earlier

***

 

"I'm leaving."

Eve reaches out to push an unruly lock of hair back behind Inara's ear. "Where?"

"I've been accepted into the Academy, I'm gonna train to be a companion."

Eve's eyebrows rise. "A companion?"

"Yeah. I wanna learn how to walk right, talk right, I'm gonna be a lady." Inara mock-curtsies.

"A lady?"

"Yeah. And I think I'll be good at it. I'm pretty enough, and Mother says I've certainly got the spirit for it, I just gotta learn the trade first."

"Learn the trade?"

"Yeah. You know, walking, talking, dressing, eating, behaving, all that stuff."

"But what about the..." Eve bites her tongue as she trails her eyes over her friend's body. She's just a kid! "You know. Actual job description?"

Inara blushes. "Actually... I was hoping you could show me?"

Eve almost chokes. "Me?" But such a beautiful kid.

"Well, yeah. I know they're gonna have people there to teach us everything, but I just..." The rest of the words come out in a rush. "I wanna know what it's like to be with someone who wants to be with me, who hasn't been assigned. You kissed me, remember? And it was the best kiss I've ever had. Please?"

Eve remembers the kiss. Vividly. She's been drunk, and the boys bothering Inara had been even drunker, and after she'd beaten them up Inara had clung to her. Eve had been high with the rush of the fight, adrenaline still pumping with a bitter taste of the fear she'd felt when she came around the corner just in time to see Inara get shoved into a wall. They'd sought refuge in a dark alley, Inara still pressing against Eve, shivering from fear or cold. Eve had held her close, one arm securely around her back, the other caressing her hair, the side of her face. Eve wasn't sure how it had happened, but Inara's body was warm and close, and her face was beautiful, and suddenly she had kissed her. She was pretty sure Inara had responded, but Eve hadn't had time to reflect on it before she realized what she was doing and quickly pulled away, horrified. She was supposed to take care of her, not take advantage of her. Eve had quickly led the way out of the alley, and they hadn't spoken of it again.

Eve studies her now. Inara is solemn, and meets her eyes trustingly. It is beyond Eve how she can possibly inspire trust in anyone, but Inara made her mind up long ago. Eve leans forward, kisses her carefully, and Inara sighs.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Come with me."

 

***

a few years earlier

***

 

"Eve? What are you doing here? I... I have a client who's about to arrive any minute."

"I actually am the client."

"What?"

"Not like that. I just wanted to see you. I wasn't sure... I didn't know how to get in touch with you. Security is pretty tight around here." Eve isn't quite sure herself why she's here.

"You could have just sent me a message"

"I know, but... We scored big a few weeks back, and I got a few new guns," Eve's hands move automatically towards her hips, but there are no weapons allowed inside. "...and a set of knives, and then the boss said we were gonna stay in the Core for a week, and I... I thought of you."

"I'm glad you did. Although you don't ever have to pay to see me."

Inara crosses the room, sits down on the futon, gestures Eve to sit by her side. Reluctantly, like she doesn't know what to do with herself now that she's here, she sits, hands folded in her lap. This is Inara's world. They used to be in Eve's world, where Eve could feel needed. She was the strong one, the protective one. Looking at Inara now, she is the lady she dreamed of being when she was younger. It's not just a cover, and Eve can't help but wonder if whatever was between them once is still in there somewhere.

Inara seems to sense her turmoil. "Nothing has ever come close to the things we did." Inara is suddenly very close, and Eve shudders. She's the same, but she has changed, and it's a disconcerting double-image. Inara slides a hand around the back of Eve's neck, kisses the side of her mouth.

Eve pulls back. "Inara. I don't... That's not why I came."

"Then why did you come? Do you not want this?"

"Of course I do. But I can't pay for it. I won't pay for it. That's not... I won't do that to you."

"It's what I do." Inara shrugs, then reaches over and presses a few buttons on the wall. "Are you hungry?"

Eve nods.

"Good." She grabs a piece of paper, jots down a few words. "We'll eat, and I'll tell you about everything I've seen since I left, and you can tell me about your new guns, and then you can meet me at this address day after tomorrow, and there will be no payment involved. Just me."

 

***

the night before

***

 

"Eve!" Inara looks pleased. "It's been a long time."

Eve studies her. A new determination in her step, confidence in the line of her back. "The Rim agrees with you. I came through the Core a while back, word was you'd left, and I haven't been out here much lately."

"I've found a good ship to travel with. The Captain's a Browncoat, and they don't ask questions, but they take good care of each other. You'd like them." They walk in silence for a while. "I think I am more like you than I wanted to admit." At Eve's dubious glance, she laughs. "Oh, I don't wish to run around in grubby clothes and hit people, but the Core was suffocating. Flying with Serenity out here, I feel freer than I could ever have imagined. We go wherever the work takes us, I see clients here and there. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

"I'm with a new crew. Three other women, and two men. It's strange flying with so many women, but they're all good people."

There's a darkness in Eve's voice, but she doesn't volunteer more, and Inara doesn't ask. Instead, "I have my very own shuttle now, would you like to see it?"

"Of course." There's nothing to tell. She almost died. She's almost died before, too many times to count, but it's been a momentary danger, and then it's over and you're not dead. Not like this. Not weeks of not knowing if you're gonna survive the next few seconds. She got out. The scars healed. But she has nightmares for the first time in her life; her alone in the endless darkness on that frozen moon, terrified of taking one wrong step and being burned alive. She found a new captain who prefers dry desert moons where the sun doesn't set, and Eve doesn't complain. And then Inara opens the door to her shuttle, and Eve pushes any thoughts of past horrors away.

*

Inara grabs Eve's shoulders, digs her nails into the corded muscles there, doesn't ask about the recently healed scars. The pinpricks of pain is enough to halt Eve's motions, and brings up her eyes to Inara's.

"Don't hold back." Inara's voice is steely.

Eve shifts uncomfortably. "Inara. Don't... I could hurt you."

"There's nothing you can do to me that I won't welcome."

"You don't know..."

"I'm a companion, Eve. There are few things in the realms of pleasure and pain that I'm unfamiliar with." Inara walks her fingers down Eve's back, kneads her ass for a moment, and then rakes her nails hard against the skin of Eve's back the entire length of her spine, simultaneously bringing up her thigh to press between Eve's legs. Eve almost comes on the spot.

"I know what you want, what you need." Inara's voice is soft as silk in Eve's ear, her lips and teeth worrying the lobe, before she pulls back just enough to meet Eve's eyes. "And I know who you are. I know you. Don't hold back from me. Please. I need you."

 

Eve needs to feel anchored. To close her eyes and hold on as tightly as she can. She leaves bruises and bite-marks. Inara draws blood. Her nails are sharp, and leave shallow trails across Eve's shoulders and back that slowly fill with blood as Inara soothes them with her tongue, the metallic tang in her mouth making her feel more alive than she has in a long time.

 

Afterwards, Eve is horrified. Inara kisses her eyes, her lips, her fingertips. "It's all right, you know."

"It's not all right."

"Eve. I'm a companion. It's my job to be intimate with people. And I like my job, and I'm good at it. I get to chose my own clients." Inara punctuates her speech with kisses along Eve's jaw, tracing patterns with her fingers across Eve's skin. "I enjoy giving people pleasure, I enjoy the intimacy. But it's still my job. I have to be in control the entire time. Even when I've taken others to my bed, people who aren't clients, they still expect certain things of me, they expect me to act a certain way, because I'm a companion. Except when I'm with you. You know who I was. With you, I can be myself, because I trust you."

Eve makes a choked noise. "You shouldn't trust me. Look at you..." Eve reaches out to stroke Inara's shoulder, but flinches back as her fingertips graze a spot of sore and reddened flesh.

"Who I trust and how I chose to act on that trust are my decisions." Inara moves above Eve, holding herself inches above her face so she can look at her. "I'm not the same little girl anymore, I don't need you to protect me. Although I did, very much, at one time," she adds at the hint of sadness in Eve's eyes. "But now I just need you to be you. And I think that's what you need too."

Inara fits her leg between Eve's, molds her body to hers. Eve's skin is soft and warm, but just underneath she's all muscle, tense and ready to spring into action. Inara kisses her, traces her lips with her tongue, and eventually Eve's mouth opens to her and she relaxes. Eve's arms come around her waist, traces the line of her spine towards the curve of her buttocks, pulls Inara even closer.

*

They face each other in the chill air outside the shuttle just as the day is returning.

"I have to go. We are leaving in the morning." It already is early morning. Mal is probably readying the ship, wondering where she is.

"Ok."

"Will I see you again?"

"Do you want to?"

"Very much. If you don't want to see me, I respect that. But if you stay away because of some misguided idea of what you think I want, or don't want, I will never forgive you."

"Then I will see you again."

"Good. Take care of yourself." One last kiss, and then Inara's gone.

"You too."

 

***

fin