Tea wasn’t a ready commodity on Serenity proper. Inara had a supply on her shuttle, for use in her Companion duties, but most everyone in the crew favored coffee — or what passed for it out on the Rim — over the artificial tea-substitutes usually available.
However, there was a dusty crate of the stuff up on a top shelf in the galley. Mal’d found it for cheap, and it was real tea, so he’d picked it up on a whim, thinking to present it to Inara for her use. Just as a strictly business gift between two people engaged in mutually profitable activities, of course.
Unfortunately, real tea or not, turned out there’d been a reason it was so cheap. Inara’d taken one sip of the first batch they brewed to test it, and her eyes had started watering. With a cough she’d managed to keep dainty and ladylike, she informed Mal that, while she greatly appreciated his kind regard of her as a business partner, it would be against her Companion’s ethical codes to accept such a gift.
Nobody else had taken a shine to the stuff either — except for, of all people, Wash, who had loved it. He’d gotten through half a crate of it, one cup at a time, until Miranda.
Since then, it’d been gathering dust up on the top shelf.
Mal was surprised when Zoe, without saying anything, got the crate down and started preparing a pot of tea for their, ah, guests. She’d learned to do the best possible job of it for Wash’s sake, and Wash had always raved over her tea skills, so she was the acknowledged expert — but Mal had figured he’d be the one doing the job this time.
He'd figured wrong, though.
Zoe went through the familiar motions smoothly, precisely, her face calm — maybe a little too calm. Mal hurt all over again for her — hurt himself, since he half expected to turn around and see a familiar blond-haired pilot sitting at the table, waiting expectantly for his tea. Not a sight for this lifetime anymore, though.
Instead, what he had at his table were three strangers who made his skin crawl. They’d yielded up their weapons politely enough — or, at least, the “Captain” had done so, giving over a boot knife balanced for throwing and a tiny but effective pistol, in addition to the holstered gun on his hip. Rose and the Doctor had declared themselves unarmed, and glory be, but a polite search had proven that to be the case.
In the interest of returning things to a neighborly level, Mal had declined to move on to an impolite search, though he was keeping that as an option.
Even more annoying, the three strangers didn’t seem worried in the slightest, even with Mal and Jayne there, openly and unrepentantly armed. Jayne’s trousers were currently held up with a length of rope, from which he'd managed to suspend a respectable number of holsters. The thin rope had to be digging in, what with all that weight hanging off of it, but Mal was willing to bet having no guns at his waist would’ve been harder on Jayne.
Kaylee had appointed herself hostess, apparently for lack of anything better to do, and was back to chatting with their guests about nothing much. They were playing along pleasantly enough, while Mal watched. She certainly seemed to get along with them like a house afire, which to Mal was significant. Kaylee might be a little, well, enthusiastic, at times, but she wasn’t dumb, and she had a good natural ability to judge people.
As did River — and she’d gone from being scared out of her wits to apparently okay with the newcomers in under five minutes. River was due to join in this little tea party, as soon as Simon had retrieved her from wherever she’d gone in the ship. River wasn’t prone to hide from her brother, but she sometimes forgot to let anyone know where she was, even if they walked past her calling her name.
A vibration and nearly subliminal clank signaled that Inara had returned and reattached her shuttle. All three of the strangers noticed, but politely kept their peace.
Kaylee, ever helpful, announced, “Inara’s back,” about thirty seconds before the woman herself came strolling into the galley, unaware of the little gathering there — Mal hadn’t expected her back so soon, and so hadn’t given her a 'wave about the situation. Frankly, he’d forgotten, come to that.
Inara was still dressed to the nines, obviously coming in from business. She stopped dead in the doorway, seeing the strangers, but kicked back into gear with admirable speed, going into full Companion mode without a hitch. It was part of the way she worked in Serenity’s crew; if she was around when clients or other folk were present, she would grace the company with her presence, adding an air of charm, elegance, respectability, and — if at all possible — distraction to the proceedings. Nothing like the full attention of a Companion to make a businessman a little fuzzy about some of the finer points of the contract that’d been placed before him.
And she was in good form today, Mal had to admit, as she wafted into the galley like a summer’s breeze, all feminine grace and charm and high-class seduction.
Kaylee, who adored Inara, was quick to introduce her — first to the Doctor, who responded politely with a handshake, but with a disappointing lack of visible distraction. Same with Rose. Mal was watching with real interest when it was the “Captain’s” turn though. He’d seen Jack perk up the minute Inara walked into the room. This might just be a valuable weak point about to be revealed.
Just as Kaylee said, “And this here’s Captain Jack,” gesturing at him over the table, Jack stood up, and rather than just shaking Inara’s hand, he cupped it in his own, and moved to stand closer to her.
Suddenly, things went strange again.
Jack’s whole manner shifted -- and then he was projecting masculinity every bit as brilliantly as Inara radiated femininity. His tiniest movement was confident, graceful, powerful . . . seductive. Their joined hands became a riveting focus, pivot point for perfect yin and perfect yang to circle one another in balance.
Jack’s eyes were locked with Inara’s; he looked positively predatory, she returned the full force of his gaze, unafraid, teasing.
All around the room, breathing was deepening, and eye pupils were dilating, taking in the show.
Even their respective states of dress — Jack dusty, casual, disheveled, Inara perfect, cool, and decorated — added to the magnificent polarity of the scene. Jack raised Inara’s hand to his lips, and brushed a kiss along the back of it, never once breaking eye contact.
Breaths caught, in the audience.
Jack lowered Inara’s hand, slowly . . . and finally, she broke eye contact, glancing downwards for a moment, her cheeks flushing elegantly — then she looked up at him again through her lashes, and her gaze was positively molten, her eyes dark and unfathomable.
Jack blinked — and then began to laugh, shaking his head. The seduction drained out of him, and he turned his grip on Inara’s hand into a firm, friendly handshake, which she returned.
Still laughing, he managed to say, “My hat’s off to you, ma’am,” in a nearly perfect Rim accent, releasing her hand to tip an imaginary hat in her direction. “I’ve rarely been beaten at that game,” he added, back to his more normal Core-type accent.
Inara smiled at him, and Mal was startled to see it was her real smile, not her Companion’s smile. She looked smug. “You gave me a good run,” she told him, graceful winner. “It’s surprising you never went into formal training.”
Jack shrugged, looking pleased, and said, “Let’s say I prefer to stay a talented amateur,” winking at her as he took back his seat.
All around the room, the stunned silence was broken by a great deal of foot-shuffling and throat clearing, as everyone else remembered to look as if they hadn’t been staring.
Inara winked back at Jack.
Just then, Simon and River arrived at the galley. Simon took in the gathering with a confused expression.
“Sorry,” he asked, “Did we miss something?”
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