Inara's lantern cast a soft blue glow over the tiles of the courtyard as she stepped carefully across in the dark. It was warm tonight, but not overly so, the sort of warmth one could barely feel on one's skin. There was no breeze, but the scent of the night blooming jasmine hung in the air, sweet and light and lovely. It was a pleasant night to be sleepless; a pleasant night to sneak out to the darkened baths after all the others were tucked in their beds. Inara had her own room now that she was in her final year of training, but five years of dormitory life had taught her to value her privacy above all else.
It was a large courtyard with an elegant, free floating fountain at its heart. The water splashed down, reflecting back the lantern light, refracted. Inara breathed in the scent of the jasmine and opened her mind to the sound of the fountain, composing herself for sleep.
She paused between one step and the next, the ball of her foot just barely touching the stone before her. There was a noise, just audible over the sound of the fountain, a noise like - like gasping, almost, but mechanical. She looked around, but there was no one, and the machinery within the Academy would never be so crude. Everything here was quiet and soothing and contemplative. She edged around the fountain and saw a wash of stark light thrown by something not her lantern - a box. A blue box. A . . . "Police box?" she mouthed to herself, frowning. It was English, but it made no sense. She doused her lantern and wondered if she should call the Mother.
The door to the blue box was flung back suddenly. Inara stepped back into shadow, her bare feeting making less than whisper of sound on the tile. A man emerged, framed for a moment in the light emanating from the box. "What the . . . ?" he said, looking around, and then spun on his heel. "This is not Alpha Centauri!"
The box said nothing, of course, which only seemed to further annoy the man. "I said Alpha Centauri," he said. "I know Alpha Centauri, and they don't have jasmine anywhere near Alpha Centauri!" He blew out a breath and looked around, or so Inara judged by the motion of his head. "All right, then. Not Alpha Centauri. You're obviously still . . ." He paused strangely, then brought his hand up to rest against the sided of the box. "Recovering," he finished, so quietly Inara almost missed it.
Inara backed away again. It was most certainly time to call the Mother. There was a man in the Academy. A strange man, who spoke to himself and scolded his blue box, but most importantly a man. That was strictly forbidden. She was so close to receiving her license; she could not risk being censored for having let a man in.
She was almost to the covered walkway now. It ran along the ouside of the courtyard, all the way around. She could escape into the house from there. He'd never know she'd been -
"You there," the man called suddenly, looking straight at her. "Where am I?"
Inara stiffened. The man stepped towards her. She covered her mouth with her hand. "Hullo?" the man said.
"Shh," she hissed, stepping back out into the courtyard with a quick glance up at the windows overhead. They remained dark and shuttered. "You'll wake someone. You're not supposed to be here."
"Tell me about it," he muttered with a glance at the blue box. Now, closer up, she could see that everything about him was sharp: his nose, the bones of his face, even the shape of his skull, somehow. His ears were enormous. There was something undeniably handsome about him, as well, but also something . . . uncomfortable. She was glad she couldn't see his eyes. "But could you tell me where here is?"
Inara frowned. Everyone knew the Academy, even if very few had ever glimpsed inside of it. It was one of the most famous buildings on Sihnon. Well, it was very dark in the courtyard, especially without her lantern. "The Alliance Academy of the United Guild of Companions at Sihnon."
"Sihnon," he said, staring at her intently. "Companions." He laughed, briefly and without humor, and turned his back on her to stride back to the blue box. "You're not still recovering," he said to it, wagging his finger, "you just had an idea. Companions. Subtle as a brick."
"Sir?" Inara ventured. She could see her license going to smoke like so much incense, but as they said, in for half your credit, in for it all.
"I don't need a companion!" he snapped, spinning on his heel and striding back towards her. "No more! No more stupid apes blundering about, messing with space and time. I don't need 'em. You hear that?" he tossed over his shoulder at the blue box.
Inara fumbled for her lantern with shaking hands. Strange, sharp, and mad, apparently. She should have gone for the Mother when she had the chance. She looked up, expecting to see him advancing on her, but he'd frozen halfway between her and the blue box. His shoulders heaved as though he'd been running for li and li.
The lantern finally caught. Blue light flooded the courtyard. He whipped his head up and stared at her, blinking, startled, and she realized suddenly how she must look in that moment - wearing nothing but a silk embroidered dressing gown, her hair free and cascading over her shoulders, not a hint of make-up anywhere. She never went out like this if there was the slightest chance anyone might see her. She felt naked.
And yet that was nothing compared to his eyes.
Every Companion had a gift. They were all beautiful, of course, but that was not enough. Each one must have something else. For some it was skill in an art, painting or the harp, while for others it was less tangible - some element of spirit that made you go on looking at them even once your eyes had adjusted to their beauty.
Inara, the Mother had told her when she was admitted, was an empath. Not a very strong one, certainly not powerful enough to attract the attention of the government, but strong enough to see things others might not.
He was mad, she saw now. Looking into his eyes was like looking into an open wound, something with ragged edges that wasn't healing properly. He was mad and in terrible pain and so very, very lonely.
They stared at each other. Inara forced air into her throat, intending to demand to his name. But that wasn't what came out. "What happened to you?" she breathed, hand tightening on her lantern.
It was the wrong thing to say. He turned his head away. "Nothing. Got sidetracked, that's all. I'll be on my way now."
"Wait!" she burst out, stepping after him. To her astonishment, he did, looking at her over his shoulder. "Would you like some tea?"
He said nothing. He didn't even turn back, really. He looked at her, then at the blue box. "Tea," he said at last, as though he didn't think he'd heard her right.
"Yes, tea," she said. "Before you begin your journey." What utter nonsense. Why was she speaking such utter nonsense? To keep him here, it would seem. But why?
She didn't know, Inara realized with a start. She always knew why she did anything - Companions were taught to master themselves, to be be aware of their emotions and compulsions in ways that others were not - but she didn't know why she was doing this. That probably meant it was a terrible idea.
It was too late, though. He was turning back to her, his eyes shuttered. "I haven't had tea in ages."
"We make our own here," she said, stepping back. He stepped after her. "From the garden. Rose-hip tea. I have green tea as well, if you would prefer that, but I find the rose-hip tea to be very soothing."
He said nothing, but he followed after her. Not quite able to believe her own daring, she let him in the house and led him, up the narrow, carpeted steps to the third floor. He was quieter than she'd thought he could be; his feet made less noise than hers even on the creaky steps, and she relaxed slowly as they stole down the long hallway to her room at the end. She couldn't smell the night-blooming jasmine anymore; the smell of the incense the Mother and the Sisters burned all day was too heavy here. She'd left her window open, though, and they would be able to smell it in her room.
She let out a breath once they were inside with the door closed behind them, then turned and almost ran into him. She stepped back and the backs of her knees hit her small sofa. "I'm sorry," she said, turning away to hide the blush rising on her cheeks. She'd only rarely had anyone visit her here, and never anyone so tall, nor so . . . male. Not that she had any reservations about men or her ability to handle them; she had been taking clients for a year now, after all. But never in this, her private space, and never anyone like him. "Please," she said, gesturing with a graceful flick of the wrist that was long ingrained, "sit."
He did so. The sofa was too low for him, or perhaps he didn't know how to sit on it. He looked a bit awkward and ungainly, with his knees nearly up to his chin. This comforted her as she brewed the tea, something else she never did in front of her clients; for them, the tea was already waiting, just like her.
She knelt to pour the tea, falling back on the motions of the Companion ritual, using them to hide her brief head duck to check the state of her robe. It was still belted, tight and modest, across her waist, she saw with relief. She looked up to catch him watching her hands, just as they all did. She had beautiful hands, she knew, and she kept them well, the skin smooth and the nails polished. She knew how to move them, too, in ways that made men - made anyone - think about what it would feel like to have her hands on them.
She handed him his cup at last. She'd slipped a drop or two of an herbal tranquilizer in it. She had invited him in for heaven only knew what reason, but she'd not have him raving at her in her room.
He sipped once. His eyes widened and he sipped again. "That's . . . fantastic." He looked around, seeming to see the room for the first time. "Fantastic," he repeated.
Inara looked around, trying to see it through his eyes. It was small, there was no denying that, although she'd used the space so well that it never bothered her. Anything could be made comfortable with the right application of feng shui. Still, it was nothing fantastic, just as the tea was only normal rose-hip tea - the same rose-hip tea she'd been drinking for five years now.
He meant it, though. She could see that by the softening of his face - and she'd not have thought that was a face that could soften. The hard angles were still there, but the eyes . . . She watched him sip his tea and knew, with perfect clarity, that it was the first thing he'd taken pleasure in since - since whatever it was that had happened to him. He had a face that could smile, she thought, if only it had enough of a reason.
Her hands stilled on her own cup.
Forbidden did not even begin to cover what she was considering now.
She did nothing until he'd finished his tea. Then she poured him another and said, "Who are you?"
His hands cupped the fine porcelein almost greedily. "The Doctor."
She raised her eyebrows at him. "Just the Doctor?"
She waited. He said nothing. "Aren't you going to ask me who I am?" she said at last, impatiently.
"You're Inara Serra. But you didn't used to be."
She froze. He sipped his tea. "I chose that name," she said at last. "It's who I am now." She lifted her chin, defiantly. "People change."
"Oh, I know that, Inara Serra. More than most."
He looked at her then, truly looked at her. It was the cue she'd been waiting for, apparently, because she stood, in a single graceful motion it had taken her weeks to master when she had learned it four years ago, and held out her hand. He stared at it and then down at his tea. "You don't have to," she said softly. "I can pour you another, if you like, and we can sit."
He looked up at her. "I've been a lot of things to a lot of people. Stupid was never one of them." His fingers closed around her own.
She was not a Companion here. He was not her client. But she'd only rarely had lovers who weren't clients, and never since she'd come to the Academy. It was easier for them both for her to fall back on the familiar motions, just as she had in pouring the tea. Caress his hand with hers; lead him to the bed and sweep back the curtains. Draw him down beside her and lay her hands on his temples, smoothing the hair - such short, coarse hair he had, to match the sharp features of his face. Kiss him.
She felt him freeze then, his shoulders stiffening under her hands. This was a more difficult pleasure than the tea. More complicated. It could not take him by surprise; he had to wish for it. Perhaps he did not, yet. She had felt that way once, at the darkest time in her life, shortly before she'd come here - as though feeling anything good for longer than the span of time it took to drink a cup of tea would hurt more than she could bear. She pulled away and looked at him, smoothing the tips of her fingers over his temples once more.
"I shouldn't be doing this," he said, starting to turn away. "Shouldn't be -"
"It's over," she said softly. Then, hazarding a guess, she added, "The war's over."
He looked at her her, his gaze sharpening. "Different war."
She shook her head. "I think what comes after a war . . . it's the same anywhere, Doctor. I've had war veterans before as clients."
"That what I am, then?" he said.
He shook his head. "A client."
She tilted her head, studying him. "I don't know what you are."
She'd half-hoped for an answer, but none came. She kissed him again and this time he did not freeze. She had expected something . . . odd, she realized after a few seconds. Two tongues, or perhaps a forked tongue, or something to indicate that he wasn't quite human. Fangs, maybe. But there were none. He was skilled at kissing once he put his mind to it - she had the idea, actually, that there was little he wasn't skilled at if he put his mind to it - and she found herself drawn in. Inara's personal preference, especially for clients as nervous as the Doctor, was for scented oils and a massage before letting matters proceed any further, but she had the feeling he would never allow it. He caught a hand up into her hair, pulling her into him, and she eased him down onto his back on the bed. Her hand went to the belt of her robe. He watched avidly as she untied it, but when she began to slip it off her shoulders he stopped her.
"Don't," he said, and rubbed a bit of the fabric between two fingers. "I like it." He looked at the robe for a long moment, then up at her. "My people are gone. They died in the war, every last one of them."
"How do you know?" she asked.
"I would know if any of them were alive," he said, with certainty. "In my head, there's this empty place - it hurts. Aches, like a - like an amputated limb." He swallowed. "Don't know why I'm telling you this."
"You do know, though. Perhaps not here." She laid a hand lightly on his forehead. "But here." She laid a hand over his heart. "You know why."
He looked up at her for a moment. Then he reached up to take the hand on his head and place it on the right side of his chest. Inara gasped.
There was a heart beating beneath each of her palms.
"Well," she said. "That's . . . new."
He burst out laughing. She shushed him frantically, and he grabbed one of her embroidered pillows and shoved it over his face to muffle the howls. She sat there, staring at him in bemusement, not sure whether she should be offended, worried, relieved, or some strange combination of the three. She hoped this would not devolve into hysterics. It shouldn't, not under the influence of the herbal tranquilizer, but then again, she hadn't taken the two hearts into account.
"Sorry, terribly sorry," he managed at last, still clutching her pillow. "Just remembered - God, I love humans. 'That's new.'" He laughed again.
"I thought we were 'stupid apes blundering about with time and space,'" she said, frowning.
"Oh, you're that, too, you are. But you also make splendid tea and things like this," he rubbed the fabric of his robe between his fingers again, "and there aren't that many species where, faced with something that totally alters reality as you know it, would blink at me and say, 'Well, that's new.' Humanity." He shook his head, appearing faintly wondrous. "I'd forgotten."
"I'm not sure everyone would react that way," she admitted, "but you see some rather odd things as a Companion. We're taught not to react."
"I'm sure you are."
She'd been right about his smile, she was glad to see. He kept smiling as she knelt beside him on the bed, allowing the robe to pool about her, and took the pillow from him to set aside. He'd left his jacket on the sofa, and it was the work of a moment to slide his dark sweater up and over his head.
She had expected scars. Most of the veterans she had been with had had scars. His chest was smooth, though, as was the rest of him, once she'd helped him remove his trousers. A terribly perfect body, albeit one as sharp and angular as his face, for one who had been through a war so horrible. Whatever he was, the mind bore the brunt of everything the body didn't.
At least he had a normal number of everything except hearts, or so it seemed from where she sat. She'd been more than a bit worried about that. There were some things even the Academy didn't prepare one for.
He knew how to touch a woman, certainly. She sat herself astride him so that her robe covered them both, and he reached his hand into its folds to caress first one breast and then the other, rubbing his thumb over the dark peak of her nipple. She allowed her eyes to flutter shut, and one hand left her breast to reach between her legs and touch her there as well, causing a sweet swell of sensation at her core. She bent to kiss him again, and he let her, but when she tried to touch him, to take him in her hand, he stopped her with a shake of his head and a hand on her wrist. She didn't let this bother her, though, and when he gently prodded at her to lie down so he could settle himself on top of her, cradled by her hips, between her thighs, she went without protest. She'd thought that what he needed was to be taken out of himself, but it seemed that was not what he wanted. What he wanted was control.
Of course, wants and needs were not always the same.
His smile had faded by the time he pushed into her. She pressed her hips up to meet his and laid a hand on the side of his face, forcing him to meet her gaze. If she let him, he would look away, would go hard and distant again. Perhaps she should let him, she thought, if that was what he wanted. Let him go. He was not hers to keep.
She couldn't, though. She thought of the way he'd said, "Fantastic," and wanted to hear him say it again. She tightened around him and he groaned softly, his eyes fluttering shut.
He let her roll them over then, though he grasped her hands when she tried to touch his chest and held them fast in his. But he didn't look away, at least, while she slid up and down the length of him. She let her legs fall open just a little wider, to let him sink that much deeper. She hummed in response to his gasp. His hands loosened on hers, finally; he reached up to caress a breast and smooth a hand over her robe. A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth and he pulled her down for a kiss. Her dark hair fell around their faces as her robe had around their bodies.
To her relief, he was a quiet lover. Perhaps under other circumstances he might not have been, but whether it was grief, or the awareness that they must be quiet to avoid waking the rest of the house, or even just the somber, dense quality of the Academy at night, he restrained himself to gasps and faint groans, even during the long minutes when Inara kept him teetering on the edge. When she finally gave in, to him and to herself, and allowed them both to climax, he was almost silent. A single expelled breath and the clenching of his hands in her robe were nearly the only outward signs.
They lay together, then, her robe spread over them both. A faint breeze stirred the air in the room. The scent of the jasmine mingled with the warmer, dryer scent of the coming day.
They did not have much time if they wished not to be caught. He dressed while she belted her robe about her waist once more. She led him out of her room, down the hall and the stairs, and out into the courtyard, where his impossible blue box awaited him.
"But how will you - it's a box," she said, eyeing it in puzzlement.
He stroked the side of the box. "She's my ship. The TARDIS. Last of her kind, just like I'm the last of mine. We take care of each other, we do. Mind, sometimes she sticks her nose in where it doesn't belong." This last was addressed mostly to the box - the ship itself, which kept a dignified silence in the face of this admonition.
"Where will you go?" Inara asked.
"Oh, dunno. Earth, maybe. What do you think, early twenty-first century?" he said to the TARDIS. "Usually something good going on then. I quite fancy some chips." He glanced at Inara. "What about you? You could come with me."
She shook her head. "No, I can't. I'm almost finished here - I'm only a few months away from getting my license."
"She's a time machine. I could bring you back in ten seconds or less. Imagine what you could see."
She stared at him, then at the box. She thought of the life that awaited her here, as a registered Companion on a core planet, and the life that could be hers out there, if she went with him. Twenty-first century Earth, he'd said. Five hundred years ago. It would be . . . quite a life.
But not her life.
"I'm sorry. I wish you the best of luck. I hope you find someone."
"Well," he said, not meeting her eyes, "don't need anyone, really. Got the TARDIS, after all." He patted the side of the ship again, and opened the door. A strange light shined out from within, a brilliant white light that promised strange and wonderful and terrible things.
Inara thought for a moment that he would simply leave then without a word of good-bye, but he turned in the doorway and looked at her. "Thank you," he said. "That was . . ." She waited, holding her breath, hoping. "Fantastic," he finished, flashed her the quickest of smiles, and was gone.
She watched his ship disappear, flickering in and out of existence until it winked out altogether and she was left standing alone, barefoot and berobed, in the courtyard at dawn.
Seven years later, her life on Sihnon lay once more in shards at her feet. She'd not thought of the Doctor often in the years since she'd met him, but she thought of him now and wished, every night, as she lay sleepless, that he might come back and ask her again. She should have gone with him then, she realized now. She should have gone with him and never looked back.
He didn't come. And on the morning after the tenth night of wishing, she left. Left Sihnon, left the core, stranded herself out on the rim, or at least as close to the rim as Inara had ever thought to go. Closer, if she was honest with herself.
She met a man there with eyes like the Doctor's. His ship was nothing like the TARDIS, but Inara could only hope she might live up to her name.
"Well?" Malcolm Reynolds said, standing before her with his hands on his hips. "What's it gonna be? You comin' or not?"
This time, Inara didn't hesitate. "Yes," she said, "I am."