Words can be like knives; they can cut you open.

And then the silence surrounds you

And haunts you

I'm leaving.

The words rang in her ears as she nearly ran back to her shuttle, her home. She knew she left him there on the catwalk, confused, dumbfounded. She saw his face when she started talking. Hopeful, relieved and then she saw the crushed expression he tried to hide from her. The mask he was wearing. She saw right through it, right through him. It was good, almost as good as hers, but she knew him too well to be fooled by such a thing. And that was the problem.

I'm leaving.

She closed the shuttle door and pressed herself against it. The coolness of the wall felt comforting against her back. She felt her lip quiver. No! She shook her head, but it was too late. For the second time in the past 24 hours, she felt herself loosing her composure. Damn him! He and his stupid gorram face could shove it. It was his fault. Her blubbering was because of him and she hated it. She hated how he could make her lose control. He was in her head, in her heart and no matter what she did she couldn't shake him off. She hated it, hated him. Or rather she wanted to, tried to. But it seemed that the harder she tried to hate him, to push him away, he just ended up further into her bloodstream.

She never intended for it to go this far. When she first met him, she knew he'd cause her trouble, but she thought she could handle him. After all, she was well versed in dealing with men. But Mal... he was different, always had been. The ship is what first captivated her attention but him, he was what made her sign the contract. Here was this man, brash, unapologetic and while he certainly wasn't immune to her charms, he looked at her differently than the others did. She was drawn to him, even from the beginning. Those haunted eyes should've been her first indication that this was never going to work. But she thought that she could control the situation and, in the end, control him. After all, companions learn to read and manipulate situations so that everyone benefits. That's part of the reason companion life was so appealing to her. It was all about control, finding a balance, creating a structure. There was an agreement between two people, a script she could follow, a part she could play. Because playing the real Inara was simply out of the question. Being herself was a luxury she hadn't had the chance of indulging in years. And at this point, she wasn't even sure if she knew or wanted to know the real Inara Serra. But on this ship, being around the others, around him... He made the mask slip, the real Inara wanted the chance to peer out. And that was simply not something that could happen.

Despite what he or many others thought, companions were not robots made to mimic emotions. Companions were taught to channel and express them in other ways. Emotions were never raw, never simply felt. Each one had meaning, purpose. Mal made her feel with such intensity that she couldn't repress it, couldn't repurpose it. It was always there. The burning intensity between each glance, the craving for a touch on the shoulder or graze of a hand. He made her feel more than she'd ever felt before and no amount of meditation or training could repress her feelings for him. She had to do it. She had to leave. She couldn't be there and do her job. She couldn't do it anymore. She couldn't be on the ship and live her life. Or at least what life she had left.

She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. She was exhausted, the past few days had taken both an emotional and physical toll on her. She felt her stomach growl and looked at the time. She'd been sitting there for almost three hours. She stood up on wobbly legs and walked to her mirror to examine herself. It was late, way past dinner time. Everyone was most likely sleeping after the rough couple of days they endured. Regardless, the last thing she wanted was to run into one of the crew with red rimmed eyes and puffy cheeks. Her stomach growled again as she checked herself one last time before leaving her shuttle.

She entered the kitchen quietly. She was really hoping to avoid the crew, but it seemed that everyone was still up and in the kitchen. Well almost everyone.

"Nara, we missed you at dinner." The bubbly mechanic spoke as she found the leftovers.

She tried to smile. "Sorry mei-mei, wasn't feeling well."

She felt Simon's worried gaze from across the room. "Everything okay?"

"Yes, I-" she paused as Mal entered the space. "I'm fine."

She could feel the other gazes on them. They knew that something had happened but none of them wanted to pry. Or at least none of them had the guts to ask what happened. She figured the rest of the crew got the hint to avoid the topic.

"Mal," she warned defeated, she had no strength left to keep up appearances with him. "I'm tired."

"I ain't looking for a fight Inara." He responded, a gentleness in his expression.

"That'll be a first," she whispered, taken back by his calmness.

He either didn't hear her or chose to ignore her comment. "In fact, I'm done fightin'. Never been good with words. More of an action man myself."

She didn't have time to question his meaning because he strode towards her with such determination. She felt a pair of arms around her waist, bring them closer and closer. His lips were softer than she imagined they would be, well that was a lie. She knew exactly how soft his lips were. She knew just how much she had wanted to kiss them again, and again. She dreamed about him that night. She would sooner die than admit it, but she was jealous. Jealous at Saffron for the passion he must have given her. Jealous of Nandi for experiencing the images she created when the lights were off.

She felt herself relaxing into him and she allowed herself a moment to just be there. This time was different. There was no looming threat of death, he was actually conscious this time. He was softer. Nothing like the other men she kissed. This wasn't just desire, wasn't purely primal, this was an emotion she could not even let herself think. His hands seared through her shirt. Each spot he touched left goosebumps as he glided his fingers upwards. He made her feel warm, full. His hands moved up her back to tangle in her hair and she snapped out of it. She pulled away from him and backed up into the counter, her gracefulness failing her for one of the first times. Everything was out of focus for a few seconds, a slight blur when her eyes opened again. She couldn't control her breathing or the feeling of blood coursing through her veins. She couldn't shake the overwhelming urge to kiss him again. She swallowed and moved closer.

She didn't trust her voice, so she did the only thing she could think of that didn't involve her lips against his. She slapped him, hard. The sound echoed through the room, no one moved a muscle. Her had stayed in mid air for a moment before she balled it into a fist and brought it down to her side. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She couldn't move. She was frozen in that spot standing so close to him. Finally, she felt her muscles unclench and bolted to the door. She practically ran to her shuttle and she heard him follow.

He called after her. "Inara."

"No!" she nearly yelled as she turned to face him.

He stopped walking. "No?"

"You can not just kiss me and...and" She couldn't think, couldn't form proper thoughts. It was too overwhelming.

"And what? What happened to your feminine whiles?" He almost taunted, his nostrils flaring. "Or is that part of the deal, you hittin' every man that-"

"Mal." She stopped him; her voice strained. "What do you want from me?"

He sighed as his shoulders dropped. "The same thing I always wanted. The truth Inara. Just the gorram truth."

She was tired, just so tired. Of lying, of playing cat and mouse with him. Companion training taught her how to deal with men that developed feelings for her and how to distance herself if she started to find herself reciprocating them. But they never taught her what to do when she felt like she was drowning, and her only lifeline was the person who punched a hole through the boat.

"Inara," He whispered, those haunted eyes ripped through her. "I just wanna know…"

"Want to know what Mal?" She bit her lip, trying to hold it back but it didn't work. "That I'm leaving because of you. That I can't do my job correctly anymore. That my companion training has failed me. That I can't look at you without seeing her? That you were with her and that's all I see now! And I can't breathe Mal. I can't-I…"

Her breathing hitched, and she tried to hold the sob back, she really did. But this was getting to be too much, and she was starting to realize that maybe she missed something at the training house. Because no one ever taught her how to handle this. She brought a hand to her mouth and was eternally grateful that it wasn't trembling like her lips.

"I'm not good with crying women, or women as you know." He scratched his head with a self-deprecating laugh. "Please 'Nara I didn't mean to…"

"The truth Mal..." She closed her eyes as she shook her head, gesturing between them. "This why I can't stay."

"If it's the job..." He spoke tentatively, as he rubbed her shoulder. "You don't gotta be a companion."

She let out a small breath, even now he was just so unapologetically Mal. "And be what?"

"A petty thief." Her eyes darted towards him as he mimicked her words back to her. "Come on 'Nara, you were good at it."

"I..." She started, backing up a step. "I am a companion, it's not just my career choice. It's part of who I am, and I can't just suddenly relinquish such a big part of me."

"You don't want to." He said bitterly, a grimace on his face. "You think I don't know you, but you do this when it gets rough. You hide behind high class parties and higher-class men who buy you shiny clothes and will never love you."

"Mal!" She hissed, eyes wide in anger. "That's enough."

"They'll love who you pretend to be, the act you put on for them. They'll dance with you and smile and ask about your dreams, but they won't want the answers. Not the real ones. They'll ask you to stay and they'll give you a better life. But they'll never love you. Not the woman I see here. The companion maybe…but not you."

She shook her head in disbelief. "You don't understand that life Mal, you never have. You assume that just because they have money and status that it automatically makes them the bad guy, an enemy for you to defeat."

"Well don't it?" He asked. "The way I see, ain't no man on the 'verse holds onto power and money without stepping on us lower class to get there and keep it."

"If that's what you think about them, then I hate to know what you think about me." She turned around and opened the shuttle door as she continued talking. "Because I wasn't born into that life, it was the one I chose. I wanted the status and high-class parties. And to be respected."

"But instead of shipping out with a luxury liner, you spend your days here, on my ship. You knew what this was when you looked at the shuttle. We take jobs on backwater moon planets and steer clear of floating chandeliers and fancy wine. So clearly something wasn't working for you." When she didn't respond, he continued. "And as for respect, they'll never respect you. Not as long as you can be loaned out to some rich alliance family who has the influence this week."

"And what Mal? You respect me?" She huffed as she turned to face him.

"I told you, I respect you, not your job. Inara it ain't a secret I want you. And I ain't good with words but I want more than just you to 'service me', always have." The sincerity coating his voice made her head spin.

"Did you also want more with Nandi?" She sneered, unable to stop herself.

"That was a mistake. I thought it would be easier… would help me forget about…" He shook his head. "And why do you care? Ain't you the one telling me that there's nothing for us?"

"Mal that's not what I... You know what forget it." She turned away from him and stepped into the shuttle.

"Inara," he pleaded

"This is my whole life Mal; don't you understand that?" She exclaimed, trying to get him to understand. "Everything I have done in my life, everything I've studied and thought about and planned for has been to be a companion. And you…I can't just give it up… no matter how much I..."

"If you weren't a companion and you met while exploring the 'verse, would you want this?" He continued, determined.

She sighed, "It's not that simple."

He brought a hand to her shoulder, his thumb creating small circles. "Simple to me, 'Nara."

"Yes, Mal. If you were just a captain with a ship and I was a woman travelling through, I would want this." She whispered finally admitting what they both knew.

"I told you," He moved closer and she finally allowed herself to lean into the touch, her cheek resting on his hand. "I ain't lookin' for a fight but Inara -"

"Mal this is the only way." She interrupted, opening her eyes. "I don't want to- I can't fight with you anymore."

"I ain't interesting in fightin' with you but the way I see it, this ain't gettin' better till we do."

"Since when are you the man of reason and conversation?" She asked with a coked eyebrow and a slight smile peering through.

"There ain't a whole lot of people in the 'verse I care about but I- "He faltered, clearing his throat before continuing. "I want you to stay Inara. And even a petty thief like me knows when to put all his chips on the table."

She shook her head, the smile growing a bit wider. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"

His response was a raised eyebrow and a pointed look. "I mean, I'm still waiting on your famous feminine wills."

"And what makes you think you could handle that?" She ribbed, grateful for the second of lightness.

"Because I ain't playin' around." He spoke with such intensity that she was glad her back was pressed against the door.

She stood there, in a state somewhere between disbelief and shock. This wasn't Mal, at least not the Mal she was used to. No, her Mal was brash and let his fists talk for him. And his words cut like knives being thrown in the dark. He was the one that threw insults and insults and ran away whenever things started to resemble a real conversation. This side of him was something she's only seen on the rarest of nights when they drank too many glasses of Kaylee's wine and forgot to lock the doors of their emotions. This Mal was honest and completely uncharacteristically open. And she didn't know how to respond to that. But if he could bare himself, so could she.

So, she did the one thing she could think of that made sense, she pulled him into her. Their lips crashed together, and it was anything but poised or calculated. For the first time in her adult life, she let herself be in the moment and didn't think. It was only a moment before his mouth moved with hers and she did the one thing she thought she could never do. She stopped thinking as a companion and just let herself be Inara. He moaned, a low rumbling sound that vibrated through her as he intertwined his fingers in her hair. She knotted her fists in his shirt, her lips begging him to understand the things her lungs couldn't breathe out. He must've understood because he pushed her against the wall, the weight of his body tight against her tingling skin. This was years worth of unresolved frustration and lust and passion. His lips travelled down her neck, each trail of warmth coupled with the icy air made her writhe under him. It was almost too much, almost. She pulled back just enough to breath and they both were gulping in the air around them.

He spoke first, his body still close enough to radiate heat. "You're not gonna hit me again are you? Because I have some questions about how come a woman like yourself can hit so hard."

She let out a laugh and threw his words back at him. "You can't just open the book of my life and jump in the middle."

There was an awkward moment of silence before he placed a soft kiss on her forehead and for what seemed like the hundredth time that night she was surprised. "I-I should go and uh make sure the rest of the crew is ready for the next job."

"Mal, there's still a lot to discuss. But for tonight…" she faltered as she intertwined her fingers with his. "Come inside?"

"I just have one question." He stared at their hands for a moment before his eyes flicked back to hers and he smirked. "Will there be tea?"

She rolled her eyes but couldn't stop the grin that had appeared. He stepped into the shuttle and she closed the door as her stomach rumbled with anticipation for what was to come.

I think I might've inhaled you.

You've gotten into my bloodstream.

I can feel you flowing in me.