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Simon scowled down into the drawer of medical supplies, a drawer that was now only half as full as it had been an hour ago. Jayne and the captain seemed to be having some sort of competition to see who could take poorer care of himself and pop his stitches faster, then show up at the infirmary bleeding all over Simon's nice clean sterile surfaces. Most annoying.

"Doctor? Is everything all right?"

He turned, startled, and quickly schooled his face into a proper physician's smile. "Inara, I don't often see you down here."

She smiled slightly, nodding at the drawer. "Are you out of something?"

"Oh, no." He closed the drawer and shrugged slightly, mentally wincing at his unbuttoned cuffs and rumpled hair. His father would be appalled to know that he was speaking to a registered Companion in this state. "Captain Reynolds and Jayne seem to have a bit of difficulty with the 'resting' part of recovering from injury."

She laughed, a silvery sound that he rather admired. She'd had as many years of schooling to learn to make that sound on cue as he'd spent learning to set bones, after all. A professional could admire the effort another had put in to her trade. "Patience has never been the captain's strong suit. Or Jayne's, though that probably goes without saying."

"It does indeed." He shook his head and walked over to the sink to wash his hands. "How can I help you, Inara? When most of the others come in here, it's usually with a fairly obvious and gaping wound, but I assume that's not the case here."

"I'm quite well, Simon," she said, flashing another brilliant smile. Another several years of training there, no doubt. "I actually came down to extend an invitation to you."

"An invitation?" He frowned down at his hands under the running water.

"Yes, to join me in my shuttle after dinner." He glanced back over his shoulder, startled, and she sighed, the smile falling away and her cheeks going red. "There will be no charge, of course."

"Inara," he said gently, reaching for the towel. "I didn't mean to insult you. I understand how a Companion's business works, after all."

She dipped her head slightly, lips twisted in a wry not-quite-smile. "You're from the Core, of course. My apologies, Doctor. I get a bit...defensive, sometimes, on this ship. Not everyone...understands."

He nodded. "Well, I imagine the captain would feel a bit defensive himself if he wandered into a drawing room on Sihnon."

"Why does everyone always assume I'm talking about the captain?" she muttered, tucking her curls back behind her ears with a graceful hand.

Simon wisely didn't attempt to answer that. "I would be delighted to accept your invitation, by the way. It just surprised me- we haven't exactly...socialized, up to now."

This smile had a distinctly mysterious quality. Absolutely at least two years to master that. "It's a bit of a special occasion, Doctor. Come to my shuttle after dinner. Oh, and don't eat too much at the meal." She turned and glided off down the corridor, a flash of brilliant purple and gold against the murky interior of Serenity.
*****
There was absolutely no danger of his eating too much.

He pushed the sludgy mess of protein around the plate with a fork, trying to turn it into something edible by sheer force of will. Kaylee and Book had done their best, but the fact was that there was only so much you could do with protein rations, especially ones as far past their prime as these. He made the mistake of mentioning how they really ought to get some fresh fruit or vegetables before they all came down with scurvy.

"Well, that all depends on the next job, don't it, Doctor?" Mal sneered across the table. He held up his hand and began counting off points with exaggerated care. "How much money we make- if there's fresh stuff to be had- if nothin' gets blown up or stolen or broke-"

"Ain't as easy as sendin' the servants down to the market out here," Jayne added, smirking at his plate. He was eating the protein glop with gusto, of course, the big ape.

Simon was quiet after that until he could make his escape, keeping his red face directed strictly at the tabletop. He could feel Kaylee's sympathetic glances, and River patted his hand once or twice, but he ignored them. Sometimes he despaired of ever fitting in with the other men on this ship, and while the company of the ladies was uniformly delightful, once in a while a man craved...well, no point in dwelling on it.

He went back to his quarters after the meal to change his shirt and wash his face and hands. He ran a comb through his hair and studied himself in the mirror critically. Still more casual than his father would've approved of for visiting a Companion, but this wasn't a professional call, after all. Simply a social outing...though his mother would've said that a social call required at least a jacket...

"Things are different out here," he told himself. "Stop worrying." He tossed the comb down and headed up the catwalk to Inara's shuttle.

She opened the door at his first knock, welcoming him in with a smile. He glanced around the sweetly scented, softly lit interior. "This is such a little bastion of tranquillity on this ship," he said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Perhaps the shuttle ought to be the one called Serenity."

She chuckled and gestured toward the low table, which was set with teacups and a covered platter. "I wouldn't advise suggesting that to Mal, but I appreciate the compliment. Have a seat, Doctor."

He sank down onto the brightly colored cushions. "So, what is your mysterious surprise, Inara?"

She settled her skirts and sank gracefully down to sit opposite him. "My last client gave me a gift." This smile was gleeful, very nearly a grin, and he had a feeling that it had required no training at all. "An edible gift."

He found himself grinning back. "Shouldn't you have contributed it to that mess of a meal we just finished, then?"

"I doubt any of them would've appreciated this," she giggled, whisking the top off the platter. She laughed out loud at the look on Simon's face.

"Oh, Inara," he breathed. "They're the real thing?"

"Yes," she said, deftly scooping a few of the tiny shellfish from the platter and placing them on his plate. "Genuine poraki, originally from Artemisia, imported out here at great expense by Sir Derreth Lauret himself and gifted to the Companion Inara Serra in appreciation of a delightful evening."

"Sir Derreth Lauret is a generous man." Simon peeled the shell back and popped the little creature into his mouth, closing his eyes as the taste overwhelmed him. "Ohhh. It's been a very long time since I've had poraki. Are we too far out to send him a thank-you wave?"

She laughed and opened one for herself. "Don't worry about thanking Derreth. The gift was more than earned." She tucked her hair back again and settled deeper into the cushions. "I'm so glad to have someone to share these with. I'd feel like such a pig eating them all myself, and I know none of the others would like them. I got some about six months ago and had Kaylee try them. She was spitting for ten whole minutes."

"They're certainly an acquired taste." He opened another. "This takes me back...all of us med students went to the best restaurant on Osiris the night after graduation and had poraki. Oh, and when I was small, my parents would take River and I out to dinner and then to the theater, every so often..."

"The theater!" Inara clapped her hands in delight. "I haven't been in so long! Did you ever see the Governor's Men perform on Osiris? I've heard such wonderful things about their work."

"I did, in fact." He smiled at the memory; that had been a wonderful night. "They are every bit as amazing as their reputation."

She sighed wistfully, reaching for another porak. "I do wish we'd stop at planet with a decent theater once in a while. Though can you imagine Mal or Zoe or, God help us, Jayne, sitting through a real play?"

He laughed. "I don't know, some of the bloodier Shakespeares might have a certain appeal."

"Perhaps." She rolled her eyes. "None of the more intellectual ones, though. I can just picture Jayne's reaction to Hamlet- he'd shoot the actor halfway through act one. 'Make up your gorram mind already!'" Her imitation of Jayne was good enough to make Simon choke on his porak.

"Yes," he gasped, wiping tears from his eyes. "Culture isn't exactly Jayne's best feature...or tact, or loyalty...come to think of it, what is Jayne's best feature?"

"His aim," Inara said with a shrug, "I suppose." She took a sip of tea. "Though actually, you might be surprised to know that he's a very good dancer."

Fortunately, he'd already swallowed or he would've choked again. "Jayne dances?"

She grinned. "Last year on Kaylee's birthday, we had a bit of a party. Wash piped music all through the ship, and we were all showing off dances from our home worlds. I wanted to tango, but I didn't have anyone to partner me, so I tried to teach them all a minuet instead...but anyway, he had some truly incredible dances. Country stuff, of course, and meant to be done while stinking drunk, but the footwork was quite complicated and he knew them very well..." She broke off into giggles, and he realized the look on his face must resemble the way the captain had looked when he found out he was married to Saffron. He flushed and reached for his teacup.

"Well, that is a surprise. Jayne dances. I never would've thought." After a careful sip and swallow, he glanced at her again. "He doesn't sing, does he?"

"Oh no." Inara threw her head back and laughed, clapping her hands in delight. "No, the singer you'd never expect is Malcolm Reynolds himself. He has a lovely voice."

"The captain? How in the verse did you get the captain to sing?" Simon gaped at her in amazement, unable to picture any confluence of events that could ever produce such a thing.

"It takes a very particular balance of circumstances," she said with elaborate mock-seriousness, refilling their teacups. "Including a few glasses of whiskey. But really...he's very good." Her eyes went dreamy at the memory. "He started off with a few soldier's songs, from back in the war, and wound up with these old ballads about home and hearth and the girl left behind. He had every one of us in tears by the end."

"I guess everyone has their hidden depths," Simon said, wincing inwardly at the pomposity. He tried to cover by reaching for another porak, blinking with surprise at the nearly empty platter. That had gone quickly.

Inara just nodded, folding her hands over her knee and smiling at him across the little table. He swallowed and glanced at her, trying to decide if he should say what he was thinking or not. The hell with it, he thought, and plunged ahead.

"What's your hidden secret, Inara?" he said as lightly as he could manage, attempting to make his smile playful but not flirtatious. It was probably just unnerving, but Inara's face had smoothed into a professional mask that was likely the equivalent of his surgical internship.

She sat very still for a moment, then adjusted the mask into a bright, vapid smile that touched nothing but the surface. "That I don't even actually like these things." She fluttered her hands over the poraki platter. "I just wanted to hear a Core accent for a few minutes. There you are, Doctor, my devastating confession." She batted her eyelashes and reached for her teacup. "Can you ever forgive me?"

He wanted to tell her that he wasn't an idiot or a child, and she didn't have to insult him with such a blatant ploy, but he was indeed born and raised in the Core. He'd learned his manners at his mother's knee, and here were all the familiar props of those lessons spread before him. He took a careful, polite sip of his tea as he arranged his face and voice into proper blandness. "I believe I can find it in my heart to do so, yes, Miss Serra. Really, I must thank you for such a fine evening in your lovely home."

Sadness flickered in the depths of her eyes, and she inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment of his mastery of the game. They were the only ones on board who even knew the rules, after all. "You're most welcome, Doctor Tam. Perhaps you'd like to take the last few poraki and some tea back to your sister?"

"River never liked poraki," he murmured, setting his cup back on the saucer with precisely the right amount of force, so the ring of the china meeting was audible but not offensive. "She always saw little tiny faces on them, it upset her."

"She's a very perceptive girl." Inara looked tired now, and it occured to Simon that perhaps the elaborate social games weren't the part of Core life she'd hoped to revive with this little meeting. He cursed himself for three kinds of a fool.

"Miss Serra," he said with exaggerated courtesy, too much for the rules of the game. She glanced at him, startled, as he offered her a real smile and extended his hand. "Might I ask you to accompany me in a minuet?"

She started to smile back and allowed him to help her to her feet, fluffing out her skirts. "Only if you don't know how to tango, Doctor Tam."

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