Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew are the sole and rightful property of ME, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear. No disrespect is intended from my borrowing them; no financial gain is garnered by me from their use in this story.
Notes: Many thanks to HawkMoth for her time and attention and unfailingly generous support. This fic contains very minor spoilers for War Stories.

***
The division between the two rooms couldn't have been more real if a steel wall had separated them. In the common area, Inara and Simon, relaxed and easy, engrossed in an animated conversation punctuated with laughter; in the galley, Mal, stone-faced, leaning with his back against the counter, his coffee gone cold and ignored in the tightly-held cup.

They couldn't see him; he was out of their line of sight. He couldn't see them, but their voices - happy and comfortable - buffeted him like a cold wind. Inara's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper and seconds later Simon shouted with laughter. Mal flinched and his small, sharp movement was enough to disturb the coffee and send drops cascading down onto his pants leg. With a muttered curse he turned to put the cup on the counter and it was then that he saw Kaylee.

He hadn't heard her approach or sensed her presence, and he cursed again for letting his guard down, even here. He had no idea how long she'd been standing there, just outside the hatch to the galley, her body resting against the frame, her head cocked to one side. Listening.

The couple in the common area were still unaware of their silent audience. The conversation turned next to gossip. Some scandal involving a politician from the sound of it. Inara's voice was all sophisticated disdain; Simon's response was in High Mandarin, a phrase that Mal couldn't quite catch the meaning of. Now it was Inara's turn to fill the room with peals of laughter.

Mal looked in Kaylee's direction, nodding his head toward the unseen couple, a cold smile on his face. He caught her unawares, though, and unexpectedly he saw the sadness in her - so much sadness that for a moment it struck him motionless. Kaylee finally answered with a small smile of her own and turned away to walk back toward the engine room. He followed her and in a few steps was walking by her side.

"You looking for me?"

"No." She continued walking. "I was just gonna take a break, but then, well, you know. I didn't want to bother no one."

He took a long stride and ended up in front her. He came to a stop, blocking her progress.

"I was thinkin' - we'll be settin' down in a bit. Zoe and Wash are in line to pick up supplies, but I have a mind to spend some of this money burnin' a hole in my pocket. Maybe hunt down a gadget or two that you been pesterin' me for. What do you say?"

"You want me to go shopping with you?" She looked at him funny.

"Well, no, not shopping so much. Not with the bags and the boxes and the bows and such." He could see her lips starting to curve into the shadow of a smile. "It's a simple question, Kaylee. Yes or no. Maybe pick up a little somethin' shiny for Serenity. It's been a while since I paid any attention to her."

She looked at him for a long moment and her smile became real.

"Sure, Cap'n. It'd be fun. Might be a nice change at that."

"All right then. Go finish what it was you were doin'. Don't want to plummet to a fiery death cuz you're standin' here jawin'."

He walked away from her without a backward glance, but he heard her footsteps, quick and light, moving down the catwalk. Shopping. He shook his head at his own impulsiveness. He figured there'd be hazards that came with the job, but he never figured that he'd be creating them for himself. He'd survived Niska, he reminded himself. He could survive this.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Most of the crew were already gone to their various chores and errands: Zoe and Wash to resupply, Book to chat up the local clergy, Jayne to booze and whore while he had the chance. Inara would be leaving soon for an appointment in the next province. That left the doctor to look after his sister - and the ship. He'd acted surprised when Mal had announced that he'd be the one staying behind this time; usually in safe areas like Howell Mal stayed on the ship so that the rest of them could get their land legs back for a bit. Or else they trusted to Serenity's security to keep out the curious and the felonious. But the boy had this one coming to him, Mal told himself. Besides, Howell was a too low-class for the likes of him. Wouldn't want him to sully himself. And where the hell was Kaylee?

As if in answer to his silent grumbling he heard footsteps behind him. "Well, it's about . . ." And stopped. "Ain't you a picture," he continued.

Kaylee slid her hands down the short skirt of her dress and agreed, "It's pretty, ain't it?" It was the colors of a sunset: red and gold. Everything about the cut of the dress showed her figure at its best without calling attention to anything in particular. Mal realized that he was staring and caught himself up short.

"It's a mite fancy for what we got planned today, don't you think?"

"No," she answered seriously. "Nara says it's a day dress. She helped me pick it out." Mal caught the small pause before she continued. "I just ain't really had the excuse to wear it yet. 'Til now." She ended with a smile and twirled suddenly for her own amusement as much as for his. When she came to a stop again, she fingered the material lovingly. "Nara has such pretty taste. If it was me I woulda bought something cheap and covered in flowers or somethin'. Not like her."

"Ain't nothin' wrong in your taste for pretty things. Signed on with me, didn't you?" He gave her a cocky grin.

"I did at that. And I recall wearing a dress when you offered me the job. Or mostly wearing a dress anyway." She looked at him out of the corner of her eye.

"Let's move on past that particular moment, I'm thinkin'. You ready?"

"Ready." She moved up and slid her arm through his.

"You be sure to look after things while we're gone, Doctor," Mal called out to the figure watching them from the catwalk outside the Companion's shuttle.

Kaylee turned, surprised, and followed Mal's gaze. "Oh." There was an ocean of sorrow and resignation in that one word.

She ducked her head for an instant before bringing herself up straight and proud. With a small nod of acknowledgment toward the silent figure, Kaylee turned back toward Mal. "Ready," she said again. And the two of them walked off Serenity and into the town.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Howell was one of those rare towns out on the Rim that had made it. When the first settlers had been set adrift here by the Alliance, they'd had about the same chance for survival as any of the other rapidly terraformed worlds in this part of the system. They'd been left with enough supplies to keep from dying but not enough that they didn't have to work hard at keeping alive. What they had going for them, though, was a collection of canny entrepeneurs. In a shorter time than anyone would have thought possible, they'd seen to it that Howell became the preferred stop for independent freighters and small transports and ships whose cargo was best not looked at too closely.

As far as the Feds were concerned, Howell was a small, mostly insignificant port of call for the fish too small to waste their resources on. For those who returned regularly to fill their coffers with needed supplies or who simply wanted some time in an unofficial neutral zone, it was a home of sorts. The buildings were unimpressive but always well-maintained. There was a park in the middle of the town complete with a fountain that had a cherub spewing water. The many stores in town covered their customers' requests from the everyday to the esoteric, the owners keeping mental lists of the specialty items requested by their more frequent clients. The bars were noisy, well-stocked, and safe: the managers had an almost legendary ability to know when some folks letting off steam were about to explode into something more serious. The jails were comfortable, secure, and the food was always good. Bail was reasonable, and it was a credit to the town and its keepers that often as not the prisoners chose to spend a day or two just relaxing and being fed better fare than they usually got on the job. It wasn't a high-class marvel like Ariel, but then it wasn't a hell-hole like Whitefall, either.

They had come at a busy time; it seemed like every ship in the quadrant had decided to make landfall in the last few days. Mal maneuvered Kaylee along the crowded sidewalk. He'd had to admit that the morning had gone by quickly. Kaylee was in better spirits and even Mal's mood had lightened after a bit. They'd bumped into Zoe and Wash a couple times as they made their rounds of suppliers; Wash had given an appreciative whistle when he first caught sight of Kaylee. Zoe smiled benevolently and Kaylee beamed at them both. This last time they'd indicated that they were finished packing up the mule and were heading back to Serenity. Zoe didn't like crowds; she was itching to get back.

Mal had spied Jayne as they passed one of the more popular watering holes. He'd been seated at a table, a bottle in front of him and a tall bar girl on his lap. He was drunk and singing, and Mal was pretty sure that they'd have to come back with the mule later to collect him.

Kaylee was trying to tell him something about the engine as they walked, but being in front of him, the words weren't all making it back to him. Not that he would have understood all that much anyway. The flash of sunlight off metal caught his attention, and he came to a sudden halt in front of a gun shop, nearly jerking Kaylee off her feet because he still had his hand on her arm. She stumbled into a passer-by who caught her and helped her steady herself.

"There you go, Miss." He gave Kaylee an appraising look.

"I'm so sorry. I'm not always so clumsy. Well, no, really I am, but this time I had help." She laughed and pointed at Mal, who was staring a challenge at the other man.

The good Samaritan returned Mal's gaze with a cool stare of his own then turned a wide smile on Kaylee. "No matter. It's always my pleasure to be of assistance to a beautiful woman." Kaylee blushed.

Mal stepped up. "And we thank you for your very great help, we surely do." He smiled at the man, showing a lot of teeth. "Kaylee," he continued sweetly, "time to go." He took her by the arm again and pulled her back toward the shop.

"Miss Kaylee," called out the stranger. She turned her head and he tipped his hat to her. "It's been a pleasure."

"Shuai," she whispered approvingly.

Mal rolled his eyes and dragged her into the gun shop after him. It took her a second, but she finally registered where she was, and Mal could feel her stiffen. Well, it had been worth a try, he thought.

"Cap'n, maybe I could wait outside. Or I could go to the chandlers down the street, see if they have that part I was lookin' for last time."

He considered her for a brief moment and quickly decided to save this battle for another day. "You go ahead, I'll catch up with you. But Kaylee, we're gonna have to talk about this, dong ma?" She gave a quick nod of her head and hurried out of the store. Mal watched her go and then made his way to the counter where the handguns were displayed.

It was tricky, Mal admitted. He in no way wanted Kaylee toting a gun, and the thought of her shooting to kill sent a cold shiver through him. But he couldn't let her hold on to this new fear of guns, either. Not with their history. She needed to know how to protect herself. He needed to know that she could do that. Ta-ma-de Niska. Just another reason to kill the bastard slow when he finally caught up with him.

The neat rows of weapons suddenly lost their appeal. Hell, he couldn't afford better than he already had anyway. He wasn't one for buying just for the sake of owning. The thing had to have a purpose or it was just more weight to carry around, to hold him down. He shook his head at the waiting clerk, letting him go to one of the other customers lining the counters. His stomach rumbled suddenly; looking at the wall clock he realized that it was a long time since breakfast. He'd find Kaylee and treat her to lunch. That should go a long ways toward cheering them both up, he decided.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

When Mal saw that Kaylee wasn't waiting outside the gun shop, he strolled along the sidewalk toward the other place she'd said she'd be. The chandler was three buildings down. He walked into the store and stood to the side of the door a bit, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the relative gloom of the warehouse. From the back of the store a woman's laugh made its way to him. She was here all right. The sound was quickly followed by a chorus of men's voices, also laughing. It figured. You couldn't leave her alone for a minute.

His vision clear again, he worked his way through the aisles towering with parts and supplies and gee-gaws for ships of all kinds. And there she was, holding court or so it seemed. Mal wasn't all that pleased with some of the men in attendance.

She was standing at a counter, turned away now from the group of five men who stood a ways back from her in a semi-circle. The clerk was showing her a small part, and Kaylee was devoting all her attention to it. Three of the men started to wander off to finish whatever business had brought them here, but two stayed. Kaylee leaned over the counter a bit to get a better look at another part the clerk had to offer, and Mal could see her dress hike up even farther in back. So could the other two. Now he was the first to admit to having an appreciation for the female form, and the sight of a well-turned leg was a fine sight indeed. But these two - fine appreciation wasn't in their plans, of that he was damn sure. One turned to the other and whispered. Mal couldn't hear what was said, but he sure as hell recognized the leers.

He sauntered up behind the pair and laid a friendly hand on a shoulder of each. "You boys enjoying yourselves?" His tone was jovial, but the look in his eyes should have warned them off. It didn't. Stupid, Mal decided. The bigger one leered even more broadly.

"She's a fine piece of pigu, ain't she?" Stupid and crude. He was going to enjoy this.

"You're talkin' about my engineer."

"That's your engineer?" It was the smaller one; he let out a dirty laugh. "You hiring?"

"Only good thing about nuren mechanics is they know how to keep a man's engine lubed," the bigger one oozed. "Bet she keeps you purring like a kitten."

Mal brought his hands up and knocked their heads together hard enough to stun them and send them to the floor in a heap.

"I said that's my engineer you're talking about."

"Cap'n?" The ruckus had caught Kaylee's attention; surprised and concerned, she started to move toward him. He held up a hand. "Stay there. This won't take but a minute."

The big one was shaking it off quickly; cursing a blue streak, he started to rise. Mal caught him off balance and kicked him over on his back again.

"You boys stay down. And while you're crawlin' on the floor like the vermin you are, I want you to apologize nicely to my engineer."

"The hell I will!" The smaller one was getting into the act now.

The clerk hurried around the counter and stood next to Mal.

"Captain Reynolds, should I call the guard?"

"No need. I'm sure these boys will see the error of their ways and repent."

The smaller one was starting to get up, but his partner held him down and looked more closely at Mal.

"Reynolds. Malcolm Reynolds?" Mal only smiled, but the clerk confirmed it.

"Captain Reynolds, yes. Captain Malcolm Reynolds."

The smaller one started to snarl something, but the other cut him off.

"Shut up, Pritchard." He started to get up, then thought better of it. He turned to Kaylee but kept glancing back at Mal. "I'm very sorry, Miss."

Kaylee remained silent, but Mal nodded his approval. "Now you." He stared at Pritchard, his eyes ice.

Pritchard looked at his partner, then back at Mal. Finally, "Me, too."

"You, too? You, too, what?"

"Uh, me, too, I'm sorry. Miss." He gave a confused look at the other man, who only had eyes for Mal.

"Nicely done. See how nice they apologized?" Kaylee didn't answer. Mal turned back to the two men. "Now get out of here. Don't let me catch you bothering my engineer again. Nor any other woman, for that matter."

The two of them got to their feet and without turning their backs on Mal made their way out of the store.

Cheerful now, Mal addressed the clerk. "Sorry for the trouble." He turned to Kaylee. "You about done here or do you need more time?"

Still a bit confused, Kaylee looked toward the clerk. "We was finishing up, trying to come to a price . . . "

The clerk cut her off politely. "No charge. No charge. Ladies should be able to come into my store unmolested."

While still murmuring her thanks, Mal propelled her through the small crowd that had gathered and out the front door into the sunlit afternoon. He released her and clapped his hands across his chest, very pleased with himself.

"That was downright bracing. Let's get some lunch."

"Cap'n?" He looked down at her. "What the hell just happened?"

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Kaylee had said that the day was too nice to waste it inside, so he let her talk him into eating their lunch on a bench in the park. He grumbled a bit, because she would have expected no less, but if the truth be told, he was glad for the chance to sit amid the green.

The gurgling of the fountain caught his interest. He pondered it for a while.

"Why is it always a cherub?"

"What?" Kaylee looked around her in confusion.

"Fountains. Why do they always have a cherub?"

"Oh. I don't know. Because a duck or somethin' would just be silly, I guess."

"Sillier than a little naked boy spittin' water out his mouth?"

"It's not silly; it's . . . culture."

"I rest my case."

They sat in comfortable silence a while longer. Without looking at him, Kaylee spoke.

"Cap'n, I know what you did, and I want to thank you."

"What? Those two hwoon dan? It was my pleasure."

"No, not them. But you know, it ain't the first time I been around some men acting like pigs. And it won't be the last. I coulda handled it myself."

"Not while I'm around, you won't. And for your information, 'Miss Kaylee,' I got a right to stand up for decent, women-fearing menfolk everywhere. It ain't just about you."

"Oh." She considered it for a moment. "I didn't see it from that side."

"Well, now you do." His voice sounded curt even to himself. "Besides," he continued, with a bantering tone, "I'm your captain. It's my sworn duty to keep you outta trouble."

"Me outta trouble?!" She was indignant. "I ain't the one always gettin' shot and stabbed and beat up." He looked at her, all innocence. "And don't think for a minute that I don't know what you're doin'. You're changing the subject. Well, it ain't gonna work. I know what you did, and I'm telling you now that I appreciate it."

He let her hold his gaze for a moment, then he broke it and went back to staring out at the fountain. After a while she spoke again, more softly now.

"It ain't gonna work between us, is it? Simon and me?"

"Probably not." She took it pretty well, better than he figured.

"I thought it was going so well, you know? And it was. I woulda sworn that it was. But then Nara . . ." she stopped and looked guiltily at him.

"It's no matter. You don't have to stop on my account. Say what you have to say."

"It all changed when Nara came back from Osiris. She started talkin' about what she saw and where she went and all the important people she met, and it was like Simon just couldn't get enough of it. Of her, I guess. The two of 'em, for three days now it's like no one else is there." She turned to him then, and he could see how bright her eyes were. "I can't compete with that. I got nothin' to offer."

He turned on the bench so he was facing her, and he took her chin in his hand. "You never say that. You got a world to offer, and the man will be fortunate who wins you. You never let anyone make you believe different, you hear me? Not Simon. Not Inara. Not even me."

She nodded her head, and he took his hand from her face. She brought her legs up under her on the bench and curled into him, laying her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her.

"Why can't he love me?"

He gave a bitter laugh. "Mei-mei, I am the wrong one to be asking that question to. Me and love, we ain't exactly been on visitin' terms, you understand? I'm happy with that, but I can see how you would want somethin' different."

"But it's wrong. Inara should love you." He started to protest, but she rode right over him. "She should! And Simon should love me. Why can't it just work out like that?"

He rested his chin on the top of her head for just a second, and then he spoke.

"They're different from you and me, Kaylee. They never had to live like we did; they never had to fight like we did." She started to speak but he continued. "Not the war. I ain't talkin' about that. I mean fight every day for the food on the table and the walls that keep out the cold. Everything was given to them. So much so that they don't even know what it's worth, I think."

"But Simon gave up everything . . ."

"And it looks like he's more'n happy to get it all back if he can. It's all he can talk about; you seen that. They ain't us, Kaylee. They never can be."

"I know." Her voice was very soft.

"I don't think they understand us any better'n we understand them." He laughed, and the sound was harsh. "It makes sense, the two of them. They're probably wonderin' why the two of us ain't hooked up."

"I thought about it, you know."

"Jian tah de guai!" He started to sit bolt upright, but she wouldn't move, laughing instead at his shock.

"Relax, Cap. It was right after I came on board, and it only lasted a couple days. You acted like you didn't know I was alive unless you came to check out the engine room. It wore me down. 'Course, I'm wise to your tricks now," she finished smugly.

He chose to ignore that last part. "Only a couple days? I'm crushed, little Kaylee. You've crushed me." He could feel her relaxing against him.

"It feels so good to have the sun on me. I forget how good it can feel. Makes me want to take root right here." She turned her head so that she more fully faced the late afternoon light.

"You that anxious to leave me? Serenity. Leave Serenity." Damn.

She raised herself up a little to look him in the eye, "You know I ain't leavin'. Not ever."

He smiled. "Ever? That's a pretty long time, mei-mei."

"Well, I mean to stay a pretty long time." She settled back against him, and he draped his arm around her again.

The comfortable silence was theirs again, and they each retreated into their own thoughts, her resting against him, him with his arm holding her lightly, their eyes closed against the sun. And that was how Simon found them.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Mal figured that they made an interesting sight to the others on the street. To his left was an icy, aloof Simon Tam, to his right an angry and silent Kaylee. Each was so het up that neither one could contain the energy and they'd surge ahead of him as they walked, only to realize that he was still ambling along and they were now walking side-by-side. They'd slow down until he was a barrier between them again, but in a few minutes the scene would repeat. He would have remarked on it but for the fact that he was fairly certain one or the other would have decked him.

It could have been worse, he supposed. The doctor had been coldly polite when he passed along Zoe's message: everyone else was back on board and now might be a good time to leave. Better careful than caught. Mal noticed that he hadn't looked fully at either of them as he spoke, choosing instead to keep his gaze focused on some distant point behind them. When he'd finished he stood stiff and formal, not speaking, but the high color in his face was clear.

Mal had remained seated and relaxed during it all, but Kaylee had sat upright on hearing the doctor's voice. She'd tugged her skirt back down from where it had hiked itself up, and gave Simon a warm smile. "Hey, Simon. You got to come to town after all."

She'd waited for the boy to acknowledge her, but outside of a polite nod of his head, he maintained his stubborn silence. Mal could sense her anger rising. More out of curiosity than anything else, he decided to see how this would play out. He stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles, stretched his arms out across the back of the bench and nodded amiably at the two of them, waiting to see who would break the silence first.

It was Kaylee. She stood and turned her back fully on Simon. Mal would have smirked, but the sheer amount of "piss-off" on Kaylee's face warned him away from that course. Diplomatically he chose to look at her blank-faced. Her back was ramrod straight, her arms crossed protectively on her chest, her voice so flinty that it nearly sparked.

"Cap'n. We should go back. Now." She managed a turn that would have warmed a drill-instructor's heart and started to march back toward the ship.

Mal stood and cheerily addressed the younger man. "I'd say we'd best catch up with her. She's liable to take off without us if we give her too much of a lead." He captured the doctor with an iron grip on his arm and hauled him along as he hurried after Kaylee.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

There was fall-out. Serenity was not living up to her name - more like living up to her namesake. It had been a day now, this war, and Mal was set to put an end to it. Yeah, he'd had a bit of fun toying with the doctor back on Howell; to his thinking the target had been too big and too ripe to pass up. Once back on board, though, the fun had leached all out of it.

There were divisions now. The cracks were growing wider. There was quiet tension and hurt silence. The evening meal had been a trial: strained conversation and meaningful looks. Wash had tried too hard to make them laugh, until Zoe had put a hand on his arm to rein him in; River had been as taut as a spring coil, her eyes darting from her brother to Kaylee to Inara to Mal and around again until it seemed she might fall over from the dizziness. She had kept up a rapid-fire monologue in a voice too low for any ears but hers, and even her brother's best efforts couldn't calm her down.

There were lines being drawn. Jayne had made a show of taking Simon's usual seat next to Kaylee; the big merc was every inch the over-protective bodyguard. For his part, the doctor seemed just as happy to be next to Inara. The Companion exhibited her usual grace under stress and carried herself as though the air around her wasn't ready to burst from the gathering storm in the room. All it did was make Mal angrier.

He'd thought that a night's sleep might help everyone simmer down and come to their senses. He was wrong. The next day Kaylee was sad and quiet, the doctor rigid and coldly courteous.

He'd had some business in the cargo bay; as he entered he spied Kaylee and Inara on the stairs leading to the upper decks. Inara had her hand on the girl's arm and was speaking softly. Whatever she had said made Kaylee shake her head and gently remove Inara's hand. The women parted slowly and went their separate ways.

Later he had walked in on the end of . . . something. Jayne and the doctor had been in the galley, each looking ruffled and angry. Book had stood between them, solid as a wall, a hand up on either side as if he were warning them off each other. When Mal had demanded to know what was going on, the shepherd had quickly offered that it was nothing, just a passing disagreement. Jayne and Simon had been silent, avoiding looking at him, anxious to be gone.

Mal had sent them out with a curt nod. Simon had left quickly, but Jayne went more slow, a worried look on his face as if he feared it was all going to come back on him somehow. Let him stew, Mal had thought to himself. Hell, let 'em all boil.

The preacher had tried to offer advice: "Captain, perhaps it isn't my place to speak . . ."

Mal stopped him. "It isn't. My ship. My crew. My problem."

The shepherd had backed off, graciously, and left Mal alone and growing angrier by the minute. He knew he had some blame in this. He should have put an end to it as soon as it started, but he'd allowed his heart to rule his head. His heart. He didn't think he'd still had one. And it seems he had nothin' but trouble for it. Well, time for the trouble to end. Settled in his mind, he took action.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

"Inara!" In one motion Mal rapped on the bulkhead and slid open the door without waiting for an answer.

She was seated before the low serving table, pouring tea into one of the two waiting cups. She didn't look up, merely continued with her task.

"I've been expecting you. Sit. Please." She lifted the delicate teacup toward him. "Tea?"

"Don't you even think about playing me."

He strode to the table, looming over Inara, his hands clenched at his side.

"You couldn't leave well enough alone, could you? You're spreadin' 'em from one end of the system to the other, but you just had to have this one notched on your bedstand, too. I know he can't pay you, so what's the deal? A little somethin' to keep you in practice between house calls? What - you can't go a couple days without hearin' how beautiful you are? How desirable?"

Inara remained seated and silent. She replaced the offered cup on the table and poured another for herself. Mal paced away from her, as if he feared being so close to the object of his anger. He took up position in front of her dressing table, leaning back into it, his hands on either side of him for support. His knuckles were white from clutching its edge.

"Why him?"

Inara had borne it all quietly; she stood now and crossed to within a few paces of him.

"I knew you were angry - but this? How little you think of me."

"What am I supposed to think, Inara?" Mal stood up straight, his hands at his sides, fingers curved inward as if he were forcing himself not to clench them into fists. "For days now you been trailin' that boy behind you like a pup on a leash. I'm surprised he ain't here now." He cast an insinuating glance around the room. "It ain't like he's been a stranger here lately."

"Have you been syping on us?" Inara's voice was losing its trained calm; the anger was coming on.

"No need to spy; it was plain for anyone to see. 'Sides, everything that happens on my boat is my business. Best you start to rememberin' that."

"I believe that your crew might disagree. What's next, Captain - blackout zones?"

Mal's face went white. "You're about to cross a line you don't want to cross."

Inara lowered her eyes and took a deep, slow breath. She retreated a few steps and then looked up at Mal again.

"We have an agreement. A signed agreement. This shuttle is my home - with all the privacy that implies. And I do not service any of Serenity's crew." She held his eyes with her fierce gaze. "When have I ever broken my word to you?"

Mal dropped his gaze to the deck for just an instant before looking her in the eyes again.

"There's trouble on this boat, Inara. And I mean to see that it comes to an end. Whatever it is between you and the doctor - it's over. Now."

"You are insufferable." She bit off each word. "And pig-headed. And blind!"

"You tellin' me that I didn't see what I did?" He stepped up closer to her, so close that she had to tip her head back to keep eye contact.

"I'm telling you that you took what you saw and you turned it into something hateful!" Her voice couldn't hide the despair mixing with the anger. "I didn't realize that you thought me capable of such betrayal. That I could hurt . . . her, like that."

"Inara . . . " He could see her gather her control around her again.

"Simon is a prisoner between two worlds. He's locked himself in a cage, and he won't move forward and he can't go back. Do you really not understand that?"

"And you have the key? Is that what you're telling me?" Mal asked skeptically.

"No, Mal. Only Simon has the key. But I'd hoped that I could make it easier for him to decide which world he chooses."

"And how exactly did you go about that?" He worked at keeping his voice neutral.

"By letting him indulge in all his memories of his life on Osiris. By giving him another mirror to see himself in that world. By - I hope - showing him how brittle that world could be and how alive it can be here and now. By helping him to understand that the past doesn't have to condemn the future." He felt as if her whole being was focused on him. "It's not an easy lesson. It's one so many struggle with, and not everyone will learn." Her voice had fallen so soft at the end that he had to work to catch her words.

"Hushuo badao!" He turned abruptly and walked away from her. She followed him, speaking urgently.

"We're not like you, Mal. Not all of us can wall up our pasts and move on as if they didn't exist, never looking back at what was. He needed to go back - just for a while - before he could move on."

"And you seen to that, have you? You and your Companion tricks?"

She refused to take the bait. "I don't know. I think so. I hope so - for his sake and Kaylee's."

"I'll thank you to stop playin' matchmaker with my crew. This little experiment of yours is damn near to tearin' this ship apart."

"They deserve a chance, Mal. You owe it to her to step aside in this."

"Don't you ever tell me how to deal with my crew," he growled.

"I'm not talking about your crew, Mal. Lao tian, she's your friend! She worships you, don't you know that?" He turned away from her. "Of course, you do. You depend on it."

He whipped around to face her again, and now his voice was deadly cold. "You'd best explain that to me."

She didn't back down an inch. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm happy that you have Kaylee, that there's someone in your life who will bring you a little peace. Someone - at last - who you believe with all your soul will never betray you." She paused. "It is my greatest wish for you." The air around them crackled with words left unsaid. She laid her hand so softly on his arm that he barely felt her touch. "It's not a betrayal for her to love, Mal. Her heart can never be divided."

They stood frozen in that moment. Slowly Mal placed his hand on hers, and slowly he lifted her hand from his arm. "I'll think on it." He turned, quickly now, and left her standing alone.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

It had taken a couple days, but the breaches were mostly healed. Against every urging of his mind, he had kept his silence with the rest of them and had determined to let the fever run its course. He wouldn't let himself be the fool, though - he would be poised to jump in and force it to his will if need be. To his surprise, things had started to smooth out that same night.

Inara had been seated on his right, as usual - butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, she was so serenely cool - and Kaylee was on his left. There had been a moment when everything could have erupted: Jayne and the doctor arriving simultaneously at the empty seat next to Kaylee. They had stared each other down, neither giving an inch. Mal had looked at them: the throroughbred and the mongrel. With an inward sigh, he'd sent a silent warning to Jayne. The merc must have felt it burning through his flesh, because he'd broken the staring match to glance at Mal; he'd caught the meaning and visibly settled himself, like a fighting dog soothing its hackles.

Book had broken in smoothly, nodding to the seat next to his. "Jayne, come join me. I've been meaning to tell you about some new-style weights I spied back on Howell." With a parting sneer at the doctor, the merc had swaggered to the other side of the table and dropped into the chair by the shepherd.

Mal had caught the preacher's eye and given him a small nod, which the preacher returned in kind. At his side Kaylee had smiled shy and happy at the doctor who, in a manner more solicitous than the situation would ever require, offered to fill her glass with water. Wash had mimicked him, fawning over Zoe while pouring her something to drink, spilling more than he poured and setting most of the table to laughing, relieved to have something to break the tension.

There had still been meaningful looks, but even to Mal's critical eyes they had seemed to carry nothing but thanks and assurances. From that point on things had started to return to normal. Sure, the doc and the merc still set each other to hissing. Some things were never going to change. Outside of the evening meals he'd kept his distance from Inara, and she did the same. Some things were never meant to change. He could live with that. He could move on.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------

He hated the paperwork. He was seated on his bunk, back up against the bulkhead, ledger on his lap, going over again what they had and what they needed to keep in the air. He decided that what this boat was missing was an accountant. Maybe he'd kidnap one at the next stop. He wouldn't even threaten to set him on fire. Well, not right away. He laughed to himself and then sighed and got back to it. He really hated the paperwork.

There was a knock on the hatch above him.

"What!"

"Cap'n?"

"Kaylee?" He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.

Taking the sound of her name as an invitation, she threw open the hatch and scooted quickly down the ladder to stand nervously in front of him.

He didn't get up. "Somethin' I can do for you?"

She shoved her hands in her pockets and swayed a bit, awkward. She took a deep breath.

"Cap, are you mad at me for somethin'?" She seemed relieved to have blurted it out.

"Not yet," he warned her.

She hurried on, more sure of herself as she spoke. "You been avoidin' me for days now. Not like you sometimes do, where you pretend that you're not carin' but I know that you really are so it's all OK . . ." He raised his eyebrows at her.

"I told you - I figured that one out a long time ago," she said matter-of-factly. "But this here, this is different. And I . . . I don't know what I done, but if you just tell me, I won't do it again. I promise." Her face was so earnest that he felt a wave of shame roll over him for his part in bringing her to this. It was no fault of hers that Inara put this awkwardness in him. He hated that Inara read him so easily, hated that his own stubbornness caused this rift now.

"It's all good, Kaylee. No need to worry." He cocked his head at her. "You didn't break Serenity, did you?" She shook her head. "Then there's nothin' to fret about." She didn't laugh like he expected her to.

He closed the ledger and threw it to one side, then stood to face her. "I told you before - I'm a mean old man. You continue to disbelieve me."

She didn't answer and didn't look away from him. He was starting to feel trapped.

"I just been busy is all. It's a terrible burden, being captain."

As if coming to a sudden decision, she sat herself down at the end of his bunk, scooted back so she was leaning up against the bulkead, and drew her knees up, her boots on the blanket. Mal straightened his back considerably and gave a pointed look at her boots.

"You comfortable?"

"Oh." She stretched out her legs so that her feet dangled over the edge. "Since you're not mad at me for nothin', I thought I'd tell you that Simon and me . . . things are back to goin' good."

"Uh-huh." He crossed his arms and waited.

"We had a talk. It cleared a lotta things up. Kinda opened things up for us." She smiled at the memory, then looked back up at him. "It was 'Nara's doin', a lot of it. I was all wrong about her." She paused. "I was jealous, I guess. I never thought I'd be that kind of way. I don't much like that I am."

Mal had to turn away at that. He used the excuse of settling into the chair across from the bunk as he struggled to get his expression under control.

"You ain't sayin' much," she prodded.

"What's there to say? You're a grown woman. It ain't for me to tell you who to be with."

That brought a belly laugh out of her. "But you always do! You do for all of us! There ain't a body on Serenity who don't know your feelin's on 'complications.'"

"For all the good it does me," he replied, more bitterly than he intended.

She pushed herself forward so that her feet touched the floor again; leaning out she placed a hand on one of his. "It's gonna be all right, Cap'n. You'll see. You just gotta trust to the future."

He choked back a dark laugh. He took her hand in both of his. "What about what we said back there? How . . . he . . . was from a different world. How it could never be the same between you?"

"I don't need 'same.' Not either of us do. We just need the chance to make somethin' new, somethin' our own now. We just need to try, Cap'n. That's all." She took her other hand and softly brushed his cheek. They pulled back from each other at the same time, she with a smile and he with a catch in his breath.

"Did I tell ya that he was jealous, too?" she asked with a satisfied laugh. "When he found us together on Howell. Can you imagine?" She had a wicked look in her eye. "I told him not to worry - that after that one time we had sex we decided that it wouldn't work out between us."

"Kaylee!" He shot to his feet.

"You are just like him - such an easy mark," she laughed again and stood, too.

"If you're gonna be insulting, you can just leave."

She pulled her pants legs down from where they had scrunched up while she'd been seated, then looked at him, all serious suddenly.

"Couldn't you be happy, too?" He didn't answer. "I wish you could be happy, too. You just need a little faith, that's all. Just a little." She took his hand in both of hers just for a moment, then climbed back up to join with Serenity.

He threw himself down on the bunk, kicking the ledger onto the deck. A little faith. Might as well ask for the black to turn to light.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

He couldn't believe that he was here. He couldn't believe that he was knocking on the hatch like a nervous schoolboy.

"Yes?"

"It's Mal. Can I talk to you?"

Silence stretched out so that he thought he should turn around and leave. The hatch opened and she was there, looking poised and beautiful.

"Mal. Please, come in."

He entered and stood politely to one side so that Inara could pass him.

"Such manners," she smiled as she moved gracefully past him to stand next to her dressing table. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

He roamed around the room for a bit before stopping in front of her.

"Kaylee came to see me. Seems her and the doc are back to courtin' - or whatever the hell it is they're doin'. I don't know that it's a good thing, but if it quiets this ship down, I can't object all that much."

"Yes, I knew that they'd worked through their," she paused, "problems."

"Yeah. Well. You had a hand in the outcome. I'm thinkin' I should pay for your counseling fees. Seein' as how you like to keep things on a business-like basis."

Her eyes narrowed for just a moment, but she seemed to think better of her first reaction and remained placid.

"There'll be no charge, Mal. This was simply a matter of helping our friends." She clasped her hands in front of her, briefly, a sure sign to him that she was a nervous as he was. "Not everything between us has to be a matter of business."

He felt some of the tightness loosen in his chest. "Well. Good then." He ran his fingers over one of her combs on the table, but stopped suddenly, self-conscious. Unsure of what to do with his hands, he put them in his back pockets. "Uh, so I'll see you at dinner tonight, right?"

Her eyes were smiling. "Yes, Mal."

"Good, that's good." He backed toward the door. "OK, then, I gotta go. Lots of things need lookin' after."

"They always do," she replied with an enigmatic smile.

He stopped at the doorway. "You know somethin' about being out here? The black - it seems to go on forever. But then, suddenly, there's this light. It's way off, but it's there. And if you hold your course, it'll get to seem that the whole 'verse is ablaze." He shrugged, embarrassed at his speech.

Inara tilted her head slightly to consider him. "I have come to believe that you will never stop surprising me." The look in her eyes was raising his temperature as he stood there.

"I know exactly how you feel. Today - I surely do." He gave her a small bow from the waist, and stepped out into the corridor, closing the hatch behind him. He felt the smile on his face travel through his whole body.

Just a little faith. Just a little. Maybe it would be enough.

End