Disclaimer: Serenity and her crew are the sole and rightful property of Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon, and Tim Minear. No disrespect is meant by my borrowing them; no financial gain is mine by employing them. --------------------------------------------

"How far behind schedule is this gonna put us?"

Mal leaned back against one of the lockers on the bridge and waited for Wash to answer.

"Twelve hours tops. We don't have to backtrack that far for Inara to catch up with us. As soon as she's docked we'll just resume course, and we're back to our regularly scheduled life of crime."

Mal looked over at Zoe, sitting silently beside her husband, her face expressionless.

"Ain't my idea of a good business practice to keep a client waiting because her plans changed," Mal countered.

"Well it's not like he's going to file a complaint with the Feds," Wash replied. He hurried on, "It isn't that far out of our way, Mal. Really. What's twelve hours among friends? Or thieves?"

Mal stood up straight, his decision made.

"Zoe, make the call. Tell him we'll be there later than planned."

"And when he asks why?" she asked.

"Lie," he grinned.

He was half way to the galley when he heard the clatter of boots behind him.

"Sir?"

Mal stopped and waited for Zoe to catch up.

"Zoe."

She came to a halt next to him.

"Sir."

He waited for her to continue, but she seemed hesitant to speak, standing instead with one hand in her back pocket while she rubbed her neck with the other.

"Zoe," he repeated, this time with a note of impatience.

"Sir, about Inara." She hesitated again.

"Look, I got a right to be tetchy about this. I don't go interfering with her schedule because I have a sudden change of plans. Well, OK, maybe once or twice, but there was always . . ."

"Sir," Zoe cut him off. "I think something's wrong."

"What?" He wasn't quite following.

"With Inara. I was there when the call came in. She sounded . . . I don't know. She just sounded off."

"Off? Off how?"

"I can't explain it. I just got this feeling . . ."

Mal looked at her closely; she was worried for a fact. Zoe wasn't given to jumping at shadows, nor was she one to step too close to his relationship with Inara. Whatever the hell that was.

"I thought you should know, sir." She started to leave but turned back briefly. "You did the right thing, Captain. Going back for her." She headed back toward the bridge.

"The right thing," he muttered to himself. "About Inara. Yeah, that'd be a change."

He continued on his way, trying to ignore the worried whisper at the edge of his mind.

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The routine was that when Inara docked with Serenity after a business session, she'd seek him out to let him know that she was back. Nothing too formal about it, more of a courtesy really, but it had become the expected thing between them. When he was out on a job, he returned the gesture, nonchalantly letting her know that he was back and safe. Mal waited an hour after he knew she was back on board before, grumbling all the way, he made the trek to her shuttle. If she couldn't be bothered to report to the captain of the ship on her return - her ahead-of-schedule return, he groused to himself as he steamrolled down the gangway - well, he would just pay a little visit to remind her of how things worked on his boat.

He strode the last few feet to her shuttle, barely slowing down as he entered through the open hatch.

"So you are back, just like rumor has it."

Inara was sitting on the sofa preparing to pour tea into the delicate cup in front of her. She startled at his sudden entrance and jerked the tea pot up, spilling a pool of steamy liquid onto the table. Some of it splashed onto her gown and he saw her wince as the hot tea soaked through the thin material and reached her skin.

"Oh, hey!" His anger disappeared in a sudden surge of regret. "Here, . . ." He looked around hurriedly for something to soak up the spilled tea, but everything he saw seemed too expensive to use as a rag. He pulled his shirttail out and kneeled beside her, clumsily patting up the small pools.

"Mal," she said. "Mal!" She put her hand on his to stop him, but quickly withdrew it, as if it, too, burned her. "It's all right. Leave it."

He sat back on his heels, embarrassed. "I never was much good around tea," he smiled at her sheepishly.

"No. No, it was my fault." She had pulled out a cloth napkin from the drawer in the table and finished daubing up the spilled tea.

"Did I burn you?" Mal started to reach for her, but instead just gestured with his chin to a spot above her knee where the material of her dress was wet and dark.

"It's nothing." Inara gently pulled the material up and away from her skin; Mal was watching her closely enough to catch the slight grimace that glanced across her face.

He stood and crossed quickly to the wall that held the sink. He pulled it out and ran some cold water on the small towel that was hanging next to it. He brought it back it to where she was sitting and held it out to her.

"Here. You don't want it to scar." He frowned. "Maybe I should have the doc look at it."

"I'm fine, Mal. Please, don't fuss."

"No fussin'. I'm just tryin' to set it to rights, is all." He held the towel out to her again.

With a sigh she took it, but she made no move to use it. "Thank you." She set her face into a gracious pose, but she avoided looking him in the eyes. "And thank you for allowing me to return ahead of schedule. I hope that it didn't cause too much of a problem for you."

"Problem? No, no problem," he assured her smoothly. "'Sides, it'll do him good to wait on us for a bit. Let him know who's in charge of this deal."

She smiled at his words, but Mal had the feeling that she hadn't heard them, that her thoughts were somewhere else.

"So, you get tired of the scenery on Montcalm, did you?" He tried to draw her back.

"Yes. Something like that." Her voice was courteous and distant.

"Must have been terrible drab then; it ain't like you to change your plans so sudden like," he continued. "You bein' all about keeping to schedules and such."

"Yes."

The silence built.

"I guess . . ."

"Mal," she cut him off suddenly. "I'm really very tired; it's been a long day. And look at you - your shirt will be ruined. You need to wash it out before the stain sets in. It's not as if you have a vast wardrobe to fall back on." She smiled at him then, and it almost rang true - if he didn't know her like he did. "Thank you for stopping by."

She was dismissing him. After him coming back for her.

"Well, I was in the neighborhood," he answered with a smirk. "Don't think nothin' of it." He gave her a mocking bow and affected a casual stroll as he headed back toward the hatchway.

"Mal?" He turned toward her voice a little more eagerly than he had intended. "Please close the hatch behind you. I think I'll sleep for a bit."

He arched an eyebrow at her to cover his irritation.

"Absolutely. Should I stand guard outside? You know, so no one disturbs you? 'Cause I understand how you need your beauty rest," he oozed at her and happily noticed a soft blush start on her cheeks.

He stepped into the hall and somehow refrained from slamming the hatch shut behind him. Instead he held it tightly and forced himself to ease it slowly towards the rim, all the while seething inside. Zoe was wrong - wasn't nothing off about Inara. It was the same old story over and over again. No one ever made him feel as small and as slow-witted as she could. Sending him on his way like he was some puppy-eyed schoolboy. She was the one who came to him in the first place. She was the one who asked him to change his very important plans on some whim of hers. And whose gorram boat was this anyway? His, that's whose. If anyone was going to do some dismissing, well, it sure as hell was gonna be him!

He flung the hatch back again and marched pridefully into the shuttle.

"Just so's we get this straight . . ."

Inara had been making her way across the room; she turned, frightened, and gave a soft, strangled scream that became a groan of pain as she stumbled a little and her legs gave out; she clutched the corner of her vanity table to keep herself from falling.

"Inara!" He was at her side in an instant. He held her up against him and helped her to the bed. She was limping noticeably and he cursed himself for the clumsy fool that he was. He must have burned her badly.

He helped her to sit on the edge of the bed, and once more he knelt beside her.

"I knew it," he spoke in a rush. "I knew I burned you. How bad is it?" He lifted the hem of her dress and started to draw it back to survey the damage he had done.

"Mal, no!" Inara pulled at his hands to stop him, but it was too late.

It didn't register at first - what he was seeing. The bruises and the long, deep scratches along her thighs. He sat for what seemed like hours, holding the hem of her dress in one hand, the other hand poised just above her mottled skin. Silently, gently, Inara removed the material from between his unfeeling fingers and covered herself again.

He looked up at her and saw her eyes grow wide at what she saw in his face.

"Who did this?" His voice was ice.

"Mal . . ."

"Who, Inara."

"It's been seen to. There's nothing to be done."

"Don't believe that's true," he said, and even to his own ears his voice sounded deadly.

"I can't tell you, Mal. You know that. There are rules."

"There . . .," he left off in exasperation. "You're protecting the tamade hundan who did this to you?"

"No. I'm not." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I'm protecting you."

"Inara."

"He's a powerful man. There's nothing you could do that wouldn't lead to your own arrest. Or worse." She placed her hand on his face for the briefest of moments. "And I won't have that."

He opened his mouth to speak again, but she continued before he could begin.

"Besides, he didn't hurt me."

Mal laughed in disbelief.

"I mean he didn't rape me, Mal," she said quietly. "At least I didn't let him do that." And suddenly, she started to cry.

Mal rose from his knees and sat beside her, carefully cradling her to his side.

"I don't know what happened," she said through her tears. "I, he . . . we're trained to expect the unexpected, to know how to avoid the ones who could be dangerous. I didn't see it. I don't know what happened."

"Shhhhh," he comforted her. "Hush, now." He stroked her back and her hair, gentling her.

"He turned so quickly. I wasn't ready, I didn't see him coming. And . . . I fought and he . . . he wasn't expecting that. 'You can't rape a whore.' That's what he said."

Mal held her tighter and murmured softly to her as he planned how he would kill the man who attacked her. Her crying was easing at last, but he continued to gently soothe her with his hand on her back.

"How did you get away?"

"I cut off the oxygen to his brain. We're trained . . . I never thought I'd have to use it."

She had stopped crying, but she stayed pressed close to him. The silence rose around them, broken only by the whispered rustle of his hand sliding along the silken back of her gown as he stroked her until her trembling finally stilled.

"I wanted to kill him," she confessed softly.

"It'll get done," he replied.

"Mal, no!" She pulled away from him. "I told you, it's taken care of. The Guild saw to it."

"The Guild!" He couldn't keep the contempt out of his voice. "The Guild put you there in the first place."

"It was my choice, Mal. I took him as a client. I missed the signals. It won't happen next time." Her voice was determined.

"Next time?" he exploded, shocked. "There ain't gonna be a 'next time'."

"Ni shuo shenme?" He could see the anger rising in her.

"Inara, you can't be serious," he tried to reason with her. "You were lucky today. He could have killed you."

"I told you, it was my fault. If I hadn't slipped like that he never would have . . ."

"It wasn't your fault!" he cut her off. "That bastard . . ."

"It's a risk of the job, Mal. This is my job! And I love it, and I'm trained well to do it. It won't happen again." Her chin was up and her voice was steely.

"Some job, Inara. I can see why you love it so," he shot back, unable to keep the anger out of his voice. "Who wouldn't want a glamorous career beddin' strangers from one edge of the 'verse to the other? With the added thrill of being beat upon by your very fine clientele! Where do I sign up?"

"You couldn't pass the entrance exam," she bit out. She rose shakily to her feet so that she was more on eye level with him as he sat on the edge of her bed. "And how many times have you been beaten? And stabbed and shot and nearly killed? How many? And you're still thieving and smuggling and, and, one of these days you will be killed, damn you! But I don't tell you to quit!"

"It ain't the same!"

"Why?" she demanded.

"Because this is all I have," he cut the words, bitterly. "It's all I am."

She was silent now. Stunned.

"Oh, Mal," she said at last. Her voice was gentle. "That isn't true. Don't you know that?"

"Don't waste your pity on me," he ground out.

"I'm not . . ." she started to assure him, but he rode over her words.

"You're better than this, Inara," he rasped. "You're young and beautiful and so smart. You could be settled down, raisin' a family. Maybe on a ranch somewhere," he ducked his head, so she couldn't see his eyes. "Though it wouldn't be glamorous enough for you, I'm guessin'." He looked at her again, and his eyes were glowing. "Just think on it, how it could be for you. No one claimin' you; no one thinkin' they can own you. Not owin' nothin' to no one." He paused to catch himself. "Don't throw your life away, too. It's not too late for you. Not yet."

She sat down next to him again and laid her hand softly on his arm. He froze beneath her touch, knowing he couldn't trust his actions at this moment.

"This is my choice, Mal," she said kindly. "I know you won't believe that, but I have my reasons, too."

He shook his head. "I don't . . ."

"Mal," she interrupted him quietly. "My white knight," she smiled. "Always trying to save me. I don't need rescuing, you know. You don't have to rescue me."

"Is that what I'm doin'?" It was a new thought, and he turned it over in his mind.

"Not with any success, but you do keep trying," she teased.

"Well, I am nothin' if not persistent," he countered. "White knight. Huh. Kind of goes with my dashing personality at that, don't it?"

"I have the feeling that I am going to greatly regret ever saying those words," Inara sighed.

"No. No, it's good. Humility is one of our virtues."

"Since when?" Her raised eyebrow spoke volumes.

He settled himself more easily on the bed, raising one leg to rest on the edge and jostling her leg as he did so.

"Why, I'll have you know . . ." he stopped suddenly as he saw her close her eyes briefly against the pain. All the good humor left him.

"That's it, I'm gettin' the doc up here." He stood to cross over to the comm panel.

"Mal, no." Her hand on his wrist restrained him. "Please."

She looked up at him earnestly, with a hint of shame in her eyes.

"Please," she repeated. "I'd prefer it if this were kept between us."

They held each other's gaze, and without conscious thought his hand slipped around her wrist as well.

"OK," he agreed quietly. "No one else knows."

They both became aware at the same time that their hands were entwined around each other's wrists and they quickly released them. Inara gracefully folded her hands in her lap; Mal crossed his arms and stood awkwardly in front of her - wanting to leave, wanting to stay.

"So, this suipian shi. What happens to him? Guild gives him a little slap on the wrist and he's on the black list? Left to beat up the whores who don't have Guild protection?"

"He's been seen to. He won't be hurting any more women. Guild or whore."

"You believe that?"

She rose from the bed and stood proudly, meeting his gaze.

"The Guild takes care of their own."

He took a step, and he was standing close to her.

"So do I." He saw her eyes widen at his words.

"Is that what I am, Mal? One of yours?" Her voice held none of the challenge that her words gave. Instead she sounded, for the first time, unsteady.

"Inara." His voice broke on her name and he couldn't stop himself from pulling her close. She put her hands on his chest and he cursed himself silently and braced for her pushing him away. It took a moment for him to realize that Inara was grasping at the front of his shirt, trying to draw him closer. And then her face was raised to his and her lips were parted and her eyes were saying the words that neither of them could bring themselves to speak.

"Inara." Her name was a prayer that he sighed, a prayer that was answered when her mouth took his and stopped his breath. Her lips were silk and her taste was of spice and honey. He heard a moan and couldn't tell which of them it came from.

They met with a passion that surprised and engulfed them both. There was nothing tentative about their exploration now that they had let drop the barriers between them. He swore he could feel every cell in her body bursting against him and he fought to answer with his own.

She was so small in his arms, so fragile, and a little voice worried that he would hurt her, so strongly he held her. But she had steel in her as well as she moved restlessly against him, and he could feel himself growing hard and aching in response. Their mouths and hands traveled feverishly across each other, seeking skin, seeking sensation, finding their way beneath the clothing that separated them still. Neither of them spoke but the room was loud with the sound of their need for each other.

Her hands were around his neck pulling his head down to her breast. He straightened and raised her up against him, pulled her off the floor, groaning as her body flowed against his cock as he lifted her. Her legs went around his hips and with one hand he pushed on her ass until she ground into him; she cried out and the sound made him harder than he could ever have imagined. His legs were giving out, he was losing control of them; he fell onto the bed in a tangle of limbs, and he turned and pulled her under him. She cried out again and this time he could hear the pain in her voice.

It was as if someone had thrown him in an icy river. He froze, horrified that he was hurting her, seeing himself suddenly in the place of the bastard who had attacked her.

"Oh, God! Inara." The words tore from his throat.

"Don't stop, please don't stop," she urged him, her hands stroking him, trying to pull him close again. He didn't know what she saw in his face at that moment, but she stilled, suddenly. She closed her eyes for just a second, and when she opened them again, she was smiling sadly at him.

"It's all right," she soothed him, and drew one finger gently across his mouth. "You didn't hurt me. It wasn't you, Mal. It would never be you."

He reached up and encased her hand in his and then brought it gently to his lips. He kissed her palm and he heard her sigh. They lay silent for a while, the sound of their breathing receding as their pulses slowed and their bodies calmed.

"It's just as well, you know," she said at last.

He tried to smile at her in agreement, but he didn't think he pulled it off all that well because she continued on.

"We could never have gone back. And we couldn't have gone forward. And where would we be then?"

"Where are we now?" He hadn't meant to say that aloud.

"Where we've always been," she answered. She raised herself on one arm and looked down at him. "The only place we can be."

Serenity.

He looked at Inara, still poised above him, her long dark hair framing her face and trailing down across his body like a midnight stream. There was no place for the two of them out there, beyond these walls, beyond the black. There was too much history weighing on them, too much unspoken in their pasts, too much unknown in their futures. In here - it was enough. And that's all he would ever ask from anyone or anything. Enough.

He combed his fingers through the drape of her hair as if to memorize the feel of it, the heaviness. She shook her head slightly to set the strands dancing against him.

"Inara," he whispered, as if to himself.

She closed her eyes at her name and smiled as though she were keeping a happy secret. She shook her head more vigorously so that her hair fell in front of her face, hiding it away, then she sat up straight and moved a bit away from him on the bed.

He laid still for a moment longer, then sat up, too, and without looking at her tried to put himself together. His suspenders were down, his shirt was ripped open, and he seemed to be shy a few buttons. He needed to rearrange himself down there, too, but he decided that could wait until he made his exit. He stood and risked a look back at her.

She was sitting up, looking composed and as graceful as ever. His heart jumped in his chest at the sight of her so perfect, but he kept a calm front.

"Well, I should, uh . . ." he nodded toward the hatch.

"Yes, I still have to get settled in. As I said . . ."

"It's been a long day," he finished for her. "Ain't it just." He rocked a little on the balls of his feet, feeling awkward. "Well, I'd best be goin'." He moved toward the hatch but then turned back. "You sure you're OK? Can I get you somethin'? Anything?"

"Mal, I'll be fine. I just should rest for a bit, I think."

"OK, then." He nodded at her. "Will we see you at dinner?" He was pleased with how casual it came out.

She hesitated, and he noticed for the first time how tired she looked.

"You should rest," he told her quickly. "I can bring somethin' back for you when you're ready."

"If you wouldn't mind." She sounded relieved, and Mal felt a wave of guilt rush over him that he could have forgotten that she'd been hurt.

"Not a problem," he promised her. "You sure about seein' the doc? "Cause we could just tell him . . ."

"Mal." Her voice held a warning.

"Not rescuing. Leaving." He turned to leave then turned back again. "See you in the mornin'." It was equal parts a question and a fact.

"I'll be here." Her eyes were steady, her face serene. As he turned away, she spoke again, turning him back. "Thank you," she said, and her smile was a thing that he wanted to keep with him for a very long time. "It's good to be home."

He closed the hatch gently behind him and just stood for a moment, looking out over the cargo bay and the pattern of gangways and ladders that criss-crossed Serenity. The air around him was a one-of-a-kind mix of oil from the engine and this evening's meal cooking in the galley, the smell of industrial solvents that kept the rust at bay and the sultry scent of incense and perfume from the shuttle at his back.

"Yeah," he said. "It's good to be home."

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tamade hundan - fucking bastard

Ni shuo shenme?" - I beg your pardon

suipian shi - piece of shit