"Kaylee? You seen the Captain?"

"Just saw him heading into 'Nara's shuttle. Why? Something important?"

"Nah," Zoe averred, face softening a little. "Not so important I'd have to interrupt." One finger tapped her gunbelt, the way it did when she was preoccupied. "I'll catch up with him later."

"And to what do I owe the pleasure?" Inara crossed the shuttle and snatched her fan from Mal's fingers. It was extremely expensive ostrich skin and feathers, and she'd already lost one to his curiosity.

"Just wanted to let you know we'll be docking on Persephone in about six hours." Deprived of the fan, he settled back into the cushions of the settee.

Inara's mouth quirked slightly, torn somewhere between annoyance and amusement. Wash had given her the docking information not fifteen minutes ago, and if he'd been really all that concerned, Mal could have dialed down to her as well, rather than come in person. He also could have delivered his message and left, if their expected arrival was his only concern. Instead, she was aware that this was the opening gambit of a habit they'd fallen into almost by accident.

The first time had been only a couple months after her arrival on board. They'd gotten a wave that a friend of theirs--Mal and Zoe--had run afoul of the Alliance on Ariel and had his boat confiscated. Other than some choice words about the Alliance in general, and the hundan that impounded the boat in particular, Mal hadn't seemed any different than his usual curmudgeonly self. But she'd returned from fetching tea water from the galley to find him sitting in nearly the same place on her couch, turning one of her bronze Buddhas over and over in his scarred hands.

He'd looked so lost --an expression she'd never expected to see on Mal's face--that whatever sharp words she might have spoken died. Startled, she'd only stood, and looked at him.

"I think about it all the time, you know," he'd said, not looking up from the idol tumbling in his palms. "Most days, we're only scraping by as it is, skin of our teeth."

Her training came back to her then, and she set aside the tray of tea to come sit next to him. Not touching; merely a tangible presence, her body schooled in an attitude of listening. "What do you mean?" she asked. The modulation of her voice is calculated as well, habits ingrown as breathing, but that doesn't make them any less sincere.

"It's so easy to forget," he said, the untidy mop of his hair falling over his forehead in a way that makes her want to either smooth it away, or--more likely--take her scissors and trim it properly. "You get to thinking something is yours, and it's that much to thinking it'll never get taken from you. That it's yours forever. But it ain't so. Ain't nothing you can't lose, another man wants to take it from you bad enough."

She's no longer sure if he's speaking of Serenity, his friend's ship, or perhaps even the War. All have left scars, great and small. When she'd run a check on him, prior to renting the shuttle, she saw he'd been born on Shadow, now mostly a haunted ruin, slagged in battle. She didn't really understand the Independents--especially now, seeing the primitive, rampant poverty out on the Rim--but she couldn't argue with the very real losses they'd suffered in their defeat. If there was a greater tragedy than the War itself and its senseless loss of life, it had to be that--that the people who had the least to lose in the first place had lost the most.

Life is suffering, the Buddha had said, and how very, cruelly true those words remain, thousands of years of light and time away.

She allowed herself to put a hand over his, stilling the restless motion. Mal's eyes came up to hers, a little confused, as if he wasn't really aware of her presence until she touched him. "But you haven't lost her, Mal," she reminds him gently. "She's right here, all around you."

"Heh." She hated that scornful noise, his non-answer to so many questions, but at least he sounded more himself making it. "For the moment, leastways."

And like that, the moment had passed. He'd stayed a time, but they'd spoken only of commonplaces, and he'd left without ever mentioning his lapse. But that's when he'd started, dropping by her cabin at odd moments--not to torment her, or continue their endless verbal sparring--but simply to talk. Usually nothing too important, too close to the heart--because neither one of them were much for that--but every Companion knew there was plenty of comfort to be had in the simple exchange of pleasantries and small truths in an amenable atmosphere. And though Mal was not her client, and never would be, it was pleasant for her, too, and good practice, as well.

Except, she thought now, the longer she was on board, she had to wonder if she hadn't made a grievous mistake in allowing this to continue. As she'd noted, Mal was not her client. Nor was he, precisely, her friend. And that very ambiguity left entirely too much space for misunderstanding and a presumed intimacy she was increasingly not comfortable with.

And yet, perversely, she found herself looking forward to these moments; little eyes in the stormy dust-ups of their other dealings.

She knew it was the same with Mal. His voice, his gesture, his entire body language changed when he came ducking through the shuttle door. With a client, that was the intent; to provoke relaxation on every sensory level. Every texture, every scent, every color or the space was carefully coordinated with that in mind. But 'relaxed' was only a few letters away from 'lax', as her House Priestess had been scrupulous in pointing out, and she was afraid that line between--always so crystal clear before--was blurring. And that could not be.

It was on the tip of her tongue. Something...biting. Acid. Something that would send them back to their respective corners to resume their duck-and-feint. It was the smart thing to do.

But instead, she found herself thinking that he yet again needed to get his hair cut.

He knows, she told herself. He's not one to get himself tied up, any more than I am. We'll go back to the fighting soon enough.

"So," she asked brightly, as she sat, "have you lined up any scandalous dealings or shiny new crime? Challenged any crime lords to a duel, perhaps?" And she is rewarded by his smile.