Author's Notes: The title is from a Joanna Newsom song, "Sprout and the Bean." There may be future fragments if I get inspired and/or if people show interest.
"I never thought I'd see the day when Malcolm Reynolds kissed the dirt," she said, standing at the edge of the wide field. She had been watching him for long minutes, the slow and steady movement of the plow, his bent head and graying hair. He had not looked up, not once. Part of her wished to leave it that way, to hold her breath and turn away, so that he would continue forever with the image of another her, a younger self. Seeing him like this was a shock, she could admit that in the privacy of her thoughts — no River now, to invade — and how would he look at her, with the years on her?
She waited until he was close enough to hear, close enough to see, and in the end she stayed, spoke.
He raised his head, wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, leaving smudges of dirt. He squinted at her for a long moment, his face unreadable. She gazed steadily back, years and years of calm carrying her through this. What did he see? A beautiful woman, still, but no longer young. There were tiny soft creases around her eyes and mouth, in the flesh of her hands. It was cool for spring, and styles were soberer now — none of her old red silks, she wore a wool gown of dark blue, simple and elegant, a heavy shawl wrapped around her torso. She was not the vision she had been. Neither was he.
"I don't kiss it," he said finally, voice rusty. "I work it. There's a difference."
"I'm sure there is," she agreed equably, and smiled. He smiled too, and then didn't. He stepped carefully over the furrows between them, his eyes always on her.
"What brings you to these parts Inara?" he asked. He didn't say: I never thought I'd see you again. He didn't say: you look the same. He said, "I didn't think we had any folks on this ball of dirt with enough to entice a high-class… woman, like yourself."
She'd been expecting him to call her whore. She folded her hands together and ignored him. She had made her choice. A different choice, on Sihnon, kneeling before her gold and fire altar, than it was here, beneath the wide open sky, faced with him. "You'd be surprised," she said, and let that hang a moment, before she told him the truth. "In fact, that is not why I'm here. I am opening a new Training House and Sanctuary. With the rim so much safer these days, the Guild has judged it fit to expand its operations. And a place like this, calm and quiet, is perfect for retreat, meditation, rest."
Mal seemed unable to find an appropriate response. Inara stood grave and silent, waiting. "So you're not…"
"I am retired from active service Mal," she explained, saving them both the indignity of making him finish the question. "I am too old."
The shocked look on his face pleased her. She should be past such vanity, but she was not, entirely.
He made a restless motion with his hands, shook his head. "Ai ya." He hooked his thumbs on the loops of his belt, as he used to do with his gun holster. He didn't wear a gun anymore, Inara noticed, and wondered when that changed, when he felt safe enough in his fields to go without a weapon. "So you're staying then?"
"I am staying," Inara confirmed. His eyes interrogated her, as if she were a ghost, a dream. A small smile touched her lips. She could point out that if she were a ghost, or a dream, there would be no network of gentle lines on her face, but he was intelligent enough to figure that out for himself. "I just bought a piece of land, up the hill. There's a spectacular view. An architect is surveying the area now and drawing up plans. We hope to have construction completed before winter. For now I am in town, at the Inn." There was only one town, near enough, one inn. He would know where to find her, if he looked. He himself had been easy enough to find. The name of the moon she had from Kaylee and… well, few farmers kept an old spaceship behind their house, even one that did not fly anymore.
"And you just… picked Hestia, out of all the moons – all the worlds for that matter?"
Inara arched her eyebrows at him, an indication of how ridiculous the question was. She did not, however, answer it. "It's a beautiful place," she said, gesturing to the mountain range in the distance, shining blue and white, "not developed enough to distract those who come to me for shelter and quiet."
"And you, you looking for shelter and quiet?" he asked, his eyes still on the mountains, the wheat fields stretching from where they stood to the foothills, long acres of dirt and sweat and gold.
"Perhaps," Inara said, and smiled. "Kaylee sends her love, to you and Zoe. Is she about?"
He turned back from the view. "Reckon she's in the east fields today, with the kid." He said it casually, hoping to shock her perhaps. She was too well-informed for that. "The kid" was Zoe's son, Wash Alleyne. Kaylee said she'd announced one night at dinner that she was having a baby. Never said who the father was. The boy must be about twelve now. "How's Mrs. Tam?"
"Very happy," Inara informed him. "You should wave her. She misses you. She's building ships now, you know."
Mal snorted, shook his head again. "Fancy ones."
"Solid," Inara corrected him. "Quality ships." After the Transition, there was nothing to keep Simon from his work. He'd set up the best hospital on the rim — one of the best in the 'verse now. He and Kaylee and their passel of children practically glowed with satisfaction every time she saw them. So some of them had got it right. The ones without ghosts. (River a ghost of another kind, appearing out of air in Inara's garden with bare toes and asking her for the steps to a long-forgotten dance. Before she left she said, "It's time," and kissed both of Inara's cheeks, her lips cool and quick, her smile lingering.)
"Not my thing," Mal lied, and Inara let him. His boots encrusted with earth now.
"I'll let you get back to your work," she said, because they could stand so forever, saying and not saying. "You know where to find me. Stop by, any time. I'll make you a cup of tea."
"Don't go saying that to everyone," Mal warned her. "You can't buy that stuff here, not for any price. Men'd kill for that."
Her lips curved softly, a practiced smile, patient. "I will not go saying that to everyone," she assured him solemnly, and turned to walk back to town.
Wash was a tall boy, saucer eyes and hair at all ends. He had been staring at Inara for half an hour and every so often Zoe would cuff him on the back of the head, and he would stammer something and look down at the carpet for a minute before his eyes crept back up.
"Couldn't believe it when Mal told me," Zoe said, her smile loose and easy. "Still can't, some ways. You sitting there like a queen, after all these years."
Inara laughed, easy too, and shook her head. "You are right about all these years. But I am certainly no queen. Though I came close, once," she recalled, shaking her head fondly at the memory. Zoe gestured her onward and Inara explained, "On Anya the rich call themselves princes and princesses, a local conceit. Years ago, one of them proposed to me. I can't even remember his name anymore." That was a lie, but one Zoe was willing to accept.
"Did you consider it?"
"Just as well. You seem to have done pretty well for yourself as it is," Zoe judged. Her hair a gray brown cloud, deep lines around her eyes
"I suppose I have," Inara agreed. "And so have you." Zoe seemed at ease in the suite, the inn's best. Her worn clothes were at odds with the imported carpet, the hangings on the walls — not up to Inara's standards, but good enough — but she showed no sign of discomfort. A woman who knew who she was, where she belonged. They were both that, at least, Inara thought.
Zoe put a hand in her son's hair, though he squirmed and made a face. "We get on. I grew up on a farm, guess I always knew I'd end up back on one."
Inara set down her teacup, a quiet clink of china. "I was surprised to find Mal here," she admitted. "I thought he'd die with that ship."
"So did he," Zoe agreed simply. She released Wash and sat forward, clasping her hands and deciding what to say, what not to say. The boy gazed at Inara, unblinking. "Of course he will, someways, that's why he won't sell it for parts. Just keeps it sitting there, bu zhong yang though it is. But after Transition, some of his ghosts left him I think. The ground got a mite more desirable when no one was coming to take it away."
"And so, here he is," Inara said, which was not true either, because here he was not. He had not come to the inn, though it was two weeks since she stood beside his field. Zoe brought excuses which did not come from him.
"Here he is," Zoe agreed quietly. Her eyes rested on Inara, older eyes, warm and deep. "Here we all are."
"I never thought I'd see the day when Inara Serra kissed the dirt," he said, standing in the doorway of her private garden. Her hands sunk deep into the newly settled earth, planting flowers. She sat back on her heels and wiped them off with a cloth set on the stones beside her.
"You knew me in space Mal," she said. "I have always gardened, when possible."
He was wearing clean clothes, which she supposed was a courtesy on his part. One courtesy, after eight months of waiting. The house was complete now, the halls polished and waiting to be filled. Inara walked from room to room alone, breathing in the smell of home. In the mornings, she planned and planted. In the afternoon, she meditated and read books, carefully turning each priceless page. She waited.
"They allow that kind of stuff?" Mal asked, dubious. "I wouldn't think they'd want Companions to get their hands dirty."
"Our hands are already dirty Mal," Inara replied sweetly, meeting his smile with her own, a challenge. She stood, still graceful, though her knees ached and the small of her back. "In fact my House Priestess always encouraged gardening. It can be extremely meditative." He snorted and she ignored him. He had not changed, not at all. She continued, undaunted. "It roots us in the earth. Don't you find that?"
"Farming is work," he said, "hard work. This meditative crap is for people who don't need to work for their food."
"Our hands are already dirty Mal," Inara repeated quietly, and caught the look in his eye, the shift. She knew him well enough to know that he lied. His fields were now to him what the stars had been: peace.
"And where are your lovely companions?" Mal asked, filling the silence.
"They are on their way. My fellow instructors are visiting rim planets now, collecting the children who have been selected and searching for new prospects. The first groups will arrive soon. Others will come when they have need." She longed for them, for small bare feet and laughter, for large eyes and questions. She was too old for children, herself; she retired late.
"So it's just you?" There was a scar on his jaw that was new, unexpected. Inara wanted to touch it, and ask. Seventeen years. Eight months.
"It's just me," she affirmed. "Would you like a tour?"
They walked through the half-furnished rooms, Inara explaining design choices, Mal commenting on other people's luxuries. Some of the furniture she was having built here, by design. Other things were on their way. Her room was full, its corner windows stretching full and open upon the mountain range, the golden singing fields below. They stood side by side there, not touching.
"Quite a place," Mal said, his creaky old man's voice.
"Why didn't you come before?" she asked. He might have asked her the same thing, but he didn't want her answer.
"Wanted to see if you were really going to stay."
"I can see that now."
She wanted to ask, can you? She wanted to be what she had been, once, young and supple and capable of running or staying. Now she could only stay. She had not dyed her hair since she made moonfall, the silver was coming through the dark.
She turned her head to look at him. He was watching her, not the mountains. "I still sort of think if I touch you, you'll vanish," he admitted. She remembered a man who touched her jaw just where his scar was; theirs were matching, hers better hidden. She remembered leaving him to his.
"Try," she said.