Light.

White and disturbing and it hurts his eyes so he squeezes them back shut before they even open properly.

Pain.

Niska, this son-of-a--

"Mal?"

Her voice. Sweet and laced with concern and is she by any chance worried about him?

He forces his eyes open again and she slowly comes into focus. Lao tian ye, was she always this beautiful? He grimaces as pain rushes through him in a sickening wave. It feels as if wild mustangs he'd come across so many times back on Shadow galloped right over him. Ta ma de--

...Wash.

"Wash," he tries to sit up, but gentle hands on his shoulders push him back down. He resists. "Is he alright?" he remembers promising him to sleep with Zoe. What the hell was that all about?

"He's fine," Inara reassures in a soft voice. "But you won't be if you keep that up," he stops resisting and lies back down with a grunt.

He can see her well now in the white light of the infirmary. Her eyes are visibly sore. Has she been crying?

" 'Nara--"

"Shh," she hushes him. "Don't talk."

He gives her a slightly defiant look, but keeps silent anyway. Tilts his chin downwards, takes in a damage. There is a fresh dressing in the center of his chest. It seems Doc sewed him up in a few other places, too. He shifts a bit, grunts, raises his eyes back to hers.

She's shaking her head, a little crease between her brows.

"What?" he murmurs, in an invuluntarily defensive tone.

She purses her lips, exhales softly. "Just how many more times will I have to see you like this?" she asks quietly, but with a distinct note of reproach.

The corners of his mouth lift. "You mean, shirtless?" he teases, even though every word hurts like bitch. "Well, that depends on--"

She closes her eyes briefly, wearily. "I mean, close to death," she whispers and for once, he doesn't retort. She's clearly unamused. She's clearly desperate.

He leans his head back agains the pillow, fixes his eyes on the ceiling. There ain't no use having this conversation, they both know this. That's his job. That's his life. He looks back at her. Opens his mouth to speak.

"Don't," she cuts in. "It was a rhetorical question. You have to rest, anyway."

A beat, and then she reaches up, runs her fingers over the dressing lighty.

"Does it hurt a lot?" she mutters.

"Yeah. A gorram lot," he admits. It does hurt, but he doesn't care. Can't care. Not when she's looking at him like this.

She bites her lower lip, appears to be thinking. "You want me to dope you again? It will make the pain go away." And will make your face go away, too, he finishes in his mind.

"No, I can take it," he shrugs one shoulder, grimaces involuntarily once more. Inara frowns, leans forward slightly.

"Oh, Mal..."

"What? I'll live," he says in this reckless, devil-may-care tone of his. Bastard. Does he really think his life is so meaningless? Does he even know--

"Next time, you might not," she shoots back, exasperated. The air changes rapidly and they both feel fight is looming over them, heavy and inevitable.

He sighs. "Yeah, well, life ain't no fairy tale, 'Nara," he says quietly. "'Sides, we gotta eat somethin'. Gotta keep flyin'."

She looks at him and for a moment there, it's almost physically hurting.

"Have you ever wondered what would happen if you didn't come back one day?" she asks in an unsteady voice she desperately tries to keep in check. "Have you wondered what would happen to the crew?"

He never takes his eyes off of hers. "Zoe would take charge of the boat. Nothin' would change--"

"Everything would change!" she interrupts him, her eyes stormy.

He's taken aback by the emotion showing on her face. She lets herself slip so rarely, it's like she's someone else now. It's completely new to him, this side of her. He's speechless.

But she composes herself quickly and the intensity of the moment passes. She breaks the eye-contact, faces away.

He exhales, frustrated. "Why are even havin' this discussion, 'Nara?" he asks quietly. "What do you want me to say? Job 's dangerous, no doubt of it. But that's the life I've chosen. That's the life I love."

"I know," she says and she's back to her usual, detached self. "Forget it. Go back to sleep now, you need to rest," she rises and he feels his heart sink. It hurts more than his battle wounds, more than anything physical. His hand reaches out, his fingers closing around her wrist, firmly enough to halt her. She stops, but doesn't look at him. Which is good, perhaps.

He tries a light-hearted tone. "Were you worried 'bout me, by any chance?"

She gazes back at him and for a moment there, she looks like she might just slap him. "Does it even matter to you?" she asks.

"'Course it does," he answers honestly. His fingers loosen their grip around her delicate wrist, but don't let go. He traces his thumb over the heel of her palm lightly. Can't help himself.

She swallows. "Yes, Mal, I was worried," she mutters. "Out of my mind. And apparently, for a reason," her eyes sweep over the bruises on his face, softening gradually until they are two pools of liquid dark. "Ren ci de Fo zu. What did that son-of-a-bitch do to you?" she leans over him, trails her fingertips down his chest lightly. Suddenly, the whole anger is gone, replaced by this, this tenderness that's got him nearly choking.

He's mesmerized by her eyes, her touch. He yearns for her in a way he's never yearned for anything before. "Nothin' you'd like to hear 'bout, believe me," he mutters, painfully aware of every move she does.

"But you took it all," she murmurs.

"I'm tough," he agrees, not without pride. She lowers herself again, but now sits not in the chair, but next to him. Their hips are touching lightly and before she speaks again, that's all he can think about.

"You're stubborn, that's for sure," she says. "You lived through each second that came just to prove your point."

"Which was?" he murmurs.

"That you get to decide about everything. Even if it's an issue of when you die," she finishes softly and is it a trace of fondness in her voice?

He might laugh, but he knows it'd hurt too much. "I'll take it as a compliment," he mutters.

"I expected you would," she smiles. He returns it wanly and they share a moment, eyes interlocked, silently daring one another to look away. Neither does.

She reaches out, runs the back of her fingers down his cheek. Suddenly it seems she can't stop touching him. He leans into her fingers, but his eyes stay on hers. Her blood sings.

"You look like death," she whispers.

He chuckles. "Then it must be one shuai fella, huh."

"It's not funny, Mal," she murmurs.

"It's not?"

"It will take days... weeks maybe, before you heal," she goes on in a quiet, soft voice. "And then, there'll be scars."

He lets himself smile wider. "And here I thought scars made you all manly," he murmurs.

"You're an idiot, Malcolm Reynolds," she shakes her head incredulously.

"Yeah, well, at least a lucky one. Got a beautiful woman worryin' bout me," he gives her a teasing look. Suddenly, it feels like it's just the two of them in the entire 'Verse. He likes this feeling.

"Don't push it," she teases back.

"What?" he raises his brows in fake mockery. "You are beautiful, Inara."

Is she blushing? That's just-- "And you clearly need sleep," she covers quickly. She knows it's just tiredness and remains of the dope talking. "You're beginning to sound funny."

"'Cause I'm sayin' you're beautiful? C'mon," he smiles. He's feeling lighter and lighter now, and even pain's going away. "You've always known I thought so..."

"Is that right?" she whispers. She's looking at him tenderly now and he knows, knows with perfect clarity, that he never wants her to look at him in any other way than this.

"Yeah... Just... look at yourself," he wants to gesticulate with his hand for emphasis, but it's too heavy. In fact, he's heavy all over, his head is heavy, his eye-lids are heavy-- "You're a gorram vision..."

"Mal?" she mutters with a small smile.

"Huh...?" his lids are drooping and he slowly ceases to fight it.

"Go to sleep."

"Yeah, me too..." and a second later he's out of it.

She smiles and lets herself look at him for a few seconds more. Or maybe even longer. Till he wakes up again.


Translations from Chinese:

Lao tian ye - Jesus

Ta ma de - Damn it

Ren ci de Fo zu - Merciful Buddha

Shuai - Handsome