The Right Answer.
"Are you ready to get off this boat and back to civilisation?" Mal threw the question over his broad shoulder, not even bothering to turn around or stop.
There'd been a time when he'd have stopped, hooked his hands into the leather tooled belt that proclaimed him 'Captain' with far more ease than any sheriff badge would have done, and stared at the perfection that was Inara Serra; aching to touch that alabaster, flawless skin, to taste that cupids bow mouth with it's slick red promise and to smell the exotic perfume, visions of honeysuckle dancing in his mind.
There had been a time, not too far gone, when he'd have fought desperately with himself not to beg her to stay, to confess his burgeoning feelings or just torment her to see that delicious flash of fire in her eyes. Ain't nothin' prettier than a woman who's mad at him.
But no more.
Used to be that he craved her perfection, her grace and her unflappable elegance, but that was before Miranda.
Before his gorram world turned upside down, again, and he was sent reeling into deep space.
The first thing to drive home the wedge that had been waiting in the wings had been her dismissive and scathing attitude to his rescue attempt. Her intolerance and mockery of his code of honour, tattered and disreputable though it was, had long since been a source of bitterness 'tween them and he had thought to push it away.
Even though the months of silence from her and unconditional support from his crew had made their twisted relationship start to fester in his heart.
Their standing, on her return, wasn't helped any by her stalwart refusal to adhere to his idea to 'desecrate' their home in order to survive Reaver space. He'd needed support, understanding and the only one who stood by him was the one who had the greatest reason for turning tail and running as far and as fast as she could in the opposite direction.
But the final nail in the coffin had been The Fight., damning in all its capital letters.
Who in the rosy sphincter of hell uses a bow and arrow to fight Reavers?
Distaining guns and violence as base and beneath them was one thing, but going up against bloodthirsty, raping, psychopaths with two sticks and a matching outfit was damn near foolish.
And where his crew was concerned, Mal had no time for fools.
Course, he was more'n a little surprised that Inara had come along at all, figuring on her heading back to her fancy shuttle as soon as may be.
He hadn't given her much thought at that point, too busy concerned with keeping his innards that way, and then none at all until he'd opened those blast doors and seen the result of their bout of cyber-terrorism.
Zoë was gasping for breath, blood soaking her back and a world of pain in her eyes which had nothin' to do with her injury and all to do with the man she'd left behind with a spike in his chest and her heart in his hands. She lay against a crate, gun cradled in her lap as she stared blankly up at him.
Jayne was flat out on the floor, Vera clutched to his side as his arm gushed, thick red liquid. Despite his state, Jayne, too, had his eyes to his surroundings and Mal was ever glad that he hadn't sucked his mercenary ass out the airlock.
Sweet little Kaylee lay almost deathly still on the dirt floor, her neck at an odd angle, and it had taken his two heartbeats to assure himself that's he wasn't dead. She grasped the good doctor's hand like a lifeline.
Simon, himself, was losing blood something fierce from a gut wound that pumped vital liquid into a slick puddle underneath him and Inara.
Inara had a graze.
Her pale, delicate hands dabbed a cloth at Simon's wound and there was a slight shift to her usual tidiness but she was almost perfect; unharmed, untouched and unarmed and sitting.
She was gorram healthy and there were three injured people between her and the door. There was still protecting to be done and she was just sitting, looking pretty.
Mal hated her in that moment and she'd shrunk back as much from his expression as his savage appearance.
Then he'd taken in the impossible, cold seeping into his belly. There was one missing.
They looked to the end doors where he could hear Reaver screams echoing and howls dancing off the walls, and his heart had been gripped with an icy fist, fear and pain clawing up into his throat.
Had they allowed sweet, damaged River to be pulled back, pulled apart and raped, eaten, destroyed by the Reavers? Surely Simon would have fought for her until his final breath, his mei mei not even allowed to go on missions without him, but it didn't seem like the good doctor had had much choice with his bones showing clear through. But what of the others? Did they leave her—?
The doors opened and River stood, her enemies at her feet in a gruesome tableau of obliteration. Those who would have killed Mal's crew—his family—were dead and gone, destroyed by the one they sought to destroy.
River's thin, fragile hands held two Reaver swords, dripping with blood and other things best left unidentified, fury and hatred simmering in her calm, cool gaze. Then the wall behind her exploded in a shaft of light, illuminating her like a fallen angel, dark and deadly, and the Alliance moved into position, their weapons trained on them with enough firepower to eradicate them a hundred times over.
She hadn't dropped the swords, surrendered, fled or lay down ready to die, no matter that Mal could see the light tremble in her aching muscles.
He'd not been taken in by Shan Yu or his crazed meanderings, but the idea of walking through fire with someone to be how you got to know them made an odd kinda sense to him and as River stood her ground, her eyes intent on Mal's, ready to fight, ready to defend, ready to die.
It was then that Mal saw the real River and it was love at first sight.
She wasn't perfect—not by a long shot—flawed, fragile and freaking crazy, but she was also fearless. Blood-soaked, sweaty and dishevelled all to hell, but beautiful.
She'd stood for Mal and his crew despite devastating odds and won
If she'd been in Serenity Valley, mayhap the war would have ended differently and that's a kind of hope a man holds on to.
She was still young and broken but, given time to heal and grow, he knew she'd be more'n a match for him.
They were both broken and bloodied but on course for a special kinda healing.
Mal started, he'd clean forgotten that Inara was talking and he turned on his heel to look at her. She'd taken a great deal of her make-up off and looked less like a china doll and more like a real person.
Mayhap the horrors of war had shown her that the real world wanted more than a lick of paint and a pretty cover to make it work. Mayhap the graze to her exquisite face had shaken her up some and made her see what was important, or maybe she'd realised that her perfection was no longer alluring. That, while she'd been daintily painting 'Serenity' on the outside, River had had her hands in the heart of the ship, fixing it up, grease smeared on her face and engine oil staining her hands.
And Mal had been inside watching her.
Mal had always been a one woman man and that woman was Serenity. Anyone who wanted to be with him, wanted to be a part of his life, had to realise that she came first—not the job, sometimes not even the crew—but his ship. Whoever loved him had to love Serenity, to stay and to love her as he did; whole-heartedly.
He inclined his head as Inara fumbled for words ungracefully, unsure of her place with him.
He couldn't even remember what it was he'd asked her.
Oh, wait, he'd asked if she wanted to get back to civilisation.
"I don't know," she admitted finally, almost as if she were craving his acceptance or praise for her struggle.
He gave her a lopsided smile. "Good answer."
He turned and walked up the stairs, knowing that she was smiling serenely behind him, but also knowing that there was a woman in the cockpit waiting to learn how to fly his girl, to take her places that she'd only dreamed of. A woman who understood him.
A slow burn started in his heart, thawing the ice that had once formed there.
"Ready to get off this boat and back to civilisation?"
"I…uh. I don't know."
Good answer—pity it was the wrong one.