Note: post Objects in Space

She'd been crying - because of him. And she had promised herself the day she cried over Malcolm Reynolds would be the one she was leaving. So here she is, folding her clothes neatly and trying hard to ignore the way her hands tremble. There are so many reasons for her to leave. And one that overweighs all of them.

She loves him.

And that's why she has to go. Because when she saw him coming out of Nandi's room, still warm from her touch, it was Inara's undoing. Her heart broke into so many pieces she's not sure it can ever be whole again. Her world is collapsing and she never knew a man could suddenly be so important she was losing her mind. A man like him. Self-righteous, ill-mannered and impudent. A man whose eyes made her question everything she had ever learned about males, 'verse, and herself.

She won't cry because of him any more. She'll leave, no regrets and all graceful, like she'd been taught.

She won't glance back.

Mal leans back in the pilot's seat, head tilting to the side slightly as he looks out into his beloved black Stars glitter gently in the distance and he focuses absently on one of them. The muffled voices of his crew can be heard coming from the galley, fragments of conversations and laughter that is clearly Kaylee's. Mal runs his hand over his face with a sigh, tries to relax. They just got a wave and another job is on their way. Mal's got a hunch it will fill the void of their pockets alright.

But there are other voids that can't be filled. Like one in his heart.

"Sir?" Zoe 's voice pulls him out of his reverie.

"Yeah," he acknowledges curtly, spinning in his seat to face her. She's watching him with the air of a woman on the mission surrounding her and he has a strong suspicion she's been there for a while now.

She takes one step inside. "Sir, dinner's ready. Will you be joining us tonight?" she asks.

Will he? Most likely, no. He's not hungry. Neither for their protein fei-oo, nor for company. "'Preciate the bother, but no thanks," he gives her a small, half-forced smile. "Tell Jayne he can have my share," that said with the distinct air of finality, he spins back to his earlier position. Back to his solitude.

... or not.

"Is there anythin' else, Zoe?" he asks. He can feel her still hovering in the entrance.

"What's wrong, Sir?"

He breathes a sigh, eyes still on some non-existent spot in the space. "Nothin's wrong," he answers. It sounds like he's trying to convince himself rather than her, though. She picks up on it. Always does.

She moves closer, leans back against the control panel, arms folded over her chest. "Is this nothin' by any chance the only other one who ain't hungry tonight, Sir?" she asks in the tone that leaves no doubt as to whether she knows the answer.

That's a good one and he might laugh, but he's simply aching too much. He only shakes his head and so she doesn't press. Doesn't leave, either. A few more seconds pass before he speaks again, struggling for a dry, detached tone.

"She's leavin'."

A beat, in which Zoe is slightly taken aback and Mal is trying to pretend she's not even there. "May I ask why, Sir?" she utters finally.

Throat clearing. "I, uh... I slept with Nandi."

Another beat. Zoe ain't used to havin' the conversations of this kind with the Captain, but she's used to him being a son-of-a-bitch when it comes down to Inara. Still, he might've exaggerated a bit this time. "I can see, why, then," she comments in the tone she usually uses when he involuntarily hurts Kaylee.

He turns to look at her sharply. "No, it ain't like that--" he denies and wants to continue, but is obviously at a loss. He exhales, frustrated, before adding, "It didn't mean anythin'. Not how she thinks it did."

Zoe stares back. "Then why did you do it, Sir?" she asks seriously.

He doesn't have a ready answer for this. Shrugs one shoulder. "Dunno. I ain't been with a woman since... well, for a long time," he admits reluctantly. "And then there's 'Nara, strollin' 'round in her fancy dresses, all 'look but don't touch' and God help me, but she's drivin' me out of my gorram mind. Nandi..." he pauses, rubs the back of his neck somehow bashfully. "She was the strongest and the most real thing I've ever touched. And, attainable," he sighs. "'Nara's not. However I act... I'm never gonna be what she wants me to be. And now, she's leavin'," he ducks his head, looks into the eternal night outside. "And there ain't nothin' I can do 'bout it."

Zoe is looking in the same direction he is. She's deeply moved by his little speech. Shocked, too. Never before has he opened to her in this way. She wonders how she ought to react. Is she in any position to give him relationship tips? He's so dear to her she wishes him all the good things he doesn't think he deserves. But he does. Like no one else she knows.

"Why don't you start with askin' 'er to stay, Sir?" she offers quietly.

One corner of his mouth lifts in a cynical, painful smile. "I wish as hell it was that simple, Zoe."

"Sir," Zoe's voice is so firm he feels compelled to meet her eyes. "Can I ask you somethin'?"


"Do you love 'er?"

A beat. His eyes change rapidly and she doesn't need him to answer any more to know. But he needs to. When it comes down to love, this man is clueless. It might be funny, if it wasn't so tragic.

"Dunno," he says dismissively. Looks away again, as if sensing his eyes doing all the talking for him and not feeling comfortable with this at all. "I ain't no expert on--"

"Sir," Zoe insists. "Imagine she walks off Serenity and you never get to see 'er again. Never," she repeats with emphasis. "Can you imagine your life without 'er?"

He looks back at her intensively, and have his eyes gone even bluer? "Can't," he answers simply.

She nods, satisfied. "Take my advice, Sir. When you find a shred of happiness in this luh-suh world, hold onto it the best you can. Never let go."

He gives her a small smile and she feels that maybe she has managed to convince him a little. But she can't hope for much more. This is the Captain, after all.

Much, much later he's alone again, doing patrol around his boat. It's quiet, except for the low humming of the engine which he has become so finely attuned to, he can't tell his own heartbeat from it. Should calm him, but it doesn't. Not tonight. Not ever again, it seems. He's aching too badly. Can't go in there, can't stay away.

Ai ya, he thinks with resignation. Yòu lái le...

Goes back to his earlier conversation with Zoe.

When you find a shred of happiness in this luh-suh world, hold onto it the best you can. Never let go.

But is this really happiness, what they have? Can't be. It hurts too much, both him and her, and this is the most tragic thing that he should fall in love with a woman like her. What can he give her? Snappy one-liners that cover the fact he doesn't know half of the words she uses? A pair of hands that are so rough he's afraid they would damage her flawless skin? A scent of leather and gun-powder and blood when they'd lay down to sleep every evening? Tragic, indeed.

From the moment he laid his eyes on her he knew he could never have her. This made it so much easier to hurt her, over and over, calling her a whore, using every opportunity to demonstrate his contempt for her job. Yes, accepting that she was out of his reach made things certainly easier. So he insulted her, slept with other women, broke the eye-contact every time they got too close, too intense, when he couldn't help himself and when she would surely read everything from his face, even when his words were continuing to hurt her. Still, he was just a man. In love with a woman who could never be his and having to watch her go off to be with the ones that weren't him. That was pure anguish, covered by cynicism and fake indifference and hurtful words. He should've never agreed to their gorram business arrangement. All it ever brought was pain and jealousy and the world of ifs and maybes. And yet he knew, knew without any doubts, that his heart would break if she left him. He ached for her, yearned for her. Stole glances at her when she wasn't looking, like some gorram schoolboy. Tested her limits with his words, just to see how far he could push to make her smile/frown/pout/throw him outside of her shuttle. Always up for a fight, just to see colour rise in her cheeks, just to have those stormy eyes back on his. There were thousands of reasons for her to leave, and only one reason to stay.

He loves her.

Resigned, he stops and rests his forearms against the railing, looking down at the empty cargo bay. Life would be so much easier without women and their gorram feminine wiles, he tells himself grimly. What good has love ever done to a man? Can't focus on things that need to be done, can't think of much else except for 'er. Can't even have a good night's sleep without 'er showin' up, all sweet-smellin' and temptin' and--

When you find a shred of happiness in this luh-suh world, hold onto it the best you can. Never let go.

Sharply, he turns on his heels and starts towards her shuttle.

Can't help himself.

His mind is set on one thing: to get it over with. He can't do the leadin' when he's in that state. This has to end, or she'll drive him out of his gorram mind. No more stalling.

He barges in and she turns her head in his direction. Her brows lower at the impertinence of his intrusion and she opens her mouth, but before she can start their familiar game of hit-and-duck he raises his hands in defense.

"I ain't lookin' for a fight, 'Nara."

Now that's unexpected. She purses her lips, straightens. "Then you should've knocked," she points out dryly.

Despite his best efforts to behave, he feels his temper rise. "This is my gorram ship," he hisses.

"Well, as long as I'm still here, I pay you to knock, Captain," she retorts.

They glare at each other for a few tense seconds, before his features relax a bit and he gives her a tired smile. "So much for not fightin', huh," he comments, attempting at lightening the atmosphere. She sighs and after a moment returns his smile half-heartedly. They let themselves look at each other wordlessly for a little longer, before something catches his attention.

There are piles of clothes on her bed, all folded neatly, ready to be packed. His face darkens. The momentary truce is gone.

His eyes lift back to hers and the look he gives her leaves her aching in the worst way possible. She averts quickly, fixes her eyes on her feet. This is going to be so much harder than she thought.

They stand in front of each other, painfully desperate in their longing. Together in their need for each other, but left alone to deal with it. They are both adults, but vulnerable and helpless when faced with the reality of what can never be. Should've cut it in the bud while they still had a chance, but neither had been strong enough to do so. Tragic, indeed.

"You waved the Guild?" he asks, fighting to remain business-like.

"Yes," she nods, still not looking at him.

"So, uh... you'll be headin' for Sihnon?"

"That's the plan."

He nods, never taking his eyes off her face. It hurts him that she can't even look him in the eye. She owes him that. Or does she? a little voice in his head asks. You hurt her, you mean son-of-a-bitch. She's leaving because of you.

"Seems right to me. That's where you belong, after all, ain't it. Not 'round 'ere, minglin' with us common folk," he says.

She looks back at him sharply and instantly he knows that was the worst thing he could possibly say. He's hurt her, again. Wants to take it back, but doesn't know how. And that's the way it's always gonna be if she stays, he realizes. There is no going around that. They are no good to each other.

"I guess you're right," she answers in a slightly rough voice.

It's more than he can take. Takes an impulsive step forward. "You sure that's what you want, 'Nara?" he asks lowly. "To leave?"

She looks straight into his eyes, hers suddenly icily-cold. "I have no choice," she answers flatly.

He exhales, runs his hand through his hair in exasperation. Looks at her intently. "What about... the others? ( ... Me. What about me, for god's sake!...) What about Kaylee? She's gonna be devastated! How can you even--"

"How can I?" she explodes, her Companion indifference forgotten. She feels too deeply, hurts too badly. "How can you, you yu bun duh pyen juh duh nee hwoon-chiou!"

He grits his teeth, inhales through his nose sharply, eyes fixed on hers. "That's how they taught you to express dislike in the whore academy?" he asks mockingly.

Acting on her impulses, she slaps him across the face. His head turns aside with the impact of the blow and her eyes follow, her chest rising and falling madly, her eyes stormy.

He slowly looks back at her, his own eyes darkened, his skin burning where her palm made contact with it. "Knew you had it in you," he comments. Raises his hand, wipes away a little trail of blood from the corner of his mouth.

She snorts, turns away from him. Straightens. Tries to regain composure. "Leave. You're not welcome here," she says flatly.

A beat, and then he moves closer, stops directly behind her. She can feel his presence there, real and solid. Tears well up in her eyes. "'Nara--" he starts softly.

"Please," she cuts in. There's no longer anger there, it seems. Now she's simply unhappy. Now she's simply hurting. "Please, Mal. Go."

"What the hell were you thinkin'?" he mutters. His warm breath tickles the back of her neck and she closes her eyes. Tries to memorize the sensation that being this close to him gives her. "What were you thinkin' when you were choosin' this life? That you were never goin' to know what love feels like? Never goin' to know how it feels to be loved? Tell me."

"Loving is what my life is about," she slurs through the clenched teeth.

"I'm not talkin' 'bout sex, gorramit! Am talkin' 'bout fallin' in love, Inara."

She swallows back the lump of emotion. "I thought--" she starts and pauses, blinks hard to chase away the tears. "I thought if I ever fell in love, I'd quit."

"Then do it," he shoots back impulsively, his voice rough with the same emotion that's blocking her throat.

Out. Out in the open and there's no going back. They're both terrified. Both lost in the dark of their insecurities. Both so afraid of intimacy and yet yearning for it with every fiber of their beings.

"I can't," she breathes. Ceases fighting the tears and lets them run freely down her cheeks.

"Why not?" he asks. He's getting desperate now. Feels as if his whole life was about waiting for this particular moment, here with her. It's too much and not nearly enough, at the same time. He's trying to regain control, but it's slipping further and further away. "Is this... does this mean anythin' to you? Am I anythin' to you?"

She squeezes her eyes shut against hot tears. She wants to scream everythingeverythingeverything. "Dahng rahn," she says, in the most detached tone she can muster. "But I need purpose, Mal. I need my independence. What would I do if I quit my job? It's all I have left. It's all I am."

"Is that right," he comments, hurt beyond words. "So that's what you wanna do for the rest of your life? Fake love for money? Turn away every time it proves real? Every time you feel somethin' real?"

"Who says I feel anything?" she asks sharply, turning around to glare into his face. That's all she has left. Her feigned anger that is masking this bittersweet ache she feels.

He exhales, exasperated. "Is this some kinda twisted lil' game to you, woman?" he asks unsteadily. "Are you enjoyin' makin' me regret I was ever born? You're the worst gorram thing that ever happened to me, you know that?"

"Please. You're flattering me, Mal," she mocks him, but in the tone that is dangerously far from playful.

He runs his fingers through his hair in frustration. "Maybe it ain't such a bad idea after all, you leavin'," he says through the clenched teeth.

He breaks her heart. With everything he says, everything he does, he's breaking her heart over and over again. "I should've made that decision ages ago, yes. I wonder what took me so long," she retorts harshly, hoping it'll cover the hurt. "Had I known this ee da tuo go se was captained by such an arrogant bastard, I would never have set my foot on board in the first place."

"Nobody forced you to, for heaven's sakes!" he explodes. Her face is all he's seeing. "You stroll 'round my boat all dressed up and mighty, lookin' down on all of us--"

"That's not true!" she cuts in, offended.

"--usin' every opportunity to humiliate me in front of my crew, callin' me names--"

"I'm calling you names! Unbelievable!"

"--criticisin' everythin' I do--"

"That's because you're reckless!"

"Yeah, I'm also arrogant, ignorant, ill-mannered... oh, and don't we dare forget petty!" he finishes mockingly.

"Now you're just taking pity on yourself," she shoots back.

"Right! 'Cause what else I got left? Whatever I do, I'm never goin' to be good enough for you!" he says impulsively, desperate.

That's shuts her up efficiently. She stares at him and he stares back, gradually realizing what he's just said.

"Mal," she starts softly.

"Don't bother," he hisses. He needs to get out. He's made an idiot out of himself, he always did when it came down to her. He realizes he's had damn near enough. He's gorram tired of being spun about by her, of being played, over and over again. He's done with struggling to understand why he's feeling the way he is. He loves her, but it's the kind of love that leaves you hurting and confused and praying for the blank mind. That makes you weaker instead of stronger.

He starts towards the entrance, but she calls his name and he stops. Like a gorram puppy.

"Is that really what you think?" she asks quietly. "That you're not good enough for me?"

His head turns to the side slightly, but he doesn't face her. It'd be too much. "Every time I forget, you're there to remind me, 'Nara."

She bites her lower lip, stifling a sob. She's a queen of deception. She's even managed to deceive herself. But right now, her feelings are raw and he's here, in the same room. Just him and her. And there's no going back.

He's all the names she's ever called him. He's also the most solid thing she has ever met. He's so real it hurts. But he makes her feel real - makes her lift off all of her perfectly shaped masks - and God help her, she loves this man with everything that she is.

"If it's okay with you--" she starts softly. His eyes are already on hers. She meets them from underneath her lashes. "I'd like to stay and keep reminding you till you finally absorb it with your little petty brain."

A beat.

He turns to her slowly and their eyes meet. They are a few feet away from each other and she's never longed to touch him this badly.

"This is no joke, 'Nara," he mutters. He craves her reassurance so much it's physically hurting.

"No joke," she echoes.

He reaches for her and she comes to him, burrowing herself in his arms, pressing her face into his neck, finally, finally allowed. There's no other place she can ever be from now on, she realizes.

He knows she won't quit.

She knows he won't share.

But this, what they have, is maybe worth a compromise of some sorts.


luh-suh - crappy

fei-oo - junk

ai ya - damn it

yòu lái le - here we go again

yu bun duh - stupid

pyen juh duh - stubborn

nee hwoon-chiou - no good bastard

dahng rahn - of course

ee da tuo go se - big lump of crap

Thanks to ceslas for suggestions and wonderful beta work!