Disclaimer: They're all Whedon's.

Author's Note: Set several months post-BDM.

Girl Talk

by S. Risen

"Can't sleep?"

Zoe mustered a smile, mostly because Inara's serene presence brought out the politeness in people. In truth Zoe had not come to the kitchen for conversation. She'd come for coffee, a brief stop on her way to the bridge to fiddle with dials and pretend to have a reason to be awake at this hour. Other nights Inara's warm velvet voice and respectful sympathy were a balm and a blessing; after all, it had been a good long time since Zoe'd had an honest-to-God female friend. But tonight the sight of those black hyacinth curls at the head of the table was less than welcome.

"You're on a boat full of gorram insomniacs," she said lightly, pawing through sealed packages in search of coffee grinds. Not the package of real ones, of course. She wasn't planning on wasting an expensive gift like that on one inconsequential sleepless night. At least, not before she convinced little Kaylee that such generosity was sweet but unnecessary, thank you very much.

"Or people with too much on their minds," Inara said softly, and there was a definite invitation there. Zoe felt eyes on her back and stiffened.

"Don't gotta be subtle, Inara," she said, still pleasant but plenty serious. She wasn't looking to be a grieving widow tonight.

"I'm sorry. I only thought..." the Companion said. Zoe was fair certain it was the Companion, and not the woman, who pitched the apology so beautifully and paused so artistically. She could just imagine the graceful bow of her long neck, the dark eyelashes fluttering down all abashed-like. She didn't blame her none, just wished she'd leave the—what did Mal call them?—the wiles in Shuttle One where they belonged. "I only thought... if you wanted to talk—"

"Thanks for offerin', but—"

"I'd rather not be here alone."

The words came out all rushed and awkward, like Inara didn't know her way around such confessions. It just figured, didn't it, that the woman would go heaviest on the Companioning when she was trying to ask for company.

Zoe just nodded, finished setting the coffeemaker to a steady drip, and took the chair at Inara's right hand. No one could accuse Corporal Alleyne of being sentimental, but she knew her way around girl talk as well as the next woman. Some was needed here; Zoe could tell by the look of things now she was paying attention. Rumpled nightwear, a face bare of makeup, and eyes diving into her teacup like the mysteries of the 'verse were written in the bottom of it—Inara looked about eighteen, wrestling with her first boy trouble. Maybe the Captain called her a whore again. Once upon a time that wouldn't have been worth the notice paid to a grasshopper in a plague of locusts, but these days it might be enough to cause some teacup pondering. It'd certainly be a shame after all the getting along they'd done these last three months since Inara decided to stay aboard. "Somethin' wrong?"

Inara abandoned the mysteries of the 'verse in favor of Zoe's calm inquiry. Good choice. "May I ask you something?"

"Don't know that I'll answer, but shoot."

"Do you know who or what Carina is?"

Well, that was about the last damn thing Zoe had expected. There was no hiding the surprise that registered on her face, certainly not from a trained Companion. She could still duck the question, though. "That's somethin' you'll need to ask the Captain about. Girl's his ghost, not mine or ours."

"Ghost?" Inara said quietly.

"Died on Shadow when the Alliance bombed it all to hell. But I told you, this ain't my story. Gotta ask Mal."

"Should I?" Inara said, her expression unreadable. Suddenly her teacup had become endlessly fascinating again.

"Well, how'd she come up in the first place?"

Inara's eyelashes fluttered, and in a trice Zoe was fixed with the deepest brown eyes she'd ever had occasion to stare into. "He said the name Carina in his sleep the other night. I think he was having a nightmare."

Zoe took a moment to wonder how Inara wound up in a position to hear what Mal said in his sleep, then decided to save those speculations for when she could make them in the Captain's hearing. "Did you ask him about it?"

"I didn't know whether it was a moon or a ship or a battle or... I didn't know whether it would be wise to ask."

Zoe's lips pursed. "So you asked me."

Inara sighed, looking like she wished she hadn't. "You needn't answer if you prefer not to." She rose from the table and moved to take her cup to the sink.

There were several ways this could end. Zoe considered them all, wondered what she would be willing to disclose were Inara any other member of the crew, and rested her elbows on the table. "First eighteen months of the war, all through Basic Training and up to the Battle of Du Khang, Sarge got letters from home fairly regular." Inara stopped, turned. "There were some from his Ma, but there were more from his sweetheart." Inara put the teacup down, settled back into her chair. "I saw a capture of her once," Zoe continued. "Little country beauty with copper hair and a smile like daisies openin' up."

"Carina."

"Yes." Zoe was trying hard to gauge the other woman's reaction, wondering if she was starting something here that would have Mal steaming mad at her for days. But Inara just looked curious, and a little bit like she was arranging puzzle pieces in her head that hadn't fit five minutes ago. "You're seein' where this is goin', I take it?"

"He lost his family and his lover when they hit Shadow," Inara said softly. Those big, dark eyes were going dewy now, Zoe noticed wryly. But there was something else there, too, something shrewd and knowing. "In my head she looks very much like Kaylee."

Penny for the smart lady. "Our girl bears a passin' resemblance to his, yes," Zoe said grudgingly. "But lover's a strong word. I'm not sayin' they didn't get up to stuff, 'cause they did, but it had a sorta... innocence to it."

Inara's smile and the arch of her eyebrow were deeply sardonic. "Innocence is not something I usually associate with Mal."

Zoe laughed. "You'd be surprised. He was a whole 'nother man then. Just barely more than a boy, really—not even old enough to buy a drink legal when he joined up."

"He must have been—"

"Just shy of twenty-one. Course, he was older'n a lot of the recruits. There were plenty eighteen, nineteen. I was an ancient twenty-three."

"I've tried to imagine him that young," Inara said, expression distant. "Before the war."

Zoe wasn't gonna let her say one thing and mean infinitely more. Ain't how girl talk works. "Before Serenity Valley," she corrected softly. Inara was quiet, conscious that the Valley was a wealth of pain for Zoe, too. But Zoe pressed on in spite of inevitable crushing defeat, as only a Browncoat was fool enough to do. Weren't no one could make somebody understand who hadn't seen it, but that didn't stop all this talking and trying. "You know the man you sometimes see when he's in a damn good mood and can afford to be generous with folk?"

"If by 'sometimes,' you mean 'once in an ice cold blue moon.'"

Zoe laughed at that. "More or less. Well, if you can believe it, that's the man Mal used to be. Really be."

Inara was quiet for a moment, perhaps missing what she'd never had, perhaps just sobered by the thought of the Captain and the aching space in his chest. "I can believe it." Her delicate head tipped so that curls spilled off her shoulder. "And he loved this Carina?"

In truth, Zoe had almost forgotten the starting point of this whole discussion. Weren't terribly surprising that Inara should remember, but it was somewhat unexpected that there was no hurt or resentment in that smooth face. "Never said. She certainly meant somethin' to him, though."

"Why did the post stop at Du Khang?" Inara asked, looking like she already knew.

"Corpses don't write letters."

Inara nodded sadly. "Well, I can't ask him about her now and pretend not to already know."

"Could make him a mite tetchy, findin' out we talked behind his back."

That full, sensuous mouth turned all manner of mischievous as Inara smiled like an imp with a plot. "I'll make it up to him."

Zoe chuckled. Likely the Captain would have her hide when he found out she was giving gorram seminars on the Life and Times of Malcolm Reynolds, but what was a secret between women and war buddies? Her coffee was ready, and she took it to the bridge where she could stargaze.