Author's Note: Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's been a wild and very fun ride, and now, at last, this tale comes to its end. I'm quite proud of it, though I would never claim that it is without flaws. Some time in the future, I may go back and fix some of those plot holes--yes, I realize now that I missed the police's reaction to the dead Vharaj. I had the flu--that's my excuse and I'm stickin' to it!--so let's just say that the Doctor had covered the body with his great long coat, yes? (And he would NEVER let ANYONE stuff and display an alien corpse. That's so...tacky. And I don't think Mal would have asked. Jayne might have, but that's the man-ape-gone-wrong for you. :D) Thank you all for coming on this journey with me, and I hope you'll rejoin me for future stories! You're a great audience, and I love hearing from you!
And now, please, enjoy the ending of "The Man With No Name" (someday I may think of a better title, too, but this is such a classically Western title, I couldn't help it!). I know I certainly did! But then, I'm a hopeless romantic...
Final Doctor Quote of the Day: "Knowing's easy; everyone does that ad nauseam. I just sort of hope." --The Fourth Doctor, "State of Decay"
Final Firefly Quote of the Day:
Inara: Well, since I can't seem to find work as Companion, I might as well become a petty thief like you!
Inara: I didn't mean petty.
Mal: What did you mean?
Inara: Suo shee?
Mal: That's Chinese for petty. --Inara and Mal, "Trash"
Through this world I've stumbled
So many times betrayed
Trying to find an honest word to find
The truth enslaved
Oh, you speak to me in riddles,
And you speak to me in rhymes
My body aches to breathe your breath
Your words keep me alive...
–Sarah McLachlan, "Possession"
Inara found Mal on the catwalk, watching the rest of the crew play a ball game down below in the hold. The Doctor had, with very little pleading from Kaylee, gamely put on a t-shirt in lieu of his usual button-down and joined in. He was not, Inara noticed, proving much of an asset to his team, although he seemed to be very good at tripping up Jayne. The game itself was extremely lopsided, since Zoe couldn't play and it was, with the addition of the Doctor, now uneven. But so far as she had ever been able to tell, the game didn't have any rules anyway, and so it hardly mattered.
"You should join in," she told Mal, coming up beside him. "It looks like Jayne and Simon are outnumbered."
"It's good for 'em," said Mal, smiling faintly. He looked less tired, with nearly three days' recovery behind him. She could not quite dislodge the memory of his dead face, though. "Jayne should always be outnumbered, anyway," he added. "That's a law of the universe. Or it should be."
She smiled at this, and they spent several minutes' comfortable silence watching the noisy game below.
"I offered him a place with us, you know," said Mal finally. "The Doctor. I told him he could stay."
"He turned you down."
"Yeah. Can't say I was terribly surprised; man's a born leader. Can you imagine the kinda ruckus raised, havin' he and I on the same boat? He looked pleased, though."
"I think..." Inara paused, considering. "I think he must be terribly lonely. I can't imagine what it must be like, to be the only one left of all your kind. To live so long, and see so much. I remember, when he faced down Vharaj, that I couldn't believe I'd ever thought him human. He was so...different. Terrifying. But watching him now, down there, playing, I wonder if what I saw then was only my imagination."
"He is different," said Mal. "But in the ways that really count, he's just like us, 'Nara. Just like us," he repeated, softly, and glancing at him Inara saw that his gaze was very distant, seeing something in his thoughts, or his memory, something that brought a light to his eyes she'd never seen before. After a moment, though, he seemed to shake himself. "I told him he was welcome to come and visit us anytime," he said. "He said he would, and gladly. Apparently, he promised Kaylee a trip in his ship, and he's been badgering Zoe about baby names since we left Paquin, so I expect he'll turn up once she's had the kid. Man got downright giddy about it. It's a wonder Zoe hasn't shot him yet, way he's been 'suggesting' names. He does seem to be trying not to give away the baby's sex, even though he's coming down awfully heavy on the girl names. He keeps it up, and she might just shove him out the airlock."
Inara laughed. "I thought she seemed irritated."
"I hope he does come back, and welcome," said Mal, "and that ain't something I say about many folk–though I hope he won't bring such trouble with him again."
"Come on, Mal, that wasn't his fault."
"Maybe not–but from what he's said he surely does find it nonetheless." He snorted softly. "Though he was a big help smoothing things over with Badger."
Inara laughed. "Yes, I saw that thing he hauled out of his ship. What was that, anyway? His explanation didn't make any sense."
"Near as I can tell, it's some kind of toy he picked up on some alien planet–and I can't tell you how weird it is hearin' me say that. Bio-technology, he called it. Looks real and acts real, but ain't much more than a fancy robot. Badger was in transports over it, when I showed him the vid. I think he might even be so happy he springs a bonus on us."
"No." Mal grinned. "But seein' as our luck has actually been something resembling good these past few days, a man can hope. I find I can hope a lot of things, lately..."
Silence fell, and this was, while not uncomfortable, not easy, either. Inara knew the source of the sudden tension; they'd both spent the past several days avoiding it. But she knew they couldn't ignore it much longer, or it might fester and destroy this fragile peace. She took a deep breath. "Mal...did you mean it?"
She saw the tension enter the line of his shoulders. "Mean what, exactly?"
She forced down the frustration, though it was hard. He could be so difficult. "When we were trying to escape the Renier building, the first time. Don't play games, Mal. I've had a lifetime of those.Did you mean it? Or did you just say it to get me to move?"
Now it was his turn to brace himself. "I meant every word of it," he said, very quietly.
Inara let out the breath she hadn't known she was holding. "Good," she said, just as softly.
He pushed off the rail, then, turning to face her. "'Nara...you're a free woman. What I feel for you...you aren't bound or beholden to me in any way. Whatever you decide to do, wherever you go in this life...it's your decision. I'm not lookin' to tie you down. I don't...own you. I–I can't offer you what you deserve. I'll never be able to do that. But, for whatever it's worth and whatever you decide to do with it...my heart is yours, and always will be." Then, looking like he couldn't quite believe he's said all of that out loud, he turned back to the game going on below. A red flush crept up his neck.
She kept her face serene, out of habit more than anything, but inside it felt as though a star had lit up. This must be what joy is, she thought.
And that was Mal, to the fingertips, contradictory to the end. Offering her freedom, such as no one had ever offered her, and in the same breath handing her his heart and soul–and apparently expecting her to take it and run.
If there was one lesson she'd finally learned–and it had taken her longer than it should have–it was that the only thing to do when given a heart was to offer yours in exchange. And that it wasn't prison, or a battle lost, but the best kind of freedom for both sides. That there really were bonds to set you free.
She let her smile escape as she watched the cheerful play going on below. Jayne had finally gotten fed up with the Doctor getting in his way, and currently had the Time Lord in a headlock. Kaylee was trying–without notable success–to free the man, demanding that Simon help her, but the young doctor was laughing so hard he could do little. Zoe, from her chair on the sidelines, grinned and rubbed her belly absently. Inara could almost see Wash, standing at her shoulder, grinning with her, and the Shepherd not far away. "Mal," she said, after a moment. "Will you marry me?" She kept her tone conversational, as though they were discussing the weather.
He didn't take his eyes off the byplay below. "Hell, yeah," he said, in the same conversational voice. But she saw, out of the corner of her eye, the slow smile spread across his face, and a few seconds later felt his fingers close over hers. Then he did catch her eye, and she saw in his eyes the same joy she knew was in her own.
Down below, left in an open space by the game's interruption, River began to dance.
is me for forever
One without a name
These lines the last endeavor
To find the missing lifeline
Walk the dark path
Sleep with angels
Call the past for help
Touch me with your love
And reveal to me my true name