Hearts in Armor

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters, though I do love them dearly.

Rating: PG

Timeline: Two weeks post-BDM.

Summary: The reason Inara left Serenity the second time.

Author's Note: This is a backstory of sorts set within the framework of my other stories, which are Mal/River in nature. For those who are Mal/River shippers, please don't worry. I have not defected. To the Mal/Inara shippers who might take time to read it, no disrespect is intended. You see, I love them all.

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Mal leaned his head back against the couch in Serenity's crew lounge. Two weeks back in the Black and nowhere close to healed physically nor emotionally, he closed his eyes and tried to suspend all thought.

He could hear the sounds of the crew settling in for the night. Kaylee's giggles answered by Simon's low murmurs made him smile just a bit. Good that something decent came out of the whole Miranda situation, he thought idly. Least Kaylee was smiling, and Simon seemed almost relaxed now and again.

Of course, maybe some of that had to do with River's growing stability. It did Mal good to see her steadily gaining a solid footing. Maybehaps she really would be all right.

Jayne's snores reminded Mal that he really should be getting to his own bunk, but somehow he couldn't quite work up the energy to move just now. So he sat, drifting in and out of sleep, until he was awakened by the shifting of the couch beside him.

Pulling himself up straight, he winced at the pain in his side, still throbbing from the brutal thrust of the Operative's sword.

"I'm sorry, Mal," Inara said. "I didn't mean to jar you."

"'S'alright," Mal said, running the fingers of one hand through his hair. "What're you doin' up so late?"

Inara sighed. "Couldn't sleep. Thought I might have a cup of tea, but somehow…"

"You weren't in the mood for it," Mal finished when she faltered.

"Guess not," she acknowledged.

They sat in silence for awhile, both casting about for a safe subject. Inara sighed again, shivering a little in the chill of Serenity's night. Mal got up and found a blanket. Wrapping it around her gently, he said, "What's goin' on, 'Nara?"

His tone was so unexpectedly forlorn that Inara found herself fighting back tears. "I don't know, Mal," she answered shakily. "Everything's so…"

"So what?"

Breathing deeply, she answered, "So complicated. Do you remember when I first rented the shuttle, I told you I supported unification?"

Mal's jaw tightened unconsciously. "Ain't somethin' I'm like to forget."

"Well, I was telling you the truth. I didn't just support it by default. I really felt that the Alliance held the best hope for all the worlds spinning."

"And now?"

Inara looked up at Mal, her tears beginning to flow in earnest. "And now, how can I live with that? How could I not have known what the Alliance was capable of?"

"Plenty of folks didn't know," Mal answered soothingly.

"The Guild supports the Alliance wholeheartedly. It serves the bests interests of Companions to do so. How can I live with that, knowing what I know now? What am I going to do?"

Mal pulled her into his arms, offering the only comfort he could. "Don't rightly know, 'Nara. Seems to me you got options, if you're willin' to take them." He looked at her steadily, willing her to see the truth of his words.

Inara shook her head sadly. "You don't understand, Mal. You never have. Being a Companion, it's not just what I do. It's who I am. It's all I've wanted to be as far back as I can remember."

"All you ever wanted?" Mal asked, emphasizing the "all". He could not really comprehend such a thing.

"Yes," Inara said. "I know you find that difficult to believe, considering your own thoughts as to the nature of my profession. But it's true, Mal. And now, I'm…floundering somehow. I don't know how to …" She paused, trying to stem the tide of her tears. "To find my way."

"Sometimes life takes you places you didn't intend on goin', 'Nara," Mal said, thinking tiredly about his own journey. "Ya' gotta just keep getting' up and adjustin' course."

"Wind blows north, you go north." Inara repeated his earlier statement.

Mal nodded.

Inara shook her head, unwilling to accept such a philosophy. "I don't think I can do that. I need…"

Mal reached up to brush her tears away with the pad of his thumb. "You need what?"

Inara caught his hand, and turned to brush her trembling lips softly along the hollow of his palm. Her beautiful almond eyes met his, and the fear and desperation Mal saw there twisted painfully deep in his belly.

"What do you need, Inara?" he repeated in a hoarse whisper.

She slid fluidly into his lap, burying her face against his neck. Instinctively, his arms wrapped more tightly around her, cradling her to him. Trailing soft kisses along his neck and jawline, Inara began to move more urgently against him.

Engulfed in the scent of jasmine and lavender, Mal turned to capture her lips. She tasted of cinnamon and honey, and he took time to savor the taste on his tongue, as she parted her lips, granting him access. Pulling back finally for air, she whispered, "Come to my shuttle."

Mal shook his head, trying desperately to dispel the mental images of what happened regularly in her shuttle from his mind. "No, my bunk."

Realizing the source of his objections, Inara forced the thoughts of his contempt for her profession out of her mind. She allowed him to lead her to his bunk. When she reached the bottom rung of the ladder, she turned gracefully into his arms as if she'd done this very thing a thousand times before. The thought came, unwelcome to Mal's mind, that perhaps she had. Pushing the anger that came immediately on the heels of that thought out of his mind, he moved to kiss her again, sliding his hands under her thin robe.

Desperate for more contact, Inara shrugged out of her robe, and began to divest him of his clothing as well. In less time than he could have imagined possible, she stood pressed against him, skin to skin.

She was so beautiful, Mal thought, the perfect male fantasy come to stunning life. Skin so smooth and soft, hair so silky under his questing fingers. And her hands, ghosting up his back with such exquisite delicacy, setting his nerve endings on fire. As he moved them toward to narrow bed, she turned just so, artfully igniting a burning hunger in him to possess her wholly. No words were spoken, no instructions given, no gentle endearments exchanged as they buried their desperate fears and doubts in the feel of flesh on flesh.

Wanting with an unholy desire to drive the apprehension from her eyes, Mal gave Inara what he could of himself, and she reciprocated in kind, trying urgently to quell their private horrors. But when finally their motions stilled, and they lay quietly beside each other, Mal felt with despair an odd numbness. He had envisioned this moment for so long, in dreams and fantasies too numerous to count, and yet, lying there beside Inara, her back pulled firmly against his chest, he felt only a certain sad pity for them both, lost in ways he couldn't have imagined.

Inara, too, lay still, trying not to reveal that she was crying. Though physically sated, she felt strangely empty, as if her soul had been hollowed out in the fire of their previous passion. Both lay awake through the night, feigning sleep and thinking that surely tomorrow it would be better, different somehow.

But the next day was no better, nor the next. At the end of their first week of sharing Mal's bed, they were both exhausted from the strain.

"I wish you wouldn't go," Inara said, brushing her hair angrily. "You know you can't trust the contact."

Pulling on his boots, Mal said, "I got no notion to discuss this with you, Inara. Crew's gotta eat, and Serenity's gotta have fuel. Period."

"There is bound to be a better way to make money than this," she said with a hiss, trying to keep her voice down so that the crew would not hear. She and Mal had agreed readily enough not to divulge their relationship to the others.

"Let me know when you come up with one. 'Til then, don't think to tell me what to do on my own gorram ship, no matter that we share a bed." Mal climbed the ladder rungs, eager to be away before he said something worse.

Inara sat, stung by the venom in his tone. Nerves stretched taut by the whole situation, she waited until she heard the crew leave the corridors to climb out of Mal's bunk and return to her shuttle unseen. She tried to meditate, but the exercise did little to calm her.

When Mal returned hours later, sporting a few new bruises and limping to the infirmary to have Simon examine the still-healing wound in his side for any new tearing, Inara waited anxiously on the catwalk. Seeing that he had no intention of talking to her, she turned away, heartsick at the rift between them.

That night, unsure about what to do, she found Mal in the galley, nursing a glass of Jayne's whiskey, and looking to be in a foul temper. She was tempted to back away from the doorway, but he motioned her forward, eliminating the possibility of retreat. Drawing in a deep breath, he said, " Sorry 'bout earlier, 'Nara. Just got a lot on my mind. Didn't mean to take it out on you."

She nodded her acknowledgment, suddenly hopeful that the tension would be eased between them. "I just worry about you, Mal. What you do is so dangerous."

Mal scowled. "Ain't no way around that out here, 'Nara. Best be getting' used to it."

Something about the finality with which he uttered the statement set Inara's teeth on edge. "There are other things one can do to earn money, Mal."

Mal looked at her, anger and resentment making his blue eyes glint dangerously. "Like whorin', maybehaps?" He was instantly sorry the words had come out, but not one gorram bit sorry for the sentiment.

Inara straightened her back proudly. "It seems to me you've been enjoying the benefits of my skills for a week now." She felt suddenly horrified by the statement, but would not think of retracting it now.

Mal gripped the table edge until his knuckles were white with the effort. "If I wanted a whore, Inara, I'd have paid for you long ago. I was hoping to get the real woman, but maybe there isn't one to be had."

Inara jumped up from the table, too broken by his words to stay and fight. She ran to her shuttle, leaning against the door to catch a ragged breath. Determined not to let this hundan of a man defeat her so utterly, she sank to the floor and cried hot, bitter tears of anger and doubt.

Hearing the fall of his footsteps outside the door, she mustered the strength to say coldly, "Go away, Mal. You're not welcome here."

"Don't recall askin'," he said, coming through the door like an angel of wrath. Catching sight of her crumpled on the floor in a sad heap, his anger was instantly replaced by something akin to remorse. He dropped to his knees beside her. "I can't so this, 'Nara. We ain't got a leg to stand on, far as I can see."

Inara looked up, eyes red-rimmed and shoulders still shaking. "What's the matter with us, Mal?" she said, desperation in her tone.

"Too much to tell, I'm thinkin'," he answered truthfully, altogether too sober for this conversation. He helped her up, and pulled her stiff form into an embrace. "Don't give your heart to everything I say, Inara. I ain't exactly the most tender man in the 'verse."

Inara snorted, melting a little in his arms. "Stay here tonight?" she asked, torn between wanting him to answer affirmatively and hoping he'd say no to release them both from the awful spell they seemed to live under. He kissed her gently, the taste of whiskey making her nose wrinkle. "Come back to my bunk." Powerless against the pull, she went.

For the next week, Mal and Inara danced their oddly painful dance, hoping to find a rhythm that both could move comfortably to. But for every glorious physical sensation they experienced together, there were treacherous moments that kept them forever at arms-length, protected by armor neither could penetrate. Trying to achieve a united balance, they spun dizzyingly apart. Unwilling or unable to bend, they found themselves teetering dangerously at the breaking point again and again. Finally, too exhausted to fight, they lay down arms.

Inara found Mal sitting in the cockpit, staring blankly out at the Black. "Mal," she said softly, "I've decided something."

Mal looked at her bleakly. "What's that?"

She swallowed thickly. "I'm going away. Going to teach at the Training House again. I need…"

As an act of self-preservation, this time Mal did not prompt her to continue, filled with the certainty that the numbness he felt was an improvement to the alternative.

Inara cleared her throat, continuing more strongly. "I need to get back to the girls, to a normal life."

Mal nodded slowly. "If that's what you want, I'll get you there soon's I can."

"Is that all you have to say?" Inara asked, hating the half-way hopeful tone of her voice.

"What else is there?" Mal asked flatly, too tired to begin their dance again.

"Nothing," Inara answered, her voice suddenly small. She turned away, leaving Mal to sit alone on the bridge.

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