Disclaimer: They're all Whedon's.

Author's Note: My family has turned out a long line of Army, Navy, and Coast Guard servicemen, the most recent of whom is my favorite cousin. I'm as far from military myself as one can get without being Gandhi. I suppose I wanted to understand.

Evening on the Ground

by S. Risen

"Ben. What are you doing awake?"

"Gonna send me to bed, Mom?" Ben says, teasing. He's perched on the kitchen counter, a bar of real chocolate in his hand. Candy is precious, but no one begrudges him the little indulgences these days.

"You look like you could use a little sleep, honey," Inara says gently. She comes to stand next to him, musses his wild bangs.

"Mom." But for once he doesn't flatten them back down again.

Inara takes a moment just to look at him, to lay claim to the shape of his eyes, the delicacy of his cheekbones, and the twist of his black curls. The rest of his face belongs to Mal, down to the electric blue stare and the wryest mouth in the 'verse. Tonight of all nights she needs to commit him to memory.

"Mom?" His slightly panicky expression cuts short her musings. She realizes her eyes are welling up--hence the panic.

"Sorry, sweetie. I was only thinking."

He says, "What about?" even though he'd really rather avoid all this sentiment. She just called him sweetie. If Dad were here, there'd be no tears and no hair-mussing. They'd pull down some whiskey, get good and sloshed, and make fun of each other all night.

Wait, no, they wouldn't. Ben remembers belatedly that he and Dad aren't on speaking terms right now.

"Your father is proud of you, Ben," Inara says. She is no reader, and her life as a Companion is a quarter century behind her, but she remains a very intuitive woman.

"That why he called me a stupid hotheaded hun dan and offered to shoot me himself?"

Inara pauses to consider. "Yes."

Ben glares. "Does it get tiresome, Mom? Constantly translating from Dad to Sane People?"

She smiles with just one side of her mouth. "Sometimes it does. Mostly I'm used to it."

"Crazy old--"

"Ben." And suddenly Inara looks old. People rarely think of her that way; never mind the lines fanning from the corners of her eyes or the silver shooting through her black hair. But at the moment she's dark Mother Earth, timeless and stately with years. "You know your father fought in the Unification War."

"Yes, I know."

"That he spent eighty-two days in Serenity Valley with the Independents."

"Zoe's told me the stories, Mom," Ben says gently. "Poison gas and heat-seekers and strafers and exploding fruit. None of it changes my decision."

She almost wants to cry again at that, but he's already plenty uncomfortable. "I've long since resigned myself to the fact that the men in my life are immovably stubborn and impervious to reason. I'm not trying to change your mind."

This comes as something of a shock to the boy who's had his perspicacity, intelligence, and motives assaulted numerous times in the last week. "Then what are you trying to do?"

"No one wants to see you hurt or killed on some distant battlefield," Inara begins, diplomatic. Perhaps this is roundabout, but she doesn't know how else to say it. "But your father's worried about something different. Zoe once told me that... that Malcolm Reynolds really did die in Serenity Valley, that no one ever saw him again. It was a whole other man who surrendered to the Alliance. I met him long after, but... Well, honey, he doesn't want that for you."

Ben is quiet and still under the sodden weight of this version of the venerable family history. It is always bizarre to be confronted with the haunting mortality of his unbreakable father. It is unthinkable that Mom has no ulterior motive in telling him all of this. "You're sure this isn't part of your campaign to keep me here?"

"Quite sure. I just want you to understand... before you go."

"Understand Dad? Pffft."

"You're scaring the hell out of him, Ben," Inara says, a little wry. "There's no wrong in it; you're a man grown and free to join any army you like. Just don't leave angry."

Maybe she brushes her hand down his cheek before she slips away in a whisper of cotton nightgown. Perhaps it's her unruly hair swinging behind her. It might be nothing at all. Ben doesn't know, because he's got his eyes closed. He'll open them when she's gone.