Mal spent another week and a half with her on Sihnon, traveling through that routine and slowly remembering parts of it as though they were a dream.
Inara took him to the mountain look-out and he found he really liked it too. They spent hours on that overhang and it was so sweet to just sit there, arms about each other, looking out quietly on that pause between sun and moon.
Inara had to force the massage on him at first but once he realized where it usually led he anticipated it with boyish eagerness and even got her to surrender a book on massage so he could try and awkwardly return the favour.
He re-read all she had read to him with genuine admiration and she saw the shine of his intelligence refined through education. He had read much of what she had chosen himself back home. His mother had been a fine home school teacher.
Inara insisted the time was necessary for his healing. Mal pretended to believe her and soaked up pretending she just wanted him to stay—not realizing she really did.
They both knew what loomed on the horizon. They both knew the crew deserved relief after their anxious waiting.
But turning away from that finally released love was unbearable in those first days. No matter that it was a false joy without understanding to make it real. No matter that they avoided speaking about anything of consequence.
Just being together, just touching, just spending their days with only each other was enough at first.
Inara knew she could not explain to Mal that she had never had a lover like him before. Not one for just herself. Not one she could take from instead of giving only.
So she didn't tell him.
Mal was trying to imagine going back to Serenity without her and he couldn't anymore. He knew it was impossible but he wanted both. He wanted his beautiful old ship with its haven of freedom. And he wanted this improbable woman who had filled his days and nights with pleasure and called him home to himself.
But after a week and a half they both knew the words waiting to be said could no longer be denied. So as they ate a lazy lunch together by her window Mal finally dared, with gloomy dread, to broach the horizon.
"How did the crew get me out of that prison 'Nara?"
She paused, almost imperceptibly, but after his time with her he had finally learned her nuances. She was reluctant to tell him but resolved to be truthful so she would.
"They didn't. I did."
He looked at her curiously, "You did? How'd you do it?"
She finally explained to him everything she had done watching his eyes widen. She described the endless paperwork and how she fined the prison and earned Jayne's admiration. It made Mal laugh and she kept it light.
But when she finished he looked at her with gratitude, "I owe you more thanks than I thought I did."
She could see him reviewing the facts in his mind then pausing, "Who actually collected me? It wasn't you was it?"
Her face betrayed her. This was the one thing she hadn't wanted to tell him. He moved closer to her, "Oh God 'Nara…."
She shook her head, trying to keep herself steady, "I was there the first moment in your cell. You were on the floor and I couldn't tell if you were bleeding. I had to let a medic tend you while I argued with the Head of the Prison."
She had planned to keep it short but once she started all the rest tumbled out against her will, "I didn't even know if you were alive and I had to pretend I didn't care!"
She told him what she had said and how she hadn't actually seen him again until he arrived at Sihnon. And then she dissolved into humiliating tears. She tried to push him away, "I'm fine. This is silly!"
But Mal grabbed her fiercely, "Don't you dare try to bury this! I can't imagine what you've been through. 'Nara if I had to take you out of a prison broken and bleeding and so close to death it could go either way and then look after you in a state like I was in…..I don't know what I'd do. I think a part of me would die."
She met his eyes then and they knew. All those unspoken 'I love you's from this past week and a half had narrowed to this one that hung with silent chorus in the air.
"It did," she breathed, "It did. Mal, what would I do if something happened to you?" She had his face between her hands and watched it pinch with emotion.
"What would I do?" she said again helplessly.
Mal took those smooth, beautiful hands in his own, "Same thing I'll do when you tell me you can't come back to Serenity."
Inara's face registered surprise but he gave her no time to speak, "Always thought I just wanted you because you were something I could never have." He admitted, "But I was wrong. I just…want you. And it seems like an impossible thing. Freedom means something different to both of us. All the ways I want to use to show you how I feel mean nothing to you because of what you are. I have nothin' to offer you, not really."
"You think I can't see what is genuine?" Inara choked, "You think I put you in the same category as…as clients? Mal, I see what you feel for me and it's precious to me. What you offer is something I can take. You can't know what that means for me. And I never thought you would offer it after what I did. I thought you would hate me for using my training to save you."
"Weren't your training that saved me," he said gruffly, "It was you. It was you with me in that prison, not a Companion with fancy learning, not an untouchable woman always out of reach."
He watched her eyes fill up with tears, "But is that what you want?" he asked, "What do you want me to see: you or the companion?"
"I thought there was only the companion," she confessed.
His face changed then. She saw his thoughts clearly as he realized it: for him there had only been the one identity as well, after the war. He had carried, it, embraced it, protected himself with it all this time.
She smiled, "And then I met you."
He smiled back, "And then I met you," he echoed with humour.
"Ask me to come back with you," she said in a low voice, face turning serious.
His eyes widened like saucers, "What?"
"You heard what I said."
"Doesn't mean I believe it. You really mean it?"
Her face changed then and he never questioned her again.
"Come back with me to Serenity 'Nara," he said softly, "I don't want to go home without you."
She let herself get wrapped up in his arms then, "You are my home," she confessed, "I never thought I would have one. I never thought I would need one."
His face changed then, a subtle shifting towards happiness that never wavered after that.
"You are…" he struggled to say it, unsure of the wording and she read it in his face, that happiness.
"You make me happy," he finally conceded, "Never thought I'd want that again, or find it. I promise we'll compromise. I'll make sure I give you what you want too."
As if walking away from Sihnon was a huge sacrifice.
She shook her head at him, her face saying she already had everything she wanted and something burst inside him, though he wouldn't tell her, tried to keep it hidden, but failed. A nice glow of joy was showing in his eyes.
She touched his face and then they stood and walked back inside. It was time to call the others. It was time to go home.