Conflagration—Part One

Author: malgalfan

Disclaimer: Don't own anything, much less these lovely characters.

Rating: PG13

Summary: This story takes place two months after the events of "Fever". Mal and Inara have a strong disagreement that leads to a troublesome event.

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As Inara reached up to retrieve the tin of tea from one of the galley cabinets, Mal's arms encircled her waist from behind. She leaned back into his warmth and purred softly as his hands cupped her breasts.

"Mornin', darlin'," he whispered against the shell of her ear. "Why didn't you wake me before you left?"

"I thought you could use the extra sleep, with Badger's job coming up today," she said, pulling away from his grasp. "And I knew Zoe and Jayne would probably be up earlier than usual as well."

Mal frowned, reaching out for her again. "What's wrong, bao bei?" he asked.

"Nothing's wrong," she answered defensively.

"Uh huh," Mal said. "Then why are you pullin' away when I touch you?"

Inara looked up at him, a faint flush on her cheeks. "It's nothing," she said. At his skeptical look, she added, "I thought we agreed to keep our…relationship a secret. Anybody could just walk in here and catch us together. We are in the galley, after all."

Mal chuckled low in his throat, pulling her to him again. "Didn't seem to bother you two nights ago," he said, ghosting his lips along her throat. "When we were in here and you were pushed up against the…"

"That was in the middle of the night, Mal," she protested, breathless from the path his hands were taking. "Everybody was asleep."

"Haven't you ever heard of a midnight snack?" Mal asked teasingly, nibbling at her earlobe.

"Mal," she said as firmly as she was able.

Sighing, he let her go. "I was thinkin'," he began. "After the job today, the crew might like a little time to pick up sundries and such. Thought we might stay dirtside for the night. Maybehaps you and me could go out on the town, have a meal with actual food, find a little inn or somethin'. Whaddya say?"

Inara smiled prettily. "That sounds lovely, Mal. It truly does. Perhaps another time. I'm…" She took a deep breath, having dreaded this moment since she'd come to her decision a few days ago. "I'm not sure I'll be back in time."

Mal had the horrible feeling he was going to really hate her next words. "Back from where?" he asked softly.

Inara wrapped her arms across her chest in an unconscious defensive posture. "I have an appointment with a client," she said softly.

Mal's heart lurched painfully against his ribcage. "You what?"

"I have an appointment with a client," Inara repeated.

The silence stretched between them like a chasm too wide to cross as they stared at each other, both painfully aware that this moment could potentially crush the fragile, precious thing growing between them.

Wanting to scream with the pain of it, Mal's voice cutting through the silence was low and deadly. "You mean to say," he ground out, "that you intend to go back to bein' a…" He almost said the hateful word, but somehow reined it in. "Bein' a Companion after what we've been doin' for the past two months?"

Inara squared her shoulders, ready to do battle now. "Mal, I've given this a lot of thought. I never intended to stop being a Companion. But after Miranda, I needed some time to pull myself together. And now I have. So, I'm ready to go back to work. And Persephone seems an ideal place to start."

"You expect me to just stand here and let you do this?" Mal asked, the anger in his voice like a lash across her heart.

"I don't expect you to 'let' me do anything," Inara said, the steel in her voice matching her resolve. "I'm perfectly capable of making my own choices, Mal. And being a Companion is my choice. It is a profession for which I have trained, and one in which I excel." She tossed her head defiantly, fire flashing in her eyes. "And not you, nor any other man, has a right to dictate to me what I can and cannot do."

Mal's fists clenched at his sides, as he took an involuntary step forward. "So, what is it exactly we been playin' at the last two months, 'Nara? You just been honin' your skills? Didn't wanna get rusty? That it?" he spat out.

Inara drew her body to its full height and replied venomously, "My skills don't require any honing, a fact which should be patently obvious to you." With that, she turned on her heel and swept out of the galley, leaving Mal staring stonily in her wake.

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Through sheer dent of will, Mal got through the job without giving in to the urge to kill Badger. Never a big fan of the pompous, little double-crossing hundan, Mal was amazed that this time Badger seemed to have no ulterior motives. Or perhaps it was simply that Badger, ever sensitive to danger to his own hide, could detect that Mal was in a semi-murderous mood when he walked into Badger's lair. Either way, the job went well enough, and Mal had given everyone their cut of the coin and sent them off for some much needed downtime. Most often when Serenity was dirtside, Mal stayed aboard unless there was a specific job to do, and it was usually pleasant to him to have Serenity to himself for awhile. But now, he found himself staring at the clock, willing Inara to come back from her client more desperately with each passing minute. Admittedly, he and Inara had, over the course of their acquaintance, spent more time quarreling than not, he thought. But since they had allowed themselves to become physically intimate, they had rarely exchanged unpleasantries. And now, what Mal had feared most about opening up to her had come to pass. He felt as if he had been stabbed through the heart, and he had given Inara the weapon to accomplish it. He had fallen in love with her.

Pacing through Serenity's corridors, he struggled with himself about how to handle the situation when she returned. He knew, with the reasonable part of his brain, that he didn't have the right to demand that Inara choose him or her profession, but another more primitive part of him was angry that there would even be any question about the matter. How could she ask that he share her with other men? he thought, his heart raging at the idea. And yet how could he not accept her decisions? His mind flashed to the defensive way she'd held herself under his verbal assault.

Thinking that a walk in the fresh air might calm his fevered thoughts, Mal stepped out quickly into the bustle of the Eavesdowne docks. As he walked aimlessly through the crowded streets, he shivered in the chill night air. Having left his coat and gunbelt on Serenity in his haste, he felt somewhat naked and turned back toward the direction he had come. Maybehaps Inara would be back by now, he thought, the notion carrying both hope and trepidation.

Suddenly, from the shadows, two men appeared, blocking his path with weapons drawn. "Malcolm Reynolds," the first man said calmly. "Come with us."

Mal opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut as he felt the cold steel of a gun muzzle placed behind his right ear. Two men flanked him from behind as well. "Whoa now," Mal said lightly as he held up his hands. "No need to get tetchy."

The first man replied flatly, "Captain Reynolds, I'd advise you to come with us without any undue fuss." He motioned with the gun for Mal to step forward.

Mal walked between the men, weighing options as he went. Within scant minutes, the four men had herded him toward a waiting hovercraft. Knowing his chances of escape narrowed considerably if he allowed himself to be pushed into the craft, he balked at the door. Almost immediately, he felt the prick of a needle to the side of his neck. Then, the ground tilted up to meet him.

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To be continued. Please leave feedback, if you'd be so kind.