Conflagration—Part Five

Author: malgalfan

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

Rating: PG

Summary: Mal and Inara make it back to Serenity, and have a moment of truth.

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Still able to hear the distant crackling of the burning building behind them, Inara held Mal's head in her lap as Serenity's mule bounced along the bumpy terrain. Though he had not regained consciousness, she saw his abused muscles tense each time the mule hit a particularly rough patch of road.

Inara had the time now to examine his body more carefully, damning Atherton to all nine levels of hell as she took in the extent of his savagery. Mal's normally fair flesh was covered with deep purple contusions and the angry reds and whites of blistering burns. Small, deliberate cuts tattooed his torso, and viscous attention had been paid to his abdomen and groin as well. She dared not turn him over to examine his back, but she could see what looked suspisciously like the marks left by lashes of a whip curling around his sides. She wept silently with the pain of it, her tears spilling down onto his cheeks.

Mal's eyelids fluttered open. "'M'I dead'?" he asked almost inaudibly, trying to get his eyes to focus properly.

Inara wiped her tears away hastily. "No, Mal, you're not. We're headed home to Serenity."

Mal took a few minutes to process the information. "You drugged me," he said, slight surprise in the statement. "Good night kiss."

"Seemed like the thing to do at the time," Inara replied, stroking her fingers soothingly through his hair.

Mal fought to keep his eyes open. "Wing?"

"Dead," Inara replied.

Mal nodded, the movement causing him to wince.

"Go back to sleep, Mal. Or I'll have to kiss you again," Inara said tenderly.

Mal's cracked lips tilted into a lop-sided smile. "Kissin's good," he said, his speech slurring as he fell back to sleep.

"Yes, it is," Inara whispered softly, looking out toward the horizon.

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Two days later, Mal still slept most of the time, his body craving the recuperative power of sleep. Once Simon had repaired what damage he could, Inara had insisted on moving Mal to her shuttle, where the bed was more comfortable and she could keep a constant eye on his progress.

Mal drifted in and out of consciousness, unaware of his surroundings through the haze induced by Simon's pain meds. Each of the crew took turns sitting with their Captain, but Inara refused steadfastly to leave his side. River, who knew about their relationship of the past two months, was the only one who did not try to persuade Inara to leave. Inara found comfort in her presence.

On the third night, deep into Serenity's sleep cycle, Inara slipped gingerly into bed beside him, careful not to jostle him more than necessary. As if feeling the weight of her worried gaze, Mal stirred. Opening his eyes, he turned his head to face her.

Inara saw that his eyes seemed more focused than they had been since he'd been home. "Hey, you," she said softly.

"Hey, yourself," Mal answered. "Am I dreamin', or am I in your shuttle?"

"You are not dreaming," Inara answered.

"Somehow I knew you'd get me into this bed sooner or later," Mal said, the faintest hint of a smile playing at his lips.

"Yes, this was all an elaborate ruse to get you where I wanted you," Inara answered dryly.

"Thought so," Mal said. After a moment, his eyes turned serious. "Did he hurt you?" he asked, the words catching painfully in his throat.

"No," Inara answered. "Zoe and Jayne came. Can't say which one made the shot that killed him, but he died just the same." She paused for a moment, relieving the memory. "We burned it all. The body, the recording equipment, the…tools he used, the building."

"Must have been quite the conflagration," Mal said quietly. "You okay, darlin'?"

Inara nodded, unable to speak for a moment. "I'm sorry, Mal. Sorry I brought that monster into our lives, sorry he hurt you so badly. Sorry I couldn't get there sooner."

Mal reached a bandaged arm to touch her. "You did good, bao bei. I'm still alive, and I had my doubts as to whether I'd be able to say that for awhile there."

They were silent for a long time, their fingers entwined on the bed. Taking a deep breath, Mal said, "It was my fault anyway. Shouldn'ta' left the ship without my gun. That's just a recipe for unpleasantness."

"Why did you?" Inara asked, suddenly afraid of the answer. "Leave the ship, I mean."

Mal sighed. "Needed to get some fresh air, clear my head." He looked over at her again, his intense blue eyes smoldering with emotion he'd long repressed. "I couldn't just sit and wait for you to come back from your client." Clearing his throat to hide the sudden tremor in his voice, he added, "I ain't got it in me, 'Nara. I love you more'n I've ever loved another living thing, but I don't think I can deal with knowin' I ain't enough for you, that what we got between us ain't enough for you."

Inara's heart twisted painfully as she saw the absolute sincerity of his words reflected in his eyes. "Mal, this thing between us is more than enough. My decision to take on clients is not about that at all. I meant what I said to you back there. I love you, Malcolm Reynolds."

"Then why, Inara?" he asked. "Explain it to me, 'cause I can't wrap my head around it."

Inara moved closer to him, carefully aligning her body to his so as not to cause more pain. Resting her hand against a relatively undamaged patch of skin on his chest, she tried to form an answer. "When I was a little girl," she began, "the Companion house was very close to where we lived. And when Mother and Father would take me to the ballet or the theater, I would see them. They were so beautiful, so elegant and poised. And I admired that and wanted desperately to be like them. As I grew and developed, it became obvious to my parents that an education at the Guild House would suit my temperament and my ambitions." She shifted against him, momentarily lost in her story. "And it did, Mal. It suited me very well. Soon, it was apparent to everyone that I was very skilled at the various arts required of Companions. I devoted myself completely to it, foregoing any other dreams I may have had, until it was literally all I had, all I was."

Mal pulled his arm up painfully to draw her closer, but held his silence.

"And then I met you. And you made me yearn for something…something I couldn't even name. And when the wanting became strong enough to consume me, I left, before I lost the last bit of me to it, and before it destroyed us both. I went back to the Guild House for protection, Mal."

"And then I pulled you back out of it," Mal whispered.

Inara nodded against his shoulder. "After Miranda, I couldn't go back, couldn't bear to leave you again."

She felt the rapid beat of Mal's heart against her palm. "That still doesn't explain why, Inara," he persisted.

"Mal, I have no place in your world. Being a Companion is not just what I do. It's who I am. I thought long and hard about what I could do if I stay here with you. If we were dirtside, I could teach, or perhaps be a counselor. But I can't ask you to leave Serenity, and I don't want to either. So, if I'm going to stay here, I have to take more clients. Do you understand?"

"Inara, I hear the words, but you're wrong, darlin'. You do belong in my world. You're a Companion, but that ain't in no way all you are. You're my heart, woman. I'll look after you. I'll protect you long's I'm drawing breath. You don't have to take on clients anymore. Lean on me. I've got you."

"Then I'll be no better than your whore, Mal," she said sadly.

"No, that ain't the way of it at all," Mal said, his voice cracking with the need to make her understand. "You won't be my whore. You'll be my partner, my reason for getting up every morning, the soul of me." Reaching to catch the tears that fell on her cheeks, he added, "You're all those things, bao bei, and so much more besides. Please don't turn your back on all that."

Inara's lips trembled as she spoke. "Are you saying that if I choose to take clients, you'll consider it 'turning my back' on what we have?" she asked in a small, desolate voice.

Mal swallowed thickly, holding onto her as tightly as his injured arms would allow. "I know I got no right to ask you to give it up, but I ain't ever gonna be able to make my peace with it this side of the grave, Inara. I ain't proud of it, but that's the pure truth of it," he said honestly.

Inara knew, lying there in that moment, that he spoke the truth from his bared heart. And given the strength to find her own truth, she answered quietly, "Then I choose you."

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That's it. Hope you liked it. Thanks for reading and I appreciate very much the ones who have taken the extra minute to comment! Those comments make me want to keep writing!