Bridges Burned

Author: malgalfan

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playing with 'em.

Rating: PG13

Summary: Sequel of sorts to "Fire Sale". Mal discovers the true price Inara paid for her freedom.

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Pulling away from Inara's kiss-swollen lips, Mal drew a shaky breath. "I'm thinkin' we'd best move this offa this bitty sofa and over to the bed."

Inara nodded, her heart singing with the love she had for this man. "It's a little smaller than the other one," she said by way of an apology of sorts.

"Looks big enough for what I aim to do in it," Mal said, winking wickedly to remove the slight worry on Inara's face. "Course, there'd be more room if we didn't have to worry with clothes and such."

Inara rolled her eyes, but there was merriment in them. "Well, let's see what we can do about that."

Quickly divested of all encumbrances, the lovers slid into the crisp cotton sheets. Picking up where they'd left off on the sofa, Mal kissed Inara, tongues entwining in a dizzying dance of desire. Trailing open-mouthed kisses down her neck and to her breasts, Mal marveled at the honey-sweet taste of her skin on his tongue.

Inara sighed with pleasure at the feel of his work-roughened hands against her silky skin. Arching upward to offer him better access as he latched onto one taut nipple, she ran her fingers through his hair, sending an electric jolt straight to his nethers.

Pulling away panting, he stopped to admire the perfection of the woman in his arms. And then, he saw it.

"Mal, what is it?" Inara asked, abruptly alarmed by the expression on his face.

Sitting up and pulling completely away from her, Mal answered in a hollow voice. "Guess that's what I should be askin' you, only I ain't firmly convinced I'm gonna like the answer."

Inara followed the line of his vision, looking down at her left breast to discover a half-healed bite mark on its side. Blushing violently, she gulped in a deep breath, and said, "Mal, please, let me explain."

Mal could barely hear her for the blood rushing through his ears. When he spoke, his voice was low and deathly calm. "Oh, I conjure it don't require all that much of an explanation. I ain't been with you for five weeks now, so I'd be more than a little surprised if that was my mark on ya'." He swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached down to pick up his scattered clothes. "Course, I guess it ain't my place to be demanding an explanation of you. I'm just the fool who thought you'd made up your mind." By the time he had finished his sentence, he was pulling up his suspenders.

Inara, feeling desperately vulnerable under the heat of his glare, pulled the sheets around her and reached out to touch him. Her heart shattered as he flinched away. Drawing her trembling hand back to her side, she said, "It wasn't as you imagine it, Mal."

Mal's voice was like a razor across her heart. "Oh, I don't know 'bout that, Inara. Ain't but so many ways to get a mark like that, I conjure."

Cut to the quick, Inara blinked back tears. "I did what I had to do, Mal," she said, hating the tremor in her voice. "Did you imagine that my things were really worth twenty-eight thousand credits? After everything of any value was sold, I was still several thousand credits short." Taking a shuddering breath, she continued," "Where was I going to get that kind of coin?"

Mal swallowed thickly. "You coulda' come to me, trusted me to help you. We coulda'…"

"Could have what, Mal? Been indebted to the Guild together? While that's a lovely romantic notion, they would never have accepted it. Nor would I have asked you to help me, knowing you'd have agreed to some foolish job that would probably get you killed trying to earn enough coin to bail me out." She met his eyes, a small fire blazing in her own. "So, I earned the coin as quickly as I knew how."

His anger tempered by sorrow, Mal said bitterly, "By whoring yourself out to the highest bidders."

Inara could not escape the truth of his words because for the first time, she had felt, not like a legitimate Companion, but like a common whore when she had serviced her last clients. "Yes," she answered almost inaudibly. Clearing her throat, she added, "But I'm free now. The debt has been satisfied."

Mal looked at her with anguished eyes. "But at what price, Inara? At what price?" So saying, he walked out of her shuttle, leaving Inara clutching her sheets about her like protection from a storm wind.

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Mal made it to his bunk without encountering any of the crew, a merciful kindness to his embattled heart. Anger at the people who would force Inara to sell herself battled with his despair that she would make such a sacrifice. And added into the tangle of emotions was his certainty that no matter what Inara had done or might yet do, his heart was bound to her beyond his power to control. Slamming his fist against the bulkhead until it was raw and swollen, he was glad of the distraction of the physical pain.

Exhausted from the emotional upheavals of the day, he lay on his bunk, one arm slung across his red-rimmed eyes. After a time, Kaylee knocked on his door, asking him if he'd like some supper. Responding as normally as he could, he sent her on her way, offering no explanation for his absence in the galley.

The sleep cycle began on the ship, and he could hear the crew going about their night-time routines and finally settling down to sleep. Too responsible to skip his nightly walk about Serenity, he trudged up his ladder and through the corridors, giving a cursory glance to each section. When he reached the bridge, he saw River sitting in the pilot's chair, staring out at something he could not see.

"Everything okay up here, li'l Albatross?" he asked, his voice hoarse from hours of silence.

"Broken," River said sadly. "Thinks the sacrifice was made to a lost cause." She turned accusing eyes to him. "Can't heal alone. Needs you to help, but won't ask. Afraid you'll break too."

Mal swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. "What have I told you about reading my crew?"

River shrugged. "Can't help it. Screaming too loud." A single tear fell down her cheek. "You could stop it, if you wanted. Patch the hurt, heal the breech."

Mal nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat. Turning on his heel, he left River staring after him sadly.

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Inara moved lethargically in the galley, feeling as if her limbs were suddenly made of lead. She hadn't eaten any supper, and the insistent growling of her stomach had prompted her to eat, though she felt no hunger. In point of fact, she felt nothing at all except a huge ache deep in her soul that she thought she'd never be able to ease.

She sat staring at the table, forcing down the crumbly protein bar on her plate. Oblivious to her surroundings, she did not see Mal standing in the shadows of the corridor outside.

Mal looked at her intently, noting the lines of sorrow etched on her lovely face, and some hard knot inside him began to slip loose. Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the galley. "Evenin', 'Nara," he managed to get out with an evenness he did not feel.

Inara jumped in her seat, startled out of her morose thoughts. "Good evening, Mal," she said blandly.

Mal pulled up a chair beside her, careful not to brush against her. "So," he said slowly, "here we are."

"Where, Mal?" she asked pitifully. "Where are we?"

Mal's blue eyes bore into her brown ones. "Out here on the raggedy edge, I reckon," he replied. "With a choice to fall over it or pull back from it, best as I can figure."

Inara's heart, so overburdened before, beat hopefully in her chest. "The edge is a frightening place to be," she said softly.

"It is at that," Mal replied truthfully. "Think you can see your way clear to step back from it?"

Inara saw the small glimmer of hope shining in his eyes. "Only if you hold my hand and walk me through it," she whispered.

Mal's large calloused hand covered her smaller one. "I think I can manage that, darlin'," he said gently. And pulling her up from her chair, he led her back to his bunk.

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