Learning Curve

Author: malgalfan

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just play with 'em now and again.

Rating: PG

Summary: Takes place after the events of "Walking After Midnight." Part of a loosely continuing storyline, but can stand alone if you prefer. Mal and Inara still have some learning to do.

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"Why we still talkin' 'bout this? It's been decided," Mal said, more than a little irritated that Inara was still blocking his path.

"It has not been decided, Malcolm Reynolds," Inara said angrily. The only thing stopping her from stamping her foot was years of Companion training.

Mal took her by the shoulders and set her out of his way physically. Climbing the ladder of his bunk, he said, "Ain't arguing the point any more, woman. Just 'cause I'm putty in your hands down here don't mean I ain't Captain of this boat everywhere else. And long's you're crew, you'd best learn not to fight me when it comes to the job."

Inara let out a huge sigh of frustration as his feet disappeared up the ladder. That man could be the most infuriating man she'd ever met. He was categorically opposed to her joining him on jobs, and now that she was not a Companion anymore, that left her with very few options as to employment. They had argued for the two days it had taken them to get to the drop point, and Inara had made absolutely no progress in getting him to budge from his recalcitrant position. To be truthful, she had never met a man that she couldn't persuade to her way of thinking, given time and opportunity, but Mal was a different sort altogether.

She pondered the problem while he and Jayne were gone, trying to figure a new angle of convincing argument. She could think of nothing, and went to her shuttle, in no mood to hear the recounting of the tale of thrilling heroics that they would no doubt have on their return.

Though she closed her shuttle door, she could clearly hear when he returned, as he was bellowing orders at the top of his voice. Yelling something about getting the hell out of the world, he sounded none too happy by whatever had happened. She pulled the pillows over her ears to block out the sound, and fell asleep still annoyed.

Sometime later, in Serenity's night watch, she was awakened by Mal's heavy steps outside her shuttle. Stepping inside, he crossed his arms and leaned against the bulkhead. She sat up, automatically reaching to comb her fingers quickly through her hair. "What are you doing here, Mal?" she asked.

"Could ask the same of you," he shot back, something in his voice making her spine stiffen.

"I was sleeping," she said sarcastically. "At least until you awakened me stomping around."

Mal looked at her steadily, the blue glint in his eyes not altogether as pleasant as usual. "You planning on doing this any time you don't get your way?" he asked. His tone made her feel suddenly like a disobedient child.

"Doing what?" she said with as much defiance as she could muster. "Sleeping in my own bed?"

"No," Mal answered. "More like not sleeping in my bed."

Inara swallowed, uncomfortable with the tone of the conversation. "I fell asleep, Mal," she said, backpedaling a bit.

Mal puffed out a small burst of air. "I ain't over fond of games of this sort, 'Nara."

"I'm not playing a game, Mal. What is it you want me to do?"

Mal took a deep breath. "We've been together a little while now, darlin'. And I'd like to know that, even when we don't part on the best of terms, I can count on you to come and check on me when I get back. Count on you to be in my bed, and not somewheres else sulkin' like a child."

"If you don't want me to act like a child, then don't treat me like one," Inara said flatly.

Mal uncrossed his arms and came off the bulkhead as if he'd been shot. Closing the distance between them, he towered over Inara. Nostrils flaring and blue eyes flashing like laser lights, he said, "Of all the things I've done with you and to you, I don't recall any of 'em being in any way how I'd be treatin' a child."

Inara stood up, forcing him to take a step backward. "If you consider me a capable woman, why won't you let me come on a job with you? You have no problem with Zoe accompanying you, or even River, who really is still close to a child. And yet, you make me sit here with absolutely no purpose while they go with you."

"First off," Mal began. "Zoe goes with me because she's a trained soldier who's proven herself in battle many a time at my side. Ain't likely I'll ever be wantin' to go on a job without her. And as for River, she may be young in years, but she's a gorram government-trained killer-woman. I ain't got to worry on her whilst we're gettin' shot at. I don't take Kaylee on jobs, and she don't seem to have this outstanding issue with it."

"That's because Kaylee has a job here," Inara said. "She knows what she's supposed to do. She keeps Serenity flying, and that's of value to you. It's not the same at all." She looked at Mal, suddenly too tired to fight anymore.

Mal, seeing the slump of her shoulders, finally let the meaning of her words penetrate. "'Nara," he said, his voice much more gentle now, "Just 'cause you don't go on jobs with me doesn't mean you aren't valuable to me. Don't you understand what would happen if I took you on a job?"

Inara stared at him with her large, brown eyes. "What would happen, Mal?"

"I'd get shot, most like," Mal said simply. "You don't mean to be, but you're all manner of distractin' to me, darlin'. Only way I'm still alive is that I don't get distracted whilst folk try to kill me. I don't know but that maybehaps you could handle yourself fine out there, but I know I couldn't handle myself with you there. And that's the simple truth of it. It don't have nothin' to do with what you can do. It's about what I can do. Dong ma?"

Inara looked intently into his eyes, and saw the honesty in them. "Then what am I to do, Mal?" she asked in a small voice. "I need a purpose, like everyone on this ship."

Mal ran his hands down her arms. "We'll figure something out," he said. "We just need some time to adjust to things, I'm thinkin'. Nothin's gotta be decided right this very minute. We got time, don't we?"

"I suppose we do, if you'll promise to help me find something that is of real use," Inara admitted.

"Deal," Mal said. "Now, would it be too much of a bother to ask you to come to bed? I'm a mite tired from gettin' shot today."

Inara looked at him in shock. "You got shot today?"

Mal pulled up his short tail to reveal a fresh white bandage. "See what you miss when you hide in your shuttle?"

Inara rolled her eyes, but ran her hands gently over the bandage. "Does it hurt much?" she asked worriedly.

"Not so much you need to sleep in another bed," Mal said, grinning wickedly. "Maybehaps you could nurse me back to health."

"I don't know," Inara said, smiling seductively. "That might be a big job to handle."

"Oh, I'm fair certain you got all the right qualifications," Mal said, beginning to nibble at her neck. "Guess I'll just have to put myself in your capable hands."

"I'll do my best, Captain Reynolds," Inara said, as she began to show him just how very capable her hands could be.

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