Disclaimer: None of these characters are my creation. I can wish and dream, and play in Joss's 'Verse, but he owns the characters that own my heart.


Interlude: Perceptions

First Inara, now Book, Mal thought grimly as Serenity lifted off Haven. The crew had spent a week among the settlers there, enjoying the rare break dirtside and taking their time with their farewells to the shepherd. At first, Mal had thought of Inara as a boarder and a convenient ticket to the more reputable planets. Similarly, he had thought of Book as a fare, just a piece of paying cargo he was supposed to transport from one place to another. Somewhere along the way, though, they'd become part of the crew. While Mal wasn't looking, someone had gone and made them family.

Now his family was splintered, and he couldn't help but wonder why. Seemed things had been going downhill since that stop on Persephone so long ago, when they'd taken on passengers for extra coin. Granted, Book had become something akin to the crew's conscience, and having a doctor on board had no end of usefulness. Also, Mal had to admit – at least to himself – that River had a way of growing on people. However, the trouble the Tams had brought to his life outweighed the benefits more often than not. The Captain found himself more and more often these days snapping at Simon and becoming short tempered when River had a bad day. He knew he shouldn't take his bad mood out on them, but recently it just seemed to happen.

What Mal didn't realize, but a few of the other members of the crew had been picking up on, was that this shortness of patience was wearing poorly on the Tam siblings, driving a wedge into the crew that seemed destined to fragment Serenity'sfamily further. Simon had been prone to more vocal disagreements with the Captain lately, and River had been keeping to herself more often. In the last few days, the young girl had hidden away more than once, and on those occasions, nobody had seen her for the better part of the day.

Mal was torn from his ruminations quite suddenly by an urgent exclamation from Tracey. "Sarge!" he shouted over the sound of the new Mule's engine."Looks like trouble!" Tracey was watching their rear for signs of pursuit, after a particularly lucrative 'business opportunity' had gone south. Mal was riding shotgun, with Zoë driving and Jayne in the fourth seat. Indeed, the young man was right, Mal saw as he looked behind them. A large group of armed men on horseback was trying desperately to catch up to the quick-moving Mule.

"Wash," the Captain shouted through the comm unit, "we need a quick exit!"

"Do we ever make any other kind?" Wash quipped in reply.

While the foursome of crooks made a hasty retreat to Serenity, Mal's thoughts once again drifted to the past, though not as far back this time. He started thinking about this last job. It had started off well enough, really. They had walked into town, not wanting to draw any attention with the loud, flashy Mule they had acquired during the last bank heist. Wheels like that were bound to draw the eye, as Tracey had so succinctly put it before the job. This was another heist, unfortunately, orchestrated by the brothers Fanty and Mingo. The crew were beginning to get low on funds again, and the job sounded simple enough, which was why Mal had agreed to it after the last botched attempt.

Once inside the bank, the crew had gone to work with a smoothness they weren't used to. Tracey managed, somehow, to pull the team together so well it felt as if he'd always been a member of the crew. At the last moment, unfortunately, a random passerby heard the commotion inside, and spread word to the rest of the settlement. The crew barely managed to sneak out a back exit during the shooting, and the bank manager's very fine hover-Mule was parked out there. Now it seemed the entire town was on their collective tail, led by the sheriff and the bank manager.

When Mal's team made it to the ship, they had only enough time to drive straight up into the cargo bay and for Jayne to jump off and hit the button that closed the ramp. Mal called Wash on the comm to let him know they were safely aboard, and the ship was in the air. Good thing we managed to get away with the coin, Mal thought as the ship sailed into the Black. Least this way Fanty and Mingo are like to keep givin' us jobs.

XXXXX

A week later, as Mal delivered the twins' cut and received another bank heist proposal from them, he was still thinking about his fracturing family. For some reason, he just couldn't get out of his mind the thought that, somehow, all the woes of the past year stemmed back to that day on Persephone. The Alliance had been after them nonstop ever since. They'd had to deal with a psychotic bounty hunter. They'd had to lay even lower than normal. They'd even had to rescue the siblings from kidnappers, when they'd got themselves took on an ass-backward world. Leave it to those two to almost get burned at the stake in one day, he thought.

Mal took the job the twins offered, more to keep the crew busy than because they were desperate for the cash. Of course, the coin was appealing. Alliance payroll, local guards. Sounded easier than the last job, not that the last one had turned out quite right. Now they just had to wait until the next payday, which was still three weeks off. Mal decided the crew could use the free time to visit some old friends. There was a certain moon he'd been itching to make a stop on for some time now. Good thing it was on the way.

XXXXX

"Mal, this is a pleasant surprise," Nandi said three days later, whenSerenity's crew walked through the front door of the Heart of Gold. The former Companion swept forward gracefully to embrace the Captain. When the two finally broke apart, the house mistress turned to Tracey. "And you," she said affectionately. "Thank you once again for saving me." Addressing the whole crew, she announced, "Y'all are welcome here as long as ya like to stay, long's you're willin' to do some chores. Our house is your house, so make yourselves at home."

Jayne took exceptional heart to her comment. Rushing over to Helen, the tall blond who'd passed him his guns during the shootout months back, he said boisterously, "So, that mean it's time to start getting' sexed again?" The two disappeared to the back somewhere, while Nandi greeted the rest of the crew. Simon asked to see Petaline and Jonah, as a sort of checkup.

Everybody got settled in comfortably, though a few of the girls lamented the absence of Shepherd Book, and Nandi had more than one question regarding Inara's departure. Later that night, when most folk were sound asleep, Mal and Nandi sat up drinking again.

"Tell me again why you think she left," Nandi requested, after they'd had a few drinks.

Mal looked uncomfortable, but said, "I reckon it's on account'a me, somehow. I just can't conjure what I did that sent her packin' so sudden-like."

Nandi smiled a bit before she said, "I gather from the Waves I've gotten from her that it's not so much something you did, as it was something she couldn't do." Mal looked profoundly confused, so Nandi explained. "I didn't tell you this, because 'Nara would absolutely kill me if she knew I did. She couldn't stay on that ship anymore, Mal. Your personality was just too strong for her." Another look from her drinking partner prompted her to continue. "Companions aren't really allowed to have personal relationships. Did you know that?"

"I'm sure she mentioned it once or twice," Mal replied. "But what's that gotta do with her leavin' Serenity?"

"Oh you thick-headed man!" Nandi burst out. "The woman's been in love with you for the past year, and you've been so busy trying to hide your own feelings for her that you never saw it!" Mal looked shocked, from the dual blow that Inara apparently felt the same way he had for so long, and that it was so plain to see.

"Am I really that easy to read?" Mal asked, hurt. "Or is that just your 'professional skills' at work?"

Stung slightly by his words and tone of voice, Nandi snapped, "You silly man, everybody on your ship knew you two felt the way you did except yourselves. I didn't need to be Companion trained to see how you felt, and it only took one look after we spent the night together to know how she felt." Mal was stunned by the way this conversation had gone, and it showed. Nandi continued, wanting him to know the whole truth now that it was out. "It's a good thing she's gotten over you, Malcolm Reynolds. It was starting to affect her job. I have to know, though, and I want the truth: Are you over her?"

"Are you sayin' our night's over if I'm not?" Mal asked, trying to lighten the mood.

"I ain't sayin' any such thing," Nandi replied, apparently calmed by the Captain's joking tone. "Who am I to turn away good house chores?" With a suggestive lift of her eyebrow, the mistress of the house poured him another drink. "I still want an honest answer, though," she said after a few silent moments.

"I'm thinkin' on it!" Mal said in mock frustration. After a sip of his drink and another quiet minute, he answered her with a straight face. "I reckon I am over her, Nandi, but distance might make that easier to believe. If she was still on Serenity, who knows how I'd have to answer that." Mal reflected, suddenly, that these past few days he'd done more truly deep thinking than he'd given his life in quite a while. He'd been flying blind, moment to moment, for so long that it had become second nature to violently suppress anything that resembled an honest emotion.

Filing this observation away for future contemplation, Mal settled down more comfortably on the couch, smiling lazily at Nandi. She looked into his crystal blue eyes and said, "I can see where problems would arise living in such close quarters with a man like you, Captain Reynolds." She returned his smile before grabbing his glass and setting it aside, along with her own.

"What say we explore some close quarters outside the ship?" Mal asked invitingly. As the two began to explore each other with hands and mouths, Mal thought it was a good thing he didn't feel the same about Inara anymore. This woman had thoroughly captured his attention, and he planned to devote every bit of himself to this night.