He had seen it happen a million times before: the expression on someone's face, cleared away in a second as a bullet cracked through the air or someone else's hands wrapped around their neck from behind.

He had seen realisation hit those unlucky enough to find themselves in such a situation before they fell to the ground in a pool of their own blood. The screams, the pain, the death…it was stained into the fabric of his very existence.

He should have been used to it all and he sure as hell should have been prepared for the worst in the case that the next victim was one of his own.

He was far from ready.

When the blast ripped the air around him and a spot of red immediately appeared on the front of Inara's blouse, he choked. He literally stopped, in the line of fire, as bullets buzzed past him, ridiculously close, and he stared.

He stared as the red blotch spread, soaking the cloth like red dye in snow.

He stared as Inara's eyes went wide in shock and as her knees buckled out from beneath her.

He stared as she fell to the ground, as if in slow motion.

In that moment, their eyes connected and Mal knew it.

He loved her.

He loved Inara.

And she was dying right in front of him.

A burst of energy shot through him and he raced to her side, still, surprisingly, unscathed. His strength gone just as quickly as it had come, he collapsed next to her.

"Don't leave me," he pleaded with his eyes.

He watched as she smiled grimly at him, eyes fluttering in a hopeless attempt to keep eye contact with him.

As her eyes closed for the very last time, his heart broke into a million pieces.