DISCLAIMER: Joss and Tim, yay team!
SUMMARY: PG-13. Mal/Inara after the movie. Not the whys as much as the what. (Also, Kaylee/Simon to keep my fluff muse well-fed and happy.)
FEEDBACK: I'd love to hear your comments.
Written for fffriday (seriously late, seriously long). Prompt: extra day.
"Do you think this will work?"
He laid his head on her lap. "It's alright. I've no idea either."
They are the worst kept secret in the 'verse.
Inara found it too easy to relax when she was with Kaylee. The girl was always too happy to stay in her shuttle for hours, often forgetting the time until Mal had to come to collect her. Now they were sitting on opposite ends of the bed, Inara reclining gracefully against the wall while Kaylee leaned forward, a leg tucked under her and the other dangling down the side of the bed. They had already gone through the available details of Inara's assignation, so it was Kaylee's turn to tell her stories of on-board.
"The captain swears we're buyin' a new cable system wherever we land next. Shiny, right?"
Inara wasn't sure what a cable system was, or how important it was to keep them flying. But if Mal was willing to buy a new one, it had to be important. "We've been doing well, I gather."
"Well enough. Maybe money'll be too tight for a new new one, but it'll sure get us one newer than we have." She rolled her eyes. "Shouldn't be difficult, too. Ours will snap if I don't check it day and night. I threatened to use the captain's suspenders if he didn't promise me new ones."
Inara let out a laugh. "Kaylee!"
The girl smiled smugly in reply. "He deserved it, the cap'n did. He's been stallin' for weeks, and it's not as if he can't afford it now."
"There was a job while I was on planet?"
"Big juicy one. I think I'll even buy me some fruit." Kaylee's eyes shone brighter at the thought. "Train job, you know?"
Inara's eyebrows rose. She still remembered their last one. Never before had she needed to parade herself through gawking miners. "Interesting."
"Don't look like that." Kaylee laughed. "It went like a glove. We had the experience and we didn't have to return anything. Not that I think stealing is right, but those thermal clothes will do more good somewhere else."
Inara couldn't deny that.
"'Sides, Simon looked dreamy carrying in that cargo."
"I'm sure he'll appreciate your opinion." She tried to sound serious, but to no avail. Two seconds later, both of them were snickering behind their hands.
"Oh, he would like that a'right. You should've seen him when he came in at the end, all male and sweaty. He's taking to it more quickly that anyone'd have thought."
"Anyone except you," Inara guessed.
Kaylee smiled the smile of a woman proud of her man. "We've chosen well, haven't we?"
Inara's whole body straightened, and she forced her hands to unclench from around the sheets she was lying upon. "You and Simon are a lovely couple, indeed." Maybe it'd been only a slip of the tongue.
"Yes, we are. You and the captain ain't half bad either." She laughed a little, but the sound stopped when she noticed that Inara wasn't echoing her. "'Nara?" She frowned and leaned closer. "Did something happen? Was he mean to you again?"
Inara shook her head and rose to her feet. Lying was easier when she didn't have to look Kaylee in the eye. "There's no me and Mal."
"Yes," - slowly, as if talking to a stubborn child - "there is."
"Kaylee..." Inara wasn't sure why she was denying it. Except that she'd been sure she was in control, and now she was not. "Don't. Just don't."
"But..." Kaylee tilted her head and gnawed at her lip for a moment. "I'm sorry, 'Nara. I really am." She came to her feet, too, taking Inara's hands in hers. "I'll keep the secret if you want. I promise." There was a firm squeeze, and then, "I just meant, well - I'm happy for you two, that's all. And I know it can be scary and - well, it sorta is. But..."
"Kaylee," Inara tried to stop her.
The girl's eyes widened and she gasped in alarm. "I told Simon, though. I'm so sorry. I didn't know it was a secret, and it was such a good news - "
Good news. Inara sat back at the bed's edge, bringing Kaylee with her. "It's okay." It wasn't as if she had an option. If Kaylee had noticed, then Zoë certainly had, too. Jayne, she was not sure of. River, that girl had known from the beginning and thankfully kept her own counsel.
"You ain't mad at me, are you?"
"Of course not, sweetie."
"Will the cap'n be mad?"
"No." Inara chuckled despite the situation. Mal'd biggest soft spot was Kaylee. As of yet, only the girl's decision to share quarters with Simon had managed to make Mal glare meanly at the girl. Between the Alliance, the bounty-hunters and Inara herself, Mal wouldn't have anger to spare for the curious mechanic, especially when Kaylee only meant the best. "He'll be mad enough at me for trying to keep it a secret in the first place."
She had already stared at the ceiling until her eyes watered.
Taken deep breaths and replayed her most relaxing memories behind closed eyes.
She moved again, trying to find a comfortable position - any would serve at this point - between Mal's body and the wall. Instead, she scraped her elbow when she tried to turn around. "Ow." She sat up to check the spot closely. It was a little red - "Damn you, Mal." - but there was no bleeding. Thank Heavens. Clients always frowned upon scabs.
She stared moodily at the guilty party.
The wall didn't react.
Neither did Mal.
"This is why I wanted to stay in the shuttle," she sighed, keeping herself from nudging him. She never could sleep properly in Mal's bunk, though he swore it was because she hadn't given it a proper chance. Well. She was done giving it chances. This bed had never possibly been meant for two people and sleepless nights like this proved the fact.
"Stop the trashing, woman." A sleepy hand palmed up her hip. With eyes closed like his were, Inara supposed he was aiming for her head. Suddenly he frowned a little, tightened his grip and pulled her down and onto him. "There." He settled more comfortably on the mattress, taking her whole weight on him.
"Neanderthal," she groused even as she flattened her hand on his chest to stabilize herself in her new position.
An arm around her waist wouldn't let her move much. "Quiet," he mumbled, threading one leg around hers to keep her firmer in place. "Your fancy talk ain't getting me up for another round."
She sighed in frustration. Sometimes she really couldn't tell if he was just kidding or not. "I hate your place." This time he found the top of her head with ease, what with it being under his chin; his index and middle finger threaded through her hair until they rested behind her earlobe, just above her nape. "Not near what I hate yours," he answered. Then he started massaging that spot. So very slowly. Just like she'd done to him that one time he was sure Zoë was leaving the ship. The motion was really relaxing, and the warmth beneath her added to the experience. "I'll fall asleep on you," she warned him.
"'S okay. There ain't nothin' I can't sleep through."
Anybody else would have made her feel insulted, even if very vaguely. But she knew Mal when he intended insult, and this is just a random unscreened fact. "Fine."
She started counting sheep again, but number twenty-three was barely on her lips when the sleepiest yawn killed it.
They are working things out.
He hadn't fallen asleep. The hearty shake at his shoulder had just surprised him.
"Zoë," he greeted her without turning around. Zoë was the only one who'd ever dare to interrupt him like that. And River, maybe, if the girl felt she needed his input - which she rarely did, anyway.
"You need to rest more, sir."
Mal frowned. "I rest plenty, Zoë." He could almost feel the disbelief radiating from his second mate. "Look at me." He swiveled the chair to face her, stretched his legs lazily and raised his arms in self-introduction. He had an idea where this was going, and he had no wish to go there. Not even for Zoë. "See? I'm the picture of a good sleep."
"That why Rick's men almost made a sieve out of you?"
Now it was his turn to be skeptical. "Don't go raising dust, Zoë. How many times have people almost put a bullet in me? We killed them first, that's what matters."
He returned his attention to the control panel, but the feeling at the nape of his neck didn't go away. Obviously, neither did Zoë. She was surely staring at him, silently disapproving. "I ain't lettin' things run all over with each other, alright? Inara is Inara, and the job is the job. You'll need to trust me on this."
"It never works like that," she snapped, dead serious.
Mal could remember a dozen fights held in this very room - Zoë against Wash, both trying to find their footing in a marriage that carried too much baggage no marriage had any business carrying. "I know," he said it softly, respecting the memories. "But there's no loss in trying, is it?"
There was a lengthy pause.
Then, finally, "No, sir. No loss."
"Good. We understand each other, then." He stood up and headed to the corridor. Zoë fell into step behind him. "Right now we're on route to Sihnon. Rick's 'friend' says he'll send coordinates as soon as we're in atmo."
"It could be a trap."
Mal nodded. "Which is why I'm telling the doc to stop glancing at Kaylee for two seconds and be on alert. Just in case." He rolled his eyes. "I've never liked on board romance."
Zoë arched an eyebrow.
"Oh, zip it. Or better, go tell Jayne to have Vera dressed and ready for a date."
"Disturbing, I know."
"Unnecessary, actually." Zoë moved on to explain, "Jayne's been takin' extra care of his weapons lately."
"Has he?" Mal considered it. Yes, Jayne had been carrying that extra edge in his look ever since Miranda. He wondered if this was what his second was afraid of, that he was missing the details because he had his head buried in different, Inara-shaped matters. "Good. We can use that." He stopped as they reached the railing above the cargo bay, whistled loudly at the sight. "Shiny!" His right arm spread to show off the view. "Have you seen anythin' sweeter, Zoë?"
"It is chocolate, sir."
"Gorram right. If the pay weren't so good, I'd be tempted to keep the supply for ourselves." He clapped and rubbed his hands together in obvious enthusiasm. "Even if they try to do us in, and we have to keep the cargo, it's still a win-win. I love - what?" His head tilted to the side as he narrowed his eyes. "Are you... laughing?"
"Very quietly," Zoë agreed, but before he could take offense her expression grew serious again. "Should've seen yourself, Mal. I've seen kids less eager for their candied stones."
"I'll have you know I never liked candied stones," he threw as he ran down the stairs.
Zoë followed more sedately. She let him check and re-check their cargo for five minutes before she tapped his shoulder. "I can handle this. Go catch a nap before we hit Sihnon."
Mal looked at her searchingly, trying to figure out how much she knew. Inara was staying at the Training House for full ten days. She had that medical check-out to take care of, as well as... other... things... 'Clients to meet,' he forced himself to think. If he managed some free time between here and landing, his bunk was the last place anybody would find him. "I'm still the captain, Zoë." And if he took the unspoken offer, he'd probably end up fighting with Inara, anyway. "I will take care of the details."
"I thought details are why you hired a crew."
"My job is my job, too. Sir."
He pointed a finger at her. "Now don't go throwing my words back at me. 'S not fair, being mine and all."
"Sure you do," he grumbled. Checking cargo vs. visiting Inara. Even if they fought, chances are they'd still squeeze in a proper good bye between the slaps and the accusations. There was time enough for it all. "Fine, you win," he finally conceded.
"Thank you for the... generosity."
"Ever'body is a comedian." Mal rolled his eyes. "Tell River I'll meet her on the bridge before we land. I want a good look at those coordinates before we get any nasty surprises." At her nod, he started his way out. "Hey, Zoë." He stopped at the top of the stairs and turned around.
"If I discover this is a plot to distract me and raise a mutiny, you're in trouble."
Zoë thought it over for a second. "Reckon I'll be safe enough, with you smiling too wide to mind washing the floor with a toothbrush."
"Cruel, cruel woman."
Zoë nodded in acknowledgement.
"And I don't smile too wide."
"'Course not, sir." Her expression belied her words, though. "My mistake."
"Do we have any sugar?"
River raised her head, holding a thin red wooden piece between her lips. "Mmmnnnmm...," she tried to speak.
"Oh, honey." Inara reached across the table and picked out the piece, laid it back between the others. "There. Do you know where the sugar is?"
The girl smiled and shook her head. "Sorry. I've got a full sweet tooth already."
Inara looked inquiringly over at Mal, but he shrugged his shoulder. "Must be the chocolate we kept."
"One box. Kaylee got the doc to buy a couple packages and it snowballed from there."
"Simon likes chocolate, warm in his cup, warm for Kaylee. He wants it spread and ready - "
"Hey!" Mal slanted his gaze towards River. "I'm not sure I like where that sentence is going, girl."
River hunched her shoulder and pressed her nose against the table's surface. "No need to worry." Her voice sounded deeper in that position. "They made me promise not to tell the naughty bits."
Inara pressed her lips together.
Mal looked as if he was sorry for commenting. "I should've seen that one coming."
He really should have. Kaylee and Simon were the most disinhibited lovers in her acquaintance - though she'll be the first to admit she hasn't met those many couples. Add River, her devotion to her big brother and her special abilities to the mix, and it was a wonder the girl could ever focus on anything other than sex. "Is there some left?" Inara returned the conversation to its original track.
"Ask Kaylee," Mal said as he gave her a grateful glance. "She's squirreled it away somewhere."
"Must be saving it for something special."
"Long as it ain't her boyfriend's birthday. I'm not waiting ten months 'til she decides it's worth having."
"I'm sure she'll - "
River picked that moment to kick against the chair's leg. Mal was alert at once, ready to pounce on the girl if one of her attacks struck. They happened very seldomly now, but with River it was better to be safe than sorry. "River?" 'Please be well,' Inara thought as loudly as she could, meaning it with her whole being, hoping the girl would pick out the thought. In her opinion, it was essential that River felt safe and loved.
"Why are your eyes closed?" Mal's perplexed voice addressed her.
Inara opened them carefully. "I didn't notice."
Mal looked at her curiously, but let it go to watch River instead.
The girl was making strange noises at the back of her throat, poking two pieces together. But she wasn't kicking out anymore. "It's not right." She poked them harder. "Not right, not fitting at all." With a scowl, she sent the pieces flying across the room. "It's all flawed," she sulked, elbows on the table's edge and chin propped tiredly on her hands.
Inara and Mal crossed a look. Mal stood to pick up the discarded pieces while Inara pulled out a chair to sit beside River. "It's okay, sweetie." Carefully, she put an arm around the girl. "What if I help you with this? It's more fun when -" She looked over the table. "River? Where's the original picture for this puzzle?"
"Threw it down the garbage."
"But..." Inara searched for Mal, unsure how to handle this. From his position on the floor - he was still looking for the second piece - he waved his hand in a go-along gesture. Inara took a breath. "I'm not sure how we'll solve it now."
River craned her head to stare at her. Then she broke into a smile. "I'll solve it, Inara." She pointed to her temple and taps it twice. "I have it all here. I'm a genius, remember?"
"We remember, alright." Mal handed Inara the two bits of wood. "There's a reason you fly Serenity these days."
River shot them a proud smile, before leaning forward, the tip of her nose brushing the table again.
Inara watched Mal study the teenager, then sigh deeply and scratch his head in sudden discomfort. He was wondering if he was the crazier one, allowing River to the helm. Inara understood his doubts, even if she didn't really share them. River was special; Inara trusted her more than she'd trust any other pilot Mal could scare up from a border world. "You do it beautifully, River." She rubbed the girl's shoulder a little, absently noting how relaxed she was.
Suddenly River's hands shot out and grabbed another two pieces. She held them right before her eyes, analyzing them before turning them in different directions. "I thought I'd be better at this," she muttered to herself. Then she smiled. When she put the pieces back on the table, they formed half a rose.
Inara smiled. Simon had been right. A simple, time-consuming task would help his sister's focus shift back to reality. He'd tried to give her the credits she needed for the purchase, but Inara had easily won that battle. The young doctor had given in after a few token arguments, after all, he needed all the money he could spare for River's medication - and Mal only granted him a cut if he 'cooperated' in the job.
(("It's for the best. Boy needs to stand on his own two feet."
"Two feet which really shouldn't be outside the ship unless necessary," she retorts.
Mal raises his hands in defense. "Hey, I don't make no rules. Alliance may be following them. Or they may not. The official bulletins have stopped, but you and me know they won't give that girl up so easily."
"And you are throwing him at them every time you accept his help."
"Boy wants the money, he'll earn it the old-fashioned way."
"He already works for you!"
"And he gets room an' board for sitting pretty and stitching us up - which you know well Zoë and I, and even Jayne, could do with closed eyes in a pinch."
Inara closes her eyes and counts to ten. This discussion is going nowhere, and the worst part is that she understands Mal's reasoning too well.
She'd gotten to thirteen, and still no change, when she feels his arms come around her waist. "Don't get mad. Not about the doc and my craziest pilot ever."
Maybe it is too quick a concession, because Mal straightens and looks at her quizzically. "Really?"
"You want me to change my mind?"
"Heavens, no." He hugs her again. "Now, don't go tellin' Simon this, but I don't mind them here. He's a good boy, and his sis rides Serenity like an angel. Best anti-Reaver insurance I've ever seen, too."
"And," he ignored her interruption. "I've gotten used to them on board, crazy and all. They'll be welcome to livin' on Serenity, but it's not real livin' if they're making it into their own prison."))
"Do you like the puzzles?" she asked gently, coming back to the present.
"They are nice. But they don't make sense." River scrunched up her nose. "What's a rose doing inside an elephant? And why would they fly over the snow?"
Mal's eyebrows shot up at that. "Whoa there. That the picture you got her, 'Nara? She not crazy enough for you?"
"I didn't..." Inara frowned confused, then turned to the heap of pieces before her and spread them so she could take a better look. Some were red, pink and yellow - flower colors for a garden. Others displayed shades of greys and browns - A herd of elephants sunning themselves in Ariel's zoo. The rest were white and blue - snow and clear skies. "River, sweetie. I brought you three different puzzles. See?" She explained the differences patiently.
"Oh." River's brow furrowed in concentration. "That'd make more sense." Inara smiled and put the two pieces she'd thrown away back on the table. River took a long look at them. "I guess I can pardon you." She swept them into her palm and brought them almost to her nose, making little noises as she studied them. "Yes, now you make sense, too." Putting them aside, she went to her knees on her chair, leaning forward as far as she could get. She started thumbing through the pieces, faster and faster until she suddenly stopped. Her smile was wide as she used her fingers like delicate tweezers, bringing one piece out and placing it next to the other two.
Sure enough, it was a match.
"I didn't say thank you before," she told Inara sweetly.
Inara caressed the girl's hair out of her face. "It was my pleasure, dear."
"Do you want me to tell you where the chocolate is?"
Both females stared at Mal. He answered with a stubborn look. "I'm the captain, don't seem fair not to know where the goods are."
"He uses that excuse a lot," River noted with a frown. Mal opened his mouth to defend himself, but she cut him off, "and I didn't ask you."
Inara glanced between them both. Mal looked almost pleading even as he pretended to ignore her answer. River yawned slightly, so? she seemed to ask. "I wouldn't like to upset Kaylee," Inara finally said.
River nodded and fished out another piece. "Don't worry, captain," she said as she looked for a matching part. "Kaylee said she'll make some for Sunday. It's a surprise, though, so don't tell Simon."
"That's good," he said calmly, trying in vain to hide his enthusiasm.
Inara couldn't help but chuckle at the resulting expression.
Apparently, River didn't even need to glance up. She just rolled her eyes and shook her head a little. "Boys."
They are working things out - and sometimes they are not.
Jayne jingled happily the bag of coins. "Say we're stopping at a decent town next, Mal. These babies are buyin' me a nice pair of legs and good drink for once."
The other two ignored him as they walked back to the ship.
"I had your back covered, sir."
"Appreciated as always."
"There was no need to shoot'em boys," Zoë tried again.
Mal tilted his head and spread his hands innocently. "They were aiming at my head first." He tapped his gun grimly. "Kinda took offense to that."
"Remind me not to offend you anytime soon," Jayne said, just noticing the tension in the air.
The three of them climbed up the ramp into Serenity. Mal stalked further into the bridge without even answering Kaylee's merry greeting. "River!" he called out at the top of his lungs. "Get us out of this rock!"
River poked her head out from behind Kaylee's shoulder. "No need to scream out," - she pouted - "It's angry enough inside your head."
Mal rolled his eyes. "Just get ready, girl."
The crew was left to stare at his back.
"Something went wrong?" Kaylee whispered in concern.
There was no time for a recount as orders thundered down to them. "Jayne. Be useful and secure the boxes we've got left. Kaylee, help the man or get your boyfriend to do it. Quick. We want this cargo sold off before the Alliance smells it." Parts of the next sentence got lost between mutters, then, "River! Why ain't you followin' me?"
"I don't like him right now," the teenager stated before doing as told.
Meanwhile Jayne narrowed his eyes at Zoë. "How come you don't get chewed down?"
"Captain knows better."
Jayne obviously saw the logic in it, but he still mumbled curses under his breath before getting to work. "Whatever's ridin' him?" he wondered aloud.
"You sure nothin' went wrong?" Kaylee tried again, sealing the cargo door closed.
Zoë pursed her lips at the question, and whatever her thoughts were, Kaylee knew by her expression that she didn't really want to know.
It was times like this when Wash and the Shepherd were missed the most.
Wash would have long driven away the tension with an amusing story, or even by pointing out everyone's obvious sullen moods. Shepherd Book would have tried the subtler approach, but slowly he'd have gotten the atmosphere to lighten.
Now there was no conversation around the dinner table, Kaylee's few attempts had died quicker than her smiles. Jayne broke his portion of bread in half, and everybody startled at the sound.
"Senseless." River glared at Mal and Inara accusingly. "You are giving me a headache."
Mal stuck his spoon into his plate and didn't reply.
Simon gave a little sigh when his sister threw her chair back and abandoned the table without another word. "Sorry, guys," he rushed out before he went after her.
A heavy sigh came from Inara. "I'll take my dinner in my room," she said tiredly as she picked her plate.
Kaylee looked over the leftover scene. Jayne and Zoë were keeping to their thoughts; the captain wouldn't lift his eyes from his food. "So I was right." Only Jayne turned enough to send her a curious look. "Something did go wrong," she explained.
Next thing she knew, Mal had finally lifted his head and was glaring at her.
"Sorry, cap'n," she said meekly. She should have kept to her instincts; she really didn't want to know.
They aren't the best for Serenity.
"We ain't seein' no work on that moon, Mal." Mal gave him a long glare but Jayne refused to step away. "Come, cap'n. Peaceful farmers and horsers ain't our thing."
"You lookin' for trouble?"
There was that edge in Mal's face. If it is, it says, he won't need to leave the boat to find it. "Some decent pay, 's all," Jayne subsided.
"We're headin' to Whitefall in two days. Plenty of work there."
Jayne furrowed his brow, trying to see how that would work out. Whitefall was the kind of trouble he wasn't interested in. "Payless gunning ain't why I'm here either," he groused.
Mal kept on as if he hadn't hear anything. "Dress your best," he said, "We're going to a funeral, and then to pay our respects to the new Mayor. Make sure he knows what a honest, trustworthy crew we are."
So the bitch was dead. Served her well for doublecrossing them. No wonder Mal was looking to reclaim that piece of business Patience had denied them. "Why're we waitin' then?"
The captain's face darkened. A smile and a frown fought for possession, but neither really won. "Patience still has some hours in her favor. The wave says all her stubbornness won't get her anywhere but it don't stop the old crow from tryin'."
"Couple hours ain't two days, Mal." It was obvious, so Jayne felt it safe to point it out.
There was another, meaner glare for his trouble. "You'll get your pay, Jayne. Now out of my way."
Jayne could be bullheaded, but he was no fool. He wasn't as good at reading the captain like Zoë or... "Gorram it, Mal." He glanced at the shut door of Inara's shuttle and didn't even try to hide his scowl. He looked at Mal in the eye and moved away from his path. "My mum ain't goin' penniless so you can tumble 'Nara in her smelly sheets."
"Nobody'll be penniless." Mal walked past him without another word.
Jayne stared after him, watched as the shuttle door opened and Mal stepped inside. Town had no decent job for a smuggler and no decent man for a Companion. Days wasted in some backwater world so neither of them could find a proper job wasn't what Jayne signed up for.
"Mal, this is ridiculous."
Her sheets smelled like a flower he couldn't remember. She'd showed him a picture of it on the Cortex once, black-rimmed petals in a dark gold background. It hadn't existed until some science man in Ariel cultivated it. Some things still were only the best facsimiles Alliance technology could create out from Earth-That-Was records.
But the smell was still the same, Inara had promised.
"It affects everyone on board."
He wondered to how many men she'd shown that flower, how many of them had memorized the name. Mal only remembered the picture, the colors, her soft despairing smile when he tried badly to look interested in her lenghty explanation on the meaning of flowers.
Now he traced a golden-black outline on Inara's thigh. Invisible except to him.
He wondered how many men had tried to mark her.
"I didn't stay in Serenity only to be with you, Mal. I won't let it become a prison now."
He also knew how many assignments she's had since... Since. There was a careful count in his head. How many times her shuttle had flown away. How many times he'd opened Serenity's door for them.
He saw the looks around his crew, everybody wondering how high the number had to be before he finally exploded. Seven? Twenty-five? Fifty?
There had been eighty-six clients before... Before. Give or take, of course, he hadn't been so careful in the beginning. Eighty-six, and he promised himself he could be more patient now.
One hundred, he wanted to tell to Kaylee's gnawed-by-worry lip. One hundred before he reconsidered how deep in he really wanted to be. He'd already made it through half of it, he'd tell Zoë if she asked. This week he was just taking a break, a couple days of peace before he had to start counting again.
"You have to let it go," she told him.
Mal raised his head to meet her eyes. He knew that, too. He really did -
"Whatever," he said instead.
They aren't the worst, either.
Inara had few pastimes on Serenity.
She wrote letters sometimes. To fellow Companions back in Sinhon. To clients who'd like to see her return to their homes. She could wave most of them, if she wished, Mal had never placed any restraint to her communications; but sitting in front of her console didn't give her the same peace as sitting at her small desk, thinking of her reply.
A wave wouldn't absorb her for half the time a letter needed, either.
She sent small anecdotes to the girls in the Training House. She may not be allowed to break the confidentiality to her clients, but she was free to share her surroundings. Descriptions of outrageous dishes that nevertheless enchant her palate. Recounts of border customs she'd only heard as tales back in the Core. Little things, details of fashion or a hair-style that'd look particularly becoming on a specific girl.
They asked her to return every time.
To her clients, she wrote carefully worded denials. Most of them, she met with wit and a hint of challenge, knowing well they'd treasure the implied dare almost as much as an actual visit. Inara had always chosen well, after all, and the men she chose mostly like challenges for the challenge itself. Some had to be treated with a softer touch, though, often the younger ones. She knew well how to feed their growing self-assurance without making them dependent; it was the sort of challenge she enjoyed, but she'd never make them see that. Inara had chosen them because she saw the potential to become men she'd choose anyway.
She replied all letters, promising that she'd never avoid them if Serenity came close to their respective homeworlds. Patience is a virtue, she'd written more than once. And she repeated that she was as committed to her ship's schedule as they were to their everyday labor on land.
Some were more insistent: It's been too long since our last meeting, so long that I can only see one reason for beauty to chain herself. Particular as it was, I wish nothing else than to repeat it, down to the last encounter if necessary. Come back, Mme. Serra, and I'll do my best to change your mind about the charms of the black.
Inara frowned as she read the lines. A young lad in Hydras she'd chosen for his well-meaning impertinence and high spirits. He'd gone as far as to insist she showed him Serenity. Kaylee had been pleased, Inara remembered well, preening at the chance to show off her baby.
Mal had not.
(("What's he doing on my ship?" Mal barks as soon as he catches sight of the three of them in the cargo area.
"Cap'n!" Kaylee hurries to him, latching onto his arm and tugging on it to hiss at his ear, "I told you we'd have visitors."
"Oh right." He locks his gaze with Inara, completely ignoring the man at her side. "The Lord who wanted to see how you lived. May I inquire your final opinion, sir?"
The young man opens his mouth, but Inara beats him to it. She can't trust Mal not to take any comment as a personal insult. "We were just starting," she says sweetly, arching an eyebrow expressively. Not even an introduction, if only for politeness' sake. Oh, his nerve!
"Yeah. I'm goin' next to the engine room," Kaylee pipes in, missing or disregarding the sudden tension - bless her heart. "This boy says he knows his bit about motors." The 'boy' blushes at being called such, but Inara allows herself to relax; Mal will never blow off too badly in front of Kaylee. "Wanna come, cap'n?"
Inara stiffens again. Her dark eyes flash in warning.
Mal's own eyes widen as he forcibly loosens himself from the mechanic. "Good grief, no!" He clears his throat. "Go along, little Kaylee. Make sure Inara's new friend understands the charms of the black over the very Core's sky-blue seas."
"Sure thing." Kaylee grins as she leads them away.
"I hope my request hasn't caused any problems," comes from the man at her side.
Inara smiles and shakes her head, too busy thinking how to chew Mal off for his atrocious behavior to answer properly.
"Not a one," Kaylee says happily in her stead.
He looks unsure. "The captain didn't seem happy to see me."
Kaylee can't avoid being open, Inara has always known that. The look the girl gives her is as transparent as a glowing sign.
"Oh," he says, and politely doesn't raise the subject again - ))
- until now.
Change her mind, he said. Inara couldn't help the small smile. It seemed someone has grown in confidence in the last year.
My dear Lord Reuben, I'm pleased to hear of you so soon after my last letter. Regarding our last meeting,
"I'm sorry the captain was such a prick," she muttered. With a shake of her head, she left the pen aside. "And I'm more sorry you got the wrong impression."
There'd been nothing between her and Mal at the time.
But there was no way Reuben would believe it. And really, at present, denial would be absurd.
I'm glad you remember it in such a kind light.
The rest of the letter went as usual. Bottom line: she would let him know when Serenity landed in Hydras again.
Mal looked up and gave her half a smile. "I promised." She placed her hand on his arm, a little unsure of its welcome. He was always bitter for days after she came back from an assignment. He stood still, didn't avoid her, though the muscles were taut under her touch. "I keep my promises, Inara."
"There was no need to change directions," she pointed out. She was pressing. She wished she knew what she's pressing for.
"You never ask for a specific location anymore. I figured it must be important." And he shrugged non-commitally.
Now she was sorry she'd ever asked. But at the same time... She'd never have guessed otherwise. "Thank you, Mal."
"'Nara..." He would never say 'you're welcome', not to this. "Turns out we want to be here anyway. Hydras is as good for business as any other moon. Zoë found some handy cargo needin' a ship like us."
She nodded her understanding. "I'm glad."
"We can stop here any time you like. Trade's strong and Alliance's still weak. You win, I win. Everyone's happy." He said it matter-of-factly. Brink of an abysm here. I'm giving you a choice - the tone implied. I'm just not sure I'll like it - his eyes added. "You just need to ask."
The offer surprised her. The edge to it did not. "I'll leave it to you." It was her turn at a peace offering, after all. "Just let me know when you're coming close."
The relief in his features was evident, even if he didn't know how to express it in words or actions. Inara knew. She knew what he wanted, what he needed. She made herself forget it. It was not a Companion who had to stand here, reading Mal as she read all men. But Inara is a Companion, she couldn't help knowing. Her touch at his arm became a soothing caress before she realized it shouldn't.
Mal's eyes closed in a moment of contentment. Then he grabbed her wrist and pulled it away. "I'll see you after take off."
This she knew even better. Months and years of clashing and coming back. A step forward - he accepted her. A step back - he still didn't like it. Yes, Inara understood. "All right. See you then."
He ran down the catwalk, shouting orders at Jayne to hide the crates better.
Inara looked on for a moment more. You win, I win... "Serenity wins," she whispered, and then disappeared through her doorway.
They are somewhere in the middle, and it's hard to move on.
"Inara is sending you a wave, Captain."
Mal opened his eyes at River's announcement. It took him a second to remember that Inara shouldn't be waving. She should be settled in her corner of Serenity already. "I'll take it here," he called back.
River giggled. She was probably thinking to call in Kaylee and share the fun.
Sometimes Mal didn't have the heart to deprive the girls of their bit of amusement. Kaylee and the doc had never had a fight beyond who'd used up the soap, so the girl was still fascinated by his and Inara's usual spats. And River... well, she was easily fascinated by anything that moved.
"And make sure mine's the only feed," he made sure the command is evident in his voice. Curious girls would have to stand this one out. He was almost sure this wouldn't be something he'd want to share. Inara should be in Serenity. She was not. Even if it was her waving him, his gut wasn't at ease with her doing it so last minute. She could be having a problem with her shuttle... - She could be sick... - She could...
She should be here. In Serenity. Period.
"So dour." River mastered the sulky impression with two words. "There. You're alone now." Somehow, she managed to carry her disappointment at being denied Inara's feed through the com.
Mal shrugged and reached to the panel control. It was the doc's work to pamper his little sister. Mal's work was to make sure she understood how he wanted the jobs done.
"Be nice," River advised right before Inara's image came to life.
Brick-red walls, interspersed with small blinks of colors that Mal assumed to be pieces of glass imbedded into the concrete. Not Inara's shuttle, not at all. She gave him a pleasant smile, her face serene. "Captain," she greeted him politely.
He sighed. Business it is, then. "Inara," he acknowledged her. He could act the captain role as well as she did the paying passenger. "Is ev'rything alright?"
She nodded slightly. Her fingers interlaced on the table. She was settling to bargain with him, Mal realized. Which meant that he wouldn't like whatever she said next. "There'll be some modifications to my original plan. It seems there'll be a lovely theater play this evening - " Indeed, he didn't like it. " - apparently Mr. Ghen had contracted them specifically for my entertainment, but their vessel had a complication and are running late."
They gave her a theater company. He gave her a corner in an old ship. He composed his face, no need to give her more ammunition about his distaste for her work. "Is it sure they'll arrive today?"
"An extra day on Jhun, huh?" Somehow that bit of impatience he hadn't wanted to show came forward. "Jayne won't like it, he's been itchin' for a real job."
The façade broke for a second, but her eyebrow was back in its usual place before he could comment. "Mr. Ghen has extended his invitation to the crew, as well," she said sweetly, turning slightly to her right. "To make up for the inconvenience."
Something in her voice, the way her face softened told him her audience was bigger than himself. Mal was speechless for a moment. Ever since they ventured into this relationship, he'd never been this close to one of her clients. It shook him unexpectedly. "Quite generous of him." He wondered if his sarcasm was too obvious.
It was. "I'm sure Kaylee would welcome the opportunity," Inara parried with a smile. But her fingers had stiffened. In Companion speak, that alone meant she was angry at him.
"Girl'll love it, alright." He shrugged. Had he ever had a choice in this? It was her job to cater to her clients' wishes and his to make sure she was available for them. "Are we clear to leave after the play?"
Where are you sleeping tonight? he meant.
Her eyes slanted to her right again, and he witnessed her focus redirect entirely to another man. If he strained his ears, he was sure he'd hear his voice. Instead he distracted himself by making a mental list of things he could buy while the crew was planetside with Inara.
"He'd like me to escort him to dinner," she finally answered. "We can leave first thing in the morning."
He whistled. "Some dinner!"
She didn't answer. Not even her usual reproachful silence reached him now that she was performing for someone else.
"See you in the morning, Inara," he said tiredly. He didn't have anything else to say. He shut off the screen after her goodbye, stood there for a moment and closed his eyes. Her job was what her job was. She wouldn't stop being a Companion any more than he would stop defying the Alliance. Mr. Ghen was only number seventy-eight, he reminded himself.
Seventy-eight is not a hundred yet, he repeated in his head until he'd pushed the whole affair to the back of his thoughts.
"River?" He pressed the button to reach the bridge. There was a moment of static and then the girl mumbled a response. "Change of plans, girl. 'Nara's doin' overtime today and we're all stayin' with her and the mighty folks of this moon."
"Irony won't build walls anymore."
Sometimes, Mal felt more uncomfortable when she made sense than when she kept to her incoherence. "And nosy kids should be whipped hard."
There was a laugh. It was alright, they both knew it'd been an empty threat. "Told you to be nice," she groaned. Even through the comm she sounded exasperated at him.
"Are you reading me?" He was tired of explaining it was bad manners to get into someone's head - at least where crew was related. Despite Simon's protests, River had his blessing to mess with anybody's brains outside Serenity, often did wonders for survival chances when she did.
"Don't need to." She sighed heavily, obviously ticked he hadn't taken her advice. When had his life become her favorite romance novel? "You're never nice when Inara is outside."
He rolled his eyes. Yes, these were definitely the times when he wished she'd be a little crazier. "Whatever. Gear that brain back into business, girl." In a few sentences, he let her know the details. "'S prob'ly safe for you and your bro to leave ship here," he added. Simon hadn't been able to visit a planet in three weeks; his restlessness was slowly driving Kaylee up the walls and giving Jayne an itchy fist. As Mal needed his mechanic focused and his doctor in one piece, he figured that the Tams would be secure enough under the protection of Inara's client.
"I'd be a third wheel," River whined after a brief moment to consider the offer.
"Zoë'll go too." Couldn't hurt to send his second-in-command, just in case. Zoë wouldn't like it, but he wasn't fool enough to send the troublesome siblings without a escort. And since Jayne would rather mope in a tavern than go to a theater play, Zoë'd have to do.
"Two third wheels?" As usual, River was worlds away.
Mal laughed. "Can't help you there, girl. Go to Inara if you have a complaint. Her idea."
Only static answered him. For a moment, he worried that River had taken him literally. "River? Girl?"
Good. Inara would no doubt blame him if her appointment was interrupted.
"She's staying because she was asked, Mal," she told him seriously. She always used his name when it was serious. "And because she likes plays."
"I noticed," he grumbled. No need to rub it in.
"You never ask her to come back."
He shut off the comm before he had to comment to that.
"Kaylee sends you this." He carefully placed the mug on the low table and straightened again. "You wanna be careful. 'S still hot."
Inara looked up at him from her seat. "Thanks." She took the mug and sipped it slowly. "Mmm, I didn't know we still had some."
Mal lifted his shoulders. "Kaylee had some stashed away - for a special occasion, she says."
"This is very sweet of her," - she smiled fondly - "I'm glad she enjoyed herself today."
"You kiddin'? She'll have us listenin' to all those details again and again. She was all teary right now because she remembered the story, what kind of man courts you with suicidal lovers?"
"The kind that still remembers Shakespeare."
"And you like that?" It sounded as snide as he hadn't wanted it to sound. Personally, he thought it was a miracle he'd lasted this long into the conversation before showing an attitude.
"Alright." He put a hand to his forehead, then dragged it back through his hair in agitation. There was no point in this discussion. They never got anywhere when they tried to have it. "You gotta've noticed, 'nara. Between you not wantin' to speak of your job and not wantin' to hear of mine, that really don't leave us much room for talking."
"I don't almost get killed every time I go out," she said testily, her own temper finally showing through.
He bit on the 'I wish' at the tip of his tongue. Because it was not true. He was pretty sure it wasn't. "'night," he told her instead.
Inara watched as he turned his back on her. She hadn't expected him to stay, not tonight. But when he left without trying to make it better, it worried her.
Nothing changes (but nothing is the same).
"Do you love him?"
Inara wasn't surprised by the question. Kaylee had been building up to it for weeks now. But she still took a second too long before finishing to sweep the brush through the girl's hair, "It is complicated, Kaylee."
"You say that a lot," the girl complained.
Inara sighed. Yes, she said that a lot. It was complicated because there was no break between her and Mal. It was all or nothing, even if he couldn't see it. All the walls they'd built in those first months had vanished, and all the lines they'd tried to draw since blurred and never took for long enough to make a difference. So, yes, complicated it was. "Because I am right." And there was no escape. Serenity enveloped them, cradled them inside her. But she also contained them, all those hidden nooks and cranes are not enough for their doubts, for their hurts. And it was complicated because Mal was complicated, and Inara herself was, too. "Do you love Simon?"
Kaylee nodded, no pause to consider it.
So simple. Inara started brushing her hair again. "How did you know?"
There was a pause, then a small laugh. "Actually, 'twas River who came and told me. I was being all kinds of dense about it, tellin' myself it was only a good long fancy."
Inara clicked her tongue against her teeth, amused. "Two years would be a long time for just a fancy."
"Told you." Kaylee shrugged. "Dense like a post, that was me."
The two girls easily fell back into silence.
"Thank you," Kaylee passed her hand through her hair and fluffed it a little. Normally she'd stand up and take a seat on the couch, but this time the girl just turned around to face her friend. She still had something to say, Inara realized. She waited for a couple seconds, and then Kaylee started fiddling with her fingers. "I was just thinkin', is all," the girl started very quietly. "It'd be real shiny if you loved the cap'n."
"I'm not leaving anytime soon," she defended. Defended what exactly? "As tempted as he makes me sometimes," she added, only half lying.
"Yeah... I guess that's real nice, too. That you stay." Kaylee put a fingertip to her mouth and started nibbling at the nail. Even though she stopped at Inara's chiding look, it was obvious the girl was a little nervous. "It'd be nice if the capt'n was in a good mood," she caught Inara's eyes in a meaningful look, "a real good mood."
Inara's curiosity was piqued by the unusual secretive behavior. "Any particular reason?"
Kaylee blushed. "He might growl less when I show him this." She fished out a necklace from under her shirt.
Inara's eyes widened when she caught sight of the ring dangling from it. "Oh."
Inara rolled onto her back when she heard the shuttle door swish open. "Mal?"
"Sorry," he whispered as he advanced further into the room.
She nodded sleepily, long used to his uninvited visits, and pulled the covers tighter around her. She was half-expecting him to lay at her side at any moment, so when she picked the sound of clothes being taken out of their shelves, she sat up on the bed and stared. "What are you doing?"
"We got a job," he said succinctly, still taking her dresses by the armful.
A job. Right. And he was storming her shuttle because... "You're wearing my clothes for it?"
"Not this time." He looked quizzically at one of her dresses, trying to figure out the way to fold it without creasing it too badly. "We're making a stop at the Blacks' ranch." Finally he shrugged and left the bothersome dress aside. "You and Kaylee will be staying there."
Inara stared at him for a moment. Then she pulled herself to her knees and reached out to get a hold of his shirt. "You need a mechanic, Mal."
"True." It didn't take much work to disengage. "That's why Kaylee's sitting this one out. No way I'm getting her near that bastard."
She didn't know what bastard, or why he was so emphatic on leaving his weakest links behind for this job. It's not as if they hadn't raided a psychotic's skyplex for him before. But after these years, Inara knew when Mal wouldn't change his mind, just as she had learned to pick her battles. She put her feet on the floor and batted his hands away from her clothes. "Let me."
He stood back, eyeing her doubtfully. "You ain't complainin'?"
"When I'm completely awake, don't worry." She started packing from scratch. Mal's tough treatment was a danger to the material of her clothes. "But I'll go. Margaret Black is a nice woman. I'm sure I'll enjoy a couple days with her and the kids."
"Make it a couple weeks."
She swiveled around. "Excuse me?" He looked at her impassively. "Mal! I have work in Persephone, you knew that."
"Hey, if I could make it, I'd drop you there. But there ain't no time for sidetracking." He put his hand on her shoulder. "We need the money, 'Nara. After, I'll give you a tour 'round your favorite clients if that's what you want. Just give me these weeks."
Her bag was almost ready, so Inara sat back on her bed to consider. "I'll wave him," she decided, not happy about missing an appointment. But the truth was that Mal had made allowances to accommodate her in the past. "Explain things." As much as they could be explained. "I'm sure he'll understand."
"Make sure you thank him for me," - his hand dropped away - "for being so damn understanding."
"Don't start," she warned him. "I'm working with you here."
He sighed, there was even a small nod, and sat down tiredly beside her. "Thanks," he said quietly. They let the silence surround them for the moment, it smoothed back the words they wouldn't say. "So," he finally said, making a huge show of yawning. "Are we going to get some sleep or not?"
"Sure." Inara leaned to her right, resting her head against his shoulder. He moved back to lay on the mattress, taking her with him. By now it took her only a couple seconds to find a comfortable position. She closed her eyes. "Weeks?"
"Not more than three," he promised. "I wouldn't take them if I didn't need them."
She had the strong impression that there's something Mal wasn't saying. He needed the time without her for more than a dangerous job, and she wondered... But she didn't ask.
Standing at the edge...
"Are you feeling well, captain?" Mal hit his fist against his open palm twice, so absently that Simon took a step further to study him closer. "Captain?"
Mal's eyes suddenly focused back and fixed on the young doctor. "What're you looking my face for, boy?"
"I was worrying." Simon took a step back and crossed his arms over his chest. "It won't happen again."
Jayne's snickers broke the silence. "You are looking kinda funny, Mal. Missin' Inara a'ready?"
Mal put his thumbs under his suspenders and snapped them loudly. "One to go," he muttered to himself before turning around and leaving the bridge.
"It could be contagious," Simon said quietly, watching the older man leave. "I'll go check if we have the necessary vaccines."
Jayne's eyes widened in alarm. "Cont-a-gious?" When Simon simply nodded before heading towards the infirmary, he quickly pulled his collar up over his mouth and nose. "Damn right I ain't gettin' no catchy thing."
At the catwalk, Simon turned around and took a good look at the picture Jayne was presenting.
"Hey sweetie." Arms twisted around his waist. Kaylee kissed his shoulder and, noticing his expression, followed his eyes down into the cargo bay. "Hey, what's wrong with Jayne?"
"Nothing." He smiled widely as he lead her away. "But life's really sweet sometimes."
Inara's hand stopped in mid-air. He was standing behind her, but when she tried to turn around in her chair, his hands came to rest on her shoulders, effectively halting her. Inara took a deep breath. Don't go? They've discussed this, over and over and over... What was this about? Unable to see his face, she searched Mal's expression in the mirror, trying to figure something out but, oh surprise, she found nothing helpful there. "They are expecting me," she said reasonably as she reapplied the blush to her cheeks. Cause a storm, she mused, and something will have to surface. Mal had never learned to handle denial well, not even after all the times she's denied him this.
After some moments, Inara reached for her eye shadow and spied his reaction from under her lashes. The man in her mirror stood stoically, from the look on his face nobody would guess his thumb was softly caressing the skin of her nape. Inara was not sure Mal had noticed it himself, so concentrated he seemed. She'd seen him avoid Alliance detection with less determination.
"Just this time," he said slowly, each word weighing his expression. "It was always all or nothing. This is just once."
That - the words, the voice, the look in his eyes - stopped her in her tracks. "Just... once? You promise?"
The nod was infinitesimal, but it was there.
She tried to make sense of this, but nothing logical came to mind. Something was changing - between them, around them... She just couldn't point it out. "You're stalling." It was only an impression, a wild conclusion born in the Blacks' little ranch which had been growing in the weeks since.
The tight line of his mouth told her she wasn't wrong.
"What is it, Mal?" He was ending everything. He had never really started. He found nothing of himself in her. He found things he didn't want. "What can't you tell me yet?" She was a big girl. She could take anything.
He didn't answer.
Never before had she been as tempted to raise her voice. Inelegant, but it usually helped her get to him. Instead she sat straighter, still facing him through the mirror. "At least tell me you really need it."
His mouth opened, but no sound came out. Then he shook his head and squared his shoulders. "Sorry, 'twas stupid coming here."
If he left, he was never coming back. Inara knew it as clearly as she knew her own heart. "I'll stay," she whispered. More loudly, "Only this time, Mal."
There was no thank you. No offer to explain. But right before he turned around, Inara could almost make out the burden being lifted from his back.
"Go back to your bunk, little one."
Kaylee started in surprise. "But Inara -" The captain's face looked set in stone. Kaylee bit her lip and nodded. "Tell her I'll see her later."
When she opened the door, Mal was standing there.
"Mal?" She couldn't help sounding confused. It'd been months since he'd come in person to welcome her back to Serenity. And then it'd been only to yell at her for almost missing their take off time.
Without any warning, his hand reached out to take a strand of hair and he leisurely rolled it between his fingers. Inara stood quietly, her surprise mounting by the second. Finally he seemed to tire of his inspection, and softly let her hair fall again against her chest. He looked up and Inara hadn't felt so meticulously evaluated in years. He seemed so focused in the details of her; it was like he was half there, standing silently at her shuttle's door, while the other half was following wherever his thoughts were leading him. "I don't like it when you're gone," he finally said in a low tone of voice.
There was something there. It disconcerted her, because for a long moment she had no grasp as to the origin of it. Then she did, years as a Companion helping her understand the man before her.
Capitulation. Or the closest thing he could manage.
He just smiled, traced the edges of her cheeks and down around her chin. He leaned forward, and Inara remembered he'd never kissed her right after she came from an assignation.
Seconds later, she was opening her eyes slowly, still dazed by the unexpected reception. There was something like a question in his expression, something pressing, strong and just about to be swallowed back. For the first time in years, Inara blurted out the first thing that came to mind: "I'll always come back."
He smiled. Whatever the question had been, that was the answer he'd been hoping for.
Three months later.
He stops counting.
"Would you ask me to stop working these jobs?"
She had been tracing a recent scar along his forearm. Even Simon's expertise only did so much when poison-tipped arrows came into play. "Would you ask me not to be a Companion?"
He chuckled. "I have. Repeatedly."
"Not once for months."
"Really?" If anything, he sounded amused. "Reckon I learned the answer."
"As have I."
He trapped her hand in his, rubbed gently above the knuckles. "Then we're good?"
"We are." She moved, trying to give him a kiss, but groaned when her hip bumped against the wall. "But I still hate your place," she said as seriously as she could.
Predictably, he pulled her closer. "Delicate little woman," he laughed.
She thumped his shoulder - "You wish." - but smiled in the dark.
(I've always wanted to write something on February 29th. yay!)