Disclaimer: The credits say Joss.
This is kind of a follow up to Fairytale, where I explored what might be Mal's ruminations on Inara. This piece is from Inara's perspective. She is very astute, I think.
I wasn't sure I was going to do this one. Mal is bringing a lot more issues (and complicated ones) to the relationship than she is, and I hope I haven't failed utterly to put this into the right words or messed up in interpretation somewhere.
He thinks she doesn't know, but though survival has pounded the concept of stealth into him, he is anything but subtle.
Soft hair, earthy colour. Unearthly blue eyes. Too rugged and weathered to really look like a storybook hero, she can't deny he bears some resemblance to them anyway. He's athletic enough to throw a punch on her behalf as well as finish the resulting brawl, and has the gun at his hip for back-up if he needs it. How perfect, she scoffs wryly. His clothing is an even mix of cowboy and the uniform of a solider unable to abandon his cause.
Serenity is his endless struggle. He might have died on Hera, with his world, the swaying green grasses and familiar faces now ash and blood. There is nothing he dreams is possible to aspire to, only his current empty existence. He carves lives for his crew out of the ruin of his own with scars and bullets. The sacrifice is nothing to him because he's lost so much already.
But he is a shell only in the sense that he is armor. They are in his heart and he shelters them; he is steel, twice re-forged, and his edges are all hard. He breathes only for them and he would die for them. Threaten any of mine and you will know war, he promises, standing between them and their enemies that chip away at them, offering himself to shatter instead. And he does, piece by piece. Everyone he has ever cared for are all seams waiting to fracture. He holds every shard close, possessively, unwilling to share no matter how sharp. He seems to believe he deserves the way they cut at him.
All he knows now is fighting, Inara thinks it may be the only way he has left to honestly express himself. The cheerful, faithful man that grew up on Shadow is long gone; his jokes tend to be acerbic, a smirking mockery of real happiness. She laments it; at the same time, she's grateful that he perseveres when anyone else would have given up, and their arguments cut through the increasingly stifling pretension and control that dominate her career.
As she finds herself drawn closer, she sometimes sees a remnant of himself in his eyes, buried underneath the needs of his crew and his past, his last chance for anyone to reach him. A rebel, proud, clever, and defiant. Equal parts charismatic former sergeant rallying his troops to action and honourable thief who's stolen her heart. He speaks of justice, dignity, and freedom; he won't surrender, never again. But he's drowning in his own darkness, ghostly and luminous. Someday she may loose sight of him forever.
More than anything, when she sees him, she sees that he still feels, and she knows.
She is precious to him. At the first sign of danger, he tries to send her away and, if only for a moment, his gaze and touch turn tender. She is important as crew, worthy of the same protection, even from himself. He lashes her with words, keeps her at a distance, and is ashamed and angry that she provokes him. A self-perpetuating cycle, but it doesn't prevent him from seeking her out with flimsy excuses just to see her, to disrupt her peace and bestow unsolicited advice. He disapproves of her profession (though she's heard rumour he's more charitable when she's not around); there is jealousy, but stronger than that, he doesn't want to see her lessened, worries that she might get hurt.
When their shared smiles are genuine, he almost dares to hope, in a way he never has, believed that he no longer could after his losses. His love is terrifying. It is fierce, passionate, dangerous and fragile and him.
She wishes to help, encourage, comfort; wants to run, to scream, to hit. She would rather break herself than let him break for her, would soothe away his pain if he'd let her.
She doesn't think he will.