Last minute Christmas shopping was something Mal had very little experience with. Back home on Shadow, Christmas gifts were ordered through the Cortex in early autumn and sent to the ranch. And then… after... for too many years he'd either been too sick, too angry, too poor, or too alone to mark the day at all. Mal turned his mind away from the still-painful memories and concentrated on his more recent history. He let his gaze scan the late-afternoon crowd bustling around him, packing both sides of the cheery lane of stores.
This placid world was just what Mal wanted for Christmas week. Far from the Core, with all the black armbands and debate over the appropriate observances to honor the dead and the...lost. Inescapable and oppressive newsreels. Political machinations. Hearings. Petitions. Civil unrest. All he needed was a town or two, big enough to have a store full of the decorative, useless stuff that so beguiled Kaylee. And, reliably, snow. An excuse to get everyone off the ship for a good span of hours tomorrow. Make some new memories.
Memories that his crew was all too eager to forge. Kaylee and River had made it a month-long project, scouring the ship for anything colorful or shiny that could be repurposed as an ornament for the tree. Even Jayne had contributed, returning to the ship one afternoon with a length of twine and some shiny silver foil. He'd handed it over to Kaylee gruffly, and only grumbled when she complimented him on such a good idea, but he'd looked on that evening to see the girls carefully folding foil triangles into tiny stars and stringing them along the twine.
And Zoe had insisted on getting the tree. Mal saw how she was trying for all of them, not wanting to dampen the crew's fragile spirit. Her pain was there but so was her desire to participate, be a part of their family. After their last job, she had disappeared into the city only to return toting a large bag. She winked at Kaylee, smiled softly at River, then secreted the bag in her bunk. Couldn't be easy for her, he knew that, but she was trying.
Last year... Zoe and Wash had spent the day planetside. Jayne had honored his yearly tradition of finding a sentimental working girl to pass the day with. River had been flat fucking crazy, Simon homesick and depressed, Kaylee alternating between mooning and fretting. And Inara had been gone.
But she was here today. With him. Looking like a princess just stepped out of a Christmas storybook, bundled up and nowhere near as inconspicuous as princesses in disguise always hoped to be. As long as they'd been together, he was still not habituated to her beauty. They might spend the entire day together, in calm routine, and suddenly a glance at her would leave him startled and wondering.
They stepped carefully through the snow, picking their way slowly through the crowded street. Their pace was leisurely, had become more leisurely the longer they shopped. They lingered over the littlest thing, chatting and strolling, each secretly intent on prolonging their time together before returning to the ship.
The man, who had caught his eye earlier as they came out of the last store, was still loitering by a wagon. Mal nodded at the speculative gleam in the little man's eyes. He was drinking something from a thermos, and the contents were steaming into the night air. The man nearly cackled as he raised his cup to Mal, then inclined his wizened head toward a kiosk a few dozen paces down the lane.
Mal, who had been feeling a mite on the festive side, now felt downright pleased with himself, for he had just hatched a brilliant plan. And the object of his plan, who had her arm lightly resting on his, needed to be elsewhere.
"Why don't you get started whilst I call back to the boat?"
"Worried about Jayne and the hunt for a tree?" She teased.
"Something like that," he responded with an easy grin.
He commed Zoe, watching as Inara pulled open the door to the store, then waited as a large group of shoppers emerged onto the streets, packages in hand. She glanced back at him, smiling. Smiles and glances - it was mostly what they'd done all evening, and he was getting used to it.
"Find what you're looking for, sir?" Zoe asked by way of greeting.
There was something in her tone that made Mal choose not to respond to her question. "All set there, Zo?"
"Jayne's setting the tree up now." Zoe proceeded to give him status of the other Christmas preparations of which Mal only partially paid attention. His eyes followed Inara as she browsed. Through the lightly frosted windowpane, she met his gaze. waved, and held up a garish belt. She mouthed the words "For Jayne." Her eyes amused, smiling over the ridiculous overly decorative belt meant for some man. Not Jayne.
"Weather's turning. Fresh round of snow's due in soon. You want me to pick you up in the shuttle, sir?"
"No!" He exclaimed with more force than he had intended. "No," he said more evenly. "Got no call for that."
He could just see the look Zoe was sending him. An eyebrow was surely being raised. The I'm-wise-to-you-eyebrow. "Other plans, sir?"
He searched her tone, trying to find censure, resentment and found none. Wanting to give his full attention to Zoe, he turned away from watching Inara. "Everything alright?"
She sighed, taking time before answering him. "Told you I'm fine with all this. Lookin' forward to it."
"We don't have to do this..." He wanted to, though. Everyone did. But if a celebration brought more grief to Zoe, he'd make excuses, assume the role of Grinch.
She was quiet again. "If wanting him back bad enough could accomplish it, the man'd be back ten times over. But that ain't the case. I've got livin' to do. Livin' that hurts, but livin' nonetheless."
They fell silent not needing to say any more on that topic. "And what would we do with all our archetype cookies?" Zoe's voice sounded overly bright.
"That would be what?"
"Don't know. But River's been working on 'em all day."
He sighed with relief. The one niggling gray area of the day had cleared. "We'll be there...later," he said, looking at the man he could hear barking out offers of transport.
Mal ended the wave and hurried over to the little man, who was still perched on the driver's bench of his carriage. Not a carriage, Mal saw as he approached. A sleigh. That was sensible, Mal decided, although slow – it was bulky, and the drafthorses pulling it did not look inclined to speed of any kind. Looking closely at their massive size, Mal didn't imagine much got them ruffled enough to hurry. This world had a long winter and the vehicle looked adaptable, as though the body might accommodate wheels in warm weather, runners for the snow.
"How much to the Ives Docks?" Mal asked the driver.
"Got some stops to make on the way, but I reckon that suits you." The man smiled, croaked out a price, and Mal nodded again.
"Gotta hit a few more shops. That'll work with your departure?"
"That'll be fine. Mayhap you should pick up a little sustenance for the ride, though. Chill's bound to creep in."
"What's that?" Mal asked, eyeing the man's steaming drink.
"Miss Agatha's most tasty cocoa. A sweet treat, to be sure."
Inara emerged from the shop and Mal gave the man a quick nod and hurried off not seeing the man's amused smile.
"Are we stranded?" Inara asked placing her hand on his arm.
"Stranded is merely an opportunity for a manly and admirable rescue plan. But, no." He glanced at the package she was carrying. "Tell me they didn't have that belt in Jayne's size."
She handed him a big, tin canister. Mal looked at it suspiciously wondering what he was giving his merc. "This...inflammatory in any way?"
"Beef jerky, Mal," Inara said.
"Maybe I should try it..." he pretended to open the canister. Inara grabbed his hand, chiding him with her laughing eyes. She tugged, assuming the role of protector of the jerky. Kept her soft hand on his, so he upped his act, shaking the tin with an air of hungry speculation.
"You can't eat other people's presents, Mal. Even Jayne is probably expecting an unmolested Christmas gift."
Mal shrugged as he pretended to capitulate, and Inara slowly let her hand fall away, still watching him with merry suspicion. He opened the larger shopping bag he'd relieved Inara of earlier, and added the jerky to their haul as they continued on their way.
He opened the door to another shop, stepping back to let Inara in. As she swept past him, the scent of her perfume did to him what it always did. Made him want to breathe deep and follow. Want to stay close enough to her to breathe her in again, stay in that rarefied and special atmosphere she created around herself. Like the incense, or the home-grown approximation of incense the priests had used in the church of his boyhood, the very air let a man know he had passed beyond the everyday world and into the presence of something extraordinary. Maybe that was blasphemy. Mal hoped it was.
They worked their way through the throng of shoppers. Despite the crowded conditions, the happiness in the atmosphere was infectious.
"Excuse me!" A friendly, burly man apologized as he bumped into Inara. Her grip on Mal's arm tightened and she drew closer to his side, smiling up at him with a little bemused chuckle. Mal wondered if it would help matters at all if he put his arm around her waist.
Then it was his turn to be jostled by the crowd. "Oh! Beg pardon, sir, I -." Mal tilted into Inara, whose free hand flew to grab at the front of his coat as she tried to keep her balance. He dropped his packages and planted his hand between her shoulder blades, pulling her close. She raised her eyes to his, and her eyebrows shot up to convey her surprise. Still smiling, though.
Mal nodded tolerantly at the older man. "No harm done." As long as she was alright, so was he. They continued through the crowd, slowly.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" That was Inara's voice. He turned to see her trying to gain some acreage at a table of girly-looking, colorful hats and mittens. She addressed a lanky young man, who for his part had given up trying not to stare.
"That's ok -" as she smiled at him the man ducked his head and pulled at the collar of his chunky green sweater. "Uh, Merry Christmas!"
"Mal?" Inara turned and addressed him. "River has a warm coat, but she needs accessories."
Accessories? That means something other than...fellow criminals? "If you say so."
Inara held up a brightly colored hat and scarf set. "And look, there are also matching mittens."
"Ain't giving her anything purple."
"Not purple, Mal, lavender." She held up the scarf next to her face, smiling. "Lavender. Pretty, soft, and perfect for a teenager."
"Yeah, that'll do."
"These are your gifts. You could be a little more enthusiastic."
He was. Just not about the alleged lavender stuff.
He followed as she browsed, examining and dismissing various items. His eyes were only on her so he didn't miss her glances back to him. Her softly shy smiles, and he had to rein himself in not to answer every single one with a look that he knew said, plain as day, you melt my heart. He glanced around the store, trying to contain himself. She looked like a snow angel, dressed in her hooded cloak and with those adorable little fur-trimmed boots peeking out from beneath the full skirt. An angel who liked shopping. Liked shopping for his crew. Still, it was just shopping. It didn't have to mean that much. He didn't know what it meant. To her. To him? He was trying not to dwell on how much it might mean.
"How about this sweater for Simon?" She had moved to a new table.
"Next he'll be trying it on for me." She was still holding the sweater. Mal shook his head, to clarify his position on the giving of sweaters to Simon Tam. "No."
"But it's perfect for his coloring, and it's a good price for this material."
He gave her a look. "Got a manly reputation that I need to uphold. Maybe he'd like some jerky like I got Jayne."
Now it was Inara's turn to shake her head. She returned the sweater to its stack, thinking. "Does he like coffee?"
"He ought to start." Less frequent teas between Simon and Inara would suit Mal just fine.
Mal casually drifted over to another table, explaining that he had to get something for Zoe. That was a bald-faced lie; had already got something for Zoe a month ago. But not for Inara. Here it was Christmas Eve and he hadn't expected her to be here with him. Not in the store; not on his ship; not in his life.
He glanced back making sure she was occupied. The table he'd spied featured a variety of odds and ends favored by womenfolk. Scratching his head, he surveyed the trinkets trying to find something perfect for her.
"Make way, son!" He heard as he was elbowed aside by a small, chubby lady with impressive blue hair. She perused the wares in a swift business-like manner. As she browsed, she sang along with the piped in music. She looked him up and down over her glasses, acknowledging his puzzled look without surprise. "Don't know the words, huh?" The woman chuckled and went back to singing, periodically adding to the basket she carried.
Mal scanned the table with a sinking feeling. How could he possibly find the right gift? Something that she'd like - that she'd adore - something she didn't already have - something the men who still called after her hadn't bought her by the dozens - something that wasn't too damningly personal - something he could afford, and wouldn't have to steal. That would be an uncomfortable conversation, after the Christmas morning bail-out...
"Shopping for that lovely lady of yours?" The lady asked, confident in her right as an elderly person to pry.
"No." His mother would be so proud at the twinge of guilt he felt at lying to an old lady. On Christmas.
She laughed. "Oh, yes you are. Trying to be so inconspicuous but you're failing, you know."
He looked around the shop trying to see if there were any other gift possibilities but this seemed to be the main territory for pretty things admired by women. Mal scanned the display again until he became aware of a persistent noise. Was the old lady jingling? She moved again and more sounds came from her direction. He looked more closely at her - the sound seemed to come directly from her extravagantly beaded, blinking sweater.
She caught his scrutiny. "Everytime a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, sonny." Her sweater twinkled all its tiny ornaments in unison, and the jingling sound repeated. "I'm just helping them along."
He nodded not knowing what she was talking about. Not interested in pursuing that vein of conversation. It was Christmas Eve, and Mal was running out of options. He looked at the woman again not about to scorn what might be his only hope, peculiar as she might be. "Uh, can you show me something a man might - if he were to -"
"Thought you weren't shopping for the lady?" She teased.
See, that's where fibbing to an old lady never paid off. "Well…" He fell back on his standard curtness. "It's your job, ain't it?"
"Oh, I don't work here, honey." She smiled, patting his arm. "Just got the spirit is all. Got all my shopping done by All Soul's." She lifted a basket of colorful, cello-wrapped gifts. "This is for next year."
"That's some formidable strategizing, ma'am."
"I have plans for next Christmas. People I love in my life. What about you?" She looked pointedly at Inara.
"Never think that far ahead."
"Well, you should..." She shrewd gaze turned from Inara to Mal. She took pity on him. "Let me help you."
"If a woman likes tea - what about this?" He asked holding up a black mini-tea set.
The woman gave him a look. "Man give that to me better be my grandson."
He started to reach for a small red box but heard the woman clear her throat loudly. He looked around the table at a loss for just the right thing.
"How about this?" She held up a shiny black garter belt trimmed in white lace.
"We…uh…I don't know," Mal stammered, discombobulated by the juxtaposition of racy underthings and a very old lady. "We haven't…we aren't…I ain't never…"
"So that's how it is." She smiled in perfect understanding. "Time to get a move on, my dear, time flies. Why, just yesterday, I was showing Harold my bloomers for the first time and now…" she paused for amused laughter, "Let's just say my bloomers is about the last thing he's interested in." She flapped the garter belt at him encouragingly. "This'll speed things up a bit. Your lady there seems interested. She's looking at you more than anything in this store."
Mal stared at a spot behind her blue curls, silently willing the old lady to put down the sex clothes.
She set the garters aside as something else caught her eye. "This is a pretty little thing." She turned the little box toward him. Inside was a little pin in the shape of a butterfly, its wings fashioned out of irregular green stones and rustic curlicues of bronze.
It was a pretty thing to be sure but… "Ain't fancy like she's accustomed to."
The woman shook her head, making the chubby baby reindeer dangling from each earring appear to canter wildly. "I've been watching that one. Her kind of fancy is you. No such thing as the wrong present from the right man, don't you know that?"
Mal ran a hand through his hair, his nervousness of the importance of the gift and its implications mounting. He could feel the old lady watching him.
"What are you afraid of, boy?" She gazed at him kindly, all trace of teasing gone. "It's just love."
"Just…" Why'd the old biddy have bring up that word. In relation to Inara. He could talk love of his ship, his crew but Inara…
" 'Just' is not the right word. Blame my old age but love…" Her smile widened and Mal could see the young woman she had once been. "Love with just the right person…when it works, it's magic." She looked him in the eye suddenly a picture of seriousness. "It'll sustain you through anything. If you have a chance, it's worth it."
He nodded, not knowing what to say to her.
"Quick, son! She's heading this way!" She exclaimed in an exaggerated whisper.
Mal felt a twinge of panic at his shortsightedness.
"Give me your coin. I'll buy it and give it to you after." She held out her hand. There was no way Mal could refuse the imperious order. He gave her the money and the box. "Well, isn't this a Christmas adventure!" She grinned at him and hurried away.
"Making new friends?"
"She's very…festive. The sweater…" They made their way to the cashier's line.
"Maybe that's what we should get for Zoe."
"That'd be a sight." He smiled at the thought of Zoe in the garish, blinking, jingling sweater. "So, coffee for the doc?"
"Coffee for Simon, lavender winter accessories for River, jerky for Jayne, fluffy socks for Kaylee, but Zoe…" Mal became transfixed as he watched her nibble her lip in concentration.
"Ain't a need to worry 'bout that. Already got her something."
She looked at him curiously wanting more of an explanation but it was their turn to pay.
"Holiday Festivities to you!" the clerk greeted with a tired smile. "Did you find everything you needed?"
"We did," Inara said, smiling prettily eliciting a more sincere smile from the clerk.
"Can we interest you in our special Santa delivery?"
"No, thank you. We'll pass."
The clerk rang up their purchases. The young man kept glancing furtively at Inara, fumbling over the keys of the register. In his haste, he tore the gift box intended for River's present. Mumbling an apology, he disappeared in the back room.
"You should take them up on the Yuletide Delivery," the next patron in line, a red-haired man holding a squirming toddler, advised Mal. "Santa comes to your house." He held up the child with a sticky face. "Kids love it!"
"Oh, we don't live here. We're just visiting." Mal glanced at Inara. She was examining sundry little trinkets for sale at the register, but something about her posture made him think she just might be listening to the response he chose to give the garrulous family man behind him.
"Staying at the Snow Holly Inn?"
Mal shook his head.
"Oh, you simply must. The wife and I stayed there one Christmas. Pricy," the man's eyebrows ascended as if to underscore his point, "but worth it. That was before kids, of course. Do you two have any yet?"
Mal felt Inara stiffen slightly - he was feeling a little discomfiture his own self - but the clerk returned at that moment with the box. He felt Inara's relief at being able to turn her attention to their transaction. Mal stole a bare glance at the little blush on her cheek, then turned back to the man behind them. "No, we…no." Mal couldn't help but wonder how she would have responded to the question, how she felt about the question.
"No hurry, Belen and I took a few years for ourselves before we had kids. It's nice to have that time to just be a couple." The man smiled warmly, showing odd teeth, enjoying the casual chatting with strangers. "Staying for the caroling? Should be starting soon."
"Thanks, but we've got a family party tonight." Mal's hand reached out to take one of the boxes Inara handed to him.
"Kung His Hsin Nien bing Chu Shen Tan!" Inara said to the man as they turned to leave.
"You two come back next Christmas!" The red-haired man called after them. "But call ahead and book the night at the Snow Holly Inn. It fills up early." The man shifted his baby to his opposite shoulder and leaned forward confidingly "Very romantic."
On their way out, Mal passed the woman who surreptitiously pressed the small the box in his hand. So furtive was the exchange, he wondered at her previous profession.
"Merry Christmas, children!" She called after them as they left the store.
He looked back at her; she winked and gave him a thumbs up sign. Turning back to Inara, he caught an amused expression on her face.
"Think there's a shop for sweets a few doors down." He moved closer to her, leaning down a bit as if to make sure she heard him from inside her hood. "Might could get us some candy canes or maple stars for the tree. Why don't you go fetch some while I check on our ride? Should be easy to find the place – just go against the current of sticky children."
Inara gave him the rest of her packages. "I'll meet you…?"
He pointed to the sleigh.
"How very Christmasy of you, Mal," she teased, squeezing his arm. He smiled down at her watching the steam of her breath in the cold night air.
"Don't tarry overly long. Man's got some kind of schedule to keep." But he didn't release her arm. Even through the layers of her clothing and his gloves, he was reluctant to relinquish the physical contact. Oh, he was in trouble.
She broke away, glancing back at him as she walked to the candy shop. Watching until she entered the store, he shook his head in disbelief. Real trouble but trouble of the interesting kind. He turned to the driver who was watching him with interest.
The driver croaked a command by way of greeting. "Get ye the cocoa first, and peppermint for your lady. I'll not leave ye." A few springing white hairs stuck out past the brim of the man's pointed brown hood. He raised prodigious eyebrows at all the packages Mal carried. "You're after puttin' me out of business, boyo? Leave your burdens behind." The man gestured a scrawny hand at the backward-facing first bench of the sleigh. "They'll be safe."
Thinking it unlikely that the geezer coveted River's lavender mittens, Mal nodded as he moved toward the open door of the vehicle.
"Be quick about the cocoa, she'll be coming along."
"You been watching us?"
"Ayuh. Pleasant enough way to pass the time."
Mal was becoming irritated at the nosy old people gaining amusement from his…from their…whatever this thing that was escalating between them could be called. Dropping off the packages, he made his way to the cocoa stand. He couldn't help but wonder where all this would go. Things between them were changing, more so in the last several hours than in the months since Miranda.
He looked back at the sleigh. It looked… romantic. The kind of trip a fella'd only take if he wanted a long stretch of time alone with a lady, got to be a quaint gesture, compared to what any other suitor might have planned in hopes of pleasing and impressing her. He almost stumbled with panic. Am I a suitor?! Had he lost his mind? Could he be more obvious?
Ok, he told himself as he waited in line for the cocoa, play it cool. No, play dumb about the romantical qualities of the sleigh. She'll believe that. She won't! The woman is not unfamiliar with the suitorlike ways of men. If the question is posed in whatever manner she sees fit, the plan is admit nothing. She ain't a reader. Can't make me admit to anything. Oh, yes, she could. Unless she likes how romantical the sleigh is. In that case, a little admitting might be in order.