Disclaimer: Joss is Boss.

A/N the first: Angst. Lots and lots of Inara-related Mal angst. Post BDM, Mal's PoV, Mal/Inara implied. Character death. Kinda. Read. Enjoy. Let me know what you think.

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"You fix her." He growls, fists tightening around the boy's shirt. Mal doesn't give a second thought before he throws Simon back hard, pushes him into the closest wall with all the strength left in him. Pays no heed to the rattle of the of the bulkhead or Kaylee's cry or Zoë's hand on his shoulder—to the gentle 'Sir'—pays no never mind to any of it.

"You fix her." He repeats and its more of a plea than a threat now, and if he were thinking he'd be dragging the doctor over the cutting table—closer to her, not further way—not pinning him to the wall and making him useless.

"Mal, she's already gone." Simon's voice is calm and quiet, a mixture of the doctoring voice he uses when things get serious and the brother voice he uses with the albatross when she goes clockwise in the head.

Mal makes a noise he don't recognize—comes out of his memory, drags itself out from under the smell of rotting flesh and napalm—but then his fist is striking out and meeting with the doctor's pale face and there's pain going up his hand and along his arm (not nearly as much pain as there must be in Simon's nose, no where near the pain in Mal's gut).

Then there's the snap of something, maybe bone, maybe something more important, but Mal just doesn't have it in him to care.

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Jayne pulls him off Simon and there's new blood on his hands, red and slippery—like the satin wrapped around her body—and Kaylee rushes past him, crying, and Zoë leads him away because Simon who can't fix her, not when so much of her blood covering him and he's wasted her life away on brown leather and worn cotton and scarred skin.

Zoë walks him into one of the passenger rooms, the one that used to be Wash's before he started sleeping with her, then Book's before they put him six feet under. The lights stay low and Zoë's hand is tight on his arm and then the back of his neck and then she's pulling him close, like she did in the days following Serenity, when she was sister and mother and soldier and friend, when she was the only thing in the 'verse still standing in that godforsaken valley besides him.

The lights stay low and Zoë don't say a word, and his voice is caught on a dead woman's name and tears he can't let himself shed, hands at his side because there's too much blood—wasted blood, he shoulda moved faster, pulled faster, put more pressure on the wound, gotten her back to the ship faster.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

Didn't. Didn't. Can't.

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Zoë don't let him go for a long time, and maybe that makes him weak, because she sure as hell never let him hold her after Wash, but he don't push her away either (he knows that makes him weak).

"I did wrong by her." He says—though he don't know how he's got the voice left to say anything at all—"I shoulda let her go back to her girls."

"Didn't make her stay, Sir." Zoë says but what Mal hears is 'didn't make any of them stay, Sir.' Except that he did, it was ordered, stand your ground and win or die trying and they followed through with the latter. They were always pickin' door number two it seems. It should just stop being an option.

"Did her wrong." He mutters and even though Zoë don't answer, everything from his head to his ankles is saying 'yessir'.

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Nara don't look no different except that she's pale under the white lights, and the blue sheets. There ain't no new bloodstains though, none that he can make out among the red of her dress and the coverings.

He don't know if her can touch her, don't think he should. But he can't help himself either, can't stop his hands from reaching out like he wanted to do every single day but never did. He's got her hand, her hand that's as stained as his, her blood dying her hands, bleeding into the lines of her palm and the edges of her knuckles, like the special pastes and paints that sometimes dotted her skin in swirls and patterns he only ever followed with his eyes.

(She said they were sacred. The marks of her craft. He made some crack about that being somewhere under her skirt. She didn't talk to him for days. )

Her face is smeared, dirt and dust and kohl and fear—bloodstains, tearstains, they spread along the angle of her cheekbone—but he keeps his fingers by her hands.

He wasn't ever suppose to touch her.

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"'No longer mourn for me when I am dead…'"

He catches the shadow of the girl outta the corner of his eye. Mal don't bother turning to look at her. He don't have long to wait before she comes floating into view. Her feet don't make a sound against the floor, the hem of her dress swirling around her knees, red fabric falling to the side of one shoulder.

"She's lost." River says, long fingers trailing along Inara's arm, playing with a curl that's fallen out from under the pins. "Got scared away by the gunshots and the bullets. Spilled across the floor and scattered into a million pieces. Seeped into the metal and his hands and found purchase in the creases."

He follows the girl's hand with his eyes, trying to ignore the gibberish coming out of her mouth. Failing to. She's bending then, her loose hair draping over 'Nara's shoulder, the bandages the doc left to cover up the damage. "Not lost anymore," She says, pressing her fingers against the wound that wasn't bleeding anymore, her mouth close to 'Nara's ear.

"Time to come home."

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Mal ain't believed in God in a long time, not since that valley, not after He failed the Shepard and Wash but left Mal to live another day.

But in that mule while Zoë raced them back towards the ship, while he was pushin' scraps of fabric into the bullet holes, while 'Nara gasped and shook and bled, he was praying. For more time, for less blood, for 'Nara to stop shaking like she was coming apart from the inside out, for her to notnotnot pleasegoddontdothisnother not die.

But its not 'til later, in the infirmary, under white lights, in the company of a crazy girl, he starts to think God might have heard him.

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Simon can't explain it, can't do more than look shocked and stutter; eyes bright and mouth tight, like maybe he was coming apart under his skin too and don't know where to start fixing himself up now. Kaylee just cries, buckets of tears that don't seem to have an ending, drapes herself as carefully as possible over Inara and just keeps crying while 'Nara touches her hair and calls her mei-mei and tells her she's alright (the now doesn't need to be said for them to all hear it). Zoë just hangs back, doesn't ask for an explanation, because, Mal thinks, you get better at accepting miracles after you've lost so much (and if it's the other way around, no one's corrected him yet).

River rocks back and forth on her bare feet and twirls in her red dress, laughs and jumps on Jayne's back and for once the older man doesn't shrug her off and walk away.

And when Simon asks her what she did, she laughs, hard and hearty, and says "She was never lost." Like it's the best thing in the whole 'verse. Maybe it is.

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She was gone. Well passed the going and truly just gone. Mal saw her eyes go blank and her hand fall limb from his own. Now she's just asleep, but Mal can't bring himself to leave because there's still some part of him that don't quite buy what just happened—what happened before his eyes—and he's afraid to walk away and have it all come undone.

Because she was gone and he's got her blood on his hands to prove it, and just because their fairy-girl did something don't make any of the rest any less truthsome. Don't make him any more capable of leaving her.

So he doesn't.

And it's easier now, somehow, to mourn her, now that she ain't nowhere but right in front of him. Now that the machines all tell him she's going to be fine. Maybe now it's easier to bow his head and shed his tears for the woman he didn't kill. Easier to press his brow into the edge of the bed and come apart.

He feels her hand on the back of his neck, feels her fingers—still sticky and stained—in his hair. "It's alright." She says and her voice is gentle and firm (he'd call it sincere if he knew what that was like coming from her), "It's alright. I'm here. Its alright. "

And maybe he's going for broke, but on a day like this he don't care, because he's too busy praying that she means it. And maybe God'll hear that too.

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End

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A/N the Second:

River's quote is from Shakespeare's sonnet 71.

I started writing this story a long while ago. In fact, it's the last story I started back during my Firefly heyday. I was just never sure about some of the content matter, particularly the deus ex machina I create out of River, because somehow, despite the fact that the 'verse is made up by what is essentially cowboys in outer space, it's also arguably the most realistic Whedon show in terms of supernatural stuff that goes down (yes, River is a reader, but c'mon, the government messed with her brain. Totally legit). But I remember watching Safe and thinking, if you never found out the stuff you do in Ariel and BDM, you could completely mistake River for a witch. And this story somehow became the stage for that River. I don't know, Mal just angsts so pretty, y'know?

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