Disclaimer: The characters are Joss, the writing isn't, but I hope you all enjoy anyway.
There's a lot of florid romance stuff here, but there's also going to be a lot of fighting and arguing and crew drama, some action next chapter, and quite a bit more action later on. So hopefully there will at least be some balance overall.
I've added about a page of explanatory prologue in the classical sense; for fans of the movie and series, the explanation will pretty much explain everything you already know, but I decided that the 'verse backstory was a necessary inclusion to cover all my bases. And there are movie spoilers here, so be warned.
Fourteen years ago, the great Alliance pacified an entire planet on accident, called it a terraforming failure, and decided they would prove just as capable stewards for the rest of the seventy or so worlds. Independent forces that rallied when governors were appointed to Shadow, Persephone, and Hera didn't appreciate the core's high-handed manner. The resistance that was supposed last six months, if that, went on for five years of brutal combat before it was crushed, and only after Shadow was rendered uninhabitable.
After the war, bureaucracy and resentment from the Alliance-supporting core worlds towards the rebellious border and rim resulted in Parliament repeatedly denying settlers even the most basic humanitarian aid, regardless of whether they had supported Unification or not. Megacorporations such as Blue Sun stepped in to fill the demand, and where that was too expensive, the people turned to local traders and transport, who were quickly labeled smugglers, scavengers, thieves, and pirates by corporate interests.
The resulting slew of Alliance laws were generally ignored by these individuals, many of whom were veterans of the war, many of whom had never stopped wearing the eponymous brown coats of the Independents' faction.
Two such browncoats had tried to move on from the horrors of the war, from Serenity Valley, where the forces of the Independents had been decimated in one desperate last stand. They'd had mixed success - the ship they'd fixed up they had named after that final battle - but they joined those ranks of new criminals and began trying to rebuild. Homeless and drifting before, they gained a family; a wisecracking pilot, a cheerful mechanic, a crude mercenary, a wise and worldly preacher, even an elegant companion, and a doctor who had rescued his genius sister from government scientists.
An Operative of Parliament was sent after them, and they ran, and in running they stumbled upon the Alliance's dirtiest secret: Miranda, and the experimental drug Pax the planet was dosed with. The Alliance got the more compliant population they wanted; thirty million people just lost their will to live. Several tens of thousands more suffered a far worse fate. The resulting hyperviolent subhuman Reavers still raid nearby worlds, carrying the tainted version of Pax in the air processors of their scavenged ships, turning anyone unlucky enough to be dragged off and not eaten into Reavers themselves.
The crew made sure Miranda would not be forgotten again. Half of the verse saw their broadwave, and tension on the border towards the Alliance began to rise again, seven years of dismissive attitude coming to a head.
In doing so, however, the crew lost two of their own, and dozens of friends and contacts in the Alliance's pre-emptive strike. They threw themselves into repairing their ship Serenity and their lives, tried to return to business-as-usual and eke out day to day survival.
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Against all odds, after so long, things had seemed to be going well. At least, comparatively, they were. For months, all any of them could do was to repair the broken shell of their home, thinking that maybe they might mend with it. Always in the back of their minds was that all the help and compensation they received was coming from the government that had tried to kill them, with some success. Always in the back of their minds were those who had been lost.
It had been a moment of triumph, to see their ship Serenity with her wings restored, a swan among geese with her fine, graceful lines and her newly cleaned shining hull.
But when they had taken to the sky again, there had been no more distractions. No more ignoring the awful truth, when they had no other course of action than for a traumatized, emotionally unstable young girl to take the pilot's seat. Weeks of drifting through the lonely, unsympathetic black, no job offers because of the political turmoil they had stirred up and the Alliance's strike against their best contacts and closest friends. Watching Zoë patrol the length of the ship or sequester herself in the bridge and the quarters she used to share, her lean bronze features as stoic as ever but her eyes haunted.
They'd all had a turn or two, talking to the newly made widow, acting as though nothing had happened out of respect for her wishes, her determination to keep going. But there were moments they all saw when she had to stop and struggle to hold back the grief. She always pulled herself back together, but they all wondered, and all worried, missing more than ever their funny former pilot and the comforting words of their preacher.
Then finally, finally, they'd had cargo, and if they had all complained about the cattle and the mess almost a year before, poultry had been something else again. The egg laying hens had provided a much appreciated non-canned-protein source of real food to their diets, but the talons, beaks, general ill-temperament, occasional escapes, and the refusal of their feathered guests to acknowledge gun threats had them all glad to be done with the chicken job.
Still, it had been better than smuggling drugs or slaves (their only other options), and they now had food, coin, and fuel. The excuse of the engine "bein' sticky" had allowed the captain an opportunity to stand at the head of the dinner table as they split up their take, hands on his gunbelt in a casually commanding stance, and announce they would get some shore leave when they next touched down.
The table had been gloomy of late, amplifying their grief and troubles despite the efforts of the warm cheery yellow and stenciled vines on the wall of the galley. But tonight the dimness felt like candlelight, and an air of celebration followed his words. Zoe accepted Jayne's offer to spot her at weight lifting; River set Serenity to dancing, saying she would find a new path amid the stars as she replotted their course; Kaylee headed for the engine room, Doctor Tam tagging along to help with any "adjustments" that needed to be made.
And that left the two of them. The captain, amused by the quick dispersal of his crew, shook his head in a way that made Inara want to get up from her seat at the opposite end of the table and run her hands through his brown hair. "Gratitude," he observed wryly, smirking in a self depreciating way as he pointed a thumb over his shoulder. But he was satisfied seeing everyone under his command in a good mood, and that had put him into one of his own, his blue eyes twinkling.
She smiled back at him, an honest one without lipstick or wiles, her black curls down and relaxed around her shoulders, her lavender dress the simple elegance she preferred wearing around the ship when she wasn't performing. He hadn't quite deciphered the message she was trying to send him, that this was herself, not the mask he thought she wore, but never-the-less she could see something slightly nervous creep into his expression.
This was something else that they had been distracted from, and she would never have believed it could be as strong as ever, after all their history, all their fights over their respective careers, after necessity had forced her to leave and she'd broken both their hearts. She should have known that his feelings, like the rest of him, would be stubborn. He'd been bitter and volatile the entire time she had been gone, never to forgive her, never to forgive himself. Yet he'd practically jumped at the opportunity to rush off to her rescue, directly into an ambush he knew would be waiting for him. He didn't actually remember he was supposed to be angry with her until she'd been back on the ship for an hour, and for that short period of time his disposition was drastically improved, if insufferably smug.
But since that short but sweet conversation they'd had, repairs completed and just before River's first take off, when he had not-quite-almost asked her to stay aboard, and she had not-quite-almost agreed to, nothing had happened. She had years of training in how to be alluringly beautiful and how to seduce men, and none of it could help her. Not just because of what his reaction would be to being 'companionized,' and not just because her training was not at all what she wanted to give him.
Hope had been excised from his life in a firestorm of bombardment and a hailstorm of bullets. She didn't know how to proceed, he couldn't even imagine the possibility. The longer they knew each other the more they ached, especially now, as they gazed at each other over the table between them like it was a chasm separating them.
Eventually the tension stretched and snapped, and he swallowed hard and broke eye contact with her, started to scoop the remaining platinum into the small leather pouch their payment had come in. The money wasn't much, not near enough to justify giving everyone a day off, but they all needed a vacation. He considered the weight in his hands, counted out about two dozen pieces, then slid the rest of it over to her. She frowned at it, confused, then looked up at him. "Middleman's fees run about twenty percent," he explained. "Couldn't have gotten that last job without you."
"This is for you and Serenity," she demurred, about to slide it back to him.
He crossed his arms stubbornly, but she could see a bit of hurt at her rejection, a bit of defensiveness. "And right now, Serenity an' I owe you," he insisted, trying to act like twenty percent of their earnings was mere pocket money, even freeing one hand to wave dismissively at the satchel. "Keep it." He fidgeted. "Get yourself, you know, somethin' nice. Can't help but feel we're the reason all your pretties got burnt up."
Another side effect of the Miranda broadwave: threats of violence had the guild recalling every able companion and apprentice back to the core. "They're only things," she replied, shrugging self-consciously, "I'm just grateful that everyone was evacuated from the training house safely."
But she took his gift now for what it was, not missing how pleased he was by her acceptance. Perhaps she might try to purchase some fabrics they could offload on some rim world, and, she conceded, possibly buy a dress he might like. She smiled again. "Thank you." He merely shrugged at her, feigning nonchalance and missing the invitation in her voice. She cast around for a topic of conversation, something to keep him from leaving. "Mal? How do you think you'll spend your free time?"
She sounded like a little girl on a schoolyard asking a boy she liked what he'd be doing over recess. He stared at her, genuinely surprised by her interest, and she fought back a blush, trying to look at ease with her back perfectly straight and hands clasped in her lap. "Well," he mused uncertainly, "since that business with Badger over Sturges, Persephone ain't much for jobs. But the Traders got some presence there, hear tell they like me, might point me a nav set." His voice turned pensive. "Thought maybe I'd take Zoë out for few drinks after. Get her mind off things."
They shared a moment of silence for their two crewmates. "Do you think it will help?" she asked softly. Mal understood Zoë better than anyone alive; two and a half years in the trenches together as sergeant and his corporal had mixed their blood so much that they were practically siblings.
He snorted humourlessly. "Sure as hell got to try." He planted his hands on the table, voice low, looking anywhere but across the table. His face seemed almost hidden in shadow. "I hate seein' her like this. She's walkin' around like she's half dead. Like we buried her with Wash…" he could barely choke out the words, fingers clenching into fists.
What a stunning success this conversation had been. She knew how to talk to people, put them at ease, but rather than building on his cheerfulness, all she had managed to do was to make him nervous and upset. "It wasn't your fault," she soothed earnestly, feeling a rush of sympathy, a tightening in her chest and throat, and dismay at the self-blame she heard. "None of us think so."
"Yeah?" he spat out bitterly, "Whose was it, then? You hear anyone else givin' orders? 'Cause I'd like to beat the guǐ outta the dà dài zi dà biàn zi de bù láng bù yŏu who was."
He pushed away from the table, stomped a few paces towards the crew quarters, then slowed to a stop. A moment, like a rolling peal of thunder, like one time when she'd watched from the loading ramp under the awning of the airlocks as he stood out in a storm, his face turned up to the falling rain while River quoted King Lear beside her. He took a deep breath, then turned back to her, his expression braced for her anger, hers serenely indifferent.
"You're tired," she recognized simply, and he ran a hand over his face in agreement like he had just remembered. Hurting too, she reminded herself, and her expression softened into concern. "Have you been sleeping well?"
"Good as can be expected," he muttered evasively. She understood. She'd had her share of nightmares as well, and every time, he had been there to hold her as she cried for both of them. Thirty million people on Miranda had just had fallen asleep, never to wake up, because the Alliance had wanted to create a more compliant population. After seeing all those people, she had realized that a life devoid of feeling wasn't any life at all. Whether she died first or he did, she wanted to be with him, to feel, for as long as possible.
One last try for something pleasant to discuss, maybe she could still salvage this. "Would you like some company? Not as a companion, I mean, but…" At his blank stare, it occurred to her how her offer might sound and she felt her cheeks heat up. "For drinks. With Zoë," she amended.
"Right," he nodded quickly.
For some reason, she felt compelled to continue, as though she hadn't said anything mortifying enough yet. "If it were the three of us" - he was still nodding - "maybe Zoë wouldn't feel so…"
"Uneasy," he finished for her. "I'm wise to your meaning."
She sighed, intentionally dramatic and long-suffering, but marred by an affectionately amused smile. "Just promise me you won't start any bar fights."
"So long as none find me," he agreed. A beat. He started to back away. "Well, like you said…"
"You're tired," she repeated. Another nod, more like a jerk of his head, then he looked at her, really looked, something lingering in his eyes that drew her in, made her feel like she was rising to her feet, drifting closer.
"G'night," he said abruptly, and turned sharply on his heel.
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Their sentinel silently watched their interactions, alarmingly entertained, and Inara realized she may have outthought herself this time. Zoë was distracted from her troubles, yes, in that she had interpreted their outing as some kind of attempt at courtship to chaperone.
They had talked about their upcoming itinerary, and now business, raising questions Inara was far from ready to be able to answer. And, of course, judging by Mal's grin over catching her wrong footed and uncertain, he had taken things entirely the wrong way. She frowned at him, perfect condescending dignity, and he cheekily raised his glass to her, thoroughly enjoying her flustered reaction.
After another round of drinks, she was relieved when the subject turned to amusing stories about their shipmates, such as the time Jayne picked up the lovely blonde tourist with the disturbing tastes, or how River had begun a quiet campaign of sabotage against her brother's clothing.
"Little pink hearts!" The captain guffawed, hand up, swearing he was telling the truth. "And Jayne is just roarin'…"
"Just Jayne?" his first mate asked shrewdly.
He wiped his thumb at the corners of his eyes, trying to catch his breath. His attempt to reassert control didn't last long. "Kaylee figured it was all for her! Thought it was sweet!" His palm slapped the table in his mirth.
Inara felt her heart warm as she studied him, then caught the eyebrow Zoë had raised in her direction. She rolled her eyes at herself and simpered, acknowledging, yes, she knew she was pathetic.
The other woman's lips curled up in approval, then she returned her attention to the captain, who had settled down enough to observe their exchange with a growing curiosity. "Womanly things, sir," Zoë answered his unspoken question, and he looked slightly wary, decided not to ask.
She couldn't help it, she was facing an unfair combination of alcohol and his so very masculine expression of female-induced mystified worry. She giggled, raising one manicured hand in a futile attempt to hide it.
Then everything became chaos, a disjointed mess of sensation, images, and sounds she couldn't sort out if she tried. Mal shouting, falling into her arms. The bark of Zoe's sawn off. Then they were moving, and he was yelling in the com for Simon to prep the infirmary. Carrying her, but blood was spreading over his shirt. Holding her, like those times her comforted her, or maybe she'd been comforting him, but she wasn't crying. Everything was hazy, she felt detached, shocked. Mal was hurt. The Eavesdown Docks blurred by from the back of the mule.
Voices hid danger, the black vial could save lives but the pieces would scatter. River was running towards them, down the ramp from Serenity, her long strands flying behind her like ravens; they moved past the tiny girl, ignoring her steady stream of prophecies. Inara struggled a bit as the crew put her up on the infirmary bed under that cold light, no, Mal first, he's hurt, but she was fighting the black creeping over her vision.
Sometime later, Inara realized she was awake. She followed the metal pole before her eyes up, to the bag hanging above her head like a red balloon, down the line to her hand, resting by her cheek. She was curled on her side, covered by several blankets to stave off the cold, one Kaylee's quilt, with flowers sewn into it, another a battered army blanket. She started to nestle deeper into the covers, trying to find some more warmth, then she saw him.
She was barely able to see him through infirmary windows between them, but there he was, guarding her, protecting her. There was some cotton and a bandage on his upper arm, just below a rolled up sleeve, the wound almost laughably small compared to the stain on his shirt. She brightened, his injury hadn't been as serious as she thought. "Mal," she called, weak with relief.
He heard. The captain hit the ship intercom en route and ordered Simon to the infirmary, making his way over to the metal chair at the side of the bed, propping his elbows on his knees, clasping his fingers at his chin. He didn't look at her, or rather, glanced once, then looked away, eyes shut tightly when he saw she was looking back. Beginning to sense something amiss, she reached for him, but he stood and took a few steps away, restless, wanting to pace but not having enough room.
Before she could ask, he spoke, still turned away from her, stoic. "What you said before," a moment to gather his courage, "the strength of love does more than just bind you. It becomes you." She felt her heart jump up into her throat, fluttering, hopeful, he sounded wistful. "When that power fills you, you feel like impossible ain't so, like nothin' in the 'verse can touch you." He titled his head slightly, studying the hand she had moved towards him. "Like maybe things'll be all right now."
With some effort, she kept herself quiet so he might continue. "What you feel, or not, don't make no nevermind," he told her. "We're your family, 'Nara, will be long as we breathe."
She nodded, he didn't see it. "Yes," she added, agreeing. "Family." Even when she had left. Especially when she had left.
"Can't break away," he repeated her own words back to her.
"And I don't want to," she finished for him.
He looked at her then, blue eyes keen, considering for a long time. "Maybe you should."