PROLOGUE

Inara sat quickly on the porch swing as a sharp pain stabbed through her torso. Breathing deeply, she wrapped her arms tightly around her chest trying to contain the whimper of pain tingling in her throat. In a moment it passed, leaving only the warm kiss of sunshine on her skin and the gentle caress of the autumn breeze. Sitting sideways on the swing's bench, she leaned against the arms and stretched her legs across the seat, tilting her head side to side to induce a gentle rocking motion. Inara loved this swing. It could be sub-zero in the dead of winter, and she'd still come out here, bundled and blanketed, armed with hot tea, absorbing the peacefulness of rocking slowly and staring at the sky.

The postman trundled up their street, laden with a full bag and a few small packages. Inara laughed as Mal dashed out of the house and intercepted the courier while he was still several doors away. Mal loved getting mail. Little Zoë had always been good about sending postcard, and even though she'd been living with them the last ten months, recovering from her latest cancer relapse, she'd started sneaking out to the post office and having things mailed back to the house. Zoë wrote elaborate tales of her adventures, most of them made up to protect the true nature of her work.

The boys didn't use courier post as much. Cole would send them a wave a few times a week. Michael was a wild card and if he didn't randomly show up at their doorstep begging for handouts, he'd send anything from pictures to classified senate proceedings, all via cortex and only occasionally encrypted. When Jayne had demanded Michael return Vera, Michael sent him a ransom note and a dented laser site wrapped in a bloody handkerchief. Inara thought it was distasteful, but Mal and Jayne had laughed for weeks.

Mal hurried back to the house, head ducked, ripping open the letter that had come for him. He nearly stumbled over the footlights, but he covered it with a funny little jump and landed softly in the grass. Dropping his arms to his side, he stomped his foot and swore loudly.

"Denied again?" Inara asked, smiling at his childish reaction to the letter.

Mal made a face, and came over to the swing, lifting her feet and setting them on his lap as he sat. "I shouldn't be surprised that it's damn near impossible for a man of my reputation to get a business loan for a gun shop."

"Or Jayne's," Inara added. "You're just as likely to buy the armory and run."

He shook his head and smiled at her, absently running his fingers along her calves. This was the twelfth denial letter he'd gotten, but he never lost heart for long. He had confidence that the dream would come to fruition at the right time. Inara hoped that time came sooner rather than later, because she was getting frustrated with his persistent 'reorganizing' of the house.

"It's a little early for you to hit the swing," he commented. It was his way of asking her if she was getting as old and frail as he was without saying it out loud.

"I had an early morning. Zoë and I went into town," she said. She hadn't told him about the on and off pain she'd been feeling, and side-stepped his question without even thinking about it. Pulling up the hem of her pants, she showed off the black, strappy platform heels with floral embroidery that she'd bought for herself to match the embroidered blouse she had on.

"How are you gonna walk in those?" Mal carped, lifting her foot high and eying it critically. She cringed, anticipating him tickling her behind the knee, but he surprised her by poking at the shoe and wriggling his finger in the instep.

"Zoë wanted to celebrate the fact that she could walk at all," Inara giggled, trying to reclaim her leg before she inadvertently kicked him in the head. "You should see the ones she got."

"No wonder I'm broke," Mal complained. It wasn't a real point of contention between them. Inara's entire budget for new shoes came from reselling her old ones. Mal sprawled his arms over the back of the swing, his playfulness replaced with melancholy, and he sighed again.

"There's gotta be some way to get the money we need to start – without stealing it."

It was the first time he'd expressed any disheartenment about the delay in the dream. Inara had been thinking for awhile now if there was any thing she could do, and while she had money stashed away, accessing it would be risky. For Mal, it was worth it.

"I know a way," she said, scooting closer to him and tracing the buttons on his shirt. "I have a confession. I'm independently wealthy."

Mal rolled his eyes. "I'm not gonna make you sell all your pretty shoes so I can open a gun shop."

"Oh, thank you," Inara laughed, then she sat a little straighter. "But what I mean is when I was actively Companioning, I put a portion of my earnings into a retirement account. I'm sure with the interest rates I locked in, there's more than enough to start your business."

For a solid minute, Mal stared at her, trying to process the words. "How come you haven't mentioned this before?"

Inara didn't want to settle accounts with the Guild, but now that her son was working there, she'd probably get leniency for delaying things as much as she had. "There's some protocol with the Guild for unlocking it, and I don't have access until I turn fifty-five."

"Like that'll ever happen," Mal griped, then he shook his head in mock hopelessness. "Zoë told me your secret years ago – you have no birthday and that's why you never age."

"Ah. Then I have another confession. I have a birthday," Inara teased, giggling coyly. "Would you like to know when it is?"

Mal bit his lip, then wiped the smile off his face, replacing it with an uncertain scowl. "I don't know. It's been kinda nice not having to remember a specific date to buy you presents on. I like gettin' you stuff whenever I feel like it."

"I like that too." Inara leaned in and kissed him, thinking she could just as easily get the money without revealing a specific birth date. She loved when he'd spring gifts on her, and he had a calendar that he marked whenever she let the words 'it's not even my birthday' slip out. The last time she'd checked, he'd narrowed it to 83 possible days. It amazed her that he hadn't given up and that he hadn't circumvented her and asked her parents.

"But supposing you did tell me," Mal said softly, tilting his head as she kissed along his neck. "Would you want the cake and the candles and the whole family gathered?"

"So long as you don't put a hundred candles on the cake or decorate the yard with black signs and headstones that say 'over the hill.'"

"Oh, so you mean I can't do what you did for my last birthday?" Mal said, tickling her sides playfully. She squirmed and fell into his lap and he caught her head before she could bang it on the chain of the swing.

"The hickory cane was Jayne's idea," Inara said defensively as he kept tickling her.

"But adding the little horn and the rearview mirror to it –"

"You enjoyed it!"

"Who's to say you won't enjoy what I have in mind for you?" Mal said mischievously. As much as she trusted him, it still made her uneasy. She'd never handled pranks as well as he did.

"I won't give you the money if –"

Mal pressed a finger over her mouth, then covered her lips with a kiss before she could finish the thought. She was still too nervous to kiss back.

"No need for threats," he whispered, his breath warm against her skin. "I love you, wife. I'll get everyone together, but the only ones who'll know it's your real birthday are you and me. I won't even make a cake."

Inara closed her eyes and felt safe in his arms.

*~*