In the Twilight
Summary: Just another potential look at the way things might have gone. Years past the Miranda Wave, two crewmembers of Serenity meet again after a long absence.
She paused for a moment, certain in some recessed part of her brain that she heard a sound she'd thought to never hear again, the distinctive whine of a Firefly coming into atmo. Ever graceful, she blinked slowly and smiled at the children looking up at her questioningly.
"You are right, Miss Inara?" Maggie asked, her little brown eyes bright with curiosity.
"I am well, thank you," Inara replied calmly. "Now, where were we?"
Relieved, Maggie hopped a little on her feet. "S'cussin' proper etiqu….eti…manners," she finished.
Inara smiled at the child gently. "Of course," she said. "The word is 'etiquette'. And it is a very important word indeed." Gesturing gracefully for the little girls to take their seats around the long table, she began once again to patiently teach her young charges while relegating the hauntingly familiar sound of a particular engine to the back of her mind where it belonged.
The morning, as mornings typically did, passed quickly into afternoon and the children, eager to be free of their classes, ran down the dirt road that led from Inara's home to the small settlement a few miles away. Inara stood in her doorway for a moment, watching them go with equal parts sorrow and relief. Every day with the small group of girls was a treasure to her, and yet their restless energy reminded her all too well of the restlessness that had once driven her from a life of wealth and privilege out into the Black. The memory was not something she allowed herself to dwell upon for very long.
Sighing, she turned back into the house just long enough to retrieve a basket and a small pair of gardening scissors. She realized that unconsciously she had been expecting to have a visitor all day long, though she knew the very idea of it was patently absurd. Blowing out a deep breath, she set out for her small garden. It was a daily ritual, much as meditation had been in years past. And she could allow that working the soil in her well-worn gloves was indeed a sort of therapy for her every day as the twilight shadows fell across the garden and edged slowly toward her little home.
She sank down onto her knees in the soft soil, heedless of the fine fabric of her dress in a way she would never have been years earlier. She bent to her task of pulling the tiny weeds that seemed to grow so prolifically in the rich soil. Within a short time, she sat back on her heels, pleased with the results of her labors. Pushing the small pile of weeds to the side, she began examining her vegetables. Beautiful little red peppers shone brightly, catching the last of the sun's rays with their vibrant color. Her mouth began to water as she quickly harvested the tempting peppers along with the plump sweet peas and tiny, succulent heads of pak choi that would combine in a quick sauté for her evening meal. She had the fleeting thought that Kaylee would have swooned at such an abundance of fresh vegetables once upon a time, but she quickly suppressed it, chiding herself for traveling so often down memory lane in one day.
Setting the basket of vegetables down on the ground, she rose slowly, mindful of the slight stiffness in the joints at her hips, knees, and ankles that had come with age. As she stood, she slipped off her gloves and brushed off her dress, glancing absent-mindedly down the dirt road. Her breath caught in her throat and she blinked slowly, certain that her mind was playing tricks on her.
Coming down the road was a man. Not just any man either, Inara thought, her heart beating wildly against her ribcage. She swallowed thickly, her suddenly nerveless fingers dropping the gardening gloves soundlessly to the ground. She stood rooted to the ground as she watched his progress down the road, knowing his long strides as well as she knew anything in the 'verse.
"Mal," she said softly as he stepped to the edge of her garden, pleased that her years of Companion training allowed her to say the word almost casually.
"'Nara," he replied, inclining his head slightly but holding her eyes steadily.
She felt, ridiculously, a slight blush stain her cheeks and she wondered when last that had happened. Pulling herself together with an invisible effort, she stepped over the small rows of tender vegetables and came to his side. "It's lovely to see you again."
Mal smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling more deeply than it had when last she'd seen him. His feet shuffled softly in the dust. "Good to see you too, 'Nara. Just thought I'd…" He paused awkwardly, reminding Inara painfully of the young man who had once been brave enough to be truthsome with her, the young man he had been before Miranda and all that had happened thereafter.
Quickly, as if to forestall the memory, she stepped away from him. Gathering her skirts in her trembling hands, she turned toward the house. "Come," she said as she took a shaky step, knowing instinctively that he would follow.
Finding his voice again, he said, "You've got a beautiful little place here. Good looking garden. Soil looks to be good and rich."
"Yes," she replied, infinitely grateful to be discussing nothing more than soil quality at the moment. "It is."
Mal reached down, picking up the forgotten basket of vegetables. Hovering over her gloves, his hands paused for a moment before picking them up as well.
She quickly reached to take them, noting that he held them gently as if they were made of fairy glass instead of sturdy leather. "Thank you."
"No problem," he said, straightening his tall frame. His smile was a bit tight around the edges. "So, I thought I'd just stop by, bein' as how I was in the neighborhood."
"Just in the neighborhood?" Inara said, slipping on her Companion smile like a piece of armor.
Mal chuckled, not even embarrassed to be caught in the lie. "Yep," he said. "After three weeks' travel, two border patrol checkpoints, and a lost primary buffer panel."
"Ah," Inara said, as he fell into step beside her. "I see." They walked in silence for a moment. Reluctantly, Inara broke the silence as they stepped onto her porch. "So, what occasions the visit?"
Mal held the screen door open and she slipped past him, her heart hammering uncomfortably. Setting the basket of vegetables on the small foyer table, he sighed. "Just wanted…..to see you, is all. Had some changes in the past few months, and had some time on my hands."
Inara retrieved the basket and headed toward her small kitchen, needing something to do with her hands. "Stay to dinner?" she asked.
Mal's smile held equal parts relief and appreciation. "Wouldn't mind that at all," he said as he leaned against her countertop with one hip.
Inara swallowed thickly at the familiar sight, her mind whirring with the memory of seeing him in just such a pose a million times before, though never in this particular kitchen. As if reading her thoughts, he turned and looked around appraisingly. "It's a nice house," he said softly. "Cozy-like."
"Thank you," Inara said. "Though I would imagine you were expecting something a bit more….elegant."
"Not especially," he said gently. "Looks fair elegant to me, what with you standin' in it."
His voice was suddenly lower than it had been by an octave, and Inara felt warmth spread through her body at the sound of it.
"Zoe's gone," Mal said abruptly.
Inara's hands stopped their motion of washing the vegetables and she turned to face him. "You mean…dead?" she whispered.
"No, no, nothin' like that," Mal reassured her. "Just decided it was time to settle down somewhere." He sighed. "She's right, you know."
"Always is," Inara replied gently.
Mal laughed. "Ain't that the truth?" he admitted. "Can't say she didn't stick it out longer'n most woulda', though. Gotta' give her that." He stopped for a moment. "And once Jayne left, seems like the crews we took on just didn't…"
"They weren't family," Inara suggested softly.
"Yeah," Mal admitted.
"So, when did Jayne go?" she asked, turning back to the food preparation.
"Couple years back," Mal replied. "His mama died, and he went on back home to look after his brother. You know the one with the damp lung."
Inara nodded. "Matty."
"Yeah, Matty," Mal said. Silence fell over the kitchen.
"So, where did Zoe decide to settle?" Inara asked lightly.
"Little piece of land by Wash," Mal said, his voice hitching a little at the name of his former pilot. "Took us the better part of a year to negotiate the price of the land, but she'd been puttin' some back ever since the funeral. Didn't want someone to come along and dig up the….graves, she said. Wanted to be there."
Inara swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. "I see," she said quietly. "And Simon and Kaylee? Have you heard from them recently?"
"Stopped in to see 'em on the way here," Mal replied, relieved to have told her Zoe's news without revealing how much it had taken out of him to leave his best friend there and walk away. "Got a fair passel of little 'uns runnin' about…in combat boots, I might add. Something they've picked up from their crazy aunt, no doubt."
Inara laughed. "And how was River?"
"Still a mite whimsical in the brainpan," he said, smiling. "But thrivin', what with Simon and Kaylee's little ones there to help raise. And the town is quiet-like, not much use for half-crazed government-trained assassins, so she's shiny." He paused. "Grew up into a right impressive woman, as it turns out." He could not quite keep the pride from his voice.
Inara smiled. "I know," she said. "Kaylee sends me captures, sometimes. And she waves, when she can. I'm constantly in awe of her capacity for just…enjoying life. She doesn't seem to age at all."
Mal smiled. "That's Kaylee. Mama of six, or is it seven? And still fresh as a daisy." He paused. "Guess some women just have that gift." He stepped closer to her, the heat from his body warming her across the small space between them. "Take you, for instance. Still as beautiful as the first day I saw you."
Inara chuckled, pleased inordinately by the compliment, absurd though it was. She thought about the fine lines that had appeared years ago around her eyes and mouth, the thin skin that stretched across her throat and the back of her hands, the streaks of gray that ran like silver through her hair. "Well, I can see that your eyesight was the first thing to go," she said lightly.
"I see just fine," Mal replied, placing his large hand over hers and turning her toward him gingerly.
She allowed the movement, caught in the seduction of his rough hand enveloping her smooth ones. She looked at him carefully, trying to read in the depths of his blue eyes what his purpose could possibly be. She saw the deep lines that ran from the corners of his eyes into his hairline and the ones that ran from his nose to the corners of his mouth, the years spent out in the Black on what he would have called the 'ragged edge' etched across his face indelibly. And yet, for all that, she thought he was perhaps the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in the 'verse at just that moment. "Mal," she whispered, her hands still resting in his. "Why have you come?"
He drew a deep breath. "I'm tired, 'Nara. Been a long time in the Black. And I ain't got the will or notion to find another crew. Gettin' too old to be roamin' the 'verse." He smiled ruefully. "Truth be told, I never thought I'd live to say that. Life we lived, don't seem right somehow to survive it into old age."
"Mal," she said gently. "You're not that old."
"Old enough," he replied. "'Sides, Serenity's not in the best of shape either. Never did find anyone could fix her like Kaylee. And…it's getting' harder to find parts as will fit. Aren't all that many Fireflies still flyin'."
"What will you do?" Inara asked, something deep inside her breaking at the thought of Serenity grounded along with her Captain.
Mal inhaled slowly, noting the subtle smell of Inara's perfume. "Not rightly sure," he admitted. "Still workin' it through." He paused. "Thinkin' maybe I'll find my own self a piece of land somewhere quiet, out of the way of the Alliance as much as possible. Some place I can have a little farm, maybe a small herd. Lived on a ranch as a boy, you know."
"I know," Inara replied softly. She pulled her hands away from Mal's with a sharp stab of regret which she instantly fought to suppress. "Any idea where you might choose?" she asked as casually as she could manage.
"You want the truthsome answer, 'Nara, or do you want to do like we've always done?" Mal asked achingly plainly.
"If I want to do like we've always done?" she asked, letting the question hang heavily in the air between them.
"Then I'll say that I just came to see you one last time before my travelin' days are done," Mal replied softly. "And I'll walk back into the settlement and get into Serenity and go."
Inara swallowed nervously, suddenly light-headed. "And if I say that I want the truthsome answer?"
Mal wrapped his arms across his chest in an unconsciously defensive posture. "Then I'll say what I came to say, and hear your answer. What happens after that is up to you."
Inara pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down on suddenly shaky legs. "I see," she said slowly. Drawing a deep breath, she marveled at how swiftly the years since they'd last spoken melted away, leaving her as dizzy as she'd been on their last farewell. "Then, I choose truthsome," she replied, her mouth abruptly dry.
With a speed that belied his years, Mal slipped into the chair beside her. "I came here for you, Inara," he began, his voice filled with a tenderness that caressed the deepest part of her heart. "I know we agreed long ago that this thing between us weren't never gonna work out. And I didn't stop you from leavin' that last time. Fair pushed you away, truth be told." He licked his lips nervously. "But there ain't been a day since, not even one, that I haven't wished to Book's dear sweet fluffy Lord that I'd had sense enough to make you stay." Seeing her brow wrinkle, he added quickly, "Not that I coulda', not if you really wanted to go. But I coulda' tried, coulda' made it my aim to keep you by my side, or to go wherever it was you wanted to go." He paused for a moment, as if the articulation of his thoughts was more difficult than he had imagined. "Thing that kept me from doin' it was…that I knew I couldn't offer you the kinda life I thought you wanted. Only now, permaybehaps I'm a mite smarter, or just seein' things a mite clearer. Shoulda' laid it all out for you then…given you the choice. Let you tell me what it was you wanted." He stopped, gathering his breath and rubbing his jaw ruefully. "'Cause I'm thinkin' what you wanted and what I thought you wanted mighta' been near a 'verse apart." His hands came to rest on the table as if the explanation had exhausted him.
Inara laid her hand gently across one of his. "I don't know that I would have had the wisdom then to know what it was that I wanted. And I certainly didn't have the wherewithal to articulate it if I had."
"So, is that it?" Mal asked, his voice laced with desperation. "Were we just hopelessly ill-timed back then?" He looked deeply into her kohl eyes. "And more to the point, are we still?"
Inara sighed. "Yes…and no."
"Well, that clears everything up," Mal said, withdrawing his hand from hers in defeat.
"No, Mal," she said quickly. "That's not what I mean."
"Then speak plain, Inara, 'cause I…I need to know," he replied.
"Yes, we were hopelessly ill-timed years ago, and no, perhaps we're not now," she whispered.
A small light began to burn in Mal's tired eyes. "You sayin' that it ain't too late for us, 'Nara?" he asked, wincing at the naked longing in his voice. "That there's a chance…"
Inara inhaled deeply. "I am," she said.
"And you ain't just sayin' it on accounta' I pushed you into it…or you felt beholden to me…or…"
"Mal," she said, her heart suddenly years younger than her actual age. "I'm saying it…because it's true. Because it's what I should have said years ago. Because it's what we should have done instead of constantly pushing each other away. Dong ma?"
She knew instantly that the smile that lit Mal's face was the last thing she would remember on the day she died. "I'm thinkin' you're right at that, bao bei," he said, his voice husky with emotion.
"Of course I am," she said, sliding gracefully from her chair to his lap. "Now shut up and kiss me."
Finding no argument with her logic, Mal complied, sensing deep in his soul that he had finally found his way home.