There is No Such Place
Firefly. Mal/Inara, Simon/Kaylee. R. 2,704 words.
"You gotta keep flyin'," Mal says. After it all, after the Operative and Book and Miranda. After they've set Wash up all pretty and pale six feet under.
Zoe, stoic and beautiful and so gorram strong, says, "Yes, sir," as Serenity pulls them up and away and away and away.
This is not a mutual tragedy, and they don't fall into each other.
It's not Mal's place to lean, and certainly not Inara's place to offer, but Mal's left with a broken ship and a broken crew and a body (headheartspirit) that's maybe in more pieces than what he started with. The isolation and the aches are breathing through the ship, audible with every exhale and Mal's need to just keep moving is lulled by everybody else's need to just stop, to stop here, deep in the void between planets where Zoe can watch the universe pass her by to prove that it still does.
Inara doesn't leave her shuttle for four days, and Mal's distracted, distracting, putting all his energy into everyone else and Inara lies naked beneath her sheets and waits for a job that doesn't come, waits for fine dining and ball gowns and fingers on the insides of her thighs.
She wants a boy to ask her again if she'll let him take her away from all this.
This time, she'd say, please.
He kisses her later, after it all. Two weeks have spun passed without anyone thinking about moving forward, and Inara goes down into the dock, bay, kitchen. It's the middle of the night and she's hungry, but not for food and Mal's there at the table, head in hands and hushed. He's not drunk and he's not crying, but he looks at her like he'd forgotten she'd made it, that she'd survived, and she stands and watches him until they're both just there, present and somehow not, because she doesn't think they've ever been this quiet around each other before.
He kisses her then.
She lets him.
They fuck too, there over the kitchen table, the top hard underneath her, the indents of the wood making rivets in her skin. The firsts there in the way he touches her, unfamiliar calluses on Inara's silk-soft skin, in the way he quivers and the way he's so uncertain, even as he pushes his way inside.
It hurts and it doesn't and Inara's blank-faced and Mal cries and there's this moment where it's all too much. Where Inara's barely inside herself, but Mal is, hard and big, until all she can feel is him and that's somehow all that matters.
In this afterglow and all the next ones, she'll look at him and think she needs to rip out his heart before he can take hers. (It's a losing battle, she'll tell herself later, naked and somehow raw with only Mal's lingering touch for company, the worst kind of stalemate.)
"A heart is not a bone," River tells her later. They're on a planet where it's spring, the flowers all just starting to blossom. "It cannot break or snap in two. You have to tear it like a muscle. Rip it like a runner's cramp." She holds a hand to Inara's chest, clenches her fingers in the fabric covering her breast and says, "Ouch."
Mal is not a client.
Inara's clients touch her like she's breakable, like she's some old religious idol for them to worship, make love to. Like being with her means counting blessings and waiting for miracles. The water on the tabletop will turn to wine and Inara will start bleeding from the palms of her hands, until it pools between them, stains their bodies. Like they've touched something worthwhile.
Inara is a religious experience.
Mal is not a client. Mal has no grand delusions and he fucks her like she's a woman, like she's his, but only for now, only whilst he's able to work his way inside of her, until she's done gasping and he's finished fuckingkissingtouchingwanting. Afterwards, Inara doesn't ask what he'd like for breakfast, and Mal doesn't ask her to stay.
They don't belong to each other.
It's not just them, although Inara finds it difficult to compare Simon and Kaylee to her and Mal. Whilst they're slow dancing their way to destruction, Simon and Kaylee are touching, healing, kissing, feeling in a way that Inara, were she younger and pettier, might be jealous of.
As it stands though, it just hurts to watch them, the gentleness with which they treat each other, like they're precious, fragile and worth keeping. A child with her first doll. It's something that makes Inara have to turn away. Something like innocence and firsts, and it's all there in the way Kaylee kisses him in the kitchen and the way he never stops looking at her, not really.
The smell of dinner snares Inara from her shuttle one night and down into the ship's kitchen. Zoe's there at the table already, eyes trained on them. Everything Zoe's lost is there in what Kaylee's found; in Simon's touches, smiles, fingertips soft on her arm as she cooks. Inara watches Zoe watch Kaylee and feels like they're all on the same ship but the three of them are in different worlds.
Zoe doesn't stop watching, even as her heart gets thrown up on the table in front of her, beating outside and away from her and as Kaylee leans over, pushes the hair off of Simon's face, Inara wonders if Zoe's even seeing Simon and Kaylee anymore. Maybe she hasn't in a while.
The don't dies on the tip of her tongue, and when he kisses her she lets him.
Because this is give and take, because Mal never stops giving and Inara never stops taking, holding all the parts of Mal in the palm of her hand. She thinks of loss and of Zoe and grips the skin of Mal's waist, holds him and thinks that at least he's still warm, at least he's still moving, because she thinks the rest of them might be drying up.
Later, she'll wash herself clean, desperate to get rid of whatever parts of her feel that he's important, a hero, or worse, a part of her, but he'll still be there, caught beneath her fingernails.
Mal sheds facades with his clothing, whilst Inara slips them on.
"Sometimes I wonder which is you," he tells her after they've made love. "Which parts are just yours."
She smiles, even if his yours sound terribly like mines.
She's a part of them, but not really. Her shuttle is her sanctuary and her extension, detachment from them. She's something on the skin of the firefly, lost on the wing, and Simon and River have snuck their way on without anyone noticing, become a part of the insect, the brain and the immunity and Inara lies on the wings, desperate to claw her way into them, but not, happy on the outskirts and out of the shared pain, the heart of the ship.
People are healing, but they're not and Inara can't breathe when she's down there with them. Can't watch Mal try to hold everyone together, can only let him take her apart instead, because at least that way he has some sort of control.
He can't fix her though, and she wonders if he realizes that yet.
They get a job, but Mal doesn't let anyone go but him, Jayne and Zoe and the three of them come back bruised and broken and empty handed.
Jayne growls like a wild animal, spends the rest of the day prowling the bay like he wants to take somebody out and everyone avoids him until River gets in his way and then Simon's calling out threats he can't follow through on and Mal's having to hold Jayne back.
Inara watches Zoe sigh, arms loose and shoulders tense as she leaves, and later Mal will crawl his way into her shuttle like an injured animal, tail between his legs with a need, want, to just roll over. She's not unkind, not cruel, and she takes him with gentler fingers.
She watches him shake apart beneath her, hurt and desperate and dreams of ripping open his chest and holding his heart in her hands, of keeping it: to herself, inside herself, safe. A heart can't be broken, but Mal's is tearing at the seams and Inara is left wanting for the pieces.
(If she were to tell him such, foolishly, openly, he'd laugh in her face. She could have it all, he'd tell her. It's yours for the taking.)
She will never ask though, and Mal will hold it in his fingers, battered and bloody like the rest of him; out in the open, heavy in the space between them as Inara retreats to her fortress, pushes her own heart tight back into its ribcage prison.
They go back the next day; Jayne, Zoe and Mal.
Maybe it's just anger or the beat-up pride, but they come back with the booty. Jayne laughs, the big, dumb one, and Mal looks up at the bridge at Inara, even as Kaylee hugs him.
"It's like things are finally finding their place again," Kaylee says one night as Inara brushes the knots from her hair, watches them come loose between her fingers. "Me and Simon, you and Mal."
Inara stops, lilts. She can see her eyelids flutter in the mirror across the shuttle and Kaylee, stupidly perceptive, stops, says, "You and Mal?" Only like a question.
Inara doesn't answer, and that night she locks the door to her shuttle and pretends she doesn't hear Mal knocking. She curls back inside herself like she did when she was thirteen and Nandi told her she wouldn't steal any hearts if hers was being held in open fingers, ripe for the plucking.
"It's like that story," River says at dinner, out of the blue, and she beats her fists on her chest. "Little pig, little pig, let me in."
She doesn't love him, but she does, and it cripples her. You're a companion, she tells herself, you don't fall in love. Stupid whore.
Next time, she kisses him first.
It feels like an ownership, a possession, but mostly she just starts to feel like herself again.
Mal kisses back. She supposes that's all that matters.
"What are you doing to each other?" Zoe asks, eyes trained impossibly on Inara. "Haven't we had enough hurt on this ship?"
Inara doesn't say anything, because she's not sure when it stopped being about who could hurt the other the worst and when it became about something else, about the contours of Mal's hips and the way he just fit there against her, grows out of her like the ocean against the shore line until she can't see where one of them begins and the other ends. She hasn't had a client since before all this, and the thought of someone else crawling their way inside her feels strange, misplaced.
It's not love, she tells herself, and Zoe hasn't stopped looking at her and Inara hasn't stopped looking back and a part of her wants to tell Zoe not to worry, because they're a family and nobody is going to leave Zoe behind, no matter how much she worries they will.
The revelation hits her when she's halfway to orgasm. When she's arching underneath him and he's pushing down against her, overbearing and possessive and so gorram right and she realizes that she wants to crawl inside his chest, curl around his heart like armor, like a mistress, wants to be inside him for a change, instead of spread out and open for him to work his way between her legs.
One day Mal will have to call her out, like she hasn't been stuck in his chest from the start, like old shrapnel from the war, and he'd cut her out if he didn't think he'd bleed to death if he did. Die from the inside out.
"Kiss me," he tells her, and Inara, all perfect lips and eyes and head and big, dumb heart will kiss him.
"Say you need me," he tells her, and Inara will look back at him and say, "You need me."
Later, when he's asleep, she'll thread her fingers through his hair. She'll trace his cheekbones, nose, lips, collarbone. She'll explore him with shaking hands and unblemished skin against his scars and calluses and when she says, "Maybe," it's breathed into the nape of his neck as she falls asleep.
She doesn't see it, couldn't, not spooned around his back, but Mal, fingers threaded in hers, mumbles, "I know," her heart beating solid against his back.
The revelation hits her, because she's not a companion anymore, not really, and Mal will never be a client, no matter how much she wishes he could be.
Wishes that that was all he was.
She was never meant to be one man's kept woman, but it's been almost a year since Miranda and the Operative, since Book and Wash. The offers pile up in her system, computer, from the pit of her stomach to her toes, but none of them are answered. She wonders if they think she's dead.
They have another job. It's the first job they're all involved in; Simon and Inara left to the ship, him unpleasantly so. He frowns as both River and Kaylee head out towards the surface of the planet.
Inara doesn't even notice Mal walking over until he's in front of her. He holds out a gun, shootin' end at his palm as the handle's outstretched to her.
"Every man on this ship gotta earn his keep," Mal says, and his tone is light, but everything else is heavy; eyes, posture, grip on the gun. "And I hear you're an okay shot. For a companion, I mean."
"Oh," she says, "for a companion? I do remember handing you your backside a number of times."
"Well, I don't hit women," he hums, and something about this feels normal, natural. There's a tease in between them that reminisces of simpler times, and it's easy to spin with it, to tilt her hip and pretend he hasn't seen her spread out and naked and raw.
She can feel the others watching, like this is some return to normalcy after everything that's happened, like it couldn't be before they cut each other with words instead of actions. Instead of sex. Same dance, just with more (or less) clothes on. She wonders if it will ever be easier. She wonders if she wants it to be. She purses her lips and she can see the tug in his, the smile lost beneath the façade of sternness.
"We could use a girl like you," he says. "Face like that, you're good for business. Besides, I ain't seen you workin', not recently anyway, and a girl needs to keep her hands busy."
"Woman, too," Inara says. "You should know that by now."
"Surely do," Mal grins, and Inara looks back at the gun.
"Not much of a proposition," she says, pushing her hair back off her shoulders, and Mal laughs.
"More than most of my folk get. Besides, I hear the boss is a mighty fine gentleman, good lay too."
She does laugh at that, the first time in so long. It feels like brushing away cobwebs, and his smile is so warm, homely. She thinks, maybe… but Mal's smile is fracturing before she can say anything else.
"We ain't losing anymore," he says, and Inara wants to ask losing what? Jobs, them, each other? She supposes he rather means all three.
He shakes his head, glances back at the others who all seem to be somewhere between agitation and hopefulness and when he looks at her again, the grin is wide and it's been so long since she's seen it that something in her chest unknots, unlocks.
"You a part of us, Inara Serra? Or do I have to extend a formal invitation?"
And Inara, with a grin and a tilt of her head, takes the gun.
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah