Right as the Sky is Black
It hurts. A consistent ache in his belly cries for his attention, and he can feel his throat tighten and the back of his eyes fill with tears, ready to be shed. He clamps his eyes shut for a moment, swallows, and when he is sure he is composed enough to do so, he opens his eyes again.
"Mal," she says.
He looks her straight in the eyes. "Inara." He doesn't know what to expect from her, but there's a glimmer of hope that rises in him for the split second before she shatters his world again.
Averting her gaze, she tells him, "I should really be going." She wraps her arms around her middle as if protecting herself from him and from anything he might say to her.
He settles on, "Right." It's the only word he thinks he can get through without giving himself away. Pushing his hands into his pockets, he lets his shoulders slump a bit and tries to relax his muscles as well as he can. His aim today is to deceive and act natural-like.
(There's nothing lower than a low-down dirty deceiver.)
"Are you going to be okay?" she asks. She speaks quietly as if lowering the volume of her voice will make the question less important and perhaps also make it less easy for the rest of the crew to hear it.
"Course. You know me. We'll be right as the sky is black."
"Are you going to be okay?" He echoes back her question.
"I..." He sees her tense up, and then just as quickly, she regains composure and breathes out. Breathes in. Returns to herself. "I'll be fine. The Companion Training House is ready for me and I have a room prepared. I'm sure it will be of high quality. The Guild doesn't skimp."
"Could have told you that myself." He scowls. "It's a core planet, and it's not like they don't have the cashy money for it, anyhow."
"What? Inara. It's true. You and I both know that. No use hidin' what's already in the open."
She freezes, opens her mouth to speak but then closes it.
Kaylee runs down Serenity's ramp and over to them. "Hi! Inara! I'm glad you haven't left yet. I forgot to give you this." She hands Inara a sheet of paper with images of Inara and the rest of the crew standing by a miniature version of Serenity. "River and I drew it for you. Well, River did most of the work. She's good at drawing."
She takes the drawing, a sad but grateful expression on her face. "Thank you, Kaylee."
"Right then," he says when they don't continue on with sending off Inara. "That's great, little Kaylee, but it's time for goodbyes now. Inara's persistent she gets going."
Kaylee hugs her, mutters a quick goodbye and that Inara should keep in contact on the cortex, and then she hurries back into the ship with tears in her eyes. He watches her and admires her for her openness. Weren't a thing in the 'verse could make him so open and vulnerable and in a willing manner too. It's difficult enough saying goodbye to Inara without showing her just how much he cares. To show that would be trouble. All kinds of trouble.
It would be of the kind where she didn't share his feelings and turned him down, else it'd be a situation where she did share his feelings but still left, or worse, if she shared his feelings and turned down the Training House, at which point the whole crew would know and they wouldn't be able to relax if they chose to pursue a relationship because it would be under scrutiny the whole time, from start to finish (if there was a finish).
He has no doubt that complications saw them one time past and decided to tag along everywhere they set foot or ship down, their little friend of sorts who did everything possible to make their lives and potential allegiances most difficult ventures.
Truth is, he and Inara are at best fated to a doomed romance. It makes sense that she should leave now, before anything is to eventuate. It will be less painful for both of them.
"You didn't have to tell Kaylee that," she says, interrupting his thoughts.
"That I'm in a hurry to leave."
"But didn't you just say before-?" He cuts off there and shakes his head. Yes. She had said. She told him that she should go and that they would be waiting for her. That was when it was just the two of them there. She was in no rush when Kaylee was involved. "You know what? You should just go. It'll make things a damn lot easier here."
"Mal." She says nothing more, but stares at him, a look of utmost sadness and a hint of longing in her features. He sees when she swallows, and is transfixed when she tucks some hair behind her ears and then drops her gaze from his.
"I didn't mean that you should-"
"No, you're right," she interrupts. "I should go. It will be easier for all concerned if I'm not here. I'll just go." She reaches down for the last of her bags and then straightens.
"Wash took the rest to the Training House for you," he fills her in.
"Thank him for me."
They stare at each other. There are no more words to say (none that they are ready to share yet, anyway) and there are no more reasons for them to put off Inara's departure.
"Goodbye, Mal," she says.
He swallows, nods once and sighs. "Goodbye."