All kinds of not mine. More or less the next in the sequence of my post-BDM sweet little romances.
"Inara likes to sing," River comments with a wry smile.
"I've never heard her sing," Simon says, confused by the knowing look on his mèimei's face.
"Not songs," she retorts, rolling her eyes as if it's obvious. "But she hits high notes."
Dusting imaginary crumbs off the placemats, Kaylee just shrugs, and Simon figures to trust her nonchalance. Even with River, sometimes it doesn't mean anything more than what's on the surface.
Soon everyone's sitting down to dinner, and Mal nods a not-quite-perfunctory thank you to Kaylee for the meal.
"T'was just my turn," she murmurs, honestly a bit taken aback.
"Still nice," Mal says. Nobody else notices the tiny, proud smile Inara gives him, but River does. She catches it out of the corner of her eye and has to remind herself not to giggle.
"We got any jobs comin' up, sir?" Zoe asks.
"Due on Persephone in 'bout a week's time," Mal declares, swallowing as he speaks. The others smile; it's been a while, and Persephone's civilized but not too civilized for them.
"You got your johns lined up, 'Nara?" Jayne asks with a lecherous chuckle.
Through gritted teeth, Inara says, "I've not made appointments yet." It's punctuated by a longer-than-usual sip of liquor. That's enough to make River smile again, covert but silly. Nobody will question it, they'll just trust that she's thinking one of her nonsense thoughts.
But she can't keep the secret too long, and they'd all know if they opened their eyes, anyway. She starts small, nudging Kaylee's shoulder and nodding for her just to look. Kaylee follows River's gaze accordingly, and at first all she sees is Mal chewing, Inara staring off. River gives a look, just keep watching, and after a moment she sees the two exchange a quiet smile, a nobody's paying attention so we can smile smile. Mal seems to soften 'round the edges, Inara's eyes sparkle. Huh.
Simon and Kaylee aren't half so subtle, but then, they don't have to be. They were a secret for all of fifteen minutes. Pausing in her meal, Kaylee reaches for Simon's hand and gives it a squeeze. And when River glances back at Inara, she sees that same sort of shy, affectionate grin on her face. River drops her napkin; sure enough, when she ducks under the table to pick it up, she spots Mal's hand resting on Inara's thigh, stroking slowly through the silk.
She's down there long enough that Kaylee leans down, too. "Sweetie?" she whispers. (Even with her being mostly better, they can worry. Probably they'll never fully stop.)
"Just dropped my napkin," River mutters. "Under your chair, looks like." But while Kaylee's reaching for it, River grabs her arm and points across to the not-so-secret secret. She's not surprised that Kaylee's eyes go wide and her cheeks turn pink.
The two of them pop up simultaneously. River concentrates so intently on her food that Simon knows she's not, not truly; he doesn't know exactly where, but her mind is elsewhere. He gets clued in when Kaylee tugs his wrist, eyes darting across the table.
"What, băobĕi?" he whispers.
"Look," she hisses. So he does, more closely now; no, he'd never have seen it on his own, but there could be something there. The furtive glances, the sneaky smiles, the hands hiding beneath the table.
River leans behind Kaylee's chair, nodding to her gēgē. "You wore that face, too," she mutters dryly. It both brings things into focus for him and chastens him somewhat. Even in his and Kaylee's unspoken attractions, they must have been painfully obvious. It's strange to see it mirrored even a bit.
Inara's telling some story about her time at the training house, something about trying to teach the girls swordplay. She's smirking at Mal the whole time, and it does make sense, of course, but Zoe can't shake how odd it feels. That isn't just a storytelling, reminiscing smugness. And even Mal's lamely muttered "hey, now" doesn't sound as indignant as it ought. In her way, River catches Zoe's eye and nods. Yes, she's right to wonder. She's right to be suspicious.
Even still weighted down with grief as she is, Zoe finds it in herself to be happy. It's a long time coming, anyhow, and everyone deserves someone, least a while. They seem to have a good effect on each other, to keep the other from acting too rashly. (Well, really it's mostly Inara having that editorial influence on Mal, but it counts for something.) And the smiles of love or something like it are soothing.
For a while, Kaylee and Simon and River and Zoe are just staring, muttering one-word responses, exchanging looks and nods. Finally, even thick-headed Jayne sees something's off and, being Jayne, he's gotta say so right away. "Why's ev'ryone givin' each other strange looks?"
Mal and Inara bristle; the others startle to varying degrees. Kaylee in particular flushes guiltily. "I don't know what you mean," Inara says, raising an eyebrow and daring Jayne to say anything about it.
It's just another of his ways to take that dare, though. "Gotta expect it outta l'il crazy, an' Kaylee an' Doc're just in their world'a bein' lovey," he shrugs. What little tact he has keeps him from postulating on Zoe's state of mind to any degree. "But you an' Mal keep, I dunno. Makin' eyes."
Inara's eyebrow climbs yet higher, Kaylee again takes Simon's hand, River chews her lip. Mal forces out, "Well, ah. Ain't – it ain't your business one way or t'other."
That's as good as a confirmation, almost, and this time it's Zoe sending River a smirk.
"No need t'snap," Jayne grumbles.
"Sir, I think you're right," Zoe says, her eyes twinkling. "And f'you wanna keep secrets, it's your prerogative."
"Thank you, Zoe," Mal exclaims, then double-takes. "Who said I'm keepin' secrets?"
"Even keeping that you're keeping a secret secret is allowed," River pipes up.
"Ruttin' hell," Mal mutters. "What're you on about?" River just blinks innocently at him, and he shakes his head. "I ain't in the mood f'games, any of you," he glares reproachfully.
Kaylee and Simon give each other nervous looks. "Now, Cap'n," Kaylee begins, her voice tentative.
"What?" Mal asks.
"It's just… that is, we're… are you…"
"Captain and Inara are engaging in relations," River announces bluntly.
"We ain't –" Mal begins.
Inara cuts him off, outwardly incensed. "Now, I thought we'd agreed not to let ego stand in the way –"
"I just don't like subjectin' myself t'gossip –"
"I thought you preferred honesty in personal matters –"
"Don't mean it's anyone else's business, I thought –"
"Insofar as I'd rather not sneak round from now till –"
"Till when? Till your pretty self is done playin' –"
The others have never seen Inara glare as powerfully as she does then. River's even feeling a hint of guilt at bringing the whole matter up. Though her look was enough to shut Mal up, Inara breaks the silence just barely, her voice a whisper. "I assure you it's not playing, Mal. I'd no intention of it being so."
Mal seems to have forgotten the others are even there. He looks, well, downright vulnerable is what. Quietly he asks, "Then what did you intend?"
Inara swallows. "I'm – not sure," she admits hesitantly. "But I intend it, present tense."
Simon winds an arm round Kaylee's shoulders. Jayne looks uncomfortable (it's far too emotional for him). River beams at Zoe, and Zoe returns it. Mal and Inara are just staring at each other, neither speaking. Jayne's the only one who even thinks to open his mouth, but River kicks him sharply in the shin and he's silent.
After a long, long pause, Mal looks each of them in the eye. "L'il albatross is right," he says. "I'm – that is, we're, we're – together. I think?"
"You think," Inara nods, trying not to smile too much.
"Go on an' squeal if you gotta," Mal waves his hand.
It's expected of her, probably, so Kaylee giggles delightedly. Zoe nods, "Happy for you, sir, 'Nara." Jayne gruffly mutters in agreement.
"Long time coming," River murmurs, and the others may not hear it, or they don't say anything.
"We ain't makin' a deal of it, dōng mă?" Mal says pointedly.
"Who else'd we go chatterin' to?" Kaylee laughs.
"But we'll all be respectful," Simon hastily adds.
They try to get back to their meal, aiming for normal. It's part of that respect Simon promised. But as the others go off on tangents, Kaylee locks eyes with Inara and grins. I'm glad it's happened, she mouths. She's been waiting a long time to see it play out, and knows in that way friends do that Inara's been waiting a long time similarly.
Me, too, Inara mouths in return. It seems that it's all going right.
mèimei; "little sister"
dōng mă; "all right?"