When Inara woke the next morning, Mal was sitting on the edge of the bed pulling on his boots.
He glanced over as he heard her moving.
His smile was a little shy, but there wasn't quite as much awkward as she'd been expecting. And at least he hadn't fled while she was sleeping.
"How's your head?" she asked.
He grunted. "I'm gonna go put some coffee on. You want some?"
"No, thanks. But if you'd put the kettle on, I'd love a cup of tea."
"I think I can manage that."
He finished with his boots and rose, turning to face her. And there all of a sudden was the awkward she'd been waiting for. She could see the questions, the explanations, building up behind his eyes. Was fighting to suppress the same ones within herself.
"Not now, Mal. Please?"
He hesitated, but finally nodded. "Not now."
She smiled and waved him toward the door. "Go. Make coffee. I'll be up soon."
Mal was gone when Inara arrived in the kitchen, but there was a teapot sitting on the counter, wrapped in a dish cloth to keep it hot, and a mug set out ready beside it.
Zoe caught the smile that Inara tried to swallow. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Inara served herself tea and breakfast. Inara's Companion face was firmly in place, as it had been since her return to Serenity, but Zoe had the sneaking suspicion that something had changed in the night.
Swallowing her own smile, Zoe decided to make tracking down Mal her first order of business for the day. One look at his face would tell her for certain.
Mal joined the crew for dinner that night for the first time since Inara had returned to the ship. The tension was still high between them, but Zoe was now enjoying it a great deal more. Watching them spend the entire meal trying not to look at each other kept Zoe entertained for most of the evening.
She knew better than to tease Mal just now, much as she might want to – too much attention and Mal'd spook, for certain. So she sat on her smile and continued to watch. It could all be ammunition for later, if things worked out.
Kaylee helped Zoe to clear the table. When they found themselves alone by the sink, Kaylee took the opportunity and edged a step closer.
"Did you… When did you lock 'em up?" she whispered.
Zoe didn't turn, didn't look down. "Didn't have to," she murmured.
Kaylee's face lit up. Zoe elbowed her gently. "Hush, you. Leave them alone."
"'Course I will." Kaylee mostly managed to get her face under control and headed back to the table for another stack of plates.
It was late ship's night, and Mal sat in the kitchen alone. This time, though, he was relatively certain he wasn't waiting in vain.
He had put tea on for both of them and was sipping at his as he waited. He didn't think he could stomach the sludge that passed for coffee aboard Serenity just now. His nerves were jangling enough already.
The next time he looked up, she was standing in the doorway watching him. He relaxed just a little. It was the first time he had seen her all day and not that face she put on.
Her smile was wry. "Well. That was awkward."
Mal smiled at her words, but the thread of tension in him never eased. He pushed his chair back and stood to face her, fidgeting with his cup in a way that told her he just couldn't sit still any longer. She felt her own nerves respond to his edginess, knotting in her stomach. There was something he needed to say to her, that was clear. She just wasn't sure it was something she wanted to hear.
She kept her tone mild with an effort. "Tell me."
"I can't… in front of the others." He sighed his frustration, put his cup down, gestured vaguely. "It's… I know that they know, but… And, it ain't that I don't want to… It's just…"
"You're the captain."
He nodded, grateful.
"I understand," she said. The butterflies in her stomach eased with his words. She had no problem with keeping their private lives private. Or as private as was possible under the circumstances. "No touching in public."
She knew there was more on his mind, but she was shamefully grateful he wasn't going to force the issue just now. Surely there was no need to go running into the arms of their next fight.
"No touching in public," he agreed.
He looked up to her where she stood, still a few steps above him in the doorway. He crossed the kitchen and offered her his hand, using gallantry to cover his awkwardness. "Y'know what I noticed, though…"
She accepted his help down the stairs, let him draw her closer. "What's that?"
He smiled, and closed the distance between them. "Ain't no one here but us."