Serenity had been parked for three days in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing as far as the eye could see but grass blowing in the wind. Mal's contact had been delayed and there was nothing to do but wait for him at the rendezvous point so they could offload the cargo and collect their payment.
Inara never quite understood why everyone went stir crazy so much faster when Serenity was parked.
They could do a completely uneventful six-day haul through deep space and it was business as usual, but a few days with Serenity set down in the same spot and the crew was climbing the walls.
She was on the point of suggesting that River take the ship up and do a few laps of the planet, just to calm everyone's nerves. Including her own. She and Mal hadn't been able to stay in the same room without arguing since day two.
Kaylee looked up from where she was lying on her back under the engine to find Inara standing over her, with Grace in one arm and a pile of blankets draped over the other.
"Working or tinkering?" Inara asked.
"Come on, we're going outside."
"'Nara, it's a thousand degrees out there."
And with that Inara turned, heading out through the aft corridor and down the stairs.
Kaylee dropped her tools back into their box and scrambled to her feet.
Inara spread the blankets on the wild grass in the shade cast by Serenity herself. She kicked off her shoes, leaving them by the edge of the blankets and crossed to sit near the middle of her little island.
Kaylee was right. It was hot. The shade helped, but even the wind was warm. After the perpetual chill maintained inside Serenity, the heat felt glorious. And the wide-open sky above eased Inara's nerves.
"It's like a picnic!" Kaylee said in delight. She plopped down on the edge of the blankets and began unlacing her boots.
"But without the food," Inara agreed.
Inara peeled off Grace's clothes until the baby was wearing nothing but her diaper and lay her down in the centre of the blankets. She then shucked her own sweater and set to rolling up her sleeves and the cuffs of her trousers as far as they would go. She lay back on the blankets and revelled in the feeling of the warm breeze against her skin. Beside her, Grace kicked her bare feet against the sky, crowing her delight. Inara knew exactly how she felt.
"I tried to find River, but…"
Kaylee shook her head. "She's been hidin' all day. Simon's all worried, but I think she was just lookin' for some quiet."
"Everyone is antsy today. It can't be easy on her."
Free of her boots and her socks, Kaylee moved across the blankets to sprawl on the other side of Grace with a sigh of contentment. She squirmed out of the top half of her coveralls and pulled the legs of it up to bunch above her knees.
"So, you and the cap'n been fighting an awful lot."
Inara rolled her head to the side to find Kaylee watching her. Her tone had been neutral and her face was as well. No judgement, just an offer to talk. Inara sighed.
"We have. It's almost a habit by now."
"You gonna let it go on like that?"
Inara shook her head slowly. "Every time, I promise myself – next time I won't say anything. Just let him… go and get himself killed."
"Cap'n's better'n that, Inara. You know that. Gotta trust him some, is all."
"It's not about trusting him."
"Yes it is."
Inara sighed again and turned away. She spent a moment looking back up at the bright blue sky, listening to Grace's quiet babbling. She wasn't sure she was ready to admit that Kaylee was right.
Kaylee let the silence go on a stretch before she tried again. "He's been hurt before. You weren't ever like this."
"He wasn't mine before."
Kaylee nodded. "So it ain't the captain you're mad at."
Inara thought about that for a minute. "I'm mad at him, too."
Kaylee laughed. Inara turned back to face her, managing to find a wry smile. She wondered just when Kaylee had grown so wise.
At which point the moment was shattered by the ball that hit the blankets perfectly between their heads before bouncing off into the grass. Kaylee and Inara both sat up in surprise to find River perched on the edge of the cargo ramp with an impish grin on her face. Inara found herself wondering how long River had been listening in to time her throw so perfectly.
"You little brat," Kaylee said, laughing, and scrambled to her feet to run after the ball. River jumped off the ramp and flew after her. Inara settled herself cross-legged to watch them, glad of the distraction.
The game of catch quickly changed to a game of keep-away when Simon came out looking for River. He peeled off his sweater and rolled up his sleeves and let himself be pulled into the game. No one could resist River when she was this vivid, Simon least of all.
When Jayne was drawn outside by the noise, he needed no coaxing at all to join in. The game changed again to accommodate him, growing a little rougher and shaping into two-on-two; Jayne and Kaylee versus Simon and River. There didn't seem to be any particular objective, just keep the ball away from the other team.
Zoe stuck her head out to see what was going on, then disappeared back inside the ship. She re-emerged ten minutes later with a pitcher of water, some cups, and Mal. The two of them headed over to join Inara on the blankets and a whistle from Zoe brought the players in for a drink.
"Well, ain't this the laziest crew you ever did see." Mal settled himself, sprawled out and leaning back on his hands just behind where Inara was sitting. Inara cast only a quick glance back at him over her shoulder before turning back to the group, but she leaned back just a little, resting her shoulder against his.
Zoe grinned at the group of sweaty, panting players. "Ain't a one of 'em has the sense god gave a dog, runnin' around in this heat."
Under cover of the laughter and chatter that followed, Mal elbowed Inara gently. "This your doin'?"
He turned his head just slightly, bringing his mouth close to her ear to murmur, "Well, next time you wanna take some clothes off and lie down in the grass, come find me first." And before she could react, he slipped out from behind her, grabbed the ball from River and took off running.
River bounced to her feet and took off after him while Inara was still staring.
Inara didn't realise the weight of fear she'd been carrying until she felt it lift. When she saw Mal take off running with no trace of a limp, with no sign of pain, she felt her throat close up and she thought for a moment she might burst into tears.
And then she had a better idea. She scrambled to her feet and set off after him.
Somehow, Mal didn't expect Inara to chase him. He still thought of her as too… poised to be running full out through the grass in the summer heat. But there she was, not five paces behind River.
He really didn't expect the full body tackle when she caught up with him, which was perhaps why, slight though she was, she was able to knock him clean off his feet.
He had thought for one absurd moment that she was going to fling herself at him in front of everyone. Even put out his arms to catch her. At the last moment, she slipped between his hands, turned her shoulder into his chest in a neat tackle and effectively used his mass to stop her momentum. When he went down, unhurt in the tangle of grass, she plucked the ball from his hands and took off running to the sound of River's delighted laughter.
"Oh, that's how it's gonna be, is it?" He got to his feet and set off after her, with River hot on his heels.
Zoe stayed with Grace, but the others were up and heading into the fray. The free-for-all quickly resolved itself into teams, with Inara, Simon and River facing off against Mal, Kaylee and Jayne.
Mal couldn't quite explain his delight at finding that Inara played not dirty, but devious. She took full advantage of the fact that he couldn't bring himself to treat her rough, and he was knocked about more in that game than in some bar brawls.
It was worth every bruise for that look of mischief on her face.
In the end, Zoe declared the game a draw, largely because there was no real way to keep score.
Mal stifled a groan as he flopped into bed. "I take it from your shenanigans this afternoon that you'll believe me now when I tell you I'm fine."
Inara grinned. "We'll have to see about that."
Mal reached out and grabbed her where she stood, pulling her across him and down onto the bed. He came up onto one elbow to look down at her. "So you abused an injured man during an innocent ball game, is that it?"
He expected her to laugh, or try to wrestle him off, but Inara's face grew serious as she looked up at him.
"What is it?"
She was silent, thinking, for a long moment. "If it had been me…"
Mal cut her off before she could even finish the thought. "If it had been you, he'd be dead."
Inara nodded, holding his gaze. "Just so long as we understand each other."
"If we run into him again, you can kill him, I promise."
That got him the smile he'd been waiting for.
"I'm a very good shot, you know."
Mal grinned. "I don't doubt it. But maybe you oughtta play ball with him instead, torture him some first…"
Inara surged up, laughing, and tried to shove him off the bed. In close quarters, though, he had the advantage of size and he caught her forearms, rolling her onto her back and pinning her to the bed.
"Well now, it seems like turnabout is fair play…"
Her eyes sparkled with wicked fire. "You sure that injury isn't going to slow you down?"
His voice lowered to a rumble, but he couldn't quite hide his smile. "How many times I gotta tell you that I'm fine?"
"How about you show me instead?"