The most current in my usual continuity. As always, none of it's mine.

Their evening begins innocuously, rather as usual. They both step out of their shoes, and she sits to take her jewelry off, placing each trinket in its proper box: all of this before any words have been shared. But there are things weighing heavily on both of them today, and they need to remedy that.

"I talked to Kaylee and Simon today," Inara begins, lightly. "They said they'd spoken to you about their plans."

"They did," he nods.

"She assured me you were perfectly civil about it," she continues. "Was she correct, or was she thinking optimistically?"

"You know l'il Kaylee," he chuckles awkwardly. "She's always an optimist."

"That's not an answer."

Mal sighs, going to work the buttons on his shirt. "She's right," he finally says. "There's nothin' I could do to stop 'em bein' together, and it's their choice how they carry it, really."

She smiles, coming to put arms around his shoulders and kiss him softly. "That's very magnanimous, Mal," she murmurs, then turning with her hair lifted in one hand so he'll undo her zipper. It's one of their rituals, this silent undressing of each other: she turns back to push his shirt from his shoulders once she's out of her dress, he holds her close and reaches behind her to unhook her bra, she unzips his pants and runs her hands over him as she pulls them down.

"You're sayin' that like you're surprised," he counters, his voice teasing and warm in her ear even as he's surprised to find he's actually a bit put out by it.

To that she's just got to roll her eyes. "You haven't exactly got a history of approving such things easily," she points out, taking all of the clothes and setting them tidily aside.

"Yeah, well…" He makes a face, letting go of her and climbing under the covers. "I ain't got a good reason for why t'say no or why I ain't sayin' no neither. Just f'them, it's what they think they oughta do."

"I think they're very well suited to it," she declares, airy as she joins him in bed.

"Goodness knows the doc's prob'ly the old-fashioned takin' care of someone sort," he muses.

"And Kaylee's just as good at it, in her way," Inara adds. "Their thinking that there's no time like the present is quite reasonable, too." Beside her, she feels Mal tense up a bit, and she has to laugh, mostly sincerely. "For them, of course," she clarifies.

"They're – yeah," he mutters; after a second, he turns to wrap his arms around her, pressing his lips to hers. She deepens the kiss, both out of wanting and out of a need to discontinue this line of conversation a while, and they're lost in each other, in their passions, until he pulls away to whisper, "Thank you."

"What for?"

It takes him a moment to work out an articulate way of saying it, but he tries his damnedest. "Reckon you're part why I'm acceptin' all this," he says finally, almost sheepish.

"Why's that?" she asks. She's surprised, yes.

"Well." He pulls her yet closer, and she notices he's got his introspective look on. "Y'know, it's funny. Wash, he told me once… said my not likin' romances in the crew was t'do with, how'd he put it, my 'intimacy issues.'" A wry smile. "Been thinkin' maybe he was right."

She's silent a moment, then: "Funnily enough, Mal, I doubt that you were the only one with such problems."

He knows better than to take that bait by now, so instead he whispers a "Maybe so." They're silent again, and he's searching for her hand to hold under the sheets, almost timid.

"Was there something else?"

"Matter of fact," he begins, "There was." He takes a deep breath, steeling himself for possible reactions, and he almost whispers, "I love you."

"What?" She doesn't want to let herself believe. She isn't sure she wants to believe at all.

"I love you," he repeats, more confident now. "I ain't sayin' it 'cause I expect things from it, or so things've even gotta change, just…" A pause to collect himself again. "Just I thought it right."

She isn't sure what to say in return. She's not doubting that she loves him back, just that she's fit to: she's not built for real love, she doesn't think.

He sees the conflict written on her face, and despite his words he's a bit put out. He knows now that he was expecting something, a frenzied confession maybe, a kiss and an of course I love you too, báichī – anything. He wishes he could hear what she was thinking.

She's thinking she can't allow this to continue any further without being honest. She's gone long enough pretending, and as much as she may want to keep it up, she… she can't. It wouldn't be fair to anyone. She's not sure what will come of her honesty, but she tries to brace herself for whatever it may be.

She whispers, "I… there's something I should tell you." He arches an eyebrow at her, and she just shakes her head. "Perhaps I should have ages ago."

"Go on, then," he says warily. He knows how this very well could end, and the anxious part of him is larger than he'd care to admit.

A shake of her head. He shouldn't worry, at least in that way, it's not to do with him, only her. Just up and saying it seems cruel, though, and she can't stand to be so close to him as she does. Instead, she climbs from bed and goes to her safe to retrieve a vial, dropping it on the covers.

"What's this?" he asks, picking it up.

"It's medication," Inara murmurs, biting her lip.


"Mal…" She shakes her head again, looking away entirely this time. "I'm sick."

"So talk to the doctor," he shrugs.

"It's not a cold," she mutters. "I… it's…" Why is it, she wonders, that she's only ever at a loss for words with him when she needs them the most?


"Yes, I could very well be dying," she finally snaps. Folding her arms over her chest, she wishes they'd have been able to have this discussion when they weren't both so vulnerable. She kept putting it off, though, and it strikes her there would never be a "right" time. Perhaps better times than undressed after an 'I love you,' but these things have to be tended to.

Mal's face falls some as he's going through all this could mean, and he sets the vial on the endtable. "How long've you –"

"Since before I first came here."

That hits him almost worse than the reveal itself. "You've… all this time?"

"Yes," she nods, still not meeting his eyes.

"You lied."

"I wasn't forthcoming," she corrects. "I'd thought it best for everyone."

"And nobody else knows," Mal states. "Not the doc, or Kaylee, or River…" Well, River's likely picked up, they can both assume that, but it's just as likely she's not said anything to the others.

"Nobody," Inara confirms. "I'm… hardly sure where to begin."

"Maybe with that you've been keepin' a pretty big secret more'n a year? From them as care for you most?"

"I thought it would be –"

"How's it simpler? It's gonna be hard t'take any way you play it, Inara. You hadn't properly thought how it'd affect anyone but y'self." He's more accusatory now.

She frowns. "I'd not intended to – to fall in love with this life so much." It hangs in the air a moment – well, there's the return he'd wanted, in a way – before he thinks to reply.

"No, we were just meant t'be a waystation f'you. A place you could hide away," he mutters, his tone cold.

"Actually, yes," she whispers, sitting at the foot of the bed. "That Serenity would end up giving me the most family I'd ever had was farthest from my mind when I came aboard. I'd intended to travel to distance myself enough from the life I had so as to make it easier when I left it for good."

"And you didn't once think –"

"About what? About that it would be harder to leave those I'd become connected to on board?"

"Right, the common folk, we weren't posin' dangers."

"Hardly," she exclaims. "Mal, save a couple of the other women I came up with, I'd not had relationships that mattered to me, not really. I didn't know what it properly felt like."

"Poor little rich girl," he says, but quieter.

"And I'd not – felt like I do about you, either," she continues, just as quiet. "When I first realized that, realized I'd fallen deeper into this when I'd been hoping to avoid it, I…"

"You ran again," Mal murmurs.

"It seemed the only thing I could do," she nods.

"There's nothin' brave in runnin' from your every problem," he says firmly.

"Oh, no, of course," she replies, all sarcasm. "But doing everything that's in your power to hide from the things that trouble you mildly is pure courage."

He whips the covers off him and stands, glaring. "There it goes," he mutters. "I ain't sayin' I'm perfect, Inara. I do plenty things I ain't proud of. But I don't use the people close t'me."

"I haven't!" she shouts, her voice breaking. "I never meant to – that is, I couldn't have – I just couldn't, once I…" She shakes her head, composing herself. "I suspect I feared the reaction to my sharing my – my secret would be one not unlike this one."

There's a part of Mal that thinks to be shamed by that, but it's not the part that gets to speak. Instead, he mutters, "Fearin' a bad reception's usually a sign of a guilty conscience."

"You'd know," she spits out, tightening her robe around her (it's too odd to have this argument so naked as they are, and anyway dressing even a bit is an action that's not slapping him silly like she's wanting to).

"Don't go anglin' f'moral high ground," he warns, taking a step closer.

"Neither of us can claim such a thing," she replies simply.

"Yeah, but what's diff'rent is I ain't tryin'," he shoots back. "I'm honest 'bout my indiscretions."

Inara rolls her eyes. "You've made that clear, yes," she says. "And I'm sorry I've not lived up to your honor code, but it's been hard enough to say these things to myself, let alone the people I know will be left behind me."

"Y'keep sayin' that, but've you really done it? Imagined how much it'll hurt?" he asks archly. "Zoe's not fit t'lose someone else –"

"Zoe is intelligent enough to understand the situation like an adult."

"An' Kaylee," he presses. "How's she gonna take it? Y'know she cried off an' on f'weeks when you went back th'last time."

"That's why I've been afraid to tell!" she shouts, flushing. "Nobody wants more hurt, more to worry over. None of us need it."

"But y'can't just turn it off," he points out.

She tips her head then, silently gazing at him for long enough that he begins to look at her curiously in spite of himself.

"And what about you?" she asks once the silence is too much to bear, voice a whisper.

"What about me?"

She'd like to roll her eyes again, but she restrains herself. "How will you feel, once your righteous indignation has passed?" They really can't do this gracefully, she's sure of it. They're not the sorts, and though nearly everyone's said they bring out bests in each other, they both know they bring out worsts, too.

The silence resumes, and he's just standing there, scowling at nothing in particular. She looks away pointedly, wanting to take some of the pressure off and play nonchalant both. Finally he shakes his head, mutters, "Y'shouldn't hafta ask that."

"Shouldn't I?"

Swallowing a bit of his pride, he crosses to where she stands. "I do love you, Inara," he tells her again. "My bein' angry's not gonna change that so quick."

Somehow, she'd not expected that response. She's meaning to say something wry, something to make this feel a little more regular and a little less tender (it's almost harder to take this way) but he doesn't give her the chance. He closes the distance between them: pulling her robe open, slipping it off her, and bringing her against him in one swift move. He's quick to kiss her, seeing the surprise on her face, and she's quick to respond, taking his face in her hands.

"Mal, I –"

"Don't," he orders. "Just – don't say a thing."

It astonishes her, just a bit – not because they're usually so chatty (they're not) and not because he's avoiding the topic they'd been on with sex (that's no great rarity, either) but because of the tone in his voice. He's been forceful before, it's a talent and habit of his when he's not busy being prudish and shy, but never so – sincere? Determined? She's not sure.

So instead of saying anything, she presses her lips together and nods, her eyes widening some. He doesn't take over so easy, though: before he knows what hit him, she's pushing him back towards the bed, kissing him more deeply this time.

His body bumps the frame before he thinks too clearly about what's happening, but there's no secret when he falls back against the sheets and she straddles his hips. There's a look in her eyes like she might say something, but then she just shakes her head and kisses him again.

"You think so," he whispers, and he flips her over, straddling her now as she looks up at him, part defiant and part aroused.

Without even so much as an inquiry, Mal shoves himself against her, hands firm around her wrists, pinning her to the bed. She sighs low into their kiss, he about groans; he's pressing their bodies together urgently. A fevered nod from her, and he pushes into her, making them both moan again. She's quick to wrap her legs around his hips, holding him in place. No running now.

Even as he's muttering her name, rushed and breathy terms of endearment, she's silent (well, she's not speaking; her moans are hard to ignore) and he's sure she's just being stubborn. He knows that if he sets his mind to getting words from her, she won't talk till tomorrow just to spite him, so he doesn't think of such things.

Instead, he's concentrating on her body, on thrusting into her and kissing her golden skin. He leans to suck on one of her dark, perfect nipples, after a moment taking it between his teeth. That gets a cry out of her, sharp and shrill, but no more than that. After a moment, she wrests her arms free and embraces him tightly.

Mal takes the hint, and he kisses her again: she's holding him there, her fingernails digging into his skin (the stray scratch or even faint bruise isn't unheard of between them, they're not shy about doing that to each other). She coaxes him into speeding up some, and he goes at it harder and faster both. They can hear their bodies against each other, their labored breathing, even the sheets rumpling: not unusual, but adding to the urgency of the moment at the same time.

But as they keep up, each second bringing them closer, more and less satisfied all at once, Mal locks eyes with Inara, blue boring into brown. So long of that gets her overtaken by something she can't place, something that almost hurts but touches her in her soul. She moans again, but she doesn't break away.

"Tā mā de wŏ de wángù de jiāo'ào," she exclaims suddenly, wavering. He arches an eyebrow, but it's clear she's not done, and he'll let her finish. "I – I love you," she cries out. "I'm sorry."

Greatly as he wants to hear her explain that, they're too close, and they're climaxing in no time, within seconds of each other. He collapses, sliding off her, and she turns her back to him. It's a few moments before he realizes she's shaking, breath irregular, and he puts his hand on her shoulder warily, murmuring her name. It's the sort of thing that he can never guess her reaction to.

There's not one at first; she just continues to tremble, and he wonders what words oughta be shared, if any. Perhaps that isn't his to decide.

A good couple of minutes go by like this before she says, almost whispering, "I truly am."

"Are what?"

"Sorry," she says. "That I've hurt you."

"I don't –"

She has to interrupt. "You feel betrayed. I know what that looks like," she tells him. "You wish I hadn't lied, and you're – you're right to. It was cowardly of me."

Rare enough for either of them to admit a thing like that. He presses a kiss to her shoulder blade, and now he notices she's truly crying, hiccupping with none of her usual poise. But he can't just say a soft gentle thing, being him, so he tries at the least to be delicate as he tells her, "Y'can't go back and change it now."

She laughs bitterly, the sound of it choked by tears. "I can still regret it," she mutters. "I never intended to deceive those I –" She pauses to turn and face him. "Those I loved. I never intended to fall in love, but I don't regret that I did."

"With me, you mean," he mutters.

"I mean at all," she says firmly. "It wasn't a part of who I was, and it would have been simpler for everyone if it stayed that way. I can't deny that."

"Simple ain't realistic," he says. "Nor's it always best."

"Precisely," she whispers, suddenly burying her face in his chest; he's taken aback, but after a moment he thinks to put his arm around her, rest his head on hers.

"You don't know you're gonna –" He's intending something comforting to finish that, maybe how nowhere it's said she hasn't got a chance at all and miracles can happen, but he knows it would come out hollow. Anyhow, he doesn't have a chance, as Inara breaks in.

"Everyone does," she exclaims, sobbing all the louder. She doesn't break down like this, she doesn't, but they're past the point of no return. And they both know that.

He's fairly sure that there's nothing he can say, and even trying will make it worse. Instead of that, he lifts her chin and kisses her: first her mouth, then her cheeks where the tears have tracked, then her water-sticky eyelids, all tender. It makes her smile, shakily but sincerely, and that just gets him smiling back at her.

"I don't know where we go from here," she admits. Here, this confession, here, this breakdown, any of it. These are not the relationship parameters she's been trained to.

"Me, either," he says. "I can't make ya stay, if y'ain't inclined to, or if y'need… somethin'."

Nuzzling back into him, she assures, "I'm not running anymore. This is home to me now."

He's pleased to hear it, even if he can't properly say so. "Well, it's not diff'rent that I love you," he murmurs. "And I'll want you long's as I can have you, băobèi."

"Even so unsure of what's ahead?"

"Even so."

That earns him another wan smile. "I love you, too," she murmurs. "Whatever should come, that won't stop."

"Whatever comes, no matter what t'is," he echoes. "However things change, however they don't."

A moment passes, and he tries to pretend that he's not seeing her cry – she's stopping herself, but it's coming out choked and sniffly – and once she's composed enough, she rushes to say, "I am sorry."

"I know," he nods. "I believe you."

A good-natured nudge, a watery smile. "And?"

"And I guess I forgive you." He pulls her close again, sighing. "Were doin' what seemed best."

"And that changed," she murmurs. "Now – now this is best. Just like this. And this is how it will stay."

báichī; "idiot"
tā mā de wŏ de wángù de jiāo'ào; "fuck my stubborn pride"
băobèi; "darling"