Mal and Inara
Serenity was silent. Her crew was not.
Serenity listened intently as the people within her laughed and played and screamed and cried and argued…
In the kitchen, Kaylee was sprawled across the sofa, stretching her arm back to keep an apricot out of Simon’s reach, who was tickling her to make her give it to him. His deep laughs of indignation and her high-pitched giggles of delight echoed throughout the ship.
Zoë was in the cargo hold, moving crates with Junior sitting on a blanket nearby. She glanced up on hearing the laughter of the two lovers. She smiled and looked back at her son who was studying Wash’s favourite dinosaur with intense concentration. Zoë had thought it was about time Junior became acquainted with the toys his father had spent so much time playing with. So far, the only purpose the toddler had found for the dinosaurs was chewing on their tails.
Jayne stomped across the walk above her and Hobie, scowling at the sound of Kaylee’s giggling. Zoë had been able to hear him arguing with River just a few moments before. Their vicious shouting match had been a harsh counterpoint to Kaylee and Simon’s affectionate laughter. Like anyone could miss the sound of Jayne yelling at the top of his voice.
Zoë had a fond respect for the bond between him and River. She knew what it was like to be one half of a seemingly odd pairing. No one had been odder than her and Wash until River and Jayne had become an item.
Zoë nodded up to Jayne, and he nodded back, before returning to his scowling. He then paused all of a sudden and looked like he’d changed his mind about something. He turned on his heel and stomped right back to where he had come from.
Zoë pursed her lips and knelt down to stroke Junior’s head. She suspected that Jayne was heading back to River to resume their argument.
“Looks like the fireworks ain’t over, huh baby?” she murmured to her son.
River had known that Jayne was going to come back even before he did. He always came back after storming out on an argument. Never to apologise though, usually it was to add something more than he’d left out first time round. River and Jayne’s arguments were never short, never quiet, and never easily resolved.
They were not a perfect match. In fact the first thing people noticed about them was how imperfect they were together. And these flaws that everyone saw were the very flaws that caused so much trouble between them. Two things that definitely didn’t mesh well were Jayne’s temper with River’s eccentricities.
Jayne didn’t have Simon’s endless patience, and nor did he want it. When River reverted back to the River he had first met, the very eccentric, slightly unhinged one, his reaction was to just try and make her snap out of it as quickly as possible. This method of screaming at her until she stopped screaming at him rarely worked. Nevertheless, Jayne favoured it over that patience idea.
It was so difficult to tell her that his rage wasn’t always because she was acting crazy, it was because of why she was acting crazy. What had happened to her mind. What was still happening to her mind. Jayne could barely comprehend the unfairness of it, that her suffering was so pointless, that the days she wasted in blind panics and screaming fits were so very pointless. An Alliance experiment carried out with the most fragile bits and pieces of her brain.
All he could do was shout and rage, because there was nothing else to do. No way he could fix it. No one person to exact revenge upon. No miracle cure he could hunt down. No perfect solution to a madness she should never have had. No way of taking all of her bad days away. And unfortunately, today was one of those bad days.
Eccentric, unhinged River was very much present. From the moment she had woken up, River had known that the day would be a trying one at best. Today they were doing a job, for Patience of all people. Mal had orchestrated a shaky truce with her in order for them to cooperate in a mutually beneficial job on Whitefall. Everyone on Serenity knew that something was bound to go wrong, and Mal had asked River to go along so she could Read the situation for them and give them the upper hand.
She’d been going on jobs for quite a while now, given that she was one of the most deadly fighters, possibly across every planet in the galaxy, and as a Reader, she had an even deadlier edge, as she knew every move her opponent would make before they made it.
Today of all days, River knew she wasn’t in any state to be able to Read properly. She could barely gather her thoughts long enough to remember who she was, let alone take a walk through someone else’s mind and sort through their thoughts.
As Jayne made his way back to her room, ready to begin their argument all over again, River sat down on her bed, one hand pressed against her temple. Everything was singing and screaming at the same time. Nothing was in order. Her brainpan was untidy. She hated that. She wanted to sink her fingers into her head and organise everything neatly. But she couldn’t. She never could.
Jayne appeared at the door, his mouth open, ready to voice his indignation.
River held a hand up. “Be quiet.”
“You didn’t gimme the chance to say nothin’!”
“I know what you were going to say,” she stated.
Jayne rolled his eyes and leaned heavily against the doorframe, irritation etched across his features. “’Course ya did. Never can have a thought to myself, can I?”
River glared at him. “That’s not my fault! If you want a thought to yourself then go away! Then maybe I could have a thought to myself too!”
Jayne’s hard expression didn’t falter, but he didn’t shout back at her either. “What’s wrong? I been doin’ nothin’ but tryin’ to please you all day, fetchin’ ‘n’ carryin’… Gorram it, I can’t make miracles happen! I can’t fix your brain for ya. It ain’t my fault you’re havin’ a bad day.”
River flopped back on the bed listlessly. “I wish I could go to the wizard and get a brain. Just like the scarecrow,” she murmured hopelessly.
She could feel the heady red waves of anger that were emanating from Jayne lessen and lessen the longer he stood there watching her.
Jayne sighed heavily. “Y’already got one. It’s just a mite more troublesome than other people’s.”
“I won’t be of any help on the job today. I can’t be. There are too many people shouting at me. I won’t be able to hear anyone else. Mal’s going to be mad.”
“Mal knows your brain’s all unpredictable. He won’t blame ya none,” Jayne said gruffly.
River stared at the ceiling. “He will. He won’t mean to. But he will. He’ll get shot today, you know. He’ll get shot in the leg. You should tell him that. It probably won’t make a difference. He’ll still get shot,” she said mournfully.
The last of Jayne’s anger ebbed away as he heard her sorrowful tone. Hating that he’d forgotten to make that point he’d come back to make – what had it even been? – he sat beside her on the bed. Her legs were hanging off the foot of the bed swinging to a rhythm only she could hear. Her back was laid out flat on the bed, her face turned to the ceiling. Her stomach was a gentle but odd-looking rise against the rest of her slim body.
“We managed without ya ‘fore you ‘n’ your brother came. We’ll get by without ya today. I didn’t want you goin’ on the job anyway.”
“Not your decision,” River replied defiantly, still staring at the ceiling.
He leaned over and invaded her vision. “But it’s my baby,” he pointed out with a self-satisfied smile. “And I don’t want it gettin’ hurt, ‘specially if you’re all bewildered out on the job and can’t make sense of anythin’.”
And as if on cue, River cringed and pressed her hands to her ears. “Make them go away!”
“Who?” Jayne asked calmly.
“Mal and Inara. They’re arguing over me. Arguing over themselves. Arguing over everything. Always arguing. They never stop,” River murmured.
Jayne snorted. “Nothin’ in the ‘verse is gonna stop those two from arguin’. Their quarrel’s with each other so don’t worry none. They’d argue over the colour of the black if it weren’t… y’know… the black…”
River let out an inadvertent snort of laughter at that.
“Go do somethin’ to take your mind off it… rearrange your brother’s shiny doctorin’ stuff so he don’t know where it’s all gone to. Now that I’d take enjoyment from.”
River looked at Jayne wryly. “I know you would.”
Jayne merely shrugged. “I guess I’m just mean,” he said, burying a hand in all her long hair that was spread out across the bed.
River reached out and put a hand on his jaw, running her thumb over the prickly stubble. “No, you’re not.”
Jayne stiffened slightly and shifted away from her. “Yes I am,” he stated firmly, sitting on the end of the bed. “A mean old man.”
River, despite her swollen stomach, sat up easily. She pressed her shoulder against his, resting her chin on it. “You’re not mean Jayne,” she said softly in his ear, but he merely continued to stare ahead. River slipped a sinewy arm around the back of his waist. “You’re thinking about someone. You’re thinking about your sister again.”
“River. Don’t poke into my head like that. Ain’t right.”
River ignored him, immersing herself in his mind. It was all so clear, the memories all laid out in neat little rows. Not like her mind. It comforted her. It gave her a respite from the screaming and the mess inside her own head. These memories weren’t new to her. She’d seen them before though he’d never talked about them. She knew he didn’t want to talk about them. But she continued anyway.
“You shouted at her too. Careen. Her brainpan was untidy like mine, but it’d been like that since birth. When she was born you thought she was the prettiest baby in the ‘verse. But then she grew up… and she wasn’t right. She had nightmares and she had panic attacks and she wasn’t that pretty little baby anymore. And you hated her for it…” she whispered.
Jayne’s body was growing even more tensely coiled with every word, his stare burning into the wall opposite them.
River saw a little girl with long dark hair, crying and screaming hysterically. She saw brothers and sisters, a mother and a father trying to comfort her. She saw a teenaged Jayne distancing himself from it all. She saw him snapping at her when she was just tiny, when she was a teenager herself, when she was an adult. She saw him keeping her at arms length, hating the illness taking over her mind and hating her more for letting it take it.
River felt Jayne’s animosity toward Careen, it was strong and unrepentant, over-powering. She fought back Jayne’s emotions as they rose within her like a tidal wave, threatening to force their way out through her.
“Then you left your planet and you left all your family and you left Careen,” River said in a shaky voice. “You forgot about your crazy moon brain sister. And then you met me. I reminded you of her. I wasn’t right either. My brain was just as riddled with holes as hers was. And you hated me too…”
At that, River felt the taut muscles in Jayne’s upper arm jump ever so slightly as he clenched his fist. She placed her small pale hand on top of his, but he moved it. River let out an imperceptible sigh of hurt and pulled her hand back.
“I don’t hate you. I didn’t ever hated you,” Jayne stated, barely moving, barely blinking, just staring at the wall.
River saw a thousand emotions and memories rush through his brain, a waterfall of all of the feelings he never wanted to acknowledge and all of the thoughts he buried.
“Simon was always patient with me, always calm. He listened to me. He comforted me. And you never did that for Careen. Matthew was her favourite. Mattie. He was her Simon. When he got sick with pneumonia she cried for a week. And when he got better she danced in the rain. After you’d yelled at her she used to hide at the end of the yard with all of your father’s hunting dogs until he went out to find her. Mattie would always tell her that you didn’t mean it. She never believed him. And when you left home, she thought it was because of her, even though it wasn’t. She still thinks that…”
“Stop it!” Jayne snapped all of a sudden. He looked at her, his eyes blazing with untold anger. “You ain’t got the right to go through my head like that!”
River jumped and took in a quick breath as he stood up. “I knew already. I’ve known about Careen for a long time.”
She felt his anger spread through him, consuming and overpowering every other thought and emotion.
Jayne turned away, poised to leave. “How long?” he asked in an edgy tone.
River stood up, putting a hand on his back. “Two years,” she murmured.
Jayne wheeled around and she pulled her hand away. “You’re gonna stop this. You’re gonna stop stealing every gorram thing I’ve got in my head!”
“I can’t help—”
Jayne grabbed her wrists, yanking her up against him and trapping her arms between them. “You can help it! Or God help me I will make you,” he hissed.
River merely looked at him, knowing he was frustrated that he couldn’t solve this problem with a gun or a fist, and then walk away. “You can’t scare me. You can’t scare my untidy brain into tidiness. Just like you couldn’t with Careen,” she said to him honestly.
At that Jayne gritted his teeth and tightened his numbing grip on her wrists. His glare was one that would make marauders and thieves, smugglers and vigilantes all think twice about crossing him. But the nineteen year old girl in his clutches merely blinked at him. That made him even more furious. Just as she thought he was really going to snap, he shoved her away from him and into the wall. Without another word, he stalked out of the room.
River let out a huge exhalation and closed her eyes, running her fingers over one of her stinging wrists. Her mind was still screaming. She could hear herself screaming, Jayne screaming, Careen screaming… and there right at the forefront, was Mal and Inara, screaming at each other. No one else but River knew and Serenity knew what was they were saying to each other.
With their places firmly secured as the father and mother figures of Serenity respectively, River would have assumed that they wouldn’t be such argumentative, obstinate people. But of course, she knew them better than that. And they simply would not be Mal and Inara if they weren’t argumentative and obstinate.
Mal and Inara were just as much an ill-conceived match on first glance as River and Jayne were. People saw a pretty, young, if a little loopy, girl when they saw River. They saw a rough around the edges hired gun with more than a few miles on the clock when they saw Jayne. Appearances can be deceiving though.
No one knew how easy the strong could break when it came to love. River had had to break down her own protective walls, formed after years of confusion and insanity and loss of self. Jayne had had to break down his too, ones that were built on his decision to be solitary, self-reliant, and unfailingly strong. But both had had to be vulnerable first in order to become stronger.
Inara and Mal both had similar such walls built up. Inara was a child of wealth and decadence. She hid behind the veneer of that life. She hid inside the folds of her rich, opulent gowns, tricking herself into believing that her Core-upbringing was the only thing that would keep her protected out on the Rim. Mal was the opposite. He hid behind his Rim childhood, pushing it before him in order to protect himself from the Core folk that he hated so much. He used the fury and bitterness that had been filling him up since the War to fuel him.
Neither had realised how simple it would be just to let go. To let go of the pretences and failings of such masks.
And so the argument continued. As it would always continue.
“This is utterly ridiculous! You can’t actually think you’re doing this!”
“I don’t think I’m doin’ it, I am doin’ it.”
“I always knew you were lacking in morals and common sense, but now it seems that the few brain cells you had have taken their leave as well.”
“As much as I appreciate your kindly expressed opinion, I think I’ve heard enough for today. You travel with this crew. You’re not a part of it. End of.”
“No, it is not!”
Mal stopped in his tracks on hearing the shrill, furious tone Inara’s voice had taken on. He looked at her incredulously. “Woman, honestly, I think it’s your own brain cells you should be lookin’ to, along with your sanity!”
Inara glared back at him, her dark and sultry eyes blazing with only the kind of rage Mal could bring to her. “You’re totally unscrupulous. She’s pregnant Mal! You can’t make her do this!”
Mal hooked his thumbs on his belt, and grinned smartly. “Ah, see there be the catch. River has no problem with coming on the job. She won’t be there to fight, she’s goin’ along to Read the situation. If she’s doin’ that there ain’t no harm that’ll come to her, ‘cause she’ll know ‘fore it happens. Jayne’ll be watchin’ her back like a hawk anyway.”
“That isn’t the point! You know what happened to her last time! River’s life and the life of her child were both in danger – because of the job.”
Mal blinked, his calm taking a significant dent at that remark. “That was none of my fault. How was I to know Jayne had knocked her up? And why am I even talkin’ this over with you?” he asked himself, brow creased with a frown. “It’s happenin’ whether you approve of it or not.”
“Just like everything else,” Inara stated coldly, crossing her arms. “Some things never change. No matter how much I help you and yourcrew on your jobs, no matter how many favours I do for you, you still push me to the periphery of your life. Convincing yourself I’m not ‘one of you’ just so you can sleep better at night. Unfortunately, I don’t have such a talent for denial.”
Mal shook his head, holding out a warning hand. “Don’t start on this Inara. You stayed after Miranda of your own accord. I ain’t sayin’ I’m not glad that you did, I am… but you are what you are. And it ain’t one of us.”
Inara tilted her chin defiantly. “The only reason you’re acting this way is because of my profession. No matter how much you and I go through together it always comes back to you and your problem with what I did,” she said quietly, but with burning certainty.
“Your profession? Huh, if that’s what you want to call it!” Mal snorted, throwing his hands up with a harsh laugh. “I surmise you might be right Inara. Maybe I am a bit tetchy with you because of your ‘profession’. No one in the gorram ‘verse could blame me.”
Inara’s furious expression faded ever so slowly at that, and she turned away, pressing a hand to her forehead. She wrapped an arm around a bed post, her eyes sweeping over the perfect, luxurious silks and linens. Her mind burned with the memories of all the men she’d had in that bed with her in the past. Men who hadn’t been Mal. But that was over now… and still he wouldn’t let it go.
“Do you want me to apologise?” Inara asked softly, closing her eyes. “Then I will. I’ll apologise for making you feel this way. But I can’t apologise for who I am. I gave up being a Companion for you Mal, I gave it up. But I can’t just forget about the life I’ve led for the last twenty-eight years! I won’t give up teaching and I won’t cut ties with my friends or my past clients.”
Mal let out a sharp, cynical laugh, his stare burning into her back. “You givin’ up bein’ a Companion just means you’re not a Companion in practise. But in theory… you still are. Through and through. You ain’t suited to this vagabond life. You ain’t suited to just spendin’ a few months teachin’ in Trainin’ Houses in the Core every now ‘n’ then.”
“I won’t make excuses for who I am Mal. I’ve given you more than I’ve given any man. Don’t expect me to give you my entire life as well. Don’t expect me to let you change me into who you want me to be,” Inara told him, her tone plain and emotionless.
Mal stared at her beautiful, statuesque figure, wishing he could see her face just then. “A Companion ain’t who you are. You’re Inara Serra the woman. Not Inara Serra the Companion. You don’t belong to the job anymore’n you belong to the men who used to buy you. Anymore’n you belong to me,” he told her, fighting to keep his voice plain and even.
“But I do…” Inara murmured, closing her eyes to ward off tears. “I do belong to you. I’m yours Mal. In the last four years since we’ve met I’ve never thought of any other man in the way I’ve thought of you. I just did my job… but I always came back to you. Always. Even when I didn’t. Even when I left… I was showing you that I was yours.”
“Huh. Funny that. ‘Cause you showin’ me that you were mine seemed a lot like you leavin’ me!”
“But I wasn’t seeing clients anymore, was I? When I walked away from you, I walked away from being a Companion too. I didn’t want to try and find solace in the people I was with, I didn’t want to try and replace you. I wanted to forget you. It didn’t work though. It never works.”
Mal opened his mouth but nothing came out. What was he supposed to say to that? What could he say? There weren’t words to express how he felt right then. Nothing could express how he felt but taking her up in his arms and bringing her to that bed, and most definitely not leaving it for the foreseeable future.
But he couldn’t.
He felt a shudder beneath his feet and knew that Kaylee and River were bringing Serenity into atmo. They were landing on Whitefall. He had a job to do. A job. Welcome distraction. His heart just hurt being in here with Inara. He needed something to do, someone to shoot.
“I have to go. The job…” Mal said, his jaw clenched so hard he thought it might break.
Inara’s vision swam and she blinked a silent tear down her cheek. She nodded brusquely, thankful he couldn’t see her face.
Mal went to turn away, but found himself fidgeting back and forth in the doorway. Just a glimpse of her standing there by the bed made him want to stay, but gorram it… he’d never wanted to leave so badly either.
In the end, one won out over the other, and he launched himself through the doorway. As he stormed across the walk and headed up onto the bridge he slammed right into Jayne who’d apparently been doing some very fine storming himself.
“Your woman landin’ us?” Mal demanded.
“Well since we’re landin’ and she’s the pilot… I’d think so, yeah,” Jayne snapped, his sarcasm irritating Mal to the last.
Mal narrowed his eyes and gave Jayne a pointed look. “Don’t sass me ‘cause you’re havin’ a bad day Jayne. I ain’t exactly havin’ the best one ever my own self! ‘Specially with this gorram job with Patience and her pack o’ hun dans. Ain’t nothin’ good ‘bout this day whatsoever ‘n’ the trouble ain’t even started yet. I’m just glad the Little Witch’ll be there to even the playin’ field.”
“No, she won’t.”
Mal blinked repeatedly, inclining his head toward Jayne with a disbelieving look etched on his face. “The who? The what? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you rightly,” he laughed harshly. “’Cause I know you didn’t just say that my Reader ain’t comin’ on the job.”
Jayne tilted his head and returned Mal’s ill-tempered scowl. “She ain’t ‘your’ nothin’ and yeah, I did say that.”
“Jayne, this is Patience! If ever we needed a damn Reader it’s today. She’s guaranteed to pull a double-crossin’!” Mal exclaimed.
Jayne made a face and shrugged. “Look she’s havin’ one of her crazy days. Her brain’s untidy or somethin’. You know what she’s like when she goes all eccentric-like. Ain’t pretty Mal.”
“It’s touching how you talk about the mother of your child. Really,” Mal simpered sarcastically.
Great. His first damn conversation of the day with Inara goes pear-shaped and now his job goes pear-shaped before it’s even started. Mal felt trouble coming. And if the last hour was anything to go by, the trouble would be coming his way. He turned on his heel to head up to the bridge for a few words with Serenity’s co-pilot.
“She did say there was one thing ya should watch out for,” Jayne said curtly.
Mal turned slowly and looked at Jayne tiredly. “And what would that be?”
“You’re gonna get shot,” Jayne said bluntly.
Mal blinked and cast his eyes upwards. “Well I suppose that ain’t no shockin’ revelation,” he sighed.
“In the leg.”
“Tremendous. I look forward to it. Always did want a heroical limp in my manly swagger,” Mal shot back wryly, walking away with said swagger. “Go pry Zoë away from that baby o’ hers ‘n’ load up the mule.”
“Ya have to ask? I learned my lesson on the whole grenades issue a long time ago,” Mal shouted over his shoulder.
He came up onto the bridge just as land was making its’ shaky arrival before them. Kaylee was just running out to check something in the engine room. She passed him by with a quick smile, which he returned, before coming to lean in the doorway.
“Hello pilot.” Mal planted a hand on the back of the pilot’s chair and leaned over River. “A little birdy told me you ain’t comin’ along today. Care to elaborate on that for me? And apologies for my deep-rooted anger here, but I have just been informed of my impending gun shot wound!”
River relinquished her grip on the controls as Serenity settled herself on a rocky out-cropping. She switched off a few things above her and fiddled with a few gauges, frowning deeply. “I’m sorry. I… can’t help you. Not today. I’m hearing everyone. I won’t be able to make out one person’s thoughts from the other.”
Mal heaved a huge sigh. “I suppose I can cut you some slack what with you bein’ with child ‘n’ havin’ all them hormones ‘n’ such runnin’ rough shot through ya…”
River turned around in the pilot’s seat and set a hard glare on Mal. “This isn’t because I’m pregnant Captain. It’s because I had government officials cut into my brain for three years,” she snapped sternly. Her expression softened then and she smiled apologetically. “And I know you were only saying that so I’d get angry and go along. You succeeded in getting me angry. But I still won’t go.”
Mal gave her a crooked smile and clapped his hands together once. “I’m caught out. I guess I’m just a little nervous about the getting shot part. It hurts! Every time!”
River smiled laughingly, and reached out to press a few buttons on the screen that showed Serenity’s stats and vitals. “Running low on fuel.”
“Ah, when ain’t we?” Mal acknowledged. He glanced at her wrist flitting across the screen as River scrolled through the information at lightning speed. She had a few darkening bruises around her wrists. “Them’s some mean lookin’ bruises Little Albatross. You ‘n’ Jayne been gettin’ nasty in the bedroom? Wait. Don’t ever answer that question.”
River gave him one of her patented ‘you’re very stupid’ looks, and shook her head wryly. “We had a disagreement.”
He was aware that Jayne and River had been known to settle their differences with violence in the early stages of their courtship when they’d gotten on each other’s nerves more than anything else. He just hadn’t seen it happen in a while, especially considering River’s present condition.
Mal arched an eyebrow. “He hurt you?” he asked, mildly shocked and at the same time, not so shocked.
“I hurt him first,” River said distantly.
“Well I guess that’s okay then,” Mal replied, not asking her to elaborate. “All’s fair in love ‘n’ war as they say. Seems love ‘n’ war’s the same thing to you two.”
“I could say the same for you and Inara.”
Mal took in River’s knowing tone as she said that, and pursed his lips. “Eavesdroppers go to that special hell the Shepard always talked about y’know. You should read up on it a little. I know I got a Bible somewhere. I was usin’ it as a doorstop. Damn handy. Anyway, I hear all that hell fire and damnation malarkey is very affecting.”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on your conversation Mal,” River said succinctly. “I was at the other end of the ship. I couldn’t help it. Everyone keeps invading my head,” she said, her voice trembling and detached. “Everyone’s leaving breadcrumbs. I follow, I follow, can’t not. Follow all the way back to the witch’s house. Back to the sugar and candy, trying to find peace and quiet. Never can find it. Witch won’t go in the fire, breadcrumbs disappear. Get lost. Lost in the forest with the trees. Looking at me. Taunting me…”
Mal pressed his lips together, lamenting the loss of the sensical conversation they’d just been having. “Oookay. I’ll tell ya what helps with gettin’ lost in a forest— ya burn down the trees!” he quipped, grabbing his coat from the closet behind her.
“But I’ll kill everyone,” River murmured, her eyes glazing over.
“Yeah… Like you’ve never tried to do that before,” Mal muttered to himself. “You just pay no never mind to that there forest darlin’! You’ll find your way out!” he called to her as he left the bridge.
Inara appeared before him all of a sudden, and Mal near jumped back in fright.
“No, it’s fine.”
“It’s fine! I’m just jumpy.”
“Yeah. Kinda worried. Patience ‘n’ all.”
“Not the most trustworthy of people.”
“No, not ever.”
“Hope it goes well.”
“It won’t, but thanks anyhow.”
Mal and Inara stared at each as their rapid fire conversation came to a grinding halt. Mal expelled the air from his lungs and rocked lightly on his heels. Inara smiled tightly, and straightened her shawl on her shoulders.
Mal nodded curtly. “Well! Job and that. You’ll be glad to know River can’t come after all. She’s all lost in a forest without breadcrumbs… could you see to her? Make sure she’s shiny?”
Inara looked a touch confused after the forest and breadcrumbs part but nodded accordingly. “Yes, yes of course I will.”
“Okay then. I’ll be goin’ now.”
“All right. I’ll see you when you get back.”
“You will. Yeah.”
“I should get goin’.”
“I thought you were already.”
Mal frowned quizzically, and felt unable to leave her, despite his brain demanding him to.
“Cap’n? You set?” Zoë called.
Mal and Inara blinked and snapped out of their intense staring match, both flinching in fright.
Zoë appeared behind them, an expectant look on her face. “Cap’n? Patience said three o’ clock sharp.”
“Which means we best be there for two o’ clock ‘fore her snipers get there,” Mal replied, nodding.
“It surely does sir,” Zoë grinned wryly.
Mal shot past Inara and followed his second in command.
“Take care!” Inara called after him.
“No point! I’ll be gettin’ shot anyhow!” he called back.
Inara just shook her head and walked up onto the bridge where River was crouched under the console, muttering to herself.
“River? Are you looking for something?” Inara asked, bending to look at her.
“There’s a wire out of place,” River replied, a hand clutching a tangle of wires shooting forth from under the console.
Inara laughed gently. “Oh sweetie, put them back. Come on, get out from under there. You shouldn’t be doing that in your condi—”
River’s sliding out from under the console and springing to her feet gracefully halted that last sentence of Inara’s. “I’m not going on the job.”
“Yes, Mal said. Are you okay?”
“Bad day,” River said glumly. “My mind is all tangled up in everyone else’s. And I made Jayne upset.”
“I can relate,” Inara smiled. “Mal and I just had an unpleasant… discussion ourselves.”
“It’ll be okay. Mal tries. But sometimes he’s afraid of the things you say. He always wanted you to say them… and now that you have— he’s afraid.”
Inara’s scarlet lips parted at this, the torrent of emotions she’d only just managed to conceal exploding within her once again.
River looked at her, her eyes dark pools of knowledge. “Everything will turn out right. Just when you thought that it wouldn’t before, it did. Just when you thought he’d always be afraid of what you feel for him, he showed you he wasn’t. He’ll do that again. Just like before…”
“Well— I hate you!”
Inara’s harsh expression softened and she almost laughed. “Mature comeback Mal. Then again, when your one and only comeback to date has been ‘whore’, what should I have expected?”
Mal gritted his teeth and shot her a stern look, not at all amused. He was angry. Hell, he was livid. This woman stayed on the ship, stayed there tormenting him by giving him such happiness, all the while never completely giving herself to him. Always sharing with the clientele. The next rich banker. Superstar celebrity. Esteemed politician. All offering her more than he could.
All threatening to take away the sun that lit up the black for him.
“You know, you’re walkin’ a mighty thin line here Inara.”
“I’ve been walking that line my entire life,” she countered.
“Well now you’re just soundin’ like me.”
“Spending too much time around you, I suppose. It’s the affect you have on people, making them as bitter as you,” Inara answered, her tone acidic.
Mal heaved a sigh and flopped down on Inara’s plush sofa. He balanced his elbow on his knees and stared at the floor. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again— I can’t function rightly when you’re about me. I am a simple man Inara, I come from simple folk, with a simple way o’ bein’. I’m just tryin’ to get by. And there ain’t nothin’ that’s simple when it comes to you,” he said earnestly.
“I’m so very sorry,” came Inara’s terse reply.
“It’s complicated. More complicated than I’d like. More’n once I been wantin’ to do ‘n’ say things… You think I don’t have a single feelin’ in my own body?” Mal asked, placing a hand on his chest. Over his heart. He’d never been a poetical man, never wanted to be. But he really thought he knew the meaning of heart ache now.
“I’ve asked myself that question more times than I can count.”
“I’ll wager you most likely have,” Mal returned. “But I do have feelin’s Inara. I got plenty. But I’m the captain o’ this here ship, and if I got complications, the ship’s got complications.”
Inara bristled, pacing the floor in front of him. “I’m a complication? After all this time, that’s all I am to you?”
“No! That’s not what I said!” Mal exclaimed. “Damn it woman, now do ya see why things are complicated? You confound me! I don’t know if I’m comin’ or goin’!”
“Going, apparently,” Inara said unemotionally.
Mal pursed his lips, not taking kindly to her bitterly cold tone. “Well I apologise if that weren’t what you were wantin’ to hear.”
Inara’s hard expression faded and her brows came together mournfully. “It’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Mal, all I’ve ever wanted was an honest word from you, some truth.”
“Inara, I ain’t never been nothin’ but truthsome with you,” Mal said, softly and honestly.
“That I find difficult to believe. Nevertheless, I suppose since you’ve opened up a little, that I should,” Inara said, a little uncomfortably. “Since Miranda, I’ve— I’ve realised just how very fleeting life is. Sometimes you think you’re going to live forever…”
“I never have.”
Inara looked at him straight, her face abound with emotion all of sudden. “I know that. You’ve been to war. You’ve seen death. You’ve cheated death. And now with your… occupation, you’re cheating it again, almost every day. I can see why you are the way you are. Why you live to survive. Live for the moment. And I’m only just realising that that’s what I needed to do. I can’t keep denying how… how I feel for you…”
“I thought the denyin’ was long over. I thought it’d been made fairly clear how we feel for each other Inara,” Mal said softly. “Our feelin’s ain’t the problem anymore.”
“It’s my job.”
Mal nodded. “It’s your job.”
“It’s tearing me apart Mal,” Inara whispered. “Please know that. I thought I could handle it, but it’s too much. It’s all too much.”
Mal’s expression jumped, anger sparking in his eyes. “Too much for you? You’re the one who does it to yourself, to me! I’m the one left to his own devices while you entertain. I mean, it’s just the knowin’ that you’re betrayin’ me…”
“I never betray you! Not in heart, not in mind. It’s you that I want Mal,” Inara told him, turning around.
Mal was always near knocked off his feet when she said that. It had taken a long time for her to admit it to him, for him to accept it. For him to be able to return it. But now that it had been said between them long ago, it made this all so much harder because they still argued like they used to when she’d first rented the shuttle, back when they’d still been dancing around one another.
Mal stood up. “You said you couldn’t do this anymore. Kindly tell me what you might mean by that.”
Inara smoothed her hands over her deep red dress, trying to reconcile in her mind what she was about to do, about to say. She was about to shatter an entire part of her life. She’d hurt so many people… but it had to be done. For her own piece of mind. She couldn’t continue this charade anymore.
Inara looked Mal in the eye. “I’m leaving… the Guild. Not just temporarily. Permanently. Being a Companion is no longer a way of life that I want.”
Mal just blinked. “’Scuse me? I think I may have just blacked out. What did you say?”
Inara smiled. “Mal.”
“Sorry.” Mal began to pace the room slowly. “I’m feelin’ the need to be a mite frivolous at this particular moment. I think the good Shepard would have likened this to a… revelation as it were.”
Inara ducked her head with a smile. “I’m perfectly serious Mal. If it’s a choice between being a Companion and being with you… then it’s a very easy one. You and this ship and this crew have given me more good memories and more of a feeling of belonging than I’ve ever had.”
Mal swallowed hard, fighting back the tidal wave of sheer emotion as he heard that. “I never said you had to choose.”
“You never said I didn’t have to choose either!” Inara said wryly.
Mal laughed, casting his eyes to the ceiling. “It was easier to say that I hate you, y’know that?”
“Well I love you!”
Mal paused, mouth open. “Huh. Well that was unexpected.”
An attractive flush rose in Inara’s cheeks. “It’s true. I do. And I want to choose. I can’t keep letting what I do hurt you… or me either for that matter,” Inara said gently. “I mean, I’ll stay. If— well, if that’s possible. I have a vast amount of credits saved in my accounts on Sihnon, paying my own way, paying rent it won’t be a problem. And I’m sure I can take a few months off the ship to teach in the House of Madrassa now and then. It’ll be—“
Mal crossed the room and grabbed her upper arms, yanking her to him. He silenced her rambling with a hard and searing kiss that stole the rest of her words right away.
“Your mouth is talkin’. You might wanna look to that,” he whispered against her lips.
Inara laughed, her melodic tones sinking into his skin, singing to him.
“And just so you know… I love you too. More’n you’ll ever know…”
After that, Kaylee had excitedly decided that they had finally gotten their fairytale ending. River had known better.
They may have had the fairytale kiss, but they most certainly would not live happily ever after. Mal and Inara could never be the kind of people who lived happily ever after. Their differences in personality and opinion were two opposing forces, working in unison to drive them apart. But even when that was happening, even when they were working so steadily to push one another away… nothing in the ‘verse would take them from one another.
They couldn’t play the parts of the hero and the princess of the storybooks from Earth-That-Was. But that didn’t matter out in the black. What mattered was being truthsome, as Mal would say it. And the truth of their love would bond them— despite how hard they fought against it.
And that was why, when the job that day was done and dusted, when the loot had been fought over, and Patience had slunk back to her base, seven men down and with half of her share snatched by her partners in crime, Inara clean forgot about the argument she had had with Mal before he’d gone. She’d forgotten because something infinitely more important had happened. Her first glimpse of Mal when they’d arrived back had been of his body laying prone in the back of the Mule, a makeshift bandage unable to stop the blood spurting from his thigh.
A wound to the leg shouldn’t have made Mal, of all people, pass out, but as Simon hurriedly examined him in the back of the Mule, he’d discovered that a main artery had been hit and that he was losing too much blood too fast. Inara had clutched the unconscious captain’s hand as Simon fished the bullet out and tried to suppress the gushing artery.
Jayne, the only remaining match for Mal’s blood type since Wash’s demise, was unwillingly donating blood, a stern Zoë shoving the needle into his vein. She grinned as he hissed and snatched his arm away. She grabbed it back, ignoring his protests.
“Big baby. Even Junior didn’t whine this much during his last vaccination,” Zoë snorted, glancing at her son, who was sitting in Kaylee’s lap.
“Jayne doesn’t like needles,” River spoke up from where she was sitting on the infirmary’s countertop by Kaylee and Hobie.
He promptly glared at her. “Jayne doesn’t like people actin’ as if he ain’t here neither.”
“Is he gonna be okay?” Kaylee interrupted, biting a fingernail nervously and staring at a grey-looking Mal.
“He should be fine. I just want to get some blood into him stat. He’s lost way too much,” Simon replied distractedly.
Inara’s grip on Mal’s hand tightened at that.
“Well that blood would be happily flowin’ through the Cap’n’s veins if he wasn’t bein’ so stubborn,” Zoë said pointedly, still trying to get the needle into a squirming Jayne’s arm.
River hopped off the counter, once again distracting everyone with her spryness despite her pregnancy. “Can I try?” she asked Zoë.
Zoë threw her hands up, and stepped away from Jayne. “Go crazy.”
“She already is,” Jayne snorted under his breath.
River set her mouth in a straight, defiant line and yanked Jayne’s arm out straight. She stared at it for but a moment, before shooting her hand forward and sliding the needle right into his vein perfectly. Blood began to flow through the connecting tube almost immediately.
Jayne scowled. “That hurt,” he griped.
“Good.” River smiled sweetly.
Simon had just finished stitching up Mal’s wound when he looked around the infirmary disapprovingly. “There’s way too many people in here. Everyone who isn’t giving blood or been shot— out.”
Zoë nodded and motioned to Kaylee. Simon gave Kaylee a warm and reassuring smile as the girl followed Zoë out, her worry for Mal etched on her face. River gave the captain’s unconscious form a bright smile, knowing he’d be just fine, and skipped out of the room.
Inara swallowed hard, her deep red lips standing out against her pale face. “Could I stay with him?”
Simon, who was hooking Mal up to another line which was feeding Jayne’s blood into his veins, looked at her compassionately. “Of course. I never meant for you to go Inara. He’ll be glad to see you when he wakes up.”
“How long do I gotta do this for?” Jayne spoke up.
“A lot longer, so you should probably just suck it up,” Simon replied, a slight smile playing on his lips. “The captain’s lost a significant amount of blood. He needs all he can get.”
“Great.” Jayne sighed heavily.
It wasn’t until much later that Simon finally took the tube out of Jayne’s arm, after making him give about five pints of blood – or so it felt to Jayne anyway. Simon and Inara were talking quietly in the little sitting area outside the infirmary while inside, Jayne poked at the bandage on his arm, and griped and moaned about his light-headedness.
“You should lie down before you fall down.”
Jayne looked up as River’s deceivingly innocent and sweet-sounding voice rang in the infirmary. He walked over purposefully, shooting her a defiant look. “Don’t worry your little head. I won’t be doin’ no fallin’ down like some pansy-ass—”
Jayne stumbled, his head swimming and his legs unsteady. River flitted over, guiding him back to the chair.
“That ain’t never happened before,” he muttered to himself.
River sank to the floor by the chair, looking up at him. “Yes it has,” she quipped.
Jayne glared at her. “Stop that. My mind ain’t your playground.”
River snapped her mouth shut and looked down. “I’m sorry. And I’m sorry about earlier. I’m sorry I talked about your sister…”
Jayne squared his jaw. “I would’ve told you about her in my own time. I wasn’t fond o’ the way ya went ‘n’ searched for it yourself.”
River’s hand snaked up his leg and grasped his hand which had been on his knee. “It was just there! When I was upset earlier, I reminded you of her and she was right at the front of your mind. I never went looking, I never do…”
Jayne shrugged stiffly. “Okay. I believe ya,” he said, turning her hand over in his. “I’m sorry I yelled at ya like that.” He noticed the fingerprinted bruises on her wrists. “I’m always puttin’ these marks on ya, without even realisin’ it. I shouldn’t’ve grabbed ya like that, ‘specially with you bein’… I really am a stupid son of a bitch.”
River shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m fine. You’re fine. Our gestating child is fine.”
Jayne cracked a smiled at that.
River lowered her head to his knee, sighing. “Everything’s fine.”
Jayne muttered something low in his throat and pulled her off the floor and up into his lap. “It ain’t your fault your head’s mess up. And it ain’t your fault Careen’s head’s messed up. I just—”
River merely pulled his head down to hers and cut him off with a kiss. Jayne laughed against her mouth and River shuddered as the reverberations of his deep voice rippled through her.
One evening, she and Kaylee had been having one of their girly chats, giggling as Mal stomped in and out of the engine room, grumbling about his useless pilot and mechanic. Kaylee had asked what kissing Jayne was like. River hadn’t quite had a proper answer. She hadn’t been able to pin down exactly what it was like for accurate description.
He wasn’t the first person she’d kissed. She’d definitely been becoming a little boy-crazy before she’d been sent off to the Academy. She’d had her fair share of illicit kisses with governor’s sons and the like at balls and parties that her parents had made her go to. But they’d all been her age or Simon’s age at the most. All boys. Jayne was the first man she’d kissed. Maybe that was what made his kisses so familiar and yet completely unfamiliar. Different every time. But always memorable.
Silky warmth that sent a freezing cold shiver down her spine. Rough and biting and needy and now. The slow drawn out kisses of someone who knew he had all night to kiss her. Quickly, chastely, with throaty chuckles in-between. Absent, distracted kisses as he passed by, or as he was thinking about something else. Then the tender, drawn out ones just before he fell asleep, or just after she woke up.
And the kiss that they shared, as they sat in the middle of the uninviting, blinding white infirmary, with their captain lying injured and unconscious beside them? That kiss had definitely been of the spine-shivering kind. Burning hot heat seeping into one another, from one another, surging through each other’s veins, giving them as much revitalisation as Jayne’s blood had to Mal.
“Oh. Ugh. I did not need to see that.”
Jayne and River pulled apart as Mal’s rasping voice startled them.
“I’m in that special hell. I’m dead and I’m in that special hell where the punishment for my evil-doing in life is havin’ to watch you two go at it for all of eternity.”
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with your trap I see,” Jayne snorted.
“That sight was enough to force a sinful man like me back to prayer. Almost enough anyway,” Mal continued.
“I told you you’d get shot!” River piped up.
“That you did,” Mal quipped, cringing painfully. “And ya know what would’ve been mighty helpful? Tellin’ me who was gonna shoot me!”
River smiled endearingly, slipping off of Jayne’s lap. “I’m sorry Captain. I’ll try better next time.”
“So you should,” Mal nodded self-importantly.
“Mal! You’re awake!” Inara gasped, rushing to his side.
Simon followed, and began checking Mal’s vitals. “How do you feel?”
“More’n a mite rough,” Mal replied, distracted by Inara’s lips all over his face and neck as she kissed him in feverish relief. “But I’ll live. Maybe. This woman’s affections are givin’ me some heart palpitations though.”
“Givin’ me a wobbly stomach too,” Jayne muttered.
“Could say the same for what I just had to witness! You all over my impressionable young Reader!” Mal exclaimed, wincing as he inadvertently moved his leg. “You should see to them Doc!”
“I think it’s a bit too late,” Simon replied with amusement, giving River’s swollen stomach a pointed look.
“And there’s no one to blame but yourself,” Mal shot back.
Simon sighed heavily and grinned as he left the infirmary. “And I hate myself for it every day,” he said laughingly.
As Mal looked to Jayne and began accusing him of letting him get shot, River and Inara shared a look.
The arguments that both Mal and Inara, and Jayne and River had were always heated, always turbulent… and always forgotten when they needed to be. Both couples would argue again. Argue longer, argue louder, argue over the same things, argue over different things…
But in the end, being truthsome would win out. And no matter how ill-matched the ex-Companion and the ex-soldier turned bandit were, no matter how ill-matched the psychic and the mercenary were, the truth would always win out, and that was that they each felt more for one another than they could rightly describe.
Part 3 - Kaylee