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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Mal and Inara face the morning after, the visitors go home, and some of the bad guys aren’t completely done. NC-17
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 3286 RATING: 8 SERIES: FIREFLY
See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.
Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!
Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.
There is no BDM in my fic-verse, except for maybe the River/Reaver hidden truth.
Mal woke up feeling alone, his arms empty. It took him a few moments to realize why that bothered him – it wasn’t like he woke up with company often.
When he recognized the smell of incense and the softness of the sheets, he remembered, and he felt warmth in the bed behind him. He rolled over to find Inara lying on her back. He brushed her hair away from her neck; she was so deeply asleep that she didn’t stir. She looked perfect, flawless. Her skin glowed with youth and health; her lips were just barely parted to show the pearly gleam of her teeth, and the soft arch of her eyebrows reflected the curve of her closed lashes. It was as if she were a painting, every line and nuance of shading carefully planned to captivate. Even her breathing was pleasing – soft and deep and barely audible. It didn’t change at all when he brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek.
She was enjoyable to look at, no mistake about that, but as he continued to watch her he realized that something bothered him. He wondered if this was something she’d learned at the Academy. Maybe there was a course called Basic Sleeping: How to be Enticing while Unconscious; How to not Disturb a Client’s Valuable Rest.
The perfection was something constructed around the outside of the Inara he knew. There was a real woman in there, one who swore and lost her temper and even went so far as to say the wrong thing now and then. Mal had been lucky enough to see that woman on several occasions, though he might not have called it luck at the time. He smiled at her sleeping face; she did have a sharp tongue, and an uncanny ability to see through him, to say things that made him feel downright foolish. But the real Inara was more than that; she was deeply caring. She was always there when one of his crew was troubled, quietly providing reassurance and comfort. She nurtured the people around her because that’s just who she was. The Inara Serra he knew liked people more than she liked money. The clients who paid so much for a few hours of her flawless company never saw that.
The thought of clients made his stomach feel sour, and Mal avoided thinking about it. He had no wish to ruin the moment. Instead, he wondered if he’d get to see more of the real Inara. He pictured her, lying on her side, deep asleep, mouth hanging slack and nose buzzing. Maybe even a little spot of drool on the pillow. He smiled again and ran his thumb lightly over the perfect corner of her mouth. It’d be good to see her like that. It’d give him an excuse to wake her up. He wouldn’t mind if she was awake right now.
He slid closer and wrapped himself around her. She was soft and compliant, molding herself to him in her sleep. He closed his eyes and savored her warmth and the way her body responded to his touch, settling into him like she’d been waiting for him to provide his limbs as her personal pillows and blankets.
Awake Inara would be all kinds a’ fun, but sleeping Inara wasn’t too bad either.
* * *
Zoë’s curiousity was piqued when Mal didn’t show for breakfast. Inara’s seat was conspicuously empty as well, but Zoë kept her guesses to herself; however things were going with the Captain, he wouldn’t want it a topic of discussion for the whole crew.
Mal finally showed a few hours later, just as Wash began to warm up Shuttle Two. Zoë was herding Jase, Bucky and Xiaojun along the catwalk when the Captain caught up, passing by Zoë so he could say a friendly goodbye to his guests. Zoë watched without comment - Mal was remarkably cheerful, she might even have called him perky if she’d dared to say it out loud. It warmed her, seeing him like that. It’d been a long damn time. If she’d been the hugging type, she’d be thinking about giving Inara a big hug.
When the three passengers finally disappeared into the shuttle, Mal turned back to Zoë.
“Well then,” he said. “You just take your time, make sure our guests are settled in nice and cozy.”
“Why, what a good mood you’re in, sir.”
“No, I’m not,” he said, though his grin looked about ready to split his face in half. “There ain’t no good moods that need explainin’ here. I’m just my usual grumpy self.”
Zoë gave him a doubtful look. “Captain, in that case it’s my duty to know all the details behind whatever got you into this ‘bad’ mood. For safety. Can’t be havin’ a captain off his rocker.”
“Now, Zoë, there you go oversteppin’ your bounds again. You should know by now that a captain don’t kiss and tell.”
“Oh – so there was kissin’?” Zoë arched a brow at him.
“Wouldn’t you like to know.” Mal put a hand on her shoulder and shoved her toward the shuttle. “Go on and take care a’ that bum of a husband. He’s like to get his ears talked off.”
Zoë stepped through the hatch, but had to take a parting shot. “Will do, Cap’n. And you go on and take care a’ that bad mood. I hear a morning tumble’ll do wonders for it.” She pulled the hatch closed behind her before Mal could reply.
Bucky left the husband and wife team to handle Xiaojun’s questions. The old woman had taken the co-pilot’s seat and seemed intent on discussing every button and indicator on the console. Wash handled the largely one-sided conversation with good cheer, and Zoë stood behind the chair, staring out the window with a distant smile. She looked to be in a much better mood than when Bucky’d first met her, but he still preferred to stay out of her way. That pilot was a brave man.
He went into the main room of the shuttle and took a seat next to Jase, who was slouching on a bench, looking bored. Bucky didn’t know what to say; he’d never been one to spend a lot of time around kids, and the smiling boy he’d known nine years ago was nothing like the teen sitting here moping. Truthfully, he was greatly relieved that these people had agreed to take Xiaojun along; he was going to need the help.
He’d tried talking casual to Jase a few times, but the kid hadn't been too responsive. Maybe it was best to give up on light chatter and just get the hard stuff out of the way.
“Sometime, I need to explain some things to you,” Bucky said quietly.
“What kind’a things?” Jase asked, not sounding eager.
“Some stuff `bout Ray.”
Jase stuck out his jaw a little, like he was clenching his teeth. “I don’t wanna know nothin’ more. He’s gone.”
“That’s the truth,” Bucky said. He found himself staring. The kid had been keeping to himself, and Bucky hadn’t gotten a good look at him all cleaned up. “Did you know that you look like your mom?” he asked.
Jase looked down and fidgeted with his sling. “He used to say that a lot.”
“I think that’s why he was so hard on you.”
“He hated her, didn’t he?”
“No. No, I don’t think so. I think he loved her, in his own way. She didn’t love him back is all, and he didn’t handle that so well.” Bucky smiled as he thought about her. He hadn’t had a lot of time with Mĕi, but he could recall every minute of what there’d been. “She was quite a woman, your Ma. Beautiful as they come. And she had a kindness to her, a way about everything she did.”
Jase looked at him. “Are you… you’re really my Pa, ain’t ya?”
Bucky hadn’t been expecting this question, but he was glad of it. He hadn’t come up with a smooth way of telling Jase the truth; it helped that he knew already. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I am.”
Jase looked away and didn’t answer, and Bucky couldn’t tell what he was thinking. A hint would have been nice. Bucky sighed. This was the crappy part of it; he was the adult here, no matter that he had no idea what he was doing. It was his job to sort this out. At least to make the effort, best as he knew how.
“Look, Jase, I don’t know much `bout kids… I mean, `bout teens. Been a long time since I was one myself, and the world has moved on a bunch since then. Hell, I just known `em for how they act in the city. Always tryin’ to steal stuff and makin’ a nuisance of themselves. Sayin’ stuff as makes no sense. I suppose you might be like that.”
It wasn’t clear that Jase was even listening. Certainly, he didn’t look interested. But this needed to be said.
“I’ll tell you this though,” Bucky continued, “I’ll never raise a hand against you. Don’t matter what kind’a trouble you find. And even if I get mad, I won’t yell. That’s not how I go about things. Never was.”
Damned kid didn’t make a single sign that he cared, but Bucky didn’t give up.
“I guess I’m sayin’ that I know it’s just the nature of a sixteen year old to mess up and be a pest sometimes, but don’t worry yourself `bout it. Go on ahead.”
There was still no response. Bucky considered backing off. He sat silent for a while, looking toward the bridge, at the view outside that changed from black to blue as they approached their new home. How the hell could he get through to this boy?
“I guess… you know, heck, it might help if I had a name I could call ya when you do something harebrained. Like a code word. You got any ideas?”
That got a reaction. Jase turned his head and looked at Bucky with his face all screwed up in confusion, like he was thinking you are one crazy old man.
Bucky smiled as he continued. “Maybe… you remember the squirrels that ran around Before? How they’d fight over somethin’, and they’d be runnin’ all over, jumpin’ through the trees, makin’ noise. I could call you sōng shŭ when you start actin’ like a silly kid. How `bout that?”
Jase snorted a short laugh, and Bucky thought he’d scored a point. But then Jase said with a roll of his eyes, “That’s so stupid.”
He looked so much like a normal kid that Bucky didn’t mind being stupid. “See, that’s exactly what I mean,” he said with a grin. “I got no idea `bout anything, so it’s good I have you to let me know, or I’ll just talk like a gorram fool all the time.” He thought maybe they had a conversation going, but Jase went and looked down at the deck again.
“So, you got any better ideas?” Bucky asked.
Jase kept looking down for awhile, and Bucky made himself wait. He just watched, saw how gradually Jase’s head slumped forward and his shoulders came up round his ears, almost like he was trying to disappear inside himself. When Jase did answer, it was in quiet voice, and he didn’t look up.
“How `bout you don’t call me names?”
Gorammit, Ray, what’d you do to this kid? Bucky thought, and he had to take a deep breath before he replied. “Okay. Okay, I won’t.”
Jase didn’t answer. Bucky decided that he needed to push this. “Jase, look at me.”
But he still looked down at his lap.
“Come on, look at me.”
Jase finally did, and Bucky held that icy green stare. “I won’t. Not ever.”
For a second the stare stayed frozen, but then it was transformed when Jase smiled and nodded. His shoulders relaxed and he looked toward the chatter coming from the cockpit.
“She told me you were okay,” he said.
When he didn’t get an answer, Bucky guessed. “You mean that River gal, huh?”
Jase nodded, and Bucky saw the smile widen behind a sheet of black hair.
“She said I was okay?”
Jase nodded again, and Bucky had to laugh, feeling a little relieved although he wasn’t likely to see the girl ever again.
“That’s funny,” he said. "I got the feelin’ she didn’t like me much.”
“She said she checked you out, that you were… safe.”
“She did?” The shuttle bumped a bit and Bucky glanced toward the windows, they were passing through a fluffy white cloud. “She seemed a bit of an odd one.”
Jase looked up at him and answered quickly, defensively. “She wasn’t.”
Bucky was surprised by the boy’s suddenly forceful tone. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ a little odd, Jase,” he said. “It’s a helluva lot more interestin’ then bein’ just like everyone else, don’t you think?”
Jase thought about it, then looked at Bucky and nodded.
“She liked you, huh?” Bucky asked, and he saw the blush rush into Jase’s cheeks before he turned away.
“You kiss her?”
Jase was bright red now.
“Now, you see there?” Bucky said, pleased at his guess. “I ain’t so clueless after all, huh?”
Jase looked at the cockpit windows, and he sighed. “I wish she could’a come here with us,” he said softly.
Couldn’t hurt to be hopeful. “Maybe she’ll visit sometime.”
When Wash called them forward to the cockpit, Zoë stood aside and Jase leaned over the console so he could see the land rolling by beneath them.
Green – there was green everywhere. As the ground came closer, he saw a big clearing in the woods, and in the center was a cluster of wooden houses. They looked small from this far up, but he could tell that they were really big compared to the people walking next to them. Lots of people, and a good half of them with black hair, just like his. There was a wide open grassy area next to the houses, and a group of people were chasing a white ball around, kicking it toward one of the big wooden squares set at either end of the field.
Out past the game were fields of crops, neatly plowed in straight lines. Long narrow channels led from a nearby river to bring water. Some of the fields were flooded, and Jase knew what that was. Ma had told him about rice, about how she’d worked as a girl on those tender green shoots. He’d always wondered how plants grew in so much water.
When they landed next to the playing field, the game stopped so the people could come and see the shuttle. A lot of them were his age, and they looked awed by the ship coming down from the clouds, like such a sight was something special.
Jase smiled as he followed Bucky and Xiaojun to the door, ready to go out and meet everyone.
Ginger had plenty of time to think while confined to her quarters. Her stay in the Alliance infirmary had been short; she’d woken up there, but only stayed long enough for the doctors to check her for injuries. She’d tried to tell them that she was fine – nothing had happened to her but the shock that knocked her out, and she got over that fast.
She remembered exactly how the folks on that Firefly had gotten to her. That witch played her, and it had to have been the harmless looking mechanic that took her out. Ginger hadn’t been real smart about the people on the ship, and she’d had nothing to do but ponder her mistakes in the long empty hours that passed between debriefings.
After she’d told her tale several times, leaving out some small details that might have gotten her and Will in trouble, her superiors filled her in on how things had ended. Luckily, Ginger hadn’t messed up the mission. The Firefly had gotten to the harvester, loaded it onboard, and been sitting pretty when the Alliance showed up to catch Ray red-handed. They’d even made use of the evidence Ginger provided, using logs of her calls to link Beyla Skuld to the hijacking. Despite Ginger’s embarrassing early exit from the action, the mission had been a big success. And hell – she’d lasted longer than Will.
After all the talking was over, Ginger’d had a few days with nothing to do but chew on the details of the job, and she found that some things weren’t sitting right with her. She kept remembering how she’d found that captain all tied up, and how the mechanic had acted like her heart was broken up at the sight. She thought about the doctor getting beat – he may have started that fight, but it was on account of what Will’d said about the mechanic, about finding uses for her. Recalling those words made Ginger think again about the things the other lady’d said, the one who’d cleaned Will’s clock.
And after Ginger thought about those things for awhile, she thought back on other jobs. She’d been operating undercover with Will since the war, and there was a pattern that she’d never taken the time to notice before. The man had a history of messing with people. He never got in trouble for it, `cause it was always in the line of duty, but it was odd how often his attacks on their targets went wide of the mark. It was also odd how he was always so cheery right in the middle of a job, when things were rough and folks were going down. Almost like he enjoyed it.
Ginger started getting a little upset with herself for not seeing it before. Somehow, she’d never considered it her business. She hadn’t joined the military out of any moral obligation or sense of duty; she’d done it because shooting was all she was good at. But she only used her skills when the mission called for them; she wasn’t cruel, she wasn’t a bully, and she’d always taken some satisfaction in thinking that the `verse was a better place because of what she did.
But, in this case, Ginger started thinking that the mechanic hadn’t deserved what she’d been put through. Neither had the captain. The fancy lady? Ginger even starting having doubts about that, on account of some facts she’d heard about the woman.
Finally, the brass closed the case and gave her leave to talk to Will. He was still in the ship’s infirmary, in a small private room, and he glowered at her around a bandage on his nose as soon as he saw her. She came up next to the bed, looking closely at his glum face. She wondered how she’d ever found him attractive. It wasn’t the injuries that ruined his appeal; it was his expression. Despite his handsome face and solid build, Will looked more like a spoiled boy than a man. Which was scary, considering the power he had over people’s lives, operating out here in the Black with no superiors around to keep him in line.
“Are you here to have a laugh?” he asked sullenly.
“What, you gettin’ a hard time?”
He didn’t answer. Ginger knew the word had gotten out that Will had met his match – in the form of a woman who weighed about half what he did and made love for a living, and he had to be catching flak over it.
“Did you know she’s a Companion?” Ginger asked.
“The one that took you out.”
He frowned at her. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“I’m just sayin’ – it wasn’t real smart of you to try rapin’ a Companion.”
“Who said I did anything like that?” he asked, and his mouth fell open in poorly acted shock.
Ginger just glared at him, her jaw stiffening at his obvious lie.
“Oh, come on,” he said, seeing her doubt. “I just played with her a bit. If she’s a whore, she has to be used to much worse.”
Ginger shook her head, feeling ashamed that what Will’d just said was so close to what she’d told the Companion. Ginger may have come from the edge of nowhere, but she’d had plenty of leave time in the Core. She knew the difference between a whore and a Companion. One was trash who’d spread her legs to anyone for some coin, while the other put in a lot of years hard work learning her trade. Ginger had seen some of those ladies, seen the ones who were old and not so pretty anymore, but they carried themselves like they owned the world and men shut up when they talked. A woman like that had power, power that was earned. Ginger respected that. It didn’t mean she liked the trash-talking sāobī on that ship, but it did make her look at Will in a new light.
“You ain’t foolin’ me,” she told him. “You tried to rape that woman, and you tortured that man. You used the cable on the console, didn’t you? Fried him?”
Will’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t deny it. “He’s just a Browncoat. His hands are as dirty as anyone we go after – ”
“That don’t matter. The folks on that ship weren’t the ones we were out to get. Weren’t even criminals – they just got caught up in it by chance.”
Will laughed like she was a stupid little girl. “Ah, Ginger. Honey. You’ve never been a bright bulb, but you can’t be dumb enough to think that those people are upstanding citizens.”
“That ain’t the point. You’re real lucky that woman didn’t tell the Lieutenant what you were up to with her, or you’d be in the brig right now. And you know what? I’m startin’ to think you’d deserve it.” That was the truth; Ginger regretted covering for Will. Maybe she ought to have told the truth about some of the things that’d gone down.
Will’s face set in an ugly scowl like he knew what she was thinking, and he pushed himself up onto his elbows. Though he was laying in a hospital bed with a bruised body and bandages on his face, Ginger took a cautious step back.
When he spoke, his voice was low and quiet, but fierce. “Now, you listen up, Ginger Larkin. You think you’re high-and-mighty, but I know better. I know where you came from. You’re slime that crawled out of a swamp, and the only reason you haven’t been sent back is because you happen to be decent with a gun. But don’t think for a second that anything you have to say will stand up against me.” He snorted scornfully and looked her up and down. “You’ve been known as a freak since before the war. Half the force figures you use that rifle to diddle yourself, and I wouldn’t be surprised. Have you ever wondered why you never move up in rank? There’s a damn good reason. You’re garbage, and everyone knows it. You just try telling anyone about what happened on that ship and see what happens to you.”
Ginger took another step back. She shook her head, but she made no denials. Every word he’d just said was true; well, except for the diddlin’ thing. It burned her to hear all the rest of it said out loud.
Will settled back down on the bed, his face relaxing into a smile as he put his arms behind his head to show how at ease he was, though it must have hurt his beaten body to do it. She realized that she couldn’t fight him outright. He knew it, and Ginger knew it too. She’d been keeping herself to herself for too long, and there was no way anyone would take her at her word now.
Her helplessness made her fume inside. He couldn’t win so easy, it wasn’t right.
“I got this feelin’, Will,” she told him. “I got his feelin’ that I don’t need to tell. You’re gonna do yourself in. Man like you just gathers trouble, and it’ll keep heaping up on your head. You’ll mess with the wrong folks one day, and you’ll find your end. And I’ll be laughin’ when you do.”
“I doubt it,” he said with a grin. “If I go down, you’ll go with me. You’re on my squad because there’s no one else who’ll take you in, and I’d like to see you try and make it outside the military.” He laughed at the idea. “Good lord, what a joke that would be. Ginger without her gun.”
He was still laughing when she turned and left the room.
Inara woke up feeling alone. She knew without checking that her bed was empty; there was a coldness that she understood before she was fully awake. She stretched her arms out to her sides; there wasn’t even a trace of warmth left. He’d been gone for a while.
She didn’t have time to dwell on her disappointment before she heard a small sound and opened her eyes. Mal was sitting on the divan across the room. He didn’t realize that she was awake, just sat playing with the calligraphy set she’d left out the night before.
She laid still and watched him. His brows were drawn together as he concentrated on the parchment, the quill moving slowly. She smiled when his jaw fell open and pulled sideways, as if contorting his face would have some effect on the quill’s motion. He moved his arm to start a new stroke, then abruptly lifted his hand with a frown.
“Fuckin’ fuck. Fuck,” he whispered, still staring at the parchment.
“It doesn’t help,” Inara said, and Mal looked up at her. “I’ve tried every bad word there is,” she continued, “in six different languages. The quill is deaf.”
He grinned at her and dropped the quill. “I’m glad it ain’t just me.”
They looked at each other for a while. Inara wasn’t sure how to talk to him, and, to be truthful, she didn’t want to try. She just wanted to savor the moment. It might have to last her a long, long time.
“How you feelin’?”
He rose from the divan and walked toward the bed. He was fully dressed: boots, tan pants, a plain black shirt under his suspenders. He looked like the cool, distant Captain she was accustomed to, and for a moment she wondered if the night before had really happened. He sat down on the edge of the bed, but didn’t make a move to touch her. Inara hesitated, then finally worked up the nerve to lay a hand on his arm.
“Mal – ”
That was enough. He met her eyes and then he was leaning down for a soft good morning kiss. When he tried he part her lips with his, Inara pulled away and put a hand over her mouth, suddenly conscious that she hadn’t brushed her teeth the night before.
“I must be disgusting,” she said. “How long have I been sleeping?”
“Too long,” he said, not letting her slide away from him. “I’ve been waitin’ for hours.”
He tried to kiss her again, but she pulled free and sat up. “Mal, just let me – ”
He rolled onto her, pushing her back down and gently grabbing her wrists. Slowly, deliberately, he pinned her hands beside her. Inara tried to keep her mouth shut when his lips touched hers, but she couldn’t resist the temptation. And so he kissed her, long and slow and deep, and she let herself forget her morning mouth and messy hair, and the reality she knew was waiting. She allowed herself to enjoy him for just for a little longer.
He finally pulled away, and then smacked his lips thoughtfully. “You taste fresh as roses,” he declared.
She smiled hopefully. “Really?”
“Nah. Actually, you’re kind’a stale.” He made a face and a small shudder.
Inara felt herself blushing. “Mal, I can just – ”
“It’s all right – I like that you ain’t perfect. Got morning breath just like the rest of us.”
He kissed her again, just a short one, then sat up, pulling her with him. “All right, enough a’ that. I ain’t touchin’ you again `till you freshen up.”
Inara slid out from under the covers and stood up, naked as she’d been the night before. “You have so much will power?” she asked.
He grinned as his eyes traveled over her. “Nope.”
Inara wasn’t one to be self-conscious about nudity, but being naked in front of Mal was a challenge. She was very aware of every bit of her exposed skin, of the heat of Mal’s stare, and it distracted her. She pulled her robe from the corner of her bed and grabbed a clean set of underwear from a drawer before she went into the head.
When she came back out, freshened and well-ordered with her hair piled on top of her head, Mal was stretched out on the bed staring at the ceiling, his booted feet hanging down over the edge of it. She pulled the sash on her robe tight and sat down beside his knees to compose her thoughts. It was time.
“Any regrets?” he asked before she could speak.
He wasn’t looking at her when he asked, and she was glad of it. The answer to that question was complicated, and she knew he wouldn’t understand the things she couldn’t keep out of her face. But she regained control quickly.
“No, I don’t regret last night.” She reached out to pick up his hand, rubbing his palm with her thumb. Although I should. “Do you?”
He rolled his head to the side and looked at her, his expression somewhat guarded. “No.”
She continued holding his hand, but looked away. There was no kind way to do what needed to be done, but she delayed anyway, thinking of how best to say it. There had to be some way to soften the pain she was about to cause him.
“You were mighty sleepy last night,” he said, his voice holding a note of carelessness that sounded false.
“I was,” she replied, unwilling to venture any more information until she knew what he meant.
“And, uh, sometimes when a person’s that kind’a sleepy, they might say somethin’ they don’t really mean…”
Inara sighed. She didn’t know if it would help or hurt in the long run, but she wasn’t going to be untruthful about this. She looked him directly in the eye. “I meant it, Mal.”
His guarded look turned to relief as he smiled and looked away. For the life her, he looked shy. “What… exactly’d you mean?”
She looked down at her hands. “I was… a little too asleep to explain, but it occurred to me that what I told you about Kaylee might have made you think… I just wanted you to know that it meant a lot. You being here with me.”
“You wanna maybe define ‘a lot’?”
She waited until he looked at her before she answered; she wanted to leave him with no doubt. “I love you,” she said firmly, and she reached out to touch his face and brush her knuckles through his hair. “I have for a while. I guess that’s why I’m so… unkind sometimes. Because I –”
He caught her hand. “Hey. No need for that now. We both said and done things we shouldn’t have.”
She clenched her jaw and looked away. That was more true than he knew.
“I think you win though,” Mal said, and Inara looked at him sharply. He was focused on her hand, which he was now gently kneading. “As far as doing somethin’ you should never have done. I’m a little hurt by somethin’ in particular.”
He looked up at her, and Inara carefully kept her face neutral. “What is that?”
“Actually,” he said, “there were two things you done to hurt me real bad.”
“Yep. First of all – you called me old. But that I’ll let slide `cause you were all drugged up, and I’m such a nice guy.”
His mouth pulled into a grin. Inara smiled, relieved that he was only teasing her. But she had to look away from the innocent joy in his face. It was as if he were a boy again, in love for the first time.
“That is kind of you,” she said. “The other thing?”
“The other thing ain’t so easy to pass by,” he said, and he pulled her hand to his mouth, bending it back so he could kiss the inside of her wrist. “In fact, I think you’re gonna have some makin’ up to do.”
“Oh, dear,” she said, still unable to make herself look at him. “It sounds quite serious.”
Mal let go of her hand, then reached out to grab her waist and pull her down to the bed, turning her so she was laying on her side facing him.
“You see, Miss Serra, the male ego is a fragile thing. Doin’ something like what you did could damage me for the rest of my life.”
Inara tipped her head forward, pressing her forehead against his cheek so he couldn’t see her eyes. More than anything, she prayed that what he’d just said in jest didn’t become the truth.
“Are you going to tell me what this awful thing is?” she asked.
“Even better,” he replied, “I’m gonna show you.”
Mal pulled her close and nuzzled against her, lightly kissing her neck. His hand ran slowly down her side, along the curve her hip, then reached into her robe to cup her thigh and pull it over his hip.
“Any a’this familiar?”
“Vaguely…” she replied, and she found herself a little breathless.
“How `bout this?”
Mal’s mouth brushed her neck again, and he pulled her hips tightly against his. Inara gasped at the contact. “I do… I do seem to remember something like this happening,” she said, powerless to stop him now.
“Truth of it is… I was in the middle of somethin’, and you went and fell asleep.” Mal began moving against her, as if to make it clear what he meant. It had the opposite effect; Inara completely lost her train of thought.
“Don’t you feel bad about doin’ that to me, when I was only tryin’ to help you out?” he asked, his lips right against her ear.
“I feel… terrible.”
Inara pressed her body against his, relishing the hardness of him, the grip of his hand on her hip. Her fingers dug into his upper arms.
“There’s no excuse for what I’ve done,” she whispered.
“No excuse at all.”
She buried her face against his shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
He was pulling open the top of her robe now, sliding a hand inside, over the top of her bra, still while moving his hips slowly, almost hypnotically, against her.
“But you’re gonna make it up to me?” he asked.
“I wish I could, Mal. I wish like anything I could.” Her breath caught in her chest, almost a sob, and Mal stopped moving. She felt his hold on her change. He was trying to push her away, to look at her, to understand what he’d just heard.
Inara wrapped her arms around him, resisting. As soon as he saw her face, he’d know for certain that something was wrong. And it’d all be over, forever. She’d have to tell him, and the fighting would start again.
“Inara, what are you …”
It turned into something like a wrestling match, Inara holding on, Mal trying to pry his way free. He finally got a grip on her shoulders and pushed her away, and she felt him studying her face.
“What is it?” he asked, and it was the Mal from last night again, ready to comfort her at any cost to himself. She couldn’t stand it.
“I’m sorry, Mal. I’m so sorry. I meant it. I love you. But it can’t work.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“I have to leave. I have to go back.”
He leaned further away from her, the shock on his face looking like the pain of betrayal.
“To the Core?”
She nodded, aware of the tears on her cheeks, but she was past trying to hold them in. “This – you and I – it can’t happen. I was wrong to let you think it could. I should have left a long time ago. I shouldn’t have done this to you.”
Mal stared at her, frozen, then he pushed her away and sat up.
“What – you leavin’ right now?”
“Tomorrow, if I can.”
He looked down at her, his mouth open in disbelief. “You got a way all planned?”
“The Alliance. I arranged it with them as part of the deal – ”
“You knew,” he said in disbelief, and he stood up and walked away from the bed. “This whole gorram time! Last night… you knew you were leavin’.”
She sat up, wiping at her eyes. There was no way to explain it. He’d never understand.
When she looked up, he met her eyes briefly, then turned away like he couldn’t stand the sight of her. “Why?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now,” she said lamely.
“Yeah, great. Thanks,” he spat angrily, then he took a deep breath to calm himself. He raised a hand to his forehead. “Why do you have to go back?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
He dropped his hand and turned back to her. “The hell it don’t. You tell me you love me, and you sit there fallin’ to pieces over leavin’, and that don’t matter? What the hell is wrong with you?”
That is the heart of it, Inara thought. I am wrong here. This is wrong.
“You can’t change anything, Mal.”
He was silent for a while, then he let out a heavy breath, and when he spoke again his voice was softer. He tried to reason with her. “I don’t believe that. Whatever it is, we can figure it out. You just gotta talk to me.”
“It won’t help.” Inara pushed a blanket aside and stood up next to the bed, pulling her robe tight and tying the sash.
“How do you know, unless you try?” he asked.
“Fine,” she snapped. “Convince me that you’ll be here when I return from an appointment, waiting with a smile and open arms. Tell me that every time I take a client you won’t make yourself crazy wondering how many times I’m ‘doing it’ with him, or if I like it better. Make me believe you can handle it.”
Mal couldn’t meet the challenge. “You don’t have to do it anymore…” he said weakly, not looking directly at her.
“I’m a Companion, Mal,” she told him angrily. “It’s not just what I do. It’s who I am. I’ve worked my whole life to become this. I can’t change that just because you ask me to.”
“Then change it `cause you want to. Because you love me.”
She clenched her hands in frustration. “Why can’t you understand? I can’t just drop everything for you. I’d no longer be me, and maybe… maybe I wouldn’t be able to love you anymore.”
Inara turned away from him, but Mal walked to her, grabbed her arm and pulled her around so she had to look at him.
“That’s insane. You can be whoever you want, do whatever you want. You’ve got the brains and you sure as hell got the pigheadedness. I think you’re just makin’ excuses.”
“Back off, Mal.”
“The hell I will. What ain’t you tellin’ me?”
“Nothing.” She pulled her arms free and walked away, but he followed her.
“Come on, I ain’t no genius about readin’ people, not like you. But I know you’re holdin’ back. Now what is it?”
“Don’t push me.” She didn’t recognize her own voice, low and shaking.
“I’ll push you all I damn well please.”
He grabbed her shoulder, spun her around and shoved her back until she came up against the bulkhead. She put her hands on his chest, trying to push him away, but he didn’t budge.
“What is it?” he demanded, “What the hell’s got you on the run?”
She tried to twist out of his grasp. “I’m not running… get away… just leave me alone!”
Mal let go of her arms and put his hands over her ears, tilting her head back and forcing her to look up at him. “Not until you talk to me!”
Inara didn’t plan on doing it, but she had to get away from him. She bent her arm and drove her elbow into his ribs, making him double over.
“Oh Gods, Mal!” She put her hands over her mouth and pressed herself back into the bulkhead. Mal stumbled back to the divan and sat, still holding his ribs. She hadn’t hit him hard; he wasn’t winded, just shocked.
“Hell,” he said after a minute, “When a lady says don’t push her, I guess I ought’a listen.”
Inara felt tears come to her eyes again. Mal was being flippant. She’d convinced him, then. If he was making a joke, it really was over.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly.
He didn’t respond at first, then he smiled – a wry smile that was more a wall than anything else. “No need to be sorry. Guess I needed someone to teach me my manners. My momma would’a caned me.”
He stood up, straightening slowly. Then he wiped at his face thoughtfully. “Well, best of luck to you. I’ll have Wash let you know when we’ll be dockin’ with your Alliance taxi service.”
Inara watched him turn away, but it was more than she could take.
“Mal, wait!” She went after him, caught up to him by the hatch and grabbed his arm to stop him.
He shook her hand off, his hurt showing in his stance before he turned back to her with his face a cold mask. “What?” he demanded harshly. His mouth was set in a hard line. She wondered if the joyful, caring man who had been here just a few minutes ago still existed. She missed him, already she missed him so much. She raised a hesitant hand to touch his cheek.
“I’m not gone yet.”
He looked at her for a moment, and she thought he’d reject her. He had every right to.
“No, I guess you ain’t,” he finally said.
He grabbed her arms, pushing her back to the bed with a force that almost frightened her. Then he pressed her down into the rumpled blankets and lay on top of her, and his mouth came down on hers, invading her forcefully, almost painfully. Inara accepted it; she had no will to complain, after the hurt she’d done to him.
But he quickly pulled his mouth away, and dropped his head beside hers, his forehead against her cheek. She felt his warm breath on her collarbone; his breathing gradually slowed as he fought to calm himself. Inara knew the anger he was trying to contain, the need to hurt her for abandoning him as she was. She worked a hand into his hair and tilted her head against his, wishing that she still had the right to soothe his pain. But any words she used now would be an insult, not a balm.
When he raised his head again, Inara didn’t meet his eyes. She couldn’t stand to see bitterness and hatred from Mal, no matter how much she deserved it. But the touch of his hand on her cheek was light, and when his mouth came down on hers again, it was soft and gentle. She closed her eyes and gave herself up to it, letting him take his time if that’s what he wanted.
He shifted slightly to lay beside her, easing his weight off of her body and supporting himself on one elbow. He nibbled at her lips, not advancing, and eventually she understood that he was waiting for her to encourage him, to let him know that she wanted him.
She lifted her head so she could deepen the kiss. Mal reacted immediately, delving into her mouth as one of his knees nudged its way between hers. Then he opened her robe and his hand slid lightly over her stomach and ribs. She kept her eyes closed, still unable to look at him, and in the darkness of her mind it felt like his hands were everywhere at once, wakening and warming her skin. But he didn’t go further than that, refusing to take over her body as she wanted him to. She had to show him, to catch one of his hands and guide it to her bra. He understood her meaning, and helped her out of her robe before he pulled the scrap of red lace off of her. He continued kissing her until she pushed his head down to her neck.
He wasn’t trying to tease her. Inara knew the language of sex; she’d been trained in every nuance of speaking and listening with the body. She understood that he was letting her guide him, silently offering anything she wanted, in the way and at the pace she preferred. And then she realized that Mal might have given up words, but he was still trying to convince her to stay. With his mouth and his hands and his body, he was offering himself to her.
His mouth closed on her breast, and without her volition her body arched up against him. A small, amazed part of her brain thought about how she’d done the same thing to Mal last night, making his body resonate at her touch, but she hadn’t really understood the depth of it until now. It wasn’t just her body that trembled beyond her control; his mute offer of love had more power than the most perfectly honed technique, and the sensations it caused shook her mind and soul as well as her body.
She knew that she should stop him, because her answer wasn’t going to change, no matter how he made her melt, but she couldn’t give this up. It could be her last chance to be pleasured by a man who loved her; there was no place for that in a Companion’s life. She lightly laid on hand on the back of his head, applying just the slightest pressure, and he did as she asked. His breath whispered over her stomach, following a trail of light kisses down to where his hands were removing her panties and parting her thighs. She tilted her hips to him as his mouth closed over her.
He knew what she wanted now and took control. His hands grasped her hips, holding her still, forcing her to be patient and wait as he drew it out. She found herself panting and whimpering, trying with the last bit of her will to stop from making promises she couldn’t keep. And still she kept her eyes squeezed shut. She put a hand on his head and knew that he was watching her, taking in the way her body writhed and her face twisted with passion, but she couldn’t let herself meet those intense blue eyes. It would break her to see that.
Finally, he released her hips and let her move as her body dictated. One of his hands passed over her stomach and breast, then roughly stroked up her neck to the side of her face as the fingers of his other hand pressed into her core.
Another thing Inara knew well was the physical mechanism of an orgasm, but she’d never had her climax tear into her like this one did, making her deaf to the rough cry that came out of her own throat without her control. Mal remained fastened to her as the waves crashed through her repeatedly, and when they finally faded she was left shaking, blinded, and nearly senseless.
Slowly she became aware of Mal lying beside her. She opened her eyes, and was surprised to find him still fully dressed, though a little rumpled. She reached out, determined to satisfy him in return, but Mal caught her hands. He held her wrists until she finally looked at his face. There was a question in his eyes, and she replied with a small shake of her head.
Mal rolled off the bed and left the shuttle without saying a word.
Zoë got the news from Wash; Mal had told the pilot to contact the Alliance ship and set up a rendezvous in the morning. When Wash told her why, Zoë didn’t believe him. She didn’t think it possible until she got to the dining room and saw Mal sitting with a mug in his hand. He met her eye once, and his expression told her everything.
Mal spent most of that night sitting on the bridge, and Zoë stayed where she could see the corridor, making sure no one bothered him. There was steady traffic to Inara’s shuttle as the rest of the crew said their goodbyes, but Zoë didn’t join in. She didn’t think she could look at the Companion without doing something violent.
By the next morning, Wash had talked Zoë down enough that she was able to join the rest of the crew in the cargo bay. Mal wasn’t there, and when Jayne asked where the Captain had got to, no one answered; it seemed the mercenary was the only one who hadn’t clued in on the situation. Zoë shut him up with a look.
Inara did her last round of hugs as the Alliance workers carted her belongings away. She settled for a short cold handshake from Zoë, then turned toward the airlock door. She stopped just before she stepped through, looking over her shoulder at something in the back of the bay. A sad smile spread across her face. Zoë followed her look; Mal was up on the catwalk, watching with a stony face. He didn’t acknowledge Inara’s smile; he just turned his back and disappeared through a dark hatch.
sōng shŭ: squirrel
On to the Epilogue.
Friday, July 28, 2006 7:52 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 8:51 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 8:57 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 9:00 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 9:15 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 10:01 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 10:08 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 10:10 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 11:19 AM
Friday, July 28, 2006 12:41 PM
Saturday, July 29, 2006 8:18 PM
Sunday, July 30, 2006 6:20 PM
Wednesday, August 2, 2006 7:51 AM
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