Stumbling Along
Friday, March 23, 2007

Post-BDM. Mal makes a delivery on a familiar moon. Inara reflects. M/I. PG-13


Dedicated to AWindsor. Hope this makes you feel better, dear!

Thanks to TamSibling for taking a look.


Stumbling Along

She dreamed about Nandi again last night. It's being back here on this desolate moon that does it. She woke up with her heart pounding even though it was a peaceful little dream: a sweet memory from seven years back, or was it eight? Mal sleeps next to her, snoring softly with his mouth open. She lifts his arm, trying to burrow into the warmth of his bare chest. He turns away from her in his sleep. When she wakes up again, the far side of the bed is cold. She wants to sleep longer but she promised Simon she would go to the market with him, and it's already half past nine. Simon orders flowers like he does supplies for the infirmary-with authority and precision. "You didn't really need me," Inara insists as the vendor wraps up the stems. "You were fine on your own." Simon smiles and plucks two hibiscus flowers from the laden cart. "These too, please," he says. He nudges the red bloom behind Inara's ear and drops the white in her shopping bag. "Will you give that to River? She's too old to want a flower from her big brother. I think she'd prefer it from her friend." "Of course," Inara says, touched. "And thank you." "Zoe. Do you think . . .?" "No," she says, shaking her head a little, and after a moment he nods. "No, you're right. That would be . . . " He offers a half smile and a crooked arm, and Inara tucks her hand inside, allowing him to lead her. Simon negotiates the crowd with a straight back and sure feet. He seems stronger, less twitchy, as Mal would say. As though he can lose himself in this noisy, sweating market that is ripe with the scents of fish and vegetables and humanity. Maybe the market has a cloistering effect on Simon, but Inara feels trapped. Once upon a time, five years ago, or two or ten or a hundred for all it matters, Inara was at her best in a crowd. She knew as though by instinct how to breach a group of strangers with a witty bit of dialogue, a disarming smile. She liked people, if not always individually then as a whole, and found that they liked her too. Nandi was her opposite. Her compliments rang false, even when they were genuine. Her opinions, while thoughtfully cultivated, came across as too political, too challenging. In a crowd, Nandi was isolating, not inviting. But left alone, Nandi could warm the hearts of the hardest, most cynical of men. A younger Inara, eager and a little envious, once asked Nandi her secret. "I'm honest," Nandi says. "Well, honest enough." "Always?" Inara asks, laughing. "It serves me. Nobody's ever as good of a liar as they think." Inara is a very good liar, but she takes Nandi's advice and tries to give her clients a version of the truth. When she lies to Mal, she comforts herself with the thought that he's not one of her clients. "Are you alright?" Simon asks, Dr. Tam creeping into his tone. "You're little . . . flushed." "I'm fine," she assures him. She does feel better, now that they're free of the throng. "The breeze is lovely," she adds as a gentle wind splays her hair. "I miss it sometimes. Weather. I miss having some." "I miss it too," she says. They stroll back to Serenity, recalling salty breezes by the cold Sihnon seas. "Ain't my birthday or nothin'," Kaylee says, suspicious, when Simon offers up the bouquet. At the sink, Inara rinses vegetables and bites her lip to stifle a chuckle. "From now on, it's the anniversary of the first time I bought you flowers," Simon says, and that seems to satisfy her, for she dips her head, burying her blush in the purple blooms. Kaylee fills a ceramic pot with water and arranges the flowers in a way that would inspire Inara's former House Priestess to burst a blood vessel. "We'll be in the engine room," Kaylee announces, pulling Simon by the hand. "I'll be sure not to tell anyone," Inara promises smiling. She plunges a tomato, juicy and tender under its thin membrane of skin, into the cold spray. She cuts tomatoes and cucumbers into even slices and spreads mayonnaise on bread. She hears him limping across the kitchen floor-Mal makes an asteroid field seem subtle-but feigns ignorance until he's right behind her, his arms slipping around to encircle her waist. "Darlin', you cooked." "Hardly. I chopped some vegetables, Mal." "Still." Because no one's around, he plants a sloppy kiss in the hollow between her neck and shoulder. "You went out this morning," she says. It's an observation, not an accusation but he stiffens, just a little. Neither of them is used to this-being accountable to the other. "Felt like a walk," he says easily. "I'm certain Simon told you to stay off that leg." "Doc should be thanking me." "Shuh muh?" "I keep the boy on his game." He smirks. It's not a game, she wants to say, but the thought of the argument that will ensue wearies her. "You smell nice," she says instead. "New soap. You like?" "Mmm." He sneaks a cucumber wedge from the cutting board, popping it into his mouth. When she slaps his fingers, he smirks again. He doesn't notice the flowers until he's halfway through his second sandwich. "What're those?" he asks like he's never seen flowers before. "Simon bought them for Kaylee." "Huh. He buy the one in your hair, too?" "Yes," she says casually. "Huh," he says again. "Who'd have thought tomato and cucumber sandwiches could taste so damn good?" He swallows the last bite. "Can I have another?" She rolls her eyes, but secretly she's pleased, thrilled in some insipid female way that he likes the food she prepared. Silly of her to have worried. Mal never objects to any food he doesn't have to make himself. She wonders if he learned this trait in the War or at his mother's table. She makes him another sandwich. "Thanks," he says, meeting her gaze as she lowers herself into a chair. She nods and sips her coffee. Since Miranda, they make small sacrifices, each eager to ward off discussion of the bigger ones. He eats her cooking and makes love to her in the shuttle, home of a hundred living ghosts, and every night utters wordless promises with his body not to die the next day. He doesn't ask if she is here to stay. For her part, Inara drinks his coffee, strong brews that bother her stomach and keep her awake long into the night, and accepts his empty promises not to die on her. She watches him sleep and soothes his brow when it furrows, and doesn't ask questions when he awakens perspiring, the blankets a tangle between his legs. Sometimes they make love in the middle of the night. The first few times are awkward, mouths and hands fumbling. But he proves a determined student, learning her tastes with almost shameful ease. The first time he bites down on the underside of her breast she forgets all her lessons. He likes to make her lose control, laughing when she squirms against his fingers, her eyes squeezed tight in concentration. Sometimes, when it's all just a little too intense, she pretends he's someone else. Because when she allows herself to think about being with Mal, to think about him thrusting inside her, she feels pieces of herself falling away, leaving something raw and new in their wake. She looks up to find him watching her, his expression curious. "I'm sorry, what?" she asks, embarrassed. "Said we'll take the mule over after lunch. River volunteered to go along, help me with the cargo." "I'm coming." He eyes her over the rim of his coffee mug. "Yeah, figured you would," he says after a pause. "Can go get ready if you want. I'll finish washing up here." "I won't be long." She stands, turning to go. "Inara?" he calls, and she glances back over her shoulder. His grin is goofy. "Thanks for making me lunch." Despite her promise to be quick, she stands in front of her closet for a long time, looking without seeing. Finally, she stretches out a hand and grasps blindly for a few things. She tosses them on the bed. She tries a brown dress and then a green, but neither looks right. Going to the mirror, she examines her reflection, tilting her head from side to side. Her hair is too long, she realizes. She takes a pair of scissors and snips an inch or two all the way around. Mal finds her sitting on the bed in her underwear. He drops down beside her, folding his arms over his chest. Please don't apologize, she thinks. Don't say you're sorry for failing her or screwing her or failing me. Don't apologize for the rain. "Did you cut your hair?" he asks finally. "I-no," she lies because spur-of-the-moment self-inflicted hair cutting sounds like the act of a crazy woman. She feels guilty and amends, "It was just a trim." Incredulous, she swivels her neck to look at him. "Last month, I had my hair styled at one of the finest salons on Persephone. You didn't say a word." He just blinks back at her, looking worried. "But this," she laughs. "This you notice." He arches a brow; she sighs. "You ain't dressed," he says, and she nods indulgently. "No," she agrees, the model of infinite patience. "I'm not." He stares at her a long moment and then gets up and goes to her closet. "It's a strangeness," he muses. "For all the time I spend removing your fineries, I ain't ever the one putting 'em on you." He considers the array of options before choosing a simple white blouse with no sleeves. He squats before her, resting his arms in her lap. "Always did like you in this. Not that . . . I mean I like you in anything. And, well, nothing." He smiles sheepishly. "Wear this for me?" She takes the shirt from him, grateful. She doubts he favors this blouse over any of her others, but it's kind of him to save her the decision. Today even this basic act, getting dressed, seems beyond her capabilities. She selects a skirt, simple black cotton, and zips it over her hips. Then she brushes her hair and pulls a portion of it back with a clip. Standing before the mirror, she blots sunscreen into her face. She doesn't look like a Companion, a woman of great strength and beauty and, most importantly, great mystery. He watches her from the bed like a child observing its mother's beauty rituals. In the time she has known Mal, he tends to fluctuate between two extremes: perceptive to a fault and utterly blind. Some days, like today, he sees far too much. In these moments, she thinks he wouldn't make a bad Companion, and the mental picture that ensues is enough to force a giggle from her lips. "What?" he asks, eyes narrowing. She shakes her head. "Come along, Captain," she says, taking his arm. River is waiting in the cargo bay. For once she wears shoes-sturdy brown boots, Kaylee's. "You're not driving," Mal yells down from the landing. River smiles sweetly. "I'll tell Simon you loaded the cargo by yourself," she shoots back. "Put weight on your bad leg." She grins, knowing she's won. "No speeding," Mal grumbles. River lets out a happy squeal, reminding Inara of the teenager they all forget that she is. "I'll do better than last time," she vows. Mal rolls his eyes, helping Inara leg-up into the passenger seat before he climbs in back with the cargo. "Last time you flew us into a fruit stand." "I only clipped it!" "Easy now," he cautions, leaning forward to instruct. "Try not to-do that," he finishes dryly as River jerks the mule forward. "Sorry!" Apparently River is better at flying spaceships than hover mules, but Inara is grateful for the distraction of their bickering. "You're doin' fine. That's it, just take her out nice and-sweet ye su, will you slow down?!" River swivels her neck around to regard Mal in the backseat. "You're yelling," she says calmly. "I'm not-" he begins. He drags a measured breath through his nose. "I ain't yelling," he says. Inara hides a smile behind the curtain of her hair. In the months since Miranda, Mal fills the uneasy role of not-quite father to River, who seems to both push against and plead for his authority. "Scares me more than a mite," Mal confesses one evening when they're washing dishes. The rest of the crew has wandered off, leaving them alone in the galley. "I got no notion of how to play this." "Just . . . teach her. Be there for her." "Teach her . . . half the time she ends up teachin' me. And if you haven't noticed, I ain't ever exactly been a teenage girl. What is it I'm supposed to be to her? Big brother? She's already got one of them. And I ain't quite old enough to be her father." Inara waits, unwilling to interrupt him. "My mama, granted she didn't have much in the way of material things. But she raised me herself, raised me from the day I was born to the day I hitched a transport off world. Ask me, that oughta count for something. I don't get parents like theirs, Simon and River's. Kind that can just ship their kid off to some fancy institution, not hear from her for months and months. How long was she in that hellhole? Two years? Three? In all that time, they never went to see her? Hell, they're her parents and they didn't know if she was happy or hurting or . . .I just don't get it, Inara. You ever know parents like that?" "Yes," Inara says softly. "I've known a few." He releases his breath in a rush, expelling with it the majority of his anger. "Inara." He clears his throat. "I wasn't tryin' to . . ." She shakes her head, smiles. "You're doing fine," she tells him. "Believe me, you're doing better than most would." He shrugs. "Well. Thanks. Why is it everything seemed easier when she was crazy? She's been stuck in mud for three years; I get that. Now she's free, little bird wants to flap her wings a bit. Just sometimes I'm of a mind to tell her to-" "-slow the hell down!" In the passenger seat, Inara startles, one hand sliding up to check her safety harness. "I'm going at the recommended speed for a road this size," River says without turning. "And I'm recommending you slow the hell down, or else spend a week cleanin' latrines." Eyes flickering, Inara tunes out the playful and sometimes less-playful banter, her dark gaze leveling on the horizon. She sees the white glare of sunlight on solar sheeting long before the house itself is in view. The old ranch house stands plain and utilitarian against the harsh desert landscape. The scene would be an ugly one if not for the sky, which is a brilliant hard blue. As they near the property, she sees a pair of children playing in the dirt. Nearby but not close enough to intrude upon their game, a young woman tends a vegetable garden. The children run off as the mule shudders to a stop in front of the house. Clearly visitors are not an infrequent enough occurrence to merit a pause in their play. Inara watches as the girls run to the edge of the field and spin like little tops against the horizon. Despite the warmth of the day, she shivers beneath her sleeveless blouse, perspiration drawing a cool trail between her breasts. Mal lifts her down from the mule, his hands lingering an extra second on her waist. She can tell he wants to ask if she's okay and appreciates his restraint. "I'm going for a walk!" River announces, already kicking up dust with her borrowed boots. "River," Mal starts. He squeezes the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. "Don't, uh, well, don't swim for an hour after you eat. And, um, don't be gone too long. You get left, I ain't comin' back for you." "Yes, Captain!" she calls back even though she must realize this is an empty threat. Mal risked nine lives to save hers. To her credit, River never reminds him of that fact. "Don't swim for an hour?" Inara muses as she and Mal unload the cargo. The dull throb in her arms pleases her, as do the hot blush of the sun on her face and the simple pleasure of working side by side with him. "Hey, that's good advice," he quips. She raises a brow, and he arches one in response. She can look stern when she tries. She stares him down until he chuckles, raises a sleeve to mop the sweat from his brow. He claims one of the heavier boxes before she can attempt to heft it. "We made some deliveries here while you were . . . off with your girls. You probably heard as much." Inara nods. "Doc took to riding out with me to the ranch, checking up on how mother and son were faring. River tagged along with her brother and uh, she made friends with one of the boys . . . " "The boys . . .? Oh." She hides a smile. "I see." "Caught the pair of 'em skinny dipping down by the pond one day." He smiles, as though lost in an old memory he has no intention of sharing. "Made me swear on Serenity I wouldn't tell Simon." He clears his throat, adding, "Probably wouldn't hurt for you to have a talk with her. About, ya know, things." "Things?" she teases. "What sorts of things?" Mal shakes his head. "You do delight in making me squirm." Sliding a calloused hand around to cup her face, he ducks his head to kiss her. "Afternoon," a female voice calls. Guiltily, they spring apart. Inara looks up to see the woman from the garden. Her lovely face is sunburned, a fate Inara has been meticulous in guarding against, and her skirt shows evidence of dirty, careless hands. Some of the handprints are small-tiny enough to belong to a child. Despite the dirt she possesses a timeless sort of beauty. She could belong to any Companion House on Sihnon. At one time, perhaps she did. "Hey, there," Mal says, thumbs crooking to rest in his belt loops. "Miss Petaline around? We've got her supplies." Petaline looks the same as Inara remembers except that her hair is sun-dusted and her belly firm and flat beneath her dress. She walks toward them with bare brown feet. "Hello, Captain Reynolds. Miz Serra." She nods her head at each. "I'll round up some of the boys to help you with that unloading." Mal lingers in the yard to supervise while Inara follows Petaline through the parlor and into the kitchen. The back door is propped, and a warm breeze filters in from the east. For no obvious reason, Inara crouches to slip off her sandals. She carries them with her. "Want somethin' cold to drink?" Inara says sure even though she doubts somewhat her ability to swallow. She takes a seat at the long rectangle of a table with its worn yellow-oak surface. Petaline pours the lemonade and the women face each other, hands clutching glasses that seem to sweat in the heat. Composing her face in a serene mask, Inara grasps for the right words. "How's business?" sounds somehow gauche. "How have you been?" implies a familiarity that doesn't exist. That their paths crossed at a crucial moment-birth, death-does not make them friends. In fact, it's almost the opposite. "How's Jonah?" she asks finally, and Petaline's expression softens. "He's walkin'. Talk your ear off if you'll let him. He's napping now, but I could wake him . . ." "Please don't. Let him sleep." She doesn't want to see the boy, and Petaline seems to understand that because she nods and twists a strand of hair around a finger. "I saw children playing outside," Inara says. "Two of them." "We've had some new girls. A couple of 'em came with little ones. Didn't think she'd want me sending them away." "No," Inara agrees, smiling. "She wouldn't have wanted that." Petaline shakes her head. "I was the biggest little twit you ever saw when I came here. Fifteen years old and so ruttin' naive. She taught me everything. She taught you too, didn't she." It isn't a question. "Do you want to go see the grave?" Petaline asks. Petaline leads the way to the shady green spot they found to bury her. Inara crouches in the dirt, which is moist and cool between her toes. With her fingers, she traces the letters on the stone. "She told you her real name," Inara murmurs, surprised. "The one she had before." "She told us all," Petaline says. Her tone is mild but the pale eyes spark with offense. Inara smiles an apology. "It's a beautiful spot." "Yeah. Those two little girls like playin' here. They lie in the grass and tell each other stories of her. How she came to this moon from the Core and built a home here. How she died fightin' to save it." Petaline cocks her head like she's listening to ghosts. "That'll be Jonah." "Do all mothers possess super-hearing?" Inara asks, smiling. "You learn to recognize your own child's cry, surely." Petaline's gaze lingers on the grave. "Sometimes I come out here just to talk to her." She turns and starts toward the house. The wind tosses Inara's hair, and she thinks of Nandi brushing it with long, smooth strokes of the hairbrush. It's Inara's birthday, the all-important sixteenth. Mother and Father send a beautiful silk nightgown and a note. "Well, they've got good taste," Nandi says, brushing harder. "I'll give them that. Goddamn ignorant self-centered . . . oh, Inara." With her own sleeve, Nandi wipes Inara's eyes and nose dry. "Meimei. They don't know anything." She and Nandi sneaked out of the House that night, got superbly drunk. Inara's legs ache from crouching so long in the dirt. She straightens, standing over the small grave. It always comes down to the moments. It isn't the sex. No, that's a lie. That they slept together makes her ache, but what's worse, far worse, is thinking about those moments they spent talking quietly, intimately, before they took to bed. She doesn't begrudge Nandi the physical comfort on that night, her last, but she envies her those moments. It's that he let you get close. That's what was so unforgivable. He opened to you in a way he never did with me, in a way I'm afraid he never will . . I should have told you what I felt. I should have told you, and you should have known. But, truly, it doesn't matter, Nandi. Not anymore. He needed someone, you both did, and I'm glad you had that comfort, that moment. That's all any of this is: a series of moments. Mal was so certain of her rejection that he refused even to try. And when he did try, did open up to her for that one moment, she rejected him anyway, left anyway. So maybe he was right all along. "I'm sorry," she whispers as Mal moves to stand beside her. He turns to face her, and his eyes are full of shadows. "Fairly certain you ain't the one to be apologizing here. Inara . . . " "No, don't. Don't, Mal." He looks at her a long moment. Then he drops to his haunches, his fingers tracing the etching on the grave like Inara's did minutes before. "Huh," he says, rising and brushing the dirt from his hands. "I never even knew her real name." He takes her hand. *** While Mal makes plans with Petaline for the next drop, Inara watches the little girls playing hopscotch in the dirt. Her footsteps hardly disturbing the dust, River appears at Inara's side. Inara greets her with a smile that fades as she sees the young woman's expression, the tears glistening in her eyes. She lays a hand on River's shoulder. "I'm not crying," River says quickly. "Stupid to cry over a boy." "I won't tell," Inara says, smiling again. With one fingertip, she blots a tear from River's cheek. "Kissed someone else. I saw him." "I'm sorry, sweetheart." "He doesn't love me." "Do you love him?" Inara asks gently, and River looks at her for a long moment before shaking her head no. A smile lifts the corners of her lips. "But I loved when he kissed me." Inara chuckles gently. "You'll love when other boys kiss you, too." "He was kissing another boy." "I-oh." Uttering one, last, pathetic teenaged sigh, River giggles, and Inara chuckles and strokes her hair. They walk together to the mule where Mal is waiting, arms folded. "You ladies ready to go?" "Yes," they say together. River starts to climb in back, and Mal stops her, dropping a hand on her shoulder. "Hey. Aren't you supposed to be driving us? Figure the return trip would seem powerful dull otherwise. Be kind of a let down." River beams up at him. "Yes, sir." She hops easily into the driver's seat. Mal limps around the mule and takes Inara's arm. "Backseat's empty. Wanna make out, honey?" "What an offer," she says, eyes rolling. She lets him help her up, waits until he gets settled before sloping against his side. "It shouldn't be pretty here, but it is." "Yeah, it's a nice stretch of land." "Does it look like Shadow?" she ventures. "Where you grew up." "Nah, not really. Shadow was . . ." He shrugs, wrapping an arm around her waist and drawing her a bit closer. "I'll have to tell you about it sometime." "I'd like that, Mal." Inara rests her cheek against the soft cotton of his shirt. "Okay, River," she says. "Take us back to Serenity." END


Friday, March 23, 2007 3:33 PM


Absolutely beautiful! I loved it. The whole thing is just great.

I think you've touched on some really great moments that Post-Miranda would be plaguing Mal and Inara. And Nandi's death was never really dealt with - at least not from Inara's point of view.

This is just so beautiful and full of Joss' voice - kudos my dear!

Oh, and the swimming for an hour thing - priceless Mal!

Friday, March 23, 2007 3:44 PM


Loved this fic as I've loved all your work. Fabulous Mal voice and River was just perfect. You write the kind of fic that is so true to form I can see it playing out scene by scene.

I always thought that when Inara cries in Heart of Gold, she is really crying for herself, because she knows she is no longer a real companion. If she were, it wouldn't have made any difference that Mal slept with Nandi.

Friday, March 23, 2007 4:51 PM


This was so good and it was really nice to have them return to the Heart of Gold and see how things were going along. I was surprised that Petaline and Inara had that distance between them then thought it made it all seem so much more real, not everyone likes everyone else and some friction tends to bring a truer voice. Inara's thoughts about Nandi and her own jealously over Mal finding a spark of comfort with someone not her at least seems to have had the positive outcome of bringing her to a point where she can allow herself to have a relationship with him that isn't just about the sex. Neat-o. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Friday, March 23, 2007 6:10 PM


Masterful bit of work here, Kaynara...and I have to chime with the others when they talk about the effect of having the post-BDM crew come back to the Heart of Gold and explore how things have changed or stayed the same for both the crew and the staff of the Heart of Gold.

Gotta say though that dangling the idea that "Nandi" was not her real name and having both Inara and Mal see it is quite evil...but in a good way. Such a small thing goes a long way to building a subtle mystique to the Guild and how it operates by suggesting that it assigns its trainees new names for their presumed future service. Also impressed by how you had Inara think and start dealing with how it's not the sex that truly upset her but the knowledge that Mal trusted Nandi with information about his life and times before he met Inara, but not her....realistic, complex and totally in character;D


Friday, March 23, 2007 6:22 PM


My favorite fics are the ones that feel so right for the characters that I sometimes forget they aren't canon. Now that I've read this, it's hard to imagine any other state of affairs for our BDHs. I like the place that Mal and Inara are in here--they're both learning their way around a real relationship for the first time in years. They clearly enjoy each other, but they've both got lotsa issues, and you give them the weight they deserve.
I like that you touched on Mal's relationship with River, which is one of my favorites in the series. The line about waiting an hour to swim was priceless.
Someone else mentioned that the Inara/Petaline dynamic felt realistic. I can certainly see how Inara might resent a woman whom she feels cost her a friend. Way to not sugarcoat things.
Only shadow of a complaint would be that I don't think Mal would say "wanna make out?" in River's hearing. And that's a bitty little quibble.
Thank you so much for a good read.

Friday, March 23, 2007 7:25 PM


This was so stark and realistic and just...I loved a damaged Inara more than anything, because it just feels so real to me. Someone that outwardly perfect is just waiting to be dissected on the inside. You do it perfectly. I think you write Inara very spot-on, and your Mal has some shining moments as well, namely the "wanna make out" and the lost in the woodsyness of him being River's father-figure.

There's a lot I love about this, and I have a tremendous amounf ot respect for the easy way you seem to achieve insight into a very difficult character to decipher. Kudos!

Saturday, March 24, 2007 2:04 AM


Lovely work, Kaynara! It's always a happy day when you post.

Sunday, March 25, 2007 9:37 AM


"No speeding," "- slow the hell down!"

"you're yelling"

love the Mal and River bickering...very sweet and true to life. I like how you just let River be a teenage girl here...with all the awkward first sexual contact. And how she has a distinct and different relationship with Inara than her relationship with Mal. I can see the three of them (post BDM) almost forming their own little emotional triad within the larger family)

As usual, you've written Inara's POV beautifully. I have to agree with the others that have commented, my favorite Inara is the unraveled one. I'm not sure if that makes her any less of a mystery or more of an enigma.


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