The Slower Path: Weighing the Costs - Part 10 - Sequel to While the Cat's Away
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Things haven't gone well on Verbena



Part 1: Favourite Things - Part 2: Long Day - Part 3: The Basics - Part 4: Brown Paper Packages Part 5: The Companion's New Clothes - Part 6: A Measure of Healin' - Part 7: Snow Cream Part 8: Staying One Day Ahead of Yesterday - Part 9: While the Cat's Away ________________________________________________

The Slower Path: Weighing the Costs Sequel to While the Cat's Away by anjulie and 2x2 Rating: PG Word Count: 2885 Spoilers: Set post BDM Pairing/Characters: Mal, Zoe, Mal/Inara.


Zoe pinched the cut closed and deftly slipped the needle through two folds of skin, closing the wound with practiced movements. "Hurt much?" she asked, knowing the answer already.

"Son of a-- Yes!" Mal complained, wincing at her less than gentle treatment. His hand came up involuntarily and he had to force it into a fist to keep from yanking the needle out of her hand. Another Chinese expletive flew from his lips as she drew the waxed thread through his eyebrow, tugging on it firmly when it caught stubbornly.

Yi han," she muttered insincerely, concentrating on making another stitch. “Just ponderin’, sir, on how lucky we are that my sense of humor's still intact, considerin’ your pretty face ain’t what it was,” she drawled, sarcastic disapproval dripping from her voice.

Mal glared up at her from under her hands. Last thing he wanted right now was a lecture from his first mate. The woman was already stickin' him with a pin, he surely wasn't keen on a verbal lashing on top of it, but he knew one was coming. When Zoe was mad at him, she didn't hesitate on lettin' him know it.

He kept silent aside from the occasional grunted exclamation of pain, knowing she would make her point no matter what he might say. She'd been especially vocal of late, questioning him more, and he couldn't help but wonder if it weren't 'cause she felt it'd been his poor choices that had got Wash killed. Didn't help that he thought she was right, neither.

“Ain’t got nothin’ to say for yourself?” Zoe continued when it was evident he wasn’t going to launch into one of his spiels about how it hadn't been his fault.

“I’d probably set there all quiet too, had I shown my pigu with the finesse you did back in that bar,” she added, pulling the knot sharply before clipping it with the small scissors they kept in the med kit. “We’re running close the edge of desperate, you said. Figure we just went right over,” she ground out, punctuating her dialogue with the needle. “One drink. We've mopped Alliance floors, scrubbed Alliance latrines, hell, even seem to recall you gettin’ your face pushed into a few of ‘em, and you can’t drink one glass of whiskey to 'em when we’re on the edge?”

She clipped the last stitch and smeared a dab of clear ointment on it with one finger, pressing down a little harder than necessary. “Like dealin’ with a child,” Zoe grumbled to herself as she gathered up the med supplies and placed them neatly into the box.

"Some things I swore I'd never do," Mal said, voice thick. He swallowed roughly, dropping his gaze to his hands. "You, more'n anyone, ought to know that."

Zoe looked at the top of his head and sighed, her anger still simmering. “What I know is that morals and principals won’t feed a crew nor fuel a ship. We got a crew and a ship. Might be we have to forgo a few of our ethics for them, dong ma?” she stated as she knelt in front of him, pressing a small ice pack to his split lip. “Comes a time you gotta put needs before your stubborn pride, Mal.”

He took the ice pack, staring hard at her. "An' you can say that? Even after—" He cut himself off before he actually said Wash's name. "Even after everythin' they took?"

"This ain't about me," she told him coldly, looking him dead in the eye. "This is about what you got waitin' back on that ship. People dependin' on you to take care of 'em - to keep 'em together. You wanna go back there - look Kaylee in the eye and tell her that she's gotta find work elsewhere cause you can't swallow an Alliance toast? And Inara? She's where she belongs now. I'd throw back a shot to keep her there - how 'bout you?" she asked roughly.

Mal let out a breath and closed his eyes, nodding finally, the gesture conveying an acknowledgement that she was right and his apology and all in one – message given and received - the unspoken words all that were necessary to square things between them.

He nodded again and then stood, grunting at the ache of his protesting muscles. "We'll head to the north tomorrow, see if we can't find that job you heard about," he said, the Captain once more. "Best bed down for the night," he continued. "Sun'll be up early."

Zoe agreed with a nod as she got to her feet. "Just about worn out myself," she said, heading to her cot. Slipping her vest off and spreading it over a crate, she arranged her gun on the floor within easy arm's reach. Her eyes ranged over his battered face with a half smile, her anger appeased, as she lay back on the thin bedding. "Got a good feelin' 'bout tomorrow, sir," she told him, pulling the worn army blanket over her shoulders.

Mal slid his suspenders off and carelessly unbuttoned his shirt. "That makes one of us," he muttered under his breath as he tossed the garment aside and stiffly lowered his bruised body to the small camp bed.


Inara glanced down at Serenity’s chronometer for what had to be the hundredth time and sighed.

She was alone on the bridge, only the stars and the bluish, slow-moving numbers for company and, she had to admit, she was bored. Well, not bored exactly. Impatient might be a better word. And tired. Tired and bored and impatient.

She eyed the numbers, cursing herself for looking when she knew less than a minute had passed since the last time. Sighing, she gnawed on her lip as her eyes slid up to the communications bank and the dark vid screen that stared emptily back at her, curling her fingers into her palms to keep from reaching for the keypad.

He’d said to wave only if it was an emergency, she reminded herself.

She let out an exasperated breath. Tianna, it was only the first day, she lamented. What was she going to do if he didn't get back for a week?


Zoe sighed in exasperation as Mal moved restlessly on the creaky cot a few feet away. Pulling the woolen blanket up to her ears, she once more tried to sleep.

“Could be I ought'n a told her not to wave,” he said out of the blue. “What if somethin’ went wrong and they can’t get a signal out?” he worried aloud.

“Might be a good idea to check on ‘em, sir,” Zoe ground out with a roll of her eyes. “Real quiet like,” she warned, her tone bordering on hostile.

Mal turned his head in her direction, his bare arms resting behind his head. “You think?” he asked seriously.

Zoe growled. “Wave her!,” she hissed, flopping on her side away from him, jerking the cover over her head with some muffled words that Mal couldn’t hear.

“No need to get tetchy,” Mal muttered, rising quickly. Moving to the cockpit, he ran his fingers over the keys with practiced movements, bringing up the data screen. Squinting in the semi-darkness, he quickly typed in the illegal codes for a secure line, his heart beating a little faster as he waited for the transmission to go through.


Inara pulled her blanket tighter around her shoulders in effort to ward off the chill in the air – Serenity was in her sleep cycle; the temperature had dropped about twenty minutes ago to conserve energy, and the cold had slowly seeped its way into her.

The ship was quiet and still, too quiet, and every creak and groan and tap and grate that Serenity made sounded foreign and unsettling to her. In her shuttle, the sounds were familiar, comforting almost, but here, alone on the bridge, she found herself startling at every sound that echoed through the hull of the old cargo ship, leaving her feeling skittish and annoyed with herself at the same time for being so.

She wanted to wave him. It was foolish – they were nothing more than noises fueled by her imagination – hardly an emergency.

A sound, like metal on metal, came from the crew deck suddenly, and Inara turned in the pilot's chair, heart hammering in her chest as she stared out the hatch, listening intently. Just as she was finally satisfied that it was nothing and she was about to turn back, the sound came again and this time Inara got to her feet in alarm.

"Hello? Kaylee…? River…?" she called out, hoping it was one of the girls. When no answer came, she slipped the blanket from her shoulders, leaving it on the chair, and headed to the hatch, jumping as the sound came again.

She reached the open door and peered down into the half lit corridor, gasping as Jayne suddenly came around the corner, Vera in hand.

"Jayne!" she gasped, both relieved and annoyed at the man. "What in heaven are you up to?" she asked, masking her foolish fear with an angry tone.

Jayne stared up at her a moment then just shrugged. "Jus' checkin' the ship," he said gruffly. "Doin' my rounds. Security like," he clarified.

Right, she reminded herself. Just doing his job. "You startled me," she said by way of explanation, but the big man merely shrugged again, turning to leave. He paused half way and looked back, an odd look coming over his face.

"You know, uh… They suit ya," he said, nodding at her outfit awkwardly. "Look fine on ya."

Inara gaped at him, his compliment the last thing she ever expected. "Thank you," she managed.

He shrugged yet again and motioned over his shoulder. "Well," he said, "best get back to it." And then he was gone, heading out into the galley and beyond to the rest of the ship.

Bewildered, Inara returned to the cockpit, sliding into Wash's chair, shaking her head. She was just about ready to consider heading to bed when an incoming wave suddenly chimed and she gasped, reaching out frantically to hit the button to connect the transmission.


Mal ran his hand through his hair impatiently as he waited for the carrier to pick up, only to find himself tongue tied when Inara’s face filled the screen.

“Well, hey,” he pushed out, feeling foolish for risking a wave when he saw that she looked as calm and collected as ever. “Just wanted to, you know, see if everything went smooth today,” he said awkwardly. Seeing her face, Mal thought back on Zoe's words. He knew he was stubborn, had been all his life. Maybe he did need to weigh the cost of his pridefulness against what was waiting for him on Serenity. Suddenly he was glad that he'd chanced waving, unwise or not - it was worth it to talk to her, to be even this close.

"Hi," she breathed out, a smile curving her lips as she stared at the tiny image of his face, inordinately pleased that he'd waved. "Everything went--Mal! What is--are you cut?" she exclaimed suddenly, leaning closer to the screen to get a better look at what were plainly stitches above his left eye. "Ai ya! You haven't even been there a day!"

Mal winced, grin fading as the action opened the split in his lip again. “What? Oh, that?” he asked, lightly touching the stitches. “Ain’t nothin’ – bumped into the hatch is all. Too tall for my own good sometimes,” he lied dismissively. “So? Things went smooth?” he asked.

She gave him a look that told him she wasn't fooled for a minute. "Things went fine here. Much better, apparently, than they did down there," she said pointedly. She sighed but smiled, affection winning out over concern as he appeared to be well. It was so typically 'Mal' of him. "Is Zoe all right?" she asked, shaking her head fondly.

"Zoe? Peachy," he said lightly with a fake smile, still a little peeved over the stitching incident. "Sleepin'," Mal clarified.

"You are the worst liar," Inara said, fighting back a grin. She gave him an indulgent sigh. "What happened?"

"Have you know that most consider me to be a fine liar, Ms. Serra," he said before giving in. "Truth is it was more fist than door," he said sheepishly. "'Sure I'll be much more open to the 'illumination of the Alliance forces' and their 'plentiful bounty of smugglin' opportunities' tomorrow. Today was what we in the business call a xué wèn jīng yàn," he admitted wryly.

She frowned. "It looks like it was a hard lesson. I guess this means you won't be coming back early," she said, trying to hide her disappointment.

“Not likely,” he agreed, his own dissatisfaction coming through his voice. He cleared his throat again, fingers playing absently with knobs on the navigation console.

She looked away a moment. "It's not the same without you here," she said with a soft laugh. She turned back. "It feels... empty." I miss you she wanted to say, but asked instead what he and Zoe planned to do next.

“We'll branch out a little further, check on a lead that Zoe heard of. Most like we won’t make it back for a couple days. Wish it was sooner - gettin' a little homesick down here," he admitted softly.

Inara gave him a melancholy smile. "I do too," she said softly. "I...I miss you," she breathed out, rolling her eyes at herself for feeling so nervous. She brushed her hair back from her face, shrugging one shoulder absently. "I wanted to wave you earlier but... you said only in emergencies.

"Missin' me ain't an emergency?" he teased, his heart banging against his chest so hard he was surprised Zoe couldn't hear it. Much as he wanted to say the words back to her, his tongue seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth.

She smiled self-consciously. "Well, I'll be sure to make a note of it for the next time you fly off and leave me - in charge," she added quickly, suddenly feeling awkward.

"Maybe next time I come, you can come with me," he promised, then froze, aghast, his face burning as he realized how his words could be misconstrued.

Inara raised an eyebrow coyly, eyeing him in amusement as she pressed her lips together firmly to keep from laughing. That sounds appealing, she thought, but stopped herself from saying it - it was just too easy.

Mal coughed, quickly changing the subject to avoid humiliating himself further. "Suppose you been busy," he diverted, pausing as he caught sight of a smudge of crimson on her forehead. "An'—why do you have paint on your face?" he asked suspiciously.

Her eyes widened and she brought a hand up to her cheek quickly. "What!? Where?"

"Kaylee," Mal said, a world of meaning in his voice. "Thought she'd outgrowed that habit," he sighed. "Used to be every gorram time I'd leave the ship she'd be paintin' somethin'," he groused, still embarrassed. "Leastways she's limited to flowers."

"Well..." Inara said, grinning as she pictured the shuttle, "Maybe a bit more than flowers now," she laughed, amused that he'd caught them out.

Mal groaned. "What have you done to my boat?"

"When you get back you can come – and see," she added, eyes twinkling.

Blushing, Mal sighed good-naturedly, shaking his head. "Next time I'm leavin' Jayne in charge," he threatened.

"Jayne might actually be disappointed," she said, smiling. "He's quite taken with his security role - he's even patrolling the ship," she added with a grin.

"Huh," Mal said with a smile that ended as he glanced at the chronometer. Zhou ma," he muttered. "Need to go," he said apologetically. "Didn't realize the time," he explained, a frown forming between his brows.

"It is late," she agreed reluctantly. "Wave me tomorrow night? If everything works out?"

"Won't promise but if I'm able..." he agreed. "Well...tián mèng mèi," Mal wished her quietly, the words coming awkwardly.

”Hǎo shuì," she answered softly. "Be careful, and come home soon," she added, touching the screen, wishing he weren't so far away.

Mal swallowed hard and nodded, reaching out to slowly tap the keyboard, ending the transmission. He stared out at the stars for a long while before he slowly rose, groaning as his forgotten injuries flared back to life. "Christ," he muttered as he made his way slowly back to his cot, "gettin' too old to be caught on the wrong side of a fist." Holding the frame, he slowly lowered his stiff body, sighing as he stretched out on his belly, already half asleep.

"So..." Zoe said, her voice startling him in the quiet.

"Yeah?" Mal answered, something in her tone making him wary.

"Thinkin' on havin' Inara come, huh?" she asked, laughter breaking free as she snorted.

Mal blew out a resigned breath, burying his face in his pillow. "Never gonna live that down am I?" he asked ruefully.

"Not this side of hell, sir," she assured him, a smile in her voice that lingered as they both drifted off to sleep.

______________________ Go to Part 11: Ain't Never So Bad It Can't Be Worse ______________________


Monday, April 21, 2008 12:17 AM


I just loved this especially the dialogue between Zoe and Mal as she stitches up his small hurts and then between Inara and Mal over the cortex. Very fine story, all the more to savour because it isn't rushed. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, April 21, 2008 2:56 AM


the characters breathe - the dialog is unforced - and the pleasure of reading continues!

Monday, April 21, 2008 1:52 PM


You two write the best Zoe and the best Zoe and Mal around. This is exactly how I see their relationship.

And the cortex conversation, and the awkward steps and the revealing little by little, almost by accident- great stuff!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 5:13 PM


Wow this was wonderful! Loved the insight into Mal's and Zoe's thoughts that sounded like they came straight from the real character. Loved the growth taking place in Mal that will make it possible to have a real relationship. And as usual, your wrting is fabulous! Waiting eagerly for more.

Thursday, April 24, 2008 8:19 AM


I think what I love about your writing style is the details: the tug of the thread, Serenity in her sleep mode, the worn blankets and creaky cots.

But the thing I really enjoy is the love the characters have for each other and how you convey that even when they're angry with each other.

Friday, May 2, 2008 3:57 AM


You guys, this is excellent. Excellent excellent and I loved it so much, every word, every breath, every unintended and embarrasing double entendre. You rule and I am so happy you are keeping this going. I can't believe you were *ever* uncertain of your Zoe.


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History of an Object
There’s no reason to keep it, damaged as it is. Save one. Doesn’t matter that it’s finer than any other cup on the ship, even with the crack. Doesn’t matter that it would never hold liquid again without some of it seeping through. Burning your fingers. Was only one reason he still has the cup.

Five Years' War
The night was warm. Clouds, low on the horizon, blue black in the last light of the setting sun. Nothing but the breeze and the buzz of the cicadas breaking the stillness. A perfect evening.

The Close Shore, At the End, Untenable
“Dead ’re in my head tonight,” he said finally. “Can’t get ‘em out. Don’t got the booze or the bar to distract me. Don’t know why I’m here ‘cept I don’t think I can go through it alone.”

The Slower Path: All the Difference - Part 15 - Sequel to The One Less Traveled By
She let out a breath, saying nothing for a long moment before she raised her eyes again. “There are some things I want you to know,” she said softly. “Things I want you to understand.”

Much as he wished he could ignore it, he could see it was important to her that he know whatever it was she wanted to tell him. He knew he wouldn't have let himself see it in the past, but that weren't where they were anymore, or at least, not where they wanted to be, either of them. Their relationship had changed, was changing, and he weren’t so stupid he didn’t recognize that. He didn't know that he wanted to know it, much less understand it, but she was reluctant enough to talk about any aspect of her life as it was; could be he might ought not stop her when she wanted to.

Unlucky at Cards...
“I… You can’t be that lucky!” Mal moaned as Inara beat him again, laying out her cards with a flourish.

The Slower Path: The One Less Traveled By - Part 14 - Sequel to Regrets
They fell silent again, struggling to find the ease that they had found, before; before the argument that had almost ended things.

"I feel like-," she started.

"This is-," he said at the same time.

They looked at each other. "Awkward," they both said, laughing lightly.

Always Had Faith
Faith in a higher power? That was always Mal's thing, the Captain, back in the war.

Loved and Lost
Love’s the biggest kind of hurt there is.

And I wouldn't trade that love for nothin'.

The Mood That Passes Through
He felt the first trembling shudder go through her, heard her breath hitch and felt her fingers grip his skin; knew it was comin', the wave that was cresting the walls she'd built to hold it back, whatever it was. Knew they were about to come crashing down around her. The first sob still hurt though, still lanced through his heart like a searing hot blade to hear her make that sound.