"I'm leaving, Mal"
As the finality of her words registered, Captain Reynolds could only stare as she walked away. The edges of his vision darkened as the walls of his ship closed in and the black chill of space clutched at his chest. Inara, Serenity's registered companion, had just announced her intended departure from his ship and his life. His hand wrapped itself around the guardrail with white-knuckled intensity.
She had mentioned something about his strength. Didn't she know how much he relied on her strength? Her face swam up in his vision as he watched her disappear into her shuttle. He saw her smile and the brown velvet of her eyes. Her laughter at shared jokes during crew meals. She always had a story of her own to tell and teased Jane by never letting him know the details. She was both a sister and mother to Kaylee. A source of friendship and wisdom to all. And always, like a bright jewel against the dull background of his ship, her graceful form. He had only to look at her to find the calm strength he sometimes needed to shut out the growing fear that eventually he would lose every single thing he had ever cared about.
The war had taken his faith. When he watched those Alliance troops ships land in Serenity Valley, marking the real end of the dream. He'd torn that silver cross from his neck and thrown it out onto the battlefield where so many of his comrades lay dead. Seven years later, Book and Wash had died needlessly. He had not stopped blaming himself for either of their deaths.
Simon and River were now making plans to leave and Zoe. Zoe's grief had driven her to a place he was not sure he knew how to reach. And Nandi, the warm friendly woman and the love they'd shared the night before. Gone. Dead at his feet by morning. Everything, one by one, taken away from him. No. Gorram, no. Not again. Not her too. Captain Reynolds moved purposely over the catwalk. The hatch opened as he threw his weight against it to force it open.
He expected her to react as she often did to his intrusions. Instead, he found her sitting on the edge of her bunk weeping into a silk shawl. Mal recognized it as the one he'd given her as a birthday gift. He really shouldn't have purchased it. He recalled watching Kaylee and River looking at it. They'd pushed him into buying it and then made it seem like he'd picked it out for her. The colors were the reds and purples she always wore and he didn't argue the point. The smile on her face as she thanked him and the power it took over him kept anything else he might have revealed silent.
Why was she crying? He wanted to go to her, pick her up and quiet her tears. No one would hurt his Inara. No one.
Who did this? He wondered angrily. The sound of her weeping raised a memory from yesterday morning. When he'd run into Inara in the hallway, she had known at that moment where he'd been and who he was with. Inara had eased his embarrassment by telling him she was fine with it. Then walking back to Nandi's room he'd heard a woman crying. In the moment of Nandi welcoming him back, he'd brushed it aside. Apparently, Inara had cared very much that he'd spent the night with Nandi. This was his fault. He'd hurt her. He was the cause of this.
"It was you I heard crying this morning."
"Remove yourself from my quarters. I will disembark tomorrow morning at Persephone. My rent is paid up to the end of the month. Get out."
Her head came up sharply as she glared at him. "How dare you?"
Then he moved toward her, sitting next to her on the bed, pulling her across his lap. It took them both by surprise.
"Look at me."
Instead of complying, she turned her face into his chest. He'd expected a fight. Well, he didn't feel like fighting either. Placing a large hand against the side of her face, he pulled her close and started talking. Where the words came from he couldn't have said. Perhaps Kaylee would have claimed they'd come from his heart. Although, he was sure he remembered the exact moment in Serenity Valley when he'd felt it shrivel and die.
"Inara, reckon you and I are just too much alike. Both of us, building walls to keep folks out. Folks with feelings, needs, and such. Wo de xin, tell me what you want, he said softly, wiping the last tears from her face.
"I don't want to leave. I don't know how to stay. Not after yesterday."
"I've made you cry, twice. I understand now. Don't you think I wished Nandi were you? Sure, she was kind and she…I reckon you know what I'm talking about. She wasn't you."
Inara placed her hands on his shoulders and straightened.
"I can be those things. I received the best training in the 'Verse. I received training in…."
"Training? I don't care about your gorram training. I want to kiss you. Touch you. I want you. Not the trained companion!"
"This won't work." She cried out, pushing him away and sliding off his lap. I can't get the picture of you two out of my mind. Dammit, Mal! I always thought you would come to me."
"Come to you? As a what? A customer? That would never happen. I figured you knew that. What'n, the Four Courts of Diyu, are you so angry about?"
"Why did you choose her?"
First, I didn't go down there looking for…sex! Second, she did the choosing. And third, because I can't have you!"
This was not going well.
"Inara, I was born and raised on a beef cattle ranch. I was a soldier—not even an officer—on the losing side. Now I'm a common smuggler. While you…"
Mal just stopped talking, running his hand through his hair and trying not to revert to swearing. He felt like swearing long and hard. Women! This woman. He liked his world in straightforward tones of black and white. His ship either flew or it didn't. He either got paid or he didn't. He either made enough money to keep his crew fed or he didn't. If he couldn't make enough money to fuel the ship, then he worked dirt-side until he had. But this one? She's shades and shadows. Smiles and tears. Softness and strength. It confused him and turned him about and he didn't like it one bit.
"Mal, please stop this! I don't understand where this is coming from. Have I ever given you any cause for feeling that I looked down on you? You have more wisdom and especially street smarts than ten people with a fancy education. I see right through you Malcolm Reynolds. You play dumb to disarm your enemies and charm your customers!" She was yelling now. Too many months of emotions hidden away. Always polite, always a smile, always subservient to the customer's needs.
"I love this ship. It's like home. I always look forward to coming back."
"No. You listen to me. Here are just one or two things you don't know about me, Captain!" I was born on Shinon, yes. Not to the luxury or wealth or education or family, you assume. My father was a farmer. One year disease hit the cattle. An old Earth disease called Anthrax. By the time he figured out what was happening the entire herd was gone. My two brothers caught it and died within a month of each other. I lost my Mother too. She just stopped eating. My father was a broken man. To keep the land he did the only thing he could do."
"You don't have to say anymore. You don't have to tell me." He really didn't want to hear this. Mal placed his fingers over her lips to keep her talking. But she slapped his hand away.
"He sold me! He sold me to the Academy. I was ten years old. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Rely on no one. I excelled at the Academy. I was the best! Top of my class in languages, music, and literature. But I never told anyone who I really was, or what I came from. I let them assume whatever they wanted to about me. I earned my position and respect and managed never to lose my heart...until now. I came to Serenity and fell in love. With the ship and its crew and her Captain. Now you know everything and I'm still leaving. I've come to rely on you, Malcolm Reynolds. That was a mistake and a lesson I almost forgot."
"It's my turn. Let me show you. You can trust me." He grabbed her hands to stop her from walking away.
"No," she sighed, as she turned her head to avoid the inevitable kiss.
"Inara, you know I never back down from a fight." He trapped her head in his hands and kissed her mouth. She felt perfect against him, just as he always knew she would.
As Inara gave in and began to relax against him, Mal's kisses deepened. Their bodies aligned and pressed together. Deep in the experience of this first kiss and all the sensations it brought to the surface Mal felt the walls breaking down. The darkness of his soul so damaged by the experiences of his past began to lighten the load on his heart. It felt like a great black mass in his chest was rising up to escape, choking him. His grip tightened on Inara and he spread his legs apart to pull her even closer. He couldn't stop the feeling threatening to explode in his chest. So he focused his attention on the kisses Inara rained on his face. Strangely, she was comforting him.
"It's all right. I've got you," she whispered against his neck.
Pushing her abruptly away, Mal ran his hand across his jaw. His face was wet. What is this? "What are you doing to me?" he asked, eyeing her with suspicion and fresh anger.
Inara wisely stayed silent and lowered her hands. Calmly turning away, she said, "I'd like some tea."
He'd always been suspicious of her so-called feminine wiles. No surprise. He didn't understand his own heart. Inara ignored his question and continued to prepare the tea. By the time she finished Mal had stepped into the shuttle's cockpit and stood staring at the stars. Inara quietly set a cup next to him and sat down in the pilot's chair.
Mal was thinking of his childhood. The ranch hands who taught him how to shoot and ride. How to cook over a campfire and prepare a meal out of whatever was on hand. How to gentle a horse and move cattle without spooking them. The nights out under the stars around a campfire listening to the older men talk. He hung on their every word and he'd learned.
He thought of his mother. He hadn't really thought of her in years. She'd taught him to read, stitched his cuts and kissed his bruises. She always remembered to leave the curtains open so he could stare out at the stars before he went to sleep. She'd read him stories when he was too young to read himself. Stories of adventuring, heroism, exotic aliens, and brave Starship captains. When he'd learned to read, they read them together.
Memories flooded through him. They'd been hiding from him. The man he was now looking back at the idealistic young man he'd been so long ago. Grief for that man welled up in him like a tide. He let it pass through and over him, like a breath he'd been holding. The younger Mal, the one who believed in a god and good in the world, grinned back at him. There was room in his heart now. Space for other things, other ideas and other feelings.
Mal and Inara watched the stars slide past in companionable silence. He refilled their cups before Inara could do it and she smiled her thanks at him. When she looked into his eyes, she saw the change. She'd heard the deep exhale and seen his body relax. Now she noticed a new softness in his eyes and her body reacted with a sharp pain of longing. Inara felt a woman's need fill her body and tighten her breasts. A newborn in her arms. A boy with blue eyes and brown hair. Laughing children chasing their father across the yard. Meals filled with laughter and family. The pain was sharp and had taken her by surprise. So it was she that broke eye contact first.
"Does your father still own that farm, Inara?"
"Yes, but there's no one living there now. The remaining livestock sold years ago. The vineyards and fruit trees are gone. The buildings are empty. It was beautiful once."
Where's your father?"
"He died shortly before I graduated from the Academy. The land is in my name now."
"My Mom died during the war. Shadow is literally just a shadow now. After what the Alliance did to it, no one can live there anymore." Mal took a sip of this tea. "Ever think of going back to Shinon?"
"Sometimes. But there are so many conflicting emotions connected to that place. It's easier just to keep moving forward. Don't know if I'm moving away from something or toward something." She laughed quietly.
He nodded to let her know he understood.
"What about you? You've made this ship your home. Nowhere else?"
"No, he said, draining his cup and setting it down. The war, it changed me."
"Running. That's what it is. It's what we both do. We run. There is freedom on a ranch too. But nowhere to run."
"Do you miss Shinon?"
She shrugged. "The farm was beautiful. Green and growing always. I had a horse of my own and room to ride for miles and miles. My room was in the attic. I liked to watch the stars at night. Sometimes I think of those days at the Academy. Days of learning and discovery. Quiet graceful women moving through peaceful halls.
Some nights when the weather was warm, we would slip away down to the river. We'd bring food and sweets. Far more than we were ever allowed to eat during the day. We'd giggle and make up stories about the rich men we'd meet. How we planned to make them fall in love with us and sweep us off our feet. We had names for all the children we'd have."
"Ever figured on having children?"
"Not while I'm a companion. Usually, those of us who want to start a family give up the life or go back to the Academy as instructors. Maybe someday. But just like returning to that farm it's easier to put off to the future."
"I watch you with Kaylee. You're good with her."
"And so are you. You give her the father figure she needs."
"The country is a good place to raise children."
"It is," Inara replied. Something inside her was changing. But it was coming at her from outside her carefully planned world of manners, charm and pleasure giving. It felt alien and made her suspicious of her own intentions. What were her intentions? She tried to hold together the fabric of her companion mask. It had been her shield and served her well for many years. Now it was betraying her. It felt cheap and suddenly unnecessary. She had to get away and regroup. Get away from Mal and find that mask. Run, she thought. Run where? Inara was up and moving before she could stop herself long enough to realized there was only one direction left to run.
He was behind her in one step. "Don't leave."
"Mal, if I stay. Then what? You watch me with my clients?"
"Why did you come out here? Out to the Fringe? You picked my ship when you could be working—almost anywhere—higher-class than my humble little ship. Let me be the reason you leave. Your father forced you into that life. Let me be the one to give you the freedom to leave."
She couldn't do it. Turning to him was not possible yet. Now she stood in the middle of her living space. Hatred for these garish colors rose up in her like bile. With a cry, she grabbed the hanging that covered her comm device and yanked it down. The red coverlet on her bed lay in a pile at her feet. The tea set which represented the false ritual of her life crashed to the deck.
The captain watched her quietly, torn between offering her a comforting shoulder and the knowledge she must make this journey on her own terms. But when she sank to her knees he couldn't stop himself from going to her. Without touching her, he joined her on the floor.
"Inara, we are close enough to Shinon to be there a couple of hours. Close enough to get there in this…"
Was it possible to go back? Go home and begin again? Maybe she could give something of what Mal lost back to him?
She wanted to go home.
"Mal? Zoe could take care of the ship and Persephone is a good place for R & R. Let me show you Shinon."
"I'll grab a change of clothes, you need...?"
Everything I need is on this shuttle"
"Then I'll be right back."
I will be right here, Mal. I promise."
The long valley stretched out before them. From their view on the ridge-line, the entire farm was visible down below. The lines of the vineyards still marched in even rows. His knowledgeable eye could trace the old plow lines and the cattle pens. Wildflowers peaked through the long grass and overgrown garden. The house and the barn still stood strong. Their solid red brick walls still suggesting home and safe haven.
Malcolm Reynolds reached for Inara's hand. Her face was hidden under the broad brim of her hat. But he could see her gloved hands gripping the saddle.
Turning her face up to his and catching hold of his offered hand. His breath caught in his chest as the full force of her beauty turned on him. She was dressed in a black leather riding outfit, her delicate golden skin protected from the spring sun with gloves and a hat.
To answer him, she released his hand and pointed her horse down the hill. At a level spot on the trail, she kicked the horse to a canter. He would remember this moment for the rest of his life. The sight of her smiling in genuine happiness and her hair flying behind her as she sped down the hill. Mal followed her, catching up with her where she'd stopped under the apple trees. The white blooms of the trees framed her darker form. Mal slid from his horse and walked slowly toward her. There was no hurry. The demons were defeated. The future beckoned.
During the flight to Shinon, they'd spoken honestly, shared their dreams and helped each other lay the past to rest. She was smiling at him again, her hat tossed the grass at her feet.
"Mal? I wonder...if you wouldn't mind..."
Move the stars? Pull down the moon? Anything for this dark beauty who stood before him and who was finally within reach of his heart. Mal walked approached her. "What can I do for you wo de xin?"
"Well, I was thinking that I wish you would kiss me again. Please?"
"I suppose that's a possibility. Something I can oblige you, ma'am.
As they sealed their relationship with a kiss the orchard filled with future dreams: A wedding night, laughing children, bountiful harvests, neighing horses with scampering foals. The smells of meals cooked with love. Dear friends gathered around the fireplace or the main area of Serenity. All things were possible now. All paths were open.
Malcolm pulled reluctantly away from kissing his Inara. They looked into each other's eyes and simultaneously whispered, "I love you."
Laughing she held out her hand. "Come on, I want to show around."