Dashing was not a word Malcolm Reynolds was all too familiar with, and it certainly wasn’t a word he’d use to describe himself. Yet, here he was, standing in front of the tall mirror in the exquisite guest room, trying to tie his ridiculous deep blue tie. If Kaylee hadn’t insisted on it, hadn’t told him it brought out the magnificent indigo hues of his eyes, he’d have forgone the thing entirely. At the time though, he hadn’t had the heart to let the girl down. It was, after all, her day, and who was he to ruin it? He’d suffer in silence for a couple of hours, if it meant making her happy. He’d do next to anything to keep his mèimei happy. Even if it meant he had to wear a yúchǔn de biéjiǎo tie. As if to mock him, the aforementioned subject of his anger sat haphazardly on his crisp, creaseless, white dress shirt. He sighed, and blew up at his freshly combed hair, having noted that a single strand had escaped the careful coiffure.
Frustrated, he undid the tie with quick fingers, and tried to remember how his Ma had used to do it for him back on Shadow for Sunday mass. He mumbled the steps under his breath, as if that somehow helped him retain the information more easily. It didn’t. He was of half a mind to wave Zoe to ask her for the instructions, as well as her silence on the fact that the captain couldn’t fix his own gorram tie. Just as he was undoing the thing for the fourth time that morning, there was a knock on the open door. He turned around abruptly, only to be greeted by one of the most stunning sights he’d ever witnessed in his long, dreary old life.
It was like he’d had his breath knocked right out of him. Right before him stood a gorgeous young woman that he could barely say he knew. Kaywinnet Lee Frye, like he’d never seen her before. One would think this wasn’t the same fresh faced youth he’d first encountered naked and sweaty, underneath his ex mechanic. It wasn’t the same girl he’d hired on his crew for her sheer genius with machines, her face smudged with engine soot, and her army green coveralls stained with grease. She wore the same smile as that girl, although this time, there were lines that seemed to be etched perfectly and happily into her skin. A long life of laughter had blessed her with those, he recalled. She may have also had those same vibrant forest green eyes, but now they twinkled a little more than before, below a thick fringe of lashes. Her carefully painted, blushing cheeks were rosier than he remembered; her hair looking shinier in the little, honey brown, loose, and layered curls that swept her bare shoulders.
Then there was the dress. It was a pure white satin; strapless, and beaded with some of the finest quality stitching. It hugged her breasts and torso like a corset, showing off the womanly curves she’d grown into over the years. It flowed out elegantly, like a princess’ dress, with a train that followed after her for a couple of feet. Her sun kissed skin gleamed against the bright white and cream of the gown, and she looked ethereal standing there in the doorway. She was positively radiant in every single way.
“I thought you might be needin’ some help there with that, capt’n,” she commented, breaking the silence that had lingered between them, and staring pointedly at his askew tie.
Mal cleared his throat, and averted his gaze from her. He came to realize that it was indeed true; Kaylee had really grown up after all this time, and had truly become her own woman. Nonetheless, Simon may have earned the title of husband, but Mal would always be her captain, and she would always be his mèimei. Who was still getting married, and starting her new life now without him. It was bittersweet, but he supposed it had been inevitable. There was only ever so much that Serenity could offer the two of them.
Kaylee had lifted her very heavy skirts then, and started walking towards him with a purpose. He knew that gleam in her eyes all too well, after having lived with her aboard his ship for so many years. This time, he didn’t speak or move, seemingly having lost the capacity to perform either ability. He let her fuss over him, watched the way she meticulously worked the silken pieces about his neck. She smoothed it out when she was done, smiled, looked up at him and said, “There. Lookin’ shiny, capt’n.”
He gave her a lopsided smile, and adjusted his jacket. “I’m thinkin’ I might outdo our bride here,” he joked, eliciting a grin from his once mechanic.
She stood back then, examined him from head to toe with squinted eyes. “Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. But does it still still show off your backside, capt’n tightpants?”
He gave her another smile at the old joke, and she giggled.
“I think you’ve dawdled enough. Don’t you have a weddin’ to prepare for?” He asked her, doing up a button.
Kaylee gasped. “Oh! That’s right! I still gotta help River do her hair!”
With that, she’d picked up her skirts again, and dashed out of the room, leaving Mal alone once more, but this time, with a proper tie. That was his Kaylee; always looking out for others before herself. He sighed deeply, and took a seat on the made up, queen sized bed. He slumped forward and tried to think of things that didn’t depress him. Seeing Kaylee walk down the aisle wasn’t supposed to have been so emotionally taxing on him, if only it hadn’t been yet another reminder of how alone he was. He knew it was selfish to think of it that way, but he couldn’t help the nagging, negative thoughts that plagued his mind like a sea of sharks.
Sure, he’d have the company for the day, get see the familiar faces again, and even make shallow, cheap conversation, but then he’d return to his hole on that backwater moon, and it would be business as usual. He’d get to work early in the morning, come home by the evening entirely worn out, cook up a bland protein meal for himself, and then pass out on his makeshift bed, only to have to do it all over again the next day.
Just waiting to grow old and die.
“You don’t have to live this life alone. Nobody does,” the reader would later tell him at the ceremony, processing his rather bleak thoughts.
She wouldn’t even need to look at him to be able to see through his false smiles and cheerful facade. It was easy for her to say; her family had only just grown bigger today. Mal felt like he’d just lost another part of himself.
“Red. She’s wearing red,” River whispered when she tugged at his sleeve to get his attention during the ritual.
He hadn’t known what it meant at the time, and neither would he until they were at the reception. Nonetheless, he’d known that whenever the young woman told him something of consequence, he should listen. So, he kept his eyes out for anything ‘red’, as she referred to it.
In the mean time, he ran into Zoe initially, his first mate and comrade in battle. He noticed that the years had added wrinkles to her once smooth complexion, but Mal was glad to see that they were laugh lines from the joy that her daughter had brought her. Speaking of which, Emma was there, too, having been an integral part of the ceremony. She’d been the oldest flower girl there, but she’d looked lovely in the soft white dress that Kaylee had picked out for her, nonetheless. She had her mother’s look, mostly; caramel coloured skin, curly, light brown hair, brown eyes, and a slim figure. Upon closer inspection, however, she certainly shared some features with her deceased father, Wash, as well. She’d greeted Mal with excitement, grinning happily when she’d wrapped her arms around him in a bear hug. She was already coming up to his height and only at the young age of nine years old. Once upon a time, he’d helped change her diapers. Once upon a time, he’d spent endless nights making stupid faces, and crossing his eyes in an effort to get her to stop crying.
“You came! Momma was sayin’ it was likely you wouldn’t, but I knew she was wrong! I knew it!” Emma cried, snuggling her head against Mal’s chest.
He hugged her back, and kissed the top of her head like he used to when she was only a toddler. “It’s good to see you again, too, darlin’,” he cooed into her hair.
Zoe stood proudly by, smiling and laughing like she once did when she was with her husband. Mal had kept in touch with his first mate over the years, offering his help when she’d built a new home for herself and her daughter. His visits had once been frequent, but eventually, they’d tapered off, just like everything else.
Then there came Simon Tam. Never, ever, had Mal recalled seeing the boy so happy. He was positively beaming, looking all prim and proper, as he should have, all those years ago, had his life not been robbed from him. This Simon Tam looked like he’d fit right back into the core worlds just fine, but Mal knew better; spending enough time out in the black, seeing everything he’d seen, it was enough to change any man permanently. His innocence was lost forever; as was his sister’s, no matter how hard he’d tried to preserve it. But that was hardly evident in this moment; he wore that golden band around his finger with pride, spinning his blushing bride about in his arms with his eyes only for her. They were in their own little world now, their own bubble, and everyone else was just a lucky spectator.
Mal had extended his arm for a handshake in congratulations, but Simon, so drunk on joy, had grabbed the older man into a hug, taking the captain by complete surprise. Mal had given the lovely couple his blessing, and Simon had told him it meant everything to Kaylee to have him there for the ceremony.
“If it had been up to her, I do believe she’d have rather had you walk her down the aisle, you know. Only, it would have broken her daddy’s heart,” Simon confessed to him after a few glasses of champagne.
Mal had taken Kaylee’s head under his arm in that instant, and pressed a kiss to her forehead, feeling overwhelmed by love and adoration for the giggling, drunken bride that he’d come to regard as a sister over the years.
“Capt’n...I got me a husband!” she blurted with wide eyes, and slurring her words, face flushed from the alcohol.
Mal smiled. “I know, mèimei. It’s a fine one you got there, too.”
“Ain’t he? I’m gonna ravish him tonight, and take a big bite outta him, like an apple!” Kaylee growled huskily, biting her bottom lip as she watched her handsome groom mingle with his other drunken guests.
Mal sighed, and held Kaylee in his arms, letting her press her face into his shirt. “Don’t think I need to know that, darlin’.” He stroked her bare arm.
“S’okay, capt’n. ‘Nara’s in here somewhere, I think. Mebbe the two o’ you can get to that much needed sexin’ tonight, too,” Kaylee hiccupped, patting Mal’s chest meekly.
He didn’t think it was possible that his heart could still sink like a rock, like it typically did whenever her name was brought up. She wasn’t supposed to have had any sway over him anymore; he’d convinced himself of that. But, his reaction was proving otherwise.
As for Kaylee’s comment, he didn’t know how to reply. He had once been used to her antics. He had been used to the fact that everyone on his ship felt that the resident companion and the captain needed to ‘get it on’, and get it out of their systems, but that was a long time ago. Things were different now, and it had been well over a while that he’d felt the warmth of a woman in his bed. The thought alone spurned heat to his loins.
“You smell nice, capt’n,” Kaylee whispered into his shirt, before he could even think of a proper response to her previous comment.
Mal was nervous now that he had the knowledge that she was there. He became wary of every single person in the fancy banquet hall as he made his way around, having left Kaylee in the company of her husband and friends.
Red. She’s wearing red.
River’s words came back to haunt him. He shook his head, and decided it was about time he had a drink. Just as he turned on his heel, he smacked right into Jayne’s burly chest. The taller, larger man grinned down at Mal, clearly already started in on his intoxication routine. There was a drink in his hand, and his tie was undone, the buttons of his shirt pulled apart to the point where Mal could see the hem of his wifebeater underneath. Jayne’s face looked warm and rosy, and his eyes appeared to be glazed over.
“Hey, capt’n! Fancy seein’ you here!” Jayne hollered, smacking Mal hard on the back with his free hand.
Mal had almost forgotten about the man’s strength.
Jayne’s mother had passed away a few years back, and the merc had returned home to help take care of his family. He was still known for his violence, and would take up odd jobs to help pay for treatments for the sick folks at home. Mal wasn’t entirely sure if Jayne had retired his guns completely, though.
He joined the man for a couple of drinks at the bar, and they did a few rounds of shots, catching up all the while. For as big and heavy a man that Jayne was, he certainly had a low alcohol tolerance, and couldn’t even beat out Mal.
However, both men lost to River when she had decided to join them at the bar, and Jayne had made the mistake of challenging her. She downed shot after shot without even flinching. They watched her, amazed, waiting for the alcohol to impair her system, only it never did. Jayne could barely sit up straight, and Mal could feel his head starting to spin and pulse.
“She ain’t right, Mal!” Jayne grumbled, nearly taking a tumble from his seat.
River shrugged. “You owe me Vera,” she told him, nonchalantly.
“Th’ hell with that!” Jayne boomed angrily in her direction.
“Girl’s right; you owe her a gun, Jayne,” Mal confirmed. “Heard ya say it with my own eyes.”
River quirked up an eyebrow. “You mean ears,” she corrected him.
“Right. That’s what I said,” Mal nodded.
The young woman then grabbed Jayne by the arm, and started leading him away. It looked hilarious watching such a small, skinny girl in a pretty rose pink dress carry away a burly man twice her size. When Mal made to follow them, River stopped him.
“Not you. Sober up some. You’re going to go dancing, and you can’t dance with two left feet,” she instructed, still balancing Jayne with one hand.
She acknowledged the stumbling mercenary with pity. “Jayne’s going to puke. Can’t have him ruining Kaylee’s day. I’m taking him outside. You drink some water, captain.” With that, she made her way through the crowd, disappearing in the throng of fancily dressed people.
Groggy, Mal thought he saw a hint of red.
Red. She’s wearing red.
He rubbed at his eyes, and the vibrant colour was gone. He passed out at the bar shortly after, for how long he wasn’t sure. People came and went, and he slipped in and out of many dreams. He made a mental note to never challenge River to a drinking game ever again, as he dreamt that he’d bet his ship and lost. Only, of course, there was no ship anymore. He dreamt of Serenity here and there...but more than he liked, he dreamt of Inara. Inara in red, Inara naked, Inara in his bed covered in only a thin, white sheet, smiling up at him, Inara with her hair tousled, her lipstick smudged. He also dreamt of the loneliness, of the hours trudging on forward like the years of his life fading away into the background, while he lay in his abysmal bed with his head in his arms. Waiting for death.
He dreamt of River’s voice in his head, talking to him from the pilot’s chair, never taking her eyes off of the endless sky.
“Distance only makes the heart grow fonder...isn’t that what they say, captain?”
Wǒde mā, did he not want to believe in that.
When he finally woke up, his head was pounding with an ear splitting headache, and the alcohol was finally wearing off. He downed another glass of water, and noted that the party was still ongoing, and the music still playing. This time though, there was no mistake about it; red. He saw her, and she was in ravishing red.
He gulped, taking in the sight of her as if to be reliving an old, forgotten memory. It was a classic red, rich and beautiful against her cinnamon coloured skin. It was floor length, accentuating her height, rising to just below her ample bosom, where a cluster of diamonds sparkled, and cinched the dress. The top part was heart shaped, plunging just enough to tease with the tender flesh of her cleavage. The rest of the dress fell like a long, pleated skirt to the floor, hugging her curves before pooling at her feet.
Inara was always a vision in red.
He loved her in any colour, but red had always been his favourite.
Her inky black curls were in a simple up-do, a few loose strands framing her heart shaped face, as well as falling down against her bare back. Her lips were painted a red to match the dress, with the thick charcoal black around her eyes accentuating their dark, exotic appeal. Not surprisingly at all, she was surrounded by company, mostly men who desperately sought her attention, hanging on to her every word. Suddenly, Mal felt the urge to have another drink.
He watched her with them, watched the way she smiled, flirted, standing out against the crowd, like she always did. The years had done nothing to her beauty, he noted. Inara Serra would always glow. Standing there, from across the room, she was like a ripe, red rose, in full bloom, soaking up the attention like it was sunshine and water.
Mal took a shot, and let the alcohol burn its way down his throat. He was tempted to go over there, act casual. He wanted to see her face when she noticed him, wanted to know what it felt like to look upon her so close again, to feel her small, warm breaths against him. He wanted to be bold, wanted to be the man his Ma and all the folks on Shadow had wanted him to become. Only, he wasn’t. He could never be that guy.
He was so entranced with his own thoughts, that he had barely enough time to register that she’d caught him staring. Their eyes locked, and a curious expression crossed her features. Then, in the next moment, she’d excused herself from the company of men with a smile and an apology, lifted her skirts, and started to take nimble steps in his direction through the crowd. If he wanted to listen carefully, he could almost hear her little red heels clicking against the marble floor as she worked her way towards him.
He was of half a mind to flee rather than face her, but that would have been too cowardly, and Mal was no coward. He stood his ground, and anticipated the moment she would stand before him, chest heaving with her heavy breaths, breasts pushed up for his eyes to devour.
“Mal,” she said his name as if it were entirely unfamiliar to her tongue.
“Inara,” he nodded at her, tipping his drink in her direction. She watched him do it, but made no comment, no matter the rudeness.
“I didn’t think...I mean, it’s great to see that you came out to Kaylee and Simon’s wedding. Truth be told, I didn’t think you’d be here...,” she added, being careful with her words.
Mal took another sip of his drink. “Pleasantly surprised?”
Inara mustered up a smile, and absent-mindedly tucked a loose curl behind her ear. “I am. They both really wanted you here. I was afraid Kaylee would have cried crocodile tears today if you hadn’t come.”
He looked to the bride, then, watching her take the dance floor with her new husband. She was laughing insatiably, throwing her head back as he spun her about, before passing her on to her father for a twirl. “Our girl’s lookin’ like quite the bride, don’t she?” He inquired.
Inara giggled sweetly as she admired the spectacle, too. “She does, indeed. It suits her well, I think.”
A momentary pause between them.
And then she’d grabbed him by the hand, dragging him to his feet so suddenly, he nearly tripped at the unforeseen movement. “Now, I don’t think she invited you here just to take advantage of an open bar, Mal,” Inara said as she pushed the reluctant man towards the dance floor.
“Remember the steps, captain?” Inara winked, giving him one last shove before he could protest.
“Hey!” he managed to cry just as he collided into Kaylee.
Upon seeing him, she cried out, and threw up her arms as if she hadn’t known he’d been there this entire time. “Mal! Dance with me, Mal!” She grabbed his arms, and placed one hand at her waist while clasping the other in her own.
All the while, out of the corner of his eye, he was always mindful of the flash of red.
Everyone else was there, too. Zoe was dancing with Simon, River was teaching Emma how to do the waltz, and Inara was trying to help Jayne stay up on his feet. She’d slap his hand away every time it drifted too low, though.
“Mmmm, I love my capt’n,” Kaylee murmured into Mal’s neck during the slow dance, wrapping her arms over his broad shoulders.
“Holy hell, how much have ya had to drink?” he queried, laughing at her predicament.
“Just want you to be happy, Mal. I’m happy. Don’t ya wanna be happy?” Kaylee asked him, pouting when she looked into his face.
His smile fell then. “I am happy, mèimei...,” he reassured her.
“Good. Then you should marry ‘Nara. She’s missed you somethin’ awful, you know,” Kaylee added quite simply, brushing Mal’s shoulders with her fingers in an effort to straighten the suit jacket.
His eyes were drawn to the lady in red in that moment, and she was dancing with Simon, giggling like a schoolgirl as he whispered something into her ear. She locked eyes with him, and then looked away, as if she were unable to hold his gaze. Emma and Zoe were dancing now, with Zoe cradling her daughter against her to the slowing tempo of the live band. Jayne was trying to keep up with River, having made a bargain that if he could manage to dance with her without crushing her feet, she’d give him back Vera, an undertaking everyone knew he’d fail.
Eventually, Simon switched with Jayne for his baby sister, and the intoxicated mercenary was tackle hugged by Kaylee for a dance, leaving Mal and Inara partnerless. He didn’t know what he was thinking when he did it, didn’t know if he was thinking at all, but his heart was swelling at the sight of her so close, so happy, and at the notion that maybe she’d missed him as much as he’d missed her.
He stretched out his hand, and she stared at it at first, perplexed.
“May I have this dance, milady?” He asked her in a mocking tone, smiling all the while, simply happy enough to be in her presence at all.
She graced him with a beautiful smile before taking his hand in hers, and pressing up against him for a slow dance. His hands came to rest on the small of her back, feeling the soft, delicate material of the dress beneath his fingers, and taking in her scent, inebriated by the very idea of her. She had the sweet aroma of vanilla, and it enticed his senses. He was almost dizzy by how close she was, of having her in his arms like this again. She slipped her bare arms around his neck, and they swayed slowly to the soft music in the background.
It was at that time that Mal recalled Kaylee’s innocent little drunken suggestion.
What would that have been like?
To wake up every morning to her lovely form in his bed, her tousled black curls spilling over his pillowcase as she dozed softly. Coming home to Inara, and they’d make dinner together, teasing and flirting in the kitchen. She’d come up behind him, wrap her arms around his waist, and snuggle into his back. He’d kiss her hands, every one of her fingers. They’d make love, sweetly, passionately, and he’d be sure to memorize her body with his hands and his mouth. She’d drive him crazy, no doubt, and there would be the fighting. But then, there would be the apologies in the aftermath, and the promises of starting over again, because, ultimately, he couldn’t live without her anymore, no matter how much he’d push her away sometimes.
It didn’t matter if it was a hole in a backwater moon, or an exquisite mansion the size of St. Albans. If she were there, it would be home.
“I’ve missed you so much...,” she whispered softly then, placing her head in the nook of his shoulder, and bringing him back down to reality. The words weighed heavy when she said them, as if to be filled with an unspoken emotion that she’d kept concealed for years.
She placed a tender, red kiss on the smooth skin of his throat, as gentle as a butterfly’s landing.
Distance makes the heart grow fonder...
That’s what River had told him, all those years ago when the crew had disbanded once and for all.
He hadn’t wanted it to be true back then. He had been missing them even before they’d all left for good. He didn’t want to deal with the agonizing ache of living without them forever. Only, now, he’d realized that he’d been selfish; the rule hadn’t only applied to him. She’d never meant it for him alone, and he was learning that now, watching as his crewmates came together again, not as a crew this time, but as a family reunited at long last.
With the distance, it was as if everything had been stripped away; all the anger, all the petty arguing, the differences that once separated them all. None of it mattered anymore, now that they were together again, celebrating their own happiness after so much despair. The heart grew fonder, it bridged the gaps, closed the distance, and just like it was with him and Inara, they fell back to the root of it all; love, on it’s own, untainted.
The lights dimmed then, as bride and groom ended in one another’s arms again. Simon held her close, and gazed into her face with all the look of a man positively in love, giving the woman he wanted most the treatment she always deserved. Kaylee reached up and pressed her lips softly against his own, and they stayed that way for a while, ignoring everything else around them.
Mal ran his hand up and down Inara’s back slowly, keeping her close to him, even as he watched the happy newlyweds. He could smell her freshly washed hair, and he could feel the rise and fall of her chest against him as she inhaled and exhaled. He could breathe her in all night.
He didn’t want to live out the rest of his days as a tired, old, ex-soldier, doing a menial job, getting paid next to nothing, and hating himself for it all. He didn’t want to be alone, didn’t want to isolate himself from everything he cared about when he didn’t have to.
River, now sitting down and babysitting a passed out Jayne next to her, gave Mal a look and a nod that told him she agreed with his new thinking process. It was all he needed.
So, he didn’t speak, didn’t even give any warning. He lifted Inara’s face by the chin, bent forward, and pressed his mouth against her soft, ruby glossed lips. He cradled her face in his hands as she fell into the intimate embrace, and moaned helplessly against him.
It had taken him most of his life to figure it out, and those were years he’d wasted that he’d never get back, he knew, but that was why he was going to make sure that from now on, every year he spent with them would be cherished.
Everyone dies alone, and that was still true.
But they didn’t have to live this life alone, too...
He knew that now.
yúchǔn de biéjiǎo: stupid, crappy
Wǒde mā: My God