The word spun through his mind as they glided through the cosmos. Everything felt different; Serenity felt different.
True, she needed quite a rebuild after her crash landing at Mr. Universe’s front door, but her parts were largely unchanged. (Not too many spare parts left for Firefly Class ships these days, but they’d made it work.) She was still flyin’, which was more than he’d expected a month earlier, but still it wasn’t the same.
He considered himself in tune with his ship as any good captain should be. Maybe he didn’t speak Serenity’s mechanical language quite as well as Kaylee, but his feelings didn’t originate only in the engine room. They poured from every surface; every nut, every bolt. Serenity felt different.
Malcolm Reynolds felt different.
Maybe that was it. The ship—she remained the same, but her captain had not. Things happened. On Haven. On Miranda. In that underground transponder room with The Operative. And everywhere in between. They were down two members of their crew—three, by day’s end—and things were just…different.
Traversing the raised walkways of the cargo bay, Mal momentarily wondered whether Serenity knew she had a new pilot at the helm; if she felt Wash’s absence as much as the rest of them. River was a decent pilot—especially for one without any formal training. Then again, with the smarts that girl had formal schooling seemed almost a moot point. She would get better over time, he was sure of that (and, in truth, he’d have to mandate it; Serenity couldn’t handle too many more of those hard landings) but it would never be the same.
He paused momentarily at the stairs leading into the transport shuttle; Inara’s former home. The rest of the crew had disembarked the ship almost immediately after it had landed and he was glad for that. Kaylee and Simon went in search of mechanical supplies; River had tagged along. Zoe and Jayne were off putting out feelers for work, though they very much doubted there would be any on this planet; this close to civilization they were bound to still be reeling from Alliance fallout.
Mal’s designated task that day was to fly Inara back to the training house, unload her forgotten trunk, and return to the ship alone—a trip he was very much not looking forward to taking. Saying goodbye to Inara the first time had been hard enough. After everything that had happened, he feared a second would be unbearable, but what choice did he have?
Sucking in a deep breath, he jogged up the steps into the shuttle and found her crouched on the floor in front of her trunk, her delicate fingers skimming over the colorful silken fabrics within. Clearing his throat to rid the feelings threatening to crack his voice he asked, “Ready?”
She rose steadily to a standing position before turning to face him. He could read nothing from her expression; her face remained in its placid state; the one drilled into her during her years of Companion training. “I suppose.”
Mal’s eyebrows rose slightly at her uncertain sounding response. Though she’d initially expressed doubt about returning to the training house this soon, when he’d informed her of their destination planet, she spoke no protest. Considering this a minute he told her, “Well, you don’t have to go now. I mean, I ain’t kickin’ you out or nothin’. Thing is—don’t know when we’ll be back ’round these parts.”
She let out a small puff of air and flashed a half smile. “Right. I don’t want to be in your way.”
“Don’t make no difference to me ’slong as you stay in the shuttle.” He’d meant the words to sound light, but as usual his attempt at humor fell flat and instead they sounded perturbed. Realizing he was merely making things worse, he took two steps towards the shuttle’s cockpit. His trajectory was halted by a disapproving tongue-click from the female in the room. He glanced over at her.
“Really Mal?” she asked, defeated. “You’re going to make the same mistake twice?”
His brow furrowed as he looked at her, unsure what she meant to imply.
Folding her arms over her chest, Inara shifted her weight to one hip. Why was it that men were always so stupid? They needed a handwritten invitation for everything, didn’t they? “If you want me to stay, Mal, why don’t you just ask?”
Oh. That was her meaning. Well, the thing of it was: it wasn’t that simple.
Did he want her to stay? Of course. For a long list of reasons. First and foremost of which he’d lost enough of his crew already. Life was beginning to feel like the war all over again. Who would be gone this day? What about the next? He wanted them to get back to normal—or as close to it as they could get—and Inara staying aboard Serenity would certainly aid in that trajectory, but it was more than that.
He missed her every single day she’d been gone from his life, his ship. An aching, a clawing in his gut—he felt it every moment his mind was left to wander. He’d sit in his bunk and watch that ridiculous recording Kaylee made over and over just so he wouldn’t forget the light in her smile or the way her curls bounced around her shoulders when she turned her head.
The notion was ridiculous—preposterous. The two of them together. They fought continuously. They had different viewpoints on almost everything. Yet, what was that thing Kaylee always said? The heart wants what the heart wants. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure he had enough heart left for it to want anything.
As he’d spent more than several moments staring at her blankly stuck in his own contemplation, Inara viewed his silence as cowardice. She shook her head disapprovingly at him before moving towards the cockpit, but as she passed him she felt a hand close around her bicep. She looked down at the hand, weathered but still feeling warm against her bare flesh, and then back up at the man it was attached to. His gaze was turned away from her, but she knew that meant he was breaking just a little bit.
He swallowed hard and wet his lips with his tongue before saying gently. ”You ever think maybe the reason I ain’t asked is I ain’t sure what your answer might be?”
Inara’s jaw fell open a little bit. He wasn’t sure? He wasn’t sure!? How could he not be sure? After everything they’d been through together… “How can you-”
“No.” He cut her off, finally meeting her gaze. “Not like that. I don’t want you to return as a companion.”
Inara’s lips pressed together and she turned her body so she faced him at a better angle. Intrigued, she waited for him to continue.
Mal removed his hand from her arm and looped his thumbs into the belt of his gun holster. “If I ask you to stay, Inara, it’ll be as one of the crew. You ride with us, you work with us. Kaylee told me you weren’t too shy with a bow back there when it came down to it. That could be of some use.”
“So that’s what you want? Another gunman?” The words shot from her mouth before she’d even thought. Her chest heaved as she stared him down. Unbelievable! He was unbelievable! If he only—oh. He looked away from her, his eyes filled with that hollowness she knew all too well. The one that made her want to wrap her arms around him and never let go.
“That’s not the only reason.”
With a gentle smile on her face, she took a half step towards him so all she had to do was whisper. “So ask me.”
His heart now thudding well above regular pace within his chest, Mal met her gaze. He stared into her big, loving eyes for several moments before asking her, “Why did you leave?”
She tilted her head to the side. Of course—of course he was deflecting, but she should have expected it; that was the man he was and her heart had chosen this man for every piece of him: dented, shattered, and rusted as many of them were. She could barely think about the moment; the one that made the decision for her. It ate at her when she lay alone in her bed at night, but now, finally, she had the opportunity to do something about it.
Inara lifted her right hand and pressed the pads of her fingers against Mal’s jaw. “Because,” she told him, “I couldn’t face seeing you with another woman ever again.”
Mal felt it—the tether snap. That was the moment, the confirmation that she wanted him as just as much as he wanted her and, damn, it had been long enough, hadn’t it? His body reacted before his mind had a chance to catch up and his lips were on hers in an instant. These were not the subtle sweet first kisses of tentative new lovers, but the frantic feverous ones of unrequited love and forbidden desires.
When, after a minute, they took a breath, staring at each other with heavy-lidded eyes, Mal cradled Inara’s jaw with his hands. “Stay here. With me.” It was a request, not a demand, and he held his breath waiting for her response.
She smiled, slow and wide. “You’re not even going to say please?”
He laughed and then kissed her, but that’s where all humor dissipated and desire overtook them both. Hands roamed, lips parted, and passion took over. It was only when Mal began groping for the zipper on her dress that she stopped them. “No,” she said, breathily as she shook her head. “Not in here.”
Mal gazed down at her and nodded with understanding. If they were to start a new life, a different life, it couldn’t be in the shuttle, the place where she’d bedded many other men.
How they made it to the bridge, he never knew. With Inara’s lips on his throat he’d practically forgotten the layout of his own ship, but she’d guided them on their way. Finally they reached the hatch leading to his bunk where Mal faced his next challenge: remembering how to climb a ladder. He managed easily enough and then waited at the bottom for her to climb down. Before her feet reached the bottom rung, he plucked her from the ladder and giggled right along with her as he tossed her onto his bed.
There, he gazed down at her. Black hair a bit less perfect than usual, red lips plumped from their kissing, and sultry eyes beckoning him forward. Desire pulsed from every cell in his being; he was intoxicated with her and he knew in that instant that she would be well worth the wait.
“You’re going to be ok with this, right?” Mal asked later after they’d made love and fallen asleep only to wake and explore each other’s bodies once more.
She grumbled and lifted her head from his chest to look at him. “Hmm?”
“You’re okay with being one of the crew? Being,” he skimmed his hand down her back and squeezed her ass as he spoke, “under me.”
“If I recall correctly, you were just under me, Captain.”
He laughed deeply at the memory then straightened his expression. “You know to what I’m referring.”
She nodded and pushed herself up into a sitting position. Truthfully, she’d been ready to give up the Companion life for quite some time; that was why she took the position at the training house. Helping young girls she didn’t mind so much; it was the clients she needed a break from. Her life would be different as part of the crew of Serenity; that was for sure, but she was more than willing to accept the challenge.
“Yes, Mal. Serenity is my home…and now so are you,” she added a bit quieter.
Mal sat up, kissed her, and then slid from bed. “The others will be back soon. Do you have belongings to retrieve from the training house?”
She nodded and reached out for the undergarments he passed her. “Yes; I’ll take the shuttle and get them myself. I…” She paused momentarily and watched him fasten his pants with a slight pang of disappointment. “What are we going to tell the others?”
His response was quick and simple. Captain Reynolds had returned.
“Nothing.” He repeated his statement despite her warning.
She stood from the bed and scooped her dress off the floor. “What do you mean nothing?”
“I mean what I mean. This ain’t nobody’s business but ours.”
She shook her head at him. “But they’re our family.”
“They’re my crew.” He countered, pulling up one suspender at a time. He’d placed one foot on the ladder leading to the bridge when she stopped him.
“How can you be that way? After everything we’ve been through?” She challenged. If any group was family; it was theirs. No questions.
Seeing her frustration and distress, Mal softened his tone. “Look, I’m not sayin’ we’ll never tell them. We just…there don’t gotta be a formal announcement ’sall.”
Inara nodded, conceding to this. Mal was a very close-to-the-vest person and she respected that; she did. Still… “I understand that, but it’s a small ship. They’re going to figure it out.”
“So let ’em,” was his final comment on the issue before disappearing up the ladder.
Mal spent the next hour on the bridge, alone with his thoughts. He sat in the pilot’s chair, his eyes drifting over Serenity’s many instruments before gazing out through the windows and up into the sky. Despite having a Shepherd on board for many months, Mal felt no more interest in God that he had before. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from sending a silent thank you into the cosmos for Inara choosing to stay with them. For her being brave enough to fight for them when he wasn’t convinced he would have been.
The prior few hours had certainly brought interesting developments on that front, hadn’t they? He always knew she was a beautiful, sexy, strong, independent woman; being with her only confirmed that. And now that they were… well, what were they?
He intended for them to be together and thought she felt the same, but they certainly hadn’t spelled anything out. She was leaving the companion life behind—for him—and while that brought him great joy, it also came with no small amount of trepidation. The last time he was in a relationship with a woman had been before the war. He was different back then. He wasn’t sure he knew how to be in a relationship with anyone; not anymore. Not with the way they lived. Then again, he was more than positive Inara would let him know the second he did anything wrong.
Sounds of chatter and laughter pulled Mal from his thoughts. He walked into the kitchen to find his crew had returned, save Inara. Momentarily he wonder if she’d run into any trouble at the training house, but he shook the thought off; she would have sent a wave if that was the case.
“Any luck?” he asked Zoe and Jayne.
Jayne scoffed. “Whole lotta nothin’.”
“Sorry, Sir,” Zoe added.
Mal shook his head. “’sall right. Wasn’t expecting much.”
“Are we leaving then, Cap’n?” Kaylee asked from her seat beside Simon. Their fingers were linked together and resting on the tabletop. For some reason, this outward display of affection bothered Mal less than it had the day before.
“Soon enough. We’re waiting for one more.”
The crew exchanged glances and River counted the number of people in the room. When they both arrived at the same perplexing conclusion Zoe asked, “Sir?”
“Well as you may have noticed our crew’s become a mite smaller these past few weeks; thought we could do with an addition,” he explained simply.
“Who?” Kaylee questioned.
“I don’t know if I’d call myself an addition…more like a return.” Inara spoke as she stepped into the kitchen and walked up beside Mal. The two of them exchanged a look before Inara was knocked off balance by Kaylee’s powerful hug.
“Are you really staying? Really really?” she asked.
Inara laughed and gave her a squeeze. “Yes, but-”
“Inara will be joining the crew.” Mal finished for her.
Again the group exchanged glances. Sensing their confusion, Inara clarified. “I won’t be a companion; just a member of the crew.”
“Not a companion anymore?” Kaylee asked. “Ever?” Inara shook her head in response.
“Right, so let’s all keep that in mind. River, why don’t-”
“Hold on,” Inara interrupted. Mal glanced at her. “Is that all?”
“That’s all I’ve got to say on the matter,” he told her simply. He knew what she was implying, but they’d already had this discussion and he made his decision. “River-”
Once again he was cut off by Inara. This time, with an extremely irritated “Honestly!” as she folded her arms over her chest.
Mal stomped his foot on the ground and looked over at her, exhausted. “Why are you mad at me now?”
“You know why.”
“We had this discussion.”
“No, you decided—I didn’t agree!”
He threw his hands up in frustration. “This is how it’s gonna be now ain’t it?” He proclaimed before letting out a string of Chinese curses.
While River laughed, Kaylee sunk back down into her seat beside a very confused Simon. “Am I…missing something?” Simon asked her quietly.
“I think so,” she responded dumbly, “But I’m not sure I believe it.” Turning to Zoe for confirmation, Kaylee asked, “Did they?”
“Oh I believe they did.” Zoe confirmed with a tone of amazement.
“Huh.” Kaylee laughed, sitting back in her chair and gazing across the room where the new couple was now arguing at progressively louder decibels.
“I’m sorry, I still don’t understand what’s going on.” Simon chimed in.
Kaylee smiled at her boyfriend. “They’re a couple now.”
Simon’s jaw dropped. He looked at Inara and Mal, back at Kaylee, then repeated the process twice more. “No…”
“’fraid so,” Kaylee laughed.
“Damn it.” Jayne grunted. “This is what it’s going to be like now ain’t it? ’cept now after they argue we’re gonna have to listen to ’em screw each other’s brains out.”
“Pretty much,” Kaylee said with a smile. Then, she leaned her head against Simon’s shoulder as the five of them watched the show. “Welcome to the new normal.”