She was content with the world she’d chosen.
The planet had terraformed almost perfectly—she’d heard horror stories over the years about planets made of ice, or gas, or too tropical for habitation. She’d seen planets that were marshy or half-desert: unfarmable, untenable, uninviting.
But Calliope was a stroke of luck. It was lush and greenly fertile in the rural areas that surrounded the city, Mnemosyne, the singular metropolis of the world. The city sat on the lip of a harbor, the gate to a salt lake that spanned the horizon. Inara knew there was another shore; lakes did not stretch out into nothingness, like out in the black, they had finite beginnings and ends. She’d just never seen that other shore, not yet.
Her property was larger than she’d thought she could afford, but lots were cheap when the bans first went out, before it was known throughout the ‘verse what kind of new garden had been built. She’d staked her claim on a patch of land on a map and a bare description—a small hill terminating in a freshwater pond and a meadow bounded by boulders. The government wording failed to detail the serene flat lea, the stark white pilasters of granite-like stone that marked the four corners of her land like unwavering sentries, the cove of aspens along one border and the few willows that dotted the others. She had signed away a portion of her savings on a picture in her mind: a house and a hill, a place with seasons and a wide open sky. Her arrival here had thrilled her; she had sunk to her knees atop the hill and simply looked, drinking it in, the mountains to the south, the cool green pond below the hill, a swathe of soft grasses that sighed in the wind. It soothed an ache so new, she’d not yet learned to ignore it.
She talked to Kaylee often when she set up her camp, using a jerry-rigged comms device that afforded a blurry, incomplete picture. Kaylee was fretful and encouraging at once, her “that’s awful nice”s and “sounds real pretty”s laced with anxiousness and worry. She often schooled Inara on how to deal with the builders and journeymen working on the construction of her cottage and green house. “Don’t let ‘em fleece you none on the lumber, nor the labor. They’ll pad those costs ‘fore you can count ‘em for yourself,” she advised, a tremor in her voice. It was Kaylee’s stern, sad voice, but the words and warnings were Mal’s. Inara knew this, and it comforted her and annoyed her in disproportionate amounts, depending on her mood.
She’d planned her settling well—she came at the start of spring, camped out and arranged her affairs through the cool summer and autumn. When the aspens began to shed their leaves, she was tucked safe in her new house. The floors were shined and soft, the walls still smelling sweetly of the trees from which they’d been hewn.
He came with winter, arriving on her doorstep with the first deep snow.
It was late afternoon, the light already dying. Inara stood by a window, a cup of hot tea cradled to her chest, and contemplated the sweep of aspens she could see from the living area of her little house. It was warm inside; she’d had the fire burning steadily for days, banked low at night and fed high and hot again in the mornings. She wore an old silken camisole, a remainder of the times before, and a pair of loose, drawstring pants that stopped well above her ankles. She wore her hair in a careless pile on the crown of her head, curls shaken loose about her ears and neck. Her skin was flushed with the tea and the heat of the fire, the silk against her body. The snow had just begun to fall, and she watched it with wonder, fascination. She heard the door click open and closed again behind her, but the sight of icy, fat flakes falling kept her riveted, her feet flat against the floor.
He brought the cold with him, the smell of ice and snow wafting from his overcoat and skin. He waited, standing behind her in that wide, easy stance of his. After a moment, she heard him sigh, felt the impatient puff of air at the nape of her neck. She set her tea on the window ledge, and as soon as her hands were free, Mal had them gripped in his own as he spun her around, pinning her arms behind her back by her wrists. He was smiling a little as he kissed her, his familiar mouth hard and insistent at hers. She pulled against his hold on her even as she poured herself forward and into him, kissing him with her eyes closed.
His face was cold and rough with stubble, his hands frigid and thawing where he held her. Inara pulled back a hairsbreadth as though looking for air and instead bit his lip, just hard enough to surprise him, not hard enough to break the skin. He loosened his hands, opened his eyes, and she smiled as she fisted her hand in his hair, pulling him back to her with one hand. His arms were around her, crushing her to the heavy woolen coat he wore, that he wouldn’t let go of her long enough to let her remove. She bit him again, digging her nails into his scalp, saying his name impatiently. And it was his turn to smile, to let her go as he stripped himself of coat and shoes and pulled her towards the fire.
It was always like this, the first time they came together again after any kind of absence or lapse—hot and fierce and hard. They held each other not tenderly but painfully, bruising each other, branding each other. When he lifted her off her feet, she wound her legs about him so tightly it made him grunt in protest. They shed their clothes blindly, groped with closed eyes and tense hands to feel each other, the hard breathing, the wanting. When they were stripped to the waist and Mal stumbling under the weight of her in his arms, he tore himself from her mouth long enough to gasp, “bed?”
She threw her head back, and her hair tumbled down her back, startling her. She felt suddenly aware of herself as she hadn’t been before. She cupped his face in her hands and smoothed the shadows under his eyes with her thumbs. “Upstairs,” she said hoarsely. “In the loft.”
“Cào bǐ,” he muttered. In one swift movement, they were on the floor, grasping and fighting where they lay.
After, they stayed tangled together a long moment. Inara let her head loll to one side; she watched the flames in their well lick at the chimney. She stretched beneath him, relishing the feel of the weight of him, his body on hers, the delicious tired ache at her core. He was breathing in the crook of her neck, trying to slow his heart. When he pushed off her and rolled away, they stayed on the floor, side by side and not touching, quiet.
“The door was locked, Captain,” she said.
He snorted. “Suǒ yǐ?”
“Suǒ yǐ, Mal, most people knock on locked doors.”
“I ain’t most people,” he said, rolling over to look at her.
She turned her face to his. “No, you’re not.”
Mal gestured widely with one hand. “Nice house.”
“Mm,” she murmured sleepily. “You should see it in summer. Everything green, even the light…” She sighed. “It’s quiet, secluded. Like its own little world.”
He cleared his throat. “Won’t stay that way.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Sure do,” he said sadly. “Nothing stays this perfect long.”
She sighed, her eyes closed, and reached out to him, her hand over his heart. “Mal,” she said softly. “Xū, fǔ. Please?”
He blinked slowly. “Yeah.”
“Hungry?” she asked. “I’ve got fresh—well, everything,” she said.
“You gonna cook for me, woman?” he asked, amused.
“No,” she said pertly. “But I will put food on a plate.”
They ate in front of the fire, draped in soft blankets, sharing a plate of greens from Inara’s hothouse and cured meat she’d traded for in the city. They talked idly, about Kaylee and the baby, Jayne’s arrest for drunken carousing on a backwater rock, anything and nothing. It was easy and comfortable, almost, Inara thought, normal. She curled up in her blanket, watching Mal pick at the plate of berries and mint, his mouth stained red from the fruit. The wind moaned in the eaves, a hollow sound that made him shudder. She put out her hand to him, wiping the stain of juice from his lower lip, quieting him.
“It’s only the wind,” she teased.
“’S a funny sound,” he said.
She studied him a moment, her hand pressed to his cheek. Every time she saw him, he seemed thinner, older, more tired and sad, and it set an ache in her chest that made tears rise in her eyes and her fingers tremble. She got to her feet, letting the blanket fall around her, and stood naked before him. She beckoned him with one hand, and he followed her wordlessly to the stairs. He scooped her up, carried her up to the bed in the tiny loft, cradled in his arms. She kissed the creases in his neck, the corner of his jaw.
It was slower this time, as was their custom. The need was never spent, but the urgency, the pressure to prove was gone. They moved together deliberately, with long languorous kisses and teasing touches. They were never too gentle with each other, never tentative, but when they came together in this softer, slower way, they touched to touch, and looked to look, kissed and held each other with eyes open and aware. And afterwards, they lay together, skin to skin, each unwilling to withdraw.
The moon on the snow lit the house with a strange, ethereal white glow. Mal played with her hair, lost in thought, and stared out the window at the bare trees laden with ice. She asked him how long, and he took an eternity to answer, she thought, to look back at her and say he’d go when the way was clear and the snow not so high.
Because she didn’t know how long this would be—she never did—she kissed him sweetly and folded him in her arms, kissing the top of his head, his brow, his eyes, and they began again, slow and playful and thoughtful, and he fell asleep when the sky was pink with dawn, drained but, Inara thought, happy.
She knew he wouldn’t wait for the snow to clear. Sometime in the days to come, when he thought she wasn’t looking, he’d begin to fidget, to look beyond the window and see the sky as something less than open and good. It was the cloth enclosure of this little world holding him down, and were she not in it, he’d not have stayed even the handful of days that he might. She wanted to blame him, but it wasn’t his fault, and she thought he’d stay if he could. She knew when he looked at her, when he thought she wasn’t looking, that he would bind himself to her forever if he could, if forever weren’t so still and solid as what she’d chosen. But she didn’t ask him to stay; she knew it would be a betrayal, a hurt, and he wasn’t ready to anchor himself to anything more solid than a ship. He didn’t ask her to go; they’d tried in the black, but everything turned inward, folded in on itself. Corridors and closed doors, they were circuitous and circular. Nothing ever ended but simply continued to trace its own path in endless, wearying cycles. There was too much space without and not enough within to make it anything other than a futile, painful exercise.
Someday, she thought, he would need to rest. And someone who loved him less than she would force him to look at the length and breadth of his life and how long he’d spent running, spinning his wheels, and he would come to her, ready to be still. But someday wasn’t a promise he could keep, only a notion she held that he rarely thought of in the black, when days and nights were nothing but the same space he passed through. She took what scraps she could: winter nights like this, holding him close against her breast, the unexpected visits she knew he’d make, and delight in making as long as he could come and go at his choosing. She had a life here, a house and farm, trees, wind, water, and a trade making trinkets of jewelry, painting, gilding the lily as she’d been doing for as long as she could remember, but solitary and quiet. Waiting.
She stroked Mal’s hair, and he sighed in his sleep. She watched the sunrise over the white expanse of the frozen meadow outside; the aspens and the willows shook with the breeze. She whispered her endearments and her love, kissed him softly, and waited.
Cào bǐ: fuck that
Suǒ yǐ?: So?
Xū, fǔ: hush, for now