Author's notes: Spoilers for "Heart of Gold." Evangeline from Marseillaise and The Circle, Broken makes a reappearance. Matthew Ryan's lyrics, Joss's creation.
Five Things In A Box
Five Things In A Box
I swear I'll be your someone
I'll come there when you call
Until the last disaster means nothing no more Nothing to me at all
If she had a yellow rose for every man who said he'd come back and ask for her again, she could carpet her floor with the blooms.
He brings her yellow roses when he comes. He strokes her with the petals and he pricks her with the thorns. He tucks them in her hair.
She's trained to recognize what men want, respond to it. He wants to treat someone with kindness. He wants to show someone beauty. He wants to do something simple and good.
"Is this what normal people do?" he asked as she poured him a drink, her apron strings knotted tight. "They come home from work, and they sit and talk about their days?"
"I think so," she replied, and put her arms around him from behind, leaning her cheek on his shoulder.
She thinks she fell in love with him because he's so grateful for normal. Even if it's not her normal.
He hands her a bouquet and she puts it in water. He sheds his dusty boots and clothes and showers while she cooks. She smiles at him and he eats what she puts in front of him and compliments her. Sometimes he takes her to bed right away. Sometimes he helps her with the dishes. She washes. He dries.
But always he takes flowers out of the water and slips them into her curls. One night he took her hand and danced her around the kitchen, humming a song she didn't recognize, something with a twang and sweet Chinese words about budding and spring.
The petals crushed beneath them felt cool against their hot skin.
The first time, when he told her he'd return in six weeks on his next run to Boros, she smiled and said she would look forward to it. But she didn't clear her schedule. The Heart of Gold had lots of customers, and if they couldn't have Nandi, they wanted her. There was money to be made, and no Companion ever got rich off the constancy of men.
She was out on a date when he came. Didn't make a fuss, Nandi said, just left her a message. Yellow rosebuds strewn across her threshold, scattered on her bed.
The next time he called first.
She learned he didn't want to talk when she asked about his nightmares and he turned away. She learned he didn't want to make decisions here. He wanted simple. He didn't have it anywhere else. Here, he didn't want to fight.
For two years now he'd been coming, first of April, third of December, seventh of July, twelfth of October. And in between no letters, no waves, no emissaries like some of her other clients. No offers to put her up in a real nice apartment, no pleas to come away from all this and marry him. He knew her, and she knew him.
Better to keep the lives they could tolerate, and visit now and then.
Lying beside him on their ninth night, the conversation lulling, she turned, like a child at a sleep-over party, and asked if she could play a game with him.
Mystified, he nodded. "It goes like this," she said, remembering what Nandi had told her to say, try this if what you want is to get him talking. "You're meeting someone new. Your only way of communicating is through a box. Inside this box you can place five things to see, or touch, or smell, or taste, to tell someone who you are."
His eyes were so, so blue. God, if she let herself, what she wouldn't feel for him.
"What's in the box?"
He slipped a silver ring off the fourth finger of his right hand. "This," he said, handing it to her. "It's from the girl I lost in the war."
"Cinnamon," he continued, as she pushed the ring over her thumb, where it rattled loose. "My mother used to put it in our rum and tea in the winter to keep us warm out on the fences. Cinnamon sticks, rough and spicy."
"To smell or taste?"
"Both." He kissed her ear gently. "Though it don't smell much till you grind it."
"A kitten's fur," he said. "Head hand on my mother's ranch kept a kitten in his cabin. Strictly against the rules. Meanest man you ever did meet, but he loved this kitten somethin' fierce."
She couldn't help herself, she laughed aloud. "A rough, hard man with a little pet?"
He smiled, stroking her hair. "Yep. Animals take up warmth and food that's needed for people, so he hid it under his bunk at night. Wasn't much of a secret, though. Quiet out there. You could hear the mewing for a country mile.
"Nice little thing. Used to curl up in my rucksack to sleep, sometimes I'd carry it halfway through the paddock before I realized I had a stowaway."
"This." He buried his face in her hair, and she felt him brush his forehead on the nape of her neck. His skin smelled like woodsmoke, and she realized, she has no idea where he goes when he's not here. She's always here, waiting, and he knows where to find her.
She wondered who else was on that ship of his, whether there were women, if he loved one of them, but she's the one who doesn't ask him difficult questions. She can't say a word about it now. You can't sew yourself a coat and then complain about how tight it fits.
"One more thing." She smiled when she spoke, and the words came out sweeter than they tasted.
"Could you record a song, put it in this box?" he asked.
"I think so." She rubbed at a knot in his back, feeling tension yield beneath her hands. She was very good at what she did. "What's the song," she asked, "sing it for me?"
"Come all who believe," he crooned, still muffled by her shoulder. "Come all ye, come all ye, all who still have hope ..."
And she froze, going cold from her toes to her fingertips.
"I'm sorry, 'Nara, what is it?" He pulled back, his eyes on her face. "I didn't mean to --"
She cursed herself for the tears she brushed away, the clatter of her teeth together. It was six years ago, and it wasn't like they hadn't expected it. Her mother ...
"It was after the war," she whispered, barely recognizing her own voice. "The Independence marched across Valerian, burning as they went. Carbon smoking over the sky for days, and every day it was closer. There was still some Alliance resistance ..."
"Pockets of fighters, wily ones, too," he nodded. "We all heard about the snipers they had. For days, Zoe slept in her helmet, even indoors."
"My brother was one of them," she said, not looking at him. "They caught him late one night, trying to pick off a group of officers drinking at a tavern. But it wasn't enough to shoot him, Mal."
The anger rose in her throat like bile, after six years it still tasted sour. "They had to hang him from the town sign, as a warning to the others. And when they turned themselves in, Peter's friends, boys who had eaten in our kitchen and pulled on my braids ..." Her mother, who had weathered Pete's death, saw Jackson and Jesse and Jameson, and screamed ...
Now it was Mal who wouldn't look up. "They hanged them beside him. I know, Inara. We all heard about the Canaryville Fusiliers. You have to understand, after Serenity Valley, how angry they were, how fixed on revenge ..."
She slipped out of bed, the air cold on her bare skin, and stood at the window, her back to him.
"They'd won," she whispered. "They didn't seem angry. They sang that when they killed him."
"Inara, you don't know -" he let out a rough breath. "The Alliance did terrible things in Serenity. You have to understand, we were about to surrender, and still they kept coming, kept ..."
"And we were innocent," she said evenly. "As innocent as you. Neither of us has to understand any more than that."
She turned to face him, and he rose in the bed, leaning on one elbow. A scar raked his chest from shoulder to ribcage. She had kissed it an hour ago, tended it as tenderly as if the wound were her own.
When you live through something you don't need to understand it later. It's something they have in common, the two of them.
She slipped back into the bed, and he circled her cold wrist with his fingers. And steeling herself, she turned to him and pressed her mouth to his.
"Are we finished?" he asked, not quite steady.
"We are," she said. "Close the box."
He didn't come back the next first of April, nor the next third of December. And she tried to tell herself and Nandi that she wasn't disappointed. He'd never sent her letters, nor waves, nor pleas for marriage, and he didn't send her apologies for their missed appointments, even though she cleared her schedule and she waited.
He did, one day in June, send her a box, made of polished wood and silver, with a lid that swung on brass hinges that creaked when she opened it. She dipped her fingers in, and buried her hand up to the wrist in rose petals.
Title: Five Things In A Box
Series Name: The Way We Never Met
Author: Athenae [website]
Details: Series | R | het | 8k | 05/10/04
Characters: Malcolm, Inara
Pairings: Mal/Inara, Mal/Other
Summary: Fifth and final in a series of things that didn't happen to Mal. The Independence won the war, and no Companion ever got rich on the constancy of men.
Notes: Spoilers for "Heart of Gold." Evangeline from Marseillaise and The Circle, Broken makes a reappearance. Matthew Ryan's lyrics, Joss's creation.
Sequel to: The Circle, Broken