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Greatest Power in the 'Verse

Chapter Text

December 13

"Whoa. That was… that was…"

"Shiny?" She was out of breath, panting, and so was he, their bodies slicked with sweat that hadn't yet begun to cool.

"Definitely." Simon flopped his head back against the pillow with a contented groan. "I never thought that… just… wow. Shiny."

He laughed, and Kaylee joined in before kissing the laughter from his lips. "Again?" she murmured against his mouth, and he laughed again.

"Just… give me a minute. I need to recover first."

"Okay." She kissed him soundly and then curled into the crook of his arm, resting her head against his shoulder. "Tell me a story then."

"A story?"

"Yeah. What were you like as a kid? I bet you were awful smart, zhēn de shì tiān cái."

"Well, I guess so, but that's not really interesting."

"Tell me about a time you got in trouble then." She grinned at him mischievously.

"When I was a kid?"

"Yeah."

"All right. Let me think." He rubbed a gentle circle on her shoulder blade with his thumb as he thought. "Well, there was this time when I found where my parents had hidden our presents before Christmas. I wasn't looking, not really, but River and I were playing hide and seek, and I'd picked a spot in our parent's closet. I'd edged right into the far corner when I realized that there were toys in there – toys we'd asked for. When River found me, we pulled everything out to look at it. We put it all back when we'd finished… or we thought we did.

"We must have missed it when we tried to put everything back how it was. Just a little plastic spaceship, almost the same colour as the carpet. Easy to overlook." He paused to press a kiss to her forehead, wiping her damp hair to the side. "When my parents found it on the floor that night, they were furious. I thought we were going to be in so much trouble."

"What happened?"

"River. She told them she'd seen the cat playing with it earlier, had no idea where he'd got it from."

"And that worked?"

"Yep. We just had to pretend to be surprised on Christmas morning. It wasn't much fun though, knowing what we were getting. We never looked again."

"So, that's it then? That's the best you could do for a story 'bout you gettin' into trouble?" She giggled at his expression.

"You mean until I broke into a top-secret Alliance lab to free my sister so we could live a thrilling life on the run as fugitives?"

"Well, that one sorta tops the other one." She squeezed him tightly, wrapping one of her legs around his. "For what it's worth, it brought you here. Not a bad thing, way I see it."

"Not a bad thing at all."

They lay in silence, listening to the comforting hum of Serenity's engine spinning.

"It's almost Christmas now," she murmured. "Time's always so funny when you're out in the black. Always losin' track of it."

"Does the crew do anything to celebrate? Do you any of you try to go home, see your families?"

"Nah, we're all too spread out. Might be nice to do somethin' this year though, after everything. Bet I could rig up a tree real pretty if we had one." She paused with a dreamy look in her eyes.

"Why don't we?"

"What?"

"Get a tree. Make some food that isn't reconstituted protein. Celebrate… being together."

Kaylee lifted her head to rest her chin on her arm that was folded across his shoulder. "Do you think the Cap'n would go for it?"

"He might, especially if it came from you. You're very good at convincing people of what's good for them, you know." He leaned in to capture her lips in a slow, unhurried kiss. "It worked on me."

"So, should I kiss him, too?" she asked playfully, nipping at his bottom lip.

"Hmm… can't say that I would like that much," he managed between kisses. "Surely he has someone else that he could be kissing. Like Jayne."

Kaylee laughed, her mouth still against his. "Should be Inara he's kissin'. If the two of 'em could just quit bickerin' and put their mouths to better uses, they'd be much better off."

"Like this?" Simon kissed the rim of her ear before biting down gently on her ear lobe.

She sighed happily. "Yes, very much like that."

"Well, maybe after you successfully pitch your Christmas idea," he grabbed her hip, urging her on top of him, "you can sell the captain on your matchmaking scheme."

"It's not a scheme… not yet anyhow." She straddled him, the blanket falling down around her waist as she leaned forward to press a more heated kiss to his mouth. "So… again?"

"Again," he replied hungrily. "You're going to be the death of me, I swear."


December 14

"So, tell me, what's so ruttin' important that we have to meet in the middle of the night?" Jayne rubbed his eyes and pushed his chair a little further away from the table with one booted foot. He gave a mumbled grunt that might have been another curse and blinked at Kaylee. "You plannin' to enlighten us? And how come Mal gets to sleep?"

Kaylee bounced on her toes once or twice before stopping herself, looking around at each of the bleary faces seated around the table in the galley, barely able to contain herself. "It's simple." She placed both palms flat on the top of the table and leaned in conspiratorially. "I got us a job."

Zoe raised an eyebrow.

"A job?" Jayne folded his arms over his chest and sighed. "You got me up for that? Could've waited for a decent hour."

"No, it can't. You see," Kaylee glanced behind her toward the corridor that contained the crew quarters, "it concerns the Cap'n."

"In what way?" Zoe was eyeing her with curiosity.

"Well, not just the Cap'n, I guess. Him an'… Inara." She could barely keep the excitement bubbling inside her stomach in check.

If possible, Zoe's eyebrows rose even higher. River was quiet, spinning a spoon in careful revolutions with one fingertip, but Kaylee could tell she was listening. Simon hadn't said anything, only because she'd already told him what she wanted to do.

Now was the crucial part of convincin' them all to help. They could pull this off if everyone did their bit – she just knew it would.

"We all know how bad it was when Inara left, how much the Cap'n drew into himself. Got all angry inside. He was hurtin' and we could all see it." She swallowed, remembering, and she could tell from the looks on their faces that they had all seen the truth of it, too. Even River was watching her now. "When she came back, I thought they would finally see reason. But, it's been nearly two months now and they're still circlin' each other like a pair of coyotes. Bitin' each other, and not in the good way."

She took her hands from the table and paced back and forth as she continued, unable to keep from moving.

"They're both so gorram stubborn. But, I got to thinkin' that maybe… maybe we could help nudge things along. Get 'em movin' in the proper direction. I don't want to trick 'em or nothin', just… smooth the way a bit. And, since Christmas is comin', thought maybe the time was right."

"Wait… this job of yours is to get Mal and Inara to hook up." Jayne snorted. "You woke me up for that?"

Kaylee fixed him with a steely glare. "I did."

"Qù nĭ de! I'm going back to bed." He shoved his chair back and stood up.

"No! Wait! There's somethin' in it for you."

He looked at her with furrowed brows. "For me? Like what? Do I get to watch?"

"No." She reached into the pocket of her coveralls and drew out a small stack of crumpled bills and a few platinum coins and tossed them on the table. "A bribe."

Jayne paused. "Bribery is good. Not much of a bribe though."

"It's all I've got left after the last job went belly up." She sighed.

"Kaylee, I know you wanna help, but I don't think it's our place." Zoe's voice was tired, it always was these days.

"Look, it's not like we'd be forcin' 'em together. We just need to do a little, um..." She blushed, a faint pink tinge coming into her cheeks. "Do a little… contrivin' to help them do it on their own. You know the Cap'n best of all of us, Zoe. We can't do this without you helpin'."

"We? I ain't committed to nothin'." Jayne rifled through the oil-smudged pile of bank notes. "Not much here to make it worth my while."

"Deal the cards. Ante up. Everybody in, everybody wins." River's whisper carried over the table although she didn't look up from her spoon.

"More riddles? She ever gonna speak plain, Doc?"

Simon opened his mouth, but Kaylee jumped in before he could speak.

"Oh! That's a great idea, super shiny!" River smiled at her and Kaylee eye's sparkled as she leaned over the table once more. "We make it a bet!"

"A bet?" Simon frowned.

"Yeah! A wager! We all kick in somethin' valuable to the pot and whoever wins takes the lot!"

"Gamblin'… that's better than bribery. I'm in." Jayne flopped back down into his chair, one of his boots kicking the table leg and making River's spoon clatter to the floor.

"Shhhhh!" Kaylee looked anxiously back at the corridor again and she spoke as loud as she dared. "If he wakes up it'll all be for nothin'!"

"Okay, I'm gonna have to say no to all of this," Zoe said with a shake of her head. "This ain't somethin' we should be messing with. They need to work this out for themselves. Besides, how would a bet even work? Whoever sets 'em up to kiss? Gets 'em to swear their undyin' devotion to one another?"

"Not kissin'. Too simple. Sex?" Kaylee suggested matter of factly.

"Again, a) no messin' with Mal's love life, and b) you have no way of verifyin' who would win a bet like that. It won't work."

Kaylee signed, chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully. "Okay, no bet."

"And… I'm out."

"Bì zuĭ, Jayne. What about a draw then? Everyone who helps puts somethin' in the pot. If the whole thing works, then everyone who helped gets to draw a straw for a chance to win the pot."

"That could work," Simon said slowly, and Kaylee shot him a grateful smile.

"Great! So…" She nibbled her lip again. "Who's in?"

Jayne ran a hand over his stubbled chin. "Fine. Got nothin' better to do right now anyway." He hiked up a pant leg and tossed a gleaming knife onto the bank notes and coins on the table. "There. She's a good one. Expect I'll be gettin' her back anyway when I win."

"Simon?"

He looked over at River, and smoothed back the hair that had fallen over her eyes. "What do you think?" he asked her. "Is this a good idea?"

"Greatest power in the 'Verse." She smiled at him. "I want to help." With a solemn nod in Kaylee's direction, she carefully placed the spoon on the pile in the center of the table.

Simon took a deep breath and nodded. "I'll get you some money from my quarters later for my contribution."

Kaylee bounced on her toes again. It was all comin' together. "That just leaves you, Zoe."

"I'm sorry, Kaylee. I'm out."

"But, we need you!"

"Tell you what, I'll keep quiet about what you all are up to, unless he asks me direct. Fair? This is all on you."

She wouldn't let herself be disappointed. Everyone else was gonna help make this work. "Okay. But, if you want in later, you just let me know."

"I'll do that." She stood up and stretched. "I'll leave you to your plottin' then. I'm goin' back to bed. Try not to do anything too stupid," she finished, with a pointed look at Jayne. "Night all."

With a gleam in her eyes, Kaylee rubbed her hands together. "Right. So, where do you all reckon we should start?"


Translations

zhēn de shì tiān cái – an absolute genius

Qù nĭ de – Screw this

Bì zuĭ – Shut up

 

Chapter Text

December 15

"Hey, Kaylee, you in here?" Mal walked into the engine room, past the whirring revolutions of the engine, glancing from left to right.

"Right here, Cap'n. One sec!"

A moment later, Kaylee slid out from underneath an access panel, a smudged streak of black oil along one cheek and another across her forehead. "What's up?"

"Been noticing some lag in the port thruster. Can you take a look and make sure there isn't somethin' 'bout to wear out in there?"

"Sure thing." She waggled a wrench at him. "Oh! Wanted to talk to you about somethin'."

She looked excited, eyes sparkling. He knew from experience that usually meant trouble. "Yes?"

"I was just thinkin' is all, well, that it's been a mite stressful lately, and it'd be real fine to do somethin' nice and for everybody to have a chance to let their hair down a bit…"

"Uh huh…" He folded his arms across his chest, tucking his thumbs into his suspenders. She was babbling. Always suspicious.

"And, since we don't have a job lined up at the moment – and that's not a problem or nothin', don't want you to think that anyone's complain' – that maybe we could sorta do something… for Christmas," she finished at last.

"Christmas?" he said stupidly. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting her to say, but that wasn't it.

She smiled up at him brightly. "Yeah! It's only a week or so away. Thought it might be nice to try some of those traditional things, you know, like a proper Christmas tree and all that. Simon was tellin' me all about it."

Celebrate Christmas? It sounded like the most ridiculous idea he had ever heard. But Kaylee was beaming at him with those big puppy dog eyes of hers and he found himself saying, "Maybe. I'll think about it. Makin' no promises, mind." And then she was thanking him and practically vibrating with happiness and he elected to make a break for it before she roped him into doing anything else.


Dinner was almost always a communal affair, something Mal encouraged. Camaraderie and familiarity made for good teamwork and higher morale, that had been his reasons at the beginning when it'd been just him, Zoe, Wash, and… what was his name? Bester. He suppressed a shudder at the thought and his eyes found Kaylee across the table. She was laughing, leaning up against Simon's side, as he protested that he was not, in fact, too fancy to wrestle a cow.

Now, though, they needed this. He needed it. A crew – his crew – and they were all in this together, for good or ill, especially with the right mess they'd kicked up for the Alliance on Miranda. He'd do it again in a heartbeat.

With a frown, he saw that Zoe was still toying with her food and he nudged her foot with his own. The boisterous laughter at the other end of the table would let this moment slide by unnoticed.

"Sir?" she asked, looking up. There were dark smudges under her eyes.

"You need to eat," he said softly. "Don't think I ain't noticed."

"I'm tryin'. Just not that hungry lately."

"I know. Just don't let it slip too far, okay?" He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. "I need you. We all do."

A ghost of her familiar smile appeared for an instant before it vanished. "Doin' my best, sir."

"That's all I ask." Mal squeezed her hand again and released it, giving her a sad sort of smile in return. "Don't wanna lose you, too."

"I know." She gamely picked up her fork and speared a protein chunk on the end of it, staring him down as she put it into her mouth and chewed.

He looked up and was surprised to see Inara watching him, but she glanced away quickly, her expression unreadable.

"There's no way. No way. If you'd had a prize bull like that one we saw when we was last on Persephone," Jayne was gesturing in the air with his knife as he talked, "then the length of them horns would-"

Mal rapped his chopsticks against the side of his glass. "All right, listen up. Got an announcement to make."

The chatter stopped as everyone turned their heads to stare expectantly in his direction.

"I know this last month an' a bit have been awful rough. We've lost some good folks." He made an effort to not immediately look at Zoe, but met each of their eyes in turn. "We've had to rebuild a good portion of the ship. I know," he swallowed, "that it ain't been easy. For any of us. Not enough sleep, not enough food. Too beat up and worn down to do much but lick our wounds. Fortunately, our lovely Miss Kaylee, here, has made a suggestion that I think might help."

Kaylee grinned at this, clutching Simon's arm.

"Christmas is comin', and I know we normally don't do anythin' special. But this year, I was thinkin' we could all use a little down time. There's a system about four days from here where the main world gets snow at this time of year. Big enough to have a decent marketplace. Might even be able to pick up a job there afterward."

Kaylee was practically bouncing out of her seat. "I've never seen snow! You won't regret this, Cap'n! I promise!"

"Visions of sugarplums. Presents?" River turned toward Simon.

"Of course," he said, and then hugged her around the shoulders affectionately.

"Need gingerbread, too." Jayne wiped the last bits of gravy from his plate with a morsel of the rehydrated rations they'd been subsisting on for the past few weeks and shoved it into his mouth. "Ain't Christmas without gingerbread. I can do that."

"Duì bù qĭ?" Mal blinked. "You're volunteering… to make cookies?"

"Yeah. My ma made the best ones. Anyone got a problem with that?" His glare around the table was met with a chorus of 'no's and muffled laughter. "Good. Will need to pick up some spices though."

"I might have what you need." Inara spoke up for the first time. She'd been awful quiet since she'd come back on board and he felt like they were tiptoeing around each other, trying to figure out where things stood now. "Come to my shuttle when you have a moment and you can look through the spice blends I use in my teas. I'm sure we can find something that will work."

Jayne nodded. "Sure, will do."

"I can do the tree," Kaylee piped up. "I can wire up some lights and things that'll be real pretty. We just… need a tree first, I guess."

"Reckon we can get something on Noveria. Might not be traditional an' all, but we'll find something." Mal set his chopsticks down on his plate and glanced in Zoe's direction. She was smiling at Kaylee's always infectious enthusiasm, and it looked like she'd eaten more than she'd had in the last few days. Satisfied, he raised his voice, "So, everyone in favour, then?"

River answered first. "Yes," she said solemnly, raising her glass as if in a toast. "To Christmas."

"To Christmas," they all echoed back, raising their own glasses, and they all drank.

December 16

Normally, she preferred her shuttle – was it her shuttle again? She supposed it was – with more light, candles shimmering around her as they did in the temples. Not tonight. Tonight, she wanted, craved, the stillness of the shadows. She left a few lit, scattered stars in the black; enough to illuminate the things she needed.

Tea. Right now, she needed tea, and the familiar comfort it brought. Keeping her posture perfectly composed, she selected the tiny spoon and four tiny octagonal canisters from the drawer. With a practised hand, she took the lid off each canister in turn; smelling the contents before adding a careful scoop of each set of leaves into the teapot. Green tea leaves. Rosehips. Cinnamon. Orange Peel. Keeping her mind focused in the here and now, she inhaled each individual scent first before breathing in the aroma of them together in the pot. As she added the boiling water from the kettle, she kept her focus steady; how the addition of the water brought the subtle scents back to life. She swirled the teapot once, twice, watching the dried herbs swirl in the eddy she'd created before replacing the lid to let it steep.

What was she doing here? It had been a mistake to come back, to think she could stay.

It was time to decide, now, whether there was a way through… or not. It was almost funny to think where she'd been three years ago. Still on Sihnon. Well positioned on her way to becoming House Priestess of House Madrassa. And now here she was at the edge of the 'Verse with Malcolm Reynolds… for the second time.

What did she want from him? Those had been his words, and she still didn't know how to answer them. She knew what her body wanted, but that wasn't enough. Could she give up the last of it, ask the Guild to decommission her? Had everything she'd done, everything she'd worked so hard for, been for nothing?

Mal would never understand how her work wasn't what he thought it was, how everything was controlled by ritual from beginning to end. Her work would always just be whoring – he'd certainly never been shy about using that word, knowing how much she hated it. Her nails were cutting into her palm and she forced herself to breathe, to unclench her fists. The tea would be ready now.

She swirled the teapot again before she poured some out into her favourite cup of jade green painted porcelain. The steam rose and danced from her cup in the cooler air of the shuttle. She knew it was too hot to drink, but she took a cautious sip anyway, needing it to burn a little against her lips and the roof of her mouth.

As much as she hated it, her thoughts fell on Nandi, as they often did. She'd left the Guild, too, although not of her own choice. She'd carved out a living, but not one that Inara would have ever chosen for herself. Without the rules and protections of the Guild, without the history, the traditions, it cheapened what she did.

Whore.

She rolled the word around in her mouth like a pebble she couldn't swallow.

For all his high and mighty condemnation, that hadn't stopped Mal from taking Nandi to bed though. She wanted to hate her, hate him, but in the calm before the storm of that fateful morning, she'd been too shattered to feel anything but grief. That was when she'd known how deeply her own feelings really ran. How had she let things get so out of control without noticing?

Control was the first lesson, and the last. Without it, Companions couldn't do the work they did. One couldn't support another with their full being if that fullness was divided. When she was with a client, she had to be able to hold her inner self in check, empty herself, give herself over to their needs. Her body was a vessel. Her mind must be still and calm.

Around Mal, there was no stillness, no calm. She was a thundercloud, a tempest, waiting to shatter against the shore, and there would be no going back. It made her want to flee, anywhere but here.

She drew in a shuddering breath and sipped her tea.

It was obvious that he was attracted to her. Years of training made the signs hard to miss. It was basic sexual chemistry, human nature, and she had more than ample experience with that. It had been a hard realization to come to, but that wasn't the only thing she wanted. Why hadn't he asked her to stay?

She squeezed her eyes shut. She was acting like a child, and she half expected the swish of the House Priestess' skirts and a cutting reprimand. She wasn't being fair. It wasn't up to Mal – it was up to her. So, then why was she having such a hard time figuring things out?

She took another sip of her cooling tea and set the cup back down harder than usual on the tray at her side, biting back a noise of frustration. Maybe the only way to get him out from under skin was to –

There was a knock on the shuttle door and she flinched. It couldn't be Mal; she could count on one hand the number of times he'd knocked in the entire time she'd rented the shuttle from him. "Qĭng jìn."

Kaylee poked her head around the corner of the entrance way. "Hey, Inara. You busy?" Her eyes widened as she took in the dimly lit room and Inara's face, even though Inara had tried to carefully school her expression into something less turbulent. "Is everything okay?"

Inara stood up, adjusting her robe and smoothing the wrinkles out of the pale blue silk dotted with vibrantly coloured exotic birds. She smiled kindly as she touched the button that turned on the shuttle's lighting. "Of course, mèi mèi. Come in. What can I do for you?"

Kaylee touched one of the fabric panels hanging from the wall appreciatively. "It's lookin' great in here. Almost like before."

"Yes, I've unpacked my trunk from the Training House plus the few things I'd forgotten to take with me when… well, from last time."

Kaylee nodded absently, moving to run her fingers over the Chinese characters that now ran in thin neat script down the metal wall by her bed.

"Thank you again for letting me borrow your paintbrushes for those, by the way."

"No worries." She touched each symbol as she read them aloud. "Happiness. Insight. Knowledge. Strength. Faith. Devotion. Courage. Endurance." She'd reached the end. "I like 'em. Good words."

"Do you mind if I keep the paint brushes a while longer? I'd like to add a border on the blank panel on the other wall, since I don't have another fabric panel to cover that section."

"Sure, keep 'em as long as you like." Kaylee turned to face her. "So, when are you gonna start workin' again?"

Inara met her gaze and then looked away, the emotional roil still too close to the surface to suppress it entirely. "I… I don't know."

She didn't know what else to say, not when she didn't know herself.

Inara took a few steps towards the tray, not meeting Kaylee's curious glance, and picked up the teapot. "Would you like some tea?"

"Sure, as long as it ain't that terrible licorice one." Kaylee crinkled her nose and Inara laughed and began to pour, choosing Kaylee's favourite cup without thinking – the one with broad strokes of lavender and speckles of pink, like cherry blossoms. "So… why don't you know?" Kaylee's hand was jittery when she took the tea cup, and Inara studied her, puzzled. "Do you just not wanna do it anymore? Or… is it 'cause of somethin' else?" She gave Inara an unusually direct look. "Or someone else?"

Inara groaned. Not this again. "There's nothing between Mal and me. You know that." Her throat tightened uncomfortably, and she hid it with a barely dignified gulp of her own tea. Mal would never change and neither would she. The sooner she accepted it, the better. She'd thought, during her time at the Training House, that the time away from him would have been enough; enough distance for her to take control, to lock those feelings away until they lost their power over her. She had been naïve enough to think she'd been successful, even when she'd sent that wave; the trap that, of course, he'd been stupid enough to walk into.

"But that don't mean that's the end of it!"

Inara gestured to the embroidered stool that sat in front of her small dresser. This one wasn't as nice as her previous one, but at least it still had a mirror. Kaylee sat, putting her tea cup down on the top of the dresser beside the careful arrangement of cosmetics and perfumes. She handed Inara the silver-handled hairbrush and continued to talk as Inara put her own tea down and began to carefully brush out the tangles in Kaylee's hair.

"He's just bad at talkin' straight, is all. You don't know what he was like when you were gone. It was awful. All grumpy and goin' off on everyone."

"Doesn't sound much different to me." She managed a smile at Kaylee's reflection in the mirror.

"Well, it was. He needs you, even if he won't say it out loud. We all do. You're family."

"That's sweet of you to say, mèi mèi."

"Because it's true!" She reached back to grasp Inara's hand. "I don't want you to leave again. Please stay."

Inara set the brush down, using her fingers to smooth the strands over Kaylee's shoulders. "I don't want to make you a promise I can't keep. But, I'm staying for now, okay?" She kissed the top of her head affectionately. "Now, tell me all about Simon. You haven't told me the good stuff yet."

Kaylee's eyes lit up. "Okay. First of all, you would not believe the size of his…"


Translations

Duì bù qĭ – Sorry/excuse me?

Qĭng jìn – Come in

Mèi mèi – Little sister

Chapter Text

December 16

The pilot's chair was safe. Her legs were tucked up and she was curled into it like a cat, filling the space and becoming one with it. She'd wrapped a tatty old blanket of Kaylee's around her bare legs. Secure. Safe.

Resting her head against the back of the chair, she let her thoughts skip and skitter, like flat stones bouncing over the surface of the water until they sank.

It was good that Wash's dinosaurs were still there. He'd liked them, so she liked them. Knew that Zoe and Mal needed them to be there, to be remembered.

When the baby came, she would like them, too. But no one else knew about that yet so she kept that secret tucked away deep inside to wait for when the moment was right. It was a nice secret to carry, like a squirrel with a stash of buried acorns that would be there when they were needed. Much better than most of the other secrets, the ones that made her thoughts feel like they were wrapped in barbed wire, squeezing and cutting.

The black was beautiful – it was her favourite thing about life on the ship – watching the stars streak by, neck in neck with Serenity in a race that would never end. Forever running across the open expanse of space. Free.

She felt Mal's presence coming up the corridor from the cargo bay long before she heard the familiar stride of his boots on the metal grating. His last check on them all before he turned in for a few hours of rest. She wasn't tired yet, preferring to be up in the quiet hours while the rest of them slept. Their dreams were quieter than their daytime thoughts, like whispers in the back of her mind that were soothing rather than intrusive. He'd never said it out loud, but she knew that Mal slept better when he knew that she was awake, on guard.

"Hey there, little albatross. You still up?" He gave her half a smile as his eyes skimmed over the control panels, making sure everything was running smooth as it could be.

"Yes. I was making sure the stars didn't win."

He toggled a switch, slowing them down by a few hundred kilometers to reduce their fuel consumption. "Didn't win?"

"The race."

"Gotcha." He didn't understand, but he didn't have a need to. She liked that about him. His head was full of lots of different threads of thought, and she teased the knots out of them, followed where each one led, as they looked out over the endless sky in a companionable silence. She was getting better at it; she could make the thoughts stop shouting at her.

Worry about where their next job was coming from – that one was familiar, always there. Same with Inara – always there. She'd left. Why did she leave? Why would she stay? Zoe seemed more run down than usual. Wash. His fault.

Mal's glance had settled on the dinosaurs but she didn't have to see the direction of his gaze to know.

"Well, reckon I'll try and get a bit of shut eye." He ran his fingers through his hair and yawned. "You stayin' up for a bit?"

"Yes." She crunched her toes up into the worn softness of the blanket as she wrapped her hands around her tucked up knees.

"All right then. Don't be up too late now." He hesitated, then ruffled her hair. "Night, mèi mèi."

She held on to the tendrils of his thoughts when he left, gently, letting them stretch but not break. She'd promised to help. She wanted to help. Letting the others drop, she held on to the threads where Inara's name lingered, tracing each one methodically as they looped and twisted and crossed over the others. She didn't notice the tear that had formed in the corner of her eye, making a wet trail of its own as it ran down her cheek.

It hurt.

Not like Miranda. Not the stabbing can't breathe-can't think-can't run-shouldn't know pain. A lonely ache. Hopeless.

She found Nandi tangled in there, too. A remarkable woman. The flush of passion. Failed her.

Saffron's drugged kiss – a special kind of hell – but at least Inara would be going there, too.

Something wasn't quite right. River closed her eyes, breathing deeply through her nose and exhaling through her mouth. The thoughts and the memories didn't quite match; close to lining up, but not quite.

The press of a mouth against his.

Didn't make sense.

River slipped out of her chair, leaving the blanket in a heap on the floor for later. The grating was cool against the bottoms of her feet as she silently made her way towards Inara's shuttle. She ignored the others' murmurs in her head. Focus. Matching her breathing to the slide of her feet made it easier, gave it a rhythm. Hold. Focus. She exhaled slowly as she sank down into a ball by the shuttle door and pressed her cheek against the chill of the metal.

Inara was asleep, but restless. Not nightmares, but not far off. The emotional push and pull made River's mouth feel dry. Bracing herself, her hand splayed across the closed hatch, she let it in as slowly and carefully as she dared.

Weeping. Never thought it would feel like this. Her fault. Never should have let it get this far. No choice left. None of it mattered.

River stuffed her knuckles into her mouth to hold back an answering sob. Kaylee was right. They had to help, had to help them fix this.

Inara's thoughts were easier to follow than Mal's, but there were so many more of them, all heavy with emotion. Less self-deception. Not afraid to think the truth, but afraid to act on it – afraid to leave behind everything she'd worked for, the life and role she'd created for herself. Where would she be without it?

It took some time to find the thread she was looking for, but how long she couldn't say and didn't care. Time was just this reality anyway.

Saffron. Mal! She's killed him! Terror and then a rush of relief so overwhelming that she gives in, succumbs without thought. Her mouth on his.

The pieces line up and she understands.

Finally, she can let go, let them both go, and she hugs herself tightly, glad to be River – just River – again. As much as she ever was, anyway, but it was enough for now.


He couldn't sleep. Sure, his eyes burned like they were full of grit and his limbs were weary and heavy, but his mind wouldn't stop churning.

He'd already been through a mental inventory of their current food supplies as well as the handful of spare parts Kaylee liked havin' on hand in case of emergencies. At least going through the mundane stuff had kept his thoughts off the bigger, unfixable problems.

He needed to talk to Zoe about taking it easy for a few days. She hadn't been eating as much at meals, or skipping them altogether, and her face was starting to take on a pinched look he hadn't seen on her since the war. Wasn't his place to talk to her about Wash, that had to come from her when she was ready, but he sure as hell wasn't going to lose her, too.

With a grumbled sigh, he rolled over onto his back and pushed the blanket down off his shoulders, crossing his arms behind his head. Maybe Kaylee's Christmas idea was what they all needed. A pleasant distraction to take their minds off things.

He didn't know much about the old traditions from Earth-That-Was, but enough about Christmas had filtered down through the common folklore that he knew a little. People exchanged presents and decorated a tree. There was snow, or supposed to be anyhow. They'd had snow on Shadow a few times during his childhood; hadn't lasted long, but the memories of those days had. Some of the hands had showed him how to make snowballs, and they'd had a wicked bout with them before he'd had to head inside with red, cold fingers to help his ma. He couldn't help a quiet smile in the darkness.

Wonder if Inara has ever seen snow? Not likely, unless she had some sweaters and thick pants stashed away in those trunks of hers that had yet to see the light of day. He snorted at the thought. Satin and silk wouldn't keep her very warm. Kaylee or Zoe would probably have something she could borrow when they got to Noveria, but he had a hard time imagining her in proper clothes. They wouldn't cling to her curves the way her dresses did, especially the ones that left her midsection bare, exposing the smoothness of her skin that was practically begging to be touched.

Dangerous territory.

He heaved out another loud sigh, but now that his mind had gone there, as it inevitably seemed to, it was hard to pull back. She was here – at least for now – and that had to be worth somethin'. He would keep her at arm's length, not let her get close. She would start takin' clients, just as likely leave again; it was a matter of time. As long as he kept away, it wouldn't be as bad as the last time. Her presence made everything so muddled, made him feel like he didn't know if he was comin' or goin' half the time. As much as he'd tried to bury it all as deep as he could, it felt like he'd been cut open again, fresh and raw, when she'd sent him that wave from the Training House.

Zāo gāo... He was never going to get any sleep at this rate.

The sound of the hatch door opening made him jump, and he was up and reaching instinctively for his pistol as River dropped down into his quarters, not even bothering to use the ladder.

"Wŏ de mā! Gorram it, River! You can't just be droppin' into people's rooms like that!" His heart was pounding with the sudden rush of adrenaline. "You could've given me a heart attack. What if I'd been sleepin'?"

"You weren't."

"Well, yeah." He slid the pistol back on to the side table by the bed and adjusted the old grey army blanket around his legs. "But I coulda' been."

She studied him in the dim glow of the running lights. "You needed to know that I found it."

"Found what?" Mal furrowed his brow. "Were we missin' something? I don't – "

"The way through. Like Shepherd Book said: you were the sort of man who needed it to believe. Proof."

With one hand still clutching the blanket, he pressed the other hard against his face and rubbed his eyes. It was too gorram late for this kind of conversation. "You mean God? You found some sorta proof of the big guy's existence and now I'm supposed to – "

"No. Not God. Inara."

"I was pretty sure we were all fairly confident about the nature of her existence."

River gave a loud humph of exasperation and then stepped forward to poke him in the chest with her finger. Shén shèng de gāo wán, but that girl could be terrifying.

"Listen. Here." She jabbed his chest with the tip of her finger.

"Ow! C'mon, now – "

"You were wrong." Her eyes glittered fiercely. "When you examined the evidence, your own biases led you to reject an alternate theory for the events that occurred."

Mal threw up his hands. "I have no idea what you're talkin' about! It's late. I'm tired. You're tired. We're all tired! Can we please have this conversation some other time?" He rose from the bed, the covers tangling him up and he had to hop to regain his balance. "I'm sure this is all very important, and I promise you can tell me about how I was wrong later in excruciating detail, just like everyone else." With a hand on her shoulder he steered her towards the ladder. "Now, if you don't mind…?"

"The yellow girl," River muttered. "Her lips taste funny."

"Yep. They sure do. Well, off you go."

She stepped up on to the first rung. "She's a graceful woman." Another step. "Didn't fall." She stopped and peered down. "She cried. Then the baby cried. Then," she pointed her fingers at him in the shape of a pistol, forefinger and thumb extended before she jerked them in an upward motion, "bang."

"Okay…" He exhaled slowly. "We can talk about it later, all right? You just take your special brand of crazy right back upstairs for now…"

River furrowed her brow and shook her head at him before climbing up the rest of the way.

When the hatch door finally clanged shut behind her, Mal flopped back down on to the bed and rolled over, bunching his thin pillow up under his head. More riddles. At least she hadn't carved him open with a knife while he'd slept.

After a few minutes, he rolled over on to his back again. None of what she'd said made any sense. 'Course, when did it ever? Dà xiàng bào zhà shì de lā dù zi. How the hell was he supposed to sleep now?


Translations

mèi mèi – little sister

Zāo gāo – Damn it!

Wŏ de mā – Mother of God; my God

Shén shèng de gāo wán – Holy testicles

Dà xiàng bào zhà shì de lā dù zi – to have the explosive diarrhea of an elephant

Chapter Text

December 17

She found Mal looking down over the empty cargo bay, his arms folded across the railing.

"Inara." He nodded civilly at her. "Somethin' you needed?"

"Well, yes, actually. It's about what you spoke of the other night, at dinner." Why did everything have to feel so awkward between them? She cleared her throat. He was wearing his red shirt – her favorite. Of course he was.

His grin was playful and made her heart twinge. "You come to ask me what I want for Christmas?"

"Not exactly. I have a favour to ask."

"Hmm… well, I suppose it would depend on what sort of favour it was then."

"I was hoping we could make a brief stop on Allegra. It's on the path to Noveria, and it would cost us less than eight hours including the flight path change and the stop over."

"And why would you want to do that exactly?" She could hear the frost creeping into his voice with each word he spoke, and he stood taller, leaning away from her and crossing his arms over his chest. "It ain't a Core world, but it might as well be. Puts us all in danger."

"I have a client there – "

"A client?" He cut her off sharply, flinching as though she'd just shot him. "I thought… never mind what I thought." What she thought was hurt flickered in his eyes. "No, we can't stop there."

"It's not what you think. Why do you always have to – "

"You don't need to finish sayin' it, okay? I already promised the crew a few days of respite, and I sure as hell ain't going to risk going any where near the Alliance with all the gŏu shĭ we just stirred up, in case you'd forgotten. Your precious client will just have to keep it in his gorram pants a while longer."

The bitterness in his tone made her take a step back, looking at him in barely disguised shock. She'd thought they had both had some time to think during their time apart, but now she was afraid that she'd been horribly mistaken. Had she been wrong to come back, thinking that things might be different this time? Should she be looking to leave now, to cut her losses and run before the hurt became even more unbearable? She was torn between anger and tears and her own helplessness made her want to lash out, to hurt him back. Why didn't he ever try to understand?

"Look, I'm not the petty crook here. I have a respectable business that operates fully within the confines of the law. If it weren't for you, I could operate on any world I chose." Her words were heated, intended to hurt, even though there was no satisfaction to be felt when they did.

"So why don't you then? Leave. Go ahead. I ain't stoppin' you."

"You can be so…" She bit back the words she really wanted to say. "So… stupid sometimes, you know that?"

"Yeah, I guess I can."

She blinked back the hot tears that were prickling in her eyes, making them burn.

"Look, what do you want from me, Inara? Every time I think I got you figured out, I just…" His words trailed off and he took in a deep shuddering breath. "You know what? Forget it."

She could feel the anger coursing through her, and it took all her will to remain standing there, her fingers trembling as she clutched the railing so hard that her knuckles went white.

Her voice was tight as she pushed the words out past the lump in her throat. "The reason I want to stop on Allegra – "

"Don't much care to hear you say it again," he interrupted. He was quiet, defeated. "I don't want to hear it."

" – is for chocolate".

He looked up in surprise. "Chocolate? But you just – "

"I asked you to let me finish," she said, meeting his eyes with a furious look, daring him to interrupt her again. "I have a client there who is part of a trade group for exotic goods. He's a negotiator with one of the major farming conglomerates. We always had hot chocolate during the winter festival on Sihnon, and I thought it would nice to have some this year, for everyone to get a chance to try it."

His face looked stricken, but she was beyond caring – just angry and hurt by his assumptions, by her own foolishness.

"And, before you ask, I was planning to purchase it with money, not sex. Despite what you're so fond of telling me, I'm not a whore."

"Inara…"

She felt tired and shaky. The last place she wanted to be right now was here, in his presence. "Just forget it, Mal. I don't want to… just, forget I said anything."

She walked purposefully away from him, trying to keep herself from breaking into a run, wanting nothing more than to be able to close the shuttle doors behind her.


With a steady hand, Simon used a pipette to deposit a minute amount of the new formulation into each of the semi-circular wells in the plastic plate. When he'd finished, he transferred the plate to the incubator chamber and then removed his first layer of gloves, tossing them into the trash.

"Hey, Doc." The captain was leaning against the doorframe of the infirmary. "How are things going? Makin' any progress?"

"I think so." Simon walked over to the sink and began scrubbing his still-gloved hands with disinfectant. "Her system keeps adapting to the medications. Makes it hard to find something that seems to work for more than a week or two."

"I'm sure you'll get it all figured out."

Mal stood there, not speaking, as Simon dried his hands and began to gather up the glassware he'd used and placed it in the sink for washing. "Was there… something I can help you with?

Mal glanced around and stepped into the infirmary. "It's Zoe." He kept his voice low. "Somethin' ain't right. She's hidin' it well, but I know something's up."

"Well, she lost her husband. It's hardly surprising that she – "

"No, it ain't that. She and I… we went through a lot, during the war. I've seen her grievin' more times than I can say. Now I know it weren't of the magnitude of somethin' like this, but I got a feelin' in my gut that that's not all it is this time."

Simon turned the water on and added a splash of soap to the sink. "I can check her over, if you like."

"Please." Mal nodded and turned to leave. "I'd appreciate it. Thanks."

"Oh, before you go…" Simon dried his hands on a towel and peeled off his second layer of gloves. He walked over to the counter nearest the door and picked up a small bag filled with tiny slips of folded paper. "You need to pick one of these."

"What are they?" Mal looked puzzled.

"Secret Santa."

"Secret… what now?"

"Secret Santa. It was Kaylee's idea." It hadn't been, actually, but he thought it would be easier to convince Mal than if he'd told him the truth. "We all draw a name from the bag. Whoever you get, you make or buy a present for that person. That way no one has to spend too much money buying something for everyone."

Mal reached in and drew out a piece of paper without looking at it. "What if you pick your own name?"

"Then you put it back and pick another one. Wouldn't be much fun if you were giving something to yourself." He tried to act casual, leaning back against the counter, but worried that Mal would think he was behaving oddly and stood up straight again. "You don't tell anyone whose name you have until we open the gifts. That's the secret part." It was hard to keep himself from cringing at his own words.

Mal just stared at him. "I'd gathered." He unfolded his slip, looked at it a moment, then folded it back up and stuck it into the pocket of his pants. "So, when has Kaylee decided we'll be exchangin' presents?"

"Uh, Christmas Eve. I think. I can find out."

"All right, you let me know."

"Right. Sure. I'll do that."

He let out a sigh of relief after Mal had gone. He turned off the water in the sink that was nearly overflowing, and then grabbed the little bag full of papers and dumped them into the garbage can, hiding them from view with a few damp paper towels that he squished in on top. Opening a drawer, he pulled out another handful of folded slips of paper and stuffed them into the bag. One down, one to go.

December 18

As she often did, River had appeared in her shuttle that morning unannounced, and now she was curled up in Inara's bed, reading a book. Inara felt at a loss with what to do with her own time. She'd been so busy before – always appointments to make and schedules to keep. Now she felt cast off, adrift, and had ended up spending the morning braiding her hair up into an elaborate style for no reason at all except to keep her hands and mind occupied.

She'd relived the quarrel with Mal over in her mind more times than was healthy – or productive – and it wasn't getting her anywhere. Sometimes she slapped him, raged at him, kissed him, wept… none of it helped.

River spoke without looking up from her book. "Your thoughts are very loud today."

"Yes, I suppose they are." She stared at her reflection in the mirror as she slid the last comb of carved jade into place. Finished. Not that it mattered. None of it mattered.

River set the book down beside her and rolled over to look at the Chinese characters that Inara had painted using Kaylee's paint and brushes. "These are new." Inara watched her through the mirror as River touched each symbol, as Kaylee had done earlier. "Kaylee. River. Simon. Jayne. Book. Wash. Zoe. Mal." She tapped the blank spot below the final character. "No Inara. You're missing."

"How did you…?" She shouldn't have been surprised, after everything they'd been through and everything she'd seen, but it was still more than a little unsettling.

"Why?" River asked, her long hair falling into her eyes.

"Because…" She hesitated. Because she didn't know if she was truly intending to stay? Because she didn't know what to choose, feeling like her own sense of who she was had somehow come undone? River was watching, waiting expectantly for her answer. "I don't know," she said at last. "I don't know who I am any more."

"You do." River approached her on silent feet, stroked the neat braids that were pinned and curled around her head, and then kissed Inara's forehead softly, like a mother would kiss a child. "Don't fret. You should wave Lord Evans now. We're almost there."

"Lord Evans? I don't understand…"

River tilted her head to the right and then to the left, watching herself in the mirror. "Docking at Allegra in an hour. Captain changed course last night."

She was speechless. Unfortunately, she didn't have the time to think about the implications right now. Hugh's schedule was always packed. Hopefully, it wasn't too late to arrange a meeting and he'd have what she needed – chocolate, sugar, maybe cardamom pods? She had more than enough saved away to afford it… She needed to change into something more suitable – at least her hair was already done.

"Wear the gold dress. It's his favourite."

"Let me send the wave first." Inara hugged the girl close. It wasn't exactly an apology from Mal, but it was likely the best she was going to get. "Want to help me get ready, mèi mèi?"


He was pacing the catwalk, having finally given up all pretence that he was doing anything but waiting for Inara's shuttle to return. Thankfully, everyone else seemed to be occupied so he hadn't needed to come up with a reason for what he was doing there. She wasn't in any danger, or much less than the rest of them were at least. She had status, proper papers… nothing to worry about.

He made another pass – back and forth – looking out over the cargo bay. She should be back by now, shouldn't she? It was just a business deal. None of that… other stuff. He scowled and shoved his hands in his pockets.

The sound of the shuttle jolted him out of his thoughts. She was back – safe – and now they could get off this rock and back out in the black and on their way again. He leaned his back against the railing, trying to affect an air of nonchalance as the mechanical grinding sound of the shuttle being docked and drawn in against Serenity's hull slowed and then halted.

He folded his arms across his chest.

He uncrossed his arms and put them behind him, leaning against his lower back.

Turning around with his back to the shuttle, he rested his elbows on the top of the railing.

There was a hiss of released pressure as the shuttle doors opened, and he turned around, folding his arms back across his chest, as Inara came down the steps. "Oh! Guess you're back then. Good." He unfolded his arms and stuck his hands in his pockets. Her approach was graceful, sure. "Did you, uh, were you able to get what you were lookin' for?"

She smiled and it seemed genuine. "More than I'd hoped for, actually. Here." She handed him the small burlap bag he hadn't noticed she was carrying. It had a bit of heft to it – several pounds at least.

"What's this? It ain't full of snakes or somethin', is it?"

"No, tempting though that might be. It's coffee beans. We've been out since, well, for some time now." Because they hadn't been able to afford it, but she didn't say that out loud. "I was planning to save the hot chocolate for Christmas Eve, but I thought that this would be something nice to have now, rather than waiting."

"I'm sure this'll be right welcome. Zoe can be awful mean without her morning cup. Thank you." He gave her a nod and a small smile, accepting what he recognized was her apology. "You didn't run into any trouble?"

"No, but I took precautions just in case. Lord Evans won't mention my visit to anyone and I trust him to keep his word."

"Good. That's good."

She was standing close enough to be distracting, and it didn't help matters that she was wearing that dress, his favourite – the one of muted gold flecked with black, like the night sky in reverse. It draped loosely over her body, not tight, but with just enough material that every movement drew his eye to the sinuous shift of her form beneath it. The fabric gleamed like satin – maybe it was – making him want to touch it, to feel how it would slide over her skin.

It also didn't help that he could smell the incense that clung to her hair. The shuttle had held on to that scent for weeks after she'd left, tormenting him with a continual reminder of her absence. It was like a ghost, coming out of nowhere when he least expected it – alone on the bridge, half expecting to find her standing behind him when he turned his chair around; in the galley, or worse, in his bunk, late at night when he couldn't sleep.

"Was there something else you needed?"

He blinked, startled out of his reverie. "Uh, no. I'll just take this to the kitchen, maybe put on a pot. If you felt like lettin' folks know that it's there… you could, uh… do that. If you wanted."

"Of course." She smiled again, her eyes dark and warm, and he was pretty sure that his insides might've just melted into a puddle. "See you later then."

"Yeah. Okay. Good."

Wŏ de mā hé tā de fēng kuáng de wài sheng.

He was so screwed.


Translations

gŏu shĭ – crap; dog shit

mèi mèi– little sister

Wŏ de mā hé tā de fēng kuáng de wài sheng – Holy mother of God and all Her wacky nephews


 

Chapter Text

December 19

"All right, here's what we've got." Kaylee heaved open the lid of the trunk that Jayne had lugged out of one of the various hiding places in the cargo bay. "Not sure how much we got that's good for cold, though."

"Or good for anything," Zoe added, lifting out a jacket that appeared to be covered in old blood stains.

"I'm sure there's some sweaters and such in here somewhere. Just have to find 'em."

"What does everyone need?"

Nearly everyone needed thicker socks, which thankfully they had plenty of. Only Inara needed practically a complete set of clothing, her own typical attire completely unsuited to a cold climate. But, between a pilly old sweater that smelled like it had been buried in a crate of mothballs for a century or more, an old jacket of Zoe's, and a pair of Kaylee's pants that fit her reasonably well, she was able to make do with what they already had on board.

"We may need hats and scarves and the like, too. Not sure how cold it's gonna be. Should be able to pick those up in town if we need 'em," Mal said.

"I don't need no hat," Jayne interjected. He'd dug out the striped hat his ma had knit him a year or so back and was already wearing it. "Think I found yours, though, Mal." He held up a floral bonnet and grinned. "This one was real pretty on you as I recall. Brought out the colour of your eyes."

"I'll have you know that I looked mighty fine in that bonnet, thank you very much."

Kaylee put a hand over her mouth to cover a giggle as Mal tucked the bonnet back in the trunk, attempting to look dignified and failing.

As Inara was gathering up her things to go and change, Zoe stopped her. "Know we ain't expectin' trouble, but it always seems to find us anyhow. Here – just in case." She handed her a leather belt with an attached holster for a small pistol. "You got somethin' you can use?"

Inara nodded. "Of course. Thank you."


The winter market was packed with people, all of them looking for food and supplies to get them through the long winter ahead, when the deep snows would make the large town inaccessible to those living on the outskirts. The central town square was occupied by several long rows of stalls displaying merchandise of all sorts – clothing and textiles, food both fresh and preserved, tools and tech, and even smaller livestock. The crowd was lively and most seemed to be in good humour with the holiday season almost upon them. Children dashed madly from stall to stall, darting in and out of the lines of people, causing even more chaos.

They stood just outside the square, watching the crowds – and looking for any sign of potential trouble – for a few minutes. The chill in the air wasn't too bad, but it was enough to make Mal grateful he'd found his old pair of gloves. He glanced over at Inara, barely recognizable as she was bundled up in a jacket with a thick sweater underneath.

"All right," Jayne said, pulling his striped hat down over his ears and then patting his holster, "let's do this."

"Let's plan to meet back here by sundown," Mal said. That gives us a full afternoon to get everything we need. That enough time?"

"Yep!" Kaylee replied brightly. She was practically twitching with excitement.

"Kaylee, you and Simon can find us a tree, nothing too extravagant, mind. Hopefully they'll have some of the odds and ends on your spare parts list, too. Jayne, I already gave you the list of the ammo we could use. I'll see what I can scrounge up to improve our food stores."

Kaylee and Simon were the first to split off from the group, taking River with them and heading toward the back end of the market where a man stood beside a handful of sparse pine trees that had clearly seen better days. The trees were leaning against the side of a wooden fence, behind which a small group of goats were bleating and skittering around. They kept trying to take mouthfuls of the branches every time the man stopped giving them his full attention.

A crowd of people had gathered near the market's center, where the sound of music and singing became louder.

"Ruddy carollers." Jayne scrunched his hands deep into his pockets and glared at the group of people singing. Their coats were a patchwork of different colours, but they all wore the same knitted red scarves and hats.

"I'm sorry?" Inara asked.

"They creep me out somethin' fierce. They're so… happy."

"And, that's a problem because…?"

"Would you trust folk that smile like that all the time? Like they're just waitin' to stab you when your back is turned." He made a sudden stabbing motion with one hand and then dropped his arm, shaking his head. "'Tain't natural."

He continued to stare at them with suspicion as they walked past. Zoe and Mal glanced at each other in amusement, sharing a smile.

Jayne didn't seem to drop his guard until they came to the area of the market selling weapons and ammunition. "Now this, I like," he said, gesturing at the swarthy man who appeared to be in charge of several stalls. "He already don't trust me, and I don't trust him. No chuī niú, you know."

Jayne greeted the man, and the conversation skipped back and forth between rapid fire English and Mandarin.

Leaving Jayne in his element, Zoe, Mal, and Inara strolled through the rows of stalls to see what sorts of provisions were available. Pooling their coin and bank notes together – Inara put in a much bigger share, ignoring the protests of the other two – they were able to purchase a small chicken, already plucked, some potatoes, carrots, and onions, and a bag of apples. From another farmer, they bought sticks of butter, cheese, eggs, and glass bottles full of thick, creamy milk. Finally, from the baker, a bag of flour and two loaves of crusty bread.

"Can't remember the last time we ate like this," Zoe said quietly, tucking the loaves of bread into the cloth bag that was draped over her shoulder. "Feels like it's been fortified protein rations for as long as I can remember."

Mal adjusted the bag he was carrying and nodded in response. "I know. I know money's been tight, but we'll get another job before long, and it'll be better."

"I'm fine to start paying rent again, Mal," Inara added. "I have a fair bit saved up, and it would – "

"No. We ain't negotiated anything yet. May not even rent it to you."

Inara prickled visibly. "What, so are you saying you want me to leave?"

"I ain't sayin' that." He put up his hands. "I don't want you to leave."

"Then it's just business, isn't it? With my added income, you wouldn't have to worry about – "

"Maybe I don't want it to be just business, okay?" Mal burst out, causing a few people to turn and stare at the source of the raised voices. "She's my ship, and I'm the one who decides who an' what we take on. If you can't accept that then you can just find yourself another boat who wants a bona fide Companion on board. God knows there are some days that I wish you'd never set foot on mine."

Zoe looked from Mal to Inara; her face had gone pale in stunned silence.

"I wasn't trying to pick a fight, Mal. I was trying to help," she said, her voice shaking with controlled anger. "Maybe if you weren't so bloody stubborn all the time, you would quit pushing everyone away. Sometimes I think you like being miserable. Then you can bluster and yell about how it's everyone's fault but yours."

"You know what? I don't need this, not from you, not from anyone. Didn't see you all eager to hang around and help out before. You left. You wanna leave again – fine. You don't need to stay on my account." He was breathing hard, his eyes flashing. "I'm gonna go see if the Doc and Kaylee need a hand." He stalked off in the opposite direction without looking back.

Zoe and Inara stood, not speaking, as the noise from the crowd gradually drifted in to cover the awkward silence left behind in the wake of his departure.

Inara gave a shaky sigh and wrapped her arms around her chest. "Why is it impossible for us to ever have a civil conversation?" she said softly, not really expecting an answer.

"He was real hurt when you left," Zoe replied, still watching Mal as he disappeared into the next row of stalls. "He's a good man, you know that as well as I do, but he don't express himself real well. He just lashes out, and the people who are closest to him usually take the brunt of it."

The two of them walked on together, stopping at each stall, but not looking for anything in particular.

"Do you think it would be better if I left?"

"For you or for him?"

"Both, I suppose."

"I think it all depends on what you want, what you're willin' to concede. Truth is, I think he was happiest when we were all together before. But, things are different now. Wash and the Shepherd ain't comin' back, so it ain't never goin' to be what it was. You bein' here now doesn't change the fact that you left before. I think he's afraid you're gonna up and leave again any time, and that he's protectin' himself by keepin' you at a distance." Zoe picked up a clay mug, feeling the heft of it in her hand before setting it down next to the other plates and bowls at the potter's stand. "So, are you fixin' to stay?"

Inara gave up pretending to look at the potter's wares and looked at Zoe. "I don't know. I feel like I don't know anything any more. I thought I would be happy at the Training House, but it wasn't the same as what I had built up in my mind. I thought I would be happy coming back to Serenity, but nothing's the same here, either. I don't feel much like I belong anywhere, to be perfectly honest. And, if my being here is just going to make Mal more unhappy, then maybe it would be for the best if I took my leave now, before I make things any worse."

"I don't think he wants you to go." Zoe reached out and held on to her arm. "If you mean to give things a chance with him, and you know exactly what I mean," she gave Inara a frank stare, "then don't give up on him. Don't give up on yourself. Don't turn tail and run before you try. He's as stubborn as a mule on Sunday, that ain't gonna change in this lifetime, but he's not unreachable, if you want it badly enough."

"Can I ask you something? What would you do, in my position?"

Zoe released her arm. "I would fight. Fight for what I wanted with every ounce of strength I had in me. Life's too gorram short."

They continued their stroll through the market, each lost in their own thoughts. When Zoe excused herself to try and find something for her Secret Santa, Inara gave up the pretense of browsing and sat down on a wooden bench, watching the people weaving past, all smiles and good cheer.

She should probably look for a gift for Mal – she'd drawn his name out of Simon's bag, of course – but she didn't feel much like forcing a smile on her face or talking to anyone. She was cold, even with her hands stuffed in the pockets of her jacket, and it felt strange to be wearing thick, itchy fabrics and heavy boots. Uncomfortable and unhappy, she huddled herself inward, trying not to feel resentful of the laughing couples walking by, arm in arm.

She didn't know how much time had passed when someone sat down on the bench next to her, too close; there was plenty of room on the bench for them to have left a little more space between them. But, what was the use in complaining? With a sigh, she slid over in the opposite direction in order to widen the gap between them.

"Here." A bowl of steaming noodles was waved directly in front of her face.

She turned in surprise. "Mal? What's this?" She looked from him to the bowl of noodles in his outstretched hand.

"Peace offering. Take it."

Pulling her hands from her pockets, she took the bowl, which was wonderfully warm on her cold fingers. The noodles were dotted with flecks of spicy red peppers, and a mound of vegetables and strips of thick yellow omelet was piled on top. He handed her a pair of chopsticks and then began digging into his own bowl.

They ate in silence, the steam from their bowls rising like clouds of fog in the cold air. By the end, her nose was running and her throat and mouth were burning from the heat of the peppers, but she no longer felt chilled, just pleasantly warm and full. He took the bowls and chopsticks back to the noodle stand once they had both finished.

"Did they find a tree?" she asked, breaking the silence.

"Yeah. Looks like the goats already ate half of it, but it could be worse. Least it was cheap."

"That's good."

"So… you and Zoe find anything else worth buyin'?"

"Not really. Some nice looking honey, but they're asking way too much for it."

"That's a shame."

"Yeah."

They both began at once, and stopped.

"Listen, Inara – "

"Mal, I – "

"I don't want to fight with you," he said, meeting her eyes.

"I don't want to fight with you either."

"I meant what I said before. I don't want… that is, if you're lookin' to stay on longer, that's fine with me. We can… we can, maybe, talk about the shuttle later. After Christmas. Don't much care to get into it right now, if that's all right with you."

"Sure. After Christmas."

"Okay. Glad that's settled." He leaned back against the bench, rubbing his hands against the top of his thighs for warmth.

She leaned back, too, stuffing her hands back into her pockets. "Thanks for the noodles, by the way."

"You're welcome."

They sat together, watching the townsfolk wandering past, and Inara found herself much less cross with the happy couples holding hands and exclaiming over sweets than she had been earlier. After a time, they stood and joined in the fray themselves, and Inara had a surprisingly pleasant afternoon wandering the market with Mal.

When they all met up again, Kaylee and Simon were dragging a wooden sledge behind them with a scraggly looking pine tree tied to it. Inara didn't think it looked quite as bad as Mal had described, but it certainly had seen better days. Zoe's bag looked fuller; evidently, she had found a few other things worth buying.

"Where're River and Jayne?" Mal asked, tossing his bag on to the sledge beside the tree.

Kaylee looked around. "They were right behind us. I'm sure they'll be along in a right minute. But, we got exciting news!" She gripped Simon's arm tightly in her eagerness to share. "We was chawin' with the man what sold us the tree, and he said he's got a real sleigh – with bells, and horses, and all that. Said he'd be chuffed to take us all out for an afternoon."

Mal looked as though he were about to say something, but Kaylee ignored him as she prattled on.

"Offered him a token of our gratitude, wouldn't be right otherwise. Oh, nearly forgot, they're havin' a big dance in town tonight! Can we go, Cap'n? Can we?"

Mal glanced at Zoe, who shrugged back at him.

"I… I suppose so, as long as – "

But he didn't get to finish as Kaylee had engulfed him in a huge hug. "You're the best, Cap'n. I know I say that to you all the time, and that you're likely plum sick of me sayin' it, but you are!"

River and Jayne sauntered up as Mal was struggling to peel Kaylee off. At first, Jayne appeared to be missing his hat, but then Inara realized that River was holding it in her arms.

Simon looked relieved to see the pair of them. "There you are." He smiled warmly at River. "I was starting to worry."

"Critical rescue mission. No need to worry." She patted Simon fondly on the cheek. "Objective completed successfully."

The hat in her arms gave a wriggle and Simon flinched away. "What in the – "

"Mission objective," River said, folding open the ear flaps on the hat to reveal what was inside, "meet Simon. Simon, mission objective."

They all leaned in.

"A cat?" Simon asked.

River nodded. "A baby cat."

Jayne stepped up beside her and she handed the squirming hat over to him. He reached in carefully and drew out the most pathetic looking kitten that Inara had ever seen. It was an orange tabby, or at least she thought its fur was orange under all the dirt. It was soaking wet, fur sticking up in bedraggled patches, its bones jutting out from its too thin frame. "Found 'em next to a rain barrel. Doubt he'd last the night if I'd left 'em."

Mal sighed, sticking his hands in his pockets and shaking his head. "No, no, no. Absolutely not. Put it back wherever you found it and let's get goin'."

The kitten let out a plaintive mew, and Jayne tucked him gently back into the warmth of the hat. River reached in and stroked the top of its head before looking expectantly at Mal.

"C'mon, Cap'n…" Kaylee pleaded.

"No. No cats on my ship. And that's the last word on the matter."


"Don't you fuss now, dŏng ma? Jayne's got ya. We'll get you some food, get you all fixed up. Right as rain in no time." He was crooning at the hat in his arms, only the tops of the kitten's ears visible over the brim, and he vanished with it to his quarters as soon as they'd all come on board.

Mal just ran his hand over his face and shook his head.

"Told you that you were the best, didn't I?" Kaylee kissed his cheek and bounced off with a sack full of food toward the galley.

"You're gettin' soft, sir. Perilous business." Zoe raised an eyebrow at him as she heaved a second bag full of food over her own shoulder.

He opened his mouth to argue and then shut it again. No sense arguin' when she was right. God help him, he was gettin' soft.


Translations

chuī niú – bullshit

dŏng ma – understand?

Chapter Text

December 19

The town square had been completely transformed from the marketplace that had stood there that afternoon.

The stalls were gone except for a handful of food vendors along one edge, selling hot cider and mulled wine, roasted nuts, and other festive treats. The square was fully opened up for dancing with the exception of a small raised platform in the center that was just big enough for a handful of musicians with fiddles and guitars, all laughing together as they tuned their instruments in preparation. The ground of the square had been swept clear of snow, leaving just frozen dirt and gravel that crunched beneath their boots as they walked. The buildings and storefronts that surrounded the square had been strung up with strands of while lights, and there were bonfires for added warmth and illumination in each corner of the open space.

"Wow," Kaylee said, looking around awestruck, and Mal was inclined to agree with her. The effect was downright magical.

Folks were just starting to arrive and, as they entered the square, they were greeted by an excited boy of no more than sixteen. "Welcome! Welcome all!" He had a wide grin that was infectious, and he was passing out strange pieces of red paper from a box next to him to each person who entered. "Happy Christmas! Y'all are welcome! Come in, come on in!"

Mal was the first to receive one of the papers and he turned it over in his hands, wondering if there was writing on the back. Zoe, right behind him, was looking at hers with puzzlement as well. It wasn't until Simon began to matter of factly unfold his, giving the whole thing a shake to force some air into it, that Mal realized what they were.

"Lanterns?" he said out loud.

Inara was unfolding her own with a smile of nostalgic fondness. "I can't believe they have these. I didn't think tiāndēng were used much off the Core worlds."

After watching Simon, Kaylee had already expertly unfolded hers into its proper shape now that she knew what they were. "I think they're pretty."

"So what d'you do with 'em?" Jayne asked, staring at his, still folded flat, until River took it from him and began to unfold it.

Simon pointed at a table off to their right where a line of people had formed. "I expect they have the candles and slips of paper there. You write a hope or wish on the paper, good fortune for the new year ahead, and then there are little candles that fit inside the bases of the lanterns. You take your slip of paper to the bonfire and use it to light the candle, so your lantern will float. Look." He gestured towards the bonfire closest to the table and they all saw the first few lanterns sailing skyward, orange beacons glowing against the darkening sky.

"Well, what are we waitin' for?" Kaylee grabbed Simon's hand and dragged him toward the line of people.

Mal shrugged and the rest of them joined the queue behind them. It only took a few minutes for them to reach the table, and he found himself jostled up next to Inara. He picked up the pen, not sure what to write. A hope or wish to bring good fortune in the new year… Before, he probably would have written just to keep flyin', but watching Inara frowning in concentration over her own slip of paper, he wasn't sure that was enough any more.

He leaned over to try and see what she was writing, but she kept her words shielded with her hand before neatly folding it in two and he was left staring at his own blank paper. He could write anything, anything at all. It didn't matter what he put down, it was just a silly tradition. Still, he shielded his own paper from view as Jayne stepped up to fill Inara's empty spot beside him. He scribbled a word and then folded his paper quickly, moving between the people in the crowd over to the blazing warmth of the bonfire.

Simon and Kaylee had already sent their lanterns aloft and were watching them as they soared upward. Inara and Zoe were still fiddling with their candles. He took one from the woman who was passing them out and inserted it into the cut out in the base of the lantern.

"Now we use our wishes to light the candles," Inara was saying. She glanced at Mal and then over at the fire.

The paper caught quickly, but had evidently been treated with something so that the whole thing didn't ignite immediately. He had enough time to light his candle and drop the remainder of the slip of paper into the flames without having to worry about burning himself.

"You ready?" Inara said softly.

Zoe nodded and the three of them held their lanterns in their outstretched hands. It didn't take long for the candle's sputtering flames to heat the air inside, and the lanterns began to rise into the air with the others.

"Beautiful," Zoe said, her eyes fixed on her own lantern that was now floating, rising higher and higher.

Mal's eyes flicked to Inara, her upturned face watching the lanterns. "Yeah," he agreed. "Very."

Once they had all launched their lanterns, River pulled them over to the food vendors where Simon purchased mugs of steaming mulled wine for all of them along with a bag of roasted chestnuts for them to share. The square continued to fill with people as they sipped their wine, letting the warmth of the drinks and the bonfires chase away some of the evening chill.

There was a speech by the mayor, which was met with rousing cheers and claps. He was evidently well-liked and, considering how orderly and prosperous the town seemed to be, he was doing a good job. Jayne wasn't listening, too busy making eyes at an attractive blonde girl standing nearby.

Finally, the last handful of lanterns were aloft, and the musicians began to play a lively tune, signalling the start of the dancing. To no one's surprise, Kaylee dragged Simon off immediately and they vanished into the joyful crowd. Jayne was next, with the blonde girl who was making suggestive glances right back at him. Mal elbowed Zoe with a grin to point them out and she just shook her head with a wry chuckle. "Some things never change."

He glanced over at Inara; River was saying something excitedly and Inara was smiling at her with an expression of affection that made his heart hurt more than a little. Some things did change, though, whether you wanted them to or not.

If Wash had been here, he would have swept his wife off into the fray of dancers, just as Kaylee had done to Simon. Zoe was watching the crowd, too, and he couldn't help feeling that she was thinking the exact same thing.

"Care to dance?" He offered her his elbow.

"Are you going to let me say no?"

He pretended to consider it. "Hmm… no."

"Then I suppose I accept." She took his arm and joined the throng of dancers. It was an old, familiar set of steps everyone was following, ones he remembered one of the hands back on Shadow teaching him when he'd been in the uncertain age between childhood and all the responsibilities and realities of growing up.

Zoe moved through the steps with a similar surety, although he could tell that her thoughts were far away.

"It's not the same without him. Don't reckon it ever will be," he said at last, unable to ignore the ghost who should have been there, too.

"No," she said quietly, "don't reckon it will. But he wouldn't have wanted us to stop livin' our lives either."

He couldn't resist looking for Inara in the crowd every time they circled past her, but she'd disappeared by their third time around the square.

Zoe cleared her throat. "I know it was you that got the Doc after me."

"Just worried about you is all."

"I know." She sighed and rested her head against his shoulder.

"You okay?" he asked.

"No," she answered honestly. "But I will be. Eventually."


Inara watched Mal and Zoe dancing together a little wistfully. They looked good together, both of them tall and lean. They'd always been close, and it had been obvious that Wash had found that hard to accept at times. She couldn't deny the slight prickle of jealousy she felt herself, even knowing that there was nothing physical or romantic about their relationship. Zoe was close to Mal, close in a way that she wasn't and maybe would never be, and it made her feel petty to think it.

She forced herself to stop staring at them, and it was a welcome distraction when a man came up to ask her to dance. He had dark hair and an easy smile, and with a final glance in Mal's direction, she took his proffered hand and allowed him to lead her into the crowd.

He seemed nice enough, complimenting her on her beauty and her mastery of the dance steps. She caught Mal glancing at her once or twice, but she looked away, not wanting to get caught staring herself. Maybe she would ask him for a dance at some point.

But, a few tunes and partners later, she had lost sight of him.

It was a beautiful evening. The crowd was boisterous but not rowdy, and the square was reasonably warm now between the blazing bonfires and all the people dancing. There was almost no wind, so the lanterns could still be seen spread out across the vastness of the sky that glittered with stars.

"Gorgeous, ain't it?" her current partner said, a little to close to her ear for her liking.

"Yes, it is."

"Not as gorgeous as you though." She could smell the wine on his breath, and suspected he'd already had more than a few mugs worth. "You're real pretty."

He was making her uncomfortable, trying to pull her in closer to him, but she resisted. "You know," she said firmly, "I think I'm going to take a break for a few minutes. If you'll excuse me."

"Let's at least finish this dance first. No sense bein' hasty." His hand at her waist was sliding downward, and she'd had enough.

"I believe I was quite clear that I was done," she said coldly. He was frozen in place, his mouth slightly open, at the feel of the pistol she had drawn and was now poking into the flesh just under his ribs. There was something to be said for wearing a belt holster, and she was glad she had taken Zoe up on her earlier suggestion.

"This guy botherin' you?" Mal was at her side, his eyes flashing with anger.

"He was, but now he's leaving, aren't you?" Inara asked him in a voice that was utterly calm.

"Uh, yeah. Sorry. I didn't mean no offense." He held up his hands as he backed away. "I'll just be… goin'. Yeah."

They watched him both back away slowly before finally turning tail and bolting away.

"You sure I can't shoot him just a little? A knee cap? Graze on the shoulder?" Mal asked with a frown.

"No way. I called him first."

When he was out of sight, she slid the pistol back in the holster that had been hidden beneath her coat.

"Well, colour me impressed, Miss Serra. Would you care to dance? As long as you don't plan on shootin' me, that is."

She looked him over, quirking an eyebrow at him thoughtfully. "I suppose I can manage to restrain myself, somehow. Just this once."

"I'd be mighty grateful."

She settled one hand on his shoulder, the other on his waist, as he did the same. They moved together to the music, a slower rhythm this time, not speaking. She could smell the scent of his soap, pleasant and clean, and, from the smoothness of his jaw, he'd evidently shaved before this evening's festivities.

"You clean up nice," she said at last. "Very shuài."

"So, you're sayin' that, normally…"

"You know, I'm trying to pay you a compliment, Mal. You could just take it as one."

"I could," he smiled playfully, "but where's the fun in that?"

She shook her head, not willing to be drawn in by his teasing. "How's Zoe doing?"

Mal's expression fell as he adjusted his grip on her waist. "As well as can be expected I suppose. Takin' it day by day. All anyone can do, really."

The dance was an old one, slow and simple, and she moved through the steps without much thought. Above their heads, many of the lanterns had already drifted away or gone down in the darkness, but a few still hung there – like fireflies, she thought, and that made her smile. Mal's hand had moved from her waist to the small of her back, and her hand at his shoulder was gripping the lapels of his long brown coat as they had subconsciously drawn closer together.

"What are you smilin' about? Should I be worried?"

"I was looking at the sky lanterns. We used to do the same thing at the start of the winter festival. It was always my favourite part."

"Why did you leave the Temple?" he asked. "Why come out here to the Rim when you could've stayed, lived out your days in luxury?"

"I… it's…" She looked up at him, feeling suddenly a little self-conscious by their proximity. "It's complicated."

"Try me? I ain't lookin' to judge you." His voice was soft, almost intimate.

"I was looking… for my mother. She traded me to House Madrassa when I was a child. Told me it was for the best, that she wanted a better life for me."

"She sold you?" The muscles in his shoulders stiffened.

"She didn't sell me. They offered her payment for her gift."

"Sure sounds like sellin' to me."

Her response was brittle. "We weren't slaves, Mal. We were free to leave at any time we chose, without owing any sort of debt. We were educated, fed, treated with care and respect."

"Yeah, because you were valuable to 'em, like cattle." His voice was edged with bitterness. "How much does the Guild take from your profits? You really believe they raised you up out of the goodness of their hearts?"

It was her turn to stiffen. "It's not like that."

"Isn't it?" They weren't dancing any more, but he hadn't released his hold of her, nor had she of him. "You sure you ain't deludin' yourself, thinkin' what they want you to think, what they raised you to think?"

Anger and shame were flooding through her, leaving her unable to speak. Why did he always have to needle at her, putting her on the defensive? This wasn't at all how she'd imagined – hoped – tonight was going to go.

"You don't understand." She stepped away from him, needed to get away, as she drew in a shaky breath, trembling with anger.

"Inara, wait – " He reached out to take her wrist.

"This was a mistake."

"What was – "

"Coming back. Thinking things could be different. I just wanted…" She shook her head, swallowing around the lump in her throat. "Never mind. It doesn't matter." She pulled her hand out of his and turned to leave.

"Did you ever find her?" Mal asked, so quietly that she could hardly hear him over the music and noise that had filled her with so much happiness mere moments before. Now, she felt more alone than ever.

"Who?"

"Your mother."

She looked back over her shoulder at him, ignoring the wounded look in his eyes. "No," she answered, leaving him standing there alone as she walked away.


Mal sat apart from the others, drinking another mug of spiced mulled wine, watching the revellers and his crew. Simon was dancing with River, Zoe and Kaylee had their heads together, talking and sharing a bag of tamari roasted almonds, and Jayne and his mystery blonde had vanished off somewhere – to some back alley or hay loft no doubt. His sour expression had chased them all away, even Kaylee had made a sad-eyed expression at him at finding him alone.

Inara was nowhere to be seen; had already gone back to the ship, odds were. He had no idea how to make things right. Just when he'd thought things were gettin' better between them, he had to go stick his foot in it again. Maybe he was just chasin' after something that was already gone.

He finished his wine, leaving the final dregs that were gritty with spice in the bottom of the mug, and caught Zoe's eye. With a nudge of his head, he told her that he was heading back to the ship and she gave him a nod of acknowledgement. She would make sure the rest of them got back safely.

He trudged through the darkness – all the lanterns long gone – leaving the bright lights of the town square behind him. It wasn't snowing, but the wind was full of tiny crystals of ice picked up from the sweeping fields surrounding the town, and they stung his eyes and bit into his skin as he walked. What was he doing? After Inara had left, all he'd wanted, all he'd thought about, was how much he wanted her back. Whatever he had done to make her leave, he would make up for. But somehow, inexplicably, she was back and all he had managed to do so far was to drive her away again. But that was what he wanted, wasn't it?

Lost in his thoughts, he reached the ship before he knew it, her left side looming out of the darkness like an old friend.

The cargo bay door was open.

Drawing his gun from its holster, he crept alongside as quietly as he could, which was difficult with the hard layer of ice that had formed over the snow. Carefully, he inched over just enough to peer into the cargo bay. How many were there? Could he – "

"Inara?" he said, surprised, stepping fully into the open entrance, his revolver still cocked and ready.

She was sitting on an empty cargo crate, staring out at the town in the distance, looking just as surprised to see him as he was to see her. "Mal! You startled me."

"Likewise." He huffed out, feeling the rush of adrenaline draining away as he re-holstered his weapon. "Sorry, didn't expect you to be here."

"I wasn't expecting anyone back yet." She made as if to stand. "I'll just be – "

"No! No." He gestured for her to stay sitting. "Stay. Please."

She gave him a wary look but settled back down. "Here, just hang on." He grabbed a cargo crate from the side of the bay and pulled it over next to hers. "There. See?" He sat down, the cold metal of the crate seeping through his trousers almost instantly. Tā mā de… Aren't you cold?"

She shrugged, hugging her arms around her chest. She was still wearing her jacket. "A little. The view is worth it though."

From here, they could still hear the faint music and laughter on the wind, and the glow of the town in the distance filled him with a kind of melancholy.

"Inara?"

She didn't look at him, her gaze still fixed on the lights in the square. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry." She did look at him now, and he rubbed his hands on his trousers as he continued. "I didn't mean to… Well, I wasn't tryin' to start a fight. I had hoped we…" His words trailed off, not sure how truthsome he was prepared to be. The last time he had tried hadn't ended particularly well. "I just wanted to dance. With you. D'you think we could just agree to disagree, but not actually do the disagreein' part of it?"

She stared at him so long that he was beginning to worry that he'd said something else to cause offense.

"All right," she said at last, and his heart suddenly felt at least a ton lighter than it had moments before.

"'In that case," he stood up – his ass was going numb anyway – and extended a hand, "would you care to dance?"

She lifted an eyebrow. "There's no music."

"Sure there is. We can still hear the music from down there, even though it's quiet-like."

She shook her head, the corners of her mouth turning up in the hint of a smile, but she took his hand anyway and that was all that mattered. He didn't bother with the pretense of space between them this time, pulling her as close as he dared. She pressed her cheek against his shoulder as one of his arms curved around her waist, the other resting along the her back. They weren't truly dancing, just swaying to the strains of the fiddles carried by the wind, and it was everything he could have imagined, could have hoped for.

He rested his jaw against the top of her head, breathing in the sweet scent of her. Her arms were around his neck, her icy fingers teasing the tips of his hair, making him shiver, and not with cold… far from it. Would her lips taste of mulled wine and spices? His heart was racing with just the thought.

He held her close, not wanting this moment to end. She felt so good against him; it felt right. He didn't want her to leave, not ever again.

"Mal?" Her voice was muffled against his coat.

"Yeah?"

"I'm tired of fighting."

"I... Me, too." He couldn't resist pressing a kiss to the top of her head as she nuzzled in closer. He wanted to do so much more than that, wanted to tilt her head up so he could kiss her properly, taste the wine on her tongue. The press of her body against his, even through their coats, was enough to render his thoughts more than a little fuzzy.

It was too much, he had been trying to deny his feelings for so long and now she was right here, in his arms. "Inara, listen… I…"

A boom like gunfire echoed in the distance and they drew apart in alarm only to see a shower of blue and green lights flare up into the night sky.

"Fireworks!" Inara laughed in relief as the whistle of another rocket joined the first, cascading in pinwheels of orange as it fell.

"Been a long while since I've seen those."

As they stared up at the night sky in awe, his hand found hers. She didn't pull away; if anything, she gripped his more tightly. Some day – some day soon – they would talk, get things out in the open. But, for now, it was enough to watch the colours bloom and sparkle across the night sky with her fingers wrapped comfortingly around his own.

There was hope. A promise of more.

It was enough for now. It had to be.


Translations

Tiāndēng – sky lanterns

Shuài - handsome

Tā mā de – damn it

Chapter Text

December 20

"What're the two of you gigglin' about? I could practically hear you on the bridge. This is a working ship, not some sort of girls' night out tea party." Mal stepped through the shuttle door to find Inara and Kaylee half collapsed on the couch with laughter.

"And then, we couldn't get it back in because everything was so slippery…" Kaylee could barely get the words out between bursts of laughter.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Things I did not need to know today!" Mal threw up his hands as if trying to ward them off.

Inara was clutching her stomach, still laughing. "Mal, we're talking about the engine." She wiped the tears from her eyes. "On the ship. Get your mind out of the gutter."

"Oh. Well. It just sounded like… Never mind." He tucked his hands into his back pockets as he surveyed the shuttle – her shuttle. He hadn't been in here much since she'd come back, not that he'd been avoidin' her, mind you… just givin' her some space. It made his heart squeeze a little tighter to see it all done up and fancy again, not quite the way it was before, but similar enough. She hadn't talked about taking clients again yet, but clearly it was just a matter of time.

A small chest was open between the two women, full of things that sparkled and glistened.

"So, what're you two up to then, aside from causin' mischief?"

"Oh, we're causin' mischief," Kaylee nodded succinctly.

Inara's eyes were still twinkling with merriment. "Kaylee's looking for things to use as ornaments for the tree. I told her I had a bunch of gifts I'd received from clients she could have."

Mal stepped closer and pulled out a small golden tortoise from the top of the pile in the chest, its shell adorned with tiny blue and green jewels. "Stuff looks valuable."

"Feel free to sell it then." She rolled her eyes at him.

"After Christmas!" Kaylee objected.

"Of course." Inara patted her arm.

He set the tortoise back down and picked up a silver bracelet inlaid with jade. "Just surprised you'd want to get rid of it is all. Could get a lot of bank notes for this."

"It's all from clients, Mal." She took the bracelet from him and dropped it back into the small trunk. "They don't mean anything to me."

"They don't? Not even this?" He selected a small figurine carved from rich purple-hued wood sporting an enormously ill-proportioned erect phallus.

"Ugh. You are unbelievably immature, you know that, right?"

"Hey, I'm not the one with penis statues."

"It's too bad he's too small to use for the top of the tree," Kaylee said with a dreamy sigh.

"What? You mean his… ? 'Cause I think it's plenty big from where I'm standin'…"

Inara let out a strangled groan. "It's a fertility symbol. Don't be crude. Give me that." She reached up to snatch it out of his hands, but he couldn't help raising it up just out of her reach.

"I don't know, I kinda like this one. You already said you didn't want it." He dangled it in front of her.

"Just give it here, Mal."

"It's right here. All you have to do is take it." He grinned.

He shouldn't enjoy riling her up as much as he did, but he could see her aggravation building, and damn if it didn't make her look sexy as hell.

She stood up quickly, something falling out of her lap as she did so, but he lifted the figure up out of reach again. "Gotta be quicker than that."

She gave him a look that would have made even Jayne freeze in his tracks. "You know what? If it's that important to you, just keep it. I don't care."

"I might!" Kaylee interjected.

"Then you and Mal can fight over it. I'm done." She stooped down and picked up the object that had fallen, hurriedly tucking it into a pocket in her robe.

"C'mon, Cap'n. He belongs on the tree in a place of honour. Look at him!" Kaylee gave him a pleading look, but he was distracted, wondering what Inara was so keen to hide.

"Oh, fine." He held it out over Kaylee's outstretched hand, letting it hang there. "But only if you let me see the one Inara's stashed away. Suspect it must be even better than this one if she ain't willing to let it go."

She flushed, seeming embarrassed that he'd caught her out. "As I'm so fond of reminding you – and you're so fond of disregarding that reminder – it's none of your business."

"So at least some of it means something to you then," he said quietly.

"I guess it does."

"What? That?" Kaylee looked at them each questioningly in turn. "It's just an old piece of carved soapstone."

"Yes," Inara said with an artificial crispness to her voice. "Not very suitable for a Christmas tree."

An awkward pause hung in the air before Kaylee broke in. "Hey, Cap'n, do you mind… ?"

His mind was spinning. It couldn't be… could it?

He'd found it on Beaumonde, a local craftsman with a stall near the general store. It'd seemed a foolish thing to spend his money on, but something about the deer carved into the smooth stone oval had caught his eye. He'd kept the damned thing in his pocket for a month or more, caught himself running his thumb over the smooth cool stone when he was distracted more than once, before he'd plucked up the courage to give it to her. He couldn't even remember the story he'd come up with – it had ended up mixed in accidentally with a bag of coin from a job or maybe he'd just told her he'd found it. Either way, he'd tossed it to her one day in her shuttle, said he thought she might need another knickknack since he had no use for it.

Was it the same one? Had she kept it?

She was looking at him, cool and composed, but one hand was still in her pocket and her cheeks still betrayed a blush of pink.

It was the carving he had given her. He would've staked his life on it.

Interesting.

Kaylee was looking at him expectantly, and he realized that he hadn't heard a word she'd just said. "Cap'n, you okay?"

"Uh… yeah. Sure."

"So, you don't mind carrying this chest down to the lounge for me? I need to grab some extra wiring from the engine room."

"Hmmm? I can do that. No problem." He realized absently that he was still holding the ridiculous figurine, but he was having a hard time keeping his eyes from straying over to look at Inara. She'd kept it. All these other expensive things… she didn't care what happened to them…

He felt oddly self-conscious as he dropped the statue back into the chest and closed the lid before picking it up. They were both staring at him. "I'll just be goin' then. You, two, carry on… just not so loud. And giggly. Makes my teeth itch."


"I can't believe he actually thought we were talking about the ship."

"I know."

And they both collapsed into giggles all over again. She'd missed this. It was good to be back.

Home.


Inara lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling and unable to sleep. She had been trying to think of what to give Mal for his Secret Santa gift, but that wasn't getting her anywhere except thinking about Mal, and that was decidedly not helping her sleep.

She rolled over on to her side, pulling the silken coverlet along with her to keep her shoulders warm.

She'd wanted to kiss him, the night of the dance, under the stars, and now she was kicking herself for her lack of courage. He'd wanted to as well, and that made her feel worse and better at the same time; her own inaction combined with the fact that there had been mutual desire, roiling below the surface, they could have finally –

Not helping.

She forced herself to draw in ten even breaths, inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth, emptying her thoughts.

He had nice hands. Definitely masculine. Strong. Big enough to make her conscious of the delicate structure of her own fingers, swallowed up by –

Not.

Helping.

With a sigh of frustration, she reached over to switch on the lamp above the bed. She wasn't going to be able to fall asleep any time soon. She might as well do something productive. Kaylee's paintbrushes were still lying on the side table… maybe getting the border finished would help calm her thoughts. If not, then she could brew up a pot of chamomile tea and read for a spell. It was better than lying here with her thoughts chasing themselves in circles at any rate.

The border was half-finished already, and she lost herself in the monotony of the careful inking of the abstract geometric shapes and swirls. Her arm was aching by the time she was done and stepped back to admire her handiwork. It really did make the otherwise unadorned panel fit the décor of the room. Stifling a yawn, her eyes caught on the row of symbols running down the wall beside her bed.

One for each of them, except her.

For most of them, it had been easy to choose the characteristic about them that suited them, that she admired most. Mal had been trickier than the rest, but she had finally settled on "endurance". For herself, though, she hadn't been able to decide. She'd considered "suffering", based on the Buddhist concept of dukkha; had considered "compassion" and "empathy", but none of these words had felt like the correct one.

And, perhaps, that indecision, that lack of surety, had been the correct response all along, but she had just lacked the clarity to see it until now.

Removing the lid from the pot of paint, she dipped one of the smallest brushes in the pigment, scraping the excess paint from the tip. Beneath "endurance" she wrote her word: "possibility".

Although she was starting to feel tired, she rinsed each of the brushes and carefully dried them.

This time, after crawling into bed, she slept.

Chapter Text

December 21

"More to the left. More. More. Stop. A little to the right. Wait." Kaylee tilted her head to the side as she studied the position of the tree. She'd jury-rigged a contraption to hold it in place inside a large saucepan full of water that she'd commandeered from the kitchen supply cupboard.

"Man, are you bossy." Jayne held the top of the tree with one hand and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the other. "Remind me to tell Mal not to put you in charge of anything ever again."

"Just a tiny bit more to the right. A little furth – there! Stop!" She scrambled on all fours to tighten the fasteners that were attached the bottom of the tree. "Okay, you can let go now!"

"Ugh… finally." Jayne shook out both arms. "If you got anything else for me to do, you can forget it."

"No," she gave him a satisfied nod, "reckon I'm good here. Thanks!"

"Good. I'm gonna go get all this mistletoe up then… can't believe I'm doin' this. I'd better win." He was grumbling under his breath, the last few words barely audible as he scooped up a small burlap bag overflowing with green leaves from the couch and stomped off.


Mal batted at the green plant hanging from the entrance to the galley as he entered, giving it yank. It came away unevenly, leaving him with a handful of small leaves and a green twig still attached to the doorway. "What the hell is this stuff? It's everywhere! It's not growin' by itself, is it?"

Inara looked over her shoulder at him as she stirred her tea. "It's mistletoe. It's a plant."

"I think I'd already figured out that much," he said disparagingly. "But why is it taped up over every gorram doorway?"

"It's an old tradition, older even than Christmas I believe." She gave him a demure smile, one that he knew she was using to tease and provoke him, and then set her spoon down on the counter. "It's an ancient fertility symbol."

"Another one? I suppose I should be grateful that I don't have a handful of your little statues strung up around the room then?"

She turned around, leaning against the counter with her tea cup in her hand. "I don't know… they might look rather charming in here."

Mal shook his head. "Don't know what I was thinkin', lettin' Kaylee have her way with my poor ship. Suspect there'll be bows and ribbons on everything next."

"There's fresh coffee made, if you want some." Inara took a step away from the counter so he could reach the coffee maker. "For what it's worth, I think it's nice. I don't think I've ever seen Kaylee and River so excited."

Mal made a grunt of begrudging agreement. "I suppose." He dropped the handful of leaves on the counter and opened one of the lockers. Removing a mug, he squinted into the bottom to make sure it was clean before placing it on the counter.

"Maybe she'll get you to dress up in a Santa suit and hand out presents on Christmas morning." Inara's voice was all innocence but her eyes were full of laughter.

Mal's hand froze on the handle of the coffee pot. "She wouldn't… She doesn't actually have one of those… does she?"

"I think you're safe for now."

He pointed a finger at her. "If she suddenly comes up with the idea, I'm comin' after you. Consider this fair warnin'." He poured coffee into his mug, putting the pot back on the burner to stay warm.

He picked up one of the leaves from the counter and smelled it. "Don't smell like much of anything. What do people do with it, exactly?"

"It used to be eaten as an aphrodisiac, but it's poisonous, so hopefully that usage died out quickly."

"Well, if you had to pick a way to go…" He raised an eyebrow at her. "There's worse ways, all I'm sayin'."

He had a feeling that she would have rolled her eyes at him, but she was much too dignified for that.

"That evolved into a belief that it had life-giving properties associated with increased fertility. So now, if a couple stops under some mistletoe, they're supposed to kiss each other as a sign of love."

"Huh." He turned the leaf over in his fingers. "So, essentially what you're sayin' is that I'm going to have to watch Kaylee and the Doc all over each other every time they meet in a doorway?"

"Hmm… yes, I think that's accurate." She took a sip of her tea.

Mal sighed, crushing the leaf between his fingers and dropping the bits on to the counter with the rest. "I thought this Christmas thing was gonna be fun. Ain't so sure now."

"Oh, lighten up, Mal. I doubt they're going to remove their clothes and have sex right in front of you."

"Awful lot of fertility all around 'em. They might just succumb without meanin' to."

"You're impossible."

He picked up his coffee and headed toward the bridge. "Impossibly handsome? Impossibly hard to resist?"

She shook her head and turned toward her shuttle.

"Impossibly manly? You should watch yourself around all this stuff, too. Might be overcome by my manly attributes."

"Dream on, Mal," she called behind her, walking on, secretly glad he couldn't see the smile on her face.


Mal stood there watching for a long time without speaking. "People been actin' a mite funny lately."

Vera lay disassembled on the table in the galley, and Jayne was meticulously polishing each part before setting it to the side and starting in on the next one. "Can't say as I've noticed."

"Really?"

"Nope."

"Nothing at all?"

Jayne set down the piece he was working on and looked at Mal. "Look, you don't pay me to notice stuff. I just shoot what you tell me to shoot."

"So, you're sayin' that the number of times today that I've been passin' through a doorway at the same time as Inara is just a big ol' coincidence?"

Jayne had already gone back to polishing the next piece laid out in front of him. "Reckon so."


"Come see the tree! We're about to plug it in!" Kaylee's voice echoed over the ship-wide communications channel.

Inara left her shuttle, noticing, with amusement, the large sprig of mistletoe that now hung over her door as well. She ran into Mal on the stairs down, each of them awkwardly trying to let the other go first.

"Fine, I'll go first if the two of you ain't done bein' all polite." Jayne pushed past them.

"Remind me why I pay you again?" Mal asked him as Inara started down after Jayne.

"I'm muscle, not manners. You want manners, ask her," he gestured back at Inara, "or the Doc."

The three of them headed for the lounge area, where Kaylee, Simon, and River were already waiting. The tree was set up in the corner, and Inara had to admit that it looked much better than the last time she had seen it. The sparseness of the needles was concealed by a wide red ribbon that had been woven around the branches, encircling the tree in several loops. The glittering trinkets that Inara had provided were scattered over nearly every inch, some tied on, the rest precariously propped up. On the top of the tree was a large light bulb, from the size of it, likely a spare projector bulb from somewhere on Serenity's exterior. She smothered a laugh with a delicate cough when she realized what was attached to the flat surface of the bulb.

"Sorry to keep you waitin'," Zoe said as she arrived behind them.

"No worries, we just got down here ourselves," Mal responded. "All right, Kaylee, let's see this tree of yours all lit up. It ain't gonna catch fire, is it?"

"No! Of course not. Probably not." She gave a wild grin. "You ready?"

At their nods and murmurs of assent, she moved around to the back of the tree and picked up the end of the cable on the floor. "All right then, here goes…"

She plugged the cable into the outlet and the entire tree lit up with tiny lights in a rainbow of different colours. It made all the decorations in the branches twinkle and shine, illuminated in hues of red and green, blue and yellow, purple, orange, and white. The large light at the top of the tree was yellow, the same hue as Serenity's thrusters, and the effect was more beautiful than Inara could have imagined.

"Shiny…" River said, her eyes wide with wonder.

"You like it?" Kaylee asked, looking around at all of them.

"It looks incredible," Simon said, placing an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close to kiss the top of her head. "You've outdone yourself."

"It's gorgeous, mèi mèi," Inara added.

"Well said." Mal gave her a kind smile. "Never thought I'd see the day there was a Christmas tree on my boat, but I'm glad it was this one."


Translations

mèi mèi – little sister

Chapter Text

December 21

The bridge was his favourite place in the quiet hours of their usual sleep cycle. Seeing the black spread out all around him was the closest he'd ever felt to being free, truly free. He wasn't the only one to feel that way – he found River up here at odd hours, too, more often than not – but it wasn't River curled up asleep in the pilot's chair tonight. It was Zoe.

Her breathing was slow and steady as he studied her face, still too thin and worn for his liking, but who was he to tell her how to mourn? As he came around to crouch down beside the chair, he noticed what was clutched in the hand pressed against her chest - a plastic stegosaurus – and suddenly his heart felt too heavy to keep up a steady beat. She deserved better, all the happiness in the 'Verse, after everything she'd been through. He tried to swallow, tried to keep the prickling sense of shame from welling up inside. This was all his fault. If he hadn't been so full of fury back on Haven, if he hadn't bullied them all into going along with his stupid rutting plan…

"Hey." She'd opened her eyes and was watching him.

He reached out and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Hey," he said softly. "No sleeping on the job."

"Wasn't sleepin', sir. Just… dreamin'."

"Zoe…" His voice caught and he had to blink rapidly to clear his vision. "I'm sorry."

She reached up to touch his hand that rested on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze back. "Sorry won't bring him back. And it wasn't your fault." She turned the dinosaur over a few times in her hands before leaning over to place it back on the console with the palm trees and the others. "We did the right thing, exposin' what the Alliance did on Miranda. Hopefully will keep it from happenin' again on some other world. We all knew the risk." She turned to face him, and her eyes were fierce and wet. "We all accepted it. I'd like to think he would've been proud of us."

"I know he would have. But that don't make it much easier to take."

"No, sir," she said softly. "It don't."

He stood up and pretended to check the status of the various panels, unable to face the rawness of her grief head on. He almost wished she would be angry, would lash out, fall upon him in a fury. He could have handled her rage far easier than this quiet acceptance. But that wasn't her. Never had been.

"There's something I need to tell you," she said at last.

His heart stopped beating and an icy trickle of fear slid down his spine.

She was leaving.

Just like Inara had left after everything that had happened with Nandi. He still didn't know if Inara was going stay, felt sure it was just going to be a matter of time before he did something stupid and she turned tail and ran again. He couldn't lose Zoe, too. She was his rock, his best friend. But how could he be so selfish as to ask her to stay if she wanted to leave? Maybe the memories of Wash and their life here were too much to bear. He couldn't ask it of her, no matter how much he needed her, how much he…

"Zoe, if you're gonna… please don't – "

"I'm pregnant."

"Wait? What?"

He couldn't process what she'd said until she said it again, "Mal. I'm pregnant."

Relief flooded through him. She wasn't leaving. She was… she was pregnant!

"You… Wash… pregnant?" The words came out as stupidly as his own thought processes would permit.

"Yes."

He was well and truly flabbergasted, his expression one of shock and surprise and wonder. "I… I didn't know you were tryin' to… a baby. Wow. That's… that's dà biàn huà."

"Dà biàn huà indeed. That about sums up my reaction, too," she said wryly.

"Are you… okay?"

"Physically or mentally?"

"Both, I suppose. Is there anything you need? Anything I can – "

"Mal." She chuckled a little and he was happier to hear that from her than he ever would've thought. "I'm okay. Doc said that everything looks fine, with me and the baby. It's still early, but he was able to find a heartbeat."

"It's heart is beatin'…? Already?" He couldn't help glancing at her abdomen, still perfectly flat, and trying to imagine that there was a little person hidin' away in there. Her and Wash's little person…

She smiled, unable to resist running her hand over her stomach. "I know. It's… weird. But good."

"Have you told any of the others?"

"Not yet. Wanted you to know first."

He crouched down again and drew her into a warm hug, overwhelmed with emotion. "Congratulations."

"Thank you, sir."

He held her until his legs started to ache, and then stood up and tucked the blanket River always used around her. "Don't stay up too late. You need your rest."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Don't start with that gŏu shĭ. I intend to pull my weight same as I always have. Don't go treatin' me any different." She fixed him with a steady glare. "I know where you sleep. Sir."

He threw up his hands, admitting defeat. "Fair enough. I won't meddle so long as you promise me you're takin' care of yourself. Don't think I won't send the Doc after you again."

"I know." She paused. "Listen, there's somethin' else I wanted to talk to you about."

"Oh?" He leaned against the wall. "Jayne isn't the father is he? I don't think my heart could take that."

"I… uh… No."

"Well, thank God for that."

"I wanted to talk to you about Inara."

He tried to keep his face from betraying him, but knew she would see right through him as she always did. "Didn't we just talk about not meddlin'? That goes both ways. What about her?"

"Not just about her. About the two of you."

Mal shook his head. "There's nothing to say. Nothin' between us."

"That's chuī niú and you know it. You'd have to be blind to not see the way the two of you look at each other."

"It don't matter." His temper was rising, but he managed to keep his voice low. "It don't matter how I feel or don't feel. It ain't the same for her." He turned to leave, not wanting to get into this tonight, or at all – ever. "She left."

"Maybe she was scared."

"Of what? Me?"

"Ask her that," she said coolly.

"What's the point? Whenever I think I've got her figured out, she throws me for another loop!" He jabbed a finger in Zoe's direction. "If she wanted somethin' from me, all she ever had to do was ask! Besides, I'm sure any one of her clients," he practically sneered the word, "could do a better job than I ever could."

"Mal – "

"I don't want to talk about this no more, okay?" He ran a hand through his hair, bristling for a fight and not wanting to pick one with Zoe.

"I wasn't finished."

"Well, I am!" he shouted, feeling the angry roar that had been building finally explode.

"No." Zoe rose up out of the chair and stalked over to him. "I'm gonna talk and you're gonna listen."

They were nearly the same height and she practically radiated with indignation as she backed him up against the wall. "You blame yourself for what happened to Wash? To the Shepherd? Then quit playin' the fool with the time you've got. You don't think that if I could go back, knowin' what I know now, that I wouldn't cherish every gorram minute I had with my husband?"

Her eyes were filling with tears and she blinked them away furiously as she grabbed him by the shoulders.

"There is only so much time we all get, Mal. Do you want to spend it pretendin', lyin' to yourself about how you feel? About how she feels? Life is too short, even when you're tryin' to make the best use of it that you can. You need to tell her, before it hurts too much and either she runs or you push her away. Why are you so ruttin' afraid of your own happiness?"

"Because it always goes wrong." He felt defeated, exposed. "Folks get hurt. I'm no good for anyone. Thought you of all people would know that by now."

She released his shoulders and drew in a shaky breath. "Never took you for a coward, sir. Don't prove me wrong."

He nodded, still trembling with spent anger and the hurt of what Inara's leaving had left him with. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry." Zoe pressed a light chaste kiss to his cheek and stepped back, her eyes holding his. "Do somethin' about it."


Mal sat on the edge of his bunk, the last dregs of the whisky bottle he held between his fingers long gone. There'd barely been enough left for a few solid swallows, so it would have to do. He was sure Jayne likely had some sort of swill stashed away, but he didn't feel much like talking to anyone right about now.

Maybe Zoe was right… but the last time he'd tried to be honest with Inara was when she'd told him she was leaving, and he didn't much care to have a repeat of that conversation. What was it that had pushed her into leavin'? Was it something he'd said? Was it Nandi dyin'?

He tilted the bottle back for the last few drops and then set it down on the floor before stretching out across the bed with his arms behind his head.

He still regretted what had happened to Nandi, felt responsible for failing her. Did Inara blame him for not preventing Burgess from shooting her? Absentmindedly, he lifted up one hand from behind his head and aimed his pointer finger at one the anti-Alliance posters he'd stuck up on the wall to fill the space. Gorram bastards, makin' everything worse for the simple folk who just wanted to live their lives in peace, without bein' interfered with.

"Bang," he whispered, pretending to shoot.

And his blood went cold.

Bang.

Nandi getting shot.

What else had River said that night? He wracked his brains. She'd said something about a baby crying. That made sense now, too. Nandi had been shot after the girl had given birth to the baby Burgess had laid a claim to. But what did that have to do with anything? The baby cried, Nandi had been killed… what was he missing?

There was something about a yellow girl, too…

Saffron.

He sat up with a start. River hadn't been tryin' to tell him that she was back, had she? That was the last thing he needed right about now.

He bolted out of bed and up the ladder. Where was River?

He tried the bridge first, but she wasn't there and neither was Zoe; she'd evidently gone to bed. Deciding against trying the engine room – she wouldn't be there unless Kaylee was – he headed for the stairs down and the passenger quarters. It wasn't until he was at her door that he realized that he couldn't exactly pound on her door and wake her up just to ask about some nonsense riddles she'd spouted off before. She probably wouldn't even remember what she'd said.

With a sigh, he pushed his hair back out of his eyes and trudged away. It would have to wait for morning.


Translations

dà biàn huà – world changing

gŏu shĭ – crap; dog shit

chuī niú – bullshit

Chapter Text

December 21

For lack of anything better to do, and feeling like the chill might do him good, Mal walked back to the bridge for his coat and then back down again to open the cargo bay door. The cold air seeped into the warm space immediately, and he drew the coat closer around himself as he waited for the door to open fully.

It was a beautiful night – crisp and cold – but the sky was clear and full of stars. His boots crunched in the thin layers of frost and snow as he walked the perimeter around the ship, checking her, out of habit, for any signs of damage as he went and patting her sides affectionately. His ship. Such a beauty. There was a warm glow of light from the windows of Inara's shuttle, evidently, she was still awake, and he smiled up at them, feeling a sudden sweet pang of affection as it hit him that she was there – here – now. Not gone.

He finished his circuit, his nose and ears decidedly frosty by the time he reached the welcoming sight of the cargo bay doors. Stamping the snow from his boots as he entered, he hit the switch to close the doors and leaped up as a hand touched his arm.

"Bwah!"

River gave him a solemn nod. "You were looking for me."

"Gah. We don't… We don't sneak up on folks when they don't expect it." His hand had gone immediately for his gun and he released his hold on the grip, his shoulders sagging with relief. His heart was still pounding from the adrenaline.

"Sorry if I scared you."

"You didn't scare me, just… startled me is all."

She brushed some of the snow from the sleeve of his coat, staring at it in fascination as it melted when she touched it. "Okay."

"Look, I wanted to ask you about the other night, the night you came to tell me some things. I was… tired, and I didn't listen proper, and I was wonderin' if you remembered what you'd said and could tell it all to me again."

She touched a snowflake to the tip of her finger and watched it as it turned from ice to a tiny droplet of water. "In the moment, both states exist as equally probable outcomes. It's merely a question of when the system stops existing as a superposition of states and becomes one or the other."

"Okay, that ain't helpin'. Is Saffron comin' back?" A sudden thought struck him that was terrifying. "She isn't here now, is she? On Noveria?"

"No."

"Wŏ de tiān a… Well, thank God for that. The yellow girl though, that was who you were talkin' about, right?"

"Yes."

"Help me out here, albatross. My mind ain't as smart as yours. I can't make heads nor tails out of what you told me."

"You'll figure it out." She stepped back and adjusted the collar of his coat where part of the flap had gotten folded underneath itself. "Better."

"Listen, can you just – "

"She didn't kiss her," River said matter of factly.

"Who? Saffron?"

"Yes."

He rubbed his forehead. "Saffron didn't kiss someone?"

"No." She patted his chest with fondness then turned and began to walk away towards the infirmary and the passenger quarters. "Graceful. Didn't fall."

He threw up his hands in frustration. "This makes no sense."

And then it did.

It made perfect sense.

River wasn't trying to tell him something about Saffron at all, not really. She was talking about…

"Inara," he said wonderingly, all the pieces falling into place at last.


He stood outside the shuttle door a long while, grateful that no one came upon him standing there like a fool. Before he could think better of it, he gave a firm rap on the door, still with half a mind to bolt in the opposite direction.

"Yes? Qĭng jìn."

His stomach was churning as he pressed the button to open in the door and stepped inside, pushing past the draping red swaths of fabric that hung partly across the entrance.

Inara was sitting, elegant as always, reading a thin leather-bound book. "Oh… Mal. Hi."

Was he mistaken – it was so hard to tell with all the candles reflecting their light off the crimson panels on the walls – or had she just blushed?

She slipped a thin black ribbon between the pages and set the book down on the sofa next to her. "Was there something you needed?"

He picked up a glass figurine of a horse, frozen in mid-gallop, from the table nearest him and slid his thumb along the smooth arch of its back. "Been thinkin'."

She drew a gossamer shawl around her shoulders as she rose from the padded sofa. "Well, don't hurt yourself."

He looked up as she snatched the horse back and repositioned it on the table where she liked it.

"What do you want, Mal?"

"You see, I've been doin' some reminiscing of late. Thinkin' about our old friend Saffron. Yolanda. Whatever her name actually is."

Inara sighed. "She's not exactly someone I'm keen to spend my thoughts on. Why don't you go reminisce about her in the privacy of your bunk?"

"Now hold on. Let me finish." He raised a hand to stop her from continuing. "I was thinkin' about that night when she pulled her little stunt, tried to take my ship."

A prickle of dread settled into her stomach.

"What about it?"

"Well, you remember how we both fell victim to her wiles?"

"Yes? Where are you going with this?" She turned, her eyes falling on the teapot. The tea left in it was cold, and she picked it up. She should take it back to the galley, rinse it out. Yes, that was it. "I have things to do, Mal."

"I'm almost done. I'm sure your precious," he gave her that infuriating grin that drove her crazy, "teapot can wait another minute or two."

"Fine."

"You see, I realized, after some contemplation, that it coulda been something else entirely."

She set the teapot down with only the tiniest tremor of her hands. It had been a gift from the House Priestess on Madrassa when she had received her license, and it had seen her through more tea ceremonies than she could remember.

She kept her voice still and even. Controlled. "And what's that?"

He met her gaze and held it. "Did you kiss her?"

"Why does it matter?"

"Because you was affected, too, by the drug." She opened her mouth to protest, but he continued on. "Don't deny it. You already admitted that you weren't just clumsy. Which means," he took a step closer, his eyes darkening, "you must have kissed her, too."

The strange mix of emotions roiling inside her made her uneasy, as she couldn't lock down on any one of them: relief, fear, excitement. She needed to shut this conversation down, and quickly.

"Yes, we've already discussed this. As thrilling as it is to revisit all the exciting ways she's tried to double cross us, I'm afraid I'm just not seeing the point you're trying to make. Now, if we're done – "

"I didn't say I was done. I was just making sure you remembered where we left it is all. See, it occurred to me that there was a scenario I never considered, given the evidence."

"The evidence?" She peered at him carefully. "Have you been drinking?"

He laughed. "What? Yes. But not much at all…. Ain't the point. Just been thinkin'." He took another step closer. "Bear with me. What if… what if you didn't kiss her?"

She felt overheated, even though her silken wrap left her midriff exposed to the air.

His voice was soft and low – dangerous. "What if you… kissed me?"

"What? Why would I do that? You were unconscious."

"Exactly. You took advantage of the situation, knowing that I would be none the wiser. Or maybe you were relieved that she hadn't killed me."

"Don't be ridiculous. You know, maybe you should get Simon to have a look at you. You must be running a fever or something."

He reached out his hand to touch her shoulder and the sudden shock of it made her jump.

"I'm just sayin', since you took a kiss from me, that there's a debt owed. Seems only right fair that I… take one back from you. Make it even between us and all. I'd hate for you to have to bear that burden."

It took her a minute to find her voice. "I don't think that's how it works, Mal."

"You know what the preacher always said… an eye for an eye." His tone had a low rumble that made her flush further. "A kiss for a kiss. Same principle."

His hand on her shoulder was firm, and they were standing close enough know that she could feel the warmth of him. What had made him this bold?

"Of course, if you don't want to…" Her eyes flicked down to his mouth involuntarily. "I reckon financial compensation will do. Less than ideal, though, given the circumstances of my suffering."

He must be able to hear her heart racing, must see the flutter in her throat. It was impossible to breathe.

With a slowness born of caution, afraid she might turn and run, run like she always did, his other hand came up to the side of her face. As his fingers brushed her hair, his thumb traced the path of her jawline down to her lips.

"I mean to kiss you, Inara. If it's somethin' you don't want, you'd do best to tell me now." The heat of his breath was warm against her mouth. So close, he was so close, and she was burning up, wanting nothing more than to feel his body against hers. She had fantasized about moments like this, never thinking they could ever be anything more than just moments in the dark that always left her wanting.

In her mind, she murmured, I want this. I want you. I've wanted… for longer than you could possibly know… But all that came out was a whisper. "Please."

With her hands on either side of his jaw, she tugged his mouth to hers, swallowing the groan that rumbled from deep inside his chest. She was pressed against him now, heat and need burning through every nerve like a lightning strike arcing down her spine to pool and crackle in her core. The scrape of his cheek against the softness of her skin, the rough but sure feel of his lips moving against hers; all better than anything her imagination had ever conjured up.

When they finally separated, gulping air and dazed, she couldn't even begin to think, to form words. The world was spinning. Mal looked just as affected as she was, his hands scorching on the bare skin of her lower back.

"I think…" he managed to get out after a moment. "I think, unless I'm mistaken, and I don't think I am, that now you owe me two."

"I don't… what?" She could feel his arousal, the firm heat against her torso, and the haze of desire was making her thoughts confused and muddled. All she wanted was to sink back into the fierceness of his kiss.

"You kissed me. Again." He panted as she tightened her fingers in his hair.

"Mal, just shut up while you're ahead." She gave in to the temptation of his mouth and they both groaned as they came together this time.

It wasn't until the back of her legs touched the edge of the bed that any sort of awareness entered her head. She was overwhelmed by the smell and feel of him, the controlled bites down the column of her neck that were drawing noises out of her that she had never made before in her life.

"Inara." The need in his voice was going to kill her and she was clinging to his shirt like she was drowning.

"Mal – wait." She managed to get the words out somehow.

He pulled back, his eyes dark with want as he gasped for air. His mouth was still so close to hers. "What? Are you okay? Did I – " A brief look of guilt flashed over his features. "I'm sorry, if – "

"No!" She silenced him with a hard kiss that made him moan, one that was nearly impossible to pull away from. "No. There's nothing wrong." It was so hard to string together a coherent thought when she wanted nothing more than to pull him down to the bed, to feel their bodies moving together…

It took everything she had to push him back gently with one hand splayed across his chest.

"I want to. More than… more than you could ever know. But," she met his eyes, hoping he could see what she was trying to say, "I want to try to… take it slow. Not too slow, I mean, but I don't want to rush." She wasn't ready to say the whole truth – not yet. She couldn't count the number of men and women she had bedded but, for the first time, it was different. She wanted more, more than just a release of the passion that was burning her to ash beneath her skin.

"Take it slow." Mal nodded, his eyes still glazed as he ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah. I reckon that might be… might be best."

She couldn't help touching his lips – swollen from their kisses – trying to commit the image to memory.

"Gonna be hard to take it slow if you keep doin' that." His mouth found hers for another bruising kiss and she wasn't going to be able to stop the momentum of it all, she wanted him too much, needed to feel him…

But, he was the stronger one this time, and broke off, gasping. "I think I'd better, uh, better go check on… somethin'… bridge… or I won't be able to…" He took a staggered step backward.

"Right. Okay. Bridge." She stepped away from him, hoping the widening gap would help her regain her balance and control. "Good plan."

"Great. I'll just… uh… go." His eyes still looked a little wild, bewildered and out of focus. "But, we should talk about this later. You know, make sure… make sure we're all on the same page, and everything."

"Right." She heaved out a breath. "Sure."

"Okay. I'll, uh, be back later – see you later. And we can… talk."

She nodded. "Got it. Good."

"Good." He nodded back. "Good." He reached the door of the shuttle. "I'll see you later then."

"Okay."

"Right. I'm going now."

"Right."

He vanished from view, but his head popped back around the corner less than a moment later. "I didn't imagine that… did I? Maybe I am drunk…"

"No," she said softly. "Not imagining things. Not drunk."

He nodded. "Just thought I'd better check," he said and disappeared again.

Inara ran her fingers over her lips in wonder. What had just happened?


Translations

Wŏ de tiān a – Dear God in heaven

Qĭng jìn – come in

Chapter Text

December 22

Zoe walked into the galley with a wide yawn. "Mornin'."

"Hey, Zoe," Kaylee said brightly.

Jayne grunted in response, his mouth full of oatmeal.

Zoe went up to the pot of oatmeal on the stove and gave it a stir, but her stomach gave an unpleasant heave at the smell. Doc had said this part would likely last a few more weeks, but she was ready for it to be done now. She poured herself a cup of coffee instead before sitting down at the table.

"You all right?" Kaylee asked. "You're lookin' a bit peaky."

"Yeah, I'm okay. Bit tired is all." She took a sip of the coffee, grateful her stomach didn't seem to be rebelling at that, at least, and then reached into the pocket of her pants and slid a small bag of platinum coins towards Kaylee. "Wasn't intendin' to participate, but I guess I did. Might as well get a shot at the prize."

"What? That ain't fair." Jayne gave a grumble, spooning up another glob of oatmeal. "You can't come in late and take the credit for our hard work."

"Oh, come on. The more people helpin', the better." Kaylee took Zoe's contribution and tucked it away in her overalls. "Besides, this just makes the pot bigger."

"I suppose. She'd better not win it though."


Inara stared at the message on the screen, not quite sure how to process it. It was one thing to have it in the back of her mind, but another to have reached the point where she needed to make an actual decision; a decision that would change everything, no matter what she chose. Doing nothing at all wasn't an option anymore either. It had come down to this. Her choice.

The colours on the screen faded to conserve power and she let it slowly shift from sky blue to black without toggling the controls to keep it lit. She already knew what it said.

Her annual physical exam was due – well, technically, it was past due, but she had let the first reminder message slide, knowing that they would send another one. And they had.

This time, there was an actual choice to be made. No third reminder would be coming.

This message serves to inform and remind you that your annual physical exam as per Section 950, Article 8.22 of the Alliance Interplanetary Regulations is overdue. In order to maintain your Guild-issued Companion License, forward confirmation of appointment booking at any Core world hospital facility within 48 hours of receipt of this message. Failure to submit appointment confirmation will result in the suspension of your license without further notice. Operating as a registered Companion without a license is punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.

What was she going to do? She had enjoyed her time in the Training House, working with the younger girls, but, if she forced herself to be truly honest, it had been a little… dull. It had its advantages, to be sure - there had been fresh food available all the time of the highest quality, opulent housing with all possible comforts thought of and taken care of. She sighed. A real bathtub. It had been nice to be in one place for an extended time, to have sunrises and sunsets; to be able to walk about the grounds surrounded by women who understood her. She hadn't taken clients, although she'd been given that option, preferring instead to devote her time to her teaching.

If she complied with the order she had just received, she could return. They would accept her back without question, and she could live out her days in luxury.

It sounded like a dream come true, everything she had wanted when she'd started her training at twelve, with aspirations of rising through the ranks to command her own House one day. But the thought of going back, of leaving Serenity, didn't fill her with the joy and elation it should have. The Training House was the same as it ever was, but she was not.

She hadn't realized how much she had missed the camaraderie she'd had with Kaylee and River, an open honesty that wasn't disguised under layers of reaction training and artificial emotional cues targeted to elicit a specific response. She'd missed the ship itself, the comforting rumble of the floor panels when the engine spun up, the galley decorated with Kaylee's hand-painted trails of flowers. And, of course… she'd missed Mal.

She swallowed, her fingers coming up involuntarily to touch her lips where he'd kissed her last night, chasing away the doubts she'd had about how he felt… how she felt.

It had taken all her resolve to leave last time, and she'd had the burning hurt of his betrayal – she knew that word wasn't accurate, wasn't fair, but it was how she had felt at the time – to draw on, to give her the strength to pull away. But it hadn't really worked. Sure, the distance had lessened the pain, but it hadn't made a difference in how often he was in her thoughts, in her dreams, in the fantasies she so rarely allowed herself because they only made her feel more empty when she had finished.

She had left, but she hadn't been able to leave him behind, not really. And now that there was a chance of something, something she had never thought to allow herself, could she ever forgive herself if she didn't see where it might lead? She hated complications, knew there was no way that she could do both. Mal would never be able to accept her taking clients again, no matter how hard he might try, she knew it would break him.

It had nearly broken her.

How many times had they argued over her work? She'd always defended how the work Companions did was different – and it was – than outright whoring. She had been trained in calligraphy, dance and music, fencing, languages. She chose her clients as she wished, had the power to blacklist them from ever attempting to engage another Companion if she so chose. True, there was physical intimacy, but there was a level of emotional detachment that went along with it. It wasn't just about satisfying lust, but a spiritual journey for her to help guide and heal. Mal would never understand.

But, she had never truly understood either. Not until… not until Nandi.

Seeing Mal leaving her room, buttoning up his shirt in the sunlight streaming through the hallway, it had taken all of her control and strength to keep her emotions from showing on her face, in her voice. She hadn't known how much it would wound her to know he'd bedded someone else, even if it was Nandi, her friend, her sister – even if she had left the Guild. She'd barely managed to make it back to her own room before breaking down, sobbing like a child with her knees curled up to her chest. She hadn't cried like that since she was eight or nine, the day her mother had traded her – sold her – to House Madrassa for a fistful of bank notes.

If that was how Mal would feel every time she took a client to her bed, how could she ever knowingly inflict that same pain on him?

So, where did that leave her? She wouldn't become like Nandi, taking in girls of her own, even if she kept out of the business herself. Without her papers, she didn't have much to offer the crew as they would lose the status that her position afforded them. She could submit to the exam, renew her license, and then not work, but there needed to be a clean break from that world or it wouldn't feel right.

She didn't have anything to offer aside from contacts and diplomatic skills, maybe, but they already had Mal for that, and the folks out here on the Rim tended to trust those of their own kind, not Alliance-born, as she was. She had enjoyed bartering for the chocolate, coffee, and other goods… things that were hard to find out here. Maybe she could start some sort of trade venture for more difficult to procure luxuries… it was worth a thought at any rate.

She touched the screen and watched the message reappear.

There was no choice to make; there was only one thing she wanted.

After typing out her request to have her license deactivated, she hesitated for only a brief moment before touching the send button. No going back now. And it felt… good. Better than she had expected, as though a burden had been lifted from her shoulders that she hadn't even realized was there.

There was short rap on the shuttle doors and then Mal stuck his head around the corner. "Sorry, not interrupting, am I?"

"No, not at all." He seemed a little awkward and hesitant, and she couldn't help smiling broadly at him. "I was just finished."

He was staring at the screen, where the message console was still displayed. "Well… good. I just come to tell you that it's nearly time for that ridiculous sleigh ride that Kaylee signed us up for, so if you want to get your warm things on, we'll be heading out in half an hour or so. If you want to go, that is."

"Sure, that sounds like fun."

"You, uh, booking anyone while we're here?" He was trying to be casual and failing miserably. A glimmer of hurt had crept into his expression, and there was nothing she wanted more than to see it disappear.

She pressed a button and the screen went dark, and then she drew the fabric panel back over it before standing up to face him. "No," she said softly as she walked toward him. "As a matter of fact, I just retired."

"Retired?" He was puzzled, unsure. "What are you – "

She was standing directly in front of him now. "I've asked to be decommissioned. I'm not a Companion any longer."

"You… but why?"

"Because…" She took a deep breath. They'd never been fully candid with each other before, preferring to dance around their meanings, but she didn't want to do that this time. "I don't like complications. If we're going to do this… if we're going to see what happens, between us, then I want to be able to give it a chance, a real chance."

"No clients? But, I thought you wanted… I thought your work was important to you. I don't want you to give up what you've worked for because of me."

"Mal, I haven't taken a client since…" She looked down, unable to meet his eyes, still a little afraid of the truth he would see reflected there.

"Since Nandi," he finished quietly.

"Yes."

He took her hand and they stood silently for a moment.

"I know it's just words, that they can't even come close to what I…" His words trailed off as he glanced away momentarily, his fingers tightening around hers, before he looked back. "All I can say is that I'm sorry. You don't know how much I… But, I didn't think you would ever, that we could ever…"

"I know. I don't blame you. I told you I was glad that she didn't spend her last night alone, and I meant it. I just didn't…" She broke off for a moment, grateful for the warmth of his hand around her own. "I didn't realize how much it would hurt."

With his other hand, he tilted her chin up to look at him. "I'm still sorry."

She inched up on her toes and kissed him gently. "I don't want to play any more, Mal. I just want… I want you. I want to see where this takes us, if that's all right with you."

He brushed his lips against hers a few times before kissing her more fully. "More than all right."

Chapter Text

December 22

She'd barely had enough time to change into her winter clothes before it was time to go – although Mal had done a rather thorough job of warming her up first.

They walked to a barn on the outer edge of the town, their hats pulled down low over their ears to protect them from the intermittent gusts of wind. The driver was already waiting for them, the horses hitched to the sleigh. These horses were clearly bred to handle the cold, as they had shaggy brown coats that were matted and thick. They were stamping their hooves, ready to be moving; huffing clouds into the air as the warmth of their breath met the cold wind.

The sleigh was piled with straw, both for insulation and comfort, and they all clambered aboard as Kaylee handed the driver a handful of apples and a few coins as payment for the ride. Inara settled in next to Mal, grateful for his warmth. The jacket she was wearing seemed to let the wind blow right through her. She didn't even mind the prickly feeling of the hay through her pants, hoping it would keep her from freezing. It felt much colder than the day at the market.

"You all right?" Mal asked her as she shivered.

"Yes, just cold already."

"There's some blankets here, I think," Kaylee offered, reaching around behind her. "Yeah, here!" She handed Inara a felted wool blanket that was nearly the same colour as the straw.

"I'll take one of them blankets, too." Jayne was seated between Zoe and River, and the blanket Kaylee proceeded to toss over to him was large enough to cover all three of them once he'd shaken it out and draped it over their laps. He gave a grunt and leaned back. "It'll do."

Inara wasn't convinced yet as she unfolded the blanket over her lap and legs. This one wasn't as big as the other one.

"You plannin' to share, or what?" Mal asked, tugging an edge over to cover his lap causing a gust of frigid air on her opposite side to flood underneath the covering.

"No, actually." She tugged it back on to her side. "Get your own."

Kaylee was snuggling in close to Simon, a third blanket wrapped around the pair of them. "Don't think there are any more," she said sadly to Inara.

"Looks like we gotta make do with what we got then, don't it?" Mal gave her a wink and that maddening grin that, after earlier, made her want to kiss it right off him. The shock of how easily that thought crossed her mind made her reaction to Mal's next grab for the blanket a half-second too slow. "Bunch up a bit so there's room for both of us."

He slid even closer to her, his thigh pressed firmly against hers, and she tried not to think about how it would feel to have even more of him pressed up against her.

She made a sound of exasperation that sounded fake, even to her, and handed him the edge of the blanket to draw around himself.

"Reckon you may need to get a little closer," he said in a low voice that sent a shiver down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold. "Don't quite have enough to cover me yet."

She edged in, cuddled right up to his side, and he put an arm around her back to draw her in further. "There. That's much better, don't you think?"

Two could play at that game. She slid her own arm behind his back, grateful for the straw and the blanket that concealed the movement, to rest her hand against his waist, which was still covered by the length of his long brown coat… at least for now. "Much better," she agreed, letting a little huskiness creep into her voice. She was rewarded by the way his eyes widened slightly, and it was all she could do to keep the smile from her face.

The driver climbed up to his seat, and with a flick of the reins, the sleigh began to move. There were tiny bells attached to the reins, and they made a cheerful sound in counterpoint with the slow clopping of the horses' hooves over the snow.

They soon left the town proper behind, heading along a trail of packed snow that led into the rolling countryside and a forest of tall trees – beech and ash, pine and maple. The sky was a muted grey with purple-hued mountains beyond, giant icebergs peeking through a sea of cloud, as large white snowflakes began to fall. A hush had fallen over the landscape, everything was still except for the methodical rhythm of the sleigh. No one spoke, all of them caught up in their own thoughts.

Inara felt much warmer now – between the blankets and the shared body heat between her and Mal, the icy wind on her face was much less biting. His hair was dusted with feathery snowflakes, and she had no doubt that hers was as well.

Carefully, with all the dexterity she possessed, she began working the edge of Mal's coat out from underneath him. Aside from an initial sharp glance in her direction – she had given him a coy smile in return – he had turned his head away from her, now evidently enthralled by the view. His arm had slipped lower as well, his hand now curled against the roundness of her hip, leaving little room between them.

At last, she had worked his coat free and she could now slide her hand underneath. She left it there, resting against his shirt, just above the waistband of his trousers, until she felt the tenseness ebb out of his muscles.

Kaylee, sitting opposite them, was resting her head against Simon's shoulder. "Never done this before. It's real pretty."

"It sure is," Zoe replied softly, and Inara could hear the wistfulness in her voice.

River spoke up, her voice carrying over the crunch of the snow, over the tinkling jangle of the bells, over the heavy breaths and hooves of the horses:

"In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago."

The silence that fell after she'd finished felt like a sheet of ice, fragile, and one that none of them dared to break.

With a few gentle tugs on Mal's shirt, Inara was able to pull the tail of it free from his waistband. He tensed again – her hands were cold, but that couldn't be helped – as she slid her fingers along the now exposed stretch of warm skin. He made a swallowed sort of gasp, but it wasn't enough for anyone but her to notice. She wondered if he was ticklish, not wanting to draw attention to what she was doing. She kept the pressure firm as she traced over the area she could reach, enjoying the way his whole body had tightened.

Kaylee was the first to break the stillness. "Anyone want to sing? I think we're supposed to sing carols or somethin' while we do this, right Simon?"

"No! No singin'." Jayne objected, shaking his head emphatically. "Unless it ain't carols. That 'Hero of Canton' song was all right."

Mal had shifted position in the seconds after Kaylee had spoken, drawing out his arm from behind her and placing his hand on her thigh that was pressed up against his. He gave her the briefest raise of an eyebrow at her look.

"Oh, come on," Simon interjected, "you honestly think anyone would want to sing that? I think I heard enough of it in that one evening to last me a lifetime."

Kaylee snickered, and Mal's hand dipped lower to rest against her inner thigh. It was her turn to tense up as he gave her flesh a gentle squeeze.

The horses plodded along as the trees around them thinned, the trail now on a gentle slope downward into a valley. A frozen creek meandered through the lowest stretch; the rest was just a flat expanse of snow with patches of scraggly brush and scrub poking up through the white crust. The mountains in the distance had vanished into the swirling snow.

"Look," Zoe said softly, pointing to an area near the bank of the creek that was still far below them. "There's some deer over there."

"You want me to shoot 'em?" Jayne asked, starting to reach under his coat.

"What? No!" Kaylee exclaimed. "You can enjoy somethin' pretty without shootin' at it. Look at 'em all!"

"You can also enjoy a full belly by eatin' 'em," Jayne grumbled under his breath.

A small group of does was clustered near the edge of the creek, picking at the exposed branches and grasses, and pawing at the snow. Their heads had jerked up at the sound of the sleigh, but they hadn't moved, simply watching it warily as it drew closer.

Inara scarcely even noticed them.

Mal's fingers were stroking her inner thigh, moving painfully slowly, each movement edging higher and higher. She was sure she was flushed, and grateful for the fact that her cheeks were already red from the chill. Part of her wanted him to stop, to wait until they were alone, but it was a very small part of her that was growing smaller by the minute. She didn't know what was more arousing, the sure slide of his fingers that were so close to where she wanted them to be, or the fact that he was doing it boldly beneath the blankets with everyone around them.

She noticed her breathing had accelerated, so she brought it back under control, although it was an effort to not move a little closer to him, forcing him to put the pressure of his touch where she wanted it most. She nudged him with her elbow lightly. He gave a slight hint of a shrug and the corner of his mouth twitched up in an evil grin. He knew exactly what he was doing to her, and was enjoying it immensely.

Inara scraped her fingernails along the skin of his lower back as she pulled her arm out from around him, smiling demurely at him with a half shrug of her own as he flinched.

"Are you all right, Mal?" she asked with feigned concern.

He coughed as her hand settled against his own thigh. "Yeah, hay is a mite prickly is all."

"Mmm," she agreed, nodding.

The others were still distracted by the deer, and she was determined to distract Mal just as thoroughly while she had the opportunity. He was at a distinct disadvantage – she had had years of schooling and study learning to still her reactions, keeping her expressions calm and even – but she didn't want him to be too obvious, as that would spoil the fun.

Moving slowly, just as painfully slowly as he had, giving him plenty of time to recognize her intentions, she slid her hand down his inner thigh. His hand on her leg stilled. She met his eyes, asking permission to continue, not moving in the slightest until he gave an almost imperceptible nod.

Her hand slid further, cupping him ever so gently and she could feel the heat of him through his trousers, already half hard. He closed his eyes and blew out a soft, shaky breath. Once again, she didn't move, left her hand where it was, as she watched him fight for control. He leaned back against the wooden side of the sleigh as he drew in another breath and let it out.

How long they sat there, unmoving, their thoughts on anything but the beauty of the scenery around them, she couldn't say. She just knew that she was slowly catching fire, desire pent up and pushed away for so long that, finally unleashed, it was like a wildfire devouring a parched forest.

When his fingers suddenly flicked down to press against her own heat, it was only those years of study and practice that kept the startled cry from escaping. This was torture, and she didn't want it to stop, but there was only so far she was willing to go here. Alone in her shuttle, on the other hand…

Kaylee's voice jolted her out of her reverie.

"… And that was the last time Pa ever let me help rebuild the tractor, but the cows healed up fine, so I don't know what he was so worked up about."

"Can't believe you… huh." Jayne was looking at Kaylee with a mixture of awe and fear. "And folks think I'm the crazy one."

"You are the crazy one," Zoe said wryly.

"Then what does that make her?" Jayne jerked his thumb towards Kaylee.

"I'm the pretty one. Thought we'd established this already."

Jayne settled back with his elbow resting on top of the wooden side behind his back. "Pretty crazy, maybe."

Kaylee shrugged happily. "I can live with that."

Reluctantly, Inara withdrew her hand slightly, settling it back on the top of Mal's leg. If she kept it where it was, she didn't think she would be able to survive the ride back. Mal caught her eye in understanding, exhaling slowly as he moved his own hand to cover hers. The temptation was too much with everyone else around. He stroked the back of her hand with his fingers – gentle, loving, undemanding. It surprised her how much this gesture of tenderness touched her, a well of emotion making her feel as though she were nearly on the edge of tears. She looked at the trail up ahead, away from him, not wanting him to see the wetness in her eyes.

The trail they were following continued its descent into the valley until the driver brought up the reins and stopped the horses with a gruff 'whoa'.

"Why are we stoppin'?" Mal was looking around with heightened concern, already pulling his pistol from its holster. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, didn't I tell you?" Kaylee gave a huge grin and clapped her hands together. "This is the best part!"

"What?" Mal looked confused, as did everyone else.

"Path down is just o'er there." The driver pointed to what looked like a narrow trail used primarily by deer or other wildlife. "Stuff's in the shack. I'll be back to pick y'all up in a few hours, if'n that's all right with you, miss," he said to Kaylee.

"That sounds just perfect, thanks!"

"Wait, wait, wait…" Mal said, holding up his hands as Kaylee shucked the blanket off of her and Simon and stood up, ready to leap from the end of the sleigh. "I'm not goin' anywhere until someone sees fit to tell me where we're goin'."

"You ready, Cap'n? This is the best! There's a hot spring!"

"A hot spring?" he echoed dumbly.

"Yeah, you know, for soakin' in and relaxin' and gettin' all pruny! C'mon!"

She jumped down and Simon followed after her.

"A hot spring? Now you're talkin'." Jayne stood up, pulling the blanket off of Zoe and River as he did so. "What're we waitin' for? Let's go."


The part of the poem that River recites is from 'In the Bleak Midwinter' by Christina Rossetti.

Chapter Text

December 22

The narrow trail wasn't particularly long, and they reached the hot spring after only a few minutes' walk. The ground here was much rockier, but not particularly treacherous. The spring itself bubbled up from below the rock, filling a large basin with cloudy, eggshell blue water, so impossibly turquoise that it almost looked artificial. Steam was rising from the surface of the water, gusts of cloud pushed into motion by the wind.

Near the ledge of the basin was a sturdy wooden shack, with a long low wooden bench that extended out from it on one side.

"Reckon we can just leave our clothes and things here on the bench, and Fred said there should be clean towels and the like in there." Kaylee gestured at the shack. "I'll grab us a few." She lifted the simple latch on the door and emerged shortly after with a stack of thin white towels. "These'll do."

Kaylee set them down and then unzipped her coat and draped it over the bench beside the pile of towels, giving a full-body shiver at the cold. "Wā... I think my nipples just froze clean off. Best to get it over with all at once I suspect." Without further ado, she stripped off the rest of her clothes and waded into the spring with a happy sigh. "Oh, this water feels amazing…"

Jayne shrugged. "Works for me." He left his clothes in an untidy heap on the bench, only wincing for the few half-leaping barefoot steps through the snow that were required to get from the bench to the spring. Kaylee was submerged almost up to her shoulders at the far end of the pool. "C'mon, everybody! You don't want to miss out on this!"

Mal wasn't terribly surprised to see that Inara had already started to unbutton her own coat, and he hastily looked away and started on his own. He couldn't resist sneaking the odd peak, though, as fired up as he was by the way things were changing between them. What had previously been thoughts that he would have shoved away into the back of his mind, never to see the light of day, now whispered of possibilities; no longer never, but maybe, and some day, and, hopefully, soon.

He caught glimpses of smooth skin, slender legs and curves… enough to send his imagination into over drive with what those curves would feel like under his hands without the barriers of cloth. He made himself take a deep breath and tried not to think about it, not right now, any way. The icy breeze the hit him as he shucked off his shirt was a bracing distraction at least.

Inara was making her way toward the pool and, Lord help him, he'd have to be made of stone to not be distracted by that. He gulped, unable to tear his eyes away. No one should be allowed to be that perfect. It wasn't natural. He hoped his mouth wasn't hanging open.

"You're starin', sir," Zoe murmured close to his ear so no one else would overhear.

"Hard not to."

"Did you talk to her?"

"Might have done."

"Glad to hear it."

Eager not to be the last one in and, more importantly, to grab a spot next to Inara in the pool, he stripped off his remaining clothing and headed into the water himself.

The water wasn't just warm, it was hot, and the contrast in temperature, particularly on his feet as he'd just walked through the snow, made his skin prickle unpleasantly.

"Don't worry, you'll get used to it real quick," Kaylee assured him.

He saw Inara watching him, boldly devouring him with her eyes, and it made him feel like less of a cad to see her checking him out as thoroughly, and with as much intent, as he had her. He watched her face, waiting for the moment that her gaze met his once more, and then gave her just the hint of a nod, which she returned without hesitation. He wouldn't have thought it possible, but the heat in the look they'd shared was far hotter than the water.

The rocky floor of the pool was rough but reasonably level, and the layers of granite had been chipped away to form ledges below the water for sitting on. As he sat down next to Inara, settling his back against the stone wall, he couldn't help the relaxed sigh that escaped him. The temperature of the water no longer felt like it was burning his skin, and there was a pleasant balance between the chill of the air on his face and upper body, and the enveloping warmth of the pool.

"Kaylee, this may possibly be one of your better ideas," he admitted.

Her head was leaning back, resting against the side. Her eyes were closed and her cheeks were flushed and red. "Mmmm… happy to hear you approve, Cap'n. Wouldn't dream of leadin' you astray, you know."

"I know."

He was grateful that the level of the water went well up over Inara's chest, the milky blue water impossible to see through – that would have been more than he could handle. It was enough that he could see the soft roundness of her shoulders, the delightful divot in the center of her collarbones, and the gentle swell of the tops of her breasts. But all that was nothing compared to the affection in her eyes as she looked at him and smiled, one that he was starting to realize she reserved especially for him. She was a vision.

Her hand found his under the water and gave it a tight squeeze, as if she'd known exactly what he was thinking. That squeeze might as well have been around his heart rather than his hand.

"This is heavenly." Inara sighed in contentment as she extended her legs and sank deeper into the water. "We had pools like this on Sihnon, but it's been a long time since I've had the opportunity to use one."

"I can't imagine havin' access to one of these all the time." Kaylee stretched languorously. "You'd never be able to get me out of it."

"I don't know, maybe if it were a little cooler. Bit too hot for my likin'." Zoe had rolled up her pants and removed her socks and boots and was sitting on the edge with just her feet and lower calves below the surface of the water. "Does feel good on the feet though."

It was utterly peaceful, just the sound of the wind and the occasional warble of birds.

They soaked and chatted, and Mal felt oddly relaxed. Normally, he felt like he was always wound just a little too tight, waitin' for the next thing to go wrong, but not this afternoon. It did help that Zoe still had a weapon close by, should there be any trouble, but he didn't feel like it was stalking up on them, waiting to pounce when they least expected it.

"Turn around."

"Hmmm?" Inara's voice intruded on his daydream, not interrupting exactly, more like a gentle, but unexpected, caress.

"Turn around," she said again as he opened his eyes.

"Do I want to know why?"

Her tone was amused. "Do you have to argue about everything?"

"Yes?"

She made a noise of mock annoyance. "Just turn around."

He grinned and shuffled to turn away from her. Then, her hands were on his shoulders, expertly easing the tension from the muscles there.

It took everything he had not to groan out loud.

"You're really knotted up, especially here." Her fingers found a spot that had been bothering him for a few days, and this time he did let out an exclamation that was part pain and part relief.

"Hey, if you're givin' back rubs, I could use one, too." Jayne winked at her.

"Simon's really good at them, too," Kaylee jumped in. "What was the name of that course you had to take?"

"I actually took several courses in therapeutic rehabilitation techniques as well as kinesiology – "

"Yeah, that!"

"Simon," Jayne said, "are you a beautiful woman?"

Simon looked puzzled. "Uh… not last time I checked, no."

"Then I ain't interested in havin' your hands on me. 'Cept when I'm wounded. Then you can touch me all you want. Within reason."

"Good to know."

When Inara had finished with his shoulders, she moved to his upper back, and then to his neck, finishing right at the base of his skull. He was so relaxed now that his whole body felt loose and fluid.

"Good?" she asked him softly, and all he could do was nod as he slumped back against the stone wall. He vaguely noticed her turning to Kaylee to give her the same treatment, and Kaylee's groans and exclamations of delight were downright indecent. He smiled, his eyes still closed, trying to imagine what the Doc's face must look like right about now.

It was twilight by the time the driver returned, the arrival of the sleigh heralded by the sound of jingling bells off in the distance long before he arrived. This had given them plenty of time to rouse themselves and get dressed, leaving their damp towels in the bin for laundering.

A pair of oil lanterns dangled from fixtures at the front of the sleigh, casting a warm glow over the snow as they climbed aboard once more.

The ride back was even quieter than the ride there, everyone lost in their own thoughts as the sky darkened. Inara was nestled up against him, her head practically resting against his chest. He stroked her hair as her breathing became deep and even, making him suspect that she'd fallen asleep.

His stomach rumbled, reminding him that lunch had been a long while ago.

Still, the rhythmic clopping of the horses' hooves lulled him into a comfortable half-doze of his own as he leaned back against the side of the sleigh. For once, all was right with the world, and that suited him just fine.


Translations

Wā - Wow

Chapter Text

December 22

He gave the shuttle doors a cursory knock before stepping through without waiting. "Hey, Inara, you busy?"

She was sitting at her desk with her back to him, and she straightened up almost guiltily. "Mal! Why don't you knock?"

"I did knock. What're you – "

"Nothing. I just wasn't expecting…" She fumbled with the top drawer, sliding something quickly inside, before turning around in her chair to look at him.

"I can go, if you're busy…"

"No! No, I'm not busy, just give me a second." She gave him a flash of a smile – definitely up to something – and then casually stoppered the open ink bottle before standing up. She wiped the ink from her hands on a small white cloth and gave him that smile again. "There. Good. Uh… hi. Was there something you needed? Would you like some tea?"

He raised an eyebrow at her, amused by how flustered she seemed. She wasn't the type to be rattled, for the most part. Normally, he would have passed on her offer of tea – he found the flavour too mild for his liking – but this time, he nodded, wanting some pretense to stay. "Tea. Sure. That'd be lovely."

"Sit down then." She gestured over at the sofa, and he sat as she filled the kettle with water and plugged it in. He watched her move – she really was graceful – the rose pink silk of her dress kissing every sinuous motion as she took out two small cups and placed them on an ornate wooden tray next to the teapot. It took her a few moments to open several small square tins, adding tea leaves and fragrant spices to the pot, and he leaned back against the plush fabric, admiring her. If she was self-conscious at the attention, she didn't show it.

"You're very quiet," she said, turning around to face him after she'd finished with the tea.

"Didn't want to interrupt." He let his eyes drift down her form in a near caress before fixing his focus back on her face.

"So… shall we play a game while we have our tea?" She pointed at the Go board already set out on the oval shaped table. "I've been playing with River. She's quite an exceptional strategist."

"Why not? Haven't played in ages though…"

"Oh, I don't think it's a skill you really forget." She gave him a quirk of a smile. "The bowls of stones are just underneath the table, on the lower shelf."

The kettle was steaming merrily away now, and she unplugged it before pouring the boiling water into the teapot and replacing the lid to allow the tea to steep. She picked up the tray and placed it down on one of the end tables to the side of the sofa before smoothing the wrinkles from her dress and sitting down herself.

Mal passed her one of the wooden bowls, not bothering to look inside to see which colour of pieces were inside. He then lifted the lid on his own bowl to find it full of shiny black stones made of yunzi. Selecting one, he placed it on a point in the corner of the board closest to him. Inara played a white stone in the leftmost of her corners, and they continued in silence as they played out their initial strategies, focusing first on the corners and then the sides of the board.

After about ten minutes had passed, Inara poured the tea into the two delicate porcelain cups, handing one to Mal. He took a small sip, as it was still very hot, and then set the cup down on the spindly table at his end of the sofa. "Not half bad."

"I'm glad you approve." She was cradling her own cup between her palms, savouring the warmth.

"Listen, can I ask you somethin'?"

"Of course."

He wasn't sure he wanted to be asking the question, afraid of the answer, but needing to ask it all the same. "If that Operative hadn't showed up at the Training House, would you ever have waved me?"

She held his eyes. "Truthfully?"

He gave a hesitant nod.

"No."

"Can I ask why?"

She sighed, taking a sip of her tea and setting her cup down on the tray. She brushed her hands over her lap, smoothing out the fabric even though it didn't need it, before she answered him. "Companions are brought up with the tenets of Buddhism. From the moment we begin our lives at the Temple, we are taught that everything is in a constant state of flux – every living being, the rock beneath our feet, the sky above; our emotions and thoughts. Everything exists in state of impermanence. The First Noble Truth of Buddhist philosophy is dukkha – a dissatisfaction that arises from trying to deny this impermanence."

She selected one of the white convex stones from her bowl and turned it over in her fingers.

"When one clings to something – an idea, an object… a person… a desire," she looked up from the stone to meet his eyes, "and is unable to accept the transitory nature of those things, it leads to inner conflict and unhappiness."

He swallowed. "Were you unhappy?"

"No, not at first. It wasn't until I realized… how attached I had become, how unfair I was being to both of us. It had been too easy to simply let the days play out as they did, not daring to question or look too closely at my inner thoughts." She ran a finger over the shiny surface of the stone before placing it on the board. "I was complacent. I allowed my own desire to hold on to something outside of my control to cause me unhappiness. I had fallen into precisely the sort of self-delusion that the Priestess had cautioned us all about many times.

"I had hoped that, by leaving, I would be able to regain my focus, to separate myself from the desires that had led me to this state of dukkha."

"Did it work?"

She picked up her cup, tracing the rim with her fingertip before taking a careful sip. "No. But maybe it would have, given enough time."

"Do you wish, then, that nothin' would have changed – you would still be at the Training House and we would be out here somewhere… Are you unhappy, now, bein' back?"

"No, far from it." She looked up and smiled at him, though her eyes were wet. "I've tried very hard to pretend what I don't feel, and I realize now that it was just another level of delusion." She reached out to place a hand on his thigh. "I know that what we have today may not be here tomorrow, and I've accepted that. I want to make the most of the days we have. No more lost time."

"No more lost time," he echoed, picking up his own cup and tapping it to hers.

"So, can I ask you the same question?" she asked after they'd both drank.

"What's that?"

"If there had been no Operative, if I hadn't sent you that wave… Would you have contacted me?"

Mal set his cup back down. "Since we're bein' truthsome… No, I don't reckon I would have."

"Why?"

He took a long time to answer, staring into his bowl of stones as if it held some unknown wisdom. "For a long while, after you left, all I had to fall back on was bein' angry. I'm… real good at it. I was mad at you for leavin', mad at myself for driving you away."

"You didn't drive me away, Mal."

He gave a huff of a laugh that was tinged with bitterness. "Didn't much matter. We took what work we could find and soldiered on, same as always. Then the Shepherd left, too. Felt like we were fallin' apart, everybody driftin' away."

He looked into her eyes, dark and warm, her hand still resting comfortingly on his thigh.

"I wanted to stop thinkin' about you. Wished I could. Figured it was just another thing gone wrong. I've had a lot of those." He hesitated, then put his hand down to rest on top of hers. "I avoided using this shuttle as much as I could, but eventually I found the trunk of things you'd left behind. I know I told you before that I'd just let 'em be after I'd found 'em, but that ain't the honest truth. Did you leave that stuff behind on purpose?"

"I don't know. I guess I did. It sounds stupid to say it now, but part of me hoped I'd be back one day, that maybe by leaving it there, either I'd have to come back to get it, or you would have to come to me."

"Maybe that would have happened. But maybe it wouldn't have, just the same." He stroked her hand gently, as he'd done on the sleigh ride earlier. "Do you believe in fate, Inara?"

"No." She edged closer to him, resting her head against his shoulder, their game long forgotten. "I think we shape our lives by the choices we make, and by the intentions behind those choices."

"So, leavin' that trunk behind was a choice, and the intentions behind that choice were that you hoped we might see each other again someday?"

She chuckled. "I suppose so, I just didn't see it quite so clearly at the time."

He intertwined his fingers with hers and leaned in to capture her mouth in a kiss that was slow and sweet. "I'm glad you're here now."

"Me, too."

Their first few kisses were like the first, but it wasn't long before they were more – hungry and heated. He felt raw, liked a wound that had been scraped free of debris so that it could heal up proper, and it made him crave her closeness even more. All the desire of the afternoon surged back in a rush that nearly took his breath away, and certainly swept every hint of coherent thought from his mind.

It didn't help matters that she seemed just as eager, her fingers in his hair pulling him close as she nipped along the line of his jaw. Then she was guiding his hands to her breasts, moaning against his mouth as he kneaded them through the thin fabric of her dress, and he could feel her nipples hardening at his ministrations. They should stop, he thought briefly, but he didn't want to stop and neither did she, and the thought was discarded without a moment's hesitation. She felt incredible in his arms – soft and warm – and the needy noises she was making made him want to do whatever it took for her to keep making those noises.

She slid across his lap to straddle him, and he groaned to have the pressure of her against his groin, where he was already hard and aching. He kissed her breasts through her dress, making her back arch with pleasure as her head fell back. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

He couldn't get enough of her, the way she gasped as he bit down where her neck met her shoulder, the way she shuddered as he held her hips and she ground herself against him, desperate to feel him. He wasn't sure what she was doing when she slid off his lap, her mouth still on his, pushing him as far back as he could go against the plush red sofa, until her hands were fumbling for the buttons at the top of his pants.

"Inara." A low groan. "Not that I'm complain', mind you, but I thought we were takin' things slow."

"We are."

She had to push the table to the side to kneel down in front of him as she unzipped his trousers, reaching in to pull him free. Stones from their game tumbled unnoticed onto the woven rug.

Wŏ de tiān a… She was going to be the death of him and what a glorious end it would be. He put his hand over hers. "What are you plannin' on – "

"Stop talking, Mal." The combination of being free of the constriction of his clothing combined with the sure stroke of her hand along his length sent him reeling, like all the air had suddenly been sucked from the room. Was she going to…? Sweet mother of mercy…

"Wait… wait." He touched the side of her jaw to get her to look at him. "I don't want you… uh… servicin' me. I don't want this to be like…" He didn't want to say it loud, to start another fight. Not now.

She sat back on her folded legs. "Like a client?" Her voice had a hint of brittleness, and he was suddenly afraid he'd ruined everything. Like he always did. But the fear wouldn't go away.

He ran his calloused thumb across the line of her cheekbone, trying to say with touch what he couldn't articulate in words. The relief he felt as her eyes softened flowed through his limbs like water. "It ain't like that," he whispered.

"I know." She moistened her lips with her tongue and he could barely manage a dry swallow – like there was a boulder lodged in his throat. "It's a gift."

Her thumb brushed the tip of him where a bead of liquid had already gathered and he moaned. God, if he was practically on the cusp already, he wasn't going to last more than a moment if he was lucky. "Well, it's one I intend to give back…" He had to stop and gasp – the combination of that mental image along with the downward slide of her now slick thumb made it hard to continue. "If… if you'll permit me."

He was pleased to see her shiver. "As you wish."

"No, not what I wish. What you want."

She licked her lips again. "I want you."

She held his eyes, full of fire and need, as she leaned down to take him into her mouth, and then there truly were no more words. His head fell back against the top edge of the sofa, and his hands tangled themselves in her hair. She sucked gently as she moved, her tongue swirling around the tip and down his shaft. Another strangled groan he didn't even recognize as his own broke free from his throat. The wet heat of her mouth, it had been a long while since he'd last – Nandi – Zāo gāo! Not the thought he wanted in his head right now.

He was fighting the urge to guide her head with his hands, not wanting to interfere, afraid to break the spell. How long had he wanted her, and now she was here, and they were… they were…

Her hand had joined her mouth, making the slick pressure around him even more intense.

"Inara." Her name was the closest thing to a true and honest prayer he'd uttered in years. "Inara."

She moaned around him, her other hand that was resting on his thigh tightening, and he could feel her nails digging in through the fabric of his trousers. Knowing she was aroused, just as turned on, imagining what it would be like to finally taste her, breathe in her scent…

His release was building faster than he wanted, but as much as he wanted to savour this, he was already long past the point of control. Everything was tightening, he couldn't breathe, more, he just needed more. He was begging, not even knowing what he was saying, just needing her to go faster, to take him deeper, to not stop… anything, just don't stop…

He nearly roared as he came, his back arching against the couch, his hands trembling in her hair as he sobbed her name.

By the time he was able to open his eyes, still too weak to even sit up, she was still kneeling, sitting back on her knees in front of him, caressing the top of his leg gently, a gentle and affectionate look on her face.

"That was… that was…" How could he even put it into words? "I've never… like that…"

Her eyes were pools of warm brown and he wanted nothing more than to melt into their depths. He traced her jawline with the tips of his fingers; her skin was so smooth and soft, almost unnatural. "You're beautiful," he murmured.

She flushed. "Thank you. You're not so bad yourself."

He traced her lips, swollen and pink, before grabbing the hand on his thigh and urging her up. Between his legs, she rose up on her knees and he claimed her mouth in a greedy kiss. "So beautiful," he managed to get out between kisses. "Now it's your turn."

"You don't have to, Mal. I don't need anything. I wanted to."

He pulled back to look at her. "And now want to. Please." She nodded, but he was worried to see a hesitancy there that he hadn't expected. "If you don't want to, we don't – "

"No, no…" She shook her head and couldn't help the cold trickle of alarm at her expression. "I do want to. I'm just…" She swallowed, glancing away for a moment before looking back at him. "Afraid."

"Afraid? Of… of me? Inara, you know I would never – "

"No!" She leaned in to press a firm kiss to his lips. "No, not of you. Of me."

"Why?" He smoothed away the dampness gathering in the corners of her eyes with his thumb.

She met his gaze with a determined expression, but he could feel the way her muscles were quivering. "Control. It's always been about control… my entire life. I've never…" She paused, her eyes searching his. "I've never done this, any of this, without maintaining a level of detachment. Companions couldn't do the work we do otherwise."

"So, you mean you've never…?" He raised an eyebrow in surprise and she let out a laugh that was a gulped chuckle, almost on the verge of tears.

"Oh, come on, Mal, of course I have. We were encouraged to take our own pleasure, to begin to learn and understand our own bodies, our own reactions. Later, we learned to give and receive pleasure from other Companions and Companions-in-training, but it was all part of controlled exercises. Our teachers would be watching, providing guidance."

His expression was serious. "Can't say that seems right. Don't sit well with me, anyway."

She smoothed non-existent creases from the front of her dress, staring down at the fabric as she gathered her thoughts. "I don't want that with you. I want to simply… feel. And I don't know what will happen when I do. If I even can."

He pulled her into him, wrapping his arms around her tightly. She was shivering, her breath coming in shaky gasps against his shirt. "Shhhhh, darlin', it's all right. I'm here, it's all right." After a few awkward movements, he had her cradled in his lap and he murmured words of reassurance as she nestled her head against his shoulder.

Her hair smelled like the smoky spice of her favourite incense, and she was warm and solid in his arms. He didn't want to move, not ever. He would keep her safe, protect her from her hurts, if it was the last thing he ever did.

At last, she took a few final gulps of air against his cotton spun shirt and her breathing evened out.

"I'm sorry."

"There's nothin' to be sorry for."

"I've kind of… killed the mood." She lifted her head and gave him a watery sort of smile, but it was a smile all the same.

He leaned his forehead against hers. "No, you didn't. We're takin' things at our own pace. We have all the time in the 'Verse." He kissed her softly, undemanding and gentle.

"I'm sorry."

"Stop sayin' that. For what?"

"For leaving."

"It don't matter. You're here now." He kissed her again, unable to help himself.

"Yes," she said, burying her face into the crook of his neck and pressing a few kisses of her own there. "I am."

For good this time, if he had any say in the matter.


Translations

Wŏ de tiān a – Dear God in heaven

Zāo gāo- Damn it

Chapter Text

December 23

Inara was sitting alone in the galley when Mal sauntered in for his morning cup of coffee. He was getting spoiled having real coffee available again, but he couldn't deny how much he'd missed it. It was early, and he was used to being the first one up, enjoying the solitude before the day got underway. It was a surprise to see her up already.

"Good morning." The smile she gave him along with those simple words sent a swell of warmth and affection in his chest that spread outward to every part of him.

He still had a hard time believing he wasn't dreaming, that this was truly happening, truly real. But, there she was, looking at him with such warmth, that he never wanted to look away. He approached the table where she was sitting, a book open beside her customary cup of tea. She hadn't dressed yet for the day; her hair hung loose around her shoulders – his favourite – and she had a silk robe loosely wrapped around her night dress.

"'Mornin'," he murmured, bending down to kiss her gently. "You're up early."

"Couldn't sleep."

"Not because of me, I hope."

"Of course, because of you." She pulled him down for another a kiss of her own. She kissed him slowly, as if she were savouring the new-found freedom of being able to do just that – unrushed, unhurried. "But not in a bad way."

"Couldn't get me out of your head, huh?"

"Mmm. You might say that."

As much as he was enjoying kissing her, he knew he shouldn't linger too long. Zoe was often an early riser as well, and he wasn't ready to share the change between him and Inara with anyone else quite yet. For all that he'd railed against shipboard romances, here he was…

He kissed her one last time and reluctantly stood up and went over to the counter to pour himself a cup of coffee. He took a sip as he came back to the table and sat down across from her.

"So, what are we up to today? Any other secret plans of Kaylee's that she hasn't told us about?" Inara asked, closing her book and picking up her cup.

"Not as far as I know. I think Jayne's plannin' on destroyin' the kitchen this afternoon."

Inara gave a delicate snort as she sipped her tea. "I gave him the spices for the cookies yesterday."

"Heaven help us then."

They sat in the stillness of the early hour, eyeing each other with an almost shy sense of wonder at the newness of it all over the tops of their cups.

Mal reached across the table, his hand palm up, and she stretched out to place her smaller hand in his.

He must be dreaming. If he was, he hoped he was never going to wake up.

"I was thinking… about last night…" Inara began hesitantly, her focus initially on the contents of her teacup but shifting to his face as she continued. "I said I wanted to make the most of the time we have, and that I was done with pretending to ignore how I felt, and I meant it."

He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb, not wanting to interrupt or distract, but feeling the need to offer a reassurance of safety and comfort all the same.

"I don't want to be afraid of how I feel about you, or where those feelings will lead." Her voice grew quieter, but no less determined. "I've trusted you with my life more times than I'd care to recount. I trust you in this, too."

"There's no rush, Inara. You take the lead with whatever feels right to you."

"This." Taking him by surprise, she reached across the table and pulled him towards her by the collar of his shirt and kissed him. "This is what feels right to me," she said, before releasing him and sitting back in her chair. "I'm not naïve enough to think this is going to be easy, but I want to try. With you."

He held her hand tightly in his own. "Whatever you need, I'm here."

"I know."

They sat together for a few long minutes in an entirely different sort of silence than the first. This was more than just the two of them makin' calf eyes at one another. This was a battle of another sort than what he was accustomed to, but one they were in together, on the same side. They would figure out a way to make their way through.

He didn't want to leave, but knew his reluctance to get started on the day would only get stronger the longer her hand was in his. "Well, reckon I should head to the bridge. See if any messages came in over night." He stood up and bent to kiss the top of her hand before releasing it.

"I suppose I should get dressed as well. It feels strange to be so idle, to be honest. I don't quite know what to do with myself."

He couldn't help stopping to watch as she rinsed out her teacup, leaving it in the wire rack on the countertop by the sink to dry. She had an innate grace – sure, it had probably been enhanced by all her training, but he suspected it was more her nature than anything – and it mesmerized him. If he tried to walk right now, he reckoned he'd trip over his own feet.

"You all right?" she asked him as she turned around and saw that he was just standing there like a love struck fool.

"Yeah. Fine." He gestured towards the bridge with the hand holding the coffee cup, slopping some over the rim and onto his hand. Thankfully, it had cooled off some already. "Going to the bridge."

"I'll see you later then?" She gave him a look over her shoulder that was tender and full of promise, and he was pretty sure his boots had melted to the floor.

As she reached the doorway, he realized something. "Inara, wait."

She stopped, looking puzzled, as he walked towards her. "What is it?"

"Look up." As she glanced upward, he whispered, "Mistletoe. Old Christmas tradition. I heard those are supposed to be respected. Very bad luck to ignore 'em."

A slow smile spread across her lips. "I've heard that."

"Best we do somethin' about it then. Probably just superstitious mumbo jumbo, but it can't hurt to be on the safe side. Just in case."

She twined her arms around his neck. "That sounds sensible."

"Glad you agree." He settled one hand on her hip, cursing the fact that he was still holding his coffee, and drew her in close. "Would hate to ignore tradition." He nuzzled against her cheek.

"Mal?"

"Yeah?"

"Kiss me."

"As my lady wishes."

He captured her mouth with more hunger than their earlier kisses, relishing the feel of her body against his. He lost himself in the feel of her lips, her tongue; the tug of her fingers in his hair.

He pulled back, taking in a gulp of air. She looked nearly as overcome as he was.

"You have no idea what you do to me," he murmured, his thumb brushing her lower lip.

"Likewise."

The sound of footsteps approaching made them draw apart, and Mal recognized the tread as Zoe's.

"'Mornin', Sir. Inara." Her eyes widened slightly as she took in where they were standing and the hint of panic in both their eyes.

But, to Mal's relief, she blinked, and any indication of surprise vanished. She knew him so well… better than he knew himself, evidently.

"You leave me any coffee?" she asked, making her way over to the counter.

"'Course, I did," he replied as Inara mouthed 'later' at him before vanishing off in the direction of her shuttle. "Just goin' to the bridge to check the messages," he explained, stepping into the room and taking a slug of his coffee. "Very productive morning."

"Happy to hear it, sir." She grabbed her newly filled mug and patted him on the shoulder on the way by. "In the future, I'd recommend puttin' the cup down before you kiss her. Slopped coffee all over her pretty robe. Neither of you seemed to notice though, so I guess it's all good."

She sauntered out of the galley, not looking back, not even at the sound of Mal choking on his mouthful of coffee.


"How did we end up doing this exactly?" Inara didn't look at him as she spoke. She was frowning down in concentration at the brown spiced cookie man in front of her as she piped a line of white icing around the edges.

"Beats me," he muttered back. "I would've expected River and Kaylee to be right in here with their faces in the bowl." Mal grimaced at his own cookie, a mess of smeared icing blobs and fingerprints. "But, I'm sure they'll be along any minute now. So nice of Jayne to leave us with this disaster to clean up, too."

Inara laughed, setting down her piping bag and pressing two purple candies onto two neat dots of icing in the center of her cookie's face for eyes. "Compared to some of the other messes we've had to clean up in here, it's not that bad."

"Not that bad?" Mal waved an arm around, taking in the entire galley in one sweep. "Not that bad? It looks like something exploded. Hell, who am I kiddin', it probably did."

There were spatters of brown dough everywhere – on the counters, the table, the cupboards, the chairs – even on the ceiling. A fine dusting of flour covered the floor, and the mountain of bowls and pans and spoons precariously balanced in the sink looked as though the mound might topple over at any moment.

"Well, hopefully they taste better than they look." She looked over at his cookie and quirked up an eyebrow. "Especially in the case of that."

"Now, what's that supposed to mean?" He grabbed a handful of candies from the dish in the center of the table and pushed them into the globs of icing on his gingerbread man.

"It means," Inara's cookie now had a neat row of candy buttons down the center of its body, "that your gingerbread man looks more like a gingerbread… mutant." She tried to keep a straight face and failed, letting out an unladylike snort.

"It does not! He's just… different than the other cookies. He's better."

"Better?"

"Yeah." He grabbed a few more pieces of candy and mashed them on. "He's got armour. See? He's an honourable knight of old." He held it up to show her and several of the candies fell off and scattered across the table. "Way better than your pretty boy fancy pants cookie."

He reached over and ran his finger along the edge of the cookie she was decorating, stealing the hardening icing from the border and then sucked it off his finger.

"Mal!" She smacked his hand away. "Ruin your own cookies!"

"My ship." He deliberately took another swipe of icing from the cookie in front of her, avoiding her elbow and enjoying her indignation. "My cookies. This icing is good."

"That's it. You're going down." She grabbed his cookie.

"Hey, you leave Sir Gingerbread of Londonium alone!"

Inara snapped off one of his legs and popped it into her mouth. "He had a tragic accident." Her words were muffled as she spoke through a mouthful of gingerbread. "Fell off his horse. Had to have it amputated."

"You… you…" he sputtered. "Fine. He's a pirate now. And he going to run Lord Fancy Pants through with his cutlass." He picked up a butter knife and speared Inara's gingerbread man through the chest. "It wasn't much of a fight." He arched an eyebrow back at her, daring her to retaliate.

She didn't disappoint.

Inara dipped her finger into the bowl of icing he'd been using, grabbing a huge glob, which she proceeded to smear down the bridge of his nose. The sticky sweet powdery smell filled his nostrils. "There. Looks better than your cookie."

"You want to go there? Fine. We'll go there." He scooped up a huge glob of his own and smeared it down the side of her cheek. "Are you going to avenge Lord Fancy Pants' honour?"

"You are so childish. No wonder it's impossible for us to ever have any kind of civil conversation." Upon which, she took a full handful of frosting and rubbed it thoroughly into Mal's hair.

He was perfectly still, his expression going from one of sputtered shock to a frosty glare that would have pinned nearly anyone to the spot.

"That was low."

She grinned. "It was, wasn't it?"

"You had to… my hair." He touched it gingerly, trying to determine the extent of the damage. "Really?"

"Yes. Well, I think I'm done here." She snapped off his gingerbread man's other leg and ate it as she stood up. "Shark attack. Very tragic. Now he can be a pirate with two peg legs."

Mal grabbed her wrist. "Now there's where you're wrong, darlin'. You may be done, but I ain't." He reached for the bowl, his fingers squishing into the sticky icing as he lobbed a ball of it her way. It hit her in the shoulder, coating both her dress and the ends of her hair.

The Chinese curse words she uttered at that would have made Jayne blush, and the shock of her, of all people, saying them left him momentarily stunned, allowing her the opportunity to dump the remainder of the bowl of icing on his head. He had her by both arms now, but she was sticky and slippery and he couldn't keep his grip. Every time she managed to get a hand free, she grabbed blobs of icing from his hair, where it was dripping down into his eyes, and rubbed it anywhere she could reach – his shirt, his ear, his chin.

They were both laughing, neither noticing the plate of finished cookies that crashed to the floor or the chair they had overturned in their various mad dashes to try and escape the other. She was ahead of him, rounding the table and pitching bits of candy in his general direction when Mal crashed into her, his boot sliding on the spattered dough and icing and debris on the galley floor.

"Look out!" He let out a shout of surprise as they collided, Inara throwing out her hands to try and hold him up.

"Zhù yì!"

"I was bein' plenty careful," he said once he felt sure of his feet again. He had her by an elbow, and both her hands were on his chest, steadying him. "You weren't playin' fair is all." They were both out of breath, icing clinging to their hair, their clothes, their faces and fingers.

"Who said anything about playing fair?" Her eyes were full of mischief.

He didn't know which one of them moved first, and he didn't much care.

All that mattered was that he was kissing her and she was kissing him right back, her lips and his both sticky and sweet with frosting. His tongue met hers as she deepened the kiss, opening her mouth for him as he pulled her close, enjoying the press of her soft body against his. "You're gonna be the death of me, you know that, dontcha'?" He moved down her neck, licking away the traces of icing, scraping her skin with the edges of his teeth. Her heart was racing, he could feel it under his lips, and the soft little sighs that kept escaping her mouth as she tilted her head to give him easier access to her neck were making him wild.

He guided them back against the counter, feeling steadier on his feet with the added support, and pushed his hips against her, letting her feel the effect she was having on him. Wŏ de mā… His need for her was insatiable. It was a damn good thing they were taking a few days of rest because he certainly wouldn't trust himself to be able to think straight on a job right about now.

Her fingers were tangled in his hair, pulling at his scalp as they caught in the sticky globs of icing, and the twinges that weren't even what he would call pain just made the feel of her mouth all the sweeter. "I want you," he murmured in a low growl. "I've wanted you for so long."

"Mal." His name was a plea against his lips.

There was a thunder of boots down the corridor and then –

"What in the ruttin' hell is goin' on in here?" Jayne barged into the galley and they leapt apart, both conspicuously gasping for breath, scarcely able to stand.

"What are you…? My cookies!" His head swivelled around in disbelief. "I'm gonna have to start all over…"

Inara gave Mal a wide-eyed look. Without thinking, he grabbed her hand. "Run!" And they bolted from the galley, leaving Jayne staring after them in surprise.


Translations

Zhù yì – Watch out; be careful

Wŏ de mā – Mother of God; my God

Chapter Text

December 23

With a huff of frustration, Inara fiddled with the faucet for another minute, but it was useless. The only water that came out was a thin stream of icy droplets. She'd have to ask Kaylee to take a look at it again. This was the third time in the last week that her shower hadn't worked properly. There must be some issue with the plumbing that still hadn't been fully resolved.

With a grumble, she turned the tap completely off and stepped out of the narrow stall. Her hair and skin were still caked with icing and now she was freezing on top of it all, her skin covered in goosebumps. She'd just have to make do with the crew showers.

She reached for the robe she'd left hanging on the outside of the door, although it was far too thin to provide any sort of warmth. She pulled her arms through the sleeves with some difficulty as the icing was starting to harden and hurriedly knotted the belt around her waist.

She couldn't help smiling though. Whatever the mess, it had been worth it. Would Mal still be down in the showers? Part of her was filled with a giddy excitement at the idea, though she tried to still her thoughts, somewhat uselessly, into a sense of calm.

Grabbing a plush golden towel from the shelf, she tucked it over her arm and left her shuttle. She could still hear Jayne banging and stomping around in the kitchen, along with the higher pitched voices of Kaylee and River. "No!" she heard him say. "Those aren't for eatin', they're for decoratin'! After Mal and Inara, and now you two, there's not gonna be anything left!" She barely managed to suppress her snort.

Thankfully, the crew showers weren't far – she was truly shivering now – and the door swung open with ease. To her right, there were three stalls with doors all in a row. Opposite them, a long wooden bench and a bank of lockers. The wall along the back of the room had a long mirror, a counter with four sinks, and racks beneath the counter for towels, soap, and other toiletries. One shower stall was occupied – a male voice humming a cheesy love ballad that was popular in the taverns of late.

Her whole body prickled with anticipation and excitement.

Mal.

He hadn't reacted to the door opening; he, of course, would have assumed that she was showering in her shuttle – they'd parted with a breathless kiss at her door less than twenty minutes earlier, after all. She could knock on the door to his stall… he'd open it. Steam billowing out. His naked skin pink with the heat of the water. He would give her that quirk of a grin that made her crazy and open his arms to her and she would–

She cut off the thought for now, tempting though it was, but she wanted time to think through it all first. Taking the stall farthest from his, she locked the door and shoved her towel onto the upper shelf where it wouldn't get wet before peeling off her robe and hanging it from the hook on the inside of the door.

The plumbing problem in her shuttle evidently wasn't an issue here, as the steaming water shot out from the shower head as soon as she turned the tap. She normally would have groaned with pleasure at the hot water cascading down on her, but she didn't want Mal to know she was there… not yet anyway. He was warbling the lyrics of the same song now, his voice echoing off the tiles, and she had to smother her laughter.

She'd forgotten, in her haste, to grab soap or shampoo. Thankfully, someone had left bottles of some generic sort on the floor of the stall. It lathered well enough in her palms, although she would need to condition her hair later unless she wanted it to dry into a mass of frizzy, untameable curls. It didn't smell of the more exotic scents she normally used, unsurprisingly, but she recognized the familiar smell from Mal's hair, and that sent a pool of spiralling warmth through her belly. This, she realized, was what it was like to truly want another person, safe in the knowledge that they felt the same way.

There was an intimacy that came with physical closeness – was that what she had been afraid of the night before? She worked at the clumps of hardened icing in her hair with her fingers, trying to soften it under the water. No, she decided, that wasn't it at all. The barriers were coming down between them now that they had been able to talk – truly talk – about how they felt.

It wasn't for lack of physical chemistry and attraction, far from it, and maybe that was closer to the truth. She wanted him, wanted to take him to her bed and pleasure him in every way she knew, wanted that far more than the pursuit of her own pleasure. It still felt strange to think that he would want to do the same to her, but that was what most people did. Normal people, not Companions.

Maybe it all came down to accepting it, rather than fighting it. She might never be able to silence the voices in her head that compartmentalized and broke down actions and reactions, but she was the one in control. Her hands stilled as the thought struck her. Her training has been all about control, but it was her control – not the Priestess', not the other Companions'. Hers. To do with as she wished.

It took a while to work the matted icing out of her hair, but Mal was still singing, and it made her feel relaxed and safe. Comfortable. She relaxed, letting the rhythm of the water pound against her back, the temperature hot enough for it to sting a little. With more than a little reluctance when she'd finished washing, she switched off the water and rubbed the towel over her hair before drying her body.

She shook her head. Mal's water was still running, but the singing had stopped. What could he possibly be doing in there… as if she didn't suspect. It made the thought of knocking on his stall all the more tempting. Should she?

She wrapped her towel around her body, opened the door to her own stall, and stepped out. The heat from both of their showers had completely fogged up the wide mirror, and the shower room was steamy, almost like a sauna. She tossed her robe into a tall laundry bin near the lockers. A pile of clothing – obviously Mal's – was loosely folded on the bench closest to the stall he was using, his favourite red shirt on top of the pile.

Truthfully, it was her favourite as well. The deep crimson suited him, brought out the blue of his eyes. She'd imagined what it would be like to take it off him more times than she cared to admit.

There was a quiet groan from his shower. Soft enough that she wouldn't have heard it if she hadn't been standing where she was. Her heart skittered in her chest. He was doing exactly what she'd thought he was doing and the confirmation sent a bolt of electric fire surging through her, leaving her rooted to the spot. He was stroking himself, right now, and now that she'd had the chance to pleasure him herself, it made the images in her head all that more vivid. Her breath was coming quicker as she stood paralyzed, her fingers caressing the buttons on his damnably sexy shirt. She was straining to hear, hoping for more, knowing at the same time that she should leave before he saw her in case he was embarrassed.

A huffed exhalation and then, her name, a hurried moan escaping from his throat. She could picture him standing there, resting his head against the tiles as his release found him, and she was so turned on she could barely remember to breathe.

She wasn't a Companion any longer. This was her choice, truly hers alone, about what she wanted.

Inara let her towel drop to the floor, undid the top two buttons on his shirt, and pulled it over her head. Then, she leaned back against the cold metal lockers, wearing nothing but his favourite red shirt, and waited.


It took him a few more minutes with the water running over him before he felt confident that his knees weren't going to give out. He could still taste the icing and it hadn't taken much to bring back the memory of Inara's body pressed up against his, of the things she had done to him the night before, with her mouth…

He switched off the water, humming that little ditty that was stuck in his head. It wasn't right that he should be this happy, made him feel like he was just waitin' for the other boot to drop. Still, might as well enjoy it while it lasted. He grinned as he shook the water out of his eyes and rubbed down his hair with his towel. She was quite a woman.

He wrapped and secured the towel around his waist and opened the door of the shower stall.

Tiān xiăo de…

Inara was leaning against the lockers in front of him, legs long and deliciously bare, wearing nothing but the shirt he had left folded on the bench before going into the shower. The top few buttons were undone, giving just a hint of what was hidden beneath. Her hair was damp, curling into wet tendrils around her shoulders and leaving streaks of darker crimson on the fabric where the water had dripped down. Her cheeks were pink and flushed – from her own shower, from the steamy warmth of the room, from… other things. Had she heard him? Of course she had, if she'd been standing there the whole time that he'd been…

"Inara." His mouth was bone dry.

Her lips were slightly parted and her breathing was ragged and uneven. He approached cautiously, half thinking that she might disappear if he took his eyes off her even for a second. She didn't disappear, didn't move even an inch, not even when he was standing directly in front of her. He wasn't sure what to say, what to do. He waited for her to make the first move, wanting to be sure he knew what she wanted from him. Whatever it was, she could have it, have everything.

He was hypersensitive to her every movement, to the way her nostrils flared slightly as she inhaled, to the tremble in her arms as she brought them up to rest her hands on his chest. He was trembling, too, but he didn't move as she slid her hands up his chest, exploring his upper arms and along the broadness of his shoulders before settling them around his neck.

He didn't move until he felt the pressure of her hands, pulling his head down to hers for a slow kiss, gentle and simmering with heat. She'd moved, now he could, too. Wrapping her up in his arms, he pulled her flush up against him, a breathless moan escaping him as his hands found the bare flesh beneath the hem of his shirt. She was naked underneath – no underthings, he barely managed to register the thought – her ass round and firm under his hands.

"Is this okay?" he asked, needing to be sure.

"Yes," she murmured, "please."

Snatching kisses that were growing more frantic by the minute, he fumbled with the buttons of the shirt, trying to get them undone. The buttons were slippery from the steam and he couldn't seem to get his fingers to work properly.

"Mal, let me…"

"No. I got them."

"Let me just – "

"Hang on, I can…"

No more wasting time.

He grabbed the shirt on either side and gave a furious tug. Buttons scattered everywhere, plinking off the tile floor, as he stood back, breathing heavily. "There. Fixed."

"That's one way to handle it I suppose." She was breathing heavily, too, but now the red shirt was fully parted at the middle, exposing her breasts to his hungry gaze.

"You're incredible," he finally managed to get out, still looking at her with an air of reverence. "Hold that thought. Don't move."

"What are you…?"

Mal walked over to the door and pressed a button on the nearby panel. The light for the door lock blinked from green to red. He turned back to face her. "Don't reckon we'll be interrupted this time."

When he reached her, he tilted her chin up and pressed a soft kiss against her lips. "Incredible don't even begin to cover it, but I've never been much for fancy words, so it'll have to do."

He kissed her again, lifting her up at the same time, and swallowing her startled gasp against his mouth. With careful steps – he definitely did not want to slip right now – he walked them backward towards the mirror. When they reached it, he lifted her up higher and set her down so she could sit, perched on the edge of the counter with her arms wrapped around his neck. He wished the mirror weren't all fogged up so he could seen the graceful sweep of her back as well.

He stepped back to drink her in, worshipping every inch of her golden skin with his eyes. He was a lucky man. With the pad of his thumb, he circled one dusky nipple, watching it stiffen under his touch. "This okay?"

At her nod, he bent his head down and took it into his mouth, suckling gently, until her fingers were in his hair, urging him on, and she was making some of the loveliest noises he had ever heard in his life.

She smelled so good – just soap and her own natural scent – and that turned him on far more than the mysterious scents of perfumes and incense. No artifice, no makeup. He didn't want a Companion, he wanted her. Nothing but her.

He moved to the other nipple, his hand resting against her upper leg and stroking the creamy, smooth skin of her inner thigh.

"Inara, I'd like to… if you want me…" He grazed her nipple with his teeth and was rewarded with a pleasurable sort of pain as her hands clenched his hair more tightly. Gripping her hips in his wide hands, he moved up to claim her mouth once more. "I want to taste you, to bring you to your full, but not if you ain't ready. We don't need to anything more than you're ready for."

"I want this, too. I trust you. I don't want to be afraid of this."

"Are you sure? We could – "

She stopped his words with a fierce kiss. "I'm sure," she whispered against his mouth.

He gave a groan of pleasure that might have been her name, might've been a prayer – he was nearly beyond words now – and sunk down to his knees on the cool, hard tile floor. "You want me to stop, you just say the word, and I'll stop."

She smiled down at him, caressing his hair. "I know." She leaned back on the countertop, balancing on her elbows for stability, and then nodded.

This wasn't a dream. This was real. He had died, and heaven was real after all.

Spreading her legs, he pressed a line of kisses up the inside of her left leg before stopping just short, enjoying her little moan of impatience before moving to the other leg and doing the same thing.

Her eyes were closed, her head thrown back to expose the smooth column of her neck, and it was the sexiest thing he had ever seen. She trusted him fully, knew that he wouldn't hurt her, wouldn't let any harm befall her.

Pressing his mouth to her, he pressed a chaste kiss there, inhaling the intoxicating scent of her arousal.

"Please, Mal…"

She was begging him to continue, and damn if he wasn't going to the special hell for how much that turned him on.

His own control tattered and worn, he parted her with his fingers and took a long swipe with his tongue. Her legs were already quivering as he slid up to focus on the area he knew would bring her the most pleasure, circling and sucking as she writhed.

His knees were going numb, pressed against the tile and concrete, but he wouldn't have budged for anything, not even Reavers.

Pleas for him to continue and his name – Lord, all mighty, the way she was saying his name – were falling from her lips as she gripped the edge of the counter. She was whimpering, restless beneath his grip on her hips, moving instinctively. "Mal, don't stop."

He didn't, he was just as powerless as she was. She was close, so close, the muscles in her stomach tensing.

"Mal…" She came with a wordless cry, her upper body curling forward to hold his head in place as she rode out the aftershocks.

It took him a moment to stand up, his legs numb and weak, as he gathered her against him and held her close as she recovered. "You all right?"

She managed a weak nod, slumped against his shoulder. Her breath was ragged, but not in a panicked way.

"Kinda like that we ain't fightin'." He pressed a kiss to the damp tendrils of hair that clung to her temple. "I'm likin' this a lot better."

"Mmmm…" She seemed to be struggling to find her words, filling him with an innately masculine pride that purred contentedly in his chest. "I'm inclined to agree."

"Wait… you're agreein' with me now? You sure you ain't fevered?"

"Shut up, Mal." Then she kissed him, and he did.


Translations

Tiān xiăo de – In the name of all that's sacred

Chapter Text

December 24

They were all still sitting around the table in the galley, too stuffed full of chicken and potatoes and fresh bread and butter to want to move. Only Inara was up, stirring a mixture of milk and sugar and chocolate in a saucepan on the stove.

"I'm so full I think I'm aimin' to burst," Kaylee said with a groan, "so I don't think whatever you're makin' over there has any right to smell so good."

Jayne was feeding the last few bits of chicken on his plate to the kitten in his lap, who was snapping at them eagerly.

"It does smell good," Simon agreed. "I can't remember the last time I tasted chocolate."

"The twenty-second of October, 2506. Unless you've had some since then," River said thoughtfully.

"No, not since mother's birthday, before you left for the Academy." His voice held an air of quiet sadness.

"Then all the more reason to have it again now, under better circumstances." Mal gave a nod at the two of them.

"Hear, hear!" Kaylee said loudly as Inara carried the first two mugs over the table, setting one down in front of Mal, the other in front of Kaylee.

When they all had a mug of steaming, sweet hot chocolate in their hands, Mal raised his mug up high. "A toast to a fine crew and to the best ship this side of the 'Verse!"

"To family," River added with a solemn nod.

"To family," they all responded, at once, and Inara caught Mal's eyes with her own before she took a sip.

There was a moment of silence as they all tasted before Kaylee made a moan that bordered on sultry. "I think… I think my mouth just had an orgasm," she murmured with a voice full of wonder before taking another huge gulp.

Mal choked roughly, and Zoe gave him a solid whack on the back, grinning the whole while. "Y'all right there, sir?"

"Fine. I'm fine," he managed to gasp out.

They sat around the table, savouring the hot chocolate, laughing and sharing stories before finally adjourning to the lounge, where the seating was infinitely more comfortable.


The lights in the lounge area had been extinguished, leaving only the warm, multi-coloured lights on the Christmas tree to illuminate the space with their glow. Simon and Kaylee were curled up together in one overstuffed chair – him sitting, her snuggled into his lap with her legs hanging over the arm of the chair and her arms around his neck. Whatever she'd just said had made his ears go red, and Kaylee was laughing.

Mal and Inara had taken the loveseat, as River and Jayne and the kitten were sprawled across the length of the longer couch. The kitten was still lean and lanky, more bones than flesh, but its fur was clean and fluffy now and it was in high spirits, batting at a scrap of ribbon that River was trailing across the cushions for it to chase and pounce. Zoe was watching them from the other chair, her hands wrapped around what must have been her third mug of hot chocolate.

On the low table in the center of the room were several plates of food. There were thick slices of buttered bread, a block of cheese that had been cut into wedges, and a neatly arranged pyramid of apples. One plate was already empty, the spicy spring rolls having already been devoured, and another was stacked with gingerbread cookies that had been generously frosted with icing.

"Ours were better," Mal whispered into her ear, the heat of his breath making her shiver.

"Definitely. No question."

"It's gettin' late," Zoe remarked with a yawn. "Are we doin' presents tonight or tomorrow morning?"

"Traditionally, it's Christmas morning," Simon said, trying to sit more upright and shifting Kaylee in his lap as he did so.

"I say screw suŏ yŏu de dōu shì dāng. Let's open 'em n – ow!" The kitten had just tackled Jayne's hand, mistakenly assuming it was the source of the ribbon's movement.

"I don't want to wait neither! Let's do it now!" Kaylee hopped out of Simon's lap and headed for the pile of packages nestled at the base of the tree. "I can hand 'em out. Let's see…"

When everyone had a parcel in their hands, Kaylee sat down on the floor in front of the tree. "Who wants to go first?"

"You go first, since you organized everything," Simon said, smiling at her.

"Okay!" She had a medium-sized square box, and she tore off the red and green striped wrapping paper with enthusiasm. There were no clues as to the contents on the outside of the box, which was just everyday brown cardboard. Bending the flaps apart to open it, she squealed in delight at the contents. "Wow, look at all this stuff!"

"What is it?" Simon asked, peering forward over the arm of the chair to try and see inside.

"All sorts of useful bits!" Kaylee started pulling things out of the box and laying them beside her. "Capacitors. Flux coils. AA batteries… Oooo, look at the size of these resistors!"

"Who was your Secret Santa?" Inara asked.

"Me," Jayne said. "Glad you like 'em."

Kaylee paused to beam at him. "This is great – thanks! Oh, what's this?" She lifted out a small bottle with a pink label. "Some sort of lubricant?"

Inara gave a sound that was half cough and half snort.

"Of a sort." Jayne raised his eyebrows and winked at Simon. "That one's technically for the both of you. And… it tingles."

"Right!" Mal interjected. "Who's next? How 'bout you, River."

"Okay." She picked up her package and turned it over a few times, staring at it intently. Everyone waited patiently until she'd finished her examination and then she carefully pulled at the exposed edge of the wrapping paper.

"This one's from me," Kaylee said, putting all the odds and ends back into her box. "I hope you like it!"

Inside was small pouch, which unzipped to reveal a hairbrush and comb, along with a set of jeweled hair pins.

"Inara helped me pick 'em out. We can do your hair up real pretty any time you want."

River was running her fingers over the opalescent inlay on the back of the brush. "Shiny." She looked at Kaylee and smiled. "Thank you. Simon, it's your turn now."

"All right, sure," he said as he picked up his own gift. It was small and flat, about the size of his palm. Inside was a tin decorated with an elaborate logo of a leaping fish.

"The lady said they were some sort of fancy fish eggs – for eatin'," Zoe said. "They farm 'em locally here, but apparently, they sell for a small fortune on the Core worlds. I hope you like 'em, 'cause it don't sound like somethin' you could convince the rest of us to try."

"They're actually really nice," Inara interjected. "Sort of salty, and they pop in your mouth."

Zoe made a face. "You're not doing a very good job of convincin' me."

Simon smiled. "Thanks, this is a rare treat. Kaylee, you'll try them, won't you?"

"I'll try anythin' once. Won't promise a second time yet though."

Simon placed the tin on the arm of the chair. "So, who's next?"

"Jayne, you go," Zoe said, patting the package in her lap gently. "I wanna savour the suspense a while longer."

"No need to ask me twice." Jayne tore the paper off his parcel, with little regard for the contents. "It's a… it's a… whoa, look at this baby!" His eyes were shining as he held the contents up for them all to see. It was a gleaming silver pistol with a laser sight, but some sort of modifications had been made to the barrel and the trigger.

"Kaylee helped me, made some improvements to the firing distance and accuracy." Simon shrugged as Jayne continued to turn it this way and that, admiring it. "I just thought… what do you buy a man who likes firearms? It was an obvious choice."

"This is super, Doc, just super." Jayne gave him a broad grin. "I'd hug you, but I ain't much for hugs."

"And that is totally and completely fine with me."

Mal smiled at them all, their good humour was infectious. "All right there, Zoe, I think it's time you opened yours."

"If you insist, but I'm kinda eager to see what Inara's got." She grinned.

Mal glanced over at Inara, who glanced nervously at the parcel in her lap. "No, you first, Zoe. Go on," Inara said, deflecting attention from herself.

"I hope you like it," River said quietly as Zoe began to remove the wrapping paper. "I'm glad you're ready to tell, even though it was a nice secret to hold on to."

From the crumpled gold wrapping paper, Zoe lifted up a stuffed animal; a floppy brown bunny with long ears and legs, a soft, white, plump furred belly, and a pink stitched nose.

"A bunny?" Jayne asked, still waving his pistol about in the air. "What the hell does she need a bunny for?"

"Not for her," River said.

"It's for the baby," Zoe finished, the hint of a sad smile creeping onto her face.

The room erupted in squeals from Kaylee, who threw herself at Zoe and hugged her tightly. "A baby! I can't believe it! Congratulations!"

"A baby?" Jayne muttered, mostly to himself, in surprise.

Inara was up and hugging her next. "Anything you need, anything at all, I'm sure I can get for you. I have contacts on Londonium if you need any medical care that's above and beyond what Simon can provide."

"Thanks, Inara, I appreciate that, but I'm sure the Doc'll be able to take care of things just fine."

It took a while for the excitement to die down, but Mal was pleased to see a genuine look of happiness pass over Zoe's face. She would be all right. They were in this together, and he wasn't about to let anything happen to her or the little one growing inside her, right at this very minute.

"So, who still has something to open?" Kaylee asked, looking around the room with an air of innocence that was far from convincing.

"Mal next," Inara said, meeting his eyes and flushing a little. "This is from me. Obviously. Just be careful when you open it."

His gift was flat and rectangular, and felt fairly flimsy beneath the blue and silver paper. He tore along the bottom flap of the paper, trying to feel for whatever was inside to make sure he didn't tear it, too. Pulling the contents free, he found that it was a folded scroll of white silk, made slightly stiffer through the addition of another sturdier fabric that backed it. It was attached to a golden rod for hanging.

He stole a glance at Inara. She was watching him intently, waiting for his reaction. Was she nervous?

"What is it?" Kaylee asked.

"It's a scroll of some sort," he answered, taking in the slight part in Inara's lips. If they had been alone, he wouldn't have been able to resist stealing a kiss. "Lemme see, here…"

He unfolded it with care and draped it over his lap to look at it properly. "This is beautiful. Did you paint this?"

"Yes. I hope it's okay."

Along the top righthand side of the scroll were lines of perfect hanzi calligraphy, and Mal read what she had written without speaking the words out loud, wanting to keep them for himself.

Set sail upon the darkest ocean,

Cast your oars into the stars.

Look not at those behind you,

Those you've left on distant shores.

Where there is no wind to guide you,

No constellation to steer you true,

No sun to kiss your cheeks with heat

Naught but strength to see you through.

Know then that I am with you

My hair your sails, your mast my spine,

My heart, it keeps your hull from breaking,

For I am yours and you are mine.

Let us set sail, both together,

Cast our oars into the sky.

Let each new day find us wanting,

Let eternity drift by.

Beneath the words, there was a portrait of Serenity, her thrusters illuminated in a citrine glow that emanated outward from the star-speckled darkness around the ship.

He didn't even notice how the entire room had gone quiet. He only had eyes for Inara. "Thank you. This… means a lot." Without meaning to, his hand came up to caress her cheek. "It's perfect."

He didn't care that they weren't alone, didn't care if the rest of them knew. Like they didn't know already. He leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to her lips – just one – just enough to show her how touched he was. "Thank you," he said again as he pulled back.

He hazarded a glance around the room. Simon and Zoe were making a point of looking in another direction entirely, unlike Jayne, River, and Kaylee, who were all staring unabashedly. Kaylee looked so happy that he thought she might explode, her hands clasped together in delight.

"Aw," Kaylee sighed happily, "I knew you two would work things out."

"All right, all right…" Mal made a dismissive harrumph as Inara lifted her hand to her mouth to hide her smile. "None of that. It's just… Christmas and all, and it was a nice gift. A man can be appreciative without everybody readin' too much into things."

Zoe made a stifled sort of cough that might have been a laugh, but didn't say anything.

"Okay, Inara," Kaylee said excitedly, "open yours up so we can see what Mal got you."

"Oh, I didn't do much… it's just a…" Mal raised up a hand to interrupt, but Kaylee barrelled on.

"I bet'll be just as amazin'." She beamed at the two of them.

Mal had a sinking feeling that his brilliant idea maybe hadn't been so brilliant after all as Inara began to unwrap her present. She had just given him possibly the nicest thing he had ever received, and now he was going to look like the 'Verse's biggest cad. Sure, Inara would know the truth of it, but the rest of them wouldn't… He was never going to live this down.

Thankfully, Inara read the card he had tucked inside first, giving him a confused look that flickered only briefly across her face.

Not your real present. Pretend you like it.

She proceeded to remove the gift itself from the paper.

A toothbrush.

"Wow. Just what I always wanted. And my favourite colour, too… how did you know?"

Zoe had her head in hands, trying to muffle her laughter but her shoulders were shaking with the effort.

"Geez, Mal…" Jayne was shaking his head. "Even I wouldn't have… wow."

Kaylee had gone from a look of ecstatic happiness to one of abject horror as her buoyant expression deflated. "Oh, Cap'n… you didn't…"

"No, Kaylee, it's fine, I promise," Inara reassured her. "I'm sure Mal… uh, handcrafted it." Her eyes were shining with amusement at his discomfort and then she leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, but deliberately projecting her voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "It isn't used, is it?"

That was it. Zoe lost it, the room filling with the sound of her laughter.

"That's fine. Laugh." Mal was having a hard time pretending to be offended while Zoe was shaking with mirth, wiping tears from her eyes. It was one of the finest sounds he'd heard in a long while.

Inara's eyes were sparkling with laughter, too, as she leaned over to kiss his cheek. "I'll treasure it always." She gave him a wink as she straightened up. "Now, who wants cookies?"

By the time the evening was winding down, they were all pleasantly full, lulled by the warmth of the room, the glow of the tree, and the friendly camaraderie. Of course, the glasses of rice wine and mugs of hot chocolate had certainly helped as well. Kaylee and Simon were the first to take their leave, and Inara elbowed him gently as they less than subtly took the little bottle with the pink label with them.

Zoe was next, gathering up empty plates and mugs as she went. On her way past Mal, she leaned in slightly to murmur, "Knew you weren't a coward, sir."

Finally, River picked up the sleepy kitten that had sprawled itself out across her feet and nudged Jayne, who was staring at nothing in particular with an uncharacteristically dreamy expression. "Time for bed," she said. "He's tired."

"Hmm…? Oh. Right. Yep, sure am beat." He gave an obvious stretch after he'd stood up, not looking at Mal or Inara. "C'mon River. Let's go see if Mr. Whiskers wants a snack first."

"Mr. Whiskers?" Inara mouthed at Mal as they left, both of them shaking with silent laughter until the sound of boots on the stairs had faded away.

For a time, they didn't speak, enjoying the silence that settled in around them, comfortable and at peace.

"This is nice."

His arm was around the back of the couch and she was nestled against him, his fingers absently teasing the wisps of hair that had slipped out of the elaborate braids that were pinned up against the nape of her neck.

"You know, I don't feel like we got to properly finish our dance from before... on account of the fireworks an' all. Was thinkin' that perhaps we should rectify that."

"Hmm…" she said contentedly. "It's a shame we don't have any music then."

"I could sing?"

"Please don't."

He tried to look offended, but his heart wasn't in it. "Don't really need music, though, do we?"

She glanced up at him and smiled. "I suppose we could manage."

The comm system crackled as it turned on, making both of them jump. A pause. And then a slow, sweet melody began to play. Inara cracked up with laughter. "I think we're being played."

Mal glanced over at the comm unit on the wall and shook his head. "Suspect you may be right," he said to her. "All right, listen up!" he said in a much louder voice, addressing the empty room. "Unless anyone wants to find their presents, the tree, and possibly all of their treasured possessions tossed out the air lock, I highly recommend that you all bugger off and quit eavesdroppin'."

He waited a few moments, head cocked to one side, listening. "There, now that's dealt with." He stood up and extended a hand to her. "Would you care to do me the honour of a dance, Miss Serra?"

She put her hand in his and let him raise her to her feet. "I would be most honoured, Mr. Reynolds."

He encircled her with his arms around her waist and back, tugging her close and leaving no space between them. She responded by twining her arms around his neck. "Why, Mr. Reynolds, how very forward of you. I don't know if my delicate sensibilities can cope with such close proximity to your… manly attributes."

"I happen to know you like my manly attributes."

"Oh, you do, do you?"

He began to sway, moving them around in a slow circle. "Mmm… let's just say that there have been certain… situations, recently, that have led me to the belief that your sensibilities are not so outraged as you might claim. In fact," he mouthed against her ear, enjoying the way she shivered as his lips just barely brushed her skin, "I've heard from a reliable source that those situations might even bear repeating."

"I don't know…" She drew the edges of her fingernails lightly down the back of his neck. "I've been giving this some careful thought…"

He hummed with the spark of desire that rippled through him. "You have?"

"Oh, yes. And I've heard tell that there are many," she licked her lips slowly and deliberately and he couldn't take his eyes off her mouth, "many other ways in which my sensibilities could be tested."

He swallowed. "Suppose I might be able to offer my assistance with that, if it was needed."

"I appreciate the kindness of your offer. I may have to take you up on that at some point in the future." She peered up at him through her long, thick eyelashes. "Or maybe… now."

"Now is good." He swallowed again, his throat tight. "Now is real good."

"You know, I think I'm done with dancing."

"Strangely enough, so am I." He caught himself leaning in, moving closer to the temptation of her mouth.

"Your place or mine?" she murmured, her lips now scarcely an inch from his.

"Mine. So I can give you your real present." Their lips met in a hint of a kiss, just the barest touch.

"It's not another toothbrush, is it?"

"Do you want it to be?" She opened her eyes to stare at him as his mouth quirked up in a mischievous grin. "Guess you need to come with me to find out."


Translations

suŏ yŏu de dōu shì dāng – all that's proper

Chapter Text

December 24

"So… here we are."

"Here we are."

They were standing in Mal's quarters, and Inara would have found Mal's sudden shyness more endearing if she hadn't been struck by the same sensation.

It would have been easy for her to step forward, take control, as she had done during so many encounters with men and women who were much less familiar than Mal, but she didn't want to. Not this time. She wanted it to be awkward and exhilarating and… terrifyingly real. It reminded her of when she had learned swim, first in the safety of the calm garden pools, and the stark difference the first time she had stared over the unpredictable vastness of an ocean. The same, and not the same at all.

She was glad that they were in his quarters and not her shuttle – the added dissociation from her work was something she needed – wanted – and she had no doubt that he did, too, even if he hadn't voiced his thoughts out loud.

He was staring at her with an expression that was warm, affection with a heated undercurrent of desire, and she knew that her own mirrored his. It seemed surreal that they had, somehow, reached this point despite it all.

She'd thought him attractive back when they'd first met, when she'd made him an offer to rent out his shuttle and everything had been set in motion, but he was even more attractive to her now that she knew him better. His thick brown hair – he was vain about the way it casually hung over his forehead, but only when he thought no one was looking; his broad jaw and shoulders. She loved the husky rasp of his voice when he spoke quietly. His determination. The kindness in his eyes and his stupidly stubborn sense of chivalry. His sheer force of will and endurance. His love for this ship, their home, and for his crew, their friends.

She loved him.

It wasn't a shocking revelation that took her by surprise. Rather, it was one that had stolen into her heart bit by bit, something that had been there a long while even without the words themselves to define it. It simply was.

Watching him watching her, she couldn't help feeling that he had come to a similar conclusion as his eyes met hers.

"Penny for your thoughts…" he said, and she smiled at him, wanting to hold this image of him in her memory forever.

"I don't think I was… thinking much of anything, to be honest. Just… feeling."

"Yeah. Me, too." He tucked his hands into his back pockets. "Well."

"Well," she echoed.

"I guess I should give you your present then. Since that's why we're here and all."

"Right."

"I'll just… I'll just get it then. The present." He turned to the table behind him and opened a drawer, pulling out a large, roughly square shaped package wrapped in brightly coloured paper.

"You wrapped it?" She quirked up an eyebrow, teasing him.

He gave her an indignant look. "Of course I wrapped it. If you go on insultin' me, I may just keep it."

"You're right. That was undeserved." She smothered a smile, not trying particularly hard to keep the amusement out of her voice.

He harrumphed under his breath, but handed it to her anyway. "This is for you. It's nothin' fancy, not like what you made for me. To tell the truth, I didn't know what to get you, so I sorta had to improvise. I hope it's okay."

"I'm sure it's fine, more than fine. Thank you." The package was soft and pliable, not particularly heavy or squishy. She turned it over, finding the seam of the paper and sliding her fingers along the edge to break the pieces of tape holding it closed. She had no idea what it could be. It felt like something made of fabric, but she had a hard time imagining him buying her clothing, unless it was a new winter sweater, since the one she had worn earlier had clearly seen better days.

When the paper fell open, there was no mistaking what he had given her.

"I can't take this – it's your favourite!"

"Looked better on you than it ever did on me." He swallowed thickly. "Wouldn't complain if you were to wear it again sometime."

It was his red shirt, laundered and neatly folded, with all of the buttons sewed back on with precise, orderly stitches in brown thread.

She touched a button with the pad of her finger. "Did you sew these?"

"I did." He chuckled. "Took me more time to find 'em all than it did to stitch 'em back on."

"I don't know if I can accept this," she said softly. "After all, I might want the pleasure of taking it off you, too, sometime."

"Don't suspect I would object." He took a step toward her. "Listen, Inara, before we… that is, if we… Zāo gāo… I'm not very good at this."

"At what?"

"That's, uh… that's not all that I got you. Didn't think givin' you the shirt off my back counted as much of a present." He rubbed the back of his neck, glancing away and then back at her. "Look in the pocket. It's nothin' big, mind you, just something… something I thought you might like."

Surprised, she reached into the small pocket of the still folded shirt and drew out another parcel wrapped in coloured paper. This one was tiny, a small rectangle that was so light that it might have contained nothing at all.

"Mal…?"

He was watching her intently. "Just open it. Please."

She set the shirt down next to the bed and turned it over. The paper was folded like an envelope, making it easy for her to open one end and peer inside before dumping the contents of the package out into her palm.

It was a simple necklace with tiny links made of silver and it glittered brightly, like starlight.

"It belonged to my ma. She always wore it, long back as I can remember any how. Never took it off that I ever saw. Not sure… not sure where it came from originally, she never did say. But she gave it to me when I left, when I signed up during the war… told me she hoped it would bring me good fortune." He held her gaze, not looking away this time. "Hope I'm not bein' too presumptuous in sayin' that it has."

She was so touched by his gesture that it took her a moment to find her voice. "I don't know what to say… this means so much to me. I…" She struggled to express the magnitude of emotion filling up inside of her but she couldn't find words that came even close. "Thank you."

"I know it ain't all fancy like the stuff you usually wear – "

"Mal," she stopped him before he could continue, "I love it." She said it decisively, not wanting him to doubt himself for a second.

Untwisting it with her fingers and smoothing the kinks out of the chain, she lifted it up to glint in the soft yellow glow of the room. "Help me put it on?"

She turned her back to him and held the necklace out behind her for him to take.

There was a pause before he stepped forward, and she felt first the heat of his body behind her and then his fingers taking the necklace from her own. It took him a minute to undo the clasp as he fumbled with the tiny size of the mechanism, and then he draped the chain around her neck. His fingers were warm on the nape of her neck as he refastened the clasp, the light brush of his movements had her nerves prickling; teasing her with the promise of more contact with his skin that didn't come. The combination of his proximity as well as her growing familiarity with the way it felt to kiss him, to be held by him, to feel the inherent strength in his body, was making it increasingly difficult to not give in and simply take what she wanted.

When he'd finished, she'd expected – hoped – that his mouth would be on her neck, his arms coming around her to pull her in fully flush against him, but he didn't.

Instead, his fingers slid from the top of her spine, up the column of her neck, to her hair, where he found one of the many pins that were holding her braided curls in place. He drew it out of position, careful not to snag it in her hair, and then let it drop to the floor.

She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, suddenly overwhelmed with desire that made her tremble like a leaf under the weight of rain that had just begun to fall.

"This okay?" he asked softly. He was close enough that she could feel the heat of his breath on her skin.

She breathed in and out again slowly, willing herself to stay still. "Yes."

With painstaking slowness and care, he removed each pin, one by one, and let them fall. The silence of the room was broken only by her uneven breathing, and the quiet sound of each pin hitting the floor. Warmth was flooding through her, spreading down into the tips of her fingers, bringing out the colour in her cheeks. She had no idea how many there were – twenty? Fifty? – but he took the same amount of care and attention on each and every one.

When the last pin was out, he moved on to the braids, unravelling them with the same devotion and taking out the tangles with his fingers. She didn't know how much physical time had passed by the time her hair was fully loose, falling around her shoulders in waves of curls, but she was aching with the need to see his face, his eyes, his expression. She turned around to face him once his hands had finally stilled.

His lips were parted slightly as he drank her in, eyes dark and pupils wide.

Her turn.

He stood as still as she had, although he was trembling, too, as she slid his suspenders – first the left, then the right – down off of his shoulders. As slowly as he had taken the pins out of her hair, she undid the top button of his shirt and proceeded down the row of them; one by one until his shirt was open. She ran her finger lightly down his chest where his skin was now exposed, and he gasped, making her pause for the briefest moment as he closed his eyes and opened them again. His hands mirrored the movement, clenching and unclenching his fists although his shoulders remained tense as she gripped the left side of his collar and worked it down to release his arm. She moved to the right side, easier and faster now the other side hung loose, and then his chest was fully bare.

She bent and kissed the scar from the sword fight with Atherton – this elicited another shaky exhalation from Mal – then an old bullet wound on his shoulder. When she had pressed a kiss to all the scars she could find on his chest, she walked around him, doing the same to his back, there were so many, before stopping to stand in front of him once more.

She turned her back to him, sweeping her hair off her shoulders with one graceful movement of her hand, exposing the tied ribbons that ran down the back of her dress. She closed her eyes as he undid each one, feeling the garment grow looser and looser until she could simply step free as it pooled around her hips and slid to the floor. Her breasts were bare, her last piece of clothing just a small triangle of red silk, as she turned back toward him.

With one hand on his chest, she motioned for him down to sit on the bed. He went willingly, his eyes not leaving hers. His arousal was more than evident as she knelt down to work off his boots and then his socks.

She stood up, then offered him her hand to help him to back to his feet. Keeping her eyes locked on his as best she could, she undid his belt, unbuttoned his trousers, and then slid both his pants and underwear together downward until he could step out of them fully.

At last, she straightened up and shimmied the triangle of red silk down over her own thighs, pushing it off to the side with one foot once it was down around her ankles.

There was nothing between them now. Not a Companion and a client. Not a one-sided encounter between two strangers, but a moment between lovers, building a connection that would unite both the physical and the spiritual. She wasn't here to offer him tea, to offer him the illusion of her attention and the comfort and pleasure of her body. While it all still felt a little strange, her nerves were on edge more with anticipation than with doubt this time. She wasn't as broken as she'd feared she might be.

He was looking at her with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, but there was no mistaking the heat and desire there, too.

"So… here we are," she said at last.

"Here we are."

They stood silently for another moment before Mal murmured, "You sure you're okay with this, with everything?"

"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't. I've wanted this… wanted you… for longer than you know. Even if I didn't want to let myself think it."

"Oh, I know. Believe me," his voice had dropped to a low husky drawl that made her shiver, "I know. You've been in my head for longer than I'd care to admit." He gave a rough swallow and took her hand, guiding her with him as he first sat down on the edge of the bed and then lay back, tugging her next to him. She wasn't sure which one of them let out a soft wordless cry as they finally came into full contact with each other's heated skin – maybe it had been both of them at once – but she didn't care.

Their mouths met as his broad arms came around to circle her frame, as her legs twined with his. He was firm and hot against her belly as her hands roamed his shoulders and back. The first kiss was slow, like sinking into a warm bath, but they were both too worked up now to continue at that pace. He groaned deep in his chest as she deepened the kiss, exploring his mouth with sweeps of her tongue that met his with the same degree of fervour.

One of his hands found her breasts, kneading each one and teasing her nipples into peaks, as he continued to kiss her hungrily. She couldn't get enough of him – his scent, the roughness of his jaw, the sensation of being pressed up against him – skin to skin – and the freedom that came from finally giving in to what they had both been denying for so long.

He was pressing open mouthed kisses along her neck, biting and soothing with his tongue, his hands on her hips as she involuntarily bucked towards him, seeking more contact. She licked around the shell of his ear before taking his earlobe into her mouth and grazing it with her teeth, making him moan.

"I want to touch you. Everywhere. Find all the spots that make you shiver, make you want more." His hands had slid lower, gripping her backside firmly as he bent down to suckle at her breasts, first one and then the other, until all she could do was cling to him until he paused, his chest heaving madly. The onslaught of sensation had driven almost all coherent thought out of her head, making it easier for her to keep from lingering on the precepts drilled into her during training. As each thought arose, she let it flow through her mind and out again, acknowledging its presence and setting it free. Not fighting, but accepting. She could choose to dwell on it or let it go. Her choice.

She pushed him over onto his back and straddled him, both of them letting out a groan as she settled against him. His hair was tousled, his nostrils were flared, and his eyes were hazy with longing.

"Inara," he whispered, his hand coming up to touch the side of her cheek. She bit his thumb gently as he brushed her lips, and his eyes closed for a second as he fought for control.

She bent over and kissed him softly. "Make love to me," she murmured against his lips between kisses, "with me." She kissed him again, harder, needing him to understand.

He kissed her back, just as hard, harder, his hands pulling her down on top of him. "Oh, God, yes." He rolled her over, his weight pressing her down into the thin mattress, not breaking away from the heat of her mouth. "I need you so much."

He raised himself up, balancing on his forearms on either side of her head. He'd trapped some of her hair in the process, but she didn't care, her nails biting into his shoulders as he positioned himself between her thighs. She wanted to feel him, needed him to fill her, and she tried to urge him on, a frantic and overpowering desire that she couldn't ignore. "Mal…" She wasn't sure how much longer she could last without taking matters into her own hands.

He released her mouth, lifting his head so he could meet her eyes, and then he was there, pushing inside her ever so slowly, a little deeper with each careful thrust, until he was fully buried in her heat. She was stretched and full, every nerve ending tingling, and he stopped. His hips were still, even as the muscles in his upper arms quivered with the effort that stillness took. A fine sheen of sweat clung to his brow as he panted.

With the same painstaking slowness they'd shared earlier as they'd undressed, he lowered his head and kissed her. Undemanding, Sweet. The care he took made her feel bare – exposed and vulnerable, but not out of fear – surpassing even the fact that they were newly joined in the most intimate way she had ever thought possible until now. She understood his meaning, what he had told her with just that kiss, and she kissed him back, letting everything she felt flow through her and into him, and then he began to move.

It was like being carried away by the waves, nothing but the slide of his skin on hers and the pleasure that was building inside her with each push of his hips, with each moan. Her nerves were molten metal, growing hotter and hotter, seeking release but never wanting the sensation to end.

"Are you close?" He moved from her mouth to her neck, his careful control slipping as he sucked at the soft skin there. "Please, tell me you're close."

Like he'd needed to ask. She was so close to her peak, all she wanted for him was to keep going, to not stop. "Yes," she managed to get out. "Rén ci de fó zŭ, yes…"

He let out a groan against the spot where her neck met her shoulder and bit down, less gently than before, and the merest hint of pain sent a cascade of electricity through her overly sensitive nerves.

Each thrust had her seeing stars. He was as frantic as she was, and she wrapped her legs around him to draw him in deeper, to hold him right where she wanted him. "Mal…"

She was right there, right on the edge, and she could tell by the way he felt inside her that he was on the brink as well.

"Oh, God… Inara…"

Her release hit her, one peak, then another, and a third as she felt him push against her, hard, trying to drive himself even deeper as he emptied himself inside her with a final few erratic thrusts. She couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't think. Her heart was racing and every inch of her skin tingled with the aftershocks of intense pleasure.

"Wā…" His arms were shaking with the effort of keeping himself supported. "That was… I don't know what that was… it was…" He kissed her deeply before carefully rolling over to one side and pulling her close.

She felt sated and pleasantly sore as they both lay there, catching their breath and waiting for the room to stop spinning.

"Why didn't we do this sooner?" he mumbled into her hair as she cuddled against his chest.

"Aside from the obvious, you mean?"

"The obvious?"

She smiled against his skin. "That we're both obstinate and stubborn."

"Hmm… that does describe you real well."

She nuzzled into him, not even bothering to answer his teasing with her own. His hand rested against her lower back, tracing circles with the pads of his fingers. The repetitive motion was calm and comforting. She had nearly drifted off when he spoke again.

"So, does this mean you're stayin' then?"

"What do you think?"

"I know what I think. I just want to hear you say it, is all."

She tilted her face up and pressed a kiss to his jaw. "I'm staying."

He gave a pleased sort of rumble and kissed the top of her head. "Good answer."


Translations

Zāo gāo – Damn it

Rén ci de fó zŭ – Merciful Buddha

Wā – Wow

Chapter Text

December 25

"Why do we always have to meet in the middle of the gorram night?" Jayne clomped into the galley and turned a chair backwards before straddling it. The kitten in his arms mewed as he settled it against his chest. "Honest folks are tryin' to sleep here."

"But it's time to pick a winner!" Kaylee exclaimed. "We all saw the way they was cuddled up together last night by the tree."

"And we all know what they did after," Zoe added wryly. "Never would've thought anyone could be louder than you two." She looked pointedly at Simon and Kaylee – Simon's ears went red, but Kaylee just beamed.

"Aw, thanks, Zoe. Sweet of you to say."

Kaylee placed a burlap bag in the center of the table and dumped out the contents. "Right. Here's the prize. Now everyone has to 'fess up what they did to help."

"I put up the mistletoe," Jayne said. "And I made cookies. Two things, two chances at the pot."

"Why should making cookies count?" Simon asked.

"It got them alone now, didn't it? Plus you shoulda seen the mess they left in there." He rubbed his nose with one hand, careful not to disturb the now purring pile of fluff in his other arm. "I deserve a third draw after cleanin' that up."

"I rigged up Inara's shower to not work right, so she'd have to use the crew showers. Worked out pretty well I think." Kaylee raised an eyebrow at Jayne, who grinned at her in return. "I also booked the sleigh ride. Oh, and talked the Cap'n into Christmas, which I reckon should count some, too. Simon?"

"I set up the Secret Santa so they would get each other's names."

"Seriously? And you were raggin' on me about the cookies? Lame." Jayne rolled his eyes.

"Zoe?" Kaylee asked.

She shook her head, her arms crossed over her chest as she leaned against the wall. "I didn't do much of anything. Just told 'em what I thought they needed to hear at the time."

"Same," said River, nodding. "The probability of the desired outcome was approaching one without intervention, but the speed of approach was altered favourably."

There were blank stares all around. Simon opened his mouth to explain, closing it again when Kaylee just shook her head at him.

"Uh huh. Sure thing, crazy." Jayne snorted. "Right, so how are we aimin' to do this exactly?"

Kaylee reached into the pocket of her coveralls and drew out a handful of slips of paper. "I figured everyone gets to write their name on one of these. You did more than one thing, you get more than one entry. Fair?"

She grabbed a pencil out of the same pocket and wrote her name neatly on three pieces of paper and passed the pencil to Zoe before folding them and dropping them into the empty burlap bag. One by one, they all added their slips of paper to the bag, and Kaylee gave the bag a good shake once they'd all been placed inside.

After setting it down on the table, she reached in and fumbled for one of the folded pieces of paper. "All right, the winner of all these lovely goodies is – "

"Mal?"

They all froze at Jayne's exclamation.

The captain sauntered casually into the room, taking them all in with a calm, unsurprised glance. "Evenin' folks. Up late planning a mutiny, or is it something more sinister?" He peered at the pile on the table and shook his head. "Definitely something more sinister."

"We were just… uh… just…" Kaylee was stammering.

"Gamblin'? On my ship?" He tsked a few times softly. "Thought you'd know better, 'specially you." He pointed at Zoe, his expression stern but his eyes twinkling with amusement. "And maybe you." He gestured at Simon. "The rest of the lot of you… well, can't say as I'm surprised."

Mal walked over to the table and surveyed the pile in the center. "Nice pile of loot you got there. What are the stakes? Don't see any cards though…" He made a show of looking under the table. "No dice." He looked pointedly toward the bag in Kaylee's hands. "Some sort of lottery then? If I may?"

He reached out his hand for the bag and Kaylee gave a resigned shrug and handed it over to him.

"You know," he said after giving the bag a little shake, "I don't know if I even need to draw a name, seein' as how there should be about fifty slips in here with my name on 'em and likely the same for Inara."

"How did you…?"

"Point is, you shouldn't be interferin' in other folks'… "

"Love lives?" Kaylee offered.

"Business," Mal finished.

"Well, I hope the business was good, Cap'n," Kaylee said cheerfully.

Zoe unsuccessfully tried to stifle a snort of laughter at Mal's expression.

"Ahem." Mal cleared his throat. "Since I wouldn't feel right takin' your money, I'll just take my share and leave the rest of it for you to divvy up amongst yourselves as you see fit." He picked up the knife and examined it, pulling it briefly out of its sheath to look at the blade before tucking it into his belt. "This'll do."

Jayne tugged his hat down grumpily over his ears. "Aw, that was one of my favourites."

Mal picked up the spoon, looking at it thoughtfully before nodding and tucking it into his pocket. "This, too. Rest is yours."

He gave them all a nod. "Reckon you should all get some sleep soon. It's late." With a wink at Zoe, he strolled back down the corridor to the crew quarters, leaving them all staring after him.

Kaylee grinned. "Well, that went pretty well, dontcha think?"


River walked along the corridor between the bridge and the galley, her fingers trailing along the walls as she passed the crew hatches.

From Kaylee's cabin, playful giggles and Simon's laughter followed by a soft sigh. In Jayne's, the kitten was dreaming about chasing the scrap of ribbon, coiling and twisting through the long grass like a serpent. Its paws twitched restlessly, and Jayne reached up in his sleep to pat it as it was asleep on his pillow, body curled around his head. He was still wearing his hat. Visions of sugarplums…

River smiled.

Zoe was awake, but just barely, standing on the precipice between waking and dreaming. Her hand was resting against her lower belly, which was just starting to harden. The baby kicked and fluttered, movements still too slight to be physically felt, but rippling through the fabric of the 'Verse all the same.

Mal and Inara, limbs tangled up together, at peace.

The stillness of the empty shuttle was full of a warm and companionable silence that welcomed her as she entered. After Inara had left, it had been more like an ache, a lonely silence waiting for the return of an echoed sound. She lit one candle, all she needed, and moved to the little table near the bed where the brushes and paint had been waiting for her.

First, she touched each of the symbols that were already there, whispering their names in the glow of the candle. Another smile touched her lips as she reached the bottom most one. Inara had figured it out, as she'd known she would.

Taking the lid from the tiny pot, she dipped the tip of the paintbrush and added a character to the bottom of the row.

Serenity.

The ship, their home. A peace they had all carved out for themselves among the stars.

Then, a second one.

Love.

"Greatest power in the 'Verse," she whispered into the silence that wasn't silent at all and blew out the candle.