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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ROMANCE
Mal has to deal with a hangover, the reprecussions of his fight with Inara, his first mate, and the arrival of the women bound for the mining colony...
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1855 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
Part 1: Favourite Things - Part 2: Long Day - Part 3: The Basics - Part 4: Brown Paper Packages
Part 5: The Companion's New Clothes - Part 6: A Measure of Healin' - Part 7: Snow Cream
Part 8: Staying One Day Ahead of Yesterday - Part 9: While the Cat's Away - 10: Weighing The Costs -
Part 11: Ain't Never So Bad It Can't Be Worse - Part 12: Worse
The Slower Path: Regrets
Sequel to Part 12: Worse
by anjulie and 2x2
Word Count: approx. 5163
Spoilers: Set post BDM
Authors' Note: Extreme apologies for the delay with this one. We had a time of it trying to figure out how exactly we were going to sort out the mess Mal and Inara got us into in the last part, but I think we've found the path again :o) Special thanks GillianRose and CharlieBZ for putting up with me when I dominated all our conversations with my writing woes, for reading and advising and supporting. You guys are great. Thanks also, of course, to my lovely anjulie, who does a mean Zoe, and who still finds time for me in her busy days, even when all I do is whinge and moan. You're the best, darlin'.
Slowly he opened his eyes, squeezing them shut again against the harsh fluorescent glare of the lights in his bunk. Too bright.
He groaned again, the combination of churning nausea in his stomach and the pressure that felt like someone was jumping on his head, under water, making it plain that he must have over indulged the night before; his mouth had that vile, pasty feeling that always came from a night of unchecked imbibing. Even the gorram air felt thick.
He forced his eyes open, shading them this time with his hand, realizing with a grunt of disgust that he'd passed out in his clothes. What the hell had he--? He pushed himself up suddenly as snatches of his argument with Inara came back to him, moaning as the motion made his stomach roil and his head pound even harder. Hanging his head between his knees, he concentrated on breathing through his nose, a new sort of sick feeling rising in him that had nothing to do with the aftereffects of the alcohol as more of his memories returned.
Christ. Had he thrown her off the ship last night?
No, but damn near to it, he realized, wishing, not for the first time, that his powers of drunken recollection weren’t so damned sharp. What if she took him up on it? What if she packed up what little she had left on his ship, in his life, and just…left?
It’d be for good this time, he was certain.
Good, a part of him said. It would be easier if she were gone, simpler. He could forget about her and get back to doing what he should be doing.
Which was what? he asked himself.
Keep the ship flying, keep the crew fed, stay one step ahead of the Alliance.
Good question, he thought, hearing the echo in his mind: Good answer.
He'd been miserable when she was gone, turning in on himself, existing, surviving out of sheer will and stubbornness.
Living well enough, he told himself.
No you weren't, he replied, knowing it for the lie it was. Not like how you wanted.
Mal scoffed. Wanted? Want was somethin' he wasn't allowed to have. Want wasn't somethin' that had any say in the decisions he had to make. Wantin' got him hopin' for somethin' that weren't there, somethin' he had no right to; somethin' he didn't even remember what it was. Wantin' wasn't needin'.
And what if you need her?
He didn't, he denied stubbornly. Didn't need her, didn't need—
Yes you do, he told himself, just as stubbornly, and you gorram well know it. He needed her to live. Not to survive. Not to exist. But to live.
And did he need to live?
Mal thought about that. For a long time he considered whether or not existing was enough, if surviving was all that mattered, and if so, why? To what end? If he wasn’t living, then what was the point?
Did he need to live? Did he want to?
He knew the answer. Knew it in his heart because she'd allowed him to see. He'd just been too damned stubborn to.
That day, when he left Inara with the crew, left her to get the message out, the only regret he’d had at that moment was for her; for not doing more - to keep her in his life, to show her what he felt, to treat her the way she deserved to be treated. He’d wished for more time, then, wished for the chance to go back and do it over, to make it all mean more than the bickering, the name-calling, the distance they’d enforced between each other. To make it mean more than that one shared look between them.
It had all seemed so pointless then, the fighting, all of it. What did it all matter in the long run? What had it saved them from, except being with each other?
Tianna, he was an idiot.
Mal lurched to his feet, swallowing the uncomfortable lump in his throat that felt something like dread. He swayed as he dragged his suspenders up onto his shoulders; he had to talk to her. Apologize. Make things right. Try to save the only chance he had for…
Love, damn it, he swore at himself, angry for stumbling over the thought. He loved her; he'd known it for almost as long as he'd known her. It was damn time he admitted it was what he wanted, what he needed.
He didn't know how he was going to deal with her taking clients, with having to share her. He didn’t expect he'd like it, but he knew for damn sure he'd like it a hell of a lot less if she wasn't on Serenity anymore; that weren't an option. Which left accepting that he could have only as much of her as she was willing to give him, and being happy with that. And if that meant she was still gonna take clients, then he was just going to have to deal.
Because he needed her. Because he loved her.
Resolved, he climbed out of his bunk, all bloodshot eyes and wild hair, just as Zoe came up the steps toward him.
Mal froze as he saw her, everything else from the day before rushing back to him – the job with the women, the drop-off this morning – and he cursed, realizing he must already be late. Sighing, he gave her an acknowledging wave and dropped back into his bunk to make himself a little more presentable, resigned that talking to Inara was going to have to wait.
She stared at herself in the mirror, face pale and wan, noting the dark circles that stained the skin beneath her eyes. She’d barely slept, plagued by bouts of anger and recrimination, sadness and regret - helped in no small way by the bottle Mal had left behind - and no amount of cover up was going to conceal the fact, even if she’d had any to use.
Sighing, Inara smoothed a hand through her hair, trying to tame the tangles. She needed a shower. And a pot of hot tea. The first would have to wait, but she could at the very least make herself some tea – once she got out of these wretched boots, she thought. In fact, she wanted out of these clothes altogether, the pants and long-sleeved shirt feeling hot and constricting, and far less comfortable than she wanted to think about.
She pulled the shirt over her head and tossed it onto the bed irritably, then bent to unfasten the boots and finally pull them off, socks and all. The rest followed, pants and underwear joining the shirt and socks; she reveled in the sudden unconfined freedom. What had she been thinking, she asked herself, appreciating the feel of the cool metal floor beneath her bare feet. Those weren’t her clothes. They were Mal’s clothes. Mal’s tastes, Mal’s style, Mal’s practicality. So what had she been doing? Play acting? Pretending she could be like one of them, help him on jobs? Ai ya…
Sighing, she moved to her pitiful collection of dresses; she needed to feel like herself again. She considered the blue one, light, and airy…good answer Shook her head. It held too many memories she was not yet ready to re-embrace; she settled on the red instead, the one she’d worn the day he’d come for her at the Training House.
She let out a slow breath, closing her eyes as she backed up to sit on the bed, clutching the dress in her lap as she sat. Memories there too. Memories attached to all of them.
You tellin’ me that ‘cause you think I don’t know?
…you fog things up!
I wish like hell you was elsewhere.
His words echoed in her head and she sniffed, rubbing at her suddenly treacherous nose, feeling the weight of sadness settle over her, pushing at the anger.
Maybe she’d been foolish, staying here; naïve to think there was a chance… She’d stayed to see what would come of this thing between them, hadn’t taken a client, couldn’t, until she’d seen it through. But if there was nothing left to wait for…
Inara opened her eyes and looked around, taking in the walls that surrounded her, had surrounded her for so long. This would be the last time, she knew; if she left this time, there’d be no coming back. She felt a tight, heavy sense of loss squeeze her chest, felt her breath hitch. She didn’t want to leave, Serenity or him, but she felt her options tumbling away, beyond her control. Everything had been out of control, from the moment she’d met him.
She shook her head in frustration, her anger surging through her again. Damn him, he made her so mad! He was the most stubborn… obstinate… pig-headed…chǔn dàn gǎo guài xiù, she ranted to herself, swiping angrily at the moisture that pricked her eyes; she would not cry over him, not again.
She stood, pacing the length of her shuttle, back and forth, again and again. No, she hadn’t wanted to go back to work so soon, not while they had finally decided to give this relationship idea a chance. But she would. She would do what she had to do – just like he would – to ensure Serenity kept flying. They weren’t so very different on that score; zhòu mà, they were too damn much alike, that was half the problem.
She'd known from the beginning that her work was the one thing they were never going to compromise on, never going to get past. No matter what her heart might want.
She sighed. It didn't matter any more. None of it mattered. He wanted her off, and as much as she would hate to leave again, she couldn't bear to stay if he didn't want her here.
Inara was pulled out of her thoughts by a sudden, deep echo of metal on metal and the telltale shudder of two artificial gravities colliding - another ship docking; the women, she realized - before the two ships adjusted their rotation and the gravities resolved. She felt the subtle shift in pressure a moment later as the air locks were engaged.
Hearing voices in the cargo bay, Mal's among them, she moved to her bed and slipped her dress on, sighing as the silky material flowed over her body. It felt good to be back in her own clothes, she thought; felt like herself. She spent a few quick moments fixing her hair and then, while Mal was distracted below, took the opportunity to head up to the galley, relieved that she would not have to deal with him yet. The last thing she felt like doing was talking to Mal.
He didn't know what it was that made him look up at that moment, but he did, and it was just in time to catch Inara as she made her way to the galley - without glancing back at him.
She was wearing a dress, Mal noticed, the red one he remembered from when he'd gone to get her at the Training House. What did that signify? he wondered. The fact that she wasn't wearin' the clothes he bought her wasn't too hard to figure out; no doubt she was pissed as all get out at him; message received, loud and clear. Was that all the dress was though? Just something to wear instead of the things he'd given her? Or was it something more? An indication of what direction her thoughts were leading her... as in, back to the Training House? Or was he puttin' too much significance on the dress? Mayhaps it was the only one clean; wasn't like she had a whole lot of 'em on board.
The sight of her in it surely brought back memories, though. The way her eyes had flashed when she'd seen him, full of anger and worry and somethin' else that had warmed him. And how she'd fought with him; not with him, but with him, had his back, and her quick thinking what had let them escape. It had been so gorram good to see her, it had all felt almost... fun.
But then there was Haven and Miranda and the rest of it, he remembered, sighing.
But she'd stayed.
She had. And that sure as diyu weren't nothin'. I'm here right now, and I want to be here she'd said. He wanted her here, that was a fact. And there were only two ways of that that he could see... She stayed, took clients, and they were together, or she stayed, took clients, and they weren't.
"Sir," Zoe's voice came sharply, snapping him out of his reverie. He shook off his thoughts, frowning at Zoe's impatience with him even though he knew she was right and his mind should be to the job. Of course, he still weren't exactly happy with the job, or Zoe, and that, in combination with the persistent pounding in his skull, didn't make him particularly inclined to hide the fact. The way she shook her head and rolled her eyes at him didn't exactly improve his mood either, and when Loh's man appeared at the airlock, Mal motioned Zoe ahead, a clearly sarcastic 'be my guest' in the gesture that had her glaring at him just as fiercely as he was at her.
Eyes narrowing, Zoe went ahead to sort out the particulars with their contact while Mal hung back and watched. He recognized the man from when they'd met in Loh's office; he hadn't much cared for the look of him then, and his opinion didn't seem likely to change. Something about the man just put him off, set his hackles up and made him wary. But everything seemed to be on the up and up and soon the man was motioning for his 'cargo' to make their way onto Serenity.
Mal braced himself: for their faces, for their slumped postures and defeated eyes, their malnourished bodies and ragged clothes, ready to hate himself for taking on such a job.
But then the first woman - girl really - bounded onto his boat, all blinding smiles and bright eyes, taking him aback some. Her dress was modest, but clean, even pretty, and she seemed genuinely excited to be aboard.
Mal guarded against the relief that wanted to sweep through him. It could be a fluke, could just be a daughter of one of Loh's upper echelon... but no. The rest of the women were the same; clean, curious faces, full of anticipation. And if there was a faint shadow of desperation that clung to them, if they were leaner rather than not, it only brought into focus the hope that shone in their eyes; hope for a better life. One woman even took his hand and thanked him for agreeing to take them on, her honest gratitude echoed by the rest as Mal nodded awkwardly.
Then Kaylee was there, directing the women to their makeshift bunks and Mal finally allowed himself to release some of the tension he'd been holding. Maybe, just maybe, this job was going to work out after all.
Feeling somewhat more optimistic, he made his way over to where Zoe was finalizing the transaction, knowing she'd recognize his acceptance and that he had her back by his presence.
"As agreed, we have rations for two day's transport," Loh's man was saying, indicating the large cargo crates behind him.
Zoe nodded, her gaze sliding to the side to take in Mal. "Captain'll help you with that," she said slyly, hefting the bag of platinum the man handed over with a satisfying clink. She gave Mal a look, her eyebrow raised, before strolling back aboard Serenity, a contented smirk on her lips.
Mal watched her go, a protest on his tongue, but she was gone before he had a chance to voice it. He blew out a sigh, running his hand through his hair. Damn he hated fighting with Zoe.
Hours later, Inara wove between the cots set up in the main cargo hold, sharing smiles and gentle reassurances with the women they had taken on board, though her heart wasn't in it. She didn't bother pretending to herself that she wasn't trying to avoid Mal; she'd deliberately come down here for that purpose when he'd followed her from the galley. She could still feel his presence above, where she knew he stood on the catwalk, but she stubbornly refused to look up at him.
She'd kept out of her shuttle for most of the day, not wanting to get cornered into a conversation with him there, preferring instead to keep to the areas of the ship that offered her more than one means of exit. She had managed to evade him particularly well, excusing herself from whichever crewmember she happened to be in the company of the moment she heard or saw him approach.
Not exactly subtle, perhaps, but effective.
But this time he'd been fast enough to see her go and had followed after her. And in the absence of a quick avenue of escape, she'd opted instead for the safety of the women, aware that she was only prolonging the inevitable; she was just as trapped with them as she would have been in her shuttle. But, as far as she was concerned, the longer she could put off their impending confrontation the better. Maybe that made her a coward but she had no desire to rush into what was bound to be a difficult and painful exchange with him.
She'd had all day to think, about her career, about her options, about him. Her conclusions hadn't offered much hope for their future. She feared the best she could hope for, if she wanted to stay, was that Mal might give in and let her rent the shuttle, let her stay and help support Serenity… and they would be over. The worst, he would throw her off and not look back. Or, depending on whatever would be said between them, she would leave herself, for good. No matter which way it went, any hope she had for the two of them felt as fruitless as… as fruitless as hoping Mal would give up his penchant for calling her 'whore' and join up with the Alliance.
Inara sighed. She loved this ship; she loved the crew and she loved the freedom, and she even loved him, especially loved him. But in the greater scheme of things… what did that amount to? She'd gambled, gave herself the chance to follow her heart, and it had proven foolish.
She looked at the faces around her, happy and filled with hope, and none of it touched her. It was time, she sighed, resigned. Time to give up this dream, to forsake this path and return to the one she knew she could see through to the end…
Mal rested his elbows on the dusty railing with a sigh, frustrated with Inara's avoidance tactics, but not willing to go down and confront her in front of all the women; he was damn sure she knew it too. He sighed again. The throbbing in his head had settled down to a dull hammering but his stomach still wasn't up to sudden movements. He tensed for a moment when Zoe slid silently into place beside him, shame biting sharply at him. "Seem to be settlin' in well and all," he offered first, nodding at the women below.
"They do at that, sir," Zoe answered just as solemnly, knowing he was working his way around to a 'sorry'.
Mal cleared his throat. "Conjure we ought to load up on supplies when we hit Callas," he said, "seein’ as how we got the coin. Should have enough to last us a good few weeks… Thanks to you."
Zoe fought a smile. Mal being humble and grateful all at the same time, well, that wasn't something a girl got to see every day. She waited a long second to respond, holding his feet to the fire for just a bit longer. "Was both of us took the job, as I recall; you just didn't know it at the time," she finally answered, smirking lightly at his look. "But since it's on my head - s’pose I should get somethin' out of it. Had my eye on a new stock."
Mal nodded. Normally he’d leave it at that, let things go back to normal between them as they usually did, but somehow it didn’t seem like enough. "Were right," he started out roughly, eyes staring straight ahead although he could sense the surprise from her. "Both times." He shook his head, sighing heavily. "Weren’t for you, we’d be driftin’. Conjure I owe you for that, an’ a whole lot more besides—"
"Think I’m gettin’ scared, Zo," he pushed on, the words grinding in his throat like glass. "After Book an'... Wash, I... Gettin' scared a' losin' anyone else..."
Zoe paused, his unexpected vulnerability causing her to swallow hard. It still surprised her, how just hearing Wash's name could cause a sudden shaft of pain to go through her heart, but she also suspected Mal had been blaming himself for a long while now. A good cleansing was due.
"He wouldn't have had it any other way, you know," she told him softly, eyes on the women moving below them. "Know you think he just followed me cause I was followin' you, like always; but he wouldn't a run in any case. He was a strong man. A good man. His dyin' wasn't your fault, sir."
"Weren’t it?" he challenged, looking at her now, feeling irrationally angry that she would refute his guilt. He wanted her anger, gorram it! Deserved it. "I put him in the chair. Was my decision that brought River back on board when we coulda been free an’ clear. Hell, that put every one of us in the damn chair! Next time it could just as easily be you, or Kaylee, or--!"
"Or you." She met his guilt full on, sorrow and knowing in her eyes. "Sir, this isn’t yours to carry. The government’s man, he’s the one that pushed us into a corner, left us no way out but Miranda. You think you could have handed him that child? Given him that beautiful, broken girl to use again? That ain’t the man I know you to be.
"Stayed by you all these years, Mal, because you never ask others to go where you won’t go first. And you’re not holding any of us here – nothin’ ‘cept the love of you keepin’ us on this boat. Wash and Shepherd Book, they knew the danger. We know what we’re runnin’ the risk of. Reckon that’s the way it is, sir."
Zoe’s gaze followed Inara as the Companion worked the cargo bay, checking on each woman there, offering a smile, a few words of welcome, the promise of a simple meal later. She turned to look at Mal. "Bein’ scared means you’re livin’ again. Got somethin’ to live for again – a reason to care whether you make it back from a job or not. I been waitin’, hopin’, for the day to come that you’d have that, sir."
"Didn’t ask for it," he said obstinately, his eyes drawn down to Inara despite himself. Didn't mean he didn't want it. He closed his eyes, the guilt still weighing on him. "Weren’t a fair trade, losin’ Wash…" he whispered, swallowing thickly. "If I could make the choices again, Zoe—"
"You'd what? Walk away? Turn your back on those people? On that wrong?" Zoe's snort of disbelief caught the attention of a few of the passengers below, who took one look at Mal's dark face and quickly turned back to their business. "Maybe that was our purpose, sir, our reason for bein' put in this 'verse - to speak for the dead. Or maybe we was just in the right place at the wrong time - I don't know. Do know that you got to forgive yourself, Mal. What we went through was a war. Think we know better than most that lives are lost in battle no matter how hard you wish it otherwise. You didn't ask for this but it's here and I want you to have it, sir. Your bein' happy doesn't make my grief worse, Mal." Zoe placed a soft hand on his shoulder. "It lessens it."
Mal turned to stare after her as she headed for the stairs, fighting back the swell of emotion in his throat, half of him grateful, the other half wanting to tell her she was wrong, that he didn’t deserve the kind of happiness he’d robbed her of, even as his head told him what she said was true.
"Zo?" he called after her, waiting until she stopped and turned back, questioning. "Why is it you been fightin' me so much, you don't blame me for..." He made a motion with his shoulder in place of the name.
"'Cause we needed that job, sir. An'... 'cause you can't be soft," she answered quietly. She came back a few steps. "Said it yourself, you're gettin' scared, and we can't afford to let you, sir. You start doubting, start second-guessing on the job, that's what's gonna get one of us dead. You're the one's got to make the decisions, you got to be able to make 'em without hesitating."
Mal closed his eyes with a sigh, nodding. It took him less than an instant to recognize that this was the truth too. He had always been able to trust Zoe to give it to him, and he was grateful for it now. "I know," he said.
"Know you know it, sir; was just remindin' you a time or two."
He nodded. Zoe answered with a nod of her own, and that was that.
Mal watched her go, feeling a measure of relief ease over him that he and Zoe were back to normal, and he almost missed her - Inara - as she tried to sneak by and up to her shuttle. Time to set things right there.
"Inara, děng dài fēn zhōng; qí," he called after her softly, his voice catching her at the foot of the stairs that led to her airlock.
It was the 'please' that stopped her; he so rarely used the word, so accustomed to giving orders, and to hear him use it now, to hear him ask, that stopped her. She half-turned to face him. "Shén me?" she answered, eyeing him warily as he walked toward her.
"Can I talk to you for a minute?" he asked.
She looked away, swallowed; stalled. "I'm busy, Mal," she said coolly. "I have a lot to do." Her eyes flicked back up to his. "Arrangements to make."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," he persisted.
She held his gaze for a moment before she looked away again and finally relented, motioning him up the stairs.
"I don't want a fight, Mal," Inara said wearily as they entered the shuttle and she turned to face him.
Mal pulled the hatch shut behind them. "I didn't come here to fight," he promised.
"Then why did you?" she asked, not convinced.
He drew in a slow breath, trying to steel his nerves. Now or never, he told himself. "Had a lot to drink last night," he started uncomfortably, not failing to notice the way she crossed her arms defensively – protectively – and looked away. She was hurting. Damn him but he could see it, whether it was because he was learning to read her or she chose to let him see, he didn't know, but he saw it. And not only that, but she was expecting to be hurt, here, now, by him. Again.
"Said some things I didn't mean to. Things I regret sayin'…" he said softly, taking hold of one of her hands, gently coaxing her arms to unfold. "Been feelin' like I'm backed into a corner, like I ain't got no good options," he went on earnestly, hopeful when she didn't pull away. "Tends to get my back up an' I maybe like to make the stubborn choices 'stead of the smart ones; take things out on them as don't deserve it…"
Inara stared at him, blinking hard, utterly astounded. Was he…apologizing? Of all the words – accusations, insults, derision – that she'd anticipated hearing from his lips, nothing could stun her more than what he'd just said. Réncí de fózu, things actually might not be hopeless, she marveled.
Mal squeezed her hand. "Figure we can be to your Trainin' House a day or two after we drop the women off at Callas," he said carefully.
Inara blinked again, the breath she'd finally drawn freezing in her chest. So. It was over. He hadn't meant what he'd said, but he still wanted her to leave. Why then had he apologized? Was he just softening the blow? It would have been easier if he'd just let her go, she lamented, bowing her head in despair.
"We can pick up your stuff and get you settled in your shuttle again in no time--"
Her head whipped up, eyes going wide. "Nín shuō shén me?" she asked, breathless, her mouth falling open in shock.
Mal stepped closer, taking her other hand in his as he drew her to him. "What you said maybe weren't far off, 'bout me sabotaging my own happiness," he said solemnly. He brought one hand up to brush a lock of hair from her shoulder, his thumb brushing along her neck in a tender caress. "I'll be honest with you, Inara," he said, meeting her gaze truthsomely, "don't know how well I'm gonna be able to handle you takin' clients… but I'll try."
Inara stared at him. Had she been able to form a coherent thought at that moment, she would have realized she'd been wrong - those words could stun her more, had stunned her more than anything she could imagine. "Mal," she said, his name barely a whisper on her lips for lack of breath, she was so stunned.
He cupped her face between his hands, bringing her forehead close to his. "I don't want you to leave," he said roughly, his voice thick with emotion.
"I don't want to leave," she whispered, shaking her head against his, lips trembling.
"Then stay," he asked, offered, all at once, hoping against hope.
She stared back at him, her eyes tracing over his features, returning to meet his gaze as she drew in a deep breath… and rolled the dice.
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