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Author's Note: Written for Firefly Friday fic challenge #28.
"Thanks you for coming," Inara said as Mal stepped into the shuttle. She motioned for him to sit, a pot of tea steaming and waiting to be poured. But he remained standing.
"If it's about where we can set down so you can take off, " he began, holding himself stiffly. "New Melbourne is only two days out—"
"I'm not leaving." She said quickly, and he just stared at her, frozen. "Would you please just sit down?"
He perched on the end of the bed, rather than next to her on the cushioned bench. "So what brought all this on?"
"Mal, my entire life has been built around holding myself apart from people. After Nandi..." she trailed off, the speech she had prepared for him faltering, words scattering like leaves in the wind. "I was afraid."
"And what scares, you, exactly? Dying? Because I can understand—"
"Not dying. Living."
Inara sighed. "No, I don't think you do."
"Then why don't you drop the fancy talk and just speak plainly?"
"I need a certain measure of control. I need to feel like I am in charge of my own life. I thought that meant maintaining a certain distance... The closeness Nandi had, the love she felt for her family—I thought that was too dangerous. That it would destroy me. What frightened me was realising that Serenity is truly my home, and that you all have become my family."
"Even Jayne?" His blue eyes glittered with amusement.
"This isn't easy for me, Mal."
"I appreciate that."
"I thought that if I left, it would change the way I felt. I could learn how to live only for myself again—But I've changed more in the last two years than I realised, and running away—"
"So you admit that you were—"
"Shut up. I'm not finished." She glared at him. "Do you remember when Atherton Wing asked me to stay on Persephone?"
"Kinda hard to forget. Scars, and all."
"I never seriously considered his request. Not because of Atherton—up until his outburst at the ball, I had no reason to believe life on Persephone would have been perfct. But my idea of perfection has... shifted. Changed. And while I recognised it then, it didn't frighten me until I saw Nandi die to protect the people she loved. I'm not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of the intensity of that feeling. Of knowing that I would die for Kaylee, or River, or..." Tears gathered in her dark eyes, and she blinked them away in frustration. "I thought I was losing myself."
"I think I'm starting to find myself, and that scares me. That I can't imagine life away from Serenity. And when I do, that picture is hollow. Empty. I don't want to be empty anymore."
She took a deep breath, amazed that she had actually finally managed to get it all out, in the open. Where it wouldn't eat at her slowly from the inside. But Mal just looked thoughtful—and cautious.
"So... does this mean that when things get tough, you're not gonna threaten to take off again?"
"If I truly was able to hold myself apart, then I would make those threats. Because they wouldn't have any power—not over me, and not over you. And I wanted to apologise, for doing it in the past."
"That's awfully big of you."
"God—I don't know why I even try! I am trying to say I was wrong and that I'm sorry, and all you can do is sit there, and be smug and condescending—"
"I didn't want you to go. I don't want you to go, either."
His candor stopped her in her tracks. "What?"
"That is what you want to hear, isn't it?"
"That's not why I invited you here—"
"Sure it is. That's why you told me you were leaving in the first place. To say it before I could tell you something that would have stopped you. Given you a reason to stay." He shrugged. "That empty, hollow life you're so scared of? Hell, I'm not too fond of it myself. So I'm gonna be honest with you—you piss me off, lady."
She blinked. "What?"
"There is nobody nowhere can rile me quite like you do—sometimes, you make me so ornery that I contemplate kicking you off my damn boat all together. But that's part of why I don't want you to go. Man needs someone in his life, who can push his buttons, 'cause the flip side is worth the orneriness."
"The flip side," she repeated, her turn to be cautious.
"You get under my skin, and I get under yours. That's a fact. But sometimes, there's nobody else on this boat I can talk to, about some things. Even Zoe. You and me—we get on each other's nerves, on account of we know each other so well. And there's a shiny side to that too, because sometimes, you need somebody who knows you. They can give you something none else can, and everybody needs that. If they deny it, then there's just lying to themselves. And I am sick unto death of lies, Inara."
"You need me?"
"'Bout as much as you need me. And don't you say that don't scare you. Sure as hell scares me."
"So.. where do we go from here?"
He nodded towards the shuttle door. "Preacher's got supper on. Should be on the table in a bit."
"That's it?" She blinked in confusion. "We just... we just go back to the way things were?"
"Something like that." He nodded. "Only you stop making threats to leave, when you get your nose outta joint. And maybe I stop having those happy little fantasies where I set you down on some planet, never to be seen again."
She watched him get up and go, and stared down at the untouched teapot and cups, still steaming on the table.
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