A brief coda to "War Stories."
No dough, no foul.
Inara climbed down the rungs into Mal's bunk. River saw her in the hallway, not that it mattered. She might tell all, but no one would understand a word of it.
Mal wasn't there. He was still in the kitchen, being macho, denying the pain. So Inara waited in the dark in his old orange chair, its high back to the hatch. She entertained some vague notion of offering comfort---platonic comfort---if she had any to give.
This was not where she wanted to be. She didn't like the infirmary, didn't want to see blood, hadn't appreciated Mal's ear coming home without him, the red scar where Simon had reattached it, or Mal's countless other cuts and bruises. She would have been happier waiting in her shuttle until all Mal's wounds healed and he was whole again.
A character flaw. A weakness Mal might exploit, if only to push her buttons or push her away. So she stayed.
Finally the hatch swung in and the light from the hall made a reverse shadow across the floor. Inara listened, as Mal climbed down. She watched the play of shadows but did not turn to see the man. He moved slowly; she thought he sighed with weariness.
How would she feel if she were the one who had fallen into the hands of a psychotic former client determined to torture and maim her? Surely more tired, and perhaps trigger-happy. Maybe she ought to reveal herself.
Instead, she listened to some rustling that her professional ear took as the unbuttoning of a shirt. She really ought to say something.
"Anything I can do for you?" he asked.
She really ought to remember that he was always, always on. She looked around the back of the chair.
Mal stood shirtless in the faint light coming down from the hall. The dimness hid the thin scar on his ear and shadows concealed the wounds on his face, but dark bruises stood out on his chest, surrounding a strange red circle over his heart. She had to look away again.
"I forgot, you like 'em shiny." He slammed the hatch shut, hiding his wounds in darkness.
"No trouble," he said. "I know I'm not your type."
But so, so shiny. She couldn't say that, and that frustrated her. She struck out at the wounded man. "Do you ever let your guard down?" She looked at the spot of darker darkness that must be him.
"In my own bunk, when it's unoccupied and the hatch is screwed down good and tight." He thumped it for emphasis. "Sometimes on a milk run when nothing could possibly go wrong, I leave my backup behind because she's having a marital spat."
"How do you stand it?" she asked.
He walked around the chair and sat down on the bunk, in arm's reach but not reaching. "I'm fine," he said.
"You were almost tortured to death."
Had there been any light in the cabin, Inara would have been forced to look away again. As it was, she couldn't reply for a long minute. Then she said, "This is why I supported Unification."
So much for offering comfort. "All the pain and ugliness and disorder out on the Rim---I wanted it fixed. I wanted your petty wars to end."
"You want everything neat and clean and sterile, like the Core worlds," he said.
Like you, she heard.
"Freedom is messy," he said.
"You call this messy? That old man should be---"
"Niska, he just wanted to kill me."
"Slowly, with electricity and pliers and a nasty spider machine to the chest, blathering on about Shan Yu and really meeting me the whole time, but in the end he would have just killed me. He doesn't lock people away in a shiny cage forever, like the Alliance."
Gilded cage, Inara thought, but didn't correct him.
"Freedom is messy," he repeated. "You want it, it costs. So what are you doing out here, Inara? I don't recall you ever told me."
True, she wouldn't have to see these things on the Core worlds. She wouldn't be in love, or if she was, it wouldn't be with someone who came home in separate pieces.
But she couldn't admit to him that she was out on the Rim to feel something. There were just too many directions he could run with that. So she said, "Escaping the cage."
"Escaping, or vacationing?"
Somehow he hit the heart of the issue anyway, yet how had she become the issue? She changed the subject. "A man can be too strong, Mal." She leaned forward to take his hand.
"I don't reckon so," he said, "but a woman can be too wise. Take my wife, for instance."
"Please." She withdrew her hand.
"Saffron, she's all wiles and nothing underneath. A person's gotta hang on to their soul, and I reckon it's harder when you're renting it out by the hour."
Inara stood. "I see you've recovered from your ordeal."
"Death clears the mind." He seemed to relent then, and added, "Niska wasn't the only one meeting the real Mal on his space station."
She stepped forward in the darkness that was her element and touched his hair. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
He let her hand glide through his hair for a long moment, then he said, "Take down your shingle."
Yes, that was new, and she'd left herself wide open for it. "Can you afford a personal companion?" she asked.
He shook his head sharply under her hand. "All the way down."
She dropped her hand and backed away. "What if there's nothing underneath?"
"Only one way to find out."
No one was meeting the real Inara---at least, not today. She pulled the hatch open, and Mal didn't stop her.
River was still in the hall when Inara climbed out of Mal's bunk. She spoke, but like she was quoting Chinese without understanding it, or--- what was more likely---channeling the voices in her head: "This 'policy' you got against shipboard relationships--that's just you projecting your own intimacy issues on everyone else."
Inara walked faster.