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The Slower Path: The One Less Traveled By - Part 14 - Sequel to Regrets

Title: The Slower Path: The One Less Traveled By - Part 14 - Sequel to Regrets
By: browncoat_2x2
Word Count: Approx. 4875
Rating: PG
Pairing: Mal/Inara
Spoilers: Takes place post Serenity. Does not follow the comic canon.
Summary:Mal and Inara work on getting over the new awkwardness between them and Zoe teases Mal a bit.
Author's Note: So, here it is, some six years - yes I know, six years - after the last part. In truth, wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to come back to this fic, but I’ve been bit by the firefly bug (heh, see what I did there) once again, and found the words came pouring out, so here’s another installment, and there’s even another almost fully written to follow in a short while :) Thanks go to my dearest terimaru, who, as always, encouraged me as I worked through writing this. You are the best, darlin’. To those of you who read, thanks for taking the time after all these years. I surely do appreciate it, and I hope you enjoy.



Inara keyed in her access code and waited for her connection to the cortex to resolve. Less than twelve hours ago she had expected to make this wave for entirely different reasons, had thought she’d be leaving the ship and returning to her old life. Now, it felt like she was starting a new one.

She still marvelled at the turn of events that had led her to this moment, that they’d managed to overcome the obstacle of her work - that Mal had. So far, she added silently. Though he’d agreed to let her rent the shuttle again, he was still going to have to deal with her actually taking clients while they were doing this... relationship her mind provided, chiding her for her hesitation. Yes, relationship. She was certain there were likely to be many more battles on the road ahead for them, but she did not underestimate how significant this step was.
It still felt precarious, this relationship of theirs. Had it really only been days since they started this? Well, months was more accurate really, years even. The attraction had been there from the first. But the love - she smiled to herself at the admission - the love had grown over time. And then, really just days ago, finally, she had kissed him. It still made her giddy and shivery and even anxious to think of them taking this step. There was still a lot of uncertainty. Hope too, but it was still a scary, foreign, exhilarating thing.

Drawing a fortifying breath, she scrolled through her index until she found the entry for the Training House and sent a connection signal. It was Sheydra who answered.

“Inara! This is a surprise," the other woman said. “I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be hearing from you again. You’re not giving up ‘the pirate life’ are you?"

Inara smiled indulgently; her friend enjoyed teasing her altogether too much. “I must apologize, again, Sheydra, for the disruption to the House-"

“Oh, don’t be absurd," the House Mother interrupted with a shake of her head, and then more seriously, “We’re just glad you’re alright."

Xiè xie," Inara replied gratefully.

“So? Are you going to come back to us?"

“We should be planet side within the week. I’d like to arrange to have my things prepared so they can be moved back into my shuttle here. I’ll be resuming my work from Serenity."

Bù rán! You really are leaving us?!" Sheydra exclaimed, dismayed. “Is there nothing I can offer to make you stay?"

Inara’s eyes slid away from the other woman’s, at a loss to explain her reasons without revealing too much. Not that it made much difference to the Companion on the view screen.

“Ahh. I see," Sheydra said, her lips curving in understanding. “Your ‘pirate’."

Inara fought the flush that she could feel creeping up her neck, but lifted her gaze to meet her friend’s eyes again. “Yes," she admitted.

Sheydra shook her head. “I really hate that we’re losing you. But, if it’s for love..." she sighed melodramatically, a twinkle in her eyes. “We’ll have your belongings packed - if you’re sure, Inara?"

She nodded. “I’m sure," she said.

“Then we’ll see you in a few days. Zhù fú ni."

“And you."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mal watched as Inara came down into the galley, relief mixed in him with some emotion he suspected might be happiness. That she was still gonna be here on his boat, was stayin', was near miraculous all things considered and he wasn't planning to take it for granted.

"By tomorrow we should make Callas and we'll drop off the women," he said by way of a greeting. “Then we can head for your House, get your things."

"Precisely 6:37 pm, planet time," said River absently as she concentrated on stacking her protein wafers in a favourable manner. Her eyes shifted to the Captain's. "4:03 am ship time. Eight hours and forty-eight minutes from... now," she added before returning to her stacking.

Mal smiled at his young pilot wryly. "Precisely?" he asked, teasing lightly. Her eyes cut back to his in mock annoyance and he grinned.

"I've waved the House and let them know to expect us. Everything should be ready to go when we arrive," Inara said carefully, smiling at their play as she sat.

Kaylee looked from Mal to Inara hopefully. "You're stayin'?!" she exclaimed, and with a squeal rushed to envelop Inara in a hug when the Companion nodded and smiled.

"We gonna get off’n the ship this time?" Jayne asked around a mouthful of protein, his mind filled with the imagined delights of a Companion Training House. The rest of the crew present looked to the Captain with hopeful eagerness.

"'Be up to Inara, I expect," Mal said and Inara looked at him in surprise.

"Well I… If you want, that is- We could spend a day or two there, if you'd care to," she said, directing her words to Mal but it was Jayne who answered her.

"Hell yes I care to!" he said emphatically. Inara rolled her eyes over at him.

"They're Companions-in-training, Jayne. None of them are going to sleep with you "

"What about the teachers?" he asked with a lascivious grin.

"Oh! Do Companions take clients while they're teachin'?" Kaylee asked, linking her arm with Inara's, genuinely curious.

Inara was very conscious of Mal's sudden interest in what her answer was going to be. "It depends on the individual," she said, her eyes flicking to meet his briefly. "I didn't but others do. In any case," she continued, turning back to the mercenary, "if we do stay, they will not be servicing you or anyone else on the crew."

Jayne frowned. "Aw, that's no fun," he said, disappointed in her answer.

"There are other towns on the world, I'm certain you'll manage to find something to entertain you," Inara consoled, rolling her eyes.

"'Better," Jayne groused, getting up from the table.

That seemed to be the cue for the rest of the crew and they began to clear up their dishes, leaving just Mal at the table with Inara as she put together a plate of the same dried protein wafers that had comprised dinner for the past few days. She had to admit, she looked forward to when they would reach Callas and be able to resupply and - hopefully - buy some real food. She was about to say so when Mal stood up as well.

"Best make it an early night, people, four a.m.'s gonna come fast," he called after everyone as they made their way out of the room. He gave her a quick smile, unsure what to say next without the buffer of the others there between them. Though he’d averted the colossal disaster he’d almost made of things, there was still a certain amount of uneasiness lingering between the two of them.

"Will you be going to sleep now?" Inara asked, trying to break the tension.

Mal nodded, grateful for the topic. "Gotta get a couple hours before I relieve Zoë," he said, moving to rinse his dishes. "She's been keepin' watch over our passengers."

"Right," Inara said; she’d forgotten about their watch.

Mal stacked his plate and came back to stand by the table. They stared at each other a moment silently until Mal finally cleared his throat. "Well, guess I'm off then," he said awkwardly.

"Right," she said again, feeling just as awkward. “Good night." There was another heavy silence before Mal nodded and propelled himself out of the room, leaving Inara to the empty kitchen and her plate of protein strips.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A few short hours later, Mal climbed out of his bunk and made his way to the galley. He put some water on to boil and went about preparing two cups of protein-enhanced coffee - one for himself and one for his first mate - carrying them both with him carefully, once they were ready, to the cargo bay where Zoë was on watch.

She greeted him with a nod, taking the cup from him gratefully, savouring the warmth on her hands and the smell as she closed her eyes and inhaled, then raised the cup to him in thanks.

“So?" Zoë asked after she took a sip, tilting her head in the direction if Inara's shuttle. “You sort things out with Inara?" she asked, picking up from their conversation the day before.

Mal nodded, swallowing a mouthful of his own bitter brew. “Did. She’ll be staying. Gonna swing by her House ‘n get her things after we finish the job." He swallowed again, leaning on the railing with artificial nonchalant-ness as he turned his gaze down to their sleeping cargo. “She, uh… she’s gonna be takin’ clients again," he said, avoiding her eyes.

Zoë nodded thoughtfully, taking another sip of her coffee. “‘s what she does," she said matter-of-factly. She looked at him, knowing it was going to be a spot of contention for him. “Ain't like you didn't know what she was when you fell in love with her, sir," she said, not unkindly.

He gave a sharp nod. “Yeah, but it was safer then, when I didn't think she’d ever…" he trailed off with a shrug.

“Love you back?"

He sighed, closing his eyes.

“Mal," she said softly, laying her hand on his arm in an uncharacteristic moment of intimacy. “You can't change who she is. ‘You don't accept that…" she trailed off, leaving the thought unspoken but he knew what she was saying.

Clearing his throat uncomfortably, he stood back up, letting the motion pull his arm from her touch. “They all ready to head out in the morning?" he asked, changing the subject with a nod towards the women below.

“Seem to be," Zoë replied, letting the matter drop. With Mal, you had to know when to push and when to back off or risk him digging his heels in out of pure stubbornness. And she knew he didn't need any more reason to be stubborn where Inara was concerned. “Loh’s man on Callas ‘s to be waitin’ at the coordinates he gave."

Mal nodded, his equilibrium returning with the switch of topics. “Good. Be real shiny ‘have somethin’ go smooth for a change."

“‘Magine it will, sir. Speakin’ of, you gonna make Inara come this time," Zoë asked, grinning devilishly when Mal choked on the last of his coffee at her double entendre.

He could feel the heat that spread up his face and knew he was probably red to the ears. “Woman, you got a mean streak," he groused, though he couldn't bring himself to really be angry, seeing the smile on his first mate’s face, one that he struggled to keep from his own lips.

“Conjure you must be tired," he said brightly, changing the subject yet again, smiling at the short laugh the woman gave at that. "’Can handle things here, Zo’. Go get some sleep."

Zoë smirked and held her hand out for his empty cup. “Good night, sir," she said, laughter still in her voice as he handed it over and she headed up to the galley.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Inara’s eyes opened in the darkness, listening for what had woken her. The sound came again and she realized it was Mal’s voice, carrying into the shuttle through its slightly open doors; she’d taken to leaving them cracked open at night, needing to feel closer to Serenity and less isolated from her crew. Zoë's voice came floating to her then and she remembered Mal had said he'd be coming to take over the watch from her.

She listened to them talk, though she couldn't hear the words, and found herself smiling when she heard a laugh from the - lately - often reserved first mate, glad to hear their easiness with each other had returned.

When she heard the fading sound of Zoë's boots on the grates as the woman left Mal to his watch and headed up to the kitchen, Inara lifted the blankets and swung her feet down into her slippers, deciding at that moment to take the opportunity to have a relatively private moment with him and try and work on alleviating their own awkwardness.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mal looked up as he heard the door to Inara's shuttle slide open, swallowing as she made her way across the catwalk toward him.

"Hey there," he said softly, surprised to see her and still a little frazzled by Zoë's teasing, worried suddenly that she might have overheard. "Trouble sleepin'?" he asked in a slightly strangled way.

Inara shrugged lightly, aware of his discomfort. "I thought you might like some company," she said, not entirely sure he would.

"Would be a sight more pleasant way to pass the time," he agreed with a smile, eyes on her.

Pleased, she smiled back, then turned to look down to the cargo bay where the women were all asleep in their cots while Mal kept vigil over them.

“Are you feeling better about this job now?" she asked him.

“Some," he acknowledged. “Still wantin’ to see what it is we’re leavin’ ‘em to, but things seem more… optimistic than I’d feared."

“I’m glad."

“Yeah."

They were quiet for a long moment, the uneasiness they’d felt earlier at dinner still filling the space between them.

"So, you and Zoë? Things seem to be better?" Inara asked finally, feeling the need to say something before the silence grew to uncomfortable proportions

“Yeah! Yeah," Mal said, flushing again as he looked over his shoulder the way his first mate had gone, ensuring that she wasn't there peeping. “Worked that out."

“Good! That’s... Good."

“Yep."

They fell silent again, struggling to find the ease that they had found, before; before the argument that had almost ended things.

"I feel like-," she started.

"This is-," he said at the same time.

They looked at each other. "Awkward," they both said, laughing lightly.

Their smiles faded as they let their gazes drop and Mal swallowed past the ball of regret that was tightening his throat. He looked up as he felt Inara's hand on his arm.

"We'll get past it," she said, bravely.

He let out a heavy sigh. "You sure about that?" he asked, his eyes revealing his uncertainty.

Inara drew in a breath and pulled herself up to her full height, her eyes meeting his firmly. "I'm sure," she said, nodding.

Mal swallowed again, taking one of her hands in his, his gaze focussing on her delicate fingers. "I can be a bit of a hun dan, Inara. Maybe more'n a bit," he warned.

Inara's smile widened. "This is not something of which I am unaware," she teased, stepping closer. "Mal," she said softly when he didn't look up, waiting until he raised his eyes to hers.

She kissed him; softly, demanding nothing, relieved to feel some of the tension leave them. They both closed their eyes and she felt his hands move to her waist.

“Don’t wanna wreck this," he said against her lips, "but I‘m awful good at wrecking things."

“About as good as I am at running from them," she agreed soberly.

He met her eyes at that, encouraged by her admission.

“But neither of us is going to let that happen, are we," she continued; a statement, not a question.

A smile he couldn’t contain quirked his lips as a sense of relief finally began to steal over him, grateful that she was so certain. “I sure as di yu aim not to," he avowed, letting his hands slide low around her back. He pulled her against him, thrilling at the little gasp she gave, feeling bold now.

“‘You be opposed if I were to kiss you about now?" he asked, voice rumbling low in his chest in a way that lit a curl of desire deep in her belly. His jaw brushed the side of her face and she leaned into the touch, eyes sliding shut as he nuzzled against her.

“I might not complain," she replied, voice a little breathless, fingers tightening against his chest. Her lips parted softly as his mouth brushed her chin.

“Think I’m gonna risk it," he teased in warning, pleased at the way her breath quickened and her head tilted toward him.

She had no witty comeback beyond the needful sound that was swallowed by his mouth as their lips met and opened. It had been days since they’d last kissed like this, but neither of them were prepared for the intensity that flared between them, sudden and hot.

She clenched the fabric of his shirt in her fists as he leaned into her, bowing her backward slightly with his height, one hand dragging up her back and into her hair, trailing a line of shivers along her spine through the thin, silky material of her nightdress. Pulling him closer, Inara let her tongue sweep into his mouth, feeling a corresponding pulse from his body where he was pressed against her stomach. His other hand pulled her tighter against him, splaying wide across her lower back as a sound, deep and feral came from his mouth into hers. Unclenching her hands, she scored her nails down and around his sides, smiling against his lips at the tensing of his muscles and the way his fingers tangled in her hair, tightening in response, before she sunk back into his kiss.

Gasping for air, they broke apart finally, eyes wide and chests heaving, flushed with arousal.

"Surely wish there weren't the need for a watch tonight," Mal said, breathing harshly, bringing his forehead to rest against hers.

Heart beating fast and hard, Inara gave him a shaky smile, leaning close to whisper in his ear. "They won't be here tomorrow night," she said breathlessly, meeting his eyes to be sure he took her meaning.

He stared back, suddenly finding it hard to draw his own breath and he swallowed roughly. "Tomorrow, then?" he said, his voice heavy with the question.

"Tomorrow," she agreed and stepped backwards, eyes not leaving his until she was safely in the shuttle, the door fully closed between them.

Mal watched her go, wondering how much of a fool he must be for letting her leave alone instead of following her into her shuttle and taking the night to the conclusion they both so desperately wanted. But he had a job to do, and a crew to look out for, and as hard as it was to stay behind, they had their promise of ‘tomorrow’ to look forward to.

Still, he thought, dragging a shaky hand through his hair as he turned back to scan the cargo bay below him, it was going to be long night.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mal hadn't been lying when he'd said 4:00 am would come early, and 3:30 was even worse. Inara shivered as she set her feet onto the chilly floor of the shuttle, closing her eyes for a long moment as she struggled to shake off the sleep that still tugged at her, urging her with its seductive pull to lie back down, if even for just half an hour.

Sleep had not come easy after she'd left Mal on the catwalk, first waiting for her body’s ardour to cool and then kept awake by thoughts that had had her mind churning. When she was with him, like that, when there were breathless kisses and their bodies strained against the chafing of their clothes for want of each other, it was appallingly easy to forget their difficulties; easy to get lost in the swell of exciting emotions and desire that obscured all else.

But after, alone and in the dark, the practical side of her resurfaced, bringing with it worry and doubts; reminding her that, in a few short days she'd be returning to work, taking clients again, and though Mal had said he'd try, she couldn't fool herself into thinking it would be that easy.

She'd meant what she said to him, and she hoped she was right, that they wouldn't just let their old habits sabotage their chance to be together. But old habits were hard to break, and Mal was not an easy man at the best of times.

This relationship of theirs was still fragile and she was afraid that without something firmer, introducing clients into the mix could shatter the trust they had been building. Would he believe her if she told him that being with a client would not be the same as being with him? That it wouldn't mean what it meant to be with him? That she wasn't betraying him every time she took another client into her bed? For her, there was no question, they were such distinct and separate things in her mind, but for him, with his ideas about sex and love and the morals he applied to both, she suspected it would not be so easy.

Sighing, she pushed the lingering thoughts from her mind and forced herself up; she wanted to be there when they landed so she could see for herself what was waiting for their passengers in their new lives.

The Callas settlement they were bound for was a mining town and, like many moons, reportedly had a dry, arid climate and was predominantly brushland with a few rocky outcrops. With that in mind she decided on the clothes Mal had bought her and the sturdy boots that would offer more protection to her feet than her usual soft, slipper-like shoes. River had told them the temperature would be cool in the evening, though nowhere near as cold as the moon they'd been stranded on the night she and Mal had first kissed - she smiled at the memory - but she suspected she'd be grateful for the warmer clothes.

Just as she finished tucking in her shirt, she heard a knock at the door and felt her insides tighten in anticipation. “Jin," she called out, turning to face the door. But it was Kaylee, not Mal.

"Hey 'Nara," the young woman greeted brightly.

"Good morning," Inara replied, smiling warmly at Kaylee's unfailing cheer. “Though how you can be so happy at this time of day, I’m sure I don’t know," she teased as she gave a brief hug.

"It's just so shiny that you're gonna be stayin' with us again," the girl said, beaming. "Bet the Captain's pretty happy 'bout it too," she added, giving Inara a conspiratorial look.

Inara's smile faded slightly, tempered by her late night ruminations. "I think so," she said softly. "There are things that will be difficult," she continued off of Kaylee’s look. "Especially once I start taking clients again."

"Had a fight about it, huh? ‘Bout you going back to companioning?" the mechanic asked, slipping onto one of the crates that passed for a chair in the shuttle these days.

Inara couldn’t help the grin that quirked her lips at Kaylee’s derivation of ‘companion’ but it was gone as quick as it had appeared in the face of the memory of the argument and the ending it had almost been. “Yes," she nodded, no point in denying it. Kaylee had an astuteness about certain things and Inara wasn’t at all surprised the young woman had deduced the crux of the matter.

Kaylee gave Inara a sympathetic look and shook her head before her face suddenly brightened again. "Got to make up after though, right?" she grinned knowingly.

Inara laughed softly. "Yes. Though, not in the way you mean," she said, shaking her head at the blush she inexplicably felt trying to steal over her.

Kaylee gave her an incredulous look, as if to say still? "But, that's the best part a' fightin'!" she exclaimed, winking.

Inara shook her head again, laughing at the other woman’s cheekiness. "It was a big step forward for us, though; making up. An important one," she said, growing more serious. "We're trying... learning to communicate, to talk without trying to hurt each other. And to be honest. It's not the easiest thing, for either of us."

"Don't you think the sexin' would help with that?" Kaylee asked. "It sure worked with Simon," she said grinning again.

Inara smiled at her friend and her happiness. "I don't think it can be as easy as that for us, mei mei. Yes, sex can bring down some barriers," she acknowledged, "but if we're not able to communicate without it, our relationship will be nothing more than that. Neither of us is very good at being open about what we're feeling."

Kaylee grimaced apologetically and nodded, unable to deny it.

"Sex alone can't sustain a relationship forever, believe me." Inara looked the other woman in the eye. "And I want more than that with Mal," she said, revealing more of herself than she normally would.

Kaylee smiled warmly and put a hand on Inara's arm, and then drew her into a hug, squeezing tightly. "Not even really good sex?" she asked as she pulled back, the wicked gleam returning to her eyes.

Inara laughed out loud and the two of them broke into mirthful giggles. Hugging again, the Companion squeezed her friend warmly.

"I'm so glad I'm staying."


A short time later they emerged from her shuttle, arm in arm, to the excited hustle and bustle in the cargo bay as their passengers gathered up their belongings and prepared themselves for what the day ahead would bring.

Inara spotted Mal and Zoë down near the bay door, speaking with one of the women - Ariadne if she remembered correctly - and smiled when he chanced to look up and saw her watching.

“Excitin’, ain’t it?" Kaylee breathed and Inara agreed, though the shiver that went through her had less to do with their brides-to-be than it did with the roguish grin Mal was flashing up at her. Almost without conscious thought Inara started down the stairs, simply for the want of being near him, oblivious to the tickled smile Kaylee wore as she watched.

“When we land, want you and the rest to hang back while me an’ mine get the lay of things," Mal was saying as she approached, his eyes straying to her frequently. “Ain't like to be trouble, but might as well be cautious, dong ma?"

The woman nodded. “Thank you, Captain," she said. “I'll tell the others."

Zoë sidled up next to Mal as the woman walked away nodding toward Inara as she came up to them. “Why Sir," she said, full of mischief, “look who’s coming."

The smile dropped from Mal's face and he shot a warning glare at his first mate. “Huǒyǎn xiéshén! Go make sure Jayne’s got Vera ready," he growled, shooing her off when she laughed. “Don't want to take any chances here," he called after her, shaking his head.

“Inara," Zoë greeted with a nod as she scooted by and the companion nodded in return, giving Mal a strange look as she closed the distance between them.

“What…?" she started, curious to see the scarlet flush to his cheeks. “Wait, do I want to ask?" she asked.

Mal shook his head, reaching for her hand and drawing her closer. “Mornin’," he said instead, the word a low rumble in his chest and Inara had to suppress a shiver, shaking her head at herself inwardly at the way his voice had the ability to affect her so easily.

“Good morning," she replied, smiling. She glanced around at the preparations behind them, then back to him. “Can I help?" she asked.

He gave a tilt to his head and shook it slightly. “In truth, I'd prefer it you were clear of here when we land," he said. “Something goes wrong, don't want you to be in the line of fire," he continued off her questioning look.

She frowned. “Are you really expecting trouble?" she asked lowly so the other women wouldn't hear.

“Can't say. ‘s a new contact, there's always some unknown risk involved," Mal said. “Just... be easier, knowin’ you’re safe."

“Coming up on atmo," River’s voice came over Serenity’s comm speaker before Inara could answer, and they both put a hand on Serenity’s hull to brace themselves.

“Hitting atmo in five, four, three, two, one."

The ship began to shudder as she entered the upper layers of the moon’s atmosphere and they reached for each other with their free hands, eyes meeting as they held on to keep their balance, sharing a smile in the quiet moment of connection to Serenity.

They stayed that way, waiting until the shaking stopped and the ship evened out before letting go.

“In atmo. ETA four minutes," River advised.

“Best head up now," Mal said, nodding to the steps.

“All right," she acquiesced, touching his hand briefly before going. “Be careful," she said and he squeezed her fingers, flashing her his grin again.

“Easy as pie’."
Tags: fiction: firefly, fiction: the slower path

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