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by Goldenthorn

Title: "Stay"
Author: Goldenthorn
Rating: PG (but I do not know how to rate these things)
Spoilers: For the unaired episodes.
Summary: During their latest job, the crew of Serenity encounters an unexpected change in the landscape when they accidentally bump into Inara and one of her clients inside a cruise ship.
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters. I am just borrowing them for fun. Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox and now, I guess, Universal are the fortunate owners of Firefly and its charismatic crew.
Acknowledgements: A very special thanks to Tzegha, who has been an excellent beta and a great source of inspiration.

"Stay" - PART I

So it was over.

He painfully realized this as Serenity carried them to their next destination. The hum of the engine was the one thing he could always count on to relax and unwind. The spots of silver light that flashed in the distance were all that could be discerned amongst the utter and complete blackness outside--cold and lonely as he stared out the cockpit window. The steady vibration allowed his brain to concentrate, assigning his emotions backstage pass.

Space, this vast stretch of nothingness not unlike the void his heart felt at that precise moment.

He drew in a deep breath, closing his eyes, and held it until his lungs started to protest, then exhaled slowly--the lump in his chest seemed to ease for now. He shifted uncomfortably in the pilot's chair. His muscles were stiff from lack of movement, so he stood up to stretch his long legs rubbing his neck as he walked around the helm.

How long had he been hiding here? He impatiently checked the navigation route for the twentieth time that night, anxious to get to their destination and to put this whole thing behind him.

He could hear the voices echoing through the insides of Serenity, from the kitchen all the way to the helm. The laughter, excitement and quiet conversations of his crew could be heard as they shared this moment, lost in their own little celebration. The echoes bouncing off the metal frames of the ship were carried by a ghostly hand and made his ears ring with an anxiety that could not be relieved. He could much less show the others.

Refusing to be a part of it, he cowardly retreated to this safe haven to be alone. No matter how many people came into his life or shared his experiences, the constant irony was that loneliness would always remain his only companion.

But it was the other `companion' who kept swirling into his mind.

Even now, during his inner struggle for composure, he could hear her laughter, soft and smooth, so eternally classy he was hypnotized by its timber--his own personal mermaid leading him to damnation. She came into his life unannounced and her graceful demeanor took him completely off guard. Gracious as a swan and lethal as an arrow, her royal-like ways had managed to make him feel alive again. One arched-brow look from her, a disparaging comment aimed at his ego or her always on target comebacks made his heart feel the sweet pain he had come to crave.

He found himself smiling bitterly at the memories.

He should have never gone to that brothel. He should have given Inara some lame excuse, apologized for the lack of time or the scarce resources to pull off such a job. But no, he had to be the gorram knight in shining armor and charge in with his `army'. He had to find comfort in Nandi's arms only to fail her the following morning, driving Inara even further away.

Nandi had known. She had known about his feelings for Inara and he should have realized that Inara, being trained as a companion, must have known as well. His desperate attempts at indifference had not gone unnoticed by her--she actually knew.

The job--he desperately tried to concentrate on the task waiting for him at the water planet of Iberia. He needed to have a clear mind for the sake of his crew.

They hadn't had a decent job since the one they pulled off with `what's her name', and being able to sell the infamous `Lassiter' had become a mission on its own. Then the ruttin' bounty hunter had his crew more than a little on edge for the past couple of weeks. They needed work--fast.

He had been thanking the powers that be about his most recent contact--a certain MJS who was more than willing to pay good money for a legendary stone. Their mysterious client had used one of the local kids at Persephone to hand him the written details of the assignment and the location where the drop off would take place. Mal did not like this person's cryptic ways, but he had no choice but to accept the job given their current circumstances, not to mention the payment he had taken in advance.


Kaylee's voice made his mind swirl back to Serenity with a jolt.

"Hmm?" He turned around to see his young mechanic, a plate of chocolate cake in one hand and a napkin in the other.

"I... um, I thought you might want some cake" she said shyly, conscious of her intrusion.

He was about to wave her off with a dismissive gesture of his hand when he caught a glimpse of Kaylee's expectant face. Reaching out instead to take the plate from her hand, he tried to put up his best front for her.


He forced a smile and dug the fork into the cake. He could not bring himself to take a bite, though. The lump in his chest had suddenly returned and he felt nauseous.

"Are you gonna join us?" she asked with a small voice.

"There're things that need to be done first, mei-mei. I'll be there as soon as I can," he replied softly, with a half smile.

"It's just that `Nara..."

"I said I'll be there as soon as I can," he cut her off curtly in mid-sentence, punctuating the last few words.

His features turned harsh, the smile now vanished from his face. A pang of agony was threatening to consume him, his composure now wavering. Kaylee dared not push the matter further: she simply broke eye contact and turned around to leave silently.

As she stepped out of the helm, she muttered:

"You could at least share her last dinner on Serenity with us."

Mal saw her disappear down the hallway and slumped back down on the pilot's seat, leaning forward and burying his face in his hands. The sinking sensation was suddenly overwhelming and he could not bear to face his crew just now. He took in a shaky breath and held it in hoping it would do its magic but failing miserably to ease the pain this time.

None of it means a damn thing, he thought clenching his jaw tightly.

Mal had been out all morning--running errands, he had said. He came back as Inara's limo-shuttle pulled beside Serenity, and saw his crew gathered around her, gloomy smiles on their faces as they said their last good byes. He had discreetly approached the group, leaning silently against the mule that was neatly parked next to the limo-shuttle. Zoe walked over and leaned against the mule next to him, offering her unspoken support without even making eye contact.

"Kaylee's gonna miss her a lot" she said to him in a monotone after a beat, "we all are."

Mal got a glimpse of Jayne's austere face as he shook Inara's hand. The tall man was looking at the floor, deliberately avoiding Inara's face and shifting from foot to foot nervously.

Zoe knew how much Mal hated farewells and was certain that he would find some feeble reason to escape into the nearest locale just to avoid this moment. She was determined not to let him do such a thing. Her silence was pointed, so he reassured her:

"I ain't goin' anywhere," he muttered.

Inara was now standing at the bottom of Serenity's ramp hugging Kaylee good-bye with a lump in her throat. Kaylee had been crying since the companion's transport shuttle had arrived, and was holding on to her tightly in one last hug. Inara felt her eyes begin to water, but kept her composure for the young mechanic's sake. The companion kissed her forehead tenderly and rubbed the girl's back in an attempt to comfort her.

She gave one final squeeze to Kaylee and then turned to Mal who now stood close to the ramp, with his thumbs resting on his belt holster in his typical Captain Reynolds stance. He gave her a crooked smile that looked more like a smirk while he glanced down at her. She was just inches from him, her composure unwavering.

Neither of them could bring themselves to speak first and simply stared at each other.

"Well," he finally said in a matter-of-fact tone "'Guess this is it."

She nodded silently, looking up at him.

Her expression was a perfect mask of placidness, and he kept trying to find the smallest trace of uncertainty in her poise, hoping to find the faintest hint that she might just reconsider her decision in a last minute whim. Deep down he knew this was for the best, but letting her go was harder than he had imagined.

"This past year's been..."

He looked down at his boots while he tried to find the right word.

"It's hard to find good ambassadors these days" he finally said.

He wanted to say something meaningful to her, something that she could take with her wherever she went, but his mind refused to cooperate leaving him with empty last words instead.

Her smile broadened slightly at his last remark.

She leaned forward to embrace him briefly in one last, friendly hug. His hands wrapped around her back involuntarily holding her softly as she whispered a barely audible `good bye' in his ear. He wanted to tighten the embrace, to hold her in his arms just for a while longer, just for a bit longer...

When they finally pulled apart, neither of them dared to speak. Their eyes locked for some time, a world of unanswered questions reflected in them. Mal was the first one to look away, redirecting his stare towards the impatient shuttle pilot who was fidgeting next to the ship's door nervously.

"Your shuttle's waitin'" he exhaled, speaking in a low voice.

After a polite nod he turned around and started addressing his crew.

"Ok people, y'all got jobs to do `round here, so off you go."

They all slowly started dispersing, their figures disappearing inside Serenity as they stepped into the ship to follow their Captain's orders. Inara herself started walking the opposite way, her feet heavy but her head high, and her stride firm.

Serenity cast a shadow over her frame as she approached the shuttle, protecting her from the beaming rays of the twin suns scorching the docks at midday. The heat outdoors was infernal, yet she found herself shivering with every step she took. A part of her was being left behind; she painfully realized when she stepped into the shuttle.

She did not look back as the limo hovered away from the docks.

The crew of Serenity was sitting quietly around the kitchen table. There was a palpable void inside the ship ever since Inara's departure that morning. None of them had talked about it extensively, opting to keep the subject buried for now.

Kaylee had spent the past two hours in the engine room, fiddling with a silver comb the companion had given her as a gift earlier that year. Her mind was filled with a thousand memories while she rocked back and forth in her hammock. She had refused to eat the ration Simon had brought to her in an attempt to ease her pain. The girl had just looked up at him with sad eyes and taken the plate from his hand with a forced smile.

Now she had joined everybody else in the common area at Mal's request. They were looking at each other silently--sympathetic eyes were set on the young girl--while Mal finished pouring himself some coffee. The Captain sat down at his accustomed seat heading the table, and took a sip of the bitter liquid before he began speaking.

"Our goal is to snatch the Tara" he said. "It`s one of the three original stones that were auctioned after the Buddhist temple of Wat Thai was destroyed in the war..."

"A rock?" Jayne interrupted incredulous. "How're we gonna get `coin' outta stupid rock?"

"This one's bein' carried as part of a private exhibit durin' a five day cruise aboard The Majestic, which is leavin' port tomorrow and sailin' to Ibiza Island" Mal continued completely ignoring Jayne's previous comment.

"An ocean cruise ship?" Simon asked impressed.

"How are we gonna get in?" Wash countered, "Those luxury liners are booked months in advance and they are not exactly affordable vacations."

"Our contact, MJS, has three passes ready for us to pick up at the check-in counter" Mal continued. "We'll be posin' as wealthy ranchers on our honeymoon. Myself, my lovely bride and a helpin' hand will be expected to arrive at the docks at noon and will be boardin' the ship promptly at thirteen thirty."

"Jayne" Mal turned to the tall mercenary who was leaning back against the chair frowning, "you and Kaylee will be coming with me on this one."

Kaylee's face lit up with a smile.

"I get to go on a cruise?"

"Lemme guess, I get to be the helpin' hand," Jayne growled.

"K-" Simon cleared his throat stammering, "Kaylee is going as your bride?" he frowned slightly, shifting in his chair.

A twinge of jealousy was clouding the young doctor's mind as his eyes moved nervously from Mal to Kaylee. He saw her looking at him, pleasantly surprised at his subtle objection and unable to hold back a faint smile. Simon swallowed, slightly embarrassed about his blunt reaction, and bit his lower lip blushing slightly when he felt everybody's eyes set on him.

Mal gave them both an amused look while he sipped his coffee; it was nice to see Kaylee smiling again--leave it up to Simon to lift her spirits.

After a short pause, he continued with his briefing.

"Zoe, I need you to take over Serenity while we're gone," Mal pointed out.

They would need to stay as far away from this job as possible without leaving planet. The last thing Mal wanted was for Serenity to be tracked near the place where the heist was taking place, especially with a couple of fugitives on board.

"We'll have to keep communication to a minimum," he said. "Wouldn't want any chance encounter with the Alliance. Iberia is crawlin' with feds and they'll be keepin' an eye on a transport ship like Serenity. You'll need to lay as low as you possibly can so as not to attract any unwanted suspicion."

"There is an abbey far enough from here where I'm sure we'll be welcome to stay," Book offered in his usual gentle tone. "No questions will be asked while we stay there and Simon and River won't have to be confined to the ship."

Mal nodded to the shepherd in consent and appreciation.

"Sir, what do we know about this MJS contact?" Zoe asked leaning forward, her tone concerned.

Mal turned to her, understanding where her doubts were coming from. He could read Zoe like a book and could tell she did not much trust this plan, much less the elusive contact who hired them. They just exchanged a look that told her they didn't have much choice given their recent dealings. They needed money to keep them afloat and could not be particularly choosy at this point.

"We don't know much, that's true, but he's paid us 2,000 credits in advance to pull off this job, and the rest will be paid in full after we turn the rock over to him."

"How much?" Jayne inquired this time.

"8,000" Mal replied calmly, observing the astounded reaction from his crew.

They all fell silent for several minutes, not quite believing their ears.

"I'm gonna go pack!" Jayne exclaimed excitedly, breaking the silence.

Tall pine trees spread across the grounds of the estate stretching high into the sky while the smallest branches at the top danced to the tune of a silent breeze. The sweet smell of their green needles and fresh bark was intoxicating. A German shepherd came to run behind the limo-shuttle, following the trail of dust the vehicle was leaving as it silently hovered over the unpaved road and crossed the opened gates into the courtyard.

Inara got out of the shuttle and looked up at the tall mansion. Coppery tones were bathing its impeccable white walls with the setting of the suns in the horizon. She could make out the last rays of the second sun, dying slowly behind the nearby hills.

It looked just the way she remembered it: the Spanish tiles on the roof, the bright stone walls with the wooden trims and the large windows with the colorful flowers decorating the windowsills. Silvery smoke was escaping through the chimney and she could smell the subtle scent of burning wood coming from the inside of the house.

Before walking towards the short set of steps leading to the big rustic doors in front of her, she turned around to face the shuttle and saw the German shepherd approaching her in a joyful trot, his long tongue was sticking out of his snout in a frantic pant. He looked like he was smiling as his big brown eyes looked up at her in adoration.

"Rommel!" she exclaimed crouching down beside him and patting the big dog's head.

The German shepherd was wagging his tail incessantly, remembering the companion's unique scent. His tongue reached out to lick her cheek before she had time to pull away.

"Is there anything else you need, ma'am?" the chauffer asked unloading the last suitcase and placing it carefully on the ground.

She dismissed him after a generous tip and the vehicle left just as silently as it had arrived.

Inara began walking towards the door, Rommel in tow. She could hear the sound of the running fountain from the corner of the patio, a relaxing sound echoing across the open spaces of the courtyard. Her feet paced slowly over the cobble-stoned floor that grinded softly under her step. The smell of Honeysuckle was getting stronger as the day grew older, cuing in the crickets and their rhythmic tune.

She turned when she heard a mellow voice behind her.

"I thought I heard Rommel's tail wagging uncontrollably. He hasn't done that since the last time you were here."

She spotted a handsome young man smiling at her. He was coming from the shuttle ports to the left of the courtyard.

"Jason!" she smiled joyfully as she approached him.

He looked at her through his long lashes, his eyes cheerful, and his smile turned into a full fledged grin. He was wearing swimming trunks and a casual shirt. His brown hair was damp and fell loosely over his forehead--she remembered swimming was one of his favorite sports.

His upper body was well built, with wide shoulders and lean muscle that had resulted from years of competing in swimming tournaments. His shirt clung to him and clearly defined the shape of his toned chest. Then her eyes traveled down to his legs and a jolt of pain and regret filled her memories.

The hovering chair he was bound to came to a stop, and he looked up at her, his deep green eyes trained on her face. He took one of her hands in his and gave it a gentle squeeze.

"It's been a long time, bao bei," he said softly.

"Too long," she replied sincerely.

"I received your wave," he told her as his lips turned into a crooked smile. "You didn't even need to ask. You know you are welcome here any time. The furniture and the rest of the things you sent are already upstairs and Mike can help us take the rest of your suitcases up to your room."

She nodded at him in appreciation.

"We have a lot to catch up on," Inara said placing her free hand on top of his.

"We certainly do! Did you know I took up cooking lessons?" he informed her as he led her into the house.

"You? Near a kitchen? I shudder to think!" she chuckled.

"You'd be surprised! I made this mouthwatering lemon meringue that is getting great reviews--from Rommel, mostly, but still."

They joked and laughed as they entered the house. The halo of the moon cast a silver gleam on the roof top giving way to the first night starts which were emerging shyly, one by one.

The house was decorated just like a typical Mediterranean farm house from Earth-that-was. There were big cozy rugs over terracotta tiled floors, wood and leather furniture at every turn and tall ceilings with wooden beams going across. Holographic photos of the family were on display throughout the different rooms, mostly of Jason and his uncle, but she recognized a couple of them that had been taken while she had been here last time. The equestrian style was ever-present--pictures and figurines of horses could be found all over the house.

Jason loved horses, Inara remembered with nostalgia.

"You must be exhausted. Are you sure you don't mind me hammering you with a yaogui of questions about your exciting life in outer space?" he asked her.

"Not at all," she replied. "Life is far from ordinary in the rim."

"I can't wait to hear all about it," he grinned as they reached the downstairs lounge.

An older man in his early eighties sat reading a newspaper and smoking a pipe. The lit fireplace cast a faint glow on the man's face, showing his slight frown as he reviewed a hologram of a new power plant in development.

Inara recognized him as Arthur Decker, Jason's uncle. He was in very good shape for his age, his silver hair perfectly groomed and his reading glasses making him look like a very distinguished gentleman. He raised his eyes as he heard them approaching, and set the newspaper on a side table.

"Inara, dear!"

Mr. Decker stood up immediately and walked over to embrace the companion lovingly.

"We have missed you around here!"

"It is really good to be back, Mr. Decker," she replied taking the arm the older man was offering her.

"Please, you know you can call me Arthur. You look too thin," he mentioned disapprovingly. "Come, you must have something to eat. What? They don't feed you out there in space?"

Jason smiled broadly, amused at his uncle's concern over Inara's health. The companion glanced over at him while she was being ushered to her place at the small table and Jason winked at her, shrugging as if to say `may as well do as the man says'.

"A swimming costume and a short-sleeved shirt is no attire for tea time, young man," the older man scolded.

"You know I don't care for those chun rules," Jason shrugged indifferently, receiving in turn an exasperated look from his uncle, who sighed in resignation.

"So, Jason, have you told Inara about that little boat of yours?" Arthur said pouring some cream into his tea.

"Not yet," he replied smiling wickedly.

She looked intrigued.

"I have a surprise for you, bao bei," he said in a low voice, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "How would you like to go sailing with me tomorrow?"

The ship was as big as a city, Kaylee thought as she stared up in awe at the gigantic cruise liner.

The twin suns were beating down hard on the docks and the mild ocean breeze did little to cool down the stuffy air. She shielded her eyes with one hand and kept ogling the ship's metal structures with great interest. The one thing that struck her the most was how such an incredibly heavy object could just float in the water without sinking. Flying, breaking atmo in a spaceship was one thing: the engine thrusters and anti-gravity fields allowed the aircrafts to float in the air and to shoot into space. But this was completely different--this ship was just floating in the sea, stopped in one place. It was truly amazing!

"Remember," Mal told her sternly, "I'm Mr. Evans and you are my newlywed bride, Mrs. Evans."

Mal was worried that her amazement might make her slip.

"This is so exciting!" Kaylee exclaimed. "No wonder they call it The Majestic. It's, well... `majestic'!"

"Do I have a `special' name?" Jayne asked resting all their bags on the ground.

"Yeah, you're Jayne," Mal replied squinting due to the suns' brightness. "That's special `nough."

A metallic female voice announced the ship was ready to be boarded over the intercom, and a large number of people dressed to the nines stood at the boarding ramp, fanning themselves with company brochures or shading their bodies with colorful parasols. Slowly, the lines started moving as the crew of The Majestic directed them to their cabins.

From the distance, somebody watched the three of them board the ship. They were finally here and everything was going according to plan. It was just a matter of time now.

"Mr. and Mrs. Evans," a pretty, young woman in uniform greeted them. She checked their boarding passes. "You will be staying in our honeymoon suite."

Kaylee was unable to hold back a "shiny!" which made Mal smile down at her and place his right arm across her shoulders tenderly, slipping into his role with ease. She turned to him with a toothy grin and kissed his cheek.

They proceeded to their assigned quarters.

Jayne had been given a cabin in one of the lower decks where the help's quarters were located. He was actually glad. He didn't want to mingle with all those stuck up, fancy-`pantsy' rich people on the upper decks. He started unpacking smiling about the kind of `dough' they were going to make on this gig and his mouth started to water.

As he kept unpacking a woozy feeling overcame him. He felt the room spinning so he staggered unsteadily trying to stand up straight, and kept staring at the walls of his cabin which seemed to be slanted for some odd reason. He slowly walked towards the bed with wobbly legs and lied down on his back staring at the ceiling. That position only made the situation worse, he felt the tightness in his throat and closed his eyes swallowing hard and breathing heavily through his nostrils.

Shortly after, he found himself rushing to the bathroom, barely making it in time to lose the hefty breakfast he had enjoyed earlier that morning.

The honeymoon suite was unlike anything Kaylee had ever seen before.

It was at least four times bigger than Serenity's living and kitchen area put together: it had a bathroom twice the size of her own room with a bath tub one could swim in. Her eyes went wide at the sight of the round king size bed in the middle of the room. It had the most beautiful patterned covers she had ever seen with matching drapes covering the windows. An enchanting Chinese melody lingered in the air, a perfect compliment to the serene and relaxing ambiance.

She peeked out the window and saw nothing but ocean, a deep turquoise color she had only seen in her dreams--it took her breath away. Pulling herself away from the incredible sight she kept exploring the rest of the room, taking in every little detail with renewed amazement.

At the other side of the room sitting in the living area, Mal was checking inside one of the suitcases looking for something and slightly frustrated, completely ignoring the fancy surroundings.

He pulled out the weapons they had brought and placed them on top of the coffee table. Only certain guns were allowed aboard the cruise ship, small pistols and low caliber handguns, so they had complied with the rules just not to cause any trouble or raise suspicion of any kind. He had had to use his stern, captain voice with Jayne, who had complained about leaving Vera behind all the way to the docks.

He was making sure the guns were in good shape when he realized that Kaylee had been unusually quiet for some time. He turned to her and saw her pale face, staring at the weapons uneasily. It suddenly dawned on him that his young `bride' had been haunted by the use of guns ever since the Niska fiasco.

"Come here, mei-mei," he gestured, gently indicating her to approach him.

His hands were busy cleaning the chamber of a gun. She hesitated for a second and then sat down beside him on the couch. He regarded her sideways, faking unawareness and waiting for her to relax.

"Here, hold this," he said handing her the smallest gun.

She froze momentarily and then carefully took the small weapon looking at it intently, as if it was going to go off on its own any minute now. Mal waited patiently until she familiarized herself with the object.

"We never did talk about what happened at the sky plex," he began softly.

"I-I figured you wanted to forget `bout that," she said in a small voice.

"I don't want you to be brave for me, lil' Kaylee. If there's somethin' on your mind that you need to talk `bout I want ya to tell me."

She shrugged, not looking at him. He patiently waited for her to gather the courage to talk to him, he knew she would eventually. They remained silent for a while. She watched closely while he cleaned and polished the chamber of the guns.

"I failed you back then" she finally said.

The words sounded strangled and her voice cracked slightly.

Hearing her say those words made Mal flinch inwardly. He placed the gun he was handling on top of the coffee table and wrapped his arm around Kaylee's shoulders. He pulled her close to him and she leaned against him, sorrow clouding her features.

"I'm so sorry, Cap!"

She started sobbing against his chest.

"I wanted to be brave for you, but I couldn't..."

"Shhh, b zu mei-mei" he soothed. "You could never fail me, ya hear me?"

She wrapped her arms around him and silently cried while he stroked her back tenderly. He whispered at her reassuringly, his cheek resting on top of her head. He felt his heart sink with every sob. He frowned and rage cursed through his veins just thinking about what he was going to do to that whoon-dahn Niska once he got his hands on him.

They held each other quietly for a long while, weapons forgotten on the small table. There was a knock at the door and two seconds later Jayne came in, looking pale and clammy. He saw Kaylee curled up in Mal's embrace, tears streaming down her face, and glanced at Mal with a blank expression on his face.

"What's with the little one?" he asked.

Mal gave him a glacier look warning him to back off, to which the other man responded with a frown sitting down on the armchair by the couch.

He picked up a gun from the coffee table and started fiddling with it and studying it intently. He was feeling a little better after his stomach had been turned inside out, nothing else to expel, but there was a funny smell in the honeymoon suite--very much like Inara's shuttle--that was making him queasy again.

Jayne took in a deep breath and concentrated on the gun he was holding which he found to be incredibly effective in taking his mind off his troubled stomach. After he had analyzed every crevice of the gun, he exhaled audibly.

He gave Kaylee a fleeting glance wondering whether it was safe to speak yet. The girl was still sniffling, her face buried against the Captain's chest who kept stroking her back silently. Jayne busied himself with the gun in his hand, waiting patiently as not to invoke Mal's wrath which could be easily unleashed when protecting the young mechanic.

Minutes later, Kaylee sat up and drew her legs up against her chest wiping her cheeks with her hand quietly. The mercenary looked at her with a pronounced frown.

Somebody needs to toughen up this kid, he thought.

"So when are we snatching the rock?" he asked when he figured it was safe to speak.

His voice was tainted with a trace of exasperation and he was obviously tired of the silence.

"Goin' in is a two man job," Mal explained. "I need you to guard the door while I work `round the show room. We'll need to check out the security systems and the positionin' of the rock before the night in question."

Kaylee sat up and looked at Mal.

"What do I have to do?" she asked rubbing her eyes.

"You will have to be my little genius and tap into the security codes," Mal said kissing the top of her head.

"I think I can do that," she smiled weakly.

The temperature was deliciously pleasant on the Delhi deck. Inara's white sleeveless dress was swaying in the soft breeze, cooling her skin under the intense suns. Jason sipped at his drink admiring her as she in turn admired the immensity of the ocean.

"Your idea of `going sailing' is seriously underrated," she told him with a grin.

"It is a boat, isn't it?" he replied taking a sip of his drink.

"I had never sailed on a cruise ship before, you know that?" she admitted.

"There is a first time for everything," he conceded.

"It is a lot like being out in the black."

Jason stilled, his thoughts turned inward and his eyes became distant. His mind slipped elsewhere momentarily before he focused a smile of confusion on Inara.

"The black?" he asked her questioningly.

"That's what Mal called it, when we traveled," she explained smiling sweetly at the memory. "Once we broke `atmo' we were `out in the black'."

She was silent for a while, her mind drifting back to her days aboard Serenity. She had loved that ship, that life, like no other. So many firsts had happened while she sailed on it. The first time she ever held a gun, the first time she had ever eaten a protein ration, the first time she had flown a ladybug shuttle, the first time she had really fallen in love...

"Do you miss it?" Jason asked gently, sensing her nostalgia.

His stare was lost in the depths of blue that stretched for miles and miles, just like his need for her.

"Once you've been in Serenity..." she let her thoughts trail absentmindedly, and then smiled at him warmly.

"If you need time for things to go back to the way they used to be between us then I can wait," he offered kissing her hand tenderly. "You are worth it."

"Serenity can definitely change a person" she told him not looking at him.

"Are you ready for a refill, qin i de?" he asked her deliberately changing the subject.

"Absolutely," she smiled tuning to him.

He took the glass from her and led her to the swimming pool area. A group of kids were busy playing with a beach ball. They approached the wet bar, where Jason placed both empty glasses and waved at the bartender, who was making small talk with somebody and politely pulled away when he saw them approaching.

"Jason!" he greeted with a broad smile.

He was a man in his mid forties with pleasant appearance and eyes as blue as the ocean. His face was round, his pigment tinted red from years of too much sun. His hair was a coppery brown, with strands of white staining each side. He spoke with an exotic accent that Inara could not place and his radiant smile could brighten the entire deck.

"And, who's the lovely lady?" he added with an arched eyebrow.

"Arlo, my man! How have you been? Let me introduce you to my good friend, Inara." Jason said placing his hand in the small of Inara's back.

"My lady," Arlo said, taking Inara's hand and kissing it lightly, letting his lips linger a little longer than expected.

The bartender turned back to Jason, an expression of underlying approval on his face.

"What can I get for ya! That you don't have already, that is."

Jason chuckled at Arlo's blunt remark and took the drink menu from the counter.

"I still can't believe this whole ship belongs to you," Inara said sitting on one of the stools "Do we have to call you `Captain' now?"

Jason thought about that for a second, "It does have a nice ring to it... On the other hand `Your Royal Highness' will suffice," he smiled jokingly, earning a soft slap in the arm from Inara.

"It was actually a present from my uncle," he continued, indicating to Arlo a particular drink from the menu. "Some people don't know what to do with their money so they use their nephews for spending practice. He has been very generous since I got out of the hospital, showering me with gifts, but this is a little over the top don't you think?"

"Yeah, how can you stand being you?" Arlo said teasingly as he mixed a frozen drink.

"Can you imagine if I had become a paraplegic? I would have my own planet by now," he chuckled turning to Inara.

She looked at him, not really amused. His smile faded slightly but his eyes kept sparkling. She turned away from him, concentrating on a small girl who was getting out of the pool to chase the bouncy ball that had leapt out.

"Hey," he called her attention with a soothing voice.

She glanced at him, forcing a smile.

"That's not the smile I have come to know and love," he said calling her bluff. "Don't make me tell you a joke; you know how I always mess up the endings."

Her smile became more genuine.

"I feel a little tired," she said. "Would you accompany me to the cabin? I'd like to lay down to rest for a bit."

He smiled, offering her his elbow. They took their drinks from the bar thanking Arlo and headed towards the luxury cabins.

Jayne leaned over the Delhi deck, watching as the ship cut through the mass of water, splashing it outward with its passing. He had been nauseous at first, feeling a little queasy and clammy, by now though, he had thrown up the contents of his stomach for the past two days and was looking greener by the minute.

"Jayne?" Mal called from behind him. "Any reason why you failed to mention that you and sea boats don't mix well?"

"W hn h'o, I'll be fine. You guys go ahead," he replied unable to take his eyes off the sea.

"Maybe if you go to your cabin and lie down you'll feel better," Kaylee suggested innocently.

"No!" Jayne replied in a flash. "No way, I need air! I said I'll be fine, stop pesterin' me already!"

"Well, you better find the infirmary and get well soon. There is a job to be done," Mal stated, regarding Jayne's greenish face and almost feeling sorry for the poor man.

Mal and Kaylee joined an organized tour of the ship, scouting the decks and analyzing the surroundings before pulling off the job. They had to listen to the tedious ramblings of the tour guide about the history of the ship and all the prominent guests they had had throughout the years. Kaylee's interest was peaked when the guide covered the particulars about the engine and breakthrough technology used in the ship.

During the tour, Mal had a distinct impression somebody was watching them. It was a gut feeling that he had developed during the war. Despite his restlessness, he decided to put his paranoia aside and concentrate on getting the rock.

They wandered away from the group once they reached the private exhibit area that was near the art museum. They casually started walking down the hallway, leaving the rest of the guests behind, engrossed in the paintings the art museum had to offer.

"The security ain't that tight" Kaylee observed. "Spy-cams can be easily hidden, but they still need a nearby receptor, and I ain't seein' any."

Once they reached the door they found a motion detector on the ceiling and side walls, and a warning sign on the door that read: Do not enter, private exhibit.

They turned their head towards each other with a knowing look.

"Ok, let's time it" Mal said retrieving a stopwatch from his pocket.

They started heading back to their cabin casually, without rushing, so they could measure the longest time it would take them to get to the honeymoon suite from the exhibit. A couple more runs would have to be made before the night of the job. This was just a worst case scenario test.

They were already strolling down the hallway leading to the honeymoon suite, key card in hand, when Mal looked up to see a couple coming from the opposite way of the corridor. The young man was on one of those hovering chairs that could only be found in the Core, and walking by his side was... no, it couldn't be.

"Inara!" Kaylee's breath caught in her throat when she saw the companion standing not even twenty feet away facing the door to a cabin on the opposite side of the hall.

As if sensing their eyes, Inara looked up to see Mal and Kaylee staring back at her. She stopped in her tracks, blood frozen in her veins and unable to hide her surprise. She was about to say something when she heard Jason's voice at her side.

"You must be the honeymoon couple," he greeted with a smile.

Mal walked briskly towards them. Part of him was still in shock from seeing Inara, and part of him was afraid she was going to completely blow their cover.

"Hey there! We sure are" he replied immediately, "Sorry if we was starin' back there, didn't mean ta be rude. I am Pierce Evans and this here is my lovely bride Kaywinnit."

Kaylee followed him, smiling at Inara and too stunned to make any comment. She hoped she would be able to spend some time with her during this trip. This was such a pleasant surprise!

"It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Jason Silver and this is Inara Serra," Jason replied stretching his right hand for a handshake.

Mal shook his hand firmly, locking eyes with the man to whom Inara had ran to.

He was a good-looking fellow, he thought, but again all the clients he had seen her with had been handsome in some way. A yearning sensation stirred within Mal, so overwhelmingly constricting it threatened to choke him.


He never thought himself capable of such bitter feeling, yet its crushing pressure was impossible to ignore. Was he a client of hers or just a friend? Either way he felt the rush of envy pulsing fiercely through his veins.

"How do you like your stay so far?" Jason asked curiously.

"It's... wow! This is really somethin'" Kaylee chirped in excitedly.

"There ya have it" Mal added with a lopsided grin that didn't reach his eyes.

Inara raised an eyebrow at them, amused at the act they were putting up. She and Mal exchanged a brief glance that spoke volumes. She knew they were up to no good, and he knew she would play along anyway.

"I am glad to hear that. I always make a point to dine with the honeymoon couple while they are aboard the ship," Jason said lightheartedly.

"We wouldn't wanna impose..." Mal started, trying to back out.

"Not at all," Inara interjected with a sardonic smile, speaking for the first time.

If he wanted to keep up the act, she was going to make him work for it. He looked at her, surprised at her willingness to go along and gave her a half smile that indicated his uneasiness to involve her in this. She held his stare in defiance, daring him to turn the invitation down again.

The slight tension between them did not go amiss by Jason, who witnessed their silent interchange quietly.

"It would be our pleasure to have dinner with you, Mr. Silver," Mal said with a grin.

"Excellent" Jason stated pleased, "How about tonight at say... nineteen thirty? We can meet at the Bali Lounge."

This Jason fellow was different from the others, somehow. Mal could not tell exactly what set him apart from the rest, but he definitely had a distinct air about him. Could it be that he...? No, don't go there, he told himself.

"We'll be there," Mal replied already pulling Kaylee away towards their cabin.

She followed him waving at them.

"See ya tonite!"

Her lips curved into a toothy smile while Mal dragged her inside by the arm. He opened the door to their cabin and they both disappeared inside.

Once inside their suite, Mal let out a heavy sigh. What was he thinking accepting an invitation to dinner from Inara's lover? Was he her lover? What was she doing here anyway? His jaw tensed and he clenched his hands into tight fists as he paced slowly back and forth in front of the couch.

Kaylee was sitting down on the couch, watching his movements in silence while he kept cursing in Chinese under his breath.

"So, how long did it take us to get here?" she finally asked.

The water felt deliciously warm against her skin, and the bath salts she had poured over the tub filled the bathroom with the sweetest smell.

Still, despite the luscious setting, Kaylee had not been able to relax. Mal had been on edge since their chance encounter with Inara and his mood was sullen. She had been hiding in the bathroom for the past hour leaving him alone to vent his obvious frustration. She wondered what was really going on between them.

I have never seen this side of him, she thought tracing patterns in the bubbly water.

Kaylee was very surprised to see his vulnerable side, especially since he had not bothered to hide his anger ever since they had stepped inside the cabin.

How could he not be happy to see her?

Her mind filled with glee when she thought about Inara's proximity--she could hardly believe they were both in the same ship! Not even two days had gone by since she had seen her last, and she already had a ton of things to tell her.

She was lost in thought when she heard a knock on the bathroom door.

"You ok in there?" Mal's voice came from the other side.

His tone was subdued, much calmer now.

"Shiny, Cap!" she replied shifting inside the bathtub.

"You've been in there for over an hour! There's only one bathroom, ya know," Mal complained, his voice growing impatient.

"Oh, sorry" Kaylee said, sitting up inside the bathtub, "do you need to come in?"

"It'd be the civilized thing to do for me to shower and change `fore puttin' on these fancy clothes. Wouldn't want to embarrass Inara's client over dinner," his tone was dripping sarcasm through the door.

Kaylee stepped out of the bathtub splashing water all over the floor.

"How do you know he's her client?" she replied drying herself with a towel rapidly.

"What?" was the muffled response from the other side.

She placed a couple of towels on the floor to absorb the overflow of water that had spilled out, and a minute later came out clamped in a white towel around her body and another one clumsily wrapped around her head.

"I said how you know he's her client?" she repeated.

She kept trying to readjust the towel on her head the way she had seen Inara expertly do once, yet the towel just kept falling awkwardly to the side.

"He seemed real nice and handsome!" she commented.

"Yeah, quite a catch" he muttered sarcastically.

"Bathroom's all yours, Cap" she gestured with a smile walking past him, and sitting on the bed.

"It's `bout time!" he mumbled walking in and turning on the shower without even bothering to close the door behind him.

Kaylee walked over to the closet to retrieve the brand new dress they had bought for her just for an event like this one. It was long and sleeveless, with big pink flowers decorating the white fabric. Her sandals matched the color of the flowers perfectly and River had given her a pink bow to put on her hair that looked great with the outfit. After applying some make up the way Inara had taught her on several occasions, she looked at herself in the mirror and smiled.

"Shiny!" she exclaimed.

Kaylee heard the shower go off and a low, irritated curse from inside the bathroom.

"What have you done with all the towels?" Mal called popping his head out the door.

Kalyee picked up a damp towel from the bed and rushed to the bathroom walking inside and draping it playfully over Mal's head. She started giggling when a somewhat aggravated, very naked Mal pulled the towel down making his hair stick out in all different directions. He rolled his eyes at her.

"Real funny!" he growled.

She winked at him grabbing a bottle of perfume from over the sink and exited the bathroom. She was happy to see his mood had mellowed down and he was back to the `mean old man' he believed himself to be.

They were both already dressed and ready to go shortly after. Mal was adjusting his tie in front of the mirror, God he hated formal wear, while he reminded Kaylee not to slip during dinner. He knew how involved she could get around Inara, but they sill needed to keep up their act.

"...and absolutely no tech talk tonight" he warned her. "You're supposed to be a wealthy farm lady, dong ma?"

"I know!" she exclaimed slightly exasperated after his third reminder.

Kaylee felt relieved when she heard the knock on the door. Maybe now the Captain would lay off her back and take his frustrations on Jayne. She went to sit on the couch while Mal opened the door, expecting to see their `helping hand' standing in the hallway.


Mal was taken aback by her sudden visit.

"You look..." he began.

He was halfway through the sentence while she walked into the cabin with a firm stride. He closed the door behind her, turning as she went past him.

"...great" he finished.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded placing her hands on her hips and looking up at him accusingly.

"Hi, Inara," Kaylee said sweetly from the couch.

"Hi, sweetie," Inara replied, softening her tone when addressing the girl.

She turned back to Mal with an icy stare, raising an eyebrow.

"We are on our honeymoon. Haven't you heard?" he said jokingly.

"I am serious, Mal," she replied, her tone far from amused.

Mal turned to Kaylee who could already sense a fight brewing.

"Kaylee, go to Jayne's cabin and tell 'im we won't be meetin' him tonight," Mal ordered.

"Tianna! Jayne is here too?" Inara asked alarmed.

Kaylee rushed out the door to follow the Captain's orders. As much as she would love to spend some quality time with Inara, she did not want to be in the middle of their war when the fireworks started. She hated conflict, and she could sense they were warming up to one of their heated arguments.

She strolled down the hallway towards the elevators hoping the Captain wouldn't prevent her from spending some time with Inara by having an explosive fight.

Please, don't let them ruin the whole thing, she prayed scanning the room key card over the elevator's panel.

"Where is... what's his name?" Mal asked once Kaylee had left the cabin.

"Jason" she replied. "He had some business to attend to. Unlike other people he earns an honest living."

"Ouch!" he said with a smirk placing his hand over his heart in a wounded gesture.

"Don't worry" he continued sensing her distress, "We won't stand in your way. You go `bout your business and we'll go `bout ours."

He walked over to where she was standing and faced her with a faint smile playing on his lips.

"That's hardly comforting," she sneered.

Mal regarded her with a lopsided grin, wondering how could he have ever let her go and amazed at the fact he wasn't on his knees right now begging her to stay with him. He had to let her go, it was what she wanted--what she needed--yet, his current restraint was shocking his own self.

"He's a very wealthy man," he stated, his voice low.

"Your client?" she inquired, folding her arms.

"Your client," he replied softly looking down at her through heavy lashes.

"I'm assumin' from his comment that the ship belongs to him," he continued cocking his head.

She blinked seeming surprised by his blunt assumption.

"He is not my client" she informed him sternly, "He`s just a good friend."

"A good friend who you happen to sleep with," he stated casually deliberately testing her. "Never had such great friends myself."

She just frowned refusing to take the bait, her eyes downcast and her mouth set in a thin line.

Mal contemplated her reaction, wondering whether her earlier statement might have been true, and they were in fact just good friends. He began walking slowly towards the window with a sudden need to keep a physical distance between them.

"Do you..." he started asking, all traces of sarcasm or irony gone from his voice.

He paused as he stared out the window, his back to her. His eyes were set on the silver crests of the waves bathed in the late evening lighting, but his thoughts were elsewhere.

"What?" she probed gently, her features softening.

He turned around to face her but could not bring himself to meet her eyes--his head low--concentrating on some imaginary object by his feet.

"Do you love him?" he breathed almost inaudibly without looking at her.

His words were thick with emotion. She was standing in the middle of the room, frozen. A sudden sense of fear started building in the pit of his stomach, raw and sharp. She was now looking at him, her expression a mixture of panic and wonder.

"You mind telling me what type of business you have here?" she pressed, deliberately changing the subject.

"How's that any of your business, again?" he replied sharply, wounded by her evasiveness.

"Mal, I'm asking you as a..." she began.

"As a what?" Mal cut her off curtly shrugging in a matter of fact way. "As a businesslike relation? `cause I don't recall us bein' anythin' more than that."

"That's not fair" she replied in a childlike way, her eyes sparkling with suppressed emotion.

"Fair" he echoed in a low voice--he saw past her cool exterior and found the young girl beneath it. "Life ain't fair, `Nara, best get used ta that."

"I forgot" she snapped at him annoyed, "The implacable petty thief would rather act upon his own selfish interests and go about his business regardless of who might get hurt in the process."

Selfish. The word rang in his ears loudly, insistently. A jolt of burning rage overtook him and his features turned harsh. She couldn't possibly know what letting her go had taken out of him. She couldn't possibly know how much all he had wanted to do was beg her to stay, but how even more than that, all he wanted was for her to be happy."

She turned to leave but he grabbed her by the wrist brusquely, forcing her to turn around.

"Don't you ever accuse me of bein' selfish!" he hissed in between clenched teeth.

"You're hurting me" she breathed looking up at him furiously.

Her futile attempts to free herself only managed to make her distress worse. He had a tight grip on her; cutting circulation of the blood and making her wrist throb in pain. She always thought of Mal as dangerous when it came to intimidating his opponents--even Jayne feared the Captain--but he had never directed his rage against her.

"Let go of me!" she ordered, her voice strong despite her fear.

He looked straight into her eyes and snarled his lips close to her ear as he pulled her closer:

"I already have."

(End of Part I)

"Stay" - PART II

Silently, sheltered by the penumbra, he had been observing her, waiting in the shadows like a predator pursuing its prey. It was getting late and she had barely moved from the same spot by the outer railing facing the sea in nearly an hour.

He could see her profile from where he was standing under the stairway. She seemed lost in thought, her face grim with tears streaming freely down her cheeks. He wondered why she had been rubbing her right wrist, her face twisted inward with what looked like pain, maybe anger. The cool evening air made her shiver slightly and he saw her wrap her thin shawl around her shoulders.

Unaware of the attentive presence in the shadows, Inara found herself consumed by the agony of her last conversation with Mal. His words pierced through her mind and she was unable to stop their incessant ringing in her ears.

I've already let you go.

It was precisely what she had wanted--exactly what she needed. Why did it hurt so much then? Just hearing him say those words had felt like somebody had snapped her last hanging thread making her fall into a dark abyss with nothing to hold on to.

It was the point of no return--the door back to Serenity had been permanently closed.

She turned around with a heavy sigh, her face composed, cool, as if she hadn't been blinded by tears only moments before. It was then when she caught a glimpse of a man leaning against the wall by the stairs leading to the upper deck, quietly and unquestionably observing her.

She began walking towards the stranger who was now moving away, still unable to make out his features in the darkness.

With a mixture between uneasiness and curiosity she followed him, lifting her long skirt in order to pick up her stride, but the figure got lost amongst a rowdy group of passengers that were drunkenly making their way out the sliding doors at the time.

Inara pushed her way past the loud cluster of people with no small effort, yet by the time she made it into the hallway the place was deserted. She kept staring down the corridor breathing heavily, a profound sense of inquietude troubling her mind.

She pushed her unrest aside and decided to focus on surviving the rest of the evening. It was getting late and she had a dinner engagement to attend.

The small restaurant that Jason chose was a quaint little Italian bistro that resembled in every way the ancient Venetian style of Earth-that-was. The tables were dressed in red and white table cloths with candle light flickering cheerfully over each and every one. The melodic tune of an accordionist enveloped the place as he walked from table to table picking on the cozier couples to serenade.

They were seated in a private corner table by a virtual window that overlooked a night in Venice. Through the window, lighted gondolas could be seen drifting lazily past through the canal, casting a glow on Mal's shoulder.

He had not been very talkative ever since they arrived, but was courteous enough as to keep the conversations casual and polite. It was quite obvious to Inara that he was enjoying this dinner just about as much as she was--in short, not at all.

She always had been able to read him exceptionally well, a skill she had perfected over her past year aboard Serenity, but now his facial expressions seemed empty, void of feeling. His eyes belied a tranquility she knew was feigned, still she was unable to discern what lay beneath. They had exchanged a couple of meaningless words while being seated at their table, but she could easily feel the tension between them and prayed Jason wouldn't notice.

"It all looks... tasty" Mal frowned while he read his menu.

Inara looked over at him picking up on his distress, and realized he probably never had Italian cuisine in his life. She then glanced over at Kaylee who was concentrating deeply, trying to pick an item from the dozens of dishes being offered, equally confused by the strange choices.

"What's a..." Kaylee paused, trying to pronounce the word correctly, "'p-pizza'?"

"It's flattened dough. They usually spread tomato sauce over the surface and your choice of ingredients" Inara explained.

Kaylee smiled at Inara in appreciation and, noticing the heightened excitement in the girl, the companion gave her a friendly wink in return.

"This is quite an impressive ship you have here, Mr. Silver" Mal said, taking a sip of his wine after they ordered their meals.

"I'm glad you think so" Jason replied, "It used to be called The Independent but we changed it after we made the purchase. A lot of prominent people who sail with us regularly were commenting on the name."

Mal's eyes narrowed regarding the other man with restrained annoyance.

"Seems to me there's nothin' harmful in a name" Mal said casually.

"Well, you know how people still get all tied up in knots about The War" Jason responded distractedly, placing his napkin over his lap. "When are people going to leave it alone, already? We won, end of story. No need to rub it in."

"There's no winners in battle, Mr. Silver" Mal said somberly.

Jason looked up to meet Mal's icy cold eyes. To his credit, he held the Captain's stare without bowing.

"Please, call me Jason" the young man said smiling in an attempt to ease the tense situation. "Are you a veteran of the war, Mr. Evans?" he asked mildly apologetic.

"I was there" Mal responded quietly.

"I apologize if my earlier comment offended you, then. I am grateful that there were people like you willing to fight for the Union."

Mal nodded in acceptance, his eyes were still serious but he forced a tight smile and let the assumption slide.

"Besides" Jason continued still looking directly at him, "I am a firm believer certain things are well worth fighting for."

Mal gripped his napkin tightly, taking his frustration out on the soft fabric. Inara looked at him with unreadable eyes and in turn, he deliberately pulled his eyes away to stare out the virtual window, pointedly refusing to look at her.

He could not wait to get out of there and should have never accepted the invitation, it was a mistake.

He sighed, his mind drifting to the events that had taken place earlier that evening, not really listening to what Kaylee was saying at that moment. She was talking to Inara about some vest she wanted to get somebody over at one of the souvenir stores downstairs.

At least one of us is having a good time, he thought. He wished he could see her just as happy again on Serenity.

Their meals finally arrived and they kept the conversation casual while they ate. Kaylee fell in love with pizza and vowed it would be the only thing she would eat during the cruise.

"So, it must be a big responsibility to captain a boat this size" Mal stated leaning back into the chair.

"I suppose so" Jason replied with a shrug, "Although I believe with the current technology a ship can practically captain itself!" he chuckled.

"Huh" was the extent of Mal's response.

"Oh, don't get me wrong" Jason continued, "Captain Huang is doing a great job. I'm just saying, it is merely a formality to have a captain on board, the crew knows what to do. But it is an old tradition, plus the guests love having their picture taken with him."

"Who'd like some dessert?" Inara interjected with a soothing smile afraid that Mal would just leap across the table in an attempt to strangle Jason.

Mal held Jason's cheerful stare with cold eyes and a polite smile playing on his lips while he clenched and unclenched his jaw fighting for control. He was about ready for the dinner to end in order to get the hell out of there.

"Do they have strawberries?" Kaylee asked, understanding the companion's attempts at distraction.

They ordered dessert and some after dinner liquor. Kaylee and Inara had taken control of the conversation, making small talk and silly little jokes, effectively dissipating most of the tension in the air by the time their orders arrived.

Spotting the seemingly happy couples, the accordionist came to their table and kneeled between Mal and Kaylee while he played a romantic tune. They looked at each other, the sheer absurdity of their situation finally cutting past the mounting tension in Mal, and he found himself able to join in Kaylee's smile.

Amused by the musician's attempts at steaming up the ambiance Kaylee pulled her chair closer to Mal's, wrapping her arm around his waist. Her hand came to rest on his thigh, and she leaned her head on his shoulder. Playing along, he embraced her, kissing her temple and whispering a `let's not stay for much longer' in her ear.

Jason glanced at Inara with a broad smile, rejoicing at the sweet affection of the couple sitting across from them, and brought her hand to his lips kissing it gently. She smiled back at him, her eyes lingering over his face briefly before leaning forward for a tender kiss.

"If you only knew what you do to me" he whispered close to her face.

Their brief exchange did not go amiss by Mal, who turned away with a grim expression on his face.

"This place is so cozy" Kaylee complimented once the accordionist left their table.

"One can get used to this life" Inara agreed.

"I'm sure!" Jason smiled. "Especially considering where you have spent this past year."

"And where, may I ask, did you spend this past year, Ms. Serra?" Mal inquired, searching her eyes--he could not wait to hear this.

"She went sailing on one of those small transport ships" Jason cut in. "What was it?"

"A firefly" she said quietly, not really wanting to dwell on the subject.

"That's it!" Jason said clicking his fingers. "I knew it was some kind of bug."

Mal looked at him with a grim smile on his face and turned calmly to Inara.

"How did you like it?" he asked searching her eyes.

"It was quite an interesting experience" she replied with a firm voice, looking directly at him. Her eyes were harsh. "It is not every day that you get to sail in a tin can ship and eat molded protein lost in some remote planet that has never heard of running water."

Kaylee's smile faded slowly throughout the companion's speech.

"Sounds like a dreadful experience" Mal replied evenly, holding her stare.

"I'm surprised she lasted that long in that wreck" Jason added, amused by the tale.

Inara remained quiet but held Mal's inquisitive stare. She had struck a nerve and she knew it. It was exactly what she had intended by her earlier comment, then why did it feel like somebody was squeezing her heart to a pulp? She swallowed hard, hoping to ease the crushing sensation on her chest.

Kaylee felt distraught. Had Inara really hated her life on Serenity that much? She always looked like she belonged, like she was happy there. It turns out she was just putting up a companion's faade in front of her.

The young girl regarded her across the table with sad eyes but said nothing. Inara flinched inwardly when she caught a glimpse of Kaylee's expression and her heart sank. She wanted to get back at Mal for his earlier behavior, but it was never her intention to hurt Kaylee in the process.

I should have known better, she scolded herself.

Oblivious to the mood change in the air, Jason broke the uncomfortable silence.

"If you like art and jewelry, there is a wonderful exhibit on board that you shouldn't miss" Jason informed them. "Inara is dying to see the latest art work. I promised to surprise her with this one particular piece I know she'll love to see. You should join us tomorrow for a private tour."

Mal was about to decline his offer. There was no way he could take another socializing session with Inara and the man who, as he now realized, was undeniably her lover. On the other hand, what a great opportunity to scope out the security around the Tara! They were here to do a job and that should be his first and utmost priority.

"Great!" Mal accepted forcing a smile.

Absolutely shiny, he thought sarcastically.

After the dinner from hell, Kaylee went to check up on Jayne and Mal decided to go out for a walk around the deck. He needed the exercise, he needed fresh air, and he needed to strangle someone...

A sinking sensation had been bothering him all night and his mind was reeling about the job and about Inara. His feet carried him instinctively to one of the late night lounges, where he found a secluded place at the end of the bar and ordered a drink. Not only did he want to get drunk tonight, but his desire to just forget the last several hours was his prime motive for downing the first glass of many to come.

It wasn't like Inara had left him for some snob whoo-dahn like Ath. Jason seemed like a decent enough guy and she seemed happy with him. The realization struck him with a jolt. He remembered the way she had smiled warmly at Jason during dinner, and the way she had faked every smile she had sent his way instead. Sure, she was still angry about their earlier fight, but the front she was putting up for him was enough to know she had made her choice--a choice that she had obviously made without hesitation.

This assessment wasn't going to make the job tomorrow any easier. He had been presented with a golden opportunity to check out the stone, and he had to keep a clear mind to determine the best course of action. It seemed easy enough--go to the exhibit room, analyze the size, weight and positioning of the rock and the security around it, fine tune the plan and ignore Inara and her lover in the process.

Easy-peasy, he thought smiling bitterly despite himself.

Inara needed to talk to Mal. Shortly after they had gone their separate ways that evening, Jason was called in to attend some problem that had arisen at the Casino, so she decided to go up to the honeymoon suite in search of Mal. Despite her insistent knocking nobody answered the door.

She never meant to go as far as she did during dinner. It was rare for her to lose control in such a manner, yet tonight her lack of restraint had managed to hurt not only Mal, her initial target, but also Kaylee. How could she have been so careless? Guilt and regret were all she could feel as she wandered through the corridors thinking of what she might say to Mal once she found him.

She was on her way downstairs already when she bumped into Jayne and Kaylee, who were coming out of the round-the-clock pharmacy. It shocked her to see Jayne so pale--he looked like he was about to pass out. Kaylee had her arm around his waist trying to support him as best as she could. They almost lost their balance a couple of times as they walked towards the elevators on the deserted deck.

"Kaylee?" she called out.

Both Jayne and Kaylee turned around when they heard Inara's voice from the top of the three step stairway to their left.

"Inara" Kaylee acknowledged wearily mildly surprised.

She was not sure whether she was ready to face Inara just yet after the companion's recent comments at the dinner table. The way Inara had so easily desecrated Serenity, and their way of life was something that would take Kaylee some time to get over.

Inara walked over to them, having as much trouble meeting the girl's eyes as she approached. Kaylee looked down at the floor avoiding her eyes, fidgeting out of nervousness or maybe trying to better support Jayne's weight.

"Kaylee, tonight at dinner..." Inara began.

"I need to take Jayne to his cabin" Kaylee interrupted shyly, raising her head to look at Inara.

She was obviously not ready to talk about what had transpired during dinner. Inara could understand her hesitation; after all she had a right to be hurt by her words. The companion searched Kaylee's eyes looking for a trace of understanding. She hoped Kaylee would find it in her heart to forgive her one day, a possibility that at the present moment seemed remote.

Inara's attention shifted to Jayne, who had been witnessing their exchange with a frown, but had said nothing. He kept rocking back and forth from heel to toe as if trying to find his balance. His strong arms were wrapped around Kaylee's shoulders like a life line and he was breathing deeply through his nose.

"'Nough girl talk!" he snapped. "Can we get this show on the run?"

"How much did he have to drink?" Inara asked Kaylee, moving over to Jayne's side and helping the girl steady his big body.

"I ain't drunk!" Jayne snarled.

"He's been seasick ever since he boarded" Kaylee sighed.

"Gorram boat won't stay still! Can't even keep damn whisky down to take care o' the problem!" he growled visibly annoyed. "I'm tellin' ya, this ain't just boat sickness, I think I was poisoned!"

Both Kaylee and Inara regarded him pitifully with sympathetic expressions on their faces.

The elevator doors finally opened and they both settled Jayne firmly against the wall inside it. Kaylee gave Inara a tight, grateful smile avoiding her eyes.

"Have you seen Mal?" Inara asked softly, standing in the way of the sensor to keep the doors opened.

"He was in one of the downstairs lounges last time I saw'im" Kaylee replied scanning Jayne's key card through the digital panel, staring at Inara defiantly as a clear indication that she did not want to converse any further.

It took Inara scouting through two entire decks before she finally spotted him. It was well past midnight and most of the guests had retired into their quarters by then.

His shirt was unbuttoned at the neck, and his jacket was forgotten on top of the stool he was leaning against. His hair was tousled, and he was already sporting a slight five o'clock shadow. He seemed to be deep in thought, staring intently into a glass filled with some coppery liquid.

Her eyes lingered over his form as he hunched over his drink. She began doubting herself, wondering if talking to him right now was really a good idea. He hadn't seen her yet and she could just turn around and let things be between them.

No, I must do this.

The place was nearly empty at that late hour and she swiftly approached him, moving fluidly across the room.

"May I sit down?" she said softly, getting his attention.

He raised his eyes to look at her, but did not move. He regarded her with a blank expression, blinking heavily once as if to make sure she wasn't just a vision. He took in a deep breath and gestured for her to take a seat. She delicately propped herself on one of the stools.

Her mind was still reeling, still wondering what she could possibly say to him to mend things without further hurting each other in the process. It was always a task to keep their badgering in check, especially when raw emotions were so close to the surface.

"I'm sorry about what I said during dinner" she finally said softly, testing the ground.

"Which part?" he asked hoarsely without looking at her.

She sighed and began fiddling with a coaster, focusing on the object to avoid looking at him. After a beat, she found the courage to speak.

"You know I really loved Serenity, and traveling with all of you."

"Loved..." he mouthed with a half smile.

She closed her eyes at her inadvertent choice of words, astounded by her own admission.

"Where's your friend?" he asked sardonically, punctuating the last word.

She watched as his eyes searched the room, as if he expected Jason to walk through the door at any minute. Inara thought about her open display of affection towards Jason in the restaurant and a wave of regret enveloped her.

"I know what you are thinking" she stated. "He's an old friend, Mal. He has always been there for me up until..." she could not bring herself to complete the sentence.

He looked at her with one arched brow, waiting for her to finish what she was about to say; when she didn't, he probed in idle curiosity, "What happened to him, anyways?"

She had just noticed how his speech was slightly slurred.

"It was a riding accident" she replied.

A detectable sadness had crept into her eyes and voice. "We went into the woods. My horse... she suddenly went wild. Jason tried to calm her down" Inara swallowed hard recalling the painful memory. "His own horse stepped into a fox trap. It fell on top of him and his spine..." she paused and took in a deep breath. "There was nothing the doctors could do to repair the damage" she concluded rushing out the words.

Mal was staring at her unblinking. The dreamy look in his eyes was lost, now replaced with a mixture between bewilderment and incredulity.

"And now you feel you owe him something" Mal stated somberly.

"You know me better than that" she replied turning to him.

She was disappointed by his refusal to even acknowledge her apology. He had not made it easy on her to begin with--his demeanor had been anything but encouraging since she approached him.

He remained quiet. His attention was now on the near empty glass and she wondered what was going through his mind. She desperately waited for him to say something.

He didn't.

"I don't want us to part like this, Mal" she admitted, hoping he would at least look at her. "I never meant to hurt you."

He simply curved his lips into a sad lopsided grin before he began speaking.

"I've sat here for God knows how long, tryin' to convince myself that it is all over" he started, "Tryin' to let it... sink in."

His tone was low and distant, and Inara could hear his words now clearly slurred.

"Durin' dinner I realized that you... belong here, in the sophisticated life of the Core. You deserve somethin' better than Serenity, Nara, better than..." He bit his lower lip before he added in a wistful tone, "You might find this hard to believe, but I truly want you to be happy."

He gulped down the remainder of his whisky and inhaled deeply, "All I keep doin' is hurtin' you."

His hand reached out to touch her bruised wrist that was resting on the bar, and began tracing his index finger delicately over the darkened skin.

"Just tell me why" he continued, raising his eyes to meet hers. "I need to hear you say it. Why did you leave, Inara?"

"Mal..." she began saying tenderly, pulling her hand away.

"No, `Nara" he cut her off, pulling her hand towards him carefully. "No runnin' away this time."

"I-I needed some space..." she stuttered taken off guard by his persistence.

"Sure you did" he retorted angrily, letting go of her hand. "And you told this Jason guy your dire need for space before or after you jumped into his bed?"

"This is not about Jason, it's about your need for control" she accused indignantly, trying to steer the conversation in a different direction. "You just want everybody to dance to the Captain's tune and the fact that I broke away from your flock unnerves you."

"When did I ever tell you who to do your companion business with?" he snapped defensively.

"Would you like the dates on every single time or just the times that resulted in a swordfight?" she answered sarcastically. "Besides, I'm not Jason's Companion. He's a good friend and I choose to be with him. He needs me, and I am here for him."

"You're still his whore!" Mal spat enraged. "The worst kind. The kind which is willin' to sell her heart for an easy life!"

Inara stared at him silently with a grim expression on her face. She felt her composure wavering and an overwhelming desire to slap him across the face. How could he be so insensitive? She came to apologize to him for her behavior during dinner and he was treating her like dirt.

"I should've known better than to seek your forgiveness, Captain Reynolds" she said tersely.

She stepped down from the stool and turned away. Before she could even take two steps, she felt a strong hand on her arm, holding her in place firmly.

"Inara" Mal called softly, his features contrite. He gently forced her to turn around.

She faced him, her head tilted up to meet his eyes, sheer fury blazing out of hers. The deep emotion she saw in them astonished her. Behind the mist caused by the alcohol, lay a profound sense of shame and regret. He was open to her, no masks or fronts in his expression. He silently pleaded for her forgiveness louder than any words could have shouted. Flustered, he opened his mouth to say something but no words were uttered.

Inara's features softened as his arrogance turned into agony. He was looking at her through heavy eyelids and a serious expression on his face. His eyes were slightly glassy, but that did not take away from the intensity of his stare. Her breath caught in her throat when his right palm came to rest softly against her cheek and his knuckle trailed gently down her jaw line. He stepped forward, tenderly cupping the side of her neck, his lips parted.

Panic overwhelmed her when she finally realized what he was about to do, and she froze unable to move as he bent down to touch his lips to hers in a firm yet tender kiss. Fire exploded somewhere within her and she felt her body begin to tremble from shock as well as fear. She could taste the tangy taste of liquor in his mouth, adding to the heat of his actions.

Before she could get a hold of what was happening, she found herself responding to the kiss tentatively, unable to quell the irrefutable desire that was building inside of her. Her lack of control was unprecedented, and it scared her more than she cared to admit.

When her mind finally grasped at some remote trace of reason she placed her palms on his chest, pushing herself away from him roughly and breaking the kiss abruptly. She immediately missed the warmth of his body the moment they broke apart, and she fought her need to fall back into his embrace.

Inara looked up at him with wide eyes, her chest rising and falling noticeably and her cheeks burning with shame. She took a couple of steps back before turning around and rushing out of the lounge. Mal saw her run out but did not follow her, leaning against the back wall for support instead. He licked his lips, tasting her in them still, and closed his eyes while he realized the monumental mistake of his actions. He sat in stunned stillness, letting the weight of what he had just done sink in. Staring blankly at where Inara had been sitting just moments before, he only stirred from his reverie when a patron he hadn't even noticed scraped a chair across the floor on the far side of the bar. When he looked distractedly towards the noise, the bar was empty.

Mal walked silently into the honeymoon suite. He found it difficult to move around the dark room, especially in an inebriated state.

After bumping his shin against the coffee table--causing him to swallow a nasty curse--and tripping over the rug a couple of times, he stumbled upon the edge of the bed and sat on it carefully. He waited for a bit, listening to Kaylee's even breathing, and sighed relieved that he hadn't woken her.

Slowly he began undressing, too drunk to care what he might say to Inara tomorrow when they met at the show room. He knew he had screwed up in a major way.

It didn't matter how much he tried to forget the feeling of her soft skin under his touch, the image of her form, so close to him, had been burned into his brain. He could still taste the sweetness of her lips shyly moving over his own... had she really kissed him back? He tried to replay the moment in his head, but his memory was too hazy, and his eyelids too heavy to fight unconsciousness. As soon as his head came to rest on the pillow, he succumbed to a dreamless sleep.

Instinctively, Kaylee rolled over to his side seeking his warmth, cuddling against his body where she remained for the rest of the night.

The following morning Jayne was feeling well enough to venture from his quarters, so he decided to take Kaylee to the virtual shooting range. He had not been able to drink or eat anything since last night, but he was feeling better than he had ever since they boarded. Maybe he would try to eat a bite later just to see if he could keep it down.

To keep his mind off his growling stomach, he had decided to drag Kaylee out of the swimming pool under an ulterior pretense before leading her straight to the practice range. She was now angry at him, leaning against the far wall of the chamber.

He knew how much the girl despised the sight of guns. She had seen her leave the common area of Serenity every time he or Mal decided to inspect or clean their weapons there. She would not say much, just make some lame excuse to leave and then disappear for hours after that.

He did not know what had gone on between her and Mal yesterday in their cabin during the tear fest, and he didn't much care. He decided at that moment to make it his mission to rid this kid of her fear of guns. No member he sailed with would be skittish around weapons, no matter what Mal let her get away with.

"See? Nothin' to be afraid of" Jayne said pointing towards the set of guns neatly placed inside an open casing.

Kaylee remained silent, looking at the floor and refusing to cave into Jayne's plan. She had told Mal earlier that morning that she wanted to skip the private exhibit. She had not told him Inara was the reason behind her decision not to join him, although she knew the Captain well enough as to detect a flare of sympathy in his tone while he had suggested she should relax by the pool.

Now Jayne had dragged her here against her will. She leered at the nasty weapons in the casing with a pout and her arms defensively folded over her chest. The truth was, it wasn't so much the guns that scared her, but the ease in which the sight of them transported her back to that dreadful night at Niska's skyplex. The sheer terror she felt when the three armed men closed in on Serenity, being petrified and unable to react had been the theme of many of her nightmares recently. If it wasn't for River... If it wasn't for the others... the Captain would be dead, and it would have been her fault.

She was so submersed in the dreadful memories that she jumped at the sound of Jayne's exasperated voice.

"We ain't leavin' here `til ya shoot some" he warned.

"Aren't you gonna practice?" she asked, still fighting him on the issue.

"It ain't my demon to fight" he answered firmly.

Kaylee bit her lower lip and looked at the casing dubiously.

"M-maybe if I see how you do it..." she suggested.

Jayne gave her a lopsided grin and nodded in agreement. He then extracted a gun from the casing and expertly put it together in less than a minute. He positioned himself in front of the target and emptied the chamber.

Kaylee stood behind him, hands covering her ears protectively, not so much for the noise--the gun was just making little popping sounds--but in an attempt to deal with the sight of the target being ripped to pieces with every shot. She forced herself to keep her eyes open, yet she flinched every time Jayne pulled the trigger.

After the first round, Jayne looked proudly at his score and then turned to her smugly.

"See? Nothin' to it" he pointed with a smirk.

Kaylee tilted her head to the side in puzzlement. "Wasn't you s'posed to hit that target?" she said pointing at the virtual figure flashing in front of them.

Jayne frowned, scrutinizing the virtual screen and discovering with dismay he had been shooting at the wrong target all along.

"Gorramit!" he growled in disgust. "Ruttin' pills are just messin' with my brain!"

Kaylee smiled at his reaction, seeing his pride fading in a matter of seconds. She wondered why his guns and his aim were so important to him.

"It's no big deal" she soothed, trying to comfort him, "This was just a practice run."

He turned to her with a frown on his face as he scratched his head. Two fingers moved absently over his scalp, holding the gun tightly with that same hand.

"That don't happen" he stated clearly confused. "Not to me. In real life you don't get practice runs, little one, best you remember that."

"Maybe we can come back later..." she said hopeful.

"Nope!" he cut her off. "Your turn."

Kaylee froze. She had a sudden urge to run, to get out of there, away from the guns. She put a hand over her chest, gripping the soft fabric of the t-shirt firmly to keep her hand occupied, and took a couple of steps back.

He eyed her critically and concluded "You need somethin' light, somethin' you can handle. Here, try this one."

Jayne shoved a smaller pistol into Kaylee's hand brusquely. Her fingers curled around the cold metal instinctively, making her feel aghast. She was about to put it back down when Jayne grabbed her wrist, forcing her to stay put. He must have seen her terror reflected on her face, because he relaxed his grip on her wrist at once.

"Just hold it!" he ordered gruffly.

She complied--simply holding the small firearm with respect--and found herself slowly growing more confident. The weapon did not feel so foreign in her hand after a while. Jayne waited patiently while the girl got a feel for the firearm. After what seemed like an eternity, Kaylee loosened the grip on the gun and handed it back to Jayne with a shy smile.

"There, held it already" she mumbled. "Can we go now?"

"What the hell are ya `fraid of?" Jayne demanded, snatching the gun from her hands.

Her only answer was a slight shrug of her shoulders. She was staring down at the ground while she played with a lock of her hair distractedly.

"Fine!" he sighed in resignation. "C'mon, I'll treat ya to lunch."

"Meals are complimentary on board" she pointed out while she watched him snap the casing shut.

"Yeah, I know" he smiled.

"Where is your lovely wife?" Jason asked when Mal walked into the show room.

Jason and Inara turned to face him from the corner of the small room. Inara was standing behind Jason's chair, her hands resting lightly on his shoulders, gently rubbing the nape of his neck with her thumbs. She locked eyes with Mal briefly, her calm expression turning taut at his sight. She stiffened her back almost undetectably, but it was enough for Mal to sense her discomfort. He wondered whether his own chagrin was equally apparent to her, so he tried to put her at ease by relaxing his stance and smiling brightly at them. Looking around the room with keen interest, he noticed the front door was the only way in and out of it.

After a brief pause, Mal answered easily, "She decided to go for a swim and get a little sun. You know women."

He took a few steps towards them, deliberately ignoring the Tara stone that was being displayed in the center of the room. He made a mental note, five paces from the entrance to the rock.

"I sure do" Jason smiled, taking one of Inara's hands with both of his over his shoulder. "Feel free to look around. All the objects on display are collector's items."

Mal closed his eyes the moment he turned his back to them, pretending to concentrate on an old rifle hanging from the wall. One kiss, that was all it had taken for him to damn everything to hell, he thought somberly.

The job, he reminded himself, concentrate on the job.

He was surprised at the lack of security guarding the actual show room. There was only an electronic code at the door that Kaylee could easily bypass and a couple of cameras that could be programmed to play the same image continuously in a snap.

Looking around the room, he casually contemplated of all the gadgets with faked interest, jewelry and artifacts on display. They dated as far back as the Middle Ages, and from what he read on the digital tags next to each object, it was quite a collection of oddities. He noticed the size of the air vents, appearing too small for an adult to squeeze through, and too high for a micro camera to pan over every angle of the room.

With a deep breath, he turned around to face Inara and Jason. Inara could not bring herself to look him in the eyes--could he blame her? He tried to read into her actions, the way she had thrown a fleeting glance his way, quickly redirecting her attention to an ancient entertainment device in the shape of a box. He detected the tension in her stance, the shadow of a frown playing on her forehead, and he concluded she was ashamed. The thought of having been kissed by a `petty criminal' probably repelled her. Not for the first time, but never with such intensity, had Mal realized the vast width of the gap between their worlds.

The job, he reminded himself yet again, diverting his eyes to the show case to the left of Inara. If things went right on Kaylee's end, this could be as simple as him walking in, slipping the stone into a bag while Jayne kept watch outside, and strolling right back out. He smirked to himself, and just when are things ever that simple? His smirk faded gradually, his eyes unfocused on the artifact in front of him as his thoughts drifted right.

"Anything here interests you?" Jason asked out of the blue.

"Shenme?" Mal asked confused, his mind still on Inara.

"I know the history behind every single piece on display" Jason informed proudly.

You probably do, Mal thought sourly.

"What `bout this one?" Mal inquired walking towards the Tara stone. "She stands out."

"She does, doesn't she?" Jason agreed, glancing at the green stone which was protected inside an electromagnetic urn.

The protective field surrounding the stone made it look fuzzy from the outside, but its intense color could easily be appreciated.

The stone was shaped like a woman looking skyward. Mal noticed the figure had a third eye on its forehead. Her arms were extended downward at a forty-five degree angle in a gesture of supplication and her palms were open. Her features were soft, exuding femininity, and her enigmatic smile hid the secrets of truths never told. She had an additional eye on each of her hands. It was no taller than two feet, but it had a powerful presence in the room.

`So that's the famous Tara stone' Mal thought.

It was actually quite ugly and the fact somebody was paying good money for it was beyond him. Her multiple eyes seemed to follow his every movement, judging him for a crime he had yet to commit and he felt impelled to look away. He carefully evaluated the field protecting her--a transparent shield, present yet unyielding.

"It's a strange piece" Mal said. He then whispered its name, which was written below it, "Tara."

"Hmm?" Inara hummed raising her eyebrows, thinking Mal had actually called her name.

"I was referrin' to our guest of honor here" Mal answered looking directly at her, secretly enjoying the ease in which his presence was putting her on edge. "Many would pay good money to have her."

"She doesn't come cheap" Jason nodded with a grin. "The Buddhist goddess Tara is one of the few female figures within Buddhism. She has been a praised and respected deity for centuries. Believers attribute a range of enlightened powers and qualities to her."

"Such as?" Mal asked genuinely curious.

"The power to make one see one's inner truth" Jason answered in a serious tone bordering on mystical.

Mal turned his head from the urn to look at Jason, wondering if he believed in such a crock. A smile crept into Jason's face slowly, and he glanced back at Mal with a smirk.

"Yeah, it is one ugly specimen" Jason chuckled "It was presented to our family as an appreciation gift and people seem to be taken aback by its history, so we keep it around."

Jason seemed lost in thought for a few seconds, regarding the stone as if in a trance. "Some times a simple `thank you' can do a better job, don't you think?" he finally chortled.

"Any idea how much these stones go for?" Mal inquired after having gathered enough information to perfect the final plan.

"I'm not really sure. I am guessing they can get quite pricey in the black market, but it is not like we are intending to sell it or trade it anytime soon."

Mal nodded with a smile he couldn't repress. His smile faded when he saw Inara looking at him unwaveringly as he turned around. Her eyes conveyed a silent question, maybe a warning--she suspected something was up. Mal gave her a curt smile, feeling suddenly very uncomfortable. This time it was him who broke eye contact and began walking slowly towards the door.

"Thank you for the lovely tour. You don't know how much I appreciate it" Mal finally said smiling at them, hands stuck inside his pant pockets.

"I'm sure I do" Jason replied kindly.

Inara was now looking at him with a serious expression while she followed his every movement all the way to the entrance.

She suspects something, he realized with dismay.

"I'm sure you two wanna be alone. Besides, there's a lovely young woman waitin' for me by the pool, so if you'd excuse me..." Mal said, heading out the door.

"Give our regards to your young bride for us" Jason told him cheerfully as he walked out.

Once the tour was over, Jason waited a couple of seconds after Mal left before pulling Inara down on to his lap with a firm tug of her hand. She let out a surprised gasp, holding on to his shoulders for balance even though his arms had her in a tight grip.

"Whadda ya know" he said with feigned surprise "We seem to be alone in a cozy room without a chaperone! What ever could we do" he whispered, nuzzling her ear.

"Jason" she moaned in pleasure.

Hearing her say his name in such a manner encouraged him to trace her jaw line with butterfly kisses, and then her neck, and her chin until he found her mouth and deepened the kiss.

She smiled against his mouth and responded to his touch, running her fingers through his hair at the same time as he caressed her back.

He broke the kiss gently and looked into her eyes with a serious expression on his face.

"Stay with me" he said softly.

"I'm here" she smiled "I'm not going anywhere."

"You know what I mean," he continued seriously, "I want you to stay with me after the cruise. I want you to be with me and nobody else. I love you Inara."

She looked him in the eyes and saw the intensity of his feelings reflected in the depths of green. She had seen that look on other people's eyes in the past--desire, and sheer lust no doubt. But there was something else in his expression, a particular feeling she could not make out, and it terrified her. Mal's kiss had also terrified her the night before, more than she could ever have imagined, but this was different.

"That is quite an offer" she smiled caressing his cheek.

"You don't need to give me an answer right away. I understand you having to think about it" he told her kissing her hand and giving her a brief, gentle squeeze.

She was still smiling but did not speak; instead she leaned down to kiss him again, their initial passion returning with each passing second.

He was already by the elevators when Mal realized he had forgotten his key card at the exhibit room.

He let out a silent curse and traced his steps back to the show room, taking note of every turn and step on his way and committing it to memory. Glad to see the exhibit was still open, he picked up his pace and stopped on his tracks before making it through the door. Unseen, Mal quickly stepped to the side and leaned against the wall outside, feeling as if his chest was being crushed by an incredible weight.

He never thought the sight of Inara kissing another man would have such an effect on him. His knees were getting weak.

Still in shock and with his mind reeling, Mal walked shakily down the hallway all the way back to the elevators. He waited in the small deserted lobby and closed his eyes, resting his back against the wall with his head tilted towards the ceiling. Swallowing hard, he inwardly cursed, "Qingwa co de limng!"

He took in a deep breath, his resolve building inside, and squared his shoulders as he stood up straight.

He stared blankly at one of the pictures on the wall. He could still see Inara sensually running her fingers through Jason's hair while his hands caressed her back. Mal frowned, pushing those thoughts aside and tried to concentrate on the surreal colors of the painting instead. It was just an explosion of reds, bright yellows and magentas. The fury of those tones mellowing down into cooler shades of blue and purple on the edges. He found himself mesmerized by it.

A vivid picture of the Tara stone popped into his head. He wasn't sure where the thought came from--it just planted itself in his brain. She kept looking at him with five judging, penetrating eyes. He was suddenly filled with a sense of dread and unease.

Don't look at me like that, he thought, talking to the Tara in his mind. I'm steppin' aside. She can go ahead'n... Whatever makes her happy. I ain't gonna stop her.

Mal let out a nervous chuckle at the notion of talking to a mythical figure inside his head. If he wasn't careful, he was going to end up sounding like Jayne with his `conspiracy theories'.

He shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind of that piercing stare, but the image persisted and so did his restlessness. He'd had hunches in the past; still, this went beyond a simple bad feeling.

And then he understood.

"No," he whispered this time with a firm voice. "Inara can stay. Tomorrow night, you're coming with me."

(End of Part II)

"Stay" - PART III

The moment the ship started rocking Jayne broke into a cold sweat, Kaylee had noticed.

The ocean was hit by a powerful storm that evening, making most of the people on board retreat into their cabins early feeling seasick and Jayne was no exception. Not even the aquatic anti-gravity fields had been able to stop the boat from swaying with the storm. The mercenary had brought a bottle of water from his cabin, and as far as she knew, that had been his only intake since the small sandwich he ate at lunchtime. Not that he had been able to keep it down for long--not even a full box of Dramamine had done the trick this time.

The three of them were now at the honeymoon suite going over the details of the job. Mal had been very quiet and withdrawn--much more than usual, she observed. He had told them about his visit to the showroom earlier, but he had been brief and to the point. Almost cryptic, even by Mal's standards. When she had asked him about the stone itself he had just shrugged and dismissed it as `just an old jade rock'.

The Captain was leaning over a ship's map that had been projected over the coffee table, and seemed to be focusing his attention on the different scenarios of the heist. Even though he kept tracing his fingers over the route, his mind appeared to be elsewhere, his eyes sometimes unfocused for a while over a random spot on the map. Kaylee noticed how he blinked and frowned every time this happened, trying to bring his mind back on track. She wanted to wrap her arms around one of his and make him tell her what was wrong, just as he had done to her the day they boarded the ship, but she knew better. Mal didn't work that way and the last thing she wanted to do right now was annoy him.

Her attention turned back to Jayne. He was chewing pill after pill without even bothering with a glass of water to down them easier. He was gripping the armrest tightly with his eyes closed and his head tilted back. Kaylee gave him fleeting glances from where she was sitting on the couch next to Mal.

"How long will it take you to tap into the boat's network?" Mal asked, getting her attention.

She focused on the small handheld device and began punching in code after code, trying not to let her concern regarding Jayne's condition distract her from the task at hand.

"Don't know yet" she replied, "I am trying to find the route to the showroom. Once I find the path, I can work the system remotely from here."

She was frowning, her entire concentration now focused on the small computer.

"Wash's much better than me at these things" she said with a pout.

"Yeah, well Wash wouldn't have made such a pretty wife" Mal replied easily, "And I know you won't let me down."

She looked up at him with fear in her eyes and he returned the stare, silently telling her to believe in herself the way he did. She smiled faintly and continued her task.

"You said the rock just has an electromagnetic field around it" Kaylee recalled from what little Mal had told them about his showroom visit. "That`s probably the only device independent from the ship's main network. We can still bypass it by shortin' the breakers to the exhibit room. Emergency power'll only come on after several seconds. That should give you `nough time to..."

Jayne got up from the sofa abruptly and ran into the bathroom, barely making it in time.

Kaylee stopped talking the minute he leapt from the chair and looked over at Mal, concern written all over her face. Mal slouched forward inhaling deeply and clasped his hands in front of him, resting his elbows on his knees. They both heard Jayne flushing the toilet and turning on the tap.

"Gorramit!" the tall man's voice came from the other room.

"Jayne?" Mal called rolling his eyes in resignation.

He was going to be one man short for this one, he knew it. While having Jayne was mainly a safety measure, the Captain found it reassuring to have somebody watching his back during the heist.

"I'm fine, Cap'n!" Jayne replied between clenched teeth. "Ruttin' bottled water got a nasty aftertaste! Things just taste funny on this gorram boat!"

Kaylee went over to the mini bar to retrieve a soda can and walked inside the bathroom quietly. Jayne was sitting on the bathroom floor with his back against the wall and his eyes closed looking absolutely miserable. She crouched down next to him and placed the cold soda can on his forehead.

He opened his eyes in a flash, slightly alarmed, and saw Kaylee next to him. He took the soda can and grinned meekly at her, opening it and gulping down the bubbly drink hungrily.

"Better?" she asked.

"I need some air" he said standing up, using Kaylee and the sink for support.

Mal saw them coming out of the bathroom with a resigned expression on his face. He switched off the map and dismissed Jayne, who was looking so livid it actually shocked him. Kaylee walked the tall man to the door and, despite her persistent offer to accompany him downstairs, he insisted on being alone.

The Captain took his own soda can from the small table and leaned back against the couch going over the plan in his head. Things were getting complicated by the second--he had a bad feeling about the whole thing.

And then there was Inara.

Don't even go there, he told himself, feeling a new wave of anguish.

"Poor Jayne!" Kaylee said lying on the bed looking lazily at the ceiling "I've never seen him this sick."

Mal did not respond, he kept thinking about the job. Tomorrow was the big night. They would reach Ibiza Island the following morning, where a shuttle would be waiting for them at dawn to make the trade and take them back to their rendezvous spot before taking off planet.

"Cap'n?" Kaylee went to sit next to him on the love seat "Are you feeling ok?"

"'Course I am" he said taking a sip from the Blue Sun soda can.

"You've been so quiet all evenin'."

"I have a lot to think `bout."

"The job, right?"

He nodded.

She knew there was something else bothering him, but decided to respect his privacy, whatever it was he would not share it with anybody. He never did.

"You look real tired" she said with concern. "It's late, why don't you come to bed? I promise not to steal the blanket this time" she joked, trying to liven up his mood.

He glanced at her touched by her gesture and placed a hand on her shoulder, rubbing her upper arm gently.

"Don't worry about me, mei-mei. I'll be fine."

She smiled sweetly at him and kissed him on the cheek before heading to bed. She went under the covers and switched off the lights.

Kaylee did not fall asleep immediately, instead she lay awake with her eyes closed when Mal went to take a shower and when he came out. She was awake when he lay down next to her and stared silently at the ceiling, and she was still awake when he took in a deep breath and exhaled it as he whispered to himself dispiritedly:

"She can stay."

Blue skies and sunshine greeted them the following morning. Kaylee and Mal were having a buffet breakfast by one of the pools when Jayne joined them, sporting really dark bags under his eyes.

"You look like gos se" Mal pointed out with a smirk.

"And I ain't feeling much better either" Jayne mumbled, flopping onto a chair. "Are you ready to practice some today, lil' Kaylee?" he asked, sniffing at his mango juice thoroughly before taking a cautious sip.

Kaylee's smile faded as she stuffed an enormous piece of bao into her mouth to avoid answering his question.

"Practice?" Mal questioned with a raised eyebrow.

"I took the young one to the shootin' range yesterday" Jayne said while he examined the bottom of his glass suspiciously.

"I see" Mal nodded not entirely thrilled with the idea of Kaylee actually firing a gun.

He looked puzzled at Jayne, who kept stirring the orange liquid inside his glass energetically with a spoon, mesmerized by the whirlwind created inside it.

"What in the wode tan are you doin'?" Mal asked him annoyed by the clinking of glass against metal.

"I got the feelin' these people are puttin' somethin' in my food, Mal" Jayne answered secretively, leaning towards Mal.

Mal rolled his eyes with a smirk but said nothing. Taking a sip of coffee, he looked over at Kaylee who was quietly cutting into some fresh fruit, and tried to picture her firing a gun. The image disturbed him, but he guessed in a line of work such as theirs it could never hurt for her to know how to defend herself. All in all, he would have preferred his little Kaylee to stay clear of guns, and he frowned at the thought of her aiming and firing a weapon. In any case, he had too much on his mind to deal with at the moment.

"Get ready," Jayne warned, "We're leaving in five."

Kaylee looked at Mal in dismay, hoping for his support.

"Someone needs to keep Jayne outta trouble, Kaylee" Mal told her with a mocking smirk.

"Fine" she grumbled with a frown, a prominent pout forming on her bottom lip. "But your aim best be better this time."

Mal glanced over at Jayne questioningly. He needed to be in top shape to pull off the job, if his aim were to be compromised...

Jayne let out a dry chuckle, "I got no ruttin' idea what she's talkin' `bout, Cap'n."

With that statement, the mercenary stood up and dragged Kaylee away from the table in mid bite.

"Thought we was gonna keep that a secret!" he whispered to her once he was sure nobody could hear them.

The anguished look in Jayne's eyes got an involuntary giggle from Kaylee.

The room was empty, so she entered it.

She had been working for The Majestic when it was still called The Independent seven years ago, and never had she been asked such a strange request. According to the instructions left for this particular cabin, she was to replenish the small fridge with one specific brand of water.

With a disgusted look on her face, she picked up a couple of dirty magazines from the floor grabbing them between her thumb and index finger as if they were contaminated with some evil virus. Carefully placing them on the night stand next to a gun holster, she proceeded to make the bed.

Once she finished cleaning the bathroom, she stepped outside to get the special request from the housekeeping trolley. With her arms full, she crouched down and began counting the bottles as she placed them inside, taking over the entire space of the small cooler.

"...six and seven" she counted satisfied.

Some people are so picky, she thought rolling her eyes.

From what she had heard from other staff members, he could not stand being served any other brand up on deck either. Quite snobbish for just a helping hand, the word was.

But it wasn't her place to complain. If that's what the guy wanted, that's what The Majestic would provide. So, after making up the room she turned off the lights, closed the door behind her and pushed the housekeeping trolley down the hallway to the next cabin.

"You gotta shoot `fore you think" Jayne explained once he and Kaylee were inside the virtual range.

He began shooting at the targets that were rapidly popping on the screen, hitting most of them. The computer monitor kept flashing occasional warnings: `Non lethal injury' and `Low ammo: reload'. The last virtual villain aimed and fired, and the lights came on at the same time as a loud buzzer rang inside the chamber. The computer began insistently flashing three words brightly on the screen: `You are dead!'

"Gorramit!" Jayne shouted infuriated. "The hell's wrong?"

"Mayhaps you need to rest some" Kaylee offered shyly. "You don't look so good. You're probably tired."

Jayne stared blankly at the screen. He remained quiet, perfectly still for quite a while, his expression one of utter disappointment.

Kaylee respected his silence and slowly began feeling sorry for him. Calmly she inched to where he was, taking the gun from his hand carefully, and swallowed the lump that was beginning to build inside her throat at the feel of the cold metal on her skin.

"L-like this?" she stuttered as she aimed the gun in front of her.

The frown on Jayne's face disappeared the moment she had taken the gun from his grip. He was now looking at her with a mixture of awe and victory in his eyes.

Jayne hit the reset button and moved to stand behind her, holding her wrists to help her steady the heavy weapon, and placed his own finger over hers on the trigger.

"Keep'm shoulders square" he instructed, "Line up your knees with your hips."

He placed his left hand lightly on her hip to make sure her stance was correct.

"Bend your elbows just a bit."

She complied, but was still too tense to feel at ease.

"Don't bend'em that much, girl, you ain't shootin' at the ceilin'!" he rasped with feigned annoyance. "Yeah, that's it. Now breathe in through your nose... deeper. Shiny, now let it out through your mouth, slow."

She did as she was told, pushing the air through her lips unrushed.

He pressed her finger over the trigger, squeezing firmly until the gun jumped in their hands, causing her to stumble backwards into his chest. Her heart was racing from the impact, and her hands were visibly shaking. Once again he wrapped his hands over hers while she held the gun, steadying them in the process.

"That wasn't half bad," he encouraged. "Let's try that again."

"Ok, but just one more time" she pleaded with a shaky voice.

They went through the motions once again, this time Kaylee was expecting the kick of the gun when they pulled the trigger and stood her ground while the bullet exited the chamber. She looked at the virtual screen, curiously wondering about her aim, and her lips curved into a smile.

"Hey! I blew off the tires in that mule!" she exclaimed excitedly.

Jayne raised his eyebrows and nodded in approval.

"You also blew that guy's head off" he noted proudly, pointing at a man with a black hat hanging lifeless from a balcony.

Her grin quickly faded at the sight, the blood draining from her face slightly.

"I don't wanna be here no more, Jayne" she mumbled anxiously.

Stepping out of the loop of his arms, she began walking towards the door hoping he would just follow her.

"The world ain't all rosy the way you see it, lil' one" Jayne said, turning to her. "One day the Cap'n won't be there to shield you from what's out there. What'll you do then?"

Kaylee just looked at him, a mildly shocked expression reflected in her eyes.

"If somethin' ever happens to the Cap'n..." she began, but could not bring herself to finish the sentence. "Nothin's gonna happen to him" she finished quietly, desperate hope underlined in her tone.

The fear in her eyes told Jayne she had never really considered that possibility. He watched as she sighed heavily, turned around and exited the chamber booth.

Jayne took in a deep breath, picked up the guns, and followed her out of the firing range and into the hallway.

Mal was on his way back to the honeymoon suite. He had worked up a good sweat at the gym with the purpose of relieving some of the tension of the past hours. The exercise managed to relax him considerably, but he still kept thinking about the job as he swept the access card over the sensor.

Thirteen more hours, he thought closing the door behind him and flopping onto the loveseat.

He threw his head back, taking in a deep breath, and began thinking about Serenity.

I wonder what my crew's up to right now, he thought longingly.

He lazily glanced at the bathroom from where he was sitting and decided a hot shower was in order. He was no longer sweating, but he wanted to get out of his sweats and into some clean clothes. Too tired to command his limbs to move, his mind began to drift.

The digital clock over the Cortex screen displayed a big, bright 11:51. It was early for lunch still.

Kaylee walked into their cabin, gun in hand and a broad smile on her face. "Hi Cap'n!"

"Did you kill Niska?" Mal's voice was calm.

"No, but Jayne's gonna poison him" she replied evenly.

Mal stood up and followed Kaylee when she exited the cabin. He could hear the splashing of the sea outside and the distant cry of seagulls as he walked behind her down the deserted hallway. They were both silent, Kaylee leading the way through the automatic doors to one of the outer decks.

Mal turned to look at the sea--it was now red.

"But the war's over" he mumbled to himself.

Mal turned around to face Kaylee who was no longer there.

In the distance, at the end of the long deck, he saw Inara. She was holding the Tara stone in her arms, cradling it as if it were a baby. Her hair was blowing freely in the wind, so was the long dress she was wearing. She looked at him with a profound sadness in her eyes.

"I'm not her. The truth awaits."

Her voice sounded distant and foreign. Mal could barely recognize it. He began walking towards her, but the deck seemed to stretch for miles and she kept standing farther away. Walking faster, her form pulled further away from him. Now he was running towards her, seeing her form disappear in the distance before his very eyes.

Defeated, he dropped on his knees and looked down.

A shadow cast over him and he raised his head to see Jason in front of him. His features were obscured as he sat on his wheelchair before Mal, blocking the suns. He appeared to be ten feet tall from where Mal was kneeling.

"She belongs to me" Jason mouthed inaudibly.

His face was stony and his eyes were empty and laconic.

Inara stepped out from behind Jason with a sword in her hand. She placed the tip of the sword over Mal's chest--her earlier sadness replaced with sheer determination.

"It takes just one pound of pressure" she whispered.

With that, she leaned into the stab as the cold metal pierced fiercely through his flesh.

Mal woke up with a start, clutching his chest with one hand. His heart was pounding forcefully against his ribcage and his hair was damp with fresh sweat. He looked around the empty cabin, a deafening silence all around. He gulped, trying to get rid of the thick lump that had developed in his throat, and took in a shaky breath. Running a hand down his face he stood up and strolled into the bathroom to shower.

The Captain was nowhere to be found at lunch time, so Jayne and Kaylee decided to sit in an outdoor caf where they served pizza. Kaylee's eyes opened wide and her smile broadened when she saw the place offered a special dessert pizza topped with strawberries.

"How come your parents called you `Jayne'" she asked him casually biting into a slice of vegetarian pizza, her gloomy mood forgotten at the heavenly taste in her mouth. With a mischievous glint in her eyes she continued, "Ain't that a girl's name?"

"I'm the youngest of seven brothers and my mah' always wanted a girl" he shrugged.

"I'm sure that got ya into trouble growin' up" she chuckled.

"Had to beat up more'n a coupla kids `fore they learnt Jayne ain't girlish" he replied with a smirk.

"Well, I think Jayne's a shiny name, even for a boy" she complimented, smiling brightly at him.

Jayne blushed slightly, shyly turning his head so the girl wouldn't notice the effect her words just had on him. It was the first time anybody had said something nice about his name--at least when talking about him. Something tugged at his heart. He looked at Kaylee sideways and, for the first time since he'd met her, he saw that special something within her that Mal was constantly trying to protect. He found himself grinning despite himself.

"What?" she asked, amused at his sideway glances.

"Nothin'" he replied defensively, shrugging innocently.

She kept looking at him with inquisitive eyes, pizza slice in hand. She licked her lips and pulled a loose strand of hair behind her ear with her free hand.

"Thank you" she said softly.

"For what?" he asked her, puzzled.

"For teachin' me how to shoot'n stuff" she replied shyly.

"Hell, someone had to" he growled, feeling his cheeks warming.

He wasn't entirely sure she should be thanking him for it.

They continued eating their lunch in silence, looking at the people strolling down the deck and enjoying the beautiful weather. Jayne was inspecting every slice he bit into with suspicious wonder. He was now looking inside his cup with a prominent frown, not daring to take a sip.

"You really think someone's tryin' to poison you?" Kaylee asked him taking a sip of her own drink.

"This water don't taste right. I seen little specs of somethin' floatin' in my cup `fore" he explained absently rubbing his goatee.

"You was drinkin' water today. You seem fine" she pointed. "Your stomach feel ok?"

"I... I ain't sure" he replied, doubt crawling into his mind.

Jayne sat in silence rubbing his stomach occasionally with a grimace and no longer paying attention to Kaylee or the people passing by. Soon, he began breaking into a cold sweat and stood up from the chair clumsily, staggering backwards when he nearly lost his balance.

"You ok?" Kaylee asked clearly worried.

"I-I gotta go" he choked rushing off.

Kaylee watched him leave with a bewildered expression on her face. She was still looking at Jayne's form disappearing in the crowd, when she heard somebody speaking her name at her side. She quickly turned her head and saw Inara standing beside her, looking down with a faint smile and sorrow in her eyes.

"Would you mind if I joined you?" she asked politely, placing one hand in the backrest of a chair.

Kaylee hesitated for a second, then nodded, "You can join me" she said softly.

"It's a beautiful day, isn't it" Inara observed as she sat next to the girl.

"Yeah," Kaylee mumbled, her eyes never leaving the slice of pizza in front of her.

An uncomfortable silence followed. They did not look at each other for a long while, choosing instead to concentrate on the happy passer bys. It was finally Inara who spoke first.

"I'm so sorry about the other night, sweetie" she apologized whole heartedly. "I never meant to hurt you."

Kaylee raised her head and met the companion's pleading eyes while she let the apology sink in. Inara's bitter words during dinner still stung every time the girl remembered the sour tone with which she had spoken them.

It was not `bout Serenity, she tried to convince herself. Wasn't even `bout me.

"Did you mean to hurt the Cap'n?" Kaylee spoke those words almost inaudibly.

Inara didn't reply--she couldn't reply. They looked at each other silently, one distraught at the accuracy of the question, the other one uncomprehending the why behind it.

"Did you really hate Serenity that much?" Kaylee asked, looking at her with sad eyes.

"No" Inara replied firmly, holding her stare. "I loved Serenity, I still do."

"Then why did you leave?" The girl's eyes were bright with unshed tears now.

The companion ran her hand through Kaylee's soft hair, caressing it in a tender gesture.

"It's complicated" she whispered.

"It doesn't have to be" Kaylee insisted, her eyes pleading.

They stared at each other, feeling their worlds drift apart slowly but inevitably.

"We still have the rest of the cruise to talk and do things together while Jason runs his business and Mal meets with his contact" Inara smiled, hoping to cheer her up.

"Contact?" Kaylee echoed with a frown, clearly puzzled by the statement.

Inara closed her eyes briefly in realization. There was no contact. They were here for another reason and Mal's earlier interest in the exhibit hadn't been feigned at all. God, how she had hoped her suspicions earlier had been unfounded. Inara had a feeling she knew exactly what they were after.

"'Nara?" Kaylee called wondering why she was so quiet.

Inara turned to her and saw the girl wiping her cheek, brushing away the single tear that had fallen. The last thing she wanted to do right now was to upset her further, so she smiled and began making some girl talk to take her mind off the short time they had left together.

"Did you get the vest for Simon?" Inara asked remembering how excited she had been with the items the souvenir stores downstairs had to offer.

They talked for a couple of hours--about The Majestic, the food, the stores and the entertainment--keeping the conversation casual and purposely leaving Mal out of it. They ordered the popularly acclaimed strawberry pizza and shared it, laughing as the whipped cream kept getting smudged all over their mouths and chins.

They worked hard at enjoying the last few moments they would share together.

After Inara left, Kaylee spent the rest of the afternoon mingling with people despite Mal's warning not to attract too much attention. The truth was she hoped to see Inara again before sundown. Maybe she and Jason would stop by the swimming pool later on, she thought wistfully.

She finally sat at the pool bar and ordered a strawberry-mango drink that came with those pretty mini-umbrellas. She loved watching Arlo while he prepared the concoctions. She and the bartender had clicked right away and she could spend hours talking to him.

When the suns started setting above the horizon, she decided to head back to the cabin to get ready for the upcoming job.

"Hey Cap'n" Kaylee said walking into the room.

Mal looked up at her. Dj vu.

"Is everything ready for tonight?" he asked, following her around the cabin with his eyes. "Where've you been?"

"Just `round" Kaylee replied after a brief hesitation.

Mal was sitting on the bed, already dressed for dinner and strapping a watch to his wrist. He wore dark clothes purposefully and his hair was unusually well combed.

He looks like a spy, Kaylee observed tickled by the thought.

"You look handsome" she complimented with a warm smile while she looked at him deliberately from top to bottom.

His lips curved upwards into a shade of a grin and he blushed slightly.

"Let's go over the plan again" he said in an attempt to steer the conversation off his looks. "What's our timeframe?"

"I estimated we'll have a five minute window for ya to go in and out of the room" she answered kicking off her sandals. "Tappin' into the exhibit's security system is not all that hard. The tricky part is gonna be deactivatin' the electromagnetic field `round the stone--the littlest disturbance will cause the alarm to go off. You'll have only two seconds to snatch it before the field comes back up."

"And if I don't manage to get it within two seconds?" he inquired.

"The alarm will go off and you'll be locked in the room until security gets there" she responded with a charismatic smirk and a nervous chuckle.

"OK" he sighed. "Let's do this."

There was something that she felt she should share with him--something that had nothing to do with the job. She sat on the bed next to him unable to hide the sadness clouding her features, silently pondering on whether to tell him now, or wait until after the cruise was over. Maybe she should wait until the job was done so the Captain could keep a clear mind.

"What's wrong, mei-mei?" he asked softly, noticing her inner struggle.

"It's... It's nothin'" she said, looking up at him with a weak smile.

"That ain't a nothin' face you're wearin'" he told her with a lopsided grin, placing his knuckle softly under her chin.

Nodding, she took in a deep breath--may as well tell him now. She leaned lightly against him, hugging his arm and pressing her cheek against his bicep. She could not look into his eyes when she told him.

"I was talkin' to Arlo earlier" she began.

"Arlo?" he asked confused.

"The bartender at the Delhi pool."

"Did ya have a good time?" he asked absentmindedly.

"Yeah," she replied with a small voice.

There was no easy way to bring it up, so she decided to just come out and tell him.

"Captain, he said Jason had asked Inara to stay with him, you know--exclusively--and that she had said `yes'" Kaylee blurted out not daring to look at him.

Mal remained silent for some time. She wondered whether he had heard what she just told him, not really looking forward to repeating it.

She was about to ask him if he was ok when she heard him say with a controlled voice:

"What Inara does with her time is no longer any of our business, Kaylee."

Jayne was prepping the guns, checking the ammo and strapping the comm. to his holster with shaky hands.

As soon as Mal had the rock, he was to give him a signal to take it to a safe location while the Captain made sure security was restored in the exhibit room and got rid of any potential evidence that might trace back to them.

His recent performance at the firing range with Kaylee had him grumbling low curses to no one in particular.

It's this gorram boat, he kept telling himself.

A new wave of nausea had him stumbling into the bathroom on wobbly knees. Teeth clenched and breathing heavily through his nostrils, he tried hard to get his bearings back.

He stumbled towards the bed, the room spinning wildly before his eyes when he finally plunged to the floor with a thud.

Kaylee ran her fingers through the tiny wires trying to find out where the short circuit had occurred. She found that dealing with electronics was much harder than working on ships' engines. She wished Wash could be here to help her.

With a sigh she ran her hands through her hair trying not to give into blind desperation. Mal was going to walk into that exhibit room in less than two hours and she would not let him down. Not this time.

She bit her lower lip and continued working on the task at hand.

"Jayne!" Mal's voice cackled over the intercom. "Jayne! Where the hell are you?"

Jayne's heavy frame lay several feet from the comm. still strapped to his holster on top of the bed. He could hear something in the distance, but his brain was unable to determine where the sound was coming from or what it meant.

His limbs felt lethargic, unable to move.

Finally, when he could not fight it any longer, Jayne allowed the darkness to finally envelope him, giving into its depths.

"Kaylee!" Mal's exasperation came through loud and clear through the comm.

"Yes, Cap'n?" Kaylee answered holding the comm. with her left hand and a precision screw driver with her right one.

"Is Jayne there with you?" he asked.

"No. Mayhaps he went to grab som'n to eat. Don't worry Cap'n, he'll turn up" she replied easily.

"Find him!" he ordered firmly.

"Ok Cap. Soon as I fix the modular transmitter I'll..."

"It's broken?" Mal interrupted clearly disturbed.

"Oh, ain't nothin' more than a loose wire" she half lied trying to put him at ease. Her desperate attempt to reassure him added to the building anxiety inside her chest. "Don't worry, Cap, everytin' should be fine. No problems."

"Fine. Tell Jayne to stay put when you find him and call me if there's a problem" he sighed.

"Ten-four!" she chirped, trying to sound positive.

Kaylee bit her lower lip and placed the comm. calmly on the table. Looking at the device in front of her, she whispered:

"Ok, I can do this."

As the time for the heist came closer, Mal stood against the railing of the Bali deck looking at the reflection the moon sparkling over the ocean. He was making time until most people retired to their cabins to begin his task at 02:00.

Kaylee had sounded jolly last time he talked to her--more so than usual, and that worried him. He knew her well enough to detect a certain anxiety underlying her tone. Not surprising given her role in the heist. Maybe he was putting too much pressure on her. She was just a child after all.

Apparently, one of the transmitters was `acting up'. Jayne was nowhere to be found. So, as always, things had to get complicated. Why couldn't they ever go smooth?

A voice startled him from behind, "Are you having trouble sleeping?"

He turned around to see Inara walking towards him. Her movements were slow and deliberate, her expression masked under her companion's front. He glanced at her briefly before returning his eyes to the open sea.

"You know, for someone who's tryin' to break away, you seem to be quite eager to follow me around" he replied sardonically.

"You make it so easy" she snapped back sarcastically, folding her arms when she reached his side.

Mal turned his head to study her face and she returned his stare defiantly. A distant roar of applause coming from the auditorium was the only thing that could be heard over the silence that reigned between them.

"What can I do for you, Nara?" he finally asked her.

His voice was low, void of feeling.

"I just..." she began. She closed her eyes, gathering strength and then blurted, "Please don't go through with this."

"With what?" he countered, looking innocently at her.

Her expression hardened and she took in a deep breath before confronting him.

"Whatever it is you have planned. Let it go this time" she insisted.

"I told you, I'm just here to meet..." he began defensively.

"I mean it, Mal" she cut him off raising her voice over his.

Mal's eyes turned cold and his expression grim.

"That's why you came here? So you could tell me how to conduct my business?"

She didn't respond, just looked away into the ocean as it splashed angrily against the ship. The light breeze was making her dark hair sway, a few strands blowing rebelliously over her face.

Mal watched her, resisting the urge to run his fingers through those unruly locks.

"Where didja leave the most eligible bachelor anyhow?" he went on, "The batteries to his hover round ran out?"

She finally turned around and looked at him incredulous.

"You can be really cold sometimes Malcolm Reynolds" she retorted frigidly.

He glanced at her with narrowed eyes.

"Well, how `bout you tell me the real reason why you left Serenity, then I might consider tellin' you the real reason why I'm here" he offered, his voice deep.

"Not now, Mal" she retorted with a hint of aggravation in her voice and unwilling to play games.

"Not now? Inara, once the cruise's over most likely we'll never see each other again. I was ready to accept that the day you left but now..."

"Nothing has changed!" she let out, her tone more peeved than she had intended.

"Is that what you think?" Mal retorted with a twinge of surprise in his voice.

He waited, searching her face for a trace of self-doubt or hesitancy, and victoriously detected something that resembled vulnerability, maybe fear, in her expression. He decided to push further.

"I was selfish, the other night" Mal continued looking into her eyes, "I took a chance, and I kissed you. Just to follow my... instincts, or... to get it outta my system... hell I don't even know the exact reason right now."

He paused, his chest heaving as he inhaled, and took a step closer to her. "But what I do know, is that you kissed me back" he finished in a low tone. "You did, Nara, and that changes everything."

Inara was caught in a whirlwind of emotions, frozen in place, unable to move.

She looked at him not daring to speak. She could still feel his lips moving over hers every time she closed her eyes.

Damn him, why did he have to be here? Why was he bringing this up now? Why was he looking at her in such a way?

He took a step closer toward her, searching her eyes, his hair lightly tousled by the soft breeze. His expression softened and he delicately brought her chin up forcing her to look up at him. Their faces were mere inches apart.

"Tell me" he whispered.

"Mal..." she began, closing her eyes and turning her back on him to face the ocean.

She needed to get out of there. The conversation was being pulled into a direction she could not bear to dwell into right now. Her heart was racing, and she was fighting with every ounce in her body to regain the composure that had abandoned her the moment Mal had brought up the kiss. She shivered slightly, remembering the sensual feeling of his lips against her own.

She heard Mal approaching her from behind, gently draping his jacket over her shoulders. He placed his hands on her upper arms and, when she flinched involuntarily, he immediately broke the contact.

His presence behind her was strong, his closeness evident by the heat of his body at her back. She tried to pull away, but Mal gently placed a tentative hand on her waist.

"Stay" he whispered.

It wasn't an order, she realized, more like a plea. Letting out a quiet sigh, she relaxed despite his physical proximity, too tired to put up a fight. She felt his soft breath on her skin where the neck meets the shoulder and closed her eyes. His left hand came to rest on the railing in front of her, his right hand still lightly on her waist. They both silently looked into the serene darkness that had become the horizon.

It felt so peaceful...

She imagined herself going back, lured by the life she had tried so hard to give up. Drawn to the black--to him. Her reasons for leaving were easily dissolving into a mesh of excuses in the back of her mind.

"It could be as simple as this" he whispered softly in her ear, "No games, no demands."

No demands, she pondered.

Like a school girl she began wondering what it would be like to just let go and not think of the consequences. What would happen if she just followed her heart for once? How could something so wrong make so much sense?

"Is it really this simple?" she asked barely audible.

"It could be" he breathed near her ear.

They stood in companionable silence for a moment, enjoying the fantasy of what could have been for a little while longer.

"There's only one way I see this working" he continued in a low tone.

"What's that?" she asked leaning her back slightly against him.

He let out a heavy sigh.

"I need to know the truth, Inara" he finally said evenly.

She turned around to face him, looking into his eyes and begging him silently not to push the subject further.

"No more games, that's the deal" he said seriously as he held her stare.

Inara frowned, angry at how easily he had manipulated her into his scheme. She was a trained companion, for crying out loud, and she had not even seen him coming. Furious at him as well as herself she stepped away from him.

"What are you really doing here Mal?" she finally asked in a serious tone. "I can't help but think that it has nothing to do with a new business contact and a lot to do with that exhibit in the showroom given your curiosity regarding the Tara stone."

His jaw was set tightly, the moment lost.

He leaned back against the railing tucking his hands inside his pant pockets. Somberly, he watched a couple walking by hand in hand, lost in the magic spell set by the moonlight--Mal found them a convenient distraction while avoiding Inara's intense stare.

"It's never a good idea to mix business n' pleasure" he finally said, clumsily evading her question.

Her stare turned harsh and this time it was she who took a step closer to him. Her stance was poised, and she stood as tall as she could as she spoke.

"If anything in that exhibit room turns out missing, I will report you to the authorities myself."

She looked hard into his eyes letting him know the finality of her words. Squaring her shoulders, she slipped off his jacket, handed it back to him and walked away.

Mal closed his eyes and swallowed hard, gripping the jacket tightly with both fists. The fresh ocean breeze was suddenly raw and heavy in his lungs. He watched her disappear as she stepped through the double doors.

"That went well," he sighed pushing himself off the railing.

A dark figure had been standing in the upper deck, observing them closely.

"You have no idea."

Kaylee kept calling Jayne's name over the intercom, but the only response she was getting was empty static.

"Jayne? Jayne it's me, Kaylee. Can you hear me?"

Panic rose in her throat and she began feeling a cold sweat damping her forehead.

A minute ago she had been so proud of herself as she victoriously witnessed the circuits of the transmitter spring back to life. The device had made a blipping sound and all indicator lights had turned green, blinking and flashing alternatively.

Now she was almost in tears, holding the comm. with both hands and staring at it, wishing to hear Jayne's response from the other side.

She had gone to his cabin earlier, but he had not answered the door. Assuming he had just gone out to grab something to eat, she had returned to the suite and became so wrapped up in fixing the transmitter, she had completely forgotten about Jayne.

If he did not answer within the next minute, she would have to call Mal to warn him that he would be operating without back up.

She was about to change the frequency to Mal's comm. when she heard Jayne's faint voice straining through the receiver.


"Yes! Jayne? I'm here!" she exclaimed excitedly. Then she asked confused, "Where've you been?"



The word came sluggish and it sounded as if he were forcing it out.

Then, all she heard was static.

Inara was on the way back to her suite, angry and lost in thought. She was strolling down the hallway when the door to the honeymoon suite opened brusquely and Kaylee stepped out in a rush, nearly bumping into her.

Inara placed her hands on the girl's upper arms preventing the near impact. Kaylee's wide eyes greeted her as soon as she saw the companion in front of her. Alarm and shock was written all over the girl's face.

"Inara... hi!" she finally said fidgeting with the small handheld computer she was holding.

"Hello, sweetie" Inara said softly smiling at her, "What are you doing up?

Kaylee panicked briefly, she had not expected this scenario. Everything seemed to be going wrong tonight.

The pressure of their current situation suddenly felt too much to bear. With unshed tears clouding her eyes, she begged, "You gotta help me! You gotta help me find Jayne!"

"Why? What's wrong?" Inara asked her, puzzled.

Almost immediately, realization hit her.

"Kaylee, tell me Mal didn't..."

"If we don't find Jayne, Mal'll be without cover" Kaylee insisted desperately.

Inara regarded the girl, trying to think clearly and not allowing panic to cloud her own mind.

"Go to Jayne's cabin."

"I-I don't have the key."

"Can you override the code?"

Kaylee nodded with wide eyes. Inara's cool demeanor was helping her focus and she knew what to do now.

"W-where're you goin'?" Kaylee asked shakily.

"To get that yun-chun of a Captain out of trouble. Again" she deadpanned already walking away.

The flashlight projected a round light as it moved through the walls of the small show room, illuminating a variety of artifacts in its passing. Mal walked slowly, careful not to touch anything, his mind set on the jade stone inside the urn. He stood in front of it wondering why a piece of rock would be so valuable to wealthy people.

They have nothing else to yearn for, he thought eyeing the object.

He was about to send the signal to Kaylee to deactivate the electromagnetic field around the urn when the lights in the room came on suddenly, blinding him momentarily.

Before his eyes could even get used to the intense brightness, he heard an amused voice from the entrance.

"Well, well Mr. Evans... or should we just drop this charade and start calling you Captain Reynolds?"

Mal turned around to see Jason standing at the door with a gun in his hand and a cold smirk on his face. The Captain glared at him from head to toe with a serious expression on his face. If he was shocked, his face did not betray him.

"Well, look who found his sea legs" Mal retorted after a moment with a low voice.

Jason started laughing at his remark as if it were the funniest thing he had heard in a long time. Mal just regarded him with a bitter smile.

"It is amazing what two years of therapy and a lot of money can accomplish these days" he replied, his laughter subsiding. "Place your weapon on the floor slowly" he continued still smiling. "I'm so sorry about the big guy" he remarked with feigned sorrow. "Believe me when I tell you it took a big dose of ephedramine to dope him."

Mal reached behind his back and un-tuck the small pistol he had concealed in the waistline of his pants. His movements were slow and deliberate and he placed the gun on the floor carefully as Jason had ordered.

"I reckon once you get over your amusement you'll notify the authorities. Hell, I could save you the trouble'n..."

"Authorities?" Jason interrupted as if the word didn't register with him, "I'm not going to call the authorities, Captain. I have another plan in store for you."

His last words were spoken in a harsh whisper, his lips now set in a thin line. He motioned with the gun for Mal to move.

"'Fore we go anywhere, you mind tellin' me what you plan on doin'?" Mal asked more annoyed than worried.

"Well, you see, for this plan to work I needed to catch you red handed, which I have" he said gingerly, "Now I can just kill you."

He said all this conversationally in a tone that made it seem as though he was talking about something as trivial as the weather. Mal remained silent, his stare set on the other man's face without moving a muscle.

"All this over a stone you don't even like?"

It was a question, yet it sounded more like a statement.

"You really think this is about a jade rock?" he looked at Mal incredulously.

Jason walked into the room calmly with a slight limp marking every step he took.

"It all boils down to love, Captain. I needed you here to see it for myself. I was disappointed to the extreme when I found out my suspicions were true."

He was silent for several seconds, lost in thought.

"Seeing you two on deck tonight was enough to know... enough to see that she will never be mine..." his voice trailed.

"Inara..." Mal nodded slowly, realization just dawning on him. "MJS, I s'pose?" he asked raising an eyebrow.

"I never liked Melvin. Only sissies are named Melvin" he stated simply dismissing his first name.

"Can't argue with that, Melvin Jason Silver" Mal stated calmly pronouncing his full name. "Tell me, you really think that killin' me is really the way to Inara's heart? She might not take your actions kindly, bein' how you were her second choice'n all" Mal stated, purposely provoking Jason, not that he himself believed his own statement.

A wave of rage flashed through Jason's features.

"B zu!" he demanded. "I wanted to have the pleasure of pulling the trigger myself, but the official story aboard the ship will be how a petty thief was caught trying to steal the Tara stone and was killed by security while trying to escape the scene of the crime."

Jason's expression changed to sheer delight as he said: "I am sure Inara will need a shoulder to cry on after she hears the news."

"You really are insane" Mal concluded slowly shaking his head.

"Start moving towards the door" Jason said getting back to business.

Mal just held his stare, not moving an inch. Jason let out an impatient breath and strolled towards Mal cautiously, weapon still trained on him.

"I said move!" he shouted at this point.


Inara's voice took them both by surprise.

She was standing at the door, looking at them with shocked disbelief. Her eyes traveled down to Jason's legs and then back to his face. Her expression was one of painful betrayal. Of all the questions rushing through her mind, only one came to her lips:


"Inara..." Jason's voice broke.

Mal took this opportunity to try and snatch the gun from his grasp, but the sudden movement made Jason take a step back and point the gun firmly at him once more. Inara rushed forward to stand between Mal and the gun.

"Jason, don't do this" she pleaded.

Her voice was strong despite the overwhelming lack of control and fear she felt at the moment.

"Inara, stay out of this" Mal warned her, stepping beside her.

"I should have known you would take his side" he said after a beat. "That was all you could talk about while you were away. All your waves were dripping admiration and desire for that life, telling me without words how much you wanted to belong to that ship. A ship full of wnug de rn*"

"I came back" she whispered.

"No you didn't" he replied shaking his head. "You're still out there, in `the black'. Just waiting... hoping..." he swallowed hard and his eyes filled with tears.

Mal could see the weapon trembling in his hand. Very slowly, he put his hand on Inara's back, prompting her to move out of the way.

"I wanted you to love me! Why couldn't you love me? Why...?"

Jason couldn't hold back the tears of rage that were rolling down his cheeks. The desolate fury inside of him was making his whole body shake with desperation. He was out of control. Mal recognized the silent torment of a madman, and realized at that point that he had to get Inara away from the guy before he did anything stupid.

"Jason..." she began.

The barrel of the gun was several inches from her chest, Jason's aim was unwavering. Mal inched forward slowly, smoothly stepping closer to Inara while holding Jason's intense stare.

Inara took a step forward and, at that point, the next couple of seconds seemed to happen in slow motion.

The gun in Jason's hand fired as Mal stepped around Inara to embrace her in one swift motion, his chest pressed firmly against hers.

The sound of gunfire in the small room, so close to her ears, still echoed as she felt her back slam against the wall, crushed by the weight of Mal's body. The back of her head hit the hard wall and her eyes began to water from the impact. She felt one of Mal's arms curled around her back, while the other hand gripped the fabric of her skirt at her hip, holding her up against the wall.

Her ears were ringing and her breathing was labored. She could feel Mal's face buried between her neck and shoulder, his heartbeat pulsing in tandem with hers. Holding each other, all she could feel was intense pain. Her head hurt, her stomach hurt, her legs... There was a warm, slick substance drenching the side of her abdomen, its coppery smell filling her nostrils.

She ran her hands up Mal's arms holding onto his shoulders for support. As she clung to his neck with one hand, he lifted his head to look at her. He was pinning her against the wall, his form leaning against her heavily.

But why was he pulling her down?

It was at that moment when she realized that he was not holding her up at all. It was the other way around. He was holding on to her for support.

And then the world came rushing back.

"Oh, God!" she cried.

Horrified, she saw Mal's face drained of blood--his eyes were hazy, unable to focus. His jaw was clenched, but other than that his face did not register any pain.


She clutched at him desperately as his knees buckled, unable to hold him up. She could only crumple underneath his dead weight, sliding down the wall to their knees. She leaned him back, placing a hand behind his neck as she eased him gently onto the floor, her hands drenched with blood.

"Mal, stay with me! MAL!"

"That bullet was meant for you, Inara" Jason said pointing the gun directly at her while he glanced down at them with a stony expression on his face.

"H-he needs help" she uttered, knowing the futility of her plea.

Jason simply smiled.

Inara stared up at him, a mixture of fury and despair reflected in her eyes. Giving up any hope that Jason might feel a shred of compassion, her attention turned back to Mal.

Mal tried to say something but choked before he could utter a word, blood filling his mouth and staining his lips. Inara closed her eyes, completely unaware of the tears that were already running down her cheeks as she knelt beside him.

She could see he was struggling for air, coughing blood with every gasp. She had been pressing down on the wound, trying to no avail to stop the blood that kept gushing out of his chest.

"No!" she sobbed feeling him slip away.

She stroked his hair tenderly, the blood on her hand smearing his forehead and temple.

"Don't lose yourself in the grieving process, bao-bei. You'll join him soon enough."

He was watching her kneeling form next to Mal's body, his fury now replaced by a total lack of feeling. He raised his hand, his aim now on Inara's head.

"D-drop the gun" a girl's voice startled him making him turn on his heels.

Kaylee stood in the doorway, gun squarely pointed at Jason. She was shaking slightly, but had a firm hold on the weapon and she seemed to be ready to pull the trigger any second.

Jason studied her expression--she was determined to take action but terrified at the same time.

His lips curved into a frigid smile.

"Hello little one" Jason said sweetly, "Now, we both know you're not going to pull that trigger, so why don't you hand me the gun? Wouldn't want you to get hurt..."

A shot rang through the air, hitting Jason square in the shoulder making him drop the gun instantly. He stumbled back a step, looking up incredulously at Kaylee, the gun shaking in her hands.

"What've I been tellin' you about the ruttin' targets?" Jayne stepped out of the shadows from behind Kaylee, gun still trained on Jason. "First shoot; then think."

Jayne walked over to Jason, who backed up into the wall when he saw the mercenary approaching, then threw a punch using all of his body weight and knocking Jason into unconsciousness.

"Now that's what I call a helpin' hand."

Kaylee stood frozen in place. Her eyes met Inara's briefly and then moved over to Mal. Horrified at the site, her knees felt week and her mind began reeling.

"Cap'n?" she called weakly, too shocked to move. No!

With an unexpected whim of strength and determination, Kaylee rushed out of the room with a single purpose: she had to get help.

Jayne turned to where the Captain lay next to Inara. The companion was leaning over his limp body, holding his hand in one of hers, her other hand was softly rubbing his cheek.

"Nara?" Jayne called quietly kneeling beside them.

Inara ignored his presence. She was looking at Mal with a haunted expression in her eyes. Her face was white, even her lips were colorless, while dried tear streaks marked her features.

"Don't you dare!" she cried. "Don't... Not now, don't... don't leave me now."

Her whole body was shaking, as sobs began racking through her and fresh tears began running down her cheeks. "We need..." she choked, "I never told you..."

Jayne looked at Mal's form on the floor. He was no longer bleeding. His eyes traced to the Captain's peaceful face and saw his eyes closed, head tilted towards Inara. The mercenary then lifted his gaze to Inara, and he saw the raw pain reflected in her features.

"Nara" Jayne whispered softly.

The respect in his voice and the solemnity on his face was unprecedented.

"You can't die!" she screamed at Mal. "You... You're not alone" she finished softly, closing her eyes.

(End of Part III)


"They're not coming, sir. Everybody dies alone. I'm a mean old man. A gust of warm air pushes through the cargo doors as they slide open. Is this what you meant by ambush? You want me--You want me on your ship. Tell me where the goods are at, so I can shoot ya. Just when I think that I have you figured out. Her hand makes a loud slapping noise when it connects against his cheek. Don't you dare speak to me! These are not times for extraordinary men. Serenity feels cold, lonely and empty. Four per shuttle, Nara, four. The strident sound of gunfire rings in his ears--a single shot. Mal! Mal, stay with me, Mal!


One week later, engine room - Serenity

The glow of the turning engine was all Kaylee had been staring at for the past three hours. Lost in thought, she couldn't get the events that had taken place during the dreadful cruise out of her mind. Her heart caught in her throat as she remembered their last hours on The Majestic.

Shaking her head to clear it, tears welled once again in the corner of her eyes, and the now familiar tightening of her chest returned. She shifted in the hammock, trying to find a more comfortable position on her side, and let out a shaky sigh.


Simon's voice came from the doorway, but she did not bother to look up or even acknowledge him. Cautiously stepping inside the engine room, Simon walked over to the corner where she lay on the hammock and offered her a cold drink.

"You should at least drink something. You haven't had any food or drink since..."

"Not thirsty" was her stoic reply.

He stood in front of her, glass in hand, but dared not push further. Instead, he opted to lean against the engine shell and observed her. Her eyes were puffy, her lips were dried and chapped from partial dehydration, and her face was taut and haunted.

"I know you blame yourself" he finally said, his voice even.

She raised her head to look at him at that point. Her eyebrows drew together in a quizzical, resentful frown, asking him without words how he could possibly know how she felt.

"Jayne said..." he began, breaking eye contact and looking at the floor.

He felt uncomfortable. Nothing he could do or say could make her feel better and he knew it.

"I just wanted you to know, I'm here for you" he continued softly, looking up at her as he knelt in front of the hammock.

She nodded and tried to give him a reassuring smile that turned into an awkward smirk.

"I'll take it from here, Doc."

Jayne leaned against the door frame, arms folded across his chest.

Simon was about to say something, but thought better of it and stood up slowly. He gave the other man a curt nod and squeezed Kaylee's hand briefly before strolling out of the engine room past the mercenary's tall frame.

Jayne walked over to Kaylee, towering over her. His expression was hidden by the shadows of the dim lit room, but his firm stance told her he was expecting something from her.

She kept ignoring him, swinging lazily in the hammock, refusing to utter a word. Eventually, Jayne grabbed the sturdy fabric and brought it to a halt.

"You gonna tell me why you've been stuck in this place ever since we boarded?"

"I'm Serenity's mechanic" she shrugged tiredly.

"Since when do mechanics spend their days sulkin' round engine rooms?" he pointed sarcastically. "You gotta snap outta of it, girl. Now."

Kaylee stared up at him, her indifference tainted with a flicker of anger.

How could he tell her to snap out of it just like that?

She opened her mouth to say something but could not bring herself to say it.

"What?" Jayne snarled.

"I let him down again" she spat angrily, raising her voice.

The fury that flashed briefly across her eyes was quickly replaced by intense pain. She covered her face with her hands to prevent Jayne from seeing the fresh tears that she could no longer hold back. Silently she started sobbing again, her shoulders shaking convulsively.

Jayne knelt down on one knee in front of her and grabbed her hands by her wrists pulling them away from her face.

"You stop that now, girl! Stop it!" he hissed between clenched teeth.

"I-I should've been there sooner" she mumbled frantically. "If I did, he'd... He wouldn't be..." she swallowed hard, trying to catch her breath. "I couldn't even pull the trigger."

Jayne regarded her, his expression softening. He ran a hand gently through her uncombed hair.

"Mal would be proud of you. I'm gorram proud of you" he told her warmly.

Her eyes kept looking at him, unseeing.

Fire... Oh, right. Fire! Burning, scorching in its intensity. A very special level of Hell. Don't take his offer. I don't much like people that kill me, not in general. Floating--the chandelier just hovered above his head. You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me! I didn't mean petty. You wanna meet the real me now? Pain. A sea of red. I ain't looking for anything from you--I'm just feeling kind of truthsome right now. If anything in that exhibit room turns out missing, I'll report you to the authorities myself. When you die, I can't hurt you any more.

Staring into the abyss, nothing mattered anymore.

"Wash, prep the ship for extended docking" Zoe commanded stepping into the dining area of Serenity. "We won't be taking off planet just yet."

The pilot turned his head and regarded his wife with sad, worried eyes. The rest of the crew except for Kaylee was scattered around the table, but none of them uttered a word. They all stopped talking the moment Zoe came through the door, their expressions were openly concerned.

In silence, Wash rose from his chair, allowing her to take his place on the table and squeezing her shoulder lovingly before heading to the helm.

"Falling" River muttered, breaking the silence.

Everybody turned to her, but she did not acknowledge her brother's arm on her back, or Jayne's dismissive scowl.

"Empty darkness. There is no net, just loneliness in the black."

"River..." Simon began.

"It stares back" she whispered, looking at Simon with wide eyes.

Jayne opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it and just gave the girl a dirty look.

Book shot Jayne a warning glance making the taller man roll his eyes with a smirk of resignation. The Shepherd curled his fingers around the old Bible and stood up. Looking at Zoe, he said, "Would it be ok...? I suppose the Captain wouldn't mind me just saying a prayer in his behalf."

Zoe nodded slowly at him, her face solemn.

Kaylee stood looking into infirmary from above, watching the preacher as he prayed over Mal's still form. It had taken all her courage to approach the window, and too exhausted to feel anything anymore, she pressed her hands against the cold glass.

The infirmary seemed cold. A pungent smell of drugs lingered in the air and reached her nostrils, making her stomach turn in apprehension. The blue light, giving everything a ghostly hue, shone faintly on the Captain's pale face.

She just stood there, and watched Shepherd Book leave the infirmary. He went past Zoe on his way out when she stepped into the quiet room. Kaylee did not move, just silently observed the first mate shed a silent tear by the Captain's side.

She remained glued to the window--numb.

Let go of me! - I already have. The skin around her wrist is soft against his calloused hand. Why would I want to leave Serenity? Don't you ever tell me what to do on my ship! Seven judging eyes staring at him--judging, waiting... I'm leaving. That's the last time you get to call me whore. If anything in that exhibit room turns out missing, I'll report you to the authorities myself. Things do seem to get complicated, don't they, sir? Sir ... "

"...sir, can you hear me?"

Mal opened his eyes to see Zoe's face hovering over his. He blinked a couple of times to bring her into focus. Zoe's full lips curved into a smile as she reached for the intercom to page Simon.

"Hey" she greeted softly, seating down by his side.

He nodded his head almost imperceptibly, trying to return the smile but unable to command his lips to curve upward.

"You really scared us this time, sir."

"Clo... Close c-call, huh" he struggled to say, making an effort to catch his breath.

His voice was raspy and he stared at her intently through thick lashes. His eyelids were heavy and the faint light of Serenity's infirmary was bothering his eyes, making them feel gritty.

"W-we in the black?" he asked weakly, clearing his throat.

Zoe shook her head, "We're still waiting to re-fuel. You were just released from the hospital yesterday and we weren't sure..." she broke off.

He met her eyes, understanding the reason for her concern.

"Funeral costs are more'n outrageous these days" he joked, giving her a reassuring half smile.

"Good news is" she continued, returning his smile, "It seems like you'll live to tell us how a luxury cruise vacation is like."

"H-highly overrated" he said drowsily, closing his eyes.

"Then it's a good thing that you're getting your money back for the cruise courtesy of The Majestic. Inara's wave mentioned it's the least they could do after all the trouble..."

"Inara!" he weakly struggled to get up, his eyes flashing open, and grimaced at the intense pain that cursed through his body forcing him to lay back down with a growl.

"Be careful, sir" Zoe said frowning, placing a hand on his shoulder to keep him down.

"D-did she stay on the ship? Is she ok?" he choked, breathing hard from the exertion.

"Try not to move too much" Simon ordered with his usual clinical detachment as he quickly walked into the infirmary, frowning when he saw the monitors going wild.

"She was shot" Mal hissed through labored breathing.

Mal and Zoe watched the doctor while he retrieved a syringe from one of the drawers and injected a clear liquid into one of the tubes attached to Mal's arm.

"Tell me, gorramit!" the Captain demanded. "I don't need no ruttin' drugs, I just wanna know about Inara!"

"She's just fine" Zoe reassured him.

Simon and Zoe shared a knowing glance when their eyes met in a flash.

"I never wanted..." Mal slurred already feeling drowsy. "She wasn't s'pposed to..."

With that, Mal unwillingly gave into the effects of the drugs and passed out.

Kaylee turned around when she felt a big hand resting on her shoulder from behind.

Jayne looked down at her, his lips curving into an unusually warm grin when he saw the girl's bright smile shining back at him. The turning of the engine had muffled his heavy steps and sounded loud and vibrant inside the small engine room.

They did not talk, there was no need.

With a brief nod, Jayne continued on his way to his quarters, leaving Kaylee where she felt most comfortable.

Rubbing the torque wrench on her overalls, the girl crawled below the engine gingerly, and lost herself below the steady rhythm of Serenity's beating heart.

She watched his still form from the side of the bed.

A groan escaped his throat, making her head snap up. Her hands moved to rest on his forearm, her eyes expectant when she saw the slight crease of his brow as he started to awake.

His head turned towards where she was sitting next to him, his limbs as heavy as lead. Still filled with drug induced stupor, he tried to open his eyes, squinting at the overhead light.

He went still when he saw her. Too tired to speak, he simply looked at her in amazement, as if she had just materialized out of thin air.

Inara observed his every move--the expression on her face masked the guilt and deep concern she had felt over the past days.

"Hi" she finally said, smiling shyly at him.

"Hi" he mouthed, his voice gone.

She was here, on Serenity. He thought he would never see her on his boat again, yet here she was, by his side. He wondered whether he might be dreaming--he had been having all kinds of strange dreams. As she leaned forward, the skin on her shoulder was exposed, and his eyes traveled to the small, white bandage.

"You..." he struggled to say almost inaudibly, "You have..."

"It's nothing" she reassured him reading the concern in his eyes. Then almost inaudibly, "The bullet barely grazed me."

"Nara..." he managed to say after a beat.

She hushed him softly.

"It is my turn to do the talking" she told him, her eyes unreadable all of a sudden.

He looked at her questioningly before swallowing hard and fixing his gaze on the ceiling with a sense of dread.

"Mal . . ." she said softly, struggling for a place to begin.

She stopped talking and stared at his profile. The remote expression on his face made her eyes fill with tears.

"Please don't make this so . . . " she sighed, but then realized she did not deserve any better from him. Fighting to prevent the hot tears that were burning her eyes from falling, she continued. "When I told you . . . that . . . I was leaving, you . . ." her voice trembled a bit "You made an offer that I refused to hear. I could not hear it... I was..."

She looked for the slightest reaction from him, but Mal only continued to stare blankly above.

"I have been running for a long time" she began with a sigh. "When I first came to Serenity, I just wanted to break away--from the Guild, from the strict rules of the House..." she paused, her eyes fixed somewhere on the blanket covering half his body. "I came here only to find that the independence that I tried so hard to reach has eluded me, and instead I found other binding... unexpected ties."

He closed his eyes briefly and clenched his jaw, his face grim.

"It's frightening" she continued after a pause. "It came unannounced... this feeling of... belonging. Before I could even find myself, I found that I was lost without Serenity, without..." she paused and looked at him. She whispered, "Without you."

He turned his head to look at her but did not say anything. They held each other's stare as her words began to sink in. He blinked slowly, his eyes searching hers for meaning.

"I can't change who I am, Mal."

There were tears in her eyes, but her voice was steady. "It is all I have to offer, and I am sorry..." she took in a shaky breath struggling for composure. "You deserve better than what I can give you."

A tear escaped her eye. He lifted his hand to her cheek, wiping the tear away softly with his thumb, but remained silent as he looked into her eyes.

She leaned into his touch, craving its warmth.

"I never asked for more than what you're willing to offer" he whispered.

With trembling fingers she traced the dressing covering the wound in his chest.

"I thought I'd lost you" she said softly.

"Seems like I'll be stickin' around for a while" he answered taking her lingering hand into one of his. After a brief hesitation, he asked, "You?"

"I..." she began, "I'm not sure where to go from here. I'm just glad I had the chance to... to let you know." He nodded at her in understanding.

After a lingering pause, she whispered a strained "Good bye, Mal."

Slipping her hand from his, she gave him a warm smile and stood up. Her heart was heavy inside her chest, aching with need and longing as she turned to leave.

She felt his strong grip on her wrist. His fingers felt warm on her skin, holding her in place before she could even take one step.

Slowly she turned around, not daring to look into his eyes fearing she might not find the strength to leave if she did. In the silence of the infirmary she could perfectly hear his even breathing.

With a firm voice, he finally said:


(The End)

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