The place was busy, but surprisingly on the tame side. People were playing billiards and darts, but there wasn't much else going on. Not that he had a partner to dance with or anything, he mused as they made their way to the table Inara had gotten for them.
"'nara," he said with a polite nod. "Lookin' lovely as always."
"Thank you. Jayne's off indulging I assume?"
"You know him too well."
"He's not that hard to figure out."
"Is any man," Zoe said.
Mal gave a soft chuckle as he took a seat. Inara had kindly left open the seats that allowed Zoe and him to face the majority of the room. There were times he thought she knew how they operated too well, which came in handy. He refused to have his back to anyone if he could help it.
"Sir," Zoe said softly from next to him somewhere during their second round of drinks. As usual when they were together, the conversation flowed freely with nary an uncomfortable silence to be heard.
He leaned toward her. Had she seen trouble brewing he hadn't spotted? He really wasn't in the mood tonight. He was still recovering from a job that had gone wrong two days ago. Simon had done what he could to the wound; the rest was just up to Mal's body to heal. Funny thing was it seemed to take longer these days than it did even a year ago. It didn't help he'd noticed the wound was festering when he'd gotten dressed for the evening.
"You see something?"
"Yes, Sir, isn't that your woman over there?"
"My what?" he asked. He turned sharp eyes to the others around them, looking for any sign of Saffron. That was all he needed, another run in with that devil woman.
Zoe gave a soft laugh.
"Somethin' funny?" he asked, wondering what the joke was.
"Then what are you laughing about?"
"Just the look on your face. I wasn't talking about that woman, Sir. The other one," she said, inclining her head toward the bar.
It took him a second pass of the women seated at the bar to see her. When he did, though, he wondered how he could have possibly missed her.
"She been here all along?" he asked.
"I'm not sure, Sir. Just noticed her to be honest."
"Huh," he said. He felt Zoe's gaze on him. "What?"
"So, you're just going to leave her sit there?"
"It's been a year…"
"Looks alone to me. A woman like that won't stay that way for long."
"You suddenly an expert on women, Zoe?"
"Well, I am one and I have eyes. I know what type of woman appeals to most men. She's it."
"Yeah," he said, taking a sip from his drink.
"You know," Wash said from the other side of Zoe. "If you two keep talking all conspiratorial-like I'm going to begin to get a complex."
"We're not conspiring, honey," Zoe said.
"Well, then what are you two doing talking amongst yourselves when there are plenty of other folk at the table to talk with?"
"What?" Wash asked. Zoe must have given him a look Mal couldn't see. Mal saw Wash's eyes move to the bar, glance a couple times the same as he had and rest on the focus of his discussion with Zoe. "Oh," Wash said simply. "I see."
And of course, now that Wash had drawn attention to her, everyone at the table had to look as well.
"So, what's the plan?" Wash asked.
"There is no plan," Mal said simply.
The entire table exchanged glances.
"Maybe if we all stare at her long enough she'll feel it and come over on her own," Wash offered in jest. At least, Mal assumed it was jest, it was difficult to tell with his pilot sometimes.
"That won't be necessary, Wash. I'm capable of initiating a conversation with a woman all on my own."
"You sure, Captain," Kaylee said, sounding amused.
"Why are you all so interested on whether I go and talk to Claire?"
"Well, you like her. At least you did," Kaylee said. "And she was real nice. At least, Simon and I thought so."
"She is where she belongs now," River said.
"What's that, River?" Mal asked.
She shrugged, frowning a little. "When she was here before, she didn't belong here. Now she does."
He glanced at Simon, wondering if she was back to babbling.
"She is not talking in riddles. Merely stating a fact," River said. "She belongs now. You should go to her. She is ready."
The entire crew stared at him as if he'd asked the most ridiculous question. Perhaps he had. Damned if he understood the intricacies that was woman.
"All right, I'll go talk to her if it will get all of you off my back for the rest of the evening. She may not even want to talk to me."
He hoped that wasn't the case, and was part of the reason he was hesitant to approach her. He'd almost prefer to not know. His gaze landed on Inara as he stood from the table. She wasn't going to offer him any help. He suspected she might like to see Claire tell him to take a hike, though she'd never said anything of the sort.
So, what did someone say to a woman they'd spent most of a week in bed with upon just meeting them and then hadn't seen in a year?
"This seat taken," he said, gesturing to the vacant spot to her left.
The nearby bartender gave an audible chuckle accompanied by a shake of his head. Mal glanced at him sharply, intent on giving him a warning look. It was the bartender giving Mal a warning look, though, instead of the other way around. Mixed in with that warning was a silent statement that said good luck, buddy.
"Yes," she said without even looking.
"Funny, didn't see anyone sitting here when I came in."
"He's in the bathroom."
He tried to ignore the punch in the gut feeling that statement produced in him.
"Awful long time to be gone," he said, wondering if she was even going to look at him.
"Listen," she said, trailing a fingertip along the rim of her glass. She didn't really look to be drinking it, just toying with it. "It really doesn't matter if he went all the way to Osiris to go. I said the seat's taken."
Another chuckle by the bartender, this one he at least attempted to be covert about.
"Funny, you didn't even know what Osiris was last I saw you. You've obviously gotten around since leaving Serenity."
She looked at him then. He wasn't an expert at reading the faces of women. Most of the time they just mystified and confounded him. He knew surprise when he saw it well enough, though.
"Yes, I suppose I have," she said finally.
"So, can I ask again if this seat is taken?"
"I think it is now."
"You tellin' me to sit then?"
"I'm pretty sure that's what I said," she said, giving him a smile. Her friend Hiro's words came back to him. He'd told Mal that she'd look the same yet different. She carried herself like someone much older than she actually was but she didn't look a day older than he remembered her being.
"All right," he said, giving the bartender a wink before taking his seat. "So."
And there it was. He had no idea what to say to her. He wasn't addle brained enough to believe he'd gone and fallen in love with her during their week together. He did, however, think he'd taken the time to develop something akin to real feelings for her during that time. That was a year ago, though. He knew where he'd been during their separation. In the same place, more or less, then when he saw her leave his boat with Hiro. There was no telling where she'd been or what she'd been doing.
"Cat got your tongue?" she asked.
"Kind of, yeah. I honestly didn't think I'd see you again."
"That makes two of us." She took a sip of her drink and then looked at him. He tried to sit still under her careful scrutiny, but it'd been a long time since someone gave him a looking over like she was doing now. "You look as good as I remember."
"I do, huh?" He smiled then. "I could say the same about you."
"Thanks," she said. He wasn't so sure the thanks she'd given was sincere. She turned then, glancing over her shoulder. "Ah, there they are," she said, waving in the direction of his table.
"Yeah, it was Zoe who spotted you." He realized too late maybe that hadn't been the thing to say and made to amend his statement. "Not that I wouldn't have given enough time. I just wasn't lookin'. I'll admit I looked for a while after you'd gone and I sort of stopped. My head saw you places you weren't. And my heart just couldn't take it."
"Me, too," she admitted. "Who's the other woman?"
Mal glanced at his table with a frown. "River? Kaylee? Inara?"
"I didn't meet Inara. She's part of your crew?" She didn't sound as though she believed that to be the case.
"She rents one of my shuttles from time to time, though hasn't for a while now. She's a companion," he added quickly.
"I see," she said simply.
"Not that we…" He'd really walked into that one. "I mean, our arrangement is strictly business."
"Claire, that ain't fair. I don't mix business with pleasure."
"She is, I suppose, yes."
"You like her?"
"Sure, who wouldn't. She ain't for me, though."
"You've thought about it?"
"More times than I care to admit, especially to you."
"No, not since she left Serenity the last time. We just," he shrugged. "We're too different. Our worlds, our lives, our occupations."
"You live here?" he asked, feeling the need to get off the topic of Inara.
"All right," he said, knowing what being dismissed sounded like.
"Sorry, bad habit."
"Being defensive. And secretive."
He moved his hand to hers, but realized she might not welcome the touch. That was a disturbing thought because the very idea of being this close to her again and not touching her just wasn't right.
"Can I touch you?" he asked.
She didn't answer at first, just stared at his hand sitting precariously an inch, maybe two, above hers. He could feel the heat radiating off her he was so close.
"Please," she said softly.
He let out the breath he'd been holding while waiting for her answer and dropped his hand the small amount of space to rest over hers. The hours they'd spent pleasuring one another came back to him like a full frontal attack by an army of Reavers. He'd filed their time away in the back of his mind and kept it under tight lock and key. Touching her had tripped that lock and brought the memories flooding back.
Neither said anything for a while. He wasn't sure what to say. For all he knew, she was waiting for him to say something. He'd feel like an idiot later if he found out that was the case.
"Want to get out of here?" It was the first thing that'd come to his mind.
"To where? Serenity?" She sounded amused.
"Well, no, just thought it'd be nice to talk to you for the first time in a year away from a bar full of people. Especially seeming as how my more than curious crew is watching every move we make at the moment."
"All right," she said, turning her attention to the bartender. "Good night, Peter." She slid off the barstool then and waited for him to join her before walking toward the door. Mal didn't miss the look the man she'd called Peter gave him. It wasn't entirely unfriendly, a might suspicious Mal would say. He knew that type of look well because he himself used it often.
"You know him?" Mal asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
"Yes. He's like me," she said.
"So you two…"
"No, he's like a brother. Actually," she said, glancing at him as they passed through the door and stepped outside. "You two have some things in common."
"You'd both die protecting something you cared for."
He found it strange to think that there were people out there who didn't feel that way. That his willingness to protect those who fell under the umbrella of his makeshift family was considered odd or praiseworthy was just strange.
"He fought for the Independents."
"I like him already," Mal said sincerely.
"I kind of thought you might." She slid her hand into his, gripping it tightly. "So, where to?"
"Not sure. What do you suggest?"
Wordlessly, she led him down the street, turning them suddenly so they were in the small alleyway between two shops. Both were closed. Hell, everything was but the tavern this time of the night.
"There something here worth seeing?" he asked when she'd stopped their progress forward.
"I think so," she said, tugging him with her as she leaned back against a nearby wall.
"Claire," he said as she placed her hands at the front of his shirt and drew him to her. "This isn't why I asked you to leave."
"I know that," she said, covering his mouth with hers. One thing he hadn't forgotten, try as he might, was how she kissed. There was a difference between then and now. There was that punch in a gut feeling again, when he realized the difference told of more experience on her part. That didn't stop him from giving into the kiss, though, and enjoying it. Immensely. He broke the kiss, finding her neck where he nipped at the skin there.
"I missed you," he whispered.
"Me, too," she replied. "Hiro told me to be here. I think you've been here before tonight, but I always missed you."
"And for that I'm sorry."
"I tried to describe you to Peter."
"Destroyed a long time ago. I'm sorry," she said. "I had it for a long time, longer than you probably realize. I've had a lifetime to understand the fact that you never forget your first."
"Not your last."
"I'm not sure there will ever be a last," she whispered. Evidently, conversation was not what she wanted just then. She slid a hand lower, causing a soft groan at the feel of her touching him again. He bit her neck a little harder when she cupped him through his trousers.
"You know the ship ain't too far…"
"We have plenty of time to get there," she said, working his trousers open and cupped him skin to skin. He was pretty well gone at that point, which she had to know.
"You sure about this?"
"Yes," she whispered, hitching her legs around his waist.
"The wall's going to be hell on your back," he said, supporting her as he leaned them against it.
"I'll heal," she whispered, sounding a little sad with those words.
"Right, I remember," he replied, shifting with a wince when she brushed against his side. In a fight, he could hide being injured just fine, but there was all kinds of pain if the spot was touched directly as she'd just done. If she noticed, she didn't say anything.
She wasn't wearing too many layers under her dress so it didn't take much effort at all to push her panties aside and slide a finger inside of her. He gave a soft groan as she gripped him. Try as he might he could never recreate anything close to the reality with his memories.
His thumb grazed her swollen nub, causing her to press herself more tightly against him. One finger was joined by two inside of her slick opening, and it wasn't nearly enough. For either of them it seemed since she pushed his trousers down enough to release his cock from its temporary confinement.
And just like that he was inside of her again. His cock thick and hard filled her just as he remembered. His mouth found hers as he dug his fingers into her hips to hold her in place so he could thrust deeper inside of her. She broke the kiss to give a soft groan and he took the opportunity to explore her neck and ear with his mouth and tongue.
Her fingers worked the buttons of her top, letting it fall open. He wasn't one to turn away such an offering, so he slid his mouth lower. Her hands dropped to his head as he took a nipple into his mouth. He could still recall vividly her asking him to do this harder their first time together. He'd been afraid of hurting her despite her claims. He knew now not only could she take it but that she liked it.
"Mal," she whispered and it turned him on something fierce, hearing her say his name like that.
It was a slippery slope, getting right the point between pleasurable pain and straight out pain. He'd gotten to know those points on her very well their week together. He was glad to note as she slid her hands to his shoulders, clutching him tightly as she came around him, that he hadn't forgotten. He wasn't too far behind her.
She dropped a hand to her side, reaching for him and hitting the tender spot straight on. He gave a wince with a soft hiss as the wave of pain washed through him. He staggered, but managed to keep them joined.
"Sorry," he murmured, bringing his mouth back to her breasts.
She cradled his face with her hands, drawing him away from them to look at her. He didn't like the look in her eyes. When he'd first met her she'd been youth and innocence, a young woman who was excited about her future. He'd really liked that about her, because it'd been a look he hadn't seen in anyone's face since before the war. It had given him hope that maybe, just maybe, life would turn out all right for him and his crew. That look wasn't there anymore. It'd been replaced by one that only vast experience can give someone. Where had she been? What had she gone through?
A few days after she'd left he'd asked Book to tap into some of his Alliance resources and find out about her. The only match Book had found belonged to a woman born in the twentieth century on Earth. He'd accused Book of playing a practical joke until he'd seen the grainy photograph that had been her driver's license. It hadn't been a great photograph to begin with and time and corrosion had made it less than perfect quality, but there was no doubt his Claire and that Claire were the same woman.
He didn't understand the where or why of it anymore than he understood how her friend appeared on his ship when they weren't docked anywhere. He just knew that something had brought her to her a year ago and now a second time. If he could help it, he wasn't going to just let her walk away again.
"What's wrong," she whispered.
"Nothin'," he said.
"You're favoring your side and while I admit my mind is fuzzy on details I know you have a tendency to live on the rough side. So, that leads me to believe you're injured."
"Fuzzy on the details, huh?"
She smiled. "You have no idea."
"I have a bit of one, though I've not been able to wrap my mind around how it's possible."
"I did some checking after you left, found an old driver's license photo. It's amazing the crazy things that they were able to save over the years."
"How do you know it was me?"
"The fact it looked like you aside you mean?"
"I don't I guess. You going to tell me it wasn't?"
"No," she said simply. "I didn't think much survived from Earth."
"Not much did, but you probably know that first hand. I think things like your license were in one of the various batches of things sent out to space stations for safe keeping. So, there were copies and records. I don't know."
"So, can you explain it?"
"Well, it's part of the healing thing I have, I guess. When I said that guy at the bar was like me, I meant it. He's not exactly, but he can heal, too. There are a few others, not many and we kind of stay out of one another's way."
"You aren't with him, though? I don't need a jealous boyfriend or want-to-be boyfriend hunting me down, I'm still healing up from the last go around I had with someone."
She laughed, letting her head drop back against the wall. "He's my uncle."
"He's your what?"
"My uncle. His brother was my father. He's not a boyfriend, I assure you, though I suppose this late in the game it wouldn't matter to some. He's the only family I have, he's a friend, too, though. He was willing to stay here with me until you came."
"That was nice of him I guess."
"I thought so, especially since I didn't want to ask about you and draw attention to you or your crew."
"Thank you," he said sincerely. "So, you've been alive all these years since last time I saw you, even though it's only been one to me?"
"And you still want me?"
She waved her hand between their bodies. While he was still inside of her he wasn't as hard as he had been a minute ago.
"I guess that's a yes. I'm flattered."
She slid her legs out from around him then and he released her once she'd gotten her feet back on the ground. She worked on buttoning the top to her dress while he refastened his trousers.
"Come with me so we can finish this a little more properly."
"Yes," she said. "I didn't know you were injured. You should have told me."
"You didn't exactly tell me you'd planned on my taking you like that."
"True enough," she said with a smile, and there for a brief moment was that glimmer in her eyes he knew. The brief explanation she'd just given him aside he still didn't understand her situation, but was aware enough to be glad she was able to have that look at all anymore.
"Was that some kind of test?"
She shrugged a little. "Maybe a little."
"To see if you still wanted me?"
"Actually, the other way around."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"I'm not that person anymore."
"We all change, Claire. I'm not the man I was either. It happens. Life happens. Did I pass?"
"I'm bringing you back with me, aren't I?"
"I guess you are at that."
She filled him in on more of the details about herself and her life as they walked.
"Do you miss Earth?"
"Sometimes," she shrugged and he gripped her hand a little tighter.
He couldn't remember ever walking through the streets of any town holding someone's hand. It was a little unsettling, but oddly not so bad.
"It's to the point I've been here for so long and I'm not even sure what I remember is actually what it was like. I mean, people suffered there, too."
"You live comfortably?"
She didn't answer right away and he glanced at her, noticing she was blushing.
"What's that for?"
"I had the foresight to prepare for the war and ensure that Peter and I would survive."
"And you feel bad about that?"
She shrugged. "I'm not sure. That's not why Hiro brought me to you. To learn about the future, I mean."
"Yet, if he didn't want you to know about it, he wouldn't have brought you here. He had to know you weren't going to be stuck in solitary for the entire time you were on Serenity."
"You're right, but…"
"You feel guilty."
"A little, especially when I know what you go through. How you struggle to put food in your crew's mouth."
He shrugged. "I don't know any other way."
"I know," she said, stopping.
"This yours?" he asked, regarding the house.
"Looks nice enough without being pretentious."
"Thank you. I hope you'll think the same of the inside."
"Only one way to find out."
Claire led him inside, her heart stuck in her throat even more than on their way here. She and Peter had worked hard to fly under the Alliance radar as best as they could over the years. The house was paid for and comfortably furnished, but not overly expensive in style.
She watched Mal's eyes as he took in the parlor. He didn't look upset that she'd been living in comfort while he and his crew worked their asses off for what amounted to scraps. Some jobs were more profitable than others she imagined.
"It's nice. Your Peter lives here, too?"
"Yes, it's big enough for both of us without our getting in one another's way."
"He has a place, too, that we spend time at on Persephone."
"But you've both been here for the last little while?"
"Yes," she said.
She smiled then. "Why?"
"Because this isn't as nice a place as Persephone."
"It was worth the sacrifice. Now," she said. "Let's see you."
She laughed lightly. "You're hurt, Mal. Let me see."
"I do have a doctor onboard, you know."
"Yes, I remember. Simon, right? And I'm sure he patched you up just fine. I'm also sure you did not bother to tell him it hurts as it does."
"It was fine until I went and had sex holding a woman up against a wall."
"Okay, play it your way," she said. "Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to go down that hall a ways into my room. In my room is the biggest bathtub you've probably seen in quite some time."
Knowing Peter wouldn't be back for hours yet, she got a little more daring than she would have if he was there or expected home any minute. She worked a few of the buttons on the top of her dress. She smiled as Mal's eyes watched her fingers progress with the buttons, making inch by inch of her skin visible. She drew the dress up and over her head once she'd unbuttoned it enough.
"In that big bathtub I've got some bath oils that will help you. If you'd like to join me, you're more than welcome to." She turned then and walked toward her room.
"How do you know about healing things?"
"Well, I'm an herbalist."
"I see. That's herbs and stuff, right?"
"Right. I'm a doctor, too."
"You are," he asked.
"Yup. That's one of the reasons I chose to live here, they need the medical help. Many come to me for the herbal treatments, though."
"Lots of places like this do."
"I know, but this place won out because Hiro told me this is where we'd meet up again."
"You really wanted to see me again?"
She gave a soft giggle and glanced at him over her shoulder. He sounded so surprised. Did he really not see himself as worthy? Maybe not. She wasn't sure what she'd think if someone admitted to being alive as long as she was and wanting to be with someone all that time.
It was one of the few things that got her through everything, knowing that eventually she'd have someone. She'd had plenty of somebody's over the years. She'd been married, but she'd stopped after the fourth. It wasn't the losing them that had been hard, but the look of resentment in their eyes that she couldn't get sick and didn't grow old.
Peter had come to much the same conclusion, and so they had formed an odd sort of partnership. She imagined some thought they were married.
"Yes, Mal, I really did."
He was following her now, having stopped to pick up her dress before doing so. Her room was large, Peter's was as well. His was on the other side of the house. They'd designed it that way, they each had their separate living space with a common area for the times they didn't want to be alone. They went in spurts sometimes where they needed their space so it worked well.
"Now, let me see you," she said softly.
"That'd sound a whole lot better if it wasn't my wound you weren't inquiring after."
She laughed. "I didn't limit it to your wounded area, Mal."
"All right then," he said, lips quivering into a bit of a smile as he worked the buttons on his shirt. She saw it before he'd finished unbuttoning.
"You were stabbed."
"Yeah, a couple o' times, actually," he said.
"It looks like it may be infected."
"Tail end of that, yeah," he said, giving a soft hiss when she ran her fingers along the outline of the wound.
"And you let me…" The pain she must have caused him, discomfort if nothing else. She felt terrible for being so greedy. She started the water running before adding various oils to it. Some ylang-ylang, jasmine, and after another glance at the wound some clary sage.
"You ain't going to let me leave here smelling like a woman, are you?"
"As opposed to leaving my bed smelling like me, you mean?"
"Well, that'd be altogether different."
"Well, I don't know exactly. It just is. There's nothing unmanly about smelling of sex."
"So, just tell them I asked you to take a bath with me."
"I could do that," he said, stepping out of his boots and trousers. "Do they trust you?"
"The people here? No offense, but you don't look old enough to be a doctor."
She shrugged. "It took a while, sure. That was another benefit to staying here. They needed the medical attention so badly they were willing to give me a chance where others probably would have gone to someone else."
"And you make a living?"
"Sometimes I take things in trade, but we don't starve if that's what you're asking."
"Huh," he said, walking toward her. He stopped in front of her and with her sitting on the edge of the tub as she was. Well, she was in the perfect position to take his cock into her mouth. So, she did. He didn't seem too surprised by her actions as she slid him all the way into her mouth. She could do that easily for the moment because he wasn't entirely hard yet.
She gave a soft groan as she felt him swell and grow harder in her mouth. She released him, nipping his thigh lightly before looking at his side.
"He did a good job patching you up."
"Yeah, it's getting to the point you'd be hard pressed to find an unscarred patch on me."
"If there was some way I could share…"
"No, wouldn't let you anyway. I am what I am, this is it. You don't have to like it."
"I didn't say I didn't like it, just that if I could share some of my healing ability with you I would."
"I appreciate the thought," he said.
She stood then, taking his offered hand and stepped into the tub. He followed and the water was just about at the perfect level to account for both of them.
"It doesn't smell bad."
"Ordinarily, I'd just go for the ylang-ylang and the lavender, but the clary sage will do you some good."
"I'll pretend I understood that, all right?"
"Sure," she said, letting him draw her to him.
"Now, you done got me all hard again."
"Yes, you did. Going to rectify that?"
She slid onto his lap, pressing her mouth against his and reaching for him with one hand. She guided him into her, mindful this time not to brush against his side.
"I'll do my best."
"You're best is just fine so far."
Eventually, she lost track of when exactly, but the bath water had grown to an uncomfortably cool temperature. Rather than add more water they ended up in her bed. It had been a long time since she'd spent a full night with a man. She'd gotten to a point where she didn't want the involvement. So, waking up to him was different. He had no problems demonstrating how much better he felt either.
"Did it get cold?" he asked.
"A little," she said, peering at the breakfast she'd brought in earlier.
"No, you're not."
"You're right, I'm not."
"So, I have a proposition for you," she said, letting her fingers graze along the length of his arm.
"Well, you have your choice. I can send you back to Serenity with some poultices of the herbs I used that should help draw out the infection."
"I took meds."
"Yes, but these can be used with that."
"All right. What's my other choice?"
"I can bring the poultices and treat you myself."
He glanced at her then. He was shrewd, there was no question of that in her mind.
"How long you talking about?"
She shrugged. "It's not like I don't have plenty of time on my hands."
"I guess you do." His brow furrowed a little. "You offering to come with us?"
"What about this place?"
"Peter will look after it."
"We'd have to tell my crew about you. They'd start to wonder…"
"I know," she said softly.
"I'm not marriage material."
"What are you Rhett Butler?"
She shook her head with a laugh. "Never mind. A movie from a long time ago. I watched it with my mother once or twice. Rhett wasn't the marrying kind."
"I suppose someone changed his mind."
"I don't much see my mind getting changed. My life just isn't suited to settling down."
"It's okay, Mal. I'm not looking to get married. I've done that before and won't again."
"You got hurt?" he asked, watching her closely.
"They couldn't forgive my not aging or looking well when they were sick. I'm not sure who got hurt worse to be honest."
"I'm sorry," he said, drawing her to him so he could hug her. It was nice, comforting.
"You know, I'm hearing you, and I believe you're sincere."
"But?" she asked.
"I look at this. You've got a nice setup here. A home, a friend who's also family. You may not see him again for some time. And you know our lives are dangerous."
"I know that. And I have the rest of forever to spend time with Peter."
"You'd have to follow my orders if you're out on a job."
"Aye, aye, Captain," she said with a salute.
"And you have to promise me something."
"You change your mind and want to come back, you tell me. You don't make yourself miserable to make me feel better."
"I wouldn't do that anyway."
"I didn't think so, but I needed to say it."
"That goes for you, too, you know?"
"You might decide having me around…"
"Don't even say it. I've had a year to think about this and contemplate what I'd do if you showed up again. You've had even longer I wager."
"Yes, and it's really better for me if I don't stay in one place for very long anyway."
"The Alliance. Peter and the others like us think they'd be interested in people like us. Other than severing my head, I bounce back from anything."
"Amazing. I'm not going to test it out or anything."
She laughed lightly, tracing his chest lightly with a fingertip.
"What will Peter do?"
"What we've always done. Move around, change our identity once in a while. The house here is pretty safe, we're out of the way. And as you can probably tell the Alliance doesn't send people here very often. That's one of the reasons people were willing to try my herbal remedies. They're less expensive first of all. But they knew they'd possibly get a cure that was available right here not whenever the Alliance remembered to send supplies."
"Right," Mal said, knowing all too well how the Alliance worked.
"I know you know. Sorry."
"It's all right."
"We'll find one another again. We always do."
"If you say so."
"I do. He knew this would happen anyway."
"That confident I was going to want you with me?"
"I had an idea, yeah." She reached down to touch him, grazing his length with her fingernails lightly. "And I can be fairly convincing when I want to be. So I'm told anyway."
"I just bet. One question?"
"Do you know how to use a gun?"
"Yes, I'm not as good as Jayne or you I'm sure, but I can defend myself if I had to."
"That's all I need to know. I can't worry about you or we're all liable to get hurt."
She understood that, especially since she wouldn't die anyway.
"So, I guess I need to get dressed and pack a few things."
"Just like that?"
"Unless you had other ideas?"
"No, I just wasn't expecting you to be good to go that quickly."
She gave a soft laugh.
"That ain't how I meant that either."
"I know. It won't take me long," she said, pushing back the covers so she could stand up again. The breakfast she'd brought in was beyond hopeless now except for the fruit. She grabbed a couple of strawberries.
"All right then."
"And Mal?" she said from across the room, biting into one of the berries.
"Yeah?" He was watching her eat the berry pretty intently.
"I'm glad you found me again."
"Me, too, Claire," he said, joining her across the room. He kissed her, taking an extra moment to kiss the strawberry juice away. "I hope you don't get lost again anytime soon."
"I'll do my best."
"That's all any of us can do, isn't it?"
"I guess it is."
"Anymore of those berries?"
"Not in the way you imagine most likely."
"I was hoping you might be my plate."
She smiled, ducking her head a little. "I'm not sure that's an offer I should accept."
He took her hand into his, bringing it to his lips to lick away any evidence she'd just been holding strawberries a minute ago.
"You sure about that? I'd make it worth your while."
"We'll be late getting back to your ship."
"See, that's the great thing about being the captain. Serenity takes flight when I say she does. No sooner."
"I guess you're right."
He picked a strawberry up from the tray and held it toward her.
"We wouldn't want this food to go to waste. Never know when you'll get fruit next."
"You have a point," she murmured, taking a bite of the strawberry. He drew it away so he could kiss her. She imagined he could think of a place or two besides her mouth to dip the strawberry in.
And damned if she didn't get wet just thinking that.
One thing she knew for certain, traveling with Mal would never be boring; strawberries or not.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com
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