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Title: Never Runs Smooth
Rating: PG-13 (for mild cursing)

Summary: Chapter 7. There's a reason why Mal doesn't believe in luck. Can Inara and the rest of the crew prove the Captain wrong? Or does Fate truly have a thing against him? This is the seventh installment of my angst contribution to the delightful Sushi-verse. Now only the epilogue remains.
Series: Takes place in the Firefly Sushi!verse created by [livejournal.com profile] terimaru. Here is the list of fics in this 'verse so far.
Timeline: set between between Mis-Ceptions and Inara's Gift
Pairing: Mal/Inara
Word Count: 6,724
Disclaimer: Mr. Whedon and posse own all but the fish and all things related to Avery. Those are [livejournal.com profile] terimaru's.


Chapters: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8




Chapter 7



Zoë smiled as she sat next to the large fishbowl containing Sushi and Sashimi that had been placed as a centerpiece and dug into her own meal at the small wooden table in Abigail’s kitchen. It was part of an old barn door, uneven and nicked. Her drink wobbled a little on the wood, but it felt a lot like Serenity, so Zoë and the rest of the crew all had the tendency to eat there rather than at the more formal dining room table in the other room.

After Mal’s fever had broken, River had immediately brought the two fish from Serenity into his room to keep him company. This morning, however, she’d announced the Captain and Inara would be needing their privacy to the fish and moved them into Abigail’s kitchen. Two hours later Simon came from Mal’s room with the biggest smile she’d ever seen on the man and an explanation to River’s cryptic remark.

Jayne had received a dark glare from River after asking how the fish would feel if Abigail decided to cook up seafood, which it turned out wasn’t readily available on Avery anyway, and scuttled off to flirt with some of Lizzie’s women. He’d already had to cough up ten credits to Zoë after losing a bet about what planet Abigail had originally hailed from.

Considering the woman’s obsession with making sure everyone had enough food, it wasn’t hard to deduce she’d come from a siege planet, and of the two, only one’s inhabitants had an accent that reminded her a bit of Mal’s.

“How’d you peg me for Perihelion?” Abigail asked curiously as she slid into the seat across from Zoë.

Her gray hair was pulled back into a long braided rope that hung down nearly to the middle of her back. She was a taller woman, with broad shoulders and a wide, open face that belied the intelligence in her blue eyes. Zoë suspected she was older than she looked, but her tanned face held little wrinkles.

“Met a boy from Newton, once,” Zoë replied, and nodded towards her full plate. “He hoarded extra foodstuff in his bunk all the time. Had such an obsession with regular meals, we finally put him in charge of the kitchen. That’s the only other time I’ve ever seen a pantry quite like yours.”

It wasn’t an exaggeration to say what Abigail had stashed in her pantry alone could feed a family of five for nearly a year. Dehydrated soups, canned goods, smoked meats, dried fruits, powdered milk, and enough staples like sugar, flour, rice and coffee to insure no one was going hungry anytime soon. And, according to River, her basement held nearly six times as much.

“My husband was born on Shadow…” Abigail said, her eyes searching Zoë’s. “He had an accent just like Malcolm’s. That’s where your Captain’s from, isn’t it?”

“Funny you haven’t mentioned it before,” Zoë said coolly. This conversation was taking an uncomfortable turn, all of a sudden.

“Oh, your captain knows exactly where I’m from. He knew the minute I opened my mouth,” Abigail said with a rueful grin. “The drawl is pretty distinct, and Perihelion was practically next door to Shadow. Only four days away. Makes us kind of like kissin’ cousins,” she continued, then pulled a cigar from her apron pocket. Zoë nearly grimaced in frustration. They never took runs anywhere near Shadow, and she’d forgotten how close Perihelion was to it. It was a detail she wouldn’t have missed, before.

She stared, fascinated, as Abigail lit up and took a few deep puffs. Her cigars smelled a lot better than Jayne’s, thankfully, but did nothing to dispel Zoë’s growing unease. She’d never quite understood Mal’s skittishness when it came to these people, but maybe he wasn’t as off base as she’d thought he’d been. Of course, it never helped when he insisted on being a close mouthed wángbādàn, too.

“What brought you to Avery?” Zoë asked, fishing.

“Hal enlisted just a few weeks before the siege began. Made it off planet in time…” Abigail began, then frowned and shook her head. “I was there for the duration,” she said, then looked up at Zoë with dark eyes. “After they won, I was told to come get Hal, cause he was too sick to ship off to the camps, and too weak to send home.”

Zoë nodded but didn’t interrupt. Those few Independent dead that did get shipped back to their families had come with a bill for the freight cost.

“They’d wiped out our accounts – stripped our savings. By the end of the siege, less than half of us were left. I sold everything I couldn’t carry, includin’ my momma’s heirloom necklace and my own wedding ring. It was Hal’s granddaddy’s,” Abigail supplied, her eyes dry. Zoë could see she wasn’t looking for pity. She was just telling it like it was.

“I never looked back,” Abigail stated, her eyes distant, lost in memory, making Zoë distinctly uncomfortable. Her own grief was still far too raw for her to want to be forced to share loss with anyone else. “I wanted to find a place that could be a comfort to Hal. He had a love for the land that a lotta folk from Shadow have. Did you ever get to see it?” Abigail asked softly.

“Once,” Zoë admitted. Abigail nodded in approval.

“Your Captain’s the first man from Shadow I ever met who doesn’t seem to need a decent piece of earth to call his own,” she said, eyes sharp. Zoë looked up and met Abigail’s gaze with a cool one of her own and didn’t bother with an answer.

“I’m sure you well know how hard it was for Independents to find jobs afterward,” Abigail continued, her expression a little troubled. “The people of Avery didn’t care who we were, as long as we carried our weight. Didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out we couldn’t have picked a better place.”

“This is a fine place,” Zoë agreed, glancing around her. Was the woman finally coming to a point, she wondered?

Abigail’s home wasn’t fancy, but it felt lived in in a way that Core folk would never get. Crocheted blankets adorned the couch and were draped over a lot of the sitting room chairs. She’d noticed all the beds had quilts made from scraps of material Zoë was sure she’d seen in the clothes hanging on the linen lines outside. The furniture was all handmade; sturdy and functional, with a rustic feel that appealed to Zoë.

“So how do you feel about Abel courting Malcolm?”

Zoë paused with the forkful of steamed asparagus hovering at her lips. “Courting?” she asked blandly. The change in conversation had just taken a turn for the surreal.

“Certainly he is. Malcolm’s the first captain that ain’t tried to cheat us,” Abigail stated and frowned at her cigar. It had gone out while she’d been talking, earlier. She pulled out her lighter and puffed hard at it a couple of times to get it relit.

“I rather thought you were courting Abel,” Zoë retorted, allowing a small smile. She still hadn’t quite figured Abigail out yet, which made her cautious. She liked the woman, but caught her looking sometimes at Mal with an expression that Zoë couldn’t quite puzzle out, and Zoë wasn’t fond of mysteries.

“Oh certainly,” Abigail agreed as she leaned back in her chair. “But I’m content to sit back and wait till Abel figures it out first.”

“That may take a while,” Zoë said and felt the smile turn genuine. Abel came to Abigail’s daily, and although it was plain to anyone with eyes he was fond of the woman, it appeared he hadn’t clued in yet to the fact that the feeling was mutual.

“The betting pool’s up to sixty credits. I’m hoping I win it, so we can have a little money left over for a honeymoon,” she explained.

“You’ve got money in that pool?” Zoë asked, amused.

“Yep. Which is why I’m being careful not to cloudy it up,” Abigail replied practically. Zoë nodded.

“So what’s this about Abel wooing the Captain?” Zoë asked, resuming eating her meal before it got cold. Fresh food was too precious not to be fully appreciated.

“Well, it’s all of us, really. Abel’s just our spokesman on the matter,” Abigail explained, puffing once more at the cigar clenched between her teeth. Zoë’s never doubted the woman had an iron core, but it intrigued her to see it manifest with quirks.

“Spokesman, huh?” Zoë observed. Abigail nodded.

“I’m sure by now you’ve noticed that pretty much all of us here in Paraiso seem to have lost someone to the Alliance, in some fashion or another.”

“We’d thought as much,” Zoë agreed.

“While our family and friends went off to war, time came to a standstill for the rest of us,” Abigail explained, turning the cigar in her hand and watching the smoke drift up idly. Zoë waited for her to continue. “But not all of ‘em died. Some of ‘em came back,” she said, and the look in Abigail’s eyes as she looked up to meet Zoë’s made her clench her teeth in pity. The tale was not an uncommon one. “Once you've been in Serenity you never leave. You just learn to live there.”

“They weren’t the same,” Abigail said distantly. “Broken, beaten, lost… My own husband wasn’t the same man who left. The man I got back from the war was all twisted and sick in body. They still don’t know what kind of weapons the Alliance used on him.” Zoë nodded. She’d seen it, and barely escaped it herself almost a dozen times. It was an ugly way to go.

“It took him six years to die,” Abigail said. “Some, like Jill’s brother, Roger, never did come all the way back from the war, if you take my meaning,” she continued, and turned searching eyes on her. Zoë exhaled sharply and felt the first stirrings of real concern begin. She knew her expression flattened by the reaction on Abigail’s face, but the woman gamely plowed on.

“I believe you both knew Roger. Roger Anderson? He and his brother both served under Sergeant Reynolds.” Zoë had to force herself not to register the shock.

That was a name she hadn’t heard in a long, long time. Damn Mal’s instincts anyway, she thought bitterly, and shook her head. Roger had been barely sane at the best of times, and the war didn’t leave him anything left. Mal had taken him to task to try to reign him in any number of times… She could only imagine what these people thought of him, if it was Roger telling the tale. Suddenly she wanted Mal out of here and back on Serenity with an urgency that nearly propelled her from the table right then and there.

“So you know all about us,” Zoë said, her voice steely. Abigail raised her hand soothingly, and even went as far as to reach across the table to keep Zoë from pulling away. Zoë twitched in the effort not to move violently at the act. People normally knew better than to touch her.

“Not Roger so much as Andy. He used to write to Jill, one of the townspeople you haven’t met, all the time, right up until he died. When Abel first brought up your names in the town council meeting, Jill brought some of the letters out for a few of us to read.”

“The Anderson boys weren’t from Avery, that I recall,” Zoë said. Abigail nodded her head, her face concerned at Zoë’s distress.

“They weren’t,” she agreed. “They’re from Athens. When their parents died, Roger and Andy joined the war, and Jill signed up with one of the caravans that used the supply food to the soldiers. That’s where she met her husband, who was born and raised here,” Abigail explained, her voice especially soothing.

“Is there a point coming anytime soon?” Zoë asked, feeling tired and worn down. It looked like everyone was keeping secrets these days, even Abel, and Zoë was feeling mightily unimpressed. Andy had been a damn fine soldier, and a decent man. He’d come to a bad end, ultimately, and Mal hadn’t taken it well. Neither had Roger. Was Roger still on Avery now, and if he was, did he know Mal was here, too?

“Life went on after we lost the war, Zoë. You all are proof of that. You’re links to our past, to our loved ones, and are proof that even now, we’re all just trying to get by. You’ve been fighting a long time, and clearly so has your Captain…” Abigail said, then took a deep breath and asked, “He’s seen the vid feeds, hasn’t he? From Shadow?” Zoë froze as Abigail’s strange looks suddenly made startling sense.

“We were close enough to receive ‘em, Zoë. All of us that could – we recorded it. It’s a living will, but… losing Shadow – it did something to Hal,” Abigail tried to explain, and Zoë wished with all her might that Inara was in her place here at the table right now. She’d know how to deal with this woman and her good intentions. She’d never been one for heart to hearts, and would never speak of Mal’s heart on such a matter. In fact, she decided even Jayne might do better at this than she was.

“We know what it’s like to feel adrift from the rest of the ‘verse. We’ve worked hard to carve out a place that’s free from the Alliance’s prying eyes, and have been looking for a ship we can trust. We think that ship is Serenity, and I can only hope that someday you and your Captain would consider this place a safe haven. Give you a place to run to, rather than always running from,” Abigail said.

Zoë stood up at the older woman’s mention of the word ‘haven’, jerking her hand away. “Then we’re the last people you need staying on your planet,” Zoë said with a rough voice, backing up a few steps as if to distance herself from what they were discussing.

“What is it?” Abigail asked, genuinely concerned.

Zoë steeled herself to speak. She’d talked to Mal about this, and they’d both agreed that Avery’s residents had a right to know what had happened to their previous contacts before they got much further into a business relationship. In fact, the day Mal got shot was when he planned to pull Abel aside and do just that.

“An Operative came after us,” Zoë stated flatly. Abigail’s gasp indicated she was well aware what that entailed.

“Are they still?”

“Not right now, but that could change. Things are pretty mixed up, what with Miranda and everything, but just because our warrants aren’t on the Cortex doesn’t mean they won’t be again.”

Something shifted in Abigail at the mention of Miranda, and even as she fought to keep control of her own grief, Zoë noted that the woman’s demeanor had changed drastically.

“That was what she was trying to say, wasn’t it? River? That message was yours? About Miranda?” Abigail asked breathlessly. Oddly, it reassured Zoë that evidently River had already tried to tell them. It meant she and Mal were both right in trusting them with the knowledge.

Zoë nodded. “We were hunted for a while, and to get to us, they killed off the majority of our contacts.”

“That explains a lot,” Abigail said thoughtfully and stood up. She walked around the table to began to pull Zoë gently back toward the table. Oddly, she didn’t resist.

“Would you do it again?” Abigail asked her intently, and Zoë really could understand why the woman would react like a patriot, especially as she’d been there when Shadow was obliterated. But no matter if it had been the right thing to do, making the Miranda broadcast (and she still wasn’t sure if any good had been done at all), it still didn’t change her own feelings.

“No,” Zoë said, her face contorted in pain, and pulled away sharply. She ignored Abigail’s calls as she pushed past a surprised Kaylee in the living room and out into the afternoon sun. Mal was going to have to finish this talk. She’d done all she was willing to do.

***************************************************************


The more Abigail recounted of her conversation, the more Abel wanted to bang his head against the wall. Wode tìan, if Malcolm had been spooked before, what would Zoë’s recounting of her conversation with Abigail do? He’d known it was a mistake not to tell them about the Anderson boys as soon as Jill brought out the letters, but the others had wanted to wait and see. They’d been burned too many times to trust easily.

Now suddenly the rest of Malcolm’s crew’s behavior made sense. Miranda. They had all watched the vid, over and over, horrified, instinctively knowing it was authentic. Abigail had even insisted on recording it as soon as they realized what they were watching, just as she had recorded the Shadow vid feeds.

They’ll try to make it disappear, just you watch. This way, when it does, we can just keep reloading it to the Cortex,” she’d explained. That was the first time he’d heard the truth about what happened to Shadow. That this had been done before.

There was so much more to the crew of Serenity than he’d ever dreamed. Now, in the face of this, he realized it was also time to decide just how important their relationship was to him, and to the town. Because Zoë had been right. If they did decide to try to hunt them down, it could endanger all of them. Abel sighed heavily even as he let Abby finish, reassuring her as well as he could.

“I’m so sorry, Abel. I thought it was the right time. That Zoë would understand. I never meant to hurt her,” Abigail said and sighed heavily against his shoulder as he gathered her in his arms, hugging her close. “You’ve been working so hard to make them all feel comfortable, and now I go and do this.”

“Abigail, the instant you learned Malcolm was from Shadow, the deal was done. The fact that he’s a decent man – that all of them are a family, not a crew…” Abel chuckled softly. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. I best get up there, though, both to get the full story and also ‘fess up about the letters before things get too much more out of hand,” he said regretfully, and squeezed her arms reassuringly before stepping away.

“You’ll do no such thing. This is the longest he’s slept since… Well, it’s the longest I’ve ever seen Malcolm sleep,” Abigail said, distraught.

“It can’t be helped. This Miranda thing… We gotta know. As much as we care for ‘em, we’ve got to understand what it could mean for us,” Abel said solemnly, and started up the stairs, his mind whirling with conflict.

The door to Mal’s room was closed, and Abel knocked quietly but firmly. It was Inara who opened the door, looking tired and a little fierce.

“I’ve come to talk to Malcolm,” Abel said apologetically.

“Abel, he’s finally getting a few hours of sleep. Surely it could wait?” she whispered, her expression disappointed. He couldn’t have felt more of a heel.

“I’m so sorry,” Abel replied and something in his voice undoubtedly gave him away.

“’Sss’all right, Inara. I’m awake,” Malcolm’s voice rumbled sleepily from behind. Inara closed her eyes for a second, and looked at Abel searchingly.

“You have no idea how long it’s taken for him to come around. Don’t you dare live up to his expectations,” she said with a heartbroken expression, then schooled her features and opened the door to let Abel in.

Malcolm had already started pulling himself up in bed. Inara immediately went to help, pushing him gently forward and plumping up pillows that she then balled up and placed behind his back and shoulders. He still appeared exhausted, but no longer looked to be constantly clenching his jaw, and the frown lines between his eyes had lessened considerably as he leaned back with a sigh.

“I’m gettin’ the impression this ain’t a social call,” Malcolm said, studying him closely. Abel glanced pointedly at Inara, then looked back to Mal. “Huh,” Mal said, unsurprised, and reached out to touch his wife’s hand tenderly as she read Abel’s expression and turned to leave.

“I love you,” he said simply. Inara turned back and quickly leaned forward, taking Malcolm’s face in her hands. The two seemed to forget about Abel for a second, and his heart broke at the candid scene that played out before him.

“I love you too, Mal. I’ll be right back with some fruit, now that you’re awake, okay?” The desperate sadness on her face belied the lightness of her words.

“I’d like that,” he said, and smiled warmly at her. Abel felt like the executioner coming to sentence them as Inara smiled back, then slid dark eyes at him as she left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her.

“Zoë must have told you about Miranda,” Malcolm said as he gestured to the seat next to the bed. Abel nodded and sat beside him gratefully.

“She did.”

“Ask your questions,” Malcolm stated with calm eyes.

“The Alliance sent an Operative after you?” Abel began. Malcolm nodded. “Do they still want you?”

“Not as far as I know. They came after us because of a secret we didn’t know we knew,” Malcolm said ruefully. “A secret called Miranda. Once the word got out, they dropped the warrants for our arrest.”

“That’s not so bad then,” Abel began, but Malcolm held up a hand and shook his head firmly.

“Oh, it’s as bad as you undoubtedly thought when you first heard,” he disagreed in that lyrical drawl he had. “The Alliance didn’t just come after us – they came after anyone who’d ever associated with us – friend or foe,” he said, and his eyes went distant as he said, with a completely different accent, “If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to.” Abel felt pinned to the chair at the intensity of Mal’s gaze.

“There wasn’t nothing left of Haven, a harmless settlement who’s only crime it had ever been was to give us a place to stay when we needed to regroup.”

“Your friends?” Abel asked in a quiet voice. Mal nodded and frowned, looking away for a moment and swallowing.

“And crew. There’s just a few contacts left alive,” he explained, “which is why we’ve been working so hard to drum up new business. They’re oddly leery at answering our waves,” he said with an ironic grin.

“It’s been over a year, though, hasn’t it?” Abel asked, and started in surprise to realize River had slipped into the room. He hadn’t even heard her come in.

“That it has,” Mal said, his eyes on River. “You don’t need to be here,” he said gently. River shook her head, frowning, and crawled up on his bed, perched on her knees. A chill zipped up Abel’s spine as things clicked into place that made no sense to him. River turned her body to watch Abel, with what could almost be an expression of approval on her face.

“Where does a smuggler get a hold of a secret like Miranda?” Abel asked, his eyes glued to her.

Mal turned a stern face to River. “Darlin’, this doesn’t need to be discussed,” he said, as if they were having a conversation Abel couldn’t hear. River shook her head and raised a hand to Mal’s lips.

“This secret isn’t yours to keep,” she said and turned back to Abel.

“How could you know such a thing?” he asked her. She leaned forward, gesturing for Abel to do the same, and whispered in his ear.

“They cut into me. Made me listen, whether I wanted to or not. I hear things; things people don’t say,” she said and looked into his eyes. “You forgot to turn off the stove in your haste to come here, but figure it’ll be okay ‘till you get things settled.” Abel tried to pull back, but suddenly River’s hands held his face.

“Michael knew how proud of him you were. Those weren’t the memories he carried of you,” she said quietly, reassuringly. “He carried sunrises in the barn, with the jokes you told that Samantha would never have approved of.” Abel jerked as if struck. “He never forgot how Avery’s suns felt against his skin, no matter how dark it got,” she said with tears in her eyes.

“Simon’s my hero. Broke the code and came to my rescue. They tried to make me into a thing, but Daddy believed in the girl,” she said for his ears alone and let her hands slide from Abel’s face.

Abel’s heart pounded in his chest, and was torn between the overwhelming urge to pull away and the other to pull River into his arms and never let go. Tain xiode, what had they done to her?

River leaned back and kissed Malcolm’s cheek tenderly. He looked close at her, as if making sure she was okay, then smiled at what he saw and kissed her back on the top of her head as she pulled away.

“Off with you, now, Albatross, before you give poor Abel a heart attack.”

Abel watched her leave the room with a stunned expression, then turned back to see all levity was gone.

“I lost crew because of Miranda. Got Zoë’s husband killed,” Mal said with a matter of fact voice. Abel nearly flinched at the raw blame easily seen on his face. No wonder Zoë couldn’t bear to talk further with Abigail. “Seems the more I try to do right, the more they go wrong,” he explained with a distant expression.

“Truth is, I’m glad you’re here, because it means you see sense when the others won’t. It’s better this way,” Malcolm continued earnestly, and Abel felt his throat constrict with grief at the sincerity in the captain’s voice.

“Better what way?” Abel asked softly.

“Best that we cut ties now. You’ve got too much to lose if we draw the Alliance’s wrath down on us again.”

“You don’t know you will,” Abel disagreed.

“Truth is, I know my luck, and there’s good money that says I will. I’d much rather my associations be of the dark and slimy variety nowadays. Means it might be considered a public service if they get wiped off the face of the ‘verse,” Malcolm said, and it suddenly became so clear to Abel, why Mal had fought so hard not to become his regular smuggler.

“Are you that eager to quit my business, Malcolm?”

“I appreciate your sentiments, Abel, but even if you was willing to risk it, why would the rest of Paraiso want to?” he asked confidently. Abel stood up, his resolve solidified toward a single purpose.

“That’s not your decision to make,” he refuted and pulled the opened envelopes from his jacket pocket, handing them to Malcolm.

“Truth is, we haven’t been completely forthcoming either. Got a resident here you haven’t met who knew your name. It turns out her brothers served with you in the war,” Abel said and handed the papers to Mal, who took them tentatively in his hands.

The way Malcolm held the papers reaffirmed everything Abel had ever learned about the man. Conversation forgotten, Mal looked down with a deep breath as he carefully pulled the top letter out of the envelope. Pen and paper, the last ditch way soldiers still got messages to their loved ones, when they’d had no other access. The last, best way to get their voices heard, even from beyond the grave.

Abel waited patiently as Mal read through the letter in its entirety, his face as expressionless as Abel had ever seen it, and yet oddly, as easily read. The intensity in his eyes burned, and the man that sat before Abel wasn’t the exhausted, injured captain of a ragtag crew of misfits, but The Sergeant, as Jill’s brother always referred to him, usually with near reverence. A man who cared too deeply and couldn’t stop. Who’d do what needed to be done, no matter the cost to himself.

A man who, in the face of losing all they held dear, told the universe a truth no one wanted to hear. A man who bore the death of his best friend’s husband, and the life of a broken, psychic girl with a secret too big not to share, with equal grace.

“I’m sorry we didn’t show you these sooner, but you can understand our caution,” Abel said, gesturing to the stack of remaining letters. “After all, you met our last captain.”

Malcolm grimaced at the humor and watched Abel stride to the door warily.

“Don’t you give up on us so easily, Malcolm Reynolds. Seems to me, right now, there’s no reason not to give you our business. If things change, we can always revise our agreement, but until I say differently, our contract stands.”

“So you’re off to pow wow with the rest of the townsfolk about things?” Malcolm asked casually. Abel nodded, trying not to show the concern he felt at the real possibility that the people of Paraiso would prove Malcolm right.

“I am. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so.”

“You’re a good man, Abel. There won’t be no hard feelings,” he said earnestly, trying to reassure him.

Abel nodded and opened the door. Inara sat in the chair just outside, the fruit tray resting in her lap, with the afternoon sun shining on her skin, making her seem nearly radiant. She searched his face openly as he walked past, and he tried to give her a soothing smile.

“I may have given Malcolm a bit of a shock,” he apologized, which prompted Inara to stand up immediately. She remained silent, though, as he walked past, clearly reserving judgment.

“Don’t you let him start packing yet,” Abel said firmly, and something in Inara’s face relaxed at that. She nodded and gave a small, grateful smile.

“Good luck,” she called after him, intuiting where he must be off too. He took a deep breath and hoped he hadn’t just raised her hopes for nothing.

**********************************************


“Has anyone told River yet that those fish have probably seen more than Jayne has?” Mal asked Zoë tiredly as she pulled up a chair beside his bed. She felt like she was coming apart around the edges, but warmed to see the color in Mal’s face. Most of the others had already gone to sleep, and Mal looked ready to drop off at any moment. He’d been waiting up for her, though, and had straightened up the instant she’d entered the room.

Inara snorted softly, mostly asleep, on the bed next to him, curled up against his side. He had been stroking her hair affectionately, and the look Zoë’d caught on his face when she’d first arrived made her breath hitch in recognition.

Mal continued to stroke Inara soothingly, but his eyes were on Zoë, giving close scrutiny to the weariness she knew had nearly become like a second skin. He waited for her to speak, not pressuring. Letting her take the time she needed.

“I’m assuming Abigail paid you a visit, sir?” she asked finally. Mal’s eyes darkened and he shook his head.

“No, but Abel did. Came with a whole packet of letters from a sister I only vaguely remember Andy mentioning once,” he said, and indicated the bundled papers on the stand next to him.

“You read ‘em?” Zoë asked, and as she looked at Mal, time blurred. Sergeant, Captain, friend, brother-in-arms; they’d both lost everything to the war but each other.

“Anderson always could spin a good yarn,” Mal said dryly, and Zoë smiled as Andy’s voice echoed in her head. “You should have seen it, Alleyne. Sergeant slipped up like a ghost and took ‘em out before they even knew what hit ‘em. I thought only you could move like that! That man saved my life. Risked nearly a dozen Alliance troops just to rescue my sorry hide. I mean to be like him some day. The Sergeant’s a hero.”

“The boy always did tend towards the dramatics,” Zoë agreed, yet knew instinctively that most likely the letters hadn’t exaggerated. “Wish they’d have told us sooner.”

“Can’t blame ‘em for that,” Mal disagreed, then gave a wry grin. “Truthfully, makes me feel a little more cozy about the whole thing, and why they seemed to take to us so easily. Always did think there was more to Abel’s eagerness to hire us than just good business sense.”

Zoë glanced down at the pile of letters on Mal’s lap, then automatically to Inara. Mal answered the question she hadn’t asked.

“Inara hasn’t asked about them yet,” Mal stated, a question of his own in his eyes. Not many saw him like this; unsure.

“If you’re asking if I talked on things with Wash, I did, sometimes,” Zoë said and sighed. “When it didn’t hurt too much… Or rather, when it was worth the pain and helped to bridge some of the space between us.”

“I haven’t decided yet if it’s a blessing or a curse that I talk in my sleep occasionally,” Mal said ruefully, and Zoë smiled.

“Someday your wife might get a little too much insight into your past, sir,” Zoë teased, making Mal snort. He winced, just slightly, and Zoë nearly beamed in approval. He truly was recovering nicely.

“Yeah, well, just because you thought I was a bit repressed doesn’t mean I actually was,” Mal replied, smirking at the conversations they used to have.

“Yeah, you really were,” Zoë disagreed with a smile and turned warm eyes on Inara. “I hear that’s changing in a real hurry, though.”

Mal’s hands drifted towards the letters, and he looked at her inquiringly. Zoë shook her head.

“Nothing there we haven’t already lived. As long as you think he gives a good accounting, that’s all I need,” she said solemnly, and pushed the papers back toward Mal.

“I’m sorry you ended up being the one to tell ‘em about Miranda,” Mal said with eyes that seemed to be partially seeing her, and partially watching something else.

She knew he carried Wash’s death heavily. It tore at her, sometimes, how desperately she wished he’d let it go, and yet how glad she was he hadn’t. It was an odd comfort to her to know how much it weighed on him. That she wasn’t the only one who bled for her loss.

“Needed doin’,” Zoë replied practically, taking a breath to regroup. “Did you get a chance to further clarify what the whole ‘killed all our contacts’ thing meant?” she asked. Mal frowned.

“That I did,” he agreed. “I was plenty graphic with the details, but he wouldn’t scare off. Even held a town council meeting on it or some such thing. None of ‘em got a lick of sense.”

“River tried to tell Abigail about it, earlier,” Zoë told him. They often puzzled nowadays over the things River said and did, trying to make sure they didn’t miss the signs this time, if there were any.

“Really?” Mal asked, intrigued. She could tell it reassured him, too, that River put her trust in these people.

“So even with a town council meeting, we still got ourselves a job?” Zoë asked, changing the subject back.

“That we do. For the next three months, as soon as I’m up and about.”

“I’m getting the impression Miranda didn’t make us look less appealing like you thought it would,” Zoë said, then turned a full glare on Mal. “I guess your plans on running have been thwarted yet again, sir.”

“I don’t run,” Mal replied, eyes dark, and Zoë relished the fire in them. She didn’t blink at this side of him; never had.

“We sure have been dancing around regular jobs, though. Think that’s gonna be changin’ anytime soon?” she pushed. Mal ran a hand through his hair and scrubbed at his scalp. She understood this side of him, and knew, ironically, that this was where her strength lay. It would be a life’s lesson, teaching Malcolm Reynolds about moving on and letting go. A lesson she’d thought she’d been proficient at until recently.

“Enough. I had this conversation once already. We’ll be taking on more of Abel’s runs, if that’s what you’re asking,” Mal said sternly, his eyes automatically sliding to Inara’s sleeping form. Zoë felt deep gratitude and triumph swell within her. So he’d already been getting grief about his reluctance to commit to Avery’s jobs, then? If he’d already acceded to Inara’s wishes, then half the battle was already won.

She didn’t dare broach the topic yet of making Avery a permanent stop for them, like Abigail had suggested; a place to regroup the way Haven had been. Things took time with Mal. She’d been to Shadow, once, and understood how hard it would be for him to even consider it. A body could only be beaten down so many times before they stayed down, but looking at how tenderly Mal touched Inara’s hair, she knew in time he’d find it in his heart to give the place a chance.

The peace he found in the black came from the dark places he’d been forced to retreat to after the war, when they’d tried to break him. The tiny specks of light he could see, even from his cell, became a symbol for all he’d lost; all he’d fought for: his freedom.

It wasn’t in his nature, though, to be alone – not ultimately. His life had been filled with love and laughter, once, just like hers, and instinctively he’d forged a new family, whether he had been willing to acknowledge it or not. She understood his reluctance to make new contacts with people he cared for, but this – Abel and his apple pie moonshine runs – felt right to her. It felt like a beginning to her, in her gut.

No true healing began without love, and Mal’s time had finally come. Her throat clenched with envy and gratitude at all Inara brought out in Mal that she hadn’t seen in years. She’d missed that man, and welcomed him back with open arms, even as her heart cried out for her own man, lost from her forever. She’d had her moment of perfection, and didn’t regret a second of it.

The people of Paraiso were willing to hire on the crew of Serenity longer term, despite all the reasons why they shouldn’t. After talking with Abigail, and learning about Andy and Roger’s sister, she was beginning to get a better understanding as to why. Clearly Abel was dead set on it. Whether it brought them closure, or comfort, or simply the opportunity to move on, Zoë couldn’t be sure, but she found herself profoundly grateful at their determination to keep the crew of Serenity on. Abigail certainly spoke the truth. Avery would have made a fine place for her and Wash to stay. She could have raised their children there.

As she watched Mal’s eyes droop with fatigue, Zoë smiled and nodded at his faint look of inquiry. She’d said all she meant to say for the night. He smiled apologetically at her, and sighed as his eyes drifted shut. She suppressed a chuckle at how exhausted he must have been, to fall asleep that quickly.

She looked at Inara, still in her day clothes, with her arm draped across Mal’s chest possessively. Zoë knew she’d work with Abel, and Inara, and Abigail, too, to wear Mal down until he saw what Avery was, and what it could be. He could find healing here, she thought. They all could. Maybe, someday, they’d even find that Avery could be more than a haven. Maybe they’d finally found themselves a home.

**********************************************


Translations:
wángbādàn - bastard
Wode tìan – oh sky (exclamation)
Tain xiode - Name of all that's sacred [God knows what]

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