Diversions & Digressions | fanfiction by mara

Friction Leads to Fire

Friction Leads to Fire

by Mara

Summary: Mal and Inara are stuck in adjoining jail cells.

NOTES: This story contains spoilerish stuff up to “Safe”. Thanks to Captain
Average for the beta and the Chinese, and to Medie, who asked me to finish it.

Chinese glossary (courtesy the Firefly’s Glow list and Captain Average):
Ni zen.me.le? = What’s the matter with you?
Tamade = (exclamation) motherf***er
Sishengzi = bastard

* * * * *

Malcolm Reynolds glared impartially around the small space, condemning
everything (and everyone) in it to hell: the two cells with their metal bunks,
the primitive toilets, the sturdy metal bars, and the Companion in the adjoining
cell.

The Companion in question still managed to look annoyingly elegant–even under
these conditions. The faint gleam of a lone light picked out the gold threads in
her burgundy dress, making it shimmer. Mal decided he’d rather die than admit
how nice she looked.

“So, tell me,” Inara asked, “was this part of your clever plan?” She sat on her
bunk and arranged her dress so it fell properly around her.

He glared harder, but it had no visible effect. “You know damn well it wasn’t. I
usually leave the jail part out.”

“Then why exactly are we here?”

“‘Cause we were double-crossed, that’s why!” Mal paced in the small space, three
steps forward, and three steps back, from the bars between their cells to the
wall.

“And why am I here? I wasn’t even involved in your little caper, I was
with the District Senator.”

“Somehow they linked you with us.” Mal stopped at the floor-to-ceiling bars of
the door and gave them a good shake–they stayed put.

“That didn’t work the last 10 times you tried it, either.”

He turned. “Well, lady, maybe that’s the difference between you and me.”

“You futilely attempt the same losing tactic over and over?”

He went white–for a moment, all he could see was smoke and bodies, a
battlefield. “Don’t talk to me about tactics.” The dead, so many damn dead.

Her face fell. “Mal, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–”

“Forget it.” Shaking his head once, he went on. “How ’bout instead of you being
a downer, you come up with a useful suggestion.”

“I’m quite good at getting you out of prison,” she said. “I’ve had to be. But
usually that involves me being on the other side of those bars.” She waved an
elegant hand, and for a moment he imagined that hand… “Mal?”

“What?” He forced his eyes away and went back to the door of his cell.

“Never mind.”

They were silent for a while, the room’s only noises the shussing of cloth as
Mal paced, and an occasional irritated tap of Inara’s foot.

The light flickered in a very annoying way, he decided after a while. Probably
some sort of primitive torture device, along with the unwashed smell of the
place. If it’d been cleaned since the war, he’d be shocked.

“Do you have any idea when we might expect to get out, or at least see an
advocate?” The tone was casual, but Mal looked at her sharply.

“Why, y’afraid your client might not pay if he don’t get enough time for his
money?”

She didn’t answer him, simply eyeing him with that disappointed expression she
always got when he said something nasty.

A bit of shame bubbled in his stomach and he slapped a hand against his thigh.
“Well, maybe people like you get ‘advocates’ but I figure I’m due to be left to
rot. If I’m lucky.”

“I’m sure Zoe and Jayne will come up with something.”

He paced some more, scuffing his boots against the floor. “They’d only get
themselves in even more trouble doin’ it.”

“They’ve managed before, I’m sure they’ll manage it this time.”

“Yeah, but I told ’em to get out if I got caught.” Silence filled the small
space, and he turned to look at her. She looked tired, and he realized how
rarely her face was anything but calm. “Sorry ’bout that. I didn’t know you’d
be–”

“Mal, do you believe they’d leave you?” A frown creased her forehead.

“I ordered them to go, stay outta danger.”

That stopped her cold for a few long moments and she just looked at him, her
expression unreadable. He felt his face grow warm and he turned away from her.

“What makes you think they would follow that order?” she asked.

Before he could answer, another voice interrupted from the doorway. “You ready
to give up the goods?” Mal whirled to peer into the gloom past the bars. The
speaker stepped closer. Dressed in the uniform of the local sheriff, he was a
scrawny little guy who looked like he’d borrowed his big brother’s uniform.

“I ain’t got no idea what you’re talkin’ about,” Mal said, spreading his hands
in the universal sign of innocence.

Scowling, the sheriff stepped up to the bars, his weasely nose practically
sticking through. “Don’t try that on me. My sources are plenty reliable. You
know exactly where those records are, and I want ’em back. Did you figger I was
gonna let you waltz off this planet with proof I’ve been paid off?”

Mal kept his face steady, but inside ran through every curse in every language
he knew. This is what happened when he tried to do a good deed. “Look,
that’s between you and me, so why don’t you let the lady go, and we can talk
this over. How ’bout it?”

He heard Inara stand up. “Mal–” she began, but stopped when he held up a hand.

“She’s got nothing to do with this. Let her go.”

The sheriff turned to look at Inara and Mal’s heart sank past his stomach at the
smile that seeped across the man’s face. “Let her go? Why would I do that? I’ve
never got my hands on a Companion before.”

“Because she ain’t got any evidence on you and you don’t want trouble with the
Guild. Let her go and we can talk. Otherwise, no deal.”

Still leering at Inara, the sheriff slowly turned his head to look at Mal.
“You’re really stupid enough to think I’d let her go?”

Mal leaned forward and put every ounce of menace at his disposal into five
words. “If. She’s. Hurt. No. Deal.”

Involuntarily, the sheriff stepped backward, and Mal just watched him, anger
coiling in his stomach like a dragon. If anything happened to Inara because of
this sishengzi…

The sheriff visibly pulled his scattered wits together and rebuilt his sneer.
“I’ll just leave you two to talk about this and go sharpen my knives. Let me
know when you’re ready to give me what I want.” And he turned sharply on his
heel and disappeared back into the gloom.

Mal slumped. Not exactly what he’d planned. “Tamade,” he muttered.

“You know, since we’re apparently stuck here for the moment, this might be a
good time to discuss your tendency toward self-sacrifice.”

“What?” When he turned, Inara was seated again, hands folded in her lap. “We’re
not at some damn party, making chit-chat!”

“You think self-sacrifice is a topic for casual conversation?” Unexpectedly,
Inara smiled. “Well, maybe you do, but that’s beside the point.”

“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

Her smile turned into a frown. “I’m talking about this propensity you have for
trying to push everyone else out of the way and jump in front of the nearest
laser beam.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” He went back to pacing. “Can we stop whatever it
is you’re doing and get back to trying to get out of here?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Suddenly, she was no longer seated, but just on the
other side of the bars, so close her floral perfume nearly overwhelmed him. He
almost tripped over his feet backing away.

“Ni zen.me.le?” Short of breath, Mal watched her for signs she’d lost her mind.

“Mal, you just tried to give yourself up so he’d let me go, and you ordered the
crew to abandon you. This doesn’t strike you as being martyr-like?”

“Just common sense. No point in the crew getting killed for no good reason. And
I figgered if he let you out you might be able to use some of your influence.”

“You don’t really believe that.” It wasn’t even close to a question, and Mal
shied away from the idea that she might understand him well enough to be that
certain.

“Of course I believe it,” he said. “I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“If it suited your purpose, of course you would.” She shook her head. “The
problem is, you lie to yourself.”

“I don’t think you’re getting us any nearer to getting outta here.”

“And you’re changing the subject.”

“What subject? You’ve called me a liar. If you weren’t a woman, I’d slug you for
that.” His voice rose, despite his best efforts.

“Don’t you see? None of us wants you to sacrifice yourself for our sakes.” Her
calm cracked, and for a moment he thought he saw tears in her eyes. “I know the
war affected you, the losses you suffered haunt you, but don’t kill yourself for
that.”

“Don’t talk about the war like you know anything about it!” He found himself
yelling at her, his face up against the bars. “You supported the Alliance and
you were safe while we were being killed, so don’t talk to me about it.”

“Maybe I was wrong.” She stood her ground, face upturned. “I’ve seen a great
deal since I left the safety of the central worlds, and I don’t want you to
commit suicide because you can’t live with the memories.”

His ears roared with the pounding of his blood. “I said don’t talk about the
war. I don’t want any of your headshrinking, thinking if I get all touchy feely,
then everything will be better.” The urge to reach through the bars and smack
her was nearly overwhelming and he turned, slamming his open palm against the
cell’s back wall, focusing on the sensation of scratchy concrete.

“I know I can’t make it all better, but won’t you even let me try to help?”

He leaned both hands against the wall, his eyes following a crack trailing
diagonally from left to right. “Don’t need your help,” he forced out through
gritted teeth.

“You didn’t need my help on Persephone?” The warmth and compassion in her voice
made his throat close. “Or when you stayed behind on Serenity when we ran out of
air? Or when you and Zoe were in jail?”

His throat closed, and he shook his head back and forth in denial. Denial of
what, he wasn’t sure. “Can’t be depending on nobody,” he finally said.

Whatever Inara was about to say, it was lost in the distant sound of weapon
fire. Mal’s head shot up and his whole body tensed as he listened for any clues
to what was happening.

“Saved by the bell,” Inara said quietly.

He didn’t respond, just put his finger to his lips. Barely breathing, he
listened: a shot to their left, then two quick shots on the right. Eyes closed,
he plotted the shots on his mental map of the building.

Some shouting, a few more shots, and Mal’s eyes opened in surprise. “Jayne’s
here.”

“How do you know?”

“Vera’s got a pretty distinctive sound. What th’ hell’s Jayne doing here?”

He’d obviously managed to surprise Inara, as her jaw dropped for an instant.
“You’re actually surprised they came to get you!”

Grinning, his pulse racing, he continued to listen. “Nope, they’re as stubborn a
bunch of fools as I’ve ever known,” he said, “I’m just surprised Jayne came
along. Wonder if the doc had to dope him again?”

She turned away in a swirl of fabric and he returned to listening to the sounds
of struggle.

“Vacation’s over,” Zoe said as she entered the room at top speed. She tossed a
gun between the bars, and Mal caught it as she unlocked the doors.

Mal grabbed Inara’s hand, and dragged her behind him as the three of them exited
the room.

* * * * *

Mal lay on his bunk, eyes half-closed. The sound of the ship’s engine soothed
him with its familiar hum, the sound that meant freedom, and he felt muscles
unclenching.

A new sound made him sit upright, automatically reaching for a weapon, before he
realized it was Inara climbing down the ladder. He stared for a moment as her
legs came into view, encased in emerald pants, silky and shiny. His eyes moved
up to the matching top–pausing for a moment on her chest–before they snapped
up to her face. She was smiling at him, but it looked like a smirk.

He flushed, embarrassed to be caught staring at her body, and jumped off the
bunk. “Don’t you believe in knock…” he began, before trailing off, realizing
the absurdity of chastising her for something he did all the time.

“I don’t come to visit you nearly as often as you visit me,” she said as she
strolled around the edge of the small room, running her hand lightly over
various pieces of furniture.

“A shame, that is. And why would you be here now?” He stayed where he was,
backed up against edge of his bunk, turning to keep her in sight.

She stopped, head down, looking at her hand where it lay on the back of a chair.
“We never finished our conversation.”

“Oh, I think we did. It’s a closed topic.” If there’d been anywhere to back up
to, he’d have moved further away. “Done. Forgotten.” He winced at the plaintive
tone of his voice, he’d intended to sound forceful.

“Mal,” she paused and turned to look at him. “You’re a complicated man.”

“I try.”

“And a proud man.”

“Maybe.”

“And a stubborn man.”

“True. But a man’s gotta be stubborn if he wants to keep it together out here.”

“I know.” Inara sighed and sank down into the chair she’d been leaning on.

Mal shook his head. “Well, I’m glad we had this little chat, but I think it’s
time for you to mosey along now.”

She tilted her head up. “Why do you take everything on yourself?”

“I’m the captain, it’s in the job description.”

“Stop it! Just stop it! Don’t be yúchûn!” Inara jumped to her feet, all
composure apparently fled.

“What?”

“Stop pushing me away. Stop pushing all of us away.” Her eyes closed briefly and
he stared at her. “Don’t be a martyr, Mal, it doesn’t suit you.”

“I–”

“Be quiet, it’s my turn now.” She stalked up to him, her quiet grace now turned
to the crawl of a panther. “You drive me insane, Malcolm Reynolds.”

“Always glad to oblige a lady.”

She didn’t seem to have heard him. “You’re so afraid of losing people, the way
you did in the war, that you just push. Then, if we leave you, then it’s by your
choice, rather than cruel fate.”

“Get out,” he said. Pulse racing, he tried to ignore her words.

“I’m right, Mal.” Her eyes were very large and dark as she looked up at him, and
he couldn’t look away. “I’m trained to read people, to understand what they’re
thinking, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. Whether they know those
things or not.”

“No.”

“Yes.” Her voice contained compassion, and friendship, and maybe even something
else he didn’t want to think about. “I’m not asking you to…I’m not asking for
more than you can give. Just don’t push us away.”

He couldn’t speak.

She stepped back, out of his personal space, and for a moment he felt cold at
the loss of her nearness, but the mask of a Companion, the calm, was back in
place. “Trust us, as we trust you, Mal.”

And she turned and climbed out of his quarters.

Barely breathing, he stared at the bottom of the ladder.

“I’ll try,” he whispered finally.

–end–

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