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The Temptation Series

Chapter Text

"TOUCHING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

No touching but she wants to so much that it causes a momentary blindness to everything but the craving for sensation. Completeness. She wants to touch him, feel him, move him, consume every part of who he is so she can claim it, own it, and make him her own. He doesn't know it yet, does not fathom that he is the anchor that keeps her sane. Not Simon. Not the drugs. Nor even the welcome sensation of home thrumming beneath her bare feet as she walks in time to the rythym of Serenity's reassuring heart. She loves them all because they are all part of him.

In her quest River lets her mind shift gears, become the focus of thoughts honed to laser sharpness. An accurate beam that has a razor edge beyond anything Jayne can achieve with his knives or Simon with his scapel nor the Captain with his harsh and oft' times ascerbic wit. There is nothing so sharp or deadly about Kaylee but the brightness of her smile can sometimes cut through solid steel and there is not a heart aboard that is immune to it. The Preacher is all hidden angles and traps, covered in a softness which is borrowed not owned though the division has grown narrower over time. Eyes showing so many levels of meaning behind his purpose. Wanting to be simple the Preacher had stepped out into the 'verse not knowing that his addition to it made everything more complicated not less. A sharp mind but no mathematician. And Zoe, a weapon in every plane of her body, every part of the ordered core of her. The hard glittering adamantine line that not even the Devil has the nerve to cross. Then there is Wash, the antidote to all that ails his wife. The choice between light and shadow made in a heartbeat that will last forever.

River thinks often about Inara. The teasing tension between her and the Captain a flow of pain filled almost-caresses that would be all kinds of wrong if allowed to flourish to its' epogee. The heat of prickly friendship is less destructive though even that has grown into something softer, something both can live with and cherish. River does not worry about Inara knowing the Companion is all too aware of every decision she makes and that her own harsh reality has an edge to it as bitter as anything the Captain could endure. River does not want to endure. To sit on the sidelines. Be excluded from that which her mind and body craves even as her soul aches to fill all the incomplete places she sees in this cornucopia of moving parts that is the ship's crew. Serenity. She is his and he is hers and all that live within that amalgum of blood and steel sings of home to her. A silent passion that hits her hardest when the blood heats with want and need and all the things she cannot confide to her brother still less confess on the altar of an alternative God.

Six years. She cannot believe they have been together on this boat for so long and yet it feels as if they have always been here. It is where they belong. The realisation draws a happy smile on her pale face, eyes shining with thousands of memory fragments pieced together in a mind that never sleeps. They are moving about on their separate journeys yet all travel together. She can feel each and every one of them as they sail through the Black. Wash and Zoe lost the first baby but a new one is coming. Simon doesn't know yet, the egg is still dodging the sperm but she can feel it, follow the course of the possibility as the couple reach their zenith. Warm damp heat exciting the passion between them as the bliss of coitus removes the tension of another day. River didn't really interfere, just nudged a little to get the zygot home. Sanctuary. Baby will be safe now. But no touching.

Simon and Kaylee married in the Spring two years ago. It amazes River that Kaylee waited so long until her brother finally got off the fence and made his move. Would have served him right if Kaylee had moved on but it wouldn't have been fair to her friend. Kaylee deserved better, now she had it and River was relieved and pleased. They were parts that fitted together, also when Kaylee was happy the Captain was happy too. Parent, brother, friend, protector - so many hats for one head to wear yet only one heart. Battered, traumatised but true. River had set her sights on Mal long ago, little by little inching her way towards her goal. Careful not to frighten him off or have her brother drag her kicking and screaming from the only home she wanted to a life on the run away from the metal walls that held her safe and the arms she craved. No touching. She knew what it was to love from afar but each year in the Black that distance was closing.

It had occurred fairly early on to River that her brother could not cure her. As brilliant as Simon was he could not undo what had been done to her and the evolving cocktail of drugs became a rollercoaster ride that owed more to Russian roulette than reasoned clinical research. So River sat down one night while all the ship was sleeping and did the math. Then she had carefully and slowly ordered the broken pieces of her psyche back into their former roles, acting out responses that would lead Simon to believe she was healing. Getting better. And she was. But not from the drugs. People had broken her and only people could heal her. Not any people but the ones on this ship. As she improved Simon cut back on the drugs he was giving her, his heart soaring with hope and joy at the remission. Until finally, at last, she was not only drug free but coherent. Simon did not need to know that what she had been like before was kept inside so that the echo of who she was could be with them. Yet sometimes, when she looked at the Captain, it was as if he knew. A small smile would grace her lips, a gentle sad one flicker on his own. Only her promise stopped her from dancing over to him and letting her lips tell his what her heart longed to say.

Now they were out on a job. Mal, Zoe, Jayne and the Shepherd. Simon and Kaylee were laughing and teasing each other when Simon realised his sister had been awfully quiet for longer than was normal. "River?"

River did not want to shift her focus. She frowned slightly. "Trouble."

Simon's heart missed a beat. Kaylee touched his arm to reassure him but the doctor was tensing up, as if all River's efforts to appear normal were slipping away in one moment. It hurt him to think he might have to medicate her all over again. "River, how do you feel?"

She turned her head. "Double crossed. The friend who wasn't a friend."

"What ya sayin', River? You sayin' the Cap'n an' the others were betrayed?"

"Worse than turning the other cheek."

Kaylee and Simon exchanged a look. River waited to see if they would get what she was saying but they just stared blankly.

"Shot him."

Then River sprang to her feet and left, her feet slapping quietly on the deck plates. For a moment Simon and Kaylee did not speak then Kaylee sat in Simon's lap and gave him a gentle kiss.

"And she was getting so much better." Lamented a sad Simon.

Kaylee said nothing, her arms around her husband. A flicker of worry burning in the back of her mind while inwardly she prayed that River was wrong and that this was not a sign of the dementia they feared was returning. But neither of them knew it had never left.

River only went to her bunk to retrieve her boots. Quickly donning them she then went to Jayne's bunk and made a careful search for the correct armament. The Captain's rule in tatters in her mind when his life was in the balance. She wasn't a child any more but a woman with a mind of her own. Time he found out first hand but first she had to save him. Only one rule would be broken. For six years there had been no touching.

* * * * *

Chapter Text


"TRUSTING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

"Why didn't you betray me, Jayne?"

The mercenary pauses a beat. Watching the Captain and knowing bluffing won't do it. Somehow he knows Mal would just see through him. "Money wasn't good enough."

The Captain looks away from the controls to meet Jayne's eyes. "What happens when it is?"

A far away look drifts through Jayne's eyes but he is still looking at Mal. Still in the Here and Now. Calculating. "Well... that'll be an interestin' day."

It should not have been reassuring but somehow it is. The Captain relaxes and lets the man go. He knows there are times when Zoe really can't understand why he kept the mercenary but she trusts him so goes along with it, one wary eye on the big man just in case. Over time that eye has drifted. They have got comfortable around him and that's just the way Jayne likes it. Then came Ariel and everything shifted again. Mal took care of it. Almost spaced the big lug for what he did but when Jayne had begged him to make up something and not tell the others what he did, something in the Captain hoped it pointed to a road back. Rocky maybe but leading away from that damnable abyss. So Mal had relented and let the man live. Even kept him aboard his boat, seeing in Jayne the sharp ruthless tool he would sometimes need out in the Black yet even more conscious of the need to be careful around him. Never to trust Jayne so completely he lets down his guard and gets himself cut. That there was the problem.

Six years. Gorrammit, six years of Jayne earning his trust. His friendship. Affection even. And it had come down to this. It hurt. More than it had any right to. Zoe had been correct. He should never have trusted the mercenary. A man who had shot his former employer simply because Mal had offered him more money. The Captain bit back a curse, the blood leaking from his gut and staining his trouser legs as he tried to control his fall to the ground. Zoe and Book were on their way back to Serenity with the mule. Last load having been dropped off. All that remained was the pay off. Jayne had insisted on staying with Mal. Just to make sure nobody pulled anything when it came to handing over the coin. It had reassured the Captain at the time. Right up until their contact had said, "Didn't you know, Captain? Your man already has the money."

The sudden sick feeling to his gut was nothing compared to the great yawning disappointment that seared his heart just as Jayne's gun cocked, the bullet fired before Mal could turn and clear his gun out of its' holster. Familiarity had made him too trusting. The familiar but deadly bite of steel would remedy that. Rutting hell, in the land of fools why did he have to be gorram King?

* * * * *

Jayne would have felt a twinge of regret but that purse of coin in his pocket was such a sweet distraction. Enough to get him off world and set up anywhere he rutting well wanted. No more kow-towing to Mal or watching his mouth at table, having to share chores and make nice to the crazy girl and her pathetic brother. Was a good doctor though, had to give the man that. As he dispassionately watched Mal fall to his knees then keel forward in a widening pool of blood he could not quite believe how stupid a smart man could be. He had told Mal once it was always about the money. Nothing personal. Had the man any kind of sense he would'a just vented him outta the ship when they hit atmo after the Ariel job. But that wasn't Malcolm Reynolds' style. Jayne almost smiled to himself, smug about how easily he had read the man. Forcefully ignoring the painful empty feeling beginning to seep into the space where a heart should have been.

The need now was to get off this ruttin' planet before the rest of the crew found out what he had done. Looking up he was not surprised to find himself alone. Jayne didn't stomp straight off as he would once have done. He paused to consider what Malcolm Reynolds would have done and with a tug of a smile nodded to himself and began to rearrange the body just so, lifting the Captain's hip a few inches off the dirt so he could dip his hand in the blood. Stepping back he moved around, looked up at the sun and how the shadows fell then carefully flicked his hand to reveal a distinct pattern. Anything to indicate the shot had come from another direction. Then he messed up the scene some and took a switch to carefully brush over his shoeprints as he backtracked until he hit solid ground. Losing the switch in some bushes he gave his handiwork one last look then turned and walked briskly away. Not gonna look back. No regrets. Man who held on to regrets and such had no place expecting to survive in the Black.

* * * * *

Chapter Text


"LISTENING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Hot so hot. Bodies oiled by perspiration, fueled by desire. Simon moaned into the heat of her mouth, Kaylee arching into his touch as the pleasure mounted, his thrusts slow and languid, a long withdrawal then a more rapid re-entry making her gasp. Eyes widening, lashes fluttering like insect wings against her cheeks. "Simon," She gasped. "Want you..."

He did not reply nor did he speed up, was enjoying it too much to reduce their love making to a quick frantic tumble. No he wanted to savour this, make it last as long as possible. The hand that reached him seemed to agree. Only it was not simply slowing him down it was tugging him back. Away. Simon blinked, Kaylee cursed and began to beg but her husband was distracted. The incongruity somehow penetrating his haze of passion until attention diverted, he turned his head. His eyes widened at what he saw.

"River! What the...?"

"Simon, hurry."

"I was. We were just..." His brain seemed to catch up with what he was saying and her presence in his room. "River, what are you doin' here?"

"Need you."

Kaylee managed to get enough air in her lungs to join in the debate, her voice ragged and panting. "I need him more."

"No, *ni bu dong*."

"River, just let us finish first and then I'll..."

"No, Simon. You're not listening!" Her sudden vehemence shocked him. Simon sat up, Kaylee easing up on her elbows to better see what in the nine hells was wrong. River was agitated, upset, her eyes full of worry and distress, her movements jerky and eratic. "You have to come now, too much blood."

The doctor in Simon reacted to her words, sliding quickly out of bed oblivious to the fact that he was naked. Reaching for his clothes and starting to dress as Kaylee sat up, her mind recalling River's words from earlier, a tendril of icy dread chilling her with apprehension. "You said earlier that someone was shot. Is that what this is about?"

The girl nodded, close to tears now. "Betrayed. Shot. Dying." River turned to a mostly dressed Simon. "Hurry, no one to save him."

"I just need to get my medkit..."

River ran and picked up a medkit sitting on the floor by the door. Simon watched, his mood calming with the realisation that she had anticipated him. As reassuring as that was it could also be chilling. "No time Simon."

Simon nodded, understanding now. He turned and gave Kaylee a quick kiss, wanting to reassure her but knowing that was impossible until he found out exactly what River was talking about. As River grasped his hand and they ran through the door Kaylee yelled after them, "River, wait! Who's been shot?"

She wasn't sure but as two sets of hurrying feet rattled down the metal stairs she could have sworn River said "The Captain!"

* * * * *

It was hot. He was sticky. Too much agony to want to move even if he had the strength left. Sorrow the only accompaniment to his stumbling faltering heartbeat. Glad that Zoe and the Shepherd hadn't been shot as well. At least he wouldn't have to listen to Zoe telling him what a gorram fool he was. Didn't have that much time. The dirt beneath his cheek still held an echo of the sun's warmth but as his consciousness began to shut down and darkness beckoned even that small comfort was taken from him.

* * * * *

Wash heard the ruckass on the stairs and came out of the bridge to see River and Simon flying down into the cargo hold. "*Wei*! Where's the fire?"

"No fire," Said Simon. "River says someone's been hurt. Shot."

That was when Wash took in the medkit and the near state of panic River was in. His heart missed a beat, thinking of Zoe. Quickly he ran down the stairs after them, Kaylee appearing moments later now dressed and anxious as *diyu*. As they opened the door they heard the familiar sound of the mule approaching. Wash looked relieved. Just one of the girl's fanciful turns then. Simon started to smile at River, "They're back."

River shook her head. "Not everyone but it'll save time."

The ramp lowered, the mule rumbled up it and for a moment the crew just stared at each other. Book's calm voice held the tiniest touch of concern as the mule came to a stop in the cargo hold. "Either you can't wait to see us or something has happened."

"The money was too good." Said River.

"What?"

"The money. Sold him out then shot him. Don't have much time."

Zoe's face darkened with fury. She knew exactly who River was talking about and what she meant. Gorrammit, she had warned Mal this would happen. "I'll kill him!"

River shook her head. "Have to find him first but we have to hurry. Running out of time."

No one argued or questioned how River knew. Zoe and Book made room for River and Simon on the mule and set back out, Zoe gunning every last bit of speed out of the machine. Wash gave Kaylee a worried look but tried to hide it, seeing the tears gathering in the mechanic's eyes. "*Fang xin* Kaylee, Simon's a good doctor."

"Yeah," Said Kaylee glumly. "an' Jayne's a good shot, 'specially if he shot the Cap'n in the back."

The pilot had no answer to that. He just hoped and prayed they were all wrong but in this messed up part of the 'verse he didn't think so.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*ni bu dong* = you don't understand *wei* = hey! *diyu* = hell

*fang xin* = don't worry (lit. easy your heart)

Chapter Text


"HURTING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was a lot of money. More than he had ever seen in his own hand before. Had seen others pawing through a pile like this but always, by the time it got to his share, the coin was so low in his palm it was almost an insult. This though, this covered both his palms, had the weight of a lot of coin. Money he could go anywhere he gorram pleased with. A quiet almost holy silence gripped him, stunned almost that he had actually done what he had done. A wide grin spilling over his face before another image filled his mind and squashed the happy in his lungs. One he was less proud of. Mal. The Captain. Moving, turning, too late to field the treacherous bullet and too slow to send its' doppleganger into the man he had finally called friend.

It hurt. Shouldn't'a done. Not really. He was a mercenary, gorrammit. Wasn't Mal's lap dog nor some *chun wangba dan* needing to be told not only what to do and when to do it but how. Sometimes he felt like he was treated as some backbirth, too dumb to question, too slow to be anything but a man walking in another's shadow. He'd got sick of it. Wanted to step out and stand in the sun. This coin would do it. Prove for once and for all that Mal hadn't tamed him. That he was still his own man. But another thought impinged on his consciousness, one that stirred up the kind of emotions he always avoided. He couldn't prove nothing if the man he wanted to impress was dead. *Diyu*. Was that what he had done?

Jayne stared for a long time at the coins now spilling from his hands as if they were melting, turning into water. Only that was just an illusion caused by the tears in his eyes. Anger sparked behind his weeping lids, furious at himself for getting attached, for being weak. Then in his mind's eye he saw Shepherd Book, the man's wise old face and mild knowing voice telling him that this wasn't him. He was looking back at who he was, trying to reclaim the rough edge through violence but it didn't change what he had become. He'd grown, almost without meaning to. The crew of Serenity had altered him but not as much as its' Captain. And look what he had done.

* * * * *

The fury in Zoe was a brittle fire. The others could feel its' heat and were wary of getting burned but Book could not remain silent. As worried as he was about the Captain he could not stop feeling concerned about Jayne. And more specifically what Zoe would do to the man before the full facts were known. "It may not be as bad as we think." He temporised.

No response. Simon opened his mouth to say something reassuring then realised he had nothing. River was silent, thoughts a jumble, struggling in her brain for the oxygen to spin out more than vowels or disjointed constonants. Wanting to stitch together whole sentences of meaning before it all fell apart. They were losing him. "Hurry!"

Zoe's knuckles whitened as she gripped the controls harder, the little mule already going flat out only now she wasn't dodging potholes or even people. Anyone got in the way that was their lookout. Not slowing down. Not deviating for no one.

* * * * *

He was hardly aware. Too out of it to realise the moisture on his face was not rain nor even perspiration. That the warmth that cradled him was not his mama's arms. That the rumble and murmur going through his body wasn't Serenity's sweet and cherished heartbeat giving ease to his tormented soul. Perhaps he would have been shocked. Surprised, certainly. Jayne had gone back, rolled the Captain over and felt a sick dread as he realised anything he tried to do to put this right would come too late. "Gorrammit Mal, don't you die on me!"

Strong arms dragged the Captain's body across the dirt then Jayne was sitting, legs splayed out in front of him, cradling the bloody body as best he could. His huge paw-shaped hands trying to stem the blood oozing up out of a wound he had caused. Tears blinded him so he shook his head, his voice low and gravelly, angry and pained, frustrated and filled with fear.

"No quittin' ya hear me? Ain't gonna let ya give up, Mal."

A bubble of fluid leaked from the Captain's mouth. Jayne stared at the clear fluid wondering why it didn't turn red. Like all his world was stained with the blood of this man. He could feel little shudders jerking through Mal at random intervals and with each one Jayne held him tighter, head bent lower, tears rolling off his lashes like the wave of his regret.

"I don't know what to do," Said Jayne in a small voice. He sounded almost like a child. Lost. Alone. And hurting. "Tell me what to do, Mal."

For a long long time there was nothing. Jayne felt numb. Wished he had turned the gorram gun on himself instead. His head filled with all the moments shared with this man, the Captain's words bouncing round the inside of his mercenary's head with a whole ton of subtext revealed. Hadn't seen it before. Hadn't understood. Huh. Why hadn't he seen it before? Man had showed him enough times that he thought of him as more than just a hired hand. He was one of the crew which made him as near as damn it family to Mal. Even when he had sold out River and Simon the Captain had forgiven him. Was mad as *diyu* at him for the longest time, even came close to spacing him. But he surprised Jayne by letting him live, then by not telling the crew what he'd done. It was almost harder living with his shame than facing the gorram threat of being sucked out into the atmo. No air in his lungs, the cold of space ready to crush him, and no one to blame for the dying but himself.

Sitting there in the quiet, head bowed, the clouds lowering in the fitful sky, Jayne was immune to the falling temperature. The breeze picking up hardly registered. He was lost in his thoughts, trapped in the past. Six years of memories peeling back with images, scenes flickering in his mind's eye like a film being rewound and cranked by hand. But instead of being replayed backwards he was reliving it scene by scene but from a new perspective. One huge hand brushed the fringe from the Captain's face, his eyes not really focusing, his mind now skipping back to the first time they had met. The conversation looping over and over in his head as impossibly, the man he was thinking of killing gave him a deal he couldn't pass up. And the man had been true to his word. No jettisoning the mercenary as soon as the danger was gone and that had surprised and impressed Jayne. Now he had to wonder whether it was as adhoc as it had seemed. Whether the Captain had perhaps seen something in him worth the saving. He liked to think that had been it.

Jayne didn't hear the mule pull up, the anxious shouts as four people jumped off it and ran over to them. Simon knelt beside them and tried to release Jayne's hands so he could see to the Captain but the mercenary was hanging on as if two lives hung in the balance not one. Maybe they did. Zoe wanted to kill him there and then but even she had been stunned to see how upset he was, how that mask had been peeled back to reveal the man beneath. The mercenary a crude but efficient alter ego that got things done and did not have to suffer the consequences. The man beneath bore every scar.

"Zoe."

She blinked and turned her head slowly to look at the Preacher. "*Shenme*?"

"Help me with Jayne so that Simon can work on the Captain."

Then they were parting them and it was possible to see how close the timing, the last beat of a flagging heart, they had come. Zoe could not speak but knelt the other side of Mal, her eyes on the too pale face, hardly registering River's presence alongside her. Simon was worried, he needed to get the Captain back to Serenity but feared the journey back would kill him. He told Zoe as much. Slowly she blinked, the meaning of Simon's words percolating through a brain that was only working in fits and starts. All the important parts seemed to have holes in it.

"The Captain needs Serenity." Explained River.

That seemed to penetrate the mental fog. Zoe nodded but River hadn't finished.

"Captain can't come to the ship, ship has to come to him, *dong ma*?"

In a daze Zoe stared at Mal's face for a long moment then looked at River. She gave a stunned nod. "*Wo dong*, Serenity."

River smiled, one hand resting on the Captain's shoulder. "Serenity."

Seconds later Zoe was instructing Wash to bring the ship in as close to their location as possible. Simon worked to stabilise the Captain, Shepherd Book trying to do the same for a traumatised Jayne Cobb. When the ship landed, two patients were taken aboard. Confused, Wash gave his wife a puzzled look as Mal and Jayne were whisked off to the infirmary. "What happened to Jayne?"

Before Zoe could explain River piped up. "Conscience caught up with him. Almost fatal."

Then River was gone, darting off in her brother's wake. It was just him and Zoe left to lock up then he would lift off, back into the safety of the Black. Reaching out he drew his wife close enough for a gentle kiss. Noting that she looked to be in some kind of shock her own self. "It'll be alright, *bao bei*. Mal's tough, he'll pull through."

Zoe didn't answer but accepted the kiss in silence. Then Wash was hurrying for the bridge. Zoe considered her husband's words. Mal was tough, he would pull through. She looked in the direction of the infirmary. Yes, Mal would pull through. Wasn't so sure about Jayne.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*chun* = stupid *wangba dan* = fucking bastard *diyu* = hell *shenme* = what

*dong ma* = understand? *wo dong* = I understand *bao bei* = precious/treasure

Chapter Text


"CONFESSING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was weeks later. Wash had set a course for New Hope and Jayne had taken it as a sign. He wasn't even startled when the Shepherd climbed down into his bunk and stood in silence while he finished packing. Only when he gave the room a last check to make sure nothing was being left behind did he turn to look at the Preacher. A grave and quietly humorous man who lit Jayne up with joy every time he laughed. He was going to miss him. Gorrammit, he was going to miss them all.

"He's going to live you know."

Jayne nodded. His words like the nod came out abrupt. "I know."

"You don't have to leave."

The mercenary glared at the Preacher as if the man were brain damaged. "I tried to kill him! Took the money from the job an' planned to start over."

"But you didn't kill him." Said Book mildly. "And I have to wonder about that."

The unexpected comment robbed Jayne of words. Stole most of his anger too. "*Shenme*?"

"Why didn't you finish the job? You could have been home free."

"Ain't ya been listenin'? Didn't ya see the hole in his gut? Or maybe you're waitin' for me to draw a gorram picture for you."

"No," Said Book with a patient half smile on his face. "I'm waitin' for you to tell me why you came back. Why you cried as you held the Captain in your arms."

Jayne turned his head away. "I ain't weak."

"Nobody says you are. Admitting to having feelings is its' own kind of strength, Jayne. The kind that empowers you."

The mercenary snapped his head round and stared at Book. "Huh?"

Book waved to Jayne's bed. "Mind if I sit down?"

He got a grunt in response and took it as a 'yes'. Seeing that the Shepherd was not going to be leaving any time soon, Jayne moved his bag on to the floor and sat on the bed next to him then stared at the floor beneath his feet.

"Why didn't you just abandon him, get away with the money while you had the chance? No one would have pursued you for quite some time."

"Mal would'a died."

"Why is that so important to you?"

The mercenary took a long deep breath before looking up. "Preachers an' Shepherds are like holy men, *dui*?"

Book blinked. "Yes."

"Then ya take confessions?"

For a long moment the Shepherd said nothing, his eyes searching Jayne's. Wanting to be sure exactly what the man was suggesting. "Are you saying you have something you want to confess?"

"If I had would ya be listenin'?"

"I'd be honoured. My ears to God's."

The big man stood up then to Book's surprise and consternation knelt in front of him. Bowing his head, Jayne got right to it. "I ain't a one for prayin' but my ma brought me up right. Not her fault I turned out different than planned. Still believe in God though an' I reckon it's time me an' him spoke."

Shepherd Book rested a light hand on the top of Book's head. "He's listenin', son."

* * * * *

Zoe and Wash were on the bridge. Zoe was pacing, a stern implaccable look on her face. "He's gotta go."

The pilot nodded. Made sense. You didn't get to try to kill your Captain and stay but part of him also felt hurt. The crew had been together a long time, years even, and crude as the mercenary was they had all kind of gelled together. Rubbing the rougher edges off each other and settling in a way which was comfortable. It raised all kinds of questions that after all this time Jayne could betray them. "I'm just surprised is all."

"I'm not."

Wash watched her tight lipped assertion. "You're not?"

"*Bu qu*. He's a mercenary, *zhangfu*. For Jayne it will always be about the money."

"I don't agree with that."

They both turned in surprise as Simon and Shepherd Book entered the bridge. Zoe ignored the Preacher's comment and turned to Simon. "How's the Cap'n?"

"Resting. Thanks to the blood transfusions he's making good progress."

Zoe accepted the update with calm, something inside her relaxing just a tiny bit. Her sharp eyes now focused on the Shepherd. "Why don't you agree?"

"Well, if it had been about the money Jayne would have gone. He didn't. Oh, I'm not saying he didn't think about it - I'm sure he did. Temptation can be a terrible thing. But the important thing is he came back."

"Maybe he just wanted to be sure he'd done a good job."

The Preacher stared at Zoe. Even Wash looked aghast. Book took a moment to respond, keenly aware that he could not break Jayne's confessional. "You don't believe that. You saw how he was when we found him and the Captain. I've never seen Jayne so upset."

She took a breath. "We can't trust him."

Simon was thoughtful, thinking about the violence of the man and how unpredictable he could be. "I may not exactly like him at times but that's wariness more than anything else. Knowing how violent he can be and not knowing what he'll do next."

"Which is kind'a the point." Zoe paused. "He's gotta go."

For a couple of minutes no one spoke then the silence began to get strained. Simon mentally shook himself and got to the reason why he was there.

"I came to let you know the Captain should regain consciouness sometime in the next hour. Maybe you should discuss it with him then?"

Not giving Zoe a chance to answer, Simon turned and left as quickly as he had come. After a moment's pause Book followed him out. Wash frowned and glanced at his wife. "Am I goin' *shenjingbing* or did the Shepherd seem upset?"

"Doesn't matter. Jayne's still goin'."

Silence fell then Zoe left the bridge. Wash stared after her for a moment then turned back to his console. His eyes lit on two of his favourite dinosaurs - a tyrannasaurus rex and a brontosaurus. "This is why we don't have children."

* * * * *

Chapter Text


"HEALING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

The Captain woke slowly, the light sluggishly pulling him up from the darkness. Everything felt kind of stretched and yawing, his focus wandering before he could get a grip of it. The warping of the infirmary around his Iris's slowing then coming to a stop. He blinked a couple of times to wash the grit and almost concussive effect of induced sleep from his eyes. The infirmary. Right. That meant... the *tamade baichi* had shot him! *Wode ma* when he got his hands on that lying, cheating, back stabbing *heisheoudang liumang*...

"Good to see you awake, sir."

He blinked again. Zoe. "Where's Jayne?"

Her expression darkened, a murderous rage barely concealed behind a dark wall of control now showing dangerous cracks around the edges. The only thing that held that wall in place was the fact that he hadn't died. When she didn't answer immediately Mal frowned.

"You kill him already?"

She shook her head. The flash of regret in her eyes real enough to cool him down a little. "No, sir. Figured that was your job."

Right. Fine. Just what he needed. More decisions to make. "I wanna see him."

"I don't think..."

"Not askin'. Wanna see him here, now. *Dong ma*?"

Zoe nodded and left. Simon remained silent, watching the Captain as he fussed around him. River got up from a chair in the corner and danced over to him, her pale moon face shining down on him with a quiet happiness that stirred an echo of content in own fractured soul. "He's sorry." She informed quietly. "Tried to go back but already burnt his bridges. Had to try to find out."

"River, I in no way got a clue as to what you're sayin'."

She smiled. The Captain turned his head and looked at Simon. "What she say?"

"I think she's saying Jayne regrets shooting you."

Before he could respond to that fun little comment Zoe came back into the infirmary with Jayne and Book. Jayne looked like he was doing some kind of penance. The Captain glanced at the others. "I wanna talk to Jayne alone."

"Not a good idea, sir." Said Zoe.

"Ain't askin'. I'm still the Cap'n. Now go, shoo!"

Zoe glared at Jayne, gave the Preacher a nod then waited for Simon and Book to go first. River leaned down and kissed the Captain's cheek. At the surprised look on his face she gave him a happy smile. "You won, be grateful. To the victor the spoils."

Then she danced out, closing the door behind her. A painful silence filled the space between the two men. "Crazy girl." Murmured the Captain.

"Yeah."

All of sudden the Captain had an image of Jayne holding him in his arms. Tears falling down the big man's face as he cradled him. All the hurt and pain and confusion of what happened dimming in a flash of insight. River had been right. But he had to ask. To know. "Why'd you come back?"

"*Shenme*?"

"After you shot me. Why come back? You had to know the others would come an' find me. Stood a good chance Zoe'd shoot you before askin' what the good gorram happened. Come to think of it, why didn't she shoot you?" The Captain paused a half-beat as if considering it. "Huh, might have to look for a new second in command."

Jayne blinked. "It was the money. I was gonna take it, start anew."

"Why didn't you?"

"I..." The big man paused and stared hard at the Captain. "You ain't mad at me?"

"Didn't say that."

"I just, suddenly it didn't feel like the thing to do. After I left you, I counted it." Jayne got a far away look in his eyes but had moved closer to the infirmary bed. "More money than I ever had my hands on before an' all I could think as I looked at it was it wasn't enough."

The Captain thought he must have misheard. "Huh? Not enough? What you talking about, that was more than..."

A sad little smile tweaked the mercenary's lips, his eyes now fixed on the Captain. A suspicious moisture pooling in the corners of his eyes. "Then I got to thinkin' it wouldn't ever be enough."

Silence stretched between them as if in shock. The two men trapped in a tableau of truthsomeness that cast its' own kind of spell. "What you sayin', Jayne?"

"I'm sayin' ya got to me an' good. Didn't even realise it. Thought I was still a free agent, could come an' go whenever I gorram pleased. Didn't wanna kow-tow to nobody. On'y I came to respect ya, like havin' a place on your boat, bein' crew. It was more than I ever had an' it was twistin' me up inside like I was all kinds of weak so I had to get out, make a break. But that needed money."

"So you decided to grab the money from the job. That the plan?"

Jayne nodded. "Yeah, on'y you never let go once you get ahold'a summat. They'd already passed me the purse of coin. Didn't tell ya but knew as soon as the job was done you'd ask, they'd tell ya an' my chance'd be gone. It happened in a split second, I saw my chance and took it."

"You shot me!"

"Yeah." Jayne paused, that one word dipped in so much pain the Captain had to wonder at it. Jayne drew a chair over and sat next to the Captain's bed. Not discomfitted in the least by the fact that he was now confessing for the second time. This was the one that mattered. "On'y once I'd done it - got clean away too - I knew I couldn't live with it. What I done. That's when I knew, the money would never be enough."

Mal stared at him dumbstruck. Jayne Cobb was not a man for fancy words. Crude but straightforward in most respects. Now he seemed almost eloquent if the Captain was any judge. It struck the Captain that the one thing he had always feared about Jayne - that he could never trust him because his loyalty would always be in question - had just been answered. "I could'a died, Jayne." He said softly. "Nearly did."

"*Wo zhidao*, Mal..." Jayne's voice broke. His eyes filled with tears but he didn't look away. Couldn't. He was leaving and he owed the man the truth. "*Duibuqi*."

The Captain stared at him a long minute. Jayne began to get up, time to say his goodbye and go. The Captain's voice stopped him in his tracks. "Hey, Jayne, where you goin'?"

"Figured you'd be lookin' to put me off on the next planet we came to. Figured I'd pick one with an atmosphere."

"Who says you're gettin' off that lightly?"

The mercenary turned his head and stared at him. "*Shenme*?"

Mal frowned, trying to look stern as all hell and hide the fact that he was pleased with the way things appeared to be turning out. "Still got jobs to do, a boat to run. Never thought of you as a quitter Jayne. 'Sides who'm I gonna get to lift those heavy loads an' drag me outta those Alliance bars on Uni Day?" He paused a half-beat. "You're still needed here, Jayne." He added more quietly. It was an olive branch and they both knew it.

Jayne didn't know what to say, the emotion almost too much for him. He hadn't been looking to make friends when he'd thrown his lot in with Zoe and the Captain. Figured ties like that just made a man weak. "*Wo bu dong*."

"Just go unpack Jayne an' send Zoe in on your way out."

Too stunned to argue the big man nodded and left to do just that. Mal was still the Captain. Not nothing gonna change that. The look on Zoe's face when Mal told her what had happened was priceless. The air close to turning blue until she was stopped short by the smile swallowing up the Captains' face. A smile that was getting bigger by the second. Her anger was only popped by annoyance. "What're you smilin' at? Is it the drugs?"

The Captain bit back a chuckle. Feeling weariness start to tug at him but happy too. "Ain't gotta worry about Jayne no more, Zoe."

She frowned hard at him. Wishing he were well enough for her to shake him until his gorram teeth rattled. "Maybe we got you the wrong kind of doctor, should'a got a psychiatrist."

Sitting in the commons area anxiously waiting for news the rest of Serenity's crew lifted their heads at the unexpected sound of the Captain's laughter. River smiled then gave a smug little look of triumph. "Told you. Family's all mended now."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*tamade baichi* = fucking idiot *wode ma* = mother of God *dong ma* = understand

*heisheoudang liumang* = gangster asshole/bastard *shenme* = what

*wo zhidao* = I know *duibuqi* = sorry *wo bu dong* = I don't understand

Chapter Text


"WAITING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

"Why did you do it?"

The Captain frowned at his second. What the good gorram was this? "Do what?"

Although she was squinting into the harsh sun of New Melbourne he felt it was really a frown at him. Her subtle mark of disapproval aired on a neutral planet. "Forgive Jayne."

"Who said I forgave him?"

This time she turned her head and looked him in the eye. "Still walkin' an' talkin'."

The reference to Patience was not lost on him. And she had shot him twice. First time could be forgiven. The second? His stupidity. Only Zoe had a way of not saying it that hurt more. Like he had somehow let her down in the process. Kind of the feeling he was getting now but sharper. The only one besides Jayne who had been pleased with the Captain's decision had been the Preacher but then that was no surprise to anyone. Apart from the 'turning the other cheek' part of his faith, Book and Jayne were friends. Or. As close to it as made no never mind. Mal wasn't quite sure what that made him and the mercenary but the upside was that he didn't fear being set up or betrayed by the man again. Hence the upturn in his mood as his body recovered from this latest brush with death.

They stopped at the approach to a large town square. Even without any scanning equipment they could tell it was empty. More than that the standing structures looked so delapidated as to be ready to crumble, every brick and stone carrying an air of abandonment. The desolation disfigured the shine on their expectations. The Captain felt a deep sense of unease grip him. It grew exponentially as the minutes dragged and nothing changed. All he wanted was to get the good gorram out of there. Didn't fancy being shot again, this time fatally. He was still feeling sore and a mite tender from last time.

"You sure the contact wanted to meet here?"

Zoe nodded. "Checked it twice."

The Captain turned to stare at her. Agog. "What? You came, saw this, an' still thought it was a good idea?"

"Never said it was a *good* idea, sir."

He sounded irritated now. Annoyed if she was any judge. "You never said it was *fei hua* an' a waste of our gorram time either."

"Must have been an oversight, sir," She deadpanned. "Won't happen again."

He nodded slowly. "Good, 'cause if it did? I'd have to rethink..."

The Captain never finished his sentence as he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head and watched as figures began to emerge out of formerly deserted and empty ruins before his very eyes. Involuntarily he began to step backwards. Putting distance between himself and any possible threat. It took a second before he realised Zoe hadn't moved.

"Zoe..." His voice trailed off as he glanced over at his second, alarmed to see her raising both hands in the air. Real careful and slow like. As if someone had the drop on them. Mal turned and looked behind him, his breath catching as a gun barrel was shoved in his face. Why couldn't anything ever go smooth?

* * * * *

Simon had to admit that seeing Jayne sulk was improving his own mood. The mercenary was always trying to rub him up the wrong way, making comments he in no way had any right to make about Simon, his sister or Simon's feelings for Kaylee though the latter never happened when Serenity's mechanic was close enough to hear. So any time Jayne ended up on the wrong side of happy was a bonus for the doctor. Besides the man *always* deserved it.

"Not true. Penance."

The doctor almost jumped at River's sudden proximity, her words whispered softly into his ear. It was disturbing how often she seemed able to pluck the thoughts out of his head but the Captain was wrong. She wasn't a Reader. Just a damaged little girl.

"Not so damaged I can't heal." She sing-songed seriously. "Not so little either."

Guilt flared inside him then pain. She had been doing so well. Hadn't needed medicating in more than a year. It was another reason he was annoyed as *diyu* with Jayne.

"Not his fault." Said River, her voice conversational now but still quiet enough that the big man never heard. "But he's changing."

That caught Simon's attention, warily he looked at his sister, making sure he could still see Jayne out of the corner of his eye as the big man rumaged for something to eat. Something not protein cubes. "Changing?"

River nodded, a smile touching her lips, eyes sparkling with something he could not quite define. "The only one who needs to worry about Jayne is Jayne."

Simon blinked. Disappointment crowding in. He had thought she was going to say something coherent. River sighed then suddenly her head jerked up, all the quiet happy musings drowned out with incoming. "Betrayed!"

Her brother was about to ask what she expected from a mercenary but River was not looking at Jayne. She was staring wide eyed with terror at him. "River? What are you talking about?"

At that moment the Preacher and Kaylee came into the commons. Inara's shuttle was due to dock with Serenity in the next hour. Should give the Captain and Zoe time enough to meet their contact and find out what the job was. River turned, her eyes wide and grief stricken. Alarmed, Kaylee began to run towards her but River shook her head, dodged the Shepherd's comforting hand and stopped in front of Jayne. Her look pleading, anxious. Ready to beg. He was mashing something gruesome looking in a bowl but seeing the look on her face froze. He hadn't forgotten the time she had cut on him. "Betrayed!"

His expression turned pained then twisted into a scowl. "That's in the past, Cap said..."

She cut him off. No time for misunderstandings. Her small cold hands caught his, the bowl rocking on the work surface when he let go of it in surprise. It was not often River deliberately reached out to touch him. "No, different. Set up."

Understanding crashed in on him hard and stinging. He didn't need telling twice. Girl was crazy but seemed to have an inner gorram radar when it came to looking after this crew especially its' bullet-prone Captain. "You sayin' they're in danger?"

River nodded, her hands tugging on his more urgently now. "Surrounded, can't let them be taken. Have to hurry!"

Shepherd Book was looking anxiously from Jayne to River. "Taken?"

It was Jayne who answered not River, all thought of food forgotten. "Zoe an' the Cap. Looks like this is another job *qu nanfang*."

The big man was already moving, his expression set grim. "C'mon Shepherd, we got us souls need savin'."

Simon and Kaylee exchanged startled glances, River hurrying after Jayne. After a moment's hesitation Book followed them out of the commons area then headed for his room to get his rifle. Kaylee looked worried. "Cap'n an' Zoe in trouble?"

The doctor did not know what to say to her so drew his wife into his arms and hugged her. So many emotions could be put into a hug that were too awkward for his clumsy words. He understood that now. He began to soothe and hush her as Kaylee trembled. "It's going to be alright, *bao bei*."

Jayne was all economy of movement now, his long brisk steps eating up the distance to his bunk. Climbing down he didn't at first notice that River had followed him, smoothly checking each piece before tooling himself up. His last armament was Vera, the satisfying sound of the chamber being racked brought a feral grin to his face. As he turned he found himself staring into River's face. The girl had a determined look on her face, one hand held palm out. Jayne shook his head.

"Uh huh, I give ya a gun Mal'll kill me for sure."

"Don't want a gun."

He blinked. "*Shenme*? Then whatcha got your hand out for?"

"Want two."

He was about to rip into a tirade about how she couldn't have any weapons when Wash's voice came over the com reporting some kind of disturbance on the surface. Split second decision made, Jayne gave her two handguns. "Hope you know what to do with 'em." He growled, pushing passed her.

"*Fang xin*, I never miss."

He made no comment on how much that thought disturbed him, scrambling back up the ladder as if his bunk was on fire. Shepherd Book was already waiting for him, they jogged to the bridge to see what Wash had to say. The pilot looked grim. "Looks like trouble. A few minutes after the Cap'n an' Zoe went into the ruins some men appeared, too many for the planned meet."

"Bring Serenity in as close as ya can without bein' seen." Said Jayne.

Wash's eyes widened. "Are you *shenjingbing*? They can see us now, how do you suppose we land without being spotted?"

"We don't, we take the shuttle." Said River calmly.

Book nodded. "Good idea." He looked at the pilot. "Is the spare shuttle fueled?"

"*Zongshi*. Cap'n insists."

"Well, this is one time his foresight has come in useful."

Wash wasn't sure how to respond to that as he watched them leave the bridge. Within minutes the shuttle was taking off. Heart in his mouth, Wash watched and prayed. He didn't think his heart would survive if anything happened to Zoe.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*fei hua* = garbage/nonsense *diyu* = hell *qu nafang* = to go south

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *shenme* = what *shenjingbing* = crazy

*fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *zhongshi* = always

Chapter Text


"TIMING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

The leader of the bunch was a man named Briggs, he took pleasure watching his men disarm Mal and Zoe. Zoe looked sick. The Captain tried to reassure her with a look but she wasn't buying it. This was bad. The only good thing was that they hadn't been killed. Briggs stepped in close to the Captain, all smug assurance now. He nodded to one of his men, Cassidy, and gave a spiteful little smile. "Tie him up!"

Cassidy grinned and got some rope then began to tie the Captain's hands behind his back. Making sure the chord was tight enough to cut into his wrists. "What about her?"

Briggs let his eyes travel slowly up and down Zoe's body. Her look promised a very painful and torturous death. He seemed to get off on the fire in her. The Captain didn't like what he was seeing in the man's eyes. Or the way Briggs' thug Cassidy was running his hands through his own pockets, undoing buttons and checking that Mal had nothing hidden of value. "*Wei*! No need for hands on, we came to do a job, *dong ma*? If you don't need the job doin' then let us go, no need for unpleasantness."

The leader turned and spat at the Captain. His look ugly. "You'll get paid for comin' but not in coin."

Mal was really worried now. What the good gorram was Briggs going to pay them for and what did he mean by paying them in kind? They hadn't done the job was so it couldn't be that. Not that he was wanting anything to do with these men now. The mood was not good. If he didn't come up with something fast they looked likely to rape Zoe and no way in the 'verse would he allow them to lay a hand on her. Only problem was he was being trussed up like a turkey his own self. Cassidy had finished searching him and relieved the Captain of the little coin he had on him along with a knife and some spare ammo for his confiscated gun. Trying to come up with a plan he could not think of anything. Okay. No plan. Would have to go with desperation then. Briggs was circling Zoe now, the men watching and getting jazzed up knowing what was to come. Nobody was paying the Captain much attention.

Eyes wary, Zoe did not dare to make any overt move. Didn't want the whole gorram lot of them jumping her. Had seen what they did with Mal so no help to be expected from that quarter though she knew how that would burn him up. No help for it. Carefully she drew slow deep breaths into her lungs, getting plenty of oxygen into her system as she quietly flexed her muscles and got ready to act. Briggs looked as if he was laughing at her which just made her even madder. He stopped just out of reach of her hands and feet. "Strong woman." He paused, licked his lips and leered. "I like strong women."

"I can break you, little man." She said in a cold deadly voice.

One or two of the men shivered slightly not with fear but anticipation. Briggs just gloated, a look of wild glee in his eyes. "Looks like we got us a live one here, boys!"

The Captain was frantically wracking his brains trying to think of something, anything to even the odds. Didn't give a good gorram what happened to his own self so long as he could get Zoe clear. He glanced around, hoping to find inspiration when a hand gripped his hair yanking his head back round. It was Cassidy. "Thought we'd forgotten about you, did you?"

He wanted to spit at the man but forebore. The men had formed a circle around Zoe, Briggs saying something real low that he couldn't hear, then the man looked over towards them and gave Cassidy a nod. Cassidy pushed the Captain forward and the circle parted to let them through. Zoe frowned. What was this? Briggs held a hand out and Cassidy put the knife he had taken off the Captain into his boss's hand. For a moment Briggs danced a thumb along the bright shining edge. Zoe and Mal exchanged a glance, not sure what was going on.

"What game you playin', Briggs?"

Briggs brought the point of the blade to the Captain's throat so suddenly that Mal froze. A little pressure pricking the skin. Cassidy pulled the Captain's head back so that his throat was nice and taut.

"I don't play games, Cap'n, I get what I want."

Mal tried to keep his voice calm, to not project how much this turn of events was disturbing him. "What you wantin'?"

"I think you know."

The blade ran along the Captain's throat, a bright red scar forming along the cutting edge. Mal tried not to swallow. "an' that would be?"

Briggs leaned in close but kept his voice loud enough so that Zoe could hear. "I want her, hear me? I want her willin' an' fiesty an' ready to do anythin' the gorram I please."

Despite how desperate their situation was the Captain laughed. The knife bit deeper, ribbons of blood now trickling down onto his chest. He tried to control his mirth. "You gotta death wish? 'cause that's all that kind of talk'll buy you."

Briggs turned his head to look at Zoe. "That how it's gonna be, my beauty? You gonna fight me over this?" He drew swirls and circles with the knife edge, breaking more skin, letting the pattern of blood dull the shine of the blade as he watched her eyes darken with hatred. "The more you resist what I want," Said Briggs in a silky tone. "The more I cut on him. That what you want?"

It took all of Zoe's control not to react. "You're gonna kill us anyway so why should I co-operate?"

"I can hurt him bad." Said Briggs, digging the tip in deep enough to get a grunt of pain out of the Captain. Not as loud as he would have liked but it was something he could enjoy working on if the woman got too difficult.

"I can see you don't believe in God."

He drew back his lips in a sneer. "Don't believe in *tiangtan* either."

Zoe began to nod as if agreeing with him, the movement enough to hide her flex of pumped up muscle as she moved. Grace so deadly and efficient her feet left the ground, fists whipping out to either side as she turned taking out the two men nearest to her. Momentum drove her forward not back, a foot lashing out and catching Briggs a glancing blow on his forehead. Instead of knocking him away from the Captain, the blow just seemed to madden the man. Several of the men were drawing their guns now. A few more moments and it would be over. Zoe kept moving, the air becoming a staccato of gunfire around her. Miraculously none of the rounds hit her and by the time the dust had settled the only ones standing were her and the Captain.

She blinked back perspiration along with a rush of confusion. What the *diyu*? Before she could do more than take a few steps towards her friend, Shepherd Book hurried towards her. Jayne ran over to the Captain, relieved to find his wounds were mostly superficial then got to work untying him. The Captain looked at Jayne as he rubbed some circulation back into his hands. "What took you so long?"

Before Jayne could answer a small hand closed over the Captain's and he was surprised to see River staring up at him, her head tilting to one side as she considered him. A look in her eyes he had never seen before. Wasn't quite sure what it meant. "Needed to get armed, land without being seen."

He was all kinds of disturbed to see those guns in her hands. Relieved when Jayne held out a massive paw and took them from her. "You could'a been killed River."

She smiled, raised herself up on her tip-toes and gently kissed Mal's cheek. "You aren't bullet proof."

He huffed at that. "No one was shootin' at me, River."

"Not knife proof either." She added.

The Captain frowned at the sound of someone retching. Turning he saw Zoe straighten and wipe her sleeve across her mouth. "You sick?"

Her look was hard, bitter. "On'y of this place."

He nodded, accepting the handkerchief the Shepherd gave him to staunch the blood running down his neck. "Let's go home."

* * * * *

Once back on Serenity, Simon fussed a little around the Captain until he was satisfied there was nothing more serious for him to be concerned about. River smiled at the Captain's irritation. Kaylee shook her head, more bemused than anything. She gave Simon a sweet smile and squeezed his hand. It felt good to have everyone back on board and Inara was docking her shuttle. Wash put his arms around Zoe's waist and drew her close, the couple taking comfort in being together again. When Inara joined them she paused and gave them a look. "What went wrong?"

The Captain immeditately went on the defensive. "*Wei*, what makes you think anythin' went *cuode*?"

"Mal, how long have we known each other?"

Jayne chuckled then hid it behind a cough when the Captain glared at him. It was Zoe who explained, the smile on Inara's face dimming at the implication that the men had wanted to rape the second in command. Suddenly she didn't want to tease the Captain any more. Kaylee put everything back on a normal footing. "So did you have great sex?"

The Captain stared at his mechanic in mock shock and disgust. "Kaylee! That is in no way a question to be askin' at the dinner table."

Something glittered in Zoe's eyes. She got up and dragged Wash up with her, a nod to the Captain then they were off heading towards their bunk. Kaylee decided with the pilot off seeing to his wife they would not be going anywhere for a while so grabbed Simon's hand and gave it a tug. "Come on, Simon."

His eyes widened in shock as he realised what she was meaning. "But Kaylee, it's the middle of the day!"

Blushing as everyone laughed, he let his wife drag him off to their bunk. The Captain chuckled and nodded his thanks as Book passed him a mug of tea. Then Inara took a mug and sat at the table, Jayne and River sitting either side of the Captain. A warm comforting hush fell over them as they quietly exchanged details of their day. Inara said something funny and the Captain chuckled spilling hot tea over his hand. He gave a little yelp but before he could get up and pour water on it River had taken his hand and wiped the hot tea off with her tongue. Mal stared at her. Jayne and Book looked at each other in grave astonishment. Inara looked amused at the Captain's reaction then looked hard at River. Noticing not for the first time that River was no longer a girl. A child. But a woman. And unless her Companion training was very much awry the woman had already set her cap.

Unwilling to put her fledgeling suspicions into words Inara changed the subject and the normal light banter resumed. Half an hour later she excused herself, noticing with a little smile that River had not let go of the Captain's hand. She wondered how long it would take Mal to realise that a very determined little lady had settled herself in for the long haul.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wei* = hey! *dong ma* = understand *tiangtan* = heaven *diyu* = hell

*cuode* = wrong

Chapter Text


"DREAMING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * *

It was that dream again. Faceless men with identical expressions. "Two by two, hands of blue. Two by two, hands of blue..."

A shudder ran through River's slim frame, her eyes popping open. Wide and afraid, lips still moving even after the words had trailed away. Slowly the thrum of Serenity's engine soothed her but the nightmare was too vivid and the inside of her eyes too brightly painted with memories for her to close them in sleep. She sat up and pulled the blanket around herself, wished Simon were still sleeping in the next room but he was with Kaylee now. She wasn't jealous it was just sometimes she missed him. Reaching out and touching nothing was so very cold. River got up and padded through the ship, her bare feet loving the murmur of the deckplates as the engine idled. As she walked she trailed a hand along the metal walls, picking up thoughts and conversations recorded in the memory of the ship and replayed over and over inside her mind. She only had to touch the ship to feel him. The reassurance almost hypnotic.

She paused, eyes closing, body echoing a rumour of the slow deep passion building between Zoe and Wash. Loved the way they complimented each other in such an instinctive way. There was no disparity between the sheets and no dischord. River waited for them to finish, loving touches lingering in their bodies and their minds before drifting off to sleep again. It made her happy but also triggered longing in her own body. Kaylee and Simon were sleeping, Simon spread out like a starfish hogging all the bed with Kaylee wrapped around his torso, more than flexible enough to mould herself to him. She smiled, seeing them in her mind rather than with her eyes. Jayne was dreaming, the images in his head lusty and filled not with the wanting for one woman but many. Doing things to him that would make a contortionist wince in real life. River was discomfitted at times by the Preacher. Even now his thoughts were in shadow, his sleep deep and even but not resting within the metal walls of Serenity. She wondered, not for the first time, why he was there. What was so important about 'this' journey that he would leave the comforting walls of his abbey for the uncertainty of life in the Black.

River padded up the metal stairs until she stood outside Inara's shuttle door. Not listening nor even waiting. Her mind curious but not judgemental. The Companion's thoughts a cornucopia of competing desires, wants and needs. Not just hers but others. A soul torn by the demands made upon her, not simply those which were spoken or brockered with coin but the little hidden wishes of fractured hearts that the Companion's subtle mind divined in each and every one of them. But Inara was not a healer, she was a comforter and not all souls would accept that comfort. River knew how Inara viewed them. The affections that bound her to them. To this ship and to its' Captain though the man's dark emotions both drew and repelled her. The risk of getting caught up in a maelstrom that Inara would not be able to control too frightening to ever contemplate. The Companion recognised even when others didn't that there were some things that would be forever denied to her. Some lines she could never cross. The knowledge calmed and comforted her. She did lean towards men but in her deeper soul there were parts of her only another woman could ever touch or understand. In Inara's mind men were work, duty - business. Women were pleasure, especially ones like the Counseller with whom she could drop all pretence and just enjoy being herself. River knew Inara would never marry but neither would romantic love ever sustain her. Happiness would be sipped, savoured from the little things of life, the moments that made the circle complete.

Retreating from the shuttle River came to stand outside the Captain's bunk and listened with her heart, her mind soaring along the whirlwind path of a mind in seeming chaos. Only it wasn't chaos, it was a restless energy that never slept. Not an indiscriminate rage of emotions but a swirl of orderly, often precise, thoughts. Memories marching through a regimented mind where everything and everyone had a place, a purpose. Not nothing got left behind. As Mal slept his dreams of the day were opened, examined. Problems dwelt on and solved, every angle turning beneath his sharp quizzical gaze, those deep soul-filled eyes too knowing for the wisdom he now held. He felt for them all even when they irritated or confused him. Their burdens were his just as they were his. Their problems his problems and their joys... River inhaled, eyes closed, and glowed with the smile that swept through her heart, body and soul. Yes. This was what his joy felt like. She sensed him stir out of a deep binding sleep. Awake now. Lying on his back staring up at the ceiling. Smiling River opened the hatch and lightly descended the ladder, not surprised when his dark eyes turned to her as her bare feet hit the floor of his bunk.

"What you doin', River?"

"Couldn't sleep."

"So you decided your sleeplessness deserved company, that it?"

Her smile was sweet, gentle. A sway of lips that curved in response to the sound of his voice. She loved the playful tease in his tone. Did he know? Could he guess? When she said nothing the Captain leaned up on his elbows, the covers sliding down from his shoulders. He was bare chested and River already knew he had no pajamas to speak of. So. Naked then.

"River," He said quietly, voice gentle, soothing. As if something had spooked the girl and he wanted to calm her. Reassure her that whatever night terrors were bothering her, they would go. "You want me to get Simon?"

She shook her head, moved hesitantly closer to his bed. He was more alert now, knew something was on her mind. She never came to him like this though thinking on it she did seem to seek him out more than was normal. But what was normal for River? Or for him for that matter? "*Bu qu*. Besides, Simon's sleeping."

He was amused now. "So was I, *jide*?"

River lifted her head, the dark fall of hair parting so she could see him and he could see her. She wanted him to see her as a woman not a girl. Did he know? Had he suspected she had been standing outside his bunk listening to his dreams, walking through that minefield of memories masquerading as sleep? "Awake now."

That made him chuckle softly. The sound drew her, emboldened River to go right up to the bunk and look him in the eye. He was not laughing now. Serious as a heart attack, trying to fathom her mood. "What you doin' here, *xin gan*?" He asked softly. Careful even now not to say anything sharp or sudden to frighten or hurt her. It made her heart skip a beat.

"Don't want to be alone, Mal."

Mal. That was another thing that had been changing over the last couple of years. When the others were present he was always the Captain. Sometimes Mal when they were joshing each other. When there was no one else around though it was always Mal, and there was a warmth and tenderness to the sound of her speaking his name which was all kinds of alluring and creepifying in the same instant. He wasn't sure what to make of it but was determined not to lash out or hurt her by over reacting. This was, after all, River and he was responsible for her. He was responsible for them all. Most like she had been having nightmares and was afraid her own self. Not nothing to get all bothered by. "Perhaps we should go to the commons area, get you a hot drink or somesuch. How that sound?"

River smiled and the Captain found himself smiling back before he realised she was moving his arm to sit on the bed.

"Hey now!"

His voice soothed her, inveigled its' way through her ears and every pore in her skin to her heart. The warmth was addictive. River wanted more. She shivered but not with the cold. He noticed as she knew he would. Counted on it.

"*Wei*, you cold?"

She was only wearing a thin dress and no shoes. It was one of those long floaty designs that made her seem more dream than substance. River was staring straight into his eyes, her look unreadable. "Hold me."

"Perhaps I could get you a blanket..."

"Hold me."

Neither the words nor the emphasis had changed but he reacted as if it had been an order and sat up, his blanket pooling to his waist, his arms gathering her in. She shivered in his warmth, her body tingling where they touched, her eyes closing in bliss, inhaling the scent of him, the vestiges of sleep still clinging to his mind but muted now. Fading. He felt her arms wrap around his waist, her body incline to his and mould to him. The fit was disturbing if only because of how right it felt. How he cleaved to her in this moment of weakness. Hers or his he could not tell but how could he turn her away? She needed him and asked for so little. So he held her, his words quiet and soothing, one hand brushing back and forth across her back in a gesture of comfort while she clung to him.

The Captain was not sure what had brought this on but did not have the heart to send her away again. Besides, they were both awake and not harming no one with their sleeplessness. His efforts to get her to talk failed, so he just held her gently in his arms and tried to reassure her with a stumble of words that only half made sense. Hoping the point behind them got through. A wave of weariness tugged at him. River leaned a little more heavily against him causing the Captain to lean back as he yawned, his words running together in a mumbled slur. Warmth giving warmth, they lay back and let sleep envelop them. Him half beneath the covers, her on top. River opening her mind to his, relieving the darkness of his dreams so he could sleep, the voices of his nightmares stilled to her presence shining softly in his mind and bringing him peace. Quietly and efficiently removing their power to hurt him. Snuggling against his chest until her ear rested over Mal's heart River took a slow extended breath and closed her eyes one last time. A happy smile of content carrying her off to sleep. Her mind holding his, cradling his thoughts in that protected space as he mirrored the actions of her mind with his body. Safe now. It was the only place she wanted to be.

* * * * *

Simon woke up with laughter in his heart and throat, his wife stirring him into a deep driving need that choked off his happy chorus with a loud groan of rising need. Kaylee smiled around him, her mouth too full to do more than make him catch his breath, her hands taking him higher and higher as his eyes rolled back into his head. Simon wanted to warn her but came too quickly, the white rush overspilling her eager mouth and making her laugh as he huffed out a semi-coherent apology.

"*Duibuqi*, too excited to warn you *bao bei*."

Laughter was still bubbling out of her as she washed him clean with her tongue, the touch making him tremble. "Ain't nothin' to 'pologise for." She mumbled.

No sooner had she finished than Simon dragged her up so he could kiss her hard, fierce and with more than a hint of lust. "You have no idea what you do to me, Mrs Tam."

Kaylee laughed. "Oh no? I got a talent with workin's." She teased.

"With engines - yes," He punctuated each word with a kiss. Kaylee loved it. Loved him. "But I'm a man, I'm not..."

"Yes, you are." Her hands were moving over him, sliding slickly through the sweat to tease and lavish their attention on him. "See?" His breath caught at the intimate touch. "Workin's!"

With a moan he rolled her over just as someone hammered on the hatch of their bunk. Simon had moved in with Kaylee rather than displace River by having his wife move into his old room. With River just the other side of that sliding tatami door he would not have relaxed enough to have enjoyed married life with such lusty abandon. The quarters were cramped that was good too. Made them more creative in their love making. Truly. Small could be beautiful but interruptions were not. Simon suckled a breast, letting his teeth rasp gently up over the nipple until with a flick of his tongue he licked and sucked past it. "Who is it? Unless someone's dying - Go Away!"

The hatch opened and Simon closed his eyes in frustration. Lying beneath him, Kaylee wrapped her arms and legs around him and kissed his eyelids. Both of them surprised when Wash tentatively climbed halfway down the ladder. He looked sorry to disturb them but the worry on his face swept any resentment right away. "Wash?"

Simon raised his head, surprised at the identity of their early morning visitor. Concern now radiating from the pair of them back to the pilot. Simon was already reaching over the end of the bed for his pants. "*Shenme shi*?"

"It's Zoe," He managed, eyes wide and filled with fear. "She's sick."

Kaylee put a hand over her mouth. "What's wrong? What happened?"

"*Wo bu zhidao* but she keeps throwing up."

In record time Simon was dressed, paused to give his wife a quick kiss - "we'll finish this later" - then was darting up the ladder after a rapidly retreating Wash. Kaylee rolled out of bed and began the scramble for clothes her own self. Hoping whatever was wrong it wasn't some kind of virus that would hit the whole crew.

Simon helped Wash get Zoe to the infirmary. Her face was pale and sweaty but apart from that she didn't look too bad. Immediately he sat her on an infirmary bed. Wash hovering and getting in the way without trying to do so. Zoe could not have cared a good gorram where he was right then and there. All her control fixed on trying not to hurl up all over him.

"Wash?"

The pilot almost jumped. "Yeah?"

"If you want to help go and get cleaned up."

He blinked. "Cleaned up?" He looked down at his shirt. He *was* clean.

"Your bunk," Said Simon gently. "Once Zoe feels better I'm guessing she won't want to go back to a room that smells of vomit."

Wash made a face. Right. Correct. Neither did he. Because what this ship needed right now was two people throwing up. "Will she be... okay?"

Simon had been examining Zoe as he was talking, a suspicion already forming in his mind but unwilling to say anything until he had finished checking her over. "She'll be fine, now go. The sooner you do it the sooner you can come back, *dong ma*?"

He nodded, was about to give his wife a kiss then saw her face go slightly purple and backed off quickly. Wash just missed being in the line of fire. He missed the smile on the doctor's face as he broke the landspeed record exiting the infirmary.

* * * * *

The Captain woke a mite drowsy to warm lips on his, as he opened his mouth to speak the kiss deepened. That woke him good and proper. Not no dream that realistic. Blinking he saw River looking down at him, a little smile on her face. Instead of apologising she kissed him again, a smaller chaste kiss, then sat up. "Uninvited visitor." She said cryptically.

Alarmed he rolled her off him then realised he was naked under the blankets and paused. "Need some privacy here a moment, *dong ma*?"

River laughed and kissed his cheek. "Such a gentleman."

Before he could find words to respond she was shinning up the ladder to his hatch. A second later it was open and she was hauling herself out, dropping it shut again afterwards.

Shepherd Book's eyes narrowed as he saw River come out of the Captain's bunk. He had been roused by Wash hammering on Kaylee and Simon's door, the pilot obviously freaked out over something. Given the early hour and Wash's state that meant Zoe. While he was trying to figure it out the hatch clanged open again and he watched the Captain exit his bunk. The man looked rumpled but rested, pulling his suspenders up over his shirt as he finished dressing. The Shepherd kept his expression neutral though in his head he was frowning. Mal saw him. He looked bewildered. "What the good gorram's goin' on?"

The Preacher raised his eyebrows. "Zoe's sick..."

He never got another word out. The Captain's expression now mirroring a kind of panic. "Well why didn't you say?"

"I just did, Captain." But the Captain was already gone, rushing off in the direction of the infirmary. The Preacher looked thoughtful, his frown returning even deeper as he looked in the direction Mal had gone then back towards the man's bunk. "Oh my." He murmured softly to himself. "A very special hell*."

* * * * *

CHIINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *jide* = remember *xin gan* = sweetheart *wei* = hey!

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *shenme shi* = what's the matter?

*wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *dong ma* = understand? *duibuqi* = sorry

Chapter Text


"ADDITIONS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

"She's what?"

Simon only just managed to surpress a grin. The infirmary was suddenly a crowded place but at least Zoe looked a whole lot better than she had when he and Wash had brought her in. Lying on the infirmary bed she was staring at the doctor as if he had taken leave of his senses. Through his shock, Wash was not sure what to think. "I think I was perfectly clear the first few times, Wash." Said Simon. "*Ta huaiyun le*, I'm assuming you are the father?"

He got joint glares back from Wash and Zoe. The Captain just stood staring. He looked completely stunned. Behind him Kaylee was beaming, dancing on her feet with excitement. Too happy to keep it all in. River stood next to the Captain, resisting the urge to take his hand. Watching Kaylee's reaction with affection and amusement.

"Pregnant? *Zhen de ma*?"

Simon beamed back at his wife. "Yes Kaylee, really. Eight weeks."

Inara came crowding in behind the others with Book and Jayne bringing up the rear. The Captain seemed to be slowly coming out of his shock. "How did this happen?"

"I'm sure you're familiar with the mechanics, Captain." Said Book. The Captain blinked at the man's odd and faintly icy tone but was too stunned to really take a lot in. This couldn't be happening. A baby? On a SHIP? What the good gorram had she been thinking? Then he saw Wash and Zoe exchange a particularly sappy look and inwardly groaned. Of course, she hadn't been thinking.

* * * * *

The commons area was particularly lively. All anyone could talk about was the baby. River smiled but kept getting distracted. The Shepherd watched her surreptitiously for a while. Noticed the Captain was much quieter than usual, his silence eagerly filled by a chattering Wash and an enthusiastic Kaylee with Inara and Zoe chipping in with a comment here and there. Zoe was sitting on the couch with Wash's arms wrapped carefully round her as if she were fragile and might break. Simon had done all the tests and confirmed it was true, he had also worked out a dietry plan to make sure Zoe got all the nutrients and vitamins she would need for her and the baby. A thought occurred to him. "Captain?"

The doctor had to say it twice before he got a response. "Hmm?"

"Is there any chance we'll be stopping somewhere so that I can restock the infirmary? Apart from the usual things it might be a good idea to stock up on vitamins."

Simon could not be absolutely sure that the Captain had heard him or had taken in his request. "Uh yeah, sure." Still a yes was a yes in any language and he had witnesses. He decided that was good enough.

Shepherd Book watched and listened to the banter and conversations going back and forth, the mood lively and happy, even Jayne joining in and not saying anything crude or crass which was something of a minor miracle. Quietly he slipped away. Sitting curled up in one of the armchairs River stared at nothing, her mind elsewhere, her thoughts growing darker as if someone had stolen all the light in the 'verse. After a couple of minutes she seemed to come back to herself and stared off in the direction Book had gone. A small crease appearing on her brow, then Kaylee was yammering away at her about having a pool to guess the baby's name and River got caught up in the excitement and pleasure and forgot all about shadows and darkness and how the enemy sometimes wore the face of a friend.

* * * * *

It was not that the Preacher did not know what to do, he did. It was just that he had got comfortable. Used to this place and the people in it. They drew him into their company as if he was a valued part of it but at times like these the differences between them were chasms too wide to cross. Yet the articles of his faith were very specific and there could be no deviation. At stake were a man's soul and a girl's honour. Trembling a little, Book took up his bible and dropped to his knees. Then closing his eyes he began to pray, asking God for strength and guidance. When he was done he went in search of the Captain. Fortified in his faith he knew he was doing the right thing.

* * * * *

Once over the initial shock Wash was ecstatic. His face lit up with joy and pleasure, his eyes shining with love and the kind of child-like delight that always turned Zoe's heart to sap. Not that she would ever admit it. She was so proud of her sweet adorable husband, so awed by his generous heart and the depth of his love for her, so happy to be bearing his child at last. Zoe had been afraid that once her suspicions were confirmed Wash would be angry, thinking she had deliberately gotten pregnant to get the baby she had always wanted. But it hadn't happened that way. She had been taking precautions though Simon had stressed nothing could be a hundred percent. The only way to ensure that she could not fall pregnant would be through surgery and neither Zoe nor Wash wanted that because one day they did want to have a family. Just not out here in the Black where survival was an every day struggle and even tomorrow held no guarantees. But now the decision had been made for them, the pressure was off, and with it any attendant guilt or worry.

"*Bao bei*, can you believe it? We're goin' to have a baby!" Cried Wash for the zillionth time, his face alight with awe.

Zoe chuckled, her face a wreath of smiles. How could she ever doubt her love for this man? "Yes, *zhangfu*, and I can't wait to meet that child."

Wash kissed her gently, his hands roaming her body but always coming back to caress the slight swell of her stomach, his fingers light, the warmth of his hands possessive. They were on the bridge, Wash sitting in the pilot's chair with Zoe on his lap. Wash kissed her deeply then trailed little kisses off her chin, down her throat and chest to her belly, his wife's chuckles turning into deep throaty laughter as if he was tickling her. Both knew it for the heady delight it was. The celebration of a miracle in the making. One that would carry their genes. "We are goin' to make one beautiful baby, Zoe!" Gushed Wash.

"An' excitin' as that may be - an' I am happy for you both, indeed I am - it don't get us to Richmond."

Zoe partly turned her head as the Captain entered the bridge but made no move to get up. "Sorry sir, just enjoyin' the moment."

"An' so you should. Not wantin' to stop you havin' moments Zoe but this here distraction of my pilot has to stop." He paused, unable to keep a smile or two from slipping in or the twinkle out of his normally sombre and solemn eyes. "An' I promise you can go on makin' new moments the second we land, *dong ma*?"

"You want us to time this to the second, sir?"

He flushed slightly. It still amazed Wash how easily his wife could make the Captain blush. Or squirm. Right now Mal was doing a manly job of trying not to do either. "Not sayin' that Zoe, don't you go puttin' words in my mouth."

"Wouldn't dream of it, sir," She deadpanned then shot a look at Wash. "Got other plans for my mouth."

The Captain took a step back. "Woah, Richmond, Wash."

Wash couldn't keep the amusement off his face but managed to spare the Captain the sight of him laughing outright at him. Had to leave the man a little shred of dignity. Well. Maybe a shred of a shred. "Yes sir, I'll lay in a course right away." Zoe shifted enough so that he could patch in the co-ordinates then Wash turned his head. "Why are we goin' to Richmond? I thought we were going to New Dunsmere?"

The Captain was half way through the door when he paused to call back over his shoulder. "Don't ask me, Preacher got some Abbey he needs to visit."

Then the Captain was gone and Wash could turn his attention back to the very warm and lushious woman beginning to growl low in the back of her throat as she devoured him. "Work, work, work...." He moaned, his lips busy responding to the ardent needs of his wife.

* * * * *

Kaylee was so very happy and inside that feeling was her own desire, a hidden thing now longing to be released. She loved kids and wanted nothing more than to have a whole passel of 'em by Simon. Now Zoe had broken the taboo the Captain couldn't complain if a year down the line she and Simon started bringing young uns into the 'verse. What could be more natural? 'Sides, they were family and that was what family did. Convincing Simon would be no effort at all. A woman only told a man what she wanted him to know, no more and no less. Her daddy always said she had natural talent an' not just in fixin' engines.

Sated after their love making Simon gradually came to. So warm and comfortable he didn't want to move only the com had gone off with Wash cheerily announcing their imminent arrival on Richmond. Stirring in Kaylee's arms Simon smiled as those generous lips convinced him that waking up with the one he loved was his most favourite thing in the entire 'verse.

* * * * *

Jayne couldn't understand the Preacher. The man had been getting more and more ansty the closer they got to landing. Even the offer of pumping iron had made no impact. He huffed and hid the tiny bit of hurt he felt at being so soundly ignored. It was as if Book's body was present but his head was somewhere else. What in the nine hells was the matter with the man? They were in the cargo hold waiting for Wash to set them down. Jayne turned his head and frowned at the Preacher. "I done somethin' wrong?"

The man started, as if he had completely forgotten anyone else was there. "*Duibuqi* Jayne, you were sayin'?"

The mercenary's frown deepened. "I done somethin' wrong? On'y you ain't said two words to me."

Book blinked at him for a moment then seemed to realise what he was saying. "No, no, nothing like that. I simply have my mind on other things."

"What things?"

"It's been a long while since I visited my brothers at Zion Abbey."

"You thinkin' they might not let ya in?"

The Preacher actually laughed in surprise. It was good to laugh again but the humour quickly vanished. "No Jayne, nothing like that. Just lost in thought that's all."

The big man looked mighty relieved. "Okay then, just so long as ya ain't sickenin' for nothin' an' it ain't my fault."

The slight bump confirmed they had landed, the Captain's voice sailing over the com to let all and sundry know they were on Richmond and telling them they would be there for 24 hours. Book knew it was longer than the Captain needed to stay but he wanted to give the Shepherd enough time to visit the Abbey and spend some time with his own people. Book felt guilty for not explaining to the Captain the why of it but believed a little artifice was necessary. He hoped the day would come when the Captain would not only forgive him but thank him for his timely intervention. As the ramp lowered the rest of the crew began to join them in the cargo bay. The Captain was smiling at something Inara said and Kaylee had her arm in Simon's, her eyes aglow. So full of happy it gave the Preacher a twinge.

"So, you won't be takin' your shuttle then?"

Inara shook her head, the dark luxuriant curls of hair bobbing round her pretty face. "No, someone's meeting me."

His eyebrows rose. "Meetin' you is he?"

The Companion smiled at his misunderstanding. "It isn't a client, Mal."

"Didn't know you had friends on Richmond."

"Even whores can have friends, Captain."

He flushed slightly, all kinds of uncomfortable having such words with the crew standing right there listening to everything. And he hadn't meant it that way it was just sometimes talking to Inara was like walking through a gorram minefield only it didn't look like no minefield until you made a wrong step and the whole rutting thing blew up in your face. It was the Shepherd who broke the awkward moment.

"Inara, I believe your 'friend' has arrived."

Inara gave an overly bright smile and nodded her thanks. "*Xie xie ni*."

"24 hours." Repeated the Captain, as if needing to remind her who was boss. She simply smiled at him then turned and walked down the ramp, the Companion waiting at the bottom of it giving her a heart warming smile. The two women hugged briefly then walked off arm in arm together. Jayne was beginning to feel a mite hot. If this was a women thing he wondered how much they'd charge to let him watch.

"Okay people, things to do an' such. Simon? Can't see no reason that you an' Kaylee can't take little sis with you there bein' no Alliance presence to speak of but be careful mind? Don't want no complications."

"Thank you, Captain. I'll also pick up those medical supplies we need."

"Good thinkin'. We leave this time tomorrow - sharp. Everybody got that?"

There were sundry nods and murmurs of agreement. Zoe and Wash had elected to stay on the ship. Mal didn't ask any questions, sure as he could be that the two would be busier than the rest of them put together. Maybe he would go take a stroll outside his own self. Anything to get away from the rythmic thumping he knew would echo from their bunk. Some things a Captain didn't need to hear. The crew were drifting off, Jayne hurrying as if on a mission from God. The Captain smirked to himself knowing just what sort of entertainment Jayne Cobb was looking to find. It was a marvel the man's pecker didn't just fall off. He was startled to find only himself and the Preacher on the ramp. He turned his head and frowned slightly at Book.

"Wasn't you off to that fine Abbey of yours, Preacher? Seems to me that's why we made this little detour."

"Yes, and I appreciate you doing that, Captain. I was wondering - hoping actually - that you would care to join me."

For a moment the Captain just stared at him as if he was speaking some foreign language then his face broke into a smile, his amusement self evident. "Reckon you're forgettin' your first days on Serenity, Shepherd. Told you then an' I'll tell you now, you're welcome on my boat - God ain't."

"This won't be on your 'boat', Captain."

The Captain paused and looked at him more intently. "Why so insistent? You know my views on all that religiosity."

"Yes, and I respect your right to that opinion - as flawed as it is." Book quickly raised a hand to still the Captain's objections. "*Duibuqi*, that was unforgivable of me. I am not here to pass judgement."

That raised two eyebrows. "Yes you are. Men of God can't breathe without passin' judgement. Threatenin' honest folk with hellfire an' damnation an' such. Anythin' to get people to accept the dogma an' blind faith peddled by an absent God."

"I don't wish to argue with you Captain but I was hoping you would come with me. There's someone I would very much like you to meet."

"Meet? Me?" The very idea seemed to be too amusing for words and it took the Captain a minute or two to be able to speak again. He did not after all want to offend Book. "Sorry Preacher but I got other plans."

"Oh it won't take long, Captain, and I would consider it a personal favour."

Again, that fleeting look of reassessment. "Would you now?" Mal said softly. He waited but it seemed the Preacher had said all he intended to say on the subject. Content to wait for the Captain's answer. Mal really didn't want to go but he respected Book. Liked the man and considered him a good friend. What could it hurt to humour him just this once? Especially as his agreement seemed to matter so much to the man. He nodded, his mood sombre now. "Shiny, if it means so much to you but I ain't promisin' to change my view, *dong ma*? Don't want you thinkin' my mind on this matter is for turnin'."

Book hid the intense feeling of relief that swept through him then nodding to the Captain led him down the ramp and off towards the Abbey.

"How far did you say this Priory of yours was?"

"Not far, and it isn't a Priory, Captain, it's an Abbey."

* * * * *

Kaylee was enjoying the chance to look around the shops and stalls, admiring all the pretties but happiest most of all because she was with Simon. He gave her an indulgent smile and they shared a lingering kiss. Kaylee felt a prick of guilt. "Why do you suppose River wouldn't come with us? She hasn't been off Serenity in months."

"Who knows? I've given up trying to fathom out what's going through her mind but she seems happy and healthy enough and at least on Serenity she's safe."

She gave her husband an anxious look. "You sayin' Richmond ain't safe?"

He laughed lightly and dropped a kiss on the end of her nose turning her alarm into affection. "*Bu qu*, a poor choice of words. I mean she feels safe on Serenity."

"Yeah but it's a shame an' all, with the sun shinin' an' everythin' so pretty an' all."

But Kaylee wasn't looking at the sunshine, or the stalls or the pretties. She was looking at Simon. And if he was any judge all she wanted to do right now was eat him up. More relaxed than he could ever remember being, Simon leaned down to whisper in her ear. "We have 24 hours, *bao bei*, and I've been saving. Why don't we find somewhere with a hot tub and room service?"

Her eyes widened. "You mean... like a... like a..."

"A hotel." He finished for her. "You do know what day it is, don't you?"

Kaylee fought competing emotions then did the math, her eyes widening as she squealed in delight. "Two years!"

Ignoring the looks they were drawing, Simon wrapped his arms around her and grinned with happiness. "Happy Anniversary, *xin gan*!"

Kaylee did not answer, she was too busy kissing the stuffing out of her very shiny husband.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*ta huaiyun le* = she's become pregnant *zhen de ma*? = really?

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *zhangfu* = husband *dong ma* = understand?

*duibuqi* = sorry *xie xie ni* = thank you *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

*xin gan* = sweetheart

Chapter Text


"GOOD INTENTIONS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

"So, this job the Cap'n has lined up on New Dunsmere...?"

Zoe paused. Post coital bliss should be just that. She moved, languid but powerful, muscles slowly adjusting as she raised her warm sweat-soaked body up on her elbows. Had been about to drift off to sleep when her *zhangfu* spoke breaking the mood. "Wash, can't this wait?"

He smiled, a mite distracted, his eyes having that far away happy look that said he was still reliving their last intense moments of love making. His warm hands gently running over her body in a light barely-there tease. "I was just thinkin' out loud."

"Can't you think down here?"

Wash paused and focused on her properly, losing himself in that slow sexy smile that turned him to pulp inside. "Oh yeah, whatever you say *bao bei*."

As he slid back down into her arms Zoe chuckled deep in the back of her throat, Wash discovering something much more interesting that needed attending to. His expert moves had Zoe gasping first in surprise then in quickly building need.

"I love my wife."

It was the last coherent thing he was able to say for quite some time.

* * * * *

Zion Abbey was not what Malcolm Reynolds had been expecting. In his mind he had pictured something more churchified, more a symbol of praise and power to the Lord than this deceptively nondescript block of one and two storey buildings half standing and half buried in several acres of rolling hillside. The flat tract in the middle housed what he took to be the main structure, all heavy grey stone in blocks bigger than would fit on the gorram mule. It was the only two storey building and boasted a simple heavy grey archway to the unadorned entrance. What the *diyu* was this place and why did he feel like he was treading on anything but holy ground?

"Shepherd? This don't look much like an Abbey."

Book was smiling, amusement twitching the end of his moustache but his eyes were sobering up faster than the rest of his face, as if the humour were something fleeting. Soon to be very much past tense. Watching the Preacher's face filled the Captain with a strange uncomfortableness. He paused, causing Book to look back with a question on his face.

"Know what? Think I've changed my mind."

The Shepherd stepped back and something in his eyes caught and held the Captain's attention in thrall, sensing the kind of determination that mayhap preceded fire and brimstone. "We're here Captain and the Abbot is already waiting to meet you. Wouldn't be polite just to turn and go without at least paying your respects."

He stared at Book and wondered just who the gorram he was. For a moment there he could have sworn he was looking at a stranger. Then something shifted in the man's eyes, a warmth, a mocking calm that made him feel all kinds of foolish. What in the nine hells was the matter with him? He mentally pulled himself together. He would go and meet the Preacher's Abbot, said he would and this was no time for turning his back on his word. 'Sides he could leave any time. That last thought was one that was destined to haunt him.

* * * * *

Kaylee stared up in rapture at the fancy doings, the floating chandeliers almost as shiny as those she had seen at that shindig with the Captain only there was no buffet table, no polite but insulting womenfolk trying to belittle her and best of all, no sword fights. She grinned at Simon, his hand squeezing hers in response, the happiness in his eyes almost bringing tears of joy to her own. "Can we really afford this, Simon?" She breathed in a hush of awe.

He leaned close and kissed her gently, lips lingering just a second as if reluctant to break contact. "*Qu*. Like I said, *bao bei*, I've been saving."

The beam she gave him made his heart turn over. Neither noticed the knowing and amused looks of the receptionist nor the little grin on the Manager's face as he led them up to what was obviously the bridal suite. If Kaylee had been awe struck before it was nothing compared to the complete and utter astonishment of stepping into wall to wall luxury. Marble walls and floors, furnishings that hung from ceiling to floor, with a bed bigger than her gorram room back on Serenity in pride of place in the centre of it. The Manager was babbling some nonsense about how to work the controls but none of it registered. Simon listened for both of them though he could not take his eyes off his wife's face. Her excitement and pleasure even more dear to him than his own.

Once the Manager had gone Simon opened the door just long enough to hang the 'do not disturb' sign on the door handle then locked the door. The sign was in English and Chinese. Simon could not stop smiling. He watched as Kaylee flung herself in the middle of the huge round bed, the plushness of it almost swallowing her up before she bounced back, a startled look upon her face. Simon laughed as he knelt carefully on the edge then crawled over to join her. "It's a water bed, Kaylee."

Her eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. "*Shenme*? What the...?"

Before she could finish her sentence Simon shifted his weight, he was on his hands and knees and with a little swaying of his body got the bed to rock beneath him. Slowly enlightenment began to dawn on Kaylee's face. "Oh."

Simon grinned, leant forward and gave her a lingering passionate kiss. Just pulling back far enough to allow words to puff against her cheeks. "Imagine making love in this bed, Kaylee. Imagine me inside you, the bed rocking us as I bring you nearer and nearer to coming. Can you imagine that, *xin gan*?"

"Think I'd rather have you show me, *bao bei*."

Her arms reached up, hands sliding up around his neck to draw him into another kiss.

"But Kaylee, don't you want to see the bathroom?"

She was chuckling, her voice deep and sexy, her breath hot on his face, her body aligning with his until she pulled him down flush against her. The bed rocking and swaying beneath them as Kaylee rotated then rocked her hips up into him. "Hush, Simon, we can wash up later..."

That was not what he meant but what the gorram? Simon was getting too horny to play the gentleman. Besides what his wife wanted right now was not some stuffed shirt with manners fresh from the Core but a husband, eager and panting for her. Warm hands, energetic body and the stamina to make good on every promise his hands and lips made.

* * * * *

Mal had to admit the inside of the building was a whole lot less intimidating than the outside. He figured that was because of all the gorram little alcoves with religious figures and whatnot on display. Equidistant between each gorram plaster figure was a little inset bowl of holy water. He noticed the Preacher used it to bless himself once then did not do so again. He looked up, ceilings weren't too high and not of that gothic arching that seemed to follow the terraformers to every gorram world they fashioned in Earth-that-Was's likeness. It should have unsettled him but it didn't. A coolness attended all the corridors that was at first comforting after the heat outside. As they continued walking along the paved slabs beneath their feet that coolness began to go from welcome to chill. By the time they reached the Abbot's office it was creeping into his gorram bones. Good. Here at last. The sooner he did this polite thing the quicker he could leave. He flashed Book a plastic smile.

"Okay, what do I...?"

"I'll do the talking, Captain." Said Book mildly.

Not sure what he should do or say the Captain nodded. "Good, I mean that's what I was goin' to suggest."

The Preacher knocked, a sharp one-two followed by silence. Several seconds past then the heavy door opened. It did not so much as creak convincing Mal it must be oiled. Not nothing that heavy that didn't creak and groan without it. Once inside the Abbot's office Mal saw the same austerity that typified the whole complex. Nothing extraneous anywhere. No little homely touches, nothing to indicate people lived here. The place of work was just that but his musings were quickly truncated when the Abbot rose from his seat to greet them. "My son, it pleasures my heart to see you."

Book shook the Abbot's hand, their eyes meeting as if another conversation was going on to which the Captain was not privvy. Maybe so, after all the Preacher had been away from his pulpit a gorram long time now. Due in no small measure to circumstances he got roped into by him and his crew. Not that he could bring himself to regret that. "I am likewise pleased to see you again, sir."

"And this must be...."

"This is the man I spoke to you about. Malcolm Reynolds. He is the Captain of a Firefly transport called Serenity."

Something in the Abbot's eyes made Mal feel like a bug under a microscope. The Abbot was a large heavy set man, his plain brown robe was hooded and worn with wear. A thick beaded rosary hung from a loop to the right of his simple tie belt. The Abbot extended his hand and after only a moment's hesitation the Captain took it, surprised when the firm grip did not lessen and release him. The Abbot was looking deep into Mal's eyes, the moment so intense he was not aware the door behind them had opened and that some monks had silently filed in. "It is good you have come, Malcolm."

Feeling a mite panicky, the Captain tried to keep any notion of it out of his voice. "It is?"

Still the Abbot held on and Mal wondered if he had just forgotten. "We will help you. Never let it be said that Zion Abbey ever turned away a soul in torment."

Mal blinked. "A what, who?"

Then before he could frame a more coherent thought, the monks closed around him. He was not even sure when his gun and gunbelt disappeared. Alarmed at the hands beginning to disrobe him, a monk at the back stepping forward and putting a robe over the Captain's shoulders as the Abbot finally let go of his hand. The Captain was angry now and trying not to be too volatile about it. "What you think you're doin'? No offence Abbot but I ain't plannin' on takin' orders. Now if you'll just return my clothes we can clear up this misunderstandin'."

A grim little smile formed a crack on the Abbot's unsmiling face. "Oh you'll be taking orders, Malcolm, but not the ones of this order. And you won't be leaving until I'm satisfied it is safe for you to do so."

Bewildered the Captain spun round to glare at Book. "What in the nine hells is he talkin' about?"

The Shepherd had the grace to look a mite uncomfortable but pushed any feelings of regret aside. This was for the man's own benefit and *wangu* as the Captain was, this was something he needed and no one else could give him. "Confession is good for the soul, Captain."

"Confession? What gorram confession? You said you had someone you wanted me to meet, never said anythin' about me joinin' no monastery!"

"You aren't joning anything Captain but you aren't going anywhere either." Said the Abbot calmly.

Anger now began to give way to alarm. Steadying himself with an effort the Captain looked long and hard at the Shepherd. "What the *diyu* is this an' what does he mean I ain't goin' nowhere?"

The Abbot walked around his desk and stepped between Book and the Captain forcing Mal to look at him. Behind the Abbot, Mal saw Book lower his head as if dismissed then let himself out of the room. Puzzled and angrier than a bear in a hornet's nest he glared at the Abbot, nostrils flaring. "I told our brother not to tell you, Malcolm."

"That so?"

"*Qu*." The Abbot was so calm it was making Mal's blood boil. It took every effort he could muster not to wring the man's neck with his gorram rosary beads. "I suspected had you known what was in store for you we would not be having this conversation."

The Captain frowned. "Will someone just tell me what in the nine hells this is all about?"

The Abbot gave a nod then the monks closed around the Captain and led him out of the room. He wanted to protest but it would have been like trying to turn back a tide with his bare hands. As they walked Mal had the absurd feeling he was being marched to his own execution. The Abbot was speaking again, his voice lowered as if talking was something he did only rarely and with great reluctance. "We know what you did, Malcolm, but we are not here to judge."

"What I did? I didn't do anythin'."

He continued as if the Captain had not said anything. "You are an intelligent man, you know that all actions have consequences. Fortunately our brother's concern for you has given you the opportunity to repent."

"I have no notion of what I got to repent an' even if I did I wouldn't do it here in this messed up version of a holy place."

The silence that met his words unsettled him but what did they expect? That he would be happy with this abduction? They reached a door at the end of a very long corridor. One of the brothers in front took a big heavy key from inside his robe. Mal felt his stomach drop as an unreasoning dread settled in his gut. What the good gorram was this?

* * * * *

River sat in the commons area, her legs curled up under her on the armchair, her eyes staring off with a blank expression. Her thoughts a jumble. Pieces out of position in her brain. She had not gone with Kaylee and Simon because she knew her brother had a surprise for her friend and didn't want to spoil it. River smiled at the memory of that glimpse into her brother's mind. Happy beyond words that Simon loved Kaylee so much. For a time it had looked as if he would never act on his attraction and she did not want Kaylee to die a spinster. She did not want Kaylee to die at all.

A frown squashed the happy from her face. Die. Death. Darkness. The frown deepened. Kaylee? No. She shook her head and concentrated. Simon? No. A smile returned to her lips. Top Three Per Cent but it had taken River only a minute to figure it out.

* * * * *

The restraints were all kinds of worrisome. Shouting, threatening, pleading. Nothing worked. The monks were too many and strong as Jayne. The room was about half the size of Serenity's cargo hold and pretty much bare apart from a heavy table in the middle of it. The thick leather straps afixed to it quickly disabused him of the notion that it had any innocent purpose. The cloak was taken off his back leaving him naked as the Captain was manhandled firmly onto the flat surface face down, his wrists and ankles fastened with quick efficiency into the restraints, his mind reeling in panic. He shivered not with cold but apprehension. Sparked too many memories from the end of the War that had no place in the Here and Now, only these *shenjingbing* folk were binding him to a dark madness that had almost consumed him heart, body and soul once. Wasn't looking to repeat the experience.

Once he was immobilised the Abbot thanked his monks and all gave a little bow and turned to leave. Something was said to the last monk who nodded then followed the others out, quietly closing the door behind him. The Abbot, a man introduced to Mal only as Abbot Mathias, walked slowly around the table, his measured pace not calming the Captain at all. The Abbot waited until Mal had stopped shouting and railing at him before stopping at the head of the table. A single chair stood against the far wall. The Abbot went over to it then placed the chair a couple of feet from his captive and sat down. "Why do you think you are here, my son?"

The Captain bristled. Trying to slow down his racing heart, the fear a tight knot making it hard to breathe and strangling the words in his throat. "Got no idea an' I ain't your son."

"Brother Book has told me of your loss of faith, Malcolm." The Abbot's voice sounded sad, pained even, but the Captain didn't give a good gorram if it was dripping blood.

"Get me the hell outta here!"

The request was ignored. "You are here because you touched an innocent. Despoiled a child in need of your care and protection."

Startled and shocked into silence, the Captain turned his head a little, only able to see a slither of the Abbot from this angle. The Abbot moved his chair so the Captain could see him properly from his pinned position. Mal was not sure his ears were working. "What you talkin' about?"

"You are the Captain of a ship, *dui*?"

"You already know that."

The Abbot nodded. "*Qu*, and on this ship you have a crew but also some souls who have taken shelter with you."

A flicker of something began making sense in Mal's head. "We got a couple of people not wantin' Alliance entanglements, *weishenme*?" He said carefully.

"Malcolm, I know about the girl."

The Captain frowned. Did he mean River? But he couldn't ask without giving the man her name and his treatment at the Abbot's hands so far did not instill faith. Faith. He wanted to snort, to spit in the Abbot's eye and tell him just what he thought of this perverted little set up. But first he needed more information. "Suppose," Said the Captain carefully with a quiet deadly calm that belied how very unsettled he was feeling. "You tell me what you think I done?"

"Oh Malcolm, Malcolm." Uttered the Abbot in a quiet disappointed voice. Mal felt his stomach clench, his mouth dry with fear but not nothing in the 'verse would make him admit as much. The Abbot dipped his head until their faces were but inches apart. The soft sibilant words fell from the Abbot's lips like acid rain. "Don't you know that confession means nothing if I have to put the words in your mouth?"

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*zhangfu* = husband *bao bei* = precious/treasure *diyu* = hell *qu* = yes (lit.go)

*shenme* = what *xin gan* = sweetheart *wangu* = stubborn *dui* = correct

*weishenme* = why *shenjingbing* = crazy

Chapter Text


"PENANCE"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was so very shiny. Simon could not remember a time when he had ever felt so vibrant and alive. Happier than a mortal soul had any right to be. But no, even if he did not deserve this Kaylee did. He sighed. Kaylee. How had he lived so much of his life without her? Simon was sure that if he lost her now he would not survive. Didn't matter that River might still need him and that was a realisation that made him feel more than a mite guilty but he was in love and could not hide from the truth. Had the freeing feeling that he never wanted to hide from such a wonderful truth again. The days when he had lived his life in tiny increments of pleasure grasped from the jaws of fear and dispair were over. Life didn't get much better than this. He intended to savour every moment.

The warm body wrapped around his began to move. Slow, langorous movements. Flesh against flesh, delicious warm friction. A smile curved relaxed lips as they began to pleasure each other all over again. With a sigh, Simon realised the last thing he would be getting in the next 24 hours was sleep.

* * * * *

Numb. Vaguely he was sure pain was supposed to hurt more but right now he didn't give a good gorram. The instrument had looked like some kind of rutting joke to the Captain when the monk had brought it. Like some museum exhibit from Earth-That-Was. With a start he realised it was used by the monks for self flagellation, the supple strands of leather woven together at one end to form the handle. He could not believe this was happening nor that a seeming Man of God was abusing him this way. Words failed him with the wrongness of it and his heart ached with a dull pain knowing that it was Book who had brought him here obviously with penance in mind. Worse than the growing numbness across his back was the sorrowing emptiness opening up inside him where his growing warmth and friendship for the Preacher had been deepening in a way more satisfying that he cared to admit. To have that hand of friendship turn on him in this way was hard to grasp. He thought the Shepherd knew him better than this.

"Your silence condemns you." Said the Abbott. His voice was no longer soft but had an odd edge to it as if even his infinite patience was running out.

Still the Captain said nothing. He was in that netherland between wakefulness and comatose, couldn't rightly say he was on the edge of sleep. Sleep inferred some relaxation, a letting go of the worries and concerns of the day for the bliss and comfort of healing rest. This was neither. This was a glimpse into *diyu* from which there could be no waking for it was no nightmare nor dream but a cruel warped version of reality. The Abbott paused. Mal barely noticed, hovering on the brink of passing out.

"Repent," Sighed the Abbott, his voice now weary, his tone mildly puzzled. It still had not occurred to him that the man in his spiritual care might be innocent of the charge levied against body and soul. "If you fail to repent, my son, you will rest bound then your penance will continue on the morrow. How long do you think you can withstand the justice of God?"

"Ain't no justice," Murmured the Captain weakly. "To beat on an innocent man."

The Abbott flinched, almost stirred to begin again but sight of the bloody back brought reason to bear on his irritation. Never had he met so stubborn a soul as this. He took a moment or two to get his breath back, carefully moving round to sit in the chair next to the Captain's head. The man was a mystery to him. He should have been weeping and begging for mercy by now. Repenting of his sins and crying out with a glad heart as God reclaimed him. "My son," Said the Abbott in a quietly pained voice. "Your obstinacy grieves me sorely. Why are you so *wangu*?"

"Mayhap 'cause I ain't done nothin' *cuode**, dong ma*? Not mockin' God nor his mistaken angels." The Captain's voice trailed off, too exhausted to put any weight behind his words and no longer caring to even try. Even a backbirth knew you couldn't convince a man whose mind was already made up. Right and wrong didn't come into it.

Alarmed, the Abbott leaned forward and checked the Captain's pulse, not breathing out again until reassured he had not gone too far. He was baffled. For a long time he watched over the now unconscious man and mulled over every word that had passed between them. At last he rose, stiff but determined to save the man's soul whether he wanted it or not. Yet doubt tugged at him as he observed the suppine form, the bloody trails across the Captain's back making bright livid scars. There was a steel in this man that would not bend but also something underpinning that obstinacy that had something of an honest ring to it. Belatedly he realised the man was shivering. Silently berating himself the Abbott called for a couple of the brothers to attend him and gently they unfastened the straps that bound him. Wrapping the Captain in a cloak willing hands took up the burden of his care and carried him to the infirmary, the hospitaller awaiting them.

The Abbott watched in silence as they washed and bathed him then treated the cuts across his back, the angry weals raising skin and flesh around the naked furrows. Yet even in extremis Malcolm Reynolds had made no confession, recanted not one sin. The soul as black and deeply marked as it had been on his arrival. Thoughtfully the Abbott mused, his mind determining the best way to bring this errant soul back into the fold.

* * * * *

Wash Warren loved his wife. More than the breath in his body, more than any gorram thing in the entire 'verse. Even more than flying. He lay replete and filled with joy, his heart full to overflowing with a love that knew no bounds. He smiled as his hand brushed gently over the curve of Zoe's stomach. A deep mirthsome chuckle rising up from her and sending his own smile into a crazy spin of happy delirium. "Do you know how much I love you, *bao bei*?"

"Why don't you save your breath, *zhangfu*, and show me?"

He lifted his head and gave her a look of mock alarm. "Not in front of the baby!"

Zoe laughed and drew warm hands down his chest, her fingers teasing him with gentle fleeting touches that began to drive him crazy. "Wash, baby ain't born yet."

"*Wo zhidao* but they say the baby reacts to stimuli while in the womb an' I..."

Startled, Zoe stopped her hands and looked up at him. "Who say?"

He was fumbling with his words down, a faint blush creeping up his neck and into his face. Zoe thought it made him look beautiful but didn't want to gush. "I... um... *they*. You know..."

"No, actually I don't know."

"Well, doctors mostly."

That comment actually made her sit up, leaning back on her hands while she openly stared at him. "You discussed our baby with Simon?"

He was babbling now. Yep, that was what panic sounded like. Zoe kept her face expressionless and just waited. Any minute now Wash would fold like a house of cards. "Well, not Simon..." Zoe frowned and Wash began to feel a bit desperate. "Okay, it was in books an' vids mostly, okay? *Gaoxing* now?"

Zoe decided to let him off the hook and gave a slow lust-filled smile that let him know she had only been teasing. Her hands reached for him and everything else drained out of his mind. There was only Zoe. Her warmth, her touch, her body cradling his, her hands expertly driving him out of his tiny little mind with want and need and oh, beautiful, wonderful, achingly shiny lust. Oh yeah. He *definitely* loved his wife.

* * * * *

Morning came early to the monastery yet not soon enough for Book. For some reason he could not fathom he was feeling anxious. Since bringing Mal to Zion Abbey he had not seen hide nor hair of him. At first he had been calm and quietly joyful. Luxuriating in the peacefulness of the Abbey, the cool welcoming arches of the cloister, the quiet hum of his fellow brothers going about their business with neither anxiety or haste. It was a welcome manna for the soul and yet it failed to fill him. At first he did not recognise his lack and when he did he felt ashamed, as if he were questioning God's ability to sustain him and make him whole.

It was after Matins when the Abbott called for him. Relief brought a swift smile to his lips which faded when he reached the Abbott's office only to find that they were alone. Brother Michael gave a little bow to the Abbott and quietly left, Book wondering where the Captain was. Assuming he must he getting washed and ready to go back. "We must go now, father. I thank you for your assistance."

The Abbott did not answer right away but took time adjusting his robe as he sat behind his heavy desk. "Yes, you must go."

Book shot him a sharp look. "You mean *we*?" He corrected mildly. "I cannot return without the Captain."

Abbott Mathias leaned forward on his desk and steepled his fingers. The look he gave the Preacher was somewhat unsettling. "Then return you cannot for he has not repented. Nor has he confessed the depth of his sin."

"But..."

"He is in our care now, brother." Said the Abbott with all the calm authority of a coffin lid closing on a shroud.

Shepherd Book blanched. "I did not mean for him to stay, father. I thought..."

"You thought we would punish him. Bring him to his senses and thus back to God."

It was not a question but an answer that made the Shepherd feel uneasy. Was that what he had done? "Can I see him?"

The Abbott looked aplogetic. "I am sorry, brother, but I do not think that is a good idea."

Suspicion flirted with the Shepherd's heart. "*Weishenme*?"

A bushy brow was slowly raised at the very idea of a brother questioning his Abbott.

"I... I meant no disrespect father, but I feel the need to speak to him, to see him, by your grace."

A long lengthy minute passed, the seconds torturing the beat of Book's heart in a way that was disconcerting for he had done nothing wrong. Ah. There it was. The rub. *He had done nothing wrong*. Every thing Book had done had been for the Captain's benefit even if he knew the man would rail against it and be more than casually offended. He thought the greater service of saving his soul merited the deception. Now he was not so sure the price was one either of them could afford. A slither of steel settled into his nervous veins, his voice coming out steadier than it had heretofore.

"I'm afraid I really must insist father."

For a long time the Abbott stared at him but Book did not drop his eyes nor tender the subservience due his Abbott. Intrigued and disturbed the Abbott knew he would learn no more in the sterile confines of his office. Carefully he nodded and rose to his feet. "Very well, brother Book, seeing's as how you cannot leave without at least some reassurance."

In silence Book followed the Abbott down the flagstoned corridor not even attempting any conversation until they finally reached a heavy wooden door. The Abbott paused, a large heavy mortice key in his right hand. "He may be sleeping."

"Then I shall wake him."

Surprise flared in the Abbott's eyes but instead of querying the remark he turned back to the door and unlocked it, leading the Shepherd into a low ceilinged and stark room. The light level was dim, the heavy stone walls, floor and ceiling making Book feel as if they were deep underground but they were not. He blinked then cast his eyes carefully about the large austere room before he saw a cloak wrapped figure huddled awkwardly on a pallet in the corner. Resisting the urge to hurry he walked over to the bed and knelt next to the sleeping figure. The Captain was facing the wall, his body hunched over and face averted. The cowl of the hood had fallen over most of his face. Carefully Book reached out a hand and gently shook the Captain's shoulder but got no response. A flair of concern made him shake the Captain harder, this time turning him on to his back. A low deep moan of pain issued from exhaustion laden lips. The eyes were closed, the face pale and sweaty.

Book pushed the hood back, put a hand on Mal's forehead and frowned. "He is running a fever."

The Abbott did not respond, he was watching Book intently. Noticing the almost respectful way he treated the man. Certainly not the way he would expect a brother to react to a rapist. What tale was he not being told? Had the Captain spoken the truth and if he did where did that leave this Shepherd? This lone wandering crusader for Christ?

"Captain? Can you hear me?"

Another low, deeper moan. The Captain was stirring now, trying to roll on to his side, away from Book and the dim light but the Shepherd kept a hand on Mal's shoulder. After a moment heavy lids fluttered open. Pained eyes stared up at the Preacher in confusion as if drugged. "Book? That you?"

"*Qu* Captain, it's time we got back to Serenity."

The Captain sighed and closed his eyes against a rush of pain. Alarmed Book turned to look at the Abbott. "What did you do to him?"

No father, now. No respectful address. "Malcolm was doing penance."

"What kind of penance?"

"Brother, you know as well as I that we hold to the old ways." Book felt a sickening in the pit of his stomach. He had brought the Captain here to talk to the Abbott, trusting that the man's wisdom and devotion to God would do for Mal what he could not. *Wode ma*, he should have been expecting the possibility of another outcome but he was not. Too concerned for the Captain's immortal soul to give his body a second thought. Instead he felt a deep sense of shock. Recalling how, instead of talking this out with the Captain first, he had gone charging off to the nearest Abbey and dragged Mal along with him with no thought as to what would happen next. He had hoped the Abbott would be able to convince the Captain that his actions were not acceptable and were against the laws of God. Rape or corruption of a minor was a very serious offence. Many a man had been hung for less.

Now, as he helped ease the Captain on to his side his mind raced. He could not leave Mal behind but knew the Abbott would not release him. What he needed was a plan.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *wangu* = stubborn *cuode* = wrong *dong ma*? = understand?

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *zhangfu* = husband *wo zhidao* = I know

*gaoxing* = happy *weishenme* = why? *qu* = yes (lit.go)

*wode ma* = mother of God!

Chapter Text


"MISTAKEN MERCIES"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

He thought he had died and gone to gorram heaven. All the cravings his lust filled mind could imagine and then some. Jayne moaned, the lips and hands on him showering him with bittersweet delights that made him weep into the mouths that worshipped him. Spilling his fecund seed had never been such sweet torture. While his mind and body writhed in bliss the twin agonies that excess had unleashed had him crying out. Greta was merciless and gifted. Shauna gentle but no less demanding. And Frith was so eager that what had been blatant unleashed lust on his part was quickly torn away from him until everything spiralled out of control taking more than his willpower with it.

Gorrammit, he had never had so much tasty all at once before. Waking was a novel experience in their hands. The drain on his energy bringing him a smile of deep satisfaction as his smile turned into a happy grin. Once they had finished they left him to recover in his own time. The bedcovers were strewn all across the floor, the bed empty of all but the mercenary's sated bulk. Jayne lay back in an undisciplined sprawl and scratched his belly. Slowly acclimatising himself to the notion of getting up, washing then making his way back to the ship. Rutting *diyu*, he couldn't remember the last time he had enjoyed himself this much. Then the second agony hit him and with a wrench he drove himself up off the bed and lurched towards the bathroom.

* * * * *

Shepherd Book was feeling more than a mite anxious. He felt responsible not only for the Captain but the situation they found themselves in. Why oh why had he not remembered the strict adherence to the ancient rules that Abbot Mathias had once expounded at an ecumenical seminar he had attended as a young man? Only Mathias had not been an Abbott then and his own name had not been Book. So long ago. Years had passed and both men had parted ways, each exploring the letter of their faith to the seeming glory of God. It came as something of a shock to realise that not all observances of the articles of that faith were benign. Some took no prisoners for not all enlightened men were enlightened. Knowledge without understanding could not make men wise. And understanding without compassion made love a rod of iron with nothing to break the fall from grace but the oblivion of being cast out. So much Book had learned. He sighed, head bowed. Yet so much he had forgotten. Six and a half years out of Southdown Abbey and he was as lost as any he tried to save.

The tap on the door was soft but he heard it. Alert to every sound however slight. As loud to his heart as his conscience pricking. He barely turned his head. "*Qing jin*."

The tall broad figure of the Abbott entered Book's temporary quarters. He moved quietly and did not speak until he stood next to his old friend. "Ga..."

Book looked up and the expression on his face made the Abbott change tack.

"Brother Book, you are troubled."

"I wanted you to talk to him," Said the Shepherd. "Not..."

"Chastise him?" Said the Abbott softly. Book bowed his head and nodded. The Abbott sighed. "I thought it was that which troubled you, my friend. You always were the sensitive one."

"I never meant for this to happen."

Something in the Abbott's demeanour hardened. "What about the child? Was that meant to happen? Or is it to be forgotten? Brushed under the carpet with a few Hail Mary's and a promise to fornicate no more?"

Book raised his head and looked at the Abbott. "I never asked the Captain what happened, Mathias."

"You told me you saw the girl come out of his room. The hour was early. You said she was damaged, vulnerable."

"That is true."

"What would you have had him say?"

"I would have known why the girl was there, what had happened between them."

The Abbott paused to watch the shadows move on Book's face, the flickering candlelight casting him like a shape upon the wall. "And if the Captain had refused to tell you, what then good brother?"

"I would have had my answer."

For a moment neither spoke.

"Rest a moment longer." Said the Abbott kindly, a large hand resting on Book's shoulder. "Then break your fast with me and be joined in prayer. Trust us to finish what has been begun for in the salvation of the immortal soul mortal flesh must bear the burden of redemption. Have faith brother, believe and His will shall be done."

* * * * *

River had tried to make herself small. To not intrude upon the thoughts of the others knowing how her friends valued their privacy. Curled up in a ball she sat in a corner of the commons room and tried to distract herself so she would not feel the lift and swell of the baby in the womb or the thoughts the parents shared in the cradle of each others' arms. Likewise she had not wanted to be close enough to experience Simon and Kaylee's passion. She knew the anniversary her brother had planned was special and would most like not come again. Remaining on Serenity had therefore been the logical decision to make.

It was only when she dozed, fading into a light trance that got deeper as she slept that River was able to float between the metal panels of the ship, to drift down through the floor into the cargo bay, her thirsting mind yearning to stretch further afield. Unconsciously needing to reach out and touch each and every one of her makeshift family. All of them precious in their way. Touching Jayne's mind was like dipping her mind in mud: good for the complexion but leaving her feeling grubby and dirty afterwards. He was happy and that pleased her though she did not linger. Inara was actually resting. Her exertions had been almost poetry in motion and flowed effortlessly into the period of rest that followed. Mind and body absorbing all that had gone before, her client sated and satisfied. The Companion's thoughts did not dwell on the man in her bed, already planning ahead the details of her next assignation. Though the client list on New Dunsmere would be smaller she had already made a few calls which she would confirm once the ship's itinery had been confirmed. Working kept her busy, independent of her friends while dependent on strangers to ply her trade. The irony not lost on her. The need to be in control of her own destiny the one imperative that ruled her. River knew. Understood the freedom Serenity gave Inara was an illusion the Companion would gladly die for.

River cast further. The journey harder now and not just because the Captain and Book were farther away. She frowned but kept her eyes closed, her search hampered by thick walls of stone and passages and heavy doors, the murmured minds of the truly enslaved joined in one thought, one purpose, one dream of salvation. It was the break in that harmony that alerted her, gave her the signpost she needed to find that which she was seeking. Him.

* * * * *

Shepherd Book returned as soon as he was able. The Captain's door was not locked, the man within too pained and exhausted for flight. Book shut the door softly behind him then carefully woke the Captain. Malcolm Reynolds moaned softly. He was lying on his stomach and where Book touched him caused him pain. Book snatched back his hand in alarm but when the Captain did not waken decided perhaps he ought to take a closer look. Carefully he pulled the cloak up so that he could get his first good look and almost dropped the coarse material with a startled cry. The Captain's back was a mess of angry weals and cuts, scars forming even as the salve across his back eased the pain and helped to heal his wounds. The Captain stirred, heavy lids blinking slowly until he was wide awake. Book froze where he stood and stared back.

"*Wei*, seems you've had a *zhenjing* your own self, Preacher."

"Captain, I didn't expect the Abbott to sanction this kind of treatment. *Wo neng wei zuo dianr shenme shi ma*?"

"I'm thinkin' you done enough."

Book flinched slightly. "I was only trying to help, Captain."

The man in question snorted softly. "The road to *diyu*, Shepherd."

"*Shenme*?"

A bitter little smile twisted pained lips. "Don't they say it's paved with good intentions?"

The Shepherd tried to shake off the mantle of guilt plaguing him. "We have to go, Captain, get back to Serenity."

The Captain picked up on his subdued sense of urgency. "What you not tellin' me? An' don't think of lyin' Preacher."

"The Abbott wants to keep you here until you confess, Captain."

A brief fire flared in the Captain's eyes. "You mean beat me until I tell him what he wants to hear, *dui*? Well I'll see him in every one of the nine hells before I confess to somethin' I didn't do."

Feeling a flush of shame, Book hung his head. When he looked up he was surprised to see hurt not anger in the Captain's eyes. Somehow that felt ten times worse.

"Why did you do it, Book?" Said the Captain softly.

"I saw River come out of your bunk."

The Captain just stared at him for a moment. "*Wo bu dong*. What you sayin'?"

"It was very early. You emerged shortly afterwards, still dressing." Book could not go on. The words sticking in his throat like chicken bones.

"So you put two an' two together an' made five?"

Book nodded. The Captain closed his eyes for a moment then eased himself up on to his hands and knees, the movement careful and slow like parts of him were broken. The Shepherd instinctively knew it was not the man's body that pained him right now. Book helped the Captain to his feet and straightened the robe. "We really do have to leave now, Mal."

"You think the Abbott would try to stop me?"

The level look the Shepherd returned him was answer enough, plus Mal could still feel where his wrists and ankles had been bound. The memory of it made him shudder. "Where are my clothes?"

"I think discretion being the better part of valor that's the least of our worries. Just follow me and keep your hood up, your hands tucked into the sleeves of your robe."

Book fussed until he looked right making sure the cowl of the hood left the Captain's face in shadow then quietly opened the heavy door. He paused and listened, the silence around them reassuring. Quietly they left the room, the Captain closing the door behind them. Book walked partway down the long corridor then cut through the cloisters, the Captain lagging until the Shepherd shortened his strides. "*Duibuqi*."

"*Fang xin.*"

They did not speak again until they had exited the Abbey and left the grounds behind them. An early morning mist swirling like grey ghosts clinging to their ankles. The Captain was tiring so Book slowed his pace but would not stop. It was some time before the Captain spoke again. "I'm thinkin' we should drop you off at Southdown Abbey."

The Shepherd almost stopped in his tracks but managed to keep going. "Can't say I blame you, Captain, and even that would be more than I deserve."

The Captain's breath was coming in short gasps now, only his bloody minded determination keeping him from giving in to the pain. "Said I should not that I would."

They were within sight of Serenity now. With weary relief the Captain raised a hand to open the door, pausing with hand half raised as Book queried him. "What do you mean?"

The Captain turned his head and looked straight at him. "I mean you're stayin' right here."

Neither of them seemed to notice the ramp lowering and door opening.

"Is this some kind of joke, Captain?"

"Nope. Ain't laughin'."

"*Wo bu dong*." Murmured Book, resisting the unexpected urge to cry. "Why would you let me stay after what I've done?"

The Captain leaned in close to the Shepherd, his eyes locked on his former friend. "Don't agree with what you done," He said grimly. "though I understand the why of it."

Book's voice was so soft only the fact that they were standing close enough to touch enabled Mal to hear him. "That still doesn't explain..."

The Captain cut him off. "Think of it as... penance."

Before Book could respond River seemed to float down to them, her thin dress flowing around her pale form. Her eyes bright and sharp as a bird. Her voice singing a siren call of home. "Time to go. Heal."

The Shepherd stared at her. A kind of ethereal wisdom staring back at him. River gave a sad knowing smile then tugged on the Captain's hand. In silence the three of them went up the ramp, Mal sealing the ship closed after them. Book wryly realised he was not on the wrong ship after all. He had wanted to walk in the world again, to find souls to save. But God had other plans. He had sent this ship and this crew to save him. Blinking back the threat of tears he would in no way allow to fall, the Shepherd meekly accepted this second chance, his mind humming in a quiet chorus of exaltation that sounded suspiciously like the strains to Amazing Grace...

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *qing jin* = come in *wei* = hey *zhenjing* = shock

*wo neng wei zuo dianr shenme shi ma*? = can I do anything for you? *wei* = hey

*shenme* = what *dui* = correct *wo bu dong* = I don't understand

*duibuqi* = sorry *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart)

Chapter Text


"REPERCUSSIONS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

"You let them go?"

Abbott Mathias smiled a little secretive smile. Brother Mark looked somewhat perplexed.

"*Wo bu dong, fuqin*."

The Abbott's little smile grew until it threatened to swallow his whole face. "That is why, brother, *I* am the Abbott."

Brother Mark shook his head and padded softly back to his room, the cold flags beneath his feet grounding him in the certainty that he knew even less now that he had the day before.

* * * * *

It was hours after the sun had come up on Richmond and Kaylee could not stop laughing at her husband's expression. The bath had been shiny, a big round sunken creation that bespoke wealth and privilege. Kaylee figured Simon would be more than used to that kind of opulence but the doctor had been amazed when he stepped into the steaming pool of water just as the jets kicked in and warm air blasted down on him from a network of hidden pinholes cunningly disguised as part of the patterned ceiling while the hot water churned around him massaging his body and turning the soapy water to foam. His expression was priceless and Kaylee could hardly breathe for laughing.

"It wasn't that funny, *bao bei*."

Kaylee hiccoughed as she tried to answer him. "It is... from where..(hic)... I'm... (hic) standin'."

Simon's eyes narrowed but Kaylee was wiping her eyes. Waiting until she began to step down into the tub to join him, Simon caught her round the waist and tugged her under, tickling and teasing her as she bobbed up for air. Rubbing soap in her hair and watching as his gorgeous laughing wife blew bubbles in his face while gasping for breath. "That was sneaky, Simon Tam!"

"No," Said Simon in his I'm-a-doctor-and-I-know-everything-you-need-to-know voice. "That was good clean fun, Mrs Tam. And just what your doctor ordered."

Kaylee gave him a deceptively meek and mild look and let the moment pass. She could be patient. Smiling, Simon leant in to kiss her and Kaylee began to run soapy hands all over him until he was hardly able to think straight. Her daddy said she had natural talent but what Simon didn't know was he hadn't been talking about engines.

* * * * *

If the Shepherd thought getting the Captain back to Serenity would be the end of his trial he was much mistaken. River dogged him like a bloodhound. At first he had tried to ignore her, insisting on accompanying the Captain to his bunk and making sure he got down the ladder without mishap. It annoyed the *diyu* out of the Captain but was worth the ascerbic comments to ease his conscience. Once he made sure the man was safely ensconced in his bunk the Preacher left to let him rest, discomfitted to find River Tam waiting for him at the hatch.

"Was there something you wanted, River?"

She was glaring at him. Uncomfortable and hiding it poorly he made his way to the commons area to make a pot of tea. River followed. He did not press her to speak, some sixth sense telling him he would not like whatever poured out of her mouth. Instead he concentrated on the mundane and set the water to boil. After a minute or two River could wait no longer. "You're interferring in my plans."

Surprised, the Shepherd looked at her. "I am?"

River leaned in towards him, her eyes fixed on his as if she could bore into his brain. "I know what I want."

He blinked. "Well, that's good I suppose."

"*Qu* only it isn't."

Book's hand on the mug froze. "It isn't?"

She shook her head. "You have no right to judge."

Now he felt plain uncomfortable but was unwilling to play this guessing game. "River, I have no idea what you are talking about."

Sadness filled her expression, her eyes shiny. It made him think of a kicked puppy but he hadn't kicked anyone, or had he? "What gives you the right to take away other people's happiness? You preach love and forgiveness but in your heart is hellfire and damnation."

He put the mug down. Tea forgotten. "River, what are you talking about?"

Unshed tears filled her eyes until they looked like liquid glass. "Mal."

Book was frowning now, more confused than ever. "What does this have to do with the Captain?"

"Everybody has somebody or some thing. Pieces that make them whole. Zoe has Wash, Kaylee has Simon, Jayne has Vera, you have your faith, Inara has her work. On the ark the animals went in two by two."

"Yes, River, but..."

"That leaves me and Mal."

The Shepherd opened his mouth and shut it again. Stunned. Eyes round. Dimes dropping in his head. "*Ni zhidao*."

She nodded. "You saw me come out of the Captain's bunk and now you've ruined everything!" River paused. "It isn't what you think."

He tried to calm her, make her see sense. "River, I misunderstood. *Duibuqi*. I admit it and don't think for a moment I'm proud of that but if what I thought had happened had taken place I would have to do the same again."

"No, you wouldn't."

"River..."

"You shouldn't interfere."

"I can't simply stand by while..." He trailed off, unsure how to word what he wanted to say without it sounding coarse or insensitive.

"*Ni shao guan xianshi* and I've waited so long."

That made him pause a moment. "You waited?"

"I love him."

Shepherd Book wanted to make sure he was understanding exactly what River was saying. Didn't want there to be any mistakes this time. "Are you saying you have feelings for the Captain?"

She nodded. Book could feel a headache coming on. Where was Simon when he needed him? "River, that isn't a good idea. What you are feeling is gratitude, not love. The Captain gave you and Simon a place here on Serenity. He gave you Sanctuary."

"You think I'm broken."

He just stared at her. How could he deny the obvious? It was what they all thought, the Captain included. River looked sad, eyes turning hollow and pinching him with concern.

"We're all broken. Damaged goods. Which is why we need each other. Together we can make each other whole."

"I'm sure that may be true in some cases but you and the Captain..."

"You spoiled that! Now he'll think it's wrong and everything will be different."

Shepherd Book tried to think past the pounding in his head. "Perhaps that's just as well."

Her eyes widened as if finding it hard to believe he could actually think that let alone say it. "No!" Her face began to crumple and her voice fell to a soft pained hush. "Why do you have to make everything you don't understand a sin?"

The words hurt him, made him feel mean but he wasn't. He was trying to save them from temptation. Couldn't she see that?

"I'm in love not blind." She averred simply. "I know what I want."

"River," Said Book gently, trying hard not to hurt her but needing for her to understand that simply wanting something did not mean you got to have it. "What if the Captain doesn't feel the same? I think he sees you more as a daughter not..."

"*Wo zhidao* but I'm not. Was a girl but am a woman now. I think on my feet and don't rush in." She paused. "I don't want to be alone any more." She said in a small voice.

Something clicked in the Shepherd's brain. "Is that why you went to his bunk?"

She nodded. Book's heart felt heavy. "River, that wasn't a good or wise thing to do."

"Mal would never hurt me."

"Perhaps not but what about you hurting him?"

That made her blink. She tilted her head and looked at him for a moment then straightened again. "I would use words not a whip. Love not punishment. 'The gentle word turneth aside wrath'" She quoted.

Before Book could think of a suitable reply they were interrupted by the arrival of a touselled and cheerful pilot. "Mornin' Book, River. What's for breakfast?"

The Shepherd answered Wash while making sure he could still keep eye contact with River. He did not want her blurting out what she had told him. "Um, I haven't checked but from memory we still have some of that cereal base and protein bars."

River looked at Wash. She was pouting. "If we had eggs I'd make you an omelette."

Wash stared at her and watched as River swept out of the room. He looked at the Shepherd. "Whacky fun."

"Yes," Mumbled the Shepherd feeling he had just dodged a bullet. "You have no idea."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wo bu dong* = I don't understand *fuqin* = father *bao bei* = precious/treasure

*diyu* = hell *qu* = yes (lit. go) *duibuqi* = sorry *wo zhidao* = I know

*ni shao guan xianshi* = it's none of your business *ni zhidao* = you know

Chapter Text


"REPARATION"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Inara could tell something was off the moment she set foot back on Serenity. It was nothing as obvious as weeping or wailing. Nothing as gross as rivers of blood. Nothing as frantic as panic and fear or as subtle as the wringing of hands. So what was it? Why did she have the unerring feeling of folly unfolding with a fool's grace? The praeternaturally silent cargo hold bore witness to her confusion then sounds began to intrude, steps clattering above her head as Kaylee leaned over the catwalk rail and spotted her friend then ran down the metal stairs to greet her. "'Nara, you're back!"

No one stated the obvious with as much happy exuberance as Kaylee. The Companion smiled fondly and stepped into a hug. It felt so like coming home that her heart settled a little despite her reservations. "What happened and where is everyone?"

Kaylee could hardly contain her excitement. "Simon took me to a hotel!" Inara's eyebrows rose, amusement and affection sparkling in her eyes. "An' that ain't all, he remembered our anniversay. Two years an' he still loves me, 'Nara, ain't that somethin'?"

"Yes, Kaylee, it is something." She kissed the top of Kaylee's head then pulled back to look her in the eye. "It is something very precious. The kind of love that is meant to last a lifetime. I'm so happy for you, *mei mei*, happy for you both." Then Inara glanced around, a little puzzled frown marring the perfect beauty of her face. "Where's Simon?"

The mechanic actually blushed. "I kind'a wore him out."

For a moment Inara just stared at her then threw back her head and laughed. Kaylee forgot to be embarrassed and laughed right along with her. It was their laughter that drew the others out. Everyone except the Preacher and the Captain. Wash chuckled even though he did not know what they were laughing at, Zoe at his side. Jayne scowled down over the railing, saw it was only Inara, and sloped off. "Huh, I'll be in my bunk." He mumbled. "Thought it was somethin' important."

The others made their way to the commons area, the natural gathering place for gossip and relaxation.

* * * * *

The Captain lay on his stomach, forearms folded in front of him, his chin resting on them. The cloak lay over his chair, the feeling of that weight off his back was all kinds of heaven. Shepherd Book was frowning down at him, unable to take his eyes off the raw gashes and weals etched into the man's back, feeling in equal parts exasperated and guilty. There were times when the Captain seemed to understand him a little too well for his liking. Not that he would ever admit as much. "This is foolish, Mal. You need to let Simon see to your injuries."

"Uh huh, that's what you're here for Preacher."

Book stared at him in shock for a moment, then recovered his equillibrium. "I'm not a doctor, Captain."

"*Bu qu* but you are a man of many talents."

There was a little pause, both men lost in their own thoughts for a moment or two. "That's why you asked me to bring the salve?"

"Yup."

"I could just refuse. Call Simon anyway."

"You won't do that."

Book felt his curiosity pique. "*Weishenme bu*?"

"Your penance not his."

The Preacher's look darkened for a moment. He moved closer to the bed and met the Captain's eyes. He tried not to think how much better he felt averting his gaze from the bloody view of the Captain's back. "Is that why you let me stay? So you could rub my nose in it?"

"No, but it ain't healthsome not to face what you done." At Book's look of disbelief he continued explaining. "'Sides, Zoe finds out you'll be a dead man before the words finish leavin' my gorram mouth. Not that I plan on tellin' her." He paused again, shifting slightly as twinges in his back shot pain and heat through him. The effects of the miraculous salve were beginning to wear off.

"You're in pain." Said Book.

"Seems like." The Captain said quietly, trying not to let a gasp escape but the Shepherd noticed anyway.

With a little sigh of defeat the Preacher reached for the salve and unscrewed the lid. "You really are a most *wangu* man, Captain."

"You just figurin' that out?"

The Shepherd didn't answer, carefully putting the salve to work. The Captain shoved his face in his pillow and tensed his back. Book's hands were firm but gentle, expertly annointing the wounds as he began to think out loud. "You can't expect to hide this from the crew."

"Not gonna hide nothin'," Mumbled the Captain, his words muffled by the pillow. "Just not gonna say nothin'."

"That's merely semantics."

"No, no it's not. It's a choice is all."

Neither spoke again until Book had finished. He washed his hands at the pull out sink, wiping them on the towel slowly. With a sigh he walked back to the bed and retook his seat, a thoughtful expression on his face as the Captain relaxed. "You aren't goin' to forgive me are you?" Asked Book quietly.

"Maybe not right away, no..."

"You forgave Jayne."

The Captain just stared at him for a moment. Book could almost hear the gears shifting in Mal's head before he spoke. "That was Jayne."

"What do you mean?"

A flicker of irritation crossed the Captain's face. Not happy to be having this conversation. "He ain't you."

Book paused before speaking. "Are you saying you can't or won't forgive me but you can forgive a back-stabbing mercenary?"

"Don't know what I'm sayin'," Said Mal wearily, his store of energy almost used up. "Just that you're a learned man, Shepherd an' Jayne ain't."

The Preacher hung his head, a sense of futility eating into him like depression. This hurt so much more than walking away from what he had done. With a jolt he realised that had been the Captain's intent. Making him face up to the results of his actions in order to ram home that every action had a consequence. In his own rough and ready way, Malcolm Reynolds was giving the Preacher a way to attone for his actions. A way to redeem himself. Blinking back the moisture in his eyes Book raised his head, his mouth opening to speak. Another thought occurring to him which he would have liked to put off raising only he was not sure he would get the chance to do so if he did not speak up now. "What are you going to do about River?"

The question surprised the Captain. "*Shenme*? What makes you think I have to do anythin' about her?"

"You do know she has a crush on you, don't you?"

Mal tried to laugh only the funny was squashed all out of him. "She'll grow out of it, Preacher."

Book raised his brows. "River is 24."

"She could be fifty an' it wouldnt' make no never mind, what's your point?"

The Preacher's lips quirked up a bit. "Are you sayin' you prefer older women?"

For a long moment the Captain simply stared at him. "Preacher you are a truly warped man."

"Happy to be of service, Captain."

"That wasn't what I meant an' you know it."

"*Wo zhidao*. You're going to have to talk to her. And sooner rather than later."

"*Wei*, why me? Ain't me got no problem with the girl. If you're worried you go an' speak to her."

The Shepherd sighed. Just listening to that exhalation made Mal feel a hundred years old. Odd how a little slip of a thing could do that to a man. "I've already tried to talk to her."

"I take it the talk didn't go well?"

"She told me I was ruining everything, whatever everything is."

"Mayhap you should just let things be? In my experience such 'crushes' usually wear themselves out."

"I don't think this one will."

That surprised Mal so much he laughed softly then caught himself as his back twinged. "Preacher, I think you're makin' a whole lot more of this than needs be."

"Perhaps, but just remember my words."

"*Dangran*." The Captain paused, feeling mighty weary all of a sudden. His words beginning to mumble as he closed his eyes. "Think I could sleep a while."

Book picked up the blanket and gently lay it over the prone man, careful not to irritate the wounds on his back. He would have liked to have left them uncovered but if the Captain wanted to keep this just between the two of them he could not let any of the crew accidentally walk in on the man as he slept. Then, with a last look back, Book folded the cloak and took it away with him. Letting Serenity's Captain find what peace and rest he could while thinking how best to stop the crew from checking up on him until he had properly rested. Even a few hours would be a help. In the meantime they still had to take off and head out for New Dunsmere. With any luck the next job would go smooth. A wry twist to his lips, Book let himself out of the Captain's bunk then shut the hatch as quietly as he could behind him.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*mei mei* = little sister *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *weishenme bu*? = why not?

*wangu* = stubborn *shenme*? = what? *wo zhidao* = I know *wei* = hey!

*dangran* = of course

Chapter Text


"UNDERSTANDING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

He woke slowly in that giddy delight, that physical afterglow that followed incredible mind-blowing sex. Simon smiled. Happy, sated, self satisfied and blessing his good fortune. Thoroughly enjoying the sensation and all memories like erotic truffles tempting his senses to recreate the moment. He could still feel Kaylee ghosting in his arms even though he knew she had left him to sleep, to recover from their exertions if he was being honest with himself. And why wouldn't he be? Giving in to his desire for the sexy mechanic had been the wisest thing he had ever done. It still amazed him it had taken him so long but more surprising still had been Kaylee's willingness to wait for him. The thought brought a tender smile to his lips. Marrying her made him complete in ways that sex alone, however fabulous it might be, could never do. So it was that he opened his eyes in complete and boneless relaxation only to jolt to full cognisance as he met the eyes inverted above his own. His were sleepy, hers were bright, sharp and knowing.

"R... River, *shenme shi*?"

Embarrassed he hastened to sit up, quickly pulling the covers up over his naked chest. An action that amused her though there was little enough laughter in her eyes. He blinked and took a harder look at her, concern now uppermost in his mind.

"*Mei mei*, what are you doing here? Has something happened?"

River righted herself and plopped on the bed beside him. Simon pulled his legs up to make room for her. There were times when he looked at her and almost did not recognise his sister. Some magical change seeming to cast a spell over her as if overnight she had gone from something hidden, almost shy, into the kind of sparkling beauty only glimpsed in her suddenly too adult eyes. It was as mesmerising as it was unnerving to see his little sister all grown up. Now the shade of the past hung over her, the woman retreating - a girl again, a sister unique and gifted. A girl in need of her brother. Without even having to think about it he reached for her and she let him draw her in. The circle of his arms so comforting and familiar. Her face turned to his shoulder to hide the tears. Swift, quiet then vanquished. She had not come here to cry but to talk. First her thoughts needed to form into something solid that he could hear not melt from her tear ducts and leave him speechless with concern. Alarming Simon would achieve nothing. He let her take her time, instinctively knowing it was the right thing to do. One hand stroking soothingly through her thick dark fall of hair.

"If I'm a woman why can't I be treated like one, Simon?"

Surprised he drew his head back a little and looked at her. River tilted her face, waiting for his reply. Her wistful words tugging at his heartstrings. Gently he brushed her hair out of her face so he could see her properly. "Perhaps you should explain, *mei mei*, after all I'm no mind reader." This last comment was said gently, meant only to tease.

"I'm not a child any more." She all but pouted.

Simon had to batten now the urge to smile as her expression seemed to underline the exact opposite. Though even that was an illusion. "No, River, you're not a child any more."

"Everyone thinks I'm broken."

His breath caught, like pain trapped beneath his ribs.

"I'm not broken Simon, *wode butong*."

Her words chilled him, just a hair's breadth away from total panic. It took effort to stay calm, to remind himself he was here for River nothing else. "What they did to you at the Academy..." He began softly, trying to rein in his anger.

"No!" Her quiet but forceful interruption stilled him. He frowned, needing to know what this was about. Who had upset her. River knew what he was thinking but was cautious not only in how much to say but how to say it. She had changed so much but because the outside looked the same few noticed. They saw glimpses, they did not see *her* and she so badly wanted to stand out of the shadows of their regard and be a woman through and through. Not just feel like one but be treated as one. "I need help."

Before he could suggest anything medical River put the fingers of her right hand up to his lips to still them. He gazed intently into her eyes, trying to fathom out what she was trying to tell him. What she was asking. What the *diyu* was wrong.

"I'm a woman but I still think like a girl. My body isn't a girl any more, Simon."

Simon flushed. "I think you'd be better speaking to Kaylee or, or Inara. I'm not sure what you think I can...."

"You're not listening!"

The familiar old complaint stopped him in his tracks. "O-kay, then *duibuqi*." Simon sat straighter, letting his hands fall to his lap in a patient *I can wait as long as it takes* pose. It almost brought a smile to River's lips. So Simon.

"I've tried to be subtle." She said seriously. Simon frowned. Subtle? River? Why? River shook her head, her look very focused as if she were working out a particularly complex problem. "Subtle doesn't work."

"What are you trying to be subtle about?"

"Sex."

Simon almost choked on his tongue. "River!"

He sounded scandalised, shocked but also somewhat baffled. "Are you sure you want to have this conversation with me?"

"Don't be a prude Simon, you're married and I know you and Kaylee do more than hold hands." His face reddened. Point made she moved swiftly on. "I need to be seen as a woman so I can be treated like one, *dong ma*?"

"Well, yes, I suppose that makes sense."

"If he sees me as a woman perhaps he'll take me seriously."

The frown of confusion was back on Simon's face. Oh God, don't let it be Jayne! "Who, *mei mei*, who do you want to take you seriously?"

"Mal."

If he thought River pining for Jayne was bad this was ten times worse. Ten to the power of millions. "The Captain? River, that wouldn't be a good idea."

"I know what I want."

"Yes, but the Captain? You knows he's suicidal, pyschotic?" At her hardening look he continued, knowing he was rambling but unable to stop his headlong scramble to head her off from a path leading to sure destruction. "The man's insane!"

"*Ni bu dong*." She said half sadly and half accusing. "He's been hurt, damaged like me but healing."

Simon put his hands on her arms and tried to make her see how serious he was, how wrong this would be. "The Captain is nothing like you River. What happened to him, in the War and after is not the same as what happened to you at the Academy. The War changed him, made him darker, more dangerous." He paused. "The Captain is a very damaged man, *mei mei*. You don't want to visit the dark places he has been. I'm not sure you would survive it, in fact I'm not sure he survived it."

He was alarmed to see the beginnings of tears in her eyes. Her look sad but also very gentle. As if she were the one comforting him. "*Bu qu*, Simon. We're closer than you think."

The seconds stretched into pregnant minutes, the weight of her words crushing entire worlds inside Simon's skull. Oh God, she couldn't mean...? "River, what have you done?"

"*Yiwusuoyou*."

"Did the Captain touch you? If he's..."

"No, Simon, you aren't LISTENING!"

The shock of her raised voice was like a douse of cold water. He stared at her then had to make a conscious effort to calm down. "I need your help, *ge ge*. I can look but I can't touch. I want to touch."

Simon stared at her, mouth agape, a look of complete horror in his eyes. *Wode ma*, this was worse than he thought.

* * * * *

Book felt worn out in a way physical exertion and manual labour could not compete with. Yet there were things he needed to do before he could retreat to his bunk. First and foremost he would need to make sure no one disturbed the Captain. Then ensure they set course for New Dunsmere. It might help if when the Captain finally surfaced they were nearing their next port of call. Distraction could sometimes be more beneficial than medicine. A thought occurred to him and instead of heading for the commons area he went to the bridge. As he had expected Wash was sitting in the pilot's seat, Zoe breaking off their kiss to look up at the interruption. He could see she had been expecting the Captain.

"Everyone is aboard," Said the Shepherd smoothly. "Inara's shuttle is securely docked and we even brought some provisions on board."

"Where's the Captain?"

"Sleeping."

It was clearly not the answer she had expected. "What did you do at that Abbey of yours?"

"Talk."

Wash looked at him in surprise. "Talk? All night?"

The Preacher was a master at schooling his features, ensuring nothing flickered on his face but a mild ghosting of humour. That it was fabricated was something they did not need to know. "Evidently. I understand the Captain did not get much sleep."

Something in his comment must have alerted Zoe. Her eyes narrowed slightly. "You weren't there?"

"No, while the Abbott and the Captain were talking I availed myself of the luxury of refamiliarising myself with the grounds of the Abbey and spending the day in quiet contemplation." He paused. "It was very restful for the soul."

She gave him a searching look but the Shepherd had an amazingly good poker face. Deciding to take his words at face value for now she nodded. "New Dunsmere it is." Zoe looked at her *zhangfu*. "Best we be on our way."

Wash nodded and began to ready for lift off. Zoe turned her head to watch the Preacher leave the bridge, a thoughtful expression in her dark eyes. She thought Wash had not noticed but as he levelled off and went to medium burn his eyes locked on hers. "What do you suppose that was about?"

"I don't know, *bao bei*."

"You goin' to speak to the Cap'n?"

She shook her head, gave a little sigh then put a hand on his shoulder. "No. If he is sleepin' I don't think he'd much like the interruption."

The pilot did not say what he thought, just placed a hand over his wife's for a moment before getting down to the business of laying in their course. They were a day and a half from New Dunsmere. Zoe promised herself that as soon as the Captain was up and about they were going to have themselves a little chat. She didn't know that a steady queue was forming.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shenme shi* = what's the matter? *mei mei* = little sister *diyu* = hell

*wode butong* = I'm different *duibuqi* = sorry *dong ma* = understand?

*ni bu dong* = you don't understand *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *ge ge* = big brother

*yiwusuoyou* = nothing *wode ma* = mother of God *zhangfu* = husband

*bao bei* = precious/treasure

Chapter Text


"DECISIONS AND EXPLANATIONS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

He was beautiful. Not in the vacuous depths of shallow mortality but in the shining essence of the soul. There was a resonance between them that was as automatic as breathing. An energy that shimmered in silent synchrony like the merging of souls. Souls that were meant to travel together. Attuned to him she could not help but see what others missed. Understated yet permeating their every interaction whether he knew it or not. It was enough that River knew. He sang to her in ways beyond description just as her every atom was heightened in awareness whenever he was near. Didn't have to see him, hear him or even smell him. The sense of him was imprinted right through her body and soul like the lettering on a stick of rock from Earth-that-was. On some subconscious level he knew. Sensed. Recognised her as a fate he could not avoid. Yet the conventions of his upbringing would not allow him accept that knowledge.

River watched him sleep. Made no move to reach out and touch, not wanting to disturb him but feeling her tides rise and fall to the beat of his heart. The breath in his body like an irresistable current controlling her inland sea. It was comforting, hypnotic and alluring all in one. Simon did not understand, believed only in what he could see and touch but for River the prejudices of others could not hold sway over the kingdom of the heart. All she had to do was persuade Mal that there was nothing unnatural or sinful about them being together and therein lay the nub of her dilemna for despite any indications to the contrary the Captain was an honourable man. A mite tweaked and haunted by demons but at heart a good and noble man. Anything which he conceived to be below that benchmark he would resist with the full power of his mind and soul. Ah, but the heart was another matter and not bound by the strictures of other people's expectations nor the arbitrary boundaries of outmoded thought. It was not much but it gave her a little room to manouevre. And desperate as only the love-lorn could be, River would take any advantage she could get.

Having appealed to Simon to help, the anticipated response had both depressed and angered her though not for the reasons her brother might expect. Depressed because Simon had finally found love and peace and contentment in Kaylee's arms. A girl so diametrically opposed to his own privileged upbringing yet so right for him. So full of love and goodness that the joy of life shone right through her and illuminated and uplifted every gorram soul she touched. Simon had not realised nor recognised the rightness of it until he had almost let it go. River had hoped he would have been wiser thereafter but being smart was not the full coin that purchased understanding. Intelligence was a tool, a resource, an ability, that needed many subtle arts to wield with precision. And River knew all about subtle arts.

"And some fell on stony ground." She murmured, angry and heartsore that her brother would deny her the bliss he had found with Kaylee. But because Simon was Simon she could not stay mad at him though he continually frustrated her. He was her brother and she loved him but that didn't mean there wasn't room in her heart for anyone else.

River's eyes drank in the object of her desire, her body moving slowly towards the sleeping man until she folded herself on the floor next to the head of the bed. His head was turned towards her, eyes closed, the long dark lashes laying against his cheek and fascinating her. She should go. Leave him. Let him rest. But River did not move. As if some tie bound them. His lips were slightly parted. Leaning close River dipped her head slowly until her lips hovered a hair's breadth from his own, her breath puffing into his partly open mouth as she drew in his scent. It would take hardly anything at all to close the gap and kiss him but she wanted him awake. Walking and talking. Needed him to see how their puzzle pieces fit together. How inevitable the desire to be one could be. Trembling with the effort to be patient River was about to leave when she heard a light knocking on the hatch. She froze. Eyes widenening just a fraction as she reached out with her mind to identify the caller.

The hesitation at the hatch was all the confirmation she needed. Shiny shoes preceded her brother's descent, the words forming on his lips frozen by the sight of his sister sitting cross legged on the floor beside the sleeping Captain's bed. Shock then alarm flashed through him.

"Not what you think."

"River, what the *diyu* are you doing in the Captain's bunk?"

"I needed to see him."

Simon glanced at the Captain. "He's asleep."

She frowned at him, annoyed. What did he think she was, a dummy? "*Wo zhidao*. 'See' him not talk to him. But you aren't here for that are you?"

"River, what you said earlier... it alarmed me."

"It's not for you to order other people's lives, Simon. Make decisions you won't have to live with. It isn't right and it isn't fair."

Simon opened his mouth to argue when he heard movement above him at the hatch moments before Zoe Warren came down the ladder. Zoe looked at them in surprise, then stared hard at Simon. "What the good gorram is goin' on an' what are you doin' in the Cap'n's bunk? I'm takin' it you are uninvited given he's sleepin', *dui*?"

The doctor flushed but River simply raised her head a little higher and looked Zoe in the eye as if she had every right to be there. Zoe crossed her arms, her face as expressionless as a piece of granite. All kinds of unamused.

"Well? I'm waitin' for your explanation."

Simon decided attack was the best form of defence. "What are you doing here?"

Her eyebrows rose even higher at the hint of challenge in the doctor's voice. "We're coming up on New Dunsmere. Need to know about the job, who the contact is. Your turn."

"I... um..."

"Was just leaving." Finished River for him.

He turned his head to glare at her. For a moment it was as if the siblings had forgotten anyone else was in the room. "River. I don't need you to speak for me."

"And I don't need you speaking for me either." Retorted his sister in that maddeningly sing-song tone she used when she was mocking something he had said.

A clatter made all three of them look up towards the hatch. The Preacher's mouth dropped open as he got to the bottom of the ladder and found the bunk already full. "Has something happened I should be aware of?"

River picked up on the underlying tension and worry hidden in the Shepherd's tone but knew his concern was not rooted in the Here and Now. "You hurt him."

Zoe sucked in a startled breath then glanced from River to Book. "Hurt him how?"

There was a sad look on River's face as if the Preacher had disappointed her. "He trusted you."

Simon was beginning to feel like a non-swimmer plunged into the deep end of the pool without a lifebelt. He just hoped there weren't any sharks. "What are you talking about, *mei mei*?"

"It's nothing." Said Book a mite too quickly to be entirely convincing.

"What ain't nothin'?" Three pairs of guilty eyes turned towards the bed. A sleepy eyed Captain was rapidly becoming fully awake. Sitting on the floor next to the bed River gave Mal a radiant smile. Still feeling more than a mite fragile he rolled carefully onto his side so he could see them all, the look on River's face touching him and eliciting a muted twinkle in his eyes before the humour faded and he turned to the serious business of working out just what the good gorram was going on. "An' why are you in my bunk? I suddenly become irresistable?"

Simon shook his head firmly feeling uncomfortably tongue tied. Zoe looked amused and the Shepherd wished he had waited for the Captain to surface under his own steam. What he had to say was not anything he wanted aired in front of the others. River seemed to pick his last thought clean out of his head, prompting the Shepherd to slam down the shutters so hard it gave him a headache. "Speak the truth and shame the Devil."

Shepherd Book paled at her words. Zoe frowned and wondered what the Preacher had to look so guilty about. Come to that, what the *diyu* was Simon doing here not to mention River? Whatever it was she was determined to get to the bottom of it. "What do you mean?"

* * * * *

Kaylee stepped on to the bridge to see Wash in his customary place in the pilot's chair. Apart from him the bridge was empty. She looked around with an abstracted air. "Wash, where is everyone?"

"I don't know about everyone but Zoe's gone to speak to the Cap'n. Jayne went to his bunk to clean his guns an' Inara's in her shuttle finalisin' details with her next client before we reach New Dunsmere."

Kaylee seemed a little tense. "I've looked everywhere but can't find Simon."

An amused look came into Wash's eye. That explained the anxiety he could sense coming off Serenity's mechanic. "Have you tried the infirmary? Simon's probably making out a list of supplies to pick up."

She shook her head. Kaylee was frowning now. "First place I looked."

"River's room?"

"Uh huh, he ain't there. Neither is River. An' 'fore you ask I already checked the commons an' the cargo bay."

Kaylee realised she must sound pretty pathetic, getting all anxious and crochety because she couldn't find the doctor. After all, the Firefly wasn't that big and they were in Space. Not like anywhere they could go but Serenity. She gave Wash a sheepish look. "Guess I'm bein' foolish, *dui*?"

The pilot smiled comfortingly at her. "Bu qu*, you're bein' a wife."

That made her smile, the smile widening still further as the mechanic thought of something else. Something other than her oddly absent husband. "So, you an' Zoe, pregnant?"

Now it was Wash's turn to beam from ear to ear, at least until the happiness on his face faltered.

"*Shenme shi*?"

The pilot blinked, feeling something of a *baichi*. "*Yiwusuoyou*, it's just I don't think this is the best place to bring a little person into the 'verse."

Kaylee looked puzzled. "*Weishenme bu*? There ain't nothin' wrong with Serenity."

That was not what Wash had meant. "I don't mean the ship Kaylee I mean *here*." He spread his arms out. "Space. The 'verse. The Black."

"But where else would you bring up a child? You an' Zoe are here, on'y makes sense the baby would be here as well."

"I think what I'm sayin' is," Wash paused, his voice getting quieter. "Maybe we need to settle down first."

The mechanic was frowning now, all kinds of confused. "You an' Zoe been together two years longer than me an' Simon. You seem settled enough."

Wash pulled a face. "I meant - on the ground."

As his full meaning sank in Kaylee's mouth formed a startled circle. "Oh."

He could not bear the sound of her disappointment and sorrow. Knew his wife would be even more vehemently opposed to his need to settle down - 'nest build' as his mama would have said.

"I thought you liked it here?" Kaylee asked in a small hurt voice. "That you thought of Serenity as home?"

"It is, it *is* home Kaylee, it's just - not on the ground, *dong ma*?"

The mechanic looked at him really hard trying to fathom out what he was really saying. After all Wash was a pilot, loved nothing more than flying. Couldn't properly see him settling on solid ground still less wanting to raise a family there. "What're you afraid of?"

Wash blinked. "*Shenme*?"

"You heard me, Wash. What are you afraid of?"

For one surreal moment Wash wondered if it were a multiple choice question. Was Kaylee joking? No. One look at the mechanic's face said she was completely serious. Did he really have to remind her of all the times things hadn't worked out? The plans that backfired? Not to mention the risks they ran with trying to stay under the Alliance radar, steer clear of untrustworthy folk like Saffron and the crew that had shot and tried to take Serenity from Mal when the catalyser blew. And that was not even mentioning their run in with Reavers. But he could see from Kaylee's face that she was not thinking of that. The risk meant nothing to her as long as she could stay on her beloved ship. The only place in the 'verse she would call home.

Locking away his worries and insecurities the pilot gave Kaylee a friendly smile. "Then again why would anyone want to be anywhere else?"

Kaylee's worry instantly evaporated then she laughed brightly. "You had me goin' there for a moment, thought you meant to leave, take Zoe an' the baby. Break up the family." That made Wash blink. This. Them. They were Family? Looking at Kaylee's happy smiling face he had his answer right there. Yep. Family.

* * * * *

Oddly enough it was the Captain who saved the Shepherd from the awkwardness of the moment. "As important as what you all have to say must be I'm thinkin' it's time I was up an' dressed. We got work waitin' for us on New Dunsmere. So if no one objects best you go up to the commons an' I'll see you there, *dong ma*?"

They all knew it was not a request but a politely worded order. He watched them all file out, River lingering. He raised his eyebrows and stared at her. "You too, River."

"*Jide*," Said River as she leaned forward, eyes fastened on his. "Not all explanations are answers."

Confused he simply stared at her. River's expression softened, a hand reaching out to brush her fingers lightly down the side of his face making him shiver unexpectedly inside. Eyes locked on hers he froze. The girl's beauty was breath catching in a creepifying ghostly kind of way and yet something compelled him to be extra patient with her and not let his impatience lash out at the innocent. She was broken and he didn't have it in him to add to that hurt if he could help it. River shook her head, her hand now stilling to rest gently against his cheek.

"Not broken." She whispered. Then to the Captain's surprise she kissed him. Warm lips caressing his own so fleetingly yet promising so much. A riot of feelings cascading from that touch and filling him with conflicting emotions struggling to make sense of a new 'verse of possibilities. Stunned he did not react as she went up the ladder and closed the hatch behind her. Two words rang inside his head not in a child's but a woman's voice. *Love you*. No wonder he had not recognised it. Now he put two and two together and silently groaned. What the good gorram was he going to do about this? Suddenly the painful weals across his back felt not so much like a perverted form of torment but the price paid for sins yet to come.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *wo zhidao* = I know *dui* = correct *mei mei* = little sister

*dong ma* = understand? *bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *shenme shi* = what's the matter?

*baichi* = idiot *yiwusouyou* = nothing *weishenme bu* = why not?

*shenme* = what *jide* = remember

Chapter Text


"FOOD FOR THE SOUL"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Curtis Manning Armstrong stared. For once in his long and grizzly life he was rendered totally speechless. The Mayor of New Dunsmere had warned him against this folly. Dealing with outworlders was always a risk but Malcolm Reynolds? An ex-Browncoat and Firefly Captain with no little reputation of his own to precede him? That was plain asking for trouble. Yet Curtis remembered the delicate smiling face of Shen Ling. She spoke highly of the man and he had to wonder at that.

The Captain sat very upright in his chair. At first Zoe had thought he was simply a little on edge, new contact and all but it wasn't that. Her frown deepened, annoyed at Jayne for not being with them and then annoyed that it actually mattered. Her focus drifting firmly back to the matter at hand. Mal was smiling that poised but ready to flash to deadly smile of his. It put her on notice and was somewhat baffling to their contact. Good. Unsettled was useful providing it was on the other side of the table not theirs. "So," The Captain paused to widen his smile a notch, his eyes bright and keen but with no trace of humour. Not missing a gorram thing. "Anxious as I am to haul this cargo how'd you get my name?"

"You are not exactly invisible, Captain Reynolds. Your exploits, shall we say, have drawn all manner of attention."

Mal's smile dimmed, concern held at bay by a will of iron. "All good I hope?"

Curtis tilted his head slightly. The Captain caught his breath. The movement reminded him of someone. Subtle and barely there but a signature nonetheless. Course he could just be mixing his memories with the unconscious body language of a perfect stranger. "Depends on who tells the tale, Captain."

Now the smile and the cosmetic bon homie was gone and the Captain didn't try to hide the flash of irritation and impatience burning in his veins. He began to rise from his seat, slowly. Zoe stayed put, the better to watch the faces at the table and those only glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. Clinging to shadow could as easily shift to clinging to life. Their choice not hers, she would just be carrying the gorram bullet. "Can't believe you brought me all this way to waste my gorram time."

His contact seemed to come to a decision. "Relax, Captain. A mutual friend passed on your name, wants to be remembered to you."

He was warier than ever now. Most of Mal's 'mutual friends' knew better than to draw attention to him and his crew. Lord Warwick Harrow had put a job or two his way after their first business together but it had always been Harrow handing the details to Mal for him to look at first not the other way around. Gave him a polite back door with no offence to no one if he didn't decide to take the gorram offer. This was different and he had learnt long ago that variety was not always the spice of life. "What friend might that be?"

Carefully Curtis leaned forward on the table, his eyes not leaving the Captain's. "I was told to tell you - 'within the four seas all men are brothers'."

Startled, the Captain just stared at him. Chung Li? What the good gorram did this have to do with him or had Rafe gone and got his self into all manner of trouble? Perhaps that *tamade hundan* Cyrus White was playing up again? Or had something happened to little Rosie? Seeing his words had hit their target, Curtis relaxed and leaned back in his chair. Waiting for the Captain's response. Mal's mouth had gone dry but he had to know. Didn't care if it was a heartbeat from begging. "He alright?"

He not she. Curtis hid his surprise. What else had Shen Ling left out? "Far as I know this is not so much a cargo job as a transport one. Your ship up to that?"

The Captain's eyes narrowed, not liking a good gorram how cagey the conversation was but not wanting to open it out if things were that sensitive. This *lese* bar had too many pairs of ears in it for his liking. His friend could be in really big trouble and no way in *diyu* did he want to make things worse. Owed the man his life several times over. The friendship between them a bonus he would treasure life-long. "Best you come look - check it out for yourself."

Their eyes locked, each weighing up the other. Curtis nodded, ignoring the brief look of distrust on Donny Hobbs' face. "Sounds like a plan."

* * * * *

Aboard Serenity Simon Tam was fast losing his grip on the finite store of patience in his doctor's repertoire. Never had he dealt with such a rough, child-like and stubborn patient before. He sighed, straightened and held the syringe away from his body for a moment. Jayne stared with eyes wide and wary, a look of utter panic and dread etched on to his face. Only the pain and growing agony of urinating with his John Thomas on fire had finally driven him to seek the doctor's help. Now he was having second thoughts. "Ya ain't stickin' that in my pecker."

"Jayne, I have to reduce the swelling to treat the infection."

"Ya swallow antibiotics, don't have to stick 'em in me."

"Normally tablets are fine but in this case you left it too long before coming for medical help. I need to be able to get the medication where it's needed as quickly and efficiently as possible, that means injecting directly into the...."

The mercenary was in a state of semi-undress, his pants lying over a chair, his shirt undone. His penis swollen and weeping so much he could hardly bear to put one foot before the other, the moment anything rubbed or touched him he was in agony. And that was not even counting the sores. "Not gonna happen."

"I can sedate you."

"An' I can make sure you break your pretty little neck. They say most accidents happen in the home." Jayne growled nastily.

The doctor looked at him in exasperation. "I'm just trying to help you, Jayne. If you had come to me earlier..."

"I wouldn't have come at all."

Simon blinked. "*Shenme*?"

"Ya heard. Didn't want ya' tellin' me when an' where I could get sexed, *dong ma*?"

Even accustomed to Jayne's crudity there were still times when it caught him by surprise. Unnoticed in a corner, River unwound her slim frame from the curled huddle that had been watching their exchange in silence. Looking at Jayne she began to sing a song.

"Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules

Some talk about Lysander and such great names as these

But of all the world's deseases there's none that can compare

To the drip, drip, drip of a syphilitic prick and they call it gonorrhea!"

Simon turned to stare at her, mouth agape in shock. "River! That's disgusting."

She smiled sweetly at him. "It's Jayne."

The doctor didn't really have a response to that for awful as the truth sounded it *was* Jayne - literally. He had been more than liberal for far too long with his man parts and now he was reaping the rewards of unprotected sex. "River, I know you only want to help but you need to leave now and let me help Jayne."

It took a bit of coaxing but River finally left, her parting shot to Jayne making the mercenary cringe even more than the sight of Simon advancing on him with a hypodermic needle. Her smile seemed all sweetness and light until his brain grasped the meaning of the words that accompanied it. "Syphilis, veneral desease now called STD. Caused by the spiral shaped bacterium Treponema pallidum. Needs a moist environment to survive. It's where the cautionary warning comes from."

Even though he didn't want to ask Jayne could not stop himself. In a voice shrunken by fear he managed to squeak out, "What cautionary warnin'?"

River gave him a blinding smile. "Too much sex can make you go blind." Then she sailed out of the infirmary door leaving two uneasy looking men in her wake. Jayne stared at the empty doorway while Simon wished for the thousandth time that his overly gifted sister would not choose the most inopportune times to share her little insights. He turned his reluctant attention back to a very scared looking Jayne Cobb. "What did I tell you about unprotected sex?"

"That it was impressive an' manly?"

"No," Said Simon with exaggerated patience. "I said *don't* but you wouldn't listen. You *never* listen."

"Ya gonna help or just keep yammerin'?"

"I have to inject you, Jayne. There's no other way you're going to get passed this."

Jayne stared off to one side, steeling himself for the inevitable. "Whatever, just do it an' get it over with, *dong ma*?"

Nodding nervously Simon advanced and idly wondered if he would ever make it out of the infirmary alive. The howl that filled the ship echoed off the metal walls alarming Kaylee who sat up too quickly and banged her head on the engine block. At his place by the landing ramp, Book glanced back then faced out across the planet again. The bible had a powerful lot to say about the sins of the flesh. A powerful lot but nothing at all about needles.

* * * * *

Inara Serra heard Jayne howling. Shuddered and was doubly grateful that she had hire of the shuttle. While it was good to have the security and safety of Serenity to fall back on, it was a relief to be apart from it as well. Shelter without Shackles. Her grooming done she smiled at her reflection then waved Wash, her hands now busy with the preflight sequence.

"Hi Inara, you ready?"

"*Qu*, I should be back by this time tomorrow."

His voice sailed back over the com with undisguised affection. There was always something very comforting and straight forward about Wash. Zoe was a lucky woman. "See you then, Inara. Take care.

"I always do."

Wash watched the shuttle as it rose and flew passed the cockpit windows. On the ramp the Shepherd shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun and watched Inara leave, the smile on his face vanishing as he turned his head and saw the little deputation heading for Serenity. The Captain seemed to be in somewhat stilted conversation with a man several inches shorter than him but stockily built. A broad powerful frame, light grey eyes that almost seemed transparent when the light hit them a certain way, and short wavy blond hair. He looked to be in his early forties. Alongside the man strode another, lean as a sappling with a lithe grace to his movements that sharpened the Preacher's instinct. Younger than the first man, this man was tanned with a thin moustache and a plain silver earring in his right ear. His short dark hair had no parting and his black beady eyes moved restlessly belying the relaxed motion of his body.

As they reached the ramp the Captain nodded to Book, happier than he could put into words to see him there. He could not account for the unsettled feeling stirring in his gut but knew Zoe had picked up on his unease. Alert and poised her professionalism allowed him a hair's breadth of ease. But just a hair's breadth. Something about this whole set up was more than a mite disturbing. He aimed to get to the bottom of it. "Mr Armstrong, I'd like you to meet Shepherd Book."

Curtis raised a curious brow then extended a hand. "Please to meet you Mr Book."

"An' this here's Donny Hobbs. They're gonna take a look around Serenity, make sure our boat can handle their cargo."

Book shook both men's hands politely, gleaning snippets of information from them as he did so. Armstrong's grip was strong and firm, a decisive and open declaration of the kind of man he was. Hobbs grip by contrast was slack and almost limp in his hand, a sign as far as the Preacher was concerned that he held himself back, projected only what he wanted others to see and leaned more to the furtive and sneaky side of human nature. He would be sure to keep a sharp eye on that one. He knew first impressions could be misleading and even dangerous but not so much as ignoring them completely.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *lese* = crappy *diyu* = hell

*shenme* = what *dong ma* = understand? *qu* = yes (lit. go)

Chapter Text


"NOT WHAT IT SEEMS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Zoe had been uptight and uncommunicative ever since the two men had come aboard. Only when Armstrong had nodded to the Captain and been welcomed aboard did her tension find a useful direction in which to flow. Instead of being all bottled up it was now aimed in all deadly earnest at her long time friend and Captain. The only courtesy she gave him was to wait until the Shepherd took the men on a tour of the ship to see if it would meet with their requirements. Once they were well out of earshot she didn't hold back. "I don't like it, sir."

Though her voice was not raised and was as even as a gorram spirit level her disapproval hung like a gibbet between them. For a moment Mal looked at her in shock. "*Tianna*, they're friends of Chung-li, Zoe. What's not to like?"

"Never said they were friends, sir. An' that cargo they said we'd be transportin'? What kind of cargo would that be?" Her response was short, bitten off and filled with rancour. Her expression enough to sour new milk. A look with not an inch of give in it.

"Zoe..."

"We know nothin' about them, got no call to believe a gorram word they say."

"That phrase..."

"Is common, Mal. Don't mean a thing."

The Captain's expression settled into firm grim lines. Every bit as stubborn as his second in command. "They said it was more transportin' than cargo."

Her eyes narrowed. "Not nothin' came aboard save the two of them."

"I can gorram count, Zoe!" The Captain gritted out, liking her opposition only a mite less than the stirring of doubt her words were raising in his gut. He paused and forced himself to calm down. "Not sayin' we don't got some details to work out - not sayin' that - just don't be decidin' against the job 'til you hear what it is, *dong ma*?"

"An' will we?"

He blinked. "Will we what?"

"Hear what it is?"

"Zoe, I ain't no ruttin' mind reader, *dui*? Soon as they've had their tour we'll gather everyone in the commons to hear the full of it. Get all the gorram details up front before any decision's made, that satisfy you?"

Her look was not so angry, leastways not at him any more and his reassurances not to do anything hasty did alleviate some of her concern. Mal knew her ansty behaviour was just a defence mechanism. Always ready to protect him even when there was no danger he could see his own self which was rather the point. He trusted her instincts even when the exercise of them rubbed him up the wrong way. Zoe gave him a look that put him on notice. A whole library of not happy in her eyes condensed into a few terse words that hung between them like an uneasy truce. "Just don't like it is all."

Wisely the Captain made no further comment. Holding back the urge to sigh he headed off in the direction Book had taken the two men and tried not to think of it as anything more than a tactical retreat.

* * * * *

He was sore. His whole gorram body one big pile of agony radiating from his most tender spot. He was going to kill that rutting doctor as soon as his head stopped spinning and his tender parts settled down. At least he could urinate now but the near passing out took the shine off that novelty real quick. Lumbering to his feet Jayne gasped and put a hand out to the wall of his bunk to steady himself, his unhappy musings doubling when the last voice he wanted to hear - ever - sang like some demented canary in his ear.

"Told you to rest. Medicine can't do its' job if you don't do yours."

He spun round meaning to yell in her face but the moment he did so the ground moved with alarming speed until it made full contact with his face. He grunted, eyes closed as the pain stunned then shot through him like some gorram lightening strike. Gasping he got his spike of panic under control and opened rheumy eyes. River Tam was standing not two feet in front of him her head hanging down and eyes watching him as if he was some specimen in a bottle. "Have to rest, lose the nausea, then get ready for some thrilling heroics."

He squinted up at the crazy girl, electing to move real slow until he was sure he wouldn't throw up. "Heroics, huh?"

She beamed at him and straightened. Then a faraway look came into her eyes and she tilted her head. He had the uncomfortable feeling bad news was coming his way. Or more accurately, *more* bad news. Could his rutting day get any worse? Then he heard it. The voice of command he was hoping would forget his mother had ever given birth to him. At least until this unpleasantness had passed.

"Jayne!"

Jayne closed his eyes and groaned. River straightened then leapt up the ladder just in time to come face to face with the Captain at the top of it.

"What you doin' here, River? Jayne in there?"

She smiled. "Had to take his medicine. Can't work on an empty stomach and he can't keep anything down."

His look shifted from one of growing annoyance to the first shadings of concern. "He sick?"

River nodded. "Pain of his own making but it still hurts."

The Captain gave a slow blink. "Huh." Quickly reassessing how soon he would need his mercenary up and about he decided to cut the man a little slack. Not too much now or Jayne would think he was going soft. Like that was going to happen while he lived and breathed. "Okay. Best he rest, recover an' such like."

Although the Captain was mighty curious and kept darting looks down the ladder into Jayne's bunk he was slowly backing away. If Jayne was sick he wanted none of it.

"Best tell the doc he's got a patient."

"Simon knows." River chirped.

Mal paused and looked at her a little harder. "You know what's wrong with him?"

She nodded. "Too much, too often, bound to get sick."

The Captain just stared at her, not sure what he was thinking was what she was saying and more than a little wary about pushing her for clarity but River gave it anyway. She loved Serenity and everyone on it. They were her family.

"Syphillus, venereal desease..."

"Uh, River, *too* much information, *dong ma*?" Said the Captain backing off, all un-Captainly like.

"You asked." She sang, then continued describing Jayne's symptoms in excruciating detail. The Captain flushed, backing off, eyes widening in horror and embarrassment. With a wince he jettisoned his pride and fled. River smiled softly to herself then leaned down and hung her head through Jayne's open hatch. The big man had managed to stumble up off the floor and on to his bunk, his mouth sagging open as he drooled on the blanket. Eyes half shut as if that could halve the pain. River knew it couldn't but then Jayne was never that good at math. "Gone now," She advised gently, her amusement tinged with affection. "He won't come near you for the rest of the day, no one will."

He should have thanked her but right now he didn't want to interact with anybody least of all a crazy girl. Carefully River shut the hatch then danced off to find Kaylee.

* * * * *

The Shepherd could not put his finger on it. Something was wrong. Out of kilter. Was that why the Captain had asked him to show the men around? And why was it if they wanted to see if the ship could handle their business that they asked no questions and appeared to be assessing the ship and its' layout not the vessel's capability for cargo? He stopped and the two men were forced to pull up short behind him. Book turned to guide them back towards the cargo bay. "I think we should head back and..."

He never finished the sentence. Already wired close to snapping, Hobbs' released all that pent up energy in one accurately aimed punch to the jaw. The upper cut snapped Book's head back and the man crumpled, the two men catching him before he could hit the ground.

* * * * *

Wash turned and smiled as his wife's footfalls echoed on the deck plate behind his pilot's chair. "Did we get the job?"

She frowned, her thoughts distracted. Mood darkening. "*Qu*."

Something in her voice alerted him and he spun his chair round to face her. "*Shenme shi, bao bei*?"

"*Wo bu zhidao* an' I don't like it."

"Did you tell Mal?"

She snorted softly. Wash raised an eyebrow. Well, that was new. He was not sure what to make of it but by now knew better than to pick sides before he knew the full story. "What happened?"

"*Yiwusuoyou*, just somethin' seems off an' the Cap'n won't listen."

"*Bao bei*," Said Wash pulling her into the circle of his arms. "The Cap'n doesn't listen to anybody, you should know that."

It was meant to be a light hearted throw away line that would bring a smile to her lips but she just frowned at him and stiffened. Then it hit him what he had said and the pilot tried to amend his slip.

"I mean he doesn't listen to anybody but you, you he listens to."

"Except this time."

Wash sensed fragile ground. The kind that could open up, collapse beneath your feet and swallow you whole. Never to be found again. What had his good and glorious Captain gone and done now and why was he the one who would have to fix it?

* * * * *

Kaylee couldn't remember the last time she had laughed so much. Tears squeezed themselves out of the corners of her eyes as she stared open mouthed at Simon Tam. The shiny young doctor had been so serious, so full of doctorly concern when he confided in her but the description of Simon trying to treat a reluctant Jayne was just too priceless. Simon broke off and stared at her, stunned to realise he had just broken his hypocratic oath. Horror stole over his face. "Oh my God! Kaylee, I didn't mean... that is... I never intended to say anything..."

The mechanic put down her wrench and wriggled out from under Serenity's engine block, one hand wiping away a stray lock of hair, the other rubbing tears from her eyes and smearing grease over her face. "It's okay Simon, I ain't gonna say nothin'."

"It's just," Simon was an inch short of wringing his hands, mortified at his slip. "It was such a shock."

Kaylee chuckled then seeing Simon's look wiped the smile off her face. "*Tianna* I know it ain't funny but he on'y has himself to blame. But seriously, how bad is it?"

He took a moment to consider. "I've managed to give him a shot of antibiotics, that'll help, plus he can't make anything worse now he's back on Serenity..."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Simon decided not to enlighten her but carried on. "If he does as he's told and rests, lets the medicine do its' work, he should be his usual grouchy cave-man self in a few days."

The mechanic frowned at her husband. A few days? She knew a lot could happen in a few days and the thought of the mercenary flat on his back was not good. Suddenly she didn't feel like smiling any more. "You told the Cap'n?"

He shook his head. That was one conversation he was not looking forward to. Kaylee patted his arm and smiled gently at him. "Word of advice, Simon?"

Simon nodded and held his breath.

"Don't. Wait 'till the Cap'n asks, *dong ma*?" Kaylee leant forward and kissed him, the curving smile of her lips on his sharing the grease and grime for a full minute before he realised she was making him dirty and sprang back. The look in her eyes said she knew perfectly well what she had been doing.

"Kaylee, that isn't funny - I'm all covered in grease!"

Kaylee raised her brows and grinned at him. "An' who do you think is gonna come an' wash it off you?"

His look changed to one of painful anticipation. Kaylee laughed and shoved him lightly back. "Go! Stop distractin' me while my girl needs me."

"So, later then?" He said hopefully.

She leant in for a longer lingering kiss. By the time she pulled away he had forgotten all about the grease, the dirt and just how unhygenic it was. "Oh yeah, better believe it *xin gan*. Once I finish here an' get cleaned up? I intend to get you mucky all over again. Don't intend to miss a single spot. Then," She paused and watched him hanging on her every word. The power it gave her made her heart swell, the love and lust almost too much to fit in one itty bitty body like hers. But she'd give it a run for its' money. "Then Simon Tam, I intend to lick it off you. S-l-o-w-l-y."

The doctor's mouth formed a perfect circle, his mind filling in the blanks, his body beginning to respond until he had to physically step back to stop himself doing something that would embarrass him for months to come. Their bunk was one thing, the engine room? Entirely too much chance of getting interrupted and knowing his luck it would be by the Captain. That cooled his ardour some. Enough at least for him to get his three percent brain back into gear and out of the gutter. "Okay, I'll go..." He waved vaguely behind him and took another step back. "I have things to do... in the infirmary... tests and..." He broke off, swallowed then gave her the sweetest smile. "See you later, *bao bei*."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*tianna* = Oh God! *dong ma* = understand? *dui* = correct *qu* = yes (lit. go)

*shenme shi* = what's the matter? *bao bei* = precious/treasure

*wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *yiwusuoyou* = nothing *xin gan* = sweetheart

Chapter Text


"DEBT OF HONOUR"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Zoe's eyes narrowed suspiciously. Leaving the bridge and stepping on to the catwalk to find her two least favourite people in the 'verse standing there was more than a mite unsettling. Her voice was cold but polite. A study in icy calm. "Can I help you?"

Although Zoe kept back what she really wanted to say every muscle was tensed for action should the reply not be to her liking. Curtis Manning Armstrong knew perfectly well that Malcolm Reynolds' second did not trust them. Knew nothing would give her greater pleasure than to send both he and Hobbs into the darkest part of the Black without an EVA. Fortunately Serenity was not in the Black but even if it had been he was confident of his ability to sway the Captain in the direction he needed him to go. The man's loyal but dysfunctional crew would simply follow. It mattered not if they were moaning and bitching all the way. The end *always* justified the means. Right now he was smiling at her simply because he knew it would piss her off. The longer he took to reply the narrower those eyes got. He was just about to figure how much it would take for the tension to snap her clean in two when the Captain's voice reached through the atmosphere thickening between them a second before his firm step presaged the appearance of the man himself. Mal paused at the open hostility not even politely veiled in Zoe's face. His look shifted to observe both men, his whole manner changing in subtle undertones that did not bode well for them or their plan.

"What the good gorram's goin' on here?" He asked quietly.

Manning turned to face the Captain. "We were about to come looking for you, Captain."

His eyebrows rose a notch. "That a fact?" He said mildly, the words elongated in a slow drawl. Noticing an absence his eyes flicked from one man to the other as if encouraging them to make the count with him. "Where's the Preacher?"

"He pointed us in this direction after the tour, said he'd join us later." Manning explained smoothly.

A kind of prickly creepy sensation danced down the Captain's spine but he made no show of it. All kinds of alert now. Then Manning was speaking again, his voice the polished gloss of a politician. Mal resisted the urge to shudder or snatch up his sidearm as he listened. "Your ship will meet our requirements, Captain."

"Still haven't said what this's about."

This time Manning stiffened slightly. "Told you, Captain, transportation."

The way he emphasised the last word was not lost on the Captain. It had been said as if it was some clue only he and the Captain were privy to. "Then best you explain what you want transportin', *dong ma*?"

The two men exchanged a look. "If you will accompany us I believe we can answer that question for you."

Zoe wanted to yell at the Captain not to go, not to trust them, but Manning turned and stared right into her eyes stopping the words forming on her tongue as she hesitated. "Our boss should be waiting at the door. Once you see her," Manning paused significantly then locked eyes again on the Captain. "You'll understand."

"Am I gonna like whatever the gorram that means?"

A flicker of amusement danced over Manning's stone cold lips. "Captain, the decision will still be yours to make."

A curt nod from the Captain was the only reply they got. Zoe watched them like a hawk, Mal indicating they should go down the stairs into the cargo hold and he would follow. The Captain heard and sensed Kaylee coming out of the engine room to see what was happening, was unaware that Wash had done the same. Their little audience exchanging silence glances as Kaylee and Wash leaned on the rail and watched with curious eyes from the catwalk. Simon joined Kaylee just as Mal and Zoe got to the bay door.

"Now," Said the Captain, voice firm and just a shade away from an outright command. "You were sayin'?"

Manning smiled disingenuously. Silent. He was going to enjoy this. Hobbs took a half pace back as if this had been rehersed. Zoe flexed her gun hand and let it gravitate thoughtfully to the handle of her gun. She felt Mal tense but knew he wouldn't call her on it, trusting her to the last breath in his body. Hobbs pressed the door release and as Serenity's ramp lowered, Manning gave the Captain a smug little nod. Zoe wanted to wipe the gorram smirk off his face and strangle him with it. "If you will allow me, Captain Reynolds?"

Mal said nothing. Manning took that as a tacit 'yes, please', and opened the door. To the Captain's surprise a well manicured and coifured Chinese lady stood at the top of the ramp, the elegant flow of the beautiful silk komono only outmatched by her peerless beauty. A dour faced man stood placidly a half pace beside her. Next to the woman he looked like something the cat wouldn't drag in. Throw up maybe but not touch in any other way. The woman now. The woman. That was a whole other thing. Every inch of her was gorram mesmerisiing.

Calmly composed and completely in control of the situation the woman stepped into the hold and ignored everyone but the Captain. The unlovely cargoyle accompanying her hung back but clung to her orbit like an unwholesome shadow. Although he was perfectly clean and had no offending body odour Zoe felt his very presence befoul the air. It took a moment for the Captain to get his breath.

"And you would be?"

Shen Ling gazed intently at the man facing her. The man her brother placed such total faith in. Friendship and affection that she could not fathom though neither were important right now. Her eyes were keen, missing nothing of the Captain's demenour nor anything on the periphery of her vision. Well aware of Zoe's reaction and those of the people watching from the catwalk although she showed no outward sign of being aware of anything but Serenity's Captain. Zoe wondered if she were Companion trained.

"Shen Ling. Chung-li is my brother."

The Captain looked shocked though it was a muted thing, Zoe could read the depth of his surprise as easily as her own. Mal took a moment to get control of himself for the two could not have looked more alike had they come from different species. "And I would know this because..?"

"I took my husband's name when I married, Captain. Kept it after he died."

Mal felt that prickling sensation again. Made him all kinds of not happy. "How'd he die?"

It wasn't perhaps the most tactful of questions but Shen Ling allowed it. In fact she seemed vaguely amused that the Captain would have the temerity to ask. Taking a step closer she paused, eyes locked to his, as she hand delivered her answer. "Painfully."

All the air seemed to evacuate from his lungs, alarm bells going off inside his head yet unable to tear his eyes off her. Something was definitely wrong but he was not sure he could be objective enough to say what it was. That the woman was morbidly creepifying was a moot point. It was her level of control that scared him most. Shen Ling watched his reaction and gave a slow smile but there was no humour in it. The Captain tensed and waited, knowing she hadn't finished.

"Guess I'm a sentamentalist."

Sentimental was the last thing he would have called her. Zoe had the overwhelming urge to draw her firearm and shoot the manipulating *pofu* between the eyes but this wasn't her call, it was the Captain's.

"So," Said the Captain slowly. "This job. I take it Chung-li didn't send for me?"

Everyone held their breath, both in the cargo bay and above. Simon moved to take Kaylee's hand. No one noticed River appear briefly then back track and slip quietly away.

"*Bu qu*, Captain. My brother *is* the job."

The Captain stared at her. Confounded beyond his senses. It was left to his second to ask the question he could not yet voice. "What're you talkin' about?"

"My brother's been kidnapped. Why is immaterial, how is disturbing, but I want him back. Whole. Unharmed and inside a week, *dong ma*?"

For what seemed like an eternity Mal stared at her. Rescuing Chung-li wasn't the problem. *Diyu*. He would do it for free. It was this cold hearted *pofu* of a sister that made him all kinds of hesitant. Warily his eyes narrowed as she closed the last bit of distance between them, her eyes sparking with a dangerous fire that he sensed could turn him to dust quicker than Lot's wife had been turned to a pillar of gorram salt.

"Now I have only one question, Malcolm Reynolds. What would you do, what would you *give* to bring my brother back?"

* * * * *

It hurt. More than waking should ever do to mortal man but this was in no way a normal situation. Shepherd Book opened his eyes then closed them with a groan. The sound muffled behind the tape across his mouth, his movements restricted by the twine tying his hands and feet together. He was in a small space, folded and crammed into one of the many smuggler's hidey holes that made Firefly transports so prized by their owners. Light fractured into broken shafts through the metal grill rammed hard down upon his aching head. He tried to slow the frantic beat of his heart as memory flooded back, the recall a painful distinct bitter taste in his mouth. The Captain. He had to warn him. These people were not what they seemed.

The sense that time was of the essence made him struggle against his bonds but all it did was drive the twine deeper, his wrists now slick with blood, his throat constricting on the angry tirade that wanted so deperately to spill from his mouth. Unholy thoughts cascading like fire and brimstone. So caught up in the fury of the moment was he that it took a moment to realise that someone was leaning face down on the grill above his head. He tried to angle his head to hear the soft almost sibilant words which were the only thing able to slither through the meagre walls of his impromptu prison.

"Don't move!"

He froze. That voice again.

"Cold storage."

River! The Shepherd closed his eyes and felt his hope deflating. Of all the people to find him, couldn't it have been Jayne or the Captain?

"Not frozen," Said River as if imparting something that should lift his spirits. "On ice."

He opened his eyes, struggled to find an angle that would let him look up towards her hidden face. She was shifting above him, getting ready to go he realised. A sense of panic brought him close to hyperventilating, wanting to beg her not to go. Not to leave him unless it was to get help.

"Have to stay here. Too dangerous to move." She cautioned.

How he wished his mouth was not taped. Never had he needed to speak as much as he did now but she seemed so calm, so focused and that was more than a mite unsettling.

"*Zhenjing xialai, wo you shiqing yao zuo*."

Things? What things? Book twisted a little further as motes of disturbed dust caught themselves in the fractured light and drifted down upon his weary head. The only thing it revealed to him was that River was gone, her bare feet making no sound as she crept away as silently as she had come. Book's head was throbbing, his heart aching with the sorrow of knowing he would be unable to help. To be there for his friends. With a little sigh he closed his eyes and did the only thing he could do. He prayed.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*dong ma* = understand? *pofu* = bitch *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

*diyu* = hell *zhenjing xialai* = stay calm *wo you shiqing yao zuo* = I've got things to do

Chapter Text


"WE NEED A PLAN"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was a stilted meeting round the table and Mal couldn't help but feel he was being taken in a direction he in no way wanted to go but how could he leave his friend in enemy hands? No way could he do that. Then there was Shen Ling. As close as he had got to Chung-li the man had never mentioned a sister. Mind, he had never spoken of his family at all. Somehow in Malcolm Reynolds' mind family meant Rafe Connor, the Wellspring Ranch and a little out of the way planet near the Rim of the 'verse called Glory. No way in *diyu* could he imagine a fancy lady like Shen Ling on the Rim of the 'verse.

The silence was not the comfortable ease of friendship. The wear and rubbed edges of people who knew each other inside out, rough and smooth, good and not so good. Oddly enough he missed having Jayne there though knowing what he now knew he was in no hurry to rush the suffering man from his own version of hell to join him in this one. Which brought him to the Preacher. Where in the nine hells was that *baichi* anyway? Fortunately Zoe had left him briefly to make sure Simon and River stayed out of sight. No telling what kind of problems new folk could bring, was always the letting down of defences that allowed the bad to happen unchecked. Mayhap this time they could avoid any near death experiences but the Captain wasn't holding his breath.

"You haven't said what happened to him."

Shen Ling stayed silent a minute or two longer than was polite. The atmosphere in the commons room could be cut with a knife. Not easily but still. All of them were feeling wired, even Kaylee's usually easy going smile had taken a hike. Mal was wishing the rest of them could have followed but he couldn't do that and instinct told him the knowing of it pissed Zoe off more than words could say. "He was captured, taken prisoner. Now he is being held."

The worry her words brought him drove every other thought out of his mind. His mouth had gone dry. "Torture?"

A slight nod. Almost reluctant. Zoe's eyes narrowed at Shen Ling but she held her tongue. Wash wanted to squeeze her shoulder in comfort but forebore. Something about his wife's posture telegraphing that now would be a bad time to distract her.

"*Qu.*"

The Captain's frown deepened. Getting annoyed now. Too little information and far too slow for his liking. "You know who's got him?"

"Know where he is."

The distinction worried Mal. This woman was all kinds of sly, not a decent honest word fell from her lips with conviction and yet he knew she was telling him the truth. It was what she wasn't telling him that bothered him. Not for his own self but his crew because when he went after Chung-li this boat, this crew, this *family* would be going with him and he did not want to put their lives on the line for something that had all the danger signs of a gorram trap. But it was Chung-li and he didn't have it in him not to try. Knowing she knew that twisted him up inside like poison fermenting in his gut. Could see she knew it too, the knowledge in her eyes mocking him to turn away. To deny a debt that bound him soul deep. Not gonna happen but perhaps he could mitigate the cost? "Where's that?"

More silence. The Captain was getting dead sick of the not talking.

"You want help to get him out you gotta give me somethin' here. If not the why an' wherefore at least the co-ordinates. You say you know where they're holdin' Chung-li, prove it."

"We will show you, Captain."

A kind of mental gasp gripped the room. Mal could feel the way his people tensed around him, Zoe's tension multipled as everyone else became equally as disturbed and wary. Mal shook his head, eyes glued to hers as if she was too dangerous to take his eyes off. Now why the good gorram would he think that? "Not gonna happen. As you can see I got me a goodly crew, not fixin' on leading no one into no blind alley, *dong ma*?"

"You will be well compensated for your trouble, Captain."

Her words chilled him, beyond anger, beyond a mix of loyalties that flowed through his veins thicker than blood. "Ain't about the money an' you know it."

She took a step towards him. The air stale and hushed as every molecule of life seemed to hold its' breath. "It's always about the money."

Shen Ling's words made him feel dirty, used, uncomfortable in ways he had never thought he could feel. "Who are you?"

Her smile was smooth, luxurious and completely disingenous. It oiled its' away across a face that had never known a wrinkle, beneath eyes that had never captured the light of a honest smile, lips that only formed to fashion still more elaborate and deadly lies. She reminded him of a gorram cobra, her slight swaying body almost as mesmerising as those unblinking eyes. Unblinking? Mal took a breath, then another. Forcing oxygen into thinning lungs, blinking to clear his vision, let his brain unravel the knots of thoughts that were not his own. With an effort he turned his head. Rutting *diyu*, where was everyone? It was just him and her, standing on a nondescript part of the decking he could not quite place. That was if he was even still on his ship.

"Where are we?"

His confusion amused her. "I repeat my earlier question." Her voice coaxed in a low tone as sinuous as the moving coils of a snake. Had she bitten him already? Filled him with her slow acting poison or was the venom only for show? A more subtle way of killing him? He shook his head and the room solidified around him again. Zoe staring at him, the anxiety in her eyes bringing him to attention quicker than the words now flowing from the woman. "I need your answer, Captain. My brother told me he trusted you. That you would come for him. Bring him home. If you refuse you must do so now and we will leave."

He blinked. Stunned. Hurt beyond the telling that she would think he could even do that. "*Bu qu*, I'll do it, that ain't the problem."

His tongue felt thick, thoughts woolley, mouth full of cotton wool. What was wrong with him? Zoe's voice put foundation back beneath his feet. "Sir?"

Mal managed to break eye contact with Shen Ling and look at his second. "Yeah?"

"*Wo keyi gen ni tan yixia ma*?"

He was about to nod and tell her to go ahead but the look in Zoe's eyes made it clear she wanted that word in private. The Captain looked at Shen Ling. "You'll excuse us a moment?"

Not waiting for the woman to agree he stepped outside, Zoe close to him as any shadow. The others looked part confused and part alarmed. Zoe didn't like intervening but neither did she like the thought of them rushing off to rescue the Captain's friend only to find it was something else entirely. She moved him along the catwalk until they were well out of earshot of the commons room. Wouldn't help if the folk she was wary of overheard their little conversation. "I don't trust her, Mal."

He did not react to the use of his first name. Something she only did when she needed to anchor him. "Zoe, *wo bu xinren tamen* either but you heard what she said. It's Chung-li."

"That's the point, isn't it? We've no proof that a word she says is true. Plus, they don't exactly share the family genes do they, sir?"

A tight little smile paid a fleeting visit to his lips, mind bright with memories. The solid comforting bulk of his friend smiling gently in his mind's eye. An image incongruous with their current dilemna and no way reminiscent of the beautiful willowy figure of Shen Ling. Outwardly she was all beauty and grace but Cheng-li's grace came from within. The two as diametrically opposed as light and dark, night and day. As different as yin and yang but were they complimentary? Two halves or two opposites? Then he was all grim consideration. "What if it is Chung-li? What if those gorram feds have him an'..."

"Feds, sir? I didn't hear anythin' about feds. Did I miss a conversation?"

Mal was flustered for a moment then huffed. "Fine, maybe not feds, but who else would have him?"

"What about Cyrus White?"

"I thought about that but if it was him why wait this long? An' why go for Chung-li? His quarrel's with Rafe. It don't make sense."

"Maybe he couldn't get to Rafe. You did say White was a patient man, sir."

"That was what Thomas said, somethin' about the politician thing. It was how he made that whole land grab thing so nice an' legal. I said he was a lyin' cheatin' *tamade hundan*..."

"Must be fancy core speak." Zoe muttered.

He scowled. Irritated by the calculated flippancy even as it brought his mind back to the matter at hand. "I can't not do this, Zoe. You know that don't you?"

The sigh was heavy. Reluctant and pained. Now her face reflected the worry she would not show in front of their unwelcome guests. "*Wo zhidao* but I don't like this an' don't trust them. There's a whole lot not bein' said, Mal. *Women xuyao yige jihua*."

He nodded, knowing she was worried as he was. "I know but I have a plan."

If anything she looked more worried now than ever. "A Plan?"

His smile just notched the worry up a level or two. "Not nothin' for you to worry about, Zoe. Far as I can tell Shen Ling needs me to go get her brother. Simple transport job, what could go wrong?"

Zoe's eyes narrowed, her look hardening. How often would those words come back to haunt her? The blaze of his smile was like the flash of lightening blinding her just before the coming storm.

* * * * *

Simon Tam couldn't help it, he was more than uncomfortable. River turned a soft radiant smile on him and for just a moment time stood still. His heart lurched with emotion, overcome by his love for her. The planets stopped in their orbits. Whole worlds held their breath.

"It's perfect, Simon."

The doctor looked as if he had swallowed a lemon. "*Mei you dongxi shi wanmei*."

Forgotten on his bunk Jayne Cobb sat up. "Huh, not my crazy idea."

River smiled at Jayne then tilted her head at her brother. As if the answer was obvious. "They won't look here. Quarantine."

Jayne began to look worried. "Quaran - what? I ain't contagious."

"Well yes, as a matter of fact you are Jayne, just not..." He waved his hand between River and himself then realised what he was doing and dropped his hand. "I mean, you have to have physical contact. Intimate physical contact to... you know... pass anything on."

The mercenary looked stuck between anger and horror. "I still think this is a dumb idea."

"We just have to hide out a little longer."

Jayne and Simon exchanged a look over River's head and for one frightening moment the same worried thought was going through both minds.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *baichi* = idiot *qu* = yes (lit. go) *dong ma* = understand?

*bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *wo keyi gen ni tan yixia ma* = can I have a word with you?

*wo bu xinren tamen* = I don't trust them *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard

*wo zhidao* = I know *women xuyao yige jihua* = we need a plan

*mei you dongxi shi wanmei* = nothing is perfect

Chapter Text


"ONE JUST MAN"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Such a cryptic message but what did it mean? Inara Serra stared at the screen. She had completed her last appointment when the blinking light had caught her eye. She noticed the incoming message was in privacy mode. So. Text only. Not unusual but rare enough to begin sounding a muted alarm. The wave signature was definitely Serenity's but the content surprised her. Inara blinked back her confusion then stared in stunned silence as she slowly made sense of the words.

The Companion caught her breath and took a closer look. Ever since the Anglo-Sino Accord had been signed under Unification the official languages of the Core and all the planets under its' hegemony had been Chinese and English. But this, this was neither. Inara only knew the tongue because of her profession. Multilingual, her talents covered many areas of expertise. The Spanish flowed through her mind in an elegant haunting tapestry, the words of the ancient Spanish mystic brought an ache to her heart. Yet, beyond the undeniable romantic flourish and flattery was a code, it had to be. It was the only thing that made sense. A code not encrypted just couched in the language of love. This code that was not a code was meant for sharp eyes and keener senses to decipher and Inara Serra, Registered Companion that she was, had both.

Pulling her pilot's chair closer to the console, Inara peered more closely at the screen determined to find out just how much *goushi* Serenity and her dysfunctional crew had got themselves into. And why the cryptic wave was being sent in the form of a venerable erotic poem from the distant annals of Earth-That-Was.

* * * * *

He was tired. Every muscle ached and every joint burned. The shackles were the least of it. The terror that was meant to be instilled nullified by his obdurate serene point of centre. A disingenous smile teased lips whose humour existed in the twisted atmosphere of the ninth hell. Chung-li knew it. Could smell the sulphour, almost taste the brimstone evaporating what little moisture remained in his mouth. His senses were sharp, aware, but his consciousness would not be contained within the flaring walls of pain that bound him to the physical. His tormentor thought the shackles imprisoned and neutered his strength. He was wrong. And Chung-li would gladly die before he would teach him the difference.

"I am impressed." The voice mildly opined. The figure moving slowly out of shadow, eyes never leaving the bound man's face. "Yes, very impressed. Most men would have broken by now. Eager to speak." The man paused as if in deep thought, his forefinger resting against his lips as if considering something he had not thought about before. "You are strong. *Wangu*. In this you are alike, yes?"

Chung-li remained silent. He knew he would not be killed. The taste of the bargain hurt more than the torture. To see what he had seen, suffer not only the shame but the incredible sorrow in that discovery... it had almost unmade him. But weakness would not help his friend and regret would not untie the shackles that bound him. Understanding would not remove the monster from this *diyu*. If the Devil had a mortal face it was the one staring back at him now.

"You are *yonggan*." The words were whispered. Quiet and soft. Those beady eyes intent and probing. "Courageous even." The man straightened. "But you will not die. Even when it is the thing you want most in the 'verse. A bargain, yes. The price? Not so high I think."

He wanted to rail at him. Scatter a diatribe of obscenities but holding his tongue gave Chung-li all the power. It didn't matter a good gorram if his enemy deluded himself that it was otherwise. In fact, it was better if he believed his own blood encrusted myth.

"This is not a time for brave, courageous men." The voice continued. Softly, almost soothing in that insincere descant intended to lull him into dropping his defences. A chink in the armour to elevate his fear but Chung-li did not fear.

Then, to Chung-li's surprise the man stepped back and two of his bully boys moved forward. Not to weild knives or fists this time, nor to attach electrodes to his body. Instead the manacles and shackles were unfastened and he was allowed to slow his collapse to the floor by strength of will alone. In this way only, his body obeyed him. The wizzened man peered down at him, light reflecting and hiding those beady little malicious eyes. Then the man straightened, words passing over Chung-li's head as orders were given to clean him up, tend his wounds, then put him in a cell. He did not fight them off when they came for him. Showed no sign of responding as they cleaned, dressed and stitched up the wounds that criss crossed his chest and back. Made no murmur as they added a stinging compound for the sheer joy of getting a rise out of him. He gave them nothing. Murmuring darkly among themselves they flung him in the cell and cycled the lock. He did not care. He was the one place he needed to be.

Quietly, solemnly, Chung-li flexed his muscles. Muscle group by muscle group, then individually, while he schooled his mind in preparation. The first battle had been lost but not the war. Now the enemy was off guard. Lulled into complacency. He would bide his time, embrace the centre of calm that guarded his warrior spirit. Gather the inner strength like a mantle around him. For he knew he would only get one chance and he must be ready when his brother called.

* * * * *

Simon stared at his sister. "Are you *shenjingbing, mei mei*?"

His sister smiled at him. Jayne just looked nonplussed. "What are ya talkin' about?"

The siblings ignored him which was beginning to annoy the hell out of him. Simon licked his lips nervously. He dropped his voice. "I can't believe you did that."

"I'm a genius."

"River, we can't draw Inara into this."

"Can't shut her out."

He blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Poor Simon, too slow to join the dots."

Her softly mocking voice infuriated him. "Don't do that!" He snapped. It took a moment to calm himself again. "Just explain to me how having Inara share this nightmare will help."

Jayne was frowning now. "Nightmare? What gorram nightmare?"

"Divide and conquer, Simon."

The mercenary got to his feet. He'd had enough of crazy for one day. To his surprise Simon wheeled round and pointed to the bed. "Sit!"

Reacting to the unexpected tone of command Jayne sat before he realised what he was doing, then anger caught up with him and a dangerous light flared in his eyes. Before he could countermand Simon and knock the snotty doctor on his Core-bred ass River intervened. "Sssh, won't be long now."

Confused Jayne stared at her. The only good thing to come out of the Tams annoying presence was that for the first time since he'd been infected his dick didn't hurt.

* * * * *

Even with the course set and knowing it would take a couple of days to reach their destination Wash could not relax let alone sleep. Everything that could be wrong multiplied in the back of his mind. The feelings of foreboding only exacerbated by his beautiful and deadly wife's tension and thinly veiled anger. He had tried to distract her with wit, questions and sex. Nothing worked. It was like a shell with too much empty inside. "*Bao bei*, this has to stop."

Her wired introspection paused. Zoe's dark eyes considered her husband. They were the only two on the bridge. Zoe didn't like leaving the Captain with those shifty *wangba dans* but she didn't think she could hold her tongue another second. Coming to find Wash was as close to normal as she could get right now. Wash put on his puppy dog expression and tilted his head, the plea in his heart reflected in every line of his body and face. He was aiming for adorable but would settle for pathetic if that was what worked.

"*Qing*?"

"*Duibuqi, zhangfu*. I just can't believe the Cap'n's followin' that *pofu*. It's like every lick of sense has been siphoned out of his ruttin' brain through his ears."

It was on the tip of Wash's tongue to make a really smart uncomplimentary remark but he managed to bite it back in time. The mood Zoe was in right now she was as likely to trash him as hear him out. The Captain might be borderline crazy or a completely flipped head case but while Zoe might think it she wasn't about to let anyone else say it. Had to be that whole war buddy thing. Once that would have raised all kinds of green eyed monsters but now it just made Wash sad. "I'm not sayin' I don't understand the Cap'n 'cause I do but there has to be another way. A way to check this out before putting our heads in the noose."

"Noose?"

Wash nodded and slowly drew her into the circle of his arms. Slowly, as if any quick or overt move would kick in defences that would kick him out. "Yeah, noose, you know like that whole hangman thing."

She stared blankly at him. But hell, Zoe didn't need him coherent to make love. Wash drew her on to his lap and gently kissed her shoulder but never broke eye contact.

"There must be a way we can contact Glory. Send a wave to Rafe and find out whether Chung-li is still there. If he is I say we send that lyin' *pofu* an' her henchmen out into atmo."

Zoe gave him a small smile, but the worry in her eyes cancelled out the warm feel of her in his arms. "Can't."

"*Weishenme bu*?"

"Cap'n says the com's compromised."

"*Shenme*?" Surprise, then outrage rang through the Pilot. He sat up abruptly, nearly displacing Zoe from his lap. "Why didn't he say anythin'? I'm the pilot, I should know these things!"

"*Zhenjing xialai*, honey. Cap'n thought it best not to alarm anyone."

"Alarm?" Wash's voice rose an octave or two while Zoe tried to calm then distract him. "Who's alarmed?"

* * * * *

The atmosphere in the commons area was tense even though Captain Malcolm Reynolds exuded a calm he certainly didn't feel. He kept to the niceties of their business arrangement, his eyes keeping track of every move Shen Ling made aboard his boat while keeping a civil tongue in his head. Kaylee could almost taste the undercurrent. Fear quickened her pulse, brought moisture up through her trembling pores, but the Captain kept her steady. Something awful comforting about having a man in charge who didn't buckle when the pressure mounted. The Captain sipped his coffee slowly, his dark eyes angled over the rim at their 'guests'. Hobbes seemed to find the inactivity almost physically painful while Manning acted as if there was nothing untoward.

Mal was pretty sure Shen Ling had done something to him. It irked that he couldn't be sure exactly what it was. It was almost like being hypnotised except it didn't last as long, just a couple of heartbeats frozen in some other tableau over which he had no control. The creepy feeling it left behind heightened the tingling feeling in his back brain that told him she was all kinds of trouble. Was confused as *diyu* that her words had all the weight of truth behind them even when he knew she was lying. How she managed it he couldn't say but this was one mystery that would only be solved by letting it play out. The Captain released a slow cautious sigh. This was one hell of a time for his mercenary to be off his feet. So he stayed sharp and tried to hide how helpless he felt.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*goushi* = crap/dog shit *wangu* = stubborn *diyu* = hell *yonggan* = brave

*shenjingbing* = crazy *mei mei* = little sister *bao bei* = precious/treasure

*wangba dan* = fucking bastard *qing* = please *duibuqi* = thanks

*zhangfu* = husband *pofu* = bitch *weishenme bu* = why not

*shenme* = what? *zhenjing xialai* = calm down

Chapter Text

"PATH OF THE VULTURE"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

The words rolled off Inara's tongue with all the quality and flavour of a fine wine.

"Cuando mas alto subia,

Deslumbroseme la vista,

Y la mas fuerte conquista

En escuro se hacia;

Mas por ser de amor el lance

Di un ciego y oscuro salto,

Y fui tan alto, tan alto,

Que le di a la caza alcance."

The romantic writings of St John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, flowed through her mind and transcribed themselves into the walls of her heart. Food for the soul.

"The more I rose into the height

More dazzled, blind and lost I spun,

The greatest conquest ever won

I won in blindness, like the night.

Because love urged me on my way

To make that mad, blind, reckless leap

That soared me up so high and steep

That in the end I siezed my prey."

Heart skipping a beat the Companion forced herself to read it not once but over and over again as if somewhere in the repetition the meaning would crystalise. The rising into the height could mean the Black, hitting atmo, but why 'dazzled, blind and lost'? And if 'the greatest conquest every won' was the 'prey' that meant it wasn't love but something else. Inara knew the answer was staring her straight in the face, all she had to do was see it.

* * * * *

"This is a bad idea. No scratch that Mal, this is *terrible* idea." Said Wash masking his depth of concern with not so funny humour. "What made you think of goin' along with that woman's plan?" The pause was not long enough for the Captain to have answered if he wanted to but was enough to underline the point the pilot was making. "Oh, I forgot!" Wash threw his hands in the air. "You *weren't* thinkin' were you?"

The Captain looked like he had swallowed a lemon but the angry retort Wash had been expecting didn't come. And that worried him too because it meant the Captain knew how *yuchun* this was and was still going to do it. Wash wondered why he bothered but he knew why, because wherever the Captain went Zoe would follow. *Diyu*, Mal wouldn't even have to ask her.

"*Wo bu zaihu*, Wash, I have to go."

It was just him, Mal and Zoe on Serenity's bridge. Wash was glad that the Captain had left Chung-li's creepy sister and henchmen in the commons area but nothing about this felt right. He looked at Zoe but she wasn't saying anything. "Am I the only one not happy with this?"

"Never said I was happy with it, Wash." Said the Captain tightly. His tone solemn. "But I can't walk away not when Chung-li needs me."

"We only have her word for it that he's even in trouble, Cap'n."

Mal flashed Wash an annoyed look. Zoe watched and listened, her concentration honed in on what Mal was not putting into words. His body language raising the hair on the back of her neck. "Not havin' that conversation, Wash. Way it's explained you won't have to land just bring Serenity in orbit. I'll go down in the spare shuttle with Shen Ling an' her boys. If this ain't what it seems no sense in all of us getting caught in somethin' we can't fight our way out of."

His response prompted a dark response from his second. "Don't like it, sir."

The Captain didn't sugar coat the pill. "I'm all aware no one likes this plan. *Diyu* I don't like it my own self but I ain't leavin' a friend rottin' in no *jianyu, dong ma?*"

Her lips compressed into a thin line. The Captain wouldn't be the Captain if he didn't think like that but going down with just Shen Ling and her men was not an option Zoe could accept. "If we're gonna do this best we all go, sir."

Mal shook his head. Adamant now. He knew she was thinking safety in numbers but wasn't prepared to gamble with anyone else's life. He didn't trust their new employer but he couldn't deny the debt he owed her brother. *If* Chung-li was her brother. The woman had imparted more than a few personal details that only someone close to the Chinaman would have known but even if he had solid proof she was lying through her back teeth Mal would have gone. Chung-li was in trouble, needed him, and not no way would he leave a man behind. "Shen Ling said that wouldn't be necessary. I'll go down with them, maybe take Book if the Preacher's a mind to go, speakin' of which where is he?"

Zoe and Wash exchanged a look. Wash began to frown. "I haven't seen Book since he showed them around."

"Perhaps he's helpin' Kaylee?" Said Zoe, though the tone of her voice made it sound like she didn't believe it. The Captain's expression got a little grimmer.

"Wash, set course best speed. Sooner we get where we're goin' the sooner we complete this job an' get back in the Black, *dong ma*?"

The Captain decided he would go find the Shepherd his own self and had just reached the hatch when Zoe's words forestalled him. "What about Jayne?"

"You really want the two of us coming back with a dose, Zoe? I seen the pain doc put him through curin' that little ailment an' I ain't in no way masochistic enough to risk that."

Despite the situation a quirky smile tugged at Zoe's lips. "I don't think you can catch it that way, sir. Simon said somethin' about *intimate* contact..."

Mal waved his hands around his ears. "Whoah, way too much information. Jayne stays in his bunk 'til the doc gives the all clear."

"What if he doesn't?" Asked Wash.

The Captain shot him a *don't you know when to shut up* look. "Then he stays a mite longer."

They watched the Captain leave then Zoe put a hand on her husband's shoulder and kissed his cheek. "You shouldn't push him, *bao bei*."

"I know, it was just funny."

* * * * *

Chung-li knew he was in a tough spot but it did not worry him. You had to get in really close to draw the fangs of the serpent so that his venom could not kill you. The pain was little more than a minor distraction. The chains a sop to lull the enemy into a false sense of security. He could tell that his calm acceptance was annoying his captor. Knew the man wanted to make him scream and cry out in agony, to twist in the delerium of a pain he could not control nor vanquish. But Chung-li was a master of mind and body - a spiritual warrior - and this pale echo of evil, while terrible enough, was not quite the expert he claimed.

Even as the knife came closer in the harsh light, Chung-li did not flinch. He knew he would not be killed. They were toying with him. While every one of them waited for the main event.

* * * * *

He found her in the engine room, grease and oil spotted her face. Her hair ruffled, her face sweaty. For a moment Mal watched his mechanic at work, a smile of affection easing the burden on his heart. Some instinct told her he was there. "Hey, Cap'n."

The Captain smirked as she slid out from under the engine housing and couldn't resist wiping the smudge off her nose with his thumb as she got to her feet, dirty rag wiping the worst of the grease off her hands. "How's my girl?"

She smiled up at him. "She'll do fine, Cap'n, engine's practically purrin'. Long as you don't want a fast burn over a long haul she'll out perform any ship in her class an' some as think they're better on'y we both know they ain't."

Mal laughed and drew her into a hug, rocking back on his heels as he drew her close. "I was talkin' about you, *mei mei*." He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, arms wrapped protectively around her. "How're you doin'? Seems everyone else got a ton of unhelpful advice for their Cap'n, how about you?"

Her smile faltered slightly then like the sun breaking through cloud she dazzled him. If he could bottle her faith in him then he swore he'd be gorram bullet proof. Wished sometimes he was just for her sake. Girl worried way too much and at times that troubled him. "Reckon you know what you're doin'."

That amused the Captain, his arms tightening just a fraction as if to shield her from all the unpleasant things in the 'verse only he knew he couldn't. Releasing her he glanced around. "Was wonderin' what happened to the Shepherd." His eyes came back to rest on her. "You seen him?"

She shook her head.

The Captain tried to hide the unsettled feeling stirring in his gut. "Well best I go find him. You stay here and do whatever Wash asks, *dong ma*?"

Mal looked everywhere he could think of but there was no sign of Book. For a moment he toyed with going to check on Jayne then figured that must be where his missing Preacher had gone. Would be just like the man to want to keep a weathered eye on the mercenary. He was but a dozen paces from Jayne's bunk when Manning came and found him. "Cap'n? It's time."

With a nod he followed the man back to the commons area and told himself that this was the best way. The Captain would not endanger his crew and if Shen Ling was right about this not needing a strong force of arms it would be straight in and out. Hardly worth working himself into a sweat over. Before Zoe had a chance to pin his ears back they'd be back with Chung-li. Easy. What could go wrong?

* * * * *

Even though Zoe knew why Mal wouldn't take her with him she was quietly seething. Wash felt inordinately relieved and happy, his arms snaking round his wife's waist to hold her as they watched the spare shuttle detach and head for the planet below. Zoe's voice sounded oddly small to his ear. "Did I tell you I don't like this plan?"

Wash nodded, silent and quietly jubilant though he knew that would not last. His eyes big and round but watchful as he monitored the little craft's descent. More grateful that he could put into words that Mal wasn't putting his wife and unborn child into danger but not so happy with his wife's response. The Captain might be thinking to go without her but it would take more than an order or two for her to leave him behind. Reluctantly Wash had agreed with her decision, not having it in him to oppose her. Besides, she had made a good case and he couldn't deny it was a sounder plan than the Captain's. He glanced at his beautiful but deadly wife though that did not stop him worrying about her. "You know what to do."

Zoe nodded, kissed him, then hurried off the bridge, her steps just short of a run. Simon opened Jayne's hatch with relief and looked up at Zoe's grim expression. "I really don't think this is going to work..."

She cut him off. "Not much carin' what you think, doctor. We're doin' this."

Simon climbed out, River just a step behind him. Her face bright and eager as if going on a Summer outing. Behind them Jayne was muttering and cursing. "I wanna come, you know I'm the best gorram shot."

"Jayne," Zoe leaned down into the hatchway. "Someone needs to stay with Serenity in case Shen Ling and her people have anythin' planned for the ship. A back-up plan's no good if it gets compromised before we can pull it off, *dong ma*?"

"Yeah, but I ain't pregnant."

Zoe huffed, River put a hand over her mouth and Simon smiled then shook his head. Crazy. This was what his life had become. "Just get yourself up to the bridge an' monitor the com otherwise fatherin' children'll be the last of your worries. Remember, unless you hear from Inara, the Cap'n or me you keep strict radio silence, *dong ma*?"

They could hear his mumbling and grumbling as the mercenary stomped up the ladder. "Yeah, I heard. Ain't deaf."

Zoe was about to follow Jayne when River tugged urgently at her sleeve. Pausing, Zoe frowned at her wondering what was wrong now but River did not say anything. Simon shrugged, he didn't know either but automatically hurried after his sister. Zoe followed then skidded to an abrupt halt when Simon stopped suddenly. Frowning she peered over his shoulder as the doctor dropped to his knees. A couple of feet in front of Simon was River, the girl kneeling on the metal deck plates, her fingers curling through the holes of a metal grill. Seeing what she intended Simon immediately began to help, nearly dropping the grill when a distinctive fuzzy head of grey hair lifted into view. Zoe was all kinds of alarmed to see Shepherd Book's face staring up at her, duct tape fastened over his mouth and congealed blood down the left side of his face.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*yuchun* = stupid *diyu* = hell *wo bu zaihu* = I don't care *jianyu* = prison

*dong ma* = understand? *bao bei* = precious/treasure *mei mei* = little sister

Chapter Text


"DEVIL'S LAIR"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Shepherd Book couldn't help glowering. His face was still painful from where Zoe had ripped the duct tape off his mouth but it was River he was glaring at. They were all in the infirmary, Simon carefully stitching the cut on Book's head. "You should have let me out. I could have helped, gone with the Captain."

"*Bu qu*." Said River, shaking her head.

Zoe frowned. "You knew Book was tied up?"

She nodded. "Had to stay, keep the illusion intact."

"Told ya, she's crazy." Jayne grumbled. Everyone ignored him.

"River," Said Zoe, her voice even and calm. "Why did you do that?"

"Because you would have stopped him and he has to go."

"Go? Who are we talkin' about?"

"She means the Cap'n don't you River?"

River nodded, relieved that she did not have to spell it out for Zoe but also worried. Just not about what they would expect. Wash still didn't get it.

"You could have just told us, River."

"No I couldn't. Captain's the key, only one who can fit in the lock and open it."

Shepherd Book winced as Simon tied off the stitching then applied a sterile dressing. The doctor gave him an apologetic look but the Preacher hardly noticed. He was mulling over River's words. "What do you mean, the only one who could open the lock?"

Bright over-sharp eyes looked back at the Preacher then River looked from one anxious face to another, drawing them all to her until everyone's attention was on the youngest Tam. "If anyone else had gone with him it wouldn't have worked."

Zoe was giving her a hard look. "*Wo bu dong*, you're not makin' much sense River. Why wouldn't it have worked?"

"Yeah, at least the Cap'n wouldn't be walkin' into a gorram trap." Added Jayne sourly. The mercenary looked mighty pissed off but whether it was because of River taking the decision out of their hands or worry for the Captain wasn't clear.

"River, what are you talking about?"

She glanced at her brother then back at the others. Wash held his breath, peripherally aware of Kaylee worming in closer to hear what was going on.

"Chung-li is bait."

Kaylee gasped but Zoe had not moved a muscle, not a flicker of anything on her face to relieve the stony look fastened on the young genius. It made the Shepherd think she had known as much from the start.

"If we had gone with the Captain we'd be in the same trap. Can't get out if you don't leave someone on the outside to open the door."

"Huh," Grumbled the mercenary. "Thought ya said Mal was the key. How're we gonna get in an' get him out?"

River smiled almost affectionately at him which made the big man squirm then glare at her. Gorram girl wasn't right in the head. Was gonna get them all killed.

"We're not going in the door. It'll be like Christmas!" She said suddenly cheerful, the wrongness of it setting more than a few teeth on edge.

"I ain't goin' down no gorram chimney!" Growled Jayne.

Everybody started talking at once. "*Bizui*!"

The sudden crack of command in River's voice silenced them all. The girl nodded once, her face suddenly solemn as a grave and all grown up. For a split second they saw a hundred per cent woman staring back at them, a light and fire in her eyes that held them in thrall.

"I know what I'm doing and they don't want him dead." She paused for a single heartbeat, everyone hanging on her every word. "Yet."

Very very quietly Kaylee asked the question simmering unspoken in the crew's minds, her voice trembling. "You know who's got him?"

River nodded. Zoe held her breath, only the feel of Wash's hand in hers giving a hard squeeze kept her grounded. "The vulture."

For a moment no one spoke. Shepherd Book looked over River's head and met Zoe's eyes. "*Wode ma*." This was worse than he had thought.

Tight lipped and so angry she had to force the word out between gritted teeth, Zoe spat the name out like the curse of the Devil's spawn that is was. "Niska."

Kaylee gasped and put a hand over her mouth, tears welling up in her eyes in a watery glaze. River gave a hard enigmatic smile, everything that had been girlish about her was gone leaving behind something - someone - that made them think they had never really known River Tam at all. The woman standing in her place was composed, everything about her sharp and focused with a deadly intent. Coiled and ready to strike. A smile flashed a brittle warning across that pale face. A look so close to triumphant revenge that the Angel of Death would have quailed at the look in her eyes. An almost manic grin held them in stunned silence. "No power in the verse can stop us!"

* * * * *

Mal followed Shen Ling's directions to the letter, settling Shuttle 2 on a relatively flat apron of rock on Deimos. The whole gorram planet looked like an abandoned quarry only it didn't look like it had anything worth mining on it to begin with. A more sorry assed place he couldn't think of. There was nothing to see but rock and dust. No soil to speak of and not nothing growing in that bleak and empty place. His eyes narrowed as he slowly scanned the area, a bit confused and mystified if he was being truthsome. What the good gorram was this? If it was a joke he wasn't laughing. "Shen Ling, I thought we were gonna rescue your brother?"

"We are."

Something in her reply made him look at her more closely. "What ain't you tellin' me?"

A slow smile warmed her disingenous face with false humour and bon homie. Mal had seen through enough masks to know that for this woman at least there was nothing of value underneath it. "*Zaijian*?"

He did not look surprised. Disappointed maybe but not surprised. The Captain noticed Manning and Hobbes had their sidearms out. "*Weishenme* Shen Ling? What's in it for you?"

Shen Ling nodded to Manning and watched as the Captain was disarmed. A rough shove and he was moving towards a large outcrop of rocks, only as they came right up to it he noticed a cunningly concealed door cut into the rock. Raising his eyebrows Mal felt an uneasy stir in his gut. What the hell was going on here? He looked at Shen Ling. "This has nothing to do with Chung-li, does it?"

A little harsh laugh seemed to echo in the cold air as if the very atmosphere could hold and expand sound. Amplifying his own stupidity in trusting her. Made everything around him feel more than a mite artificial and surreal. "You really aren't very bright are you, Captain Reynolds?" Shen Ling paused as she let the familiarity of her words strike a chord. "Oh yes, I've met Patience. Met a few other colourful characters you've managed to alienate in your time."

Her words made him go cold. "Why? Why all the play actin'?"

Shen Ling raised her elegant eyebrows. "You think this is an act? As for Patience, Badger, Harkan and every other low life you managed to piss off that I could track down there's an old saying - 'know thy enemy'." She paused, shrugged, then let her face harden again. "I was just doing my homework, Captain."

Manning removed something from his jacket pocket and fiddled with it. A low grinding sound made Mal snap his head round to see what was happening just as a section of the rock face swung open on a carefully engineered pivot. Had his situation not been so dire the Captain would have admired the ingenuity of it. Hobbs shoved him hard in the back and Mal stumbled through the opening, the door sealing shut behind them. At first it seemed too dark to see but after a moment or two his eyes adjusted. Lights set into the walls guiding a rough hewn path that sloped downwards. Deimos was well named. Idly Mal wondered which of the nine hells he had been consigned to and whether he would ever look out on the wide 'verse again.

* * * * *

Everybody wanted to talk. Had an opnion. But River ignored them all. She was on a timetable. Turning to Wash she grabbed his hand earning a dark scowl from Zoe which River ignored. "Come on, clock's ticking. The Devil is in the detail."

Angry now, Zoe was a hair's breadth from snatching River's hand away and demanding answers but Simon slipped imbetween them. "I think maybe we should go along with the plan for now."

She glared at him then pushed passed the doctor to follow River and Wash to the bridge, the rest of the crew coming up behind her. Wash was puzzled when instead of being urged to set a course River showed him what she had done. For a moment Wash just stared at the blinking light on his console. Zoe looked at her in alarm. "What is it?"

River ignored her and smiled at Wash who slowly grinned back, the tension easing out of him as he looked at his wife. "It's a signal, a tracking device." He paused to check the co ordinates they were picking up. "Unless I'm much mistaken we now know exactly where the Captain landed the shuttle."

All of sudden River's actions made more sense but still it irritated Zoe something bad that she had not been let in on the plan. "Okay, let's go an'..."

River cut her off. "No! We have to wait."

"What for? Hell to freeze over?" Snarled Jayne impatiently. Now his John Thomas wasn't causing him pain he couldn't wait to unleash some death and destruction.

River tilted her head as if listening for something. A second later Wash's attention was diverted. He looked up in surprised. "We're bein' hailed."

"*Shenme*? Who is it?"

"It's Inara."

Everyone looked at River. She shrugged nonchalently. "We need the other shuttle."

* * * * *

Mal had a bad feeling about this but right now there was nothing he could do but go along with it. As they went deeper it grew warmer, the air stifling or maybe it was his gorram imagination. Not that he let it show how unsettled he was feeling. And didn't that lying *pofu* Shen Ling look like the cat that got the gorram cream? After ten minutes of slow winding descent the tunnel widened out into a rough hewn room carved out of solid rock but that was not what caught and held the Captain's attention. Ignoring Adelei Niska, Malcolm Reynolds' stared in anguished horror at a sight he had hoped never to see. Chung-li was hanging from a hook in the centre of the room, his arms above his head, the manacles clipped to the big heavy meat hook suspended from the rocky ceiling. His clothes were ragged, blood splattered and hanging off him in strips. His skin glistening with perspiration but his eyes bright and oddly calm. Fury roared in the Captain's ears, forgetting his own predicament in his concern for his friend.

Moving forward with unanticipated speed, the Captain's right fist connected solidly with Niska's jaw, his head snapping back before Manning and Hobbs could grab hold of Mal and knock him to the ground. Niska staggered to his feet, a thin trickle of blood running from his nose and mouth but eyes sparkling with malicious delight. The smile returned to the *liumang's* face as he slowly brushed the dust off his suit and glanced at Shen Ling. He dipped his head towards her in what might have resembled old time courtesy but for the circumstances. She gave a short curt nod back, an acknowledgement no more. Her eyes flicking to her brother then back to Niska.

The old man's smile seemed to deepen as he straightened and lifted his head back, the light reflecting off his glasses and momentarily hiding his eyes. "You have delivered your promise. Because of this, your reputation it is solid."

"My brother?"

"Ah yes." Niska turned and clapped his hands. Two men came out of the shadows and lowered Chung-li so that his feet could touch the ground. Shen Ling watched them remove the manacles, no expression or emotion on her face. "You will of course be well paid."

Shen Ling said nothing in response but walked over to Chung-li who was now kneeling, head down as he caught his breath. The air being drawn rythmically deep into his diaphram to oxygenate mucles as well as lungs. When he raised his eyes to meet hers she inwardly flinched but showed no outward sign. Niska waved a hand and his men eased Manning and Hobbs off the Captain. Silently they gravitated back to Shen Ling, ready to help her with her brother. Niska looked down at the Captain and watched with satisfaction as his men dragged the man to his feet. The Captain saw more of Niska's men drifting out of the shadows and tried to ignore the glitter of happy excitement in Niska's eyes. "I think we have much to talk about, yes?"

The Captain tried not to wince where several heavy blows had cracked a rib or two as well as almost closing his left eye. "If you're aimin' to quote any more of that Shan Yu *goushi* I'm gonna cancel my book subscription. Demand a refund."

The old man chuckled, the pleasure on his face at odds with his favourite past time of torturing people. "Always with the jokes." He paused a beat, the humour vanishing. "Now you must learn what it is to respect reputation."

Heavy hands dragged the Captain to one side of the room and Niska turned to look at Shen Ling. "You do not look happy."

"You said you would not touch him."

The smile did not reach Niska's eyes. "I did not." He paused, pursed his lips.

"My men," He shrugged, voice mildly apologetic. "They grew restless waiting for Captain Reynolds."

"You knew I would come."

Niska nodded. "You, yes. Malcolm Reynolds? Perhaps. He is not, as you would say, 'reliable'. Now our business, it is done *dong ma*?"

Niska turned back towards his men as they brought a now bound but shirtless Captain back into the centre of the room. Shen Ling moved away to kneel beside her brother. For a moment neither spoke then Chung-li said what was in both heart and mind, his words quiet but clear in the silence of the cavern. "You would trade one brother for another?"

"Blood is blood, *da ge*."

A look of deep sorrow filled his eyes but she could not look away. "And what of honour?"

"Honour will not heal your wounds nor keep you safe, *xiongdi*."

"Neither a faithless heart."

For a moment it looked as if she would spit on him for the insult but her mask did not slip. She had come for him no matter the cost but he was not deceived. He knew at whose feet this calamity lay. While she had been plotting to trap his friend, Chung-li had been discovering more about her true allegiances. It sickened his heart with a sadness time could not heal. "You are no longer my sister. I do not recognise you."

"*Da ge*..."

The look in his eyes stopped her. Chung-li got to his feet, more grace and control in his movements than should have been possible. Body turned towards his sister, Niska and his men were not prepared for the whirlwind about to be unleashed. As Niska's men hung the Captain from the hook above their heads Chung-li flowed into action, his feet striking out as his body turned and rolled, hands forming fists and chops that struck at throats with a precision that broke windpipes and scattered a crimson tide from shocked mouths. The delay of shock was momentary, then Shen Ling was adding her own deadly ballet to the fray but using her skill to shield Niska in the unexpected assault. Mal blinked and tried to follow the blur of movements but it was too quick for the eye and he was still a mite dizzy, the flash of colour at least telling him which was Shen Ling and which was his friend. And still Niska's men poured into the room. As he spun from the hook he cried out a warning to his friend. A cry cut off with a savage blow. Insensate to the creak and swing he did not feel the hard hands that swiftly unhooked him and bundled him away as he lost consciousness. As feet hurried and slipped in the greasy blood an awful silence seemed to suck all the life out of the room apart from the last two combatants.

Chung-li ignored his bleeding wounds, his stance preparing for the final battle. Eyes locked on ones he had known from birth and now knew not at all. Shen Ling gave the smallest nod, her only concession to the last disagreement they would ever have in the mortal realm.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *wo bu dong* = I don't understand *bizui* = shut up/be quiet

*wode ma* = mother of God *zaijian* = goodbye *weshenme* = why?

*shenme* = what *pofu* = bitch *liumang* = bastard/criminal/asshole/gangster

*goushi* = crap/dog shit *dong ma* = understand? *da ge* = big brother

*xiongdi* = brother

Chapter Text


"VAIN PURSUITS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

The Chinaman was not weary just heart sore. The cavern empty of all but the two of them the swinging hook above their heads a reminder of just how wide the chasm now between them was. Chung-li's eyes did not leave his sister's face. "*Weishenme*?"

"It was my job, *da ge*. My obligation."

"*Yixiang renwo*?" Horrible pieces started to slot into place. "You work for Adelei Niska." It was not a question but a sickening realisation. "Do you not know the monster at whose feet you grovel?"

Her face retracted into a hard mask. "I do not grovel."

"You speak of obligation." The words were low and harsh, raw distaste souring the words like a curse. "What of your obligation to me, *mei mei*? Or have the politics of the enemy become your creed? The justification for unspeakable acts masquerading as honour?"

"Chung-li, *xiongdi*, I did not mean to hurt you. A long time has past since we went our separate ways. You have no right to judge me now."

Something flickered in his eyes, too swift for her to catch yet it unsettled her calm in a way she could never show. "You judge yourself."

An eyebrow rose. Any rumour of emotion now vanquished. In Shen Ling's head she was counting off the seconds into minutes. Letting Niska and his men get away with the Captain. Why the man was so important to her *laoban* Shen Ling never asked, it was not her business to know such things. Curiosity being a commodity that did not promote a long and happy life. Niska would tell her what she needed to know when she needed to know it. "I let you live."

"It seems," Said Chung-li mildly as he readied himself for the coming fight. "An unfortunate gift."

Shen Ling had hoped things would go differently. She did not really want to kill her brother but she knew Chung-li would not let her leave the cave. Not after what she had done therefore let the consequences be on his head. A small tiny spark deep inside evinced sorrow. A long dead emotion stirring in the pit of a blackened soul. Like a memory from a distant time when she was very different from the woman that now stood before him. Steeling herself Shen Ling prepared to put this last vestige of conscience behind her. She had a new master now, one who would give and ask no quarter. The only coin he demanded of her was obedience. The cost was irrelevant and would be paid in full.

* * * * *

Simon Tam was frustrated. "River, you can't!"

His sister smiled tolerantly at him. "*Ni bu dong*, you never do."

They were closing on shuttle two's location. Wash looked concerned. "It still hasn't moved, *bao bei*."

"*Wo zhidao, zhangfu*." Zoe agreed, her voice calm and oddly reassuring.

Wash looked up from his controls to scan her face. "That's good, right?"

"It means the shuttle is still where the Captain set down." Said Simon slowly. "It doesn't mean he's on it."

"Cheer everybody up, doc." Said Jayne sarcastically, his expression annoyed. "'Sides, not as if you'll be comin' along, *dong ma*?"

"*Wei*!" Everybody turned to look at Wash. The pilot was staring at his console in something approaching alarm. "The shuttle wasn't the only thing that was down there."

"Define *was*, honey."

"Um, as in it's not there now?" Wash told his wife.

Before anyone could ask for clarification River spoke. "They're moving him."

Shepherd Book glanced at their resident genius as they approached Diemos. "Who?"

"The vulture seeks higher ground, doesn't need the bait any longer. He has what he came for."

Simon reached out for her but River slid around Kaylee to stand on the other side of Wash's chair. Next to Zoe. "River..."

A babble of conflicting voices started to argue over what they should do next when a voice from the doorway silenced the lot of them. "*Bizui*!" Inara stepped through the doorway and glanced from face to face. "Where's the Captain?"

River pointed at the cockpit window. Every head turned just as a sleek vessel shot up from the planet below and into the cloudbase above their heads. Inara thought again of the words of St John of the Cross: *The more I rose into the height, more dazzled blind and lost I spun. The greatest conquest ever won was won in blindness, like the night. Because love urged me on my way to make that mad, blind, reckless leap that soared me up so high and steep that in the end I siezed my prey.* Her eyes locked on River's. Slowly River shook her head from side to side.

"It's my shuttle." Said Inara quietly.

"But my plan." The girl responded.

The others stared, baffled by the odd exchange, not understanding what they were talking about. Revelation hit Inara in a flash of insight. "I thought it meant me."

The compassion on River's face was painful to the Companion though she hid it well. Wash aborted the landing sequence and turned to follow Niska's ship. River looked at Zoe. "Divide and conquer. We need to distract them to give us enough time to go in for the kill."

"Hey, I thought this was a rescue mission?" Growled Jayne.

"It is," Said River before anyone else could respond. "For the Captain not Niska. Nobody mourns the ones who pick your bones."

"So, divide and conquer." Kaylee spoke slowly trying not to think about the images River's words evoked, wanting to be sure exactly what it was River had in mind while willing herself not to shudder. "That why you wanted Inara's shuttle?"

"Yes. He'll keep the Captain alive as long as he can."

Wash's expression darkened. Memories of his and Mal's torture on Niska's skyplex too vivid to block. He did not want to imagine what the Captain might be going through right now but couldn't stop his mind from filling in the blanks. Zoe placed a hand on his shoulder and kept it there. The comfort of her touch almost breaking him. His expression softened as he met the understanding in her eyes. "I love my wife."

* * * * *

It was hard and fast. Shen Ling moved like a blur, her flowing marriage of speed and technique hard to match by any but a master. Chung-li was that master. A large stocky frame belying the skill of the shaolin monks and the discipline of kung fu. It was not just his expertise that made him so deadly but how well he read her every move, anticipated, blocked then struck. Time and again, each blow debilitating her a little more. Slowing her down in the vain hope that reason would overtake anger and pride. But Shen Ling was committed. No going back. Failure was not an option. She knew what happened to those who disappointed her master and such a shameful fate would never be hers. Better to die in battle than of shame.

He should have been easy to defeat. Shen Ling was lighter, faster, more deadly but her brother was the spirit of bushido, the eye at the centre of the storm. The power behind the artform. He flowed like a force of nature and the universe answered. Shen Ling found beauty in the dance and at last was able to accept the only gift he could bestow upon her. Deliberately she spun into his orbit and did not block, the edge of his hand breaking her windpipe, the force of the blow shuddering through her in truncated aftershocks as the spray of crimson scattered red tears across the floor like ruby petals. She saw the look of sorrow etched on his beloved face, her hard mask slipping enough to let him see the girl she once was. The sister he had lost so long ago returning to him briefly before they would part forever. It was the nearest she could come to saying sorry.

* * * * *

"You know, this whole torturin' an' killin' thing is gettin' old."

Adelei Niska smiled. He did not mind Captain Reynolds' attempts at humour. He had already met the real man and he was quite a man. An extraordinary man. But as he had told the Captain before, this was not a time for extraordinary men. "I am thinkin' this time I do not want days."

He was walking slowly around the Captain who was strapped to a table in the middle of what Mal guessed must have been the ship's galley. "Well good, because I have to tell you I'm not impressed with the hospitality at this hotel."

Niska tilted his head and light reflected off his little round glasses, the benign looking smile had all the sincerity of a shark about to feed. He stepped up to the side of the table and leaned towards the pinned man. "No, Mr Reynolds, this time I think a week at the very least."

"A week? Why so generous?"

Niska straightened and waited until a sharp fillet knife was placed in his hand. Mal tried not to imagine just how much damage a twisted *tamade hundan* like Niska could do with it. "For you, I think something special. Yes?"

"No, no need to go to any trouble on my account."

"No, is no trouble."

The Captain was shirtless but otherwise still clothed. Niska dipped the thin whip like edge of the knife until it rested on Mal's chest. Slowly he let the weight of the knife define the depth of the cut as the blade lightly scrolled across the Captain's chest. Mal tried to mask how creepifying that was, the thin trail crossing back and forth across his skin as Niska watched him intently.

"You know you are one sick *liumang* if I might say."

"This cut? Is nothing, it will not kill you. For you I think the death of a thousand cuts, yes? Is fitting."

Before Mal could even think of a response the ship lurched hard. The clang and echo reverberating through the metal hull like a clapper striking a huge bell. The Captain tried to hide the spark of hope that leapt in his chest. "Was that...? Did somethin' just hit us? 'Cause if so I don't mind comin' back when you're less busy."

Niska frowned then began snapping out commands in German and Chinese. The two men attending him disappeared to see what was wrong and Niska turned to face his captive again. This time he looked far from pleased, his face screwed up like a shrivelled prune. "Always with the interruptions." He muttered in irritation.

"Yeah, know what you mean. Can be a real pain in the..."

"*Bizui*!" Snapped Niska. The knife traced a deeper line from the Captain's stomach to his adam's apple then paused at his throat. Mal tried real hard not to swallow. If the ship lurched again he was a dead man. "You try my patience, Mr Reynolds. You do not want to do that."

The Captain could not speak. A shake of the head and that razor sharp blade was like to slit his gorram throat. A nod would be just as bad. Either way it meant a whole world of pain before the blood gushed out of him. Red was so not his colour. Just then one of Niska's men ran into the room and whispered in his boss's ear. Annoyed, the *liumang* gave a hefty sigh and moved the knife from Malcolm Reynolds' neck, his attention diverted. Mal briefly closed his eyes and thanked whatever quirk of good fortune had given him this breathing space. Breathing being his most favourite word right now. Another violent hit sent Niska stumbling away from the table. The Captain opened his eyes. The lights flickered. Mal tried to loosen the catgut tying his wrists and ankles to the edges of the table but the more he struggled the deeper the gorram twine cut. He paused and tried to think, his head turning from side to side as he looked for some way out but there was nothing. Niska was at the doorway now, talking urgently to someone just out of sight. The ship lurched again, hard. Everything not nailed down was clanging and rolling across the tilting deck then rolling back the other way as another blow rang throughout the ship.

Mal was puzzled. Something was definitely hitting them but what? There were no explosions, no sound of ordnance or gunfire. Not nothing. If he didn't know better he would think someone was throwing gorram rocks at them. Just then the mother of all rocks must have hit because he could hear the scream of damaged engines, the grind of tearing metal then all the lights went out. Darkness. His stomach turning over and over as the ship spun out of control, no doubt in a downward gorram spiral. Made him feel sick and frustrated as *diyu* not being able to move and take advantage of the mayhem. He could hear Niska's voice kinda on the high and worried side which was all kinds of comforting. Then came something he did recognise. Gunfire. Shouts, then cries. Someone or something hitting the deck then someone was scrabbling about beside him. He cursed, wishing he could see. Hoping it wasn't one of Niska's goons come back to end him before they all took off in whatever passed for lifeboats on this leaky ship.

But the end didn't come. Leastways not any ending he could have imagined. Instead a hand gently brushed his face, a pair of lips next to his ear cautioning him to keep silent. Hope resurrected in his heart a second before he realised who the good gorram had come to get him. River! What in the nine hells were his crew thinking to let the crazy girl go putting herself in danger like that? Not that he wasn't all manner of grateful but still. Girl could get herself killed going all heroic.

"Sssh, we're leaving now. Don't speak, just follow where I lead."

"I can't gorram see a thing, River." Murmured the Captain. "An' what in the nine hells hit us?"

"I did."

He blinked in the darkness, sure he could not have heard her right. "*Shenme*?"

"Sssh, too much talking."

"You an' I are gonna have us a little talk when we get back."

He stumbled as River stopped and he didn't, the girl turned and to his shock a pair of warm lips covered his own in a brief but hungry kiss. Stunned he just stood in the darkness. Her hand tugged his and automatically he followed while trying in vain to get his brain in gear. What the hell had just happened? Had the crazy girl just kissed him? And why, for a split second, had he wanted so badly to kiss her back? Oh, he was going to that Special Hell.

That hand again, half dragging, half guiding him out of the galley and down a metal corridor. His feet slid on something slippy. Didn't want to think what in *diyu* it could be. Had a fair notion and wasn't that all kinds of disturbing given who his rescuer was? Simon must be wetting himself but even if he was the Captain couldn't bring himself to want to mock him for it. Truth to tell he was more than a little shaken his own self. River's hand seemed so rutting small in his yet he could feel the strength, incongruous as it was he felt a surge of pride in her. She might be crazy and all kinds of broke but she wasn't weak and that wasn't nothing. "Have to be blind before you can see." His little genius whispered. Yeah, right, 'cause that made all manner of sense.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*weishenme* = why? *da ge* = big brother *yixiang renwo* = a job

*mei mei* = little sister *xiongdi* = brother *loaban* = boss *diyu* = hell

*ni bu dong* = you don't understand *bao bei* = precious/treasure *wei* = hey

*wo zhidao* = I know *zhangfu* = husband *dong ma* = understand?

*bizui* = shut up/be quiet *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *shenme* = what?

*liumang* = criminal/bastard/asshole/gangster

Chapter Text


"CHOSEN"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Jayne was whooping, his shout of glee ringing in their ears. Simon looked distressed and nothing Kaylee could say or do would calm him. Zoe looked a cross between angry and impressed. Wash just looked shocked, his face pale as he watched the shuttle being rammed over and over into Niska's ship. What was even more surprising was that Niska's ship was losing speed, altitude and listing. "Oh my God, it's gonna crash!"

"I can't believe you let River fly your shuttle, 'Nara."

The Companion shook her head, brow furrowed in worry, eyes barely believing what she was seeing. "I didn't, Kaylee. She took it before I could stop her."

"We should do something." Simon fretted, looking from Wash to Zoe. "Why aren't we doing something?"

"We will," Assured Zoe with the calm of the battlefield. "Just as soon as we can get close enough without being part of the next collision."

"Collision?" Simon's voice went an octave higher and the last of the colour fled from his face. "We can't, that's not good..."

"Easy, Simon. Trust River, she knows what she's doing." Said a deep voice.

The doctor stared at Shepherd Book, his eyes wide with disbelief. "I can't believe you just said that. This is *River*."

"I know but you have to trust she knows what she's doing."

"I do? Why should I do that? Look out of the window, she's RAMMING that ship! They could all be killed, everyone on that ship - including the Captain - and River."

Kaylee squeezed his hand, anxious not just for River and the Captain but for her husband. Simon's control was always a little too close to the edge when it came to River.

"Well, I think it's shiny." Put in Jayne, the grin on his face like a kid at Christmas.

Just as another round of quarrelling was about to start River's voice came over the com. She sounded happy and more than a little smug. "This is shuttle one asking for permission to dock."

"River, are you...? Is everything...?"

Wash cut off Simon's babble of concern. "Permission granted. Did you get the Cap'n?"

"*Qu*."

Simon opened his mouth to ask what sort of state the Captain was in and if she was hurt but Zoe shook her head and began to walk off the bridge. "Not now, Simon." She looked at Wash. "Soon as the shuttle docks take us into the Black. Don't want any more surprises, *dong ma*?"

"What about the other shuttle?" Asked Jayne with a frown. "Cap's gonna be mighty pissed if we lose it."

"First let's make sure everybody's safe. Time enough to go back for the shuttle after."

* * * * *

The Captain felt more than a little stunned. Somewhere in his back brain part of him was amused, touched even, at the way in which River had taken over. Guiding him gently but firmly to the couch. He in no way was going anywhere near Inara's fancy bed not with the kind of thoughts that had been plaguing his gorram mind since the crazy girl kissed him. The worst of it though was knowing River knew exactly what he was thinking. Could read his gorram mind. "River, this is Inara's shuttle. She know you took it?"

River smiled at him but refused to say anything until he sat down. With a sigh he sat and tried to wave off her attentions. "*Wode hao*, no need to fuss."

Naturally the girl ignored him. Got a cloth and bowl of water and began to clean the blood off his chest and arms, her expression intent when the bleeding wouldn't stop.

"You gonna answer me, girl?"

"Love you too."

A look of alarm flashed across his face prompting a grin on hers. "What?"

"Inara knows."

The Captain blinked. She knows? Knows what? That you took the shuttle, that we kissed, what the gorram is she talking about? Then he caught the teasing look in her eyes and huffed. Of course. The shuttle. "Well good, that's... good."

None of the cuts were deep, they just stung a bit with the antiseptic and bled a little too freely making it look worse than it was. River was more concerned about the deeper cuts into his wrists and ankles but Simon would see to those. Straightening, she looked the Captain in the eye. "Stay!"

He started to get up. River's firm hand on his shoulder impelled him back to the couch. Surprised he stared at her. She smiled and he could not stop the smile quirking at his lips in response. He had always had something of a soft spot for River, not that he would admit it. It would figure she'd already know that. Then River was back at the controls, waving Serenity and bringing them back to his boat. He got up and stood by her shoulder, watching his boat come into view. The docking was a little awkward, the shuttle no longer the exact same shape it was when it left. He frowned. "What did you do to my shuttle?"

"Dents and scatches can be repaired."

The Captain stared at her nonchalence. "You dented my shuttle?"

River paused, her smile blinding him heart and mind with the happiness he saw there. "Had to get you back. Ship and crew needs its' Captain." She got up and he followed her to the hatch.

He almost asked *and you?* but didn't dare. A softening in her gaze told him she already knew what he was thinking and wasn't that the creepiest gorram thing? Made him feel more than a mite naked. He did not have time for another thought on it as his crew started to pile in through the hatch, a clamour of voices all trying to talk at once and making his head ache. It was Shepherd Book's calm voice that stilled the cacophony and brought an air of control. "I think we should let the Captain get off the shuttle."

Mumbled voices made agreeing sounds then he found himself hustled out and before he could say anything was herded into the infirmary. He turned his head but could not see River. Zoe gave him a quizzical look but he wasn't sure which question she was asking. "I'm alright." He murmured. Zoe frowned and thought the Captain looked dazed. Did he have a head injury?

Simon must have been thinking the same because once he got the Captain to his domain he began feeling around his head. Mal tried to wave off the doctor's probing but to no avail. The man could be tenacious when it came to the well being of the crew and that included the Captain. "This won't take a moment Captain but the more you resist the longer I'll keep you here."

"I'm the Captain!" He protested, half cross and half frustrated.

Zoe crossed her arms and just hid a smirk. "That you are."

Kaylee saw the thin cut marks across the Captain's chest, the trickles of blood now being mopped up by Simon and little weaves applied to stem the bleeding. "Ain't you gonna stitch 'im up?"

"The cuts aren't deep." Simon was looking at Mal now, eyes locked. "I'm guessing these were more for show."

"Huh." Jayne did not sound impressed as he peered over Kaylee's shoulder for a look. "Do worse cuttin' myself shavin'."

"You don't shave." Said Simon without looking up.

"That's what I mean." Came back Jayne. If anything he sounded disappointed that the Captain had such cosmetic injuries. Like it weren't manly. Wouldn't even leave impressive scars.

"What it means," Said Kaylee brightly, once assured that the Captain was going to be fine and hadn't been badly hurt like last time. "Is we got to him in the nick of time."

"You mean River did." Said Wash.

Everyone looked at each other. River. That was when they noticed she wasn't there. Just as Simon was about to ask where she had gone his sister stepped into the infirmary. She had one of the Captain's shirts in her hands. The silence stretched as they watched her walk over to her brother and the Captain. With a smile she handed Mal the shirt, her eyes not leaving his as he slipped it on trying not to look as self conscious as he felt. "Blue - my favourite." Her clear voice sang.

Stunned, the little conversations that had started back up suddenly halted like a lift jerked to an unexpected stop mid rise. Zoe looked from River to the Captain. "Somethin' you want to tell us, Sir?"

The look on Shepherd Book's face said, *oh yes, the special Hell*. The Captain opened and closed his mouth but nothing came out. Jayne smirked and leered, leaning forward with glee. "So THAT's how you got them scratches! Might'a figured they were all girly."

Mal stood ramrod straight and bristled with offence, shirt half on, half off, anger sparking in his eyes. "You got a smutty mind, Jayne! I was tortured, gorrammit."

A big old knowing smirk was lodged firmly on the mercenary's face. "Tell it to the church choir."

"Church choir?" Echoed Book.

"Yeah," Said Jayne, his grin growing. "They's the on'y ones like to believe ya."

"They're definitely knife cuts Jayne not scratches." Simon felt compelled to correct.

"Yeah, whatever." Jayne was happy to drop the subject having achieved his objective. He just wanted to ruffle the Captain's feathers for scaring him not that he was like to admit as much. Didn't want no one knowing how much the thought of losing the Captain scared him. Man had more ways of getting in deadly trouble than he could count on his two hands. Plus any *goushi* the Cap got into drew the rest of them in. Usually up to their gorram necks. Weren't no profit in that. It was time to move on. "So," Said Jayne figuring it was time for some good news. "We get Niska?"

* * * * *

The get together in the commons area minutes later was subdued but lively. Kaylee was wanting to set down some place so she could see about fixing the damage to Inara's shuttle. Zoe wanted to head out into the Black until it was safe to surface again. The Captain wanted to go back for Chung-li. Wash raised a hand. "Um, point of interest? Wasn't Chung-li with Niska?"

The Captain's expression could have been carved in stone. "He was, right up 'til that spineless *wangba dan* took me an' made a run for it. Not that he got far thanks to our little genius but that don't mean Chung-li ain't in danger. That gorram *pofu* of a sister of his was lookin' a mite too deadly for comfort. I'm thinkin' there'll be no happy reunion which is why we need to get movin' *mashang* an' get him the hell outta there."

"An' don't forget shuttle two is still on Diemos." Added Zoe.

"Which is another good reason for goin' back. We kill two birds with one stone. We go get Chung-li, Kaylee takes a look-see at Inara's shuttle an' everybody's happy, *dui*?"

"What about Niska?" Jayne asked drilling the Captain with a level look. Mal stared at him. Man was like a dog with a gorram bone, not nothing would divert that one thought in his empty head. 'Ceptin' he was only half-way stupid and that was more disconcerting than him being a certifiable idiot. Mind, that hat of his didn't help in the Taking-Jayne-Serious stakes.

"Later."

"Yeah," Sneered Jayne in dissatisfaction, his voice sounding twisted up and bitter. "An' let him get away *again*." He looked far from happy and ready to rub the Captain's nose in what he saw as the other man's weakness. More than half convinced that Mal was afraid to go after him. "Not goin' after Niska last time is what brought us here. Anybody see a gorram pattern formin'?"

"Jayne," Said the Captain in a testy voice. "I got a news flash for you. He already got away, *dong ma*? Have to make the best of what we got an' I don't leave a man behind."

"What if he's dead?"

"Chung-li ain't dead."

Jayne wouldn't let go. "Yeah, but what if he is?"

Mal was getting really mad at him now, the two men barely a nose apart and practically facing off. "There any point to this noose you're puttin' round your gorram neck, Jayne? 'Cause I have to tell you I'm all kinds of unamused an' ready to kick that horse out from under you."

Zoe could see both sides of the argument but right now was not the time to oppose the Captain. There was strength in unity. No matter how much part of her might agree with Jayne she wouldn't let him undermine the Captain in front of the rest of the crew. Not when to do so meant leaving a someone behind. The Captain owed Chung-li which in her book meant so did the rest of them. They were crew, family. And that meant they stuck together through through thick and thin or in Jayne's case thick and even thicker. "Jayne, you heard the Cap'n. If you're afraid to go down to Deimos you can stay here with Kaylee. Ain't no shame in it."

As expected the man's eyes flashed, his jaw jutting out with beligerence and barely held anger. "I ain't afraid to go down..."

She cut him off before he could finish that sentence. Adding her own ending to close the discussion. "Good, then you'll come with us. Best load Vera. No tellin' what other little surprises Niska left behind."

At the mention of possible violence Jayne immediately calmed, his mind fired up with the thrilling possibility of imminent violence. Not so the Captain. He was still glaring at the empty doorway seconds after Jayne had gone through it. Shepherd Book broke the silence, his voice low and careful as if picking his way through a minefield. "You know, there will come a time when you'll have to deal with Niska, Captain."

"I know that!" The Captain snapped. The silence fell as heavy as a shroud. Not nobody wanted to break it even after the Captain had left the commons area.

"Well," Said Simon softly as everybody drifted out of the room to go and get ready. The now empty commons area echoing slightly as if to throw his words back at him. "That went well."

* * * * *

Inara could not believe it. Although she could not see all the damage to her shuttle what she could see was bad enough. Instead of taking Inara's shuttle down to Deimos the Captain had insisted Wash land Serenity. They found shuttle two easily enough and quickly determined that it was empty. Mal stared off into the distance for a moment until Zoe prompted him. "Where to now, sir?"

Try as she might Zoe couldn't see a gorram thing but rocks. Jayne put it less diplomatically. "Ain't nothin' here! This is a gorram wild goose chase."

The Captain shook himself out of his reverie and led them away from the shuttle after asking Wash to swap it over with Inara's. The Companion could then put all her trinkets and pretties in the spare undamaged shuttle and that would leave Kaylee free to see what she could do to repair shuttle one. He did not look back as they headed out so missed the look of speculation on the Shepherd's face as he watched from Serenity's ramp. Jayne grumbled all the way but Mal ignored him, a dark mood steadily binding him. Zoe cast him more than a couple of anxious looks but said nothing. The Captain's tension sparking an unsettled feeling in her gut.

When they stopped in front of the rock wall Jayne's patience just about snapped. "There's nothin' on this gorram ball of rock!"

"Jayne..."

"Nothin'. No buildin's, structures, vehicles - nothin'. An' nothin' an' nothin' equals - nothin'."

"Jayne!"

The Captain's sharper tone halted the big man before he could fully launch into a first class belly ache. Zoe raised her brows, silently echoing the mercenary's confusion. Before Mal could explain the sound of low grinding rock made Jayne and Zoe turn quickly and stare at the rock face. The Captain had his gun out so smooth and fast that neither saw him move. Jayne took his cue from the Captain and tightened his hold on Vera, not sure what in *diyu* to expect. Then the unexpected pretty near took his breath away as a portion of the rock face swung out. The Captain took a step towards the doorway then froze, his heart almost stopping at what he saw. There, framed in the opening stood his friend Chung-li. The Chinaman's clothes were little more than strips of bloodied cloth but the Captain could not stop staring into his eyes. A look of such empty desolation in them that it broke his heart to see.

In Chung-li's arms the limp and senseless body of Shen Ling lay draped like some broken doll. But it was the tears on the man's face that affected Mal the most. He knew what it meant to lose family. Loved ones. No matter what kind of kin Shen Ling had been to him the loss was costing the big man dear. The Captain stepped up to his friend and holstered his gun then put his hands on Chung-li's shoulders. Looking deep into eyes that seemed to see him not Mal said the only thing he could say. "I'm thinkin' we take her with us, *dong ma*?"

The big man came out of it slowly. Blinked at Mal and seemed to rally at the sight of the Captain whole and apparently none the worse for wear. "*Qing*. Raised together as children we went our own ways as soon as we were grown." Chung-li paused and looked at the woman in his arms, an infinite sadness on his face and in his eyes. "We grew apart. Ten years Mal since the last time we saw each other." He paused then looked at the Captain. "And I didn't know her any better than when we were children." He sighed. A broken thing that made Mal's heart lurch with sympathy. He might not have a good word for Shen Ling but he in no way would utter them to Chung-li. After all a man could not choose his blood kin only his friends.

"*Duibuqi*, Chung-li."

"I killed her," Said Chung-li softly.

Mal blinked, sure he had mishead. "You wabba what?"

"I killed her. She would not give up and neither would I."

"*Wo bu dong*, what you sayin'?"

"Shen Ling worked for Adelei Niska."

The Captain hissed, a pained sound that made Zoe wince in sympathy. Neither she nor Jayne said a gorram word. "Why in the nine hells would she do that?"

Chung-li looked all kinds of weary. Mal got the big man moving and the four of them made their slow way to Serenity, Jayne and Zoe dropping back to make sure no nasty surprises tried to sneak up on them. Nobody felt like checking the underground complex. All they wanted was the freedom of the Black and some answers. "The way she explained it to me it started with a fascination with the teachings of Shan Yu."

The Captain nodded. "I heard of him. One mighty tweaked *tamade hundan*."

"A warrior poet," Agreed the Chinaman. "But one without honour."

"An' Shen Ling followed him because?"

Chung-li fought to hold back a new flood of tears. His sorrow would never mend or reach the wayward child who had fallen so far from the way of the Tao. The path lost to her she had stumbled and strayed in every sense. "She was young and foolish. By the time the innocence of youth was lost so was any hope that she would see the error of her chosen path. Even at the end, *wode pengyou*, I could not reach her."

In silence they walked up Serenity's ramp. Wash passed them on his way to shuttle two, his face paling at the sight of the body. Zoe gave her husband a little tight smile, her eyes speaking volumes no one else but him would ever see. The pilot knew that now was not the time for questions. Mal led Chung-li to the infirmary and Simon and Inara helped to clean and lay out the body of his sister. Kaylee couldn't watch but retreated to the damaged shuttle, thankful for the work that needed doing. Funny how the moisture in her eyes kept blurring the movement of her hands, but even as upset as she was for the Captain's friend her hands knew every inch of Serenity and the shuttles blind folded. It was good to have busy work even if she couldn't see what she was doing for the gorram tears in her eyes.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*qu* = yes (lit. go) *dong ma* = understand? *wode hao* = I'm good

*goushi* = crap/dog shit *wangba dan*/*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard

*mashang* = immediately/right away/on the double/quickly *dui* = correct

*diyu* = hell *qing* = please *duibuqi* = sorry *pofu* = bitch

*wo bu dong* = I don't understand *wode pengyou* = my friend

Chapter Text


"UNDAUNTED"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was a solemn gathering back on Serenity. Simon dressed Shen Ling's wounds and cleaned her up as best he could but he was no mortician. After he had done all he could Inara slipped into the infirmary and applied make up with such skill and expertise that even Mal could look upon her and for a moment fool himself into thinking Shen Ling was merely sleeping. Didn't matter that none of the crew had liked her, the woman was dead and their concern for her brother had the residual effect of making them feel more sad than relieved that her life had been ended. More so considering who had ended it.

Chung-li sat at the head of the heavy oak table in the commons area, Shepherd Book placing a mug of hot tea between hands the size of dinner plates. The Chinaman did not look up, his eyes fixed on the table top but not seeing anything. At first everyone moved quietly around him, going to and from the kitchen area to get themselves a drink or something to eat but reluctant to leave him alone. The Captain gave Inara a nod of thanks then sat next to Chung-li, relieved as *diyu* that Simon had declared his friend's injuries had been as superficial as his own. Niska had been playing with them but for once the *liumang* was far from their thoughts. Cuts and abrasions treated, both men were concentrating on a more painfully personal matter. As if the Captain's presence was some kind of signal the crew drifted out of the commons area until they were the only two left in it. It seemed they sat for hours, the silence a cool but undemanding cocoon. The Captain felt no need to talk, content to let Chung-li be silent or speak as he wished. Whatever the man needed that Mal could provide he would have. He just wished he could help in some other way.

After almost an hour the big man stirred, tilting his face to look across at the Captain with a calm and measured eye. Mal almost fancied he could see the tracks where the tears had dried. "We were not close." He said quietly.

Mal took a long slow sip of his cold tea, letting time unwind at the same pace so that his words could ease into the conversation without jolting the man or causing him pain. "It's never easy."

The softly spoken words carried dozens of unspoken ones in their wake. Chung-li nodded slowly. "Even as children we were different."

The Captain was tempted to tease him about the obvious but forebore. It was neither the time nor place. "How so?"

A tiny sigh escaped from the Chinaman's lips. "We had the same mother, different fathers."

Mal did not comment, it explained much.

"My father died young, my mother was lonely a long time. Shen Ling's father was very skilled both in words and his ways." He paused, not putting into words how much he had distrusted the man nor how his own feelings had grown into intense dislike. So much so that he had left to walk his own path. It had been many years later before he heard about the death of his mother. Shen Ling's father having made no attempt to contact him when the fever had taken her. Shen Ling had understood her brother's absence but it had still built a deep resentment within her that reason could not quell. "I tried to mend what was broken between us." Chung-li paused as if the memory pained him. "*Wode suoyou nuli dou baifei le*."

"I'm takin' it that it takes two?"

Chung-li nodded. "*Ta zongshi wo xing wo su*, always the independent one Shen Ling."

"*Wei*! Ain't nothin' wrong with independent folk."

The Chinaman cracked a little smile and Mal's heart was desperately glad to see it. "Different kind of independent, Mal."

"So what you wantin' to do now?"

A heavier sigh this time. It had the sound of someone taking up a heavy load. "I am the last one left."

Mal nodded, took another sip of his tea. Not even tasting it, the action more habit than the need to quench his thirst. The comfort of familiar things, however small, were always the ways in which normalacy crept back into scarred lives. He didn't discount them nor mock their significance. He understood. Was all kinds of scarred his own self. "Whatever you need..."

He did not need to finish the sentence. Chung-li dipped his head slightly.

"How about Glory?"

"My heart would be glad to place her there."

"An' you know Rafe'll give you what land you need wherever you need it."

"Shen Ling never set foot on Glory," Said Chung-li softly. "Too poor and uncultured but even had it been a core world she would never have gone there."

Despite the circumstances Mal felt a twinge of curiosity. "That so?"

Chung-li smiled sadly. Not for himself but for the sister who could never love or allow herself to be loved. "Refused to go anywhere I was."

Shock hit Mal hard though thinking on it he didn't know why. The woman had all kinds of sharp edges. Real smart but without any of the saving graces about caring for other folk. In a way she could have been tailor made for the likes of Adelei Niska. Which brought him to another thought. "How long was she with Niska?" His real question, why, could wait.

The Chinaman gave the Captain a long calm look. It was kind'a like having River peer inwards at his gorram soul but he didn't mind. There was something very special about Chung-li. Mal had felt it the instant he had first met him and that impression had only solified the more he got to know the man. If honour, loyalty and courage had a true face then it was staring back at him now. Chung-li put a hand on Mal's forearm. "Years. How they found each other I'll never know, not sure it would help me sleep if I did know. And I don't even want to guess at the kind of things she did for him."

"Like betrayin' folk to their enemies." Said the Captain very softly.

Mal could see the sorry in Chung-li's eyes. The gentle compassionate face seeming to reach out to him with the man's own calm as if the Captain was the one needed comforting.

"*Bu qu*," Mal shook his head. "I'm the one that needs apologisin'. *Duibuqi*."

"There is no shame in honest words."

"Then *chuxianle uixie xiwang*." It was getting late. The Captain stretched slowly. "Think you can sleep or at least fake it 'til mornin'?"

The big man laughed. The first honest sound of humour to pass his lips. "*Xie xie ni, wode pengyou*. Not only my eyes but my heart has missed you."

The Captain snorted, amused his own self as he got to his feet. "Now don't you go all sentimental on me."

"Truth is truth, Mal, and sad though our next duty will be I know a lot of folk who'll be happy to see you again."

Not quite able to voice his feelings the Captain just nodded then slapped a hand on Chung-li's shoulder. "Bed. Right now, *dong ma*?"

Chung-li grinned up at him then put a huge hand over Mal's, pleased beyond saying that Shen Ling's treachery had not cost this man his life. The big man knew many things about Malcolm Reynolds that the Captain like as not did not realise. Things he saw as clear as other folk saw the physical world around them. And he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had chosen his friend well. Once Mal made sure the Chinaman was bound for the guest bunk he headed for the bridge. Wash was sitting in the pilot's chair, Zoe on his lap, their arms wrapped around each other as natural as could be. Their quiet conversation halted as the Captain stepped on to the bridge. "Wei*, don't let me stop anythin'."

"Sir..."

He waved her back down. "I came to ask Wash to lay in a course for Glory. Chung-li wants to bury his sister on the Wellspring Ranch."

"Should I wave Rafe, let him know we're comin'?"

The Captain shook his head at Wash, ten times weary but not sure how much he would be able to sleep. Reckoned once the Shepherd had said his words over the grave would be soon enough. Still, wouldn't hurt to go through the motions. Didn't want his crew to start worrying about him not when they had another little mouth on the way. Speaking of which... "No, we can do that when we're nearer. What about..." Mal waved a hand at Zoe and nodded awkwardly. "You an' the sickness thing?"

Zoe smirked. "I'm pregnant not contagious, sir."

Wash laughed, the Captain pretended to take offence. "Not what I was meanin', I meant with the throwin' up an' all."

Her smirk vanished, "*Fang xin*, I can still shout a warnin' before it hits you."

Now he did scowl at her. So gorram unfunny he could shake her only he knew who would win that bout and it wouldn't be him. "Huh, everyone's a gorram clown."

"I'm fine, sir," She added by way of apology. "Still got more'n a month to go."

"A month?" The Captain's voice sounded a mite thin as if a month was equivalent to any minute now. Wash wanted to laugh at the man's expression but managed to contain himself. The Captain could be a very bad man to get on the wrong side of, not that he expected to fall foul of violence what with Zoe being his very own Amazon killing machine.

"Best sleep while you can, Mal." Said Wash sympathetically.

The Captain gave them a short nod and left a mite quicker than he had arrived. Zoe turned in Wash's arms and gave him a wicked smile as he hugged and kissed her.

* * * * *

Inara Serra was stunned. She had been well aware that River had crept into the infirmary and watched with wide solemn eyes as she applied careful make up to the corpse. What had surprised her was River following her back to the shuttle when the Companion went to retire for the night. The Companion turned as River followed her through the door. "River it's late, can't this wait until tommorow?"

River shook her head, her cheeks flushed, eyes a little too bright. "No, time is like sand and even without the timer it soon runs out." For a moment they just stared at each other. "Can you do that for me?"

The Companion blinked. "*Shenme*? Do what, River?"

"Make me beautiful."

Inara did not laugh. Smiling she closed the door and beckoned for River to sit down. Stretching out a hand Inara ran her fingers through the long dark tresses of River's hair. "You're already beautiful, *bao bei*. Though your hair could do with a good brush and it wouldn't hurt to get washed now and again."

The girl's eyes were shining as she looked at the Companion. "I don't want to be a little girl any more."

"But you're not, you're 24..."

River shook her head, interrupting. "He doesn't see me as a woman. I'm all grown up but might as well be invisible!"

"I don't think Simon..."

"Not Simon."

"Then who...?"

Tears rolled slowly down River's face. "I wouldn't have said anything if you had wanted him. I know you love him but love isn't for you. It gets in the way of what you want."

Shocked, Inara stared at her. She knew that River had something of a crush on the Captain but thought that was all it was. It was disconcerting to realise just how wrong she had been. Her lips parted slightly, heartbeat racing as she sought for the right words. "River, I don't..."

"No, no more lies. You love him, he loves you but it won't work. For him it can only be one singer, one song, but you have to have variety. Not be tied to one man no matter how much your heart craves it." River paused, breathless. She took a couple of breaths and calmed down again. "I know what I want unless I'm wrong?"

The words were tentative, a little line of worry creasing the girl's brow. "Wrong?"

"Will you take down your walls and let him in?"

Before Inara answered River knew. Her panic gushed out of her and the one possible error in her calculations vanished. The smile she gifted Inara with was somewhat disconcerting. Briefly Inara pitied Mal. River could be quite a force of nature when her mind was set on something and right now that something was the Captain of Serenity. Then Inara began to see the possibilities and a mischievous glint sparkled in her eyes. "You're right, it would never work between Mal and I. We both know that. We would destroy whatever we had between us and I would rather stay friends." Inara took up her hair brush and began to brush River's hair. "How badly do you want him?"

River's sweet smile belied her words. "So much all my parts ache."

Inara laughed and mentally hugged herself. This was going to be fun. Long into the ship's night the two women plotted and schemed while the object of their machinations tossed and turned in his bunk chasing the elusive promise of a dreamless sleep.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *wode suoyou nuli dou baifei le* = all my efforts were in vain

*ta zongshi wo xing wo su* = she always wants her own way *wei* = hey

*bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *duibuqi* = sorry *xie xie ni* = thank you

*chuxianle uixie xiwang* = there appears to be some hope *dong ma* = understand?

*wode pengyou* = my friend *shenme* = what *bao bei* = precious/treasure

*liumang* = criminal/asshole/bastard/gangster

*fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart)

Chapter Text


"STRATEGY"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

"You need a strategy, River. You have to go slow - be subtle. If you come on too strong he'll run so fast you'll get whiplash."

River smiled softly and for a moment Inara envied her. Had she ever been in love? Or dreamt of it? "I can be patient." The girl in a woman's body assured with a nod as if taking a solemn oath by speaking the words out loud. "I've waited six years."

The Companion's breath caught for a moment. Maybe this would work after all. But if it failed Inara was counting on weeks of highly entertaining amusement at the Captain's expense. Then she saw the frown form on River's face, the happiness momentarily clouding over. A glint of warning sparking in her eyes.

"I don't want to hurt him, *dong ma*? This isn't a game."

And just like that all Inara's notions of petty one upmanship were swept away. No. This wasn't a game. And if she played it like it was not only Mal would pay the price, River would too.

* * * * *

The Captain was confused. Something was different but he couldn't put his finger on it. It was late. Pretty much all his crew had turned in for the night. They were headed for Pacquin following a wave from Badger. Seemed he had something wanting picking up from there and transporting back to Persephone. Fortunately Wash confirmed they had the fuel to cover both trips though they would be flying on fumes thereafter. Kaylee was happy that Serenity was running pretty near the top of her form and Book said the food supplies would easily take them through another four days. They all knew they were on their uppers, the last of the coin pretty near a distant memory now. The big surprise was Jayne not complaining about it. In fact the big man had calmed down so much that for a while Simon had been convinced there was something medically wrong with him.

Chung-li had been philosophical about the delay in getting him to Glory. Meant almost seven days would pass before the Chinaman could bury his sister. Mal did not like the delay but neither could he afford to turn down work that would put coin in their coffers. Couldn't run a boat on goodwill plus the doc needed to replenish the medical supplies, Kaylee needed some more parts for Serenity and all of them were getting more than disenchanted with the dried goods. The thought of fresh fruit and vegetables and mayhap a little real honest to God meat was enough to make any mouth water for the lack of it. Shepherd Book had taken another step after his Big Damn Hero and fashioned a right solid looking coffin. Then, with help from Zoe and Kaylee, had lined it with metal flashing. It had taken a bit of work to make the fit as tight as could be and Inara had insisted on placing some scented stuff she called 'pot pourri' in the coffin before the Shepherd sealed up the lid. Stored in the cargo hold it would help stop the smell of decomposition infiltrating the ship though Mal knew every one of them half imagined the body rotting down every time they looked in that gorram direction.

For now though he was up on the bridge all by his lonesome and relishing the relief of that solitude. The weight of his Captainly duties put aside for the pleasure of letting his mind go free, the black soothing what ailed him from the past as well as the here and now. Everybody had something they wanted from him. Expectations that were no lighter for being unspoken. He carried more than his own hopes into the Black. The Captain did not need to turn his head to see her. Knew the very instant River joined him, standing by his side as if she belonged there. Not that it disturbed him none. As crazy as the girl was he understood her but then he was crazy too. He felt her smile before he turned his head and saw it fashioned on her lips. The quiet happiness radiating off her making a template for a soul he was sorely missing. His heartbeat quickened. What the *diyu* was the matter with him? This was River. The crazy girl. His gorram albatross. Good luck charm. And yet. Though she looked the same as she always did something was different. He frowned slightly and her smile dimmed.

"You're thinking it's me but it's not me."

"Not sure what the gorram I'm thinkin' but that's as near as makes no never mind."

The smile returned, gentler than before. He felt himself relaxing but couldn't take his eyes off her face, still trying to figure what in the 'verse was different about her. "You do somethin' to yourself?"

Her amused look almost made him flush but he didn't look away. Then he noticed, not because she told him or offered a clue but because the turn of her head brought the black cascade of hair swaying across her face like a dark curtain of silk momentarily hiding her from him. Without thinking his hand rose to brush the tresses back so that he could see her face, his fingers lingering as the strands brushed against his fingertips. Her eyes met his. "Inara brushed my hair."

He could see that. Now that he was looking he couldn't look away. Tilting his hand he spread his fingers out and watched in mute fascination how the hair moved, the strands all perfect, clean and shining in vitality. Much like the glow in the gorram girl's eyes. His breath hitched. Girl. Gorrammit, River wasn't no girl, she was a woman. He snatched his hand back as if he'd been burned.

"You're afraid."

"No, it's not that." He mumbled, knowing it was. But not completely. Part of it was the whole going to *diyu* bit. He might have told Book he wasn't talking to God but that didn't mean he no longer believed. It was still all kinds of confusing to him but being brought up to heed the good book and bend his knee at mass he wasn't too fond of throwing all that religiosity out of the window much as he pretended otherwise. He was still angry at God. So gorram mad he wanted to strike out and hurt Him as much as the mainstay of his belief had hurt his own self. But he couldn't do it. Even after the last battle had killed his faith he could not deliver that final blow. Mayhap if he had he wouldn't have been the only one shattered.

"Yes, it is."

How did the girl get so close they were touching and him not aware? The patron on that crappy planet of hillfolk had called her a witch but he had said she was his witch. Is that what this was? Had some spell been cast over him? Or was the crazy rubbing off in ways that would leave no sane way back? "River, we can't be doin' this." He said gently. Not sure what exactly it was he was apologising for but instinctively knowing it had to be his fault. He was the Captain after all.

River tilted her face, the luxuriant strands of hair parting. Her milky white face shining up at him like a full moon. So full of promise, innocence and... Gorrammit! He stepped back, a shudder going through him as if he had been in the hairs of a snipper's rifle and only just dodged the bullet. "What you doin' to me?"

"Nothing. Everything."

He frowned, his confusion deepening. Taking advantage of his distraction she closed the distance again, letting herself lean into the heat of his body without laying hands on him though it was so very hard. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I couldn't sleep."

He blinked. Another glancing blow just missed his heart. "Oh." He knew what it was to have nightmares. To lie awake pretending to sleep when sleep was the last thing his tormented mind could tolerate. Sympathy washed through him. "You havin' nightmares?"

"Not now." She said lightly. It wasn't a lie just not the whole truth.

Her reply relaxed him. What was he so gorram afraid of anyhow? It was River and he had always liked the girl, even in crazy mode there was just something about her. Ever since he'd looked inside that rutting box. Knew in that first instance that some kind of destiny was staring back at him. That protecting her meant protecting her brother made no difference. Wouldn't alter his decision no matter how the boy pushed him. Simon. Another damaged soul only he managed to pour substance into what was left of himself. Able to project all the caring and skill of a surgeon while inwardly he carried wounds that would never heal. Kaylee was a great step back in the being part of humanity stakes and the two of them were shiny together. Hard to equate the confident and honourable young man with his snippy and untrusting former self. Which left his legacy. River. Mal's albatross. Precious to him in ways he couldn't number still less understand.

She frightened him even as she redeemed him. All he knew was what he had known then, he had to protect her. Even if doing so meant he wouldn't survive his own self.

"You won't die." River said softly, a hand reaching up to cradle his cheek. Her eyes locked on to his. So much tenderness and understanding in them that it made his heart ache. Maybe she wasn't the broken one after all. Mayhap it was him.

* * * * *

Shepherd Book did what he could but it wasn't much. Even so, Chung-li was profoundly grateful. "*Xie xie ni,* Shepherd Book."

"*Bu xie*, not that I did much."

The big man sighed.

"Your heart is troubled."

It was not a question but the Chinaman acted as if it was. They had met at breakfast, most of the others not yet up. Book was a little surprised not the see the Captain up and about and hoped it meant the man had actually got some sleep. "*Qu*. I killed my sister, Shepherd, when I should have saved her."

Book nodded. He knew all about burdens. "Then it is as well we will be able to help you lay her to rest."

Chung-li gave him an odd look but did not elaborate. Instead he just nodded, rose smoothly to his feet and made for the cargo hold. Curious, Book followed. When Chung-li began to practise Tai Chi the Shepherd smiled gently and took up a wide paced stance, watched the man for a moment or two then fell into the calming rythym and ritual matching the man step for step. Graceful, elegant lines. Each position and movement named and cherished and held in mind, body and soul until there was no distraction. Nothing to deflect the seeker from the heart of the Tao.

* * * * *

It was kind of funny and kind of disturbing but mostly too damn frightening for either. Wash held the bowl as Zoe threw up, most of the contents missing and dousing him. Not that he could blame Zoe, his hands were shaking so bad the bowl wasn't where it should have been. Panic flared in him and overtook every vestige of common sense he had ever possessed.

Zoe was kneeling on the floor stark naked. They had been sleeping, each curled around the other as if in a human version of a lover's knot. Appropriate but not particularly helpful in a woman eight months pregnant. The sickness had been getting worse and though usually confined to mornings could hit at the most inconvenient times but this was the first time Zoe had brought up blood.

Wash hit the com, not mindful that in his haste it was an all ship broadcast. "Simon, this is Wash! Zoe's throwing up blood!"

The part of Simon Tam's brain that never slept jerked him out of bed before the words penetrated his sleep induced mind. Kaylee moaned and flung out an arm, eyes snapping open when she felt no comforting body lying alongside her. "*Shenme shi*, Simon?"

Simon was hopping on one foot, dressing in a hurry. He paused only long enough to drop a quick kiss on his wife's lips and mumble a quick explanation. "It's Zoe, she's coughing up blood."

Immediately awake, Kaylee sprang out of bed and scrambled for her clothes. Simon was already gone before she found them.

By the time Simon reached Wash and Zoe's bunk the rest of the crew were stirring. Book and Chung-li met him on the catwalk and moved to one side to let him pass, falling in step behind him without a word spoken. Simon flung open the hatch and shinned down the ladder, stopping abruptly at the bottom to prevent ploughing into Zoe as Wash tried to bring her to her feet. It would have been an easy enough feat had she not been fighting him. Seeing Simon, Wash could not hide his relief. "Thank God!"

Simon immediately took in Zoe's state, the blood and vomit making him a little queasy but nothing he couldn't shut his mind off to. Carefully he knelt in front of Zoe, then looked back up to the open hatch. "Book, would you get my bag for me?"

A quick nod and the Shepherd retreated. Chung-li watched from the open hatch, the Captain joining him a minute before the rest of the crew crowded round. He could hear Jayne in the background wanting to know what the good gorram had happened. The murmur of anxious voices floating down from above quietened abruptly and Simon assumed that meant the Captain had told them to shut up. Wash turned an anxious face to the doctor, his heart in his mouth, fear for Zoe followed closely by panic about the baby. Simon had one hand on Zoe's stomach, the other brushing the matted hair from her face as he got his first good look at her. "How long have you been bringing up blood?"

She panted, trying to stay calm for Wash's sake. "This is the first time."

"How many times have you been sick in the last 24 hours?"

Zoe gave him a sharp look but rather than finding it disconcerting it reassured him. Told him that Zoe was in control, even if her stomach was rebelling. "Four times."

"So this now is the fourth time?"

"No, this is the fifth."

He thought about that for a moment then an idea struck him. "Have you done or eaten anything that didn't agree with you?"

Wash turned away from Zoe just long enough to glare at him. "What the good gorram has that got to do with anything? She's coughing up BLOOD!"

As the words left his mouth, Wash stared at his wife in stunned silence for a moment. The last meal playing inside his head. He gaped at Simon. "Oh God, it was something she ate wasn't it?"

"I'm not saying that Wash but it's a possibility. Zoe may be allergic to something in the food. I'm guessing her body - or rather the baby - couldn't tolerate it."

The rattle on the ladder announced the return of Book, the red doctor's bag in his hand.

"So," Said Wash, trying to tamp down his rising panic. "It's just an allergy, *dui*? Nothing to worry about."

Simon couldn't bring himself to lie outright. "It could be an allergic reaction, the vomitting the body's defense mechanism trying to expel something it sees as harmful."

As Simon helped Zoe to her feet, Wash fussed with a dressing gown. Simon still had one hand splayed over Zoe's stomach. Their eyes met as she straightened and he finished his first rudimenatry exam, a painful look of understanding passing between them. Though Simon said nothing he had not once felt the baby kick.

* * * * *

Kaylee was upset. After joining the others and following Zoe and Wash to the infirmary she had waited helpless outside while Simon got Zoe on a bed then began a more thorough exam. Unable to hear what they were saying she was watching Wash's face, reading in his solemn expression all manner of terrible things. A big old tear started to run down her cheek, her head stuffed with childhood prayers muttered over and over again in a litany against anything bad happening. She was hardly aware of the Captain until he put his arm around her shoulders and drew her close. His comforting warmth was all kinds of reassuring but the look on Wash's face made her heart flip over with dread.

"Ssssh, easy now. Simon'll help Zoe, you'll see. Nothin' but a bout of mornin' sickness, right Preacher?"

Book would have liked to agree with the Captain but couldn't bring himself to lie. "Zoe's in the best possible hands."

The Captain frowned at him but Book just gave him a level look. Inara joined them with River in tow, the girl hanging back with eyes round as saucers. Mal spotted her and hoped she wouldn't say anything. As she met his eyes he realised she already knew the worst. Inwardly he cursed and closed his eyes, pain contracting around his heart. Kaylee seemed to sense his distress and looked up, her tear stained face angled up to him, her eyes searching his for an explanation. "Cap'n?"

He swallowed slowly and opened his eyes, trying to nail a weak smile to the flagging ship of optimism he was attempting to keep afloat. "Yeah, what is it little Kaylee?"

"Ain't nothin' bad gonna happen, is it?"

Mal hugged her then brushed the damp hair from her face, putting on his most positive expression. But it didn't travel to his eyes and Kaylee had known her Captain long enough to know what that meant. Before a word could pass his lips she wailed and clung to him, face buried in his shirt as she began to sob. Jayne turned his head away from the glass to frown at her. "What in the nine hells is wrong with her?"

The Captain glared at him but Book took the mercenary aside before things deteriorated into an ugly scene. Inside the infirmary Wash hung his head and let the tears run unchecked down his pale face. Simon felt worse than useless. It did not help that Zoe was so quiet and stoic. Tears, anger even wailing would be preferrable to this. The stony silence lasted a few minutes then she spoke, every word a shard of agony piercing Wash's heart and soul. "I want it out of me."

Shock. Wash stared through his tears at her, his hand squeezing down on hers. "No, *bao bei* you can't...."

Her eyes were hard as diamonds, nailing him with the certainty of her intent. The words came out cold, ugly, twisted by emotions turned from joy to sorrow to a sickly kind of horror. "It's dead, I want it out of me, *dong ma*?"

The pilot could no longer look her in the eyes, his heart quailing in the face of her grief. It was Zoe's body, her decision. Numbly he hung his head and murmured, "Whatever you want, *xin gan*."

Zoe turned to look at Simon. "Do it now, don't care if you cut me from stem to stern, I want it out."

"Um I'll have to give you a general anaesthetic and..."

She leaned back and stared up at the ceiling. Her whole world turned empty and cold, reflected in the flat dead tone of her voice. "Don't wanna know, don't care. Just do it."

Simon hung his head and took a moment to gather his mental reserves. Looking up he turned to face Wash, unable to hide the sympathy in his eyes. It would only take a look and the man would crumble and Simon needed him strong. "Wash, I'm going to operate. Think you're up to staying?"

Fear flooded the pilot's face then he glanced at Zoe and nodded, his expression turning grim but determined. It reminded Simon of when Wash had come back with Zoe from Niska's skyplex, the Captain still being held and tortured by that insane madman. The happy go lucky affable man had shown then that he had a core of steel. That same strength flooded through him now. This was not for him, not even for their dead child. This was for Zoe and he would do anything in the 'verse for her.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*dong ma* = understand? *xie xie ni* = thank you *bu shi* = you're welcome

*diyu* = hell *qu* = yes (lit. go) *shenme shi* = what's the matter?

*dui* = correct *bao bei* = precious/treasure *xin gan* = sweetheart

Chapter Text


"MOMENTS OF GRACE"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

The ship was all kinds of subdued and hushed but not in a good way. The crew felt like mourners at a funeral, the pain keener than any knife for the tiny soul snatched out of their grasp before it could take its' first breath of life among them. And yet the baby had lived in vitro, had pulsed in time with Zoe's heartbeat and cradled every secret hope Wash ever had. The child in him died in that moment of lost forgiveness for not having the faith to reach for something so beautiful and divine. A future he had not been able to embrace until now for fear of losing it. The hope in Zoe crushed and warped into something not even God would recognise. Simon did not weep. Did not rail against an unforgiving 'verse. He was too busy doing the very best he could for the distraught but sedated mother. His heart wrenching every time he glanced into Wash's tear filled eyes. Only his professionalism allowed him to keep it all together. They needed him and he would not fail.

Inara was crying in silence. Every one of them on the catwalk outside, some leaning against the railing, others propped up against the glass looking in on a scene that would be etched on the inside of their minds for the rest of their lives. The Captain's eyes were bleak, his hold on his mechanic grounding him to his duty while inwardly everything was flying apart at the seams. Not that the others would ever guess nor would it do to tell them. They relied on his strength and that was one thing he could give them. Jayne Cobb looked angry, frustrated that he could only stand helplessly by and watch. He hated not being able to do anything. It felt wrong. Jayne glanced at the Shepherd but though the man's head was bowed he didn't seem to be praying. Straightening up, the mercenary walked over to the Preacher. At first no one took any notice, not until Jayne's words rasped out of a throat closing up on him even as he spoke.

"Ya ain't prayin'."

Shepherd Book lifted his head at the accusation in Jayne's voice and gave the mercenary a compassionate look. "Not every prayer is said aloud."

"Only ya ain't, are ya?"

"Jayne." The Captain's low warning tone was ignored.

"Why ain't ya prayin'? What did a little gorram baby ever do to ya?"

Before Book could say anything or the others intervene, River stood up from where she had been sitting by the railing, her slender figure moving slowly until she was standing between the two of them. Her face was sad but not sorrowful. There was an odd light in her eyes. "Not dead. Dreaming."

Mal frowned. Kaylee lifted her head from the Captain's chest and looked at her friend. Staring in confusion with no idea what in the nine hells River was talking about but wanting so desperately for something to believe in. It had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with faith. It was Inara who asked what the others were thinking. "River, what do you mean?"

The girl looked at the Companion for a moment then glanced back through the plate glass, her attention on her brother. Watching his skilled surgeon's hands open up the womb in a Cesarean section. The metallic red shine as blood oozed up through his fingers before he could staunch the loss. Wash white faced and fragile in the glaring harsh light of the infirmary now doubling as an operating theatre. When River turned back to Inara the sadness was gone, another milestone had been passed without their knowing. A tentative smile hovered on her lips making the crew uneasy with the wrongness of it. They did not understand. "You have to have faith."

"Didn't know ya were gorram religious bein' a witch an' all." Grumbled Jayne.

River shook her head slowly, her mood a mite distracted though she was aware of each and every one of them and where on the chessboard of life they each stood. Whatever else she was, River was nobody's pawn. "Had to get out. Walls too confining."

Something leapt in Mal's chest. A thread of possible sense that made his heart miss a beat. "River? You sayin' what I think you're sayin'?"

They stared at him like he had taken leave of his senses but River turned a radiant smile on the Captain, her face seeming oddly illuminated in the ambient light reflected through the infirmary glass. And that was *so* not a halo forming over her head. "Go to the top of the class." Then she looked at the Shepherd, her voice turning soft and impossibly gentle as if a harsh word would break him which was all manner of disturbing. Since when was the Preacher fragile? "You should have prayed."

Book opened his mouth then froze. He had been looking at River who was standing in front of the infirmary window with her back momentarily to the drama happening inside but it was Wash's face that transfixed him. The Captain straightened and took a step away from Kaylee, eyes widening in disbelief. Jayne swore and crossed himself, Inara thanked the merciful Buddha and Kuan Yin and hoped with all her heart that her eyes were not playing tricks on her. Had the gorram pilot finally cracked? Wash was on his feet now, the tears on his face glittering and sparkling off his cheeks like wet diamonds, his face now wreathed in smiles, mouth dropping open in laughter as more tears fell. River looked through the glass at him and nodded, Wash nodded back then turned and knelt at his wife's side obscuring everybody's view. River looked at the others, her own face wet with tears but a smile forming its' own rainbow across her pale face. "All better now."

* * * * *

Simon had only ever been the primary at a birth once and that was when they had gone to help Inara's friend Nandi at the Heart of Gold. This time was different in every way possible. At the Heart of Gold, Petaline should have been enjoying the proudest, most special moment of her life but it had been soured and marred by the selfish cruelty of Rance Burgess. This time the sight that met his eyes was not the one he expected as he cut through the proud and taut belly of the ship's second in command. Using clamps to part the flesh and being careful how he reached for the deceased child, Simon was shocked and surprised to see the umbical chord wrapped around the baby's throat. Sucking in a quick breath he unwound the chord and very gently began to massage the little baby's chest. Wash wanted to drag Simon's hands off the child but could not move, his eyes glued to what was happening as the doctor massaged life back into the stalled heart. A look of wonder and awe stealing across the pilot's face.

Little by little the baby responded. Fitful, pathetic gasps from newly formed lungs pumped tiny puffs of oxygen into a body too frail to count the beats of the struggling heart. But Simon tenderly supported the premature baby until like a miracle the infant was able to take its' first breath alone.

"Gorrammit," Murmured an awed and thunderstruck Malcolm Reynolds. "If your God did that Shepherd, mayhap you'll make a believer out of me again."

* * * * *

Only one person was absent when the miracle happened. In the cargo hold of the ship Chung-li stood watch over his sister's coffin. It was a heavy crude affair but served the purpose for which it was made. Unlike River and Simon, Chung-li and Shen Ling had never been close. Even as children the girl had a sharpness to her that prevented any deep bonds of affection forming and yet they were kin and in their different ways cared for one another. Now he would be unable to care for her ever again. The wheel had turned and it was his karma to travel on alone.

* * * * *

It was hours later before Simon emerged from the infirmary to speak to the rest of the crew. He left Wash with his wife and baby, a crude but effective incubator rigged up with Kaylee's help now keeping the baby warm and ensuring the proper fluids fed the body. As Simon stepped out onto the catwalk Inara hugged him and kissed his cheek, tears on her face and pride in her eyes. Book shook his hand, Jayne slapped him on the back, River smiled at him as if he had walked on water but was the only one who knew he would not sink. Kaylee was laughing, smiling and crying all at once. Simon dropped a kiss on her brow and wrapping his exhausted arms around her, reaction only just beginning to set in. Looking over Kaylee's shoulder as they hugged he met the Captain's eye.

"What the *diyu* was that?" Said the Captain in a hushed voice. "Never thought I'd live to see a gorram miracle on my own boat."

Simon was not sure how to react. He was tired and in no mood to disseminate the Captain's meaning to check he was not being mocked. Right now he didn't care but there was something in Mal's eyes that held him for a moment or two. Something unexpected. The Captain blinked, unaware a tear had strayed from the corner of his eye and rolled slowly down an eyelash. He placed a hand on Simon's shoulder.

"That was amazin', doc. Ain't got words to say how much I admire what you just done for Zoe an' Wash not to mention the little bit of life brought back from the dead."

If he had not felt so tired Simon would have been uncomfortable at the unexpected praise which for the Captain was the equivalent of gushing. Kaylee hugged her husband and kissed his neck, so happy and proud she thought her gorram heart would burst. Everyone seemed reluctant to move as if the spell would be broken and the miracle vanish like mist.

"Anythin' you want Simon," Said Mal unexpectedly. "You just ask. Even if I have to sell my gorram boat to give it you, you'll have it."

Simon stared at him in shock, nonplussed, convinced his brain had just shorted out. Had their tight fisted, mean old Captain just offered him a golden ticket? As if realising just how much he had given away the Captain mumbled something unintelligible and after a last look through the infirmary window walked away. Inara thought he murmured something about Captainly duties but couldn't be sure. After all she was more than a mite stunned with joy her own self.

* * * * *

Dinner was all kinds of revealing though it started out on the boring side of normal like always. Shepherd Book and Jayne entered the commons area together, laughing and joking about something to do with weights, cowboys in leather and a vicar. Inara smiled to herself and kept secret the fact that she knew the punchline. Simon sat next to Kaylee, the both of them exchanging smiles. Chung-li had elected to cook the meal and once Jayne had hit the punchline of his joke, Book laughed then excused himself and went to see if he could be of any help. His smile widened fit to burst when he looked inside the pot, not sure how the others would feel about having soup for their main meal. Chung-li smiled gently which made the Shepherd look again. This time his eyebrows rose in surprise. Looked like everything barring Serenity's thrusters was in that pot. As long as it was edible the crew would be impressed.

Inara followed Wash and Zoe, her eyes hardly leaving the little bundle in Zoe's arms. A small makeshift cot being pulled up to one of the chairs then Zoe carefully settled the baby in it for the duration, smiling softly when Wash leaned in to hand their son one of his favourite dinosaurs. The baby smiled at his papa and reached for the toy, man and boy tangling digits while they smiled at each other over the down of baby blankets. Zoe wasn't right sure at times which one needed the crib more. The Captain stepped in and paused just inside the threshold, his eye roaming over his people, happy because they were. More content than he could put into words to find them hale, hearty and for once all in one gorram piece. Did a body good to know all was right with his world even if it was more than a mite cockeyed and like to bite him in the ass at the least provocation. As Mal's eye lit upon the baby his gaze softened then he hid his moment of weakness and settled into a seat at the head of the table.

Just as Chung-li brought the pot to the table and began ladling the soup into waiting bowls Jayne leaned forward and sniffed, which meant everybody else leaned back. "*Wei*, more stew?"

Chung-li shook his head. "*Bu qu*, soup."

Jayne scowled. "I don't want soup, I want somethin' I can sink my teeth into an' chew. Ain't right to feed a growin' man baby food."

The Captain scowled at him but Wash piped up before he could put the big man in his place. "Good, more for us!"

"Huh, never said ya could have my share."

"Hey," Protested Wash. "You said you didn't want any."

"I said I wanted somethin' to sink my teeth into. Maybe I'll take a bite outta you instead."

"Might want to rethink that strategy, Jayne." Said Zoe in a calm but cool voice.

Jayne seemed to change his mind and grabbed for his bowl just as Chung-li finished filling it, letting the Shepherd keep it steady until his big maw of a hand closed around it. Not taking any chances that Wash wouldn't make a grab for it after all. As Book passed the bowls of food round the table Simon turned his head, looking for his sister. He was about to ask if anyone had seen her when River swept in as graceful as you please. All conversation stopped. The Captain looked up to see what had caught everyone's attention and froze. Gone was the shy crazy girl with the moon adled expression but innocent air and in her place walked a woman of poise and extraordinary beauty. River had always had an ethereal kind of beauty and grace, now she had a maturity that deepened and made richer the pallet of colours that defined who she was. The self imagined ugly duckling had truly become a swan.

"Good gorram..." Murmured the stunned Captain.

Even Simon seemed taken aback. River looked pleased but was careful not to gloat openly and spoil the effect. Inara had been giving her lessons, refining the unschooled clay with a woman's wiles. The deft touch of make up and colour to her cheeks underscoring something they all had a tendancy to forget. River wasn't a child any more. Not even a girl. She was a woman and the look in her eye dared any of them to forget it ever again. Simon frowned as River smiled at everyone then met the Captain's eye. For a long moment neither of them could look away. Simon was distracted by Kaylee squeezing his hand and turned to see what she wanted, taking the bowl from her with a distracted smile. Conversations started up again, banter flowing back and forth along with compliments to River on her appearance and the pretty seersucker dress none of them had ever seen her wear before. With her hair all swept up and held in place with gold and silver hair clips so elaborate they were artforms all on their own none of them needed to guess whose hand lay behind the transformation.

After that mighty fine meal the Captain kept finding his eyes drawn to River, in equal parts irritated and proud to find the woman the centre of attention. Kaylee gushing over the dress and the fancy hairstyle, Zoe wanting to know how she mixed those colours to highlight her cheekbones just so and Simon staring in a mix of horror and panic. Chung-li watched and took in everyone's reaction, his smile gentle and knowing. The shine flattening into a dull sheen as he caught the doctor's less than enamoured reaction. Instinct told him that all would not be well in paradise. For once the Captain was blithely unaware, waiting his chance for the fuss to die down and folks to start drifting off so he could speak to River his own self but he didn't get the chance. It seemed every member of his crew wanted to speak to the little genius and he couldn't blame them. Holding in a sigh of disappointment he contented himself with giving her a warm smile when their eyes met one last time before leaving with Wash to lay in a course for Pacquin. There was so much he wanted to say to her. Needed to know. Mayhap time to think it all through would help him find the words to untangle the myriad of emotions locked deep inside his heart.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *wei* = hey *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

Chapter Text


"THE PROMISE"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

They arrived on Pacquin a day and a half later. Jayne so all fired up and itching to be planet bound that it was almost funny. Mal knew he was driven more by the need to get laid than any restlessness from being stuck on the boat. Badger waved them as they were coming in to land and insisted that they let his contact get in touch before they arranged the pick up. The addendum made the Captain uneasy especially with knowing what a slippery character the little kingpin could be. Not sure if the man was setting him up or just being extra careful over the transfer of goods. Whatever the reason he intended to be extra careful and kept his concern from Zoe. Woman had enough on her gorram plate with the new addition. A little smile bowed his lips, who would'a thought Zoe would make such a gorram natural mother? All them hard edges smoothed out to accommodate that precious bundle of life. He got a kick out of seeing how married life and now motherhood had softened her. Given her back a love of life that had been torn from her in the war.

While they waited for Badger's contact, Milo, to get in touch the Shepherd made tea and Kaylee hummed and fussed with some kind of baked busicuit that stuck to the teeth like toffee but had enough sugar substitute in it to be addictive. The baby was strong enough to come out of the incubator and was gaining weight fast enough to please even Simon. Everybody relaxed with relief at how quickly the child had gone from strength to strength, Simon saying that being a month premature wasn't nothing to panic over if the infant was healthy enough. The Captain nodded a thanks to Book for the tea and took his mug to the bridge knowing they had a few hours at least to wait until the meet took place. He smiled at his impatient pilot.

"What you still doin' here, Wash? I hear there's a baby got your name on it."

Wash grinned and jumped out of the pilot's seat as if there was a charge under it. He mumbled something bright and cheerful and vanished so quick Mal hadn't seen his feet move. Not that he was paying much attention, his gaze slightly unfocused as his thoughts spanned imaginary generations. With a smile he settled in Wash's chair and moved a dinosaur to make room for his mug. It took a moment or two before he realised someone had followed him onto the bridge. Turning in his seat he was surprised to see Simon Tam watching him from the doorway. "What you doin' here, doc?"

"Actually I wanted to ask you something."

"You did?" Mal raised his eyebrows in surprise and waited for the young man to elaborate. Never did meet a boy keep what he was thinking or feeling so close to his chest as Simon Tam. Curious he was content to wait him out. Simon took a couple of measured steps into the room, his look intent and thoughtful. All his attention on the Captain.

"Did you mean what you said?"

"*Shenme*?"

"When you thought the baby was dead but I managed to save him?" The Captain just stared at him, wondering what the good gorram he was getting at. Simon took another step closer, not breaking eye contact. "You said I could ask for anything I wanted and you'd give it to me. Even if you had to sell Serenity to do it. I just wanted to know, Captain, were they just idle words or did you mean them?"

A prickle of something cold inched its' way inside him. The Captain got the feeling those words were about to come back and bite him in the ass a lot quicker and harder than he could have imagined. Still the boy had asked and deserved a honest answer. "I meant them, Simon. Still do, *weishenme*?"

"I'm asking."

The Captain nodded slowly knowing he should not have been surprised Simon would commit his words to memory. "What is it you're wantin'?"

Simon's voice became soft, almost reassuring which put Mal on notice that he was not going to like what he said. "Nothing you can't afford, Captain."

The formality did not sit well with Mal but that was by the by. "You let me be the judge of that, just spit it out. What you wantin', Simon?"

The quiet cultured voice became instense. No rise in tone but hardening like concrete the moment it sets. "Just this: stay away from my sister."

Malcolm Reynolds stared at him. He could not believe it or rather he could and wasn't that the kicker? The doc had never hidden the fact that he didn't like him though for the sake of their places on his boat he had at least been civil about it and paid lip service to the Captain. At times Simon almost seemed to unbend enough to close the gap between wary reserve and a cautious respect. But there was no warmth, no growing trust, nothing beyond a grudging acceptance that he must tow the line. Now it seemed the gloves were off but always with that polite and oh so distant reserve. Mal wondered how far the doc was prepared to push this. "What if she don't stay away from me?"

"You're a resourceful man, Captain. I'm sure you'll find a way to keep your promise."

And there it was. The bottom line. For a long time after Simon left the Captain stared out of the window deep in thought. Distantly he was aware of the sound of laughter and banter drifting through from the commons area, his crew happy and in near festive mood. A joy he could not partake in as the docs' words rang round and round inside his head until he ached with the sorrow of it.

* * * * *

It was surely an accident of nature, Zoe thought. Nobody should ever be created that ugly. Jayne Cobb trapped a deep laugh behind a hasty cough as the Preacher nailed him with a hard disapproving stare. The Captain was taking his time joining them which had to be a gorram first but the upside of it was that his crew got to meet Milo first hand and take the measure of the messanger they'd been waiting to meet.

"An' your name is?" Prompted Jayne, just to be sure and for the pure pleasure of seeing the battered, twisted and misshapen mouth form words that he could in no way speak without mangling them into tiny gorram bits.

"Milo." The man paused, his dark puckered skin filled with troughs deeper than the creases in an elephant's hide. Always supposing any of this crew had ever seen an elephant to begin with. Milo was beginning to think that it was not only the Captain of Serenity who was a mite too stupid to live. "I was given to understand I'd be meetin' with Malcolm Reynolds."

Before anyone else could answer him the Captain arrived, a closed expression on his face. He looked Milo in the eye without flinching, not a flicker of humour or revulsion at the appearance of the miss-matched man. "I'm Malcolm Reynolds an' I Cap'n this boat."

Milo ignored the others and held out his hand, a seal across the palm of it that made the flesh lumpy but the wound - if wound it was - was an old one. Mayhap even another twisted gift of birth. Mal took the proferred hand and shook it firmly without flinching at the contact. He had seen many a man come out of battle with horrific injuries. Walk, limp or gorram crawl away from versions of hell no Preacher could recreate for the Devil's Inferno. It would take more than scars, twisted limbs, ugly burns and melted flesh to shock him.

"Pleased to meet you. Serenity may not have the flash but she's got it where it counts. Goodly sized cargo hold, strong an' reliable for whatever you're wantin' us to haul. Badger said we had to meet with you first before we could pick up the cargo."

The man's eyes glittered slightly, his ebony wrinkled skin so thick that a thousand smiles could have been hidden in the folds and no one would ever know. But the eyes. Now the eyes were said to be the gorram windows to the soul. Right now didn't matter a good gorram that one was deep brown the other a kind'a off colour green. Didn't disturb the Captain none but Kaylee found him all manner of creepy. "I am the cargo." Milo said in a firm, calm voice.

For a minute no one spoke. Not one of them sure what to think. Zoe frowned. "*Wo bu dong, shifu*. Didn't Badger say we'd need the mule an' maybe two trips to fill the hold?"

The Captain nodded but never took his eyes off their contact. Something wasn't adding up and he didn't like it. "Now see here Milo, we seem to have us a bit of a problem. What with you not bein' exactly what was expected an' there bein' no cargo to speak of."

"I can explain but would prefer to do so out of the dust of this ruttin' moon."

Wordlessly the Captain gestured for the man to come aboard and as he did so Book closed up the ramp and cargo bay door. Just because the man looked to be alone didn't mean he was. Within minutes they were all gathered in the commons area except Inara and River. Simon glanced at the Captain but Mal did not turn his head, all his focus on Milo. The tension was palpable. The Captain crossed his arms and braced himself as if for bad news. "Fine, you're on my boat an' outta the gorram dust of that ruttin' moon." He paraphrased the man's words back to him. "Now what in the nine hells is Badger playin' at an' what the good gorram he really want us to ferry?"

Despite how he felt Milo's spirits rose a mite. Badger had ranted for near on an hour about the Captain of Serenity and how much he would like to see the man swing on the end of an Alliance rope or some other equally delirious form of certain death preferrably with excruciating pain attached. Facing the man Milo didn't quite share the little kingpin's prejudice. One battle scarred warrior recognising another though his battles had not been fought on any field of honour. His scars were not the unfortunate accident of birth that Zoe had supposed. His mutilation a living advertisement of what happened when you angered the wrong men. Badger had offered him a deal, took plenty of coin to cement it too and he was not a rich man. Now he was face to face with the unwitting instrument of his deliverance.

"I am not a wealthy man, Captain, but my money paid Badger for this meet an' from there the decision is yours."

The Captain frowned, feeling uneasy. Chung-li stood next to Kaylee and Simon, Zoe and Wash exchanging a swift troubled glance. Jayne glared openly at the man while Shepherd Book looked thoughtful. Inara was in her shuttle babysitting the newest member of Serenity's crew while River sang songs from Earth-that-was, her mind only half on the baby. Her mind flitting between the members of Serenity's crew and the man with the interesting proposition. She saw the shape of Mal's mind, his lines of reasoning unfolding and running off at tangents as he listened. Jayne was getting impatient and mad as *diyu* at once again being ignored. River knew he was not being ignored just kept in check by the Captain's silence. Some words didn't need saying in front of an audience, especially one they did not know. So the mercenary seethed and split his death glares between the newcomer and the Captain. River could feel Kaylee's sympathy wash through her so strongly it almost made her dizzy, as if some tidal wave were about to sweep her off her gorram feet. One look at the man's diverse deformity and the mechanic's kindly heart had fallen.

"Not what he seems." River murmured, the words of her song forgotten.

Inara smoothed a gentle hand back and forth along the baby's naked arm, the other hand holding a bottle. Big brown eyes stared up at River as the baby sucked on the bottle, the Companion's smile dimming a little as she tried to make sense of what River was saying. She didn't mean the baby, did she? River looked the Companion right in the eye. "The man is as true as they come but he's bein' deceived."

"Man? What man, River?"

"Badger sent him. Took him for every penny he was able. Even leaving him in threads didn't stop him. A world weary knight but no sword and needing a horse of a different colour to finish the quest."

Inara resisted the urge to put her face in her hands and cry. River had been doing so well lately and she had begun to hope the slide into insanity could be avoided altogether.

"Not crazy. Badger thinks to teach the Captain a lesson but this man is no fool. He won't be tricked into harming the one who can save him."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shenme* = what? *weishenme* = why? *wo bu dong* = I don't understand

*shifu* = sir *diyu* = hell

Chapter Text


"VISIONS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It took less effort than Milo expected for him to convince Serenity's Captain to take him on board. Not sure if it was just the money that swayed it but Malcolm Reynolds seemed a mite distracted and that worked to Milo's advantage. *Wode ma* he would have gone down on his gorram hands and knees if that was what it took. The woman had shown him the only path that would lead to a positive conclusion and Milo was ready to take it with both hands. Grab on to it until the life was squeezed out of him. Wouldn't be the first time he braved some inferno or other for a treasure not of man's making. The dreams were still a mite disturbing though, the faces not all as clear as he would have liked. If he could have done so he would have dragged the woman with him but that was not part of the bargain and even had he opened his soul to her and begged she would not have come.

As his few bits of precious were stowed away in the guest bunk the knock on his door disconcerted Milo more than the prophecy had done. He cleared his throat as quietly as he could, not wanting to show any sign of the nervousness creeping into every cell of his body. "*Jinlai*."

It was somewhat of a shock when Serenity's prim and proper doctor stepped into his bunk. Simon watched Milo intently only speaking when the dark man raised a questioning brow. "Sorry to disturb you but I was thinking perhaps I could do something to help with the scarring."

Surprise was a heady rush made rarer by the honest concern in the doctors' eyes. Milo knew the boy was talking about plastic surgery and guessed it was some remnant of manners preventing Simon from saying so right out. Still, him being prepared to offer at all was refreshing. "This body is the shell of my past life." Milo explained.

It was only as his words left his mouth that Milo became aware that there was someone else standing just outside his door in the corridor. Seeing the mercenary poke his head through the opening made him more than a mite irritated though he was careful to hide it. He did not know these people and could not afford to do anything to put his passage in jeopardy. "Ya sayin' ya died, got born again?"

Milo blinked then shook his head at the mercenary. "*Bu qu*. We are constantly being reborn are we not? How else could Man be a work in progress?"

"Huh?" Jayne scowled, grunted then walked off in irritation and disappointment, disgusted to find the passenger boring after all. He hated all that pseudo religious crap. In Jayne's wake Shepherd Book and the Captain paused at the doorway. Milo was beginning to feel like the main attraction in some gorram zoo. What was it with these people or was he a circus act? Perhaps he should start charging admission? The Preacher let the Captain speak first. "You mentioned a quest."

"Yes, Captain, I did."

"An' what kind'a quest would that be?"

"Not the kind that would jeopardise your ship or crew." He reassured.

"You spoke of being reborn." Said Book.

Now Milo smiled. Might have known the Shepherd would be looking for a religious angle. He was almost sorry to disappoint him. "I meant it in a manner of speaking, father."

"Not bein' literal then?" Put in Mal.

"No." Milo paused and glanced at Simon, surprised to see the man still in his room. It was beginning to feel a mite crowded. "Doctor, was there something else?"

"You didn't answer my question. Can I help you?"

"Forgive my abruptness but how I look does not concern me. If you are offended look away."

Simon blinked at the calm but brusque response. Stunned. The passenger had not looked to be the type to be easily irritated. But Milo knew the truth, wasn't everything a mask? A veiled deception? The little cues expended to get what they wanted? A look. A smile. A touch. Even a carefully placed show of respect. It was all a part of the fabrication, the lie that passed as living in the mortal world. No wonder what lay within was often uglier than anything the human mind could conjure from a single warped and twisted thought, although what had happened in Serenity Valley came close. Whatever it took was simply a tool to get a job done. Human nature was no different from any other puzzle. Milo knew Simon did not understand but had the ability to share if he chose. He didn't. It was too fragile and Milo's burden to bear. He noticed Simon had not moved, his devotion to his duty of care not diminished by Milo's subtle warding off. Another would have walked away sensing his need to be alone. But the doctor had learnt to ignore the more subtle cues thinking he could change the shape of the world to come. In that they were not so very different.

"I only wanted to help."

The man nodded, but there was no warmth in either the gesture or the thought behind it. Rather there was a lack, a withdrawal of negative responses that would bleed into anger. His fight was not here, not now. He needed to heal but not on the outside. "I am not injured or in pain."

Simon nodded, not because he believed him but out of politeness. If the man needed him he would know where to find him. The doctor in him knew that it would have to be enough. Milo watched the boy leave and gave a nod to the Captain. Mal and Book followed Simon out. Milo closed his door and this time he locked it before turning back to his tasks. He did not want any more interruptions. Schooling his features and calming his mind he embraced the stillness that would open the second portal to the vision that was his life. That the walls of the prophecy were stained red mattered not one iota. That the blood gushed from veins that were not his own did not even leave an echo of sympathy in his mind. He was still in the throes of Creation. He knew how others saw him. A mangled twisting of features and limbs fresh from the fire and the crucible that had reformed the nature of his clay, something to scare the children at night, a glimpse into a dark place that formed the pattern of a million nightmares yet with eyes closed was still a mortal man. Simon had wanted to give him that, the appearance of a mortal man. Normal. All his excess carved away like the twisted seals of his ruined flesh. Smoothed out, remade in the image of the faceless masses so that the wolf could be a sheep again.

A wry smile try to push its' way through the folds of his skin but lay trapped and hidden in the dark creases where even more secrets lay. Did Serenity's crew have any idea of what they had allowed to board their ship? Badger might have the barest inkling but he did not know and Milo liked it that way. He knew the man's spite made him a little man not his size. Badger craved a terrible fate be unleashed upon this Captain and his crew. Milo didn't care. He was motivated only by what he needed at this point in time. The prophecy was unfolding behind his naked eyes, the lure of revelation touched the darkness in his soul and brought the first measured calm to his benighted flesh. Peace invaded him, calm suffused his mental agony, the mission shining bright and clear in his mind's eye like a clensing fire. He was a warrior but of a kind the 'verse had seldom seen. Better no one saw him as he truly was until the moment of revelation. If that meant keeping himself apart he would do it. For where in the whole known 'verse would be found another like himself except within the crucible from whence he came?

* * * * *

River was not happy. In fact she was all kinds of annoyed and frustrated. As if Simon wasn't bad enough the Captain had been avoiding her. How could he do that and call himself a man? She tracked him down. Resolute and relentless. Found him talking to Zoe, Jayne, Wash and Book in the commons area. Little Kaylee mixing something not so sweet in a bowl. Inara fussing with the kettle. Simon was not with the others and for once River was grateful. She walked right up to them, inserting her slim frame effortlessly between Wash and the Captain, then looked Mal dead in the eye as she fought for calm. Losing her temper would just set him off and that would not get either of them what they wanted. What she needed him to want. "You're avoiding me."

"*Shenme*?" The Captain blinked. River could sense Inara's hands freeze, suspended above the teapot as the Companion listened. Even with her back to Inara the genius could tell that she was on the alert now. "River, just talkin' to the crew."

"And me? Am I crew Mal?"

That got everyone's attention. "*Bu qu*, you know the answer to that."

"You said you were speaking to the crew."

He blinked, confused. "*Dui*, what you askin' here?"

"Speak to me."

Kaylee put her bowl down, no longer that interested in the protein enhanced cereal she was fixing herself for a snack. She wiped her hands down her coverall and wondered what the good gorram this was about.

"Okay, what you wantin' me to say?"

She stared at him. Why couldn't he see that it wouldn't mean anything if she had to put the words in his mouth? Pain clutched her heart in a momentary spasm. This was a mistake. The forum too public. His nearness too intoxicating. His truth blinding her with expectations that had to be coaxed into life not battered into existence until it emerged frail, insubtantial and capable of breaking them both. No. This was wrong even if her feelings for the Captain were right. Instead of answering she turned and left the room. Gone as quickly as she had come. Mal stared after her, a look of confusion and concern at war on his face. He wanted to follow, reassure her, but he couldn't. Inara abandoned the fiction that she had not been listening. "What was that about?"

"Huh, what makes you think I'd know? I'm a Cap'n not a gorram mind reader."

After a moment or two the others restarted the conversation, Book bringing them all back on track. "Are you sure you can trust him, Captain?"

"*Diyu* I know I can't but a job is a job. He's paid us Badger's part for comin' and the fee in transporting him an' his things to where he's goin' is a goodly price. It'll buy food an' fuel an' mayhap that new stabliser you were wantin', Kaylee."

"An' coin to jingle, Mal?" Asked Jayne eagerly.

The Captain resisted the urge to sigh. "We ain't gonna get rich off one transport job, Jayne."

"Yeah, but we'll get paid?"

"We'll get paid, just not so much we can splash out on non essentials."

"But, Mal..."

"This ain't no holiday camp, Jayne!" Snapped the Captain. There was a small awkward silence. "Once we drop our passenger off we go lookin' for somethin' more substantial, *dong ma*?"

"I understand why we have to do this Captain," Said Book slowly. His tone and manner relaying that he was not questioning the Captain's decision nor criticising him. "But are we sure we really want to go to Dresden?"

Dresden was a Core World. Densely populated and the top end of the Tech Revolution that bound the monied classes together tighter than strands of DNA. Mal had never been there before but like every good Browncoat had heard of it, the name of the place enough to set every nerve in his body on edge. Milo had even upped the price to sweeten the deal, insisting that all they had to do was get him there. No questions asked. How hard could it be? They didn't have to do more than touch the soil, not kiss it. Just abide long enough for their unwanted passenger to depart then they would get themselves into the atmo so fast they would be nothing but a gorram blur in the sky. As long as that blur didn't become a smudge.

Lost in thought it was some minutes before the Captain realised everyone had left the commons area except Wash and Zoe. The baby stirring in his second's arms brought Mal back to the Here and Now. He blinked and found a smile settling on his lips as he watched Zoe take a seat on the couch, Wash fussing and fluttering around her as he prepared a bottle for the baby's feed. That was one of the things they had lucked into when they landed on Pacquin. Found a store sold crates of the damned stuff. Powdered milk. And not the basic kind, this one was top grade A quality and stuffed full of all the vitamins a growing child would need. Mal just hoped they wouldn't all end up living on it. Like Jayne he was partial to something he could sink his teeth into. Partial to living and breathing too. He swallowed. Not going there. Had to think positive.

"Not to intrude on an intimate moment but time's gonna come when you gotta give that baby a name."

Zoe looked up and smiled at him, something so truly happy and relaxed that he felt his heart constrict. Gorramit he ain't never seen her so content, so peaceful. Married life agreed with her in ways that made him so happy it was terrifying. And now this little scrap of life was adding to that joy in a way that pierced his heart and made him grip even fiercer to whatever he could do to maintain that idyll. He desperately wanted his people to be happy even if the self same thing couldn't be for him. Maybe even because of it.

"So what'd'you call him?"

It was Wash who answered. "Jack."

The Captain raised an amused eyebrow. "Jack? You tellin' me it took you three days to come up with a name an' that's all you got?"

"My fault, sir." Zoe deadpanned.

He blinked. "Ain't nothin' wrong with you choosin' a name I'm thinkin' just surprised me is all."

"Think we were gonna name him after you?" Wash quipped, unable to resist.

The Captain was smiling, his eyes on the baby. Far away thoughts gliding through his head like fireflies dancing to tunes only he could hear. The strains fashioned from the strings of his heart. He brushed the lightest of touches across the top of the baby's head. Just enough to stir the downy hair nothing more. Reverent almost, like some kind of unspoken blessing. Then the little magical moment was gone and Mal looked at Zoe. "What's wrong with callin' him Hoban?" The Captain glanced sideways at Wash's shocked reaction. "Your name ain't it?"

"Yes, an' did I not tell you how much I hate it?"

Mal laughed so hard he had to break it off before it degenerated into pain. Zoe's look sharpened in a heartbeat, more tuned to her Captain than was sometimes wise. Gave him a sense of the uncomfortables knowing she could read him so well especially as his own chances of having a family seemed to be close to a snowball's chance in hell. All nine of them by the look of it. "Sir?"

"Baby Jack it is." The Captain covered quickly. As if him saying it made it so.

Then the Captain was gone and Wash found himself gazing thoughtfully at the empty doorway before looking back at his wife. "What was that about?"

Zoe shrugged. Covering for both of them. "You know the Cap'n. Don't pay him no never mind, I think he's comin' round to the notion of us havin' kids, *zhangfu*."

Her husband didn't say anything but watched Zoe settle the baby with the bottle, his eyes full of a love so deep only the knowing that it was returned in full measure kept him from sinking in the bliss of it. Zoe said he knew the Captain but right now he was beginning to think he didn't know the man at all.

* * * * *

Simon and Kaylee were in their bunk, Simon not minding a good gorram that she had practically dragged him there. Her hands flying over the buttons of his vest and shirt before he could master his humour enough to form speech. "Slow down, *bao bei*, I'm not going anywhere."

Kaylee flushed. Simon was still amazed she could do that with such regularity given how open she had always been about sex. "Can't help it, you just look so *shuai* an' ya know that gets me all hot an' sweaty."

A hand slipped down to his trousers, sure and quick, his pants open even as he wriggled out of his shirt and vest, the laughter in his throat catching as her fingers gripped their prize. "Kay-lee..."

Her smile dazzled him, her touching setting him on fire. "Got somethin' ya wanna say now, Dr Tam?"

He was incoherent, his trousers stripped off him along with his underwear yet Kaylee managed not to let go of her grip on him. The sure flexing strokes of her hand making him groan and shiver as he hardened to her touch. Kaylee loved this, loved him. Loved the way she could knock all the Core out of him and just fill him with the want and need he constantly aroused in her. Now she wanted something more. She wanted what Zoe and Wash had only she was afraid to put it into words for fear of frightening her husband off. Being a parent was different to being a husband and that was something he would need easing into. Rutting 'til the object of her affection couldn't think straight was a start. Besides, she might be young but Kaylee could feel her biological clock ticking and she wasn't one who was going to be satisfied with only one. No. Best way to build a passel of younguns was to start early. Good thing the doc had stamina.

The first time was quicker than Simon would have liked but Kaylee had pounced on him so suddenly and been so cunningly energetic he had come before he could stop himself, the frantic thrust and snap of his hips stilling slowly as he released deep inside her hot warmth. Her legs wrapped around him, her lips sucking the breath out of him as he tried to recover the breath to speak. "Wow! Not that's I'm complaining, *bao bei*, but what brought that on?"

"What? I can't be overcome with wifely lust for my husband without a reason?"

Simon wasn't sure how to answer that without ruining the moment so he kissed her instead. He knew his greatest mistakes were always made when he opened his mouth. Chuckling, Kaylee knew what he was doing but didn't mind a good gorram. After all this was her idea and she needed to get him ready again. He didn't get suspicious until she rolled him onto his back then began to disappear in a line of determined kisses down his chest. Simon tried to pull her back up, to kiss her and ease into sleep. He was tired, sated, but his wife was insatiable. Opening his mouth to suggest they rest soon, the words disintegrated into broken vowels and stolen consonants as Kaylee's busy tongue slid down to wash him. Her mouth kissing, sucking and driving him beyond coherence for the second time.

Eyes closed he shuddered as she tongued his flaccid penis. Knowing all the medical terms did not inure him to the pleasure and excitement straining through his body. He twitched but knew he would not be rising to the occasion for a while at least. Then she sucked him in, her hot wet mouth wrapped around him as as if he was some tasty treat. Simon groaned, head back on the pillow, body twitching. His penis a little too sensitive for prolonged abuse but enjoying the mix of pleasure and pain that had rewired his brain into an instrument of her sweet torment. It took his pleasure numbed mind a moment or two to register that she was spreading his legs, her hands rubbing and stroking up and down his thighs, her mouth still sucking gently on him, her tongue tasting and licking and probing the salty slit while keeping him imprisoned inside her mouth.

It was the press of her finger that jolted him. Simon's head snapped up, a strangled cry in his throat as she breached him. What the gorram was she doing? But before he could ask the slick finger burrowed deeper and his groan crossed the abyss to a moan, not sure if he liked what she was doing or not. He felt open, vulnerable, in a way making love had never done before. He found himself beginning to jerk in her mouth as another finger joined the first, the burn of entry now confused with jolts of pleasure as she found his prostrate gland. Oh good gorram, she was going to kill him! But Kaylee knew what she was doing. Wasn't no prairie harpie just a fun loving woman wanting to please and sex her man. Wanting to take him to the edge and throw him off with all the bells and whistles. Wanted to make him come so hard that she would carry the taste of him in her mouth until she died.

Simon didn't care. His mumbled broken words dribbling out of his slack mouth, his whole world one of sensation. His body thrumming as if there was a current running through it. His cock hardening in that busy but gentle mouth, the teeth nipping as she sucked, the tongue teasing. Her fingers so deep inside him now that it felt like a whole hand. He jerked and shuddered hard, knew he had to be leaking inside her mouth, her tongue sliding back and forth over the slit as precum mixed with the juices in her mouth making Kaylee moan. No wait. That was him. Wasn't it? Simon shuddered again, the hand now fully inside him and gently stroking his prostrate, orchestrating the excitement rising as he jerked and juddered harder and harder in answer to her touch. Her mouth on him more insistence now, her teeth under the cap holding him until her lips glided down the blood engorged shaft. His foreskin oiled by her mouth and beginning to throb as his balls tightened.

He wanted to warn her, to tell her to let him go so he could bury himself inside her but it was not what she wanted this time. He felt like every bone in his body had melted, the heat hitting his spine like a rush of kundalini as pleasure overflowed and burned his senses, the rush of pressure released in a pleasure so intense he was not sure whether or not he had blacked out for a second as he came. The ejaculate swallowed down without so much as a hiccough. He lay wasted, spent. A sloppy starfish of arms and legs bathed in sweat. Kaylee took her mouth off him but did not remove the hand. Simon did not notice. He had died and gone to wherever it is the well and truly fucked go when their minds have turned to mush. She let him drift in and out of sleep, her hand gentle inside him, stroking slowly and carefully over the gland for the pleasure of watching the ripples of reaction tremble through his body. After a while she slowly and carefully eased her hand out of him. Kissed the opening then slowly and lovingly kissed him all over, not stopping until she had licked the sweat off him then settled her finally satisfied body over his.

With a wicked little grin Kaylee dropped a kiss on Simon's lips, yawned then pulled the blanket up over them. They would need their sleep especially if her husband was going to be fit enough for round two come morning. She drifted off to sleep with a vision of a miniature Simon smiling up at her, the tiny immaculate copy blowing bubbles as he dribbled in happy content. A last thought as another yawn cracked her jaw was *like father like son*. Oh yeah. Kaylee Tam could live with that.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wode ma* = mother of God *jinlai* = come in *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

*shenme* = what? *dui* = correct *dong ma* = understand? *diyu* = hell

*zhangfu* = husband *bao bei* = precious/treasure *shuai* = handsome/snazzy

Chapter Text


"ACCEPTABLE LOSSES"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

He found his friend in the cargo hold. The sight of the Chinaman instantly calming the Captain for no good reason he could think of. Chung-li did not have to look up to know who it was. For a good few minutes neither man spoke. The home made coffin a reminder of the matter that lay between them but it was a companionable silence. "You know we got a new passenger?"

Chung-li nodded. Mal watched him for a moment, the man's face so serene it was at odds with the deathwatch vigil he was keeping.

"Missed you at table."

"I was not hungry."

"Have to eat gorrammit."

The big man looked up from the coffin and met the Captain's eyes. "You are troubled, *wode pengyou*." He said softly.

"How did this become about me?" Before Chung-li could answer the Captain rushed on. "Our passenger wants to go to Dresden."

The Chinaman was well aware it was a core planet which meant it would have a heavy Alliance presence. Knew it was part of what was unsettling the Captain. He wondered what the other part was. "Will you take him?"

"Seems like the thing to do." Chung-li did not say anything. Mal felt oddly defensive. "*Shenme*? He paid me already an' ship needs fuel an' such. Ain't like we got payin' jobs linin' up for us, Chung-li."

"Then why are you so ill at ease, Mal? Is this man a danger?"

The Captain thought about it he really did but even his gut instinct was kind'a blurry on the subject. Why the good gorram was he so jumpy? But then he had it. Knew. And the knowing of it was troubling. It had nothing to do with the gorram passenger, the job, or the destination and everything to do with a promise he in no way wanted to keep but couldn't bring himself to break. "We'll be on Glory come mornin'." He deflected.

"There is no rush..."

"No, no." Mal waved off Chung-li's offer to wait until the paying job was done. "Passenger was told up front an' accepted the terms. Ain't no problem, *dong ma*? Just be all kinds of happy when he's off my boat."

It was more than the Captain meant to say but he didn't intend to elaborate. At least not yet. He put a hand on the Chinaman's shoulder. "How about you come have a cup of tea? Maybe we can rustle up somethin' halfway decent for you to break your fast. How that sound?"

A slow warm smile bowed Chung-li's lips, the sight of it easing some of the Captain's tension and lightening the heaviness on heart and soul. "Does that mean you wish me to cook, *wode pengyou*?"

The Captain laughed, a good honest sound that rumbled away on a chuckle. "You do that an' I'll have to promote you to *wo zui hao de pengyou* but no, that's not what I meant. Seems to me you need to do some healin' your own self." He nodded to the coffin where Chung-li's sister Shen Ling lay. They needed to move the body soon anyway before the corruption of the corpse inside found its' way through the steel barrier lining the makeshift coffin. Inara had thoughtfully hung cloth pouches of pot pourri around the coffin but you could only mask so much of the smell and death had a sweet sickly odour that stuck in the mouth as well as the nose. Even clung to a body's clothes like woodsmoke if you lingered round dead folk too long. He knew that for a fact. Not all them that died had done so in the war. 'Sides, carrying a dead body on his boat was morbid and creepifyin'. "A wise man once said, *let food be medicine*."

Chung-li nodded then both men walked across the cargo bay to the metal steps and made their way up to the commons area. Milo watched from the catwalk, easing back and out of sight as the men reached the top of the stairs. High up in the metal beams above a small pale face angled across the metal ceiling, River's eyes watching the watcher, her brain dissecting thoughts as alien to her own as another language. But alien or not she knew he was not what he seemed.

* * * * *

Jayne looked across at the Preacher. It was hours later and folk were getting ready to turn in for the night. Milo had joined Simon and Kaylee in a last game of cards but the Captain declined and Chung-li had not been asked. Zoe had dragged Wash off taking the infant and all that baby talk along with them. Something that Jayne found both amusing and a relief to be rid of. Especially as how Kaylee's eyes kept lighting up and fixing on Simon. He might have gotten used to the two of them being together, married and all, but the thought of them having babies together made him shudder. Just something not right about the doc doing that to Kaylee. Like it was all kinds of unnatural.

"*Shenme shi*, Jayne?"

The mercenary shook himself at the Shepherd's query. "Huh?" He then thought of something else as the card game ended and everyone left but him and the Preacher. "What ya think he's got in that trunk?"

The shift in gears made Book blink. "*Shei*?"

"Milo."

"*Wo bu zhidao*, clothes I would expect. *Weishenme*?"

"Huh, too heavy for clothes. I know I had to lift it on board for him."

Book raised an eyebrow. "What do you think is in it?"

"Dunno, don't care so long as it's not another body."

"Jayne, the trunk isn't big enough for that."

"Is too," He retorted. "If'n ya cut the bits up real small."

Sometimes the working of Jayne Cobb's mind did not bear thinking about. "I don't think it's a body, Jayne, so stop worrying about it."

"I ain't worried." His frown deepened. "Just curious is all."

The Preacher took his mug to the sink, washed it out then dried his hands. "Well I'm off to my bunk to sleep, suggest you do the same. We'll be on Glory in a few hours."

"Glory." Murmured Jayne sourly, his tone morose. "Won't that be fun. Another gorram body to bury."

Book didn't respond and the mercenary watched him leave before getting up with a huff and lumbering off to his bunk. Once the commons area was empty a slight movement in the corridor outside revealed a figure lingering in shadow. Milo considered the mercenary's words. Well, wasn't that interesting? Providing nobody interfered with his business he would not interfere with theirs but information was a valuable commodity and who knew when the scraps he gleaned from their table would paint a picture worth more than coin? Not that he meant harm to them, he was just being cautious. Didn't hurt to have some knowing up his sleeve in case folk got too nosey. Thoughtfully he made his way on soundless feet to his guest bunk. Only when he had locked his door did he pull out the trunk and spin the combination lock. He eased up the lid and looked down at the messy sprawl of clothing just thrown inside.

Almost reverently, Milo removed the clothes until about halfway down he came across the major content of the trunk. Kneeling he spread his hands and felt for the outer edges then carefully lifted his most prized possession from the trunk. The light in his bunk was subdued, nothing fancy. Enough to see by but not to read fine print. Right now it was sufficient to throw a sparkle of light across the muted lines of the expertly crafted curves. He muttered a soundless litany as he tilted the tarnished metal, sighed, then reached for a soft cleaning cloth. He hummed softly as he worked, determined to win the right to wear it once again. Several hours later it gleamed so bright that the light from a candle would have reflected back and blinded him. Pleased, Milo put it to one side and reached in for the long wooden scabbard, lifting it out with great reverence before kissing the twin dragons engraved and highlighted in gold leaf along the exquisitely lacquered cover, between their great and venerable paws the pearl of wisdom soared bathed in the flames of enlightenment.

Milo was sensible of his duty and vowed to be worthy to bear them again in noble battle. He had come through the fiery trial of his redemption. His terrible injuries witness to the power of the mind to endure over the torment of the body. Soon. Soon he would prove that he had the supreme unadulterated commitment of a true believer. When that day came no power in the 'verse would be able to stop him. But for now his future was on hold. If he succeeded he would no longer be cast out, found wanting. He would rejoin the legions of the elite in carving out a better world. Always there would be sacrifices, he accepted that. Once he was returned to those hallowed ranks others would feel the clensing tip of his blade as he made way for the 'verse to come. Didn't matter a good gorram that he would not live to see it himself. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

* * * * *

Tired. Weary beyond the body he could not sleep. Malcolm Reynolds lay awake and stared up at the ceiling of his bunk. He wished he did not feel this way, that the complex tangle of emotions could be folded away and placed where they could never betray him but how could you hide your thoughts from a gorram mind reader? And one who knew the content of his heart better than he did his own self? That the girl was now so manifestly a woman full and grown was no help to salve his conscience for the feelings he could not curb no matter what her brother said. He flung an arm over his eyes but the vision of her washed until her face and hair shone as she paraded in her finery gave lie to the fiction that this was something he could close his eyes to and ignore. Gorrammit, what in the nine hells did Inara think she was doing encouraging River that way? The girl - no woman - was all kinds of fragile and damaged her own self. She needed someone whole and sensible and able to give her all the things he could not. Not that he was advocating some core bred *qingwa cao de liumang* because he wasn't. But this whole 'unable to think of anything but River' was driving him *shenjingbing*.

So wrapped up in his thoughts was he that it took a moment or two before he realised someone had opened his hatch. Propping himself up on his elbows he squinted at the dazzling square of light and prepared to chew out the *chun baichi* disturbing his sleep before he had even gotten any. At least that was the plan until with a squint of the eyes he made out the slim familiar form dancing light as air down his hatchway steps. Gorrammit, talk of the *guai* and she would appear. "River! What the good gorram you doin' in my bunk?"

She sailed on feet that scarce touched the deck. Was he dreaming? Then she was there, smiling gently and tilting her head just so until his breath caught. *Wode ma* he was a dead man. "Sssh, too much talking."

He tried to shoo her away, ward her off, anything but what he wanted most of all. Not no way could they so much as touch, fear inching its' way deep inside at the knowledge that if their lips should meet he would be lost. "We can't be doin' this, River. I made a promise..."

"You were tricked."

The softly spoken words seemed to reach her eyes, he froze spellbound as her hand reached for him. Body all a-tremble with the effort to not react, to not sink into her touch and gather her to him. "This ain't right."

She heard the ache in his voice echo the one in his heart and loved him the more for it. "*Fang xin, wode xinzang*. Love is not a sin."

"Your brother..."

"My brother is a boob."

"He worries about you."

Her fingers touched his lips stilling the flood of words crowding on his tongue to silence whatever folly of apologies he would unleash. Mentally he groaned, her touch so innocent setting him on fire. This was bad, he was bad. Almost he could feel the flicker of the Shepherd's Special Hell coming to claim his soul. Then River's lips rose to meet his, trapping the words inside and taking away his breath in one fell swoop. She was gentle, invasive and tender and it was glorious. A groan leaked out but she swallowed it down, her small but amazingly insistent hands pushing him down, her tresses framing his shocked expression as she straddled him, only the thin worn woollen blanket between her presence and his desire.

"River..."

"Hush, *ai ren*. I mean to have you."

His eyes widened. "Um, don't think that's such a good idea, *xin gan*...."

Sweetheart! Mal had called her sweetheart. River's heart soared, her eyes glowed. He caught the look in them and felt his resolve weakening. *Diyu* he was lost. From somewhere a fragment of self control flashed through him just as River tugged the blanket off him. He gasped and caught her arms in his hands, teeth gritted with effort as he sat bolt upright taking her with him. "River, you don't know how hard this is but we can't be makin' out like kids rollin' around in the hay , *dong ma*? I ain't any kind of man to get tied up with. You deserve someone better, someone who'll treat you right. I ain't him."

Her eyes moistened but there was strength in them too. "I don't want anyone else, Mal, and Simon is wrong."

"About you yes, me - no. Reckon he's got the right of it."

The threat of tears became reality. She wailed, a soft tragic sound that tore at his heart and made him feel all kinds of a heel. "River," He begged softly. "This is hard enough an' I don't got it in me to hurt you but you keep pressin' an' that's what I'll have to do."

"How can you do this? How can you break my heart?"

"Darlin' that ain't what I want an' you know it but this can't be happenin'."

Next came the tears. Not bitter streams of hurt accusations as he might have expected but the heart-torn excess of sorrow so poignant it was drowning them both. Taking a chance he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her close, rocking and soothing her with his voice and the reassurance that he did have feelings for her but it wasn't right for him to take advantage and act on them. He begged her to understand, to forgive him for causing her pain. After a few minutes River eased back in his arms and he let her, a world of sorry in his eyes. She saw him through a glassy shimmer of tears and a smile trembled on her lips. She loved him, had waited for him for so long and now Simon was going to spoil it all. Take her chance of happiness away in the mistaken belief he knew what was best for her. Mal was noble, a gentleman, no matter how much he might try to deny the words the fact was part of who he was. Why he got himself and his crew into such dire situations.

Gently she touched his face, her fingers outlining every feature, her eyes memorising him. When he would speak she hushed him with a look. At last she was controlled enough to risk words. "I've waited so long, Mal, I can wait a little longer."

He wanted to cry. His beautiful, gentle River. So trusting, so faithful, so much more worthy than he was. "River, some day you'll meet the man you were destined to love..."

She cut him off with a watery smile that shattered his heart with aching for her. "Already have." River placed her small hand over his heart. She could feel the warmth of him, the steady deep rythym of the heartbeat that synchronised the rise and fall of her own as surely as the night followed day. "I will love you forever, *ai ren*. Whether you send me away or I go willingly. You can't shut me out forever, Mal."

The Captain blinked, stunned and heart sore. "It's not that I want to, *xin gan*, but it's what I gotta do."

It felt strange to see how calmly she accepted his ruling, not pushing him beyond the point where he could not resist and still be a man. Knowing it would hurt him and she would not do that for anything. She knew the sticking point wasn't him and it wasn't her. Even as River bent to drop a last gentle kiss on his parted lips a plan was forming in her mind. "I'll leave but only because you asked me to and I know you mean well."

"*Xie xie ni*, River."

She shook her head. "Don't thank me, Mal. My brother may have won the battle but he can't win the war."

"River..?"

A smile dazzled and confused him. She hugged him this time then pulled back and dropped a playful kiss over his heart. Pausing she became serious once more. "Won't give you up, *ai ren, dong ma*?"

In a daze he just stared at her. This incredible, beautiful, sexy and courageous young woman wanted him. Was prepared to wait, to fight, to do anything to win him. Not that he was struggling exactly on that account. No, his problem was with the whole right and wrong of it, the notion that anything they had between them would be sullied by his fingerprints on her soul. River shook her head and kissed him again, this time coaxing him to return the gift. The sigh from his heart touched her own and made her smile. She had been right. The Captain loved her too.

"Go to sleep, Mal. Tommorow is another day."

"It is?"

River smiled at his expression. His hair was touselled and she thought he looked adorable with that confused and concerned expression on his face. He might try to hide it from her but she knew the measure of his heart, the depth of his love and the future they could have if they were willing to fight for it. She was no dummy and he was no coward. If Simon Tam thought this was the end of her feelings for the Captain he was an even bigger boob that she had taken him for. Because River hadn't even begun to fight. And she was a genius after all.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wode pengyou* = my friend *shenme* = what? *dong ma* = understand?

*wo zui hao de pengyou* = my best friend *shenme shi* = what's the matter?

*shei* = who? *wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *weishenme* = why?

*qingwa cao de liumang* = frog humping sumbitch *shenjingbing* = crazy

*chun* = stupid *baichi* = idiot *guai* = devil/ghost *diyu* = hell

*wode ma* = mother of God *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart)

*wode xinzang* = my heart *ai ren*/*xin gan* = sweetheart

*xie xie ni* = thank you

Chapter Text


"DRAWING THE LINE"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was early. They were still a couple of hours from Glory but Wash knew folk would be stirring real soon. He wanted to be up before the Captain came bellowing into their bunk for him, not that he took much notice of the macho posturing or bull frog impressions. Mal would be uptight enough what with the funeral to come and seeing his friends on Glory under such sad circumstances. Mayhap him and Zoe wouldn't take the baby down to the planet with them. After all, someone would have to stay with the ship. As if reading her *zhangfu's* thoughts Zoe spoke and stirred in the same heartbeat. Wash figured it must be some kind of womanly gift.

"It'll be fine, Wash."

He acted as if he didn't know what she was talking about. "*Shenme*?"

Zoe smiled, the curve of those lush lips making him go weak at the knees and just about everywhere else. The kiss eased the tension out of him quite a bit but he still didn't want to chance anything happening even on a peaceable world like Glory. "Cap'n said Rafe an' his people were real excited to meet the crew again especially the newest edition."

"He's not an *addition*," Huffed Wash. "He's our son."

"*Zhenjing xialai, zhangfu*. We'll be among friends, what could go wrong?"

He could not believe what she was saying. Sitting up, Wash looked across at the crib, little Jack sleeping as if he had not a care in the world. "How can you say that? This is Mal, his plans screw up more times than an accident prone circus clown!"

A frown began to form on Zoe's face prompting some pretty nifty back peddling.

"Not that I'm callin' the Cap'n a clown, *bao bei*, but you have to admit things have a habit of goin' all kinds of wrong when we least expect."

"Can't blame that on the Cap'n."

"*Wo zhidao*, Zoe, just don't want to be puttin' our baby in any unnecessary danger."

"Wash, we're goin' down to have a meal with Rafe an' his people. Stand a while 'til the Shepherd says his words over Shen Ling then we're comin' right back."

He nodded, conceding reluctant defeat. Zoe noticed his expression and picked up the baby, settling him in the crook of her arm as Wash leaned towards them, his worried look abating but not vanishing completely. As Zoe brought the waking child up to her breast to feed, Wash watched with a feeling of awe and growing determination. Nothing would be allowed to hurt this precious child. Idly he wondered if he would ever stop worrying and wanting to protect their son from harm. A touch on his arm reminded him that his Zoe could see right through him, one look telling him that she knew and understood. He sighed. He had not wanted to bring a little defenceless person into this violent and often scary 'verse but now that he was here he vowed to do everything in his power to keep him safe.

* * * * *

Sated, Kaylee lay soaking up the heat and enjoying how much Simon's face shone just after orgasm. Delight radiated from her hotter than Serenity's core. It had taken Simon Tam a long time to finally get around to acting on his attraction to the young mechanic, fearing that anything he tried to build would fall apart at the seams and he couldn't afford to do anything that would distract him from looking after his sister. But the 'verse had a wicked sense of humour and an even blacker notion of timing. It occurred to him that love was a lot like gravity. The initial attraction was just the impetus needed to break through the inertia. Bodies in motion. But oh, they were glorious when they collided!

The smile slopped over his face and made Kaylee laugh outright. She loved her Simon freshly sexed, made him all kinds of happy and pliable. All the tense worry and doctory stiffness eased out of him. She propped a hand under her head to watch him, a hand sliding over his cooling body but still feeling that inner heat. The coil of passion like a sleeping beast that would stir at her touch. Kaylee liked that image. She liked it a lot. Bending to kiss him the sound of their door opening made her jerk upright, Simon a second or two slower on the uptake. It was the whisper of cloth across the floor that identified the quiet intruder. Kaylee turned her head, eyes wide in surprise. "River?"

His sister's name made Simon sit up too, alarm causing his body to tense. "River, *shenme shi*?"

Kaylee slapped on the light, the three of them blinking at each other like owls. River recovered first, her eyes glued to Simon. "You want to make me in your own image."

Surprised and puzzled he shook his head. "No, I don't."

"It's an illusion." River paused to see if he understood but the blank expression on Simon's face was all the answer she needed. "Mother and father lavished everything on you, their only son. I was the price of your education."

It wasn't an accusation and she was not blaming him but hard facts left bruises on the mind as painful as any the body could bear. "River, that's not true. You can't believe that."

She sounded sad and that made Simon's heart ache. "I never meant to tell you Simon but you had to push. Deny me the same freedom. The path to happiness." There were tears forming in her eyes and Simon forgot every word that had passed her lips in his concern at her distress.

"*Mei mei*, you're upset."

"You told him. Used his honour against him. You think he's an evil, lecherous hump but you couldn't be more wrong. Not good enough but that's the point, Simon. In your eyes NO ONE IS!"

Her words ended on a thin wail. Kaylee wanted to comfort her and was struggling to understand. "What're ya talkin' about, sweetie?"

"Perhaps you should go and get my bag, Kaylee..."

His words seemed to electrify River, but not in a good way. If anything she was more distressed now than she had been a moment ago. "No! No more drugs! No more shutting River up so the secrets can't get out. No more pretending and no more lies."

Stung, Simon tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable, his tone for River but the words as much for Kaylee's benefit. "She was getting so much better."

"Because of him not you! You have to let me go or I'll never be free. Possession is nine tenths of the law Simon but it isn't love."

Kaylee looked confused and Simon could not blame her. His gifted sister often made him feel that way. "*Shei*? Who're ya talkin' about?"

"Mal."

That was not the answer Kaylee had been expecting. "This is about the Cap'n?"

Rubbing a weary hand over his face Simon tried to explain. "River has an infatuation with him, that's all. It's not healthy."

"LIAR!" River yelled, then turned to Kaylee. Her voice dropping back to a semblance of normal as if her moods had an on/off switch. "When you first came to Serenity you fell in love. Twice."

It was almost comical the way Kaylee's mouth flapped in open mouthed surprise. "What?" Kaylee thought about Bester but that wasn't love. It was just lust, 'sides everyone knew engines made her hot.

But River was shaking her head. "Once with Serenity then with the Captain." Simon's eyes widened at that little tidbit but his sister ignored him. "Mal trusted you, believed in you, set you free. Brother, father, friend - all rolled into one. You knew in the first instant and loved him for it." Now she turned her gaze back to her brother. "Not blind devotion, Simon. Neither is mine but I don't want a brother or a father. I want to go beyond a friend. You see that, are jealous of the freedom love can bring. Terrified to lose me."

Horrified, Simon stared at her. "You've got it all wrong, *mei mei*. I'm trying to protect you."

"*Bu qu*. You can't keep me in the box forever, Simon."

"*Bao bei*, that's not what I'm doing."

He wanted to reach for her, comfort her, but River stayed just out of arm's reach. A distance that hurt Simon more than he could put into words. Didn't matter how much he loved Kaylee, adored her even, River was the piece of him that made his life worthwhile. The part that had defined his existence for so long that it was the umbical chord that had stopped him moving on. He didn't want to see what she saw, didn't want to accept that the time had come to cut the chord. Easier by far to simply remove his still beating heart and expect nothing to change.

"No more lies." In detached fasination Simon watched a single tear roll down River's face. "I love you, Simon."

"I love you too, *mei mei*."

Her voice softened, not wanting to hurt him. "My love isn't an obssession."

Simon stared at her, finally understanding the point she was trying to make. "*Shenme*? You think mine is?"

River nodded. "I know it is but I couldn't tell you. Didn't want to hurt you when you tried so hard." A sob caught in her throat. "You gave up everything you had. You found me broken." Simon was almost in tears. Kaylee held her breath. "I'm not broken any more."

She could see in her brother's eyes that he didn't believe her. In Simon's mind River would be forever broken. Sadly she shook her head, willing him to see what she was showing him. "No, your obssession not mine. Like the medicine, a panacea that doesn't work. It's just a placebo, Simon."

Simon struggled for words. "But you're not..."

"In my right mind?" River paused and watched for his reaction. "Yes, I am. They altered me, changed the wiring. I was damaged, changed, but still River."

Simon felt on safer ground now, helped by Kaylee's hand closing over his. "Thanks to the medication."

Something sparked in her eyes. "No. I lied too. To make you feel better."

He could only stare at her in disbelief. Half afraid to grasp her meaning. "You couldn't have, wouldn't have lied to me."

"You forget Simon, I'm a genius. You needed the medicine to 'cure' me even if it wasn't true. Make me a normal girl. Wanted to go back in time, undo what they did, make me the child you remember not the one who is. I got lost in a shadow I couldn't recreate but I loved you, love you still. Couldn't bear to disappoint you and you'd already lost so much. So I pretended even when I knew the smoothers would only dull the pain, but it wasn't physical pain. All in the mind, Simon, but it's a powerful engine and it was growing too fast and swift for ready comprehension. Everything got garbled. The message drowned out by lack of understanding. The brain adapts like the body to a limp, compensation. I began to understand. To no longer be afraid. You thought it was the medicine but it wasn't. It was me. Stepping out of the shadows. A woman not a little girl but still River." She paused and looked at Simon with such undiluted love and affection that he could not speak. "They rewired my brain, Simon, but my memories and my emotions are still there. I've adjusted, ready to cut the chord. You have to be ready to adapt as well."

* * * * *

Book had not always been a Shepherd. *Diyu*, he hadn't always been Book but that was a story for another day. One he like as not would never tell. Right now he was considering their passenger. The man carrying so many secrets they could not all be unravelled no matter how much time you had. Layer upon layer of lies, subterfuge, misdirection. You name it Milo had probably done it and done it better that anyone else Shepherd Book had ever met. And he had met a lot of folk, some the kind you couldn't mention in polite company. So what did that make Milo? Friend or foe? Oddly enough Book did not feel threatened by the man, it was as if he was just passing through. But those eyes were too bright and alert for comfort. Milo was quiet to the point of being wallpaper, a presence so unobtrusive you simply forgot he was there and that was dangerous.

Tired though he was, the Preacher elected to keep an unofficial watch. If he was wrong it wouldn't make any difference but if he was right it might just give them sufficient forewarning to be able to laugh about it afterwards. The alternative was simply not worth considering.

* * * * *

There was no day or night in space, in fact the concept of time was faintly ridiculous in the wider scheme of things. Only when planet bound did it make a bit of sense. Right now they were coming up on Glory and Wash was trying for the third time to get a response from Rafe. It was Zoe who reminded him of something. "They don't have a cortex link on the Wellspring Ranch, Wash. Had to go to the Peters Ranch if you recall."

Wash nodded more to save an argument than because he remembered. "Wonder why no one's answerin' now, *bao bei*?" He flicked a few switches. Concerned when nothing happened.

Zoe rested her hands on her husband's shoulders. "Most likely explanation is he went back to the Wellspring. Maybe get some of those cakes you were so fond of last time."

"That was Jayne, *fengmi*, an' they were busicuits not cake. Chung-li made them if I recall to stop us poucin' on the Cap'n's soup. In case you hadn't noticed Chung-li's on our boat."

Her smile brushed his lips, her eyes twinkling down at him like guiding stars. "So," Said Zoe in a light teasing voice as she dropped another kiss on Wash's upturned face. "No busicuits, cakes or fancy soup." She paused to kiss him deeply, a flash of devilment stirring in her dark eyes. "Oh, whatever shall we do!"

He knew she was mocking him with her impression of him but Wash didn't mind. "I'm sure we'll think of somethin', *bao bei*."

Before they could come up with an alternative the measured tread of the Captain's boots ended the debate. Not noticing he had interrupted anything Mal ran an eye over the console then looked at Wash. "Best land this bird, *dong ma*? The sooner the past is buried the better."

"How's Chung-li takin' it?"

"About as much as we expected. Self-contained to the point where he don't seem human half the time. Not that I know what the other half might be."

Zoe smirked, Wash smiled brightly. "Are we talkin' *aliens* Cap'n."

"No Wash, YOU'RE talkin' aliens an' might I say that in no way gets you out of landin' this boat."

His pilot sketched a mocking bow. "Your wish is my command, *wode chuanzhang*."

"No, your wish is my boot up your *pigu* if you don't get movin'."

Zoe gave a little frown not fooled by the banter. "What's the hurry, sir?"

He couldn't explain the itch to her. During the war it had been his own personal alarm system. Had saved their lives a time or two. If he told her he had it now no way would they land, in fact she was as like to turn the boat round and head deeper into the Black. Mal didn't see the sense in doing that if they had nothing to show for it. 'Sides he had a body he wanted off his boat and he didn't mean Chung-li. Shen Ling's corpse was beginning to smell a bit sweet, musty and corpsified. And another thing. Rotting corpses spread diseases and they had problems enough just ducking Alliance patrols and other *goushi*. Didn't need to borrow trouble. Plus seeing his friend hurting was making him all kinds of cranky.

* * * * *

All things considered the landing was better than the disembarkation. Not nobody was unaffected by what they found when Serenity's ramp opened up and what should have been fresh air doused them all in a wake up call that set the hairs on their necks standing on end. It was Jayne who put it in the vernacular for them. "*Wode ma*, what the ruttin' *diyu* happened here?"

Mal stared, eyes so wide they swallowed up the whole of his face. By his side Chung-li was a silent and comforting presence, albeit he had to be hurting a hundred times worse than the Captain. Kaylee had started running down the ramp in her excitement to see Rafe Connor and all the shiny folk on Glory. It wasn't just the Captain's friends from the Wellspring Ranch that had brought a happy expectant smile to her face but the women and children that had settled in Glory's main town after Serenity's crew had rescued them from the slaver's ship some years before. Her steps skidded to a shocked halt at the foot of the ramp, the crew in a little cluster staring at a vision beyond Dante's Inferno. Even the Shepherd had no words to describe what they were seeing. Crossing himself he bowed his head in prayer. It was only when Milo descended the ramp to see what all the fuss was about that anyone stirred. Turning a puzzled gaze on Serenity's Captain his words jarred them out of their shocked lethargy. "Why would anyone want to come to a dead world?"

The Captain could not speak. Tears in his eyes that instead of running down his face fell deep inside of him where the grief was slowly drowning him. He put a hand on Chung-li's shoulder for the sorrow shared that he could in no way speak on. The utter and total devastation was a blow that stunned. Happy expectation ruined in a heartbeat of knowing. Smoke still rising like funeral pyres where once a green and fertile land had held sway. He knew without having to check that the whole gorram planet would be the same.

Jayne's voice had a dark heavy hitch to it. Thick with emotion turning slowly to a feeling of dread. "What was it Mal? Reavers?"

The Captain shook his head. Inara Serra put her arms around Kaylee and rocked the poor girl as she sobbed. Wash hugged Zoe, the baby gurgling in her arms unaware of the horror before them. Simon wanted to go and check, look for survivors. Mal said nothing. He knew they would find nothing but scorched earth and in the blackened ruins where dreams had once flourished would be nothing but the greasy ashes of bodies burnt beyond all recognition. The ranch and all its' outbuildings, the town and all its' little shops and dwellings nothing but lumpy smudges on a smoking landscape. Without a word he removed his hand from Chung-li's shoulder and turned and walked back aboard his boat. For the longest time no one moved or uttered a word.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*zhangfu* = husband *shenme* = what? *zhengjing xialai* = calm down

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *wo zhidao* = I know *mei mei* = little sister

*shenme shi* = what's the matter? *shei* = who? *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

*diyu* = hell *fengmi* = honey *dong ma* = understand? *pigu* = bottom

*wode chuanzhang* = my Captain *goushi* = crap/dog shit

*wode ma* = mother of God

Chapter Text


"SMOKING GUN"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Choked. It was the only thing Simon Tam could feel. The total devastation was wrong on so many levels. Kaylee was crying so hard her breath kept hitching, the doctor's arms automatically wrapping round his wife while his mind was in a whirl. Shepherd Book moved towards Chung-li but the big man just turned sad eyes on him and gently shook his head. Frustrated the Preacher gave a reluctant nod. His look saying he would be ready when the Chinaman needed him. Any place, any time. Wash followed his silent wife up and into the commons area, Jayne shutting the cargo bay door to block out the sight that burned the edges of his retinas with images of happy memories shared with people who were no more. Good honest folk. He'd liked them and not just because they were Mal's friends, though that helped too. Relaxed him knowing they had earnt the Captain's approval. Hurt him trying to think of why in *diyu* anyone would want to raze a whole planet to the ground. 'Specially if it weren't Reavers. Didn't make no sense.

Subdued and more than a mite in shock the crew drifted in ones and twos up to the commons area until, by silent consensus, the big old table had every seat filled bar two. The Captain and Chung-li conspicuous by their absence. No one evincing much surprise to find the passenger already seated at the table. A moment's double-take to be sure their eyes weren't deceiving them then Milo was consigned to the back of their minds. Forgotten. Wallpaper. Only the Shepherd had taken note, his careful eye not lingering but aware. Inara took the makings gently out of the Preacher's hands. They exchanged a look then he took his seat next to Jayne and let Inara busy herself making tea for everyone.

In his bunk Malcolm Reynolds stood with his back to the ladder, staring at the metal wall of his room as if he were miles away. The distance measured in years and pain filled heartbeats. Memories flickering in his mind with the sepia tone of an old hand cranked piece of movie, the frames old and damaged but still identifiable in his mind's eye. Folk moved into and out of frame until he seemed drawn into the fabric of it and out of this world. His mama's smile, so wide and warm and generous. So full of love for him, the family so close knit and mocking in that gentle but ascerbic way their humour always drifted to the bright shiny edge of well honed sarcasm. It was a battle of wits but in his mama's house there were no losers just well loved family and friends joshing each other. The lively banter keeping them on their toes mentally while the banks of snow outside kept their muscles idle from ranch work while they waited for the thaw. Made no never mind what trials beset them they were happy. It was a far cry from after the War. When surrender had striped them of honour and added obscenity to the list of unbearable losses the Independents had endured.

Shadow. A land so marked and maimed nothing could live on it no more still less flourish. The feelings raw and sharp pierced him deep, pinning his heart to his soul and leaving both wounded. Memories so strong he could still smell the acrid smoke of human flesh filling his nostrils as they flared in painful dispair and distress. Everywhere he looked, nothing but death and destruction. Not content to see what had been done and leave he had to walk the land, retrace the steps of his people, visit the burnt remnants of their ranch house, the few stark blackened beams like rib cages standing out from the opened cavity of a corpse. The tears fell unabated, his chest tightening with the pain of it. Reliving the past moment by moment, images of what was crucifying his every breath. Head hung down in sorrow and shame for leaving his home to defend something that could not stand against the overpowering might of the Alliance, leaving his family unprotected. Butchered and burnt to death, the land made poison, the air filled with the stink of death and the humming drift of smoke making a pall in the air. His fault. His sin. He had neglected his duties at home and those he cherished most had paid the price.

Now, Chung-li had returned to his own war zone and for what? Why had Glory suffered a similar fate to Shadow? War was over. *Diyu*, Glory hadn't even fought in the War-That-Was. She was an innocent bystander and the war had been over more than a dozen years. He did not move as someone descended his ladder, the hatch quietly but efficiently closed and locked to preserve their privacy against the intrusion of some well meaning member of his crew. Mal did not turn, did not lift his tear stained face. Too deep in contemplation and regret, slowly surfacing in his mind to solve the mystery that made a mockery of war yet haunted those who had survived whether by default or design. His wits were sharpening even as his sorrow was compounded by this latest blow. The hand on his shoulder grounded him back in the Here and Now. The soft but deep voice as soothing and welcome as a mountain spring in the heat of day. Chung-li had once said they were brothers, a figure of speech, a declaration of unity and friendship. This day he felt closer to the man than any other soul in the 'verse with the exception of Zoe. Pushing back the memories so that he could at least function, the Captain turned and looked into the eyes of his friend.

"What the good gorram happened, Chung-li?"

"An evil thing."

The quietly spoken words gave scant information for Mal's fevered brain. Only barely keeping his anger in check he bit off his next words as if each and every one personally offended him. Mayhap they had. "That ain't no answer. I wanna know who did this."

"Who not what, *wode pengyou*?"

That gave him pause then the Captain nodded, all solemn and determined. "Who *and* what." He amended.

A long quiet sigh was expelled out of the Chinaman's barely open mouth, eyes glued to Mal's, a world of considering going on behind those knowing eyes. A wisdom lived and breathed in the man that set him generations apart from those that followed. Chung-li was a big man, shorter than Jayne and the Captain but twice as broad. His frame the size of a sumo wrestler from Earth-That-Was but without the flab. Every inch of him was well toned muscle and Mal already knew he was a martial arts expert, able to move like a freak in a hurricane and not disturb a gorram thing but that which he aimed for. Walked light as a feather when he wanted to as well. The man did not disconcert Malcolm Reynolds with his range of skills nor his manner, if anything he reassured him. With every gorram breath the big man took. But as big, brave and deadly as Chung-li could be Mal wanted to protect him. To keep his friend from harm. It wasn't a conscious thought but something so fundamental it was part of his DNA.

"We cannot bring back the dead." Whispered Chung-li in a soft voice.

His words returned the Captain to his duty. "Then best we lay your sister to rest."

For a moment Chung-li just looked at him, then raised a huge hand and gently wiped the tears from the Captain's face. Another might have been bemused that Mal was crying for a family that was not his own but Chung-li understood this man, always had. Knew deep in his heart the Captain was not only grieving for the people of Glory as a whole. Not that either would speak of it. "The others will want to come."

The Captain nodded, back in control but grim and solemn. He gave a shrug. "Let come who may, you choose the spot my friend an' I'll make it deep as needs be."

Chung-li thanked him with his eyes then opened the hatch. It was River that saw them first as they stood quietly framed in the doorway watching the crew drinking tea in gloomy abstraction. Wash looked up and rose from his seat, everyone else beginning to get up as well. Mal waved a vague hand in their direction. "No need to rise."

They retook their seats, wary and sad eyes flicking from him to Chung-li. Only Milo had not moved. The Shepherd noted it and wondered. Now here was the Captain taking control again, the crew unconsciously relaxing a tad at the comfort of having the mainstay of their lives back in focus even if there was blue murder shining like a dull promise in his eyes.

* * * * *

Milo watched, listened and drank in every move and mannerism of the members of this crew. Not because he was planning anything his own self but because it was in his nature to be cautious. To note, catalogue and measure the mental and physical abilities of all he came into contact with. It was like exercising a muscle and as automatic as breathing. Part of his early warning defence system. There was no emotion attached, no intent. He knew the Shepherd was extra sharp around him and that amused him. The man more open to Milo's brand of perception than the Preacher would have liked had he known. His concentration drifted off again. Something that kept happening when he took to coming out of the guest bunk he had been assigned.

Mixing with the crew of this ship was not good, left him open to observation in a way that having his tortured flesh remade anew would not have done. He wore his scars, his disfigurement, like battle honours. A part of him he was proud to bear not for the way others recoiled at the sight of him but for the lessons they represented. Only another neophyte would understand and he was well past the indoctrination stage of his faith. This was the final, last level and he had come through it like base metal from the philospher's stone. The impurities of wrong thinking clensed out of him. The purity of purpose stamped into body and soul with fire. A true believer. Yes. He had passed the final test. Was ready to be moulded to whatever purpose was required of him but first he needed to be back among his kind. To recover and renew. Unhurried to meet the destiny that awaited for like karma everything had its' proper time.

Nothing qualified like experience and Milo had not only been hung over the volcano's edge he had been right into the pit of it, down into the boiling searing heat until he reached the deepest and darkest revelations. He was ready now. Anything else would be a waste and Milo deplored excess above all things.

* * * * *

Jayne Cobb was solemn and silent as he watched the Captain and Chung-li carefully manhandle the now smelly box onto the back of the mule. They were wearing handkerchiefs over their noses, the squares of cloth impregnated with some kind of antiseptic Simon insisted on which made the eyes water judging by the looks on the two men's faces. Not that Jayne was in a position to judge. He hadn't liked Shen Ling, thought the woman was nothing but gorram trouble, but he hadn't wanted anything bad for Chung-li and when all was said and done it was the man's sister. Too rutting bad she wasn't like her brother. He noticed that despite what they had found on Glory, River had been unusually quiet. She stood almost close enough to him to touch but he wasn't crazy enough to do that. Still, her silence intrigued him. Dipping his head and speaking soft he spoke his mind. "How come ya got cryptic craziness on every gorram thing but now when we got us a mystery ya ain't got a word to say?"

She didn't look at him. "The dead don't speak and the living don't listening."

"That's just the kind'a thing I mean. Case ya don't recall we got us a dead world out there."

River knew. She had been staring out at it for the last ten minutes. "Only a world," She said sadly, her voice going distant and far away as if keeping pace with her thoughts. "Ball of mud and rock. Time to build a new one."

The mercenary jerked his head back round to stare at her. He frowned in confusion when she did not explain. "Why make a new world if ya ain't got the people to live in it?"

When she did not reply he turned and stomped over to the mule, knowing the Captain wanted him to drive them out once the coffin was loaded up. He did not hear River's response as she gazed at the scene of utter devastation and destruction. "Exactly."

Shepherd Book went back up the ramp to where the Captain was standing next to Chung-li in the cargo bay alongside the laden mule. Bible in hand Shepherd Book looked like a man with a mission. "Captain, I would like to accompany you."

Mal nodded back at the Preacher, not needing to ask Chung-li how he felt about that. They had spoken only a handful of sentences in words, the rest conveyed in looks that bypassed the needy necessity of imperfect speech. It wasn't telepathy so much as empathy plus each knew the other's mind. "*Xie xie ni*, Shepherd."

"Chung-li, is there anything in particular you would like me to say?"

The big man placed a large padded hand on the top of the coffin, well aware whose hands had crafted the last resting place of his sister. "*Bu qu*, though after you say your words I would like to add some of my own."

Book nodded. Had been expecting no less. As Chung-li predicted everyone wanted to go along and help. The Captain would have preferred to keep the company small but could not deny his crew their right to pay their last respects. Plus, he was all kinds of uncomfortable about what they might see when they got to the ranch house. It had been a mighty fine spread, laid out to take advantage of the contours of the land so that from the big house Rafe could see more than half of his ranch from the top window. It was an impressive view and not counting the hilltop where his foreman had hung Brooks and Harper most of the country was on the level. It pained his heart to think of what had happened not only to Glory but the fine folk that had settled there. Taking a few steps down the ramp the Captain removed his kerchief and cleared his throat to get his crew's attention. Chung-li following in his wake.

"I know you all want to show your respects not only to Shen Ling but everybody who died here." He paused a half-beat then continued. Chung-li moved to stand almost protectively beside him as if it was Mal's sister they were burying not his. Would have been funny had it not been such a solemn occasion. "But first it'll just be me, Chung-li an' Jayne a-goin'." He raised a hand to stop anyone from complaining. "Ain't a pretty thing to stand by an' watch a grave bein' dug but it's what needs doin'. Once the site is picked we'll dig the grave an' lower her down. Cover her then come back for you so the Preacher can say his words."

"Mal, I can help." Wash paused at the look in the Captain's eyes. "With the diggin'..."

The Captain's look softened a mite. Wash was a good man, Zoe had chosen her *zhangfu* well. He shook his head with a trace of regret. "*Xie xie* Wash, it's a kindly thought an' well intentioned but I'm thinkin' your place is here for now. Got all the help we'll be needin'."

The pilot nodded. Zoe squeezed his hand but said nothing. It was the longest spell of silence he could remember her having when decisions were being made around them. Now Wash realised she wasn't speaking because there was no need. She already knew the way of it, what would likely happen. Her silence was how she showed her support and respect for the Captain. How she acknowledged Chung-li's right to handle the funeral arrangements in his own quiet way. The baby lay silent in her arms, awake, blue eyes fixed on Zoe as if deep in baby thoughts of his own. Made Wash smile down at his son, such a treasured gift and smart. He just knew the child was the brightest gorram star in the 'verse. Didn't have to be top three per cent to know that much. So wrapped up was he that he only noticed the Captain, Chung-li and Jayne were leaving when his wife gently eased him out of the way so the mule could pass.

Simon Tam turned to follow the others back up the ramp and noticed his sister's face staring back at him. She looked even paler than normal, her eyes pinched, her body slightly hunched over. Kaylee was speaking about how sad it was and wondering what had happened but Simon blocked her out, the chatter a warm familiar background noise as his attention focused on his sister. "River? *Mei mei, shenme shi*?"

Kaylee stopped talking and stared at her friend. Anxiety suddenly welling up in her. "River? Sweetie, what is it?"

"Feel sick."

Before Simon could reach for her River darted down the ramp and leaned over. The sounds of her retching drew every eye in her direction. Book started to walk back down the ramp to see if he could help. Simon got to her side, unable to hide the worry and anxiety from showing. Flicking her hair back from her face River looked up and smiled brightly at him. "All right now." Oddly enough she gave Kaylee an even bigger smile. Unable to resist Kaylee smiled back even though the girl confused her. "Not a girl." River corrected then she eased out of Simon's fussing arms and walked towards Inara. "Sorry, I ruined your make up."

Inara smiled, glad of the distraction. "*Mei shi*, I can always do it again - if you would like?"

River nodded and the two went on ahead chattering quietly to each other and leaving a baffled Simon in their wake. He glanced at his wife. "What just happened?"

His wife laughed. "*Yiwusuoyou*. River's just growing up is all, Simon."

The look he gave Kaylee just made her laugh even more. Chuckling, Kaylee slid her arm in his. Book lingered at the bottom of the ramp. Everyone else now back inside, his eyes squinted across to the distant speck that was the mule carrying its' sombre cargo. Then he looked slowly across the charred and blackened landscape, a hard look coming into his compassionate eyes. A lifetime of hard choices and still harder decisions haunting him like a nightmare he could not leave behind.

* * * * *

"Who do you think did it?"

Didn't even have to guess. "Alliance."

Shepherd Book shook his head slowly. "I don't think so."

Simon Tam narrowed his eyes at the Preacher. It was their turn to cook so he was helping the Shepherd turn protein cubes into the equivalent of bread and fishes. "Then who do you think did it and more importantly why?"

Before Book could answer the Captain walked into the commons area. The whole crew sorting themselves into chairs around the big table. "Was wonderin' that my own self."

The funeral had been a solemn but dignified affair. Odd in that the burial had been a perfunctory duty, the sorrow being not for the woman laid in her coffin but the folks that had died on Glory. In terrifying and pain-filled fashion. Mal was absolutely convinced in his mind that they had been burnt alive though he did not share that suspicion with his crew. It would fit the pattern of evil that had torched his own homestead and turned a once peaceful world into dust. A planet poisoned for no other reason than it wasn't Alliance. Now the same fate had been meted out to Glory but why? That was the burning question of the day. As he glanced from Shepherd Book's face to the rest of his crew he found himself gazing at Chung-li's bowed head. His expression turned thoughtful as he wondered what the good gorram it meant. Were they punishing the planet or someone on it? A horrible suspicion began to worm its' way into his gut. Mal stomped on it but like the growing rattlers it wouldn't die. Unable to face the food being laid on the table he went for coffee instead. River looked across the table and caught his eye, something in her look telling him she knew.

Frowning, Malcolm Reynolds was wondering why she didn't just blurt it out or was this some new gorram game? If so, he wasn't in the mood. While plates were handed back and forth and chatter began to overtake the gloomy mood, he stared at River.

"No game, Mal." She said softly. He felt the hair on his neck begin to stand on end. "This was a warning."

They were unaware that everyone else had suddenly stopped talking. All eyes on the Captain and River. "Warnin'? What in the nine hells you meanin'? They killed everyone River, not nobody left to warn."

She shook her head. "*Bushi*."

His heart leapt. The hope a painful surge he could in no way control. "River, you sayin' some folk survived this cullin'? 'Cause I gotta tell you, me an' Chung-li been over this planet with a gorram toothcomb. On'y thing we found was crispy remains an' charcoal dust."

Instead of responding River turned her head. Puzzled, the Captain looked round to see who she was looking at and saw her lock gazes with Chung-li. With a shock he realised that whatever River knew, Chung-li knew it too. Instead of calming him down it made him all kinds of anxious. The rattlers in his stomach multiplying so fast it was hard to draw breath.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*diyu* = hell *wode pengyou* = my friend *xie xie ni* = thank you

*bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *zhangfu* = husband *xie xie* = thanks

*mei mei* = little sister *shenme shi* = what's the matter?

*mei shi* = it doesn't matter *yiwusuoyou* = nothing *bushi* = not so

Chapter Text


"DAMAGED"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Inara Serra was concerned for River but the girl - correction 'woman' - was completely unfazed. In fact she seemed amused by the flicker of worry that kept shadowing the Companion's beautiful face like fleeting lines of age time could not yet inflict, their moment not yet come. A foreshadowing of future years but with no place in the Here and Now. Although her face was glowing softly, River kept still. Didn't want to smudge the kohl or ruin the Companion's handiwork, not in one so gifted. Inara's stock in trade should count for something even in the Black.

"I'm not sick."

Now the Companion did frown, clearly not believing her. "You were sick, *mei mei*. I wasn't the only one who saw you throw up."

"Not me."

The gracious hands paused, Inara's mind jumping tracks not sure what River was trying to say. "*Shenme*?"

"Empathy not infirmity." She sang back brightly, then her candle dimmed and she stilled the flash flood of chaotic but happy thoughts, knowing Inara needed something more mundane and tangible to make sense in her mind. "I'm fine," She said in a tone mimicking the Captain when he was hurt but unwilling to admit it. Brightening again it was as if someone had just turned the lamp up, her intensity riveting the Companion to her shining face. A second later the Captain appeared at her shuttle door. Not surprised in the least, River touched Inara's hand in thanks. "*Xie xie ni*."

Inara barely responded, wondering whether River had known the Captain would come at that precise moment in time. She shook her head, annoyed with herself for indulging in such fancies then looked at the Captain's face as River smiled up at him. The grim sorrowing planes softening in a way that made her own heart ache. From some distant place inside herself Inara hoped that River would not hurt him. As if her thought echoed like a warning bell in River's mind, she turned and gave Inara a brief sombre look. Like a promise set in stone. "I won't."

Mal looked confused. "You won't what?"

River turned back to the Captain, jumped up and kissed his cheek. He froze a moment and Inara wondered whether he really did come to her shuttle for a reason. A look flicked her way and all the air in her lungs became stagnant as if it had nowhere else to go. "We gotta go, drop off our passenger, it'll mean two days on your schedule." He sounded apologetic, looked uncomfortable, seemed hardly to notice River gently taking one of his calloused hands in hers but Inara knew differently. The slight husky timber of his voice telling her that the Captain was acutely aware of River Tam even if he chose to show no outward sign. The two smaller hands cradled his right hand between them like something precious, palms gently wrapped around his as if River could protect him though what Mal would need protecting from Inara did not know. Transfixed, Inara watched the pale luminescence of River's face transfer momentarily to limn the outer skin of her hands like mother of pearl. As if only touching the Captain could make her shine. A connection completing a circuit that had been idle too long.

"So," The Captain's voice brought her out of her reverie. "You okay with that, Inara?"

It was on the tip of her tongue to make some ascerbic remark but that would have been mean and petty. Besides, not even Malcolm Reynolds could be blamed for the destruction of an entire planet not to mention the friends he had lost. The thought was its' own admonishment to her unworthy thoughts. After pushing the man away for so long she had no right to give in now to sparks of jealousy. "*Qu*. I'll send a wave and cancel my next appointment."

"Cancel not reschedule?"

She nodded. "I doubt the minister will have time for another appointment until we next pass this way."

"Then I'm sorry."

Surprise was a fleeting guest in her eyes but the Captain didn't see it. He was already walking out of the shuttle, River talking quietly to him, her hands still clutching his as they left together. It looked strange, incongruous, yet something in their easy way with each other felt right. Inara shook her head and berated herself. Aware she was part of the reason things were moving along in that direction yet she could not find it in her heart to deny them something she could never have. Whether Mal would let it turn into something more was a more complicated question.

* * * * *

Wash set course for Dresden and hoped nothing else untoward would happen. The joy of fatherhood tempered by the death of Shen Ling and the horrors they had found on Glory. He wondered what Chung-li would do now that he had no home and no family to speak of. Would the Captain ask him to stay on Serenity? He was not sure what to wish for his own self. He liked the man well enough, respected him even, but enough to be crew? Then there was this other little complication. The thing with River. He might not be as smart as Simon academically but there was nothing wrong with his eyesight and seeing the girl blossom into a woman right before his very eyes had changed the dynamics aboard the ship in ways that had somewhat alarmed him. Simon's reaction was as predictable as it was funny but the humour vanished quickly as the implications sank in. If the doc didn't come to some kind of an understanding with his sister and the Captain things could go to *diyu* in a hand basket quicker than a blink of the eye and where would that leave him and his newly expanded family? An unhappy ship was no place to bring up a little helpless person much less his son.

Yet it was as if the main players had come to some kind of truce. The Captain showed no sign of taking River up on her subtle and not so subtle attempts to get closer to him though he was careful to do so in a way that would not be hurtful or painful to her which gave Wash hope that there was more to this little attraction than the one sided ravings of a sex starved teenager come adult coping with an accelerated form of puberty. Gorrammit. Made his head spin six ways from Londinium just trying to work it all out. The Captain had a darkness in him that was all kinds of scary but Wash had also seen something equally as frightening in River. A hollow place where nightmares wept. Maybe those two had more in common than he had first thought. That was a disturbing notion. Wash tried to distract himself, moving the dinosaurs almost by rote but not really able to concentrate on them. With a sigh he returned them to their correct positions on his console, a sad apologetic eye promising to make it up to them later. Mal's sudden appearance on the bridge made him jump, the guilty expression on his face causing the Captain to frown at him.

"Wash? There somethin' goin' on I should know about?"

"No, no, you just surprised me Cap'n. Couldn't you stomp or shout or be more Captain-y rather than sneak up behind me?"

Amusement lightened the burden of grim sorrow etched onto his face and made Wash feel better. They might not be best buddies but they were friends of sorts. And but for Mal he would never have met his oh-so-gorgeous-but-deadly wife.

"Wasn't sneakin'." The Captain paused then his mood darkened again. "How long 'til we reach Dresden?"

"Just under two days."

"Anyway we can shave some off that?"

Wash blinked then checked his calculations. "I could have a word with Kaylee, see if we can go for a few hard burns. We space 'em out won't hurt Serenity none but it'll eat up our fuel twice as quick."

The Captain frowned. "Still leave us enough to make the trip without refuelin'?"

A few more checks then Wash nodded. "Yep, should do. Providin' we don't do any side trips but once we get to Dresden we're gonna have to refuel."

"Dresden is a core planet."

The pilot nodded, wondering what the Captain was getting at and why the tension level had just gone up a notch or two. He wanted to ask *what's the matter, Mal?* but didn't want to make things worse. Man seemed all brittle and fragile, something telling him it was more than just the tragic events on Glory. Though what he could not fathom. Wash waited.

"There're other core planets near? Maybe something less shiny to Alliance eyes?"

Ah, now he understood. The Captain didn't want to fuel on Dresden. Didn't want to do more than let the passenger off then get the good gorram out of there. A sentiment Wash could fully get behind. "Um," He flicked through the online charts. "There are a couple of moons. Two of them are pretty prosperous - Canaan and Bantyre - but there's another one, a little farther out called Petra." Another pause as Wash brought up everything he could find on Petra. "Huh, well named. Seems that ball of rock is little else."

"It got folks on it?"

Wash nodded. "Small colony, miners mostly but low grade stuff. No precious gems or metals, mostly iron ore. Hard work, low pay, poor conditions. Nice little place to contract Bowden's Desease."

The Captain winced slightly. He still felt bad about taking that medicine in the train job even if he did make sure to give it back as soon as he knew what it was. That was no way for folks to die. "They got fuelin' facilities?"

"Yep, mostly commercial grade an' pretty crude but it'll get us to the next Alliance free planet."

Mal straightened and smiled, clapping a hand on his pilot's shoulder. The relief evident in his tired eyes. "Good enough, that's all I'm askin' Wash."

A flicker of concern made Wash a mite reckless. "You okay, Cap'n? You seem a little... tense."

"*Hen hao*, Wash, just want Milo off my boat an' us back in the Black where we belong."

"An' Chung-li?"

There was a pained pause, the Captain staring out into the Black as if all the answers in the 'verse were hanging right before his eyes could he but see them. "He goes or stays, whatever he wants." Another pause then bright sharp eyes turned their laser points on Wash. "You gotta problem with that?"

"No, no, just wonderin' is all. Wasn't sure if he had any other family."

"None to speak of."

"I noticed he doesn't wear a gun."

Mal gave him a funny look. "Meanin' what exactly?"

"Don't mean anythin' just if he's stayin' I was wonderin' what he would do on board?"

"If he did nothin' but gather dust I wouldn't throw him off my boat." Growled the Captain.

Alarmed, Wash put his hands up in mock surrender, his eyes widening as he realised his words were being taken the wrong way. "*Wei*, not sayin' that."

"Just get us to Dresden quick as you can but without makin' it look like we're hurryin', *dong ma*?"

The pilot nodded, eager not to set the Captain off again. As the Captain left Wash wondered why Mal was so uptight, all but itching to be rid of Milo. Not that he liked the man much his own self but so far their passenger had remained as quiet and inoffensive as a mouse. Or was that the point? Had something in the man's demeanour set off the Captain's radar and if so was it something he should be worrying about? Thoughtfully Wash called up Kaylee on the com, her cheerful voice bringing a smile of pleasure to his lips. "Kaylee, Cap'n wants to shorten the travel time to Dresden. I was thinkin' a few hard burns with time for Serenity to cool down between times."

He could hear her singing and humming to herself between words. It split his smile into a wide grin. "I'm on it, Wash!"

* * * * *

Simon was puzzled, Shepherd Book alarmed, Inara concerned and River annoyed. Jayne just stared from one face to the next, not understanding a rutting word of what the good gorram was going on. "If she ain't hurt why ya scowlin' like she's dyin'?"

The doctor's eyes narrowed angrily at the mercenary. The King of Tact had nothing on Jayne Cobb. "No one's saying River's dying but there has to be a reason why she can't stop vomitting."

"Maybe it's the food on this *lese* boat, ya ever think that?"

Before he could answer the Shepherd stepped in. "Just because River has thrown up once or twice doesn't mean she's sick."

All he got was a hard glare for his trouble. "And you graduated from Medical Academy when?"

"You know I am no doctor," Said Book soothingly. "But you have to admit all your tests have failed to show anything wrong."

Inara brushed the hair from River's face. The girl was sweating but not profusely, her pale skin almost glowing. She was surely running a temperature. "Maybe she picked up a virus."

It was funny to see River sitting on the infirmary bed pouting back at them. She looked nothing more than a sulking schoolgirl. "I told you Simon, I'm not sick."

Just then Zoe walked into the infirmary, a frown forming as she looked at the little huddle. Alarmed to see Simon's sister in the middle of it. She paused in the doorway, baby Jack wriggling and gurgling in her arms. If River had caught some kind of virus no way was she going anywhere near her. "What happened?

"River's been throwing up and we don't know why." Explained Book.

"It isn't a virus or a germ or a bug," Rattled off River as if they were playing a game of animal, mineral and vegetable. She tried so hard not to lose her patience with them but then intelligent people often failed to see what was staring them in the face.

"Then what is it, *mei mei*?" Simon's cool hand on her forehead was nice.

"Not my secret to tell."

Silence. Stunned looks transmitted face to face. Warily, Simon hunkered down so he could look her straight in the eye. "River? What do you mean it's not your secret to tell? Did someone do something to you?"

She shook her head just as the Captain stepped into the infirmary to see what all the fuss was about. River turned and gave him a blinding smile. Simon started putting pieces together at an alarming rate, his eyes going wide as he pushed himself to his feet. The Captain failed to see the look of speculation in Simon's eyes. "What the good gorram's goin' on? Somebody took sick?"

Mal could not take his eyes off of River, her face aglow with happiness bringing a smile to his lips in response. Her joy eased some of the dark that was dogging his gorram path. His momentary distraction was all Simon Tam needed. Some instinct caused the Captain to turn his head just as the doctor's fist slammed into his face. Jayne caught the Captain as Zoe and Book stepped in to restrain Simon. The doctor's lips pulled back from his teeth as he snarled angrily at Mal. "You dirty, loathsome, *wangba dan*! Just couldn't keep your hands to yourself let alone keep your promise."

Startled, stunned and more than a mite puzzled the Captain stared at him as if the boy had completely lost his mind. River looked distraught, her hands flapping like bird's wings, trying to calm the panic in her voice and speak beyond her growing distress. "Simon! *Ni bu dong*!"

"What did you do?" Simon spat out. "Did you force yourself on her? Was that it?"

Shock reflected on every face then slowly the Captain's face darkened into pure anger. Zoe knew that look. If Simon wasn't careful he would never have to worry about River again. Death being all kinds of a leveller. It was Shepherd Book who tried to inject an element of calm. "What is it you think the Captain has done?"

Simon didn't take his eyes off Mal, not at all disconcerted by the deadly glare or the trickle of blood from the Captain's nose and mouth. It had been a pretty solid punch. "River is showing all the symptoms of early pregnancy."

It was quite comical really. The variety of expressions covered the whole gamut. Mal looked at Simon with a shocked and hurt expression on his face. "An' you immediately thought I'd done somethin'?"

"It wouldn't be the first time you'd broken your word, I imagine."

Now Zoe was beyond puzzled. What the *diyu* was Simon talking about? "Word?"

"He promised," Simon elaborated, voice quieter now as he realised how he had got the promise not that he regretted it or anything. He was simply protecting his sister.

Inara sat on the infirmary bed next to a sobbing River and put her arm around the thin shoulders. "Ssssh, *mei mei*, it'll be alright."

Slowly Jayne blinked at River. "Are ya sayin' the crazy girl's pregnant?"

River pushed herself out of Inara's arms and jumped off the bed, moving to stand between her brother and the Captain. She stared at Simon with wounded eyes, exasperation clear in every word that came out of her mouth. "I'm not pregnant, Simon!"

"But River..."

Then she did something she had not done in years. River stamped her foot, hard. Anger bubbling up as she backed away from Simon until she stood in front of a dazed and bemused Captain. "It's Kaylee."

Blank looks multiplied. Simon's mouth flapped a moment or two as he tried to grasp her meaning. "Kaylee?"

"Kaylee's pregnant, not me, you boob! But we're friends. Empathy not infirmity."

The stunned silence was broken by Zoe laughing, the laughter becoming so hard and intense tears sprang from her eyes and ran down her cheeks. She had to lean on the doorway for support, the look on her friends' faces a priceless treasure. She would have liked to have painted the Captain's expression in oils. Gorrammit, where was Wash when she needed him?

"River, Kaylee isn't..."

"Yes, she is. Why do you think she's been jumping you morning, noon and night?"

Now Simon was colouring, the flush outpacing the words he was struggling to get out. "*Shenme*?"

"Kaylee wants a baby, Simon, but she knew if she discussed it with you it would be put off. Not safe enough, too early, need to settle down first. Yadda yadda yadda." River mocked a yawn and rolled her eyes. "A woman only ever gets what she wants when she tells the man afterwards. Saves all the arguments and everyone's happy."

Simon looked like a landed guppy, his mouth opening and closing but nothing coming out. He looked at the little sea of faces then at the Captain. His flush deepened with shame and embarrassment. "Um, I'm sorry Captain, I shouldn't have hit you."

Luckily Mal was starting to see the funny side of things, his second in command crying with laughter having a more than positive effect on wounded feelings and righteous anger. He still wasn't pleased with the doctor but at least he could appreciate where he was coming from. The thought that came on the heels of that one left him inordinately sad. He gazed at Simon for a moment, River reaching for his hand and leaning back into him. Without thinking he hugged her to him. "Still you don't trust me?"

The words were quiet but they shamed Simon into silence. He wanted to apologise, say sorry, but he was so confused. How could Kaylee be pregnant and him miss it? And if that was true how could River be having symptoms? It was too bizarre to comtemplate. River lifted the Captain's hand and dropped a gentle kiss in his palm then looked at her brother. All calm now. "Kaylee's my best friend. I took the pain and sickness so she could try again. Again and again until you got it right."

Now it was the Captain's turn to guffaw. The tension of the last few moments broken into humour and laughter at Simon's expense this time. In shock one thing alone rang loud and clear in Simon Tam's befuddled mind. Pushing through the others he had to get away. His steps a loud reckless clatter as he flew from the infirmary towards the engine room. He had to see Kaylee. Nothing else right now meant a damn.

Back in the infirmary the mood was light and almost festive, everyone smiling or chuckling. Zoe wiping the tears from her eyes as she struggled to control her outburst of mirth. River turned to face the Captain, his arms still wrapped around her, a smile now on his face. River raised a hand to wipe the blood off his face, Book leaning close enough to offer his handkerchief. Mal nodded his thanks as quick nimble fingers took the square of cloth from him, River cleaning him up then watching transfixed as Mal smiled down at her. Before he could say thank you, River raised herself on tip toe and kissed him on the mouth. The happy banter faltered round them, but neither noticed. River's arms snaking up around Mal's neck, her kiss deepening with want and need and bursting with joy when he tentatively began to kiss her back.

Jayne stared with his mouth open then grinned at the Preacher. "Maybe Simon wasn't so far off after all."

The couple parted, River turning her head to pin Jayne with a glare. "A kiss is just a kiss but I can still kill you with my brain."

The look on the mercenary's face was a mix between disbelief and horror. With a mumble he retreated as quick as he could mumbling about needing to clean out his gun. Girl was gorram damaged but didn't mean he was wanting to take any chances. In his room Milo was thinking along similar lines but for an entirely different reason.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*mei mei* = little sister *shenme* = what? *xie xie ni* = thank you

*qu* = yes (lit. go) *diyu* = hell *wei* = hey *dong ma* = understand?

*lese* = crappy *wangba dan* = fucking bastard *ni bu dong* = you don't understand

Chapter Text


"UNFORGIVEN"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

She wanted him awake because she didn't have permission yet to touch and River had grown tried of waiting. Was worried her brother would find more obstacles to place in their path or try the Captain's patience so much they would have no option but to leave. And leaving was the last thing River Tam wanted to do.

They were sailing through the Black, the miles to Dresden eaten up on autopilot as the crew slept. Kaylee had coaxed another hard burn before letting Serenity's engines cool and hum on half speed. The alarm rigged in Wash and Zoe's bunk would recall the pilot to the bridge when they were within hours of the Alliance planet. Wash didn't want to time it too close in case there were patrols or the wrong pair of eyes took note of the Firefly class transport coming out of atmo. However reckless their dealings, caution was their watchword. River had moved quietly through the ship until she was sure all of Serenity's crew had retired for what passed as night. Simon wrapped around Kaylee, bodies glistening with sweat as the energetic mechanic set about fixing the doctor in ways that disconnected his mind from his body. Wash and Zoe languidly making love over and over again as the baby slept sound and peaceful to the noises of contentment that rocked him to sleep. Finally drifting off their own selves in happy exhaustion.

Shepherd Book was not asleep but meditating in his bunk. She could not tell what the passenger was doing but he was silent, his mind as empty as a new coffin. It made her wary but she had sensed no danger to ship or crew. He just wanted to be left alone and River could relate to that. Inara was wrapped in her silk cocoon, drifting in and out of dreams she would indulge but never claim. Her mind turning through a lifetime of rituals and lies until it was hard to see her true self any more. Yet Serenity had become more home to her than the Guild ever had, even as she held on to those artificial ties like an umbical chord. Jayne was in a deep and heavy sleep. His workout with the Preacher easing tensions in him that built up the longer the ship was away from solid ground. Unable to ease his itches and urges but happy to expend his energy in keeping his body trim and fit until he could do something about it.

Now she was here, at the Captain's bunk, her nimble fingers opening the hatch so quietly the damn thing could have been oiled. Her bare feet mere whispers on the rungs as she descended into his bunk. Carefully, oh so carefully, she eased the hatch shut and quietly locked it. Freezing for a moment as the lock clicked into place. In the silence it sounded like a bolt exploding. Yet he did not stir. Lying on his stomach, one leg flung out, head turned towards the far wall. She knew he slept naked and imagining the feel of his skin beneath her fingers, the warmth of his arms wrapped around her, lips on hers, River felt the want and the need rising like a tide within her. He drew her to him, from the first moment when he had kicked open the cryo chamber something deep inside had resonated between them. Even as Simon's hands had reached for her, a detached awareness had recognised Mal on the periphery. Made an eerie kind of connection that the two had never lost.

It felt strange to be able to gaze down and drink her fill of him, the Captain not moving more than the calm flow of breath easing in and out of him. The man always seemed to be moving, doing, never still. To her he was beyond beautiful and not in the physical sense either. How could Simon ever understand that she looked beyond her eyes? Saw things that went beyond the limits of the flesh, deeper than the physical architecture of the body? Soul deep. And it was that fundamental resonance of heart and mind that brought her here, fueled by a need that could no longer be denied. Remembering the moment she had emerged from the box, cold and trembling and disorientated. Frightened but also aware, sensing beyond her brother's frantic need to calm and reassure her that she was safe, that she was loved. Another constant hovered on the edge of her awareness, one that accepted her as she was not who she had been. One who would not seek to mould or change her even in the times when understanding failed him there would be acceptance. Compassion.

River knew it now for what it was. What he meant to her, her lodestone, an anchor amidst the chaos of other people's thoughts and expectations. A calm in the eye of the storm while Simon fretted and searched and tried to pretend that the River he had rescued could be returned to the child she had once been. Innocent and unaltered. Simon thought if he refused to accept what she had become he could mend her, heal what had been done and go back in time. But the answers were not in medicine. That was the cornerstone of Simon's existence not hers. River had seen it from the beginning but Simon loved her so much, had given up everything to find her and found her broken. She did not have it in her to hurt him, to tell him that he was wrong. So River let him lead her, decide what she needed even when everything in her brain screamed and recoiled against the medication knowing it was not the answer. River didn't want drugs to dull the razor knife of her perception, she wanted understanding not oblivion. A quiet mind not one made numb and distant to reality.

Malcolm Reynolds stirred slowly. Warm, vibrant, a ghost of awareness humming in her mind. As comforting as Serenity's engines he was her ship of state. It was the coolness of her body that roused him from sleep. Her body cradling his, her arms holding him so tenderly that he was disorientated at first, her presence not registering as an intruder until the Captain's eyes flickered open and his waking senses informed his sleep befogged mind that he was not alone.

"River?"

She loved her name upon his lips. The way his warm limbs tangled with her cold ones both bathing in his heat as consciousness slowly fired up his brain.

"River, what the good gorram you doin' in my bunk?"

The words were soft, confused. As if the Captain was not at all sure he was not dreaming. River dropped feather-light kisses upon his face, her body wrapped around him like a second skin. In River's mind the fit was perfect. *He* was perfect. "I'm tired of waiting, *ai ren*."

Mal shifted on the narrow bed to make room for her. A smile of deep content swallowed her heart whole. Accepted not rejected. River felt safe, cradled in his strength: home. She gave a happy sigh, her head tilting so she could see his face, her smile disarming him as easily as her touch destroyed his defences. A yawn cracked her jaw. She had spent so long watching him sleep, loving him in silence. Now that he was awake River could barely keep her eyes open. River snuggled closer, her warmth and his merging, the tangle of their limbs a comfort that soothed her. Body weary she managed to mumble into his chest. "Sleep now."

Her sleepiness amused him just as River's trust overwhelmed him. He sighed softly, watching as sleep engulfed her. Mesmerised by the little smile of happiness upon her lips, the ambient glow of pleasure lighting her face inside and out. Mal watched over her with a kind of silent and stunned awe. All kinds of protective. How long had she been watching him? And why had her presence not wakened him? All the years of that lost war he had hardly slept, the slightest noise or movement rousing him to battle readiness. Yet here, now, this amazing woman crept stealthily beneath his defences and had somehow wormed her way into his heart. Was it right? Was it wrong? Or was this something that was meant to be as surely as night following day? Even if he could deny himself the pleasure of her touch could he deny her the same? Thoughtfully the Captain traced the planes of River's face then dropped a kiss upon those exquisitely bowed lips, ridiculously pleased to see her sleeping smile widen as if in welcome. Carefully he pulled the covers more fully round them and closed his eyes. Their errant souls held heart to heart. A stolen moment of perfect peace in a mad, bad 'verse.

* * * * *

Wash woke not just happy but merry. Not surprised to find his wife already dressing as the alarm brought him out of the depths of a deep slumber. "*Bao bei*?"

Zoe paused to kiss him, her lips lingering more than they ought to, what with Serenity calling him to take over her controls. Right now the only controls he wanted to manipulate were organic ones. Chuckling deep in her throat Zoe eased back out of his arms, the disappointment on her *zhangfu's* face making her laugh outright. "Honey, that alarm means we're only three hours out of Dresden, *dong ma*?"

"I'm sleepy not stupid."

"Tell it to the Cap'n."

He scowled now. "You don't fight fair."

Zoe bent over the crib and lifted their little pile of precious into possessive arms, the smile on her face so tender and loving that Wash would have ripped his heart out of his chest and handed it to her had she but asked him. "Don't wanna fight at all, *bao bei*."

Wash sat up and peered at their son as Zoe sat on the bed beside him. "Did we really make something this *wanmei*?" He asked in humble astonishment.

"Yes, *zhangfu*, we did."

For a long moment neither stirred, both of them focusing all their hopes and love upon a future so shiny they were lost for words. Then several things happened at once. A rattle on their hatch and a yell from Kaylee told them the babysitter had arrived, a loud squawking on the com announced that the Captain was up and wondering where the good gorram his pilot had got to, then the soothing tones of the Preacher declared in a voice as warm as honey that breakfast was about to be served. The last announcement was enough to catapult Wash to his feet and begin dressing. Usually the crew sorted out their own breakfasts, the only meal cooked for all of them being the main meal of the day and for that they took turns. Some turns more successful than others. Hearing that Book had cooked them a breakfast was therefore a treat not to be missed. Especially as any dawdling on Wash's part meant Jayne got to eat more than his share. And didn't he already say he wasn't stupid? Nope, not stupid, but making love most of the night to his luscious wife had given him an appetite to rival that of any Reaver.

* * * * *

The pile of his possessions were small. Everything fitting into the one trunk. Milo finished his meditation, his mind scanning only on the periphery of consciousness. Careful not to alert anyone with even the barest amount of pyschic ability that he was on the prowl. The best time to scan was when everyone was busy, their thoughts even a little chaotic. Camoflage. And now was the perfect time to merge, dip into their senses then evaporate. No lingering echo of an alien uninvited presence. No fingerprints. Such a light fleeting excursion, just enough to tell him where everyone was and what they were doing but not enough to set off alarm bells or cause uneasiness. His suspicions were pretty much confirmed anyway and the next step would not be his.

Rising he hefted the trunk and lugged it out of his guest quarters and down to the cargo hold. Once done he turned to make his way up to the commons area to join the crew in the first meal of the day, pausing when he saw Shepherd Book lingering on the catwalk above him. The Shepherd waited and watched as Milo approached. "We never did get a chance to talk."

Milo didn't want to talk. Not now, not ever and least of all to a man in a Shepherd's clothing. Silence had always served him well. Only words betrayed. Thoughts extracted by a silver tongue were a folly he could not afford. When it became obvious that he had no intention of responding Book changed tack.

"Or we could just go and get something to eat?"

The passenger nodded, no clue to his thoughts in his demeanour. This close, Milo would not scan Book. Even without projecting he could feel the man's darkness flapping like a cloak around him, the stolen fragments of his faith were not clothes made for him yet he had adjusted until the fit was so close it was hard to see the join. Yet it was as if the clothes imbued Book with some of the respectablity and forgiveness he craved. If he wore them long enough would the man he used to be fade? Would he be remade in his own image, alike yet different right down to the last cell in his body? If Milo had been staying he would have taken the time to know Book better. To study not revere him. For friend or foe meant nothing in this graveyard of fools. Except as object lessons to learn from.

Chung-li watched them enter the commons room. He was seated to the Captain's right with Simon on his right next to Kaylee. The table was filling fast and Milo and Book were the last to take their seats. River sat on the Captain's left with Wash and Zoe on her left then Inara, Jayne, Book and Milo. The Captain looked at Book, an unspoken question in his eyes. The Shepherd smiled and ladled the soup into bowls and handed the bowls round along with a heavy leaden flat bread which reminded Mal of hard tack, not that he would say so out loud. Once the notion would have just spilled out of his mouth without thinking. A jumble of words not meant to hurt or offend just not considered for their impact first. Expecting everyone to instantly know that no offence was intended. Now he was more thoughtful, still rough edged but with a shine to the edges if not an actual curve.

As Mal's eyes met River's something in him softened and a calm folded round him that made Inara stare. It took a moment for the enormity of it to sink in. The Captain was happy. Not just with the thought that their odd passenger would soon be departing and they could high-tail it away from this core world but with the happiness of the heart bespeaking a deeper content. She hesitated to call it love. Was a man like Malcolm Reynolds even capable of such a thing? Loyalty, yes. Courage, undoubtedly. Stern, stubborn, noble even. But love? Although she had been complicit in paving the way for the Captain to notice River as a woman in her own right Inara was not sure how long the magic would last. Sure that at any given moment the Captain might open his mouth and shatter the fragile spell. River turned her head and smiled at the Companion, an uneasy thought settling in Inara's mind that River knew perfectly well what she was thinking. Feeling oddly chastened she turned her attention to the soup, her uncharitable thoughts almost souring the exquisite taste exploding with delicate flavours on her tongue.

The Captain's smile widened, travelling to his eyes until his face crinkled with laughter lines and genuine pleasure. "Preacher, you been takin' lessons from Chung-li?"

Book nodded back, only too happy to share the acclaim as he cut himself a chunk of bread. "*Qu*. Chung-li also let me use some of his herbs and medicaments to compliment the meal."

Smiles turned to wary frowns. Milo stopped eating and carefully placed his spoon to one side, only reaching for a piece of the flat bread. Even then he ate sparingly, eyes narrowing as he looked at the Shepherd. If Book felt the man's eyes on him he showed no sign. Jayne hardly paused, shovelling the soup into his great maw of a mouth as if he fretted that someone would snatch the bowl from him before he could finish. He ate his bread as an afterthought, using it to wipe an already empty bowl so clean it shone. Smacking his lips together he frowned at Milo then leaned across the front of the Preacher and snagged the half filled bowl. Before Book could stop him, Jayne was grinning at his good fortune. "If ya ain't gonna eat that I will. Can't afford to waste food in the Black, *dong ma*?"

Milo didn't say anything, he just nodded. His eyes straying to flicker over the Shepherd's face noticing the quick flash of annoyance schooled into calm acceptance. Interesting. While Milo's reaction had been pure instinct the Preacher's reaction had been telling. So. The soup had been doctored. Casting a surreptitious eye around the crew Milo realised that whatever Book was up to the rest of the crew were not privvy to it.

As soon as the meal was over the Captain stood, scraping his chair back. He nodded at Milo. "I'm thinkin' we'll take you down to Dresden in Inara's shuttle. That suit you?"

The man nodded already aware that the Captain and crew were all kinds of unsettled being this close to a Core world. He kept his thoughts hidden and face blank, not hard to do when every expression was lost in the folds of a face only a mother could love. In the end only Jayne went with Inara and Milo in the shuttle, though River could tell the Captain wished he could cram them all inside just to be on the safe side. Chung-li stood next to the Captain, everyone waiting until the shuttle had detached and descended down to Dresden. It was Zoe who spoke for everyone, her laser eyes moving from the Captain's face to Shepherd Book.

"Mind tellin' us what in the nine hells that was about?"

It seemed as if the Preacher had swallowed a pot full of glue. His mouth working but seemingly unable to open or utter a word. Mal stepped right up to him. "Shepherd?"

Book blinked. River slid her hand in the Captain's. He gave it a gentle squeeze but kept his eyes fastened on the Shepherd. The Preacher glanced at Chung-li then sighed. All at once he felt a hundred years old and not in a good way. He sat a bit abruptly making the Captain frown in a flash of concern.

"He was right, I *did* doctor the soup."

Simon stared at him aghast. "You did what? What in *diyu* did you do that for?"

Sounding outraged the doctor's eyes dropped to his own empty bowl then to Kaylee's, the colour draining from his face. Kaylee was in the early stages of pregnancy. Bad enough that Book had put something in the soup but what in the nine hells would it do to the baby? Might only be the size of a tadpole right now but it was a new life. New, tiny, and helpless. Rage began to build in him.

"Are you *shenjingbing*?"

"*Duibuqi*, Simon..."

Before Simon's temper could get the best of him the Captain intervened. He was no happier than Simon but if he had learnt anything about the Preacher it was that the man would never do such a thing lightly. Which still left the why of it. "Think you got some explainin' to do."

Book nodded. "It was Milo. There's something *cuode* about him."

"Wrong?" The Captain looked upset, only too aware that he had let the man leave with Inara and Jayne in the Companion's shuttle. *Wode ma* he felt sick. River kissed his hand as if to reassure him but his eyes were glued to Book.

"I don't know what it is, Captain, but I felt uneasy all the while he was onboard and yet no one could get close to him. Most of the time he all but barricaded himself in his room. You can't tell me that isn't suspicious?"

Zoe's eyes were hard narrow flints. "Think he's Alliance?"

"*Wo bu zhidao* and that's what worries me."

"I'm not sure I follow you," Said Simon slowly. "You're worried because he might be Alliance or because he might not be?"

The Preacher shook his head. "I'm pretty sure he isn't regular Alliance. Perhaps something less official."

"As interestin' as all this conjecture is," Said the Captain quickly. "I need to know what the good gorram you put in that soup? 'Specially as your Alliance spy or whoever the *diyu* he is hardly touched it an' both Inara an' Jayne ate their fill. In fact, Jayne ate more than his fill. I sent him to make sure Inara was alright but if that concoction messes with their health then we just handed that *tamade hundan* a shiny shuttle an' two gorram hostages."

Alarmed, Kaylee put her hand over her mouth. Eyes wide as saucers and filling with the threat of tears. "Ya don't mean, ya don't think..." She gulped a mouthful of air as if it had stones in it. "Ya don't think he's gonna hurt 'em do ya?"

"Nobody's saying anything of the sort, Kaylee." Book frowned at the Captain but even Wash was giving him dark looks. Trying to shift the blame wouldn't work. "It won't hurt them but if it makes you feel any better only Jayne ingested the drug."

Normally that would have raised a smile and some derogatory banter but the Captain was far from happy. "Jayne ain't expendable, Preacher."

Book raised an eyebrow, mildly surprised that Mal would be upset at the thought of anything happening to the big man. They had come a long way since becoming crew. "The drug just makes a person more inclined to be loquacious, talkative..."

Wash chuckled. "You put a truth serum in the soup?"

"Yes, if you want to call it that."

"What were you hopin' to find?" Asked Zoe.

Before he could answer River spoke up, everyone but the Captain having forgotten she was there. "He isn't here to cause us harm, just wanting to get back. Be whole again. Not dangerous until his next mission."

Everyone stared at her.

"River?"

"It's alright, Simon. His secrets will die with him."

The Captain put a hand under her chin and gently raised her face so he could look her in the eye. "You know, *xin gan*, as helpful as that is it ain't exactly comfortin'."

"They'll be safe."

It was Simon who asked what the others were silently thinking. "What about Milo? What's he up to?"

"He went through the fire. Punishment. Retribution. Now he goes back to be healed, forgiven."

Silence rang until it almost hurt their ears. The emptiness an echo that felt all kinds of ominous. Wash looked thoughtful, his arm wrapping around his wife's waist, ever protective. "Forgiven? If the way he looks now is his punishment what the *guai* did he do?"

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*ai ren*/*xin gan* = sweetheart *bao bei* = precious/treasure *zhangfu* = husband

*dong ma* = understand? *qu* = yes (lit. go) *diyu* = hell *duibuqi* = sorry

*shenjingbing* = crazy *cuode* = wrong *wode ma* = mother of God

*wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard

*guai* = devil/ghost *wanmei* = perfect

Chapter Text


"A BETTER WORLD"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

At first she thought he was nervous though what Jayne Cobb had to be nervous about Inara could not fathom. Gritting her teeth she tried to block out the mercenary's words.

"Really 'Nara, you're so gorram *meili*. Could make a man go blind thinkin' of all the ways you could pleasure him." Jayne sighed, a look of bliss on his face, his imagination obviously working overtime. "Not to mention all the fun sex we could have." He paused to leer at her. "Know a trick or two in that department an' I ain't had no complaints, *dong ma*?"

"Perhaps next time you should try it when they're conscious."

The stinging sarcasm had little effect on Jayne other than to confuse him. To call it thinking would be a step too far in Inara's estimation. Hearing how Jayne really thought of her was more unsettling than flattering and left Inara feeling as if she was in need of a good long bath just to feel clean again. Who knew Jayne could be such a twisted pervert? Not taking the hint to shut the gorram up, Jayne launched into an even more lurid description of exactly what he would like to do to her. Putting her face in her hands Inara bit back a groan of embarrassed exasperation. Nothing she did or said could railroad the man away from his current fixation. When they got back to Serenity she was going to kill Malcolm Reynolds. Right after she introduced the mercenary to the outside of an airlock.

Only Milo remained silent and serene, his eyes flicking from one face to the other. His thoughts as guarded as coin in an Alliance vault. Inara Serra thought nothing could be worse than this but Milo knew different. The Companion should be grateful to all the Gods that ever were that the dose had not been larger, if it had the mercenary would have skipped talking about it and gone straight to doing. To Inara's unending relief they landed without mishap, Milo taking his leave with barely a word spoken. Happy to lose their guest Inara shut up the shuttle and waited for clearance to take off again. Only belatedly realising that she would be making the return trip alone with Jayne. Inwardly she could not help but groan at her misfortune. Yes. Absolutely. She was *definitely* going to kill Malcolm Reynolds.

* * * * *

Wash couldn't remember the last time he had laughed so much. Tears rolled down his cheeks as a poker faced Simon Tam explained to the Captain and crew exactly what Book's little concoction was designed for. The Captain looked horrified. "It does *what*?"

The pilot knew that look and so did Zoe but before either of them could caution Simon volcano Mal began to vent steam, a sure sign he was about to blow. Hastily the good doctor tried to calm the Captain. "It isn't as bad as it sounds. Inara's a Companion and Jayne..."

"Is a sexual time bomb you're sayin'?"

Simon flushed. Kaylee went from an initial cry of concern to trying not to laugh. Not that she thought Inara's predicament was funny but because of the Captain's outraged reaction. River stood calm as a cucumber at the Captain's side, not a word falling from her knowing lips. No clue as to what she was thinking on that pale face. Somehow Kaylee thought that was more creepifying than when she was spouting doom and gloom with a smile on her face.

"It'll wear off, Captain, all we have to do is..."

"Clean up the mess afterwards? That what you're wantin' to say, Simon?"

It didn't register that in his concern the Captain had dropped the formality of Simon's position on his boat. Too upset to keep that space between them. Distance could be all kinds of useful until you wanted to knock someone's gorram teeth down the back of their not-so-shiny throat. Not that any of it was Simon's fault. A large part of the Captain's anger being aimed at himself for putting Inara in that position, albeit unknowingly. A small hand on his arm stalled the man's rising anger.

"*Fang xin*, not helpless."

Mal stared at River. "*Shenme*?"

"Inara isn't helpless but Jayne's hopeless."

The Captain blinked. Everyone exchanged baffled glances. Shepherd Book was all for taking Serenity down to find the shuttle. "We could get there before anything happens."

River shook her head, a slow smile washing over her face with something akin to satisfaction as if she had pulled the solution out of the hat her own self. "Too late. On their way back now, Simon gets to clean up."

* * * * *

No one met him at the dock. The small amount of coin he had left was just enough to get a ride to the research institute, not that anyone outside of top secret clearance would have known that was what it was. It looked like part of the industrial section of Dresden. Factories, warehouses and whore houses. Milo thought it an amusing mix. The shinier touristy parts of town were actually in town not here. He waited until he was alone again then dragged his trunk over to a dull grey nondescript building. It was low and square topped, like a large grey brick with all the personality squeezed out of it. Even the windows were shuttered grey but Milo knew they were designed for looking out not in.

Feeling cold eyes watching his progress he went to the appropriate door and placed his palm over a faded section of the door. With a little hiss a small light came on at head height. Milo shifted until his right eye was lined up with it, the little scanner mapping his Iris before computer confirmation cycled the locked door. Milo pushed it lightly and the heavy metal door swung inwards without a sound. Stepping in, he let one of the watchers take his trunk. A stern looking man in a charcoal suit immediately appeared then turned and walked off down a corridor opposite the door, Milo falling into step obediently behind him. Almost he could taste the knife that would clense him of this infirmity, the tender mercies of cosmetic surgery undoing that which he had born so courageously.

The office door opened as they approached, his guide stepping to one side to let him enter then remaining outside as the door closed behind him. Milo continued walking until he stood in front of his *laoban's* desk. The man facing him was tall and lean, his eyes steel orbs reflecting no emotion. Milo knew better than to speak first. Patiently he waited. Seconds later a door opened behind the *laoban* and two men in suits came in and sat down. Now three pairs of eyes silently evaluated him. Milo waited almost ten minutes until the *laoban* spoke. "Are you prepared for what must be done?"

"Yes."

"You must be totally committed. Able to do whatever is asked of you without question."

"*Wo dong*."

"Only then can you be the article of faith that will set men free."

Milo lifted his head a fraction, the light of the fanatic shining with a dull glow in his eyes. "We are building a new tomorrow."

"Yes."

Before the *laoban* could signal for him to be taken for restructuring and healing, words slipped from Milo's warped mouth. Intending to impress, offer information he had gleaned as a gift. "I have had an interesting journey, *shifu*."

Something hard sparked in the *laoban's* eyes. It was not permitted for a novice such as he to speak other than to respond to a question. Yet Milo was respectful. Information being their stock in trade, the *laoban* nodded once. Milo outlined his trip aboard the Firefly then described her crew. All three men stiffened, their looks sharpening with ill concealed interest. One of the others spoke. A rare intrusion. The rarer because the *laoban* allowed it. "You say the girl is psychic?"

Milo nodded. "I felt her try to touch my mind."

There. A spark of something other. Annoyance. Irritation even. The *laoban* looked displeased. "She read your mind?"

A shake of the head. "No, *shifu*."

The third man asked a single question. "Her name?"

"River Tam."

For a several seconds no one spoke. Milo thought they were impressed. Pleased. Knowing they had been searching for her for so long. He did not know that he had just signed his own death warrant.

Afterwards the *laboan* stepped over the neophyte's body, ignoring the diminishing twitches of dying nerves, a last spasm of agonised muscles. The promised elevation would never happen. The reconstructive surgery no longer necessary. No witnesses could be allowed to survive such knowledge. As Milo's brain shut down, blood bleeding through the shattered blood vessels and from his eyes, nose and ears, a last thought evaporated in a sea of red pain. A drowning sorrow at being denied the joy of an honourable death. His blade sheathed in its' trunk and unable to offer this last glorious service to him. Yet even dying he believed he had done well. For his sacrifice was helping to build a better world.

* * * * *

Mal was so anxious he was in danger of wearing a groove in the deck while he waited for the shuttle to dock. Chung-li had watched and listened in silence, his calm serene expression not betraying a single thought. Wash was mightily amused, Zoe wary and flicking a glance periodically in the Captain's direction. Shepherd Book hoped Jayne hadn't done anything stupid. In his current mood the Captain was likely to eject him into the atmo before the big man could explain and, given that this whole circus was his fault, he didn't want his friend to suffer for it. Though inwardly he did concede that if Jayne had touched Inara in any wrong way all bets were off. There was, after all, only so much a Shepherd could do.

Everybody waited as they heard Inara's shuttle dock, the Captain hovering by the door. Just before the shuttle door opened River tugged on Mal's sleeve. "Duck."

Distracted, the Captain turned his head and shot her a quizzical look. "*Shenme*?"

At that precise moment the shuttle door opened and hurricane Inara swept out, her furious eyes catching sight of the Captain. The loud crack as the back of her hand connected with his face made even Chung-li wince. Before she could hit him again River shoved her aside and stood between them. Kaylee was shocked but also amused at her friend's attempt to protect the Captain, and from Inara of all people! Stunned the Captain looked at Inara, alarm setting in. "What the good gorram he do?"

Her lips peeled back in undisguised fury. "You KNEW!"

"Inara, ain't what you think. Simon just told us what the Shepherd put in the soup."

It took a moment for his meaning to reach her brain. Anger turned to disbelief. "YOU did this?"

The Shepherd looked more uncomfortable than Mal could ever remember seeing him. It helped ease the sting of his burning cheek. "*Duibuqi*."

Inara looked from face to face, clearly confused and not feeling any more enlightened as the seconds clipped by. Simon fretted from foot to foot waiting to get a word in edgewise but not wanting to get a punch from the Companion or Captain for his trouble. "Um, what happened?"

Then, like air escaping from a balloon, Inara's anger dissipated. "Jayne was being... let's just say he was far too graphic about his sexual appetites..."

"I'll gorram kill that *baichi wangba dan*." Growled the Captain,

The Companion shook her head, her composure returning much to the Shepherd's relief. "It's alright Mal, he didn't do anything."

"I thought you said..."

"Just words."

"Yeah but..."

Inara interrupted Mal by addressing Simon. "I think Jayne might need your help, doctor."

Mal blinked. She hadn't, surely? Had she?

Simon pressed passed the crew blocking the gangway and disappeared inside Inara's shuttle. The others could not follow without physically pushing Inara out of the way, something all were loath to do. Simon's voice came ringing back to them through the open door. "*Wode ma*!" A couple of seconds later Simon stuck his head out of the shuttle and stared at Inara in shocked surprise. "*Diyu* Inara, I think you broke his nose."

Shocked and more than a little impressed, the Captain murmured "That's some Academy."

Inara brushed passed him with her nose in the air, all her fabricated genteel calm back in place as if nothing had disturbed the mirror surface of her self control. "You have no idea nor will you."

The doctor set Jayne's nose and gave him something for the pain. The man was still seeing stars but at least the drug seemed to be out of his system. Knocked out of it by the look of his face. Mal had to smile at the two black eyes forming even as he peered at his hapless mercenary. "Best heal first before goin' on any jobs, Jayne."

Jayne frowned. "*Weishenme*? I'm good to go, Mal."

The Captain smirked. "Not gonna scare nobody looking like a panda."

"A what?"

Simon actually chuckled as he finished putting his things away, getting his infirmary clean and tidy again. "A panda, it's a mammal from Earth-That-Was. Big white and black bear like creature with a white face," The doctor paused and looked at Jayne. "with two BLACK eyes!"

Scowling, Jayne would have shaken him until his teeth rattled but Mal put a placating hand on his shoulder. "Come on Jayne, Shepherd's made a 'sorry stew'."

"A what?"

"A stew, hear tell there's real bits of meat in it an' vegetables, herbs an' such. Not sure what meat it is though..."

The Captain never got to finish his description, Jayne pushing him out of the way as if he hadn't been fed in a month. "Why the *diyu* didn't ya say? Man could starve to death on this boat."

"I just did." But he was talking to empty air now. Jayne had gone and most of Serenity's crew had already headed off to the commons area leaving Simon and Mal to stare at each other for a moment, neither quite knowing what to say. When it became clear that the Captain would not say anything Simon said the one thing that was preying on his mind.

"Whatever's going on between you and my sister, Captain, if you hurt her I will kill you."

Mal raised his eyebrows slowly, not mocking him but acknowledging how serious the man was being. "Ain't gonna harm a hair on her head, Simon, you got my word on it. Fact is, if I do so much as cause her a moment's grief I'll load the gun an' hand it to you my own self."

That made Simon do a double take. Did the Captain just say...? Mal put a hand on his shoulder and leaned in close enough that Simon could feel the warmth of the Captain's breath in his face.

"Truth is Simon I love her. Don't know how, when or why but there it is. Not sayin' it'll work out or that she'll wanna stay with me but I ain't pushin' or hurryin' her no matter what direction she's wantin' to go." He paused and removed his hand. "River's a woman full grown, Simon, an' though I know it's hard to accept what with everythin' that's been done to her an' all, she ain't as innocent or defenceless as you might think."

"She isn't as worldly wise either."

Mal nodded. "I'm all aware of that an' I'm preparin' to take this as slow as needs be."

A thought occurred to Simon that he found all manner of disturbing. "What if my sister doesn't want to take it slow?"

Before the Captain could answer, the subject of their little discussion danced into the infirmary and gifted both men with a smile sweet enough to break hearts. Taking the Captain's hand she began to tug him out of the door, pausing only to look back at Simon. "My choice Simon. Your's is throwing up in the engine room."

Any reply he wanted to make to the first part of her comment was wiped away by concern over the second part. "*Shenme*? What are you talking about, River?"

"Kaylee." River's smile brightened, a flicker of mischief dancing in her eyes that made the Captain chuckle. "I'm not empathic any more. It's the baby's way of bonding with the mother."

Alarm filled the doctor's face with a look close to panic then he was flying out of the door, arms and legs akimbo, eyes wide and filled with concern. All thoughts of Mal dating his sister completely forgotten. Watching his rapidly disappearing doctor Mal drew River into his arms and looked down at her with a smile. "You are a wicked woman, River Tam."

Reaching up on tiptoe she brought her lips up to his and savoured him with the sweetest of kisses. He felt her smile widen as she pulled away. Her eyes laughing up at him so full of happy that his heart swelled with love for her. "*Qu*, but I'm your wicked woman Malcolm Reynolds."

Amused he rested his forehead against hers and looked deep into her eyes. "That a fact, Miss Tam?"

Pulling back River began to tug on his hands. "I think it best I show you."

He tried, really he did, to not rush into anything. "Mayhap we should take this slow, *xin gan*."

River shook her head and tugged harder, the Captain half pulled and half cajoaled into following. "No more waiting. Besides, didn't you know? A picture's worth a thousand words."

Laughing he let her manhandle him to his bunk, just clinging onto enough gorram sense to prevent either of them falling headlong down his rutting ladder. Once in his bunk, River put a hand on Mal's chest and said something so low he could not hear her. Leaning down to catch the mumbled words she wrapped her hands around his neck and kissed him. Unable to hold out any longer he kissed her back, the air evaporating between them. He was hardly aware of her nimble fingers unbuttoning his shirt and slipping the straps of his suspenders off his shoulders. Easing him gently backwards, it was only as the backs of his legs hit the bunk and he tumbled onto the bed with a triumphant River sprawled over the top of him that he realised his promise to Simon was being torn to tatters.

River's warm hands sliding inside his open shirt, her tongue in his mouth, her body squirming on top of his until the breath in his body was so hot it burned, Mal couldn't find it in him to regret the temptation paving his way to *diyu*. He felt River's laughter, her hands now unbuckling his belt and undoing his flies. His breath coming in harsh pants as he tried to slow her down, but River was a runaway train with only one destination in mind. As soon as she locked on the last of his resistance fled. A slow warm moan leaked out of his mouth. River swallowed it greedily, her body humming with pleasure and need, her eyes sparkling. More alive than she had ever been before. Body, heart and soul for once singing the same song. Delighted beyond telling to find that the Captain knew all the words.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*meili* = beautiful/pretty *dong ma* = understand? *laoban* = boss

*fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *wo dong* = I understand

*shifu* = sir *shenme* = what? *duibuqi* = sorry *baichi* = idiot

*wangba dan* = fucking bastard *wode ma* = mother of God! *weishenme* = why

*diyu* = hell *qu* = yes (lit. go) *xin gan* = sweetheart

Chapter Text


"RHYTHM OF LIFE"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

This time it was Mal who took the initiative, his rough calloused hands like warm ghosts across River's skin. So gentle and tender, his touch a deepening thrill which intensified as they kissed. Slowly exploring the inside of her warm mouth with his tongue while mapping every inch of her that he could reach with his hands. It was driving River nuts in the most beautiful, sensual way possible and she loved it. Loved him. River had never dreamt love, for her, could be so perfect. Being a spectator was no comparrison. Trembling, River vibrated with need, taut like a bow, the catgut held in a perfect anchor, the nock of the arrow holding her steady waiting for the release of the master's hand. Her whole body straining in his iron control - ready, waiting, needing, lusting, all but crying out to fly free at his command. River's libedo rampant with muscle memory, her body twitching in anticipation, skin a-glow with perspiration, her breath catching with deep-throated desire.

Everything was so intense. River was lost in the feel of him, his touch, the scent of his arousal merging with her own, a warm explosion of pleasure she wanted to taste, to drown in. On fire she was on the brink of self immolation, feelings and sensations mutable, combustible, a bright conflagration mounting in her belly and her spine as Mal took her higher and higher. The sweat now pouring off her as it did off him, their bodies gliding, every drop from his body touching hers like nitro glicerine. They did not need an accelerant to self ignite. River embraced it all, expanded her senses to capture and miss nothing even as her mind gasped on the brink of shattering, orgasming again and again around those long gifted fingers, swamping his hand with her heat like napalm. She arched up against the rhythm of his hand as he began to bring her back down as gently as he could. But River wanted, needed more. Her desire insatiable.

"River..."

Her hungry mouth devoured the word and robbed him of others. She wanted, she needed, desire was driving her gorram crazy.

"Perhaps we should..."

No. No, we shouldn't. Couldn't stop, wouldn't stop. She had waited so long and once, twice, three times was never enough. He could sleep well enough when he was dead, wasn't that how the saying went?

Her fingers flexed around him until once again he was hard in her hand, sheathing and unsheathing the foreskin along his adamantine length until the breath caught in his throat, her hand wrapped possessively around him, changing the rhythm and the pressure to bring him dancing to the edge. Smiling, River lifted her head just enough to look Mal in the eye. His pupils so large he looked drugged but the happy coming off him made her heart ache with such love, such intensity of emotion. She wanted to hang him over the edge of the precipice he had brought her to, shatter him inside her until no part of her was left untouched. To consume and be consumed, to crawl so far inside his heart that not even surgery could part them. Dropping her head she kissed his shining chest then lapped at a nipple, tweaking and nipping the nub before moving on to the other, her tongue now washing down his body, her grasp on him almost painful. He could not breathe, talk, move other than in response to her touch.

The shock when her mouth took over was short lived as every circuit in his brain overloaded. With a cry he exploded, drowning in sensation. River drank down what she could, the force of his ejaculation almost too quick for her. Mal closed his eyes as she drained the life out of him, weary beyond imagining but too sated and too lost in her to care. He felt her warm tongue lapping him, scooping up the jism on her tongue, savouring the sour almost bitter taste of him like some acquired addiction. River smiled as he twitched and softened in her mouth but was reluctant to let him go, rolling him around inside her mouth like a sugared confection, her tongue chasing the last drops of him as the Captain fell into the sleep of exhaustion. River continued to love him as he slept. Her touch the merest whisper of skin on skin, eyes tender as her mind reached into the heart of him. The vibrant warmth of her mind nestling inside his a subtle presentiment that he would never be alone again.

* * * * *

The body of the neophyte was not destined for holy ground. He had failed and no one celebrated failure nor accorded any respect to the broken remains. Discarded the body was disposed of efficiently. The man who now stood in his place was calm, quietly confident and serene. No worry or concern marred his perfect ebony features. Still, there had to be checks and balances. A test or two. Another mistake would not be tolerated.

Bowing with deep reverence the man straightened and waited, his poise telling them that he would do so for a minute, an hour, a day, or a lifetime. Ah, this was a much better material to work with. More disciplined and highly schooled. "We need to know that you can do whatever is asked of you."

He nodded once, his big brown eyes like deep pools that had seen and witnessed more than words could allow. "Of course."

One of the men signalled to another. That other going into the adjoining room which had once been occupied by his predecessor. The lid to the trunk was opened, clothes a thoughtless scatter like fallen petals. A fraction of a pause as the long laquered case was revealed. The dragons dancing across the top of it as it was lifted up with reverence and carried next door. With no pomp and little ceremony, the sword was offered out across the palms of the hands in the traditional manner. "This is now yours. Do not fail us."

Again a deep bow, large firm capable hands taking the sword in solemn acceptance. He bowed one last time, his forehead touching the fiery pearl of wisdom inlaid between the two dragons' front paws. His last obeisance before his journey would begin. As he slowly straightened he did not need the evidence of his eyes to tell him what would be the tenor of the life he now led. He was, as he had always been and would ever be, alone. All that lay before him was the Path. But it was not the Tao. For this path would lead to a better world. A new beginning that would wash the 'verse clean and leave only those deserving in its' inexorable wake. A world he knew he would not live to see himself. But that did not matter. He was a believer and they were building a better world. Nothing else mattered.

* * * * *

Normally Wash liked it when he and Zoe were first in the commons area. It meant they could take a leisurely breakfast together rather than a quick snatched frantic one when Mal appeared with his grumpy get-us-into-the-Black-as-quick-as-you-can-without-whiplash order. This morning there had been no bordering on panic orders, no folk jostling for the makings or refilling the coffee pot. No edged or light banter, in fact no nothing. Not even the Preacher had put in an appearance. Wash cut his wife a little baffled look as he gathered their plates and mugs and took them over to the sink. "What's goin' on, *bao bei*?"

Zoe shifted the baby on her hip, kissed him then gave Wash a serious look as if her ears had only just caught up with what he had said. "Why should anythin' be goin' on?"

He shrugged and began washing up. "It's just... where *is* everybody?"

"Maybe they just slept in, honey. It *does* happen now an' again."

"Yeah, but everybody? Mal *never* sleeps in, in fact I don't think he sleeps..."

"Honey..."

"An' Kaylee an' Simon... oh wait, maybe I can understand Kaylee an' Simon but that doesn't account for the rest of them."

"The rest of who?"

Wash and Zoe looked round to see a quizzical look on the Preacher's face. Zoe smiled and gave Wash a little triumphant smile. "*Yiwusuoyou* Shepherd, my man here is just wonderin' where the rest of the crew is."

"Who gives a good gorram?" They turned to see Jayne stomp in. "More for us!"

"Jayne," Said Book, thinking of introducing the mercenary to one of the seven deadly sins. They were going through them so fast he didn't want to miss pointing out the one called Gluttony. They had already had more than a passing acquaintence with Greed and look where that had got them. "We each take only our share, *dong ma*?"

"Huh, don't know what you're so touchy 'bout don't Preachers live on Milk an' Honey?"

The Shepherd laughed, Zoe and Wash exchanged a tolerant but amused look. "No, Jayne, that only happens when you die an' go to Heaven."

"So you're sayin' you're gonna go to Heaven, that it?"

Book shook his head, watching as the big man filled a bowl to brimming with broken protein cubes and some milk substitute. He had never thought to ask the Captain what the substitute consisted of but it sure left an oily aftertaste in the mouth. Watching how rapidly Jayne shovelled the concoction into his mouth he had the unsettling notion that it was to help the food slide down Jayne Cobb's throat. Maybe the big man did have a point, anything going that fast down your gullet had to side step a man's taste buds. Not that a man like Jayne had many of those anyway.

By the time Kaylee and Simon made it to the commons area the others had finished eating and cleaning up. Book smiled and gave them a polite 'good morning', Jayne scowled at them while Zoe and Wash looked happy to have another married couple in tow, especially when Kaylee took time to coo over baby Jack while Simon smiled so much he looked brain damaged. It was beginning to make Jayne feel sick. He hoped they weren't going to spend all day talking baby stuff, if so he would go to his bunk. Man couldn't listen to that kind of *fei hua* and still call himself a man. Kaylee looked so happy the others could hardly keep the smirks off their faces. Simon looked too distracted to notice. As Inara came in behind them she could not keep the amusement off her face. At least Simon wasn't panicking over River. Speaking of which... Inara paused as she reached for the kettle and turned her head but could see no sign of River. Only then did she notice there was no sign of the Captain either. Flushing slightly she so did not want her thoughts to go there especially as she had been the one to encourage and groom River, not just to help the girl but also to discomfit the Captain. Was it her fault if the plan went a little too well?

Inara poured her tea and smiled at Zoe, Wash putting an arm around his wife's waist as he handed her a bottle. The Companion smiled and watched Zoe feed the baby, marvelling at how naturally it came. The sight charmed and renewed her faith in human nature that someone so immersed in violence could be so tender and so loving. It was a side of Zoe she relished seeing. Grinning, Wash gave his wife a kiss. Jayne pulled a face as if they had just farted in church.

"Gorramit, can't you do that in your bunks?"

"What's the matter, Jayne." Teased Simon. "You feelin' left out?"

Jayne's expression darkened but before he could say or do anything to ruin the peaceable atmosphere Kaylee stepped around Simon and glared at the mercenary, all the happy swept off her face by the promise of a swift and painful end to anyone who so much as hinted at threatening her husband. Had taken long enough to get Simon to notice her and years to get him up the altar, wasn't gonna let Jayne take any of the shine off. "No one's gonna do or say anythin' mean, ya got that Jayne?"

"Hey, I was on'y sayin'...."

"Sayin' what?"

Every head turned as the Captain finally joined them. To say he looked dishevelled and off his game was a kindness. In contrast River practically hummed round him like an overwound clock, his very own bright and shiny firefly. The others just watched with mouths half opened as the Captain seemed to move on autopilot, finding his chair more by memory than sight. River kissed his cheek then went to fix them breakfast. The dazed look on the Captain's face making the rest of his crew stare. Slowly he blinked, realising everyone had stopped talking. "*Shenme*? You never seen a man sit down to breakfast before?"

"Sit, yes." Said Simon slowly, now out of his own happy daze. Not sure whether to be amused or alarmed at the state of the Captain. Still. His sister was happy, deliriously so by the look of it and he would do anything to keep her that way. Even suffer her choice of partner. Didn't mean he could do it without anaesthetic though. "But not while still asleep."

"Ain't asleep." The Captain mumbled then put a hand over his mouth to hide a yawn. His hair was sticking up in unruly spikes and his eyes were not completely focused yet there was a calm about him, a relaxed air that told them he was both happy and content. Two rare feats in one day. Would the 'verse ever recover? Would the crew? For a moment Simon actually wondered if he were dreaming. Then the surreal moment was over and everyone was breaking up, going about their chores leaving River and the Captain alone. The Shepherd hung back as the others left, nodded to River and the Captain then paused on the catwalk when he caught sight of Chung-li standing in the cargo bay alone. Book took a moment or two to watch the man, a look of concern settling on his kindly face before he descended the staircase to join him.

"How you doin', son?"

It had been a long time since anyone had called him 'son'. "*Wode hao*."

Book gave a little shake of his head, allowing a gentle smile to form on his lips. "I asked how you were doin' not how you are."

The Chinaman's look sharpened. Not many would have made such a subtle distinction but then Shepherd Book was no ordinary man. "I was thinking."

"About your sister?" The prompt was kindly meant, not so much prying as offering the man an opening should he need or want to talk about his loss.

"No. Glory."

A look of pained comprehension stole over the Shepherd's face. "Ah!" He paused, waiting for Chung-li to explain but he did not. "Is that why you're still with us?"

Chung-li cut to the words Book would not say. "I do not seek revenge."

"No one would blame you if you did."

"*Ni bu dong*, I want to know who was responsible and why."

"Then what?"

"Then," Said Chung-li in an inordinately calm and controlled voice. "We will see not about revenge but justice."

Book watched the Chinaman closely, his own thoughts hidden. "And if the two are indistinguisable?"

For a long moment there was silence. The response, when it came, was not what the Shepherd expected. "They are not."

* * * * *

In the commons area River carried a makeshift breakfast over to the table, the Captain looking up to gift her with a smile. River placed a bowl before him and set hers down next to it then slipped her arms around his neck. "Mine!"

Her assertion amused him. "You think?"

River nodded and gently kissed his eyes causing him to shut them. "*Wo zhidao*."

"Could be you're just hopin'."

Her chuckle was warm, her lips teased his mouth then she pulled away. Mal opened his eyes and gazed at her, the thoughts on the tip of his tongue blown away by the sight of her. Sighing he pulled her close, wonder trapped in his heart at the thought that of all the people in the 'verse this angel had chosen him. "You got any notion how much I love you, *xin gan*?"

"Doesn't hurt to put thoughts into words."

Mal chuckled. "That a fact?"

She nodded sagely and stole a kiss. "Depends on the words."

"Could be you're right," He responded then took the kiss back. "On the other hand you could just be fishin' for compliments."

Her laughter was bright and full of joy, so carefree he wanted to cry. Knowing what he was thinking River brushed his arm aside and sat on his lap. The way she wanted to possess him amused him.

"*Ni shufu*?"

"You didn't eat your breakfast."

"That ain't no answer." Mal replied as she ran her fingers through his hair. Her next words almost ruined the mood.

"Poor Simon!"

He so did not want to be thinking about Simon Tam right now. "River, I don't think..."

River turned her head and smiled, such love in her eyes that he was struck mute.

"Double trouble." She explained.

Baffled, Mal stared at her nonplussed by the non-sequiter. "*Shenme*?"

If anything, River's smile widened until it threatened to swallow her whole. She drew her fingers out of his hair and outlined the planes of his face, gentle questing touches that sent little sparks through him as if he was brushing against a live wire. Her touch was all kinds of hypnotic what with the look in her eye making him feel all kinds of special. Not that he was in any mind to complain. Mal could not get over the way she seemed to carry an inner light that flickered through her like quicksilver and illuminated her with a joy that mesmerised him. It made him so happy he danced on the edge of an exquisite fever bright pain. Her smile softened, she knew him so well but for once this was not about her and the Captain. "Girls."

Mal stared, completely lost for a moment but seeing how River's face glowed with pleasure and content he felt his breath catch, his skin burning with her touch. He waited for her to explain, trusting that she would enlighten him. Didn't matter a good gorram if it took a thousand years. *Wode ma*, he'd wait. River grinned at him, loving him even more if such a thing were possible.

"Twins."

For a moment it looked as if the revelation had passed him by then the dime dropped, a leap of logic that had him rocking in his chair with laughter as images of a totally panic stricken Simon struggling to cope while his little Kaylee serenely went about her business of being a perfect gorram mother to not one but two babies. River hugged him as he laughed, enjoying the rumble vibrating up through his chest and warming her. The Captain would look forward to the look on the doctor's face when his tests showed the result of his very active extra curricula activities. Blinking back the start of tears he smiled at his beloved little albatross. His very own good luck charm. And thanked every power in the 'verse that ever was that she was his. So beautiful, so wonderful and utterly precious to him. For once he was in complete agreement with Simon. River wasn't just gifted. She was a gift.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *yiwusuoyou* = nothing *dong ma* = understand?

*fei hua* = garbage talk/rubbish *shenme* = what *wode hao* = I'm good

*ni bu dong* = you don't understand *wode ma* = mother of God

*wo zhidao* = I know *xin gan* = sweetheart *ni shufu* = you comfortable?

Chapter Text


"LIFE SIGNS"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was more than a little frightening to realise how little control Simon had over the events in his life. Running flat out to the engine room had seemed like such a good idea at the time but that was before he had skidded to a hasty halt just as Kaylee threw up over him. Now he stood stock still, staring at her in stunned surprise while covered in vomit. Not his best day ever. Only the fact that her face went even greener when she saw what she had done difused what would have been a scathing tirade given in reaction rather than anger. Right now the look on her face reminded him of one thing and one thing only. Kaylee was pregnant with *their* child. That little miracle, however, did nothing to aid his powers of speech.

Tentatively Kaylee broke the silence, her voice hesitant, eyes searching his face for some sign that he was not angry with her. Her hair was wet and matted, her coveralls a mess, the engine room splattered here and there with signs of her inability to hold back the turmoil in her stomach. She could not read the look on his face. What Simon was actually thinking was that if his wife had wanted to redecorate the engine room she could have just asked. Not that they had any paint, paper or other supplies but it would have been a courtesy. Now he was numbly enjoying the play of emotions on his wife's nervous face. It wasn't often someone did a worse job expressing themselves than he did. At least he could appreciate the novelty value.

"S.. Simon? You startled me. I... I didn't mean to... ya know..." She waved a vague hand in his direction, wincing at the sight of her beloved looking like something a Reaver wouldn't touch with a barge pole. His continued silence unnerved her. "S... Simon? Say somethin'. Yell, scream, whatever. You're frightenin' me gorramit."

To her consternation Simon smiled then against all reason began to walk towards her. Kaylee frowned. Couldn't he see the shape she was in? She must look and smell foul not to mention what he was like. But Simon Tam was nothing if not single minded. At her baffled expression his smile softened and he cocked his head slightly, the angle of his smile like an horizon holding her screwed up world level. "You want to know something, *bao bei*?"

Unable to speak she nodded. Simon closed the last few inches between them, raising a hand to her face and gentle teasing the wet hair off her face.

"You are so *mingliang* and *meili*."

Kaylee blinked. "Huh?" As his words sank in her expression changed and she put her hands on her hips. "Are ya makin' fun of me, Simon Tam, 'cause if ya are..." She stopped suddenly, her gut roiling up again. A look of horror rushed over her face just as she changed colour and put a hand over her mouth.

Experience must have sharpened the doctor's wits somewhat as this time he ducked just as a new wave of interior design collided with the wall behind him. Simon shook his head and chuckled softly, then laughed at the horrified expression on his wife's face. "Oh *xin gan*, I spent years as a trauma surgeon on Osiris. You throwing up over me is nothing compared to days and nights spent up to my elbows in someone's guts and I mean that in the worst possible way. The blood and the gore were one of the only constants along with the lack of sleep. I can't say I miss that."

Blinking back tears, Kaylee let him fold his arms around her. It took several moments for Kaylee to realise that Simon was gently steering her out of the engine room. "Where we goin'?"

His smile was deeper this time, amusement twinkling in his eyes. "Would you believe to get cleaned up?"

Her eyebrows rose and she wrinkled her nose. "Ya mean...?"

"Yes, Kaylee. I think it's time we christened those newly installed showers you put in."

Kaylee's smile blinded him. "Think I'd like that."

As they walked, arms around each other, he leaned in close and told her all the things they could do in the shower once they were clean. Kaylee giggled and blushed. "I ain't double jointed."

His laughter warmed her heart. "And I'm not Top Three Per Cent for nothing, Mrs Tam."

* * * * *

Shepherd Book listened to Chung-li in silence. Disturbed by the big man's assertion that he was looking for justice not revenge. It sounded an awful lot like the two words meant the same thing in the Chinaman's mind. Not only that but if Chung-li went looking for those he deemed responsible for what had happened on Glory the Captain was fool enough to follow him. The pull of friendship could make any man blind to the consequences and they needed the Captain here on Serenity not fighting another man's war. He knew he was being selfish but this was not their fight.

"I am going to ask the Captain to stop on Hope. It will be a good place to start."

"Chung-li," Said Book gently. "Let the dead lie."

Something stirred in the big man's eyes like a shadow over the soul and the Preacher found that unnerving. It was the first time he had ever felt discomfitted in the man's presence. Normally Chung-li radiated calm, his presence a positive force for good. Full of wisdom and light. Now he did not know what to make of the man's darkening mood and that unsettled him. "I ask no one to go with me."

Book sighed softly. "And the Captain? Do you think he will let you go alone?"

"Hope is a peaceful world, Shepherd Book."

"So was Armageddon before the end of the world was unleashed."

"Armageddon is a place?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"What are you afraid of?"

"That you will go seeking death - and find it."

"Do not fear for me."

The Shepherd shook his head. "*Ni bu dong*."

"You are wrong, you think I will take this ship and crew into Armageddon with me."

"We go wherever our Captain goes," Said Book carefully. "And I cannot see the Captain letting you do this alone."

"Then do not tell him."

His answer surprised Book so much it took a moment or two for him to respond. "You want me to lie to the Captain?"

"*Bu qu*, just do not offer up details not asked for."

"And if the Captain should ask?"

"Then it will be out of your hands."

For a minute neither man spoke then Book's soft words echoed a sad descant as if he already knew the answer. "Is there nothing I can do to deter you?"

"No, *yiwusuoyou*."

Chung-li politely excused himself and left Book in the cargo bay alone. Troubled but not knowing what to do about it the Shepherd went to find Jayne. He needed someone to spot him while he lifted some weights, a good workout would hopefully free his mind to come up with an alternative that all of them could live with.

* * * * *

Wash was amused more and more by the changes River was having on the Captain. Not only was the man more relaxed than he had ever seen him but unless he was mistaken Mal was actually *humming*. If that wasn't a sound full of happy he didn't know what was. He was tempted to tease him about it but the cautioning look on Zoe's face stopped him. Instead he spun in his pilot's seat and looked at the Captain. "Where to, Mal?"

"How we doin' for fuel, Wash?"

"We're shiny but could do with toppin' up next planet-fall."

"So how far can we go before we need to be doin' that?"

Before the pilot could answer Chung-li joined them on the bridge. Mal turned and smiled at his friend. The Captain had not seen much of the Chinaman since burying Shen Ling on Glory. He knew the man had been keeping to himself, no doubt in mourning for his sister and was right pleased to see him back in circulation again. In his heart he hoped it meant his friend was healing. "Chung-li, we were about to lay in a course. You got any preferences?"

The man smiled at the Captain. "Can we go to Hope?"

A spasm of pain flickered over the Captain's face. His happy mood draining out of him. "What you want on Hope, Chung-li?"

"It is where we must part company, *wode pengyou*. Your path and mine are not the same."

The Captain frowned not liking the sound of that. Zoe felt a horrible presentiment of doom. She saw the baffled look on Wash's face, not understanding that more was being said in the silence between words that by the words themselves. Zoe could sense it and didn't like it but for now would hold her peace. It was the Captain's call.

"What you wantin' with Hope?"

Chung-li really had not intended to say anything to Mal but when his friend asked a direct question he deserved a straight answer. A man should not lie to his *pengyou*. "Answers."

Alarmed, every sense in the Captain's body sharpened. "You know somethin' about what happened on Glory?"

The big man shook his head. "Not know, sense."

"What you sensin'?"

"I just want answers."

For a couple of seconds Mal stared at him then slowly nodded, his expression grim. "Then you ain't goin' alone."

"Mal..."

The Captain raised a hand and stopped the Chinaman in his tracks. "I'm comin' with you an' that's the end of this discussion, *dong ma*?"

"I cannot ask you to come with me."

"Then don't. My decision an' don't try an' talk me out of it."

Part relieved and part unhappy Chung-li dipped his head in thanks and left the bridge. The Captain stared into the Black and spoke to Wash without looking at him, his mind racing through all kinds of possibilities. None of them pleasing him. "Set a course for Hope, Wash."

"Um, not to question your decision Cap'n but do you think that's wise? I mean, we don't know what we'll be gettin' into."

"Not askin', Wash." Mal paused as he walked to the door and looked back at the pair of them. "An' before you get to worryin' this won't involve anyone but me an' Chung-li. We get to Hope I want you to fuel the ship. Zoe, get the doc to stock up on supplies an' see if the Shepherd can scout for some fresh food. Be all kinds of satisfyin' to eat real food for a change."

"What're you gonna do?"

The Captain flashed a patently false smile which did nothing to reassure either his pilot or his first mate. "Just watchin' out for a friend. *Fang xin*, this don't have to get messy."

As the Captain left the bridge Wash looked at the sour expression on his wife's face. "Who's worried?"

Without a word Zoe followed the Captain. Sighing Wash spun back to his console and began to plot and lay in a course for Hope. From the look in Zoe's eye he wouldn't want to be in Mal's shoes right now.

The Captain heard her familiar footfall but did not pause or turn his head. A man with a mission he kept right on walking right up until she spoke. "Sir, this is a bad idea."

Mal paused on the catwalk. "You sure you wanna be havin' this conversation right here?"

She blinked. Collected her thoughts and nodded curtly then passed him and led the way to her bunk trusting the Captain to follow. He knew ignoring her concern would just be piling up a whole heap of trouble on top of hurt feelings and he in no way wanted to do that. Inara was babysitting Jack in her shuttle so he knew they would at least be able to talk without any distractions. At least until the next crisis hit. Once they were in her bunk, Zoe turned and let Mal see how annoyed and upset she was through her tightly controlled mask of emotions. The more affecting because she kept so iron calm about it. It put him on notice that this would be serious. "Do you remember what you said back in the valley?"

His lips thinned, body tensing. "Not like to forget."

"You said *not nothin' gonna part us but death an' even that's nothin' but a pause in creation'." Zoe paused, watching him closely. "Always thought it was kind'a poetic."

"That it is but it's time to move on."

"Thought that's what we were doin', sir." She said softly. Zoe paused a moment. "What's goin' on, Mal? An' I ain't talkin' about this *fei hua*."

He wanted to tell her to drop it. That this was in no way her business but he couldn't do that. He *was* her business just as she was his. Didn't matter a good gorram that she was married and had a child or that he was hooked up with River and hoping to have a similar arrangement. They were the closest thing either had left to family. Closer than blood kin.

"He's my friend, Zoe."

"What does that make us?"

Mal sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "What you want me to say? Let him go alone an' pay no mind to the fact he might not come back? That what you wantin' to hear? Ain't gonna leave a man behind, Zoe, just 'cause things look to be goin' smooth for once on Serenity. Couldn't live with it if anythin' went wrong."

Zoe did know, understood, but that didn't make seeing him do something foolish any easier to take. Especially if it meant watching him walk into danger. Plus Hope was filled with all sorts of painful memories for the Captain. Wasn't gonna be easy even if nothing happened. "Mal, this is somethin' Chung-li has to do not you. Don't turn this into somethin' it ain't."

Anger flashed in his eyes. "How can you say that let alone think it? Chung-li saved my gorram life, Zoe. Brought me outta hell an' almost lost his life his own self. Think he thought about whether or not life was smooth? Ain't sayin' this again, I'm goin' an' that's that."

"Then I'm comin' too."

He started to shake his head, lips compressed into a thin stubborn line she knew only too well. Instead of backing down she stepped up close and put a hand on his shoulder, the unexpected touch silencing him better than cannon fire.

"I have to come, Mal." She said softly, her quiet voice almost echoing in the sudden silence. "I won't leave a man behind either." She paused and waited but the Captain did not say anything. He knew when he had been out manouevred. "Besides," She added drily. "It's better than stayin' behind an' tryin' to explain to River why I let you go."

The Captain closed his eyes and groaned aloud. Gorrammit, River. *Tian Yesu* how could he have forgotten his little albatross? She was gonna be all kinds of mad at him when she found out.

* * * * *

River took an inordinate amount of pleasure in the silences of the ship's night. when everyone's minds drifted and slept it was easier to hear the softer beat of newly forming hearts. The murmurs of those yet to be born growing more distinct day by day. Two clear, strong heartbeats. Turning her thoughts inwards River had followed her own internal workings while Mal slept unawares. Their exertions calming her need but unable to sleep with so many thoughts cascading through her mind, so many heartbeats cradled in the reassuring thrum of Serenity's engines. So it was that she had made a discovery of her own, one that startled and froze her in shock. It had taken a conscious effort to slow down her panic and school her breathing so as not to wake her *ai ren*. Biting back a tear she had feigned sleep until the ship stirred and Mal had kissed her before going off to commence his Captainly duties.

She found Simon a couple of hours after breakfast, his hair still wet from his extended shower with Kaylee but happier than she had seen him in years. He was in the infirmary carefully cataloguing the supplies they needed. Turning as she stepped through the door the smile on his face froze at the clear signs of her distress. His heart faltering he moved towards her. "*Mei mei, shenme shi*?"

"I want you to examine me, Simon."

"Are you hurt? What happened?"

River shook her head though in one sense denial was the biggest lie. She *was* hurt but not in the way Simon imagined. This was so much worse than a physical injury. "*Bu qu*, I just need you to check me."

"Am I allowed to know what it is I'm looking for?"

Sorrow and sadness rose unbidden in her eyes. With an effort she managed to speak. "Something missing."

Her brother blinked, surely she didn't mean...? Had River had a miscarriage? But no, she and the Captain hadn't been together that long... or had they?

"No," She answered his unspoken thought. "Not a miscarriage. I need you to check it's all there." River paused as another thought tagged on to the first. "Or not."

"River, you're not making any sense."

"*Wo zhidao* just trust me, Simon."

He stared at her for a moment then nodded slowly. This was his sister, River, the most precious thing to him in the whole gorram 'verse. If she asked him to trust her he would, even though he did not have a clue what in the nine hells this was about. Not knowing what to look for he checked everything. At first it looked like he would find nothing and the concern he had been feeling began to ease then he found it. Such a small neat piece of surgery that he almost missed it. Certainly it was only with checking even more closely that he discovered what had been done. Horror made his surgeon's hands tremble. "*Wode ma*, who did this to you?"

River didn't answer. It was more an exclamation than a question. They both knew who had done it and when. The Academy it seemed had wanted to do more than play with her brain. They wanted to control her genes too. "Take it out!"

"I can't, *mei mei*. It's too dangerous."

She did not even try to control her tears. Anguish colouring her every word. "I want to have his children, Simon."

"Did Mal say...?"

"He doesn't know."

Shocked, Simon's eyes widened. "River, you have to tell him."

She shook her head. "No and you mustn't tell him."

"He has a right to know."

"I don't want to break his heart."

It was hard for Simon to think straight but one of them had to. River's sorrow was affecting him too, only his professionalism as a doctor gave him some control. "Look if Mal wants children so badly you could adopt. This doesn't have to be the end of the world, *mei mei*."

River's eyes widened. "You aren't listening! *I* want to have his children, Simon. Me not him."

Simon stared at her, not sure what to say that would not upset her further. Calming down a little, River took his hand. She so badly wanted him to understand. "I don't want it all to end when we die, Simon."

"*Wo bu dong, mei mei*. What don't you want to end?"

She smiled through her tears, trying so hard to be brave, to make him understand why this was so important to her. "This. Us."

"River," Said Simon gently. "Everyone dies, from beautiful princesses to grumpy old Captains."

"*Wo zhidao* but the genes live on. It makes us immortal, Simon. The mirror within the mirror *ad infinitum*."

He nodded, understanding now. "You have to understand my position, River. I may be able to reverse what they've done but it won't be without danger to you, this is very delicate surgery and we don't have the equipment or facilities the Alliance has. And even if the surgery is a success you might be left barren."

"I trust you, Simon."

"And the Captain, does he trust me?"

For a moment neither spoke. River smiling gently at Simon as if telling him something he should already know. "More than you think."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *mingliang* = bright *meili* = beautiful

*xin gan*/*ai ren* = sweetheart *ni bu dong* = you don't understand

*bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *yiwusuoyou* = nothing *wode pengyou* = my friend

*pengyou* = friend *dong ma* = understand? *fei hua* = garbage talk/nonsense

*fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *tian Yesu* = sweet Jesus

*mei mei* = little sister *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *wo zhidao* = I know

*wode ma* = mother of God *wo bu dong* = I don't understand

LATIN:

*ad infinitum* = without limit

Chapter Text


"THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Jayne looked up at the Preacher's words, smoothly sliding Binky back into its' shealth. The knife edge honed to a beautiful razor sharpness that made him feel a spark of pride. He always lavished great care on his weapons. Man had to treat them with respect when his life and that of those he cared about might need protecting. Didn't matter a good gorram if it was a tiny little lady like pea shooter or a masterful peace of deadly like his Vera, a man who didn't look after his weaponry was already dead. The news just hadn't yet reached his brain.

"Ya gonna tell me what's wrong?"

The Shepherd grunted softly, the weight bar being lifted and lowered with more care as he began to tire, yet he looked so gorram determined that Jayne wondered if he would even know when to stop. "What makes you think anything is *cuode*?"

"May not know everythin' 'bout ya but I know when somethin's on yer mind."

As if conceding defeat the Shepherd set the bar on the cradle and just looked up at the mercenary for a minute. "Chung-li wants to go to Hope."

Jayne frowned not seeing the problem. "An' that's a bad thing why?"

"Says he's lookin' for answers." Book sat up and wiped the perspiration from his face with a towel.

"If the man wants to go why ya frettin?"

"Because he's the Captain's friend."

Now the mercenary looked baffled. "Huh? What the *diyu* ya talkin' about?"

"Jayne, the man wants to go looking for answers, *dong ma*? He's burning with a need to find out who was behind what happened on Glory."

"Then why's he goin' to Hope? Don't make sense."

"Not to you and me perhaps but Chung-li is a pretty shrewd man."

"Meanin' what exactly?"

"Meaning he either knows or suspects something."

For a moment Jayne just looked at Book, the wheels in his head turning slowly but surely. "Well good! I hope he finds 'em an' strings 'em up. Men that'd do such a thing should die real slow."

"Jayne, my worry is that whatever Chung-li gets into he's gonna drag us in with him."

"I ain't afraid of a fight an' I know you ain't either so why ya worried?"

"Whoever burnt Glory to the ground is either very powerful or has powerful friends."

"What ya thinkin'?"

"Alliance."

The mercenary straightened, the first sign of disquiet shadowing his face. "Alliance? What them *tamade hundan* want with Rafe an' his folks?"

Shepherd Book shook his head slowly, every inch of him feeling sad. "*Wo bu zhidao* but where Chung-li goes the Captain is bound to follow which means so will we."

"Like I said ain't afraid of a fight."

"*Wo zhidao* but we have those on board that are still wanted by the Alliance. In fact I don't think anyone aboard this ship wants the Alliance looking at us too closely."

"Hope ain't Alliance."

"Wasn't, Jayne. Past tense."

Jayne blinked. "Huh?"

"Do you remember the last time we went to Glory, or rather, the Captain did?"

It took him a moment but then the mercenary caught on. "Sarah."

The Shepherd nodded sadly. It had followed one of the shiniest Christmases Serenity's crew had ever had. The only thing that had warmed his heart more had been seeing their stern and solemn Captain fall in love. That it had all ended so tragically was another reason to avoid Hope. How misnamed could a gorram planet be anyway? But that was beside the point now. "You said the planet isn't Alliance but I checked on the cortex. All those years Hope managed to stay under Alliance radar are long gone, Jayne. The Alliance never noticed it before but they have reason to now. And they're meanin' to stay."

"*Weishenme*?"

Book sighed, feeling the weight of his years like a dull ache in his bones. "A couple of years ago they found gold on Hope. The resulting free-for-all ended in an impressive amount of bloodshed, the rule of law reinstated so harshly it had Alliance fingerprints all over it."

Jayne Cobb's eyes widened and went round as saucers. His face lighting up with happy possibilities. Dying rich was always better than dying poor. "Gold? What in *diyu's* wrong with that?"

"*Zhe shi xingshi geng fuza le*, Jayne."

"Don't see how." Said Jayne grinning. "First smart thing Mal's done in a long time."

"While the gold might be tempting the Alliance garrison isn't. Within ten more years Hope won't look or feel any different from any Core world. The Alliance'll have the whole place sewn so tight you won't be able to breathe without a permit."

Sense percolated slowly through Jayne's shiny little daydream of obscene wealth. "If that's so Cap'll just drop Chung-li off an' we can go on our merry though it'd be a sin to leave all that gold in Alliance hands. I'm thinkin' we should liberate some of it..."

"There's a drawback, Jayne. You have to be alive to spend it."

A scowl darkened Jayne's face. "I ain't plannin' on dyin'."

"The graveyards of every world that ever was are filled with people who shared that thought. I don't want any of us to be joining them."

There was a long pause then Jayne and Book exchanged positions, the mercenary laying back and looking up at the bar while Book got ready to spot him. As Jayne flexed his hands around the bar and adjusted his grip he cut through to the chase. "What we gonna do?"

"Find an alternative but first we need to talk to Chung-li."

"What good's that gonna do but slow us down?"

"We can't hope to come up with a better plan until we know the ins an' outs of this one, Jayne."

"Huh." Jayne lifted, locked his elbows, then lowered the bar nice and slow. On his next breath he lifted it again. "I say we just drop the Chinaman off then hit atmo." Jayne gave the Shepherd a grin as he easily lifted the bar for a third time. Just getting into his stride but unable to hide the glitter of want in his eyes. "*After* we get the gold!"

* * * * *

Inara Serra could not find words for the happiness and peace that infused every pore of her being as she held the baby. Jack was so perfect. Precious. Quiet and biddable unless he was hurting, anxious or hungry. Cradling him in her arms a little smile bowed her lips. If only the rest of Serenity's crew could be so wise. He was gaining weight daily, his light bronze skin aglow with health and vitality, those eyes dark brown like his mother's but the shock of hair was pure Wash. Inara just knew Wash had been pretty much a mirror image when he was a child. It amused her to imagine what Zoe must have been like then her smile faltered. Maybe she was wrong. To assume the woman she now knew had always been so hard, unyielding, stoic and brave. As a child what had Zoe been like? Inara looked down into Jack's wide open eyes and wondering whether Wash and Zoe had more in common at birth than they ever would have as adults.

Shaking herself out of such thoughts she watched the look on the baby's face darken as he strained and knew the signs. Laughing she lifted her up and looked him in the eye. "I think it's time somebody had a change of nappy, don't you?"

Baby Jack gurgled happily and waved his arms, his curly blonde hair framing a face full of content and good nature. Inara wanted to cherish these moments of innocent because life in the Black would not allow the growing child to keep them for long. As she rose gracefully to her feet someone knocked on the door. Turning, Inara saw Kaylee enter so sedately she wondered what was wrong. Kaylee flashed her a smile which widened as her eyes lit on the baby.

"Thought I'd come an' see if ya wanted a hand with Jack."

Inara smiled, a little spark of mischief twinkling in her eyes but hidden quickly as Kaylee turned her gaze from the baby to her friend. "*Duome hao de zhuyi a!*" Inara handed the baby to Kaylee then waited a moment, all the while edging carefully towards the door of the shuttle. Only when Kaylee noticed she was backing away did Inara confess. "I think he needs changing."

Before Kaylee could say anything Inara had the door open and ducked out. The last flash of her smile softening the way in which she had dumped the chore on the mechanic. Not that Kaylee minded. She came from a big sprawling loving family. More kids than critters on her mama's land. Chuckling Kaylee turned all her attention back to the baby. "Huh, guess that just leaves you an' me, Jack."

Everything was going fine until Kaylee took off the nappy. As the pungent aroma and reek rose up and filled her nostrils Kaylee gagged. She only had time to turn her head, the last of her stomach's contents narrowly missing the baby. Seemed like Inara's shuttle was being redecorated too.

* * * * *

Decision made, the Captain went searching for River but she wasn't in her bunk. His neither. Turning to make his way to the common room he ran into Shepherd Book. The serious and determined look on his face telling Mal in no uncertain terms that he wanted to talk to him and would not take no, go away, or get in line as an answer. With a nod the Captain bowed to the inevitable.

In the infirmary Simon informed River he would have to put her under. River nodded, her eyes trying to reassure her brother but her words undoing that intention. "Just don't want to drown, Simon."

"You won't drown." Murmured Simon, one hand gently brushing her hair back.

The intent look in his eyes began to fade and swim before her until River closed her eyes. Felt the water closing in over her head and took a long slow breath to last for the journey. Only the journey didn't stop. It had only just begun.

* * * * *

Mal looked around him in surprise. For some reason he had expected the room to be empty. Inara finished making her tea and took a seat next to Chung-li. Jayne preferred to lean against a cupboard, looking like some big lazy cat only the Captain knew different. Knew how quick the man could move when he was a mind to and how much he took in when he was focused on something. Zoe walked in behind him seconds later making Mal think this gorram meeting must have been preplanned. He should have been annoyed but didn't have the time. At least Wash and Kaylee were staying at their posts which was something. Didn't hurt neither that Simon and River weren't present. Probably a good thing to say something anyway. Wash reckoned they would arrive at Hope within the next six hours.

"Some of you may have noticed we've made a change in course." He paused, no one spoke. Mal was not sure if that was a good or a bad thing. His stance stiffened slightly. "We're goin' to Hope." As Jayne opened his mouth the Captain held a hand up. "Not yet. You can ask all your questions an' some such afterwards, *dong ma*? This ain't a discussion, this is for your information. Not nobody bein' asked to go some place nor do somethin' just me an' Chung-li." The Captain straightened as if stretching his spine and bracing for a chorus of disapproval. "Chung-li thinks there might be somethin' at Hope might explain what happened on Glory. Now, I in no way got such an idea my own self but not gonna let him go alone. 'Sides, I got a powerful need to find out my own self but that don't make it crew business. Crew business is keepin' this boat ship-shape an' shiny which means gettin' her fueled up, supplies replenished an' so on. Not nobody gonna go wanderin' off. This ain't no sight seeing trip."

"Captain."

Mal bit back a sigh and gave the Shepherd a grim little nod.

"You may not have noticed but Hope has changed."

He blinked. "*Zhe shi shenme*? Changed, how?"

It was Inara who answered. "It's Alliance now, Mal."

"*Shenme*? When did this happen?"

Zoe could understand his confusion, she felt it too. But more than that how come Inara, Book and even Jayne seemed to know when they didn't?

"They found GOLD!" Said Jayne, turning the last word into a greedy leer as if that explained everything, his eyes big and round and glittering as if he could feel it in his hands.

"Seems like they found stupid." Muttered the Captain not liking how the mere thought of the word was affecting his mercenary. Mal looked at the Preacher. "How'd you know about this, Shepherd?"

"A man hears things."

That caused a raised eyebrow. "An' you never thought to mention this to your Cap'n?"

"I thought I just did."

Oh, the man was smooth. Mal's eyes narrowed. "I'm thinkin' more information would be a good thing."

So Shepherd Book did that. He explained how some tin miners had settled on Hope. Seemed old tin miners never died they just looked for somewhere else to sink a shaft. One of the shafts had found something none of the miners expected. Gold! Word got out even before the ore did and within a ridiculously short space of time people were coming in from every gorram where, fights were common and lawlessness pretty much widespread. The Alliance got word of the trouble on Hope and sent troops to sort it out and sort it out they did. A look of grave sorrow stole across the Preacher's face. "I don't have to tell you how the Alliance restored control. After that a lot of folk left Hope, not wanting to share their homeworld with an Alliance garrison more mindful about what was under their feet than the folks settled on it." He paused and just stared at the Captain. "They say like breeds like, Captain."

Mal didn't like the unspoken inference but decided to ignore it for now. He glanced at Chung-li. "This gonna be a problem?"

The big man rose slowly. It was odd to Mal now he came to think about it how Chung-li seemed so large and blocky - but in a good, not fat, kind of way - yet when he moved he was all grace, a fluid motion of limbs that belied his size. Should have been incongruent but it wasn't. Made him remember how the man had moved in that rutting cell when he was being tortured, pulled the gorram ring out of the wall to get to the guards that held him. Took a bullet or two and a beating before he went down. Yet there were so many things Mal did not know about the man he called friend. Things that evaporated into insignificance next to the bond of brotherhood that had formed between them. He would trust this man with his life and more than that. He would trust the lives of his crew to Chung-li in a heartbet. Only he had no notion to test that theory in the Here and Now. They had enemies a-plenty without bringing his crew into those high tech cross hairs. Not nobody gonna touch his crew and live.

"*Bu qu*, wode pengyou*, but we will need to blend in."

At the uncertain looks being sent his way the Captain shot an offended look back. Who was the gorram Captain of this boat anyway? "*Wei*! I can blend in."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*cuode* = wrong *diyu* = hell *dong ma* = understand? *weishenme* = why

*wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *wo zhidao* = I know *shenme* = what

*zhe shi xingshi geng fuza le* = this has further complicated the situation *wei* = hey

*duome hai de zhugyi a!* = what a good idea! *zhe shi shenme* = what's this?

*bu qu* = no (lit. no go) *wode pengyou* = my friend

*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard

Chapter Text


"FOLLOWING THE COIN"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Water, water everywhere but she was still breathing, *dui*? So what was wrong with this picture? River tried to process images that didn't exactly bounce off her retinas, memories skew whiff because so much was tumbling through her brainpan. Sharp little shards of brilliance stung her with phantom blasts of light. What the *guai* was this? Then she remembered. Small slivers of memory trickling through a mind that was so full of holes she could have used it as a colander.

Simon worked with patient skill and utter concentration. Now that River realised she was unconscious she was much calmer, her mind forging pathways her body could only dream of. She knew Simon was worried about her but that anxiety had been pushed to one side to allow the doctor to silence the brother so he could work. Poking around inside his head she noticed it was not the cluttered palace of most minds but the orderly almost sterile confines of a disciplined one. Not that she had expected anything less but some residue of emotion would have been comforting. After all she was the one with a hole in her allowing him to probe and oh so carefully restore what had been taken from her. It was not that any body parts were missing exactly but they had been realigned so that sexual intercourse would do no more than flush the precious seed to a point of no return until it could be washed out of her system with the rest of the bodily wastes. The ovaries beyond reach, the route to a successful ovulation blocked. Now Simon was reopening the pathway, her body as well as her mind willing him to succeed.

* * * * *

As the ship drew closer to Hope Wash slowed down, almost stopping. Within minutes the Captain was clambering quickly on to the bridge to find out why. The words forming on his tongue stuck there as he looked passed Wash and saw the military build up. His mouth sagged open. Behind him Zoe hissed in a sharp breath. Her reaction prompted him to say what he was thinking. "What the good gorram's goin' on, Wash?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Cap'n, or if you're as clueless as I am then forget I said anythin'."

Mal glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, reluctant to turn his head completely in case those Alliance pursuit ships decided the Firefly was worth pursuing or worse, opened fire on them. Not that there was any reason in the known 'verse for them to do that but that notion never stopped the Alliance in the past. Had no reason to think the present was any different where those *tamade hundan* were concerned. "You ain't exactly helpin', Wash."

"Maybe we should re-think our plan, sir."

Zoe. What in the nine hells would he do without her? Could always be counted on to keep her head even when he was half out of his. "Still have to go down to Hope."

"Sir, are you not seein' those Alliance ships? I'm pretty sure that me an' Wash ain't hallucinatin'."

The Captain shook his head. "Not what I was meanin' Zoe an' I wasn't thinkin' of Wash landin' Serenity anyway."

"You weren't?" Wash blinked at the Captain's expression then changed tack. "Of course you weren't. So, what *were* you thinkin'?"

"I have to speak to Chung-li."

Before he could disappear again Wash got in a question. "In the meantime what should I do? You want us to stay right here or move away to a less in-the-line-of-fire position?"

Mal waved a hand vaguely as if expecting Wash to pull the answer out of thin air. "Just... don't attract any unwanted attention."

The pilot muttered under his breath as the Captain disappeared from sight. Zoe leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Don't mind the Cap'n, *bao bei*. He'll think of something."

Then Zoe turned and retreated like the Captain's shadow. A glum expression settling on his face, Wash parked Serenity in orbit and tried to prop up his sinking spirits. "That's what I'm afraid of."

When the Captain got to the catwalk Zoe stopped him. "Goin' down to Hope is a bad idea, sir"

"*Fang xin*, we'll think of somethin' Zoe."

She frowned. "Did Chung-li say exactly what he thought he'd find here?"

Mal huffed and started walking briskly towards the common room, Zoe falling into step as natural as could be. "No, said it was more a 'sense'."

That surprised her. "What're you sayin', sir?"

He paused and looked at her, his face closed up in a way she hadn't seen in a long time. She wasn't sure what it meant only that she didn't like it. "Not sure what I'm sayin', *diyu* I'm not even sure what I'm thinkin'. Just that this is *zhongyao*."

Zoe pursed her lips. So close to him that it was wonder their bodies didn't rub as they moved in sych. "If it's that important then it's time Chung-li spelt it out, sir. For us lesser mortals."

The look he shot her would have raised a smile had she not been feeling so tense. When they reached the common room Mal called the crew together. Chung-li had changed into a nondescript travelling cloak, every stitch of his clothing one shade or other of understated brown. It gave the Captain the creeps, stirring memories he in no way wanted to revisit. The only bright spot about it was the slight flinch on Book's face when he saw the Chinaman. Mal turned his head and frowned. Everyone was there except Simon and River. In fact, he hadn't seen his little albatross in a good while. He hoped she wasn't having one of her episodes but right now was not the time to worry about that. Had problems a-plenty without looking for more.

"Okay people, listen up. Seems Hope has more than a military garrison on the planet. Have to say if the gorram war weren't over I'd think we were fightin' it all over again."

Jayne looked confused. "*Shenme*?"

"Ships, Jayne." Explained Zoe in a terse voice. "Lots of 'em an' none of 'em friendly to us."

"We in trouble, Cap'n?"

Mal tried to smile at Kaylee but couldn't quite manage it. "Not yet, *mei mei*, but I don't like the way things're shapin' up." He paused and looked at Chung-li. Push had come to shove. "Chung-li, I need you to tell me what the good gorram's goin' on. What these Alliance ships doin' crowdin' round Hope?"

"*Wo bu zhidao*, Mal."

"What's the real reason we're here?" He asked softly.

Shepherd Book's interest sharpened but he said nothing. Letting his eyes pick up clues that his ears might miss.

"I have to go down to the planet, Mal. Not so you."

The Captain waved an impatient hand at him. The others were surprised, they had yet to see the Captain show any irritation or impatience with Chung-li. "*Bushi*, that's nothin' but *fei hua*. If you're insistin' on goin' down then I'm insistin' on goin' with you but that ain't what I'm askin'. What you expectin' to find on Hope?"

"Gold!" Said Jayne. In the silence his word echoed a mite too loud and faces turned to stare at him. Uncomfortable at the scrutiny he scowled back. "What? I'm just sayin', gold."

"Yes, Jayne." Said Zoe calmly, her eyes hard but not angry. "We know about the gold."

"No," Explained Jayne shaking his head. "I mean maybe that's why they're there 'cause of the gold. Alliance needs funds, all them soldiers, ships an' such. Havin' gold mines on Hope means someone else can foot the bill don't it? Leastways that's what I'd do if'n it were mine."

"Only it isn't yours." Shepherd Book averred, his voice calm while it was his eyes asking questions.

"Not their's neither," Responded Jayne. "We do this right it'll be ours."

Anger flashed sudden and violent like a summer storm across the Captain's face. "*Bizui*, Jayne, that's enough! This ain't about gold. That's not why we're here. Chung-li, how 'bout you tell us why we're here?"

For a moment the big man did not speak then slowly he nodded to Mal. The Captain was his friend and the people of Glory had meant a great deal to the both of them. "Not all the bodies add up to the dead, *wode pengyou*."

"*Shenme*?" What the *diyu* was he talking about?

"I counted." Said Chung-li slowly, his eyes fixed on the Captain as if no one else were in the room.

Mal's mouth went dry. "What you tryin' to say, Chung-li?"

"I lived on Glory for years, Mal. Knew every soul on that ranch. Rafe and his folks were like kin to me." The man paused and gave a long heavy sigh. His serene mask cracking with pain. "Some are missin'." He said softly.

Now no one spoke or dared move. All of them hanging on Chung-li's words. Quietly Mal prompted him. He had to ask, to know, much as the knowing might grieve him. "Who ain't there?"

"Can't be sure..."

"Chung-li!" The crack of the Captain's voice made them all take a breath. "I know you got a good idea or we wouldn't be here. Now. No more games, *dong ma*?"

Big soulful eyes looked deeply into the Captain's own. "Most of the ranch hands were there," He said softly. "Some I could recognise by bits of jewellery. Hal by those gold teeth in his lower jaw..." Mal shut his eyes against the pain. Chung-li had to gulp in more air just to keep his voice steady. "I figure there's ten, maybe twelve people not accounted for."

He wanted to ask, *tianna* how he wanted to ask, but he didn't dare. His voice came out dry and scratchy. "An' you think they'd be on Hope, that it?"

The Chinaman nodded slowly, carefully, as if the weight of all those lost souls were sitting on his shoulders. The slightest wrong move and they would topple off, dislodged into the abyss. The Captain was watching him closely, his expression somewhat puzzled.

"What in the nine hells you think they're doin' on Hope?"

"I think they've been put to work in the mines."

For a minute or two everyone just stared at the Chinaman. If he hadn't been so full of sorrow Mal might have laughed at the absurdity of it but he didn't. Chung-li was not a fanciful man. Not a dissembler of information or a liar. If he said something was so then it was. Set in gorram stone as far as Mal was concerned. But this? It beggared belief. Stretched his faith in the man if he was being truthsome. Had grief finally tipped him over the edge? Had Chung-li lost it? Before he could say anything Chung-li answered his unspoken thoughts, going right to the heart of the matter.

"When I close my eyes I see them, Mal."

A long string of Chinese obscenities slipped out of the Captain's mouth.

"We don't have much time."

"Way, wait, you see them? You sayin' what I think you're sayin'?"

The soft smile was meant to cushion the blow. "River knows. Understands."

Something clicked. Shepherd Book found himself nodding. "You're a Reader."

"No, I have different skills but I sense things. See them sometimes too. I do not read minds, Shepherd."

The Captain was getting all fired up with impatience and the need to drag the words out faster than a couple at a time. "Spit it out, what the good gorram do you see an' how can we get them outta there?"

* * * * *

Simon was weary. Not because he lacked sleep but because of the release of tension, the worry pent up inside him. Now that he had managed to put right what the Alliance had done reaction was setting in. At least River's physical body would heal. If only he could restore the mind as easily. For a while he watched his sister sleep, mind numb but grateful. He washed his hands and made sure everything was properly sterilised and that his sister was breathing easily.

It was something of a surprise when he turned and realised they were no longer alone. Inara Serra looked at him in shock, her face drawn in concern. The baby on her hip momentarily forgotten as she stared at Simon. "*Wode ma*, what happened Simon?"

"It's alright, River wanted me to check her."

"For what?"

For a split second he considered lying but that wasn't his way and River had not told him he could not say anything to Inara. As the Companion listened her heart contracted. Laying pale and immobile on the infirmary bed River looked so young, so vulnerable.

"Is she...? Will River be alright?"

Simon nodded. "*Qu*. Fortunately the surgery was first rate so the wound was small. No tearing and no internal infection."

"Will she be able to..."

"Reproduce?"

Inara nodded, grateful she did not have to say it.

"I don't see why not. What River needs right now is to rest and let her body finish healing. The rest, as they say, is in the lap of the Gods."

* * * * *

The com crackled just as the Captain reappeared on the bridge. Zoe stepped aside to stand beside her man, Chung-li stopping next to the Captain. In the doorway behind them Book, Kaylee and Jayne hovered. Wash looked up at the Captain. "We're bein' hailed."

"Put it through."

Wash flicked a switch and an image came up on the screen. The Alliance officer unknown to Captain and crew but looking every bit as officious as every Alliance *hundan* Mal had ever met. "This is Commander Drylan of the Dauntless. What is your business here?"

"Not stoppin' Commander, just passin' through. I'm Captain Malcolm Reynolds an' this here's my ship, Serenity."

The Commander was scowling darkly now. If he had a finger on a trigger Mal figured it would be itching to squeeze off a shot right now. "No one passes through Hope, Captain. State your business or prepare to be boarded."

"No, no you misundertand me Commander." Mal waved Chung-li into view. "This here brother needs droppin' off on Hope. Paid us just enough in coin for the trip. Soon as he's down we'll be on our merry."

Commander Drylan leaned in a little closer to the monitor. "An' who might you be?"

"A seeker of spiritual enlightenment."

"Sorry to disappoint you, brother, but there are no monasteries on Hope."

Chung-li nodded, his expression calm and serene. "Then I am in the right place, Commander."

"I'm not sure the governing body will want you settin' up a monastery on Hope. Could be you came the long road to nowhere."

Chung-li bowed. "Your pardon, if my request is denied I will of course leave immediately. If you will allow Captain Reynolds' ship to wait for me I will be able to continue my travels."

The Commander did not look too happy. Mal reckoned his job was to warn everybody off but then what could one lone priest do? "I'm afraid you can't land that ship on Hope, Captain."

"Not intendin' to, sir." Said Mal quickly. "Got a shuttle, won't take but an hour to drop the monk off and be back on my boat." The Captain then looked at Chung-li. "How long you reckon you'll need us to stay in orbit before you know if you can stay or not?"

The Chinaman did not answer Mal but looked expectantly at the Commander. Commander Drylan nodded. "Very well, you can come down in the shuttle but you will be checked on the surface, *dong ma*?"

As soon as the com was cut Zoe spoke. "I don't like it, sir."

"Not askin' you to like it. We do this right an' we won't be on Hope long."

"You do this wrong," Said Book ominously. "And you may never leave."

* * * * *

As soon as the transmission ended, Commander Drylan sent a triple encrypted wave to the Governor of Hope. As the large portly man filled the screen, the Commander cleared his throat. The object of his attention smoothed down his white jacket and waited for Drylan to explain the meaning of the interruption.

"Governor, a shuttle will be departing for the surface bringing a monk with it. The monk is seeking to build a monastery on Hope."

A glimmer of suspicion swirled in eyes that never laughed. "You were instructed not to allow anyone to land or take off."

"It is just a priest..."

The Governor stared at Drylan for a moment then nodded slowly. What could one man do after all? "Very well, I will have the shuttle met. Where does he come from?"

"He is on a pilgrimage seeking enlightenment."

Some dark amusement stirred in the corpulent face. The Governor waved a pudgy hand, fingers crammed with rings. The gold was heavy and adorned with precious stones making it look garish and tacky. The wealth of planets plundered under the guise of Alliance guidance and protection. Ah yes. It was good to have all the planets under one rule.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*dui* = correct *guai* = devil/ghost *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart)

*diyu* = hell *zhongyao* = important *shenme* = what *mei mei* = little sister

*wo bu zhidao* = I don't know *bushi* = not so *fei hua* = nonsense/garbage talk

*bizui* = shut up/be quiet *wode pengyou* = my friend *dong ma* = understand?

*tianna* = oh God! *wode ma* = mother of God! *qu* = yes (lit. go)

*hundan* = bastard

Chapter Text


"MURPHY'S LAW"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was getting on the Captain's gorram nerves. Every step he took the Preacher seemed to be shadowing him. Not a word spoken just that expectant silence driving him *shenjingbing*. He did not have time for this. If the man had something to say he should just up and say it. Stopping abruptly Mal turned to face the Shepherd, the pair of them at the top of the steps leading down to the cargo bay.

"You been stickin' to me like ruttin' glue, Shepherd. Got somethin' needs sayin' now's the time to speak otherwise go do whatever you gotta do but someplace else, *dong ma*?"

Book raised his eyebrows, expression deadpan but still managing to convey gently sharpened sarcasm. How in the nine hells did he do that? Did men of the cloth go to some gorram academy to practise their wiles? The Shepherd deliberately chose to misunderstand him. "Are you saying you want me to step out of an airlock into vacuum, Captain?"

"Don't go puttin' words in my gorram mouth, that ain't what I said or meant an' you know it!" Mal paused to control his temper. The last thing he wanted to do was fall out with anyone, especially now when he was gonna be counting on every one of those left behind to keep out of Alliance hands. They had to play this smart. "Why you followin' me anyhow?"

"I don't think you should go down to Hope, Captain."

Mal opened his mouth to protest but the Shepherd held up a hand.

"*Qing*, let me finish. If anyone is goin' with Chung-li it should be me. I am after all a man of God."

The Captain blinked. There were times when Mal completely forgot the Shepherd's calling even in spite of the collar and grey suit. Man was too worldly wise for such things as meek as prayer and turning the other gorram cheek. And yet part of him couldn't shake the sneaky conviction that Book was exactly what he said he was. More Old Testatment than New. "Forgettin' the whole faith thing why would I do that? This has nothin' to do with you, Shepherd. 'Sides, you wanna watch over a flock the one right here on Serenity could use you about now."

"No more than it's Captain."

"Best not be goin' there, Shepherd. Ain't lookin' to fall out with you."

"Good. I have a small bag packed so I'm ready to go."

Mal raised both brows. "Have you now? Well you can just go an' unpack."

"Captain, *ni bu dong*..."

"I understand plenty an' while your motives might be good this is still my boat an' I'm still Cap'n. You wanna help? Stay on Serenity. Don't let Jayne do nothin' stupid an' if this whole circus looks to be goin' bad make sure everyone gets the *diyu* outta here, *dong ma*?"

For a moment silence fell like an uneasy truce between them. Something in the Shepherd's expression shifted, his eyes darkening with a perception so acute it was almost painful to witness. "You don't expect to be coming back, do you?" He asked quietly.

"*Shenme*? What *fei hua* is this an' why in the nine hells ain't you supportin' your Cap'n stead of bein' all stubborn an' crotchety?"

"I believe the only one who answers that description is you, Captain."

"Huh, *haoxiao*. Missed your callin' Preacher, should'a been on the gorram stage." He paused a beat then underlined his meaning. "Sweepin' it."

"This is serious, Mal."

The Captain took a moment to study his friend. "Why you pushin' so hard? Ain't like you to cross the line. Best you make your point then leave it be."

"I once had a friend who never knew when to abrogate responsibility, always had to be doing everything himself. I see his twin in you."

Mal resisted the urge to shudder as if someone had just walked over his rutting grave. "What happened to him?"

"Buried him on Xeng Dao."

"I ain't him an' this ain't Xeng Dao. *Buguan fasheng shenme shi, wo dou bu hui gaibian zhuyi*."

The Preacher let out a soft exanguinated sigh of frustration. To Mal's ears it had the mournful lilt of a flag of surrender fluttering in the tiny gusts of a fitful breeze, the words expelled with equal reluctance. "You are being set up, Captain."

Surprise. Shock. Then anger. The Captain took a step towards Book, the look in his eyes hardening but not quite enough to hide a tinge of sorrow mingled with disappointment. The kind whose bitter aftertaste clung like dust to his words. "An' when were you gonna let that little fact slip, Shepherd? Before or after they hung us?"

"Nobody's gonna hang, Captain. At least, not if we do this right."

"Then best you tell me the full of it."

Book shook his head, a look of true regret in his eyes. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Captain."

"Then I can't be changin' my plans, *dong ma*?" Mal waited just a beat but Book was silent. He had hoped the Shepherd would open up to him but he might have known nothing so simple would happen. Some folk were just born to work the hardest furrow. Not nobody's fault who got the easy and who didn't. The familiarity of future hardship echoing the past was not comforting but at least he had learnt to accept it. Didn't have to like it though. Nodding, the Captain's voice was low, quiet and flat yet with absolutely no give in it. "Then I'll thank you to look out for my crew."

Knowing he could not change the Captain's mind Book nodded. For several moments after the Captain left the Shepherd stood deep in thought. A phrase from Earth-That-Was came slowly to mind. *There is more than one way to skin a cat*. The Captain might not be of the feline persuasian but he did seem to have nine lives and nearly always landed on his feet. Mayhap he would need a little help this time to accomplish both.

* * * * *

It had taken some iniative and determination but Kaylee finally managed to drag her illusive *zhangfu* down to their bunk. River was sleeping quietly now and Simon did not expect her to wake for at least a couple of hours, perhaps longer. Anxiety put on hold the doctor let Kaylee half cajole and half drag him, he still could not believe they were doing this. Her insistence amused the *shenming* out of him. "Kaylee, it's the middle of the day!"

She grinned sweetly at his weak protest, her warm passionate hands undressing him as he landed with a laugh at the foot of the ladder. Simon wanted to reach up and shut the hatch but Kaylee beat him to it, hardly pausing more than a second or two before getting back to her primary objective of getting him naked and worked up as quickly as gorram possible. Simon was smiling at her now and if that wasn't the shiniest thing Kaylee didn't know what was. As he opened his mouth to speak Kaylee dropped to her knees and slid her lips over him, the hot wet heat of her mouth robbing him of words and all conscious thought as he quickly hardened in her busy mouth. Gasping above her Simon rested a shaky hand on her head then reached out to brace himself against a wall with his other hand. Beyond the power of speech he could only gape and gasp as Kaylee licked and sucked, her hands roving every gorram where, their slightly sweaty heat finding every nook and cranny that turned him on. Flushing he groaned and tried to hang on.

Head resting back against the wall Simon panted erratically, his mind vainly chasing after any brain cell still working enough to command coherent speech. Simon wasn't there yet. When he got close Kaylee teased, dangled and strung him out then pushed him over the edge. His suprised cry matching his sudden ejaculation as Kaylee eagerly sucked him down, throat swallowing while she kept up the suction and worked him until it was getting painful. Deflating in her mouth his legs finally gave out on him. Kaylee smiled then chuckled as her oh so upright doctor folded at her feet, a silly soppy grin on his face as he watched his wife lazily lick the last of the cum off her lips. As she bent in to kiss him Simon realised he was the only one naked. Smiling wickedly he met her lips with his own and decided it was time to put his own not inexpert hands to good use. The squeal bounced off the walls of their bunk. By the time he had her naked, Kaylee was spread against the metal wall of the ship, her legs wrapped around Simon's waist as he pounded into her wet heat with an energy and enthusiasm he didn't know he possessed.

Afterwards they lay in a messy tangle on the floor slowly recovering. Neither one wanting to move even if they had the energy to do so. Simon was almost asleep, so relaxed his bones seemed to have melted to jelly. Satisfied, Kaylee wrapped possessive loving arms around him, both of them content not just in each other but also in the new life they were creating between them. Simon had been stunned to discover that Kaylee was expecting not one child but twins! His shock turning to joy at Kaylee's reaction, her pleasure and happiness unlocking something deep inside that turned his whole 'verse into a gift he had never imagined possessing. It made him feel empowered in a way he had never been before, as if anything was possible. Kaylee loved Simon so much, adored being pregnant, couldn't wait to fill her beloved ship with the patter of a million little feet carrying his genes. Didn't matter a good gorram if the Captain got a bit grumpy and overwhelmed she knew he would adjust. Man had survived the hell of Serenity Valley he would survive living in a gorram creche too. At her deep throated chuckle her exhausted husband stirred just enough to smuggle a word past his weary lips. "*Shenme*?"

Kaylee drew back just enough to see his face. Simon's eyes were closed, his face like the rest of him bathed in sweat from their exertions. Dark hair plastered to the side of his head. Yup, that proved it. Simon Tam was definitely the shiniest thing she had ever seen. "*Yiwusuoyou, bao bei*."

Sighing he accepted her assurance. Kaylee dropped a gentle kiss on his nose before snuggling closer as Simon drifted off to sleep. One hand reaching just far enough to snag a blanket off the bed and wrap it round them. Time enough to clean up once they were rested. Heart so full of happy she thought she would burst, Kaylee let the warm comforting hum of Serenity lull her to sleep. Safe and happy in the arms of the man she loved more than anything in the 'verse.

* * * * *

It was dark, hot, noisy. The bellow of the ringing voice lost in the hammer strokes chipping off sparks and dust in the search for all that glittered. Chasing a dream shrouded in blood. A price others would pay until the planet was exhausted of resources and all its' people were used up. Funny how even in the Black some things were a universal constant.

She tried to wake, really she did, but the medication was too strong and surgery had left her weak. In her head River drifted, drawn by a current that dragged her down not up. Deeper not higher. Closer to an unnamed fear that hid from her yet crawled under her skin with the lethargy of a narcotic. And just as insidiously, she felt if she did not wake it would kill her.

* * * * *

Zoe watched the little interplay between her Captain and her husband. The dark teasing, the light mockery, the back and forth of witty dialogue vying for more than the sum of their words. A bridge to a friendship forged in adversity. Adelei Niska was an evil and warped *tamade hundan* but even that miserable excuse for a human being had accomplished one good thing. He had brought Mal and Wash together, given them common ground which bound them far more than the ties of Captain and Pilot. Since the Skyplex there had been an ease between the two that had never existed before. Wash was still a jealous man but no longer where the Captain was concerned.

"How is it possible to lose someone on a boat this small, Wash?"

The pilot grinned at him and cut the Captain a sly look. "Lost or hidin'?"

"River wouldn't hide from me."

"Then you haven't looked everywhere."

Zoe decided now was a good time to cut this conversation before it put them all off track. "Sir, might be a good thing River's not listenin' to any of this."

"*Shenme*? What the good gorram you talkin' about? River's a Reader, *jide*, so how you think you can cut her outta the loop?"

"Not tryin' to cut her out, Cap'n. Just think we don't need to be borrowin' trouble is all."

"You callin' River trouble?"

"If the name fits I say yeah!" Said Jayne from the doorway. He looked all kinds of happy at the notion that maybe their little albatross would be flying to warmer waters. Or colder. He didn't much care where so long as it wasn't Serenity. He had nothing against River as moon-brains went but anyone could tell the girl weren't right. And as for the Captain bedding her, well that was a whole pile of foolishness its' own self. He'd always thought Mal was smarter than that but maybe it had just been one hellova long time? Whatever. The girl was trouble, he had always said so. Only back then none of them had been listening.

"Jayne..."

The warning tone in the Captain's voice almost started the mercenary off on a run of defensive responses but catching that look in Mal's eye allowed a little common sense to trickle through the Swiss Cheese he had for a brain. Jayne Cobb had plenty of smarts just not always kicking in when they could do him the most good.

Mal had given a cursory look everywhere for River even poking his head inside the infirmary but he had been looking for someone upright. Standing or sitting or just leaning against a table or the wall, not a figure lying prone, otherwise he would have seen her laying on a bed in the corner of the infirmary. Hadn't helped that the room had been in half light and in his haste he hadn't bothered with the lights. The only place he hadn't checked was Inara's shuttle. The thought brought him up short, that must be where River was. Made sense, Inara always did have a soft spot for her. Had even had a hand in bringing the two of them together. Mal noticed Zoe watching him and brought his thoughts back into focus on the Here and Now. He and Chung-li had a job to do and she was right. Was probably best his little albatross didn't know too much about it.

* * * * *

Drylan listened to the update as he watched the progress of the small shuttle. The Governor had expressed interest in the priest and it behoved him to make sure that whatever the man wanted he got. Not that he was sure how bringing him a holy man was a goodly thing. But the Governor had an edge that Chung-li didn't have. While Commander Drylan had spoken to Captain Reynolds and Chung-li over the cortex link and seen their faces, the Governor had not. It was only when Drylan had downloaded an image of Chung-li to the Governor that the man had put in his request to see him face to face. Curious but not suicidal, Drylan had kept his thoughts to himself. Inwardly musing at the fickleness of fate and by what thin thread a human life could hang.

* * * * *

The Captain piloted shuttle two, occasionally flicking a sideways glance at his erstwhile companion. Chung-li had been silent for so long. Even aboard Serenity the big man had moved as if a *guai*, hardly interacting with him or the crew unless one of them sought him out. It had worried him and now Mal just wished he could have the old Chung-li back. "*Shenmi shi*?"

"*Hen hao*, just thinkin'."

Mal gave him a look of query and waited. When Chung-li did not elaborate the Captain huffed. "I ain't a gorram mind reader, Chung-li, just tell me what in the nine hells is eatin' you."

"I am worried, *wode pengyou*."

"*Fang xin*, if they're down there we'll find 'em."

The Chinaman shook his head. "*Ni bu dong*."

"Then best you explain."

"I am afraid we will find them."

"Huh? An' that's bad how?"

"Because I do not know what condition they will be in."

"Look, we go, we find 'em then let Simon work his magic, *dong ma*? I ain't never had such a shiny medic before or since. Boy knows his stuff so no need to fret none."

Chung-li did not say what he was thinking. Did not want to worry the Captain with his own gloomy introspection. He missed his friends from Glory, a hole in his heart that ached and filled him with a dark foreboding. He kept getting vague flashes accompanied by a growing feeling of tension and dread. Chung-li wished Mal had not come with him but explaining would have made things ten times worse and weak man that he was, it gave him enormous comfort having his friend near. He just hoped Mal would not pay too high a price for the privilege.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shenjingbing* = crazy *dong ma* = understand? *qing* = please

*ni bu dong* = you don't understand *diyu* = hell *fei hua* = nonsense/garbage talk

*shenme* = what *haoxiao* = funny *yiwusuoyou* = nothing *jide* = remember

*bugan fasheng shenme shi, wo dou bu hui gaibian zhuyi* = whatever comes I won't change my mind *shenming* = life *zhangfu* = husband *bao bei* = precious/treasure *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *shenme shi* = what's the matter? *hen hao* = very good *guai* = devil/ghost

*wode pengyou* = my friend

Chapter Text


"BEG, STEAL OR BORROW"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Being a suspicious man, Malcolm Reynolds blessed his luck while cursing the ease with which the shuttle landed among a nest of Alliance heavies the like of which he had seldom seen in one place except during the War. Made every inch of his gorram skin crawl. He glanced at his friend, noting how serene Chung-li appeared but knowing that blanket of calm could hide a myriad of things. "Okay, so we're down."

Chung-li did not say anything. The Captain swallowed slowly, as if still sorting out the words he needed to say in his head and not wanting them to come out wrong.

"I got a bad feelin' 'bout this, Chung-li. Fact is I seen merrier gallows."

"You did not have to come, *wode pengyou*."

Anger sparked along with a brief stab of hurt but evaporated an instant later. Mal knew the Chinaman meant no offence and would be the last one to wish to put him in harm's way. "*Bushi*. Not no-way was I lettin' you come alone, *dong ma*?"

There was little time for further conversation. True to his word the Governor of Hope had an escort waiting for them. Without voicing any more of his misgivings the Captain checked his sidearm and followed Chung-li to the door. A short burst of code sent back to Serenity to let them know they had landed safely and to keep radio silence. From here on they were on their own. Even though it looked a mite pointless, the Captain locked the shuttle as they made their exit, the pallanx of purplebellies arrayed to meet them made his gorram insides twist into painful knots. A man stepped forward and introduced himself to Chung-li. "I am Commandant Cleveley. The Governor is pleased to grant you an audience."

The greeting did not extend to Malcolm Reynolds. The disapproving twist of the Commandant's lips when he glanced towards the Captain actually made Mal's spirits rise just a little bit. Discomfitting the Alliance by any margin added polish to his day. Not enough to stop the rattlers multiplying in his stomach but right now he would take what he could get.

* * * * *

Wash listened as his wife outlined her fears. They were all gathered on the bridge, not a one of them cracking so much as a smile. "If this is a trap why did they go down there?" Asked Kaylee.

"Because," Said Zoe evenly. "Rafe Connor an' his people are friends. Cap'n an' Chung-li got right close to them."

Kaylee flushed. "*Wo zhidao*, I didn't mean... What I meant to say is why go walkin' into a trap? There must be other ways to find out what they wanna know."

Awkward looks were exchanged. Kaylee frowned. Shepherd Book cleared his throat slowly. "Actually, the most direct method is sometimes the best."

The look Inara gave him made him feel guilty but he would not retract an unpalatable truth.

"I said *sometimes*." He added by way of compensation.

"Then it ain't best now?" Asked Jayne.

"I'm sure the Captain knows what he's doing..." Simon's words trailed off as everyone turned to look at him.

"I'm thinkin' you're forgettin' some of the Cap'n's plans."

"No, Zoe, I'm not it's just he has Chung-li with him and..."

"An' the Chinaman ain't been right since we found the massacre on Glory!" Jayne finished for him.

Aghast, Simon's mouth hung open. Kaylee squeezed his hand but it didn't make the doctor feel any better.

"'Sides," Jayne continued. "Cap'n said for us to stay clear."

As Zoe's eyes began to narrow dangerously Book spoke. "Not that any of us actually promised to do so."

Zoe did a double take. Inara realised the Shepherd had something in mind and was curious and more than a mite relieved. With or without Chung-li coming to Hope had been a massive mistake. Not that she couldn't appreciate the reasoning behind it. Leaving brave and noble aside, a fool was still a fool whichever way you looked at it.

* * * * *

Many times since he and River had come to Serenity, Simon had cause to believe he had fallen in with people who had escaped from a mental institution. They were beyond crazy. This latest plan was even worse than the one the Captain and Chung-li had embarked on and *this* was supposed to be a rescue plan? Huffing to himself he went to check on his sister. The meds should be wearing off soon and he did not want her to wake alone. Added to that he didn't think he could listen to the crew a moment longer without banging his head on the airlock door.

* * * * *

The door was heavy, the room small, dark and musty. Mal blinked and tried to block out the bright fragmenting stars bursting into little supernovas inside his gorram head. Huh. he had known this was a stupid idea but hadn't thought it would go to *diyu* so rutting fast. The visit with the Governor had been something of a revelation. As they had stepped into the obscene oppulence of his 'palace' the Captain had felt as far removed from reality as it was possible to be and still draw breath. Forgetting for a moment that he was just an observer he had whistled and spun slowly round, his eyes wide and disbelieving as he took in walls lined with gold leaf, chandeliers made of precious gemstones, the floor beneath his feet made of opal and marble. Every expense imaginable used to decorate the throneroom of the unworthiest of Kings. No pretender to the throne had ever bathed in more wealth.

The guard shoved the Captain to one side, distracting him. Opening his mouth to complain he shut it with a quick snap, the gun levelled at his head a timely incentive. Ahead of him Chung-li walked up to the Governor's seat, his calm demeanour solidifying into cold anger held barely in check as he recognised its' occupant. "Cyrus White! I had no idea a snake could crawl so far upon its' belly."

Mal's head snapped round. What? Cyrus White? Did Chung-li say the *tamade hundan* in charge of this circus was called Cyrus White? Taking a step to close the gap between him and his friend was the Captain's last mistake. The butt of the rifle hit him square in the face, smashing his nose and knocking him flat off his feet. Blood gurgling in pockets in his broken face he barely had time to roll onto his side as he vomitted, the darkness closing in over him as his breath clogged with blood.

He came to in pain and gingerly surveyed the limits of his prison. Cold damp walls formed a room eight foot square. There were no windows, just a little crack in brickwork so thick and heavy it could have been a gorram bomb shelter. A tiny sliver of silvery light leaked through about a foot or so above his head. It was the only thing relieving the darkness. Mal closed his eyes, he did not feel so good. Not only did he have a broken nose, it also felt as if there were several cracks in his cheek bones. Made him wonder if the *tamade hundan* had hit him again after he had passed out. Not that it mattered none. Cursing himself for getting separated from Chung-li he fretted, all manner of terrible possibilities running through his aching head. What was happening? Was his friend even now being tortured to within an inch of his life? Anger burned deep in him but he was powerless to act. Frustration made that anger more profound, coupled with the shame of having failed to protect his friend. *Wode ma*, he would never forgive himself if anything happened to Chung-li.

As he sank to a sitting position on the damp earthen floor, Mal scooted back and leant against a wall. His thoughts turning to River. A deep sorrow settling in his heart and soul at the thought that he might never look upon her beautiful face again. She had her moments the same as the rest of them but so did he. Mal wasn't exactly the father of sensible thinking his own self, his current predicament being a case in point. But they were both adults and it wasn't wrong that he and River had found something in each other that filled their own lack, a resonance that went beyond the simple concept of love. More encompassing and enduring. He knew some might think them being together was wrong but to him it was the most right thing that had ever happened to him and now it was in jeopardy. Not only would he lose Chung-li, he would lose his friends and crew, his ship, and the single most important person in his gorram life. A sob caught in the back of his throat, his mouth hanging open because it was the only way to get breath into his lungs. Spitting out a mouthful of blood he felt sick. *Gorramit xin gan, I'm so ruttin' sorry*.

Bowing his head he rested his forehead on his crossed arms, trying desperately to think past the pain. But dizzy and having trouble forming more than a fragmented thought at a time, only one thing was clear. He had to get out. Somehow. Some way. Or sure as he knew anything he was gonna die in this place.

* * * * *

Chung-li managed to keep his expression impassive. Shocked by what had happened he needed to stay cool, project an impartial and unconcerned air. If Cyrus White thought the Captain was important to him the man would suffer in ways that he would not inflict upon his own worst enemy. The only good thing was that Cyrus White had no interest in Malcolm Reynolds. The man he wanted vengeance on was standing right before him.

"Did you think I would not find you?"

The Chinaman watched the handsome face, not surprised to see that Cyrus had put on weight. A life of excess and pampering took its' toll. Yet still the face was beautiful, high cheek bones shone with health and vitality. Eyes bright and sharp as tacks. Long dark lashes fanning a tanned complexion. The voice cultured from the best schools the Core could provide. Yet nothing could educate ignorance and for all his wealth and privilege Cyrus White was a greedy ignorant man. Chung-li knew that the key to his salvation lay in the careful manipulation of this man's excess.

* * * * *

Dreaming. She had to be and yet the images were pin sharp, the pain debilitating in its' clarity. River was drifting but it was as if she was tethered to that swaying connection that bound her to him. What was happening and why did she sense that her *ai ren* was in dire need of her help? River went deeper, farther, projecting her thoughts and seeking him out. Her body tensing as her mind dipped in and out of minds known and unknown, following a silver trail of thoughts edged in fever-bright pain. With a panicked rush, consciousness flooded back into her and she sat with a sudden jerk, eyes snapping open and staring almost sending Simon Tam into cardiac arrest.

"River!"

She did not blink. Eyes still staring, her consciousness adrift, searching, seeking. A mind not at rest. Heart in his mouth, Simon eased close, his hands outstretched in a tentative attempt to touch her, to gather her into the safety and security of his arms. When he was but inches from her, River blinked and focused on him. She frowned. Simon froze. "He's in pain."

"Who, *mei mei*? Who's in pain?"

"Mal."

As much as Simon wanted to believe his sister was not a Reader the facts did not support his wish. "Do you know where he is? What happened?"

"An old enemy seeking revenge."

Simon's stomach flipped. *Tianna*, don't let it be Niska! River shook her head.

"He doesn't want the Captain."

Not Niska then. "Who is it, River?"

"Feels cheated, lost what he'd stolen. Wanted it back. Even if he ruined it to get it."

"River, *wo bu dong*. What did he lose and who are we talking about?"

"Cyrus White."

It took a moment for Simon to place the name. His eyes widened. *Tian Yesu*, this was not good. "Do you mean the Cyrus White who tricked Rafe Connor out of his land?"

River nodded, swinging her legs over the side of the infirmary bed. "He's Governor now. More power. More wealth than God. Only unlike God he will never be satisfied. Enough is never enough. There is only more."

"We have to tell the others."

"*Qu* but this time we'll need explosives."

Alarmed, Simon was about to ask why but River had already slipped off the bed and was running out of the infirmary. Snapping his mouth shut Simon hurried after her. Whatever else might be said about life aboard Serenity, it was never dull.

* * * * *

It amused the Governor not to restrain the Chinaman. Not just yet. He watched the subtle play of emotions on the strong man's face, savouring the effort it was costing him not to lunge forward and try to strangle him.

"*Weishenme*? You have more wealth than any man alive."

Cyrus White raised an exquisitely sculpted eyebrow. "It is a matter of principle."

"Principle?" Chung-li almost choked. His reaction amused Cyrus. The Chinaman did not share his humour. "You cheated him out of his ranch, his land, his home. He trusted you and that trust was betrayed."

The Governor's face darkened. His men edged a little closer, poised to either shoot the Chinaman dead or restrain him. "I was the one wronged not him!"

"You may lie to others Governor White, but there is a part of you that knows the truth. You say you wanted what was yours, claim the land was yours, why then destroy it? Why kill men, women and children whose only crime was to have something you wanted?"

"I do not have to justify myself to you!" Cyrus stood and with a flick of his hand had Chung-li restrained. With a sneer, Cyrus White took a step towards the Chinaman. "Why did you come here?"

"To find out what had happened to Rafe Connor and his family."

"You went to Glory?"

Chung-li could not hide his sorrow or revulsion. "*Qu*."

"Then why come here?"

"I counted the bodies. Some could be recognised, others were too badly burnt. But numbers do not lie. Not all were accounted for."

"Maybe some left before we got there."

The Chinaman shook his head. "If there is anything I have learnt about you, Cyrus, it is that you are very thorough." He paused and watched the smirk of satisfaction oil its' way across Cyrus's face. It was all the confirmation he needed. "Where are they?"

"You want to see them?"

Chung-li nodded and waited.

"Then you shall." Cyrus stepped back and snapped his fingers.

Before Chung-li could react he was cuffed and shackled.

* * * * *

The tunnel was hot, dusty and with scarce enough air circulating to inflate flagging lungs. The girl wiped a weary hand over a dirt streaked face. Her clothes hung off her slim frame hiding the jutting ribs and the emaciated flesh. Her face looked hollowed out and gaunt belying her years. A teenager who looked middle aged and moved like an old woman. Everything ached including her heart. Sorrow and grief weighed her down. The only bright spark was that her father still lived but her brother Mark was dead, had died trying to defend them against impossible odds. Todd had been flayed alive when he tried to stop the women from being raped. So many gone. Dead. The land they had lived on and loved for so long now nothing but smoke and ashes. In her heart she wept for the futility of it, the cruelty and wrongness of murder, theft and wanton destruction. Not to speak of the kidnappings and slavery of working in the mines. Mind numbingly boring repetitive work that filled day and night alike with the weight and toil of long hours underground.

She wondered where Molly was. Almost she wished her sister had died too, better that than the repeated rapes. Her spirit all but broken Molly had let them do what they wanted, her only prayer was for it all to end. If that meant in death so be it. But she was powerless and had no access to a weapon. So silent and morose, Molly wandered through the grim reality of her life like a somnambulist, the glaze in her hooded eyes becoming more pronounced day by day. In her head ticking off the seconds, minutes and hours of a life already over.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wode pengyou* = my friend *bushi* = not so *dong ma* = understand?

*wo zhidao* = I know *diyu* = hell *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard

*wode ma* = mother of God *xin gan*/*ai ren* = sweetheart *mei mei* = little sister

*wo bu dong* = I don't understand *tianna* = oh God! *tian Yesu* = sweet Jesus *qu* = yes (lit. go) *weishenme* = why

Chapter Text


"DOING THE MATH"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

The Chinaman made no murmur as he was put in chains, the manacles around his wrists slip chained to the cuffs on his ankles, the play just sufficient to allow him to walk but not run. At least, that was what the *tamade hundan* guards thought. They were not *jingcha* nor *junshi de* just lackeys for the festering son of a whore *liumang* Cyrus White. Chung-li planned a particularly gruesome end for him, one not confined by lack of imagination.

Quiet and biddable, his guards relaxed a mite but remained cautious and watchful. Their *loaban* had warned them not to be taken in by the Chinaman's habit, the simple coarse cloth no measure of the man's intent. Yet Chung-li did not do or say anything but go where he was led, meekly, like a lamb to the slaughter. But Chung-li was no lamb and the slaughter would not be at their behest though the *wangba dans* did not know it. For now the Chinaman needed them to do exactly what they were doing, taking him below ground, down among the disenfranchised, the beaten, imprisoned, the dispossessed. It was the one place on this once fair and free world where he could find what he was searching for. A brief stab of pain caught in his heart as he thought about Malcolm Reynolds, his friend, but there was no time for his heart or his mind to be divided. Folding that friendship away he focused only on the task before him.

As they descended the air became damp and moist. Shuffling pain driven souls toiled with the crudest of implements eeking the precious ore from newly opened rock faces until their hands were so sore and numb they bled. He glanced at the thready veins and knew this was the most impractical way to work a modern mine. But then. This was not the motherlode and this part of the operation was crude in the extreme. He could see the tiny fading capillaries of compressed seams, barely more than trickles of wealth. If every last trace was recovered it would only amount to the loose coin in a wealthy pocket. Shrapnel for feeding to beggars. No. This level was not where the money was, it was used for something Cyrus valued almost as much. Punishment.

With a jerk on his chain, Chung-li was brought to a rough halt. A pick ax was thrust in his hands and then he was pushed towards a particularly feint seam. The guard spat in his face, grinned then launched into a string of abuse about things his mother could never have accomplished without surgery. Distantly he was impressed that the *baichi* could be that inventive but disappointed in his lack of expertise about human anatomy. When he made no rejoiner, Chung-li knew it to be the right decision. With a sour snarl the guard moved angrily on, there would be no entertainment at Chung-li's expense this time.

* * * * *

Simon was careful as he enfolded hesitant arms around his trembling sister. She looked more than a little wild eyed, disorientated. No doubt she had been having nightmares but River did not relax in his arms. Did not return to her normally cogent state but remained tense and frantic, her demeanour becoming more and more distressed. "Sssh, *mei mei, it's alright. I'm here, I'm here. It was just *yige emeng*."

"No, no, Simon, *ni bu dong*."

He pulled back a little, just enough so he could see her face and she could see his. "*Mei mei*, the surgery was successful. Do you hear me River?"

It was as if he were speaking a foreign language. Eyes wide she began to struggle, the manifestation of her distress leaking from her eyes as she fought to form coherent speech. She needed him to understand and she couldn't do that if she gave in to her tears. "We have to go, help, quickly Simon."

"River, if the Captain gets in any trouble he'll send us a wave, you know that."

"Can't, too late."

Now it was his turn to worry. "*Shenme*? What are you saying?"

She stilled for the first time since waking. More tears flowing freely down her pale face. More woman than child he had never seen her looking so fragile. His heart in his mouth Simon could feel the raw pain in her words. "Caught. Trapped. Suffering."

Paling, Simon was torn by conflicting emotions. He needed to keep his sister safe, not to mention his very pregnant wife Kaylee and the rest of Serenity's crew. Then there was Jack. The child was barely six months old, a toddler. What would happen to him if they tried to help? He wanted to rescue the Captain and Chung-li but realistically, what could they do? The sky was filled with Alliance ships, the planet all but over run with purplebellies and the kind of sadistic government officials that would think it no more than their duty to send River back to that 'academy' and him into custody for the brief period before his very public humiliation and execution. All done very legally, of course. But that aside, how in the nine hells were they supposed to extract two men from an operation of this scale?

Calmer now, River worked a hand free and gently rested the palm against his cheek. Her eyes locking on his, the pleading in them muted. Knowing this would be hard for him. Hard for them all. But a ship without a Captain was as good as adrift and River without her *xinzang* was only half alive. Even if Simon could justify leaving them on Hope, River could not. Leaving Mal and Chung-li behind was not an option. Simon saw the steel settle in her eyes. Even as his own heart quailed at what it might cost them he could not argue or disagree. How far would he go if it were Kaylee? As far as he had to. Simon kissed her forehead then rested his head against hers. All his love put into that simple gesture, an act that reassured her that no matter how much he might dislike what had to be done he would be with her every step of the way. No longer crying, River offered him a slow beautiful smile. It illuminated his heart like a rainbow with the promise of better times.

"Don't worry about what you don't got," Said River, mimicking the Captain. "Let's think on what we do got."

As she had hoped, her mangled vocabulary made him smile back.

* * * * *

Rolling on to his side sparked a spasm of agony, his chest and stomach protesting with aches and pains he didn't know he had. Huh. Figured it would be more than his gorram nose and face that was busted. Mal paused and struggled for breath, his heart hammering away a minute or two before finding its' rythym again. He had no idea how long he had been in this *jianyu*. Could be hours, could be days. Hard to tell when he kept passing out.

As soon as his vision cleared and his stomach settled he inched forward. There was something by the dim crack of light that indicated the base of his cell door. Apart from that and a narrow crack in the brickwork above, the place was in permanent darkness. Right now though there seemed to be something by the door. A small darker patch of black. Only when he was almost within touching distance did he see what it was. A bowl of water. No food. No place for him to perform his bodily functions. He wondered why they had even given him that. If they intended to just shut him away until he died all slow-like why give him water? Then it hit him. The water was not a kindness but a way to prolong the inevitable. Not that it made much sense to him but then he was no *shengbing tamade hundan*.

Thirsty as he was he didn't touch the bowl. Somehow that would be like giving in and as much as he was hurting he wasn't finished yet. First he would rest awhile then he would have to think of a way to get the good gorram outta this cell. His friend Chung-li was out there somewhere, and maybe Rafe and his family. Or. Not. Whichever. Whatever. Enough bad had already happened without letting any more befall them. Eyes so heavy they might have had lead weights on them, his head sagged, his breathing messy and laboured. The darkness of his cell inconsequential when the greater darkness took him. Waking was sudden, so abrupt it was like being split in two. Light dazzling him like sharpened shards of glass, cutting his vision into pieces that wouldn't work to inform his sight. But the pain. Now. That he did understand.

He must have passed out again. When he came to with a long low groan he was in the cell. Even the slither of light under the door was gone, no ghostly thread of light from high above his head neither. Huh. Must be night unless those *tamade hundan* had murdered the sun as well. Wouldn't put a gorram thing passed them. The Captain did not try to move. Lying in an ungainly heap, his face tilted to the wet floor, he took a moment or two to relish the cold against his face until he realised it was not the damp of water but of congealing blood. Well, that answered that question anyhow. They weren't intending him to die slow after all. Huh. Who would'a thought there could be mercy in hearts that cold and black? Not him.

* * * * *

Peter Wilshaw had once been a big stocky man. Now his frame was bone and sagging skin draped over a body devoid of the fulness of flesh and with wasted muscles. They had worked him until his body could no longer hold him upright, his hands no longer grip the pick ax, his arms no longer lift his hands. Yet his brain worked fine which in other circumstances might have been funny. Peter sat slumped next to a group of equally sorry corpses. None of them dead yet but none truly fully alive. There were perhaps thirty souls sharing a space meant for six. Sweaty bloody bodies rubbed shoulders, dirt engrained faces and hands did not reach out for comfort or reassurance for there was none to be had. Too tired and dispirited to rouse themselves. Counting off the seconds and hoping the end would be swift only it wasn't. Even in extremis the human spirit was not about to give up.

He closed his eyes, the sounds that had woken him coming again. Dimly Peter wondered who in the nine hells was having the *goushi* kicked out of him or her now. Couldn't be any of them, none of them were worth expending that much energy on. Pretty soon this packed mass of thirty would dwindle into a pile of bones as death removed the suffering from the shoulders of the exhausted captives. Peter didn't care or at least he didn't think he did. It was the strange scratching sound that caught him unawares. Really, for a man waiting to die it was very inconvenient to have his curiosity roused at this late stage. And damned thoughtless too. He wanted to shut it out of his mind but the rag and bones next to him dug him in the ribs. Not hard when they stood proud of his body like pieces of embedded shrapnel. Peter grunted, beyond even the effort of being annoyed. "What was that for?"

"Ssssh."

That made his sticky eyes widen. He blinked in the praeternatural gloom. "You're kiddin' me? What *goushi* you pullin'?"

The fractured voice sounded like dry frosted leaves cracking. "I heard a cry."

Peter would have laughed but where in the nine hells would he get energy enough for that? "Ignore it. Too busy dyin' m'self."

"Ain't dead yet." The dry cracking voice mumbled.

He thought it sounded like a woman but was too tired to turn his head. Another poke. Harder this time. "*Shenme*?"

"Try the door."

He blinked. What? Was she brain damaged? This was a cell not a holiday camp. Did she think they could walk right out of here?

"Go on!"

Even fading as her voice was he reacted to the urgency in it. Dragging his protesting bones over the foot or so between him and the door he made it with a odd sense of pride. Sagging against the door he had to rest to get some oxygen into his lungs, his breath a quick pant that gradually slowed. With a shock he felt her poke him a third time. Gorrammit, how did she manage to move and him not hear her? Oh yeah, he was dying.

"Can you stand?"

Oh yeah, that was a good one. Stand? He hardly had the strength to crawl. Another poke. This was beginning to piss him off big time but resisting or retaliating were beyond him. Easier to do as he was told. After all, obedience had been drummed into him. Drummed into them all.

* * * * *

No one laughed when River burst on to the bridge. Zoe shifted the baby onto her other hip, ignoring Wash's indication for her to hand the baby over to him. Behind River came Simon, the expression on his face telling them that his sister knew what was wrong. Jayne had a deep stirring of unhappy in his gut. He couldn't see any way they were getting out of this mess alive but if that was the way of it he was impatient to get it over with.

"We need explosives."

Everyone blinked at the little genius. Shepherd Book was the first to recover. "I don't think explosives will help, child."

River shook her head. "Not a child but you're missing the point."

Wash raised his eyebrows. "There's a point?"

"Better to not go out with a whimper but a bang."

"I thought that was how the world ended?" Mused Kaylee with a little frown. Simon caught her hand in his and gave it a squeeze. Kaylee smiled at him but couldn't stop the worry shining in her eyes. She was trying to be brave but the worry was winning.

Inara watched River intently. Noticing how she was almost wringing her hands. "Why do you want explosives? If the Captain and Chung-li have been taken prisoners they could be underground. Any explosion could trap, or worse, kill them."

"We need a diversion."

For a moment no one spoke then the mercenary's gloomy expression brightened. He snapped his fingers. "Just thought'a sommat, what we need is a diversion."

Simon wanted to point out that his sister had already said that but decided to spare his breath. Having a meaningful conversation with Jayne Cobb was something he did not expect to achieve in this lifetime. Short and tragically terminated as it might happen to be. It was the Shepherd who said the one thing they had all been thinking but had avoided putting into words. "Getting in won't be the problem. How are we going to get out? A few little explosions might distract the Governor's men for a brief while but once the element of surprise is over they have all the military might and muscle to wipe us off the face of the 'verse."

River gave him a dazzling smile. "*Fang xin*, safety in numbers."

"You want us *all* to go down there?" Exclaimed a stunned Kaylee.

The little genius shook her head. "*Bu qu*. Safety in numbers. Their's not ours."

* * * * *

He could not believe it. The rutting door wasn't locked. Something trickled into his head and stirred him into action. It was minutes before Peter's foggy brain registered that it was hope. He turned his head just a touch, "It's open." He hissed.

The woman didn't say anything. Peter was not sure whether that was because she was stunned into silence or because she already knew. He did not want to think about the latter because that would fill his head with all sorts of reasons why that could be the case, none of them a good thing. Carefully he eased the door half open, took a couple of breaths to steady himself, then stuck his head out. The corridor was empty. Dark, bleak, cold and wet but empty. *Tian Yesu*, he could not remember the last time he had been this lucky.

"Now where?"

A thin bony hand waved towards the heavy cell door opposite. It was thick heavy oak, like their door. Not the metal doors of police cells or detention centres. These cells were more like dungeons and each radiated their own grim promise of doom. Only two possibilities existed. Either the guard had forgotten to lock their door or he hadn't. Or. Said a little meek voice in his back brain, the one that always tried to make things seem not as bad as they were. They could think you are too weak to be able to do anything about it anyway. Peter hesitated and looked at the cell opposite. No sound coming out of it, nothing to indicate this exercise in curiosity was anything other than a waste of time and energy. Then a noise startled him into staying right where he was. Peter tilted his head and held his breath. Faintly. Lightly and so fleeting he had to listen for it to be repeated, Peter heard the quiet unmistakable sound of someone moaning in pain. Not a loud sound, nor a hysterical one, but low deep and in agony. As if every sound was being dragged out of the man.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*tamade hundan*/*wangba dan* = fucking bastard *jingcha* = police

*junshi de* = military *liumang* = bastard/asshole/criminal/gangster

*loaban* = boss *baichi* = idiot *mei mei* = little sister *shenme* = what

*ni bu dong* = you don't understand *xinzang* = heart *jianyu* = prison

*shengbing* = sick *goushi* = crap/dog shit *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

*fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart) *tian Yesu* = sweet Jesus

Chapter Text


"HOPE"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

He couldn't get over the creepy feeling that he was being watched. Pain and weariness dragged at him but something kept tugging him back, railroading his wandering awareness into a spike of conscious thought that kept him from drifting back into the black. There. He wasn't imagining it. Something had touched him. With a cold realisation he forced his eyes to open, his sluggish brain only slowly focusing on the myriad of hands that were touching him. Reaching out and ghosting over his body. It took more of an effort to realise he was naked. He opened his mouth to speak, to question their motives, but only a slow moan of pain leaked out between bruised and bloody lips.

The hands paused. Faces gathered close, too many to differentiate but one thing struck him solid as a rock. Each face could have been a mirror to his own. Battered and bloody but retaining a tiny thin shred of compassion. Humanity. Concern. Malcolm Reynolds marvelled at the mercy of strangers, blinked against the sudden threat of tears. Gorramit, not only his body was betraying him, his emotions were too. He hated the weakness but could not fend off the tears. A slim long fingered hand reached out and gently touched his face, careful not to hurt him. He closed his eyes as a stranger wiped away his tears. The hands, the endless ghosting hands, had found cloths from he knew not where and were gently, carefully cleaning his body. Wiping away the blood and tearing the cleaner parts into strips to bind his wounds. It did not occur to him as he lost consciousness that they had found a better use for his clothes.

* * * * *

"Ruttin' girl's insane!"

It was Shepherd Book who halted Jayne's outburst. His voice low and calm. "No, she's not and actually Jayne, it *is* a good plan."

"Still think ours was better." He grumbled darkly.

"Ours would have got everybody killed." Said Simon practially.

The mercenary glared at him. "An' since when have you been a criminal mastermind? Can't even cure your moon brained sister..."

He never got to finish the insult, River slapping him hard across the face and causing a heavy stunned silence to fall. They had moved to the commons room to discuss the finer points of River's plan. Before Jayne could do anything even more offensive or stupid, Book put a hand on the man's shoulder and looked him in the eye. Jayne had always had a wary respect for the Preacher. He thought he hid it well but Book knew. Counted on it even when it was necessary to stop the man from doing or saying something which would be past mending. "We're all more than a mite anxious and worried Jayne. Best not to say things you can't take back."

The look he gave the big man left the mercenary in no doubt that a Special Hell was looming if he didn't listen. He could almost hear his ma agreeing with every rutting word coming out of Book's mouth. *Wode ma* but this hanging around was making him ansty. Zoe waited a beat to make sure Jayne wasn't going to start up again but he seemed suitably subdued. She gave Inara a thin smile. "You sure you don't mind lookin' after Jack?"

The Companion smiled and took the baby from Zoe, her own heart fluttering a little as she looked into those impossibly blue eyes. Perhaps it was knowing she would never have children of her own that made this such a weakness. Whatever it was the pull was as irresistable as drawing breath. "I'm sure. Besides, as I won't be going on this mad crusade it seems the ideal solution."

Jayne began to open his mouth but Book shook his head. With a snap Jayne clamped his mouth shut. Satisfied that Jayne would behave, Book looked around the table, his eyes finally settling on the calm poised figure of River Tam. "It will be risky but..."

"Takin' over an Alliance scout ship?" Said Wash. "It's suicidal."

Zoe patted her husband's arm. "Sweetie, everything we do is risky."

He looked at her. "It is?"

"Uh huh."

"How d'you figure that, *bao bei*?"

"We're livin' in a tin can in space, *zhangfu*."

Wash blinked. "But still flyin'?"

She nodded. "Still flyin."

"Someone will have to wave the cruiser."

Wash turned his gaze from his wife to their resident genius. "Did I mention this was suicidal?"

Everyone ignored him. It was Book who responded to River. "I can do that."

"You gonna use that magic ident card'a yours?" Asked Jayne. Animosity jettisoned he was just plain curious now. There was so much about the Preacher he didn't know, so much he wanted to. Not that he would push too hard but a fella couldn't help being curious. He knew the Captain was and Book still hadn't told Mal anything about his past. The Shepherd gave Jayne an enigmatic smile before gently shaking his head.

"No, that's for emergencies Jayne."

"Ain't this an emergency?"

"No Jayne. Emergencies are situations *beyond* hope."

The subtle inference that this rescue was not a folorn hope was wasted on Jayne. The mercenary stared at Book as if what he had just said made no sense.

"I think," The Preacher continued smoothly, getting back to the plan. "We should pick a scout ship on the periphery. That way if this doesn't work we won't be sandwiched between all the other Alliance vessels."

Kaylee licked her bottom lip, so tense that only Simon's hand in hers kept her grounded. "An' if it does work?"

"Then we go an' get the Captain an' Chung-li."

"Huh," Said Jayne, not believing anything this messed up could be that simple. "Still think we had a better plan when we was just goin' in shootin'."

Simon rolled his eyes. "Yes Jayne, great element of surprise."

It was when they moved off to take their places that it occurred to Jayne that Simon was being sarcastic.

* * * * *

The Alliance Cruiser Peerless was a top of the line battle ship with enough heavy armaments to bring down pretty much anything else it might come up against. Not that Commandant Rankin expected anyone to be stupid enough to try to go up against the premiere fleet of the Alliance. It comforted him to look out and see the gleaming proof of their superiority in every direction. There were six battle cruisers waiting in readiness for the gold to be ready to move off world. Further out were the scout ships watching the shipping lanes and perpetually scanning for any sign of trouble. The scout ships were smaller, more agile and the fastest vessels in the fleet.

It was only as he turned a bored eye away from his view of the planet below that his eye caught a tiny movement on the periphery of his vision. Turning his head he focused his attention on the moving speck then ordered the sensors to magnify what he was seeing. It appeared to be a small craft, probably a shuttle of some kind. Rankin frowned. Back tracking the craft's trajectory he noticed the Firefly in a holding pattern outside the sterile area. It had not moved since the Governor had authorised the priest to go down to the planet surface. Odd. Shouldn't the second shuttle and ship stay together? Wait for the man's return so it could leave Alliance space and go on its' merry? Curiosity turning quickly to suspicion he snapped a command. "That shuttle, where is it going?"

His comms officer did some calculations then frowned slightly. A little confused. "It appears to be heading for the Scout Ship Reknown, sir."

Rankin's eyebrows rose. "The Reknown?"

"Yes, sir."

As they spoke they saw the distance diminish, the shuttle pausing in flight as if asking permission to dock. Curioser and curioser. Then the Reknown was opening up to allow the craft to enter their landing bay. Commandant Rankin turned and stared at the Firefly, expression thoughtful. "Who's vessel is that?"

"It's a Firefly mid-range transport, registered to a Captain Malcolm Reynolds."

"He accompanied the Chinaman down to Hope." Said Rankin quietly. It was not a question but his comms officer treated it as if it were.

"Yes, sir."

After a minute or two of silence he came to a decision. "Take us in close to that ship then open up a channel."

Startled, the comms officer, a man name Ryan Baker, could not hide his surprise. "Sir?"

"The Firefly. What did you say the ship was called?"

Baker hadn't but he was not fool enough to say so. He checked the ship's registration. "Serenity, sir."

"I want a boarding party ready. I think it's time we paid the crew of Serenity a visit and found out exactly what they are doing in our sky."

* * * * *

Hot. dirty. Dusty. The damp hanging in the air like a fetid but benign poison. It made you feel like you were dying but didn't kill you. It was the stuff you couldn't see, couldn't smell, that stopped the beating of a heart. Chung-li took no notice of it, working in a steady easy rythym that many of the other captives secretly envied. The good thing was it kept the guards off his back, the twisted sour gaolers moving on to look for other sport. That suited the Chinaman just fine. He did not have a lot of time and could not afford to waste it antagonising the guards.

Keeping the pace steady Chung-li let his eyes do the wandering for him. The other captives quickly tired of their silent guest and went back to work, the hammer and crack of pick ax against rock and compressed sediment making his ears vibrate with the concussion of sound. It took seconds to evaluate and dismiss those closest to him. Chung-li progressed along the seam, not opening it out but following the thin thread of ore. To the casual eye it would seem as if he was trying to extract as much of the meagre seam as possible. In fact it was his excuse to keep moving, eyes and ears searching for a face, a voice, a much loved and missed friend. If it took the last breath in his body he would find them.

The day passed long and unrewarding. The heat and stuffiness compounded by a lack of fresh air circulating. Chung-li knew they had efficient fans but also suspected the Governor did not want his captives to have any kind of comfort. He wanted them to suffer but not die. A man couldn't suffer if he was dead. By the time everyone stopped to rest and snatch what sleep they could, Chung-li began to feel as if he was looking for a needle in a haystack. Heart sighing he sat on the floor and rested against a formation of rock drier than the rest. Beside him a woman sat with her head turned. The stale body odour did not offend him, nor did the fact that everytime she moved her arm brushed his. What shook him was not her proximity or the way she only seemed to move as he was dropping off to sleep. A stir of indignation surfaced in his mind, his head turning so he could ask her why she could not sleep, when the woman's eyes trapped his in a recognition that stunned both heart and soul with unexpected joy.

"Molly!"

Her hush all but deafened him, so thirsty were his ears for the sound of her voice. Holding back tears his strong arms engulfed her, Molly's arms hesitating before returning the embrace. Chung-li was shocked by how thin she was, how haunted her eyes were. Pulling gently back he touched her face, not backing off when she flinched. Chung-li leant forward and dropped a gentle kiss on the dirty forehead, his movement so caring and gentle that it brought tears to her eyes. It had been a long time since a man had touched her and not caused pain or humiliation. Even though Chung-li was a dear friend her body trembled at his nearness, already steeling itself to fight or run. It took a conscious effort for Molly to do neither, the appearance of normal being nothing but a fabrication. Anxious eyes scanned her own. Molly looked down, unable to meet his gaze. Shame and sorrow crucifying her in equal measure. This doom should not be his.

"You should not have come." She murmured.

Chung-li was alarmed by the defeat in her voice. The woman had always had more spunk and sparkle than any other he had ever met. If a woman was born to best any man it was Molly Richards. But the thin, emaciated, broken woman sitting listlessly beside him bore little resemblance to the woman he had known. "What happened?"

Forcing herself to look at him, Molly told him. Every broken syllable matching a healing wound upon her body. She spoke quietly, voice calm, no hint of the horrors she had endured. He did not need to know how she had been used and abused. Did not need to know that two pregnancies from her continued rape had already been forcibly aborted by Cyrus White's own money grabbing physician. It seemed money really could buy anything. When she finished, Chung-li quietly pulled her into his arms and said not a word. No apology, no telling her everything was going to be alright, no cosmetic verbal plasters meant to comfort her in her grief over the loss of her husband. Just unconditional love and understanding. Molly closed her eyes, allowed herself this weakness. Let his strength cradle her as the walls of her broken heart crumbled, tears running down the silent face, body exhausted beyond the physical.

It was more than an hour before he spoke, the words were so soft and quiet that she could ignore them if she chose.

"We will get out of here, Molly." Chung-li murmured into her lank lifeless hair. Trying to hide how much the deaths of so many friends clung to him like the ashes of a funeral pyre. Molly did not respond. It did not matter to her any more, nothing did. What Chung-li did not know and she was too cowardly to tell him was that she was dead already. The brain was just a little delayed in accepting it.

* * * * *

Inara Serra stared at Kaylee in shock as the Alliance Cruiser hailed them. Everyone else was on Inara's shuttle which had gone to the Reknown. Inwardly she cursed, realising someone with sharp eyes must have seen the shuttle leave. Serenity was left with the barest of skeleton crews. Holding Jack close to her heart, she tried to unscramble the panic in her mind. What could they do? What would Mal do? He would try to delay them, use any tactic to hold off being boarded while trying to find out as much information as he could. Well. They could do that surely? "Kaylee, ask them what they want."

The mechanic shot her a look of concern and alarm. At Inara's nod she lowered herself into the pilot's chair and opened a com to the other ship. "This is Serenity, how can we help you?"

"This is the Alliance Cruiser Peerless, prepare to be boarded."

"I... um, the Cap'n's not here just now. He took a passenger down to Hope, if you could wait 'til he gets back I'm sure we could..."

"You will prepare to be boarded *now* Miss or your Captain will return to a pile of debris, *dong ma*? The only good news will be that you will not survive to tell him why his ship has been blown out of the sky."

Shocked, a sob caught in the back of Kaylee's throat. She looked at Inara and saw the Companion's face pale. Inara gave a reluctant nod. Capitulation. It left a sour taste of bile in the back of Kaylee's throat, huddled right up next to her fear. "O...okay."

Back on his ship Commandant Rankin gave his com officer a cold smug smile. "That," He said in a cool crisp voice. "Is how you deal with Independent scum."

Baffled, Baker stared at him. "Sir?"

Rankin waved a careless hand at the Firefly getting closer as they prepared to dock. "That ship, Serenity. The Captain fought with the Independents during the war." He broke off to give a humourless laugh. His features twisting in an expression of distaste. "Now, what do you suppose a defeated Browncoat is doing in orbit around Hope? A world whose only claim to fame is the gold we mine off it?"

Ryan Baker's eyes widened in shock. "Surely you don't think they've come to steal the gold, sir?"

"What other reason could there be? Grubby little thieves probably think they can sneak in and take some of the gold for themselves before we're on to them."

"But sir, that would be suicide!"

Commandant Rankin nodded. Pleased that the obvious had not escaped Baker's attention. "Exactly. And that's why they lost the war."

"Sir?"

A big wide smile took the bitter off Rankin's face for just a heartbeat. "The one thing the Independent cause never lacked was stupidity. Of the *terminal* kind."

* * * * *

"How many are left?"

Molly did not hear him. Her initial joy and shock at seeing him had devolved into a kind of numb stupor. What did it matter anyway? Todd was dead. So was Mark.

"Molly?"

The gentle word did more than a room full of shouting would have done. It caught her attention. It had been so long since anyone had spoken softly to her. Tears pricked her eyes, a silent waterfall breaking the wall of silence that bound her. Chung-li was worried. Molly had always been a highly spirited girl, no man he knew could keep her down. Something must have happened beyond the awful terrible things she had already confessed. He was almost afraid to ask his next question.

"*Bao bei*, where are the others? What has Cyrus done to them?"

She shook her head, not in denial but to clear the fog in her mind. The images and screams, the lusting faces, the hard hands and harder body parts shoved at her, in her, and through her protesting writhing form. Molly shut her eyes but the tears wouldn't stop. And now she was shaking, so bad she thought her gorram body would fly off in pieces. Swearing, Chung-li held her, his heart quaking while his anger simmered and grew until he had no notion of how he could contain it.

* * * * *

Corporal Devline blinked. Turned on the larger light so that he could banish the shadows his torch could not reach. "*Wode cao*!" He spun and looked at the four bare walls, the empty cell ringing like a death knell inside his head. Where the *diyu* was the gorram prisoner? The Governor might have no use or concern about Malcolm Reynolds but he wanted him kept locked up and hidden away until the man died broken and in dispair. The broken part they had pretty much accomplished already with the guards taking turns to beat the man up imbetween brief bouts of rest. They never brought food only water. They never asked questions or sought anything from him. But they took what little he had, leeching away his strength, his body's defences falling to a fist, a boot, the rod of iron they carried to deter prisoners getting physical in return. The blood splattered floor and walls attested to their devotion to duty.

White faced, Devline continued to swear uncontrollably. How in the nine hells had the man managed to get out of a locked cell? That he had found the cell door open had given him all kinds of heart failure. Finding the prisoner gone was almost enough to close the lid on his own coffin. His first thought was that the captive was wilier than they had assumed. Must have had some kind of skeleton key hidden on him. But then he remembered the pitiful condition they had left him in. Bleeding. Broken. Probably dying. How the *diyu* had a dying man who could not even stand on his broken legs reach the door, unlock it, then make his escape? No. This was something worse. The man had outside help which meant even more trouble for him and the rest of the guards. Someone had infiltrated the prisoner wing.

Spinning angrily Corporal Devline did not go straight to the Governor's office to report the escape. First he went to gather the other guards. In a panic they would search every gorram corridor and room until they found Reynolds because if they didn't, every guard on duty this day would surely hang.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *zhangfu* = husband *dong ma* = understand?

*wode cao* = I'm fucked *diyu* = hell

Chapter Text


"MERCY"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

Commandant Rankin was not quite as tall as Jayne but broader. His great barrel chest reminded Inara of an opera singer but that was where the favourable comparrisons ended. She, baby Jack, and Kaylee were standing in Serenity's cargo hold surrounded by purplebellies. The Commandant's cold eyes swept up and down her body in a slow calculated insult. When he spoke his voice was carefully neutral though she knew how disingenuous it was. "Then it is true?"

Inara was briefly pleased she had handed the baby to Kaylee seconds before they were boarded. It left her hands free in case she wanted to hit the *tamade hundan*. "*Shenme*?"

The Commandant arched his eyebrows, a haughty expression coming over his face. "You're Malcolm Reynolds' whore."

She took a moment to school her face and keep an outward show of calm while inwardly her blood boiled. Inara ignored Kaylee's swift intake of breath. "I wish."

Rankin blinked. "Are you saying you are *not* his whore?"

His surprise enabled her to regain a semblance of calm. It was good to feel in control of her emotions. "I am saying Captain Reynolds' client list is even more exclusive than my own."

"And yet you travel with him?"

"I hire a shuttle from him, no more."

The irritating man began to walk around her. Inara refused to turn her head to follow his movement. Acting as if what he did or said held no interest for her whatsoever. Rankin stopped in front of her again. "I hear he fought a duel for you."

"A foolish notion of misplaced honour." Inara affected an air of boredom. "Now my client list is one short." She paused, her expression hardening just a fraction. "I am tempted to dock if from the cost of my shuttle rental."

Commandant Rankin stared at her. He had to give her this: she was a cool one.

* * * * *

River Tam had been very exact in her calculations. The upgraded smoke bombs doing their job a little too efficiently as she yanked Jayne back around the corner before the thick opaque mist could hit him and send him crashing to the ground in an unconscious heap. Simon had a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, his voice muffled as he spoke. "Do you mind telling me why we couldn't bring gas masks?"

His sister huffed impatiently as if the reason were obvious. "Would look suspicious and we don't have time to discuss and clarify misunderstandings."

Wash turned to mouth to Simon, *Misunderstandings*? His wife touched his arm and indicated for him to keep moving. Their plan depended on exact timing. No one could afford to fall behind or get separated from the others because they couldn't go back for them. Another part of the plan that Simon was less than happy with. He scowled and gripped his red medical bag tightly and hoped they wouldn't need it. Jayne was not happy. They had brought gorram explosives with them but the moon brain wouldn't let him use them.

"Where are we going, River?"

She hushed her brother with a look then whispered. "Life support."

"Uh, point of interest?" Hissed Wash, a decidedly uncomfortable look on his face. "We need to breathe too."

"No, we need to put everyone under."

"Everyone but us." Clarified Wash but River had not been disagreeing with him simply stating their priority.

"Yeah, but if your plan works we'll all be unconscious. Can't rescue nobody if'n we need the cavalry too." Jayne grumbled.

Book looked amused. "Cavalry?"

The mercenary frowned then shoved a rumpled hanky over his nose and mouth. If it was good enough for the doctor it should be good enough for him. "Leastways that's what the Cap calls it."

River hushed them again, more firmly this time. Nothing more was said as they crept to the section of the ship where life support and the other main systems were routed. Quickly Wash removed the metal cover then River got to work, emptying the rest of the contents of her vial into the unit then resealing it. Wash lifted the plate back up and Zoe sealed it. River then danced off down another corridor and opened a locker door. Simon frowned, Jayne was about to ask her what the *diyu* she was doing but Book seemed to intuit her intention and stopped the mercenary bawling her out. A second or two later River's smiling face peered around the locker door, a hand holding aloft several small breather units complete with masks. Quickly they donned the masks and took blessed filtered air into their flagging lungs.

"Now," Said River's muffled voice. "We need to get to the bridge and we have to hurry."

Her steps were more than a fast walk, almost a run. Concerned, Zoe paced her. "River,*shenme shi*?"

"He's in trouble. Don't have much time."

Zoe's heart skipped a beat. Didn't like the sound of that. "He?"

"Mal."

"What about Chung-li?"

"In chains of his own making." At Zoe's puzzled look she elaborated quickly, not lessening her rapid pace one iota. Girl really wasn't kidding about the need to hurry. "He hasn't made his move yet."

Seconds later they burst onto the bridge. It was eerily quiet. Figures slumped over consoles and across the floor. River turned to Jayne. "String. Rope. Whatever you can find. Tie them up."

"Don't ya want me to kill 'em?"

She shook her head. "We aren't murderers."

"We kill people."

"Only when we have to."

Book stepped in. "I'll help."

"Not just the ones here but all of them."

"That'll take," Simon paused, his mind racing. Calculating. "Some time."

"Not if we hurry but it'll be worth it. Insurance. Can't risk being delayed by someone waking, grabbing a gun. One mistake and everybody dies."

He blinked, gulped then nodded. *Tian Yesu*, there were times he wished his sister were not so gifted.

* * * * *

There were advantages to being considered among the great unwashed. For a start the guards preferred to leave them below ground and slip back to the surface and their comfortable rooms to sleep at night. Of course, it was always a twi-lit gloom below ground. Most of the captives simply slept where they worked, too tired to slink off to find a more comfortable spot. Knowing only too well that in a few short hours the next shift of guards would come down to whip them back into activity. They would be fed as they worked, poor rations for heavy toil but no one complained. Lessons that had been painfully learnt seldom needed repeating.

Chung-li did not sleep nor did he let Molly. Though his heart misgave him at the state of her he knew they must make the most of the time they had unobserved. The odd head rose, wary eyes watching them, then dropping back to fall into a deep sleep. Molly wanted to join them. She did not want to hunt for those who were probably already lying in early graves.

"Molly, I know you said Mark and Todd were dead but that still leaves eight unaccounted for, *dong ma*?"

She frowned as if uncomprehending. How could he know that? The Chinaman waited until they walked into an empty part of the tunnel. Anxious not to be overheard.

"I went to Glory," He said softly, his eyes a-glimmer with the threat of tears. They hardened like diamonds as he spoke. "Counted every body. Never found your father or Ben, nor Blade, Paul Cotton, Ricky Sable, Harry Simmons, Mike Handy, Pete Barlow or little Rose."

His voice hitched on the last name but he sucked it up. There would be time enough for giving in to sorrow when this nightmare was brought to an end. "Harry's dead." Molly mumbled.

Chung-li frowned. "On Glory?"

She shook her head. "No, here. He got an infection so they shot him in the head."

"*Shenme*?" Chung-li looked horrified. "They shot him dead for being sick?"

"*Qu*. Afraid it would pass to the rest of us. Sick workers don't work."

The Chinaman could barely contain his temper. "This is make-work Molly and you know it. Add all these seams together and you wouldn't glean enough gold to dust your coffee."

"*Wo zhidao*. This is punishment."

"For what?"

She shrugged. "Bein' enemies of the Alliance."

"That doesn't make sense. Surely the more people working the mine the more gold they'll extract. So why do this?"

Molly laughed. It was a cruel cracked sound that hurt his ears almost as much as it hurt his heart. Would he ever hear her carefree laughter again? "*Ni bu dong* their thinkin', Chung-li. The Alliance are greedy as well as immoral which is why they only trust their own. The thought of havin' us diggin' at the rich seams terrifies 'em. Think we might steal their gold."

He thought she was kidding then realised she wasn't. Sweet Buddha, these people were beyond sick. "Come, we have no time to lose."

"Why the hurry?"

"I came with Mal but they hauled him off somewhere. Don't know where. We need to find as many of the others as possible then get the *diyu* out of this place."

Her eyes widened. "Mal? You brought him here?"

The Chinaman almost smiled at her reaction, grim as things were. "He wouldn't let me come alone."

"An' now he may die for that."

"*Bu qu*. I will not let them kill him."

Molly sighed. Her eyes sad. "He's not with you, Chung-li. There is no way you can protect him now."

* * * * *

His breath was flagging but when he stuttered once or twice someone breathed for him. It was odd. Felt weird but he was too exhausted and pained to pay it any mind. Then he was being dragged again. His torn back numb to the pain, consciousness tottering over the forgetful hump. Mayhap he'd pass out and save himself a whole 'verse of pain and worry but fate wasn't kindly that way. Least not to Malcolm Reynolds.

"Hurry!" Hissed the thin wispy girl someone called Hilary.

It felt like he was being manhandled by barely-there folk, each one so narrow and twisted he felt like a mere gust of wind would knock the breath outta them. Not that he was criticising nor nothing, just weird ass thoughts passing through his back brain as if they were had no place to go. Again with the dragging. Numbness wearing off about now. He cried out with pain but if anything the speed of their grasping hands increased. Every part of him ached and wept with the agony of it.

Then he was against a wall. Oddly enough there was a softness to it, a fleeting rumour of warmth that faded into cold. He was beginning to drift, hardly aware as they began to pile the dead and the dying on top of him. Careful though, like slotted brickwork, the alternate layers leaving little gaps to let the air through. Enough so the one not quite dead at the bottom could breathe. Not that he knew that of course. He was too busy getting ready to kiss the Black. Anything that promised a respite from the pain was worth greeting with open gorram arms.

* * * * *

Elliott looked scared. "What're we gonna do?"

"Find him!" Growled Marlowe slapping fast rounds into his gun.

"State he was in," Mused Rich Tucker. "Would take at least two men to carry him."

"You're not makin' me feel better, Rich."

The man shrugged. "If we don't find him an' them as took him we're dead men anyway."

"So stop with the jawin' already, *dong ma*?" Marlowe snapped.

The rest of the guards stared at him. All as worried except for one thing. Marlowe was the only one visibly coming unwrapped at the seams. But no one mocked the man. They all knew that if they came up empty they would be panicking just as bad if not worse.

* * * * *

Jayne hated the way River took to the Alliance controls like a duck to gorram water. Was all kinds of unsettling. He still couldn't see how this little charade would work but Zoe and Book were going right along with it so perhaps they knew something he didn't? Didn't pay no mind to what Wash or Simon said. The closer they got to Hope the creepier the mercenary felt. Would only take one of them officious *hundan* to get a mite suspicious and they were humped.

Then River started going all distressed and frantic on them and Wash had to take over control of the scout ship. Zoe looked worried but said little, her eyes speaking volumes of not happy that Jayne could relate to. The Preacher murmured a little too quietly for Jayne to hear but as the others just nodded back he had no clue what that was about. Could be the man was just praying, could sure use some divine intervention about now. Jayne just wanted to be down, grab the Cap and get the *diyu* out again before the Alliance were on to them. Didn't care one way or the other if the Chinaman got out. Chung-li had brought this down on them so as far as Jayne was concerned they didn't owe him squat. Had nothing to do with liking or not liking the man and everything to do with damage control. Any one you walked away from.

By the time they landed River was calm again. Simon hovered round her as if afraid she would shatter but whatever had ailed her before was no longer having an effect. Zoe was about to speak when River beat her to it. The smile that dazzled them was enough to give anyone the creeps. "Help unlooked for."

Jayne frowned. "Huh?"

For once Zoe agreed with Jayne. "Ain't got time for this, River."

The girl made a point of looking them each in the eye, wanting their full and undivided attention. "Change of plan."

Wash groaned. Simon looked as if he wanted to get everybody back on to Serenity and call the whole thing off. The Shepherd watched River keenly. "Change how?"

She beamed at him. "They'll keep him safe while we lay the charges."

"River, I'm not sure the explosives are such a good idea. If the Cap'n and Chung-li are in the mine..."

River shook her head, wanting to reassure Zoe but having the opposite effect. "Different parts."

No one knew quite what to make of that. Jayne looked at Book. "You any idea what the gorram she's talkin' about?"

"She's standing right here!"

"Huh, well make some ruttin' sense then."

Simon stepped between them. "Just a minute..."

"No, you just a minute doc. Wasn't my idea to bring crazy girl with us.."

"Jayne!" The sharp bark from Zoe stopped his little tirade. Looking him in the eye her words were flat and uncompromising, her expression as hard as granite. Ruttin' stone killer. They didn't have time for this. "No one says you have to come with us, but if you come you follow orders an' keep your mouth shut, *dong ma*?"

"Yeah but..."

"Yes or no, Jayne? Can't afford to have anyone with us who won't fall in line. This is the Cap'n's life we're talkin' about."

"*Diyu*, I know that..."

She waited. Jayne wanted to get Mal out as bad as the rest of them it was just River unsettled him. Made him so gorram jumpy. Wasn't natural. He nodded, shooting a look at River which the girl blithely ignored. Then River was detailing where to the set the charges, Zoe nodding and only asking the occasional question to get everything clear in her mind. Wash disabled the scout ship then they were out of the ship and running, bodies low, guns in hand, darting from cover to cover in a roundabout route to the nearest mine shaft. When they got in position River looked down and tilted her head, listening with her mind as well as her ears. Book was about to ask if anything was wrong when she moved back and nodded. Zoe lay the first charge and the group moved on. It would have been quicker to split up but River said it would increase the chances of someone getting left behind. All of them agreed this was one planet they planned on never returning to.

* * * * *

Best he could judge, it was an hour or so before dawn. Hard to tell with all that rock above his head but it gave him the ticking clock to work towards. Molly had reluctantly gone with him as they checked the tunnels one after another. Careful not to wake those sleeping but taking just enough time to check faces before moving on. Heart heavy, Chung-li was beginning to feel as though he was on a fool's errand when the first explosion knocked him off his feet. Abandoning any notion of stealth he grabbed Molly and asked her about exits. Confused it took a moment or two for her to gather her wits. By the time she did a second explosion rocked the tunnel, dirt and dust whumping down on them in a black cloud of debris.

Alarmed everyone was awake now, some screaming in panic, trying to find out what the good gorram was going on. Others just running for the last remembered route to the nearest exit. It was bedlam. Chaos. Alarmed and frustrated, Chung-li hung on to Molly and followed in the frantic tide evacuating the mine before the whole rutting thing went up. It was in this mad confused rush that he rubbed shoulders with a man who actually apologised for pushing him. Stunned, Chung-li stumbled, rough hands pushed him aside and the crowd moved on. Chung-li swung his head from side to side looking for the figure that had jostled him. Molly, noticing her friend was no longer beside her was now moving back against the tide to find him when a pair of arms wrapped around her from behind. Screaming in panic she kicked out, rammed her head back and fought like a banshee. The arms slackened, Molly turned to kick the assailant when she froze in her tracks. Stunned and awestruck. There, staring at her with a hand up to his bloodied face was her father.

Tears on both sides then they were hugging, crying with relief and determined not to let go of each other. When Chung-li got to them they were pretty much the last people to evacuate this section of the mine. Rafe Connor stared at the man in the monk's habit and slowly grinned. "By all that's holy, that you Chung-li?"

"*Qu*, Rafe, it's me."

Then the men were hugging. Laughing, crying and trying to have ten conversations at once. Tugging on her father's filthy sleeve Molly managed to get some sense into them. "We have to go, *fuqin*."

Rafe nodded, paused, framed the palm of his right hand gently to his daughter's cheek, not mindful of the tears falling from his eyes as he looked on her. "Oh Molly!" His voice broke with emotion. Rafe kissed her cheek.

"Come on, *fuqin*." She urged softly. Then without another word the three of them made their way up and out of the mine. As they hurried Chung-li worried about what they would find when they reached the surface. Would they escape the mine only to face an Alliance firing squad? If so he would take his chances but to lose his friends so soon after finding them would surely break his gorram heart.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*shenme* = what *diyu* = hell *shenme shi* = what's the matter?

*tian Yesu* = sweet Jesus *dong ma* = understand? *qu* = yes (lit. go)

*wo zhidao* = I know *ni bu dong* = you don't understand *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

*hundan* = bastard *tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *fuqin* = father

Chapter Text


"DISTRACTION"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

When people told River what to do it made her brain feel redundant. She wasn't stupid and didn't like it. But sometimes. Sometimes it was useful. Like camoflage but without having to worry about the fit. So she let Zoe and Jayne take the lead, her mind busy scanning and searching through the frantic minds fleeing the widening arc of destruction. Simon tried to talk to her but she wasn't listening. Couldn't afford the distraction. All she knew was that time was running out. Not for them but for him.

* * * * *

When the first explosion hit, Elliott Field thought he would wet his rutting pants. Bad enough to be searching for an escaped prisoner that should be so close to dead moving unaided would be kind'a miraculous. Now they had the very real possibility that the whole gorram place would come crushing down on their heads. The only good thing was if that happened they wouldn't have to worry about the Governor killing them. Nature would do the job for him. For free.

"We gotta get outta here!" Yelled Marlowe.

"Huh!" Snorted Elliott. "Was your damn idea to come lookin'."

Marlowe closed the gap between them, his lips peeled back and teeth clamped together in an angry snarl. "I'm tryin' to save your worthless gorram hide, you ingrate!"

"Oh, an' savin' your own self don't come into the picture?"

Annoyed and impatient with the both of them, Rich Tucker pushed between them. His deep level voice managing to penetrate before things got too heated. "This could save us all boys! We get out an' leave all this *goushi* behind, you hear? It'll be mostly prisoners an' such get buried." Rich allowed himself to grin slowly, waiting for them to catch on. "Which means our gorram problem gets buried with it, *dong ma*?"

They stared at him. Elliott nodded slowly. "Could be, but you're forgettin' one thing. Reynolds ain't in his cell."

"So?" Said Rich, just a hair's breadth from laughing outright in his face. "Who's gonna tell 'em? Not me!"

Elliott looked at Marlowe then grinned. Just then another explosion shook the tunnel. With just a look the three guards abandoned their search and ran as fast as they were able to the nearest exit. Not a dozen yards from where they had been standing a room crammed with the injured, the dead and the dying began to stir. Hilary Johnson crawled to the pressed shut door and inched it open. Like most of the others she was not able to stand but crawling she could do. Not trusting the purplebellies Hilary spent several precious minutes listening and watching but when there was no sound of returning footsteps she figured they really had gone. For now that was good enough.

The crawl back through the doorway was painful and tiring. The old man sitting nearest the pile of bodies waited for the all-clear. A young slim woman beside him watching and waiting anxiously. No breath to speak Hilary nodded and the young woman had to bite her bottom lip to keep the cry of relief from escaping. The old man was small, wiry, and fitter than he looked. Years of poor living had actually acclimatised him to the brutality of their incarceration better than the others. He watched the young girl's face. Even dirty, dishevelled and thin as a gorram rake there was a quality to her that shone through the grime. It drew the old man to her and brought the soft warning to his bloodied lips, not wanting her to pin her hopes on a man not long for this 'verse. "He may already be dead, young 'un, so don't go raisin' those hopes."

Her look hardened. "He ain't dead." She whispered hoarsely, her throat full of dirt and dust. Her heart heavy but by no means willing to give up no matter how slender the hope. She knew the old man would figure she was just fooling herself.

The wizzened and careworn face watched her trying to roll the top figures off the pile with hands that bled. Then he sighed and leant his wiry frame to the task. She never thanked him but as their eyes met over the wall of bodies the gratitude he saw made it hard for him to swallow. In that moment of complete understanding he would have given her the gorram 'verse. Hilary did not say anything but waited until she had her breath back and crawled over to them. Only the three of them were conscious and mobile. In silence they worked, ignoring the way roof, walls and even the floor shuddered between explosions. When at last they had cleared the bodies off Serenity's benighted Captain, it was surprisingly gentle hands that checked him over. A careful touch to take the fevered pulse, lips brushing alongside his ear to quietly tell him what was happening. They were going to help him. He was among friends.

But Malcolm Reynolds heard not one word. Was oblivious of their efforts to gently rouse him, and when that wouldn't work was blessedly unaware of the clumsy pull of hands dragging him out into a corridor now rutted with fallen bits of beam and uneven from rock and falling dirt. The old man squinted in the dim light, the tunnel even hotter than it had been before and now becoming so stuffy he fretted that the exits must be blocked. "*Mashang* or your friend will die an' we will join him!"

The girl did not so much as blink, her hand almost a protective and proprietorial grasp on Mal's shoulder. Hilary nudged her gently, they had to get going. With a smile that never reached her eyes the girl helped them manhandle the Captain along the tunnel, shuffling their slow, painful but inexorable way out of the very pit of hell.

* * * * *

Jayne was not sure exactly what he had been expecting but the chaos of fleeing bodies errupting from the exits to the mine shook him more than a little. It was River who noticed some of the Alliance ships overhead were landing presumably to aid any rescue but she did not trust that their intentions were that honourable. Instead she urged the others to hurry even as she grabbed handfuls of earth and began rubbing it into her face, neck and hands making sure to rub it into her clothing as well. When Simon opened his mouth to query what she was doing she pre-empted him without breaking her momentum. "Camoflage."

Shepherd Book frowned but said nothing as he copied her. The others exchanged looks then did the same, only realising how sensible this was when the Alliance soldiers began to exit the landing craft. Simon felt his heart lurch when he looked at the fleeing people. Some were obviously physically hurt, others suffering a varying amount of mental trauma, all of them were in something akin to shock. Where was the Captain? Would he be found alive or with a bullet in his head? Was that the way Governor Cyrus White dealt with his enemies? River put a hand over Jayne's next charge and gave a little shake of her head.

"For later."

Jayne scowled. "What if there ain't no later?"

Her smile was dazzling but vanished as soon as it appeared, leaving the big man feeling more than a mite dazed. "There will be."

At first no one seemed to notice River and the others were headed against the flow nor that they seemed calm and focused. Shepherd Book began to feel that itch on the back of his neck and only through force of will did he resist the urge to turn and see who was looking at him. Breaking into a run, River got to the nearest exit, waited and listened as people came tramping out then looked back at Zoe and shook her head. Zoe's face paled but she didn't speak. Then River was up and running again to another exit. This went on for a few minutes until she came to one exit on the other side of the mine. With a grim smile she nodded, waited for the press of people running out to thin, then without a word darted inside. Simon swore and ran after her. Zoe glanced at Book and Jayne.

"*Wei*, don't look at me. I ain't got no death wish."

She fixed the mercenary with a stony stare. "We're not leavin' without the Cap'n."

"What if he's dead?"

"River says not."

"Huh, since when we trustin' that moonbrain?"

"Since she is nearly always right." Said Book.

For a moment Jayne stared at them as if they were *shenjingbing*. Simon could almost sympathise with the big man but they really couldn't afford to delay. Too many ships were coming in to land and the line of purplebellies was beginning to drown out the crowd of captive workers. Their window of opportunity was beginning to close so fast the doctor could not help but fret whether they would get out alive themselves. He said nothing of his reservations, River was anxious and tense enough. And that was before Zoe insisted the time had come to split up.

* * * * *

Chung-li, Rafe and Molly reached the surface with flagging lungs. The press of people reassured the Chinaman that they could slip away from the throng undetected. But then he saw the ring of Alliance ships and his heart faltered. Sensing his distraction, Rafe turned and noticed what had caught his friend's eye. Unconcerned he put a hand on Chung-li's arm. "Have faith, my friend,"

For a moment time paused, Molly pushed away from them to sit on a fallen treetrunk. Rafe was tired out and heartsore but finding Molly had injected hope where there had been none and now he desperately needed to search among those coming out of the mine in case any more of his friends and family had survived. Chung-li put a hand on his shoulder. "Wait with Molly, when you see a chance to slip away do so. I will look for the others then come and find you."

"How will you do that?"

Chung-li smiled gently. "I will know, *wode pengyou*."

Somehow Rafe had confidence that Chung-li would do just that. How did not matter. Stranger things had happened in the long years of their friendship and he was not about to doubt a man he would trust with the last breath in his body. Much as he wanted to go and search with Chung-li he knew he lacked the strength and his body was too exhausted for much beyond shuffling in short bursts. Besides, his Molly was still deep in grief. The father in him reacted to her need, and with a nod he let Chung-li go then moved to check on his daughter. Molly raised her head and looked at him, tears in her eyes. The pain he saw broke his heart all over again.

"Oh, Molly!" He cried softly, the circle of his arms holding his precious child close to his heart. "I miss him too, *xin gan*. I miss them all."

Then she was crying into his shoulder and he was rocking her and shushing her, words of love tumbling from his lips straight from his heart. It was several minutes before he realised they should be moving. As he eased her to his feet he all but stumbled as something big and blocky brushed into him. His fall was broken by strong arms, the voice as surprised as it was welcome. Rafe Connor steadied himself and blinked into the face of Jayne Cobb. "Jayne?"

The mercenary stared at him open mouthed. "Good gorram! Is that you Rafe?"

The man's surprise made Rafe want to laugh but instead it came out as tears and before he knew it Shepherd Book had stepped up to check him and Molly for injuries, Simon Tam hovering at his shoulder and still managing to look almost clean despite the dirt rubbed into his clothes, hair and skin. There was just something about the man that couldn't be soiled.

The Shepherd eased them away from the rest, his eyes darting in every direction while he kept his head as still as possible. Mapping out their best route of withdrawal. Rafe stopped and looked from face to face. "We can't leave Chung-li."

"We won't." Book assured him. "Zoe, Wash an' River have gone to get the Cap'n."

"You know where Mal is?"

They shook their heads. "*Bu qu*," Said Jayne. "But the crazy girl thinks she can find him."

Simon shot him a venemous look. "Don't call her that!"

Surprised, Jayne stared at him. "*Shenme*? What else'm I supposed to call a crazy girl?"

"Her name is River."

Book put a hand on Simon's shoulder and dipped his head to whisper into his ear. "No names. This place is full of ears, many of them Alliance *dong ma*?"

Flushing slightly Simon nodded but he still managed to glare at Jayne before turning back to his examination of Molly. While Rafe had numerous visible wounds none were life threatening. He was worried about the man's eldest daughter though. Something about the way she held herself and her silence setting off warning bells in his head. As Book caught Simon's eye, the Preacher inclined his head towards the trees.

"Best we move before we get noticed."

Quietly they drifted to the trees and kept moving until they had worked past the ring of Alliance ships. Book whispered to Jayne to keep a lookout then turned to Rafe. Simon opened his medical case and began to clean up the cuts and odd puncture wounds he found on the man's neck face and arms. Then they were moving again, Rafe wanting to protest and stay close so Chung-li could find them but Serenity's crew were insistent. Too tired to resist for long the Rancher let himself be half guided and half lead to a ship on the edge of a clearing. Stopping suddenly his mouth dropped open at the sight of the Alliance Scout Ship. "*Wode ma*! Are you *feng*?"

Shepherd Book smiled. "It's not what you think."

"Looks like an Alliance ship to me." Rafe muttered darkly. Molly's eyes had widened, fear surfacing and skimming on the edge of panic.

"Yes, it is but we captured it. This ship is our way off this rock."

Jayne loved the look on Rafe Connor's face. Stunned into silence the man could not wait to hear what the good gorram had happened and how in the nine hells they had managed to snag an Alliance ship.

* * * * *

Zoe was getting more and more worried. Only the presence of her *zhangfu* kept her calm enough not to panic. This was awful, worse than she had expected. They passed a lot of poor emaciated souls stumbling and half falling out of the exit. River appeared not even to notice them, so focused was she on getting to the Captain. That at least reassured Zoe that they were doing the right thing but seeing the state of the people alarmed and worried her. These people were ordinary folk. Men and women who had been hijacked from their homes, taken captive for one reason and one reason only. To work until they dropped making that odious creature Cyrus White rich. It made her sick and angry. The fury muted by concern, hoping River knew what she was doing. Without turning her head River urged them to move faster.

"Have to hurry. Even with help they're going too slow."

Wash frowned. "Who is?"

"They can't run, can't crawl." Said River, her voice distant as if seeing something they could not see. Zoe felt the blood in her viens begin to ice over. River looked over her shoulder at Zoe. The words seeming to be for her alone. "Need someone to carry him."

Her heart faltered. Not that Zoe would ever have said anything out loud but the notion that her Captain and friend was in such dire straights filled her with a pain and emptiness that no words of comfort could fill. Not until she could set eyes on him again would she take another easy breath. River nodded then looked forward again, no other words passing her lips. Moving swiftly now, her steps assured, Zoe and Wash doing their best to keep up. After a few minutes River stopped suddenly and Zoe almost ran into the back of her. A cry escaped the girl's lips then River dropped to her knees, Wash peering anxiously over her shoulder to see why. What he saw brought a wave of bile to the back of his throat. Zoe pushed past him and knelt beside River.

Malcolm Reynolds lay where they had dropped him. His breathing faint and ragged, his clothing in bloody tatters, every inch of his visible body cut, gouged, grazed or bruised. One eye was shut, the other close to joining it. His face was a mess of broken bones and congealed blood. The bubbling rasp of his faltering breath brought tears to Zoe's eyes. River's hands were impossibly gentle, her look fierce but tender, an odd combination that boded ill for those who had hurt him and the patience of love unending for the man himself. Despite his injuries, River gently kissed the broken lips, her small hands framing Mal's face while her mind slipped into the pain filled landscape to which his flagging spirit clung. Tears rolled down her face leaving tracks through the dirt. It was only when an old man pulled himself to his knees that they realised those next to the Captain were not dead. Wash stumbled back a step. "Woah!"

The old man blinked. "Who are you?"

Zoe frowned, ready to take offence but River stepped in. "You rescued him." She said.

"How do you know that?"

River nodded to herself. "*Wo zhidao*." She looked down at Mal, then met the old man's eyes again. "You tricked them, got him out. *Duibuqi*."

The old man just stared at her. "You didn't answer my question."

Before it could be answered the girl who had helped drag the Captain from their cell raised herself awkwardly on to her knees. Zoe thought she was like to fall over any minute. "You're from Serenity."

Surprised, Wash blinked at her. "*Qu*, we are but how do you know that?"

"I recognised Mal. Remember you visited us, helped my father."

Pieces were slotting into place now. Zoe nodded. "You're from Glory."

The girl did not smile. "Rafe Connor is my father."

"Then you are..."

"Rose."

Zoe looked at the old man. "An' you are?"

"David Hall."

Zoe looked at Rose but the girl shook her head. The old man was not from the Ranch. Just another survivor. Quick introductions were made as Zoe and Wash took the Captain's weight between them, an anxious River wanting to help but knowing the only way to do that was to get Mal as quickly as possible to Simon. The old man and Rose could do with the doctor's attentions as well once her *ai ren* had been put back together again. Her mind sought to soothe his, her thoughts walking through the shattered landscape and filling the pain with love. The promise of an end to his nightmare enough to bring a measure of calm in that deep dark place threatening to swallow his very soul. River projected herself into his consciousness and concentrated on synchronising his fragmented breathing with her own, slowly bringing peace and calm and allowing him on some subconscious level to know he was no longer alone.

* * * * *

On board Serenity, Inara cradled the fretting child. Jack squirming in her arms, perhaps sensing the tension from Captain Rankin and the four purplebellies who had accompanied him. Kaylee wanted them off Serenity but she could hardly throw them out of the air lock. Even if she had strength enough to do it she could not risk her unborn twins. Big enough now to waddle when she walked, Kaylee was getting angrier and angrier. The sight of those *tamade hundan* on Serenity was enough to make her seethe and her blood boil. Every step they took across the deck plates offended her. It was as if their presence caused Serenity pain and that in turn hurt Kaylee.

Inara tried to keep the mechanic calm, projecting an air of unconcern. Captain Rankin had hoped to panic her into giving away their real purpose in Alliance space but nothing seemed to discomfit her. Not so the mechanic. Leaning close, the Alliance Captain deliberately tried to intimidate Kaylee. Knowing exactly what he was up to and why, Inara was quick to intervene with enough grace and poise to make the man step back. "I should perhaps warn you that Kaylee is heavily pregnant and has a tendancy to throw up at the most inopportune times."

Captain Rankin stared at the Companion's placid smile. How the good gorram could she act so polite and with such obvious fake sincerity that he wanted to be sick? And yet she had done nothing wrong. Neither of the women had. Truth to tell he did not see either Inara or Kaylee or this *lese* ship as any kind of a threat. Gorramit the rutting heap wasn't even armed. Then Rankin got a wave, the message patched through to his concealed earpiece and alerting him to the unprecedented panic developing down on Hope. For a moment he frowned at the Companion as if this was somehow her doing, but Jack chose that moment to start crying and Inara had her hands full calming him down. All of a sudden Captain Rankin decided he had had quite enough of rusting Fireflies.

"I am leaving now but I warn you not to make any move without permission or you will be treated as a hostile vessel."

Inara's eyebrows rose in a slow delicate arch of disbelief. "Hostile vessel? Captain, as you can see Serenity is a transport ship. She is not even armed."

The man straightened. "Yes, well, I'm only repeating Alliance protocols you understand?"

"What is it you think we can do?"

Flustered the Captain chose not to answer. Instead he gave a curt nod and left, his men falling in behind him. Inara and Kaylee stared at the departing soldiers then waited with baited breath until the Alliance vessel had detached. Inara smiled at Kaylee then noticed the girl was sweating heavily. "Kaylee? *Shenme shi, bao bei*?"

"*Wode hen hao*, just the babies kickin'."

A wail from little Jack distracted Inara. Rocking and shushing the infant it took a moment or two for the Companion to realise that something was wrong with Kaylee. Before she could shift the baby to her hip and reach out to her friend, Kaylee's eyes rolled back and she collapsed at Inara's feet. All the blood draining from Inara's face she carefully knelt next to her stricken friend and felt for a pulse. That was when Serenity's proximity alarm sounded. The jarring sound making Inara's speeding heart increase to the edge of panic. Trying hard to gain an element of calm, Inara Serra swore in her most colourful Mandarin and wondered what in the nine hells would go wrong next.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*goushi* = crap/dog shit *dong ma* = understand? *shenjingbing* = crazy

*mashang* = quickly/at once/on the double/immediately *wei* = hey!

*wode pengyou* = my friend *xin gan*/*ai ren* = sweetheart *bu qu* = no (lit. no go)

*shenme* = what *wode ma* = mother of God! *feng* = mad/insane

*zhangfu* = husband *wo zhidao* = I know *duibuqi* = thanks *qu* = yes (lit. go)

*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *lese* = crappy

*shenme shi* = what's the matter? *bao bei* = precious/treasure

*wode hen hao* = I'm very good/okay

Chapter Text


"PIECES"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

It was pretty much crazy on board the Alliance Scout Ship Reknown. Simon Tam stared at the people lying tied up in various parts of the ship. He glanced at Zoe but met a cold blank stare. At times the woman could be truly frightening but he knew he was not the reason for the tension. As soon as he had set eyes on Captain Reynolds, Simon's breath had caught, worry making him oblivious to the press of people boarding the ship. Shepherd Book drew Zoe aside, worried that there would not be enough room for everyone and concerned about Jayne. No one had seen hide nor hair of him since locating the Captain.

Rafe Connor hugged his daughters, thankful to whatever God had spared them while grieving for the loss of his sons and so many good friends back on Glory. Chung-li made sure they were alright and spared a few words with Hilary Johnson and David Hall before going to check on Mal. Despite how crowded the ship was becoming, he knew none of them would feel happy leaving either of them on Hope after what they had been through. Plus they had been helping the Captain and for that act of compassion alone Serenity's crew would make sure they got safety away from Cyrus White's clutches. Zoe got Wash to help her deposit the crew of the Reknown outside. It was heavy work but at last they had every one of the Alliance purplebellies carefully dumped, bound and gagged, among the trees. Wouldn't do for them to be found before they made it back to Serenity. Wash couldn't help feeling a stab of concern as he wiped his hands on his pants and cast a look back at the trees.

"Not to question your tactics *bao bei* but is this wise?"

Before Zoe could answer her *zhangfu* Jayne Cobb joined them. He was a little out of breath but looking all kinds of pleased with himself. The mercenary couldn't wipe the pleasure off his face when he saw what they had done with the *tamade hundans*. "For once I gotta agree with ya, little man. We should just kill 'em an' be done with it."

Wash looked horrified, he had not meant that at all. Zoe gave Jayne a hard look. "Not killin' anyone we don't have to, Jayne, unless you'd like to be the exception that proves the rule?"

"Huh?"

She nodded at his scowl. "Exactly. Where have you been? We were about to leave without you."

"Just tidyin' up some loose ends."

Zoe frowned at him but the big man did not elaborate. He wanted out of here in a hurry before every Alliance *hundan* on Hope found out what he had done. Wash looked a question at Zoe but she shook her head. Time enough for questions once they were safely in the Black. Once Jayne was aboard Wash enabled the controls so they could take off. Happy that no one had happened on the ship before they could get back to it and make their Big Damn Escape. In the chaos of ships landing and taking off no one took any notice of yet another Scout Ship. Hardly more than a hundred feet off the ground, the little ship shook as River's delayed charges went off. Rafe looked surprised then smiled when Zoe explained.

Shepherd Book decided to see if he could help Simon, his concern mounting when he caught sight of the condition of the Captain. Malcolm Reynolds lay on the cold metal floor, River holding one of his broken hands cradled in her own, her face tilted towards the wounded man's, her eyes fixed on the Captain as if he held her life in his hands not the other way around. Simon would have asked her to give him room to work but truly there was little he could do but try to stabilise the Captain until they could get him back on Serenity. Chung-li knelt beside River but said nothing, watching with keen attention as Simon carefully checked the man over and did what he could to make Mal comfortable.

"*Wode ma*", Mumurmed the Preacher in a troubled tone. "Is the Captain going to be alright?"

Simon really wished Book had not asked that question in front of his sister. The girl was fragile enough as it was without thinking about losing the Captain. Didn't matter what he thought of that particular relationship it was clear to him now that River's feelings for Mal were every bit as deep and genuine as those he shared with Kaylee. The insight softened his heart towards the Captain, a man he was often at odds with despite how much he actually respected him. It was mostly a clash of personalities and upbringing. Though the gap right now was paper thin, anxiety closing the distance words could never cross. "Once we get him back to Serenity and stop the bleeding he should have a good chance of pulling through but he's going to need a blood transfusion."

Looking up Simon noticed people were beginning to crowd round, anxiously trying to see what was happening. Chung-li's expression was full of sorrow, heart aching for his friend. Jayne had a grim expression on his face. "He don't look so good, doc."

"I can't be sure until I get him to the infirmary but it feels as if every bone in his body has been broken."

Zoe hissed angrily, looks of horror on everyone's faces. River's quiet voice cut through the stunned silence. "They did."

Disconcerted, no one knew quite what to say. River gently brushed the Captain's fringe from his face. "They broke them one by one."

Simon tried to gently hint that her words were not helping. "River..."

"To hear the bones snap." River looked up, her eyes locking on to Simon's. "To hear him scream."

Turning in the pilot's chair, the blood drained from Wash's face. The horror in his eyes mirrored in the little sea of anxious faces. "*Tian Yesu*, he was awake?"

River nodded. Jayne was beyond furious, body humming with rage, his swift act of retribution seeming woefully inadequate now. His muscles bunching as he wished he had taken his time and torn that *chusheng xai-jiao de xiang huo* to itty bitty pieces. Trouble was if he had he would not have made it back in time to catch up with the others and there was a good chance they would have left without him. Only the tenth son of a idiot would stay a minute longer on this rat infested hell-hole especially as the rats in question were the two legged kind. As the mercenary raised his eyes from the face of his unconscious Captain, Jayne's eyes met Chung-li's and he had the oddest feeling that the Chinaman knew where he had been and what he had done. Not that he gave a good gorram. To his surprise the Chinaman gave a nod of approval and Jayne knew that had their positions been reversed Chung-li would have done the same.

* * * * *

Inara Serra was not a person to panic but this was Kaylee and the sight of blood made her cry out in a mix of anguish and dispair. Little Jack reacted to her distress and began to wail. Tears pricked the Companion's eyes. "Kaylee!"

It took precious seconds for Inara to get enough control of herself to find the crib and put the baby in it, her hands trembling so much she clasped them together then ran back to where Kaylee lay in an odd tangle on the deck. Gently, she eased the mechanic on to her back and noticed the blood was coming from between her legs and seemed watery. Forcing herself to calm down, Inara placed a hand that shook on the distended stomach, holding her breath and praying with every atom of her being. "Merciful Buddha...."

When her hand jerked it set off a short spasm of shock that ended in near hysterical laughter. Tears of relief rolling down her face, Inara lowered her head and rested her forehead against Kaylee's. The unconscious girl unaware she had terrified the life out of her friend. A slow smile spread across Inara's lips as she sat up and fondly brushed the hair from Kaylee's face. With no regard for form, she sat cross legged on the floor and stroked the flushed face. Waiting for her friend to come out of her faint and hoping it would not be long before the others returned. She had no desire to deliver Simon and Kaylee's twins herself. Some things a Companion was not taught in the training house.

* * * * *

It was weird. Kind'a warped and kind'a blurry. Shouldn't he be able to focus about now? He heard a low deep moan. *Tianna*, sounded like some poor soul was in pain. After the third or fourth time he heard it realisation hit that the sound was coming from his own self. Okay, not so shiny.

"I think he's coming round."

"Give him some room. I need to check..."

Voices. The first one, deep. Calm. Authoritive. Took a moment or two to place it. Book. He called himself Book. Appropriate name for a Preacher. The other one, kind'a tentative but assertive in a different kind'a way. Clincal and precise you could say. The name flashed through the debris of his brain. Simon. He could feel himself starting to drift again, other voices vying with each other and making little sense.

"Ya sure he's awake?"

"Yes, Jayne, I saw his eyelids flicker."

"How can ya tell when they's stuck all together?"

The voices faded again. Other sounds impinging on his eratic consciousness. What the gorram was that? Oh. Vibration. Now why...? Serenity. His boat. That was the gentle thrumming he could feel coming up through the deckplates and infirmary bed. Funny how gorram comforting it was. When had walls of steel come to mean home to him? When had his body ceased relaxing without the beat of that metallic heart?

"Sssh, he's wakin' again."

The voice was softer. A gentler soul. Not Zoe, a man's voice. Not the detatched professional that was Dr Tam. Wash. The knowledge would have made him smile but something was wrong with his face. As the spinning, flexing world began to right itself pain reasserted its' dominance of the Here and Now. Swollen, cracked and bloody lips parted a fraction to emit a hiss of pain. Simon was there in a moment, his voice low and soothing. If the Captain didn't know better he'd say the boy was worried. *Wode ma*, not a boy no longer. Kept forgetting that. "Captain? Captain, can you hear me? It's Simon."

He tried to move his lips but they seemed to be weighed down by mountains. His eyelids opened a crack that flooded sharp rays of white light into eyes too sensitive to endure the illumination. As they pierced him they pained him. Mal groaned and let gravity shut them, the swell of his cheeks making the seal tight. Something fluttered against his cheek but didn't settle there. He could not feel his hands, could hardly flex a muscle still less move. Must be the rutting drugs only were that the case shouldn't there be an absence of pain? That couldn't be right. Even if Simon were mad at him there would be no pain. Boy was a doctor and a shiny one at that. He drifted off to the sound of someone saying his name over and over again while another gentler voice was telling him he was safe. A tender voice, a voice filled with more than simple concern or compassion. A voice filled with love.

Simon Tam straightened. "He's unconscious."

"Told ya he was." Said Jayne smugly.

The doctor just gave him a look then finished stabilising the Captain. It had been something of a frenzied dash to the infirmary as soon as they had docked with Serenity. Wash had been troubled to get no response from their hail but Simon had no time to consider what that might mean, all his efforts focused on saving the man in his care. Now, satisfied that the Captain was at least stable he checked his IV line and was about to get washed up before cleaning and stitching up his wounds when Inara ran into the infirmary. Her hair was touselled and half in her eyes, face flushed, her breath coming in irregular pants where she had been running. Zoe moved quickly to intercept her, at first assuming the Companion was panicking about Mal but Inara did not spare a glance in the Captain's direction. Kind'a made her think she hadn't seen him.

"Simon! Hurry, it's Kaylee!"

Suddenly Simon was hyper aware, everything slipping out of his head but one thought. Kaylee! Oh no, please God don't let anything happen to Kaylee! "W.. what happened? Where is she?"

"On the bridge. I think it was the stress of being boarded by the Alliance."

He swore, the others exchanged worried looks. Inara tugged at his arm. Simon Tam had gone quite pale. "Alliance?" He turned his head, eyes wide and fearful. "On Serenity?"

"They're gone now. Come on, we have to get to Kaylee."

He grabbed his bag and ran after Inara. Zoe glanced at the Captain then hurried after them with Wash not a step behind. Chung-li dropped into the seat she had vacated next to Rose at the head of the Captain's bed. River Tam looked calm and composed on Mal's other side, her eyes locking on the Chinaman's. Rafe and Molly Connor stood behind Chung-li, their eyes asking the question no one else had got round to asking. "Waters have broken."

Chung-li smiled at her then his brief humour vanished. His eyes on the Captain's face. River thought of Chung-li as a kind of sentinel, a silent protector. The notion made her happy. Chung-li looked up as she began to hum, River dazzling him with a happy smile. "Twins couldn't wait. Impatient. Too much like Kaylee but they'll look like Simon."

Shepherd Book exchanged a look with Jayne, but the big man just shrugged. "Crazy is as crazy does."

The Preacher frowned in admonishment then excused himself. First he wanted to see how Kaylee was then he needed to speak to Wash. The sooner they got out of Alliance space the better it would be for all of them. He thought about River's words and felt himself relax a mite. Twins! Shaking his head gently he chuckled softly and glanced back at the Captain. Wondering if the man realised just how just how lucky he was to be unconscious.

* * * * *

Commandant Rankin was in a state of shock. His stunned expression summing up a day of impossible events unfolding at dizzying speed. Or maybe it was just his mind frozen while events spun out of control around him. Governor White had been insistent. Drylan had explained in his dry clipped manner that Cyrus White had personally insisted on seeing the devastation for himself. Privately, Rankin suspected the twisted little potentate did not believe the military assessment of just how bad things were. Perhaps he suspected a miliary coup? Whatever the man's reasoning he had it on several men's authority that White did indeed go in a bulletproof skimmer to see the extent of the damage. Like any miser he wanted to see how much wealth he had lost. Greed always claimed its' own in the end.

"And you're sure it's the Governor? The body was identified?"

Drylan nodded, his expression giving away no sign of emotion. "Yes, Commandant."

There was a small calculating pause. "I thought the skimmer was bulletproof?"

"It was. Just not built to withstand an explosion of such magnitude."

Rankin was about to ask if, in his considered opinion, the blast had been natural or not when he aborted the idea. If Governor White had died as a result of being caught up in a natural disaster there would be little in the way of Federal investigation. Their own people could handle things locally. If, however, any hint of terrorist activity were to be mooted the operation would be taken out of their hands and the Feds would move in. That would not only mean usurping Drylan and his own authority it would also mark the end of a very lucrative business arrangement for all and sundry. Besides, he had it on good authority that although the current shafts were pretty much collapsed and buried the explosions had had a nice little side effect. A new and hitherto unreachable seam had been exposed. By all accounts it was the richest one yet.

The Commandant schooled his face into a suitably solemn expression, hiding his inner glee with a carefully controlled expression of sorrow. "Naturally, our hearts must go out to the those killed and their families in this terrible tragic accident." Drylan's eyebrows raised on the last word, then intuiting the meaning behind it, felt his own hopes start to cautiously rise. Losses in the ranks inevitably led to promotions in the field. And as the old Earth-that-was saying went it was the victors who wrote the history. To them would go the spoils. Every last glittering grain of it.

* * * * *

He had no notion of how long he had been drifting. The pain ebbing and flowing like flames licking at his body. Burning. He was on fire. Immolated and withering in a cascade of inwardly consuming flames. Almost he could feel his eyelids melt against his eyes, whole body a scalded playground of hurts, heart stuttering and flaring with the unbearable heat. White hot flashes claiming his sight as inwardly he screamed. Yet in his head death was never the end and waking was no beginning.

To his horror, the nightmare landscape was not his alone to endure. "What you doin' here, *xin gan*? You have to go, get out!"

Her sweet face tilted in a smile of love that blinded him to the pain. For a moment of utter ecstasy all else faded. Then agony assailed his senses and he began to drift again, worried now for her not for himself. "Hush, *ai ren*. This will pass." She crooned.

The Captain could not laugh, could not even snort in derision. His range of responses were minimilised, his movements subdued, truncated. His ability to articulate circumvented by how much everything hurt. And Malcolm Reynolds was a man with a high tolerance for pain. "What in the nine hells happened, little albatross?"

River was beside him now, looking through his eyes at the burnt landscape that he imagined to be the ruin of both body and soul. She touched him gently, his tears falling in molten drops that vaporised with a soft hiss. "You are not on fire, *wode xinzang*."

"Huh, you think?"

She smiled, such a beautiful sight that his heart rejoiced to see it, pain or no pain. Her look was gentle, understanding. Her words a balm to heal his soul. "*Qu*, you have a fever."

"That so? How'd I do that?"

"They tortured you, *bao bei*." He could see tears form in her eyes and that hurt him worst of all. Couldn't bear to be the cause of that. "They beat you, broke your bones, cut you. The wounds became infected, Mal." She paused, voice catching. "You almost died."

"Ssssh, River. *Fengmi*, don't you cry, that's an order gorramit."

He felt her soothing touch, ignoring the pain to absorb her nearness. The love coming off her in waves cooling the sorrow in his heart and helping him ignore his condition. There was only River. Everything else in the gorram 'verse hurt.

"Know how much I love you, little albatross?"

"You should rest, *ai ren*."

"More than the breath in my body."

"Ssshhh, go to sleep."

"More than all the stars in the gorram sky."

"You need to rest."

He paused, holding back the wall of pain so nothing but his love would touch her. "You gonna stay?"

A kiss soft as the beat of an angel's wing touched his swollen lips. He couldn't kiss her back. Not yet. But in his mind he was already imagining the day he could. "*zongshi*."

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *zhangfu* = husband *hundan* = bastard

*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard *wode ma* = mother of God *tianna* = oh God!

*tian Yesu* = sweet Jesus *chusheng xai-jiao de xiang huo* = animal fucking bastard

*xin gan*/*ai ren* = sweetheart *wode xinzang* = my heart *qu* = yes (lit. go)

*fengmi* = honey *zongshi* = always/every time

Chapter Text


"SETTLING"
"Firefly" story
Written by Alison M. DOBELL
* * * * *

With the Captain laid up and Kaylee nursing two premature babies, the infirmary was a mite more crowded than even its' busiest day. For once Simon was not getting ansty, throwing folk out. Too besotted with his wife's new issue. His distraction gave River a measure of freedom to stay close to Mal during his long slow recovery back to health. Inara smiled at them then went over to where Kaylee and Simon were cooing over the twins. Zoe was holding one, Wash the other, and if the look in their eyes was anything to go by Inara had the feeling there would be more new arrivals before year's end. *Wode ma*, it was feeling more and more like a nursery as the days went by. Shifting little Jack so that he was easier to carry on her hip, Inara's smile widened as Zoe looked up and caught sight of her son.

River had been watching, noticing, taking pleasure in their pleasure. Now she turned back to Mal, pleased to see that his face was healing well. The swelling had gone down and the bruises were fading, the cuts healing. At least she could kiss him now without making him bleed. She closed her eyes to force down a shudder at the thought, her mind too eager to turn every thought into images crystal clear and in technicolour.

"*Xin gan*, somethin' wrong?"

She shook herself and opened her eyes, a gentle smile echoed in her eyes to reassure him. "*Qu*, just grateful."

Her words surprised him. He was lying flat on his back, the pillows that usually propped him up absent for a while. Unable to turn himself, sit up unaided or do basic things he was fully reliant upon others to fuss over him and see to his needs. Since River had taken up pretty much permanent residence in the infirmary with him the Captain had amazingly stopped complaining. As biddable as a lamb, not that his crew would say so to his face. Noblody wanted to jinx the period of calm. Well, Jayne would, but he was wary enough of River not to do or say anything to attract her wrath. Girl was too damn protective of the Captain to risk saying overmuch. Not that it stopped everything that came out of his mouth. "So," Prompted the Captain, warm amusement in his voice. It flowed like honey over River's ears. Made her wish she could bathe in it then lick it off. Real slow. "Why's that?"

River's smile faltered just a fraction. "Nearly lost you."

"Can't lose me, *xin gan*. I'm the bad penny, *jide*?"

"Penny?"

"You know, ancient coin from Earth-that-was an' don't pull that don't-know-what-the-crazy-Cap'n's-talkin'-about look. Heard Simon make mention of the sayin' a time or two, you know the bad penny always turnin' up an' such."

Her smile was so full of love and affection he thought his gorram heart would stop. It was like the sun beaming down on him, all warm and happy. "You're not a penny, Mal."

His voice was soft and just a little bit hoarse. "Then what am I?"

Instead of using words she kissed him. Soft and slow. Not that he was complaining but it was all kinds of aggravating not being able to lift his hands, to cradle that sweet face, even to brush the waterfall of dark hair that covered him like silk when their lips met. It was the loud unsubtle throat clearing that alerted him to the presence of unwanted guests. River ignored it, making the kiss deeper, more sensual and what was a man to do but go with it? Again with the throat clearing, and was that a laugh? When River came up for air she already knew who would be standing there. Jayne grinned at them, ready to make a comment but the Captain caught his eye. "Not a word, Jayne."

"Aw, but Mal, not my fault you two're makin' out like ruttin' rabbits..."

The Captain raised his eyebrows. "*Shenme*? We were not! It's called kissin', Jayne, might have heard of it. Oh," He broke off and gave Jayne a sly little grin. "You don't kiss 'em on the lips, do you?"

"Could be tempted to change my mind."

Before the Captain could reply Jayne's mood changed, puzzled and kind'a concerned if Mal was any judge by the odd antics of the Shepherd. "*Wei*! What ya doin'?"

"Oh, just takin' a few measurements." Said the Preacher mildly.

Jayne watched Book with the length of rope, sliding it through his hands and holding it against the width of the infirmary bed. "What? Ya gonna hang him?"

River only just kept the laugh in. Looking up at her, Mal could feel his heart swell. This feeling of wall to wall happy was new to him and he was enjoying it too much to let anything dull the shine. Shepherd Book made a knot in the rope and gave an amused shake of the head. "No, Jayne, but we don't have a tape measure."

"A what? Why would we want one o' them?"

"Simon was telling me about the problems with these beds. The head doesn't raise so you can't incline a body except with pillows."

The mercenary stared at Book as if the man were a fool. "We got pillows."

Mal and River exchanged a look, River leaned down and giggled softly into his face stealing kisses and enjoying the way the Captain stole them back. With interest.

Book deliberately began to walk towards the door as he answered Jayne, the big man following him without realising it until they had stepped outside the infirmary. The Preacher looping the rope into a small coil in his hands. "Jayne," Said Book in a quieter tone. Not wanting the Captain to hear him. "The Captain's bones were broken."

"*Diyu* I know that an' what's with the whisperin'?"

"It means he can't do anything for himself. Can't run, can't sit, can't get up off the bed."

A leer came over Jayne's face. He was thinking of the way River was fussing over the man, her hands constantly touching. Then there was all that kissing and such. If they was being discreet he didn't see no sign of it. 'Sides, wasn't as if the Cap was complainin'. "Don't seem much of a disadvantage to me."

"Well no matter how it looks it is. Simon had a word with me earlier, asked if there was any way I could make something to help. A frame, something adjustable so he could sit up and have his upper back and shoulders properly supported."

Jayne frowned. Not getting it. "What's wrong with pillows?"

"They're too soft. He needs firm support not to sink into the bed linen."

"The bed what?"

"I said I would see what I can do though without any hinges and no saw to speak of I'm limited to a hammer, some nails and an old wood chisel."

Jayne was in deep thought for a minute or two, their footsteps ringing as they descended the metal stairs to the cargo hold where Book intended to recycle an old packing crate into something a mite more useful for current needs. "So, ya ain't makin' a coffin?"

The Preacher stopped dead in his tracks and looked at him. "No Jayne, I only bury the dead."

Serious, Jayne nodded thoughtfully, his mood lightening. "Good. Just so's I know."

Book stared after Jayne as the mercenary walked away. "What do you mean?"

Without pausing, Jayne looked over his shoulder. "Chain of command. Just keepin' track Shepherd."

* * * * *

Rafe Connor was amused. Watching Chung-li rumage through the storage cupboards to rustle up a meal was always fun. The man could turn the most innocuous ingredients into a feast fit for a King. Molly had gone quiet again, something she was doing habitually since they had been reunited. Rose was shivering a little, her too thin frame feeling every shift of air like an icy wind blowing through her. Despite the fact that she was now fourteen in Rafe's eyes she was still the little girl he had sheltered since her mama died. Even though the shell had been broken and she had joined them all in the larger world, there were times like this when he could almost see and touch that shell. Times when he was tempted to sign to her rather than speak out loud. He did not realise that she could sense what he was thinking and feeling nor how much it cost her to hide that fact from him. People feared what they did not know or understand. She wasn't a Reader like River or Chung-li but she had some psychic ability, what experts called an Empath. Therefore his pain became hers, his confusion a fog to cloud her own consciousness. His joy the warmth of a thousand suns. Now she was cold, sensing and sharing his fear for the future. His uncertainty about the present.

"It's alright Rose, I'll ask if we can turn up the heatin'."

She shook her head and smiled. "*Hen hao, ba ba.*" Rose paused, her eyes searching his. Molly actually began to take notice and for that small light at the end of a long dark tunnel Rafe was grateful. "Where we gonna live?"

Rafe closed the distance between them and gently wrapped his arms around his two daughters, the warmth of his body a shield against the cold fear in his heart. "We'll find somewhere, *bao bei*. *Fang xin*. Mal an' his people'll put us right, you'll see."

Into his shoulder Rose sniffed, eyes filling with tears, too many sorrows to keep locked up in silence any more. "Ben... Mark...." She sobbed. "Oh, *ba ba* it isn't fair!"

Molly eased out of the shared embrace to let Rafe rock Rose in his arms, biting back tears of his own. Rafe was determined to be strong if not for himself then for them. He caught the look in Molly's eyes, knew she was thinking of her husband Todd. So was he, his eyes told her. But Molly was retreating again. Withdrawing from him. Back into that void of pain and darkness where nothing could reach her. Sitting at the table Hilary and David exchanged worried glances. Neither of them knew what would happen next but the Chinaman had assured them they would not be left to fend for themselves. When he and Rafe found a new place to settle they were welcome to come too. While Hilary had reservations David was older, had seen more and knew that these were good people. He tried to reassure Hilary, his thoughts going back to brave Peter. Peter who had alerted them to the captive being tortured across the corridor. Peter who had made the crazy suggestion of getting him and hiding him before the *tamade hundan* that had wrecked their lives took that of another innocent. Who could have known that that one act of humanity would touch so many other lives? But Peter had paid the ultimate price. Had died before the rescue had come. Another body in a pile of rotting corpses. Now buried under tons of rock and earth while their enemies opened up newly exposed seams to continue their greedy trade. It sickened him but not so much as if he had stayed. No. Wherever Malcolm Reynolds' ship took them he would willingly go. And be grateful.

* * * * *

Zoe couldn't believe it. Tears! Wash wanted to reach out, hug her, but the little one in his own arms was so tiny, healthy despite being a little premature but too tiny to be juggled like geese. Blinking, Zoe stared at Kaylee. Saw all the goodness and sunlight in her that the Captain had recognised from the get go. She glanced at the little squirming bundle in her arms and tried the name upon her tongue, an awed whisper wanting to see how it would fit. "Grace?"

Kaylee was smiling, Simon sitting on the side of her bed. So proud of his beautiful wife. So full of joy and fatherly pride. Kaylee could have called them Yin and Yang for all he cared except that they were both girls. They were alive and healthy and he and Kaylee had made them. How could that be anything but a good thing? But seeing Zoe affected like this? That was unexpected. "Are you sure you're alright with this, Zoe?" He asked.

"Better than alright," She said softly, then seemed to gather herself. The weak moment seeming to pass though the soft look in her eyes said otherwise. "Cap'n'll be mighty proud."

"You don't think it'll upset him? You know...?" Said Kaylee hesitantly.

Wash gave a chuckle and rocked the second twin as if he had been rocking babies all his life. With Jack it sometimes seemed that way. "He'll be fine, Kaylee. Besides," Wash paused to sneak a look across to the bed on the other side of the infirmary. "Somethin' tells me he'll soon be cradling a little addition of his own."

Kaylee gasped, a hand covering her mouth. Eyes wide with hope and barely surpressed glee. "You don't mean? Him an' River?"

Her very shiny husband wanted to scowl and look annoyed but nothing could dim his pleasure of the moment and knowing his sister was happy too made him content in a way he had never dreamt he could be before. To Kaylee's surprise Simon turned to Inara. "I understand you were offered a teaching post at one of the training houses?"

Surprised, Inara gave him a quizzical look. "Yes, but how...?"

"Are you going to take it?"

She blinked. "I hadn't made up my mind..."

His smile widened so expansively she was captivated. "Because," And here Simon paused to glance from baby Jack to his own twin girls, his wife then a fleeting glance across at River and Mal before settling back on Inara's intrigued face. "I think you could find a post here."

"*Shenme*?" What was he talking about? Had the good doctor hit his head?

"I mean, there are three babies now on Serenity - who knows when there may be more. And I don't know about Wash and Zoe but I wouldn't feel right trusting their education to just anyone..."

Kaylee squealed and clapped her hands. "Oh, 'Nara say yes, say you will, you'll do it!"

"*Wei*!" All heads turned at the unexpected sound of the Captains' voice. They couldn't see his face because he was lying flat on the bed but River was beaming at them. "What mischief you concoctin' over there?"

"Nothin', Cap'n." Said Kaylee in a bright and breezy voice. "Just fixin' on a reason for 'Nara to stay."

It took a moment for her words to sink in. "You goin' some place, Inara?"

"No, Mal, I'm not going anywhere."

"Inara's gonna be a teacher." Burst out Wash.

Just then Shepherd Book entered the infirmary with Jayne in tow. He was carrying a wooden contraption that looked like a cross between a window shutter and a torture device. Wash frowned. "What's that?"

Book smiled. "Just what the doctor ordered."

With Jayne's help he eased the Captain into a sitting position and set the frame in place, slotting the back rest into the holding frame at an angle of roughly 45 degrees. Mal moaned softly then grunted as his body settled into position, River sliding in a pillow or two to pad the hard surface for his wounded body.

"How's that, Captain?"

The Captain gave a long low sigh of relief, all manner of grateful. "Shiny, Book. Can't tell you how good that feels."

Book smiled, happy and content to have been able to find some way to help. There were times when he felt awfully useless. Thankfully this was not one of those times. River kissed Mal lightly on the lips and he smiled at her then remembered what he had been saying and turned his head to look across at Kaylee and her retinue of baby sitters. "As I was sayin', what in *diyu* you up to over there?"

Laughing, Simon looked at Kaylee for a moment as if asking permission. She smiled and nodded. Simon held his hands out to Zoe who gently laid the baby girl in his arms. The doctor jerked his head at Wash indicating him to bring his other daughter over to Mal's bedside so they could be formally introduced. Zoe and Inara followed. Book and Jayne moved to one side so Simon could show off his children. "Captain, I'd like you to meet the twins. Wash is holding Bethany. Bethany, say hello to your Uncle Mal."

The Captain raised his eyebrows at being called 'Uncle' then caught a look on River's face that made him flush but he didn't argue the point. "Hello Bethany, hope you're gonna be less troublesome than that shiny smart-mouthed papa of yours."

The baby wriggled and gurgled something incoherent but it made the Captain laugh and smile. Wash moved back to let Simon show the Captain the other twin. His eyes glued to the Captain's face, Simon's voice softened. "This little girl we would like to name Grace, if that's alright?"

Malcolm Reynolds couldn't speak. Emotion welling up and robbing him of gorram speech. Behind Simon, Zoe felt herself choke up knowing how much the simple gesture would mean to the Captain. Blinking back tears he stared at the child, the child stared back. Little tiny arms waved at him as if wanting to get closer and frustrated at the distance. Mal could sympathise, felt pretty much the same his own self not that he would admit as much. Simon leaned in close and held the baby up to him, so close now that man and child were only inches apart. Voice hushed the Captain spoke, welcoming the new arrival into the 'verse. "Hello little Grace, welcome to Serenity."

River smiled, kissed Mal's cheek then dropped a kiss upon the baby's head. Simon moved back, well pleased with the way things were turning out. Tired and emotional, the Captain could only thank him with his eyes. Didn't mean he was weak. Simon nodded, a silent truce, then returned to Kaylee's side. Inara looked on, happy and content. Maybe being a teacher wouldn't be a bad thing after all? Might even be able to steer the adults on a less painful path. Of course, that was supposing miracles could happen in the Black.

* * * * *

Six months later, Drylan was enjoying his moment in the sun. The 'tragedy' on Hope had been efficiently dealt with, the cracks papered over, the correct hands greased with gold. The families of the soliders and guards who had died had been told there had been an accident at the mine and were handsomely compensated. There would be no ugly scenes, no demands for an official enquiry. Production had resumed after the new shaft had been struck. New tunnels boring into the richer seams. Profits escalating along with the greed.

It was the day. The time for which Drylan had been hoping ever since Commandant Rankin had hinted at his rise in power. Status the key to everything the Alliance built, stole or protected. As long as they all paid homage to the same lie what harm did it do? It was not as if the captives could protest. They had no voice, no life beyond the toil handed to them by the yolk of the Alliance. Officially they were called miners. They were paid, fed and housed. That all of it happened below ground made no never mind. They were slaves pure and simple.

They helped him into his robes, silently affixing the sash, the rich brocaded belt, the badges of honour and of state ready for the official ceremony to crown him the new Governor of Hope. As he was handed the Governor's hat a harrassed servitor burst into his office, all a fluster, panic and alarm writ all over his reddened face. "*Shifu*! I couldn't stop them!"

"*Shei*?"

Stumbling the servitor was pushed to one side and a large man barrelled through, soldiers taking up position behind him, faces blank and staring ahead. Rifles not quite at parade rest. Alarmed, Drylan stared at the figure now standing before him. A large man but not especially fat, his broad framed body clothed in heavy dark serge yet the cut was expensive as if the clothes were a affectation not a fashion statement. His eyes narrowed with suspicion. The scarred and pock marked face staring back at him held no clue to the man's identity until he spoke. The voice searing through every happy dream Drylan had ever harboured. A nightmare scenario awakening before his horrified eyes as he realised who this must be.

Cyrus White's caustic words lashed out like a whip, flaying the confabulation that had been Drylan's life to shreds. "How did you think you would get away with this, you maggot? Thought you had killed me, did you? That I was not made of sterner stuff?"

Drylan backed away, the hat falling from his hands, the rich fabrics of his ceremonial costume now working against him and confounding his retreat. Cyrus hissed through his teeth, the layers of indulgence gone, the fat turned to hard muscle in the months of his recuperation. The hard grind back to health, the building of muscle, the toning of a body that would have crushed him had apathy been his middle name. But Cyrus White could be as determined and bloody minded as any and nothing motivated a man like vengeance.

"You will pay for your treachery!"

"But I didn't...everyone said you were dead!"

"And you looked so closely, just to be sure, hmmm?"

He did not know what to say and now his back was to the wall and death was staring him in the eye. Unblinking and ugly. "Before you die," Said Cyrus in a calm almost conversational tone. "I want one thing only from you."

Unable to speak for the fear coursing through his body Drylan could only nod.

"Where is that pitiful *tamade hundan* Rafe Connor?"

Drylan blinked. Who?

"And where," Said Cyrus with a crocodile smile as he closed in for the kill. "Is Malcolm Reynolds?"

Gulping in air that somehow did not seem to make it to his flagging lungs, Drylan tried to reassure the Governor as best he could. "Dead, they're dead."

"You saw the bodies?"

Drylan shook his head. "No, Governor, but Reynolds had been beaten to a pulp, by all accounts already dying and Connor was still below ground in the mine when the explosions came. Only a few got out alive and they're still here. It's taken months to renew the workforce."

Seemingly satisfied, Cyrus White nodded. The knife went in under Drylan's breastbone. Long, thin and wickedly sharp. Jerking his hand up the blade burrowed until it cut through the walls of Drylan's heart. He made a sick wet sucking sound in the back of his throat as he tried to gasp. Eyes wide, mouth open and drool running down the side of his chin. Even before the light in his eyes dimmed the message from his heart to his brain was already telling his body the man was dead.

Cyrus White let the body fall. The servitors that had once served Drylan now bowing and twisting their hands together to curry what remnant of favour they could from the man who now held all their lives in the palm of his hand. He barely spared them a look. Traitors every one. With distain and cold anger on his face, Cyrus turned to his soldiers. "Kill them."

Then, without a backward glance he exited the room and the door closed behind him. Shutting out the screams and containing the blood. Even when the room was cleaned and refurbished he would never use it again. In the meantime his spies would keep their eyes and ears open. Should any of his enemies come to notice again, they would not fair so well as Drylan. No. They would not fair so well at all. Falling into step beside him, Commandant Rankin carefully hid his smile of satisfaction. Yes. It was always interesting when links opened up in a chain of command. It gave the astute and the worthy the chance for accelerated promotion up through the ranks. In the end it was all about status. That, and the impossible riches that could come with it.

Cyrus White said not one word more. His face a battleground of scars where a fragmenting hand grenade had all but ripped him to pieces. Only by commanding his skimmer pilot to lay over the device had he escaped certain death. Someone would pay for that. One day. And Cyrus White could be a very patient man.

* * * * *

Captain Malcolm Reynolds would have moaned, would have complained about how gorram complacent his crew was getting but he couldn't do it. The smile on his face just wouldn't turn into a gorram frown and these days all his thoughts were shiny, constantly thinking about the incredible feel of the woman he loved in his arms. Not content with wearing him down to a rutting frazzle, the woman had moves he was sure no other woman could accomplish without surgery. River said it was because she was supple, double jointed. Mal said it was because she was a gorram freak and River had laughed and said "Yes, but I'm your freak." And that was what had painted the smile on his face. All the gloom, the gory memories of war, the loss, the pain and the terrible aching sorrow were shut far, far away. In its' place this amazing and gifted lady had come and graced his life, taught him not only how to laugh and care again but how to love.

Nope. Couldn't keep the ruttin' happy off his face and being back in one piece, walking and talking, he was finally settling into this notion that he too could be a happy man. As he passed Inara on the catwalk they exchanged a few words, a nod, a smile, then he was on the move again. Seeing her prompting another thought to spark with amusement in his mind. Oh yeah, he aimed to give River hundreds of fat children. All of 'em happy and Alliance-free, and every gorram one of 'em bearing his name. Good as it was to be the Captain, he had a notion he would like being a father ten times more.

* * * * *

CHINESE GLOSSARY: (Mandarin - Pinyin)

*wode ma* = mother of God *xin gan*/*ai ren* = sweetheart *qu* = yes (lit. go)

*jide* = remember *wei* = hey! *shenme* = what *diyu* = hell

*hen hao* = very good *ba ba* = daddy *fang xin* = don't worry (lit. ease your heart)

*bao bei* = precious/treasure *shifu* = sir *shei* = who?

*tamade hundan* = fucking bastard