Chapter 1

"Inara? Come on, honey, wake up."

She was limp as a boiled noodle, and the bruise on her jaw gave evidence why. Mal gently brushed her hair away from her face and looked around the room. For a prison cell, it was quite nice – all the comforts of home, really. He crossed over to the refrigeration unit and dug out several ice cubes and a towel to wrap them around. When Inara finally came to, she'd appreciate an ice pack for her jaw.

They were in quite a pickle. Morado had played them perfectly off one another and used the crew's greatest asset, their loyalty to one another, to get them exactly where he wanted them. He sighed and checked his chronometer. By now, Serenity should have just reached Persephone. That meant they had two or three days left. After that . . . well, it wasn't exaggerating to say he didn't expect to get out of this one alive. He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled the coverlet over Inara. Something on the fingertips of her right hand drew his attention. Blood. She had clawed whoever'd grabbed her but good. It was hard to imagine a Companion going for blood like that, but Inara was always full of surprises. Using the towel, he gently wiped most of the blood away. Wouldn't do at all to let it stain her dress.

"A simple proposition, Captain Reynolds," Morado said, his attention fully on Mal's face while an underling waited behind his elbow, quivering with unfinished tasks. "The cargo is not contraband, the bills of lading are quite in order, and the time frame I'm requesting, while short, is nothing outside of your ship's scope."

Mal's eyes flicked over to Zoe, and he read in her stance the same wariness he felt. Something just wasn't kosher.

"It's a generous offer, Obermeister, but I'm a little confused is all. You know our reputation and where our business generally takes us. There are a score of other ships that could carry your cargo faster 'n' cheaper. Why us?"

Morado's eyes crinkled in a slight, genuine smile. "Let's just say that I'd like to avoid any Alliance entanglements. For reasons of my own. You come recommended as someone who prefers to avoid their attention as well, and your record speaks for itself. Do we have a deal?"

It was quite a deal: fifty percent up front, fifty percent on delivery. The cargo didn't even take up that much room. He would have an extra day to find more cargo or passengers and a contact that would take him the quick way round customs on Elysium, the second moon of Persephone. He could make a killing, a killing that would almost make up for the loss of Inara's shuttle rental. That was just the trouble. It was a little too good. But for the life of him, he couldn't put his finger on what Morado was after – other than a quiet ride for his crates of what-have-you.

He glanced at Zoe again, and she gave a barely perceptible shrug. Well, if need be, they could always crack open the cases and find out what he was really carrying.

"It's a deal," Mal answered, sticking his hand out. Obermeister Morado gave it a squeeze and a pump with his own hand, firm, but not threatening. The man knew how to shake hands.

"The cargo will be delivered to you tomorrow morning by nine o'clock, standard. I expect to receive notification of its arrival at Elysium in two weeks."

Inara stirred just slightly. If he hadn't been holding her hand and studying her face, he would have missed it. Her eyes had fluttered just the tiniest bit and then stopped. She was awake, he had no doubt. She was also pretending to still be unconscious, just in case.

"It's all right, Inara. We're safe. For the time being, that is," he said in a normal tone of voice.

Her eyelids popped open immediately, and she scanned his face, but the tiny worry wrinkle between her brows did not smooth away.

"Mal, where a-" she started to sit up, and before she was halfway there, she groaned, putting a hand to the side of her jaw where she'd taken at least one ham-sized fist.

"This'll help," he offered her the ice filled towel, and she accepted gratefully. "My guess," he continued, as he gently pulled her into a sitting position, "is that we're somewhere in the asteroid belt past Buggered. Scuse me, Beauregard."

"But . . ." her voice drifted off as she looked around the room. Under normal circumstances, any lodging that far out in the border worlds, and in an asteroid belt instead of planetside, would mean either the interior of the Serenity or a rock hopper's trundlebug. The tapestried walls, built in appliances, and small dimensions of their room were nothing like Serenity and far more luxurious than any rock hopper ever saw.

"You've been out for more'n a few hours," he resumed. "I've looked over as much of this gorram place as I could in that time. Far as I can tell, it's completely self-contained. There are enough rations to keep us here for months. There's also no way to send communication. My guess is that there isn't even a transponder on this little tub. Morado's got another way of getting here."

Inara looked around, letting the meaning of Mal's search sink in. In an age of interstellar travel, it was all too easy to start thinking that you could get from planet to moon to starbase with a hop and skip. You stopped thinking about how big space really was. One tiny module circling a G class star in the middle of an asteroid belt wouldn't be found even if the entire Alliance was looking for it. That's why these spots were so popular with smugglers. You might almost say they'd fallen off the face of the verse.

"What now?" Inara asked. She was starting to shiver. Mal absentmindedly handed her the coverlet.

"Not much good either way. Morado will only keep us alive so long as he's got a reason. That reason's River. Either she's found, and he wins, so he kills us, or she gets away with the crew, he loses, so he kills us. There's not much reason for him to be keepin' us alive."

Even though her breath escaped in a slow sigh, Inara remained unbowed. A Companion, after all, never let circumstances affect her posture.

"In the act of love, a Companion must never, ever, lose control over herself," the instructor stated. "The point is not your climax, it is the climax of your client. Allow yourself the luxury of climaxing, and you lose the focus that allows you to meet your client's every need."

Inara tilted her head just slightly to the right. There was no need to raise a hand or even a finger to indicate she had a question. Their instructor was so well versed in reading clients and others that she could tell who had a question before that person had even framed it in her mind. The instructor lowered her chin infinitesimally, granting permission to ask.

"What if your client wishes to bring you to climax?"

"It is not the conflict of interests it might appear. Many men feel it is a sign of their sexual prowess to bring any partner they share a bed with to climax. Many more feel it is as important that their partner climax as that they do. Give them the appearance of climaxing, and you meet their needs as well as your own."

Startlement passed over the small group. After all, one of their first lessons in pillow work had been that scrupulous honesty is the basis of a satisfying encounter.

The instructor's lips tugged up in the slightest indulgent smile. "The client need not know exactly what is going through your head at any one time. Indeed, it is in the client's best interest that he or she not know. After all, you practice serenity with a client even when you've received news that your mother has died, your father has been imprisoned, and your brother killed. You are not Companions in order to impose your own emotional experiences on your client. You are Companions in order to bring beauty and grace to your client's time with you."

River stood on the railings above the cargo deck, studying the pallet of crates brought on board at Sierra. She decided that she didn't like those boxes. She would have avoided them like…well, like the plague, but the size of the ship made that difficult. Even when it was nighttime on the ship and everyone else was asleep, dreaming quiet table and chair dreams, the boxes made noise. She hadn't been able to puzzle out exactly what the noise was, but it was enough to keep her awake.

"Honey?" Kaylee called. "Will you come down from there? Pretty please?"

River glanced back at Kaylee, who was trying so hard not to act worried, because that just bothered River more. It wasn't as if climbing up on the railings and leaning way out over the empty space was all that dangerous. She calculated mass, momentum, vector, gravity, and the force with which she'd land on the cargo deck if she decided to leap out from the catwalk in a mistaken attempt to fly. Friction would be minimal, but at the very least there would be broken, mangled bones. She calculated just how much force would be required to create a disabling fracture of the tibia, then how much to cause a compact fracture. Both numbers were within her capabilities, given a little leverage.

"You can have my strawberry," Kaylee offered.

River peeked back over her shoulder at the berry Kaylee held out. It's nice and shiny was what Kaylee's brain said. It was jealous that Kaylee would give her the strawberry, not it. The smell of it wafted up and started singing in her nose and mouth, though the strawberry itself said nothing. Did strawberries feel sad or happy when they were eaten? Happy, River decided, though if they learned what became of their masticated, digested seeds in Serenity's reclamation system, they might not be so happy anymore. Best not to tell them, really.

With the strawberry fragrance singing so loudly and the noise the boxes below were making, as River reached for the strawberry, she forgot to calculate how her center of gravity shifted, and that the new gravitational vector would overcome the friction of the guy wire against the sole of her foot. She slipped, the arguing increased, and a strong hand clamped over her arm, pulling her back in. It was joined by another equally strong hand, and she was lifted off the catwalk and back down to the main walkway.

"Thank you, Jayne," Kaylee breathed in relief.

Crazy kid, and I have to look after her. Anything happens to her, and the captain'll [fry my testicles up and serve them for breakfast] was what Jayne's brain said, but he only grunted, threw an annoyed leer at Kaylee and continued his way down towards the galley. River began eating her promised strawberry, listening to it smile in happiness that its seeds would find a warm, fertile home to sprout from after their passage through her gastrointestinal tract. Oh, there was something she needed to tell Kaylee, to tell the captain. Remembering it was difficult, since Kaylee was talking to her, and her words floated down to the cargo bay like flowers shed from a tree in bloom. They were too far away from River to catch their meaning. Perhaps she ought to have Simon check her eyes. She might be getting near-sighted.

"Boxes," she told Kaylee.

The almond blossoms that fell from Kaylee's lips probably meant "what about boxes, sweetie?"

"The boxes don't mean well. I think they're Trojans. You should tell the captain."