By Snowballjane

Rating: PG

Beta by: lisa bee

Summary: A good ship and a trusty crew are a captain's best protection against temptation.

It was late night, almost morning really, in as far as such things could ever be said in space where rosy-fingered dawn was set according to the clocks of the next port. But since everyone aboard Serenity except for her captain was apparently sound asleep, it was certainly long past bedtime.

Mal wandered through the ship, running a hand absently along her bulkheads, his footsteps echoing louder as he entered the hollow cavern of the cargo hold. He sat down on a woefully empty packing crate and rubbed at his jaw, trying to relieve the tension knotted there.

It had been a very bad week. Food was short, money was shorter and tempers were shorter still.

Zoë and Wash were having some kind of private crisis which was played out in public in the form of snide remarks and hostile body language. Mal was pretty certain he knew what the fight was about; it had been brewing ever since their adventure at the Heart of Gold bordello.

River was going through one of her more manic phases and had torn Kaylee's precious patchwork blanket to shreds earlier in the day. The sweet mechanic was trying hard not to be furious at the girl but she was walking around on the brink of tears. The blanket had been a gift handmade by her momma.

Simon in turn was fretful and guilt-ridden that his attempts at treatment had made his sister worse and thus made yet more trouble for his shipmates. Mal's attempt at captainly pep-talk had been met with an angry, "Look, I'm sorry all right? I'm sorry I can't fix her. I'm sorry she's such a bother," and a door in the face.

Even the normally placid preacher had been infected by the mood. Mal had caught him delivering an impassioned homily to Jayne about selfishness and greed as the latter polished off the last of the spiced sausages they had picked up in Santa Tecla.

And Inara was leaving – just as soon as she found a convenient planet. He wanted to be relieved about that, but the way his chest ached every time he thought about it made that impossible. So he tried not to think about it.

Dinner had certainly been a tetchy affair, all meaningful glares and curt requests to pass seasoning for the bland protein. As soon as it was over, the crew retreated to their private spaces, to lick or pick at their own wounds.

It was not surprising then that sleep eluded their captain.

Inara was leaving. His mind harped back to that point, despite his best efforts. "You
can't break away," she had said, but she was breaking away from him, from Serenity.

What if Zoe and Wash also decided to leave in order to start a family? Or what if this fight broke them and one or the other walked away? What if Simon found a safer place to hide his sister? What if Jayne got a better offer from some other captain? Book had no especial reason for loyalty; he might leave at any port he chose.

Kaylee wouldn't leave him, wouldn't leave Serenity, he thought, grasping onto the idea. But his imagination was already one step ahead – space was a dangerous place and the girl had already been shot once. He could all too easily lose her too -- and what then? Hire a new crew out of some dusty spaceport and start all over again? It would hardly be the same. Hardly be worthwhile.

He shifted position on the crate, making a purposeless mental inventory of the hold's meagre contents. An unfamiliar metal gleam caught his eye, something poking from a small pile of neatly packaged hides that were the only cargo with even a hope in hell of finding a buyer at Greene's World the next day.

On closer inspection, the item turned out to be a gun, not one of his own – probably part of Jayne's collection. He'd have to have words about leaving it lying around, especially after what happened the last time River got her hands on a stray weapon.

Turning it over in his hands he could feel that it was a well-crafted, nicely-balanced piece. The gun sang to him of freedom, of pain, of anger, of power. It told him stories of boundless possibility, of fortune, of victory. There was, ultimately, no problem it could not finish.

The smallest movement of a finger, whispered the gun, and there need be no more worrying about keeping the ship fuelled and everyone fed, no more fear that their luck would run out and the Alliance would find his two fugitives, no more fear of being left behind alone...

He placed the gun slowly on one of the crates and it was only the clattering rattle of metal on metal that told him how badly his hand was shaking.

Slamming a button on the wall with the palm of the same hand was the work of an instant. The ship's alarms seemed to scream out the cry that was threatening to tear itself from his own throat.

And then he waited, forcing his face into an expression of annoyed impatience.

Zoë was there first - dependable, trusty Zoë – somehow making an orange silk robe look like shining armour. "Where's the problem, sir?"

"Hey, Cap'n. What's goin' on?" That was Kaylee, just a few seconds behind, bleary-eyed and wearing short pyjamas, brow furrowed in concern. "Is Serenity okay?" Mal gave the pair a brief nod of acknowledgement and signalled for them to wait for an explanation.

Inara was next, emerging from her shuttle and leaning over the handrail of the upper level with a quizzical look, wincing at the volume of the alarm. He beckoned for her to join them.

From the passenger dorm, came Book, Simon and River, the two men glancing around the cargo bay as they entered, obviously in search of an emergency.

"Shun the sirens, their enchanting notes..." Even raised above the sound of the alarm, River's voice had the dreamy sing-song quality of her more mysterious pronouncements.

"Enchanting? What's she on about? That's about the least enchantin' sound I ever heard," hollered Jayne as he clattered down the catwalk stairs, bristling with guns. The big man had apparently either fallen asleep fully armed or had perfected the art of tooling up the very instant he awoke. There was something comforting about the thought. Disturbing, yet also rather comforting.

Wash shambled in last, one hand clutching his dark robe closed since the belt appeared to be missing. His other arm reached over the top of his head, trying to cover both ears at once. "Nothing wrong up front," announced the pilot, the detour to the cockpit explaining his delay.

"Cap' we're all here, can't you shut down that gou cao de thing now?" asked Jayne.

The final word was shouted through the blessed absence of alarm as Mal reached for the switch and flicked it off with an air of annoyed nonchalance. He looked at his crew – they were tired and grumpy but they were all there, all ready to fight, to fix things, to heal.

"Tut, tut. Two minutes," he grumbled. "You'll have to do better'n that next time. Ship coulda been on fire."

"You got us out of bed for a gorram fire practice?" Jayne looked about ready to strangle his captain, while annoyance flickered across several other sleepy faces in the cargo hold. "Damn, I was havin' the finest dream. There was this big blonde with a..."

"Bind me with galling ropes as I stand upright against the mast-stay," cut in River, "then I shall stay there immovably."

Mal knew well enough by now that River's words were rarely meaningless babble, if you just knew the key to what she was saying. Was she asking to be tied up? No, from the look she was giving him, the archaic-sounding phrase was something to do with him. Her penetrating gaze was sympathetic and concerned, as if she could see right through to his shaken thoughts. Probably could, come to that.

The girl took a step forward, rested a hand on Mal's arm and whispered conspiratorially. "My trusty comrades were quick to take out the wax that had sealed their ears and to rescue and unbind myself."

The bit about ear-wax made no sense at all, but well heck, he knew there weren't no trustier comrades in the 'verse when you needed any kind of rescuing, even from yourself. Not that the rest of them needed to know that that was the real reason they'd been dragged from their beds at this hour. I just needed to see y'all.

"Come on trusty comrades, time for bed," he said, starting to climb the stair. "Take a lie-in in the morning everybody, we won't be making planet-fall at Greene's World until late afternoon."

Behind him he could hear Jayne saying "so that's where you got to Shirley." River was trying to explain that "music and words could be heard no more," to the shepherd.

"Mmm, a lie-in," was Wash, followed by a low, dirty laugh from his wife. Mal paused for a second in his climb and smiled to himself. Perhaps things between those two weren't so bad as he had supposed. In the morning he would come up with some way to change Inara's mind.

"G'night Cap'n," called Kaylee, before turning to murmur something indistinct to the doctor.

He was asleep almost before he reached his cabin.

The End