TITLE: Intervention
AUTHOR: Roseveare
LENGTH: 32,000 words approx
PAIRINGS: Mild Mal/Inara, Badger/River
SUMMARY: After the events on Persephone, Simon and Inara must put themselves on the line to help Mal get the medical attention he needs.
NOTES: 1) Direct sequel to Persephone Stopover. In fact, I still can't really decide if this really is a separate sequel or part two of a novel-length story. Anyway, this falls after Reliance and Persephone Stopover and before Mr Niska & the Ancient Art of Marriage Counselling. 2) Written long before the release of the movie, so no Serenity spoilers, and may contain canon inconsistencies. 3) Many thanks to Jebbypal for the medical beta.
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no profit, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Chapter 1

"Reckon it wouldn't hurt for you to be getting some shut-eye, doctor."

Simon raised his head from the imager, rubbed his eyes and turned his back on the endless checking and double-checking of hand-scanner readings that had been, from the start, all too starkly clear.

"After all - " Something as much a wince as an amused smile flickered across Mal's face, the captain hunched in the infirmary doorway, not quite sitting but definitely not standing, no sign of whoever had helped him to get there. "Not like we're working against a clock here. Ain't like this is gonna change any for better or worse if you delay for rest." He ruefully slapped a palm against his bent-up knee.

Simon gave him a sceptical survey, brows raised, though he gentled his voice as he said, "I had imagined you'd prefer a solution sooner rather than later."

"That's got no bearing on my one and only doctor wearing himself out for no good need. Been damn near twelve hours now, and I don't even know you've left this room. Everyone else to a man is rested. Consider this me ordering you to get some sleep."

Simon sighed, ran his palms up and down his thighs, and slowly stepped over to the door to sink down opposite the captain, leaning his back upon the wall and folding his arms atop his knees. "I thought, maybe... if there was something I'd missed... another diagnosis that might not be so..." Impractical.

"Find anything?"

Simon shook his head. "I've gone over everything ten times over. The truth is, I couldn't have slept anyway. Not until I was sure."

Mal frowned, and he had the distinct impression the man was studying him with focus. "Reckon you could sleep now."

"That's... possible." He scraped his hands over his face, and stared intently back at the captain, who'd relaxed somewhat in his necessarily hunched posture. "How did you get here? Where's Inara?"

Typically, the man ignored the question entirely. "I know you must be concerned 'bout the idea you might not have a solution for this. But there ain't no need for haste. I can take my knocks. Been laid up a stretch of weeks many a time before."

"I'm aware of that," Simon said. "Captain, you're a terrible patient. Which factor, I might add, is more than enough reason in itself to want this over and done with as soon as possible. How did you get here? Where's Inara? Or Book?"

"My faithful guardian angels got things of their own to do. 'Sides, it ain't so bad, now. That shot you gave me took away the nausea some."

"The point was to make you more comfortable while taking it easy, not allow you to push yourself until you vomit again," Simon pointed out, annoyed.

The captain stalled him with a raised hand, reminding him once again why he hated having Mal as a patient. Which was especially aggravating considering the man's mission in life seemed to be to hospitalise himself as often as possible. "Let's just pretend for a moment that's up to me, doctor, and that I'm like to be all kinds of extra difficult a patient if you won't let me get around on my own."

Simon gave a small cough of laughter.

"So if we can agree that you ain't gonna harp at me 'less I'm in danger of real damage, and then I'll be sure and listen when you do... well, most probably I will."

Simon rolled his head back, shut his eyes and very slowly beat the back of his head against the wall.

"...That an arrangement we can both live with?"

"All right," he conceded irritably, with the distinct feeling there really was no other choice. "Let's re-write the rules of patient-physician relationships." He threw up his hands. "After all, you re-write the rules of everything else."

"So we're understood. Good," Mal grunted, with a smart nod.

"Fine, we're understood." Telling himself he could always sedate the captain if it came to that, and feeling acutely sorry for Inara, although she did have weapons in her arsenal that he did not. He dragged himself upright, feeling the protest of limbs that had started to sleep already themselves once at rest. Mal might not be wrong... if he was his own patient, he'd done plenty of scolding already before now. Considering their conversation just gone, he did appreciate the irony.

"Best give me a lift over to the kitchen, 'fore you go for that nap," Mal said, raising an arm ready in the assumption of the help requested.

And the simple request put Simon's mind at rest in all kinds of ways, and he supposed that was why his doctorly instincts had accepted with such comparative ease... because it wasn't bravado or pride. Inara and Book had been busy, or elsewhere. Mal wasn't taking the problem lightly, but he wasn't going to be stopped. He had a ship of folk to take care of, too.

The amount of the captain's weight that dragged on his shoulder itself informed him that balance while vertical was nigh impossible. It was a delicate and complex system that allowed the human body to support itself on two legs and a spindly frame defiant in the face of gravity. That Alliance weapon had done Mal's significant damage.

Book was, in fact, in the kitchen, cooking. He looked up as Simon poured Mal into one of the more comfortable chairs in the recess, which were lower to the floor and less of a chore to maintain position in. "Good morning, captain. Doctor."

"Hey," said Mal, through that dazed look Simon was beginning to recognise meant things were bad and the world proving difficult to settle. He watched the captain's face closely, and things appeared to calm.

"Shepherd Book," Simon acknowledged, late. "Keep an eye on this one for me, won't you? Make sure he stays out of trouble."

Book smiled. "Inasmuch as that's ever possible."

The captain chose to deal with the conversation by ignoring it. He sniffed, and his chin raised a fraction, betraying interest. "That wouldn't be fresh produce cooking I smell, would it?"

"It would. We did manage to seize a few bargains in the market while on Persephone. Tomatoes, and eggs, captain."

"Well, I'd best..." Simon wavered, his eyes straying to the cooking.

"Best go tell everyone breakfast's in the offing," Mal supplied. "Guess there'll be time for sleeping later."

"Right." He still hesitated, arms swinging loosely at his sides, unsure, before he left the kitchen.

Laughed embarrassedly as he bumped into Kaylee, on her way in, and blushed as they slid on past each other. Unfazed by the collision, but with reddened eyes from the trials of the past twenty-four hours, she managed a smile for him. "Good mornin'."

Flustered, he hurried away. Aside from his assigned duty, he hadn't had opportunity to check upon River in far too long, he reminded himself. And given that she was with Badger and Jayne, he really should have been more concerned about ensuring he did that.

He could hear Reynolds' voice long before he walked into the little kitchen. It carried, especially in a tin box like his little cargo boat. Could just tell the man loved to give orders. Badger'd seen every evidence he'd had it right the first time - man never stopped being a sergeant, even with the war lost and his Browncoats gone and all he commanded now a smuggler's rustbucket and its ragtag scatter of would-be crew.

" - Vanu, over here. Don't that have some form of a private-owned set-up? Folks there not too keen to live under Alliance thumb, neither. Fought hard in the war."

"A good reason why Alliance security there will be especially tight." The deep, resonant voice of the shepherd was speaking as Badger turned through into the kitchen and saw them clustered around the little seating area tucked into the corner. Reynolds, his doctor, and his first mate were pouring over a mess of charts and a battered hand-held cortex link on the table between them. The preacher was leaned over Zoe's chair with a tea towel between his hands while something sizzled unattended on the stove. That cute little engineer was sitting alone at the big table, looking like she was off in a world of her own.

Zoe craned her head 'round, nodded slightly at the preacher, a considering expression on her face.

"Also the reason Vanu's still half a ruin," Simon emphasized. "Even if we could get inside for treatment there, I doubt they'd have adequate facilities."

"Mornin'," Badger interrupted pointedly. He jerked his head toward the stove. "Something smells crispy."

Book straightened. "Oh, my." He turned, tossing the towel onto the counter and hurrying to salvage his cooking.

Reynolds leaned back, surreptitious about relaxing the grip of his fingers upon the plush edge of the chair as he did. "Breakfast," he said. "Reckon we need to call a get-together after, throw this open and see if anyone has any ideas of their own, now everyone's up and rested. " Though he frowned at Simon on that last part. "Where's everyone at, doctor? Got us so sidetracked, I never thought to ask."

"Wash was making some minor course alterations to keep us off the radar," Zoe said, getting up and going to the table, pulling out the chair at its head. "He'll be along."

"Inara said she was in the middle of something but she wouldn't be long. Jayne and River were just finishing a game of Bannu." Doctor looked real amused on that point.

"Jayne was playing - ?" Zoe laughed. "Tell me not for money."

"Losing badly," Simon provided.

Badger cleared his throat, loudly.

"Something on your mind?" Reynolds asked, finally looking his way.

"Only what's been on it ever since I woke up on your puddle of niao ship. Like maybe when you people are gonna start talking about returning these feet of mine back to solid home ground."

Reynolds rubbed his forehead with his fingers and nodded to himself a few times, giving all the appearance of a man thinking. He jerked a hand, calling Badger to step closer, which he cautiously did and, bearing in mind that careful grasp on the seat's edge, stayed just a pace out of reach. Reynolds' lips compressed to a thin line, noticing.

"Can't go back to Persephone," he said. "Told you that. Got the law on our tail on account of shooting a whole heap of Alliance personnel and I'm thinking that's not something they'll take to kindly. Don't know how much the Alliance have or on who. True enough, we were all a mite distracted when the girl pulled you aboard, but I'm thinking it's entirely possible she did you one hell of a good turn."

"Now listen here." Badger jabbed a finger in his face. Nobody close except that effete doctor, and the first mate made no move. "I don't give a fart about the gorram Alliance. I got my own people. I'm a reasonable man, captain, and not unappreciative of that whole daring and dashing rescue stunt you pulled back there, but this niu se high-handed abduction is starting to piss me off. I'm telling you nice - get this ship turned around right now."

"You're telling me," Reynolds repeated flatly.

There was a beat, where Badger started to say something and at the same time his body started thinking about retreat, but Reynolds moved hella fast for a man couldn't stand up without falling right back over. Before Badger could do anything, there were rough hands twisting in the fabric of his jacket, compressing the collar hard into his throat. Reynolds' weight dragged him down as, leaning forward beyond his own centre of gravity, he used his grip on Badger to stabilize himself.

None of his crew reacted much at all. In the background, there were a few 'clinks' as Book handed Zoe salt and herb pots over the counter, and she set them down on the table. Even Simon just occupied his gaze elsewhere.

Reynolds said, "Hate to point it out - well, no, granted that's not entirely true - but right now it's you who's on my territory for a change, and those goons of yours that do your muscling for you are way behind us on Persephone. You might want to think about that some, 'fore you start pushing your weight around."

Badger nodded quickly, trying to breathe. Bloody Malcolm Reynolds. Man couldn't stop being physically imposing even after some Alliance toy chewed him up and spat him out. As opposed to those folks never were set up with that advantage in the first place.

Reynolds shoved him as he loosed his grip, giving himself the momentum to fall easy back into his seat at the same time as sending Badger half-falling over the seat behind (the doctor just scooted out of the way in time). Badger straightened; straightened his neck tie as well. "That's grand. Glad we had this chat," he said hoarsely, shoving down his anger because Zoe's eyes were on him now and the big merc had just entered the room, too, River trailing after, and one thing he had ample proof on was that Reynolds' crew were loyal.

Jayne went straight to the stove and stole something out of the pan right under the preacher's nose, before coming back around to the table, chased by a rebuke, to heavily plant himself opposite Kaylee.

Simon brushed past Badger to go claim the chair next to her, and Reynolds said, without any particular inflection of hostility, "If you're eating with us, best get sat down. Otherwise, there'll be plenty of unembellished protein around if you'd rather leave it 'til later."

Badger belligerently took the chair the other side of Kaylee, and held the one next to it out invitingly for River, who stood by the door staring at nothing. "Saved you the best spot, doll." She gave him a look he couldn't fathom, but came to take up the offer, and what more mattered, really? As for the whole kidnapping issue, well, maybe he should overlook that for the sake of having one semi-ally on the ship, however dodgy in the brainpan.

"Zoe?" Reynolds said.

The first mate didn't need any more than that vague prompt. She crossed to his side and helped him negotiate the short distance to the chair she'd readied earlier, offloaded him into it and helped shove it back up to the table, businesslike, before turning up towards the bridge. "Best go collect that layabout man of mine."

Wash must have been on his way already, because it was only seconds before they returned on each others arm. He still had a nice collection of bruises, the usual souvenirs of civilised Alliance law. "It's always nice when the food actually is food," he said chirpily, sniffing the air as he and his wife sat down.

"Just waiting for Inara now," said Book, looking like he was itching to be dishing the food out onto plates.

"I'm thinking Inara can take her chances," Jayne said. "Rest of us 're hungry, and she obviously ain't all that much."

"Yeah," Wash agreed, rubbing his hands together.

"Oh, we're not starting without her," Kaylee said, starting to rise. "I'll go make sure she knows - "

"No need." Reynolds waved her back down, and addressed the door. "Glad you could finally make it."

"Mal," the companion in the doorway acknowledged with a small smile, and Badger swallowed hard at the sight of the red dress she was wearing. She carried a chair, clearly having the presence of mind to realise they were one extra. She set it at the foot of the table, opposite the captain, and composed herself decorously within it.

"Well, since everyone's here..." The preacher began laying down the loaded plates, Jayne stealing tidbits from everyone else's 'til he got his own, and even after, oblivious to Wash taking from his while he did so.

Book lay the last plate in front of the final empty chair, and sank down himself behind it to complete the table, curtailing the dining for a brief silent grace - which, since the captain ignored, Badger did too.

"Don't go leavin'," Mal said loudly as breakfast was drawing to a close. "Got some talking to be done." He quieted again, unworried by the lack of acknowledgement, and waited until those last few still eating had finished and Jayne had stopped pinching leftovers, then finally until Kaylee cleared all the distractsome clutter from the table.

The thought of ousting Badger from the gathering did strike, for all of a second, before he discarded it as all kinds of impractical in the actual enforcing; plus, if all this worked out all right, they might want to be keeping doing business with the man, and treating him like a prisoner 'stead of - albeit some stretch of the imagination - temporary crew, didn't seem the way to go about keeping that possibility open.

Spreading his arms out and planting both hands at the corners of the narrow table, he said, "Guess you all know by now I got me some troublesome sort or hangover from that hit I took on Persephone. Zoe and the doctor and me, been doing some figuring, trying to pin down our options... with a little help from the preacher, there." He included Book in the tally with a nod. The theme was old and familiar enough by now there wasn't even anything of irony left in the gesture. "What we're gonna do is throw it open, let you all know what we've got and see if we can't come up with some improvement with all our heads working together... Simon? Zoe?"

Zoe stood, and briefly detoured across to the small table for all their charts and information. She brought them back to the main table and didn't sit again once she'd placed them down, even though it wasn't her turn for speaking.

"The device that was used on the captain apparently caused damage that will, in the absence of surgical intervention, have an irreparable impairment of balance and coordination," Simon began.

"What?" Kaylee interrupted with a small gasp. "No - " He saw her look around, and saw with her the grimness of the crew, but no special surprise among the faces present. Ever the optimist among their number, he wouldn't change her, but he sighed as she chewed her lip and asked, "But it's fixable, right, Simon? You can fix it."

"It's fixable - "

Jayne interrupted, an interested gleam in his eye and a snort in his voice as the tension broke, not giving Simon chance to finish. "Well, then. What in hell was that thing they hit him with anyhow, doc? I ain't never seen any kind of weapon like that before, not anywhere, and I sure - " He faltered, glanced between Simon and Mal and caught onto the fact that the prevailing mood was hardly yet celebratory, and added a recalcitrant, "What'd it do to him?"

Simon ground his teeth with impatience, but it was surely a valid question, and he gave in as he saw near everyone present had responded to it with interest. "My best guess is that the weapon projects a sonic beam - a vibration that would swell the blood vessels in the body, causing multiple aneurysms. The blood we saw was from ruptured capillaries... not anything to be concerned about in itself, given the brevity of the captain's exposure..."

"So what's wrong with him?" Jayne demanded impatiently. "Man can't stand up without falling over, I'd say we got ourselves something to be concerned - "

"The inner ear," Simon overrode him irritably. "You have a system of fragile organs extremely sensitive to vibration, all of which is tied into the human body's sense of balance. Any damage to that system and you have a problem. In the captain's case, the vibrations appear to have destroyed the statoconia in the inner ear - pebbles of calcium carbonate that react to movement and essentially provide the body with its sense of space. Balance is nonexistent without them, and they will not re-form spontaneously."

He looked around them all and continued, "What the captain needs is a good Alliance hospital with decent supplies and facilities to treat this to a satisfactory level. Unfortunately, he's not going to get it, certainly not anytime soon. The damage of the sonic weapon is... distinctive. As recognisable as a gunshot, in its own way, and gunshots in Alliance hospitals are going to do more than just arouse suspicion. We can't do this openly - even supposing we could find some way to pay for the treatment in the first place."

"Well, hey, you know," Wash said, waving a hand in easy relief. "Breaking into Alliance hospitals... wacky hijinks. Been there, done that, right? You know what you're doing, doctor."

Zoe's eyes slid aside and her fingers compressed her husband's shoulder slightly.

"Of course, it's not that simple..." he backtracked, face falling.

Simon cleared his throat, and said apologetically, "This isn't like Ariel. This is a procedure, not a scan. A relatively simple procedure in comparison with any surgical means I might ever have to use to help River - " he looked down " - but this isn't a snatch-and-grab. The captain needs proper care and treatment. The procedure itself cannot be rushed, and requires specialist equipment and preparations that take time to set up. Time, too, for recovery afterward. One solar day would be pushing the boundaries of the impossible. Two, perhaps. It certainly isn't something we're going to be able to accomplish in an operation of the kind we undertook on Ariel."

"Therein lies the problem," said Zoe. She reached over Wash's shoulder to spread the charts out for clearer view on the table, and he moved to help, which made it one pair of hands working between them, discounting the ones they had held together, Wash having clasped hers where it rested on his shoulder. "Viable locations, most of them Alliance hospitals, on each of the marked planets. Now, unless someone among us knows something that might give us an inside or some other extra edge, or can offer any other ideas, we'll have to start looking at each one and trying to pin down our best chance."

"Maybe have a better chance with the private ones," Jayne said. "Didn't much like the security on Ariel for the gorram quick little job."

Mal gave him a sharp glance, and it didn't escape him that Simon did too. He stored the fact for later.

"The truth is, it doesn't make a lot of practical difference," Simon said. "The Alliance has eyes everywhere. The private hospitals are probably, if anything, under more pressure to report anything unusual, even if the symptoms aren't flagged up automatically under a security alert on their systems. The broader damage under even a hand scanner is obviously unique... it would be reported."

"Some mighty smart black market sawbones out there," Jayne said, determined not to be beat.

"And if we tried to cross 'em, we'd all end up as organ parts in a dozen different of their paying customers," Mal said firmly. "Going up against the Alliance is bad enough, but that's another kettle of fish entirely." He ignored Badger, in the background, rolling his eyes.

There was a short stretch of silence of people thinking. Into it, Inara said slowly, "It doesn't have to be, strictly speaking, a public hospital. There are other types of facilities that could provide what we need, that aren't dedicated to medical care alone."

"Military, for example," Book said, backing her up.

"If we were insane," Wash said, a startled Jayne nodding along with him.

"No..." Simon rubbed fingers across closed eyes. "They have something here. Training academies, perhaps. And - " He paused, and looked at Kaylee, who was hovering on the edge of talk.

"Research," she said.

At the end of the table, Inara's face stretched in a silent smile. Mal frowned at her, thinking she'd seemed mighty spry ever since walking in, compared to the rest of the times he'd seen her since their quick exit from Persephone. Thinking, in fact, that she'd had that suggestion in mind long before either Simon or Kaylee had voiced it.

"Well," he said, smiling a mite more grimly himself. "Why don't you tell us all whatever it is you're dyin' to share. Research, huh?"

The others looked at him and, startled, followed the direction of his gaze 'til Inara was a veritable centre of attention.

"It's a possibility," she said. "I've been trying to track down an old friend. He's a medical research scientist. And he was a client... a regular client... for a long time, back on Sihnon. I haven't seen him since he relocated to a major research centre out on Riarden."

"Riarden?" Wash prompted, curious. "I never heard of it."

Inara gave an almost imperceptible sigh. "It's a moon, on the outer edge of the core. It used to be extremely well known."

Jayne snapped his fingers, looking excessively smug. "Riarden. Knew I knew that gorram name," he said to the sea of blank faces. "Used to be real big shit, back in the time of the first colonies, 'til it all got used up."

"That's right." Inara's agreement had a certain astounded air. "It's an old mining colony... the original mining colony, in fact. Now it's a cluster of scientific facilities and businesses that need a base in the core but can't afford a location on the central planets. When Hoyle left Sihnon, it was looked upon as very much a step down."

"Much like yourself taking a berth on a nowhere boat sneaking contraband around the rim," Mal remarked gruffly, ducking his head.

" - but it was what he wanted to do," she added, hard.

"Look." Awkwardly, Mal tried to meet her eye and ended up skittering between that steadily more annoyed gaze and the charts on the table. "There's no call for you to involve yourself in this, Inara. We've not yet exhausted the options. Things ain't so critical we'd be needing to drag you into any illegality."

"He's on their board of directors, Mal, as well as being maybe their most senior researcher. He can help us. And I trust him. It's better than anything else you'll come up with."

"I don't want you involved in this."

"And what if I want to be involved in this?" She came to her feet, the chair scratching back. His automatic impulse to match her almost landed him on the floor. She gestured, something faintly desperate and helpless in that elegant lift of her hand. "Mal. Do you want to stay like this?"

"I said no." He turned to Zoe, pointedly ignoring Inara, still standing. "I like that academy idea. Host of dumb rich kids sounds a better option than Alliance security." He glanced at Simon, who reluctantly nodded, a twist to his mouth at the indirect slur. "Lets take a look at the options. See if we can't come up with something doesn't involve an inside man." He looked back at Zoe, whose eyes slid dubiously to Inara. "Zoe!"

"Yes, sir." A hard note to that acknowledgement told him he was probably catching hell next time she got him alone - but not in front of the crew, not here.

There was an angry swish of cloth as Inara turned and left the room.

"Nice job," Kaylee told him sourly, and shoved back her chair to follow.

"Hell." Mal stared after them both as Zoe blandly rustled the charts in her too-focused study of them, and everyone else, bar Badger, at least made the attempt not to look as though their attention was upon him.

She was talking quietly with Kaylee about none of the things uppermost in her thoughts when she heard a small sound from the door and looked up to see Mal there, supported on Simon's arm. From what she could gather, the sound that had alerted her was Mal shaking his head and indicating to go straight in when Simon made to knock.

"What is it, Mal?" she asked impatiently, unhappily aware that his current condition necessitated that she wouldn't for once be able to throw him out of her shuttle when he became excessively annoying.

"Need to talk." Simon lowered him onto the settee, not looking entirely comfortable with it all, and hesitated indecisively when Mal said, "Go get some sleep, doctor. You sure as hell need it by now if you didn't before."

Kaylee looked askance at Inara, who responded with a weary nod, then stood and took the doctor's arm on her way out. "C'mon, Simon. You look 'bout ready to drop of exhaustion. Mean old cap'n been wearing you out, I'll bet..."

When they were gone, Inara looked across at Mal and folded her hands together unapproachably in her lap. "I don't appreciate being treated like a child, Mal. I don't need your protection. Believe it or not, I happen not to be completely helpless or innocent of the big bad world, and I can function in it and make my own decisions just as capably as anyone."

"Never said you couldn't." He shifted on the settee, and she wondered if he was getting tired of sitting. Her consistent impression of him was always of force and movement, action and reaction. There weren't too many times she could call to mind of him still. "Inara, you may trust this man, but that ain't the same as asking someone to break the law."

"Asking him to help someone, Mal. To help my... friend, if that's even remotely the word." She gauged her tone, letting him hear her aggravation. "I know him. He'll do it. It's why he is what he is."

"I'm not happy with any plan involves placing you in the front line."

"And I'm not happy with the way you seem to think that's for you to choose. This may be your ship, but I don't work for you, I don't sleep with you - I don't even rent from you now. You don't have any kind of hold on my decisions."

"That's kind of what I'm talking about," he said agitatedly. "You can't - "

"Would you have let me help you on Icarus, if you'd known it in advance?" she asked sharply. "Or would you have thrown that back in my face as well?"

He laughed a little bitterly. "On Icarus? I'd have taken any thread as offered itself. You didn't see me then. This isn't that bad."

She blinked back moisture defiantly, and tried not to crush her fingers in her own grip. "How can you say that?"

Mal tried to lean forward, sincerity on his face, but screwed-up balance held him back. "Because it's true. Even if it turns out there's nothing can be done to fix this... if this is all we end up paying, after what we scraped through down there, then we're still luckier than any of us got any right to be. We took on the Alliance in the next best thing to all-out warfare - "

"And you'd know about that, wouldn't you?"

"By rights we should be dead or caught," he said bluntly. "Anything upwards of that is a bonus. We didn't lose anybody, Inara. We didn't incur any losses we can't live with."

"But you don't need to live with it! Mal, this is senseless. I'm so tired of fighting this battle. It never seems to end! I lay down bridges, you push them aside. If I don't, you'll beat yourself bloody against the battlements. Like it or not, I am a part of this ship. Let me be a part of this ship." She rose, but realised quickly that towering above him while they argued only made her feel awkward, and seated herself back down nearer him as though it had been her intention.

"I have power, Mal. Maybe it isn't like yours, all guns blazing, but it exists, and I'm willing and ready to bring it to bear - for the good of the ship. For you. For all of them... how will they feel if you let this stick? A crippled captain can't be good for morale."

He winced. "Let's be avoiding the use of that word, for the time being... So let's say you did help. What then? Where does it end? Whole heap of rich clients you got the lowdown on, f'r instance. A line has to be drawn somewhere, Inara. I'm drawing it."

She slapped him. "I can't believe you're this thick-headed. How much unnecessary risk will you put this crew to, to spare me? I know what you think of my profession. Why does it offend you so much to think of me coming down to your level? Their level." She cast her hand toward the door. "Damn it, Mal, Kaylee works on your heists."

"They chose this life."

"So did I!"

He belatedly raised a hand to his face, touched where she'd slapped him and frowned at his fingers vaguely. "I'm not paying you for thieving and smuggling, Inara. I'm not paying you at all! Hell, you've paid me... you keep paying... I already owe you too much."

Inara quickly drew in breath, as he faltered and his eyes turned down. "Is that what this is really about?"

"No, it's... I guess maybe it's a..."

"I suppose accepting help from me damages your masculine pride," she remarked scathingly.

"No! That's not - don't turn this around. You know I'll take what I have to, for all I don't like being beholden. But you - it ain't right, is all." He reached for her, but she'd moved back enough that his hand fell inches short. His fingers sketched along the line of her cheek. She felt a lump in her throat.

"Let me help you," she said softly, raising her own hand to clasp his. His fingers felt solid, rough and callused and utterly unlike the many others she'd had more frequent and intimate contact with. "I want to help you... For all the things I can't afford to give."