Bed and Wine: Part 1

By Kaynara

It's Joss's verse--I just borrow it. And if any of you know the Joss-God and want to put in a good word for me--well that'd be gorram shiny! Leave feedback

---

When it was done, when the lot of them lay dead on the metal grating, Gideon led her to the tiny bathroom. He held her slender hand beneath the warm spray--powerful hand, bringer of darkness--and cleansed gently, washing away the blood. After, he lifted her hand to his face, blew softly on the torn knuckles. Warm breath. It stung a little, made her tingle in places.

"Ready?" he asked.

River nodded, following him past the pile of bodies: eight this time, a good gainful attack. Gideon spoke into his recorder, noting the ship's ident code, the number of kills. A blond-haired, blue-eyed angel of death. River fingered her own dark locks, chopped off to end above the shoulders. When she'd done it, cut it herself, she'd thought of Inara, pictured that beautiful face despairing. Inara had loved River's hair, the straight shiny length of it, having always disliked her own curls. She'd be sad if she knew. But then, Inara was always sad now.

River waited for Gideon to finish speaking and led him back to their ship. There was more to be done this day.

---

Late at night, when his eyes ached from pourin' over news 'ports from the cortex, when he couldn't trust himself to read anymore lest he miss somethin' crucial, Mal lay down alone in his bunk. How had he, in such a short time, grown accustomed to sleeping beside her? One hundred pounds sopping wet--how was it she soothed him, lulled him to dreamless rest? His body still ached for her. He concentrated on the physical need--gorammit, if it wasn't easier than thinkin' on the other parts of him hurtin' for her.

---

This was the first one in more 'n a week. She told Simon that as he stroked her back, brushed wet hair out of her face and smoothed it back behind her ears.

"I can give you something to help you sleep," he offered.

She shook her head. This, the dreaming, was her penance. Wasn't right, takin' a life, and this was her brain's way of tellin' her as much.

"Don't much like shots," she said by way of explanation.

Simon smiled.

"I can be gentle." He kissed her temple. "And after I can kiss it till it's better."

"You know, Dr. Tam, there's alternative ways of medicatin'."

She always wanted him after, wanted to make love. And, guiltily, he usually complied. He'd tried a few times to get her to talk about it, talk about her dreams, but she always shrugged, said she'd much rather communicate with body-language. Then she'd snuggle on top of him, start rubbing up and down. And he was a goner.

He couldn't deny her anything, hadn't the desire to try.

She never dreamed after they made love.

By the time he collapsed on top of her, she was too tired for talk, for nightmares. She cuddled close to his chest and fell into serene sleep.

She wore her best dress the next morning, and by best she meant only. A sweet, baby-doll number with a flower print not quite as bright as when she bought it. Still, it was sunny and cheerful, perfect for April: her birth month. Course back where Kaylee was born, April tended to be brisk, rainy. She'd never been to Sihnon and was excited to see the light, lush city of Inara's descriptions. She was excited to see Inara. The pain of missing her was like a physical ache. She'd even washed her face for the reunion.

Tucking the last pins in her hair, Kaylee hurried down to the cargo bay, where she knew Mal and Simon to be. They were always in the cargo bay lately. Kaylee strolled in just in time to see Mal take a fist to the jaw, stumble back, wincing.

"Tzao gao! Ow!" Mal rubbed the side of his face.

"Sorry," Simon apologized, cringing. After all this time he still had the urge to run and get an ice pack, check the captain for signs of concussion.

"You know, doctor, I'm startin' to regret educatin' you so good."

Kaylee rolled her eyes, tired of this. Ever since River had...well, Simon seemed to determined to learn to fight. Kaylee had begged Mal to do it, not quite trusting Jayne.

"I'm sorry...are you askin' me to beat on your boyfriend?"

"C'mon, Cap'n...please?" She fluttered her lashes, knowing Inara'd be proud.

"You know, Lil Kaylee, one o' these days I'm surely gonna learn to say no to you."

"But not today?"

Mal had just rolled his eyes.

Now Simon and the cap'n spent most mornings down here, beating the go suh out of each other. They both seemed to enjoy it on some level, despite the frequent fat lips and blackened eyes at breakfast. Kaylee cleared her throat, causing both men to turn. She'd rehearsed this part and wanted to get it right.

"I'm goin' to see Nara whilst you're out on the job. I'm takin' the shuttle, and you can go to Hell if you don't like it." Kaylee shrugged, offered Mal and Simon a reluctant smile. "You boys be careful out there today."

---

Kaylee dropped Mal, Simon, Zoe and Jayne near the rendezvous point. "Kaylee? You be back here at the scheduled time, no matter how much fun the nail paintin' and pillow fightin' is, you hear?"

Kaylee stuck out her tongue before turning the shuttle toward the city.

Mal watched her take off, told himself he absolutely didn't wish he were goin' with her.

"Cap'n? We gonna do this thing or just stand 'round lookin' stupid?"

Mal slapped Jayne on the back, hard enough to make the bigger man wince.

"Let's go be crooks."

---

Zoe was feelin' a mite antsy to get back to the ship. Nothin' especial, just a general feeling of this-ain't-rightness. She glanced across the street to the warehouse where the others were.

"Prolly best you wait out here, Zoe," Mal had advised. "You know how funny these local boys can get when a woman's 'round."

It was an excuse but she let him get away with it. They were only makin' a trade, just givin' over some ship parts they'd scavenged in exchange for credit, maybe some information. Captain thought these boys, some of 'em Browncoats, might know something. These days, Mal was willing to take any job in the 'verse, if there was the slightest chance of it yielding a lead. Had anyone seen a small girl with long dark hair? Could anyone give them a clue? Regardless, this job should go smooth enough. Still, meetin' shoulda been over by now.

Something was feelin' all sorts of wrong. 'Haps it was the skirt. She surely wasn't used to wearin' one. She wasn't at all sure she liked it. The captain bought them for her, three or four when he'd seen her pants weren't fittin' no longer. Disconcerting as it was havin' the captain buy her clothes--skirts of all things--she hadn't wanted to hurt his feelings. And truthfully, she didn't have much choice in the matter.

Eight and a half months: the time was coming. Sometimes, lyin' in bed nights, she missed Wash almost more than she could stand. She wanted more 'n anything for Wash to hold their little girl, to see the baby in his arms, cradled against his chest. If she closed her eyes, squeezed 'em tight, she could almost see her Baby holdin' her baby, his blue eyes wide, his grinning lips dipping down to kiss the tiny palm.

"Hell, Zo," he'd say. "Good work."

"You're not scared anymore?" she'd ask. "Not worried about havin' a baby, life we lead?"

"Me, worry? Now you're talkin' crazy, sweetie. Somehow I think a daughter of yours can take care of herself. Run away boys, this one's a man-eater."

Zoe smiled, lost in her reverie. She jerked to attention as Mal burst through the door, gun drawn. Jayne was close on his heels, Simon's slack form slung over his shoulder. Oh, go suh, what the hell kinda trouble had those boys gotten themselves into?Then she felt a wicked pain tear through her insides. Oh, go suh.

---

"Calling Kaylee." Mal held the 'com up to his face. "Kaylee, get your ass back here."

"What's up, Cap'n?"

"Well, Lil' Kaylee." Mal loaded his gun, glanced around the corner and ducked back down. "We're leavin' this world a mite earlier than scheduled. Job went somewhat southerly. Your boyfriend's feelin' a little lightheaded and our contacts seem to have skipped town, leavin' some very unpleasant folk in their place."

"Hell, Mal, thinkin' our boys was drove out by the unpleasant folk."

"Ain't interested in technicalities, Jayne. Either way, don't seem we're gettin' paid today. How close are you, Kaylee?"

"I'm lockin' in your coordinates now. Ten minutes maybe?"

"Might wanna hurry a bit. These boys seem kinda tetchy."

"And Zoe's having the baby," Zoe added.

"And Zoe's havin' the--" Mal dropped the 'com. "Wait, what?"

---

Jayne lay Simon out on the floor of the shuttle, pulled the doors closed behind him just before a stream of bullets hit them like hail.

"They're on, go!" Mal yelled up to Kaylee. A little awkwardly, he patted Zoe's hand, fast deciding that was the only part of her he could legitimately touch. "You just hold on now, we'll be back to Serenity in no time at all."

Zoe nodded, bit down on her lip.

Mal left her, stumbling as Kaylee lifted the shuttle in a shaky takeoff. He bent over the doctor.

"Well?"

"He's breathin'," Jayne said helpfully.

"That's real shiny. Now wake him the hell up!"

Jayne frowned, nudged the doctor with his toe.

"Don't think he's gettin' up any time soon, Mal."

Mal cleared his throat, eyed Zoe with a sideways glance.

"I, uh. Don't 'spose you've ever...?"

Jayne's eyes went wide, realizing where the captain was going with this.

"Hell, don't look at me!"

The shuttle dipped dangerously, sending both men careening to the side. They grabbed at the walls to stay upright.

"Kaylee!" Mal shouted. "Fly less lousy."

"I'm tryin', Cap'n, but I'm no expert at flyin' one of these on a good day, let alone when she's damaged. Remember the part where you only hired me to be mechanic?"

Again, they shook, tilted nearly vertical. Mal felt his stomach roll and wondered whether he'd be sick.

"Kaylee! I'm gonna throttle that girl," he muttered to Jayne, who looked more than a little queasy his own self.

"Okay!" Kaylee called back, relief in her voice. "I think I see a place to take her down for a landing."

"Serenity!" Mal shouted. "I wanna land on Serenity."

"Serenity's parked kilometers away and we got wing damage on account o'the gettin' shot at. Think they mighta hit the engine too."

Mal looked at Zoe, started to feel nauseous again. Now they were without a doctor and without an infirmary. Shiny.

"Jayne, you wake him the hell up, and that's an order."

"How my 'sposed to do that, Mal?"

"Don't much care if you do it with kisses. Lest you want a crash course in gynecology, I'm thinkin' you'll find a way." The last he muttered under his breath. Jayne rolled his eyes but started swatting at the doctor's cheeks.

Mal staggered into the cockpit as Kaylee bounced them down for a landing in what appeared to be a pile of mud. The engine made a sound like a whimper, moaned and died. Mal righted himself, preparing to yell at her, but Kaylee was already unbuckling her safety restraints, cooing and caressing the walls of the shuttle.

"Oh, my poor baby," Kaylee murmured, stroking. "Mama's so sorry for hurtin' her honey."

Mal sighed.

"Kaylee? I'm thinkin' another mama and baby are havin' to take precedence over my boat, which you will be fixin' by the way, soon as this is over."

Kaylee rolled her eyes and slipped past Mal to where Simon was, knelt beside him.

"Poor thing's really gonna have a goose egg," she murmured, stroking back his hair. "Shame that brick fell on his head 'fore the fightin' started, after all the work he went to learnin' to hit folk."

"I'm cryin' on the inside," Mal muttered.

"You got any, uh, special ways o' wakin' the boy up?" Jayne asked wickedly.

Kaylee grinned.

Mal groaned.

"Don't answer that." He threw open the shuttle doors, squinted out into the sunlight. "Looks like there's some sorta edifice a few hundred meters out. Say we head for that."

Jayne lifted Simon, tossed him over his shoulder.

"Don't matter none, Cap'n. You know what you gotta do."

"What the hell you ramblin 'bout, Jayne?" Mal muttered. He motioned for Kaylee to help him move Zoe.

"You know who you gotta be wavin' right now."

"I hope you're not suggestin' what I think you're suggestin'."

"Bet Inara knows where we can find a medic, 'haps even an actual hospital."

"She ain't at Ginny's," Kaylee said before Mal could explode. "She ain't there no more. Left her friend's house more 'n a month ago, picked up and moved outta the city."

"Did you, uh, did you see her?" Mal asked casually. They were almost to the structure--a gorram barn. Couldn't be a nice house with beds and the like. He glanced down at Zoe, amazed at her stoicism. Long as he'd known her, woman had redefined the word endurance.

"No. She was workin', teachin'. That's what she's up to now." Kaylee rubbed Zoe's back lightly, feeling cruelly pleased at the way Mal was listening but pretendin' not to be, all wide eyes and bated breath.

Now he turned to her, artifice forgotten.

"She's teachin' whorin' school?"

It wasn't a joke; he sounded hurt.

Softening, she sighed.

"No, Cap'n. She's teachin' dance." Ballet and ballroom, all manner of pretty. "Her mama used to be the best there was, Nara knows 'nough to get by."

"Oh. Well. Good for her." Mal cleared his throat, lifted Zoe to carry her the last few steps into the barn. "Jayne why don't you see if you can't find the farmhouse; I figure there must be one nearby. See what they gots in the way of supplies. Kaylee, why don't you help me make Zoe comfortable over here? Let's move, people."

---

Inara demonstrated the step once more, slow and deliberate so the others could master it. She hid a smile as her partner's hands trembled against her waist, his palms wet through her pink unitard.

"That was lovely, Caleb."

The boy, no more than fourteen, blushed at the praise.

"Now, I want you all to try it out in our last few moments. Good work today, boys and girls."

Pleased with them, she moved aside to watch, balancing against the bar.

The door opened, revealing a man silhouetted against the just-setting sun. He stepped out of the light, revealing himself.

He held a hand up to his eyes, scanned the studio.

"Mandy, get yourself out front, your mama's waitin' on ya," he called.

Seven year old Mandy trotted toward the door, hurrying into her shoes.

"Comin', Daddy." She reached up to touch Inara's wrist. Inara knelt to the girl's level.

"I'm real glad you're our teacher now, Miss Serra."

Inara smiled, grateful she'd had an education in masking her emotions. Quite often it proved an invaluable skill in any trade.

"I'm glad for that too, Mandy. Run along now with your father, I'll see you next week."

"You best be gettin' home too, Dancin' Lady." The father lingered, watching the young couples still scattered across the dance floor, laughing, playing now that the lesson was through.

Amused, Inara raised a brow.

"Oh?"

"Didn't ya hear 'bout the curfew? They decided at the meetin' last night, half the town was there."

"I mostly keep to myself, Mr. Barnes. What's this about a curfew?"

"On account o' the damned Independents. Gorram Browncoat hwoon dans." The man made a move to spit on the floor, glanced at Inara and changed his mind. "Word is a faction of 'em is risin' in these parts, preyin' on folk that's fool enough to believe that bun tyen shung recording, 'scuse my language, ma'am."

"Of course," Inara murmured.

"Anyhow, our sources say they's been meetin' nights, in secret, down at the old Tucker farm. We surely ain't gonna allow no traitors in our fine township. You understand, miss, we worry especially for the kids. No son nor daughter o' mine gonna be goin' 'round with Independent scum. Rather see 'em swingin' from a tree branch on town common than wearin' a long brown coat."

Inara met the man's eyes, forcing her own to appear composed, appropriately concerned.

"I understand, Mr. Barnes. Now, if you'll be kind enough to excuse me, I should see to my students."

"Oh, 'course, sure." He hesitated at the door, gaze sweeping uncomfortably over her dipping scoop neck, the long flowing skirt that swirled around her legs. "My Mandy really loves you to bits, you know."

"She's a sweet girl, talented. No matter how long I stay, you should see that she keeps up her dancing. She could go far."

"Well, hopefully you won't be goin' nowhere soon, Dancin' Lady. You're just the sorta classy, law-abidin' lady a town like ours needs."

---

"Help me raise her skirt, Captain."

Mal looked at Simon as though the good doctor had lost a few brain cells with that clunk to the head.

"Never mind." Simon blinked in an attempt to clear his vision, which was still kind of swimming. "You go stand by her head. Kaylee? A hand?"

Jayne strode in with a laundry basket full of supplies. He glanced down at the scene on the ground, dropped the basket and threw up a hand to cover his eyes.

"Dear God, it's horrible!"

"Just give me the blankets," Simon told him, rolling his eyes.

"Hell, they should vid this and show it to teenagers." Jayne scooted around to stand by Mal, out of view of the action.

"Should show it to that one," Mal muttered, nodding his head at Kaylee.

"What'd you say, Cap'n?" she demanded.

"Hmm? Nothin'. Doc, what else you need?"

"Oh, I don't know, a CAT scan?" He rolled his neck, trying to ease out the kinks. "Was anyone home up at the house?"

"Nope, place was deserted, look like they left in somethin' of a hurry too. Think I nicked some shiny trinkets though."

"Jayne!" Mal held up the bottle of whiskey. "I don't think this is what Zoe's needin' just now!"

"Hell, Mal. That's for us."

Simon timed Zoe's pulse against his watch, stood up.

"You're doing great, Zoe."

"How much"--she gritted her teeth--"longer."

"Oh, could be a few hours. The first baby tends to come more slowly. I think my mother was in labor for almost a whole day-ow!" Kaylee pinched his arm none too lightly. He noticed Zoe's stricken expression.

"I'm sure it won't be that long, honey," Kaylee said gently, patting Zoe's knee.

"No, no, I'm sure it won't because--it won't." He stood, squeezing Kaylee's shoulder. "Mal, could I, uh, see you in private for a moment?"

"Sure, Doc." Mal tread gingerly, careful not to go anywhere near Zoe's legs. "What's the problem?"

"Well, I'm tired and hungry and my head hurts and, oh yeah, I'm delivering a baby in a gorram barn!"

"And doin' a fine job of it, may I say," Mal offered, cringing as Zoe let out a moan.

"I have my medical bag, whatever Jayne stole from those farmers. And a ship's captain, mercenary and mechanic to assist as I deliver my second baby ever." He watched Jayne take a swig of the liquor, pass it to Kaylee who hesitated before doing the same. "I think you should wave Inara."

"I'm sorry, when'd she get her medical degree? Did I miss that?"

"Mal, she's been here a couple months. It's possible she knows another doctor, someone with proper supplies. And no offense, but she might be more useful than the rest of you. She did help me do this once before."

Mal cleared his throat.

"Doctor."

"Yes, Mal?"

I don't wanna. That's what he felt like sayin'. He watched Kaylee use her sleeve to blot Zoe's forehead, sighed.

"Jayne, you and me takin' a walk up to the farmhouse. Gonna call for reinforcements."

---

"You're...in a barn? And Zoe's having her baby?" Inara looked confused, then amused, then concerned in turn.

"Just get over here. I mean, if you ain't otherwise engaged."

She lifted her chin, met his eyes on the screen. He felt the rush of lust to his belly, hard enough to make him groan.

"I'll have to borrow a rider, it might take a little while."

"Well, we'd be much obliged."

"Of course. Tell Zoe I'm on my way."

Mal turned off the screen and sighed.

---

"Inara!" Kaylee glanced over, not quite believing. She squeezed Zoe's hand, even though the woman seemed to be asleep for the moment, raced over and flung herself into Inara's arms. "Oh, I missed you so much!"

"I missed you too, mei mei," Inara murmured, clinging gratefully. She released Kaylee and walked over to Mal.

"Hello, Mal," she said cooly.

"Inara. Mighty good of you to help us out."

She handed the bag she brought to Simon, who began ciphering through the supplies.

"Mal, there's sort of a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"The kind where a bunch of men with guns come to kill you."

Mal sighed and glanced at Zoe, turned quickly when he saw the doctor was examining her.

"You'd think I'd be used to that particular problem by now."

"They saw Serenity land this morning. They think you're part of the Independent rebellion that's been rising here. I suppose they aren't wrong, exactly."

"The hell they ain't. I ain't leadin' no uprisings, ain't fightin' no gorram war. Just givin' some ship parts to some local boys. And by givin' I mean sellin'. Can't you just tell them that?"

"They're comin' to burn the farmhouse. That's where the Independents had been gathering. A few of the loyalists flew over here this afternoon, saw the remains of my shuttle near the abandoned barn."

"My shuttle."

Inara shook her head. "You certainly have a way of being in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time."

"Guess I'm just gifted that way. How soon 'fore they get here?"

"They were leaving town as soon as it was dark." She glanced out at the night sky.

"This is not my favorite day ever," Mal muttered. "Okay, people. Here's the plan. Jayne, you and Inara take her rider to get Serenity. She knows this rock better 'n us. Try to get my boat back here in one piece."

Inara nodded and rose, not yet realizing she was doing it again. Taking orders from Mal, being one of his crew. She'd realize it later that evening. Then she'd feel like screaming.

"Okay, Doc." Mal moved over to Zoe like a man on his way to the gallows. "Let's the four of us do this thing."

---

"Okay, Zoe. You're doing great." Simon smiled encouragingly. "It won't be long now."

"Said that an hour ago, Doctor," Zoe murmured, teeth gritted.

"Want me to hurt him for you," Mal offered. "Really, I don't mind, wouldn't be no trouble."

She smiled faintly.

"Can hurt him myself, sir." Anyway, it wasn't the doctor's fault. Of course Wash's baby would be as obstinate as her daddy. Man could be stubborn, determined as anything in the 'verse. He surely was with her, creeping up on her, stealing his way closer each day, slipping past all her carefully-crafted barriers. He'd made her laugh, and she'd been lost.

"It's almost time to push, Zoe."

Oh, ai yah tyen ah. Mal squeezed Zoe's hand reassuringly, noticed Kaylee was doing the same on her other side.

Zoe was slipping away. A part of her stayed in the room, eyes on the doctor kneeling between her legs. That was all manner of awkward. But Zoe no longer minded, no longer felt the pain. She was going someplace that was elsewhere.

The doctors instructions, Kaylee's words of encouragement--all of it faded. She was on a beach, the stars pressing down on her like pin pricks of light in an ocean of black velvet. At her feet, the surf crashing soothingly. She watched it ebb and swell for a long time, patient, waiting for him.

He came from the water, though his clothes weren't wet. His pants were rolled up to the knees, his feet bare. She didn't run to him, just watched him approach.

"Hey, Zo." He sat beside her in the sand and took her fingers in his. Together they watched the waves.

"I miss you, Husband," she said finally. No tears now, just truth. "It ain't fair."

"Yup, nothin' fair about any of this."

"I'm sorry."

"Oh, Zo." He took her face in his hand and kissed her, his mouth soft and insistent, coaxing her lips apart. "Now you sound like the captain. Mal prolly thinks he's responsible for the rain."

"If only it'd gone down different, if only I'd seen it comin', pulled you outta that chair sooner."

"If only I'd taken a job on another heap of go suh. If only I weren't attracted to amazon women with legs like a goddess." Wash grinned, recalling those glorious thighs wrapped around his head, pressing his ears as he rocked her world. "You really wanna go down that road, Zo? I don't."

"I want our daughter to know her daddy."

"Zoe." He looked surprised, amused at her. "She will. I know you'll make sure of that."

"You're leavin' me, Husband, aren't you."

"Oh, I'll be around. Gotta keep an eye on my girls."

He kissed her temple, stroked a hand through her hair.

"Wait. Her name. What do you think of-"

"It's perfect, Zo."

And then he was gone, taking the beach and the water and the stars with him. Zoe was back in the barn, holding out her arms for the baby Simon pressed into them.

---

"Cap'n, you smell smoke?"

Mal followed Kaylee outside. Across the fields he could see the gray cloud rising. The farmhouse was on fire.

"Tzao gao, this is about to get all manner of unpleasant."

"Look!" Kaylee shaded her eyes as the lights beamed down on them from above. "They're here. Jayne and Nara, back with Serenity."

Jayne carried Zoe on board, settled her in the infirmary with Simon and went to start the ship. Kaylee followed with the baby.

The men arrived on horseback just as Mal and Inara were carting on the last of the baby supplies she's brought. Ten or twelve strapping lads and all of 'em armed.

They pulled up in front of the ship

"That you, Dancin' Lady? What are you doing with these Browncoat wang ba dan?"

"Gorramit, I let her around my daughter!"

"She's nothin' but an Independent whore! You hear that, Dancin' Lady? You got a lotta nerve comin' here, bringin' Alliance trouble down on me and mine."

"Please." Inara held out her hand. "No one is trying to bring trouble to your town."

"They hell they aren't. These friends o' yours was dealin' with the local rabble rousers, helpin' em build a fleet or some such."

"Oh, please." Mal rolled his eyes. "Parts was only good for two ships tops."

"Mal, why don't you not speak?" Inara suggested. "And really, he's not my friend. More like an old acquaintance Very old."

Mal glared at her a second, turned back to the company.

"Gentleman, I'd advice you to turn those pretty horses 'round and ride out. Elsewise, I'm gonna give my ship leave to fire on ya."

One of the men scoffed.

"Ain't she just a transport ship?"

Mal looked surprised.

"I--she's got guns aplenty, and lest you wanna experience 'em up close and personal, you best be leavin'. I assure you, me and mine'll be doin' the same."

For a moment the men conversed in whispered tones. Finally, the one who seemed to be in charge spoke.

"You come back to these parts and we'll see y'all hanged on town common."

"Thanks a bunch for the hospitality!" Mal called as they rode off in the direction of town. "Mighty fine neighbors you found, Inara."

"They liked me just fine before you decided to visit. You do have quite a way with people."

"Can we talk on this later? I need to sleep for a few hours and blot about a hundred images from my brain."

"I should be going anyway. I have students coming early tomorrow."

Mal raised his brow.

"I'm sorry--you actually thinkin' on stayin' here?"

"I have a life here, Mal. Your amicable nature probably cost me a few pupils, but--"

Mal wasn't smiling any more.

"Inara, no way in the 'verse am I leavin' you here with these people."

"You ordered me off your ship. You no longer have a say in how I conduct my affairs."

"You're not dyin' in this gorram go suh township, you hear?"

"I'm sorry, Mal. I'm a bit confused. I thought you didn't want me dying on your precious ship? Make up your gorram mind!"

"You gonna walk on the boat, or am I gonna have to carry you?"

She shook her head, folded her arms.

"You wouldn't dare."

"Oh, you hear that? She thinks I wouldn't--" He stopped, realizing it was only the two of them. "Get on the damn boat!"

"Make me!" A second after she said it, she regretted it. A second later she was over his shoulder, his hand holding her legs just under her bottom as he stormed on ship, used his free hand to close the airlock.

"Jayne, we're all aboard, take us outta the world!"

He set Inara on her feet, faced her.

She lifted a hand to slap him, changed her mind at the last minute and let it fall to her side.

"You feel like hittin' me?" Mal lifted her hand and brought it up to his face, held it there against his cheek. "Go right ahead. I'm sure I deserve it, darlin'. Prolly worse."

Unwillingly, she met his eyes and for a second he held her there, immobile. Then she removed her hand, took a step back.

"Do me a favor, Mal. Don't touch me again."

Mal watched her ascend the stairs, a cool queen in her leotard and ballet flats.

--

Inara sat on the bed while Kaylee changed out of her ruined sundress. She folded the stained garment and laid it over her chair.

"Oh, well," Kaylee sighed. "Not like I got much call for wearin' pretty things. Doubt we'll be invited to a fancy shindig any time soon."

Inara smiled, patted the bed for Kaylee to sit beside her.

"Maybe we can wash it, mei mei." She'd give Kaylee something of hers if only her entire closet hadn't been abandoned in a little town north of Sihnon. Some of her things were still at Ginny's. Perhaps her friend could ship some items; she'd have to wave her.

"No worries," Kaylee said, noticing Inara's frown. "You just feel free to borrow anything you want. 'Course it'll all be a little big on you--but hey, coveralls 'sposed to be roomy, right? Sure Zoe has some things too, and River...well, all her stuff's still in her room, what there is of it."

"Still no leads?"

Kaylee shrugged, lay down with her head in Inara's lap.

"Oh there's been plenty o' leads. Just that nothin' pans out. Simon and the cap'n was really hopin this time'd be different, that we'd learn somethin' promisin'."

"How is he? Simon..."

Kaylee played absently with Inara's hair, twirling a glossy curl around her finger.

"He's...Simon. Blames himself for not protectin' her."

"That mindset's a common one on this ship."

"Sometimes I think he's becoming every day more and more like..." Kaylee trailed off, met Inara's eyes guiltily. "I love the cap'n to bits, but never did want Simon to be like him."

"Mal's not an easy man," Inara admitted. "Still, I can't see the doctor going down that path."

"He's just so angry, at himself I mean. Oh, he's still sweet as can be with me, still a good doctor, gentle and caring. But underneath, he's so mad. Been takin' fighting lessons from the cap'n, learnin' how to hit and take a punch."

"Oh, my. That sounds...potentially catastrophic." Mal and Simon did tend to antagonize each other.

"Funny, but since they started beatin' on each other, they been gettin' along a little better."

"Men are strange creatures, Kaylee."

"You said it, sister."

Inara smiled.

"Thank you for offering me your room. The shuttle isn't exactly...I hope it isn't too much trouble."

"Are you kiddin', Nara?" Kaylee flung her arms up, engulfed her in a hug. "It's so shiny to have you back, even if the cap'n did basically kidnap you."

"In his own demented way, I'm sure he thinks he was saving me."

"So you two gonna start clawin' at each other again? Fightin' all the time?"

Inara laughed.

"Even when Mal and I were...well, we still fought all the time."

"Well, sure. But didn't that make it hotter? The both of you, all wet and wild, tearin' into each other in the infirmary. Oops!" She clapped a hand over her mouth. "Wasn't 'sposed to say that."

Inara paled slightly.

"How did you...?" She shook her head, rose to change into one of Kaylee's t-shirts for bed. "Some day, when I'm long gone from this ship, promise me you'll say that to Mal."

And she smiled, imagining his ears going red as the ruby she still wore under her clothes.

---

Mal knocked briefly on the door to the infirmary before entering. When he saw she was feeding the baby, he slapped a hand over his eyes.

"Didn't see nothin', backin' outta the room now."

"It's okay, sir; think she's asleep."

Mal gave Zoe ample time to tuck herself back in her shirt, lowered his hand hesitant-like.

"We've seen each other without clothes before, sir."

Bathin' in mountain ponds and forest streams, treating injuries. You couldn't get through a war with someone without knowing 'em inside and out.

"Yeah, but there wasn't a little person attached to you then."

He pulled a chair up to the bed, stroked a hand down the baby's cheek, marveling at the soft gold of her skin.

"You wake her, you take her," Zoe warned. But she was smiling. Mal reckoned he hadn't seen her smile like that, really smile, since before losin' Wash.

He cleared his throat, took Zoe's hand between his. She seemed surprised but didn't take it back.

"You did real good today, Zoe. Real shiny. That husband o' yours woulda been mighty proud." He coughed, slid his gaze to the baby as Zoe's eyes filled. "You think of a name for this little darlin' yet? 'Cuz I got some good ideas."

"She's called Raven," Zoe said before he could suggest any.

"Raven, huh?" Mal stroked the smooth cap of black hair, trailed a finger over a tiny ear. "Guess that's a fitting name for a girl whose daddy flew with the birds."

"Guess it is, sir."

They sat there a long time, watching Raven sleep.

---