Rock and a Hard Place

Part I—The Announcement

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters, but I love to play with 'em.

Rating: PG

Author's Note: This story takes place a few weeks after the events of "The Little Things."

Summary: Mal and River face early pregnancy woes, and Inara prepares to set up shop.

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River leaned her head pitifully against Mal's thigh, weakened by the violent purging of her stomach contents. Mal leaned down to pull her long hair back and wipe her clammy brow with a cool, wet cloth. "Maybehaps we should check with Simon again, darlin'," he said gently. "You're lookin' mighty pale to me."

River shook her head, instantly regretting the motion as another wave of nausea threatened to rid her of her last bit of sustenance. She stilled for a moment, then carefully got up from her knees and pushed the toilet back into the wall, pulling the sink back down. "Simon said it's perfectly normal to be experiencing morning sickness at this stage," she said miserably.

Mal helped steady her as she stumbled back to their bed. "Even so," he said, "I hate to see you like this, bao bei." He pulled the blanket up to her chin, kissing her forehead lightly. He sat gingerly on the bed beside her. "Think you'll be okay down here alone for awhile?"

"Yes, ai ren. Go ahead before everybody begins to look for you," River answered listlessly.

They had mutually agreed to keep the news of the baby private for the time being, at least until the Operative could be dropped off on their next landfall. It was not that they distrusted him exactly, but Mal's natural inclination to hold his cards close to his chest would not be overridden by the slender bond that had developed between the two men on Osiris.

And then there was the possibility, however unlikely, that River could miscarry as she had before. Simon had assured the couple that everything was proceeding as it should but that the first trimester was the most likely time for a miscarriage to occur. Added to that was the somewhat mixed feelings that they shared about the pregnancy to begin with.

With all of these thoughts running through his head, Mal forced a smile to his lips as he looked down at River. "I'll be back to check on you soon's I can darlin'. May even be able to scrounge up a stale cracker or two."

River smiled wanly, and closed her eyes to sleep.

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Mal made his way down to the infirmary carrying a breakfast tray for the Operative. This task had fallen mainly to him because the crew in general still felt less than charitable to the man. Mal had no great need to persuade them otherwise, and was almost as eager as they were to see the Operative recover enough to leave, figuring he couldn't very well find out any useful information while lying in Serenity's infirmary.

"Good morning, Captain," the Operative said, easing himself up slowly into a sitting position.

"Mornin'," Mal replied. He set the tray over the Operative's lap. "Looks like you're almost liable to live through the day today."

The Operative smiled, stirring his protein much less than eagerly. "Yes, Dr. Tam seems to think I'll be able to get off at your next stop. I regret not being able to do so earlier."

Mal shrugged. "Ain't like we were needin' the bed," he said.

"Even so, I'm sure your crew would prefer me to go away sooner rather than later. And of course, were I gone, Mrs. Reynolds could have her prenatal visits here instead of elsewhere."

Mal stared at the Operative, his jaw tightening reflexively. "What makes you think Mrs. Reynolds is in need of prenatal care?" His voice carried an unmistakable warning.

The Operative looked at him steadily. "I've been able to do nothing but lie here and listen, Captain. Dr. Tam has been summoned to your bunk, which I assume you share with Mrs. Reynolds, three times in the past five days, always in the early morning hours. He has also been surreptitiously studying information on gestational development in his spare moments in the infirmary."

"Apparently not surreptitiously enough," Mal said, obviously annoyed.

At Mal's grim look, the Operative continued. "He didn't know I could see what he was studying, Captain. I'm quite certain it was an entirely honest mistake on his part. But don't concern yourself about it. It is of no importance to me whether you have a child or not. My only concern is to ensure that the matter I sought your assistance in is brought to a successful conclusion. Other than that, I have no intention of disturbing you or your family in the slightest way."

Mal's steel blue eyes flashed dangerously. "You'd best be sure that's the case. I still got no problem droppin' you, if I conjure there's cause."

"Understood, Captain." The Operative calmly ate his breakfast, watching the set of Mal's shoulders as he left the infirmary.

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Inara stepped back to admire the work she and Jayne had done. "That looks just perfect," she said, eyes shining with pleasure.

Jayne began gathering up his tools, a pleased grin on his lips. "Glad ya' like it, 'Nara. Those retractable shelves were a mite tricky, but I think they turned out all right."

"They're just what I was hoping for," Inara said happily. "This gives the illusion of so much more space. I'm sure my clients will appreciate that."

"Yeah, well," Jayne said, clearing his throat. "Reckon it is all about illusion, at that."

Inara's wide smile was replaced by a small frown. "What do you mean, Jayne?"

Her tone held a slight rebuke, but Jayne paid no heed to it. "What I mean is that I reckon your job requires a good bit of play-actin'," he said. "Ya' know, actin' like ya' give a rat's ass 'bout the one you're beddin'."

Inara straightened her spine, fully intending that Jayne understand her next words. "It's not play-acting, Jayne. I do care about my clients. I try to choose wisely in that regard."

She stood there quietly, inwardly wincing at the thought of how poorly she'd chosen Andrew Chau, and what the choice had cost her.

Jayne, to his credit, did not broach that subject. "I'm sure ya' do, 'Nara. Only it can't mean nothin' to ya', sexin' all those strangers."

Inara rolled her eyes. "Now you sound like Mal. There's a great difference between what I do and what those…whores you use do."

Jayne looked at her appraisingly. "I reckon that's probably true. Else your rates wouldn't be so high." Seeing the fire in her almond eyes, he backtracked a bit. "All's I'm sayin' is that it must be kinda' strainin' sometimes, bein' everybody's fantasy-like." When Inara visibly relaxed, he added carefully, "Though I'm sure you're good at it."

Inara graced him with a smile, arching one eyebrow delicately. "You have no idea," she said, happy to be on more familiar ground.

Jayne swallowed thickly, suddenly all too aware of all manner of things he'd been studiously ignoring since arriving in her shuttle. He forced nonchalance into his answer. "Reckon I don't, at that," he said, whistling a tune as he carried his tools out without a backward glance.

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Having managed to find a few crackers in the back of a galley cabinet, Mal climbed down into his bunk. River stood in front of the mirror, her head tilted to the side. Noticing that she was no longer visibly weaving unsteadily, Mal came up behind her and kissed the smooth column of her exposed neck.

"You look like you feel a mite better," he said encouragingly.

River frowned, still looking at her reflection. "Pregnant women are supposed to glow," she said petulantly. "Don't see any glow."

Mal chuckled, encircling her waist with his arms. "I don't know much about it, but I conjure the glowin'll come after the morning sickness goes away," he said. Turning her to face him, he continued. "I'm thinkin' we may as well go ahead and let everybody know about the little one. No use in holdin' off. And maybe one of the womenfolk will know better'n me or Simon somethin' to help with the whole losing-breakfast-every-mornin' thing."

River looked at him intently, and then began to smile. "You're happy," she said. "You want them to know because you're happy."

"That ain't such an oddity, is it?" he asked, smiling that lovely slow smile that always made River's knees go weak. "Man's got a right to be happy on account of such as this."

River leaned forward to kiss him soundly, her earlier mood dispelled. "Every right in the 'verse, ai ren," she answered happily.

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"So, there's to be a little one in a little under seven months," Mal concluded. The table erupted in hearty congratulations all around, with much back-slapping for Mal and hugging for River.

Anya was beside herself with glee, pulling urgently on Mal's pant leg for attention. Swinging her up into his arms, he asked, "You happy 'bout the thought of havin' a little playmate, blondie?"

"Oh yes, Captain Mal," she said, smiling widely to reveal an empty space where a tooth had been earlier in the day. Mal gazed at her in mock horror. "Somebody stealin' your teeth, little one?"

Anya giggled. "No, silly," she said patiently. "It comed out all on its own this mornin'. Wanna see it?"

She began to fumble around in her pockets, finally producing the little tooth for Mal's inspection. "Well now," he said, holding it as if it were a treasure. "Ain't that somethin'?"

"Zoe said if'n I put it under my pillow, it might turn into a coin in the night."

Mal handed the tooth back. "Then you'd best be putting it somewhere safe 'til bedtime," he advised. Setting her down gently, he whispered, "And don't tell Mr. Jayne that teeth turn into coin, or we're all like to wake up toothless tomorrow mornin'."

Anya snickered at the thought of a toothless crew, and kissed Mal's cheek before scampering off to show everyone else at the table her prized possession. Catching the unusual brightness in Zoe's eyes, Mal smiled.

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Kaylee gave Simon her most annoyed look. "I can't believe you didn't tell me about River," she said.

Holding up his hands in the universal symbol of surrender, Simon said, "I couldn't tell you, ai ren. It wasn't my place to say."

Kaylee, secretly more relieved that Simon's earlier moods had nothing to do with wanting to leave Serenity than upset by his silence, let her husband off the hook and wrapped her arms around him. "Don't know why you was worried, honey. River's gonna be just shiny this time."

"I'm sure she will," Simon said, so pleased he didn't have to hide his knowledge from Kaylee any longer, and even more pleased that both River and Mal had seemed genuinely happy when the announcement was made.

"So, Dr. Tam," Kaylee whispered against his neck, distracting him completely from his train of thought. "Ya' wanna practice makin' a cousin for your sister's baby?" She wriggled her hips seductively against him.

"So long as it's just practice for now," Simon murmured, sliding his strong hands under her shirt to caress her breasts. "I think we need lots and lots of practice."

Her breath catching at his touch, Kaylee had to agree.

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The Senator sat looking carefully at the report on his desk. "You're positive of this?" he asked.

"There is absolutely no doubt. The backup security feed was quite clear. His accomplice was Malcolm Reynolds."

The Senator tapped his chin thoughtfully. "I must admit to a certain amount of surprise. I would have thought the two were mortal enemies."

"Reynolds has a way of persuading people to do things they wouldn't normally do," the other man said dryly. "We both know about his involvement in the Miranda incident. This is just another example of his terrorist leanings."

The Senator nodded. "All right, Lt. Womack. See that a warrant is properly issued."

Now it was Womack's turn for surprise. "You intend to have him arrested and tried publicly, knowing what he knows?"

The Senator smiled coldly. "Did I say anything about a trial?"

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To be continued