Holding Pattern

Part I—Landscape

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: I own none of these characters.

Rating: PG

Author's Note: This story takes place four months after the events of "Rock and a Hard Place." Reading that fic first may be helpful for reference, but not absolutely necessary. This story is dedicated to those few precious souls who asked so kindly for more.

Summary: As the 'verse around them edges toward revolution, Serenity's crew carries on business as usual.

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Jayne sat in the common area watching Inara walk gracefully up the stairs, arm-in-arm with her latest client. Observing the ease of her demeanor, he was pleased to think that he had contributed to it by the gentle attentions he'd been giving her for the past four months. He supposed that, were he more like Mal, the sight of her preparing to service a client would make his blood boil, but, as it was, he understood well enough what Inara needed from him and what she was willing to give in return. Weren't exactly the most romantical of arrangements, he thought, but then again, he'd never been particularly needful of romance as such.

The thought of a wife and fat little babies held no appeal to the mercenary, knowing as he surely did the rough nature of the 'verse. Sure, he liked that little girl Anya, and had to admit a mite of curiosity about what kinda' child Mal and River coulda' made, but other than that, he would be fine without all the complications that went with young 'uns.

Still, he thought, surreptitiously watching Inara and her client until they moved out of his range of vision, Inara was a gift he would never have figured on having. Woman not only knew all manner of ways to sex a man 'til his eyes rolled back in his head, but had a fetching quietness about her when they weren't sexin', a calm like a deep lake that soothed his soul when he lay with her in the dark.

While his mind was thus occupied with thoughts of the Companion, his hands went to work on repairing the table leg that had been broken during one of Zoe's more colorful landings. She was getting somewhat better though, since Mal had insisted someone other than himself or River might need to be proficient at the helm, for when the little one made his arrival into the 'verse.

Zoe and Inara were each taking regular turns in the cockpit now, both of them probably more aware of what could happen during the delivery than Mal was. Jayne figured it was good they were getting the practice now, while River was still able to train them proper-like.

He thought Moonbrain was doing pretty good too, considering she was almost seven months gone. What had just been a tiny bump beneath her dresses for the longest time had just lately ballooned into something else altogether. She was still going out on some jobs though, and Jayne could tell it made Mal all manner of nervous when she did. That there was another good reason not to get your woman pregnant, Jayne thought, as he set the table back up on four sturdy legs.

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Mal sat at his desk with River on his lap, noting not for the first time in the past few weeks that it was not as comfortable a position for him as it had been before. Her new weight pressed down relentlessly on his thighs, making him long to re-position her. Once upon a time, he thought, she would have picked up on his discomfort, but now she seemed to be in a perpetual state of distraction, more attuned to their son growing within her than any outward stimulus she received. Simon had told him that this was normal for many women, and that the effect may have been enhanced by River's psychic connection with the child. But still, it made Mal uneasy somehow.

Resting his hand lightly on the tight skin of what used to be River's waist, he could feel the small flutterings indicating his son's restlessness. While he was endlessly fascinated by the sensation, River had long since tired of the seemingly constant movement, which tended to become more pronounced the more she tried to rest. Stroking her belly firmly around Mal's hand, she could detect the slight lessening of movement. She smiled, hoping that their child would always respond so well to her touch.

Turning her attention to the cortex screen that Mal was watching, she felt her smile fade. It was yet another news report about the civil unrest affecting the Core planets, an increasingly familiar story since the demolition of the Alliance facility on Salisbury. The Operative, true to his new intent, had managed to orchestrate a tremendous amount of media coverage detailing the dark purpose of the labs there, and the abuse of the prisoners detained without trial and tortured unmercifully. Adding fuel to the growing fire were the testimonials released in captures made by several of the prisoners themselves, men who dared to come forward to denounce the government that had sanctioned such abuse.

Revolution, once only the hope of Rim worlds, was now openly debated on the streets of many Core planets as well. And while Mal still had no desire to endanger his family on Serenity to join such a cause, he could not help a certain amount of interest in its progress. Almost made a man hopeful to see it, he thought. Aloud, he said, "What do you think, darlin'? Any chance in hell this thing might topple the Alliance once and for all?"

River looked at him sadly, shaking her head. "Beast has too many heads. Chop one off, another grows to replace it. Endless repetition."

Mal frowned, somewhat deflated by her words. "Maybehaps someone should aim at the heart 'stead of the heads then."

River reached up to brush away the lines that had formed across his brow. "That would be assuming there is a heart."

Mal smiled wryly. "Good point, bao bei." Sighing, he turned off the monitor and leaned back in his chair. Brushing River's wild hair back behind her ear, he asked, "How did it go today?"

River shifted her weight, causing him to wince just a bit. "Simon said everything's right where it should be. He wanted to do another sonogram, but I asked him to wait until you could see it too."

"Sorry I couldn't be there with you this time, bao bei. I didn't think this was gonna be one of the times for more pictures, or I'da sent Zoe and Jayne to do the job, and stayed here with you."

River smiled tiredly. "It's all right, ai ren . Simon told me he asked you to find something for me while you were in town."

Mal gave her a fake frown. "Can't anybody on this boat keep a secret?" he asked, reaching around her to open the desk drawer.

River's eyes lit up when he pulled the small brown bag out and dropped it into her eager hands. He watched in pure delight as she dipped her hand into the bag, pulling out a piece of hard candy. "Lemon drops," she moaned as she popped the first one into her mouth. "I love lemon drops."

Mal smiled, happy he'd been able to find them. "I can see you do," he said, as he watched her lips pucker with the sweet and sour taste of them.

She looked at him for a moment, obviously waging a mental war with herself. Holding the bag out to him, she asked, "Want one?' with a look that made it abundantly clear the offer was a sacrifice.

Mal laughed, his blue eyes twinkling in the dim light of their bunk. "No, darlin', you can have every last one." He paused, a slow, easy smile coming to his lips. "So long as I get to kiss you when you indulge."

"Deal," River said, happily leaning forward to seal the bargain. Mal kissed her slowly, savoring the taste of lemon on her tongue.

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Anya bounced up and down on the bed in excitement. "When can I open it, Mama?" she asked, eyeing the brightly papered package eagerly.

Zoe had meant to present it to her tomorrow morning, but as always, Anya's enthusiasm was too infectious to resist. Handing the package over, she said, "You can open it tonight, but then we're going to put it away until tomorrow. Dong ma?"

Anya's face fell slightly, but she still tore off the paper with wild abandon. Gulping in a huge breath, she squealed when she saw the beautiful paints and thick, creamy paper. She had admired Miss River's drawings for some time, and had been eager to have her own paints. Though she had just turned six, she understood instinctively that her new family lived as close to the edge as her old one had, so she would never have asked for such a luxury.

While Zoe was glad of that fact, it still pained her that the beautiful child should have such an understanding at her tender age. Watching the loving way Anya touched the paints, Zoe said, "Best we put them up for now. When Miss Inara gives you your next calligraphy lesson, you won't be needin' to borrow her supplies any more."

Anya reluctantly closed the box and handed it back to Zoe. "You think she might give me a lesson tomorrow?" she asked hopefully.

"I expect so, child. And if she can't, you can still use the paints for regular drawing and the like."

Her smile restored, Anya settled back into the covers. "Thank you, Mama, for getting' 'em for me. I'll paint you a pretty picture, soon's I get the hang of it."

Zoe laughed and dropped a light kiss on Anya's blond tresses. "I'll be looking forward to it, little one."

Lying down beside her, Zoe thought with gratitude about the gifts in her life. Anya lit her days with such joy as she'd thought she'd never see again, and seemed to have a similar effect on the crew. Truly a child of Serenity, Anya spent her days receiving, if not a formal education, at least lessons she would need living the life they led. In addition to Inara's calligraphy lessons, Zoe herself spent time with Anya every day, improving her regular reading and writing skills. And Zoe had caught Mal more than a few times with Anya, their heads almost touching over old-style star-charts as he taught her astronomy and history. Simon and River seemed more than happy to help the child explore the world of science and mathematics, while Kaylee taught her the more immediately practical things like how to listen for a problem in Serenity's engine or what ingredients to put into their protein mush to make it more palatable. Even Jayne had taken to teaching Anya about self-defense, though Zoe had to draw the line when he wanted to introduce weapons into his lessons. All in all, Zoe could hardly have imagined how accepting of Anya they had all been, or how much Anya seemed to thrive under their attentive eyes. She thought, with just a hint of sadness, how surprised Wash would have been to see such a thing, and how misguided he had been in his concerns about having a child of their own. Thanking God that she had been allowed this second opportunity, she tucked the blanket more closely around the now sleeping child, and fell asleep with a heart full of the sheer joy of it.

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Finally finished with the test results from River's pre-natal visit earlier in the day, Simon turned off the infirmary lights and headed to his bunk. Seeing that Kaylee was not there yet, he climbed back out and found her, her boots sticking out of an access panel in the engine room. He stopped for a moment, listening to the little tuneless song she was humming as she worked. Smiling, he cleared his throat, alerting her to his presence.

The singing stopped abruptly as Kaylee wiggled back out of the panel, moving her hips unconsciously in a way that made Simon's heart beat a little faster. He thought, not for the first time, how unseemly his hunger for his wife would appear to the Core-bred society in which he and River had grown up. Even now, as an adult, he couldn't quite picture Gabriel and Regan Tam sharing anything more than polite interest in each other's bodies. How they had managed to produce two children was beyond him.

On the other hand, how he and Kaylee were avoiding procreating was, in his estimation, a medical miracle. Thankful beyond measure for the modern science of contraception, he had no desire to start a family right now. He and Kaylee had discussed it at length, and she assured him she could wait until he was ready, and even seemed happy to do so. But now that River's pregnancy was nearing its end, he occasionally caught a wistful look on his wife's face as River allowed her to feel the baby kick. Dismissing the vaguely troubling thought from his mind, he reached out to enfold her in his arms.

"Thought I'd work on the wiring a mite before bed," she mumbled against his chest. "Didn't know you'd be finished up so quick." She breathed in the clean scent of him happily.

"If you're not finished here, I can wait," he said, nuzzling his nose into the softness of her hair, her nearness arousing him as it never failed to do.

Pressing her hips closer to his body, she snorted softly. "Don't much feel like you're wantin' to wait." She tilted her head to kiss his slightly parted lips. When they were both fairly breathless from the contact, she pulled away. "Panel can wait, though." And taking his hand, she moved with purpose to their bunk, Simon following her readily, just one step behind.

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To be continued