Disclaimer: None of these are my characters. Joss Whedon is the man.

Gabriel Tam looked disbelievingly at the Cortex screen. The face on the other end of the Wave was one he had never seen before, but the story he told was one Mr. Tam was already partially familiar with. He had hoped to forget it, push it to the back of his mind, and move on with his life as if he had never had the children who had brought so much shame to his delicate sensibilities.

"Captain," he said after a moment, "surely you must understand that I cannot abide this tall tale you're spinning for me. I'm sorry but, as far as I'm concerned, I have no children. That boy's fantasies were just fangzong fengkuang de jie, and now he's gotten himself in trouble with the law. I told him before that I wouldn't come for him again, and I don't intend to break my word. Unlike him, I have a ze ren zhi toward my family. What's left of it," he finished quietly, brokenly.

"Mr. Tam, I understand your point of view," said Mal, "much as I disagree with it. However, you may have noticed that the warrants for both Simon and River have been dropped. The Feds ain't after 'em anymore. They're not in any trouble, so they don't need no savin'. They just wanna come see their folks, and share what they been through with ya. I know you're not real happy with Simon, but he done what needed doin', and now he wants you to know he'n River are safe. Can't ya at least give them kids a chance?"

Gabriel sighed, and it was a resigned, defeated sound. I suppose I don't have much choice, do I? It's so difficult to say no to your own children. When do you plan to be on Osiris, Captain?"

"Well, ya see, that's a bit of a hang up, right there." Mal looked apologetically at the older man, and continued. "We don't generally travel that far into the Core, as a rule, less'n we can't help it. However, we have strong reason to be on Persephone in about a week. Do you think you could meet us there?"

"Captain, traveling to Persephone is not a problem. However, traveling to Persephone to meet with the renegade crew of a freelance transport vessel, because they cannot come to me, is. I will accept this meeting, against my better judgment, but I will NOT agree to meet you an zhong."

"Fine, Mr. Tam. I wouldn't want to offend your fine, Core-bred sensibilities. We'll make a stop by Osiris after we leave Persephone. I'll Wave you once we're in the air. Xing?"

"Very well, Captain Reynolds. I ... look forward ... to hearing from you." Gabriel Tam's tone of voice made it quite obvious that he was most definitely not looking forward to the call, and his smile never went anywhere near his eyes.

"Xiexie, Mr. Tam. I'll talk to ya' in about a week's time." Mal pressed the disconnect on his screen, and sat back with a weary sigh. He hoped he wouldn't have cause to regret this decision later, though he had a bad feeling in his gut. Of course, he always had a bad feeling in his gut when he traveled to the Core. Nobody on the ship was currently wanted, and Persephone was the drop point for their goods, so the hold would be empty. Hopefully, the only problems he'd have would be justifying the trip to the rest f the crew, and to his ledger, and hiding his intentions from the little witch who piloted his boat.

Deceptive thinking, he thought to himself. Like hidin' the truth with your brain, 'stead'a your mouth.

Maybe he could get Inara to help him with a 'reason' to go to Osiris. She could claim an important doctor visit, or some such.

Satisfied with his sneaky night's work, the Captain headed down to the bay to knock on Inara's door. He'd been much better about barging in for the last few months, and Inara was actually nice to him in return. She'd even smiled at something he'd said earlier in the day, he remembered with a smile of his own. And he hadn't called her a whore to her face in two weeks. That had to be some kind of record.

As wrapped up in his own thoughts as Mal was, he didn't notice the show going on down below as he came out on the catwalk above the bay. He made it halfway to Inara's shuttle when a glint of metal flashed in his peripheral vision from below, and when he looked around for what had caught his attention, he froze like a statue in mid-stride, his body as still as marble on the metal grating.

River was below, spinning through the motions of some sort of martial arts. She was moving faster than he'd ever seen a person move. Her hair haloed about her head, making a cloud of brown that whipped and jerked in time with her movements. She was wearing her tight black shorts, that tight flowery shirt she liked, and her combat boots, though they made not a sound as her feet pumped up and down on the steel floor. And she had a sword.

Tian xiaode, who the hell let that girl get her hands on a sword?? Mal didn't move for what seemed like an eternity. All he could do was stand on the catwalk and watch her. He hadn't even moved his feet, and still looked like he was in the process of actually walking somewhere. Suddenly, River did a flip, twisting her body to the left, planting one hand on the deck while the other continued to move the sword about, and froze when she landed. She was looking straight at Mal. The sword was pointed at him. River's expression could only be called blank, and that terrified the Captain something fierce.

"Don't worry," River's quiet voice floated up to him, "I won't tell Simon what you're doing. You should try not to think so loud about what you don't want to think about, though. You might give your secret away." With that, she turned around, laid the sword in a hard case that was propped on top of some crates, latched the case, and walked away, in the direction of the passenger dorms.

Mal pulled his trailing foot forward to stand a bit more comfortably, and shook himself to order his thoughts. What was he doing here, again? Oh, right. Inara. He broke his gaze away from the point below, where River had been standing, with more than a little force, and continued to the Companion's shuttle. He knocked softly three times and waited.

After a few moments, Inara opened the door. "Mal, what a pleasant surprise. Won't you come in?"

"Pleasant surprise?" Mal asked with a raised eyebrow, stepping across the threshold.

"That you actually knocked, I mean," Inara laughed. "I keep waiting for you to fall back into your old habits. It's shocking that your newfound respect for my privacy has lasted so long." Gesturing to the couch, she asked, "Won't you have a seat?"

Mal collapsed onto the couch and rubbed his face with both hands. When he looked up at Inara, she had a worried expression fixed on him. "What crazy hundan gave that girl a sword? On my boat?!"

"Mal, what are you talking about?" Inara asked, concern lacing her voice.

"River! She was just down in the cargo bay, swingin' that pointy stick around like she was still fightin' the gorram Reavers! Where in the 'Verse did she get it, and why did I not know about it?" The Captain's voice held a note of nervousness Inara was not used to hearing from him. He was one of the most solid, unshakable men Inara had ever met, but River had a way of unsettling people that was uncanny in a girl so young.

"Mal, I don't know where she got it, but don't you think you're overreacting a bit? These past three months, ever since Miranda, she's been much more stable that before, and she doesn't seem to bear any ill-will toward any of the crew, even Jayne. Why don't you go talk to her about it, if it makes you uneasy?" Inara sat down on the other end of the couch, motioning to the tea set on the table. "Would you like something to drink?"

"I don't think you got nothin' strong enough to settle my nerves right now, but thanks anyway. I came to ask a favor, if you're willin' to hear me out." The Captain tried to relax, almost succeeding as the Companion answered affirmatively. "I got cause to take Serenity to Osiris after we leave Persephone, but I don't wanna share with the crew just yet. I need to come up with a good reason, and I was hopin' you could help me by claimin' some fancy checkup or some such."

"You mean, like the annual Guild physical I had on Ariel a while back? I suppose I could do that, but why are you really going to Osiris, Mal? That's as deep into the Core as you can get." Inara held her scrutinizing gaze on the Captain, who squirmed uncomfortably at the other end of the couch.

"I'd rather not say, 'Nara. Not yet anyhow. Please just back me up on this? I reckon it could be a mite ... therapeutic ... for a couple'a our crew. Plus, ain't Osiris more your style anyway, what with the rich, fancy clients lined up for your, uh, services?"

"I suppose you're right, in a sense," Inara responded. "It would be nice to have two respectable stops in a row. All right, Mal, I'll do it. When the crew asks, tell them you're helping me out. That should be vague enough for your purposes, and it gives me a little time to come up with a convincing reason." The Companion gave Mal a conspiratorial grin, and then stood up and walked to the door. "I believe you have a dangerous young lady to confront now. Good luck."

Mal, with more apprehension that he hoped he was showing, stood and walked out the door. "Thanks," he said over his shoulder as he left the shuttle. Now comes the hard part, he thought. So much for deceptive thinking. The Captain made his way to the passenger dorms, and stopped at the bottom of the stairwell. River was just coming out of her room, sword case in hand. "Uhh," was all that made it past his lips. He seemed to be having trouble with his brain-to-vocal-cords connection.

"It scares you. Here, I don't want to cause problems anymore." River held the case out to Mal, who took it with a confused look. "I decided to take up my exercises again, to stay in shape and refocus myself. I noticed while I was fighting the Reavers that I had fallen out of practice, after all this time sitting idly on the ship. I'd rather not make the crew uncomfortable anymore, though, so you can keep it locked up, away from the crazy girl."

"Umm," Mal stuttered, still trying to get past the problem he was having making his brain work. River was just turning to return to her room, so Mal reached out a hand to grab her arm. He stopped just shy of actual contact, though. River turned back to face him, somehow knowing he wasn't done with her yet.

"Don't worry. I told you already I won't tell Simon. He wouldn't be very happy about it. I understand what you're doing, though. You're a good man." The young woman stretched up onto her toes, balancing herself with a hand on his chest, and gave the Captain a kiss on the cheek. She then turned and walked back toward her room, a small smile playing about her lips, and a larger smile in her eyes.

"Hey, River," Mal finally forced out. She stopped, but didn't turn around. "Why don't you hang on to this? I'd hate to be the one to blame if you were all outta shape next time we need your help."

River turned slowly back to face him. "You're saying there will be a next time? And that you'll accept my help?"

"Well," the Captain muttered, bowing his head a bit, "you never know when we'll run across trouble, work like we do. I ain't sayin' I want you stickin' your neck out again, way you did back in Mr. Universe's compound. I'm just sayin' there might come a time when I'll ask you to come with me on a job or the like, and I wanna know the girl's got my back is reliable, is all. Okay?"

River veritably skipped back to him, snatched the sword case from his hand, and threw her arms around his middle. "Thank you so much, Captain! I won't let your faith in me be misplaced." Mal shifted uncomfortable in the embrace, so River released him. Before she turned back to her room, though, she reached up again and gave him another kiss on the cheek. It was a bit farther forward than would have been daughterly, or even friendly. Before Mal could puzzle out what had just happened, though, his young pilot was back in her room and sliding her screen shut. The Captain turned away and headed back toward the bridge, determined to put Serenity, and then himself, to bed. The longer this day gets, the weirder, he thought as he walked through the ship's passageways. Climbing finally down into his bunk, he fell gratefully into his bed and promptly fell asleep.

fangzong fengkuang de jie - a knot of self indulgent lunacy

ze ren zhi - sense of duty

an zhong - on the sly

Xing? - Okay?

Xiexie - Thank you

Tian xiaode - name of all that's sacred

hundan - bastard