Disclaimer: I own none of these characters. If I did, who knows what might happen?!
Author's Note: This story takes place after the events of "The Family Way".
Summary: Mal and River discuss a family situation, while Inara and Kaylee set out to shop.
Mal sat in the common area, ostensibly reading a book, but actually watching Anya and Adam at play. Though Anya was just a few months shy of nine years old now, she seemed never to tire of playing with the twenty-one-month-old Adam, a fact for which Mal was profoundly grateful. Mal remembered his own seemingly inexhaustible energy as a young boy, and Adam had inherited a generous portion of it.
But it was the inheritance the child had received from River that caused Mal the most concern. Within Adam's first year, it had become apparent that he was a Reader. However, it was becoming increasingly clear to Mal that his abilities were developing at an alarming rate. And while Mal had made his peace with River's talents, seeing them manifest in his son was all manner of disturbing. Setting his book aside and giving each child a quick peck on the head, he walked toward the bridge to clear his head. He conjured it was time to talk with River.
"How goes it, darlin'?" he asked, stepping down into the bridge. "Everything all right?"
River nodded, obviously in the middle of plotting a minor course adjustment. "Just found a way to get us to Highgate a little earlier. Kaylee needs to pick up a few things for the baby's nursery."
"On Highgate?" Mal asked incredulously. "Can't imagine there'll be a lot to choose from there."
"She doesn't need a lot," River replied. "She's got most of Adam's old things, but the baby will need some things that aren't hand-me-downs. And she's anxious to get the nursery done. He'll be here soon."
"Don't seem possible my li'l Kaylee's seven months along," Mal said. "Seems like we just found out last week she was pregnant."
River gave him a grin, and rose to wrap her arms around his midsection. "You sound like an old man, Captain Reynolds, whinging about how time flies."
Mal scowled. 'Well, it does, darlin'. In a few years, you'll be sayin' the same thing."
River laughed, moving back to her console. "Not gonna happen," she said breezily.
As so often happened lately, Mal was struck by River's increasingly easy disposition. Though she still had periods of psychosis, they were now a rare occurrence. She had learned to ride the waves of thoughts and emotions constantly bombarding her mind instead of being pulled down into the undertow, and now, for the most part, she maintained blessed stability.
If he remarked on her progress, she would say that his love had made the difference, and maybehaps she was partially right, Mal thought. It was a certainty that loving her had restored a part of his own soul he'd thought irretrievably lost. But he believed there was something more to River's newfound peace, something perhaps related to being a mother to Adam.
The thought brought him back to his original purpose for coming to the bridge. Sitting down heavily in the co-pilot's chair, he said, "There's somethin' I've been thinkin' on for awhile now, and I conjure it's time we suss it out."
"All right," River said expectantly.
"I'm worried about Adam," Mal blurted out.
"He's getting to be pretty gorram good at the readin' thing," he replied.
River frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean he's pickin' up on some things even you missed. Like when that Alliance hundan stopped us at the checkpoint around Boros, 'fore he said the first word, Adam told me he was trouble. And later, Adam knew the judge was gonna let me go 'fore it happened. And there have been other things, too," Mal said uncomfortably.
River resisted the urge to read Mal's thoughts, wanting to let him express his concerns verbally. "And this upsets you?" she asked softly.
"Gorram right, it does," Mal answered. "I don't want him to have to struggle with it like you have. How can he deal with it? He ain't even two years old yet. What kinda control can he possibly have? And what about the Alliance? He'll be as much of a target as you are."
"More," River said. "He's your son, too."
Mal paused, having honestly never thought of that. So worried about Adam's telepathic abilities, he had not even considered that being his son might make Adam attractive to them as well. His mind flashed to his own ordeal under BlueSun's needles and probes, and he shuddered.
River moved to stand beside his chair. Resting her hand on his shoulder, she looked at him compassionately. "We'll just have to ensure that they never get the opportunity to take him," she said firmly.
"How can we make sure of that?" Mal asked. "In case you forgot, Riley came right onto our boat and took Adam and Anya from us without breakin' a sweat. How are we gonna protect him from such as that?"
River thought for a moment, trying to think of something to say to alleviate her husband's worry, valid though it was. "Adam knew," she finally said. "Perhaps we should listen to him more closely."
"Shen me?" Mal asked, looking at her in disbelief. "You wanna leave it to a two-year-old to figure out what needs doin'?"
"He saw things I didn't see," River said defensively. "With a little direction, he could be trained to at least help us see the dangers, and then we could be ready for them."
Mal pondered the possibility. "How did he see something coming that you didn't?"
River perched on the arm of his chair. "I'm not sure, but I have some theories. Obviously, I have more than the usual aptitude as a Reader, but you are also quite intuitive. A case could be made that Adam's ability comes from the combination."
"I ain't a Reader, River," Mal said, not buying that line of reasoning at all. "What's the other theory?"
"I've always been a Reader," River said. "Even as young as Adam. And I could see things very clearly. But at the Academy…" She shivered unconsciously at the memory. "They confused the images."
Mal frowned. "I thought what they did enhanced your abilities."
River rolled her eyes, sinking into his lap. "That's what they were trying to do, but…"
"But they screwed it up instead," Mal finished.
"Trying to make it better," River agreed. "But when they removed the barrier my amygdale provided, it was too much information flooding in all the time. Still is." She swallowed thickly. "But Adam doesn't have that problem. His skills are increasing because he's growing normally. As he grows, his mind becomes more organized. And as it does, he can focus on specific people and events without having to filter out all the information I have to go through. Sort of like the precision of a laser as opposed to a shotgun blast. Dong ma?"
"Can you teach him to control his abilities naturally?" Mal asked hopefully.
"Think so," River said. "At least partially." She smiled slightly. "Best I can offer, ai ren."
"Then I'll take it," Mal answered.
"We'll keep him safe, Mal," she said, tracing the wrinkle of his brow with one slender finger. "And one day, I suspect he'll return the favor."
Mal laughed shortly. "We're gonna still need savin' by the time he's old enough to do it?"
"That would be my guess," River answered, returning his smile with a grin of her own.
Kaylee eased her swollen feet into the sandals she'd found on Persephone during their last job. Absently massaging her lower back, she paused to look in the mirror. It was a source of wonder to her that a child that weighed no more than four pounds by Simon's best estimate could have caused such a drastic change in her body. Her breasts were painfully tight, and the skin across her abdomen was stretched paper-thin. Despite Simon's gentle application of various creams and ointments, tiny stretch marks marbled her belly, a fact that was mildly disturbing to her. And as for her ankles, they seemed to have disappeared sometime in the past two weeks. Though Simon kept assuring her that she was beautiful, Kaylee felt somewhat like one of the cows that her Daddy kept to supply the family with milk on their little spread of land on Harvest.
Inara peered down into Kaylee's bunk, taking note of the slight frown on her friend's face. "Are you ready to go, sweetie?" she asked kindly.
Kaylee smiled up at her. "If I can get up the ladder, I'm good to go," she answered.
"I think it's time you gave up climbing ladders until after Master Tam makes his arrival," Inara chided softly.
Kaylee sighed. "That's what Simon says too."
"Then I think you should listen to your doctor," Inara said, pulling her up the last few steps. Kaylee stopped at the top, a little winded from her exertions.
"You sure you're feeling well enough to go shopping?" Inara asked, examining her friend with a critical eye.
"I'm shiny," Kaylee said, though in truth she was feeling a little more uncomfortable than usual. "Besides, if we don't go now, I ain't sure I'll be able to fit into these sandals by the next time we're anywhere dirtside."
Inara glanced down at Kaylee's feet and winced in sympathy. "It won't be long now," she comforted.
Mal came up behind them, shooing them along down the corridor. "Speakin' of not bein' long, I want you two back on the ship in two hours. Got no great wish to stay here longer than it'll take me and Jayne to pick up the cargo. Dong ma?"
Simon joined the little group. "I don't expect Kaylee will be up to much more shopping than that, will you, ai ren?"
Kaylee smiled as cheerfully as she could. "Prob'ly not," she admitted.
"Don't you want me to come with you?" Simon whispered, as Mal pushed past on his way to the cargo bay.
"No, sweetie," Kaylee said. "Me and 'Nara'll be just fine. 'Sides, how can we get any girl talk done if you tag along?"
"Good point," Simon said as he leaned down to give her a quick kiss. "Have fun."
As Simon walked away, Inara smiled at Kaylee, shaking her head. "It's amazing what changes you've wrought in that man," she said fondly.
Mal looked impatiently at the man standing in front of him. "We'll have everything in the crates in a few minutes," the man said for the dozenth time. "We had some assembly line problems this morning and…"
Mal interrupted him. "So you said 'bout an hour ago. My crew's probably getting' a mite eager for me to be back, seein' as how we were scheduled to leave a half hour ago."
Though he had no compelling reason to worry about anything happening on Highgate, Mal was nervous about staying dirtside anywhere for too long. Even the border worlds had their share of Alliance personnel now, and the memory of his close call on Boros was enough to make him a mite twitchy.
"Captain Reynolds, I assure you that my people are working as fast as they can," the man began again before being interrupted by one of his assistants. After an animated whispered conversation, he turned back to Mal, his face now the picture of relief. "Every crate is packed now. The workers are stacking them for you as we speak."
Mal nodded to Jayne, who immediately went to oversee the packing arrangement. "Jayne there'll ride with your man to my boat, whilst you and I sort out the paperwork."
"Of course," the harried man replied. "Step into the office."
Mal walked along the main street of the Highgate settlement, happy to have both the correct paperwork for the job and half the coin in his pocket. Lucrative legitimate jobs were hard to come by, and though the delay at the factory had annoyed him, he was glad to have the work nonetheless. Seeing Serenity up ahead, he picked up his pace.
Before he could get completely up the ramp, he was greeted by a very anxious crew. Simon stepped forward immediately, worry etched plainly on his face. "Did you see Kaylee and Inara anywhere in the town?" he asked urgently.
"You sayin' they ain't back yet?" Mal asked.
"No sir," Zoe answered, ever the soldier. "We thought maybe they were with you and Jayne. But when Jayne got back a few minutes ago…"
"I'm goin after 'em," Jayne said, already strapping on Vera.
Mal glanced at River, who looked pale with worry. She shook her head slightly, indicating she had no clue as to where they might find the women.
"Keep the engine warm," Mal said to River. "Zoe, you and me'll go with Jayne."
Simon objected. "I need to go . What if something's happened? They might need a doctor."
"No, doc," Mal said quickly. "You stay here. Get the infirmary ready just in case. They need a doctor, we'll bring 'em to you." Seeing the younger man's stricken face, Mal laid a steadying hand on his shoulder and said, "It'll be okay, Simon. They probably just got to shoppin' and forgot the time. We'll find 'em." Turning to Zoe and Jayne, he said, "Let's go."
To be continued.