Black Widow

Part I—Birds, Bees, and Cows

Author: justslummin

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Just playin' in Joss' sandbox.

Rating: PG

Author's Note: Takes place after the events of "Holiday Blues".

Summary: Once Serenity is spaceworthy again, Mal and crew set out to deliver Lord Harrow's cattle to their destination.

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Serenity set down with a satisfying thump in Lord Harrow's pasture. Mal thumbed the comm unit. "Everything shiny down there, Kaylee?" he asked.

Kaylee's voice filtered onto the bridge. "Shiny as the king of Londinium's crown," she said happily.

"Good to know," Mal answered, smiling down at River. "Guess that means we can get out into the Black soon's we can load up the cattle."

River nodded, flipping switches to power Serenity's engine down. "Murdocke sped the repair considerably. Four hands instead of two."

"Can't say much for his manner, but he seems to be a helluva engineer, at least," Mal agreed.

"That's precisely why Marcus hasn't thrown him out the airlock," River said seriously.

Mal chuckled. "Probably so." He paused for a moment, thinking about the crew of the Hit or Miss. "They were a good bunch of folk, though. Nice to think that there's more of us out there than it would seem, sometimes."

Zoe stepped onto the bridge. ""Us' meaning thieves or Independents?" she asked with the barest hint of a smile.

Mal considered the choices for a moment. "Both," he said, grinning. Turning to leave, he said, "Much as I'd like to stand here and palaver, I conjure it's time to go see a man about some cows."

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Jayne brushed the hay out of his hair and off his shirt. "Wish Mal wouldn't take this kinda' job," he grumbled. "Had enough of this kinda go se livin' at home without havin' to deal with it now. And we ain't even gettin' paid."

Inara smiled, wrinkling her nose slightly as Jayne stirred the air around. "Well, Lord Harrow did allow Serenity to take up his pasture land for the past few weeks while we had our little adventure with the explosive-filled fertilizer and got the repairs made to Serenity. We owe him something for that."

Jayne grunted. "Mal owes him something for that. Not me." He changed his shirt quickly, hating the smell of the cattle he'd helped Mal herd into the cargo bay. "'Sides, once we get in the air, it'll be me muckin' out the bay and feedin' 'em, and waterin' 'em, and…"

Inara held up her hand. "I get it, Jayne," she said. "But it is just a short trip. And they're really quite beautiful. Harrow only sends the best of the herd offworld."

Jayne rolled his eyes. "One cow's like another, far's I'm concerned. And I didn't notice that you went down to the cargo bay to admire them whilst we were loadin' 'em."

"I'll have plenty of time to see them later," Inara said calmly. "I was busy with other matters." She paused, waiting for Jayne to give her his undivided attention. "Matters like talking to the House Mistress of Madrassa."

Jayne looked at her sharply. "About what?"

"Well, I've been thinking about what the counselor said about your evaluation as a prospective official significant other for me."

"And?" Jayne asked, his heart hammering uncomfortably in his chest.

"And, I'm not firmly convinced I want to put you through the process," Inara said.

"You mean you don't think I'll pass muster," Jayne said flatly, sitting down heavily on Inara's couch.

"No, that's not at all what I mean," Inara said quickly. "I just know it will be a tedious and lengthy process, and I'm not sure I want to bother with it."

"So, you want to just keep on doin' what we're doin', and hope that none of your clients catch on?"

Inara swallowed thickly. "No, I don't," she answered. "That would be unfair to my clients, and to you. Besides, at least one of them already knows."

Jayne nodded, remembering all too well the unfortunate way Lemuel Grayson found out about him. "He said he wouldn't tell anybody."

"I know, but it's unfair to ask him to conceal it, and it would be unfair to any other client as well," Inara asserted. "I should never have let the situation develop as it has without making a concrete decision."

"So, you regret what we've done?" Jayne asked, wincing at the tone of hurt in his voice.

"No, not at all," Inara said, moving quickly to sit beside him on the couch. "I love you, Jayne Cobb, and I am eternally grateful that we are together. My only regret is that I have not handled things well professionally." She settled herself into Jayne's embrace, heedless of the scent of Harrow's cattle on her lover.

"So, what are you gonna do?" Jayne asked.

Inara shifted slightly in his arms. "I need to go to House Madrassa and appear before the tribunal there. I'll make an application for resignation from the Guild, and see exactly what will be involved."

Jayne was silent for several agonizing minutes. "You're gonna retire?" he asked softly.

"If I can," Inara said honestly. "The tribunal will assess the potential cost of early retirement, and if I can afford to do so, I will."

"You know I'll give you everything I got," Jayne offered.

"I know," Inara said softly. "But I'm fairly certain that neither of us has enough to buy out my contract."

"Then what will you do?" Jayne asked, beginning to feel uneasy about the whole thing.

"I'll think of something, when the time comes," Inara said, forcing a confidence into her voice that she didn't feel. "But first, I just need to see what is expected."

Jayne's mind reeled with the possibilities of what might be expected, but wisely he kept his thoughts to himself. "Whatever it is, we'll figure a way to do it," he said, tightening his grip on Inara's shoulders slightly.

"Yes," Inara said quietly. "We will."

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"So, we're back on Serenity now, Mama," Anya said, sitting on the catwalk beside Zoe watching the cattle with fascination as Serenity lifted off. She swung her feet slowly in the air.

"So we are," Zoe said, not sure where this conversation was headed.

"So," Anya said, dragging out the word into several syllables. "You said you'd tell me about making babies, once we got back home."

Zoe took a deep, calming breath. "Any particular reason you're wanting to know this right now?" she asked, looking at Anya carefully for a reaction.

Anya blushed. "Just want to know, is all," she answered. "Nothing wrong with asking about a thing if you don't understand it, is there?"

Zoe shook her head. "Nothing at all," she replied blandly. "In fact, there's something wrong with not asking if you want to know."

Anya nodded. "That's what I thought. So, how exactly do you make babies?"

"Well," Zoe began, praying quickly for an easy answer. "When a man and a woman care for each other, they may express that feeling in a special way."

"Like hugging and kissing?" Anya asked curiously.

Zoe closed her eyes for a moment and then nodded. "Yes, like that," she said.

"So, if I hug and kiss someone, I can make a baby?" Anya asked incredulously.

Zoe looked at her daughter in consternation. "Not exactly," she said, swallowing nervously. "First off, you're too young to be able to make a baby. Secondly, there is no one here for you to…hug and kiss like that." Seeing Anya's look of genuine confusion, Zoe found the strength to answer her plainly. "In the next few years, your body will be changing, and you will become a young woman instead of a girl. Then, you will be capable of nurturing a baby inside your body. But even when your body is ready, you will not be ready to be a mother for a long time, because mothers have a big job to do that you will not want to have on your shoulders for awhile yet."

Anya thought about Zoe's words for a long moment. "So when I am ready, how will….I mean, how does….?"

"It's sort of like the puzzles that you work on," Zoe said gently. "A woman's body and a man's body fit together in a special way. Then, the man plants a seed that grows in the woman until it becomes a little person. And that's how babies are made." She looked at her daughter intently, hoping that the simple explanation would suffice until some later time.

Anya's brow wrinkled with concentration as she considered her mother's words. After what seemed to Zoe to be an eternity of silence, she smiled. "So, are you and Uncle Jim gonna make a baby?"

Zoe sputtered uncharacteristically for a moment. "Why would you think that?" she asked when she could articulate words again.

Anya shrugged. "Saw you kissing him."

Zoe cleared her throat. "When was this?"

"Yesterday, in the corridor outside the galley."

"Well, yes, we were kissing, but as I said, it's more than just kissing that makes a baby," Zoe said as calmly as she could. "Your Uncle Jim and I are still just….getting acquainted, so to speak."

"So, you don't love him?" Anya asked, a trace of wistfulness in her voice.

Zoe paused, considering her words carefully. "I care for him a great deal," she said finally. "But I haven't really known him long enough to be in love with him."

"So, you don't believe in love at first sight?" Anya asked. "You know, like in the fairy stories?"

Zoe's head was beginning to hurt. "Not really," she answered. "When you love someone for real, it's because you know them well, and you like what you know about them."

"Miss Kaylee believes in love at first sight," Anya said dreamily. "She said she knew the minute she saw Dr. Simon that he was the one."

"In case you haven't noticed, Miss Kaylee and I are not exactly similar," Zoe said dryly. Hearing a muffled snort from somewhere in the cargo bay, she looked quickly down at the cattle, but saw no one.

Anya sighed. "So, who will I be like, then?" she asked. "You, or Miss Kaylee?"

"I conjure we'll have to wait and see," Zoe said, still looking at the cattle suspiciously. "But I expect you'll be just right, no matter how it happens."

Anya impulsively leaned over to hug her mother. "You really think so?"

"I do," Zoe said, squeezing her daughter with pride and pleasure. "You've a good head on your shoulders, and I don't see as that's like to change anytime soon."

Anya smiled, wiggling happily out of Zoe's grip. "Gotta go. I told Miss River I'd take Hannah for a little while this afternoon, so she can rest a bit."

Zoe watched her daughter head toward the bridge, and turned back to the cattle. "That you in there, sir?" she asked. Mal stepped out of his hiding place in the shadows sheepishly. "Ain't exactly right to be eavesdropping on a mother/daughter talk," she added.

Mal grinned. "Just thought I might pick up on some pointers. You know, about the baby-makin' and all."

Zoe raised one eloquent eyebrow. "Still not got the hang of it, even with Adam and Hannah to your credit?"

Mal chose not to answer. Instead he said, "And then there was the little matter of finding out about the kissing going on in the corridor."

Zoe looked at him blandly. "No problem with kissing in the corridor on this boat, best as I can tell, considerin' what I walked in on the other day on the bridge when you and River were…"

"All right," Mal interrupted her quickly, his ears turning bright red at the memory. "Point taken."

Zoe smiled smugly. "Thought you'd see it my way, sir," she said, rising gracefully to head to her bunk.

Mal watched his first mate and friend walk away, wondering, as always, how she managed to handle everything the 'verse threw her way with such steady resolve. Eternally grateful that Anya had asked Zoe the dreaded question and not him, or God forbid, Jayne, he turned back to the cattle with a smile.

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To be continued