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Book's Legacy

Chapter Text

In all the years Malcolm Reynolds had held the papers to the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity, she'd never spent more'n a few days in a row in the world 'less she was broke. Sniff the air, not kiss the dirt; re-supply, look for work, move along. Made it hard for folk to find her as didn't already know where she'd be-- not that the crew especially minded. That was the point, after all. They was all running from something.

Being out in the public eye again-- spending that first night after Miranda in an Alliance infirmary, and finding all the repair shops at the Eavesdown Docks ordered to pay for Serenity's repairs out of Alliance funds 'fore the beat-up ship even arrived-- had Mal jumpier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Sooner or later, the Parliament was going to look up from the immediate problem and remember that those as sent the 'wave were still out there, and that was over and above the threat of folk like Niska and Saffron with a mad-on for 'em, or the survivors of the Burnham Quadrant fleet. Mal didn't rate their chances very high, should they run across a gunboat captain as recognized the ship that'd led the Reavers to them.

The day the mail-notice arrived, Mal knew they'd definitely been dirtside too long. Most folk as wanted to contact those on Serenity sent broadwaves-- no chance of tracking 'em to the ship, and most that called was only looking to set up a meet, not exchange gossip and gifts. What packages and paper-letters did come for the crew normally piled up at some place like Amnon Duul's way-station; the postman held it there and sent 'em a 'wave to stop by and pick it up. If someone had taken the time to forward mail straight to Persephone it meant they'd known Mal'd still be there, and that made him nervous.

He took Jayne with him for the pick-up. Better the merc than Zoë, whose mood had been a mite unpredictable of late. He'd never seen his second as tore up as she was now, not even after Serenity Valley; the rest of the crew likely didn't see it, but Mal'd known her too long to miss all the little tell-tales. She needed more time to grieve 'fore he started expecting her to watch his back again. Besides which, if they were lucky, the package was for Jayne anyway. Of all the crew, Jayne and Kaylee were the only ones still in touch with their dirtside families, and Kaylee's usually held her gifts 'til she could pick 'em up in person. (Generous woman, her mother; always fed the crew real food every time they stopped by).

Mal hoped they were lucky today. Another 'cunning hat' would go a lot further toward Serenity's morale than another coffin full of dead soldier, that was for sure, but with the way Mal's luck usually went he was half-certain he'd find another Tracey waiting for him, or something worse. It was almost enough to make him change his mind and take River along instead-- but the girl was still leaking tears all over the place, probably picking up on Zoë's pain, and if she were constantly that open now after clearing Miranda from her brain he wasn't exactly keen to expose her to the chaos of a busy planet-side market. Time enough to try that experiment later, when they were someplace safer.

He turned out to be right on both accounts, both good luck and bad. There surely was a package for Jayne, full of something knitted-up in powder blue shaped somewhat like a scarf, but there was also a package for Mal, and it only took seeing the return address to convince him it might as well be a bomb or a coffin for all the effect it'd have on his crew.

Southdown Abbey. Where Book had lived, before he signed on to Serenity.

"I wasn't born a Shepherd, Mal," Book had told him on Haven, just before they'd first encountered the Operative. Mal had figured that out himself, of course, back when Book had been aboard; the Shepherd often knew things that a man of the cloth had no right to knowing, not to mention that ident card of his that worked on the Alliance like magic. But every time Mal'd tried to push it-- "You'll have to tell me about that sometime"-- Book had closed up tighter than a drum.

Book had never wanted to talk about his past. So what was something out of his past-- a 'wave tape, it looked like, tucked in with a handful of ancient books with leather spines and yellowed pages-- doing in Mal's hands? Real Earth-made literature was worth its weight in gold these days; he could believe an abbey might have hoarded such wealth in its vaults, but who in their right mind would mail it out to someone like him? Whatever the reason, it didn't bode well for Mal's peace of mind.

"Zāo gāo," he muttered under his breath, then shook off Jayne's questioning look and closed the box up again. Three more days, if'n he could keep Kaylee in the engine room instead of the doctor's bunk; three more days, and they'd be in the black. Whatever mysteries the box held, they could wait that long to be uncovered.

Chapter Text

Mal was much relieved when Serenity was cleared to lift from Persephone at last. Even a last-minute appearance by that húndàn of an Operative failed to make an appreciable dent in his mood. They were flying again, stores topped up and a job on the line, and as always, that was enough.

Even Zoë seemed to have perked up a bit with their departure. She was wearin' her pink shirt again, the high-collared one he'd last seen her in the day they robbed the trading station vault, and a little of the old spark had come back to her eyes. She was still a grieving widow, but she'd got her feet back under her. He wasn't going to lose her to it.

Still and all, Mal wasn't about to ask her to take the helm anytime soon. Zoë'd been raised shipboard, had in fact taught him most of what he knew about keeping a boat in the air during the War, but it would be plain cruelty to make her sit in the chair Wash had died in while the loss was still so fresh. That left Mal the only halfway competent Firefly pilot aboard-- not a job he much looked forward to, but there weren't no arguing with necessity.

Fortunately, it looked like their little albatross might have an aptitude for it. Only made sense, all the maths Simon said she knew, and all the time she'd spent up here keeping Wash company while he'd worked his wonders. Not that Mal'd trust her to take them in or out of atmo by herself anytime soon, but he thought he might let her do some of the course plotting for the trip, see how it went from there. Might finally get that stick out of Jayne's pìgu about her not being crew, not to mention giving her something of her own to keep her busy. She was near normal these days, mostly coherent and eager to learn; she'd given the doc and Kaylee a fright a time or two with her curious ways and meetings with Zoë still tended to end in tears, but most days now she was smilin', and it warmed his heart to see it.

She stayed with him on the bridge until the scents of cooking wafted up from the kitchen, then unfolded from the co-pilot's seat with a smile and a soft "xiè-xie" and padded aft.

It seemed as good a time as any to pull the 'wave tape from Southdown Abbey from his pocket and try it out in the ship's reader. They hadn't been able to do much with the one from Miranda-- it had been Alliance coded, impossible to break with the time and equipment they had, not to mention that Serenity's transmitter wasn't near as powerful as Mr. Universe's set-up. Uncoded tapes, though, weren't a problem.

A list of dates and times popped up on one of the smaller console screens, marked out pretty regular from a couple of years before Mal's birth up through the year the War ended. There was a large gap after that, one that appeared to match up with the time Book had said he'd spent at the Abbey, followed by another short series dating to the Shepherd's time on Serenity.

Mal wrinkled his brow at the index. Had to be a collection of text files; tape this size wouldn't hold that many vid clips. Was he looking at the Shepherd's diary? The thought made him uneasy. Why would the Abbey send it to him? And why would they have had their hands on it in the first place? What could be so important about Book's life that the older man had preferred Mal not know it while he lived, yet thought he needed to be made aware of it after? It didn't make any kind of sense.

His musing was interrupted by the heavy tread of boots on the bridge stairwell, and he toggled the screen off with a frown. Probably just someone bringing dinner, but he didn't want Book's legacy to become common knowledge just yet. He had a feeling what he learned from the tape wasn't going to be at all pleasing, and he wanted to put off spreading it to his still-recovering crew until he absolutely had to.

"That you, Jayne?" he asked, toggling a few more switches to make sure the auto-pilot was engaged before turning to face his visitor.

"Mal," the mercenary acknowledged, thrusting a plate of molded protein shapes at him with a frown.

Mal took it from him, then watched in puzzlement as Jayne moved to lean against the co-pilot's console instead of heading back down the stairwell. "Somethin' botherin' you?" he asked.

Jayne huffed an irritated breath, aiming a glare in Mal's direction. "Crazy girl says you're teachin' her how to pilot now," he said.

"I surely am," Mal replied mildly, wondering if there was any way to avoid the impending argument. Jayne had a very direct view of the 'verse, one Mal usually appreciated, but when it came to the Tams the mercenary had never quite seen eye to eye with him. "Seems she has an aptitude for it."

"You sure that's such a good idea?" Jayne plucked one of Wash's toys from Mal's console, a tyrannosaurus rex, and began turning it over with his hands while he waited for an answer.

Mal took a deep breath, determined not to get his dander up. "Don't see nothing wrong with it. Girl needs a job, the rest of us aren't too keen to hire a pilot none of us know. Works out just fine."

Jayne's frown grew deeper. "You forgotten already what happened on Beaumonde? What if she turns xiōngmĕng de kuángrén up here and crashes us into an asteroid or somethin'?"

A legitimate worry, but one Mal had already thought through, not to mention that he'd pestered Simon for River's safeword just in case. "Ain't gonna leave her up here alone anytime soon, and I won't be lettin' her answer any broadwaves neither, not until her brother figures out how to deprogram her. Won't be any way the Alliance could set her off."

Jayne looked a little mollified at that, but the frown still hadn't gone away. He set the toy down again, then leaned back, crossing his arms. "Still, it's not like she's exactly safe to be around, even without that. You saw what she did to him, that day she broke out and got up to the bridge and didn't want nobody stopping her. Not to mention what she did to me."

Mal's temper flared at the reminder of certain events he'd been trying not to dwell on. So much for keeping this conversation peaceable-like. "That's enough, Jayne. I came pretty damn close to puttin' you out the airlock as it is; you really don't want to push me on this."

Jayne jerked a little at that, surprise and dismay washing over his face. "Aw, Mal, it's been months since Ariel. I done told you, I just got stupid; I won't do nothing like that again. Just because I think the girl's a menace don't mean you gotta keep bringing that up every time we have an argument about her."

Mal slammed his plate down on the console without regard for the food that went flying and stood up, glaring at the mercenary. Did he never learn? "You think I'm blind, Jayne? Is that it? You think I didn't notice the storage door'd been opened from your side? She didn't break out and attack you, Jayne, she was waitin' when you came in after her."

It took a moment for that to register; Jayne uncrossed his arms, paling, and raised his hands placatingly. "I wasn't gonna do nothing to her, I swear," he said hastily. "I was just gonna take her off ship in a shuttle, stow her somewhere she wouldn't be a danger to the crew. You think I'd turn her over to the Feds? They'd kill me soon as look at me, I tried to do anything like that; I learned my lesson on Ariel. Besides, even if they didn't, you'd hunt me down and kill me after."

Mal narrowed his eyes. At least Jayne hadn't tried to deny it this time, and his claims sounded pretty close to what Mal had already guessed to be the truth. "I figured as much. And that's about half the reason you're still breathing."

Relief washed over Jayne's face, followed by a wrinkle of suspicion between his brows. "What's the other half?"

Mal stared impassively at him a moment longer, trying to decide how much to say, then decided to hell with it. Jayne was going to squawk, but best he knew now, or there could be more trouble later. "Well, she wanted out of there, that's plain, and we're still not sure the extent of what she can do with what they did to her. I figure there might have been a little bit of influence, there, myself."

Jayne jerked again, straightening up to his full height; he was maybe an inch or two taller than Mal, but he ofttimes seemed a lot larger when he was angry. "Nĭ tāmā de. Tiānxià suŏyŏu de rén. Dōu gāisĭ! You tellin' me she can mess with people's brains now? And you're still wantin' to keep her?"

Mal sighed, but didn't back down. "She ain't done nothing like that to me, Jayne, and as far as I can tell anything she may have done to you was for good cause, not for the hell of it. I aim to give her the benefit of the doubt on this. Just like you, I might add, in case you're still not noticing the fact that you're still breathing."

"Ain't done nothing?" Jayne's voice started to rise, and an angry flush crept into his face. "You so sure about that? You've been soft on her ever since she got here, and it's got worse since what happened on Miranda. I ain't never seen you treat no-one that careful afore, not even 'Nara."

Mal stared down at Jayne's index finger, which the man had been using to prod him in the chest for emphasis, then raised an eyebrow in Jayne's direction. "We ain't discussin' this any further, Jayne," he said, putting steel in his voice. "I know what I know, and I ain't got no obligation to discuss with you the way I treat my crew. You understanding me, here, or do we got to take this to the cargo bay after all?"

Jayne worked his jaw a little, but seemed to finally get the point. "Yeah, I got it. Don't mean I have to like it, though."

Mal held eye contact with him a little longer, just to make sure he'd made himself clear, then glanced back over to the pilot's console. "I'll keep that in mind," he said mildly, taking in the mess he'd made with his plate. "Now, I got my dinner to eat, and captainy things to be doing. You got anything else you need to get off your chest?"

"Not a damn thing." Jayne stomped off the bridge, still plainly disgruntled, and Mal sat back down in the pilot's chair with a sigh. He made quick work of cleaning up the console, then toggled the darkened screen back on and frowned down at its mysterious contents.

Chapter Text

Mal scrolled through the list of entries for a few minutes, trying to decide on a place to start. The beginning seemed as good a place as any, but if Book had left him a message direct it would probably be at the end, 'bout the time the Shepherd had left Serenity for the mining settlement on Haven. And then there was that grouping of dates 'twixt March and May of 2511...

Mal stared through the screen for several moments as the sounds and scents of Serenity Valley rose up around him in echoes. He didn't want to believe that Book could've had anything to do with the hé chùsheng zájiāo de zānghuò who had been behind that slaughter... but the Alliance ident card he'd carried, and the deference paid him by the soldiers aboard the IAV Magellan, spoke to a different theory. Whatever Book had been before he'd become the man Mal had known, he surely hadn't been an Independent.

Mal shook his head, banishing old ghosts back where they belonged, then scrolled back to the top of the list. Whatever Book'd wanted to tell him, to per-maybe-haps soften the blow of what lurked in these files, Mal didn't want to hear it just yet. He'd trusted the older man, gone to him for counsel even after Book had left Serenity, but he still had a notion to check the lie of the land for himself before sussing out what the Shepherd wanted him to parse from it.

He punched up the first entry, dated in early 2480, and began reading as the screen filled with text:

"'Into every generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the forces of darkness; with the strength and skill to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers.'

"So the legends tell us, passed down from father to son since the days of Earth-That-Was. According to our sacred texts, it is the purview of the Watchers to seek out this girl and care for her, to nurture her and train her and identify the evils she is to vanquish, to record her life that the next Slayer may benefit from her experiences.

"No Slayer has been Activated since the climactic end of Earth-That-Was, but the need for her services is as great now as it was then. The distortion of time has rendered the classic Slayer's foes into dehumanized figures, mythologized as 'Vampires' and 'Demons', but a deeper reading of the text exposes their true origins: an underground movement which terrorized the fringes of society and preyed upon the populace, virtually ignored by most official sources until it crystallized over time into a force powerful enough to threaten the original Anglo-Sino Alliance at its height.

"It should be clear to any student of recent history that unless something is done to prevent it, that situation will soon repeat itself in a much larger arena. The very fabric of the present Alliance is in danger. Unrest grows daily amongst the peoples of the border worlds; smuggling, piracy, and slavery are on the rise, and respect for Allied authority weakens further with every failed attempt by the current Parliament to openly fight these problems. It is time for a new approach, new ways of fighting that our opponents will neither expect nor be able to counter.

"Potential Slayers still exist; many have been studied in depth since the time of the Great Migration. Their DNA markers have been recorded to enable future Slayers to be more easily discovered. None of these studies, however, have yielded the secret means whereby ancient Watchers Activated and enhanced a Potential Slayer's genetically-gifted abilities, transmuting her from a mere girl into a living weapon.

"According to my father, new resources recently made available should solve that problem within my lifetime. Whatever secret science or technology the peoples of Earth-That-Was had at their fingertips, we will be able to rediscover or create anew. When that happens, when the Slayer returns at last, the Watchers must be ready; we must be in position to capitalize on her presence and her abilities.

To that end, I, Derrial Tomos..."

Mal jerked back from the screen, a little confused and a lot creepified, unwilling to read one word more. Breaking from the text felt a lot like coming up for air in the midst of danger, like the breath of wind on his face in the cargo bay of Serenity when the S.S. Walden had answered his distress call-- just before the other captain had raised his gun and shot Mal down.

"Wŏ de tiān, a," he muttered, pushing out of the pilot's chair and pacing toward the center of the bridge, where he paused to gaze out into the Black. At first glance the journal entry had seemed a mite pretentious, sort of scholarly in a fēngle kind of way, but by the time he'd got to the part about 'enhancing' and 'living weapons', not to mention all the gŏushĭ about unrest in the border worlds... He could hardly believe such things had ever been written by the man he'd known and trusted. And more'n that, what it might mean for River...

Simon had said that his sister was fourteen or so when the so-called Academy took her. Book had long been in the abbey by that time, but it was a safe bet that the Shepherd at least known about the place. Maybe even recruited other girls for it, what with nigh on thirty years of entries recorded in his journal afore he went to ground. Other girls like River, graceful geniuses taken by people intent on doing all manner of awful things to 'em in the name of making 'em more useful. It was all beginning to form a very ugly picture in Mal's mind, one he didn't want to look at, no more'n he'd wanted to accept what they'd found on Miranda.

How could rational people support something like this? How could Book, enigmatic but powerful good man that Mal had known, have ever had a part in it?

And yet, the warning Book had given him on Haven still echoed in his ears. "Sort of man they're like to send believes hard, kills and never asks why." Had the young man what parroted back his father's legends in the entry Mal had just read been merely misguided? Might he have changed his mind when he fetched up against the real world, then spent his time mitigating the damage others like the Operatives caused until he could take no more of it? Or had Book been remembering his own past with that cryptic reference?

Mal knew which theory he'd like to believe, but he also knew what happened to a man trapped in the maw of that kind of darkness, one every bit as dangerous as what the Reaver survivor he'd once found had looked into. He might as well be dead, for the man what came out the other side of such evil weren't never the same man that went in, even if he managed to pull himself back into the light. And Book had surely been there; between the clues he'd let fall during their voyage together, and the bits Mal had just read, there weren't no other conclusion to be reached. But if that were so, what event had Book fetched up against to turn him from true believer in the Alliance to itinerant preacher?

Thoughts swirled chaotically in his mind, soon drowned out once more by the echoes that never seemed to leave him of his very own crucible of faith. How long he stood there before Zoë interrupted him, he couldn't have said.

"Wŏ de mā."

Mal jerked his gaze away from the stars, a bit startled that he hadn't heard anyone coming, and found himself meeting his second's disturbed gaze over the pilot's console. She must've come up to ask him-- he'd been intending to given her the details of the job after dinner-- and had spotted the open file.

"Is this what it looks like, sir?" she said, in an intense, angry tone of voice that fit in all too well with the reminiscing he'd been doing.

"If it looks to you like the good Shepherd found a way to dump all his qīngwā cào de secrets unlooked for on my shoulders after I'd given up on ever hearing 'em, then I'd say you've got the right of it. Haven't read more than the one entry yet; not sure I want to. If there's anything in there that could've been used to help River..."

"Guĭ," she muttered under her breath, lips pressed into a grim line. "Where'd you come by this?"

"That package I got, the one I didn't share with the crew? Came from Southdown Abbey. Packed full of books, with the 'wave tape there tucked in all casual-like. Had no idea what might be on it."

"You going to tell the others?"

Right to the point, his Zoë. "Not yet. Don't know what else might be on there; could be we're gettin' the wrong idea."

"But you don't think we are."

"No I don't." He sighed. "No, I don't."

She looked away then, one of her hands drifting up to ghost lightly over the back of the triceratops sitting above the reader screen. "Goin' to lead us on another fēngle crusade?"

Mal winced. "Might be too late for that now. Last entry on there is months old." He shook his head, dragging his mind back to the present with an effort. "Got other business in mind. Spoke with Sir Warwick this morning."

"Sir Warwick?" Zoë blinked and looked up at him again, jarred out of her sour mood. "Thought you said never again, sir."

"I said never again with cows. Didn't say nothin' about cows-to-be."

Her eyebrows climbed up her forehead at that, and Mal tried hard not to smile at it. Little enough surprised her after all this time. "Man's lookin' to improve his herd, and he heard a fella on Osiris is breedin' some damn fine beeves. We're to pick up some seed stock, suppose you'd call it, in a cryo container."

The eyebrows came down again at that in disapproval. "Osiris?" she frowned. "That's deep-Core territory."

"And we happen to have ourselves a freshly-washed, spankin' clean record. Thought we might take advantage of that, 'fore it gets tarnished up again." The Operative had been thorough, Mal would give him that; even the five occasions on which Mal himself had been bound by law for one smuggling-related charge or another had all disappeared from regular Cortex and military databases alike.

She nodded slowly, as always picking up what he wasn't saying as well as what he was. "And I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give Simon and River a chance to drop in on their family, see how the land lies now their warrants have been revoked."

"Suppose it wouldn't," Mal replied, agreeably.

She sighed. "You know it ain't goin' to go smooth," she said, in a resigned tone.

"Never does."

She shook her head at him one more time, then turned and strolled off the bridge, favoring the console screen with one last wary glance before disappearing down the stairwell.

"Never does," Mal repeated to himself, and gazed back out into the Black.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Mal thought of the Black almost as a living thing, like Serenity or the old ranch house his Ma had raised him in on Shadow. But where his boat and his childhood home both had an air of fondness to 'em, like they'd wrap you up in their loving arms and try to keep the darkness from you if'n they could, the Black was a horse of a different color. It divided up the worlds, harbored monsters, tore uncareful ships to pieces, and sent more'n one man to gibbering from staring into it too long. The legends of bogeymen had been about a long time before the Reavers had made their way onto the scene.

The Black was mercurial, tested a man harshly betimes and rewarded him richly at others. But unlike most else in Mal's life, it had always been there waiting for him and never pretended to be nothing that it weren't. Night like this, he needed that straightforwardness more'n a little.

Mal contemplated the stars for near to an hour after Zoë's departure, wondering what else he'd find on Book's tape, what either set of Tams would be like to do when they fetched up on Osiris, what might maybe go wrong with their latest job, and whether Inara would be about to bail 'em out of it....

He really needed to have a solid talk with that woman, something more substantial than that glance they'd shared at the doors of Mr. Universe's complex or the smile and pert reply she'd given when he'd asked if she were ready to leave 'em. He'd missed her something fierce while she'd been at her training house, and from the ease with which she'd slipped back into their usual arguing style he'd guessed she'd missed him, too. But there were more to the equation of him and her than the simplicity of wanting, else one of them would've done something about it a long time ago.

He was no gentleman, for one, and parts of that, particularly the scars left him by the War, Inara didn't seem comfortable with. She'd turned her face away from him on Haven, and there'd been horror and dismay in her voice when she'd demanded he think about what he was asking of the crew. She hadn't brought the subject up again since her own taste of battle, but he'd be a fool if he thought that was the end of it. Then, too, there was the fact she was too proud to stay aboard forever without paying her own way. Not to mention, the contacts and reputation as had got them out of so many tight corners were all based on that Guild license of hers, which would lapse if'n she didn't use it. It was a right tangle.

Mal cared for Inara, he couldn't deny it no more, but so much still stood between 'em. He still didn't think he could take the inevitable loss if he let her in that close-- matter of fact, he feared it might actually break him, much like what losing Wash had done to Zoë-- but he'd never been one for backing down from a difficult situation, neither. Now was the time to ask-- and answer-- the question of what they were to each other afore the 'verse did it for 'em.

Mal sighed and slowly moved back to the pilot's seat, scrubbing a hand through his hair before pulling up the course projections and making sure the autopilot would keep 'em on track while he slept. Before Miranda, he or Wash had often stayed up with Serenity most of the night keeping a casual watch, but he didn't have no one he'd trust to trade off with at the moment. The proximity alarms would have to do that job for him.

That task taken care of, he turned to the reader-screen again and glanced down at the place he'd left off.

"To that end, I, Derrial Tomos, along with several other Watcher trainees, have been sent out to the border worlds to search the population for Potential Slayers who may have been overlooked. I will be presenting myself as an itinerant schoolteacher, a role for which the academic side of my education has well prepared me. I expect no difficulty fitting in with whatever communities I may temporarily settle in; most parents are likely to be glad to have a genuinely cultured individual teaching their children, and the mothers in particular are likely to see me as a prospect for any daughters who may have already finished their schooling.

"As each Potential is identified, we are instructed to present them with an opportunity: transport back to the Core for a more specialized education. Again, I anticipate no trouble with this tactic. Those parents who don't immediately grasp at the idea of bettering their children's chances in life should be easily seduced by an offer of monetary compensation.

"Should that not prove to be the case, however... well, we cannot allow these girls to fall into hands hostile to the Alliance. If a Slayer were to rise up anywhere we could not reach to guide her, the results could be quite disastrous. I find that aspect of my mission distasteful, but some things must be done if the 'verse is to be healed of its troubles."

The entry ended there. Mal frowned grimly as he turned the screen off, then ejected the tape and stowed it in his belt pocket. He could almost hear the Operative's words after Haven in his mind-- "What I do is evil. I've no illusions about that. But it must be done." Young Book wasn't quite at that "world without sin" stage just yet, but the similarities as did exist made Mal's skin crawl.

Book had to've known Mal would react this way, too. Man was skilled at reading people, and however he'd got that talent didn't have no bearing on this question: knowing it would shake Mal's opinion of him, why do it? Had to be something more going on here.

Mal stretched a bit in the pilot's chair, loosening muscles made stiff by hours of stillness, then closed up the bridge and made his way toward the common areas. It had become a bit of a tradition for him to put Serenity to sleep on the nights she was in the Black, checking up on everyone aboard her and making sure everything was ship-shape before turning in to his own bunk. After weeks of being dirt-bound it felt like coming home again, even more than lifting off from Persephone in the first place.

The hatch to Zoë's bunk was shut up tight, as was Kaylee's; he doubted anyone was sleeping in either bunk just yet, though the reasons weren't like to be at all similar. Jayne's hatch was still open, a faint sound of guitar strumming drifting up the ladder; the instrument had been a gift from Book, and Mal didn't doubt Jayne was thinking of him, too, this night.

That were four of his crew accounted for, assuming the doc was with Kaylee (and it was pretty safe to do so these days, little as Mal wanted to think on it). The common area was dark, just enough lighting to keep a man from tripping over chairs on his way through; the engine room was equally empty, thrumming softly, lights pulsing in the familiar rhythm of Serenity's heartbeat.

Mal took the stairs down from the aft passage to the lower level and found both the lounge area and the infirmary dark and quiet as the level above. Weren't no sound nor lights coming from the passenger quarters, neither; River might actually have gone to bed on time this once. He'd used to run into her on this tour frequent-like, hiding in strange places and making stranger comments. Probably, now that he thought on it, taking advantage of the time the other minds on board were quiet to spend a spell in her own head.

Mal walked back past the infirmary to the cargo bay and stood a moment in the doorway, taking in the vast, echoing space. Extra supplies and spare parts were crated up to one side; overhead, the mule swung securely from its supports, all fixed up again after coming partway loose and thrashing about during Serenity's near-demise. Fortunate it had been fixable after what it had cost 'em; they couldn't never afford another one, not unless they got another score like the Lassiter. The thing had been easy enough to lift, but it had taken Saffron's codes to get 'em there and Inara's contacts to fence it, and daring such again would be asking for trouble.

He took the catwalks across to poke his head into Shuttle Two, then paced back across 'em toward the hatch to Shuttle One. It was dogged shut, no light visible through its window; looked he'd be having that talk with Inara in the morning instead. He'd rather not do so when the others might listen in or take note of it-- he'd taken enough fèihuà from 'em the last time she'd left the ship to want 'em blaming her choices on him this time-- but despite all her comments about him barging in unasked, he never had done when he knew her to be sleeping or bathing or... occupied.

Mal shook his head and walked back out of the cargo bay, taking the near stairs up to the fore passage. Morning would take care of itself when it came. Time and past time for him to be catching some shut-eye.

He climbed down into his quarters, shutting the hatch behind him as he went, and began unbuckling his gun-belt soon as he got to the bottom. When he turned to toss it bed-ward, though, he spotted something unexpected-- long white limbs and dark hair stretched out casual-like atop his blankets.

"What in the name of suŏyŏu de dōu shìdàng... River?"

The girl stirred, blinking her eyes at him sleepily. "I've made the bed warm for you," she said softly, then stretched and covered her mouth for a wide yawn.

The hair stood up on the back of Mal's neck at that comment and he shuddered uneasily, remembering the last time he'd heard those words. Least this time, the girl in his bed was on it, not under his covers, and still had her dress on; he could just see her announcing innocently at breakfast that she'd been down here in the altogether, and then she and Kaylee would both be hating him for what he'd have to do to keep Simon from killing him.

"I see that," he said carefully. "You do know you're not supposed to be down here, don't you?"

Her face fell, and she sat up slowly. "I couldn't hear him breathing," she said, plaintively. "Couldn't hear anyone breathing, couldn't..." She clenched her hands a little, plainly distressed.

"Who, Simon?" Mal thought on that, his irritation at finding her here fading into concern. "Hadn't thought on that before. What with him and Kaylee keeping company, you're alone in the passenger dorm, ain't you?"

She bit her lip and nodded slowly. "Gets awful lonely in the Black," she replied.

"And the empty crew quarters ain't been cleaned in months." He sighed. "Look, you can't stay the night here. What say you go back to your room, just 'til morning. After breakfast we'll have Kaylee come and help you spiff it up, move in your things, even put a sign on the door if you want. Only fitting, anyhow; can't have our new co-pilot runnin' all the way up from below-decks every time she has to fly, now can we?"

He gave her a reassuring smile and was rewarded by a look of relief on her face. "Xièxie, Captain," she said, then unfolded herself and padded past him to the ladder. She darted up to give him a kiss on the cheek in passing, then giggled at his expression before disappearing up through the hatch.

Gorram girl; he knew who to blame that little trick on. Miss Kaylee would be getting an earful in the morning-- and not just about that. He needed to have a word with her about not thinking what stealing the doc overnight would do to his sister, too. And as for Simon... well, the look on his face when Mal told him about this little encounter ought to be punishment enough.

"I am a bad man," he said aloud to his non-existent audience, then gave a tired chuckle and finished his nightly routine.

Chapter Text

Mal woke to a dull throbbing in his gut, a sure sign he'd been thrashing about in his sleep during the night. Alliance medical technology had done wonders for the stab wound that had aerated his insides, the laser burn on his back, and all the other little souvenirs the Operative had left him with, but flesh weren't like metal or plastic, coming out of the shop good as the day it were made. It still took considerable time to recover.

He'd been tempted more'n once to ask the doc for something to knock him out of an evening, keep him from stretching healing tissues every time he had a nightmare. Worse came to worst, though, he'd rather be sore and on his feet when the next Operative or Early came calling than laid out in his bunk dead to the 'verse. Man in his position couldn't afford to cultivate that kind of vulnerability.

Mal glanced at the clock and decided he could spare a few more minutes lying around feeling sorry for himself-- Captain's prerogative. Then he began rubbing at clenched muscles, loosening 'em up while he thought over his tentative plans for the day. Were a lot going on, between the scheduled stop at the Training House (staying or leaving, Inara's business there would probably take 'em a few hours) and all the 'maintenance' chores as needed doing afore they reached Osiris. If he really meant to have that discussion with Inara, he'd best be getting to it.

He rolled out of bed and went about his morning ablutions, then took careful inventory of his clean shirts. His choices were pretty much limited to his usual captain-y red or brown or the blue one what Kaylee had told him brought out the color of his eyes; he weren't sure which would make a better impression, or even whether it mattered. Not like his best measured up to Inara's finery, or would make her any more like to say what he wanted to hear.

Might make him feel better though, Mal decided, facing his doom looking as pretty as possible. He allowed himself a wry smile at his own expense, then chose the blue shirt and finished dressing. Not for the first time, he mourned the death of his leather suspenders; sure'n they'd got a bit worn since the war, but he'd been plenty attached to the things and he'd had more'n a few compliments on the look over the years. Ah, well. The new ones held his trousers up just fine, and that was all he asked of 'em.

The ship was still quiet when he made his way up to the bridge. The autopilot had held course over the night, and no changes would be needed for at least three more hours; for once, Mal's sky was as uncluttered as he preferred it to be. Thinning out half the Reaver fleet and a good quarter of the Alliance's war-craft had thrown doors wide for the smuggling trade in these parts, but not too many boats was taking advantage of that just yet.

He contemplated that thought until the scent of coffee drifted up from the kitchen, plotting where to look next after their business with Sir Warwick was done. Operative had been pretty gorram thorough when he took out their contacts; Mal was fair sure the hóuzi de pìgu had dug the list out of Fanty and Mingo, as the only survivors he'd found so far had been ones the boys never done heard of like Sir Warwick or folk like Patience and Badger what wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire, much less shelter him from Feds. Might be a good time to re-connect with a few more of the old war buddies he'd kept his distance from in recent years.

The coffee was of Zoë's making, and she had a cup waiting for him when he walked in off the bridge. He took it with a grateful smile, then slouched into his chair at the head of the dining table and wrapped his hands around the warm mug. She took a seat to his right, and they sat there in companionable silence for several minutes while they waited for the others to begin trickling in from their bunks. Crew didn't eat breakfast together every day, but first day on a job they usually made time to touch base.

Kaylee and Simon were the first to join 'em, looking all googly-eyed at each other even this early in the morning, carefully approaching from opposite sides of the common area like the boy hadn't snuck down the stairs from the fore passage and come back up again from behind. Mal bit hard to suppress the mischievous grin that hovered on his lips, wondering who they thought they was fooling, and threw Zoë an amused glance. He gave 'em enough time to get their own coffee and a bite or two to eat, then cleared his throat.

"So, doctor. Hear you're shackin' up with my mechanic, now."

He caught Simon with a mouthful of coffee, and the boy choked on it in a most satisfying manner. "Shénme?" he blurted, wiping at his face and then the table with a loose napkin.

"I said..." Mal began again, carefully expressionless.

"I heard what you said," Simon said, making a face that curiously resembled the one he'd worn back in Canton when the townsfolk burst into song about 'the man they call Jayne'. "I'm just having trouble believing that you said it," the doctor continued, with a quick glance in Kaylee's direction. "I'd expect it of Jayne, but not...." He paused. "Are you asking my intentions?"

Mal followed the doc's gaze to Kaylee, saw her watching the both of 'em part-amused and part-alarmed. Wouldn't bother her none, Mal knowing what they was up to, obvious as it was to folk with two working eyes anyhow. He was fair sure she was remembering his problems with Wash and Zoë, though, back when they'd started sharing a bunk. No point keeping her worried on that score.

"Guĭ, no," he told Simon, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Unless you intend on makin' our lil' Kaylee unhappy? 'Cause I'm fair sure there ain't no other way of pryin' her loose of you now, long as it took her to catch you in the first place."

"Cap'n!" Kaylee objected, blushing a little, exasperated with him now. He grinned back at her in all fondness, enjoying the chance to tease her all brother-like before launching into the real point of the conversation.

If possible, Simon looked even more flabbergasted at Mal's answer. "So you brought it up as crudely as possible in order to what, give us your blessing?"

Mal let the smile fade off his face and leaned forward on his elbows, emphasizing his next words in his best Stern Captain Voice. "No, son. I'm just sayin' it might've been nice to hear about the change in sleepin' quarters from the pair of you direct. Captain needs to know where to find his crew at all times, which shouldn't include the doctor's sis turnin' up in his bed complainin' of loneliness."

Kaylee's eyes went wide and round; the sounds of Simon and Zoë both choking on their coffee were music to Mal's ears.

"River what?" Simon yelped, going from defensive boyfriend to protective brother in the blink of an eye. "But why would she.... Is she okay?"

"Is she okay?" Mal objected, deliberately misunderstanding. "Hate to admit it, doc, but River's a mite more dangerous than I am, and you know it."

"That isn't what I..." Simon sputtered, then trailed off, grasping at one of Kaylee's hands for reassurance. "What was she doing there?"

Mal snorted. "Talkin' 'bout how she couldn't hear you breathin' no more at night. What d'you think she was doing there?"

"In your bed?"

On another day, getting accused of lecherous behavior for no good reason, Mal might've gone huffy and irritable at the expression of horror on Simon's face. Having caused it his ownself for effect, though, Mal was in a fine state of humor. He drew his face into innocent lines and replied, "Reckon she fell asleep waitin' while I was up on the bridge. Found her there when I got to my bunk, and let me tell you, it gave me quite the turn."

"Reckon it would at that, sir," Zoë said blandly, reminding him of her presence. Mal glanced over in her direction and saw her giving him the evil eye; he'd have to make it up to her later.

"But why you?" Simon continued, doggedly. "Why didn't she just tell me she was upset? I could've..."

"Could've what?" Mal smirked at him. "Brought her along with you? Drugged her flat? 'Spect she didn't feel much like intruding, nor availin' herself of any chemical remedies. And what's wrong with me? You'd rather she picked Jayne?"

"I'd rather she didn't pick anyone," Simon fretted. "You didn't let her, I mean..."

"Didn't let her stay there, if that's what you're askin'," Mal said primly. "What kinda man you think I am? Girl ain't even eighteen yet. Did see her point though; what if she woke up screamin', or we had another fire, or another húndàn like Early got on board? Wouldn't none of us be close enough to help her."

"Didn't think 'bout that," Kaylee said softly, looking guiltily down at the table. "Just... didn't want to disturb her, you know? Walls down there's all paper thin, and... well..."

Simon's face had lost its angry flush as Mal's words hit home. "No, it's my fault," he soothed Kaylee, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "I should've asked if Inara could watch her..."

"The Slayer Slays while her Watcher Watches," his mèimei's voice interrupted him sharply, "but Inara's not mine, and there's nothing here to Slay."

Mal jumped in his chair, startled, and cast a glance over his shoulder. River'd come up the front stairs, poised in the fore hatchway wearing that flowy blue sleeveless sheath of a dress Inara'd given her a few months back. She had a serious, disgruntled expression on her face, and as Mal turned his attention to her she looked away from her brother and wrinkled her nose in Mal's direction. "Is it time for presents yet?"

A prickle of alarm ran up Mal's spine as the word 'Slayer' sank in, souring his good mood. Had she picked it up from him, that thing of Book's he'd been reading? Or were his half-formed worries more'n just speculation-- an entire school run by kuángzhĕ de doctors trying to carve little girls into nursery tale Alliance heroes? He frowned, trying to shake off that line of thought before she could pick it up and spill the beans to the whole crew, and gave a nod to answer her question.

"Was just getting to that part," he told her, then turned back toward Kaylee and raised his eyebrows at her.

"Presents?" Kaylee perked up at the notion, though she looked a bit confused. "What kind of presents?"

"The kind where I promised you'd help clear the extra crew-bunk and move her things up," Mal told her. "This mornin', if at all possible, as I got chores what need all the extra hands I can get once we're planet-side."

"Cái bù shì!" Jayne objected, comin' in behind River. "You're givin' the moonbrain the spare bunk, too?" He glared irritably at Mal as he crossed to the kitchen lockers, then pulled out a bottle of homebrew liquor and poured a splash of it in the bottom of a coffee mug.

Mal sighed. "She ain't a passenger no more, Jayne. That should be clear even to you by now." He glanced around at the other four faces in the room, fed up of the mercenary's petulance. "Anyone else got an objection?"

Simon blushed a little, but didn't protest; Mal found that a good sign, as he'd as good as announced the doc would be moving in with Kaylee permanent-like and he weren't sure just how far the boy had thought ahead. Kaylee looked delighted, though some of that were likely at the idea of getting another chance to decorate since he'd forbid her from painting any more in the common area. River just looked impatient.

Zoë didn't look pleased, though, and that were a surprise. She frowned at Mal mightily, opening her mouth several times, but no words escaped. Then she looked down into her mug and sighed. "I've been thinkin'," she finally said, in a rough but determined voice, "that my bunk's a bit too empty these days. If..." she swallowed. "If we're going to be moving folk around anyway, seems like it might be a better use of space to put Simon and Kaylee in it."

Mal stared at her, at a loss for words. "Zoë..." He put a hand on her shoulder, not sure which of 'em he was trying to reassure. He'd never even thought she might not want to keep the space she'd shared with Wash-- hadn't thought; of course she'd feel it again every time she looked at the man's dinosaurs, or his clothes in the wardrobe, or the empty space in her bed. "Got a few empty crates knockin' around. Pack up anything you don't want to keep now-- I'll put it in a hold 'til you're ready to look at it again."

She glanced up from her mug and gave him an almost-smile of gratitude. "I'd appreciate that, sir."

"Looks like we got us a busy morning, then," Mal said, clapping his hands together as he turned back to the rest of the crew. "Jayne, you mind helpin' Zoë? Doc and Kaylee got their own stuff to move, and River's, and it'll all go a sight faster with an extra pair of arms."

Jayne grunted, but didn't object, and tossed back the contents of his mug.

"Okay then," Mal pushed back his chair and stretched. "Shiny. I'll go poke around for them crates; then I'll be on the bridge if'n y'all need me. Try not to need me, though, dŏng ma?"

They all ignored him as he left the room, already busy discussing just what was gonna go where. He shook his head at them, turned his steps toward Shuttle One, hoping his next conversation would go better than the last.

Chapter Text

Mal's steps slowed as he approached Shuttle One, then came to a halt just outside the hatch. It was still dogged shut, but through its window he could see a flicker of light; that trunk of sundries, not content with providing several changes of clothing, a back-up stash of warpaint, and a battle bow he hadn't never seen before, must've been hiding a store of candles too. Strange collection of things for a woman to leave behind... a woman as weren't planning on coming back, anyhow.

He'd thought over Inara's leaving more'n once since the day she had walked off Serenity. "When you live with that kind of strength," she'd told him after her friend Nandi died, "you get tied to it. You can't break away. And you never want to." But then she'd up and done just that.

He'd conjured she'd been reminded somehow of whatever she'd been running from. Every-damn-one on Serenity had come there escaping something else; she'd never shared her reason with him nor anyone else he knew of, but her being aboard a Firefly in the first place had been a definite sign. Panicking like she done, pulling up roots, running back to the sheltering arms of her Guild-- that were a thing Mal could understand.

Understanding a thing didn't make it hurt any the less, though. Point of fact, made a man more skittish; were things between 'em any more like to go smooth this time around? She'd never even mentioned any kinda feelings for him herself. If Nandi'd never said nothing, he'd'a gone right on dancing round Inara at a distance, trying not to let on he cared too much. But she had, and he'd opened his gorram mouth....

Mal took a deep breath and pictured Inara in his mind's eye as she'd faced him in the passage the day before. Hair down, face near as clean as Kaylee's when the girl weren't under an engine, dressed simple, saying "I don't know." He didn't know what that meant. She complained he had too many versions? The woman had more'n a few of her own, and this were one he weren't familiar with.

One thing he did know, though; standing out here weren't no way to find out. He gathered up his courage and raised a hand to knock.


Inara sounded serene as always, like there weren't nothing for her to be worried about. Mal tamped down on what felt like a whole flock of butterflies in his own stomach and took her up on her invitation.

His eyes were immediately drawn to her the moment he stepped into the shuttle. She stood out in the empty room like a flower in a desert, a splash of life and color in the drab, undecorated space. He'd moved a bed and chair in from one of the passenger dorms so's she could have her familiar quarters back, but the ordinary furnishings couldn't compare to the rich colors and lush fabrics she'd filled it with before.

She was wearing the same low-cut red and gold number he'd fetched her from the Training House in, sitting on her bed with her spine stiff as a plank and her painted mask back on. She'd set her trunk between bed and chair, and the battered old teapot from the kitchen was steaming away atop it. The setup reminded him somewhat of the first and only time she'd ever summoned him herself, when she'd offered him tea, tried to use her wiles on him, and then thrown all that 'petty thieving' fèihuà in his face. It made him a mite uneasy, but he tried his best to ignore it and greeted her with a smile.

Inara returned his smile, a plastic effort that didn't quite reach her eyes. "I had a feeling I'd see you here this morning," she said.

"Did you now," Mal said uneasily, pacing slowly toward the chair. He didn't quite feel like sitting down just yet, but he felt a bit ridiculous hovering in the doorway.

"Of course," she replied, mildly. "Unless you've changed course since the last time I checked, we'll be breaking atmo this morning, correct?" She lifted the teapot as she spoke, pouring thin streams of fragrant liquid into two chipped, old cups.

"Ain't wrong about that," he answered, cautiously.

"Then this is likely to be our best chance to talk before I must give my decision to the House Priestess."

If he hadn't been watching so close, he'd never have seen the fine tremor in Inara's hands, making the tea splash not-so-symmetrically into the second cup. Mal felt his nerves calm a bit at the sight. He sat down slow, bracing his hands on his thighs, and accepted a cup from her before replying to her comment.

"About that," he said, casual-like. "Not that I, you know, got any call to make suggestions here, but..."

Inara turned her face away abruptly, smile fading from her face, and he faltered to a stop. "Inara..."

She looked back up at him, and he was startled at the change in her expression. Like Yolanda lamenting over Haymer, her heart were all of a sudden in her eyes, wide and wet with tears not yet born. "Don't," she said, quietly. "You're only going to make this harder on both of us."

Mal's grip tightened on the full teacup in his hand. "You're not stayin', then."

"I didn't say that," she said sharply, looking away, then took a deep breath and met his eyes again. "I know you care for me, Mal. I have... feelings for you, too. But that was never our problem. If love was all that mattered, I would never have left in the first place."

He blinked at her, taken aback by the bitterness in her tone as much as the depth of feeling she was admitting to. "'Scuse me?" he blurted. "Are you telling me that all this time..."

"It doesn't matter," she interrupted him, firmly. "Our problems have nothing to do with emotions and everything to do with who we are. I'm a Companion, Mal. I've allowed myself to forget that these last few weeks, but it can't be ignored forever. You've said more than once that you respect who I am, not what I do, but they're the same thing; you can't separate it out like that. I could never just turn in my Guild ID and become the Captain's kept woman, any more than you could give up your ship and join me in the Training House."

Mal sputtered at that, scrambling for a response. "Where's this coming from, 'Nara? I never asked nothing of you; I never thought--"

"Never thought is right." She shook her head at him, her expression part irritation and part anguish. "You know as well as I do that you'd never be happy sharing me, Mal. You had a hard enough time sharing Zoë with Wash, and you've never been romantically involved with her. How long would it be until you started interfering with all my clients the way you did with Atherton?"

"Hey now." Mal set his untouched tea down on the trunk, raising a finger to emphasize his point. "That man had no respect for you, and you know it." He knew he was letting himself be distracted, but he couldn't let that pass without a response.

"He was a regular client before you challenged him, and he never once insulted me until you stuck your nose into my business."

Mal's eyebrows went up at that comment. "Do the words, 'shoulda uglied you up so no one else would want you,' ring a bell? Don't care what he said before that, that ain't a man cares for anything but his own gratification."

"You're missing the point," she said, frowning at him. "What I'm trying to say, Mal, is that you'd never be happy unless I gave up my job, and we both know it. But it's not that simple. Being a Companion isn't like being a rancher, or a smuggler; it's not a job, it's who you are. From the age of twelve we spend years on discipline and preparation, learning how to behave, how to speak, how to be, before the act of pleasure is even mentioned. It's more than just sex, it's an entire way of life, of sharing and giving to others. Even if I wanted to give it up-- and I don't-- what else would I do?" She threw up her hands. "I don't know how to pilot anything larger than a shuttle, what basic medical knowledge I have is far outstripped by Simon's skills, I don't even own a gun, and all of my contacts would be useless to you if I gave up my registration."

Mal tried to wrap his brain around the notion of Inara at twelve, all big eyes and long dark hair, dolled up in some fancy dress learning how to play a dulcimer 'stead of doing her maths. What kinda parents would ship their daughters to whoring school at that age? Was that a normal Core thing-- had the Tams thought on sending River off to House Madrassa 'fore they'd chosen that Academy?

He shook his head, trying to dislodge that disturbing image before it could take root. "So what are you sayin', Inara? You don't want to stay 'cause of things I might maybe ask of you if'n we was involved? But we ain't involved, and ain't like to be, which point you've made clear to me on more'n one occasion. Not to mention, you coulda said all of this the first time or kept your mouth shut now and made a lot less trouble for the both of us. Somethin' else is botherin' you, and I'm getting kinda tired of you avoidin' the topic."

Inara looked away at that, a loose curl slipping from her up-done hair to trail down her cheek. The itch to wrap it around a finger, trace its path down the smooth curve of her skin, was an old and familiar temptation; Mal shunted it away, waiting with all the patience he could scrape together for her answer.

"Very well," she sighed. "Do you remember, when I first came on board, you asked me what I was running from?"

"It's been fair fresh on my mind of late," he admitted.

She sighed, then met his gaze again, defiance sparking up in the depths of her dark eyes. "You have to understand, Mal, the Guild isn't Alliance, but neither is it an entirely independent or benevolent organization. The location of the central Houses, the societal placement of those who most commonly secure the services of Companions-- it would be more surprising if the Council didn't use us as agents to forward their political ambitions."

His heart sank down somewhere in the vicinity of his boots as he realized what she was implying. "Talk plainly, Inara. You tellin' me you was sent here for some purpose?"

"Not entirely," she said, shaking her head in denial. "It's true that most Companions are allowed complete autonomy to choose their own clients-- but the best of us have always been groomed for specialized services, gently directed toward a certain type of client in particular and often one in specific. I had no problem with the concept in general, but when I realized to whom my contract as personal Companion was likely to be offered-- well, I decided to plead to the Council for an equitable alternative. Your notice of a shuttle for rent arrived on the Cortex at a particularly fortuitous time."

"Zhēn dăoméi," he muttered, grimly. "What'd I ever do to earn that kind of attention?"

"Earned a commendation for valor?" she suggested gently. "Impressed the former Independent High Command enough that they promoted you and your surviving Corporal to Captain and Lieutenant while you were in the internment camp after Serenity Valley? Your former colleagues may still refer to you as Sergeant, but I've seen your record, Mal. According to the Cortex, you're one of a bare handful of notable Independent officers who remain both alive and free. Were there to be another uprising, the Council judged that odds were high you would be somewhere in the center of it all. When the notice came up, it seemed the perfect opportunity to not only keep a passive eye on the remaining Browncoat network, but also to gather information on the status of Alliance control and societal standards in the border worlds."

Mal clenched his jaw, trying not to succumb to the anger that rose up in him at her casual discussion of events she couldn't possibly understand. He couldn't believe what he was hearing; he'd suspected Inara of fleeing some man in particular, but this notion of her as spy seemed to have come out of nowhere. Book, he could maybe have believed it of if his journals hadn't come to light, but Inara? Silk and velvet, tea and honey, heat and temptation, Inara a spy? Though putting it that way, he began to see just how effective such a spy would be; catch a man with his trousers down and his caution went out the window. Had she been sent to him for that purpose? But then, why the delay, why the anger and tears?

"So all this time, you been reportin' on me to your superiors? Tellin' 'em about my jobs, my crew, the contraband I snuck past the Alliance? I'm surprised we didn't run into no Operative a long time ago, then. Or did we? I never did find out just how that húndàn Early tracked us down."

Inara glared at the accusation. "I said a passive eye, Mal. The Guild wasn't interested in interfering; they just wanted to know whenever you met up with anyone else who'd been involved in the War. It seemed fairly harmless, especially when compared with the available alternatives. The rest of the information I passed on was all gleaned from encounters with clients."

"That's supposed to make me feel better? You're sittin' here tellin' me that you been betraying me ever since you met me, and you're expectin' me to take it with a smile on my face?" Mal felt as though he'd been hollowed out, thrust back into the uncertain footing of war and treachery he'd thought he'd left far behind him.

"I love this ship," Inara replied plaintively, as though that would excuse everything. And maybe it would, another day-- but this were touching on some mighty sensitive issues.

"It's more my home than anywhere else has ever been, and the crew has become like family to me," she continued. "I'd never betray that; I didn't even report Simon and River when they came aboard. But after Miranda-- Mal, if it isn't me, it'll be someone else. Maybe not renting the shuttle, but they'll be there, somewhere you won't expect, especially now that the populace has been made aware of the truth of the Reavers. It's starting to look as though it won't be a question of if there will be another rebellion, but when, and your legend has only grown since the rumors have begun to spread. Some of the survivors of the Maidenhead have been talking, and the remnants of the Alliance war fleet have already broken the Parliamental gag order."

"So much for my clean record," Mal said bitterly, seeing his tentative plans for the future go up in smoke. "How long I got 'til someone puts a bounty on my head?"

"I don't know. But whatever happens, I'd prefer to be aboard Serenity, not worrying on the sidelines wondering what's going on."

He digested that slowly, weighing the betrayal against the honesty of her answers, the grace her presence lent his ship, how much he'd missed her since she'd gone. Was he just supposed to let it all pass? But how could he tell her no? This was Inara. She'd been so much a part of life aboard Serenity, he couldn't help but believe her allegiances had shifted as she'd said. If nothing else, River would have said something long since.

"You should have told me 'bout this a long time ago," he finally told her, tasting ash in the back of his throat.

Inara smiled sadly as she answered. "Because you would have taken it so much better then?" She shook her head. "The only choice I regret in the last two years is the one I made to leave Serenity in the first place."

He sighed. "I don't know what to tell you, Inara. We ain't but a few hours out, but there's work yet to be done, and I can't not tell Zoë...."

Inara nodded slowly. "I understand. Just let me know before arrive-- and I'd appreciate a warning if you decide to tell anyone else."

Mal snorted incredulously. "Nĭ juéde wŏ hĕn bèn ma? No hidin' it from River, but I ain't got no desire to go breakin' Kaylee's heart."

She didn't reply to that, and after a moment he turned and walked out of the shuttle, not trusting himself to say anything more. Zoë was waitin' on those empty crates he'd promised; he'd wasted enough time already standin' around, lettin' his feelings get in the way of what needed to be done.

"A sadder and a wiser man," he quoted to himself absently, then got to work.

Chapter Text

Mal crossed the cargo bay catwalks to the open hatch of Shuttle Two, feeling with every step as though he'd left a part of himself behind. He already knew what his answer would be, no matter what Zoë had to say; he'd keep Inara aboard, using her to spin whatever information got sent to her Guild. He hadn't missed her plea-- "If it isn't me, it'll be someone else"-- and the implied suggestion she'd be more'n willing to color her reports to the benefit of ship and crew. The prospect of facing her every day, though, after the efficient way she'd trod on his dreams, left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Mal paused in the doorway to the shuttle, leaning against the jamb and breathing hard. The last time he'd stood here like this, it had been after the death of Book and the destruction of Haven; remarkable how grief of any sort could work on a man's control. Perfect example of the reason he'd put up rules about shipboard relations in the first place, not that anyone else ever took him serious on the subject. And not that there'd ever been actual relations 'tween him and Inara-- but that didn't make no difference to how he felt.

"Cap'n?" Zoë's voice sounded behind him unexpectedly, near sending him right out of his skin.

"Zoë?" he replied, taken a deep breath before turning to face her. "Was just scarin' up them crates; think we was storin' 'em in this shuttle."

She crossed her arms and kept staring at him, her set expression fair screaming 'I know you better than that, sir.' "Was wonderin' what was keepin' you," was all she said aloud.

Mal studied her face a moment, then glanced over her shoulder toward Inara's territory. He'd promised to tell his first mate anyhow; weren't no profit in waiting. "Had me a talk with the ambassador," he said as neutrally as he could. "Seems she's been keepin' a few secrets from us all this time."

Zoë's brows drew together. "That ain't no surprise. Ain't not a one of us without secrets. I am a little surprised she'd share any that'd have you so hangdog, though. She ain't taken up with that Wing character again, has she?"

He snorted a little at that suggestion. Honestly, he'd almost rather it had to do with a client. If Inara'd just chosen elsewhere, that he could handle. He might be a mite jealous, but he could handle it. Weren't no such easy way to deal with the truth.

"Or something," he replied. "Turns out she's been spyin' on us for her Guild since the day she set foot on Serenity, watchin' us to see when and where we met up with other Browncoats."

Zoë's eyes widened. "Āiyā, huàile," she breathed. "Guess it's a good thing we been keepin' our distance, then."

He nodded. "My thought as well."

"Don't make no sense though," she continued. "All that time she stayed on board? Toward the end there she was helpin' out on jobs often as not; don't strike me as the kind of behavior encouraged in a spy. Not to mention Simon and River-- you think she was behind Early showin' up the way he did?"

Mal shook his head. "I had the same worries, but she swears she ain't reported nothin' but what they asked for. Maybe it's naïve of me to believe her, but I can't help but think we would've got shut down a long time ago if she were reportin' in more detail."

Zoë sighed. "Still don't make no sense. Why tell us now?"

"'Cause she wants to stay on board," he answered grimly, "and after Miranda, I s'pose she don't feel like keepin' it from us no more. Givin' us some control over what she tells 'em."

"Ō, zhè zhēn shì ge kuàile de jìnzhăn." Zoë shook her head. "You're thinkin' of takin' her up on it, ain't you?"

"Well, as there seems to be rumors spreadin' already 'bout our involvement with Miranda..." Mal shrugged, then turned away and moved further into the shuttle, glancing around at the boxes and things they'd been storing in there.

Zoë finished his sentence for him, as he'd known she would. "Might keep some of the hounds off our tail, they think they got eyes on board."

"Exactly." He lifted the first of the empty crates into his hands, then turned and held it out to her.

She accepted it with a frown as he went back for the next one. "You're the Captain."

He dredged up a smile for her, fending off the concern in her eyes. "'Sides," he said, attempting cheer. "Kaylee'd kill me, I scared her jiĕ jiĕ off again."

"Ain't that the truth," she conceded warily. "Long as you're sure, then."

Mal nodded, then gestured with his crate toward the catwalks. "Sure as can be. Speakin' of. You sure 'bout this movin' thing? Ain't too late to change your mind."

Zoë shook her head again, then turned and headed for the stairs up to the crew passage. "Sure as can be," she said firmly, echoing his answer.

He knew when not to push.

The next half hour or so was pure chaos, as Mal managed to get sucked into the moving despite his intention to stay well out of it. He never could say no to Kaylee's puppy-dog eyes, and she seemed to have passed the trick on to River; he was reminded more'n once of that talk he'd meant to have with his mechanic 'bout all the ways she had of getting around him when he was tetchy, and how River didn't need to know 'em. Might be too late for that, now.

One good thing come of it, though; on one of his trips fetching stuff from the Tam guest quarters, he ran into the doc with an armload of his own, and nobody else in range to hear 'em. Perfect time for a few things he hadn't dared say at breakfast, what with Kaylee right there listening.

"Look, doc," he began, putting on his most serious face. "I know it might seem kinda sudden-like, this offer to move you in with Kaylee, 'specially since you ain't been, y'know, together all that long."

Simon opened his mouth, then closed it, as though he didn't quite know what to say. He'd been looking a mite stunned ever since the earlier conversation, as though he weren't quite sure who to thank for his sudden good fortune, and Mal'd noticed he weren't too articulate in the grip of the kinder emotions. Could be he was a mite uncertain 'bout how Mal would react to whatever he said, too; smart boy.

"You know my opinion on crew gettin' together. A mite too late to stop it now, though, so I s'pose I'm just goin' to have to put up with it. Long as my mèimei's happy, I'm happy, dŏng ma?"

"Wŏ dŏng." Simon nodded, looking relieved, and shifted his load in his arms as if to continue what he were doing.

"I ain't done with you yet," Mal cautioned him. "Anything goes wrong between you, the double bed in that room'll convert to two singles, and we can swap you into River's bunk. 'Less, of course, it ain't Kaylee's decision; you hurt her, the airlock's always an option."

Simon paled a little, but stood firm. "I'll do my best to keep her happy," he said. "I know I've had a hard time adjusting to this life, but I could never imagine going back now, and Kaylee's..." An unconscious smile curved his lips. "She's, she's wonderful. As long as she wants me, I'm hers."

Mal nodded approvingly. "I'll hold you to that," he said, then stepped aside and let the doc on his way. He hoped Simon's enthusiasm would hold up past their visit to Osiris; he almost wished now they had some other destination. No matter. Better faced now than later, to his mind.

He carried up his own armload of belongings, then pled off running any more errands on account of 'Captain-y things to do'. Which basically meant pulling up the Cortex to check the latest news 'waves, followed by a glance over all the important screens and dials. Serenity was still on course, but there was a persistent signal glitch that'd been showing up every time the Cortex was active since they lifted off Persephone, and he was a mite suspicious about it.

Alliance may've curled up to lick its wounds since losing a quarter of its fleet against the Reavers, but they'd hardly been the only ones after River. There would be more hunters coming for her. And more'n that-- those as had made her had now had a chance to see their weapon dance against foes as would scare normal folk twice her size. Clear slate for ship and crew didn't mean nothing if the folk as thought they owned River had some way of picking her up whenever they took a mind to, now they knew how useful she was.

All those parts come aboard from unusually helpful vendors to fix Serenity-- it was a fair bet at least one had a smart transmitter embedded in it. Soon as they was dirtside, he planned to get Kaylee looking for it with a scanner, maybe move the snoop-chip to some other visiting ship. Close-up pursuit could still detect Serenity's new pulse beacon, but weren't no way to track that over interplanetary distances, and with luck the exchange wouldn't get noticed for a good long time.

Couldn't do nothing 'bout that while the crew was busy rearranging quarters, though. For the time being, he might as well get back to another mystery he might maybe have a chance at figuring out: the tape Book had left behind.

Mal fumbled it out of his belt pouch, then inserted it in the reader and frowned at the roster of dates it gave him. He'd already tried the first entry, and learned more'n he'd wanted to about his reclusive friend. The following entries would probably be more of the same; if he really wanted to put the strange tale he'd read into some kind of perspective, best check at the end this time and see if Book had left a specific message.

Hello, Mal.

He nodded. That answered that question; it were Book's decision to have this forwarded to him, not any strange politics on the part of the Abbey's leadership. Not that he'd seriously thought so, but it were nice to have his conclusions confirmed.

If you're reading this, I don't doubt you've already pulled up at least one of my earlier entries and now have serious questions that you hope I'll answer here.

I apologize. I'm sure you're used to disappointment, but this time it truly is for a good cause.

Mal scowled at that. Shepherd knew him, all right. The payoff on this 'good cause' better had be worth it.

That weren't the end of the entry, though; what else could Book have to say, if it weren't explanation? Better not be a diatribe on his lack of religion-- he hadn't never told the man about his own religiosity in his youth, nor his reasons for giving up on God, and though the Shepherd had usually kept his mouth shut on the subject he'd made clear he'd like to convert Mal into one of his flock. What better time to do that than after he was dead, when Mal couldn't shut him up?

A quick scan of the text didn't seem to prove out that theory, though. Mal sighed and dove back in.

The organization I once worked for, the Watchers' Council, is a private organization that often works hand-in-hand with the research departments of major corporations, such as Blue Sun. Official inquiries to either entity are unlikely to net you any reliable information, however, and will expose you to levels of scrutiny you would be better to avoid. Indeed, none of the things you need to know about River in order to keep her safe over the long run can be discovered through such channels or would be believed if I told you plainly.

You may suspect from your previous reading that River is what the Watchers would term a Potential Slayer, and that this is the ultimate reason for the things that have been done to her. To understand what that truly means, however, I strongly suggest you peruse the books that were included with this tape, along with my earlier entries. In specific, 'The Watcher's Handbook', both modern and Terrestrial versions, will give you some idea of the place River holds in the mindset of my former employers, and what purpose they intend to use her for as opposed to the original and true calling of her kind.

When I first set foot on Serenity, Mal, especially after River's presence was revealed, I believed that I was on the wrong ship. I did not want to be dragged back into the life I had left behind, and even after I decided to stay I did my best to keep the truth hidden. Over time, however, I have learned to place a certain measure of faith in you; I know now that you will be able to do what must be done, that I can no longer do. You are a much better man than you will admit to.

God's blessings upon you. Until we meet again,

Shepherd Derrial Book.

Mal scrubbed a hand through his hair. What a fàngzòng fēngkuáng de jié ; if the man had so much faith in him, why not just tell him outright? He hated this kind of self-discovery lèsè . Whatever strangeness lay in the tale of Book's life, couldn't be any stranger than what Mal had already lived through.

"You'd be surprised."

Mal's head jerked up, his hand coming down automatically on the screen's off toggle as he reacted to the intruding voice.

River smiled gently at him from the co-pilot's chair, her knees tucked up under her chin. She had a habit of doing that, sneaking up on him without tripping his usual danger-sense. "You said it yourself," she continued. "Half of writing history is hiding the truth. The truths Book knew were hidden even before Earth was left behind-- but truth never sleeps. It is time for you to awake."

He frowned at her. "You know what he's talkin' about, then. So why don't you just tell me?"

She shook her head, still smiling. "The girls are objects, weapons being readied for the fight; the handlers see no need to tell them their purpose."

"But you know somethin', it's pretty obvious," Mal insisted. Even hearing the story in the kind of garbled metaphor River tended to lapse into would be better than all this damned research-- he'd never been particularly fond of paperwork in the past, 'specially reading others' reports.

"I Dream," she announced, as if that explained everything.

Mal shook his head in frustration. "I don't got time for this," he growled.

"Just time enough," River insisted, then turned away from him with an intent expression and poked at the navigation screen in front of her. "Time to tell her she can stay," she added firmly, pointing at their flight path-- which showed them much closer to their destination than Mal had thought.

"Guĭ." She was right; he needed to share his decision with Inara, then tell the rest of the crew what they'd be doing once they landed. "Time flies when you're havin' fun," he muttered, then reached for the intercom.

Chapter Text

Mal toggled the intercom from ship wide broadcast mode to transmit just to Shuttle One and cleared his throat. "So, ambassador, how much time you think you'll need to pack your things and bring 'em back to Serenity?" he asked, lightly.

There was a brief pause before Inara answered. Probably out of shock, Mal thought sourly, wondering just how sure she'd been that he'd keep her aboard after the revelations she'd laid on him earlier. Likely not very, given his usual pattern of rejecting or pushing away whatever didn't fit his worldview. And maybe that'd been her intention; maybe she'd conjured it as a way of cutting things off clean with him and clearing her conscience all at once, but Mal was never one to follow anyone else's expectations, especially in matters of the heart.

"Two hours," the Companion finally replied, tentatively. "Perhaps three. Mal, are you certain...?"

'Course he wasn't, but when did he ever let that stop him? "We'll hash out the details later," he said, glancing over at the little pitcher with big ears and bigger brain in the co-pilot's seat. Not that he'd be able to keep it from her forever-- he gave River a stern glance as she stuck out her tongue at him-- but it weren't a conversation he wanted to have with any kind of audience, regardless of who found out the details after.

"Meantime," he continued, "you going to need Jayne to play pack mule again? We got us a list of chores what need doing, but I can probably manage without him for a couple hours if it's needful, and I know you got a lot of furniture and whatnot to wedge in that shuttle."

"I thank you for the offer," Inara replied tartly, her voice somewhat firmer as she slipped back into the familiar forms of verbal sparring, "but I'd probably spend more time keeping him away from the students than actually getting any use out of him."

"There's that," Mal conceded. Jayne had put up an undue fuss last time they'd let him near a house full of ordinary whores, never mind half-trained Companions; if Mal never heard another word about Jayne's John Thomas ever again, it would be too soon. "I could ask Zoë?" he offered.

"That's all right," Inara demurred, chuckling a little "I'll have plenty of help, I'm sure."

"If you're sure," Mal echoed her, then glanced down at the navigation screens again. "We'll break atmo in less than an hour; I'll let you know when to cut loose."

"I'd appreciate it," she replied crisply, then fell silent.

Mal toggled the intercom back to broadcast mode with a sigh, then glanced over at the quiet coil of limbs across from him. "Think you can hold the fort by yourself 'til we get there, little one?" he asked.

River's eyes lit up with enthusiasm as she unfolded from her curled position. "Of course, Captain," she said brightly, settling one graceful hand on the yoke in front of her. "Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning."

Mal glanced instinctively out at the black, wondering where she'd got that reckoning from, then caught himself and rolled his eyes at her. Girl had a bad habit of quoting literature or making up her own metaphors when perfectly sensible words would do; was a good thing his Ma had made him get his education, or he'd never make head nor tail of anything the girl said to him. "You got the morning part right, at least," he told her wryly, then set the controls back to autopilot and headed off the bridge.

The hatches to Zoë's and Kaylee's former bunks were both still open in the fore passage; the latter looked naked without its customary sign, and Mal wondered idly how long it would take his mechanic to paint Simon's name with her own and put the sign back up outside their new bunk, pretty lights and all. Probably as long as it took her to find fresh paint-- Mal had got rid of every last can they had aboard the day them vines had appeared in the kitchen area without prior warning.

He leaned down both ladders, looking for the girl in question, but found only Simon and Zoë below in their respective new cabins, rearranging their things. He took the opportunity to let his second know about the suspected tracking device and what he planned to do with it if'n they found one, then headed for the engine room, still looking for Kaylee. Before she'd come to her understanding with Simon it had been her favorite place aboard ship and the easiest place to find her-- which it might yet be at that, given that Kaylee was still every bit as enamored of the view from under the engine as she'd been when Bester first brought her aboard four years before. Not that Mal'd been trying to notice, but on a ship the size of a Firefly trying weren't always necessary.

He could hear her tinkering before he even reached the doorway; she was muttering under her breath in Chinese as she took out some frustration or other on a recalcitrant piece of machinery. He wasn't particularly worried to hear it; repairs aside, the ship had been shook about like a podful of peas and it seemed only natural there'd be a few problems with the systems still. Besides, there wasn't any panic in her tone of voice.

"Kaylee?" he called, not wanting to startle her.

She looked up as he stepped in, automatically hefting a heavy wrench in one hand in reaction to his unexpected intrusion, then relaxed and frowned at him. "Need somethin', Captain?" she asked, cautiously.

"I surely do," he nodded slowly. "You 'member the checkin'-over we gave Serenity after our little meeting with Commander Harken, nigh on a year ago?"

Kaylee frowned at him, brushing at her cheek with the back of one grease-smeared hand, then nodded. "That cruiser what picked us up after we found the ship been hit by Reavers? Yeah, I 'member. He called Serenity a junker, and Simon and River had to put on suits and hide outside the ship. Purplebellies left two transmitters tied up in her wiring, one of 'em easy to find and the other a real zhēngqì de gŏushĭ duī. Took Wash and me half a day to dig it out of her."

"I'm thinkin' we might maybe have a similar situation on our hands again," he said solemnly.

Her spine straightened in protest at that, a defensive, angry light flaring in her eyes. "Tāmā de! Captain..."

"I know, you already done checked the primary and secondary systems before they even cleared us for upthrust," Mal replied, raising his hands placatingly. "But I'm thinkin' they might've been smart about it this time, set one to sound off only after we'd left orbit. Didn't want to alarm nobody about it when we was only goin' back to the training house, but we'll be down a few hours waitin' on Inara, and I conjured it wouldn't hurt for us to do another quick scan."

She stared at him thoughtfully a moment. "You seen some kind of signal glitch in the transmitters, or somethin'?" she asked.

"Yup," he agreed, hooking his thumbs in his suspenders. "If it ain't a trackin' device, it's somethin' else as needs fixing, and either way, we got us a few hours to kill. Less'n you want to help clean out the holds we kept locked while we was parked on Persephone?"

Kaylee wrinkled up her nose at the suggestion. "Think I'd rather search for the needle in the haystack, if it's all the same to you," she said.

Mal chuckled a little at the disgust in her tone. "Don't blame you one bit. It sure ain't like to be pretty." Serenity's smuggling holds hadn't been emptied down to the bare bulkheads since the day he'd bought her, and there was like to be all manner of shattered breakables and other unsalvageable debris mixed about in the compartments he hadn't thought it wise to draw attention to while his boat was still open to all and sundry.

"You told the others it's cleanin' day yet?" she replied, the corners of her mouth tugging up a little. "'Cause I'd sure like to've seen Jayne's face when you told him."

He smirked. Jayne had been caught more'n once cheating at cards to get himself out of his chores, and cleaning was one of his least favorite duties. "No, I ain't told him yet," he said. "Wanted to find out first if 'Nara would be needin' him to help her move her furniture back on the shuttle."

Kaylee's eyes widened at that, and she bit her lip, clutching at the wrench with both hands. "And? " she asked, visibly bracing herself for the answer. "Did you ask her?"

"I did," he replied, his emotions souring a little as he considered again what losing the Companion for a second time would have meant to Serenity-- it weren't just his eyes she'd been pulling the wool over the last couple years, and not only his tender feelings she'd been trampling on when she left. "She said she'd have all the help she needed at the trainin' house."

"Does that mean she's staying?" Kaylee asked, grip tightening on the wrench even more as she bounced a little on the balls of her feet.

"It surely does," Mal said, smiling gently at her.

She dropped the wrench abruptly, shrieking in joy, and threw her arms around him; Mal staggered back a little, startled both by the sudden hug and the impact of the heavy tool on the toe of his left boot. Then she was off, darting around him and down the passageway, undoubtedly on her way to visit the Companion.

Mal smiled after her, flexing his toe in his boot, then picked the wrench up and stowed it where it wouldn't rattle about in the landing. Then he headed back up to the bridge to give River her first lesson in plotting an entry sequence.

It seemed like no time at all before he was signaling Inara to break loose and unslaving the co-pilot controls so River could finish up the descent on her own. He was fair sure she already understood the concepts better than he did-- he couldn't have explained the maths behind why a faulty sequence could skip a boat off atmo like a stone across a lake if his life depended on it-- and with a little more practice, she'd probably be better at the feel of it, too. Maybe even as good as Wash; Serenity talked to her in ways she never had done even for him.

Of course, none of that would matter if River and her brother left ship at Osiris. But worrying about that was borrowing trouble; there were other, more important things to be concerning himself with first.

Such as whether any of that rotgut from Triumph had survived the battering they'd took, or whether the seed stock from their last salvage had escaped and spilled through the grillwork into the fabric stocks in the hold below it. And then there was Kaylee's stash of spare nothing parts, which had included two new catalyzers last time he'd checked, bits of ambulance gear left over from the job on Ariel, and other assorted contraband fèiwù that had accumulated over the years. None of it was worth much in and of itself, but all of it was what Book would have called "irregularly acquired", and there was more'n enough of it to keep 'em busy for hours.

"A good day for presents," River said happily, eavesdropping on his thoughts as she brought the ship slowly into the valley they'd parked in last time they'd come visiting this world. It was still autumn, though the skies weren't as clear as they'd been the day Mal rescued Inara from the Operative, and the leaves of the trees were just starting to turn all manner of pretty colors.

Mal had no idea what River might be thinking of in the holds that could be deemed present-worthy, but then again, she had little more to her name than a handful of hand-me-down dresses and some calligraphy paintings she'd done herself. Whatever treasures she might turn up amid the wreckage, he wouldn't begrudge her. "Just make sure you check it with me first," he said aloud. "Got to be sure you don't end up with nothing that's poisonous, or a danger to you. And don't give me that look-- you know your brother's going to say the same."

River rolled her eyes at him, then activated the landing gear and eased up on the atmo engines, hovering the ship the last short distance to the ground. "I'll be eighteen next week," she said scoldingly.

"Old enough for flyin', old enough for fightin'," he said, gripping the arms of his chair as the Serenity settled slowly toward the ground. "But not too old to be turned over someone's knee, dŏng ma?"

The earth came up to meet them as the bridge rang with the sound of River's laughter.

Chapter Text

The cleaning project got under way with about as much enthusiasm as Mal'd been expecting. Kaylee, still bright-eyed over Inara's promise to stay aboard Serenity, had a word or two of praise for River's first landing, but the others were all over nerves in one way or another as they grimly assembled in the cargo bay for the day's activity.

"So many long faces," Mal chided them, cracking open the first of the hidden smuggling holds and peering into the dark space. Pungent fumes drifted up, and he blinked as his eyes watered; it must've been the one he'd stowed their trading liquor in. Anything actually worth drinking they'd kept in the pantry off the kitchen, but the rotgut they'd kept out for dickering purposes, for when they had to deal with a backwater ruben with a real appreciation for the bargaining process. "We're goin' to need to spray this one out but good," he said, squinting, trying to get an idea for how many of the sealed earthenware containers might still be intact.

Metal scraped and shrieked as Jayne heaved open another pocket-sized space tucked in behind a legitimate cargo hold, and the mercenary grunted in disgust. "This one, too," he said. "Looks like we picked up a nest of little bitin' critters someplace, and they's all in the grain. Some of 'em's died in there, I think; don't look like we'll be able to salvage any of this plantin' seed."

"Might as well get rid of these disguises too, while we're tossin' out the garbage," Zoë added, holding a length of patterned cotton fabric at arm's length.

Mal squinted at the shapeless thing as he turned away from the hold he'd opened, waving the fumes out of his face. "Wèi! Isn't that the dress they tried to put you in on Triumph?" he blurted, remembering the complete lack of amusement on Zoë's face when they'd been negotiating for that job with Elder Gommen. Before that day, he'd only seen her in a dress all of once, when she'd dressed up for her wedding to Wash; he'd known the instant the elderly settler started talking about "dressing the part of the trader's wife" that Zoë was not going to be posing as the woman in question.

Zoë snorted. "You mean the dress you ended up wearin', sir?" she said, fluttering the garment at him like a matador's cape.

"Húchĕ," Kaylee blurted delightedly, clapping a hand over her mouth. "You didn't."

Mal raised his eyebrows at her and debated giving the cotton-airflow speech again, then decided it would be just that bit over the top. Really, it weren't his fault he'd had occasion to wear a dress more'n once in his varied career; it just so happened that the time on Triumph was the only one since Kaylee'd signed on to the crew, and she'd stayed back aboard ship with River, Simon and Book on that particular adventure.

"Tī wŏ de pìgu if I'm lyin'," he said, drawing a cross over his heart in the ancient sign for truth-telling.

"Why didn't nobody ever tell me 'bout this?" the mechanic asked plaintively, still looking as if she were about to break into laughter.

"I suspect we were all slightly more concerned with the presence of a certain Mrs. Reynolds at the time," Simon said dryly, drawing more fabric out of the compartment Zoë had opened. The snarl of dark cloth resolved itself into several slightly crumpled medical uniforms from St. Lucy's Hospital in Ariel City, left behind when they'd got rid of their counterfeit ambulance.

"That do sound familiar," Mal said, latching on to the explanation, then paused and aimed a frown in Kaylee's direction. "Didn't you tell me you was going to be doing mechanic-y things on the bridge today?" he hinted, wondering what she was up to.

"Just stoppin' by to offer a little moral support, is all," she said, making exaggeratedly innocent eyes at him.

Mal finally caught sight of the little technical gadget in her hand and grunted. Wouldn't have been his choice to start with a surface scan of the cargo bay while all of them was down there, but he supposed she did at least have the element of distraction in her favor. "Yeah, well," he grumbled half-heartedly, "you stand around much longer disturbin' the doc and I'll have to find you somethin' more constructive to do." Then he picked up the pair of work gloves he'd set out and slipped them on for protection from the broken crockery he was about to wrangle.

"I'm goin', I'm goin'," she muttered, then followed her own instruction. She leaned up on her tippy-toes as she passed Simon, pressing a quick kiss to his lips; the boy blushed a little, still embarrassed to be seen necking in public, and stared starry-eyed after her as she headed into the ship's interior.

Mal sighed at the display and shot a glance at his second to see how she was holding up. She returned his glance with a raised eyebrow and a flat stare, the equivalent of "Back off, sir," in Zoë-speak; he shrugged apologetically at her, then turned back to the tedious work before him.

They broke for a quick meal a couple of hours later, eating up the last of the perishables they'd bought on Persephone, but otherwise spent the late morning and early afternoon bagging bits of variegated wreckage and tossing it into the lower airlock to be vented with their next garbage dump. There were a few salvageables in the lot, including most of Kaylee's spare odds and ends and some bolts of undyed fabric they'd took in lieu of payment some while ago, but most everything that could have broken, had.

River did come up with a few baubles she felt worth keeping: a bobble-headed geisha doll as had somehow escaped from the last shipment, a pretty length of patterned scrap silk suitable for a wall hanging, a bit of twisted metal what bore a vague resemblance to a man on a horse, and a few other odds and ends to scatter across the desk in her cabin. Mal watched her smiling over her bits and bobs and made a mental note to pick up a spare light slate for her personal use next time he had a chance; girl had a right to keep her own books, schematics, notes on whatever.

Now that she was officially crew, it was his responsibility to do for her as much as it was her brother's. Not to criticize Simon-- the boy had thrown a promising future away to save his mèimei, at least as promising a future as could be had in the Union of Allied Planets-- but he'd been focused on her health and sanity to the exclusion of all else since fetching up on Serenity, and it was time someone looked to encourage the side of her that was more person than child or weapon.

The hour finally came when they had things as picked clean as they were going to get, and Mal sent Jayne down to the nearby creek with the mule to fill several barrels with water. There was a pressure washing system in the cargo bay proper, but Mal preferred not to use ship's water for cleaning purposes unless'n it was necessary; out in the Black, there was only just so much recycling could be done before none of it was potable without boiling. Normally, he'd just hook her up to the dockside pumps when the bay needed cleaning, but that weren't always possible; fortunately, this world was wet enough it wouldn't be a problem.

They stacked all the undamaged cargo and supplies up along the catwalks and in the spare shuttle and propped every bay as far open as it would go and pumped the water into the spare tank. Then it was spraying time. Mal claimed that job for his ownself, meticulously blasting every crevice and corner clean, and felt surprisingly lighter for it, as though the debris on his soul that had accumulated over the last few months and years of following no other cause but freedom was washing out the main hatch along with the detritus of all that spoiled cargo.

He hadn't thought much on the nature of faith since the battle of Serenity Valley, more'n seven years gone. All the weeks he'd spent fighting there-- so many officers down he'd ended up with over two thousand men under his command, soon whittled down to not quite four hundred as the Alliance made them pay for every square meter in blood-- and it had come down to the complete failure of the 82nd to provide the necessary air support. It had been a long wait for a train don't come, as he'd told Book not so very long ago, and as if that hadn't been cruelty enough, he and his men had been stuck another seven days in that hellhole hiding behind the bodies of their dead while the Independent High Command negotiated their surrender. Come that first U-Day, Mal had put God behind him and never looked back. It weren't that he'd stopped believing that there was a higher power; he'd just decided that if the Man Upstairs cared so little for him and his, then he was surely going to return the favor.

His opinion hadn't exactly changed on that subject. But Mal had to admit, something had sparked in him when Book had clasped bloody hands to Mal's face and ordered him to just believe. It was like he'd been half-asleep since the day he'd left Hera, doing only what it took for him and his to survive; then all of the sudden he'd had a cause again, a focus, something to fight for. Something worth dying for.

So what if that cause was all tangled up with the fate of a bùtài zhèngcháng de seventeen year old girl he might be leaving behind on Osiris? There were other girls out there needed protecting, other projects the Alliance had put in place that would need stopping. The bits he'd seen of Book's journal so far had confirmed that for him, put the seal on the nebulous plans he'd been forming for the future. He wasn't sure yet how he was going to work a living in around it, nor whether it would be fair to drag the rest of the crew down with him, but there was time yet to think on it while they used up the public good will the Operative had bought 'em.

The hose slackened in Mal's grip as the pressure suddenly dropped, spilling the last of the water out of the cleaning tank onto the floor. He shut off the system with a sigh, scanning the metal plates with his gaze for any stubborn areas that might call for another tank-full, then decided it was good enough to do for now.

"Lookin' shiny," he commented, smiling benevolently around at his damp, grimy crew as he began coiling up the hose. "Now all we got to do is let it dry and shift the cargo back under 'fore we get to Osiris."

The tired smile slipped off Simon's face at that statement, and he flinched a little, staring at Mal in apparent disbelief. "Osiris?" the boy gasped.

Mal nodded back. "Got us a pick-up scheduled there for Sir Warwick, a week from tomorrow."

"But that's--" Simon tried to say, still staring.

"--Less'n three day's journey from here, I know," Mal interrupted, picking a possible objection out of the ether. He suspected it weren't the one Simon had actually been blurting, but that didn't so much matter; he was fair sure he knew what the boy's real problem was. "Figured you might maybe could look up your parents in the meantime, now you won't have to worry 'bout being snapped up by Alliance patrols for your trouble. You ain't seen them in what, somethin' like a year now? And it's been a lot longer for your sister."

"I..." Simon said uncertainly, then swallowed. "I'm not sure if they..." His voice trailed off, and he glanced over toward River, distress etching lines in his too-young face.

"It's okay, Simon," the girl said gently, dangling her feet over the edge of the catwalk where she'd perched to watch the action. She'd worn her boots today at Mal's suggestion, and they made rhythmic thumping sounds against the catwalk supports as she swung them back and forth. "I'm not the daughter they sent away any more, but they still have a part of you. Emotional closure is indicated before the formation of new family ties can be completed."

"But what if they..." Simon tried again, looking back to Mal with wide, lost eyes. "I can't..."

Jayne snorted at that and paused in stowing the empty water barrels to give Simon a baleful stare. "Can't never did nothin' but marry shouldn't and have a buncha little do-nothin's," he said, disdainfully. "You don't go, you're always gonna wonder if'n you shoulda."

Off everyone's stunned looks, he continued: "What? I got me a little sister last time I stopped talking to my ma. Don't want to think what their life might be like, I hadn't got back in touch with her."

"And on that surprisingly edifyin' note," Mal drawled, looking up at the hatch to Shuttle One as the sounds of the smaller ship docking with Serenity echoed down to the cargo bay. "Looks like we finished up just in time. I'll be up checkin' with Kaylee; the lot of you secure the loose gear, and I'll see about gettin' us out of the world."

Zoë moved to the door controls, starting the ramp to raising, and the others began bustling about in the open holds, settling covers and grates and hatches back into place. River came down from the catwalks as Mal climbed up them headed for the back stairs to the bridge; he smiled absently at her in passing, then arrested his steps in shock as he noticed a familiar glint of metal at her throat.

"Where'd you find that, little one?" he asked, throat suddenly tight, as he stared at the necklace that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

A cautious look crept over her face, one he weren't used to seeing directed at him, and she covered the little crucifix hastily with one hand. "It isn't poisonous, or a danger to me," she said defiantly, then lifted her chin, eyes scanning his face for his reaction.

"I don't know about that, darlin'," he said, wondering how it got from the hollowed-out spot under his mattress down into the cargo bay. "It sure ain't like to be a help. But if you want it--"

"I do," she confirmed.

"Then keep it," he said hoarsely, hardly knowing how to feel about it, and turned away.

He could feel her eyes on his back all the rest of the way up to the bridge.

Chapter Text

If the mood aboard Serenity had been a mite disturbed when they lit out from Persephone, it was twice as roiled a day into the trip to Osiris. The only one appeared to be unaffected by the unsettled mood among the crew was Jayne, who was bent on ignoring the rest of them anyhow in favor of spending quality time with Vera. Last Mal'd checked, the mercenary'd had the entire contents of his weapons locker spread out in the lounge area, going over each and every one with a polishing cloth and a paranoid eye to make sure nothing been done to them while they was out of his reach.

Any ordinary day, Mal suspected he'd've heard Simon's reaction to the scene outside the infirmary all the way up to the bridge, but if the doc had been down below at all in the last twenty-four hours, Mal would be much surprised. Every time he'd caught sight of him, Simon had been drifting about with an abstracted look to him, mind clearly not on the present even when the present hung on to him with both hands. Kaylee kept flittering between him and the engine room, biting her lips to hold in all the demands she wanted but didn't dare make of him, and River orbited 'em both like a short-period comet, going from frozen distraction to frenzied, indecipherable activity every so often. Mal dismissed her from co-pilot lessons the second time he caught her losing track and rambling about prodigal sons, and resigned himself to a lonely few days in front of the screens.

Shoulda just kept his mouth shut and let the crew figure their destination when they got there.

Even Zoë seemed ill at ease, staring at Mal off and on like she suspected there was more going on than he'd told her. She'd known him long enough to sense that something had changed, even distracted by her own grief, but he hadn't yet found the words to articulate the whole of it to her, and she'd responded to that by pulling back, giving him more space to think in. Sure and he'd come up with something to say to her eventually, but in the meantime, he missed her silent support something fierce.

With everyone else looking intently at their own belly-buttons, that left only Inara for Mal to strike a conversation with-- and that only lasted long enough to confirm she'd talk things over with him in future before reporting 'em to her Guild. The necessaries aired, she'd then retreated back to her shuttle with the stated intention of keeping herself to herself 'til they got to Osiris, claiming to be still in process of putting her gear back the way she wanted it.

About the time Mal caught himself wandering down to stare at the hatch to Shuttle One and wondering if she'd throw him out if'n he tried to enter, he gave up on having any manner of productive day and slouched back to the bridge to punch up Book's 'wave tape. It weren't something he'd been looking forward to, but the alternative was fretting over the tracking transmitter Kaylee'd discovered trip-wired into the ship's navigation systems and speculating whether they'd be followed before he conjured a way to be safely rid of it. So, no contest there.

He jumped back into the text with the second entry. He didn't bother trying to take in every word, just skimmed for the gist of it, hoping to make some sense out of the contradictions. He still had a hard time wrapping his mind around the little he did read, despite, or perhaps because of, the optimistic, righteous attitude evident in the words. The beliefs Book had espoused back then were so antithetical to Mal's worldview, to what he knew the Shepherd had believed by the time he'd found Serenity, that Mal kept having to get up and pace the bridge to tamp down his temper. Time after time the young Derrial Tomos had settled in a new township and forged cordial relations with its folk, only to steal away its daughters and send them off-planet into the hands of qiángbào hóuzi de butchers without believing there to be a thing wrong with it.

"I spoke with Deborah's mother this morning,"

Book had wrote on one such occasion,

"...and assured her that the scholarship provided for her daughter will include a small stipend paid to the family, enough credits to reimburse them for the cost of the work Deborah could have performed were she still living at home during the three years she will ostensibly be completing her education.

"Prior to this mission, I would have assigned only the most mercenary of motives to that stipulation, but that opinion would have been based on the relative indolence of most Core-world children of my acquaintance as opposed to the early work ethic that appears widely practiced on this, among other border worlds. A family supporting several unemployed sub-adults might indeed be expect to greet the offer to remove one to a better life with a certain amount of gratitude, but it is a different matter entirely when that child is a substantial contributor toward the productive capacity of the household.

"In the absence of a pool of skilled-- or even unskilled-- labor from which to draw, or surplus funds with which to pay for any such assistance, most first- and second-generation settler families are limited in their prospective income chiefly by the quantity of manpower that can be generated from within the household. Reproduction, followed by the earliest possible employment of each pair of hands thus supplied, is therefore the most effective means of increasing and maintaining that income. Deborah is not merely a fourteen-year-old student still living under her mother's roof; she is also the primary caretaker for her seven younger siblings during the hours between the end of school and sunset, and performs many of the household's necessary tasks such as mending, laundering, and meal preparation.

"Truly, our intervention in these Potential Slayers' lives can only be termed a blessing, as we are freeing them from the prospect of an entire lifetime of such drudgery and granting them the opportunity to make a real difference to the fate of the Alliance. They may not live to see the better world their labors will help to produce, but their future nieces and nephews will certainly reap the benefits."

Mal toggled out of that particular entry with a bad taste in his mouth, fair disgusted with the window he'd been provided into the mind of an Alliance drone. He'd never understood before how the average Core-world grunt could wave the flag and cheer while those less fortunate than they were ground under the government heel; now he did have some idea how a man could get that way without any particular intent to evil, he rejected the viewpoint more emphatical than ever. It was all logical analysis and gorram bloodless ideals, with no room for everyday human sweat and feeling.

In a world like that, what was the value of one life, or seven, or thirty million? Not near enough for Mal's peace of mind.

He scrolled quickly through the rest of the first year's records, then skipped forward a few years, hoping to find something a mite more helpful in amidst all the niúshĭ. Instead, the entries got shorter and shorter as the months passed, more business-like, recording names and dates and planets and precious little else. No more philosophical musings, which made a sad sort of sense; the more the boy-that-been wrote on the necessary wonder of what he'd done, the more he'd believed it and the less he'd needed the reminder.

Mal skipped through those entries fairly quickly, pausing on each only long enough to register yet another set of names he didn't know on planets he did, then stopped short at an entry in February of 2484.

"Took passage aboard the Loring en route to the Fed Station on St. Albans where I expect to receive my next assignment. The crew are very friendly, and work together more efficiently than most I have traveled with over the last few years; they attribute this excellence to the depth of their bonds with one another, as they are all members of the same extended family. One of the Alleynes, a pilot, gave birth on the first day of the journey; I lent my assistance and was allowed to briefly hold the infant for my troubles. It was born female, healthy and strong, but without any Potential; unfortunate, as the Council's breeding program has never been particularly successful and the younger one can begin training them, the better.

"They baptized her Zoë, a name of ancient Greek origin meaning "life". May that life be a long one, and prosperous, under the sheltering arm of the Alliance."

The Loring. Been a long time since he'd heard that name; ship had been lost in the War with all hands, cargo vessel shot down by Alliance for transporting the wrong kind of goods. Zoë never had been overly forthcoming on the subject, no more'n Mal brought up the wasteland the Alliance made of Shadow any more'n he had to; it was an old ghost for her, but no less potent for the time passed.

Had Book been aware, when he met Zoë again aboard Serenity, that she'd been born that baby girl? And what if she had been possessed of whatever it was these Watchers were watching for? He tried to imagine what his life would have been like without her, and failed; wouldn't have been much of a life, if it came down to it. Alliance would have made a corpse of him a long time ago.

And what they would have done with her... Mal tried to imagine Zoë as a grown-up version of River, and succeeded only in thoroughly creepifying himself.

"Gūyáng zhōng de gūyáng," he muttered, slapping the deactivation control on the screen, and got up to pace the bridge again. "Just how big is their operation, anyhow? And why'm I startin' to get the feeling that all these coincidences I keep runnin' into ain't so much coincidental?"

"It's destiny," a quiet voice said from the stairs, and Mal turned to see River standing there, her attention full on him like it hadn't been all day.

"Nà méi guānxi," he blurted, silently congratulating himself at somehow managing to out-emote the doctor. "You can't tell me you still believe in destiny, all that's been done to you. Everything you've seen--" He cut himself off, remembering Shadow, the Valley, Miranda, and all his buried anger at the One supposed to be watching every sparrow's fall rose up to choke him again.

"There are patterns," she replied, wincing at the intensity of everything he wasn't saying. She'd opted for a higher-necked dress that day, a confection of brown velvety fabric, open lacework, and ragged edges that made her look like she was an angel come to visit them mere mortals, but it didn't completely hide the crucifix she was still wearing. "The dances are called, but all the steps can't be predicted; some of the leaders have gone against the rhythm."

Mal snorted. "You tryin' to tell me you can see the future, little one? Chuīniú. If you'd known about Wash--"

She shook her head jerkily, backing up a step, long fingers fluttering up to twine in her hair. "Only in nightmares. Scary monsters, and not always true, not always real. Free will muddies the portents, and not all the dreams are meant for me. Bits-- chaos--" She swallowed, then spoke more firmly. "But the girl has a purpose, a meaning. Not broken. Not--"

"Aw, hell." Mal abandoned his arm-crossed pose next to the pilot's console and strode forward, hastily gathering her up in his arms. 'Course she wanted to believe there was something bigger out there, some reason for her to be the way she was. He forgot sometimes what her relative age was, she seemed betimes so apart from normal definitions of maturity; not fair he should dump all his cynicism on her when she was still feeling out her own place in the 'verse. "'Course you're not broken," he soothed her. "Scarred, a little. And a mite unpredictable, maybe, but ain't nobody on this ship don't answer to that description some days."

She giggled a little against his chest, but there were tears in the sound; he rubbed his hand between her shoulderblades, then set her away from him again, and decided Simon's moodiness had gone on long enough. No wonder the girl was all worried for her future, the way her brother was racking himsef on that very subject; he should be the one reassuring her right now, not her crusty old Captain.

"We can talk more on the subject of destiny later," he said. "Or not. But I got me some things to say to that brother of your'n first."

She nodded, dark eyes still luminous and wet, and took a deep breath. "He doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to leave her, doesn't want to leave Serenity. But he thinks it might be best for me. And he wants our father to be proud."

"Can't help him there," Mal said. "A man's decisions are his own. But I think he might could do with a reminder that his attitude is draggin' down a good third of my crew and disruptin' the rest." Mal was hardly going to hold forth on the subject of chosen family-- he didn't do mushy-- but the doc did have connections here, ones a lot more healthy than what he'd left behind him. If he could just get over should have been and wake up to what is...

Of course, Mal thought suddenly, he might maybe ought to take his own advice on that score, too.

River smiled at that, a flash of white teeth that lit up her whole face. Then she turned and padded down the fore passage, bare feet barely whispering over the grates.

Mal pondered for a moment the notion that she might just have been handling him, rather than the other way around-- a font of unexpected quirks and talent, his little albatross. Then he shook his head and followed her.

He had captain-y things to be doing.

Chapter Text

Simon looked up from his light-slate as River approached him. He smiled absently at his sister, a distance in his eyes that had been there ever since Mal told the crew where they were going, and there were unaccountable creases in the vest he wore. A bad sign, that; boy'd put his Core clothes away months ago in favor of blending in with his adopted world, and seldom took them back out of storage less'n he felt the need for a reminder of where it was he'd come from.

Mal cleared his throat, stepping up behind River, and Simon's gaze flashed to the Captain's face. A little more awareness came into the doc's expression, and he swallowed, setting the light-slate on the table in front of him. "Mal?" he asked, hesitantly. "Is something wrong?"

"No," Mal said, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared down at the younger man. "Just a few things I'd like to clear up."

"What-- what things?" Simon asked, brow wrinkling as he considered Mal's words. He glanced back at River again, clearly under the impression she'd had something to do with it; she returned the look with a half-amused, half-disdainful smirk, and he refocused on Mal with a startled look to him.

Mal shook his head. "I was under the impression we done had this conversation already," he said gently, "but maybe I was mistaken. Or maybe you ain't noticed our Kaylee wanderin' around without a smile to her this mornin'?"

Simon glanced toward the corridor that led to the engine room, eyes wide, shifting uncomfortable-like in his seat. "I, um. I suppose I've had a lot on my mind today," he said slowly. "I hadn't meant to upset her."

Of course he hadn't; boy probably hadn't been thinking 'bout much of anything beyond himself and his sister, if what River'd told Mal had been a true picture of what was rattling around that brain of his. And no reason it wouldn't be; only made sense he'd slip back into long habit first sign of a threat. That behavior had seen he and River through tribulations as would have felled lesser folk. Still, it weren't exactly the most practical response here. Not if'n he planned on staying aboard as part of the crew.

"You plannin' on leavin' her behind, then, after all?" Mal prodded him. "Goin' back to your folks and your fancy job at the hospital?"

Simon swallowed at that. "I-- no! Of course not!" he objected. "I never would-- She can't think that I'd--" He half-rose from his chair, staring off down the corridor again, then sat back down at the flutter of River's pale hand on his arm. "No, I suppose she would," he continued glumly. "And I can't say, truthfully, that the temptation isn't there; life was much easier under my father's roof, before River went to the Academy, and Father's money could buy much better treatments for her now than I can provide."

He swallowed, staring up at Mal again. "But I've learned too much, seen too much since I left Osiris, to ever believe that I could go back to the hospital, take up my residency again and wave the flag of the Alliance as though nothing had ever happened," he said, intently. "And I'd be a fool if I thought Parliament didn't already have other plans to gain control of my sister. I won't put her within their reach if I can help it, nor myself in their hands as a hostage against her."

Mal nodded at him thoughtfully. Mayhap he'd been underestimating the doc, after all. But that still didn't account for the boy's behavior. "Then what's the problem?" he asked.

Simon grimaced. "It's just that with the way things were when I left... I'm not sure what Father's reaction will be to seeing me again. Even if he agrees now that saving River was the right thing to do-- and that's by no means certain-- I know he'll want me to come home and resume my life the way it was before. I don't know how to tell him that I'm already home, and that I don't intend ever to go back. And as for Mother--" He trailed off, staring down at his clasped hands. "It would be one thing, if River and I were still fugitives. Now that we could go back and won't... it's going to break her heart."

"Can't be helped," River said matter-of-factly, settling slowly into the seat next to Simon and laying her head on his shoulder. Simon settled an arm around her with the ease of familiarity, and rested his cheek against the crown of her head as she continued.

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, Simon; you won't ever be her little boy again."

"Speakin' of cleaving," Mal put in, one more question lingering in his mind. "Why is it you're tellin' all this to me and not my mechanic?"

The pinched expression on Simon's face as he looked back up at Mal was answer enough.

"Didn't want her to worry none, I take it," Mal continued solemnly, before Simon could come up with a more polite way of putting it. "Since there ain't no chance your parents are goin' to approve of her, no matter whether they welcome you back or not."

Simon's lips thinned and he sat up straighter, the guilt in him hardening visibly into resolve. "I told you," he said firmly. "As long as she wants me, I'm hers. It doesn't matter whether my parents approve of her or not, or what they say to me when I see them. I just--" He sighed, and some of the fierceness in him faded. "You're right. I didn't want to upset her."

"Well that's just dumb!" Kaylee's voice rang out suddenly, from the direction of the engine room. Mal glanced toward the open, empty door, startled, and saw her determined face peering around the lower left side of the door; she must've been sitting on the grates there awhile, listening to the men go on.

"Kaylee..." Simon said, pleadingly, struggling to let go of River and get up, but his sister held on fast. She had a smug look to her, too, Mal noticed, like she'd known Kaylee was there all along.

Kaylee cut the doc off before he could ramble on. "All this time I been worryin' over what your parents were gonna say, and how you were gonna react to it, and whether it'd do more harm than good for me to bring it up, when I didn't have to!" She got to her feet and stomped into the dining area, rattling the floor with the passion of her advance, then stopped across from Simon with her hands on her hips.

"I'm... sorry?" Simon said, wincing. He tried to free his arm from its entrapment behind his sister again, and this time she let him go; he stood up, and edged around the table to reach for his woman.

Kaylee let him take her hands, but the small, disappointed frown gracing her features didn't fade. "You don't gotta protect me from things like this, Simon," she said to him, sternly. "No matter what your parents say, it can't be any worse than I heard at that fancy party on Persephone, and I didn't let that hurt my feelings none. I know I ain't fancy, or educated, or none of the things your parents want for you. But you love me, right? That's all that matters."

Mal glanced from one to the other of them, noticing the way the air around them was starting to congeal from excess of gooey emotion, and decided his job there was done. He glanced up at River's knowing gaze and cocked his head in the direction of the nearest stairwell, then tiptoed away as quietly as he could in his boots, escaping down into the lounge area.

Jayne was still there, surrounded by gleaming metal, his largest knife in one hand and a whetstone in the other. He looked up as Mal arrived and grunted. "'Lo, Mal."

"Jayne," Mal acknowledged him, casually.

"Things gone back to normal up there, I take it?" Jayne asked, stroking the whetstone down the blade.

"Seem like to be," Mal answered, shrugging as he moved away from the stairs. Whisper-soft sounds on the stairs behind him announced River's arrival; he wasn't surprised when she drifted around him, eyeing Jayne's knife collection with interest, but the mercenary froze at the sight of her.

"Thought I heard Kaylee yellin'," Jayne said warily, then dropped the whetstone and began hastily clearing up his weapons, starting with the ones closest to River. He was still more'n a mite skittish where the girl and sharp edges were concerned, despite everything-- thought that was probably for the best, in Mal's captain-y opinion. Last thing he wanted to see was Jayne taking a positive interest in the girl, the way the man tended to respond to women and dangerous weapons in general.

River smiled mysteriously at Jayne, but didn't pause to harass him; she kept walking, disappearing into the cargo bay, padding somewhere out of sight.

Mal shook his head as he watched River go, then turned to Jayne with a wry smile. "Girl's got a way about her, sure enough. 'Tween her and that sister of his, doc ain't got a chance."

Jayne snorted as he slid the last of his knives into its sheath. "Now, see? That's why I don't never go with the same woman more than twice. Any more'n that, they start gettin' ideas and expectations and all."

"Is that so?" Mal replied, amused. He had nowhere else to be at the moment, and it'd been awhile since he'd had a friendly chat with his mercenary; he cast about for an empty chair, then sat down, picking idly at a loose thread in its fabric covering. Before the mess on Ariel, the pair of 'em had been fair regular drinking buddies, something Mal'd been doing without since Zoë hooked up with Wash and started spending her dirtside time apart from her Captain. He'd been missing that a mite, since. Ship full of women like he had-- wondrous creatures that they were-- he weren't exactly spoiled for choice in male companionship.

Jayne rolled his eyes by way of response, then began rolling up the length of fabric he tucked his personal weapons in for transport to his bunk. "You're one to talk. Only woman you been intimate with more'n once since I known you was that fēngle wife of your'n."

"Don't know as I'd call that intimate," Mal replied, ruefully. "There may've been nakedness involved both times, but it sure weren't mutual. And it ain't like she don't have a hundred other husbands, too."

"Yeah," Jayne agreed, chuckling. "You think maybe we'll run into her again sometime?"

"What, you that eager to be the next on her list?" Mal smirked.

"Nah," Jayne replied. "Ain't a lot of future in that. But things ain't never boring when she's around."

"Well, I'm thinkin' we can do without her brand of excitement for awhile." Hopefully, she was still deep in jail somewhere, or locked up on Haymer's estate; Mal didn't like to think on what she'd do to him in name of revenge the next time they crossed paths, now that he'd thwarted her schemes twice.

A loud clunking noise echoed down the stairwell, interrupting the conversation, as someone opened, then closed, one of the bunks in the fore passage with undue haste. Both men looked up, and Jayne chuckled again.

"Sure sounds like someone's in a hurry," the mercenary said, leering in the general direction of Kaylee and Simon's new joint quarters.

Mal's quick smile of agreement faded quickly as he considered the problem of the Tams again. "That reminds me, Jayne," he said. "You know the doc's concerned his folks might not be all too pleased to see him again?"

"Yeah." Jayne nodded, frowning. "What's that got to do with me?"

Mal leaned forward in his chair, elbows braced on his knees, and gave Jayne his best this-is-orders stare. "I get the feelin' he'll want to meet with them first time on his lonesome, without his sister along. Kaylee and River ain't like to take that too well, so he'll probably try and sneak off Serenity sometime after we land. I'd appreciate if'n you'd keep an eye on him."

Jayne made a disgusted noise. "Aw, Mal! Why I gotta play babysitter? What if I done made plans already?"

"Then un-make 'em," Mal said, firmly. "Look. Operative may've been tellin' the truth; Parliament might just leave well enough alone. Warrants are gone off the Cortex, and that's a fair sign right there. But what if they don't? What if they done set a trap at his parents' house, just waitin' for Simon to bring River home, and take him right off the street? Busy Core planet like Osiris, we'd have no idea nothin' was wrong 'til troops showed up at the dock, lookin' for the rest of us."

Especially with that transmitter still in the wiring, he thought. Hopefully, Kaylee'd be able to untangle it soonest and shift it to another ship after they landed, but weren't no way to be sure.

"Tāmā de," Jayne grunted. "Why I gotta do it? He won't be happy if he sees me followin' him."

"Then don't let him see you," Mal replied, stubbornly.

Jayne glared at him a moment more, enough to salve his pride, then sighed. "Can I at least take some grenades with me this time?"

Mal couldn't help but chuckle at that. "I ain't never gonna hear the end of that, am I?" He aimed an admonishing finger in Jayne's direction. "All right. But just two, you hear? And don't you dare use 'em 'less the Alliance or Reavers is about to come down on us, dŏng ma?"

Jayne rolled his eyes. "I just like to be prepared, is all. Gotta have the right weapon for the job, and sometimes you don't know what that is 'til you find yourself needin' it." He glanced fondly at the locker on the hull-side wall where the extra explosives were stored, then grimaced suddenly. "Speakin' of weapons," he continued, turning back to Mal. "That package you got the other day. It come from the same place the Shepherd did, when we picked him up that first time?"

The smile slid off Mal's face at the question. "Might have done," he said, cautiously, worried that Jayne might have seen-- or heard-- more about its contents than Mal wanted public just yet. "Had a lot of books and things in it; I ain't been through 'em all yet. What's that got to do with weapons?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Jayne said, frowning in concentration. He got up from his chair, then paced over to the metal grillwork of the short steps that led to the cargo bay, and knelt next to the edge of the risers.

"Uh, Jayne," Mal said, perplexed by the man's behavior. "Reckon that's not exactly an answer."

Jayne's scowl grew fiercer as he stuck his arm into the space under the second step. "Just a second, I know I put it under here-- Ah! Gorram it!" He flinched, then appeared to wrap his hand around something out of sight. When he pulled his arm back again, a length of wood and shining metal came with it. The palm of his hand was bleeding where he'd accidentally grabbed the blade of the thing-- some artist's distorted idea of an axe, it looked to be.

"What in the tiān xiăodé is that?" Mal blurted, staring at the strange weapon.

Jayne shrugged and crossed the room again, shifting the meter-long weapon to the other hand. He held it out to Mal, pointy haft-end first, and curled his wounded hand up to halt the bleeding. "Dunno. Shepherd gave it to me, that last time on Haven. Didn't say where he'd got it, just that it was important, and I was to give it to you after the box showed up. Some kinda instructions in there, or somethin'."

Utterly baffled now, Mal reached up to take the axe from him. He hefted it slightly, surprised by its light weight, then inspected the red-tinted blade. "Pretty lookin' thing," he said. "But I ain't got a clue what it's..."

He trailed off then, glancing involuntarily toward the cargo bay, where River had disappeared off to. He remembered how she'd held those makeshift Reaver axes, bodies strewn all around her; blade like this was practically made for her style. Had to be a Slayer weapon.

Unease roiled in the pit of his stomach. It weren't just words any more; this Slayer thing was very real, and the sooner he figured out what Book had meant him to learn about it, the better.

Clattering noises from the infirmary startled Mal out of his introspection; Jayne had gone rummaging in the doc's things to find something to bind his hand. Well enough; Mal didn't know how he was going to explain this thing to him yet, nor anything else of what Book had sent.

"'Preciate it, Jayne. I'll just be in my bunk!" he called to the mercenary, then stood and headed for the stairs. He had some more reading to do.

Chapter Text

Zoë eyed Mal curiously as he passed through the dining area on the way to his bunk, one eyebrow arched speakingly at the axe in his hands as she poured herself a drink. "Branching out into new forms of weaponry, sir?" she said, dryly.

"You never know," he replied off-handedly, miming a stabbing motion with the sharpened end of the haft. "Should've seen what I done with a screwdriver, last time I lost a hold of my gun."

"You expect to run into another sword-carryin' húndàn sometime soon, then?" she asked, quirking a bemused smile behind the rim of her mug.

Mal resisted the urge to roll his eyes at her. She had a point-- it was hard to imagine what sense there was in bringing an axe to a gunfight, no matter how shiny. "I purely hope not," he said. "But I conjure the Shepherd left it to us for a reason."

Both eyebrows went up at that, and Zoë eyed the unusual weapon with wide, calculating eyes. "Shepherd Book left that here?" she asked.

"Accordin' to Jayne," Mal agreed. "Handed it to him on Haven, told him to keep it safe 'til a package arrived from Southdown Abbey."

"By which I assume he meant...." She frowned and gestured toward the bridge, curling one hand into a shape the size of a 'wave tape.

"Looks to be so." Mal shifted his grip on the axe, turning it slightly to show her the blade's full, decoratively painted profile. "I'd hesitate to name anything so plainly murderous as nīnī..." he drawled.

Zoë snorted. "But if that ain't a blade was made for a teenage girl..." She scowled fiercely at the pretty thing, tone full of disgust. "Wāngbadàn de biăozi."

"You'll get no argument from me on that point," Mal replied, solemnly. "Men as could put this in the hand of a child and order her to do battle in their place ain't men at all, to my way of thinking."

"Hard to believe a good man like Book could ever have been part of such a thing." Zoë sighed. "You got any more notion yet what this will mean for the crew?"

"Workin' on it." Mal briefly considered telling her what he'd read about Book's trip aboard the Loring, then decided against it; he'd flag the file for her when all was said and done, but for the time being she had enough to be worrying on. "When I do, you'll be the first to know."

She nodded thoughtfully at that, then took another sip, and Mal took advantage of the pause to take his leave of her and duck on up the forward passage. Kaylee had finally put up a hastily calligraphed sign designating the bunk across from his as "Kaylee and Simon's"; Mal took a moment to admire it, grateful they weren't sharing a wall with him no more, then opened the hatch to his own cabin.

He made to put a boot on the ladder, then stepped back again, frowning at the awkward shape of the axe in his hands. He turned it one way, then t'other, visions of slipping on the ladder with that thing and doing himself an injury causing him to hesitate. Not that such was like to happen, he scoffed inwardly, but he hadn't got to the age he was now by being plumb foolhardy--

Well, actually he had; but that was neither here nor there. Mal had a healthy respect for things as could cause him pain, and had no further need nor desire to see the Doctor that day. Damn thing really needed a sheath of some kind; he'd have to jury-rig a carrier 'fore he let River so much as touch it.

If he let her touch it. That weren't a sure thing yet, to his mind. He didn't doubt she'd be as zhēn de shì tiāncái with it as with any dangerous thing she laid a hand to of late, but whether he approved or not really depended on what the good Shepherd had to say. What had it been made for? What had been its purpose 'fore it come into Book's hands? If it were a product of the people as had sent him 'round the 'verse stealing the daughters of honest, hardworking folk, then Mal would sooner dump it out the airlock than gift it to one of their victims.

He finally sighed and held the axe out over the open hatch, then let it drop it to the floor. He doubted it was yì suì enough to be damaged by a fall of a few meters, not if it survived the landing on Mr. Universe's moon. It made a satisfying clatter-clang at the bottom of the ladder, and he climbed down after it, closing the hatch as he went.

Sure enough, when he picked the thing up again there weren't no scratches he could see; he inspected the edge and the pointy end for any damage, but as far as he could tell the weapon showed hardly any marks of wear nor sharpening at all. Thing was damn near pristine. Whether that was from disuse or the strength of the materials it was made from was more difficult to figure. Would be interesting to see if the blade were sturdy enough for use as a shield against slug-throwers or beam weapons; would be a sight more useful if River could defend herself with it in a running gun battle.

Now, where could he store the thing that it would do the least damage if the ship were knocked about? Mal cast a glance around his quarters, considering hiding places under his bunk or in an emptied drawer, before his eyes lit on a wall hanging borne up by a pair of sturdy hooks. He took down the decorative woven image he'd kept as a souvenir of Shadow and laid it aside with gentle hands, then lifted up the axe so's the blade pointed downward and secured it to the hooks with careful twists of wire.

That done, Mal turned back to the desk and picked up his light-slate. Last time he'd been alone on the bridge he'd copied the files off Book's tape onto a datacard the smaller computer could read in the interests of privacy. He turned the desk chair around so's he could see the weapon where it hung on the wall, then set down and fiddled with the display 'til he had the journal's index again. The reader software on the slate came with a rudimentary search engine, and he carefully tapped out the word "axe" for its tracking code to seize on.

Only a handful of entries came up. The first was one he'd read before: an account of Book's first, palm-blistering experience chopping actual, natural-grown wood. Mal caught himself smiling a little as he read it, then cleared his throat and went on to the next. That one described an encounter with an injured woodsman whose children were in one of Book's classes. Life was hard out on the raggedy edge, and the young Watcher had been hard put not to proselytize about the wonders of Alliance medicine.

"There is an old Earth-that-Was saying still popular on the Rim: you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

That saying is symptomatic of everything that separates these unenlightened worlds from the Alliance: a contrarian refusal to do what is in their best interests to do, simply because they cannot abide someone else telling them to do it. They bond in small groups, owing loyalty only to family, crew, or township; the only form of persuasion they truly respect beyond those tight-knit units is a superior show of force.

It had been my hope, and that of the Watcher organization as a whole, that there would yet be time to resolve the Slayer mystery before a mass application of such force would become necessary, but as with unruly children too long spared a corrective hand, I fear that stronger measures will be required to bring these worlds back into the fold of civilization."

Mal shuddered as he flicked his thumb over the screen to advance to the next entry. He had no doubt such thinking had been behind the settlement of Miranda; had been behind the experiments with the Pax, trying to create a 'verse full of calm, compliant drones. Instead, thirty million had died there-- millions more in the war that followed-- and the only thing even approaching an apology he'd ever heard had come from a dying woman on a twelve-year-old recording.

"People have to know, we meant it for the best..."

Mal had another Rim-world saying for folk of that kind: "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

He scrubbed a hand over his face, then turned his attention back to the journal. There were three more entries to read through, and he flipped through them in quick succession: another nothing entry from Book's wandering years, a mention of Haymer's vast and impressive collection, and then-- paydirt.

"...shaped like an axe, but with an unusual hook at the lower edge of the blade and a sharpened wooden haft. The sacred texts refer to it as the Scythe: a legendary Slayer weapon of considerable power, supposedly created at the dawn of recorded history and hidden for use only in desperate times. The Council's teachings have long assumed, however, that it was only a symbol, may in fact have never actually existed, and that due to the simultaneity of their appearance in our records the term "Scythe" should be interpreted as a nickname for that greatest of classic Slayers, the infamous Buffy Summers.

So how did a weapon identical to that mythical description end up in the salvage yards of Beylix? The yard agent claimed that it was part of a cargo taken from a ghost ship found drifting near Dyton: a lost colony ship from Earth-that-Was, launched some two hundred years after the Great Migration. At first glance, such a tale seemed impossible; any Alliance school child knows that the Earth was rendered tragically uninhabitable by pollution, overpopulation, and climate change less than fifty years after the colony fleet's departure.

I inquired into the status of any other items of salvage from the cargo, and found that very little remained; as the ship itself was not of standard design, the parts were of no use for anything other than scrap metal, and most of the furnishings, clothing, and curios aboard had likewise been broken up for their constituent parts. Though many of the items were unique, they did not match any known historical imagery, and were largely constructed of cheap materials. Only the jewelry and metal coinage had been of any real value, and that had long since been sold.

All that was left was a short stack of ancient books. There had originally been more; the novels and books of poetry with familiar titles and authors had already gone to collectors. Only a few unusual volumes remained. He described them as follows: a fantastical compilation of imaginary monsters titled "Vampyr"; a "Watcher's Handbook" outlining a series of strange rules and scenarios, possibly for some sort of obscure role-playing game; and the nearly illegible, handwritten diaries of a family surnamed Fray.

What luck! Many of the original Watchers' Council texts were destroyed in a terrorist attack several decades before the first colony ships were built, and none of those that remained survived the intervening unrest, the generations-long journey, and the harsh early years of colonization on Londinium before the terraforming process was perfected. Only those records and volumes committed to computer storage or oral memory endured to enlighten their spiritual descendants. An original, unreconstructed copy of the Watcher's Handbook would be priceless.

I bought the lot in hopes that the other books would also prove useful, and returned to my ship. It will be the work of several days to thoroughly examine these artefacts, but if they prove to be authentic, this could be the most important discovery of my career."

Mal frowned thoughtfully at the entry, then reached down and opened the lowest drawer of his desk. There, still grouped together, were the books the Abbey had sent along with the tape; he lifted them out, one by one, and verified that they matched the list Book had included in his journal. He stacked them up on the desk, eyeing them suspiciously, then scrolled back up to the date stamp on that particular entry: July 24, 2501.

The date seemed mighty familiar, and he called up the index again, curious as to what other events had occurred around that time and what Book had to say after he'd had a chance to do his reading. Mal had cracked the cover of the thickest one-- the "Vampyr" book-- that first evening, and been put off by the horrific drawings; he'd seen more'n enough twixt the Reavers and the War to have any kind of wish to pollute his nightmares any further. How were these books at all relevant to River's troubles? And why had Book not sent them on to his precious Council?

The entries before that particular one were full of the same kinds of things as all the others; there seemed nothing at all different about 'em. Same with the ones after; the entries were a mite shorter, perhaps, but there was no further talk of books nor weapon. Quick searches on "Scythe" and "Vampyr" turned up the same lack of results. Only "Fray" got any other mention: one line in an entry four years later, right as the War broke out, claiming that "the Fray relics" had been sent somewhere safe 'til all was over.

Curiouser and curiouser. Mal dimmed the slate's screen, then leaned back in his chair, drumming his fingers on his thigh as he stared up at the axe again. Scythe. Whatever. A weapon not created by Book's people, but by those as came before, and intended only for use "in desperate times". Well, times were desperate, sure enough, but how it could be of any use against a blight the size of Parliament fair beggared the imagination.

Wait: that was how Mal knew that date, those Parliamentary warrants on the Cortex! River Tam had been born on July 24, 2501-- the exact same day Book visited those salvage yards on Beylix.

Lăotiānyé. Girl had been right: this all went far beyond coincidence.

Chilled, he reached over and lifted the "Vampyr" volume again, bracing its heavy weight with both hands as he flipped to the first page. He truly meant to find answers, then now was the time to do it: once they landed on Osiris the following morning the Tam's fates would be entirely out of his control.

"The world is older than you know," he read, squinting in an effort to decipher the faded print, "and contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise...."

Chapter Text

Hours passed, lost in the turning of pages and the scent of dust, as Mal read until his eyes could bear the strain no more. His thoughts bucked like an unruly horse as he tried to form an objective opinion of what he was reading; it was pure shén jīng bìng, impossible when looked at with a clear mind, and yet there was enough recognizable truth to it that he couldn't just dismiss the whole mess out of hand.

He'd been a simpler man once, raised to saddle and sunlight; for a world called Shadow, life there had been remarkably bright. War had changed him; the Alliance had changed him, brought him to the edge of a darkness deeper than the Black. He'd seen men do unbelievable things, commit horrors that would never leave him 'til the day he died; was it so much of a stretch to think that the yāo mó guĭ guài of fireside tales might be just as real? Book had obviously believed so, at least after he'd broken with the Council as was supposed to deal with such things; and hell, they'd all seen River in action. In a world where human folk could create Reavers with the best of blind intention, a little honest evil might actually be refreshing.

Book's journal entries gave one perspective on the matter; the ancient texts another; and the Fray diaries yet a third. The handwritten volumes were filled with stories of the difficult second cleansing of Earth-that-Was from the demons-- as well as fears that the destiny that had gripped their aunt Melaka without warning might also sleep among the colonies, waiting to strike another girl so unprepared. The Watchers had failed their planet; who was to say they hadn't failed the new worlds, as well?

Who was to say, indeed. Mal finally closed the last entry and shut off his light-slate, rubbing at gritty eyes as his stomach rumbled with complaint.

Too tired to read any more, too hungry and heart-sore to sleep, he climbed back up the ladder to the fore passage and made his way toward the kitchen. A warm light flickered there, more than the usual dim sleep-shift lighting; he eased his suspenders off his shoulders where long, still hours had cut them deep into aching muscle, and headed for the welcoming glow.

Inara looked up from the table as he entered, delicately enameled fingertips gleaming around a soup-mug full of spiced broth. He could smell that core-world stuff she saved for special occasions in the air; she weren't wearing anything more fancy than a heavily embroidered dressing gown, but for all that, she was still the same picture of elegance she'd been the day he'd met her. A Companion even when she weren't all dolled up and ready for pleasing.

More'n a year too late, Mal thought he might finally have begun to understand what she meant when she said it were never just a job to her.

River'd been spooky even before the Alliance took her, Simon had once told him; and not just in mind, but in body, too. A 'creature of extraordinary grace'. She'd been born to be what she was; and she'd never be anything other, not now and not ever, despite all the scars she bore. Mal still hesitated to come right out and call her 'Slayer'; but he knew what he'd seen, and what he'd read, and it baffled him more'n ever that Book had trusted such a steel-feathered angel to Mal's worn and bloodstained hands.

"Nĭ kàn qilai hĕn yŏu jīngshen," he said quietly, acknowledging Inara's presence with a courteous nod.

A surprised little smile tucked in the corners of her mouth; she looked much more pleased to see him than she had the last time they'd spoke. "A pity I can't say the same for you," she said. "We missed you at mealtime."

"Got caught up in something," Mal shrugged one shoulder as he approached the table, not quite ready to reveal the whole tangle to her, not when it would mean he'd also have to figure how much was safe for her to pass on. Inara's broth smelled even more enticing as he got closer; he leaned over the table to sniff at the air, then made a show of making hopeful eyes at her. "Don't suppose there's any more where that came from?"

Inara chuckled. "I thought you might still be up. There's another bowl on the warming plate." She gestured toward the near counter, where a battered old example of second-best Beaumonde crockery added its contribution to the enticing aroma.

"You're a wonder," he said, and drifted over to retrieve the bowl, lifting it to take a cautious, appreciative sip. "Mmmm. Cooking something they taught you in school? Saffron was surprisingly good at it, too."

A quick frown drew her eyebrows together, just long enough to blink; then her face cleared, and she nodded. "Yes, actually. It's one of the many gentle arts. You weren't avoiding me, then?"

He could see her watching him with a carefully nonchalant expression as he took another sip, as though she had no care for the answer. It was plain to see she did, though; and considering all else, not all that hard to guess why. She'd been the one taking meals in her shuttle of late.

"Might as well ask if you've been avoiding me," he replied, just as casually. She had, of course; just as had he. But not in any kind of intentional way, at least on his part; more holding back, waiting for the worst of the hurt to blow over. He suspected it had been the same for her.

She glanced down, the gesture slow and unhurried; he admired the artful curve of her lashes, the slight tremble of her lower lip, and found himself wondering if it even mattered how much of her was genuine and how much a product of her long and rigorous training. The sum total full well was Inara, no matter how he turned it about in his mind; and she'd been right, she wouldn't be the woman who drew his attention so effortlessly if she shifted herself to fit his tastes. She'd be a songbird in a cage, a picture of misery, and he couldn't want that. A little more of the pain that had crimped his spirit since their conversation about her secondary Guild duties unwound then; he breathed lighter, and found himself smiling even before she looked back up.

"I apologize if it's seemed that way," she said, an apology in her eyes even as she made the expected excuse. "I've been busy, unpacking my things and reestablishing my profile on the Cortex. I think I finally have everything settled to my satisfaction, though."

"I'm glad to hear it," he replied, settling himself at the table across from her to finish the soup.

They sat together in companionable silence while they ate; the minutes passed by long and slow, but peaceful, unpressured, and the raw worries he'd brought up with him from his cabin began to soften around the edges. Finally, he tipped back the last of the dregs, then considered his spy slash ambassador for a thoughtful moment.

"'Nara, I got a professional question for you," he said, slowly. Then he waved a hasty negation as she frowned at him. "Not of that sort. T'other. Don't expect you'll know the answer, but I conjure it can't hurt to ask."

She set down her own mug, eyes wide with curiosity. "Forgive me, but... I was under the impression you'd taken 'the other' as a personal affront. I'm... a little baffled by the sudden change."

He grunted, admitting the charge. "Thought over a few things. And I've got a fair lot else on my mind. You stay square with me, we're square; though I expect we'll have words again soon. Can't say it rests easy with me, someone out there takin' notes on who I've met with and where all I've been, but that's all air through the intakes just now. And it strikes me that this other job of yours might be of use in more ways than I'd thought."

"'Of use'?" She crossed her arms and straightened her shoulders a little, giving him the inquisitive eye.

Mal gave her a wry half-smile. "Been said that's my guiding star," he said, dodging the nature of the problem a little longer.

She snorted. "Perhaps before all of this happened," she said, lifting a hand to gesture at obvious marks of repair on one of the common area's walls. "Perhaps after the War. But not now, and it's obvious that this is not a new circumstance for you. I should apologize for that as well; you were right, when you said I'd see something new if events devolved that far. You're an uncomfortable man without a cause, Mal. But you're a much more dangerous man with one."

She didn't seem to be accusing him; she didn't sound admiring, either. Just-- putting it out there. Mal weren't sure if he was at ease with her description, though; made him sound like some kinda yīng xióng. Reminded him of Book's death, and all manner of other unpleasantness. If he were any kind of hero, he were the sort Zoë had spoken of to the man he'd left behind on Lilac: the sort that got other people killed.

"There a compliment somewhere in there, Inara?" he asked, shifting a little in his chair.

"No," she said, softening the word with a white curve of smile.

"Well. That's as may be," he said, moving the hell on. "All the same, I don't like making the big decisions without adequate intel. And in this case, I think you might maybe have some for me."

She inclined her head, all gracious-like. "Very well, then. What's your question?"

He looked off to one side at that, frowning intently as he tried to put just the right words together not to say too much, nor too little. "You ever hear tell of another organization operating like yours?" he finally asked. "One that maybe went around tellin' folk they was teachers. Biding on a world a spell, then leaving with a girl, maybe more'n one, to take 'em off to some kinda fancy school."

"Yes, I've heard of them," Inara said, sounding genuinely puzzled. "All Companions are warned to show respect if we ever encounter one of the itinerant teachers, and to refrain from speaking of the Training Houses among their students."

Mal closed his eyes. That was all he'd been needful of: outside confirmation. He'd believed Book already, but that belief had been based on the man's own writing and what been done to River. Knowledge shared weren't always a burden halved, as his mama used to say; sometimes, it only doubled the weight. He opened them again to offer Inara a pained smile, and sighed. "Feared that might be so," he said. "Heard anything else about 'em?"

She shook her head. "No," she said, slowly. "I know they requested trainees from Sihnon from time to time, but the rest of us were not expected to work with them as more than clients. Why do you ask?"

"Book used to be one of those teachers, back before the War. Man left me his notes after he died, and 'Nara.... they were the folks as took River. Took whole passels of girls just like her, from Core and Rim alike, with promises of a better life. And you know what they did then."

Inara's eyes widened in dismay. "No. Not Shepherd Book," she objected, instantly.

He nodded, firmly. "Afraid so. Accordin' to his notes, that's why he became a Shepherd. Believed hard in the Alliance-- 'til the day came he saw what they did to those girls with his own two eyes, and couldn't blind himself no more. Found himself another purpose to cling to." Sort of the opposite of how Mal had gone about rebuilding his own shattered world; but he understood what drove the man to it. Made him respect him all the more; would've been nice to have that conversation while Book was still alive. Ah, well; man had had a right to his privacy. "Stole some important documents, got himself the hell out, and spent the rest of his life tryin' to do what was right instead."

She caught her breath. "And now he's passed his burden on to you."

"Think there might could be someone higher up in your Guild that would know more about it?" Book had left him bits and pieces, and Simon had been in one of their labs when he'd rescued his mèimei, but neither had been anywhere near the beating heart of the place, or knew what Mal would need if he were going to tear it all down. If it could even be done.

She paused a long moment, pursing her lips, then sighed. "As I said, you're a far more dangerous man with a cause," she said, ruefully. "Just promise me you're going to talk it all over with us this time, before you do anything rash."

"Long as I can," he agreed. Not that there was always time for that, but it weren't the time to get persnickety about details. "Long as it takes. I don't intend to go endangerin' anyone who ain't decided to throw their lot in; and we got us a spell to think on it this time. I plan to use it; get as much information as I can before I jump in any particular direction."

She frowned, deep in thought, attention turned inward; then nodded. "All right. I'll ask what I can, where I can. I still have a few friends highly placed in House Madrassa, though it may take a little time to get the answers you need without arousing concern."

He smiled at her, relieved; sometimes, sharing a burden did help. Then he got up to carry his bowl to the sink. He set a hand on her shoulder as he passed her and dropped a kiss into her hair as he would for Kaylee, unfreighted with any heavier meaning; she turned to look after him as he walked on.

"Mal?" she called after him.

"Yes, Inara?" he asked, as he rinsed out his bowl.

She watched him a moment, then smiled, bittersweet but as honest a smile as she'd ever given him. "I meant what I said Mal; I love this ship, and you-- the crew-- are all the family I truly have. Thank you."

He nodded back, awkward but full appreciative of the moment. "What's family for?" he shrugged, then turned toward the room's other exit, feeling much better than he had when he'd sat down.

He grew somber again as he finished his nightly perambulations, though, thinking about the parts of the story he hadn't told Inara. The details about what Book's employers had been trying to recreate in those girls, for one; what Book had got up to during the War, for another. Nor the shiny blade hanging up on Mal's wall, nor what it might mean that River could Read more than just people. She'd heard the unquiet ghosts on Miranda, and she'd known before they'd ever gone there that Mal's role in her life would change; he still remembered her question of him that morning on Lilac.

Dreams, she said. No Potential about her.

What was a Slayer meant to do, in a 'verse without her natural prey?

Mal sighed as he finally reached the pilot's chair, gripping the back as he stared out at the stars. Wash's dinosaurs were all still there, quietly keeping him company; Zoë hadn't had the heart to pack them away.

How many of the girls that had passed through the Slayer program had survived at all? None, he suspected River would say. One, at least, to his mind. Even if Mal never managed to help any of the others, that single one would make the effort worthwhile.

He'd let her land the ship again in the morning. Then, after her visit to her parents, they'd sit down and have themselves a talk.

Chapter Text

Mal woke bleary and irritable the morning Serenity reached Osiris, irrationally convinced from the moment he pried up his eyelids that the day would end in disaster. Nothing more specific than that: just a vague botheration, a burr stuck somewhere under his metaphorical saddle. Like to drive him crazy before he even so much as left his cabin.

Part of that, he was fair sure could be blamed on the late night and Inara's fancy soup, however soothing he'd found it at the time. A good deal more could be laid at the feet of the one as sent him those books, for adding genuine demons to his stable of nightmare fodder. He couldn't discount the effect of that yōumĕi weapon, neither; the silver and crimson blade was the first thing he laid his eyes on, just what a man wanted to think on before he'd had any coffee of a morning.

All that aside, though-- rational or no-- he just had a bad feeling. A warning tingle centered on that displaced nerve cluster to the right of his spine, the like of which had always correlated with disaster. Not that it had ever stopped Mal from acting; but it often made him a damn sight more cautious-- or reckless, whichever the situation at hand might call for.

He dressed quickly, then set his jaw and went to roust up his second.

By the time the auto-pilot began to chime for human intervention, he and Zoë and Kaylee had finally come up with a plan for their electronic stowaway. The nimble-fingered mechanic would wedge herself into the wiring as River started their descent; made Mal a bit nervous not to have her in the engine room, but Zoë could keep an eye on the workings in case of buffer panel type emergency. Then, in the howling minutes while their communications were blinded by interference, she'd pry the rogue whatsit loose and run it down to 'Nara's shuttle. A temporary slice and power source would be set up receive it there; by the time it could transmit again, wouldn't notice any kind of a difference. First time their Companion lifted off to fulfill a short-term contract, she'd take Kaylee with her, hid safe in the cockpit; then, while the client was occupied, Miss Frye could transfer it to the rich man's transpo. Could be months before their trackers realized it had gone walkabout.

The work had the intentional side effect of keeping his mind off anything he might not have wanted River to worry on before meeting with her family; it also had the not-so-intentional problem of keeping him from his breakfast, so as soon as he had her settled with a promise to comm him in case of trouble he went back to the kitchen for a plate of protein. Her mood had calmed down more'n a little since her brother had settled his nerves; Simon didn't make all that effective a barometer on her calmer days, but it was a fair bet that whenever he was upset River-storms would follow.

Fair bet that whenever anyone was upset in her vicinity River-storms would follow, of course. Simon just affected his gifted sister more swiftly, and at greater distances, than any other. Which only made every kind of sense. Still, Mal dearly hoped that day would not be a day they had to witness her distress by proxy act again.

Didn't seem like to be any way to avoid it, though. Mal raised his eyebrows as he was met in the passageway by a gussied-up doctor wearing the same piānzhī de expression he'd stuck in Mal's face before the landing on Lilac.

"I'm not taking her," he blurted, staring at Mal as though he expected some kind of argument.

Mal blinked at him. "Ain't fear this time," he said, mouth running off without asking its leave of him. "Eyes ain't wide enough for that. Nor anger, neither; the lack of clenched fists gives it away. So what's eatin' at you this time, Doc?"

Simon snorted, but the corner of his mouth turned up in reluctant amusement. "No, I'm not angry this time. Rather the opposite. I meant to ask you-- would it be possible to borrow the spare shuttle before we land? I'd like to pay a visit to my parents alone before I let them meet with River."

Mal's eyebrows lifted a little. "I'm impressed," he said. "I'd thought you'd sneak away after we landed; had Jayne all set to track you through the city with a passel of grenades."

It was Simon's turn to blink in surprise. "You knew--? Well, yes, I suppose it was an obvious move," he replied, grimacing. "However, given the distance from the port to my family's estate, and the size of their property, I thought a shuttle might prove a safer and more economical means of travel. I've filed a flight plan to a neighboring home where one of my fellow surgical residents lives, under a cover name he'll recognize; he was the one who put me in touch with the group who helped me rescue River. I'll do a flyover to make sure there won't be any unexpected guests, then land for a quick meeting. I don't expect to be more than a few hours, at least not on this first visit."

Mal glanced back up toward the cockpit; it was obvious why Simon hadn't cornered him up there, and why he hadn't waited 'til Mal was done with breakfast. "You're still takin' Jayne with you," he decided.

Simon's eyebrows drew together. "Surely that won't be necessary," he said.

Mal cut him off with a negating wave of a hand. "Why you still arguin' what's been decided?" he replied, mildly. "Go tell him; and set up quick. Won't be long before we hit atmo, and Kaylee'll be runnin' through here hell bent for leather. I'd prefer if y'all are already out of the way and ready to go when that happens." He contemplated, briefly, asking Simon to take the transmitter in place of Inara; but kept that question back between his teeth, reasoning that the doctor might prefer not to give the Alliance any extra reason to keep tabs on his family.

Simon frowned, wrestling with himself, then nodded. "Provided he doesn't attempt to hinder me from going; and provided he doesn't expect me to introduce him to my family. I dare say my father would take it poorly if I showed up with a-- a bodyguard."

Privately, Mal didn't give a rat's fart what Gabriel Tam thought; and the likelihood that Jayne would care was somewhere between zero and a whole lot of nothing. That would be for the boys to argue amongst themselves on the flight out, though. Mal crossed his arms, and nodded. "Deal. Now get out of my way; you're between me and my breakfast."

Simon scurried off, fancy clothes and fancier aftershave leaving a headache behind him, and Mal entered the common area feeling just as unsettled as he had before their conversation. "There's somethin' about this day that I just do not like," he muttered. Despite the precautions they were all taking, there was something else bound to go wrong. He was sure of it.

Nothing to be done, though, but fuel his body and keep moving.

River was waiting several minutes later when he returned to the pilot's chair, dark eyes glittering as she glanced over from the co-pilot's console. The willful set to her chin fair reminded him of her brother; Mal let his thoughts drift back to the confrontation before Lilac and gave her a questioning look.

Her scowl deepened. "I know what you're doing," she told him, settling her hands on the yoke.

"Shénme?" He raised his eyebrows at her, innocent-like, as he toggled the switches to give her control of the ship.

Her eyes narrowed, not buying the act for one second. "Filling the corners with cotton wool so I can't see what you're planning," she explained, accusation in her tone. "Doesn't mean I can't tell the plans are there."

She didn't elaborate any further; but then, Mal hardly needed her to. The quaver in her voice and the wariness in her body language said it all for her. Been tried on her before, he expected; cruel men with blue-gloved hands testing the limits of her abilities. Wasn't something he'd thought to account for, though he should've. He kept his whirling thoughts on that rather than letting them drift naturally to the subject of just what he was planning, though. He'd faced that particular interrogatory trick before, just never from an actual Reader.

Not that he wanted to think much about why she might have learned that behavior, neither.

"You think meditation might could help with that?" he asked, mildly. "Not to block you from hearing; just to stop your ears up when you want it. Or when you think someone might have a reason to be keeping himself to himself awhile."

Frustration crinkled her features briefly; then she turned away with a sigh. "I don't know. I never tried it; not even before. It seemed like time wasted when I could be dancing."

"Maybe Inara could help you explore the particulars?" he suggested.

She snorted, running fingers idly over the switches, then clicking a few in specific as turbulence began to knock the ship about. Picking up on his own mood, he guessed, though she was plenty tetchy in her own right. About time she did find a way to learn some kind of control. If she liked dancing-- well, maybe there was such a thing as meditative dance?

"Can't afford to pay her," she said, sullenly. "Not her responsibility."

"Could be she'd want to help you," Mal pointed out. "Could be she'd be glad to give up a few hours of her time now and again. I aim to do this thing, River; I aim to try and be your Watcher, crazy as that still sounds. But it ain't my only job; I'm still the Captain of this boat, and you're still its pilot. Someone else has the tools and time to help you, it's only polite to accept it."

She bit her lip, then turned back to him, defiance crumbling around the edges. "You're not going to leave us here?" she asked. "This isn't my home; the girl that left here is gone."

He gave her a reassuring smile, picturing his crew standing together, or sitting to a meal, or playing hoop ball in the bay. "You're welcome howsomever long you want to stay, River. You're crew now, remember? You want to leave, I'll hold to that; but if'n you don't, I aim to keep you."

She swallowed, still looking a little lost; then she nodded her head firmly and turned her attention back to her console. The turbulence was picking up; something banged down under Mal's feet, and Kaylee swore from where she lay half under the floor between the consoles and the windows.

"You okay down there, Kaylee?" Mal called to her.

"Āiyā! " she hissed, then wrenched herself free of with a clatter of metal. She patted at one temple with a grease-smeared hand, squinting up at him, but the other was wrapped around the offending piece of Alliance flotsam. "Sorry, Cap. Like to've knocked myself out, but I got it." She waved the thing at him, then climbed shakily to her feet.

"Careful on the stairs, then," he admonished as she went by. "Crippled mechanic's no good to me!"

She muttered something else indelicate, but didn't look back, clattering down the fore stairwell as she headed for the shuttles. Mal smirked after her, then sighed and circled the console himself, resecuring the grates and fastenings she'd left undone in her hurry. No sense letting them rattle around in the landing.

Another jolt moved the ship, then; pressed up against the floor panels as he was, Mal felt Serenity's balance shift and knew the doctor had made his departure. He'd have known it anyway, though, by the affronted cry River let out; he finished up with the bolts and hurriedly took his seat again to make sure she hadn't let her attention drift from the piloting.

She hadn't; pale but intent, she hunched over the yoke, staring at the radar screen. "You let him go without me," she said, long hair drifting like a veil to cover her wounded expression. "I didn't mean I wouldn't go! I just didn't want to stay! How can I protect him if I'm on the ship and he isn't?"

"I expect he means to be protecting you," Mal assured her. "He wanted to meet with your parents first, make sure they knew what was what before he brought you there. Let him be the big brother this one last time. Don't worry; I sent Jayne with him. They're going to be just fine."

His back twitched again, where the Operative had dug his fingers in; Mal pressed his fingers there, kneading the bruised muscle and studiously ignoring it. If something were going to go wrong, the Tam's place was an obvious target; but nothing was going to go wrong, now was it?

River shivered, lip trembling a little as she focused all her concentration on the controls. "That doesn't actually help, you know," she said, irritably. "I can tell you're still afraid."

"Ain't afraid," he insisted, glancing over his own screens; they were vectoring toward the port, a little faster than he'd like but right on course. "Or if I am, got good reason to be; this ain't like the last planet. Got to be precise, or the cradle won't catch us. Sure you're up to it?"

She shot him a disdainful look, though the force of her displeasure was softened a little by the liquid shimmer in her dark eyes. "Have to feel it," she said. "Can't ignore it. But I can do more than one thing at the same time."

"Like that trick where you walk, chew gum, pat your head and rub circles on your belly all at once?" Mal replied, vividly recalling the ranch hand who'd teased him with it when he'd been about her age.

The image wrung an amused snort out of her, and she turned back to her screens. He left one hand on the console-slaving switch and the other on the yoke, but they hovered over the designated landing zone with hardly an unexpected quiver, and the cradle caught them with no further fanfare.

Mal let out a long breath of relief. "Excellent work, little albatross," he said. "You really got a knack for this. Don't know what I'd do if'n you did decide to leave us."

She accepted the praise with a smug smile, a faint flush warming her cheeks as she began running through the shut-down sequence. She made it about halfway through before she froze again, all the color draining back out of her.

"Simon," she whispered, turning stricken eyes to him.

Mal shot to his feet. Whatever'd been stalking them, this looked to be it. "What's happened?"

She raised a shaky hand to cover her mouth. "Our house. Simon-- he thinks they--" She swallowed, her voice rising into a wail as she continued. "I'm not their daughter any more, but they were still my parents...."

It took Mal a moment to register what that might could mean; then cold horror washed through him. When the Alliance had struck Haven they'd looked up the Sanchez brothers, Li Shen, anyone ever sheltered them after a raid, but they hadn't thought about the families. They'd never have drug 'em into it; not Jayne's, nor Kaylee's, and certainly not the disapproving Tams. But would the Operative have been that thorough?

If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to.

Mal closed his eyes, remembering the knitted scarf Jayne had received from his Ma the day Book's legacy arrived on Persephone. How long had that frippery taken to make its way to her son?

"Wŏ de tiān, a," he murmured, as the radio from the shuttle activated.

"Mal?" Jayne's voice carried, grim and firm. "We got a problem."