DISCLAIMER: Firefly belongs to Joss Whedon and possibly to FOX. This is just fanfic, without any commercial purpose whatsoever. No infringement intended. The song quoted is Hearts, written by J. Brel, translation by Mary Coughlan, Hensey, Mulhern and Visser. No infringement intended here either.

RATING: Free for all - well, there's one part near the end which may be a little on the R-ish side, just barely.

SPOILERS: Pretty much the entire all too shortlived series. Not the movie however, since this was written back when a feature film based on Firefly was just an optimistic idea in the heads of Joss Whedon and (other) fans. Because the story is based only on the series, Zoë is going by the name she had there, not the one she has in the movie.

FEEDBACK: Yes please! :-) You can reach me at the e-mail address listed on my main page. Addresses may come and go, but the one you find on my top page is always valid.

ARCHIVING: Please go ahead - just let me know first, ok? And please keep my name on it.

COMMENT: Due to travels and an ever increasing workload, this story was put on hold for two years after I completed the first draft. Still, let's hope it has matured well ...






Eliann SleepingCat

Serenity was floating in, well, serenity. Engines temporarily powered down, for the duration of the repairs. Her hull was faintly lit by a distant star on one side, pitch black on the other, the side facing interplanetary void. From a distance, it made her look two-dimensional - if anyone or anything had been there, in a position to watch.

Someone was, though too close to the ship to get an overall view of her. On her lit side, a small shape was moving, looking almost forlorn between the dull silver surface and the vast emptiness. In view of the size of the ship though, that shape was man-size, up close.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds flipped the cover shut on the aft external regulator array. The finality of the gesture lost a little to the lack of sound. "Try it now", he said over his suit's intercom.

The answer came back almost immediately. "It's no good, Cap'n. It's fused on this side."

"Well, unfuse it!"

Nothing happened. Then a string of indistinct Chinese, too softly spoken to make out the words. That would mean she was thinking. As mechanics went, Kaylee was one of the very best, but her intuitive approach to the machines she loved could be quite unnerving while she was casting about for some unorthodox solution.

Her voice suddenly cleared, coming through with its usual sunniness. "I think I can do it, Cap'n. Only, I ain't got the right tools with me here - 'xcuse me a minute, I'll go get my thwyck. Will you be all right out there?"

"I will, providing you weren't plannin' on takin' all day." What was she thinking anyhow? The suits were always kept in preparedness, tubes fully loaded; he hadn't skipped any items on his checklist when suiting up. Why shouldn't he be all right? Must be her cheerful, social nature coming out again. Always voicing concern for others.

Yeah, and mainly getting insults back. He had been guilty of a few himself, not that he had meant it at the time. Just hadn't been thinking. Always exuding friendliness and expecting the same in return, Kaylee was sort of a fragile creature. It was easy to forget that.

He straightened, and turned to look into space for a while. His magnetic shoes and a lifeline haphazardly connected to the hatch housing the regulator array, kept him anchored to his ship. There was no danger in stretching a little.

On an Alliance ship, he never would have been out here. In a military structure, the Captain wouldn't be helping his mechanic doing repairs. But Serenity sure wasn't Alliance, and there were only the nine of them. Everybody had to pitch in. 'Sides, he liked it that way. Wouldn't have passed up this view for nothing ...

Hsü, he thought. The Chinese word for emptiness in waiting, emptiness with something in it, if only anticipation. Definitely not wu - not ever since the Big Bang, and probably not before either. Wu as in complete emptiness. Containing nothing at all. The emptiness he was looking out on, contained a lot of things.

There was a sort of mist among the stars. Stardust his mother had called it - not very original, but that was the expression she'd used. Stars and galaxies so distant that their light came through only as a milky veil. At that distance, most of them would have been gone long before that light ever reached him.

This particular mist was looking a mite odd though. Sort of like rain, only it didn't rain in space of course. Mal squinted a little, trying against reason to make out the distance. He knew it to be impossible, without anything coming close to a frame of reference, but reflexes died hard. A good 500 years after his ancestors had abandoned the planet to which they were adapted, those reflexes were still there.

"Got it!" Kaylee's cheerful voice over the intercom hit him like a pistol shot, startling him. Good thing he was anchored.

He didn't exactly feel the engine start, but a few more lights came on that hadn't been. They had been on auxiliary everything while the repairs were going on. Then he thought he could feel the vibrations too.

"She's up an' runnin', Cap'n. You can come in now." Graciously allowed back in by his mechanic. He had to smile. He nudged the cover open again, only slightly so he could detach his life line from the loop on the hatch. Then something hit him like a cold mist seeping right through him, suit and all, and everything went blurry for a moment.

"Cap'n?" Apparently he had been too long in answering.

"Comin', Kaylee. Soon as I've got this <slightly Chinesified> line detached ..." He blinked. The cover was closed on the array, and the line was already free in his hand. Odd he didn't recall loosing it. Maybe he'd best haul his ass back inside, before he went space-crazy.


-- <> --

He was barely safe onboard and out of his suit when Inara descended upon him. She was looking good as always - crimson dress with some flimsy, purple thing thrown over it. Colors that had no business even being in the same room, but a Registered Companion could get away with anything. Including that cleavage ... better not go there.


So this was going to be formal. She must have noticed his look. He'd tried his best to hide it, but in all likelihood it had been obvious enough, even to someone with less finely honed perception than hers.

"Inara." It didn't come out at all the way he had meant for it to. Not formal-like the way her greeting had been. More like a plea, in fact. Well, truth to tell, he wasn't feeling a hundred percent. It was like he could still feel the cold of space. Maybe he was coming down with something.

A quick look of concern in her dark eyes. "You all right?"

"No reason I shouldn't be. Now what is it you want?"

But her concern, once awakened, wasn't so easily lifted. "You look kind of pale."

"Is this goin' anywhere?" Another thing he hadn't meant to say. But she had a way of getting to him. In more ways than one.

She stiffened and backed off a little. "I was just wondering when you are planning to let me go."

Now there was a question ... the word never floated to his lips, but this time he bit back before it got out. "I ain't holdin' you." Damn, that came out wrong too. "You sayin' you're my prisoner now?"

"I might as well be. I've made my intentions clear - I want to leave this ship. You promised to set me down on O'Connell, but once we get there, you don't even land. Now we're headed back out in space - to some forsaken backwater rock, no doubt - so I'm asking, when will I get off this 'boat' of yours?"

When. Not where. Didn't care where he dropped her, as long as he did it soon. And here he had thought she was leaving so as not to get involved with him. Couldn't blame her for that; likely she'd lose her license or something. He sure couldn't afford to keep her.

"You're not even all packed yet. Shuttle's still decorated."

"I unpacked a few things when I realized I wouldn't be going anywhere soon. What happened at O'Connell?"

"Alliance showed up, lookin' for that shipment they went missin' on Johnstone last week. Couldn't hand it back to them either, on account I already sold it. So I didn't set down, is all."

Inara looked at him as if she wasn't sure there might not be more to this. "So where are we headed now?"


She stared at him. "And what in the 'verse is that?"

"Piece of rock a mite off the beaten track", he admitted, "but we're layin' low for a while. Never thought they'd come lookin' for that cargo. Sure, a few valuable artifacts among the lot, but nothin' to get all riled up about ..."

"What planetary system?" she asked, cutting him off.

There was nothing for it. "Wolverine."

At least she didn't fly off the handle. "Mal", she said, pleading for common sense as if talking to a wayward child. "It's got to be at least three months off."


"Whatever. You said you were going to resupply at O'Connell. You never got the chance. How are you going to run on for two months without ... or are there some outposts along the way?" she added hopefully. It might take longer, but she'd be able to get a transport off anywhere.

He shook his head, sorry to dash her hopes even when they went against him. "None. But we're on half rations as of yesterday, as you know. We'll make it."

"Does that go for fuel too?"

Caught him. That was the one thing he wasn't quite sure about. But he'd be damned if he'd let her know. "If not, we'll come driftin' in the last part of the way", he said with a cheeky smile. "Long as we save some for the thrusters, we'll be all right."

"Spiralling orbit?" she asked. "That's hard to control." She should know. She handled her rented shuttle quite well, but she wouldn't deliberately go into a decaying orbit around an unknown moon and just hope she could compensate.

"Wash can handle it", Mal said, as if he didn't have a care in the world. Abruptly, he pushed past her in the direction of his quarters. If anything, he felt even paler than before.

Inara watched his retreating back for a moment. She was worried, but she had voiced her concern. If he didn't want her help, there'd be hell to pay if she tried to force it on him. Still, what in the deepest Chinese abyss could be wrong with him? She made her way thoughtfully toward the rented shuttle that was still her home, in spite of everything. Amid scarlet, rehung draperies, the reassuring figure of a polished brass Kwan Yin greeted her as usual. The bodhisattva of mercy wasn't alone anymore though. Next to her sat a wildly exotic-looking hawk, the live variety supposedly indigenous to Placet, the legendary planet of two suns and the most erratic orbit in trader's mythology. This specimen was cast in metal, gold-plated. It must be worth a small fortune - judging by the size of it if nothing else - and yet Mal had taken it out of that ill-gotten shipment that had set the Alliance on his tail again - and given it to her. A farewell present, he had said, still pretending - or perhaps only hoping - that he'd be able to set down and leave her behind. The thing towered over poor Kwan Yin, out of place and out of proportion, but Inara kept it there anyway. It reminded her of Mal. Out of place and no style to speak of ...


-- <> --

Mal made his way towards his cabin, kicked open the door and started to climb down its rungs. Once inside, he was on the deck below the one he had started out from. Still holding on to the rungs on the door, he shook his head to try and clear the mists. He had felt quite nauseous when he had left Inara - quite rudely too, he recalled. That exit was one thing not likely to endear him to her. But the nausea had passed quickly, and now all he felt was dizzy. Dizzy and cold. He checked the thermostat, but it was at its normal setting. So it was him then. Maybe it was a good thing they had such a skilled doctor ...

He never noticed when he fell. Took a few steps, but he never reached his bunk before he hit the deck. In fact he had started dreaming on his feet, though he never noticed that either.

Suddenly there he was, standing in a vast field of grassland, the type that was usually the first sign that a terraforming process was drawing close to its end, and the world would be habitable - well, that the environment wouldn't kill you right away. The grass looked soft, moving gently in the wind, but there was nothing else around - not even a bush. Yet he couldn't shake the feeling there might be a house behind him, though somehow he couldn't turn to look.

A man came walking up to him. He hadn't seen the guy appear; he just came walking through that grass. Looked big in the distance, black-clad and all, but up close they were practically the same height - well, maybe the fellow was a couple centimeters taller. And wider - gotta be the shoulders. Mal had never had good shoulders. Like a beer bottle, one of the hands back on his mother's ranch had said, as Mal was growing up. Kidding of course - it wasn't as bad as all that. Was it?

Handsome <Chinese bastard> too - whitish blond, pale blue eyes and a boyish smile that was somehow more ominous than reassuring. He came to a halt before Mal who could now see that the guy was a little older than he had looked in the distance. Some lines in his face, some gray at his temples - though the latter was hard to see, with that color hair. Still, he was nowhere near ancient.

The man said nothing. Just stood there for a while, black-clad arms crossed over his chest, smiling as if contemplating something funny. Then his hand shot out toward - and partly through - Mal. The black glove closed on his heart and ripped it right out. Shocked to the bone, Mal tried to see if his heart was still beating. He couldn't tell. Awful lot of blood, though. How come he was still standing?

The guy's hand opened. Let fall the heart which shattered like crimson glass when it hit. The grass was still the same - looking much too soft to harm anything.

"Shoulda looked after that", the stranger said in Mal's own voice. "Gorram thing breaks far too easy."


-- <> --

In the mess hall, the crew were gathering around a leaner meal than usual. Half rations, Captain's orders. Inara was the last one in - or rather, the last but one, she realized after a quick look around. Mal wasn't there. She wondered if she was disappointed, concerned or relieved. Probably all three. Best think about something else. He'd probably turn up soon enough.

Second-in-command Zoë and her husband Wash, the pilot, had been discussing the ration situation - somewhat heatedly, she thought. But they both broke off to stare at Jayne, as he quickly helped himself to another piece of bread and stuffed it in his mouth before anyone could object.

"The Captain would have your hide for that", Zoë said. "I've got half a mind to take a piece out of you myself."

"Need more than you", Jayne said with his mouth full. "I'm bigger."

Zoë leant over the table to snatch his plate away, but big or not, Jayne was quicker this time. Apparently, he had anticipated her attack. He got the plate out of her reach and turned half around, so she couldn't reach him without going around the table. "Funny", she said. "I don't recall the Captain saying anything about you being exempt from his orders."

"Ain't just about orders", Kaylee spoke up, tears in her voice though not in her eyes just yet. "Don't you care about the rest of us? Don't it bother you if we go hungry?"

Jayne gave her an uneasy look over his shoulder, hunched as he was over his plate. "I'm bigger", he muttered, defensively.

Simon looked up from his end of the table. "Then perhaps the question should be whether or not we can afford to keep you provided for", he said coldly. "Perhaps you should take a shuttle and leave. If we can dispense with the shuttle."

His half-demented sister looked at him and shook her head energetically but without saying anything.

She didn't have to. Shepherd Book wasn't one to keep silent if he could get a word in edgewise. "Now, that's not a very charitable attitude from a doctor", he pointed out. "Or anyone else for that matter."

"Not like Jayne would see the error of his ways any time soon", Wash said, meeting Jayne's scowl with an open stare.

"Captain hears of this ..." Kaylee began, then broke off and looked around her. "Where is the Captain, come to think? Don't he want his dinner? Us bein' on half-rations an' all?"

Zoë gave her a sharp look. "He did come in after that repair job was done, didn't he?"

Kaylee nodded eagerly, but it was Inara who answered. "He's on board. I spoke to him in the corridor."

"So where did he go?" Jayne's curiosity was raised, but he kept on eating.

"To his cabin, I think."

"Probably just wanted to clean up for dinner", the Shepherd ventured. "He'll be around."

Inara hesitated. Chances were, she was making too much of a fleeting impression, but if she weren't ... "Now that I think of it, I'm not so sure of that. He didn't look well."

Simon gave her his most professional stare. "Didn't look well how?"

He wanted symptoms of course. Inara could understand that. But there wasn't much she could tell him. "Pale."

Simon stood. "We'd better check on him, just to be sure. I'll go."

Inara stood too. "I'll come with you."

Zoë looked as if she might have joined them, but a quick glance at Jayne changed her mind. Simon had finished his plate, but someone would have to see that the merc didn't polish off the rest of Inara's.


-- <> --

Simon had made a quick detour to pick up his bag, so Inara was the first to reach Mal's quarters. The door had been left open. Assaulted by her misgivings, she climbed down, cursing most un-Companion-like in Chinese as her dress caught on one of the rungs and tore some.

She saw him at once and rushed over to him, calling his name but stopping short of kissing him - not because she expected him to be contagious, but she could already hear Simon's steps on the rungs above.

Simon rushed over too, checking for a pulse, then bringing out a stethoscope.

"How is he?" Inara asked, as the doctor folded up his instrument and put it back in his bag.

"Cold", Simon said without thinking. Then it dawned on him how it sounded. "I mean, he's basically all right, but there's a drop in temperature. And he doesn't seem to awaken easily. We'd better get him to the infirmary. Guess we'll finally have some use for Jayne after all."

Jayne laid his Captain down almost gently, on one of the infirmary berths. He backed up a few steps to give Simon room, but he didn't leave. Neither did any of the others - the whole crew was gathered in and around the entrance to the infirmary; even Wash, who should rightly have been steering the ship. But then, it wasn't like there was anything out here that could easily get in their way. And the autopilot was in good shape.

Simon rolled up his patient's sleeve and washed a spot on the arm beneath. He could feel his sister's peppercorn eyes on him, but he had learnt to ignore that when he had things to do. River was crouched beside Mal's berth, watching intently as her brother turned around and picked up a syringe.

"No!" she screeched and dashed around the berth to get between her brother and his patient. She pushed Simon, and the syringe went wide and shattered on the deck.

"I was just going to give him something to wake him up", Simon explained, reining in his temper so he wouldn't frighten her. His sister could be such a nuisance sometimes.

"No!" she said again, calmer this time but equally adamant. "It could kill him."

Simon gaped at her. Was she implying he didn't know his job? Of course not, she was too unbalanced to imply anything - most of the time. At other times though ...

"Better restrain the girl first", the Shepherd advised, but not unkindly.

Nevertheless, Simon bridled. "You mean tie her up? I think she's been tied up enough during her time with the Blue Sun."

"No, I just ..." Book tried to amend, but Jayne cut him off.

"Maybe she knows sump'n. Maybe it would kill him. She's a reader, right? Well, let her read him, find out what's goin' on in there."

Simon stared at the merc for a moment. "He's unconscious", he said somewhat disdainfully. "Even if she could, there's nothing to read."

"How d'you know?"

"I've been unconscious a couple of times", Simon reminded him caustically.

"Yeah, but you ain't him, and you can't say you know right off what's the matter with 'im. Can you?"

Simon had to admit he couldn't. Not yet. If they would only give him some time ... his gaze fell on River, back in the same position and the same place where she had been crouching before. She seemed very intent on Mal, watching almost protectively over him. Simon hesitated. "You want to try reading him?"

She looked up briefly, through long strands of unkempt, dark hair - and nodded. Then her attention turned back to Mal.

Simon sighed. "All right", he decided. "But I want all of you out of here. If she is to attempt this, I'd rather not have any distractions while she's inside his mind - or however she does it. If she finds anything out, I'll let you know. All of you. I promise."

He more or less shoved them out the door, but Inara held back. "Please let me stay a little while. I'll be quiet."

Simon might have granted her request, but the Shepherd had been listening in and looked like he was going to make one of his own. "Sorry", Simon said. "No exceptions."

Zoë also looked hesitant, but Wash caught her arm. "Come on, honey - we've got a ship to run."

Silence fell over the infirmary. Only the faint humming of engines and equipment added anything to it. That, and Mal's breathing. Simon kept out of the way, watching his sister but taking care not to hover. She for her part seemed quite oblivious now, to anything but her task. He couldn't tell if she was already reading or not.

Mal was still standing in the green field, red shards of his heart all around him, but the man in black had disappeared. As River entered the scenery, looking out of Mal's eyes, she saw no one around. But she saw the shattered object on the grass, and though it didn't look like anything, she knew what it was. What it had been.

Outside of them, in the infirmary, Simon was surprised to see his sister very slowly moving her hand to place it over Mal's heart. She let it rest there, almost as if she was trying to hold it in, to reassure him that he was still in one piece. Quietly, she began to sing, a song so old that nobody knew how old it was anymore:

There are those with hearts so open
you walk in without a knock.
There are those with hearts so open
they're impossible to lock ...


-- <> --

There are those with hearts so tender
you can break them with one touch.
There are those with hearts so tender
they can never live like us ...

River's all but tuneless song went on, grating on her brother's nerves, as he couldn't understand what in the 'verse had brought this about, much less if it entailed some kind of danger to the mind of either River or his patient. He tried to catch River's eye, but she was too focused on her reading - if that was what it was - and he dared not distract her for fear of a relapse into her earlier insanity, or else at least a tantrum. At least she was smiling now. He wondered at what.

Mal was in a nonagonal ballroom, dancing a square dance. The place was lit by nine vertical tubes, one to each corner, fiercely golden so that they bathed the space between them in a warm, amber glow. Yet in one of those corners he thought he saw an old goat and a young pig, and so maybe this was a barn after all, just like the dance seemed to suggest. He heard his own voice call out orders, the kind he might give any day on Serenity, and the crowd moved to them, as if he had merely been calling out the twists and turns of the dance.

He was dancing with Inara. She was wearing scarlet, a mighty fine choice considering the lighting. He could see several others who had chosen green or purple - colors which were instantly killed to black by the golden light. Her neckline was fairly plunging, and the sapphire pendant she wore would surely have sunk right down her cleavage, if the jewel hadn't been so large.

He tried to talk to her, but the music was kind of loud and he couldn't make out what she was saying. Then it dawned on him that she was speaking entirely in Chinese. But there was something odd about that too, because he couldn't make out the words anyhow. She seemed more and more upset with him, but he still couldn't make head or tail of what she was saying. Eventually she spun around and left him there on the floor, devastated - his voice still yelling orders overhead.

Hitching on his dream, River stopped singing. Having involuntarily read both him and Inara before, she might well be the only one besides themselves who knew of their attraction to each other. But somehow she had never known it ran so deep. She wasn't good with emotions. Always a prodigy, she had been intellectually inclined from the start - that was easy. Then, just before she started to emerge from childhood, her amygdala was damaged by the Blue Sun scientists, and she started to feel everything without any ability to - sort her impressions. Brilliant though she might be in all other respects, there was an entire area where she didn't know her way around at all. Mostly, she put it aside for later.

Neither Mal nor Inara had had any reason - or ability - to consciously block her readings. But because of her inexperience, their normal suppression of their feelings had worked, and all River knew was that they held a certain fascination for each other. Now though, Mal was in the dream state, and his mind was an open book to her. She saw Inara the way he saw her, and she gasped with the raw feeling of it, the admiration she read in the way he enhanced Inara's beauty as well as her gentleness. When she turned from him in the dream, there was an almost physical hurt, and River doubled up over his sleeping body.

Simon took a step forward, and she noticed him enough to straighten and shake her head. Her brother backed off again, watching her with concern.

She couldn't have quit now, had she wanted to. Thoughts of privacy or ethics didn't even enter her mind - she had to know; had to see where this was going.

Mal had left the ballroom/glorified barn in pursuit of Inara. He found her on the porch of a white house. The hammock she was in was covered with flowers and swinging lazily. The day was hot, so he was offering her a drink. A mint julep - that's what it was called. He knew the name though not the taste.

Through his eyes, River observed Inara. There was something strange there. Not all of the enhancement was Mal's doing. Some of it was the way he was used to see her - her colour heightened, her eyes even darker than usual, her breath coming a little quicker. River saw, and made the connection Mal himself never had - until bluntly told by a friend of Inara's. For the first time, River was getting a handle on human emotions. It was at least possible to map them to their physiological manifestations. Finally something she could make sense of.

Mal was handing the drink to Inara - but she refused it. She smacked him hard, though he managed to hold on to the glass. When he looked at it again, to make sure he hadn't spilled any, the contents had turned to blood.

Your heart's blood, River said in her mind. It scares her.

Mal looked around him. He had heard something, though he could make out no words. Then his eyes fell on a girl standing a few steps away from the porch. Both Inara and the drink had vanished, but the porch was still there. The girl was cute, hardly more than a kid, wearing a flimsy pink dress that wasn't her style yet looked good on her. Her hair was very dark and very long, and she wore it down with no attempt to keep it out of her face. He thought he knew her, and he felt sorry for her. For giving her a rough time every so often, for her whole situation which she could do nothing about.

His warmth and compassion for the girl washed over and through River, shaking her to the bone even before she realized that the girl she was seeing was herself. She hadn't expected him to be able to see her, but she supposed it was possible. The way he saw her was wholly unwarranted. So pretty - even her dress prettied up - and so vulnerable. But she wasn't - she could probably handle herself better than any of them. There was no call for him to - besides, where did all this come from? She had heard him countless times berate Simon for not keeping her out of trouble and out of his hair; to him, she was nothing but a nuisance. Wasn't she? Totally confused, River mewled aloud, startling her brother. Then she began to sing again:

And in those eyes I see
so many different needs
In those eyes I see
a burning plea: Love me ...


-- <> --

On the bridge, Zoë stared out in space. Her husband, ever sensitive to her moods, looked up from the navigation console. "He'll be all right", he said, thinking he actually made it sound quite convincing.

"We don't know that", Zoë pointed out the obvious, her tone clipped. "Doctor can't seem to find out what's wrong with him, and River won't let him near Mal with a needle."

"What if he has to IV him?" Wash asked, shifting his gaze between his wife and his console.

Zoë sighed. "Well, let's hope she'll allow that." She shook herself, becoming all businesslike. "Stay on course for Dreamscape." Her lips twisted a little. "Although that doesn't sound like a particularly good name at the moment."

"Holding course", Wash acknowledged. Not that he had had been planning on dropping it. "We've got something on long-range", he added as if nothing could surprise him out here.

Zoë joined him at the screen. "Any details yet?"

"Not quite yet ... hang on, I think it's moving into short-range. Either it's fast, or it was just in the grayzone." He adjusted a couple of controls and a ship sprang into view. "Transport like us. Dragonfly class, unless I'm wildly mistaken. Seems to be heading directly for us."

"Dragonfly - that's the next one up, ain't it?" Zoë mused. "Any weapons?"

Wash gave her a fond but slightly condescending look. "Transports don't carry armament."

"She could be enhanced. The Captain says ..." she paused unnoticeably - "that it's easier to customize a dragon."

Wash checked his readouts. "Doesn't look enhanced. Nothing obvious anyway. Why do you immediately assume she's sailing abeam of the law?"

"Most of us are, these days", Zoë muttered. "Or hadn't you noticed?"

"She's hailing us", her husband calmly informed her.

The image suddenly filling the screen showed a blond man in his early middle years, some streaks of silver hiding among the platinum at his temples. His eyes were a very pale blue, and Zoë who had always had a weak spot for fair-haired and light-skinned men, couldn't help but appreciate the view. She looked hastily toward Wash, hoping he hadn't noticed. He could be so insecure, although he should know by now he always came out on top. As far as she was concerned, ruddy counted easily among the fair.

The man had noticed her too, and obviously liked what he saw. His face lit up in a cheerfully boyish smile that sent a shiver down Zoë's spine, and not a pleasant one this time. Maybe she ought to revise her first impression of him. She noticed now that he was wearing some kind of uniform, though she didn't at first recognize it as Alliance, and it took her a moment to place it. "Special Forces!" she whispered, earning a bewildered look from Wash.


"Alliance Special Forces", she said aloud, letting their visitor know he had been recognized. "They were mostly active during the war - didn't last long after that. Intelligence squad was the going euphemism. It's generally believed that the rise of Blue Sun caused the downfall of the Special Forces. In any event, they were disbanded. But that's what their uniform looked like. Black on black."

The man on the screen was smiling even wider. "A lady who knows her recent history", he said.

"I was there", Zoë said calmly.

"My apologies", he said smoothly, and she had the impression he really meant it. Apologizing for whatever she had seen or suffered because of his corps, rather than for suggesting she hadn't. "Captain Marcel Ching of the dragonfly transport Champ des rêves. As you so accurately pointed out, I have no military authority anymore. Nowadays, I'm just a freebooter."

"Zoë Warren, Acting Captain of firefly transport Serenity", Zoë said, and she thought she saw a new light of respect in those pale eyes. So he had made the connection - he knew where the name came from, rightly concluding that she had been there too.

It was, however, not the only connection he had made. "Acting Captain?"

"This ship belongs to Captain Malcolm Reynolds", Zoë told him, in the hope that Mal's name would impress her visitor if he had heard of it. She could see a couple of Ching's crew moving behind him, but as he made no move to introduce them, she put off telling him Wash's name. "The Captain's currently - indisposed."

"Sorry to hear that", Captain Ching said, without looking sorry at all. "Nothing serious, I hope?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I had business with him. But maybe you can help me. I believe he has something of mine."

"And what would that be?" Zoë asked, noncommittally.

"I hear he - appropriated a certain shipment belonging to Alliance enterprises, about a week ago, on O'Connell. I assure you, I have no quarrel with that. But the shipment contained an artifact that the Alliance had appropriated from me at an earlier stage."

"When your people were sent packing", Zoë assumed. Aloud, just so they were clear.

Ching nodded. If he took offence at her bluntness, he certainly didn't show it. "Colourfully put, but yes. The object is worth something in itself, but mostly it has great sentimental value to me. You could say it's a memento of my lost glory." That last came out readily enough, causing Zoë to wonder if that really was all there was to it.

"The Captain sold off the entire cargo", she shrugged. Wasn't hard to find a buyer. Sorry."

"No doubt he already had one when he got the goods", Ching said, implying Mal must have contacted - or been contacted by - a fence. Then disarming Zoë by adding, "That's how I would have done it."

"Then you know how it is. Like I'm sayin' - the shipment was sold off in its entirety."

Ching's face hardened - the blue of his eyes becoming positively arctic, freezing her. "I think not. You see, Acting Captain Warren, the Alliance came looking for that shipment. I hear the buyer pleaded good faith but turned over the goods after some persuasion. I also hear that no such artifact as the one I'm looking for, was found. I have no doubt at all that the Alliance agents would have located it, had it been there. Nor do I have any doubts that I would have heard of it, had they done so."

Wash was following the conversation with open interest. So were the two crewmen behind Ching, he noted. Maybe their Captain didn't tell them anything unless they eavesdropped.

Zoë's lip quirked. "That's some store the Alliance must be setting by something of little more than personal value." She had the satisfaction of seeing him frown briefly.

"I only meant that my sources of information are very efficient", he covered. "Almost like old times", he added, letting her know that he still commanded some of the loyalty that had been due him as an officer of the Special Forces.

Somehow, she did not doubt it.


-- <> --

Shepherd Book paused at the entrance to the infirmary. "Can I come in, Doctor?"

Simon gave his sister a quick glance. "I think so. Doesn't seem like there's much can disturb her at the moment."

Book stepped inside, then paused again, to listen to River singing. "Nice tune. Wonder what she's seeing that brought it forth."

Simon shook his head. "No idea. She doesn't want to talk as yet. I wish she would, so that I could get an idea of how to treat him, but so far she doesn't communicate with anyone around her. Kaylee stopped by a few minutes ago; she wouldn't talk to her either, and they usually get on so well."

"Well, maybe we need to give her time", Book said, walking around Mal's bed to stand next to the crouching River. "Shouldn't you give her a chair?"

"She won't accept one", Simon said tiredly. "I get the impression she holds herself in readiness for something or other." He sighed. "If this goes on for days, I'll have to IV him.

The Shepherd looked up. "Will she let you?"

"I hope so. I've had to give him water to keep him from dehydrating - she's ok with that."

"By mouth?" Book looked concerned.

"Of course not; he's unconscious. No, she accepted the needle. Don't think she'd have agreed to a tube though. She doesn't like them."

The Shepherd stood for a while contemplating the sleeping Captain and the entranced girl at his side. Now and then River would stop singing, then resume again. The same stanzas over and over. After a while, Book got the impression she was trying to accomplish something with her singing, as if she were in the middle of some strange mental experiment.

"Would you mind if I pray for him?" he asked suddenly.

Simon gave him a surprised look as if he hadn't seen that coming. "No - no, I suppose that would be ok. Of course, you know he wouldn't like it."

"I'm well aware of that", Book said with the faintest trace of humour. "But for once, the Captain has no say in the matter." He made to put his hand on Mal's shoulder. He never got near enough to touch him. River was on her feet in one fluid motion, faster than it ought to be possible for any human being to move. Screeching, she smacked his hand away, then shoved him as far from the bed as she could.

The Shepherd took a few quick steps backward so as not to overbalance. He stared at her in suprise. "Seems like she is aware of what's going on around her."

Simon couldn't help smiling. Deep down, he even felt a spark of pride in his sister's primal ferocity. It wasn't appropriate; it wasn't anything he could ever find in himself - or indulge in, if he found it. And maybe for that very reason, it held a certain attraction for him.

"She's very protective of him now", he explained unnecessarily. "Perhaps you had better go say your prayers elsewhere."

"I think you're right", Book acknowledged. "Wouldn't want to upset your little tigress there." But his voice was kind as he said it. Ever since River had tried to 'fix' his bible - his symbol, as she so aptly called it - he felt a certain affection for the troubled young woman. He had been frustrated with her then, but it had given him a glimpse into the wayward workings of her mind, and he had learnt to appreciate her - for much the same reason that her brother nurtured a secret pride in her wildness, though the Shepherd did not know that.

River was once more oblivious to them. She wasn't singing now, but she had resumed her position at Mal's side, her hand resting over his heart as before.

"She won't let anyone touch him", Book observed, "yet she touches him herself."

"I've noticed that", Simon said. "I don't think she considers touching harmful. I think it's mainly that she doesn't trust anyone else."

"Except you."

"Except, to some extent, me."

River was in the middle of a vast forest, seeing it through Mal's eyes. The forest consisted of pines, so it was not as dark as it could have been. Light shone through between the trunks, looking like a procession of ghosts. But there was no easy way out, and she couldn't get sufficient overview to determine which way to go.

We have to get to the high ground, she said in Mal's mind. But her words came out of Inara's mouth, and when she looked, the Companion was standing in front of them once more. All in green now, like the forest, though with more cleavage. River felt a sudden, irrational annoyance. Did Inara always have to appear? Her own reaction surprised her, but really, it was quite logical. If Inara kept distracting them, how could she guide Mal out of the woods? She was beginning to understand that it was important she did; she had to get him out of there.

Suddenly, without warning, her perspective changed. She felt quite disoriented at first, until she realized that she was now looking through Inara's eyes instead. That did not compute; Inara wasn't here, she was only an image in Mal's mind; this ought not to be possible. Raising her chin, River found herself actually looking at Mal. In his earlier dreams, she had not been able to see him; they had shared the same point of view. Now though, they obviously didn't. He for his part must be seeing only Inara; he was smiling. River had never liked his smile; it looked shifty. But then of course, he was a criminal. Most of the time. She eyed him critically. In fact, he wasn't much to look at. Shoulders not good, no good hands, chest a little too fleshy. Her brother was better built. Jayne too; much better. But those deep blue eyes, with their thick lashes, so long they were slightly curved ... well, maybe he had some things going for him. Odd that she hadn't noticed his eyelashes before. But of course, they were sandy like his hair; not dark enough to be conspicuous.

He said something to Inara which River missed, because she was so busy looking at what should be impossible for her to see. His smile vanished, and he looked concerned. Worrying about her - about Inara. The tenderness in his eyes got to her; suddenly he wasn't looking half bad. She felt the absolute sincerety of his dedication - not only to Inara but to them all - herself, River, included. He would die for them - even for her. And she was beginning to see why his crew would also die for him, if it came to that. For a wild moment, River actually wished she could have been Inara. But the moment passed; Inara's feelings were too confusing. She wanted him both closer and further away; she wanted to kiss him, and not. She couldn't bear to be parted from him, and yet she couldn't abide to be near him. She feared she would burn up if they ever became close.

No - wait. River screwed her eyes shut for a moment, her real eyes too. Inara wasn't really here, she reminded herself. Only a figment, only an image. These could not be her feelings. They had to be - she shook her head, trying to clear it. Her real head too. Feelings were too confusing by half. They didn't compute. Best not include them; they'd only mess up the calculation. But the calculation didn't make sense. It said they were not alone. Not the only dreamers.

Simon noticed her gestures, but he knew better than to ask. Something was going on - he mustn't distract her now. Still, she seemed to be in some sort of predicament; he wished he dared touch her, comfort her, tell her everything was all right, like he always did, even when knowing it wasn't, even when knowing that she saw through all his efforts. He took a step closer, wondering if he should risk it anyway. Then he stopped in amazement.

Mal's arm had come up, gently enclosing River. Hugging her close, comforting her, not clinging to her. Simon cast a quick glance at the display showing Mal's vital signs, but the Captain was as comatose as before. Yet something had caused him to do this. Apparently, he actually was dreaming. If so, River must really be reading him. That was great.

Simon sighed. Now he only wished his sister would talk to him.


-- <> --

"So what does this famous artifact look like?" Zoë asked, playing for time. If this guy wouldn't believe the thing had been sold off with the rest, he would probably insist on coming over to search for it. She'd rather not let him onboard if there was a graceful way out of it.

"It's a Placetian hawk", Captain Ching told her. "Might be passed off as electrum, but in fact it's massive bronze, gold-plated. The plating is worth something, the bronze has scrap value. The craftsmanship is negligible. Like I said, not much to write home about, but it means a lot to me. It's about this big; I think you would remember if you'd seen it. Have you?"

Something in Zoë's face must have given her away, for he added, "Don't try to lie to me." Sounding as if he meant that.

And yes, she remembered full well where she had seen such a thing. There was nothing for it then. Oh well, what harm could there be in telling him? He'd have to deal with the present owner though.

"Well, why didn't you say so." Wryly, not questioning. "I've seen it. Ugly thing too - guess I didn't want to remember. But yes, the Captain did take it out of the shipment, gave it to our resident tenant. You'll have to take up the matter with her; nothing I can do about it."

She gestured to her husband, who pulled down the mike for the inboard circuit. "Inara to the bridge, please. He waited for the acknowledgment, then hung up. "Let's hope she wasn't busy", he said meaningfully.

Zoë shook her head. "She's had no visitors for over a week. If she's in, she ain't working."

"Oh, she's in all right", Wash confirmed. "Hasn't left the ship either, for over a week. Not much opportunity for her out here, I guess. Anyway, I didn't mean busy busy. Just, you know, busy? Keeping in shape, taking a sponge bath - what do I know?"

"Right", his wife said sternly. "What do you know. Better not know too much." Belatedly, she realized that she had left the channel open to the other ship. Captain Ching was watching them with amused interest, as if gathering information. She spat a Chinese curse, and her husband grinned. He was always happy whenever she was the one displaying some trace of jealousy.

Inara swept gracefully on to the bridge. Perhaps swept wasn't exactly the word - she had paused just outside in order to make a stately entrance. Not so much by thought as by reflex. Her Academy training went deep.

She was wearing pale yellow, interlaced with gold. The colours flattered her dark eyes and hair - the latter piled high on her head, since she had sensed that her experiment with flat and loose hadn't gone down too well, either with the crew or her clients. Her complexion was a little too pale for yellow - Zoë would have looked grand in yellow but never wore it - yet since there was no ruddiness to Inara's skin, the yellow still worked. She could feel Wash's eyes on her - a detached admiration, no more. No desire. That was good.

She glanced at the screen - and froze. She knew only too well the platinum blond man in the outdated black uniform. The same boyish smile that seemed to indicate he was vastly amused, and that you wouldn't want to be near him when he was.

"Marcel!" she gasped.

He bowed in acknowledgment. "Fair Inara. It's been a long time."

"Not long enough", she retorted with rather more sharpness than her training would condone. "How did you find me?"

"Lovely as always", he deliberately - and quite gallantly - misunderstood. "But I'm afraid you flatter yourself. Not that you wouldn't have ample cause. I didn't come for you. However, had I but known ..." He let the sentence hang there, an implied threat.

Zoë and Wash both looked to her with interest, but they knew better than to ask. Later, she knew, they would want to know everything. She took a moment to center herself the way she had been taught, then said, "I'm glad to hear it. Now, if not for me, what did you come for?"

"A certain artifact that belongs to me and cannot possibly mean anything to you. A Placetian hawk, solid bronze, gold-plated. Not worth much, though it has some sentimental value to me personally. Rather ugly, in fact. Nothing that belongs in a stylish Companion's boudoir. Yet I'm told you have it."

"It was a present", Inara told him. "I'm not in the habit of passing on presents received."

"It's a popular pastime in many cultures", Marcel Ching informed her. "Though not in yours, I see. Your Acting Captain here tells me Malcolm Reynolds gave it to you. But you see - it wasn't his to give. It belongs to me. There's no shame in setting things right. Come now, you can hardly plead good faith. You must have realized it was stolen."

Inara was thinking fast. The very fact that this man had chased them down for the sake of an - admittedly quite ugly - object of little apparent value, suggested that she had better not give it to him blindly. Also - it was one of the few things Mal had ever given her, quite possibly the last, if she ever managed to get off this boat any time soon.

"I'm not parting with it", she said firmly. "It has sentimental value to me too."

His right eyebrow rose. If anything, he was looking even more amused. "Because of the giver then? It certainly can't be because of the bird itself."

She hated him for his insinuation - and even more for seeing right through her. "I have no business connections with the crew, if that's what you're implying. It was a farewell gift; I'm leaving this ship." She had rather not told him that, but her feelings were her own, and she didn't want anyone sniffing around them. Especially not Marcel.

"Excellent!" he beamed. "Then you don't have to part with the thing. You can come with it. I'd be glad to have you, you know that."

Her eyes closed briefly, as she fought to keep from seething aloud. When she opened them, Wash had turned his attention back to the screen as if ready to defend her - but Zoë was looking at her with almost as much amusement as Marcel. All right, so perhaps they should know.

"I'm only too well aware of that, Marcel", she said, her tone clipped but still reasonable. "Considering your decision to hold on to me after our arrangement had run out. Earned you a black mark with the guild, as far as I remember. So even if you could better afford an extenuation now, I'm afraid I can't accommodate you. The contract we had is null and void, and you'll never have another as long as you live."

She had the satisfaction to see his smile vanish. "I never mistreated you", he said. "You can't accuse me of that."

"Can't I? Deprivation of freedom is generally considered mistreatment. The guild comes down hard on these things, as you know. You stole as much time again, as you had by the contract. And you kept me imprisoned."

"In a luxurious wing of my then residency", he reminded her. "You had all you could ask for."

"Except my freedom."

"All right, everything you could ask for, within reason. So what? I never even forced myself on you. You can't say I did."

"That's a matter of opinion."

Zoë held up her hands. "All right, you two. I see we have to discuss this. Captain Ching, I'm going to close our connection for now, while we talk the matter over on our side. I'll be back with our decision."

He bowed, mockingly, his smile back in place. "I'm not going anywhere."


-- <> --

Zoë switched off the intership connection and turned to Inara. "What did he do to you?"

Wash was looking both interested and concerned behind her, but for once, he did not butt in.

"I was fresh out of the Academy", Inara said. "He was my first assignment."

"You mean - you were ...?" Zoë asked before it occurred to her that maybe she was getting too personal. But Inara just smiled.

"No no - that's taken care of much earlier, during training. Not - that way; you're encouraged to do it youself. There are methods. The idea is to boost confidence. Let you know you are in control." She added that last for Wash's benefit, as she could see his mind boggling away to itself. "But in the practical sense, I suppose you could say I was. All my training up to that point had been mostly theoretical. Mostly", she stressed, again for Wash's benefit. "I certainly didn't expect anyone like him. I had been taught that I'd be looked upon with respect, not as property."

"But he put you in some fancy prison of his?"

"Not right away. We had a one-week contract, and he fulfilled it as the perfect gentleman. I must confess I was quite impressed with him." Good in bed too she thought, though she didn't say it. If she now had to give away information about a former client, she was keeping it to a minimum. "The trouble started when the contract ran out. He couldn't afford to have it renewed, and besides, I was booked elsewhere. So he simply - kept me. It took the guild another week to find out why I hadn't made good on my new contract, then they sent their agents to get me. He had to pay their expenses. And he was blacklisted."

"But he claims he didn't force himself on you."

For once, Inara looked uncomfortable. "Well, as you know, I was very - green. And he could be quite intimidating, by sheer force of personality. No, I can't say he ever threatened me openly, but a lot of things he said and did seemed like threats to me. I thought I had better - well, humour him."

Zoë whistled softly to herself. "Did the guild find out?"

"I dared not tell them. But I think they must have guessed. He had to owe them for another full week, everything included. I suppose he's paid up now ..." she added, pensively.

Zoë glanced over at her husband. "Too bad the Captain is out of it", Wash said. "We really could do with his input on this."

Inara kept her face neutral. Thank the gods for small favours, she thought. Mal would kill him. Or - the other way around ... Best not go there.

"Well, he ain't here, and we have a decision to make", Zoë said resolutely. She turned back to Inara. "What about the hawk? What do you want to do with it?"


-- <> --

Inara entered the infirmary so quietly that Simon at first didn't notice her. When he did, he jumped visibly.

"No change?" Inara asked him, softly so as not to intrude on River's concentration.

Simon shook his head, but before he could answer, River started singing again. She was running the same stanzas over, that Simon had already begun to tire of, but Inara hadn't heard them before. She stood listening for a while, and for some reason, they brought tears to her eyes. She's got him down to a T she thought. That's exactly how he is. Wonder how many know that - apart from us?

As if she had heard - or rather read - that us, River raised her head to look directly at the Companion. Her song trailed off. "You must let it fly", she said. "The hawk. It was made to fly."

Her brother gave her a bewildered look, then glanced apologetically at Inara. "She isn't making much sense, I'm afraid."

Inara smiled, charmingly. Reassuringly. "Indeed she is." To River, she added, "Thanks for your advice. I needed someone to tell me."

"Only the hawk!" River warned her. "Don't try your own wings just yet!"

"I won't", Inara promised, then thought, What does she mean by 'just yet'? Surely she must know I'm leaving?

"He's lost in the woods", River told her, as if in answer to her thoughts. "We must get him out, or it will be too late. You can't fly."

"Do you mean can't fly or mustn't fly?" her brother wanted to know. He had no idea what she was talking about, but as long as she was talking, maybe she'd come up with something useful soon.

"You can't fly", River repeated matter-of-factly, still looking at Inara. "You may think you can, but you can't. Besides, if you try, he'll stay in the woods."

"You're talking about M - the Captain, aren't you?" Inara said. "What do you mean, he's lost in the woods?"

"Probably that he's not out of the woods yet", Simon said. "She often sees figures of speech as real images."

His sister gave him a disdainful look, as if he didn't understand a thing.

"Or not", Simon amended.


-- <> --

"All right, Marcel", Inara said over the open channel. "You can have your hawk." She had briefly considered contacting him from her shuttle, but in the end she had gone back to the bridge. She wanted witnesses. "But I want you to come over here to pick it up. There's no way I'll come over to your ship. I hope we're clear on that."

On the screen, Marcel bowed. "I thank you for your invitation", he said pleasantly, making it sound very personal. But she had no intention of receiving him in her shuttle.

Zoë added the rest of the terms. "You come alone - no crew. And no weapons."

"Matter of definition", he said calmly. "It's been said that the Special Forces were their own weapons. Of course, we also carried sidearms. Back in the day."

"Well, you're not carrying them now, dong ma? Our docking port is right next to the cargo bay. We'll meet you there, and Inara hands over the hawk. You take it, and you return to your ship. That's it. Do we have a deal?"

He smiled sunnily. "We do. Be seeing you."

The screen went black.

Moments later, Zoë, Inara, Kaylee and Jayne were in position, waiting for the airlock on the docking hatch to click open. When it did, they all drew back a little, Zoë and Jayne letting their hands stray towards their own sidearms. Zoë had made a point of not promising to be unarmed herself. Jayne never went anywhere without an enormous piece of some kind, not if he could help it.

Captain Marcel Ching stepped easily on to the deck of Serenity. He was smiling as usual, but Zoë noticed his keen eyes take in herself - and Jayne. Weighing his options in case of danger. She smiled grimly; he certainly wasn't fool enough to discount her. He noted Jayne's height and mass - and weapon, but other than that did not seem overly impressed. As for Kaylee, he approached her carefully, then picked up her hand and kissed it. She looked far too pleased - and guilty at the same time. He made to repeat the gesture with Inara, but she stepped back and held up the hawk.

"Here's your hawk, Marcel. If it's really yours."

He ignored that, taking the bird from her. She looked relieved; the thing was heavy. Still smiling at her, he gave the mount under the hawk a twist. It came off, the bird's feet still attached to it, being cast in relief as part of the same piece. Like he had told them, the bird was solid - almost. There was a cavity, going about halfway up its body, and he looked into it. His smile vanished, as he turned the bird over, looking from several angles. The cavity was empty.

"All right", he said, "Where is it?"

They all stared at him with a blankness that seemed far from contrived. Well, it figured. "You really don't know? I guess your precious Captain hasn't told you everything. I need to speak to him. Now. No more games, no more of this indisposed crap. Where is he?"

"In the infirmary", Zoë said calmly, earning some worried looks from her crewmates. "No game. He really is indisposed. And no, you can't talk to him."

"I'll be the judge of that", Marcel said. "Take me to him."

"Aren't you forgettin' sump'n?" Jayne asked belligerently, cocking his outsized gun.

Marcel rolled his eyes briefly. In a movement so fast it was almost a blur to their eyes, he pocketed the smaller part of the hawk, then snatched Inara to him. Keeping her hands pinned behind her back with his free hand, he threw his other arm around her throat, anchoring it there with the heavy part of the hawk. If he let go of the artifact, he only needed a small shift of hands, and he'd have all the time in the world to break her neck before any of them could do anything. Of course, he could also bash in her head with the hawk, although that would be less sophisticated. "Somehow, I don't think you're going to use that", he told Jayne pleasantly.

He looked around him, but the standstill held. He could feel Inara trying to kick him; he could live with that. The little mechanic - as he guessed from the engine grease on her, as well as her coveralls - looked like a frightened rabbit, but she didn't bolt. The Acting Captain and her big henchman both held their positions, waiting for an opening, no doubt.

"Come on", he said to put them at ease. "I only want to talk to the man. Is that so unreasonable?"

Zoë signed for Jayne to uncock his gun. "Very well, we'll take you to him. Won't do you any good though. Just let Inara go."

"Not just yet", he said. "I hope you don't mind if I hold on to her until I know this is not a trap. As long as it isn't, I won't harm her."

Inara was still fighting him, and he had some trouble bringing her with him, but he was true to his word; he wouldn't harm her unless he had good reason. Deep down, he knew that he might not harm her even if he had one, but that was something he wasn't going to give away. He kept a firm grip on her - he knew it looked vicious, it was designed to - but it was one that wouldn't leave even a bruise. He had kept in shape; he still knew his old Special Forces methods. Of course, there were other grips too - ones that didn't look like much but which hurt something fierce.

Simon looked up in horror, as he saw the tableau in front of him. "Y-you can't come in!" he blurted, even while suspecting that that would hardly keep them at bay. They all ignored him. The blond man in the lead marched right up to the Captain's bed, propelling Inara in front of him. The others piled up behind, not taking their eyes off him. Zoë and Jayne in particular looking intently for an opportunity.

There was a click, and Shepherd Book stepped out from River's room, carrying a small firearm. Simon groaned. "No shooting in the infirmary!" he tried, but nobody seemed to be listening. The Shepherd had been looking in again, and as he heard some commotion approach, he had withdrawn out of sight. Where he had the gun from, Simon couldn't rightly tell. He hoped the good Shepherd was not in the habit of carrying concealed arms about his person, but with Book, who could tell? The man hadn't been exactly forthcoming with his past history, and evidence indicated he had been something else entirely, before he became a preacher.

Marcel made a half turn which placed Inara as a shield between him and Book. "Not the first armed Shepherd I've seen since our Forces disbanded", he remarked calmly. "What's your name?"

"Book", Book answered, lowering his weapon rather than keeping it trained on Inara.

"Then we have the same name", Marcel said. "Except that mine implies the sanctity which yours does not. Captain Marcel Ching, of the dragonfly transport Champ des rêves."

"I've heard of you", Book said, warily.

"Thought you might have. I've heard enough of the likes of you. Now, all I want is to find out what happened to the roll of documents I stashed inside this bird before it was stolen from me by Alliance agents. They did not find them, or I would have heard. The only reasonable conclusion is that this fellow took them." He nodded towards Mal. "Can any of you tell me what's the matter with him? Have you tried waking him?"

Apparently, they were included again. For a while there, it had seemed as if the foreign Captain were treating Shepherd Book as an equal, even more than he had Zoë whom he had acknowledged as commander of Serenity. Zoë wondered about that but filed it away for future reference. One of these days, she would have some answers out of the Shepherd.

"It's not advisable", Simon said. "We don't know what put him under, but we do know that waking him forcibly might be fatal."

"And how do you know that?"

Simon didn't answer, but he couldn't help glancing towards his sister. River picked that moment to look up and address the black-clad intruder looming over her, Inara still in his grip.

"He's in the woods", she said. "Must be led out - can't be pushed."

To their surprise, Captain Ching nodded as if he had at least partly understood. "River Tam", he said as if to himself. "And you must be her brother, Dr Tam. I might have known. This is the kind of vessel you'd pick if you were trying to lie low." He turned a little again, handling Inara with some difficulty as she definitely didn't want to be handled, and though he'd die before admitting it, his arms were growing tired, what with the weight of the hawk in addition to the hold he had to keep firm. "Permission to call two members of my crew", he said, looking directly at Zoë.

"So that you can claim the bounty for us?" Simon snapped. "Now, if anyone here were going to let you do that, wouldn't they have claimed it themselves months ago? Or did you think we were flying under false names?"

"Sorry to disappoint you, Dr Tam", Marcel said derisively. "I'd gladly do as you say, but despite what you may think, I have no love of the Alliance. Let them find their own fugitives." His attention turned back to Zoë. "I see the girl is a reader. Reason I know, is because I've got one on my crew. She might be able to tell you what to do to bring your Captain out of this, if you'd allow her to communicate with Miss Tam, and perhaps take a reading herself. Unfortunately, she has no voice. But she has bonded with a crewmate who is the only one she'll let interpret for her. That's why I need them both. Will you let me call them?"

Zoë weighed her options. They could take three, if it came to that. Hell, she and Jayne could do it between them. And if there was even a small chance they could shed some light on what had happened to the Captain ... "Tell them to come unarmed", she said.


-- <> --

Minutes later, a cool-looking blonde woman and a watchful, dark-haired man stepped through the inside airlock of the docking bay. Both in the same black uniform as Captain Ching. Jayne was waiting for them. He frisked them quickly but efficiently before taking them to the infirmary.

The place was getting crowded, and Zoë was casting about for someone she could order off the premises, but the only one she could do without was Kaylee, and she didn't want to single her out as useless in a fight. In the end, she settled for sending Book, Kaylee and Jayne inside River's room. That way, they could still watch, and the people from Champ des rêves would know they were there.

"Joline, Alec", Marcel greeted his crewmen, introducing them at the same time. He nodded toward Mal and River. "This man seems to have the space sleep and can't be awakened the normal way. I need him to tell me what he did with my property. The girl is a reader - " From the looks on both the newcomers' faces, they knew very well what that was, but were equally surprised to meet one under these circumstances. "- at least they had the sense to enlist the aid of such a one. Joline, I want you to communicate with her. Get her to tell you what she found - take a reading yourself if she'll allow it, but only if she will."

He stepped aside, allowing the blonde to approach Mal's bed. She did so courteously, silently asking River's permission. River watched her intently but did not seem frightened. To Marcel's relief, Inara went still in his arms, apparently curious as to what was going to happen.

Very slowly, Joline reached out and placed her hand on top of River's, where it still lay over Mal's heart. To Simon's surprise, his sister allowed the touch. They both closed their eyes, going into the trance-like state River had already spent so much time in. Joline frowned a couple of times, shaking her head as if trying to clear it. Simon wondered whether she was having difficulty with River's particular kind of logic.

Minutes passed. Ten, fifteen, twenty. Then they both opened their eyes at the same time, and Joline broke the contact. Before withdrawing her hand entirely, she raised it to stroke River's cheek. The gesture looked tender, but the woman's face was eerily neutral. Either this was her way of showing affection, or she was merely telling River something.

She turned to Alec, her blue eyes meeting his green ones and holding them. After a while, he began to speak.

"It is the space sleep, Captain. Guess we're far enough out to actually run into it. That's why he can't be awakened - the creature must be separated from him first, or it will most likely panic and kill him."

His Captain shot him a surprised look. "So it's really caused by a creature? I thought that was just the legend."

Alec seemed to 'listen' some more. Then he said, "She doesn't know. There's no way to tell if it's sentient, or even if it's a creature, in the common sense of the word. It might be an energy field of some kind or other. But she says it's helpful to think of it as a creature, a parasite that has to be pried loose from its host, for that's the most convenient way to effect a cure."

"He was outside alone", came Kaylee's voice from the doorway to River's room. "Oh my god - it's my fault! I asked if anyone could help me from outside Serenity, and the Captain volunteered. Are you saying this thing hit him in open space?"

"It's an old legend", Captain Ching said. "Something that dwells between the stars and induces dreams in those it preys upon. Always considered it a spacer's yarn myself, but there are more things out here than we know about, and if Joline confirms it, I'm inclined to believe her."

"But - an alien parasite?" Kaylee sounded devastated.

"That's just a convenient image", Ching reminded her. "Apparently, Joline prefers to think of it as a semi-sentient -" He caught Alec's gaze. " - or rather a non-sentient being. That's not necessarily what it is. It might be nothing more than an energy field."

Inara had begun to squirm again, and he jerked her head back towards him, somewhat less than gently. "Did you find out how to - pry that thing loose?"

Joline shook her head, then pointed to River. Alec translated. "There's nothing she can do. But the girl is attuned to him now, and she can sense the creature. She can lead him out of the sleep, but she must take care not to startle the beast as it's left behind." He frowned. "Oh", he said. Then, suddenly aware of their impatient interest, he added, "It can't go through the hull on its own. Only when joined with someone. You'll have to either take him outside, or leave a door open on the black."

Inara whimpered against Marcel's hand which was now pressed firmly across her mouth. He moved it quickly, in case she was planning to bite. "Atmo won't do?" he asked.

Alec shook his head. "This is a space creature - thing. It doesn't understand atmosphere." Joline looked pointedly at him again, and he said, "There is another complication. The girl's got to be touching him if she's to lead him out. Not like she's doing now, but actually touching skin. Which seems to rule out space suits."

"Maybe not", Jayne said, eyeing River's slight form. "We use a big one, we just might be able to stick 'em both in."

Zoë gave him her patented Look. "What about the helmet?"

Jayne faltered a bit, then ventured, "Well ... River's sorta bendable; she might fit in under the rim." When Zoë did not dignify that with an answer, he added, "Beats leaving the airlock ajar and plastering them to the rift". He sounded as if he could imagine all too well what that would be like. Simon glared at his crewmate, and Marcel felt Inara shudder against him.

Her movement brought him back to the reason he had come over. "Well, I guess we can't do much more here, so I'm leaving you to figure it out for yourselves. I'll be on my ship; let me know how it turns out." His pale blue eyes called a command to his people, and all three of them left the infirmary.

Zoë and Jayne followed instantly, Kaylee trailing behind them.

"And just when are you letting go of Inara?" Zoë asked, her hand once more on her firearm, against better judgment.

"The minute we're inside the airlock", their visitor assured her. "Can't blame a man for playing it safe, now can you, Acting Captain?"

But once inside the docking bay airlock, he waited until the last minute, until it was almost closed. Then he quickly shoved Inara into Alec's arms, and the man - obviously prepared for such a move - snatched her up and ran with her towards the other end. Marcel followed, with Joline on his heels. The blonde turned once to look back, and on the Serenity side, confusion descended for a brief moment. Zoë and Jayne loosed a shot each, but hit only the lock as it slid closed. The computer warning started telling them that the lock was open at the other end, and no override could be made until both locks were again closed.

Zoë raced to the bridge to make contact - any kind of contact - with their deceitful guest. When she reached her destination, he was already on screen, Inara held visible in the background by Alec.

"What's the meaning of this?" Zoë stormed at him, ignoring Wash's questioning glance.

"Just a precaution, Acting Captain", Ching said. "To ensure I do get my property. When I do, you get your charming - tenant back. Until then, I'm holding on to her."

Behind him, Inara stepped hard on Alec's toes. He grimaced, but didn't let go. "Still up to your old tricks?" she asked Ching.

"Well, you did say you were leaving that goose", he replied. He could see Serenity's pilot looking highly vexed at this disrespectful epithet for his ship. There was no denying it though - that bucket did look a lot like a goose. Surely they must have seen it themselves? "Besides, I'm already blacklisted with your guild - what have I got to lose?"

He turned to Zoë again. "Nevertheless, I will return her - once I have those missing documents in my hand."

"Like you were going to release her as soon as you were in the airlock?" Zoë asked coldly.

He shrugged. "You don't have to believe me, of course. Just see to it that I get those documents, there's a good girl."

Zoë found herself staring at a black screen.


-- <> --

Around Mal, the forest was catching on fire. Little animals were scurrying out in front of him, and he felt sorry for them. Other hand, they were in all likelihood better used to this kind of thing than he was. He couldn't even seem to get uprooted from the spot where he was standing.

Just before the flames could reach him, he saw the girl he had seen before and thought he knew. Simple pink dress, long dark hair and bare feet, same as before. She held out her hand to him. "Come - it's getting late."

He took her small, bony hand in his and suddenly there was nothing holding him in place anymore. He followed her through burning woods, then through merely smoking ones. There was no smell - apparently he wasn't even breathing, and it worried him for a moment, until he forgot about it. The woods stopped smoking, but there was an eternal twilight under the pine branches, as if no sun ever reached this deep. A dusky clearing revealed itself as an old burial ground; he saw the wisplike ghosts of those who had come this way before. The girl turned to look at him. "They had no maiden to guide them", she said.

"Then what kind of guide are you?" he asked. "Stone, wand, cup or pentacle?" His mother had on occasion dabbled in the Tarot, and he still recalled some of the terms.

"Just follow the streaming water", the girl said. "I'll take you to the sea."

Suddenly he remembered her name, and the pun seemed inordinately funny. He had to chuckle, but the girl was dead serious. He saw a cup in her hand, and what looked like water in it. She held the cup in front of her lower abdomen, spilled it, and the water turned to blood, flowing out in five rivulets. Well, she'd be old enough for that. He really hadn't thought about it. "Come", she said. "We must bring Inara back. She can't fly. Not yet."

Pretty soon, they were indeed standing on the shore of a vast ocean where he could see no land on the horizon - not from the ground anyway. That reminded him of something else. "Where's my ship?"

"Not seaworthy right now", River replied. Why did he have to be so difficult? She had no answers to his questions. She pulled him towards the water's edge, but he held back. She glanced behind him and bit her lip. The fire was starting up again, and it was drawing nearer. If he didn't stop questioning her, it would catch up with them. She reached up to touch his cheek and look deeply into his blue eyes. Something lurched in the vicinity of the pit of her stomach, but she could not afford to deal with emotions now. "Trust me", she whispered, entreatingly.

The dark intensity of her gaze went right through him, almost frightening, but a lot of other things too. There was really only one thing he could say. "With my life."

She nodded, relieved. "Then hold your breath. Hard. Don't breathe again until I tell you to."

He was about to say that he didn't think he was breathing as it was, but she jerked him below the waters before he had the chance to summon enough air to speak. They were walking along the seabed, and colossal molluscs and whitened human bones were all around them, but she never let go of his hand, and she stayed on course without letting herself be distracted. It was pitch dark, and yet he could see all the strange creatures around them. One looked like an enormous ray, as big as any on Manilow, waving huge fins over their heads. It seemed to be stuck somehow, and he was just as glad it wasn't able to follow them.

Kneeling beside Mal's prone form on the deck of Serenity's cargo hold, River held up a hand. On the other side of thick glass, Jayne, waiting for her signal, threw himself on the controls for the ramp. But River's hand sank again, and Zoë, seeing it, shook her head at him. He spat a quick curse in Chinese, trying to seem less concerned than he was.

Mal saw a small chest in the distance, waiting with its lid open and light radiating out of it. River tried to tell him not to turn from their invisible path, but he felt he had to check this out anyways. What if it held something valuable?

She went with him, never letting go of his hand. As he lifted a huge, shining pearl out of the chest, she actually smiled a little. Then she struck it with a fingernail of her free hand, and it sounded forth a single note, clearer than anything he had heard in the way of music. "Now we're attuned", she said. "Put it back - this is where it belongs."

He did as she told him, and she led him back to their path. Somehow it was all easier now, following her, finding the way, holding his breath ...

River's hand came up again, and this time Jayne hit the controls. The ramp started to open, slowly, majestically. Zoë, her face close to the glass, signed for him to stop it narrowly ajar. She could see River's hair whipping in the wind as the air rushed out, and the girl lowered her head, clinging to Mal underneath her, one hand still inside his shirt, the other held tightly over his mouth and nose, to keep him from losing his air. But she was unsure of her reach, so eventually she settled for covering his nose, while pressing her mouth to his instead. To Zoë, it looked downright erotic, but she doubted it was. There was no figuring out River. All they could hope for was that the girl would stay sane long enough to see this through.

The ray came ungrounded and floated past them, up into the light. River finally got her hand out of Mal's shirt and made a cutting motion in the direction of the ramp. Zoë relayed the signal to Jayne at the controls, and the ramp started to close. She sighed with relief. River was the only one who could say when the 'creature' was gone, and she had come through. From here on out, it ought to be clear sailing.


-- <> --

As soon as the cargo hold was up to full pressure again, River broke contact. She had felt Mal waking up, and part of her was sad to let go the connection they had shared. But he was conscious now, and it could never be the same again. He had seen something of her world in its darker phases, but he would soon forget; she was sure of that. Probably didn't even understand what she had done for him.

But contrary to her expectations, he lay quiet for a while, just looking at her. Then he reached out and caught her into his arms without any fear of startling her. He held her close for a while, stroking her hair like her brother sometimes did. Then he spoke, only one word. "Thanks."

Simon entered the hold, and retrieved his sister. "You did well", he told her, as if she were five years old and had been behaving for once.

"I know", she said simply, still looking at Mal. She missed his warmth. Whether physically or mentally, she could no longer say.

Her brother knelt to examine his Captain. "You'll be all right", he said, "nothing wrong with you that some hot soapwater and a meal won't cure. Doubt you need any more sleep right now though."

Mal sat up, and Simon added, "Careful there - your blood pressure is a little low; you've been out nearly 36 hours. But I guess depressurizing the hold helped some", he amended as Mal made no sign to heed his doctor's advice but got to his feet immediately. "36 hours? Where are we - still on course for Dr -" he fell silent, not particularly wanting to say that name right now.

Zoë and Jayne joined them, well knowing that he would want to know everything at once. "We've had some trouble, sir", Zoë said. "Looks like the current Alliance agents ain't the only ones you upset when you took that shipment back on O'Connell." She filled him in quickly, knowing that once awake, he wouldn't remain still for long. "Ching wants those documents bad", she concluded. Then the clincher. "He's got Inara."

"They go way back", Simon interjected, hurriedly. "He won't hurt her. Wait until you've -"

"She can't fly, remember", River said softly.

Mal gave her a quick look. "Gotcha." And he was off to the bridge.


-- <> --

Seeing Marcel Ching live on screen caused Mal to wonder if he was really out of his dreams yet. He recalled only too well the broad-shouldered man in black who had ripped out his heart in the introductory nightmare. Or daymare, as the case might be. Bad dream either way. Whatever had induced those dreams must have met this guy. Unless there was some other, more far-fetched explanation. Whatever, it looked like the man in black was at it again. Mal could see Inara behind him, looking worried and relieved at the same time. She was doing her damnedest to hide both reactions under a veneer of Companion composure, but he could tell. He knew her well enough by now.

Wash turned as Mal entered the bridge. He looked relieved too, but said nothing as he knew this was not the time.

"Captain", Marcel said in greeting.

"Likewise. Where you takin' her?"

"Good to see you up and about", Marcel went on as if Mal hadn't spoken. "My crew may have had something to do with that - with your speedy recovery that is - but there's no need to thank me. I take it your Acting Captain has told you what has transpired?"

Zoë entered behind Mal. "The gist of it anyway. As much as he would listen to."

"Then you know what I'm after. The Placetian hawk you took out of your latest booty contained some very important documents. I've got the hawk - but no documents. I want them back."

"Don't think I got 'em", Mal said. "They got a description?"

"Holoprints of an Alliance facility, as I'm sure you must know", Marcel told him. Or you wouldn't have hidden them. Just let me have my property back, and you'll have your little doxy, right where you want her."

"I'm NOT ..." Inara said behind him. It looked to Mal like she might just manage to hit her captor, but the green-eyed man standing next to her regained his hold in time. Pity.

"Still ain't got 'em", Mal persisted. "What d'you want with Alliance blueprints, and can't you just ask for a copy?"

"In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not exactly Alliance", Marcel said. "Any more. Though I'm sure I'd put those prints to better use than you will. Oh well, if you say you haven't got them ... I hear you're an honest man." A flick of his fingers to someone off screen, and the thrusters of the Champ des rêves kicked in. By the time they cut out, the dragonfly was gone from their screens.

"Fine", Mal said. "Be that way. Wash - course for pursuit."

Wash looked frantic. "Captain, if we waste our last fuel on this, we'll never make it to Dreamscape - or anywhere else for that matter. We're already low", he added for clarification, in case his Captain would have forgotten while he was out.

"I don't remember calling for a debate."

"Sir", Zoë said, "With all due respect, my husband is right. We're in no position to -" Mal spun around to look at her. Once. "Aye Captain", she amended. Pursuing."

"And when you catch up", Mal said, "we'll go over there and get his fuel. Remind me to ask politely." He shoved his way out, heading for his cabin and the soapwater his doctor had mentioned.


-- <> --

The Champ des rêves was making good speed. Once underway, Marcel had invited Inara to a private dinner, and to his relief she had agreed. He realized she was only weighing her options, the diplomatic part of her Companion's training kicking in while she was doing it, but each moment they were not on openly hostile terms, he believed he had a good chance of convincing her of his merits as her protector.

It didn't take her long to prepare - after all, she had nothing with her to change into. He pretended not to notice, although he knew that she had noticed him noticing, and was making an accusation of the fact that she had nothing to wear but what she walked and stood in.

He paid her some inane but elaborate compliment and offered his arm to take her to table. She rested her hand on his black sleeve, light as a feather. A crewman came up to them, a big fellow by the name of St Clair. "Begging your pardon, sir", he said, bringing a knuckle to his knitted cap in greeting. "But the firefly is pursuing. Alec thought you'd like to know."

"Thank you, Jean-Jacques. I most certainly did." At his side, Inara was oddly neutral. This must mean a lot to her. "How close is she?"

"Not very, sir. It'll take her coupla hours to catch up. And that's if we're not moving."

Marcel nodded. "Good. Let me know if there's any change." Dismissing the crewman, he led Inara into the Captain's messroom and seated her courteously at the table. She let it happen. His steward appeared with starters of real salmon - thin slices, but genuine. The cook had had the good sense not to smoke them. Obviously, he knew his job. The white wine seemed genuine as well. Not strong, but the real deal. From grapes that had grown somewhere.

"Hothouse grape I'm afraid", Marcel said aplogetically as he poured. "But quite refreshing, I'm sure you will agree." He raised his glass and toasted her, but did not put words to the toast. Just a welcome then. She could accept that.

"Do you always dine this well?" she asked, as she sat her glass down. "Don't you ever have to live on rations?"

"Oh frequently", he admitted. "But now and then I find a reason to celebrate." His pale eyes met her dark ones, implying who was the reason this time. She did not acknowledge.

"So, your Captain Reynolds is pursuing", he said calmly, cutting into his salmon. "Any idea why? He's still got my documents."

"He said he didn't", Inara reminded him.

"A common ruse. He wants to find out what I need them for, before handing them over. But if he's not ready to do so, why come after you now?"

"Misguided sense of nobility, I shouldn't wonder", Inara said, trying to keep the edge out of her voice. "He knows I did not agree to be here, so he's intending to free me."

"He'd board a fully crewed dragonfly?" Marcel's eyes widened, all surprised innocence. "I shouldn't recommend it. You must mean a lot to him."

"He's just being chivalrous", she said. "A quality you seem to be sorely lacking, if you pardon my saying so."

"So far yes, I'm sorry to say", he replied with a carefree smile. "That's what I wanted to talk with you about. Why not stay willingly? Make an honest man of me?"

"You really are serious, aren't you?" Despite herself, she could almost admire his gall.

The steward entered to replace their empty plates with new, hot ones for the main course. On his way out, he passed a nervous St Clair in the doorway. The crewman was squeezing his cap in one hand, unsure of his welcome.

"Pardon me, sir, but we've got some readings off the firefly. She's very low on fuel, sir. Shouldn't be a threat, leastways not for long."

Marcel beamed and thanked him, though his smile clearly said that the next interruption would not go unpunished. When St Clair had left and the steward had brought in the whiting followed by more wine - red this time - he finally spoke again.

"Interesting. Seems your chivalrous Captain acted a little rashly. I shouldn't be surprised if he's already got a mutiny on his hands."

Inara shook her head before she thought. "His crew won't mutiny. Whatever folly he might undertake."

"Oh?" One pale eyebrow climbed. "A man who inspires that kind of loyalty is a man to be reckoned with. Does he inspire it in you also?"

"Why assume it's about loyalty?" Inara hedged. "I'm told he's one of the few captains alive who knows how to keel-haul a crewman in space." She hoped he wouldn't ask her how, since she had made it up on the spot, based on a throw-away comment from Jayne once. In fact, she didn't believe it possible. Even if it were, Mal would never do such a thing.

"Ah, that would explain it", Marcel said, though she doubted he believed her. "Then, I have an offer to make you. You stay here with me, of your own free will, for as long as I care to have you. And I refuel his ship. How's that?"

"You'd have to do a little more than that", she said. She hesitated for a moment, uncertain of the wisdom of giving Serenity's vulnerability away, but what he knew was already too much. "You'd have to restock her provisions as well. She's on the run from the Alliance, didn't have time to fill up on rations or fuel before she left O'Connell. They've been on half-rations for a couple of days now."

His other eyebrow rose. "And still no mutiny? Very well - I'll restock her if that's what you want. And you'll stay here with me?"

"Depends. What do you plan to do with me once you tire of me?"

"I'll set you down on a planet of your choice, of course. I'll even pay you what I can - it won't be quite your usual fee, I'm afraid, and since I'm blacklisted, you can't count me among your merits, I'm aware of that. But I'll compensate you in any way I can. You have my word. You won't be left destitute; far from it."

Inara considered. She wasn't afraid of Marcel any more; that was a long time ago. She could handle him now, no doubt about it. Actually, there was a certain thrill to the idea of someone wanting her so badly that he'd resort to this. Her personally, not just a Companion for status. But the main thing - he would save Mal from his own folly. He'd save Mal's life, and the entire crew of Serenity into the bargain. Mal's life for her freedom. When put like that, it really didn't leave her much choice, did it?

"Just a few more things", she said. "I need to go back to pick up my things. Most of them are already packed; you know I was leaving. But I get to be the one to pick out what to take and what to leave - nobody else. And I want to say goodbye to the crew."

"I'd have to send someone with you, to make sure you don't run", he said. "You do understand that? I might even go with you myself."

"I have no quarrel with that."

"I don't know about the crew though. I'd rather you didn't talk with them long."

"Look at it this way - it will give me an opportunity to explain to them that I'm really going with you by choice."

He beamed at her, and somehow it even pleased her to see him so happy. "If I agree to these terms - you will actually come with me? If so, I certainly agree. We have a deal?"

Inara nodded gracefully. "We have a deal."


-- <> --

They were just finishing their dessert, as the message came - by Alec himself this time - that Serenity was overtaking. Marcel smiled. "Good timing."

"You could have ordered your crew to stop and wait for him", Inara said.

The him was not lost on Marcel. Not her for Serenity, or them for her crew. Him. It could have been a coincidence, but he didn't think so. Malcolm Reynolds seemed to be more on Inara's mind than was good for her. Well, he'd soon remedy that.

"But my dear", he said, "Then they might have caught us in the middle of our meal. Our speed was designed to give us time to finish at our leisure."

And let Mal waste a little more of his fuel, Inara thought. To make him all the more amenable.

Marcel rose, then offered his arm again, and she got up too. They walked unhurriedly to the bridge of the Champ des rêves.

Alec, who had gone on ahead, was already seated in front of the communications console, having a discussion with Mal who was being his most relentless, as far as Inara could tell. This would be difficult.

"Here they are now", Alec said. "I sincerely hope you didn't interrupt them at dinner." Since he knew that that was not exactly the case, Inara assumed he must be adding that last just for the annoyance value. Apparently, Alec had a devious side to him.

"And I dearly hope I did", Mal said from the screen. Hearing his voice again cheered Inara considerably, and she wondered if she were really prepared to give that up. For all she knew, she'd never hear or see him again after this deal was struck. It's for the best, she thought. We can't be togetherAnd he needs the provisions. Badly.

She heard Marcel propose the deal. Fuel and other provisions for her. As simple as that. As she had expected, Mal flatly refused. "Maybe you deal in people", he said, "but I don't. I'm no slaver. Inara's on my crew, and you can't buy her off me."

On his crew? That's a new one, she thought. In what capacity, I wonder. Before Marcel could ask that very question, she intervened hastily. "Let me handle this."

Marcel moved aside, making room for her at the console. "Mal", she said, "This isn't your decision to make. It's mine, and I have made it. I'm going with Marcel, and in return, he'll restock Serenity. That's the deal between us. Please don't refuse the supplies, Mal; you know you need them. Think of your crew - you always have before."

"I can't let you do this, Inara. Never mind the supplies - we'll figure sump'n out. We always do. Just don't let him use you this way."

"He isn't. I told you it's my choice. You know I was leaving anyway - this is my opportunity to go where I need to be. So don't feel bad about fulfilling the arrangement I made. Besides, if you don't take the supplies, he could just keep me anyway. After all, he hasn't got his documents back, now has he?"

"He can have his <Chinese> documents."

She could hear Marcel's slight chuckle. Apparently, he had been right all along. "Mal, please reconsider. Don't -"

"No, you reconsider. You get your ass back here, and I'll set you down wherever in all the <Chinese hells of various strong colours> you want. I'll see you safe to your destination on any rock of your choice, even if it's swarming with Alliance. Then you can contact Captain Kidnapper here, if you like, and if you do I might even believe you mean it, when you say this is your choice."

"Sir", said Zoë's cool voice behind him, and his second-in-command stepped into view of the screen. "Dinner is waiting. Shepherd Book's special recipe for half-rations. Would be a shame to let it get cold."

Inara had seen Zoë play for time before. She doubted the crew would go against Mal's decision - they never did - but perhaps all was not yet lost. She gave Marcel an almost imperceptible nod.

"Far be it from me to keep you from your dinner, Captain", he said easily. "Especially since your lady here and I have so recently enjoyed an excellent meal of genuine fish and hothouse wines." He just had to point that out to his starving counterpart, didn't he? "I might even throw some such items in, if you let me restock your ship. Go and have your meal. We'll talk again tomorrow." He broke the connection.

"I hope his beautiful second heard that", he said. "It would seem they need time to discuss my offer. Perhaps your Captain Reynolds doesn't have such a complete command of his crew as you had surmised."

"They might object, yes", Inara said, "but they won't go against him. And in fact, he just made us a perfectly good counter-offer. I wouldn't get my hopes up."

"Perfectly good, if I were willing to let you starve on his ship", Marcel said. "Which I'm going to refuse. Besides, you'll never reach any kind of destination, unless I refuel that goose of his. No, I'm sure his crew will see reason, even if he won't."


-- <> --

"No. The matter is settled - I won't discuss this any further - with Ching or you or anyone else. He'll have to send her back. Then we can talk, if there's anything still to talk about."

"But sir", Zoë ventured. "With all due respect, you can't force Inara back here against her will. If you do, then you'll be her kidnapper, every bit as much as Captain Ching."

Jayne looked up from his plate, briefly. "She's leavin', Mal. Face it. And since she is, it'd be stupid not to take the offer. We could all use some decent rations again."

Zoë had wisely not mentioned Captain Ching's offer of real fish and hothouse wines. Jayne's stomach would always get the better of him, given half a chance. Best not add to the problem. She often thought that if anyone of them were ever to mutiny, it would be Jayne. He could be a pain, but she didn't want to see him shot.

One by one, they all chimed in, echoing the sentiment. All except River. Her dark eyes fixed on Mal, she simply repeated what she had said before, "She can't fly."

After their scant meal, River was the first to leave the table. Zoë and her husband returned to the bridge, with orders not to contact Champ des rêves again tonight. Mal was heading for his cabin when he found himself waylaid by a slight figure with unkempt hair and sinuous, bare feet.

"River? Shouldn't you be restin'? Your brother says your helpin' me took a lot outa you."

She shook her head, dark hair flying. "Rest can wait. This can't. She -"

"- can't fly. Got that. That's why I'm tryin' my damnedest to get her back."

"She must come back. Get her things. She already told him."

"What? They didn't say -"

"They want to close the deal first. Feel safe. Then they'll bring it up. You must invite them both. If he comes with her and stays the night, there's a chance. But he must be here. My range is a little tenuous - and there's Joline - if he stays on his ship, I can do nothing."

Mal eyed her up and down. "Just what are you plannin'?" he asked slowly, a vague suspicion already forming in his mind.

But she had said as much as she was going to. "He must be here", she repeated.

"River", he said almost affectionately, "I can't invite them to spend the night on Serenity just to show my good will or sump'n. They already know I don't hold with that - with her being with him in the first place, let alone on my ship. The invitation has to come from you. Then I can endorse it, but even so, he's bound to get suspicious."

She thought for a while, her eyes losing focus on something in the distance, along the darkened corridor. Then she nodded. "I'll invite."

He changed course - started for the bridge instead. She came with him, her hand tucked in his as if she were a much younger girl. He thought she most likely was, some of the time.

As they reached the bridge, Zoë gave them a questioning look, but all he said was, "Hail 'em again."

"Sir, it's kind of late", Zoë pointed out, with little hope of it making any difference.

"Tell him I've reconsidered", Mal said. "He'll come."

Zoë opened the channel and told the crewman on watch, they wanted to speak to his Captain. The man was no one they had seen before. Possibly a constant night-shifter.

It took a good while, but then Marcel Ching appeared, wrapped in a blue dressing-gown of all things. Looked like it might be genuine silk too. His hair was sort of tousled, although from the look of it, he must have made some effort to smooth it down.

"It's late, Captain", he said by way of greeting.

"Sorry, but she wouldn't wait. Got someone here who wants to speak to Inara. She misses her."

Marcel frowned a little. This was clearly not what he had expected. Then he saw River. Now what the <Chinese abyss> were they up to, bringing the reader into it? Well, two could play at that game. "Go get Joline", he ordered the night-watchman. "Tell her to bring Inara here. I want them both on the bridge."

"And Alec, sir?" the crewman asked.

Marcel thought about it. "No, let him sleep. I don't think his presence will be needed this time."

After a while, Inara appeared, closely followed by the blonde reader. The Companion's hair was down, and she was barely dressed in a borrowed negligée that took Mal's breath away, though he tried not to let on. River smiled though, confound her. Couldn't a man have some privacy in his own head? Some thoughts ought not to be read by someone her age.

"Inara", he said, and his voice caught a little, so he had to cough. "Got someone here to see you." He stepped aside, leaving the field to River. The girl said she thought Mal would agree to the terms, but she missed Inara and wanted to know if they could meet before Inara left. She told them she had insisted on being allowed to beg this as a favour.

Inara knew she couldn't hide her surprise from Joline, standing silently nearby, fully dressed in her black uniform. At least Alec wasn't there, which gave Inara some hope. She launched into the conversation, hoping it would somehow override her rampant thoughts.

"Of course, sweetie", she said. "We can meet on Serenity if you like. Marcel has already agreed to my going over to pick up my things and say goodbye to you all. I'll see you then."

Mal glanced at River. So that part had been right, then. He caught himself, wondering what kind of 'range' Joline might have.

Inara looked up at him with those dark eyes, and he felt he would agree to anything she suggested, except possibly letting her go. "That is, if we have a deal", she said. "Do we?"

"I've reconsidered", he said simply. "Can't keep you against your will - like some people", he couldn't help adding. "Wouldn't want you to starve either. I'm taking the offer. Not as payment, mind you. Just to honor your deal."

River beamed."Why don't you ask Captain Ching to come with you?" she asked Inara. "You could give him your full ceremony, start off your relationship as it should be."

Of course, as a reader, she would know about these things, Mal thought. And yet she managed to ask like a child, as if she knew about the ceremony but not rightly what it entailed, and above all as if she couldn't conceive of a reason in the 'verse why the people she liked couldn't all be friends. He knew she wasn't as innocent as all that, far from it. And yet she was convincing enough that she could have fooled him, if they'd only just met. He wondered what Joline was making of it. If her range extended to Serenity. Maybe she was there only to read Inara.

"I don't know, darling", Inara said, playing along - or so he hoped. "Mal, would it be all right? Would you let us spend one night in my old shuttle?"

She seemed determined to break his heart and do a thorough job of it. Maybe that had been her plan all along.

"On one condition", he heard himself say. "I get to keep the e-prints."

Marcel's head came back into view. "What do your want with them? You don't even know which facility they depict, or where it is."

"I'll find out."

"And then you'll rob it? That's it?"

"Got it in one", Mal confirmed.

"Well, then I think I can make better use of them. I've already told your crew I have no love for the Alliance."

"Sabotage", Mal realized.

Marcel bowed his head slightly but made no verbal acknowledgment.

"Well, don't that put a whole new spin on the matter", Mal said. "Not quite my style though. In and out fast and easy, that's more my line."

"That's why I think my way would be a little more effective", Marcel said.

"Maybe it would at that. All right, I'll think about it. Let you know when you come over."

After that, there were only the details to discuss. River went off to her bed, and Inara left on her side. Captain Ching appeared to silently consult Joline about something, and she nodded reassuringly. Didn't look as if she had picked up on any ulterior motives. Then she left too, and arrangements were agreed upon to transfer the supplies in the course of the next day, and then Marcel and Inara would come over towards evening to pick up her belongings and to share a ceremony and a last night in the shuttle before it was completely stripped of all signs of a Registered Companion having lived there. For some reason that thought nearly brought tears to Mal's eyes, and he was suddenly glad both readers were gone from their respective bridges.


-- <> --

The transfer of supplies took but little of the following day, but while it was going on, the two crews worked together as allies, if not exactly as friends. The Champ des rêves turned out to have a handsome young fellow for a mechanic, and Kaylee, ever keen on a pretty male, spent rather more time discussing engine matters with him than was actually called for. Mal came across them once and ordered her crossly not to give all their secrets away. Not that there was much to know about a firefly engine that wasn't also pretty obvious to the naked eye.

Apart from a heated argument between Jayne and one of Ching's crewmen, the loading went without incident. Once it was done, Mal called off the rationing and was properly cheered for his decision. Jayne in particular was pleased. Even more so when they found out that their new supplies actually contained a good deal natural foodstuffs and some decent hothouse wines. Ching's sailin' closer to the wind than I care to, Mal thought. Likely he's still got contacts among the Alliance.

Toward evening, they came over as agreed. Inara was wearing a sea-green dress Mal had never seen before; had to be borrowed. He wondered idly if it was Joline's - it looked a little extravagant for her though. The reader didn't look like she might have secret, expensive tastes, but what did he know?

Joline and Alec came over with them - not good. To stand guard, Captain Ching said. It wouldn't do to have anyone barging in on the ceremony, he added, rudely.

Mal ignored the implication, handing over the e-prints without comment. Ching took them, but wouldn't let drop the matter of possible intrusion.

"I mean it, Captain. No interference from you, or your crew." He put his hand inside the jacket of his uniform and brought out a small handgun, Alliance variety, with three stun settings. He pushed the slide to the highest, then stroked the gun suggestively. "An old toy I've been keeping in shape." He looked meaningfully at Inara. "Not the only one, at that."

Mal seethed. He came close to laying the man out flat, but caught himself at the last minute, thinking of River. Wouldn't do to chase them off the ship again now. He glanced over at Joline, wondering if she had caught anything of his thoughts. Somewhat to his surprise, he saw her frown at her Captain, with less outrage than Inara, but still with a clear reproach. Apparently, neither lady felt the crude comment had been called for. In a way, that almost made him feel better.


-- <> --

The ceremony lasted a long time. Inara knew she was dawdling, but somehow she didn't feel like getting to the intimate phase of the union any time soon. Instead, she emphasized the tea, talk, quietude, and finally a slow massage ostensibly to put Marcel at his ease, but really just as much to postpone the inevitable.

Finally though, the time came around, and in all honesty, she didn't have any complaints. Just like last time she knew him, he was good in bed, even considerate after a fashion. It was just ... she would have to stop this longing for what she couldn't have. She might lose her talent this way, lose her ability to please. She was leaving in order to further her career, not destroy it. Marcel might not want to let her go right away, but she was certain that in time he would. In any event, he would try to keep her as she ought to be kept. It was unfortunate that he was blacklisted with the guild, but she could always catch up on her merits later, when she was on her own again. Being with him wouldn't reflect badly on her, if she stuck with her story that she had been coerced.

She waited until he had gone to sleep, before allowing herself to do the same. It was standard practice. Don't fall asleep on the client. She was trying hard to think of him as just another client. It would make things a good deal easier.

She dreamt of Mal. As if she needed that. He was holding her, kissing her as she had always imagined he could, if she'd only let him. She couldn't for the life of her understand why she was letting him, but she was, and he wasn't arguing or calling her a whore; he was sweet and vulnerable and his body warm against hers. She thought she could feel his heart, and she was afraid she might break it by pressing too close, as if it had been glass.

Behind the scarlet curtains, now dark in the faint light from a night lamp, River appreciated the imagery. She wasn't going to touch Inara's dreams, just a feather-light peek to see if the Companion really was asleep. But the beautiful imagery caught her, and this loving view of the Captain. She knew she shouldn't stay, she had other things to do, but Inara's longing spoke to her as if it were her own.

The night lamp flickered, startling her, bringing her out. It wasn't really oil-driven, she knew that, but it looked so real that she half expected the curtains to catch fire if she happened to knock it over. But it was really safe; she had examined the mechanism before she settled in, earlier in the afternoon.

Closing her eyes, she entered Captain Ching's dreams. She didn't have to touch him, not for this, but being in the room with him helped. Also, it put her closer than Joline, outside the shuttle. His dreams were simple and content. He was seeing Inara, giving her presents, admiring her. Well, that was something River could work with. Gradually, the dreamed Inara began to change shape. Somewhere along the line her clothes came off - that part was still pleasing to Ching - until black fur began to grow in their place. Inara dropped to all fours, and her face became strangely elongated. Ching was staring at her, fascinated. When the metamorphosis was complete, he had a black she-wolf in front of him. It attacked - and he screamed his first scream. There would be many more.


-- <> --

On the deck below, Mal heard the scream. So the girl was at it, finally. He wondered how long it would take. That would depend on Ching's stamina, she had said. There was no telling how resistent he was to fear, or to the kind of fear she could induce. Well, at least that scream sounded promising. Mal longed to go up there, to be on hand in case things got rough. What if Ching turned on Inara, not knowing her? But he mustn't approach the shuttle yet - the two guards would spot him. Indeed, he was wondering if Joline hadn't already, and if so, why she hadn't let Alec know.

Another scream - come to think of it, the guards didn't seem any too disturbed by that either. This how their Captain usually carried on in his sleep? Must've told them not to barge in though. Likely they were just following orders.


-- <> --

River was finding her task increasingly difficult. She now had to keep Inara from waking up at the screams, as well as keeping up her influencing Ching's imagery, while trying to block Jolene, whose ability she was none too sure of. She kept Inara's dreams soothing if increasingly erotic, what with Mal being in them all the time, and she was giving Ching no rest from his fears. She felt as if her brain was being split down the middle. Much like ... now there was something. Resolutely, she caught the memory of her own nightmares and fed the imagery directly into Ching's mind. Now he was in an Alliance hospital, his brain being stripped of some vital functions by Special Forces agents, some of whom he had known and worked with.

She had overdone it. This time, his scream woke Inara, and himself as well. There was nothing River could do about it. Recoiling from his fright and fury, she stumbled on a fold of the curtain and knocked over the lamp. There was no fire of course, but Ching saw her. Rushing nude from the bed, he retrieved his stungun from his clothes on a chair, and fired it at her. Her field of vision went black, along with all imagery in her head.

Inara screamed, and Mal took the steps and the catwalk in fewer leaps than he ever had, but he still wasn't faster than the guards, who had been stationed right outside the shuttle. He met them in the doorway, a barely covered Captain Ching between them. The man seemed to be still in the grip of his nightmares, his pale eyes wide with horror.

"We're taking him back to our ship", Alec explained. "Don't know what happened, but it looks like your reader might have had something to do with it. Looks like his own ship's the best place for him now. If we can't get him to calm down, he isn't safe around other people."

Mal wondered why the man should care. Why he should act so reasonably. Had Ching had episodes in the past? Well, it was none of Mal's business, especially not now. "You do that", he nodded. "Best way all around."

Alec hesitated. "As for the Companion ... it might be best she stay here tonight. We'll send for her tomorrow, soon as the Captain's calmed down and had some proper rest."

Mal acknowledged that too, adding some lame regrets for effect. Then they were gone, and he ran headlong onto the shuttle.

Inara started to speak, but he never heard her. Seeing River's lifeless form, he covered the distance to her in two steps, then knelt by her, feeling for a pulse. To his vast relief, it was there. But the <Chinesely accursed> stun had been the highest of three, unless Ching had changed it later, and there was no reason to believe he had.

"Gotta get her to the infirmary", he said tonelessly, for once ignoring Inara completely, nudity and all. He stood, picking up River as if she had been no heavier than a small bird. Truth to tell, she felt like one. He carried her at a run to the infirmary, placed her on a diagnostic bed, and roused her brother.

"She's been stunned", he explained hastily. "Highest setting of three."

Simon looked in bleary-eyed dismay at his sister, then fetched his instruments and began to take readings. "She's had quite a shock", he said, "but she'll be all right. She's lucky she wasn't hit in the heart. It'll take some convalescing though. I'd better keep her here for a couple of days. If I can."

Mal stumbled out, relieved. On his way, he hit an intercom switch and called the bridge. "Wash, are they off the ship?"

"They are", his pilot confirmed. "They have returned to their own. Safely aboard by now."

"Then", Mal said with satisfaction, "weigh anchor!"

Majestically like a - somewhat goose-like - queen, Serenity turned in the night, leaving the vicinity of Champ des rêves.

Only then did it occur to Mal to wonder why Ching's nightmares hadn't ceased, the minute River lost consciousness.


-- <> --

Just one more thing to do tonight. He had to check on Inara. See how she was taking all this. He found her furious, and not just because he had entered her shuttle without knocking as usual. Now that he thought of it, he definitely should have knocked. She was back in that negligée, and her anger somehow only made her even more attractive.

Of course she had noticed their take-off. Serenity's thrusters were good but hardly discreet.

"Don't tell me this was your plan", she said. "I knew you were up to something, and I assumed it had to do with dissuading Marcel somehow, but I never thought I'd be abducted."

Mal took a step back as if she had slapped him. "I didn't abduct you. He did, remember?"

"Then how do you explain that I'm back on your ship against my will, and the distance to Champ des rêves growing by the minute? Not to mention that most of my things are on Marcel's ship."

Mal's temper was beginning to flare too. "I thought I was givin' you a choice. My offer still stands. I'll set you down anywhere you want, just ask."

"Even if it's a core planet?" she probed. "No more backwater rocks parsecs from civilization?"

"If that's what it takes, yeah. I'll even go with you on the surface to see you safe to wherever you specify."

"Well, that's a new one. You'd risk your life - or at least your freedom - to see me safely off Serenity?"

"Mine, yes. I won't risk my ship or my crew, but other than that I'll do whatever it takes to get rid of you."

She seethed, but before she could answer in kind, he added,

"Meantime, you don't try to steal the shuttle. And you clear it of all the rubbish you still got up. Sorry 'bout your other stuff, but once you're dirtside you can do whatever you like. Contact your blond pirate then if you care to, but you'll damn well do it by your own choice!"

"Thank you. I will", she said caustically.


Their argument had brought them rather too close to each other, but as usual, neither of them would be the first to back down. The shuttle's atmo was heady with the scents of incense and Inara's discreet oils - a skilled Companion never wore rough, alcohol-based perfumes. Yet in the midst of her own artificial scents she could make out his natural one too, and he was more than sufficiently close for her to be affected by his body heat. She was trained not to break down, as they called it at the Academy; never let her own feelings take over. But there was such a thing as critical proximity. Not really thinking about it, she threw her arms around his neck to bring him into range, then started kissing him like a first-year trainee, forgetting all about technique and about pleasing anyone but herself. She did remember to press her negligéed body tightly against him though.

After the first shock, he retaliated quickly, going for depth at once, and she decided he must be a natural at this. His kiss fired up all kinds of nerve-ends throughout her body, and she was suddenly glad she had actually 'broken down' this one time. It wasn't something she readily admitted to herself, but she had often imagined what it would be like to kiss him when he was not unconscious. And yet she hadn't quite expected this. Such raw hunger, and yet somehow considerate. For all his pent-up need, still taking his time to explore her.

He didn't even start tearing at her clothing until she gave him the all-clear by doing the same for him first. But then of course all stops were out, and he had her naked on the bed before she had even got his pants off. He had to finish undressing himself, and that was certainly not proper Companion procedure. Well, she could always blame it on the scantiness of her own clothing - hers had been a lot quicker to dispose of.

His hands were all over her, stroking and squeezing, firm, yet never hurting. Taking this one chance to find out all about her, never daring to question his sudden windfall. Luck was not to be questioned, only treasured whenever it hit. By the same token, she let her accustomed protocols fly and grasped her opportunity to touch all that she had only seen before. This was one union she was not about to play by the book. This once, she was taking as much as she gave.

She had heard that his second-in-command had once begged him, take me hard. In jest, to be sure, trying to deal with Wash's insecurities about his wife's past. Inara had always wondered about that. Mal would never take anyone hard. He was the type to make gentle, unhurried love, feeling his way through. She had always known he would be, ever since she first laid eyes on him, and the thought of it had messed up their every encounter since then. A Companion learnt to see so much more about people than was readily apparent to others - but she didn't always learn to forget about it.

He entered her gently, then spun around to keep her on top, so he wouldn't risk weighing her down. All the while stroking her, sometimes looking at her as if in awe. She had never seen his eyes so dark, rather more black than blue. She let him indulge for a while, then turned them around again, with herself underneath. With any client, she would have adjusted to his or her preference, as soon as she became aware of it, but Mal was no client. For some reason, that very thought elated her. For once, she was doing something just as recklessly lawless as he.

He didn't quite manage to wait for her, but his climax set hers off, washing all thoughts and impressions out of her head like a cool drizzle through her brain. They stayed connected for a while, stroking each other in silence, then she slid out from under him to curl up at his side, resting her head on his chest. His heartbeat was loud in her ear, and she knew that she had just made a cardinal mistake - having felt his heart, how would she ever be able to leave him?

She hated herself for breaking it to him so soon, but she didn't trust herself to wait. "This doesn't change anything", she told him.

She felt his slight stiffening and knew that he had been hoping against hope. "Didn't think it would", he said then, sort of sadly. She smiled a little. Poor boy - didn't think he was good enough for a pro?

"Don't put yourself down", she said. "I've never had such a good time with anyone, and that's not my training talking. I mean that. Point is, even if it had been much less, it would still have been my best time ever. And don't ask me why, because if I have to say it, I might never be able to leave."

He caught her drift, and far too fast. "I love you too", he said simply. She had been about to sit up, but he caught her to him and held her. "And I don't want you to leave. Please don't."

"Please be reasonable, Mal", she said, then heard what she was saying. Yes, this was definitely a mistake. Giving - and taking - all they had been burning for so long, then asking him to be reasonable. For all her training, she wasn't exactly doing great.

She detached herself from his arms and sat up in bed. "I'm not giving up my career. When you think about it, you wouldn't even want me to."

"You a reader now?"

She sighed. Did he have to take every opportunity to be difficult? "What would happen if I did, and became dependent on you? I'd be a part of your questionable outfit - no, hear me out, I mean no disrespect, I'm just saying it the way it looks. This far, I've been able to lend you some respectability, even pulling strings to come to your rescue at a pinch because of it - but if I give it all up, I'd be no use to you whatsoever."

Thankfully, he didn't mention what other uses she might have to him. She had half expected him to. He had a vicious tongue when things weren't going his way. No matter how delicious otherwise - best not go there.

"Some day it might mean the difference between your life and death", she said. "It nearly did once, remember?"

"You pulled me out by claiming me as your indented man", he recalled.

"Indentured", she corrected him, suppressing an ill-conceived giggle.

"Whatever. Couldn't we have some arrangement like that? Couldn't I be your indentured man?"

She shook her head sadly. "There's no such thing, Mal. I made it up that time. Easy enough, since most people don't know all that much about the rules of Companionship. Especially out in the boondocks."

"Oh. Guess I didn't know either. Sounded jes fine to me."

"I'm sorry."

"Well, seein' as how you're leavin' - how d'you expect to be around to pull me out when I need you?" he asked, and she could hear the faint, diehard hope in his voice.

"I'll keep track of you", she said simply.

"Be a lot easier to do from here", he said, indicating the scarlet curtains still decorating the shuttle around them.

"Mal, I'm not staying." She hesitated, then decided to let him know the rest. Come to think of it, she wasn't really sure why she had kept it from him so far. "I can't. You see, there's another reason. It's not just that I won't give up my career - I can't. I may not be what you'd call fresh out of the Academy, but I'm still indebted to the guild. I know you always assumed my family was rich, and they were, but you simply have no idea what an Academy training costs. If it were only up to private family fortunes, no one would ever complete it. The alternative is to pay the entrance fee - which is quite high - then get the education on credit. You pay off your debt to the guild during the first fifteen years; not too much per year, as you still have to live in style. The guild keeps some of the money and sets some aside for Academy purposes, since the Academy is, after all, run by the guild. But for fifteen years, there's no way out. That debt has to be paid; you have to admit it's only fair, after the expenses the Academy has lavished on each and every student."

"How much?" he asked, his voice slightly gravelly.

She misunderstood. "I've still got ten years before I can even think of retiring."

"I meant how much do you owe? However much, it's only money. I'll find it, I'll buy you free."

"Mal, you can't even afford to keep me, let alone pay my debts."

"How much?" he insisted.

"Ten million credits."

He swallowed. "I'll find it. I'm good at that kind of thing."

"Mal, it has never happened that a common freeboter has raised that kind of money, and you know it. Or why do you think Marcel resorted to kidnapping?"

"You think I'm common?"

"Stop twisting everything I say. You know what I mean." She moved around to kneel beside him, leaving the sheet behind, since covering herself now would somehow seem like she was taking something back, and she didn't want to do that. His deep blue eyes took in the view.

"Not to cast any doubts on your accomplishments", he said, "but is it even possible to earn that kind of money in just fifteen years, doing - what you're doing?"

"Exorbitant fees", she said curtly. "That, and a steady supply of clients. Which is why I've been pestering you about going where I can find them. Sorry about that."

"You were partly right", he acknowledged for once. "I didn't like the idea of you ..." he bit off. "Still don't."

"You're right too", she said. "Sometimes it takes longer than fifteen years. That's just a guideline, based on a successful career and optimal circumstances."

"Don't it get harder with time?" he couldn't help asking, although he felt like something of a heel for suggesting it.

But she just laughed. "Experience is worth a lot. And I mean a lot. Also, believe it or not, there are many elderly clients who don't care for young women. They feel - judged, even when they know that a Companion never judges anyone except on personality and compatibility of spirit."

"Really? How do I rate on that score?"

She knew that if she told him the truth, she'd only add to his cockiness. Besides, she might well burst into tears. She gave him a playful push. "You're not my client. I'm not telling you."

"I'd like to be though", he said, surprising her. "Just once, out of curiosity. I'd like you to give me the full works, just to see what it's like."

So he knew that was not what she had been doing. Astute. But she also knew why he wanted to know. "I don't think that'd be such a great idea." she said.

"Why not? I could raise the money. For one night anyway."

She ignored that. "Mal, I don't dance the same dance with all partners. Whatever I did to you wouldn't tell you anything about what I'm like with others."

"That's not what I ..."

"Yes, it is. And I think we'd better drop this subject. I'm still leaving."

He turned a little more towards her, arms open. "Then how about one last time? For old times' sake?"

She knew full well she shouldn't. She'd never be able to tell herself she hadn't known. The guild would reprimand her severely and lower her status, if they ever found out. But if they ever did, it wouldn't be from him; she knew that. And his undauntedly mischievous smile was just too inviting. She fell into his arms and stayed there, for the next hour or so, putting off the inevitable just that while longer.

Later, when they were both fully clothed, they stood for a while holding each other tightly before he had to leave her. He was beginning to feel the lack of sleep, but he had no regrets on that score. After all, he had been sleeping more than enough lately. He wondered how Inara was holding up but guessed that she must be used to it. Planning her time accordingly. Except - he didn't think for a minute that this had been in her plans.

"I won't contact Marcel", she said suddenly.

"Good." He couldn't find anything else to say.

"And - I might be back. Occasionally. Just visiting, understand?"

He thought about that, and wasn't sure he could take it. "Maybe best you don't. I might not always be around." He hadn't meant to remind her, but hers was kind of a sheltered life, all things considered. His wasn't. Freebooters rarely lived to an old age.

She gave him a long, memorizing look, as if to record his every feature in case this proved to be the last time she ever saw him. Then she smiled. "You'd better be. Or I'll strike my deals with Jayne. I'm sure he'd be only to happy to - assist me." Without waiting for his reaction, she turned and picked up something from her little tea table. "The e-prints", she said, handing them to him. "Marcel was in something of a hurry. He must have forgotten about them."

Mal accepted them with a smile. "Thanks. But I had already copied them when I gave them to him."

"I rather thought you had", she said. "But he never had the time to. This way, he won't get there ahead of you."

He nodded and turned to leave. But in the doorway he suddenly stopped, reached out and pulled her close again, then kissed her, long and deeply. "Just so you'll think twice before settling for Jayne", he said as he broke the clinch. He tried to pass it off as a joke, but his voice wasn't quite steady.

No matter. For the moment, she had lost hers entirely.


-- <> --

River was lying quietly on her sickbed, staring into the ceiling. In some hospitals, they had pictures on the ceiling for that very purpose, but her brother had never got around to that. Didn't matter anyway; she had her own pictures in her head. She'd always had them. For a long time they had all been very dark, but lately that had begun to change. After her joining with Mal's mind, even more of the darkness seemed to have been chased away. He wasn't afraid of anything. That helped, made her see things differently.

He stepped through the doorway, and her heart fluttered a little. It surprised her that she should be so happy to see him.

"Hey, Rivulet", he said. "How ya doin'?"

She gave him a dark look, and he apologized.

"Sorry, didn't mean to be flippant. Won't call you that again. Seriously though, how are things? Headache?"

"Not anymore", she said. "I had one when I woke up, quite a bad one too. Simon gave me something, and it went away."

"Speakin' of Simon, where is he?" Mal looked around, but there was no sign of the doctor.

"With Kaylee. He didn't want to keep explaining to me why I can't get up yet. I think he knew he'd lose the argument if he stayed."

Mal smiled a little and approached her bed. Standing right by it, he looked down on her, and she saw clearly the compassion in his dark blue eyes. Same as she had when they shared his mind. "He's right though", he said. "You should rest. A third level stunning ain't sump'n you just blow off."

"I guess not", she admitted disinterestedly.

"There's one thing I'm puzzlin' over though", he said. "Looked to me like Cap'n Ching was still in the throes of his nightmares, when his folks hauled him off. I'd have thought they'd stop as soon as he stunned you."

She was silent for a while, as if she didn't know if she should tell him. Then she said, "Joline. She took over, when I blacked out."

"Joline? But she's loyal to him, ain't she?"

"Loyalty takes many forms. She brought him back where he belongs. She didn't think he was treating Inara right. In fact, she doesn't think Inara is good for him."

Mal whistled softly. "She's got the hots for him? Who'd'a thought? Looked to me like she and Alec ..."

"They are just - compatible. He's attracted to her though. But he knows it's not reciprocated."

"Poor guy", Mal said absently.

She nodded. "But he should know. He's mistaking their relationship for a possible attraction, and so he's miserable. They're only compatible. Not even bonded, like us."

It took a moment for that to sink in. When it did, he just stared at her. "Whoa now - d'you mean us us? As in you and me?"

"Yes", she said solemnly. "We spent a long time together, in your head. Then there was the image of the pearl. We're attuned."

"Well, I'm not sure I like the sound of that. I'd thank you to keep out of my mind from here on out."

She giggled a little. "It's not as easy as that. We're bonded now - there'll always be some overflow from your mind to mine, and from mine to yours. Not often, but sometimes, probably whenever one of us is agitated."

"Agitated", he said, and she didn't have to be a reader to know what he was thinking.

"Afraid, mostly", she amended. "If one of us is in grave danger, the other will probably know. Probably. Not certain. It can be erratic."

"Exactly how are we bonded?" he wanted to know, despite her just having intimated that this might not be the easiest thing to explain.

"Not like lovers, or family." She seemed to search for words - unusual for her, he thought - then clarified, "Like animus and anima within the same brain. You know the terms?"

"Thanks", he said gravelly. "I've had my schoolin'. Not as fancy as yours, but I had it. That would mean really close, wouldn't it?"

"Really close", she confirmed. "Most of the time."

"I can't get you out of my head, that's what you're sayin'?"

"I can read anyone of you at any time", she reminded him.

"So what's the difference here?"

She frowned a little, as if she didn't rightly know, her own self. Then she said, "Feelings, I think. If you're in danger, I'll feel it too. Not just know it."

"I'm sorry", he said, even though he wasn't sure it was his fault, exactly. But it didn't seem fair that she should be burdened with other folks' problems this way.

"It goes both ways", she reminded him sunnily. He glared at her. There was no mistaking the mischief in that smile of hers.

--  * The End *  --

First finished on 4 September, 2004. Html version in December, 2006