BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

KAYNARA

Bed and Wine: The Finale, Part 1
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

After 1000+ pages, the Bedlam/Bed and Wine series approaches its Big Damn Conclusion. NC-15


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 3467    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Bed and Wine: The Finale, Part 1 By Kaynara *** AN1: I’m sorry this is so disgustingly late! I promise I haven’t been withholding story--it’s just very, very long. Part 2 and the epilogue will follow in a much more timely fashion. <3 April AN2: Many, many thanks go to Grimlock for the violence and tech talk. Any time Serenity’s inner workings are discussed or someone’s innards are spilled, we have him to thank :). AN3: The part of Micah will be played by Carlos Bernard ;). *** Kaylee curled against the door frame. She watched the captain sip his coffee, both hands wrapped tight around the cup as though to warm himself with its heat. She had a great urge to go find him a blanket, something warm and snugly, and put him to bed like one of the babies. “Kaylee?” She turned at Simon’s voice, felt his hand come to rest in the small of her back. Grateful, she leaned back against his palm. “You didn’t tell him.” It wasn’t a question, but neither was it a condemnation. Kaylee sighed. “Meant too, just...he looks so terrible tired, Simon. I couldn’t bring myself to hurt him no more.” “He needs to see this, Kaylee. If you want, I can...?” She shook her head. “No. I’ll do it.” Kaylee stepped forward, clearing her throat. “Cap’n? There’s a news ‘port off the Cortex.” She chewed her lower lip, eyes soft and worried. “Think you’re gonna wanna see it.” *** He made them play the recording through twice, though Zoe wanted to shut it off after the first. “…reporting live from Capital City where just days ago a gruesome attack leveled three government buildings, including the Unification Museum.  The explosion resulted in an estimated six hundred casualties, twenty of whom were schoolchildren on a class trip.  I’m here with Madison Crane, administrative assistant to General Ralph Perkins, who was killed in the attack.  Ms. Crane survived the blast by—”  “Skip ahead,” Mal ordered.  Kaylee jumped the feed ahead till Mal motioned for her to stop.  “…God, it was horrible,” the woman whimpered.  She used the sleeve of her tweed jacket to blot at cheeks wet with tears.  “Bodies everywhere, and the children…you could hear some of them crying….”  Though she’d seen the feed twice now, Kaylee winced at the woman’s words.  She felt Simon’s fingers, cool and steady on her elbow.  After a few more seconds of the lady’s sobbing, the capture refocused on the reporter, her auburn helmet of hair motionless in the breeze.  Kaylee tried to catch the captain’s eye, infuse some warmth in his cold blue stare; he kept his gaze on the Cortex, unblinking.  “While authorities have yet to make an arrest, vid feeds taken shortly before the blast finger reputed-Independent leader, Malcom Reynolds as a suspect.  A former sergeant in the Independent army, Reynolds was seen exiting the museum just moments before the bombing.”   Zoe murmured an oath under her breath, the words crude enough to have even Jayne’s eyes widening in surprise.  Inara just closed her eyes and swayed.  Kaylee thought she looked real pale.  She reached over and squeezed her friend’s hand to steady her.  Inara rewarded the girl with a grateful smile.  “That’s enough,” Mal said quietly, and Kaylee closed the feed.  “What’s the distribution on this recording?”  “Just the Core worlds,” Kaylee told him.  “Don’t ‘spect they care much on the Rim.”  “So it’s just tens of billions what think me a murderer.  Shiny.”  Kaylee gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You’re a good man, Cap’n.” “Yeah.” Mal rose heavily, throat thick with emotion. “I’m just great.” *** They lay on the bed together, her hands in his hair, his head pillowed in her lap. Curling wisps of smoke drifted sweet and lazy toward the bed, hovered in the air over their heads.  Lavender for calming and balance, sage for its restorative properties.  She’d turned off all the lights save a single lantern. Suspended from the ceiling, it cast a muted glow over the shuttle. With the tips of her fingers, she massaged the sides of his head. “Inara?” He’d been quiet so long she thought him asleep. “Yes, Mal?” “I did some awful things in the War.” “Really, Mal. You don’t have to--” “Killed a lot of men. Plenty who didn’t deserve it--I won’t pretend otherwise.  But this—I can’t—”  “I know, Mal.”  She drew her fingers through his hair.  “I know you can’t.” *** NEO-INDEPENDENT BASE, SIHNON At a base forty miles outside Sihnon City, Amos Kane sifted through the war zone that was once his desk. Somewhere under all this wreckage there was a desk.   “Should be a law against an illegal insurrection having this much paperwork.”  Kane punctuated the sentence with a string of innovative curse words as his now-lukewarm coffee overturned on a stack of folders.  “Sir?”  “Cameron.”  He lifted his head to favor Vespucci with a rueful smile while mopping at the mess with his handkerchief.  “Do you have those deployment figures, son?”  “No, sir.''  Kane cocked one, bushy white eyebrow in amusement.   “Was there an onslaught of locust?  I only ask because you’ve never been late with an assignment in all the years I’ve know you.”  He winked to show he was teasing.     Upon receiving no response, Kane studied his lieutenant more closely. The taller man scowled down at the old politician, his mouth set in a firm, unyielding line.  “Is there a problem, son?” Kane asked carefully.  Vespucci hurled a disk at Kane's chest.   “I’d say there is.  What is the meaning of this?''  Kane lifted the disk from his desk, took a moment to examine the label.  “Operation Bedlam,” he read.  He wasn’t particularly surprised; he’d placed the file in Vespucci’s mailbox himself .  “It’s one of one of our contingencies, Cameron.”  “I trusted you.  And I thought you trusted me!”  “I do trust you,” Kane assured, in a voice like warmed honey.  “You, Cameron, are my sword.”  “Then why haven’t I seen this file before?”   “Because I knew you wouldn't approve. You’re our finest soldier. Probably one of the best in the known ‘verse. But you let your emotions cloud your judgment.”  “Don’t speak to me like a daft child, Amos. I joined the movement because I believed war was the only way to protect the Rim worlds from Alliance abuses. But what you're planning for that ball isn’t war. It's butchery! It’s extreme, and it’s reckless, and you can’t control the outcome.  Things are getting out of hand, Amos!  Like at the museum…like your new pet!”  He practically spat the last word.  “Civilian casualties are an unfortunate but necessary consequence of war, Cameron.”  Kane’s tone was gentle but firm.  “You know this.”  “Reynolds ordered the Abort! Gideon disobeyed! He knew about the children and proceeded with the strike anyway.”  “Try to understand, Cameron. We all have our roles to play. Gideon did his part to ensure neutralization of a key arms factory.  His actions saved lives.”  “No.”  Vespucci shook his head.  “There is no place in this war for animals like Gideon, or the men who protect them.''  “I heard shouting.” Gideon appeared in the doorway. On a tray, he carried two fresh coffees in Styrofoam casing.  “Just a slight difference of opinion, Gideon.”  Kane gave a wan smile. “Lieutenant Vespucci was just leaving.”  “Really.”  It wasn’t a question. “Because it sounded like he just threatened your life, sir. And mine.”  “No, no,” Kane protested.  He paused to press the clean part of his kerchief to the damp flesh of his forehead. “Nothing so melodramatic as that. Am I right, Cameron?”  He looked old, Gideon realized.  An old man, long past his prime, forced to submit to the intimidations of one younger and stronger. Gideon felt a rush of sympathy for his leader, the man he’d come to think of as his mentor. Fury crept over his fingers, made them curl.  Carefully, he lowered the tray with the coffees to the desk.   “I’m not leaving here, Amos.” Vespucci’s voice was low, even, and deadly.  “If I have to, I’ll kill you.”  Gideon met the other soldier’s gaze, and in a tone more conversational than combative, said, “I can't allow that, Captain.”  Kane could scarcely see what happened next. Both men were young, and both were quick. In near symmetry, they snatched sidearms from their holsters. A single shot rang out in the small office.  In the aftermath, Cameron Vespucci lay dead on the carpet, a crimson stain expanding from a spot on his clean, white tee shirt just left of center.    With no small amount of regret, Kane knelt to close the young man’s unseeing eyes. His death was unfortunate, but like Malcom, Cameron lacked the stomach for what was to come. Gideon, on the other hand....   “You had no choice.”  Kane rested a hand on Gideon’s bicep, applied a light squeeze.  “He was going to kill you. And he was going to kill me.  I owe you my life, son.”  Gideon just shook his, eyeing the mess on the floor dispassionately.  “You don’t owe me anything, sir.  Now, with regards to this Operation Bedlam….” *** She slipped out from his arms—not an easy feat when he was in the cuddling mood and complicated by the fact that, should he wake, he’d have one aim in mind and, should he start doing that thing with his mouth, it would soon become her aim as well.  He must have been tired because he only rolled onto his belly, mouth slightly ajar, and made a sound like a sigh. She smiled at the vulnerability of Captain Reynolds in the sleeping act, smiled because he let her witness him in such a state. Barefoot, she wandered up to the bridge.  It was mercifully dark, save the glowing lights from the console.  Curled in the pilot’s chair, feet tucked beneath her, she began to cry.    She cried quietly, the tears sluicing her cheeks, drizzling over her chin and fingers as she lifted her hands to her face.  Accustomed as she’d become to sharing a room with Mal—sharing a bed and her life—she sometimes missed the luxury of having her own space on the ship.  It simply wasn’t fair to cry in front of him, not when he couldn’t possibly understand or comfort her.  And he surely wouldn’t understand these tears, shed not from sadness but guilty, stomach-clenching relief.       She’d come so close to losing him.  If Mal were to wage war, he could never lead from the rear.  It just wasn’t his way.  He’d insist upon standing with his troops, standing on the front lines.  And one day, men in military regalia would have found her.  They’d have waved Serenity or located Inara on one of thirty worlds.  “We’re sorry to be the bearers of such sad news, Ms. Serra.  We regret to inform you that Captain Reynolds has been killed in action.” Dead.  The thought of him dying somewhere far away—somewhere she couldn’t reach him—was infinitely worse than the thought of losing him outright.  She worried when he went out on jobs, of course, but at least here she could see him one last time, kiss his lips and hold his hand in hers.  But to lose him in war…Inara vaguely recalled something the shepherd once said—about a society being judged by the treatment of its dead.  War was often as brutal to its dead as to its living.  And though she wasn’t so naïve as to think any of them in the clear--it was very likely they’d spend the next several years running--she knew she’d escaped a potentially terrible fate because of the tragedy in Capital City.  If there was one title she never wanted to attain it was that of Malcom Reynolds's widow.  Widow.  The word and all its inherent absurdities and presumptions had her giggling through her tears.  She pressed a hand to her lips to stifle the sound.  Which would Mal find more perturbing, she mused, that she was contemplating their marriage or anticipating her own widowhood?  She started to cry again because, alone on the bridge in the middle of the night, it seemed the only logical course.  The sound of footsteps startled her, and she turned in her chair.  Zoe.  She stood quickly, swabbing her face with her hands.  “I’m sorry, Nara,” Zoe began.  “Really, it’s my fault.  I didn’t think anyone else would be—”  “I didn’t mean to—”  “Please.”  Inara smiled.  “This is silly.  Why don’t you join me?”  Zoe lifted a brow.  “Sure you don’t mind?”  “I’m sure.  In fact, I’d be grateful for the company.”    Zoe nodded.  “Uh-huh. Doesn’t take a genius to tell you ain’t up here looking for company, Nara.”  Inara smiled, rueful.  “Sometimes the shuttle can seem a little…crowded. Not that Mal isn’t—”  “Inara.”  Zoe smiled.  “I’ve known the captain a long time.  You don’t need to explain.”  Grateful, Inara nodded. “You’re worried for him,” Zoe assessed, examining the younger woman with wise, narrowed eyes. Inara cast her gaze over her lap. “I’m afraid it’s more selfish than that. I’m afraid I’m worried for me. Worried about losing him and...of what losing him will do to me.” “You weren’t keen on him fighting this war,” Zoe observed. It wasn’t a question. Inara smiled, glad there could be truth between them. “Ain’t selfish to wanna keep the captain breathing, Nara. Ain’t keen on watching him die myself. Came close a time or two, and I’d just as soon not see him there again.” “This is silly.” Inara sniffled, and dabbed at her nose with the tissue Zoe offered. “I feel...ai ya, it’s idiotic, but I feel as though I should be brave for him.” “Yeah.” Zoe smirked. “Man does inspire that.” “It’s obnoxious!” “Sometimes,” Zoe agreed, lips twitching. “You know, Nara. You’re not the only who came up here lookin’ to feel sorry for herself.” Inara raised a brow. “Zoe Washburne...throwing herself a pity party?” Zoe shrugged. “It happens,” she said mildly. When it no longer mattered, when the boy was long gone from her bed and her life, she finally figured out why she’d wanted him there in the first place.  Wasn’t about Wash.  She couldn’t replace Wash, wasn’t so naïve as to try.  Anyway, it wasn’t Wash she saw in Gideon’s pale blue eyes eyes.  Wasn’t him at all.    She told Inara as much.  “Guess I’m feeling confessional,” she said at the Companion’s look of surprise.  Inara just smiled.   “If anyone’s entitled to an error in judgment, it’s you.  This would be, what, your first?”  Zoe’s lips twitched.  “And after all you survived last year….” Inara continued, her tone softening.  “Zoe, do you know what I miss most about my life as Companion?”  Zoe raised a brow; Inara laughed.  “Not that.  The sex…well, it wasn’t so important.  Not really.”  “You ever find yourself making comparisons?  You know, between your clients and…?”  “And Mal.”  Inara shook her head.  “There’s really no comparison.  Some of the men were more…technically precise, I suppose.  But when I consider the experience as a whole…making love to Mal is like nothing I’ve ever known…and if he knew we were having this conversation--”    “—prob’ly space us both,” Zoe finished. “Or himself.” “After his ears turned that alarming shade of pink.”  They shared another smile.  “The sex wasn’t so terribly important.  Mal doesn’t see that—and he never will.  Even now, a Companion is little more than a whore in his eyes.”  Zoe shook her head here.  “You’re wrong, Nara.  He respects you.  Go so far as to say—Inara, the man treasures you.”  “I don’t question that, Zoe.”  Her voice turned soft but firm.  “But Mal and I—we’re from different worlds.  The way he holds fast to his past and his pain…there’s little room there for a Companion’s brand of comforting.  To Mal, a Companion plies her sole trade in the bedroom.  And he’ll always see my job—former job—as beneath him.”  “And he’ll always see you yourself as above him.”  Inara blinked, lips at last settling in a smile.  “I’m trained in hiding my emotions.  Why can’t I conceal anything from you?”  Zoe smiled.  “Don’t know that, Nara.”  “I think, perhaps, it’s because you and I aren’t so very different.  I hope you’ll take this as a compliment; I intend it as one.  But you could have made a fine Companion, Zoe.  No, I’m serious.  You’ve not only the beauty and the carriage necessary for a Companion’s work, but also the control.  And, perhaps most importantly, you’ve the urge to comfort.  That’s what I miss, you see.  Offering comfort and solace.  Losing your own pain in easing another’s.  It’s what drew you to Gideon.  You saw that he was hurting and wanted to help him....Am I close?”  “Maybe,” Zoe murmured.  “Maybe that was part of it.”  “You see Mal in him.  The Mal who left Serenity.”  “And also…the one who arrived in that Valley. He was something, Nara.” She snorted. “Believed so hard. Made us believe too. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it. Know that for a fact.”   “An experience like that must forge an incredible bond.” “Imagine it does,” Zoe agreed, but her eyes were guarded now. Inara hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “It sounds as though you took turns guiding each other through Hell. I wouldn’t begrudge either of you for finding a moment’s solace amidst all that suffering.” Zoe looked stricken. At Inara’s gentle smile, her lips curved into one of her own. “Thought we’d both be carryin’ that one to the grave.” Inara chucked. “I’m very intuitive.” “Have heard that mentioned. Wasn’t something we did often. Only happened twice, in fact. Both times we needed it, and both times was a mistake. That make sense?” “You own a part of him I’ll never touch.” Inara lifted a shoulder. “It’s alright.” “More that...more he doesn’t want it touching *you,* Nara. And you’re owning more bits of him every day. Good, though,” she assured as a frown crinkled Inara’s perfect forehead. “I want you to have him, honey.” “I want happiness for you, too, Zoe.” “Mal can’t make me happy. He’s too much a part of me. The sex--wasn’t about love, sweetie. Wasn’t even about passion. Which isn’t to say the man don’t know where things go....” Inara snorted, clapped a hand over her mouth. “Zoe Washburne!” One look. Their eyes met just once, and they dissolved into laughter. They held their ribs, shoulders shaking with it. Each time they dared to exchange glances, one or the other would lose it again. In the end, both lay breathless on the floor of the cockpit, hands cupping their quivering tummies. “I can’t...breathe,” Inara managed. “Oh, God, my stomach hurts,” Zoe groaned over another chuckle.   “Nara? You up here?” Mal strode onto the bridge, barefoot and wearing naught but his undershorts. He took two steps and froze. “Huh.” Sprawled across the floor of the cockpit were his lover and his first mate, both sets of cheeks stained with tears. The ladies seemed to be making a valiant, albeit futile, effort to stifle their giggles in his presence. “Oh, hey, there,” he tried. “I just--I--I don’t wanna know.” Turning on his heel, he started back to his bunk without another word. Inara and Zoe waited for the sound of his footsteps to recede. Then they started to howl. *** “Just wanna go on record sayin’ this plan’s crazed, and we’re all like to die.”  “Don’t disagree on the first point, Jayne.  As for the second…”  Mal shrugged. “Ain’t an issue bein’ that I’m the only one goin’.”  The others exchanged glances.  “Sir, can I make a suggestion?” Zoe asked.  “Alright.”  He sounded suspicious.  “Can we skip forward to the part where you agree to take us along?  I’m not against arguin’ the point as a rule, just that we’re short on time.”  “Now wait a ruttin’ minute!”  “He’ll need an escort,” Simon mused.  “I’m guessing Zoe…?”  “I should be the one.”  Inara leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table.  “Without intending offense, I know the protocol better.”  “Oh, hold on!”  Mal shoved back his chair.  “Inara, no way in the ‘verse am I lettin’ ya—”  “You sure about that, Nara?  Could get dicey.”  “Uh, no.  She ain’t sure ‘cuz she ain’t go—”  “Actually, Zoe, it’s safer this way.  Should something go wrong, you and Jayne would be free to come in after us.”     “Ain’t a bad notion.”  Zoe nodded slowly.  “Leaves Kaylee to see to Serenity and the doc to patch up any hurts.  Plus River…well, imagine you could do about anything, honey. This could work.”  “What about wardrobe?” Simon ventured.  “I’m told this affair is rather formal.”  “That’s an understatement,” Inara informed.  “It’s the most extravagant event anywhere on the Core…anywhere in the ‘verse, I suppose.  We’ll need some things. A suit for Mal.  I’ll need a gown, of course.” “I can help with the clothes,” River offered. “I have good taste.” For a moment everyone at the table feigned interest in his or her lap. “What? I do!” Inara graced the girl with a smile. “I’d love your help, sweetie.” “That there’s a real shiny plan,” Mal said mildly. “Shiny as a shiny thing. There’s just the one detail where none of y’all are goin’.  This ain’t a fashion show, kids. Hell, if you’re gonna spend all my coin on flashy party clothes, best make sure they’re the somber sort; could well end up buried in ‘em. Now, I’ve thought through the risks and if I wanna go in and get myself shot…well, I can!  But the rest of you are sittin’ tight till I get back, dong ma?”  “Got anything to add, sir?”  “I—well, no.  No, that ‘bout covers it, Zoe.”  “Good.  Might as well put it to a vote then.  All in favor of the revised plan?”  “Whoa ho!  We don’t vote on my ship. ‘Cuz my ship ain’t a ruttin’ democracy.”  Zoe lifted a brow.  “All in favor of making this ship a democracy?”  Five arms shot up.  Jayne glanced around the table, rolled his eyes and raised his hand as well.   “Six to one—that settles it.”  Zoe smirked.  “You know, sir.  Think I’m liking this civilized thing.” Mal shook his head. “Bunch o’ insubordinates,” he muttered. But he was smirking into his coffee mug. “Guess that’s it then.” Zoe smiled. “We’re crashin’ the Emperors’ Ball.” *** He sat at the table, feet planted, elbows bent.     Inara rested her hands on the back of his chair.  She could feel his body shift, responding instinctually to her presence.  She leaned forward, letting her hair trickle down over his shoulders.  “You know invitation to the Ball is extremely selective.  Diplomats, Parliamentary leaders and heads of state.  Upper level military personnel and ranking members of the Guild. Private citizens rarely make the guest list.  ”  “Mmm.”  “And any attempt at forgery would be immediately spotted as such.”  “Uh-huh.”  He was reading and doing his level best to ignore her. His lips moved softly, eyes scanning the page.  “The Palace employs a top-notch security system.  Even if you do manage to gain entry, you won’t be able to carry a weapon onto the premises. You’ll be unarmed and at a disadvantage.”  “Always seems to be the way of it,” he agreed, not lifting his eyes from the page.  “Which is why you’re going to let me accompany you.”  He turned slowly, smiled a soft, lazy grin.  “Nice try.”  “This isn’t funny, Mal.  You need me.”  “Yeah,” he said quietly.  “I do.  Which is why you oughta stay here where it’s—“  “Safe?  Except it isn’t, Mal.  It’s not safe anywhere.  Not now.  Not with Kane and the Alliance…this is our only chance.  And you know as much.”  “Don’t mean I gotta like it.”   She opened her mouth, closed it again, realizing she’d already won.  Casually, she slid into the seat beside him.  “You have a plan.”  “Now, why would ya say that, darlin’?”  “Oh, I guess I just know you well enough by now.  I recognize that look in your eyes.”  “Look?”  “Yes, look.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “Scheming.”  He smirked.  “Ain’t so much a plan as taking advantage of family ties.”    Inara bobbed her head once, as understanding dawned.  “Your stepmother.”  “Bein’ twice widowed by Alliance big wigs has its upside.  Namely a pair of tickets in her name for the social event of the year.  By the by, is there a single party on the Core what ain’t the social event of something?”  “I assumed your stepmother had fallen out of favor….”  “Thought so my own self, till she got to mentioning the invites.  Seems Alliance is behind in its blacklisting.  That, or our hit on Blue Sun’s headquarters resulted in some paperwork being misplaced. That's the problem with paperwork. When some damn Browncoat goes and burns your headquarters to the ground...” He made a ‘poof’ gesture with his hands. “Either way, seems Esmerelda Webb Fitzgerald’s once-good name might just get us in the door.  Only part I’m hemming over is Chou.  Ain’t sure he’s the one.”   “He is,” Inara said softly.  “Shuh muh?”  “Blue Sun has never enjoyed tremendous popularity on Sihnon.  Many people see the corporation as an example of commercialization at its very worst.  The fact that the Armed Forces Division has always held unchecked authority over the Sihonese citizens….”  “So you’re saying Emperor Chou ain’t a fan?”  “Hardly.  Though sometimes I wonder if it’s not more than that.  I’d go so far as to say the royal family has a personal grudge against Blue Sun.”  Mal raised a brow.  “Don’t ‘spose you know the reason for this grudge.”  “Sorry.” She smiled.  “But I think we can use it.”  “Inara.”  He met her eyes, perfectly serious.  “You got any idea how much it turns me on, hearin’ you talk that way?”  She laughed.  “I hope that’s not the only thing about me that turns you on, Captain.”  Before she could blink, he’d tugged her into his lap and sealed her lips in a kiss.  “Darlin’, you don’t know the half of it.” *** CRYSTAL CLAIRE’S LADIES’ DRESS SHOP, BOROS “This cut accentuates your pretty shoulders, the line of your back...and your chest of course.” “My bra shows.” “Hmm, yes...you could always go without.” River looked so stricken that Inara had to laugh. “We’ll think of something, sweetie.” “Hey.” Mal pounded his fist into the dressing room door. “What’s goin’ on in there? That gigglin’ sounds all manner of expensive.” Behind the French doors, Inara smiled and adjusted the bodice of the sundress River wore. She’d long since selected her own gown and decided the more interesting course would be finding something sweet for River. The deep blue garment suited the girl well, with its delicate spaghetti straps, its dipping back and knee-length A-line skirt. “Go away, Mal,” she called, standing back to admire her creation. “Yeah, go away, Captain,” River echoed. “How long ya’ll expect to be?” he persisted. For River’s sake, Inara rolled her eyes dramatically. “These things take time, Mal.” “Yes, Captain. Right now, we’re learning about bras. Do you know much about the topic?” “I, uh. Well.” He groaned. “Maybehaps I just go wait outside.” “If you like,” Inara said sweetly. River was tugging on her skirts. “Yes?” “Say more things about me.” Inara smiled, tucking the girl’s hair behind her ear. “You have such lovely skin. Smooth and creamy. And this blue is just perfect on you. See how pretty it is with your pale skin and dark hair? Yes, I think you simply must have this dress. Do you like it, sweetheart?” “I look older.” “Sophisticated,” Inara corrected. “Elegant.” “The bra’s a problem.” “May I see?” She frowned. “Sweetie, this isn’t even the proper size.” River smiled, rueful. “Psychic genius and she can’t even pick out a bra.” “Did your mother never take you bra shopping?” “No. She was very busy. I asked Simon.” “Simon took you? That must have been an interesting experience. For you both, I suspect.” “Didn’t turn colors or tug on his ear. Simon’s always been there for me.” Inara smiled. “He’s a good brother.” “Yes,” River agreed, watching her own reflection in the glass. “This is very pretty. Too much though.” “You mean money? That doesn’t matter.” “I don’t have--” “I want you to have it.” Impulsively, Inara drew the girl into a light hug. “My heart is just set on it.” “You’ll be a good mother...someday.” River shrugged, sad. “Someday,” Inara murmured. She held River’s dress while the girl laced up her combat boots. *** Mal strode up to the foot of the table.  He folded his arms over his chest and waited for the conversation to lull.  Not that his crew was overly talkative past few days. “Okay,” he announced.  “That’s it.”  The crew exchanged meaningful glances before turning to regard Mal curiously.  “What’s a matter, Cap’n?” Kaylee ventured.  “This…you all…with the moping!  I can’t take it anymore.  You know, there’s the slightest change we don’t all die tomorrow.  And if we don’t…well, won’t you just feel all manner o’ stupid!?”  “Optimism from our fearless leader?  Mal, are you feeling alright?”  “Ha ha.  Kindly keep the snarkiness to a minimum, Doctor.  Now maybehaps this don’t end well.  Could be this is the end of the line. But, well, even a condemned man’s entitled to a last supper, dong ma?”  “Mal.”  Inara rose to her knees on her chair, leaning close to whisper in his ear.  “Perhaps you shouldn’t employ the words ‘last supper’ in a speech intended to boost morale.”   “Noted,” Mal murmured before turning back to the group splayed before him.  “So.  Who’s gonna cook?”  *** They drank Kaylee’s engine wine and ate the meal River and Simon prepared. It wasn’t food in the strictest sense, but neither was it awful. Anyway, they were all of them together, alive and healthy, hooch-induced hangovers notwithstanding. Inara could recall other meals taken at this table. She could scarcely pick one out now from the rest, blurred as they were in her memory. To her left, Kaylee and Simon seemed intent on proving that two objects could indeed occupy the same space simultaneously. Kaylee sat straddling the doctor’s lap, her back resting easily against his chest, his arm draped comfortably over her waist. She laughed with her mouth open while Mal recounted part of a story--an old, silly story they’d all heard a hundred times, though that fact didn’t make it any less humorous in the telling. Every now and then, Simon bent his head to kiss Kaylee on the cheek. They were so blatantly in love with each other. Across the table, Inara met Zoe’s eyes, and they shared a smile--a secret smile of womanhood and understanding. They spoke in significant glances and soft smiles, each grateful for the other’s presence. Mal’s story tapered out, and Kaylee took up the reins. “Cap’n, remember when you tried talkin’ to me ‘bout sex?” She watched Mal laugh, lines of it fanning out from around his eyes. “Uh, I’m fairly certain that never happened.” “Did so, Cap’n. Was after Bester. You went on for, gosh, musta been an hour ‘bout havin’ respect for myself and not sexin’ men of questionable character.” Mal snorted and gazed pointedly at the doctor. “See how well she listened.” Kaylee threw a roll at his head, but laughed along with River and Jayne. “That’s funny, Captain.” Simon rolled his eyes. “Have you ever thought about stand-up?” “Now, now, doctor. If Kaylee had to marry someone on this here boat...well, reckon I’m reasonably glad it’s you.” “Thanks, Mal. I’m sure there was a compliment in there somewhere.” Mal smirked, stood to refill everyone’s glass. At Simon’s place, he paused a moment and gave the boy’s shoulder a firm squeeze before pouring his wine. Simon looked surprised but pleasantly so. Kaylee’s lashes lowered, as she regarded Mal gratefully. After another glass and a tale about a newly married Wash strewning his wedding bed with long-stem roses as opposed to petals--and the hour Zoe spent removing thorns from her backside--the crew began to dissipate, stumbling somewhat drunkenly to respective rooms. In their shuttle, Mal set himself to the task of undressing her, drawing the silky white camisole over her head and wriggling the long, black skirt down her hips. Her outer layers disposed of, he started in on her undergarments. He slid her arms free of her bra straps before unhooking the clasp. Then he looped his thumbs through the waistband of her panties and worked the lace-trimmed lingerie down her thighs. She lay unmoving, amused, for the duration of the proceedings, allowing him to do as he wished. When she was perfectly naked, he drew her into his arms and, not bothering to remove his own garments, tucked her against his chest. His hands settled over her waist, the tips of his fingers inching down to knead her tailbone. “Happy?” she teased, and he grunted his approval. She wrapped a hand around his head and massaged lightly. “I must say, I feel a little underdressed.” “You look good to me.” He opened his mouth to nip at the flesh of her collarbone, and she shivered. He delivered a few more kisses to her throat--soft, breathy ones that gave her goose bumps--before closing his eyes against the black of her hair. “Mal?” she asked when he’d been silent several moments. “Guh,” he said and she decided to take that as a, “Yes, Inara. I’m listening. What would you like to discuss?” She giggled. “Wha?” he murmured, cracking one eye. He shifted, and one of his knees pressed between hers. The well-worn khaki of his pants leg brushed the smooth insides of her thighs, making her shiver. “I--well, I never expected to be asking this question. Usually, you’re rather blatant with your intentions. But--well--are we going to have sex here, Mal?” He smirked. “Well, let’s see now. I do have you naked in my arms,” he reasoned. She elbowed him, and he chuckled. “Nara, what do you think?” “I think that, given the circumstances--you being fully dressed and dozing--it’s a fair question.” He shrugged, snuggled her closer. “I just wanna hold you a spell. That alright with you?” She blinked as a cold, wet fear settled over her lungs. “Alright,” she whispered, though just then, she couldn’t think of anything that was less so. *** SERENITY, MORNING OF THE BIG DAMN DAY She didn't often dress this way now: a veil over her hair, glitter in her eyelashes.  Surely there was a name for the way her neckline dipped, not showin' anything, per say, but givin' a man all manner of ideas.    “How do I look?”  He was fairly certain she’d never asked him that question in all the time they’d known each other.  Likely ‘cuz she’d seen the answer in his eyes.  The dress was the color of wine—a deep, dark, scarlet—and she looked how it would taste: sharp and pungent, a bite to the tongue.    “Like a queen.  Kind would have you beheaded and feel but a pang.”  She smiled and lifted his wrist, upturned a handful of gold into his open palm.  He uncoiled the chain, saw the ruby teardrop dangling from the dell.  “Help me with the clasp?”  The moment she stepped onto his ship, extended a slender, liberally bejeweled hand for shaking, he'd known who she was, what she was. What she was, was a whore.  One who offered her body in trade.  And in that moment, feeling the delicate softness of her skin under his calluses, he'd wanted her as he hadn't wanted anything since the day he saw Serenity. And he hated himself for wanting.  “I don’t want you there.”  His fingers brushed her collarbone, and she sighed.  “I know.”  He thought he knew her back then.  He thought he could read her soul in her smooth, unlined flesh, in the dark crimson of her lip paint.  It would be easy to say it was her body he wanted: the lush curve of her breasts, the firmness of her ass. He'd been all over the 'verse and never encountered a damn thing so beautiful as her.  He cursed her for making him want that way, embedding in him a desire for something filthy and fancy and foreign. She was a symbol of the Alliance: all he fought against. He called her a whore, said the ugly word to her face; he felt worse when he thought it in his head.  But it wasn't the body of the whore what called to him. While he exorcised his need with his fist, he tried to pretend it was only her body.  “Let me do that.”    She gave a gentle push so he was sitting on the bed.  She stood between his knees, nimble fingers looping his cravat.  He thought he knew her that day in the shuttle.  Turned out he didn't even know himself.  It wasn't the whore part that rankled him—Nandi taught him he wasn't above bedding whores.  In a manner, it was easier with Nandi.  Him and her were made from the same stuff.  No call for illusions, pretty words or perfumes.  They was just ordinary folk, tryin' like hell to get by. Protecting what was theirs and goin' against them that would stand in the way.  He called the Heart of Gold whores Independents in jest, but in a way he'd been complimenting them and, in the same breath, insulting *her.*  “You don’t belong there.”  It was cruel, but he was feeling desperate.  She just smiled—woman knew him all too well—and adjusted his collar.  “Don’t I?” she teased.  In truth, she was right.  Ball was her world, not his.  “At any rate, you owe me.  Our last two parties ended rather abruptly, what with you sustaining bodily injury and all.”  Inara was a rebel too, just that, for awhile anyway, she pretended to be otherwise. She might've worked as Companion, but she'd never been whore to no man.  To be truthsome, he'd known that all along.  Though the jealousy sometimes ate him up inside—made him wanna maim and murder and cause all manner o' mayhem—it wasn't the whore part that hurt.  Not really.  The real trouble was her making him want. Last time he wanted something, wanted it really an' truly with everything he was, the loss of that something damn near destroyed him.  And in earnest, that was the trouble with her.  She offered everything, but gave no guarantee it was his for keeps.    From the first day she walked onto his boat, he resented her. Resented her 'cuz he knew one day she'd walk off it again.  Twice she walked off his boat, once of her own volition and once of his. Both times she came back.  Deep down in the spots tangled in scar tissue, Mal knew neither of them had the strength to end it again.  If he lost her a third time, it wouldn't be by his own stubbornness, or even by hers.  It would be at the hands of something other.  “I can’t lose you.”  She hesitated for a moment. When her fingers steadied, she lifted a bottle of scent, exhaled a puff of something heavenly over her wrist.      “You need me,” she said simply.    She meant to breach the party, blend in with the other guests.   “Truer words,” he murmured.  “Anyway, this could be my last chance for excitement.  After it’s over, we’ll settle down.”  She affected a sigh.  “I’m afraid life will be frightfully dull.”  “You think life with me will be dull?”  She smiled, her mouth soft, her eyes unguarded.  “Not for a second.” ***  Girl was perched on the catwalk, legs dangling off into the abyss.  Something was different.  It took a good few seconds before he realized he’d never seen her hair up.  Inara must’ve done it—the sleek knot seemed too, well, twisty for River to concoct on her own.  Of course, girl was a genius.  Likely she could master hair stylin’ if she set her mind to it.  Prolly a few other things ‘swell.  “Hey, there.”  She smiled.  He wondered if he’d ever seen her smile in a way that weren’t just a bit too sad.  Maybehaps when she and Kaylee played.  Or, not that Mal liked to think on this overmuch, but maybe she smiled for Jayne.  “Hi, Captain.”  “You, uh.”  He gestured to her dress, a summery thing the color of blueberries. “Look nice.”  She smiled again, and this time it was fuller.  “Old?”  He smirked.  “Oh, twenty-one at least.”  She smiled and resumed staring at whatever was so fascinating down in the bay.  “You ever think o’ goin’ to school?  Not that you need…well, schoolin’.  But they got universities—reckon there’s a bunch would be interested in one like you.”  She lifted a brow, and he wondered if after all this time he’d finally managed to surprise her.  “You know I ain’t one for traditionalism.  Got no use for what’s proper.  Just figure you got all manner o’ potential, honey.  Not that I don’t love havin’ you for my pilot—if I don’t say it ‘nough, you’re a damn good one.  But, well, if you wanted somethin’ more….”  He shrugged.  “You’re what: nineteen?  Just don’t want ya feelin’ like ya gotta be mama to two babes you never asked for.  When this is over…if you wanted to go…well, I’d make sure they was cared for, that’s all I mean to say.”  “They’re pretty—Devon and Epiphany.”  He wasn’t sure if she meant the names or the babes, so he just shrugged.  “Not too ugly,” he agreed.    “You’re scared,” she observed.  “Don’t gotta tell you this ‘verse ain’t the kindest…specially to those too young to protect their own selves.”  “You’re not just scared for them.  Scared *of* them.  You don’t wanna love them.  But you already do.”  Not of a mind to argue with a reader, he just smirked, angling his neck to meet her gaze.  “And what do you want, Lil’ Albatross?”  She cocked her head, listening.  “I hear music.”  She smiled.  “A waltz.”  “Yeah, comin’ from Kaylee’s room, I suspect.  She’s a sucker for that romantic luh suh, downloads it off the—”  “Dance with me, Captain?”  “ ‘Scuze me?”  “I’ve never danced with a man before— slow and proper, hands on my waist.  Please?”  He scratched a spot near the back of his head.  “River, I—”  “One dance?”  Maybe it was seein’ her in that dress, all grown up with her hair on her head.  Maybe it was knowin’ they weren’t walkin’ into a ball but a battle, and she wouldn’t do much with that dress ‘cept wash out the bloodstains.  For whatever reason, he groaned and got to his feet.  “Yeah, alright.  Hurry up.” She didn’t move.  “What’s wrong?  Thought you wanted me to twirl ya.”  “You have to ask.”  “You asked me!”  She made her eyes all big and blinky.  “You been spendin’ entirely too much time with Inara,” he growled.  But he extended a hand.  “Would you do me the honor of a dance, Miz River Tam?”  She beamed, letting him tug her to her feet.  “Promise you won’t step on me?”  He settled his hands on her waist.  “I got sensitive toes, darlin’.”  She wrapped her little hands round his neck.  “Promise,” she murmured.  She rested her cheek against his chest.  He sighed and rocked her and hoped like hell none of the crew came callin’, as he surely didn’t wanna be explaining this.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  She smiled up at him, eyes soft and grateful.  “Not a problem, darlin’.”  He sighed again and brushed a kiss over her head.  “Not a problem.” *** SHUTTLE TWO, SOMEWHERE OVER SIHNON CITY They were coming up on the city fast. Looked like Palace airspace extended farther than they’d thought. Mal sighed. Seemed they’d be setting down some distance away, lest they risk getting tagged. Wincing, he turned to his copilot, who was still somewhat huffy on account of him not letting her fly the shuttle her own self. “Inara? You, uh, you wearin’ good shoes?” She swiveled slowly, raising a carefully-sculpted brow. “Good as in expensive?” “No...no, more good as in durable. Rugged.” “No.” She looked suspicious. “I’m wearing ridiculous shoes.” He appraised the strappy, cream-colored sandals and nodded. “Huh.” He had a mental picture of her slipping on some slimy grass and falling on her butt, which likely wouldn’t bode well for her--no, his; after all, he paid for the damned thing--three hundred platinum scarlet silk halter dress with its delicate, hand-stitched-- “Mal.” She was staring. “What’s--?” “Nothing’s wrong. Just...might have to walk some...and it’s rainin’.” “How far?” He wondered how she got out the words with her teeth ground so tightly. “Well, can’t exactly--” “Mal.” “Klick. Maybe two.” “Great.” “Now, darlin’. Surely you can walk a kilometer.” “Of course I can.” In the proper footwear, she amended silently. “But there’s a certain matter of respectability. And sopping wet and muddy isn’t exactly haute couture.” “Hot what?” he murmured. If he were paying more attention to her, she’d have rolled her eyes. As it was, his were fixed on the vid screen. “Never mind.” This time she did roll her eyes. “Just get us on the ground, Captain.” Carefully, she slipped off her cream-colored sandals and slid them in the pockets of Mal’s coat. He lifted his eyebrows in amusement. “This ought to be good,” she murmured before settling back in her chair. *** LOTUS PALACE, SIHNON CITY A tall woman with a cloud of dark red hair cut through the throng before the buffet table. To her left, a waiter passed, balancing a tray of champagne flutes. “Will you have one, Madame?” “Xie xie.” She chose a half-filled goblet and took a step in the direction of the dance floor. And prompty lost her footing. “Whoa, now!” Strong arms grasped her under the elbows, pure blue eyes meeting hers in surprise. “Oh! I-I’m so sorry.” She brushed at the black velvet of her gown. “The floor was unexpectedly slippery.” “ ‘Sokay.” Malcom Reynolds graced her with an easy smile--she noticed the layer of mud caking his boots and guessed correctly that he did not. “Figure it’s my own fault, tryin’ to get near the popover shrimp.” “You’re a brave man,” she teased, and laid a hand over his bicep. She was observant enough to note the way his companion’s eyes narrowed. “Good luck,” she said with a nod at the line, and flashed him a smile and left. Jessamyn eased through the masses and slipped out onto the verandah. She removed a ‘com link from her clutch. “There’s a problem, Mr. Kane.” She lay a hand over her chest where her heart pounded.  “Malcom Reynolds is here.”  The line went silent.  “Mr. Kane?” she asked.  “Alone?”  “Sir?”  “Is he alone, Jessamyn?”  “No, sir.  There’s a woman with him.  Attractive.”  “Dark hair and eyes?”  “Yes.”  “Christ. What are you doing, Malcom? I can’t see the...ohh.” He chuckled without mirth. “Your father lacked your guile, my boy.”  “Sir? Should I contact Gideon?”  “That won’t be necessary, Jessamyn.”  “So we’re to proceed as scheduled?”  “Personal differences aside, he’s still the son of a dear friend.  I won’t see him come to harm, not when it’s in my power to prevent it.  I want you to leave the palace and alert security from a safe Cortex screen.  Inform the Palace Guards there’s an Independent spy on the premises.  Malcom and Miss Serra should both be brought back to the city for questioning.  Thank you, Jessamyn.”  “Yes, Mr. Kane.”    *** LOTUS PALACE, AIR DEFENSE COMMAND CENTER “Hey, open up in there.  We got something for you hardworking Palace Guards.”  The violet-uniformed officers and staffers swiveled in their chairs. Four men dressed in tuxedos stood outside the door to the Command Center, wielding carts of steaming food.  The techie nearest to the door reached over to flip the lock.  “What all this?” he asked.  One of the waiters shrugged and gave his bow tie a tug to loosen it.   “Slight mishap in the kitchens.” He gestured to the carts. “Chef prepared these with frozen basil steada fresh. Empress dowager threw a hissy, said to toss it all. Some of us thought we’d bring the trays around to the Guard stations.  Good eats, if you boys ain’t picky.”  The six technicians and operators all looked to their supervisor, who thought for a moment, then nodded.  “Thanks,” he said, and motioned for his people to fill plates.    “So what exactly do you guys do here?”  “Air Defense Command. We monitor every object in the skies of the northern hemisphere from this room. Most of it’s handled by automatics, but anybody gets with in a hundred klicks of the Spire, without authorization, we flag it a bandit. They still don't heed our warnings, we hand ‘em off to WEAPCOMM. Chu over there pushes the Big Red Button, and the bandit has a massively bad day.”  “Really?” the waiter asked, offering a tray of mini quiche. “And what does that mean?” “It means there are over one thousand AAA, SAM, and CIWS emplacements within a fifty kilometer radius. Lemme put it this way, we could scatter an old Trans-U freighter across three time zones.” “Wow.”  “Damn, this is tasty.” One of the techs chewed thoughtfully.  “Sure they don’t want it upstairs?”  “You know rich folk,” the waiter explained, pausing to make eye contact with his three colleagues. “We live on the same planets, but they’re in a whole different 'verse.”  “Yeah, I suppose you're right,” Chu agreed. “Could be worse... Could be out on the rim.”  The waiters sprang into action, pulling silenced pistols and daggers from their tunics. It was over in seconds, with all six techs and the supervisor lying dead on the floor.  “Were you waiting for his gorramn life story?” “Stop bitching and disable the defenses. Special Delivery is coming in soon.” “I know, I know.” The 'waiter' reached under his cart and grabbed a mini sourcebox. “Once I plug in and run the invasive programming, Commander Gideon will have smooth sailing all the way.”  ***  LOTUS PALACE, BALLROOM Inara adjusted the skirts of her ball gown, hoped fervently that the grass stains on her toes didn’t show. At least her shoes were dry, protected from the rain during their passage in Mal’s pockets. She crossed the space separating them and laid a hand flat on the small of his back. “I don’t like the way she was looking at you, Mal.” He glanced up from his mini spinach-and-bacon quiche in surprise. “She who?” “The redhead with the...cat eyes.” Cat eyes? “Now, now, kitten.” He caught her around the waist and kissed her temple. “Retract the claws.” With a dignity that must have taken years to hone, Inara rolled her eyes. “I’m not jealous, Mal,” she hissed. “I’m afraid she may have recognized you.” “Hey, now. Could be she just thought me swai and....yeah, okay,” Mal admitted. He jerked his head. “Enough playin’. Let’s see if we can’t find Chou.” Before Inara could move, fingers were encircled her wrist, squeezing flesh and bone. She refrained from crying out, but her discomfort must have shown. “Malcom Reynolds, you will come with us,” a man intoned. “Hey, hey.” Mal lifted his joined hands in protest. “No need to get grabby. Lady ain’t a part of this, now; best you just let her on her way.” “Mal, I’m coming with you,” she hissed. Her eyes darted to the pistol, pressed firmly against his rib cage. The dark gray of the metal was a startling contrast with the crisp white of his shirt. She imagined the way red would stain, spreading like a rash over the fabric. “Inara.” He met her gaze, his own entreating. “Please.” “I’m afraid that isn’t a matter of negotiation, Captain. The lady will remain in our company for the present.” They had time for a single, searing glance before security was ushering them up the stairs. On the landing, they waited while two of the security force scoped a room. Under the screen of her lashes, Inara eyed the closest guard. His weapon rested snug against his hip. If she moved swiftly, she could be on him before anyone realized her intention. She started forward, right hand creeping up her side. The hand snatched her arm inches before it reached her target. She sucked in air as the bones in her wrist rubbed together. “She’s gonna be a problem,” the guard murmured. Beside her, Mal smiled, a tight, worried smirk that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “She always was,” he said softly. Silently promising to repay the guard for every bruise that dotted her flesh, Mal allowed himself to be propelled into the secured space. Was a bedroom--real extravagant-like, too. Had what Inara would call a color scheme: a pallet of peaches and reds and golds strewn over the linens and the curtains, infusing the fine woven carpet and the fussy furniture. He could imagine Inara in a room like this, at home amidst all this pretty. Mal knew damn well that kinda finery weren’t for him. Made him all manner o’ antsy. And he wasn’t just saying that on account of the impending torture. “Bring Captain Reynolds here. Shackle him to the bedpost, please.” “What are you doing to him?” Inara asked. “I demand to know why we’re being held.” “Miss, you crashed the Emperors’ Ball with a wanted Neo-Indpendent ringleader. You really aren’t in a position to be ‘demanding’ anything.” He returned his gaze to his colleague, eyes cool and emotionless. “Remove his shirt.” She didn’t know what they were planning, but she saw the flicker in Mal’s eyes. Fear. Fear that they’d hurt him and make her watch. “Let us speak to Emperor Chou,” she pressed, fighting to keep her voice level as they stripped Mal of his shirt. “You can see we’ve come here unarmed. We’re only seeking an audience.” “His Majesty the Emperor is enjoying the opera in the main ballroom. His duty is to his guests now, not common criminals who enter his home uninvited.” “Please.” She gave a futile struggle as she was manhandled into a chair. Zip-cuffs slid over her wrists, binding them to the wicker. “If you’ll just get a message to His Excellency Micah Chou. I’m confident he’ll see us.” The security head eyed her with disdain. Slowly, he sank to his knees before her, rested his arms on her lap. Behind him, she could see Mal pull at his restraints. “And why, Miss,” the man murmured, tone low and skeptical, “would the emperor’s son agree to a conclave with Malcom Reynolds's whore?” The plastic chafed her flesh, irritating the wrist already sore from the guard’s bone-crunching grip. She lifted her chin, trying hard not to shiver at his cold gray gaze. “Micah Chou is a dear friend. You’d be wise to inform him that Inara Serra--” She blinked as his hand drew away, leaving a fiery red print on her face. She fought the urge to cry, not from the pain but the shock. She tried to lift a hand to her cheek, realized too late it was bound to the chair arm. “Don’t tell me what’s wise, Ms. Serra.” He laid the back of his hand against the hot flesh of her cheek, the coolness providing unsolicited relief from the sting. “Let me do my job,” he requested. He rose then, turning to see Mal struggling wildly against his cuffs. “I won’t hit her again...unless I have to. If you cooperate, there’ll be no reason to hurt either of you.” “I got nothin’ to say till Chou gets here. My info’s for his ears direct.” “Well, Captain.” The man gave a lingering sigh. “It seems I’ll be hurting you after all.” “You cut me up ‘fore I can deliver my message, your boss won’t be too pleased.” “Come now, Captain. Sihnon is a civilized world.” He motioned for his associate to apply the electrodes. “We’ve other means of obtaining information.” “Civilized?” Mal flinched at the coldly familiar press of electrodes to his chest. Was somethin’ about the feel of them on the nipple that tended to stay with a man. “My mistake.” He heard Inara’s scream before his own drowned it out. *** He came back to himself shivery and dizzy, still reeling from the last round of shocks. Okay, so this was a bad idea. Granted, he’d had worse. But this one was up there. Top ten maybe. Eight. He’d rate it an eight. “Mal.” He dragged in a hard breath and forced himself to answer. No telling what sorta trouble she’d stir up if he didn’t. Damned stubborn woman, he thought with no little affection. Couldn’t ever just-- “Mal!” “I’m here, darlin’.” “Talk to me.” She tried to sound firm, mighta succeeded if he didn’t know her so well; he could hear the panic through the cracks in her words. “Easy now. Looks a lot worse than--” He clenched his teeth as another burst of electricity coursed through his body. He wouldn’t scream this time, he wouldn’t-- “Ahhhhh!” “Let’s try this again: what are you doing here, Captain Reynolds?” “Seems I recall smoke risin’ from my body last time somebody did this to me.” He glanced down, thoughtful. “Course, I was bein’ tortured so might be my memory’s a shade hazy.” The palace guard didn’t look all that amused with his attempt at humor. To be truthsome, neither did Inara. She’d bitten through her lip in her effort not to cry. He could see tiny beads of blood, ruby-red against the pale pink of her lip. She musta chewed her lip paint clean off. “Nara?” He had to grind out the words. “My body start smokin’ the last time I was tortured?” “No, baby.” She swallowed hard, commanded her tone not to waver. “Last time it was drugs, remember? Wash was with you when you were electrocuted.” Mal nodded, offered the guard a smart-ass smirk. “She’s right. Last time was druuuaaaaahhhhh!” “Mal?” she asked, softer this time, when his screams had receded into silence. “You ain’t gonna go with me to no more fancy parties, are ya?” She just smiled. “Inara....you mind if I sleep a spell?” His head was feeling sorta heavy nowbouts. Lifting it was a struggle. “I’ll be back, just...need to rest a minute.” She nodded her acquiescence seconds before he passed out from exhaustion. She released her breath, grateful that he had a least a moment’s respite from the pain. Her gaze fell on the security head, watching Mal dispassionately. “Jolt him again.” “No!” “I’m tired of these games, Miss Serra. Two independent fugitives breached this palace, and I’m keen on knowing why.” “Then I suggest you summon Micah Chou!” “You weary me. If you weary me further, I may lose my patience with you altogether.” “I don’t think you’re that stupid.” “You think the prince will protect you just because you shared his bed?” “I think you’ll protect me. If Captain Reynolds and I die, you’ll never learn what we know.” The head of Palace Security shook his head. “We’ll see, won’t we? Shock him again.” “No!” The bedroom door flung open. From the corner of her eye, Inara saw sky blue robes sweep the carpet. “What the hell’s going on here?” a man demanded. “Micah!” “Inara?” The security head looked torn. “Your Excellency, you know this woman?” “Yes. At least, I did. She and I...we...Inara, what are you doing here?” “Micah, please. It’s imperative we speak to your father.” “You can’t be here, Inara. The time we spent together—I’ve no doubt it was a gift.  Without you, I’d never have forgiven myself for Chloe.  Or let myself experience....  I owe you for all that, and I’m grateful—really.  But you shouldn’t be here, Inara. You’re a--stop it--stop shocking him.” “I’m sorry, sir. We have orders.” “Hump your orders. Cut them loose, Major.” The major hesitated, fingers hovering over the switch that would send 100 thousand volts through Mal’s unconscious form. Micah narrowed his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was deathly low. “Cut. Them. Loose. Major.” Inara bolted from her chair the instant the guard loosed the zip cuffs. “Mal! Mal, Mal.” She pressed two fingers to his neck, sucked in a relieved breath when she felt the pulse. “Inara.” Micah grabbed her elbow, spinning her to face him. “Inara, what are you doing here?” “Call your father, Micah.” She jerked her arm free of his grasp. “We’ve a message the emperor will want to hear for himself.” *** He could feel her lips--feather-light kisses to his cheeks and chin, kisses in his hair and over his eyelashes. “Wake up, Mal.” He did. “Huh.” Image was a little blurred. Still, it was her alright. He traced her smile with his fingertip. “ ‘Sit over? We win?” “Well,” she said diplomatically. “We didn’t lose yet.” He smirked, tried to sit. “Easy,” she intoned. “Where are we?” “Another room at the palace. We’re to freshen up before our meeting with Emperor Chou.” She glanced down at the angry red spectacle of his chest. In a typical show of masculine-Mal bravado, he just shook his head. “I’m fine, woman. Can hold off on the waterworks. How long we got?” “They said they’d come for us in a half hour’s time. Of course, it took me almost half that to rouse you. Lazy,” she admonished, brushing his lips with hers. He caught the back of her head, drawing the kiss out long enough to explore her mouth’s depths with his tongue. He’d expend his last breath getting her out of here alive, but there was a damn fair chance he wouldn’t follow. If this was to be the end...well, one goodbye wouldn’t cut it. He’d need a whole slew of goodbyes before he was sated. “Mal.” She was fighting somethin’ fierce to be strong. Watching those hwoon dan run currents through his system couldn’t have been easy for her. With his finger, he lifted her chin. “Hey.” He couldn’t think of anything more profound, so he left it at that. She let out all her breath on a sigh and nestled into the crook of his shoulder. She curled into him, careful to avoid the burn marks scarring his naked torso. “I love you,” she whispered into the rough flesh of his neck. “Yeah, I know you do,” he drawled, and was pleased when she snorted in response. They washed hurriedly, though when she tried to fasten his shirt, he nudged her hands away. “Let the bastards see--should tell him we mean business. Hey, how’d we get the audience anyway? They swayed by my stunning show of bravery in the face of pain?” “You were very brave, Mal,” she assured. “Very brave and just a small bit unconscious.” “Passed out, huh?” He blanched as a new fear took hold. “Inara, they touch you?” He reached for her arms, obviously intent on conducting his own examination. She shook her head, returning his hands gently to his sides. “I’m fine, Mal. They didn’t touch me, I promise. I--I took a risk. You see, years ago I knew the emperor’s youngest son. Micah Chou. He’s been living away from Sihnon but I gambled that he’d be here at the palace tonight. Fortunately, he was.” “You--you serviced him?” “Yes.” She met his gaze. “He contracted with me three or four times. After that, we only saw each other in passing--social events and the like. We remained on friendly terms until the Guild relieved me of my duties.” Mal nodded, mulling this new tidbit over. “And he’s the one got us the audience?” “Yes.” “Huh.” “What?” she asked, weary. “No, nothin’. Just...couldn’t you just let ‘em torture me some more?” He was teasing; the glint in his eyes indicated as much. “It’s over,” she said softly. “That part of my life: it’s--” “I know.” He moved toward her, wincing at the stiffness in his joints. He inclined his head, pressing a kiss to the tip of her nose. “Just so long as he ain’t prettier ‘n me.” He kissed her again before she could wiggle away, was still kissing her when the knock sounded. Three brisk raps and a man entered, flanked by two guards what seemed to be the strapping sort. In a gesture that wasn’t exactly subtle, Mal maneuvered Inara behind him. “Micah,” she greeted. “Inara.” He nodded at her before turning to Mal. “Captain Reynolds.” From the next down he was pretty much what Mal expected. Rich and fancified in his peacock-blue robes and shiny gold sandals. From the neck up, he was somethin’ else altogether. His face was too, well, rugged for royalty, his hair a breadth too long, as though he was resisting a trimming on some moral grounds. Mal supposed he was what some women would term exotic--maybe of the same ethnic origins as Inara, though nowdays it was hard to be sure. He felt a twinge of jealousy, covered with an extra firm handshake that the other man echoed. “I hope your information is good, Captain.” Micah’s gaze fell on Inara, softened. “For her sake, I hope it’s damn good. Let’s go.” *** NEO-INDEPENDENT FACILITY, SIHNON  Gideon squeezed his hand into a fist, letting his fingernails bite into the fleshy heel.  If he concentrated on the pain—focused all his energy there—he could possibly keep from swaying.  “Commander?”  He fought back yet another wave of sweaty panic, and sucked in a long, slow breath through his nose.  His own distaste for the situation was immaterial, irrelevant. It had to be done.  They had to see.  “Yes, Corporal?”  “We’re about finished loading here.  Dr. Meyers would like a word with you regarding the cargo.”  “Of course.”  He unfolded his hand and examined the dark pink crescents marring the ivory.  “Dr. Meyers.”  “Call me Ana.”  She flashed a quick, all-business smile and shook his hand.  “Take a walk around the bay, Commander?”  “Gideon,” he corrected.  She smiled again, and he saw that her front teeth were just a little crooked.  She looked like Zoe when she smiled, those liquid-chocolate eyes going warm and just this side of soft. “Is it your belief that the cargo is secure for the duration of the trip?”  “Snug as babes in swaddling cloths.”    Gideon snorted.  “Baby raptors, perhaps.”  He eyed the row of cryo chambers with trepidation disguised as distrust.  It wouldn’t do to reveal his true fear.  Not in front of this Dr. Ana.  She had curls like Zoe—a whole mess of them and glazed in gold; Zoe’s were black as space.  “I’ve been working with them going on two years,” Ana told him.  “They’re trained to obey voice commands: no, yes, stop.  I’ve supplied your people with a list.”  “How do you—?”  “Behavioral conditioning.  That’s what you were going to ask, right?”  She beamed, tickled as a child showing off her new toy.  “We use a system of rewards and punishments.  Rewards are meat: goats, small cattle.  Punishment is administered in the form of electroshock therapy.  They learn at a fairly rapid rate.  After a year, we rarely have to resort to the shock treatment.”  Gideon had a sudden urge to shock Dr. Ana.  That would shut up her mouth—shut the smug mouth with its curling lips like Zoe’s. Whore’s mouth, like Inara’s. He’d apply the cattle prod to the small of her back and watch her slump forward on the floor of the bay.  When he lifted her up by the hair, he’d see Zoe’s face under all the curls.  “When you land, flip these switches to deactivate the stasis systems.  Then you can activate the unlock sequence from a secure distance.  As long as you’re within one hundred yards of the destination, you won’t have to lead them. Their sense of smell is amazingly well-honed,” she said breathily.  Gideon nodded.  “I recall that fact.”  His father had told him to be quiet, and he was.  He’d hid in that trunk like a doll, silent as a doll with its mouth sewed shut.  Even then they could smell his fear.  “Have you moved them in the past?”  “Twice,” Ana confirmed.  “A facility such as ours…not everyone understands the work we do.  I’m sure you know what I mean.  Gideon…I wish I were going with you.”  “You are in spirit,” he told her, and squeezed her hand extra hard when they shook. ***  SERENITY, PASSENGER DORMS, RIVER TAM’S ROOM She climbed atop his torso, stretching to cover his chest like a vest.  He didn’t say a word as her cheek came to rest in the hollow of his shoulder, knees locking around his hips. She tailored her breathing to compliment his, fitted her breasts into the hollow of his exhale.  “Soft,” River whispered.  “Ain’t soft,” Jayne growled.   She curled her fingers in his arm hair, pinching the wiry strands until he yelped.  She gasped when he grabbed either wrist in a firm hold, restraining them at her sides.  “Behave, else I’ll see fit to make you.”  Good for both—making believe he was stronger.  “I’ll be good,” she promised.   His hands stroked a lazy pattern over her back, bare in the places her dress dipped.  Maybe he was the strong one.    “Are you ready?” she asked.  He shrugged, the movement upsetting her rhythm.      “Don’t much matter if I’m ready or I ain’t.”  He scraped her hair back from her face and massaged her temples. “When Mal calls, we all come runnin’, bare-asses and guns blazin’….Ai ya, I wish we’d just go already.  Waitin’ around this way—it feels like a ruttin’ wake!”  The knock sounded before she could ask whose.    “Ching jin,” she called.  Jayne saw it was Simon and tried to nudge her off, but she held tight, refusing to budge.  She watched Simon’s pretty eyes---anger to annoyance to acceptance.  She smiled.  “Hi, Simon.”  Jayne lifted his head.  “Mal send the wave?”  “Not yet.  River…may I have a word?”  She rolled off Jayne and followed her brother into the hall.  “He’s squickified,” she sing-songed, and poked a finger into Simon’s belly.  “He’s not…I mean, I’m not…stop making up words. Brat,” he added, giving her ear an affectionate tug.  “Serious face,” she said softly, fashioning her own in a frown.  “I owe you an apology,” he said and made their eyes meet.  Just an expression.  She thought about actual eye contact—his blue with her brown, the irises melding to make hazel—and was a little squickified herself.  “What?” he teased, misreading her.  “Don’t think your big brother can make a mistake?”  “You don’t owe me anything, Simon.”  “River, listen,” he said, and he took her hand between his.  “I talked to Kaylee and…I just want you to know things are going to be different after.  When this is over, when we make it….”  When, not if.  Kaylee must be rubbing off on him…rubbing him off.  River smiled.  “…guess I had to get things straight in my own mind, River.  And I’m sorry it took me so long.  I really am sorry for that.”  She shook her head.  “Don’t apologize, Simon.”  “We’ll do whatever you want, River.  If you want to be a mother…or, if you don’t…either way, you can count on me. I’ll be here, now and always, dong ma?”      Oh.  Babies.  She didn’t want to think about them right now.  Instead, she studied her brother with his soft mouth, his scrunched-up forehead.  She could see the love in his eyes, bright as the blue.  “You’re happy I’m happy.”    He looked confused.  Then his mouth relaxed in a smile.  “I’m happy you’re happy,” he agreed.  “Just…don’t ask me to walk you down the aisle anytime in the near...ever.”  She rolled her eyes.  “Won’t,” she promised.  He smirked. “You know about protection, don’t you?”  “Simon!”  He burst out laughing. She squealed and closed the door firmly in his face.     Jayne sat on the bed, polishing his .38 with his tee shirt.  Blue Sun Brand Ice Cream:  So Cold It’s Hot.  He looked up at her.  “Big Brother all manner o’ squickified?”   She smiled.  She straddled his hips and took his face in her hands and kissed him, the snub-nosed pistol cradled like a baby between them.  He opened his eyes, and she saw into them.  Blue like Simon’s but not.  A cold, hard, fierce, beautiful blue.  A surprised blue.  “You wanna…now?”  She lay back on the bed, guiding him with her hands.  He settled in the valley between her thighs, and his thighs rubbed her thighs until her sundress was bunched at her waist, and her body felt warm and tight and wonderful, and her head felt light and airy and empty.  “Kiss me,” she whispered, and he did.  He kissed her everywhere—forehead, cheeks, neck, chest.  He kissed her eyelids and her chin and her belly and her breasts. He trailed kisses down her thighs, lifting one, shapely leg to tongue the underside of her knee, and she couldn’t help wishing her knee was her lips because that’s where she wanted *his* then. She wrapped him in her arms and squeezed, and he squeezed back, and soon their mouths were level, and he was *drinking* her. She could feel him through his pants, through the thin fabric of her underwear. Maybe she could feel him through the skin of her. She liked the undressing part almost, but not quite, as much as the other parts--liked the feel of his rough, work-worn fingers as they lifted her hips, dragged her underwear down slowly to bare her to him inch by inch. Stripped, she shivered and tingled, and reveled in the naked desire she read on his face. In an instant, she felt the strength of a hundred dripping swords, red with the blood of those that would see hurt what was hers. Power. Pleasure. Jayne. She bucked against him, and he lay a rough hand over her belly, and her belly quivered, and he held her to the bed, held her still. He lowered his lips to her breast, and she arched up into his mouth, filling him. His free hand closed over her free breast, and he cupped and molded and caressed. “Good fit,” he said, and their eyes met, and his were full and heavy, and for a second both could see and hear and know, and what they knew was truth. But she didn’t want to know so she closed her eyes and opened her thighs, and he thrust into her, sliding deeper and deeper until he pierced something that didn’t hurt but hurt a lot, and she dug her nose into his neck so he wouldn’t see her cry. “Girl? River, you--?” “Fine,” she told him. “I’m fine.” And she clung to his hot, hard chest and wished she could melt into him and be inside him. “Fine, fine, fine.” She chanted as he stroked, white-hot and throbbing. “Hell, girl. Better be more ‘n fine.” He gave one final thrust, and she shattered under the force of a hundred stabbing swords and a thousand princely kisses, and they saved eachother and were saved in turn. It hit her in the afterglow, when Jayne’s mouth was still wet on her chest, his penis still pulsing inside her. She felt the sharp teeth and the hot, hot breath, and she heard scream after sobbing scream. She felt it all and tried to stop him from feeling, but he was inside her--body and mind and places less tangible--and he felt it too and shuddered and rolled onto his side and was sick on the floor. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She chanted the words like his name while he wiped his mouth and dragged on his trousers. “Can we stop ‘em?” he asked, breathless. “Hush, girl.” He kissed her mouth, and his tasted sour from when he was sick. “Can we stop the Reavers? Can we rescue Nara and the cap’n?” She bit her lip hard enough to draw blood, tiny drops that she lapped up with her tongue. “I don’t know,” she whispered. *** LOTUS PALACE, EMPEROR CHOU’S PRIVATE QUARTERS Micah waited till Mal and Inara were seated before beginning the introductions. “Inara Serra, Captain Reynolds. This is my father, His Majesty Emperor Chou.” Chou leaned back in his chair, regarding the newcomers over the cherrywood expanse of his desk. He was older than Mal expected, seventy maybehaps, with graying hair and features more delicate than those of his son. Mal glanced at Inara, wondering if she too was surprised at the old man’s apparent vulnerability. But her dark eyes were solemn, expressionless. He realized she’d likely seen the emperor before, maybe even met him a time or two. He felt a rush of admiration for her, for the grace and poise she projected when inside she was most like feeling as panicky as his own self. “Micah, you know these individuals?” Chou asked at length, one bejeweled hand stroking the smooth surface of the cherry. From his station against the wall, Micah folded his arms over his chest. “Ms. Serra is a former Companion of House Madrassa. She and I knew each other some time ago. Before tonight, I’d never met Captain Reynolds.” “And in what context were you and Miss Serra acquainted, my son?” “A personal one,” Micah said cooly. His eyes slid over Inara before coming to rest on his father once again. “I don’t know why she and Captain Reynolds came here tonight, but the least I can do is give her the chance to explain. In truth, I owe Miss Serra a debt of gratitude.” “Oh?” Chou lifted a brow. “And why is that?” “At the risk of sounding repetitive, father, the answer is also personal.” “I see. Captain Reynolds?” Mal looked up, somewhat distrated by the turn of topic. “Yes, sir?” “You understand I do not appreciate having my home invaded in such a manner. This day is an important one to myself and my family, and your presence here has taken me from my responsibilities as host.” “I understand that, sir. Trouble is, you’re not the easiest man to reach. Saw an opening in the Ball, and I took it.” “From what I’ve heard of your exploits, Captain, it would not be the first time you put your own interests above those of the general public.” Inara sucked in a breath. Mal lay a hand on her thigh, shook his head ‘no.’ “Never claimed to be a hero, sir. Ain’t nothin’ but a man tryin’ to protect me and mine from those would cut us down. Course I happen to believe what’s best for me and mine and what’s best for the public do in fact coincide. If you’re referring to the Miranda message, as I ‘spect you are, then I stand by my actions. People needed to hear that woman’s words. They needed to see for themselves just how capable Alliance really is.” “And the museum in Capital City? Is it also your belief that those children had to die?” “No, Your Majesty.” His throat felt tight. “It really isn’t.” “I don’t appreciate you coming here, Captain. But as a favor to my son, I will hear what you have to say. If I determine your information is of no use, I will immediately turn you over to the Sihonese authorities, dong ma?” “I understand.” “And we’d be trading for…?”  “Intelligence.  Was sent to me by one would rather see things done a different way.  The intel coming to me was a sure sign things worked out as he feared, for him at least.”    “This intel, Captain.  What form does it take?”  “It’s a list.  Dates and places.  Everywhere Neo-Independent leader Amos Kane will be for the next three months.”  “And you can procure this list?” Chou asked.  “It’s been destroyed.  Both hard copy and electronic records.”  “You’ve committed the contents to memory,” Chou murmured, faintly impressed.  “Just me.  No one else on my crew’s even seen the document.”  “We could always resume the torture…”   “And I can lie like a dog.  You wanna roll the dice?”  “If we agree to your requests…you’ll turn over this information, Captain?”  “I will,” Mal agreed.  “For a price.”  Mal met the elder man’s shrewd gaze.  “It’s my belief that Amos Kane needs stopping, sir.  But there’s conditions.  Alliance been troubling me and mine for some time now.  I want it over.”  “You've upset a great many men, son.  Powerful men."  “Always did seem to excel at that.”  “I fear any bargain we reach here tonight would not be good for you, Captain Reynolds.”  “That's not acceptable,” Inara snapped.  “Inara,” Mal murmured.  He met her eyes, and she saw in his a plea. *Don’t make a fuss.  Don’t make this harder.* “And the others?" he asked.  “This deal hinges on your crew remaining in Sihnon City until Kane is successfully apprehended.  At the time of his capture, Miss Serra and the others will be released.      “And Mal?” Inara murmured.  Chou looked away.  “He’ll be brought up on charges,” Micah said quietly.  “Treason against his government, conspiracy to commit murder, inciting public rebellion.  He may receive a mitigated sentence in light of his cooperation.  Even then, the best he can hope for is twenty-five years to life in an Alliance prison.”   She looked at Mal, and he didn’t flinch.  He knew.  He knew this was a probably outcome.  *Damn you, Mal.  Damn you for sacrificing yourself and for thinking I’d go along with it.*  “Find another way.”  “Inara, be reasonable,” Micah began.  “You can’t expect—”  Chou cut him off with a wave of his hand.  “I'm not a humble man, Miss Serra.  But even I haven't sway to save the notorious Malcom Reynolds.”  *** The lumbering old transport hovered in mid air momentarily before setting down with a soft hiss on the palace lawn. Gideon gave no orders as the crew efficiently carried out its duties.   “Stasis system shut down.  Cargo should be coming ‘round.”  “Thank you, sergeant.” Gideon keyed his radio to the unit-wide channel. “Special Delivery’s on the ground. Package will arrive momentarily. Skinwalker-6, start coordinating with Tax Collector.  Locate any targets not in the main ballroom.”  He turned quickly to hide the shiver. “Reavers can take out those on the floor.”  Through the portal, Gideon watched his cargo stir in the isolation chambers.  Soon all were free, snarling and stalking, pounding at the door of the cargo bay.    It took him two attempts before his hand was steady enough to flip the switch that released the door locks.  Unblinking, he watched the blur race toward the gleaming white walls of the centuries-old palace, tearing up the lawn in their frenzy to feel flesh. Even from his post on the flight deck, he could hear their screams.  He thought he saw Mal’s face reflected in the glass, grimacing at Gideon in blatant disappointment.  As though Gideon were a naughty child and Mal the weary father, waiting in the background to dispense punishment.  *You should have stood beside me, Mal.  I was strong.  You were weak.  You failed to do that which had to be—* “Commander Gideon....” The sergeant tugged purposely at his sleeve.  “Please confirm, sir. Your target is Emperor Chou. He has left the ballroom and is on third floor, section twelve.”  “Roger that, Sihonese Emperor, plus incidentals. Third floor, section twelve.” Gideon read back. “Got a room number?”  “Negative, Commander.  But the throng of guards outfitted in red oughta be a good clue.”  ***  “One other addendum, Emperor.” Mal raised a hand.  “There’s two children.  Babies.  A DNA test will prove they’re mine, but some folk over at Blue Sun believe otherwise.”  Chou winced.  “I’ve little use for Blue Sun, or its many subsidiaries.”  “Well, I’m with you there.  Mind if I ask after your beef with Blue Sun?” Chou glanced at Micah. “Blue Sun is an evil, evil corporation, Captain.” “Don’t much disagree on that note.  Could you maybehaps be more specific?”  “It’s a private matter.” “We’re on the verge of avenging Chloe, Father.” Micah cast his gaze toward the window. “They might as well know the why.” “Fair enough,” Chou agreed.  “Years ago, my son was enamored with a girl. A blond-haired, freckle-faced young lady—extraordinarily bright.  She was sixteen. Micah was nearly eighteen, and his mother and I preferred that he focus his attention on his schooling.  Also—I’m ashamed to admit to such snobbery—the young woman’s rather humble background rendered her an ill-suited match for a prince.    “I became aware of a program—an academy of sorts, one for extremely gifted children.  I wrote a glowing letter recommending the girl.  The director contacted me at once, said they typically preferred younger students, but would of course honor any request of the Sihonese emperor.  So she left for Osiris.  Micah didn’t speak to me for three weeks.”  Father and son exchanged pregnant glances. Mal looked away.  “She didn’t come back, did she….”  The emperor snorted.  “She came back.  Before she left, she was enrolled in college courses at the University.  She returned to Sihnon with the average IQ of a seven year old.  They said she’d had an accident.  Her name was Chloe.”  Beside him, Inara visibly stiffened. “Micah, you never told me it was--” “Ta ma duh hwoon dan,” Mal swore, his mind on another little girl.  “Yes.” The emperor gave a nod, eyes glinting with irony.  “Sometime later, I learned of the academy’s affiliation with one Blue Sun Brigade.  Naturally, I tried to have the organization shut down.  My request was declined, politely of course, by the heads of Parliament.  It would seem Blue Sun has hands in many pies.”  “That’s truer than you know.  Still, I need your word those kids’ll be left alone. Without them, deal’s off.”  “I give you my word, Captain Reynolds.  I’ll see your children protected.”  Mal nodded.   “Well, shiny.  So what happens now?”  “You’ll be kept under guard for the remainder of the evening.  In the morning, we’ll transfer you to a holding facility.”  “Can I swing by the buffet table one more time?” “I have some contacts in the legal arena,” Micah offered, as though Mal hadn’t spoken. “I’ll make sure he’s assigned competent counsel.” “And Inara?”  Mal slid his gaze to Micah.  “You’ll watch out for her?”  “Mal,” she whispered, her eyelashes pressing in panic.  “Don’t—”  “I will,” Micah said quietly.  “I failed Chloe. I won’t fail Inara. Or you. Now, we should probably—”  “Emperor Chou!”  Three quick knocks, and the head of the Imperial Guardsmen burst through the door, flanked by two lesser officers.  “I’m sorry, Your Highness.  It’s imperative I see you at once.”  “This is a private meeting, Major.  Perhaps I can—”  “Forgive me, Your Majesty.  This can’t wait.”  “I see.”  Chou motioned to the other guards.  “Please escort Captain Reynolds and Miss Serra to separate rooms.”  “Father…I’ll take Miss Serra myself.”    Chou nodded his acquiescence, and Mal rose offering his hands for the guard to cuff.  Micah took Inara’s arm and started leading her toward the door while Chou and the leader of the Guard conversed in whispers.  “—air defense system….off-line…unidentified vessel landed on the main lawn….”  “Mal, no.  Please, wait.”  Inara struggled to break free of Micah’s hold on her forearm.  The prince looked to Mal for support.  “Inara.  It’s okay, dong ma?”  Mal tried to catch her eye.  “You gotta be strong now.  Listen to me, darlin’.  You gotta be—”  The scream cut through Inara’s protests, Micah’s entreaties and his own halfhearted assurances.  It rose above the din of conversation and the soothing lull of the orchestra until it filled their ears and the air, and it was all anyone could hear.  “What in Buddha’s name was that?” Chou demanded.   The leader of the Imperial Guard looked terrified.  “I think they’re Reavers, Your Highness.” *** LOTUS PALACE, AIR DEFENSE COMMAND CENTER Alarms sang out, piercing the quiet of the Command Center.   “Ta ma duh! We have inbound again!”  The mission leader shrugged, stacking his feet up on the console.  “What do we care?”  “Uh... I think it’s Serenity, sir.”  “Xing jiao dai yi tai da zhuang ji he er shi ying chi bei bu yong you zhi tu dizai jiu ba de wo! Get the defenses back online NOW.” “I can't! Our viruses were designed to take the system *off-line* and keep it there.”  “I don't ruttin’ care! Serenity’s Malcom Reynolds's ship. If he lands, this plan is well and truly screwed. Now I want you to put him down and put him down *hard*!”  The commando typed furiously, while the icon for Serenity ticked ever closer to the Palace.  “I have partial control!” the mission leader announced. *** SERENITY, SOMEWHERE OVER SIHNON CITY River slammed the throttles wide open, and the constant thrum of Serenity's air-breathing engines became a deep, base roar.  “Nothing personal, honey.”  Zoe reached down to give the girl’s shoulder a squeeze.  “But I kinda wish my husband was sitting in that chair steada you.''  “Yeah, Zo,” River said in a voice not her own.  “He wishes he was sitting here, too.”  Before Zoe could respond, the moment had passed.   “Imperial Palace, coming up fast,” River warned.  “Nothing on the threat detectors... just normal air-traffic stuff.” Zoe glanced frantically across the screens. The deedle-deedle-deedle tone of the warning system broke the tense silence of the cockpit. “Search radar!” She keyed the shipwide ‘com system. “We're being painted. Everybody strap in.”  Zoe had no illusions about her ability to fly this thing, never did have the desire to try.  But she’d watched her man enough times.  She knew that, while Serenity may be fast in space, where all it took was a half-decent stardrive and a favorable power-to-weight ratio, things were a good bit different in atmo. Sleek as she looked, Serenity was only slightly more aerodynamic than a brick. Without wings, all her maneuverability came from the same air-breathing engines that gave her speed. That very fact gave her phenomenal pitch, roll, and yaw, if the pilot was worth his weight.  Or hers.  “Height finder,'' Zoe announced, her voice unwavering. “They're targeting us.” Red lines appeared on the threat direction indicator, pinpointing the location of the various hostile radars.  “Walk me through this?” River murmured.  Zoe gaped.  “Um, River…who you talkin’ to?”  “Less talking would be preferable.”  River reached back and flipped a series of three switches, ones of which she’d had Kaylee install especially for her. The buttons bypassed the normal avionics control and gave her differential control of the engines.  “SAM's in the air,” Zoe muttered. “One, two...” “Only two?” That cadence in River’s tone…if Zoe didn’t no better she’d think it sounded an awful lot like-- “Not feeling the love.”  “That's four,” Zoe countered. “Happy now?”  “Yes.'' River rolled Serenity onto her side and banked hard around the first missile, then reversed her turn to slip around the second. She let the bank slide out and dove under the last two missiles.  “Ground’s comin’ up awful fast....”  “Nag, nag, nag.” River righted the ship and rotated the engines forward, sending Serenity into a steep dive.  “Great flying, honey.” Zoe struggled to right the contents of her stomach. “We're slowing down.” “Not good,'' River argued. “Before, we were a fast target. Now we're a slow target.”  Jagged lines of tracer fire sped through the sky. Kaylee’s voice sounded over the ‘com.  “We're hit!”   “Just some ground fire, we're still shiny.” The ship began to shudder as more and more of the guns drew a bead on them. “That was the NAVSAT transceiver... Hull breech in the cargo bay….Breech in the stardrive section...”  *Wash.  Oh, baby, I wish you were here.*  “Me too, baby,” River said, and Zoe turned to look at her sharply.  “Me too.”  *** Mal whirled on the emperor, one hand clamping firmly over Inara’s wrist.  He was bruising the bone, but just then he scarcely noticed.  “You got a vault?” he demanded.  “Someplace solid with doors that lock?  You gotta give the order now.  Get everyone outta the ballroom.  Elsewise your shiny shindig’s bound to turn into an all-you-can-eat Reaver banquet.”  Chou’s eyes widened.  “This is madness.”  “What’s a matter, Highness?” Mal fairly growled.  “Don’t believe in Reavers?  Think they’re just campfire stories?  Stuff of tales and nightmare?”  “I’m not a fool, Captain Reynolds.  I know these men exist.  But to encounter them here, on a Core world…I was assured they’d never venture this far.”  “So much for Alliance assurances.  Now what about that vault?”  “Your Majesty?” One of the Imperial Guardsmen burst through the door, chest heaving in exertion.  “Looks like we have another ship entering Palace airspace….It could be more of them.”  Micah swore in colorful Mandarin.  “Do you have visual?” the prince snapped. “We read it as an later-model Firefly...aught three.”  “No,” Mal said hoarsely.  He released Inara long enough to grab the guard by the lapels of his fancy suit.  “Tell them not to land.  Ai ya, you tell ‘em now!”  “We can’t get to the Command Center,” the guard stuttered.  “Whole lower level’s on lockdown.  Imperial’s fleet’s been landlocked as well.”  Chou looked stricken.  “We can monitor the Firefly from here.”  Micah rounded his father’s desk, pressed a sequence of keys to trigger a plasma screen.  “This should bring up the air traffic control screens.”  “Prince Micah.  Emperor Chou.  You have to evacuate the Palace immediately. The Guardsmen will take care of your family, but we need to get you out now.”  “On foot?” Mal scoffed.  “That’d be suicide.”  “He’s right,” Micah said, pointing to a second screen that monitored the perimeter around the palace.  “They have us surrounded.  Ta ma duh!”  “Dear God, they’re firing!” Chou whispered. The others turned to gape at the screen.  “They’re firing on your ship, Captain.”  “Your Highness, I’ve just received confirmation that Representatives Kenton and Liou have been assassinated.” “Assassinated?!  By whom?”  “Strike teams.  They hit Kenton in the ladies’ room, Liou just off the verandah…”  The Guardsmen cocked his head, listening to his ear set for a moment.  “General Trey’s been hit too, no word on whether or not it’s fatal.”  “Dear God.”  The emperor turned blazing eyes on Mal.  “Did you know about this?  Did you know what those lunatics were planning?”  Mal’s voice was a low growl.  “You think I’d have brought my people anywhere near this if I’d known?  More I see into this, more I think Kane’s the only one with the big picture.  Rest of us never saw more than he wanted.”  On the emperor’s private security monitor, Malcom Reynolds watched his little ship weave sinuously through the Palace’s grid.  Was a damn sweet sight, too. Mal knew of just two people could fly like that, and one of them was dead.  “They're gonna make it,” he whispered.  “Just watch, they’re gonna—”  Yellow flashes of light, unaccompanied by any other groundfire told Mal that the air-to-ground lasers had opened up.  Invisible shafts of energy reached up to caress his ship.  Every yellow flash signaled where one of the deadly beams touched his ship, burning hideous black scars over her hull. Green lights joined the yellow, carving away bits of her body as Serenity fell through the sky. He actually watched the amethyst beam cut across the sky. If he could see the laser with the naked eye…he didn't even want to think on how powerful it was.  He felt a wave of nausea, clammy fingers stealing up his spine.  His vision dulled to two white points, and he swayed violently, struggling to stay upright.  “No, no, no,” he murmured.    He wasn’t aware he’d said spoken the words aloud until Inara squeezed his hand. He felt her fingernails embed deep in his palm, and he latched onto her hand, clutching to the pain that was real and physical as opposed to the other kind.  Serenity was less than a klick away when the fate she’d escaped so many times before finally came calling, came to demand her due.  The purple beam slashed across the main hull, cleaving the ship in two.  Her conical aft section fell away while the forward portion continued to descend. Without the tapering tail, her aerodynamics were shot all to hell. She wouldn't even be able to hover proper, what with her center of mass all mucked. Even if she could put down soft, she wouldn't fly again; she was through.  Mal watched Serenity—his baby, his first love, his savior—fall down to earth, guided by the sure hand his albatross, and probably bucked up by Lil' Kaylee.  She made her final approach on one of the upper landing pads, her tail end all aflame.  *** END PART 1

COMMENTS

Wednesday, June 28, 2006 3:53 PM

JYNNANTONNYX


O.O

you've taken all words from me

Wednesday, June 28, 2006 5:56 PM

SQUISH


OMFG! That was beyond excellent! Very thrilling at the end and amazing plot twists! But I'm worried that you're going to kill them all! Or at least some of them *wibble*.

There is so much of this that I loved that I won't even be able to touch on half of it, but first: the conversation between Zoe and Inara was just wonderful, they understand one another so well; then I loved Mal's thoughts about how he'd first thought about Inara, it took me right back to the series; and Jayne and River, I have to say that so far you're the only writer who has made me really believe in that pairing and you do a wonderful job with it; and finally River channeling Wash, just so perfect that he would be there with them.

I'm scared to death what will happen next, but I'll be patiently waiting to read (well, okay, not patiently, but...) *g*

Thursday, June 29, 2006 2:04 AM

AMDOBELL


Oh My God, I can't believe you destroyed Serenity! I am hoping and praying like gorram crazy that they got off in the other shuttle, using the pitch and decline of the ship to draw fire away from their little escape plan but in fanfic you never know what will happen. I want something bad, deadly, painful and eternally traumatic to happen to Gideon. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Thursday, June 29, 2006 4:34 AM

GOLDY


That was me above, by the way. Forgot to log in. Sigh.

Thursday, June 29, 2006 5:01 AM

LEIASKY


Why do I get the feeling some of our BDH's aren't going to make it out alive?

Don't keep us waiting to long for the next part!

Thursday, June 29, 2006 5:07 AM

LEIGHKOHL


It's getting ominous around here....and yes I think we may lose a few in the upcoming installment...Can't wait for your next post!

Saturday, July 1, 2006 5:31 PM

RMMC


Aiiieee...meep.*whimper* You...you...you...KILLED her, gorrammit!

WHAAA! Fix the boat! NOW!!! *grumble*

*grumble**whimper*

And kill that bloody Gideon while you're at it. Make him Reaver chow.

*grumble**grumble*

*sob*

Saturday, July 1, 2006 8:45 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


No...no...nooooooo! You can't destroy Serenity! It goes against all things good and special! There had better be a payoff in the end, with the crew finding a new '03 Firefly to christen "Serenity" after the required uberbattle against the Reavers and Neo-Independent strike teams...or I know there will be at least one BC who'll be mighty pissed:(

Still...this chapter was undescribably beautiful in so many ways, Kaynara! The heart-to-heart between Inara and Zoe was something a lot of fans wanted to see come about: two of the most important women in Mal's life bonding and helping each other understand the man behind the legend of Malcolm Reynolds. Oh...and the final description of Mal watching Serenity weave through the re-activated defenses? I think you chanelled Joss there, cuz it was spectacular!

BEB


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