Chapter 17. A kind of poetry to it.

by Kispexi2

[Story Headers]

Disclaimer: These characters, the plot and all the shiny came from Joss Whedon.

SPOILERS for "Heart of Gold."

WARNING - this chapter is Rated _NC-17_ and contains masturbation and heterosexual intercourse as well as some half-hearted and short -lived bondage.

Thanks to my newly acquired and scrupulously nitpicking beta-editor Wedjat and to DarkEmerald for convincing me the sex scene was the remotest bit sexy!

Chapter 17: A kind of poetry to it.

The recording is a patchwork of inexpertly recorded second- or third-hand waves but its content is clear enough. With the sound turned way down low, Saffron plays it through again, checking she's got every last detail right.

The first voice is that of a Federal Agent. "Thank you very much, Mister Niska. You have been most helpful. We will feed your December coordinates into our databank and expand the search from there. Fortunately we have several waystations in the Georgia system that will have picked up their trajectory, even if the ID they're flying under is an assumed one."

A sweet-faced little old man with wire-rimmed spectacles nods. "Is pleasure. Our agreement is solid, no?"

"Absolutely, Mister Niska. Our targets are the girl and her brother. The Alliance is more than happy for you to take, uh -," There's a pause whilst he flips through some papers - "Malcolm Reynolds, once we have them in custody."

"Is good."

There's a crackle and the recording loses video. "They're heading for Saint Albans."

"Good a place as any. Get that hundan Reynolds on screen. Wanna make sure that crate's still intact. I'm getting those gorram organs back if I have to kill everyone on board that junker Firefly in the process."

Saffron tucks the piece of paper onto which she's transcribed the salient information inside her shirt and smiles to herself. Malcolm Reynolds may be too full of self-righteous crap to turn that pretty boy and his moon-brained sister in for the reward on their heads, but Saffron sure as hell isn't. She casts a quick glance at the naked man sprawled out on the bed. Black skin over tight muscles sure is pleasing to look on. He's as streamlined and dangerous as this ship of his. Normally she'd rob a man after lying with him - or before if he was as dumb as Malcolm Reynolds - but she decides against it on this occasion. Took forever for the Goodnight Kiss to take effect on him after he finally allowed her to kiss him on the mouth - and even now she's not sure how deep under he is. After the unseemly uses he put her body to earlier, she doesn't want him coming after her with all kinds of hurt on his mind.

To be on the safe side, she reroutes his fuel line before creeping out into the early morning light.

In Simon's fantasy all Mal needs to be cured is to know that Simon cares for him. He's every bit as passionately intense as Simon's always imagined him, but love has made him whole again and it's not pain he wants to make his medic cry out from. Simon's hand moves faster, his back arches, he breath catches, he shudders and stills - the moan in his throat a half-formed name. Wetness seeps between his fingers and squeezes out from under his eyelids and now he feels pathetic, weak. He wishes he didn't feel the need to do this - or rather, he wishes he was strong enough to resist the need. Because it doesn't help. His ability to conjure the face he wants to see is frustratingly unreliable and each lonely climax leaves him emptier than before.

His door slides open, banging loudly into the endstop and making him jump. He snatches at the bedclothes in a frantic attempt to cover himself. It's River - head tilted to one side and a knowing look on her face. She sighs and rolls her eyes. "You know, it isn't altogether wise ..." she begins, horribly lucid and bratty-little-sisterly. "Not if you're going to leave your door open."

Simon sits up, arranging the blankets carefully to preserve what's left of his modesty. "I'm sure I've heard that said," he replies wearily, remembering one of several humiliating experiences at school and the man-to-man chat with his headmaster that followed. "Did you want something?"

Her eyebrows knit together in confusion and her eyes cloud over as she slips away from him again. "How ugly men can be ..."

Is she judging him? Is she appalled he can't control himself better? She was so young when they took her away - who knows whether they let her develop normally. "River ..." he begins, wanting to explain, "It's perfectly natural. Healthy, even. Men of my ..."

Her head snaps round. "Should have fought!" she spits angrily. "Stupid bitch!" And then just as quickly as it came, her anger goes. She sinks onto the bed beside him, deflated. All Simon can do is put an arm around her and listen to her quiet sobs. He promises himself get back to trying to find a cure for her just as soon as she calms down.

Mal ain't no different from other men. It's not like he never thinks on it. Jus' tries gorram hard not to an' directs his energies elsewhere. Which is why this morning he's polishin' his weaponry with a vigour that'd impress even Jayne. 'Course it would be Inara that catches him.

Woman's even got the gall to tell him he's doin' it wrong. Leans over him an' rearranges his tackle, saying "Every well-bred petty crook knows the small concealable guns always go to the far left of the place setting."

Mal grunts. Guess if anyone knows the right place for a fella's pistol it'd be Inara. An' she needn't think he di'n't notice the way she slipped 'petty' into that comment. He ain't no ....

"Got a distress call coming in," Wash announces as he pokes his head into the room. "Folks asking for help."

Mal gives Inara a superior smile. "Really? Folks askin' for help? From us petty crooks?"

Wash's eyes dart from the Captain to the Companion and back again as he tries to work out what the hell's going on between the two of 'em. "Well ..."

"Maybe I should take that right away," Mal says with a touch of swagger, grinnin' at Inara.

"Well," Wash says again, more carefully this time, "It's for her."


"They didn't ask for you, Mal," the pilot explains. "Call's for Inara."

Mal is dumbfounded, Inara quietly triumphant. "I'll take it in my shuttle."

"This distress call wou'n't be takin' place in someone's pants, would it?" he tosses after her.

The look she gives him hovers somewhere between distaste and pity.

He stares at the table. Weaponry looks kinda lifeless. He snatches up a large gun and cocks it with a flourish. "Bwaah!" he growls, really wantin' to put lead into someone right now.

It's uncanny. No, it's more than that - it's like it means something beyond what's on the screen in front of him. As if their being on this ship was meant to be. Simon gives himself a mental shake. That's absurd! He doesn't believe in fate. He's a scientist, gorramit! This is all just coincidence, poetical coincidence maybe, but coincidence nonetheless.

He realizes he's begun pacing the floor, adrift on a sea of random thoughts and feelings. He needs to focus, touch something concrete, real. Automatically he reaches into a drawer for a handful of surgical instruments. Scalpels and retractors can never be too clean. Simon sets the autoclave and its familiar low whirr is soothing. He sits down in front of the screen again and studies the neat table of three column he's drawn up: Symptoms, River, Mal. There's nothing neat or tidy about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in real life, but filing its manifestations into boxes on a computer screen gives Simon some sense of control. He leans forward, resting his chin on his hand and his elbow on the counter top to review his data.

#1 - SLEEP DISORDERS. River: Check. Her wakefulness often disrupts Simon's sleep. Mal: Check. The Captain doesn't appear to need much sleep. He's almost always the last one of Serenity's crew to head for his bunk at night and in the mornings he's usually finished breakfast by the time the others start stumbling bleary-eyed and yawning into the kitchen. Simon's fairly sure he's heard him prowling the ship during the small hours on occasion too. On nights when things have gone badly. Or when they've gone too well.

#2 - APPETITE CHANGE. River: Maybe. She was never a big eater. Always fussy, picky. She doesn't like the standard fare on Serenity of reconstituted protein and claims she can see things in it, smell things. Mal: Maybe. There doesn't seem to be much wrong with the Captain's appetite but Simon hasn't known him long which means he has no idea whether Mal eats more or less than he used to.

#3 - IRRITABILITY. Mal: Check. Grouchy, bad-tempered, mean, that's the Captain. Although he can also be funny, considerate and kind ... but Irritable? Yes. River: Check. The memory of her slashing Jayne with a butcher's knife isn't going to fade from Simon's memory any time soon. And he's constantly on edge when she comes into the infirmary, given her propensity for flinging carefully arranged medical supplies around the room.

#4 - ANGER. River: Check. She doesn't confine her outbursts to the hurling about of objects - her repertoire now includes cussing. And the things she says! Even Jayne raises an eyebrow at some of her more colourful oaths. But it's the venom underlying them that makes Simon's blood run cold. Mal: Check. There's a lot of anger in the Captain. Simon knows that better than most.

#5 - DEPRESSION. River: Maybe. She cries more readily than before and about odd things too - like apple pieces and ghosts and a child's lost voice. Does that mean she's depressed? Or simply sad? She still dances, still laughs. Mal: the checkbox is empty. Simon wouldn't say the Captain is depressed. According to his medical encyclopaedia, the depressed patient is less active than the norm. Mal, if anything, is more active than most people - never content to sit, he always has to be doing something. Or planning something. As for the other symptoms - unhappiness, guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts - well, Simon would need to be as empathic as his sister to even make a guess at whether Mal suffers from any of those.

#6 - EXCESS AROUSAL. Mal: Check. See above. River: Check. She wakes suddenly, instantly alert. Her hearing has become more acute, Simon's sure, and her vision too. She sees and hears things she really shouldn't be able to. And her reactions to them can be extreme.

#7 - EMOTIONAL DETACHMENT. The pricking behind his eyes when he came to this question surprised Simon. They used to be so close, he and River, but now she seems constantly just out of reach. Sometimes she looks right through him, as if he doesn't exist for her any more. Regretfully he had to check the box for River. Mal: Simon eventually went for a Maybe. Anything short of Mal kissing the life out of him feels like indifference to Simon, so he might well have ticked the box. But Mal's love for Kaylee is openly and warmly expressed. His bond with Zoe is as solid as the walls that surround them. He even has warm enough relations with Wash and Jayne and the Preacher. It's only Inara and Simon he repeatedly keeps pushing away.

#9 - OVERLY PROTECTIVE. Mal: Maybe. Because Simon's criteria are not the same as Mal's. He thinks the way the man puts himself at risk to prevent harm coming to his people could well be considered overprotective. On the other hand, it might be standard Captainly procedure. River: Maybe. She was always vaguely maternal towards Simon, as if she were the elder sibling. She adores Kaylee and will round angrily on anyone who upsets the mechanic, Simon included. And there's her concern for Mal. He can't crawl, Simon. A new theory suggests itself. It could be River wants to protect other people because she couldn't protect herself ...

#10 - NIGHTMARES/FLASHBACKS. River: Check. Oh God, the nightmares River has! Sometimes Simon has to resort to smoothers to stop her screaming from waking the entire ship. Scarier still are the times when she loses touch with reality during waking hours, when her eyes take on that far away look and her mouth starts to contort with fear. Trying to imagine what she's seeing is too painful ... Mal: Maybe. He doesn't sleep much. See #1. The reason might be that he's afraid of falling asleep, afraid of what will fill his head when he's not in control of his thoughts anymore.

#11 - AVOIDANCE. River: Check. For some things at least. She doesn't like the infirmary and has become unduly anxious at the sight of needles. Although after seeing the scan of her brain, Simon's hardly surprised. She has every reason to avoid them. Even so, he thinks that still counts as avoidance. Mal: Simon eventually decided to check the box. Initially he thought the Captain's problem was more one of throwing himself into dangerous situations rather than avoiding them. But then Mal's need to keep Inara at arm's length came to mind. Despite having feelings for her, Mal won't let Inara get close ... As Simon looks at the screen he remembers having been pulled close then pushed away himself and a hot flash of something like excitement - hope- goes through him. He reasons it quickly away.

The autoclave clicks onto the next stage of its cycle and falls silent. Gradually Simon becomes aware that he's not alone. There's someone standing just behind him. Is it to late to clear the screen? Oh shit ... please don't let it be Mal.

"Mmm," Book murmurs, taking a closer look. "Could be a touch of survivor guilt too."

"My sister has done nothing to feel guilty about!" Simon declares hotly.

"Never meant to imply she had,"the Shepherd replies. "Just pointing out that some people find it easier to feel guilty about a bad situation rather than admit they were powerless to do anything about it."

Simon searches the older man's face. "Are you talking about my sister? Or the Captain?"

"Talking about all of us." They turn to see River, poised on the threshhold, all solemn eyes and sad mouth.

Mal likes her voice. Got a calm to it, despite the story she's tellin' Inara. A strength too.

"Ain't barely more'n a child her own self," the woman is sayin'. "But she wants this baby. Trouble is, Rance Burgess - him as owns this moon an' most of the folk on it - wants it too. Plannin' to cut it out of her if he has to - or so he says."

Mal hears Inara gasp."He wouldn't ... surely?"

There's a bitter laugh. "Wou'n't put anythin' past Rance Burgess. Man's a monster. Now, I ain't afraid of facin' down one man - even a monster - but he got followers, sorry excuses for men, jus' longin' for a chance to earn his favour. Me an' the girls ... well, I knew there wa'n't no way we were gonna win a fight against a gang of armed men .... but then I got word you were in the area ... I'm imposin', but I got no-one else to ask ..."

It's all Mal can do not to burst into Inara's shuttle an' answer for her. Will they help this woman an' that poor pregnant kid? Damn straight they will! He grinds his teeth with rage at the notion of a man stealin' a woman's child - her future - away from her. Ain't no way he's gonna stand by an' let that happen, whatever 'Nara says next.

"It sounds like something this crew can handle. I can't guarantee they'll handle it particularly well ..."

"If they got guns an' brains at all ..."

"They've got guns."

Mal'd bridle at that if he weren't already plannin' ways of dealin' with the monstrous Rance Burgess. Plenty of time to worry about Inara insultin' his intelligence after he's explained a few things to that ruttin' hundan. One thing at a time. That way there ain't no complications.

"I suppose you heard all that," Inara accuses him without bothering to look round.

Gorramit - how'd she know he was listenin'? "Only because I was eavesdroppin'," he admits lightly, before turnin' deadly serious. "Your friend sounds like she's in a peck o' trouble."

"She is," Inara replies, equally serious.

Mal's already decided he's gonna do what he can to help. Don't really need to discuss these folks' status as whores nor how they're gonna pay for his services. In fact, he ain't at all comfortable the way them points somehow got into the same sentence. "Won't be needin' no payment," he tells Inara, when she offers him her own money.

"Mal. Thank you. I'll contact Nandi at once." There's gratitude in her tone an' it's all he wants. But even that little gets snatched away. "But you will be paid. I feel it's important we keep ours a strictly business relationship." She turns away so he doesn't see the pain saying that and meaning it causes her.

Mal blinks. He wa'n't gonna ask for more than they have, for more than the notion she got some regard for him. "I'll speak to the crew," he tells her. Strictly business-like.

"All I'm saying," Gaunt says, snapping on a fresh pair of latex blue gloves, "Is that wet-work missions are so much simpler."

"But less challenging. And ultimately less satisfying. Anyone can bring a target in dead. Retrieving them alive and functional - that takes skill."

"There are seven other people on that Firefly."

"Seven - seventy - it doesn't matter. None of the others are of any consequence."

Mal runs into Simon at almost the exact spot in the corridor where a couple of months ago the Captain pushed his medic up against the wall and kissed him. Which means his "Ah, Doc - jus' the man I was lookin' for" don't come out quite as breezy as he'da liked an' instead has both of them wishing they were someplace else. But since they're here, Simon concentrates on looking doctorly and Mal reciprocates by acting Captain-like.

"Wanted to have a private chat 'bout the job 'fore speakin' to the others," he says, carefully keepin' his distance. "Friend of Inara's - well, she runs a whore-house, ain't no other way of puttin' it. {i]Apparently*. One of her girl's is pregnant an' the father reckons he's got more of a claim to the baby than she has. Gorram wangba dan's plannin' to ride in an' take the child from her. Them of the crew as wants to is gonna stop him."

"Of course," Simon agrees readily. "Not that I'm much good with a gun ..."

Mal laughs and slaps the boy's shoulder before recallin' his No Touchin' policy's there for a reason. "Ahem. No, Doc, I di'n't mean that. Not that I'm not grateful for the offer. Want you to bring your doctorin' kit - if you're agreeable. Make sure mother an' child's doin' okay."

It's Simon's turn to smile. "Well, that's a relief. And of course I'll help. In any way I can."

"Good." Mal nods, proud of him. Touched. Then he remembers to add, "Oughta make it clear - ain't no money in it."

The information doesn't change Simon's mind but it does make him wonder about the Captain's motivation. Then he puts two and two together and gets five. "I... um, I sha'n't be wanting any ... um ... recompense for my services."

Mal looks blank and then his eyes go wide as the light dawns. "No. Me neither. No - uh- recompense. My only interest in this is ensurin' that baby stays where it belongs. With its mother. Family - that's the most important thing in the whole gorram 'verse to my mind."

They've reached the stairs leading down into the cargo bay now and can see the rest of the crew gathered below. Mal goes on ahead, Simon following behind, mulling over the meaning of the Captain's last remark. River takes his hand as he goes to join the others. "Family man at heart," she whispers. "Likes babies."

Once inside the Heart of Gold, Jayne's like a kid in a sweet shop. He leers round at the girls an' almost don't know where to start. Almost. "Can I start gettin' sexed already?" he asks Mal impatiently.

Surprised by a twinge of jealousy, Kaylee sighs wishin' it were as easy for a girl to get some play. At her side Simon's as stiff an' formal as ever. Even here. Maybe 'specially here. Smell of sex in the air seems to be makin' him all manner of twitchy. Keeps glancin' across at Mal, probably hopin' the Cap'n'll change his mind an' order 'em all back on ship. The atmosphere in this place is makin' Kaylee twitchy too. Been too damn long. She nudges Wash. "Look! They got boywhores. Ain't that thoughtful? Wonder if they service girlfolk at all?"

"Let's not ask." Wash takes the words right out of Simon's mouth. Because the medic really meant what he said about not being paid for his services, boywhores notwithstanding. Simon was never interested in one-night stands.

"Isn't there a pregnant woman I'm to examine?" he asks, hoping to change the subject.

But Kaylee goes right on staring at the pretty boys. Wash is fascinated. "You'd really lie with someone being paid for it?" he asks her.

The mechanic shrugs. "Well, it's not like anyone else is linin' up to - you know - examine me." She shoots a sideways look at Simon who pretends not to notice. He's going to have to talk to her. It's not fair to carry on like this ...

"Man, my John Thomas is about to pop off an' fly around the room, there's so much tasty in here!" Jayne confides with a wide grin.

"Would be you get your most poetical about your pecker!" Wash observes dryly.

Kaylee don't find it funny though.

A couple more girls enter the room, one much more pregnant than Simon had expected. She's almost full-term. "You'd be the doctor?" the other one asks, politely deferential.

"Yes," Simon replies. "And this is Petaline?"

Kaylee looks at Simon then Jayne without neither of 'em noticin' an' her belly feels real empty. "Everybody's got somebody," she muses, all wistful an' forlorn. "Wash, tell me I'm pretty."

The pilot understands a lot more than people give him credit for. Sees a lot more too. "Were I unwed," he assures her, "I would take you in a manly fashion."

"Cos I'm pretty?" Kaylee insists, gazin' into the distance after some dream she ain't never had.

"Cos you're pretty," Wash confirms.

Mal likes the way Nandi stands - like a woman who ain't gonna move till she's good an' ready. His Momma used to stand like that - rocksteady, rooted in self-belief. Di'n't matter what befell them nor how hard the winds blew across Shadow, Momma wa'n't goin' nowhere.

"So I take it reason don't enter into this?" Mal asks, but it ain't really a question.

"Not with Rance Burgess. The man is a taker."

"You think the kid is his?" Zoe asks. Family's always been important to her.

Nandi does what not many got the nerve to - looks her straight in the eye. "I think it's Petaline's."

"But the blood test ..." Mal's disappointed to hear Inara start to argue. Family ain't just about blood. It's about people trustin' each other, lookin' out for each other ...

"Well he did favour Petaline pretty exclusively," Nandi concedes, "But she had others. Fifty, fifty - not that it matters. The man ain't fit to raise a cactus plant. His barren prairie shrew can't bear him an heir so he takes it into his head he's gonna pull it outta us." She pauses. "That's not gonna happen."

An appreciative smile tugs at the corner of Mal's mouth. "I see that's the case." He likes this woman. Gets the feelin' a hurricane could hit this place and she'd still be standin'. Can't think of much in this 'verse she cou'n't cope with. Makes him proud to think she's lookin' to him to help her out of her current troubles.

Rance Burgess reminds Mal of Atherton Wing, which don't exactly endear the man to him. Only Burgess is worse - much worse. Wing was jus' some fancified self-indulgent dandy with an overinflated opinion of hisself - Burgess, on the other hand, got an overinflated opinion of God's opinion of him. Way he talks morality, you'd think he had a direct line to the Almighty. Book oughta be here ...

"I don't think I know you ..?" Burgess is sayin'. Man's smile's kinda creepifyin' too. Puts Mal in mind of Niska.

He suppresses a shudder and extends his hand, "Name's Malcolm - Malcolm Reynolds." Now what in the name of diyu induced him to give his real name? Momma's old sayin'? Tell the truth an' shame the devil? "And might I say she's quite a beauty."

Burgess looks pleased. Men who put their wealth on display like to have it admired. "Thank you." He withdraws a laser gun from the holster round his hips and hands it over for Mal's perusal. "You ever have occasion to handle one, Mister Reynolds? Silk trigger active return bolt laser," he adds, assuming Mal will be impressed.

Mal weighs it in his hand. Insubstantial. "Lighter than it looks," he comments, makin' it sound like tha's a good thing. "Thought it'd have more heft to it."

Burgess smiles that reptilian smile again. "Don't let that fool you. Won't find technology like this short of the Alliance. And even their issues don't yet have the auto-adjust. Had that one crafted special."

Mal raises an eyebrow. "Di'n't think firearms such as these were generally legal - not for the private owner, I mean."

"My husband makes a distinction between legality and morality, Mister Reynolds," Mrs Rance Burgess replies, speakin' for the first time. Mal takes the opportunity to size her up too. Don't much like what he sees neither. Too much focus, too many sharp angles all pointin' in the one direction. An' such dryness - drier than an empty well.

The rest of their conversation ain't of much interest to Mal. He's got what he came for. And now he jus' wants to get out of here.

"Captain Reynolds, I understand." Nandi's voice is warm, sympathetic even. "You have your people to think of, same as me. An' this ain't your fight."

Mal is taken aback, as much by her tone as her assumption. "Don't believe you do understand, Nandi. I said we run." He pauses, waitin' for the offer to sink in - but she just holds his gaze steadily, eyes not sayin' a damn thing. "We. My people. Your people. An' whatever bits of precious you got you can't part with. We load up Serenity an' leave Burgess in the dust."

Straight an' tall, she takes a step towards him. "Captain Reynolds ..." That voice is soft an' hard all at once an' full of knowin'. "It took me years to cut this piece of territory out of other men's hands. To build this business up from nothing ..."

"Nandi -"

"It's who I am," Nandi interrupts firmly. "And it's my home. I'm not going anywhere."

"He'll kill you." Mal warns her. Warns them all. But ain't a one of them as'll take his offer. Least of all that poor pregnant girl, if the firm set of her mouth is anythin' to judge by. An' she's just a kid. Just a kid. Another one Mal got a chance at savin' - two, countin' the baby. "No Miss Nandi! I ain't leavin' the Heart of Gold. Ain't leavin' you ..." she cries.

Nandi's chin lifts ever so slightly. "Rance Burgess is just a man. And I won't let any man take what's mine," she vows.

She was just a kid but they took her anyway .... It's haunted his nightmares for years, filling his nights with impotent rage .... And always there's the serpent's voice telling him that maybe it wasn't like that. Insinuating that she didn't fight because, well ... hiss, hiss ... And sometimes his anger turns on her, on her vulnerability and her inability to save herself. She should have fought them, gorramit!

"I doubt you'd do different, in my position." Nandi's certainty brings Mal back to the present.

He stares at her, then shakes his head wryly. "Well, lady, I must say ... you're my kinda stupid."

The tension in the room eases and, now it's decided they'll stay and fight, Mal automatically starts preparing his troops for battle. Listening, Simon can't help but admire his determination, even as he wonders about the wisdom of this course of action. He watches as Mal turns from one person to another - ordering, cajoling, persuading and encouraging - and feels so proud of him. It makes him doubt Inara's story. How is it possible that a man who's prepared to risk his own life to help a group of defenceless women he's only just met, be the type who'd use his fists on any one of them he took to bed? It doesn't make sense. Beside him on the sofa, Petaline goes rigid, a hand on her swollen belly.

"It's starting!" River announces excitedly.

Mal nods. "Well, that's a sure fact. But time is on the enemy's side so ..." He stops abruptly when Petaline lets out a howl of pain. His eyes go wide. "Oh. It's starting ... Okay ... It's starting!" To Simon's amusement and Mal's shame, his tone is a mite panicky. "No-one panic ... it's goin' to be fine," he says, mostly to his own self.

Simon smiles gently at him, "I got this one, Captain." It feels good to be the calm one, the one in charge. It doesn't happen often anymore.

Wash reckons his wife's using military tactics on him. Going for a full-out attack on his weakest line of defence when he least expects it. Or else why would she be talking about starting a family when they're supposed to be laying a trip wire right before they go and get themselves killed? "I'm just not sure now is the best time to bring a tiny helpless person into our lives," he argues.

"That excuse is gettin' a little worn, honey," Zoe replies in a tone that's more likely to have her husband shielding his tender parts than thinking about putting them to good use.

"It's not an excuse, dear," he counters defensively. "It's objective assessment. I can't help it if it stays relevant."

"I don't give a good gorram about relevant, Wash. Or objective. " Zoe says, pausin' from the task of kicking dirt back over the wire. "And I'm not so afraid of losin' a thing I won't try havin' it." Her tactics change with a smile. She fingers her husband's collar tenderly. "You and I would make one beautiful baby. I want to meet that child one day. Period."

There ain't much Wash can say to that, she knows. An' if she's outmanoeuvred him - well, tha's all part of the rules of engagement. Zoe always did want a baby, a family. Her an' Mal both.


"Two," Zoe said firmly, just before the tell-tale whine of a seeker had all three of them divin' for the floor at once. They braced themselves for the inevitable fall of plaster and masonry, shieldin' their heads with their arms.

"Two?" Mal scoffed, ignorin' the fact that a large piece of lintel had only narrowly missed him. "Jus' two?"

Zoe blinked against the fallin' dust and coughed. "Yep. Two'd suit me fine. You?"

Outside all was quiet again. Looked like the airstrike was over. Mal stood up an' brushed hisself down. "Four. Or five. Five, most like. Or six. Six would be a nice round even number." He reached down a hand to Cody Bain and yanked the private to his feet.

Zoe's smile was skeptical. "'s clear you was an only child, Sir. You got any idea what it'd be like tryin' to raise six kids?"

Mal glowered at her. Di'n't much care for bein' told his dream was impractical. Whole purpose of dreams was for them to be impractical - larger than life. That way, somewhere between what a man got and what he wants, he might achieve somethin' worth havin'. He turned to Bain who was keepin' unusually quiet an' fiddlin' with a button on his sleeve. "What 'bout you, Cody? How many d'you plan on havin'?"

Zoe took one look at the other man's face an' cringed for him. Mal could be so gorram insensitive! For a while Bain was speechless. Then he realized the sergeant really hadn't the slightest idea as to what he was feeling. No idea that this talk of babies and families had been slowly ripping his heart out. He gave Mal a weak smile. "Kids? Hadn't really thought about it, Sarge."

From the snatches of conversation driftin' up from the yard below, seems like Jayne ain't exactly hatin' this job. Mal grins at Nandi. "That man is gonna use up all our credit 'fore we've earned it."

She smiles. It ain't like she wasn't expectin' some enthusiastic acceptance of the services her girls offer. "Well, after you've saved our lives, maybe you can do some chores," she suggests.

"I'm a fair hand with a mop," Mal claims, makin' her laugh. He likes the sound. Rich and buzzin' with life.

"So your legend tells." She takes out a case of small handguns and places it on a table. "Truth is, I'd expected more of you to be taking payment in our trade."

Whole idea of that is all manner of funny! "Well, we're an odd conglomeration," Mal tells her, pickin' up one of the weapons. "Got a preacher, a married fella an' the doctor .." Mal's eyes travel down the length of the barrel of the gun in his hand. "Well, he'd have to relax for thirty seconds to get his play and that'd be more or less a miracle ..." His fingers tighten round the shaft. No. Don't think on it. Direct your energies elsewhere. "These are fetchin' little pieces ..."

Small talk about guns comes easy enough. Only then Nandi takes aim an' fires a question at him."I mean when are you plannin' to avail yourself of some of our trade? My girls is clean an' kind-spirited."

Mal swallows an' keeps his eyes fixed on the weapon in his hand. "Well, I got the job in mind. After, I'm sure I'll ... trade. They're a fine bunch."

Nandi ain't convinced. "You ain't looked at a one of 'em as long or as lovin' as you looked at those pistols. You're not sly, are you? Cos I got my boys ..."

Why does everyone keep assumin' he's sly? He ain't got nothin' against folks bein' sly - i's jus' that he *ain't[*. Then he reminds hisself there's no need to get tetchy. Nandi's jus' being accommodatin'. It's her job after all. "Sly? No. I lean towards womenfolk. Just one thing at a time. Never like complications."

Nandi seems to accept that, but then she's pryin' into another corner of Mal's life he'd jus' as soon leave undisturbed. "She's a hell of a woman, ain't she? Inara?"

"Oh yeah, she's a cherry blossom, no denyin'. 'Spect you know her better'n I do, comin' up together an' all," he says casually.

"I imagine I do," she agrees. Turns out she's not wrong. Mal di'n't know 'bout 'Nara wantin' to be House Priestess. Nor about her hatin' complications. The information's unsettlin'. Makes things between them feel more ... well, complicated.

By nightfall, Petaline's patience with being in labour is wearing thin. She's sweaty and tired and all she wants to do is go to sleep. Her cheeks are red and her dark hair clings in damp tendrils to her face. She lets out a blood-curdling scream - part pain and part anger.

Simon quits his examination of her cervix. "You're not completed dilated yet," he explains carefully. "Should be pretty quick, but don't force it. These contractions are still preliminary."

His patient glares at him and wails again. "What's he sayin'?"

Inara takes her hand and squeezes it. "It's going to be a little while, sweetie." Long and difficult though this is, Inara envies the girl. Not everyone has this degree of freedom, of choice. Most of the time, Inara manages to shut it out but sometimes ...

"It hurts!" Petaline protests. "This child wants to be born, I know it."

"Can you grab the green vial from my bag?" Simon asks Inara. "We can dull the pain some ..."

A flicker of something passes between Doctor and Companion and he realizes he was wrong to doubt her sincerity.

"How many babies have you actually delivered?" Inara asks, and the sense of the poetical Simon's experiencing intensifies. He should probably get some sleep before he becomes as crazy as his sister.

"As the primary? This would be my first. You?" He asks. And again there's the feeling they're talking about something else. Someone else.

"My first too." Inara confesses.

"Mine too," River pipes up. This is exciting. A new life just waiting to start! Now, if only she can make her brother understand ...

Simon sighs. "It's going to be a long night."

"You'll do great, Doctor," Inara tells him, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek in a gesture of support, faith, solidarity.

Liking nothing better than a well-executed metaphor, River hasn't take her eyes from Petaline's belly. "Who do you think is in there?" she asks.

"Amen," the little gathering echoes.

Book smiles benignly at them. Who'd've thought there'd be such simple piety amongst folk like these? "Not much more we can do tonight," he remarks as some of the girls begin rechecking the guns and ammunition. "I think it best we all get some rest. Is there ... is there a room I can lie down in?"

One of the girls name of Emma casts him a sweet but sultry glance. "Alone?" The question makes the others turn their heads. They're all looking at him. Lovely girls, each one as sweet as she's willing. There was a time ...


It wasn't marked as The Road to Damascus when the man who one day would be known as Book set off down it. Mostly likely because it was the flight path between the Kowlan Federal Base and Beylix and therefore not a road at all. Except in the figurative sense. It was a journey he'd made many times before, so there was no reason to suspect it would show him anything new. Border moons like Beylix were a magnet for the 'verse's less salubrious individuals and Federal agents visited them frequently. That day he and his sergeant, Shen Uriah, were on the trail of slavers, the righteousness of their cause burning brightly in their hearts.

So brightly, he didn't see the darkness in him. Thought it was light too.

Because there was a time when Book wasn't a Shepherd. A time when the only rules he followed were his own. And he had just two: Get the job done and Look after number one. Didn't mind taking short cuts to achieve the first nor taking more than his share to satisfy the second.

Shen Uriah's wife came under the second.

He ordered Uriah into the warehouse first. Nothing unusual in that. He was the Captain and Uriah the Sergeant. The lower ranking officer was always considered more expendable. Uriah died and he didn't.

And then the scales fell from his eyes.

The trouble with rice wine is it goes down so smooth an' easy a fella only starts thinkin' he's had enough when he's had way too much. Mal passed that stage a while back. Which explains why he's kissin' Nandi's mouth an' burnin' to kiss her other places too.

"I want you to bed me," she tells him, voice hitchin' with desire an' makin' him harder than he's been since Si -... since the last time he kissed someone.

"Guess I mean to," he replies, strokin' her hair.

Nandi searches his face. "I ain't her," she reminds him.

"Only people in this room are you an' me," Mal promises thankin' every star in the 'verse for that. When he looks at Nandi, she's the only woman he sees. Ain't no haunted eyes accusin' him of some nameless crime, no eyes full of pain he's the cause of. Makes him feel safer than he has in a very long time.

Nandi hands him another drink. "So my child," she teases, "How long has it been since your last confession?"

"Longer than I care to say."

She looks up at him through her lashes. "You gonna remember where everythin' goes?"

"Let's jus say I plan to take it real slow." An' he does. At least at first. Their next kiss ain't without passion, but it's still measured, controlled. It feels good - safe - an' he relaxes into it, lettin' Nandi guide his lips an' tongue through a wet, tantalizin' dance that leaves 'em both a mite short of breath an' eager for more. His hand cups the back of her head and tangles into her hair. A gentle tug an' her chin lifts, exposin' her throat to a blaze of quick, fiery kisses. He lingers over a pulse point, feelin' the rhythm of her heartbeat quicken under his tongue as he sucks, gently as first, then harder. Her fingers dig into his arms in an unspoken demand for more an' he can't hold back the urge to nip the skin between his teeth ...

That makes her chuckle, throaty an' low. She pulls back a fraction. "Think we best take this somewhere more private." Her eyes narrow meaningfully.

"Could be you ain't wrong," he agrees, surprised by the dark vibration he hears in his own voice.

The side-room she leads him into is dominated by a large brass bed. The sight of it makes Mal a mite sweaty an' suddenly he's thinkin' this is gorram stupid an' mayhaps dangerous, but then Nandi's mouth is on his again an' it's warm, firm an' sure. He clings to that feelin'. Nothin' to worry about after all. Runnin' hands that have started tremblin' down her back, he pulls her closer. She sighs softly into his chest an' tugs his shirt free of his pants. Mal can take a hint. His fingers scrabble for buttons, hooks, zippers - an' find nothin'. It most surely has been way too long.

Nandi chuckles again. She moves back a pace an' in one graceful movement steps out of her dress. She ain't wearin' nothin' else. Her skin glows golden peach under the low light an' her eyes burn green an' hungry. Mal swallows. Her breast are fuller than he'd expected an' the neat triangle of wiry hair curling down between her thighs is a reddish brown.

Mal realizes he's starin' and that Nandi's watchin' his reaction, a smile of satisfaction playin' over her lips. He flushes and looks down at his boots.

"Mal -" She wraps both arms round his neck an' now he can smell her - damn near taste her. His heart pounds in his chest an' he freezes. It's very hot in here. Nandi must read his discomfort because she kisses him lightly and starts slowly undoin' his shirt buttons, never takin' her eyes from his. Her hands slide up his chest, over his shoulders an' down his arms an' the shirt is gone. A finger circles one nipple an' the ground under Mal's feet don't feel so solid anymore. An' when she starts unzippin' him, he's grateful to feel the edge of the bed against the back of his legs. Nandi drops to her knees and pulls off his boots. For a moment she crouches there, hands on his thighs and Mal's breath hitches in his throat when she issues a gentle order to "Lie back."

The room starts to spin. He can't do this. What if ... Wo de ma! He has to get up, get out of here ... But she's inchin' her way up him, pepperin' his body with kisses an' then her tongue is in his mouth, strokin', probin' an' he loses track of whatever it was he thought he should be doin'. Her hands are pushin' his pants down over his hips an' it's been so long an' she ain't no kid an' no smart-mouthed boy nor no Guild-registered Companion neither an' maybe, just maybe ...

"You okay with this?"

He opens his eyes to find her searchin' his face, waitin'. God, he could plunge into her so easy, so thoughtlessly, an' jus' let instinct take over. But now he's scared of what that instinct might be. "I ..." He can't find the words to tell her how afraid he is, can't even look at her. Tips his head back over the pillows an' looks at the wall instead. Sees bars, a kinda cage. An' a sort of freedom - a way out ... He reaches up an' grips the rails of the bedhead with both hands. "Could you, uh ... " He looks pointedly at his wrists, "Would you ...? Not 'cuffs mind. Had more'n my fair share of 'cuffs courtesy of the ruttin' Alliance ... 'Less you got nothin' else ..."

Her eyes don't betray the incredulity she feels, but Nandi waits a second or two too long before getting up an' takin' a few lengths of silk from a drawer. Expecting him to change his mind at any moment, she ties both his wrists fast to the brass bars above his head. But he lies there quiet as a lamb, albeit one expectin' slaughter. Nandi reads people pretty well an' she's gorram certain this ain't Mal's style. Got no notion what he's playin' at though. "That all?" she asks, scratchin' a nail lightly down the sensitive centre of his palms an' makin' him close his eyes against the clamour from other, more needful body parts for their share of that gentle torment. "You want a blindfold too?"

"No! Wo de ma Nandi - no. I wanna see you." Jus' you, Nandi. Not nobody else. Wanna stay out here in the light ...

"So," she traces a finger along his hip bone, "You ain't lookin' for me to hurt you neither?"

His response to that is all manner of funny, like she knew it would be. His eyes go wide with shock an' he tries to sit up, realizes he can't an' turns a mite panicky. Then he sees her wicked little smile an' growls. "Gorramit, woman ..."

"Shhh. I got other plans for you anyhow, Malcolm Reynolds," she breathes into his ear, as she straddles him, makin' him shiver with the delight of it. Practiced, sure hands move unhesitatingly over his body, seekin' out all the usual places a man likes touched an' findin' a few unique to Mal. Her mouth follows, slower, an' she licks an' sucks an' nips until he's buckin' up against her an' close to beggin'. Her hips slide an' roll him till he's nearly in her and she catches the moan she draws out of him in a kiss. She pushes down onto him an' rises up again by minute degrees, over an' over again, lettin' him ever so slightly further inside her each time - drawin' it out till Mal's blood is screamin' an' he knows he's close ...

This ain't right. He was never one to take without givin'. Nandi deserves more from him than this. "Stop," he manages to grind out. "Nandi ... you gotta untie me."

She blinks. "Now? You don't wanna finish first?"

He grits his teeth. "No. What I want is for you to untie me. Qing."

Eyebrow still quirked in surprise, she reaches up to unfasten his bonds. "You are a strange one, Malco-" she begins, but he grabs her and crushes his mouth down on hers, swallowin' her little murmur of approval hungrily then the deeper sighs of pleasure evoked by caressin' her breasts. When her breathin' becomes ragged, he pulls them both into a sittin' position, her astride him again. He strokes her back lightly as he enters her, relishin' the texture of her sweat-soaked skin. Holdin' her hips steady with one hand, he slips the other between her legs an' moves his fingers till he hears her purr an' feels her tighten round him. Keeps on movin' 'em till she throws her head back and comes with a long gaspin' moan. The sound detonates every star in his 'verse an' for an instant he's lost - floatin' an' empty where he oughta be full. In this darkness there's no-one but him. He'd wanted, he'd hoped ... He opens his eyes an' Nandi's gazin' straight into his soul. He knows she don't see herself there ... He takes her face between his hands and kisses her mouth, tryin' to ignore the taste of ashes, tryin' to say sorry and thank you all at once ...

When Mal awakes next mornin', Nandi's watchin' him. Her smile is the first thing he sees. It all comes floodin' back in a rush. The smell, the taste an' the feel of her ... Renci Fozu, she ain't bleedin' nor cryin' nor nothin' bad. Only lookin' at him with kindness an' a hint of recognition. He opens his mouth to speak but she silences him with a finger pressed to his lips.

"Wa'n't lookin' for nothin' more from you than I got, Malcolm Reynolds," she says firm an' serious. Then her eyes twinkle and her lips curve. "An' what I got wa'n't nothin' ..." She kisses him, almost chastely, and embraces him like a friend. No - more like a mother.

"Best we be gettin' ready to face Burgess," Mal says, 'cos talkin' business hides a multitude of regrets. He pulls on his pants an' boots, picks up his shirt. "I'll see to my people." He kisses her hair, the way he often does with Kaylee. He likes this woman, he really does. An' he's all manner of grateful to her for showin' him he ain't the monster he'd feared. She just ain't ... jus' don't ...

He closes the door behind him, looks up an' sees someone who is ... does ... He gulps.

Inara is caught between jealousy and fear. There's nothing she can do about the former, except pretend it isn't there. But the fear ... is Nandi okay? She scrutinizes Mal's face, reading nothing there but awkwardness at having been caught in a state of semi-undress.

"I was jus', um," he stutters as he pulls up his suspenders and buttons his shirt. There's nothing in his voice to suggest he's done anything other than have sex - other than the excruciating embarrassment that only Mal could feel about having had a little pleasure.

"I had to tell Nandi about the ... It's near time to ... Big fight today." Oh, that was gorram masterful. Might as wear post a sign: Spent the night beddin' your friend, 'Nara.

"Mal," she sighs. "Please."

He oughta shut up but he can't. "Hey, no. I've got, I've been up thinkin' ..."

"So you took to bed with Nandi. I'm glad," she interrupts him, amazed to sound like she means it.

"Thinkin' an' ponderin'," he rambles on before managin' to process her words. "Glad?"

"Yes she's a dear friend, and probably in need of some comfort about now," Inara elaborates, at least as much for herself as for Mal. He's more'n a mite confounded by her sanguine demeanour. "One of the virtues of not being puritanical about sex is not being embarrassed afterwards. You should look into it."

"So, you're okay? Well, yeah. Why wou'n't you be?"

"I wouldn't say I'm entirely okay," she admits an' he finds hisself hopin' ..."I'm a little appalled at her taste."

She's calm, haughty and untouchable. Until she makes it to the safety of a room where she can close the door and be alone. Then she crumples to the floor, hurting more than she would have ever thought possible. Sobs shake through her. Zoe wasn't wrong. Loving Mal leaves a woman bruised and bleeding.

Simon hopes Petaline's baby inherits his mother's lung capacity. Her screams are certainly loud and healthy - and have the medic's nerves twanging like bowstrings. How Inara stands it, he can't imagine.

"You're stronger than this," the Companion tells the girl, making River lean in to listen more closely. "I can feel it in your grip. Petaline - look at me ..." Of course! Inara was trained in the fine arts. Her medium is classical music, her style baroque. Strict rhythm contains the rhapsody, making it more poignant. Exquisite. "This is just a moment in time. Step aside and let it happen." River would applaud her performance but at this moment Nandi enters the room and the temperature drops. Even Simon feels it.

"How is she, Doctor?" Nandi asks him.

"She's at ten centimeters. Not long."

"Inara," Nandi touches her friend's shoulder and as Inara turns towards her River's ears fill with accusations and claims and rebuttals and sadness. She recoils from the agony of it. "I thought it was just him that ..."

No music now. Just the hollow faltering rhythm of a broken heart. "Nandi, believe me, I'll be fine."

As Simon rummages through his medkit in search of scissors, River's hand dives into the bag too and she clasps his tightly. "Mal," she answers simply to the question that's still only beginning to take shape in his mind. "Kissed a girl but made the other one cry."

Her brother's mouth falls open. Mal and Nandi? Mal and Inara? But what about ..? Neither of them is ....

"All the cuts are on the inside," River explains.

Ain't no sight of Burgess outside which makes the sound of laser fire down the hallway downright worryin'. Mal leaves the window and chases after Nandi. He bursts through the door, leadin' with his gun only to find he's too late. He sinks down beside her lifeless body an' all he can think is that he did this, that somehow he's responsible. He had the temerity to step out of his self-imposed prison an' the gorram stupidity to congratulate hisself on gettin' his control back. Thought he was master of his own self once again. But he led her into this. Killed her. Killed a little more of hisself.

Inara's eyes are brimful of tears. He always makes 'em cry, despite only wantin' to make 'em happy. She's in need of comfort 'bout now, but he daren't. Things are bad enough already. Inara's look darkens an' at least he can give her what she wants, if not what she needs. Rance Burgess - his ass hauled back here to face justice. Oh yeah - that he can do.

Serenity's crew take their places amongst those of Nandi's girls who are strong enough to attend her funeral. Another funeral, so soon after the last. Simon sees the self-recrimination etched into Mal's face and wonders how much loss the Captain can take. His arms feel empty; he wants to hold him, shield him from the worst of this. But of course he can't. All he do is feel for him.

Lucy's voice has a haunting quality - most fitting for a funeral. "I once was lost, but now I'm found ..." River nudges Simon hard in the ribs. He glares at her. "Was blind but now I see." She stares back, widening her eyes meaningfully. He doesn't understand.

On the walk back to Serenity, Inara comes to a decision. One she should have made months ago. She can't stay here. Not when staying makes her want so much she can't have. She hesitates on the catwalk, astonished at how completely her long years of training have failed her. Amazed at how much she loves this ship, its crew ... its Captain.

Mal catches up with her. He leans on the railin' and stares bleakly ahead, not knowin' where to start. How to tell the woman beside him he's in love with her but it's complicated? How to tell her he slept with Nandi cos she made him feel safe whereas Inara makes him feel dangerous? Or how Simon touches somethin' in him even she can't reach? How to explain any of it?

"I'm glad you were with her. Her last night," she says. "I am."

"I ain't. Hell, I wish I'd never met her," he answers bitterly. "Then I wou'n't've failed her."

Inara is kind, too kind. Tells him it ain't so. He don't merit her kindness. If she knew the half of it ... perhaps she should. He takes a deep breath, reaches for the support of a rail. "Inara, I ain't lookin' for anythin' from you. I'm just - uh - feelin' kinda truthsome right now." Preacher reckons confession is good for the soul. "And - uh - life's too damn short for ifs an' buts and maybes."

Don't Mal - please don't. Don't make this harder. "I learnt something from Nandi," Inara interrupts. "Not just from what happened, but from her. The family she made, the strength of her love for them - that's what kept them together." Just like you keep us together. "When you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it. You can't break away and you never want to ..." Inara made promises - vows - and she can't let herself be tied. At least, no more than she already is. He will haunt her wherever she goes. But Inara is strong too. "There's something that ... that I should have done a long while ago and I'm sorry - for both of us - that it's taken me this long ..."

For an agonizingly hopeful moment Mal thinks she might reach out for him. There ain't nothin' hurts worse than hope.

"I'm leaving."

He watches her go. Numb. Mute. Then he turns in silence and walks down the empty corridor to his bunk. The bed is cold and hard.

He wa'n't broken before. Else now there wou'n't be this splinterin' inside him. Wou'n't be this black despair nor the crumblin' of half-repaired dreams. Somethin' deep in him snaps an' his gut twists like somethin' savage is tryin' to claw its way out. Somethin' ugly an' savage he can't fight. Or don't want to no more.

His back straightens an' he makes up his mind.

"Where the hell is that boy?"

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Title:  Chapter 17. A kind of poetry to it.
Series Name:  Trauma Medicine.
Author:  Kispexi2   [email]
Details:  Series  |  NC-17  |  het *slash*  |  53k  |  04/03/05
Characters:  Malcolm, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Simon, River, Book, Other - Saffron, Niska, Early, etc
Pairings:  Mal/Nandi plus more longing!
Summary:  Set against Heart of Gold, Mal unwittingly makes a new enemy whilst old ones start to close in.
Notes:  Spoilers for Heart of Gold. A bit of half-hearted and short-lived bondage.
Sequel to:  Ch. 16. See what's inside.

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