BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

JANE0904

Tangled Web: Part I - REPOST
Monday, November 19, 2007

Maya. Post-BDM. While visiting a sick friend on Persephone, Mal and Freya are invited to a party, and meet someone they never expected to see. Part I of II


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1669    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Part I

Eugenia Rostov flopped back onto the pillows, her face red and wet.

“It’s a girl,” Doctor Gee said, holding up a squalling baby, all messy with white mucus.

“A girl,” Ivan Rostov echoed, the delight on his face tempering a little. “That’s … nice.” He patted his wife’s hand.

“And here comes the other one,” the doctor added as Genia grunted, pushing down again.

“And? Another girl?” Ivan asked, leaning forwards.

“I don’t … no, it’s a boy.”

Ivan sighed with relief. They’d waited a long time for this, and the thought that perhaps the family name wouldn’t continue had eaten away at him a little. And what with Genia not wanting to know the sexes until the birth … He could have insisted, of course, but it seemed a comparatively small price to pay for her continued well-being. Except it had preyed on his mind.

The nurse quickly took the babies to one side, cleaning them up and making sure they were breathing okay. The sound of crying filled the room.

“Which one’s that?” the new mother asked, ignoring what was still going on between her thighs.

“The little boy,” the nurse said. “He certainly has a pair of lungs on him.”

“And the girl?”

“She’s fine. Just quieter than her brother.” Wrapping them both in blankets, she carried them back to the bed. “Here you are.”

“Which is the boy?” Ivan asked.

“This one.”

He took his son, holding him close. “His name’s Alexander. Alexander Ivan Rostov.”

“That’s nice. And your daughter?” the nurse asked, giving the other baby to her mother.

“Genia can name her.”

“Elena,” his wife said, moving the blanket to one side to look at her new child’s face. “For my mother.”

“And a middle name?” the nurse asked. “Her brother has one. Only fair she does too.”

She was tempted to do as her husband had done, and use her own name, but only a moment‘s thought persuaded her that he would think it foolish. “Amelia, then. I had a friend at school by that name.”

“Elena Amelia Rostov.” The nurse nodded, entering the names into her pad. “I’ll send the registrations through. We can take the blood tests and scans later.”

Ivan carried Alex to the window, holding him up. “This is your home,” he murmured. “As far as the eye can see.”

Genia sighed quietly. She knew what he was thinking. He’d wanted a son, so much. She looked down at her daughter. Still, a little girl was nice. If she was pretty she could go to parties, wear nice clothes, perhaps marry well and bring even more prestige into the family … Elena opened her eyes, bright blue as all babies were, and seemed to stare at her mother. For a moment Genia thought she was reading the thoughts off the back of her mind, but she shook herself. That wasn’t possible.

“They’ll be wanting feeding,” the nurse said. “First feed is important.”

Genia nodded vaguely, still staring at her daughter, an odd uncomfortable feeling stealing over her.

“Madam Rostov?” the nurse prompted.

“What? Oh, yes.” Carefully moving the little girl to one side, she opened her robe, baring a breast. Her daughter began to suckle, those disconcerting eyes closing. Still, if she kept that colour it would be quite striking …

--

Mal had given in. The combined assault of Kaylee and Bethany, with side swipes from Simon, and even the occasional dig from River, had overcome him, and he’d agreed, with a grace that surprised the majority of his crew, to visit Phoros so they could spend a week with the Fryes. Not that he was going to admit it, but it was a plan he had in fact considered himself, and was a hair’s breadth away from suggesting when they started their nagging. Still, it had given them something to do.

“I love my captain!” Kaylee exclaimed, kissing his cheek even as Bethany bounced up and down, tugging on his hand.

“Okay. Enough.” He tried to shake them off, attempting his stern, gruff look.

Trouble was, Freya knew his thoughts almost before he’d thought them, and she raised her eyebrows knowingly at him.

It had been fun, though. With extra time to spend everyone was a lot more relaxed, and even Kaylee admitted she didn’t mind seeing her family spread out some. The Fryes, of course, fell in love with Hope immediately, adding her name into the huge family Bible kept high on the shelf in the parlour, and Simon spent an informative afternoon going through the family tree, finally beginning to figure out which of the enormous family was related to whom and how. Bethany sat with him, her little legs swinging as she read the names.

Hank finally managed to go fishing, and despite not catching a single thing enjoyed himself thoroughly. Zoe actually agreed to accompany him, and fell asleep in the warm sunshine, Ben lying next to her in the crook of her arm.

Even Jayne and River took off, going camping for two days, coming back dusty and dirty, but very happy. She teased him about a bubble bath, which for some reason made his ears blush.

Mal and Freya just spent the time together, playing with Ethan, teaching him from the portable Cortex screen they’d brought from the ship about the stars and planets, being the Reynolds.

On the fifth day, though, a thoroughly relaxed captain took a wave from a very irate ex-Companion.

“I should have come with you!” Inara complained, her face about as angry as Mal had seen it over the Cortex.

“Why? Ain't you getting on with that doctor feller?”

“He’s … he’s …” For a moment she couldn’t find the right words, then suddenly they came. “He’s worse than you!”

Mal couldn’t help it. He laughed. “Now, Inara, you know full well there ain’t such a thing.”

“Well, I would have doubted it, but … everything he says, everything he does … do you know he wants breakfast at 5.30?”

“So?”

“And expects me to join him!”

“’Nara, you never worried about getting up that early before.”

She ignored him. “And then he makes me go for a walk with him!”

“Walk. That a fact. Well, that’s surely a hanging offence.”

“And he hasn’t even asked me once about what happened on Bellerophon.”

“No?” Now Mal was surprised. “But he’s been there near on a –“

“I mean, he talked to Hermione, helped her, but I’ve had to tell him things. He hasn’t even asked.” Her temper still heated the ether between them.

Mal relaxed, and gave Dr Nazir full marks for sheer deviousness. “Really. Son of a bitch.”

“I've half a mind to tell him to pack up his things and go.” Petulance, now.

“Could. You’re paying him.”

“But I’ll be damned if I'm going to go through all this and not have him do his job!” She flicked a stray lock of hair back over her shoulder, and the thought occurred to Mal that she looked quite amazing when she was angry. No wonder he used to like to rile her. Before Freya, that is.

“’Nara, Frey seemed to think he was okay. She said you could trust him.”

“I know, but –“

“Why don’t you tell him?”

“What?”

“Tell him you’re not appreciating the way he’s doing things. Or have you tried?”

“No, I actually haven’t – but he’s a doctor! He should know how to do these things.”

Mal suppressed a sigh. “Tell him. See what happens. Who knows, permaybehaps he’s waiting for you to blow up a little, get a mite angry with him. Frey did pass on what you did with those plates.”

Inara’s head lifted. “And I haven’t forgiven her for that yet.”

“I’ll let her know.” He smiled. “’Nara, like you said, he’s your doctor. Talk to him. I’ve a notion you’ll be surprised.”

Suddenly she appeared unsure. “I just … aren’t these people supposed to make you feel like they’re your friends?”

“Wouldn’t know about that. Dr Yi and me, well, we never had the time to get onto that, but she did Frey a lot of good. Perhaps you don’t have to be friends. Just respect the man.”

“But he annoys me!”

“I annoy you.”

“That’s different.”

“Does that mean you don’t respect me?”

“It’s different!” she insisted.

“How?”

“Well, you’re not here, for a start!”

Mal laughed. “And we ain't gonna be, prob’ly not ‘til it’s Freya’s time. So as far as I can see it, you’ve got yourself three choices. One, tell him to leave. Two, let him carry on his merry, and you get what you can out of it. Or you talk to him. Tell him how you feel. He ain't likely to up and hit you.”

“I’d kill him if he tried.”

“And it‘d be right if you did.” He shook his head in mock exasperation. “But you gotta admit, ‘Nara, you’re a difficult woman to live with.”

“I'm …” Her eyebrows threatened to disappear into her hair. “Ye zhong!” she swore, and switched off the link.

Mal chuckled at the static but shook his head ruefully. Inara wasn't stupid, so he was at something of a loss as to how come she hadn’t figured out what he was doing. Mind, there was always the possibility that there was something else going on here. Maybe he should have insisted on meeting this doctor properly, not just shook hands before they left. Given him the third degree, as well as Frey‘s more subtle questioning. He made a mental note to ask his wife for a few more details. Like if she thought Nazir was good-looking, for a start.

Be just like Inara to fall for someone she hated. Not like there wasn't precedence …

A low buzz announced another wave coming in. As he punched up the screen, he considered he sure was popular today. Then he saw the message, and decided he’d rather be ostracized.

--

Freya watched Kaylee giving Hope her bottle, her hazel eyes thoughtful as she slowly chewed a plain cracker.

“You still getting morning sickness?” Ellie Frye asked, sitting down next to her, taking a break while her husband finished doing the cooking over the great outside fire. Half a cow and he insisted on being there for every moment.

She nodded. “Nearly seven months pregnant and I’m still throwing up occasionally.”

“Happened to me with Peter. All the way up to the birth, more or less.”

“Thanks.” Her dry tone made Ellie laugh.

“That don’t mean it’s gonna be the same for you.” She looked across at her daughter. “Maybe adoption is the best way to go, you know,” she said softly. “No stretch marks, no sickness, and no having to get up a dozen times in the night to pee.”

“I think Kaylee’d still go through all that for Hope.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re right.” She smiled. “It looks like my newest granddaughter is going to keep the blue eyes, though. And the blonde hair.”

“She’s pretty.”

“Oh, she is.”

Freya stroked the mound at her waist. “It always amazes me that babies are born with blue eyes, but most change within the first couple of months.”

“Your husband hasn’t. Nor Simon.”

“Or Jayne, for that matter.” Freya laughed. “Considering that blue eyes are a recessive gene, I’m surprised there’s so many on board.”

“You mean you’re more likely to have brown than blue?”

“Mmn. Not that I mind. I like a man with dark hair and blue eyes.”

“That why you fell for Mal?”

“Something like that.”

“No, I know there was a lot more to it.”

“He made me feel … human.”

Ellie was surprised. “And you don’t think you are?”

Freya didn’t answer for a long while, just touching her belly. “Sometimes I wonder,” she finally said.

The older woman put her arm around her shoulders. “Come on. I think you need to eat something. Else I’ll be calling that blue-eyed husband of yours and telling him you’re misbehaving.”

--

“We’ve got to leave,” Mal said, looking around the dinner table, and it was plain to see that it would be a wrench, even for him. “Got us a job.”

“Anything interesting?” Eddie asked. “Or wouldn’t you be able to say?”

Mal smiled. “Considering the man we’ve got it from, I’m not sure I’d like to.”

“So where are you headed?”

“Persephone.”

“Badger?” Jayne asked, spearing another roll with his knife.

“Could always say no, sir,” Zoe said quietly.

“I could, but … we’ve done okay the last couple of months. Got some money saved.” Mal shook his head slowly. “But it’ll only take the same of lean times, and that’ll be gone. We need to take the work when we can.”

Kaylee looked at her parents. “Do we have to go right now, Cap’n?” she asked.

“Looks like it. Badger’s been approached by someone wants a cargo hauled to Boros, only it has to be before the end of the month.”

“Badger say why?” Zoe asked. “If it’s that perishable he has access to ships of his own -”

“He wasn’t any more forthcoming than what I’ve told. Just that we need to get to Persephone, and he’ll explain it there.”

“This Badger,” Eddie said slowly. “I take it he ain’t the most trustworthy of fellers?”

“Wouldn’t deal with him unless we had to,” Mal admitted.

“He’s tried to gyp us more’n once,” Jayne put in.

“He knows Mal gets the job done,” Freya explained, wiping Ethan’s fingers where he’d been playing with his food. “It … irks him.”

“He likes you,” Kaylee pointed out.

“I don’t know why,” Freya said. “It’s not like I’ve done anything to encourage him.”

“You gave him one of those wobbly headed doll things.” Hank laughed. “For him, that was tantamount to declaring undying love.”

Freya shuddered. “Don’t,” she pleaded. “That’s just … horrible.”

Everyone laughed.

“So do you think it’ll be anything like the last one?” the pilot added, remembering what he’d been made to clean out of the cargo bay, and the smell.

“Hope not. But believe me, I intend having a quiet word with him about that,” Mal promised.

“I thought they were sweet,” Kaylee said, wiping Hope’s chin.

“It nearly took my arm off,” Simon pointed out.

“What did?” Ellie asked, putting a second slice of meat on Freya’s plate, and glaring at her until she started to cut it into pieces, eating it a morsel at a time.

“Vorpal cat,” Kaylee explained.

“A what?” Bill asked, looking up from where he was giving Ben some sloppy food, it being his turn.

“I looked them up. They’re wild animals, and apparently they’ve become popular as an exotic pet.” Simon sighed. “There were half a dozen of them. Just.”

“Fiddler was only playing,” Bethany said, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, then belatedly remembering and picking up her napkin.

They looked down at the little dog lying under the table. He twitched in his sleep.

“Short stub, think you’d better just be glad we caught the gorram thing before they got into a fight,” Jayne said. “I’d’a laid money on the cat.”

“I wish I’d seen it,” Freya said, chewing. “Not the fight, obviously, but … Vorpal cats?”

“You were off not being with me,” Mal pointed out, taking her free hand. “That’s what happens when you shirk your wifely responsibilities.”

She swallowed and stuck her tongue out at him.

He raised his eyebrows. “The wind’ll change and you’ll stay like that.”

“What, all beautiful and amazing?” she teased.

“Absolutely.” He leaned forward and kissed her.

“Not at the dinner table,” Ellie ordered, and everyone laughed.

“So we’re taking Badger’s job this time, Cap’n?” Kaylee asked.

“Don’t know. But if it’s something we don’t like, there’s sure to be other work we can get.”

--

Part II

Serenity landed at Eavesdown Docks just as the morning rain stopped, and the sun came out, intensifying the odours that filled the cargo bay as soon as the ramp was lowered.

Freya stood just inside the doors and settled the shoulder holster Mal had bought her a little more comfortably, flexing her arms. It felt okay. A little odd, but okay. Picking up her gun she slid it inside, then practiced drawing a few times.

“You figuring on coming with me?” Mal asked from the top catwalk, dressed for visiting. “Or you feeling an overpowering urge to kill Badger?”

She smiled up at him. “Well, I do have some unnatural cravings.”

“Just tell me it ain't for him.”

“No. I am not that suicidal. Although I still haven’t thanked him for the wedding gift.”

As Mal descended the stairs his mind flickered to the jewelled thigh knife the little weasel had presented to Freya with his compliments, and he barely suppressed a shudder. “As much fun as I think that could be, I’m not having you within ten yards of that man.”

She drew the gun again. “Jealous?”

“What, of Badger?” He managed to put a yelp of surprise into his voice. “Not if all the members of the Alliance Parliament came out on the Cortex tomorrow singing Browncoats Forever.”

“Could happen. You know what River says, about everything happening somewhere.” Fitting the gun back into the holster, she laughed. “But no, in this particular case, you have nothing to worry about.” She picked up her coat, pushing her arms into the sleeves. “I’m going to see Dillon.”

“Malfrey?” He leaned on a stack of crates.

“I called him when I knew we were coming.”

“That’s nice.” He gazed at her. “And?”

“And … nothing. Just going to see a friend.” She looked down. “Does it show?” she asked.

“You’re near seven months pregnant, Frey. I think it’s bound to.”

“Not the baby.” Idiot, she dropped contentedly into his mind. “The shoulder holster.” She patted it.

He looked at her critically. “Nope. Seems to sit pretty snug.”

“Good.” She grinned.

“So what ain’t you telling me?”

The grin faltered a little. “What makes you think I’m –”

“Frey, you’re psychic. But I’m married to you, and that means I get to have a little insight into things once in a while too. And you’re holding something back.” He stood straight and crossed the bay to her. “Come on. ‘Fess up.”

She glared at him then exhaled heavily. “Breed’s sick.”

“Breed? You mean Dillon’s …” Mal couldn’t think of the right word to use.

“His partner. His lover.” She nodded. “That’s the one.”

“How sick?”

“Dillon’s really worried.”

Mal put his hand on her shoulder. “If it’s that bad I don’t think you should go.”

“I won’t sit with him. But Dillon needs support right now.”

“Frey –”

“They’re two of my oldest friends, Mal.” She gave a bark of humourless laughter. “Hell, they’re two of my only friends.”

“Freya, you’re pregnant.”

She looked down at her belly in shock. “Really? I thought it was gas.”

Mal ignored her attempt at making light of the situation. “If Breed’s sick, and you don’t know what he’s got, I don’t think you should be going anywhere near –”

She put her finger on his lips. “I know you’re just looking out for me. But I’m a big girl. I promise I won’t go near the sickbed. I’ll just talk with Dillon.”

He crossed his arms. “Why don’t I believe you?”

“Don’t know, Mal.” Freya kissed him lightly on the lips.

“And that won’t work.”

“How about we go too?” Kaylee’s voice drifted out of the common area. They turned to see the mechanic looking through, Bethany next to her. “Keep her out of mischief.”

“I don’t need a chaperone,” Freya said, lifting her eyebrows at them.

“Won’t be no trouble,” Kaylee went on. “And maybe we can go shopping after.”

Mal considered a moment, then said, “Get your coat. It ain’t that warm outside.”

Shr ah, Captain,” Kaylee said, hurrying towards the lower crew quarters.

They heard Bethany’s voice as she followed her mother. “Can we take Fiddler?”

“No, sweetie. Mr Malfrey might not like it. I think he’s better off keeping Hank company.”

“I can be trusted to be out on my own, you know,” Freya objected mildly, leaning into Mal a little.

“Just feel better if you’ve got someone with you.” He took hold of the front of her coat, pulling it across, the edges barely meeting. “It doesn’t close no more,” he commented.

“Neither do my pants.” She lifted the red silk top he’d bought her so he could see the elastic straps holding the fly together. “Zoe loaned them to me. I have to say, they’re the only thing stopping your wife from getting pinched for indecent exposure.”

“I'm the only one allowed to do any pinching.” He suited the word to the deed.

She squirmed away from his questing fingers. “You seem to have this fetish for seeing me black and blue.”

Grabbing her close he shook his head. “Nope. That ain't it at all.” He dipped his lips for another kiss.

“Ready,” Kaylee called from inside the common area, having learned her lesson more than once from walking in on the pair of them. Bethany wasn't so circumspect. She ran through the cargo bay, grinning at them, only stopping once she’d reached the edge of the ramp.

“Come on,” the little girl said, clearly straining to be off and seeing this fascinating place.

“Shiny.” Mal smiled and looked at his mechanic. “Just make sure Frey’s sensible.”

“I will,” Kaylee promised.

“I'm always sensible,” Freya protested.

“Really? There’s been times I’ve despaired of you.”

“Then why did you marry me?”

“Sometimes I wonder.” He grinned, his blue eyes twinkling. “Now go on. Better get moving before Bethie explodes.”

“Okay.” She squeezed his hand and the two women walked out into the watery sunlight, Bethany bouncing along between them.

He watched them until they rounded the corner of an Avocet, then turned to see Zoe and his pilot coming down the stairs. “Ready?” he asked.

“Just waiting on Jayne, sir.”

“Was that Frey I saw leaving with Kaylee and the squirt?” Hank asked, following his fiancée.

“You did.”

“D’ya think there’s any way to bottle whatever Bethany’s got? ‘Cause I don’t know how she manages to keep going.” Hank sighed, shaking his head. “Makes me tired just to look at her.”

“Just wait ‘til Ben’s a bit older,” Mal promised. “Ethan’s already wearing me out and he ain’t even walking that far yet.”

Jayne ambled out of the shuttle. “You waiting for me?” he asked, making the stairs tremble as he joined them.

“Just a bit.”

“Shoulda called.”

“Considering what you and River’ve been doing lately, I didn’t think that was advisable.” Mal pulled on his gloves. “You ready now?”

“Just tell me who to shoot.”

“No-one, hopefully.” Something caught Mal‘s eye. “Jayne, what’re you wearing?” he asked, seeing something glinting around the big man’s neck.

“Ain’t nothing.”

“Looks like a bullet.”

“Yeah.”

“Jayne, you know that old saying about there being a bullet with your name on it … well, it’s just that? A saying? Don’t mean if you carve your name on a bullet and you carry it you ain’t … gonna …” Mal’s voice faded. “Has it got your name on it, Jayne?”

“Nope.” The mercenary seemed almost embarrassed. “Not mine.”

“Then I’m guessing it’s River’s, sir,” Zoe said.

“What?” Mal’s jaw dropped.

“It’s … kinda a promise,” Jayne said, almost whispering. “Her and me … you know?”

“Are you saying you’re engaged?” Hank asked.

“No. Nothing like that. Just … her and me, we’re together.”

“You know, I think that’s really sweet.” The pilot grinned and slapped the bigger man on the back.

“I ain’t so sweet that you won’t draw back a bloody stump if’n you do that again.”

Mal cleared his throat significantly. “No time for games,” he said firmly. “Hank, look after my boat. We got business.”

--

“Momma, why are there so many people?” Bethany asked. She’d seen docks before, but never really been out in one quite like this. Truth to tell, it was a little scary, and she was keeping tight hold of Kaylee’s hand.

“They’re waiting for transport,” her mother explained.

“But they look like they live here.” She pointed towards some tents that had been set up in one of the clear spaces. The area in front of them had been claimed by odd chairs and a table, and a meal was being prepared.

“Some folks get this far, and can’t get any further,” Freya explained. “Remember? We looked at it on the Cortex.”

“How do they live?”

“Odd work. Some crime. They make do.”

Bethany nodded. “I’m glad we’ve got Serenity,” she said softly, squeezing Kaylee’s hand even tighter as a large man in a turban and a huge moustache glared at her.

“Me too, honey. Me too.”

As they walked on, they heard something sizzling, and Bethany stopped to look. Meat was being cooked on a makeshift grill, the smell quite tantalising until she saw the cages under the table.

“Momma …”

Kaylee glanced in the same direction. “Just keep walking, honey,” she instructed quickly.

“Is that …”

“Don’t worry,” Freya said, understanding completely and feeling a slight wave of nausea herself. “Fiddler’s safe at home.”

Bethany nodded, really glad she hadn’t brought the little dog.

They walked hurriedly on, heading out of the docks towards the entrance, and the waiting hover rank. Suddenly a young man, little more than a boy really, came bowling out of the gap between two old Blue Sun containers and knocked Bethany off her feet.

“Whoa,” Frey called, catching him by the arm. “No need to be in so much of a hurry. You need to look where you’re going.”

Kaylee had lifted Bethany up. “You okay, honey?”

“Think so.” She looked down at herself. “Muddy.” Indeed, there were wet patches on her trousers around her knees and ankles.

“Soon as it dries it’ll brush off.”

“Sorry,” the young man said, slurring his words a little. “Didn’t mean to …” He wiped at his forehead with his sleeve. “Just wanna get home.”

“Just be a bit more careful next time,” Freya told him, letting him go.

He looked at her, his eyes not focusing properly, then nodded and ran off.

Bethany shook her head. “Silly.”

“Sounded like he was drunk to me,” Kaylee added.

“I don’t know.” Freya was still staring after him, her eyes narrowed slightly.

“Everything okay?”

The older woman gathered herself again. “Shiny.” She smiled. “Come on. We’ll get a hover to Dillon’s. Arrive in style.”

Kaylee cheered up immediately.

--

Mal, Zoe and Jayne strode through the docks, keeping a wary eye out the whole time. A few more twists and turns and they were at the entrance to Badger’s personal den of iniquity. Most folk didn’t know it was there, and he liked to keep it that way. Walking purposefully down the alley between the containers, they came out in the little man’s office. It hadn’t changed, and Mal wondered quite why he kept expecting it to. Perhaps it was because his own life had altered so much over the past few years. But here they were, with the same men, the same guns. Same smell, too.

“Badger.” He hitched his thumbs into his gunbelt.

“Reynolds.” Badger was sitting back in his chair, the bowler hat perched on his head, the greasy waistcoat and cravat under his truly appalling jacket. Even the flamingo brooch looked like it wanted to get away. “’Ear you’re gonna be a daddy again.”

“I am.”

“How many’s that now?”

“Just the two.”

“Can’t wait ‘til they grow up. Gonna be chips off the old block, I ‘spect. And cause me grief just the same as their old man.”

Mal breathed deeply. “Got your wave.”

“No small talk?” Badger reached under his desk, and Mal felt Jayne’s hand tensing near his gun. “No little mention of how Freya is, or whether she’s seen the error of ‘er ways yet?”

“We’re here for business. That’s all.”

The little man pulled something fluffy from the darkness. “’Ere.” He tossed it … them at Mal, hitting him in the chest. By reflex he caught them before they fell to the floor. “Booties. For the kid.”

Mal stared at the tiny things. “Why, that’s … almost generous of you, Badger.” For a brief moment he wondered what Freya was likely to say, and figured he’d be standing well back when he told her. “And I'm sure Frey’s gonna feel the same.”

“Said I’d get some knitted, last time. It’d’ve been sooner, only my old Ma’s eyesight ain't so good anymore.”

“Your … your Ma?” Mal couldn’t believe he had a mother, let alone one still living.

Luckily Badger didn’t notice, or if he did he ignored it. “Yeah. I think it took her a few goes to get ‘em right.”

“Well … thank her for me. For us,” he hastily amended.

“Yeah.” Badger stared at the booties a moment longer, then sat up. “Anyway, this job.”

Mal nodded. “Kinda curious about this my own self.”

“There’s a party going on tonight. Not like the one you got yourself all tricked out for before, but it’s high class. Meant to show all these off-worlders that we’ve got society, like them. So’s mostly businessmen, and you might pass in the crowd.”

“Who’s the contact?”

“Feller named Arnheim. Won’t deal with me direct.” Badger pursed his lips. “Do I smell or something?” he asked, obviously not expecting an answer.

Mal got in quickly before Jayne could. “So we go in, make the deal. What’s the cargo?” His eyes narrowed. “And you say it’s anything with a heartbeat and we’re out of here right now.”

“Nah. Nothing living.” Badger perused a new headline appearing on the electronic newspaper in front of him, but dismissed it. “Seems with all the rumours about another little war might be brewin’, Mr Arnheim has taken it into his head to put some of his stuff in storage. Pictures, statues, that kinda thing. Plus a few other trinkets.”

“So why the rush? Your message said it had to be on Boros before the end of the month. Seems to me this could have been a nice leisurely job instead of having to get it there in five days.”

“That was the deal. End of the month.” Badger shrugged. “Who know what goes through the minds of gentlemen like that?”

Mal thought for a moment. Seemed solid enough, as long as Badger didn’t change the rules again. “So where’s the party?”

--

Part III

“You think we can trust Badger this time round, sir?” Zoe asked, keeping up with Mal as he strode through the crowd, heading back to his Firefly through the dock crowds.

“Not in my nature.” He shrugged. “But I’ll go to that party. See what this Arnheim’s like. Seems to me I've had a few good deals where I’ve talked to the man, not the monkey.”

“You’ve also been stabbed.”

“Not figuring on letting that happen this time.”

Jayne glared at a couple of Alliance soldiers, but they just turned away from him, talking to each other in a somewhat distracted fashion. He shrugged. No fun if they didn’t respond. Instead he hurried a little to catch up with the others.

“So who’re ya taking this time?” he asked.

“What?” Mal glanced over his shoulder at him.

“To this here shindig. Kaylee’s still got her dress, if’n you were considering that.”

“I don’t think it would fit you,” Zoe joked.

“Not me.” The big man sighed heavily. “Just wondering who the Cap was thinking of escorting.”

Mal looked at his first mate. “Well, I guess –“

“I don’t have a dress, sir,” she said quickly. “We never could get that blood out of the one Freya loaned me last time.” She absently touched her waistcoat, just above where the faint line of scar tissue from the knife wound paled her skin.

“Then I don’t see I need to –“

“What about Frey?” Jayne suggested.

”What?”

“I think that would be shiny,” Zoe agreed. “And Badger did say the invitation was for two.”

Mal stopped suddenly, as if walking and contemplating taking his wife out were two things he couldn’t do simultaneously. “You think?”

“Might be fun,” Jayne said. “Sure River’s lend her that thigh holster of hers.”

“I doubt she could reach it.” Mal’s brow was still thoughtful. “You really think she’d come?”

“Of course she would,” Zoe said. “Time with you? Someplace fancy? It’s not like you take her out much usually.”

“Well, she normally doesn’t worry about –“

“Captain, she’s a woman. She likes to be pampered. Especially now.”

“You mean being pregnant?”

“It’ll make her feel like a woman.”

“Zoe, this is Freya we’re talking about.” Just the thought of the night before made him smile. “I don’t think she has problems feeling like that.”

“Prob’ly shoot ya if ya suggested it,” Jayne put in.

“And I'm sure there’d be time to enjoy yourselves, as long as you didn’t challenge anyone to a sword fight,” Zoe added.

“Now you know I ain't done that in a while.”

“I just think it would be nice.” She shook her head. “But that’s up to you, sir.”

“Mmn.” Mal started walking again. “Up to me.” He thought of the box he’d got secreted in his closet.

--

And in planetary news, hospitals across Persephone are reporting increases in the numbers of itinerants being admitted. Sources say that this appears to be further indication of –

“Catching up on your news?” Zoe asked, stepping onto the bridge.

Hank switched off the sound on the Cortex. “Just waiting for the skyrace results.”

“Got a bet on?”

“Might have.”

“I thought you weren't going to be doing that any more,” she pointed out, putting her hand on his shoulder.

“It’s just a small wager.” Hank grinned.

“How small?”

“Miniscule.”

“Hank …”

“I know I said I wouldn’t. But this is a sure thing. And it was only a coupla credits.”

“Sure thing. Right.”

Hank glanced at the screen, saw the results being posted. “Wait, look.” He tapped the plastiglas. “See?” he said, a wide grin on his face. “I win.”

Zoe looked down. He’d been betting on a skyracer called Flyboy. Shaking her head, she lifted her eyes to his face again. “That doesn’t mean you should be doing it. We need every penny, Hank. Just in case.”

He pulled her onto his lap. “We’re been doing good these last few months, and a little flutter ain't gonna hurt. Not once in a while.”

“You promised.” She was stiff in his arms. “You told me you wouldn’t do it again.”

“And I wouldn’t’ve, but Boris gave me the nod, and it came in at 25 to 1, and …” He stopped digging himself deeper. “I'm sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“You said that last time.”

“I promise.”

“Also, like last time.”

“Baby, this is for us. For you and me and Ben. And any other little Mills that come along.” He tightened his arms around her waist. “Can’t be thinking we’re gonna stay on board here forever.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You want to leave?”

“No, of course not.” He sighed. “But there’ll come a day when we’re too old for this, or we can’t move for kids, or someone don’t come back from a job, and …”

“You mean Mal.”

“I ain't being specific, Zo. Just talking. And letting my mouth run away with me too, it seems.”

“It is.”

“I just want enough put by so we can buy something. Some place. So we can put our rockers out on the front porch and just watch the ‘verse go by without having to shoot it all the time. Or that it might shoot back.”

She relaxed a little. “You’ve been thinking about this?”

He dropped his head. “Some. Mostly since Amnesty. Not knowing what had happened to you, thinking maybe I wasn't gonna get you back … it made me consider what I wanted out of life. And I want you.”

“Me.” She lifted a hand and ran it through his untidy brown hair. “You’ve got me.”

“I mean forever.” He turned his face so he could kiss her wrist.

“Forever,” she echoed.

“I know you have a problem with that notion, but I don’t.” He looked up, his grey eyes more serious than she’d seen in a long time. “Forever is just the start, honey. Now I've found you, you think I'm gonna let death stop us?”

She smiled slightly. “I think you need to get out more.”

“Oh, I did.” He laughed. “Did a lot of thinking while I was fishing, and I realised I have it pretty good. But that’s only ‘cause I have you.”

“That you do.” Her fingertips grazed his cheek, travelling to his lips, studying them as if she could read their meaning by touch alone. “And don’t think you’ve managed to change the subject.”

Hank grinned, and his good humour was back. “Actually I thought I’d done it pretty niftily.”

She leaned forward and kissed him, murmuring into his mouth, “This ain't over.”

--

Bethany ran up the ramp and through the cargo bay doors, shedding her coat as she went.

“Sweetheart, pick that up!” her mother called, still out in Persephone’s sunshine.

The little girl stopped, turned and stomped back, reaching down to grab a handful of fabric and swinging it over her shoulder.

“And don’t do that, it’ll crease.”

Bethie sighed heavily and carefully laid the coat over her arm, smoothing it flat.

Jayne sat up on his weights bench and grinned. “Family troubles?” he asked.

She sighed again. “Yes.”

“Want to work it all out?” He nodded towards her Bethany-sized bench next to his.

Her face lit up. “Ooh, yes, please!”

“Then put your best clothes away and hurry on back. I’ll wait for ya.”

She grinned toothily and ran through into the common area.

Kaylee crossed the bay. “She loves her Uncle Jayne,” she said, smiling softly.

“Yeah, well, she’s a good kid.” He took a pull at his water bottle.

“You’re going to make a great dad some day.”

“Ya think? I was kinda worried myself. Being as I'm a killer n’all.” He shook his head. “River says same as you, but … I ain't so sure.”

“I think you’ll be a pussycat.”

His brow furrowed. “Pussy … now, don’t you go telling River that. She’ll be starting to call me it.”

“I might, too,” she teased.

“Aw, Kaylee, don’t. It ain't a man’s name.”

She laughed. “Okay. I promise not to.”

“Good.” He looked past her. “Where’s Frey?”

Kaylee’s face became troubled. “She sent us home. Barely got to the front door and she was telling the hover to bring us back.”

“Oh? How come?”

“She said … I think she could feel her friend. That maybe he’s worse than Dillon let on.”

“And she still went in?”

Kaylee nodded. “She’s real worried about him.”

Bethany bounced out of the common area, back in her working out clothes, Fiddler sniffing all around her feet. “He knows I've been somewhere different,” she said, wrapping her gauze around her little fists.

Her mother smiled, pushing away the concern in the back of her mind. “He’s a clever dog.”

“That he is.” Bethie put her hands on her hips and gazed at Jayne. “Ready!” she announced.

--

It was nearly two hours later that Freya walked up the ramp back onto Serenity, seeing Mal ostensibly reading one of Hank’s trashy novels, sitting on one crate, his feet propped on another.

“Hey,” she said.

He looked up, a creditable attempt at surprise on his face. “Hey. Thought you were back already.”

She had to smile. “Yeah. That’s why you’re waiting for me.”

“I was just taking the air.” He breathed deeply, then wished he hadn’t. Sometimes there were odours best left untested in Eavesdown.

“Really.”

“Can’t a man sit on his own ship and read a book without people asking all kindsa questions?” Mal asked, almost to himself. Then he saw how tired she looked. “You okay?” he asked, putting the book down and standing up. “You look … is Breed …”

“He’s alive,” Freya said, moving her head around on her neck to try and clear the tension in her shoulders.

“Here.” Mal stepped behind her and began to massage the knots in her muscles. “Hey, tight.”

“Yeah.” She dropped her head, just letting him work.

“Okay, come on,” he said, turning her to face him. “If it’s this bad I think you’d better take a lie down.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “I know your version of lying down. And I don’t think either one of us would get any rest.”

“Is that so?” His lips twitched. “And since when did you ever complain?”

“Never,” she admitted. “But I don’t really feel in the mood right now.”

“That bad?”

She nodded. “The doctors are doing what they can, but … Dillon’s afraid.”

“Is it infectious? ‘Cause if it is, I don’t want you being anywhere near –“

“Dillon swears it isn’t. They’ve told him over and over, but … I’m being careful, Mal. I didn’t touch him, didn’t even go that close.”

He looked at her accusingly. “You told me you weren't even going to be in the same room with him.”

“I stayed by the door. And Dillon’s got all this fancy equipment cleaning the air. I was safe.”

“Yet you told Kaylee to bring Bethie back.” He tried to smooth the worry lines on her face.

“I … didn’t want them … I just thought it would be better.” She bit her lip. “I think he might die, Mal.”

“It’s really that bad?”

“I think so. I could feel …” She stopped, just the memory of that icy cold running up her spine making her tremble a little.

“Come on.” He turned her towards the stairs. “You need cheering up, and I think I've got just the thing.”

She looked over her shoulder at him. “What? What’ve you done, Mal?”

“Nothing bad. Honest. Just get up the stairs.”

Her eyes narrowed, but he wouldn’t say anything else, just pushed her gently.

“Hmmn.”

He waited until she’d followed him down into their bunk before helping her off with her coat. “Sit down.”

“Can’t I do this standing up?”

“No. Sit.” She didn’t move, and he nodded forcefully towards the bed. “Sit.”

“I'm not Fiddler, Mal,” she pointed out, but did as he asked.

“Sometimes he seems to obey me more’n the rest of my crew,” Mal said, opening his closet. “Close your eyes.”

“What?”

“Just do it, Frey. Humour me.”

She sighed. “This is crazy.”

“No, it ain't. And I'm not … just close ‘em.”

Lowering her lids, she said, “Better be worth it.”

“Oh, it is.”

She felt something being placed on her knees, something fairly heavy, with edges. Felt like a box. “Mal?”

“Okay, you can open them.”

It was a box, striped in silver and white. “What –“

“Bought you something.” He had a large grin plastered over his face. “Go on, open it.”

She touched the box gingerly. “Should I dunk it in water first?” she joked.

“Rather you didn’t.” She lifted the lid, staring at the contents for so long he began to fidget. “Frey?”

“It’s beautiful.” She touched the dress, a deep bronze shot with gold. It was heavily pleated all over, and hung from gold braid along the shoulders. There was a long tie belt in the same gold in the box too.

“Then what –”

“Why?”

“It’s for the party, Frey.”

“Party?”

“I was gonna keep it for your birthday.” He looked almost like a little boy, wanting her to be as delighted in it as he was. “But seeing as that’s a while yet, and you needed … Ellie Frye helped me pick it out, said she was sure you’d like it. And it works ‘cause of the shape so you can wear it when you ain't pregnant, and I thought you’d …” His voice faded away and he put his head on one side, trying to see her face. “You do, don’t you?”

“What party?”

“Badger got us a meet with a guy, someone called Arnheim, who’s got some stuff he wants delivered discreetly. So we’re going to a party. Tonight.” He was starting to feel anxious, like maybe he'd done the wrong thing or something.

“Oh.”

“I thought you could wear this.”

“So I don’t embarrass you.”

He was shocked at her words, said in such a flat, dead tone, and went down onto his heels in front of her. “No, honey, that ain’t it at all. It’s ‘cause I want you at my side. ‘Cause I’m proud of you.”

She looked up and his heart skipped a beat. She was crying. “Are you?”

“Hey, hey,” he said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “What’s all this? Your hormones on the fritz again? I just figured you’d like it. It ain’t like you’ve got that many dresses over your wedding gown. I just thought –”

“When I was young, I had this dress,” she said softly, looking into his blue eyes. “You think Kaylee’s has a lot of frills and flounces? Mine was just one big flounce.” Her lips lifted just a little. “I loved that dress.” She wiped the back of her hand across her nose.

“Ain’t you got a hankie?”

“No,” she sniffed.

“Women,” he muttered, pulling one from his pocket. “You make sure we carry ‘em so you don’t have to.” He dried her face. “So, about this dress …”

“We were going to a party. An event, really, something to do with my father’s business. All of us. All dressed up in our best, even Alex. And once we got there, I was so … I felt so grown-up, in my first proper gown.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“I was enjoying it so much. Then I heard someone say to someone else … ‘That Rostov girl … odd little thing, isn’t she? And that dress is simply awful.’”

“Oh, Frey.” He moved to the bed next to her.

“That’s why I wanted to be a Companion. So no-one would ever say that ever again.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.”

“And after the Academy I never … hardly ever even owned a dress.”

“Loaned me one that time,” Mal said, watching her closely, trying to lighten her mood.

“Nothing except practical,” she amended.

He took her hands in his. “Frey, you’re beautiful. This shindig, I want you next to me, and I don’t care if you wear a damn sack. I just thought you’d like to wear this.”

“I do,” she whispered.

“Good.” He leaned over and kiss her gently. “It really hurt, didn’t it?”

“When you’re eight things like that stick. Especially when you can see the thoughts behind the words.”

“They were fools.” He took the box from her lap and put it on the floor. “I bet you looked so pretty.”

“I thought so.”

He moved her back so she was lying down, and looked into her face. “Frey, I love you. I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. And right now, I guess I can forgive a little hormonal burst now and again.” He smiled. “But you got my daughter in there,” he added, placing his hand on her swollen belly. “’N’ I don’t want her thinking her momma’s sad all the time.”

“I’ll make you proud,” she said, touching his cheek.

“You already do, ai ren,” he whispered, leaning down to kiss her more thoroughly. “You already do.” His hand pulled the top up so his palm could lay on her skin, feeling the pulse inside, then slid it down a little lower, inside the top of her pants.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Showing you.”

“You don’t have to.”

“What about want to? What about showing how much I love you? What about being so damn selfish that I want my wife around me?”

“Oh.” She smiled. “Do you?”

“Gorramit, Frey. If I could, I’d spend every waking minute making love to you. Do you know how hard you make me?”

“Even barefoot and pregnant?”

“Even then.” He pulled her top higher, and leaned over to kiss her belly. “Our daughter.”

“So you only want me to have your children?” she teased.

“Absolutely,” he agreed, undoing the elastic straps holding her pants closed and lowering the front. “Hundreds of them. All made by us, with our love.” He slid his fingers inside her panties.

“Mal …” She breathed in sharply.

“And we’ve got the time before we have to be getting ready. ‘Sides, I’m guessing most of my crew are spending time together.”

She licked her lips and gazed into nothing for a moment. “Oh, they are. Although it’s only River and Jayne who are …” She grimaced. “Oh, that’s just gross.”

Mal laughed. “I knew there was some advantages to not being psychic.”

“Oh, I have got to wash out my mind.”

“There’ll be no brainwashing on my ship,” he warned, holding her closer. “Want me to stop?”

“No.”

“Good. ‘Cause I wasn’t planning to.” He smiled. “Only you’d better shimmy out of that shoulder holster ‘fore I go any further. Don’t fancy getting shot by accident.”

--

Part IV

River sat cross-legged on top of the EVA suit cabinet and waited. Jayne had worked out for a while after they’d made love in their shuttle, and now he was cleaning his guns on the kitchen table. She could feel the calmness of the automatic, monotonous actions filling him, allowing his brain to almost close down, and she held onto that calmness like a rock. Down in the lower crew quarters Bethany was sitting with Ethan, reading him a story while he looked at the pictures, occasionally asking her a question, while Hope and Ben had a nap in the nursery.

Kaylee and Simon, however, were talking to Zoe and Hank in the common area, and she listened into their conversation.

“I checked the alerts again,” the pilot was saying. “Nothing about it on any of ‘em.”

“Keep an eye on them,” Simon requested. “I know I'm probably being paranoid but –“

“Ain't paranoia,” Kaylee put in, standing close to her husband. “Not when it’s our children.”

“It’s just, from what you saw, and with Breed being so ill …”

“You think it’s the same thing?” Zoe asked.

“I have no way of knowing, not without seeing the test results.”

“If they did any,” Hank added. “Ain't like the people they’re reporting are important.”

“Every human life is important,” Simon said sternly.

“To you. To me, even. But not to the powers that be.” Hank shook his head. “No matter what, this is an Alliance world. And I'm figuring they’re just waiting for the problem to go away.”

River could see the picture still in Kaylee’s mind of the young man. At first it hadn’t meant anything, him knocking into them like that, but on the way back to Serenity she’d noticed quite a few people who looked … not exactly sick, but not in the best of health. In a dock like Eavesdown that wasn’t unusual, but somehow the number of them had grumbled away in the back of her brain until she just had to mention it to Simon, who’d asked Hank to check the posted alerts for Persephone. They were discussing the results.

The young psychic tasted Kaylee’s memory and reached out, trying to find the boy. But there was nothing. Her attention drifted back to the others.

Simon was speaking. “… but I know they must have.”

“You want I should see if I can find Breed’s file?” Hank asked.

“Can you do that?” The young man was surprised. “They’re highly classified, kept in the most secure area of the -”

“Doc, no system is one hundred percent secure. If it’s on a computer somewhere, there’s gonna be someone who can access it.”

“And is that someone you?” Zoe asked.

“Might be. Or River. Or maybe both of us together.”

“I don’t know.” Simon wasn't sure. “These are personal files. I’d be violating one of the most sacred tenets of medical confidentiality.“

“And maybe putting Frey’s mind at rest,” the pilot pointed out.

“She really is worried about him, Simon,” Zoe agreed. “And it’s not like you’re just anyone. You are a doctor.

“But not his.”

“Could ask Dillon,” Kaylee said hesitantly. “He knows you’re a doc – he’d be able to help. And I'm sure he wouldn’t mind a second opinion.”

“But that would … I still might not get the in-depth test results they must have run, not without running the risk of them finding out who I am.”

River could feel his conviction waning.

“It’d help Frey,” Kaylee said, taking his arm. “And the Cap, too. He don’t like her going there, not if there’s any chance this might be infectious. And her being pregnant and all …”

“I suppose.”

Hank laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. “’Sides, doc, ain't no guarantee I can get anywhere near those files, even with the help of our resident genius.”

River sighed. She didn’t think she resembled anything close to a genius right now. In fact she was feeling pretty fuzzy, like she’d had one of those pretty little pink drinks Inara liked. Except her mind was prickling with a thousand sharp needles, all drawing a single ruby bead of blood, linked together into a living necklace. She shook her head, trying to clear it.

There was a noise above her, of someone fussing. It sounded, somewhat improbably, like Mal. She looked up.

“Stop it,” Freya said.

“Just helping,” he insisted. “It ain't like you’ve got that much acquaintance with your feet no more.”

They stepped out onto the upper catwalk

“And I haven’t fallen down the stairs yet,” she pointed out. “Not now or with Ethan.”

“That’s in pants. This is a dress. And no matter what you say, I just want you to be careful.” Mal saw River watching them, her eyes wide. “Tell her, will you?” he asked.

“She won’t fall.”

Mal glared. “You’re no help.”

“But she is beautiful.”

His gaze softened, and he looked back at his wife. “Yeah, she is, isn’t she?”

Freya sighed, shaking her head. “I'm not.”

“Trust me. I wouldn’t lie to a pregnant woman.” He nuzzled her neck.

“Just … stop that.” She started down the metal staircase, but Mal was right next to her, his hand under her arm. Truth to say, she didn’t mind. Something about being in a dress made her feel vulnerable, not herself. Particularly as she wasn’t armed.

“Ooh.” Kaylee had come out into the bay on hearing the voices, the others following, and was staring up. “That’s …”

Freya smiled. “You like?”

“I like.”

The smile grew into a grin as Freya looked down at herself. “Mal got it for me.“

“It’s wonderful.“

The bronze dress was such fine fabric but so heavily pleated that it fitted in all the right places, while still having the room to accommodate the swell of her baby. Having tried every possible placement for the belt, she’d finally gone with it low slung, under the bulge, and she was looked like the goddess of fruitfulness.

Mal didn’t really care what she wore, but right now couldn’t help feeling a certain pride in his chest that she was his. She was luscious.

“What’re you wearing underneath?” Kaylee asked. Hank chortled, but was silenced by a swift elbow from Zoe, and the mechanic added quickly, “On your feet, I meant.”

“Those soft slippers Inara gave me.” Freya lifted her dress so they could see. “Mal said I couldn’t wear my boots.”

“Quite right too,” Simon said, smiling. “You might be asked to dance, and you can’t be injuring people if you tread on them.”

“As if anyone’s going to do that,” she scoffed, reaching the deck.

“I would,” Hank piped up. “You look like a million credits.”

“That she does,” Mal said, standing so close he could feel her warmth.

“You look shiny too, Cap’n,” Kaylee said loyally.

He had on his wedding suit, the gold cravat around his neck complementing Freya’s dress as if they were made to go together. “I feel like a piece of meat,” he complained, running his finger around his collar. “Hanging up, about to be sold.”

“You always say that when you get dressed up,” Freya said, batting his hand away. “And you always do that, too.”

“Nervous habit,” he admitted. “I’ll be fine once we get going.”

Bethany appeared around her father’s legs. “Pretty,” she whispered, staring at the couple in front of her.

“Thanks, Bethie” Mal said.

“I think she meant me,” Freya laughed.

“So did I.”

“Both look pretty,” Bethany amended, and Simon ruffled her hair.

Ethan stepped out of the common area and crossed the bay towards his parents. “Mama?”

She leaned forward carefully and took his face in her hands. “You be a good boy for everyone, won’t you? Your Daddy and me are just going out for the evening.”

“Can I come?” he asked, fingering the fabric of her dress but turning his big blue eyes on his father.

Mal went down onto his heels, feeling the tug of his somewhat tight pants around his nether regions. “Not this time, big feller. Maybe next. You have to be the man of the ship and take care of everyone.”

Ethan nodded solemnly. “I will,” he promised.

“Good boy.” Mal hugged his son.

“Hover’s here,” River said, hearing it purr up outside.

“Shiny.” He stood up and smoothed his jacket into place before looking down at his son. “Now you go back and stay with Bethie, okay?”

“’Kay.” Ethan headed back to the little girl, taking her hand.

Mal grinned. “Better be on the move.” He held out his hand. “Frey, may I escort you to the party?”

She looked at him with liquid brown eyes. “Why, thank you, I think you may.”

His own grin grew wider, and he turned to the others. “Zoe, ship is yours. Keep her safe.”

“What time do you expect to be back, sir?” his first mate asked.

“Not rightly sure. When Frey can’t take anymore of the men drooling over her, I guess.”

“Drooling?” His wife shook her head. “Mal, we really need to get you that seeing eye dog.”

“My eyesight’s fine.” He put his hand in the small of her back and urged her towards the ramp.

“Sure it is.”

“Nothing wrong with knowing every man is gonna be wishing you were on his arm.”

“Mal, we’re there on business. And I’m pregnant,” she added.

“So? You’re still gonna outshine all of the other women, and I intend having a little fun tonight.”

“It‘s not supposed to be fun.”

“Not even a little bit?”

“We’re going to get a job.”

“Granted. And we’ll do that first. But after …Frey, we’ve got the whole evening.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“God, I hope so.”

Hank and Zoe exchanged amused looks at the good-natured bickering of the captain and his wife as they walked down the ramp.

“Enjoy yourselves,” Kaylee called out as they climbed into the waiting vehicle. Freya waved once. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

“That leaves ‘em a fair amount of leeway,” Hank joked, then winced at Zoe trod on his foot.

Jayne leaned on the railing of the catwalk, watching his lover staring out of the cargo doors at the departing hover. Keep an eye on ‘em, he thought softly.

I intend to.

--

‘The Baluster Garden Rooms welcome all the members of the Persephone Board of Commerce and guests to an evening of fine wine and conversation. Dinner will be served at 8.30 pm, and there will be dancing in the Accord Suite starting at 10.30 pm. Should you require anything, the management is only too happy to consider your request. Enjoy your visit.’

Freya laughed.

“What?” Mal asked, joining her.

“Just reading this.” She pointed to the sign. “Very nicely worded.”

“You mean, the implication being if you don’t like it, tough?”

“Pretty much.”

“Didn’t you know? Being high class means you can insult people all you like.”

“Is that it?”

“It is.”

“Then Jayne must be royalty.”

Mal grinned. “Don’t tell him that,” he advised. “He’ll be demanding a crown next.” Glancing at the people milling around, he took her arm. “Better get inside. The sooner we find Arnheim, the quicker we can be enjoying ourselves.”

She was amused by his attitude. “You really mean that.”

“I want everyone to see you, bao bei. See what a lucky bastard I am.”

Leaning into him, she brushed her lips lightly over his. “I’m the lucky one.”

Holding her gently, he steered her through the ornate metal doors. A little smaller than he expected it to be, it was still decked out in opulent fashion, with heavy tapestries and silk curtains, and comfortable chairs lining the walls. There was a thick carpet underfoot, and the whole effect put Mal in mind of Inara’s drawing room back on Lazarus, but on a much grander scale. Fires burned in elaborate grates at intervals on one long side, but the french windows opposite were open to compensate, leading out onto a wide verandah overlooking the famous Baluster Gardens. Lights twinkled in the trees.

Inside small groups of people were standing talking, while waiters passed silently between them, trays of drinks balanced on their upturned fingertips.

Mal checked out the assembled high and might of Persephone, letting the wash of conversation roll over him, absently marking all the exits in case of trouble, as well as mentally judging any of those present who might make said trouble.

Turning to Frey he was about to speak, but realised she was thinking of something else, her eyes not seeing the imposing surroundings at all.

“You okay?” he asked quietly.

She brought herself back and smiled a little. “I’m fine.”

“Try again.”

“It’s just … I hope Breed’s all right.”

“No.” When she turned to stare at him, he added quickly, “You’re not to think about him tonight. We might be here on business, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you worry about something you can’t control. Dong mah?”

“I understand. But he’s my friend.”

“And I know the doctors are doing everything they can. Dillon’s going to make sure of that.”

“I know.”

“So relax.” He beckoned one of the waiters over and picked up two flutes of wine. “Here.”

“I can’t,” Freya complained, touching her belly.

“One ain’t gonna harm. I asked Simon. Only the one, mind. Can’t have you getting drunk and falling asleep in the soup.” He smiled and held out a glass. “Besides, I want to drink our health.”

“Oh, well, if you want to do that …” She took the wine, holding it up.

“To us.”

“To us.”

They sipped, allowing the scented liquid to slip down their throats.

“You know, I don’t often agree with Jayne, but you‘d have to drink a barrel load of this stuff before you felt it.” Mal shook his head.

“I’m sure they could find you something else if you asked.”

“Nope. I’ll make do.” He looked at the golden liquid suspiciously.

Freya laughed, and nodded towards a second waiter. He hurried over. “My husband isn’t really a wine drinker,” she explained. “Could you get him a whisky?”

“Of course. Ice?”

“No. Straight, please.”

“Of course, madam.” He melted away.

“That weren’t … I’d be fine with this,” Mal protested.

She took the glass from him and put it down on one of the small tables dotted around. “We’re not paying, so why not enjoy it while you can?” she asked mischievously.

“Badger’ll be sure to take it out somehow.”

“Just let him try.”

The waiter was back, a cut-glass tumbler with a good sized measure in it on his tray. He stopped in front of Freya and inclined his head slightly. “Madam.”

“Thank you.” She picked it up, smiling at the young man, who blushed just a little before bowing and almost running off. “Here,” she said to Mal, handing it over.

He shook his head, marvelling at how easily she fitted in, as if she’d been doing this all her life. He sniffed the glass and raised his eyebrows. “Good stuff.”

“I should think it’s the best.” She watched him sip the liquid, saw the intense satisfaction on his face, and chuckled. “By the way, who are we?”

“Us. Captain and Mrs Reynolds.”

“Good. I’d hate to forget. And this Arnheim. What does he look like?”

Mal shook his head. “Badger didn’t know. But he’s supposed to be wearing white gloves and a blue carnation.”

“Blue? Can you get blue carnations?”

“Maybe it’s dyed. Just keep an eye out.”

“Well, there’s lots of white gloves,” Freya said, scanning the room. “But I don’t see …” She stopped. “Run-tse de fuo-tsoo …”

“Honey?” He looked into her face, suddenly pale, and his heart began to pound. “Is it the baby?”

“No,” she whispered, staring across the room.

“Then what …” He followed her gaze. A small group of people were talking, four men and three women. “Frey?”

“It’s …” She swallowed. “I think it’s my mother.”

--

Part V

“Wonder how the Cap and Freya are getting on?” Kaylee handed the platter of bread to Hank.

“Likely sitting down to a decent meal,” the pilot said.

“Hey, I did my best!” Kaylee protested, halting in the action of sitting down. “And that’s real meat, from the last of the supplies my Pa gave us.”

“It’s fine, Kaylee,” Zoe said, and glared at the man next to her.

“I didn’t meant that,” Hank amended quickly. “I meant … more expensive. You know. Quails’ tongues, caviar, that kind of thing.

“Caviar?” Kaylee wrinkled her nose. “You mean fish eggs?”

“It was very popular at MedAcad,” Simon said, putting a selection of food onto Bethany’s plate, and watching her attack it with her usual gusto. “There would be these little parties, late at night, in someone or other’s room. Up to a dozen students, sitting around on the floor and eating caviar on these little slices of toast, drinking champagne.”

“Why?” Hank asked.

“Because they could. Because it was against the rules to drink in the dorms. Because they thought they were being so revolutionary.” He shrugged. “It was a fad.”

“Did you ever go?” his wife asked.

“Once. It was incredibly boring. They were talking about work, about our tutors, the patients … I didn’t bother going again.”

“Simon made his own entertainment,” River put in, smiling slightly.

“You did?” Jayne asked. “What, you mean like -”

“Hiking,” the young man interrupted, glaring at Jayne, then glancing down at Bethany, who was industriously ploughing her way through her dinner. “And climbing. And even occasionally actually studying.”

“No wonder you never had no friends.”

Simon bit back the sharp retort that sat ready on his tongue, and instead gave the honest answer. “You’re probably right.”

Kaylee squeezed his hand. “Got lots of friends now,” she said softly.

“Not lots. But, I think, good ones.” His lips lifted.

“The best,” Hank agreed, grinning.

“So how about a game o’ cards after we eat?” Jayne suggested, spearing a slab of meat. “Could do with winning some of that money back.”

“Sounds okay,” Hank replied, then wilted a little at Zoe’s glare. “But not for cash. Maybe … sugar sticks.”

“Sugar … what the hell would I want with sugar sticks?” the big mercenary growled.

“Then it’s not gambling.”

“I like to gamble.”

“I know.” Hank glanced at Zoe who was at that moment not looking at him, and he winked at Jayne, hoping he’d get the message.

“Then why’re we …” He saw Hank’s eye move, and realised what the pilot was trying to tell him. “Aw, I guess. Only not sugar sticks. I’ll be eating my stake rather than playing it.”

“I’m sure we can find something.” Hank grinned, relishing the idea of a little harmless poker later on. Or maybe Cargo. Particularly as Jayne had a tell he didn’t know about yet.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Simon asked his wife, seeing her pushing her food around her plate.

She shook her head. “Nah, not really. Guess maybe I was tasting it too much as I was getting it ready.” She smiled at him. “Probably eat it later. I’ll put it to one side.”

“Do you feel all right?” He laid the back of his hand on her forehead. “You don’t seem to have a temperature.”

She took his fingers in hers, lowering them to her lap. “I’m shiny, Simon. I’ll probably wake up in the night and feel so hungry I’ll make you get up to get the plate for me.”

He smiled. “Okay.”

To deflect his concern, Kaylee changed the subject. “You know, it really ain’t fair. There’s the Cap and Frey getting to go to this here party, and I never get the chance to wear my dress.”

“You liked going to that ball, didn’t you?”

“It was … well, at first nobody’d talk to me, but then … yeah, it was fun. Until the punching.”

“I think Freya will stop him doing anything like that.”

“Golden wine and whisky,” River murmured, but so quietly no-one but Jayne heard her.

“They okay?” he asked, keeping his voice low while the others chattered on.

“Freya thinks she’s seeing things.” She shook her head, then her eyes widened and she sat up. “Mother,” she whispered.

--

“Your mother?” Mal stared back at the group. “Which …” He didn’t finish. It had to be her. Tall, her bearing erect, white hair piled on top of her head, there was something … then she laughed. God. Still … “Frey, you ain’t seen her in more’n half a lifetime. You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“How? I mean, people change. It might not be her. You can’t –“

“I'm sure,” she repeated. She moved forward.

“What … where’re you going?” He took her arm, holding her back.

“I …” She looked into his face. “I don’t know. I … I think I want to speak to her.”

“Frey, honey, Elena Rostov’s dead. A long time. She ain’t you, and that ain’t your mother no more.”

“I know. But I still need to … at least say hello.”

“That’s really not a good idea. What if she recognises you?”

“I was a child when she saw me last. I think I've changed somewhat. Like you said, people do. I'm a grown woman now. Don’t you think that’s a big change?” She stroked the mound at her belly absently.

“Since I ain't never been a cradle-snatcher, I conjure you’re right. But I still think –“

“Please.”

“But if she does. What then?”

“We run. Okay, I waddle, but you run.”

“No-one’s running anywhere because you ain’t going.”

“Mal -”

“I said no!” His eyes were on hers, and she could see anger brewing in their blue depths. Still she couldn’t leave it.

“She’s my mother -”

He grabbed her arm, startling a group nearby. He made his hand relax, letting go. Still, the tone in his voice was unmistakeable. “Gorramit, Frey, if she figures out who you are she might … I ain’t losing you.”

“She won’t. I’m dead, Mal. At least, Elena is. You said so yourself. And she’s my family.”

“She sent you to that Academy.”

His words bit at her as memories flashed through her mind before she could stop them. “I chose to go, Mal,” she whispered.

“That ain’t the point.” He was getting exasperated now as well. “Frey, please. Forget this. Let’s just find that Arnheim feller and get gone from here. And even if it is her - and I’m hoping to God it isn’t - there’s nothing you can say to her.”

“I want to hear her voice, Mal. It’s been so long since I’ve heard her voice.”

He stared at her, and realised this wasn’t the woman who was in his bed every night, who was the mother of one of his children and the mother-to-be of another. This was the little girl who longed for her parents’ approval, for her father to tell her a bedtime story and kiss her goodnight, for her mother to brush her hair and tell her she was pretty. All the things she never got.

“Frey, what good would it do?”

She just looked at him, but the light in her eyes dimmed a little. Finally she nodded. “I know. But you have to.”

“What?”

“The man standing next to her. He’s wearing white gloves and a blue carnation. I think it’s Arnheim.”

Mal turned, checked quickly. She was right.

“You know, this job ain’t worth the risk,” he said softly.

“But we’re here now. You go and make the deal. I’ll … stay here.”

He glanced back at her, his eyes narrowed a little. “You promise?”

“I promise.”

He contemplated just how much he could believe her at the moment, but nodded. “I’ll try and get him away from that group, then you can join us. But you don’t go near your … that woman, dong mah?”

“I understand.”

He handed her the glass of whisky. “Here. I think you might need a sip of this.” He gave her a final look, then put his hand on her arm, squeezing it a little, before moving off through the crowd.

“… and I swear he pulled it out of nowhere!” The stocky man with the green cummerbund finished his tale, his chin disappearing into his chest as he waited for their appreciation. They laughed dutifully.

“Sir Karel, you are a bad man,” one of the women said, tapping him on the shoulder with her fan.

“Only when there are beautiful women about,” Sir Karel responded gallantly.

“’Scuse me, “ Mal said brightly, approaching the group. “But I was just wondering if one of you fine gentlemen was Mr John Arnheim?”

“Not me,” the oldest said, his bald pate reflecting the chandelier’s light.

“I don’t believe I know the name,” Sir Karel added. “Is he from Persephone?”

Mal looked at the man with the blue flower pinned to his lapel by a silver clip. “Mr Arnheim?” he asked.

The man, no older than Mal, shook his head. “No. But I know him.”

“Really?” Mal smiled. “Could you point him out to me?”

“May I ask why you need to speak to him?”

“Purely business.” Mal allowed a small shrug to lift his shoulders. “I realise it probably isn’t the done thing to actually discuss matters like that here, but -”

“Not at all,” Sir Karel said, slapping him on the back. “That’s what we’re here for. Promoting trade.”

“But I thought your Elect wouldn’t let people sell off-world.”

Sir Karel smiled indulgently. “There are ways, young man. There are ways.”

“Have you found him?”

Mal turned, seeing Freya standing close behind him. He glared at her. “Not as yet. And I thought you were going to sit down, have a rest.”

She smiled shakily. “I was. And of course you’re right. Being pregnant makes one so tired, don’t you find?” She looked around the ladies and fanned herself with her hand. “Does it seem very warm in here …” Her eyes began to close.

Mal, alarmed, immediately put his arms around her.

“Here,” Sir Karel said, pulling one of the chairs from the wall. “Sit her down.”

“Thank you.” Mal lowered her into the seat, concerned by the paleness of her complexion.

“I'm fine,” Freya insisted. “Please don’t fuss.” Still, she let him put a cushion behind her back.

“Alex, get some water,” the white haired woman said.

“Yes mother.” The man with the blue flower hurried off.

Freya felt the world spin slightly. Alex?

“Your wife should just sit quietly for a moment, Mr …?” Sir Karel made it a question.

“Reynolds. Captain Reynolds.” He didn’t miss the slight start the woman gave, and was immediately on his guard.

She covered it quickly. “How far along are you?” she asked, her face taking on a kindly aspect.

“Few days under seven months,” Mal supplied. “I really think I should find our doctor –“

“No,” Freya said, taking his hand. “I’ll be fine.”

The man Alex came back with a glass. “Here,” he said, handing it over.

“Thank you.” She was afraid to look into his face, afraid of what she might see. Oh, Mal was right. This had so not been a good idea. “But I'm fine.” She took the glass. “I think I just need some air.” She looked up involuntarily into hazel eyes that mirrored her own. She stared for a moment, afraid she’d seen a flash of recognition before getting awkwardly to her feet and hurrying out onto the balcony. Mal followed quickly.

“Frey? Freya, what is it?” He was scared to see her standing, her arms crossed over her belly, shaking. “Frey? What?” He stepped up behind her, putting his hand around her, checking her stomach, but she turned into him, letting him hold her, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Mal, I was wrong. You were right. I shouldn’t have done this.”

He held her tightly, willing her to be okay. “Frey, please.” He looked down into her face. “Is it the baby? ‘Cause if it is, we need to get you back –“

“No.” She shook her head.

“Captain Reynolds?” It was him. Alex Rostov. Standing in the light from the window. “If your wife all right?”

Freya turned away, wiping at her cheeks with the back of her hand. Mal looked at the man. There was a resemblance, more than that, for sure. But what made his Freya special was missing. “She’s okay,” he said, dragging a smile up. “Just … being pregnant.”

“I’d hoped it was nothing more.” Alex Rostov smiled. “I’m glad …” He half-turned, as if he was going to go back inside, then looked back. “Elena?”

Freya stiffened behind Mal.

“I think you’re confusing her with someone else,” Mal said firmly. “Now, if you’d like to give my wife and me a little space –“

“Please.” Alex was almost pleading. “Elena?”

--

Part VI

“River? What is it?” Simon looked at his sister. “Whose mother?”

“Elena’s.” She bit her lip. “Freya’s.” Glancing around she shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean Mrs Rostov?” Simon glanced at Zoe, who was sitting forward, her face intent.

“And someone else.” River reached for Jayne’s hand. “Brother.”

“Freya’s?” the big man asked gently.

“Her twin. So close and yet …”

Hank stirred uneasily. “You think they’re in trouble?”

River shook her head. “Not yet. Not …” She frowned.

“What’s happening?” Zoe asked.

The young woman focused harder. “Trying to persuade her. Blood is thicker …”

--

“Look, whatever you think is going on here –“ Mal glared at the young man in the doorway, seeing the resemblance to his wife that now ate at him.

“Elena, I know it’s you.” Alex ploughed on, regardless of the anger he could see building in the other man, trying to see round him to the woman he was convinced was his sister. “It’s why we came. Why we’re here. We had to … I had to see you. Please, Elena.”

“I don’t know who you are,” Mal said, taking a step forward. “But you’re mistaken.”

“We had a DNA trace notification for a baby on Greenleaf,” Alex gabbled out, almost afraid he wasn't going to be allowed to say another word. Ever.

Freya closed her eyes. “Ethan,” she murmured.

Mal heard and his heart contracted. “I think that’s enough,” he said, his hand reaching for a gun that wasn’t on his hip.

“It was automatically forwarded, retro-analysed, flagged … It was you, Elena. You’re the mother.” Alex watched as Captain Reynolds took another step towards him, but held his ground. “Please. We’ve been looking for you, Elena. We‘ve come all this way to find you.”

Freya turned slowly, moving out into the light. Tears shone on her cheeks. “It’s not me. Whoever you think it is, it’s not me.”

“Elena …” Alex gazed at her. “I know. God, Elena, do you think I don’t know my own sister?”

“I might look like her, but … it isn’t me. My name’s Reynolds. Freya Reynolds. I’m not this Elena.”

“You are. I know it. Please, Elena.” He was pleading as if his life depended on it.

She stared at him, not breathing, then something broke inside her. “Alex …”

A smile flashed across his face and he looked like a boy. “Elena … God … Elena!” He crossed the small distance and took her into his arms. Hers came up slowly, achingly slowly until she held him, then her grip tightened.

“Alex,” she murmured.

Mal couldn’t do anything but watch. Whatever happened now was no longer in his control.

“I can’t believe it,” Alex was saying, over and over. “We thought … we were told you were dead.” He was crying. “So long ago …”

“I’m not Elena anymore, Alex,” Freya said, hugging him so very hard. “It’s been a lifetime.”

“I don’t care,” he declared, letting go enough so he could look into her face. “You’re my sister. And I've found you.”

“Is it her?” asked a woman’s voice.

Everyone looked towards the French windows. Eugenia Rostov stood silhouetted against the light, her hand against her throat.

“Is it?” she repeated, stepping forwards.

Freya couldn’t breath. For a moment she thought she was going to faint, only Alex’s arm around her stopping her falling. Then it was replaced by Mal’s, much more proprietorial, giving her the strength she needed. She licked dry lips.

“Mother -” Alex began, but was interrupted.

“It is. Merciful Buddha …” Madam Rostov looked as if she was about to collapse, and her son rushed to her side.

“Mother?”

“It is you,” she whispered again, then held out her arms. “Please, Lena, please …”

Freya couldn’t help it. She almost ran across the patio and into her mother’s embrace. “Momma,” she murmured.

“Lena!”

Her eyes closed, Freya held the moment. Whatever happened now, however this ended, she would always have the memory of this instant in time, of her mother not caring about her clothes, how it looked, just hugging her. It wasn’t happiness she felt, not yet, but a strange sense of absolution. Of freedom.

Mal stood back, unable to move. For so long Freya had believed that she was alone, that her blood family not only thought she was dead, but wouldn’t want to know her if they found out she wasn‘t. Yet this, such emotion, such joy at finding her … He had to swallow the lump in his throat, even as he didn’t know what to do. Then he saw her reaching out her hand blindly for him, and he took it, feeling her trembling. And he realised he just needed to be there for her.

Freya stepped back a little. “Momma.”

Madam Rostov didn’t want to let go, and touched her daughter’s face, as if trying to fix it in her mind. “What happened to you?” she asked, tears rolling down her cheeks, but smiling as she looked her up and down, eyes lingering on the pregnancy.

“Life happened, Momma.” Freya held tightly onto Mal’s hand and glanced at him. “Momma, this is my husband, Mal. Malcolm. Captain Reynolds.”

Her mother gathered herself a little, lifting her head and straightening her shoulders. She looked at Mal, her natural confidence reasserting itself. “Delighted to meet you.”

“Likewise.”

“And are you looking after my daughter, Captain Reynolds?” Madam Rostov asked.

“I try.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Madam Rostov laughed guiltily. “I’m sorry. I have no idea what to say.”

Mal relaxed a little. “Yeah, Frey has that effect on a lot of folks.”

“Frey?”

“That’s who I am,” Freya said. “That’s my name.”

“No, you’re -”

“I’m Freya Reynolds. Elena doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Of course you do. You’re standing right here in front of me.”

“Mother …” Alex had noticed faces at the window, staring at them.

She followed his gaze, and shook her head. “This is ridiculous.” Madam Rostov turned to her son. “Try and find us a room where we can talk privately.”

Alex nodded and hurried off, but not without squeezing his sister’s hand and grinning at her before he went.

“What’s there to talk about?” Freya, despite her earlier desperate need to see this woman again, now didn’t know what came next. “Old times?” She shook her head. “We don’t have old times, Mother.”

“What happened to Momma?” Genia Rostov asked softly.

“You never liked it. And … and Alex just called you Mother.”

“That’s him. And you always called me Momma.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Not so long that I don’t remember.”

“It was a different person. A little girl. A child who went off to be tortured.”

Madam Rostov jolted. “What are you talking about, Elena?”

“It’s not Elena! It’s Freya!” She was beginning to see coloured lights at the periphery of her vision.

Mal pulled her away, turning her so he could look into her eyes. “Look, you calm down or I’m taking you home, no matter what you say. Even if I have to sling you over my shoulder and carry you.” He put his hand on her cheek. “And remember to breathe.” Lowering his voice to a whisper he added, “And use me.” Freya took strength from him, and he watched as she regained some measure of control. “Good girl, “ he murmured.

“Elena, I’m sorry,” Madam Rostov said immediately. “I mean Freya. Please forgive me. It’s just … you‘ve always been Elena to us.”

“Not to me,” Mal said, putting his arm around his wife’s waist. “And I’m not sure this is doing her any good.”

“I’m okay, Mal,” Freya interrupted. “Honestly.”

“You sure?”

She nodded just as Alex came back outside. “I’m sure.”

“There’s a room on the first floor,” her brother said quietly, feeling the tension in the air. “We can get to it by the stairs over there.” He nodded towards stone steps leading up from the verandah.

“At least let’s get you somewhere you can sit down,” Madam Rostov insisted. “It was a long time ago, but I remember how it felt to be seven months pregnant. Sitting down became something of a priority.” She reached out to take her daughter’s arm, but Mal was there, and not about to relinquish his hold. She nodded. “Upstairs, I think.”

--

“Is she okay?” Hank wanted to know, all eyes around the table on River.

The young psychic didn’t answer for a moment. “She’s … torn,” she finally said. “Can’t step back. Not sure what to do.”

Zoe stood up. “River, should we be there?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Just wait.”

--

Mal made sure Freya was comfortable in the large armchair then stepped back, feeling useless at this juncture. Alex slid into the chair next to her, holding a glass of water for her, and her mother sat opposite, but he didn’t know what to do. He was an intruder, not part of this odd group, and it pained him. He’d never felt excluded before, not once from her life. Backing up, he stood against the wall, wishing he had his gunbelt to hitch his thumbs into. Something to do with his hands.

Be here for me, he heard in his mind.

Always, my beautiful xin gan, he thought back, and saw Freya’s lips twitch. She took the water and sipped it, and he was glad to see some colour coming back into her cheeks.

“Where have you been, Elen - Freya?” Alex asked. “All this time?”

“Around. Living.” She smoothed the dress over her belly. “Having a family.”

“Alex … did some research,” Madam Rostov said, her back straight, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. “Your marriage. Your … your son.”

“Ethan.”

“And he’s how old?” Alex asked.

“Old enough to run us ragged sometimes.” Freya smiled. “He’s a good boy.”

“He … the DNA trace … it was from a child with Minuet’s.”

The smile disappeared. “Yes.”

“And he’s … there’s no after effects?”

“No. He had a small pacemaker fitted on Greenleaf, and he’s fine now.”

“That’s good.”

Madam Rostov nodded agreement. “And this little one?”

“Our daughter.” Freya looked down, and they could all see the pride in her face. “She’s going to be so beautiful,” she murmured.

“I have two of my own,” Alex said, and Freya lifted her head, staring at him.

“You’re married?”

He laughed. “I didn’t stay a child forever … Freya.”

He was trying, she understood that. “And how old are they?”

“Mimi’s seven, and Tilly’s three. I’ve got a capture here somewhere …” He patted his pockets.

“Alex,” his mother warned.

“No, I’d like to see,” Freya said quickly. “I just … never imagined Alex as a father.”

“He’s very good at it. His wife will tell you.” Madam Rostov looked at her son with undisguised affection, and for a moment Freya was back in her childhood home, seeing the family she wasn’t a part of.

Frey.

She felt Mal‘s compassion, his love, knowing he understood, and nodded slowly.

Alex, on the other hand, shook his head. “I can’t find it. I must have left it in the … well, never mind. I’ll show you another time.”

“Another time?” Freya looked at him. “Is there going to be another time?”

“Of course there is.” Madam Rostov was adamant. “Now we’ve found you, of course there will be.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re my daughter.” To the older woman it was obvious.

“So?”

“Elena -”

“Freya! For God’s sake, why can’t you understand? My name is Freya! Elena died in a fire at the Academy.” She closed her eyes. “Why do you want to resurrect her?”

“You’ll always be Elena.”

Freya glared at her mother. “I was a Browncoat. Did you know that? Did Alex find out in his research? I fought for the Independents, Mother.” She waved away Alex’s steadying hand. “One of your precious Rostovs fighting for the other side, against the Alliance. And do you know why? Do you have any idea what happened at that Academy? What they did to me? What they tried to make me into?”

“I don’t understand.” Madam Rostov looked truly confused.

“Elena didn’t go through the war, didn’t see what I’ve seen. Men with their guts hanging out, calling for mothers, fathers, God to save them. And you can’t waste a bullet so you sit by them and slit their throats. And they look at you with gratitude. Or counting body parts to try and figure out who’s not coming back. Or hearing the seeker above you and knowing it’s going to tear you to pieces if you don’t get the drone off your belt quick enough. And all that, all the pain and the horror and the anguish still wasn’t as bad as one day in that gorram place.”

“Lena.” Alex put his hand on her arm, seeing his mother’s face pale.

Freya closed her eyes again, tried to control herself. “There are things you don’t understand,” she said softly. “Things you can’t. And I can’t explain them to you.” She got to her feet. “Mal was right. I should have stayed away from you, not wanted to …”

Mal stepped forward, but Alex spoke again, quietly, with little inflection.

“Freya, our father’s dying.”

--

Part VII

“River, this isn’t … can’t you tell us what’s happening?” Simon stared over the table at his sister.

“She’s doing her best,” Jayne growled, holding the young woman’s hand.

“They’re talking. That’s all. About families. About …” She shook her head.

“Are they on the level?” Hank asked, on the edge of his seat.

“Don’t care if they are,” Zoe said, stepping down into the galley and finishing strapping on her gunbelt. “Jayne, you’re with me.”

“Not in any danger,” River whispered. “Except of losing.”

“Honey, we don’t understand,” Kaylee said softly.

Ethan stared around the table, then climbed carefully from his chair. He toddled unnoticed to River and tugged on her dress. “Auntie River?”

She looked down. “Ethan -”

“Mama’s upset.”

Jayne leaned forward and picked him up, setting him on his thigh. “You know that, squirt?”

“Mama’s upset,” he repeated, his little face beginning to screw up. “Don’t like her being upset.”

“Your Pa’ll stop her being upset, Ethan,” Jayne promised.

“Daddy’s worried.”

The others all exchanged glances.

“Is … is Ethan -” Zoe began, but River stiffened in her seat, her head raising.

“Father,” she whispered.

--

“What are you talking about?” Freya asked, tightening her grip on Mal’s arm.

“Ivan is dying,” Madam Rostov said, her hands clenched so hard her knuckles were white. “It’s … he’s not got long.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Alex explained, standing up and moving towards his sister. “Why we had to find you. He wants to see you.”

“Me?” Freya glanced at Mal, and he realised just how shaken she was as she leaned more of her weight onto him.

“It’s his last chance.”

“So how’d you know we’d be here?” Mal wanted to know, supporting Freya and making her sit down again, even as he tried to control his own temper. These people, what they were saying … they didn’t realise what they were doing to her. All they saw was finding her for what they wanted. She saw all that had happened since she left.

“The job,” Alex said, standing looking at his sister, barely acknowledging his presence. “John Arnheim’s job.”

“So it’s phoney?” Mal was a hair’s breadth away from hauling off and punching Alex in the mouth, Freya’s brother or no.

Don’t, he heard clearly in his mind. Glancing down at Freya he saw her looking up at him, her eyes full of emotion, pleading with him not to do it. He nodded slightly, swallowing his anger.

“No. No, it’s real. So’s he. But he agreed …” Alex turned to the other man. “Captain Reynolds, you have to understand. When my father … our father became ill, we thought we had time, time to do this properly, through intermediaries contacting El … Freya directly … any way other than this. But the cancer was too fast for us, for him, and then when John told us he was moving some of his collection to Boros, and we … we suggested he use you. It wasn’t hard to find out you occasionally worked for a man called Badger, and … well, the truth is money does talk. And in this case it said to make sure you took the job.”

“Badger knows about this?” Mal made a mental note to have a word with the little creep.

“No. Only that John insisted it be you.”

Prob’ly thought it was someone out to kill us, Mal thought to himself. Wait ‘til I see him. He took a deep breath. “Go on.”

“We honestly didn’t think you’d bring Freya with you to the party.” Alex glanced at his mother. “We were going to suggest a meeting on board your ship. Away from prying eyes.”

“He wants to see you so desperately,” Madam Rostov said, leaning forward, searching her daughter’s face for understanding.

Freya shook her head. “But I can’t go to Osiris -”

“He’s here.” Alex went down onto his heels in front of her, taking her hand. “We have a ship at the dock.” His hazel eyes, so like her own, were begging her to say yes. “Come back there with us.”

“Whoa, no, that’s not -” Mal began, but Freya interrupted him.

“He’s here?”

“He’s waiting,” Alex confirmed.

For a long moment no-one spoke, then Freya stood up. Mal immediately put one hand under her arm, the other encircling her waist.

“I need to change,” she said, glancing down at the dress. “I can’t go like this.”

“Frey, no.” Mal spoke firmly.

She looked at him, and the emotion in her eyes made his stomach roll. “I have to see him, Mal. Have to.” Have to, she reinforced in his mind.

“I have a private hover outside,” Alex said quickly. “I’ll take you both back to your ship. That is, if …” He turned to his mother.

“I can make my own way,” she assured him.

“No,” Freya said. “Take your mother -”

“I’m not that incapable of calling a vehicle, Elena, ” Madam Rostov said, a touch of asperity in her voice.

“Freya,” her daughter breathed, but without much hope of her mother remembering.

--

The hover stopped outside Serenity, and the three of them climbed out.

“I’ll wait for you,” Alex said.

Freya’s lips twitched. “Afraid we’ll fly away?”

Alex had the grace to look slightly abashed. “Something like that.”

“We won’t.”

He nodded, but got the feeling that it wasn’t really directed at him so much as the man at her side. “I’ll be here.” He glanced up at the sky, feeling the first drops of rain on his skin.

“Then you’d better come inside,” Mal said. “Don’t want Frey accusing me of letting you catch pneumonia.”

“Thanks.”

They walked up the ramp, and Mal wasn’t surprised to find his crew waiting for him. Zoe and Jayne were armed, standing in the centre of the cargo bay, but the others were in the doorway to the common area and up on the catwalk.

“Sir?” Zoe asked.

“River?”

“Pretty much.”

Mal shook his head, looking up at the young psychic above him, but he smiled slightly. “We’re okay,” he said, turning back to his first mate. “This is Alex. Freya’s brother. He’s just going to be standing there while we get changed.”

The implication that she was to make sure he did just stand there was clear.

“Yes sir.”

“But he don’t need an audience from the rest of you.”

“But Mal, we can talk, tell stories -” Hank began.

“Skedaddle.”

There was general muttering but his crew did as they were told, all but Zoe and Jayne.

“Think I should stay too, Mal,” the big man said.

Mal watched Freya climb the stairs. “You think Zoe can’t handle him?”

“Nope. Never said that. It’s just -”

“Go wait in the shuttle with River. If you’re needed, she’ll know.”

For a moment it looked as if the mercenary was going to argue, but then he nodded and pounded up the staircase, two steps at a time.

“Sir?” Zoe asked softly. “Is it true? Freya’s parents?”

“It’s true,” Mal said, equally quietly.

“Is she okay?”

“Not really.” He glanced at Alex. “Just keep our guest company.”

“Yes sir.”

--

“I’m not happy about this,” Mal said, climbing down the ladder as Freya stepped out of the dress, dropping it into the chair.

“You think they might kidnap me?” She glanced at him over her shoulder as she pulled on her pants, struggling with the elastic straps to get them closed.

“It’s possible.” He bent forward. “Let me do that.” He moved her hands out of the way.

“Thanks. All thumbs.”

“Can’t imagine why.” He smiled up at her. “There.”

“Thanks,” she repeated, pushing her feet into her boots.

Mal pulled the cravat from around his neck and tossed it on top of her dress. “I think I should come with you.”

“I’ll be fine.” She paused, running the red silk top through her fingers. “He’s my father.”

“I know.” He was undressing quickly, changing into his normal clothes.

“Wouldn’t you take the opportunity to say goodbye? To talk to yours just this one last time?”

“That ain’t fair, Frey. And it’s not applicable. My Pa … well, he …” His voice trailed off.

“Loved you. I know. You can say it. And mine didn’t treat me any better than he treated one of his horses. I know.”

“Then why go?” Lifting the suspenders over his shoulders, he did up his shirt.

“Because.”

“Frey, that ain’t a reason.”

“It’s the only one I’ve got.” She sat down suddenly on the bed. “I don’t know how I feel at the moment, Mal. A few hours ago I didn’t know they even thought about me at all. And now … I have to see this through. See my father. Even if it’s just for him to ignore me again.”

“You think that’s gonna happen? After what Alex said?” He sat down next to her, touching along her body.

“I don’t know. I can’t believe he’s wanting to do more than just salve his conscience before he dies, but even if it is only that, at least I …”

“Get to see him.” He studied her for a moment, then took her hand. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Just … okay. But you get into any kind of trouble and I will be mad.”

“Promise?”

“Swear on my life.”

“I love you.”

“You always think you can get round me by saying that,” he complained.

“I mean it too.” She stood up, pulling the red top on, then picked up the shoulder holster.

“Frey?”

She smiled. “I’m not that stupid, Mal,” she said, shrugging into it.

“You know? Neither am I.” He punched the com. “Jayne.”

--

Ethan stood in the doorway to the common area and stared at the man waiting in the cargo bay. There was something about him, something that reminded him of his Mama, but he was a stranger. Looked like Mama, but he felt different. Not like his Daddy felt different. He was his Daddy. Loved him. But this man was … odd.

Alex looked at Zoe standing next to the stairs, not taking her eyes off him. “Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked.

“No.”

Taking it that she meant she didn’t mind, although the way she was looking at him he couldn’t be sure, he looked around, saw a set of weights, and a bench. Walking to it, he lowered himself down. “Thanks.” He studied the bay. “Interesting ship.” She didn’t answer. “Bigger inside than I thought. Must be the shape.” Still no response. “The way the walls go out -”

“We like it.”

He grinned. “I suppose you must do.” Slight movement at the corner of his eye made him turn towards the doorway set into the back wall. A little boy was staring at him. “Hey.”

Zoe followed his gaze. “Ethan, you shouldn’t be here,” she said.

“Ethan?” Alex stood up quickly. “Are you…” He swallowed. “My name’s Alex. I’m your uncle.”

“Uncle?” The little boy didn’t step into the bay, just stood and stared at him.

“Your mother is my sister.” He moved forward, feeling the dark woman stiffen, her hand very close to her gun, but he tried to ignore her. Close enough to see the boy’s features but not to touch, he went down onto his heels. Obviously the Captain’s son, from the blue eyes to the chin, but there was something of Elena in there too. A gentleness he remembered from when she was a child herself.

There was the sound of footsteps and he stood up quickly.

“I still don’t like the idea of you going alone.”

“I’m taking a com.”

“I know, but -” Mal stepped down into the bay. “Why don’t you want me to come?”

“Because there’s nothing you can do.” Freya reached up and touched his cheek, cupping it in the palm of her hand. “You’d just be waiting.”

“I can do that. I’m good at the waiting part.”

“I know you are.” She stepped closer. “Just do it here instead.”

“What if you need …”

“I know where you are.” She smiled and lifted her head to kiss him softly.

Alex lowered his eyes from this overt display of honest love. He wasn’t used to it.

“What’s the name of your ship?” Mal asked, his arm still around his wife.

“Columbine.” Alex shrugged. “My mother’s favourite flower.”

“And your berth?”

“S956.” His eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Just asking.” Mal smiled, but it was the one that didn’t reach his eyes. “The classier side of the docks. Must be something of a shock seeing this part.”

“I’ve been in worse.”

Jayne slipped out of the cargo bay doors, silent as the expert hunter and tracker he was.

“Really.”

“Are you ready?” Alex asked, anxious to get going now.

Freya nodded. She looked up. “Be good.”

“When aren’t I?”

Her lips twitched. “Oh, once in a while.” She ran her finger over his lips, then followed her brother out into the dark.

Mal watched her climb into the hover, and wondered why he felt as if he was never going to see her again. He felt someone tugging at his pants leg, and looked down. Ethan was gazing up at him.

“Hey, big feller,” he said, picking his son up and perching him on his hip. “Why ain’t you in bed?”

“Can’t sleep.” He glanced out of the doors. “Mama worried.”

“Yeah, I think she is.” They watched the hover skim away. “But she’ll be fine.”

“You’re worried too.” Ethan reached up with a small hand and rubbed at the frown lines on Mal’s forehead.

“Am I?”

His son nodded, putting his arms around Mal’s neck. “Know you are.”

God, no, please. Not him too. Mal gazed into his son’s blue eyes. “How do you know that, Ethan?”

Ethan shrugged. “Know you are,” he repeated, then touched his chest, just above the scar. “Here.”

No. Mal pulled his son into him, holding him tightly. Over his shoulder he could see River standing on the stairs, her dress floating in the slight breeze. Why? he thought.

We’ll cope with this, he heard, knowing it was her and not Freya from the taste in his mind. We will all cope. Keep him safe.

--

Part VII

“Away from prying eyes.”

“What?” Alex looked at her as the hover moved through the dark. Not that the dock was quiet. There wasn't one minute of the day or night when Eavesdown wasn't bustling.

“That’s what you said. Before.” Freya turned to her brother. “About us meeting. Away from prying eyes. Who’d you think would be prying, Alex?”

He stared at her a moment, then nodded slowly. “There’ve been … others.”

“Others?”

“Before now. Not directly to me, but I know Father had some inquiries. From officials in the Government.”

A coldness began to slither through her bones. “Inquiries.”

“As to whether we’d seen you. If you’d contacted us.” He looked down at his fingers. “Whether you were still alive.”

She turned in her seat, her heart pounding, as the hover paused to allow a group of people to move out of the way. “And?”

“He always told them the same.” Alex raised his head. “That you were dead. Died in the fire.” He gave a bark of unfunny laughter. “Always sent them away with a flea in their ear, I gather, telling them they were the ones who reported it, and to go look in their own records.”

“Who was it, Alex? Do you know?”

He shook his head. “Father never told me. The only reason I know is because Mother mentioned it. He wouldn’t talk about it.” Taking her hand in his, he could feel her trembling, and asked, “Is it important?”

Freya tried to take a deep breath. “I think so.” She glanced down at their entwined fingers. “Someone thinks Elena Rostov is still alive. If they realise she’s me …” She tried to swallow, but the lump in her throat wouldn’t go. “You don’t understand, Alex.”

“Then explain it to me.”

Looking into his eyes, the eyes that seemed so familiar, that looked back at her every day from the mirror … She so wanted to tell him what she was, what she was afraid her son was, about the scars, to unburden herself to him, but … “I can’t. It’s not safe.”

“For you.”

“No. For you.”

“You think I'm going to tell someone?” His eyes were wide.

“I don’t know.” Freya gazed at him. “I don’t know you.”

“I'm your brother!”

“And I haven’t even spoken to you for more than twenty years.”

The realisation struck him that she was right, and he paled. She didn’t know him. As far as she was concerned he could be willing to sell her out to the Alliance. “I promise, I won’t tell anyone. I’d never put you in danger.”

Freya didn’t answer for a long moment. “It’s not me I'm worried about.”

“I know. Your family …”

“They have to be safe, Alex.”

“I understand.” He squeezed her hand. “I have influence, Freya. My name, our money, Father’s power … I used that influence. All mention of the DNA trace was erased from the system. Your son’s records, the retro-analysis, everything. Including the original request.”

“Whose –”

“Mother.”

“But why would she do that?”

“She didn’t believe you were gone, not for a long time. She put in a trace request as soon as she could, as soon as the doctors let her near a terminal.”

“Doctors?”

“Mother was so ill, she …” He stopped speaking as he realised, and he shook his head slowly. “Lena, you really have no idea, do you? She had nightmares for nearly a year, dreaming of you dying in flames …”

“Alex, they were afraid of me. They wanted me out of their lives so they could get on with theirs.”

“Maybe they did. But they didn’t want to have to hear you’d … for God‘s sake, you’re their daughter! No matter what else. Flesh and blood. It means so much.” There was a flash of anger on his face, in the way his voice raised.

“No. Not really. I discovered that a long time ago. Flesh and blood is just that, and it can be destroyed or spilled so easily.”

“You sound so bitter.”

“No. Just honest.”

The hover drew up, stopped, but neither of the siblings attempted to get out.

Alex grasped her hand tighter. “When they heard about the school, they grieved. You have to believe that.”

“I can’t. I knew them, remember?”

“Not enough, then.” He glared at her in exasperation. “Why didn’t you tell us you were alive?”

“Because they’d have taken me back. Do you know what they did to me? How they hurt me?”

“Freya –”

“What they tried to make of me?”

“We didn’t –”

“You remember that time I broke my leg? When you – when I fell out of the window?”

“You mean when I pushed you,” Alex said quietly.

“Yes, then. How it healed really quickly? Well, they boosted that, and other things. Tried to make me into a killer, an assassin. Tried to free the darkness.” She closed her eyes, aware she’d said too much, but unable not to feel the hurt, the pain again of knowing they’d never come for her.

Alex didn’t speak for a moment, trying to assimilate what she’d said, and when he finally managed to find words, they were nothing like he wanted to say. “This isn’t them, mei-mei.”

“Of course it is.” He’d never called her that before.

“Then not the ones you remember. They’ve changed.” He moved closer to her. “You didn’t see Mother’s face when she got the wave telling us they’d found you. At least, found your son. The joy … it was like a light went on inside her, and she was glowing.”

“And … Father?”

“I was there when she broke the news.” His voice caught, remembering. “I've never seen him like that.”

She sat still for a long moment, and he thought she was about to say she’d changed her mind, that she didn’t want to see him, and he held his breath.

“No-one must know, Alex,” she said softly, almost too quietly for him to hear.

“They won‘t come looking for you,” he promised.

“Alex, they’re my life. Mal and Ethan … if anything ever happened to them …” She stopped.

“What about us?” Alex asked softly. “We’re family.”

“Oh, Alex. I'm sorry, but you’re not. Blood maybe, but you haven’t been family since I was a child.”

His face fell. “Lena, you have to understand something. When Mother told me, told us … damn it, we thought we’d lost you.”

“And if you had? Had never found out? If my son hadn’t contracted Minuet’s, didn’t need that operation, didn’t have his blood tested – would it have made any difference to you?”

He sighed, whishing he could say otherwise. “No. You’re right. It wouldn’t. We got over the loss a long time ago.”

“Then be even more honest. You didn’t even feel that loss very much, did you?”

He looked ashamed. “Lena … Freya …”

“It’s okay.” She put her hand on his arm. “I understand, Alex. We never got on. From the hair pulling to the fights, we never really got on with each other.”

“I was jealous.”

The admission shocked her. “Jealous? How? What of?”

“Of you. Your intelligence. Your insight. I didn’t understand it, and it scared me, but I so wanted to be like you.”

“But you didn’t … you never said anything.”

“Because I hated you.”

Freya grinned unexpectedly. “Oh, yeah, well, I did ask for the honesty.”

“I did. For what you were. What I could see you were going to become, even at that age. And I knew I was never going to be as good as you.”

Freya sat back, her hand on her belly, feeling light-headed. “Alex, I wanted to be like you,” she said quietly. “I wanted to be the one Father patted on the shoulder. The one Mother smiled at, allowed to run wild. I turned to my books because I didn’t have that.”

“Guess I crowed a bit, didn’t I?”

“A little.”

“And pushed you out of the window. I'm sorry about that, though.” He ran a hand through his dark brown hair.

“Only that?”

He grinned. “No. More like all of it.”

“Don’t be. We can’t change the past.”

“Become philosophical in your old age?”

“We’re the same age. Twins tend to be.”

“You’re still older than me.”

“By about ten minutes.”

“That’s enough.” He looked out of the window. “He’s waiting,” he said softly.

Freya stared up at the new Vanguard vessel, her hull gleaming in the dock lights, and steeled herself, thinking of Mal and Ethan, of how she’d fight to see them if anything like this had … “Let’s go,” she said, opening the hover door.

--

Mal slipped through the ships, taking a more direct route than the hover, but he knew he wasn't going to beat it there. He conjured she was likely to kill him, but having asked River to look after Ethan, he couldn’t shake the notion that he should be with her.

Now, as he walked closer to the new Vanguard sitting in berth S956, he paused.

“Figured you’d be here ‘fore long,” Jayne said, oozing out of a gap between two stacks of crates.

“You were right.” Mal looked up at Columbine, wishing he could take a moment to admire her sleek lines, instead of feeling like she was nothing more than a fancy prison. “Freya inside?”

“Five minutes past.” He leaned on the crates. “You gonna just walk up to the door?”

“That’s the plan.”

“She’s gonna kill you.”

“Probably.”

“You wanna be buried or roasted?”

“Seeing as I’ll be dead, I leave that up to you.”

“Shiny.”

Mal glanced at the big man. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“Wasn't planning on it.”

Serenity’s captain squared his shoulders and walked up to the main hatch.

--

“He’s in here,” Alex said, stopping outside a door.

“Right.” Freya took a deep breath. As they’d walked through the ship, she’d realised, probably for the first time, just how wealthy the Rostovs were. There was nothing to show it wasn’t one of their houses, right down to the pictures on the walls and the thick carpets that hid their footsteps. Only it wasn't the opulence that was staying her hand right now.

Alex couldn’t help his lips twitching. “Scared?”

“Terrified.”

“You? One of the handful who held off the might of the Alliance at Dhu Khang?”

She turned, staring at him, her mouth open. “How …”

“I told you. I did some research.”

“That was a long time ago, Alex.”

“Not so long. I spoke to a couple of the men you saved. They were … how can I put this? More than grateful.”

“Wasn't just me.”

“No, I know. Your Captain was there too.”

Freya shook her head, this time smiling a little. “Yes, he was.”

Alex put his hand on her shoulder. “And you’re stalling.”

Now she laughed guiltily, the sound changing into a sort of hiccup. “I suppose I am.”

He opened the door. “Go on,” he added softly. “He won’t bite.”

“Has he changed that much?”

“Go in and see.” He pressed gently into the small of her back, and she walked into the dim room.

--

Part VIII

“Father?” She waited for her eyes to adjust to the low lighting, making out a bed against the far wall.

“Elena?” Her father’s voice, but not how she remembered it. This was weak, almost querulous. “Are you real? Or a ghost?”

She approached the bed, the soft glow of a shrouded bedside lamp throwing lingering shadows on the face of the man propped on the pillows. “I’m real,” she said quietly. “And if I were a ghost I think I’d be a lot younger.”

“A sense of humour?” He laughed, a damp sound. “When did you grow one of those?”

Her breath caught at the sight of him. He'd always been so big, so tall, and now he was dwarfed by his surroundings. Her mother had aged, for sure, her dark hair now white, but at least she still looked almost the way she remembered.

She wasn't sure she would ever have recognised this man in front of her.

“I’ve always had a sense of humour, Father,” she managed to say. “I had to have. With a brother like Alex.”

He wheezed again, but this time in distress. “Oh, Lena. I’m so sorry.”

“Wh … what?” she stammered, startled.

“For driving you away from your family. I missed you so much.” He reached out a frail hand towards her.

She sat down in the chair by the bed, not realising she’d taken it between hers until she felt thin fingers curl around her palm. “But you … you had Alex. I wasn’t ever a part of –”

Ivan Rostov shook his head. “I was so incredibly stupid. I thought a son was all I wanted. Every day I wanted to tell you what you meant to me, and I wouldn’t let myself. I was so wrapped up in the family name that all I thought about was Alex. And then it was too late.”

She closed her eyes, remembering the days, weeks even, when he’d hardly said a word to her, just looked at her as if she was a disappointment. Somehow she couldn’t believe this was the same man. “Too late,” she echoed softly.

“Only now I have a second chance.”

“Do you? You think I should give you that chance?”

“Please.”

“Father, I -”

He spoke quickly as if she might stop the very words before they left his mouth. “I love you, Lena.”

Suddenly she realised it didn’t matter if this was true or not, if this was the purging of guilt, or a true display of how he honestly felt. Something twisted inside her, unknotting, something she hadn’t even known was there. A tear slid down her cheek. “Oh, Papa.” She realised what she’d said. “Sorry – Father.”

He smiled. “No. Papa‘s nice. I like to hear you say it.” The smile twisted and his body contorted, his grip tightened on hers.

“Are you in pain?” She leaned forward, placing her free hand on his forehead.

“Yes.” He admitted, gasping, his voice forced from between clenched teeth, tight and distorted. “They can’t do anything. Nothing … nothing works any more.”

“Then let me.”

“How?”

“Look into my eyes. Just let me in.”

He forced his eyes open, doing as he was told, and suddenly he realised she was inside his mind. It was like she’d stepped into him, walking through all the dark places, closing off doors, locking them and taking the key. Taking the pain. His eyes grew wide with surprise, and more than a little trepidation. “Lena… how did you …”

“It’s okay, Papa. It won’t hurt anymore.” She felt someone enter the room behind her, but didn’t turn.

“What did you do?”

“Does it matter?”

“No.” He breathed easily for the first time in weeks. “Thank you.” He looked past her. “And who’s this?”

Freya didn’t need to turn. “I think it’s my husband.”

Mal stepped forward into the light so his father-in-law could see him. “Sir. I'm Malcolm Reynolds. Freya … she’s my wife.”

“Freya …” Ivan tasted the word in his mouth. “That’s what they call you?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“There was a girl, at the Academy. I think you roomed together …”

Freya nodded. “I took the name from her. My best friend.” Her brow furrowed. “How did you know about her?”

“I read the letters.”

Freya swallowed. Her letters. The ones she’d written before … when they were full of the things she’d learned, the fun she was having, the hopes and dreams she’d believed she could see being fulfilled. Before the darkness. “Oh.” She couldn’t say anything else. Her mouth was too dry.

Her father understood. “And are you looking after my daughter?” he asked Mal, something of the old Ivan Rostov coming to the fore.

“I’m trying, sir.” Mal stood behind his wife, his hand on her shoulder. “When she lets me.”

“She always was independent.”

Mal couldn’t help the slight smile. “Not the only one, sir.”

“And your children?”

“Boy back on my boat. Name of Ethan.” He glanced down. “And this little one. Our daughter. In a coupla months.”

“Daughter.” Ivan nodded. “Talk to her, Captain Reynolds. Let her know she’s loved. Don’t be like I was.”

“I’ll try not to be,” Mal said.

Ivan’s troubled eyes fixed back on Freya. “Lena, I’m sorry.”

He’d given her time, and now Freya had regained some semblance of balance.

“For what?”

“Never being there for you.”

She smoothed the bedcover. “That’s okay.”

“No. It isn’t.” He shook his head. “I think I was afraid of you, a little.”

“I know.” It still hurt. How could it still hurt after all this time?

“But when we were told about the … when we thought you’d died … your mother was inconsolable. I … I had to call Dr Mason, ask him to sedate her. She wouldn’t stop crying.” He squeezed her hand again. “I wish I could say I cried too, but I didn’t. It took a long time, expecting to hear you clattering down the stairs and being shushed by your mother, to turn a corner and almost find you sitting with Alex at the bottom of the stairs playing cards … only you weren't. It took a long time, Lena. But I … I began to miss you.”

She wanted to tell him it was too late by then, far too late, but she held her tongue. These were all things she had needed to hear when she was a child, not an adult. “I missed you.” All my life, she wanted to add, but didn’t.

Still, he seemed to understand. “It should never have taken your death to make that happen. Forgive me, Elena.” His eyes were beseeching.

“I forgive you, Papa,” she whispered.

“Thank you.” He smiled, then laid his head back on the pillow.

“Can I get you anything?” she asked. There was no response. “Papa?” Still nothing. She reached out her mind. “No … Mal, get Alex,” she said urgently. “And … and my mother.”

Mal ran out of the room, and Freya squeezed her father‘s hand. “Hold on,” she murmured, trying to keep him in this place, this moment.

Genia Rostov and her son rushed in, and Freya gave up her place next to him. She back up, reaching Mal, hearing her mother calling brokenly for Ivan. She turned, giving Mal an agonised look, then hurried out of the room, not stopping until she was halfway down the corridor. Leaning on the wall, she felt Mal’s arms go around her, his strength holding her up as she turned into his embrace, clutching him.

It seemed an age, but was perhaps an hour, during which time Mal found an empty room and made Freya sit on the sofa there, watching people pass by the door, back and forth, until it was quiet.

“It’s over,” she breathed.

“You could have stayed,” he said softly. “Said goodbye.”

“I said that a long time ago, Mal.”

Then he felt her tears falling on him, and knew she was grieving too.

After another half an hour, after Freya had cried herself dry, Alex appeared in the doorway.

“He’s gone.” He was standing very straight, holding himself together with difficulty.

“I know.” Freya reached out, taking him in her arms. For a moment he didn’t respond, then he held her tightly.

Mal stood back, watched, ready for whatever she needed.

Alex let go suddenly. “There are things to be done. Arrangements to be made. About the … about his body.”

“Where will you –”

“Home. In the family mausoleum.”

“Oh.“ She remembered that place. He’d once told her it was haunted, and if she didn’t do what he said the ghosts would come out and get into her room, dangling their headless bodies over her and moaning. Despite the fact that if they were headless they shouldn’t be able to moan, it terrified her. But it was only later that she came to realise there were worse things in the ‘verse than brothers telling stupid scary stories.

She knew he remembered too, from the look on his face. “Sorry.”

“We were children.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t make it all right.”

“No, I suppose it doesn’t.”

“We have to get going. Mother doesn’t want to … I’m sorry, Frey.”

“Then that’s our cue to leave.”

“Yes.”

He walked with them through the ship, back to the main forward hatch. As he opened it, the coolness of Persephone’s early dawn slipped inside. They stepped out, each taking a breath of what passed for fresh air.

Not wanting to intrude, Mal took a few paces back, leaving brother and sister to their private goodbyes.

“Mal. Everything okay?” Jayne slid into view.

“Depends on your definition of okay, but we’re … okay.”

“Right.” The big man shook his head. There were days when the Cap sounded crazier than his moonbrain. “You coming home?”

“Yes. It’s over now.”

“You want me to hang around?”

“No. Head on back. We’ll be along shortly.”

The big man nodded, disappearing into the grey half-light. Mal turned back to Freya.

“No, Alex.” She was shaking her head at something he’d said.

“At least think about it.”

“I don’t need to. No.”

“Frey –”

“Alex, don’t argue.”

He smiled a little, even in his sorrow. “You never used to talk to me like that.”

“I’m not the same little girl you once knew.”

“I’ve come to realise that.”

She stepped closer to him. “Alex, you have to tell Mother not to contact us.”

“Freya, I can’t –“

“You have to. If anyone finds out, if they figure that I'm … Elena has to be dead.”

“It’ll hurt her.”

“I know. But it’s not safe, not for any of us. You don’t know what they’ll do, to any of us. It’s better if you forget I ever existed.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Pretend.”

“Like those stories you used to tell me?”

“What stories?” she went to ask, then remembered. Eight years old, sitting in the tree house out in the estate, with a parcel of goodies Bridget, their cook, had put together for them, munching on cookies and drinking fizzy lemonade. She’d make up stories, tales of daring do, peopled with space pirates and Companions, law breakers and law givers, where the good guys always won, and carried off the prize, and the lady. She could still see Alex lying there, on his front, his chin resting in the palms of his hands, captured by her every word. Being her brother. She’d forgotten.

“I guess I can do that,” Alex said, nodding sadly.

“Thanks.” She looked into his face, so familiar. “And if you get an anonymous wave once in a while, that’s coded, well, don’t just delete it. Read it. And there might – and I say might – be an occasional capture attached.”

“That … that would be shiny.”

She smiled. “Alex, you really don’t sound right saying that word.”

“Why not? It’s what you say.”

“I know. But I'm the wife of a transport captain. It’s kinda more fitting.”

“Then that would be nice. And just who might these captures be of?”

“Oh, just a friend. And a friend’s children, maybe.”

“Ethan?”

“No-one by that name. But perhaps a little boy. And a baby girl, when she’s born.”

“Freya, I don’t want you to put yourselves at risk over this.”

“I won’t do it if it’s risky.”

He nodded. “Mother would like it. So would I. You know, I could tell Ethan was your son. I only saw him for a minute, but … he looks like you, Elena.”

“He looks like Mal,” she corrected him. “And I don’t mind that. He’s going to grow up breaking hearts.”

“Like your husband did?”

“Maybe.” She chuckled. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he grew up listening at keyholes like his father, as well.”

“There ain't no keyhole to be listening at,” Mal said, stepping close to her again.

“That doesn’t stop you.”

“Well, no. That’s true.”

“Alex.” Madam Rostov stood in the open hatch. “It’s time to leave.” She looked at her daughter. “Time to go home.”

Freya crossed the dirt of Eavesdown to say goodbye, leaving Mal and her brother standing in the murky dawn light.

“Here.“ Alex held out a slip of paper. “The details of the job.”

“Arnheim’s stuff?” Mal looked surprised.

“I told you, it’s real. Waiting to be collected from a warehouse on the east side, and transported to Boros.” He pulled a small bag from his pocket. “And it’s what was agreed.”

“Not half now, half when we deliver?”

“I trust you.”

Mal’s lips curved. “Alex, if you’re planning to spend any more time here on Persephone, or anywhere further out, you’re going to have to learn a few home truths.”

Freya’s brother smiled. “So you’re not trustworthy?”

“Well, no. I mean, yes, I am. But there are a helluva lot more out there that ain't.”

“Does Freya say that?”

“What?”

“Ain't.”

“Oh, only most of the time.”

“She’s really fitted in here.”

“Alex, she’s been Freya most of her life.”

“I think I‘ve realised that.”

--

They walked back towards Serenity, wrapped in each other, barely saying a word.

Until …

“He is my brother, you know,” Freya finally said softly.

“I know. There’s too much of a resemblance to be coincidence.”

“For so long I thought they didn’t care,” she said softly, then shivered.

Mal took off his coat, and slipped it around her shoulders. She pulled it close about her, feeling the heat of him emanating from the fabric.

“Time, Frey,” Mal replied, putting his arm back around her, his hand on their baby. “Time changes so much.”

“Mal.”

“Uh-huh?”

“She … they offered me a share.”

“What?”

“Of the family money.”

He halted, and she took a step forward, out of his arms, before she could stop herself.

“Family money?”

“The Rostov fortune.”

“I see.” He hitched his thumbs into his gunbelt. “And what did you say?”

“What could I say?” She would have mirrored his actions but her belly was in the way. She contented herself by resting her hands on top of her daughter. “I turned it down.”

“Right.” There was no inflection in the word, no indication of what he was thinking.

She was tempted, sorely tempted to look, but didn’t. At times like this, he needed to know his thoughts were sacrosanct. “You think I was wrong, don’t you?”

“About what?”

“Not taking the money.”

His brows drew down. “What makes you think that?”

“It could have kept us flying for … well, pretty much forever. Bought all the new parts Kaylee wanted, made sure we had the best food, wouldn’t have to work …”

He closed the gap until there was barely daylight between them. “You ain't reading me, are you?”

Her eyes dropped. “I could have used it for us,” she admitted grudgingly.

He felt the tug on his lips. “You made the right choice.”

“What?” Her head flew up.

“You did the right thing, Frey. Now, as much as I’d like to give Kaylee every little bit she asks for, and I’m kinda fond of eating occasionally myself … but we get by. We always have. Jobs, legal or otherwise, well, they come up and we do them. We get by.”

“But –“

“I won’t have you feeling beholden to them, Frey. That ain't you. Hasn’t been for a long time. You keep telling me you’re not Elena Rostov anymore. And that’s true. You’re Freya Reynolds. My wife. And what I got is half yours.”

“And the other way too. But it could have been so much more.”

“And what would we have done with it? Sitting around all day scratching ourselves?”

Freya laughed, and he relaxed a little. “As much fun as that sounds, I don’t think you’d be happy with that.”

“Exactly.” He tugged her to him. “Little Elena Rostov died in a fire. Ain't good, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. You’re Freya Reynolds. And if Freya Reynolds is as poor as a church mouse, so be it. Don’t want their money, Frey. Don’t need it.”

“And when we do?”

“Then you can say I told you so, in a loud and clear voice that penetrates our ears and makes our blood run cold.”

“Can I hold you to that?”

“Surely can.”

They held each other for a long while. Then she spoke softly.

“Mal, I … Breed …”

He sighed. “You want to stay for a while.”

“Well, you’ve got that job, taking Arnheim’s goods to Boros. And it’s only four days there and back at the moment, Boros being at its closest point right now –“

“I do know my astro-navigation, Frey,” he pointed out softly.

“What I'm saying is that’s it’s less than a week.”

He gazed down into her hazel eyes. “You know, you gave me permission to get Simon to dope you if you told me to leave you behind again.”

“This isn’t the same.”

“No?”

“Two days there, two days back. Two plus two is –“

“I can also add up, thank you.”

“Mal, seeing my father like that, being there when he … when he died, I don’t want Dillon to go through that alone.”

Mal’s arms tightened a little. “You think Breed’s likely to?”

She nodded slowly. “He’s barely hanging on, Mal.”

“And what if I said no?”

“Well, you are captain.”

“Good. Glad it’s finally sunk in.”

“So I suppose a little mutiny would be in order.”

He narrowed his own blue orbs at her, but she just smiled. “You know what they do with mutineers, don’t you?”

“If you were going to shoot me, I think you’d’ve done it before now.”

“Don’t tempt me, woman.” He sighed.

She knew she’d won. “Thanks.”

“Four days. We get back, he’s still knocking at death’s door, we’re going.”

“Mal –“

“That’s the deal.”

She considered it for a moment, biting her lip. “Okay,” she finally agreed. “Deal.” There’d be time to renegotiate. Turning in his arms, they continued back towards Serenity.

--

“No,” she whispered, tossing and turning, her body heated to an unbearable degree. “No!” she shouted, reaching to push something away.

Mal rolled over, trying to pull the vestiges of consciousness together. “Frey?”

She didn’t wake, her hair soaked with sweat.

“Frey!” He touched her, almost burning his hand on her skin. She threw out an arm, her fist just missing colliding with his head until he grabbed for her, holding her against him, careful not to press on the baby. “Frey, wake up!”

She shuddered, fighting him, her breath coming in short gulps as if she was drowning.

“Gorram it, Frey! You wake up right now or I'm calling the doc!” Mal shouted in her ear, fear washing through him.

She whimpered, trembling, pulling away from him, then collapsing back against his body as if all her bones had turned to water. Still she didn’t wake.

Now Mal was really scared. He laid her gently back against the pillow and scrambled to the com.

“Simon! Get your ass down here now!”

--

Part VIII

“What?” Simon was slightly distracted.

Mal took a deep breath. “I was asking if it’s okay for Freya to stay a coupla days with Malfrey. Given that she’s pregnant.”

“What?” His mind wasn't on what Mal was saying, more on the fact that Kaylee had thrown up that morning. He was pretty sure she wasn't pregnant, but maybe it would be a good idea to test things. He’d stopped drinking Ellie Frye’s tea, more or less the moment they decided to adopt Hope, but there was just the possibility that –

“Simon.”

He looked up at the ‘captainy’ tone of voice. “What?”

“How’s Frey.”

The young doctor tried to concentrate. “She’s fine. I checked her over yesterday. So’s the baby.”

“Good.” Mal shook his head. “Something on your mind, doc?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

Mal walked out of the infirmary, shaking his head.

Simon busied himself tidying his cupboards, and it wasn't until he felt Serenity lift off a little while later that he considered what the captain had actually said.

--

“Here,” Dillon said, opening a door and waving a hand like a magician. “You can use this suite.”

Freya stepped through, and smiled. “It’s … acceptable.”

“Thanks for trying, but I don’t feel in the mood for laughing right now,” her friend said, carrying her bag inside and putting it on the stand at the foot of the bed. “You haven’t brought much with you.”

“It’s just a few days, Dillon. And I can make do with a toothbrush and a spare pair of panties if I need.”

At that his lips did actually lift. “As much as that.”

“Well, the panties are optional.”

“You know, that was way too much information.” Dillon pointed to the doors that led off the bedroom. “That’s the bathroom, and there’s a sitting room with a Cortex you can use whenever you want.”

“Thanks, Dillon.”

“No.” He shook his head, looking older than she’d ever seen. “No, I should be thanking you. With Breed the way he is, I … I don’t know that I could cope on my own.”

“You don’t have to. That’s what friends are for.”

“I’ll let you settle in and unpack your toothbrush.” He went to leave then turned back, his hand on the door. “You know, you’d better stay put while you’re here. There’s news from most of Persephone that more people are getting sick.”

“Like Breed?”

“I don’t know. Every time I try to find anything out I get blocked.” There was a flash of anger across his eyes.

She crossed the room and put her arms around him. “You need to be sneaky.”

“I'm trying.” He hugged her, mindful of the baby, then stepped back. “You know, if I wasn't sly, and you weren’t married and getting huge, I’d take you to bed.”

“Good job you are, and I am. And I'm not huge. Not yet.”

“No?” He smiled and closed the door behind him.

She shook her head. If nothing else, maybe she could make him less anxious. And she’d meant what she said before. That’s what friends did for each other.

Walking to the window, she looked out at the manicured grounds. They said money couldn’t buy you happiness, but there was some truth to the fact that it made being miserable a lot more comfortable. Yet it was also said that the love of money was the root of all evil. The truth, as usual, probably lay somewhere in the middle.

Something churned in her stomach, and a low moan wrenched from her. Clasping a hand to her mouth, she looked around desperately, trying to remember which door led to the bathroom. A flash of white tile to her left had her walking as fast as she could, but she only just managed to lean over the toilet bowl before she lost her breakfast.

Retching until she was dry and her throat burned, she grabbed a towel and slid slowly down the wall to sit on the floor.

“I thought we’d got past this,” she said softly, gazing down at her belly. “A week now, and you’ve not made me do this.” She patted the mound. “No more, dong mah?”

Leaning her head back, she could feel the coolness easing the headache that had started to gnaw at her.

--

“Where’s Frey?” he asked, climbing from the mule.

Simon nodded towards the upper crew quarters. “In your bunk. She’s sleeping, I hope.”

“Is everything okay?” Mal felt his chest contract a little.

“The morning sickness is back. I've had to hook her up to an IV to keep any fluids in her at all, but she wouldn’t stay in the infirmary.”

“Not surprised. She’s seen the inside of that place a few too many times.” Mal glanced over his shoulder.

“We’ll unload, sir,” Zoe said quickly.

“Thanks.” He headed up the stairs and down into their bunk.

She was lying on the bed, wrapped in one of his old shirts, and he had to smile a little as he realised she was also wearing a pair of his boxer shorts. She looked better in them that he did, even though they were slung low under the swell of their child. Her back was to him, a saline bag suspended from the bulkhead above her.

“Hey,” he whispered.

She rolled over. “Hey.”

He was shocked at how she looked. Her skin was an unhealthy grey, and looked sweaty.

“Doc says you’re feeling under the weather,” he said, sitting down carefully on the edge of the bed.

“You could say that.” She smiled at him. “I didn’t think you’d be back yet.”

“Well, no-one got shot this time, so we made good time.” He smoothed her damp hair from her face. “Is it really bad?”

She shrugged. “Not good,” she admitted.

It had to be bad. She wouldn’t say that if she didn’t feel like hell. “Worse than with Ethan?”

“God, yes.” She lay her head on his thigh.

“You likely to throw up on me?”

“Probably.”

“Well, just let me know, and I’ll try and get out of the way.”

“Okay.”

He rubbed her back gently. “Isn’t there something Simon can give you?”

“Nothing works.” She closed her eyes. “I can’t keep anything down. That’s why he’s got me hooked up to this thing.” She rattled the IV tube.

“Oh, honey.” He leaned over and kissed her damp cheek. “I'm sorry.”

“What for?”

“Putting you through this.”

She managed a smile and looked into his concerned blue eyes. “Hey, only a little while to go.” She grimaced.

“Need the bucket?” he asked, looking around for it.

“Not …” She swallowed hard. “There’s nothing left to throw up.”

“Where’s Ethan?”

“In with Bethany.”

“You know, that kid ain't gonna thank us for screwing him up.”

“What? How?”

“Letting him sleep with a beautiful young woman at his age.”

She smiled. “I think he’ll forgive us. Anyway, Kaylee’s looking after him, since every time I stand up I tend to pass out.”

“So I guess raucous, ferocious sex is out of the question.”

“Well, not unless you want it followed by disgusting cleaning up …”

He chuckled. “I think I’ll pass.”

“Sorry.”

“Hey, nothing for you to be apologising for. It’s my kid in there causing all the trouble.”

“I’ll remember to tell her about that, when she’s born. You can take all the blame.”

“You do that.” Her eyes had closed again, and she’d begun to shiver.

“Come on,” he said, moving her back on the bunk to give himself enough room to lie down. “You’re getting cold.”

“Hot, cold … I've got the works here.” She snuggled into his shoulder, her face resting on the brown leather of his coat. She breathed deeply.

“That likely to make you sick too?” he asked, seeing her taking in his scent. “Only I ain't as clean as you usually like.”

She didn’t answer.

“Frey?”

She was asleep, one arm draped across him, the other under her, supporting the swelling of her belly.

He smiled. “That’s it, ai ren,” he whispered, reaching down and kissing her forehead gently. “You sleep. I'm here. Ain't nothing gonna harm you with me around.”

--

“I wasn't sure I was dreaming at the time,” Mal said, gazing at Freya over the Cortex. “Then I woke up.” He didn’t say he’d laid awake the rest of the night worrying about her.

“I have been throwing up, though. Morning sickness at this late stage is no fun, I can tell you.” She tipped her head onto one side. “Maybe you’re picking up the feelings from me.”

“You projecting?”

“Not that I’m aware of. River all right?”

“She’d kinda been keeping out of my way.”

“Why? What have you done?”

“Me? Why should I have done something?”

“Mal …”

“No, honest. Not done a thing. She’s been hiding herself away most of the time in the shuttle, and all she’ll say to people is that she feels fuzzy.”

“What does Simon say?”

“Not a lot. He’s spending most of his time in the infirmary at the moment.” He paused.

“Why?” she prompted.

“Frey, I don’t know if he can do anything, but Hank managed to pull Breed’s records off the Persephone medbase before we left. He’s looking them over.”

“It can’t hurt. Has he come to any conclusions?”

“Not yet. But been less than a day.” He leaned forward, as if his next words might be overheard. “He thought Kaylee might be pregnant yesterday.”

Freya’s face took on a look of disbelief. “No. Is she?”

“Nope. He tested her and she’s still unsullied. Well, lately, anyway.”

“Mal, I think he manages to sully her as often as possible.”

He laughed, but said, “You’ve got a worse mind than Jayne.”

“Oh, come on. That’s not possible.” She grinned, then closed her eyes quickly, her hand coming to her throat.

“Gonna throw up?” he asked softly, wishing he was there to help her.

“Probably.”

“Then I’d better let you get to it.”

“Thanks.” Her dry tone made him smile.

“Then you lie down. You can talk to Dillon all you like later. I want you to rest for a while, okay?”

“Okay.”

She started to puff, and he recognised the signs. “Go on. Bathroom.”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” she promised, then moved out of image, a hand slapping down on the off button as she went.

Mal stared at the blank screen. “Oh, Frey. Next time, I really will dope you.”

--

It was snowing outside, but in here, in the room with the fire roaring in the grate, it was just perfect. She lay on her back on the rug and sighed

“What are you thinking about?” he asked, sitting up next to her, looking down at her body gilded with the light from the flames.

“How wonderful this is.” She stretched. “Being here with you, no-one to interrupt, just you and me, a bottle of champagne …”

He tipped a small amount into her swollen belly then leaned forward and licked it clean. “Mmn,” he agreed.

“Tickles,” she said, laughing, trying – not very hard – to push him away.

“Well, there’s more where that came from.” He took a swig from the bottle then moved up, his lips coming down onto hers, sharing the champagne with her.

“Freya?” Someone was shaking her awake.

-

Mal opened his eyes briefly, and felt for her. No, of course, she was at Malfrey’s. Doing her good deed. Maybe she should consider doing that a little less often and staying home a little bit more. He smiled sleepily. Maybe he should keep that to himself. She was still capable of giving him a punch even at seven months pregnant. His eyes began to close, and he knew he was sliding back into the dream. Just wished he knew why he was dreaming about this, though.

As it claimed him, he realised that now he was watching but not participating.

-

She opened her eyes. “Damn,” she whispered.

“Good dream?” MacAlister asked, smiling, his eyes twinkling. “You seemed to be enjoying it.”

“Then why the hell did you wake me up?”

“Because it’s time.”

Freya sighed. “You sure?”

“You want to get back to base, we have to go now. I think they’re reloading.”

Freya listened. The bombardment had indeed lessened. “Okay.” She looked around the foxhole at the men all watching her. Rain was falling steadily, making the mud even stickier than usual. “Time to get gone, folks.” She stood up, looking over the edge. “They sure are persistent.”

“That they are,” MacAlister agreed.

“Come on.” She led the way, keeping low as they left the comparative shelter, heading towards the ridge to their right. Not far, she kept telling herself. Not far and they’d be … A seeker! The high-whistle cut through the cold air, and she fumbled with the drone at her belt, trying to release it and throw it high before –

-

Mal pushed the sheet from across himself.

-

“No,” she whispered, tossing and turning, her body heated to an unbearable degree. “No!” she shouted, reaching to push something away.

Mal rolled over, trying to pull the vestiges of consciousness together. “Frey?”

She didn’t wake, her hair soaked with sweat.

“Frey!” He touched her, almost burning his hand on her skin. She threw out an arm, her fist just missing colliding with his head until he grabbed for her, holding her against him, careful not to press on the baby. “Frey, wake up!”

She shuddered, fighting him, her breath coming in short gulps as if she was drowning.

“Gorram it, Frey! You wake up right now or I'm calling the doc!” Mal shouted in her ear, fear washing through him.

She whimpered, trembling, pulling away from him, then collapsing back against his body as if all her bones had turned to water. Still she didn’t wake.

Now Mal was really scared. He laid her gently back against the pillow and scrambled to the com.

“Simon! Get your ass down here now!”

Mal shot awake, his mouth dry, his eyes staring into the darkness. Wuh de mah, but that was real. Just a dream, but so …

He swung his legs from the bed and stepped to the com.

“Hank, you there?”

“If you mean have I gone to bed yet to spend some time with my beautiful Zoe, no. So, yes, technically I'm –“

“Wave Persephone,” Mal interrupted. “Get hold of Frey.”

“What? Why?”

“Just do it.”

“Okay.”

Mal pulled on his pants and grabbed his shirt, up the ladder and into the corridor before he even put it on. He ran to the bridge.

Hank was staring at the screen.

“Well?” Mal demanded.

“I can’t.”

“What?”

“I can’t get through. There’s a total blackout.”

“Hank –“

“I'm just getting this same message, over and over.” He pressed a button and a disembodied voice filled the bridge.

‘… has been placed under quarantine by Federal order. All vessels are ordered to stay at least 20,000 kilometres distant until further notice. Any vessel approaching the planet without proper authorisation will be fired upon. This is the first and only warning. Persephone has been placed under quarantine by Federal order. All vessels –“

Hank switched it off.

to be continued

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Monied Individual - Part XIX
“His name’s Jayne?”

“What’s wrong with that?” the ex-mercenary demanded from the doorway.

“Nothing, nothing! I just … I don’t think I’ve ever met a man … anyone else by that name.”

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[Maya. Post-BDM. Hank's not out of the woods yet, and Mal has a conversation. Enjoy!]


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Jayne had told him a story once, about being on the hunt for someone who owed him something or other. He’d waited for his target for three hours in four inches of slush as the temperature dropped, and had grinned when he’d admitted to Hank that he’d had to break his feet free from the ice when he’d finished.
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Snow at Christmas
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[Maya. Post-BDM. A seasonal one-off - enjoy!]


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Jayne hadn’t waited, but planted a foot by the lock. The door was old, the wood solid, but little could stand against a determined Cobb boot with his full weight behind it. It burst open.


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He slammed the door behind him, making the plates rattle on the sideboard. “It’s okay, girl, I ain't gonna hurt you.” The cook, as tradition dictated, plump and rosy cheeked with her arms covered to the elbows in flour, but with a gypsy voluptuousness, picked up a rolling pin.

[Maya. Post-BDM. Kaylee finds the problem with Serenity, and Jayne starts his quest. Read, enjoy, review!]



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“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]



“Did we …” “We did.” “Why?” As she raised an eyebrow at him he went on quickly, “I mean, we got a comfy bunk, not that far away. Is there any particular reason we’re in here instead?” “You don’t remember?” He concentrated for a moment, and the activities of a few hours previously burst onto him like a sunbeam. “Oh, right,” he acknowledged happily.

[Maya. Post-BDM. A little with each Serenity couple, but something goes bang. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XIV
This wasn’t how an ex-companion did things. Perhaps she’d been hanging around a certain Firefly captain for too long. He listened at keyholes as if it were a competitive sport.

[Maya. Post-BDM. The crew go to the Spring Lights Procession, Mal gives some good news, and Sir Warwick puts in another cameo. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XIII
“It’s a family tradition, Mal.” Eugenia patted his hand. “No matter who marries into us, whatever their name, the moment they say ‘I do’ they become Rostovs. So you are Malcolm Rostov. It has a fine ring to it, don’t you think?”

[Maya. Post-BDM. A chapter of Mal and Freya, and a small revelation from Eugenia Rostov. Read, enjoy, review!]


Monied Individual - Part XII
Hank had to shake his head. In this day and age, when the entire output of every quill, pen and two-fingered monkey thumping on a keyboard was available on the Cortex, this statement of wealth and power was way over the top. He loved the feel of paper himself, turning the pages to get to the next twist, scanning the print to try and guess the next turn, but even his collection wouldn’t fill more than a shelf here.

[Maya. Post-BDM. Hank thinks about Zoe, Zoe thinks about Hank, while Freya and Mal have lunch. Read, enjoy, review!]