(the Bring the Boys Back Home Remix)
from the original You Hold,  by Inalasahl

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. -(Matthew 7:15-16)

What a state we've reached, he thought, that the worst part of dying from a sucking chest wound need be neither the wound itself, nor even the dying of it, but rehabbing the pectoral muscles. With each passing decade, it got ever harder to recondition the parts of your body where gaping holes had been. He dropped back to the floor for another set of push-ups. Not much else to do while he waited upon their pleasure.

The lock on the gymnasium door clanked open, and the colonel entered, boot heels echoing between the bare walls. "We need you back with Malcolm Reynolds."

Not to be mistaken for a statement, the order was given in the same manner as all the others: without any salutation, preamble, name--not even rank. Not that it mattered; any name he was known by here would have been false. That's the way they played it in this covert branch. Were he sloppy enough to be captured alive, his superiors would deny his existence.

Assuming anyone knew enough to contact this branch, which barely existed itself.

Paradoxically it was this very isolation of agents that would prove to be the fatal flaw of the Tam affair. Had 'Book' been able to receive new orders, the scientists could have had River back in time for the next weekly update on her progress. However, since he could not be contacted after leaving the abbey, he could not know that the importance of the River, who had quite serendipitously meandered next to him, far surpassed that of his assigned objective.

So, in an ironical Möbian twist, he became part of her defense.

Book had always wondered if River had known this all along--if it was one of her special, little jokes on everyone. If so, maybe they deserved it for some of the things they'd thought of her when they thought she couldn't hear.

Book sat up on a weight bench and wiped his face. "I thought Reynolds was a non-issue."

From under his federal gray cap, the colonel cast a disparaging eye. "We'll not be requiring you to think, just do."

Book revised his tone to one he knew pleased men in power. "I meant: what's the mission objective?"

It worked, of course. The colonel's chest filled out subtly. "It looks like he's regrouping forces for some kind of a coup attempt. That doesn't worry us, but we'd like to keep our energies and resources on developing and building, not defense."

Translation: they were worried. And they had every right to be. Since the exposure of Miranda, support for the regime was at rock-bottom, whereas Reynolds was the hero of the hour.

"If we take him out, he becomes a martyr, and the independence movement grows twice as fast. We're sending you back like the first time to track and report: act if needed to stop Reynolds from instigating another war. Is that clear enough, or do you have other 'thoughts' I should know about?"

Unless the keenness of Book's peripheral perception was failing him--and it wasn't--the colonel seemed to be studying him with particular deliberation.

The ultimate secret of counter-intelligence--the one that separates the professionals (and the long-lived) from the amateurs (and the dead) is to never tell any lie you don't have to. And then find ways to never have to. Refuse to tell all--hell everyone has secrets especially nowadays; tell another truth unrelated to the one they're after. If pushed into a corner, tell the truth and make it sound like such outrageous hyperbole that they'll laugh right along with you at the joke, then put it out of their minds.

Book chose the middle option. "Isn't the psychic still with them?"

It was a bit of a miscalculation, River being a sore spot with command and all.

The response was clipped. "Which is why it has to be you. She didn't see through you the first time."

"That's why I live my cover. There's nothing to break." Book draped the towel around his shoulders--mantle style--and his entire aspect became that of the cloth.

"Yes." The colonel turned his back and paced the boards. "We need a field agent with Reynolds. While River Tam is on board, unfortunately, that agent has to be you."

"I understand, Colonel," Book said, electing to misunderstand. "I accept the honor. However, I hope you haven't forgotten that I'm dead. I'm fair sure Captain Reynolds hasn't forgotten no ways." With ease, he morphed back into the shepherd's dialect and body mannerisms.

"We have thought of that." The colonel seemed pleased to seize the opportunity to demonstrate being one step ahead. "Come with me."

The colonel led down the hall, past the clinic where he'd been resuscitated weeks before. He recognized the number on the door. But the locked hallway that they entered next was one he'd never been allowed access to before.

They stopped in front of the one-way viewer of an interrogation room. Within it stood a woman in captain's braid with a medical emblem upon her shoulder. At least it appeared to be a woman--slight and lithe--but back to the viewer and head covered in a surgical cap, it was difficult to tell.

The patient, however, was strapped into a chair facing the viewer front and center. Face drawn, pale and sweaty, he seemed barely conscious. Yet as blue-gloved hands inserted the cerbrolance through his nostril, Hoban Washburne wrenched his neck backwards and belted out an ear-splitting scream.

"By the time Malcolm Reynolds gets Mr Washburne back and discovers that we have plenty of uses for his former associates revived and talking, he'll not only be unsurprised to see you amongst the living, he'll be expecting it. I'm not so worried about slipping you past the mind's eye of one little girl again as I am six combat trained eyes. Unless they've all gone blind, you'll hardly pass for a prisoner of war in your current state." Now the colonel almost smiled. "So, let's get started on making you look your part."

Serenity's crew was bound tighter than ever after Miranda, but it wasn't necessarily the good kind of tight. It was more the kind of tight like muscles after they've been run too hard for too long when they ain't made for that sort of thing. And the next day you can't hardly move, them being all knotted and balled and they ache so bad every which way you turn.

After a situation like Miranda, no one wanted to go nowhere but home, and above all else--beyond transportation or meal ticket--that's what Serenity was.

No one talked about leaving, not even Inara. They were all too sore in every which way.

They tried to loosen up one night, the way Simon had done, all that closeness having pushed pressures ominously near to some yet-undetermined flash point where something was going to have to give.

Like too much kindling packed on top of yesterday's embers, they were too tight for the purpose at hand.

For although heat doesn't always equal passion--she knew that in her line of work--oftentimes, if you just ran with it, feeling followed action.

When their eyes met, it was apparent to both that this was not to be one of those times.

Mal ran fingers through the lick of hair that never would stay put. "Well, don't that beat all," he said. "We should have done this long time ago. Woulda saved a world strain 'tween you and me."

"Possibly so." Inara dropped her lashes as she pulled her robe up and over her chest. Romance was the death knell of a Companion's career, and she had more than enough chiming in her ears already. She must have been dai ruo mu ji to let things get this far.

From beneath hooded lids, she surveyed his haunted eyes, his wound tight posture--his shoulders--so rigid, so tense--and wondered if that were true: if the Mal she'd met before Miranda was the same man who stood before her now, and if it would have been different if they'd tried it then.

But 'ifs' are as ephemeral as all the moments between now and 'that will never be,' and his thoughts were shuttered and closed off to her.

On impulse, she grabbed his face in both hands. With all the passion that had been wanting in moments past, she laid lips to his forehead and held them there. "If you remember nothing else about today, remember that I do love you," she said.

She stepped behind the dressing screen to re-do the complicated upper fastenings of her gown.

When she emerged, Mal was gone.


Of course, people aren't sore muscles; people have souls, and with the psychology of Companion training, eventually Inara recognized this phenomenon for what it was. "Cognitive dissonance" was the proper term. When a group of people is forced to depend on each other for survival through impossible perils, the mind idolizes the others. It has to, for sanity's sake. Would anyone want to think that their life depended upon a bunch of thieves, lechers and thugs? Of course not, and so the mind plays tricks, works backwards: if you trusted your life to them, they must be heroes. Your heroes.

Inara never would stand for mind-games which she wasn't controlling, and so when she realized what had happened, once again, she left.


Mal had lost people before: thirty-three or nigh on three thousand depending on the reckoning technique. He'd come out of it all right--not the same, but better, stronger, smarter. He figured he would this go round too, but he'd forgotten what it'd took too get from there to here.

He'd forgotten about all the pain that became potential energy boiling up inside, and how with nowhere to go it burned you up from the inside out. He'd forgotten how after the war, life in the POW camp had sapped all his energy just to survive. There weren't none left to self-destruct.

Not for him nor for Zoë.

But within the confines of a ship, that energy had nowhere to go but to back on itself--both for him and for Zoë.

They paced the ship for hours, him with his boat grown too small and her with her bunk grown too big. Heads together, they conspired, talking jobs, the ship and war--talk no one else understood.

Never would there be a better time for a resurgence; they'd been turned near to legend on some worlds.

They worked. They did their jobs. They distributed pay. But alone together, they were different. Their eyes were sharp and voices keen when they spoke of killing, violence, destruction, and war.

Even Jayne let them alone when they got that way.


"Revenge?" Simon asked, every fiber of his civilized being bristling at the thought.

"Good a reason as any, but no. If left alone, the Alliance will try again for their 'new and improved' brand of people." Mal nodded in River's direction. "And the time will never be better to move against them."

"The howling," River said, tilting an ear towards nothing anyone else could see or hear.

"I won't be a part of it." Simon crossed his arms and leaned back against the bulkhead.

"We're staying," said River. She pulled her knees up on the sofa and wrapped her arms around them.


"We're staying. Not done. This is where we're supposed to be." With a flop of her hair, she hopped to the deck, dashed through the hatches and up the stairwell to the bridge where she curled up in Wash's seat and promptly went to sleep.


Jayne said he didn't see the profit in fighting a war that was like to get him killed and not live to spend his percentage. He said they could drop him off wherever they dropped off Simon and River. When it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, he said that since they were underway to meet with the The Naga to get paid for the silkworm job, they could drop him off at Inara's whorehouse when they took her cut to her.

The cut she had said she neither needed nor wanted.

But on her world there was some kind of tussle over a Companion Jayne chose who didn't choose him, and when it ended he was back on the ship--not so much of his own accord--with instructions never to return and with Inara streaming florid Chinese at him and Mal both via videoscope, none of which likely translated to anything near as polite as 'farewell.'

So then he said he would get off when they stopped at Beylix for supplies and munitions, but there was some kind of disagreement about what the price was as compared to what the price ought to be resulting in a giant firefight. That also ended with Jayne back on board (having won the firefight for them) saying he would get off when they stopped at Santo for fuel and to repair the damage done in the firefight. But departure from Santo also saw Jayne back on board, which given Jayne's attention/retention span and the fact that it had been three weeks from his original decision maybe shouldn'ta been such a big surprise after all.

Yeah, maybe that was it.

When Mal gave Kaylee the choice, she said that she would stay. This left Simon feeling more than a little odd. Having known what it was to give up a life for someone, he never wanted anyone to do the same for him. 'course River could've told him it wasn't him Kaylee was staying for, or even the captain, but Serenity herself. Serenity she would follow into the smelting scrap ovens at the edge of space if there was any chance it might do some good.

Men can never understand a love like that, thought River. She sat cross-legged on Kaylee's hammock watching her work, and she howled.

"Mei-mei." Simon stuck his head in the hatchway of the engine room.

"I'm sorry," he said to Kaylee. "I don't know why she's started doing this. In every other way, she's been so much better since Miranda."

"She's no trouble," said Kaylee. "Why, compared to some of the geese honking back home--"

Simon cut her off. He turned back to River and held out his palm "Mei-mei, it's late. Come to bed. I'll go with you."

"'Late' is a subjective term relative to rotations of planetary bodies that's not applicable during interstellar transit."

No sex for me tonight, was the rueful thought that River heard as he wrapped his arm around her and shuffled her off to bed.

Simon sat up beside her the whole night, wondering what to do next and stroking her hair until he fell asleep in the cramped, little metal chair.


The seeds of Reynold's Revolution sown, Mal and Zoë spent their days strategizing how it would go. And into the nights. Into the long, dark, lonely nights.

Zoë was too good a soldier to show weakness in front of men like Jayne. That was the fast track to the afterlife, and whatever she might have been looking for these days, it wasn't that. Alone with Mal, it was different. Mal had seen her though places no one should have to go. Mal knew she wasn't weak even if he saw her feelings every now and then.

Like when she couldn't hold them in one single minute more.

It was never for himself. Never. Malcolm Reynolds didn't need anyone, but he did need his ship to fly. To make her fly, he needed his crew.

He needed to give his crew what they needed.

One night, high on setting a tactics for a full-out assault on Londinium, Mal lowered Zoë to her bunk where he let her set the pace.

He was surprised at the changes beneath her clothes and armor. He supposed it had been a while since he'd looked at her--really looked at her--though he could guess when the transformation had taken place. Her body was no longer full and rounded. Not like when she was in combat every day.

She was now all hard angles, wiry tendons and chunky bone. Not that he worried about Zoë in a fight. She was like steel microcable that could tear through a man's throat in a second without hardly being seen, wipe off the gore and then do the same thing again all day.

On the night she first took him with all the grief and loss and rage she'd harbored since Miranda, it used all Mal's strength and concentration to remind himself he was just doing this for her.


"The howling." River quirked her head and listened where she sat cross-legged on Simon's bunk.

"Yes." Simon could hear them now in the captain's quarters next door. The bulkheads might be fireproof, but soundproof, apparently not so much. In the future, he'd have to remember to keep things more quiet when he had private time with Kaylee.

"Wolf." River looked at him.

Simon blushed and returned to his electronic reader.


Mal awoke with an urgent need to use the head. Finding Zoë's sleeping body curled around his, he discovered the cause: a heavily muscled thigh upon his bladder. As much as he disliked to disturb her, some things had to be.

"Zoë," he nudged her. Alert so instantly as to cause him to wonder if she had even been asleep, she rolled to her side of the bunk.

"Yes, sir."

He got up and saw to business. When done, he considered the prudence of making the short trek back to his own cabin, but the deck was cold beneath his bare feet and about all of toiletry things were here.

No sense in disturbing her to gather them. He could do it later.

He climbed back in.

She twined herself back around him, and the deck chill dissipated straight away. His hand went to her ass, and he noted that those curves he had remembered were sure enough beginning to return.

She rubbed herself against him.

Deep inside him something changed. He couldn't have named it if he'd wanted to, and he wasn't at all sure he did. He draped one arm around her, and the last person in the 'verse he would have dared called warm or soft, he drew closer to his breast.

She kissed his collarbone and let him.

"I don't imagine you're going to just send him back," Book had said.

"What have I told you about imagining?" was the response. "But, no. 'Sergeant' Reynolds isn't the type to accept handouts. He only treasures that which he fights for. Or steals. Preferably both."

"In the meantime, it's not too early to start dropping... hints. Where did you say that whorehouse was, and don't some of Reynold's shipmates still have family alive?"

"Yes," said Book. "The mechanic, the Companion, the Tams..."

"We'll need details." The colonel slid a comp-pad across the tabletop.

Book took out the stylus and pretended to think.

One problem with living on the wrong side of the law is that it's hard to tell when something is wrong wrong as opposed to just being normal wrong. And with Mal and Zoë both having the better parts of their thoughts maybe left back on Miranda, and Jayne with his thoughts--well, Jayne's thoughts-- Well, it maybe took longer than it should have to figure it out, is all.

And River wandering around with her continual howling didn't help folks think straight, no, not at all.

But messages finally caught up with them: warnings from Jayne's family, Kaylee's, and the Heart of Gold about strangers asking questions. Federal comm chatter about a yellow-tufted duck, shot down, but quacking loud. Near misses with Feds at ports where'd they'd never had trouble before.

Kaylee was the one who first recollected them hearing code 'bout ducks before, and where it was, and what it meant. "Cap'n!" she blurted over River's co-pilot's seat quacking. "Don't you see? It's gotta be Wash!"

River stopped quacking. She sort of tilted her head to the black for a long time. Then she reached beneath the instrument for a plastic stegosaurus, rested it on the console, reared it up on its hind legs and roared.

Simon still had some contacts, and although Mal's reputable criminal associates wouldn't touch something near that hot, a couple of the shady or stupid (or both) ones would. With a little persuasion from Vera, the truth did out, complete with the location of the holding facility and the basics of the security set up. They even got hold of video of Wash--gaunt and shaky, but very much alive--limping across the compound under guard.

"Huh," Mal had said when it was confirmed as fact. Having been brought back from the dead himself, it wasn't unprecedented news, but hardly something he'd thought to think. They'd always assumed the Reavers had eaten his body.

Zoë was near as glad to hear that wasn't the case as she was of the rest.

"What's the plan, Sir?" she asked, after viewing the evidence. Her voice was as flat as any other time, but her cheeks were flushed with a ruddy glow, and she fingered the leather thong around her neck.

"Same. We get him back, get away clean, then get on with business of thieving and smuggling."

"Sounds good; I'm in." Tucking the vidcassete against her breast, Zoë walked off.

With any discussion of leaving Serenity River only howled louder, so Simon saw no point in wasting breath by pointing out that they were both--well, all three--clinically insane.

"Are there whores in this plan?" asked Jayne.

They all looked over at him.


Make that four, thought Simon, for all the good a mental tally was going to do.


The rescue mission went off--improbably--without a hitch, and suddenly Wash was there on Serenity, alive and whole--if a great deal thinner--save for the shadows in his face. However, the planning and execution had used all their resources. Not that anyone was complaining, but the Rebellion coffers were drained.

Once they had him back, the last thing Mal wanted was a fight. Looking at Wash's battered body reminded him too much of the days in and after the POW camp, when all Mal had wanted for him and his was some food that didn't look smell and taste like rabbit droppings, a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, and a helluva lot of peace.

Peace. Somehow all that pent-up energy had just dissipated. It was like setting down a physical burden not to have to ache for something all the time.

Mal caught Zoë in the passageway outside of the infirmary. He wasn't going back to her bunk. He'd already removed all traces that he'd ever been there. No need to consult her; he knew exactly what she'd say.

At least, he thought he did. Mal always thought he knew.

"You want me to tell him?" he asked. Situation called for it, she'd kill a man--or a hundred--without blinking and sleep like a baby that night. But hurt someone's feelings? That she didn't care to do. Ever. Mal figured that's what separated men from women. That and the chuff-box between their legs.

"Like you to stay out of my marriage. If it's all the same to you."

"Fair enough," said Mal with a nod of his head. "Night, Zoë."

"Sir--" she called to his backside. "There's no way we can thank you enough. Either of us. For any of it."

Mal looked to his boots, like some answer might magically appear down there. Then he turned and gave her that odd half-smile no one had seen since before Miranda. Before Haven.

She'd forgotten how young it made him look.

"Well then, don't suppose there's any reason to try. Night." Hands in pockets, he sauntered off towards his old captain's cabin.


Sixty-seven, sixty-eighty, sixty-nine, seventy. Never much of a push-up man, it seemed to be what his body craved tonight, and so he went down for another set. Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three--


"Tzao-gao!" Mal startled and looked up. "I hope you have a good reason for sneaking up on a man while wearing something like that. Or…not wearing some things like that." Sweating and bare-chested, Mal sat and grabbed a towel. He lowered his gaze to somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Back on board just over a week and out of the infirmary for barely two days, Wash was mostly skin and bones. Now as he hung from the ladder of Mal's cabin wearing Zoë's shortie Chinese robe and nothing else, Mal was getting a face load of both.

"If you want to punch me, go ahead, but have the decency to come down below eye level first. And close that robe." Wiping off his face and neck, Mal rolled up and onto his bunk.

With a gingerness that was pitiful to watch, Wash climbed the rest of the way down to the deck. "I don't want to punch you." If the statement weren't so poignant, it would have been laughable. Wash could barely open a jelly jar. He sat down beside Mal on the bunk. "Zoë says that you were there for her when she needed it."

With Mal's infallible leadership instincts, he thought he knew exactly where this was going, but he hoped those instincts were as infallible as they had been with Saffron. Or Inara. Or with all the other so-called romances in his life.

"Is that what she says?" Mal slid a little farther away from Wash on the bunk and tried for noncommittal.

"Well, she said a lot more than that. Enough that if I were a less confident, less worldly sort of fellow, and if I hadn't previously measured myself--both length and circumference--I might be prone to a certain stripe of insecurity. But since none of those apply, and since she tells me I more than, shall we say, measure up--"

"She does?" Now Mal sounded very committal.

"--I'm glad--very glad that you were there for her. I know how I would feel if I lost her, and to think about her going through that alone--" Wash moved as to put an open palm on Mal's thigh. High on Mal's thigh.

Mal turned his head toward his gun belt, hanging over the chair no more than three feet away.

Wash wisely pulled back his hand and snapped the fingers and thumb together. "Shadow puppets. Something I do when I'm glad. See?" He made crocodile motions and set his hands back in his own lap.

Mal pursed his lips. "Hoakay fine. You've been through a lot. You're glad. I'm glad you're glad. I'm glad we had this little talk. Now why don't you--" With the back of his hand, Mal made a swooshing motion towards the ladder.

"Mal, my wife is in our bunk crying herself to sleep--"

There was a moment of the kind of unearthly silence that is only possible in outer space.

"Zoë's crying?"

Wash stammered. "Well...no. But work with me here, Mal. She promised she'd hurt me--and not fun hurt, bad hurt, very bad kind of hurt--if I don't bring you back. And woman tears are a great tool of persuasion. I know this for a fact."

"You know about woman tears?"

"Well...not from Zoë, but from other women. Before we were married. Long before we were married. Woman tears win arguments."

"Not in this bunk they don't."

"She'll hurt me, Mal." Wash dropped his voice as he began to wax to his performance. "The bad hurt. And I'm not a well man."

Mal raised a finger in the air. His trigger finger, actually. "That's the first gorram thing you've said so far that makes any sense."

Wash ignored him. "It might kill me. My wife could give the Alliance lessons on how to inflict pain. One handed. Without even trying. Now that I do know for a fact. You rescued me. You don't want to see in pain or dead again, do you?"

"Oh, si lang kow!" Mal jumped up and began to pace the tiny space. "You really don't want me to answer that right now." He was starting to sound just like he did moments before some unfortunate on rotation got stuck having to clean body parts out of spaceship engines.

Wash dropped the comedy routine. "Mal, Zoë and I both know what it's like to be alone and in pain. And neither of us sees any reason why you should be. Please. It hurts us to be impotent to help a friend."

Wash held out his hand. There was an apologetic twinkle in his eye. He never could hold the comedy at bay for long, but it might have been just the right amount to take the edge off. "Please, Mal, don't make me impotent."

Mal sank back down on the bunk and rubbed his forehead.

Wash slid nearer, this time leaving a gentile gap between their thighs. "I don't know, Mal. I know don't want to pi gu de cao dan you, and I don't want you to pi gu de cao dan me. At least I'm pretty sure I don't want you to pi gu de cao dan me...." A look of cross-eyed confusion settled on Wash's face.

"Oh, ti wo! !" Mal rolled his eyes. "You he bi zhao wo zheng qi de gou pi dui ne?" There went that trigger finger again. Except now it was more like a whole trigger palm. "Okay, I'm going to sleep on the bridge. With the beeps and controls and flashing lights and things. Where I can get some rest."

"Mal, wait. When you pitched me a job--a life--out here, you said, "Wu fa; wu tien." Freedom Freedom to make our own rules.

"This--us is not wrong. Torture: that's wrong. There's nothing shameful in holding onto each other. Don't tell me I lived through hell to come back to friends who think that there is."

"You're married."

"Yeah, we know." Wash grinned. "And boy, has it been fun getting reunited with our vows. If that somehow factors into some newfound parochial credo of yours, bear in mind: so are you."

Saffron. Like most things on the outer worlds, interplanetary covenants on polygamous marriage were a gray area, at best. And like most troublesome things on the outer worlds, when fortunate enough to have something fall out of sight, mind and weapons range all three, it was generally best to leave it there. The black is big enough that trouble don't typically run into you by chance.

Unless you advertise yourself and your guns for hire, that is.

"Your wife asked me pretty plain to stay out of your marriage," said Mal. 'Told' would have been a more correct term, but it wouldn't have been fitting for a captain to admit taking orders from a first mate, so Mal fudged a little.

"Which is why she sent me to ask you back in. Considering all the history, I don't think she thought you'd believe it coming from her."

Mal snorted. "A gorram lot sooner than I believe it coming from you."

Wash chuckled. "Yeah, well, I don't know how any of this is going to work either, but I do know that no one else better in the 'verse at taking an insane idea and pulling it off."

"That would be me," said Mal.

"That would be you," Wash agreed. He thumped Mal's knee, this time with the heel of a closed fist, then pulled it discreetly back.

Mal took a deep breath. "Tell your wife some of us got work to do before planetfall and can't be lolling about in our bunks all night. If she--you both-- are of still this wacky notion after we move those cigarettes tomorrow, well I reckon we can see where it goes from there."

Wash stood up with a smile and a sloppy salute. "Yes sir, Captain, sir."

Mal watched him go. Then he rummaged through his drawer for a measuring tape. Push-ups forgotten, he tossed it onto his bunk. He had some important quantitative data to discuss with his first mate later.


Despite the bold ideals and pretty words, at first it was awkward all around. Wash was still too weak for anything you'd really call sex, which suited Mal just fine. And if Zoë thought otherwise, well, she kept it to herself, at least when Mal was around.

By the time Wash had recuperated, they were all more than ready after the days and nights of holding and touching and kissing and such. Mal had come to terms with his uncaptainly part in this and was prepared to give aid and comfort to his troops as required.

What he hadn't come to terms with was how desperately he needed to let go.

Face crammed into the pillow so his crew couldn't see his yearning, he was never sure which one it was--or both--who did him from behind. But he heard every word they whispered into his ears--greeting card sentiments that sound like banal pap until they're meant just for you. And he knew that both held one of his hands from the very beginning all the way until the bitter end, even as he choked on his tongue and finally gave it up deep into the twisted, sweat-soaked sheets.

The colonel gave orders through the videoscope. "As much as possible, put scars from the same type of devices as were used on Mr Washburne. We want a connection to be clear in their minds."

Pre-anesthetized to the pain sensations, Book still winced as the physician-captain applied the burner to his chest. The smell of burnt human flesh was something to which he had never become accustomed. He felt his newly repaired heart skip more beats than it had in sessions past as the tetany of the electrical contractions rippled through his body. It occurred to him that he might have grown too old for this sort of thing.

Next, she lowered the table. Replacing the burner back on the rack, a blue-gloved assistant handed her a thick-bitted drill. With a pair of forceps, she withdrew an electrical device from a package. As she held it up to the light for a final check, it emitted a high-pitched, howling whine.

So did the drill, as she pressed the bit to Book's anesthetized occiput.

Satisfied, she poked the chip through the burr-hole. But only the skull was numb, not the lining of the brain. Through his nose came the muffled scream that Book could not quite suppress.

Grown too old for, or out-grown one might say, Book thought, as the doctor pulled the chip out again and, mercifully, the pain eased off.

"Hold still; this will only take a moment." Not quite true. The dura and cerebral surface having been scarred from the several chips he'd had before, she realized that this insertion was not going to be easy. The doctor forced the chip back through the burr-hole.

Book screamed. Finally he fainted as, without any hesitation this time, the doctor adjusted the chip until she had it jammed in exactly where she wanted it.

It wasn't that there was ever any decision made, it just never seemed to work out to get any coordinated assembly of brigands, ne'er-do-wells, rebels, and blackguards together. And jobs too good to pass up kept falling into his lap now that he was a bona fide folk hero. And pieces kept falling off the ship that needed putting back on before they could do much else. No one saw any need to remind Mal of his previous death-wish when things were going along so swimmingly, with nice, normal day-to-day crime. So somehow Reynold's Rebellion ended up on the back burner.

And as for the other, well, no one thought much of it really, 'specially after one morning when, last out to breakfast, Jayne threw it all into perspective, settling everything, though not likely in the way he meant to.

In his well-worn Uncle Kit-Kat T-shirt, Jayne come out to the galley and sniffed the air. "Ew. Smells like a rot lot of fresh squeezed genital juice in here." Barely slowing down on his way to the food, he gave River a crude once-over. "How 'bout it, l'll girl?" He whacked off a slab from the block of protein gel on the cutting board. Centering the slice onto the flat of his knife blade, he began to slurp it into his mouth. Whole and raw.

"How's about what?" Simon asked, deciding that although he likely did not care to know, asking was better than the alternative. For Jayne was one of the best examples in existence of how ignorance is not, in fact, bliss and of how a little knowledge is, in truth, a dangerous thing.

Jayne responded, still chewing, in River's direction. "Seeing as me and you are the only ones on this bucket not getting juiced, let's say you and me squeeze our sexes together and see what kind of sloppy comes out the middle."

Simon coughed and tried to simultaneously force down both a bite of bao and a wave of nausea to champion River's honor in a timely manner, but he never got the chance.

River was already at Jayne's side, mouth to his ear. She pressed the tip of her finger to the handle of the knife, but at an awkward angle, so it sort of pointed down towards Jayne's fly. If one were prone to notice such things. Speaking in that creepified tone that was just loud enough to be heard by everyone in the galley she said, "You wouldn't like it; mine's bigger."

That promptly ended both breakfast and any further general and public discussion of inter-personnel intimacies, and for once, Jayne left without finishing his meal.

"So, he's not going to be rescued like Washburne?" the major asked as they watched Book through the view screen.

"No. I think he might try to escape."

"It's a big universe to run into one wandering sheep."

"It is. What--or whom--do we have to use as bait?"

The major saluted and sat down at a computer, rapidly running through lists.

One day, after knocking over a liquid vitamin tanker that should pay their bills for the next few months, a wave came in.

"Isn't that Inara's world?" Wash asked as he keyed in the transmission code.

"Reckon it is." Mal cleared his throat and slicked back an unruly lock of hair.

River toggled an intercom button. "Simon, Inara needs you on the bridge."

Wash, having long since given up worrying about the peculiarities of his new co-pilot, just as long as she wasn't howling in his ear, didn't ask. He just punched the wave through.

"Inara. You're looking wonderful." Actually, she looked terrible, but Wash had been married far too long to fall into an easy trap like that. Before Mal could say otherwise, Wash elbowed him. The poor boy hadn't been coupled long enough to know all the tricks. Needed an old hand to show him the ropes.

"What's going on?" Simon asked from the hatchway.

"Hello, Wash. Mal. Simon, I'm glad you're here." Inara's tired voice spoke from the screen.

Mal did an exaggerated double-take. "Glad he's here--?"

"I need to ask you and Mal both about something," she continued.

If this was going where Wash thought it was, he was the luckiest man in the entire 'verse, but their bunk wasn't going to be near big enough.

But could he possibly be that lucky?

"River," Wash whispered over to his left. "Tell me: does Zoë like girls?"

River tilted her head to him. "You don't have a clue, do you?"

"Women? Never have. Not a one. I suspect man is happier that way."

"Simon says it's not polite to read and tell."

"Our secret," Wash whispered. He looked right to where Simon and Inara were making arrangements for a pick up. "Just this once. I won't let on how I got smart."

River tossed him a disgusted look. "I'll be in my bunk." Leaving him all the dinosaurs, she tossed her hair and traipsed down the stairs.

When Mal announced the change in job and destination to the crew, Jayne took it badly. He'd been backwashing the carbon scrubbers to vacuum, but stopped, leaving filters scattered around the cargo bay.

"I'll be in my bunk."

Which is where he stayed until they had lifted off again after getting Inara aboard, and Mal had assured him that not only did the young lady in question consider him not particularly memorable, but that Inara had asked for him special. Said that although the doc had confined her to the infirmary for the duration, she wanted Jayne to know that she thought this job would be right up his alley. Told him to leave the grenades but bring a great, big knife.

"I'll get it," River offered with an ingenuous smile.

Jayne eyeballed her. "Women on boats are just plain bad luck," he grumbled. "Any more like these ones, and I'm gonna think about going rear seat gunner." He kept one eye on River as she danced up the stairs, but he did go back to the filter job.

Wash and Mal considered his retreating form. "Huh," they said in unison.

Zoë slapped Wash on the ass. "Forget it, Lovemuffin." Somewhere along the line Zoë'd added a third dangle to the leather thong around her neck. At the dinner table once, Kaylee'd said it looked nice that way. Zoë'd said thanks, and that was all the commenting on it that had happened or that was apparently going to happen.

Mal turned to Wash. "Yeah, what she said. I saw him first." Mal batted his eyelashes.

Zoë smacked Mal on the ass. Harder. Much.

"Ow!" Mal rubbed his ass, mostly for effect.

Wash laughed.

Kaylee did that thing she did, that strange mix of happy to see people having fun and yet still worried. She looked to Mal. "It's going to be all right though, Cap'n? We're gonna get to him in time?"

"Don't worry little one; I have a plan." Mal patted her shoulder as he loped from the cargo bay, looking mighty pleased with himself.

Wash and Zoë groaned, looking not near so much.

"It'll be alright," said Zoë, when Mal had left the room. "Your doc's got it under control. Said so. Heard him myself."

"That's good," said Kaylee. "That's real good." She took one handle of one of Inara's three steamer trunks. Zoë grabbed the other side. Together they carried it up the stairs to what they had always thought of as Inara's shuttle.

"You think maybe she'll even stay?" Kaylee asked. "Now that the cap'n's not so...you know...."

Zoë looked at her.

Kaylee spun a finger beside her ear. "Feng le."

Zoë shrugged one shoulder and hefted her end higher. "People don't pack like this for overnight."

"All right, you'll feel some pressure. Try to relax your hip and thigh muscles, and it won't be as bad." Over his instrument, Simon looked down at the expanse of Inara's skin laid bare below him.

"I wish you'd been there on Ariel," Inara said as she settled her hips.

"I was on Ariel. Big stick." Simon jabbed the trocar into her iliac crest, and despite the Algliocaine, she winced. "Try to keep the muscles loose. Contracting them makes it worse for you."

She closed her eyes, her pinched face smoothed out, and Simon's syringe began to fill with red marrow.

"Good," he said. "Almost done."

"I mean with me--for the evaluation last year. The Alliance doctors were not only disheartening, but painful and dehumanizing as well."

"I know what you meant. I had other things on my mind that day, but I do wish that you'd told us sooner. As it was, it was almost too late." Simon kept his eye on the level rising against the syringe barrel calibrations.

Careful not to move, Inara made a rueful sound. "What was it that they used to say with their friend--Tracey? 'When you can't run anymore, you crawl, and when you can't crawl anymore you find someone to carry you.' Perhaps the proudest amongst us are unwilling to be carried until they are entirely unable to crawl."

"Well," Simon pulled out the trocar and slid a gauze pad over top of the puncture wound. He held pressure with a white-gloved thumb. "As one of the formerly too proud to ask for help, I feel obliged to warn you: if you're going to stick to the hard line, you'd better count on a lot of luck."

He smiled at her. "Hold this."

She replaced her thumb where his had been, and he moved to place the marrow sample in the processor.

"So, it'll be almost six months until the transplant graft matures. Until then, you'll need to be under relatively continual medical care and observation. What are your plans for that?" He turned back around and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

"I assume any of the core worlds would have adequate facilities."

"Oh, more than adequate," Simon agreed.

"But they wouldn't know my case."

"I'd provide records. Stem cell transplants are routine. The only catch is finding a donor. It usually has to be a first degree relative." Simon peeked at the processor. "If this layers out as well as it's beginning to, I'd call you stable for transfer as soon as three days."

Simon didn't lie; he really wasn't very good at talking to women. Inara knew she was being manipulated, but she also got the message. And her own nose was getting pretty sore from as many times as she'd bitten it off for the spite of her own face.

"Or," she said, giving almost as poor a performance as Simon had, "I suppose I could stay for a while, if I weren't too much of an inconvenience to your other work."

"Inconvenience? You must be joking. Most fugitive, unlicensed physicians only dream of one day being put on retainer to the upper social echelons."

She gave a gentle laugh. "Then, I thank you. And I accept. At least for a few weeks. We'll see how it goes."

Simon gave her an odd look. "Weeks?"

"To be frank: I'm not sure that Mal is comfortable with me here. Things could become awkward again. None of us want that."

"Mm." Simon put a pressure plaster on the biopsy site and pulled the brocade shrift down to cover her pelvis and legs. "Having a critical illness often gives one tunnel vision: the sense that everything does or should revolve around us."

She flipped over on the table and gaped at him in a rather impressive display of indignation, considering the circumstances.

Simon just shrugged. "Mal hasn't been comfortable since I've known him. With you on board or off. Zoë told me some things from the war, but I've wondered if it doesn't go further back than that. I hear that he was raised by single mother, who ran a veritable black-market cattle cartel."

"I shouldn't be surprised. Leaf--tree. Dung--sow." Inara made a dry noise and a dropping gesture with her hand.

"Well," Simon continued, "there are certain theories about children--particularly male children--of absent fathers and domineering mothers..."

"Yes, I've heard them." Inara gave him a sly smile.

"I've often thought that might have something to do with why someone like Mal, who could succeed at any life he wanted in conventional society, would choose the counter-culture in the first place. Join the Browncoats. Turn his back on everything. Fight everything and everyone conformist."

"Did you ever ask him?" Sarcasm gone, her tone was one of raw curiosity now.

"No," Simon chuckled. "Although my tastes have broadened considerably out here, I've yet to develop one for being punched in the nose. The point being that Mal's not comfortable, period. You might consider something that uncommonly beautiful women seldom do: his discomfiture has absolutely nothing to do with you. He's not comfortable in his own skin. If it's any consolation, recently he's been better and better each passing week. Especially since you've been back."

Inara still looked unconvinced.


The processor dinged and broke the moment.

Simon turned and scanned the report. "A-plus. You can go. See you for a blood sample on Wednesday."

Inara slid from the table and gathered herself. She paused quite deliberately at the infirmary hatch, causing Simon to cast clinical eyes over her again. He saw nothing new.

"Can you keep a secret?" she asked.

"I hope so. I took an oath saying I would. Of course, they made us recite it aloud from a Hanyu text, so who knows what I actually said?" It sounded flat to his ears, like the all-purpose bedside manner joke that it was.

She ignored him. "I love this ship." Under long lashes, she stroked the infirmary bulkhead.

Simon blinked at her intensity. "That's not an uncommon reaction to a terminal illness: to have everything seem unusually precious and special."

Inara shook her head. "That's not it. 'Zi zhi zi ming.' That's one of the first tenets of Companion training."

"Well," Simon drew in a huge breath and blew it out. He plucked the plastic cassette of marrow results out of the analyzer and turned it over in his hand. "Apparently you're no longer dying, so if you stay, you'll be able to find out which of us is right."

She drew a billow of fabric around her shoulders and gave him a sweetly supercilious smile. "Why, I am, of course."

He chuckled softly. "Wednesday. Same time, same place. Don't forget."

"Not if I have to crawl." In a swirl of silk, she swept from the room.

The door unlocked with a click. Two officers and two privates in full uniform with caps and side arms came to escort him.


"Always." He was dressed in only a lab/infirmary robe and geta. The physical sensations of it reminded him of the abbey garb. How easy that was to become accustomed to. The physicality of it brought back more. There was something very powerful behind the idea of uniforms--dressing for a mindset. How easy it was to convince the brain that if your being is outfitted one way, that's the way you must feel. And be inclined to act.

They led him down the hallway and out to a hangar bay.

The major ripped the two I.V. catheters from his arms. Blood began to spew forth, and Book whirled into an attack stance.

The four armed men stood appearing amused, but at ease.

"Press your sleeve to it," said the colonel. "We need your 'escape' to look uncontrived."

Book did so, willing his mind back to the matter at hand. "Wait," he said. "I'm going to need fruit."

"You'll be in hibernation." The major shot a meaningful look to the colonel.

No, they didn't trust him.

Of course, they didn't trust anyone, so that didn't necessarily mean much.

"It's not for me. Like you say, I know them. I need this." For some reason, this tiny detail of the double-cross meant the most to him. Enough to risk pressing his luck. "Bait," he added calculating the effect of the word on such men.

"Type?" the colonel asked.

"Whatever's fresh, plentiful and appealing."

"Now, what kind of way is that for a shepherd to talk?" The colonel gave a vulgar laugh, but seemed to relax and sent an underling off.

He lay down in the tube and shifted the padding under his head. It was still tender at the surgical spot. He positioned himself on the egg-crate padding as to avoid cramps and pressure sores. It felt odd, there was so much less of him than there had been two months ago. He could only hope it was the correct parts that he had chosen to leave behind.

The private returned with a large sack. "Asian pears?"

"Perfect." He nestled the bag careful in the folds of his gown so the fruit would neither bruise nor be smeared with the bloody ooze. He filled his head with the thoughts of the nine sitting around the galley table, passing around slices and stories.

He'd done this enough to know that like most things in life, Bifidan dreams were mostly what you decided to make them.

"Ready?" the medic asked.


The hypo hissed into his neck, and Book's body crumpled, exanimate.

The past two days had been more exciting than average, largely due to some poorly guarded credits of previously disputed ownership that now lay secured in one of the more difficult to find cargo bins. Things had settled down to smoothish sailing, and now some compensatory bunk time for Mal, Jayne and Zoë had begun.

"Captain," Wash called down to their bunk. Mal answered. From long experience on the other side of this equilibrium, Wash could imagine Zoë, eyes closed and pretending to sleep but listening and marking every word. "I'm picking up something between us and an outer moon."

"Care to be more specific, or are you thinking I've suddenly turned reader too?"

Mal looked so cute with bed hair.

"Working on it. But here's a xiao kuai le de jin zhan worth getting up for: whatever it is has homing nav software set for Serenity's specific engine cycle."

"Qiu!" Mal swore. "I'll be right there."

"So, what do you know?" Mal leaned over Wash's shoulder, his face and neck smelling of Zoë's sex. Sweet Pete, that turned him on, but now was neither the place nor the time for that.

In the co-pilot's seat beside him, River giggled.

"Mind your own business," Wash and Mal both said in unison.

Wash forced all thoughts back to the console readings. "Tiny. A suit or an escape tube. Minimal life support's active; it's on course for us. I still can't figure how they managed to track us. I don't think I could have programmed that. Kaylee, I'm sure, could have figured it--"

"Wake her up."

River had already opened the call down to Kaylee's cabin.

"If it launched from that moon with constant acceleration, it's been traveling for three days."

"With no independent propulsion and only minimal life support, that would take a lot of gorram faith," Mal said.

At the last word, they all exchanged glances.

"The Israelites wandered the desert for forty years on faith," River said.

They blinked at her.

"'course, that's only a story."

"You don't think--?"

"I'm here." Wash rubbed his chest. "Why not? The preacher started out with more faith than me. Only seems fair."

"Bring it on board," Mal ordered. He started down to the cargo bay.

"What's up, Cap'n?" Wearing Simon's extravagant, tailed silk pajama top and a pair of bunny slippers, Kaylee crossed paths with Mal on the stairwell to the bridge.

"That's a good question, little one." Mal tousled her hair.

"Aaaaooooooooooooo." Face pressed to the porthole, River howled at the moon.

It was indeed a transport tube. Insulated and warmed to 34°C, oxygen supply for about two hundred hours, Alliance markings on the side.

"Matthew," River pronounced.

At the name, Wash creased his face. "Was there another man when I was dead?" He tried to get Zoë's attention, but she just brushed him off.

Simon ran a scanner over the tube. "Nothing, but if someone's been put into a proto-coma or given a hibernetic, I wouldn't be able to get a reading."

"River?" Mal looked to her.

She ran her hand over the markings. "Wolf in sheep's clothing," was all she said.

Mal combed a hand through his bed hair and winced. "Jing tsai de huangyu nao dai! I've been up for two days straight--"

"If they gave him a drug that shut down his higher cortical functions, she couldn't read through it either, Captain," Simon volunteered.

Jayne cocked his weapon and trained it on the tube. "I say, let her rip. If his brain's asleep, his trigger finger's asleep too."

"Ain't always been proved so," said Zoë.

"Shepherds separate sheep from the wolves," said River.

From up on the catwalk, Inara looked down on them, her robe clutched to her middle.

Mal glanced around the bay. Seven faces looked to him where once there had been eight. Where there should rightly be eight.

"Open her up," he said.

Kaylee and Wash set to it.

Jayne raised the weapon's sight to his eye.

The hatch released with a pop, and the gasses equilibrated and shut off in a hiss. There Book lay in a terry-white medical robe, his shock of hoary hair fuzzier and more unruly than ever.

Mal blinked.

Kaylee gasped.

From up on the catwalk, Inara pulled her robe over her chest.

"Sheep's clothing," River mumbled, but her words were lost in the confusion.

"I'm pretty sure he's alive," said Simon. "He's been given something like Bifidan."

River ran slender fingers through kinky shocks of hair. Almost immediately, she hit the surgical depression in the skull. She threw her head back, and she howled.

"River." Simon restrained her at the waist. "It's all right. It’s just hair." Simon tried to explain, "It's his orders--"

"His orders," River repeated, with a slightly demented sounding giggle.

"That's right, mei-mei," Simon soothed. Although she now sounded more hysterical than frightened, anything was better than that wail. Tentatively, he let her go.

He had a worse off patient to tend to.

Turning his attentions back to the tube, Simon hefted Book by the ankles. "Help me get him into the infirmary," he called to the rest of the group.

River walked with them, her hand on the matted and discolored sleeve. "Blood of the lamb," she mumbled.

Although, all their attention given to Book, no one paid her any mind.

Reversing the hibernation drug was simple. Much simpler than bringing someone with those kind of injuries back to life. Trauma medicine had advanced much in the year since he left, Simon thought.

Either that or the Alliance was keeping more alarming secrets from the populace. Perhaps River was right about their job on Serenity not being done.

But Simon didn't have time for that train of thought now. Not all the scars on the Shepherd's body were ones he remembered from the Haven attack. Many were much fresher. And they appeared to have been inflicted in a deliberate pattern. Simon traced the arms of a stellate one out from the xiphoid where they radiated like some subcutaneous, radioactive starfish and wondered what the hell could have done such a thing.

"Torture," Mal said. He recognized all the marks. Many he bore himself, but the latest and greatest advancements--the ones he didn't sport--he'd seen on Wash's body and left their bunk for his old cabin when it looked like his friend might need to cry in his wife's arms.

Butt-fucking is one thing, but some things real men just don't do together.

Eventually he'd heard the story behind all of them--when the time seemed right.

"'fraid I told them a good bit about what I knew of your operation. And your plans." Book met Mal's eyes, and the infirmary went silent but for the clinical beeping of Simon's machines.

"Hell, I told them everything I could think of," Wash burst in with clearly strained cheer. "From my childhood best friend's hiding place for his allowance, to the way Zoë likes her tea, to the exact plan for getting the news of Miranda out. Except that we didn't have one, so there wasn't so much there to tell. Then things I just made up. Anything I could think of. Anything they wanted to hear. I would have told them anything at all to make it stop."

River howled.

"Yeah, like that," said Wash, rubbing his nearer ear.

"It's not his fault, Captain," Simon said. "With the drugs they have, the mind control, they can induce about anything. Look what they did to River. You don't need me to convince you it's no one's fault, do you?"

"It's someone's fault all right," said Mal through tight lips. "But no one in this gorram room."

"Woulda been their only reason to bring you back." Zoë said it looking at Book, but Wash moved a little closer to her.

"Then it was worth it," said Kaylee brightly. "I mean, the secrets, not the torture." From her seat near the infirmary table, she offered Book a sympathetic look.

"I've heard tell of much worse." Book squeezed her hand.

"After you reached Miranda, they lost interest in me." Book continued with his tale. "Seemed to have more important things on their mind. I wasn't under much guard. Seemed to think a preacher wasn't much of a security threat--"

"Imagine that."

"--so I had fair little trouble getting out."

"Something they teach at the abbey?" Jayne snarked, a 10-kilo dumbbell in his hand. After taking more than his share of upper body hits on Miranda, he'd bought a fancy set to build back up. Like a kid with a shiny new toy, he sat on a folding metal infirmary bench as if waiting for Book to get better to come out and play.

"Lions' dens and such," said Book. "You never know what will come in handy when. Speaking of--" Book reached under his robe.

"Whoa, now!" Jayne backed off. "If you're goin' all 'rods into serpents' on us..."


"Nothing of the sort. But I do intend to pay my passage." From an inside pocket, Book pulled out a burgeoning cloth sack and passed it to Kaylee. "As I remember your terms, this should be a fair start."

She opened it. "Pears! Xing fu!" With ecstatic abandon, she sniffed the sack and tossed the most perfect one to River.

"Passengers pay before they get off," Mal said. "Crew stay and earn their keep. Soon as they're able. Doc, let me know when that is. There's important crime to be done, and we'll need all hands. Bad enough we got one too worried about her fingernails to pitch in.

"Wash, you have the bridge. I'm going back to my bunk." Mal grabbed a pear, yawned, and sauntered out of the infirmary with Wash not far behind.
"Me too," Jayne announced. "Back to my bunk, that is. Alone. Not his...theirs. Whatever, I'm not."

All eyes were on him.

"Gorram it!" Jayne blurted. Cradling his dumbbell, he stormed out.

"So, what else did I miss while I was out of the world this time?" Book elbowed himself a little farther up on the infirmary bed to watch Kaylee make goo-goo eyes over the fresh fruit.

"Would you stay still flat, please, Shepherd?" Simon called the order over his shoulder as he reviewed some tests. "There's something on your head scan I don't understand. I think it would be better if you lay still."

Obediently, Book slid back down.

"Oh, not much," said Kaylee with her trademark cheerfulness. She took a bite and waited till it was almost down to go on. "River's a full-blown reader, but other'n that, she's all better." She looked over to the corner where River was studying the stem of the Asian pear through an anoscope. "Well, at least most days. Wash was dead, but he's better now too. 'course, I guess you know how that is."

"Might've heard a story like that before."

If Kaylee caught the double reference, she skipped right over it. "The cap'n and Wash and Zoë are sexing--"

"Pardon?" Book started to jerk his head up before he remembered.

"Well, really it's more the cap'n, Zoë and Wash." In deliberate order, Kaylee played connect the three dots in the air with her fingertip. "If you know what I mean. At least I think that's how it works. Tho' with the cap'n, you can never be sure."

"Had it right the first time," River mumbled from her countertop perch. She put down the anoscope and slid the pear down her shirt like a lopsided breast implant.

"That's all right." Book raised a palm in the 'versal gesture of 'enough.' "I've either been out of the world a little too long or not quite long enough to care for exact details on that one. Next?"

"Well, Simon and me are sexing too. Oh, and the big one!" Kaylee brightened. "Inara was dying, but the cap'n tracked down her mei yong de selang of a father, Jayne cut off one of his testicles and Simon put part of it in her to save her life."

"Really?" Book rolled his eyeballs toward Simon.

"Stem cells," Simon muttered absently, still looking at the scan, not his patient. "Please, hold still."

"So that just goes to show that everyone is good for something after all. 'tho he wasn't what you'd call real happy 'bout the forced donation. But the cap'n convinced him to see it his way."

"Imagine that."

"I think Inara has a little crush on Jayne after the way he fought for her against that se mi mi de ren so-called father of hers." Kaylee leaned her head down to Book with the intimation.

"Really?" Book's eyes widened.

From the distance came a crash that sounded a lot like a full barbell rack and a muffled "Gorramit!"

"A very little crush," said Kaylee. "But, little things do grow, don't they?" she said, with a flicker of the eyelids in Simon's direction.

River looked down her shirt.

Kaylee wiped pear juice from her chin and continued in a different tone. "What else? Serenity got a new ion conversion pump. The cap'n was gonna start a suicidal revolution against the Alliance with the five of us and a few friends but changed his mind and decided to become an agricultural blockade runner instead, and I think that's about it."

Book closed his eyes and chuckled quietly. "Sounds like I landed on the right ship."

"Clever your using Serenity's Chou wave output to do that. None like it since I jury-rigged the compression coil. No one else woulda known that, 'cept someone who'd been on her. Good thinking." She punched him in the arm.

Without turning, Simon pointed to a head scan. "Shepherd, there's a metal thing in your skull. On top of your brain. I don't know what it is."

"Likely from the Alliance attack on Haven, I reckon. Can you get it out?"

"No." Eyes to his tests instead of his patient, Simon missed the curiously nonchalant tone "Whatever it is, it's not shrapnel. It looks electronic. And intentionally implanted."

River rolled her eyes. "My brother is such a boob."

Book made his tone firm, deliberate now. "As I said: likely from the enemy attack. Can you take it out?"

Now Simon turned.

Kaylee had ceased eating. Her gaze darted between them both.

"I think I should wake the captain," said Simon.

"Boob is palindrome: it appears the same from either direction." River shoved the pear to the other side of her chest, but it rolled out of her chemise, onto the floor, and under the infirmary bed. No one bothered to track where it landed.

"Do whatever you think is right, of course," said Book. "But I suspect that getting it out sooner instead of later would be best for us all. And happy as I am to be here, don't care to spend the rest of my days laid out on my back. So, can you remove it?"

Simon wet his lips. "Easily. The insertion burr hole is still open, and it's only gelled to the surface of the cerebrum, not implanted."

"Might want to drop it in some strong acid or oxidizing solution straight away when you get it out."

"I've got a jar of carbolic in the stern," Kaylee volunteered, the half-eaten Asian pear long forgotten.

"That'll do," said Book.

Kaylee jogged off toward the engine room.

Simon took a hypo of Algliocaine and pressed it to the occipital nerve. "One day I'd love to hear the whole story." He parted the shepherd's unshorn hair over the area of the foreign body.

"And one day I'd love to forget it," said Book, just before Simon paralyzed him with a second hypo.

River hopped down from her seat and tip-toed over to Book's other side. She folded one thick, gnarled hand in her thin pale one. With her other hand, she combed searching fingers though his hair. "Sheep's clothing," she murmured to no one in particular.

Simon stopped and turned to her with irritation. "River, please, the sterile field--" But where her fingers displaced the thinning hair, he saw the scars where other surgeries had been done.

"Don't ask him. You don't want to know." Silently, she held Book's hand through the rest of the procedure.

Simon removed a thin computer chip. It made a terrible screech when removed from the body. Simon held it to the light to study it, and the noise became louder. He had never seen the like.

"The howling's stopped," said River. She beamed a radiant smile and began to hum a Chinese tune.

Simon dropped it into the jar of acid and quickly closed the lid.

"The operation was a complete success," said Simon when Book came around again. He held up the little jar. "I'd give you the souvenir, but it dissolved completely. There's nothing left to see."

"Suits me fine that way," said Book. "May I--?" He gestured to the floor and the pile of clothing Wash had scrounged up.

"Sure. I pronounce you ship-shape." Simon crossed arms.

"So, what's our first crime?" Book asked Kaylee as he slipped pants on under the gown.

"Earthworms and slugs. Big fat ones to develop soil. Athens and all its moons are desperate for 'em, and we fell into news of a huge stock of 'em on Hera. We were on our way there when we ran into you. I hope we've got time for some fishing 'fore we make Athens. Back home, we used to dig up these night crawlers and--"

Book stopped, mid-leg.

"Bait," said River.

"You bet," Kaylee agreed. "Best this side of Sihnon. We used to catch gigantic bass and trout with 'em. I'll take you. If our ju tou of a captain lets us have shore time."

"We're en route back there?" Book asked.

"Uh-huh. Wash says planetfall in less than thirty hours, lessen we run into any more transport tubes long the way."

"Doctor, I think you were right. I think we should talk to the captain right now." Book fastened the trousers and slipped into his pair of geta.

"No fishing," said River, with a wistful glance to Kaylee.

"Figures. Such is the life of crime." Kaylee sighed. Not unpredictably, she brightened almost straight away. "At least we'll always have pears! We didn't; but now we do." Slopping a pear-flavored smooch on Simon's cheek, she picked up the sack and skipped off towards the kitchen.

Simon shook his head. "Definitely the right ship."

"Yep," Book agreed. He pushed the jar of acid to the back of the counter.

"Yep." River picked another pear and slipped it into the front of her panties this time. With an odd dancing shuffle, she drifted out of the infirmary.

Running into her into the passageway, Jayne did a double-take, veered into his cabin, and sealed and bolted the hatch from the inside.