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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Inara leaves Serenity for a new life. Mal gets a job with a couple of new employers, but sinks further into despair.
Slash so lite you'll probably scarcely notice it.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1405 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
Series: MAKE ME A STONE
Chapter 7: 'til the day you die
Warning: Slash so lite you'll probably scarcely notice it. Spoilers for the comics, novelization and the movie
Betaed by: wedjateye who's brilliant at spotting when I've said too little and when I've said too much.
Earlier chapters can be found here.
* * * * *
MAKE ME A STONE
Chapter 7: 'til the day you die
From the air, Liann Jilin is all wild beauty: lush vegetation tumbling down precipitous hillsides, rocky peaks soaring up through wreaths of cloud and, beneath them, a blue-green sea, undulating lazily in the heat of the morning sun.
“Looks kind of sexy, doesn't it?” Wash remarks cheerfully.
Mal sniffs. Yep, it does. Inara's gonna ruttin' well love it here.
Wash leans back in his chair and reaches behind him to where his wife is standing, also admiring the rising planetscape. Catching her around the waist, he asks “Fancy a swim, lambie-toes?”
“Ain't gonna be dirtside long enough for swimmin',” Mal informs him gruffly. “We drop off Inara an' then we're straight back in the air an' on our way to Kerry. Fanty an' Mingo wants us there, soon as.”
Wash glares mutinously out of the viewports. Then a thought occurs to him.
“Fanty and Mingo ... Didn't we have a disagreement with them two years back? A disagreement that ended up with Jayne getting run out of a perfectly good whorehouse with his pants round his ankles?”
“By-gones,” Mal says, dismissing the pilot's objections with a wave of his hand. “Easily forgotten in exchange for three thousand platinum.”
Wash's expression turns from rebellious to impressed in the blink of an eye and he gives a low whistle of surprise. “Three thousand! That's an encouraging number for a first job with new employers. Didn't think the Misters Rample had much of a reputation for generosity.”
“They don't,” Zoe agrees, with a careful glance at Mal. “It's on account of the nature of the job.”
Joining them on the bridge, Shepherd Book must have overheard because he asks “Which would be?” before Wash gets the chance.
Even at the best of times, which this ain't , Mal don't appreciate folk trying to prick his conscience; today it makes him defiant.
“We're going to a weddin',” he announces, squaring his shoulders. “With a view to simplifyin' the lives of the bride an' groom.”
“You're going to steal from them,” Book translates.
“Oh, c'mon there, Preacher,” Mal counters, patting the Shepherd on the shoulder. “Don't the Bible say it's better to give than receive? Think of it as them givin' to us.”
“It's only the one item, Shepherd,” Zoe tells Book. “A painting. Which is bound to be insured.”
“A painting?” Wash asks. “How come we're getting paid three thousand platinum for stealing one lousy painting?”
“Why d'ya think?” Mal snorts. “Cuz it's worth a damn sight more! Came from Earth-that-was.”
“Also,” Zoe admits with a slight frown, “because the bride's father is a VP with the Blue Sun Corporation. Everywhere he goes, he takes his own hand-picked security team. No-one's ever got past them.”
“Yet,” Wash amends hopefully. “No-one's ever got past them yet. Right, honey? Because suddenly I'm thinking three thousand's nowhere near enough.”
“You got somethin' better for us - fine,” Mal snaps. “If not, jus' shut the hell up an' get this boat on the ground.”
Leaving Wash to curse him roundly under his breath, Mal descends the ladder leading down from the bridge. He's got a lot riding on this job. If it goes well, Fanty and Mingo might put more work his way, which he's sore in need of. Three thousand platinum might sound like a lot in the short term, but with a boat like Serenity and nine mouths to feed it ain't gonna last long.
Eight, Mal corrects himself. Not that he's ever really had to find money to feed Inara. She's always taken care of herself. Most like he'll hardly even notice her absence once she's gone.
Kaylee's hard at work in the engine room, cranking fuel inlet valves and working levers, as Mal heads down the hallway.
“Sure would be nice,” she remarks loudly “to get some new-”
But by the time she gets to “entry couplings”, Mal has gone.
* * * *
Jayne swings Inara's trunk and cases up onto the waiting ox-cart.
“There ya go!” he tells the shaven-headed teenager sitting in the driver's seat, and slaps one of the beasts on the flank. “Giddy up!”
The animal merely swishes its tail a couple of times, as if flicking away a particularly annoying fly.
“Jayne,” Mal warns, but the big man has already turned his attention back to the group of women and girls who've turned out to welcome Inara. Mal watches him size them up, clearly trying to decide which one he'd choose if he could afford Guild rates. When an ear-to-ear grin splits the mercenary's face, Mal knows he's decided he might as well have them all. Man always did have a penchant for whores. Disgusted, Mal turns and stalks away.
He doesn't get far. In front of him is a steep precipice. He kicks the ground in frustration and sends a shower of gravel clattering down into the abyss. For the briefest of moments, Mal entertains the dizzying prospect of following it.
A woman of around forty with blond hair detaches herself from Inara's welcome party and embraces her warmly.
“Inara! Until this moment, I hadn't allowed myself to believe you'd really come.”
Inara kisses her on both cheeks. “You doubted my word, Sheydra?” she scolds.
“Not at all,” the other woman smiles. “It' just- well, you could have chosen anywhere. And this place ... it's hardly what you're used to.”
“That's precisely why I chose it,” Inara replies before introducing herself to the visibly excited younger girls and asking them all their names.
Once the introductions are complete, it's time for Inara to bid her old friends farewell. She shakes hands with Wash and turns to Zoe. A look of respect and understanding, tinged with the slightest note of envy passes between them. Zoe nods. Inara smiles.
“Don't see why you gotta go,” Kaylee cries, when Inara clasps both her hands. She drops her head onto the Companion's shoulder and bursts into tears.
Inara wraps an arm around her and strokes her hair. “Everyone has their own path to follow,” she says, with a glance at Book. “This is mine. Take care of yourself, mei-mei.”
Kaylee snuffles noisily and scrubs the tears from her eyes. “You too, 'Nara. Don't forget to send us a wave.”
“Of course I won-”
Inara's promise is cut short by River throwing her arms around her.
“I'll miss you, Inara,” she whispers, tightening her embrace. “Keep comin' up with all manner of things to say, but that's what they all mean.”
“Oh, River,” Inara sighs. “It's not as if we'll never see one another again. Maybe in a-”
River pulls away and scowls. “I know!” she shouts, punching Inara's shoulder. “I know. I'm not stupid. Why do you all think-?”
“River!” Simon hurries over and takes his sister by the hand. He gives Inara a hesitant, apologetic smile. “I'm sorry.”
Sorry for everything, he adds to himself. Sorry I agreed to spy on you in exchange for my sister's freedom. Sorry I never told you that. Sorry I slept with Mal when I know you care for him. Sorry, oh so very sorry, that he'd always choose you over me.
River giggles. “You're it, Captain!” she declares.
Slowly Mal becomes aware that the conversations going on behind him have ceased. Instinct - that same instinct that kept him alive during the war - tells him that he's being watched and he turns to see all eyes are on him. Kaylee's are full of reproach as if somehow this is all his gorram fault. Wash's declare him a fool to let Inara go. Zoe's too - but hers hold understanding too, and sadness. Jayne looks like he wants Mal to hurry the hell up and get this over with so they can be off and away to their new job, some hard coin and maybe a whore or two he can afford. Book's face is inscrutable. And as for the Tams - well, River looks like she can see right into his soul. Into the empty darkness.
But it's Simon's expression that hurts most. Mal never thought to see such disappointment in that boy's eyes. Problem with Simon Tam is he expects too much. Even after all he's been through, all he's seen, he's still looking for folk to be good and noble like he is. But folk outside the Core don't have that luxury. Gotta take care of themselves, cuz, sure as hell, no-one else is gonna. Gotta make the most of whatever comes to hand. If Mal teaches Simon anything, he hopes it's that. Boy won't survive long otherwise.
“Mal.” The sound of Inara's voice provides a welcome distraction from Mal's guilt-tainted thoughts. “I've said goodbye to all the others,” she says, “but I must admit I've not found the words that do our ... arrangement proper justice. Would you spare a lady the effort?”
Mal grunts and shakes the hand she extends in a briskly business-like manner. “Zhai jian, Inara.”
She studies his face for a second, remembering how at first he'd shown such promise. He'd been so full of undirected rage and bitterness, she'd thought he make an easy convert to dao zhen he. But as time passed, she'd learned that Mal was no longer interested in fighting for a cause; his only concern was day-to-day survival and his only loyalty to the rag-tag group of people he called his crew.
“What?” Mal demands abruptly, and Inara remembers that this is 'good-bye', not 'hello'.
She smiles at him and for once lets her regret show. “Zhai jian, Mal. Zhufu ni.”
“Yeah. You too,” he mutters, looking away again. Too many folk are giving him that look today. He's made it plain he's got nothing to offer anyone beyond work and a place to stay. Why the diyu won't they believe him?
Inara links arms with one of the waiting Companions and, with a wave of her hand to the others, walks gracefully away.
Apart from Jayne, after Inara's departure, no-one's much in the mood for eating. Mal and Jayne consume their evening meal together in silence, Mal working the details of the job in his head and Jayne flicking idly through a tattered and much-read magazine of dubious content.
When they're done, Mal opens the ship's comms and calls everyone to the dining room. As they arrive, he's spreading out some schematics and a couple of print-outs of the booty they're after on the dining table. Jayne lays his reading matter aside and picks up one of the print-outs, studying it with some relish.
“Wou'n't mind a tumble with her!” he declares, indicating the central figure: a naked woman with ample breasts and hips and a cascade of copper ringlets.
Wash tips his head to one side and seems to be giving the idea some serious consideration himself until Zoe delivers a light warning slap to the back of his head.
“Not my type, sweet-cakes,” her husband hurries to assure. “Too obvious. No class.”
“Reminds me of Saffron,” Kaylee chips in cheerfully, earning herself a particularly black scowl from Mal.
Mostly because he thought the exact same thing. Which is how he came up with his plan for this job in the first place. He clears his throat.
“Dirty jianhou!” River spits with unexpected venom.
“That she was,” Mal agrees mildly. “But she was also a brilliant, double-crossin' snake the likes of us could learn from.”
“Celebration's a celebration,” Mal explains. “Don't matter if it's some fancy party on a private estate or a weddin' with a guest list crammed full of VIPs. Even if they got the best security in the 'verse, they still need lowly folk to fetch an' carry for 'em ... which is where we come in. Or at least, where Kaylee an' Simon come in. They can pose as hired help. Find out where the weddin' gifts are bein' stored. An' so you can let us know, you'll both be wearing a wire.”
Simon's eyes go wide. “We will? You mean to tell me you want Kaylee and I to do your dirty work for you?”
Mal slams a hand down on the table and leans in towards him. “You wanna eat, dontcha?”
“Aw, c'mon on Simon,” Kaylee coaxes. “It'll be fun. I love weddings!”
“Fine,” Simon says through gritted teeth. He folds his arms and looks up at Mal. “Although I'm astounded you'd even think of recycling a plan concocted by that ... that ...”
“I make use of whatever I can, son,” Mal tells him unrepentantly and turns to River. “Talkin' of which, I'll be needin' you too, xiao mei-mei-”
“NO!” Simon yells, leaping to his feet so quickly he sends his chair clattering to the floor. “She is not going in there.”
Mal's jaw tightens and Zoe's hand moves automatically to her gun.
“No need to get tetchy, boy,” the Captain says after a long, uncomfortable pause. “Li'l sis'll be stayin' right here on Serenity. She's gonna be our early-warnin' system should any unexpected guests of the purple-bellied persuasion decide to drop in. Now why don't you sit yourself back down again?”
“I'd rather stand,” Simon declares, raising his chin a fraction.
Mal smiles coldly at him. “I ain't askin'.”
“Self-serving hundan,” River declares as she sets Simon's chair upright again. A tug on her brother's wrist has him reluctantly resuming his seat.
“Occasion such as this, the waiting staff are usually in livery,” Book points out. “Kaylee and Simon'll need to look the part.”
“No need to be worryin' on that,” Mal assures the Shepherd. “It's all under control. Now, we got a busy day ahead - best we get some sleep.”
Mal tries to follow his own advice but, as it so often is, his sleep is fitful. His dreams are always so damn real.
“Captain? You down there, Sir?”
Zoe is standing up in the foredeck hallway, looking down at him.
Why can't the woman ever leave him be?
“What is it?” he asks, his voice gruff with irritation.
“Got me a husband needs to set course. Where are we going, Sir?”
Why's it always Mal who's gotta decide that?
“The same way as always,” he hears himself say. “Forward.”
He puts a foot on his ladder but no matter how hard he tries, he can't climb up. His legs feel weak and useless.
The curse is so loud it wakes him up.
His mouth tastes bitter and his shoulders ache. He kicks back the bedclothes and, certain he won't be getting back to sleep any time soon, decides to take a coffee up onto the bridge and let the Black soothe him.
Unsurprisingly, the dining area is deserted and the empty mugs left abandoned on the table make it seem all the more empty. On the counter stands a half-empty caddy of the herbal tea Inara drinks. Used to drink. She should've taken it with her. Mal's got no use for such things. He opens one of the top lockers and pushes the caddy to the back. Out of sight, out of mind - just like its owner. Mal can do that. Has to do that. Since he had no call to ask her to stay.
“I'll miss you, Inara,” he says suddenly into the empty room as the words he's been keeping pushed down for weeks bubble up to the surface. “I keep comin' up with all manner of things to say, but that's what they all mean. Comes right down to it, I don't want you to-”
“Am I interrupting something, Captain? Not that I know what that would be, you standing here alone in the middle of the night.”
Mal manages not to start at the sound of the preacher's voice. Instead he begins gathering up the discarded mugs. Never could abide untidiness.
“We're in space, Shepherd,” he observes dryly. “It's always the middle of the night. What's on your mind?”
“I'm leaving the ship,” Book replies. “Don't know where for just yet, but it's time for me to move on. Thought you should be the first to know.”
It's not a bargaining position but a plain statement of fact and it gives Mal a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Look, Shepherd,” he says, “I'll make this plain ... It don't matter to me that you hit me.”
Book sighs, like the gulf between his meaning and Mal's understanding is to wide to cross.
“Which is exactly why I need to be away from you,” he replies. “Because sooner or later it won't matter to me, either.”
Mal shrugs, pours himself a coffee and exits the room, but as he climbs the ladder up onto the bridge, the uncomfortableness in his gut grows worse. Mal tells himself it's the job that's causing it. He never did like weddings.
”You may kiss the bride,” the town's Registrar beamed, although the invitation was somewhat redundant, seeing as how Wash had already swept Zoe into his arms and pressed his lips to hers.
After what seemed like a ruttin' eternity of them making out like teenagers, Zoe finally broke away, gasping for air.
“Congratulations,” Mal said, not sounding for one moment like he meant it.
Zoe smiled at him - the warmest, kindest smile he'd seen in years. “Thanks for sayin', Sir. Though, by rights, you ought to be wishing me good luck. It's traditional.” She turned to her new husband and immediately her smile took on even more radiance. “Though I don't think I'm gonna be needing luck, seein' as who I married.”
She looked so gorram happy, Mal thought his heart might break. Should've been him fixing her, not this johnny-come-lately of a pilot of his.
Except Mal couldn't. Couldn't bring himself to touch her like that. Not after what she'd been through.
“Hey,” Wash greets River as she joins him on the bridge. “Come to watch out for the Feds with me?”
“That's the plan,” she replies, casting an eye over Wash's collection of dinosaurs littering the console.
“Take a seat,” Wash invites but River is taking a closer interest in his plastic toys. She picks one up and turns it over in her hands.
“Vulcanodon,” she says authoritatively, “developed in the early Jurassic period. Many, many millions of years before,” she lifts another and examines it, “Tyrannosaurus rex. They did not coexist.”
Wash grins. “They do here.”
River considers that and nods. “Another odd couple. Like you and Zoe.”
Wash's grin broadens. “Think we're an even more unlikely match in most people's eyes.”
“Yes,” River agrees, smiling brightly. “Specially the Captain's. Thought she was too good for you.”
Wash laughs. “Don't tell him I said so, but he was right!”
River frowns and shakes her head. “No, you were perfect.” Suddenly she laughs. “Brothers can be very stupid.”
“Needed someone like you, not him, back then. Someone to see the woman, not the warrior.”
Wash grins. “Hard not to see the woman in my Zoe. Kind of smacks a fella right between the eyes.”
“But she didn't want you to. Not .. not after ...” River's frown deepens and her mind starts to drift. “Not even on your wedding night.”
Wash swallows. It's true. Zoe wouldn't let him near her that night. Nor for weeks afterwards. But he's never spoken of it to anyone. It's too private, too painful, too precious. How in the 'verse can River know?
“See all sorts of things,” she answers as if he'd asked the question out loud. “Some of it's real and some of it's made up.”
“Can you see the job going well?” Wash asks, deciding he'd better change the subject before he starts remembering not his wedding night, but a night two months later, the first night ...
“Pink was a good colour on her,” River laughs. “You too.”
Wash feels his cheeks flush.
“Yes!” River claps. “Like that. But with more perspiration resulting from exertion.”
Wash groans and covers his face with his hands.
“It was hard for you,” River sympathizes, with a tentative pat on his back.
He looks up.
“It was worth it,” he assures her warmly. “It was most definitely worth it.”
River smiles. “Didn't need fixing. Needed someone to help her heal.”
* * * * * *
Kaylee is lying in the middle of the road, writhing. Simon is standing self-consciously beside her, arms crossed and looking extremely pissed.
“Gorramit, Doc!” Mal growls from the ditch in which he, Jayne and Zoe are hiding. “Thought I told you to look distressed?”
Simon looks down at him. “Oh, I am distressed, Captain, believe me. Very. I can't believe I let you-”
“Bizui!” Mal orders, head cocked to one side, listening. “Bus is comin'. Now ruttin' well start actin' the anxious boyfriend!”
“Wo de ma, Simon!” Kaylee moans, resuming her writhing, a mite more wantonly than Mal had envisaged.”Help me! Please, help me!”
Jayne licks his lips. “I'll help ya!”
Mal would yell at him to shut the hell up, but the bus is approaching fast, so instead he pushes the mercenary's head back down below the level of the top of the ditch and waits.
Sure enough, there's a squeal of brakes and the sound of one door, then another opening, followed by the scrunch of footsteps on gravel.
“What happened?” an anxious male voice enquires.
“She hurt?” a female questions.
“I .. I'm not sure,” Simon stammers. “I ... I don't know what to do.”
“Here,” the first voice says. “Let me take a look. Did a bit of first aiding a few years back.”
Mal risks a peep at what is happening. The man is kneeling down at Kaylee's side and his female companion is stooping down next to him. Good enough!
“Now!” Mal tells Jayne and Zoe and the three of them leap out of the ditch and onto the road, brandishing their weapons.
“Shen me?” the good Samaritans ask a distinctly embarrassed Simon.
“Dui bu qi,” he murmurs as Jayne gets the man in an armlock and Zoe trains her shotgun on the woman.
“Open the back up,” Mal orders and the woman fumbles to obey, eyes full of fear and confusion.
The doors open to reveal two benches on which are seated a dozen young men and women dressed in simple black and white outfits, each with a microphone headset.
“You ... and you - out!” Mal decides, picking the two most similar to Simon and Kaylee in height and build. They stumble out into the road, shooting terrified looks at each other. “Hand over your ident cards.”
These are held out with hesitant, trembling hands and Kaylee takes them, quickly covering the genuine face scans with ones of herself and Simon.
“Now strip,” Mal tells the teenage pair.
Tears appear in the girl's eyes. “Please,” she whispers. “Don't ...”
Mal recoils, affronted. Then he sighs impatiently and rolls his eyes. “Just the uniform, darlin'.”
The girl's relief is palpable, although she keeps a wary eye on Jayne, who's paying close attention to the opening of buttons and lowering of zippers.
Mal turns to Simon and Kaylee. “You too. An' hurry it up, we're on the clock here!”
If looks could kill, Mal would certainly die from the glare he's getting from Simon. And not quickly, neither.
Mal merely smirks at him.
As soon as Simon and Kaylee have donned their uniforms and headsets, they jump up into the bus to join the rest of the team of waiters, who are sitting wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Mal addresses them with an affable smile. “Want y'all to take good care of your new colleagues here. Make them fine folk you're about to be fawnin' over believe waitin's a task they was born to. That way, these two-” his expression hardens and he indicates the half-dressed pair now in Zoe's charge with a wave of his pistol, “will be fine an' dandy. I need to elaborate on the alternative? No? Good. Reckon you can retune those receivers to our frequency, mei-mei?”
Kaylee looks insulted. “You even gotta ask?”
“Good girl. Okay, you two - you know your jobs: go do 'em.”
With that, Mal slams the back doors shut and grins at the driver and her companion. “Time's a wastin', people. Your pay's like to be docked, you don't hurry.”
The couple get back into the bus and within a few seconds the vehicle is on its way.
“That went smooth enough,” Mal declares with some satisfaction.. “Time for phase two. Meantime, take care of those two,” he tells Zoe.
“Shia, Captain,” she replies, steering the hostages away in the direction of the mule at gunpoint whilst Mal and Jayne start walking.
“Still don't think it's a good idea sendin' the Doc in there,” Jayne grumbles. “You see how twitchy he was?”
Mal stops in his tracks. “You'da sent Kaylee in there alone?”
“Nah. But I coulda gone with her.”
Mal snorts. “You don't look much like a waiter, Jayne, an' that's a fact. Whole point is they fade into the background. That way they can find out where the booty is so you an' me can be in an' out of there 'fore anyone notices us.”
Jayne scratches the back of his head. “Sounds like a good plan,” he says doubtfully.
Mal slaps him on the back. “That's cuz it is a good plan, Jayne. I'm a zhen de shi tiancai when it comes to plans - anyone'll tell you that!”
* * * * *
“Simon? You hear me?”
Mal's voice is suddenly right inside Simon's head, making it difficult to concentrate on refilling the glass of a portly middle-aged man who's already had more than enough New Canaan brandy.
Simon makes a small obeisance to the table he's just finished serving and walks back over to a long trestle table on which stand rows and rows of bottles. Out of earshot of the others, he speaks quietly into the mic on his headset.
“There's no need to shout, Captain. Unless you actually want to perforate my eardrums,” he adds, swapping the empty bottles on his tray for full ones.
“You di'n't answer!” Mal protests. “Thought you hadn't turned that gizmo up loud enough.”
“In case you'd forgotten,” Simon replies icily, “I'm working. Servants do not engage in chit-chat when attending to their employers.”
“No need to get snippy with me son,” Mal retorts. “Those're the rules of your society, not mine. Anyhow - Kaylee's located the goods. Once the happy couple's in their goin' away gear, you an' Kaylee get yourselves to that small marquee flyin' a blue pennant. Most folk and their bodyguards'll be where the action is, so we shou'n't have too much trouble takin' what we want an' makin' a quick getaway. Zoe'll have the mule ready an' waitin' on the other side of the wood.”
“I say! You, there! Yes, you! More champagne here, mashang,” an imperious young man in top hat and tails demands.
“You got that?” Mal presses.
“Of course,” Simon tells them both through a tight, forced smile.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you would all make your way to the courtyard, the bride and groom will soon be ready to depart.”
Simon takes advantage of the general commotion that follows this announcement to inform the Captain that the coast should be relatively clear. Then he goes looking for Kaylee. He finds her watching the throng gathering at the front of the house.
“Reckon I got time to try'n catch the bouquet?” she asks hopefully.
Simon stares at her, then the coin drops. “Oh, Kaylee - don't tell me you believe in that superstitious crap!”
“Simon Tam,” she replies, with a sad shake of her head, “You're about as romantic as the Cap'n! Which ain't a good thing, in case you was wonderin'.”
“No, I suppose not,” Simon agrees with an apologetic grimace. “But really - we have to hurry.”
“Okay, okay,” she pouts. “I'm comin'.”
Struggling against the tide of people going in the opposite direction takes longer than Simon would have liked, but eventually he and Kaylee make it to the rendez-vous where Jayne is up to his knees in half-opened gifts and grinning from ear to ear.
“Found it!” he declares, holding up a small oil painting in a heavy gold frame.
“At ruttin' last!” Mal exclaims. “Okay, let's move it!”
Simon is just stepping over the prone bodies of two unconscious security men when a man and woman duck into the marquee behind him. The woman is carrying an armful of pink and white flowers and is half-heartedly trying to fend off the man's amorous advances. Simon recognizes him as the young man who was earlier demanding more champagne, although he's now attired in more casual clothing.
“We can't, Jeremy!” the woman half-protests, half-giggles as he pulls her shirt free of her skirt and pushes a hand up under it.
“Yes, we can,” he argues, nuzzling the side of her neck. “We're married now. One flesh and all th-”
He breaks off, mid-word, mouth hanging open in surprise as his lust-fogged gaze alights on Mal and suddenly clears.
“Congratulations,” he says and nods at the woman. “An' I do believe it's traditional to wish the bride good luck.”
“Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?” the groom - Jeremy - demands, taking a couple of steps towards Mal only to come to a sudden halt when he finds himself looking down the barrel of a gun.
“We're declutterin' your lives,” Mal says calmly. “It's a big thing on the Core these days. Seen it on the Corevue channels my own self.”
Jeremy is unimpressed. “You, sir, are a liar and a thief!” he announces, though the information hardly comes as a surprise to Mal. “And what's more, you appear to be one of those stinking Browncoats!”
Jeremy's blushing bride blanches. “An Independent?” she whispers, every bit as terrified as she would have been had her new husband declared Mal a Reaver.
Mal takes a step towards her. “That I am, ma'am,” he admits, bowing from the waist. “But we ain't as bad as we're painted.”
Far from being reassured, the woman cries out and hurls her bouquet at him but the missile isn't exactly aerodynamic and swerves off to one side.
Simon has caught it before he even knows what he's doing.
“Nice catch, Doc,” Mal smirks. Kaylee grins and winks at Simon who instantly drops the flowers to the floor.
“You people are dead,” Jeremy vows. “How dare you come here and-”
“Now, now,” Mal interrupts. “Let's not be havin' any unpleasantness. We only want this one thing, an' I'm bettin' it's insured for the kinda enormous amount a young couple such as yourselves could make real good use of. So we'll just be quietly on our way, dong le ma?”
At this, Mal, Jayne and Simon all start moving towards the exit. Kaylee darts a smile at the bride, hoping she'll see reason and encourage Jeremy to do likewise.
But Jeremy's now too enraged to be rational.
“Stop right there!” he shouts. “Or, by golly, I'll stop you myself!”
“Now, son,” Mal warns. “Best not to be tacklin' an armed fella when your own hands is empty.”
Jeremy's expression goes from furious to triumphant. “Oh, I've got a weapon,” he declares, pulling a monogrammed silver pers comm from his jacket pocket. “One call and you'll all be in irons.”
He flicks it open and is about to lift it to his mouth, when there's a sudden loud bang, a flash and the smell of smoke, following by a piercing scream.
Kaylee stares in horror as Jeremy stumbles backwards, blood already staining his white shirt red. Strong fingers close around her wrist and give it a tug.
“C'mon, mei-mei - run!”
“But ... but ..,” she stutters. “You killed him. On his weddin' day! How-”
“Bizui,” Mal barks. “We ain't got time for you to go all weepy, Kaylee. Move!”
Jayne takes off at a sprint, but Simon hesitates. He ought to-
The man is dead. There's nothing Simon can do for him. He drags his eyes away from the limp body and starts running too. At first Mal has to drag Kaylee, stunned and tearful, along behind him but eventually the sound of shouting from behind them shocks her into picking up speed.
“Side gate's got the least guards,” Jayne pants, pointing, and that's where they all head. Simon's fast enough to keep pace with the mercenary, so he gets the stolen painting thrust on him when Jayne decides they're gonna have to shoot their way through security.
Two burly men in black suits and sunglasses fall to Vera but a third manages to get a few shots in before he too drops to the ground.
Simon hears Kaylee cry out, but a glance over his shoulder reassures him she's still running. Once free of the estate perimeter walls, it's only a couple of hundred yards to the cover of the pine woods and relatively safety. They stumble their way over uneven ground and around fallen trees but after a couple of minutes, which feel more like hours to Simon, they spot the mule and Zoe at the controls.
“Fire her up, Zoe!” Mal calls out to his first mate. “An' tell that husband of yours we're wantin' a quick departure.”
Jayne clambers up onto the back of the mule, whilst the others strap themselves into the seats. Simon sees Kaylee flinch as she pulls her belt around her and realizes she's suddenly gone very pale.
“Kaylee ..?” he asks tentatively, just as the mechanic slumps against him. “Captain!”
Mal twists round in his seat, just far enough for Simon to notice a tell-tale dark stain around a fresh tear in the arm of his greatcoat.
“You're hurt,” the medic says automatically whilst feeling for Kaylee's pulse and checking for any obvious sign of wounding.
“I'll mend,” Mal replies. “Kaylee?”
Simon finds a graze on her calf and breathes a sigh of relief. “It looks like a bullet clipped her leg, but the damage appears to be only superficial. Her vitals are good. I'll need to run some tests when we're back on ship, but I think she just fainted.”
Mal closes his eyes and if Simon didn't know him better he'd swear the Captain was offering up a prayer of thanks.
“Better get her belted up, Doc,” Zoe advises, turning the ignition. “Looks like we ain't out of the woods yet.”
Mal's eyes fly open in time to see a couple of jeeps and a small hover mule come into view.
“Shengsheng de gaowan!” he curses. “Get this thing movin', Zoe. Fast as you like!”
Zoe moves rapidly up through the gears despite a roar of protest from the engine.
“They're gettin' closer!” Jayne yells, trying to get a lock on the mule with Vera. “Put your gorram foot down!”
“How come I never thought of that?” Zoe asks, glaring at the mercenary's reflection in the rear view mirror. “Oh wait - I did!”
Jayne rattles off almost a full clip of ammo whilst Simon grits his teeth against the noise and ducks low in his seat, shielding a now semi-conscious Kaylee with his body. She smiles weakly up at him.
“Yesu tamade! They're still comin'!” Jayne curses, loading another clip.
“How come this thing ain't movin' faster?” Mal mutters with a resentful glance at the straining speedometer. “Gorram salesman said it'd do one seventy! Oughta demand a re- ... Wo de ma, Zoe! What the-?”
“Claimed it was 'highly manoeuvrable' too,” Zoe grins, as Mal is thrown violently from left to right and back again. “Looks like he wa'n't lyin' on that score.”
“No,” Simon agrees, regretting having sneaked the odd canape from the wedding buffet table.
“Besides,” Zoe continues, “seem to recall his figures was based on 'normal occupancy'.”
“Always got a get-out, don't they?” Mal grumbles. “Ruttin' Alliance hi-tech lese. None of it's worth a damn.”
“Gotcha!” Jayne crows as Vera proves Mal's point by blowing out a tyre on one of the trucks, sending it careening out of control across the road and into the path of the second truck. Even at a distance of a mile away, the explosion is deafening.
“Double gotcha!” Jayne amends, puffing out his chest with pride.
“Good job,” Mal acknowledges grimly. And it is, because the little mule's no longer on their tail. It's landed a couple of hundred yards away from the crash site and its occupants are leaping out as if they could do something about the inferno consuming their fellows.
“Sure fried their asses!” Jayne beams.
Mal runs a hand through his hair. “Get us back to the ship, Zoe,” he says wearily. “Reckon we've outstayed out welcome on this rock - most like in this whole damn quadrant once news of this gets out.”
“What about those people whose clothes you stole?” Simon asks Mal. “Your hostages? You can't-”
Mal's jaw clenches but somehow he stays calm enough to explain. “Zoe dropped 'em off 'fore we even started the job. Course, they did have a bit of a walk ahead of 'em but they oughta be back at their village 'fore nightfall.”
At Simon's look of surprise, Mal laughs.
“What? You ha'n't worked out that hostage-takin' stuff was jus' to stop the others from blowin' your cover? Hell, son, top three percent can't mean much where you're from!”
As soon as they're back on Serenity, Mal orders Wash to go straight for hard burn. The sudden acceleration makes the ship lurch a tad, sending River, who's come to see with her own eyes that her brother and Kaylee have made it safely home, crashing into Jayne.
“Get off of me, crazy person!” he growls, pushing her away with distaste.
Encouraged by Mal's intervention on her behalf, River pokes her tongue at the mercenary and dances away from him.
“What?” Jayne protests. “She is crazy. Not to mention useless. Thought she was s'posed to be warnin' us 'bout trouble comin' our way?”
“Yeah, well it was kind of a long shot-” Mal begins, only to be interrupted by River.
“Too far away. Couldn't hear. Too many voices...” She starts pulling at her hair in distress.
Simon is instantly at her side, holding her close. “Shh, mei-mei. It's all right.”
“Too many voices,” River repeats. “In between. Talking, laughing, crying ...”
Mal cocks his head to one side. “You mean to say ...?”
River sniffs back a tear and nods. “I mean to say. Have to be closer.”
“Of course!” Mal exclaims, snapping his fingers. “Otherwise, the signal gets lost in the chatter. That right?”
River nods again.
Simon can see the wheels turn in Mal's head.
“No, Mal,” he says. “I won't allow it.”
“Won'tcha now?” Mal asks mildly, the annoyance provoked by Simon's words betrayed only by a slight flare of his nostrils. “Could be you're forgettin' who's Captain. Now why don't you go change back into your own clothes and leave runnin' this boat to me?”
Simon opens his mouth to speak and suddenly Mal is in his face, annoyance in plain view.
“Case you ain't sure - that wa'n't a suggestion.”
Jayne's hearty guffaw ringing in his ears, Simon leads River off to the passenger dorm, silently vowing he'll never let Mal take his sister on a job. In his fury, he even imagines drawing a gun on the biaozi de jian erzi. Sees himself standing in the cargo bay pointing a pistol at the Captain's head, his finger on the trigger. And pictures Mal, hands raised, backing off, suddenly seeing the error of his ways. But then Simon's realism kicks in. Mal would know he was bluffing. He would smirk and mock. He'd probably even offer Simon one free shot because he'd be certain Simon wouldn't take it.
No, in a scenario like that, Simon would end up looking weak and pathetic. He'll have to think of something more practical, less confrontational.
“You got the goods?” the face on the Cortex screen asks with a raise of dark eyebrows and an affable grin.
“You got the goods?” an almost identical face echoes.
“That I have, gentlemen,” Mal replies, leaning back in his chair, arms crossed behind his head. “You got a location for a meet?”
“Might as well be here,” the first face - Fanty's - decides, indicating his unknown location with a wave of his hand. “Nice an' peaceful, like.”
“Nice an' peaceful,” Mingo agrees. “No feds on Beaumonde.”
Mal glances at Wash. “Beaumonde ... could be there ... the day after tomorrow?” Wash nods. “That suit you?”
“The day after tomorrow it is,” Fanty declares.
“It is,” Mingo confirms. “Day after tomorrow.”
Mal kills the link whilst Wash starts laying in a course.
“Captain - if I may?”
Book smiles politely and climbs off the ladder on the bridge.
“Could be that depends,” Mal hedges. “What 'm'I agreein' to?”
“Nothing of any great import,” Book reassures him. “But since we're headed in that direction anyway, thought you might drop me off on Haven.”
Mal frowns. He really wasn't expecting Book's departure to be so soon.
“The ship could overnight there,” Book suggests when Mal doesn't answer him. “Pretty sure those folk'd be glad of occasion to show their appreciation for what you did last time we were there.”
“Those people ain't beholden to me, Shepherd,” Mal declares. “Way I remember it, we sent a boatload of would-be pirates high-tailin' it out of atmo in return for a night off Alliance radar. Besides, fought in the war alongside a couple of 'em. Reckon I still owe Bernabe a favour or two, if we were keepin' score. ”
Book claps him on the shoulder. “Even so, they said they'd like to show their gratitude.”
“You already said we were comin'?” Mal demands, feeling he oughta be annoyed by the presumption but more than a mite tempted by the prospect of a night's downtime.
“Did I do wrong?”
Mal can't help but concede a grin. “Guess not. Wash, change course for-”
“Haven,” Wash supplies. “Already done, Mal. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go tell my wife we're going to a party!”
Kaylee sucks in a hiss of pain, as Simon finishes cleaning the graze on her leg with a wipe of antiseptic.
“Sorry,” he apologizes, “We're running low on supplies. I had to use iodine. It does tend to sting.”
“ 's okay,” Kaylee assures him with a smile. “Ain't but a scratch after all. Not like ...” Her face falls. “You think the Cap'n really had to shoot that man, Simon?”
Simon shrugs. “I don't know, Kaylee.”
And he doesn't. Mal's willingness to shoot a man in cold sickens him to his stomach, but he's not sure Mal had any choice once they'd been discovered.
“But it was his weddin' day!” Kaylee exclaims, tears springing to her eyes. “D'you see that poor girl's face when ... when he ... when-”
“Better off without him,” Mal scoffs, striding into the infirmary. He opens a drawer and begins rummaging through it.
“How can you say that?!” Kaylee demands. She pushes Simon aside, slides off the exam table and stomps over to stand next to Mal, hands on hips. “You di'n't even know him!”
“Known plenty like him,” Mal replies. “Sons of men who've got rich through the sweat of ordinary workin' folk. Even worse than their gorram fathers, most of 'em. Selfish, rich kids. He ain't worth your tears, li'l Kaylee.”
“I wa'n't cryin' for him,” Kaylee scowls. “I was cryin' for her! She's the one's gotta live without the love of her life!”
Mal rolls his eyes and starts opening the pack of weaves he's fished out of the drawer. “Listen, mei-mei, money her daddy's got, he can buy her a new husband anytime she wants.”
“You can't buy love, Cap'n, ni kewu de hunqiu!” an outraged Kaylee cries and punches him hard in the arm, right about the exact spot where Simon noticed that nick in his sleeve.
“That so?” Mal sneers. “Seem to recall not two day ago we had someone on this very ship prepared to sell herself to the highest bidder.”
For a moment, Kaylee is stunned to hear the Captain talk of Inara that way. Then, with an angry toss of her head, she spins round and stalks out of the infirmary.
Simon would scold Mal for his insensitivity if only the Captain weren't clutching at his arm, face tight with pain.
“You need me to take a look at that?” he asks, pleasantly surprised at achieving a neutral tone.
“No,” Mal replies, nowhere near convincingly.
Simon walks over to the sink and starts washing his hands. “Take your shirt off.”
Mal huffs like this is a big damn fuss about nothing, but starts unbuttoning anyway. He tosses his shirt onto the medcot.
“Need me to take my pants off too, Doc?” he asks as Simon approaches.
“That won't be necessary,” Simon replies sounding a lot calmer than he feels.
Mal catches the hand that reaches out to examine the angry red mark on his triceps. “What about later?” he murmurs, bringing Simon's hand to his mouth. “Won't be no interruptions this time.”
Simon twists his hand free of Mal's grasp. “No, Mal,” he says, a little stiffly. “Since it appears River and I will be staying on Serenity after all, and you have made our position on your boat perfectly clear, I think it best we keep our relationship a strictly professional one in future. To avoid any confusion. Please - let's just leave it at that. Unless you were about to order me to sleep with you?”
It's been a long time since Mal last punched Simon, so the blow comes as a surprise to them both. The sight of Simon sprawled on the infirmary floor in obvious pain fills Mal with a remorse he can't express. He'd thought he was past lashing out at him, but the plain fact is, Simon Tam gets under his skin like no-one else in the 'verse ever has - in more ways than one - and there are times when Mal can't handle that. Usually he pushes him away with cruel words or feigned indifference; sometimes he simply flees.
“Where the hell are you going?” Simon demands just as Mal reaches the infirmary door. “That wound needs treatment, so if you have any sense at all, you'll sit right down and let me finish.”
Reluctantly Mal does as he's told. Simon cleans and dresses the wound in silence after which Mal leaves without another word.
Simon waits until the ringing of his footsteps on the metal deckplating dies away. Then he picks up the tray of soiled gauze and flings it at a wall.
Simon wakes with a start, rubs his eyes and looks at the bedside chronometer. 03:05, ship's time. Not that long after he finally got to sleep. He sits up and throws back his quilt. River must be having another nightmare.
“Get outa my way, Preacher.”
Mal's voice is loud enough to carry through Simon's door.
“Not gonna happen.”
Simon realizes he wasn't woken by his sister but by the sound of the Captain and the Shepherd arguing. He gets up and moves closer to the door, listening.
“He's a grown man! Think it's a decision he can make his own self. Don't need you defendin' his honour.”
“Not just his honour I'm defending.”
A moment or two passes before Mal answers.
“Fine. I'm goin'. But this is your last night on my boat, Shepherd. Come tomorrow night-”
“You will hopefully have come to your senses,” Book interrupts. “Boy's awfully fond of you, Mal. You take advantage of that, you may live to regret it.”
Simon covers his face with his hands. Does everyone know? Hot shame washes over him and he leans against the wall. Then it dawns on him that, if not for the Shepherd, Mal would be in here. Right now.
And aiming to take advantage.
For all he said earlier, Simon isn't at all sure he would have been strong enough to stop him. Telling Mal no in the safety of the infirmary where Simon at least has some sense of control is one thing; telling him no in the privacy of his bunk would be something else entirely.
Even if Simon is beginning to not like the Captain very much any more.
Mal has been grouchy all day, yelling at Jayne, picking fault with Kaylee and even snapping at Zoe, so when Serenity touches down on Haven late in the afternoon, her crew spills out into the warm light of approaching sunset with some relief.
A delegation is standing ready to greet them as they walk down the cargo bay ramp. One of the younger boys peels away from the others and comes running towards them, making a beeline for Kaylee.
It's only been three months since they were last here, but Hiroko's grown an inch or two. Kaylee removes the old army helmet he insists on wearing and ruffles his hair, fancying she can see a hint of the man he'll someday be: honest and good, like his father Bernabe, and with the same huge sense of fun.
“How ya been, sweetie?” she asks.
“Pop's been teaching me how to grow corn!” he tells her proudly and takes her hand. “Come an' see!”
Zoe watches them walk off together towards a small patch of tilled land and smiles fondly to herself. Could be her own son will be like that. Tall and dark and strong, like her. Gentle and full of laughter like Wash. She sighs contentedly. Haven's a great place to be.
An hour or so later, Jayne would whole-heartedly agree. A huge banquet has been prepared in Serenity's honour. The table in the dining tent is groaning with food, vast bowls of vegetables surrounding a whole roast lamb.
“A burnt offering unto the Lord,” River murmurs, head on one side as she silently names each of the beast's exposed muscles.
“Everyone, please, help yourselves!” Bernabe's wife Mildred urges, her ability to serve their guests herself severely impaired by the shy little girl clinging on around her neck. “Jayne, please - don't stand on ceremony!”
The mercenary doesn't need telling twice. He slices off a huge slab of meat from the roast for himself only to have it whisked away by River. But even that can't spoil his mood. He empties the glass of beer Doane pours him and decides to carve for everyone.
Beer flows, the table is all but completely cleared of food and laughter fills the night air. Someone suggests dancing and Harun gets out his fiddle. Jessie accompanies him on the penny whistle. Mal claims to be too full to dance, but the others all join in a somewhat chaotic polka followed by an even more disorganized reel. When Simon trips over Kaylee's feet and falls over, Jayne laughs fit to bust, prompting River to spring to the defence of her brother's dignity by seizing the mercenary's hands and pulling him into a giddying spin. It half-occurs to the mercenary that a girl River's size didn't oughta be able to hurl him around, but since every time the revolutions take him past Doane's sister, the buxom lovely gives him a sultry smile, he's in no mood to complain.
Book can't remember when he last felt so at ease. It's good to see his friends enjoying themselves. He lights the cigar Jayne pressed on him earlier as a farewell gift and glances at Mal, the only person still keeping himself apart from the merry-making. The Captain's eyes are hooded, hard, and they're following Simon's every move.
Book picks up a bottle of Jessie's home-brewed brandy and goes over to sit next to Mal. Pours him one drink, then another. Engages him in a little small talk about the ingenuity of Haven's crop irrigation system and refills his glass. Looking up, he catches Simon's disapproving eye and, leaving Mal to savour his drink, walks over to where the medic is standing, trying to catch his breath after too much dancing.
“The Captain's a mite unsteady,” the Shepherd says solemnly. “Not sure he knows what he's doing right now.”
Simon is just about to point out that the Shepherd had no small part in that when Book lays a warm hand on his shoulder. “He needs you to be strong, son. Don't let him fall.”
Simon gives him a bitter laugh.
Don't let Mal fall? Never mind holding him up, after the past couple of days, Simon would like to knock him to the ground. And possibly kick him whilst he was down. Mal doesn't need him; he just makes use of whatever's to hand. He said so himself.
Simon looks across to where Mal's sitting, now all alone. He's slouched in his seat, staring blankly at the empty glass in front of him as if he had neither the will nor desire to refill it.
The sight almost breaks Simon's heart.
He turns back to Book with a resigned sigh. “I won't,” he promises. “I won't.”
Even through the kind of hangover only Rim-distilled liquor can induce, Mal can spot an underpayment when he sees one.
“What's this?” he asks, pointedly counting out the pile of folding that Fanty just slid across the table.
Over at the bar, Jayne - who's treating his own blinding headache with a hair of the dog - picks up on the subtle change in Mal's demeanour. He signals his readiness for any possible unpleasantness with a brief nod of his head.
“Three 'undred crisp ones,” Fanty tells Mal.
“We agreed three thousand,” Zoe reminds him with a calm that's more'n mite unsettling.
Mingo gives a little nervous laugh. “Bit of a cash flow problem.”
“Cash flow problem,” Fanty repeats, maybe a semi-tone lower. “Our buyer's, um, 'elpin' the police with their enquiries, you could say.”
Mal leans across the table. “Which is your sorrow, not mine. Now, where's my money?”
Fanty makes a placating hand gesture. “All in good time, Mal. We're men of our word, ain't we, Mingo?”
“We are, Fanty.”
“Think of what you got there as a down payment,” Fanty continues, with what is probably supposed to be a winning smile. “That's enough to feed that fine crew of yours. Even the big chappie at the bar-”
He glances over at Jayne and instantly a dozen men in the room do the same. The Rample brothers' goons, no doubt. Making their presence felt. Just in case Mal's in a mood to argue.
Mal growls low in his throat, thinking he might strangle Fanty with his own ridiculous bootlace tie, when Mingo picks up where his brother left off.
“We know a man who knows a man who can refuel your ship, for free an' gratis. Now, that's gotta be worth a couple of 'undred, 'annit? Plus-” he adds hurriedly when Zoe appears to be going for her weapon, “We got another job for you. A real good job, this time. No fence involved. Bank vault on Lilac, see, an' the beauty of this one, from your point of view-” another winning smile “is that it means you bringin' back actual cash! 'nough to cover the balance on this job plus a twenty-five percent cut of the take. What d'ya say?”
Mal glares at him, so angry at this turn of events he's almost thinking fondly of Badger, but the trouble is, he hasn't got a lot of options. And anyway, he's tired. Beyond tired. Fed up with always being the one making the difficult decisions and getting more than his fair share of criticism for them.
Suddenly he's glad that this time he's got no choice.
He drains his glass and slams it down on the table. “I say forty percent.”
Mingo and Fanty exchange a look.
Wednesday, June 7, 2006 2:46 PM
Friday, June 9, 2006 7:06 AM
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