BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Easy Tickets: Chapter 23
Monday, July 24, 2006

River shares some news with Kaylee until Simon butts in. Zoë and Wash work out a few things, and Mal finds himself playing therapist.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2110    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

See Chapter 1 and my blog for disclaimers and such.

Except I have to say thanks to VERA2529 and LEEH for the beta help!

Mandarin translations: put your mouse over the pinyan to get the definitions, or see the list at the end.

There is no BDM in my fic-verse, except for maybe the River/Reaver hidden truth.

* * *

Kaylee turned away from the open panel when she heard River’s light footsteps coming toward the engine room. The girl arrived with a hop; she was positively aglow. Kaylee was relieved to set down her wrench – her own thoughts were weighing heavily on her, no matter how she tried to focus on her work.

“What’s goin’ on?” she asked, outwardly matching River’s obvious cheer.

River plopped to the deck next to her, teeth showing in a broad grin, too excited to speak. But she flipped her hair back over one shoulder and casually lifted her chin. Kaylee caught on; she leaned in to look closer. What she saw served to finally distract her from her down-heartedness.

Wŏ de mā! You got yourself a hickey!” It wouldn’t have seemed possible, but River’s grin got bigger as she nodded several times. Kaylee pushed more of River’s hair aside to check the other side of her neck.

Shén shèng de gaōwán – you got two! Jase?”

The answer was another bright-eyed nod.

“The pretty eyes got you, huh?”

River’s animated sighed spoke volumes.

“If he was a little older, you and me’d be havin’ a fight right `bout now,” Kaylee teased. “There might’a been hair pullin’.”

“Oh, Kaylee!” River had to hug the mechanic in her excitement. Kaylee just laughed, feeling giddy at River’s happiness. She returned the hug, then pushed River back.

“Now - spill it. I want details, and don’t be missin’ a one of `em.”

River’s mouth dropped open to start, but she didn’t know what to say.

“Okay, you silly goose, start with somethin’ easy – did ya like it?”

Āi yā! Kaylee! I hear you think about it, and Jayne and Zoë and Wash and… everyone! But I didn’t know…” She raised in her shoulders in a little shudder that expressed more than words could have.

“Where were ya?”

“In his bunk.”

Kaylee’s eyes widened. “On the bed?”

River nodded.

“River, did you – ”

“No! Not ready for that.”

“Not ready? You’re almost eighteen. My first time was – ”

He’s not ready. Too hurt, needs time.” River smiled. “But he wanted to.”

Kaylee gave her a narrow-eyed look. “Were you diggin’ `round in his mind?”

River’s smile turned to a grin. “No. Well, yes, but… sitting in his lap.”

Kaylee slapped River’s arm and howled with laughter.

* * *

The guards at the Skuld compound eyed Zoë with hostility, which wasn’t unreasonable after the way she’d come busting through here two days ago, waving her gun and making off with a transport. Bucky shooed her back into the shuttle, something she normally wouldn’t have taken kindly, but in this case she didn’t mind. She’d prefer to stay to have a palaver with Wash.

She paused for a moment, watching from the darkness inside the shuttle to make sure the man made it through all right. Bucky did some quiet talking, then there was a round of handshakes and the guards backed off and let him go on his way.

Zoë went to the cockpit. Wash was sitting in the pilot’s seat still, one foot wedged up against the control board, chewing a thumbnail and looking thoughtful.

“Bucky’s in,” she said.

“No problems?” Wash asked, dropping his foot to the deck and spinning the chair partly toward her.

“Not a one.”

“Oh. Good.”

Wash sat still, looking away from her. He clearly knew what was on her mind, and didn’t want to get into it.

“We gotta work it out sooner or later,” Zoë said.

“Do we really have to? Can’t we just do the pretending thing? Because I don’t have any problems with not fighting– ”

Zoë shrugged. “No make-up sex.”

“Good point.”

Wash took a deep breath and turned his chair to fully face her. “All right,” he said in resignation. “Have at it.” He crossed his arms and looked at her glumly.

She cleared her throat. Truth was, she wasn’t too keen on getting into this either, but it had to be done. She went to settle in the co-pilot’s seat, taking time to gather words, though she’d already practiced this in her mind. It wasn’t as easy as she’d pictured it.

After she sat for a bit, unable to get started, Wash asked, “So… were you going to say something? I’d really like to get this over with.”

“Wash, I – ”

“Because getting yelled at by my wife isn’t the funnest thing. I don’t exactly look forward it. I don’t offer you my opinion – say, for instance, my take on the condition of, oh, something like a spacesuit – just so I can get told to shut up.”

“No, I – ” He interrupted her again, his voice rising. “I don’t have military training, you know. I was never taught to turn off my brain just because someone with a higher rank tells me to do it.”

“I understand – ”

“And I wasn’t trying to stop you from going into vacuum for my own personal entertainment. I really believed you could have been killed. And… I don’t care if you’re a … an eighteen star general with a big hat and lots of…” he waved his hands over his chest, “… shiny medals and ribbons and things. Don’t ever tell me to sit back and watch you die, because I won’t do it.”

Zoë dropped her head; she couldn’t respond to that. Even if she’d tried, she wouldn’t have gotten more than a few words in before he continued, pounding a finger on the control board.

“I do have some expertise with things like spacesuits. Military rank or not, I know what I’m talking about.” He pointed to himself with his thumb. “Smart guy with the technology here. Real smart. Worth listening to.”

“I know, honey.”

“Well, maybe you should keep that in mind next time around!”

“I will.”

His mouth dropped open, but then he snapped it shut and glared at her until he thought of something else to say.

“I’m really, really mad at you.”

She nodded her agreement.

“And – Zoë?”

“Hmm?”

He still sounded mad, but his words made her smile a little. “I really needed to yell at you, and it works much better for me when you don’t yell back.”

“I imagine so.”

“Good. Thank you.” Wash leaned back in the chair, starting to look a little calmer. Then he glanced at her hopefully. “Are we done now?”

“Almost. I gotta have my say.”

Wash shifted, looking a mite uneasy now that he’d be the one taking the lecture, and he’d have to take it in good grace just to match her. Once he got himself comfortable, he nodded and gave a bring-it-on wave of his hand. Zoë took a deep breath, and finally got the words out.

“Yesterday, I was talkin’ to Mal about some stuff, and… I guess I’ve been thinkin’ on how glad I am that we… I’m glad for what we got, you and me. I hope you know it.”

Wash looked confused. “Um… aren’t you supposed to be doing the dressing down thing? Something about obeying orders?”

“Well…” Zoë cleared her throat. “I may have gotten a little carried away. Like you said, you know about spacesuits, and I wasn’t even listenin’. Anyhow, we ain’t in the military, and we are married. That takes gettin’ used to for me, and I guess I ain’t used to it yet. Not all the time.”

“So… you’re saying…” He paused expectantly.

“Sorry,” she said softly.

“What was that?”

She raised her voice. “I’m sorry.”

Wash looked a little shocked, but he recovered quickly.

“Do I get the make-up sex now?”

* * *

“Open-mouth?”

“Of course!”

“Tongue?”

Blushing smile, nod.

“Kissin’ below the neck?”

“No!”

“Touchin’ `bove the waist?”

Sigh. “Yes.”

“Below?”

Frown. Head shake.

“Clothes on?”

“All clothes on.”

“So you were just neckin’.”

Necking.” River tried the word out and thought about it. “Yes, we were necking.”

“For how long?”

Eyes rolled. “I forgot to check the clock.”

“Ha-ha. So - did’ya get all shivery?”

“Shivery. Weak. Oh, he was really good at it. First time for him too.”

“So he’s a natural?”

“Mmm. Natural.”

“What in the world are you two up to?”

Kaylee and River looked up, startled, as Simon entered the engine room.

“We could hear you all over the ship,” he continued with a hesitant smile. “What’s so funny?”

“River and I was just havin’ some… girl talk.”

“Oh, right,” Simon replied. “Something I don’t get to hear about, I’m sure.”

“Nope,” Kaylee said with a smile at River, “I’m thinkin’ it’s best you don’t.”

River nodded agreement as she stood up. “Couldn’t take it.”

But River didn’t get away clean. She was heading toward the hatch when Simon grabbed her shoulder, and his eyes focused on her neck. “River… what is…” He repeated Kaylee’s earlier movement, pushing River’s hair back, but his reaction to what he saw was quite different.

“Is that a... hickey?”

“Learned about necking,” River replied happily, seeming determined to ignore Simon’s disapproval. “Jase too. Taught each other.”

“You were kissing someone who tried to take over the ship?”

She frowned. “Didn’t have a choice.”

“He tried to kill the Captain!”

“Not his fault!”

“But you’re just… you can’t do that! I… I won’t let you go near him again.”

“Won’t be able to anyway. He’s leaving.” She sighed sadly.

“Good!”

River switched from sad to angry in a hurry. “You’re jealous. I get kissed, you don’t!”

“That’s ridiculous!”

She sighed in mock pity and teased him. “Poor Simon! Can’t get anyone to kiss him.”

“Pardon me, but I have important things to do! Like look after you, which is taking up more and more of my time!”

River rolled her eyes and gave him a know-it-all look. “Tell yourself that if it helps.” She walked out of the engine room, her head back as she stubbornly refused to hide her neck.

“You are so annoying,” he said to her retreating back.

“You are so repressed!” she yelled back.

* * *

Simon shook his head and started to follow River, but Kaylee stood up and grabbed his arm. “Leave her be, Simon.”

“I can’t let her do this!”

“Why not? She’s almost eighteen. It’s natural for her to be learnin’ to kiss.”

“No it’s not!”

“Didn’t you ever make out when you were a teen?”

“Well, sure… but… I never let anyone bruise me.”

“Neckin’ is a part of bein’ that age. It’s normal. It’s how ya learn.”

“She is not a normal teenager.”

“And she’ll never be a normal grown-up if you keep her locked up, if you go and… make her feel all dirty about nothin’ but a little kissin’.”

“Kissing – maybe. But getting marked like she’s some common hussy is not acceptable behavior for my little sister.”

Kaylee self-consciously raised a hand to her own neck. “Hussy? You think a few li’l hickies means a girl’s a hussy?”

“Well, only the… you know, the loose girls ever got...” Simon hesitated at Kaylee’s look, realizing that she was personally offended. He tried to back up. “I didn’t mean… in general. It was just… where I went to school…”

He lost track of what he was saying when he saw Kaylee’s eyes narrow. She approached him looking so angry that he backed away until he hit the bulkhead. But she didn’t give him a piece of her mind like he expected; she placed her hands on his chest, then ran them up to his shoulders with a confident familiarity that completely caught him off guard. She leaned into him, and suddenly he had a good idea of what she was planning to do. He grabbed her elbows, meaning to push her away, but she gripped his shoulders tight, holding him against the wall with surprising strength, and then he felt her breath on his neck.

The past few days had pushed Simon about as far as he could go; he didn’t have the strength of will to refuse her. She found the gap where the top button of his shirt was undone and softy kissed the hollow at the top of his sternum, and his hold on her arms loosened. Tingles ran up his spine and his head tipped back of its own accord as her soft lips moved up his neck, pausing near his adam’s apple before moving to the side. She slid a hand slowly up the other side of his neck, working her fingers into his hair and taking hold, and she tilted his head to give herself room to work.

It’d been so long since Simon had had any physical contact that wasn’t either the impersonal touches of his profession or the chaste comforting hugs of his sister, so long since someone made an effort to make him feel good. His eyes fell closed and he turned his head more, letting Kaylee do as she would.

Gods, it’d been since Medacad, the woman he’d been dating his last year. They’d parted ways when her internship took her to a different world, and during his eight months as an intern he’d had no time or energy for romance. Then he settled into his new job. He’d just started dating – a woman he’d thought he could fall for – when he’d found out about River. The budding relationship hadn’t survived the times that followed.

During the long lonely years when he’d been trying to rescue his sister, Simon had often longed for physical comfort, for the chance to give up control and just feel good. But there was no opportunity to form a lasting relationship, and he could never stomach casual sex. He needed to feel a connection to the woman he was with, needed to know her and trust her before he could let his guard down. By the time he booked passage on Serenity, his sex drive, already ignored for too long, had become nearly nonexistent.

But the forces of nature can be held back for only so long, and when finally set loose they tend to return with a vengeance. Which is why Kaylee’s increasingly insistent mouth on his neck and her body lightly brushing against his made him turn to jelly, his breath catching in his chest, his knees weakening, and wordless little sounds escaping from his open mouth. In truth, he relished giving in to her, trading control for pure sensation. His hands on her elbows opened, his palms just lightly touching her bare skin, then slowly sliding up to the edge of the cap sleeves of her shirt. Lightly he gripped her arms; gently he pulled her closer.

“Kaylee,” he gasped when he felt her teeth scrape against his skin.

She released the suction of her mouth on his neck, but for a few seconds stayed close to him. Her forehead lightly grazed his cheek as she raised a hand to wipe his neck dry. Then she stepped back, shaking his hands off her arms and leaving him feeling cold.

“There. Now you can’t go givin’ River a hard time,” she said cheerfully.

Reality returned with a shock. Simon lifted a hand to his neck, pulled it away and looked at it like he expected to see blood.

“What did you…”

Kaylee stuck her tongue into the corner of her mouth thoughtfully as she leaned forward again to check her work.

“That’ll darken up real nice. S’about time you got yourself a love bite...” She leaned back and grinned wider, “…Doctor Hussy.”

“A love… ? Oh my… A mirror… I need a mirror.” Simon held a hand over his neck as he dashed out of the engine room and down the corridor.

* * *

Kaylee watched Simon scurry away. On the inside, half of her was jumping up and down. She’d only meant to trick him enough to teach him a lesson; she’d hadn’t expected such a reaction. Simon had melted. She’d made him melt! Kaywinnet Lee Frye had reduced the very proper Doctor Simon Tam to a puddle of whimpering need.

But the other half of her mind was a heavy weight that kept her from doing the little hopping twirl the moment deserved. She’d had chances with Simon before. She’d spent plenty of time close to him, sitting in the common room sharing stories, or drinking Mudder’s Milk in Canton, or just walking together on the planets and stations Serenity visited. She could have taken the plunge and kissed him anytime she liked.

But she never had. As much she liked loving, it couldn’t be a one sided thing. It shouldn’t be forced on anyone; it should happen when both people are ready. Especially when it was with someone as special as Simon.

The joyful part of Kaylee sank a little more, because that wasn’t all there was to it. It wouldn’t be so bad if she’d pushed herself on Simon because she wanted him. But she’d been feeling one thing when she pinned him against the bulkhead: rage. Pure hot anger. She’d wanted to make him sorry for saying something that hurt her feelings. Her first real contact with Simon had come out of a wish to hurt him.

Kaylee lowered herself to the deck, leaning against the bulkhead. The elation melted away and all she wanted to do was ball herself up and disappear. Simon had said stupid things before, but it’d never made her so mad. She hadn’t thought she could feel that way toward someone she knew and cared about.

She finally had Simon, right in her hands. But she couldn’t take him; he deserved better than the person she was right now.

* * *

Mal found the dining room dark and deserted, which was a little surprising considering that it was getting toward dinner time. He rounded the island and flipped on the light in the galley, then nearly jumped out of his skin at a loud shattering crash. A figure he didn’t immediately recognize was furtively backing away from him.

Mal had his gun half out before he knew it, but then he recognized the boy standing on the far side of the galley, one arm in a sling. A broken bowl lay in a scattering of protein powder on the floor between them.

“What the hell are you doin’ here in the dark?” Mal asked without thinking.

The boy took a few more steps back. “I just… I was… River said I could.” He glanced at the hatch behind him like he was thinking of making a break for it, then back at the gun in Mal’s hand. He was breathing fast, and Mal realized that he was nearly in a panic. Not surprising, considering that Mal had already shot him once.

Mal put the gun away and held up his hands. “Hey, relax,” he said. “I ain’t mad. You just startled me is all.”

The boy didn’t answer; he still looked ready to run.

“You’re Jase, right?”

He got a short nod in reply.

“I saw you when you were still out, in the infirmary. I’m the Captain. You can call me Mal.”

Jase didn’t look so happy to be on a first name basis. He backed up another step toward the hatch, but then he stopped and held his ground, his face setting in determination. He gave Mal a long look, like he was sizing him up.

“Well, ain’t this awkward as hell?” Mal said. “Me bein’ the one who shot you and all.”

There was no response. Mal motioned at the sling. “How’s it doin’?”

Jase looked at Mal like he thought it was a trick question. Mal sighed. He’d experienced one-sided conversations with teens before; it was hard work. And he’d hadn’t ever found himself trying to make friends with one he’d nearly killed. Were there social guidelines for this kind of thing?

“I’ve been shot myself a few times,” he tried, going for the something-in-common approach. “Ain’t the funnest thing in the world, huh?”

Jase shifted uncomfortably.

So that flopped. Mal looked at the mess on the floor. “I take it you’re hungry?”

Jase shook his head, but Mal wasn’t quite buying that. The kid wasn’t panicked anymore, but he clearly wanted to leave more than he wanted to eat. He was inching around behind the galley island, like he was hoping to put it between himself and Mal.

Mal turned to a cabinet behind him and grabbed a little handheld broom and dustpan. “I wouldn’t be hungry either, if I was fixin’ up this gōu shī,” he said with a nod toward the scattered protein powder. “You got lucky though – it just happens that we got real food on board at the moment, if you can wait a bit for the cookin’ of it.”

Mal kneeled next to the broken bowl, preparing to sweep up the mess, but Jase stepped forward. “I can do that,” he said.

Mal looked at the hand held out for the broom, then up at Jase’s other arm in the sling. “It might be a little tough for you.”

“But… it’s my mess. I should clean it up.”

Mal grinned and continued sweeping. “That’s mighty decent of you. Really. Some of the folks on my boat’ll do a lot to avoid cleanin’ up after themselves. But don’t worry, I got it.”

The boy dropped his hand and stepped back. Mal expected him to slink off, but he didn’t. He stood and watched the captain of the ship clean up his broken bowl, looking overwhelmed by the situation. As Mal was emptying the dust pan, Jase spoke up again.

“Um… Captain?”

“What?”

“I’m sorry `bout the bowl. I ain’t got no money, but I’ll pay you back for it. Sometime.”

“Tell you what, how `bout you pay me back in hard labor. We’re gonna have some hungry people showing up soon – you set the table while I put together some vittles, and we’ll call it even.”

Jase looked at Mal doubtfully, but he nodded.

Mal pointed out the location of plates and silverware, then got a hunk of wild turkey thawing out. He snuck glances at Jase while he cooked; it was slow work setting the table with one arm, but the boy went about it with meticulous care, like it was a big occasion to have plates and utensils to put out. But there was no ease between them. Jase waited for Mal to move away from the cabinets before coming close to get more dishes. He was quietly adamant about staying out of Mal’s reach.

During and after the war, Mal had seen plenty of people who’d had a hard time of it. He’d seen folks who were shell-shocked, who cowered at loud noises and didn’t like to be touched. This boy’s behavior had a familiarity that Mal didn’t like at all; he especially didn’t like having someone act like that on account of him. He found himself staying out of the way, trying to help the kid feel safer.

After a time, Mal put a lid over the pan where the turkey and the remains of the greens were simmering into something that would hopefully be half-edible, and he looked at Jase. The table was set and the boy was standing on the far side of it, silently watching Mal.

“I’d like to have a few words with you, if you don’t mind too much,” Mal said. He waited until Jase nodded, then went to his customary place at the head of the table. Jase started for the far end, but Mal didn’t let him.

“Why don’t you sit a little closer so we don’t have to shout.”

Jase hesitated, looking at the hatch again, but he turned back. He didn’t sit next to Mal; he left one empty chair between them, sitting down slow like he expected to be stopped. He had control over his face now, keeping it expressionless, but his shoulders were curled forward defensively. Wouldn’t take much of a boo to send him scuttling for cover.

Mal cleared his throat. “Look – I, uh… I’m sorry about shootin’ you. Wasn’t nothin’ personal.”

Jase wiped at his nose, then he answered in a quiet voice, “I’d a’ shot you first if I was any good at aimin’.”

“That so?”

Jase nodded, still looking down at the plate in front of him. “It was… decent of you to let the Doc help me.”

“Wasn’t really my choice at the time, I had other things I was… thinking about, I guess you could say. But he did the right thing. It ain’t my way to leave a person to bleed to death, no matter what they’ve been up to.”

The boy tucked his hair behind his ear. It was a nervous gesture; right away he pulled it back out, let it hang forward and hide his face.

“I hear that you weren’t part of the attack, that you were just tryin’ to protect your own. That the truth?”

Jase thought about it before he nodded.

“You managed to stop me from shooting Ray, if that makes you feel better. You saved his life.”

“Died anyway.”

“Yeah. It wasn’t what any of us wanted.”

Jase didn’t reply.

“Did you know that he was threatening someone real important to me at the time?”

“You shot him, didn’t you?” Jase asked, and, for the first time, he looked at Mal steadily. As flighty as the boy was, Mal found that stare more than a mite disturbing. Intense, and near impossible to read. There were a lot of thoughts going on in that head. Mal couldn’t tell what they were, but he was very glad that he’d taken the blame for Ray’s death. He didn’t want to see this look aimed at Kaylee; he preferred to deal with it himself.

Mal didn’t drop his eyes while he took a guess.

“I figure you might not be real happy with me right now. Might even be feelin’ some need to get even.”

The stare wavered, then Jase looked away.

“That how it is?” Mal asked.

Jase stared into his lap for a long time. Finally, he shrugged his one good shoulder.

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a grudge,” Mal said. “Seems natural. But I’m tellin’ you, that’s a heavy thing to carry around, especially for someone as young as you. You won’t do yourself any good by always lookin’ to settle a score.”

There was no reaction to that at all. Damned kid was a brick wall now, but Mal continued.

“For what it’s worth, which is most like a big stinky pile of niú fèn, I mean you no harm. River says you’re okay, and she has a way of bein’ right about these things.”

Mal got nothing but a tight lipped glance in response, and he wondered what he’d gotten himself into. Kids had a tendency to grow up, and the `verse could be a small place. He didn’t like the idea of someone out there wanting to hunt him down. But there wasn’t much to be done about it; he wasn’t about to take preventive measures against a teenager.

Mal had nothing else to say. He stood up to go check on dinner, but Jase’s hesitant voice stopped him.

“I ain’t mad at you. I just…”

Mal stood where he was and waited for the boy to sort out his thoughts.

“He used to be my Pa,” Jase finally said. “But there were times… there were times I wanted to kill him myself. I hated him. I was glad to hear he was dead.”

He looked up, and the guilt in his face was painful to see. Mal sat back down.

“Ray was a hard man,” Mal said. “I can see you might’a had reason to feel like you do. But there’s no crime in thinkin’ a thing. You had no part in what happened; you got nothing to feel bad about.”

Jase looked down, plainly unconvinced. It was going to take more than a few kind words to fix what was wrong with him.

“Hey,” Mal said. He waited `till the boy looked up at him. “You’re not goin’ back there. Things are gonna be better for you now.”

He waited for a reaction that didn’t come, not until the boy’s eyes shifted toward the hatch behind Mal. Then he smiled. Mal turned to follow his look and saw River coming down the stairs. Without a word, she sat down across the table from Jase.

Mal gladly turned the conversation over to her, and went to the galley to start cleaning up. He kept himself busy there, but he watched the goings-on at the table. There wasn’t much talk, but there was plenty of communication of the non-verbal kind. Mal could see Jase’s face, and was surprised to catch the boy still smiling as he stared at River. Kid looked like a whole different person.

At a simultaneous laugh from the two, Mal looked up again and saw feet intertwined under the table. That got him to thinking, and when he went to set some food out he had a closer look. Without realizing it, he copied the movement of Simon before him, pushing River’s hair aside to be sure of what he saw on her neck. Then he looked across at Jase, and noticed something similar there.

“River?” Mal asked. “You ain’t bein’ stupid, are you?” He stood over her until she looked up and met his eye. Yep, she knew what he meant.

“I am many things, Captain, but I’m not stupid.” He knew what she meant, too.

“Good girl,” Mal said, then he looked across the table. Jase was very interested in the spoon at his place setting, shifting it around on the placemat. He looked nervous, but not so flat-out scared as before. When Mal reached across and chucked him on the shoulder, Jase looked up, startled.

“You got your hands full with this one, kid,” Mal said with a grin. “Good luck.”

Jase looked away quickly, but Mal saw the ghost of a smile. He chuckled as he went back to the galley; he had the feeling he’d just proven himself a ‘cool’ grown-up.

He supposed he ought to come down on them a bit, but this one was really Simon’s problem. Besides, the boy wasn’t staying long, and it looked like these two might actually be doing each other some good. A little loving between two people who’d been hurt a lot; how could that be such a bad thing?

The thought stuck in Mal’s mind as he finished cleaning up.

* * *

The crew gathered for dinner. The two temporary additions to the ship would have made for a crowded table, but Zoë, Wash and Bucky were still gone. The rest of the group pulled up their chairs and were just digging in when a rattling voice sounded from the hall, growing in volume as footsteps approached.

“So many stairs! Must keep you in very good shape. Always climbing, up and down. Very good exercise. Keep you young. Strong legs. Strong lungs. Whew!” The foodsteps stopped, and there was an audible sound of breath blown out. “Ah – this here. Jīn shŭ xiàn. Wiring for hydraulics? Route this way? Gàn má? Hmm. Must ask pretty mechanic. Is qí guài way to do it; I not so sure about that.”

Mal turned around – a small Chinese woman appeared in the hatch behind him, Bucky and his two missing crew members following just behind.

“Oh, very good! Big, nice dining room! For family dinner, how proper! How hóng!” She pointed up at the ceiling. “And view out top, too, to see stars in Black. I like! Very good!”

She hopped down the stairs and proceeded straight to the table, finding Jayne first. He stayed sitting and only leaned away from her a little while she hugged him, and she rambled on the whole time about his improved smell and appearance. “Clean up very well. I was right! Very good man.” Mal would have sworn that anyone who attempted to pinch Jayne’s cheek would end with a broken wrist, but this woman proved him wrong. She went to Kaylee next, whose face lit up in a real smile as she hugged the old woman back. Then the lady caught sight of Jase, and she trotted to him with a squeal.

“Jase! Bucky told me he find you! You okay? Why this?” She lightly touched his sling, then shifted her attention to his face, her hands moving with the firm expertise of a mother as she checked the temperature of his forehead and lifted his chin so she could see the bruise on his mouth. “What do you get in trouble?” she muttered, and shook a finger at him. “You young ones – always getting hurt. Need to be more careful!” Then she got distracted, staring at his neck. “Hmm…” was her only comment, then she turned and scanned everyone else at the table. Her eyes settled quickly on River, and she squinted as she looked closer at the girl, making a small “Mmm-hmm” noise.

Mal took the opportunity to give Zoë a questioning look. She shrugged helplessly, earning a glare. Mal had heard about the loquacious Xiaojun, but he hadn’t been expecting the lady to make an appearance on his ship.

Xiaojun moved on to the food on the table. “What is this? How do you eat this? No good! Next time, I cook. Growing boy cannot eat like this! Bù jì shì!”

Mal gave up any control he might have had over his dinner table and sat back to watch Xiaojun take over. He wasn’t quite prepared for the reality of this lady. Eventually, the crew convinced her to pull up a seat and partake in what food they had, though she wavered between politeness and common sense, alternately dropping vague complements and declaring the food inedible. He was glad she hadn’t arrived during one of their usual protein meals; the lecture would have been fierce.

The woman’s cheer seemed to breathe some life into Kaylee, who sat next to Xiaojun, listening to detailed descriptions of every part the lady had brought along for fixing up the mule. Simon seemed relieved to see Kaylee talking. He’d been uptight at the beginning of dinner – or maybe it was the high necked shirt he had buttoned all the way up his throat that made him seem so tense.

Mal noticed how Zoë and Wash pulled their chairs close together, and shared touches and whispered comments like they were newlyweds. Mal was happy to see it; at least someone on this boat had worked things out for the better lately.

But his attention was mostly drawn to Inara, who didn’t contribute a word. She’d hardly touched the food on her plate, and seemed to disappear behind the lively conversation that Xiaojun stirred up (and largely dominated). Before long, Inara slipped away from the table, unnoticed by most of the crew.

Mal glanced at Zoë and she nodded to him. “Hăo yùn,” she said softly, and Mal went after Inara.

* * *

“Not hungry?” Mal asked.

Inara stopped, obviously startled that she was being followed. She turned back to him. “No, I’m not. Did you need something?”

“Just wondering why you’re leavin’ so early.”

“The table seemed a little full.” She turned and continued on her way, but Mal followed.

“Look, Inara. There’s a bunch of things you never explained about the past few days.”

She didn’t stop. “I’ll fill out a full report in the morning,” she replied sharply.

“Now, now - there’s no call for bein’ tetchy.”

“I’m not being... tetchy. I’m just tired.”

“Tired? That all?”

She reached the catwalk and stopped, turning back to him again. “Are you implying something?”

“Why’d you come back early?”

“Excuse me?”

“From your appointment. You were all set to leave, go to the Core. What happened to change your mind?”

“It’s none of your business.”

Mal sighed impatiently. “Yeah, I think it is. I gotta make plans around you, and it ain’t easy…” he stopped himself. That wasn’t right; it was just the same old excuse he’d always used, talking ship’s business to avoid saying what he really thought. That wasn’t good enough anymore. It was time to be truthsome, whether Inara liked it or not. No matter what she was telling him, she wasn’t all right, and he knew it.

She’d started walking away from him again, but he caught up to her at the hatch to her shuttle, grabbing her elbow to make her stop. “Inara, you don’t need the act. Whatever happened… you’re not alone here.”

He knew from her expression that it was no good; she didn’t want his help. “It’d be better if I were alone,” she snapped. “I’m tired of you always getting in my way. Could you just leave me be for once?”

She yanked her arm from his grip and slammed the hatch in his face. He heard the lock engage and stepped back; this was a waste of time. He wasn’t able to reach this woman, and she clearly didn’t want to be reached.

I had to make up my mind that I wanted him, and I had to let go of bein’ safe.

Zoë’s words came back to him, and Mal stopped. Walking away right now would be the safer path, but that didn’t make it the best. He had to think on it.

He sat down on the steps. Zoë’d had a point with something else she’d said; he did know what it was like to push other folks away. He’d done it when he was hurting so bad that he thought he wouldn’t make it through. He’d said his share of harsh words to folk who didn’t deserve it, just trying to get them to leave him alone. And maybe he’d have been better letting them help. Could be, at times like that he actually wanted company. Could very well be that he was just looking for someone who wasn’t scared off, a person who didn’t give up until he accepted the help.

And then Mal realized – there’d been someone who didn’t give up so easy. Inara. After Oeneus, she’d insisted on doing what she could for him, even resorting to trickery, and it may have saved his sanity. Seemed that maybe he owed her a favor. But he wasn’t a trained Companion; he wasn’t likely to soothe Inara like she had him, no matter how he tried. What the hell did he know about being good company? He’d probably just end up fighting with her, and making her feel worse than she did already.

Sometimes you have to take the risk of puttin’ someone else first. Set aside your own worries, even the feeling that nothin’ you got will be enough.

Mal smiled to himself, wondering if there was more than one psychic on his boat. Zoë’d known exactly what was going on with him, and what was holding him back.

Guess it came down to this: did he want Inara enough to take a risk? Maybe it was time to make up his mind. Maybe it was that easy.

He took a deep breath, then stood up and pounded his fist against the locked hatch.

* * *

Translations

wŏ de mā: holy mother of god shén shèng de gaōwán: holy testicle Tuesday. āi yā: damn gōu shī: crap niú fèn: cow dung jīn shŭ xiàn metal wire gàn má: whatever for qí guài: strange; odd hóng: spacious bù jì shì: no good hăo yùn: good luck

* * *

On to Chapter 24.

COMMENTS

Monday, July 24, 2006 5:16 AM

MAL4PREZ


I need to make sure everyone’s caught this: I’m not trying to tie into the BDM!

24 on Wednesday… oh the end is so near…
:(

Monday, July 24, 2006 6:09 AM

LEIASKY


Hah! The River and kaylee conversation was so perfect as was Simon's reaction to seeing the hickey on his sister's neck!

I groaned when I knew where the Simon/Kaylee conversation was going. I knew he'd piss her off with his comment. But I squealed like a little girl when she decided to mark him herself. That whole sequence was just hot and all she did was give him a hickey! That I wasn't expecting and it was just great.
I dunno though, since she'd melted his brain, if he'd be so concerned with going to look in a mirror after that. He IS a man and obviously very aroused I just can't see him leaving.
And, of course, Kaylee's reflection after he's gone is just another way to draw out the angst for those two, but it was very believable and well done so I really can't complain!

I just love Xiaojun too! Her arrival was just perfectly timed.

Something is definitely going on with Inara. Mal finally has his chance and had better do something about all this tension between them!

How many chapters are left? You've got Simon and Kaylee to resolve now even more so than when you began.

Monday, July 24, 2006 6:13 AM

MAL4PREZ


Leiasky -

this S/K scene was the one I told you about a looong time ago, that I had to think of you when I wrote it cause I knew you'd like it! LOL!

2 chapters and an epilogue left. Although - should I warn you all now or not? Oh heck, it'll become obvious... there's a sequel. Not everything gets resolved here, so prepare yourself for some unsatisfied feelings...

Monday, July 24, 2006 6:46 AM

AGENTROUKA


1) Apologies for not reviewing in ages. I plan to catch up when I have the time and head space.

2) I love - lovelovelove- what you are doing with Kaylee in this story. It's absolutely fascinating, how you add this new factor violence and anger and make it work, make it really fit into the bigger picture of Kaylee. Same with the way you capture her physicality, that she is a *strong* girl, able to push someone well, if she wants, in spite of her sometimes fragile appearance. It's utterly fascinating.

3) I was very highly sceptical of the River/Jase scene in the last chapter, but now seeing here talk to Kaylee about it, and seeing Jase talk to Mal, this less-of-a-child young man, it clicked and made sense. Sweet and transient, two damaged kids fitting together, for a while. I like.

4) Zoe and Wash's fight? Utter perfection. I felt triumphant just reading it, at them finally being able to work something out with words so well.

5) Mal taking Zoe's advice, Mal talking with Jase, Mal trying so hard to talk to Inara and fighting against his usual instincts,... it's all beautiful to behold. He's getting strong by being braver, personally.

6) Inara... her interrogation scene, pure brilliance. It was like a crossover with one of those copshows, having the cold routine of one matching so well with the sensually calculating Companion skills of the other universe. Perfect. You do wonderful things with Inara's character in this series.


Joy all around, looking forward to the next chapter, as usual!

Monday, July 24, 2006 9:29 AM

TAYEATRA


Oooh, I like this bullet point comment idea...

1.) You can't end it there, it's just mean.

2.) Yay for quick postings, I'm looking forward to Wednesday.

3.) Great hickey based reactions! Especially the Mal/River 'stupid' conversation.

4.) The Zoe/Wash 'fight' was brilliantly written.

5.) Yay for a sequel. I love your series'.

Monday, July 24, 2006 11:04 AM

TAMSIBLING


Awesome character development for Kaylee. She is a complex being who doesn't always get her due - I really like where you're taking her.

And could Simon be a bigger idiot? Well, okay, I guess he could (reference the cow fetus), but still. I too cringed when he started discussing hickeys with Kaylee - there was just no way that was going to end well!

And the River/Kaylee discussion was perfect - I love the two of them discussing boys ... and River's content at finally being a girl, just great - and of course, Simon's reaction, even better.

Also, Kaylee giving Simon a hickey - all manner of sexy - especially when coupled with Simon's thoughts about how closed off he's been - when is that boy gonna get a clue? (Oh right, clueless ... I forgot!)

Anyway, keep posting!

Monday, July 24, 2006 11:35 AM

RIVERISMYGODDESS


“If he was a little older, you and me’d be havin’ a fight right `bout now,” Kaylee teased. “There might’a been hair pullin’.”
-Yes, and in my perfect world, that would lead to something as steamy as my story Way of the Lotus.

“Do we really have to? Can’t we just do the pretending thing? Because I don’t have any problems with not fighting– ”
Zoë shrugged. “No make-up sex.”
“Good point.”
-Hehehe, that's something I have yet to try :)

In addition to the above, the entire Wash/Zoe scene was spectacular, and very well written.

Kaylee and River talking about the making out was great, and Simon's respose was soooo good too. Loved this line especially:
River switched from sad to angry in a hurry. “You’re jealous. I get kissed, you don’t!”

*And he’d hadn’t ever found himself trying to make friends with one he’d nearly killed. Were there social guidelines for this kind of thing?*
-Be sure to ask about their well-being, offer them a drink, and try to make a joke out of it.

It sucks that Jase was so cautious and withdrawn around Mal, but it was good to me that Mal noticed and felt bad about it, showed that little bit of conscience that he still does have.

“You got your hands full with this one, kid,” Mal said with a grin. “Good luck.”
-I love Mal in Captain Daddy mode, though I can also see him out polishing a shotgun when someone comes a'callin on River.

Everything with Xiaojun was great!

Though a lot of people would disagree with it, I like that you have written as if the BDM never happened. It _is_ fiction after all, and you have just as much of a right to take liberties with Joss' characters as anyone else on this website. Good on ya! :)

After you finish this series, I know you have stated that you are taking a break. Please don't let it be a very long one, I for one will really miss your stories.

Monday, July 24, 2006 12:40 PM

AMDOBELL


Loved this and am impressed that Mal is acting on Zoe's advice and trying to get through to Inara. River and her first hickey made me laugh too. I especially liked Kaylee giving one to Simon so he couldn't nag and moralise over River. Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, July 24, 2006 5:54 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


This is sheer brilliance, mal4prez! The amount of realistic, honest and complex emotion and dialogue just flabbergasts me:D

Especially like the scene in the engine room between River, Kaylee and Simon, as the kinds of bonding and emotional output amongst these characters are spot on and wonderful to explore! Though I do wonder if Kaylee would automatically jump to being mentally self-flagellating for simply giving Simon a hickey (though her POV makes sense for her right now)...

Still...can't wait till Wednesday:P

BEB

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 4:15 AM

LFABRY


Did someone say sequel?

Friggin' mal4prez!!! Just when I thought I could focus on my own writing, you pull me back in...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 5:16 AM

DESERTGIRL


I have stayed up WAY to late for three nights in a row reading all 23 chapters. Husband is ready to throw the laptop out the window. Says I am grumpy/not enough sleep/too much firefly.

I cannot wait for the rest of the story. It is riveting.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 10:53 AM

NOSADSEVEN


I am in complete agreement on the sheer excellence of this chapter. So many things going on between so many different people, but all thematically the same. You write all of these characters so convincingly, touchingly, and insightfully...you are constantly reminding me of why I love them so much.

Wash and Zoe? Perfection.

I agree that the River and Kaylee scene really grounded the River/Jase make-out session from last chapter.

The Kaylee/Simon hickey was amazing. You managed to make it hot and playful, and scary and heartbreaking all at once. The way the rage inside of her scared Kaylee, and caught her by surprise, making her feel even worse... That scene at once shows how things are so right for the two of them, and how things are so wrong right now. I have to admit that normally, I'm not terribly interested in Simon and Kaylee's exploits, except as a source of amusement. But here you've convincingly taken it to the 'HNL' - 'hole notha lebel' that I haven't even conceived of based on what we've seen on screen.

Mal and Inara. It is so funny. Mal has seemed to have taken this weird turn into emotional health, as those around him have struggled. It figures that that would be the kind of thing to do it. Others' needs. He can see them and take that step forward - knowing that Zoe's there to back him up, as always. Go Mal! Who'd've guessed that Kaylee and Inara'd be the ones fighting the demons, while Mal, Zoe, and River (our resident tortured souls) are finding clarity.

Mal and Jase. Well, you knew I'd be interested in that one...and I just loved it. I loved the glimpses of Jase's own strength, despite his fear. His guilt at feeling glad when he'd heard Ray was killed, and Mal's simple and straightforward way of addressing it - "Ray was a hard man..." just hit the right notes for me.

I don't think I've ever commented on it, but Jase's 'realization'/belief that Ray was going to leave him on that rock when he went to take Serenity, it always struck me as so tragic and defining - that he feared yet needed Ray so much, that he hated him yet clung to him so desperately, as he was the only thing he had - not even imagining Ray's motivation being so much the opposite. Ray's self-loathing - despising Jase, but loving him; hating having him there, but needing him, as that connection to his old life, his humanity; determined to take care of him, but failing utterly - has given Jase such an insecure standing. It was nice to see that Mal - who Jase's experience of had been so similar to Ray - could be a figure that wasn't so torn towards him. That not everyone in the 'verse had withered to black. Anyway, I'm kind of rambling on pointlessly here. I guess I'm just saying that you make me care about your characters, and you take characters I already love, and make me love them even more.

Alright, I gotta go see how this Mal/Inara thing plays out. See ya after C.24.

Friday, November 2, 2007 10:10 AM

SKILLETO


um... What happened to this chapter? I cant see it in my browser


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Back Stories Book 3, Chapter 25
Zoë nodded. “I’ll bet there’s a little committee of suits back there trying to figure out how best to lie.”&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to tell some horrible truth,” Inara replied softly.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

“Or how to make the most effective use of medical waste incendiaries to get rid of our bodies,” Wash chimed in.


Back Stories III, Chapter 24
Mal returns to a few familiar places.

Back Stories III: Chapter 23
The BDH’s find themselves enmeshed in too damned many OCs. But hey, they’re necessary. Plottiness and all.

Back Stories III, Chapter 22
Inara tells the story of why she left the Core. Well, half of it anyway.

Back Stories III, Chapter 21
The battle with the Reavers continues, and Mal makes a choice. All decisions have consequences.

Back Stories III, Chapter 20
Finally a little Mal POV, but it doesn't last long.

Back Stories III, Chapter 19
The trials and tribulations of an older, wiser River Tam.

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The aftermath of an unexpected encounter. Except—not all of the crew are accounted for…

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 17
A lovely day in the mountains: friendly locals and fresh air under a clear blue sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Back Stories Book III, Chapter 16.
Zoë tells of her soiree with terrorists on Oeneus.



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