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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - ADVENTURE
In this installment: Zoe meets her in-laws at last. Earlier, Zoe decides she has finally met her match.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 836 RATING: 8 SERIES: FIREFLY
Pressing on to the bitter end, despite the fact that no one but Blue-Eyed Brigadier is even reading this thing. *sigh*.
The windows along the east wall of the founder's hall shattered inward, breaking into a rain of safety glass pellets that cascaded like a wave into the room, or down to the street below. People screamed; they fell; they ran in all directions -- or they froze, transfixed, staring at the gaping hole that had been light-sensitive glass separating them from a three-story fall.
In that instant, only a few people in the room moved with deliberate intent. Some of the Alliance officers drew their weapons and began ordering the people around them onto the floor. Others of that group dropped to the floor, watchful.
Mal flipped his table up on its side, scattering Kaylee's strawberries, just before he grabbed her and pulled her down behind it. She stared at him, wide-eyed, as he pulled his pistol and glanced quickly around the edge of the upturned table.
Zoe also flipped up a table, the one she was closest to, and pulled Wash's mother and sister down behind it with her. She tried to draw her own weapon, but was prevented by Wash's mother clinging to her arm, wide-eyed with terror. Tim dropped down behind his wife. Wash's father stood unsteadily in his walker, staring at the shattered windows.
Wash had already been on his stomach when the windows exploded; after a split second's surprise, he started belly-crawling toward his father.
Before he could get there, two dozen black-clad commandos on ropes rappelled down to the open wall and swung themselves into the room. More commandos swarmed in from the hallway to the west of the founder's hall. Another group entered from the kitchen doors, behind the buffet tables at the south end.
The attendees found themselves surrounded on three sides by armed soldiers.
Mal, confronted directly by a commando with a semiautomatic rifle, dropped his pistol and put his hands in the air.
One of the Alliance officers stepped over to Wash and nudged him with a pistol. Wash rolled onto his back, with his hands over his head.
Zoe disentangled herself from Wash's mother, and beckoned to Wash's father to sit down with his family. He declined with a barely perceptible shake of his head, and remained standing.
Tawny Sommers Tallis walked into the middle of the hall, touching Wash's father on the shoulder as she passed. She stopped long enough to put a hand on the barrel of the gun in Wash's face, and push it down so that it pointed at the floor, murmuring some soft remonstrance to the officer who held it. When another soldier ordered her to stop, she raised her own hands in a placating gesture and stood still.
"What," she asked, as though her inquiry were predicated only upon the mildest possible curiosity, "is the meaning of this . . . invasion?"
"Indeed," said one of the Alliance officers who had dropped to his knees. He stood, looking around at the commandos. "What is going on here?"
One of the commandos walked over to them. "My apologies, ma'am, for interrupting your husband's memorial service. We had information linking some of the attendees here to a theft of war materiel that occurred a few weeks ago. We've come to take those individuals into custody, once we've identified them, and then we'll be out of your hair."
"My goodness," Tawny said. "What kind of war materiel?"
"That's classified, ma'am," she was told.
The officer standing with her frowned down at the floor. "Ah," he said, "I think there may have been a miscommunication. Please, Captain, walk with me," he said to the commando.
The two men walked together toward the broken windows, their heads bent close. At one point, the commando Captain held a conversation with someone outside the building. Finally, the two men nodded together in agreement, and the soldiers started righting tables and helping civilians up from the floor.
Wash scrambled to his feet and went to his father. "Dad! You all right?"
Norris started to wheeze. He reached out and grasped his son's shoulder. "I haven't had . . . that much excitement . . . since my heart attack!" he gasped, and Wash realized he was laughing. Wash shook his head, grinning, and both men reached down to offer Cici a hand up. Zoe and Tim were helping Deenie to her feet.
Cici straightened her clothing and brushed away the glass pellets, then turned to Zoe. "Oh, honey, thank you so much!" she said, with genuine feeling, wrapping one hand around Zoe's arm. "I'm so glad you were there! I wouldn't have known what to do!"
"Yes, thank you," Deenie said.
"You're welcome," Zoe replied.
"What was your name again, hon? Hobie said you were, what was it --?" Cici asked, but Wash interrupted her.
"First mate," he said, stepping over to his wife and putting an arm around her waist. "And her name is Zoe Washburne. Mom, Dad, Deenie, Tim, I'd like you to meet my wife."
"Hobie!" his mother squealed. "You got married! And you weren't going to tell us?" She smacked her son lightly on the arm, and drew Zoe into a maternal embrace. "Oh, welcome to the family, dear! You'll have to forgive my son's dreadful manners, I'm afraid we must be to blame for those!"
Tim shook Wash's hand and offered his congratulations -- and condolences, which earned him a slap on the arm from his own wife. Deenie teased Wash about marrying better than he deserved, but she did it without rancor, and was gracious to Zoe.
Norris waited until the rest of them had their say, before adding his own. "If he doesn't do right by you," he said to Zoe with a wink, "you just let me know, and I'll twist his nose until he does. No, on second thought," he added, taking in Zoe's weapons with a glance, "I bet you can keep him in line without any help at all."
"If I thought he needed strongarming, I wouldn't have married him in the first place," Zoe said.
As the Washburnes enjoyed a proper introduction to their new daughter-in-law, Jack Tallis's widow worked the room, speaking to everyone and trying to put them back at their ease. When she reached Mal and Kaylee, she winked at Mal.
"I do hope the excitement hasn't been too much for you," she said.
"Came pretty near to being," Mal said irritably, still brushing beads of glass from his clothes. Kaylee nodded agreement.
"Yes, you came pretty near to upstaging Jack as the guests of honor," she replied, "As I think you probably knew."
"What I don't know is how we managed not to," Mal said.
"Well-greased wheels," Tawny told him. "And a tracking device that turned out to be on a completely different ship, when they finally found it."
"Well. I do thank you for that," Mal said. It irked him to think his ship had been tracked, and he had missed it. But he was mighty glad for Tallis's resources.
Tawny excused herself, then. "I need to talk to my nephew."
She stepped through the wrecked room to where Wash still stood with his family. "Wash," she said, drawing all their attention, "I do hope you're okay."
"Well, no blood anyway," Wash noted. "And thanks for getting the gun out of my face."
"Anytime," she said with a smile. "I hate to drag you away from your family, but it will be a little while before we get this cleaned up, and there's something I'd like to make sure to do before you leave. I've already talked to your folks and your sister about Jack's remembrances for them; he's left you a little something, too. Please. Come with me."
Wash and Zoe excused themselves, and followed her from the room.
Three months earlier (2514)
That was all she ever called him.
Mal was Cap’n, or Sir; Bester was Bester, or some expletive, spoken with any inflection from indignation to resignation. Wash was ‘Pilot,’ always and only, spoken with no inflection at all, as though Serenity’s first mate was addressing a piece of voice-operated machinery.
He didn’t think Zoe hated him. She made no secret of her dislike for Bester, after all, even to his face. But then, Zoe clearly wouldn’t care if Bester left. Maybe it was a different story with Wash simply because he was competent. Maybe she was hiding her feelings because, while replacing the idiot mechanic could be a good thing for Serenity, replacing the pilot would be an unnecessary inconvenience.
So did she hate him, or not?
Why do you care? Wash scolded himself. Zoe was a gun hand; Wash hated gun hands. Gun hands were people who shot you because they liked to shoot people, called you nasty names because they knew they could shoot you with impunity, belched and farted their way through meals and then laughed in your face when you called them crude, and swaggered like kings when they were, in fact, the lowest sort of vermin the ‘verse had to offer.
Except that Zoe seemed to be the exception necessary to prove every single one of those rules.
That woman had class.
And it was hard for Wash not to care about the opinion of a high-class woman like that. Especially one with big, dark eyes and long, lovely legs. Wash cared very much what Zoe thought of him. More than he wanted to.
Gorramit! He forced himself to focus. They’d be hitting atmo soon, and unless he wanted to land in a very unpleasant fashion, he needed to pay attention to his job. The job, after all, was why he was here. The job was what he’d wanted. What Wash wanted was to fly.
What Wash wanted was to wrap his arms around her tall, slim body and press his lips against her warm skin . . .
Gyaaaaaaaaah! Attitude. Altitude. Angle of re-entry. Velocity. Local traffic? Nothing to worry about. Weather? There was a large storm system to the south of their intended landing site; from the way the clouds were swirling, Wash guessed that it wouldn’t affect their landing, but it would be heading in their direction once they were on the ground.
And then there was the small matter of ground clearance.
Mal came onto the bridge. “We got landing clearance yet?” It had been an issue on this world, where the Alliance-appointed postwar government had encountered ongoing insurgencies and was trying to deal with them without burning the whole world to a cinder. Like Shadow.
"Not yet," Wash said.
"Not yet?" Mal asked, sounding slightly worried. Be hard to do business if they couldn't get on the ground.
"Well, registry with the local port authority takes 90 days, a background check, and five grand in fees," Wash said. "and since we just got this job a week ago, there wasn't really time. And since we probably won't clear five grand, well, there was also that. And the background check was also mildly troubling to me."
"How do we get on the ground without registering, then?" Mal asked.
"There's a handful of options for doing that," Wash replied. "You can get a temporary landing pass if you're carrying a cargo that's on their priority import list, for example."
"So we'll get clearance, then?"
Wash hesitated. "Actually, no."
"Why not?" Mal was starting to lose patience.
"Because you also have to not be carrying anything that's on the contraband list," Wash said.
"And . . . we are," Mal said heavily. "How? Nothing in this cargo is common contraband."
"No, but some of it is stuff they produce on-planet. Apparently they don't like the competition."
"What are the other options?" Mal was pacing the bridge, now. They were in the planet's outer atmosphere already, after all. It was a bit late to not have ground clearance.
"Well, if we were carrying certain classes of passengers --"
"Like, say, a Member of Parliament, or a high-ranking Alliance officer," Wash said. "Or a registered Companion."
"Registered Companion!" Mal sputtered. "Right. On Serenity."
"Yeah. I thought about maybe asking Zoe if she'd, you know, pose as one, but I kind of like my face in its present arrangement."
"No kidding," Mal agreed. "So, how are we going to get on the ground?"
"We're going to have an emergency," Wash said with a shrug. "It was that, or be shot out of the sky on our way in."
"Not a real emergency, I hope," Mal said.
"Well, with Bester, you never can tell, really, but at this point I'm planning on running out of fuel." He tapped the fuel gauge, which was indeed showing very low. “I’ll have you on the ground in twenty minutes." He glanced over his shoulder at Mal, who looked irritated by this expedient -- but what else could they do? "You’ll want to watch that weather system coming up from the south. We’re on the ground long, that’ll dump on us.”
“What, I melt?” Mal said, dismissing Wash’s concerns about the possibility of rain. “How would you feel about getting off the ship for a while?”
Wash glanced backward at Mal, wondering what was up. They were here to make a delivery; normally, Mal wanted Wash with the ship during deliveries, so that they could make a speedy exit if they had to. Wash shrugged. “I don’t melt either, I guess,” he said. “You don’t want me to stay with the ship?”
“We need supplies, and fuel. Bester’s in his bunk, says he’s sick.”
Wash stared out the front windows and bit his lip to hold back a grin. So much going on there. For one thing, Bester probably was sick. Wash had told him that white stuff on the bread crust probably wasn’t excess flour. Not after a month. For another, it was no secret that Mal made Bester do the shopping because Mal disliked both shopping and Bester, and so considered that they deserved each other. And for another . . .
“You could send Zoe,” Wash suggested, trying to keep the amusement out of his voice. “You know, when you two are done making your delivery. That way I could stay with the ship, like I usually do, in case of trouble.”
Mal wasn’t about to send Zoe shopping. Zoe wasn’t about to allow Mal to dump something on her just because he hated to do it. If he wanted to do that, he’d have to be willing to trade even – hell, he’d probably have to be willing to go first. Wash turned away just enough that Mal would not see how much trouble he was having not grinning. He’d pay cash money to see Mal try to make Zoe do his most hated chore. Well, actually, what he’d pay to see was Zoe taking the wind out of Mal’s captain-y sails. Too bad he wouldn’t get the chance.
“Might not be time after we’re done,” Mal snapped. He laid a stack of bills, wrapped in a sheet of paper, on the pilot’s console. “Just take the money, take the mule, buy the stuff on the list. Ain’t hard,” he said, and turned on his heel.
Wash contemplated the stack of cash, and wondered whether Bester would appreciate the gift of a nice sandwich.
Wash kept an uneasy eye on the storm clouds darkening the sky to the south. Mal hadn’t seemed to think that a little rain ought to interfere with their plans, but Wash wasn’t half so sanguine about the weather, as the wind from the approaching front whipped his hair, and threatened to tear the shirt from his back. Lightning crackled across the underside of the clouds, and thunder rumbled in its wake.
Wash turned back to the business at hand, which was fueling the ship. “I can go eight fifty. Even though that’s highway robbery.” Actually, it was pretty reasonable for the amount of fuel he was buying, but Wash, through circumstances of chronic poverty, had become a habitual cheapskate. He hated in all situations to pay any more than he had to.
“Price is gorram reasonable and well you know it,” the dealer protested unhappily. “I don’t care if you got enough fuel aboard right now to get to Osiris, you ain’t gonna save enough to justify the trip.”
That was true, but Wash persisted, turning so that the approaching storm was at his back, and the dealer could see the black clouds and lightning over Wash’s shoulder. Maybe that would speed things along. He made a quick mental comparison of the per-unit price he’d like to pay, and the price he was like to get. “I can go sixty-seven and three-quarters per unit. That’s eight-thirteen for the lot, and unless you’re paying a lot more than you ought to, wholesale, ought to leave you a tidy profit on a twelve-unit sale.”
Lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and the wind tore branches from the nearby trees. A few drops of rain spattered onto the broken concrete.
The dealer considered. “Eight-twenty-five. That’s sixty-eight and three-quarters per. You ain’t taking the local cost of living into account.”
Wash hesitated before nodding. “All right. Done.”
The dealer motioned to his assistant to load the dozen fuel cells onto the trailer of Wash’s mule, and Wash heard the forklift engine start up behind him. He counted out the bills and handed them over, then went to secure his purchase alongside the rest of the day’s shopping. The rain picked up as he tightened down the webbed belts. Wash glanced up, assessing the sky, and frowned when he saw three ships breaking through the lowering clouds. A ‘91 Rimrunner twin-thrust, with some strange modifications; an ’86, or maybe ’87, Dolman-Johnson passenger cruiser that had seen better days, and a '94 Twister that was missing its externally-mounted cargo pods. Wash frowned; he hadn’t seen such an odd assortment of spacecraft since ground school on Yangtze Station, where he’d learned his way around a Twister up close and personal. These three ships were in much worse condition than anything he’d ever seen actually flying; they were all trailing black exhaust. Wash would have assumed they were on fire, but although they were descending dangerously quickly, they didn’t appear to be crashing.
If they had been military ships, Wash would have thought they were some sort of strike force, just from the way they were descending.
“Ai ya tien ah,” he breathed.
“What are they doing?” the dealer asked.
“Attacking,” Wash said. He gave the last strap a tug and moved deliberately toward the mule, catching his thigh against the fender because his gaze was still on the ships.
They were going to hit the town.
Fuel was Wash’s final errand of the day. He was less than a mile from Serenity; if the ground had been flat, he’d be able to see her from where he stood. He was at least three miles from the town, and the trailer was fully loaded. But Mal and Zoe were there.
Wash threw his leg over the mule and started it up. He wasn’t sure exactly where Mal and Zoe had gone, but the town wasn’t large, and they wouldn’t be in the high-rent district. He had a vague notion that they were on the near side of the town to him.
The rain hit hard as he pulled onto the road. He squinted through it. The ships had landed; at least one was on the near side of the town. Whoever the assailants were, they’d be off their ships and in the town now – he’d have to watch for men with guns. Some kind of pirates, he supposed; those weren’t military ships.
He was among the buildings now, watching for pirates, Mal, and Zoe. Between the rain and the thunder it was hard to hear anything else, but he thought he caught the sound of someone screaming. He tried to get a glimpse between buildings without actually getting too close.
In a side street, two people knelt over the body of a third. Wash slowed, watching.
One of them turned to look at Wash.
Wash had a brief and jumbled impression of blood, horror, and what looked like a severed human hand in the . . . creature’s . . . mouth. Wash recoiled, and slewed the mule away.
Another of the creatures – the were the size and shape of humans, but their faces were monstrously mutilated – ran out of the next street and leaped at Wash, knocking him from the mule and tumbling him into the street. There was a crack of gunfire, and the monster went limp on top of him. Wash shoved it off with shaking hands and scrambled to his feet. He glanced in the direction of the gunshot, and saw Zoe under an awning, with her Winchester leveled. He swallowed, glancing back down at his assailant, and then gave Zoe a nod of thanks.
Mal and Zoe ran from the awning toward him. Wash climbed back onto the mule. Zoe settled herself behind him; Mal grabbed the straps holding down the load on the trailer and pulled himself on top of it. Wash turned the mule, running for Serenity as fast as she’d go. It wasn’t very fast, not with the roads awash and the four-wheeler threatening to hydroplane, jackknife, and dump them all at any second.
More of the horrific creatures came at them from aside, from ahead. Zoe fired until her gun was empty, then turned it around and beat the monsters back with the butt of it when they got close.
The road ahead was covered in water; unable to see how deep it was, Wash rode right through it, burying them up to their knees in muddy murk. The mule went through, but choked up and died on the far side. Wash gunned it and it came sullenly back to life. He could see Serenity ahead, and their attackers seemed mostly to be behind. Just a little farther. Behind him, Mal slipped off the trailer and ran to the lock, keying in the code and opening it. The cargo bay ramp came down, and Wash pulled the mule inside. Only after he’d stopped did he realize that Zoe had one arm wrapped tightly around his waist, and note that under any other circumstances he would have given his left arm to be in that position.
He turned and looked at her; her face was mere inches from his. Despite what they’d just come through, despite the fact that her hair was wet and matted and she was covered in mud, she was completely calm.
What a woman.
“Nice shooting. And . . . bludgeoning,” he offered.
She met his gaze, and smiled in amusement. “Thanks.” She slipped off the mule, her hand trailing along his stomach as she disentangled herself from him.
“Get us in the air,” Mal ordered, and Wash climbed stiffly off the mule and headed for the bridge. Behind him, Mal and Zoe started unloading the mule, both of them just as calm as though the day had gone the way they’d planned it.
Wash made his way up the steps, through the kitchen and into the foredeck corridor, where he met a slightly greenish Bester emerging from his bunk. “Warm her up, we’re out of here,” Wash said.
Bester took in Wash’s drenched and mud spattered condition with only the faintest curiosity. “I’m sick,” he protested. “We lift off now, I’ll ralph all over the engine room.”
“We stay, you’ll be in worse shape,” Wash said irritably, and pushed past the mechanic.
He lifted off, watching the chaos in the town with a churning stomach and troubled heart. What were those . . . things? Where had they come from? He wished Serenity was armed; wished that he could help somehow. But he couldn’t; in the end, all he could do was take Serenity to safety, through the clouds and lightning and wind, into the black.
Mal and Zoe came onto the bridge as they broke free of the planet’s gravity. Wash asked him, “Where to?”
“Persephone,” Mal said, and Wash keyed the course into the autopilot.
“You’re set,” he said, rising. “Think I’ll go clean up, if nobody minds. Wait – before I forget,” he fished in his breast pocket and took out a wad of cash. It was damp, but intact. He handed it to Mal.
Mal stared down at it blankly. “What’s this?”
“Your change,” Wash said. When Mal still seemed confused, he added “You know, the money that was left after I bought all the stuff on the list?”
Mal went right on staring at the money as though he couldn’t make any sense of it. Wash glanced at Zoe, who looked faintly amused, and shrugged. “I’m going to hit the shower,” he said. He sidled past Mal, and down the steps toward his bunk.
Mal peeled back the damp bills, counting them as Zoe watched. Quite a bit of money there.
“Bester never brings me change,” Mal said.
“Hmmm,” Zoe acknowledged. There were only a couple of possible conclusions to draw from that, and neither one was flattering to Bester. But she figured if Mal had to be told that Bester was either a lousy shopper or a flagrant thief, then he deserved whatever he got.
Ship would be better off without that chwen joo of a mechanic, anyway. Maybe this was the kick in the pants Mal needed to finally see it. Zoe offered a silent thanks in the direction of Wash’s bunk.
But why stop there? Wash had done them more than one favor today, after all. He’d surely been closer to the ship than the town – his errands had been completed. They’d checked the stuff they had unloaded against Mal’s list, and everything was there. Nothing missing, although some of it was a little the worse for wear on account of the rain, and the mud, and Mal jumping on top of it to escape whatever those things were that had attacked the town.
Zoe admitted to herself that it was about time she quit holding the pilot at arm’s length. He at least deserved some overt gratitude for saving their skins when he didn’t have to. For putting himself in danger to do it. Even for doing a job neither she nor Mal liked, and doing it right, and honestly. And he wasn’t likely to get that gratitude from Mal.
“Think I’ll go clean up too, sir,” she said, and left Mal standing on the bridge staring at the wad of bills.
As she came down the steps into the foredeck corridor, she saw Wash climbing up from his bunk. He had a clean flightsuit slung over one arm.
“Wash,” she called. When he turned, his expression was one of undisguised surprise. “Nice save. Thanks.”
He nodded. Smiled. “You’re welcome.” After a few seconds, he turned again and headed aft, toward the showers.
Zoe watched him go, and considered. I could follow him. She wondered what Wash would do, if she pulled back the shower curtain and stepped in with him. But unless she had completely misjudged him, which she doubted, she figured she’d get exactly what she'd come for.
And then what? A one-night stand? But they couldn’t exactly go their separate ways, after, and anyway, Zoe didn’t want that. An affair? For how long? Six weeks? Six months? What then? What were the chances, when it all fell apart, that they could continue living and working amicably together?
Zoe thought of Tanaka. She didn’t know exactly what had happened there, but it had made Wash angry enough to walk away, and Tanaka had nearly lost his ship over it. Mal was teaching himself to fly Serenity, just in case . . . but Zoe didn’t want to depend on that; didn’t want her foolish infatuation to be the thing that put Mal, herself, and Serenity in that position.
She turned, and climbed down the ladder to her own bunk, alone. She stripped out of her filthy clothes, took a clean wash cloth from her top drawer, and pulled the sink down out of the wall. A shower would feel nice, but tonight she forced herself to settle for a sponge bath in her bunk.
Foolish infatuation, she told herself again, letting the lukewarm water dribble down her arms to puddle on the floor. But was it really? He came for us. Wash could have run for the ship; could have taken the ship, but he hadn’t.
He hadn’t needed to give Mal’s change back, either. But he’d done that, too.
Maybe calling it a foolish infatuation was only a way of trying to hide from something more.
The water ran down Zoe’s back, and she shivered.
Well. If it was something more . . . they would have to reach some sort of understanding about that, first.
She scrubbed the mud from her body, while her mind slowly wrapped itself around the conclusion her heart had drawn months ago.
Wash figured he could live on a compliment like that from Zoe for at least a month. Well, that, and the fact that she seemed to have finally learned his name.
Zoe doesn’t hate me.
Wash leaned back against the shower wall, letting the water run down over his head, chest, and arms. He smiled, and permitted himself just one small daydream of a dark-eyed, long-legged warrior woman.
chwen joo [retarded pig]
Saturday, December 02, 2006 12:28 PM
Saturday, December 02, 2006 4:24 PM
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